I started playing D&D back in the days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. I was 10 at the time, and in the 20 years that have elapsed between then and now, I’ve witnessed four different editions of D&D and three different editions wars. Each “war” was spurned by the coming of a new edition that “ruined” what D&D was “all about.”
The above sentiments are hyperbole. Sentiments I’ve found myself spouting from time to time. Though there is an element of truth to it: every edition of D&D I was present for was wildly different from the last. These differences changed how D&D was played.
Somewhere along the line with all the changes across so many editions, I think we wound up losing focus on a few things. Things that really made D&D special. Things that, incidentally, are perfect additions to the “sandbox” style of play with an open world.
So for your reading pleasure, here’s some old school D&D ideas you should definitely consider if you’re looking to run a more open world kind of game.
1) Questing For Magic Items
5th edition was meant to be the unifying edition; whether that succeeded or not is a topic for another article. However, the effort to do so is present in this one line from the Player’s Handbook:
"...aside from a few common magic items, you won't normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such."
The above is a sentiment echoed from 2nd edition, since this and 5th edition don’t have much in the way of codified rules on the creation of magic items. By contrast, 3rd edition has extensive rules on the subject. However, I do recall in 2nd edition, there was some suggestions for how to make magic items, and it involved gathering several exotic items related to the effect of the item.
This is the perfect objective for a quest!
Let’s have an example: say a player wanted to make a magical sword with a flaming blade so they may better thwart evil. In addition to the materials needed for a sword, it could also include such things as pure brimstone collected from a sacred volcano, a brilliant ruby, and the ashes of a tree limb that a wicked person was executed under. You could even include more intangible things that require some interpretation on behalf of the players, such as the burning conviction of one dedicated to justice.
The key is to make the required components meaningful to the effect and purpose of the item. Such a ruby may be found in a grand bazaar in a trade city, but not everybody has a sacred volcano in their backyard.
2) Travel Rules
Travelling can be dangerous. Bandits, wild animals, and vicious goblins could strike anywhere. However if you’re a tough sort that’s used to beating down unsavory elements on the road, there’s nothing to fear. Unless you’re starving, dehydrated, and haven’t slept in a day. Then the errant kobold might prove to be a problem.
The metaphysical march up the stairs that is character level does some weird things to the universe. At the beginning levels, a small band of goblins can be a challenge. At higher levels, in order to keep this same sort of encounter challenging, something else is needed to make these goblins a challenge. Something like making them stronger via special gear, adding more of them, or introducing powerful new allies for them.
I get why this happens, though. In order to keep the game interesting, challenges have to escalate. Tougher enemies is one way to do this. However, the enemies are just one variable in this scenario. An often overlooked mechanic in D&D 5e is Exhaustion. Not having the right things for a journey, including food and water, can have drastic consequences. Enforcing travel rules, such as having the supplies, food, and water necessary for a long journey, adds a whole host of new challenges without needing to rely on making combat more difficult.
The core books for D&D 5e even state that a person needs about one pound of food and one gallon of water a day, which for a short journey can easily be kept on hand. However, on a longer journey, it becomes important to either know where nearby settlements are, or to have the ability to find these things in the wild. This also has the effect of making the Ranger class and certain backgrounds (such as Outlander) much more useful, since they’re more effective at foraging.
And if nothing else, players can always use all that gold they’ve been hoarding to hire NPCs to help carry all their supplies for a long haul journey!
3) Building Strongholds
With a vast wilderness with all manner of threats, or a universe filled with secrets to study and uncover, a hero is eventually going to want to find a place of their own to make this all happen. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a quick blurb on how much all of this costs, and the time it takes to complete, but not much else.
If you haven’t noticed the recurring theme in this article, regarding strongholds, there’s plenty of room for extrapolating from incomplete details!
An adventure can be made out of finding the skilled workers needed to build a stronghold. Additionally, player characters may also need to gain permission from the local rulers to build their stronghold, leading to further quests they’ll need to complete before they can begin construction.
This aspect was baked into 2nd Edition, with most characters gaining followers at level 9 if they possessed a stronghold. Later, supplements were released that included all the nitty gritty details of what it took in terms of followers and gold acquire a stronghold.
While no such official supplement exists for 5th Edition, it hasn’t stopped fans from creating their own.
4) Changing Parties
After so many adventures, and so many marks have been made on the map by one group, you eventually reach a plateau. This could be in terms of story arc, character level, or even interest in playing a given character.
So when there’s been a major accomplishment, such as beginning work on that stronghold or completing that magic weapon the players have quested so long for, it may be worth making a new cast of characters and starting a new adventure. (At least for a little while.)
As with everything else, there was a precedent for this shift in 2nd edition as well, in the Creative Campaigns sourcebook. The example they cited was that when the party reaches a city with a temple preparing to go on a crusade, the players would make new characters who are the knight readying to go on said crusade.
To bring this around to our example, though: a party that completed The Burning Sword of Justice could offer it as a gift to a local lord in exchange for a deed to land to build their stronghold. At that point, the players could take on a new set of characters who are vassals of this lord doing some initial surveying of this land. (And to ensure that the players still get to have fun with their weapon they worked for, the lord could have gifted it to one of the new player characters.)
The key to making a “sandbox” game work is that the players need goals to work towards, and these goals can’t be treated as a means of instant gratification. For all games, though, resources earned or found should be useable: if you’re going to give out mundane rewards like currency, it may be worthwhile to enforce mundane needs. (Like needing to resupply rations, or pay wages to hirelings.)
Aaron der Schaedel initially wanted to include an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” joke at the start of this article, and end it with the phrase “And stay off my lawn!” He cut those jokes when he realized this piece would be more effective if he just tied it to sandbox games instead of griping about how gaming has changed over the last 20 years. You can tell him to go back to bed via Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Campaigning
Anybody who knows me knows that I love playing RPGs for the game aspect. Before you go rolling your eyes and muttering under your breath about how I must be a terrible roleplayer and that I spell it with two Ls, allow me to state two things: 1) It’s not a dichotomy, 2) The evidence can speak for itself.
I earnestly believe one of the hallmarks of a good roleplayer is that they can make even a ridiculous concept make sense in setting, or adequately justify otherwise nonsensical character choices. With all that said, let’s take a look at some ridiculous such characters one can create using just the core rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition!
1) Explosive Backstabber
I’m suggesting this one because one thing I like about Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is that they (mostly) eliminated alignment and other restrictions when picking classes; which allows for some ridiculous concepts and combinations, such as what we’ll be discussing now: what happens when you mix a Rogue’s backstab with a Paladin’s smite.
The things you need: Backstab from Rogue, Divine Smite from Paladin.
How it fits together: The requirements for both Backstab and Divine Smite are easily met by wielding a rapier, the strongest, finesse, melee weapon available to both Rogues and Paladins. The end result is that by level 3, a character can roll 3d8+1d6+Damage Modifier in one attack.
If somebody wanted to maximize this effect, they’d want to keep favor leveling up Rogue and take the Arcane Trickster subclass, since Smite becomes more powerful with higher spell slot usage, while Backstab becomes stronger with Rogue levels.
Conceptually? This setup will have naysayers, since traditionally Paladins and Rogues are anathema to each other. Though with the defanging of original thief-class by renaming it Rogue, and the addition of different kinds of Paladins such as those with the Oath of Vengeance, it’s entirely possible to justify that this is what Batman would be.
2) Literal Spell Sniper
Spell Sniper is a useful early game feat; it literally doubles the range of attack spells, and even lets you ignore cover. Great if you’re using a battle mat and plan to hide away from the action. Not so great if you have a GM that eschews the battle mat and uses the “eh, everybody is within range of each other at all times” method.
Even in that latter situation, there’s sure to be some utility from pumping range up to ridiculous levels, right? Like the previous setup, this one require multiclassing. You need two levels of Warlock and two levels of Sorcerer. Your sub classes for these don’t matter. You’ll also need to have the Spell Sniper feat.
The things you need: the Eldritch Blast cantrip from Warlock, the Eldritch Spear invocation from Warlock, and the Extended Spell metamagic from Sorcerer, along with the Spell Sniper Feat.
How it fits together: Eldritch Blast, when used with Eldritch Spear, extends the range of Eldritch Blast to 300ft. Spell Sniper doubles the range of a spell, making it 600ft. Extended Spell, doubles the range again for a total of 1,200ft. That’s enough to cover 240 squares on a standard 5ft square grid map.
I’m not sure when somebody would ever need to hit something from that far away, nor if the human eye can actually see at that range. Though if you’re crazy enough to try this, I’m sure these sorts of questions aren’t a major concern; you’ll either find a reason to make use of this range, or find some way around the sight problem.
3) The Invincible Iron Barbarian
When people discuss classes what class in D&D that’s meant to take hits like a champ (a tank, if you will), often Paladin is the one that floats to the top of the discussion, or sometimes fighter. Occasionally, though, Barbarian gets a mention with their d12 hit dice. Well, in D&D 5th Edition, the idea isn’t so far fetched for Barbarians to be the ones that take damage like it’s nothing.
Because for them? It probably IS nothing.
The things you need: Hill Dwarf Race, Barbarian class, Totem Warrior Subclass, Bear Totem Spirit, Tough Feat.
How it fits together: If we’ve learned anything the previous entry, it’s that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to a stupidly absurd degree. Hill Dwarf gets a bonus 1 HP per level, and dwarves in general have a bonus to Constitution. Barbarian, when unarmored, gains an AC bonus based on their Constitution. This is on top of the normal bonus to HP one gets for Constitution. Tough grants a further 2HP per level, retroactively.
The end result of all the above, assuming an 18 Constitution, is that our Dwarf at level 4 has a MINIMUM of 43 HP. (12 from 1st level, 16 from +4 con bonus for four levels, 4 from Hill Dwarf Toughness, 8 from Tough Feat, 3 minimum from hit dice gained for levels 2-4)
The capstone to all this is Bear Totem Spirit from Totem Warrior, which grants resistance to all damage types but psychic.
Bears are terrifying.
4) The Rogue That Stole The Bard’s Role
Not all the ideas I propose today are going to be about how to break the rules of D&D combat over your knee like a twig. After all, despite the rulebook predominantly consisting of rules for how to kill things and solve problems with violence, Dungeons and Dragons is all about story!
So let’s make something that tells a story about a plucky Rogue that stole the show from the Bard!
What you need: Rogue Class, Skilled Feat. Half-Elf Race, Entertainer Background.
How it fits together: The Bard is described as Music and Magic, as well as a jack-of-all trades. In fact, that’s the name of one of one of their class features that grants them half their proficiency bonus to any roll they wouldn’t have proficiency in.
The idea with this setup is to cover as many skills as possible, and just for the sake of it, be better at music and charisma based skills than the Bard. Half-Elf grants 2 skill proficiencies, and the Skilled feat grants an additional 3 later on. Entertainer covers us for being able to make music, and comes with a reputation for doing so, to boot!
The two kickers, though, are the Rogue Class Features Expertise and Reliable Talent. Expertise, by level 6, gives a Rogue four skills they have proficiency in DOUBLE their proficiency bonus, and Reliable Talent treats any roll they make with a skill or tool they’re proficient in count as a 10. (Which, as a Half-Elf with Skilled, you’ll have many of.)
To take this a step further, you could also pick Arcane Trickster as your archetype. This, combined with numerous feats that grant additional spells, leaves the Rogue in a good position to fashion themselves as “like a Bard, but better.”
5) Your Dice Are Ruining My Story
If Dungeons and Dragons is all about story, though, why do I have to obey the whims of these dice? What if they don’t give me the result I want to tell the story that I want? Surely there’s something I can do! (Besides just write a book, that is.)
Well, hypothetical, whiny voice that exists less to prove a point and more to segue into my next entry, I’ve got you covered!
What you need: Halfling Race, Wizard Class, Diviner Subclass, Lucky Feat
How it fits together: This setup is all about abilities that play around with the dice in ways that are often considered straight up broken. First, starting with the Halfling’s Lucky ability; quite simply? It lets you re-roll any d20 roll that comes up 1.
The Lucky feat grants luck points that can essentially be used for rerolls, either on your rolls, or rolls made against you. And to top it all off, Diviner gives you the Portent Class Feature, which lets you roll two dice that you can use to replace any other die roll later on.
Dice tricks like that, combined with much of the Diviner’s spells about sussing out information, means that you can prepare for any unpleasant surprises, to the possible annoyance of your GM and fellow players!
These are probably nothing, at least compared to some of the unusual things you can find and mix in with other splatbooks such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. After all, there’s a reason class bloat is often a common complaint in RPGs: as a game allows for more options, more absurd things can happen. Plus, only so many more options can be added until everything just seems the same.
Dungeons and Dragons is Aaron der Schaedel’s favorite fantasy RPG published by WIzards of the Coast. He talks about the myriad other games out there on his YouTube Channel, and would greatly appreciate it if you would subscribe.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/364158319865556047/
As you might know, High Level Games is a Savage World Ace, and as a company that is tied into what other creators of Savage Worlds are producing, we sometimes see things early that get us excited. Guardians of Umbra. I saw two things immediately, Tesla and Tesla. Anything Tesla related gets my attention. I have a brick at Wardenclyffe to prove it.
We talked to Michael Barbeau of Bumblebear about the project. Micheal told us his 3 reasons to be excited, and then he answered a few great questions.
3 Reasons to Be Excited for Guardians of Umbra
What genre influences are we getting from this setting? (Tell us more about Teslapunk, WWII Nazi punching, etc)
Our setting introduces Teslapunk technology during World War II. In Guardians of Umbra, a madman steals Tesla technology and uses it to create a wide array of weapons and strange devices. This alters the technological level like many steampunk games, only with more mad scientists and fewer rivets. It also opens the door for crazy enemies like cyborg zombies and Nazis using lightning guns.
The second influence comes from the world of Umbra itself. This is a place occupied by a wide variety of creatures from folklore, myths, and fairy tales. Players get to play as these creatures—once viewed as monsters and driven away--as they return to take on the far more frightening enemies of the Tesla Corpse.
Why Savage Worlds for the ruleset?
I have been playing Savage Worlds games for about a decade now and their system has always impressed me. The mechanics have a way of making everything feel gritty and dangerous, while allowing players to attempt epic feats. Like their tagline says, “Fast, Furious, Fun” and that is exactly what we wanted for our game.
Additionally, because players will be playing epic mythical creatures, we needed to make sure everything was well balanced. We were able to use the Savage Worlds system to give each race unique abilities and add new Arcane Backgrounds while making sure that no one race could dominate the game.
I noticed the Kickstarter includes information for paper miniatures. Can you tell us more about them and why we should be excited about them?
Many role players enjoy using theater of the mind, and I have done it plenty of times myself. However, we wanted to help players who love getting visually immersed see their characters and enemies on the board. Many roleplaying games use miniatures, however that can be a hefty investment, especially for a very specific setting. So, by using printable paper miniatures, players can get the same experience but for little cost.
What sort of adventures do you anticipate people running using Guardians of Umbra?
Many of the adventures we anticipate are smash and grab rescue operations. There are many allies that have been taken hostage or used as experiments that are in dire need of help. There is also a massive war going on that players can get involved in. Many adventures will be flexible based on whether the player characters decide to co-exist with humanity and come to their aid or seek to dominate and destroy.
We also have a Plot Point Campaign that will be included in the Game Masters Book. This campaign will provide a series of adventures that will pit players against the Tesla Corps, drag them through combat zones, and reveal a hidden darkness that threatens the world.
What's in the future for Bumblebear Games?
Being miniature lovers, once we deliver on Guardians of Umbra, we are launching another Kickstarter for a series of miniatures in-setting. We already have seven minis sculpted and ready to go, including a rogue demon, Rosie the Riveter, an avatar of nature, and one of the Tesla Corps failed experiments. After that, we have setting expansions and several board game projects lined up, such as the Guardians of Umbra board game, which is already in development.
Check it out now on Kickstarter!
How do you plan encounters? What follows is the system I use to plan my encounters, sprinkled with stories about other ideas and suggestions on how to plan and make your game the best it can be.
1) All Encounters Are Planned
Every encounter is a planned event. Even the random encounters that represent roving monsters or a guard patrol. Encounters happen for a reason. Maybe you’re throwing in some combat for the session, or maybe you’re trying to create tension, or trying to help the party gain experience points, or maybe all of this is to further the story. Hopefully all your encounters will serve to move the story forward, even if they seem random at the time.
If all encounters are planned, hat might seem inconsistent with the idea of a ‘random’ encounter though. However, as the DM you have to do work with those random encounters, and even that moment after rolling requires at least a tiny bit of planning. Will the monsters ambush the party? Will they just wander up on them? Or are they roving, looking for dinner, or do they represent guards or guardian beasts? When you create an encounter you either plan it out during your planning session or you do a quick setup in your mind. I find it best to prepare a few hours prior to a game and when I run, I like to have a series of encounters already rolled up to be used in that game session. If they aren’t used, then they can be saved for later sessions, either in another campaign or tweaked and improved for another encounter in the current game at a later level.
So, how do you plan the encounter? Most people spend two to three hours planning an adventure for every hour they plan to spend playing. If you are using a pre-written module then this planning time is often used to read the module and adapt it for your players. Few modules just drop into a running campaign, that’s where Adventure Paths are great, since they run for a long time. But, trust me, after you run an AP that ends at 15th level, most groups will want to keep playing. So, you had better have something for them.
Now I have heard of a DM who liked to roll a die for the Bestiary he was going to use, and then rolled percentile dice for the page number he was going to use, thus opening up all the possible monsters to be used for in a random encounter. This meant their players could encounter a contract devil, a six-armed demon, a pseudo dragon, a mountain lion, or even a horse. So, what is a mountain lion doing in the desert or in the plains? Why would a six-armed demon or a contract devil be wandering around for a random encounter? My view is that this makes the game seem unreal and often silly. Would you place an ancient red dragon in the arctic guarding a single chest with 20 gp in it? That is just poor planning.
