These days when we talk about roleplaying games, most people will think immediately of Dungeons and Dragons, the godfather of them all. We all love D&D, and its enduring legacy shows that even with a few missteps (anyone remember 4th edition? I wish I didn’t), it’s still the most popular RPG – a gateway drug for most of the new wave of geeks. Among the plethora of games popping up everywhere, it’s the Marlon Brando to all these fancy new Johnny Depp types.
But our favourite hobby should not be above scrutiny. As always with the old guard, we tend to overlook some elements that really need discussing. If there’s one thing to take away from the next gen of tabletop RPGs it’s that the cornerstone of roleplaying games – the actual “role playing” – has been neglected far too long. Which is why I would argue that D&D at its core, is more of a skirmish wargame than a roleplaying game.
I think it’s worth looking into what that means, what the alternatives are and in what ways D&D can change. After all, it still has to live up to its historic title of daddy of all RPGs.
1) Mathematics Over Story
What is a roleplaying game? It’s a game where we play roles. Pack up, people, we’re done here. Or, well, to give it more detail, it’s a game – in this case we’ll be referring to the tabletop variety as opposed to video games – where a group of people (usually referred to as the “party”) play certain characters in a fictional universe. Often, it’s to fulfil an objective (or a “quest”), or a series thereof strung together into a “campaign”. Now if those inverted commas made you feel like you’re at the world’s most pedantic TED Talk, bear with me, we’ve got to get some definitions out of the way.
The basic premise of the roleplaying game has changed a lot over the years. Where once the “role” in question was simply one’s part in the overall squad dynamics (what youngsters these days call the “meta”), through the power of imagination it has taken a much greater significance and these days characters have grand backstories that fit a role in the greater fictional Universe. Party dynamics are about more than just synergy of abilities. These are people who live in our imagination, who have relationships, hopes and expectations – and a reason to exist in this world, something that drives them towards achieving their goals.
Conversely, a wargame can have a pretty broad definition, but at its core it is a simulation of conflict – usually some form of combat – that pits two or more opposing forces on a battlefield, whereupon they smack the relentless crap out of each other with the power of MATHS! It’s a numbers game.
Now tell me if this sounds familiar. “Ok, so Jenny is on the opposite side of the golem, so that means I’m flanking. So that’s 3d6 sneak attack damage, +1 from my dagger of Awesomeness, another 1 because constructs are my favoured enemy from multiclassing to plumber, so that’s a total of… let’s see, carry over the 1, and multiply the dice because critical, add another die for inspiration and… what do you mean it doesn’t have any discernible anatomy?!”
In its basic form, D&D is a numbers game. You can take away the names, the plot, and the setting; what you’re left with is a squad-based skirmish wargame not unlike Age of the Sigmarines – which also has its (ridiculously complicated) backstory with established characters and all that. If you watch popular D&D shows on Twitch like Critical Role, you’ll notice that there are three basic types of episode: role-play episodes where people talk a lot, shopping episodes (everyone’s favourites), and fight episodes where more than half the runtime is one or more (but usually just one) scenes of prolonged kerfuffle. It takes three hours to play out less than a minute of real-time fisticuffs.
And that’s 5th edition; can you imagine if this were Pathfinder? Speaking of which…
2) Over-Emphasis On Combat
Let’s face it. D&D is about fighting. If you look at the Player’s Handbook, most of it is dedicated to showing you how your character can bring the pain. And sweet mercy, can you deliver. While you get all these details on all your characters abilities, and feats and spells and equipment, you get all of 4 pages dedicated to personality and background. And that ends up being just another tool to help in fighting in most cases too.
And 5th edition isn’t as bad as previous versions of the formula, either. In fact, one of the things I liked the most about the latest incarnation of my favourite game was that it made your characters feel more like people, encouraging you to create actual believable persona, rather than just killing machines. I mean, they’re still XP-generating homicide homunculi, but it’s generally frowned upon these days if you only play a murder-hobo.
You do possess a set of skills that function outside of the smackdown arena, but they’re over-simplified to the point where most of the time it’s just a roll of the die, add some numbers… woop, I guess diplomacy has failed us this day. And then everyone draws their weapons.
While we’re on the topic, can we just talk about…
Crikey, remember the ones in 4th edition? I wish I didn’t.
If the hallmark of a wargame is that it needs tables to quantify and explain everything (looking at you, GW), then this should cement D&D’s reputation as a wargame. We're looking at a system where even one’s morality is relegated to one of nine options on a board.
Introducing Sigmund, Archmage of the Order of Freudian slips. He pays his taxes on time, so he’s Lawful Stupid. His nemesis is his former apprentice, the sorcerer Carl “Forever” Jung, who had a dream about a vision wrapped in an enigma, so he’s Chaotic Millennial and just wants to watch the world burn.
What does it all mean? I have no idea, but I just know I don’t want to have to fill in a form to tell me what I’m supposed to be. While I understand that it creates a framework to help some people inform their character decisions, I’d really rather be allowed to make decisions that fit my character without worrying if my GM wants to switch my alignment because I nicked a broom from a necromancer.
You might as well start every game with a Myers-Briggs test. Dibs on the INTP Warlock.
How does this help defeat the dragon in the titular dungeon? It doesn’t, because…
4) It’s All About That Base (Attack Bonus)
Congratulations! You’ve levelled up. You’ve shish-kebabbed enough kobolds to make a bridge over troubled waters, you’ve got so many goblin teeth stuck to your boot that Nike wants to have a word. You’ve gained some hitpoints and you feel better. And you are better... at killing things. Especially if you took one of the melee classes. Sharks gotta swim, bats gotta fly, fighters gonna fight forever till they die. The rogues get a little better at thievin’ but they mostly get better at stabbin’. Heck, even the bards get better combat spells as they progress.
D&D is about the power fantasy. And the easiest way to achieve that is to physically overpower your enemies in the tried and true test of combat. And the more the story progresses, the better you get at it. But there are other ways to drive a story, other stories to be told and other ways to do it.
