Since the boom of the tabletop roleplaying industry and kickstarter, we have been able to enjoy games from all over the world from a diverse amount of people. Unsurprisingly, the country with the most horrific creatures on the planet is producing some of the best tabletop RPGs. Due to distance, a lot of these amazing games aren't being showcased in America. So let's change that! Here are some of the best games being produced by Australian designers right now.
1) Relics: A Game of Angels
The first stop on our road trip through Australia is Steve Darlington, creator of Relics and owner of Tin Star Games. You may have heard of Stever Dee, his moniker, as he has been part of the creation of Shadow of the Demon Lord and Vampire:The Requiem. Now his work is focused on a new creation!
Relics: A Game of Angels is a game where you play (surprise!) angels who have come to earth to wage war against demons without the use of divine powers. The war has raged for centuries with no side gaining ground. The catalyst for this game is the withdrawing of God from the cosmic spotlight and vanishing from our perceived existence. What do these thousand year old angels do now that they no longer have guidance, a deity to fight for, or someone watching their back? These are some of the questions you will struggle with as you explore the world of Relics. It uses the tarot-based Fugue system originally created by James Wallis. Not only do the cards tell you about what happens, but also the card helps guide the scenario by the cues from the card’s meaning.
If you are interested in a game where you can play ancient beings who played a part in creation, look no further. Furthermore, I cannot stress how amazing and helpful the Fugue system with the tarot deck is with pushing the story forward. The tarot deck offers so much storytelling inspiration for each action. Join the fight as you learn your place in this vast universe and make sure to pick up a copy of Relics.
2) Good Society: Jane Austen RPG
Next on our trip through Australia are the wonderful designers from Storybrewers. Vee Hendro and Hayley Gordon have brought to life the vivid and romantic stories of Jane Austen through their game Good Society, which won Best Rules by The Indie Game Development Network in 2019. In Good Society, you adopt the personas of your favorite character types from Jane Austen novels and movies. You can be a wealthy debutante, a poor poet seeking love, write to your friends and family concerning the local gossip, or uncover scandal as you dance under crystal chandeliers. Whatever flights of fancy catch your eye within the pages of an Austen novel, you will find them in Good Society.
The game uses cycles of play where you create scenes with other players, send letters, create rumors, and monologue. The conflict resolution is different than what the typical D&D player may be used to and uses a consent based token exchange. At the start of a cycle of play you have two tokens that allow you to to affect another character or accomplish an unlikely task. It is always a conversation; If you want to spread rumors of another player’s substance addiction, you must first enter negotiation with the other player. Everything is consent based and allows for a wonderful “yes and” and “yes but” style of play.
Good Society was successfully funded via Kickstarter and a new expansion is coming out later this year. If you are looking for a narrative focused game with mechanics that do not get in the way, look no further than Good Society: A Jane Austen RPG.
3) Fragged Empire
Our final destination brings us to Fragged Empire by Wade Dyer of Design Ministries. Fragged Empire is a post apocalyptic sci-fi game where you play one of the genetic creations of humanity. After a genocidal war, all the remaining species are trying to reclaim the society they once had. The base game has 4 non-human species that you can play, each one with its own special genetic purpose for their creation. The Corp, a species created in Humanity's image, were rejected by their creator and have now found their niche in controlling trade and finance. The Legion was a species created as soldiers for the war; now that the war is over, their species desperately tries to encourage their people to raise families and start farming.
The mechanics are easy to understand yet provide a lot of tactical nuances that create exciting combat. You can control combat drones, perform multiple combat actions in one turn, and pilot space ships in epic space battles. The conflict resolution mechanics is a skill based system where you roll three six sided dice and add in your relevant skill bonus. If you describe the scene with a level of intensity and flair as the scene demands, the gamemaster can also award you a bonus. It doesn’t end there though. If you roll a six, you unlock a Strong Hit which allows you to perform special feats such as rerolling a d6. Character creation provides a diverse plethora of options in and out of combat, including unique Strong Hit abilities.
There is so much flexibility and customization in the game, you can run any adventure. The universe is wide and vibrant with many planets that you can explore, as well as space stations where you can lose all your money through gambling. If you ever need a hand understanding the system, there are also helpful video tutorials online made by Dyer to help ease GMs and players into the game.
Now that we have concluded our trip through some of Australia’s best tabletop roleplaying games I feel like I have done my part. Now your part is to seek these games out, spread the word, and go on adventures you can only dream of.
Mitchell Wallace is a writer, professional gamemaster, and twitch director for Penny for a Tale. Mitchell playtests, runs, writes, and plays as many tabletop games as he can, and loves sharing them with the world via twitch, twitter, instagram, facebook, and pennyforatale.com
Picture Reference: https://www.tinstargames.com/#/
We all want to level up our characters and smash the "big baddies", but quests and campaigns can become monotonous in the name of grinding for experience. Endless cookie-cutter dungeon crawls can suck the fun out of a great campaign and turn game night into more of an obligation. Check out these five ways to keep the magic in your campaign and help prevent the characters from turning into murder hobos!
1) Think Your Way Through A Puzzle
Getting creative with puzzle encounters can break the cycle of beat the small baddies, beat the big baddie, get the treasure and experience points, rinse and repeat. Forcing your players to use critical thinking and their imaginations may be painful at first, but it can also bring new ideas to the campaign storyline. The puzzles don’t have to be on a high difficulty setting, sometimes setting up an easy or moderate puzzle can be just as fun to break the monotony. Try a small puzzle, like a mysterious room armed with coded locks that cannot be picked by your rogue. Or perhaps a larger puzzle of a strange cult that is controlling a village and needs to be dismantled via diplomacy rather than the sword.
2) Go Fetch!
Fetch quests can seem trivial, but they’re also a fun way to push the story forward without a dungeon crawl. Have your players find a lost item that they must return. Then the reward can lead to a new epic quest, or an even more difficult fetch quest. The players might even decide to stay awhile and explore the new town or setting. Or the fetch might be an NPC (non-player character) or an enemy creature. Perhaps the princess has run away from her engagement and you must return her to her betrothed. Then there lies the choice of forcing her to marry, or allow her to escape. A new adventure awaits.
3) Introduce A New Threat
Perhaps the main quest is ultimately defeating a particular big baddie and their lesser baddies along the way. However, that doesn’t mean a side quest isn’t in order. Create a new threat for your group to face. Maybe a town is being held hostage by a rogue warlock? Or perhaps a village is plagued by a rag tag army of bandits that assembled in the name of looting? Taking a detour from the main quest can be just what your campaign needs.
4) You Can’t Shake A Sword At The Plague
An unusual route your campaign can take is dealing with a quarantined town. You can’t fight illness with weapons, or perhaps even magic. The villagers need saving all the same and riches may wait as your reward. A twist on the puzzle quest, figuring out the cause of an outbreak and finding a solution or a cure can put your group’s imaginations to the test. It can also allow your healers to shine as the key players for the quest. The cause of the disease could still be due to a baddie that needs to be slain, but the journey to that knowledge would be different from the typical dungeon crawl.
5) Make A New Friend
Once a party is established, the dynamics of the group can become stuck in a rut, and gameplay can become quite predictable. A great way to shake things up is for the DM (Dungeon Master) to introduce a new NPC to the party. It could be temporary for a single quest, or could be a permanent fixture for the remainder of the campaign. Either way, it gives your party a new character to fight alongside and learn their quirks. Just be sure not to give your party a broken NPC either way – making them overpowered will make gameplay boring as it removes all the challenges, and making them weak and dumb will bog down your party and frustrate them. Meet somewhere in the middle with good advantages and weaknesses for the best gameplay.
6) Put The Game On Pause
Sometimes the best way to rejuvenate the grand campaign is to put it on hold and have fun with a one-shot campaign. Pick a storyline that’s radically different than the quest you’ve been grinding on, and watch the spark return to your group as they battle their way through new monsters and challenges. A little fluff can go a long way to bring back the magic. It can even resemble the old dungeon crawl grind, but having a new storyline and objective can give your party the new angle they’ve been craving in their main campaign.
While taking a new turn with your campaign can be fun, it's important to keep the balance of the overall goals of the campaign. Don’t just throw a crazy left turn into the mix, as that will only frustrate the party and confuse the campaign goals. Though if your group has a craving for plot twists, or straight up nonsense, perhaps they need a one-shot in a wonderland of sorts?
Alice Liddell is an author, artist, and performer who loves bringing magic and fantasy to all aspects of her working and personal life. Whether it’s DnD with friends, or a round of Fable solo, Alice has always loved gaming of all kinds. You can find her work on her social media handles Facebook, or under littlalice06 on IG and Twitter.
Image link: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1021946
Once you have a world, you need to build a campaign, this will give you an idea on where to start.
1) Start With A World, Either A Published Campaign World Or One You Have Created For Yourself
There are several products online from which to choose from, from many reputable publishers. There are also a countless number of homebrew worlds, so the precedent for custom world creation is more than evident. Once you have chosen a world then you need to determine what you are going to do with its history. You can either follow it or not, change it or not, or combine a couple of other worlds histories into one until you get a history you like. Or just start from scratch. The advantage of using a pre-created world’s history is that you can use the various supplements that are published for that world.
The advantage of using your own history is that no one will know it like you will and you can write as much or as little as you want. You can also take a set of nice maps and then create a totally custom history that has nothing to do with what the world’s publishers had planned. That is fine; that is what makes it your own world. For example, the Pathfinder world of Golarion has a crashed spaceship and gunpowder was discovered. I know quite a few DMs who hate to allow gunslingers and a few who ignore the spaceship references because they don’t want science fiction in their D&D game. So they ignore those parts of Golarion’s history and just don’t have them in their world. However, they can use other parts of the published system and the supplements written for the game and the world of Golarion.
Gary Gygax was all for people creating their own material. He gave the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as possible items that could be customized, changed, or improved as the DM wishes. When it came to artifacts he wrote in blank lines and a list of suggested powers and lists of drawbacks for each artifact, several lists in fact. One of the first rules in the DMG was “All rules herein are optional.” That means you can do whatever you and your players want in campaign creation. The important line here is “you AND your players.” Make sure your game is interesting for your players and something that they will want to play in. Gary Gygax published the little book set, then the red and blue book set, then 1st edition and then a couple of years later he published the World of Greyhawk, which was his campaign world. He wanted people to create their own worlds and not just use stuff that he created. He was reluctant to lock people into his ideas. The World of Greyhawk had a beautiful color map with a hex grid, but only a pamphlet for the history section. Some nations got only a paragraph of history. The idea was to present a starting point and have you build upon it and create your own stuff. If you bought his dungeons and modules then you would get more of his campaign’s history, but if you made up your own stuff that was perfectly fine.
2) Good Places To Start
You could start with a discussion from the DM, a poll, a list of ideas, or a gab session where you as a group discuss ideas that you would like to see in a game. The first three require that the DM comes up with the ideas, while the final suggestion allows the group to come up with the idea, although it has the ability to grow out of the DM’s hands.
Another consideration for planning your game is its future. I have created over half a dozen different worlds and used several published worlds in my game. Each game was its own entity and I seldom worried about what type of game would take place after the current game. My first campaign world was just the Geomorphic maps from Avalon Hill tank games. I know a DM who has run the same set of three game worlds for over 30 years. He takes what players have created in the past and builds upon it. When players make changes in his worlds they are reflected in the next game. He has a long complex history because of this. This is fine for him, but bad for his friends and his wife who played in multiple games and were told that they were using out of character knowledge when they referred to knowledge a past character had. That penalized his regular players. Now if he had some items that were part of the historical record and some items that were secret then he wouldn’t have penalized his players as much. He could have used some characters as NPC heroes and heroines in his game. He could have let them use some of the common history those characters knew instead of requiring everyone to start at ground zero.
D&D is designed to be run over however long the DM and the rest of the group can sustain it, usually years. There are some groups that have been playing for a decade or longer and there are new groups starting each day and groups falling apart each day. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking only for the next session, the next game, or the next module. Start planning for the future, whatever that may be. Yes, almost always some of these plans will go unused, but you can always recycle the data later. Always keep this thought in mind: “what next?” What will happen after this session, after this module is done, after this game is done, and in my next game? The job of a DM is to think outside of the box and to think ahead of the players. This is the chief reason why it is so hard to be a good DM and why so many of us love the job.
3) Session Zero
Assuming you have an idea for your game the next step is to plan session zero. Session Zero is that session where you sit down and talk with your players, inform them of what game you plan on running, and find out what characters they are going to play. This is important to do, it can be done in person or done over Skype, over the phone, or over email. The important thing to do is to build a campaign the party will be interested in and have a crew of players and characters that fit. For example, if you have a freewheeling pirate adventure where the players skate the edge of the law and on the run, then it would be foolish to expect a paladin to star in such a game. Not impossible, just unusually hard on the paladin. By the same token, a last-ditch defense against a horde of orcs with the party manning and organizing the defenses would be a good game for a paladin to join.
Founded in 1888m, the National Geographic Society organized and sponsored expeditions to explore the darkest corners of the world. When a party was planned to explore Egypt, an arctic explorer was not brought along, nor was a big game hunter. Instead it was an Egyptologist, someone who spoke the local languages, and someone who spoke the former languages of Egypt who were included. D&D was designed for a party of core characters; a rogue, a fighter, an arcane magic caster and a divine magic caster who can heal. The further you move away from this “standard party” the harder it is going to be on your group. Now the DM can make adjustments like removing traps or allowing wands of cure light wounds to fall into the party’s hands early, but these are forced constraints. A game is better when you don’t have to force the issue, especially when dealing with the basics like the “standard party.” Just like a National Geographic Society party is going to include the proper mix of people, your game should include the proper mix of characters.
Now you could hold a Hogwarts Academy adventure where the party all are fledgling wizards who are trying to get an education, but this would require a custom game and a way for the party to heal themselves or a way for them to bypass traps. All standard Adventure Paths and Modules are written for a party of 4 who are of the “standard party.” If you don’t want to run a “standard party,” or the players don’t want to form a “standard party” then you can’t use standard Adventure Paths or Modules. This has been true since the times where there were only six-character classes and it is still true today. You can do it, but it will be harder on the party if you do and as DM you need to make adjustments.
I was once in a game with three players. We had just split the group and a power gamer had left. When we reformed the new party all of us took on hybrid characters. I was a magus, so I had to handle front line fighting as well as arcane use. The shaman had to handle his pet as well as cure wounds and the Investigator took other skills rather than Disable Device. One problem was this DM felt we had to design our characters on our own, with no input from each other. We honored that rule and we suffered for it. That game didn’t go well and for the first seven levels my character died at least once a level, and I didn’t die the most, nor do I recall the amount of times I came close to death as it was too many times to recount (practically every fight). If I had been a fighter class then I would have had more hit points, worn better armor and would have handled the front line better. It took the DM a while to adjust to the party mix and our inherent handicaps by not being a party of core characters. Now there are a lot of people who will argue about this and say that they can build a party out of any characters. They are ignoring one of the core concepts of the game; the “standard party.” You ignore the standard party and the requirement for it at your party’s peril. I recommend that you hold a Session Zero and you let the players discuss what they are going to play and try to form a “standard party.”
A way to make sure you have the “standard party” is to include more players or to include an NPC who picks up the missing role. Just be sure that if you use an NPC, they don’t steal the show from the players. I have seen too many DMs who have major NPCs who act to do amazing things and steal the shine from the party. This is a case of the DMs roleplaying with themselves; I call it DM Masturbation. If you have to include an NPC in the group then make sure that they have some clear flaw, like an unsound tactical mind, or a tragic flaw which could be their undoing. Or maybe they are reluctant. It is up to the party to recognize the flaw in this NPC and to make sure that it is not their own undoing. Make the flaw one that is playable and not fatal. A rogue who sneezes every 10 minutes is going to have a hard time sneaking around, where a rogue who is absentminded may have to be reminded now and then what they are doing or trying to do. The first flaw is very taxing to play and may make the character unplayable, the second character will make sure the players follow the absent minded one around and keep prodding their memory. If you don’t have an NPC with a flaw, then make him a coward or make him hesitant or give him some feature that will cause the party to not trust him. In short, make them fallible. You don’t want them to outshine the players.
4) Starting The Game
Once you have your party, and once you have your Session Zero, then you can start your game. Most DMs like to find or plan a module or an Adventure Path before they talk to their players about starting a game. What you might consider is a range of Adventure Paths or modules that can be strung into a game; then you can give your players a choice of what they want to play. Of course, this means having to prepare or read a bunch of modules, but one way is to use rotating DMs and when a DM is half-way through their game have the next DM discuss what they want to do for their next game. You can hold a gab session or vote from a list of planned items, then the DM who is to run next can take the rest of their friend’s turn at DM to write up or prepare their campaign. This not only helps to prevent DM burnout, but it gives the next DM the ability to prepare before they have to run.
5) What Happens Next?
So now you have created your world, or found one, and you have a world history, either custom or cookie cutter. You have talked with your players about what the party composition should be, you have picked a campaign you want to run, you are ready to start your campaign. So, what do you do next?
You need to inform your players if you plan on using canned history, or a custom history. If you have a custom history, then you should give the players the highlights. In a fantasy setting the education of the people is variable from primitive, to basic, to advanced often depending on your social class they belonged to. The nobility had more education than peasants, so how much background you chose to give out is going to vary with the player, their social class, and frankly their attention span. Few people are going to want to sit through a long lecture on the obscure vintage of a glass bottle or a country that they are never going to visit. So, be careful about how much text you dump on your players. But even peasants knew the name of the pope and their king and queen, they also knew the names of their enemies be they nations or different faiths. When Guttenburg invented the movable type press he printed a smash best seller: the bible. Coming off of that bestseller he published the work of an obscure Catholic Monk who had problems with the way the Church was being run: a guy named Martin Luther. He included a woodcut picture of Martin Luther on the inside cover, and his face became the most famous face in Europe, better known than any king or queen. And believe me, it steamed those nobles.
