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
Even though a large portion of people participate in play-by-post games, most roleplaying games are written assuming you will play live, either in person or online. The guidelines written in these books as well as the rules, sometimes simply do not support play-by-post to the best of its ability. I have recently started a play-by-post game, only to realise most of my GM experience was useless. For this reason, I’m sharing what I have recently learnt when playing a play-by-post.
1) Speed Up Dialogues
When playing a live game, you want to keep things as natural as possible, thus making interactions last long and having multiple comings and goings between the characters involved. In a play-by-post this is simply not feasible. Take the following dialogue for example:
- ‘You there! Guard!’ called out Jaeger the Paladin.
- The guard, turned around to face him: ‘Yes? What is it citizen?’
- Jaeger, running to the guard and out of breath exclaimed, ‘Have you seen a man wearing a red hood?’
- ‘A red hood? Perhaps, what’s this about?’ demanded the guard.
- ‘He has stolen a special belonging of mine, I need to find him,' said Jaeger
- The guard smirked ‘Well, what’s in it for me?’
- Jaeger quelling his anger for the corrupt city watch, barked ‘I’ll give you a gold coin, just tell me where he is!’
- Taking the coin in his hand and biting it the guard replied ‘He went that way, through the sewer entrance, though I hardly recommend you go there. That’s the Knives’ territory it is.’
This simple dialogue which would take less than a minute in a live game, could take hours or days in a play-by-post game. It involves four posts from a player and four from a GM, assuming they check the game twice a day, that’s two days at best for this interaction to resolve.
Now, we could clean it up a bit and organize it as such:
- ‘You there! Guard!’ called out Jaeger the Paladin. ‘Have you seen a man wearing a red hood? He has stolen a special belonging of mine!’ he exclaimed, leaning on a wall to catch his breath.
- ‘A red hood?’ the guard asked. ‘Might be I did, what’s in it for me?’ he said smirking.
- Jaeger, quelling his anger for the corrupt city watch, barked, ‘I’ll give you a gold coin, just tell me where he is!’
- Taking the coin in his hand and biting it the guard replied, ‘He went that way, through the sewer entrance, though I hardly recommend you go there. That’s the Knives’ territory it is.’
By simply adjoining as much text as we can into a single post, we have cut down the time by half, and that’s a significant amount of game time.
2) Share the Narrative
Depending on the style of play, most of the time players will be asking the GM whether they can attempt something, if there is something in the scene available for them to interact with, or if they may move their character to another scene or location. For there to be ease of play, this must be removed entirely. Players should be encouraged to try things without asking. The GM intervening should be the exception, and not the rule. That way we can turn this:
- Player: ‘Is there a mug on a nearby table?’
- GM: ‘Yes, there are plenty of mugs and bottles around. Why do you ask?’
- Player: ‘Can I throw it at the men fighting?’
- GM: ‘Sure, go for it!’
- Player: ‘I grab a mug from a nearby table and throw it at the men fighting in an attempt to call their attention.’
3) Ignore Initiative
Combat is fun, until you need to synchronize several people living in different time zones for it to work. Having to wait for each previous player to act before deciding what your character does increases the game time greatly. To solve this, simply have all players post what their characters will attempt when their turn comes, and then resolve it simultaneously or in order of Initiative. This might require some tweaking depending on the game system being used, but it’s the best way of reducing combat time.
4) Keep the Pace Up
Normally a game is recommended to have its ups and downs, moments of tension followed by moments of relaxation. With a play-by-post game its difficult to extend the tension over periods of hours or days, so most players will be pretty relaxed when playing, regardless of what is happening. Building up the pace could take days or even weeks, so just go ahead and go straight to the action. Instead of leading them slowly into the adventure hook, have them start directly at the hook.
5) Play Simultaneously
In a live game, it’s impossible for two players to be talking to the GM at the same time, so it’s OK for other players to wait for their turn. In a play-by-post, everyone can be playing at the same time. It should not only be allowed, it should be encouraged. This saves a tremendous amount of time, the GM can reply to several messages at the same time and keep the momentum going.
6) Be Clear
Each time the GM or a player has to ask exactly what you meant in your last post, that's time lost. Try to avoid unclear or implicit posts. When attempting tests be sure to explain the What, How, and Why of the test. You can read more about it in my other post: 5 Things Players Should Consider Before a Skill Test.
In general, you should strive to reduce the amount of posts needed by all players to the minimum possible, that ensures the story advances in a steady fashion and everyone has an opportunity to participate and have fun, which is always the objective of roleplaying.
