Break out the acetone, cause I'm stripping that Ravnica sheen off of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. The latest setting book from Wizards of the Coast has a lot to offer someone who enjoys the setting of the world's most popular collectable card game, but is it any good for someone who doesn't? In a book all about a specific, high magic setting, can we take away the Ravnica and come away with something usable? Here is a quick list of things we can all use by just filing off those serial numbers.
1) New Races
Need I say more? Oh, ok, I guess I will. Centaur, Loxodon, Minotaur, Simic Hybrid, and Vedalken make their appearance here. Two of those, Centaur and Minotaur have existing places in any mythical fantasy setting. Loxodon, or elephant people, have the same half-man half-animal thing going on, so not too much of a stretch. Simic hybrid and Vedalken are a bit more on the science end of fantasy, but we can work with that. Those running a spelljammer campaign have an easy fit for Vedalken, but they could exist right along side of elves, albeit with a shorter lifespan, which could give them the time and the separation for an alien point of view. Simic hybrids are a bit easier, replacing their expertly grafted appendages with the grotesque, Frankenstein-like stitching of the mongrel folk from earlier editions and Curse of Strahd.
2) Guild, Contacts, And Advancement
Here's my take on the guilds:
Azorius is a lawful neutral police force, Boros is a lawful good army, Dimir is a lawful neutral spy organization, Gruul are chaotic neutral tribes of wanderers who hate civilization, Golgari is a chaotic neutral sewer dwelling guild of the creepy and dead, Izzet is a chaotic good guild of crazy inventors, Orzhov is a lawful evil church syndicate, Rakdos is a chaotic evil circus of demon worshippers, Selesnya is a neutral druidic nature group, and Simic is a society of scientists building the perfect future. Each guild is mechanically a background, giving you access to guild features such as guild spells (for spellcasters), contacts, and tiered rewards as you progress in the guild. Guild spells are extra spells added to a caster’s list they can choose from. These spells are themed to each guild and balanced very well. Player characters start with three contacts. The contacts are kind of generic, but at least can be tweaked a bit. Judge, procognitive mage, and “promoted into secrecy” are a few examples. Once you get to know the guilds it's easy to substitute your local military for a Boros Sunhome Guard or a thieves guild member for a grateful Dimir spy. Each guild uses ranks which grant rewards. This is a great melding of factions and the renown system in the Dungeon Master's Guide with the bonus of something to strive for. Each rank gives you more access to guild hierarchy and usually other faction members you can call into action for you.
3) Adventure Building Tools
I really hope Wizards continues this in future supplements; they put so much goodness into this chapter. This chapter makes the book worth buying. First, every guild has an adventure map to use. These are good sized maps with a lot of rooms: great for tactical play. The maps are done by Dyson Logos and are minimalist and very easy to copy onto a battle map. The lack of specifics in each map (chairs, tables, rugs, etc.) make these maps easy to use in any setting or location. I've already pulled a few out in my home game. There are five tables for each guild, d10 adventure goals, d8 villains, d6 assignments and hooks, and d12 adventure ideas for each map. There are also one hundred adventure goals, eighty villains, 120 assignments and hooks, and 120 adventure ideas. While I haven't sat down and used these tables, they are a great addition to my already extensive collection. If I need a certain trope, say a spy or a military villain, I can just pick a similar guild, Dimir or Boros, and roll up a quick villain and scenario. Through the previous chapters you have gotten to know the guilds, and understanding how the guilds relate to fantasy tropes really makes these tables useful at any table, especially in the middle of a session.
4) New Monsters And Magic Items
Some stand out magic items, based off of magic cards, are included in the book. A few are heavily thematic, but can be changed to suit your campaign world. There's a dwarven thrower that explodes and requires an action to call back; a pair of bracers that let you cast a copy of a cantrip cast with a bonus action. There’s another set of bracers as well which allow you to cast a spell you don't have memorized or know with a chance for a random spell if you fail. As far as monsters go, there's a rage beast template for boosting beasts, an evil angel and krasis. A krasis is basically an upgraded version of mongrel folk; customizable with three sizes (medium, large, and huge) and two d8 tables of major and minor adaptations.
Some of the creatures come with new traits we can steal for our regular ones. Aura of Blood Lust makes creatures within thirty feet attack randomly. Feed on Fire causes a creature that takes fire damage to grow bigger until it finally explodes and starts over.
Taking Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica apart and incorporating it into your home game is a relatively simple and painless process. Even in the area descriptions of the Tenth Ward I found some really cool ideas to use in my game. Digging in a bit for yourself, you can find more little gems building off of the existing rules, new favorite monsters, or even a new favorite class. So go out and grab yourself a copy, and if you already have it, let me know what you are using at your table!
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Patreon.
Picture Reference: http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/guildmasters-guide-ravnica
A friend is currently running a kickstarter for his wild west roleplaying game Ballad of the Pistolero. Last time I looked the game was just over one third funded. By a strange coincidence I am also working on a wild west themed roleplaying game and the two of us produce games that are about as far apart as one could get. Mine is more fast paced cinematic action of Saturday morning Lone Ranger and Casey Jones. Ballad of the Pistolero is akin to the Old West of fiction from The Searchers, to The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Red Dead Redemption.
On December 31st I pulled my Indiegogo crowdfunding project, a matter of hours before it went live. I had created all of the assets for it right down to video trailers. I decided that crowdfunding was not the way I wanted to go. What I have seen in 2019 has only reinforced by opinion that Kickstarters are not necessarily the ‘good thing’ for games that they are portrayed as.
If you had ambitions to write your own RPG and fund it through a kickstarter then you may be interested in my reservations. Maybe you will look at them, take them on board and address the concerns to your own satisfaction. At the very least your business plan will be a little bit better and stronger for having looked at potential problems, and thereafter having a solution in place should I be right.
1) Where Do Your Sales Come From?
The most basic kickstarter or crowdfunder is based on, pledge money and get advance access to the final game. In effect it is a pre-order system. There are normally tiers of rewards and the more you pledge the more you get. Lower tiers offer PDF copies of the final game and then higher tiers bundle in printed rules and even hardback editions. So why is this a problem? The problem is that if you have a large number of pre-orders, even if everyone you know, and everyone they know, that has any interest in your game has it on pre-order where are future sales going to come from?
2) You Don’t Get What You See
If you have a pledge target of $3,000 and you hit $3,000, you do not get $3,000. There are two big slices that get taken out before you get to spend your war chest. The first is the platform fees. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not charities. They exist to make money and they are going to take a typical 8% of the total pledged. Then there is tax. The money pledged is taxable income and the tax man/woman is going to take their slice. After those two a $3,000 target leaves you with little over $2,000 to actually spend on finishing your game.
3) Fulfilled By Drivethru
This is not OneBookShelf’s fault in any way but a great number of kickstarters are fulfilled via Drivethrrpg.com. What this means is that they will handle sending out all the PDFs and eventual printed books for you. You upload your supporters list with what needs to be dispatched and they do the rest. You then just send them the money for any printing and delivery. So where is the problem you ask?
The problem as such is not with the fulfillment (that is a great service) but with the way that OneBookShelf and DriveThruRPG rank games. They only count the games that people pay money for. A game that sold one copy for a single cent will outrank a game that has a million free downloads. Therein lies the problem, all your sales were pre-orders and the money doesn’t go through the tills, so to speak. You could send out a thousand copies of your game and it will be nowhere on the popularity rankings.
4) The Real Cost Of Stretch Goals
Many kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns have additional rewards if they exceed their initial goals. You may think you need $3,000 to finish your game, but what if you raise $5,000 or $10,000? You may think that it is a nice problem to have, and in some ways it is. Where the problems start is with the danger of over committing yourself and unforeseen expenses. Along with this is the sheer production time. You probably have your game already written before you even started your kickstarter, but what if you are now committed to producing a GM’s screen and ten adventures?
Your production queue now extends months further into the future and you will want to send out all these things at once to your backers to save on post and packaging. Suddenly, you have a big lag between completing your game and sending out the goods to your backers.
This also touches on that ‘future sales’ issue. If everyone already owns everything, do they need to buy more?
If there are unexpected expenses with any of these stretch goals, like your artist ups their rates as they didn’t realise the project was going to take up so much of their time, you cannot go back to the backers and ask for more money.
5) Natural Born Failure
In many respects Kickstarters are popularity contests. It is not the best games that get funded, it is the game designers with the most social muscle who can get the word out about the game. Sure, great art helps. A game trailer video helps. If no one thinks to search for you kickstarter though, no one is going to see or read about it. You need to shout it from the tree tops, figuratively speaking and for that you need a big audience.
If you kickstarter doesn’t succeed then your game has started life as a ‘failed’ kickstarter. If you try again, your profile shows how many campaigns you have tried and how many succeeded. Starting life as a failure is not exactly auspicious.
Trying to fund a new game is always going to involve an element of risk. At the time of writing there were 525 tabletop role playing games looking for funding and another 20 on Indiegogo all vying for your money and support.
If you can make it work for your game, that’s great, but that is against a backdrop of John Wick Presents, who raised $1.3M for 7th Sea 2nd Edition, being unable to deliver. The company laid off staff and push back delivery time but could not avoid the eventual death of John Wick Presents, in March, when it was gobbled up by Chaosium Inc. If that is what success looks like, it could be time to reevaluate one’s goals!
There are success stories out there. There must be or Kickstarters would never have caught on, but there is a vested interest to publicise the success stories to make pledgers trust the platform. Games publishers want to tell the world about their successful campaigns as it makes the game look popular and successful.
As for my little wild west game, it is out on Drivethrurpg as a free to download playtest edition and quickstart. So far it has had 325 downloads and more daily. Maybe, just maybe the number of people who have downloaded the game will be my audience and I may go for a kickstarter in the end but I probably won’t. I think I would rather take my chances in the general marketplace and avoid the worry.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Cover image copyright Peter Rudin-Burgess
Please take a moment to consider supporting this platform at Patreon. Also, please note this article gets pretty vulgar, and contains mild spoilers for a whole crapload of shows, movies, and video games, most notably Halo and Assassin’s Creed.
Everyone's been there. You're at the table, Cheetos in hand, dice at the ready, and the GM gives you that look. That look. The 'I'm-so-great' look. That smug half-smile that tells you they're about to drop their latest display of their own genius (or edginess, or creativity, or whatever) on you and your unsuspecting comrades.
Except whatever it is, you've seen it. You haven't just seen it, you've seen it done a million times, backwards and forwards, ever since you were a wee baby gamer critting your nappies. Maybe it’s cringey, maybe it’s just played out, but either way, you’re sick of it. Good news: so am I! So let’s get all these pet peeves out on the table.
1) Questgiver Betrays You
If my entire career’s contribution to gaming is to get people to do this one less, my life will not have been spent in vain. I suppose I can hardly be shocked that this crap shows up in our tabletop games over and over, because it shows up in our larger media over and over as well. Grognards, look back at our formative adventure media, like Buffy, Xena, Hercules, Charmed, Highlander: how many episodes revolved around the titular hero(es) being asked for help by some put-upon victim only to find out that the ‘victim’ was either setting them up for an ambush, or using them as a catspaw to eliminate a rival (and probably then die in an ambush…)? It’s okay, you don’t have to answer. And if you haven’t seen any of these shows, then spoiler alert: it’s all of them.
This trope turns up in video games, too. Like, all of them. Linear games like the first installments of Assassin’s Creed and Halo went through a period in the early 2000’s where virtually every game was built on a framework of a mysterious knowledge holder parceling out jobs for you only to betray you in the end, usually fighting you with an arsenal of shit you’d handed to them. Fortunately, video games now have moved on to the era where the only type of game anyone makes anymore (other than indy sidescrollers where you play a deformed cartoon child who’s dreaming and/or dead) are massive sandbox games, where we can joyfully exchange the predictable disappointment of being betrayed by the primary questgiver for the mind-numbing tedium of being betrayed over and over by an endless stream of sidequest-givers!
I’m a huge fan of stealing things from books, movies, TV shows, and video games for your TTRPGs. Do that, as much as possible. But don’t steal this concept. Like, ever.
2) The Treasure Was A Fake
Now, don’t get me confused: I’m not talking about a Maltese Falcon situation, where the treasure the story is ostensibly centered around turns out to have been counterfeit. If the true goal of your story or campaign was something else, with the treasure as a MacGuffin to move things along, then go with God.
No, no, I mean when the primary goal of a story is a specific treasure (be it actual money, a magic item, or even a person) and the end result of the story is that the promised treasure isn’t just not where they thought it would be, but that it never existed in the first place (or has long since been destroyed).
Here’s the deal: that treasure is the carrot you’ve used to goad us poor pack mules into moving this story along for you. We’ve dutifully carried your GM baggage up all these goddam hills, over the rickety bridges, and we force marched through the night for you. Now it's time to pay up. I understand that sometimes an interesting bait-and-switch keeps a game exciting, so you need to give the asses across the table from you an apple or a bag of oats instead of the promised carrot. But if you don’t give us anything, then it’s not a cooperative journey anymore, it’s just animal abuse.
3) You Wake Up Pregnant
It’s a tale as old as TTRPGs themselves. The men in the group carouse like there’s no tomorrow. Elven prostitutes are purchased by the truckload. Farmer’s daughters fall before the bard in droves. The moment the one woman in the group dares to take a dashing stevedore to her bedchamber, though, suddenly the tone shifts. The next morning, as the group prepares to depart, she suffers a sudden and “unexplained” bout of nausea.
Right about then, I do too.
I’m not talking about situations where there’s a good story reason. 99 times out of 100, that isn’t the case with this silliness. It’s almost always a reactionary lashing out. The woman character is being punished for daring to express sexuality, while the men continue to dip their wicks with impunity without fear of pregnancy (I cannot help but notice that the elven hookers and farmers’ daughters of the world return demanding child support with far less frequency than the lady adventurers wind up trying to find the Middle Earth family planning center) nor the rampant sexually transmitted diseases they ought to be racking up.
4) It Was All a Dream
AKA, the coward’s way out of a TPK.
Now I don’t mean a scene which is clearly a nightmare or a vision; that’s totally fair game. I mean scenes where the players made meaningful progress in their stories, suffered meaningful consequences (and yes, that progress might have been a fatal mistake leading to the consequence of dying), and are then told all that time was just meaningless. Nothing steals the impact from an important event like finding out it was all a hallucination.
Most of the time this is a problem, it’s because the GM is trying to fix something they screwed up. Even when they planned it out, this shtick can fall flat if it falls into the valley of mundanity: the dream sequence is engaging enough that the players care about what happened in it, but mundane enough that it seems believable. You need to either have a clue here or there that something is wrong, to prevent them from feeling that the rug is getting yanked out from under them, or else you need to go full-tilt Hellraiser on them and make the adventurers beg to wake up in a urine-soaked bedroll.
5) He Was Just an Old Man!
The heroes have successfully infiltrated the villain lair, and finally spotted him: the dastardly mastermind is caught unawares or jumps out to menace them. They roll initiative, start throwing fists, and to their shock, pulp the boss in one shot. Like, horrendously. Usually accompanied by a gruesome description of necks shattering, eyes bulging, and blood flying. Unless you’re playing a hyper-moral game (like most superhero RPGs), there will inevitably be a frightened eyewitness to point a horrified finger and scream about what monsters the PCs are.
“Look what you did! He was just an old man!”
Look, I get it: most heroes tend to pull the “Get ‘er, Ray!” plan as their primary tactic. It can be frustrating as a GM, but this ends up backfiring most of the time. In many TTRPGs, letting the villain go first will often spell certain death for PCs or innocent bystanders, and unless their recklessness is really out of control and you need to give them a reality check, pulling this trick on your players makes them doubt their own abilities. A villain who controls a vast network of evil minions in a setting where adventuring vigilantes are common shouldn’t be going down in a single stroke to aforementioned vigilantes.
6) Oh Look, Another Evil Child
In many ways the exact opposite of the last trope. You’ve seen this one over and over: the veneer of innocent child, and in a shocking twist, the kid is evil! Ooh, surprising! Unless you’ve already seen The Omen, Children of the Corn, the Exorcist, The Good Son, The Bad Seed, select episodes of Buffy, Angel, Highlander, and the X-Files, or every third episode of Supernatural…
You need innocent kids (and innocent bystanders). That kind of hook is your nuclear option for getting recalcitrant players invested in a plot, and when you suborn it like this, you screw yourself over in the long run.
My players would probably make the argument that ‘Sweet Elderly Person Who Turns Out to Be a Supernatural Powerhouse’ should fall under this heading too, but fuck ‘em. That one’s my bread and butter, and I’m going to run that particular horse is never too dead for me to beat one more time.
