There are many things which can drive a story, usually a character. Characters drive stories forward by pursuing a goal: their motivation. I am going to discuss in this article what the main types of motivation are, some sub genres of such motivations and how they can be implemented in an RPG setting.
Love is just any strong positive emotional tie to any thing or person, even if it is displayed negatively or in the wrong way, and as such can drive stories onward with very few other reasons. Love can be more than romance, however every good novel has some degree of this at one point or another. Love could be lust; many nasty deeds are perpetrated under the guise of what is thought to be love. Love is also respect: the king can ask a faithful band of PCs to dispatch a band of rebels camping outside the city limits. Jealousy is a very strong motivator in stories: A wicked witch, madly in love with an NPC or PC, has stolen away the love interest of and the team must go and rescue her. You could begin a campaign with love as the main driving force: the PCs are on a journey north to find the long lost love of their leader, s/he was reported missing one year ago and the PC has been waiting ever since for word if they are alive or dead, well waiting is over s/he has got together a group of friends and has headed out to find out once and for all.Your party could even liberate an object someone has attached feelings to: The old crone who has grown attached to the haunted urn of her dead husband, the child playing with his father’s magic sword. This motivation can get a little overwhelming if you add too many people or things to the inspiration pool, a love triangle is interesting, a love square can have twists but a love dodecahedron is maybe a little too much.
Money is economy, it is wealth, it is fame, it is everywhere. Money has been the driving force of a few of my starting games, I am adventuring to make money, but then seeded in love motives and power motives. Money could be someone with wealth maintaining it, the lord of these lands has a small workforce and high production needs so works them to death, literally just to make as much profit as he can. It could even be used as a way to show how good someone is, the monk walked the streets handing out what little coin he had to the peasants that littered the town’s dark alleys. It could also buy false loyalty: The Lord pays for the court’s discretion so his son can go about his nefarious doings without hindrance. Money is a good way to get started, have an NPC offer the party fame or wealth in return for an errand, but should evolve into more personal motives unless you are the lord in the example then just get your PCs to burn down his farm and free the workers.
Power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don’t, want to take it. Power struggles can make excellent background stories or plot hooks. The king has requested you infiltrate the enemy's fortress and sabotage their weapon supplies. The president has his finger on the big red button ready to start the next galactic war, unless your team can subdue the opposing threat which is forcing his hand. Power can come in a variety of forms from influence in a political setting, power struggles between council members who each have their own agenda, to WMDs in a modern setting, or even a great source of magic in a fantasy game, the crystal banana is a great relic which bestows the holder with the ultimate power of the cosmos, send your party out to obtain or destroy artifacts of significance and let the story unfold.
Whatever the combination of motives you use to spur your players onward remember that there is always another waiting round the corner for them to get hooked on, like Borimir in LOTR, he wished the ring of power for himself to protect the home he loved. Two motives in plain sight and a great example of how one leads to the other, his love for Gondor led him to the motivation to obtain the power of the ring. Use motivations as long term or short term goals to keep players eager to play and to keep them coming back for more.
Ross Reid is a Scottish roleplayer who is a fan of many a game and system, he has run a game group for the town in which he lives and is currently working on a fantasy novel which has already taken too long.
Picture Reference: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
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Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
Over the history of tabletop RPGs, there have been various game design and creative movements, along with critical theories about how to think about games and game design. While I’ve always found these movements and theories to be useful ways to think about roleplaying as a whole, I’m increasingly less convinced that these things matter. RPGs are sometimes described as having “narrativist” mechanics or “gamist” mechanics, but what does that even mean? How much does that really matter? I argue that while they may be useful framing tools, they don’t necessarily affect RPGs as much as, or in the way that, gamers often think they do. There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred game; I’m not here to criticize what you’re doing. I’m just saying, let’s think outside the box and challenge the common wisdom.
1) Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response
One argument for a “narrativist” vs. “gamist” way of thinking about RPGs, is that the game designers themselves often use these terms to describe their games. Books that use the FATE RPG tend to focus on framing scenes, simulating the feel of a genre, and focusing on character arcs and conflicts. On the other hand, games like D&D, particularly old school D&D (aka old school renaissance, or OSR), focus on dungeon crawling and deadly encounters, playing out more like a puzzle or challenge than dramatic storytelling per se. But what really differentiates these games?
In D&D, you have a set of physical and mental attributes which give you modifiers to a dice roll, usually a d20. Depending on the version of the game, you maybe have some skills, and some special abilities usually oriented around combat. In modern D&D such as 5e, rolls tend to be emphasized more since characters are more granular, whereas OSR generally discourages rolls and keeps the game rules light and loose. I’ll explain more about the effects of quantity vs. quality of mechanics in a later point, but because of their comparable mechanical depth, it makes more sense to compare OSR and FATE to demonstrate my current point. In FATE, you have a skill pyramid that gives you modifiers to dice rolls that are often (but not always) oriented towards combat or action, stunts with additional modifiers and aspects, a sentence or so each, which can be invoked with FATE points for additional modifiers.
Ostensibly aspects are better for “narrativist” play because they encourage the GM and players to think about the characters and the environment, and how they interact, in a way that lends itself to character development and cinematic action. I agree that this overt framing of the mechanics does make dramatic storytelling more salient, but it’s not actually the aspects that matter here. It comes down to dice probabilities, something I’ve discussed before. A d20 has a wide range and uniform distribution, so there’s high variability in whether a roll will succeed or fail. However with FUDGE dice used in FATE, there is a narrow normal distribution (bell curve), centered at 0, meaning the roll will have less variability, or in other words be more predictable, and thus even small modifiers (like the +2 you get from invoking an aspect) have a large impact. The motivation for invoking the aspect is that the modifier may be the difference between a near-certain failure and a near-certain success. In OSR, the motivation to be ingenious and “gamist” is because there is high uncertainty in the dice and few powerful character abilities as in D&D 5e. Both require ingenuity, i.e. “how do I solve this problem” or “how do I invoke this aspect.” The fact that one happens to encourage dungeon crawling ingenuity whereas the other happens to encourage narrative ingenuity is totally incidental with reference to the mechanics of the game itself. One could just as easily use D&D mechanics to do a socio-political “game of thrones,’ or use aspects to represent character combat classes or equipment loadouts. The “just as easily” part is critical here, but I’ll get back to that when I discuss DIY.
All of this is to say, regardless of the designer’s intent, or how the rules are described in the book, you can translate the mechanics into a shared language of probabilities, and once you do that, you see that it really has nothing to do with “narrativist” or “gamist” mechanics, but about probabilities.
2) Culture And Preconceived Notions
Related to the above point, cultures have formed around these games. While you should not make absolute assumptions about anyone, probably if you are reasonably aware of the greater RPG scene, you have some sense of what OSR gamers are like, as compared to FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) gamers, or modern D&D or Pathfinder gamers. This creates a feedback loop, where a game is designed for a specific audience, and the game or the mechanics of the game become associated with that audience, and that game becomes more associated with that culture, regardless of whether it is actually true that that game is better suited for the interests of that culture. This is why OSR games tend to be about dungeon crawling even though you could apply the same framework to a more social or dramatic scenario, and why FATE encourages aspects to be about character or plot when they could just be another way of simulating the physics of the world (a topic for another post), even though the vehicle of differentiation between the two in practice is just the probability distribution of the dice.
The trajectory of D&D 5e in particularly is an excellent case study in how an RPG and the game culture around it interact. On a basic logistical level, 5e tried to streamline some mechanics, but at its core it’s not so different from D&D 3e or Pathfinder. However, the designers chose to use language intended to attract narrative gamers, placed greater emphasis on inspiration points as a “narrativist” mechanic, and then the actual play series Critical Role happened (along with the general explosion of actual plays).
Despite the fact that D&D 5e is not what most people knowledgeable about the state of RPGs would consider a “narrativist” game, to many people whose only frame of reference are the official D&D 5e books and actual plays such as critical role, storytelling is what D&D is about. And while arguably the quantity and granularity of mechanics may sometimes get in the way (a matter I’ll talk about next), they seem to be doing quite all right. If the group lacks experience with collaborative storytelling, a game like FATE might be better at teaching them how to play dramatically, but on the flip-side, if they already know how to play dramatically and tell stories, mechanics like aspects might not be necessary for them from a storytelling perspective anyway, in which case, as previously stated, they’re really just a dice probability “gamist” mechanic.
3) Quantity vs. Quality
I should start by stating my own personal bias here, but I am generally a believer that when it comes to tabletop RPGs, less is more, and I generally dislike modern D&D. That being said, I actually played in a D&D 5e one-shot recently, for the first time in a long time, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. Coincidentally, I’ve been trying to deconstruct my thoughts on D&D 3.+ games (D&D 3e, 3.5e, 5e, Pathfinder, etc.), which I’m somewhat attempting to do here, but I’ll start by explaining my current thoughts on these kinds of games.
Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3e, and the designer of Numenera and Cypher System, which is one of my favorite settings and hands-down my favorite system, has stated that he believes that 3e failed in certain critical ways, and that Cypher was an attempt to address those failings. If you take umbrage with this, see my first point about authorial intent vs. reader response! In any case, his claim is that D&D 3e added more mechanics to the game in order to minimize “rulings” that the GM would have to make (see my next point on DIY for more on that!), making the game easier to run. However, in practice, it was impossible to have a mechanic for every possible edge case, and instead the game became bloated and overly complicated.
Additionally, I am of the opinion that when you have so many granular mechanics, you aren’t defining what characters can do, so much as you’re defining what they can’t. As soon as there is a specific mechanic for some kind of combat maneuver that monks get at level 5, it means that nobody else can do that thing, because otherwise a level 5 monk loses its value. It becomes subtractive, rather than additive.
So what does all of this have to do with the theme of this post? Well, I think that quantity of mechanics ends up being a bigger differentiator between systems than “gamist” or “narrativist”. It’s a cascade, this is (part of) why homebrew and 3rd party content is often maligned amongst D&D 3.+ gamers; it’s really hard to change these games without it inadvertently interacting with some other obscure mechanic and totally breaking your game.
Importantly, I think it can be done, it just comes down to understanding the mechanics and being creative. You can treat race mechanics as a bonus package of stats, and make actual character race flavor. You can re-flavor a druid as an alien science witch, a fighter as a samurai, a paladin or eldritch knight as a power-armored superhero; you can spend inspiration points to do that cool combat maneuver even if you’re not a level 5 monk, or just do a regular attack and describe it as a cool combat maneuver. It’s only less suited to alternative styles of play because of the sheer quantity of mechanics. Swap your d20 for FUDGE dice and give your players lots of inspiration points, play creatively and take the mechanics as abstractions rather than physics simulations, and D&D 5e isn’t so different from FATE after all.
Several of my points have amounted to “Do-it-Yourself”, sometimes called hacking or modding. One could argue that because any game can be hacked, it’s meaningless to say any game can be like any other game if you hack it. The same person might argue that just because a game can be hacked to be more like another game, doesn’t mean it’s well-suited to that kind of game. To this, I have two counterpoints:
First, at least in regards to OSR, FATE, and PbtA, DIY isn’t just an option, it’s a core feature of the game! The defining characteristics of OSR amount to a whole topic in and of themselves, but one of the core tenets that most people agree on about OSR is that it’s about “rulings” over “rules.” Literally baked into the philosophy is that the mechanics should be left flexible and open to interpretation. This is, I think, part of why there have been so many DIY projects in the OSR space. I’m sure there are some people who play Original D&D strictly rules-as-written, but at least in the OSR space, most people are hacking the game anyway. Likewise, FATE encourages players to create their own stunts, practically demands they create their own aspects, and provides plenty of space in the core book explaining how it can be hacked, whether creating a unique skill-set, or bolting on entirely new mechanics. PbtA games are all basically just hacks by definition.
Second, among the examples I’ve given for how to make D&D more “narrativist” or how to make FATE more “gamist,” these hacks (if they can even be called that) are no more difficult to implement than any others, and the game is no more or less functional for it, just different. Dungeon World is basically just a hack of OSR with PbtA mechanics. It would be mostly trivial to swap a d20 for a 3d6, 4d6, or FUDGE dice to make it more deterministic, and giving OSR FUDGE dice is no worse a “narrativist” game than FATE. Likewise, give FATE a d20 or regular 4d6 or 3d6, and make the aspects character classes or equipment kits rather than personality or narrative traits, and you have a game that can be played just as “gamist” as OSR.
Wrapping this all up, I’d like to say that I recognize that I’m being very reductive and glossing over a lot of particulars with this critique. Anecdotally, I have found that because I have a strong personal gaming philosophy and style, my games tend to play out similarly regardless of what system I use. Depending on the GM or group, maybe swapping out a d20 for FUDGE dice in D&D or swapping out FUDGE dice for a d20 in FATE doesn’t have the same effect at your table, and that’s ok! My hope is just that this encourages people to think outside the box of what a game can be, and how to modify games conscientiously. It’s useful to understand authorial intent, to be aware of the broader culture and history, but I don’t think we should limit our interpretations of games, or mechanics, or personal play styles, to the preconceived notions and common wisdom that has developed over time. If you have other controversial or atypical ways of thinking about tabletop RPGs, please share your thoughts!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/199567/High-Fantasy-Magic-A-Simple-Magic-System-for-Fate-Core--Accelerated
Ahoy, ye landlubbers and salty sea dogs!
As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Pugmire. I’ve also done some work for the property, specifically for Adventures for Curious Cats and Roll of Good Dogs and Excellent Cats, both available on DriveThruRPG as we speak. Now, the folks that don’t know me might also be like, “what the heck is Pugmire anyway?” Well, the Realms of Pugmire is a fantasy world setting for a D&D 5e OGL game of uplifted dogs, cats, and more where humanity has only left remnants of their society and technology. In that world, those animal people remember humanity, Man, or The Old Ones very vaguely. It’s a great mash-up of the science fantasy tropes of ages past. The setting is family friendly but deep enough for several layers of play.
Currently, Onyx Path Publishing and Pugsteady, the two companies behind Pugmire have launched a Kickstarter for their newest supplement, Pirates of Pugmire. I’m going to list the things I love about this new book below.
While I have never had a bird as a pet, I do have an affinity for birds, particularly corvids (crows, ravens, bluejays, etc) and penguins. Birds have been hinted at in previous Pugmire books, so to have the chance to finally get playable rules for them is very exciting for me. The birds include Parrots (Pirates, duh), Crows, and Sparrows. And, because not all birds have been uplifted, you can have a parrot pirate with a parrot on his shoulder… I’ll let that visual sink in. Birds appropriately have a different religious vision than dogs or cats, and their focus on the Sky Kingdom is really intriguing.
2) Gunpowder And Gunpowder Fear
Guns are often one of those things that gamers want in their D&D or similar games but they frequently destabilize a game, just like they did warfare. Gunpowder weapons are integral to piratical play though, and in Pirates of Pugmire Eddy Webb and team have created a clever way to introduce these elements. Gunpowder weapons are in their early stages of development, but also cats, dogs and others are very prone to reacting poorly to loud noises. The mechanic used to justify why gunpowder weapons are rare is Gunpowder Fear, which gives disadvantage to those who are frightened by blasts. There are Callings, classes for Realms of Pugmire, that negate this effect for themselves, but means if they fight in mixed company they need to be very careful. I think it’s an elegant design element that fits the setting well.
3) Lizards, Turtles, Snakes
Lizards get an NPC stat block in Monarchies of Mau, and are discussed in the last of the three adventures in Adventures for Curious Cats. However, Pirates of Pugmire is the first full treatment we are getting on these very interesting folks. While I’m not fond of lizards or snakes as pets, the idea that they would be uplifted alongside dogs and cats is intriguing. Like birds, their society is very different than cats and dogs and they take advantage of their cold blooded nature in very interesting ways. Lizards are traders and societally they are a mix of Eastern Slavic culture and Middle Eastern human cultures. That’s a broad brushstroke, but you can see the influences on the way they dress and act and their families are very interesting.
4) Sail the Seas
This is a book about pirates, and while the non-pirate elements are great the core conceit is well-developed and has just a bit of a comical edge. This allows for really interesting story fodder. Islands appear and disappear, treasure can be uncovered and looted, and adventure can be had. Because Pugmire is designed to be more family friendly, some of the more horrible things that pirates have done and do are left in the subtext, or are just not present altogether, but I think this makes the type of pirates presented much more palatable. There is a lot of adventure to be had on the Acid Sea, and Pirates of Pugmire offers a grand voyage for those willing to step upon the deck of the ship.
You can find Pirates of Pugmire here! Pirates of Pugmire is a fantastic extension to the Realms of Pugmire world, and I’m excited to sail the seas. This project takes some of the best elements of the 5e ruleset and makes them easy to access and fun to play. If you don’t, I’ll be makin ye walk the plank!
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Picture provided by the author.
You have built your world; you have included continents, mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, forests and other terrain features. What do you have to do next? Simple: civilization. This article continues our world building discussion with how civilization has affected the developing world.
1) What Is The Basic Unit Of Civilization And Where Can It Be Found?
The basic unit of civilization is the city; a hamlet, village, town, city, or megalopolises all are groups where people come to live, work and trade. There are cities; then there are special buildings, monuments, and roads. Most herd animals are migratory so for the first few thousand years so was mankind. It wasn’t until the development of agriculture that mankind literally put down roots and built cities.
Cities were first built in fertile areas near sources of fresh water: lakes, rivers, and streams. With the invention of agriculture there came in the invention of engineering to bring the water to the crops and irrigate them. Some of the earliest recorded civilizations were founded in the Middle East; Egypt is one that survives to this day, albeit greatly changed.
