In my time as a GM, I often use classic storytelling tropes. The 3 act structure is heavily referenced in many tips on running a good game. So can similar guides help create a good character? So I wanted to look at the first several key points of the hero’s journey in order to see what points should be included in our characters. I’ll be asking and answering whether the first steps should be included and if so what they add to a character. For reference, there are a couple of different versions of the Monomyth/Hero’s Journey; I’ll be using the one from The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.
1) The Call To Adventure
The call to an adventurer's life is a pretty basic tenant of character creation. What called a character to the life they currently live? GMs talk about a call to adventure in their game that will cause the characters to come together, but most Lv 0 characters in RPG’s don’t resemble the very beginnings of that character’s arc. All of our characters come with the beginnings of their skills or the inclination towards them. So what caused our characters to become the adventurers they are today? In character creation, it is important to create a major goal for the character - a lifelong quest that the GM can interact with. However, it’s important that the goal pervades the overall arc but is still involved in smaller complete adventures. Thus the call to adventure implemented into character creation can have powerful story impact, perhaps even too powerful if not thought through.
2) Refusal Of The Call
Should our characters refuse the call to adventure?
Refusing the call to adventure is where the danger of accepting their new task comes into focus. For some of our characters that risk is death by unknown monsters and for some it’s public shame; there are prices to our characters failings. A character also in this case usually establishes what fears and weaknesses might hold them back on the upcoming journey of the campaign. So this very well could be a good time in your backstory to establish important disadvantages your character starts the campaign with and maybe mention why they have them. Ultimately, refusing the call to adventure humanizes the character. So, if you constantly find yourself in the murder hobo camp and want to get out, including the refusal into your backstory could be an effective way to fight that. Give your character weakness and let it make them weak. So should your character refuse the call? Not necessarily. But, I think it is important that you give them a reason to and include that into the game.
3) Meeting The Mentor
Each of our characters has an extraordinary set of skills and the way they acquire those skills is a big point of how they form as adventurers. The hero’s journey assumes that it is some kind of wise old man teaching the hero the way. Campbell claims that the mentor, in addition to acting as instructor, represents “the benign, protecting power of destiny.” The meeting of the mentor represents the assurance of the validity of a character’s personal quest and the ultimate success of it. This mentor can be a very powerful tool when your GM is crafting a story with your characters. So I would suggest taking time to consider how a mentor’s specific influence makes your character’s skill set and quest different from others with the same training.
4) Crossing The Threshold
Here the hero leaves the world he is comfortable with. This crossing allows the character to leave their life and become part of the campaign. Whether a physical or metaphorical barrier there does need to be a finality to the change in our character’s life. At this point, it is important that the character has both the reason to leave their comfort zones and something forcing them to do so. This is the point where the character’s backstory becomes just that: a backstory, motivations derived from the past. This should be a defining moment for the character that frees them of the immediacy of past obligations and allows them to take up the life they lead in our campaigns. Think of Frodo or Luke Skywalker. Frodo leaves with ties to the shire but no true obligations. He carries friends with him and a mission with him but none of his life from the shire is key to any of it. In the case of Skywalker the person literally asking him to stay for his home responsibilities, his uncle, literally passes away.
Making our own characters in a wider story is always a challenge for tabletop roleplaying games. It’s important to make sure that our character gives more opportunities for unique character moments. For this, I think models like the Hero’s Journey give a good way to ensure our character’s story is rich enough to be worth interacting with however integrating it into a larger story with other characters and NPC’s is the challenge of the players over an author. My best advice is to make sure that your character has a rich past that is in the past. Adventurers should be ready to start their life over and experience change. Of course, this varies by system, player, and playgroup. As a GM I typically use the 3 act structure but realize that I may need to abandon some planned things to give the players the best experience. So as a player I think we should follow a structure like the Hero’s Journey but realize rarely does that kind of planning actually fully make it to the table.
Bo Quel is a Legend of the Five Rings Fanatic From Virginia. He plays and GMs several systems where he focuses on telling enriching stories and making characters that are memorable. He also is the GM/Host of Secondhand Strife, an L5R RPG actual Play Podcast.
Image Credit: What makes a hero? - Matthew Winkler Ted talk
Sometimes friends drift apart, or disagreements can dismantle a party. What do you do when you need to find a new group to game with? Though currently difficult due to COVID-19, we've got your back on how you can saddle up and find your new party.
Once convention season opens up again after the pandemic is over - conventions are a great way to meet scores of new people in a short amount of time. While not everyone can afford the expense of attending one of the mega conventions like San Diego ComiCon, the benefit to gaming becoming more mainstream and popular means there are many more small local conventions than ever before! There are often conventions that are purely just about gaming, or even specific types of gaming. The drawback to seeking a new gaming group even at a small local convention is that they might not be local. But the odds are in your favor by sheer numbers and opportunities with different gaming sessions and panels. Even if you don’t find your new gaming group, you can still have a great time playing some fun games with other con goers and potentially make some new friends.
2) Local Game Nights
A better way to increase your odds of encountering local gamers is, after the pandemic, to hit up a local game night at a game store or venue that supports game nights (such as an arcade bar or a family run restaurant). Most game stores have different game nights that are themed to specific days and usually have a freeform game night at least one night per week. This offers the opportunity to find new group members for a particular game you want to play, or to join an existing group that you mesh with. It also takes the guesswork out of choosing a location for your new group’s game nights, since you’re already meeting at a hosting venue. If you don’t find a new game group on the first try, don’t be afraid to try again. While most themed game nights will have the “usual crowd” there may be new gamers that stop by looking for a group just like you.
3) Join A Facebook Group
Scouting new local groups can be tough, and exploring new game shops and game night locales can be intimidating. A great way to find new gaming group members without the social pressure is by searching groups on Facebook. The social media platform has dozens of groups specifically tailored to different games. It’s also a great way to get a feel for the other players in a group via the discussions on the Facebook group pages. It will become clear which groups and gamers are more “hardcore” and which are more “casual” by the types of discussions in the groups. Reading them ahead of time takes the social pressure off so you “know” what kind of gamers you’ll be sitting down to play with. You never know who you might connect with and what local fellow gamers you might find.
4) Search On A Gaming Forum
This can be a bit more intimidating than joining a Facebook group. Gamers that frequent forums are typically more “hardcore” about the games they play than the casual gamers that are more likely to frequent open Facebook groups. If you consider yourself a hardcore gamer, or are up to the challenge, this may be a great way to find an experienced group to play with. There are always clusters of gamers looking to join new groups, and technology can help bridge the distance if local gaming isn’t possible. Utilizing video chat like Skype or Zoom with digital gaming programs like Roll20 can make game night happen no matter where your group members live.
5) Start Your Own Group
This option may be the most intimidating, but it can sometimes be the “best” option. Create your own Facebook Group, or post on a gaming forum that you’re looking to build your own gaming group. Let the world know what kind of group you’re looking to play with, and what you bring to the table. Do you have a venue? Books, maps, figurines? Or maybe you make the best game night snacks? Whatever makes you a key player for your new game group, shout it loud and proud and see what other gamers you might reel in.
Seeking a new game night group is always a challenge, regardless if it’s your first game group, or you’re a seasoned player. Take a chance on these tips and don’t give up! Your best game night group is out there waiting for you.
Alice Liddell is an author, artist, and performer who loves bringing magic and fantasy to all aspects of her working and personal life. Whether it’s DnD with friends, or a round of Fable solo, Alice has always loved gaming of all kinds. You can find her work on her social media handles Facebook, or under littlalice06 on IG and Twitter.
Picture Reference: https://www.wallpaperflare.com/play-board-game-cube-human-don-t-be-angry-game-board-figures-wallpaper-ajphf/download/4096x2304
There are games that work perfectly for people who want to pick up and play, but eventually, most DMs or GMs will want to start building their own world. It could start with a single village, a single dungeon, but then you add a road out of there, a forest beside the road, a town name on a mile marker. Before you know it you are writing about kingdoms and continents and the history of the first age of Elves.
Admit it, you are now a world builder. You are above the level of most casual DM/GMs. Quite possibly you are the forever DM who never gets to play. As your imagination runs riot, at some point you are going to run smack into a wall. From writing your own world histories and creating world maps you crossed the line into house ruling a playable race, profession or class. A restriction that doesn’t make sense in your world had an important part to play in game balance for the rules. You change the rule and your vision of elves as immortal, magical fey works, but suddenly they become the god race for player characters as you take away their level limits. After all, it made no sense that someone who has lived for 10,000 years could not learn 10th level spells. Then you spot the hard limits; what you can and cannot change is not always easy to comprehend at first blush.
Some games were never designed to go beyond their native style of play, or to stray too far from their native genre. Thankfully, other games revel in it. I am going to look at some of your options for setting your world-building creativity free.
1) Dungeons & Dragons
The great thing about D&D is that a lot of the work has been done for you. If you lump things like Gamma World and D&D modern in with classic D&D, as the core mechanics are pretty much the same, you have a great range of time periods you can play with and draw from. Most roleplayers will know the basic rules of D&D, it doesn’t ask too much of them to accept that Dwarves have canons and blunderbusses.
Where D&D worldbuilding falls short is that it is a game of hard limits. What makes one class stand out over another is that one cannot emulate the abilities of another. It assumes a balanced party with different skill sets. Drop that into a pulp setting and character classes don’t make so much sense. Even levels and hit dice start to look a bit weird when you are a 10th level Bomb Disposal expert!
FATE doesn’t have the same restrictions or hard limits as the classic d20 system. This is good in one way but asks a lot of the players and GM. The system puts its efforts into supporting collaborative storytelling. The players’ input is as valid as that of the GM. In a freewheeling game, this is great. For the worldbuilder, however, it is frequently troublesome. You see it one way, you build the structures to support it, write the histories and offer the players their hook into the world, and they see it differently and simply playing in your world they change it and shape it as they see it. FATE is great for broad strokes. Tell everyone they are Special Forces in a world of giant insects and magical elves and they will roll with it.
With GURPS we are approaching something that most worldbuilders can work with. Just about every genre under the sun exists as a supporting sourcebook. No one needs them all (an odd thing for a GM to say) but you can pick the sourcebooks that have the elements you want, mix and match and it will all work seamlessly.
For the most advanced GMs, it is still going to feel like you are playing in somebody else’s sandbox. That’s when you start making house rules! GURPS can be a bit of a love/hate system. If your group loves it, then you have everything you need already. Your quest ends here.
4) Hero System
I am going to admit to some bias here. I absolutely love Hero System and consider it to be one of the best systems ever written. Hero System is inherently setting neutral, and from a gameplay perspective, self-balancing. Every advantage is built with points and those are balanced with disadvantages. If your points balance out, then the game will work. I come from a Rolemaster background and I am used to seeing things cross-statted for Rolemaster and Hero System. In Hero System, the rules for building a crocodile are the same ones used for building a superhero or a space marine.
No system is perfect. Hero System is a rules-heavy game. Creating a character, a monster, a wild beast, or a starfighter is not going to be quick. All the creation systems and rules are math-heavy. At the table, the game plays nicely and fast. What the rules are doing is putting the workload most definitely on the worldbuilder, in this case, you.
3Deep is a rules-light game that freely admits that it takes a lot of inspiration from Hero System. It also incorporates ideas from Traveller and Car Wars, all iconic old school games. The name refers to the system’s reliance on three levels, weapons come in light, medium, or heavy, doing 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 respectively, beasts come in small, medium or large, with stats being rolled on 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 and so on. Difficulties are measured on a scale of +3 for extremely easy to -3 for extremely hard, they can get harder but in most play +3 to -3 is all you will ever need.
3Deeps consistent approach allows you to place game mechanics directly into your worldbuilding without having to stop and refer to rulebooks. If the north face of a mountain is terrible to climb (-3), the difficulty is just dropped into the text.
As mentioned above, the game shares something with Hero System: it separates special effects from game mechanics. A firebolt does 1d6 to 3d6 depending on how big it is but the same rule or mechanic applies to a pistol (1d6), a carbine (2d6) to an elephant gun (3d6). The difference is that fire burns and bullets cause bleeding.
This system is front and center in that it was built for the worldbuilding GM. It even says so in its product description. This makes it unusual in that it focuses its appeal toward the GM and not necessarily the player.
Hero System and 3Deep both say they are built for the worldbuilding GM. This is quite unusual. When I look at games on DriveThruRPG nearly all of them tell me what sort of character I can be, how I can discover the world. In game publishing circles, it is held up as a universal truth that a compelling setting is what sells games. No one is ever going to get excited about 1d8 damage, but skyships and dark gods are evocative. To target the GM is a brave move, but the most experienced GMs are going to end up looking for the rules that allow them to really express themselves. Of course, we can all hack any rules we like, and there is a lot of flexibility and variety in d20 systems. It is just a question of when will you bump into the edges of the railroad tracks, regardless of how wide they are.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples games to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Navigator RPG, Castles & Crusades, and Zweihänder.
Header image is in the public domain
When Onyx Path Publishing (OPP) announced the crowdfunding campaign to convert Calibre Comics’ Legendlore from four-color funny book to tabletop RPG, I was interested. Developer Steffie de Vaan reached out to talk about the project which resulted in this interview. Then, due to coronavirus, OPP decided to cancel the project. Steffie was gracious enough to answer a few follow up questions about how this pandemic impacted the game and how it will resurrect later this year.
EGG EMBRY (EGG): Steffie, thanks for talking with me. At EN World, we spoke about your work on Vampire: The Masquerade 5e: Fall of London from Modiphius Entertainment. Now we’re talking about the Legendlore RPG Kickstarter from Onyx Path Publishing. For those that are not familiar with this setting, what is Legendlore and The Realm?
STEFFIE DE VAAN (SDV): The Realm, and later Legendlore, is a comic initially published by Arrow Comics and later by Calibre Comics. They’re about a group of four friends who open an enchanted chest and find themselves teleported into the Realm, a fantasy world full of elves, dwarves, and at least one evil dragon in disguise. They go on adventures, some of them travel back to Earth, some don’t, and I think at least one dies.
EGG: We started this interview before the decision to cancel this crowdfunding campaign was made. What drove that decision?
SDV: It’s an uncertain time for everybody and the Kickstarter wasn’t getting the traffic we think it would normally do. We were on track to funding, but we felt Legendlore can and deserves to do better than it was. There’s also been people on our end understandably focused on other things and all in all we just felt it was better to postpone.
EGG: What inspired Onyx Path Publishing to pick this Caliber Comics series for conversion to tabletop?
SDV: The whole idea of “YOU travel to another world” is just so iconic. We see it time and again, in everything from Narnia to the old Dungeons and Dragons cartoon. And Legendlore is such a rich setting with great nations, villains, and a couple unique takes on people and monsters.
EGG: Who is working on this project? What role are you taking? Are any of the creators from the original comics working on this?
SDV: I’m the developer. I read the comics front to back (most if not all writers did) to distill the essence of Legendlore into a pitch and then an outline. We have some amazing writers on this book, so I’ll just list them all. Elizabeth Chaipraditkul, Jacqueline Penny Hart, Travis Legge, Megan Mackie, Ashley May, Katriel Paige, Roman Trevisanut, Vera Vartanian, and Ashley Warren. The people from Calibre were involved in the pitch and outline, as well as final approvals, but not in the actual writing.
EGG: This RPG exists in a fantasy world and in “our” world. Will each player have two characters, one for “Earth” and one in the Realm? Will fantasy creatures be able to join the PCs back on our “Earth”?
SDV: You get one character who can move back and forth (assuming you find a Crossing, which is a portal connecting Earth to the Realm). Steffie the human writer becomes Steffie the pixie Bard. And when I go back, I probably (but ultimately it depends on the group) become human again. Both are me though—same experiences, background, and personality. As to whether or not creatures from the Realm can come back with them, that depends on the DM. It’s never happened in the comics, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen in your campaign.
EGG: What makes D&D 5e the right system for this setting?
SDV: I play D&D 5E and the system is just solid and easy to use. Given that Legendlore is a fantasy setting, it was a great fit.
EGG: For those 5e fans that are on the fence about backing this, what’s your pitch to them?
SDV: Remember that time when you statted yourself as a vampire, or an elf? (Because we ALL did it.) You can do that in Legendlore. In fact, the system is specifically designed to let you play fantasy you. We’ve got backgrounds for humans from activists to roleplaying fans. We also want everyone to feel at home in the Realm, Realmborn people come in all colors, genders, and orientations. Most importantly though, Legendlore gives you full player agency. You choose which parts of yourself you want to bring into the Realm, and which you want to drop. Seasonal allergies, anxiety, and glasses? Your choice whether those Cross with you, or if it’s magically changed. Same goes for any body dysphoria. Completely your choice.
EGG: Correct me if I’m wrong, but continental Europe’s native comic format is the large album instead of the American-style floppy comics, right? Were The Realm and Legendlore, being indie American comics, readily available in Europe? Were you familiar with the series?
SDV: We traditionally have big albums, yes. So, I am certain I’ve held a comic with the Legendlore letters/logo a solid two decades ago. But when I read the comics for this project the story was completely new to me. So either there are more fantasy comics using that lettering, or it’s been so long I don’t remember the content.
EGG: The Legendlore RPG is going to come back and when it does, are there any thoughts about expanding some of the preview options? For example, OPP is great about sharing access to the rough draft of the game via backer-only updates. Are there any thoughts about doing the same, but with digital versions of the comics? Or other approaches to help spread the word about this setting?
SDV: I am not sure we’re allowed to preview the comics themselves, because those are completely owned by our partners at Calibre. But we are planning actual plays of Legendlore which we expect will get people excited.
EGG: With DC Comics’ The Last God making the jump from comic to D&D 5e supplement and Legendlore coming from OPP, is now the right time for publishers to look at comics as inspiration for their tabletop games?