No, wait. You know what? I’ve got one more bonus pet peeve. A repetitious occurrence that’s been infuriating me the last few hours:
Bonus: This Shitty Listicle
Seriously. Who does this guy think he is? If I think back on my absolute favorite moments in gaming, a huge number of them fall under one of these headings, or used one of these tropes to further their story. So why do I hate them so much? Why would I break my normal rule about negative articles and spend hours writing the most hateful soapbox speech I could think of?
Look, I think these ideas are played out. I’ve seen them over and over again, and gotten seriously tired of them over the years. Does that mean they’re bad ideas? Not necessarily. In point of fact, like most things that are ‘basic,’ they’re so widespread because they’re extremely enjoyable. You could use any one of these ideas and craft a pretty damn good story.
So what’s the takeaway? Maybe just keep an eye on your friends, and try to be aware of what tropes are getting overused in your group. When you get more than one eyeroll at a reveal, maybe it isn’t your voicework or the monster that’s getting the reaction; maybe it’s the set-up that folks are tired of seeing.
In an event, what are your favorite tropes to hit over and over again? Which story tropes are you absolutely sick of seeing repeated ad infinitum?
In addition to being a complete hypocrite who has used every single one of these tropes multiple times, Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. He enjoys writing for High Level Games when he isn’t writing for the Black Library or Mad Scientist Journal. His most can be found in Inferno! (vol 2) from Black Library. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://lukebrimblecombe.blogspot.com/2015/08/fantasy-tropes.html
I’ve known Jason Andrew since 2016, when I met him during White Wolf’s Grand Masquerade in New Orleans. Jason is part of the development team for By Night Studios, as well as having a large history as a game writer. He was a guest at HLG Con, and I’ve talked about his book Mystical Rome on this blog before as an example of a setting that would work really well for an RPG. Well, now Jason and his team at Mighty Narhwal are bringing us a game system that takes a crack at a universal system for tabletop and larp under the Morra Cinematic Roleplay banner. Oh, and that crew is running Mystical Rome as a larp in the Pacific Northwest this year, which is going to be amazing.
During HLG Con, I got the chance, briefly, to play some Morra with my friend Victor. The game was run by both Jason and Andrea of Mighty Narwhal and I was really digging both the setting and the system. Their team just released an Alpha Slice of rules for people to dig into. It's a playtest document, and I really want to suggest you look them over. Below are my highlights.
1) Defining A Genre
This was the first thing that caught my eye with this system. There is an entire backend development system where you can create your own genre of play, based on movie tropes and styles of cinema. Want horror? You can do it with Morra. Want Superheroes? You can do it with Morra. Whatever you think would make a fun genre, you can do that with Morra and it will work. Because the system mimics cinema, rather than being perfectly simulationist, it allows for a lot of flexibility of genre that is sometimes hard for universal systems to really crack. If you want the feel of the genre to really be there, you can build it into the way you run the game.
You do this through a series of choices, Define the Target Audience, Rating and Content Descriptors, Media Length, Pitch, and Budget. So, if I create a Teen, PG-13 Superhero Show, that usually runs 30 minutes (3-6 game sessions), with the idea that these are Teen Heroes struck by the power of the gods, with a low budget, I now have enough to craft the basic confines of the world we’ll be playing in. It’s straightforward and allows for both safety calibration from the start and a way to get a sense for what play will look like.
2) Character Creation Is Quick And Light, But Also Deep
One of my biggest struggles with games I like is how long it takes to create characters. I love games that have systems that are deeply intertwined from character creation onward into play and development, but there are times games can get too big and clumsy in that integration. Morra isn’t one of those. The systems for character creation can be done in 20-30 minutes, tops, with lots of distractions. How do I know? I think I got pulled away from CC at least 4 times during HLG Con and still really was able to get my character done.
Archetypes, Motivation, Quirks, Background, Side, Attributes, and Skills are at the core of the system. Archetypes are developed as part of the genre, motivations are cross-genre, as are quirks, backgrounds and side are influenced by both, and attributes and skills are universal, but can be customized to the setting if required.
I’m a d10 or d20 chucker in most games, so it was interesting to see Morra using a two-d6 system, which it utilizes really effectively. It’s a dice pool system though: Attribute + Skill + Wild Card + 2d6 = Action Pool set against a difficulty that changes based on various factors. All in all, it feels intuitive to me, and easy to follow during play enough that I was looking at my sheet and suggesting rolls I could make by the middle of my first session. That’s often a hard thing for me when I’m playing new games where I have to try and figure out what I can do in play before I can look toward how to make my character do what I think they should be able to make happen.
There is more to the system, but this basic set-up is a solid underpinning and you can find out more in the Alpha slice yourself.
4) Mystical Rome
First, go and check out Jason’s Mystical Rome novel. It’s really well written and very interesting. It looks at Roman culture without a lot of baggage that most writers bring to the setting and while it is slightly creepy at times, it presents an alternative Rome in a light that is simultaneously engaging and in-keeping with history. Then go and check out the section on Mystical Rome in the Morra Alpha, and then sign up for the larp. I am in no fit state financially to attend this event, but I really wish I were because it looks amazing. The setting sells itself, but attached to a universal system like Morra it means I can run Mystical Rome and then turn around and switch genre’s without having my players have to memorize an entirely new ruleset every time we decide to go in a different gaming direction. It’s a win-win.
Morra is one of the cooler universal gaming systems out there to date and I think it’s going to create some serious excitement. It’s tapping into the gaming zeitgeist in a way we need. Check it out, and let us know what you think in the comments.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Picture Reference: https://www.redbubble.com/people/mightynarwhal/works/21654245-mighty-narwhal-productions?p=t-shirt
Fifth edition D&D is relatively free of any complicated or confusing mechanics. From its very conception, it was meant to be a more streamlined version of the game. This not only made it more accessible, but it also allowed for people to become more invested in the game because they didn’t have to sift through two books just to find the correct things to add together to find they were looking for the wrong ability the whole time. But at the same time, for a lot of people, it took a lot of the “meat” out of the gaming experience. I personally lie somewhere in the middle. I think too many mechanics can choke a game and not enough can make it feel bland. 5E D&D lands in a strange position for me, where I think it has plenty of interesting mechanics that it just doesn’t utilize enough. Here are some of those mechanics and some ways I think they should be used more.
1) Damage Resistance And Immunity (And Vulnerability)
Now, I’m sure you’re moaning that this is something that is all over the place in 5e monsters. However, I am of the opinion that there should be more resistance and immunity opportunities for players. There are a lot of ways to gain condition immunities. But damage is something that is so dangerous to start allowing characters to ignore. It can become very difficult to balance. But I think the important thing to remember here is that if you make more powerful characters you can make more powerful encounters. Now, I understand that having everything being scaled up constantly can make the game drag on and make encounters stay past their welcome, but I think this is a way to make characters feel more powerful without having to shake things up too much.
You gave a character fire immunity but still want them to take the full damage of a fireball for some purpose? Change the damage type of the spell. There are so many different damage types that giving players resistances and immunities essentially have no long term impact, but throwing their favored damage type at them occasionally will still make them feel more powerful. It also allows for more interesting battle strategies, where players can use other players to draw fire or be a meatshield.
Another thing to consider with damage resistances is armor. In the real world, armor was made to counter certain weapons. Plate armor, for example, was fantastic against piercing and slashing weapons but could be crippled by bludgeoning forces that could bend or crack the metal. So you could give a character using plate resistance to both piercing and slashing weapons and vulnerability to bludgeoning weapons.
2) The Battlemaster Subclass. The Whole Thing.
I will sing my praise for the battlemaster subclass until the day I perish, and on that day I will request that they carve the PHB page number for the subclass and the words “look upon my works ye mighty, and despair” onto my gravestone. When this request is inevitably ignored, I’ll go to whatever afterlife has been selected for me and I will then complain that there were far too many subclasses that gave spells to classes that didn’t need them and far too few that gave interesting multi-use abilities to classes that begged for them.
If there was a single ranger subclass that was modeled after the battlemaster subclass, by the gods I would make a dozen more rangers on the spot. A great example of this is a Roguish Archetype made by The Huntsman over on DMs Guild. It wonderfully implements these similar mechanics into the game under another beloved base class. (You should really check out their stuff, they’ve put a lot of work into their subclasses and I think it really shows.)
The battlemaster subclass is *mwah* beautiful. It allows for personalization within itself and adds so many layers of strategy in such a simple way. It’s a real shame that more abilities aren’t able to be used multiple times in a similar fashion. Of course, it’s understandably a lot of work, and there's a lot of balancing issues behind making something like that. So I suppose I’m happy that there's already one subclass that’s like this.
Reactions are probably my favorite addition to this edition. They allow for an extra fluidity to combat and let players feel like they have more influence. Personally, as a DM if a player says, “Can I use my reaction to try and XYZ if he misses me?” More often than not, I’ll let them. But for the people who don’t like stepping that far outside of the rule book, reactions can often feel a little distant. Sure there are some spells and abilities that allow for them, but most of those are highly situational. I suppose what I’m asking for is more general purpose reactions.
A parry. A riposte. Both are already battlemaster abilities but that's, not the point. What if every class had a base reaction ability to being missed by an attack? A wizard is missed and gets to cast a cantrip as a reaction. A fighter is missed and gets to attempt a disarm. A monk is missed and is allowed to make a counter attack (without bonuses). I personally believe that of all the mechanics that are underused on this list, reactions are the most egregious offenders. There’s so much to put into this little mechanic and a lot of space for both utility and flavor in it. Yet it’s mostly just sitting there. Waiting. Alone in the dark. With a tub of ice cream. It still remembers her smile. Her laugh. He hasn’t shaved in far too long.
Then a wizard cast shield and he felt a little better.
In everyone's life, there are moments where nobody is really doing anything impactful. Where you’re just doing the 9-5 and going day to day. Now, for adventurers, their downtime normally consists of hunting down the next job, but there's so much more they could be doing. Business, mingling, gambling, and building are all possible endeavors they can set out on and spend time on. If they start up a business, not only do you have something to keep players interested in the story, but they also have something to give them money to spend on other investments.
In my humble opinion, downtime is a surprisingly good way to get your players invested in the world. It keeps them busy, and it reminds them that there's more to the world than dragons and orcs and necromancers. There are people out there just trying to get by. There are places out there that no one can ever quite settle in to. There are pocketbooks out there just waiting to be emptied. Everyone is trying to make their fortune. Downtime is a good way to explore a new type of fortune for players that can get as in-depth as they would like.
There is a lot more to say about the failings of 5e in regards to the mechanic saturation in the game. But in all honesty, it’s a near perfect mixture when you take into account how diverse the average gaming table is. 5e D&D is really a home run in a lot of different ways, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. The available options for character customization are abundant and interesting. There really isn’t much else to say other than the combat and mechanics sometimes just lack that satisfying crunch. Even though this is my favourite mixture of roleplaying and mechanics yet.
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://merovia.obsidianportal.com/wiki_pages/battle-master
I used to have a bad habit of not knowing, or not remembering, where I had seen interesting game systems and supplements. More often than not I had to just Google it. If, like me, you've grown tired of all the scrolling and searching, and just want to jump into the good parts of buying RPGs online, then this list may help. These sites are where I go whenever I’m on the prowl for something juicy to sink my teeth into. From system specific to ‘just-about-everything-under-one-virtual-roof,’ this list compiles my favourite sites for downloads and hard copies of RPG content and essentials.
1) Drive Thru RPG
If you’ve looked into RPGs online you’ve definitely heard of it. Everything you could possibly want or need in one place for so many games, systems, and genres that there’s something for everyone on this site. Not only do they sell digital downloads, they also do hard copies and print-on-demand when available, shipping costs are fair. This is the site I began my upward spiral into RPGism (similar to video game addiction but better) and is a go-to when I struggle to find what I’m searching for elsewhere. They also have themed holiday sales with my favourite being the run up to Halloween and their horror themed sale.
2) Game Lore
More than just RPGs, Game Lore covers all kind of games, from card games like Eldritch Horror to board games like Settlers of Catan and more. As a result of the vast and diverse library of games their RPG section is less than DriveThruRPG, but still substantial enough to keep me coming back time and again. The interface is easy to use, with categories and subcategories to quickly jump between departments. Game Lore has regular sales as well as a ‘damaged’ section which usually means slight dents on the box with the contents being 100% untouched.
A publisher of solid RPGs, from Achtung! Cthulhu to Fallout and Mutant Chronicles. They also provide wargames setin the universes of the RPGs, offering you the chance to not only play your hero, but also try your hand at some tactics as you decide who wins the battle going on in the background of your last campaign. Modiphius is a retail site I check in on once in a while, as I love the Achtung! Cthulhu game and they provide their customers with free living campaigns. Make sure to sign up to their newsletter, which is crammed with all the good news from their top notch systems and games.
4) Evil Hat
Another independant site, they have a great selection of games as well asmy favourite system (FATE). They also have a wide variety of world books for the FATE system and a whole lot of physical aids such as dice and cards. The site is nice-looking as well as easy to navigate. I’m on this site more than I need to be really, but I just love looking at what's new in their world! This is also the home of the Dresden Files games based off of the books written by Jim Butcher, and the ‘Improv for Gamers’ book designed to help give new and rusty players a little tune-up.
5) Humble Bundle
A great site that combines various hobbies with charitable donations, Humble often has a variety of sales for RPG PDFs. The last one I saw was a huge stock of Pathfinder supplements, as well as the core rules and bestiaries, with the Starfinder core rules thrown in for the big spenders. All that came to around $20 for the lot, so swoop on by if you want to grab a bargain at the same time as making a donation to a good cause.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy your time browsing through even more RPGs than before. Fingers crossed that you find your next great adventure within the pages of these sites or even rediscover an old favourite! Whatever you do, I hope you have a great time, whatever you play.
Ross Reid has been reviewing games and RPGs privately for many years until he was approached by High Level Games to come write for them, and is currently working on a fantasy novel. Ross enjoys all kinds of games to procrastinate.
Picture Reference: https://www.specialeffect.org.uk/specialeffect-news/a-fantastic-humble-rpg-book-bundle
Even though a large portion of people participate in play-by-post games, most roleplaying games are written assuming you will play live, either in person or online. The guidelines written in these books as well as the rules, sometimes simply do not support play-by-post to the best of its ability. I have recently started a play-by-post game, only to realise most of my GM experience was useless. For this reason, I’m sharing what I have recently learnt when playing a play-by-post.
1) Speed Up Dialogues
When playing a live game, you want to keep things as natural as possible, thus making interactions last long and having multiple comings and goings between the characters involved. In a play-by-post this is simply not feasible. Take the following dialogue for example:
- ‘You there! Guard!’ called out Jaeger the Paladin.
- The guard, turned around to face him: ‘Yes? What is it citizen?’
- Jaeger, running to the guard and out of breath exclaimed, ‘Have you seen a man wearing a red hood?’
- ‘A red hood? Perhaps, what’s this about?’ demanded the guard.
- ‘He has stolen a special belonging of mine, I need to find him,' said Jaeger
- The guard smirked ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’
- Jaeger quelling his anger for the corrupt city watch, barked ‘I’ll give you a gold coin, just tell me where he is!’
- Taking the coin in his hand and biting it the guard replied ‘He went that way, through the sewer entrance, though I hardly recommend you go there. That’s the Knives’ territory it is.’
This simple dialogue which would take less than a minute in a live game, could take hours or days in a play-by-post game. It involves four posts from a player and four from a GM, assuming they check the game twice a day, that’s two days at best for this interaction to resolve.
Now, we could clean it up a bit and organize it as such:
- ‘You there! Guard!’ called out Jaeger the Paladin. ‘Have you seen a man wearing a red hood? He has stolen a special belonging of mine!’ he exclaimed, leaning on a wall to catch his breath.
- ‘A red hood?’ the guard asked. ‘Might be I did, what’s in it for me?’ he said smirking.
- Jaeger, quelling his anger for the corrupt city watch, barked, ‘I’ll give you a gold coin, just tell me where he is!’
- Taking the coin in his hand and biting it the guard replied, ‘He went that way, through the sewer entrance, though I hardly recommend you go there. That’s the Knives’ territory it is.’
By simply adjoining as much text as we can into a single post, we have cut down the time by half, and that’s a significant amount of game time.
2) Share the Narrative
Depending on the style of play, most of the time players will be asking the GM whether they can attempt something, if there is something in the scene available for them to interact with, or if they may move their character to another scene or location. For there to be ease of play, this must be removed entirely. Players should be encouraged to try things without asking. The GM intervening should be the exception, and not the rule. That way we can turn this:
- Player: ‘Is there a mug on a nearby table?’