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebones casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
So, here’s the deal, guys and gals:
I have never, in all my time roleplaying, seen such enthusiastic fervor for Dungeons & Dragons. Late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers are coming back to the game in droves. Millennials are discovering the game for the first time, and in many cases, since 5th Edition is the first edition of the game that they’ve played, they’re becoming masters of the rules and living archives of spell duration and effect, creature difficulty and Hit Dice, and the ins and outs of class sub-specialty versus bi-classed characters… and somewhere, in the middle, there are some pretty awesome groups playing games every week with all of the diversity in culture, sex and background that anyone could possibly want. Husbands are finally playing Dungeons & Dragons with wives, Fathers and mothers with sons and daughters, and the internet has made players and Dungeon Masters in one-horse towns in Nevada or snowed-in hinterlands in Michigan reachable via Skype, Facebook Messenger, and Discord; reachable by players and Dungeon Masters in Glasgow, or the UAE, or a military duty station in Bahrain.
The games are out there. Finding a great group is a wonderful thing. It can be done, and now, it can be done more easily than ever. However, there are a few things to keep in mind for players both new and old coming back to Dungeons & Dragons or who are discovering the game for the first time.
1) Be On Time
We have a saying in the military; if you’re not fifteen minutes early getting to where you’re supposed to be, then you’re late. Don’t be late to game night. At least, don’t be late to game night without calling, texting or sending out an email to let everyone know that you’re going to be late or that you’ve run into something that will keep you from attending the game altogether. There are any number of avenues with which the absence of a player can be handled, and ultimately, it’s up to the DM. However, it is polite to let your fellow players and DM know well in advance of the start time for a game session if you’re going to be late or if you won’t be attending.
I’ve also had DMs no call/no show on an entire assembled gaming group who are waiting for him or her. As a matter of fact, that is exactly how I began running the campaign that I am running now. This is a little more detrimental to an assembled group, and in all honesty, a lot harder to recover from. If you’re lucky, you’ll have another member of your group that is able to pick up the ball that the absent DM dropped. If not, you’re just hanging around when you could probably be doing something more constructive with your time.
My suggestion would be to obtain phone numbers and email addresses on the very first night that the group assembles, even before character creation. Use these tools to communicate with one another. I use my players’ emails to handle down-time/long rest activity in between sessions, and I have made it absolutely clear to my players that not communicating an absence is something I’ll only let happen twice, and on the second time, I’ll ask them to leave the group due to the overall lack of respect that they’ve shown myself and the other players.
2) Do Not Ever Argue Rules With A Dungeon Master
There are five separate editions of Dungeons & Dragons. For each of those separate editions, there are some similarities, to be certain, but by and large, those similarities are the minority. If the similarities weren’t the minority, there would be no purpose in creating a whole new edition of the game. So, this being the case, when you understand what edition of the game you’ll be playing and you agree to it, do not argue rules systems, die rolls, or results with the DM.
Not only is it rude, it’s distracting and it takes the wind out of the room for the other players at the table.
If something has been done to one of your characters that you simply cannot abide, that you cannot just roll your dice and say “Wow.
That’s not what I wanted,” then finish the session, and contact the Dungeon Master the next day advising him or her that you won’t be returning to the game. If it’s THAT BAD, don’t go back… but do not ever argue rules, rolls, or reactions with a DM.
In my opinion, and having it done to me more recently than I would like, I would even go so far as to state that this is a violation of a cardinal rule of Dungeons & Dragons regardless of edition.
There are people who serve as living, breathing rulebooks. They have read every book, memorized every spell, know every single stat for every single monster. Ever. I cut my teeth on Dungeons & Dragons playing with one of these people. He was one of my best friends throughout my school years. It was his hobby not just to play the game, but to memorize every aspect of the game and, sadly, to use every single bit of knowledge he possessed to argue for it all to weigh in towards his character’s advantage, more often than not.
But here’s the catch: For every Dungeon Lawyer, there is a DM out there who can shatter their perception of the game’s ironclad rules system, which to be completely honest, has never been very ironclad at all. The rules are a guideline to maintain order within the game and to address systems that a DM might not have an immediate answer for. The true game of any roleplaying game is the story being told that stars all the players’ characters at the table as protagonists.
Don’t argue. Again… walk away. Don’t waste time trying to prove how you’re right and the DM is wrong. It will serve no purpose other than to make you look petulant, make your fellow players resent you, and make your DM think about the best, most artistic way to eliminate your character from the game.