Cities were built all up and down the Nile river and were later unified into the Egyptian Empire led by the Pharaohs, the God Kings. The Egyptians built massive tomb structures and an entire city devoted to the art of embalming: Karnack. The three greatest known structures of the Ancient World are the three Great Pyramids of Egypt. Buildings whose height was not equaled until the invention of the skyscraper. After construction the three massive tombs were covered in white marble so that they became blinding monuments to the Egyptian Pharaohs. Their cities were built all along the Nile River valley and every year, when the rainy season came to the tropics of Africa, the Nile would flood. During this time fertile soil was carried over the crops as well as water. People couldn’t work the fields, so they participated in huge civic projects like the construction of the pyramids, Karnack and the Great Sphinx. The ancient Hebrews may have been Egyptian slaves, but it was not slave labor that built the Pyramids. Slave labor was regulated to the cities that served the builders and the fields that fed them. The first civilizations were founded close to supplies of fresh water, because literally, water is life. Only later with engineering could cities be built in less hospitable regions.
The Seven Hills of Rome is a protective ring of hills with walls built on and in between them to found the city of Rome. Rome was founded on the Tiber River, but the rivers that fed it were not enough to feed the megalopolis that Rome became, instead huge aqueducts fed the fountains and bath houses of Rome. The aqueducts were so well built that they can drop only an inch over thousands of feet. They used sheer gravity to carry water to Rome from miles away. These were unique special structures that were only built on their grand scale by the Romans. That is because in the Dark Ages the knowledge of concrete was lost and it wasn’t rediscovered until the Industrial Age. Nowadays we have aqueducts from Lake Meade feeding the thirsty mouths of Los Angeles and Los Vegas.
When cities were founded on sources of water, that water proved to be a natural highway for trade. Later cities were built along the coastline to allow for transportation up and down the coast, usually at the mouth of a river or in sheltered harbors and bays. Look closely at the coastline of the state of California and you will find few islands offshore. Look closely at the shorelines of Texas and you will see that 90% of the coast is protected by barrier islands. These barrier islands prevent storm damage because the storm surge and the force of the storm spend itself on the barrier islands before going onshore. When Hurricane Ike came though Galveston Island was totally submerged, it is after all a barrier island, but the damage to Houston was minor. It wasn’t until the follow up hurricane that hung around that Houston was drowned by flooding. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore the old French Quarter of New Orleans hardly flooded. It was the lower ninth ward built on low ground between a lake and the sea that flooded. To this date over 75% of the world’s population lives along the coast because that is where their ancestors founded cities.
What size cities do you have in your world? Do they run to the small hamlets or closer to the megalopolis? The biggest thing preventing a city’s growth is access to water. That is why the aqueducts of Rome were so revolutionary. Magic can make water easily available to your huge cities; imagine a fountain with a Decanter of Endless Water buried at its core. That could supply fresh water to thousands of people.
2) So Where Else Were Cities Built?
They were constructed on top of resources; like gold, silver, tin, iron and coal mines. The first mines were narrow and dark as the tunnel followed the vein. Modern mining techniques dig up vast amounts of the ground to sort out the few valuable bits of ore. That is not how mining was done throughout the majority of human history. Mines were shallow because below 30 feet water would start to seep in and no pump system existed that could handle the amounts of water that came in. That is, not until the Industrial Age and the Age of Steam. First an efficient pump was invented that could operate just by the heating and cooling of a piston, not by the labors of men and beasts of burden. Those methods worked, but only on a small scale. It wasn’t until James Watt took the piston pump and improved it by using pressure and steam power that digging below 30 feet became possible. Strip mining was also an option and it was used in rock quarries to provide marble and limestone: two of the favorite stones of architects.
There are cities around the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea because of the salt that could be harvested easily. Also, bathing in saltwater is reputed to have healing properties. Some people with heavy allergies or asthma vacation at the Dead Sea because only there can they breathe freely. The extremely arid air supports few molds or spores so their allergies can calm down. Salt and minerals weren’t the only resources found by ancient man. Wood was a major resource and once again the proximity of the river to the forest is what made logging a viable trade. The trees could be cut down, dragged to the river, and then floated downstream to the sawmill, which would also be water powered to cut the logs up into lumber.
The best engineers, as far as water is concerned, are the Dutch. When I was in grade school there was a large body of water known as the Zider Sea. It lay off the coast of the Netherlands (Holland to the layman) and was protected by a series of barrier islands. The Dutch put in walls between those barrier islands and pumped out all the saltwater. By the time I had graduated college the Zider Sea was no more, and the Netherlands had expanded their country by almost a third. When Venice was being flooded the Dutch Engineers were consulted and they created the world’s first tidal gates that are elevated during times of storm or when the New Moon brings about an unusually high tide. Now the Marco Polo Square is not flooded. London and Rotterdam soon followed their paths with tide barriers of their own. Super Storm Sandy proved that New York may have to go down this road before much longer. Ancient peoples tried to be careful in where they founded their cities to prevent storm or floods from destroying them. Of course, that didn’t always work; look at Pompeii that was overtaken by the volcano Vesuvius. Cities are built on and near volcanoes because volcanic soil is extremely fertile. In your world where are your cities built?
3) What Are The Special Buildings Of Civilization?
I have touched on two of the major special buildings: monuments and protections against water. Almost every great leader has wanted to have a magnificent tomb to make their mark upon history. The biggest one outside of Egypt was the crypt to the unknown Chinese Emperor who united China and had the Terracotta Army built and entombed with him. We are not sure what all the loot was that was buried with the great Egyptian Pharaohs, as the tombs were long looted before we could find out, probably within a few generations of the death of the Pharaohs. All we know is the later Egyptians were burying their Pharaohs in secret, in the Valley of the Kings. We were only able to find one of those tombs unlooted: the tomb of Tutankhamun. His tomb was probably unlooted because he was a very minor Pharaoh who died at the age of twelve, and yet he had millions of dollars in gold and jewels buried with him. What monuments have your past kings, queens, and empires left?
4) What Comes After Tombs?
Dams, monuments, shrines, temples and monasteries are special buildings that were constructed by ancient mankind to serve as special structures. The shrine was a roadside structure devoted to a god and visited by travelers, with rarely more than one family maintaining it. Temples had entire staffs of people devoted to them and later developed into the soaring churches of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame Cathedral. These churches were a revolution in architecture where the glass was put into the walls to flood the cathedral with light. To support all the weight of the building the builders created the flying buttress which built the walls on the outside, at a distance to the cathedral and connected to it with arches.
Dams are methods to control water to prevent flooding downstream. In the age of electricity, the dynamo was invented so that water power could provide electrical power, but dams had been used for thousands of years before electricity were generated from them. The great Nile river was tamed with the Aswan Dam to prevent the annual flood. The Chinese built the greatest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, to tame the Yangtze River and therefore harness its hydroelectric powers and prevent its hazardous annual floods. Humanity didn’t invent the dam, beavers did, but once humans saw what wonders a dam could do, they built a lot of them. Have your civilizations built dams and the resultant lake behind them? Are their lost complexes that can only be accessed by those who have water breathing powers?
Monasteries (Abbeys are special forms of monasteries) were built to devote the inhabitants to a special work. From the famous Shaolin Temples to the great monasteries of Europe. The Shaolin Monks became errant knights traveling the countrysides of China righting wrongs. The monasteries of Europe varied in their purpose, from making fine beers and ales, to creating new bibles. Mendel, the first genetics professor, did all his work at a monastery. The Jesuits were the most studious of monks, and from them came great philosophers and scientists. Does your world have great monasteries? If not, where do monks come from? Are your monks in the tradition of the Shaolin Temple, traveling warriors, are they retired samurai, or are they the scientists and researchers of their day?
Monuments have been made for ages to celebrate victories, to place over graves, or to show devotion for a ruler or for God. The biggest of these monuments might be the huge statues of Buddha created in Hong Kong and India. Washington D.C. is a city devoted to monuments: from the Washington Monument to countless statues to important figures from American history to the Marnie Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. Two of the greatest monuments to the industrial world are the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, both with framework built by Gustave Eiffel, out of wrought iron. These were built before steel became a standard building component. In fact, cold is another term for wrought iron. Iron heated and bent is wrought iron, it remains cold in that it was never melted. Iron that is melted combines with carbon and becomes steel. Today India is at work on a monument to dwarf the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty if they were stacked on top of each other. Monuments are markers that are entered into the historical record and are meant to exist for the ages. The World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists because they saw that as a monument to capitalism. What monuments were created in your world, by past and present civilizations?
5) What’s The Biggest Contribution To Travel Created By Humanity?
The answer to this question is pretty obvious: roads. The Roman Empire was built on roads and it used roads to send its legions around and all across its empire. Early roads were made of dirt and when it rained, they became an impediment to travel. However, the Romans perfected the construction of roads and some of those roads are still used today. These cobblestone roads had a slope and ditches on the sides to drain the rainwater. They became permanent features of the land. The Romans even invented a machine that could be mounted in a cart and traveled behind the engineers counting out the leagues of road so that road marks could be posted at each league. Roads bound society together for thousands of years and still do today. The train track is just a special form of road, as is the monorail, the highway, and the hyperloop. What roads exist on your world and how well are they built?
6) So, What Does This Mean For Our World Building?
You need to put cities on your world and cites don’t spring up in the middle of nowhere for no reason. They are planned and happen at points of commerce, along trade routes, at the intersection of rivers, along the rivers, and at river outlets, in bays and harbors. The early city was a walled structure to protect from raiders. The ultimate in this was reached with the castle which usually presided over a walled city, with a walled courtyard inside the city and a fortified keep inside that walled courtyard. Castles and forts proved to be the pinnacle in defense technology until the invention of the cannon. Siege engines could be used to tear down a castle’s walls, but the most common method to take a castle was to wait for their food to run out by laying siege. Cannon were built to be the ultimate in siege engines and in World War Two we proved that cannon could breach fortresses by mounting them offshore and pounding German positions. Where are the castles and forts in your world positioned, and what do they protect?
Capitals were usually the largest city, but this isn’t always true. Large cities grow because people came there to trade and from the services created to help facilitate that trade. Boats made great methods to cross small seas like the Mediterranean or sail along the coast and later ships grew mighty enough to circle the world. When traders went to the Far East, they did so first on land along the trail blazed by Marco Polo. The Italians had a monopoly on trade with the Far East, so millions of dollars were spent to break that monopoly and shipping technology developed to enable man to sail around the Cape of Africa and reach the Far East. In another attempt to reach the Far East, the New World, the Americas, were discovered. The Spanish exploited this and flooded into the void left by the Incas and solely destroyed the Aztec Empire; that is why Spanish is spoken in every country in South America except for Brazil. The pope tried to stop Spain and Portugal from arguing and taking Europe into war, and since he was Portuguese he divided the world in their favor running the dividing line right through the Americas, which were unknown at that time, saying that Portugal got all non-Christian lands to the east while Spain got all non-Christian lands to the west. The Pope thought Spain got the raw end of the deal, but after the Americas were discovered he was proven wrong. The reason why Brazil speaks Portuguese is because the Pope’s dividing line runs through Brazil. How have nations and religions divided your world? Have those dividing lines changed over time, if so, how?
Rivers and oceans were the superhighways of their time. Horses need to stop to eat and sleep, boats don’t need to stop traveling and can run all night, thus making them a faster mode of travel. The Ancient Greeks had explored all of the Mediterranean Sea’s lands and islands and when they fell from power the Romans slipped into that void and claimed the entire civilized world. Of course, India and China would argue with this statement. China refers to itself as the Middle Kingdom, the oldest source of civilization. India and the rest of Southeast Asia also had major empires, that were later dominated by the European Colonialists. So, the final force that civilization creates to dominate the world is the Art of War. War hasn’t changed the actual lay of the land that much, but it has redrawn the borders of nations time and time again. It has sent people on migrations around the world and across its oceans. With the invention of weapons of mass destruction like the hydrogen bomb we finally have the capability to remake the very landscape itself; like Bikini Atoll. If man does this or not will depend on our ability to get along with each other in an increasingly crowded world. Magic serves as an equivalent power: at its strongest it may summon Outsiders to walk the Prime Material Plane, it can unleash earthquakes, and it can remake entire nations with plagues, diseases, or magical calamities. War is almost a constant state with humanity. The Game of Thrones series is loosely based on Europe’s 100 Years War. So what has war done to your world? Has it raised and dethroned civilizations or has it spread religious practices? And what about the migrations that war creates? How have people moved across your world and why? Humans started in Africa, and they have spread to every corner of the world. Humans are usually the most numerous race in a fantasy world with enclaves of other races mixed among them. Where do people live in your world, where are their racial centers and where are they the strongest?
You need to ask yourself what civilized forces are at work in your world. What great cities have they built or brought down, what rivers were tamed with dams, what major monuments were created, what fortifications exist, and what roads were emblazoned upon your world. How has civilization affected or effected your world? How many civilizations have risen and fallen in your world and what undiscovered wonders lie in their ruins? This can be the root of adventure and the source of stories and legends, just as they have been in our world.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He’s also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/araiel/art/Fantasy-City-115035048
Looking for a dark fantasy D&D module to slot into your early campaign, or just as a fun one-off? The Curse of Sapphire Lake is part of the Critical Hits series, each module of which is designed for a single evening’s play. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy (full disclosure: the author, Neal Litherland, contributes to this blog) and thoroughly enjoyed my night GMing this spooky tale. Here’s why I think it’s worth your time and money, presented with minimal spoilers.
1) As Dark As You Like
While the tale presented here falls within the genre of dark fantasy, I found it profoundly simple to include levity at several points throughout. One can certainly keep the tone foreboding should one wish, but should the party be in the mood for laughs, there’s plenty of opportunity here. The party is investigating disappearances in a northern viking-esque town, and its leaders are desperate to solve the issue swiftly to keep the population growing. This desperation, and the cast of colorful characters, can lend themselves to keeping things light; perhaps the town leader drops the macho act when he’s alone with the PCs and begs them for help. Maybe the self-styled witch who advises the town leader joins the party and regards the situation with a bit of humor. Whatever the case, the module allows for the GM to turn the levity down and bring the spookiness back whenever they so choose. This way, the flavors of the evening never feel too vanilla.
2) Crafty References
Cinephiles and even casual horror fans will pick up on some sly references in this story. My players picked up on them, and instead of tipping them off to the direction of the narrative, they simply added to the fun with unexpected twists and turns. We had a blast exploring the town and meeting NPCs, even if I took a few liberties with some of them. The tale doesn’t feel tropey at all; even though most horror themes have been done to death, this module stayed fresh throughout. It manages to walk the tightrope that any referential material must, and does so deftly. I cannot say more without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say your players will have a good time interacting with both adversaries and locals, and the story beats will keep everyone pushing ahead.
3) Room To Improvise
The most important part of any module for me is the capacity for a GM to get off track and not be too lost. My players are like many others: they love to stop the plot train, hop off, and sightsee. Luckily, the module is written to accommodate such scenarios, and I found it simple to throw in my own details and even new NPCs to add to the story without deviating from the main thrust of the narrative. The adversaries are balanced well, and even with my terribly unlucky rolls, I was able to keep the story on track and provide an interesting challenge for the players, with minimal GM fiat. The players enjoyed their stay in the town, had fun with the combat, and I never felt like I needed to run back to the module text and retcon anything to salvage a situation. As a fun aside, let me mention that certain 1st level spells are far more powerful than they appear, and provide a challenge instead for the GM to overcome them!
4) Fun Factor
If it isn’t already apparent, we all had a blast playing this one-shot. As it is built for a small group of 1st level characters, the threat of danger was real and palpable, which allowed me to easily play up the darker aspects of the story. Then came the nervous jokes, and the party was quickly off to the races. What made this transition even easier was the inclusion of a “Reasons Why You’re Here” section. There are four great examples as to why a PC might be going to town, and I assigned them to players based on their characters (with the players’ input, of course). This gave each PC not only a backstory, but a real presence in the narrative. As an example, one of our players wanted to clear the town of misfortune because they had already purchased a home there. This ended up becoming a major plot point, because the character absolutely ran with this idea, and kept accusing the town leader of scamming him. I made his house the “flipper” house, where new arrivals would move in, then flee or simply disappear. Everyone really enjoyed diving into that aspect of the narrative, and it all sprang from the character’s motivation. Settling into roleplaying a one-off has never been easier, and I commend the creators for this inclusion.
Overall, my group, which included one new player to 5e D&D, had a ton of fun with this one. As a side benefit, I'll mention also that it includes awesome artwork and a map of the area. Really high quality stuff, and the layout is great. I especially recommend it to horror film enthusiasts, or to those who like a little darkness in their fantasy tale. Take a look, you won’t be disappointed!
David Horwitz is the Blog Manager ‘round these parts and a freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275191/Critical-Hits-The-Curse-of-Sapphire-Lake-5E?affiliate_id=657321
There are a lot of different ways to play tabletop games, and to be entirely honest, no singular “correct” way, no matter what some people may tell you. But, for those of you who are interested in creating interesting story-based campaigns, oftentimes the largest hurdle is coming up with an actual story and ways to make it meaningful. In truth, it’s a lot more simple than it seems, so don’t let the Matt Mercer effect get to you.
1) Know Your Players
This is a surprisingly simple trick that can net you some pretty rewarding gameplay and roleplay. What keeps a player invested differs from player to player, and as such, it’s key to understand what gets the proverbial motor running behind each one of your players. A nice and easy way to gauge what they want is to ask them to rate the Three Pillars of D&D, which are Roleplaying, Exploration, and Combat. (Please note that these are the official pillars as laid out by WOTC, I would argue there are at least two more, that being Problem Solving and Story Telling, however, you could in theory group storytelling in with roleplaying. But I digress.) If you get your players to rate these things, you’ll have a much easier time leading the group.
One of the parties I DM for meets up very sporadically and only for around two hours when we do. As such, a prolonged storytelling experience isn’t nearly as practical as it is with the other group I’m with, who meets bi-weekly for upwards of four hours. I asked both groups what they were looking for and the one very much so wanted much more combat and exploration, while the other prefers roleplaying. This sort of awareness of your players’ expectations are going to make it much easier to plan for them, and to know what will keep them involved in the game. Don’t forget to also ask them what kind of difficulty they’re looking for. I typically run my games on a homebrew critical system, where any critical can in theory instantly kill a character or monster. For people who are looking for a more relaxed game, this sort of overhanging threat of death at any moment might be a bit too much, same goes for players who are looking for a more character driven experience.