- GM: ‘Yes, there are plenty of mugs and bottles around. Why do you ask?’
- Player: ‘Can I throw it at the men fighting?’
- GM: ‘Sure, go for it!’
- Player: ‘I grab a mug from a nearby table and throw it at the men fighting in an attempt to call their attention.’
3) Ignore Initiative
Combat is fun, until you need to synchronize several people living in different time zones for it to work. Having to wait for each previous player to act before deciding what your character does increases the game time greatly. To solve this, simply have all players post what their characters will attempt when their turn comes, and then resolve it simultaneously or in order of Initiative. This might require some tweaking depending on the game system being used, but it’s the best way of reducing combat time.
4) Keep the Pace Up
Normally a game is recommended to have its ups and downs, moments of tension followed by moments of relaxation. With a play-by-post game its difficult to extend the tension over periods of hours or days, so most players will be pretty relaxed when playing, regardless of what is happening. Building up the pace could take days or even weeks, so just go ahead and go straight to the action. Instead of leading them slowly into the adventure hook, have them start directly at the hook.
5) Play Simultaneously
In a live game, it’s impossible for two players to be talking to the GM at the same time, so it’s OK for other players to wait for their turn. In a play-by-post, everyone can be playing at the same time. It should not only be allowed, it should be encouraged. This saves a tremendous amount of time, the GM can reply to several messages at the same time and keep the momentum going.
6) Be Clear
Each time the GM or a player has to ask exactly what you meant in your last post, that's time lost. Try to avoid unclear or implicit posts. When attempting tests be sure to explain the What, How, and Why of the test. You can read more about it in my other post: 5 Things Players Should Consider Before a Skill Test.
In general, you should strive to reduce the amount of posts needed by all players to the minimum possible, that ensures the story advances in a steady fashion and everyone has an opportunity to participate and have fun, which is always the objective of roleplaying.
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebones casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
Back in August of 2016, Monte Cook Games launched a kickstarter for their game Invisible Sun. At the time, there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the game, with very little details of what all the obtuse terminology the game was using meant. It had numerous components, each with a name that wasn’t explicitly indicative of what purpose it served, and further, the game wasn’t made available online. It was described as a “Luxury RPG Experience.”
As of February 2019, however, Monte Cook Games has announced that they were going to release Invisible Sun digitally in pdf form, along with a digital preview of the game. When it initially came out, I mostly ignored it. Though with the release of the preview, I decided to dig into it a little bit, because I believe that an informed marketplace is a healthy one.
If the title of this article is any indication, I was not impressed with what I was able to surmise. So for your reading pleasure and to help you make a more informed decision as to whether you should get this, I bring you Five Things Wrong With Invisible Sun!
1) It’s Expensive And Excessive
When it was initially funded via Kickstarter, the lowest tier that gave you a copy of the game was set at approximately 200USD, and since then, the price for a pre-order of the next batch of these to be shipped out is about 300USD. This is a steep price tag for any game, especially when you consider that the trio of books for Dungeons and Dragons is about 150USD (oftentimes much less), with the options to eschew certain books if you don’t want or need them. Even the digital copy of Invisible Sun goes for about 100USD.
While Invisible Sun does come with numerous books, there’s also other props it comes with that, frankly, probably aren’t necessary. Props such as The Testament of Suns, which is a plastic hand meant to hold a card for everybody around the table to see.
Invisible Sun’s weight, according to its listing on Amazon, is 30lbs (about 13.5kg). There’s a lot in this box which, even if one isn’t opposed to paying a high price point, still means you’ll not only need to find room for this 30 inch cube (about 75cm), but you’ll need to lug it around and move it about when you’re going to play.
And the game has several books, several decks of different cards, and several other things that contribute to our next concern...
2) It’s Poorly Designed, Organized, And Explained
The rules and all the pertinent information needed to play the game are spread across four different books, as well as numerous different decks of cards. Some of these decks contain information that isn’t reproduced in any of the books, according to their web page. This means if one of these cards is lost, that’s a part of the game that’s likely to be lost as well.
Four books sounds like an incredible thing for a game to have, and I will give props to Invisible Sun because they do seem to divide the content of the books up pretty reasonably: basics information in one book, setting information in another, etc etc. That’s an idea I can get behind, since one of my favorite games, Tenra Bansho Zero, has a similar setup for its English edition.
However, if the table of contents is to be believed, the index for Invisible Sun is located in the back half of the book “The Gate.” While I’m fond of the multi-book approach, putting the index in just one book like its an encyclopedia does open up some problems. What if that book is unavailable, and you need to find a specific piece of information within it?
Furthermore, on the subject of indexes, Invisible Sun does a little bit of indexing throughout itself. This is a welcome answer to the issue of the index being in only one of the books, but, they picked a jarring place to put these mini-indexes: right in the center of the page.
3) It’s Not As Original As It Claims
Invisible Sun makes some very bold claims; among these being that it’ll change how RPGs are played, it’s a new way to play RPGs, and also that it includes “magic that is truly magical.” These are all claims that, at best, are exaggerated, with one of the big selling points being that includes rules for how to play without having everybody present, or even when the GM isn’t present.
On its own, that isn’t a problem. How to handle player absence would ordinarily be something I’d welcome in a rulebook. It’s one of the praises I sing of Meikyuu Kingdom. In fact, if a player character is absent for a session, there are codified rules on how that character can still contribute to the game.
However, these are issues the greater RPG community has, for the longest time, already solved. We’ve figured out how to run games without a GM, we’ve already come up with and codified the idea of flashbacks as a gameplay device, and we’ve also come up with having one-on-one scenes between GM and Player.
It takes hubris (or being wildly out of touch) to codify these things we’ve been doing for so long, and use it as a selling point for your boutique priced game.
4) It’s Pretentious
“Invisible Sun is deep. It’s smart. Just like you. Invisible Sun will change the way you play rpgs.”
That is the the final line in the original sales pitch for Invisible Sun, the crowning gem after a passage of nonsense and promises of solving problems that were already solved. This page has since fallen off the Invisible Sun website, replaced instead with a somewhat more informative one that describes the setting and premise a little better.
Arguments could be made in contrast to the first three points: Invisible Sun is smart because it codifies these solutions the community has solved. It should command a higher price for this benefit, since there are games that don’t do this. Other games have obtuse settings and a blurred line between where rules and setting information are.
However, it’s this collection of traits, convoluted layout, obtusely described setting, high price point, and being described as a smart game for smart people, that marks the sort of snob appeal that makes it pretentious.
Given that this hobby is social in nature, though, it behooves me not to villainize anybody who likes this games. So more power to you if you were one of the folks who got your hands on the limited quantities of Black Cubes out there. Just keep this in mind: high barriers to entry, monetary or otherwise, means there’s not likely to be as many players for your game.
I’ll end this article on a slightly more amusing note.
5) Bonus! Poor Security For Their Web App
This factor isn’t really a strike against the game, so much as something that makes me think perhaps the team at Monte Cook Games is out of touch with the modern world. (After all, never blame on malice what could just as easily be incompetence.)
Invisible Sun also had a companion app developed for it, though it isn’t available on the Google Play or Apple App stores. It’s instead what could best be described as a web-app, a website that has the functionality of a smartphone app. In my quest to dredge up more information on Invisible Sun, I came across the app, and wondered if registering might yield any secrets.
There’s one field that asks for a specific word, from a specific page, of a specific book that Insibile Sun comes with. This is what we call a Dictionary Encryption, and it’s an old form of securing information that was also used as a form of copy protection in about the 1990s.
However, the app doesn’t seem to include a captcha verification. Meaning somebody handy with scripting languages could potentially brute force their way through registration, trying every possible word to fulfill the Dictionary Encryption. (An activity that, we at High Level Games do NOT condone.)
Aaron der Schaedel is aware of the folly of punching up at a name like Monte Cook in this hobby. Having been chased out of other circles for more absurd reasons, though, he remains unperturbed. You can chastise him for questioning a long time member of the industry via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.montecookgames.com/store/product/invisible-sun-preorder/
So, here’s the deal, guys and gals:
I have never, in all my time roleplaying, seen such enthusiastic fervor for Dungeons & Dragons. Late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers are coming back to the game in droves. Millennials are discovering the game for the first time, and in many cases, since 5th Edition is the first edition of the game that they’ve played, they’re becoming masters of the rules and living archives of spell duration and effect, creature difficulty and Hit Dice, and the ins and outs of class sub-specialty versus bi-classed characters… and somewhere, in the middle, there are some pretty awesome groups playing games every week with all of the diversity in culture, sex and background that anyone could possibly want. Husbands are finally playing Dungeons & Dragons with wives, Fathers and mothers with sons and daughters, and the internet has made players and Dungeon Masters in one-horse towns in Nevada or snowed-in hinterlands in Michigan reachable via Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Discord; reachable by players and Dungeon Masters in Glasgow, or the UAE, or a military duty station in Bahrain.
The games are out there. Finding a great group is a wonderful thing. It can be done, and now, it can be done more easily than ever. However, there are a few things to keep in mind for players both new and old coming back to Dungeons & Dragons or who are discovering the game for the first time.
1) Be On Time
We have a saying in the military; if you’re not fifteen minutes early getting to where you’re supposed to be, then you’re late. Don’t be late to game night. At least, don’t be late to game night without calling, texting or sending out an email to let everyone know that you’re going to be late or that you’ve run into something that will keep you from attending the game altogether. There are any number of avenues with which the absence of a player can be handled, and ultimately, it’s up to the DM. However, it is polite to let your fellow players and DM know well in advance of the start time for a game session if you’re going to be late or if you won’t be attending.
I’ve also had DMs no call/no show on an entire assembled gaming group who are waiting for him or her. As a matter of fact, that is exactly how I began running the campaign that I am running now. This is a little more detrimental to an assembled group, and in all honesty, a lot harder to recover from. If you’re lucky, you’ll have another member of your group that is able to pick up the ball that the absent DM dropped. If not, you’re just hanging around when you could probably be doing something more constructive with your time.
My suggestion would be to obtain phone numbers and email addresses on the very first night that the group assembles, even before character creation. Use these tools to communicate with one another. I use my players’ emails to handle down-time/long rest activity in between sessions, and I have made it absolutely clear to my players that not communicating an absence is something I’ll only let happen twice, and on the second time, I’ll ask them to leave the group due to the overall lack of respect that they’ve shown myself and the other players.
2) Do Not Ever Argue Rules With A Dungeon Master
There are five separate editions of Dungeons & Dragons. For each of those separate editions, there are some similarities, to be certain, but by and large, those similarities are the minority. If the similarities weren’t the minority, there would be no purpose in creating a whole new edition of the game. So, this being the case, when you understand what edition of the game you’ll be playing and you agree to it, do not argue rules systems, die rolls, or results with the DM.
Not only is it rude, it’s distracting and it takes the wind out of the room for the other players at the table.
If something has been done to one of your characters that you simply cannot abide, that you cannot just roll your dice and say “Wow.
That’s not what I wanted,” then finish the session, and contact the Dungeon Master the next day advising him or her that you won’t be returning to the game. If it’s THAT BAD, don’t go back… but do not ever argue rules, rolls, or reactions with a DM.
In my opinion, and having it done to me more recently than I would like, I would even go so far as to state that this is a violation of a cardinal rule of Dungeons & Dragons regardless of edition.
There are people who serve as living, breathing rulebooks. They have read every book, memorized every spell, know every single stat for every single monster. Ever. I cut my teeth on Dungeons & Dragons playing with one of these people. He was one of my best friends throughout my school years. It was his hobby not just to play the game, but to memorize every aspect of the game and, sadly, to use every single bit of knowledge he possessed to argue for it all to weigh in towards his character’s advantage, more often than not.
But here’s the catch: For every Dungeon Lawyer, there is a DM out there who can shatter their perception of the game’s ironclad rules system, which to be completely honest, has never been very ironclad at all. The rules are a guideline to maintain order within the game and to address systems that a DM might not have an immediate answer for. The true game of any roleplaying game is the story being told that stars all the players’ characters at the table as protagonists.
Don’t argue. Again… walk away. Don’t waste time trying to prove how you’re right and the DM is wrong. It will serve no purpose other than to make you look petulant, make your fellow players resent you, and make your DM think about the best, most artistic way to eliminate your character from the game.
3) Let Your Talents Shine
If you can draw maps, and you’re good at it, then let your DM and players know. If you’re talented/skilled at painting miniatures, then let your DM and players know. If you’re an above average artist, and you want to play around with sketches of fellow players’ characters, don’t hide it. Let them know.
I have a Cleric in my current group who is a fantastic artist. She does character sketches and draws scenes of what’s going on in the game for characters who might be the “star” of that scene. I have a Fighter who is one of the best mini painters I’ve ever sat at a non-Warhammer 40K table with who paints all my miniatures for NPCs that I purchase. What do I do to show them that they’re appreciated? “What’s your favorite chip? Soda? Pizza’s on me, too.”
These people are valued not only for their participation in my game, but also for the talents that they bring – literally – to the table when they show up for a session. Don’t hide these things from anyone, and don’t ever think that someone’s going to criticize you for doodling or sketching while you’re playing. Show your gaming group what you’re good at, and I can practically guarantee that they’ll find a way to compensate you for including them in it. Even if it’s free pizza, soda and chips on game night.
4) Share Your Books
Dungeons & Dragons books are like textbooks; they’re very expensive. They’re worth every penny, but they’re expensive. My advice to anyone who spends the money on books is to put their name in it, but also be prepared to share them. Not all your fellow players have the same resources available to them as you do. Just like in the game, some characters will be more well off than others. Don’t hesitate to let someone look through your Player’s Handbook for something they’re not sure about, or better yet, if you do understand it better than them, show them in the book where it is, mark down the page for them, and take the time to explain how it works to them.
Why the list of page numbers? One of our players hit a financial rough patch not too long ago, and the last thing he was able to do was purchase a Player’s Handbook. For his birthday, we decided to all kick in our pizza money one session to gather up enough cash to buy him a Player’s Handbook and a nice set of dice. Since he’d been writing down all the rules questions he’d had when he referenced other players’ books, he had a list of bookmarkable pages for his own book when Amazon shipped it to him two days later.
Sometimes, stuff like this can be one of those random acts of awesomeness that cements a gaming group together for years.
Don’t let people abuse your books, but don’t ever hesitate to share if they don’t own physical copies like you do.
Now, if you've been allowed to share a book by an owner, treat that book like a true treasure. Do not lick your fingers as you turn the pages. Do not dog ear pages. Mind how you treat the binding. Don't ever set a drink on a book. Treat that book as though it were the only copy of the book in existence.
Don't ever take someone's generosity or property for granted.
5) Be Excellent to One Another
I don’t care what your relationship is to your DM or to other players at your table, don’t be an ass. I don’t care if you’ve been my friend for ten years and you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for twenty, don’t be an ass. Odds are you’re going to be playing with people who have not been playing for as long as you have. They deserve as good an experience with their discovery of the game as you do. Keep your nonsensical behavior of your character in check. Do not disrupt the entirety of the game with ridiculousness unless the DM has set the stage for ridiculousness to ensue. Do not talk over younger or newer players, and do not make decisions for younger players or newer players..
It’s the wrong thing to do, and deep down inside – game or not – you know it’s the wrong thing to do.
Let the younger and newer players have the opportunity to move past their anxiety at playing and their reservations with meeting new people and discover their own voice.
Just like you did the first few times you played Dungeons & Dragons.
Respect the DM who is trying to create and weave worlds of wonder around all of you for the time you have together. Spend that time together laughing, adventuring and escaping… but don’t make game night all about you, because it isn’t all about you.
It’s about the table. Remember that.
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon. He can be reached at email@example.com
Picture provided by author
With the rise of Virtual Table Tops (VTTs), the opportunity to play Dungeons and Dragons (and other TTRPGs) without a local group has become increasingly flexible. While most people may still prefer to play in person, many people have turned to VTTs as the only option in rural areas, or to play with friends across the world. While playing online presents a new set of challenges, following these tips will help ensure it is the best possible experience for everyone in the game.
1) Find The Platform
There are a lot of Virtual Table Tops to choose from, and picking one can become a bit overwhelming.
Roll20 is the best combination of versatility and functionality. Supporting dozens of games from D&D, to Call of Cthulhu, to Pokemon, Roll20 is relatively easy to learn and boasts three million user. This makes it easy to find a group to play with, and you can play for free with no real limitations.
Fantasy Grounds offers less options (a dozen of the most popular), but is more user friendly and purportedly has better customer service. At least one person in your group will have to pay a premium fee to use it, however.
