A friend is currently running a kickstarter for his wild west roleplaying game Ballad of the Pistolero. Last time I looked the game was just over one third funded. By a strange coincidence I am also working on a wild west themed roleplaying game and the two of us produce games that are about as far apart as one could get. Mine is more fast paced cinematic action of Saturday morning Lone Ranger and Casey Jones. Ballad of the Pistolero is akin to the Old West of fiction from The Searchers, to The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Red Dead Redemption.
On December 31st I pulled my Indiegogo crowdfunding project, a matter of hours before it went live. I had created all of the assets for it right down to video trailers. I decided that crowdfunding was not the way I wanted to go. What I have seen in 2019 has only reinforced by opinion that Kickstarters are not necessarily the ‘good thing’ for games that they are portrayed as.
If you had ambitions to write your own RPG and fund it through a kickstarter then you may be interested in my reservations. Maybe you will look at them, take them on board and address the concerns to your own satisfaction. At the very least your business plan will be a little bit better and stronger for having looked at potential problems, and thereafter having a solution in place should I be right.
1) Where Do Your Sales Come From?
The most basic kickstarter or crowdfunder is based on, pledge money and get advance access to the final game. In effect it is a pre-order system. There are normally tiers of rewards and the more you pledge the more you get. Lower tiers offer PDF copies of the final game and then higher tiers bundle in printed rules and even hardback editions. So why is this a problem? The problem is that if you have a large number of pre-orders, even if everyone you know, and everyone they know, that has any interest in your game has it on pre-order where are future sales going to come from?
2) You Don’t Get What You See
If you have a pledge target of $3,000 and you hit $3,000, you do not get $3,000. There are two big slices that get taken out before you get to spend your war chest. The first is the platform fees. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are not charities. They exist to make money and they are going to take a typical 8% of the total pledged. Then there is tax. The money pledged is taxable income and the tax man/woman is going to take their slice. After those two a $3,000 target leaves you with little over $2,000 to actually spend on finishing your game.
3) Fulfilled By Drivethru
This is not OneBookShelf’s fault in any way but a great number of kickstarters are fulfilled via Drivethrrpg.com. What this means is that they will handle sending out all the PDFs and eventual printed books for you. You upload your supporters list with what needs to be dispatched and they do the rest. You then just send them the money for any printing and delivery. So where is the problem you ask?
The problem as such is not with the fulfillment (that is a great service) but with the way that OneBookShelf and DriveThruRPG rank games. They only count the games that people pay money for. A game that sold one copy for a single cent will outrank a game that has a million free downloads. Therein lies the problem, all your sales were pre-orders and the money doesn’t go through the tills, so to speak. You could send out a thousand copies of your game and it will be nowhere on the popularity rankings.
4) The Real Cost Of Stretch Goals
Many kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns have additional rewards if they exceed their initial goals. You may think you need $3,000 to finish your game, but what if you raise $5,000 or $10,000? You may think that it is a nice problem to have, and in some ways it is. Where the problems start is with the danger of over committing yourself and unforeseen expenses. Along with this is the sheer production time. You probably have your game already written before you even started your kickstarter, but what if you are now committed to producing a GM’s screen and ten adventures?
Your production queue now extends months further into the future and you will want to send out all these things at once to your backers to save on post and packaging. Suddenly, you have a big lag between completing your game and sending out the goods to your backers.
This also touches on that ‘future sales’ issue. If everyone already owns everything, do they need to buy more?
If there are unexpected expenses with any of these stretch goals, like your artist ups their rates as they didn’t realise the project was going to take up so much of their time, you cannot go back to the backers and ask for more money.
5) Natural Born Failure
In many respects Kickstarters are popularity contests. It is not the best games that get funded, it is the game designers with the most social muscle who can get the word out about the game. Sure, great art helps. A game trailer video helps. If no one thinks to search for you kickstarter though, no one is going to see or read about it. You need to shout it from the tree tops, figuratively speaking and for that you need a big audience.
If you kickstarter doesn’t succeed then your game has started life as a ‘failed’ kickstarter. If you try again, your profile shows how many campaigns you have tried and how many succeeded. Starting life as a failure is not exactly auspicious.
Trying to fund a new game is always going to involve an element of risk. At the time of writing there were 525 tabletop role playing games looking for funding and another 20 on Indiegogo all vying for your money and support.
If you can make it work for your game, that’s great, but that is against a backdrop of John Wick Presents, who raised $1.3M for 7th Sea 2nd Edition, being unable to deliver. The company laid off staff and push back delivery time but could not avoid the eventual death of John Wick Presents, in March, when it was gobbled up by Chaosium Inc. If that is what success looks like, it could be time to reevaluate one’s goals!
There are success stories out there. There must be or Kickstarters would never have caught on, but there is a vested interest to publicise the success stories to make pledgers trust the platform. Games publishers want to tell the world about their successful campaigns as it makes the game look popular and successful.
As for my little wild west game, it is out on Drivethrurpg as a free to download playtest edition and quickstart. So far it has had 325 downloads and more daily. Maybe, just maybe the number of people who have downloaded the game will be my audience and I may go for a kickstarter in the end but I probably won’t. I think I would rather take my chances in the general marketplace and avoid the worry.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Cover image copyright Peter Rudin-Burgess
Please take a moment to consider supporting this platform at Patreon. Also, please note this article gets pretty vulgar, and contains mild spoilers for a whole crapload of shows, movies, and video games, most notably Halo and Assassin’s Creed.
Everyone's been there. You're at the table, Cheetos in hand, dice at the ready, and the GM gives you that look. That look. The 'I'm-so-great' look. That smug half-smile that tells you they're about to drop their latest display of their own genius (or edginess, or creativity, or whatever) on you and your unsuspecting comrades.
Except whatever it is, you've seen it. You haven't just seen it, you've seen it done a million times, backwards and forwards, ever since you were a wee baby gamer critting your nappies. Maybe it’s cringey, maybe it’s just played out, but either way, you’re sick of it. Good news: so am I! So let’s get all these pet peeves out on the table.
1) Questgiver Betrays You
If my entire career’s contribution to gaming is to get people to do this one less, my life will not have been spent in vain. I suppose I can hardly be shocked that this crap shows up in our tabletop games over and over, because it shows up in our larger media over and over as well. Grognards, look back at our formative adventure media, like Buffy, Xena, Hercules, Charmed, Highlander: how many episodes revolved around the titular hero(es) being asked for help by some put-upon victim only to find out that the ‘victim’ was either setting them up for an ambush, or using them as a catspaw to eliminate a rival (and probably then die in an ambush…)? It’s okay, you don’t have to answer. And if you haven’t seen any of these shows, then spoiler alert: it’s all of them.
This trope turns up in video games, too. Like, all of them. Linear games like the first installments of Assassin’s Creed and Halo went through a period in the early 2000’s where virtually every game was built on a framework of a mysterious knowledge holder parceling out jobs for you only to betray you in the end, usually fighting you with an arsenal of shit you’d handed to them. Fortunately, video games now have moved on to the era where the only type of game anyone makes anymore (other than indy sidescrollers where you play a deformed cartoon child who’s dreaming and/or dead) are massive sandbox games, where we can joyfully exchange the predictable disappointment of being betrayed by the primary questgiver for the mind-numbing tedium of being betrayed over and over by an endless stream of sidequest-givers!
I’m a huge fan of stealing things from books, movies, TV shows, and video games for your TTRPGs. Do that, as much as possible. But don’t steal this concept. Like, ever.
2) The Treasure Was A Fake
Now, don’t get me confused: I’m not talking about a Maltese Falcon situation, where the treasure the story is ostensibly centered around turns out to have been counterfeit. If the true goal of your story or campaign was something else, with the treasure as a MacGuffin to move things along, then go with God.
No, no, I mean when the primary goal of a story is a specific treasure (be it actual money, a magic item, or even a person) and the end result of the story is that the promised treasure isn’t just not where they thought it would be, but that it never existed in the first place (or has long since been destroyed).
Here’s the deal: that treasure is the carrot you’ve used to goad us poor pack mules into moving this story along for you. We’ve dutifully carried your GM baggage up all these goddam hills, over the rickety bridges, and we force marched through the night for you. Now it's time to pay up. I understand that sometimes an interesting bait-and-switch keeps a game exciting, so you need to give the asses across the table from you an apple or a bag of oats instead of the promised carrot. But if you don’t give us anything, then it’s not a cooperative journey anymore, it’s just animal abuse.
3) You Wake Up Pregnant
It’s a tale as old as TTRPGs themselves. The men in the group carouse like there’s no tomorrow. Elven prostitutes are purchased by the truckload. Farmer’s daughters fall before the bard in droves. The moment the one woman in the group dares to take a dashing stevedore to her bedchamber, though, suddenly the tone shifts. The next morning, as the group prepares to depart, she suffers a sudden and “unexplained” bout of nausea.
Right about then, I do too.
I’m not talking about situations where there’s a good story reason. 99 times out of 100, that isn’t the case with this silliness. It’s almost always a reactionary lashing out. The woman character is being punished for daring to express sexuality, while the men continue to dip their wicks with impunity without fear of pregnancy (I cannot help but notice that the elven hookers and farmers’ daughters of the world return demanding child support with far less frequency than the lady adventurers wind up trying to find the Middle Earth family planning center) nor the rampant sexually transmitted diseases they ought to be racking up.
4) It Was All a Dream
AKA, the coward’s way out of a TPK.
Now I don’t mean a scene which is clearly a nightmare or a vision; that’s totally fair game. I mean scenes where the players made meaningful progress in their stories, suffered meaningful consequences (and yes, that progress might have been a fatal mistake leading to the consequence of dying), and are then told all that time was just meaningless. Nothing steals the impact from an important event like finding out it was all a hallucination.
Most of the time this is a problem, it’s because the GM is trying to fix something they screwed up. Even when they planned it out, this shtick can fall flat if it falls into the valley of mundanity: the dream sequence is engaging enough that the players care about what happened in it, but mundane enough that it seems believable. You need to either have a clue here or there that something is wrong, to prevent them from feeling that the rug is getting yanked out from under them, or else you need to go full-tilt Hellraiser on them and make the adventurers beg to wake up in a urine-soaked bedroll.
5) He Was Just an Old Man!
The heroes have successfully infiltrated the villain lair, and finally spotted him: the dastardly mastermind is caught unawares or jumps out to menace them. They roll initiative, start throwing fists, and to their shock, pulp the boss in one shot. Like, horrendously. Usually accompanied by a gruesome description of necks shattering, eyes bulging, and blood flying. Unless you’re playing a hyper-moral game (like most superhero RPGs), there will inevitably be a frightened eyewitness to point a horrified finger and scream about what monsters the PCs are.
“Look what you did! He was just an old man!”
Look, I get it: most heroes tend to pull the “Get ‘er, Ray!” plan as their primary tactic. It can be frustrating as a GM, but this ends up backfiring most of the time. In many TTRPGs, letting the villain go first will often spell certain death for PCs or innocent bystanders, and unless their recklessness is really out of control and you need to give them a reality check, pulling this trick on your players makes them doubt their own abilities. A villain who controls a vast network of evil minions in a setting where adventuring vigilantes are common shouldn’t be going down in a single stroke to aforementioned vigilantes.
6) Oh Look, Another Evil Child
In many ways the exact opposite of the last trope. You’ve seen this one over and over: the veneer of innocent child, and in a shocking twist, the kid is evil! Ooh, surprising! Unless you’ve already seen The Omen, Children of the Corn, the Exorcist, The Good Son, The Bad Seed, select episodes of Buffy, Angel, Highlander, and the X-Files, or every third episode of Supernatural…
You need innocent kids (and innocent bystanders). That kind of hook is your nuclear option for getting recalcitrant players invested in a plot, and when you suborn it like this, you screw yourself over in the long run.
My players would probably make the argument that ‘Sweet Elderly Person Who Turns Out to Be a Supernatural Powerhouse’ should fall under this heading too, but fuck ‘em. That one’s my bread and butter, and I’m going to run that particular horse is never too dead for me to beat one more time.
No, wait. You know what? I’ve got one more bonus pet peeve. A repetitious occurrence that’s been infuriating me the last few hours:
Bonus: This Shitty Listicle
Seriously. Who does this guy think he is? If I think back on my absolute favorite moments in gaming, a huge number of them fall under one of these headings, or used one of these tropes to further their story. So why do I hate them so much? Why would I break my normal rule about negative articles and spend hours writing the most hateful soapbox speech I could think of?
Look, I think these ideas are played out. I’ve seen them over and over again, and gotten seriously tired of them over the years. Does that mean they’re bad ideas? Not necessarily. In point of fact, like most things that are ‘basic,’ they’re so widespread because they’re extremely enjoyable. You could use any one of these ideas and craft a pretty damn good story.
