I haven’t updated this blog since February. And this post has nothing to do with libraries.

2020 was not a good year. 

I spent most of it in lockdown because of the pandemic. I was separated from my partner for 8 months because of travel restrictions. Two people I cared about passed away. And I took a leave of absence from my Masters degree because I just couldn’t concentrate.

Roleplaying was one of the few bright points in a crap year. 

Despite everything that was happening, I still managed to run more roleplaying sessions this year than in the previous 3 years combined.

Partly that was just logistical: with Melbourne in lockdown, my friends were more available.

Partly that was technological: roleplaying works pretty well over Discord, I discovered.

But mostly it was a big shift in how I prepare for roleplaying sessions. My brain just wasn’t up to writing the level of detailed notes and handouts I normally do. So I embraced that, and practiced no-prep GMing.

How I got started

A friend ran some Call of Cthulhu over Discord, which got me thinking about running some roleplaying of my own on that service. But when I sat down to write something, I found it too hard to focus.

And then my copy of Wolfspell arrived in the mail.

It’s a game about people who turn themselves into wolves to complete some dire quest. But the nature of that quest is determined during character creation. Which means you can’t write the scenario ahead of play.

My big insight was that I didn’t have to. 

I’d been using the Hollow Woods cards as a creative writing exercise: draw three cards, one each for the beginning, middle and end. 

I realised that I could do something similar for Wolfspell: the first scene of the game would obviously be them turning into wolves. Then I could draw three cards for what obstacles they encounter on their way to complete the quest, with the final scene being the climactic confrontation.

It worked. It worked well enough that I decided to run more one-shot games using this sort of structure. I ended up ditching the cards and relying more on the setting to decide the encounters. 

Tip 1: Set a clear goal

A clear goal gives the game direction and excitement. 

If players are interested in achieving the goal, they’ll overlook a flubbed scene or the occasional plot hole, provided the adventure is driving them towards the big climax.

A clear goal also gives you, the GM, the information you need to start extrapolating the scenario. What’s the setting? Who is the main bad guy? Where is their base? What do the characters have to do to reach that base?

Most of the games that I ran were one-page RPGs that had the goal baked-in to the design:

  • In The Witch is Dead, a witch’s familiars try to sneak into a nearby village to hunt down the Witch Hunter who killed their mistress, and pluck out his eyes to bring her back to life.
  • In Sepulchure, a band of thieves try to sneak into the mansions of the rich high elves that rule the city to steal powerful magic relics.
  • In Lasers & Feelings, the crew of the scout ship Raptor try to defend the Consortium of Planets against dangers from space.

But here’s some general goals if you need help setting one yourself:

  1. Assassinate the enemy general
  2. Defend the outpost against invaders
  3. Destroy the cursed artefact before the evil sorcerer can use it
  4. Reclaim your ancestral treasure from marauders 
  5. Rescue the kidnapped princess/heiress/senator
  6. Stop cultists from performing the evil ritual

Tip 2: Use a five-scene structure

This is the core of my approach to zero-prep gaming. Once we have the goal and the setting, I slot in the appropriate elements for each of the five scenes below.

The idea is that each scene should take about half an hour to play through. It may vary depending on your group.

  1. Set up: Introduce the setting, the bad guys, and the goal.
  2. Travel through the wilderness: encounter a setting-appropriate obstacle
  3. Approaching the enemy base: How will the characters get past the antagonist’s minions?
  4. Climax: Confront the bad guy. Complete the quest.
  5. Outcome: What happens now that the characters succeeded or failed?

Tip 3: Slather on the aesthetic

Every setting has its own set of tropes and clichés. If you were making high art, you’d want to avoid or subvert them. But this is roleplaying. Embrace them! They will help orient your players to the setting and the genre expectations, and they’ll provide you with a list of locations and encounters to use.

Don’t forget the atmospherics, too: mentioning the woad on a Celtic warrior or the smoke circling in a jazz club help make the setting feel vivid and alive.

