While I almost exclusively run games in my own settings, I am obsessed with science fiction and fantasy across all mediums. Here are five settings from books, movies, tv, anime, comics, or videogames, that would make for a cool tabletop RPG setting (or that you could borrow ideas from). I tried to avoid settings that I think are already really well known and popular, or that have already had tabletop RPGs made from them.
1) Vampire Hunter D
This is a Japanese light novel series that has also been made into a manga, and two of the books have been made into movies. There was a pathfinder supplement that briefly outlined this series, but that’s minor enough that I’m willing to allow it. This series has that perfect combination of anachronism and Japanese weirdness, fascinating worldbuilding, and jam-packed with cool ideas. It feels very “Appendix N”; a post-post-apocalyptic science fantasy that combines elements of traditional fantasy, gothic fantasy, and weird west in a uniquely Japanese way. The “nobles,” immensely powerful vampires, long ago took over the world and built a science fiction empire, only to recede under mysterious circumstances. The humans left behind have salvaged their resources and technologies to the best of their ability, and fight to survive in a world of noble-made monsters. It has all the best elements of the recent Castlevania anime and the videogame Bloodborne.
2) Powder Mage
A novel series set in a fictional world reminiscent of the Industrial Age and Victorian England. There is political and social intrigue, diplomacy, large-scale battles, and cool superpowers. Knacks are individuals with single, low-level (yet often uniquely useful) special abilities. Sorcerers are massively powerful combat mages with a weakness to gunpowder. The titular Powder Mages are rifle-wielding soldiers who can sense gunpowder, remotely ignite it, eat or snort it to gain enhanced physical abilities, or use it to remotely enhance the distance or change the trajectory of bullets. There are also anti-sorcerers who can shut down other sorcerers’ abilities; wardens who are hulking aberrations created from living humans, and specially-trained superhuman mercenaries who are OP at everything from combat to spycraft to business. There’s a lot to play with here, in every sense.
3) Valkyria Chronicles
A videogame series with a watercolored, cel-shaded, anime art style, set in a fictional setting with a roughly World War 1 to World War 2-era aesthetic. It deals with a world war between a faction reminiscent of the Allies, and a faction reminiscent of Nazi Germany crossed with Stalinist Russia with Imperial European dressing. There’s a valuable, glowing blue mineral resource known as ragnite used as explosives and power sources for tanks. There are scouts, shocktroopers, engineers, snipers, lancers (heavily-armored soldiers with rocket-lances to fight tanks), and the legendary superhuman valkyria. There is a cultural faction roughly analogous to Jews and Romani during World War 2, and other interesting social and political nuances. The videogame series places an emphasis on tactics, which would lend itself well to tactical tabletop RPGs, but it also places a strong emphasis on episodic narrative, which could lend itself well to dramatic scenes in games like FATE or Apocalypse Engine games.
4) Goblin Slayer
This one may be too obvious, and also it would normally be too traditional fantasy for my taste, but it’s so exceptional that I’ll excuse it. It was originally a light novel series that I have not read, but was also made into an anime. While surface-level it is very much traditional fantasy, it has a few neat little twists that give it personality. It is also very obviously inspired by tabletop RPGs, and as such, it does a good job of uniquely integrating (and subverting) the tropes of tabletop RPG fantasy. In a world where every adventurer wants to be a legendary hero, mundane monsters such as goblins are frequently overlooked. As such, these creatures, which are in fact quite dangerous to civilians or to inexperienced combatants, are an under-acknowledged problem. Inexperienced adventurers underestimate them and get slaughtered, while experienced adventures can’t be bothered, or expect too much gold for their services. The Goblin Slayer has no magical abilities, nor magical or mastercrafted equipment; he relies solely on his wits, coming up with all sorts of clever approaches to goblin slaying that would be a thrill to play out at any table.
5) The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
This is a book co-written by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite science fiction / speculative fiction authors, and Nicole Galland, who I was not familiar with prior to reading this book. I should mention that I’m actually still actively reading this book, so there may yet be some twists that I’m unfamiliar with. The general idea is that magic is the ability to manipulate quantum mechanics, and there were once witches who could do it. It’s a somewhat similar premise to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files, a series I would have recommended here but it already has a tabletop RPG (although it is apparently no longer available on drivethrurpg). Like Laundry Files, Stephenson and Galland do a good job of realizing the implications of this speculative fantasy, and to their credit, they take it in a very different direction. The majority of the book is centered on Sending, the process of sending individuals back in time, engaging in Cold War-style spycraft and espionage across history in order to manipulate events up to the present. It’s a cool idea, and one that I think could lend itself well to tabletop, exploring a variety of historical (or pseudo-historical) settings, and playing out the implications of those missions on the present.
Even if you’re like me and prefer to build your own worlds, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Whether it’s snagging a really interesting, tight premise, or borrowing bits and pieces of cool little details to expand your own world, there are a lot of interesting ideas from other media to be explored in a tabletop game. They say there is no such thing as true originality, but if you bring concepts like these to the table, your party will have the next best thing.
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://thumbor.forbes.com/thumbor/960x0/https%3A%2F%2Fblogs-images.forbes.com%2Folliebarder%2Ffiles%2F2016%2F12%2Fvhd_interview1-1200x919.jpg
As a dude with a history degree, one of my pet peeves is people taking pop history and the way history has been presented through media at face value. Vikings didn’t wear badass leather biker outfits like you see on TV. Spartans had armor and didn’t fight with their abs bared for all to see. And not all cowboys were white dudes. That peeve is one that seems to be shared by Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios. Chris recently launched a Kickstarter for his new game Haunted West, a weird west setting with a focus on bringing to life Western stories we don’t typically hear about, weird or otherwise, and sat down to answer a few questions.
Where does the history of Haunted West diverge from our own?
As the Kickstarter has officially launched, I can say that it happens a few years into the Reconstruction and immediately after the Civil War. Haunted West: Reconstruction creates a timeline in which, in addition to taking out Lincoln, Booth's plot also eliminates Johnson, who is from the South and a former owner of enslaved people, as he had originally intended.
Lafayette Foster becomes President, and without presidential opposition, the Southern confederates are not allowed back in congress. The land is divided and given to the enslaved people as was actually planned in our known history, changing the power dynamic of America, with black landowners battling against traitors who are terrorizing them and trying to steal their legally-owned land.
