Zhang’s Journey

Last Saturday I managed to make it to the London Indiemeet for the first time in 6 months and got to run a playtest of the Alternative Histories idea for a follow up to Intrepid.

I knocked together a map the night before based on the journey described in this reddit comment (and this map) which follows a 2nd century BCE Chinese explorer called Zhang Qian. Here is the map after the game…

Zhangs Journey 1

The game started with this introduction to the world:

“Under the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, c. 139 BCE an emissary named Zhang Qian was dispatched along with 99 men (including a non-Chinese guide) to penetrate the military blockade the Xiongnu Empire. The Emperor had sent him to find a long-lost kingdom called Yuezhi that had become nomadic wanderers after the Xiongnu had displaced them from their ancestral homeland, and convince them to aid the Han military in retaking the area.”

Upon which the players each added a function detail about the world (see World Facts on the map). Only one of the three facts really came into play in any significant way but I don’t think that hurt the game at all, they all helped set the tone.

We then also created 5 characters, giving them a name, trait and relationship… 3 from Zhang Qian’s expedition, one from the Xiongnu and the last form the Yuezhi. While creating these characters in advance felt important, a promise of what’s to come, the actual content (name/trait/relationship) felt a little weak, especially when I played Marquis of Ferrara in the next slot which comes with lots of excellent characters you can still make your own. Something needs to be done here.

The game then proceeded to play out 3 scenes at each stage of the journey (as you can see from the map I removed Kangju to improve the pacing) in a fairly standard pick a character, frame, free narration kind of way. Framing scenes did a lot to flesh out the locations on the journey, which was good and I hope to encourage.

Each scene ended when all players had put a card in the middle of the table, pick one at random to get a good/bad ending for the framing character. Kind of like a cross between Intrepid’s crossroads and Fiasco’s black/white dice. It was serviceable and introduced some reasonable twists into the story. I don’t know yet if I want to to be more or less.

All in all we got a decent story with some unexpected twists and interesting characters. The world building was a little shallow and I think the character setup wasn’t as robust as it could have been so I’ll need to work on those before the next playtest. I’ll probably stick with Zhang to see how different two playthroughs of the same scenario can be, but after that I think Napoleon’s march on Russia will be next.

I may have now played a game of it but it still doesn’t have a name (unsurprisingly).

The importance of Image

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your game is, if you don’t have a good cover image people won’t tend to pick it up at conventions or when browsing in their friendly local games shop.

For many years I’ve been taking advantage of a great guy I met on line called DAVE EADIE. He’s spent many years sketching Superhero pictures for his own amusement and – when I was putting Squadron UK together – he had a ready made portfolio of stuff for me to use. I had no money at first so, initially, I gave him a percentage of profits. (He would’ve let me use his stuff for nothing but even I’m not that exploitative.) 

I now have a more professional approach to things, paying for front cover images and using stock art inside my books. 

When I wrote my lightweight Superhero RPG – THE COMICS CODE – I had some artwork Dave had done for the relaunch of Golden Heroes which had never been used and for which he’d never been paid. So I came to an agreement with him and stuck it on the cover:


 During playtests of THE COMICS CODE it became clear that this particular ruleset could easily be adapted to other genres. So I conceived a range of “code” books for different genres – the first of which was to be THE CODE OF THE SPACELANES, a SciFi game. Unfortunately Dave wasn’t available to do the cover! For the first time I had to shop around.

I prepared a general spec and sent it to various artists – first from the Artists thread on UK roleplayers and then shopping around on the ‘net. The responses from professional artists were professional but arrogant and the quotes they gave for a cover were frightening!

Then I got a reply from Shane Mitchell of UK Roleplayers. He was extremely modest, pointing out that it wasn’t the sort of thing that he usually did and that he didn’t think his style matched my spec. However, he was interested and gave me a quote which, whilst slightly above my budget, was well below that of the other professional guys. The kicker, however, was the fact that he included a “quick sketch” to see if he had the right idea:


WOW! No-one else had bothered to do this. Suddenly my project became tangible to me. And, I don’t know about you, but I love this sketch. It’ll probably appear on a t-shirt at some point. We swapped a couple of emails to finalise details and then I got this “concept sketch”:



WOW! If this was the final version of the artwork, I’d’ve happily used it. What it DID do was allow me to give Shane some “notes” (though as a non-artist I felt cheeky doing it). Even better though, with the first draft of the rules being finished I was able to mock-up a rulebook to take to conventions with me.

Then, a week before the agreed deadline, I got this:


WOW! (Spot the differences……?)

The playtests have gone well. The rules are now finished. The book will be ready to go within days – but I’ll still delay its release until Dragonmeet where I know THIS cover is going to attract loads of attention.