The Man in Black

The Man in Black

The Man in Black

The Man in Black first saw light of day back in mid-1991 in the fine city of Edinburgh. I honestly can't remember the exact date, but it was around then, give or take six months. There are two distinct stories to the history of this game. The first is the history of the game itself, and the second is the history of the UFG, the fictional setting of the game. So, if you're interested, read on...

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The Game

The Man in Black was the third and last freeform game that I ran in Edinburgh while I was there as a PhD student. I had planned a fourth game, a sequel to The Man in Black, but that died in the face of general apathy and the consideration of the huge amount of work that I'd have to do while trying to write up my PhD thesis at the same time.

I first got the idea of running this type of game from my good friend Andrew Rilstone, who, to my knowledge, independently came up with the idea of freeforms or "theatre-style" roleplaying as it is sometimes known, in York in 1988. I'd just graduated from York where I was an undergraduate and at the end of my first term in Edinburgh I came back to York to play in the first "Fantasy Party" as they were termed.

It was a pretty minimal game, but that didn't stop it being excellent fun and a new type of roleplaying that was so different from anything I had ever done. The setting was a fairly derivative fantasy court. The King was holding a contest to find a husband for his daughter and heir, the Princess. I landed a role as one of the princes, one who'd been mugged on the way to the court and ended up forcing his way in wearing nothing more than a blanket (which has set the standard and my approach to costuming ever since...). I think the character sheet was about 4 lines long, but it was enough to give me the scope for some excellent roleplaying, especially with the Princess, who I ended up marrying.

I was so impressed that I went back to York at the end of the next two terms of that academic year to play in two more of Andrew's games, in which I continued to play the Prince, now joint heir to his wife's Kingdom. It's safe to say that they were some of the best roleplaying experiences that I've ever had. Each game lasted perhaps three hours and took place in a single room at the York campus. I really can't remember how many of us turned up to that first Fantasy Party, but I'd guess it was around 30. By the time Andrew ran his third game, they were a firm fixture and numbers might have been up to about 50.

Andrew then handed over the reins and others took up the responsibility for writing and running the Fantasy Parties, which ran at the end of every term. I kept coming back to play in them, but the next significant event took place in Edinburgh a few months later.

Andrew had managed to get the indepedent professional roleplaying magazine of the day (I forget its name) to print the first Fantasy Party as a scenario and someone in Edinburgh came across it and announced to the roleplaying society there (GEAS) that he was going to run this new game. I, of course, couldn't resist, so I played again, this time as the Prince who went in disguise as his servant. And I got to marry the Princess again.

The game was a reasonable success. I think about 15 or 20 people turned up, and it was enough to kick-start me into action. I honestly can't remember if I'd thought of doing a game myself before then, but after the Fantasy Party was run in Edinburgh, I realised that there was a ready and willing group of players and so, that summer (1991), I launched The Ace of Spades on an unwitting set of Edinburgh students. To my great pride, a few of my friends also came up from York to play in it, among them Andrew, whose fault all this was. I think I also have to be honest and say I don't think he enjoyed it that much, but overall, the game was sufficiently successful for me to run two more, Indec's Lair, and this game, The Man in Black.

Of the three, The Man in Black holds that special place in my heart. It was clearly better than the other two. I could tell that just from the way it ran and if I hadn't realised it myself, I soon found out from the reaction of the players. It's not that the other two were bad games, but I can't see myself resurrecting them.

The Man in Black, on the other hand, has been with me ever since and I'd been thinking of running it again for at least 5 years before I actually re-wrote and re-vamped it in 2000. The Man in Black is back...

The Setting

The UFG setting started out as the PFG about a year before the game, which was the setting for a conventional round-the-table game called the Ugly Duckling, which I might one day re-run on an unsuspecting world.

I have to say, I haven't a clue how I first got the idea for The Man in Black, or for the bar, or for the various characters. All I really know is that it seemed to fit into an expanded PFG, which became the UFG (although at that point it was called the GFG - Galactic Federation of God), and formed the backdrop of the game.

While the game itself has stayed dormant for the last nine years, the setting has had a rich and fruitful life. The then GFG was reborn as the UFG and served as the setting for a round-the-table game that I ran from mid-1992 onwards when I first moved to Crowthorne in Berkshire after graduating from Edinburgh.