2) Create Meaningful Stakes
People are inherently selfish, to a certain extent anyway. As such, saying “the world is in danger” often isn’t good enough to motivate players to get into the mood. Besides, if it’s that important won’t some other, far more legendary and powerful group be dealing with this? (Don’t get me wrong, writing a campaign of world-shattering importance is totally alright if that’s what your players are looking for. See point 1.) I find that smaller, more personalized stakes usually motivate parties best, and can almost always be a good way to introduce a larger plot. Starting with something as simple as a character’s family heirloom being stolen, or the wizard’s spellbook being mixed with a different wizard’s, or the mysterious death of a childhood friend or mentor can all open the door into building a deeper narrative and leading into what you want to be the main plot, by making the players already attached to some of the characters you implement.
This can feel a bit too general to get a good handle on, but the best way to do this is to know your players. If combat is what they’re looking for, then toppling a tyrannical king via military dominance might be the way to go and the stakes can be their own lives, and the lives of their families. If they’re looking to explore, have them sent out to discover new lands or gather artifacts, with some sort of rival adventurer party trying to steal their prize before them. Alternatively, perhaps one of the players decided to try to learn a new language through an ancient magic game, but if they fail to keep up with the lessons a large green owl will kidnap their family.
3) Enjoy What You Make
This probably sounds cliché, but if you don’t enjoy writing the campaign, your players won’t enjoy playing it. This is honestly true of most writing endeavors, however, I find it rings especially true in a table-top environment. This is, after all, a game. And games are meant to be fun for everyone. Including the GM. If you want to make a pirate based adventure, then make one. You’re better off making it and trying to make it work than making something you don’t have any interest in. The reason behind this is that quality is usually tied rather closely to effort, but one thing that is often overlooked in quality is passion. Because passion is also very closely tied to effort. It’s like a little reduce, reuse, recycle sign, but for writing your tabletop campaign.
As the GM it’s very easy to forget that you are just as much a player as the rest of the people at your table, and if you’re not enjoying the content at the table, the table will undoubtedly suffer because of it. When I first started DMing, I thought of it as a responsibility, and while that is partially true, it’s not all that it is. It’s having fun with traps and putting people in strange situations and seeing how they react. It’s messing around with your friends and describing a goblin named Tinkle for twenty minutes until the barbarian kills him. It’s exploring, it’s roleplaying and its combat -- oh goddamnit.
If there’s one thing to take away from this article it’s that if you feel you’re writing your campaign right, then you probably are. Everyone's table is different from another and in all honesty, the most important part is having fun. As mentioned before, this is a game.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/gms-3-tips-to-help-you-run-one-shots-like-a-pro/
The title of this article is intentionally inflammatory, because there is honestly only one big reason we are going to hit another RPG Industry extinction event. In Designers and Dragons, Shannon Appelcline lays out the major developments in the RPG industry, and the one recurring rockslide is a series of what I’m going to call extinction level events. These are crises that cause the industry to implode and cause us to lose company after company that has built up during boom times in the industry. The last one of these happened at the end of the 90s into the early 2000s, which coincided with the d20 boom and bust, with the bust being caused by two things: a glut of product serving one dominant game system and an increase in the cost of paper. The paper cost increase made printing costs a major factor and since this industry is already built on small margins, small adjustments to production costs have a devastating impact. We’re about to head into another of these moments unless, you, the creators, and you, the consumers, help us do something about it.
How is this about to happen?
While this blog is Canadian, the integration between Canada’s and the United State’s economic systems is strong and this means that actions by one government have major economic effects on the other country. President Donald Trump, and the United States Trade Representative are calling for a 25% tariff on toys, games, and dice, as well as on paper printed products, like books. Hearings begin on June 17th to discuss this issue. I encourage you to tweet to https://twitter.com/USTradeRep to let them know about how this will impact you. I’m going to lay out a few of the reasons this is going to have a major, harmful impact to our industry below. If you live in the US, like I do, I also encourage you to contact your Representatives and Senators expressing your frustration about these tariffs. What am I talking about? Here’s an article on the topic.
Why is this about to happen?
2) Production Costs
You might think I’m engaging in hyperbole. But here’s the thing: RPGs are a very low margin industry. If you go on DriveThruRPG or look through a FLGS you’ll notice that most books cost between $20-50, with small press books usually being on the lower end of that scale. Having been involved with the creation of 70 products over the last three years, I can tell you that making a profit on these books is very hard. With most $20 books you are lucky to have net margin between $6-8, if you’re lucky. That’s not profit, that’s money that you get in hand after publication and marketing efforts. With the costs of writers, art, layout, etc, you’re lucky to make a profit at all, and usually only do so with sales exceeding 100 individual products. If you increase the cost of making physical copies of these books? You’ve wiped out the profit margin for nearly all small to medium publishers.
3) Digital Will Save Us?!
Digital/PDF options will mitigate this issue to some degree. The increase in PDF production happened when the cost of paper increased during the D20 Bust era. That’s something, and it does provide hope. However, it will not totally prevent this from being an issue. Most companies that are mid-sized have just begun pushing back into selling their books to stores, and pushing for regular bookstores to carry their games again. Many have been tentative about this move because it is fiscally risky and it has only just become profitable enough to do this again. Guess what? These tariffs will ruin that margin and will make a lot of companies step back and end distribution to FLGS and bookstores. This limits the industry, it limits the market, and it will hurt gamers.
The way this proposed tariff is currently being floated, it will have the biggest impact on game accessories like dice, miniatures, etc. While 3D printing will help to some degree it will not mitigate this issue completely. Manufacturing in China is so much cheaper, and it is still expensive to make quality board games that require a lot of miniatures. While I’m all for moving industrial production, it will cost more and it will not be a quick process to develop the infrastructure to do this in different places. While we don’t HAVE to have these things, a lot of gamers find them incredibly useful, and this will increase the cost of entry into our hobby, which is already perceived to have a high barrier to entry by new folks that don’t know if they want to invest in all the books and accessories to play these games. Do they need them? No, but it is the perception of cost that will push people away.
These proposed tariffs will reduce the ability of new talented and creative folks to publish products and kill the renaissance of gaming that we are experiencing right now. . While this will not destroy High Level Games right now, it makes it much harder for us to move from very small press to small press as we’ve planned over the next 2-3 years. We won’t be able to produce traditional print runs in the way we hoped. We are hardly the only company that will find this to be a major issue.
Please contact the USTR: https://twitter.com/USTradeRep
There are many issues for us to fight in today’s world, but this one is deeply personal and we need to strike now or watch our industry burn again.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Editor's Note: New Gamemaster Month is technically in January, but it's never a bad time to share insight and advice to new GMs. Happy gaming!
There is a natural order to roleplaying games, in which players and gamemasters coexist sharing wonderful tales between each other, and at some point during this magical connection a player will declare themselves worthy enough to run their own game. Most meet with success, while some others fall sadly short of their own expectations. The memory of this defeat either leads the charge into the next attempt, or becomes the final blow into retreating back behind a character sheet. My initial foray into running a game was disastrous, but I didn’t let that stop me from pushing through and trying again. The next few attempts were better, but not by much, so I figured what better way of explaining how bad things got with a few regrets from my first swing at this GM thing.
1) Reading The Rules
My very first attempt was at D&D 5th Edition, using the starter set. I had a copy of the rulebook and read all the character creation rules and set about getting the group together. Eight people made characters, only six played my version of Mines of Phandelver. No one really knew what was going on or how anything worked; play was broken up by the rulebook being pulled out and a 20 minute section took the whole evening. No one enjoyed it. What I really needed was a small group to help playtest the rules first using the provided pre-generated characters.
2) Not Reading The Whole Adventure
Getting so far through the adventure on my second attempt, I realised I had no idea what was coming next: a huge embarrassment. I had read what I thought would take the whole session but the players had whipped through to a point that I was unprepared for, and I had to fudge a few details to keep the flow. This would have been fine if I had any idea where the story was leading afterwards.
3) Over Preparing
I decided, after my blunder with not having read the whole story of Phandelver, to give writing my own adventure a shot. I spent a month meticulously planning an adventure in my own kingdom, created multiple storylines around various decision points, and populated the setting with a variety of NPCs who I built from the ground up, each for specific reasons. The players blasted through it in two sessions. The best advice I have ever been given with regards to preparation is to have a good story in the background running its course and improvise everything else.
4) Accepting Anyone
Looking back, a few of my non-D&D attempts were sunk by one or more players not really ‘feeling’ the setting or style of gameplay. Had I vetted my players better and communicated what I was expecting more effectively, I would have been running a game for a group who wanted to play the game I was offering. This kind of thing should definitely be established before you ask people to join your game to ensure everyone enjoys what you are trying to create, together.
5) Trying To Change Mid Game
The one huge thing that comes to mind is the intent behind the game. I tried running a light-hearted game with a player who wanted to bend the rules to their will and destroy all who stood before them. So I tried to change the mood of the game to suit them, which in turn alienated the rest of the players.
These were just five of my regrets from my starting years. I have since learned from my mistakes and try to create fun and enjoyable games whether or not I'm running a game. I always try to add to the enjoyment of the players. I still make errors when running games, but usually I can iron them out quickly. My one big recommendation for any newcomers to the realm of game mastering is to ensure you and your players are on the same page: know what you and they want from the game to maximize enjoyment.
Ross Reid is a roleplayer of many characters and has enjoyed many a good story, currently only running a game for his children, he plans a grand return in play by post format. His system of choice is FATE but will dabble in anything that looks interesting.
Picture Reference: https://www.montecookgames.com/new-gamemaster-month-is-coming/
Everyone has their own idea of what a gaming experience should be. However, one of the more popular defenses that comes up whenever a player points out that there’s unnecessary racism or sexism in a setting, or how certain themes or tones aren’t what they’re looking for, is simply to say, “Well, that’s just the way things were back then.”
This is a colossally stupid statement. Let’s break down some reasons why, shall we?
1) Back When, Exactly?
The biggest reason this defense falls flat on its face is that most of our games aren’t taking place in a real history (or even a real future, for the sci-fi players out there). They’re drawing on historical elements and weaving them together into a fantasy narrative. Just because there’s knights and lances along with crossbows and feudalism, though, that doesn’t make Westeros a realistic depiction of medieval England anymore than it makes a leopard the same thing as a leopard seal.
Comparing the reality of your game world (a game which often has dragons, magic, and dozens of sentient races in it) to, say, Germany in the 1300s is nonsensical. You need to take the game world as it exists on its own merits, rather than justifying why things exist by comparing them to a completely different planet and saying they’re somehow comparable. Because they aren’t.
2) The Game World Is What You Want It To Be
Unless you play with absolute purists, most groups are willing to alter the rules of a game in order to make it better fit with what they want. They’ll ignore this feat, or toss out that restriction, or change the damage die this particular weapon deals, until everyone agrees this version of the rules better suits them.
Altering the rules of the world so they’re amenable to everyone at the table is no different.
Some time back, I wrote a blog post titled Authors, Every Awful Thing That Happens in Your Book Really is Your Fault. The point of that post, which definitely applies here, is that a thing exists in your game world because you choose for it to exist, and because everyone at the table, in some capacity, agrees that it should be there. If you all mutually agreed that you didn’t want dragons in your game, or the ability to resurrect the dead, you could mark it out with a single stroke of your house rules pen. You could do the same for prejudices, abhorrent behaviors, or things that make your players uncomfortable, too. There is literally nothing stopping you.
3) History is Likely WAY Different Than You Think It Is
Something I’ve noticed is that the more often someone raises a defense of historical accuracy, the less often that person is deeply learned in the history they’re talking about. As an example, the article Vikings Were Never The Pure-Bred Master Race White Supremacists Like to Portray, talks about how there was a surprising amount of diversity among Viking crews. And why wouldn’t there be? They’re pirates after all! One man dies in a raid, you don’t sail all the way back to Scandinavia to find a replacement; you recruit whatever local talent is around who can do Einar’s old job.
Examples of stuff like this are all over when history is used to defend the negative aspects in a setting; from intolerance to a refusal to allow migration (in case you wanted to play someone who was the child of immigrants, as an example) it’s the same tune over and over again. Yet at the same time, we forget just how gay the Spartans were, or how Japanese mercenaries warred with the Dutch when that enemy was half a world away. For every example of prejudice, othering, and violence we find in the history books, there are equal examples of cultures where certain ideas we consider fringe, radical, or just uncommon were a part of the everyday; like how Native Americans respected trans identities in ways that seem like a utopia compared to what we often see in today’s world.
Take Inspiration From History, But Responsibility For Your Game
History is full of cool stuff, unusual personages, lost empires, and strange legends. It makes for great reading, by and large. However, it’s important to remember that the game you see in front of you is your responsibility, and no one else’s. If something is upsetting your players, or people object to a certain kind of content, you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and duck the blame.
It’s your game, so make it the best it can be.
For more gaming insights from Neal Litherland, check out his blog Improved Initiative, as well as his Gamers archive. Alternatively, to take a look at some of his books, head over to his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/song-of-swords-the-historical-fantasy-tabletop-rpg-with-gritty-tactical-combat/
I love building and exploring weird worlds, and there is no medium better suited to this than tabletop RPGs. There is no limitation based on art, or programming, or computational power; the world can be anything and everything your imagination can bring to the table. Given how important worldbuilding is to me, and many others involved in the hobby, I’m surprised by how few tabletop RPGs have settlement building as a major conceit. As someone whose imagination runs at a mile a minute, I get the appeal of going on adventures, of new places and new things always around the corner. But I think there’s something to be said for depth in world building as well. If your city, or spaceport, or hub location of another kind isn’t deep enough and interesting enough to set a whole campaign in, then what does it amount to, other than a wondrous novelty? So let’s talk about how to do interesting things with settlements in tabletop RPGs.
1) An Argument For Settlement Building Mechanics
If you’re like me and prefer games with as few mechanics getting in the way as possible, you may question whether we even need mechanics for settlement building. Of course you don’t need them, but I do think that having at least a few mechanics is a good idea. For starters, it serves as a signal to your players. Having some mechanics for settlement building in your game tells the players “this is a thing you can do, and can be a priority in this game”. The fact that there aren’t codified mechanics for settlement building in D&D (or at least, they’re often supplemental) is I think part of why we don’t consider this to be a major trope of tabletop RPGs along with adventuring and dungeoneering. Mechanics for settlement building also facilitate the process, compared to a free-form approach. Players can often be aimless and indecisive, but having mechanics for how to build a settlement gives players the direction they need to keep the game moving and keep the players engaged. It also gives GMs a framework to integrate settlement building into a campaign.
2) A Framework For Settlement Building
I like to keep games rules-light, so this is a simple framework for settlement building intended to be translatable to various systems. I’ve recently been reading Numenera Destiny, which was a major inspiration for this post, so my ideas are loosely based on their mechanics, but streamlined. Building resources should be separated into two categories. Mundane resources are things that can be found or bought fairly easily, like wood or metal in most fantasy settings. These resources should be abstracted to some combination of regular currency value such as gold and/or time to get the resources (or pay someone to get them). The second currency should be resources that are precious, difficult to acquire, or in such high demand that they cannot easily be bought. This currency should be specific to building (or maybe crafting more generally) and should not normally be able to be purchased with regular currency. As an example of how this would work, we can imagine a fantasy setting where the party wants to build a magic lightning turret to protect a village plagued by undead fiends. The construction will be mostly wood and metal (some gold value), but the magic lightning will require some magically conductive materials (our secondary resource). Assuming they have the resources, they can either spend time to build the construct, hire laborers, engineers, and artificers to build it, or if the settlement has attracted a sufficient number of specialists already, the city budget may already account for labor costs. If they want to add additional features, like multiple magical lightning rods to target multiple enemies, or a longer rod for longer range, or some enhancer to give it an area of effect, this will increase the secondary resource cost, whereas just making it better fortified may be a simple gold cost increase. It may help to give the structures levels, where the level determines some range of gold cost and secondary resource cost (and possibly also the time cost). There are, however, other things we need to consider when it comes to adding settlement building into a campaign.
3) The Practicalities Of Settlement Building
As stated above, construction takes time, and managing downtime is always tricky in tabletop RPGs. One option is to hire builders, as suggested above. Another option is to roleplay out “vignettes” of various activities that the party gets up to periodically during the course of construction (a construction accident where somebody may be in danger, a necessary schematic has gone missing and is believed stolen, etc.). This “vignettes” idea could work as a general mechanic for dealing with downtime, but given that downtime may be more prominent in a settlement building campaign, it’s especially important to think about how to make it fun in this context. The mechanics for settlement building in Numenera Destiny require a series of rolls to determine how successful the building process is, where the failures may add time to the construction, or add a defect into the structure, but I’m not a fan of this approach. First, multiple rolls for a single outcome is cumbersome. Second, adding time to the project just delays the thing the outcome (and by extension game progression) without adding any value to the game. Third, given the time and cost of building, ending up with a defect seems unsatisfying. I think the building process should be treated more like a “take 20”, where it’s a guaranteed success unless it’s at some critical moment where it would create tension (the enemy army will be here in two days and we haven’t finished the wall!), or where a defect would make the game interesting (the teleporter accidentally sent the party to an alternate universe!), and then it can be reduced to a single roll like any other skill check.
