While I almost exclusively run games in my own settings, I am obsessed with science fiction and fantasy across all mediums. Here are five settings from books, movies, tv, anime, comics, or videogames, that would make for a cool tabletop RPG setting (or that you could borrow ideas from). I tried to avoid settings that I think are already really well known and popular, or that have already had tabletop RPGs made from them.
1) Vampire Hunter D
This is a Japanese light novel series that has also been made into a manga, and two of the books have been made into movies. There was a pathfinder supplement that briefly outlined this series, but that’s minor enough that I’m willing to allow it. This series has that perfect combination of anachronism and Japanese weirdness, fascinating worldbuilding, and jam-packed with cool ideas. It feels very “Appendix N”; a post-post-apocalyptic science fantasy that combines elements of traditional fantasy, gothic fantasy, and weird west in a uniquely Japanese way. The “nobles,” immensely powerful vampires, long ago took over the world and built a science fiction empire, only to recede under mysterious circumstances. The humans left behind have salvaged their resources and technologies to the best of their ability, and fight to survive in a world of noble-made monsters. It has all the best elements of the recent Castlevania anime and the videogame Bloodborne.
2) Powder Mage
A novel series set in a fictional world reminiscent of the Industrial Age and Victorian England. There is political and social intrigue, diplomacy, large-scale battles, and cool superpowers. Knacks are individuals with single, low-level (yet often uniquely useful) special abilities. Sorcerers are massively powerful combat mages with a weakness to gunpowder. The titular Powder Mages are rifle-wielding soldiers who can sense gunpowder, remotely ignite it, eat or snort it to gain enhanced physical abilities, or use it to remotely enhance the distance or change the trajectory of bullets. There are also anti-sorcerers who can shut down other sorcerers’ abilities; wardens who are hulking aberrations created from living humans, and specially-trained superhuman mercenaries who are OP at everything from combat to spycraft to business. There’s a lot to play with here, in every sense.
3) Valkyria Chronicles
A videogame series with a watercolored, cel-shaded, anime art style, set in a fictional setting with a roughly World War 1 to World War 2-era aesthetic. It deals with a world war between a faction reminiscent of the Allies, and a faction reminiscent of Nazi Germany crossed with Stalinist Russia with Imperial European dressing. There’s a valuable, glowing blue mineral resource known as ragnite used as explosives and power sources for tanks. There are scouts, shocktroopers, engineers, snipers, lancers (heavily-armored soldiers with rocket-lances to fight tanks), and the legendary superhuman valkyria. There is a cultural faction roughly analogous to Jews and Romani during World War 2, and other interesting social and political nuances. The videogame series places an emphasis on tactics, which would lend itself well to tactical tabletop RPGs, but it also places a strong emphasis on episodic narrative, which could lend itself well to dramatic scenes in games like FATE or Apocalypse Engine games.
4) Goblin Slayer
This one may be too obvious, and also it would normally be too traditional fantasy for my taste, but it’s so exceptional that I’ll excuse it. It was originally a light novel series that I have not read, but was also made into an anime. While surface-level it is very much traditional fantasy, it has a few neat little twists that give it personality. It is also very obviously inspired by tabletop RPGs, and as such, it does a good job of uniquely integrating (and subverting) the tropes of tabletop RPG fantasy. In a world where every adventurer wants to be a legendary hero, mundane monsters such as goblins are frequently overlooked. As such, these creatures, which are in fact quite dangerous to civilians or to inexperienced combatants, are an under-acknowledged problem. Inexperienced adventurers underestimate them and get slaughtered, while experienced adventures can’t be bothered, or expect too much gold for their services. The Goblin Slayer has no magical abilities, nor magical or mastercrafted equipment; he relies solely on his wits, coming up with all sorts of clever approaches to goblin slaying that would be a thrill to play out at any table.