The UFG game (the Moses) ran about once every 5-6 weeks over a weekend and set the players as the crew of the UFG Moses, a Federation Exploration ship. Sadly it wasn't much of a success, though it ran for about nine sessions before dying from apathy. The problem was I had created a very nice background, but not one conducive to good roleplaying. Unlike The Man in Black, set effectively outside the control of the Federation, the Moses was set in the Navy, the heart of the Federation. Sadly the Federation is such a controlling organisation that the players had too little freedom to act and think indepedently.

It wasn't a disaster, but it was never going to be the success I wanted. So, I folded the game in late 1993 and while the UFG was dormant as a roleplaying setting, it was still alive in my imagination. In 1996, I started writing a UFG novel, but decided after about 30,000 words that it was basically boring. Not to be so easily put off, I staged a literary resurrection of the UFG in 1998, when I started "Hobday", another novel set in the UFG, based around the life of one of the Moses' officers, the much-disliked and much-misunderstood NPC Ensign Hobday. Hobday the novel is now about one third complete, but currently stalled due to the lack of a middle third of the plot and the fact that I have too many other projects vying for my time. However, I'm pleased with the first third and still have this fantasy that one day I am going to finish it.

The Runs

Edinburgh, 1991

Although the game has changed extensively since the first run, I still have fond memories of it. It was the most ambitious game I had run up to that point and as it began I had a sudden feeling of panic. Here was a complex set of plots that I had set up, plots that I knew every detail of at the start of the game, and yet I had no idea what was going on! As referee, I was the last person anyone was going to tell.

In the previous two games I ran at Edinburgh, I had kept a very tight rein on things. In The Man in Black, I had no control at all. It was all in the hands of the players. I spent a very anxious couple of hours wondering whether the game was a huge success or a total failure. Meanwhile everything bubbled under the surface before coming to a wonderful climax.

All the PCs were lined up against the wall, with one of the main characters standing on a table with a gun, threatening to shoot people one by one if The Man in Black didn't reveal himself. I was stood next Joe Potter, who was playing The Man in Black and muttering "As if that's going to work!" under his breath. I think three people shot the guy on the table, pretty much simultaneously, which was followed by a general blood-letting and a fast exit before the authorities arrived.

Convulsion 2000

The second run of The Man in Black was in July 2000 at Convulsion. Despite some teething problems, which were all down to oversights and mistakes on my behalf, I felt that the game went very well. It was certainly very popular, with at least 38 people signing up for a 35 player game. I suppose it was just as well that I had some last minute drop outs.

Once again, things bubbled along quite nicely, with me having no real idea what was going on. This continued even to the end of the game, when, thanks to an unfortunate rumour about a UFG Battlegroup and the immiment destruction of the planet, everyone decided to head for the spaceport at the same time.

This was an ending that I had utterly failed to foresee and rather took the gloss off an otherwise successful game as I had around 25 players all in the same room shouting at the me all at once. Oops.

Intercon A, 2001

I have to say that the Intercon A run exceeded all my expectations for the game and matched my wildest hopes for it. I had expanded the game to 37 players and had managed to fill the game a month before the Convention, which greatly helped the preparation.

A large part of the success of the game was down to better preparedness on my behalf, ably helped by AJ Smith, my co-referee. I had also re-written some of the characters which hadn't worked so well in the second run, and turned the character which I had played as a referee into a fully-fledged PC. With hindsight, I should have done that the first time round.

However, the greatest asset was the wonderful cast of players. With Paul Simpson as a PC, the bar staff were able to form a coherent team and generated an unbelievable atmosphere together with the Regulars. The game bubbled along nicely before coming to a superb climax that I couldn't have written even if I tried. We ended with a very "Reservoir Dogs" scene, people pointing guns at people pointing guns at people. Talk about tension.

Chicago, 2003

The next time that The Man in Black was run was in Chicago in September, 2003. It came about due to my good friend, Marc Blumberg, who had, at Intercon C in February that year, refused to let me leave the country until I agreed a date to come to Chicago and run The Man in Black. With such a gracious offer, I felt I couldn't refuse...

The run itself was the most atmospheric we'd ever had. Part of this was down to Gail and Dig Freedman's generosity in turning their house over to us for the game. We had a real basement bar in which to set the basement bar, and the laundry room made the most dingy spaceport ever. The clinching factor was, of course, the players. The them and us tension between the Staff, Locals and Wanderers on the one hand, and the Outsiders on the other, was a joy to behold and all the characterisations were superb. Some players took my characters in such wonderfully unexpected directions and the Groupies were collectively the saddest, most obsessive group we've ever had. So much fun.