3) Let Your Talents Shine
If you can draw maps, and you’re good at it, then let your DM and players know. If you’re talented/skilled at painting miniatures, then let your DM and players know. If you’re an above average artist, and you want to play around with sketches of fellow players’ characters, don’t hide it. Let them know.
I have a Cleric in my current group who is a fantastic artist. She does character sketches and draws scenes of what’s going on in the game for characters who might be the “star” of that scene. I have a Fighter who is one of the best mini painters I’ve ever sat at a non-Warhammer 40K table with who paints all my miniatures for NPCs that I purchase. What do I do to show them that they’re appreciated? “What’s your favorite chip? Soda? Pizza’s on me, too.”
These people are valued not only for their participation in my game, but also for the talents that they bring – literally – to the table when they show up for a session. Don’t hide these things from anyone, and don’t ever think that someone’s going to criticize you for doodling or sketching while you’re playing. Show your gaming group what you’re good at, and I can practically guarantee that they’ll find a way to compensate you for including them in it. Even if it’s free pizza, soda and chips on game night.
4) Share Your Books
Dungeons & Dragons books are like textbooks; they’re very expensive. They’re worth every penny, but they’re expensive. My advice to anyone who spends the money on books is to put their name in it, but also be prepared to share them. Not all your fellow players have the same resources available to them as you do. Just like in the game, some characters will be more well off than others. Don’t hesitate to let someone look through your Player’s Handbook for something they’re not sure about, or better yet, if you do understand it better than them, show them in the book where it is, mark down the page for them, and take the time to explain how it works to them.
Why the list of page numbers? One of our players hit a financial rough patch not too long ago, and the last thing he was able to do was purchase a Player’s Handbook. For his birthday, we decided to all kick in our pizza money one session to gather up enough cash to buy him a Player’s Handbook and a nice set of dice. Since he’d been writing down all the rules questions he’d had when he referenced other players’ books, he had a list of bookmarkable pages for his own book when Amazon shipped it to him two days later.
Sometimes, stuff like this can be one of those random acts of awesomeness that cements a gaming group together for years.
Don’t let people abuse your books, but don’t ever hesitate to share if they don’t own physical copies like you do.
Now, if you've been allowed to share a book by an owner, treat that book like a true treasure. Do not lick your fingers as you turn the pages. Do not dog ear pages. Mind how you treat the binding. Don't ever set a drink on a book. Treat that book as though it were the only copy of the book in existence.
Don't ever take someone's generosity or property for granted.
5) Be Excellent to One Another
I don’t care what your relationship is to your DM or to other players at your table, don’t be an ass. I don’t care if you’ve been my friend for ten years and you’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for twenty, don’t be an ass. Odds are you’re going to be playing with people who have not been playing for as long as you have. They deserve as good an experience with their discovery of the game as you do. Keep your nonsensical behavior of your character in check. Do not disrupt the entirety of the game with ridiculousness unless the DM has set the stage for ridiculousness to ensue. Do not talk over younger or newer players, and do not make decisions for younger players or newer players..
It’s the wrong thing to do, and deep down inside – game or not – you know it’s the wrong thing to do.
Let the younger and newer players have the opportunity to move past their anxiety at playing and their reservations with meeting new people and discover their own voice.
Just like you did the first few times you played Dungeons & Dragons.
Respect the DM who is trying to create and weave worlds of wonder around all of you for the time you have together. Spend that time together laughing, adventuring and escaping… but don’t make game night all about you, because it isn’t all about you.
It’s about the table. Remember that.
Shannon W. Hennessy is a professional nurse, a long-time role player, a freelancer and a contributor to the Storytellers Vault. In his spare time, he writes, parents four children, and hunts the occasional dragon. He can be reached at email@example.com
Picture provided by author
With the rise of Virtual Table Tops (VTTs), the opportunity to play Dungeons and Dragons (and other TTRPGs) without a local group has become increasingly flexible. While most people may still prefer to play in person, many people have turned to VTTs as the only option in rural areas, or to play with friends across the world. While playing online presents a new set of challenges, following these tips will help ensure it is the best possible experience for everyone in the game.
1) Find The Platform
There are a lot of Virtual Table Tops to choose from, and picking one can become a bit overwhelming.
Roll20 is the best combination of versatility and functionality. Supporting dozens of games from D&D, to Call of Cthulhu, to Pokemon, Roll20 is relatively easy to learn and boasts three million user. This makes it easy to find a group to play with, and you can play for free with no real limitations.
Fantasy Grounds offers less options (a dozen of the most popular), but is more user friendly and purportedly has better customer service. At least one person in your group will have to pay a premium fee to use it, however.