2) Preparing A Curated List
To give your game more realism, you need a curated list of adversaries that can be encountered in each region, or area. I am not saying that this list has to be run strictly according to level though; but do you think a pack of wolves would be a match for a tenth level party? They would also be too much for a first level party. Now anyone who goes off adventuring deserves to be challenged and sometimes the best answer to a challenge might be to run away from the encounter; like a first level party against an ancient green dragon. But, there is a problem with that theory: the players trust you and they are there to play, not to run away. So, more often than not they will rush headlong into an encounter they are clearly unprepared for.
So, unless you give them a clear sign that they are outmatched, and even if you give them a good hint, they are more likely to run into battle with the expectation that it will be a hard fight, but that they will win. After all, heroes don’t run. So, before you create an encounter list that has a wide range of levels, think about what your players will do. Now you might have a green dragon living in the local woods and the party could be warned. If they go into those woods then let it be upon their heads, but do you really want a TPK (Total Party Kill)? The better idea would be to have the green dragon demand service from the players and get increasing outrageous in her demands until the party finally goes up against her. Plan those encounters so that she doesn’t have a demand each level but she has enough demands to make her bothersome. Also make those encounters with the green dragon meaningful. Green dragons are plotters and planners. Sure, their biggest plan may be for a practical joke, but a dragon lives a long life and like anyone they want to do things with their lives, not just sleep on their treasure horde. Ideally, they want to increase their horde. So, the green dragon is likely to test the players power all while sending them on quests to enrich her horde.
3) Do The Unexpected
Of course, you want to do the unexpected in a game. Doing too much of the same old thing will bore the players, so you need to spice things up and you need to provide at least one surprise for the party in each session. One time I took a first level party and told them that they were hired by a village to get rid of a dragon.
This was a dangerous beast, it had killed Bob the fighter, and he was the toughest fighter in the village. The dragon had a ransom note delivered that said if he wasn’t paid, he would rampage through the crops and the village was getting desperate. The party seemed reluctant, but they trusted me and went on the mission. One night the saw it rampaging through the crops and spouting off fireballs! The party knew the dragon was real, but they never saw it fly. They tried to track it and saw unusual tracks like it had spikes underneath.
A cavalier climbed on top of a house and fired an arrow into the dragon, and it slipped inside the dragon and was lost from sight! Now the party had reasons to suspect that everything wasn’t as it appeared. Frankly, the party didn’t know a dragon from a drake, and neither did the town. Turns out the “dragon” was actually a mechanical dragon that ran on treads. A gnome illusionist was using silent image to make it seem more realistic and he had a fire lizard in a cage in the mouth that would breathe fire whenever he poked it with a stick. The gnome had captured some kobolds and they ran on a treadmill in tandem to make the dragon go forward and the gnome had brakes to turn left or right. It was crude, but it worked. More importantly, it was a fair match for a first level party. For a higher level party you could boost the kobolds into hobgoblins and increase the level of the gnome illusionist and make his illusions better, but it would be harder to pass the encounter off as a real dragon. At that level, the party is likely to have an idea of what a real dragon can do and there are too many things that the fake dragon couldn’t do. Besides, the goal of the encounter was to throw a “dragon” at a first level party and make it a fair fight.
4) How To Avoid Murder Hobos
Remember, the primary pattern of the game is for the party to go out, find big scary monsters, kill them, and steal their wealth. This is where the expression “Murder Hobos” comes from. A party of Murder Hobos has no fixed address, no ties to the area they are adventuring though, and no compunction about killing any creature they come across and robbing them. You can recognize murder hobos by their rush to combat. Now, if the party wants to talk first or if they want to roleplay then you may not have a group of murder hobos. If you have a story that is just a string of encounters with little rhyme or reason, then you will breed murder hobos. If you have a compelling story line and the players are doing more than just traveling around and killing things, then you can get the party away from being murder hobos. Your encounters, how you plan them, if they make sense for the area and the level, they are set at will determine how your game runs and what your players do in response to your encounters. DMs who want to rise above the standard game will do things to encourage their players to go beyond being murder hobos and will try to have depth to their adventures; more than one story line, or more than one event happening at a time.
5) The Nonthreatening Encounter
Have you ever noticed when you announce an encounter the party all draw their weapons, start preparing spells, wake up those who are sleeping, and get ready for a big fight. When you announce the bushes are moving, or they hear a noise then they will all get ready for a fight. To stop this, throw in a few nonthreatening encounters. They hear a wolf howl, or the wind blows through the bushes. After a few times they will wait for the encounter to more fully resolve itself before they become ready for a fight. This adds an element of reality to your game. I suggest you create a list of non threatening encounters and add them to your encounter tables.
Tailor your nonthreatening encounters for various areas and throw them in occasionally. Don’t make them every other encounter or they will grow tiresome. I once had a low-level party exploring a new area. They came across some dragon poo and were curious about the dragon. The ranger analyzed it and made a Survival roll determining it was from a red dragon and from the size, it was a large red dragon. Now the party was a little scared. Still, they went looking for the dragon. Which was not my plan. The dragon scat was supposed to be a non threatening encounter, after all there is very little inside of dragon poo that is going to attack (ignoring the dung beetle).
It was the party’s decision to look for the dragon, so I had him flying around. Dragons have sharp eyes; the party was out in the plains, so the dragon easily found them, and he landed in front of them. He didn’t attack, he felt confident that he could easily eat them if they bothered him. He hadn’t seen humans for a while and was bored, so he was willing to talk. They had a roleplay session with the dragon and let it slip that they were from a town that had escaped a planet wide cataclysm. The town had hidden under a massive dome and shifted forward in time. Now the town had dropped the dome and the people were trying to reclaim lands. When the party let it slip that the town was back and not protected, he asked if they would pay protection fees. The party talked some more, and they convinced the red dragon that the town was defenseless and would pay a ransom. So, the dragon thanked them for the information and flew off. When the party got back to town they heard about the massive battle against a huge red dragon and how the Mage’s College had thrown their most powerful mages at the dragon and defeated him. Needless to say the party was happy to hear the dragon hadn’t laid waste to their hometown. But, imagine their horror when they heard his mate was looking for his killers!
The point is, this was all a random storyline that started from a nonthreatening encounter. The original idea of the encounter was to show that there were dangerous things outside here and that the party had to be careful. In this case I didn’t mean to throw a dragon at a 4th level party. You never know where things are going to go in the middle of an encounter or what an encounter will lead to, allow some nonthreatening encounters and allow some roleplaying with each encounter so it leads to an evolving story.
What do you think about these ideas? What do you think about the idea of curating lists of encounters? What do you think about the idea of nonthreatening encounters? =I would like to hear your observations and opinions in the comments below?
I am Daniel Joseph Mello and I am active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop me a line. I have been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game I was the DM. I have gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. I have written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. I am also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/captainharlock-42/art/Encounter-on-Mythos-Island-694383601
Ah. Recycling old ideas eh Jarod? You hack. I know, I know. But hey, I’ve played a lot more video games over the past few years and in all honesty, a lot of them have been really good. Spider-Man PS4, Dad of Boy, and I finally got my hands on Dishonored 2. However, as I play more and more of these games I keep thinking to myself… “Oh, how cool would that be to implement into next week's session.” So here’s another collection of my little thoughts and ideas. My little adaptations and wishes.
1) The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 was - and still is - a really damn good game. But the issue with most open world RPG type games is that they’re often single player based where TTRPG’s are often an exercise in group cohesion. As such, the mechanics oftentimes have almost no common group. I say almost for a few reasons. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this. And as much as I would like to say, “We should implement that no matter where you are in the world you can whistle and your horse will be only a few paces away,” I will instead say I think CD Projekt Red created a possible tabletop mechanic in their mutagens.
For those who are unaware, Witchers are able to take a part of monsters called Mutagens and implement them into their own biology. It’s a dangerous, albeit interesting process. Not to mention it provides a significant combat advantage. Now, in the case of D&D, Matt Mercer has already created a homebrew class called the Bloodhunter, and one of their subclasses is called the mutant. And while I can in no way deny that Matt’s class is effective and that this idea is implemented very well by him, I will instead make the case for a different style of implementation.
Anyone can implement these mutagens into their bodies. The process is dangerous, and there’s a very good chance you can die if you don’t take the proper precautions, but to obtain mutagens, you must have a very specific and expensive tool that requires a trained operator, additionally mutagens can only be taken from monsters and animals that have died within the last ten minutes. Luckily they have a decent shelf life. A month or two. Mutagens are, at their best, unpredictable. And at their worst catastrophic to a mortal’s body. A mutagen taken from a werewolf can do everything from heightening one's senses to a bestial level, to granting one supernatural strength, to simply cursing the subject with lycanthropy.
I don’t feel I could make a general outline for the general effects of mutagens on a player character, but I might implement them similar to artifacts in D&D, where when undergoing a mutagenic process you can gain both beneficial and detrimental qualities. I would also say that a player character can only have a few mutagens in their system before it kills them. I would say two would be a good limit. Or if you really want to get crazy, use their constitution modifier (or equivalent) to determine the number of mutagens one can have.
2) God of War (With A Beard)
The newest God of War is another gem of a game. I would call it a diamond in the rough, but it’s more of a diamond that’s been put on billboards and shit, because this game was impossible to escape for most of 2018. Everything from the voice acting to the simple yet engaging story, to the rich and glorious worldbuilding was a wonderful ride. In every way. (Fuck the Valkyrie fights my guy. Especially the one in Musphelheim.) But it’s very specifically a video game experience. What on earth can my simple mind take out of this game to apply to a tabletop setting? I hear you asking in order to allow me to transition into the point of this point. The point being Runic Attacks. Yes, this boils down to abilities with cooldowns. Yes, it boils down to everyone having more DPS and status effect capabilities. But what I’m trying to get at is some sort of physical thing that you have to interact with to gain this ability.
Sure it could be as simple as a magic item (McGuffin) but let's take a moment to get out of the Box™ and try thinking outside of it. Maybe it’s spirits that the players did a service for who now want to bless them with a conditional ability in which they call upon the magic of nature. Or unknowable beings that force arcane power upon the player so they will use it at a key moment setting a massive domino effect up. Perhaps even a divine gift from the gods for the parties unconditional wholesomeness. There are so many ways to pull out some sort of cooldown ability. Whether or not the reason behind the cooldown is arcane or just some force being a dick is completely up to the GM.
3) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Piss. Moan. “What did you take from the game where you’re a god by level 37?” Let's cut to the chase. The Elder Scrolls had a cool idea with Shouts. And while I think player characters could have access to that sort of thing, I don’t think it should be as innate as with the Dragonborn in Skyrim. As mentioned by the GreyBeards learning such power should be dangerous, difficult and slow paced to the point where I think the average player character would learn something close to one or two complete shouts by max level.
“Fus Ro Don’t” I hear you yelling out to the heavens. But hear me out. Yes, a lot of the shouts in the game are essential “press to win the fight” buttons. But I feel like there should be a lot more balancing to such things. For example, the call dragon shout shouldn’t exist. Ta Da. Not an issue. Unrelenting Force? More like Unrelenting push your enemies back 50 ft and knock them prone if you have all 3 words understood. Sure this isn’t as adaptable as my previous point with Oblivion. And it tips the power balance in favour of the players. But who’s to say that other creatures and beings can’t learn to shout? After all, if the edgy rogue who was born with no parents can do it, why can’t a vampire who’s lived two thousand years?
I bet you read that title and said; what? Well, as you may have astutely noticed there are no mechanics in Tetris that could possibly fit into any TTRPG that I know of. And furthermore, to make other readers who have come to this page believe that I actually pulled something from a puzzle game where you drop blocks on each other and put it in a TTRPG, I will now type out a recipe for cheesecake brownies. You will need one hundred and seventy grams of cream cheese softened in the microwave. Three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda. One eighth a teaspoon of salt ideally kosher salt. Twenty Nine grams of unsweetened cocoa powder. (Or sweetened. I don’t judge.) Two large eggs. One hundred and seventy grams of raw honey. Two tablespoons of vanilla extract. You’ll need the two tablespoons divided. That will become apparent as to why later. A recommended eighty-four grams of semisweet chocolate chips, but as we all know chocolate chips are of course to taste. Seventy-one grams of almond meal or finely ground flour and lastly a non-stick pan.
First, preheat your oven to three hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Then in a bowl whisk the eggs together (please note you should attempt to separate the yolk from only one of the eggs and save the whites for the cream cheese mixture and add one-fourth of a cup of water, the honey and one tablespoon of vanilla. Whisk together as well. In a separate bowl whisk together the almond meal or finely ground flour with the cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. Mix the two mixtures together and stir well. Add chocolate chips and stir again. Then pour the batter into the pan. Now here’s where things get a little weird, you want to take the softened cream cheese and mix in sugar reserved egg white and the last teaspoon of vanilla. Pour that over the brownie mix and spread it about, bake until an inserted toothpick comes out clean (typically about a half an hour.) Let cool and enjoy.
4) (For Real This Time) Assassins Creed
Now in this particular instance, I’m selecting more story framing mechanic than an actual game mechanic, however, it does play into the games in a lot of ways. This being the dual settings of the modern day and historical setting. Once again, this is more of an idea than a mechanic so feel free to gloss over this to a certain extent, but I really feel as if there are a lot of ways that new mechanics can flourish in this setting. For example, two separate skill sets. The two separate settings will allow for a lot of room character customization as well as difficult stakes depending on the nature of the dual settings.
Of course, the two settings would have to have equal time restrictions. It would have to be very different from the Animus in that the two settings would have to happen simultaneously. However, in large groups, this may quickly become an issue where the party wants to split itself into the group that’s dealing with the one world issue and group that wants to deal with the second world issue. As such, I think that this is best for either very small groups that won’t want to risk splitting, or very large groups that should already be split. There are is a very large well of potential waiting to be tapped into here but I feel like it would be tricky to execute at best and destructive to the experience at worst so keep that in mind should you try to do something like this.
Another very nice game with a unique concept that finally represented what a game about vampires should really be about. Most of the mechanics in it, however, are similar to a puzzle piece in that they all fit together but not a whole lot of other places. With the exception of the key mechanic. Which is gaining more experience the better you know your victims. Now of course, direct experience is a little bit too much to give to someone just for sniffing around your NPC lore, however, it could definitely be used in a slightly more direct way.
This would require a few changes to the base understanding of most games, but should you place your characters in a world in which certain people have power which is inherent and can be stolen, this power could become more accessible to people who know the beings which they’re trying to steal the aforementioned power from. A sort of magical connection that grows as the understanding of the beings grow. Once the being is killed, you could gain a different kind or amount of power based on your knowledge of the being. Murder could be a good idea, but their loved ones would be instilled with the same power as you even if you kill them. In short, you could make a lot of powerful enemies very quickly.
There are a lot of places to find inspiration in art. Video games are no exception. There are a hundred different things to yoink and adapt for everyone and it's really kinda cool. Well, that's really an understatement. So go out there and get inspired.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.giantbomb.com/the-witcher-3-wild-hunt/3030-41484/forums/newbie-question-s-a-rpg-and-witcher-newbie-needs-y-1772177/
The following scenes frequently pop up in most roleplaying games. Identifying them and knowing how best to use them will improve your game. This list does not intend to be exhaustive. Since each game comes with its own setting and rules, there are probably more types of scenes; however, these are the most common ones among all roleplaying games.
Most roleplaying games involve combat and are usually designed around it. It is difficult to find a game that doesn’t have at least an entire chapter dedicated to it. It can involve many things: swords, guns, spaceships, magic, superpowers, etc. Sometimes all you need to do is throw a few monsters at the players and that’s good enough. But if you do that too much, combat can quickly become stale. A common way of improving it is by including monsters with unique abilities that the players haven’t encountered before. Another, is by making each monster in a group different. In a group of three goblins, perhaps one is an archer, another is a swordsman, and the last one, a sorcerer. Finally, using Aspects from the roleplaying game Fate is an easy way to make a location more interactive. You could have flimsy wooden columns holding the roof of the dungeon that the players might destroy to cause a collapse. Or a raging river that drags anyone that falls into it. Make each combat a dynamic engaging experience, and your players will thank you for it.
From social intrigue to searching the woods, clues are the key component in any investigation. Players gather up as many clues as they can and reach a conclusion based on them; with any luck, the right one. It is vital that clues are not locked behind specific dice rolls, as a failure may cause the story to reach an abrupt stop. Likewise, deciding when and where the clues are beforehand may result in players fumbling about in all the wrong places. It is best to leave clues open, so that players can discover them with their own creativity. If one player suggests an idea where a clue might be found, and it seems reasonable, go with it. For example, a player might use one of his specialized skills such as “Weapons Expert” to find out what kind of weapon was used to kill the victim. Your investigations will flow much more smoothly if you don’t set things in stone and are open to new ideas.
3) Social Conflict
When an NPC has something that players want and is not immediately predisposed to handing it over, a social conflict ensues. One might be tempted to reduce social conflict to a single die roll, perhaps by persuasion or intimidation. But that turns NPCs into undecided characters that change their opinions because of a good die roll, and it quickly breaks immersion. Instead, make NPCs have motivations and roleplay accordingly. Be sure to make players aware of these motivations by hinting or outright saying them. As with clues, make sure to not lock things behind rolls. A greedy merchant might want to be paid to give information, with a die roll lowering or removing the price entirely. Meanwhile, a barkeep who only cares about the safety of their family might want some assurance that no harm will come to them. Following these tips, your NPCs will easily come to life and be more than just obstacles or quest givers.
Whether you’re following an outlaw on horseback, driving down streets running from the law, or pursuing a rogue spaceship through an asteroid field, chases are always entertaining. A good chase has multiple obstacles, and just like before, it’s best to let the players overcome them with their own creativity. Defining which rolls the players have to make beforehand will result in players simply rolling dice without no choice at all, leaving it all to random chance. A chase need not even have two parties involved. For example, a party leaving a collapsing dungeon. Debris from the falling roof might be dodged, blocked with a shield, or destroyed with magic. For an improved player experience, avoid making chases a dull series of rolls and make it interactive instead, like any other scene would be.