SDV: I love comics. If anyone wants to take a chance on hiring a new comic writer: contact me. The stories are so rich, and they’re such a good mix of show (with the visuals) and tell (with dialogue and captions). Plus most comics are serials so you have an entire background to pull from right there. But I also think we need to keep supporting new stories, as well as small companies that maybe don’t have the funds a DC Comics project does. So a bit of both, maybe.
EGG: During these trying times, tabletop RPGs are a great way to connect with others and escape (and easy to do via many online platforms). Beyond this project, what else are you working on?
SDV: I’m currently working on Exalted: Essence Edition and Scion: Saints and Monsters for Onyx Path Publishing, and Tiny Cthulhu for Gallant Knight Games. The Stargate RPG is coming to Kickstarter soon. Cat Evans and I are working on a Theros product for the DMs Guild, which is a lot of fun. And Liz (Elizabeth Chaipraditkul) and I are always writing new games for our Patreon.
EGG: Thanks for talking with me. Where can fans learn more about the campaign, OPP, and follow your work?
SDV: Here’s Legendlore and Onyx Path. And here’s me: Twitter, Wordpress, and Patreon.
Egg Embry is a freelance tabletop roleplaying game journalist writing for EN World, Knights of the Dinner Table, RPG News, d20 Radio, the Tessera Guild, the Open Gaming Network, the AetherCon Convention Magazine, GAMA’s Around the Table, and more. His areas of focus are RPG crowdfunding projects and RPG reviews as well as interviews with a range of gaming professionals from freelancers to CEOs. Beyond journalism, he dabbles in freelance writing and producing gaming zines for the roleplaying zine-aissance.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/200664283/legendlore-rpg-setting-for-5th-edition-fantasy-roleplaying
We all want to level up our characters and smash the "big baddies", but quests and campaigns can become monotonous in the name of grinding for experience. Endless cookie-cutter dungeon crawls can suck the fun out of a great campaign and turn game night into more of an obligation. Check out these five ways to keep the magic in your campaign and help prevent the characters from turning into murder hobos!
1) Think Your Way Through A Puzzle
Getting creative with puzzle encounters can break the cycle of beat the small baddies, beat the big baddie, get the treasure and experience points, rinse and repeat. Forcing your players to use critical thinking and their imaginations may be painful at first, but it can also bring new ideas to the campaign storyline. The puzzles don’t have to be on a high difficulty setting, sometimes setting up an easy or moderate puzzle can be just as fun to break the monotony. Try a small puzzle, like a mysterious room armed with coded locks that cannot be picked by your rogue. Or perhaps a larger puzzle of a strange cult that is controlling a village and needs to be dismantled via diplomacy rather than the sword.
2) Go Fetch!
Fetch quests can seem trivial, but they’re also a fun way to push the story forward without a dungeon crawl. Have your players find a lost item that they must return. Then the reward can lead to a new epic quest, or an even more difficult fetch quest. The players might even decide to stay awhile and explore the new town or setting. Or the fetch might be an NPC (non-player character) or an enemy creature. Perhaps the princess has run away from her engagement and you must return her to her betrothed. Then there lies the choice of forcing her to marry, or allow her to escape. A new adventure awaits.
3) Introduce A New Threat
Perhaps the main quest is ultimately defeating a particular big baddie and their lesser baddies along the way. However, that doesn’t mean a side quest isn’t in order. Create a new threat for your group to face. Maybe a town is being held hostage by a rogue warlock? Or perhaps a village is plagued by a rag tag army of bandits that assembled in the name of looting? Taking a detour from the main quest can be just what your campaign needs.
4) You Can’t Shake A Sword At The Plague
An unusual route your campaign can take is dealing with a quarantined town. You can’t fight illness with weapons, or perhaps even magic. The villagers need saving all the same and riches may wait as your reward. A twist on the puzzle quest, figuring out the cause of an outbreak and finding a solution or a cure can put your group’s imaginations to the test. It can also allow your healers to shine as the key players for the quest. The cause of the disease could still be due to a baddie that needs to be slain, but the journey to that knowledge would be different from the typical dungeon crawl.
5) Make A New Friend
Once a party is established, the dynamics of the group can become stuck in a rut, and gameplay can become quite predictable. A great way to shake things up is for the DM (Dungeon Master) to introduce a new NPC to the party. It could be temporary for a single quest, or could be a permanent fixture for the remainder of the campaign. Either way, it gives your party a new character to fight alongside and learn their quirks. Just be sure not to give your party a broken NPC either way – making them overpowered will make gameplay boring as it removes all the challenges, and making them weak and dumb will bog down your party and frustrate them. Meet somewhere in the middle with good advantages and weaknesses for the best gameplay.
6) Put The Game On Pause
Sometimes the best way to rejuvenate the grand campaign is to put it on hold and have fun with a one-shot campaign. Pick a storyline that’s radically different than the quest you’ve been grinding on, and watch the spark return to your group as they battle their way through new monsters and challenges. A little fluff can go a long way to bring back the magic. It can even resemble the old dungeon crawl grind, but having a new storyline and objective can give your party the new angle they’ve been craving in their main campaign.
While taking a new turn with your campaign can be fun, it's important to keep the balance of the overall goals of the campaign. Don’t just throw a crazy left turn into the mix, as that will only frustrate the party and confuse the campaign goals. Though if your group has a craving for plot twists, or straight up nonsense, perhaps they need a one-shot in a wonderland of sorts?
Alice Liddell is an author, artist, and performer who loves bringing magic and fantasy to all aspects of her working and personal life. Whether it’s DnD with friends, or a round of Fable solo, Alice has always loved gaming of all kinds. You can find her work on her social media handles Facebook, or under littlalice06 on IG and Twitter.
Image link: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1021946
For the longest time, I spent my time in the roleplaying game fandom on its fringes. The only community I was an active participant in was one dedicated to games from Japan. Don’t get me wrong, the folks in that community are great, but after an ugly encounter with a newcomer (that stemmed partly from a lack of tact on my part), I figured it was time to go out and refamiliarize myself with the larger RPG fandom.
I spent the following months becoming more active in other Discord servers, as well as connecting with other folks of the TTRPG Twitter-sphere, and even attending some Dungeons and Dragons panels at the Kentokyocon anime convention in Lexington, Kentucky. I’ve always known I was an oddity and the worst possible example of what’s normal, so this mission was to give myself a point of comparison: to better understand what IS normal.
What I learned in that time will no doubt be obvious to some of you, but I still believe it bears saying, if only so there’s a snapshot of the scene at this point in time.Since this is still an article about a leisure time activity, though, I believe it deserves an element of whimsy, so I will be including some dragon slaying metaphors.
With all that said, I present to you all: 5 Things I Learned Reconnecting With The D&D Fandom!
1) Dungeons and Dragons Is Still King Of The Hoard
Attention and participation are gold, jewels, and other fine treasures, while Dungeons and Dragons is a dragon sitting atop a giant pile of it.
The statistics that Roll20 used to publish on a yearly basis is the largest set of data we have on what games are being played. It’s far from a perfect dataset, since it’s only one platform, and it doesn’t list every possible game one could use the platform for, nor allow users to “fill in the blank” if their game isn’t listed. Rigors of the data aside, it does paint an unsurprising picture of the top dog: Dungeons and Dragons or some derivative thereof.
A quick look through the #ttrpg tag in Twitter adds to this picture: even though the tag is an acronym for “tabletop roleplaying game,” much of what you’ll find is geared towards Dungeons and Dragons. From pictures of the 7 piece polyhedral set, fantasy artwork, and memes alluding to situations that could only happen in D&D.
For a tag that uses such a broad term, it certainly has a narrow scope. One of the next biggest franchises in the RPG fandom, Shadowrun, doesn’t look like it’d fit in with this tag. It’s a near future, cyberpunk, urban fantasy, it only uses d6s, and while magic items and talismans exist, they’re almost exclusively used by magical characters.
2) There Is A Hope For A Dragon Slayer
Be they driven by curiosity, or a desire to see their world be the best version of itself, they want the dragon slain, so that the hoard can be shared by all. This, I had in common with some of them all along.
If you dig around enough in some of the dialogues that take place on Twitter, you will occasionally find a few dissenting voices: people who want more attention to be paid to other RPGs besides Dungeons and Dragons, and others who would gladly oblige them. Their reasons vary and range from an acknowledgement of D&D’s flaws, to wistful expressions of not wanting to miss out on everything that the RPG fandom has to offer.
These are the people I naturally gravitated towards, given my background of having divorced myself from D&D many years ago. The community I was in had a very strong distaste for Dungeons and Dragons; we were aware of the flaws, and we knew they could be fixed, we in fact played other games that did!
Our frustrations lead to some fairly cruel jokes we would tell at the expense of Dungeons and Dragons players, often in the format of “Why would you play that game? You can get the exact same experience by playing Pathfinder with these splatbooks and my homebrew system.”
Though, stepping outside of the bubble I was in made me realize: it may not necessarily be out of stubbornness that people cling to Dungeons and Dragons; but rather just not knowing how great other games can be. I had always known this might’ve been the case, but it was a different thing to see it for myself.
3) Everybody Wants To Be The Dragon Slayer
Many are confident in their abilities, believing they’ll be the one to slay the dragon, or that their efforts will contribute to its downfall.
The indie roleplaying game scene is huge. There’s numerous new games, splatbooks, and scenarios everywhere, created by all kinds of people. There are also scores of people recording and broadcasting their own games for the enjoyment of others. Many with aspirations of being the next big voice.
These modern days of the Internet Age also constitute a creative Golden Age: we have a huge collection of information, tutorials, and software available to us at our fingertips. If you have a computer and an internet connection, you can feasibly learn how to make anything. The Dungeons and Dragons fandom is just another example of this.
If you dig deep enough, you can find those same people who want D&D to be taken down a peg, wanting to rally people together so they can collectively have their fair share of the market. Whenever one of these calls goes out, it usually ends the same way: parties show up talking about what they’re doing to that end, how they’re different and how they believe they’re going to be the one to make a difference.
4) Conformity Is What The Dragon Wants (And Gets)
The dragon has its methods for maintaining its hoard: let a few people take from it, and collect tribute from others. Then the dragon won’t need to fight the people or try to stop them, but rather let human nature defend the dragon’s hoard.
There’s a lot of market forces at work that keep Dungeons and Dragons on top. They’re the biggest name in the industry, and for better or worse, being that big reinforces its top position. Anybody who wants to make some kind of living creating for the RPG fandom will likely need to make something catering to Dungeons and Dragons. The predictability of computer algorithms makes it impossible to be discovered if you’re not on a known tag or keyword, and if your end goal is to make money somehow, your best bet is to aim for the biggest market share and hope you’re noticed.
One of the major selling points of Dungeons and Dragons is the sheer volume of content there is; when one sees so much, it’s easy to come to believe you don’t need anything else. Somebody else likely has already made what you’re looking for. Wizards has even created a marketplace specifically for content for D&D and D&D alone.
Most damning to those that would want to topple D&D is this: humans are creatures of conformity. Being like everybody else is soothing to us, even if it’s ultimately detrimental. Newcomers come in, see it’s all D&D, and come to believe D&D is all there is, or that anything else is in the tabletop RPG fandom going to be similar to D&D. (Even though D&D’s genre, Dungeon Crawl Fantasy, is fairly unique in what it does.)
It also leads people to believe that since D&D is a complex game with several specific rulings that must be known, every game is. That since most people play D&D before they run it, they must play other games before they can run it. That since so much of the onus is on the DM, the same must be true in every other game. This leads to trepidation that is then soothed by remaining in line with what’s familiar, even if it ultimately falls short.
5) There’s More Than One Dragon
The dragons are everywhere, and thrive in this world. Wherever there is treasure to hoard, there is a dragon to guard it jealously, often with the same tactics.
I originally set out to write an article about roleplaying games and human nature when we gather around media. As I added to these points, I realized that a lot of what I had seen as I put myself back out there into the D&D world were things I had seen everywhere else.
Even though comics are now mainstream and cool, it’s weird to like anything that isn’t DC or Marvel, and if there’s any issue that needs to be addressed in the comics fandom, the onus is only placed on those two juggernauts to resolve it. (Even if a different company had already taken steps to address it; it may as well not exist.)
The only way to be recognized as a fan or critic of comics is to work with the larger companies; it might be possible to claw your way to recognition through other means, but the faster route is often to get lucky placing your bets in the oversaturated market.
This is a phenomenon across all kinds of media, and arguably even other industries, too. A throng of titans control the lion’s share and dominate both the market and a space in everybody’s mind.
If this article veered a little too far off the rails for your liking, just remember what I said at the start: this is a little more than just an experiment I made when reconnecting to the mainstream. It’s also a snapshot of how I see the world right now.
Aaron der Schaedel spent his 31st birthday writing this article; which would also have been Gary Gygax’s 81st, were he still with us. Sharing Gary Gygax’s birthday has granted Aaron no special powers or abilities, and he is still, in fact, really salty about that. You can tell him to get over himself via Twitter. You can also check out his YouTube Channel, which is his own attempt to slay the metaphorical dragon.
Picture Reference: https://www.facebook.com/pg/kentokyocon/posts/
It’s easy to picture some literary characters slotting right into your next D&D campaign. For starters, you could fill up a party with adventurers plucked right out of Middle-earth, from Gimli the dwarven fighter to the mysterious ranger Strider, a grim stranger whose weatherbeaten looks hide the noble bloodline of an incognito king.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to Lord of the Rings, which feels almost like cheating. After all, its role in shaping high fantasy as a whole makes it a not-so-distant ancestor to D&D. To really stretch your creative muscles, why not swap out Tolkien for Cervantes, turning Don Quixote into an ardent, windmill-tilting paladin? Or, try building out Odysseus, the “man of twist and turns,” as a rogue who’s ten steps ahead of everyone else on the map.
If you’re the kind of bookworm who longs to slip between the pages of your favorite classic, the tabletop is the closest you’ll get living out those portal fantasy dreams. Just think: roleplaying is all about storytelling, so why not let some of the best storytellers in literary history join you on your next campaign?
And if you don’t feel up to homebrewing a whole setting in homage to your preferred literary masterpiece? Don’t let that stop you. Here are four games that make classic literature playable right out of the box, whether you’re in the mood for axe-shattering adventures or white-gloved courtship.
Released within a decade of the original D&D, this minimalist offering from Fantasy Games Unlimited is ancient among RPGs. Of course, it’s got nothing on its epic source material. The 1980s might have been the greatest decade, but the eighth century BCE was the greatest century. Or so you probably believe, if you’re tempted by the sound of a Homeric adventure game.
No matter what your feelings on the Odyssey-versus-Iliad debate, Odysseus has you covered. Contrary to its name, it’s an equal-opportunity Homeric game engine. In other words, you can use it to relive the Trojan War or to fight your way back home to Ithaca after its conclusion. In fact, because the rulebook focuses so heavily on combat (hand-to-hand and, in a true Homeric fashion, ship-to-ship) it might actually be better suited for running an Iliad game than an Odyssey one.
Either way, Odysseus makes it easy to get an ambrosial taste of life as a Homeric hero, complete with high-stakes battles and prying patron gods. As for whether to outwit a Cyclops or to stoke the rage of Achilles, that part’s up to you. May I suggest you kick off your gameplay with an invocation of the muse?
Speaking of “epic,” here’s an option for aspiring heroes whose tastes lean more Geat than Greek. Like Odysseus, Handiwork Games’ Beowulf claims descent from the western epic tradition, broadly speaking. But this is a very different game.
Created last year for D&D’s 5th Edition, Beowulf has a relationship to its source material that’s far more playful and meta, if no less reverent. Rest assured: this is a more sophisticated adaptation than that Angelina Jolie movie from 2007. For one thing, Grendel’s mom won’t be wearing built-in stilettos.
Beowulf provides a particular boon to those of us who are a little crunched for time: it’s optimized for duet play. The rules will stretch to accommodate a more traditional party, but all you really need to run it? A hero and a gamesmaster. That way, you’ll be able to play even if you only manage to rustle up a single friend who shares your enthusiasm for aiding the Spear-Danes against the monster Grendel.
Whether you’re the player or the GM, you’ll have need of song and good cheer before the evening’s done. Just make sure one of you remembers to bring the mead!
3) The Play’s The Thing
Imagine having the Bard of Avon as your GM. Mistaken identity and ill-timed suicides, donkey transformations and exiting pursued by a bear…. He’d have plenty of plot twists to throw at your unsuspecting party. But of course, you wouldn’t be unsuspecting, not if you’re a Shakespeare fan. Ophelia drowns, Romeo drinks the poison, Lady Macbeth goes mad from the stain of murder on her hands. You can see the tragic endings coming from a mile away.
Luckily, this playful offering from Magpie Games gives you a chance to mix things up (or to save your favorite character from their grisly, scripted fate). This open-ended storytelling game lets you play as, well, a player: a member of a theater troupe putting on a Shakespearean drama.
But you and your fellow actors quickly throw off the Playwright’s attempts to railroad you (which, in this case, means “get you to perform the play as it’s written”).
This isn’t a number-cruncher’s game: if you prefer minmaxing to melodrama, The Play’s the Thing may not be for you. But for armchair thespians and wannabe dramaturges, it provides the perfect stage for acting out Shakespearean what-ifs to your heart’s content. If you’ve ever wanted Juliet to run off with Rosaline instead of Romeo, now’s your chance. Now ask for your robe and crown, because your immortal longings are about to be fulfilled!
4) Good Society
This lavishly produced jewel of a game ranks among the best that indie RPG has to offer. If you didn’t think Jane Austen would translate well to the tabletop, the folks at Storybrewers Roleplaying are here to prove you wrong.