The idea of progression in a roleplaying game is meant to drive the narrative forward. To progress with the plot. Uncover new characters, new villains, allies, new areas to explore, developments to unravel. Most games do this through interacting with the world and overcoming challenges. World of Darkness focuses on “story beats” where your character’s progression can be tied to them overcoming their own flaws, or fulfilling personal ambitions. FATE rewards story points for actively failing – if you indulge in your character’s shortcomings, or actually choose to fail an otherwise guaranteed success, your game master will reward you for making the game and story more interesting. It’s called failing forward, and it’s one tool that storytelling uses to drive the narrative.
Narrative in D&D is often driven by hacking and slashing your way through opposition, because…
5) At Its Heart, It’s A Dungeon Crawler
D&D has come a long way. But at its inception it was what we do today when we’re too tired of the social intrigue, the personal drama and the complicated plots. You get a crew, crawl through a dungeon, murder some monsters, kill the dragon and steal its shinies. It’s adventure capitalism at its finest. D&D came out of the wargaming scene. It had ridiculous tables and – my gods, do you people even remember ThAC0? (Yes, and we liked it, damned kids. Strength had percentages, AC dropped, and it was still called "Back-stab" and that was good enough for us! -VP Quinn) I wish I didn’t.
It still has a long way to go. And it has changed a lot already, in good ways too. 5th edition is a blessing. It’s a lot of fun and it is very inviting to new players. And we need those. Our geek culture is spreading and more and more people are joining us in our favourite hobby. But pretending it’s above reproach won’t help anyone. While it’s a good tool for experienced GMs to create absolutely amazing stories in fantastic settings (see the previously mentioned Critical Role, Maze Arcana in Eberron, and many more), in its bare-bones incarnation, what you’ve got is a manual for a wargaming experience. GMs often have to improvise and think outside the confines of the book to create the actual roleplaying. There’s supplements and hundreds of blogs to help house rule your way to a complete adventure, but often times a GM might struggle to accommodate their players’ desires – and ultimately that’s what drives the immersion that helps people really get in their characters’ shoes.
Even in combat – the activity deemed most important by the restrictive ruleset – often times a player will get an idea that sounds cinematic and cool and they’d love their character to be able to pull it off. But if it ain’t in the rules, it ain’t happenin’, ranger. When you have too many rules – and far too many feats (looking at you, Pathfinder) – what you get isn’t a roleplaying experience, but an invitation to a litigious session where rules lawyers fight over whose interpretation of the Magna Carta that is the handbook (and all its supplements) fits the scenario better. At this point, you’re not playing characters, you’re playing dress-up with stats.
At its best, D&D can accommodate all. You want to just slay the dragon and get the loot? Can do. You want an epic fantasy campaign with Game of Thrones level of deception and backstabbing? That’s possible too. In the end, it all depends on your DM. And I learned from my Dungeon Master, who learned from his Dungeon Master, in an unbroken line all the way to the Gygax that started it all. It’s safe to say that this renaissance we’re enjoying now might not have happened without the tabletop dungeon crawler. Hopefully, by shining a light on the things it still needs to improve and the mechanics we may or may not enjoy we can learn from the experience. If the backlash to 4th edition taught us anything it’s that people want more roleplaying and not just another mathematics-driven wargame. 5th was a step in the right direction. Let’s hope we see this game move in more nuanced and open directions in the future and keep pushing the boundaries of our tabletop experience so that we may all level up our gaming.
I’m off to play that INTP Warlock now.
Something of a modern day caveman, Ian fell down the rabbit hole of roleplaying games ages ago and has refused to emerge ever since. In his daily life, he wears many hats. When he’s not wearing the hat of the dungeon master, he studies cultural anthropology, writes short stories and occasionally posts on his own blog.
You can find more of his stuff at https://cavemanblues.wordpress.com/
Image reference: http://cardweb.info/20170616010436_tabletop-world-medieval/
After a certain amount of time involved in our wondrous hobby, many players and GMs will consider the prospect of creating their own game. It’s an enticing notion, to have a game with your name on it and born of your creativity. The best place to start is with a small game of limited scope, dubbed Micro RPGs by the community at large. What follows are four essential aspects of a Micro RPG to help you create your very own.
1) A Unique Take
While it’s not necessary that you reinvent the wheel with your small project, you must present your game in an original way. The game might be traditional fantasy, but perhaps all player characters are pixies. Maybe you’ve got a revised or simplified set of mechanics for an existing idea. Perhaps even you’re attempting to parody a well-known game series. Whatever your variant, fill it with your personality. Since you don’t have to create a perfectly balanced system that will appeal to everyone, feel free to make it wholly yours.
2) A Simple Mechanic
No Micro RPG should be too complex that it couldn’t be learned in a single sitting. Since most players will only turn to a Micro RPG once every so often (like so many board games), your game mechanics should be easy to grasp even by hobby novices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t address holes in your system, only that not every aspect of life has to be given a stat and a dice roll. Keep your system focused on the reasons why you’re playing. Is it a game about space pirates? Give players a “plunder” skill that covers everything from raiding, to stealing, to leading a boarding party. Is combat a non-issue for your game? Eschew hit points entirely. So long as you keep everything simple, your game will be ready to be played at the drop of a hat (such as when your friends are sitting around thinking of something to do).
3) A Smattering Of Randomness
To keep things fresh, I recommend allowing the dice to dictate some of the lesser aspects of the game. You can create a table of outcomes people can roll, or a deck of wacky items that everyone contributes to prior to the game’s start. Part of the enjoyment of any roleplaying game is the drama of the dice roll. Will a player’s attempts to flee from a demon succeed or fail? Will that treasure horde hold something awesome or something hilarious? Whatever path you choose, you should certainly include an element of uncertainty in your game.