At some point, the players are going to stop and talk about what they are going to do next. They will discuss strategies and plans to overcome the obstacles to come. The best thing you can do here is listen. Players will often come up with original ideas you did not even fathom. It’s easy to say no and force them upon a predetermined path, but if they have good ideas, it’s best to adapt your plans to your players’ actions. If the players decide to use magic to fly up to the last floor of the antagonist’s tower, don’t make it have no windows or a “magic dampening field”; instead, turn it into a chase with the antagonist running through the different floors in the opposite order. Do give them some advantage for flying in though, perhaps a head start in the chase. Listening to your players is always important, and in planning scenes doubly so.
Knowing what types of scenes there are will not only help you in using them well, but also improvising them and transitioning from one to another. A successful chase scene could lead up to a combat, whereas a failed one could end up in an investigation. Be sure to use plenty of different scenes to spice up your adventures, and as always, have fun!
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
There are many things which can drive a story, usually a character. Characters drive stories forward by pursuing a goal: their motivation. I am going to discuss in this article what the main types of motivation are, some sub genres of such motivations and how they can be implemented in an RPG setting.
Love is just any strong positive emotional tie to any thing or person, even if it is displayed negatively or in the wrong way, and as such can drive stories onward with very few other reasons. Love can be more than romance, however every good novel has some degree of this at one point or another. Love could be lust; many nasty deeds are perpetrated under the guise of what is thought to be love. Love is also respect: the king can ask a faithful band of PCs to dispatch a band of rebels camping outside the city limits. Jealousy is a very strong motivator in stories: A wicked witch, madly in love with an NPC or PC, has stolen away the love interest of and the team must go and rescue her. You could begin a campaign with love as the main driving force: the PCs are on a journey north to find the long lost love of their leader, s/he was reported missing one year ago and the PC has been waiting ever since for word if they are alive or dead, well waiting is over s/he has got together a group of friends and has headed out to find out once and for all.Your party could even liberate an object someone has attached feelings to: The old crone who has grown attached to the haunted urn of her dead husband, the child playing with his father’s magic sword. This motivation can get a little overwhelming if you add too many people or things to the inspiration pool, a love triangle is interesting, a love square can have twists but a love dodecahedron is maybe a little too much.
Money is economy, it is wealth, it is fame, it is everywhere. Money has been the driving force of a few of my starting games, I am adventuring to make money, but then seeded in love motives and power motives. Money could be someone with wealth maintaining it, the lord of these lands has a small workforce and high production needs so works them to death, literally just to make as much profit as he can. It could even be used as a way to show how good someone is, the monk walked the streets handing out what little coin he had to the peasants that littered the town’s dark alleys. It could also buy false loyalty: The Lord pays for the court’s discretion so his son can go about his nefarious doings without hindrance. Money is a good way to get started, have an NPC offer the party fame or wealth in return for an errand, but should evolve into more personal motives unless you are the lord in the example then just get your PCs to burn down his farm and free the workers.
Power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don’t, want to take it. Power struggles can make excellent background stories or plot hooks. The king has requested you infiltrate the enemy's fortress and sabotage their weapon supplies. The president has his finger on the big red button ready to start the next galactic war, unless your team can subdue the opposing threat which is forcing his hand. Power can come in a variety of forms from influence in a political setting, power struggles between council members who each have their own agenda, to WMDs in a modern setting, or even a great source of magic in a fantasy game, the crystal banana is a great relic which bestows the holder with the ultimate power of the cosmos, send your party out to obtain or destroy artifacts of significance and let the story unfold.
Whatever the combination of motives you use to spur your players onward remember that there is always another waiting round the corner for them to get hooked on, like Borimir in LOTR, he wished the ring of power for himself to protect the home he loved. Two motives in plain sight and a great example of how one leads to the other, his love for Gondor led him to the motivation to obtain the power of the ring. Use motivations as long term or short term goals to keep players eager to play and to keep them coming back for more.
Ross Reid is a Scottish roleplayer who is a fan of many a game and system, he has run a game group for the town in which he lives and is currently working on a fantasy novel which has already taken too long.
Picture Reference: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
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Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
Over the history of tabletop RPGs, there have been various game design and creative movements, along with critical theories about how to think about games and game design. While I’ve always found these movements and theories to be useful ways to think about roleplaying as a whole, I’m increasingly less convinced that these things matter. RPGs are sometimes described as having “narrativist” mechanics or “gamist” mechanics, but what does that even mean? How much does that really matter? I argue that while they may be useful framing tools, they don’t necessarily affect RPGs as much as, or in the way that, gamers often think they do. There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred game; I’m not here to criticize what you’re doing. I’m just saying, let’s think outside the box and challenge the common wisdom.
1) Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response
One argument for a “narrativist” vs. “gamist” way of thinking about RPGs, is that the game designers themselves often use these terms to describe their games. Books that use the FATE RPG tend to focus on framing scenes, simulating the feel of a genre, and focusing on character arcs and conflicts. On the other hand, games like D&D, particularly old school D&D (aka old school renaissance, or OSR), focus on dungeon crawling and deadly encounters, playing out more like a puzzle or challenge than dramatic storytelling per se. But what really differentiates these games?
In D&D, you have a set of physical and mental attributes which give you modifiers to a dice roll, usually a d20. Depending on the version of the game, you maybe have some skills, and some special abilities usually oriented around combat. In modern D&D such as 5e, rolls tend to be emphasized more since characters are more granular, whereas OSR generally discourages rolls and keeps the game rules light and loose. I’ll explain more about the effects of quantity vs. quality of mechanics in a later point, but because of their comparable mechanical depth, it makes more sense to compare OSR and FATE to demonstrate my current point. In FATE, you have a skill pyramid that gives you modifiers to dice rolls that are often (but not always) oriented towards combat or action, stunts with additional modifiers and aspects, a sentence or so each, which can be invoked with FATE points for additional modifiers.
Ostensibly aspects are better for “narrativist” play because they encourage the GM and players to think about the characters and the environment, and how they interact, in a way that lends itself to character development and cinematic action. I agree that this overt framing of the mechanics does make dramatic storytelling more salient, but it’s not actually the aspects that matter here. It comes down to dice probabilities, something I’ve discussed before. A d20 has a wide range and uniform distribution, so there’s high variability in whether a roll will succeed or fail. However with FUDGE dice used in FATE, there is a narrow normal distribution (bell curve), centered at 0, meaning the roll will have less variability, or in other words be more predictable, and thus even small modifiers (like the +2 you get from invoking an aspect) have a large impact. The motivation for invoking the aspect is that the modifier may be the difference between a near-certain failure and a near-certain success. In OSR, the motivation to be ingenious and “gamist” is because there is high uncertainty in the dice and few powerful character abilities as in D&D 5e. Both require ingenuity, i.e. “how do I solve this problem” or “how do I invoke this aspect.” The fact that one happens to encourage dungeon crawling ingenuity whereas the other happens to encourage narrative ingenuity is totally incidental with reference to the mechanics of the game itself. One could just as easily use D&D mechanics to do a socio-political “game of thrones,’ or use aspects to represent character combat classes or equipment loadouts. The “just as easily” part is critical here, but I’ll get back to that when I discuss DIY.
All of this is to say, regardless of the designer’s intent, or how the rules are described in the book, you can translate the mechanics into a shared language of probabilities, and once you do that, you see that it really has nothing to do with “narrativist” or “gamist” mechanics, but about probabilities.
2) Culture And Preconceived Notions
Related to the above point, cultures have formed around these games. While you should not make absolute assumptions about anyone, probably if you are reasonably aware of the greater RPG scene, you have some sense of what OSR gamers are like, as compared to FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) gamers, or modern D&D or Pathfinder gamers. This creates a feedback loop, where a game is designed for a specific audience, and the game or the mechanics of the game become associated with that audience, and that game becomes more associated with that culture, regardless of whether it is actually true that that game is better suited for the interests of that culture. This is why OSR games tend to be about dungeon crawling even though you could apply the same framework to a more social or dramatic scenario, and why FATE encourages aspects to be about character or plot when they could just be another way of simulating the physics of the world (a topic for another post), even though the vehicle of differentiation between the two in practice is just the probability distribution of the dice.
The trajectory of D&D 5e in particularly is an excellent case study in how an RPG and the game culture around it interact. On a basic logistical level, 5e tried to streamline some mechanics, but at its core it’s not so different from D&D 3e or Pathfinder. However, the designers chose to use language intended to attract narrative gamers, placed greater emphasis on inspiration points as a “narrativist” mechanic, and then the actual play series Critical Role happened (along with the general explosion of actual plays).
Despite the fact that D&D 5e is not what most people knowledgeable about the state of RPGs would consider a “narrativist” game, to many people whose only frame of reference are the official D&D 5e books and actual plays such as critical role, storytelling is what D&D is about. And while arguably the quantity and granularity of mechanics may sometimes get in the way (a matter I’ll talk about next), they seem to be doing quite all right. If the group lacks experience with collaborative storytelling, a game like FATE might be better at teaching them how to play dramatically, but on the flip-side, if they already know how to play dramatically and tell stories, mechanics like aspects might not be necessary for them from a storytelling perspective anyway, in which case, as previously stated, they’re really just a dice probability “gamist” mechanic.
3) Quantity vs. Quality
I should start by stating my own personal bias here, but I am generally a believer that when it comes to tabletop RPGs, less is more, and I generally dislike modern D&D. That being said, I actually played in a D&D 5e one-shot recently, for the first time in a long time, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. Coincidentally, I’ve been trying to deconstruct my thoughts on D&D 3.+ games (D&D 3e, 3.5e, 5e, Pathfinder, etc.), which I’m somewhat attempting to do here, but I’ll start by explaining my current thoughts on these kinds of games.
Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3e, and the designer of Numenera and Cypher System, which is one of my favorite settings and hands-down my favorite system, has stated that he believes that 3e failed in certain critical ways, and that Cypher was an attempt to address those failings. If you take umbrage with this, see my first point about authorial intent vs. reader response! In any case, his claim is that D&D 3e added more mechanics to the game in order to minimize “rulings” that the GM would have to make (see my next point on DIY for more on that!), making the game easier to run. However, in practice, it was impossible to have a mechanic for every possible edge case, and instead the game became bloated and overly complicated.
Additionally, I am of the opinion that when you have so many granular mechanics, you aren’t defining what characters can do, so much as you’re defining what they can’t. As soon as there is a specific mechanic for some kind of combat maneuver that monks get at level 5, it means that nobody else can do that thing, because otherwise a level 5 monk loses its value. It becomes subtractive, rather than additive.
So what does all of this have to do with the theme of this post? Well, I think that quantity of mechanics ends up being a bigger differentiator between systems than “gamist” or “narrativist”. It’s a cascade, this is (part of) why homebrew and 3rd party content is often maligned amongst D&D 3.+ gamers; it’s really hard to change these games without it inadvertently interacting with some other obscure mechanic and totally breaking your game.
Importantly, I think it can be done, it just comes down to understanding the mechanics and being creative. You can treat race mechanics as a bonus package of stats, and make actual character race flavor. You can re-flavor a druid as an alien science witch, a fighter as a samurai, a paladin or eldritch knight as a power-armored superhero; you can spend inspiration points to do that cool combat maneuver even if you’re not a level 5 monk, or just do a regular attack and describe it as a cool combat maneuver. It’s only less suited to alternative styles of play because of the sheer quantity of mechanics. Swap your d20 for FUDGE dice and give your players lots of inspiration points, play creatively and take the mechanics as abstractions rather than physics simulations, and D&D 5e isn’t so different from FATE after all.
Several of my points have amounted to “Do-it-Yourself”, sometimes called hacking or modding. One could argue that because any game can be hacked, it’s meaningless to say any game can be like any other game if you hack it. The same person might argue that just because a game can be hacked to be more like another game, doesn’t mean it’s well-suited to that kind of game. To this, I have two counterpoints:
First, at least in regards to OSR, FATE, and PbtA, DIY isn’t just an option, it’s a core feature of the game! The defining characteristics of OSR amount to a whole topic in and of themselves, but one of the core tenets that most people agree on about OSR is that it’s about “rulings” over “rules.” Literally baked into the philosophy is that the mechanics should be left flexible and open to interpretation. This is, I think, part of why there have been so many DIY projects in the OSR space. I’m sure there are some people who play Original D&D strictly rules-as-written, but at least in the OSR space, most people are hacking the game anyway. Likewise, FATE encourages players to create their own stunts, practically demands they create their own aspects, and provides plenty of space in the core book explaining how it can be hacked, whether creating a unique skill-set, or bolting on entirely new mechanics. PbtA games are all basically just hacks by definition.
Second, among the examples I’ve given for how to make D&D more “narrativist” or how to make FATE more “gamist,” these hacks (if they can even be called that) are no more difficult to implement than any others, and the game is no more or less functional for it, just different. Dungeon World is basically just a hack of OSR with PbtA mechanics. It would be mostly trivial to swap a d20 for a 3d6, 4d6, or FUDGE dice to make it more deterministic, and giving OSR FUDGE dice is no worse a “narrativist” game than FATE. Likewise, give FATE a d20 or regular 4d6 or 3d6, and make the aspects character classes or equipment kits rather than personality or narrative traits, and you have a game that can be played just as “gamist” as OSR.
Wrapping this all up, I’d like to say that I recognize that I’m being very reductive and glossing over a lot of particulars with this critique. Anecdotally, I have found that because I have a strong personal gaming philosophy and style, my games tend to play out similarly regardless of what system I use. Depending on the GM or group, maybe swapping out a d20 for FUDGE dice in D&D or swapping out FUDGE dice for a d20 in FATE doesn’t have the same effect at your table, and that’s ok! My hope is just that this encourages people to think outside the box of what a game can be, and how to modify games conscientiously. It’s useful to understand authorial intent, to be aware of the broader culture and history, but I don’t think we should limit our interpretations of games, or mechanics, or personal play styles, to the preconceived notions and common wisdom that has developed over time. If you have other controversial or atypical ways of thinking about tabletop RPGs, please share your thoughts!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/199567/High-Fantasy-Magic-A-Simple-Magic-System-for-Fate-Core--Accelerated
Ahoy, ye landlubbers and salty sea dogs!
As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Pugmire. I’ve also done some work for the property, specifically for Adventures for Curious Cats and Roll of Good Dogs and Excellent Cats, both available on DriveThruRPG as we speak. Now, the folks that don’t know me might also be like, “what the heck is Pugmire anyway?” Well, the Realms of Pugmire is a fantasy world setting for a D&D 5e OGL game of uplifted dogs, cats, and more where humanity has only left remnants of their society and technology. In that world, those animal people remember humanity, Man, or The Old Ones very vaguely. It’s a great mash-up of the science fantasy tropes of ages past. The setting is family friendly but deep enough for several layers of play.
Currently, Onyx Path Publishing and Pugsteady, the two companies behind Pugmire have launched a Kickstarter for their newest supplement, Pirates of Pugmire. I’m going to list the things I love about this new book below.
While I have never had a bird as a pet, I do have an affinity for birds, particularly corvids (crows, ravens, bluejays, etc) and penguins. Birds have been hinted at in previous Pugmire books, so to have the chance to finally get playable rules for them is very exciting for me. The birds include Parrots (Pirates, duh), Crows, and Sparrows. And, because not all birds have been uplifted, you can have a parrot pirate with a parrot on his shoulder… I’ll let that visual sink in. Birds appropriately have a different religious vision than dogs or cats, and their focus on the Sky Kingdom is really intriguing.
2) Gunpowder And Gunpowder Fear
Guns are often one of those things that gamers want in their D&D or similar games but they frequently destabilize a game, just like they did warfare. Gunpowder weapons are integral to piratical play though, and in Pirates of Pugmire Eddy Webb and team have created a clever way to introduce these elements. Gunpowder weapons are in their early stages of development, but also cats, dogs and others are very prone to reacting poorly to loud noises. The mechanic used to justify why gunpowder weapons are rare is Gunpowder Fear, which gives disadvantage to those who are frightened by blasts. There are Callings, classes for Realms of Pugmire, that negate this effect for themselves, but means if they fight in mixed company they need to be very careful. I think it’s an elegant design element that fits the setting well.
3) Lizards, Turtles, Snakes
Lizards get an NPC stat block in Monarchies of Mau, and are discussed in the last of the three adventures in Adventures for Curious Cats. However, Pirates of Pugmire is the first full treatment we are getting on these very interesting folks. While I’m not fond of lizards or snakes as pets, the idea that they would be uplifted alongside dogs and cats is intriguing. Like birds, their society is very different than cats and dogs and they take advantage of their cold blooded nature in very interesting ways. Lizards are traders and societally they are a mix of Eastern Slavic culture and Middle Eastern human cultures. That’s a broad brushstroke, but you can see the influences on the way they dress and act and their families are very interesting.
4) Sail the Seas
This is a book about pirates, and while the non-pirate elements are great the core conceit is well-developed and has just a bit of a comical edge. This allows for really interesting story fodder. Islands appear and disappear, treasure can be uncovered and looted, and adventure can be had. Because Pugmire is designed to be more family friendly, some of the more horrible things that pirates have done and do are left in the subtext, or are just not present altogether, but I think this makes the type of pirates presented much more palatable. There is a lot of adventure to be had on the Acid Sea, and Pirates of Pugmire offers a grand voyage for those willing to step upon the deck of the ship.
You can find Pirates of Pugmire here! Pirates of Pugmire is a fantastic extension to the Realms of Pugmire world, and I’m excited to sail the seas. This project takes some of the best elements of the 5e ruleset and makes them easy to access and fun to play. If you don’t, I’ll be makin ye walk the plank!
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. 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. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Picture provided by the author.
You have built your world; you have included continents, mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, forests and other terrain features. What do you have to do next? Simple: civilization. This article continues our world building discussion with how civilization has affected the developing world.
1) What Is The Basic Unit Of Civilization And Where Can It Be Found?