With its focus on romance, reputation, rumor-mongering, and social events, the game boasts social mechanics sophisticated enough to put many combat systems to shame. But the game’s narrativist (sense and) sensibility means you won’t be rolling dice to “win” the social season. (In fact, there aren’t any dice at all!) Instead, you’ll be fleshing out your character’s relationships and motivations to tell a compelling, collaborative, Austen-worthy tale.
To keep your DIY regency romance coherent, Good Society comes pre-stocked with tonal playsets: Farce, Romantic Comedy, and Drama. That way, you’re free to channel Emma with light-hearted social satire, or to go full-on swoon-worthy with a Pride and Prejudice remake.
Maybe you’re a diehard bibliomane whose Penguin editions share shelf-space with your rulebooks, or maybe you want to relieve your AP English glory days. Either way, there are plenty of games that can bring some literary flair to your time around the tabletop. It might make you see a hoary old classic in a playful new light.
Lucia is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the industry’s best editors, designers, and book marketers in self-publishing. In Lucia’s spare time, she enjoys drinking coffee and trying to shoehorn a character from an interwar comedy of manners into a medieval fantasy campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magpiegames.com/our-games/theplay/
Once you have a world, you need to build a campaign, this will give you an idea on where to start.
1) Start With A World, Either A Published Campaign World Or One You Have Created For Yourself
There are several products online from which to choose from, from many reputable publishers. There are also a countless number of homebrew worlds, so the precedent for custom world creation is more than evident. Once you have chosen a world then you need to determine what you are going to do with its history. You can either follow it or not, change it or not, or combine a couple of other worlds histories into one until you get a history you like. Or just start from scratch. The advantage of using a pre-created world’s history is that you can use the various supplements that are published for that world.
The advantage of using your own history is that no one will know it like you will and you can write as much or as little as you want. You can also take a set of nice maps and then create a totally custom history that has nothing to do with what the world’s publishers had planned. That is fine; that is what makes it your own world. For example, the Pathfinder world of Golarion has a crashed spaceship and gunpowder was discovered. I know quite a few DMs who hate to allow gunslingers and a few who ignore the spaceship references because they don’t want science fiction in their D&D game. So they ignore those parts of Golarion’s history and just don’t have them in their world. However, they can use other parts of the published system and the supplements written for the game and the world of Golarion.
Gary Gygax was all for people creating their own material. He gave the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as possible items that could be customized, changed, or improved as the DM wishes. When it came to artifacts he wrote in blank lines and a list of suggested powers and lists of drawbacks for each artifact, several lists in fact. One of the first rules in the DMG was “All rules herein are optional.” That means you can do whatever you and your players want in campaign creation. The important line here is “you AND your players.” Make sure your game is interesting for your players and something that they will want to play in. Gary Gygax published the little book set, then the red and blue book set, then 1st edition and then a couple of years later he published the World of Greyhawk, which was his campaign world. He wanted people to create their own worlds and not just use stuff that he created. He was reluctant to lock people into his ideas. The World of Greyhawk had a beautiful color map with a hex grid, but only a pamphlet for the history section. Some nations got only a paragraph of history. The idea was to present a starting point and have you build upon it and create your own stuff. If you bought his dungeons and modules then you would get more of his campaign’s history, but if you made up your own stuff that was perfectly fine.
2) Good Places To Start
You could start with a discussion from the DM, a poll, a list of ideas, or a gab session where you as a group discuss ideas that you would like to see in a game. The first three require that the DM comes up with the ideas, while the final suggestion allows the group to come up with the idea, although it has the ability to grow out of the DM’s hands.
Another consideration for planning your game is its future. I have created over half a dozen different worlds and used several published worlds in my game. Each game was its own entity and I seldom worried about what type of game would take place after the current game. My first campaign world was just the Geomorphic maps from Avalon Hill tank games. I know a DM who has run the same set of three game worlds for over 30 years. He takes what players have created in the past and builds upon it. When players make changes in his worlds they are reflected in the next game. He has a long complex history because of this. This is fine for him, but bad for his friends and his wife who played in multiple games and were told that they were using out of character knowledge when they referred to knowledge a past character had. That penalized his regular players. Now if he had some items that were part of the historical record and some items that were secret then he wouldn’t have penalized his players as much. He could have used some characters as NPC heroes and heroines in his game. He could have let them use some of the common history those characters knew instead of requiring everyone to start at ground zero.
D&D is designed to be run over however long the DM and the rest of the group can sustain it, usually years. There are some groups that have been playing for a decade or longer and there are new groups starting each day and groups falling apart each day. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking only for the next session, the next game, or the next module. Start planning for the future, whatever that may be. Yes, almost always some of these plans will go unused, but you can always recycle the data later. Always keep this thought in mind: “what next?” What will happen after this session, after this module is done, after this game is done, and in my next game? The job of a DM is to think outside of the box and to think ahead of the players. This is the chief reason why it is so hard to be a good DM and why so many of us love the job.
3) Session Zero
Assuming you have an idea for your game the next step is to plan session zero. Session Zero is that session where you sit down and talk with your players, inform them of what game you plan on running, and find out what characters they are going to play. This is important to do, it can be done in person or done over Skype, over the phone, or over email. The important thing to do is to build a campaign the party will be interested in and have a crew of players and characters that fit. For example, if you have a freewheeling pirate adventure where the players skate the edge of the law and on the run, then it would be foolish to expect a paladin to star in such a game. Not impossible, just unusually hard on the paladin. By the same token, a last-ditch defense against a horde of orcs with the party manning and organizing the defenses would be a good game for a paladin to join.
Founded in 1888m, the National Geographic Society organized and sponsored expeditions to explore the darkest corners of the world. When a party was planned to explore Egypt, an arctic explorer was not brought along, nor was a big game hunter. Instead it was an Egyptologist, someone who spoke the local languages, and someone who spoke the former languages of Egypt who were included. D&D was designed for a party of core characters; a rogue, a fighter, an arcane magic caster and a divine magic caster who can heal. The further you move away from this “standard party” the harder it is going to be on your group. Now the DM can make adjustments like removing traps or allowing wands of cure light wounds to fall into the party’s hands early, but these are forced constraints. A game is better when you don’t have to force the issue, especially when dealing with the basics like the “standard party.” Just like a National Geographic Society party is going to include the proper mix of people, your game should include the proper mix of characters.
Now you could hold a Hogwarts Academy adventure where the party all are fledgling wizards who are trying to get an education, but this would require a custom game and a way for the party to heal themselves or a way for them to bypass traps. All standard Adventure Paths and Modules are written for a party of 4 who are of the “standard party.” If you don’t want to run a “standard party,” or the players don’t want to form a “standard party” then you can’t use standard Adventure Paths or Modules. This has been true since the times where there were only six-character classes and it is still true today. You can do it, but it will be harder on the party if you do and as DM you need to make adjustments.
I was once in a game with three players. We had just split the group and a power gamer had left. When we reformed the new party all of us took on hybrid characters. I was a magus, so I had to handle front line fighting as well as arcane use. The shaman had to handle his pet as well as cure wounds and the Investigator took other skills rather than Disable Device. One problem was this DM felt we had to design our characters on our own, with no input from each other. We honored that rule and we suffered for it. That game didn’t go well and for the first seven levels my character died at least once a level, and I didn’t die the most, nor do I recall the amount of times I came close to death as it was too many times to recount (practically every fight). If I had been a fighter class then I would have had more hit points, worn better armor and would have handled the front line better. It took the DM a while to adjust to the party mix and our inherent handicaps by not being a party of core characters. Now there are a lot of people who will argue about this and say that they can build a party out of any characters. They are ignoring one of the core concepts of the game; the “standard party.” You ignore the standard party and the requirement for it at your party’s peril. I recommend that you hold a Session Zero and you let the players discuss what they are going to play and try to form a “standard party.”
A way to make sure you have the “standard party” is to include more players or to include an NPC who picks up the missing role. Just be sure that if you use an NPC, they don’t steal the show from the players. I have seen too many DMs who have major NPCs who act to do amazing things and steal the shine from the party. This is a case of the DMs roleplaying with themselves; I call it DM Masturbation. If you have to include an NPC in the group then make sure that they have some clear flaw, like an unsound tactical mind, or a tragic flaw which could be their undoing. Or maybe they are reluctant. It is up to the party to recognize the flaw in this NPC and to make sure that it is not their own undoing. Make the flaw one that is playable and not fatal. A rogue who sneezes every 10 minutes is going to have a hard time sneaking around, where a rogue who is absentminded may have to be reminded now and then what they are doing or trying to do. The first flaw is very taxing to play and may make the character unplayable, the second character will make sure the players follow the absent minded one around and keep prodding their memory. If you don’t have an NPC with a flaw, then make him a coward or make him hesitant or give him some feature that will cause the party to not trust him. In short, make them fallible. You don’t want them to outshine the players.
4) Starting The Game
Once you have your party, and once you have your Session Zero, then you can start your game. Most DMs like to find or plan a module or an Adventure Path before they talk to their players about starting a game. What you might consider is a range of Adventure Paths or modules that can be strung into a game; then you can give your players a choice of what they want to play. Of course, this means having to prepare or read a bunch of modules, but one way is to use rotating DMs and when a DM is half-way through their game have the next DM discuss what they want to do for their next game. You can hold a gab session or vote from a list of planned items, then the DM who is to run next can take the rest of their friend’s turn at DM to write up or prepare their campaign. This not only helps to prevent DM burnout, but it gives the next DM the ability to prepare before they have to run.
5) What Happens Next?
So now you have created your world, or found one, and you have a world history, either custom or cookie cutter. You have talked with your players about what the party composition should be, you have picked a campaign you want to run, you are ready to start your campaign. So, what do you do next?
You need to inform your players if you plan on using canned history, or a custom history. If you have a custom history, then you should give the players the highlights. In a fantasy setting the education of the people is variable from primitive, to basic, to advanced often depending on your social class they belonged to. The nobility had more education than peasants, so how much background you chose to give out is going to vary with the player, their social class, and frankly their attention span. Few people are going to want to sit through a long lecture on the obscure vintage of a glass bottle or a country that they are never going to visit. So, be careful about how much text you dump on your players. But even peasants knew the name of the pope and their king and queen, they also knew the names of their enemies be they nations or different faiths. When Guttenburg invented the movable type press he printed a smash best seller: the bible. Coming off of that bestseller he published the work of an obscure Catholic Monk who had problems with the way the Church was being run: a guy named Martin Luther. He included a woodcut picture of Martin Luther on the inside cover, and his face became the most famous face in Europe, better known than any king or queen. And believe me, it steamed those nobles.
The invention of the movable type press and publishing books increased the education level of all of Europe. So, one big question you have to answer in your game is how common are books and are they printed, or do they have to be copied by hand. If there are books and they are available, then a lot of people are going to read them and that will improve the education level of the populace. One nice method available to us nowadays is creating a website. Google Sites allows you to create free websites of almost any length. There are other organizations on the web that allow you to create your own website, like Earthlink, or you can take information from the web and refer to it in your own website. The important thing to do here is to make sure you are abiding by the Open Gaming License, where you are not using copyrighted material. If you do use copyrighted work, then make sure to get permission from the original authors and give them credit for their work. This is also true for any illustrations you use. There is no harm in copying work, but there is big harm in plagiarism, that is theft of work and claiming that it is your own. In my book, that is theft of property and lying to your players.
6) Handling Player Knowledge Vs. Character Knowledge
All players will start with some knowledge and have some character knowledge, both of which are rarely the same. Keeping that knowledge straight is important and not easy. Don’t burden your players with too much knowledge and then not expect them to use it. Just like you wouldn’t want to run a module that someone else has already played in or run, you don’t want to include too much knowledge that is restricted information. Also, once a character gains knowledge then it is hard to restrict that knowledge. You can tell players not to use restricted knowledge all you want, but it is hard for them to do so. One common tactic of TV lawyers is to ask a question of a witness that they know will be objected to. The judge will then instruct the jury to disregard the testimony. The problem is the jury never disregards the testimony. In the old days of 1st edition there were only three Monster Manuals and most DMs and players had read them from cover to cover several times. That is why they would ask you to show them a picture of the monster. If you showed one from the Monster Manual page, then often they would recognize it and could quote its stats. You only had to say werewolf and the players would know its armor class, that you needed silver weapons to damage one, and its Hit Dice. With Pathfinder there are half a dozen Bestiaries, so it is harder to memorize all the monsters, but a werewolf still requires silver weapons to damage them properly. This is now reflected in the Knowledge Skills. This is how you can limit a player’s knowledge to a character’s knowledge. You can also use Knowledge (History), Knowledge (Local) and Knowledge (Nobility) to limit how much your players know about the world in general, and in specific. This is good if you are using a shared world or a canned world created by someone else. You don’t mind if you players know more than their characters, but you don’t want their characters to know more than their DM. Also part of the challenge of meeting a monster for the first time is learning what it can and cannot do and what does and does not work on it. In previous editions of D&D that joy was lost once you read the monster manual or once you had played against that monster. Now with Knowledge checks your players can have that joy again and again.
7) Now How Does All This Relate With Each Other?
Well the character class that the players choose, as well as their traits or their background history may determine their social class which would then determine their basic knowledge. What they know would factor into what happens and what the players can count on in the game. The availability of books also determines the education level of the populace. What they know will shape their reaction to how the game goes. For example, most people in the hobby know about the Adventure Path Skull and Shackles and that it is a pirate game. This is common knowledge and even if your players haven’t read the module, they are probably going to know this as a minimum. The game starts with the DM shanghaiing the party onto a pirate ship. You can roleplay that out, or you can do it with a cut scene. A cut scene is a scene in a video game where character agency is taken away. Part of the story is acted out on screen and the player is told some important things and then given control over their character again. You can do a cut scene where you “convince” the party to join your pirate crew, assuming that they will join to go on with the module, if not then you are wasting your time. If you held Session Zero then you would know that the party will go on with the mission so you can save some roleplaying time by using a cut scene to introduce the party to their new ship and crew. Use cut scenes rarely, as you do not want to too often take away player agency or their ability to react.
8) What To Tell Your Players?
Most modules and Adventure Paths come out with a Player’s Handout. If you are doing a custom campaign, then you should make one for the players. Distribute this handout prior to the game and include things like well-known history for the area, rumors for the area, important people in the area, important locations in the area and what the basic adventure idea is. I don’t like to encourage DMs to lie to their party, but there is no rule against misdirection. Some of the rumors could be false, some of the places could not factor in the adventure, some of the people might only factor vaguely in the module and some of the things you tell the players could be commonly known things that are actual factual errors. In Vampire the Masquerade it is well known, among the public, that salt not garlic is what vampires are allergic to. In fact, most vampires aren’t allergic to garlic in the game. Part of the Masquerade is spreading around false information about vampires and even making them fictitious to most people so that if they see a real vampire, they are not likely to believe it, at least long enough for the vampire to escape or to kill the person. Say that there are vampires in your game who have spread around common rumors that vampires are allergic to salt or werewolves who pass around rumors that werefolk are allergic to cold iron not to silver. A simple knowledge check can be used to recover from these falsehoods, but that is something very few first level characters are going to have enough knowledge to know. This could be true in that the Kessel Run is a hard run for even a fast ship to make in Star Wars, or that bottle caps are used as currency in the Fallout universe. Any game could have secret information in it that is known or hidden or not known. If you have secrets, then as soon as they are revealed you had better determine a way for them to be uncovered in other games. Maybe it is a Knowledge (Nature) DC 15 check to know that Fay are allergic to cold iron, maybe it is a knowledge 10, maybe the fay have planted a rumor that they are allergic to silver and it is actually a Knowledge (Nature) DC 20 check to know the truth. That way if you keep using the same campaign world then when it comes time for a new set of adventures to explore the world you will know what they need to do to not act on “out of character information.”
Handouts are good for a game, as they increase player immersion and make the game feel more real to the players. If you are creating a handout then include some pictures with it that relate to the topic at hand. In the early days of D&D the only images that related directly to the topic were those in the monster manual. Often the rulebooks and modules used stock images or images from people who didn’t know the game or the situation in the game. That changed with Third Edition and since then the editors have tried to make sure the images relate to the topic you are reading. This increases immersion and understanding. I have collected a lot of images from Facebook and Deviantart.com so when I plan on showing a monster’s image in the future, I can use one of my images I found instead of the canned one from the Bestiary. That way the players won’t be sure it is monster X with Z and W abilities. Another way to avoid that is to reskin a monster; use one image for another monster’s set of stats. It is best to use a custom image this way. The players will have no way of knowing what you are using or what its real stats are so you can juggle around a few abilities or weaknesses. Now it is harder to do this with a classic monster like a dragon or a medusa, but how many know what a flumph can do, or can picture one? They are lesser known monsters published in the Fiend Folio and were hardly used because they were designed poorly.
Now what if you take a panther man and create a werecat (not a weretiger, there is one of those already) who can take the forms of a house cat up to that of a mountain lion. They get the mountain lion’s attacks or the normal cat’s attacks or the attacks of a small cat (as per the animal companion) if in bobcat form. Now you have a totally new were-creature and no one is exactly sure what it is since you are simply using a cat’s stats and a were-creature’s ability to shape shift and their damage resistance to silver. You can have a village that is suffering attacks from some nasty animal and no one would suspect the housecat lounging on the windowsill. The easiest monsters to make up are demons since they are chaotic and there is an endless array of shapes that they can be formed into. The most common demon is a mashup creature like a Marmolith; a cross between a giant snake, Kali (the Hindi goddess of destruction) and a human female. So, you can escape players from knowing too much by using nonstandard images for monsters, nonstandard monsters, or reskinning a monster. Making up a new monster from scratch is hard to do and even the experts make mistakes now and then. I saw a monster in a module that appears in another module in a toned-down version, because the first appearance of that monster it has a 75% chance of taking out at least one party member in one encounter and that encounter was a major one and couldn’t be avoided. Also, there was no way in the module to bring back the dead at the level the party should be at.