The invention of the movable type press and publishing books increased the education level of all of Europe. So, one big question you have to answer in your game is how common are books and are they printed, or do they have to be copied by hand. If there are books and they are available, then a lot of people are going to read them and that will improve the education level of the populace. One nice method available to us nowadays is creating a website. Google Sites allows you to create free websites of almost any length. There are other organizations on the web that allow you to create your own website, like Earthlink, or you can take information from the web and refer to it in your own website. The important thing to do here is to make sure you are abiding by the Open Gaming License, where you are not using copyrighted material. If you do use copyrighted work, then make sure to get permission from the original authors and give them credit for their work. This is also true for any illustrations you use. There is no harm in copying work, but there is big harm in plagiarism, that is theft of work and claiming that it is your own. In my book, that is theft of property and lying to your players.
6) Handling Player Knowledge Vs. Character Knowledge
All players will start with some knowledge and have some character knowledge, both of which are rarely the same. Keeping that knowledge straight is important and not easy. Don’t burden your players with too much knowledge and then not expect them to use it. Just like you wouldn’t want to run a module that someone else has already played in or run, you don’t want to include too much knowledge that is restricted information. Also, once a character gains knowledge then it is hard to restrict that knowledge. You can tell players not to use restricted knowledge all you want, but it is hard for them to do so. One common tactic of TV lawyers is to ask a question of a witness that they know will be objected to. The judge will then instruct the jury to disregard the testimony. The problem is the jury never disregards the testimony. In the old days of 1st edition there were only three Monster Manuals and most DMs and players had read them from cover to cover several times. That is why they would ask you to show them a picture of the monster. If you showed one from the Monster Manual page, then often they would recognize it and could quote its stats. You only had to say werewolf and the players would know its armor class, that you needed silver weapons to damage one, and its Hit Dice. With Pathfinder there are half a dozen Bestiaries, so it is harder to memorize all the monsters, but a werewolf still requires silver weapons to damage them properly. This is now reflected in the Knowledge Skills. This is how you can limit a player’s knowledge to a character’s knowledge. You can also use Knowledge (History), Knowledge (Local) and Knowledge (Nobility) to limit how much your players know about the world in general, and in specific. This is good if you are using a shared world or a canned world created by someone else. You don’t mind if you players know more than their characters, but you don’t want their characters to know more than their DM. Also part of the challenge of meeting a monster for the first time is learning what it can and cannot do and what does and does not work on it. In previous editions of D&D that joy was lost once you read the monster manual or once you had played against that monster. Now with Knowledge checks your players can have that joy again and again.
7) Now How Does All This Relate With Each Other?
Well the character class that the players choose, as well as their traits or their background history may determine their social class which would then determine their basic knowledge. What they know would factor into what happens and what the players can count on in the game. The availability of books also determines the education level of the populace. What they know will shape their reaction to how the game goes. For example, most people in the hobby know about the Adventure Path Skull and Shackles and that it is a pirate game. This is common knowledge and even if your players haven’t read the module, they are probably going to know this as a minimum. The game starts with the DM shanghaiing the party onto a pirate ship. You can roleplay that out, or you can do it with a cut scene. A cut scene is a scene in a video game where character agency is taken away. Part of the story is acted out on screen and the player is told some important things and then given control over their character again. You can do a cut scene where you “convince” the party to join your pirate crew, assuming that they will join to go on with the module, if not then you are wasting your time. If you held Session Zero then you would know that the party will go on with the mission so you can save some roleplaying time by using a cut scene to introduce the party to their new ship and crew. Use cut scenes rarely, as you do not want to too often take away player agency or their ability to react.
8) What To Tell Your Players?
Most modules and Adventure Paths come out with a Player’s Handout. If you are doing a custom campaign, then you should make one for the players. Distribute this handout prior to the game and include things like well-known history for the area, rumors for the area, important people in the area, important locations in the area and what the basic adventure idea is. I don’t like to encourage DMs to lie to their party, but there is no rule against misdirection. Some of the rumors could be false, some of the places could not factor in the adventure, some of the people might only factor vaguely in the module and some of the things you tell the players could be commonly known things that are actual factual errors. In Vampire the Masquerade it is well known, among the public, that salt not garlic is what vampires are allergic to. In fact, most vampires aren’t allergic to garlic in the game. Part of the Masquerade is spreading around false information about vampires and even making them fictitious to most people so that if they see a real vampire, they are not likely to believe it, at least long enough for the vampire to escape or to kill the person. Say that there are vampires in your game who have spread around common rumors that vampires are allergic to salt or werewolves who pass around rumors that werefolk are allergic to cold iron not to silver. A simple knowledge check can be used to recover from these falsehoods, but that is something very few first level characters are going to have enough knowledge to know. This could be true in that the Kessel Run is a hard run for even a fast ship to make in Star Wars, or that bottle caps are used as currency in the Fallout universe. Any game could have secret information in it that is known or hidden or not known. If you have secrets, then as soon as they are revealed you had better determine a way for them to be uncovered in other games. Maybe it is a Knowledge (Nature) DC 15 check to know that Fay are allergic to cold iron, maybe it is a knowledge 10, maybe the fay have planted a rumor that they are allergic to silver and it is actually a Knowledge (Nature) DC 20 check to know the truth. That way if you keep using the same campaign world then when it comes time for a new set of adventures to explore the world you will know what they need to do to not act on “out of character information.”
Handouts are good for a game, as they increase player immersion and make the game feel more real to the players. If you are creating a handout then include some pictures with it that relate to the topic at hand. In the early days of D&D the only images that related directly to the topic were those in the monster manual. Often the rulebooks and modules used stock images or images from people who didn’t know the game or the situation in the game. That changed with Third Edition and since then the editors have tried to make sure the images relate to the topic you are reading. This increases immersion and understanding. I have collected a lot of images from Facebook and Deviantart.com so when I plan on showing a monster’s image in the future, I can use one of my images I found instead of the canned one from the Bestiary. That way the players won’t be sure it is monster X with Z and W abilities. Another way to avoid that is to reskin a monster; use one image for another monster’s set of stats. It is best to use a custom image this way. The players will have no way of knowing what you are using or what its real stats are so you can juggle around a few abilities or weaknesses. Now it is harder to do this with a classic monster like a dragon or a medusa, but how many know what a flumph can do, or can picture one? They are lesser known monsters published in the Fiend Folio and were hardly used because they were designed poorly.
Now what if you take a panther man and create a werecat (not a weretiger, there is one of those already) who can take the forms of a house cat up to that of a mountain lion. They get the mountain lion’s attacks or the normal cat’s attacks or the attacks of a small cat (as per the animal companion) if in bobcat form. Now you have a totally new were-creature and no one is exactly sure what it is since you are simply using a cat’s stats and a were-creature’s ability to shape shift and their damage resistance to silver. You can have a village that is suffering attacks from some nasty animal and no one would suspect the housecat lounging on the windowsill. The easiest monsters to make up are demons since they are chaotic and there is an endless array of shapes that they can be formed into. The most common demon is a mashup creature like a Marmolith; a cross between a giant snake, Kali (the Hindi goddess of destruction) and a human female. So, you can escape players from knowing too much by using nonstandard images for monsters, nonstandard monsters, or reskinning a monster. Making up a new monster from scratch is hard to do and even the experts make mistakes now and then. I saw a monster in a module that appears in another module in a toned-down version, because the first appearance of that monster it has a 75% chance of taking out at least one party member in one encounter and that encounter was a major one and couldn’t be avoided. Also, there was no way in the module to bring back the dead at the level the party should be at.
9) Ideas Are Powerful Things And You Need To Include How The Ideas Are Going To Work In Your Game And In Your Future Games
World building is a tremendous task. If you build a world with a secret underground demonic organization that the players find out about, then the next time you run your world the same set of players will expect to find that same organization active again. If you don’t want to throw out your past history, make sure that you have rules for how the players can uncover that information for their characters. For example, the demonic conspiracy may be secret and only known to a few churches and cults, so a character has to have joined a cult or church and gotten past the first circle of knowledge to learn about the demonic cult. This is a simple safety factor. In some games those organizations can be clear and easy to join, in others hidden and hard to find. It all depends on what you want to do for your game. This would let you avoid the traps my DM friend who used his same campaign world over and over created for his players. His wife knew far more than any of us, but he penalized her when she tried to use that knowledge and he didn’t have any rules by which her other characters could get that knowledge, or to rule that they didn’t have it. He just assumed that everyone started out with no knowledge at all and if his wife showed any knowledge, he would accuse her of using out of character knowledge. He could have gotten around that by giving his wife’s character a flaw and access to extra knowledge for that flaw. Then she could even serve as our guide in certain regions and she could be a font of knowledge and an inside track for the players to learn more about his game and thus get deeper immersion and generate more interest. He had a lot of secrets in his campaign worlds, but once we found out about them it was hard to not use that knowledge with our other characters. A few times we learned the same secrets over and over, it took some of the fun out of learning them in the first place. It also took the joy out when we came across his favorite NPC time and time again. It got to the point where I, at least, was sick of them. He had a large world, but we kept coming back to the same areas for his adventures. So, if you create a world or use a canned one then make sure it is large enough that other games can exist in it without falling over each other. One advantage of using Golarion, the Pathfinder world, is that the history was written by a team of writers and the world is vast so it can contain a lot. There is a lot published about the world, but there is a lot of space in between the areas where things can happen and you can make minor changes, like forgoing gunpowder, to make it your own world. Don’t be afraid to do that with any canned world you run.
In summary, start with a world, custom or canned; find what game your party wants to play in and build it; build a party as close to the “standard party” as possible and hold Session Zero; publish a set of your rule variants for the players to learn, use and know; inform your players of what they need to know for background information for the campaign; determine what knowledge is what and how hard it is to obtain, learn, and utilize.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook under the fans of d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters Groups. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions, including AggieCon and NovaCon. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: Red Hand of Doom: Elsir Vale Map (Player) by Antariuk
Barak thumbed the edge of his axe as he listened to his companion drone on about the intrigues of court. Prince Kheldar was a master of political schemes, but Barak would have none of it. Give him a good honest fight any day.
“Get to the point!” he snarled. “Did you talk to your aunt about the Bear Cult?”
Kheldar nodded. “You aren’t going to like it.”
“She won’t help?!” Barak was incredulous.
“Oh no, she’s fine with it. We can get the information we need...if we all come to dinner tonight.”
One of the ancestors of the D&D game is the writings of H. Rider Haggard, whose barbarian protagonists solved problems in Gordian fashion. There can be a refreshing clarity to quick violence, but domains like Richemulot, Borca, and Dementlieu are expected to have courtly intrigues, and Nova Vaasa and Darkon are no strangers to social schemes. If you’re looking for a challenge that doesn’t look like a battlefield, consider a formal social event. Whether a private dinner party or a public auction, a social event can have all the thrill of slaying a dragon, if you focus on these seven major challenges. For the first six, it’s easy enough to assign points for varying degrees of success and total them up at the end. The seventh requires a little more scorekeeping, but it’s all worth it to hear a player yell that their insult landed a critical hit.
1) Pleased To Meet You
It’s normal for adventurers to brag about their exploits, but few cultures view brave deeds as the first thing they want to know about you, and many consider it gauche for you to tell the tales yourself. You’ll need to know if formal introductions are based on noble titles, academic degrees, lineage, birth sign, or something else. If you rank below your peers on this yardstick, it’s usually best to admit so up front with a little modesty and wait for an opportunity to speak about your deeds. A good host may give you an opportunity to do so immediately, or a respected member of the group might step in when you are forced to be modest.
2) A Token Of Esteem
Depending upon the occasion, formal gift giving may be expected. If not, it pays to know how a small unexpected token would be received. Whether you’re giving, receiving, or exchanging, gifts represent status, and the subtext underneath a particular choice may have many layers. In the real world, a single birthday gift of Cuban cigars, for example, might snub other gift-givers by the price tag, beard the authorities by being contraband, and bear a secret reminder of a lost weekend in Cuba. On other occasions, gifts can scream rather than whisper. A powerful figure who knows her rival intends to publicly shame her with a priceless gift at their next meeting may hire outsiders to steal it, or to find something worthy of exchange.
3) Clothes Make The Man
In all but the most barbaric of societies, social gatherings call for clean clothes, but that’s just the beginning. Clothes indicate status as much as gifts, and following the latest trends in fashion--or deliberately setting your own--involves a significant amount of time and attention. Even the smallest accessories can speak volumes, and usually do: social movements often identify themselves by a pin, badge, or ribbon showing you support the cause. Even without such explicit accessories, adept socialites can convey subtle messages in the choice of a hat or lapel pin. Reading the messages in a person’s clothing may grant a bonus towards influencing them, or at least eliminate the faux pas of asking where someone stands on a matter when they are literally wearing their sympathies on their sleeve.
4) Soup Or Salad?
You can generally judge how challenging a dinner party is going to be by the number of courses. Each course has a specific set of expected behaviors: utensils to use, bites to take, how to speak, etc. To know how to behave, a PC can either rely on their knowledge of nobility, or just watch other people carefully and do what they do. Prepping ahead of time can grant a bonus to either of these rolls. Failure, however, means an error that the character must mitigate diplomatically to avoid diminishing their status in the eyes of those present.
5) Small Talk: The Smaller The Better
Career adventurers will get the reputation of being crass and insensitive unless they learn to avoid “shop talk” around people who don’t engage in regular mortal combat. The weather may be a boring topic, but it’s a safe one: it’s slightly different every day and no one can be blamed for it. Topics with equally high variety and low sensitivity might include crop expectations, the latest opera or public games, and how fast children grow. Middling territory for small talk would be things like popular books and what people do for a living. If someone at the table brings up politics or religion, that doesn’t make it open season. You’ll usually score more points by steering the conversation back into safe waters than you will by joining in on boorish behavior.
6) Double Your Speak, Double Your Fun
It’s rude to have prolonged side conversations at the table, so folks who want to go beyond small talk had better get good at hidden meanings. Know your default values to exchange innuendo, and consider establishing code words and phrases ahead of time to grant a bonus to these checks. The Message spell is also useful for unobtrusive speech, but the whispers it employs can be overheard. Try covering your mouth with a napkin, or whisper while pretending to take a sip of wine. Once away from the dinner table you may be able to talk more freely with your target, but only if you have an excuse to meet together. Even the most casual meetings can become fodder for gossip, especially across political lines or between sexes, especially in societies that have strict gender roles.
7) Casual Debate
Small talk is intended to avoid arguments, but some settings actually call for something more spirited. To engage in a casual debate is perhaps the closest thing to social combat, and I highly recommend the use of some kind of reputation point system so players can actually feel the progress of the fight. For example, you can extrapolate the “hit points” and AC of each person’s argument from their related skills and abilities, and let people take aim at an argument using various social skills in place of an attack roll. Everyone should have a role to play, but those roles are often reversed from traditional combat: if a previous support character like a bard is suddenly the front-line fighter, allow the mighty thewed barbarian with minimal social graces to support the bard by laughing at jokes and glaring at the opponent to throw him off.
Done properly, a good social event can feel like the party went through a minefield blindfolded, followed by a pitched battle. The fact that reputations were the only casualties only complicates the matter, because losers may have long memories and yearn to settle the score. Of course, this is an adventure game, but you should have enough here to keep it from being boring even before things take a turn for the deadly. If your players enjoy it, you can discuss whether they want just the occasional change of pace or a longer detour. Who knows? Your next campaign might be set in a more socially dangerous setting. With scheming courtiers hiding behind pleasant faces, there’s hardly a need for monsters at all.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/listing/688840794/monte-cristo-invitation-regency-wedding
What happens when an art studio is looking for a product to sell, but decides to think outside the box? Degenesis! That’s what!
The German art studio SIXMOREVODKA (WARNING: link may be NSFW!!) decided that the best way to sell their art would be to attach it to a roleplaying game. Because if we’ve learned anything from Invisible Sun, it’s that hundreds of dollars for an RPG is not only a price your average gamer won’t balk at, but will in fact vehemently defend.
So for those of you willing to pay a premium for RPGs, I present to you for your reading pleasure: 5 Setting Details About Degenesis, The Primal Punk RPG!
1) Post Apocalypse World
Degenesis takes place 500 years into the future, after an incident involving meteors raining down on earth. The meteors were numerous and large enough to disrupt and destroy modern civilization, but not enough to wipe out humanity. This world comes complete with all the trappings one could expect from a post-apocalypse: societies have begun to rebuild, sometimes atop the ruins of the old world, sometimes by striking out on their own.
Despite humanity coming back together, fresh food and water can remain scarce, and for anybody who dares to brave the wastelands, the environment is very inhospitable. And of course, the inhospitable nature of the land can easily bring out the worst in people. Those brutal and violent people can quickly become jealous of the people living the high life in the cities, and seek to integrate themselves in the only way they know how. (Violence. The implication is violence.)
2) The New Threats To The World
Degenesis shares some characteristics with Fallout and Fist of the North Star: violent maniacs roaming the wastes, while under the earth’s surface, the ruins of the old world still harbor ancient machines capable of wondrous feats, or untold destruction. (Some of which may still be active, but out of control!)
However, Degenesis adds something else to post-apocalypse formula. A new species is seeking to claim the top spot of the food chain that humanity has held onto for so long. A fungus that they call Sepsis has emerged. It’s everywhere, and it’s absolutely sinister.
Sepsis propagates by infecting humans and other animals by releasing spores into the air. A brief exposure is not enough for somebody to worry about. However, past a certain point, Sepsis begins to take over the host’s mind, and fills them with thoughts of wanting to aid the propagation.