So what’s the takeaway? Maybe just keep an eye on your friends, and try to be aware of what tropes are getting overused in your group. When you get more than one eyeroll at a reveal, maybe it isn’t your voicework or the monster that’s getting the reaction; maybe it’s the set-up that folks are tired of seeing.
In an event, what are your favorite tropes to hit over and over again? Which story tropes are you absolutely sick of seeing repeated ad infinitum?
In addition to being a complete hypocrite who has used every single one of these tropes multiple times, Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. He enjoys writing for High Level Games when he isn’t writing for the Black Library or Mad Scientist Journal. His most can be found in Inferno! (vol 2) from Black Library. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter.
Picture Reference: http://lukebrimblecombe.blogspot.com/2015/08/fantasy-tropes.html
Fifth edition D&D is relatively free of any complicated or confusing mechanics. From its very conception, it was meant to be a more streamlined version of the game. This not only made it more accessible, but it also allowed for people to become more invested in the game because they didn’t have to sift through two books just to find the correct things to add together to find they were looking for the wrong ability the whole time. But at the same time, for a lot of people, it took a lot of the “meat” out of the gaming experience. I personally lie somewhere in the middle. I think too many mechanics can choke a game and not enough can make it feel bland. 5E D&D lands in a strange position for me, where I think it has plenty of interesting mechanics that it just doesn’t utilize enough. Here are some of those mechanics and some ways I think they should be used more.
1) Damage Resistance And Immunity (And Vulnerability)
Now, I’m sure you’re moaning that this is something that is all over the place in 5e monsters. However, I am of the opinion that there should be more resistance and immunity opportunities for players. There are a lot of ways to gain condition immunities. But damage is something that is so dangerous to start allowing characters to ignore. It can become very difficult to balance. But I think the important thing to remember here is that if you make more powerful characters you can make more powerful encounters. Now, I understand that having everything being scaled up constantly can make the game drag on and make encounters stay past their welcome, but I think this is a way to make characters feel more powerful without having to shake things up too much.
You gave a character fire immunity but still want them to take the full damage of a fireball for some purpose? Change the damage type of the spell. There are so many different damage types that giving players resistances and immunities essentially have no long term impact, but throwing their favored damage type at them occasionally will still make them feel more powerful. It also allows for more interesting battle strategies, where players can use other players to draw fire or be a meatshield.
Another thing to consider with damage resistances is armor. In the real world, armor was made to counter certain weapons. Plate armor, for example, was fantastic against piercing and slashing weapons but could be crippled by bludgeoning forces that could bend or crack the metal. So you could give a character using plate resistance to both piercing and slashing weapons and vulnerability to bludgeoning weapons.
2) The Battlemaster Subclass. The Whole Thing.
I will sing my praise for the battlemaster subclass until the day I perish, and on that day I will request that they carve the PHB page number for the subclass and the words “look upon my works ye mighty, and despair” onto my gravestone. When this request is inevitably ignored, I’ll go to whatever afterlife has been selected for me and I will then complain that there were far too many subclasses that gave spells to classes that didn’t need them and far too few that gave interesting multi-use abilities to classes that begged for them.
If there was a single ranger subclass that was modeled after the battlemaster subclass, by the gods I would make a dozen more rangers on the spot. A great example of this is a Roguish Archetype made by The Huntsman over on DMs Guild. It wonderfully implements these similar mechanics into the game under another beloved base class. (You should really check out their stuff, they’ve put a lot of work into their subclasses and I think it really shows.)
The battlemaster subclass is *mwah* beautiful. It allows for personalization within itself and adds so many layers of strategy in such a simple way. It’s a real shame that more abilities aren’t able to be used multiple times in a similar fashion. Of course, it’s understandably a lot of work, and there's a lot of balancing issues behind making something like that. So I suppose I’m happy that there's already one subclass that’s like this.
Reactions are probably my favorite addition to this edition. They allow for an extra fluidity to combat and let players feel like they have more influence. Personally, as a DM if a player says, “Can I use my reaction to try and XYZ if he misses me?” More often than not, I’ll let them. But for the people who don’t like stepping that far outside of the rule book, reactions can often feel a little distant. Sure there are some spells and abilities that allow for them, but most of those are highly situational. I suppose what I’m asking for is more general purpose reactions.
A parry. A riposte. Both are already battlemaster abilities but that's, not the point. What if every class had a base reaction ability to being missed by an attack? A wizard is missed and gets to cast a cantrip as a reaction. A fighter is missed and gets to attempt a disarm. A monk is missed and is allowed to make a counter attack (without bonuses). I personally believe that of all the mechanics that are underused on this list, reactions are the most egregious offenders. There’s so much to put into this little mechanic and a lot of space for both utility and flavor in it. Yet it’s mostly just sitting there. Waiting. Alone in the dark. With a tub of ice cream. It still remembers her smile. Her laugh. He hasn’t shaved in far too long.
Then a wizard cast shield and he felt a little better.
In everyone's life, there are moments where nobody is really doing anything impactful. Where you’re just doing the 9-5 and going day to day. Now, for adventurers, their downtime normally consists of hunting down the next job, but there's so much more they could be doing. Business, mingling, gambling, and building are all possible endeavors they can set out on and spend time on. If they start up a business, not only do you have something to keep players interested in the story, but they also have something to give them money to spend on other investments.
In my humble opinion, downtime is a surprisingly good way to get your players invested in the world. It keeps them busy, and it reminds them that there's more to the world than dragons and orcs and necromancers. There are people out there just trying to get by. There are places out there that no one can ever quite settle in to. There are pocketbooks out there just waiting to be emptied. Everyone is trying to make their fortune. Downtime is a good way to explore a new type of fortune for players that can get as in-depth as they would like.
There is a lot more to say about the failings of 5e in regards to the mechanic saturation in the game. But in all honesty, it’s a near perfect mixture when you take into account how diverse the average gaming table is. 5e D&D is really a home run in a lot of different ways, and it will always hold a special place in my heart. The available options for character customization are abundant and interesting. There really isn’t much else to say other than the combat and mechanics sometimes just lack that satisfying crunch. Even though this is my favourite mixture of roleplaying and mechanics yet.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://merovia.obsidianportal.com/wiki_pages/battle-master
I used to have a bad habit of not knowing, or not remembering, where I had seen interesting game systems and supplements. More often than not I had to just Google it. If, like me, you've grown tired of all the scrolling and searching, and just want to jump into the good parts of buying RPGs online, then this list may help. These sites are where I go whenever I’m on the prowl for something juicy to sink my teeth into. From system specific to ‘just-about-everything-under-one-virtual-roof,’ this list compiles my favourite sites for downloads and hard copies of RPG content and essentials.
1) Drive Thru RPG
If you’ve looked into RPGs online you’ve definitely heard of it. Everything you could possibly want or need in one place for so many games, systems, and genres that there’s something for everyone on this site. Not only do they sell digital downloads, they also do hard copies and print-on-demand when available, shipping costs are fair. This is the site I began my upward spiral into RPGism (similar to video game addiction but better) and is a go-to when I struggle to find what I’m searching for elsewhere. They also have themed holiday sales with my favourite being the run up to Halloween and their horror themed sale.
2) Game Lore
More than just RPGs, Game Lore covers all kind of games, from card games like Eldritch Horror to board games like Settlers of Catan and more. As a result of the vast and diverse library of games their RPG section is less than DriveThruRPG, but still substantial enough to keep me coming back time and again. The interface is easy to use, with categories and subcategories to quickly jump between departments. Game Lore has regular sales as well as a ‘damaged’ section which usually means slight dents on the box with the contents being 100% untouched.
A publisher of solid RPGs, from Achtung! Cthulhu to Fallout and Mutant Chronicles. They also provide wargames setin the universes of the RPGs, offering you the chance to not only play your hero, but also try your hand at some tactics as you decide who wins the battle going on in the background of your last campaign. Modiphius is a retail site I check in on once in a while, as I love the Achtung! Cthulhu game and they provide their customers with free living campaigns. Make sure to sign up to their newsletter, which is crammed with all the good news from their top notch systems and games.
4) Evil Hat
Another independant site, they have a great selection of games as well asmy favourite system (FATE). They also have a wide variety of world books for the FATE system and a whole lot of physical aids such as dice and cards. The site is nice-looking as well as easy to navigate. I’m on this site more than I need to be really, but I just love looking at what's new in their world! This is also the home of the Dresden Files games based off of the books written by Jim Butcher, and the ‘Improv for Gamers’ book designed to help give new and rusty players a little tune-up.
5) Humble Bundle
A great site that combines various hobbies with charitable donations, Humble often has a variety of sales for RPG PDFs. The last one I saw was a huge stock of Pathfinder supplements, as well as the core rules and bestiaries, with the Starfinder core rules thrown in for the big spenders. All that came to around $20 for the lot, so swoop on by if you want to grab a bargain at the same time as making a donation to a good cause.
Hopefully you’ll enjoy your time browsing through even more RPGs than before. Fingers crossed that you find your next great adventure within the pages of these sites or even rediscover an old favourite! Whatever you do, I hope you have a great time, whatever you play.
Ross Reid has been reviewing games and RPGs privately for many years until he was approached by High Level Games to come write for them, and is currently working on a fantasy novel. Ross enjoys all kinds of games to procrastinate.
Picture Reference: https://www.specialeffect.org.uk/specialeffect-news/a-fantastic-humble-rpg-book-bundle
Even though a large portion of people participate in play-by-post games, most roleplaying games are written assuming you will play live, either in person or online. The guidelines written in these books as well as the rules, sometimes simply do not support play-by-post to the best of its ability. I have recently started a play-by-post game, only to realise most of my GM experience was useless. For this reason, I’m sharing what I have recently learnt when playing a play-by-post.
1) Speed Up Dialogues
When playing a live game, you want to keep things as natural as possible, thus making interactions last long and having multiple comings and goings between the characters involved. In a play-by-post this is simply not feasible. Take the following dialogue for example:
- ‘You there! Guard!’ called out Jaeger the Paladin.
- The guard, turned around to face him: ‘Yes? What is it citizen?’
- Jaeger, running to the guard and out of breath exclaimed, ‘Have you seen a man wearing a red hood?’
- ‘A red hood? Perhaps, what’s this about?’ demanded the guard.
- ‘He has stolen a special belonging of mine, I need to find him,' said Jaeger
- The guard smirked ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’
- Jaeger quelling his anger for the corrupt city watch, barked ‘I’ll give you a gold coin, just tell me where he is!’
- Taking the coin in his hand and biting it the guard replied ‘He went that way, through the sewer entrance, though I hardly recommend you go there. That’s the Knives’ territory it is.’
This simple dialogue which would take less than a minute in a live game, could take hours or days in a play-by-post game. It involves four posts from a player and four from a GM, assuming they check the game twice a day, that’s two days at best for this interaction to resolve.
Now, we could clean it up a bit and organize it as such:
- ‘You there! Guard!’ called out Jaeger the Paladin. ‘Have you seen a man wearing a red hood? He has stolen a special belonging of mine!’ he exclaimed, leaning on a wall to catch his breath.
- ‘A red hood?’ the guard asked. ‘Might be I did, what’s in it for me?’ he said smirking.
- Jaeger, quelling his anger for the corrupt city watch, barked, ‘I’ll give you a gold coin, just tell me where he is!’
- Taking the coin in his hand and biting it the guard replied, ‘He went that way, through the sewer entrance, though I hardly recommend you go there. That’s the Knives’ territory it is.’
By simply adjoining as much text as we can into a single post, we have cut down the time by half, and that’s a significant amount of game time.
2) Share the Narrative
Depending on the style of play, most of the time players will be asking the GM whether they can attempt something, if there is something in the scene available for them to interact with, or if they may move their character to another scene or location. For there to be ease of play, this must be removed entirely. Players should be encouraged to try things without asking. The GM intervening should be the exception, and not the rule. That way we can turn this:
- Player: ‘Is there a mug on a nearby table?’
- GM: ‘Yes, there are plenty of mugs and bottles around. Why do you ask?’
- Player: ‘Can I throw it at the men fighting?’
- GM: ‘Sure, go for it!’
- Player: ‘I grab a mug from a nearby table and throw it at the men fighting in an attempt to call their attention.’
3) Ignore Initiative
Combat is fun, until you need to synchronize several people living in different time zones for it to work. Having to wait for each previous player to act before deciding what your character does increases the game time greatly. To solve this, simply have all players post what their characters will attempt when their turn comes, and then resolve it simultaneously or in order of Initiative. This might require some tweaking depending on the game system being used, but it’s the best way of reducing combat time.
4) Keep the Pace Up
Normally a game is recommended to have its ups and downs, moments of tension followed by moments of relaxation. With a play-by-post game its difficult to extend the tension over periods of hours or days, so most players will be pretty relaxed when playing, regardless of what is happening. Building up the pace could take days or even weeks, so just go ahead and go straight to the action. Instead of leading them slowly into the adventure hook, have them start directly at the hook.