We are creating an ongoing narrative of how that one moment changes the world as we know it.
What sets Haunted West apart from other Weird West settings like Deadlands and Wild Wild West?
That is kind of like asking what sets Star Wars apart from Star Trek or DC Heroes from Marvel Super Heroes. The games are different in approach, setting, tone, and have different teams behind them.
Haunted West is doing something no other current Western RPG has done, to my knowledge. We are telling the true history of America while highlighting many of the people whose voices have been forgotten, providing an entirely new and unexplored timeline, and including a three-tiered modular system. That's just the tip of the iceberg.
You’ve developed a new system for Haunted West. Is it based on an established system, or is it something we’ve never seen before?
The Ouroboros System is unique in its approach to modular play and has a number of easy-to-apply rules. The core mechanic is a 1D100 roll under system with degrees of success and failure that have different impacts. Skilled Paragons are able to invest a portion of their successes into ‘The River’ and use that portion for a later challenge when the chips are down. Each skill is associated with 1 of 7 different attributes that confer a starting percentage in the skill.
You’re best known for your work in the Cthulhu Mythos, and at first glance, it doesn’t have much in common with Haunted West. What led you to work on a Weird West setting?
The Mythos and I (trademarked!) may be the first musical I write in a few years. One of the stretch goals is actually to introduce the Mythos into the Weird West. I am hoping we hit that one.
Part of the reason I chose the Weird West was my love of Westerns that came from watching them with my grandmother every Saturday morning growing up. Watching those paragons of the west making the world better became our ritual. But it always bothered me that no one looked like me unless they were cast as the villain or, sometimes, the butt of the joke. Haunted West aims to change that.
It lets me add my knowledge and interest in the supernatural, history, science fiction, and cinema. The Weird West is such a large and expansive genre encapsulating so many different things--the skies the limit.
What kind of tools will you have in place for developing frontier towns and settlements?
I am known for my love of random chart generations, ranging from scenarios to encounters. You can fully expect charts, directions on how a town should be built, and the tools a Narrator (how we refer to Game Moderator in Haunted West) will need.
With your work for Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Confidential, Chaosium’s new sci-fi game that you’re heading up, you’re a pretty busy guy. How much support do you plan to have for Haunted West post-launch, and what plans do you have in store for Darker Hue Studios moving forward?
That’s a great question. I actually have quite a bit of time and fully intend to use it for Darker Hue Studios. I am finishing up Masks of the Mythos, The Mythos in Scion, for Onyx Path and have turned in my work for City of Mist by Son of Oak, Doctor Who for Cubicle 7, and my superhero book to Chaosium months ago.
At the moment, Chaosium, with the recent acquisition of a few new game lines (Pendragon and 7th Sea), has put the science fiction game on hold. Pelgrane Press has my last Langston Wright adventure for Cthulhu Confidential, and now I have something that I have not had in years: time.
So, I can fully support Haunted West and maybe even turn my hand to writing a novel. I have this burning idea for a science fiction piece and now I have the time to do it.
“Don't mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what you are going to remember about me.”
- Al Capone
Check out Haunted West on Kickstarter here.
Phil Pepin is a grimdark-loving, beater extraordinaire. You can send him new heavy metal tunes, kayak carnage videos and grimdark RPGs on Twitter: @philippepin.
What is 'Pulp'? Pulp is a series of sub genres usually set between and around the world wars. It was named after the very cheap material it was produced on, wood pulp. The result was a cheap book ideal for a time of financial depression in the states. Almost everyone bought pulp novels to take their minds on amazing adventures with daring heroes and dastardly villains. These stories were over the top and cut to the good stuff of the stories. Some famous authors had their break writing pulp fiction, including HP Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert E Howard with his Conan series. So what makes a pulp story good? How can we implement this into a game? Well hopefully I can help with that by giving you some tips for running a pulp RPG setting.
1) Characters Should Be Larger Than Life
Characters are the centre role for your story, from the players to the villains. In pulp that means they have the most drama around them: when they show up things go down, hoodlums slink off to inform their boss of your arrival, who just so happens to be sitting in a darkened corner of the speakeasy,and then bullets fly as a grand shootout ensues.
2) Throw In A Timer
Any time that a scene is lacking in tension, add a timer, things like a bomb timer is on the nose and fits well. “But what if explosives aren't in my game?” I hear you ask. Well, anything that forces the players to act fast is a timer. A collapsing building, the villain escaping, someone bleeding out; these are all great examples of natural timers that add a sense of urgency.
3) Grand Dialogue
You've no doubt seen the movies where the Big Bad and the hero have witty back and forth every time they meet. Those scenes are pulpy as hell. The cheesy one liners delivered after a fight and the villainous monologue explaining key details of a dastardly plan… all pulp. Don't be shy to encourage this with your players, as they will enjoy a break in seriousness and you will collectively gain some great anecdotes to share with fondness.
4) Out Of The Box Thinking
Reward any player who comes up with an idea that is so crazy it might just work. Creating a catapult using a plank of wood a small stack of wooden pallets and another player jumping is worth a little GM help to pull off, these ideas help reinforce tip 1 that the characters are larger than life and have the potential to do insane and incredible things.
5) Don't Take It Too Seriously
Pulp was brought about to help the working class through the depression after World War One so it was designed originally as light hearted adventure stories, so people could escape the poverty of daily life. Later it evolved into some more serious aspects, but the feeling of pulp is best explored with a slight tongue in cheek approach.
6) Be Inspired
There is a plethora of pulp sources in the world, from the original stories printed on the cheapest paper available to glossy movies from the 80s like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Even in modern day films you can still see the influence of pulp ideas, of over the top heroes having fantastic adventures. Great examples include any film based on a comic or those which have a child chosen by destiny or other unseen forces to fulfill a role by defeating a darkness.
Pulp influences are everywhere. We see them everyday without even noticing it. Pulp is all about heroes battling evil and doing so in style. They leap from a moving train and gracefully land in the saddle of their horse, who somehow can run faster than a train at full speed. They swing from a vine through a forest that somehow doesn't seem to descend lower than the hero needs it to and lasts as long as is needed. Pulp villains deliver monologues, they twirl their evil mustaches, and they are almost equally larger than life as the heroes. They reappear after you think they have died; they escape just in time. However you run your pulp game… enjoy it!