An easy task, when you consider that pods of the spores can be ruptured and inhaled for their hallucinogenic and narcotic properties. One of the ways that human society has managed to rebuild in this world, is through illicit trading of these spore pods to people desperate for some solace from the brutal reality of the world. Sepsis is more than willing to not only provide this feeling, but also to show those that are infected where they can find more.
The results of what happens when somebody “overdoses” is not pretty, by the way. Obviously, they become more fungus than man past that point, and no matter how much they may resemble their former selves, that person is long gone, and may as well be dead. (Last of Us fans, eat your heart out.)
3) Various Ways Society Has Managed To Rebuild
With the myriad problems and opportunities of this new world, and the countless generations that have been able to pass since the calamity, it’s no wonder that people have banded together around many different causes and ideologies. These are the Thirteen Cults; despite the modern connotation of the word “cult,” they aren’t necessarily religious in nature. (Though some certainly are.)
Here, cult uses its more classical definition, referring to the cultivation of an ideal. Such as the removal of Sepsis from the world, or using the ruins of the old world for the betterment of the new.
4) Numerous Conflicting And Coexisting Ideologies
The ideals of the cults are as varied as their methods. While two cults could share the same ideal, they may approach it in wildly different ways. For example, both the Spitlans and the Anabaptists wish to remove Sepsis from the world, but their philosophies are very different. The Spitlans are of a paramilitary groups of scientists and physicians, while the Anabaptists are a religious order of knights and farmers.
And their missions are often at odds with the Apocalyptics: globe trotting pirates who make their way in the broken world by getting people whatever it is they’re willing to pay for: including spore pods.
Meanwhile, there are also the Chroniclers, technology fetishists who seek to bring the old world technology back to its former glory, while also spying on all the other cults and playing them against one another to ensure the Chroniclers are left alone.
5) It’s Our Own World
The kicker of all this is that Degenesis takes place in our own world. The landmasses remain mostly the same, but, with the old world fargone, the political boundaries are little more than a formality. However, this means that contemporary media could make an appearance. Contemporary as in media that you, me, or my editor who has already read this, would be familiar with.
In fact, there’s a faction of the Clanner Cult (a catch all for any cult not large enough to be a global force) in the region of Franka called the Resistance that resides in what we would know as France. They’re the enemy of the Pheromancers, people who have given themselves over to Sepsis.
The Resistance have a fanatical devotion to classical French literature and visual art, which they use as a psychological defence mechanism against the temptations of Sepsis. For them, it is a reminder that humanity has their own culture, and their own things that can bring them together without the help of soul stealing fungus monsters.
This is all just scratching the surface. Degenesis is a very lore rich game; it’s initial release comes in two books, each breaking 300 pages in length. One covers the game’s setting and the other its mechanics.
Though with how intertwined the setting is with the mechanics, it’s a game for which you’ll spend quite a bit of time reading about the setting before you may feel comfortable making a character.
Assuming the artwork doesn’t scare you off, first!
Aaron der Schaedel loves games with steep learning curves, be they because of lore or mechanical difficulties. (Though he prefers the latter.) He likes to break these games down for the benefit of other people on his YouTube Channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.geeknative.com/62768/degenesis-rpg/
While I almost exclusively run games in my own settings, I am obsessed with science fiction and fantasy across all mediums. Here are five settings from books, movies, tv, anime, comics, or videogames, that would make for a cool tabletop RPG setting (or that you could borrow ideas from). I tried to avoid settings that I think are already really well known and popular, or that have already had tabletop RPGs made from them.
1) Vampire Hunter D
This is a Japanese light novel series that has also been made into a manga, and two of the books have been made into movies. There was a pathfinder supplement that briefly outlined this series, but that’s minor enough that I’m willing to allow it. This series has that perfect combination of anachronism and Japanese weirdness, fascinating worldbuilding, and jam-packed with cool ideas. It feels very “Appendix N”; a post-post-apocalyptic science fantasy that combines elements of traditional fantasy, gothic fantasy, and weird west in a uniquely Japanese way. The “nobles,” immensely powerful vampires, long ago took over the world and built a science fiction empire, only to recede under mysterious circumstances. The humans left behind have salvaged their resources and technologies to the best of their ability, and fight to survive in a world of noble-made monsters. It has all the best elements of the recent Castlevania anime and the videogame Bloodborne.
2) Powder Mage
A novel series set in a fictional world reminiscent of the Industrial Age and Victorian England. There is political and social intrigue, diplomacy, large-scale battles, and cool superpowers. Knacks are individuals with single, low-level (yet often uniquely useful) special abilities. Sorcerers are massively powerful combat mages with a weakness to gunpowder. The titular Powder Mages are rifle-wielding soldiers who can sense gunpowder, remotely ignite it, eat or snort it to gain enhanced physical abilities, or use it to remotely enhance the distance or change the trajectory of bullets. There are also anti-sorcerers who can shut down other sorcerers’ abilities; wardens who are hulking aberrations created from living humans, and specially-trained superhuman mercenaries who are OP at everything from combat to spycraft to business. There’s a lot to play with here, in every sense.
3) Valkyria Chronicles
A videogame series with a watercolored, cel-shaded, anime art style, set in a fictional setting with a roughly World War 1 to World War 2-era aesthetic. It deals with a world war between a faction reminiscent of the Allies, and a faction reminiscent of Nazi Germany crossed with Stalinist Russia with Imperial European dressing. There’s a valuable, glowing blue mineral resource known as ragnite used as explosives and power sources for tanks. There are scouts, shocktroopers, engineers, snipers, lancers (heavily-armored soldiers with rocket-lances to fight tanks), and the legendary superhuman valkyria. There is a cultural faction roughly analogous to Jews and Romani during World War 2, and other interesting social and political nuances. The videogame series places an emphasis on tactics, which would lend itself well to tactical tabletop RPGs, but it also places a strong emphasis on episodic narrative, which could lend itself well to dramatic scenes in games like FATE or Apocalypse Engine games.
4) Goblin Slayer
This one may be too obvious, and also it would normally be too traditional fantasy for my taste, but it’s so exceptional that I’ll excuse it. It was originally a light novel series that I have not read, but was also made into an anime. While surface-level it is very much traditional fantasy, it has a few neat little twists that give it personality. It is also very obviously inspired by tabletop RPGs, and as such, it does a good job of uniquely integrating (and subverting) the tropes of tabletop RPG fantasy. In a world where every adventurer wants to be a legendary hero, mundane monsters such as goblins are frequently overlooked. As such, these creatures, which are in fact quite dangerous to civilians or to inexperienced combatants, are an under-acknowledged problem. Inexperienced adventurers underestimate them and get slaughtered, while experienced adventures can’t be bothered, or expect too much gold for their services. The Goblin Slayer has no magical abilities, nor magical or mastercrafted equipment; he relies solely on his wits, coming up with all sorts of clever approaches to goblin slaying that would be a thrill to play out at any table.
5) The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
This is a book co-written by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite science fiction / speculative fiction authors, and Nicole Galland, who I was not familiar with prior to reading this book. I should mention that I’m actually still actively reading this book, so there may yet be some twists that I’m unfamiliar with. The general idea is that magic is the ability to manipulate quantum mechanics, and there were once witches who could do it. It’s a somewhat similar premise to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files, a series I would have recommended here but it already has a tabletop RPG (although it is apparently no longer available on drivethrurpg). Like Laundry Files, Stephenson and Galland do a good job of realizing the implications of this speculative fantasy, and to their credit, they take it in a very different direction. The majority of the book is centered on Sending, the process of sending individuals back in time, engaging in Cold War-style spycraft and espionage across history in order to manipulate events up to the present. It’s a cool idea, and one that I think could lend itself well to tabletop, exploring a variety of historical (or pseudo-historical) settings, and playing out the implications of those missions on the present.
Even if you’re like me and prefer to build your own worlds, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Whether it’s snagging a really interesting, tight premise, or borrowing bits and pieces of cool little details to expand your own world, there are a lot of interesting ideas from other media to be explored in a tabletop game. They say there is no such thing as true originality, but if you bring concepts like these to the table, your party will have the next best thing.
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://thumbor.forbes.com/thumbor/960x0/https%3A%2F%2Fblogs-images.forbes.com%2Folliebarder%2Ffiles%2F2016%2F12%2Fvhd_interview1-1200x919.jpg
What is 'Pulp'? Pulp is a series of sub genres usually set between and around the world wars. It was named after the very cheap material it was produced on, wood pulp. The result was a cheap book ideal for a time of financial depression in the states. Almost everyone bought pulp novels to take their minds on amazing adventures with daring heroes and dastardly villains. These stories were over the top and cut to the good stuff of the stories. Some famous authors had their break writing pulp fiction, including HP Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert E Howard with his Conan series. So what makes a pulp story good? How can we implement this into a game? Well hopefully I can help with that by giving you some tips for running a pulp RPG setting.
1) Characters Should Be Larger Than Life
Characters are the centre role for your story, from the players to the villains. In pulp that means they have the most drama around them: when they show up things go down, hoodlums slink off to inform their boss of your arrival, who just so happens to be sitting in a darkened corner of the speakeasy,and then bullets fly as a grand shootout ensues.
2) Throw In A Timer
Any time that a scene is lacking in tension, add a timer, things like a bomb timer is on the nose and fits well. “But what if explosives aren't in my game?” I hear you ask. Well, anything that forces the players to act fast is a timer. A collapsing building, the villain escaping, someone bleeding out; these are all great examples of natural timers that add a sense of urgency.
3) Grand Dialogue
You've no doubt seen the movies where the Big Bad and the hero have witty back and forth every time they meet. Those scenes are pulpy as hell. The cheesy one liners delivered after a fight and the villainous monologue explaining key details of a dastardly plan… all pulp. Don't be shy to encourage this with your players, as they will enjoy a break in seriousness and you will collectively gain some great anecdotes to share with fondness.
4) Out Of The Box Thinking
Reward any player who comes up with an idea that is so crazy it might just work. Creating a catapult using a plank of wood a small stack of wooden pallets and another player jumping is worth a little GM help to pull off, these ideas help reinforce tip 1 that the characters are larger than life and have the potential to do insane and incredible things.
5) Don't Take It Too Seriously
Pulp was brought about to help the working class through the depression after World War One so it was designed originally as light hearted adventure stories, so people could escape the poverty of daily life. Later it evolved into some more serious aspects, but the feeling of pulp is best explored with a slight tongue in cheek approach.
6) Be Inspired
There is a plethora of pulp sources in the world, from the original stories printed on the cheapest paper available to glossy movies from the 80s like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Even in modern day films you can still see the influence of pulp ideas, of over the top heroes having fantastic adventures. Great examples include any film based on a comic or those which have a child chosen by destiny or other unseen forces to fulfill a role by defeating a darkness.
Pulp influences are everywhere. We see them everyday without even noticing it. Pulp is all about heroes battling evil and doing so in style. They leap from a moving train and gracefully land in the saddle of their horse, who somehow can run faster than a train at full speed. They swing from a vine through a forest that somehow doesn't seem to descend lower than the hero needs it to and lasts as long as is needed. Pulp villains deliver monologues, they twirl their evil mustaches, and they are almost equally larger than life as the heroes. They reappear after you think they have died; they escape just in time. However you run your pulp game… enjoy it!
Ross Reid is an enthusiast, currently running a Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, while studying nursing, he has contributed several articles to HLG and is a strong advocate for all things FATE.
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/products/btpy8oj2?Rolemaster-Third-Edition-RPG-Pulp-Adventures
I’ve talked before about borrowing plots from video games, citing that both video games and tabletop roleplaying games are similar media. A scenario is set forth to the players, they give direction to a character or other entity they control, and the state of the scenario is updated based on that input. The primary difference between the two often comes down to input methods, and what entity is doing the parsing of these commands.
I digress, though.
Today, I want to discuss with you some of the fantastic settings in the realm of video games. This list is of course by no means exhaustive, but each of these on this list were chosen because of how unusual they are compared to the so called “standard fantasy” that is Dungeons and Dragons.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Unusual Video Game Settings You Should Play Your Next Game In!
1) Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has recently become one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises; there’s numerous games in the series, and every one of them boasts a huge cast of characters. Some people love Fire Emblem for these huge casts of characters, as well as the ability to see how certain character’s relationships bud through the course of the story.
This is a story that is told between numerous tactical battles, pitting one army against another, with false steps often leading to characters permanently being lost. Most stories in Fire Emblem showcase different conflicts between neighboring countries, and ultimately climax with a battle between good and evil after the powers of some mythic artifact has been discovered. (Such as the titular Fire Emblem.)
While it’s often lampooned for being formulaic, this is precisely what makes it easy to emulate in a tabletop roleplaying game!
So How Would You Do It?
You can easily recreate something like Fire Emblem using Dungeons and Dragons if you play up the tactical combat element; interesting terrain and fighting to secure important strategic locations. Players would be restricted to playing Humans, since other races like dragons or werewolves are the stuff of legend, and most conflict is between humans.
However, Fire Emblem is known to take place over a massive scale. Casts range upwards of the 20s or even 30s in some games. To make this sort of campaign work, occasionally, the war would need to be fought on more fronts, and players would take control of a different cast of characters aiding a different theatre in the war effort.
2) Sunless Sea / Fallen London
Sunless Sea and Fallen London are part of a gothic horror series of games by Failbetter Games; they both play like choose-your-own-adventure books, though the aforementioned also has extra gameplay elements that make sense with its nautical namesake. They take place out of the city of London, in an alternate timeline where Hell literally broke loose, and London sank beneath the waves.
The Londoners have adapted to their strange new biome, where darkness warps reality, one’s neighbors could literally be devils, maps have become useless, and sunlight, should one happen to find your way back to the surface, is as lethal as it is pleasant. (That is to say, very, on both accounts.)
So How Would You Do It?
Combat in Fallen London is meant to be a dangerous prospect. Sure, you can easily beat up other mortals, but the world is rife with all kinds of creatures that seem familiar, but defy all reason. These otherworldly creatures? They never truly die; if they hit 0 HP or are otherwise defeated, they just fade back to where they came from, and they’ll come back later. When they do return, they’ll be bigger, stronger, and still nursing the grudge from their previous loss.
Furthermore, one of the laws of reality in Fallen London is that light brings order to the world. Because of this, even if you somehow can see in the dark, you want light. Light from torches, oil and gas lamps, or even just starting fires; because the darkness doesn’t just hide monsters, it stains the very fabric of reality.
3) Super Mario
The Mario Brothers are a duo that need no explanation at this point. “Duh-duh duh duh-duh duh duh” is a line almost anybody in the developed world can sing out loud properly. That isn’t to say there isn't any interesting to discuss in the Super Mario lore; as time went on and Nintendo tried new things with the franchise, more characters got added, and they each wound up with their own shticks and spinoff games. Spinoffs such as Luigi’s Mansion and Wario World.
Two such spin offs I want to bring attention to are Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga; video game RPGs that are very whimsical with rather expansive worlds, filled with all kinds of unusual creatures and environments. It’s the perfect setting for those “Only boring people play human” types!”
So How Would You Do It?
The Mario RPG video games are very gamey, with the occasional nod to new abilities gained over the course of play being usable to solve puzzles outside of combat. This isn’t a setting that lends itself to ruleslite games, but does have a wide variety of different mechanics through the series, so any sort of home-brewing of a crunchy game will do. (Or you can play this D&D 3.5 adaptation!)
4) Seiken Denetsu / The “Mana” Series
This is one of my favorite video game series of all time. When I hear the phrase “High Fantasy,” this is what comes to mind. A world with magic abound, and all manner of unusual creatures, friendly or otherwise, and clear divides of good and evil optional, depending on the entry in the series.
The timeline of the series is fairly long, starting with a cataclysmic war that didn’t quite destroy the world, but definitely wiped out the existence of magic. However, as the series goes on, magic eventually begins finding its way back into the world, with constant allusions back to that war, such as an empire trying to rebuild the technology that made the war possible, as well as junkyards filled with ancient relics from that war. (Some of which are still alive, and resentful of being left to rot!)
So How Would You Do It?
It’s a bad idea to try and emulate video game mechanics in tabletop form, especially on a one-to-one scale. Computers can handle large numbers and operations much more accurately than your average human. However, since even the Mana games have wildly different mechanics, mechanical accuracy can be forgone.
My choice for trying to recreate the Mana series would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Since it has rules for creating fantastic creatures, as well as possessing various rules for all kinds of different supernatural powers. Even though magic is prevalent in the Mana series, there is still plenty of allusions to other forces as well, and the backbone Anima’s magic system relies on the JRPG fantasy staple of the four classical elements, plus light and dark.
The triple digit arithmetic will just have to be something you adapt to. (Think of it as an opportunity to practice mathematics!)
Please don’t try this. (Warning: weird and a little gross)
So How Would You Do It?
No. Seriously. This is a bad idea.
Did you not pay attention to entry 4? Sometimes you have to be willing to make sacrifices because concepts don’t always translate between media. This is why some movies drop scenes that were in the book they’re adapted from.
Other times, you simply shouldn’t try because what makes the game truly unique, simply can’t be recreated.
Or what you’re trying to recreate is just a fever dream.
Aaron der Schaedel actually really likes Hylics, but realizes part of its charm is the surreal world it’s set in. It’s a quality that doesn’t quite come across as well in the spoken or written word, and is probably best left to the realm of other visual arts. Here’s a shameless plug for his YouTube channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/fire-emblem-three-houses-rpg-review-strategy-professor-combat-nintendo-switch-a9021831.html
Hey, Jim here! Before Frankie gets started, I wanted to remind you that High Level Games is bringing you game content and commentary absolutely free, as well as providing a home and launching point for a slew of great creators! If you want to support our endeavors, we'd love it if you stopped by our Patreon to show your support. Of course, if you'd like a little something for your hard earned money, you could always pick up one of our fine game products as well.