Tabletop Simulator can play just about anything (including chess, checkers, etc.), but the graphics are limited and it’s not as user friendly. It’s a one time fee of $20 on steam, making it a cheaper option that Fantasy Grounds. Leave other suggestions in the comments below!
2) Vet The Group
When you play online, it’s likely you’ll be roleplaying with a bunch of strangers. This has the potential to cause quite a few issues as game expectations, communication, and play styles inevitably clash. To help avoid most of these issues, you can make sure you are very selective about who you play with. Whether you’re the DM or a player, the following are important to know:
How old, in general, is each player (Teen/minor, college kid, young adult, older)?
What are they looking for in the game (a fun time, lots of roleplay, primarily combat, a good story)?
What is their play style (leader, tactician, power gamer, etc.)?
How much experience do they have with this system and with TTRPGs in general?
What class do they plan to play?
What is their personality (you might have to gauge this through casual conversation)?
3) Talk Outside Session Times
I’m a fan of doing text-based roleplay with my group between sessions, but even if you’re not into that, it’s important to check in with your group every couple days. You can talk about what you’re looking forward to in the next session, recap the previous session, strategy, or what’s going on in each other’s lives. The point is to both form a relationship with the people you’re playing with and stay in a mindset of team play and narrative focus.
4) Over Prepare
When you play online there’s fewer traditional responsibilities such as hosting or providing snacks. Since you don’t have to worry about these other things, it is best to over prepare for your session. Know your character sheet and abilities by memory, know some macros or shortcuts for whatever VTT you’re playing on, and know where the narrative has been and where you want it to go. This will speed up session time and shows courtesy to the rest of the group.
Communication in online groups is just as important as in person, but in many ways it’s more difficult. Talk about problems early. Be polite and try to see the other person’s perspective. Basically, just act like adults. Use emoticons to express intent behind your words. If issues really get bad, take the time between sessions to get some space and reassess your desire to be in the sessions. You don’t have to see these people in real life, and in some cases that’s beneficial.
Playing with people online can be difficult at times. But if you follow these five steps, you can have a long-lasting and fun experience playing TTRPGs online.
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/stuff-we-love-roll20-lets-you-play-dd-with-people-anywhere
When I saw the early teasers for this setting I almost exploded with excitement. When the Kickstarter launched I was a backer really early on, and I am thrilled to have gotten a chance to learn more about Swordsfall from Brandon Dixon, the creator. I hope you are as excited as we are to learn more about the game and how it's going to rock your world.
1) Tikor is an animist world, and Swordsfall is an Afro-futurist setting. Honestly, that was all I needed to read to be excited for this project. But, for those folks that haven't been able to dive deeply into the material on your website, what are the key elements of the setting you think people should know?
Well, the biggest key element for anyone to know is that Swordsfall is first, and foremost, Afrocentric. That means that all the underlying lore, and structure is from Africa. Specifically Pre-colonial Africa. So at first, there are a number of things that might feel like business as usual, but you'll quickly notice its not. This comes into play with things like the position of King. In pre-colonial Africa, King just meant ruler. And there were quite a few nations that were matriarchies. So you had lines of Kings that were all women. And they enjoyed all the same power as their male counterparts. It's a small change, but you quickly realize how much that ACTUALLY changes.
Swordsfall has a number of things like that. When you start taking out the European based parts of fantasy, you quickly become surprised at how different it can actually be.
2) T'umo Mere is doing the amazing art that goes along with the book, and I think the art goes along so strongly with the setting it nearly speaks for itself. That said, what were some of the principles that went into deciding what elements to focus on in the art for the setting?
Well, T'umo is an artist I picked specifically for his style. I had browsed Pinterest and Google Images for about 7 to 8 months while I was world building. There was a lot of great art out there, but not a lot of black art. And I knew that for Swordsfall I needed an artist who didn't just occasionally draw minority characters but did it OFTEN. And in various characters and types. I've always been a fan of that "old school" sketchy style. I came across T'umo's work when I came across a Black Panther fanart piece that just blew my mind. The style was PERFECT and after cruising through his Artstation, I saw that he drew a ton of black characters. Then I found out he was actually from Botswana. I knew I had found the perfect artist for my project.
When I contacted him and started telling him about the project, he was almost immediately on board. Then he started on the first piece, the Minos picture that's broadly displayed on the Kickstarter banner. And now, we're here.
3) The one thing that I'm not seeing on the Kickstarter, or the World Anvil is information on what system the RPG will use. Is this going to be all new game mechanics or are you using a system that is already out there?
Haha, ah yes, the rules. The question everyone has asked since I launched the Kickstarter. Well, the main reason I haven't talked about it is because I don't like to talk about things till they're done. Or done enough for me to REALLY talk about. It's why I didn't really launch Swordsfall till I was almost a year and 150,000 words deep.
But I'll tell you a bit about it. The system itself is a mix. It was originally a hack of the Genesys system and it's grown into more. I wanted a narrative system, but one with a bit more crunch. Something solid enough to feel rooted, but free enough to be fun and fluid. A lot of people bring up the custom dice when I say Genesys, but one of the first things I did was break the dice down. I show how to play with regular dice, and it's super easy actually. In some ways easier than the dice symbols...
I call it Cinematic Play. As rather than be about battle by numbers (Crunchy) or imagination (Narrative), I'm taking bits of both where it makes sense. Part of that combo comes from the Profession system which is my answer to Classes. "Welcome to Tikor" is actually a giant clue to the tenants of the game mechanics, as they're all born from lore rather than gamification.
4) Can you tell us more about the various nations in Tikor? I'm particularly taken with the various locations, particularly Vinyata and Grimnest, but I'd love to know more about the people that live in these places.
So there are two Great Nations; Garuda and Vinyata. That's where the bulk of the meta-plot happens, and they make up almost 70% of the landmass on Tikor. So needless to say, you'll deal with them a lot. Garuda has a moderate climate, so lots of trees and forests in between open plains. Garuda is run by the Divine Order of the Phoenix, an organization partially founded by the deities of Garuda. As a nation, it's fairly decentralized, with the populace spread across the land and some in remote locations. It's very much a place that differs depending on where you go.
Vinyata is basically one giant desert. The Southern Hemisphere of Tikor is almost all desert and ruined land. This was caused by a mix of the ancient battles between Dragons and Deities in the area, and the punishing heat from the second sun, Adume. The main people that live there are the Dracon. They are the descendants of Ryuu-jin, a dragon who rebuked his kin and fought for the side of Tikor. His betrayal is what helped tip the battle toward the side of good. However, the world was never able to look over the fact that he was a dragon. And this ingrained hatred was passed down to his children, the Dracon.
Overall, the world of Tikor is huge and it's one of the reasons why doing the setting book was so important. There's Grimnest, a land with no ruler or government but plenty of pirates. Then you have Hawklore which was founded and run by god turned king, Hawken. In the waters that surround the landmass, you have the island of Teslan where Crystal Priests study the secrets of the world's biggest source of energy, Azurean.
And you can't forget about the rest: Ramnos, Ebon Cascade, The Canopy, The Isle, Martalan and so much more.
5) With so much amazing lore on this game already, how long has it been in development? I find myself getting lost and learning new things every few clicks when I'm on the site.
Well proper, Swordsfall has been in development for just shy of a year. However, I started the original story when I was just 17. So the seeds were sown over 18 years ago, ya know? It all started when a group of friends and I decided we were going to make a video game. My job was the story and world, someone did programming and another person was doing music. Well, in the end, I was the only one that followed through. I wrote about 40 pages of world building and basically fell in love with the story. Back then it was called Ethereal though. Over time I'd tinker with it, write a small chapter here or there, and a character and such. I'd then take little pieces of the world and use it in other Tabletop campaigns. I used the character's names in video games and such as well. Haha, my World of Warcraft account after the novels come out is going to be hilarious. My toon roster is basically the names of all the main characters from the meta-plot and books.
One day I decided to do a "new" storyline for a campaign. But that time around, something was just different in me. I wanted to do more than a simple campaign. I wanted to do something deep, something fulfilling. I knew that this was the right time to finally make my old story happen. So I sort of did a giant world smashing event. I grabbed all the side stories, campaigns and random things born from Ethereal, and the campaign idea I had called Swordsfall and put it all back together. Once I did that, it was clear I had something special. My brain had just worked through this whole world in different sections over time. And when I put it all together finally, it just clicked. I spent the last year fleshing out all the parts of the story I had ignored. Connected pieces and doing in-depth research on pre-colonial Africa to give it a real backbone.
6) What is the central conflict that you expect players experiencing Tikor to focus on? There are so many interesting hooks that it is hard for me to pick just one, but what would a good starter idea be if I was a GM looking to drag some excited players into this world?
In a way, you can pick themes by picking places on the map. So like with any tabletop game, the first question will be "What's the tone going to be?". If you want to see the futuristic, Afropunk side of Tikor then you head to Northern Grimnest to visit the city of Prime. If you want to crazy tech and awesome tattoos, that's the spot to start. Looking for a more classic fantasy romp? Then head to Garuda, where the area is vast enough for huge sections to be unexplored or poorly mapped. When danger and death is a must, an expedition to the Ebon Cascade is the ticket. Waterfalls of acid and light emitting vampires are all there to be found.
Part of the fun with doing a whole world is that I didn't have to create any singular experience. I was able to let the history of the land truly transform it. One thing that's missing from some TTRPG's these days is the understanding that a world is actually quite big. Traveling a landmass is no small feat. The first thing a post apocalyptic world drives home is how FAR something like ten miles can be. While Swordsfall is not post-apocalyptic, it is a world unconquered by man. Travel isn't as simple as buying a plane ticket, nor is it as basic as foot travel. It's as a world as advanced as the world ITSELF seems to allow. It gives each land its own feel and vibe without being alien.
7) Is there anything else you'd like to leave us with? I'm already breathless.
I'm excited for everyone to finally be able to sit down and read what's been in my head for half my life. This isn't just a single setting to eventually be paired with a single rulebook. This is a world I truly love, and one my artists are quickly falling for. I want to do this for a long time, as long as I can in fact. I'm 50,000 words into the first novel with the outline for 7 more. I have a number of short story ideas, with one half finished. The comic book Stretch Goal won't be the last one we do either.
So if you enjoy what you see of Swordsfall, then pack a couple of suitcases. You'll be on Tikor for awhile.
Check out Swordsfall on Kickstarter
Josh Heath is the COO of High Level Games. He likes to do interviews when he isn't running Kickstarters and creating projects upon projects for the writers to work on.
There is an ongoing debate that most of us will be familiar with. It comes up at the office, it is especially prevalent at the local café, and it leads to fights at Comic Con. When it comes to coffee… how dark is dark enough? Some would argue coffee should stay in its natural state: black. Others - whom I shall refer to as heretics - choose to put milk in coffee, making it essentially tea. As you may have guessed, I like mine black.
All of this to say, I like my fantasy like I like my coffee: so dark it makes me contemplate the inescapable and all-encompassing vastness of the void, putting into sharp contrast my own meagre existence, a tiny speck of dust, insignificant in the greater scheme of things, and like most life in the Universe, essentially meaningless.
Welcome to Warhammer, kids.
Here are 4 reasons why Warhammer Fantasy is a… fantastic setting.
1) This Isn’t Your (Grand)daddy’s Fantasy
Are you tired of classic good vs evil tropes? Do you feel like your medieval fantasy setting isn’t quite apocalyptic enough? Ever find yourself thinking “these elves would be a lot more interesting if they looked more like a Norwegian death metal band?” Well, have I got the setting for you.
Warhammer Fantasy - or the Old World, for the setting specifically - manages to at once be familiar and derivative, while also original and different to everything else in this genre. You can’t call yourself a geek if you don’t know what an elf is. Orcs, dwarfs, trolls... these are all familiar to you as concepts. The great thing about Warhammer is that it takes these established tropes and builds them into a solid, interconnected web of factions that have complicated relationships with one another - and many an excuse to go to war against each other.
And all the while, the gods of capital ‘C’ Chaos want to literally watch the world burn.
In the simple sense, it’s Tolkien - but everyone’s an asshole.
If one were a little unkind, one might describe the setting of Middle Earth as a little naive, or at the very least, too black and white. In terms of morality, the Old World is definitely a greyscale, one that someone’s gone and spilled a bunch of Nuln Oil over (hobbyists know what I’m talking about); it’s all distinctively dark.
There are no “good” people. And, with the exception of Chaos and verminous Skaven, there is no real “evil”. Just when you think someone’s gone and done something unbelievably, irredeemably evil, someone’s already done something worse. There is conflict, and in conflict, there is victory and defeat. And depending on which side the pendulum swings towards, that faction is right on that particular day.
If anyone enters the forest of Athel Loren, realm of the Wood Elves, they are killed, skinned alive, and their corpses left to feed carrion. Are the Wood Elves evil? They are defending their realm, and when you remember those same humans will set fire to these forests and destroy the homes of ancient spirits, you have to think… maybe they had it coming.
Vlad von Carstein is a vampire, a ruthless overlord who will enslave a populace, turn their dead into a horde of zombies for him to wage war - but he does it to defend his territory and to claim that which was denied so long ago - his rightful (at least to him it is) title of Elector of the Empire. Cruel, but then, he’s more or less a regular feudal lord… with a little help from necromancy.
And Nagash - a priest who was obsessed with conquering death, in a culture who was obsessed with conquering death, and he murdered, lied, backstabbed, and dark magicked his way to obtaining immortality… thus conquering death. So he immediately begins to dish it out, like it’s promises on election day. Basically, Ramses but with actual necromancy. And, naturally, he wants to kill everyone, and raise their souls as his slaves.
Ok, Nagash is a bit of dick.
2) Everything Is Turned Up To 11
So the Old World has everything, but with a spin. That might be original enough to launch a product of minis and call it a day. But what truly sets Warhammer apart is how everything is absurdly exaggerated, whilst remaining - if not entirely believable - coherent in its own universe.
Dwarfs are known to hold a grudge. Warhammer dwarfs have turned it into literal bookkeeping. Their king rides into battle on a war palanquin carried on the shoulders of his warriors, with a giant tome containing every wrong, sleight, and heinous crime committed against his people. He is aptly named Thorgrim Grudgebearer.
The elves are noble and haughty. And in the Old World, they are a xenophobic, decadent and dying species, whose noble courts are ruled by infighting and backstabbing, hidden Chaos worship, and their noble prince turns into a bloodthirsty madman.
Furthermore, the elves are split into three factions: the depraved and xenophobic high elves - corrupt and dying. The Dark Elves, murderous slavers whose king and his sorceress mother would fit right on the cover of a heavy metal album. And the Wood Elves who will tear out your heart and sacrifice it to their forest gods if you step on a fern.
The lizardfolk are not just bipedal saurians you might encounter in caves. They have a sprawling empire, and are the most ancient of species. They guard life on this planet, and they have a grand plan - one that probably involves genocide of all other species.
Chaos are the lovechild of Abrahamic legend and Lovecraftian horror. I mean, there’s no “love” in that, but… you know. And yet, you could argue they’re not evil in the same way entropy isn’t evil. They are a dark mirror of this world’s own follies, come back into our “reality” to exact the toll of everyone’s own evil.
And, my favourites, the Tomb Kings - what if Egypt had actual necromancy. What if the pharaohs could actually become immortal, albeit undead? How would that society look? How would a culture whose sovereigns are immortal (and possibly insane) actually function?
The great thing about it all, which also sounds strange when you say it, is that it all makes sense. All factions and species are interconnected, and have got beef with each other. Dark Elves are a splinter faction of the High Elves whose king is the rightful heir to the kingdom of all elves. A dark elf sorceress gave Nagash the secret to necromancy, who created a kingdom of undead, one of whom became the first vampire, whose vampire lover moved North, where he became a count in the Empire, who are sometimes allied with the dwarfs, who fight the Wood Elves, who are another faction from the same kingdom of elves, and so on.
This is complex faction map with so much history and nuance that it should honestly be studied in political science classes.
3) The World Is Always On A Razor’s Edge.
While the post-apocalyptic genre has become established and has blossomed of late, there is a slightly less numerous style of world-ending fiction: the pre-apocalypse. It’s more difficult to do right, because if I may paraphrase an “established truth” of literature and filmography: if the world’s been ending for too long, it gets boring.
Likewise, there’s an inherent problem with grimdark (and I’m proud to have made it this far without using the word): if it’s all too bleak with no hope, then what’s the point?