9) Ideas Are Powerful Things And You Need To Include How The Ideas Are Going To Work In Your Game And In Your Future Games
World building is a tremendous task. If you build a world with a secret underground demonic organization that the players find out about, then the next time you run your world the same set of players will expect to find that same organization active again. If you don’t want to throw out your past history, make sure that you have rules for how the players can uncover that information for their characters. For example, the demonic conspiracy may be secret and only known to a few churches and cults, so a character has to have joined a cult or church and gotten past the first circle of knowledge to learn about the demonic cult. This is a simple safety factor. In some games those organizations can be clear and easy to join, in others hidden and hard to find. It all depends on what you want to do for your game. This would let you avoid the traps my DM friend who used his same campaign world over and over created for his players. His wife knew far more than any of us, but he penalized her when she tried to use that knowledge and he didn’t have any rules by which her other characters could get that knowledge, or to rule that they didn’t have it. He just assumed that everyone started out with no knowledge at all and if his wife showed any knowledge, he would accuse her of using out of character knowledge. He could have gotten around that by giving his wife’s character a flaw and access to extra knowledge for that flaw. Then she could even serve as our guide in certain regions and she could be a font of knowledge and an inside track for the players to learn more about his game and thus get deeper immersion and generate more interest. He had a lot of secrets in his campaign worlds, but once we found out about them it was hard to not use that knowledge with our other characters. A few times we learned the same secrets over and over, it took some of the fun out of learning them in the first place. It also took the joy out when we came across his favorite NPC time and time again. It got to the point where I, at least, was sick of them. He had a large world, but we kept coming back to the same areas for his adventures. So, if you create a world or use a canned one then make sure it is large enough that other games can exist in it without falling over each other. One advantage of using Golarion, the Pathfinder world, is that the history was written by a team of writers and the world is vast so it can contain a lot. There is a lot published about the world, but there is a lot of space in between the areas where things can happen and you can make minor changes, like forgoing gunpowder, to make it your own world. Don’t be afraid to do that with any canned world you run.
In summary, start with a world, custom or canned; find what game your party wants to play in and build it; build a party as close to the “standard party” as possible and hold Session Zero; publish a set of your rule variants for the players to learn, use and know; inform your players of what they need to know for background information for the campaign; determine what knowledge is what and how hard it is to obtain, learn, and utilize.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook under the fans of d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters Groups. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions, including AggieCon and NovaCon. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: Red Hand of Doom: Elsir Vale Map (Player) by Antariuk
When 3rd edition hit the market back in the 90’s, the “Open Gaming” design made a huge splash. Suddenly third parties could make and sell their own products for the game - hobbyists could become writers, creators, entrepreneurs. It was heady stuff, but it didn’t take long for reality to check in. Many products flopped when authors thought that everyone would love their creations as much as their players did, and others lost their heart for the task after having to do bookkeeping. Still, the hobby moves on, and while it’s not the Wild West that it used to be, every few days it seems another hobbyist tries their hand at going pro. I came across the debut module of the Magnificent Creations team, and I have to say it’s as solid as I’ve ever seen. To understand why, take a trip with me through some of the back halls of the gaming industry….
1) Extras To Make Harold Johnson Proud
Most well known as the inspiration for the kender of the Dragonlance setting, Johnson wasn’t big on the meaty stuff as a writer, but he knew his seasoning. In the space allotted to a single adventure, Johnson would cram in three small outlines, plus an abbreviated rogues gallery from the local village to inspire more. Unfortunately, as with kender, Harold often left his adventures so wide open that it was hard not to get lost; everything was an adventure hook and nothing ever concluded. He would lose the steak in all that seasoning. I believe Magnificent Creations has achieved Harold’s often-sought, rarely-found ambition: a small campaign setting packaged as a single adventure, that manages to do both jobs well. The final pages of this short adventure don’t just have a regional map, but a campaign background page with a hot take on each species that can be cross-referenced with the map for anyone who wants to go exploring. The eight deities are enough to cover any non-evil paladin or cleric concept, with symbols and portfolios ready for expansion. The art, the sidebars, the DM’s summary all lend themselves to expansion without confusing or interfering with the strong narrative of the original adventure.
2) Truly Playable NPC’s
One of the best sources of useful flavor is a strong gallery of NPC’s. Just like the balance between the adventure and the campaign hooks, each NPC has to have a balance of visible traits and subtler motivations. It’s unlikely the barkeep will ever mention his absent father issues by name, for example, but drying the same glass over and over again when eavesdropping isn’t useful when you don’t know what topics interest him. Corwyn Catacombs gives all NPC’s a three-part profile for roleplaying purposes: Appearance, Motivation, and Mannerisms/Personality. The first and last allow for strong and varied first impressions: a tall dark blacksmith who fidgets if he can’t keep his hands busy, a blonde cartwright who taps her foot and scratches the backs of her hands, constantly bickering middle-aged shopkeepers. The motivation is useful when you have to extrapolate how the mayor would react to a PC who was an orphan, or how the innkeeper gets along with other dragonborn.
3) Solid All The Way Through
This compliment may not sound like high praise but is actually among the highest: Corwyn Catacombs has everything you would want, and nothing else. There’s no embarrassing sidebar about an optional mechanic that no one would use in actual play, nor is it missing the motives of the major antagonist. There’s a tiny sidebar about how aurks have green skin because they get nutrition from sunlight, but it doesn’t distract or confuse - it inspires. The module doesn’t have any glaring contradictions in the timeline nor a conclusion that relies on the party figuring out that one bizarre weakness the author was so fond of. This may seem like a low bar, but a staggering amount of the material from “official” publications has tripped over that bar, only to land on “The DM can always ignore that part and fill in what they want.” Of course we can, but we buy modules to reduce our workload. Such advice could also be phrased, “Don’t buy our product, just make your own,” yet apologists are shocked when people do exactly that. I don’t see such a fate for Magnificent Creations. This adventure is solidly written, with a craftsmanship that needs no such excuses.
4) Flexible Spine
While DM’s don’t like being forced to do the author’s job for them, it’s still nice to have an adventure that lends itself to adaptation, and here again Corwyn Catacombs performs nicely. It has a cleverly modular structure that allows the DM to insert appropriate campaign flavor in at any point. The most obvious such point is at the end, when the party encounters the final villain. This section of the catacombs has structure and artwork that suggests an ancient and advanced culture, but apart from that, there’s very little foreshadowing as to who the villain is. This makes it amazingly easy to slot in anything appropriate to the setting. If your players would find a necromancer boring, the hibernating spellcaster can be an invoker from long-dead Netheril, or a long-lost dragon highlord, or anything else that fits the bill.
Is it a perfect adventure? Absolutely not; it starts out in a pretty stereotypical watering hole, and I did say the villain is Yet Another Necromancer. In addition, the narrative stretches belief just a little when it says a confused teenager is only “gaunt and haggard” after three days holed up in catacombs that killed a party of seasoned adventurers; more realistic DM’s might have the boy barely clinging to life, and gritty ones might just say he’s dead. Still, the risk of a who’s-on-first skit featuring half-aurcs (i.e green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) and half-orcs (i.e. green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) is far, far outweighed by the volume of information, the solid quality of the characters, and the strong narrative that manages to avoid boxing players in. New DM’s can find plenty here to get started with, and novices can work this adventure into any setting or adventure path. Experts ought to buy it just to rip off the format, so that published material stops tripping over that bar. As of this writing, Corwyn Catacombs is priced at $2.95, making it a solid bargain for any budget.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magnificent-creations.com/the-corwyn-catacombs
Barak thumbed the edge of his axe as he listened to his companion drone on about the intrigues of court. Prince Kheldar was a master of political schemes, but Barak would have none of it. Give him a good honest fight any day.
“Get to the point!” he snarled. “Did you talk to your aunt about the Bear Cult?”
Kheldar nodded. “You aren’t going to like it.”
“She won’t help?!” Barak was incredulous.
“Oh no, she’s fine with it. We can get the information we need...if we all come to dinner tonight.”
One of the ancestors of the D&D game is the writings of H. Rider Haggard, whose barbarian protagonists solved problems in Gordian fashion. There can be a refreshing clarity to quick violence, but domains like Richemulot, Borca, and Dementlieu are expected to have courtly intrigues, and Nova Vaasa and Darkon are no strangers to social schemes. If you’re looking for a challenge that doesn’t look like a battlefield, consider a formal social event. Whether a private dinner party or a public auction, a social event can have all the thrill of slaying a dragon, if you focus on these seven major challenges. For the first six, it’s easy enough to assign points for varying degrees of success and total them up at the end. The seventh requires a little more scorekeeping, but it’s all worth it to hear a player yell that their insult landed a critical hit.
1) Pleased To Meet You
It’s normal for adventurers to brag about their exploits, but few cultures view brave deeds as the first thing they want to know about you, and many consider it gauche for you to tell the tales yourself. You’ll need to know if formal introductions are based on noble titles, academic degrees, lineage, birth sign, or something else. If you rank below your peers on this yardstick, it’s usually best to admit so up front with a little modesty and wait for an opportunity to speak about your deeds. A good host may give you an opportunity to do so immediately, or a respected member of the group might step in when you are forced to be modest.
2) A Token Of Esteem
Depending upon the occasion, formal gift giving may be expected. If not, it pays to know how a small unexpected token would be received. Whether you’re giving, receiving, or exchanging, gifts represent status, and the subtext underneath a particular choice may have many layers. In the real world, a single birthday gift of Cuban cigars, for example, might snub other gift-givers by the price tag, beard the authorities by being contraband, and bear a secret reminder of a lost weekend in Cuba. On other occasions, gifts can scream rather than whisper. A powerful figure who knows her rival intends to publicly shame her with a priceless gift at their next meeting may hire outsiders to steal it, or to find something worthy of exchange.
3) Clothes Make The Man
In all but the most barbaric of societies, social gatherings call for clean clothes, but that’s just the beginning. Clothes indicate status as much as gifts, and following the latest trends in fashion--or deliberately setting your own--involves a significant amount of time and attention. Even the smallest accessories can speak volumes, and usually do: social movements often identify themselves by a pin, badge, or ribbon showing you support the cause. Even without such explicit accessories, adept socialites can convey subtle messages in the choice of a hat or lapel pin. Reading the messages in a person’s clothing may grant a bonus towards influencing them, or at least eliminate the faux pas of asking where someone stands on a matter when they are literally wearing their sympathies on their sleeve.
4) Soup Or Salad?
You can generally judge how challenging a dinner party is going to be by the number of courses. Each course has a specific set of expected behaviors: utensils to use, bites to take, how to speak, etc. To know how to behave, a PC can either rely on their knowledge of nobility, or just watch other people carefully and do what they do. Prepping ahead of time can grant a bonus to either of these rolls. Failure, however, means an error that the character must mitigate diplomatically to avoid diminishing their status in the eyes of those present.
5) Small Talk: The Smaller The Better
Career adventurers will get the reputation of being crass and insensitive unless they learn to avoid “shop talk” around people who don’t engage in regular mortal combat. The weather may be a boring topic, but it’s a safe one: it’s slightly different every day and no one can be blamed for it. Topics with equally high variety and low sensitivity might include crop expectations, the latest opera or public games, and how fast children grow. Middling territory for small talk would be things like popular books and what people do for a living. If someone at the table brings up politics or religion, that doesn’t make it open season. You’ll usually score more points by steering the conversation back into safe waters than you will by joining in on boorish behavior.
6) Double Your Speak, Double Your Fun
It’s rude to have prolonged side conversations at the table, so folks who want to go beyond small talk had better get good at hidden meanings. Know your default values to exchange innuendo, and consider establishing code words and phrases ahead of time to grant a bonus to these checks. The Message spell is also useful for unobtrusive speech, but the whispers it employs can be overheard. Try covering your mouth with a napkin, or whisper while pretending to take a sip of wine. Once away from the dinner table you may be able to talk more freely with your target, but only if you have an excuse to meet together. Even the most casual meetings can become fodder for gossip, especially across political lines or between sexes, especially in societies that have strict gender roles.
7) Casual Debate
Small talk is intended to avoid arguments, but some settings actually call for something more spirited. To engage in a casual debate is perhaps the closest thing to social combat, and I highly recommend the use of some kind of reputation point system so players can actually feel the progress of the fight. For example, you can extrapolate the “hit points” and AC of each person’s argument from their related skills and abilities, and let people take aim at an argument using various social skills in place of an attack roll. Everyone should have a role to play, but those roles are often reversed from traditional combat: if a previous support character like a bard is suddenly the front-line fighter, allow the mighty thewed barbarian with minimal social graces to support the bard by laughing at jokes and glaring at the opponent to throw him off.
Done properly, a good social event can feel like the party went through a minefield blindfolded, followed by a pitched battle. The fact that reputations were the only casualties only complicates the matter, because losers may have long memories and yearn to settle the score. Of course, this is an adventure game, but you should have enough here to keep it from being boring even before things take a turn for the deadly. If your players enjoy it, you can discuss whether they want just the occasional change of pace or a longer detour. Who knows? Your next campaign might be set in a more socially dangerous setting. With scheming courtiers hiding behind pleasant faces, there’s hardly a need for monsters at all.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/listing/688840794/monte-cristo-invitation-regency-wedding
Three reasons you might love it, and two you might not
Do you love Dungeons and Dragons? Great! Do you love Greek mythology, and have you ever wanted to combine the two? Well, keep reading.
What is ‘Odyssey of the Dragonlords’?
Simply put, it is a campaign guide for 5th edition Dungeon and Dragons, and in this sense is not unlike the official campaigns by Wizards and plenty of other third party products. Where it differs is its setting which, according to its Kickstarter page, aims to “blend classic fantasy with Greek mythology.” Its main selling point seems to be that it is designed by James Ohlen, former creative director at Bioware, responsible for critical darlings such as Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic.
As someone who has long been a fan of Greek mythology, to say I was excited for this would be an understatement. As such, I approached this both as someone who loved reading the (original) Odyssey and someone who’s an avid D&D player.
So what did I think? Well, it’s complicated.
1) It’s A Well-Made Book
The campaign guide itself starts out very well, outlining its mission statement, as it were. It summarises very simply what aspects from Greek myth it will incorporate into yir auld D&D: fate and prophecy, fame and hubris, the importance of oaths. These are indeed major themes in pretty much all stories involving the Olympian gods and ancient heroes, the likes of Herakles, Achilles, Jason. Aside from that, these can make fantastic - if you’ll pardon the pun - elements to add on top of your normal dungeon crawling adventure. These can inform your roleplaying decisions, and seriously affect your characters and the world around them. To that end, I was very glad to see them included and with attached mechanics (more on that later).
Aside from the mechanical aspects, the book is well put together aesthetically too. Right from the beginning you can see the familiar format of a D&D campaign book, but with some Mediterranean flavour on top. The artwork is nice, though in some parts it can get a bit extra - it does sometimes give the impression of an anime take on Greek mythology (make of that what you will). Nevertheless, the book itself is gorgeous, and the character sheets especially are a wonder to behold.
N.B.: The “book” I’m referring to is the campaign guide itself, which is where most of the meat is. The Player’s Handbook is really just more of the same.
2) It’s Some Proper D&D
And it’s not just pretty to look at, it certainly is a competent D&D campaign. The outlined plot works well in its own universe; it even includes a major twist that the GM can have spoiled as soon as they begin preparation. You do get warned, but there isn’t really a way to avoid it if you want to be a good storyteller for the game. Also, you should get over your fear of spoilers, people.
The world that serves as your sandbox is well crafted, with place names, an established pantheon, and even constellations for you to navigate by. The world map being entirely encircled by the sea, one can imagine this will come in handy. The impressive part is that none of this is window dressing, it all has story hooks, plot hooks, with some especially linked to the unique backgrounds you can read about below. That is to say, this world feels alive.
And it’s good to get acquainted with the world, because the campaign’s story will have your party of adventurers wander all over the finely crafted map (and under it, even over it), you’ll interact with a lot of major NPCs and get to decide the fate of the world. More than that, it is a proper sandbox for your players. Not every inch of the map is linked to the story directly, but at a lull in the apocalyptic plot (yes, even the Apocalypse gets downtime), your party will want to explore some locations to discover loot, treasure, quest items, or even some side quests. At higher levels, the PCs are even encouraged to found their own settlements, which is a good way to have them truly become part of the world.
3) It Brings New Things To The Table(top)
In addition to a decent campaign, this setting offers some elements that make it more than just another D&D book. Appropriately enough, these are the Greek elements of the story.
From the beginning, the book emphasises the importance of oaths, curses, fate, and prophecy. So sure enough, these can make their way onto the tabletop. It is a good sign that the designers chose to hardwire these into the game itself by creating appropriate mechanics.
For instance, we know that hospitality is important and that breaking this custom is a heinous crime against the laws of gods and mortals. But in this world, if you break that sacred custom, you get cursed. Break an oath? Cursed. Rob a grave? Cursed! Park your chariot in the wrong spot? CURSED!
Ok, I made that last one up. But the prologue does mention a few major curses than can fall upon the heroes’ heads should they misbehave: curse of the harpy, medusa, graverobber, and the curse of the treacherous. That last one governs oathbreakers and those who abuse hospitality. Break that one and you get the furies sent after you. The literal furies. Well, not those three, but the D&D ones.
Another element, and one that is unique to this setting (in a way), is the pathway to becoming one of the eponymous dragonlords. The concept itself is not original, sure, but it carries a certain weight within the world’s own mythology. Plus, you get a dragon for a ride. Sweet! The process is thankfully more involved than that, with some more or less epic tasks that must be completed. By the end you will become a hero of legend. Which, by that point you probably will have been already, but hey - dragon mount!