The basic unit of civilization is the city; a hamlet, village, town, city, or megalopolises all are groups where people come to live, work and trade. There are cities; then there are special buildings, monuments, and roads. Most herd animals are migratory so for the first few thousand years so was mankind. It wasn’t until the development of agriculture that mankind literally put down roots and built cities.
Cities were first built in fertile areas near sources of fresh water: lakes, rivers, and streams. With the invention of agriculture there came in the invention of engineering to bring the water to the crops and irrigate them. Some of the earliest recorded civilizations were founded in the Middle East; Egypt is one that survives to this day, albeit greatly changed.
Cities were built all up and down the Nile river and were later unified into the Egyptian Empire led by the Pharaohs, the God Kings. The Egyptians built massive tomb structures and an entire city devoted to the art of embalming: Karnack. The three greatest known structures of the Ancient World are the three Great Pyramids of Egypt. Buildings whose height was not equaled until the invention of the skyscraper. After construction the three massive tombs were covered in white marble so that they became blinding monuments to the Egyptian Pharaohs. Their cities were built all along the Nile River valley and every year, when the rainy season came to the tropics of Africa, the Nile would flood. During this time fertile soil was carried over the crops as well as water. People couldn’t work the fields, so they participated in huge civic projects like the construction of the pyramids, Karnack and the Great Sphinx. The ancient Hebrews may have been Egyptian slaves, but it was not slave labor that built the Pyramids. Slave labor was regulated to the cities that served the builders and the fields that fed them. The first civilizations were founded close to supplies of fresh water, because literally, water is life. Only later with engineering could cities be built in less hospitable regions.
The Seven Hills of Rome is a protective ring of hills with walls built on and in between them to found the city of Rome. Rome was founded on the Tiber River, but the rivers that fed it were not enough to feed the megalopolis that Rome became, instead huge aqueducts fed the fountains and bath houses of Rome. The aqueducts were so well built that they can drop only an inch over thousands of feet. They used sheer gravity to carry water to Rome from miles away. These were unique special structures that were only built on their grand scale by the Romans. That is because in the Dark Ages the knowledge of concrete was lost and it wasn’t rediscovered until the Industrial Age. Nowadays we have aqueducts from Lake Meade feeding the thirsty mouths of Los Angeles and Los Vegas.
When cities were founded on sources of water, that water proved to be a natural highway for trade. Later cities were built along the coastline to allow for transportation up and down the coast, usually at the mouth of a river or in sheltered harbors and bays. Look closely at the coastline of the state of California and you will find few islands offshore. Look closely at the shorelines of Texas and you will see that 90% of the coast is protected by barrier islands. These barrier islands prevent storm damage because the storm surge and the force of the storm spend itself on the barrier islands before going onshore. When Hurricane Ike came though Galveston Island was totally submerged, it is after all a barrier island, but the damage to Houston was minor. It wasn’t until the follow up hurricane that hung around that Houston was drowned by flooding. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore the old French Quarter of New Orleans hardly flooded. It was the lower ninth ward built on low ground between a lake and the sea that flooded. To this date over 75% of the world’s population lives along the coast because that is where their ancestors founded cities.
What size cities do you have in your world? Do they run to the small hamlets or closer to the megalopolis? The biggest thing preventing a city’s growth is access to water. That is why the aqueducts of Rome were so revolutionary. Magic can make water easily available to your huge cities; imagine a fountain with a Decanter of Endless Water buried at its core. That could supply fresh water to thousands of people.
2) So Where Else Were Cities Built?
They were constructed on top of resources; like gold, silver, tin, iron and coal mines. The first mines were narrow and dark as the tunnel followed the vein. Modern mining techniques dig up vast amounts of the ground to sort out the few valuable bits of ore. That is not how mining was done throughout the majority of human history. Mines were shallow because below 30 feet water would start to seep in and no pump system existed that could handle the amounts of water that came in. That is, not until the Industrial Age and the Age of Steam. First an efficient pump was invented that could operate just by the heating and cooling of a piston, not by the labors of men and beasts of burden. Those methods worked, but only on a small scale. It wasn’t until James Watt took the piston pump and improved it by using pressure and steam power that digging below 30 feet became possible. Strip mining was also an option and it was used in rock quarries to provide marble and limestone: two of the favorite stones of architects.
There are cities around the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea because of the salt that could be harvested easily. Also, bathing in saltwater is reputed to have healing properties. Some people with heavy allergies or asthma vacation at the Dead Sea because only there can they breathe freely. The extremely arid air supports few molds or spores so their allergies can calm down. Salt and minerals weren’t the only resources found by ancient man. Wood was a major resource and once again the proximity of the river to the forest is what made logging a viable trade. The trees could be cut down, dragged to the river, and then floated downstream to the sawmill, which would also be water powered to cut the logs up into lumber.
The best engineers, as far as water is concerned, are the Dutch. When I was in grade school there was a large body of water known as the Zider Sea. It lay off the coast of the Netherlands (Holland to the layman) and was protected by a series of barrier islands. The Dutch put in walls between those barrier islands and pumped out all the saltwater. By the time I had graduated college the Zider Sea was no more, and the Netherlands had expanded their country by almost a third. When Venice was being flooded the Dutch Engineers were consulted and they created the world’s first tidal gates that are elevated during times of storm or when the New Moon brings about an unusually high tide. Now the Marco Polo Square is not flooded. London and Rotterdam soon followed their paths with tide barriers of their own. Super Storm Sandy proved that New York may have to go down this road before much longer. Ancient peoples tried to be careful in where they founded their cities to prevent storm or floods from destroying them. Of course, that didn’t always work; look at Pompeii that was overtaken by the volcano Vesuvius. Cities are built on and near volcanoes because volcanic soil is extremely fertile. In your world where are your cities built?
3) What Are The Special Buildings Of Civilization?
I have touched on two of the major special buildings: monuments and protections against water. Almost every great leader has wanted to have a magnificent tomb to make their mark upon history. The biggest one outside of Egypt was the crypt to the unknown Chinese Emperor who united China and had the Terracotta Army built and entombed with him. We are not sure what all the loot was that was buried with the great Egyptian Pharaohs, as the tombs were long looted before we could find out, probably within a few generations of the death of the Pharaohs. All we know is the later Egyptians were burying their Pharaohs in secret, in the Valley of the Kings. We were only able to find one of those tombs unlooted: the tomb of Tutankhamun. His tomb was probably unlooted because he was a very minor Pharaoh who died at the age of twelve, and yet he had millions of dollars in gold and jewels buried with him. What monuments have your past kings, queens, and empires left?
4) What Comes After Tombs?
Dams, monuments, shrines, temples and monasteries are special buildings that were constructed by ancient mankind to serve as special structures. The shrine was a roadside structure devoted to a god and visited by travelers, with rarely more than one family maintaining it. Temples had entire staffs of people devoted to them and later developed into the soaring churches of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame Cathedral. These churches were a revolution in architecture where the glass was put into the walls to flood the cathedral with light. To support all the weight of the building the builders created the flying buttress which built the walls on the outside, at a distance to the cathedral and connected to it with arches.
Dams are methods to control water to prevent flooding downstream. In the age of electricity, the dynamo was invented so that water power could provide electrical power, but dams had been used for thousands of years before electricity were generated from them. The great Nile river was tamed with the Aswan Dam to prevent the annual flood. The Chinese built the greatest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, to tame the Yangtze River and therefore harness its hydroelectric powers and prevent its hazardous annual floods. Humanity didn’t invent the dam, beavers did, but once humans saw what wonders a dam could do, they built a lot of them. Have your civilizations built dams and the resultant lake behind them? Are their lost complexes that can only be accessed by those who have water breathing powers?
Monasteries (Abbeys are special forms of monasteries) were built to devote the inhabitants to a special work. From the famous Shaolin Temples to the great monasteries of Europe. The Shaolin Monks became errant knights traveling the countrysides of China righting wrongs. The monasteries of Europe varied in their purpose, from making fine beers and ales, to creating new bibles. Mendel, the first genetics professor, did all his work at a monastery. The Jesuits were the most studious of monks, and from them came great philosophers and scientists. Does your world have great monasteries? If not, where do monks come from? Are your monks in the tradition of the Shaolin Temple, traveling warriors, are they retired samurai, or are they the scientists and researchers of their day?
Monuments have been made for ages to celebrate victories, to place over graves, or to show devotion for a ruler or for God. The biggest of these monuments might be the huge statues of Buddha created in Hong Kong and India. Washington D.C. is a city devoted to monuments: from the Washington Monument to countless statues to important figures from American history to the Marnie Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. Two of the greatest monuments to the industrial world are the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, both with framework built by Gustave Eiffel, out of wrought iron. These were built before steel became a standard building component. In fact, cold is another term for wrought iron. Iron heated and bent is wrought iron, it remains cold in that it was never melted. Iron that is melted combines with carbon and becomes steel. Today India is at work on a monument to dwarf the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty if they were stacked on top of each other. Monuments are markers that are entered into the historical record and are meant to exist for the ages. The World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists because they saw that as a monument to capitalism. What monuments were created in your world, by past and present civilizations?
5) What’s The Biggest Contribution To Travel Created By Humanity?
The answer to this question is pretty obvious: roads. The Roman Empire was built on roads and it used roads to send its legions around and all across its empire. Early roads were made of dirt and when it rained, they became an impediment to travel. However, the Romans perfected the construction of roads and some of those roads are still used today. These cobblestone roads had a slope and ditches on the sides to drain the rainwater. They became permanent features of the land. The Romans even invented a machine that could be mounted in a cart and traveled behind the engineers counting out the leagues of road so that road marks could be posted at each league. Roads bound society together for thousands of years and still do today. The train track is just a special form of road, as is the monorail, the highway, and the hyperloop. What roads exist on your world and how well are they built?
6) So, What Does This Mean For Our World Building?
You need to put cities on your world and cites don’t spring up in the middle of nowhere for no reason. They are planned and happen at points of commerce, along trade routes, at the intersection of rivers, along the rivers, and at river outlets, in bays and harbors. The early city was a walled structure to protect from raiders. The ultimate in this was reached with the castle which usually presided over a walled city, with a walled courtyard inside the city and a fortified keep inside that walled courtyard. Castles and forts proved to be the pinnacle in defense technology until the invention of the cannon. Siege engines could be used to tear down a castle’s walls, but the most common method to take a castle was to wait for their food to run out by laying siege. Cannon were built to be the ultimate in siege engines and in World War Two we proved that cannon could breach fortresses by mounting them offshore and pounding German positions. Where are the castles and forts in your world positioned, and what do they protect?
Capitals were usually the largest city, but this isn’t always true. Large cities grow because people came there to trade and from the services created to help facilitate that trade. Boats made great methods to cross small seas like the Mediterranean or sail along the coast and later ships grew mighty enough to circle the world. When traders went to the Far East, they did so first on land along the trail blazed by Marco Polo. The Italians had a monopoly on trade with the Far East, so millions of dollars were spent to break that monopoly and shipping technology developed to enable man to sail around the Cape of Africa and reach the Far East. In another attempt to reach the Far East, the New World, the Americas, were discovered. The Spanish exploited this and flooded into the void left by the Incas and solely destroyed the Aztec Empire; that is why Spanish is spoken in every country in South America except for Brazil. The pope tried to stop Spain and Portugal from arguing and taking Europe into war, and since he was Portuguese he divided the world in their favor running the dividing line right through the Americas, which were unknown at that time, saying that Portugal got all non-Christian lands to the east while Spain got all non-Christian lands to the west. The Pope thought Spain got the raw end of the deal, but after the Americas were discovered he was proven wrong. The reason why Brazil speaks Portuguese is because the Pope’s dividing line runs through Brazil. How have nations and religions divided your world? Have those dividing lines changed over time, if so, how?
Rivers and oceans were the superhighways of their time. Horses need to stop to eat and sleep, boats don’t need to stop traveling and can run all night, thus making them a faster mode of travel. The Ancient Greeks had explored all of the Mediterranean Sea’s lands and islands and when they fell from power the Romans slipped into that void and claimed the entire civilized world. Of course, India and China would argue with this statement. China refers to itself as the Middle Kingdom, the oldest source of civilization. India and the rest of Southeast Asia also had major empires, that were later dominated by the European Colonialists. So, the final force that civilization creates to dominate the world is the Art of War. War hasn’t changed the actual lay of the land that much, but it has redrawn the borders of nations time and time again. It has sent people on migrations around the world and across its oceans. With the invention of weapons of mass destruction like the hydrogen bomb we finally have the capability to remake the very landscape itself; like Bikini Atoll. If man does this or not will depend on our ability to get along with each other in an increasingly crowded world. Magic serves as an equivalent power: at its strongest it may summon Outsiders to walk the Prime Material Plane, it can unleash earthquakes, and it can remake entire nations with plagues, diseases, or magical calamities. War is almost a constant state with humanity. The Game of Thrones series is loosely based on Europe’s 100 Years War. So what has war done to your world? Has it raised and dethroned civilizations or has it spread religious practices? And what about the migrations that war creates? How have people moved across your world and why? Humans started in Africa, and they have spread to every corner of the world. Humans are usually the most numerous race in a fantasy world with enclaves of other races mixed among them. Where do people live in your world, where are their racial centers and where are they the strongest?
You need to ask yourself what civilized forces are at work in your world. What great cities have they built or brought down, what rivers were tamed with dams, what major monuments were created, what fortifications exist, and what roads were emblazoned upon your world. How has civilization affected or effected your world? How many civilizations have risen and fallen in your world and what undiscovered wonders lie in their ruins? This can be the root of adventure and the source of stories and legends, just as they have been in our world.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He’s also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/araiel/art/Fantasy-City-115035048
Looking for a dark fantasy D&D module to slot into your early campaign, or just as a fun one-off? The Curse of Sapphire Lake is part of the Critical Hits series, each module of which is designed for a single evening’s play. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy (full disclosure: the author, Neal Litherland, contributes to this blog) and thoroughly enjoyed my night GMing this spooky tale. Here’s why I think it’s worth your time and money, presented with minimal spoilers.
1) As Dark As You Like
While the tale presented here falls within the genre of dark fantasy, I found it profoundly simple to include levity at several points throughout. One can certainly keep the tone foreboding should one wish, but should the party be in the mood for laughs, there’s plenty of opportunity here. The party is investigating disappearances in a northern viking-esque town, and its leaders are desperate to solve the issue swiftly to keep the population growing. This desperation, and the cast of colorful characters, can lend themselves to keeping things light; perhaps the town leader drops the macho act when he’s alone with the PCs and begs them for help. Maybe the self-styled witch who advises the town leader joins the party and regards the situation with a bit of humor. Whatever the case, the module allows for the GM to turn the levity down and bring the spookiness back whenever they so choose. This way, the flavors of the evening never feel too vanilla.
2) Crafty References
Cinephiles and even casual horror fans will pick up on some sly references in this story. My players picked up on them, and instead of tipping them off to the direction of the narrative, they simply added to the fun with unexpected twists and turns. We had a blast exploring the town and meeting NPCs, even if I took a few liberties with some of them. The tale doesn’t feel tropey at all; even though most horror themes have been done to death, this module stayed fresh throughout. It manages to walk the tightrope that any referential material must, and does so deftly. I cannot say more without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say your players will have a good time interacting with both adversaries and locals, and the story beats will keep everyone pushing ahead.
3) Room To Improvise
The most important part of any module for me is the capacity for a GM to get off track and not be too lost. My players are like many others: they love to stop the plot train, hop off, and sightsee. Luckily, the module is written to accommodate such scenarios, and I found it simple to throw in my own details and even new NPCs to add to the story without deviating from the main thrust of the narrative. The adversaries are balanced well, and even with my terribly unlucky rolls, I was able to keep the story on track and provide an interesting challenge for the players, with minimal GM fiat. The players enjoyed their stay in the town, had fun with the combat, and I never felt like I needed to run back to the module text and retcon anything to salvage a situation. As a fun aside, let me mention that certain 1st level spells are far more powerful than they appear, and provide a challenge instead for the GM to overcome them!
4) Fun Factor
If it isn’t already apparent, we all had a blast playing this one-shot. As it is built for a small group of 1st level characters, the threat of danger was real and palpable, which allowed me to easily play up the darker aspects of the story. Then came the nervous jokes, and the party was quickly off to the races. What made this transition even easier was the inclusion of a “Reasons Why You’re Here” section. There are four great examples as to why a PC might be going to town, and I assigned them to players based on their characters (with the players’ input, of course). This gave each PC not only a backstory, but a real presence in the narrative. As an example, one of our players wanted to clear the town of misfortune because they had already purchased a home there. This ended up becoming a major plot point, because the character absolutely ran with this idea, and kept accusing the town leader of scamming him. I made his house the “flipper” house, where new arrivals would move in, then flee or simply disappear. Everyone really enjoyed diving into that aspect of the narrative, and it all sprang from the character’s motivation. Settling into roleplaying a one-off has never been easier, and I commend the creators for this inclusion.
Overall, my group, which included one new player to 5e D&D, had a ton of fun with this one. As a side benefit, I'll mention also that it includes awesome artwork and a map of the area. Really high quality stuff, and the layout is great. I especially recommend it to horror film enthusiasts, or to those who like a little darkness in their fantasy tale. Take a look, you won’t be disappointed!
David Horwitz is the Blog Manager ‘round these parts and a freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. 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: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275191/Critical-Hits-The-Curse-of-Sapphire-Lake-5E?affiliate_id=657321
There are a lot of different ways to play tabletop games, and to be entirely honest, no singular “correct” way, no matter what some people may tell you. But, for those of you who are interested in creating interesting story-based campaigns, oftentimes the largest hurdle is coming up with an actual story and ways to make it meaningful. In truth, it’s a lot more simple than it seems, so don’t let the Matt Mercer effect get to you.