Ross Reid is an enthusiast, currently running a Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, while studying nursing, he has contributed several articles to HLG and is a strong advocate for all things FATE.
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/products/btpy8oj2?Rolemaster-Third-Edition-RPG-Pulp-Adventures
I’ve talked before about borrowing plots from video games, citing that both video games and tabletop roleplaying games are similar media. A scenario is set forth to the players, they give direction to a character or other entity they control, and the state of the scenario is updated based on that input. The primary difference between the two often comes down to input methods, and what entity is doing the parsing of these commands.
I digress, though.
Today, I want to discuss with you some of the fantastic settings in the realm of video games. This list is of course by no means exhaustive, but each of these on this list were chosen because of how unusual they are compared to the so called “standard fantasy” that is Dungeons and Dragons.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Unusual Video Game Settings You Should Play Your Next Game In!
1) Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has recently become one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises; there’s numerous games in the series, and every one of them boasts a huge cast of characters. Some people love Fire Emblem for these huge casts of characters, as well as the ability to see how certain character’s relationships bud through the course of the story.
This is a story that is told between numerous tactical battles, pitting one army against another, with false steps often leading to characters permanently being lost. Most stories in Fire Emblem showcase different conflicts between neighboring countries, and ultimately climax with a battle between good and evil after the powers of some mythic artifact has been discovered. (Such as the titular Fire Emblem.)
While it’s often lampooned for being formulaic, this is precisely what makes it easy to emulate in a tabletop roleplaying game!
So How Would You Do It?
You can easily recreate something like Fire Emblem using Dungeons and Dragons if you play up the tactical combat element; interesting terrain and fighting to secure important strategic locations. Players would be restricted to playing Humans, since other races like dragons or werewolves are the stuff of legend, and most conflict is between humans.
However, Fire Emblem is known to take place over a massive scale. Casts range upwards of the 20s or even 30s in some games. To make this sort of campaign work, occasionally, the war would need to be fought on more fronts, and players would take control of a different cast of characters aiding a different theatre in the war effort.
2) Sunless Sea / Fallen London
Sunless Sea and Fallen London are part of a gothic horror series of games by Failbetter Games; they both play like choose-your-own-adventure books, though the aforementioned also has extra gameplay elements that make sense with its nautical namesake. They take place out of the city of London, in an alternate timeline where Hell literally broke loose, and London sank beneath the waves.
The Londoners have adapted to their strange new biome, where darkness warps reality, one’s neighbors could literally be devils, maps have become useless, and sunlight, should one happen to find your way back to the surface, is as lethal as it is pleasant. (That is to say, very, on both accounts.)
So How Would You Do It?
Combat in Fallen London is meant to be a dangerous prospect. Sure, you can easily beat up other mortals, but the world is rife with all kinds of creatures that seem familiar, but defy all reason. These otherworldly creatures? They never truly die; if they hit 0 HP or are otherwise defeated, they just fade back to where they came from, and they’ll come back later. When they do return, they’ll be bigger, stronger, and still nursing the grudge from their previous loss.
Furthermore, one of the laws of reality in Fallen London is that light brings order to the world. Because of this, even if you somehow can see in the dark, you want light. Light from torches, oil and gas lamps, or even just starting fires; because the darkness doesn’t just hide monsters, it stains the very fabric of reality.
3) Super Mario
The Mario Brothers are a duo that need no explanation at this point. “Duh-duh duh duh-duh duh duh” is a line almost anybody in the developed world can sing out loud properly. That isn’t to say there isn't any interesting to discuss in the Super Mario lore; as time went on and Nintendo tried new things with the franchise, more characters got added, and they each wound up with their own shticks and spinoff games. Spinoffs such as Luigi’s Mansion and Wario World.
Two such spin offs I want to bring attention to are Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga; video game RPGs that are very whimsical with rather expansive worlds, filled with all kinds of unusual creatures and environments. It’s the perfect setting for those “Only boring people play human” types!”
So How Would You Do It?
The Mario RPG video games are very gamey, with the occasional nod to new abilities gained over the course of play being usable to solve puzzles outside of combat. This isn’t a setting that lends itself to ruleslite games, but does have a wide variety of different mechanics through the series, so any sort of home-brewing of a crunchy game will do. (Or you can play this D&D 3.5 adaptation!)
4) Seiken Denetsu / The “Mana” Series
This is one of my favorite video game series of all time. When I hear the phrase “High Fantasy,” this is what comes to mind. A world with magic abound, and all manner of unusual creatures, friendly or otherwise, and clear divides of good and evil optional, depending on the entry in the series.
The timeline of the series is fairly long, starting with a cataclysmic war that didn’t quite destroy the world, but definitely wiped out the existence of magic. However, as the series goes on, magic eventually begins finding its way back into the world, with constant allusions back to that war, such as an empire trying to rebuild the technology that made the war possible, as well as junkyards filled with ancient relics from that war. (Some of which are still alive, and resentful of being left to rot!)
So How Would You Do It?
It’s a bad idea to try and emulate video game mechanics in tabletop form, especially on a one-to-one scale. Computers can handle large numbers and operations much more accurately than your average human. However, since even the Mana games have wildly different mechanics, mechanical accuracy can be forgone.
My choice for trying to recreate the Mana series would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Since it has rules for creating fantastic creatures, as well as possessing various rules for all kinds of different supernatural powers. Even though magic is prevalent in the Mana series, there is still plenty of allusions to other forces as well, and the backbone Anima’s magic system relies on the JRPG fantasy staple of the four classical elements, plus light and dark.
The triple digit arithmetic will just have to be something you adapt to. (Think of it as an opportunity to practice mathematics!)
Please don’t try this. (Warning: weird and a little gross)
So How Would You Do It?
No. Seriously. This is a bad idea.
Did you not pay attention to entry 4? Sometimes you have to be willing to make sacrifices because concepts don’t always translate between media. This is why some movies drop scenes that were in the book they’re adapted from.
Other times, you simply shouldn’t try because what makes the game truly unique, simply can’t be recreated.
Or what you’re trying to recreate is just a fever dream.