4) Progression In A Settlement Building Campaign
The settlement can be thought of as a character. A level 1 settlement will have a small population (relative to the setting), access to few resources, at most one advanced structure (a structure that would require the secondary resource to build or repair), and would have only mundane shops. There would be few settlers (or travelers) of note, and the quest board or NPC quest-givers would be few and simple. The settlement may have some needs, like a wall or other defenses, a road, a grainery or some other resource-related structure. To advance from level 1 to level 2 will require a few mundane structures that cost a decent amount of gold, and one advanced structure that costs a secondary resource. If you also used a level-system for structures, you could have a cap like a level 1 settlement can only have level 1 structures, and a settlement levels up after some number of structures have been produced or upgraded. The resources (mundane or advanced) may be found in a nearby forest, or would be more available if they could cut a deal with the neighboring village, giving the players a justification to explore and go on quests and adventures. Once the settlement reaches level 2, new and more interesting NPCs move in, or old NPCs gain new skills or have resources that allow them to do more interesting things, like the blacksmith being able to make better weapons and armors, and higher level structures can be built. My OSR Weapon Hack, where a base weapon is given added qualities of different cost values, may be a good basis for filling out these shops as the settlement advances, and I may at some point design a similar generator for settlement building as part of a larger crafting system. In addition to new and improved shops and more or more interesting quest-givers, the settlers may be able to build certain mundane, lower-level structures at a lower cost, or without assistance from the party (besides resources). The players are rewarded for investing in the settlement, both in a quantitative sense, like leveling up their own character, but also because the settlement will grow and change, partially in ways they designed, but sometimes in interesting and unexpected ways.
5) Settlement Building Campaign Seeds
I wrote a settlement building campaign scenario for my current campaign in my Aquarian Dawn setting, but there are all sorts of possibilities:
After crash-landing on the planet, the crew of the starship must find a way to integrate into the nearby village while they work on their repairs. Normally they have strict rules about interfering with less advanced civilizations, but while they’re stuck here, how can they sit by while they watch people suffer due to inadequate knowledge, poor infrastructure, and external threats? Also, without processing facilities, how will they repair their ship?
In the near future, global warming and the subsequent series of wars and economic disasters has devastated the planet. A coalition of peoples from throughout the world have united to send a generation ship into space, to colonize a distant world and give humanity a second chance. The crew will have to maintain order on the ship for generations, maintain its systems, and eventually terraform and colonize the distant world. Very loosely based on my Antikythera Nova setting, which could also be used for a settlement building campaign.
A group of wandering warriors / adventurers find themselves resting in a small, peaceful village, far removed from the wars and plights of the kingdoms. However, no peace is everlasting, and various bandits and warlord “tax collectors” exploit the hard-working villagers, taking more of their crops than the village can sustain. The villagers beg the wanderers to help them, but the wanderers won’t be able to do it alone. They’ll need to train the villagers to defend themselves, and build traps and fortifications to defend against the marauders who vastly outnumber and would otherwise overpower them.
Settlement building as a mechanic and campaign premise deserves as much recognition as a core feature of tabletop RPGs as adventuring and dungeoneering, and I hope this framework inspires more people to try it out. As my current campaign progresses, I will likely flesh out this system in more depth, and I hope people will be interested to see how this develops. As a worldbuilder, this is a fun way to add depth and to bring a collaborative worldbuilding element to your campaign: by allowing the players to determine how the settlement progresses. If you have thoughts on how to add settlement building mechanics to tabletop RPGs, or how to run a settlement building campaign, please leave a comment!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/240655/Numenera-Destiny?affiliate_id=657321
In any creative medium that lasts long enough, there’s bound to be stretches where it seems like everybody is just copying what everybody else is doing. (In art history, they refer to these periods as movements.)
Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception. An acquaintance of mine once lamented that so many games were using Powered By The Apocalypse, but not really doing anything to really make their game unique, and made the leap in logic that they were just doing so because everybody else was making a game that used PbtA.
I remain largely unimpressed if a game bears a logo signifying that it uses a certain ruleset. However, I have also witnessed a few instances of people reacting strongly to such labels, both favorably and not. I try to remain dispassionate whenever I notice a trending game engine or game style in our hobby. I’ve seen it happen numerous times before. More often than not, it’s just that: a passing trend that in time, will be mostly forgotten.
In light of that sentiment, for your reading pleasure, I present you with “5 Creative Movements In The RPG Fandom” so as to celebrate the unique inventions of our hobby.
1) The Fantasy Heartbreakers
A term coined by Ron Edwards of the web forum The Forge, Fantasy Heartbreakers is a type of game that Edwards identifies being prominent in the 1990s. They were independently published games of the fantasy genre that seemed to be products of people trying to bring their own take on what Dungeons and Dragons could be.
He describes many of them as having great ideas, but being trapped behind the shortcomings of D&D, for one of three reasons. They don’t play to what truly makes them unique, they make some minor adjustments to some of the apparent problems D&D had at the time, or they just flat out keep some of the absurd themes that D&D was stuck with.
The reason these are titled Fantasy Heartbreakers is twofold: they were obviously fantasy games, but more importantly, this was a considerably more difficult time to self-publish. The internet was budding, and some of these games did take advantage of having websites, but DriveThruRPG didn’t quite take off till some years after 2000. This meant the cost of self-publishing was considerably higher, to the effect of thousands of dollars just to print. (The cost of commissioning artwork, if you could even afford it, would compound the issue.)
And so, a fantasy game designer’s dream of being the next Gary Gygax would often end in a broken heart -- so much effort, so much investment, all to be forgotten in a market too small for them.
2) There’s A GURPS Book For That
Generic Universal Roleplaying System is the flagship RPG of Steve Jackson Games, the company that may be better known for the Munchkin franchise. While now typically scoffed at as having way too much math to be enjoyable, there was a time when GURPS addressed issues of contemporary games. Issues such as character creation being too rampant, or playing in a different setting requiring learning a completely new game.
In the 90s, GURPS was all the rage, and much like how Steve Jackson now licenses out Munchkin whenever he needs to pay the rent, he did the same with GURPS during its heyday. While both Steve Jackson’s own web-store and Drive Thru RPG boast staggering collections, this isn’t the complete library.
There were numerous books published that bore the GURPS logo, including the now out of print Vampire: the Masquerade GURPS sourcebook, and even a few Japan-only exclusives such as GURPS Runal. The heyday of GURPS may be over, and large swaths of its library may now be difficult to find, but it’s hard to deny that it’s an important artifact of tabletop gaming history. (Especially since the Secret Service once seized all of Steve Jackson Game’s equipment over one of their GURPS sourcebooks!)
3) D20 System
After the Fantasy Heartbreakers bled out, but before the weight of GURPS’s massive library collapsed on itself, Wizards of the Coast acquired the remains of TSR, and brought us Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and with it, the Open Gaming License and the moniker d20 System.
With the freedom to use the rules to D&D to make one’s own supplements and games came a deluge fan made splat books, along with officially licensed games. Some of these were good, or at least well received, such as Mutants and Masterminds, or Blue Rose by Green Ronin publishing.
I’ve read through Blue Rose; frankly, this was much like one of the Fantasy Heartbreakers opined upon by Ron Edwards close to two decades ago. It added a few new mechanics and a different setting, but at the end of the day, it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition with a different coat of paint.
Most games either fell into the above category, or showcased some of the flaws of Dungeons and Dragons’ core mechanics. Big Eyes Small Mouth d20 is one such example of the latter. It tried to include the freedom of a point buy game with the structure of a level based one, and failed pretty miserably at both with a kitchen sink setting.
The surge of the d20 system died down some the flop of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and the revival of D&D in the public eye with 5th edition. Though somewhere between the 4th and 5th edition being released, a new movement gave way.
4) Powered By Fate (Or The Apocalypse)
Sometime before Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition being released, FATE and Powered by the Apocalypse picked up in popularity. I remember some of the ways friends of mine initially described FATE when its 4th edition was released in 2013. They described it as being “easier to understand” and “letting you do anything.”
Which brings us to where we stand now. We’re in the middle of a movement marked by narrative games using FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse cropping up, either as fan made games like the numerous Star Wars FATE games, or as independent publishing, such as a Nahual, a Mexican game about urban fantasy, set in (surprise) Mexico.
Social movements have a strange way of not being all encompassing, though. The Fantasy Heartbreakers were happening at roughly the same time GURPSmania was, which dragged on sometime into the era of the d20 System’s reign. Moreover, with Dungeons and Dragons having some of its rules released under the Open Gaming License, we’re seeing a second wind of extra Dungeons and Dragons material during our current age of FATE and PbtA, including High Level Games’s own addition to this canon: Snow Haven.
5) Bonus! Standard Roleplay System
To illustrate that this isn’t exclusively a trend in the English speaking roleplaying game community, I’d like to touch on something similar that’s happened in Japan. The game publisher Far East Amusement Research is one of the big names in publishing RPGs in Japan. They’re known for two things: having published Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as creating the Standard Roleplay System.
The Standard Roleplay System is exactly what its name implies: a standard set of rules that FEAR’s games use, creating a similar wave of games in Japan as we’ve had in the West. One of the most bemoaned examples from Western fans of Japan’s RPGs is a game called Monotone Museum, which was designed to prove a point about SRS: anybody, even those who don’t have much experience in RPGs, can make one.
The rules deviate very little from the SRS document, and shares a lot of common themes with other FEAR Games, including Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Themes such as stacking multiple archetypes to make your character, having a cosmic force that both empowers and corrupts your character, and having to take steps to avoid being lost to said force.
I’ve initially bemoaned how similar so many different RPGs can all be the same, but as I wrote this article and took the time to organize my thoughts on the matter, a few things did dawn on me. The first is that every so often, something truly new does come around and shake things up. The other is that even within a familiar framework, there can still be room for something interesting to be made.
After all, despite basically being a clone of JRPG video games of the time, Earthbound is still one of the best games of its kind.
While Aaron der Schaedel has been in the RPG fandom for a very long time, he’s spent most of that time in the fringes of it, where he’s found all kind of wonderful, bizarre, and even horrifying things. You can (and should) ask him questions about the things he’s found via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224851/GURPS-Fantasy
We’ve been in the middle of an RPG renaissance for several years now. More games are coming out than ever before, and we’ve had huge inrushes of players eager to snap them up. And while creative changes in the industry, positive outreach from the community, and the ascension of geek culture have all played their part, something we can’t ignore is the popularity of YouTube campaigns like Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. These games have allowed audiences who have never seen an RPG in action before to watch how it’s done by the pros, allowing them to get an idea of how all these moving parts should look when you flip the switch.
In broad terms, we can all agree that’s a good thing. Especially for players and dungeon masters who want to get into the hobby (or into a particular game), but who lack more experienced people to reach out to, and could use some examples of how things work.
In specific terms, though, there has been a definite up-tick in complaints that a particular game isn’t run like what they see on the Internet. So if you’re a player or dungeon master worried about how your game doesn’t look like the sort of game Matt Mercer would put together, take a deep breath, and relax. That’s okay. In fact, it’s great.
Here are some reasons why.
Reason #1) This Isn’t Your Job
Most people out there who love RPGs play them for fun. What a lot of folks forget is that, for the YouTube dungeon masters and convention games that people buy tickets to watch, that’s not the case. They are doing this to entertain you, the viewers.
Is it fun for them? Yeah, probably. But their main concern is more about what gets more viewers. Hence the celebrity guest players, the carefully crafted story lines, making sure a lot of stuff is worked out in advance for rules calls, etc.
If you’re running your game for the purpose of drawing ears to a podcast, or getting a lot of hits on YouTube, then by all means mimic what the successful games are doing. But if this is for funsies, remember that you don’t have to put on the whole three-ring show the way the pros do.
Reason #2) Professional Games Aren’t Cheap
You see all the props, the cool minis, the fully laid-out map, etc. that are on these shows? Well, they’re there in order to give the audience something cool to look at. Because the advent of popular 3D printing may have made such things cheaper, it has in no way made running a game that looks that good cheap. So if you’re not working with a big budget, there is zero shame in using re-purposed green soldiers, monster figures from SCS, or just Lego figures, and drawing with dry-erase markers on the map.
This same logic applies to all the complaints you might see regarding production values. From the ambiance of the set, to any music used, or just to how much in-depth RP the players and dungeon master do. Remember that these things have costs in terms of time, energy, preparation, and setup. If you don’t have the budget for bells and whistles, don’t worry. Engage with the game, and the story you’re all telling.
Reason #3) Every DM Is Different
While he catches a lot of flak, Matt Mercer himself has said that every DM should be free to develop their own style, and to find what makes their game work for them and their table. RPGs aren’t like organized sports, where if you want to be the best you should imitate those who are most successful (which, in this case, means the people who are known professionally for running entertaining gaming sessions).
Are there things you can learn from the folks who captain these YouTube campaigns? Of course there are! But there’s a big difference between learning a lesson or taking a bit of flair to work into your own routine, and outright copying what they’ve done. So remember, there are no rules when it comes to this hobby. And if the only objection someone has is, “That’s not how they do it on TV,” then you should politely inform them that they and their character are not a part of that particular show.
Reason #4) Are You Not Entertained?
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who tried to game shame you? This happens more with video games where people will talk down to you if you prefer a game that is older, doesn’t have good graphics, or isn’t the current in thing to play, and it’s just as asinine in those situations as it is with tabletop games.
Don’t compare yourself to others, especially in a story-based, creative endeavor. It doesn’t matter if your sword-and-sorcery campaign doesn’t feel like a Robert E. Howard adventure, and it’s immaterial if your horror game leaves out the earmarks of Lovecraft’s finest work. And it’s no more important that your game looks or feels like a professional podcast, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves playing it.
Reason #5) You Have Different Needs
Not to get repetitive, but these popular games exist to entertain an audience. That is the driving goal behind a lot of the decisions that get made (one in particular that comes to mind is Critical Role switching from Pathfinder to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition in order to speed up play so the audience wouldn’t get bored). However, you and your players may have needs or wants that this kind of format simply cannot provide for.
As an example, if you want that kind of mechanical complexity (or you feel that rules which have been truncated or re-written to speed up the game on-camera should be run differently), then it’s okay for you to play games that scratch that itch. If you want to deal with the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t show up on these shows, or if you want to do deep dives into game setups that might not seem as interesting to a broader audience, you can do that as well.
Games on YouTube are about what makes the audience happy. Your game is about your and your group’s needs, and unless you’re broadcasting, focus on what you need out of the game in order for you to enjoy it.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! And if you’re looking for a new YouTube channel dedicated to gaming, stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/78320481003470118/
This is an introduction to how to build your very own campaign world. In it I hope to introduce you to some world building concepts and ideas that you can use or chose to ignore when designing your own campaign world.
There are a lot of campaign worlds out there, but nothing is as unique, and as well known by you, as your own campaign world. There are lots of ways to build your world, but the best way, in my opinion, is to model off of our own world. After all it is the world we know best and the only world that we know can support intelligent life, at least for now.
1) Start With The Macro Scale
Is your campaign world even a planet and if so, what shape would it be in? A spherical world is common and the result of constant gravitational effects on assembled particles. It is theorized that dust was formed when the Sun, Sol, was born and out of these dust clouds the planets coalesced. Then the asteroids that formed clumped together or fell to the planets and some became moons. Most though were absorbed by the planets and evolved into the round balls we know so well. Well, what if your world is flat (it sure would be easy to map)? What if it were a toroid or square, or some wild shape? The intervention of magic can do a lot, so could a planar gate with connections to other planes either outer or inner. The majority of worlds will be spherical and resemble earth, but that doesn’t render the rest of this discussion different if you chose a different shape for your world. What shape will you choose for your world?
2) What Is The Density Of The World And Its Organization?
Jack Vance, the science fiction author, invented a big world in one novel. It was the size of Jupiter and had a low density. Its size allowed it to hold its atmosphere, but its huge size allowed for vast land areas and huge continents. The only problem was that metal was rare, most of it came from the occasional meteor that crashed into the planet and those deposits of metal were very valuable. Nations would go to war over them. Philip José Farmer invented the Riverworld; it was a unique world designed for unknown reasons to hold the afterlife of all humans who died before sometime in the 21st century. The world was one Mississippi sized river bordered by mountains that wrapped around the entire planet in a loop. Along its shores everyone who had ever been born got to live again. The first and best novel in the series centered on Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his quest to build a great steam powered riverboat that could circumnavigate the planet in a goal to find out why Riverworld existed and what the motives of its creators were. Along the way he had to work with evil King John (out of Robin Hood) and he read about the journeys of Richard Burton who was able to explore the world and find its headwaters.
Larry Niven wanted to invent a world, so he took a blue ribbon, laid it on its side and stuck a candle in the middle. Then he expanded the world into his famous Ringworld and the candle at its center became a small sun. One DM I knew invested heavily in Judge’s Guild maps and modules and he strung them together side-by-side to create a ringworld for his home world. Which world will you build, how will it be unique, and what will it have in common with standard D&D worlds?
3) Choosing The Right World
Your choice of a world and its shape should be determined by the kind of campaigns you want to run in it. In a massive world you can fit a whole lot of continents and civilizations, monsters, and everything else. But travel across this world would be a difficult deal, especially if you have to go a large distance. Remember that Teleport only has a 500 mile per level range. If you want a world were all the past people have come to life, then you can do Riverworld. If you want a huge world that is science fiction in origin you can create a ringworld. You could also do a torus (donut shaped) or one of Larry Niven’s early ideas: Diskworld. On Diskworld the sun is at the core the world is flat and there are huge mountains at the outer edge to hold in the atmosphere. As you go closer to the sun you had deserts and hotter people like magma men, as you got further from the center you got colder lands and arctic creatures. You had a huge area to adventure in and that was only counting one side of the world. If you wanted, you could make the outer planes on the flip side and the elemental planes as zones on the disk. Most people will want to stick to a standard spherical world. How will your campaign design shape your world? Do you want to bring back all the famous people of history, do you want a huge area to explore, do you want to have your players discover new lands or do you have something even bolder in mind?
4) What Makes Up A Spherical World?
Most are plates of crust that sit on a molten core. These tectonic plates float on the sea of magma and move around. They may have started as Pangaea, but they have moved around before. Australia has been a past neighbor to India, South America used to be a neighbor to Africa and so on. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking, and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider as the plates slowly drift. Half of California and the San Andres plate is shifting north and half of it is shifting south. If you have a world it is theorized that a dynamic ecosystem is due to volcanic action releasing heat and gases into the world which interacted with lightning to create the building blocks of life and went on to form life in the seas. Now it is true this is a theory, no one was around to witness the early earth so we can only make theories about it. This theory is one that is almost universally accepted by the scientific community, but it doesn’t have to be true for your world. Did your world have a more biblical creation by the god(s)? Did they get together and forge the planet out of their imagination? Or do your peoples just believe that? It is your world so you can do anything, and you can make any arguments about how it was formed. Is your world actually a liquid world with floating islands on it, or is it a huge gas world with floating continents moving around in the air cylinder (I once had a world like this and the natives used massive ships that would sail between floating continents). If you use tectonic plates then where they split oceans will form, where they clash mountains will form. Where they rub against each other earthquakes will happen, and where they are thin volcanoes will form. This action will be the major land and sea forming method on many worlds.