4) A Spark Of Life
Here follows the most important of the aspects listed. The energy that you bring to the game’s creation will be represented in its display. If you create it using your own creative methods and ideas, it will show at the table and your players will love it all the more. This spark can be anything from a wacky set of props that vary from game to game, the requirement of players to have shifting characteristics as the game progresses, or the spirit of competition (such as in the game Everyone Is John). Let that flicker of ingenuity guide your game and run with it. Sell it with your own enthusiasm, and your players will certainly jump on board.
I wholeheartedly believe that every gamer has a game inside them waiting to spill out onto the table. If you’ve had an idea that you’ve been busting to share, this is the best place for it. Let us know what you’re working on or what you want to create!
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. He’s currently creating a Micro RPG (tentatively) called Fame, wherein players take control of actors and their own characters in an under-budget film. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact
Picture reference: http://www.ebay.com/cln/xiagen/mini-dice/135436579016
This was a weird article to write because not only it is an homage to the website it is posted on, but a call out to those who read it. When I got involved over a year ago (by pumping out some good, some decent, and some articles I will not speak of again), I had no idea how important this site would become to me. I had no idea the friendships that would begin to develop or the diverse people I would “meet.” I underestimated the ferocity of which I would delve into each and every article and consume everything on this site. I’m not an addict (because that would be a negative connotation) but I am a believer… I think I drank the Koolaid.
1) So Many More Games
Honestly, if it wasn’t for the articles from other writers, the comments from those who read them, and the HLG podcasts, I would never have ventured away from Dungeons and Dragons or Rifts. Not only have I been able to try more games, but it has ignited a passion to continue to try out new games with new people. This is amazing to me, because as much as I enjoy people, I fall easily into the trap of: my couch, my kingdom; little risk, little reward.
In the past year, I have ventured and done my first two sessions of Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars 3rd Edition, 13th Age, All Outta Bubblegum, and a homebrew tabula rasa game 16 Tons. These games have not only been amazing to play but they have developed my roleplaying skills further.
I found that in a short, one session tabletop roleplaying game, you can master the “find a solution no matter how unorthodox” skill (not sure where that tick-box is). This was especially true when trying All Outta Bubblegum. When mechanics are used to do mundane things (like hailing a cab or using a telephone) you will start to fail to do those things well and will be left only with “Kick Ass” things you can accomplish. For example, using a security guard as ski poles for your wheelchair chariot or convincing a group of strangers to join your tooth cult.
Call of Cthulhu made me look deeper into those nuggets of information that the GM provides. I also got more adept at investigating and looking for things that aren't easily seen. I have to admit that I was once involved in a 2nd Edition, AD&D campaign and, though we were surviving the Tower of War (in Greyhawk’s Castle), we pretty much left all the treasure behind because we were horrible at searching, in real life and in-character.
2) Flexing Atrophied Writing Muscles
I wrote angsty poetry when I was younger; I wrote things for English class in school, and I wrote things in university when the prof would ask. I always enjoyed the challenge or the thinking behind the writing, but there are only so many outlets that we have in life. I thought (super naively) that my one year maternity leave over a decade ago would not only awaken some mommy blogger type things (ala Dooce) but would also give me a chance to put stories or a book down on paper. Being dead wrong is not great for the ego. I was lucky if I had the thoughtfulness for a grocery list during that time.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not in search of becoming a brilliant author but I do like to put words down. Those words delight me, and maybe even sometimes delight others. Since my favourite place for words cannot seem to be resurrected (I miss you Livejournal), I was left with a void. Wordpress tried to fill it (failed) and there are only so many witty Facebook posts I can write about my daughter. The High Level Games community gave me a chance to blather on and not only type for the sake of typing, but to write about something I love. The best part is that sometimes people even write back!
3) Broader Knowledge of What I Love
Along with the various games I have tried out because of High Level Games, I have also been more intentional about what I say and do within my games. Sometimes, these things help out my character's development when I read about what other people are doing within their games. Great ideas for world building, character development, GMing, and things I had never even thought about. Often I use the broad experience of the other writers here and steal it. Err… I mean adapt it to my games.
Honestly it has given me a place to think wider and deeper about my hobby. Not all players want to delve deeper (and there is nothing wrong with a fun flippant game), but I find the thoughtfulness sometimes makes the hobby more dynamic and interesting. I dig that.
4) Varied People and Things
My roleplaying groups were limited to my partner and those people my partner involved in gaming for a very long time. The geographical location of those I played with were within a day's drive in Western Canada. My games were limited to those that my partner knew or wanted to try.
With the awesomeness of the internet (I’m looking at you Roll20 and Google Hangouts) combined with the people I have met through this site, I have access to so much more. I have gamed with people from all over the world. I have more options than time. I am seriously spoiled now.
5) It Really is About Community
Quinn (Games Lover/HLG Co-founder/Partner in Crime) had a grandiose vision for this site. As a partner, I politely smiled and nodded as he tried to explain it and I let him start up “this little website.” He wanted a place for those who enjoy the hobby to have a place to talk, learn, and grow together. He wanted to create something for all of us. The few people he gamed with started the blog writing, and then quickly went asking people to come alongside and write with us.
As a writer for the site, I know that we read and take to heart when you respond. We love to hear about what you are doing. We cherish the feedback. I cherish the feedback and the people I have talked with and played with and laughed with; you are why I love to write.
Our ragtag group is growing and have now moved onto producing original content and have more podcasts and more fun.
Now, some of you may have found your passion for roleplaying elsewhere. Maybe you have developed communities and met more people and played more games on a consistent basis. I am envious. My time (17+ years) in the small little world of my groups was fun, but limiting. HLG gave me a “second wind” in this hobby. Let me know where you found your geeky footing! Suggest a game, a website, a podcast, a twitch channel, or anything that shows your love for the hobby. I would love to keep going!
This article was written by Vanessa who is a sarcastic, 30-something wife and mother. She likes things and stuff, but not simultaneously. When she isn’t involved in things and stuff, she teaches and coaches debate. She thinks everyone should be roleplaying. She is also trying out this new twitter handle at @sarasma_nessa ...on second/third thought… I am terrible at twitter. Please send help! She also thinks you should support the writers here that are more clever and can figure out twitter.