(Unfortunately, a lot of settings and genres have their share of racist, sexist or homophobic clichés. Skip those.)

It’s not strictly zero-prep, but I found it useful to write down a list of setting elements that I could throw in as needed. Here are some examples:

  • Siege of Stalingrad: Russians versus Nazis, ruined buildings, military camps, barbed wire, snipers, hunger, snow.
  • Hadrian’s Wall: Picts versus Romans, stone circles, Roman forts, ancient gods, battlefields, woad, ravens
  • Gothic Horror: innocents versus the depraved, creaking stairs, locked rooms, creepy servants, ghosts, candelabras, mist.
  • Space Opera: peacekeepers versus space tyrants, space stations, lost planets, starfighters, alien monsters, high technology, ancient alien artefacts
  • Pirates: pirates versus the Royal Navy, wild seas, desert islands, storms, sea monsters, treasure maps, skulls.
  • Noir: criminals versus the police, seedy bars, back alleys, car chases, betrayals, trench coats, jazz.
  • High Fantasy: Good versus Evil, forests, castles, magic swords, dragons, prophecies, elves
  • Weird Fantasy: the poor versus the rich, factories, temples, tentacles, crime, masks, masks, decay.

Tip 4: Set up an memorable bad guy

This is really an extension of Tip 3. But a striking, well-defined antagonist makes the game exciting and perhaps even meaningful.

One of the mistakes I made with that first Wolfspell game was that I didn’t introduce the antagonist until the climatic scene at the end, so the players didn’t really feel a connection with him. Now I try to have them appear in the first scene, as per Tip 2 above, so that the players know who they’re up against.

Need some help creating a memorable bad guy? Pick a Style and a Goal from the tables below.


  1. Rigid and military – military uniform, lack of emotion
  2. Decadent and extravagant – jewellery, ornate clothing/armour/spacesuit, exotic pet
  3. Suave and scholarly – dark suit, goatee, glasses, book
  4. Savage and angry – muscles, leather, tattoos, chains
  5. Disturbingly kind and polite – white clothes, broad smile, a cup of tea
  6. Strange and inhuman – face hidden by scarf or mask, tentacles, cyborg*

* Avoid the James Bond/Star Wars cliché of having deformity = evil


  1. Amusement – they think bloodshed and slaughter is entertaining
  2. Civilisation – they want to impose law and order on the rabble and barbarians
  3. Despair – they are so heartbroken they want to destroy the entire world
  4. Envy – they want something that someone else has (a throne, a treasure, a love…)
  5. Faith – they want the world to worship their One True Faith
  6. Glory – they want to history to remember their deeds
  7. Greed – they want wealth and power
  8. Revenge – they want vengeance on someone who wronged them

Tip 5: Make the player’s choices matter

The five-scene structure could be pretty railroad-y if you’re not careful. Here’s three ways I introduced some choice for the players.

Which path do they take?

Give players the choice of which path they take through the wilderness in Scene 2. 

To cross the dark forest, do they follow the paved road (which might be watched), or do they follow the river (where they might get lost)? 

Do they fly their spaceship straight at the enemy space station, or do they try and sneak up on it through the asteroid belt?

How do they deal with danger?

Generally, there’s four ways characters can handle the dangers they encounter: talk, sneak, fight or run away. Let them choose and roll the dice.

I like to give out bonuses to dice rolls if the players take the time to describe how they rig the situation in their favour. “I throw sand in his eyes, and stab him while he’s distracted!” “I swing on the chandeliers to escape!”

I also play it that failing a skill roll means the situation gets worse, rather than an absolute failure: they try to sneak past the guard dogs but they step on a squeaky floorboard, or they try to shoot down the alien space fighters but the force field generator overloads. I let players choose if they want to try again, usually with some penalty, or quit and get the hell out of there.