5) Water Runs Downhill
This simple and obvious statement is how most of the Earth has been formed, but the action of wind, wave, and running water. Water carved the Grand Canyon and its action has weathered down the mountains. The lack of water causes deserts and where there is too much there are rainforests. Water will always try to flow to the sea and often it dives under the earth and comes to the surface as springs and the headwaters of a river. Both the mighty Columbia River and the Thames River start as small creeks and streams that come together to become a big river that runs to the sea. The Nile river is sourced in Victoria Lake and starts coming across some of the greatest falls in the world, Victoria Falls. It was a major expedition to reach the headwaters; you could plan a similar campaign for your group. Most life and civilizations occur where land meets water. Water is an inescapable need of every living creature (but not always of aberrations or outer planner creatures). Water also makes a great way to travel, you go slower by most river travel, but you can travel 24 hours a day, so you can go faster than if you travel on horseback, and both forms of travel are faster than walking. Bodies of water were early highways for civilization and spread limestone to Egypt, Portuguese merchants to as far away as China and Japan, allowed the colonization of Easter Island, Hawaii, and Australia, and the great English Empire was built on their mighty warships and trading fleet. How will the forces of magic and nature shape your world?
6) Similarities Among Worlds
Most fantasy worlds will develop along similar lines. Most fantasy worlds work in a time period from Hellenistic Greek to Ancient Rome, to the Dark Ages, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, to even the early Industrial Age. When will your time period for your world be set? Hellenistic Greeks and Ancient Rome had bronze plate mail, as steel wasn’t invented until centuries later. Centuries after that gunpowder was invented. When I ran an Ancient Roman World, glass was very rare, so potion vials were clay. On Pacific islands metal was not that common so clubs lined with shark teeth made great weapons. Different time periods and different locations had different technology. It took the Chinese to develop gunpowder. When they did, they used it in everything from life prolonging potions to fireworks. It took the more militant Europeans to develop guns. How would this affect the technology of your world and what equipment is available to the party?
7) The Flow Of History
Why were the Europeans more militant and driven more to explore than the Chinese? A big part of it was their world view. The Chinese called themselves the Middle Kingdom. Once they had united their nation they were happy and didn’t see much of a reason to go out into the world exploring. The Warring States Period was when China tried to unite itself, often under different nations and by different rulers. Sun Tzu lived and wrote during this period and his book on tactics is still studied to this day. The Chinese fought to form one nation as did the Japanese. Over in Europe there were various tribes of barbarians and primitive people. Many of those people were, at one time, ruled from Rome. Rome was comprised of the literal descendants of the Ancient Greeks. In Europe the competing tribes of barbarians took over various lands and used their own language as a basis for those lands. That is why there are so many languages in Europe and their constant rivalry was a bitter issue. The European barbarians first held Rome to ransom and then sacked it. Most Roman statues had their heads cut off and disfigured by the Vandals. That is the root of the world Vandalism. When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals turned their savagery on other tribes and eventually founding Germany and the other nations of Europe. Europe was almost constantly locked in a war of some sort as the various rulers tried to take over or hold onto their lands. This constant competition became a source of great scientific development as well as great human horror like the Black Plague and the Crusades. These two forces had global consequences from trying to oust the Islamic from the Holy Lands to the rise of the middle class. The Islamic Revolution has its roots in the Crusades and the Black Plague finally made the labor of one skilled man valuable and those craftsmen were higher paid and became the merchants, skilled labors, and builders of strong economies. The biggest event in the Forgotten Realms was when the Gods walked the planet and some lost or gained their divinity during this time. The imprisoning of Rovaug, the crash of the spaceship Divinity and the death of the God of Humanity, Aroden were all major events in the development of Golarion. What forces were at work to shape the history of your world?
8) Populating Your World
Now it is time to get down to the smaller scale; where are your various races sourced? Where do they live, where do they come from and where do they want to go? Are humans the most common race, as D&D assumes? Do dwarves come from an underground civilization, are the orcs their rivals and hated foes. Are there Drow in your world? With the light of the Elves should come the evil of the Drow as a counterbalance. What about the dwarves, do they duergar (evil slaver dwarves) exist? Is there an evil counterpart to the gnomes or just the good deep gnomes? Do you have halflings in your world or an evil counterpart to them? Races are the core foundation for civilization and the formation of countries, but humans are rarely allied just by race so often they work against each other, this keeps the humans from taking over from the other races or from exterminating them. Humans are more interested in killing off each other than other races. In Tolkien's world Halflings were jovial people who ate second breakfast and were isolationists. It is not that they didn’t like the biguns of the world, it is just that they thought they lived their lives too strangely, too fast, and with too much magic. Bilbo broke the mold when he became a thief and an adventurer. What are the races of your world and what are the forces; political, racial tensions, or the fight between good and evil that are at work in your world? Don’t feel you have to include a race just because it is in the handbooks and don’t feel that you can’t create an entirely new race just because you want to. What are the politics of your world?
9) What Adventures Are Available?
Now that you have gotten down to this scale you can start to think about what you want your player characters to do. Will they form a hearty band of adventurers on a noble quest like the destruction of an evil relic or are they on the search to restore a kingdom? Or will your group be aimless adventurers gathered for no particular purpose, coming from no particular area, and only going on missions you send them on to kill monsters and get paid for it, by robbing their corpses? This creates a group of murder hobos; people who shiftlessly move around and get rich through petty crime sometimes verging on the felony. Now there is nothing wrong with doing this, if this is what your players want to do, but most DMs have a nobler quest in mind, if not in the vein of Tolkien, then something similar to it. If you create a fantasy world with a new land to be discovered, then you can have your players be either conquistadors or be members of the primitive tribes trying to fight the incoming Europeans. Will you have an Europe analog or a Oriental analog? Most of the character classes are drawn on European models, but monks with a flurry of blows, ninjas and samurai are from an Eastern world and if you don’t have that world represented in your setting, then you will disappoint those players who want to play those type of characters. Of course, the Bard and the Skald came from Scottish and Irish tales and heroes, yet we apply them to entire continents. There were monks in Europe, but they were far more scholarly than adventuring. The monks of the Shaolin Temples were both; keeping vast temples full of records from clay tablets to written books. They also adventured across China as righters of wrongs; dispensers of wisdom and justice. What type of campaigns you want to run will have a major influence in how your form that world, so how do you form your world? What goals will you have in mind for the party and for future parties?
10) Detailing The Histories
A well developed world has history to it; that lends it gravitas, dignity and power. I know a DM who has had the same world for over 20 years, and he brings in changes made by players into each campaign. If you play with him in several games then you learn certain features of his world, what exists and where, and even some things you and get away with in certain areas. I have played in wide ranging games in his world from the pocket dimension to safeguard civilization to an exploration of the catacombs under a megalopolis, to the crushing of a slave uprising. He has a rich developed world with a lot of NPCs both weak and powerful and institutions that have a long history. There are parts of his world that are ignorant of other parts and even pockets that are near impossible to escape from. They use pocket dimensions to house the town’s population and feed and clothe them. Undead can become recognized citizens. There are a lot of unique factors in his world because of his development and because of what he has added to the world over the years that he has been playing.
Golarion has a well developed history because a full team of writers have worked on it. There is an analog to Egypt, China even America. There is an evil empire, a lost world ruled by a demon ape, a crashed spaceship, a Norse analog, a barely restrained demonic invasion, and a crusade against it. There are a lot of factors going on in their world. In contrast Greyhawk had only a little development, because most of it was in mind of Gary Gygax and he didn’t want people to copy what he had done, but to do their own creative work. The Forgotten Worlds was mostly in the mind of Ed Greenwood and so there wasn’t a lot written about it without his approval or permission. He had a limited world because he had a small staff working on it; himself. He was using the world he had developed from his own game, and he just spread it to the larger world. Eberron and the Spelljammer universe were well developed, but aside from the Dragonlance chronicles little went on in the Dragonlance world. I have read about all these campaign worlds and more.
When you build your world, you should take examples and inspirations from other worlds and use it in your own. You can take what you like, ignore what you don’t like, change things around, and be unique all on your own. Happy gaming and happy world building.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: www.shutterstock.com
Break out the acetone, cause I'm stripping that Ravnica sheen off of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. The latest setting book from Wizards of the Coast has a lot to offer someone who enjoys the setting of the world's most popular collectable card game, but is it any good for someone who doesn't? In a book all about a specific, high magic setting, can we take away the Ravnica and come away with something usable? Here is a quick list of things we can all use by just filing off those serial numbers.
1) New Races
Need I say more? Oh, ok, I guess I will. Centaur, Loxodon, Minotaur, Simic Hybrid, and Vedalken make their appearance here. Two of those, Centaur and Minotaur have existing places in any mythical fantasy setting. Loxodon, or elephant people, have the same half-man half-animal thing going on, so not too much of a stretch. Simic hybrid and Vedalken are a bit more on the science end of fantasy, but we can work with that. Those running a spelljammer campaign have an easy fit for Vedalken, but they could exist right along side of elves, albeit with a shorter lifespan, which could give them the time and the separation for an alien point of view. Simic hybrids are a bit easier, replacing their expertly grafted appendages with the grotesque, Frankenstein-like stitching of the mongrel folk from earlier editions and Curse of Strahd.
2) Guild, Contacts, And Advancement
Here's my take on the guilds:
Azorius is a lawful neutral police force, Boros is a lawful good army, Dimir is a lawful neutral spy organization, Gruul are chaotic neutral tribes of wanderers who hate civilization, Golgari is a chaotic neutral sewer dwelling guild of the creepy and dead, Izzet is a chaotic good guild of crazy inventors, Orzhov is a lawful evil church syndicate, Rakdos is a chaotic evil circus of demon worshippers, Selesnya is a neutral druidic nature group, and Simic is a society of scientists building the perfect future. Each guild is mechanically a background, giving you access to guild features such as guild spells (for spellcasters), contacts, and tiered rewards as you progress in the guild. Guild spells are extra spells added to a caster’s list they can choose from. These spells are themed to each guild and balanced very well. Player characters start with three contacts. The contacts are kind of generic, but at least can be tweaked a bit. Judge, procognitive mage, and “promoted into secrecy” are a few examples. Once you get to know the guilds it's easy to substitute your local military for a Boros Sunhome Guard or a thieves guild member for a grateful Dimir spy. Each guild uses ranks which grant rewards. This is a great melding of factions and the renown system in the Dungeon Master's Guide with the bonus of something to strive for. Each rank gives you more access to guild hierarchy and usually other faction members you can call into action for you.
3) Adventure Building Tools
I really hope Wizards continues this in future supplements; they put so much goodness into this chapter. This chapter makes the book worth buying. First, every guild has an adventure map to use. These are good sized maps with a lot of rooms: great for tactical play. The maps are done by Dyson Logos and are minimalist and very easy to copy onto a battle map. The lack of specifics in each map (chairs, tables, rugs, etc.) make these maps easy to use in any setting or location. I've already pulled a few out in my home game. There are five tables for each guild, d10 adventure goals, d8 villains, d6 assignments and hooks, and d12 adventure ideas for each map. There are also one hundred adventure goals, eighty villains, 120 assignments and hooks, and 120 adventure ideas. While I haven't sat down and used these tables, they are a great addition to my already extensive collection. If I need a certain trope, say a spy or a military villain, I can just pick a similar guild, Dimir or Boros, and roll up a quick villain and scenario. Through the previous chapters you have gotten to know the guilds, and understanding how the guilds relate to fantasy tropes really makes these tables useful at any table, especially in the middle of a session.
4) New Monsters And Magic Items
Some stand out magic items, based off of magic cards, are included in the book. A few are heavily thematic, but can be changed to suit your campaign world. There's a dwarven thrower that explodes and requires an action to call back; a pair of bracers that let you cast a copy of a cantrip cast with a bonus action. There’s another set of bracers as well which allow you to cast a spell you don't have memorized or know with a chance for a random spell if you fail. As far as monsters go, there's a rage beast template for boosting beasts, an evil angel and krasis. A krasis is basically an upgraded version of mongrel folk; customizable with three sizes (medium, large, and huge) and two d8 tables of major and minor adaptations.
Some of the creatures come with new traits we can steal for our regular ones. Aura of Blood Lust makes creatures within thirty feet attack randomly. Feed on Fire causes a creature that takes fire damage to grow bigger until it finally explodes and starts over.
Taking Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica apart and incorporating it into your home game is a relatively simple and painless process. Even in the area descriptions of the Tenth Ward I found some really cool ideas to use in my game. Digging in a bit for yourself, you can find more little gems building off of the existing rules, new favorite monsters, or even a new favorite class. So go out and grab yourself a copy, and if you already have it, let me know what you are using at your table!
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Patreon.
Picture Reference: http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/guildmasters-guide-ravnica
Please take a moment to consider supporting this platform at Patreon. Also, please note this article gets pretty vulgar, and contains mild spoilers for a whole crapload of shows, movies, and video games, most notably Halo and Assassin’s Creed.
Everyone's been there. You're at the table, Cheetos in hand, dice at the ready, and the GM gives you that look. That look. The 'I'm-so-great' look. That smug half-smile that tells you they're about to drop their latest display of their own genius (or edginess, or creativity, or whatever) on you and your unsuspecting comrades.
Except whatever it is, you've seen it. You haven't just seen it, you've seen it done a million times, backwards and forwards, ever since you were a wee baby gamer critting your nappies. Maybe it’s cringey, maybe it’s just played out, but either way, you’re sick of it. Good news: so am I! So let’s get all these pet peeves out on the table.
1) Questgiver Betrays You
If my entire career’s contribution to gaming is to get people to do this one less, my life will not have been spent in vain. I suppose I can hardly be shocked that this crap shows up in our tabletop games over and over, because it shows up in our larger media over and over as well. Grognards, look back at our formative adventure media, like Buffy, Xena, Hercules, Charmed, Highlander: how many episodes revolved around the titular hero(es) being asked for help by some put-upon victim only to find out that the ‘victim’ was either setting them up for an ambush, or using them as a catspaw to eliminate a rival (and probably then die in an ambush…)? It’s okay, you don’t have to answer. And if you haven’t seen any of these shows, then spoiler alert: it’s all of them.
This trope turns up in video games, too. Like, all of them. Linear games like the first installments of Assassin’s Creed and Halo went through a period in the early 2000’s where virtually every game was built on a framework of a mysterious knowledge holder parceling out jobs for you only to betray you in the end, usually fighting you with an arsenal of shit you’d handed to them. Fortunately, video games now have moved on to the era where the only type of game anyone makes anymore (other than indy sidescrollers where you play a deformed cartoon child who’s dreaming and/or dead) are massive sandbox games, where we can joyfully exchange the predictable disappointment of being betrayed by the primary questgiver for the mind-numbing tedium of being betrayed over and over by an endless stream of sidequest-givers!
I’m a huge fan of stealing things from books, movies, TV shows, and video games for your TTRPGs. Do that, as much as possible. But don’t steal this concept. Like, ever.
2) The Treasure Was A Fake
Now, don’t get me confused: I’m not talking about a Maltese Falcon situation, where the treasure the story is ostensibly centered around turns out to have been counterfeit. If the true goal of your story or campaign was something else, with the treasure as a MacGuffin to move things along, then go with God.
No, no, I mean when the primary goal of a story is a specific treasure (be it actual money, a magic item, or even a person) and the end result of the story is that the promised treasure isn’t just not where they thought it would be, but that it never existed in the first place (or has long since been destroyed).
Here’s the deal: that treasure is the carrot you’ve used to goad us poor pack mules into moving this story along for you. We’ve dutifully carried your GM baggage up all these goddam hills, over the rickety bridges, and we force marched through the night for you. Now it's time to pay up. I understand that sometimes an interesting bait-and-switch keeps a game exciting, so you need to give the asses across the table from you an apple or a bag of oats instead of the promised carrot. But if you don’t give us anything, then it’s not a cooperative journey anymore, it’s just animal abuse.
3) You Wake Up Pregnant
It’s a tale as old as TTRPGs themselves. The men in the group carouse like there’s no tomorrow. Elven prostitutes are purchased by the truckload. Farmer’s daughters fall before the bard in droves. The moment the one woman in the group dares to take a dashing stevedore to her bedchamber, though, suddenly the tone shifts. The next morning, as the group prepares to depart, she suffers a sudden and “unexplained” bout of nausea.
Right about then, I do too.
I’m not talking about situations where there’s a good story reason. 99 times out of 100, that isn’t the case with this silliness. It’s almost always a reactionary lashing out. The woman character is being punished for daring to express sexuality, while the men continue to dip their wicks with impunity without fear of pregnancy (I cannot help but notice that the elven hookers and farmers’ daughters of the world return demanding child support with far less frequency than the lady adventurers wind up trying to find the Middle Earth family planning center) nor the rampant sexually transmitted diseases they ought to be racking up.
4) It Was All a Dream
AKA, the coward’s way out of a TPK.
Now I don’t mean a scene which is clearly a nightmare or a vision; that’s totally fair game. I mean scenes where the players made meaningful progress in their stories, suffered meaningful consequences (and yes, that progress might have been a fatal mistake leading to the consequence of dying), and are then told all that time was just meaningless. Nothing steals the impact from an important event like finding out it was all a hallucination.
Most of the time this is a problem, it’s because the GM is trying to fix something they screwed up. Even when they planned it out, this shtick can fall flat if it falls into the valley of mundanity: the dream sequence is engaging enough that the players care about what happened in it, but mundane enough that it seems believable. You need to either have a clue here or there that something is wrong, to prevent them from feeling that the rug is getting yanked out from under them, or else you need to go full-tilt Hellraiser on them and make the adventurers beg to wake up in a urine-soaked bedroll.