5) Play Simultaneously
In a live game, it’s impossible for two players to be talking to the GM at the same time, so it’s OK for other players to wait for their turn. In a play-by-post, everyone can be playing at the same time. It should not only be allowed, it should be encouraged. This saves a tremendous amount of time, the GM can reply to several messages at the same time and keep the momentum going.
6) Be Clear
Each time the GM or a player has to ask exactly what you meant in your last post, that's time lost. Try to avoid unclear or implicit posts. When attempting tests be sure to explain the What, How, and Why of the test. You can read more about it in my other post: 5 Things Players Should Consider Before a Skill Test.
In general, you should strive to reduce the amount of posts needed by all players to the minimum possible, that ensures the story advances in a steady fashion and everyone has an opportunity to participate and have fun, which is always the objective of roleplaying.
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebones casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
So, here’s the deal, guys and gals:
I have never, in all my time roleplaying, seen such enthusiastic fervor for Dungeons & Dragons. Late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers are coming back to the game in droves. Millennials are discovering the game for the first time, and in many cases, since 5th Edition is the first edition of the game that they’ve played, they’re becoming masters of the rules and living archives of spell duration and effect, creature difficulty and Hit Dice, and the ins and outs of class sub-specialty versus bi-classed characters… and somewhere, in the middle, there are some pretty awesome groups playing games every week with all of the diversity in culture, sex and background that anyone could possibly want. Husbands are finally playing Dungeons & Dragons with wives, Fathers and mothers with sons and daughters, and the internet has made players and Dungeon Masters in one-horse towns in Nevada or snowed-in hinterlands in Michigan reachable via Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Discord; reachable by players and Dungeon Masters in Glasgow, or the UAE, or a military duty station in Bahrain.
The games are out there. Finding a great group is a wonderful thing. It can be done, and now, it can be done more easily than ever. However, there are a few things to keep in mind for players both new and old coming back to Dungeons & Dragons or who are discovering the game for the first time.
1) Be On Time
We have a saying in the military; if you’re not fifteen minutes early getting to where you’re supposed to be, then you’re late. Don’t be late to game night. At least, don’t be late to game night without calling, texting or sending out an email to let everyone know that you’re going to be late or that you’ve run into something that will keep you from attending the game altogether. There are any number of avenues with which the absence of a player can be handled, and ultimately, it’s up to the DM. However, it is polite to let your fellow players and DM know well in advance of the start time for a game session if you’re going to be late or if you won’t be attending.
I’ve also had DMs no call/no show on an entire assembled gaming group who are waiting for him or her. As a matter of fact, that is exactly how I began running the campaign that I am running now. This is a little more detrimental to an assembled group, and in all honesty, a lot harder to recover from. If you’re lucky, you’ll have another member of your group that is able to pick up the ball that the absent DM dropped. If not, you’re just hanging around when you could probably be doing something more constructive with your time.
My suggestion would be to obtain phone numbers and email addresses on the very first night that the group assembles, even before character creation. Use these tools to communicate with one another. I use my players’ emails to handle down-time/long rest activity in between sessions, and I have made it absolutely clear to my players that not communicating an absence is something I’ll only let happen twice, and on the second time, I’ll ask them to leave the group due to the overall lack of respect that they’ve shown myself and the other players.
2) Do Not Ever Argue Rules With A Dungeon Master
There are five separate editions of Dungeons & Dragons. For each of those separate editions, there are some similarities, to be certain, but by and large, those similarities are the minority. If the similarities weren’t the minority, there would be no purpose in creating a whole new edition of the game. So, this being the case, when you understand what edition of the game you’ll be playing and you agree to it, do not argue rules systems, die rolls, or results with the DM.
Not only is it rude, it’s distracting and it takes the wind out of the room for the other players at the table.
If something has been done to one of your characters that you simply cannot abide, that you cannot just roll your dice and say “Wow.
That’s not what I wanted,” then finish the session, and contact the Dungeon Master the next day advising him or her that you won’t be returning to the game. If it’s THAT BAD, don’t go back… but do not ever argue rules, rolls, or reactions with a DM.
In my opinion, and having it done to me more recently than I would like, I would even go so far as to state that this is a violation of a cardinal rule of Dungeons & Dragons regardless of edition.
There are people who serve as living, breathing rulebooks. They have read every book, memorized every spell, know every single stat for every single monster. Ever. I cut my teeth on Dungeons & Dragons playing with one of these people. He was one of my best friends throughout my school years. It was his hobby not just to play the game, but to memorize every aspect of the game and, sadly, to use every single bit of knowledge he possessed to argue for it all to weigh in towards his character’s advantage, more often than not.
But here’s the catch: For every Dungeon Lawyer, there is a DM out there who can shatter their perception of the game’s ironclad rules system, which to be completely honest, has never been very ironclad at all. The rules are a guideline to maintain order within the game and to address systems that a DM might not have an immediate answer for. The true game of any roleplaying game is the story being told that stars all the players’ characters at the table as protagonists.
Don’t argue. Again… walk away. Don’t waste time trying to prove how you’re right and the DM is wrong. It will serve no purpose other than to make you look petulant, make your fellow players resent you, and make your DM think about the best, most artistic way to eliminate your character from the game.
3) Let Your Talents Shine
If you can draw maps, and you’re good at it, then let your DM and players know. If you’re talented/skilled at painting miniatures, then let your DM and players know. If you’re an above average artist, and you want to play around with sketches of fellow players’ characters, don’t hide it. Let them know.
I have a Cleric in my current group who is a fantastic artist. She does character sketches and draws scenes of what’s going on in the game for characters who might be the “star” of that scene. I have a Fighter who is one of the best mini painters I’ve ever sat at a non-Warhammer 40K table with who paints all my miniatures for NPCs that I purchase. What do I do to show them that they’re appreciated? “What’s your favorite chip? Soda? Pizza’s on me, too.”
These people are valued not only for their participation in my game, but also for the talents that they bring – literally – to the table when they show up for a session. Don’t hide these things from anyone, and don’t ever think that someone’s going to criticize you for doodling or sketching while you’re playing. Show your gaming group what you’re good at, and I can practically guarantee that they’ll find a way to compensate you for including them in it. Even if it’s free pizza, soda and chips on game night.
4) Share Your Books
Dungeons & Dragons books are like textbooks; they’re very expensive. They’re worth every penny, but they’re expensive. My advice to anyone who spends the money on books is to put their name in it, but also be prepared to share them. Not all your fellow players have the same resources available to them as you do. Just like in the game, some characters will be more well off than others. Don’t hesitate to let someone look through your Player’s Handbook for something they’re not sure about, or better yet, if you do understand it better than them, show them in the book where it is, mark down the page for them, and take the time to explain how it works to them.
Why the list of page numbers? One of our players hit a financial rough patch not too long ago, and the last thing he was able to do was purchase a Player’s Handbook. For his birthday, we decided to all kick in our pizza money one session to gather up enough cash to buy him a Player’s Handbook and a nice set of dice. Since he’d been writing down all the rules questions he’d had when he referenced other players’ books, he had a list of bookmarkable pages for his own book when Amazon shipped it to him two days later.
Sometimes, stuff like this can be one of those random acts of awesomeness that cements a gaming group together for years.
Don’t let people abuse your books, but don’t ever hesitate to share if they don’t own physical copies like you do.
Now, if you've been allowed to share a book by an owner, treat that book like a true treasure. Do not lick your fingers as you turn the pages. Do not dog ear pages. Mind how you treat the binding. Don't ever set a drink on a book. Treat that book as though it were the only copy of the book in existence.
Don't ever take someone's generosity or property for granted.
5) Be Excellent to One Another
I don’t care what your relationship is to your DM or to other players at your table, don’t be an ass. I don’t care if you’ve been my friend for ten years and you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for twenty, don’t be an ass. Odds are you’re going to be playing with people who have not been playing for as long as you have. They deserve as good an experience with their discovery of the game as you do. Keep your nonsensical behavior of your character in check. Do not disrupt the entirety of the game with ridiculousness unless the DM has set the stage for ridiculousness to ensue. Do not talk over younger or newer players, and do not make decisions for younger players or newer players..
It’s the wrong thing to do, and deep down inside – game or not – you know it’s the wrong thing to do.
Let the younger and newer players have the opportunity to move past their anxiety at playing and their reservations with meeting new people and discover their own voice.
Just like you did the first few times you played Dungeons & Dragons.
Respect the DM who is trying to create and weave worlds of wonder around all of you for the time you have together. Spend that time together laughing, adventuring and escaping… but don’t make game night all about you, because it isn’t all about you.
It’s about the table. Remember that.
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon. He can be reached at email@example.com
Picture provided by author
With the rise of Virtual Table Tops (VTTs), the opportunity to play Dungeons and Dragons (and other TTRPGs) without a local group has become increasingly flexible. While most people may still prefer to play in person, many people have turned to VTTs as the only option in rural areas, or to play with friends across the world. While playing online presents a new set of challenges, following these tips will help ensure it is the best possible experience for everyone in the game.
1) Find The Platform
There are a lot of Virtual Table Tops to choose from, and picking one can become a bit overwhelming.
Roll20 is the best combination of versatility and functionality. Supporting dozens of games from D&D, to Call of Cthulhu, to Pokemon, Roll20 is relatively easy to learn and boasts three million user. This makes it easy to find a group to play with, and you can play for free with no real limitations.
Fantasy Grounds offers less options (a dozen of the most popular), but is more user friendly and purportedly has better customer service. At least one person in your group will have to pay a premium fee to use it, however.
Tabletop Simulator can play just about anything (including chess, checkers, etc.), but the graphics are limited and it’s not as user friendly. It’s a one time fee of $20 on steam, making it a cheaper option that Fantasy Grounds. Leave other suggestions in the comments below!
2) Vet The Group
When you play online, it’s likely you’ll be roleplaying with a bunch of strangers. This has the potential to cause quite a few issues as game expectations, communication, and play styles inevitably clash. To help avoid most of these issues, you can make sure you are very selective about who you play with. Whether you’re the DM or a player, the following are important to know:
How old, in general, is each player (Teen/minor, college kid, young adult, older)?
What are they looking for in the game (a fun time, lots of roleplay, primarily combat, a good story)?
What is their play style (leader, tactician, power gamer, etc.)?
How much experience do they have with this system and with TTRPGs in general?
What class do they plan to play?
What is their personality (you might have to gauge this through casual conversation)?
3) Talk Outside Session Times
I’m a fan of doing text-based roleplay with my group between sessions, but even if you’re not into that, it’s important to check in with your group every couple days. You can talk about what you’re looking forward to in the next session, recap the previous session, strategy, or what’s going on in each other’s lives. The point is to both form a relationship with the people you’re playing with and stay in a mindset of team play and narrative focus.
4) Over Prepare
When you play online there’s fewer traditional responsibilities such as hosting or providing snacks. Since you don’t have to worry about these other things, it is best to over prepare for your session. Know your character sheet and abilities by memory, know some macros or shortcuts for whatever VTT you’re playing on, and know where the narrative has been and where you want it to go. This will speed up session time and shows courtesy to the rest of the group.
Communication in online groups is just as important as in person, but in many ways it’s more difficult. Talk about problems early. Be polite and try to see the other person’s perspective. Basically, just act like adults. Use emoticons to express intent behind your words. If issues really get bad, take the time between sessions to get some space and reassess your desire to be in the sessions. You don’t have to see these people in real life, and in some cases that’s beneficial.
Playing with people online can be difficult at times. But if you follow these five steps, you can have a long-lasting and fun experience playing TTRPGs online.
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/stuff-we-love-roll20-lets-you-play-dd-with-people-anywhere
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
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/
As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
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/
5th edition Dungeons and Dragons was created to be high magic. Healing is readily available, spellcasters are relatively powerful from their first level, and magic items are often powerful and common. As a reaction to this, a lot of Dungeon Masters try “low magic campaigns” where spellcasters are rare and not allowed as PCs, magic items are nearly impossible to find, and magic itself is either a distant memory or never existed. If this sounds appealing to you, consider the following questions before deciding if you want a low magic campaign.
1) Do The Players Want It?
Sure, it’s your game, but the players need to have fun too. This is especially true if you’re playing with a group of friends and not some random people who signed up to play your game because it sounded fun. Do your players want a low-magic campaign? Depending on “how low you go” they would be limited to either completely martial classes, or third-casters (ranger, paladin, eldritch knight, arcane trickster), and would have access to very few magical items. Make sure they know what they’re getting into and be clear about what kind of game each person wants to play before imposing a low magic campaign upon them.
2) Does It Fit The Narrative?