Tabletop Simulator can play just about anything (including chess, checkers, etc.), but the graphics are limited and it’s not as user friendly. It’s a one time fee of $20 on steam, making it a cheaper option that Fantasy Grounds. Leave other suggestions in the comments below!
2) Vet The Group
When you play online, it’s likely you’ll be roleplaying with a bunch of strangers. This has the potential to cause quite a few issues as game expectations, communication, and play styles inevitably clash. To help avoid most of these issues, you can make sure you are very selective about who you play with. Whether you’re the DM or a player, the following are important to know:
How old, in general, is each player (Teen/minor, college kid, young adult, older)?
What are they looking for in the game (a fun time, lots of roleplay, primarily combat, a good story)?
What is their play style (leader, tactician, power gamer, etc.)?
How much experience do they have with this system and with TTRPGs in general?
What class do they plan to play?
What is their personality (you might have to gauge this through casual conversation)?
3) Talk Outside Session Times
I’m a fan of doing text-based roleplay with my group between sessions, but even if you’re not into that, it’s important to check in with your group every couple days. You can talk about what you’re looking forward to in the next session, recap the previous session, strategy, or what’s going on in each other’s lives. The point is to both form a relationship with the people you’re playing with and stay in a mindset of team play and narrative focus.
4) Over Prepare
When you play online there’s fewer traditional responsibilities such as hosting or providing snacks. Since you don’t have to worry about these other things, it is best to over prepare for your session. Know your character sheet and abilities by memory, know some macros or shortcuts for whatever VTT you’re playing on, and know where the narrative has been and where you want it to go. This will speed up session time and shows courtesy to the rest of the group.
Communication in online groups is just as important as in person, but in many ways it’s more difficult. Talk about problems early. Be polite and try to see the other person’s perspective. Basically, just act like adults. Use emoticons to express intent behind your words. If issues really get bad, take the time between sessions to get some space and reassess your desire to be in the sessions. You don’t have to see these people in real life, and in some cases that’s beneficial.
Playing with people online can be difficult at times. But if you follow these five steps, you can have a long-lasting and fun experience playing TTRPGs online.
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/stuff-we-love-roll20-lets-you-play-dd-with-people-anywhere
If you’ve ever been part of a long-running game, you’re no doubt familiar with what some folks call supplement fatigue. This is a condition that happens when the game you’re playing has a great deal of additional books beyond the core, and you start to feel overwhelmed trying to take it all in. Even if you’ve been with that game since the very beginning, constantly reading new books and trying to keep your mental software updated feels exhausting.
This is around the time people start talking about “bloat” in regards to a game. Because it used to be streamlined, easy-to-play, and no problem to run. But now… well, now it takes an entire library shelf just to make one character.
If you’re one of those players (or storytellers) who gets bent out of shape over a game being “bloated” then you’ll be glad to know this problem doesn’t really exist. It’s all in your head.
I talked about this back in There’s No Such Thing As Bloat in RPGs, and Here’s Why, but some of these points need to be reiterated. Points like...
1) One Player’s Feature is Another Player’s Flaw
Think of the mechanic you hate most in a game. Maybe it’s your least favorite race, that vampire clan you can’t stand, or that one rule that you just wish would be deleted. I guarantee you that, for another player, that is one of the things they love about the game.
If you’re honest with yourself, I bet there are at least a few supplements that you think are good, or which represented a step in the right direction for the game as a whole. But those supplements you like will be seen as unnecessary bloat by other players. So if we can’t even agree on a definition about what bloat really is, then chances are it may not actually exist at all.
2) Finding Things Isn’t Nearly As Hard As You May Pretend It Is
Another metric some people use for accusing a game of being bloated is that it becomes impossible to find the rules you need in a timely fashion. You can’t remember if this merit was in a clan book, or in that one Middle Ages sourcebook, or if it was somewhere in the base book’s optional rules section, and everyone’s looking at you, waiting for a ruling, or for you to declare your action.
In ye olden days, this could be a legitimate problem, requiring several folks at the table to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game’s rules and errata. However, technology has shouldered a lot of this workload for us. Now all you need to do is type in the name of a mechanic, or ask a database for the rule, and pop you’re there in seconds, and you can read the text aloud for your table. So while there is more stuff, it isn’t as difficult to parse through as a lot of folks would have you believe.
3) You Don’t Have To Use It
While there might be some crazed completists out there, it’s important to remember that supplement books are just that… supplements. If you want to include the half-dozen Ultimate books in your Pathfinder game, or all the special rules and lore in the different clan books for your Vampire campaign, you totally can. That’s what they’re written for, after all. But you are under no obligation to do that.