5) He Was Just an Old Man!
The heroes have successfully infiltrated the villain lair, and finally spotted him: the dastardly mastermind is caught unawares or jumps out to menace them. They roll initiative, start throwing fists, and to their shock, pulp the boss in one shot. Like, horrendously. Usually accompanied by a gruesome description of necks shattering, eyes bulging, and blood flying. Unless you’re playing a hyper-moral game (like most superhero RPGs), there will inevitably be a frightened eyewitness to point a horrified finger and scream about what monsters the PCs are.
“Look what you did! He was just an old man!”
Look, I get it: most heroes tend to pull the “Get ‘er, Ray!” plan as their primary tactic. It can be frustrating as a GM, but this ends up backfiring most of the time. In many TTRPGs, letting the villain go first will often spell certain death for PCs or innocent bystanders, and unless their recklessness is really out of control and you need to give them a reality check, pulling this trick on your players makes them doubt their own abilities. A villain who controls a vast network of evil minions in a setting where adventuring vigilantes are common shouldn’t be going down in a single stroke to aforementioned vigilantes.
6) Oh Look, Another Evil Child
In many ways the exact opposite of the last trope. You’ve seen this one over and over: the veneer of innocent child, and in a shocking twist, the kid is evil! Ooh, surprising! Unless you’ve already seen The Omen, Children of the Corn, the Exorcist, The Good Son, The Bad Seed, select episodes of Buffy, Angel, Highlander, and the X-Files, or every third episode of Supernatural…
You need innocent kids (and innocent bystanders). That kind of hook is your nuclear option for getting recalcitrant players invested in a plot, and when you suborn it like this, you screw yourself over in the long run.
My players would probably make the argument that ‘Sweet Elderly Person Who Turns Out to Be a Supernatural Powerhouse’ should fall under this heading too, but fuck ‘em. That one’s my bread and butter, and I’m going to run that particular horse is never too dead for me to beat one more time.
No, wait. You know what? I’ve got one more bonus pet peeve. A repetitious occurrence that’s been infuriating me the last few hours:
Bonus: This Shitty Listicle
Seriously. Who does this guy think he is? If I think back on my absolute favorite moments in gaming, a huge number of them fall under one of these headings, or used one of these tropes to further their story. So why do I hate them so much? Why would I break my normal rule about negative articles and spend hours writing the most hateful soapbox speech I could think of?
Look, I think these ideas are played out. I’ve seen them over and over again, and gotten seriously tired of them over the years. Does that mean they’re bad ideas? Not necessarily. In point of fact, like most things that are ‘basic,’ they’re so widespread because they’re extremely enjoyable. You could use any one of these ideas and craft a pretty damn good story.
So what’s the takeaway? Maybe just keep an eye on your friends, and try to be aware of what tropes are getting overused in your group. When you get more than one eyeroll at a reveal, maybe it isn’t your voicework or the monster that’s getting the reaction; maybe it’s the set-up that folks are tired of seeing.
In an event, what are your favorite tropes to hit over and over again? Which story tropes are you absolutely sick of seeing repeated ad infinitum?
In addition to being a complete hypocrite who has used every single one of these tropes multiple times, Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. He enjoys writing for High Level Games when he isn’t writing for the Black Library or Mad Scientist Journal. His most can be found in Inferno! (vol 2) from Black Library. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://lukebrimblecombe.blogspot.com/2015/08/fantasy-tropes.html
Fifth edition D&D is relatively free of any complicated or confusing mechanics. From its very conception, it was meant to be a more streamlined version of the game. This not only made it more accessible, but it also allowed for people to become more invested in the game because they didn’t have to sift through two books just to find the correct things to add together to find they were looking for the wrong ability the whole time. But at the same time, for a lot of people, it took a lot of the “meat” out of the gaming experience. I personally lie somewhere in the middle. I think too many mechanics can choke a game and not enough can make it feel bland. 5E D&D lands in a strange position for me, where I think it has plenty of interesting mechanics that it just doesn’t utilize enough. Here are some of those mechanics and some ways I think they should be used more.
1) Damage Resistance And Immunity (And Vulnerability)
Now, I’m sure you’re moaning that this is something that is all over the place in 5e monsters. However, I am of the opinion that there should be more resistance and immunity opportunities for players. There are a lot of ways to gain condition immunities. But damage is something that is so dangerous to start allowing characters to ignore. It can become very difficult to balance. But I think the important thing to remember here is that if you make more powerful characters you can make more powerful encounters. Now, I understand that having everything being scaled up constantly can make the game drag on and make encounters stay past their welcome, but I think this is a way to make characters feel more powerful without having to shake things up too much.
You gave a character fire immunity but still want them to take the full damage of a fireball for some purpose? Change the damage type of the spell. There are so many different damage types that giving players resistances and immunities essentially have no long term impact, but throwing their favored damage type at them occasionally will still make them feel more powerful. It also allows for more interesting battle strategies, where players can use other players to draw fire or be a meatshield.
Another thing to consider with damage resistances is armor. In the real world, armor was made to counter certain weapons. Plate armor, for example, was fantastic against piercing and slashing weapons but could be crippled by bludgeoning forces that could bend or crack the metal. So you could give a character using plate resistance to both piercing and slashing weapons and vulnerability to bludgeoning weapons.
2) The Battlemaster Subclass. The Whole Thing.
I will sing my praise for the battlemaster subclass until the day I perish, and on that day I will request that they carve the PHB page number for the subclass and the words “look upon my works ye mighty, and despair” onto my gravestone. When this request is inevitably ignored, I’ll go to whatever afterlife has been selected for me and I will then complain that there were far too many subclasses that gave spells to classes that didn’t need them and far too few that gave interesting multi-use abilities to classes that begged for them.
If there was a single ranger subclass that was modeled after the battlemaster subclass, by the gods I would make a dozen more rangers on the spot. A great example of this is a Roguish Archetype made by The Huntsman over on DMs Guild. It wonderfully implements these similar mechanics into the game under another beloved base class. (You should really check out their stuff, they’ve put a lot of work into their subclasses and I think it really shows.)
The battlemaster subclass is *mwah* beautiful. It allows for personalization within itself and adds so many layers of strategy in such a simple way. It’s a real shame that more abilities aren’t able to be used multiple times in a similar fashion. Of course, it’s understandably a lot of work, and there's a lot of balancing issues behind making something like that. So I suppose I’m happy that there's already one subclass that’s like this.
Reactions are probably my favorite addition to this edition. They allow for an extra fluidity to combat and let players feel like they have more influence. Personally, as a DM if a player says, “Can I use my reaction to try and XYZ if he misses me?” More often than not, I’ll let them. But for the people who don’t like stepping that far outside of the rule book, reactions can often feel a little distant. Sure there are some spells and abilities that allow for them, but most of those are highly situational. I suppose what I’m asking for is more general purpose reactions.
A parry. A riposte. Both are already battlemaster abilities but that's, not the point. What if every class had a base reaction ability to being missed by an attack? A wizard is missed and gets to cast a cantrip as a reaction. A fighter is missed and gets to attempt a disarm. A monk is missed and is allowed to make a counter attack (without bonuses). I personally believe that of all the mechanics that are underused on this list, reactions are the most egregious offenders. There’s so much to put into this little mechanic and a lot of space for both utility and flavor in it. Yet it’s mostly just sitting there. Waiting. Alone in the dark. With a tub of ice cream. It still remembers her smile. Her laugh. He hasn’t shaved in far too long.
Then a wizard cast shield and he felt a little better.
In everyone's life, there are moments where nobody is really doing anything impactful. Where you’re just doing the 9-5 and going day to day. Now, for adventurers, their downtime normally consists of hunting down the next job, but there's so much more they could be doing. Business, mingling, gambling, and building are all possible endeavors they can set out on and spend time on. If they start up a business, not only do you have something to keep players interested in the story, but they also have something to give them money to spend on other investments.
In my humble opinion, downtime is a surprisingly good way to get your players invested in the world. It keeps them busy, and it reminds them that there's more to the world than dragons and orcs and necromancers. There are people out there just trying to get by. There are places out there that no one can ever quite settle in to. There are pocketbooks out there just waiting to be emptied. Everyone is trying to make their fortune. Downtime is a good way to explore a new type of fortune for players that can get as in-depth as they would like.
There is a lot more to say about the failings of 5e in regards to the mechanic saturation in the game. But in all honesty, it’s a near perfect mixture when you take into account how diverse the average gaming table is. 5e D&D is really a home run in a lot of different ways, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. The available options for character customization are abundant and interesting. There really isn’t much else to say other than the combat and mechanics sometimes just lack that satisfying crunch. Even though this is my favourite mixture of roleplaying and mechanics yet.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://merovia.obsidianportal.com/wiki_pages/battle-master
So, here’s the deal, guys and gals:
I have never, in all my time roleplaying, seen such enthusiastic fervor for Dungeons & Dragons. Late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers are coming back to the game in droves. Millennials are discovering the game for the first time, and in many cases, since 5th Edition is the first edition of the game that they’ve played, they’re becoming masters of the rules and living archives of spell duration and effect, creature difficulty and Hit Dice, and the ins and outs of class sub-specialty versus bi-classed characters… and somewhere, in the middle, there are some pretty awesome groups playing games every week with all of the diversity in culture, sex and background that anyone could possibly want. Husbands are finally playing Dungeons & Dragons with wives, Fathers and mothers with sons and daughters, and the internet has made players and Dungeon Masters in one-horse towns in Nevada or snowed-in hinterlands in Michigan reachable via Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Discord; reachable by players and Dungeon Masters in Glasgow, or the UAE, or a military duty station in Bahrain.
The games are out there. Finding a great group is a wonderful thing. It can be done, and now, it can be done more easily than ever. However, there are a few things to keep in mind for players both new and old coming back to Dungeons & Dragons or who are discovering the game for the first time.
1) Be On Time
We have a saying in the military; if you’re not fifteen minutes early getting to where you’re supposed to be, then you’re late. Don’t be late to game night. At least, don’t be late to game night without calling, texting or sending out an email to let everyone know that you’re going to be late or that you’ve run into something that will keep you from attending the game altogether. There are any number of avenues with which the absence of a player can be handled, and ultimately, it’s up to the DM. However, it is polite to let your fellow players and DM know well in advance of the start time for a game session if you’re going to be late or if you won’t be attending.
I’ve also had DMs no call/no show on an entire assembled gaming group who are waiting for him or her. As a matter of fact, that is exactly how I began running the campaign that I am running now. This is a little more detrimental to an assembled group, and in all honesty, a lot harder to recover from. If you’re lucky, you’ll have another member of your group that is able to pick up the ball that the absent DM dropped. If not, you’re just hanging around when you could probably be doing something more constructive with your time.
My suggestion would be to obtain phone numbers and email addresses on the very first night that the group assembles, even before character creation. Use these tools to communicate with one another. I use my players’ emails to handle down-time/long rest activity in between sessions, and I have made it absolutely clear to my players that not communicating an absence is something I’ll only let happen twice, and on the second time, I’ll ask them to leave the group due to the overall lack of respect that they’ve shown myself and the other players.
2) Do Not Ever Argue Rules With A Dungeon Master
There are five separate editions of Dungeons & Dragons. For each of those separate editions, there are some similarities, to be certain, but by and large, those similarities are the minority. If the similarities weren’t the minority, there would be no purpose in creating a whole new edition of the game. So, this being the case, when you understand what edition of the game you’ll be playing and you agree to it, do not argue rules systems, die rolls, or results with the DM.
Not only is it rude, it’s distracting and it takes the wind out of the room for the other players at the table.
If something has been done to one of your characters that you simply cannot abide, that you cannot just roll your dice and say “Wow.
That’s not what I wanted,” then finish the session, and contact the Dungeon Master the next day advising him or her that you won’t be returning to the game. If it’s THAT BAD, don’t go back… but do not ever argue rules, rolls, or reactions with a DM.
In my opinion, and having it done to me more recently than I would like, I would even go so far as to state that this is a violation of a cardinal rule of Dungeons & Dragons regardless of edition.
There are people who serve as living, breathing rulebooks. They have read every book, memorized every spell, know every single stat for every single monster. Ever. I cut my teeth on Dungeons & Dragons playing with one of these people. He was one of my best friends throughout my school years. It was his hobby not just to play the game, but to memorize every aspect of the game and, sadly, to use every single bit of knowledge he possessed to argue for it all to weigh in towards his character’s advantage, more often than not.
But here’s the catch: For every Dungeon Lawyer, there is a DM out there who can shatter their perception of the game’s ironclad rules system, which to be completely honest, has never been very ironclad at all. The rules are a guideline to maintain order within the game and to address systems that a DM might not have an immediate answer for. The true game of any roleplaying game is the story being told that stars all the players’ characters at the table as protagonists.
Don’t argue. Again… walk away. Don’t waste time trying to prove how you’re right and the DM is wrong. It will serve no purpose other than to make you look petulant, make your fellow players resent you, and make your DM think about the best, most artistic way to eliminate your character from the game.
3) Let Your Talents Shine
If you can draw maps, and you’re good at it, then let your DM and players know. If you’re talented/skilled at painting miniatures, then let your DM and players know. If you’re an above average artist, and you want to play around with sketches of fellow players’ characters, don’t hide it. Let them know.
I have a Cleric in my current group who is a fantastic artist. She does character sketches and draws scenes of what’s going on in the game for characters who might be the “star” of that scene. I have a Fighter who is one of the best mini painters I’ve ever sat at a non-Warhammer 40K table with who paints all my miniatures for NPCs that I purchase. What do I do to show them that they’re appreciated? “What’s your favorite chip? Soda? Pizza’s on me, too.”
These people are valued not only for their participation in my game, but also for the talents that they bring – literally – to the table when they show up for a session. Don’t hide these things from anyone, and don’t ever think that someone’s going to criticize you for doodling or sketching while you’re playing. Show your gaming group what you’re good at, and I can practically guarantee that they’ll find a way to compensate you for including them in it. Even if it’s free pizza, soda and chips on game night.
4) Share Your Books
Dungeons & Dragons books are like textbooks; they’re very expensive. They’re worth every penny, but they’re expensive. My advice to anyone who spends the money on books is to put their name in it, but also be prepared to share them. Not all your fellow players have the same resources available to them as you do. Just like in the game, some characters will be more well off than others. Don’t hesitate to let someone look through your Player’s Handbook for something they’re not sure about, or better yet, if you do understand it better than them, show them in the book where it is, mark down the page for them, and take the time to explain how it works to them.
Why the list of page numbers? One of our players hit a financial rough patch not too long ago, and the last thing he was able to do was purchase a Player’s Handbook. For his birthday, we decided to all kick in our pizza money one session to gather up enough cash to buy him a Player’s Handbook and a nice set of dice. Since he’d been writing down all the rules questions he’d had when he referenced other players’ books, he had a list of bookmarkable pages for his own book when Amazon shipped it to him two days later.
Sometimes, stuff like this can be one of those random acts of awesomeness that cements a gaming group together for years.
Don’t let people abuse your books, but don’t ever hesitate to share if they don’t own physical copies like you do.
Now, if you've been allowed to share a book by an owner, treat that book like a true treasure. Do not lick your fingers as you turn the pages. Do not dog ear pages. Mind how you treat the binding. Don't ever set a drink on a book. Treat that book as though it were the only copy of the book in existence.
Don't ever take someone's generosity or property for granted.
5) Be Excellent to One Another
I don’t care what your relationship is to your DM or to other players at your table, don’t be an ass. I don’t care if you’ve been my friend for ten years and you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for twenty, don’t be an ass. Odds are you’re going to be playing with people who have not been playing for as long as you have. They deserve as good an experience with their discovery of the game as you do. Keep your nonsensical behavior of your character in check. Do not disrupt the entirety of the game with ridiculousness unless the DM has set the stage for ridiculousness to ensue. Do not talk over younger or newer players, and do not make decisions for younger players or newer players..
It’s the wrong thing to do, and deep down inside – game or not – you know it’s the wrong thing to do.
Let the younger and newer players have the opportunity to move past their anxiety at playing and their reservations with meeting new people and discover their own voice.
Just like you did the first few times you played Dungeons & Dragons.
Respect the DM who is trying to create and weave worlds of wonder around all of you for the time you have together. Spend that time together laughing, adventuring and escaping… but don’t make game night all about you, because it isn’t all about you.
It’s about the table. Remember that.
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon. He can be reached at email@example.com
Picture provided by author
If you’ve ever been part of a long-running game, you’re no doubt familiar with what some folks call supplement fatigue. This is a condition that happens when the game you’re playing has a great deal of additional books beyond the core, and you start to feel overwhelmed trying to take it all in. Even if you’ve been with that game since the very beginning, constantly reading new books and trying to keep your mental software updated feels exhausting.
This is around the time people start talking about “bloat” in regards to a game. Because it used to be streamlined, easy-to-play, and no problem to run. But now… well, now it takes an entire library shelf just to make one character.
If you’re one of those players (or storytellers) who gets bent out of shape over a game being “bloated” then you’ll be glad to know this problem doesn’t really exist. It’s all in your head.
I talked about this back in There’s No Such Thing As Bloat in RPGs, and Here’s Why, but some of these points need to be reiterated. Points like...
1) One Player’s Feature is Another Player’s Flaw
Think of the mechanic you hate most in a game. Maybe it’s your least favorite race, that vampire clan you can’t stand, or that one rule that you just wish would be deleted. I guarantee you that, for another player, that is one of the things they love about the game.
If you’re honest with yourself, I bet there are at least a few supplements that you think are good, or which represented a step in the right direction for the game as a whole. But those supplements you like will be seen as unnecessary bloat by other players. So if we can’t even agree on a definition about what bloat really is, then chances are it may not actually exist at all.
2) Finding Things Isn’t Nearly As Hard As You May Pretend It Is
Another metric some people use for accusing a game of being bloated is that it becomes impossible to find the rules you need in a timely fashion. You can’t remember if this merit was in a clan book, or in that one Middle Ages sourcebook, or if it was somewhere in the base book’s optional rules section, and everyone’s looking at you, waiting for a ruling, or for you to declare your action.