1) Know Your Players
This is a surprisingly simple trick that can net you some pretty rewarding gameplay and roleplay. What keeps a player invested differs from player to player, and as such, it’s key to understand what gets the proverbial motor running behind each one of your players. A nice and easy way to gauge what they want is to ask them to rate the Three Pillars of D&D, which are Roleplaying, Exploration, and Combat. (Please note that these are the official pillars as laid out by WOTC, I would argue there are at least two more, that being Problem Solving and Story Telling, however, you could in theory group storytelling in with roleplaying. But I digress.) If you get your players to rate these things, you’ll have a much easier time leading the group.
One of the parties I DM for meets up very sporadically and only for around two hours when we do. As such, a prolonged storytelling experience isn’t nearly as practical as it is with the other group I’m with, who meets bi-weekly for upwards of four hours. I asked both groups what they were looking for and the one very much so wanted much more combat and exploration, while the other prefers roleplaying. This sort of awareness of your players’ expectations are going to make it much easier to plan for them, and to know what will keep them involved in the game. Don’t forget to also ask them what kind of difficulty they’re looking for. I typically run my games on a homebrew critical system, where any critical can in theory instantly kill a character or monster. For people who are looking for a more relaxed game, this sort of overhanging threat of death at any moment might be a bit too much, same goes for players who are looking for a more character driven experience.
2) Create Meaningful Stakes
People are inherently selfish, to a certain extent anyway. As such, saying “the world is in danger” often isn’t good enough to motivate players to get into the mood. Besides, if it’s that important won’t some other, far more legendary and powerful group be dealing with this? (Don’t get me wrong, writing a campaign of world-shattering importance is totally alright if that’s what your players are looking for. See point 1.) I find that smaller, more personalized stakes usually motivate parties best, and can almost always be a good way to introduce a larger plot. Starting with something as simple as a character’s family heirloom being stolen, or the wizard’s spellbook being mixed with a different wizard’s, or the mysterious death of a childhood friend or mentor can all open the door into building a deeper narrative and leading into what you want to be the main plot, by making the players already attached to some of the characters you implement.
This can feel a bit too general to get a good handle on, but the best way to do this is to know your players. If combat is what they’re looking for, then toppling a tyrannical king via military dominance might be the way to go and the stakes can be their own lives, and the lives of their families. If they’re looking to explore, have them sent out to discover new lands or gather artifacts, with some sort of rival adventurer party trying to steal their prize before them. Alternatively, perhaps one of the players decided to try to learn a new language through an ancient magic game, but if they fail to keep up with the lessons a large green owl will kidnap their family.
3) Enjoy What You Make
This probably sounds cliché, but if you don’t enjoy writing the campaign, your players won’t enjoy playing it. This is honestly true of most writing endeavors, however, I find it rings especially true in a table-top environment. This is, after all, a game. And games are meant to be fun for everyone. Including the GM. If you want to make a pirate based adventure, then make one. You’re better off making it and trying to make it work than making something you don’t have any interest in. The reason behind this is that quality is usually tied rather closely to effort, but one thing that is often overlooked in quality is passion. Because passion is also very closely tied to effort. It’s like a little reduce, reuse, recycle sign, but for writing your tabletop campaign.
As the GM it’s very easy to forget that you are just as much a player as the rest of the people at your table, and if you’re not enjoying the content at the table, the table will undoubtedly suffer because of it. When I first started DMing, I thought of it as a responsibility, and while that is partially true, it’s not all that it is. It’s having fun with traps and putting people in strange situations and seeing how they react. It’s messing around with your friends and describing a goblin named Tinkle for twenty minutes until the barbarian kills him. It’s exploring, it’s roleplaying and its combat -- oh goddamnit.
If there’s one thing to take away from this article it’s that if you feel you’re writing your campaign right, then you probably are. Everyone's table is different from another and in all honesty, the most important part is having fun. As mentioned before, this is a game.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/gms-3-tips-to-help-you-run-one-shots-like-a-pro/
Today we are happy to give you an interview with Robert Buckey about his Savage Worlds setting book, Sagas and Six-Guns! I’ve been tracking this project since Robert suggested it on the SW Facebook group, and I’m really hoping it catches your eye too. Of course, as a historian with an interest on both Norse society and the era of Manifest Destiny, my spurs got ringing when I heard this was coming down the trail.
So, Robert, tell us a little bit about why this setting. What about the Wild West and Norse/Viking society aligns to make this an excellent idea?
Well, it’s funny. The way the idea came to me was a total fluke. I was driving to work one day, and switching between Volbeat’s Western themed album, and Amon Amarth (a Swedish death metal band what themes all their music from Norse legends), and it just hit me that mixing the two would be awesome.
Now that being said, there actually are some overlaps between the two cultures. The Norse were hardy explorers, just like many of the men and women that settled the American frontier. There were similar concepts of honor and masculinity, and similar concepts of law and society that they shared. But ultimately, the idea of mead being imbibed from drinking horns in saloons, old west style signs with runic script, and wanted posters for trolls and Jotun just seemed way too cool to pass up.
I’ve noticed instead of our real world West, you’ve chosen to set this campaign world in an unsettled terrain. Was that to avoid some of the problems of the Western genre, or what else made that make sense?
So making this North America settled by the Vikings would have required an enormous amount of work, especially because it would require in depth writing regarding the Native cultures and what happened with them, as well as what’s going on with the rest of the world!
Obviously, North America, or even only part of North America, being settled by the Vikings five hundred years before Columbus made his voyage would resulted in major changes to the timeline worldwide. Trying to come up with any kind of accurate representation of how the Native Americans would have been affected would have been a monumental task, as it would have required extensive research into what group was where and when.
Ultimately, it just made sense to create this alternate world, and give myself a blank canvas to work with, so I could concentrate on what I really wanted to focus on, telling the old Sagas like Beowulf through an Old West lens.
Tell us a little bit more about the social rules systems you’d laid out here, what’s up with Ring giving and why is that important?
There are two major social rules that this setting introduces, Sagas, and Ring Giving. Your characters will have a personal Saga, which will give you certain benefits as it increases, representing your fate changing as you become a more well-known and celebrated hero, in which we integrate the Conviction rules from Savage Worlds, and also gives you certain effects in social situations, such as Jarls and other important people knowing who you are and calling on you and offering you work. It can even give you a negative modifier if you’re trying to go about unnoticed, as people find it easier to recognize you.
Ring Giving takes its name from Beowulf, when Hrothgar bestows rings and other gifts upon Beowulf and his men. The currency in this setting is rings, and this rule represents you gathering warriors to fight under you, and you throwing them a massive feast in which gifts are given and mead and food is consumed. The better your heroes do with this, the more enthusiastic the men are to follow you.
As you know, HLG is an Ace as well so we love SW, but why did you settle on Savage Worlds Adventure Edition as the backdrop for the rules?
I’ve gotten big into Savage Worlds the past few years. Not only that, residing in the Phoenix Area, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting its creator, Shane Hensley, on more than one occasion at local conventions. I’ve even had the honor of playing in one of his games of Deadlands, and he played in a game of mine of another setting I’ve been working on. He’s a great guy, and the Savage World’s community is just awesome. Not only that, the rules are amazingly versatile. It’s a rules system I just know very well, and it was on the Savage World’s Facebook page that Alan Bahr from Gallant Knight Games and I connected regarding this project, so it’s only natural that this would be what we would go with for this setting.
What’s the one thing you want people to know that you think will drive them to back the project?
Vikings are awesome. Cowboys are awesome. This setting lets you play both at the same time. Want to be that steely eyed gunslinger facing down a line of Draugr? You can do that. Want to be a fire and brimstone Godi exhorting your fellows to seek a valiant death so they can sup with the Gods in Valhalla? You can be that too. Want to be a Valkyrie trapped on Midgard, questing for a means to return home, while dealing with this strange new land and era? That’s right, you can be that too. How many cowboys can say they’ve skinned their smoke wagons against a troll?
I truly believe this game will allow you to tell stories that are faithful to both our favorite Viking and Western tropes.
Check out the campaign on Kickstarter now.
The title of this article is intentionally inflammatory, because there is honestly only one big reason we are going to hit another RPG Industry extinction event. In Designers and Dragons, Shannon Appelcline lays out the major developments in the RPG industry, and the one recurring rockslide is a series of what I’m going to call extinction level events. These are crises that cause the industry to implode and cause us to lose company after company that has built up during boom times in the industry. The last one of these happened at the end of the 90s into the early 2000s, which coincided with the d20 boom and bust, with the bust being caused by two things: a glut of product serving one dominant game system and an increase in the cost of paper. The paper cost increase made printing costs a major factor and since this industry is already built on small margins, small adjustments to production costs have a devastating impact. We’re about to head into another of these moments unless, you, the creators, and you, the consumers, help us do something about it.
How is this about to happen?
While this blog is Canadian, the integration between Canada’s and the United State’s economic systems is strong and this means that actions by one government have major economic effects on the other country. President Donald Trump, and the United States Trade Representative are calling for a 25% tariff on toys, games, and dice, as well as on paper printed products, like books. Hearings begin on June 17th to discuss this issue. I encourage you to tweet to https://twitter.com/USTradeRep to let them know about how this will impact you. I’m going to lay out a few of the reasons this is going to have a major, harmful impact to our industry below. If you live in the US, like I do, I also encourage you to contact your Representatives and Senators expressing your frustration about these tariffs. What am I talking about? Here’s an article on the topic.
Why is this about to happen?
2) Production Costs
You might think I’m engaging in hyperbole. But here’s the thing: RPGs are a very low margin industry. If you go on DriveThruRPG or look through a FLGS you’ll notice that most books cost between $20-50, with small press books usually being on the lower end of that scale. Having been involved with the creation of 70 products over the last three years, I can tell you that making a profit on these books is very hard. With most $20 books you are lucky to have net margin between $6-8, if you’re lucky. That’s not profit, that’s money that you get in hand after publication and marketing efforts. With the costs of writers, art, layout, etc, you’re lucky to make a profit at all, and usually only do so with sales exceeding 100 individual products. If you increase the cost of making physical copies of these books? You’ve wiped out the profit margin for nearly all small to medium publishers.
3) Digital Will Save Us?!
Digital/PDF options will mitigate this issue to some degree. The increase in PDF production happened when the cost of paper increased during the D20 Bust era. That’s something, and it does provide hope. However, it will not totally prevent this from being an issue. Most companies that are mid-sized have just begun pushing back into selling their books to stores, and pushing for regular bookstores to carry their games again. Many have been tentative about this move because it is fiscally risky and it has only just become profitable enough to do this again. Guess what? These tariffs will ruin that margin and will make a lot of companies step back and end distribution to FLGS and bookstores. This limits the industry, it limits the market, and it will hurt gamers.
The way this proposed tariff is currently being floated, it will have the biggest impact on game accessories like dice, miniatures, etc. While 3D printing will help to some degree it will not mitigate this issue completely. Manufacturing in China is so much cheaper, and it is still expensive to make quality board games that require a lot of miniatures. While I’m all for moving industrial production, it will cost more and it will not be a quick process to develop the infrastructure to do this in different places. While we don’t HAVE to have these things, a lot of gamers find them incredibly useful, and this will increase the cost of entry into our hobby, which is already perceived to have a high barrier to entry by new folks that don’t know if they want to invest in all the books and accessories to play these games. Do they need them? No, but it is the perception of cost that will push people away.
These proposed tariffs will reduce the ability of new talented and creative folks to publish products and kill the renaissance of gaming that we are experiencing right now. . While this will not destroy High Level Games right now, it makes it much harder for us to move from very small press to small press as we’ve planned over the next 2-3 years. We won’t be able to produce traditional print runs in the way we hoped. We are hardly the only company that will find this to be a major issue.
Please contact the USTR: https://twitter.com/USTradeRep
There are many issues for us to fight in today’s world, but this one is deeply personal and we need to strike now or watch our industry burn again.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. 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. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Editor's Note: New Gamemaster Month is technically in January, but it's never a bad time to share insight and advice to new GMs. Happy gaming!
There is a natural order to roleplaying games, in which players and gamemasters coexist sharing wonderful tales between each other, and at some point during this magical connection a player will declare themselves worthy enough to run their own game. Most meet with success, while some others fall sadly short of their own expectations. The memory of this defeat either leads the charge into the next attempt, or becomes the final blow into retreating back behind a character sheet. My initial foray into running a game was disastrous, but I didn’t let that stop me from pushing through and trying again. The next few attempts were better, but not by much, so I figured what better way of explaining how bad things got with a few regrets from my first swing at this GM thing.
1) Reading The Rules
My very first attempt was at D&D 5th Edition, using the starter set. I had a copy of the rulebook and read all the character creation rules and set about getting the group together. Eight people made characters, only six played my version of Mines of Phandelver. No one really knew what was going on or how anything worked; play was broken up by the rulebook being pulled out and a 20 minute section took the whole evening. No one enjoyed it. What I really needed was a small group to help playtest the rules first using the provided pre-generated characters.
2) Not Reading The Whole Adventure
Getting so far through the adventure on my second attempt, I realised I had no idea what was coming next: a huge embarrassment. I had read what I thought would take the whole session but the players had whipped through to a point that I was unprepared for, and I had to fudge a few details to keep the flow. This would have been fine if I had any idea where the story was leading afterwards.
3) Over Preparing
I decided, after my blunder with not having read the whole story of Phandelver, to give writing my own adventure a shot. I spent a month meticulously planning an adventure in my own kingdom, created multiple storylines around various decision points, and populated the setting with a variety of NPCs who I built from the ground up, each for specific reasons. The players blasted through it in two sessions. The best advice I have ever been given with regards to preparation is to have a good story in the background running its course and improvise everything else.
4) Accepting Anyone
Looking back, a few of my non-D&D attempts were sunk by one or more players not really ‘feeling’ the setting or style of gameplay. Had I vetted my players better and communicated what I was expecting more effectively, I would have been running a game for a group who wanted to play the game I was offering. This kind of thing should definitely be established before you ask people to join your game to ensure everyone enjoys what you are trying to create, together.
5) Trying To Change Mid Game
The one huge thing that comes to mind is the intent behind the game. I tried running a light-hearted game with a player who wanted to bend the rules to their will and destroy all who stood before them. So I tried to change the mood of the game to suit them, which in turn alienated the rest of the players.
These were just five of my regrets from my starting years. I have since learned from my mistakes and try to create fun and enjoyable games whether or not I'm running a game. I always try to add to the enjoyment of the players. I still make errors when running games, but usually I can iron them out quickly. My one big recommendation for any newcomers to the realm of game mastering is to ensure you and your players are on the same page: know what you and they want from the game to maximize enjoyment.
Ross Reid is a roleplayer of many characters and has enjoyed many a good story, currently only running a game for his children, he plans a grand return in play by post format. His system of choice is FATE but will dabble in anything that looks interesting.
Picture Reference: https://www.montecookgames.com/new-gamemaster-month-is-coming/
Everyone has their own idea of what a gaming experience should be. However, one of the more popular defenses that comes up whenever a player points out that there’s unnecessary racism or sexism in a setting, or how certain themes or tones aren’t what they’re looking for, is simply to say, “Well, that’s just the way things were back then.”
This is a colossally stupid statement. Let’s break down some reasons why, shall we?
1) Back When, Exactly?
The biggest reason this defense falls flat on its face is that most of our games aren’t taking place in a real history (or even a real future, for the sci-fi players out there). They’re drawing on historical elements and weaving them together into a fantasy narrative. Just because there’s knights and lances along with crossbows and feudalism, though, that doesn’t make Westeros a realistic depiction of medieval England anymore than it makes a leopard the same thing as a leopard seal.
Comparing the reality of your game world (a game which often has dragons, magic, and dozens of sentient races in it) to, say, Germany in the 1300s is nonsensical. You need to take the game world as it exists on its own merits, rather than justifying why things exist by comparing them to a completely different planet and saying they’re somehow comparable. Because they aren’t.
2) The Game World Is What You Want It To Be
Unless you play with absolute purists, most groups are willing to alter the rules of a game in order to make it better fit with what they want. They’ll ignore this feat, or toss out that restriction, or change the damage die this particular weapon deals, until everyone agrees this version of the rules better suits them.
Altering the rules of the world so they’re amenable to everyone at the table is no different.
Some time back, I wrote a blog post titled Authors, Every Awful Thing That Happens in Your Book Really is Your Fault. The point of that post, which definitely applies here, is that a thing exists in your game world because you choose for it to exist, and because everyone at the table, in some capacity, agrees that it should be there. If you all mutually agreed that you didn’t want dragons in your game, or the ability to resurrect the dead, you could mark it out with a single stroke of your house rules pen. You could do the same for prejudices, abhorrent behaviors, or things that make your players uncomfortable, too. There is literally nothing stopping you.
3) History is Likely WAY Different Than You Think It Is
Something I’ve noticed is that the more often someone raises a defense of historical accuracy, the less often that person is deeply learned in the history they’re talking about. As an example, the article Vikings Were Never The Pure-Bred Master Race White Supremacists Like to Portray, talks about how there was a surprising amount of diversity among Viking crews. And why wouldn’t there be? They’re pirates after all! One man dies in a raid, you don’t sail all the way back to Scandinavia to find a replacement; you recruit whatever local talent is around who can do Einar’s old job.
Examples of stuff like this are all over when history is used to defend the negative aspects in a setting; from intolerance to a refusal to allow migration (in case you wanted to play someone who was the child of immigrants, as an example) it’s the same tune over and over again. Yet at the same time, we forget just how gay the Spartans were, or how Japanese mercenaries warred with the Dutch when that enemy was half a world away. For every example of prejudice, othering, and violence we find in the history books, there are equal examples of cultures where certain ideas we consider fringe, radical, or just uncommon were a part of the everyday; like how Native Americans respected trans identities in ways that seem like a utopia compared to what we often see in today’s world.
Take Inspiration From History, But Responsibility For Your Game
History is full of cool stuff, unusual personages, lost empires, and strange legends. It makes for great reading, by and large. However, it’s important to remember that the game you see in front of you is your responsibility, and no one else’s. If something is upsetting your players, or people object to a certain kind of content, you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and duck the blame.
It’s your game, so make it the best it can be.