I’ll repeat that, because it bears repeating. You do not have to buy supplementary books, you don’t have to read them, and if someone at your table actually has one, you’re under no obligation to allow them to use that book in your game. If you just want to stick to the basic books with no additions, that’s your call. If you want to allow the first two or three supplements, but nothing else, that’s cool too. And if you want to allow anything and everything at your table, that’s your choice.
It’s all there for you to pick what you want from. And it seems like a lot of folks forget that.
But Game Publishers Just Want My Money!
I’m going to say this for all the folks in the back: Every business out there that creates a product you want is out for your money. The authors you read? Money. The video games you buy? Money. Your favorite YouTubers? Well, they’re trying the best they can to get money.
These companies don’t put these products out just for the love of the game (most of the time, anyway); they’ve got bills to pay. And if there’s a market of folks who want more content for a game, then rest assured publishers are going to keep putting out more stuff as long as people keep buying it. That’s why we’ve got something like 500 The Fast and The Furious films.
And just like with gaming supplements, you don’t have to go see them if you don’t want to. Nor are you required to like everything in a series if you’re just a fan of one or two extra installments. Keep what you like, and ignore the rest if it makes your games better for you.
For more from Neal F. Litherland, check out his Gamers page, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! You can also find books like the sword and sorcery novel Crier’s Knife on his Amazon Author Page.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/au/listing/183531915/rifts-conversion-book-rpg-vintageantique
Five room dungeons are an idea from Johnn Four that makes a dungeon from five small challenges. The rooms can be large or small and arranged in many formations. The rooms are:
1. Entrance or Guardian
2. Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
3. Trick or Setback
4. Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
5. Reward, Revelation, or Plot Twist
They make session to session locations a breeze to make, giving you a nice, simple template to work with. I like that they are short, quick to make, and can be used for anything, not just dungeons. This really feeds my lazy prep style, and I enjoy making them. Here are six of my Five Room Dungeons.
1) Treasure Vault
Entrance or Guardian: Upon opening this hidden away area, you notice that it is or was recently inhabited. A tattered rug covers the floor, a table and two chairs sit off to the side, a small collection of books on a shelf of a bookcase, a comfy chair for reading them, and a long hallway stretches off in the distance. The rug hides a pressure plate that starts a slow rumbling in the hallway. If the players move immediately they can escape with no rolls required. If the players wait, they realize that they will be cut off from the rest of the dungeon if they don’t move. At this point a dexterity saving throw will get them past the falling rocks with no damage, half for failure. After the hall crumbles, it will take 250 man hours to unearth the whole 250 feet.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a woman, Sarin, caught in a circle of magical energy. She tells the party if the salt circle is broken, she can go free. She is a high level thief looking to loot the vault. She will betray the party if necessary.
Trick or Setback: This is a large room, it has small, mouse-sized holes that lead into hidden areas in the walls and ceiling. There is a hag, Hilda, hiding here who entered a pact to guard the vault for 101 years. If the vault is breached she will be trapped here forever. The hag uses the holes to enter the walls and cast from cover.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The vault is locked by a large circle divided into four quadrants. They are colored yellow, blue, brown, and white. To open the lock a spell from each element (fire, water, earth, and air) must be cast in succession. The order does not matter, as long as they are cast one after another.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Aside from gold in the vault, there is also a Ring of Three Whooshes. It can cast longstrider three times per day.
2) Giant Burial Chambers
Entrance or Guardian: An unnatural pond, on a mountain top far from much of anything. If you submerge yourself in the pond you will emerge in a dark, carved stone entry room with a similar pool.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: Three stone giant ghosts guard this area. They will warn the characters (in giant) not to disturb the contents of the tombs.
Trick or Setback: A stone giant lairs here, melded into the stone and watching over the tombs. He has been shunned by his people for something he did long ago.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: A fey lurks here in the shadows, seeking revenge on the giants that lay here. The fey will encourage the characters to seek the sword.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: A sword that contains their souls is here, if used and reduce a creature to 0 HP it will release a soul as a giant shadow under the wielder’s control for 1 hour before vanishing. It has 10 'charges' and turns to a non-magical sword after they are all used, damning the giants’ souls to the Abyss.
3) Shadow Monastery
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted monastery lies in near ruins; the veil between worlds is thin here and shadowy apparitions of the former students can be seen eternally practicing, trapped between life and death. An entrance can be found deep in the bowels of the old monastery, linking to a shadowfell version of the building.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A monk on the other side says that they are all trapped here by a bell that can be heard ringing in the distance.