Warhammer exists in a fine balance of shining heroism that stands out against the dark background all the more for how striking the contrast is. And with the world being as insane as it is, you might find yourself rooting for someone like Malekith (not the Disney one), the exiled prince of the elves whose civil war to claim his rightful throne left his kingdom in tatters, the elves forever divided and hateful of each other. I won’t say #MalekithDidNothingWrong, but the man’s got a point - he was betrayed. So when he finally got his throne back, I thought it was well deserved, if bittersweet. Plus, he’s a stone cold badass.
And that’s the other thing, with the world being so insane and in such constant and extreme danger, heroics are all the more impressive. Take the Empire, one of the human factions, or “what if the Holy Roman Empire had wizards”. Day to day life in Reikland, one of its richest provinces… is not easy, folks.
If it’s not ratfolk burrowing under the city to explode (literally) into the streets, it’s undead invading the burgh, or maybe it’s beastmen. If it’s not them, it’s Chaos. Daemons showing up everywhere, crazed followers of the corrupt gods invading from the North. Yir auld ma’s turned into a plague daemon. Everything is insane.
Yet the Empire endures.
4) You’ve Got A Bit Of Everything.
Besides amazing, inspiring, scary and insane, the word I’d use to describe the setting is: complete.
You can do anything.
This is why it is perfect for a tabletop RP campaign. There is dark mystery: exploring abandoned dwarf forges, going through ancient ruins, venturing into Sylvania and trying not to become a zombie-slave. And there’s grim horror in the land of the Tomb Kings or the Vampire Counts, and let’s not forget about the Lovecraftian monstrosities conjured by Chaos.
There is thrilling action and high fantasy adventure. Dragons’ lairs to explore, villages and cities to save (they constantly need saving, after all), ancient secrets that can save or doom the world - or moderately delay its inevitable demise, at least.
Combine this with the rich history built into this world, and the complex political map mentioned above and you’ve got a thriving, living (if diseased and dying) world to explore in a setting that is both familiar and like nothing else out there. Except maybe Age of Sigmar, but I’m still bitter about that.
Against this backdrop of constant danger and madness, there are those stories that inspire. A detachment of Reikland gunners holding the line while civilians flee a beastmen horde - that’s awesome. The dwarfs locking shields in a last stand against endless Skaven - that’s heartbreaking. Thorgrim getting vengeance for those deaths - inspiring. Durthu, a kind and ancient tree spirit is burned to a husk by the dwarfs, and turns into a gigantic, perpetually charred rage-monster - that’s tragic. Malekith the Witch King kneeling before an orc warboss in order to get the challenge-loving greenskins to attack his enemies - and, oh, by the way, all this to save the world - that’s amazing.
Grimdark doesn’t have to be constantly depressing and relentlessly hopeless. In an insane world, look to the mad ones to lead the way. Because against a tide of unrelenting Chaos, against constant attacks by monsters, mutants, daemons, and hordes of crazed bloodthirsty lunatics, who else could stand against the tide - but the utterly mad, and the truly heroic?
Anderson is a swarm of bees in a skin suit who have attained sentience and decided to infiltrate society as a writer. Their hobbies include: kendo, painting miniatures, scheduling Warhammer and D&D. When they’re not writing, they’re studying anthropology (to better understand humans).
If you’ve ever been part of a long-running game, you’re no doubt familiar with what some folks call supplement fatigue. This is a condition that happens when the game you’re playing has a great deal of additional books beyond the core, and you start to feel overwhelmed trying to take it all in. Even if you’ve been with that game since the very beginning, constantly reading new books and trying to keep your mental software updated feels exhausting.
This is around the time people start talking about “bloat” in regards to a game. Because it used to be streamlined, easy-to-play, and no problem to run. But now… well, now it takes an entire library shelf just to make one character.
If you’re one of those players (or storytellers) who gets bent out of shape over a game being “bloated” then you’ll be glad to know this problem doesn’t really exist. It’s all in your head.
I talked about this back in There’s No Such Thing As Bloat in RPGs, and Here’s Why, but some of these points need to be reiterated. Points like...
1) One Player’s Feature is Another Player’s Flaw
Think of the mechanic you hate most in a game. Maybe it’s your least favorite race, that vampire clan you can’t stand, or that one rule that you just wish would be deleted. I guarantee you that, for another player, that is one of the things they love about the game.
If you’re honest with yourself, I bet there are at least a few supplements that you think are good, or which represented a step in the right direction for the game as a whole. But those supplements you like will be seen as unnecessary bloat by other players. So if we can’t even agree on a definition about what bloat really is, then chances are it may not actually exist at all.
2) Finding Things Isn’t Nearly As Hard As You May Pretend It Is
Another metric some people use for accusing a game of being bloated is that it becomes impossible to find the rules you need in a timely fashion. You can’t remember if this merit was in a clan book, or in that one Middle Ages sourcebook, or if it was somewhere in the base book’s optional rules section, and everyone’s looking at you, waiting for a ruling, or for you to declare your action.
In ye olden days, this could be a legitimate problem, requiring several folks at the table to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s rules and errata. However, technology has shouldered a lot of this workload for us. Now all you need to do is type in the name of a mechanic, or ask a database for the rule, and pop you’re there in seconds, and you can read the text aloud for your table. So while there is more stuff, it isn’t as difficult to parse through as a lot of folks would have you believe.
3) You Don’t Have To Use It
While there might be some crazed completists out there, it’s important to remember that supplement books are just that… supplements. If you want to include the half-dozen Ultimate books in your Pathfinder game, or all the special rules and lore in the different clan books for your Vampire campaign, you totally can. That’s what they’re written for, after all. But you are under no obligation to do that.
I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating. You do not have to buy supplementary books, you don’t have to read them, and if someone at your table actually has one, you’re under no obligation to allow them to use that book in your game. If you just want to stick to the basic books with no additions, that’s your call. If you want to allow the first two or three supplements, but nothing else, that’s cool too. And if you want to allow anything and everything at your table, that’s your choice.
It’s all there for you to pick what you want from. And it seems like a lot of folks forget that.
But Game Publishers Just Want My Money!
I’m going to say this for all the folks in the back: Every business out there that creates a product you want is out for your money. The authors you read? Money. The video games you buy? Money. Your favorite YouTubers? Well, they’re trying the best they can to get money.
These companies don’t put these products out just for the love of the game (most of the time, anyway); they’ve got bills to pay. And if there’s a market of folks who want more content for a game, then rest assured publishers are going to keep putting out more stuff as long as people keep buying it. That’s why we’ve got something like 500 The Fast and The Furious films.
And just like with gaming supplements, you don’t have to go see them if you don’t want to. Nor are you required to like everything in a series if you’re just a fan of one or two extra installments. Keep what you like, and ignore the rest if it makes your games better for you.
For more from Neal F. Litherland, check out his Gamers page, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! You can also find books like the sword and sorcery novel Crier’s Knife on his Amazon Author Page.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/au/listing/183531915/rifts-conversion-book-rpg-vintageantique
Hey Loyal Readers! Welcome back to High Level Games and we'd like to welcome back Craig Campbell of Nerdburger Games to the site. About a year ago, Craig ran a successful Kickstarter for his game, CAPERS, which is a Supers game set in the Roaring 20s, filled with gangsters and lots of other fun tropes of the era. And now, a year later, Craig is running another successful campaign for the expansion to that game, CAPERS Noir.
Our intrepid Chief Operations Officer who lives in the shadows decided to reach out to Craig to talk more about what makes CAPERS, and CAPERS Noir special.
1) Craig, you've been busy since we had you on for an interview last. You created CAPERS, you developed Die Laughing, which you ran at HLG Con, where you were a game studio guest. How do you feel with all these great creations coming out from Nerdburger Games?
The past year has been huge for NerdBurger Games. We published two games, CAPERS and Die Laughing (and CAPERS has a bunch of support material that was part of the Kickstarter and is now also available online). I went to twelve conventions in twelve months, ran a ton of games, and met a lot of cool gamers. I started a Patreon, dipped my toes into Twitch streaming, and have announced the very first glimpses of a new game that’s under development.
CAPERS has turned out to have a very solid following and is seeing a lot of sales and interest, post publication. And to top it all off, CAPERS won a Judge’s Spotlight Award for the 2018 BAMFsies, which was totally unexpected and incredibly flattering.
It’s been a great year!
2) It seems like the core conceit about Noir, is that the timeline for CAPERS has moved into the 1940s. What should we expect to see with this setting shift?
The focus of the 1940s variant setting is that of crime noir. The intent is for the stories to swing more into the moody, atmospheric, mystery dramas of film noir and noir literature. To that end, there are investigation rules in CAPERS Noir and guidelines for GMs to create mysteries and adjudicate the investigations. The setting also has a bit of a horror bite, with dead things seeping into the world. So CAPERS Noir has monsters like ghosts and revenants, as well as a corruption mechanic called the “shade track.” Characters who perform terrible acts at the wrong time can fall to corruption of the soul.
Additionally, there’s a bunch of new powers and character options, as well as some new TM tools, all of which can be used for CAPERS Noir but also work just fine in the 1920s core setting without any modifications.
3) CAPERS was set in the Northeast (particularly Atlantic City), and Noir in Los Angeles. Tells us more about why you chose these locations?
CAPERS delved deep into Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago because those were pretty significant hubs of Prohibition activity with real-life personalities that people will recognize (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, etc.). I hit on a bunch of other east coast, Midwest, and southern cities to flesh things out mostly because it’s easy for characters in the 1920s to road trip to nearby cities and because gangsters from nearby cities often ally themselves with each other.
For CAPERS Noir, I jumped to the other side of the country, specifically Los Angeles, for several reasons. First, it hadn’t been addressed in the core game. Second, because LA is the backdrop for so many great noir films, I figured people would feel at ease with it. Finally, Los Angeles has a different aesthetic than grittier cities like New York and Chicago and I thought that would help define the Noir setting as something different.
4) The core mechanic of CAPERS is a card based system. Should we expect any changes in Noir that would change the mechanic or adjust it at all?
There aren’t any significant changes to the core mechanic. The only variation is in the investigation rules. Nothing kills an investigation in an RPG faster than a rules system that says, “You fail the check; you get nothing.” So now you have no clue.
The CAPERS Noir system keeps the investigation moving forward. Trait checks focus more on complications that arise from failure and additional benefits you get if you succeed on a check. Get a boon on a check and you get to ask a question about the clue. Fail the check…you still get a clue, but a complication could make the rest of the investigation more difficult.
5) Tell us about the reward tiers for Noir, what should we as potential backers be looking for?
For those who already own CAPERS, $10 gets you CAPERS Noir in PDF, along with a discount link to buy a softcover at cost later. There’s also a $13 tier that gets you just CAPERS (PDF and discount link), a $23 tier that gets both books (PDF and discount links), and a $35 tier that gets you everything we’ve published for CAPERS so far, including discount links for other things like cards, maps, and paper minis.
There are also a few premium tiers that get you all the stuff you want, plus you get to help make an NPC, help make a monster, or get your likeness in a comic that’ll be in the middle of the book.
6) With the success of Noir, do you see a potential expansion of the world of CAPERS or perhaps for Noir?
I don’t think I’ll expand CAPERS Noir in any significant way -- maybe a small, free PDF of a few things at some point. As for the rest of the CAPERS world, I’d love to continue to explore. I have ideas for other time periods for supplements, going a little sci-fi/outer space in a supplement, or even producing a full-sized book for a larger CAPERS game set in a significantly different time/theme. I’m going to be asking backers to fill out a survey to help let me know what they’d like to see.
The specifics are a little up in the air right at this moment, but it’s looking like there will be quite a bit more CAPERS to come.
We are super excited to see where this goes! Find CAPERS here, and CAPERS Noir here.
I was fascinated to read Paul Bimler's article on Solo D&D.
I also enjoy solo gaming. As people say, there are as many ways to play D&D as there are DMs. With solo play there are as many ways to solo play as there are players.
My style of solo roleplay is somewhat different to Paul's. There are two significant differences. The first is Paul's flipmat and markers. I am much more in the ‘Theatre of the Mind’ school and do not use any physical play aids, but more about that later. The other big difference is the rule system. I prefer to utilise a much lighter rule system for my solo play. The primary reason is all about continuity. Once you start a solo adventure, if you find yourself breaking off from your narratives to check rules, roll dice and check tables, I find it makes it harder keep the story flowing.
Rules light games often have just one or two mechanics that are employed in every situation. Alongside simple mechanics you often get extremely simple characters. This means that you could in theory keep your character on a Post-it note and run your game from memory.
If you strip out the flipmat, miniatures, or tokens that leaves only the solo rules and the journal.
Paul has his The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. The Toolbox is one example of a “Solo Engine”. All the tables that make up the decision making rules in solo play are generally referred to as a Solo Engine, GM Emulator, or a GME as they drive your stories. When you would normally ask a question of your GM you instead ask the Solo Engine and roll for an answer. Once you have an answer you have to apply gut instinct, common sense and imagination to make that answer fit the game you are playing, the situation your character is in and the sort of adventure you want to have.
I have here five combinations of solo engines and games give you an alternative to Mythic GME and D&D.
1) Solo Engine for 7th Sea Role Playing Game
These rules were made specifically for the 7th Sea game. Where D&D can turn into a battle of hit point attrition, 7th Sea is a much more narrative style of game. You don't have to beat your way through hordes of kobolds rolling ‘to hit’ and the dealing damage to each one. 7th Sea deals with whole groups of these ‘minions’ as single entities which reduces your record keeping and speeds up play.
The solo rules have a more sophisticated set of question tools that go beyond the no, maybe, and yes that Paul talked about in his article. The basic principle is the same but you lose the maybe answer and in its place you get and… and but… modifiers.
The and… modifier means that your answer was what you expected and even more. To take Paul's example of ‘can you find an inn’, a Yes and… would be the first thing that you think of that would be even better than just finding an inn. My first reaction was ‘Yes you find an inn and the landlord is a retired adventurer friend of yours.’
The but… modifier adds a complicating factor or makes things not as good, yes but…, or as bad, no but…, to the standard answer. ‘Do you find an inn?’ Yes but… there is a mob gathering outside complete with torches pitchforks.
With the and, but, yes, and no there are six possible answers from the same simple ‘roll for an answer’ mechanic.
In addition to the yes/no roll, these rules give you a complex question tool. If you are watching a villain across a tavern and you try to overhear their conversion a yes/no answer is not going to help you. The complex question tool gives you a two word pairing that is to be used as the distilled essence of the conversation, in this case. The complex question tool is used for conversations, the subjects of books, or anything that conveys meaning.
Finally, these rules use dice to prompt NPC reactions and, should a fight start, their tactics.
That sounds a lot of work but the whole thing is about ten pages with full examples.
7th Sea is one of the most popular narrative games of recent years and you can run an entire campaign with this simple booklet and some note paper for your journal.
2) 3Deep Episodic Role Playing
This game uses a simple 2d6 mechanic for just about everything from stats to skills to driving cars and flying X-wing fighters. It was also written with a solo engine built into the game from the start.
3Deep's solo engine uses something called story arcs. You start with at least one story arc or thread that is part of your character’s background. As you ask questions the answers can make achieving your goals harder or easier and manipulate NPCs.
3Deep has a more structured journal and asks you to keep track of scenes, NPCs and unfinished plotlines as these often reappear in your character’s adventures making everything interconnected.
The game is genre neutral, and therefore equally at home with swashbuckling, special forces or stormtroopers.
3) Devil's Staircase Wild West Roleplaying
This game is so new it is not even released yet. You can download the playtest documents, a quickstart PDF, and a set of solo rules all for free from DriveThruRPG. Devil's Staircase is the underlying game system and is driven by a poker style playing card mechanic rather than dice. The accompanying solo engine has the yes/no/and/but and complex question tools as well as NPC reactions but this time they are driven by dealing cards rather than rolling d100s, d20s or d6s.
Of all the games here this is about the lightest in terms of rules and you really can have a character on a sticky note with space to spare.
Although the Wild West is not everyone's favourite genre, it is easily accessible for solo play as it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to picture the setting and NPCs. There are other Devil games in the pipeline.
By solo playing this game you can help with its play testing and help bring the game to market.
4) Grim & Perilous Solo Rules
These rules share a lot of their DNA with the 7th Sea rules above. They were derived from a set of rules called the One Page Solo Engine by Karl Hendricks. This version has been written to work seamlessly with Zweihänder.
You would not normally think of Zweihänder as rules light but there is an eight page rules summary to use as a reference in place of the main book if you are familiar with your character and setting. The game also uses a common mechanic for all skill tests and challenges so running the game without the book in front of you is relatively easy.