For more gaming insights from Neal Litherland, check out his blog Improved Initiative, as well as his Gamers archive. Alternatively, to take a look at some of his books, head over to his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/song-of-swords-the-historical-fantasy-tabletop-rpg-with-gritty-tactical-combat/
I love building and exploring weird worlds, and there is no medium better suited to this than tabletop RPGs. There is no limitation based on art, or programming, or computational power; the world can be anything and everything your imagination can bring to the table. Given how important worldbuilding is to me, and many others involved in the hobby, I’m surprised by how few tabletop RPGs have settlement building as a major conceit. As someone whose imagination runs at a mile a minute, I get the appeal of going on adventures, of new places and new things always around the corner. But I think there’s something to be said for depth in world building as well. If your city, or spaceport, or hub location of another kind isn’t deep enough and interesting enough to set a whole campaign in, then what does it amount to, other than a wondrous novelty? So let’s talk about how to do interesting things with settlements in tabletop RPGs.
1) An Argument For Settlement Building Mechanics
If you’re like me and prefer games with as few mechanics getting in the way as possible, you may question whether we even need mechanics for settlement building. Of course you don’t need them, but I do think that having at least a few mechanics is a good idea. For starters, it serves as a signal to your players. Having some mechanics for settlement building in your game tells the players “this is a thing you can do, and can be a priority in this game”. The fact that there aren’t codified mechanics for settlement building in D&D (or at least, they’re often supplemental) is I think part of why we don’t consider this to be a major trope of tabletop RPGs along with adventuring and dungeoneering. Mechanics for settlement building also facilitate the process, compared to a free-form approach. Players can often be aimless and indecisive, but having mechanics for how to build a settlement gives players the direction they need to keep the game moving and keep the players engaged. It also gives GMs a framework to integrate settlement building into a campaign.
2) A Framework For Settlement Building
I like to keep games rules-light, so this is a simple framework for settlement building intended to be translatable to various systems. I’ve recently been reading Numenera Destiny, which was a major inspiration for this post, so my ideas are loosely based on their mechanics, but streamlined. Building resources should be separated into two categories. Mundane resources are things that can be found or bought fairly easily, like wood or metal in most fantasy settings. These resources should be abstracted to some combination of regular currency value such as gold and/or time to get the resources (or pay someone to get them). The second currency should be resources that are precious, difficult to acquire, or in such high demand that they cannot easily be bought. This currency should be specific to building (or maybe crafting more generally) and should not normally be able to be purchased with regular currency. As an example of how this would work, we can imagine a fantasy setting where the party wants to build a magic lightning turret to protect a village plagued by undead fiends. The construction will be mostly wood and metal (some gold value), but the magic lightning will require some magically conductive materials (our secondary resource). Assuming they have the resources, they can either spend time to build the construct, hire laborers, engineers, and artificers to build it, or if the settlement has attracted a sufficient number of specialists already, the city budget may already account for labor costs. If they want to add additional features, like multiple magical lightning rods to target multiple enemies, or a longer rod for longer range, or some enhancer to give it an area of effect, this will increase the secondary resource cost, whereas just making it better fortified may be a simple gold cost increase. It may help to give the structures levels, where the level determines some range of gold cost and secondary resource cost (and possibly also the time cost). There are, however, other things we need to consider when it comes to adding settlement building into a campaign.
3) The Practicalities Of Settlement Building
As stated above, construction takes time, and managing downtime is always tricky in tabletop RPGs. One option is to hire builders, as suggested above. Another option is to roleplay out “vignettes” of various activities that the party gets up to periodically during the course of construction (a construction accident where somebody may be in danger, a necessary schematic has gone missing and is believed stolen, etc.). This “vignettes” idea could work as a general mechanic for dealing with downtime, but given that downtime may be more prominent in a settlement building campaign, it’s especially important to think about how to make it fun in this context. The mechanics for settlement building in Numenera Destiny require a series of rolls to determine how successful the building process is, where the failures may add time to the construction, or add a defect into the structure, but I’m not a fan of this approach. First, multiple rolls for a single outcome is cumbersome. Second, adding time to the project just delays the thing the outcome (and by extension game progression) without adding any value to the game. Third, given the time and cost of building, ending up with a defect seems unsatisfying. I think the building process should be treated more like a “take 20”, where it’s a guaranteed success unless it’s at some critical moment where it would create tension (the enemy army will be here in two days and we haven’t finished the wall!), or where a defect would make the game interesting (the teleporter accidentally sent the party to an alternate universe!), and then it can be reduced to a single roll like any other skill check.
4) Progression In A Settlement Building Campaign
The settlement can be thought of as a character. A level 1 settlement will have a small population (relative to the setting), access to few resources, at most one advanced structure (a structure that would require the secondary resource to build or repair), and would have only mundane shops. There would be few settlers (or travelers) of note, and the quest board or NPC quest-givers would be few and simple. The settlement may have some needs, like a wall or other defenses, a road, a grainery or some other resource-related structure. To advance from level 1 to level 2 will require a few mundane structures that cost a decent amount of gold, and one advanced structure that costs a secondary resource. If you also used a level-system for structures, you could have a cap like a level 1 settlement can only have level 1 structures, and a settlement levels up after some number of structures have been produced or upgraded. The resources (mundane or advanced) may be found in a nearby forest, or would be more available if they could cut a deal with the neighboring village, giving the players a justification to explore and go on quests and adventures. Once the settlement reaches level 2, new and more interesting NPCs move in, or old NPCs gain new skills or have resources that allow them to do more interesting things, like the blacksmith being able to make better weapons and armors, and higher level structures can be built. My OSR Weapon Hack, where a base weapon is given added qualities of different cost values, may be a good basis for filling out these shops as the settlement advances, and I may at some point design a similar generator for settlement building as part of a larger crafting system. In addition to new and improved shops and more or more interesting quest-givers, the settlers may be able to build certain mundane, lower-level structures at a lower cost, or without assistance from the party (besides resources). The players are rewarded for investing in the settlement, both in a quantitative sense, like leveling up their own character, but also because the settlement will grow and change, partially in ways they designed, but sometimes in interesting and unexpected ways.
5) Settlement Building Campaign Seeds
I wrote a settlement building campaign scenario for my current campaign in my Aquarian Dawn setting, but there are all sorts of possibilities:
After crash-landing on the planet, the crew of the starship must find a way to integrate into the nearby village while they work on their repairs. Normally they have strict rules about interfering with less advanced civilizations, but while they’re stuck here, how can they sit by while they watch people suffer due to inadequate knowledge, poor infrastructure, and external threats? Also, without processing facilities, how will they repair their ship?
In the near future, global warming and the subsequent series of wars and economic disasters has devastated the planet. A coalition of peoples from throughout the world have united to send a generation ship into space, to colonize a distant world and give humanity a second chance. The crew will have to maintain order on the ship for generations, maintain its systems, and eventually terraform and colonize the distant world. Very loosely based on my Antikythera Nova setting, which could also be used for a settlement building campaign.
A group of wandering warriors / adventurers find themselves resting in a small, peaceful village, far removed from the wars and plights of the kingdoms. However, no peace is everlasting, and various bandits and warlord “tax collectors” exploit the hard-working villagers, taking more of their crops than the village can sustain. The villagers beg the wanderers to help them, but the wanderers won’t be able to do it alone. They’ll need to train the villagers to defend themselves, and build traps and fortifications to defend against the marauders who vastly outnumber and would otherwise overpower them.
Settlement building as a mechanic and campaign premise deserves as much recognition as a core feature of tabletop RPGs as adventuring and dungeoneering, and I hope this framework inspires more people to try it out. As my current campaign progresses, I will likely flesh out this system in more depth, and I hope people will be interested to see how this develops. As a worldbuilder, this is a fun way to add depth and to bring a collaborative worldbuilding element to your campaign: by allowing the players to determine how the settlement progresses. If you have thoughts on how to add settlement building mechanics to tabletop RPGs, or how to run a settlement building campaign, please leave a comment!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/240655/Numenera-Destiny?affiliate_id=657321
In any creative medium that lasts long enough, there’s bound to be stretches where it seems like everybody is just copying what everybody else is doing. (In art history, they refer to these periods as movements.)
Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception. An acquaintance of mine once lamented that so many games were using Powered By The Apocalypse, but not really doing anything to really make their game unique, and made the leap in logic that they were just doing so because everybody else was making a game that used PbtA.
I remain largely unimpressed if a game bears a logo signifying that it uses a certain ruleset. However, I have also witnessed a few instances of people reacting strongly to such labels, both favorably and not. I try to remain dispassionate whenever I notice a trending game engine or game style in our hobby. I’ve seen it happen numerous times before. More often than not, it’s just that: a passing trend that in time, will be mostly forgotten.
In light of that sentiment, for your reading pleasure, I present you with “5 Creative Movements In The RPG Fandom” so as to celebrate the unique inventions of our hobby.
1) The Fantasy Heartbreakers
A term coined by Ron Edwards of the web forum The Forge, Fantasy Heartbreakers is a type of game that Edwards identifies being prominent in the 1990s. They were independently published games of the fantasy genre that seemed to be products of people trying to bring their own take on what Dungeons and Dragons could be.
He describes many of them as having great ideas, but being trapped behind the shortcomings of D&D, for one of three reasons. They don’t play to what truly makes them unique, they make some minor adjustments to some of the apparent problems D&D had at the time, or they just flat out keep some of the absurd themes that D&D was stuck with.
The reason these are titled Fantasy Heartbreakers is twofold: they were obviously fantasy games, but more importantly, this was a considerably more difficult time to self-publish. The internet was budding, and some of these games did take advantage of having websites, but DriveThruRPG didn’t quite take off till some years after 2000. This meant the cost of self-publishing was considerably higher, to the effect of thousands of dollars just to print. (The cost of commissioning artwork, if you could even afford it, would compound the issue.)
And so, a fantasy game designer’s dream of being the next Gary Gygax would often end in a broken heart -- so much effort, so much investment, all to be forgotten in a market too small for them.
2) There’s A GURPS Book For That
Generic Universal Roleplaying System is the flagship RPG of Steve Jackson Games, the company that may be better known for the Munchkin franchise. While now typically scoffed at as having way too much math to be enjoyable, there was a time when GURPS addressed issues of contemporary games. Issues such as character creation being too rampant, or playing in a different setting requiring learning a completely new game.
In the 90s, GURPS was all the rage, and much like how Steve Jackson now licenses out Munchkin whenever he needs to pay the rent, he did the same with GURPS during its heyday. While both Steve Jackson’s own web-store and Drive Thru RPG boast staggering collections, this isn’t the complete library.
There were numerous books published that bore the GURPS logo, including the now out of print Vampire: the Masquerade GURPS sourcebook, and even a few Japan-only exclusives such as GURPS Runal. The heyday of GURPS may be over, and large swaths of its library may now be difficult to find, but it’s hard to deny that it’s an important artifact of tabletop gaming history. (Especially since the Secret Service once seized all of Steve Jackson Game’s equipment over one of their GURPS sourcebooks!)
3) D20 System
After the Fantasy Heartbreakers bled out, but before the weight of GURPS’s massive library collapsed on itself, Wizards of the Coast acquired the remains of TSR, and brought us Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and with it, the Open Gaming License and the moniker d20 System.
With the freedom to use the rules to D&D to make one’s own supplements and games came a deluge fan made splat books, along with officially licensed games. Some of these were good, or at least well received, such as Mutants and Masterminds, or Blue Rose by Green Ronin publishing.
I’ve read through Blue Rose; frankly, this was much like one of the Fantasy Heartbreakers opined upon by Ron Edwards close to two decades ago. It added a few new mechanics and a different setting, but at the end of the day, it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition with a different coat of paint.
Most games either fell into the above category, or showcased some of the flaws of Dungeons and Dragons’ core mechanics. Big Eyes Small Mouth d20 is one such example of the latter. It tried to include the freedom of a point buy game with the structure of a level based one, and failed pretty miserably at both with a kitchen sink setting.
The surge of the d20 system died down some the flop of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and the revival of D&D in the public eye with 5th edition. Though somewhere between the 4th and 5th edition being released, a new movement gave way.
4) Powered By Fate (Or The Apocalypse)
Sometime before Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition being released, FATE and Powered by the Apocalypse picked up in popularity. I remember some of the ways friends of mine initially described FATE when its 4th edition was released in 2013. They described it as being “easier to understand” and “letting you do anything.”
Which brings us to where we stand now. We’re in the middle of a movement marked by narrative games using FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse cropping up, either as fan made games like the numerous Star Wars FATE games, or as independent publishing, such as a Nahual, a Mexican game about urban fantasy, set in (surprise) Mexico.
Social movements have a strange way of not being all encompassing, though. The Fantasy Heartbreakers were happening at roughly the same time GURPSmania was, which dragged on sometime into the era of the d20 System’s reign. Moreover, with Dungeons and Dragons having some of its rules released under the Open Gaming License, we’re seeing a second wind of extra Dungeons and Dragons material during our current age of FATE and PbtA, including High Level Games’s own addition to this canon: Snow Haven.
5) Bonus! Standard Roleplay System
To illustrate that this isn’t exclusively a trend in the English speaking roleplaying game community, I’d like to touch on something similar that’s happened in Japan. The game publisher Far East Amusement Research is one of the big names in publishing RPGs in Japan. They’re known for two things: having published Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as creating the Standard Roleplay System.
The Standard Roleplay System is exactly what its name implies: a standard set of rules that FEAR’s games use, creating a similar wave of games in Japan as we’ve had in the West. One of the most bemoaned examples from Western fans of Japan’s RPGs is a game called Monotone Museum, which was designed to prove a point about SRS: anybody, even those who don’t have much experience in RPGs, can make one.
The rules deviate very little from the SRS document, and shares a lot of common themes with other FEAR Games, including Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Themes such as stacking multiple archetypes to make your character, having a cosmic force that both empowers and corrupts your character, and having to take steps to avoid being lost to said force.
I’ve initially bemoaned how similar so many different RPGs can all be the same, but as I wrote this article and took the time to organize my thoughts on the matter, a few things did dawn on me. The first is that every so often, something truly new does come around and shake things up. The other is that even within a familiar framework, there can still be room for something interesting to be made.
After all, despite basically being a clone of JRPG video games of the time, Earthbound is still one of the best games of its kind.
While Aaron der Schaedel has been in the RPG fandom for a very long time, he’s spent most of that time in the fringes of it, where he’s found all kind of wonderful, bizarre, and even horrifying things. You can (and should) ask him questions about the things he’s found via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224851/GURPS-Fantasy
We’ve been in the middle of an RPG renaissance for several years now. More games are coming out than ever before, and we’ve had huge inrushes of players eager to snap them up. And while creative changes in the industry, positive outreach from the community, and the ascension of geek culture have all played their part, something we can’t ignore is the popularity of YouTube campaigns like Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. These games have allowed audiences who have never seen an RPG in action before to watch how it’s done by the pros, allowing them to get an idea of how all these moving parts should look when you flip the switch.
In broad terms, we can all agree that’s a good thing. Especially for players and dungeon masters who want to get into the hobby (or into a particular game), but who lack more experienced people to reach out to, and could use some examples of how things work.
In specific terms, though, there has been a definite up-tick in complaints that a particular game isn’t run like what they see on the Internet. So if you’re a player or dungeon master worried about how your game doesn’t look like the sort of game Matt Mercer would put together, take a deep breath, and relax. That’s okay. In fact, it’s great.
Here are some reasons why.
Reason #1) This Isn’t Your Job
Most people out there who love RPGs play them for fun. What a lot of folks forget is that, for the YouTube dungeon masters and convention games that people buy tickets to watch, that’s not the case. They are doing this to entertain you, the viewers.
Is it fun for them? Yeah, probably. But their main concern is more about what gets more viewers. Hence the celebrity guest players, the carefully crafted story lines, making sure a lot of stuff is worked out in advance for rules calls, etc.
If you’re running your game for the purpose of drawing ears to a podcast, or getting a lot of hits on YouTube, then by all means mimic what the successful games are doing. But if this is for funsies, remember that you don’t have to put on the whole three-ring show the way the pros do.
Reason #2) Professional Games Aren’t Cheap
You see all the props, the cool minis, the fully laid-out map, etc. that are on these shows? Well, they’re there in order to give the audience something cool to look at. Because the advent of popular 3D printing may have made such things cheaper, it has in no way made running a game that looks that good cheap. So if you’re not working with a big budget, there is zero shame in using re-purposed green soldiers, monster figures from SCS, or just Lego figures, and drawing with dry-erase markers on the map.
This same logic applies to all the complaints you might see regarding production values. From the ambiance of the set, to any music used, or just to how much in-depth RP the players and dungeon master do. Remember that these things have costs in terms of time, energy, preparation, and setup. If you don’t have the budget for bells and whistles, don’t worry. Engage with the game, and the story you’re all telling.
Reason #3) Every DM Is Different
While he catches a lot of flak, Matt Mercer himself has said that every DM should be free to develop their own style, and to find what makes their game work for them and their table. RPGs aren’t like organized sports, where if you want to be the best you should imitate those who are most successful (which, in this case, means the people who are known professionally for running entertaining gaming sessions).
Are there things you can learn from the folks who captain these YouTube campaigns? Of course there are! But there’s a big difference between learning a lesson or taking a bit of flair to work into your own routine, and outright copying what they’ve done. So remember, there are no rules when it comes to this hobby. And if the only objection someone has is, “That’s not how they do it on TV,” then you should politely inform them that they and their character are not a part of that particular show.
Reason #4) Are You Not Entertained?
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who tried to game shame you? This happens more with video games where people will talk down to you if you prefer a game that is older, doesn’t have good graphics, or isn’t the current in thing to play, and it’s just as asinine in those situations as it is with tabletop games.
Don’t compare yourself to others, especially in a story-based, creative endeavor. It doesn’t matter if your sword-and-sorcery campaign doesn’t feel like a Robert E. Howard adventure, and it’s immaterial if your horror game leaves out the earmarks of Lovecraft’s finest work. And it’s no more important that your game looks or feels like a professional podcast, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves playing it.