The final decision: which side are they on?

The climax should be more than a big fight with the bad guy. Have the antagonist explain the conflict from their point of view, and make the players decide if they want to stick to the original mission or change sides.

Some examples:

  • The invading general explains the benefits that his civilisation can provide, such as medicine, clean water and education. Do the characters assassinate him, or join him?
  • The cult leader gives the characters a glimpse of the bliss and peace that her gods provide. Do they join the cult, or eliminate it?
  • The bandit king tells the character that their tribal elders killed his family. Will they join him in extracting revenge, or finish the job the elders started?
  • The ancient evil artefact offers unlimited powers. Do the characters destroy it, or use its powers for themselves?
  • The princess wasn’t kidnapped by the prince of the rival kingdom, she eloped. Do the characters bring her back against her will, or let love go free?

The limits of these techniques

These techniques work best with quest-style adventures. I haven’t tried running a zero-prep mystery game like Call of Cthulhu, for example. I’m sure there’s ways to do it, I just haven’t thought of them.

I also focused on games that were meant to be played in a single session. Some games ended up running for two sessions, usually because players got tired before we reached the climax.

Our Sepulchre game ran for 4 sessions, and grew from a simple fantasy heist to the epic return of an ancient nautilus god. I ended up doing some prep for that game, but it was usually half an hour before the session started, frantically scribbling notes and leaning heavily on the aesthetic to make the session come alive.

If you want more…

If you’re interested in more advice on running zero-prep games, take a look at The Prepless Game Master by Paul Camp.

I mostly ran one-page RPGs this year, because I feel very strongly that you shouldn’t spend more time reading rules than you do actually playing the game.

Most of the games I ran were by Grant Howitt and are available on his site, but we also squeezed in some Lasers & Feelings.

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Uni returns next week…

Uni returns next week.

I have four subjects to go until I finish my Masters. And I’ve doubled my study load, from one subject per semester to two, to try and finish my Masters by the end of the year.

I’ll still be working full time, so it’ll be interesting to see how I cope with the workload.

The truth is, I’ve spent the last two years aiming at and working towards my placement at the National Library of Scotland. And now that that has been and gone, the rest of my course feels like an anti-climax. I’ve already spent three years on this Masters, and I’m not too keen on spending two more. There are other things I want to do.

My subjects for this semester are Business Analytics and the Information Management Research Project.

Business Analytics is a compulsory subject. I’m hoping it will be either stuff I already know from my management experience, or genuinely new and useful material. I’ve enrolled in the Online version of this subject because the face-to-face lecture is on at 2:30pm on Fridays, which isn’t very friendly to those of us with jobs.

The Information Management Research Project is an elective, and I’m extremely excited about this one. We get to choose a topic! And research it! I am totally going to use this to learn a skill that will be useful in my future career as a systems librarian!

My current plan is to write something about how libraries implement a new library management system.

I’ll need to refine that. It might be a review of project management methodologies, or a case study of a particular implementation, or the selection process, or… I don’t know yet.

Some of that will depend on the sort of resources I can find. I fully intend to use this project as an excuse to compile a list of the journals and books and organisations I should be following as a systems librarian.

(I currently use to keep track of things like this, but it’s looking less and less like a neatly-ordered refernce and more and more like a jumble of post-it notes. Knowledge management takes work.)

One area of LMS implementation I’m interested in is change management. I read this thread on Twitter about change management in libraries, and why staff might resist change.

Somewhere in the thread was a link to this book: Change Management for Library Technologists: A LITA Guide by Courtney McAllister. It’s a guide to managing the changes around library technology. I want a copy. But $70 is not cheap for a book. I might see if any libraries have a copy. 😉

(LITA is the Libraries and Information Technology Association, a division of the American Libraries Association. The Australian equivalent is VALA. See? This is the sort of stuff I should know as a systems librarian.)

Anyway: uni starts next week for what will be, I hope, be the final year of my Masters.