5) The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
This is a book co-written by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite science fiction / speculative fiction authors, and Nicole Galland, who I was not familiar with prior to reading this book. I should mention that I’m actually still actively reading this book, so there may yet be some twists that I’m unfamiliar with. The general idea is that magic is the ability to manipulate quantum mechanics, and there were once witches who could do it. It’s a somewhat similar premise to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files, a series I would have recommended here but it already has a tabletop RPG (although it is apparently no longer available on drivethrurpg). Like Laundry Files, Stephenson and Galland do a good job of realizing the implications of this speculative fantasy, and to their credit, they take it in a very different direction. The majority of the book is centered on Sending, the process of sending individuals back in time, engaging in Cold War-style spycraft and espionage across history in order to manipulate events up to the present. It’s a cool idea, and one that I think could lend itself well to tabletop, exploring a variety of historical (or pseudo-historical) settings, and playing out the implications of those missions on the present.
Even if you’re like me and prefer to build your own worlds, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Whether it’s snagging a really interesting, tight premise, or borrowing bits and pieces of cool little details to expand your own world, there are a lot of interesting ideas from other media to be explored in a tabletop game. They say there is no such thing as true originality, but if you bring concepts like these to the table, your party will have the next best thing.
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://thumbor.forbes.com/thumbor/960x0/https%3A%2F%2Fblogs-images.forbes.com%2Folliebarder%2Ffiles%2F2016%2F12%2Fvhd_interview1-1200x919.jpg
In any creative medium that lasts long enough, there’s bound to be stretches where it seems like everybody is just copying what everybody else is doing. (In art history, they refer to these periods as movements.)
Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception. An acquaintance of mine once lamented that so many games were using Powered By The Apocalypse, but not really doing anything to really make their game unique, and made the leap in logic that they were just doing so because everybody else was making a game that used PbtA.
I remain largely unimpressed if a game bears a logo signifying that it uses a certain ruleset. However, I have also witnessed a few instances of people reacting strongly to such labels, both favorably and not. I try to remain dispassionate whenever I notice a trending game engine or game style in our hobby. I’ve seen it happen numerous times before. More often than not, it’s just that: a passing trend that in time, will be mostly forgotten.
In light of that sentiment, for your reading pleasure, I present you with “5 Creative Movements In The RPG Fandom” so as to celebrate the unique inventions of our hobby.
1) The Fantasy Heartbreakers
A term coined by Ron Edwards of the web forum The Forge, Fantasy Heartbreakers is a type of game that Edwards identifies being prominent in the 1990s. They were independently published games of the fantasy genre that seemed to be products of people trying to bring their own take on what Dungeons and Dragons could be.
He describes many of them as having great ideas, but being trapped behind the shortcomings of D&D, for one of three reasons. They don’t play to what truly makes them unique, they make some minor adjustments to some of the apparent problems D&D had at the time, or they just flat out keep some of the absurd themes that D&D was stuck with.
The reason these are titled Fantasy Heartbreakers is twofold: they were obviously fantasy games, but more importantly, this was a considerably more difficult time to self-publish. The internet was budding, and some of these games did take advantage of having websites, but DriveThruRPG didn’t quite take off till some years after 2000. This meant the cost of self-publishing was considerably higher, to the effect of thousands of dollars just to print. (The cost of commissioning artwork, if you could even afford it, would compound the issue.)
And so, a fantasy game designer’s dream of being the next Gary Gygax would often end in a broken heart -- so much effort, so much investment, all to be forgotten in a market too small for them.
2) There’s A GURPS Book For That
Generic Universal Roleplaying System is the flagship RPG of Steve Jackson Games, the company that may be better known for the Munchkin franchise. While now typically scoffed at as having way too much math to be enjoyable, there was a time when GURPS addressed issues of contemporary games. Issues such as character creation being too rampant, or playing in a different setting requiring learning a completely new game.
In the 90s, GURPS was all the rage, and much like how Steve Jackson now licenses out Munchkin whenever he needs to pay the rent, he did the same with GURPS during its heyday. While both Steve Jackson’s own web-store and Drive Thru RPG boast staggering collections, this isn’t the complete library.
There were numerous books published that bore the GURPS logo, including the now out of print Vampire: the Masquerade GURPS sourcebook, and even a few Japan-only exclusives such as GURPS Runal. The heyday of GURPS may be over, and large swaths of its library may now be difficult to find, but it’s hard to deny that it’s an important artifact of tabletop gaming history. (Especially since the Secret Service once seized all of Steve Jackson Game’s equipment over one of their GURPS sourcebooks!)