Reason #5) You Have Different Needs
Not to get repetitive, but these popular games exist to entertain an audience. That is the driving goal behind a lot of the decisions that get made (one in particular that comes to mind is Critical Role switching from Pathfinder to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition in order to speed up play so the audience wouldn’t get bored). However, you and your players may have needs or wants that this kind of format simply cannot provide for.
As an example, if you want that kind of mechanical complexity (or you feel that rules which have been truncated or re-written to speed up the game on-camera should be run differently), then it’s okay for you to play games that scratch that itch. If you want to deal with the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t show up on these shows, or if you want to do deep dives into game setups that might not seem as interesting to a broader audience, you can do that as well.
Games on YouTube are about what makes the audience happy. Your game is about your and your group’s needs, and unless you’re broadcasting, focus on what you need out of the game in order for you to enjoy it.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! And if you’re looking for a new YouTube channel dedicated to gaming, stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/78320481003470118/
This is an introduction to how to build your very own campaign world. In it I hope to introduce you to some world building concepts and ideas that you can use or chose to ignore when designing your own campaign world.
There are a lot of campaign worlds out there, but nothing is as unique, and as well known by you, as your own campaign world. There are lots of ways to build your world, but the best way, in my opinion, is to model off of our own world. After all it is the world we know best and the only world that we know can support intelligent life, at least for now.
1) Start With The Macro Scale
Is your campaign world even a planet and if so, what shape would it be in? A spherical world is common and the result of constant gravitational effects on assembled particles. It is theorized that dust was formed when the Sun, Sol, was born and out of these dust clouds the planets coalesced. Then the asteroids that formed clumped together or fell to the planets and some became moons. Most though were absorbed by the planets and evolved into the round balls we know so well. Well, what if your world is flat (it sure would be easy to map)? What if it were a toroid or square, or some wild shape? The intervention of magic can do a lot, so could a planar gate with connections to other planes either outer or inner. The majority of worlds will be spherical and resemble earth, but that doesn’t render the rest of this discussion different if you chose a different shape for your world. What shape will you choose for your world?
2) What Is The Density Of The World And Its Organization?
Jack Vance, the science fiction author, invented a big world in one novel. It was the size of Jupiter and had a low density. Its size allowed it to hold its atmosphere, but its huge size allowed for vast land areas and huge continents. The only problem was that metal was rare, most of it came from the occasional meteor that crashed into the planet and those deposits of metal were very valuable. Nations would go to war over them. Philip José Farmer invented the Riverworld; it was a unique world designed for unknown reasons to hold the afterlife of all humans who died before sometime in the 21st century. The world was one Mississippi sized river bordered by mountains that wrapped around the entire planet in a loop. Along its shores everyone who had ever been born got to live again. The first and best novel in the series centered on Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his quest to build a great steam powered riverboat that could circumnavigate the planet in a goal to find out why Riverworld existed and what the motives of its creators were. Along the way he had to work with evil King John (out of Robin Hood) and he read about the journeys of Richard Burton who was able to explore the world and find its headwaters.
Larry Niven wanted to invent a world, so he took a blue ribbon, laid it on its side and stuck a candle in the middle. Then he expanded the world into his famous Ringworld and the candle at its center became a small sun. One DM I knew invested heavily in Judge’s Guild maps and modules and he strung them together side-by-side to create a ringworld for his home world. Which world will you build, how will it be unique, and what will it have in common with standard D&D worlds?
3) Choosing The Right World
Your choice of a world and its shape should be determined by the kind of campaigns you want to run in it. In a massive world you can fit a whole lot of continents and civilizations, monsters, and everything else. But travel across this world would be a difficult deal, especially if you have to go a large distance. Remember that Teleport only has a 500 mile per level range. If you want a world were all the past people have come to life, then you can do Riverworld. If you want a huge world that is science fiction in origin you can create a ringworld. You could also do a torus (donut shaped) or one of Larry Niven’s early ideas: Diskworld. On Diskworld the sun is at the core the world is flat and there are huge mountains at the outer edge to hold in the atmosphere. As you go closer to the sun you had deserts and hotter people like magma men, as you got further from the center you got colder lands and arctic creatures. You had a huge area to adventure in and that was only counting one side of the world. If you wanted, you could make the outer planes on the flip side and the elemental planes as zones on the disk. Most people will want to stick to a standard spherical world. How will your campaign design shape your world? Do you want to bring back all the famous people of history, do you want a huge area to explore, do you want to have your players discover new lands or do you have something even bolder in mind?
4) What Makes Up A Spherical World?
Most are plates of crust that sit on a molten core. These tectonic plates float on the sea of magma and move around. They may have started as Pangaea, but they have moved around before. Australia has been a past neighbor to India, South America used to be a neighbor to Africa and so on. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking, and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider as the plates slowly drift. Half of California and the San Andres plate is shifting north and half of it is shifting south. If you have a world it is theorized that a dynamic ecosystem is due to volcanic action releasing heat and gases into the world which interacted with lightning to create the building blocks of life and went on to form life in the seas. Now it is true this is a theory, no one was around to witness the early earth so we can only make theories about it. This theory is one that is almost universally accepted by the scientific community, but it doesn’t have to be true for your world. Did your world have a more biblical creation by the god(s)? Did they get together and forge the planet out of their imagination? Or do your peoples just believe that? It is your world so you can do anything, and you can make any arguments about how it was formed. Is your world actually a liquid world with floating islands on it, or is it a huge gas world with floating continents moving around in the air cylinder (I once had a world like this and the natives used massive ships that would sail between floating continents). If you use tectonic plates then where they split oceans will form, where they clash mountains will form. Where they rub against each other earthquakes will happen, and where they are thin volcanoes will form. This action will be the major land and sea forming method on many worlds.
5) Water Runs Downhill
This simple and obvious statement is how most of the Earth has been formed, but the action of wind, wave, and running water. Water carved the Grand Canyon and its action has weathered down the mountains. The lack of water causes deserts and where there is too much there are rainforests. Water will always try to flow to the sea and often it dives under the earth and comes to the surface as springs and the headwaters of a river. Both the mighty Columbia River and the Thames River start as small creeks and streams that come together to become a big river that runs to the sea. The Nile river is sourced in Victoria Lake and starts coming across some of the greatest falls in the world, Victoria Falls. It was a major expedition to reach the headwaters; you could plan a similar campaign for your group. Most life and civilizations occur where land meets water. Water is an inescapable need of every living creature (but not always of aberrations or outer planner creatures). Water also makes a great way to travel, you go slower by most river travel, but you can travel 24 hours a day, so you can go faster than if you travel on horseback, and both forms of travel are faster than walking. Bodies of water were early highways for civilization and spread limestone to Egypt, Portuguese merchants to as far away as China and Japan, allowed the colonization of Easter Island, Hawaii, and Australia, and the great English Empire was built on their mighty warships and trading fleet. How will the forces of magic and nature shape your world?
6) Similarities Among Worlds
Most fantasy worlds will develop along similar lines. Most fantasy worlds work in a time period from Hellenistic Greek to Ancient Rome, to the Dark Ages, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, to even the early Industrial Age. When will your time period for your world be set? Hellenistic Greeks and Ancient Rome had bronze plate mail, as steel wasn’t invented until centuries later. Centuries after that gunpowder was invented. When I ran an Ancient Roman World, glass was very rare, so potion vials were clay. On Pacific islands metal was not that common so clubs lined with shark teeth made great weapons. Different time periods and different locations had different technology. It took the Chinese to develop gunpowder. When they did, they used it in everything from life prolonging potions to fireworks. It took the more militant Europeans to develop guns. How would this affect the technology of your world and what equipment is available to the party?
7) The Flow Of History
Why were the Europeans more militant and driven more to explore than the Chinese? A big part of it was their world view. The Chinese called themselves the Middle Kingdom. Once they had united their nation they were happy and didn’t see much of a reason to go out into the world exploring. The Warring States Period was when China tried to unite itself, often under different nations and by different rulers. Sun Tzu lived and wrote during this period and his book on tactics is still studied to this day. The Chinese fought to form one nation as did the Japanese. Over in Europe there were various tribes of barbarians and primitive people. Many of those people were, at one time, ruled from Rome. Rome was comprised of the literal descendants of the Ancient Greeks. In Europe the competing tribes of barbarians took over various lands and used their own language as a basis for those lands. That is why there are so many languages in Europe and their constant rivalry was a bitter issue. The European barbarians first held Rome to ransom and then sacked it. Most Roman statues had their heads cut off and disfigured by the Vandals. That is the root of the world Vandalism. When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals turned their savagery on other tribes and eventually founding Germany and the other nations of Europe. Europe was almost constantly locked in a war of some sort as the various rulers tried to take over or hold onto their lands. This constant competition became a source of great scientific development as well as great human horror like the Black Plague and the Crusades. These two forces had global consequences from trying to oust the Islamic from the Holy Lands to the rise of the middle class. The Islamic Revolution has its roots in the Crusades and the Black Plague finally made the labor of one skilled man valuable and those craftsmen were higher paid and became the merchants, skilled labors, and builders of strong economies. The biggest event in the Forgotten Realms was when the Gods walked the planet and some lost or gained their divinity during this time. The imprisoning of Rovaug, the crash of the spaceship Divinity and the death of the God of Humanity, Aroden were all major events in the development of Golarion. What forces were at work to shape the history of your world?
8) Populating Your World
Now it is time to get down to the smaller scale; where are your various races sourced? Where do they live, where do they come from and where do they want to go? Are humans the most common race, as D&D assumes? Do dwarves come from an underground civilization, are the orcs their rivals and hated foes. Are there Drow in your world? With the light of the Elves should come the evil of the Drow as a counterbalance. What about the dwarves, do they duergar (evil slaver dwarves) exist? Is there an evil counterpart to the gnomes or just the good deep gnomes? Do you have halflings in your world or an evil counterpart to them? Races are the core foundation for civilization and the formation of countries, but humans are rarely allied just by race so often they work against each other, this keeps the humans from taking over from the other races or from exterminating them. Humans are more interested in killing off each other than other races. In Tolkien's world Halflings were jovial people who ate second breakfast and were isolationists. It is not that they didn’t like the biguns of the world, it is just that they thought they lived their lives too strangely, too fast, and with too much magic. Bilbo broke the mold when he became a thief and an adventurer. What are the races of your world and what are the forces; political, racial tensions, or the fight between good and evil that are at work in your world? Don’t feel you have to include a race just because it is in the handbooks and don’t feel that you can’t create an entirely new race just because you want to. What are the politics of your world?
9) What Adventures Are Available?
Now that you have gotten down to this scale you can start to think about what you want your player characters to do. Will they form a hearty band of adventurers on a noble quest like the destruction of an evil relic or are they on the search to restore a kingdom? Or will your group be aimless adventurers gathered for no particular purpose, coming from no particular area, and only going on missions you send them on to kill monsters and get paid for it, by robbing their corpses? This creates a group of murder hobos; people who shiftlessly move around and get rich through petty crime sometimes verging on the felony. Now there is nothing wrong with doing this, if this is what your players want to do, but most DMs have a nobler quest in mind, if not in the vein of Tolkien, then something similar to it. If you create a fantasy world with a new land to be discovered, then you can have your players be either conquistadors or be members of the primitive tribes trying to fight the incoming Europeans. Will you have an Europe analog or a Oriental analog? Most of the character classes are drawn on European models, but monks with a flurry of blows, ninjas and samurai are from an Eastern world and if you don’t have that world represented in your setting, then you will disappoint those players who want to play those type of characters. Of course, the Bard and the Skald came from Scottish and Irish tales and heroes, yet we apply them to entire continents. There were monks in Europe, but they were far more scholarly than adventuring. The monks of the Shaolin Temples were both; keeping vast temples full of records from clay tablets to written books. They also adventured across China as righters of wrongs; dispensers of wisdom and justice. What type of campaigns you want to run will have a major influence in how your form that world, so how do you form your world? What goals will you have in mind for the party and for future parties?
10) Detailing The Histories
A well developed world has history to it; that lends it gravitas, dignity and power. I know a DM who has had the same world for over 20 years, and he brings in changes made by players into each campaign. If you play with him in several games then you learn certain features of his world, what exists and where, and even some things you and get away with in certain areas. I have played in wide ranging games in his world from the pocket dimension to safeguard civilization to an exploration of the catacombs under a megalopolis, to the crushing of a slave uprising. He has a rich developed world with a lot of NPCs both weak and powerful and institutions that have a long history. There are parts of his world that are ignorant of other parts and even pockets that are near impossible to escape from. They use pocket dimensions to house the town’s population and feed and clothe them. Undead can become recognized citizens. There are a lot of unique factors in his world because of his development and because of what he has added to the world over the years that he has been playing.
Golarion has a well developed history because a full team of writers have worked on it. There is an analog to Egypt, China even America. There is an evil empire, a lost world ruled by a demon ape, a crashed spaceship, a Norse analog, a barely restrained demonic invasion, and a crusade against it. There are a lot of factors going on in their world. In contrast Greyhawk had only a little development, because most of it was in mind of Gary Gygax and he didn’t want people to copy what he had done, but to do their own creative work. The Forgotten Worlds was mostly in the mind of Ed Greenwood and so there wasn’t a lot written about it without his approval or permission. He had a limited world because he had a small staff working on it; himself. He was using the world he had developed from his own game, and he just spread it to the larger world. Eberron and the Spelljammer universe were well developed, but aside from the Dragonlance chronicles little went on in the Dragonlance world. I have read about all these campaign worlds and more.
When you build your world, you should take examples and inspirations from other worlds and use it in your own. You can take what you like, ignore what you don’t like, change things around, and be unique all on your own. Happy gaming and happy world building.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: www.shutterstock.com
Break out the acetone, cause I'm stripping that Ravnica sheen off of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. The latest setting book from Wizards of the Coast has a lot to offer someone who enjoys the setting of the world's most popular collectable card game, but is it any good for someone who doesn't? In a book all about a specific, high magic setting, can we take away the Ravnica and come away with something usable? Here is a quick list of things we can all use by just filing off those serial numbers.
1) New Races
Need I say more? Oh, ok, I guess I will. Centaur, Loxodon, Minotaur, Simic Hybrid, and Vedalken make their appearance here. Two of those, Centaur and Minotaur have existing places in any mythical fantasy setting. Loxodon, or elephant people, have the same half-man half-animal thing going on, so not too much of a stretch. Simic hybrid and Vedalken are a bit more on the science end of fantasy, but we can work with that. Those running a spelljammer campaign have an easy fit for Vedalken, but they could exist right along side of elves, albeit with a shorter lifespan, which could give them the time and the separation for an alien point of view. Simic hybrids are a bit easier, replacing their expertly grafted appendages with the grotesque, Frankenstein-like stitching of the mongrel folk from earlier editions and Curse of Strahd.
2) Guild, Contacts, And Advancement
Here's my take on the guilds:
Azorius is a lawful neutral police force, Boros is a lawful good army, Dimir is a lawful neutral spy organization, Gruul are chaotic neutral tribes of wanderers who hate civilization, Golgari is a chaotic neutral sewer dwelling guild of the creepy and dead, Izzet is a chaotic good guild of crazy inventors, Orzhov is a lawful evil church syndicate, Rakdos is a chaotic evil circus of demon worshippers, Selesnya is a neutral druidic nature group, and Simic is a society of scientists building the perfect future. Each guild is mechanically a background, giving you access to guild features such as guild spells (for spellcasters), contacts, and tiered rewards as you progress in the guild. Guild spells are extra spells added to a caster’s list they can choose from. These spells are themed to each guild and balanced very well. Player characters start with three contacts. The contacts are kind of generic, but at least can be tweaked a bit. Judge, procognitive mage, and “promoted into secrecy” are a few examples. Once you get to know the guilds it's easy to substitute your local military for a Boros Sunhome Guard or a thieves guild member for a grateful Dimir spy. Each guild uses ranks which grant rewards. This is a great melding of factions and the renown system in the Dungeon Master's Guide with the bonus of something to strive for. Each rank gives you more access to guild hierarchy and usually other faction members you can call into action for you.
3) Adventure Building Tools
I really hope Wizards continues this in future supplements; they put so much goodness into this chapter. This chapter makes the book worth buying. First, every guild has an adventure map to use. These are good sized maps with a lot of rooms: great for tactical play. The maps are done by Dyson Logos and are minimalist and very easy to copy onto a battle map. The lack of specifics in each map (chairs, tables, rugs, etc.) make these maps easy to use in any setting or location. I've already pulled a few out in my home game. There are five tables for each guild, d10 adventure goals, d8 villains, d6 assignments and hooks, and d12 adventure ideas for each map. There are also one hundred adventure goals, eighty villains, 120 assignments and hooks, and 120 adventure ideas. While I haven't sat down and used these tables, they are a great addition to my already extensive collection. If I need a certain trope, say a spy or a military villain, I can just pick a similar guild, Dimir or Boros, and roll up a quick villain and scenario. Through the previous chapters you have gotten to know the guilds, and understanding how the guilds relate to fantasy tropes really makes these tables useful at any table, especially in the middle of a session.
4) New Monsters And Magic Items
Some stand out magic items, based off of magic cards, are included in the book. A few are heavily thematic, but can be changed to suit your campaign world. There's a dwarven thrower that explodes and requires an action to call back; a pair of bracers that let you cast a copy of a cantrip cast with a bonus action. There’s another set of bracers as well which allow you to cast a spell you don't have memorized or know with a chance for a random spell if you fail. As far as monsters go, there's a rage beast template for boosting beasts, an evil angel and krasis. A krasis is basically an upgraded version of mongrel folk; customizable with three sizes (medium, large, and huge) and two d8 tables of major and minor adaptations.
Some of the creatures come with new traits we can steal for our regular ones. Aura of Blood Lust makes creatures within thirty feet attack randomly. Feed on Fire causes a creature that takes fire damage to grow bigger until it finally explodes and starts over.