Trick or Setback: If the party goes toward the sound they will have an encounter with aggressive monks.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The Bell is a construct with sonic attacks.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Before the monk leaves the shadowfell behind, he will open a portal back and give the party a ghost rune. The ghost rune can be transferred to a non-magical suit of armor or weapon. If attached to a weapon, the weapon can instead do cold or necrotic damage. If a creature is immune to cold damage, it is reduced to resistance for this attack; if it is resistant it is reduced to normal damage. If the creature does not have a resistance or immunity to cold damage and cold is chosen, critical hits do three times the normal effect.
4) Tower on the Border
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted tower is guarded by the ghost of a wizard; he warns that the darkness shall destroy you.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a black pudding here trapped in a large glass container with a door facing out. On the other side of this large room is an area that has one inch holes in the floor that go down twenty feet to a pressure plate that opens a secret blue portal. The pressure plate must have the weight of a large creature on it (the black pudding). The black pudding can then squeeze its way through a passage under the floor and back into the glass container through a hole in the bottom, resetting the puzzle.
Trick or Setback: There is a portal on each wall of this rectangular room, the one the characters step through changes to a different color (green). The other portals are (right to left) black, yellow, and red. If the players choose any but the black, they are teleported d4 hexes (24 miles each) away.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The wizard from the entrance is here and shadow touched. He is invisible and holds the key of a great cage that surrounds the party. There are signs of someone have been here recently and a tracking check will lead them to bump into the wizard. Defeating the crazy wizard or otherwise finding the key will let the PCs out of the cage. The wizard will explain how the players can get back using the closest shadow portal (d4x6 miles away).
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The wizard wears a Robe of Illusion, it has seventeen charges that can be used to can cast an illusion spell from zero to fourth level (DM chooses one spell per level). Each spell can be cast for the spells level +1 charge; e.g. a cantrip is 1 charge, a first level spell is 2 charges. It disintegrates after the last charge is used.
5) Prison of the Ravager
Entrance or Guardian: A shadowfell prison holds a bound carrion, or ghoul demon. To enter the foul jail requires a pound of flesh placed into a bedrock mortar in a large boulder in an out of the way place in the forest.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: The Ravager has been imprisoned here for countless years, he asks the party to free him and offers to make them generals in his army as well as lead them out of the prison.
Trick or Setback: This room contains five cauldrons full of burbling liquids. When the red, green, blue, yellow, and orange liquids are drank by themselves they do nothing, when mixed together they do a random result.
2 +1 strength
3 +1 intelligence
4 Paralyzed for an hour.
5 +1 wisdom
6-8 Aged by twenty five percent of current age.
9 +1 charisma
10 polymorphed into a sheep for an hour.
11 +1 constitution
12 +1 dexterity
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: An undead fey guards the exit and will die before he lets the demon leave. He knows the Ravager’s true name.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: There is a secret room that has a magic mouth that speaks the demon’s true name, Catullus.
6) Astral Erratic
Entrance or Guardian: An astral dragon, Ansmon, makes his lair in this huge chunk of rock and stages attacks on astral raiders from here.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A very young elven ranger named Laira resides here and serves as guardian to the dragon. She was captured infiltrating the dragon’s lair and has since joined the cause.
Trick or Setback: A monk, Ranek, lives here, forced into a contract when the dragon destroyed his monastery on a separate errand in the astral plane. He has been here for only a few years, arriving after Laira.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The dragon will attack any who enter here without Laira.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The dragon keep a journal of his conquests, including mind wiping Laira after destroying her trespassing family.
As you can see five rooms can vary greatly. A little inspiration and a half hour can generate two hours worth of content for your gaming table. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to try out this tactic next time you need a small destination.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture Reference: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/5-room-dungeons/
As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
When coming up with a setting it’s easy to hit a block. Have you used up your creative juices on the last huge campaign you ran? Gotten halfway through and just got stuck? When writing up a campaign I like to use real world events to help my players connect to the game. “Write what you know,” as they say. So I have compiled a small list of six events in history that can be used to throw a bit of life into your creativity.
1) World Wars
The world wars were horrific, bloody and long lasting. If you have a huge campaign setting throw in one of your own wars, either one already started or one about to begin. Achtung Cthulhu! uses the backdrop of World War II to set its tone and offers an alternative timeline for supernatural and magical events throughout the war. Using this setting can be great for increasing tension or throwing your PCs into a huge battle to make them feel insignificant right before having to take on a great horror from the depth of space.
