ZineQuest II

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into Kickstarter

One spot safe from grue attack

It is pitch dark, you are likely to be eaten by a grue…

… but what is a grue? And what sort of environment does it live in? And why does it eat adventurers?

These and other questions (not) answered in Shards Volume 2. 

But Shards Volume 2 is coming soon. In fact Kickstarter are running Zinequest II during February, so we’ll launch then and most likely deliver the first issue in March. Last year we launched Shards during the first Zinequest to great acclaim (well, reasonable success at least), and we delivered all six issues over six months. This time we’re taking a slightly more spread out approach, aiming for every other month to allow us to do other things as well. But the content will be of the same high quality as the first volume and we will produce another six issues. 

Over the next few weeks I imagine there will be a few more updates about what you can expect and what the exact dates will be, along with other updates about Tinfoil Hat, which is still on the cards, just pushed back to April (probably)

Please, send us more questions for Letter Lich! More themes for Captain Magpie to explore! More exclamations!

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Fun With Words

Words serve a purpose – they help us communicate ideas by transmitting thoughts from one person to another. In a way they are a kind of telepathy! Whether jeered over teamspeak, scrawled on a toilet wall, or merely thought really loudly, words can tell us something about your mum!

But words can be more than just the transmission of ideas – they can be fun. The ideas transmitted can inform, educate and entertain, there’s jokes, poems, stories, and best of all (in my opinion) role playing games (and yet I still don’t know whether that should be roleplaying role-playing or role playing. my spell checker thinks the latter, and that almost rhymes so I’ll go with that for now).

Choice of words matters. Different words have different connotations – Ali mentioned a couple of weeks ago about the difficulty in choosing the correct word for those who go to a spa, so I’ll not retread that ground here. I could have said “cover that again”, but instead chose to go with a  metaphor because I found it more entertaining to do so, and one might literally tread ground at a spa. In that first paragraph I could have gone with “spoken, written or using sign language”, but I instead went for an old joke because it’s more entertaining and more arresting.

In the beginning language was entirely auditory – we spoke, we grunted, we howled (well, I did anyway). And the spoken language still has a special place. Some words are just fun to say, they’re make your mouth make interesting shapes, or your vocal cords produce unusual noises. Cassock, plinth, ullulate. Say all of these out loud slowly and recognise the weird things your mouth and voice are doing – the first starts and ends hard, but is soft in the middle, the second makes your tongue almost come out of your mouth, and the third, kind of goes everywhere. Even devoid of meaning these words can entertain – meaning is not necessary for communication as Noam Chomsky famously pointed out with the nonsense sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” (note the American spelling of colorless, that’s another topic entirely).

Tongue twisters rely on this idea. As the name implies, they are designed to confound your mouth and make you trip over sounds by using repetition with slight variations. “She sells sea shells by the sea shore”, and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” being famous examples – look at the individual sounds, the phonemes, and you can see what is going on. Perhaps we can even create our own with some more fun words: “Ten trebuchets torment Trevor’s tray of toast” – try saying that fast!

And then there is semantic satiation. Semantic satiation is the process by which words such as semantic satiation cease to have any meaning because semantic satiation has been repeated so often. There is quite a bit of psychology and neurology behind the idea of semantic satiation, but I’ll leave that to the semantic satiation scientists scientists for now, and just say semantic satiation again. Semantic satiation. In essence if we repeat a word too often we get a sequence of nonsense noises which started out with meaning, and that in itself is fascinating:

Monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey monkey…

[ed note: there are a few typographical errors in here – I’ve been told to leave them in…]

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Caption: Ungyzing and Sausage and Chips guarding some books


Everyone has cuddly toys? People still have ones from childhood? It’s not just me? My oldest is a dragon by the name of Ungyzing. I’ve had him for somewhere over thirty years by this point, Sausage And Chips, the parrot next to him in  that picture, is not much younger. Yes, he’s called Sausage And Chips – don’t blame me, that’s what he told me he was called! I had toys who were older (such as Leopardy, the imaginatively names leopard, and The Whale, a knitted… uh… whale, which my mum used to sneak into my and my brothers’ PE kits!), but Ungyzing was the first who was actually mine!

Well, I say he is A dragon, more accurately he’s the king of the dragons, and his horde is the entire universe. Or so he says – don’t all dragons claim to be the king of the dragons and own everything? Regardless, Ungyzing is a kind, and caring soul who has protected me for many years.