“I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud.” -Stephen King, On Writing
Horror gaming can be tough to DM. Not all players are created equal. Some can be much harder to put a scare into than others, either through personal experience or through a difficulty in connecting with the game world deeply enough to truly be scared. Fortunately, there are several different types of fear, which increase in their scope and universal effectiveness as they decrease in severity. Once you’re familiar with what the different types are, and know which kind you’re going for with your encounters, you can exert a greater degree of control over your group's emotions.
When you successfully terrify a player, you scare them in a way that has a long-term, lasting effect. This is possibly the hardest form of fear to inflict on a player, and may not be possible to do purposely. Terrifying someone depends on a lesser form of fear touching a nerve and creating an association that’s hard to shake. When you successfully terrify a player or character you’ll see a shift in their behavior that will last for months, if not years. After a particularly gruesome encounter with a Kyuss worm nearly a decade ago, I over-react to zombies in D&D, usually refusing to engage them in melee. Especially if the group is underpowered or the cleric is down. The truth is that this is the grand slam of player reactions. The catch? You can’t force it to happen. All you can do is apply the other types of fear correctly and hope for the magical connection to cause the niggling sense of dread that just won’t leave.
The little brother of terror, horror is the best form of fear most DMs can achieve purposely. Horror is deep, resonant fear that broadly affects behavior for a short time. It’s caused by your players forming a meaningful connection with the fearful encounter. In the first campaign I ran for my wife, I found myself stymied by the fact that she was very blasé about most in-game threats. Once I started threatening her animal companions and made it clear through one tragic encounter that her magic couldn’t fix all the wrongs, she began responding much more honestly to their peril. That encounter successfully horrified her. The best way to arrange a horrifying encounter is to know how your players think and feel. Once you can know their motives and predict their actions, you can create a much greater amount of emotional resonance with your scenes. Crafting situations which are fearful in a way that connects with your players on a personal level becomes easier. Be careful using actual phobias or mental traumas as leverage against a player, however. Such things are usually best left to close relationships where the other party is comfortable being manipulated in such a manner.
Anxiety is a fear of what is to come, rather than a fear of what has already happened. Anxiety is next to impossible to create, but there’s a trick: players create anxiety themselves. All you have to do is feed those sparks, and you can turn their reasonable concerns into a nail-biting, ulcer-burning inferno of anticipation. If your players are smuggling illegal items through a kingdom and one player mentions that they don’t want to get caught, you can seize the opportunity to create anxiety. Maybe you can show a few beggars, pleading with their stumps, and then mention that hand removal is the common punishment for smuggling. You could have them pass a merchant being scourged in the town square for avoiding trade duties. Maybe a border guard eyeballs the party suspiciously and starts walking nonchalantly in the same direction that the party is. These add gradual fuel to the fire, increasing the initial fear. It spreads to other players as well, who begin to wonder if the first person was onto something after all…
Fright is the jump scare. It’s not a fear of something that has happened or will (even potentially) happen, it’s a fear of something that is a clear and present danger. Frightening players is quite easy, it’s just a matter of presenting a threat of uncertain magnitude. Frightened players don’t know if they can defeat this monster and aren’t sure if they should engage in combat or flee. The razor’s edge between fight and flight is where fright lives. Unfortunately, fright is also usually short lived; it lasts only moments on screen, and no more than a round or two in game. Like a drug, fright also loses its potency with repeated exposure. The more you resort to it, the more players will begin to expect it, and the less uncertain they will be.
Paranoia is very close to anxiety. At its root, it is the fear that something is not what it appears to be. The good news for the DM is that paranoia is the easiest form of fear to inflict on players, and can have an impressive duration. Even players who are inured to most kinds of fear through experience or lack of immersion can be made to engage in paranoia. Gamers are by nature a perceptive and suspicious lot, which is the basic recipe for paranoid fits. Simple set them up and wait for the avalanche to start. For instance, check your text messages, then ask everyone to give you a written copy of their inventory. After an innocuous conversation with an NPC, ask everyone what their Will saves are. Pass a secret note to a player that says, ‘Read this note without speaking, then look at me, shake your head, and say “Not now.”’ Call a player outside for a separate scene. It takes very little to make players think that the world around them can’t be trusted. It takes a little more work to make them suspect that one of their own can’t be trusted, but this kind of paranoia is the most biting, since it undermines the bedrock of stability their entire little world is formed upon: the sanctity of the party.
We don’t usually think of being grossed out as a form of fear, but it is. Even if you find yourself with the most jaded of players whose personal experiences have left them numb to the ravages of most forms of spine-tingling scares, you can still hit them with a situation gross enough to make them wrinkle their nose in disgust. NPC allies who are particularly revolting are a good start. Persistent slobbering speech patterns, deep hacking coughs, or harsh growling voices can all cause a player to recoil. Your objects of fear can be more visceral, too; when using these tangible sorts of scares, really hammer the descriptive points to drive the sensations home. The stench of rotten meat from a carcass that the PC just can’t get off of their hand no matter what they do, the slippery entrails that stretch and flop every which way as the character tries to move them, or the tingling itch as scores of insects climb through their hair and clothing can all be enough to make even the most hardened adventurer push away from the table to pull themselves together.
The types of fear are like tools in a safecracker’s kit; sometimes you can’t use the picks and you’ll need to go to the drill. When the delicate tools don’t work, the broader types of fear are still available as a fallback. Of course, in the same way that veteran safecrackers know that sometimes you just have to resort to the dynamite. Savvy DMs always have a stinking, oozing monster in the wings, just waiting to wrap its clammy fingers around a PC’s throat.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Over the last six months or so I’ve been running a 5th Edition D&D game. For me, it was an excuse to run Curse of Strahd. I’d run lots of Ravenloft adventures, but I’d never had a chance to run any form of the original story. Then, I was given the chance to write our 1 page Adventure, A Cat’s Meow, now available for 5th Ed, Pathfinder, and soon to be released for Savage Worlds. That being said, it’s really reawoken a love of the classic fantasy RPG for me. I’ve run a few one-shots, and I’m writing more D&D related content. The bug has bitten me and I wanted to create a few story hooks for people to consider using. Let us know what you think!