Aaron der Schaedel actually really likes Hylics, but realizes part of its charm is the surreal world it’s set in. It’s a quality that doesn’t quite come across as well in the spoken or written word, and is probably best left to the realm of other visual arts. Here’s a shameless plug for his YouTube channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/fire-emblem-three-houses-rpg-review-strategy-professor-combat-nintendo-switch-a9021831.html
Candle in the shadows: A multi-part Chronicles of Darkness Primer Part 1
The sweltering heat of your classroom is nearly lulling you to sleep and your potbellied professor isn’t helping matters. As you fidget in your seat to at the very least stay awake, you notice that the clock at the front of the room is broken. The hand that counts each second appears to be stuck, clicking with stubborn effort yet unable to move forward.
Wearily, you focus on the broken clock almost straining yourself to inspect the broken thing. You think you can hear the strained clicking of the second hand in your ears, until you realize that the clicking is all to real and has drowned out all other sounds around you, and its growing louder. Strange panic begins to overtake you as each deafening click pounds in your head, bringing a sharp flash of pain.
Unable to look away, you see the internal working of the clock with each small flash, with the small bundle of gears and cogs that will the machine to life. Every second that passes brings more visions and pain. The walls that enclose you are held up by strange piping and servos all feeding into a giant set of cogs where the ceiling should have been. Looking down to where your professor stood, you recoil in silent mouthed dread as a man made of wire and stained glass turns his gaze to you with gold and cold eyes.
The ticking is thunderous now as you return your gaze to the clock. It appears so small in comparison to the massive machinery the now encircles you. It seems small, insignificant and meaningless when one gazes at the big picture…..just like you.
The stained glass man is next to you now, you see him reach with claws made of sharp wires and yet cannot move or resist his attack. Afterall, why should you resist……you’re nothing but a cog in the great machine.
Tick…..Tick….. “ Jason?? Jay, are you OK?”
You open your eyes to see your professor shake your shoulder gently. The machinery and the stained glass monster are gone as if they never existed at all. You shake your head in acknowledgement and mutter an apology as you stand up and hurriedly grab your belongings. You look up at the clock as you stand to exit the room and put this nightmare behind you. The clock is working seamlessly.
You exit the room and laugh, just a strange nightmare…nothing else.
Welcome, to the first in an ongoing series of articles detailing the games and setting of the Chronicles of Darkness. Through this series, I would like to introduce or reinforce to veteran players of the value and storytelling potential of this often overlooked game line. Before all that though we need a brief history lesson.
1) Darkness Reborn
In the year 2003, White Wolf Publishing ended it all. Through their Time of Judgement storyline, the publisher brought the end of the world to their immensely popular World of Darkness(WoD) game line. Such a move was bold, as the World of Darkness consists of amazing and thought-provoking games such as Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse and Mage the Ascension, just to name a few. Players were aghast at the idea of their beloved games ending; however, White Wolf had a plan.
A spiritual successor to the original World of Darkness was announced and was met with excitement and skepticism. Promising a ruleset that would allow easier gameplay and crossover potential, this initially branded World of Darkness line was released in 2004 and has chugged along ever since, taking horror into new and unexpected places. The Chronicles of Darkness feature a base book that contains all the basic rules and setting for mortals in the Chronicles of Darkness, while the various game lines expand the players options for supernatural creatures and story hooks, all retaining the majority of rules making the whole setting easier for players and storytellers alike.
2) What’s in a name?
With the return of the original World of Darkness game lines, White Wolf Publishing has rebranded their successor games into a setting named the Chronicles of Darkness. To avoid obvious confusion, any of the games or books listen in this series will be referred to as such.
While the Chronicles of Darkness performed (and still does) well and has a legion of fans, comparisons to the World of Darkness game lines exist and are perfectly understandable. The differences between the two settings can often appear vague from outside eyes, but take it from me, the Chronicles of Darkness is a bold and experimental game line that brings an endless variety of horror to gaming tables everywhere. This is also not a criticism of the WoD, I am a fan and player of those games as well. Moving forward, this primer will compare and contrast the various settings in a way to showcase the depth that the Chronicles of Darkness contains.
3) We need to talk about Metaplot
One of the most obvious changes from the WoD, was a distinct lack of metaplot. While the WoD was famous for the beautiful and rich stories it told, it was also hampered at times by a large ever shifting mythology that was often intimidating and almost inaccessible to new and old players. The Chronicles of Darkness was created with a very flavorful base setting, that allows any storyteller to add anything and everything they want to their stories.
In this new world, the prejudices and rivalries between their various supernatural groups were erased, the cosmology defined across the various games in an effort to showcase a more modern and darkly eclectic reflection of our world. The focus shifts from global conflicts to a much more personal and local setting dripping with plot hooks...hell on of my favorite stories I've ever told started with a taco run.
4) Through a broken mirror
The world featured in the Chronicles of Darkness was made as a darker reflection of our own modern world. This world is a scary place full of mysteries and monsters, creeping closer to the thin semblance of reality that its unknowing people endure under. Horror exists in a kaleidoscope of multitudes and that is one of the Chronicles of Darkness's greatest assets.
Want to tell a ghost story? Easy!
How about a surreal modern fairy tale? Done, next.
Ever want to peek behind the curtain and see how the gears of the world really works?......be aware, these gears are very real.
Any story can be told with this system, all that is required is your imagination, and a willingness to explore the shadows.
Next time, we will be looking at subjective and personal horror in the base setting of the Chronicles of Darkness and how storytellers and players can get the most out of them.
Michael Jacobson is a freelance writer and an Active Duty US Sailor. His work has been featured in products like Snowhaven 2nd Ed, Night Horrors: Shunned by the Moon and many upcoming projects. He is currently ankle deep with running 1 D&D game, Werewolf the Forsaken game and attempting to understand how to edit a podcast.....it's harder than it looks.
Hey, Jim here! Before Frankie gets started, I wanted to remind you that High Level Games is bringing you game content and commentary absolutely free, as well as providing a home and launching point for a slew of great creators! If you want to support our endeavors, we'd love it if you stopped by our Patreon to show your support. Of course, if you'd like a little something for your hard earned money, you could always pick up one of our fine game products as well.
Greetings, traveler! It’s been quite a long time since we’ve had occasion to converse. I do, of course, apologize for the circumstances that led to your imprisonment in the dungeons of the Kargat. I hope that my efforts to arrange your…early release…might mitigate your ill feelings in this regard. Since you are no doubt fleeing through Tepest on your way south, I thought I might send this little gem on to you.