Other than this being somewhat cute, what can you do with this information other than go “awww”? Maybe have a think about dragons. Last week Ali wrote about what we mean by dragons (and introduced you to Alfred, who is also very helpful).

Dragons are supposed to be highly intelligent and independent creatures, so no doubt they have many and varied personalities too. Yet in RPGs and stories they are more often than not arrogant and angry. If they’re not, their personality is mostly determined by the colour of their scales, with only the metallic ones being anything approaching “nice” (ref: D&D). And yet, many dragons in myth are very protective of what they consider “their” – notably the Red Dragon of Wales, who sits proudly on the flag. And as mentioned earlier dragons are wont to claim everything as theirs, so surely they would want to protect everything – at least until it proved uncontrollable.

If a dragon claims the  entire universe as their own then perhaps the only things they would attack on sight are things which are not of this universe – outsider things, daemons, maybe undead depending on your mythology.

Ungyzing, of course, would soundly beat the snot out of Cthulhu!

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Art and Experience, Life and Death

This hangs above my TV. The top picture is by my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle, and the bottom two are by my dad, David Hensel.

This hangs above my TV. The top picture is by my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle, and the bottom two are by my dad, David Hensel.

Art and Experience, Life and Death

I’ve grown up surrounded by art and creativity. Ali, on seeing the house I grew up in, commented that it was like an art gallery. But almost everything in the walls is by one or other of my parents and to me it feels entirely comfortable and normal to be surrounded by art. Art galleries are some of my favourite places, although i’ve actually not been to one in far too long – I should rectify that!

Everyone in my family is creative. As well as my parents, I write (as you can tell right now!), and of my two older brothers, one is a photographer and the other was a musician.

My brother, Tim Hensel, is an excellent wedding photographer, amongst other things


Sadly the word “was” is very relevant. My brother, Will Hensel, died unexpectedly about a month ago, and my mum, Rosie Birtwhistle (her chosen nom de plume), died of cancer about 6 years ago. Death focuses the mind in unexpected ways. I have spent a long time thinking about art and people and expression and life – the four are inextricably linked. I think it is important to remember people, as Terry Pratchett said “A man is not dead while his name is still spoken”. So I speak their names here. I refuse to let my relationships with these people end in sadness, instead I say we learn from them.

I can hear a lot of my brother Will in this track, which he produced.

Art can instil emotions, or ideas, it can be challenging or comforting, threatening or protective, funny or sad. All this and more. Art allows us see the world in different ways, be it paintings, music, sculpture, dance, or anything else.

And it is this I think we must learn from these wonderful people.

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Genre: Cyberpunk And Friends

The best known book in the genre is probably Neuromancer by William Gibson, and barring a few glaring anachronisms (in either this book or its sequel Count Zero, someone tries to sell “three megs of hot RAM”) it still stands up as a damn good book. The roots go back much further, though, to the sci fi of the 60s and 70s, perhaps even as far back as The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester, from 1957 (also an excellent book, if a little dated, incidentally).

Cyberpunk is a genre characterized by a dystopian society, huge wealth inequality, and large amounts of technology – usually body modification and computer technology. Protagonists tend to be outsiders, fighting the megacorporations, all-powerful AIs and corrupt law enforcement for the little guy. Often these heroes are using scrounged together tech and stolen weapons to fight overwhelming odds and somehow coming out the other side through a combination of skill, luck and panache. There is also usually a lot of neon and chrome.

This makes it a great genre for roleplaying in. Much of the genre plays it straight, varying names of megacorporations and specifics of technology available in much the same way as classic fantasy will vary the names of kings and magics available. But one of the most popular blends this with classic fantasy to create a setting where megacorporations employ elven mages to fight anarchist shamans while expert hackers go toe to toe in the matrix and orc street samurai wade into battle with a katana in one hand a and a shotgun in the other (okay, that was kinda my last character) – that game is Shadowrun. I love the setting but the system… well the system not so much. Recently, though, I played a Shadowrun Anarchy campaign which worked far better than the standard version, and the computer games, Shadowrun Returns, Shadowrun Dragonfall and Shadowrun Hong Kong capture the feel of the world rather well (well I’ve not played the third one yet, but I have a copy).