1) The Aliens Need Our Help
A small countryside village is probably the worst place for something like this to occur. Creatures have dug their way to the surface. At first, the shepherd child was ignored by everyone. He was always a little off anyway. Then someone noticed the lump on his shoulder. It was pulsating. When cornered, he admitted what it was. A refugee from deep below the earth. The creature on his shoulder was an aberration, but it wasn’t out to hurt the boy, or the people of this village. His people need help. They have been trying to escape from the clutches of an Illithid cult that’s conquered their once harmonious collective. Now, the villagers and the aberration are working together to find adventurers willing to help. Will you help?
While spending a few nights at a local tavern, something strange occurs. The characters wake to find that one of them has been elected Mayor. Huh, well, that’s weird. Their fellow tavern goers congratulate them wholeheartedly. On the way to the Town Hall to try and figure out what is going on, all of the people they pass cheer for them. How in the heck do they know who the party is? As they enter the Square, they see a well oiled guillotine being set-up. A man is dragged down the steps of the Town Hall, he screams, “Don’t take the job, it’ll be the death of you!” What is going on in this town, do you want to know?
3) Romero and Julian
The Orc King, Romero, is marrying his 3rd spouse, Julian, an Elven Prince. Julian’s family are not particularly pleased with the wedding, but they’ve agreed because it offers the chance to reduce hostilities between the two nations. Besides, Julian and Romero are clearly in love, and Romero’s current partners are quite happy to include him in their family. The problem? They need a specific ingredient for a cake they want to have made. It’s a spice only grown in a cave guarded by a Wyvern, behind the Horde of Undead in the Graveyard of Destecatur. At the back of this gave is a small pot, planted by Romero’s Grandfather with the special spice. Romero and Julian hire the characters to retrieve the spice. Their reward will be gold, and a special place at the wedding ceremony of the century.
So, there you go. Three plot hooks you can use to generate some game play for your D&D campaign. My goal here was to create something (slightly) different than you might have seen anywhere else. Do you like them? Do you have your own ideas you’d like to share?
With 19 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He recently launched,www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a player in Underground Theatre LARPs and is running a Mage game and a D&D 5th Edition campaign. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
Art from Wizards of the Coast
Azalin wasn’t the only one complaining about the focus on extinct noble bloodlines in the third Gazetteer. Many reviewers were dismayed about the amount of ink spilled on in-game stories with few spent on adventure hooks. What’s the point of having rich deep history if it doesn’t affect the present? What follows is a series of suggested adventure hooks around the lost noble family of de Boistribue. The entire extended family of hunters and woodsmen vanished from their massive manor one December night in 493 BC, the only surviving servant unable to give any explanation. Each can be played as an independent adventure, or they can be strung together into a campaign arc where the PC’s piece together the unspeakable fate of the doomed family.
1) The Fell Omen
A PC traveling through the Forest of the Ancients glimpses a huge sprawling manor house in the distance. The sight of the manor house is a terrible omen--all who have seen it disappear within three turnings of the moon. Once word gets out, locals shun the PC as cursed, but a local soothsayer declares the curse may be lifted if the PC goes hunting in the forest overnight wearing the de Boistribue colors. If they dismiss it as overreaction of some superstitious locals, the manor inexplicably shows up again and again on the edge of their vision, even miles away from where they saw it last, bringing bad luck each time until they spend that night in the woods.
2) Winter Chill
Not all the servants died in the manor itself. The winter snows were deep that December, and several of them fled the madness only to freeze to death. Their fear, pain and desperation made them into snow wraiths or possibly frost vampires that return with the snowfall. PC’s may be called on to fight the creatures when local logging companies want to extend their season a little more into the winter, only to find their lumberjacks frozen to the bone. The lairs of these creatures surround the manor’s original location; the phantasmal version that stalks through the woods is actually a kind of ghost in itself, but the original holds much bigger secrets.
3) Braving The Manor
Forced to take refuge from storm or foe, the party enters the infamous manor itself to find the ghosts of dozens of servants haunting the many hunting trophies, clawed woodworks and bloodstained walls. These ghosts don’t remember much, except how the entire family turned into animals before their eyes and tore them apart. A few benign ghosts protect the PC’s from the more ferocious spirits, and ask the PC’s to remove their half-eaten remains and give them a proper burial. This may prevent the manor from dogging their steps, but PC’s seeking more answers should have no trouble finding it later.
4) The Sole Survivor
While visiting Saulbridge Sanitarium, a PC is possessed by the ghost of the only earthly witness to the massacre, who lived out his final days in Saulbridge as a Lost One. He was only a teenage boy locked in an animal pen, who heard the other servants being slaughtered. Finally a monstrous bear came for him, but could not do much damage through the bars. If the party escorts the possessed PC to the manor, the ghost confesses that his incarceration may have prompted a few of the servants to do something terrible to the family, for which all these others suffered the consequences. He doesn’t know what his friends did or how they did it, but he’s terribly sorry. With that, he and several of the more vengeful spirits of the house can finally rest.
5) Return Of The Lost
PC’s in the forest on the anniversary of the event discover a spring surrounded by the remaining de Boistribue family, now in the form of talking deer, boars, bears, raccoons and rabbits. Few recall much of what happened that fateful night, but they claim their treacherous servants served a cursed meal that transformed them. They recall their old lives every anniversary by drinking from this spring, but are barely more than ignorant beasts the rest of the year. Strung out over centuries this way, only about a year has passed for them since 493, but their numbers are dwindling, and they demand help. By a solemn promise and a sip from the spring, a PC can establish a bond with one of the animals that will prevent them from fully regressing until they can figure out the solution. This is one interesting way for a PC to gain an animal companion or familiar!