The Grim & Perilous Solo Rules are a stripped down version in comparison to the 7th Sea rules as the NPCs reactions have been cut back. Zweihänder has detailed rules for social interaction so the solo rules do not really need a ‘roll d100’ to see how the NPC reacts. What you do get on the other hand is an actual play written up where you can see how a complex plot evolves from just a few interactions with the solo rules.
5) Demonic Solo Rules
Shadow of the Demon Lord is not really a rules light game but the actual play is really easy to grasp. I have included it in this round up because it is, I believe, one of the only solo engines where the state of the character is taken into account by the oracle. Most oracles or solo engines remain unchanged by the status of the character. They change the distribution of results based upon the probability of the question being true or false, yes or no. This solo engine interacts with the character in a subtly different way. The core method is the same but Shadow of the Demon Lord has a mechanic called Fortune that can modify all the rolls made by a character until it is ‘spent’. In this solo engine when a character has Fortune it is used to nudge the result in the characters favour. It is a subtle difference but over the duration of a campaign a 5% difference in your favour has real consequences.
The big gain when using a solo engine that is build specifically to work with the game you are playing is that you don’t have to learn a new game mechanic. The solo rules should sit naturally alongside the existing game rules.
On the other hand, the big gain in using a rule light game is that you don’t have to interrupt your game to check the rules or consult endless tables. Rules light games often put more on the GM to interpret but where you are both GM and player and the entire world is being created by you on demand GM interpretation is intrinsic to solo play.
All of the games here are available as PDFs. Light rules, digital rulebooks and simple solo rules mean you can solo play anytime and anywhere from your commute to work to while waiting for a plane. The most expensive of the solo rules featured here is $7.99, the rest are one or two dollars, and Devil’s Staircase is completely free. If you have not tried solo play it is not a big investment to give it a go. If you have bought one of these games but not been able to play it then I would say give it a go and get those unplayed games off the shelf and give them a go.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Header image is in the public domain
Is your 5E game too heroic? Is it not grim and frostbitten enough? Do you want grimy firearms to cover your PCs in soot? Well we have good news: HLG COO Josh Heath recently dropped a Kickstarter for our new setting Snowheaven, created by Justin Weaver. Josh was kind enough to answer a few questions about Snowhaven and what you can expect from it.
Snowhaven is billed as a grittier, darker, and much more frostbitten version of Dungeons and Dragons. What mechanical changes has Justin brought in to reflect the intrigue and cold of the setting?
We’ve actually written a pretty extensive set of conditions to simulate cold illnesses, like frostbite, hypothermia, and more. All in all, those conditions don’t yet exist in 5E’s core rulesets, so it will help GMs running the setting. Mechanically, there are also new archetypes for a few of the classes, and we’ll expand these in 2nd Edition, which will lean into the intrigue and corruption elements of the setting. Much of the grit though is pure setting and doesn’t really have to have new mechanics.
The description of the setting says that it originally “created during the original D20 Era.” Does this mean that Justin has been working on this setting since the days of 3rd Edition, and if so what changes has it gone through?
Easy answer, yes. The setting has been run in 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, and 5th Edition. There are a lot of elements that have come and gone, ideas that have been pushed on, and some that have sustained themselves. It’s hard to catalogue all of the adjustments over the years, honestly.
At the time of writing, only one playable race has been previewed; the totally rad Yetu, a race of skiing, herding yeti. Are there other races planned based on other mythological/cryptozoological creatures?
Actually, the Yetu are a steamweaving species who are one of the more technologically advanced species in the region. Yes, they are skiers, but they also know how to steamtech it up. Yetu gunslinger should be a cool concept for people to dig into if they would like.
So far, we’ve also written a species of Fox people, the Lapsa, that have descended out of the Feywild due to some sort of war that is happening in the snowy extraplanar realms close to Snowhaven. We are also testing out the idea of a snow siren species, and several other cold weather sea creatures.
Do you have plans to expand Snowhaven beyond 5th Edition, Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds?
Yes, potentially. I know this might be disappointing but we are probably going to hold off on a 13th Age conversion and some form of OSR edition until after the Kickstarter. We know that there are dedicated communities for both types of systems, and we would really like to expand into them, but we’d have to go really high on the Kickstarter for it to be a good financial decision to do so at this time. So, if we can get over the $10,000 mark, will we do it? It’s not impossible, but it isn’t particularly likely.
On that note. Once we hit our last stretch goal we are likely official done with stretch. But, the positive thing I want to tell folks about is that we will make more Snowhaven. If we have more people that back the project we will spend more time developing, expanding, and creating more products in the Snowhaven setting. If you love it, we’ll make it, and we love it, so it will not be hard for us to invest the time, money, energy, and excitement into the setting. So, come by, back the project and know that we will take the money you give us and do great things with it.
What can you tell us about the new rules for firearms?
We’ve gone back into some elements of rules for previous editions of the OGL to borrow some things that can help firearms stand out without breaking the ruleset. One of those things is the possibility of increasing the threat range of weapons. We’ve tried not to go overboard with this, but some firearms do have a critical hit range of 19-20, which fits what makes sense of their deadliness, but also is a little deviation from 5th Edition’s core ruleset. Allowing some flexibility between editions to pull in some of the best elements is something I really think makes sense for third party creators and I’m happy we are doing that with Snowhaven. The rules for Pathfinder and Savage Worlds will need some other elements, but the good thing with those rulesets is that they already exist because of the way the systems were designed.
Check out Snowhaven on Kickstarter here. The campaign ends on March 31st, so be sure to grab it while you can!
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.
Imagine a world where instead of plain ole George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Marquis De Lafayette, you had superheroic battles across revolutionary war America. Well, now gamers, you have a chance to do just that in Legion of Liberty: Superheroes of 1776. To learn more about this Savage Worlds setting book, we reached out directly to Happy Monster Press and Josh Heath, our COO found out this awesome information from them.
First, tell us a bit about who you are and previous projects that folks might know you from.
Happy Monster Press is a collaboration between Joy and Scott Marchand Davis. Joy is a published science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer, and an RPG player. Scott is a game writer, with 25 years of experience as an RPG gamemaster. Our previous project, Children of the Apocalypse, is currently available on DriveThruRPG. https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/237254/Children-of-the-Apocalypse Happy Monster's goal is to produce fun, flexible, and inclusive RPG setting books, and our current focus is the Savage Worlds RPG system.
So, folks. why the Revolutionary War? What about the time period calls out for a supers game?
The American Revolution is a United States creation story, and superheroes are part of modern myth-making, so combining them made sense to us. We were also inspired by genre-mashing works such as Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which is the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.
Ok, as a Son of the American Revolution the semi-historical nature of this setting is important to me. How much actual history of colonial America can we expect from the book?
Happy Monster games are intentionally written to provide gamemasters and players maximum flexibility, allowing gamers to focus on the tabletop battle aspects, to engage in both role-play and tabletop combat, or to focus more on role-playing, where players are empowered to create their own back story, play out personal goals, and explore the issues of the time as deeply as they wish. Another core value is to make games that are quick to start, welcoming to everyone, and easy to play. In the setting book, we include historical sidebars and links to online resources for anyone (gamemasters and players) who wants to dig more deeply into the issues surrounding key points of the campaign. We’ve included only enough history to get the ball rolling—we expect gamers to take the ball and run with it in whatever direction they prefer.
The background sections of the setting book, therefore, are mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive; the Plot Point Campaign is based on the course of the Revolutionary War, with key battles presented in sequence. However, we give the gamemaster some tools for altering the course of history, both to meet the needs/interests of the players, and to ensure the game doesn’t have the players plodding through battles they know they’ll win. For example, the heroes might lose the Battle of Trenton after Washington crosses the Delaware! In that case, Washington is captured by the British, and the next adventure in the Plot Point Campaign involves rescuing Washington from a prison ship off the coast of New York City!
The first adventure in the Plot Point Campaign is based on a historical event in Salem, MA (home of Happy Monster Press). A few months before the Battles of Concord and Lexington, a British detachment led by Colonel Leslie tried to confiscate some cannon from the Salem militia, leading to a standoff at the drawbridge to North Salem. Fighting nearly broke out, but a local parish minister negotiated a compromise, wherein Leslie would march 40 rods into North Salem, do an about-face and return to Boston without violence. This incident, known locally as Leslie's Retreat, almost started the war, and in the Legion of Liberty Plot Point Campaign it does start the war! However, gamers who want to play out the Revolution exactly as it did historically are encouraged to modify any element of the campaign to better suit their needs and interests. Flexibility is key to every Happy Monster Press setting book.
The British have their own squad of supers, The Greycoats. Can we play these characters? Sure, I might want to trounce Tories all day long, but it might be fun to swap sides in a story.
The Plot Point Campaign assumes that the players are on the side of the Patriots. If the funds raised in this Kickstarter greatly exceed our expectations, we could add a stretch goal to create a follow-up Peninsular Wars campaign, where our heroic Greycoats fight Napoleon’s elite force of superhumans! However, if gamemasters want to modify the Plot Point Campaign to allow Greycoat player characters, more power to them!
One of the areas that many stories of the era overlook is the importance of alliances with Native peoples in the Revolution and various conflicts prior to and after. How will you handle these with nuance and respect?
In the Revolution, according to standard history books, Native Americans mainly sided with the Crown, trusting that the British would honor their agreements with the Native peoples regarding land and settlement (and, for good reason, not trusting the colonists to do the same). One of our Savage Tales touches on the historical conflicts within the Iroquois Confederation; some members of the Confederation sided with friends among the Patriots, and others sided with the British. The players are tasked to convince the Oneida Nation to side with the colonists, and, in the adventure, the odds are stacked against the heroes, as they would have been historically.
So, High Level Games is a Canadian company, so sorry about that, so I’ll ask a question for our loyal fans from the North. Can we expect any elements of the setting to touch on the Canadian side of the conflict?
Absolutely! The invasion of Quebec is part of the Plot Point Campaign, which means the players can change history by capturing Quebec for the Patriots! (Sorry about that. We do encourage any enterprising Canadian gamemaster to revise any Savage Tale to play out however they want, though. Flexibility is key!)
For the Kickstarter, what reward level are you most excited for fans to jump on?
We're happy for backers at any level, but we were thrilled to see our first General of the Continental Army grant himself a field promotion on Day 2 of the campaign. This level is designed for anyone who wants to give their gaming group a live action experience. All Generals of the Continental Army will receive five signed hardcover copies and five PDF copies of the setting book, plus Scott and Joy of Happy Monster will run a custom game on Roll20 for the Backer and four friends.
Thank you very much for inviting us to talk about Legion of Liberty, and for asking such excellent questions about the game. We send everyone at High Level our gratitude for your effort and consideration. We hope that you and your community will check out our Kickstarter, and help us get over the finish line and beyond!
Scott and Joy – For the Revolution!
Find the Kickstarter Here!
Five room dungeons are an idea from Johnn Four that makes a dungeon from five small challenges. The rooms can be large or small and arranged in many formations. The rooms are:
1. Entrance or Guardian
2. Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
3. Trick or Setback
4. Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
5. Reward, Revelation, or Plot Twist
They make session to session locations a breeze to make, giving you a nice, simple template to work with. I like that they are short, quick to make, and can be used for anything, not just dungeons. This really feeds my lazy prep style, and I enjoy making them. Here are six of my Five Room Dungeons.
1) Treasure Vault
Entrance or Guardian: Upon opening this hidden away area, you notice that it is or was recently inhabited. A tattered rug covers the floor, a table and two chairs sit off to the side, a small collection of books on a shelf of a bookcase, a comfy chair for reading them, and a long hallway stretches off in the distance. The rug hides a pressure plate that starts a slow rumbling in the hallway. If the players move immediately they can escape with no rolls required. If the players wait, they realize that they will be cut off from the rest of the dungeon if they don’t move. At this point a dexterity saving throw will get them past the falling rocks with no damage, half for failure. After the hall crumbles, it will take 250 man hours to unearth the whole 250 feet.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a woman, Sarin, caught in a circle of magical energy. She tells the party if the salt circle is broken, she can go free. She is a high level thief looking to loot the vault. She will betray the party if necessary.
Trick or Setback: This is a large room, it has small, mouse-sized holes that lead into hidden areas in the walls and ceiling. There is a hag, Hilda, hiding here who entered a pact to guard the vault for 101 years. If the vault is breached she will be trapped here forever. The hag uses the holes to enter the walls and cast from cover.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The vault is locked by a large circle divided into four quadrants. They are colored yellow, blue, brown, and white. To open the lock a spell from each element (fire, water, earth, and air) must be cast in succession. The order does not matter, as long as they are cast one after another.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Aside from gold in the vault, there is also a Ring of Three Whooshes. It can cast longstrider three times per day.
2) Giant Burial Chambers
Entrance or Guardian: An unnatural pond, on a mountain top far from much of anything. If you submerge yourself in the pond you will emerge in a dark, carved stone entry room with a similar pool.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: Three stone giant ghosts guard this area. They will warn the characters (in giant) not to disturb the contents of the tombs.
Trick or Setback: A stone giant lairs here, melded into the stone and watching over the tombs. He has been shunned by his people for something he did long ago.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: A fey lurks here in the shadows, seeking revenge on the giants that lay here. The fey will encourage the characters to seek the sword.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: A sword that contains their souls is here, if used and reduce a creature to 0 HP it will release a soul as a giant shadow under the wielder’s control for 1 hour before vanishing. It has 10 'charges' and turns to a non-magical sword after they are all used, damning the giants’ souls to the Abyss.
3) Shadow Monastery
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted monastery lies in near ruins; the veil between worlds is thin here and shadowy apparitions of the former students can be seen eternally practicing, trapped between life and death. An entrance can be found deep in the bowels of the old monastery, linking to a shadowfell version of the building.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A monk on the other side says that they are all trapped here by a bell that can be heard ringing in the distance.
Trick or Setback: If the party goes toward the sound they will have an encounter with aggressive monks.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The Bell is a construct with sonic attacks.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Before the monk leaves the shadowfell behind, he will open a portal back and give the party a ghost rune. The ghost rune can be transferred to a non-magical suit of armor or weapon. If attached to a weapon, the weapon can instead do cold or necrotic damage. If a creature is immune to cold damage, it is reduced to resistance for this attack; if it is resistant it is reduced to normal damage. If the creature does not have a resistance or immunity to cold damage and cold is chosen, critical hits do three times the normal effect.
4) Tower on the Border
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted tower is guarded by the ghost of a wizard; he warns that the darkness shall destroy you.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a black pudding here trapped in a large glass container with a door facing out. On the other side of this large room is an area that has one inch holes in the floor that go down twenty feet to a pressure plate that opens a secret blue portal. The pressure plate must have the weight of a large creature on it (the black pudding). The black pudding can then squeeze its way through a passage under the floor and back into the glass container through a hole in the bottom, resetting the puzzle.
Trick or Setback: There is a portal on each wall of this rectangular room, the one the characters step through changes to a different color (green). The other portals are (right to left) black, yellow, and red. If the players choose any but the black, they are teleported d4 hexes (24 miles each) away.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The wizard from the entrance is here and shadow touched. He is invisible and holds the key of a great cage that surrounds the party. There are signs of someone have been here recently and a tracking check will lead them to bump into the wizard. Defeating the crazy wizard or otherwise finding the key will let the PCs out of the cage. The wizard will explain how the players can get back using the closest shadow portal (d4x6 miles away).
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The wizard wears a Robe of Illusion, it has seventeen charges that can be used to can cast an illusion spell from zero to fourth level (DM chooses one spell per level). Each spell can be cast for the spells level +1 charge; e.g. a cantrip is 1 charge, a first level spell is 2 charges. It disintegrates after the last charge is used.
5) Prison of the Ravager
Entrance or Guardian: A shadowfell prison holds a bound carrion, or ghoul demon. To enter the foul jail requires a pound of flesh placed into a bedrock mortar in a large boulder in an out of the way place in the forest.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: The Ravager has been imprisoned here for countless years, he asks the party to free him and offers to make them generals in his army as well as lead them out of the prison.
Trick or Setback: This room contains five cauldrons full of burbling liquids. When the red, green, blue, yellow, and orange liquids are drank by themselves they do nothing, when mixed together they do a random result.
2 +1 strength
3 +1 intelligence
4 Paralyzed for an hour.
5 +1 wisdom
6-8 Aged by twenty five percent of current age.
9 +1 charisma
10 polymorphed into a sheep for an hour.
11 +1 constitution
12 +1 dexterity
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: An undead fey guards the exit and will die before he lets the demon leave. He knows the Ravager’s true name.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: There is a secret room that has a magic mouth that speaks the demon’s true name, Catullus.