Greetings, traveler! It’s been quite a long time since we’ve had occasion to converse. I do, of course, apologize for the circumstances that led to your imprisonment in the dungeons of the Kargat. I hope that my efforts to arrange your…early release…might mitigate your ill feelings in this regard. Since you are no doubt fleeing through Tepest on your way south, I thought I might send this little gem on to you.
Tavaani al-Chole is one of the Tepestani Inquisition’s most ardent rising stars. In particular, he seems dedicated to turning the Inquisition’s attention away from the fairies and onto the witches his organization believe work alongside them. To that end, he’s distributed a little leaflet to his own supporters, helping them identify “witches” among the populace. I’m sure a seasoned adventurer like yourself will spot the dangers right away…
Trust Not the Witch
Brothers and sisters of the Inquisition, we have allowed the servants of the fey too free a hand in the mortal realm, and the will of Belenus demands that we address our laxity before their baleful influence proves our undoing! These fiendish beings masquerade as everyday citizens, and in most cases, the techniques developed by Brother Wyan will prove adequate. Some of these malevolents, however, have learned to shield themselves from our ministrations. The Inquisition, as ever, knows how to ferret out the demons in our midst.
1) Spell Components
Those holy warriors and devout priests pious enough to call upon the might of Belenus do so with merely the power of their faith and a brandished holy symbol. The vile fey sorcerers, however, require an assortment of trinkets and tokens to perform their lesser magics. By this, you will most easily recognize them. Be on alert for travelers carrying bric-a-brac with no clear purpose. Loose feathers, colored sand, clear stones, tokens from children’s games, carved figurines, spiderwebs or insect parts: all of these are documented paraphernalia for the occult. In addition to their use in the manufacture of wicked potions, various herbs and flora can be used for similar results. These items should always be viewed with suspicion by the canny Inquisitor. Be on the lookout for traveling artists, jewelers, herbalists, or those claiming to be students of the ‘natural sciences.’ These are often cover identities that allow a convenient explanation for carrying these arcane sundries.
Since there is no divine wellspring supplying their deceitful arcana, witches in the service of the fey often commit their devilry to paper so that they can pass it on to future generations of apostates. Traveling witches (who frequently call themselves ‘wizards’ to avoid execution for their crimes in foreign lands) carry working spellbooks called arcanabula, which function as eldritch workbooks and spell journals. These are easily identified. More cunning are the formal grimoires, finished tomes which can often present in coded passages decipherable only by those trained to understand their gibberish. Books or papers which contain unintelligible ramblings, which may appear to the eye of the studious Inquisitor as philosophy, poetry, or advanced ‘sciences,’ should be viewed as suspect and burned if necessary. Those capable of reading more than a single language should likewise be viewed as suspicious.
Witches are deviants, and thus are likely to find willing company with other deviants. The form of man is sacred, of course, and Belenus in his infinite wisdom has shown that the lesser forms of the dwarf, the elf, and even the pitiable caliban are acceptable in his sight, provided they show proper deference to Belenus’s true children. The beings of the Void and the Pit, however, taint the flesh they come in contact with, and spawn bastard races as surely as the acorn grows into a mighty oak. The goblin, the hag: these are only a few of their forms, whom witches often offer open acceptance to. Other folk are stranger still, with unnatural hair, eye, or skin colorations; scales or tails; even the ability to breathe fire or perform unholy feats! While the witches who claim such companions will betray their ‘friends’ at a moment’s notice if convenience requires, their allies are usually unaware of this, and will frequently fight to the death for their vile comrades.
Knowing the treacherous hearts of those that serve them, the fairy lords demand fealty through unholy oaths and pacts. These promises can prove to be an Inquisitor’s greatest tool, if he or she knows how to look for them. Keep an eye out for strangers who show bizarre behaviors that they then brush off as ‘cultural’ in origin. Witches of a shamanic bent in particular are known for eschewing metal tools and equipment. I have enjoyed great success in identifying witches among traveling groups by requiring strangers who view our executions to light the sacrificial pyres. Since their vows to their fairy masters forbid them from participating in Belenus’s rituals, they often violently refuse. By this method, I have identified no fewer than seven heretics, many claiming to be devout holy warriors of imaginary deities like ‘Rao,’ ‘Ilmater,’ or ‘Kiri-Jolith.’
Wyan has lit our fire, brothers and sisters. It us up to us to now go forth and spread it. With the tools I give you, and the tools Wyan has given you, let us be the torch in the night. Let us be light unto the believer, and let us burn the sinner to ash.
Real piece of work, isn’t he? Yvanova has uncovered evidence that Tavaani is really half-fey, and suspects that our young Inquisitor might be spurring the faithful to purge spellcasters in order to distract them from his own family’s machinations. If you wanted to ‘take care’ of Brother al-Chole while you were in Tepest, I’d see fit to reward you some 5000 gp on your return. If not, feel free to spread word of my offer to any interested parties you come across in your travels.
Good luck, and happy hunting.
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Frankie Drakeson is a retired rifleman and the current mayor of Carinford-Halldon in Mordent.
He is married to Gwendolyn Drakeson, the granddaughter of Nathan Timothy.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/842736148994274726/ by Sir Tiefling
I started playing D&D back in the days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. I was 10 at the time, and in the 20 years that have elapsed between then and now, I’ve witnessed four different editions of D&D and three different editions wars. Each “war” was spurned by the coming of a new edition that “ruined” what D&D was “all about.”
The above sentiments are hyperbole. Sentiments I’ve found myself spouting from time to time. Though there is an element of truth to it: every edition of D&D I was present for was wildly different from the last. These differences changed how D&D was played.
Somewhere along the line with all the changes across so many editions, I think we wound up losing focus on a few things. Things that really made D&D special. Things that, incidentally, are perfect additions to the “sandbox” style of play with an open world.
So for your reading pleasure, here’s some old school D&D ideas you should definitely consider if you’re looking to run a more open world kind of game.
1) Questing For Magic Items
5th edition was meant to be the unifying edition; whether that succeeded or not is a topic for another article. However, the effort to do so is present in this one line from the Player’s Handbook:
"...aside from a few common magic items, you won't normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such."
The above is a sentiment echoed from 2nd edition, since this and 5th edition don’t have much in the way of codified rules on the creation of magic items. By contrast, 3rd edition has extensive rules on the subject. However, I do recall in 2nd edition, there was some suggestions for how to make magic items, and it involved gathering several exotic items related to the effect of the item.
This is the perfect objective for a quest!
Let’s have an example: say a player wanted to make a magical sword with a flaming blade so they may better thwart evil. In addition to the materials needed for a sword, it could also include such things as pure brimstone collected from a sacred volcano, a brilliant ruby, and the ashes of a tree limb that a wicked person was executed under. You could even include more intangible things that require some interpretation on behalf of the players, such as the burning conviction of one dedicated to justice.
The key is to make the required components meaningful to the effect and purpose of the item. Such a ruby may be found in a grand bazaar in a trade city, but not everybody has a sacred volcano in their backyard.
2) Travel Rules
Travelling can be dangerous. Bandits, wild animals, and vicious goblins could strike anywhere. However if you’re a tough sort that’s used to beating down unsavory elements on the road, there’s nothing to fear. Unless you’re starving, dehydrated, and haven’t slept in a day. Then the errant kobold might prove to be a problem.
The metaphysical march up the stairs that is character level does some weird things to the universe. At the beginning levels, a small band of goblins can be a challenge. At higher levels, in order to keep this same sort of encounter challenging, something else is needed to make these goblins a challenge. Something like making them stronger via special gear, adding more of them, or introducing powerful new allies for them.
I get why this happens, though. In order to keep the game interesting, challenges have to escalate. Tougher enemies is one way to do this. However, the enemies are just one variable in this scenario. An often overlooked mechanic in D&D 5e is Exhaustion. Not having the right things for a journey, including food and water, can have drastic consequences. Enforcing travel rules, such as having the supplies, food, and water necessary for a long journey, adds a whole host of new challenges without needing to rely on making combat more difficult.
The core books for D&D 5e even state that a person needs about one pound of food and one gallon of water a day, which for a short journey can easily be kept on hand. However, on a longer journey, it becomes important to either know where nearby settlements are, or to have the ability to find these things in the wild. This also has the effect of making the Ranger class and certain backgrounds (such as Outlander) much more useful, since they’re more effective at foraging.
And if nothing else, players can always use all that gold they’ve been hoarding to hire NPCs to help carry all their supplies for a long haul journey!
3) Building Strongholds
With a vast wilderness with all manner of threats, or a universe filled with secrets to study and uncover, a hero is eventually going to want to find a place of their own to make this all happen. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a quick blurb on how much all of this costs, and the time it takes to complete, but not much else.
If you haven’t noticed the recurring theme in this article, regarding strongholds, there’s plenty of room for extrapolating from incomplete details!
An adventure can be made out of finding the skilled workers needed to build a stronghold. Additionally, player characters may also need to gain permission from the local rulers to build their stronghold, leading to further quests they’ll need to complete before they can begin construction.
This aspect was baked into 2nd Edition, with most characters gaining followers at level 9 if they possessed a stronghold. Later, supplements were released that included all the nitty gritty details of what it took in terms of followers and gold acquire a stronghold.
While no such official supplement exists for 5th Edition, it hasn’t stopped fans from creating their own.
4) Changing Parties
After so many adventures, and so many marks have been made on the map by one group, you eventually reach a plateau. This could be in terms of story arc, character level, or even interest in playing a given character.
So when there’s been a major accomplishment, such as beginning work on that stronghold or completing that magic weapon the players have quested so long for, it may be worth making a new cast of characters and starting a new adventure. (At least for a little while.)
As with everything else, there was a precedent for this shift in 2nd edition as well, in the Creative Campaigns sourcebook. The example they cited was that when the party reaches a city with a temple preparing to go on a crusade, the players would make new characters who are the knight readying to go on said crusade.
To bring this around to our example, though: a party that completed The Burning Sword of Justice could offer it as a gift to a local lord in exchange for a deed to land to build their stronghold. At that point, the players could take on a new set of characters who are vassals of this lord doing some initial surveying of this land. (And to ensure that the players still get to have fun with their weapon they worked for, the lord could have gifted it to one of the new player characters.)
The key to making a “sandbox” game work is that the players need goals to work towards, and these goals can’t be treated as a means of instant gratification. For all games, though, resources earned or found should be useable: if you’re going to give out mundane rewards like currency, it may be worthwhile to enforce mundane needs. (Like needing to resupply rations, or pay wages to hirelings.)
Aaron der Schaedel initially wanted to include an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” joke at the start of this article, and end it with the phrase “And stay off my lawn!” He cut those jokes when he realized this piece would be more effective if he just tied it to sandbox games instead of griping about how gaming has changed over the last 20 years. You can tell him to go back to bed via Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Campaigning
How do you plan encounters? What follows is the system I use to plan my encounters, sprinkled with stories about other ideas and suggestions on how to plan and make your game the best it can be.
1) All Encounters Are Planned
Every encounter is a planned event. Even the random encounters that represent roving monsters or a guard patrol. Encounters happen for a reason. Maybe you’re throwing in some combat for the session, or maybe you’re trying to create tension, or trying to help the party gain experience points, or maybe all of this is to further the story. Hopefully all your encounters will serve to move the story forward, even if they seem random at the time.
If all encounters are planned, hat might seem inconsistent with the idea of a ‘random’ encounter though. However, as the DM you have to do work with those random encounters, and even that moment after rolling requires at least a tiny bit of planning. Will the monsters ambush the party? Will they just wander up on them? Or are they roving, looking for dinner, or do they represent guards or guardian beasts? When you create an encounter you either plan it out during your planning session or you do a quick setup in your mind. I find it best to prepare a few hours prior to a game and when I run, I like to have a series of encounters already rolled up to be used in that game session. If they aren’t used, then they can be saved for later sessions, either in another campaign or tweaked and improved for another encounter in the current game at a later level.
So, how do you plan the encounter? Most people spend two to three hours planning an adventure for every hour they plan to spend playing. If you are using a pre-written module then this planning time is often used to read the module and adapt it for your players. Few modules just drop into a running campaign, that’s where Adventure Paths are great, since they run for a long time. But, trust me, after you run an AP that ends at 15th level, most groups will want to keep playing. So, you had better have something for them.
Now I have heard of a DM who liked to roll a die for the Bestiary he was going to use, and then rolled percentile dice for the page number he was going to use, thus opening up all the possible monsters to be used for in a random encounter. This meant their players could encounter a contract devil, a six-armed demon, a pseudo dragon, a mountain lion, or even a horse. So, what is a mountain lion doing in the desert or in the plains? Why would a six-armed demon or a contract devil be wandering around for a random encounter? My view is that this makes the game seem unreal and often silly. Would you place an ancient red dragon in the arctic guarding a single chest with 20 gp in it? That is just poor planning.
2) Preparing A Curated List
To give your game more realism, you need a curated list of adversaries that can be encountered in each region, or area. I am not saying that this list has to be run strictly according to level though; but do you think a pack of wolves would be a match for a tenth level party? They would also be too much for a first level party. Now anyone who goes off adventuring deserves to be challenged and sometimes the best answer to a challenge might be to run away from the encounter; like a first level party against an ancient green dragon. But, there is a problem with that theory: the players trust you and they are there to play, not to run away. So, more often than not they will rush headlong into an encounter they are clearly unprepared for.
So, unless you give them a clear sign that they are outmatched, and even if you give them a good hint, they are more likely to run into battle with the expectation that it will be a hard fight, but that they will win. After all, heroes don’t run. So, before you create an encounter list that has a wide range of levels, think about what your players will do. Now you might have a green dragon living in the local woods and the party could be warned. If they go into those woods then let it be upon their heads, but do you really want a TPK (Total Party Kill)? The better idea would be to have the green dragon demand service from the players and get increasing outrageous in her demands until the party finally goes up against her. Plan those encounters so that she doesn’t have a demand each level but she has enough demands to make her bothersome. Also make those encounters with the green dragon meaningful. Green dragons are plotters and planners. Sure, their biggest plan may be for a practical joke, but a dragon lives a long life and like anyone they want to do things with their lives, not just sleep on their treasure horde. Ideally, they want to increase their horde. So, the green dragon is likely to test the players power all while sending them on quests to enrich her horde.
3) Do The Unexpected
Of course, you want to do the unexpected in a game. Doing too much of the same old thing will bore the players, so you need to spice things up and you need to provide at least one surprise for the party in each session. One time I took a first level party and told them that they were hired by a village to get rid of a dragon.
This was a dangerous beast, it had killed Bob the fighter, and he was the toughest fighter in the village. The dragon had a ransom note delivered that said if he wasn’t paid, he would rampage through the crops and the village was getting desperate. The party seemed reluctant, but they trusted me and went on the mission. One night the saw it rampaging through the crops and spouting off fireballs! The party knew the dragon was real, but they never saw it fly. They tried to track it and saw unusual tracks like it had spikes underneath.
A cavalier climbed on top of a house and fired an arrow into the dragon, and it slipped inside the dragon and was lost from sight! Now the party had reasons to suspect that everything wasn’t as it appeared. Frankly, the party didn’t know a dragon from a drake, and neither did the town. Turns out the “dragon” was actually a mechanical dragon that ran on treads. A gnome illusionist was using silent image to make it seem more realistic and he had a fire lizard in a cage in the mouth that would breathe fire whenever he poked it with a stick. The gnome had captured some kobolds and they ran on a treadmill in tandem to make the dragon go forward and the gnome had brakes to turn left or right. It was crude, but it worked. More importantly, it was a fair match for a first level party. For a higher level party you could boost the kobolds into hobgoblins and increase the level of the gnome illusionist and make his illusions better, but it would be harder to pass the encounter off as a real dragon. At that level, the party is likely to have an idea of what a real dragon can do and there are too many things that the fake dragon couldn’t do. Besides, the goal of the encounter was to throw a “dragon” at a first level party and make it a fair fight.
4) How To Avoid Murder Hobos
Remember, the primary pattern of the game is for the party to go out, find big scary monsters, kill them, and steal their wealth. This is where the expression “Murder Hobos” comes from. A party of Murder Hobos has no fixed address, no ties to the area they are adventuring though, and no compunction about killing any creature they come across and robbing them. You can recognize murder hobos by their rush to combat. Now, if the party wants to talk first or if they want to roleplay then you may not have a group of murder hobos. If you have a story that is just a string of encounters with little rhyme or reason, then you will breed murder hobos. If you have a compelling story line and the players are doing more than just traveling around and killing things, then you can get the party away from being murder hobos. Your encounters, how you plan them, if they make sense for the area and the level, they are set at will determine how your game runs and what your players do in response to your encounters. DMs who want to rise above the standard game will do things to encourage their players to go beyond being murder hobos and will try to have depth to their adventures; more than one story line, or more than one event happening at a time.
5) The Nonthreatening Encounter
Have you ever noticed when you announce an encounter the party all draw their weapons, start preparing spells, wake up those who are sleeping, and get ready for a big fight. When you announce the bushes are moving, or they hear a noise then they will all get ready for a fight. To stop this, throw in a few nonthreatening encounters. They hear a wolf howl, or the wind blows through the bushes. After a few times they will wait for the encounter to more fully resolve itself before they become ready for a fight. This adds an element of reality to your game. I suggest you create a list of non threatening encounters and add them to your encounter tables.