6) The Most Dangerous Game
While hunting a werewolf of the Timothy clan, the PC’s find that the clan dates back to early Mordentshire, but they kept a relatively low profile for centuries...as if none of their victims were the kind that went on two legs and could talk. But what kind of werewolf finds sport in hunting dumb beasts? Records of a more arcane sort indicate that the Timothy werewolves are also known for incredible longevity, and that some of them attribute it to rare game in the Forest of the Ancients. If confronted about it, the Timothys claim the de Boistribues hunted their own servants down like beasts for sport, so some of the servants turned the tables and hunted them right back. Records from 489-491 include accounts of Lord de Boistribue hunting captured bandits under the full moon, but nothing about hunting his own servants. Nor is there any record of the surname Timothy among those servants. But the werewolves believe the PC’s are close to a deadly secret, and will stop at nothing to silence them forever.
Of course, to string these hooks into an arc with a conclusion, there are many questions left to answer: What offense had that teenage boy committed to be penned up in an animal cage? Who were these friends who did a terrible deed, and why are they not among the ghosts? Did Lord de Boistribue continue hunting human sport after wiping out the bandits? Did he really start hunting his own servants? Whence comes the magic of the spring, and by what force did something change the whole family into immortal animals? Was the werewolf clan somehow related to the servants, or the bandits? Or did they just stumble across the accursed animals and cobble their own myth together about the irony of hunting a family of hunters?
There’s room for the lord, a servant or some third party to be a truly monstrous villain, or for a terrible misunderstanding at the heart of it all. And especially you’ll have to decide if breaking the curse means setting the remaining de Boistribue family free into the afterlife, or if they can actually return to the world of mortals and rebuild their legacy. What do you think? Would your PC from this family be a ranger, paladin or barbarian?
Matthew Barrett has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, starting with the Kargatane's Book of S series (as Leyshon Campbell). He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently working on a Ravenloft-based experiment in crowdsourced fiction using his “Inkubator” system at inkubator.miraheze.org.
Full disclosure: I am a fake RPG geek girl who has never done a LARP campaign in her life. Closest I’ve been is Cosplay Chess at anime cons, but I have been doing this cosplay thing here for 10 years so I think I’m qualified to talk about the costume-y side of LARP. If not, please do be sure to tell me where I can turn in my geek card. ;) The following is a guide on how to put together costumes for LARP so that you can have some heckin’ cool costumes to run around and fight in depending on how much time/money/effort you want to put in.
1) Make Friends Who Know What They’re Doing
If you LARP with folks who have costumes that you like, ask them about the costume! If they make their own stuff, ask them if they’d be willing to teach you how to make your own. Most people with lots of experience enjoy teaching others and showing them the ropes. Learning directly from another person is also probably the easiest way to learn new skills because you can ask them questions in real time and actually get responses. If your LARP buddies don’t make their own stuff, but you want to learn how to, see #2. If your buds get their stuff commissioned, ask them where they go and see #4. If none of your regular LARPing buds make their own stuff, you can turn to folks who put their sessions up and youtube and fish around there, or try networking with folks at gaming conventions.
2) Master The Art of Google-Fu And Teach Yourself How To Sew And Foamsmith
So you’ve decided you want to join our ranks and become a crafter like your father before you, eh? Not gonna lie to you, this is not an easy path and you’ll need to master the art of google-fu if you want to have any chance at getting by. There is a WEALTH of information for free online about how to sew and how to make sturdy weapons and armor out of foam. The cosplaytutorial tumblr has a catalog of a ton of these for easy referencing & is a great place to start your search. Learning how to search for this information is one of the most valuable skills you can have and since you’re doing original characters for the most part in LARP, you need to learn how to search for things that are adjacent to what you want to do. So, for example, you want to make a set of sci-fi armor that’s not from Star Wars for one of your campaigns: google “Stormtrooper armor tutorial” because that’s going to give you the skills you need to make your not-Star-Wars stuff. I’d also recommend picking up a book or two about sewing techniques because otherwise you’ll be a costuming grandma like me who only knows how to do two types of hems and didn’t know how to do French seams until a month ago. Even if you don’t intend on making all of your stuff all of the time, learning how to do some basic sewing will come in handy if you decide to go the thrift shop/altering found items route.
3. Thrift Shops, Bargain Bins, and Coupons, Oh My!
I wear yo granddad’s clothes, I look incredible
Thrift shops are a great place to start for costume pieces. Bedsheets in particular are awesome because they’re like a buck, are usually sturdy cotton and take to dye easily. AND you can make anything from hoopskirts to tunics out of them and there’s a ton of fabric in ‘em so even if you mess up, you’re still good! Thrift shops are also a great place to find pieces that just are a pain in the buns to make or if you don’t want to make stuff and are too broke to do commissions. With a little bit of altering to found items (this is why basic sewing skills are good to have) you can make anything into a pretty sweet LARP costume. Costuming on a budget is tough, so check around your area for fabric/craft stores that aren’t part of a chain like Michael’s, Jo-Anne’s, or Hobby Lobby-- they usually sell fabric for much cheaper than what you’ll find at the big box stores. If there are no such stores near you, you can check online or prepare for battle with big retail fiends armed with as many coupons as you can stack.
4. Commission That Biz
Here’s the deal with commissions, kids. If you want something done fast and cheap, it’s not going to be high quality work. If you want something done good and cheap, it’s going to take a long time. If you want something fast and good, it’s gonna be expensive as heck. You want something to be good, cheap, and fast? Keep dreamin’. Keep in mind that you’re paying not only for materials, but also for someone’s time and expertise when you pay for commissions. The person you’re paying needs to eat and pay rent; they deserve a fair wage especially if this is their only source of income. In other words, when the commissioner tells you the cost of their work is $xxxx; you don’t whine at them. If it’s too much for you to afford, say so and try to find someone who’s in your price range or ask if they’d be willing to do a payment plan for you. Treat commissioners with respect -- this should go without saying, but for some reason some folks think that commissioners should only charge for materials + $20.
So there you have it! Four ways to get costumes for your next LARP event relatively easily -- if you have questions or want more details on learning how to sew/craft/bargain, let me know here or go check out my wordpress.