6) Astral Erratic
Entrance or Guardian: An astral dragon, Ansmon, makes his lair in this huge chunk of rock and stages attacks on astral raiders from here.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A very young elven ranger named Laira resides here and serves as guardian to the dragon. She was captured infiltrating the dragon’s lair and has since joined the cause.
Trick or Setback: A monk, Ranek, lives here, forced into a contract when the dragon destroyed his monastery on a separate errand in the astral plane. He has been here for only a few years, arriving after Laira.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The dragon will attack any who enter here without Laira.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The dragon keep a journal of his conquests, including mind wiping Laira after destroying her trespassing family.
As you can see five rooms can vary greatly. A little inspiration and a half hour can generate two hours worth of content for your gaming table. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to try out this tactic next time you need a small destination.
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, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture Reference: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/5-room-dungeons/
Depending on how you play the game, creating a backstory for your character is either the easiest or the hardest part of character creation. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the tabletop community for the last few years. Especially with the relatively recent influx of player thanks to the many mainstream representations of it such as Critical Role. In both seasons of that game, all of the players have had rather complex backstories that intermingle with both the world and the other players. Which can be intimidating. However, it isn’t terribly difficult if you have an outline. The first tip to give to any player, new or old, is to talk to your DM about backstory. They are the ones that will be able to help the most with integration into the world, because they are the ones who control the world. With that out of the way, I give you some story arcs.
1) The Redemption Arc
I mean, with Red Dead Redemption still being so hot, of course I would mention the redemption arc so I could name drop something that’s popular and increase the likelihood that someone stumbles onto this article while looking for something different. This is a very popular arc in both D&D and other forms of media because of how easy it is to build off of. If you used to be a criminal, then you likely have some contacts in the underbelly of society. If you betrayed them, then you likely have made a powerful enemy out of a thieves guild. You fled the country to avoid persecution? No contacts in the new one. You met a kind priest along the way who brought you to a church and began to make you pietus and bam you have your cleric with more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.
While this is very easy to write and work with, it can also be very interesting to play. The thought of working hard to fend off your more malevolent habits such as torture or violence can make for a very interesting dynamic, especially with good aligned characters, however make sure you don’t slip into murder hobo mode. Because no one wants to see the cleric stabbing a shop keep for a discount. I mean... I kinda want to see that. It’d be funny: “The power of Ao compels you… to give me a thirty percent discount.” Then the shopkeep is like, “I’m an atheist” and the cleric just starts chanting “by the power of Ao…” But all that aside, at its core the redemption arc allows for a lot of contrast within a character's personality, the residual gruffness from being a killer for hire contrasted by your new Paladin-esque oath, for example.
2) The Runaway Arc
At first you think “oh geez, is this guy just going to tell me to do what X-Men does with all its characters to trick the audience into caring about them?” And the answer to that question is yes… kind of. While the idea of a character running away from home because some sort of uncomfortable physical trait or power making people scared of them is novel in theory, in practice it only really works for certain groups of characters, in a tabletop setting. But here is the runaway explained better: for whatever reason, your original home is no longer an option to stay at and you flee to avoid death or further abuse. That’s it. The creativity comes from the reason. One of my players made a character who, as part of her backstory, was married away to an abusive noble to forge a peace treaty between her race and the humans that were beginning to settle in the area. Later, the noble violated the treaty and started a genocide of the race, while keeping the player character captive and treating her as something closer to a pet or trophy. She was abused both mentally and physically and she ended up running away from the place that she had lived her whole life. Not only did that set up a greater villain in her plot, but it also left her with a reason to adventure and travel. It even left the door open for random encounters during travel, as agents of the noble could track her down. In short, this backstory can wrap everything up in a nice little bow and even open a few doors for DMs.
The Runaway arc has a few endings which can really go in a number of directions. One is they return home after whatever force that opposes them is dealt with. Another would be that said force is destroyed, but so is their home in the process, forcing them back into the role of wanderer or having them decide to make a new home for themself and the people they used to live with. There is always the option that the force that opposes them never is defeated, and they simply change everything about themself and move on. All of this can be an appropriately dramatic way to flex your roleplaying muscles. Of course, if you’re just developing the character by the seat of your pants, then do whatever feels right in the moment. That is how most people play after all.
3) The Lost Soul Arc
We all know “that guy” who went backpacking through Europe and he like “totally found himself” and thought it was a “really spiritual experience” and that you should “totally do it sometime if you have the time to really connect with yourself.” While people like that, who will remain nameless (Keith), are typically obnoxious and won’t shut up about it, the need to find oneself is actually very common in the world. An old soldier who has seen too much death and wants to see what else the world has the offer other than blood, screams, and loss. A confused young wizard who has no idea what he’s going to do with all his academic knowledge, but knows he wants to see more. Even a lanky blonde douchebag whose dad paid for his two years off in Europe and wanted an excuse to eat foreign food and meet people whose grasp of english was poor enough to think he’s clever.
The Lost Soul Arc has a rather obvious conclusion; the finding of their purpose. It doesn’t have to be some great cosmic truth, perhaps the fact of the matter is, that young wizard was never happier than when he was with his wife and kid, so he hangs up the robe and wand to be the family man he’s happy being. Perhaps that grizzled veteran finds out that he has a passion for painting, and that's how he spends the rest of his days after his adventures. Of course at the same time, that young wizard could discover his spark for magic far surprasses almost all others and becomes the arcane protector of the entire kingdom, or as the veteran passes on into the next life a god approaches him and tells him of the fact that he was meant to be an instrument of war from birth, and that his stories will inspire hundred more young men and women to march headlong into danger for their loved ones. (He could take that a few ways depending on weather or not his perception on war has changed, but that's an article for another day.)
4) The Fallen Arc
Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, Gwyn Lord of Sunlight, and Michael Jackson all have something in common. They were all once much greater than they are considered now. This is definitely the most difficult one to work out with both your DM and yourself. It's a tricky process, turning dark. Bad eggs are rarely always bad, and a fall from grace is much easier to fit into a backstory, which would lead into a redemption arc, however if you want to develop your character in this direction it’ll 100% be something you need to work out with your DM and tell them about from the start. They would need to leave open opportunities for you to start exploring the darker side of your character. You’ll need to decide if your character plans to abandon, betray or simply continue to have conflict with the party. At least in most cases you’ll end up having some sort of conflict with the party as you begin this arc.
Of course the next thing to consider is that the most work often comes with the biggest payout. Your character could become the next BBEG of your DM’s next campaign. Your sudden but inevitable betrayal will certainly coax out the curses of your party, and as such maybe you’ll become the next villain of this campaign. Depending on how well liked your character was before their fall, it could cause major waves within your group, with both the players and the characters.
5) The Joe Schmo Arc
“It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” isn’t just something said by loveable farmers. You can say it too, in sharp ironic contrast with the imagery of you suplexing an orc into the dirt and snapping his neck instantaneously. This arc is seen time and time again. Good examples include Frodo and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, Harry from Harry Potter, and Kayley from the Quest for Camelot. A very good start for level one characters is just having them be a normal person who was swept away by circumstance. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time and everyone put you on a pedestal. For example, perhaps a giant monster was terrorizing your village and happened to fall off a cliff to his death, and you looked as if you were the one that rushed in and pushed him, when you were actually cowering. From there on you were heralded as a hero and slayer of monsters, despite only being a farmer for most of your life. The circumstances are wide open, and that is, once again, the best part. The development of these characters is always very unique, as a simple farm boy turns into an arch mage of near godly power, but still stops by home every other weekend to have dinner with mom and help milk the cows. The change of view is what changes the character and the literal gain of experience. Often times this is the best way to get a character that is shaped, almost entirely by the events that happen in game. Whether or not you consider that a good or bad thing, is up to you.
Really, this is the arc with the most built in comedy. It’s a big world out there, and having a view of the world where the best a person can get is a simple life with a family of 18 before dying at the ripe old age of 35 is typically very different from the reality of magic rich game universes. It’s very easy to forget the little guy when you’re out stopping wars, delving dungeons and slaying dragons. Being one of the little guys is very grounding for many parties out there (and in some cases can stop murderhobo-ing).
All of these are very general suggestions for characters and how they COULD develop. However, the simple fact of the matter is, more often than not you’re just better off building your character in response to the things that occur in game. You don’t have to have every little thing planned out from the beginning. The most important part of the game is the fun, and as long as everyone is having it, you’re playing it right.
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.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/zuko-avatar-the-last-airbender-best-character
Japan and its tabletop games have long been an area of fascination of mine, and it’s also why I have an ever growing pile of games from Japan I’m as yet unable to read. Among the games in this collection is a game about an out of control dungeon, and the plucky adventurers called Landmakers that can bring some semblance of order to this wild world. This game is called Meikyuu Kingdom!
1) Who Made This?
Meikyuu Kingdom, also sometimes known as Make You Kingdom, is a game published by Adventure Planning Services of Japan. An official English translation was announced in 2013, however no new information has since been released, though rough drafts of a fan translation exist.
2) What’s The Premise And Setting?
Meikyuu Kingdom is, as its name implies, a Kingdom building game, set in a world called the Infinite Dungeon. The players take on the role of the members of the royal court. In addition to working to build the kingdom, each member of the court also has their own personal goal, such as claiming a certain territory as part of the kingdom, or slaying a certain number of monsters.
However, the dungeon is, in fact, infinite, and even familiar places can change abruptly through a process known as Dungeonification. Additionally, your kingdom isn’t the only one in the dungeon, and the others may not always get along with yours.
3) What Are The Mechanics Like?
The dice mechanics of Meikyuu Kingdom are relatively simple: you roll 2d6, add the relevant attribute, and compare it to a target number. This mostly pertains to combat and skills. Meanwhile, the game’s management system is more binary; you either have the items or stats you need, or you don’t.
The game is also divided into two distinct phases: the Kingdom Phase and the Dungeon Phase. The Kingdom Phase is where you make decisions pertaining to the kingdom’s development, as well as preparations to enter the dungeon. By contrast, the Dungeon Phase consists of the sort of classic dungeon crawling challenges fans of fantasy roleplaying games would be more familiar with.
There’s also a somewhat unique mechanic Meikyuu Kingdom introduces called the d66 roll. The d66 roll is used for randomizing options on charts, such as random names or encounters. You roll two d6s as if you were rolling d%, but the lower number is always in the 10s place, and the highest number is always the ones place. With this setup, a result of 6 and 1 would be 16, or a result of 3 and 2 would be 23.
4) What Is It Similar To?
The most apt comparison to Meikyuu Kingdom is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, particularly with how the scope of the game changed past level 9, where the focus of the game began including building and maintaining keeps. Additionally, both games have a simple core mechanic, but numerous sub systems with all manner of charts.
However, being a more modern game Meikyuu Kingdom is more refined; the core mechanic is consistent throughout, and the subsystems are related to each other in meaningful ways. Exempli gratia followers are the lifeblood of the kingdom, a staple in many skills, and there are numerous ways to gain them.
Despite these similarities, though, it’s worth mentioning that this is still a Japanese game, and thus much more structured than most games you can expect to find in the English speaking tabletop gaming community.
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes, but only if you’re interested in a silly, light hearted, kingdom making game. Being from Japan, this game is kind of rigid in terms of what it can be used to accomplish. Much of the listed skills all work towards one of two ends: either building up the kingdom, or crawling through the dungeon.
Another consideration is also that the fan translation doesn’t include any of the official artwork; so for many of the items, monsters, classes and jobs, you’ll be relying on names alone. (Which is a shame, because some of the monsters, such as Mayonaise King, are just plain absurd!)
To support the official release, you’ll need to import the books from Japan. This is great since they had released a new edition in October 2018, but not so great since importing is a risky and expensive prospect.
Aaron der Schaedel has no impulse control, and usually winds up buying any books in Japanese that have cute anime girls on the cover. His legitimate copies of the Meikyuu Kingdom books are no exception. You can try tempting him by showing him other such books via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://randompunk.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-world-of-meikyuu-kingdom-13-daily.html
As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
I was gone for quite some time. Decades, in fact. Now, don’t get me wrong, I kept cursory interest in the comings and goings of 3rd Edition and 3.5 Edition. I don’t think that I truly REMEMBER the release or products for 4th Edition due to my nearly all-consuming involvement in playing, Storytelling and writing for White Wolf Game Studios’ World of Darkness setting. But somewhere along the way, life happened and role-playing, running and writing games about monsters and the darkest aspects of the human condition stopped being fun for me and became more and more tedious in and of itself.
For me, my answer to the doldrums of role-playing was to pretty much abandon it altogether for a hobby quite new to me, which was tactical table-based miniature combat games such as Warmachine and Warhammer 40K.
I was “gone” for quite some time.
When the local store where I played my games closed in the Spring of 2011, I moved “full-time” to MMORPGs such as Elder Scrolls, EVE, and of course, World of Warcraft, which I had played off and on since its release. However, in the back of my mind and nearly always, there was this itch; all these games and all these settings and all the imagery and imagination that birthed them – all of them – had come from a singular parent.
Dungeons & Dragons.
So, I started to look online at where Wizards of the Coast had taken the game that had taught me – literally TAUGHT ME – how to tell stories, how to craft adventure, how to play, run and write for a role-playing game. I saw that 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a new, fat-faced four-year-old, was still pretty much in its toddlerhood… so I began to gobble up the books one at a time and search for a group to play with.
It didn’t take long.
Here’s what I learned from my origins in D&D to my abandonment to my rediscovery:
1) Always Imitated, Never Duplicated
There is a form and a function to Dungeons & Dragons that sets it apart from every other role-playing game, table top or MMO. The worlds created within Dungeons & Dragons have, since 1974, dwarfed and, in many ways, miniaturized Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Hyperboria and Moorcock’s Melnibone. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, the Underdark, Faerun, Spelljammer… the Basic Rules set for Dungeons & Dragons looks like a small island off the coast of Virginia with the rest of the individualized settings for the game spanning out away from it like the rest of the known world. It is the format against which other RPGs – nearly every “World Sized” RPG in publication since the release of Dungeons & Dragons – measure themselves. Some have met success.
Most have not even come close to being able to call themselves a mediocre knock-off of the original.
The scope of the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons is, for all intents and purposes, a world without end. Always imitated but never duplicated, in so many ways, all RPG roads seem to lead back to the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons.
2) High Adventure, High Fantasy
The 80’s were absolutely rife with high fantasy tropes; Conan: the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Ladyhawke, Willow… the list goes on and on and on. In a lot of ways, these cinematic offerings were a response to the times and there was a huge demand for them. On the other hand, these movies gave rise to the visualization of a lot of our campaigns and ideas that swam within RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. We began to write our own stories, inspired by the works of Moorcock, Salvatore, Donaldson, Brooks, Jordan, McAffrey, and McKiernan. With these scribblings, we learned how to tell stories. More importantly, we learned how to bend stories to our will because we became so well read. We learned how to not fall into tropes that worked just because they worked. We learned how to keep our players on the edges of their seats. We learned how to make a bad dice roll into something wonderful. We learned how to inject emotion and empathy into a game founded on myth and mathematics. We learned these things from playing Dungeons & Dragons. We learned that even though we may have had boring or inauspicious lives, all we needed for high adventure on a cold winter’s day was a couple of friends, a set of dice, some paper, a pencil and a good freakin’ story to tell each other.
What’s BEAUTIFUL about 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that much of what has been released and written regarding pre-generated campaign publications has come with emotion and empathy included at no extra charge. The writing has been top notch, there seems to be no expense spared on the artwork, and in a world where game stores can be hard to find and where bookstores close on the daily, sites like Amazon and D&D Beyond serve to provide to-the-door delivery for books, supplements, and gear you may want or need to create your own provinces within the aforementioned world without end.
3) No One Does It Better Than Wizards of the Coast
Let’s be honest here; book publishing and games are a part of entertainment. Entertainment is one of those things that you spend discretionary income on. I played Magic: The Gathering for about 15 minutes when it was first released in the 1990’s. The CCG scene simply wasn’t my bag, personally, but I always admired people who stuck with it and who became strategically good at mastering the ins and outs of it. But that’s the FIRST TIME I heard the name “Wizards of the Coast.” I remember wondering in the mid-90’s, when WotC bought TSR and the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, how long it would be until the company completely consumed the whole of the RPG industry. Then, in 1999, Hasbro played the wildcard and bought WotC for somewhere around the sum of $325 million.
Close to 2 decades later, we have Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. While Wizards of the Coast suspended previous products from being sold in .pdf format on sites like DriveThruRPG.com, in July of 2014 they released the Basic Rules box for 5th Edition.