3) D20 System
After the Fantasy Heartbreakers bled out, but before the weight of GURPS’s massive library collapsed on itself, Wizards of the Coast acquired the remains of TSR, and brought us Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and with it, the Open Gaming License and the moniker d20 System.
With the freedom to use the rules to D&D to make one’s own supplements and games came a deluge fan made splat books, along with officially licensed games. Some of these were good, or at least well received, such as Mutants and Masterminds, or Blue Rose by Green Ronin publishing.
I’ve read through Blue Rose; frankly, this was much like one of the Fantasy Heartbreakers opined upon by Ron Edwards close to two decades ago. It added a few new mechanics and a different setting, but at the end of the day, it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition with a different coat of paint.
Most games either fell into the above category, or showcased some of the flaws of Dungeons and Dragons’ core mechanics. Big Eyes Small Mouth d20 is one such example of the latter. It tried to include the freedom of a point buy game with the structure of a level based one, and failed pretty miserably at both with a kitchen sink setting.
The surge of the d20 system died down some the flop of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and the revival of D&D in the public eye with 5th edition. Though somewhere between the 4th and 5th edition being released, a new movement gave way.
4) Powered By Fate (Or The Apocalypse)
Sometime before Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition being released, FATE and Powered by the Apocalypse picked up in popularity. I remember some of the ways friends of mine initially described FATE when its 4th edition was released in 2013. They described it as being “easier to understand” and “letting you do anything.”
Which brings us to where we stand now. We’re in the middle of a movement marked by narrative games using FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse cropping up, either as fan made games like the numerous Star Wars FATE games, or as independent publishing, such as a Nahual, a Mexican game about urban fantasy, set in (surprise) Mexico.
Social movements have a strange way of not being all encompassing, though. The Fantasy Heartbreakers were happening at roughly the same time GURPSmania was, which dragged on sometime into the era of the d20 System’s reign. Moreover, with Dungeons and Dragons having some of its rules released under the Open Gaming License, we’re seeing a second wind of extra Dungeons and Dragons material during our current age of FATE and PbtA, including High Level Games’s own addition to this canon: Snow Haven.
5) Bonus! Standard Roleplay System
To illustrate that this isn’t exclusively a trend in the English speaking roleplaying game community, I’d like to touch on something similar that’s happened in Japan. The game publisher Far East Amusement Research is one of the big names in publishing RPGs in Japan. They’re known for two things: having published Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as creating the Standard Roleplay System.
The Standard Roleplay System is exactly what its name implies: a standard set of rules that FEAR’s games use, creating a similar wave of games in Japan as we’ve had in the West. One of the most bemoaned examples from Western fans of Japan’s RPGs is a game called Monotone Museum, which was designed to prove a point about SRS: anybody, even those who don’t have much experience in RPGs, can make one.
The rules deviate very little from the SRS document, and shares a lot of common themes with other FEAR Games, including Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Themes such as stacking multiple archetypes to make your character, having a cosmic force that both empowers and corrupts your character, and having to take steps to avoid being lost to said force.
I’ve initially bemoaned how similar so many different RPGs can all be the same, but as I wrote this article and took the time to organize my thoughts on the matter, a few things did dawn on me. The first is that every so often, something truly new does come around and shake things up. The other is that even within a familiar framework, there can still be room for something interesting to be made.
After all, despite basically being a clone of JRPG video games of the time, Earthbound is still one of the best games of its kind.
While Aaron der Schaedel has been in the RPG fandom for a very long time, he’s spent most of that time in the fringes of it, where he’s found all kind of wonderful, bizarre, and even horrifying things. You can (and should) ask him questions about the things he’s found via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224851/GURPS-Fantasy
We’ve been in the middle of an RPG renaissance for several years now. More games are coming out than ever before, and we’ve had huge inrushes of players eager to snap them up. And while creative changes in the industry, positive outreach from the community, and the ascension of geek culture have all played their part, something we can’t ignore is the popularity of YouTube campaigns like Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. These games have allowed audiences who have never seen an RPG in action before to watch how it’s done by the pros, allowing them to get an idea of how all these moving parts should look when you flip the switch.