And then I can think about what’s next.

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My placement with the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project

This is a repost of the blog entry I wrote for the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project’s Safe and Sound blog.

Glasgow is a long way from Australia.

Yet when I had to choose a library for the industry placement part of my Masters of Information Management at RMIT University in Melbourne, my heart leapt at the possibility of doing it at the National Library of Scotland.

Blame Iain Banks, Trainspotting, and Chvrches. I have a massive soft spot for Scotland.

My background is in IT, and I’m interested in how technology can help libraries make their collections more discoverable. After a lot of emails, staff at the National Library of Scotland found the perfect placement for me: the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project.

The diagram I drew to help understand the OUSH workflow.

It’s a huge project, led by the British Library, to digitise, preserve, and put online half a million of the UK’s rare and unique sound recordings. The National Library is the project hub for Scotland, running out of their Kelvin Hall branch in Glasgow. The sheer amount of material that needs to be catalogued means that volunteers play an important part in the project, and my placement would be similar to the work the volunteers do.

I expected to learn about digitising audio tapes, cataloguing them, and clearing the copyright.

I didn’t expect to learn the difference between a Flying Scot (a type of bicycle made by David Rattray and Co.) and the Flying Scotsman (Graeme Obree, a record-setting cyclist famous for his homemade cycle Old Faithful).

I didn’t expect to learn about the hierarchy of roles a young glassmaker at Edinburgh Crystal worked through in their career, from taker-in to gatherer to ball-blower.

I didn’t expect to learn about the Craigo jute mill, or the inventor of the disposable nappy, or how to tell a Ross Records cassette from a Beechwoods Records one by their catalogue numbers.

An archive box of cassettes and minidiscs.

But you can’t describe recordings without listening to them. Some of this knowledge I picked up from the interviews themselves. Some of it I learnt by frantically Googling to try and understand what the interviewers were talking about – there’s a lot of detective work in cataloguing.

And as I’ve worked my way through these collections, I’ve developed an odd, protective love for them. Scottish fiddle music may not be my favourite type of music, but I can see the similarities between a self-released cassette of Strathspeys and reels with a hand-drawn cover and the DIY punk music that’s more my tastes.

My placement has covered the technical aspects of digitising collections that I expected. I spent an afternoon with the audio engineer, learning how much manual work goes into handling open reel tapes. I learnt the workflow that will turn Excel spreadsheets into metadata accessible via the British Library website. And I’ve sat in on head-scratching discussions on how to convert files and metadata formatted for one computer database into files and metadata that can be used by a different computer database.

Me wearing my UOSH volunteers t-shirt.

It’s been fascinating and educational. It’s knowledge that will help me in my career as a systems librarian. And I’ve met some wonderful and dedicated people.

The thing I come back to, though, is the realisation I had working my way through the boxes of oral histories and traditional music. These collections aren’t just tapes and boxes and Excel spreadsheets. These are people sharing the culture that they love.

It’s been a privilege to play a part in helping them.

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cardiParty: The Museum of Broken Relationships

(I wrote this review of last Friday’s cardiParty as part of an assignment for my Masters. I thought I might as well repost it here.)

Last Friday  I attended a tour of the Museum of Broken Relationships organised by newCardigan.

NewCardigan describe themselves as “a social and professional group for people who work in galleries, libraries, archives and museums – and for those who like hanging around with GLAM types.”

One of the events they organise are monthly cardiParties, which are a tour of a library, gallery or museum, followed by drinks, dinner and socialising at a nearby pub. I’ve been to several cardiParties in the past, including tours of PBS FM’s music library, Incendium Radical Library in Footscray, and the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives in St. Kilda.

This month’s cardiParty was a tour of the Museum of Broken Relationships exhibition at No Vacancy gallery. I noticed quite a few RMIT students were there.

Me being me, I livetweeted the tour. (Me being me, I left my glasses at work and so it’s full of typos.)