In ye olden days, this could be a legitimate problem, requiring several folks at the table to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s rules and errata. However, technology has shouldered a lot of this workload for us. Now all you need to do is type in the name of a mechanic, or ask a database for the rule, and pop you’re there in seconds, and you can read the text aloud for your table. So while there is more stuff, it isn’t as difficult to parse through as a lot of folks would have you believe.
3) You Don’t Have To Use It
While there might be some crazed completists out there, it’s important to remember that supplement books are just that… supplements. If you want to include the half-dozen Ultimate books in your Pathfinder game, or all the special rules and lore in the different clan books for your Vampire campaign, you totally can. That’s what they’re written for, after all. But you are under no obligation to do that.
I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating. You do not have to buy supplementary books, you don’t have to read them, and if someone at your table actually has one, you’re under no obligation to allow them to use that book in your game. If you just want to stick to the basic books with no additions, that’s your call. If you want to allow the first two or three supplements, but nothing else, that’s cool too. And if you want to allow anything and everything at your table, that’s your choice.
It’s all there for you to pick what you want from. And it seems like a lot of folks forget that.
But Game Publishers Just Want My Money!
I’m going to say this for all the folks in the back: Every business out there that creates a product you want is out for your money. The authors you read? Money. The video games you buy? Money. Your favorite YouTubers? Well, they’re trying the best they can to get money.
These companies don’t put these products out just for the love of the game (most of the time, anyway); they’ve got bills to pay. And if there’s a market of folks who want more content for a game, then rest assured publishers are going to keep putting out more stuff as long as people keep buying it. That’s why we’ve got something like 500 The Fast and The Furious films.
And just like with gaming supplements, you don’t have to go see them if you don’t want to. Nor are you required to like everything in a series if you’re just a fan of one or two extra installments. Keep what you like, and ignore the rest if it makes your games better for you.
For more from Neal F. Litherland, check out his Gamers page, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! You can also find books like the sword and sorcery novel Crier’s Knife on his Amazon Author Page.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/au/listing/183531915/rifts-conversion-book-rpg-vintageantique
I was fascinated to read Paul Bimler's article on Solo D&D.
I also enjoy solo gaming. As people say, there are as many ways to play D&D as there are DMs. With solo play there are as many ways to solo play as there are players.
My style of solo roleplay is somewhat different to Paul's. There are two significant differences. The first is Paul's flipmat and markers. I am much more in the ‘Theatre of the Mind’ school and do not use any physical play aids, but more about that later. The other big difference is the rule system. I prefer to utilise a much lighter rule system for my solo play. The primary reason is all about continuity. Once you start a solo adventure, if you find yourself breaking off from your narratives to check rules, roll dice and check tables, I find it makes it harder keep the story flowing.
Rules light games often have just one or two mechanics that are employed in every situation. Alongside simple mechanics you often get extremely simple characters. This means that you could in theory keep your character on a Post-it note and run your game from memory.
If you strip out the flipmat, miniatures, or tokens that leaves only the solo rules and the journal.
Paul has his The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. The Toolbox is one example of a “Solo Engine”. All the tables that make up the decision making rules in solo play are generally referred to as a Solo Engine, GM Emulator, or a GME as they drive your stories. When you would normally ask a question of your GM you instead ask the Solo Engine and roll for an answer. Once you have an answer you have to apply gut instinct, common sense and imagination to make that answer fit the game you are playing, the situation your character is in and the sort of adventure you want to have.
I have here five combinations of solo engines and games give you an alternative to Mythic GME and D&D.
1) Solo Engine for 7th Sea Role Playing Game
These rules were made specifically for the 7th Sea game. Where D&D can turn into a battle of hit point attrition, 7th Sea is a much more narrative style of game. You don't have to beat your way through hordes of kobolds rolling ‘to hit’ and the dealing damage to each one. 7th Sea deals with whole groups of these ‘minions’ as single entities which reduces your record keeping and speeds up play.
The solo rules have a more sophisticated set of question tools that go beyond the no, maybe, and yes that Paul talked about in his article. The basic principle is the same but you lose the maybe answer and in its place you get and… and but… modifiers.
The and… modifier means that your answer was what you expected and even more. To take Paul's example of ‘can you find an inn’, a Yes and… would be the first thing that you think of that would be even better than just finding an inn. My first reaction was ‘Yes you find an inn and the landlord is a retired adventurer friend of yours.’
The but… modifier adds a complicating factor or makes things not as good, yes but…, or as bad, no but…, to the standard answer. ‘Do you find an inn?’ Yes but… there is a mob gathering outside complete with torches pitchforks.
With the and, but, yes, and no there are six possible answers from the same simple ‘roll for an answer’ mechanic.
In addition to the yes/no roll, these rules give you a complex question tool. If you are watching a villain across a tavern and you try to overhear their conversion a yes/no answer is not going to help you. The complex question tool gives you a two word pairing that is to be used as the distilled essence of the conversation, in this case. The complex question tool is used for conversations, the subjects of books, or anything that conveys meaning.
Finally, these rules use dice to prompt NPC reactions and, should a fight start, their tactics.
That sounds a lot of work but the whole thing is about ten pages with full examples.
7th Sea is one of the most popular narrative games of recent years and you can run an entire campaign with this simple booklet and some note paper for your journal.
2) 3Deep Episodic Role Playing
This game uses a simple 2d6 mechanic for just about everything from stats to skills to driving cars and flying X-wing fighters. It was also written with a solo engine built into the game from the start.
3Deep's solo engine uses something called story arcs. You start with at least one story arc or thread that is part of your character’s background. As you ask questions the answers can make achieving your goals harder or easier and manipulate NPCs.
3Deep has a more structured journal and asks you to keep track of scenes, NPCs and unfinished plotlines as these often reappear in your character’s adventures making everything interconnected.
The game is genre neutral, and therefore equally at home with swashbuckling, special forces or stormtroopers.
3) Devil's Staircase Wild West Roleplaying
This game is so new it is not even released yet. You can download the playtest documents, a quickstart PDF, and a set of solo rules all for free from DriveThruRPG. Devil's Staircase is the underlying game system and is driven by a poker style playing card mechanic rather than dice. The accompanying solo engine has the yes/no/and/but and complex question tools as well as NPC reactions but this time they are driven by dealing cards rather than rolling d100s, d20s or d6s.
Of all the games here this is about the lightest in terms of rules and you really can have a character on a sticky note with space to spare.
Although the Wild West is not everyone's favourite genre, it is easily accessible for solo play as it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to picture the setting and NPCs. There are other Devil games in the pipeline.
By solo playing this game you can help with its play testing and help bring the game to market.
4) Grim & Perilous Solo Rules
These rules share a lot of their DNA with the 7th Sea rules above. They were derived from a set of rules called the One Page Solo Engine by Karl Hendricks. This version has been written to work seamlessly with Zweihänder.
You would not normally think of Zweihänder as rules light but there is an eight page rules summary to use as a reference in place of the main book if you are familiar with your character and setting. The game also uses a common mechanic for all skill tests and challenges so running the game without the book in front of you is relatively easy.
The Grim & Perilous Solo Rules are a stripped down version in comparison to the 7th Sea rules as the NPCs reactions have been cut back. Zweihänder has detailed rules for social interaction so the solo rules do not really need a ‘roll d100’ to see how the NPC reacts. What you do get on the other hand is an actual play written up where you can see how a complex plot evolves from just a few interactions with the solo rules.
5) Demonic Solo Rules
Shadow of the Demon Lord is not really a rules light game but the actual play is really easy to grasp. I have included it in this round up because it is, I believe, one of the only solo engines where the state of the character is taken into account by the oracle. Most oracles or solo engines remain unchanged by the status of the character. They change the distribution of results based upon the probability of the question being true or false, yes or no. This solo engine interacts with the character in a subtly different way. The core method is the same but Shadow of the Demon Lord has a mechanic called Fortune that can modify all the rolls made by a character until it is ‘spent’. In this solo engine when a character has Fortune it is used to nudge the result in the characters favour. It is a subtle difference but over the duration of a campaign a 5% difference in your favour has real consequences.
The big gain when using a solo engine that is build specifically to work with the game you are playing is that you don’t have to learn a new game mechanic. The solo rules should sit naturally alongside the existing game rules.
On the other hand, the big gain in using a rule light game is that you don’t have to interrupt your game to check the rules or consult endless tables. Rules light games often put more on the GM to interpret but where you are both GM and player and the entire world is being created by you on demand GM interpretation is intrinsic to solo play.
All of the games here are available as PDFs. Light rules, digital rulebooks and simple solo rules mean you can solo play anytime and anywhere from your commute to work to while waiting for a plane. The most expensive of the solo rules featured here is $7.99, the rest are one or two dollars, and Devil’s Staircase is completely free. If you have not tried solo play it is not a big investment to give it a go. If you have bought one of these games but not been able to play it then I would say give it a go and get those unplayed games off the shelf and give them a go.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Header image is in the public domain
Is your 5E game too heroic? Is it not grim and frostbitten enough? Do you want grimy firearms to cover your PCs in soot? Well we have good news: HLG COO Josh Heath recently dropped a Kickstarter for our new setting Snowheaven, created by Justin Weaver. Josh was kind enough to answer a few questions about Snowhaven and what you can expect from it.
Snowhaven is billed as a grittier, darker, and much more frostbitten version of Dungeons and Dragons. What mechanical changes has Justin brought in to reflect the intrigue and cold of the setting?
We’ve actually written a pretty extensive set of conditions to simulate cold illnesses, like frostbite, hypothermia, and more. All in all, those conditions don’t yet exist in 5E’s core rulesets, so it will help GMs running the setting. Mechanically, there are also new archetypes for a few of the classes, and we’ll expand these in 2nd Edition, which will lean into the intrigue and corruption elements of the setting. Much of the grit though is pure setting and doesn’t really have to have new mechanics.
The description of the setting says that it originally “created during the original D20 Era.” Does this mean that Justin has been working on this setting since the days of 3rd Edition, and if so what changes has it gone through?
Easy answer, yes. The setting has been run in 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, and 5th Edition. There are a lot of elements that have come and gone, ideas that have been pushed on, and some that have sustained themselves. It’s hard to catalogue all of the adjustments over the years, honestly.
At the time of writing, only one playable race has been previewed; the totally rad Yetu, a race of skiing, herding yeti. Are there other races planned based on other mythological/cryptozoological creatures?
Actually, the Yetu are a steamweaving species who are one of the more technologically advanced species in the region. Yes, they are skiers, but they also know how to steamtech it up. Yetu gunslinger should be a cool concept for people to dig into if they would like.
So far, we’ve also written a species of Fox people, the Lapsa, that have descended out of the Feywild due to some sort of war that is happening in the snowy extraplanar realms close to Snowhaven. We are also testing out the idea of a snow siren species, and several other cold weather sea creatures.
Do you have plans to expand Snowhaven beyond 5th Edition, Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds?
Yes, potentially. I know this might be disappointing but we are probably going to hold off on a 13th Age conversion and some form of OSR edition until after the Kickstarter. We know that there are dedicated communities for both types of systems, and we would really like to expand into them, but we’d have to go really high on the Kickstarter for it to be a good financial decision to do so at this time. So, if we can get over the $10,000 mark, will we do it? It’s not impossible, but it isn’t particularly likely.
On that note. Once we hit our last stretch goal we are likely official done with stretch. But, the positive thing I want to tell folks about is that we will make more Snowhaven. If we have more people that back the project we will spend more time developing, expanding, and creating more products in the Snowhaven setting. If you love it, we’ll make it, and we love it, so it will not be hard for us to invest the time, money, energy, and excitement into the setting. So, come by, back the project and know that we will take the money you give us and do great things with it.
What can you tell us about the new rules for firearms?
We’ve gone back into some elements of rules for previous editions of the OGL to borrow some things that can help firearms stand out without breaking the ruleset. One of those things is the possibility of increasing the threat range of weapons. We’ve tried not to go overboard with this, but some firearms do have a critical hit range of 19-20, which fits what makes sense of their deadliness, but also is a little deviation from 5th Edition’s core ruleset. Allowing some flexibility between editions to pull in some of the best elements is something I really think makes sense for third party creators and I’m happy we are doing that with Snowhaven. The rules for Pathfinder and Savage Worlds will need some other elements, but the good thing with those rulesets is that they already exist because of the way the systems were designed.
Check out Snowhaven on Kickstarter here. The campaign ends on March 31st, so be sure to grab it while you can!
Phil Pepin is a grimdark-loving, beater extraordinaire. You can send him new heavy metal tunes, kayak carnage videos and grimdark RPGs on Twitter: @philippepin.
Five room dungeons are an idea from Johnn Four that makes a dungeon from five small challenges. The rooms can be large or small and arranged in many formations. The rooms are:
1. Entrance or Guardian
2. Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
3. Trick or Setback
4. Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
5. Reward, Revelation, or Plot Twist
They make session to session locations a breeze to make, giving you a nice, simple template to work with. I like that they are short, quick to make, and can be used for anything, not just dungeons. This really feeds my lazy prep style, and I enjoy making them. Here are six of my Five Room Dungeons.
1) Treasure Vault
Entrance or Guardian: Upon opening this hidden away area, you notice that it is or was recently inhabited. A tattered rug covers the floor, a table and two chairs sit off to the side, a small collection of books on a shelf of a bookcase, a comfy chair for reading them, and a long hallway stretches off in the distance. The rug hides a pressure plate that starts a slow rumbling in the hallway. If the players move immediately they can escape with no rolls required. If the players wait, they realize that they will be cut off from the rest of the dungeon if they don’t move. At this point a dexterity saving throw will get them past the falling rocks with no damage, half for failure. After the hall crumbles, it will take 250 man hours to unearth the whole 250 feet.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a woman, Sarin, caught in a circle of magical energy. She tells the party if the salt circle is broken, she can go free. She is a high level thief looking to loot the vault. She will betray the party if necessary.
Trick or Setback: This is a large room, it has small, mouse-sized holes that lead into hidden areas in the walls and ceiling. There is a hag, Hilda, hiding here who entered a pact to guard the vault for 101 years. If the vault is breached she will be trapped here forever. The hag uses the holes to enter the walls and cast from cover.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The vault is locked by a large circle divided into four quadrants. They are colored yellow, blue, brown, and white. To open the lock a spell from each element (fire, water, earth, and air) must be cast in succession. The order does not matter, as long as they are cast one after another.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Aside from gold in the vault, there is also a Ring of Three Whooshes. It can cast longstrider three times per day.
2) Giant Burial Chambers
Entrance or Guardian: An unnatural pond, on a mountain top far from much of anything. If you submerge yourself in the pond you will emerge in a dark, carved stone entry room with a similar pool.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: Three stone giant ghosts guard this area. They will warn the characters (in giant) not to disturb the contents of the tombs.
Trick or Setback: A stone giant lairs here, melded into the stone and watching over the tombs. He has been shunned by his people for something he did long ago.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: A fey lurks here in the shadows, seeking revenge on the giants that lay here. The fey will encourage the characters to seek the sword.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: A sword that contains their souls is here, if used and reduce a creature to 0 HP it will release a soul as a giant shadow under the wielder’s control for 1 hour before vanishing. It has 10 'charges' and turns to a non-magical sword after they are all used, damning the giants’ souls to the Abyss.
3) Shadow Monastery
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted monastery lies in near ruins; the veil between worlds is thin here and shadowy apparitions of the former students can be seen eternally practicing, trapped between life and death. An entrance can be found deep in the bowels of the old monastery, linking to a shadowfell version of the building.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A monk on the other side says that they are all trapped here by a bell that can be heard ringing in the distance.
Trick or Setback: If the party goes toward the sound they will have an encounter with aggressive monks.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The Bell is a construct with sonic attacks.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Before the monk leaves the shadowfell behind, he will open a portal back and give the party a ghost rune. The ghost rune can be transferred to a non-magical suit of armor or weapon. If attached to a weapon, the weapon can instead do cold or necrotic damage. If a creature is immune to cold damage, it is reduced to resistance for this attack; if it is resistant it is reduced to normal damage. If the creature does not have a resistance or immunity to cold damage and cold is chosen, critical hits do three times the normal effect.
4) Tower on the Border
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted tower is guarded by the ghost of a wizard; he warns that the darkness shall destroy you.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a black pudding here trapped in a large glass container with a door facing out. On the other side of this large room is an area that has one inch holes in the floor that go down twenty feet to a pressure plate that opens a secret blue portal. The pressure plate must have the weight of a large creature on it (the black pudding). The black pudding can then squeeze its way through a passage under the floor and back into the glass container through a hole in the bottom, resetting the puzzle.
Trick or Setback: There is a portal on each wall of this rectangular room, the one the characters step through changes to a different color (green). The other portals are (right to left) black, yellow, and red. If the players choose any but the black, they are teleported d4 hexes (24 miles each) away.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The wizard from the entrance is here and shadow touched. He is invisible and holds the key of a great cage that surrounds the party. There are signs of someone have been here recently and a tracking check will lead them to bump into the wizard. Defeating the crazy wizard or otherwise finding the key will let the PCs out of the cage. The wizard will explain how the players can get back using the closest shadow portal (d4x6 miles away).
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The wizard wears a Robe of Illusion, it has seventeen charges that can be used to can cast an illusion spell from zero to fourth level (DM chooses one spell per level). Each spell can be cast for the spells level +1 charge; e.g. a cantrip is 1 charge, a first level spell is 2 charges. It disintegrates after the last charge is used.
5) Prison of the Ravager
Entrance or Guardian: A shadowfell prison holds a bound carrion, or ghoul demon. To enter the foul jail requires a pound of flesh placed into a bedrock mortar in a large boulder in an out of the way place in the forest.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: The Ravager has been imprisoned here for countless years, he asks the party to free him and offers to make them generals in his army as well as lead them out of the prison.