Consequences, 2007

The most recent run was at the first ever Consequences in November, 2007. The run had some high-points and some definite low-points and was, for me, probably the most disappointing run of the game. Part of this can be put down to circumstance: we ran the game on the Saturday night of the first ever Consequences and a sizeable amount of our player-base was either ill or had been playing in every slot, with about four hours sleep on the Thursday and Friday nights, which is not ideal preparation for a game such as The Man in Black.

However, there were also some flaws in the game that were exposed during this run. The Man in Black is one of the first games that I had written and, looking back on it, it shows. About one third of the characters were plot-light, in that they had their main plot, but not a lot else. If that plot didn't come off, then there wasn't a great deal for the character to do. In previous runs, we had been lucky, with most, if not all, of the main plots firing. However, in this run, for whatever reason, several of the main plots really didn't take off and as a result, these flaws were exposed.

Since then the game has been over-hauled and all the characters have been reviewed, with an extra layer of plotting put into the game. Those characters that were overly-reliant on a single plot have had extra plots and links introduced. Hopefully this will resolve the problems of the previous run.

Despite the problems, the run itself had many memorable moments, largely due to character disappointment. In particular, the look of realisation on Georgie MacFarland's face when she realised exactly what she had done and the response of Karen Kowaninski on losing the love of her life for the second time were both priceless.


Finally, a few words of thanks are due.

First of all, thanks to Andrew Rilstone, whose fault all of this definitely is. Without Andrew, none of this would have happened.

The other people who have made this game possible are my long-suffering co-referees. It is never easy running a game that you didn't write, but the following people did an excellent job:

  • John Mather, my co-referee in Edinburgh
  • Dennis Douglas, to whom I owe a deep debt of gratitude, as he volunteered his services despite having never seen the game, played in it, or heard of it before.
  • Marc Blumberg and Drew Novick who were co-referees in the Chicago run
  • AJ Smith, my general partner-in-crime at Intercon, who was co-referee of the Intercon-A. Chicago and Consequences runs and who has now proof-read all 150,000+ words of the game twice!
  • Graham Arnold who co-refereed with AJ and I for the first Consequences run
I must also thank my Men in Black. In order:
  • Joe Potter, the first ever Man in Black and designer of the Man in Black sweatshirt
  • Jarec Basham, his successor as the Great Man Himself
  • Moira Parham, the first ever Woman in Black
  • Arin Komins, the second Woman in Black and the most successful one yet!
  • Deekoo L, the most bizarre portrayal of the Great Man

From the first run of the game, special mentions go to Graham, who played George MacFarland better than I could have ever imagined, and to Ian Thake for a marvellous Marshal Stack.

From the second run of the game, I would like to thank Jane Mitton for an inspired Jenny Matthews, David (DT) Townsend and Stuart Fribbens for Kevin and Jon respectively and Graham Arnold for an unbelievable Simon D'Albert on acid.

I would also like to thank Emma Waite and Michael Cule for invaluable feedback on their characters, which contributed to making the third run such a success. Paul and Heidi get a special mention for last minute envelope stuffing, even though they weren't playing in the game.

From the third run, I especially want to thank Marc Blumberg for stepping in at the last minute to play Paul Simpson, the character with the largest character sheet of them all. Together with Eric Golovchenko and Betsy Moore as Al and Val, they made a wonderful staff for The Man in Black. I also want to thank Anne Cross for her characterisation of Mel. Memories of her trembling in anger in the corner will stay with me for a long time.

From the Chicago run, the superb Don Flinspach (Harley Thronson III) and David Cave (Jan Kozaks) the two saddest, most obsessed groupies ever. David Simpkin's wheeling-dealing Paul Simpson was also a joy to behold and Maggie Peck as Jessica was most amusing... A big thank you also goes to Rich, Jenny and Jim Leash for stepping in at the last minute. Thanks guys. One day I will find out your surnames...

From the Consequences run, the superb Sue Lee (Georgie MacFarland), who was as tortured a soul as can be, Steve Bassett, finally getting to play Vlad the Bouncer, Martin Smith and Rei, for their respective performances as Jamie Matthews and Kylie Harris and finally Nickey Barnard for her Karen Kowaninski.

A final thought. The reason I write and run games is because I enjoy finding out what you, the players, do with my characters. Therefore, a very big thank you to everyone who has ever played in The Man in Black. You did some very amusing and unexpected things with my characters and I really enjoyed watching from the sidelines, desperately trying to work out what was going on...

Until the next time...

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