Much as the cyberpunk ethos encourages tearing technology apart to build something new, so the genre has been torn apart and rebuilt to create many variants, all helpfully identified by the suffix “-punk”. Generally they maintain a dystopian future and a punk attitude, but the nature of the technology and the emergent threats change.

Magic-punk is where technology is replaced with magic – gigantic magical machines power everything, often magic can be almost coded like a computer, and personal augmentation may be replaced by daemonic – and often demonic – summoning and possession. This hews closer to classic fantasy than Shadowrun, which is definitely a cyberpunk system despite the heavy influence of magic.

Dieselpunk is not, as you may guess, a setting in which everything is powered by Vin Diesel, but rather one where the technology being hacked is more likely to be cars and trucks and the most valuable resources are likely to be fuel and water. The most famous example is probably Mad Max.

Steampunk started out as a kind of retro-Victorian variant of the genre in which all the amazing technology was powered by that latest of inventions the steam engine. It has since taken on a  life of its own however and become genre and style involving an awful lot of brass cogs!


Transhumanism is kind of a special case of a variant. While cyberpunk focuses more on the technology, transhumanism is more philosophical and asks the questions “What is human?” and “how far can we alter a person before they stop being a person and become something else?” These questions are not unique to transhumanism, of course, but it places them front and centre.

Transhumanists take ideas to their logical conclusion –  If you replace a leg or an arm then a person is still a person, but what happens if you replace more? The heart, the sensory organs, the brain? If the brain can be mapped, then can it be modelled in a powerful enough computer? If so is that computer a person? If you copy someone’s brain is the copy the same person? How about if you then download that brain into a new body? What if it’s an entirely robotic body?

These and more questions are clearly very very hard to answer and don’t obviously lend themselves to a roleplaying game so much as a discussion down the pub! So the most popular game in the genre, Eclipse Phase, hews back towards cyberpunk with powerful corporations and evil AIs to fight, and revolutionary politics to foster that conflict, but those corporations are not megacorps, they’re smaller and more agile than that, and the AIs are hyper-intelligent beyond human comprehension, and have fled for reasons unknown.

The Future

So is cyberpunk the future? I hope not – the technology is pretty cool, and the style is certainly striking, but the dystopian inequality and constant threat of violence for those on the fringes is less promising. Personally I’d like to skip past all that and just upload my mind to the internet!

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Gaming History: Loz

I’ve been gaming for so long I genuinely can’t remember the details of my first games. I was 12 when my older brother Tim got into Warhammer 40k. So I played 40k against him, and lost a lot – but I enjoyed it. I think he had Eldar, Orks and Space Marines, and I used his models as I didn’t have my own.

For I think my fourteenth birthday I received the Warhammer Fantasy boxed set. It had elves and goblins in it. I built an orc and goblin army, and played that for ages, against my brother’s dark elves, and against my friends various armies – it’s at least in part from here that my lifelong dislike of fantasy dwarves stems, because of a friend’s really cheesy dwarf army.

Somewhere around the same time I picked up my first role playing game – Warhammer Fantasy Battle. I honestly cannot remember most of the games we played with it, they probably made little sense as we didn’t know what we were doing, I mostly remember creating characters by the dozen. It clearly triggered something inside me though, because I’ve loved RPGs ever since.

By the time I was doing my A-levels (17ish) I had a regular gaming group, and we played White Wolf’s various games (Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Ascension, Werewolf: the Apocalypse), and Dungeons and Dragons second edition. Planescape is a fantastic setting, but due to having too few players we played two characters each – I had Bjorn Bjornson son of Bjorn Bjornson’s son Bjorn, a taciturn norse fighter, and his twin brother a wild mage named simply Krapotkin.

I went to university in Bangor. I went there hoping there would be a gaming society of some sort. It turned out they had what was at the time one of the largest and most respected university gaming societies in the country – Bangor Wargaming and Role Playing Society, or BWRPS. I also met Ali there.

While there I played and ran just about anything I could. I was rarely in more than three games a week though, which was probably wise – I knew someone who was in eight (one every night and two on Sundays), and he failed his course and dropped out! That’s not to say my studies were unaffected by gaming – in my third year I would regularly go to a Vampire game run by Ali on a Tuesday evening, play until 2am, then go home and work on my project until my nine o’clock lecture in which I would frequently fall asleep!