Finally, the Epic Paths are another element that are worth mentioning. These are essentially backgrounds in addition to the ones that are part of character creation. Rather than giving you mechanical bonuses, though, they will come up regularly during the game to help or hinder the heroes. Each has a set of tasks that the respective PC must accomplish to fulfil their destiny. This not only adds flavour to the story, but can guide your party’s role-playing choices, as well as give the PCs a proactive task to work towards. Several, in fact.
That was the good stuff. Now onto the less than great parts of it.
4) It’s Really Not That Greek
In the end, it isn’t much more than a regular D&D campaign with a mild Greek flavour.
The story can function unchanged with any pantheon in the multiverse of Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, it seems to be tailored for one such game rather than staying true to its Greek origins and breaking the mould of standard high fantasy. The elements borrowed from its Hellenic source material are essentially aesthetic rather than being a core element of the campaign. Strip aside anything about it that calls itself “Greek” and you’re left with just another D&D adventure book. A good one, but still - for those of us hoping to see proper Greek mythology in play, this is a bit of a letdown.
This is made even more jarring considering that many of the elements that it hopes would set it apart were already incorporated into D&D. The so-called “high fantasy” we’ve all become used to is a smattering of the Western world’s myths all thrown into the same salad bowl. Centaurs were already known to us; harpies, nymphs, dryads, even the erinyes - the furies - these were all present in the Player’s Handbook.
The parts that do make it stand out are really just a bit of seasoning on top of the salad. A bit of added feta, if you will. The epic paths are nice, but it boils down to “get the Mcguffin, be a hero” - you don’t need to be Herakles to do this, any old paladin with an oath is a hero on a mission. The curses are rather underwhelmingly undone by casting the spell Greater Restoration. Sure, it’s a high level spell and it is a common enough element to D&D, but this does make them just another affliction that can be encountered and subsequently ignored in a high level game. At least the oathbreaker curse sends the erinyes after you - who, I remind you, are already in the core Monster Manual.
5) Thematically Uninspired
But more than that, it feels like a huge let down to me personally, as I imagine it will be to anyone who cares enough about the source material and wanted to see it better represented in our tabletop games.
I’ll list off a few elements, as going too deep into this would require an actual thesis.
The moral ambiguity and rapacious nature of the Greek gods has been replaced with your standard D&D alignment bingo - your Lawful Goods, your Chaotic Evils, and what have you. A special notice goes to the goddess of death who, rather than being the only actually decent deity in the pantheon (your mileage may vary on that one), is just straight up evil. An evil sexy woman - for those of you playing the cliché drinking game at home, take a shot. Medusae (rather than gorgons) are a playable race now - and apparently, they got snakes for hair and petrifying gaze because they were greedy in life; it’s an odd perversion of Medusa’s story, mixed with king Midas for no apparent reason.
On top of that, there are several smaller incongruous elements that add up: centurions show up out of nowhere, which are Roman, and in no way Greek, but whatever. One of the magical Mcguffins you get is boldfaced called “the Antikythera.” This part sort of betrays the fact that research into it was probably just a quick snaffle on the webs of anything “Greek.” Sure, the name is Greek, but it literally (and I mean literally ‘literally’) means “opposite to (the island of) Kythera,” which doesn’t exist in this world. The device was named for where it was found, not for any special properties it holds.
Finally, and this part really gets to me, they’ve gone and released the Kraken. Yes, the Kraken, not Ketos, Kraken.
It’s that last gripe that shows my issue with this setting. It isn’t “Jason and the Argonauts,” it’s “Clash of the Titans” - the reboot. If you came here looking to take part a faithful retelling of Greek mythology for your D&D game, look elsewhere. If you want to roleplay in an authentic reimagining of your favourite mediterranean myth, go make your own.
Ultimately, Odyssey of the Dragonlords is a finely-crafted, well-designed campaign book for D&D that many will find fun and engaging. Those more interested in the actual source material might be disappointed, while mythology buffs will certainly be let down.
It really is just D&D with a bit of tzatziki.
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).
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arcanumworlds/odyssey-of-the-dragonlords-5th-edition-adventure-b
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
What is 'Pulp'? Pulp is a series of sub genres usually set between and around the world wars. It was named after the very cheap material it was produced on, wood pulp. The result was a cheap book ideal for a time of financial depression in the states. Almost everyone bought pulp novels to take their minds on amazing adventures with daring heroes and dastardly villains. These stories were over the top and cut to the good stuff of the stories. Some famous authors had their break writing pulp fiction, including HP Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert E Howard with his Conan series. So what makes a pulp story good? How can we implement this into a game? Well hopefully I can help with that by giving you some tips for running a pulp RPG setting.
1) Characters Should Be Larger Than Life
Characters are the centre role for your story, from the players to the villains. In pulp that means they have the most drama around them: when they show up things go down, hoodlums slink off to inform their boss of your arrival, who just so happens to be sitting in a darkened corner of the speakeasy,and then bullets fly as a grand shootout ensues.
2) Throw In A Timer
Any time that a scene is lacking in tension, add a timer, things like a bomb timer is on the nose and fits well. “But what if explosives aren't in my game?” I hear you ask. Well, anything that forces the players to act fast is a timer. A collapsing building, the villain escaping, someone bleeding out; these are all great examples of natural timers that add a sense of urgency.
3) Grand Dialogue
You've no doubt seen the movies where the Big Bad and the hero have witty back and forth every time they meet. Those scenes are pulpy as hell. The cheesy one liners delivered after a fight and the villainous monologue explaining key details of a dastardly plan… all pulp. Don't be shy to encourage this with your players, as they will enjoy a break in seriousness and you will collectively gain some great anecdotes to share with fondness.
4) Out Of The Box Thinking
Reward any player who comes up with an idea that is so crazy it might just work. Creating a catapult using a plank of wood a small stack of wooden pallets and another player jumping is worth a little GM help to pull off, these ideas help reinforce tip 1 that the characters are larger than life and have the potential to do insane and incredible things.
5) Don't Take It Too Seriously
Pulp was brought about to help the working class through the depression after World War One so it was designed originally as light hearted adventure stories, so people could escape the poverty of daily life. Later it evolved into some more serious aspects, but the feeling of pulp is best explored with a slight tongue in cheek approach.
6) Be Inspired
There is a plethora of pulp sources in the world, from the original stories printed on the cheapest paper available to glossy movies from the 80s like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Even in modern day films you can still see the influence of pulp ideas, of over the top heroes having fantastic adventures. Great examples include any film based on a comic or those which have a child chosen by destiny or other unseen forces to fulfill a role by defeating a darkness.
Pulp influences are everywhere. We see them everyday without even noticing it. Pulp is all about heroes battling evil and doing so in style. They leap from a moving train and gracefully land in the saddle of their horse, who somehow can run faster than a train at full speed. They swing from a vine through a forest that somehow doesn't seem to descend lower than the hero needs it to and lasts as long as is needed. Pulp villains deliver monologues, they twirl their evil mustaches, and they are almost equally larger than life as the heroes. They reappear after you think they have died; they escape just in time. However you run your pulp game… enjoy it!
Ross Reid is an enthusiast, currently running a Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, while studying nursing, he has contributed several articles to HLG and is a strong advocate for all things FATE.
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/products/btpy8oj2?Rolemaster-Third-Edition-RPG-Pulp-Adventures
I’ve talked before about borrowing plots from video games, citing that both video games and tabletop roleplaying games are similar media. A scenario is set forth to the players, they give direction to a character or other entity they control, and the state of the scenario is updated based on that input. The primary difference between the two often comes down to input methods, and what entity is doing the parsing of these commands.
I digress, though.
Today, I want to discuss with you some of the fantastic settings in the realm of video games. This list is of course by no means exhaustive, but each of these on this list were chosen because of how unusual they are compared to the so called “standard fantasy” that is Dungeons and Dragons.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Unusual Video Game Settings You Should Play Your Next Game In!
1) Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has recently become one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises; there’s numerous games in the series, and every one of them boasts a huge cast of characters. Some people love Fire Emblem for these huge casts of characters, as well as the ability to see how certain character’s relationships bud through the course of the story.
This is a story that is told between numerous tactical battles, pitting one army against another, with false steps often leading to characters permanently being lost. Most stories in Fire Emblem showcase different conflicts between neighboring countries, and ultimately climax with a battle between good and evil after the powers of some mythic artifact has been discovered. (Such as the titular Fire Emblem.)
While it’s often lampooned for being formulaic, this is precisely what makes it easy to emulate in a tabletop roleplaying game!
So How Would You Do It?
You can easily recreate something like Fire Emblem using Dungeons and Dragons if you play up the tactical combat element; interesting terrain and fighting to secure important strategic locations. Players would be restricted to playing Humans, since other races like dragons or werewolves are the stuff of legend, and most conflict is between humans.
However, Fire Emblem is known to take place over a massive scale. Casts range upwards of the 20s or even 30s in some games. To make this sort of campaign work, occasionally, the war would need to be fought on more fronts, and players would take control of a different cast of characters aiding a different theatre in the war effort.
2) Sunless Sea / Fallen London
Sunless Sea and Fallen London are part of a gothic horror series of games by Failbetter Games; they both play like choose-your-own-adventure books, though the aforementioned also has extra gameplay elements that make sense with its nautical namesake. They take place out of the city of London, in an alternate timeline where Hell literally broke loose, and London sank beneath the waves.
The Londoners have adapted to their strange new biome, where darkness warps reality, one’s neighbors could literally be devils, maps have become useless, and sunlight, should one happen to find your way back to the surface, is as lethal as it is pleasant. (That is to say, very, on both accounts.)
So How Would You Do It?
Combat in Fallen London is meant to be a dangerous prospect. Sure, you can easily beat up other mortals, but the world is rife with all kinds of creatures that seem familiar, but defy all reason. These otherworldly creatures? They never truly die; if they hit 0 HP or are otherwise defeated, they just fade back to where they came from, and they’ll come back later. When they do return, they’ll be bigger, stronger, and still nursing the grudge from their previous loss.
Furthermore, one of the laws of reality in Fallen London is that light brings order to the world. Because of this, even if you somehow can see in the dark, you want light. Light from torches, oil and gas lamps, or even just starting fires; because the darkness doesn’t just hide monsters, it stains the very fabric of reality.
3) Super Mario
The Mario Brothers are a duo that need no explanation at this point. “Duh-duh duh duh-duh duh duh” is a line almost anybody in the developed world can sing out loud properly. That isn’t to say there isn't any interesting to discuss in the Super Mario lore; as time went on and Nintendo tried new things with the franchise, more characters got added, and they each wound up with their own shticks and spinoff games. Spinoffs such as Luigi’s Mansion and Wario World.
Two such spin offs I want to bring attention to are Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga; video game RPGs that are very whimsical with rather expansive worlds, filled with all kinds of unusual creatures and environments. It’s the perfect setting for those “Only boring people play human” types!”
So How Would You Do It?
The Mario RPG video games are very gamey, with the occasional nod to new abilities gained over the course of play being usable to solve puzzles outside of combat. This isn’t a setting that lends itself to ruleslite games, but does have a wide variety of different mechanics through the series, so any sort of home-brewing of a crunchy game will do. (Or you can play this D&D 3.5 adaptation!)
4) Seiken Denetsu / The “Mana” Series
This is one of my favorite video game series of all time. When I hear the phrase “High Fantasy,” this is what comes to mind. A world with magic abound, and all manner of unusual creatures, friendly or otherwise, and clear divides of good and evil optional, depending on the entry in the series.
The timeline of the series is fairly long, starting with a cataclysmic war that didn’t quite destroy the world, but definitely wiped out the existence of magic. However, as the series goes on, magic eventually begins finding its way back into the world, with constant allusions back to that war, such as an empire trying to rebuild the technology that made the war possible, as well as junkyards filled with ancient relics from that war. (Some of which are still alive, and resentful of being left to rot!)
So How Would You Do It?
It’s a bad idea to try and emulate video game mechanics in tabletop form, especially on a one-to-one scale. Computers can handle large numbers and operations much more accurately than your average human. However, since even the Mana games have wildly different mechanics, mechanical accuracy can be forgone.
My choice for trying to recreate the Mana series would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Since it has rules for creating fantastic creatures, as well as possessing various rules for all kinds of different supernatural powers. Even though magic is prevalent in the Mana series, there is still plenty of allusions to other forces as well, and the backbone Anima’s magic system relies on the JRPG fantasy staple of the four classical elements, plus light and dark.
The triple digit arithmetic will just have to be something you adapt to. (Think of it as an opportunity to practice mathematics!)
Please don’t try this. (Warning: weird and a little gross)
So How Would You Do It?
No. Seriously. This is a bad idea.
Did you not pay attention to entry 4? Sometimes you have to be willing to make sacrifices because concepts don’t always translate between media. This is why some movies drop scenes that were in the book they’re adapted from.
Other times, you simply shouldn’t try because what makes the game truly unique, simply can’t be recreated.
Or what you’re trying to recreate is just a fever dream.
Aaron der Schaedel actually really likes Hylics, but realizes part of its charm is the surreal world it’s set in. It’s a quality that doesn’t quite come across as well in the spoken or written word, and is probably best left to the realm of other visual arts. Here’s a shameless plug for his YouTube channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/fire-emblem-three-houses-rpg-review-strategy-professor-combat-nintendo-switch-a9021831.html
Hey, Jim here! Before Frankie gets started, I wanted to remind you that High Level Games is bringing you game content and commentary absolutely free, as well as providing a home and launching point for a slew of great creators! If you want to support our endeavors, we'd love it if you stopped by our Patreon to show your support. Of course, if you'd like a little something for your hard earned money, you could always pick up one of our fine game products as well.
Greetings, traveler! It’s been quite a long time since we’ve had occasion to converse. I do, of course, apologize for the circumstances that led to your imprisonment in the dungeons of the Kargat. I hope that my efforts to arrange your…early release…might mitigate your ill feelings in this regard. Since you are no doubt fleeing through Tepest on your way south, I thought I might send this little gem on to you.
Tavaani al-Chole is one of the Tepestani Inquisition’s most ardent rising stars. In particular, he seems dedicated to turning the Inquisition’s attention away from the fairies and onto the witches his organization believe work alongside them. To that end, he’s distributed a little leaflet to his own supporters, helping them identify “witches” among the populace. I’m sure a seasoned adventurer like yourself will spot the dangers right away…
Trust Not the Witch
Brothers and sisters of the Inquisition, we have allowed the servants of the fey too free a hand in the mortal realm, and the will of Belenus demands that we address our laxity before their baleful influence proves our undoing! These fiendish beings masquerade as everyday citizens, and in most cases, the techniques developed by Brother Wyan will prove adequate. Some of these malevolents, however, have learned to shield themselves from our ministrations. The Inquisition, as ever, knows how to ferret out the demons in our midst.
1) Spell Components
Those holy warriors and devout priests pious enough to call upon the might of Belenus do so with merely the power of their faith and a brandished holy symbol. The vile fey sorcerers, however, require an assortment of trinkets and tokens to perform their lesser magics. By this, you will most easily recognize them. Be on alert for travelers carrying bric-a-brac with no clear purpose. Loose feathers, colored sand, clear stones, tokens from children’s games, carved figurines, spiderwebs or insect parts: all of these are documented paraphernalia for the occult. In addition to their use in the manufacture of wicked potions, various herbs and flora can be used for similar results. These items should always be viewed with suspicion by the canny Inquisitor. Be on the lookout for traveling artists, jewelers, herbalists, or those claiming to be students of the ‘natural sciences.’ These are often cover identities that allow a convenient explanation for carrying these arcane sundries.
Since there is no divine wellspring supplying their deceitful arcana, witches in the service of the fey often commit their devilry to paper so that they can pass it on to future generations of apostates. Traveling witches (who frequently call themselves ‘wizards’ to avoid execution for their crimes in foreign lands) carry working spellbooks called arcanabula, which function as eldritch workbooks and spell journals. These are easily identified. More cunning are the formal grimoires, finished tomes which can often present in coded passages decipherable only by those trained to understand their gibberish. Books or papers which contain unintelligible ramblings, which may appear to the eye of the studious Inquisitor as philosophy, poetry, or advanced ‘sciences,’ should be viewed as suspect and burned if necessary. Those capable of reading more than a single language should likewise be viewed as suspicious.
Witches are deviants, and thus are likely to find willing company with other deviants. The form of man is sacred, of course, and Belenus in his infinite wisdom has shown that the lesser forms of the dwarf, the elf, and even the pitiable caliban are acceptable in his sight, provided they show proper deference to Belenus’s true children. The beings of the Void and the Pit, however, taint the flesh they come in contact with, and spawn bastard races as surely as the acorn grows into a mighty oak. The goblin, the hag: these are only a few of their forms, whom witches often offer open acceptance to. Other folk are stranger still, with unnatural hair, eye, or skin colorations; scales or tails; even the ability to breathe fire or perform unholy feats! While the witches who claim such companions will betray their ‘friends’ at a moment’s notice if convenience requires, their allies are usually unaware of this, and will frequently fight to the death for their vile comrades.
Knowing the treacherous hearts of those that serve them, the fairy lords demand fealty through unholy oaths and pacts. These promises can prove to be an Inquisitor’s greatest tool, if he or she knows how to look for them. Keep an eye out for strangers who show bizarre behaviors that they then brush off as ‘cultural’ in origin. Witches of a shamanic bent in particular are known for eschewing metal tools and equipment. I have enjoyed great success in identifying witches among traveling groups by requiring strangers who view our executions to light the sacrificial pyres. Since their vows to their fairy masters forbid them from participating in Belenus’s rituals, they often violently refuse. By this method, I have identified no fewer than seven heretics, many claiming to be devout holy warriors of imaginary deities like ‘Rao,’ ‘Ilmater,’ or ‘Kiri-Jolith.’