Tavaani al-Chole is one of the Tepestani Inquisition’s most ardent rising stars. In particular, he seems dedicated to turning the Inquisition’s attention away from the fairies and onto the witches his organization believe work alongside them. To that end, he’s distributed a little leaflet to his own supporters, helping them identify “witches” among the populace. I’m sure a seasoned adventurer like yourself will spot the dangers right away…
Trust Not the Witch
Brothers and sisters of the Inquisition, we have allowed the servants of the fey too free a hand in the mortal realm, and the will of Belenus demands that we address our laxity before their baleful influence proves our undoing! These fiendish beings masquerade as everyday citizens, and in most cases, the techniques developed by Brother Wyan will prove adequate. Some of these malevolents, however, have learned to shield themselves from our ministrations. The Inquisition, as ever, knows how to ferret out the demons in our midst.
1) Spell Components
Those holy warriors and devout priests pious enough to call upon the might of Belenus do so with merely the power of their faith and a brandished holy symbol. The vile fey sorcerers, however, require an assortment of trinkets and tokens to perform their lesser magics. By this, you will most easily recognize them. Be on alert for travelers carrying bric-a-brac with no clear purpose. Loose feathers, colored sand, clear stones, tokens from children’s games, carved figurines, spiderwebs or insect parts: all of these are documented paraphernalia for the occult. In addition to their use in the manufacture of wicked potions, various herbs and flora can be used for similar results. These items should always be viewed with suspicion by the canny Inquisitor. Be on the lookout for traveling artists, jewelers, herbalists, or those claiming to be students of the ‘natural sciences.’ These are often cover identities that allow a convenient explanation for carrying these arcane sundries.
Since there is no divine wellspring supplying their deceitful arcana, witches in the service of the fey often commit their devilry to paper so that they can pass it on to future generations of apostates. Traveling witches (who frequently call themselves ‘wizards’ to avoid execution for their crimes in foreign lands) carry working spellbooks called arcanabula, which function as eldritch workbooks and spell journals. These are easily identified. More cunning are the formal grimoires, finished tomes which can often present in coded passages decipherable only by those trained to understand their gibberish. Books or papers which contain unintelligible ramblings, which may appear to the eye of the studious Inquisitor as philosophy, poetry, or advanced ‘sciences,’ should be viewed as suspect and burned if necessary. Those capable of reading more than a single language should likewise be viewed as suspicious.
Witches are deviants, and thus are likely to find willing company with other deviants. The form of man is sacred, of course, and Belenus in his infinite wisdom has shown that the lesser forms of the dwarf, the elf, and even the pitiable caliban are acceptable in his sight, provided they show proper deference to Belenus’s true children. The beings of the Void and the Pit, however, taint the flesh they come in contact with, and spawn bastard races as surely as the acorn grows into a mighty oak. The goblin, the hag: these are only a few of their forms, whom witches often offer open acceptance to. Other folk are stranger still, with unnatural hair, eye, or skin colorations; scales or tails; even the ability to breathe fire or perform unholy feats! While the witches who claim such companions will betray their ‘friends’ at a moment’s notice if convenience requires, their allies are usually unaware of this, and will frequently fight to the death for their vile comrades.
Knowing the treacherous hearts of those that serve them, the fairy lords demand fealty through unholy oaths and pacts. These promises can prove to be an Inquisitor’s greatest tool, if he or she knows how to look for them. Keep an eye out for strangers who show bizarre behaviors that they then brush off as ‘cultural’ in origin. Witches of a shamanic bent in particular are known for eschewing metal tools and equipment. I have enjoyed great success in identifying witches among traveling groups by requiring strangers who view our executions to light the sacrificial pyres. Since their vows to their fairy masters forbid them from participating in Belenus’s rituals, they often violently refuse. By this method, I have identified no fewer than seven heretics, many claiming to be devout holy warriors of imaginary deities like ‘Rao,’ ‘Ilmater,’ or ‘Kiri-Jolith.’
Wyan has lit our fire, brothers and sisters. It us up to us to now go forth and spread it. With the tools I give you, and the tools Wyan has given you, let us be the torch in the night. Let us be light unto the believer, and let us burn the sinner to ash.
Real piece of work, isn’t he? Yvanova has uncovered evidence that Tavaani is really half-fey, and suspects that our young Inquisitor might be spurring the faithful to purge spellcasters in order to distract them from his own family’s machinations. If you wanted to ‘take care’ of Brother al-Chole while you were in Tepest, I’d see fit to reward you some 5000 gp on your return. If not, feel free to spread word of my offer to any interested parties you come across in your travels.
Good luck, and happy hunting.
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Frankie Drakeson is a retired rifleman and the current mayor of Carinford-Halldon in Mordent.
He is married to Gwendolyn Drakeson, the granddaughter of Nathan Timothy.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/842736148994274726/ by Sir Tiefling
Premade settings are alright. Ravenloft is nice, but perhaps constant darkness is a little much. Maybe the Forgotten Realms has too much to keep track of and not enough flex. Waterdeep just doesn’t have the natural world aspect for your group. Well my friend, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the most honoured tradition of every DM: making it all up.
1) Don’t Be Afraid To Rip Someone Off
I have before and will again steal. I’m a criminal of the worst variety. I’m a pirate. And I’m in no way ashamed of my piracy. Mostly because it’s not really piracy but I pretend it is to justify my eyepatch and poofy hats. It’s also the reason I use the word “avast.” But, I digress. There’s no shame in taking inspiration from other works of fiction or other people’s games. Absolutely none. (At least not when you’re writing for friends, and not for profit.) Take characters and plots and big bads from all over the place if you want. There’s a lot of beautifully written characters, monsters, and settings out there. My friend Scott used a monster idea from the Netflix Castlevania anime - that being the petrifying cyclops - in one of his games and I didn’t find out about it until well after we played. (Also, I highly recommend that show. I’m not much for anime, but it’s witty, heavy, and brutal in all the right places in my humble opinion.)
Even if your players recognize what’s happening, you can account for that and change some things accordingly. Rip everyone off if you want. Call your MacGuffin the Singular Ring. Call your character Luke Windwalker. Call your bad guy Baldimort! No one can stop you! You’re the DM!
2) Don’t Rip Everything Off
This seems to run counter to the previous point, you may say. Well, you see, if you make everything the same as the thing you’re ripping off, then you might as well just go and experience the thing. There’s no real point in making your plot the exact same as the plot of Lord of the Rings, because the players will all know what to do. You have to mix things up. You have to make things up, typically on the fly. Which for some people may be very difficult. But don’t despair, my friend! There is a solution.