Is there a narrative reason why magic would be rare in your world? Maybe the gods are absent or dead. Or perhaps some natural disaster has disconnected the “weave” from the material plane. You could even say that magic has been feared, and as such, it’s been destroyed and bred out of all but the most remote reaches of the world. No matter what you decide, come up with a legitimate reason for limiting or removing magic in your world. If you say, “I just don’t like magic as a Dungeon Master,” you’ll lose a bit of credibility with your players.
3) Will It Handicap Your Players?
Will removing magic severely limit the access your players have to vital healing, damage, and roleplay? While healing is frequently done through other means (like hit dice), a majority of it occurs through healing magic. If you’re looking for a deadly, gritty campaign, removing or weakening healing magic is definitely a good way to accomplish that, but it’s likely you’ll have to redo a few class mechanics as well as augment things like the healer’s kit and medicine checks. A large part of narrative and roleplaying also revolves around magic. If your players want that level of difficulty, that’s great, but make sure you are all aware of this when you discuss a low magic campaign. They will die, and probably quite often.
4) Will You Play By The Rules?
Don’t be one of those DMs who take magic away from the players and then uses magic against them. If you’re doing low or no magic you take away a significant amount of creatures you can throw at your players. No liches, arguably no dragons, no magical beasts, no animated objects, no lycanthropy. If you’re being fair you can’t even have anything with innate magic or psionics (illithids). Even undead like skeletons or zombies are out unless you can figure some non-magical way they are being resurrected. Sure, you can make up a reason you have magical creatures in a non-magical world, including the fallback “I’m the GM,” but none of your players will actually want that. Before you consider a low magic campaign, consider just how many creatures you’re willing to go without.
5) How Will You Make Up For It?
How are you going to make up for the vacuum that magic won’t fill? Will you have technology to make guns or other damage-dealing items? Will you allow for scientific alchemy to provide healing and utility mechanics? The replacement should be both mechanical and narrative, but as a DM you shouldn’t eliminate magic without replacing it with something. If you want to, I’d suggest playing a system other than 5e.
Wanting a low magic setting is understandable and can even be fun if it’s done in the right way. It is most important to talk with your players about it; discuss all the above questions with your players, and if you all agree, you could have an excellent campaign!
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://inthelabyrinth.org/the-fantasy-trip/magic-low-fantasy-settings/
While scanning your monster manual for fresh nasties to batter and maim your closest friends, you may be tempted to flip past the Stirge. As a tiny beast with four measly hitpoints you might fail to see its value as an adversary to even the lowest level adventurers. Stop. I’m about to teach you five steps to turn a buzzing gnat into pure terror and all-out panic.
For the uninitiated, the Stirge is a horrid flying thing that looks like a mixup between a bat and a mosquito. Its wingspan is roughly two feet across, and a six-inch long proboscis hangs limp from its face. To feed, the creature flexes powerful jowl muscles, transforming its sagging sucker into a ridged spike that it plunges deep into the flesh of its prey, drawing great volumes of blood as sustenance. They’re weak, they’re crunchy, they’re barely a snack, but when run right the stirge is absolute nightmare fuel.
1) Scourges Of Stirges
A stirge is like a locust or a rat. A pest by itself, but like all pests, you’ll almost never find it by itself. Stirges travel in scourges. No seriously, that’s the collective noun for a group of the horrid things. If you encounter one or two of these bloodsuckers a good crack with the business end of a heavy stick will probably do the job, but a scourge of stirges is something very different.
This is where you abandon the standard course for encounter design. Most encounters are fought to the bitter end. Not this one. Stirges travel in swarms so big that no adventuring party could exhaust their numbers. Maybe no army. Like locusts they descend on entire towns, leaving utter devastation in their wake. Where locusts obliterate crop fields, stirges suck the literal life out of every warm-blooded creature they can get their creepy pincers on; livestock and people alike.
Step one is to think of stirges as an event rather than an encounter. It’s not something you come across, it’s something horrifying that happens to you, to the town you’re in, to the community of people you’ve sworn to protect. A stirge encounter should be run like a hurricane.
2) Foreshadow The Event To Build Suspense
In The Birds, Hitchcock didn’t drop flocks of feral seagulls out of the sky without warning. He lets the tension build throughout the film by gathering more and more of them on wires and jungle gyms.
Set up the encounter long in advance by making your players think about the stirges before they’re a threat. Have a few perched on fence posts or circling above like vultures, then have their numbers gradually grow. Have townspeople who have experienced scourges of stirges in the past start becoming unnerved and then unglued as more of the little beasties arrive, as sheep and cattle start turning up dead with big hideous sucker holes in their sides. Give some of those people big old scars from proboscis wounds in their own necks and chests. Make this place well aware of what’s coming.
Watch the drive-in scene from the movie Twister. These people live where tornadoes are a persistent threat. Most days are normal days, but the threat of an unstoppable cataclysmic force dropping out of the sky is always looming. When the winds pick up, it takes about a minute for absolute panic to set in. That’s the way to run a stirge event. The people of this community know the danger they’re in better than the party does, but they’re about to learn.
3) A Scourge Is Not A Stirge
A stirge will grab onto you, plunge its proboscis deep into your flesh and suck the blood out of your body. That’s the threat. Absolutely horrifying obviously, but I want to impress upon you that the threat of a scourge of stirges is much more than just a lot of that.
Don’t get me wrong, it is going to be a lot of that. One after another of these repulsive bloodsuckers are going to latch on and pierce you with their fleshy spike-ended mouth-straws, and if you rip one off, two more are going to take its place. I just don’t want you to think that that’s the extent of your problems. What happens when a few hundred of them land on the roof of the rickety old barn you’re hiding in? It collapses on your head. If you’ve never been smashed in your face place by a big swinging joist take my word for it, you’re going to lose half a skull and a good bit of brain. With that many wild things thrashing around, mounted torches and candle sticks are going to get jostled. Things are going to catch on fire. People are going to go crazy. Your party will be dealing with absolute pandemonium, and anything you can dream up that goes along with that.
4) Keep Them Outside, Keep Them Moving, Make Shelter Scarce
If you’ve ever had to deal with a hornets nest you know that the terror mostly disappears when you scamper flailing back into your house and the door clacks shut behind. Don’t give your party that. Give them reasons to go outside. Give them long distances to run with only a few sparse overhangs, tree branches, or wood-sheds to crowd into for moments of respite before they’re overcome again. If they find a really good shelter give them a moment to build up that false sense of security before burning it to the ground. Give them children and infirm elders to protect in wide open spaces. Watch The Birds, The Mist, Twister, The Swarm, or any other movie where people are trying to survive a catastrophic event by hiding in doors. You’ll find that there’s always a reason to go outside.
5) Lay Waste And Move On
I think this final point is the one that really matters for inspiring a feeling of earnest dread. When the event is finally over, it’s not because the party saved the day. It’s not because of some daring do or some heroic sacrifice. It ends the way most catastrophic events end: without rhyme or reason. The sky clears, the daylight returns, the scourge moves on. It leaves of its own volition and you realize that you’re powerless against it.
Then you’re left with the aftermath. A town has been raised, people have died, the communities entire store of livestock has been decimated, and now they must recover. A stirge event reminds us that while our characters may be heroes of great power, the world they inhabit contains dangers well beyond even them.
With these five steps you can turn a 4hp ⅛ CR monster into an event that your players are sure to never forget. From that moment on, anytime a stirge turns up or flies by you’ll send waves of terror rippling across the table, and they’ll never look at a mosquito the same. Good luck!
Ryan Cartner and Dustin Hoogsteen are indie tabletop game designers at epiclutesolo.com. They are creating one game every month in 2019. You can download the first of these twelve planned releases for free at www.epiclutesolo.com/blog/games
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/432204895463483101/
First, this isn’t designed as therapeutic advice, nor should it be construed as such. Mental health coaching and support is its own thing and we recommend you seek out a professional if you need that support. Second, this is not an attack on you if you are a chronically ill writer who is struggling in a way that makes everything you do harder. I empathize. I support you. Your productivity does not give you value as a person. These are the ways I make myself feel better, while fighting chronic illness and mental health monsters. Your mileage may vary, your output may vary, and you are still a writer. You are still a wonderful person that brings something to the world. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
These are my suggestions for writing through chronic pain and depression. You’ll find that some are on numerous blogs and suggestion lists. That’s fine, they might be good advice. If you have others, please leave them in the comments or refer to this work in your own blog! I’d love to have the community lift each other up and support one another.
1) Write Something
In 2004 I spent several months living in my car in and around San Diego. I worked, but I couldn’t afford an apartment. So, every night I’d go to Starbucks for 4-6 hours, read a book, and write. What I wrote wasn’t anything ‘useful’, it wasn’t a novel, or a game, or even a short story. It was the inner turmoil of my brain. One night, I realized I was depressed. Not because I was living in my car, but because my life had stalled. Then the next night I realized I knew where I wanted to go down the line. The day after that, I wrote out a plan to hit my goal. Most of my writing was internal ravings about writer’s block up until those three days. What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t write because I wasn’t supposed to be writing a story or a novel or anything like that. Instead, what I needed was a direction in life and I needed to write that. Writing whatever came to mind helped me to get somewhere, it just wasn’t where I thought I was going. I still have this notebook, in a box, somewhere in my house. It’s not filled with things I’ll ever publish. That wasn’t the point of writing those nights.
2) Acknowledge You Are Sick
This is also known as, TAKE A DAMN BREAK. It’s ok to realize you can’t keep writing. Hell, you might need to take a year, two, or more off before you can pick up the pen or slap the keyboard again. This is hard if you earn your living writing, though, and trust me, I understand. If the words are not traveling in their little caravan from your mind to the screen, or page, or whatever, then you can only force it so much. It’s ok to say, “I’m sick, and doing this isn’t good for me.” That doesn’t make you weak, or a failure, or a bad writer. It’s totally, unconditionally, without question, fair. If you wake up and you think, wow, the pain is a 9 today. I’m going to take it easy, drink a cup of tea (or coffee, or whatever), and that’s great. Admitting you need a break and taking one is strong, healthy, and helpful. Admitting you are sick is GOOD. Admitting where you are is a HUGE step toward making plans that work for you.
Writing through illness can be particularly hard because you do have ideas and you often start on them before a bad day slams you over the head and takes your brain away. So, how and what can you do with this? Collaborate. Seek out folks that are willing to work with you. Maybe you get 75% through a project and you get whammed. Reach out to your collaborators and go, I’ve got this piece, it’s this far finished, I think it should go here and here; does anyone want to work on it with me? 9/10, someone will go, yes, I’d love to work with you on this. Now, I’m not telling you not to pay them or cut them in on a percentage. I think you probably should do that, but it depends on your collaborator and how your relationship works. That’s on you, but I usually cut my collaborators in on a percentage or I pay them a bit up front to show them I appreciate their time, effort, and work. THEN I make sure to credit them alongside myself whenever I market the piece.
4) Work On Something Else
This can be having a few pieces to work on at a time, or it can be totally non-writing work that you feel is helpful to you to work on. For me, I’ve been doing layout for books that others write as a way to feel like I’m still doing something/producing work that I can be proud of. This works for me, it uses a different part of my brain, and it doesn’t require the same sort of mental health that my writing work requires of me. Now, for you, it might be knitting, building a car, whittling, playing video-games, or whatever it is. Find something else that you can do, that you love to do, and work on that for some time. You might get writing ideas while you do it, and even if you don’t, you are still doing something you love. Of course, this can be hard too, depending on your chronic illness. I’m with you. Go back to point 1, 2, or 3 if you are at this stage and you don’t know what to do. It’s ok to take the space and time you need to be healthy and happy.
5) Bonus Point – Have Allies
Your network of supports is essential to feeling like you belong to a community. That’s a human thing, but I find it really essential to accomplishing things when things get bad. Post on social media talking about how you are having trouble. Call a friend and talk about whatever works for you. Having allies, friends, and a support network will always help. And if you don’t have folks that get it around you or on social media? Find a group of fellow creatives online who will understand where you are coming from. Lurk, read their posts, engage with them, post about where you are in your life right then. All in all, my friends and family have done the most to keep me going when shit has gotten hard. Without them, I’d have drowned by now. Also, being a good writer ally requires you to give back when you can. Trust me, you might not have the spell slots all the time, but when you have them, use them. You’ll build hope, trust, and strength when this happens.
I hope these ideas and thoughts are helpful. You might wonder what they have to do with a gaming blog, but, honestly, I hope it is obvious. I haven’t had an article of my own here since MONTHS before HLG Con. That event broke me, for a while. I’m only now starting to realize just how bad, and doing things to work through it. Of course, it isn’t easy. For those gamers that run games, or play, or create them when dealing with these struggles, I salute and honor you today. You are worthy and I’m thankful for you.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games. 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 running a Changing Breeds game. 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.