The Museum collects items and stories that mark the end of relationships.  It started as an art installation by an ex-couple, but now it’s a physical building in Croatia, with exhibitions that tour the world. The items are mostly pretty humble: a jar of buttons, a dress, a handful of lollies. The stories range from the funny to the heart-rending.

The No Vacancy gallery manager gave a talk that covered the history of the gallery, her career, and the story of the Museum of Broken Relationships. We had some time to explore the exhibition. Then the newCardgian committee raced through their Annual General Meeting, including announcing their new President. 

Business concluded, we all decamped to the Moat for food and drink. 

Which is an important part of cardiParties. Seeing different institutions and hearing about the philosophies behind them is fascinating. But sharing a drink and chat with fellow GLAMers is what builds a community.

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The Dangers of Donations

Interesting article from the University of Melbourne’s Pursuit magazine about how China and Russia are using museums and galleries as a way to expand their soft power in diplomatic relationships:


(This white paper defines soft power as ‘the ability to influence the behaviour or thinking of others through the power of attraction and ideas’ )

The soft power article made me think about this Guardian article about Harvey Weinstien and how ‘ostentatious, targeted philanthropy’ was one of the ways he tried to repair his reputation.

Are international art exchanges neutral? 

Or is there an ethical dimension to participating in these programs? 

China jails democracy activists. The Russian government is accused of killing journalists. Is collaborating with K11 or the Hermitage also whitewashing the crimes of these regimes, in the way Weinstein tried to whitewash his crimes?

From the Guardian:

 ‘In Weinstein’s case, intended beneficiaries were, effectively, cast as accomplices in Bloom’s Rose [McGowan]-persecution schedule. But at other times they might be helping purge historical links with, say, Vladimir Putin, with fascist organisations or with discreditable financial practices. You sometimes get the impression that, usefully for donors and their advisers, complacency on this point, and carelessness about complicity, is most likely in organisations whose motives are unassailably pure and high-minded.’

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A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies

I read this short story about libraries, and reading, and escape last year. It came across my Twitter feed again, so I reread it.

“He reached towards the book and the book reached back towards him, because books need to be read quite as much as we need to read them…”

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow.

(I love this story, but there are a few elements in it that make me cringe. The comment from A bad librarian articulates them. Read that too.)

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His Dark Materials trailer

The BBC have released a trailer for their adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series.

Allow me to summarise my reaction: Lyra! Lyra! Lyra!

I hope this is good.

Actually, I’m quite pleased that there’s now a TV version as well as a movie version, because it emphasises these are versions Lyra Belacqua, rather than the real one who lives in my head.

Lyra is oddly precious to me.

It’s some combination of wanting to be her, in her bravery and fierceness, wanting to protect her, wishing perhaps that I had a daughter like her, and simply wanting to admire her.

Bonnie Mary Liston’s excellent essay ‘The wildness of girlhood’ starts with quotes from Emily Bronte and Catherynne Valente, but it made me think of Ms. Belacqua.

“Every four years or so, the young girls of Athens between ages of five and ten would go into the woods to make sacrifices to Artemis, run races, dance and live like bears. Literally. They were called arktoi, which means ‘little bears’, and they were supposed to run around pretending to be bears, wearing special bear skins…”

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Twine as teaching tool

Twine is tool for creating choose-your-own-adventure style text games.

I’ve just played a fun example of using Twine to educate people about the work cataloguers do: the Cataloguing Game by Victoria Parkinson.

I like it because it gives you a gentle but hands-on experience of what it’s like to catalogue a book. (It also gives you a choice of hot chocolate, coffee or tea.)

I’ve played a few Twine games, but I haven’t seen many educational ones like this. A quick google pulls up a few articles about using Twine and interactive fiction in the classroom:

Outside the classroom

I currently work on a software support desk, and I’ve idly considered replacing our troubleshooting flowcharts with a Twine game. Past a certain complexity, flowcharts get too hard to read, whereas a Twine game limits you to exactly the choices you need to make. Maintaining it would be the hardest part.

