I’m running an experimental game right now inspired by some historical work I’m reading about early RPGs and their evolution from wargames. Of particular interest to me in this time period was an explosion of play-by-mail games with a strategic but role-playing focus. Every few years I try to get that flavour working and the closest I got was Callisto, a letter writing game that is great fun but sometimes limps where it should run. So this time I decided to eat my own dog food and start with scaffold.

So with seneschal what I’ve done is found 16 people who are willing to answer some simple questions and play their “people” in a maximally fog-of-warred world. One in which only the ref really has a view of the reality and all “moves” go through the ref. And what I want to do is to add and modify rules to the scaffold only as they become necessary (or at least desirable) for play. So obviously I need a few to even start! So this is the seneschal addendum version 1.0 to scaffold:


Our game will take place in the world of Seneschal, a place populated by sentients of many descriptions, all at a level of technology such that the world (its shape, its size, its very nature) is a mystery. Right now all peoples know only themselves and their immediate surroundings. They haven’t the means to travel far and fast and there are not yet pressures demanding expansion…but that is on the visible horizon.

Once a week the ref will publish a statement and ask what you do about it. You will invent your response and email it to the ref. It can be as long or as short as you like. It can contain any amount of detail you like but should culminate in an order: a clear indication of what you want your people to get done in the coming turn.

If the ref determines that we need some new rules (or if you do, then tell the ref) then a symposium will be declared. The symposium is a scheduled chat in Discord about the rule additions. Afterwards a new rulebook will be published.


To start, send the ref, bjmurray.halfjack@gmail, your people information: your people’s name, an answer to the question “what are your people you good at?” and an answer to the question “what do your people want?” Send more detail if you like, of course!

senechal rules

As our rules evolve, the changes will go here and forward.

Yeah that’s it — just the rules for what to send in for a first move. This 1.0 version of the doc went out to the players so they know what they’re playing. Now of course as soon as the first moves came in I needed more rules. And suddenly a lot more rules. Several things drive this:

First, as I communicate with people and write rules I realize that there is some meta content that needs to be made clear. So things like safety and the role of the ref/moderator in keeping the places we communicate safe are addressed. The fact that since this takes place digitally we have no constraints on dice — if a table calls for 17 options then we will roll a d17. We have no interest in the shapes of pedestrian real-world dice.

Next there are rules to cope with things people have sent in their initial moves. Some are meta material — if a player’s order exceeds the remit, for example, what do we do? Then there are people who have said things like “we live next to a mountain” — should that be formalized? Do I need to talk about maps already (I do, as it turns out — maps may be fundamental just as a bookkeeping technique)?

And then there are anticipatory rules. I already have an idea of what I want to do for the next moves — I want to provide something motivational. A disaster to respond to. So I write a table of disasters and as I do so I see something magical: the disasters come with instructions about geography. All peoples experiencing a drought are adjacent to each other. All experiencing a volcanic eruption are adjacent to the same volcano. I still have no east and west and no distances, but I have adjacency.

And so the rules evolve by need, whether that need is immediate (something happens that needs a rule) or anticipatory (I plan to do something in the response to orders and need to codify it). So now, I think complete for the move, seneschal has nine pages of rules from the initial one and a half. I hope this is not the regular expansion rate.

In addition to (or maybe adjacent to) the rules is the bookkeeping. I have a spreadsheet with what I think are the key information points about each player’s people so far but I don’t know how much of this document is rules and how much is just my personal expedient way to handle the data. Do the rules need to say “use a spreadsheet”? Or even “keep track of this bit”? It feels like something that I shouldn’t command in others. Do what thou wilt and all that.

I’ll keep you up to date as we progress.

The Scaffold System

In ancient days I wrote about scaffolding, a technique by which one uses the bare minimum system to allow testing of a more detailed subsystem you’re interested in. Here is a perfectly workable scaffold, a game that can be played entirely on its own but that can better serve as the connective tissue for your components under test. Of course it must grow and modify (hopefully until it is unrecognizable) to meet the needs of the bits you want to test, but it serves to get to the table.

And that’s the rule for scaffolding: don’t yammer on about your idea. Don’t trawl for acceptance. Don’t wonder aloud and publicly if you have the probabilities right. Get it to a table tonight.


A bare minimum on which to hang subsystems for testing.


A character has two stats: the answers to “what are you good at?” and “why are you here?” Extend this to suit the needs of your subsystem under test. Whoever wants to play a character should invent one.

Core System

When an external resolution is required (that is, there is no consensus on what happens next) the player invested in the outcome rolls 1d6. If their character is good at this, then they succeed on a 2 or better. Otherwise they succeed on a 3 or better. Extend this to suit the needs of your subsystem under test. If they have no character then wonder why they are so invested in this scene. Why are they even here at the table. Perhaps they are observing and should be invited to play.

Scenario and motivation

Everyone should pay attention to everyone elses “why are you here” and narrate stuff that leans into those answers. If there’s a ref, they should pay special attention. Challenge it — make why they are there a problem. Make it difficult. Make it a moral dilemma. Make it require resources. Kick it in the nads.

Now of course you could do this differently, but I want to remove every single obstacle in your path to getting to the table that I can. You need to find the people, you need to work up the nerve, and you need something you care to test, but I have taken care of the other excuse. There’s your scaffold. Like any scaffold it should be entirely absent once you are done, or at least invisible. We might see traces of it — bolt holes unfilled in the sidewalk perhaps — but your objective is to use it only until it is replaced.

And grow the scaffold itself if you need to. Paint it. Cover it. Raise it. Whatever it takes.

scaffold is available in PDF form from itch if you need a PDF version.