Art by JH Illos
The most important element in roleplaying is communication. Sometimes players will assume that their DM has understood what they are attempting, only to find out a scene later that their idea went completely over the DM’s head. The following listicle will help your DM understand you better and reduce any problems that originate from a lack of proper communication.
This sounds trivial but most players will almost always assume the goal and not mention it. “I want to climb the wall” sounds like a goal but it isn't, because it doesn't let the DM know why you are trying to climb the wall. “I want to get to the top of the wall so I have a better position from which to shoot my bow” says clearly what your intention is. Without a clear goal, the DM may misunderstand and end up narrating a result that you didn't expect. Sometimes this issue can be solved immediately, but in other cases this won't become apparent until after the encounter. At which point arguments ensue: “During the fight I climbed the trees, but it never gave me any protective cover!” “Well, you just said that you wanted to climb the trees. You never told me why.”
How you are going to do what you are attempting. This is the big one because here you can be creative and ingenious. Your DM might even reward you with some in-game bonus depending on how you do it. Climbing a wall barehanded isn’t the same as using a grappling hook. A single goal usually has many ways of achieving it, so don’t always go for the trivial option. Imagine the surrounding environment, what things are around that can be used. The DM will usually not be exhaustive in his description which leaves room for imagination. This is also a good time to look through your inventory. DMs will usually pick the most obvious means, if one is not specified, and assume you are using no equipment. This can result in losing potential positive modifiers to your skill test or, even worse, getting negative modifiers!
Do not leave the skill test choice to your DM. Some games have an exhaustive list of skills and your DM won’t have all your skills memorized. He does not know what you are good at and what you are terrible at. If you want to use your “Lie” skill but the DM asks you to do a “Charm” test, go ahead and tell your DM: “I would like to use my Lie skill.” Some DMs might not like this style so be sure to talk it over with them. Try to be reasonable and not ask for a skill check with an unrelated skill, like using your strength skill to sing. Though sometimes using a completely ridiculous skill can have hilarious results. Your DM may and should encourage you to explain how your skill is being used.
Unless your character suffers from delusions of heroism, you might want to ask other characters for help. NPCs are not just side quest givers, some have skills that can and should be used to your benefit. Most DMs will fill the world with helpful NPCs just waiting to be used. Town guards can help you fight off those outlaws mugging your party in the alley. Some recurring NPCs, such as a previous quest giver, can become allies. They can provide information or resources for your current adventure. Even your enemies can be of aid if you understand their objectives and motivations. After all, if the dragon attacking your town is after gold why not lead him to your rival’s larger and richer city.
Skill tests are the best moment to show how your character behaves. A barbarian and a duelist might both fight with swords but how they fight differs completely. Think about how this skill test relates to your character. A fear of heights might make a wall climb more interesting, or perhaps an old grudge fills you with fury as you strike your enemy. Personality can also be used to show intent. A scholar holding his book to his chest with sweat falling down his brow while hiding behind a shelf is cleverly not going to try to ambush the beholder. Don't forget that you are playing to have fun and “I jump backwards as I flail my sword around while yelling ‘I hate skeletons!’’ is always more entertaining for everyone at the table than: “I attack with my sword.”
With all this in mind, we can change: “I wanna climb the castle wall” to: “I want to get to the top of the castle wall so I can sneak in. I’m going to look for the best catapult expert in our unit and I want to convince him to launch me. I want to use my Charm skill and with a wink and a convincing smile I say: ‘If you get me on top of that wall, I will end the war and you can be on your way home before dawn.’”
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by author.
Metagaming, in a board game, is the game above the game. It's the social savvy in Bohnanza or Monopoly, tricky wording and deals in Cosmic Encounter or Diplomacy, or the planning ahead needed in a game of Chess or Risk. Metagaming is a board gaming skill used in most games, from Yahtzee to poker. So why is it so frowned upon in role playing games? The common scenario is that a group of players come across a troll and start burning it or throwing acid and the GM calls shenanigans. I believe this is because the dungeon master feels cheated because their encounter becomes trivialized with the knowledge the players bring to the table. In my opinion, player knowledge and skill helps the players get into the game. Who, in a fantasy world rife with orcs, trolls, and vampires, would venture out to fight monsters with no common knowledge? Tell me, how do you kill a vampire? Do you think someone who lived in a world where vampires really exist would have more or less knowledge than you? Taking all that into perspective metagaming takes many forms that we just don't recognize. Let's take a look at some of the oft overlooked forms of metagaming that we already do at the table and then we can talk about that player who brings a monster manual to the table.
1) It's A Game
First up, the shortest answer: it’s a game. Frank the fighter doesn't know what second wind or weapon proficiencies are. He only knows how to power through and what he can wield. Anytime you invoke mechanics not based in the fiction, react with rules, or state an action to perform, you are metagaming.
2) Player Skill
D&D has its roots in player skill. It is only in the later editions that emphasis on skill checks have made their way to the front of gaming. Deciding when to cast a spell or invoke an ability is player skill. Figuring out puzzles or how to get past an obstacle is the player using their skill to complete a challenge. Skill use is still metagaming by using a mechanic to eliminate a barrier. By leaving the decision in the players hands they can be the guide of their character and keep them in the game longer.
3) We're All Playing Together
Hey, let's have fun. We don't need to come down on a player that uses common sense, even if it's outside of a fictional character. Keeping the game moving and fun sometimes needs a little nudge from outside of the fiction. Sometimes the player, if they realize they've gotten off track, can be creative and move the group back in the right direction. If everyone focused on the fiction, there may be no reason to play after one adventure because that haul set you up for years. Besides, adventuring is stupid and dangerous. But since we all got together to roll some dice with familiar characters, buck up young cleric and head to into that dungeon anyway!
4) PvP Can Be Fun...
...but only when everyone has bought in. Can we have a discussion in real life before we start a fight to assure that we are all on the same page? We can in a role playing game, and if we can see both sides of the disagreement it makes the player versus player all the more fun. What could be more fun than taking the age old “paladin versus thief” conundrum meta? Maybe the paladin’s player sees the thief’s player roll a pickpocket check, but tells the dungeon master that he wants to hear the reaction and go to the person aid when they discover what’s missing. This can build tension at the table instead of resentment, especially if the thief’s player can get meta and explain the (lack of) remorse when the party offers to help retrieve the item. Other players can chime in with ideas that could lead to the thief planting evidence on one of her biggest adversaries and pinning the theft on them! A whole scene, and maybe an adventure, created by using the players to control the characters and the scene. So meta.
5) Keeping Secrets Is Bad
Who's the new guy and why is he so quiet? What's he hiding? If we all know these things at the table, then we can ask leading questions and make our scenes all the better. Why worry if the dungeon master brought in a ringer if the DM can just say, “this guy will betray you, but your characters don't know it.” What an exciting betrayal you all can set up together. I love working with my players to make plots against their characters. Two heads (or even more) are better than one, so why not let them in on the fun?! Of course I still like to play some things close to the vest, if only for the surprise factor.
Cooperative storytelling works a lot better if we all work together to advance the fiction. How better to bring a team together than by taking input from all sources? It’s like a brainstorming session; there are no wrong answers, only ideas! By sourcing our table and asking what is good for our fiction we can go beyond the limits of one mind and can riff off of each others’ suggestions. Playing in and building together a shared world remains the best reason to accept metagaming 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, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author
The following is an excerpt found in the journal of the former Count Moneybags Von Moretax. It was found in the Corporate Dungeon ruins behind the headquarters and was restored by the High Level Games historians. These are believed to be his final words.
Ah the noble’s life. Sipping expensive mead atop your throne made of ivory crafted by a peasant is truly the only way to live once you’ve done it for twenty minutes. But alas. Here I am. Imprisoned for claiming that the king’s head was too round when all that expensive mead finally got to me. So here, in the dungeon I will recount some of the ways my other nobles have fallen from grace. Believe me, some of them are rather quaint.
Yes, the most time honoured tradition of the nobility. Perhaps because it kills two birds with one stone, in that it removes another noble from power and if you’re clever enough and it hides some atrocity you’ve recently committed. There are of course many hurdles to consider: noble seals from other houses, daggers owned by other people, paying off servants and then promptly killing them as well, and a plethora of other minor issues to consider. Perhaps you have a right hand man you place too much trust in, and some plucky adventuring group could weasel information out of him. You may want to kill him. Not to mention such things may leave a paper trail. Perhaps a private investigator gets ahold of your bookkeeper? Hm? Said bookkeeper, not knowing the situation, shows her your costs and paychecks and sees thousands of gold being sent to shut people up. Can’t have that. Guess you should burn down the accountant’s house. I would tell you more, but I can’t tell you everyone's secrets, now can I?
Not that I would ever partake in something so low. But you know who would? That Duke Silverbrand. I’ll bet if the royal guard searched his bedroom after eight tonight, they would find some damning evidence proving that he framed a certain Prince for a murder he committed.
2) Trash Talk
Yes, this is the reason my execution is scheduled tomorrow. If there’s one thing you should know about those of noble blood, it’s that their egos are as fragile as a two hundred year old man's bones. This is particularly true of royals. Your kings and queens, princes and princesses… they just can’t take a joke. Another simple fact is, many nobles can’t stand their king. So it really is just a matter of tricking them into saying what they want to in front of the right crowd. Instead of telling you how to do this (it’s quite simple really, liquor and a group of people is really all you need). I will now quote some things that got people executed and/or banished.
“King Richard? You mean that man with the exceptionally pointy head?” - Viscount Talksmacker of Trashington.
“I’m telling you, the King put some sort of curse on the Queen. No way a man with such a small number of brain cells gets a woman with such - agh! My arm!” - Baron Badguy of Vill-any, spoken in front of the king, who had just come back from a sparring match with live steel.
“Prince Keith is the human equivalent of a book with no pages.” - A man whose name was stricken from the records.
“Is the King around? No? So we’re talking smack then lads?” - Duchess Exe of Cution.
“King Richard is so round and discoloured I wouldn’t blame you for mistaking him for a boar testicle.” - Count Moneybags Von Moretax
In short, it doesn’t take a lot to get a man killed in most noble courts.
3) Sleep With Someone's Spouse
Now this may not get your nobility revoked officially (unless it’s with the queen) but there’s a very good chance you will be the laughingstock of the public and the newest target for some noble who knows where to find a hitman. In other news, water is wet. The typical noble won’t just have you killed for this, but most likely tortured or mutilated in some uncomfortable way. However the fact that a certain noble will forever be known to time as “The Cuckold” is sometimes worth the pain. This is typically not something that ends up as public knowledge, however you can guarantee that your reputation is ruined in court.
P.S. Seeing as I'm about to die tomorrow... sorry Martin.
4) Don’t Tow The Line
This is by far the least fun way to die. In every noble court, there are unspoken rules. Don’t get caught committing your crimes, and if you do, make sure your back is nice and ready, because it’s about to get stabbed multiple times. Don’t insult people in any blunt way, or you’ll become a pariah. Most importantly, don’t break the norm. Norms change from court to court. But I promise you, if you’re treating the public with respect (not lying to them, lowering taxes, trying to give them anything for free or god forbid actually listening to them when it comes to government policies), you’ll be in a grave faster than you can count to two.
I remember one poor man. Oh the poor soul! He said in public court that he thought we should get rid of the toll to cross the bridge into the city. Not only was the movement shot down unanimously, within the week, but the man's home was burnt down, his farms were salted and his body was found in the sewers with twenty six stab wounds.
In short, it’s very easy to be removed from a court in a number of increasingly uncomfortable ways. Don’t do bad things. Don’t do good things. I highly suggest that if you don’t want to be disgraced, you just enjoy the money and agree with the local consensus.
I imagine that these are my final thoughts. As such, I would like the last thing I ever write to be to my family. Tell my wife I loved her, but not as much as my tax money. Tell my son he can do anything he wants, but not as much as my tax money, and lastly, tell my daughter to marry up.
This was the last thing found ever written by Count Moneybags Von Moretax. Our scholars are finding more of his older works, however, and day by day, the man who was Count Moneybags Von Moretax is painted further as a kind, loving and just ruler, who was put to death by unjust laws.
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.pinterest.com/tah223/nobles-highborn-and-officials/
As much as we would like to pretend, we of the Dungeon Master ranks are not quite as omnipotent as our *cough* imposing stature may lead others to believe. The truth of the matter is, anyone who has ever had players in a game knows that the best laid plans are quickly and at times violently crumpled into a ball of spent paper and frustration once dice start rolling.
This can make Prophecy, one of the most classic fantasy and sci-fi tropes of all time, into one of the single most frustrating and difficult to successfully navigate. Many a good-intentioned DM has fallen prey to the pitfalls of trying to control fate only to realize that while their all-powerful sages and gods-on-high may be able to see the future, the dice render it invisible to the humble eyes of the DM.
Wait! Don’t toss your blind prophet into the wastebasket just yet!