Tailor your nonthreatening encounters for various areas and throw them in occasionally. Don’t make them every other encounter or they will grow tiresome. I once had a low-level party exploring a new area. They came across some dragon poo and were curious about the dragon. The ranger analyzed it and made a Survival roll determining it was from a red dragon and from the size, it was a large red dragon. Now the party was a little scared. Still, they went looking for the dragon. Which was not my plan. The dragon scat was supposed to be a non threatening encounter, after all there is very little inside of dragon poo that is going to attack (ignoring the dung beetle).
It was the party’s decision to look for the dragon, so I had him flying around. Dragons have sharp eyes; the party was out in the plains, so the dragon easily found them, and he landed in front of them. He didn’t attack, he felt confident that he could easily eat them if they bothered him. He hadn’t seen humans for a while and was bored, so he was willing to talk. They had a roleplay session with the dragon and let it slip that they were from a town that had escaped a planet wide cataclysm. The town had hidden under a massive dome and shifted forward in time. Now the town had dropped the dome and the people were trying to reclaim lands. When the party let it slip that the town was back and not protected, he asked if they would pay protection fees. The party talked some more, and they convinced the red dragon that the town was defenseless and would pay a ransom. So, the dragon thanked them for the information and flew off. When the party got back to town they heard about the massive battle against a huge red dragon and how the Mage’s College had thrown their most powerful mages at the dragon and defeated him. Needless to say the party was happy to hear the dragon hadn’t laid waste to their hometown. But, imagine their horror when they heard his mate was looking for his killers!
The point is, this was all a random storyline that started from a nonthreatening encounter. The original idea of the encounter was to show that there were dangerous things outside here and that the party had to be careful. In this case I didn’t mean to throw a dragon at a 4th level party. You never know where things are going to go in the middle of an encounter or what an encounter will lead to, allow some nonthreatening encounters and allow some roleplaying with each encounter so it leads to an evolving story.
What do you think about these ideas? What do you think about the idea of curating lists of encounters? What do you think about the idea of nonthreatening encounters? =I would like to hear your observations and opinions in the comments below?
I am Daniel Joseph Mello and I am active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop me a line. I have been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game I was the DM. I have gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. I have written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. I am also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/captainharlock-42/art/Encounter-on-Mythos-Island-694383601
Ah. Recycling old ideas eh Jarod? You hack. I know, I know. But hey, I’ve played a lot more video games over the past few years and in all honesty, a lot of them have been really good. Spider-Man PS4, Dad of Boy, and I finally got my hands on Dishonored 2. However, as I play more and more of these games I keep thinking to myself… “Oh, how cool would that be to implement into next week's session.” So here’s another collection of my little thoughts and ideas. My little adaptations and wishes.
1) The Witcher 3
The Witcher 3 was - and still is - a really damn good game. But the issue with most open world RPG type games is that they’re often single player based where TTRPG’s are often an exercise in group cohesion. As such, the mechanics oftentimes have almost no common group. I say almost for a few reasons. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing this. And as much as I would like to say, “We should implement that no matter where you are in the world you can whistle and your horse will be only a few paces away,” I will instead say I think CD Projekt Red created a possible tabletop mechanic in their mutagens.
For those who are unaware, Witchers are able to take a part of monsters called Mutagens and implement them into their own biology. It’s a dangerous, albeit interesting process. Not to mention it provides a significant combat advantage. Now, in the case of D&D, Matt Mercer has already created a homebrew class called the Bloodhunter, and one of their subclasses is called the mutant. And while I can in no way deny that Matt’s class is effective and that this idea is implemented very well by him, I will instead make the case for a different style of implementation.
Anyone can implement these mutagens into their bodies. The process is dangerous, and there’s a very good chance you can die if you don’t take the proper precautions, but to obtain mutagens, you must have a very specific and expensive tool that requires a trained operator, additionally mutagens can only be taken from monsters and animals that have died within the last ten minutes. Luckily they have a decent shelf life. A month or two. Mutagens are, at their best, unpredictable. And at their worst catastrophic to a mortal’s body. A mutagen taken from a werewolf can do everything from heightening one's senses to a bestial level, to granting one supernatural strength, to simply cursing the subject with lycanthropy.
I don’t feel I could make a general outline for the general effects of mutagens on a player character, but I might implement them similar to artifacts in D&D, where when undergoing a mutagenic process you can gain both beneficial and detrimental qualities. I would also say that a player character can only have a few mutagens in their system before it kills them. I would say two would be a good limit. Or if you really want to get crazy, use their constitution modifier (or equivalent) to determine the number of mutagens one can have.
2) God of War (With A Beard)
The newest God of War is another gem of a game. I would call it a diamond in the rough, but it’s more of a diamond that’s been put on billboards and shit, because this game was impossible to escape for most of 2018. Everything from the voice acting to the simple yet engaging story, to the rich and glorious worldbuilding was a wonderful ride. In every way. (Fuck the Valkyrie fights my guy. Especially the one in Musphelheim.) But it’s very specifically a video game experience. What on earth can my simple mind take out of this game to apply to a tabletop setting? I hear you asking in order to allow me to transition into the point of this point. The point being Runic Attacks. Yes, this boils down to abilities with cooldowns. Yes, it boils down to everyone having more DPS and status effect capabilities. But what I’m trying to get at is some sort of physical thing that you have to interact with to gain this ability.
Sure it could be as simple as a magic item (McGuffin) but let's take a moment to get out of the Box™ and try thinking outside of it. Maybe it’s spirits that the players did a service for who now want to bless them with a conditional ability in which they call upon the magic of nature. Or unknowable beings that force arcane power upon the player so they will use it at a key moment setting a massive domino effect up. Perhaps even a divine gift from the gods for the parties unconditional wholesomeness. There are so many ways to pull out some sort of cooldown ability. Whether or not the reason behind the cooldown is arcane or just some force being a dick is completely up to the GM.
3) The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim
Piss. Moan. “What did you take from the game where you’re a god by level 37?” Let's cut to the chase. The Elder Scrolls had a cool idea with Shouts. And while I think player characters could have access to that sort of thing, I don’t think it should be as innate as with the Dragonborn in Skyrim. As mentioned by the GreyBeards learning such power should be dangerous, difficult and slow paced to the point where I think the average player character would learn something close to one or two complete shouts by max level.
“Fus Ro Don’t” I hear you yelling out to the heavens. But hear me out. Yes, a lot of the shouts in the game are essential “press to win the fight” buttons. But I feel like there should be a lot more balancing to such things. For example, the call dragon shout shouldn’t exist. Ta Da. Not an issue. Unrelenting Force? More like Unrelenting push your enemies back 50 ft and knock them prone if you have all 3 words understood. Sure this isn’t as adaptable as my previous point with Oblivion. And it tips the power balance in favour of the players. But who’s to say that other creatures and beings can’t learn to shout? After all, if the edgy rogue who was born with no parents can do it, why can’t a vampire who’s lived two thousand years?
I bet you read that title and said; what? Well, as you may have astutely noticed there are no mechanics in Tetris that could possibly fit into any TTRPG that I know of. And furthermore, to make other readers who have come to this page believe that I actually pulled something from a puzzle game where you drop blocks on each other and put it in a TTRPG, I will now type out a recipe for cheesecake brownies. You will need one hundred and seventy grams of cream cheese softened in the microwave. Three-quarters of a teaspoon of baking soda. One eighth a teaspoon of salt ideally kosher salt. Twenty Nine grams of unsweetened cocoa powder. (Or sweetened. I don’t judge.) Two large eggs. One hundred and seventy grams of raw honey. Two tablespoons of vanilla extract. You’ll need the two tablespoons divided. That will become apparent as to why later. A recommended eighty-four grams of semisweet chocolate chips, but as we all know chocolate chips are of course to taste. Seventy-one grams of almond meal or finely ground flour and lastly a non-stick pan.
First, preheat your oven to three hundred and twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Then in a bowl whisk the eggs together (please note you should attempt to separate the yolk from only one of the eggs and save the whites for the cream cheese mixture and add one-fourth of a cup of water, the honey and one tablespoon of vanilla. Whisk together as well. In a separate bowl whisk together the almond meal or finely ground flour with the cocoa powder, salt, and baking soda. Mix the two mixtures together and stir well. Add chocolate chips and stir again. Then pour the batter into the pan. Now here’s where things get a little weird, you want to take the softened cream cheese and mix in sugar reserved egg white and the last teaspoon of vanilla. Pour that over the brownie mix and spread it about, bake until an inserted toothpick comes out clean (typically about a half an hour.) Let cool and enjoy.
4) (For Real This Time) Assassins Creed
Now in this particular instance, I’m selecting more story framing mechanic than an actual game mechanic, however, it does play into the games in a lot of ways. This being the dual settings of the modern day and historical setting. Once again, this is more of an idea than a mechanic so feel free to gloss over this to a certain extent, but I really feel as if there are a lot of ways that new mechanics can flourish in this setting. For example, two separate skill sets. The two separate settings will allow for a lot of room character customization as well as difficult stakes depending on the nature of the dual settings.
Of course, the two settings would have to have equal time restrictions. It would have to be very different from the Animus in that the two settings would have to happen simultaneously. However, in large groups, this may quickly become an issue where the party wants to split itself into the group that’s dealing with the one world issue and group that wants to deal with the second world issue. As such, I think that this is best for either very small groups that won’t want to risk splitting, or very large groups that should already be split. There are is a very large well of potential waiting to be tapped into here but I feel like it would be tricky to execute at best and destructive to the experience at worst so keep that in mind should you try to do something like this.
Another very nice game with a unique concept that finally represented what a game about vampires should really be about. Most of the mechanics in it, however, are similar to a puzzle piece in that they all fit together but not a whole lot of other places. With the exception of the key mechanic. Which is gaining more experience the better you know your victims. Now of course, direct experience is a little bit too much to give to someone just for sniffing around your NPC lore, however, it could definitely be used in a slightly more direct way.
This would require a few changes to the base understanding of most games, but should you place your characters in a world in which certain people have power which is inherent and can be stolen, this power could become more accessible to people who know the beings which they’re trying to steal the aforementioned power from. A sort of magical connection that grows as the understanding of the beings grow. Once the being is killed, you could gain a different kind or amount of power based on your knowledge of the being. Murder could be a good idea, but their loved ones would be instilled with the same power as you even if you kill them. In short, you could make a lot of powerful enemies very quickly.
There are a lot of places to find inspiration in art. Video games are no exception. There are a hundred different things to yoink and adapt for everyone and it's really kinda cool. Well, that's really an understatement. So go out there and get inspired.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.giantbomb.com/the-witcher-3-wild-hunt/3030-41484/forums/newbie-question-s-a-rpg-and-witcher-newbie-needs-y-1772177/
The following scenes frequently pop up in most roleplaying games. Identifying them and knowing how best to use them will improve your game. This list does not intend to be exhaustive. Since each game comes with its own setting and rules, there are probably more types of scenes; however, these are the most common ones among all roleplaying games.
Most roleplaying games involve combat and are usually designed around it. It is difficult to find a game that doesn’t have at least an entire chapter dedicated to it. It can involve many things: swords, guns, spaceships, magic, superpowers, etc. Sometimes all you need to do is throw a few monsters at the players and that’s good enough. But if you do that too much, combat can quickly become stale. A common way of improving it is by including monsters with unique abilities that the players haven’t encountered before. Another, is by making each monster in a group different. In a group of three goblins, perhaps one is an archer, another is a swordsman, and the last one, a sorcerer. Finally, using Aspects from the roleplaying game Fate is an easy way to make a location more interactive. You could have flimsy wooden columns holding the roof of the dungeon that the players might destroy to cause a collapse. Or a raging river that drags anyone that falls into it. Make each combat a dynamic engaging experience, and your players will thank you for it.
From social intrigue to searching the woods, clues are the key component in any investigation. Players gather up as many clues as they can and reach a conclusion based on them; with any luck, the right one. It is vital that clues are not locked behind specific dice rolls, as a failure may cause the story to reach an abrupt stop. Likewise, deciding when and where the clues are beforehand may result in players fumbling about in all the wrong places. It is best to leave clues open, so that players can discover them with their own creativity. If one player suggests an idea where a clue might be found, and it seems reasonable, go with it. For example, a player might use one of his specialized skills such as “Weapons Expert” to find out what kind of weapon was used to kill the victim. Your investigations will flow much more smoothly if you don’t set things in stone and are open to new ideas.
3) Social Conflict
When an NPC has something that players want and is not immediately predisposed to handing it over, a social conflict ensues. One might be tempted to reduce social conflict to a single die roll, perhaps by persuasion or intimidation. But that turns NPCs into undecided characters that change their opinions because of a good die roll, and it quickly breaks immersion. Instead, make NPCs have motivations and roleplay accordingly. Be sure to make players aware of these motivations by hinting or outright saying them. As with clues, make sure to not lock things behind rolls. A greedy merchant might want to be paid to give information, with a die roll lowering or removing the price entirely. Meanwhile, a barkeep who only cares about the safety of their family might want some assurance that no harm will come to them. Following these tips, your NPCs will easily come to life and be more than just obstacles or quest givers.
Whether you’re following an outlaw on horseback, driving down streets running from the law, or pursuing a rogue spaceship through an asteroid field, chases are always entertaining. A good chase has multiple obstacles, and just like before, it’s best to let the players overcome them with their own creativity. Defining which rolls the players have to make beforehand will result in players simply rolling dice without no choice at all, leaving it all to random chance. A chase need not even have two parties involved. For example, a party leaving a collapsing dungeon. Debris from the falling roof might be dodged, blocked with a shield, or destroyed with magic. For an improved player experience, avoid making chases a dull series of rolls and make it interactive instead, like any other scene would be.
At some point, the players are going to stop and talk about what they are going to do next. They will discuss strategies and plans to overcome the obstacles to come. The best thing you can do here is listen. Players will often come up with original ideas you did not even fathom. It’s easy to say no and force them upon a predetermined path, but if they have good ideas, it’s best to adapt your plans to your players’ actions. If the players decide to use magic to fly up to the last floor of the antagonist’s tower, don’t make it have no windows or a “magic dampening field”; instead, turn it into a chase with the antagonist running through the different floors in the opposite order. Do give them some advantage for flying in though, perhaps a head start in the chase. Listening to your players is always important, and in planning scenes doubly so.
Knowing what types of scenes there are will not only help you in using them well, but also improvising them and transitioning from one to another. A successful chase scene could lead up to a combat, whereas a failed one could end up in an investigation. Be sure to use plenty of different scenes to spice up your adventures, and as always, have fun!
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
There are many things which can drive a story, usually a character. Characters drive stories forward by pursuing a goal: their motivation. I am going to discuss in this article what the main types of motivation are, some sub genres of such motivations and how they can be implemented in an RPG setting.
Love is just any strong positive emotional tie to any thing or person, even if it is displayed negatively or in the wrong way, and as such can drive stories onward with very few other reasons. Love can be more than romance, however every good novel has some degree of this at one point or another. Love could be lust; many nasty deeds are perpetrated under the guise of what is thought to be love. Love is also respect: the king can ask a faithful band of PCs to dispatch a band of rebels camping outside the city limits. Jealousy is a very strong motivator in stories: A wicked witch, madly in love with an NPC or PC, has stolen away the love interest of and the team must go and rescue her. You could begin a campaign with love as the main driving force: the PCs are on a journey north to find the long lost love of their leader, s/he was reported missing one year ago and the PC has been waiting ever since for word if they are alive or dead, well waiting is over s/he has got together a group of friends and has headed out to find out once and for all.Your party could even liberate an object someone has attached feelings to: The old crone who has grown attached to the haunted urn of her dead husband, the child playing with his father’s magic sword. This motivation can get a little overwhelming if you add too many people or things to the inspiration pool, a love triangle is interesting, a love square can have twists but a love dodecahedron is maybe a little too much.
Money is economy, it is wealth, it is fame, it is everywhere. Money has been the driving force of a few of my starting games, I am adventuring to make money, but then seeded in love motives and power motives. Money could be someone with wealth maintaining it, the lord of these lands has a small workforce and high production needs so works them to death, literally just to make as much profit as he can. It could even be used as a way to show how good someone is, the monk walked the streets handing out what little coin he had to the peasants that littered the town’s dark alleys. It could also buy false loyalty: The Lord pays for the court’s discretion so his son can go about his nefarious doings without hindrance. Money is a good way to get started, have an NPC offer the party fame or wealth in return for an errand, but should evolve into more personal motives unless you are the lord in the example then just get your PCs to burn down his farm and free the workers.
Power. Those who have it want to keep it, those who don’t, want to take it. Power struggles can make excellent background stories or plot hooks. The king has requested you infiltrate the enemy's fortress and sabotage their weapon supplies. The president has his finger on the big red button ready to start the next galactic war, unless your team can subdue the opposing threat which is forcing his hand. Power can come in a variety of forms from influence in a political setting, power struggles between council members who each have their own agenda, to WMDs in a modern setting, or even a great source of magic in a fantasy game, the crystal banana is a great relic which bestows the holder with the ultimate power of the cosmos, send your party out to obtain or destroy artifacts of significance and let the story unfold.
Whatever the combination of motives you use to spur your players onward remember that there is always another waiting round the corner for them to get hooked on, like Borimir in LOTR, he wished the ring of power for himself to protect the home he loved. Two motives in plain sight and a great example of how one leads to the other, his love for Gondor led him to the motivation to obtain the power of the ring. Use motivations as long term or short term goals to keep players eager to play and to keep them coming back for more.
Ross Reid is a Scottish roleplayer who is a fan of many a game and system, he has run a game group for the town in which he lives and is currently working on a fantasy novel which has already taken too long.
Picture Reference: https://blog.reedsy.com/character-motivation/
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Gamemastering is a hard job. Getting all the rules and systems in place and working at the table requires a lot of attention from you. But what if you’ve got that down? Have you figured out the game system and how to let that do your heavy lifting? Why stagnate with a good game? Once you’ve mastered the basic game, consider adding a few of these subsystems into the mix.