Taking Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica apart and incorporating it into your home game is a relatively simple and painless process. Even in the area descriptions of the Tenth Ward I found some really cool ideas to use in my game. Digging in a bit for yourself, you can find more little gems building off of the existing rules, new favorite monsters, or even a new favorite class. So go out and grab yourself a copy, and if you already have it, let me know what you are using at your table!
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Patreon.
Picture Reference: http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/guildmasters-guide-ravnica
A friend is currently running a kickstarter for his wild west roleplaying game Ballad of the Pistolero. Last time I looked the game was just over one third funded. By a strange coincidence I am also working on a wild west themed roleplaying game and the two of us produce games that are about as far apart as one could get. Mine is more fast paced cinematic action of Saturday morning Lone Ranger and Casey Jones. Ballad of the Pistolero is akin to the Old West of fiction from The Searchers, to The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Red Dead Redemption.
On December 31st I pulled my Indiegogo crowdfunding project, a matter of hours before it went live. I had created all of the assets for it right down to video trailers. I decided that crowdfunding was not the way I wanted to go. What I have seen in 2019 has only reinforced by opinion that Kickstarters are not necessarily the ‘good thing’ for games that they are portrayed as.
If you had ambitions to write your own RPG and fund it through a kickstarter then you may be interested in my reservations. Maybe you will look at them, take them on board and address the concerns to your own satisfaction. At the very least your business plan will be a little bit better and stronger for having looked at potential problems, and thereafter having a solution in place should I be right.
1) Where Do Your Sales Come From?
The most basic kickstarter or crowdfunder is based on, pledge money and get advance access to the final game. In effect it is a pre-order system. There are normally tiers of rewards and the more you pledge the more you get. Lower tiers offer PDF copies of the final game and then higher tiers bundle in printed rules and even hardback editions. So why is this a problem? The problem is that if you have a large number of pre-orders, even if everyone you know, and everyone they know, that has any interest in your game has it on pre-order where are future sales going to come from?
2) You Don’t Get What You See
If you have a pledge target of $3,000 and you hit $3,000, you do not get $3,000. There are two big slices that get taken out before you get to spend your war chest. The first is the platform fees. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not charities. They exist to make money and they are going to take a typical 8% of the total pledged. Then there is tax. The money pledged is taxable income and the tax man/woman is going to take their slice. After those two a $3,000 target leaves you with little over $2,000 to actually spend on finishing your game.
3) Fulfilled By Drivethru
This is not OneBookShelf’s fault in any way but a great number of kickstarters are fulfilled via Drivethrrpg.com. What this means is that they will handle sending out all the PDFs and eventual printed books for you. You upload your supporters list with what needs to be dispatched and they do the rest. You then just send them the money for any printing and delivery. So where is the problem you ask?
The problem as such is not with the fulfillment (that is a great service) but with the way that OneBookShelf and DriveThruRPG rank games. They only count the games that people pay money for. A game that sold one copy for a single cent will outrank a game that has a million free downloads. Therein lies the problem, all your sales were pre-orders and the money doesn’t go through the tills, so to speak. You could send out a thousand copies of your game and it will be nowhere on the popularity rankings.
4) The Real Cost Of Stretch Goals
Many kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns have additional rewards if they exceed their initial goals. You may think you need $3,000 to finish your game, but what if you raise $5,000 or $10,000? You may think that it is a nice problem to have, and in some ways it is. Where the problems start is with the danger of over committing yourself and unforeseen expenses. Along with this is the sheer production time. You probably have your game already written before you even started your kickstarter, but what if you are now committed to producing a GM’s screen and ten adventures?
Your production queue now extends months further into the future and you will want to send out all these things at once to your backers to save on post and packaging. Suddenly, you have a big lag between completing your game and sending out the goods to your backers.
This also touches on that ‘future sales’ issue. If everyone already owns everything, do they need to buy more?
If there are unexpected expenses with any of these stretch goals, like your artist ups their rates as they didn’t realise the project was going to take up so much of their time, you cannot go back to the backers and ask for more money.
5) Natural Born Failure
In many respects Kickstarters are popularity contests. It is not the best games that get funded, it is the game designers with the most social muscle who can get the word out about the game. Sure, great art helps. A game trailer video helps. If no one thinks to search for you kickstarter though, no one is going to see or read about it. You need to shout it from the tree tops, figuratively speaking and for that you need a big audience.
If you kickstarter doesn’t succeed then your game has started life as a ‘failed’ kickstarter. If you try again, your profile shows how many campaigns you have tried and how many succeeded. Starting life as a failure is not exactly auspicious.
Trying to fund a new game is always going to involve an element of risk. At the time of writing there were 525 tabletop role playing games looking for funding and another 20 on Indiegogo all vying for your money and support.
If you can make it work for your game, that’s great, but that is against a backdrop of John Wick Presents, who raised $1.3M for 7th Sea 2nd Edition, being unable to deliver. The company laid off staff and push back delivery time but could not avoid the eventual death of John Wick Presents, in March, when it was gobbled up by Chaosium Inc. If that is what success looks like, it could be time to reevaluate one’s goals!
There are success stories out there. There must be or Kickstarters would never have caught on, but there is a vested interest to publicise the success stories to make pledgers trust the platform. Games publishers want to tell the world about their successful campaigns as it makes the game look popular and successful.
As for my little wild west game, it is out on Drivethrurpg as a free to download playtest edition and quickstart. So far it has had 325 downloads and more daily. Maybe, just maybe the number of people who have downloaded the game will be my audience and I may go for a kickstarter in the end but I probably won’t. I think I would rather take my chances in the general marketplace and avoid the worry.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Cover image copyright Peter Rudin-Burgess
Please take a moment to consider supporting this platform at Patreon. Also, please note this article gets pretty vulgar, and contains mild spoilers for a whole crapload of shows, movies, and video games, most notably Halo and Assassin’s Creed.
Everyone's been there. You're at the table, Cheetos in hand, dice at the ready, and the GM gives you that look. That look. The 'I'm-so-great' look. That smug half-smile that tells you they're about to drop their latest display of their own genius (or edginess, or creativity, or whatever) on you and your unsuspecting comrades.
Except whatever it is, you've seen it. You haven't just seen it, you've seen it done a million times, backwards and forwards, ever since you were a wee baby gamer critting your nappies. Maybe it’s cringey, maybe it’s just played out, but either way, you’re sick of it. Good news: so am I! So let’s get all these pet peeves out on the table.
1) Questgiver Betrays You
If my entire career’s contribution to gaming is to get people to do this one less, my life will not have been spent in vain. I suppose I can hardly be shocked that this crap shows up in our tabletop games over and over, because it shows up in our larger media over and over as well. Grognards, look back at our formative adventure media, like Buffy, Xena, Hercules, Charmed, Highlander: how many episodes revolved around the titular hero(es) being asked for help by some put-upon victim only to find out that the ‘victim’ was either setting them up for an ambush, or using them as a catspaw to eliminate a rival (and probably then die in an ambush…)? It’s okay, you don’t have to answer. And if you haven’t seen any of these shows, then spoiler alert: it’s all of them.
This trope turns up in video games, too. Like, all of them. Linear games like the first installments of Assassin’s Creed and Halo went through a period in the early 2000’s where virtually every game was built on a framework of a mysterious knowledge holder parceling out jobs for you only to betray you in the end, usually fighting you with an arsenal of shit you’d handed to them. Fortunately, video games now have moved on to the era where the only type of game anyone makes anymore (other than indy sidescrollers where you play a deformed cartoon child who’s dreaming and/or dead) are massive sandbox games, where we can joyfully exchange the predictable disappointment of being betrayed by the primary questgiver for the mind-numbing tedium of being betrayed over and over by an endless stream of sidequest-givers!
I’m a huge fan of stealing things from books, movies, TV shows, and video games for your TTRPGs. Do that, as much as possible. But don’t steal this concept. Like, ever.
2) The Treasure Was A Fake
Now, don’t get me confused: I’m not talking about a Maltese Falcon situation, where the treasure the story is ostensibly centered around turns out to have been counterfeit. If the true goal of your story or campaign was something else, with the treasure as a MacGuffin to move things along, then go with God.
No, no, I mean when the primary goal of a story is a specific treasure (be it actual money, a magic item, or even a person) and the end result of the story is that the promised treasure isn’t just not where they thought it would be, but that it never existed in the first place (or has long since been destroyed).
Here’s the deal: that treasure is the carrot you’ve used to goad us poor pack mules into moving this story along for you. We’ve dutifully carried your GM baggage up all these goddam hills, over the rickety bridges, and we force marched through the night for you. Now it's time to pay up. I understand that sometimes an interesting bait-and-switch keeps a game exciting, so you need to give the asses across the table from you an apple or a bag of oats instead of the promised carrot. But if you don’t give us anything, then it’s not a cooperative journey anymore, it’s just animal abuse.
3) You Wake Up Pregnant
It’s a tale as old as TTRPGs themselves. The men in the group carouse like there’s no tomorrow. Elven prostitutes are purchased by the truckload. Farmer’s daughters fall before the bard in droves. The moment the one woman in the group dares to take a dashing stevedore to her bedchamber, though, suddenly the tone shifts. The next morning, as the group prepares to depart, she suffers a sudden and “unexplained” bout of nausea.
Right about then, I do too.
I’m not talking about situations where there’s a good story reason. 99 times out of 100, that isn’t the case with this silliness. It’s almost always a reactionary lashing out. The woman character is being punished for daring to express sexuality, while the men continue to dip their wicks with impunity without fear of pregnancy (I cannot help but notice that the elven hookers and farmers’ daughters of the world return demanding child support with far less frequency than the lady adventurers wind up trying to find the Middle Earth family planning center) nor the rampant sexually transmitted diseases they ought to be racking up.
4) It Was All a Dream
AKA, the coward’s way out of a TPK.
Now I don’t mean a scene which is clearly a nightmare or a vision; that’s totally fair game. I mean scenes where the players made meaningful progress in their stories, suffered meaningful consequences (and yes, that progress might have been a fatal mistake leading to the consequence of dying), and are then told all that time was just meaningless. Nothing steals the impact from an important event like finding out it was all a hallucination.
Most of the time this is a problem, it’s because the GM is trying to fix something they screwed up. Even when they planned it out, this shtick can fall flat if it falls into the valley of mundanity: the dream sequence is engaging enough that the players care about what happened in it, but mundane enough that it seems believable. You need to either have a clue here or there that something is wrong, to prevent them from feeling that the rug is getting yanked out from under them, or else you need to go full-tilt Hellraiser on them and make the adventurers beg to wake up in a urine-soaked bedroll.
5) He Was Just an Old Man!
The heroes have successfully infiltrated the villain lair, and finally spotted him: the dastardly mastermind is caught unawares or jumps out to menace them. They roll initiative, start throwing fists, and to their shock, pulp the boss in one shot. Like, horrendously. Usually accompanied by a gruesome description of necks shattering, eyes bulging, and blood flying. Unless you’re playing a hyper-moral game (like most superhero RPGs), there will inevitably be a frightened eyewitness to point a horrified finger and scream about what monsters the PCs are.
“Look what you did! He was just an old man!”
Look, I get it: most heroes tend to pull the “Get ‘er, Ray!” plan as their primary tactic. It can be frustrating as a GM, but this ends up backfiring most of the time. In many TTRPGs, letting the villain go first will often spell certain death for PCs or innocent bystanders, and unless their recklessness is really out of control and you need to give them a reality check, pulling this trick on your players makes them doubt their own abilities. A villain who controls a vast network of evil minions in a setting where adventuring vigilantes are common shouldn’t be going down in a single stroke to aforementioned vigilantes.
6) Oh Look, Another Evil Child
In many ways the exact opposite of the last trope. You’ve seen this one over and over: the veneer of innocent child, and in a shocking twist, the kid is evil! Ooh, surprising! Unless you’ve already seen The Omen, Children of the Corn, the Exorcist, The Good Son, The Bad Seed, select episodes of Buffy, Angel, Highlander, and the X-Files, or every third episode of Supernatural…
You need innocent kids (and innocent bystanders). That kind of hook is your nuclear option for getting recalcitrant players invested in a plot, and when you suborn it like this, you screw yourself over in the long run.
My players would probably make the argument that ‘Sweet Elderly Person Who Turns Out to Be a Supernatural Powerhouse’ should fall under this heading too, but fuck ‘em. That one’s my bread and butter, and I’m going to run that particular horse is never too dead for me to beat one more time.
No, wait. You know what? I’ve got one more bonus pet peeve. A repetitious occurrence that’s been infuriating me the last few hours:
Bonus: This Shitty Listicle
Seriously. Who does this guy think he is? If I think back on my absolute favorite moments in gaming, a huge number of them fall under one of these headings, or used one of these tropes to further their story. So why do I hate them so much? Why would I break my normal rule about negative articles and spend hours writing the most hateful soapbox speech I could think of?
Look, I think these ideas are played out. I’ve seen them over and over again, and gotten seriously tired of them over the years. Does that mean they’re bad ideas? Not necessarily. In point of fact, like most things that are ‘basic,’ they’re so widespread because they’re extremely enjoyable. You could use any one of these ideas and craft a pretty damn good story.
So what’s the takeaway? Maybe just keep an eye on your friends, and try to be aware of what tropes are getting overused in your group. When you get more than one eyeroll at a reveal, maybe it isn’t your voicework or the monster that’s getting the reaction; maybe it’s the set-up that folks are tired of seeing.
In an event, what are your favorite tropes to hit over and over again? Which story tropes are you absolutely sick of seeing repeated ad infinitum?
In addition to being a complete hypocrite who has used every single one of these tropes multiple times, Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. He enjoys writing for High Level Games when he isn’t writing for the Black Library or Mad Scientist Journal. His most can be found in Inferno! (vol 2) from Black Library. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://lukebrimblecombe.blogspot.com/2015/08/fantasy-tropes.html
I’ve known Jason Andrew since 2016, when I met him during White Wolf’s Grand Masquerade in New Orleans. Jason is part of the development team for By Night Studios, as well as having a large history as a game writer. He was a guest at HLG Con, and I’ve talked about his book Mystical Rome on this blog before as an example of a setting that would work really well for an RPG. Well, now Jason and his team at Mighty Narhwal are bringing us a game system that takes a crack at a universal system for tabletop and larp under the Morra Cinematic Roleplay banner. Oh, and that crew is running Mystical Rome as a larp in the Pacific Northwest this year, which is going to be amazing.
During HLG Con, I got the chance, briefly, to play some Morra with my friend Victor. The game was run by both Jason and Andrea of Mighty Narwhal and I was really digging both the setting and the system. Their team just released an Alpha Slice of rules for people to dig into. It's a playtest document, and I really want to suggest you look them over. Below are my highlights.
1) Defining A Genre
This was the first thing that caught my eye with this system. There is an entire backend development system where you can create your own genre of play, based on movie tropes and styles of cinema. Want horror? You can do it with Morra. Want Superheroes? You can do it with Morra. Whatever you think would make a fun genre, you can do that with Morra and it will work. Because the system mimics cinema, rather than being perfectly simulationist, it allows for a lot of flexibility of genre that is sometimes hard for universal systems to really crack. If you want the feel of the genre to really be there, you can build it into the way you run the game.
You do this through a series of choices, Define the Target Audience, Rating and Content Descriptors, Media Length, Pitch, and Budget. So, if I create a Teen, PG-13 Superhero Show, that usually runs 30 minutes (3-6 game sessions), with the idea that these are Teen Heroes struck by the power of the gods, with a low budget, I now have enough to craft the basic confines of the world we’ll be playing in. It’s straightforward and allows for both safety calibration from the start and a way to get a sense for what play will look like.
2) Character Creation Is Quick And Light, But Also Deep
One of my biggest struggles with games I like is how long it takes to create characters. I love games that have systems that are deeply intertwined from character creation onward into play and development, but there are times games can get too big and clumsy in that integration. Morra isn’t one of those. The systems for character creation can be done in 20-30 minutes, tops, with lots of distractions. How do I know? I think I got pulled away from CC at least 4 times during HLG Con and still really was able to get my character done.
Archetypes, Motivation, Quirks, Background, Side, Attributes, and Skills are at the core of the system. Archetypes are developed as part of the genre, motivations are cross-genre, as are quirks, backgrounds and side are influenced by both, and attributes and skills are universal, but can be customized to the setting if required.
I’m a d10 or d20 chucker in most games, so it was interesting to see Morra using a two-d6 system, which it utilizes really effectively. It’s a dice pool system though: Attribute + Skill + Wild Card + 2d6 = Action Pool set against a difficulty that changes based on various factors. All in all, it feels intuitive to me, and easy to follow during play enough that I was looking at my sheet and suggesting rolls I could make by the middle of my first session. That’s often a hard thing for me when I’m playing new games where I have to try and figure out what I can do in play before I can look toward how to make my character do what I think they should be able to make happen.
There is more to the system, but this basic set-up is a solid underpinning and you can find out more in the Alpha slice yourself.
4) Mystical Rome
First, go and check out Jason’s Mystical Rome novel. It’s really well written and very interesting. It looks at Roman culture without a lot of baggage that most writers bring to the setting and while it is slightly creepy at times, it presents an alternative Rome in a light that is simultaneously engaging and in-keeping with history. Then go and check out the section on Mystical Rome in the Morra Alpha, and then sign up for the larp. I am in no fit state financially to attend this event, but I really wish I were because it looks amazing. The setting sells itself, but attached to a universal system like Morra it means I can run Mystical Rome and then turn around and switch genre’s without having my players have to memorize an entirely new ruleset every time we decide to go in a different gaming direction. It’s a win-win.
Morra is one of the cooler universal gaming systems out there to date and I think it’s going to create some serious excitement. It’s tapping into the gaming zeitgeist in a way we need. Check it out, and let us know what you think in the comments.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. 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. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Picture Reference: https://www.redbubble.com/people/mightynarwhal/works/21654245-mighty-narwhal-productions?p=t-shirt
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games