FancyDuckie is a 20-something researcher by daylight, and mahou shoujo cosplayer by moonlight! She’s also known to play murder hobo elven clerics with a penchant for shanking twice a week. Also known as “science girlfriend” of The Heavy Metal GM. When she’s not chained to her sewing machine or doing other nerdy stuff, she enjoys watching ballet, musical theatre, pro hockey, and playing with any critter that will tolerate her presence. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr, ACParadise, Facebook, Instagram, & Wordpress all under the same convenient handle.
We’ve all been there. Someone misses a gaming session, and the GM can’t run her game. All eyes turn to you. You have a week, possibly less, to come up with something. Time is ticking, the grains of sand are falling in the hourglass…. What can be done???
Well, I have a list of generic plots, and if I don’t have time to develop a full bodied plot, I just pick one that seems to fit, dump some NPC’s in, even more monsters, an artifact or two, and allow everything to unfurl.
1) The Exploration
The perfect starting adventure, infinitely adaptable. Take a rag tag group of peoples and send them somewhere. Make it boring, just a series of campfires at the end of the day, night after night. Make it a gauntlet, where the players have no way back and have to fight their way through. Give them something good at the end. Maybe one of the party is a traitor? Or a huge boss at the end. Or don't. Defy expectations, always!
See Also: Anything from Jules Verne, The Mummy (1999)
2) The Wetworks
Ah, killing. Is there anything easier to grasp? Go there, kill the thing. Usually this goes hand in hand with the exploration. Go there, explore your way in, then kill the thing. Now, in games like Shadowrun, you get missions that are just about the killing, and most of the prep would be about actually getting there. So, maybe the hard bit is to get through the security and/or the traps to get to your target (sorry, your Tango). Maybe your target had other ideas, and it is a billion times more powerful than expected. Oh yes, maybe you've been had, my sweet summer child.
See Also: Shadowrun, Assassin’s Creed
3) The Recovery
Not unlike the previous two, but you'll need to grab something. An artifact? Some sensitive data? There are many choices. Again, the main issues in this plot might simply be that it's horrendously difficult to get to the thing, and the thing itself is just a gimmick. Or maybe the thing is cursed and will actively act against the players. Or the thing will broadcast its location and anyone that can will chase after you mercilessly.
You know, a Thursday.
See Also: Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones
4) The Heist
The Recovery on steroids. You need to go the place and do the thing, but getting in and out is the key aspect. Maybe it needs to be done in total stealth, with zero impact. No killings, just quietly in and out. Maybe the thing is behind enough traps to give pause to Indiana Jones' and Lara Croft's' secret baby. It's stealing from the mafia, stealing from the dragon, stealing from the duke.
See Also: The Italian Job, The Hobbit
5) The Escort
Someone (or something) needs to get from a to b, preferably in one piece and hopefully alive. Now, for anyone that has ever played an escort mission on a computer RPG knows the hell on Earth this represents. Escorted people are usually idiots. As in, they have the survival instincts of depressed lemmings. So maybe make your escorted an arrogant princess, with tissue thin armour, but a conviction that she can kill red dragons with her own hands. The players will need to balance self-preservation, and making sure she doesn't make the enemy orc splatter her all over the landscape. You can also toss this trope on its ear, and make the escortee completely capable of taking care of herself, and she’s staying with the group so she can use them as expendable resources along the way.
See Also: Fallout 4, Any other RPG ever made
6) The Cargo Run
A rehashing of the Exploration troupe, with many items from the Escort. Take package or item from point a to point b. Could be run as a chill mission, or as madly as you like. The fact that the NPC that is accepting the delivery will only be known at the end of the adventure, offers new possibilities. Maybe the receiver doesn’t want the item (it might be damaged?), or wants to change the deal, ambushing the players. Maybe there is an animal in package, causing havoc? Maybe the package is cursed?
See Also: Firefly
7) The Milk Run
This one I borrowed from Shadowrun. It's not a type per se, more of a narrative. Make the mission stupidly easy (a milk run). Convince the players that yes, it'll be THAT easy. Then pull the rug. And watch the fireworks.
See also: Any narrative involving a mission. Seriously.
So here were my usual adventure types? How many others can you come up with?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, two years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a few months, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
When you’ve been playing role playing games for a long time, it becomes easy to forget how daunting a game is when you first play it. Whenever a new player joins your table, odds are they’re feeling a little lost. Their character sheet is an overwhelming collection of terms, boxes and numbers, their dice are all shaped nicely but they can’t tell which from which, and you, as the GM, are asking them to do something that is essentially a foreign language. Here are six tips for helping new players integrate into your next role playing game.
1) Give Players Spell Cards
In games like Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons, new players drawn to spellcasters are usually overwhelmed by their spells. They look at the lists of spells and choose a few that sound good, but then when it comes time to use them they forget what they do and don’t look them up. Taking their spells off of their character sheet and instead putting them on cue cards will be beneficial in reminding the players what the spells do.
On the card, list information that is relevant to the player: the name, the spell level, the range, duration, and effect. Also listing the ‘style’ of the spell can be helpful to the players. For example; fireball would be a ‘combat’ spell and dimensional door would be a ‘utility’ spell. That of course doesn’t mean those spells are only used in those situations, but it helps remind the player what they could use when.
Having a spellcaster feel lost and useless in combat is the fastest way to make them not want to play again. Spell cards grant confidence and comprehension that a character sheet cannot.
2) Give Players Resource Cubes
Resource cubes can be used to denote anything that has a limited number of uses. For example; the number of spells per day, per level, that a sorcerer can cast. In the game I’m running, I have colour coded each level of spell for my sorcerer and witch characters and gave them a corresponding number of coloured cubes equal to the amount of each level they can cast each day. This way when they want to cast a spell they have a tactile feeling of handing a cube over to me, literally depleting their resources.