In broad terms, we can all agree that’s a good thing. Especially for players and dungeon masters who want to get into the hobby (or into a particular game), but who lack more experienced people to reach out to, and could use some examples of how things work.
In specific terms, though, there has been a definite up-tick in complaints that a particular game isn’t run like what they see on the Internet. So if you’re a player or dungeon master worried about how your game doesn’t look like the sort of game Matt Mercer would put together, take a deep breath, and relax. That’s okay. In fact, it’s great.
Here are some reasons why.
Reason #1) This Isn’t Your Job
Most people out there who love RPGs play them for fun. What a lot of folks forget is that, for the YouTube dungeon masters and convention games that people buy tickets to watch, that’s not the case. They are doing this to entertain you, the viewers.
Is it fun for them? Yeah, probably. But their main concern is more about what gets more viewers. Hence the celebrity guest players, the carefully crafted story lines, making sure a lot of stuff is worked out in advance for rules calls, etc.
If you’re running your game for the purpose of drawing ears to a podcast, or getting a lot of hits on YouTube, then by all means mimic what the successful games are doing. But if this is for funsies, remember that you don’t have to put on the whole three-ring show the way the pros do.
Reason #2) Professional Games Aren’t Cheap
You see all the props, the cool minis, the fully laid-out map, etc. that are on these shows? Well, they’re there in order to give the audience something cool to look at. Because the advent of popular 3D printing may have made such things cheaper, it has in no way made running a game that looks that good cheap. So if you’re not working with a big budget, there is zero shame in using re-purposed green soldiers, monster figures from SCS, or just Lego figures, and drawing with dry-erase markers on the map.
This same logic applies to all the complaints you might see regarding production values. From the ambiance of the set, to any music used, or just to how much in-depth RP the players and dungeon master do. Remember that these things have costs in terms of time, energy, preparation, and setup. If you don’t have the budget for bells and whistles, don’t worry. Engage with the game, and the story you’re all telling.
Reason #3) Every DM Is Different
While he catches a lot of flak, Matt Mercer himself has said that every DM should be free to develop their own style, and to find what makes their game work for them and their table. RPGs aren’t like organized sports, where if you want to be the best you should imitate those who are most successful (which, in this case, means the people who are known professionally for running entertaining gaming sessions).
Are there things you can learn from the folks who captain these YouTube campaigns? Of course there are! But there’s a big difference between learning a lesson or taking a bit of flair to work into your own routine, and outright copying what they’ve done. So remember, there are no rules when it comes to this hobby. And if the only objection someone has is, “That’s not how they do it on TV,” then you should politely inform them that they and their character are not a part of that particular show.
Reason #4) Are You Not Entertained?
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who tried to game shame you? This happens more with video games where people will talk down to you if you prefer a game that is older, doesn’t have good graphics, or isn’t the current in thing to play, and it’s just as asinine in those situations as it is with tabletop games.
Don’t compare yourself to others, especially in a story-based, creative endeavor. It doesn’t matter if your sword-and-sorcery campaign doesn’t feel like a Robert E. Howard adventure, and it’s immaterial if your horror game leaves out the earmarks of Lovecraft’s finest work. And it’s no more important that your game looks or feels like a professional podcast, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves playing it.
Reason #5) You Have Different Needs
Not to get repetitive, but these popular games exist to entertain an audience. That is the driving goal behind a lot of the decisions that get made (one in particular that comes to mind is Critical Role switching from Pathfinder to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition in order to speed up play so the audience wouldn’t get bored). However, you and your players may have needs or wants that this kind of format simply cannot provide for.
As an example, if you want that kind of mechanical complexity (or you feel that rules which have been truncated or re-written to speed up the game on-camera should be run differently), then it’s okay for you to play games that scratch that itch. If you want to deal with the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t show up on these shows, or if you want to do deep dives into game setups that might not seem as interesting to a broader audience, you can do that as well.
Games on YouTube are about what makes the audience happy. Your game is about your and your group’s needs, and unless you’re broadcasting, focus on what you need out of the game in order for you to enjoy it.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! And if you’re looking for a new YouTube channel dedicated to gaming, stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/78320481003470118/
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
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.
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/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games