I also played a lot of different wargames at BWRPS, including various historical games, something I still find interesting but don’t really get a chance to do any more. I kind of stopped playing any wargames after a while, I never really intended to, it just happened that way.

After graduating I lived in Bangor for a few more years, it’s a very pretty part of the world and I had good friends there, but eventually I managed to escape and moved to Manchester, where i stil live. Here I fell in with Vague, Manchester Metropolitan University’s gaming society. Here I’ve played and run a lot of different RPGs as well with a lot of very good people over the last decade or so.

But to bring things full circle rather nice, I’ve recently finished playing in a Warhammer Fantasy Role Play (second edition) game, and the latest edition of 40k has got me back into the game as well – my Space Marine army even has some of my brother’s old models in it! .  

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Geeking About Gaming: Loz on Board Games

What do I like about board games? Well that’s a difficult question. I’ve been a gamer for over two decades, but my primary interest is roleplaying games, and then tabletop war games, with board games falling somewhere down the list. My first introduction to this form of geekery was when I was 12 and my brother introduced me to the original Warhammer 40,000 Rogue Trader (not the more modern RPG of the same name).

So what attracts me to these things? I guess the answer is creativity. I like the creating stories in RPGs, and I like the lore and background of wargames, plus the emergent story of how a battle plays out – I often theorise about how unusual things happen, like the Space Marine with a missile launcher defeating a Striking Scorpion in close combat by shoving a Krak missile somewhere unfortunate! I like the tactics of wargames too, and enjoy that in RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons – In all honesty I’m not very good at it, but I do enjoy it.

So what pushes board games down the list for me? Part of it is simply a lack of experience, it’s not something I grew up with in the same way so there is less emotional attachment. Another issue is rules – I don’t much like learning them. With an RPG or a war game I’ll likely have to learn the rules once and then use them many times, but with a board game that is less likely to be the case as they are usually more limited in scope and so have less replayability. Oddly this isn’t helped by the fact I am actually quite good at analysing rules, which means if there is a particularly good strategy I can often see it even if I can’t actually master it in practice.

So what do I like? I like storytelling games, and I like games that are rules light (or at least quick to learn) but have some depth. I also prefer competitive games to co-op games because playing against other people provides a different challenge than playing against a simple AI (Artificial intelligence in computer games is another matter – it can be significantly more complex and less predictable).

I do like creating games – it scratches a similar creativity itch to writing, but with a more mechanical bent. I try to design games I think I would enjoy so previously it has mostly been RPGs but recently, at the prompting of Ste and Amy, I’ve been thinking about board games. I have ideas, oh so many ideas, but I don’t know how many will actually end up working out. I guess only time, and experimentation, will tell.

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The End of the (Instant) Universe

The End of the (Instant) Universe

Last Thursday our kickstarter campaign for sci fi concept cards ended. It was, all things, considered, a rousing success.

The final tally was £5,544 and 244 backers. Thank you to all our backers – we couldn’t do this without you and we like doing this!

We have reached the stretch goals for two extra cards per deck, and three extra suit symbols.

What Remains To Be Done

Elvis may have gone home to live among the stars, but we still have work to do. There are a few cards left to write, more now we have reached that stretch goal, and we need to commission more art.

Then comes the process of proofreading. To be honest it’s my least favourite part of the job, not least because I’m not very good at it. Fortunately Ali is, and we have a couple of volunteers to aid in the process. It is very necessary, though – I am rather prone to making typos. By the time it goes to print I am confident that every error but one will be squashed (that one will show up three weeks later…).

After that is done we send files to the printers, and wait anxiously for them to send us boxes of decks.

Then we package and post them to the backers.

If you missed the Kickstarter it’s not too late to get in on the action – you can still join us on Backerkit

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KS Updates: Stretch Goals and Add-ons

Stretch Goals

On Wednesday Loz mentioned that we were going to be releasing some more of our Stretch Goals after we had a chance to triple check the details – and here they are:

Full-bleed Borders at £6000

Black borders are traditional on cards – but that’s partly because of printing technology, which has improved over time. On a larger run it’s perfectly affordable for us to add some detail to those borders, allowing the starfield effect to slowly fade out, creating a slightly deeper feel to the cards

The “Even More Art” Goal is at £7500

It’s a little over double where we currently stand – and is at the top end of where Kicktraq’s projections put us – but we have confidence that it will be reached.