The Prophecy trope can add depth and story to your campaign and give your players a real sense of value and importance, if you take the time to craft your prophecies correctly. Here are a few hard-learned bits of advice for sailing the murky waters of destiny.
1) Avoid Specific Numbers
I know, you want to add that bit of gravity to your campaign, where low and behold, the ancient prophecy of doom calls for 4-6 warriors to arise from the ashes to stop the tide of darkness. And oh! What a coincidence! That number matches exactly that of your party. While this can add a sense of destiny to the campaign, it is a fast path to Headache-ville. Players come and go. Real life pulls the party away from the table, and suddenly your prophecy is not quite so prophetic. Not to mention PC death. Nothing takes the wind out of your Sails of DestinyTM faster than the “chosen one” biting it from some punk Kobold on a lucky dice streak.
Instead, try to keep numbers out of the game, or if numbers are a must, keep them vague. Simply saying “A band of warriors” is just as effective and creates a more open-ended experience. Juggling the “sacred number” is most likely going to lead to weak fixes or heavy railroading. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but if you seek to keep the teeth-clenching to a minimum, leave your options open.
2) Keep To Omens You Can Control
If you are going to rely on the actions of your players to play out your Prophecy, your campaign will most likely end up less King Arthur and more Monty Python. While I love me some chaos, most of us are not looking to conclude our epic campaigns in the same vein as the end of Holy Grail.
Omens can be a powerful tool for setting mood, tension, and foreshadowing the dire events that can really raise a campaign to the next level. The trick is to stick to events that you can control. Your players may be able to slay a hundred orcs, but can they stop a storm of blood? Can they keep a town of villagers from pulling a Rapture and vanishing off to domain of their god of choice? You can let the players actions go in the direction of their choice but using mysterious happenings and natural disasters allows you the power to keep your story moving forward, while still giving your players the freedom of choice they deserve.
3) Imagery, Metaphor, And Symbolism
Let’s face it, if you really could predict the future, would you be filling out character sheets or lottery tickets? Okay fine, first the lottery tickets, then the character sheets. We cannot predict the future without wielding the Club of MetagamingTM. But that doesn’t mean we can’t set the stage. Classic literary devices to the rescue! Using imagery, metaphor, and symbolism allows you to present clues and hooks for your players without establishing a set series of events. Using images, especially in dream sequences or prophetic works of art, allow your character to see hints and omens that perhaps you didn’t even plan for. If when “the blue tides flood the fields of steel” is implied as symbolic, then your omen could be anything from a field of soldiers controlled by the blue-blooded aristocrats to just a flooded swimming pool. If you can leave the omens locked in imagery, you can sit back and simply be alert for the omens to present themselves in the roleplay. If you are lucky, it will be with the players actions that these omens come to fruition.
4) Hindsight Is A Natural 20/20
There is no rule that says players have to know the prophecy beforehand. Many a classic story arc has involved the daring heroes chasing down the relics of the past, with each riddle or scrapped of ruined parchment offering just a hint of the events that will befall the world. Keeping the pieces of the prophecy one step ahead of the players allows the Storyteller to fill in the gaps after the fact, so instead of the Storyteller jamming events down the players throats, they can simply fill in the prophecy with the actions the players have already taken. While you have a thin line to walk between a chilling sense of doom and an angry mob of players who feel as if they can do nothing right, this allows approach keeps your hands off from players actions and away from the pains of keeping your campaign motivation alive. One way to circumnavigate the “nothing we do matters” anguish is to let a few of the prophecies they find actually be wrong. This will help throw them a curveball to keep the game interesting, and also help the players feel as if they are making a difference.
5) It Was All A Lie?!
Perhaps one of my favorite ways to handle prophecy is to have it all turn out to be false. Ancient texts can be manufactured. Dreams can be faked. Revelations can actually just be the rantings of a madman. The influence of religious or prophetic dogma can be an incredible tool of mass manipulation, and your villains can wield it like a rogue abusing his backstab stab with a ballista, because nothing keeps the peasants in-line like the threat of God’s angry wrath! Or maybe the prophecy was just a means to give hope to the hopeless? The Matrix teaches us many lessons about being a “the ONE,” and by turning prophecy on its head, we are presented with bold new avenues of storytelling and adventure to explore.
6) When All Else Fails…
Let the prophecy be thwarted. Nothing will make your players high-five across the table in a chorus of “Woots!” more than giving Fate itself the ol’ one-finger salute. What you as the storyteller must realize is that this does not mean the story ends. Your players have thwarted fate. They have thrown the cosmic wheel into a tailspin, as what should have happened has not. There is a wealth of potential here that could be exploited for an even greater story, making your prophecy just the prelude to a grander adventure. Maybe by stopping the prophecy, a new world cannot be reborn. Maybe chaos begins to unravel all of reality. Or maybe the contradiction of the gods’ will undoes the powers that be, leaving the world without a divine hand of guidance? All of these are excellent story-fodder, so don’t throw your game in the trash just because your original idea didn’t follow your script.
Above all though, listen to the pulse of your game. By being organic with your approach to prophecy, and letting your players guide you instead of you guiding them, you might be amazed at what you can create.
Michael Lee Bross a contributing editor for D10Again.com and an avid lifetime gamer. He been a game master, player, world-builder, and designer for nearly 30 years. He is also a graduate of the MFA in Poetry program at Drew University, and is an active writer of both poetry and speculative fiction. His work has been published in such periodicals as Lifeboat, Mobius Poetry Magazine, and Let’s talk Philadelphia. His poetry chapbook, “Meditations on an Empty Stomach” also won the 2015 Arts by the People Chapbook Award. Michael currently teaches English at the University of Scranton and East Stroudsburg University.
Picture Reference: https://shamanicstudies.co.uk/courses/divination/
Being the Game Master is hard. I get it, you’re the one that has to do all the checks and balances of the campaign. NPCs, items, spells, maps, dungeon layouts, and the story. You also have to check and balance the PC’s character sheets to make sure everything adds up and balances out, and if you have a gaming group even remotely similar to my own, you may find yourself the only one who can actually math properly. So I can sympathize when you might just NOT want to bother trying to balance an entire campaign setting AND plot along with everything else.
It’s just easier to use the book…
I can sympathize, but I also humbly disagree. I already find most premade campaigns lacking in substance, but I am not referring just to the premade materials. You can use a large portion, (if not all), of premade campaigns and still create a largely story-driven setting. I would also like to note I am also not suggesting you create an entire mechanics system from the ground up for your story, (though I have been known to do this and even keep that entire system due to the preference of my gamers).
I also realize you probably don’t want to have stacks and stacks of paper notes sitting on your side of the table. (I have also been known to get… over zealous on the notes at times.) I know your PCs do not want to sit there for 15 minutes watching you leaf through stacks and stacks of notes while you try to figure out where they are going next. I get it! I really do! However, as both a writer and a Game Master, I have learned some nifty little tricks to help you create a more immersive and story-driven world without doing more than you are likely already doing as a Game Master.
1) Weapons And/Or Armor Level Up
Part of the problem with many campaigns, especially like the ones found in Dungeons and Dragons, is managing all the items, weapons, armor, and other such gear your PCs will acquire. To minimize bloat, (and save some of the Game Master’s brain cells), try creating weapons and/or armor that level up with your PCs. This can be as simple as magic weapons that grow as the player characters face certain challenges in the campaign world, gain feats, or face, and in some cases conquer, their fears.
A personal favorite of mine, if you really wanna get creative, create living weapons with souls with and their own personalities. Weapons that the players must form a bond with in order to properly wield and unlock the weapons most powerful innate abilities.
2) Edges And Flaws For All Characters
This is a requirement in all of my campaigns of any length! I played DnD for years and got really bored with how almost all characters were similar. When I picked up Shadowrun 3rd edition, I was blown away by the level of customizability for just the characters alone, not even counting weapons, armor, and cybernetic implant modifications. Requiring all characters to have Edges and Flaws can add an entire new layer of story and plot to your campaign. Runa the mage has a severe case of arachnophobia? Well, when the party faces off against a group of Driders in the underdark she’s gonna be put through her own personal hell.
Gorag Stone-Heart is a brave dwarven warrior who fears nothing… but he can’t swim and is secretly too terrified of water to learn? Well when your ship sinks off the frigid coast due to a pirate attack now you have a whole new layer of drama added to your campaign.
The possibilities are literally endless!
3) Center The Campaign Around Player Character Back-Stories
Almost every player I have ever sat down with has some kind of story for their character. We’re all human. We love to hear and create our own stories, especially when we feel passionate about something or we are trying to explain the unknown. (Ahem… Religion… Ahem!) So why not integrate that concept into the very meat of your campaign?
Create or tailor the campaign around who… or better yet, what your characters are. Your party is composed mostly of fighter classes? Perhaps they are all students of a guild going on an epic quest to prove themselves? Maybe they are classmates of a combat school that never really got along and are now stuck working together.
Have a party of a bunch of different classes and/or races? They were forced to work together by a king or deity and not a damn one of them has ever wanted to get to know the other, let alone work with the other. However, now they have no choice but to try and get over themselves if they are going to have any hope of survival.
Racism is an epic flaw or back-story to use here!
4) Allow Time For Social Interaction
In every, and yes, I mean every campaign I have ever run, or have ever had the pleasure… (or displeasure in some cases) to play in, there is always… always a point where we are sitting around a campfire, at a tavern, or in some social environment and nine-times-out-of-ten, there is drinking involved! Use this time to allow your player characters to be social with one another.
Attractive female elf has caught the eye of the Barbarian? Let the scene play out! The half-drow rogue gets drunk enough to finally open up to the priestess? Let her talk about her feelings and her time in the underdark. A long conversation/conning session starts up between the bard and the high-level wizard NPC? Let them hash-it-out verbally.
I’ve seen better character development in one dialogue session than in all the dungeons they’ve run combined.
5) Two Words: White Wolf
This may seem like a joke entry but I am being completely honest here. White Wolf games do not have Game Masters, they have Storytellers! The reason they are called Storytellers and the reason all of their settings have a unique but interchangeable character sheet is simple... Their system is literally BASED around telling a story and letting the players be “actors” within the story.
I had a player who wished to play a Masquerade style vampire in one of my Shadowrun sessions once. Though technically this could be considered “lore-breaking” as vampires in Shadowrun are very different than Masquerade vampires, I allowed it. I found the system actually transfers very well into any game system.
This is not to say you should go to the same trouble of doing conversions for one system to another but take a look at one of their books and system, really dig into it! Sit in on a White Wolf or World of Darkness game session sometime and see how they structure their campaigns and stories.
The results might surprise you!
6) The Social Experiment
You awaken from cryosleep. As you fall out of your stasis pod, gasping for breath and freezing on the cold-metal floor, you realize you are surrounded by several other individuals, all wearing the same prison jumpsuit as you. The alarms are blaring and you can feel the ship groan and rumble; chunks of it break apart into the void of space. A digitized voice crackles on the overhead speakers, looping the same warning message: “The main haul has been breached! Life-support is failing, all personnel please evacuate to the escape pods immediately!”
You look to the few survivors around you, the lot of you come to the same bleak discovery: Not a single one of you can remember who you are or why you are here! You have little time to think about that however, as you can hear… something… tearing and clawing at the airlocks. The hardened doors begin to twist and buckle against the abuse, threatening to dislodge at any moment. You have no choice. If you want to survive this, you’ll have to work together and figure out who you are and why you are here!
I ran this plot during a space opera I designed recently and my players absolutely LOVED it! It allows for maximum social development and plenty of hack-n-slash mixed in. Easiest way to do this is with an all human campaign. The Game Master hands all players a blank sheet of paper and creates mock character sheets as references for him/herself. As players are faced with challenges and find weapons, you have them roll to discover their abilities.
Conversely, if you wish for a little more creativity you may have your players pick race, height, weight, eye color, hair color/style, etc. Adding flaws to the player-characters’ sheets contributes to an epic adventure, and when the players are under duress, (facing overwhelming odds and/or are injured) forcing them to roll a Willpower check decides whether their negative personality flaws and traits manifest themselves or not. Nature Vs Nurture.
Last but surely not least…
7) It Is Called R.O.L.E. Playing Not R.O.L.L. Playing
Sadly sometimes I think this rule is lost on many a Game Master. The point of role-playing is to escape reality for a bit and have some fun! The dice should never replace creativity or fun. Dice should only be used to retain balance and to resolve whether an action is successful or not.
The more creative you let your players be, and, conversely, the less restrictive your rules are, the more joy and fun you as the Game Master, and your players by extension, will have at the table. You don’t have to get so caught up in the storyline and plot that your PCs can’t make their own choices. Heck if you want, let them write the majority of the plot with their decisions. Just make sure they don’t kill themselves or destroy the world in the process!