There are hundreds of “what if” ideas out there. What if Gandalf kept the One Ring? What if Alduin never came to return during the Skyrim civil war? What if Anakin didn’t fall to the dark side? Etcetera. I’m sure even you have some. Use them. Or rather use the equivalents. Don’t just rip off NPC names unless you’re making everything up. This brings me to my next point.
3) Need A Name? Combine Two Things
“Welcome to Bladeburrow. My name is Baldr Silverhand. This is the Valor Hall inn where we serve our world-famous Black Beer.” Boom. Easy. Made that all up in less than thirty seconds and all I had to do was mash a bunch of words that came to mind in a way that made general sense. The rest is just world-building and that’s where the real fun (or perhaps the real difficulty) comes in. This is perhaps the most time-honored worldbuilding tip for DM’s and GM’s that I am personally aware of. Give it a name and you’d be surprised how easily everything else can fall into place. Sometimes genius strikes after you make a name, and a whole campaign can spring from a single idea. Sometimes you make a name and it falls flat. It’s even a little awkward to keep using in-game so you give the thing a nickname and slowly phase out the original name. No issue. Other times, Fartsberg will never fall into obscurity. No matter how hard you try. Burn it to the ground and the players will just dedicate the rest of the game to rebuilding the damn place.
But the important thing is that even the dumbest of made-up-on-the-spot names can make for a memorable and enjoyable gaming experience. These games are often at their best when something stupid happens or is said or in the case of Fartsberg, exists. Don’t be afraid to give something a stupid quality when you’re making everything up. Stupid exists in the real world and that’s something a lot of worldbuilders overlook in my experience. Just think about allergies. Then think about the fact that cats can be allergic to humans. This simple fact is incredibly dumb.
4) Become the Description Master
This is a pretty obvious tip that’s easy to account for but hard to master. Learn to describe things masterfully. I find that in order to do this, you have to have a very clear picture of what you’re trying to describe in your mind. The next most important thing is to include stupendous adjectives. “The stone tablet glows slightly” is very different from “The smooth stone tablet glows with an ominous light.” Another thing to consider is color. Color is an often overlooked but critical part of the descriptive process. There are a hundred different articles online to teach you how to be better at describing things during writing, but a tip that I find to be the most valuable is to imagine yourself in front of the thing or in the room, or meeting the person in question and ask yourself what would stand out to you personally when inspecting that. Lastly, always try to stimulate all 5 senses when really getting into the description.
You walk into a large decrepit room. As the door opens, the cracked stone bricks around the frame sprinkle rocks onto your shoulders. You look around and an overwhelming feeling of dread fills you as you notice the large pile of slimy bones in the corner. The pale white of the bone is intermingled with the yellow stains of time and rot. A gentle dripping can be heard, but you’re not sure from where; there are no obvious leaks in the ceiling. As a wafting smell of rotting meat suddenly hits you, the realization that there is more to this ruin than meets the eye sets in. What do you do?
I hope this supplied a mix of ideas for new worldbuilders and new as well. Have fun with your games and don’t be afraid to mess up. Because you will. Repeatedly. Borderline constantly. Fartsberg taught me that.
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://assetstore.unity.com/packages/3d/environments/fantasy/medieval-world-creation-kit-36555
Welcome to Avalon, a city with secrets held tight to her vest, crime and corruption are openly practiced, and “strange” being the default state. While the general feel of Avalon is familiar, there are some distinguishing features that make it unique. Survival, hard choices, and player driven play are some things you will find on the Streets of Avalon. There are no real heroes here, just those trying to survive and those that do are counted among the lucky. As a kickstarter backer, I received an early release of the PDF to check out. Here's a few reasons to give it a try.
1) City Play
Streets of Avalon centers around a sprawling city, the last city after the final battle in the Soul War. Avalon is a gritty, steampunk (really steampunk, not steamfun or steam-is-cool), noir setting with aberrations, undead, and the mysterious Lamplighters: mystics from another realm with the urge to help the beings of this realm. The city is ruled by magistrates and their griffons, but money is the true despot here; seems everyone is open to a bribe. The history and current mood of Avalon is well explained, but still has plenty of mysteries left for the dungeon master to flesh out. This city setting isn’t a building by building account of the city, rather a background to set your games against. In a world with the highly detailed Forgotten Realms, one of the more exciting ideas in this book is “What does your Avalon look like?”
2) Unlimited, Changing Play
Avalon is a city campaign, there isn't really a reason to leave the city, and if one area gets boring or finished, you just move on to a new area of the city. Play centers around neighborhoods, small sections of the city that you build up with a three step process: 1 - who’s in charge, 2 - groups, people, places, 3 - adventure locations and ideas. This is explained in a succinct way with three sample neighborhoods provided to mine for ideas. With play focused on politics, heists, investigation, monster hunts, and dungeoneering, as opposed to the general theme more D&D products lean to, each neighborhood the players move to can be a different taste of what Avalon has to offer. The city has a really familiar feel which makes it easy to start playing in. The themes in this city can also be found in Marvel’s New York and DC’s Gotham, movies like Dark City and Brazil, or books such as Diamond Age, Boneshaker or The Difference Engine.
3) Unique Flavors Of Fantasy
Avalon has no gods. Priestly magic is granted through study just like arcane. This is a great choice by the author and has no real mechanical effect, and is just a small tweak on the game's rules as written (cleric's spellcasting functions like a wizard's spellcasting normally does). This book is full of flavorful delights that make Avalon strange and unique. Examples include Lamplighters, who are outsiders with knowledge and the compulsion to help citizens for a strange price, a different take on the investigation skill, focus on a living city that is not waiting for the characters to show up, and planar creatures trying to break through and affect Avalon in some devious way. Within the 5th edition D&D universe these things are all possible in any setting, but when you put the focus on them it brings out a new flavor that really compels players to act instead of react.