1) Random Encounters
Walking around the grocery store today I dodged three kids, knocked a box off the shelf, and ran into two people I haven't seen in months. What do those things have in common? Nothing, just the everyday random occurrences of life. Having a scripted campaign can feel cinematic, but lacks reality of the day to day. Random encounters are most often thought of as extra combat encounters not related to the story, but they can be so much more. Random encounters can be role playing challenges, shopping trips, and side quests as well. These encounters can tell a story about the area your players are traveling in, the merchant Caravan bringing new goods from the west, the disenfranchised goblin tribe seeking a safe new home, or the copper dragon watching over her demanse. The best encounters speak to the stories in the area, and interconnect them with the players as they pass through.
Random encounters can tell your story for you, nothing is worse for keeping attention than a large lore drop on the table. Telling the history of the Frong tribe of goblins being run out despite their efforts to make peace versus showing the players the result of the action of others (or theirs!) with an encounter will make the lore drop more interesting. Try to add a story to each encounter, why are they here, surely not just looking for a fight!
Random encounters get a bad rap if used as a table of combat encounters, that why we'll apply some extra columns to our tables; reactions, motivations, and what are they doing are a few we'll look at. Using goblins as an example encounter, rolled by itself the payers are going to plan on mowing them over, but let's add on a motivation. Our table could include things like, remain hidden, find a location, find food, and safety. So instead of starting with a volley of arrows, the goblins may remain hidden or ask for help. a what are they doing table can include things like camping, recovering, praying, or trading. My favorite thing to use is a reaction table, basically a scale from angry to happy describing how those encountered feel about the party. An angry ranger or a happy goblin add yet another dimension to your encounter. You can just roll a d6 or get a bit more complicated using a weighted table. I like to use a higher weight for neutral reactions and the extremes for more, well, extreme reactions. Two ways to add weight to your rolls are increasing the range for higher weighted results or using multiple dice to create a natural weight to the results as seen here.
Roll 4d4 Who Motivation What are they doing? Disposition
1 Goblins Remain hidden Making camp Grumpy/Violent
2 Raiders Find a location Recovering from an encounter Neutral
3 Merchant Caravan Find food Praying Neutral
4 Lost child Find safety Trading with (roll again) Happy/Helpful
It's 100 degrees Fahrenheit outside and I don't want to be out in it, much less so with leather armor and a pack full of food and weapons! As detailed as the science is, weather can be random. As a science it makes sense, it's when you put that science into action that it turns into magic. Having a good weather table can reflect that. A good weather table will take into account region, season, and previous conditions. It will have entries that make it cold, mild, or extreme and have varying precipitation incorporated as well.
Like everything else in this list verisimilitude is your primary gain. Describing your setting’s backgrounds, such as weather, scents, and sounds bring your players into the world, adding to the tables immersion. Weather can affect every part of adventuring; making travel more difficult, adding dangers to caves and ruins, and further complicating combat. Making fictional characters lives difficult will make great fiction; adversity brings drama.
While most things should be used sparingly, weather can be used every game day! Nothing adds to the intensity of travel like extra time to get to your destination costing you at the least more rations and at the most watching the doomsday clock tick ever closer. Weather can add time to your campaign, adding a week long storm and a stormy month can kill the urge to adventure in the wilderness. This is where downtime comes in to play, pushing the clock forward can make the game feel more real by extending the leveling over months instead of weeks to level twenty. It doesn't have to be mechanical, just describing the humid plate armor, or the thief's smelly leathers can bring lowercase drama into your game.
Encumbrance is the management of weight and movement for a character. It's also one of the first dropped rules in many games, mostly because of the complication and accounting of every little item. This was a big part of the simulationist rules in early Dungeons and Dragons, the wilderness was a dangerous place and hauling all your loot back from the dungeon was a big part of the game. Keeping track of who was carrying what, hiring porters, and paying for wagons and guards was very important in low level play. Back then, mortality was high and levels were hard to come by, keeping players at low levels for longer. As newer editions made high level play more likely and faster to get to items like bags of holding, magic carpets, and portable holes made toting treasure around far easier and encumbrance less necessary.
Encumbrance adds to the verisimilitude of the game and to the length of time spent in dungeons. Clearing a dungeon in one go is difficult if all the treasure is large or in copper coins. This can also give players something to spend their cash on. Porters, money changers, caravan drivers, and, of course, guards all add a money sink that modern D&D just doesn't have.
The 5th edition of D&D has two versions of encumbrance, both of which entail adding up the weight of all the items and comparing them to a number based off of your strength. Tedious. This can be alleviated by using a digital sheet like D&D Beyond, Roll20, or MorePurpleMoreBetter's character sheet (if you can still find it). Some of the second wave of OSR (Old School Rules) games did away with minute calculations and went more abstract. Lamentations of the Flame Princess gives you a number of slots based on your ability scores, while the upcoming Ultraviolet Grasslands uses sacks of goods based on number of adjectives used to describe treasures. No matter what you choose, make sure you have the buy in of your players. Also remember that just because you can lift it doesn't mean you can find space to carry those four statues.
Adding a few of these subsystems can add great verisimilitude to your current game. My advice is to drop them in one at a time spaced out so the players get a chance to take a look at and get used to them, encumbrance will be the hardest to add in. What are some of the systems you use to add realism to your games? Let me know in the comments.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Pateon.
Picture Reference: https://funnyjunk.com/channel/dungeons-n-drags/Random+encounters/dRlRMqE/
Over the history of tabletop RPGs, there have been various game design and creative movements, along with critical theories about how to think about games and game design. While I’ve always found these movements and theories to be useful ways to think about roleplaying as a whole, I’m increasingly less convinced that these things matter. RPGs are sometimes described as having “narrativist” mechanics or “gamist” mechanics, but what does that even mean? How much does that really matter? I argue that while they may be useful framing tools, they don’t necessarily affect RPGs as much as, or in the way that, gamers often think they do. There’s nothing wrong with having a preferred game; I’m not here to criticize what you’re doing. I’m just saying, let’s think outside the box and challenge the common wisdom.
1) Authorial Intent vs. Reader Response
One argument for a “narrativist” vs. “gamist” way of thinking about RPGs, is that the game designers themselves often use these terms to describe their games. Books that use the FATE RPG tend to focus on framing scenes, simulating the feel of a genre, and focusing on character arcs and conflicts. On the other hand, games like D&D, particularly old school D&D (aka old school renaissance, or OSR), focus on dungeon crawling and deadly encounters, playing out more like a puzzle or challenge than dramatic storytelling per se. But what really differentiates these games?
In D&D, you have a set of physical and mental attributes which give you modifiers to a dice roll, usually a d20. Depending on the version of the game, you maybe have some skills, and some special abilities usually oriented around combat. In modern D&D such as 5e, rolls tend to be emphasized more since characters are more granular, whereas OSR generally discourages rolls and keeps the game rules light and loose. I’ll explain more about the effects of quantity vs. quality of mechanics in a later point, but because of their comparable mechanical depth, it makes more sense to compare OSR and FATE to demonstrate my current point. In FATE, you have a skill pyramid that gives you modifiers to dice rolls that are often (but not always) oriented towards combat or action, stunts with additional modifiers and aspects, a sentence or so each, which can be invoked with FATE points for additional modifiers.
Ostensibly aspects are better for “narrativist” play because they encourage the GM and players to think about the characters and the environment, and how they interact, in a way that lends itself to character development and cinematic action. I agree that this overt framing of the mechanics does make dramatic storytelling more salient, but it’s not actually the aspects that matter here. It comes down to dice probabilities, something I’ve discussed before. A d20 has a wide range and uniform distribution, so there’s high variability in whether a roll will succeed or fail. However with FUDGE dice used in FATE, there is a narrow normal distribution (bell curve), centered at 0, meaning the roll will have less variability, or in other words be more predictable, and thus even small modifiers (like the +2 you get from invoking an aspect) have a large impact. The motivation for invoking the aspect is that the modifier may be the difference between a near-certain failure and a near-certain success. In OSR, the motivation to be ingenious and “gamist” is because there is high uncertainty in the dice and few powerful character abilities as in D&D 5e. Both require ingenuity, i.e. “how do I solve this problem” or “how do I invoke this aspect.” The fact that one happens to encourage dungeon crawling ingenuity whereas the other happens to encourage narrative ingenuity is totally incidental with reference to the mechanics of the game itself. One could just as easily use D&D mechanics to do a socio-political “game of thrones,’ or use aspects to represent character combat classes or equipment loadouts. The “just as easily” part is critical here, but I’ll get back to that when I discuss DIY.
All of this is to say, regardless of the designer’s intent, or how the rules are described in the book, you can translate the mechanics into a shared language of probabilities, and once you do that, you see that it really has nothing to do with “narrativist” or “gamist” mechanics, but about probabilities.
2) Culture And Preconceived Notions
Related to the above point, cultures have formed around these games. While you should not make absolute assumptions about anyone, probably if you are reasonably aware of the greater RPG scene, you have some sense of what OSR gamers are like, as compared to FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) gamers, or modern D&D or Pathfinder gamers. This creates a feedback loop, where a game is designed for a specific audience, and the game or the mechanics of the game become associated with that audience, and that game becomes more associated with that culture, regardless of whether it is actually true that that game is better suited for the interests of that culture. This is why OSR games tend to be about dungeon crawling even though you could apply the same framework to a more social or dramatic scenario, and why FATE encourages aspects to be about character or plot when they could just be another way of simulating the physics of the world (a topic for another post), even though the vehicle of differentiation between the two in practice is just the probability distribution of the dice.
The trajectory of D&D 5e in particularly is an excellent case study in how an RPG and the game culture around it interact. On a basic logistical level, 5e tried to streamline some mechanics, but at its core it’s not so different from D&D 3e or Pathfinder. However, the designers chose to use language intended to attract narrative gamers, placed greater emphasis on inspiration points as a “narrativist” mechanic, and then the actual play series Critical Role happened (along with the general explosion of actual plays).
Despite the fact that D&D 5e is not what most people knowledgeable about the state of RPGs would consider a “narrativist” game, to many people whose only frame of reference are the official D&D 5e books and actual plays such as critical role, storytelling is what D&D is about. And while arguably the quantity and granularity of mechanics may sometimes get in the way (a matter I’ll talk about next), they seem to be doing quite all right. If the group lacks experience with collaborative storytelling, a game like FATE might be better at teaching them how to play dramatically, but on the flip-side, if they already know how to play dramatically and tell stories, mechanics like aspects might not be necessary for them from a storytelling perspective anyway, in which case, as previously stated, they’re really just a dice probability “gamist” mechanic.
3) Quantity vs. Quality
I should start by stating my own personal bias here, but I am generally a believer that when it comes to tabletop RPGs, less is more, and I generally dislike modern D&D. That being said, I actually played in a D&D 5e one-shot recently, for the first time in a long time, and enjoyed it more than I expected to. Coincidentally, I’ve been trying to deconstruct my thoughts on D&D 3.+ games (D&D 3e, 3.5e, 5e, Pathfinder, etc.), which I’m somewhat attempting to do here, but I’ll start by explaining my current thoughts on these kinds of games.
Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3e, and the designer of Numenera and Cypher System, which is one of my favorite settings and hands-down my favorite system, has stated that he believes that 3e failed in certain critical ways, and that Cypher was an attempt to address those failings. If you take umbrage with this, see my first point about authorial intent vs. reader response! In any case, his claim is that D&D 3e added more mechanics to the game in order to minimize “rulings” that the GM would have to make (see my next point on DIY for more on that!), making the game easier to run. However, in practice, it was impossible to have a mechanic for every possible edge case, and instead the game became bloated and overly complicated.
Additionally, I am of the opinion that when you have so many granular mechanics, you aren’t defining what characters can do, so much as you’re defining what they can’t. As soon as there is a specific mechanic for some kind of combat maneuver that monks get at level 5, it means that nobody else can do that thing, because otherwise a level 5 monk loses its value. It becomes subtractive, rather than additive.
So what does all of this have to do with the theme of this post? Well, I think that quantity of mechanics ends up being a bigger differentiator between systems than “gamist” or “narrativist”. It’s a cascade, this is (part of) why homebrew and 3rd party content is often maligned amongst D&D 3.+ gamers; it’s really hard to change these games without it inadvertently interacting with some other obscure mechanic and totally breaking your game.
Importantly, I think it can be done, it just comes down to understanding the mechanics and being creative. You can treat race mechanics as a bonus package of stats, and make actual character race flavor. You can re-flavor a druid as an alien science witch, a fighter as a samurai, a paladin or eldritch knight as a power-armored superhero; you can spend inspiration points to do that cool combat maneuver even if you’re not a level 5 monk, or just do a regular attack and describe it as a cool combat maneuver. It’s only less suited to alternative styles of play because of the sheer quantity of mechanics. Swap your d20 for FUDGE dice and give your players lots of inspiration points, play creatively and take the mechanics as abstractions rather than physics simulations, and D&D 5e isn’t so different from FATE after all.
Several of my points have amounted to “Do-it-Yourself”, sometimes called hacking or modding. One could argue that because any game can be hacked, it’s meaningless to say any game can be like any other game if you hack it. The same person might argue that just because a game can be hacked to be more like another game, doesn’t mean it’s well-suited to that kind of game. To this, I have two counterpoints:
First, at least in regards to OSR, FATE, and PbtA, DIY isn’t just an option, it’s a core feature of the game! The defining characteristics of OSR amount to a whole topic in and of themselves, but one of the core tenets that most people agree on about OSR is that it’s about “rulings” over “rules.” Literally baked into the philosophy is that the mechanics should be left flexible and open to interpretation. This is, I think, part of why there have been so many DIY projects in the OSR space. I’m sure there are some people who play Original D&D strictly rules-as-written, but at least in the OSR space, most people are hacking the game anyway. Likewise, FATE encourages players to create their own stunts, practically demands they create their own aspects, and provides plenty of space in the core book explaining how it can be hacked, whether creating a unique skill-set, or bolting on entirely new mechanics. PbtA games are all basically just hacks by definition.
Second, among the examples I’ve given for how to make D&D more “narrativist” or how to make FATE more “gamist,” these hacks (if they can even be called that) are no more difficult to implement than any others, and the game is no more or less functional for it, just different. Dungeon World is basically just a hack of OSR with PbtA mechanics. It would be mostly trivial to swap a d20 for a 3d6, 4d6, or FUDGE dice to make it more deterministic, and giving OSR FUDGE dice is no worse a “narrativist” game than FATE. Likewise, give FATE a d20 or regular 4d6 or 3d6, and make the aspects character classes or equipment kits rather than personality or narrative traits, and you have a game that can be played just as “gamist” as OSR.
Wrapping this all up, I’d like to say that I recognize that I’m being very reductive and glossing over a lot of particulars with this critique. Anecdotally, I have found that because I have a strong personal gaming philosophy and style, my games tend to play out similarly regardless of what system I use. Depending on the GM or group, maybe swapping out a d20 for FUDGE dice in D&D or swapping out FUDGE dice for a d20 in FATE doesn’t have the same effect at your table, and that’s ok! My hope is just that this encourages people to think outside the box of what a game can be, and how to modify games conscientiously. It’s useful to understand authorial intent, to be aware of the broader culture and history, but I don’t think we should limit our interpretations of games, or mechanics, or personal play styles, to the preconceived notions and common wisdom that has developed over time. If you have other controversial or atypical ways of thinking about tabletop RPGs, please share your thoughts!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/199567/High-Fantasy-Magic-A-Simple-Magic-System-for-Fate-Core--Accelerated
You have built your world; you have included continents, mountains, oceans, rivers, lakes, forests and other terrain features. What do you have to do next? Simple: civilization. This article continues our world building discussion with how civilization has affected the developing world.
1) What Is The Basic Unit Of Civilization And Where Can It Be Found?
The basic unit of civilization is the city; a hamlet, village, town, city, or megalopolises all are groups where people come to live, work and trade. There are cities; then there are special buildings, monuments, and roads. Most herd animals are migratory so for the first few thousand years so was mankind. It wasn’t until the development of agriculture that mankind literally put down roots and built cities.
Cities were first built in fertile areas near sources of fresh water: lakes, rivers, and streams. With the invention of agriculture there came in the invention of engineering to bring the water to the crops and irrigate them. Some of the earliest recorded civilizations were founded in the Middle East; Egypt is one that survives to this day, albeit greatly changed.
Cities were built all up and down the Nile river and were later unified into the Egyptian Empire led by the Pharaohs, the God Kings. The Egyptians built massive tomb structures and an entire city devoted to the art of embalming: Karnack. The three greatest known structures of the Ancient World are the three Great Pyramids of Egypt. Buildings whose height was not equaled until the invention of the skyscraper. After construction the three massive tombs were covered in white marble so that they became blinding monuments to the Egyptian Pharaohs. Their cities were built all along the Nile River valley and every year, when the rainy season came to the tropics of Africa, the Nile would flood. During this time fertile soil was carried over the crops as well as water. People couldn’t work the fields, so they participated in huge civic projects like the construction of the pyramids, Karnack and the Great Sphinx. The ancient Hebrews may have been Egyptian slaves, but it was not slave labor that built the Pyramids. Slave labor was regulated to the cities that served the builders and the fields that fed them. The first civilizations were founded close to supplies of fresh water, because literally, water is life. Only later with engineering could cities be built in less hospitable regions.
The Seven Hills of Rome is a protective ring of hills with walls built on and in between them to found the city of Rome. Rome was founded on the Tiber River, but the rivers that fed it were not enough to feed the megalopolis that Rome became, instead huge aqueducts fed the fountains and bath houses of Rome. The aqueducts were so well built that they can drop only an inch over thousands of feet. They used sheer gravity to carry water to Rome from miles away. These were unique special structures that were only built on their grand scale by the Romans. That is because in the Dark Ages the knowledge of concrete was lost and it wasn’t rediscovered until the Industrial Age. Nowadays we have aqueducts from Lake Meade feeding the thirsty mouths of Los Angeles and Los Vegas.