I have played a number of tabletop games and have designed a number of campaigns that I have run to conclusion. Some I have had to let go for various reasons… lost players, work schedules, etc. I will admit, going for more of a storytelling feel and losing a player or having a character die can put a dampener on the campaign as a whole. But if you are clever and creative, you can turn even this problematic situation into storytelling gold! Incorporating one or even all of these rules into your next campaign may just bring an added, (or missing), spark to your game night and hell, who knows…
You might just decide to publish something too… one day.
Lilliana Deeters is a veteran gamer and Game Master. She has written and designed a number of custom campaign systems, (Trademarks Pending), as well as developed easy to implement conversion tables for already popular tabletop rpg systems. Lilliana is a three-time published author, all three of her novels are based around a Shadowrun campaign https://www.amazon.com/s?k=remnants+the+corporate+Chronicles. Lilliana also works as a Graphic Artist for Black Starr Creations, who generously custom designed a free image for this article.
Running a sandbox game isn't for the light hearted, organization is prime and being ready to respond to player actions is a close second. If you are properly prepared, a sandbox is an easy way to run a game. There are books, blogs, and podcasts by the dozens talking about different methods of pregame preparation. All have their own method; preparation is something that everyone does differently, just like dungeon mastering. So which one is for you? I can't say, but I can give you insight into the tools I use. Aside from good pens, a mechanical pencil, and a bunch of dice what do you need to prepare for a sandbox game? I'll tell you what I use and why.
1) Red Tide And An Echo Resounding
These two books by Kevin Crawford revolutionized my preparation style. They have advice on your GM binder and what to keep in it, an easy system for randomly determining and populating an area with cities, towns, ruins, and lairs and maps to steal. An Echo Resounding sets up domains and factions, details domain turns, and mass combat, should things get ugly. Both are short and easy to read and come with detailed examples to help you work through it the first time. I've adapted them to my style and use them for most of my randomly determined areas, and sometimes for pre-populated ones too. These two well worn and sticky-tabbed books are easily in the top three most used in my library. What's the top one?
2) Dungeon Masters Guide
I prefer the first edition dungeon masters guide, but the fifth edition is no slouch! Both cover things beyond the rules of their respective edition, talking about time, non-player characters, and adventure locales just to name a few topics. The random tables in each cover personalities, traits, motives, and best of all random dungeons. If I'm drawing out a dungeon for a game, making non-player characters, or creating an encounter, one of these is what I reach for. Seeing a theme yet?
3) Random Tables
Random tables help you get away from same thinking. Anytime I need a question answered in my preparation I turn to a random table to break out of similar ideas. Similar ideas can be great in the beginning, even enforce a theme, but after a few sessions they start to seem stale. Random tables mix it up creating wild combinations that you need to make sense of; things I couldn't have come up with on my own. The books on my table lately have been The Dungeon Dozen, d30 sandbox and Tome of Adventure Design. The latter being my most used book in the last six sessions I prepared.
4) A Good Monster Book
Monsters are the base of encounters in Dungeons and Dragons. Whether you are making random tables or static encounters, you are going to need a lot more enemies than the ones in the back of the Players Handbook. Sometimes just flipping through a book will inspire an encounter or maybe even a whole adventure. That's the way the fifth edition Monster Manual is written, according to Mike Mearls. If you haven't read the Monster Manual, take the time, as it's well worth it. After exhausting that, pick up Tome of Beasts, Tome of Horrors, or use the fifth edition Dungeon Masters Guide and make some of your own!
5) Tablet, Laptop, Or PC
I like to run digital. Most of my collection is in PDFs, I make maps and graph paper, and keep all my notes online. At my game I run with my laptop, dndbeyond.com, and Nitro PDF reader. I even have a tv set up for maps, pictures of monsters, and rules to show the players. At home I like to prepare on my PC; there are four basic programs I use. A digital art program for maps, handouts, and paper minis. Photoshop is what I use, but GIMP, painter or whatever you have will work too. With online notes syncing across all devices, I can prepare wherever on whatever is handy (I do a lot of work on my phone). I use OneNote as my GM binder and have a lot of worksheets and forms set up to help me with the common things like settlements and adventures. OneNote works for me, but Evernote and Google Drive, or offline applications like Scrivener and Campaign Logger are also options. A PDF reader for all my PDFs, Nitro, Foxit, or Acrobat all work fine. The last one is a web browser. I get a lot of encounters, maps, paper minis, and ideas from the internet. Places like ENWorld, reddit, and Discord are some of my go-to communities. Remember great dungeon masters steal ideas! Just don't publish stolen material.
Yes, as digital as I like to be, plain old paper is a staple for my game preparation. If only for scribbling notes or sketching an encounter, I always seem to find a need for paper. I have a disc bound notebook to jot stuff down quickly or take notes during an encounter. I use this notebook for when I'm stuck, somehow staring at a blank sheet of paper gets my creative juices flowing. A doodle here, a number there, a list of names, and I'm off to the races, heading toward OneNote with ideas in hand ready to develop into a solid encounter.
Preparing for a game is a path all dungeon masters have to trudge down, but it doesn't have to be such a chore. We're dungeon masters partially because we love to create and sometimes we need some help with that creation. Having the right tools can make that session preparation a whole lot more fun and easy. I hope I’ve introduced you to some that fit into your preparation style.
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 provided by the author.
Between RPG products, novels, comic books, TV and movies, random blogs, and so on, there are already so many amazing worlds out there. Many of these worlds are tried and true and have decades of lore and refinement. But, for as amazing as some of these worlds and tropes may be, they aren’t novel, and they aren’t yours. Those worlds have already been explored and those stories have already been told. There’s nothing wrong with tried and true, with staying within the lines of a setting or a genre, with telling a story that has already more or less been told, but what I love about tabletop is that it allows for something more. With no artistic talent, programming experience, or a crew of performers and a special effects team, you can build a novel world. Your players can experience genuine wonder in the exploration and discovery of things truly never seen before. There is nothing wrong with orcs and elves and dragons, but at some point, they became mundane. You know what an orc is, and it makes you feel warm and fuzzy and nostalgic, and as the worldbuilder I’m just leveraging your knowledge and nostalgia. That’s simple and sensible enough, but where’s the fantasy in that?! If you want to build worlds that make you feel the way you did when you first read Lord of the Rings, let’s try something new! Here are 5 tips to bring fantasy back to the fantasy genre.
1) Understand The Tropes
This first tip isn’t about building a unique world per se, but it’s an important first step. Why do we love orcs and elves and dragons? As I discussed above, part of why we still use these creatures is because they’re known quantities, and they’ve worked in the past. But more than that, they hold some symbolic value. Elves can represent a people in tune with nature, or the end of an old age, or (if you’re going for more of a fey interpretation) whimsy and wonder. You need to understand what the tropes are and why they exist in order to change them.
2) Subvert The Tropes
Now that you’ve thought about what the tropes mean, subvert them! Maybe in your setting, the elves are undergoing a magi-industrial revolution, using new magics to twist the forest into woody machines. Maybe the elves are a new race, and this is a world in which the age of humanity is coming to an end, rather than the reverse. I was a preteen when I first played the video game Warcraft 3, but the idea that the orcs were once a noble, shamanic people prior to the events of the first game blew my mind. By that point, between Warcraft and Lord of the Rings, I thought I already knew what an orc was supposed to be. By subverting my expectations, Warcraft left a lifelong impression on me of what the genre of fantasy can be.
3) One Unique Thing
I’m borrowing this term from the tabletop RPG 13th Age, but I think it can just as easily apply to worldbuilding as to character creation. This is in-line with the above, a single subversion can entirely change the nature or tone of a world. However, other additions or changes can also make a world unique, without totally subverting it. In this world, maybe halflings have elongated faces and big eyes, as if they evolved from a lemur. Maybe that inspires you to place the halflings on an isolated, Madagascar-esque island, rather than The Shire, deep in a Euro-inspired forest. Maybe elves have bluish skin and white hair, making them just a little more alien. Maybe they actually are the descendants of ancient alien refugees, and there are subtle hints throughout the world that their magics are in fact advanced technologies.
4) Borrow Generously
Maybe you don’t just want one change, but a world entirely different from traditional fantasy. It can be daunting to build a whole world, or even to decide where to begin. In such a case, take from what’s already out there! So you have a fantasy setting, but instead of orcs and elves, you have daleks and twi’leks, and instead of paladins and wizards you have jedi and onmyoji. You can change the names, shuffle around details, adapt them to whatever technology level or setting aesthetic, it’s just about giving you a place to start. At this stage it might seem a bit slapdash, like a child smashing their toys together. That can be fun, but let’s take it one step further: how do these disparate elements come together? In the process of answering that question, I think you’ll find that the world starts to build itself. Even though these are known quantities, by arranging them in a unique way, they can become something novel and greater than the sum of their parts.
5) More Is More (But Also Less Is More)
If you’re like me, and the problem is that you have too many ideas, rather than too few, don’t be afraid to go all out! Throw every idea you can possibly think of up on the board and see how it shakes out. The reality is that many of your most unassuming ideas will end up being your best, and many of your personal favorites aren’t going to work the way you expected. Plop it down like a big brick of marble and chip away at it. Share your work on r/worldbuilding or elsewhere on reddit, start a blog, or seek advice in some other way. At the end of the day it’s your world, but consider what other people have to say, and if they tell you something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to chip it off.
So here’s the world I came up with, just in the process of writing this article: A peaceful tropical island, inhabited by a small, lemur-like people known as halflings, is invaded by the powerful, arcane lich army known as the daleks. A few unassuming halflings are rescued by a great onmyoji, a tall woman with light blue skin and white hair, wielding a glowing blue saber of light. She takes the halflings to the continent, where they learn about a war gone awry between an old race known as humans, and the blue-skinned elves who have begun to succeed them. Out of desperation, a sect of humans placed their souls inside arcane boxes, giving up their own humanity to bring human civilization back to its former glory, as they perceive it. Amidst a world in such turmoil, what place is there for the halflings?
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, 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 people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://wallpaperstock.net/best-friends-fantasy-world-wallpapers_w50899.html
With the amount of media the average game master encounters in their day-to-day lives, It’s easy for them to assimilate that media into their games. Some may consider this unoriginal, but in this ever expanding sea of pop culture we find ourselves in, it is impossible not to be inspired. When it comes to your home games, there’s no reason you can’t take ideas you like from your favorite franchises and blend them together. As a matter of fact, I would argue that doing so for your group can be incredibly beneficial. I’m not condoning plagiarism of course, or trying to rewrite an existing setting and sell it. But if it’s for the entertainment of those in your group, there’s no reason not to pillage and plunder intriguing concepts by other creative types. Here are four reasons it can be beneficial to your campaign.
When everyone is inhabiting an imaginary world together, it helps if all of the players and GM are on the same page. If your world features a concept that is similar to something found in pop culture, it can pay to simply explain that to the players. There’s a reason many fantasy settings feature the classic races of Elves, Dwarves, and Halflings. They’re familiar. Most gamers have at least heard of Lord of the Rings and the creatures found within Middle Earth.
This is not to say that you need to follow a path that is so well trod. There are so many wonderful places to pull from that many gamers would understand. If you’re running a dark sci-fi game that features man-eating aliens, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out their similarities to the Xenomorphs from the Alien movies. This puts the players in the right frame of mind from
2) Catered to the Players
If a game master is familiar with their player’s interests, it can help to reference those things and spark their passions. While this is similar to familiarity it is separate for one major reason: Passion. Just because someone is familiar with something doesn’t mean they are passionate about it. Is a player in your group obsessed with Harry Potter? Why not add a school for heroes in your setting? Do you have a player that loves the exploratory aspect of Star Trek? Consider running a hex-crawl in your setting.
3) Something Totally New
My favorite reason to steal ideas from various sources is how easy and fun it can be to combine those ideas into something else completely different. Some of the most unusual concepts can be merged together to create something amazing. The results could be bizzare, like combining the dark fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm with the far-flung future of the modern space opera. Alternatively it could be a bit more subtle, like combining elements of the matrix with vampire hunting. Regardless, the results can be wholly awesome, and incredibly unique.
4) The Hype Train
With the Marvel movies in full swing right now, it’s no surprise that superhero RPGs are big sellers. These sort of influences can really get a gamer pumped, and there’s no reason a game master can’t tap into that. Have you designed a space opera setting? Ask the players if they want to play in a campaign where they are wanted criminals who happen to be the universe’s last hope, like the Guardians of the Galaxy. If you time it right, this can be a big boost of energy to get a campaign started. This may be best for shorter campaigns; as the hype dies you may find the game loses its staying power.
We all have influences from our favorite franchises, and there’s nothing wrong with embracing those passions and putting them into the game. They are a part of you after all, you may as well use them to your advantage.
Nathan Carmen is the founder and head writer of the Indie RPG company, Tricky Troll Games. Nathan loves building worlds and improving his craft when he’s not busy parenting. Reach Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the TTG website at https://nathanccarmen.wixsite.com/trickytrollgames.