2) The Crusades
The crusades are similar in scale of the wars mentioned above but were very single sided in cause. A vast army of believers marched to cleanse the non believers from the lands. This concept could be used in many of your campaigns in various scales, whether a single cult or an army poised to attack a neighbouring land. This setting could be used very similarly to the world war setting with a more religious or belief driven story hook. Adding a magic system to this setting could be interesting, using it as the driving force of aggressor attempting to cleanse the land of magic or perhaps wishing to destroy ‘tainted’ magic similar to some wizards in the Harry Potter novels.
Long ago the greatest kingdoms sought to expand their empires by taking lesser kingdoms and utilising their resources. Colonisation was not met with warm welcomes; each smaller kingdom fought and most failed to deter the claims to their lands. The few perks of this were overshadowed by the treatment of the indigenous population and the attitude of the oppressors. Using this as a setting could set up guerrilla factions trying to stop their homes being taken by force, or even have the players on the side of the aggressor, enticing the players with land for conquering a region or simply wealth from the exploitation of the resources from with the area seized. Either way you could persuade the players with an item of great significance or usefulness to the party and let them decide how best to acquire it.
4) Cold War
The cold war was a tense time between nations and sparked a large espionage campaign by multiple countries. Tested alliances and covert treachery was rife throughout this period and makes a perfect setting for covert missions into enemy territory and delivering misinformation to sway events in your favour. This is the best conflict to read up on if you are interested in spy versus spy settings and can be readily applied to many cyberpunk style games.
5) Navajo Conflicts
The Navajo Conflicts were a series of battles ranging from skirmishes to raids between the Navajo people and various enemies including the Spanish and the American military. Using this as a setting could inspire very low tech guerrilla style combat where the party must infiltrate an enemy base steal supplies and escape unnoticed before beginning a full scale assault on the enemy positions.
These have been rife throughout history, anywhere there is power to be exploited there will be those who wish to do so. From Hitler to Castro there will always be people who feel superior to others. There will always be people who think that their ideals are more important than the public, those who believe that they are the only salvation for their country and will defend their power with everything they have. The perfect time for a band of misfits to come blow stuff up. Enter your PCs and a storyline that takes them on an opposing view from the dictator and let the chaos ensue.
History can teach us many lessons in real life and in our roleplaying games. If you do use a setting from history read up on it and find out the motivations behind the conflicts and how it affected the people around it. Try to find a way to allow your PCs to feel like they are part of a true struggle in their game world so they want to help the cause and no just farm the loot. There are many many more settings you can look into throughout history and chances are if you have read it in a supplement it probably has real world ties that you can look into and adjust for your own use.
Ross Reid is an RPG enthusiast who loves all things roleplay, from creating a local group to sponsored gaming marathons, he will dip his toe into anything that catches his eye.
Image source https://www.deviantart.com/zguernsey/art/Men-Of-Honor-111150790
I pay attention to what newbies ask in regards to running games, or what they hope to achieve. The common thread I find is about how to make or plan a more epic campaign. I always advise against making long term plans in games, because players very quickly derail things. For that reason, I always suggest learning how to improvise (a topic we’ve talked about quite a bit at High Level Games).
It’s still never the advice people want, though; they’re hell bent on planning a big elaborate campaign. In their defence, they may not have felt the crushing defeat that comes with a game falling to pieces before it gets to the good stuff you’ve planned. Or if they have, they remain optimistic about their long running campaign. (Good on you if you have that optimism.)
With that in mind, I have another unconventional piece of advice: plagiarize. I realize that’s a loaded term, and also often confused with copyright, but hear me out. When we’re in art or music class, we learn the basics before we go off developing our own style. To do that, we often copy what our teacher’s do, and what they do is copy masters who came well before them. This was even done by Hunter S. Thompson, an outstanding journalist and writer from the 1960’s and 70’s.
What I’m suggesting is this: if you’re new, borrow the plot lines from somewhere else, and adapt them to your new medium. Video games seem like a good place to start, since they’re a medium built around interactive story with challenge built into them. So with all that said, let’s look at some video game plots you can adapt into your roleplaying games!
1) Collect The Items To Defeat The Evil
As Seen In: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy 1
There’s a great evil out there, and in order for the hero to defeat it, they must first collect a bunch of random items. In the original Final Fantasy, it was the four elemental crystals the Warriors of Light were looking for. Meanwhile, in Legend of Zelda, there’s usually some series of trials or items Link needs to collect before he can get the Master Sword and teach Ganon a lesson about screwing around with Hyrule.