Wyan has lit our fire, brothers and sisters. It us up to us to now go forth and spread it. With the tools I give you, and the tools Wyan has given you, let us be the torch in the night. Let us be light unto the believer, and let us burn the sinner to ash.
Real piece of work, isn’t he? Yvanova has uncovered evidence that Tavaani is really half-fey, and suspects that our young Inquisitor might be spurring the faithful to purge spellcasters in order to distract them from his own family’s machinations. If you wanted to ‘take care’ of Brother al-Chole while you were in Tepest, I’d see fit to reward you some 5000 gp on your return. If not, feel free to spread word of my offer to any interested parties you come across in your travels.
Good luck, and happy hunting.
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Frankie Drakeson is a retired rifleman and the current mayor of Carinford-Halldon in Mordent.
He is married to Gwendolyn Drakeson, the granddaughter of Nathan Timothy.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/842736148994274726/ by Sir Tiefling
Premade settings are alright. Ravenloft is nice, but perhaps constant darkness is a little much. Maybe the Forgotten Realms has too much to keep track of and not enough flex. Waterdeep just doesn’t have the natural world aspect for your group. Well my friend, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the most honoured tradition of every DM: making it all up.
1) Don’t Be Afraid To Rip Someone Off
I have before and will again steal. I’m a criminal of the worst variety. I’m a pirate. And I’m in no way ashamed of my piracy. Mostly because it’s not really piracy but I pretend it is to justify my eyepatch and poofy hats. It’s also the reason I use the word “avast.” But, I digress. There’s no shame in taking inspiration from other works of fiction or other people’s games. Absolutely none. (At least not when you’re writing for friends, and not for profit.) Take characters and plots and big bads from all over the place if you want. There’s a lot of beautifully written characters, monsters, and settings out there. My friend Scott used a monster idea from the Netflix Castlevania anime - that being the petrifying cyclops - in one of his games and I didn’t find out about it until well after we played. (Also, I highly recommend that show. I’m not much for anime, but it’s witty, heavy, and brutal in all the right places in my humble opinion.)
Even if your players recognize what’s happening, you can account for that and change some things accordingly. Rip everyone off if you want. Call your MacGuffin the Singular Ring. Call your character Luke Windwalker. Call your bad guy Baldimort! No one can stop you! You’re the DM!
2) Don’t Rip Everything Off
This seems to run counter to the previous point, you may say. Well, you see, if you make everything the same as the thing you’re ripping off, then you might as well just go and experience the thing. There’s no real point in making your plot the exact same as the plot of Lord of the Rings, because the players will all know what to do. You have to mix things up. You have to make things up, typically on the fly. Which for some people may be very difficult. But don’t despair, my friend! There is a solution.
There are hundreds of “what if” ideas out there. What if Gandalf kept the One Ring? What if Alduin never came to return during the Skyrim civil war? What if Anakin didn’t fall to the dark side? Etcetera. I’m sure even you have some. Use them. Or rather use the equivalents. Don’t just rip off NPC names unless you’re making everything up. This brings me to my next point.
3) Need A Name? Combine Two Things
“Welcome to Bladeburrow. My name is Baldr Silverhand. This is the Valor Hall inn where we serve our world-famous Black Beer.” Boom. Easy. Made that all up in less than thirty seconds and all I had to do was mash a bunch of words that came to mind in a way that made general sense. The rest is just world-building and that’s where the real fun (or perhaps the real difficulty) comes in. This is perhaps the most time-honored worldbuilding tip for DM’s and GM’s that I am personally aware of. Give it a name and you’d be surprised how easily everything else can fall into place. Sometimes genius strikes after you make a name, and a whole campaign can spring from a single idea. Sometimes you make a name and it falls flat. It’s even a little awkward to keep using in-game so you give the thing a nickname and slowly phase out the original name. No issue. Other times, Fartsberg will never fall into obscurity. No matter how hard you try. Burn it to the ground and the players will just dedicate the rest of the game to rebuilding the damn place.
But the important thing is that even the dumbest of made-up-on-the-spot names can make for a memorable and enjoyable gaming experience. These games are often at their best when something stupid happens or is said or in the case of Fartsberg, exists. Don’t be afraid to give something a stupid quality when you’re making everything up. Stupid exists in the real world and that’s something a lot of worldbuilders overlook in my experience. Just think about allergies. Then think about the fact that cats can be allergic to humans. This simple fact is incredibly dumb.
4) Become the Description Master
This is a pretty obvious tip that’s easy to account for but hard to master. Learn to describe things masterfully. I find that in order to do this, you have to have a very clear picture of what you’re trying to describe in your mind. The next most important thing is to include stupendous adjectives. “The stone tablet glows slightly” is very different from “The smooth stone tablet glows with an ominous light.” Another thing to consider is color. Color is an often overlooked but critical part of the descriptive process. There are a hundred different articles online to teach you how to be better at describing things during writing, but a tip that I find to be the most valuable is to imagine yourself in front of the thing or in the room, or meeting the person in question and ask yourself what would stand out to you personally when inspecting that. Lastly, always try to stimulate all 5 senses when really getting into the description.
You walk into a large decrepit room. As the door opens, the cracked stone bricks around the frame sprinkle rocks onto your shoulders. You look around and an overwhelming feeling of dread fills you as you notice the large pile of slimy bones in the corner. The pale white of the bone is intermingled with the yellow stains of time and rot. A gentle dripping can be heard, but you’re not sure from where; there are no obvious leaks in the ceiling. As a wafting smell of rotting meat suddenly hits you, the realization that there is more to this ruin than meets the eye sets in. What do you do?
I hope this supplied a mix of ideas for new worldbuilders and new as well. Have fun with your games and don’t be afraid to mess up. Because you will. Repeatedly. Borderline constantly. Fartsberg taught me that.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://assetstore.unity.com/packages/3d/environments/fantasy/medieval-world-creation-kit-36555
Welcome to Avalon, a city with secrets held tight to her vest, crime and corruption are openly practiced, and “strange” being the default state. While the general feel of Avalon is familiar, there are some distinguishing features that make it unique. Survival, hard choices, and player driven play are some things you will find on the Streets of Avalon. There are no real heroes here, just those trying to survive and those that do are counted among the lucky. As a kickstarter backer, I received an early release of the PDF to check out. Here's a few reasons to give it a try.
1) City Play
Streets of Avalon centers around a sprawling city, the last city after the final battle in the Soul War. Avalon is a gritty, steampunk (really steampunk, not steamfun or steam-is-cool), noir setting with aberrations, undead, and the mysterious Lamplighters: mystics from another realm with the urge to help the beings of this realm. The city is ruled by magistrates and their griffons, but money is the true despot here; seems everyone is open to a bribe. The history and current mood of Avalon is well explained, but still has plenty of mysteries left for the dungeon master to flesh out. This city setting isn’t a building by building account of the city, rather a background to set your games against. In a world with the highly detailed Forgotten Realms, one of the more exciting ideas in this book is “What does your Avalon look like?”
2) Unlimited, Changing Play
Avalon is a city campaign, there isn't really a reason to leave the city, and if one area gets boring or finished, you just move on to a new area of the city. Play centers around neighborhoods, small sections of the city that you build up with a three step process: 1 - who’s in charge, 2 - groups, people, places, 3 - adventure locations and ideas. This is explained in a succinct way with three sample neighborhoods provided to mine for ideas. With play focused on politics, heists, investigation, monster hunts, and dungeoneering, as opposed to the general theme more D&D products lean to, each neighborhood the players move to can be a different taste of what Avalon has to offer. The city has a really familiar feel which makes it easy to start playing in. The themes in this city can also be found in Marvel’s New York and DC’s Gotham, movies like Dark City and Brazil, or books such as Diamond Age, Boneshaker or The Difference Engine.
3) Unique Flavors Of Fantasy
Avalon has no gods. Priestly magic is granted through study just like arcane. This is a great choice by the author and has no real mechanical effect, and is just a small tweak on the game's rules as written (cleric's spellcasting functions like a wizard's spellcasting normally does). This book is full of flavorful delights that make Avalon strange and unique. Examples include Lamplighters, who are outsiders with knowledge and the compulsion to help citizens for a strange price, a different take on the investigation skill, focus on a living city that is not waiting for the characters to show up, and planar creatures trying to break through and affect Avalon in some devious way. Within the 5th edition D&D universe these things are all possible in any setting, but when you put the focus on them it brings out a new flavor that really compels players to act instead of react.
4) Random Encounter Tables
If you know anything from the articles I’ve written here, it’s that I love tables. Clocking in at thirteen pages of random encounters, a lot of the feel of Avalon is communicated in these tables. They are not just full of entries like “2d4 gang toughs,” but a sentence or two with little nuggets of story baked in. Most of these are designed to lead the players (and the dungeon master) onto an unplanned, emerging adventure. As a dungeon master, I appreciate the work that went into these tables, with many ideas about the people and creatures of Avalon, as well as setting information you could do worse than to start every session here. They lend themselves to development at the table instead of before, a style that I really enjoy, giving the dungeon master some unknown fun as well as the players. The tables go over eleven different areas each with twelve encounters. That’s one hundred thirty-two story starters! They are even fairly system agnostic so you can use them in your own campaign.
All these things lend to Avalon's dark, gritty theme. Bringing the game to a street level with focus on who you live by and what they are doing is the best part of this setting. If nothing else, this makes a good read for doing some alleyway adventures or even a Defenders-like campaign. This all works well with the newest version of dungeons and dragons and it’s heroic play; letting the characters persevere and play a part (albeit small compared to the vastness of Avalon) in the stories that unfold. Brett Bloczynski has some great ideas in his head, hopefully we’ll get to see more soon. Streets of Avalon is not yet available but will be soon on DriveThruRPG.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Patreon.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/encoded/the-streets-of-avalon
In my posts here on HLG, I like to talk about theory of worldbuilding, or game design theory, or sometimes both, such as with settlement building. As much as I consider myself a world builder foremost, the ability to use game mechanics to evoke a “sense” of a world is something unique to tabletop, and so I enjoy exploring that design space. This time, I want to talk about “The Crawl”. The most common Crawls to my mind are Dungeon Crawls, Hex Crawls, and Point Crawls. There are better articles that define and discuss these concepts that you should read if you aren’t familiar, but I’ll briefly summarize a Crawl in the abstract. As defined in this article, a Crawl is a way to parameterize the game environment, and how players can interact with it. Dungeon Crawls are for navigating within a specific location, Hex Crawls for navigating a wider and more varied (but generally still thematic) area, and Point Crawls are more about abstracting at an Event level, rather than spatially per se. While not every tabletop RPG is trying to do Dungeons & Dragons-style Traditional Fantasy, often games in other genres are, from a design-level, doing very similar things to D&D. Alternatively, they operate in a more story-telling fashion where “The Crawl” may not be as prevalent or relevant (although I believe this distinction has more to do with dice probabilities than anything else, but that’s a separate topic).
I recently published my first game as part of DREAMJAM on itch.io, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG. I describe the game as attempting to simulate the feel of retro 2D platformer video games, implementing what I’ve called a Platform Crawl design. The game in its current form still needs lots of playtesting and additional content, and currently does not explain the Platform Crawl design as in-depth as I would like (although I’m expanding upon this in the devlog), but if you enjoy my articles, I would encourage you to give it a look! In this article, I’ll outline a few other concepts for unique Crawl designs. Try them out and let me know what you think, or share your own Crawl designs!
1) Environment Crawl
This is mainly just a variation on the Hex Crawl, although it could be adapted to other kinds of Crawls as well. A fellow blogger friend of mine has started a cool series for a Wilderness Crawl. Essentially, it’s an old-school D&D-style hack, with fairly simple game mechanics, meant to gamify the difficulties of wilderness traversal. There are mechanics for stumbling, traveling at different paces, foraging, exploring through brush, etc., and he’s also experimenting with giving character classes unique abilities for wilderness traversal. With a rules-light system such as old-school D&D, this doesn’t even need to be a separate game as much as a bolt-on for an ongoing game. I think this kind of thing could really spice up a game, so that an Arctic Crawl isn’t just a Wilderness Crawl with another paint of coat, but actually has unique features the players must contend with. Even an otherwise “standard” Crawl, from a worldbuilding perspective, can be made unique and interesting, if the ways the players can interact with it is suitably unique and interesting. Just imagine an Oregon Trail tabletop RPG! Speaking of video games...
2) Video Game Crawl
Pixels & Platforms would fall into this category, but I think there’s a lot more to mine with video game genres in tabletop than has currently been explored. The trick is in figuring out what makes a video game genre work, and how to make that work in a tabletop format. For instance, for most platformer video games, much of the fun comes from the real-time, “tactile” action of pressing the buttons at just the right time to make the jump or dodge the enemy attack. Trying to simulate that phenomenon exactly is unlikely to be as fun in a turn-based tabletop game, since the result is determined by a random dice roll or flat stats, rather than player skill per se. However, by creating circumstances in which the challenge is not about making the jump or dodging the attack, but about how to position yourself on the “Screen” to make the jump, and also avoid the attack, and also protect your party members, then it becomes more of a puzzle platformer-like challenge: a Crawl. The player skill is in the tactics, and the randomness from the dice rolls is something to be accounted for, not the core appeal of the game.
In addition to the platform crawl, another video game crawl is the beat-em-up crawl. This would be a type of point crawl, where the emphasis would be placed on fighting relatively large numbers of mostly weaker enemies, who have the ability to swarm characters and knock them down, making them vulnerable. The crawl becomes more of a tactical positioning game, without necessarily being a complicated Warhammer-style wargame. Some of these ideas end up being almost more like board games, and if you really wanted to get wacky with it you could attempt to integrate an actual board game as the resolution mechanic (but that might be for a future article)! In any case, there are lots of video game genres, many of which may require much more thought, creativity, or hard work to make as a functional tabletop game, but I think designing these Video Game Crawls is a fun exercise in how to challenge preconceived notions of tabletop game design.
3) Combat Crawl
I generally prefer rules-light systems with minimalist combat mechanics, where much of the variation is abstracted. That being said, whether in literature, movies, or video games, different kinds of combat can be evocative in different ways, and it’s worth exploring this in tabletop. However, rather than trying to create a really granular game, with very specific statistics for how every kind of weapon could operate, another approach is just to compartmentalize and gamify these kinds of combats into Combat Crawls. For instance, I’m currently running a campaign for the tabletop RPG Tunnels & Trolls, and as part of that campaign, I’ve developed a unique combat system for Dueling, for Massive Combat, and for Mech Combat.
These rules aren’t intended to simulate hard physics of the world, but to evoke a certain feel. Dueling removes most of the random chance, playing out more like a game of Rock Paper Scissors or even poker, which to me seems evocative of a duel. Dueling could be integrated as part of a Western Frontier Crawl, or maybe even a Trench Warfare Crawl, which seems really well suited for tabletop (I’m surprised not much has been done with that). In the anime Attack on Titan, soldiers use “omni-directional mobility gear” to rapidly traverse environments and gain verticality to strike at the titular titans (giant humanoid monsters). The massive combat rules, in combination with some unique traversal mechanics, could make for a Scout Crawl. The logistics of traversal and maintenance with a mech could make for an interesting Mech Crawl. Unlike the other Crawls, this is about designing a combat conceit, and building the Crawl around that conceit. The RPG Deadlands also includes some unique mechanics for dueling and spellcasting, the latter of which actually plays out like poker, and a generalization of those mechanics for other systems could make for good Combat Crawl mechanics as well.
All of this is to say that the intersection between game design and worldbuilding can and should be explored further. It is possible that some of these ideas just won’t work, or will require significant consideration and refinement, but to move the medium forward, we should be thinking about new ways to design games. In video games, there is a concept of ludonarrative dissonance, immersion breaking effects of a game and its story being at odds, such as a game where the “Hero” regularly goes on massive killing sprees. However, I think the idea of ludonarrative dissonance / consonance is just as, if not more, relevant to tabletop. I enjoy “story games” and rules-light systems that make it easier for me to tell a particular kind of story, but I also think that a game can be used harmonically with the world and the story. That being said, not every game is or should be like a Traditional Fantasy Dungeon Crawl, so let’s design some new Crawls!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://img.itch.zone/aW1hZ2UvNDQ2Mzk1LzIzMTIyMzAucG5n/original/K%2FBtka.png
I started playing D&D back in the days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. I was 10 at the time, and in the 20 years that have elapsed between then and now, I’ve witnessed four different editions of D&D and three different editions wars. Each “war” was spurned by the coming of a new edition that “ruined” what D&D was “all about.”
The above sentiments are hyperbole. Sentiments I’ve found myself spouting from time to time. Though there is an element of truth to it: every edition of D&D I was present for was wildly different from the last. These differences changed how D&D was played.
Somewhere along the line with all the changes across so many editions, I think we wound up losing focus on a few things. Things that really made D&D special. Things that, incidentally, are perfect additions to the “sandbox” style of play with an open world.
So for your reading pleasure, here’s some old school D&D ideas you should definitely consider if you’re looking to run a more open world kind of game.
1) Questing For Magic Items
5th edition was meant to be the unifying edition; whether that succeeded or not is a topic for another article. However, the effort to do so is present in this one line from the Player’s Handbook:
"...aside from a few common magic items, you won't normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such."
The above is a sentiment echoed from 2nd edition, since this and 5th edition don’t have much in the way of codified rules on the creation of magic items. By contrast, 3rd edition has extensive rules on the subject. However, I do recall in 2nd edition, there was some suggestions for how to make magic items, and it involved gathering several exotic items related to the effect of the item.
This is the perfect objective for a quest!