When cities were founded on sources of water, that water proved to be a natural highway for trade. Later cities were built along the coastline to allow for transportation up and down the coast, usually at the mouth of a river or in sheltered harbors and bays. Look closely at the coastline of the state of California and you will find few islands offshore. Look closely at the shorelines of Texas and you will see that 90% of the coast is protected by barrier islands. These barrier islands prevent storm damage because the storm surge and the force of the storm spend itself on the barrier islands before going onshore. When Hurricane Ike came though Galveston Island was totally submerged, it is after all a barrier island, but the damage to Houston was minor. It wasn’t until the follow up hurricane that hung around that Houston was drowned by flooding. When Hurricane Katrina came ashore the old French Quarter of New Orleans hardly flooded. It was the lower ninth ward built on low ground between a lake and the sea that flooded. To this date over 75% of the world’s population lives along the coast because that is where their ancestors founded cities.
What size cities do you have in your world? Do they run to the small hamlets or closer to the megalopolis? The biggest thing preventing a city’s growth is access to water. That is why the aqueducts of Rome were so revolutionary. Magic can make water easily available to your huge cities; imagine a fountain with a Decanter of Endless Water buried at its core. That could supply fresh water to thousands of people.
2) So Where Else Were Cities Built?
They were constructed on top of resources; like gold, silver, tin, iron and coal mines. The first mines were narrow and dark as the tunnel followed the vein. Modern mining techniques dig up vast amounts of the ground to sort out the few valuable bits of ore. That is not how mining was done throughout the majority of human history. Mines were shallow because below 30 feet water would start to seep in and no pump system existed that could handle the amounts of water that came in. That is, not until the Industrial Age and the Age of Steam. First an efficient pump was invented that could operate just by the heating and cooling of a piston, not by the labors of men and beasts of burden. Those methods worked, but only on a small scale. It wasn’t until James Watt took the piston pump and improved it by using pressure and steam power that digging below 30 feet became possible. Strip mining was also an option and it was used in rock quarries to provide marble and limestone: two of the favorite stones of architects.
There are cities around the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea because of the salt that could be harvested easily. Also, bathing in saltwater is reputed to have healing properties. Some people with heavy allergies or asthma vacation at the Dead Sea because only there can they breathe freely. The extremely arid air supports few molds or spores so their allergies can calm down. Salt and minerals weren’t the only resources found by ancient man. Wood was a major resource and once again the proximity of the river to the forest is what made logging a viable trade. The trees could be cut down, dragged to the river, and then floated downstream to the sawmill, which would also be water powered to cut the logs up into lumber.
The best engineers, as far as water is concerned, are the Dutch. When I was in grade school there was a large body of water known as the Zider Sea. It lay off the coast of the Netherlands (Holland to the layman) and was protected by a series of barrier islands. The Dutch put in walls between those barrier islands and pumped out all the saltwater. By the time I had graduated college the Zider Sea was no more, and the Netherlands had expanded their country by almost a third. When Venice was being flooded the Dutch Engineers were consulted and they created the world’s first tidal gates that are elevated during times of storm or when the New Moon brings about an unusually high tide. Now the Marco Polo Square is not flooded. London and Rotterdam soon followed their paths with tide barriers of their own. Super Storm Sandy proved that New York may have to go down this road before much longer. Ancient peoples tried to be careful in where they founded their cities to prevent storm or floods from destroying them. Of course, that didn’t always work; look at Pompeii that was overtaken by the volcano Vesuvius. Cities are built on and near volcanoes because volcanic soil is extremely fertile. In your world where are your cities built?
3) What Are The Special Buildings Of Civilization?
I have touched on two of the major special buildings: monuments and protections against water. Almost every great leader has wanted to have a magnificent tomb to make their mark upon history. The biggest one outside of Egypt was the crypt to the unknown Chinese Emperor who united China and had the Terracotta Army built and entombed with him. We are not sure what all the loot was that was buried with the great Egyptian Pharaohs, as the tombs were long looted before we could find out, probably within a few generations of the death of the Pharaohs. All we know is the later Egyptians were burying their Pharaohs in secret, in the Valley of the Kings. We were only able to find one of those tombs unlooted: the tomb of Tutankhamun. His tomb was probably unlooted because he was a very minor Pharaoh who died at the age of twelve, and yet he had millions of dollars in gold and jewels buried with him. What monuments have your past kings, queens, and empires left?
4) What Comes After Tombs?
Dams, monuments, shrines, temples and monasteries are special buildings that were constructed by ancient mankind to serve as special structures. The shrine was a roadside structure devoted to a god and visited by travelers, with rarely more than one family maintaining it. Temples had entire staffs of people devoted to them and later developed into the soaring churches of the Middle Ages, like Notre Dame Cathedral. These churches were a revolution in architecture where the glass was put into the walls to flood the cathedral with light. To support all the weight of the building the builders created the flying buttress which built the walls on the outside, at a distance to the cathedral and connected to it with arches.
Dams are methods to control water to prevent flooding downstream. In the age of electricity, the dynamo was invented so that water power could provide electrical power, but dams had been used for thousands of years before electricity were generated from them. The great Nile river was tamed with the Aswan Dam to prevent the annual flood. The Chinese built the greatest dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, to tame the Yangtze River and therefore harness its hydroelectric powers and prevent its hazardous annual floods. Humanity didn’t invent the dam, beavers did, but once humans saw what wonders a dam could do, they built a lot of them. Have your civilizations built dams and the resultant lake behind them? Are their lost complexes that can only be accessed by those who have water breathing powers?
Monasteries (Abbeys are special forms of monasteries) were built to devote the inhabitants to a special work. From the famous Shaolin Temples to the great monasteries of Europe. The Shaolin Monks became errant knights traveling the countrysides of China righting wrongs. The monasteries of Europe varied in their purpose, from making fine beers and ales, to creating new bibles. Mendel, the first genetics professor, did all his work at a monastery. The Jesuits were the most studious of monks, and from them came great philosophers and scientists. Does your world have great monasteries? If not, where do monks come from? Are your monks in the tradition of the Shaolin Temple, traveling warriors, are they retired samurai, or are they the scientists and researchers of their day?
Monuments have been made for ages to celebrate victories, to place over graves, or to show devotion for a ruler or for God. The biggest of these monuments might be the huge statues of Buddha created in Hong Kong and India. Washington D.C. is a city devoted to monuments: from the Washington Monument to countless statues to important figures from American history to the Marnie Memorial and the Vietnam Wall. Two of the greatest monuments to the industrial world are the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, both with framework built by Gustave Eiffel, out of wrought iron. These were built before steel became a standard building component. In fact, cold is another term for wrought iron. Iron heated and bent is wrought iron, it remains cold in that it was never melted. Iron that is melted combines with carbon and becomes steel. Today India is at work on a monument to dwarf the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty if they were stacked on top of each other. Monuments are markers that are entered into the historical record and are meant to exist for the ages. The World Trade Center was attacked by terrorists because they saw that as a monument to capitalism. What monuments were created in your world, by past and present civilizations?
5) What’s The Biggest Contribution To Travel Created By Humanity?
The answer to this question is pretty obvious: roads. The Roman Empire was built on roads and it used roads to send its legions around and all across its empire. Early roads were made of dirt and when it rained, they became an impediment to travel. However, the Romans perfected the construction of roads and some of those roads are still used today. These cobblestone roads had a slope and ditches on the sides to drain the rainwater. They became permanent features of the land. The Romans even invented a machine that could be mounted in a cart and traveled behind the engineers counting out the leagues of road so that road marks could be posted at each league. Roads bound society together for thousands of years and still do today. The train track is just a special form of road, as is the monorail, the highway, and the hyperloop. What roads exist on your world and how well are they built?
6) So, What Does This Mean For Our World Building?
You need to put cities on your world and cites don’t spring up in the middle of nowhere for no reason. They are planned and happen at points of commerce, along trade routes, at the intersection of rivers, along the rivers, and at river outlets, in bays and harbors. The early city was a walled structure to protect from raiders. The ultimate in this was reached with the castle which usually presided over a walled city, with a walled courtyard inside the city and a fortified keep inside that walled courtyard. Castles and forts proved to be the pinnacle in defense technology until the invention of the cannon. Siege engines could be used to tear down a castle’s walls, but the most common method to take a castle was to wait for their food to run out by laying siege. Cannon were built to be the ultimate in siege engines and in World War Two we proved that cannon could breach fortresses by mounting them offshore and pounding German positions. Where are the castles and forts in your world positioned, and what do they protect?
Capitals were usually the largest city, but this isn’t always true. Large cities grow because people came there to trade and from the services created to help facilitate that trade. Boats made great methods to cross small seas like the Mediterranean or sail along the coast and later ships grew mighty enough to circle the world. When traders went to the Far East, they did so first on land along the trail blazed by Marco Polo. The Italians had a monopoly on trade with the Far East, so millions of dollars were spent to break that monopoly and shipping technology developed to enable man to sail around the Cape of Africa and reach the Far East. In another attempt to reach the Far East, the New World, the Americas, were discovered. The Spanish exploited this and flooded into the void left by the Incas and solely destroyed the Aztec Empire; that is why Spanish is spoken in every country in South America except for Brazil. The pope tried to stop Spain and Portugal from arguing and taking Europe into war, and since he was Portuguese he divided the world in their favor running the dividing line right through the Americas, which were unknown at that time, saying that Portugal got all non-Christian lands to the east while Spain got all non-Christian lands to the west. The Pope thought Spain got the raw end of the deal, but after the Americas were discovered he was proven wrong. The reason why Brazil speaks Portuguese is because the Pope’s dividing line runs through Brazil. How have nations and religions divided your world? Have those dividing lines changed over time, if so, how?
Rivers and oceans were the superhighways of their time. Horses need to stop to eat and sleep, boats don’t need to stop traveling and can run all night, thus making them a faster mode of travel. The Ancient Greeks had explored all of the Mediterranean Sea’s lands and islands and when they fell from power the Romans slipped into that void and claimed the entire civilized world. Of course, India and China would argue with this statement. China refers to itself as the Middle Kingdom, the oldest source of civilization. India and the rest of Southeast Asia also had major empires, that were later dominated by the European Colonialists. So, the final force that civilization creates to dominate the world is the Art of War. War hasn’t changed the actual lay of the land that much, but it has redrawn the borders of nations time and time again. It has sent people on migrations around the world and across its oceans. With the invention of weapons of mass destruction like the hydrogen bomb we finally have the capability to remake the very landscape itself; like Bikini Atoll. If man does this or not will depend on our ability to get along with each other in an increasingly crowded world. Magic serves as an equivalent power: at its strongest it may summon Outsiders to walk the Prime Material Plane, it can unleash earthquakes, and it can remake entire nations with plagues, diseases, or magical calamities. War is almost a constant state with humanity. The Game of Thrones series is loosely based on Europe’s 100 Years War. So what has war done to your world? Has it raised and dethroned civilizations or has it spread religious practices? And what about the migrations that war creates? How have people moved across your world and why? Humans started in Africa, and they have spread to every corner of the world. Humans are usually the most numerous race in a fantasy world with enclaves of other races mixed among them. Where do people live in your world, where are their racial centers and where are they the strongest?
You need to ask yourself what civilized forces are at work in your world. What great cities have they built or brought down, what rivers were tamed with dams, what major monuments were created, what fortifications exist, and what roads were emblazoned upon your world. How has civilization affected or effected your world? How many civilizations have risen and fallen in your world and what undiscovered wonders lie in their ruins? This can be the root of adventure and the source of stories and legends, just as they have been in our world.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He’s also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: https://www.deviantart.com/araiel/art/Fantasy-City-115035048
There are a lot of different ways to play tabletop games, and to be entirely honest, no singular “correct” way, no matter what some people may tell you. But, for those of you who are interested in creating interesting story-based campaigns, oftentimes the largest hurdle is coming up with an actual story and ways to make it meaningful. In truth, it’s a lot more simple than it seems, so don’t let the Matt Mercer effect get to you.
1) Know Your Players
This is a surprisingly simple trick that can net you some pretty rewarding gameplay and roleplay. What keeps a player invested differs from player to player, and as such, it’s key to understand what gets the proverbial motor running behind each one of your players. A nice and easy way to gauge what they want is to ask them to rate the Three Pillars of D&D, which are Roleplaying, Exploration, and Combat. (Please note that these are the official pillars as laid out by WOTC, I would argue there are at least two more, that being Problem Solving and Story Telling, however, you could in theory group storytelling in with roleplaying. But I digress.) If you get your players to rate these things, you’ll have a much easier time leading the group.
One of the parties I DM for meets up very sporadically and only for around two hours when we do. As such, a prolonged storytelling experience isn’t nearly as practical as it is with the other group I’m with, who meets bi-weekly for upwards of four hours. I asked both groups what they were looking for and the one very much so wanted much more combat and exploration, while the other prefers roleplaying. This sort of awareness of your players’ expectations are going to make it much easier to plan for them, and to know what will keep them involved in the game. Don’t forget to also ask them what kind of difficulty they’re looking for. I typically run my games on a homebrew critical system, where any critical can in theory instantly kill a character or monster. For people who are looking for a more relaxed game, this sort of overhanging threat of death at any moment might be a bit too much, same goes for players who are looking for a more character driven experience.
2) Create Meaningful Stakes
People are inherently selfish, to a certain extent anyway. As such, saying “the world is in danger” often isn’t good enough to motivate players to get into the mood. Besides, if it’s that important won’t some other, far more legendary and powerful group be dealing with this? (Don’t get me wrong, writing a campaign of world-shattering importance is totally alright if that’s what your players are looking for. See point 1.) I find that smaller, more personalized stakes usually motivate parties best, and can almost always be a good way to introduce a larger plot. Starting with something as simple as a character’s family heirloom being stolen, or the wizard’s spellbook being mixed with a different wizard’s, or the mysterious death of a childhood friend or mentor can all open the door into building a deeper narrative and leading into what you want to be the main plot, by making the players already attached to some of the characters you implement.
This can feel a bit too general to get a good handle on, but the best way to do this is to know your players. If combat is what they’re looking for, then toppling a tyrannical king via military dominance might be the way to go and the stakes can be their own lives, and the lives of their families. If they’re looking to explore, have them sent out to discover new lands or gather artifacts, with some sort of rival adventurer party trying to steal their prize before them. Alternatively, perhaps one of the players decided to try to learn a new language through an ancient magic game, but if they fail to keep up with the lessons a large green owl will kidnap their family.
3) Enjoy What You Make
This probably sounds cliché, but if you don’t enjoy writing the campaign, your players won’t enjoy playing it. This is honestly true of most writing endeavors, however, I find it rings especially true in a table-top environment. This is, after all, a game. And games are meant to be fun for everyone. Including the GM. If you want to make a pirate based adventure, then make one. You’re better off making it and trying to make it work than making something you don’t have any interest in. The reason behind this is that quality is usually tied rather closely to effort, but one thing that is often overlooked in quality is passion. Because passion is also very closely tied to effort. It’s like a little reduce, reuse, recycle sign, but for writing your tabletop campaign.
As the GM it’s very easy to forget that you are just as much a player as the rest of the people at your table, and if you’re not enjoying the content at the table, the table will undoubtedly suffer because of it. When I first started DMing, I thought of it as a responsibility, and while that is partially true, it’s not all that it is. It’s having fun with traps and putting people in strange situations and seeing how they react. It’s messing around with your friends and describing a goblin named Tinkle for twenty minutes until the barbarian kills him. It’s exploring, it’s roleplaying and its combat -- oh goddamnit.
If there’s one thing to take away from this article it’s that if you feel you’re writing your campaign right, then you probably are. Everyone's table is different from another and in all honesty, the most important part is having fun. As mentioned before, this is a game.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/gms-3-tips-to-help-you-run-one-shots-like-a-pro/
Editor's Note: New Gamemaster Month is technically in January, but it's never a bad time to share insight and advice to new GMs. Happy gaming!
There is a natural order to roleplaying games, in which players and gamemasters coexist sharing wonderful tales between each other, and at some point during this magical connection a player will declare themselves worthy enough to run their own game. Most meet with success, while some others fall sadly short of their own expectations. The memory of this defeat either leads the charge into the next attempt, or becomes the final blow into retreating back behind a character sheet. My initial foray into running a game was disastrous, but I didn’t let that stop me from pushing through and trying again. The next few attempts were better, but not by much, so I figured what better way of explaining how bad things got with a few regrets from my first swing at this GM thing.
1) Reading The Rules
My very first attempt was at D&D 5th Edition, using the starter set. I had a copy of the rulebook and read all the character creation rules and set about getting the group together. Eight people made characters, only six played my version of Mines of Phandelver. No one really knew what was going on or how anything worked; play was broken up by the rulebook being pulled out and a 20 minute section took the whole evening. No one enjoyed it. What I really needed was a small group to help playtest the rules first using the provided pre-generated characters.
2) Not Reading The Whole Adventure
Getting so far through the adventure on my second attempt, I realised I had no idea what was coming next: a huge embarrassment. I had read what I thought would take the whole session but the players had whipped through to a point that I was unprepared for, and I had to fudge a few details to keep the flow. This would have been fine if I had any idea where the story was leading afterwards.
3) Over Preparing
I decided, after my blunder with not having read the whole story of Phandelver, to give writing my own adventure a shot. I spent a month meticulously planning an adventure in my own kingdom, created multiple storylines around various decision points, and populated the setting with a variety of NPCs who I built from the ground up, each for specific reasons. The players blasted through it in two sessions. The best advice I have ever been given with regards to preparation is to have a good story in the background running its course and improvise everything else.