While far from vital, it’s an improvement we would certainly like the opportunity to implement – we just need the funds to pay the artists.

£9000: 64 Cards

The First of our Sky-Pie goals, and the only one we’re announcing for now, is making the deck up to 64 cards – 16 of each suit, for a total of 2^6. The new cards are currently planned to be a full suite of jokers (one per suit, rather than just red and black) along with a Pilot and an Admiral for each of the suits – but the precise names are not set in stone, so let us know if you would prefer different bonus cards.

56 Shares: A 10 Page Solar System

We’re not marketers – we’re writers. So we want to harness your desire for our writing in order to gain the power of connections!

If the Kickstarter page is shared a total of 56 times on social media (we’ll be watching Facebook and Twitter, but let us know about others) in non-spam contexts, we’ll give every backer access to a 10 page piece detailing one specific solar system – with four inhabited worlds split between two very different species.

We picked 56, because we’re pretty sure that’s how many cards the deck will have when this goal is reached!

112 Shares: Another 10 Pages

Simple enough – the solar system gets more detailed, with more information about the culture on each planet, and some of the individual people living there.


Add-Ons During the Kickstarter

You can increase your pledge for more decks of the sci fi cards at the same cost as the backer levels – that is:

  • £12 per deck or
  • £30 for a full set of all three.

Assuming we reach the social stretch goals for the Solar System Setting Shard mentioned in the previous update you will be able to add that too – you will automatically get the PDF, but you may want a printed version. The cost depends in part on the printing costs which we are investigating – the simplest option would be to use something like DrivethruRPG’s Print On Demand service. Once we reach that point we will, of course, announce that.

After the Kickstarter

We are using Backerkit again as it seems to have worked well for us in the past. This means you will able to adjust your pledge at that stage too. You will be able to grab the above options then, but if you do so before the end of the kickstarter we are more likely to reach our stretch goals and you will get more!

You will also be able to add the fantasy cards at that point, too. We are not making them available as an add-on at this stage because we want to keep things focused on the current project – not least so we have a better idea of how many sci fi decks we need to order, and know we can afford to do so.

After That

The cards will be available in various retail locations. We have a retailer level (Generation Ship), and of course will let you know who they are so you can point your friends at them. If you know any games stores who would be interested in carrying our cards please point them at the Kickstarter.

Or you could try to find a shop which sells them here
Or you could try to find a shop which sells them here
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KS Update: Who are your most unusual characters?

If you’re anything like me you have dozens of characters, ideas for games and general strangeness floating around in your brain (That’s probably why I write them on cards…). Today I’d like to relay a couple of them to you, and ask what’s the strangest character you’ve come up with, whether you actually played them or not?

TBD-768, aka “Teebee”

We were about to start a superheroes-in-space campaign and Ali had a character worked out mechanically, but didn’t have a name. The character was a space ship brought to life by a hyperspace accident. As a space ship she needed a name that was suitable, so I put TBD (for To Be Determined”) and some random numbers. Weirdly she liked it and stuck with it, only adding the diminutive “Teebee” as the character was incredibly inquisitive and eternally upbeat and optimistic.

As the original crew were smugglers, and the contract between them stated that the payout for their current cargo would be split between the crew, and as the rest of them had died in the hyperspace accident that brought Teebee to life, she determined she deserved the money. These funds were then used to buy a near-indestructible humanoid robotic body from aliens, only to discover shortly after purchase that the body was stolen!

That character inspired this card

You could retain the upbeat attitude if you like.
You could retain the upbeat attitude if you like.

 The Incomprehensible Party

A long time ago we were going to play a Star Wars campaign. It never got off the ground for a variety of reasons, but we did propose the least comprehensible party ever – three Wookies and an R2 unit! This was back in the days of the West End Games system, which stated that if you played a character who could not speak common were only allowed to speak in character in imitations of the noises that character could make. This would result in the Wookies’ players only ever saying “Worraaagh” and the R2 unit’s player only ever making bleeping noises. As the GM didn’t speak either Shiriwook or Binary that would have made life difficult to say the least.

Probably for the best those characters never got played!

How About You?

So, share with us your weirdest characters – especially ones you could never actually play but are cool ideas none the less!

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