Trick or Setback: This room contains five cauldrons full of burbling liquids. When the red, green, blue, yellow, and orange liquids are drank by themselves they do nothing, when mixed together they do a random result.
2 +1 strength
3 +1 intelligence
4 Paralyzed for an hour.
5 +1 wisdom
6-8 Aged by twenty five percent of current age.
9 +1 charisma
10 polymorphed into a sheep for an hour.
11 +1 constitution
12 +1 dexterity
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: An undead fey guards the exit and will die before he lets the demon leave. He knows the Ravager’s true name.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: There is a secret room that has a magic mouth that speaks the demon’s true name, Catullus.
6) Astral Erratic
Entrance or Guardian: An astral dragon, Ansmon, makes his lair in this huge chunk of rock and stages attacks on astral raiders from here.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A very young elven ranger named Laira resides here and serves as guardian to the dragon. She was captured infiltrating the dragon’s lair and has since joined the cause.
Trick or Setback: A monk, Ranek, lives here, forced into a contract when the dragon destroyed his monastery on a separate errand in the astral plane. He has been here for only a few years, arriving after Laira.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The dragon will attack any who enter here without Laira.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The dragon keep a journal of his conquests, including mind wiping Laira after destroying her trespassing family.
As you can see five rooms can vary greatly. A little inspiration and a half hour can generate two hours worth of content for your gaming table. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to try out this tactic next time you need a small destination.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture Reference: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/5-room-dungeons/
Depending on how you play the game, creating a backstory for your character is either the easiest or the hardest part of character creation. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the tabletop community for the last few years. Especially with the relatively recent influx of player thanks to the many mainstream representations of it such as Critical Role. In both seasons of that game, all of the players have had rather complex backstories that intermingle with both the world and the other players. Which can be intimidating. However, it isn’t terribly difficult if you have an outline. The first tip to give to any player, new or old, is to talk to your DM about backstory. They are the ones that will be able to help the most with integration into the world, because they are the ones who control the world. With that out of the way, I give you some story arcs.
1) The Redemption Arc
I mean, with Red Dead Redemption still being so hot, of course I would mention the redemption arc so I could name drop something that’s popular and increase the likelihood that someone stumbles onto this article while looking for something different. This is a very popular arc in both D&D and other forms of media because of how easy it is to build off of. If you used to be a criminal, then you likely have some contacts in the underbelly of society. If you betrayed them, then you likely have made a powerful enemy out of a thieves guild. You fled the country to avoid persecution? No contacts in the new one. You met a kind priest along the way who brought you to a church and began to make you pietus and bam you have your cleric with more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.
While this is very easy to write and work with, it can also be very interesting to play. The thought of working hard to fend off your more malevolent habits such as torture or violence can make for a very interesting dynamic, especially with good aligned characters, however make sure you don’t slip into murder hobo mode. Because no one wants to see the cleric stabbing a shop keep for a discount. I mean... I kinda want to see that. It’d be funny: “The power of Ao compels you… to give me a thirty percent discount.” Then the shopkeep is like, “I’m an atheist” and the cleric just starts chanting “by the power of Ao…” But all that aside, at its core the redemption arc allows for a lot of contrast within a character's personality, the residual gruffness from being a killer for hire contrasted by your new Paladin-esque oath, for example.
2) The Runaway Arc
At first you think “oh geez, is this guy just going to tell me to do what X-Men does with all its characters to trick the audience into caring about them?” And the answer to that question is yes… kind of. While the idea of a character running away from home because some sort of uncomfortable physical trait or power making people scared of them is novel in theory, in practice it only really works for certain groups of characters, in a tabletop setting. But here is the runaway explained better: for whatever reason, your original home is no longer an option to stay at and you flee to avoid death or further abuse. That’s it. The creativity comes from the reason. One of my players made a character who, as part of her backstory, was married away to an abusive noble to forge a peace treaty between her race and the humans that were beginning to settle in the area. Later, the noble violated the treaty and started a genocide of the race, while keeping the player character captive and treating her as something closer to a pet or trophy. She was abused both mentally and physically and she ended up running away from the place that she had lived her whole life. Not only did that set up a greater villain in her plot, but it also left her with a reason to adventure and travel. It even left the door open for random encounters during travel, as agents of the noble could track her down. In short, this backstory can wrap everything up in a nice little bow and even open a few doors for DMs.
The Runaway arc has a few endings which can really go in a number of directions. One is they return home after whatever force that opposes them is dealt with. Another would be that said force is destroyed, but so is their home in the process, forcing them back into the role of wanderer or having them decide to make a new home for themself and the people they used to live with. There is always the option that the force that opposes them never is defeated, and they simply change everything about themself and move on. All of this can be an appropriately dramatic way to flex your roleplaying muscles. Of course, if you’re just developing the character by the seat of your pants, then do whatever feels right in the moment. That is how most people play after all.
3) The Lost Soul Arc
We all know “that guy” who went backpacking through Europe and he like “totally found himself” and thought it was a “really spiritual experience” and that you should “totally do it sometime if you have the time to really connect with yourself.” While people like that, who will remain nameless (Keith), are typically obnoxious and won’t shut up about it, the need to find oneself is actually very common in the world. An old soldier who has seen too much death and wants to see what else the world has the offer other than blood, screams, and loss. A confused young wizard who has no idea what he’s going to do with all his academic knowledge, but knows he wants to see more. Even a lanky blonde douchebag whose dad paid for his two years off in Europe and wanted an excuse to eat foreign food and meet people whose grasp of english was poor enough to think he’s clever.
The Lost Soul Arc has a rather obvious conclusion; the finding of their purpose. It doesn’t have to be some great cosmic truth, perhaps the fact of the matter is, that young wizard was never happier than when he was with his wife and kid, so he hangs up the robe and wand to be the family man he’s happy being. Perhaps that grizzled veteran finds out that he has a passion for painting, and that's how he spends the rest of his days after his adventures. Of course at the same time, that young wizard could discover his spark for magic far surprasses almost all others and becomes the arcane protector of the entire kingdom, or as the veteran passes on into the next life a god approaches him and tells him of the fact that he was meant to be an instrument of war from birth, and that his stories will inspire hundred more young men and women to march headlong into danger for their loved ones. (He could take that a few ways depending on weather or not his perception on war has changed, but that's an article for another day.)
4) The Fallen Arc
Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, Gwyn Lord of Sunlight, and Michael Jackson all have something in common. They were all once much greater than they are considered now. This is definitely the most difficult one to work out with both your DM and yourself. It's a tricky process, turning dark. Bad eggs are rarely always bad, and a fall from grace is much easier to fit into a backstory, which would lead into a redemption arc, however if you want to develop your character in this direction it’ll 100% be something you need to work out with your DM and tell them about from the start. They would need to leave open opportunities for you to start exploring the darker side of your character. You’ll need to decide if your character plans to abandon, betray or simply continue to have conflict with the party. At least in most cases you’ll end up having some sort of conflict with the party as you begin this arc.
Of course the next thing to consider is that the most work often comes with the biggest payout. Your character could become the next BBEG of your DM’s next campaign. Your sudden but inevitable betrayal will certainly coax out the curses of your party, and as such maybe you’ll become the next villain of this campaign. Depending on how well liked your character was before their fall, it could cause major waves within your group, with both the players and the characters.
5) The Joe Schmo Arc
“It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” isn’t just something said by loveable farmers. You can say it too, in sharp ironic contrast with the imagery of you suplexing an orc into the dirt and snapping his neck instantaneously. This arc is seen time and time again. Good examples include Frodo and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, Harry from Harry Potter, and Kayley from the Quest for Camelot. A very good start for level one characters is just having them be a normal person who was swept away by circumstance. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time and everyone put you on a pedestal. For example, perhaps a giant monster was terrorizing your village and happened to fall off a cliff to his death, and you looked as if you were the one that rushed in and pushed him, when you were actually cowering. From there on you were heralded as a hero and slayer of monsters, despite only being a farmer for most of your life. The circumstances are wide open, and that is, once again, the best part. The development of these characters is always very unique, as a simple farm boy turns into an arch mage of near godly power, but still stops by home every other weekend to have dinner with mom and help milk the cows. The change of view is what changes the character and the literal gain of experience. Often times this is the best way to get a character that is shaped, almost entirely by the events that happen in game. Whether or not you consider that a good or bad thing, is up to you.
Really, this is the arc with the most built in comedy. It’s a big world out there, and having a view of the world where the best a person can get is a simple life with a family of 18 before dying at the ripe old age of 35 is typically very different from the reality of magic rich game universes. It’s very easy to forget the little guy when you’re out stopping wars, delving dungeons and slaying dragons. Being one of the little guys is very grounding for many parties out there (and in some cases can stop murderhobo-ing).
All of these are very general suggestions for characters and how they COULD develop. However, the simple fact of the matter is, more often than not you’re just better off building your character in response to the things that occur in game. You don’t have to have every little thing planned out from the beginning. The most important part of the game is the fun, and as long as everyone is having it, you’re playing it right.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/zuko-avatar-the-last-airbender-best-character
When coming up with a setting it’s easy to hit a block. Have you used up your creative juices on the last huge campaign you ran? Gotten halfway through and just got stuck? When writing up a campaign I like to use real world events to help my players connect to the game. “Write what you know,” as they say. So I have compiled a small list of six events in history that can be used to throw a bit of life into your creativity.
1) World Wars
The world wars were horrific, bloody and long lasting. If you have a huge campaign setting throw in one of your own wars, either one already started or one about to begin. Achtung Cthulhu! uses the backdrop of World War II to set its tone and offers an alternative timeline for supernatural and magical events throughout the war. Using this setting can be great for increasing tension or throwing your PCs into a huge battle to make them feel insignificant right before having to take on a great horror from the depth of space.
2) The Crusades
The crusades are similar in scale of the wars mentioned above but were very single sided in cause. A vast army of believers marched to cleanse the non believers from the lands. This concept could be used in many of your campaigns in various scales, whether a single cult or an army poised to attack a neighbouring land. This setting could be used very similarly to the world war setting with a more religious or belief driven story hook. Adding a magic system to this setting could be interesting, using it as the driving force of aggressor attempting to cleanse the land of magic or perhaps wishing to destroy ‘tainted’ magic similar to some wizards in the Harry Potter novels.
Long ago the greatest kingdoms sought to expand their empires by taking lesser kingdoms and utilising their resources. Colonisation was not met with warm welcomes; each smaller kingdom fought and most failed to deter the claims to their lands. The few perks of this were overshadowed by the treatment of the indigenous population and the attitude of the oppressors. Using this as a setting could set up guerrilla factions trying to stop their homes being taken by force, or even have the players on the side of the aggressor, enticing the players with land for conquering a region or simply wealth from the exploitation of the resources from with the area seized. Either way you could persuade the players with an item of great significance or usefulness to the party and let them decide how best to acquire it.
4) Cold War
The cold war was a tense time between nations and sparked a large espionage campaign by multiple countries. Tested alliances and covert treachery was rife throughout this period and makes a perfect setting for covert missions into enemy territory and delivering misinformation to sway events in your favour. This is the best conflict to read up on if you are interested in spy versus spy settings and can be readily applied to many cyberpunk style games.
5) Navajo Conflicts
The Navajo Conflicts were a series of battles ranging from skirmishes to raids between the Navajo people and various enemies including the Spanish and the American military. Using this as a setting could inspire very low tech guerrilla style combat where the party must infiltrate an enemy base steal supplies and escape unnoticed before beginning a full scale assault on the enemy positions.
These have been rife throughout history, anywhere there is power to be exploited there will be those who wish to do so. From Hitler to Castro there will always be people who feel superior to others. There will always be people who think that their ideals are more important than the public, those who believe that they are the only salvation for their country and will defend their power with everything they have. The perfect time for a band of misfits to come blow stuff up. Enter your PCs and a storyline that takes them on an opposing view from the dictator and let the chaos ensue.
History can teach us many lessons in real life and in our roleplaying games. If you do use a setting from history read up on it and find out the motivations behind the conflicts and how it affected the people around it. Try to find a way to allow your PCs to feel like they are part of a true struggle in their game world so they want to help the cause and no just farm the loot. There are many many more settings you can look into throughout history and chances are if you have read it in a supplement it probably has real world ties that you can look into and adjust for your own use.
Ross Reid is an RPG enthusiast who loves all things roleplay, from creating a local group to sponsored gaming marathons, he will dip his toe into anything that catches his eye.
Image source https://www.deviantart.com/zguernsey/art/Men-Of-Honor-111150790
I pay attention to what newbies ask in regards to running games, or what they hope to achieve. The common thread I find is about how to make or plan a more epic campaign. I always advise against making long term plans in games, because players very quickly derail things. For that reason, I always suggest learning how to improvise (a topic we’ve talked about quite a bit at High Level Games).
It’s still never the advice people want, though; they’re hell bent on planning a big elaborate campaign. In their defence, they may not have felt the crushing defeat that comes with a game falling to pieces before it gets to the good stuff you’ve planned. Or if they have, they remain optimistic about their long running campaign. (Good on you if you have that optimism.)
With that in mind, I have another unconventional piece of advice: plagiarize. I realize that’s a loaded term, and also often confused with copyright, but hear me out. When we’re in art or music class, we learn the basics before we go off developing our own style. To do that, we often copy what our teacher’s do, and what they do is copy masters who came well before them. This was even done by Hunter S. Thompson, an outstanding journalist and writer from the 1960’s and 70’s.
What I’m suggesting is this: if you’re new, borrow the plot lines from somewhere else, and adapt them to your new medium. Video games seem like a good place to start, since they’re a medium built around interactive story with challenge built into them. So with all that said, let’s look at some video game plots you can adapt into your roleplaying games!
1) Collect The Items To Defeat The Evil
As Seen In: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy 1
There’s a great evil out there, and in order for the hero to defeat it, they must first collect a bunch of random items. In the original Final Fantasy, it was the four elemental crystals the Warriors of Light were looking for. Meanwhile, in Legend of Zelda, there’s usually some series of trials or items Link needs to collect before he can get the Master Sword and teach Ganon a lesson about screwing around with Hyrule.
Almost every Legend of Zelda game is just one giant series of fetch quests, yet the formula never gets old. This is because there’s always a feeling of progression as the player is exploring and completing dungeons. To replicate this same sort of feeling around a game table, be generous with the magical items if you aren’t normally. If they’re looking for elemental crystals like in Final Fantasy, go ahead and include things like a short sword +1 that’s made of never-melting ice in the dungeon with the ice elemental crystal.
2) Defeat The Minions To Reach The Evil
As Seen In: Megaman, the last world in Final Fantasy 5
Much like our first point, there’s a great evil out there, but to reach it, the players first have to defeat all of their equally evil minions first! In Megaman, this was the 8 Robot Masters you combat before tackling Dr. Wily’s Castle, or in the very end of Final Fantasy 5 when you’re wandering through the void looking for the Exdeath, you encounter all manner of other evil beings loyal to him that were hitherto unmentioned. This can be used in conjunction with the first point, as it was in Final Fantasy 5, or on it’s own like in Megaman. In either case, progression remains important.
For an interesting twist, you can make the minions optional, as a few entries in the Megaman X series have done. However, to execute this well, you mustn’t scale down the big evil, the minions should serve to prepare the heroes in some way. If you insist on taking on the final boss fair, though, you can always make a tactical retreat an option. (As Final Fantasy 5 does when the heroes enter the void; they can freely leave at any time.)
3) Chasing After The Evil To Defeat Them
As Seen In: Super Mario Brothers, the first disc of Final Fantasy 7
Evil isn’t always stationary. They’re either always on the move, like Sephiroth in the beginning of Final Fantasy 7, or they’ve got multiple fortresses throughout the land and are constantly running from one to the next when the heroes catch up, such as in many of the later Super Mario games.
This one is ideal for GMs who like to make maps and track how worlds change based on PC and NPC actions, and also provides some interesting twists! If the evil has a lot of fortresses and gained too much ground in the chase, the heroes could decide to instead draw the evil to them by razing the fortresses. Additionally, locals who were liberated by the heroes during the chase could help slow down evil should they wind up needing to backtrack during their flight.
4) Rebuilding After The Evil Has Done Their Worst
As Seen In: Dark Cloud, recurring theme in Final Fantasy 14’s Realm Reborn arc
Sometimes, evil wins and everything is destroyed, as is the case of the PS2 game Dark Cloud. The journey is all about reversing the damage as you strive to find a way to prevent another such catastrophe. In the Final Fantasy 14 Realm Reborn arc, evil was stopped, but at a great cost, and the story continues with a new generation of heroes picking up the pieces.
If a big cataclysmic battle happens, that may lead to collateral damage. If mighty spells are flung by both sides, what sort of impact would that have on the cosmology? How might it have scarred the landscape? The villages razed by an evil overlord don’t necessarily come back just because the one who razed them was defeated. If the cause of the evil is gone, there’s still the task of figuring out what damage was done, and how to fix it.
You’ve no doubt noticed a theme with all these, or at least that they’re all very similar or even overlap in some cases. That’s because there’s only so many original ideas, so much so that scholars have found how every story can be intertwined into one another, and even given this phenomenon a name: The Hero’s Journey.
Furthermore, just as every story archetype is inevitably intertwined, so is the history of video games and tabletop games; they’re both games that eventually came to be adapted as storytelling media. Players give their input, it gets parsed, the state of the game is updated, and story is progressed. The only difference is that video games use machines that can do the parsing.
However, what works for a video game, won’t necessarily work for tabletop. It’s expected that in a video game that things will be locked off; certain doors will only open if you have a key. In a tabletop game, however, expectations are different. If I have a super human strength and can smash wood and stone columns easily, why can’t I bash down a door made of similar materials?
And THAT, my fledgling GM friends, is why improvisation is also important: so you can keep your epic campaign moving along without a hitch!
Aaron der Schaedel once wrote for a now defunct website called Game Master’s Game Table, and one of his favorite articles for that site was one telling the intertwined history of video games and tabletop ones. This was his attempt at a spiritual successor to that article. Something something, absurd plug for his Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://na.finalfantasyxiv.com/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games