4) Accepting Anyone
Looking back, a few of my non-D&D attempts were sunk by one or more players not really ‘feeling’ the setting or style of gameplay. Had I vetted my players better and communicated what I was expecting more effectively, I would have been running a game for a group who wanted to play the game I was offering. This kind of thing should definitely be established before you ask people to join your game to ensure everyone enjoys what you are trying to create, together.
5) Trying To Change Mid Game
The one huge thing that comes to mind is the intent behind the game. I tried running a light-hearted game with a player who wanted to bend the rules to their will and destroy all who stood before them. So I tried to change the mood of the game to suit them, which in turn alienated the rest of the players.
These were just five of my regrets from my starting years. I have since learned from my mistakes and try to create fun and enjoyable games whether or not I'm running a game. I always try to add to the enjoyment of the players. I still make errors when running games, but usually I can iron them out quickly. My one big recommendation for any newcomers to the realm of game mastering is to ensure you and your players are on the same page: know what you and they want from the game to maximize enjoyment.
Ross Reid is a roleplayer of many characters and has enjoyed many a good story, currently only running a game for his children, he plans a grand return in play by post format. His system of choice is FATE but will dabble in anything that looks interesting.
Picture Reference: https://www.montecookgames.com/new-gamemaster-month-is-coming/
Everyone has their own idea of what a gaming experience should be. However, one of the more popular defenses that comes up whenever a player points out that there’s unnecessary racism or sexism in a setting, or how certain themes or tones aren’t what they’re looking for, is simply to say, “Well, that’s just the way things were back then.”
This is a colossally stupid statement. Let’s break down some reasons why, shall we?
1) Back When, Exactly?
The biggest reason this defense falls flat on its face is that most of our games aren’t taking place in a real history (or even a real future, for the sci-fi players out there). They’re drawing on historical elements and weaving them together into a fantasy narrative. Just because there’s knights and lances along with crossbows and feudalism, though, that doesn’t make Westeros a realistic depiction of medieval England anymore than it makes a leopard the same thing as a leopard seal.
Comparing the reality of your game world (a game which often has dragons, magic, and dozens of sentient races in it) to, say, Germany in the 1300s is nonsensical. You need to take the game world as it exists on its own merits, rather than justifying why things exist by comparing them to a completely different planet and saying they’re somehow comparable. Because they aren’t.
2) The Game World Is What You Want It To Be
Unless you play with absolute purists, most groups are willing to alter the rules of a game in order to make it better fit with what they want. They’ll ignore this feat, or toss out that restriction, or change the damage die this particular weapon deals, until everyone agrees this version of the rules better suits them.
Altering the rules of the world so they’re amenable to everyone at the table is no different.
Some time back, I wrote a blog post titled Authors, Every Awful Thing That Happens in Your Book Really is Your Fault. The point of that post, which definitely applies here, is that a thing exists in your game world because you choose for it to exist, and because everyone at the table, in some capacity, agrees that it should be there. If you all mutually agreed that you didn’t want dragons in your game, or the ability to resurrect the dead, you could mark it out with a single stroke of your house rules pen. You could do the same for prejudices, abhorrent behaviors, or things that make your players uncomfortable, too. There is literally nothing stopping you.
3) History is Likely WAY Different Than You Think It Is
Something I’ve noticed is that the more often someone raises a defense of historical accuracy, the less often that person is deeply learned in the history they’re talking about. As an example, the article Vikings Were Never The Pure-Bred Master Race White Supremacists Like to Portray, talks about how there was a surprising amount of diversity among Viking crews. And why wouldn’t there be? They’re pirates after all! One man dies in a raid, you don’t sail all the way back to Scandinavia to find a replacement; you recruit whatever local talent is around who can do Einar’s old job.
Examples of stuff like this are all over when history is used to defend the negative aspects in a setting; from intolerance to a refusal to allow migration (in case you wanted to play someone who was the child of immigrants, as an example) it’s the same tune over and over again. Yet at the same time, we forget just how gay the Spartans were, or how Japanese mercenaries warred with the Dutch when that enemy was half a world away. For every example of prejudice, othering, and violence we find in the history books, there are equal examples of cultures where certain ideas we consider fringe, radical, or just uncommon were a part of the everyday; like how Native Americans respected trans identities in ways that seem like a utopia compared to what we often see in today’s world.
Take Inspiration From History, But Responsibility For Your Game
History is full of cool stuff, unusual personages, lost empires, and strange legends. It makes for great reading, by and large. However, it’s important to remember that the game you see in front of you is your responsibility, and no one else’s. If something is upsetting your players, or people object to a certain kind of content, you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and duck the blame.
It’s your game, so make it the best it can be.
For more gaming insights from Neal Litherland, check out his blog Improved Initiative, as well as his Gamers archive. Alternatively, to take a look at some of his books, head over to his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/song-of-swords-the-historical-fantasy-tabletop-rpg-with-gritty-tactical-combat/
This is an introduction to how to build your very own campaign world. In it I hope to introduce you to some world building concepts and ideas that you can use or chose to ignore when designing your own campaign world.
There are a lot of campaign worlds out there, but nothing is as unique, and as well known by you, as your own campaign world. There are lots of ways to build your world, but the best way, in my opinion, is to model off of our own world. After all it is the world we know best and the only world that we know can support intelligent life, at least for now.
1) Start With The Macro Scale
Is your campaign world even a planet and if so, what shape would it be in? A spherical world is common and the result of constant gravitational effects on assembled particles. It is theorized that dust was formed when the Sun, Sol, was born and out of these dust clouds the planets coalesced. Then the asteroids that formed clumped together or fell to the planets and some became moons. Most though were absorbed by the planets and evolved into the round balls we know so well. Well, what if your world is flat (it sure would be easy to map)? What if it were a toroid or square, or some wild shape? The intervention of magic can do a lot, so could a planar gate with connections to other planes either outer or inner. The majority of worlds will be spherical and resemble earth, but that doesn’t render the rest of this discussion different if you chose a different shape for your world. What shape will you choose for your world?
2) What Is The Density Of The World And Its Organization?
Jack Vance, the science fiction author, invented a big world in one novel. It was the size of Jupiter and had a low density. Its size allowed it to hold its atmosphere, but its huge size allowed for vast land areas and huge continents. The only problem was that metal was rare, most of it came from the occasional meteor that crashed into the planet and those deposits of metal were very valuable. Nations would go to war over them. Philip José Farmer invented the Riverworld; it was a unique world designed for unknown reasons to hold the afterlife of all humans who died before sometime in the 21st century. The world was one Mississippi sized river bordered by mountains that wrapped around the entire planet in a loop. Along its shores everyone who had ever been born got to live again. The first and best novel in the series centered on Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his quest to build a great steam powered riverboat that could circumnavigate the planet in a goal to find out why Riverworld existed and what the motives of its creators were. Along the way he had to work with evil King John (out of Robin Hood) and he read about the journeys of Richard Burton who was able to explore the world and find its headwaters.
Larry Niven wanted to invent a world, so he took a blue ribbon, laid it on its side and stuck a candle in the middle. Then he expanded the world into his famous Ringworld and the candle at its center became a small sun. One DM I knew invested heavily in Judge’s Guild maps and modules and he strung them together side-by-side to create a ringworld for his home world. Which world will you build, how will it be unique, and what will it have in common with standard D&D worlds?
3) Choosing The Right World
Your choice of a world and its shape should be determined by the kind of campaigns you want to run in it. In a massive world you can fit a whole lot of continents and civilizations, monsters, and everything else. But travel across this world would be a difficult deal, especially if you have to go a large distance. Remember that Teleport only has a 500 mile per level range. If you want a world were all the past people have come to life, then you can do Riverworld. If you want a huge world that is science fiction in origin you can create a ringworld. You could also do a torus (donut shaped) or one of Larry Niven’s early ideas: Diskworld. On Diskworld the sun is at the core the world is flat and there are huge mountains at the outer edge to hold in the atmosphere. As you go closer to the sun you had deserts and hotter people like magma men, as you got further from the center you got colder lands and arctic creatures. You had a huge area to adventure in and that was only counting one side of the world. If you wanted, you could make the outer planes on the flip side and the elemental planes as zones on the disk. Most people will want to stick to a standard spherical world. How will your campaign design shape your world? Do you want to bring back all the famous people of history, do you want a huge area to explore, do you want to have your players discover new lands or do you have something even bolder in mind?
4) What Makes Up A Spherical World?
Most are plates of crust that sit on a molten core. These tectonic plates float on the sea of magma and move around. They may have started as Pangaea, but they have moved around before. Australia has been a past neighbor to India, South America used to be a neighbor to Africa and so on. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking, and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider as the plates slowly drift. Half of California and the San Andres plate is shifting north and half of it is shifting south. If you have a world it is theorized that a dynamic ecosystem is due to volcanic action releasing heat and gases into the world which interacted with lightning to create the building blocks of life and went on to form life in the seas. Now it is true this is a theory, no one was around to witness the early earth so we can only make theories about it. This theory is one that is almost universally accepted by the scientific community, but it doesn’t have to be true for your world. Did your world have a more biblical creation by the god(s)? Did they get together and forge the planet out of their imagination? Or do your peoples just believe that? It is your world so you can do anything, and you can make any arguments about how it was formed. Is your world actually a liquid world with floating islands on it, or is it a huge gas world with floating continents moving around in the air cylinder (I once had a world like this and the natives used massive ships that would sail between floating continents). If you use tectonic plates then where they split oceans will form, where they clash mountains will form. Where they rub against each other earthquakes will happen, and where they are thin volcanoes will form. This action will be the major land and sea forming method on many worlds.
5) Water Runs Downhill
This simple and obvious statement is how most of the Earth has been formed, but the action of wind, wave, and running water. Water carved the Grand Canyon and its action has weathered down the mountains. The lack of water causes deserts and where there is too much there are rainforests. Water will always try to flow to the sea and often it dives under the earth and comes to the surface as springs and the headwaters of a river. Both the mighty Columbia River and the Thames River start as small creeks and streams that come together to become a big river that runs to the sea. The Nile river is sourced in Victoria Lake and starts coming across some of the greatest falls in the world, Victoria Falls. It was a major expedition to reach the headwaters; you could plan a similar campaign for your group. Most life and civilizations occur where land meets water. Water is an inescapable need of every living creature (but not always of aberrations or outer planner creatures). Water also makes a great way to travel, you go slower by most river travel, but you can travel 24 hours a day, so you can go faster than if you travel on horseback, and both forms of travel are faster than walking. Bodies of water were early highways for civilization and spread limestone to Egypt, Portuguese merchants to as far away as China and Japan, allowed the colonization of Easter Island, Hawaii, and Australia, and the great English Empire was built on their mighty warships and trading fleet. How will the forces of magic and nature shape your world?
6) Similarities Among Worlds
Most fantasy worlds will develop along similar lines. Most fantasy worlds work in a time period from Hellenistic Greek to Ancient Rome, to the Dark Ages, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, to even the early Industrial Age. When will your time period for your world be set? Hellenistic Greeks and Ancient Rome had bronze plate mail, as steel wasn’t invented until centuries later. Centuries after that gunpowder was invented. When I ran an Ancient Roman World, glass was very rare, so potion vials were clay. On Pacific islands metal was not that common so clubs lined with shark teeth made great weapons. Different time periods and different locations had different technology. It took the Chinese to develop gunpowder. When they did, they used it in everything from life prolonging potions to fireworks. It took the more militant Europeans to develop guns. How would this affect the technology of your world and what equipment is available to the party?
7) The Flow Of History
Why were the Europeans more militant and driven more to explore than the Chinese? A big part of it was their world view. The Chinese called themselves the Middle Kingdom. Once they had united their nation they were happy and didn’t see much of a reason to go out into the world exploring. The Warring States Period was when China tried to unite itself, often under different nations and by different rulers. Sun Tzu lived and wrote during this period and his book on tactics is still studied to this day. The Chinese fought to form one nation as did the Japanese. Over in Europe there were various tribes of barbarians and primitive people. Many of those people were, at one time, ruled from Rome. Rome was comprised of the literal descendants of the Ancient Greeks. In Europe the competing tribes of barbarians took over various lands and used their own language as a basis for those lands. That is why there are so many languages in Europe and their constant rivalry was a bitter issue. The European barbarians first held Rome to ransom and then sacked it. Most Roman statues had their heads cut off and disfigured by the Vandals. That is the root of the world Vandalism. When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals turned their savagery on other tribes and eventually founding Germany and the other nations of Europe. Europe was almost constantly locked in a war of some sort as the various rulers tried to take over or hold onto their lands. This constant competition became a source of great scientific development as well as great human horror like the Black Plague and the Crusades. These two forces had global consequences from trying to oust the Islamic from the Holy Lands to the rise of the middle class. The Islamic Revolution has its roots in the Crusades and the Black Plague finally made the labor of one skilled man valuable and those craftsmen were higher paid and became the merchants, skilled labors, and builders of strong economies. The biggest event in the Forgotten Realms was when the Gods walked the planet and some lost or gained their divinity during this time. The imprisoning of Rovaug, the crash of the spaceship Divinity and the death of the God of Humanity, Aroden were all major events in the development of Golarion. What forces were at work to shape the history of your world?
8) Populating Your World
Now it is time to get down to the smaller scale; where are your various races sourced? Where do they live, where do they come from and where do they want to go? Are humans the most common race, as D&D assumes? Do dwarves come from an underground civilization, are the orcs their rivals and hated foes. Are there Drow in your world? With the light of the Elves should come the evil of the Drow as a counterbalance. What about the dwarves, do they duergar (evil slaver dwarves) exist? Is there an evil counterpart to the gnomes or just the good deep gnomes? Do you have halflings in your world or an evil counterpart to them? Races are the core foundation for civilization and the formation of countries, but humans are rarely allied just by race so often they work against each other, this keeps the humans from taking over from the other races or from exterminating them. Humans are more interested in killing off each other than other races. In Tolkien's world Halflings were jovial people who ate second breakfast and were isolationists. It is not that they didn’t like the biguns of the world, it is just that they thought they lived their lives too strangely, too fast, and with too much magic. Bilbo broke the mold when he became a thief and an adventurer. What are the races of your world and what are the forces; political, racial tensions, or the fight between good and evil that are at work in your world? Don’t feel you have to include a race just because it is in the handbooks and don’t feel that you can’t create an entirely new race just because you want to. What are the politics of your world?
9) What Adventures Are Available?
Now that you have gotten down to this scale you can start to think about what you want your player characters to do. Will they form a hearty band of adventurers on a noble quest like the destruction of an evil relic or are they on the search to restore a kingdom? Or will your group be aimless adventurers gathered for no particular purpose, coming from no particular area, and only going on missions you send them on to kill monsters and get paid for it, by robbing their corpses? This creates a group of murder hobos; people who shiftlessly move around and get rich through petty crime sometimes verging on the felony. Now there is nothing wrong with doing this, if this is what your players want to do, but most DMs have a nobler quest in mind, if not in the vein of Tolkien, then something similar to it. If you create a fantasy world with a new land to be discovered, then you can have your players be either conquistadors or be members of the primitive tribes trying to fight the incoming Europeans. Will you have an Europe analog or a Oriental analog? Most of the character classes are drawn on European models, but monks with a flurry of blows, ninjas and samurai are from an Eastern world and if you don’t have that world represented in your setting, then you will disappoint those players who want to play those type of characters. Of course, the Bard and the Skald came from Scottish and Irish tales and heroes, yet we apply them to entire continents. There were monks in Europe, but they were far more scholarly than adventuring. The monks of the Shaolin Temples were both; keeping vast temples full of records from clay tablets to written books. They also adventured across China as righters of wrongs; dispensers of wisdom and justice. What type of campaigns you want to run will have a major influence in how your form that world, so how do you form your world? What goals will you have in mind for the party and for future parties?
10) Detailing The Histories
A well developed world has history to it; that lends it gravitas, dignity and power. I know a DM who has had the same world for over 20 years, and he brings in changes made by players into each campaign. If you play with him in several games then you learn certain features of his world, what exists and where, and even some things you and get away with in certain areas. I have played in wide ranging games in his world from the pocket dimension to safeguard civilization to an exploration of the catacombs under a megalopolis, to the crushing of a slave uprising. He has a rich developed world with a lot of NPCs both weak and powerful and institutions that have a long history. There are parts of his world that are ignorant of other parts and even pockets that are near impossible to escape from. They use pocket dimensions to house the town’s population and feed and clothe them. Undead can become recognized citizens. There are a lot of unique factors in his world because of his development and because of what he has added to the world over the years that he has been playing.
Golarion has a well developed history because a full team of writers have worked on it. There is an analog to Egypt, China even America. There is an evil empire, a lost world ruled by a demon ape, a crashed spaceship, a Norse analog, a barely restrained demonic invasion, and a crusade against it. There are a lot of factors going on in their world. In contrast Greyhawk had only a little development, because most of it was in mind of Gary Gygax and he didn’t want people to copy what he had done, but to do their own creative work. The Forgotten Worlds was mostly in the mind of Ed Greenwood and so there wasn’t a lot written about it without his approval or permission. He had a limited world because he had a small staff working on it; himself. He was using the world he had developed from his own game, and he just spread it to the larger world. Eberron and the Spelljammer universe were well developed, but aside from the Dragonlance chronicles little went on in the Dragonlance world. I have read about all these campaign worlds and more.
When you build your world, you should take examples and inspirations from other worlds and use it in your own. You can take what you like, ignore what you don’t like, change things around, and be unique all on your own. Happy gaming and happy world building.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: www.shutterstock.com
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
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games