I made short Twine game years ago, just to test it out, based on something that happened to me on a tram: Bystander

I’m really like the work Tegean Webb does. Start with Young Spells, about teenage girls preparing a witchcraft ritual.

And my first real introduction to Twine was the bizarre and surreal Mastaba Snoopy. Perhaps not really safe for work, or sanity.

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Post-NLS9 Report

I went to Adelaide for NLS9 – the ALIA New Librarians Symposium.

It was the first time I’d been to an NLS. I also had a horrific cold which sucked the energy and the extrovertism out of me.

I felt a bit like this frogcake:

Squashed, green, and about to be eaten

I’ve created a Twitter Moment with all my tweets from the conference, so I’m not going to spend too much time repeating them here.

In my last post, I wrote down what I hoped to get out of NLS9, cold notwithstanding. Here’s how I went…

Goal 1: Three useful ideas

I wanted to gain three ideas – skills, practices, ideas or tools – that I could use in my career. I think I got that.

#1 – The Effective Way to Speak Truth to Power

In her talk on being the new kid in town, Jessica Howie explained that research has shown the most effective way to argue for change in an organisation is to first have built a reputation for excelling at your work.

That makes sense. There’s no point in trying to tell a company how to do things better if you haven’t first proved you know what you’re talking about.

(There are, obviously, problems with this when it comes to reporting harassment or abuse: new starters are vulnerable because they haven’t built up a reputation yet, and the quality of work often suffers if someone is being harassed. You still need strong organisational procedures that can counter this bias.)

#2 – The Annual Report

Deborah Brown from Monte Sant’ Angelo Mercy College in North Sydney talked about how she creates an annual report for her library to show how it supports the schools strategic goals, and demonstrate its value to staff, students and the community.

She uses Venngage to create lots of punchy, colourful infographics – there’s some examples in my Twitter thread.

The big lesson here: it’s not enough to just do a good job. You need to be able to sell your value to others.

It’s also a useful tool to track progress. I left the session thinking about writing a personal annual report record how I’m going in my personal goals.

#3 – Talk with marginalised groups, not on behalf of them

This came up in Nikki Anderson’s talk on Deviating With Diversity, and Craig Middleton’s keynote on queering museums to make them more inclusive.

If you want to include marginalised communities, you need to spend time talking with them, and listening to them, and earning their trust.

Related: I picked up a copy of Making Spaces Safer by Shawna Potter while I was in Adelaide. I’m not sure when or how I’ll get to use the advice it contains, but it seems like one day it’ll be useful.

Goal 2: A better understanding of the sector.

I’ve never actually worked in a library. I even contributed a comic about it to the NLS zine. What did I learn about the industry at NLS(?

I learnt there are a lot of passionate librarians determined to make their libraries more inclusive.

I learnt that there are still lots of historical obstacles to that goal, from subject headings in metadata to the fraught relationship between Indigenous and settler ways of knowing.

I learnt there’s an ongoing need spruik the value of libraries.

And I learnt that there’s a certain anxiety about the future of the profession. We were told we should learn how to code, that we should focus on the work that can’t be automated.

What wasn’t discussed was whether there will be a future…

No libraries on a dead planet

While I was at NLS9, Professor Jem Bendell posted A Year of Deep Adaptation. Deep Adaptation was his paper that argues that societal collapse due to climate catastrophe is now inevitable.

I haven’t read that paper yet. I don’t feel strong enough.

But there’s no point planning out a career in the library industry if there’s no libraries left to work in. At some stage I’m going to have to read these reports, and think about what this means.

One of my goals for NLS9 was to touch base with my motivations. This has to be part of it.

Okay. After that cheery thought, here’s a panda from Adelaide Zoo…

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