Picture Reference: https://comicbook.com/marvel/2018/03/07/marvel-cinematic-universe-movies-ranked-best-worst-black-panther/
Human history is filled with places and events that are so interesting and amazing that they just invite themselves to become the background of an RPG adventure. I don’t even mean specifically fantasy adventures; what has happened in these instances will happen again, certainly, because we were humans then, are humans now, and will be the same faulty humans for a long long time to come.
Quick note: History is subjective to begin with, as it is dictated by the interpretation of the narrator. I am completely aware that in some (perhaps all) of the places and events I describe below, pretty nasty things were happening to people, due to discrimination, slavery, and, well, genocide. I don’t refer to these, not because I don’t think they are important or relevant, or am trying to make light of them, but simply because I’m not an historian, would not know enough about them to start with, and would therefore not be the best person to begin this conversation. I’m simply picking broad events and areas and seeing what could be used in a narrative.
1) War Of The Roses/English Civil War
This is so much like Game of Thrones that… well, George RR Martin is actually on record saying he loosely used this as inspiration for a Song of Ice and Fire. It was family against family, brother vs. brother, with the ultimate prize being the English throne. The GoT connection is the best possible description. Dozens of noble families, whole branches of royal houses simply disappearing overnight, in some pretty heated battles. The Wikipedia entry has a family tree that just makes your eyes water with the effort of following who is cousin to whom. If you want an overarching conflict, with lots of deaths and noble houses, this is your jam.
300 Spartans fighting off a few tens of thousands (estimates vary) of Persian soldiers. This battle has been much embellished over recent years (with the movie 300, based on the graphic novel of the same name, itself a highly built up adaptation of the known parts of the battle). It would be the perfect seed for a few characters against an army. There’s not a lot of RPG material here as it was just a battle, but I’ve always thought that having the players as, say, spies or messengers moving against the background of the battle would be really cool.
3) The Byzantine Empire
This one has ‘fantasy RPG’ written all over it. From the exoticism of the ‘east meets west’ culture and language, to the gigantic palaces and temples, if you have a look at a lot of RPG core books, specially images of markets and buildings, you can easily see how Byzantium is a bit of an inspiration. On any random street, you could find products from all over the known world, and the palatial intrigue was ridiculous. It got so bad, the local rulers had to hire Viking mercenaries because everyone else in the area wanted to kill them. A good inspiration for cities, markets, commercial areas, etc.
This one has a lot of caveats, as so much of the City by the Tiber has been used in the past, by pretty much everyone, from RPG writers to Napoleon. If you want an ancient city, with streets, temples, slums, docks, etc, this is your standard.
5) The Silk Road
Although it was totally not a single Road, the Silk Route was in fact a series of trading posts and small stretches of road works that connected China to the West. This is the best possible scenario for trading stories/escort stories. It even has loads of ghost towns, built and abandoned, as the tides of trade ebbed and flowed.
6) The Great Wall of China
Just using a monument as a starting point, I mean, picture it: a mysterious, highly advanced kingdom decided to turn inwards and focus on itself and is so paranoid about attacks from the outside that it builds a gigantic series of walls to keep everyone else away. The functionality is immaterial. Imagine cresting a hill and seeing a wall that went from horizon to horizon.
7) Edo Japan
This is so appropriate that is has already been adapted to RPG’s, even to D&D. This was the time of the samurai and ronin and noble battles and ninjas. A lot of it has been exaggerated and embellished, but it’s still a background rife with warriors and noble ladies doing martial arts and emperors and so on.
What other historical places or times have you used in games, or indeed, think that would be good to use in games?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after ten years doing strange things in labs, decided to become a teacher. Then, three years ago, like he was bit by a radioactive D20, RPG’s came into his life, and he’s now juggling teaching, playing and GMing quite happily. He lives in the UK with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants, 4 to 5 RPG’s at various stages of completion (and across as many rule systems), and maps, cursed idols, evil necklaces, and any other props he can get his hands on. He’s been writing for HLG for a couple of years, and is one of the resident vloggers. He can be reached at @Atomic_RPG.
Picture Reference: https://ludwigheinrichdyck.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-battle-of-thermopylae-480-bc-defending-the-pass/
Lorecraft has become especially popular in recent years thanks to games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and with its resurgence as a storytelling mode, many creators both professional and amateur are attempting to carve out their own plot of narrative real estate. This isn’t a new frontier, however, and savvy world builders would be wise to recognize that. Lore is all about longevity, about reaching from the past to inoculate those of the future. With this in mind, try to think about something, anything that has existed in its original, unmolested state for, say, one hundred years. What about two hundred? Or a thousand? The simple answer is none, but “simple” seldom makes for satisfying stories. That, at its heart, is what lorecraft is all about. It is simulating the persistent effect of time on a culture, idea, structure, or even a single person. It is telling the story (whatever that story may be) as it was by how it is now. To do this, you need a story that can turn into lore; here are some tips on how to do just that.
Think about lore as footprints or tracks that players have to trace backwards. Unlike conventional storytelling where the narrative unfurls before the protagonist, lore and legend by their very nature require that at least part of the story has already been told. But you already know that. You have already stepped in those footprints before, you remember. Don’t you: the house down the street, with the loose-hinged shutters sun bleached and dropping jagged paint chips like leaves from a maple tree. Derelict and abused, the house is perched on your street like a gargoyle, watching the jittering plans of you and your neighbors for years. Local children would bribe one another with melted snickers to go inside on hot summer nights when the moon was brightest. Some would go in, plucking up the courage (or naïveté) only to rocket out screaming from the houses yawning doorway. You remember hearing about the night she went in. You remember waiting for her to come out, the kids around you calling out her name in nervous laughs. You remember eventually going home. You don’t remember seeing her again.
The haunted house! Everyone has at least heard of one! It’s a great way to build micro-lore that resonates with a lot of people. This idea of a physical structure that’s mere existence compels those nearby to fabricate a story around it. It’s an important part of culture, crafting legends around structures, and we have been doing it for thousands of years. Houses of worship often fall into this column, but we will get to religion in a bit. For now, be thinking of lore in the way you think of that haunted house. What makes it unique? What makes it memorable? Most of the time, it’s the aesthetic. It’s the fact that it isn’t like the surroundings. It possesses an air about it that begs for a story. All the important ancient structures that exist today exhibit that. Maybe at one time they fit right in, but something happened. Everything changed and for one reason or another, it had the tenacity to brave the storm of time. So often, buildings don’t stand the test of time; that is why I said it’s great for micro lore. It helps creators get a grasp on the idea of persistence and setting because lore has a tendency to lean on the philosophical. Without a strong presence of mood and setting to ground wayward protagonists, lore might just be perceived as a history lecture. Buildings like temples, pyramids, even creepy homes are a good way to avoid some of the wordiness of legacy and provide engaging avenues to show rather than tell. History is learned. Lore is explored. Keep that in mind with buildings.
This may be the most familiar form of lore that we digest today. Stories of heroes of a bygone era and the adventures they undertook is the soul of most roleplaying games. While players often are participating in reactive story telling (The monster is doing this; so, you do this), lore is post-active storytelling. The analogy of the footprints is especially true for folk tales and post-active narratives. For example, one of my favorite Native American folktales from the Muscogee tribe describe the events that lead to opossums having bald tails. In short, a clever opossum catches his tail alight to bring fire to those that needed it most, Prometheus style. Post-active storytelling does not have much of a pension to be changed on the fly, but its results are able to be engaged with and are usually the reason the story is being told in the first place even if that reason is “I wonder why opossums have bald tails?”
Folktales are a way to humanize history through lore. It is a vehicle that allows us to make an impression on one of the most difficult surfaces to reach: the past. If you want to build character-centric lore, go to the folktale and see what makes them tick. Soon, you will be begin to notice that classically there are uncanny archetypal characters that mirror other characters from vastly different locations and points in history. Folktales palletize grandiose ideas of the human experience, but at their heart, they tether the present to the past through caution and familiarity. The best heroes of lore, despite how godlike or untouchable, are always actualized by what makes them most human.
The backbone of most prominent religions presently is preservation. Someone thought that the world works/should work a certain way, and they made sure that their ideology could be propagated beyond their lifetime. It’s a pretty daunting task. Regardless of validity, religions deserve a pat on the back for lasting as long as they have. This deliberate, theological persistence is engineered to imbed itself into culture to survive; it does this through lorecraft.
For sake of illustration, let’s make up a religion. A group of intelligent creatures live on the shoreline of a massive sea. Every once in a while they see curious beasts ferrying men across the water. These beasts have large white structures that catch the wind and propel them forward. Without the technology to observe these things closer, the little colony agrees that the beasts must be some massive water bird capable of carrying humans over past the horizon.
“Well what is on the other side of the horizon?” one asks.
“Who knows? Everyone that goes out there never comes back,” replies another.
There is the seed. Mystery, intrigue, mortality. Over the next couple of generations this seed grows and evolves as more people throw their theories into the ring, and before you know it, we have a fully fleshed out mythology about gatekeeping birds transporting chosen humans into another realm. As silly as it sounds, Americans actually tried to synthesize a religion to keep people out of nuclear test sites in this very way (Vox and the podcast 99% Invisible have an amazing video on this which can be found here https://www.vox.com/videos/2018/1/29/16932718/biohazard-design-nuclear-waste). Take an icon. Let that icon grow bigger in scope though intrigue, and once it grows too big or esoteric for people to completely understand, eventually someone is going to stand up and say, “Hey what if we aren’t supposed to completely understand? Maybe it is supernatural.”
We mentioned before that folklore was designed to connect the human condition to the often foggy interpretation of the past. Religion connects the human condition to the supernatural in much the same way. It’s important to keep in mind that rich lore often deals with the mortality of man and the anxiety it can induce. Throughout human history the desire to feel like the unexplainable is being orchestrated by something bigger than man has cropped up again and again. We build lore around it to contain the philosophical musings that we feel are most satisfying. When it comes to religion, think of lore as a glass terrarium that not only provides enough structure to keep everything in one place but also remains transparent enough so that we can see whats inside.
If folktales highlight the best in human design, then monsters are the downers at the party that point out how awful things are. In a way, the story of the monster is the antithesis of the folktale. If folktales tell us, “Hey, humans can transcend themselves and do amazing things,” the monster story warns us, “Humans can transcend themselves, but you may not like what the end result looks like.”
We see great examples of that warning in familiar stories like “Frankenstein,” “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” basically all werewolf and vampire stories, and so many more. The next time you read or watch something about a monster shift your perspective and try to see it as the protagonist. More often than not there is a sympathetic turn; a genesis story of sorts. Your lore alarm should be buzzing right about now. While most lore is about taking steps back in time, the specific lore surrounding monsters often has us taking steps back to scrutinize ourselves (specifically our psychology).
Where monsters are concerned, good lore builders are able to hold up a mirror and make you see something worse than your reflection. I don’t know about you, but my usual reflection is bad enough. Take the idea of the classic Kraken myth. It’s not scary because it has tentacles or is impressively large or even that it eats boats. It’s scary because it has alien motivations and wants to eat your boat. It embodies the fears of many sailors and the anxiety of traveling into the unknown, an anxiety that keep many people for exploring anything at all. The Kraken has effective lore because it begs the question, “Why is it scary?”
One more example: the witch. In fact, watching the movie “The Witch” tries to convey much of what I have already said about monsters. The archetype of the witch has us asking, yet again, why we are so concerned with relatively innocuous things when seen at face value. Old ladies are not scary, per se. Neither is magic nor the idea of the supernatural. The witch has been so alarming for much of English, Irish, and German history because of what it represents to humans in a general way. The lore behind the witch gives it its weight. The concept of dark, corrupting knowledge that poisons your very nature and potentially those around you is terrifying, especially for colonials during that time. The idea of the “other” has lead people to do terrible things, but the lore behind it is important. Lore helps us tackle these issues with a degree of skeptical separation.
Lore is a powerful tool at a creator’s disposal, but getting bogged down in time lines, he-said-she-said, and esoterica can really detract from the heart of what makes lore compelling. That is, our actions matter and can echo through time long after we are gone. An old professor said something to me once that I still think about today when I’m writing story: “The most engaging part of a treasure hunt is why it needs to be hunted in the first place. If you don’t know that, you’re just writing about a dirty box full of scrap metal.”
Andrew Pendragon is a veteran role player, Dungeon Master, and story teller. His work can be seen featured on outlets like the Simply Scary Podcast and Youtube channel BlackEyedBlonde, but he takes the most pride in his High Level Games affiliate podcast The Dragon’s Horde where he, alongside his co host, answers listener submitted roleplay questions and weaves them into a false-actual-play.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/vidyagaems/Bloodborne+lore+ilustrado+ludwig/wYGsLjL/
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games