Using resource cubes allows players to understand their skills and that they have limited uses. When they rest and earn their spells or abilities back you can give them back their spent cubes. This helps a new player get out of their character sheet. For as helpful and informative as that sheet is, it’s also a maze of confusion. Getting beginners away from it at will increase their quality of play.
3) Do the Hard Math on Your End
In Pathfinder there is an immense amount of conditions, traits, and curses that a player can be afflicted by. The list is already big enough that I need to look up the majority of them when they happen. Imagine being a new player being told that you are sickened, and that means you get a -2 penalty to attack rolls, weapon damage rolls, saving throws, yadda, yadda, yadda. At about the time the “yaddas” are coming, the player immediately doesn’t know what the hell is even happening.
Whenever a player is afflicted with a condition, give them the flavour but leave out the numbers. Instead of listing the specifics, tell the player that they are sickened and they don’t feel as strong as they normally do. Then, when a player rolls, keep track of the effect on your end. This gives you, the GM, a bit more work, but it takes the complex conditions out of the mind of the player and lets them get a handle on playing the game.
4) Give Players Flavour, Then Function
When a giant pit opens up beneath a player you’ll tell them to make a Reflex save. Experienced players know what this means, new players will look at their character sheet and then back at you with their mouths slightly askew in confusion. Instead of asking for the save directly, give them the flavour of what is happening.
“You walk into a dungeon, a feeling of dread hangs itself here. You feel something tug on the back of your mind pulling you away from yourself. You try to resist the pull and keep yourself whole. Can you make a Will save?” This allows players to not only understand what is happening, but it gives players the association between what the mind is and how Will save can help.
Now, this probably seems quite obvious, but you’d be surprised the amount of games I’ve played where the GM, myself included, would just say “Will save” in the previous situation. What this also does is allow your new players to begin filling in gaps. Soon they’ll learn what means what. When a pit traps opens up they’ll begin asking you in excitement, “Can I move out of the way with a Reflex save?” And you can smile and know that they’re learning and enjoying the game.
5) Sometimes You Need to Spoil Them
There are going to be times when a new player comes up with an idea in combat that is either really creative or really helpful. Usually this is accompanied by the new player experiencing a real primal excitement at the game for the first time. If the idea doesn’t make true sense to the rules of the game, that doesn’t mean you should immediately shut down their idea. Instead, spoil them, work with them to figure out how the idea could work. If they want to run up a giant’s back and stab them in the back of the neck, make it work for them within believable context of the game.
Likewise, if a new player makes a move in combat that is totally plausible by the rules and could really sway the tide of combat, it’s okay to make that action successful even if their roll wasn’t the best. There’s nothing more demoralizing than having a fantastic idea as a new player and then failing because the dice were against you. As a GM, you can’t do this all the time. When the player is still playing with training wheels, it’s okay to spoil them a bit before they realize the dice hate them.
These are just a few methods I’ve incorporated in my current campaign to help my new players. They’ve seen relative success and, at this point, they’ve been comfortable in taking part in both the combat and noncombat encounters. None of these ideas are directly related to teaching the player the game, but rather allow the player to understand the purpose of their character and offer them an easier time getting into that character. Roleplaying games work best when everyone at the table is contributing. No players should be left behind because they don’t feel confident enough to know what they are doing.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
I know, I know; D&D 4e is arguably one of the least popular tabletop RPGs ever spawned. For me, it’ll always have a special place in my heart as it was my first table-top RPG. As I branched out, I learned to laugh at some of the silliness within those tomes with everyone else. Yet, I still find myself wanting to pick it up every now and again. Whether you hated the insane amounts of conditional modifiers or the lack of diversity within any given character class, there are definitely some fine things we have learned from 4e.
Somebody is bound to complain that this point is a cop-out, but let’s take a second to analyze how important it is to this game’s identity. Especially when put it next to the art from 3.5 or even 5e, the art style of 4e is pretty much a cartoon. The ultra-realism of 3.5 had taken a backseat for some reason, and though I love the 3.5 art, there was something immensely appealing about 4th editions style. One every page are vibrant colors, smooth lines, and dramatic scenes. Everyone and everything is doing something, not just standing around like we see Tordek doing. However, I’m not saying that the 4e art doesn’t have detail. It’s just different, in its own special way. What is truly amazing, though, is how it mirrors the gameplay experience. The art reminds me of something you’d see for a video game and, let’s be honest, that’s basically what 4e is: a video game translated to a tabletop. Weapons are proportioned to an unreasonable degree in some instances, the stunts being depicted are high-flying and somewhat silly. I still love thumbing through those books, simply to gaze upon the glory of the creative minds behind the art.
2) Solo Monsters
Many game systems struggle when you have one big, bad guy fighting an adventuring party. The action economy doesn’t line up, sometimes dice luck botches it, or maybe your players just have abilities that debilitate the creature. This edition had rock solid rules to make your baddies last and put up a fight that’s remembered. Sure, it might take you four nights of play to kill the paragon tier boss, but at least you know the math all lines up. Solo monsters were only bolstered by the rigid combat ruleset of the game, even though it was ultimately its biggest failure.
3) Skill Challenges
The first delve into making traveling interesting! Skill challenges were a mechanic used to overcome abstract or complicated obstacles that your adventurers could come across. It was tremendously effective at training your group to think outside the box and maybe even use those skills that are based off a stat with a negative modifier. It wasn’t perfect, but it did serve as a springboard for many similar mechanics that exist in RPGs today. Hell, sometimes I even use the skill challenge as it originally existed! Sometimes players just can’t solve a puzzle, and using skills to abstractly narrate how the characters figure it out is damn useful.
4) Bridging The Gap
To tell it true and fair, 4e was a little ahead of its time. Nowadays, we have this big shift from video gaming to tabletop gaming. What game bridges that gap better? 4e is rigid enough to give a video gamer a level of comfort while still teaching them how to role play. Counting squares, managing skills, strategic positioning, attack cards/powers, you name it, they’re all things that video gamers can grab a hold of and process. It’s the purpose the game has served for me, and it should continue to do so.
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.