4) Random Encounter Tables
If you know anything from the articles I’ve written here, it’s that I love tables. Clocking in at thirteen pages of random encounters, a lot of the feel of Avalon is communicated in these tables. They are not just full of entries like “2d4 gang toughs,” but a sentence or two with little nuggets of story baked in. Most of these are designed to lead the players (and the dungeon master) onto an unplanned, emerging adventure. As a dungeon master, I appreciate the work that went into these tables, with many ideas about the people and creatures of Avalon, as well as setting information you could do worse than to start every session here. They lend themselves to development at the table instead of before, a style that I really enjoy, giving the dungeon master some unknown fun as well as the players. The tables go over eleven different areas each with twelve encounters. That’s one hundred thirty-two story starters! They are even fairly system agnostic so you can use them in your own campaign.
All these things lend to Avalon's dark, gritty theme. Bringing the game to a street level with focus on who you live by and what they are doing is the best part of this setting. If nothing else, this makes a good read for doing some alleyway adventures or even a Defenders-like campaign. This all works well with the newest version of dungeons and dragons and it’s heroic play; letting the characters persevere and play a part (albeit small compared to the vastness of Avalon) in the stories that unfold. Brett Bloczynski has some great ideas in his head, hopefully we’ll get to see more soon. Streets of Avalon is not yet available but will be soon on DriveThruRPG.
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: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/encoded/the-streets-of-avalon
In my posts here on HLG, I like to talk about theory of worldbuilding, or game design theory, or sometimes both, such as with settlement building. As much as I consider myself a world builder foremost, the ability to use game mechanics to evoke a “sense” of a world is something unique to tabletop, and so I enjoy exploring that design space. This time, I want to talk about “The Crawl”. The most common Crawls to my mind are Dungeon Crawls, Hex Crawls, and Point Crawls. There are better articles that define and discuss these concepts that you should read if you aren’t familiar, but I’ll briefly summarize a Crawl in the abstract. As defined in this article, a Crawl is a way to parameterize the game environment, and how players can interact with it. Dungeon Crawls are for navigating within a specific location, Hex Crawls for navigating a wider and more varied (but generally still thematic) area, and Point Crawls are more about abstracting at an Event level, rather than spatially per se. While not every tabletop RPG is trying to do Dungeons & Dragons-style Traditional Fantasy, often games in other genres are, from a design-level, doing very similar things to D&D. Alternatively, they operate in a more story-telling fashion where “The Crawl” may not be as prevalent or relevant (although I believe this distinction has more to do with dice probabilities than anything else, but that’s a separate topic).
I recently published my first game as part of DREAMJAM on itch.io, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG. I describe the game as attempting to simulate the feel of retro 2D platformer video games, implementing what I’ve called a Platform Crawl design. The game in its current form still needs lots of playtesting and additional content, and currently does not explain the Platform Crawl design as in-depth as I would like (although I’m expanding upon this in the devlog), but if you enjoy my articles, I would encourage you to give it a look! In this article, I’ll outline a few other concepts for unique Crawl designs. Try them out and let me know what you think, or share your own Crawl designs!
1) Environment Crawl
This is mainly just a variation on the Hex Crawl, although it could be adapted to other kinds of Crawls as well. A fellow blogger friend of mine has started a cool series for a Wilderness Crawl. Essentially, it’s an old-school D&D-style hack, with fairly simple game mechanics, meant to gamify the difficulties of wilderness traversal. There are mechanics for stumbling, traveling at different paces, foraging, exploring through brush, etc., and he’s also experimenting with giving character classes unique abilities for wilderness traversal. With a rules-light system such as old-school D&D, this doesn’t even need to be a separate game as much as a bolt-on for an ongoing game. I think this kind of thing could really spice up a game, so that an Arctic Crawl isn’t just a Wilderness Crawl with another paint of coat, but actually has unique features the players must contend with. Even an otherwise “standard” Crawl, from a worldbuilding perspective, can be made unique and interesting, if the ways the players can interact with it is suitably unique and interesting. Just imagine an Oregon Trail tabletop RPG! Speaking of video games...
2) Video Game Crawl
Pixels & Platforms would fall into this category, but I think there’s a lot more to mine with video game genres in tabletop than has currently been explored. The trick is in figuring out what makes a video game genre work, and how to make that work in a tabletop format. For instance, for most platformer video games, much of the fun comes from the real-time, “tactile” action of pressing the buttons at just the right time to make the jump or dodge the enemy attack. Trying to simulate that phenomenon exactly is unlikely to be as fun in a turn-based tabletop game, since the result is determined by a random dice roll or flat stats, rather than player skill per se. However, by creating circumstances in which the challenge is not about making the jump or dodging the attack, but about how to position yourself on the “Screen” to make the jump, and also avoid the attack, and also protect your party members, then it becomes more of a puzzle platformer-like challenge: a Crawl. The player skill is in the tactics, and the randomness from the dice rolls is something to be accounted for, not the core appeal of the game.
In addition to the platform crawl, another video game crawl is the beat-em-up crawl. This would be a type of point crawl, where the emphasis would be placed on fighting relatively large numbers of mostly weaker enemies, who have the ability to swarm characters and knock them down, making them vulnerable. The crawl becomes more of a tactical positioning game, without necessarily being a complicated Warhammer-style wargame. Some of these ideas end up being almost more like board games, and if you really wanted to get wacky with it you could attempt to integrate an actual board game as the resolution mechanic (but that might be for a future article)! In any case, there are lots of video game genres, many of which may require much more thought, creativity, or hard work to make as a functional tabletop game, but I think designing these Video Game Crawls is a fun exercise in how to challenge preconceived notions of tabletop game design.
3) Combat Crawl
I generally prefer rules-light systems with minimalist combat mechanics, where much of the variation is abstracted. That being said, whether in literature, movies, or video games, different kinds of combat can be evocative in different ways, and it’s worth exploring this in tabletop. However, rather than trying to create a really granular game, with very specific statistics for how every kind of weapon could operate, another approach is just to compartmentalize and gamify these kinds of combats into Combat Crawls. For instance, I’m currently running a campaign for the tabletop RPG Tunnels & Trolls, and as part of that campaign, I’ve developed a unique combat system for Dueling, for Massive Combat, and for Mech Combat.