Let’s have an example: say a player wanted to make a magical sword with a flaming blade so they may better thwart evil. In addition to the materials needed for a sword, it could also include such things as pure brimstone collected from a sacred volcano, a brilliant ruby, and the ashes of a tree limb that a wicked person was executed under. You could even include more intangible things that require some interpretation on behalf of the players, such as the burning conviction of one dedicated to justice.
The key is to make the required components meaningful to the effect and purpose of the item. Such a ruby may be found in a grand bazaar in a trade city, but not everybody has a sacred volcano in their backyard.
2) Travel Rules
Travelling can be dangerous. Bandits, wild animals, and vicious goblins could strike anywhere. However if you’re a tough sort that’s used to beating down unsavory elements on the road, there’s nothing to fear. Unless you’re starving, dehydrated, and haven’t slept in a day. Then the errant kobold might prove to be a problem.
The metaphysical march up the stairs that is character level does some weird things to the universe. At the beginning levels, a small band of goblins can be a challenge. At higher levels, in order to keep this same sort of encounter challenging, something else is needed to make these goblins a challenge. Something like making them stronger via special gear, adding more of them, or introducing powerful new allies for them.
I get why this happens, though. In order to keep the game interesting, challenges have to escalate. Tougher enemies is one way to do this. However, the enemies are just one variable in this scenario. An often overlooked mechanic in D&D 5e is Exhaustion. Not having the right things for a journey, including food and water, can have drastic consequences. Enforcing travel rules, such as having the supplies, food, and water necessary for a long journey, adds a whole host of new challenges without needing to rely on making combat more difficult.
The core books for D&D 5e even state that a person needs about one pound of food and one gallon of water a day, which for a short journey can easily be kept on hand. However, on a longer journey, it becomes important to either know where nearby settlements are, or to have the ability to find these things in the wild. This also has the effect of making the Ranger class and certain backgrounds (such as Outlander) much more useful, since they’re more effective at foraging.
And if nothing else, players can always use all that gold they’ve been hoarding to hire NPCs to help carry all their supplies for a long haul journey!
3) Building Strongholds
With a vast wilderness with all manner of threats, or a universe filled with secrets to study and uncover, a hero is eventually going to want to find a place of their own to make this all happen. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a quick blurb on how much all of this costs, and the time it takes to complete, but not much else.
If you haven’t noticed the recurring theme in this article, regarding strongholds, there’s plenty of room for extrapolating from incomplete details!
An adventure can be made out of finding the skilled workers needed to build a stronghold. Additionally, player characters may also need to gain permission from the local rulers to build their stronghold, leading to further quests they’ll need to complete before they can begin construction.
This aspect was baked into 2nd Edition, with most characters gaining followers at level 9 if they possessed a stronghold. Later, supplements were released that included all the nitty gritty details of what it took in terms of followers and gold acquire a stronghold.
While no such official supplement exists for 5th Edition, it hasn’t stopped fans from creating their own.
4) Changing Parties
After so many adventures, and so many marks have been made on the map by one group, you eventually reach a plateau. This could be in terms of story arc, character level, or even interest in playing a given character.
So when there’s been a major accomplishment, such as beginning work on that stronghold or completing that magic weapon the players have quested so long for, it may be worth making a new cast of characters and starting a new adventure. (At least for a little while.)
As with everything else, there was a precedent for this shift in 2nd edition as well, in the Creative Campaigns sourcebook. The example they cited was that when the party reaches a city with a temple preparing to go on a crusade, the players would make new characters who are the knight readying to go on said crusade.
To bring this around to our example, though: a party that completed The Burning Sword of Justice could offer it as a gift to a local lord in exchange for a deed to land to build their stronghold. At that point, the players could take on a new set of characters who are vassals of this lord doing some initial surveying of this land. (And to ensure that the players still get to have fun with their weapon they worked for, the lord could have gifted it to one of the new player characters.)
The key to making a “sandbox” game work is that the players need goals to work towards, and these goals can’t be treated as a means of instant gratification. For all games, though, resources earned or found should be useable: if you’re going to give out mundane rewards like currency, it may be worthwhile to enforce mundane needs. (Like needing to resupply rations, or pay wages to hirelings.)
Aaron der Schaedel initially wanted to include an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” joke at the start of this article, and end it with the phrase “And stay off my lawn!” He cut those jokes when he realized this piece would be more effective if he just tied it to sandbox games instead of griping about how gaming has changed over the last 20 years. You can tell him to go back to bed via Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Campaigning
Anybody who knows me knows that I love playing RPGs for the game aspect. Before you go rolling your eyes and muttering under your breath about how I must be a terrible roleplayer and that I spell it with two Ls, allow me to state two things: 1) It’s not a dichotomy, 2) The evidence can speak for itself.
I earnestly believe one of the hallmarks of a good roleplayer is that they can make even a ridiculous concept make sense in setting, or adequately justify otherwise nonsensical character choices. With all that said, let’s take a look at some ridiculous such characters one can create using just the core rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition!
1) Explosive Backstabber
I’m suggesting this one because one thing I like about Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is that they (mostly) eliminated alignment and other restrictions when picking classes; which allows for some ridiculous concepts and combinations, such as what we’ll be discussing now: what happens when you mix a Rogue’s backstab with a Paladin’s smite.
The things you need: Backstab from Rogue, Divine Smite from Paladin.
How it fits together: The requirements for both Backstab and Divine Smite are easily met by wielding a rapier, the strongest, finesse, melee weapon available to both Rogues and Paladins. The end result is that by level 3, a character can roll 3d8+1d6+Damage Modifier in one attack.
If somebody wanted to maximize this effect, they’d want to keep favor leveling up Rogue and take the Arcane Trickster subclass, since Smite becomes more powerful with higher spell slot usage, while Backstab becomes stronger with Rogue levels.
Conceptually? This setup will have naysayers, since traditionally Paladins and Rogues are anathema to each other. Though with the defanging of original thief-class by renaming it Rogue, and the addition of different kinds of Paladins such as those with the Oath of Vengeance, it’s entirely possible to justify that this is what Batman would be.
2) Literal Spell Sniper
Spell Sniper is a useful early game feat; it literally doubles the range of attack spells, and even lets you ignore cover. Great if you’re using a battle mat and plan to hide away from the action. Not so great if you have a GM that eschews the battle mat and uses the “eh, everybody is within range of each other at all times” method.
Even in that latter situation, there’s sure to be some utility from pumping range up to ridiculous levels, right? Like the previous setup, this one require multiclassing. You need two levels of Warlock and two levels of Sorcerer. Your sub classes for these don’t matter. You’ll also need to have the Spell Sniper feat.
The things you need: the Eldritch Blast cantrip from Warlock, the Eldritch Spear invocation from Warlock, and the Extended Spell metamagic from Sorcerer, along with the Spell Sniper Feat.
How it fits together: Eldritch Blast, when used with Eldritch Spear, extends the range of Eldritch Blast to 300ft. Spell Sniper doubles the range of a spell, making it 600ft. Extended Spell, doubles the range again for a total of 1,200ft. That’s enough to cover 240 squares on a standard 5ft square grid map.
I’m not sure when somebody would ever need to hit something from that far away, nor if the human eye can actually see at that range. Though if you’re crazy enough to try this, I’m sure these sorts of questions aren’t a major concern; you’ll either find a reason to make use of this range, or find some way around the sight problem.
3) The Invincible Iron Barbarian
When people discuss classes what class in D&D that’s meant to take hits like a champ (a tank, if you will), often Paladin is the one that floats to the top of the discussion, or sometimes fighter. Occasionally, though, Barbarian gets a mention with their d12 hit dice. Well, in D&D 5th Edition, the idea isn’t so far fetched for Barbarians to be the ones that take damage like it’s nothing.
Because for them? It probably IS nothing.
The things you need: Hill Dwarf Race, Barbarian class, Totem Warrior Subclass, Bear Totem Spirit, Tough Feat.
How it fits together: If we’ve learned anything the previous entry, it’s that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to a stupidly absurd degree. Hill Dwarf gets a bonus 1 HP per level, and dwarves in general have a bonus to Constitution. Barbarian, when unarmored, gains an AC bonus based on their Constitution. This is on top of the normal bonus to HP one gets for Constitution. Tough grants a further 2HP per level, retroactively.
The end result of all the above, assuming an 18 Constitution, is that our Dwarf at level 4 has a MINIMUM of 43 HP. (12 from 1st level, 16 from +4 con bonus for four levels, 4 from Hill Dwarf Toughness, 8 from Tough Feat, 3 minimum from hit dice gained for levels 2-4)
The capstone to all this is Bear Totem Spirit from Totem Warrior, which grants resistance to all damage types but psychic.
Bears are terrifying.
4) The Rogue That Stole The Bard’s Role
Not all the ideas I propose today are going to be about how to break the rules of D&D combat over your knee like a twig. After all, despite the rulebook predominantly consisting of rules for how to kill things and solve problems with violence, Dungeons and Dragons is all about story!
So let’s make something that tells a story about a plucky Rogue that stole the show from the Bard!
What you need: Rogue Class, Skilled Feat. Half-Elf Race, Entertainer Background.
How it fits together: The Bard is described as Music and Magic, as well as a jack-of-all trades. In fact, that’s the name of one of one of their class features that grants them half their proficiency bonus to any roll they wouldn’t have proficiency in.
The idea with this setup is to cover as many skills as possible, and just for the sake of it, be better at music and charisma based skills than the Bard. Half-Elf grants 2 skill proficiencies, and the Skilled feat grants an additional 3 later on. Entertainer covers us for being able to make music, and comes with a reputation for doing so, to boot!
The two kickers, though, are the Rogue Class Features Expertise and Reliable Talent. Expertise, by level 6, gives a Rogue four skills they have proficiency in DOUBLE their proficiency bonus, and Reliable Talent treats any roll they make with a skill or tool they’re proficient in count as a 10. (Which, as a Half-Elf with Skilled, you’ll have many of.)
To take this a step further, you could also pick Arcane Trickster as your archetype. This, combined with numerous feats that grant additional spells, leaves the Rogue in a good position to fashion themselves as “like a Bard, but better.”
5) Your Dice Are Ruining My Story
If Dungeons and Dragons is all about story, though, why do I have to obey the whims of these dice? What if they don’t give me the result I want to tell the story that I want? Surely there’s something I can do! (Besides just write a book, that is.)
Well, hypothetical, whiny voice that exists less to prove a point and more to segue into my next entry, I’ve got you covered!
What you need: Halfling Race, Wizard Class, Diviner Subclass, Lucky Feat
How it fits together: This setup is all about abilities that play around with the dice in ways that are often considered straight up broken. First, starting with the Halfling’s Lucky ability; quite simply? It lets you re-roll any d20 roll that comes up 1.
The Lucky feat grants luck points that can essentially be used for rerolls, either on your rolls, or rolls made against you. And to top it all off, Diviner gives you the Portent Class Feature, which lets you roll two dice that you can use to replace any other die roll later on.
Dice tricks like that, combined with much of the Diviner’s spells about sussing out information, means that you can prepare for any unpleasant surprises, to the possible annoyance of your GM and fellow players!
These are probably nothing, at least compared to some of the unusual things you can find and mix in with other splatbooks such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. After all, there’s a reason class bloat is often a common complaint in RPGs: as a game allows for more options, more absurd things can happen. Plus, only so many more options can be added until everything just seems the same.
Dungeons and Dragons is Aaron der Schaedel’s favorite fantasy RPG published by WIzards of the Coast. He talks about the myriad other games out there on his YouTube Channel, and would greatly appreciate it if you would subscribe.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/364158319865556047/
How do you plan encounters? What follows is the system I use to plan my encounters, sprinkled with stories about other ideas and suggestions on how to plan and make your game the best it can be.
1) All Encounters Are Planned
Every encounter is a planned event. Even the random encounters that represent roving monsters or a guard patrol. Encounters happen for a reason. Maybe you’re throwing in some combat for the session, or maybe you’re trying to create tension, or trying to help the party gain experience points, or maybe all of this is to further the story. Hopefully all your encounters will serve to move the story forward, even if they seem random at the time.
If all encounters are planned, hat might seem inconsistent with the idea of a ‘random’ encounter though. However, as the DM you have to do work with those random encounters, and even that moment after rolling requires at least a tiny bit of planning. Will the monsters ambush the party? Will they just wander up on them? Or are they roving, looking for dinner, or do they represent guards or guardian beasts? When you create an encounter you either plan it out during your planning session or you do a quick setup in your mind. I find it best to prepare a few hours prior to a game and when I run, I like to have a series of encounters already rolled up to be used in that game session. If they aren’t used, then they can be saved for later sessions, either in another campaign or tweaked and improved for another encounter in the current game at a later level.
So, how do you plan the encounter? Most people spend two to three hours planning an adventure for every hour they plan to spend playing. If you are using a pre-written module then this planning time is often used to read the module and adapt it for your players. Few modules just drop into a running campaign, that’s where Adventure Paths are great, since they run for a long time. But, trust me, after you run an AP that ends at 15th level, most groups will want to keep playing. So, you had better have something for them.
Now I have heard of a DM who liked to roll a die for the Bestiary he was going to use, and then rolled percentile dice for the page number he was going to use, thus opening up all the possible monsters to be used for in a random encounter. This meant their players could encounter a contract devil, a six-armed demon, a pseudo dragon, a mountain lion, or even a horse. So, what is a mountain lion doing in the desert or in the plains? Why would a six-armed demon or a contract devil be wandering around for a random encounter? My view is that this makes the game seem unreal and often silly. Would you place an ancient red dragon in the arctic guarding a single chest with 20 gp in it? That is just poor planning.
2) Preparing A Curated List
To give your game more realism, you need a curated list of adversaries that can be encountered in each region, or area. I am not saying that this list has to be run strictly according to level though; but do you think a pack of wolves would be a match for a tenth level party? They would also be too much for a first level party. Now anyone who goes off adventuring deserves to be challenged and sometimes the best answer to a challenge might be to run away from the encounter; like a first level party against an ancient green dragon. But, there is a problem with that theory: the players trust you and they are there to play, not to run away. So, more often than not they will rush headlong into an encounter they are clearly unprepared for.
So, unless you give them a clear sign that they are outmatched, and even if you give them a good hint, they are more likely to run into battle with the expectation that it will be a hard fight, but that they will win. After all, heroes don’t run. So, before you create an encounter list that has a wide range of levels, think about what your players will do. Now you might have a green dragon living in the local woods and the party could be warned. If they go into those woods then let it be upon their heads, but do you really want a TPK (Total Party Kill)? The better idea would be to have the green dragon demand service from the players and get increasing outrageous in her demands until the party finally goes up against her. Plan those encounters so that she doesn’t have a demand each level but she has enough demands to make her bothersome. Also make those encounters with the green dragon meaningful. Green dragons are plotters and planners. Sure, their biggest plan may be for a practical joke, but a dragon lives a long life and like anyone they want to do things with their lives, not just sleep on their treasure horde. Ideally, they want to increase their horde. So, the green dragon is likely to test the players power all while sending them on quests to enrich her horde.
3) Do The Unexpected
Of course, you want to do the unexpected in a game. Doing too much of the same old thing will bore the players, so you need to spice things up and you need to provide at least one surprise for the party in each session. One time I took a first level party and told them that they were hired by a village to get rid of a dragon.
This was a dangerous beast, it had killed Bob the fighter, and he was the toughest fighter in the village. The dragon had a ransom note delivered that said if he wasn’t paid, he would rampage through the crops and the village was getting desperate. The party seemed reluctant, but they trusted me and went on the mission. One night the saw it rampaging through the crops and spouting off fireballs! The party knew the dragon was real, but they never saw it fly. They tried to track it and saw unusual tracks like it had spikes underneath.
A cavalier climbed on top of a house and fired an arrow into the dragon, and it slipped inside the dragon and was lost from sight! Now the party had reasons to suspect that everything wasn’t as it appeared. Frankly, the party didn’t know a dragon from a drake, and neither did the town. Turns out the “dragon” was actually a mechanical dragon that ran on treads. A gnome illusionist was using silent image to make it seem more realistic and he had a fire lizard in a cage in the mouth that would breathe fire whenever he poked it with a stick. The gnome had captured some kobolds and they ran on a treadmill in tandem to make the dragon go forward and the gnome had brakes to turn left or right. It was crude, but it worked. More importantly, it was a fair match for a first level party. For a higher level party you could boost the kobolds into hobgoblins and increase the level of the gnome illusionist and make his illusions better, but it would be harder to pass the encounter off as a real dragon. At that level, the party is likely to have an idea of what a real dragon can do and there are too many things that the fake dragon couldn’t do. Besides, the goal of the encounter was to throw a “dragon” at a first level party and make it a fair fight.
4) How To Avoid Murder Hobos
Remember, the primary pattern of the game is for the party to go out, find big scary monsters, kill them, and steal their wealth. This is where the expression “Murder Hobos” comes from. A party of Murder Hobos has no fixed address, no ties to the area they are adventuring though, and no compunction about killing any creature they come across and robbing them. You can recognize murder hobos by their rush to combat. Now, if the party wants to talk first or if they want to roleplay then you may not have a group of murder hobos. If you have a story that is just a string of encounters with little rhyme or reason, then you will breed murder hobos. If you have a compelling story line and the players are doing more than just traveling around and killing things, then you can get the party away from being murder hobos. Your encounters, how you plan them, if they make sense for the area and the level, they are set at will determine how your game runs and what your players do in response to your encounters. DMs who want to rise above the standard game will do things to encourage their players to go beyond being murder hobos and will try to have depth to their adventures; more than one story line, or more than one event happening at a time.
5) The Nonthreatening Encounter
Have you ever noticed when you announce an encounter the party all draw their weapons, start preparing spells, wake up those who are sleeping, and get ready for a big fight. When you announce the bushes are moving, or they hear a noise then they will all get ready for a fight. To stop this, throw in a few nonthreatening encounters. They hear a wolf howl, or the wind blows through the bushes. After a few times they will wait for the encounter to more fully resolve itself before they become ready for a fight. This adds an element of reality to your game. I suggest you create a list of non threatening encounters and add them to your encounter tables.