In between 4th and 5th Editions of the game, a lot of the RPG community had gotten used to “community generated” content and “print-on-demand,” .pdf-formats for RPG books that allowed for less overhead and risk for game manufacturers and publishers on the one hand, but that opened the door for a stunning potential for piracy on the other.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books are hardbacks with crisp, quality printed paper and bindings that seem to be able to go the distance. They harken back to the “good old days” of RPGs, when there were core books and hardback supplement books and things people called splat books and the biggest difference (one that I personally like, to be completely honest) is that now, instead of your “modules” being these sort of flimsy little paper things that come in a little folder that can get grease-stained when some mouth-breather uses it as a pizza coaster on game night, they’re called “Campaign Sourcebooks,” and they’re hardbound, too. Woe to he that places a slice of pizza on the DM’s book…
Dungeon Tiles have been released to keep you from having to draw maps, Spell, Monster and Magic Item card decks have been released so that players and GMs have a more portable way to manage what they need when they must travel to and from a game. In short, it’s a class act. Wizards of the Coast has learned through doing what they do EXACTLY what players and consumers want. They listen to their marketing team, their play testers, and their product development people. Are their books and products expensive? Perhaps. When you’re talking
about discretionary income, ALL HOBBIES are expensive.
But they’re not Games Workshop’s level of expensive.
And when you buy a product from Wizards of the Coast, you most certainly will get what you pay for.
4) What’s Old Is New Again
I could sit here and literally rattle off a list of horror RPGs that I have played, or written for, or read about, or reviewed. Dungeons & Dragons did it first. Call of Cthulhu? Dungeons & Dragons’ 1st Edition of Deities & Demigods had the Cthulhu Mythos statted out for use as PC/NPC deities for use in the game. If you look long and hard enough, and you’re willing to pay the price for a copy in semi-decent condition, you can still find this book and you can, with a little elbow grease and brains, adapt Lovecraft’s mythos into Dungeons & Dragons. ShadowRun was (and perhaps still is, although I’m not certain that it is still in publication) Dungeons & Dragons in a science-fiction, Blade Runner-meets-Cyberpunk setting. Eberron takes Dungeons & Dragons into a fantasy, sort of steampunk-esque flavoring that works to compete and, in many ways, surpass games that have attempted to do the same thing in the past like Exalted. Here’s the deal: there is not a single RPG that I am aware of that is worth playing as it was written and published that CANNOT be adapted into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a talented Dungeon Master at the helm.
Some may say that they systems of play are too complicated, and to an extent I agree, but 5th Edition has streamlined the rules into very smooth playing with as little mathematics as possible slowing down the pace of the game. Some say that straight up d10 or d20 RPGs are superior because they – by the very nature of the dice you use to play them – eliminate most of the complications inherent to Dungeons & Dragons. I disagree with this in that when one mechanic is removed due to complication, another complication will arise due to individualistic perception of a rule as written, to wit, the only RPG that will ever be completely free of rules and systems complications will be the RPG that has no rules or systems. That’s not a game. That’s just chaos and tomfoolery while sitting at a table, so you might as well be playing Go Fish… although, there are rules for that game, too.
I find that the streamlined, more accessible and easier to understand rules system of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons a breath of fresh air. I sincerely missed it. I missed the Saving Throws. I missed the Perception Checks. I missed all the nuances that were available to you if you decided that you wanted to play a Halfling archer, although now, I’m more solidly set into the saddle of my Svirfneblin Gloom Stalker w/ Bracers of Archery.
While there are still some components of the game that can take some time to get used to, once you latch onto them, you’re hooked in, and things start to run as smoothly as clockwork… just like every edition before 5th.
5) It Makes Me Feel Young Again
I sincerely cannot remember a time when sitting down to write an outline for an RPG that I wanted to run didn’t feel like work to me. I cannot remember a time when playing an RPG didn’t disappoint me. Either there were too many constrictions on my splat, or there weren’t enough options for what I wanted to do with professions or skills or there were no modifiers for a specialization that I wanted to take for my character… so many of them just fell flat for me. It started to feel like work, and then, for a time, it WAS work, so I just gave it up for something else.
Then, about a month ago, I bought Mordenkainen’s Guide to Foes, and it was like looking at a photograph of your high-school sweetheart in her prom dress.
There they were: the Gith, the Lords of the Nine Hells, the Red Wizards of Thay. Names I hadn’t heard in literally decades. And it wasn’t enough. I got a fix… but I needed more.
So, I started to look up things that I didn’t know anything about; the Warforged… the Tiefling… the Dragonborn…
And I consumed these tomes one after another after another. Volo’s Guide to Monsters is hilarious… I read that one to my wife chapter by chapter, section by section (I did, however, skip the architecture of the lairs and dens to keep from putting her to sleep). Xanathar’s Guide to Everything - written by the Eye Tyrant Crime Kingpin of Waterdeep – Was fascinating in regard to the new subclasses and magic items that weren’t in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And then, around Christmas of 2018, I bought a DM’s Screen and I waited to hear whispers of someone needing a DM.
That fell into my lap recently, as the DM of the group that I’ve been playing with for about six months got a new job and dropped out of the game. I was asked “Hey, Shannon… do you think YOU could run a game for us?”
I hadn’t been asked that question in I don’t even know how long.
And I smiled.
And I said yes.
And now, as I bring this blog entry to a close, I begin preparations for the second night of running Curse of Strahd for my players.
For them, it will be a well-orchestrated and organized dive into the horrors of Barovia and the treasures of Ravenloft if they are able to withstand the onslaught of a vampire older than the Harpers Guild itself.
For me, well… I’ve never felt quite as young as I do when I get to say “Well, you can certainly roll to try.”
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
We got a chance to ask Ray Machuga some questions about his in-progress Kickstarter for Lex Draconis, which is a supplement for Modern RPG. This is an awesome looking indy RPG that I really recommend you checking out.
1) Tell us about Modern RPG, what is different about it from other games?
Modern RPG is a unique spin on fantasy. It places the characters in a story-driven urban fantasy setting that takes place in modern Earth, but one in which magic and monsters have always existed. It gives a rich, deep story to typical fantasy tropes and takes a very gritty stance on the role playing experience overall. Modern RPG gives realistic stories to the fantasy tropes you know, and creates a deep tapestry within which to play.
2) Why dragons?
Why not? There is no other beast that is more iconic. No other monster that is as clever or powerful in a fantasy setting. Much like Vampire: The Masquerade did for vampires in the 90s, I'm attempting to do with dragons in Lex Draconis. I want to give the myths and legends of dragons an anchor within which to create a deeply driven setting. I want to give dragons life. Moreover, I want to give players the chance to play dragons in a realistic, storied way.
3) What sort of game is this?
I like to say that it's story-driven urban fantasy. It's a d20-style tabletop role playing game in which you play the traumatized ancestors of the dragons of myth that embody mortal bodies.
4) From a long-term chronicle perspective, what sort of stories do you see being told with this game?
The beauty of Lex Draconis is that you can play a wide array of stories using the setting and system. Stories can center around draconic conflict where you and your clutch (a group of young dragons) face off against other clutches or even buck in rebellion against the machinations of the Old Wyrms - dragons of great age and power. Stories can also center around deeper issues of personal conflict where the dragon must come to terms with her new nature as a dragon, and determine what, if anything, can be salvaged from her mortal life from before she became what she is now. Balancing a dragon's previous mortal life with her newfound primordial power can be heart-wrenching and delve into great personal stories. Dragons can dive headlong into their legendary natures as well. These stories can delve deeply into the history of Earth and the cosmology within the setting and allow the dragon to "come into her own" as a Primordial Power. And of course, there is always the quest for a bigger, better hoard.
Check it out on Kickstarter now!
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.
When coming up with a setting it’s easy to hit a block. Have you used up your creative juices on the last huge campaign you ran? Gotten halfway through and just got stuck? When writing up a campaign I like to use real world events to help my players connect to the game. “Write what you know,” as they say. So I have compiled a small list of six events in history that can be used to throw a bit of life into your creativity.
1) World Wars
The world wars were horrific, bloody and long lasting. If you have a huge campaign setting throw in one of your own wars, either one already started or one about to begin. Achtung Cthulhu! uses the backdrop of World War II to set its tone and offers an alternative timeline for supernatural and magical events throughout the war. Using this setting can be great for increasing tension or throwing your PCs into a huge battle to make them feel insignificant right before having to take on a great horror from the depth of space.
2) The Crusades
The crusades are similar in scale of the wars mentioned above but were very single sided in cause. A vast army of believers marched to cleanse the non believers from the lands. This concept could be used in many of your campaigns in various scales, whether a single cult or an army poised to attack a neighbouring land. This setting could be used very similarly to the world war setting with a more religious or belief driven story hook. Adding a magic system to this setting could be interesting, using it as the driving force of aggressor attempting to cleanse the land of magic or perhaps wishing to destroy ‘tainted’ magic similar to some wizards in the Harry Potter novels.
Long ago the greatest kingdoms sought to expand their empires by taking lesser kingdoms and utilising their resources. Colonisation was not met with warm welcomes; each smaller kingdom fought and most failed to deter the claims to their lands. The few perks of this were overshadowed by the treatment of the indigenous population and the attitude of the oppressors. Using this as a setting could set up guerrilla factions trying to stop their homes being taken by force, or even have the players on the side of the aggressor, enticing the players with land for conquering a region or simply wealth from the exploitation of the resources from with the area seized. Either way you could persuade the players with an item of great significance or usefulness to the party and let them decide how best to acquire it.
4) Cold War
The cold war was a tense time between nations and sparked a large espionage campaign by multiple countries. Tested alliances and covert treachery was rife throughout this period and makes a perfect setting for covert missions into enemy territory and delivering misinformation to sway events in your favour. This is the best conflict to read up on if you are interested in spy versus spy settings and can be readily applied to many cyberpunk style games.
5) Navajo Conflicts
The Navajo Conflicts were a series of battles ranging from skirmishes to raids between the Navajo people and various enemies including the Spanish and the American military. Using this as a setting could inspire very low tech guerrilla style combat where the party must infiltrate an enemy base steal supplies and escape unnoticed before beginning a full scale assault on the enemy positions.
These have been rife throughout history, anywhere there is power to be exploited there will be those who wish to do so. From Hitler to Castro there will always be people who feel superior to others. There will always be people who think that their ideals are more important than the public, those who believe that they are the only salvation for their country and will defend their power with everything they have. The perfect time for a band of misfits to come blow stuff up. Enter your PCs and a storyline that takes them on an opposing view from the dictator and let the chaos ensue.
History can teach us many lessons in real life and in our roleplaying games. If you do use a setting from history read up on it and find out the motivations behind the conflicts and how it affected the people around it. Try to find a way to allow your PCs to feel like they are part of a true struggle in their game world so they want to help the cause and no just farm the loot. There are many many more settings you can look into throughout history and chances are if you have read it in a supplement it probably has real world ties that you can look into and adjust for your own use.
Ross Reid is an RPG enthusiast who loves all things roleplay, from creating a local group to sponsored gaming marathons, he will dip his toe into anything that catches his eye.
Image source https://www.deviantart.com/zguernsey/art/Men-Of-Honor-111150790
I pay attention to what newbies ask in regards to running games, or what they hope to achieve. The common thread I find is about how to make or plan a more epic campaign. I always advise against making long term plans in games, because players very quickly derail things. For that reason, I always suggest learning how to improvise (a topic we’ve talked about quite a bit at High Level Games).
It’s still never the advice people want, though; they’re hell bent on planning a big elaborate campaign. In their defence, they may not have felt the crushing defeat that comes with a game falling to pieces before it gets to the good stuff you’ve planned. Or if they have, they remain optimistic about their long running campaign. (Good on you if you have that optimism.)
With that in mind, I have another unconventional piece of advice: plagiarize. I realize that’s a loaded term, and also often confused with copyright, but hear me out. When we’re in art or music class, we learn the basics before we go off developing our own style. To do that, we often copy what our teacher’s do, and what they do is copy masters who came well before them. This was even done by Hunter S. Thompson, an outstanding journalist and writer from the 1960’s and 70’s.
What I’m suggesting is this: if you’re new, borrow the plot lines from somewhere else, and adapt them to your new medium. Video games seem like a good place to start, since they’re a medium built around interactive story with challenge built into them. So with all that said, let’s look at some video game plots you can adapt into your roleplaying games!
1) Collect The Items To Defeat The Evil
As Seen In: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy 1
There’s a great evil out there, and in order for the hero to defeat it, they must first collect a bunch of random items. In the original Final Fantasy, it was the four elemental crystals the Warriors of Light were looking for. Meanwhile, in Legend of Zelda, there’s usually some series of trials or items Link needs to collect before he can get the Master Sword and teach Ganon a lesson about screwing around with Hyrule.
Almost every Legend of Zelda game is just one giant series of fetch quests, yet the formula never gets old. This is because there’s always a feeling of progression as the player is exploring and completing dungeons. To replicate this same sort of feeling around a game table, be generous with the magical items if you aren’t normally. If they’re looking for elemental crystals like in Final Fantasy, go ahead and include things like a short sword +1 that’s made of never-melting ice in the dungeon with the ice elemental crystal.
2) Defeat The Minions To Reach The Evil
As Seen In: Megaman, the last world in Final Fantasy 5
Much like our first point, there’s a great evil out there, but to reach it, the players first have to defeat all of their equally evil minions first! In Megaman, this was the 8 Robot Masters you combat before tackling Dr. Wily’s Castle, or in the very end of Final Fantasy 5 when you’re wandering through the void looking for the Exdeath, you encounter all manner of other evil beings loyal to him that were hitherto unmentioned. This can be used in conjunction with the first point, as it was in Final Fantasy 5, or on it’s own like in Megaman. In either case, progression remains important.
For an interesting twist, you can make the minions optional, as a few entries in the Megaman X series have done. However, to execute this well, you mustn’t scale down the big evil, the minions should serve to prepare the heroes in some way. If you insist on taking on the final boss fair, though, you can always make a tactical retreat an option. (As Final Fantasy 5 does when the heroes enter the void; they can freely leave at any time.)
3) Chasing After The Evil To Defeat Them
As Seen In: Super Mario Brothers, the first disc of Final Fantasy 7
Evil isn’t always stationary. They’re either always on the move, like Sephiroth in the beginning of Final Fantasy 7, or they’ve got multiple fortresses throughout the land and are constantly running from one to the next when the heroes catch up, such as in many of the later Super Mario games.
This one is ideal for GMs who like to make maps and track how worlds change based on PC and NPC actions, and also provides some interesting twists! If the evil has a lot of fortresses and gained too much ground in the chase, the heroes could decide to instead draw the evil to them by razing the fortresses. Additionally, locals who were liberated by the heroes during the chase could help slow down evil should they wind up needing to backtrack during their flight.
4) Rebuilding After The Evil Has Done Their Worst
As Seen In: Dark Cloud, recurring theme in Final Fantasy 14’s Realm Reborn arc
Sometimes, evil wins and everything is destroyed, as is the case of the PS2 game Dark Cloud. The journey is all about reversing the damage as you strive to find a way to prevent another such catastrophe. In the Final Fantasy 14 Realm Reborn arc, evil was stopped, but at a great cost, and the story continues with a new generation of heroes picking up the pieces.
If a big cataclysmic battle happens, that may lead to collateral damage. If mighty spells are flung by both sides, what sort of impact would that have on the cosmology? How might it have scarred the landscape? The villages razed by an evil overlord don’t necessarily come back just because the one who razed them was defeated. If the cause of the evil is gone, there’s still the task of figuring out what damage was done, and how to fix it.
You’ve no doubt noticed a theme with all these, or at least that they’re all very similar or even overlap in some cases. That’s because there’s only so many original ideas, so much so that scholars have found how every story can be intertwined into one another, and even given this phenomenon a name: The Hero’s Journey.
Furthermore, just as every story archetype is inevitably intertwined, so is the history of video games and tabletop games; they’re both games that eventually came to be adapted as storytelling media. Players give their input, it gets parsed, the state of the game is updated, and story is progressed. The only difference is that video games use machines that can do the parsing.
However, what works for a video game, won’t necessarily work for tabletop. It’s expected that in a video game that things will be locked off; certain doors will only open if you have a key. In a tabletop game, however, expectations are different. If I have a super human strength and can smash wood and stone columns easily, why can’t I bash down a door made of similar materials?
And THAT, my fledgling GM friends, is why improvisation is also important: so you can keep your epic campaign moving along without a hitch!
Aaron der Schaedel once wrote for a now defunct website called Game Master’s Game Table, and one of his favorite articles for that site was one telling the intertwined history of video games and tabletop ones. This was his attempt at a spiritual successor to that article. Something something, absurd plug for his Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://na.finalfantasyxiv.com/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games