These rules aren’t intended to simulate hard physics of the world, but to evoke a certain feel. Dueling removes most of the random chance, playing out more like a game of Rock Paper Scissors or even poker, which to me seems evocative of a duel. Dueling could be integrated as part of a Western Frontier Crawl, or maybe even a Trench Warfare Crawl, which seems really well suited for tabletop (I’m surprised not much has been done with that). In the anime Attack on Titan, soldiers use “omni-directional mobility gear” to rapidly traverse environments and gain verticality to strike at the titular titans (giant humanoid monsters). The massive combat rules, in combination with some unique traversal mechanics, could make for a Scout Crawl. The logistics of traversal and maintenance with a mech could make for an interesting Mech Crawl. Unlike the other Crawls, this is about designing a combat conceit, and building the Crawl around that conceit. The RPG Deadlands also includes some unique mechanics for dueling and spellcasting, the latter of which actually plays out like poker, and a generalization of those mechanics for other systems could make for good Combat Crawl mechanics as well.
All of this is to say that the intersection between game design and worldbuilding can and should be explored further. It is possible that some of these ideas just won’t work, or will require significant consideration and refinement, but to move the medium forward, we should be thinking about new ways to design games. In video games, there is a concept of ludonarrative dissonance, immersion breaking effects of a game and its story being at odds, such as a game where the “Hero” regularly goes on massive killing sprees. However, I think the idea of ludonarrative dissonance / consonance is just as, if not more, relevant to tabletop. I enjoy “story games” and rules-light systems that make it easier for me to tell a particular kind of story, but I also think that a game can be used harmonically with the world and the story. That being said, not every game is or should be like a Traditional Fantasy Dungeon Crawl, so let’s design some new Crawls!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://img.itch.zone/aW1hZ2UvNDQ2Mzk1LzIzMTIyMzAucG5n/original/K%2FBtka.png
A while ago, I talked about Shadowrun: Anarchy, a rules-light version of Shadowrun that uses a narrativist ruleset called “The Cue System.” I’m not normally a fan of narrativist games. My experience is usually that most of the game elements I like get stripped out in favor of giving more wiggle room to keep the narrative in place.
As I was digging around, I discovered that Catalyst Games Lab applied the same rules system used in Shadowrun: Anarchy as they did the Valiant Universe RPG. Having recently got my hands on a copy of the Valiant Universe RPG, and being a casual (but uninformed) fan of Valiant Comics, I spent the next few hours reading it and sharing details about it to my friends who also like Valiant.
So today, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Reasons The Valiant Universe RPG is Super! (Hint: Most of them come down to “The Cue System Is Great For Narrativist Games.”)
1) Title Exposés
Any comic multiverse, mainstream or indie, is going to have a large collection of characters, settings, worlds, and story arcs: such is the nature of any medium that’s constantly being written, with an ever increasing lore. The Valiant Universe is no exception.
The Valiant Universe RPG uses Title Exposés, two page long series of synopses, to bring potential players and gamemasters up to speed on the setting. As many modern games seem wont to do, every Exposé is led by various tags and cues for what that arc is about. For example, if you were looking for something involving advanced technology, you can take a quick look at Shadowman’s Tags (which includes terms like magic, necromancy, and spirits) to see if it’s worth reading further.
2) Organizations and Sample Characters
The Title Exposés use a lot of Proper Nouns, without much further explanation. This is normally a pet peeve of mine, especially in original fiction. However, the Valiant Universe RPG functions a little bit more like an encyclopedia: even when something is mentioned in one place, you can often find another detail about it elsewhere. This is where Organizations and Sample Characters come in.
Many of the named characters or organizations are further described, and in the case of characters, they likely have a stat block for them. Just like the Exposés, they include tags and cues, too, so you there’s no wrong place to start; be it organizations, characters, or arcs.
The most important thing about the organization section, however, is that it describes not only their involvement in the setting, but also their day-to-day activities, meaning there’s plenty of room in the Valiant Universe for original characters!
3) Scenario Briefs
There’s sample characters, organizations, and different settings abound explained for people new to the Valiant Universe, but what if, even with all that, a potential GM still has trouble fitting all this information together? Enter the Scenario briefs!
These, like the Title Exposés, are two pages long and list cues and tags for players to work with. They follow the familiar Three Act Structure, with a setup, confrontation, and resolution across the introduction and three scenes. Furthermore, it lists objectives for the player characters to follow, and even refers to sample NPCs that might appear in given scenes!
4) The Cue System
One of the most prominent features of the Cue System is what the system gets its name from: Character Cues. These are one-liners and taglines that describe characters, settings, and scenarios. Some of the setting cues don’t mean as much if you’re not already familiar with the setting. However, if you notice a character you like in character section, you can make a note of their tags and flip through all setting, character, and scenario sections that share that tag to get a better idea of how everything fits together.
5) Valiant Comics Setting
A few years ago (when I could still afford them) I was a big fan of comic books. While I usually followed Marvel, I also really liked indie or smaller press companies, such as Malibu, Image, and even Valiant. Ever since I was a young boy, I always gravitated towards strange and unusual things, favoring Robert Frost’s proverbial Road Not Taken. It’s often led to me finding some real gems, and in modern days, things that address people’s grievances with pop culture.
Valiant is one such case. While many, including yours truly, sometimes bemoan how DC and Marvel comics reuse the same plots while rebooting their stories ad infinitum to create an eternal crisis in their universes, Valiant can only boast having done so once. (And this was because the company was being refounded two decades after it collapsed!)
Characters in the Valiant universe follow long standing arcs, many spanning thousands of years, and switching allegiances as they crossover from one story to another. This setup allows for all kinds of different stories to happen, and characters to be expressed in all manner of situations, without retconning what previously happened.
Setting all that aside, the beauty of The Valiant Universe RPG is all in it’s presentation. It’s detailed in its explanations of the setting and characters, and has all the important major characters from Valiant Comics’ story arcs. At the same time, it also includes shorter, easier to digest information via cues. The two ways of presenting this information makes it great for cover-to-cover reading, as well as just scanning and picking out specific information.
When I picked this up, I was originally only familiar with Shadowman and Bloodshot, and only had a passing familiarity with X-O Manowar. But, even with just some brief skimming, I was able to get a grasp on Bloodshot’s impact beyond his personal mission, and also found a new favorite arc in the Valiant Universe: Quantum and Woody, the two slapstick superhero brothers that fight each other almost as much as they do the villains!
Aaron der Schaedel is the host of an eponymous YouTube channel. On it, he talks about all kinds of different RPG, either slicing through the rules for really dense ones, or shining light on oddities. Aaron would greatly appreciate if you would check out his channel, and subscribe if you like what you see.
Picture Reference: https://www.catalystgamelabs.com/valiant/
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/
Help support High Level Games at our patreon.
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.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games