Tailor your nonthreatening encounters for various areas and throw them in occasionally. Don’t make them every other encounter or they will grow tiresome. I once had a low-level party exploring a new area. They came across some dragon poo and were curious about the dragon. The ranger analyzed it and made a Survival roll determining it was from a red dragon and from the size, it was a large red dragon. Now the party was a little scared. Still, they went looking for the dragon. Which was not my plan. The dragon scat was supposed to be a non threatening encounter, after all there is very little inside of dragon poo that is going to attack (ignoring the dung beetle).
It was the party’s decision to look for the dragon, so I had him flying around. Dragons have sharp eyes; the party was out in the plains, so the dragon easily found them, and he landed in front of them. He didn’t attack, he felt confident that he could easily eat them if they bothered him. He hadn’t seen humans for a while and was bored, so he was willing to talk. They had a roleplay session with the dragon and let it slip that they were from a town that had escaped a planet wide cataclysm. The town had hidden under a massive dome and shifted forward in time. Now the town had dropped the dome and the people were trying to reclaim lands. When the party let it slip that the town was back and not protected, he asked if they would pay protection fees. The party talked some more, and they convinced the red dragon that the town was defenseless and would pay a ransom. So, the dragon thanked them for the information and flew off. When the party got back to town they heard about the massive battle against a huge red dragon and how the Mage’s College had thrown their most powerful mages at the dragon and defeated him. Needless to say the party was happy to hear the dragon hadn’t laid waste to their hometown. But, imagine their horror when they heard his mate was looking for his killers!
The point is, this was all a random storyline that started from a nonthreatening encounter. The original idea of the encounter was to show that there were dangerous things outside here and that the party had to be careful. In this case I didn’t mean to throw a dragon at a 4th level party. You never know where things are going to go in the middle of an encounter or what an encounter will lead to, allow some nonthreatening encounters and allow some roleplaying with each encounter so it leads to an evolving story.
What do you think about these ideas? What do you think about the idea of curating lists of encounters? What do you think about the idea of nonthreatening encounters? =I would like to hear your observations and opinions in the comments below?
I am Daniel Joseph Mello and I am active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop me a line. I have been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game I was the DM. I have gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. I have written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. I am also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/captainharlock-42/art/Encounter-on-Mythos-Island-694383601
Ah. Recycling old ideas eh Jarod? You hack. I know, I know. But hey, I’ve played a lot more video games over the past few years and in all honesty, a lot of them have been really good. Spider-Man PS4, Dad of Boy, and I finally got my hands on Dishonored 2. However, as I play more and more of these games I keep thinking to myself… “Oh, how cool would that be to implement into next week's session.” So here’s another collection of my little thoughts and ideas. My little adaptations and wishes.
1) The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 was - and still is - a really damn good game. But the issue with most open world RPG type games is that they’re often single player based where TTRPG’s are often an exercise in group cohesion. As such, the mechanics oftentimes have almost no common group. I say almost for a few reasons. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this. And as much as I would like to say, “We should implement that no matter where you are in the world you can whistle and your horse will be only a few paces away,” I will instead say I think CD Projekt Red created a possible tabletop mechanic in their mutagens.
For those who are unaware, Witchers are able to take a part of monsters called Mutagens and implement them into their own biology. It’s a dangerous, albeit interesting process. Not to mention it provides a significant combat advantage. Now, in the case of D&D, Matt Mercer has already created a homebrew class called the Bloodhunter, and one of their subclasses is called the mutant. And while I can in no way deny that Matt’s class is effective and that this idea is implemented very well by him, I will instead make the case for a different style of implementation.
Anyone can implement these mutagens into their bodies. The process is dangerous, and there’s a very good chance you can die if you don’t take the proper precautions, but to obtain mutagens, you must have a very specific and expensive tool that requires a trained operator, additionally mutagens can only be taken from monsters and animals that have died within the last ten minutes. Luckily they have a decent shelf life. A month or two. Mutagens are, at their best, unpredictable. And at their worst catastrophic to a mortal’s body. A mutagen taken from a werewolf can do everything from heightening one's senses to a bestial level, to granting one supernatural strength, to simply cursing the subject with lycanthropy.
I don’t feel I could make a general outline for the general effects of mutagens on a player character, but I might implement them similar to artifacts in D&D, where when undergoing a mutagenic process you can gain both beneficial and detrimental qualities. I would also say that a player character can only have a few mutagens in their system before it kills them. I would say two would be a good limit. Or if you really want to get crazy, use their constitution modifier (or equivalent) to determine the number of mutagens one can have.
2) God of War (With A Beard)
The newest God of War is another gem of a game. I would call it a diamond in the rough, but it’s more of a diamond that’s been put on billboards and shit, because this game was impossible to escape for most of 2018. Everything from the voice acting to the simple yet engaging story, to the rich and glorious worldbuilding was a wonderful ride. In every way. (Fuck the Valkyrie fights my guy. Especially the one in Musphelheim.) But it’s very specifically a video game experience. What on earth can my simple mind take out of this game to apply to a tabletop setting? I hear you asking in order to allow me to transition into the point of this point. The point being Runic Attacks. Yes, this boils down to abilities with cooldowns. Yes, it boils down to everyone having more DPS and status effect capabilities. But what I’m trying to get at is some sort of physical thing that you have to interact with to gain this ability.
Sure it could be as simple as a magic item (McGuffin) but let's take a moment to get out of the Box™ and try thinking outside of it. Maybe it’s spirits that the players did a service for who now want to bless them with a conditional ability in which they call upon the magic of nature. Or unknowable beings that force arcane power upon the player so they will use it at a key moment setting a massive domino effect up. Perhaps even a divine gift from the gods for the parties unconditional wholesomeness. There are so many ways to pull out some sort of cooldown ability. Whether or not the reason behind the cooldown is arcane or just some force being a dick is completely up to the GM.
3) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Piss. Moan. “What did you take from the game where you’re a god by level 37?” Let's cut to the chase. The Elder Scrolls had a cool idea with Shouts. And while I think player characters could have access to that sort of thing, I don’t think it should be as innate as with the Dragonborn in Skyrim. As mentioned by the GreyBeards learning such power should be dangerous, difficult and slow paced to the point where I think the average player character would learn something close to one or two complete shouts by max level.
“Fus Ro Don’t” I hear you yelling out to the heavens. But hear me out. Yes, a lot of the shouts in the game are essential “press to win the fight” buttons. But I feel like there should be a lot more balancing to such things. For example, the call dragon shout shouldn’t exist. Ta Da. Not an issue. Unrelenting Force? More like Unrelenting push your enemies back 50 ft and knock them prone if you have all 3 words understood. Sure this isn’t as adaptable as my previous point with Oblivion. And it tips the power balance in favour of the players. But who’s to say that other creatures and beings can’t learn to shout? After all, if the edgy rogue who was born with no parents can do it, why can’t a vampire who’s lived two thousand years?
I bet you read that title and said; what? Well, as you may have astutely noticed there are no mechanics in Tetris that could possibly fit into any TTRPG that I know of. And furthermore, to make other readers who have come to this page believe that I actually pulled something from a puzzle game where you drop blocks on each other and put it in a TTRPG, I will now type out a recipe for cheesecake brownies. You will need one hundred and seventy grams of cream cheese softened in the microwave. Three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda. One eighth a teaspoon of salt ideally kosher salt. Twenty Nine grams of unsweetened cocoa powder. (Or sweetened. I don’t judge.) Two large eggs. One hundred and seventy grams of raw honey. Two tablespoons of vanilla extract. You’ll need the two tablespoons divided. That will become apparent as to why later. A recommended eighty-four grams of semisweet chocolate chips, but as we all know chocolate chips are of course to taste. Seventy-one grams of almond meal or finely ground flour and lastly a non-stick pan.
First, preheat your oven to three hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Then in a bowl whisk the eggs together (please note you should attempt to separate the yolk from only one of the eggs and save the whites for the cream cheese mixture and add one-fourth of a cup of water, the honey and one tablespoon of vanilla. Whisk together as well. In a separate bowl whisk together the almond meal or finely ground flour with the cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. Mix the two mixtures together and stir well. Add chocolate chips and stir again. Then pour the batter into the pan. Now here’s where things get a little weird, you want to take the softened cream cheese and mix in sugar reserved egg white and the last teaspoon of vanilla. Pour that over the brownie mix and spread it about, bake until an inserted toothpick comes out clean (typically about a half an hour.) Let cool and enjoy.
4) (For Real This Time) Assassins Creed
Now in this particular instance, I’m selecting more story framing mechanic than an actual game mechanic, however, it does play into the games in a lot of ways. This being the dual settings of the modern day and historical setting. Once again, this is more of an idea than a mechanic so feel free to gloss over this to a certain extent, but I really feel as if there are a lot of ways that new mechanics can flourish in this setting. For example, two separate skill sets. The two separate settings will allow for a lot of room character customization as well as difficult stakes depending on the nature of the dual settings.
Of course, the two settings would have to have equal time restrictions. It would have to be very different from the Animus in that the two settings would have to happen simultaneously. However, in large groups, this may quickly become an issue where the party wants to split itself into the group that’s dealing with the one world issue and group that wants to deal with the second world issue. As such, I think that this is best for either very small groups that won’t want to risk splitting, or very large groups that should already be split. There are is a very large well of potential waiting to be tapped into here but I feel like it would be tricky to execute at best and destructive to the experience at worst so keep that in mind should you try to do something like this.
Another very nice game with a unique concept that finally represented what a game about vampires should really be about. Most of the mechanics in it, however, are similar to a puzzle piece in that they all fit together but not a whole lot of other places. With the exception of the key mechanic. Which is gaining more experience the better you know your victims. Now of course, direct experience is a little bit too much to give to someone just for sniffing around your NPC lore, however, it could definitely be used in a slightly more direct way.
This would require a few changes to the base understanding of most games, but should you place your characters in a world in which certain people have power which is inherent and can be stolen, this power could become more accessible to people who know the beings which they’re trying to steal the aforementioned power from. A sort of magical connection that grows as the understanding of the beings grow. Once the being is killed, you could gain a different kind or amount of power based on your knowledge of the being. Murder could be a good idea, but their loved ones would be instilled with the same power as you even if you kill them. In short, you could make a lot of powerful enemies very quickly.
There are a lot of places to find inspiration in art. Video games are no exception. There are a hundred different things to yoink and adapt for everyone and it's really kinda cool. Well, that's really an understatement. So go out there and get inspired.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.giantbomb.com/the-witcher-3-wild-hunt/3030-41484/forums/newbie-question-s-a-rpg-and-witcher-newbie-needs-y-1772177/
The following scenes frequently pop up in most roleplaying games. Identifying them and knowing how best to use them will improve your game. This list does not intend to be exhaustive. Since each game comes with its own setting and rules, there are probably more types of scenes; however, these are the most common ones among all roleplaying games.
Most roleplaying games involve combat and are usually designed around it. It is difficult to find a game that doesn’t have at least an entire chapter dedicated to it. It can involve many things: swords, guns, spaceships, magic, superpowers, etc. Sometimes all you need to do is throw a few monsters at the players and that’s good enough. But if you do that too much, combat can quickly become stale. A common way of improving it is by including monsters with unique abilities that the players haven’t encountered before. Another, is by making each monster in a group different. In a group of three goblins, perhaps one is an archer, another is a swordsman, and the last one, a sorcerer. Finally, using Aspects from the roleplaying game Fate is an easy way to make a location more interactive. You could have flimsy wooden columns holding the roof of the dungeon that the players might destroy to cause a collapse. Or a raging river that drags anyone that falls into it. Make each combat a dynamic engaging experience, and your players will thank you for it.
From social intrigue to searching the woods, clues are the key component in any investigation. Players gather up as many clues as they can and reach a conclusion based on them; with any luck, the right one. It is vital that clues are not locked behind specific dice rolls, as a failure may cause the story to reach an abrupt stop. Likewise, deciding when and where the clues are beforehand may result in players fumbling about in all the wrong places. It is best to leave clues open, so that players can discover them with their own creativity. If one player suggests an idea where a clue might be found, and it seems reasonable, go with it. For example, a player might use one of his specialized skills such as “Weapons Expert” to find out what kind of weapon was used to kill the victim. Your investigations will flow much more smoothly if you don’t set things in stone and are open to new ideas.
3) Social Conflict
When an NPC has something that players want and is not immediately predisposed to handing it over, a social conflict ensues. One might be tempted to reduce social conflict to a single die roll, perhaps by persuasion or intimidation. But that turns NPCs into undecided characters that change their opinions because of a good die roll, and it quickly breaks immersion. Instead, make NPCs have motivations and roleplay accordingly. Be sure to make players aware of these motivations by hinting or outright saying them. As with clues, make sure to not lock things behind rolls. A greedy merchant might want to be paid to give information, with a die roll lowering or removing the price entirely. Meanwhile, a barkeep who only cares about the safety of their family might want some assurance that no harm will come to them. Following these tips, your NPCs will easily come to life and be more than just obstacles or quest givers.
Whether you’re following an outlaw on horseback, driving down streets running from the law, or pursuing a rogue spaceship through an asteroid field, chases are always entertaining. A good chase has multiple obstacles, and just like before, it’s best to let the players overcome them with their own creativity. Defining which rolls the players have to make beforehand will result in players simply rolling dice without no choice at all, leaving it all to random chance. A chase need not even have two parties involved. For example, a party leaving a collapsing dungeon. Debris from the falling roof might be dodged, blocked with a shield, or destroyed with magic. For an improved player experience, avoid making chases a dull series of rolls and make it interactive instead, like any other scene would be.
At some point, the players are going to stop and talk about what they are going to do next. They will discuss strategies and plans to overcome the obstacles to come. The best thing you can do here is listen. Players will often come up with original ideas you did not even fathom. It’s easy to say no and force them upon a predetermined path, but if they have good ideas, it’s best to adapt your plans to your players’ actions. If the players decide to use magic to fly up to the last floor of the antagonist’s tower, don’t make it have no windows or a “magic dampening field”; instead, turn it into a chase with the antagonist running through the different floors in the opposite order. Do give them some advantage for flying in though, perhaps a head start in the chase. Listening to your players is always important, and in planning scenes doubly so.
Knowing what types of scenes there are will not only help you in using them well, but also improvising them and transitioning from one to another. A successful chase scene could lead up to a combat, whereas a failed one could end up in an investigation. Be sure to use plenty of different scenes to spice up your adventures, and as always, have fun!
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
There are many things which can drive a story, usually a character. Characters drive stories forward by pursuing a goal: their motivation. I am going to discuss in this article what the main types of motivation are, some sub genres of such motivations and how they can be implemented in an RPG setting.
Love is just any strong positive emotional tie to any thing or person, even if it is displayed negatively or in the wrong way, and as such can drive stories onward with very few other reasons. Love can be more than romance, however every good novel has some degree of this at one point or another. Love could be lust; many nasty deeds are perpetrated under the guise of what is thought to be love. Love is also respect: the king can ask a faithful band of PCs to dispatch a band of rebels camping outside the city limits. Jealousy is a very strong motivator in stories: A wicked witch, madly in love with an NPC or PC, has stolen away the love interest of and the team must go and rescue her. You could begin a campaign with love as the main driving force: the PCs are on a journey north to find the long lost love of their leader, s/he was reported missing one year ago and the PC has been waiting ever since for word if they are alive or dead, well waiting is over s/he has got together a group of friends and has headed out to find out once and for all.Your party could even liberate an object someone has attached feelings to: The old crone who has grown attached to the haunted urn of her dead husband, the child playing with his father’s magic sword. This motivation can get a little overwhelming if you add too many people or things to the inspiration pool, a love triangle is interesting, a love square can have twists but a love dodecahedron is maybe a little too much.
Money is economy, it is wealth, it is fame, it is everywhere. Money has been the driving force of a few of my starting games, I am adventuring to make money, but then seeded in love motives and power motives. Money could be someone with wealth maintaining it, the lord of these lands has a small workforce and high production needs so works them to death, literally just to make as much profit as he can. It could even be used as a way to show how good someone is, the monk walked the streets handing out what little coin he had to the peasants that littered the town’s dark alleys. It could also buy false loyalty: The Lord pays for the court’s discretion so his son can go about his nefarious doings without hindrance. Money is a good way to get started, have an NPC offer the party fame or wealth in return for an errand, but should evolve into more personal motives unless you are the lord in the example then just get your PCs to burn down his farm and free the workers.
Power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don’t, want to take it. Power struggles can make excellent background stories or plot hooks. The king has requested you infiltrate the enemy's fortress and sabotage their weapon supplies. The president has his finger on the big red button ready to start the next galactic war, unless your team can subdue the opposing threat which is forcing his hand. Power can come in a variety of forms from influence in a political setting, power struggles between council members who each have their own agenda, to WMDs in a modern setting, or even a great source of magic in a fantasy game, the crystal banana is a great relic which bestows the holder with the ultimate power of the cosmos, send your party out to obtain or destroy artifacts of significance and let the story unfold.
Whatever the combination of motives you use to spur your players onward remember that there is always another waiting round the corner for them to get hooked on, like Borimir in LOTR, he wished the ring of power for himself to protect the home he loved. Two motives in plain sight and a great example of how one leads to the other, his love for Gondor led him to the motivation to obtain the power of the ring. Use motivations as long term or short term goals to keep players eager to play and to keep them coming back for more.
Ross Reid is a Scottish roleplayer who is a fan of many a game and system, he has run a game group for the town in which he lives and is currently working on a fantasy novel which has already taken too long.
Picture Reference: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
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Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
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