Almost every Legend of Zelda game is just one giant series of fetch quests, yet the formula never gets old. This is because there’s always a feeling of progression as the player is exploring and completing dungeons. To replicate this same sort of feeling around a game table, be generous with the magical items if you aren’t normally. If they’re looking for elemental crystals like in Final Fantasy, go ahead and include things like a short sword +1 that’s made of never-melting ice in the dungeon with the ice elemental crystal.
2) Defeat The Minions To Reach The Evil
As Seen In: Megaman, the last world in Final Fantasy 5
Much like our first point, there’s a great evil out there, but to reach it, the players first have to defeat all of their equally evil minions first! In Megaman, this was the 8 Robot Masters you combat before tackling Dr. Wily’s Castle, or in the very end of Final Fantasy 5 when you’re wandering through the void looking for the Exdeath, you encounter all manner of other evil beings loyal to him that were hitherto unmentioned. This can be used in conjunction with the first point, as it was in Final Fantasy 5, or on it’s own like in Megaman. In either case, progression remains important.
For an interesting twist, you can make the minions optional, as a few entries in the Megaman X series have done. However, to execute this well, you mustn’t scale down the big evil, the minions should serve to prepare the heroes in some way. If you insist on taking on the final boss fair, though, you can always make a tactical retreat an option. (As Final Fantasy 5 does when the heroes enter the void; they can freely leave at any time.)
3) Chasing After The Evil To Defeat Them
As Seen In: Super Mario Brothers, the first disc of Final Fantasy 7
Evil isn’t always stationary. They’re either always on the move, like Sephiroth in the beginning of Final Fantasy 7, or they’ve got multiple fortresses throughout the land and are constantly running from one to the next when the heroes catch up, such as in many of the later Super Mario games.
This one is ideal for GMs who like to make maps and track how worlds change based on PC and NPC actions, and also provides some interesting twists! If the evil has a lot of fortresses and gained too much ground in the chase, the heroes could decide to instead draw the evil to them by razing the fortresses. Additionally, locals who were liberated by the heroes during the chase could help slow down evil should they wind up needing to backtrack during their flight.
4) Rebuilding After The Evil Has Done Their Worst
As Seen In: Dark Cloud, recurring theme in Final Fantasy 14’s Realm Reborn arc
Sometimes, evil wins and everything is destroyed, as is the case of the PS2 game Dark Cloud. The journey is all about reversing the damage as you strive to find a way to prevent another such catastrophe. In the Final Fantasy 14 Realm Reborn arc, evil was stopped, but at a great cost, and the story continues with a new generation of heroes picking up the pieces.
If a big cataclysmic battle happens, that may lead to collateral damage. If mighty spells are flung by both sides, what sort of impact would that have on the cosmology? How might it have scarred the landscape? The villages razed by an evil overlord don’t necessarily come back just because the one who razed them was defeated. If the cause of the evil is gone, there’s still the task of figuring out what damage was done, and how to fix it.
You’ve no doubt noticed a theme with all these, or at least that they’re all very similar or even overlap in some cases. That’s because there’s only so many original ideas, so much so that scholars have found how every story can be intertwined into one another, and even given this phenomenon a name: The Hero’s Journey.
Furthermore, just as every story archetype is inevitably intertwined, so is the history of video games and tabletop games; they’re both games that eventually came to be adapted as storytelling media. Players give their input, it gets parsed, the state of the game is updated, and story is progressed. The only difference is that video games use machines that can do the parsing.
However, what works for a video game, won’t necessarily work for tabletop. It’s expected that in a video game that things will be locked off; certain doors will only open if you have a key. In a tabletop game, however, expectations are different. If I have a super human strength and can smash wood and stone columns easily, why can’t I bash down a door made of similar materials?
And THAT, my fledgling GM friends, is why improvisation is also important: so you can keep your epic campaign moving along without a hitch!
Aaron der Schaedel once wrote for a now defunct website called Game Master’s Game Table, and one of his favorite articles for that site was one telling the intertwined history of video games and tabletop ones. This was his attempt at a spiritual successor to that article. Something something, absurd plug for his Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://na.finalfantasyxiv.com/
5th edition Dungeons and Dragons was created to be high magic. Healing is readily available, spellcasters are relatively powerful from their first level, and magic items are often powerful and common. As a reaction to this, a lot of Dungeon Masters try “low magic campaigns” where spellcasters are rare and not allowed as PCs, magic items are nearly impossible to find, and magic itself is either a distant memory or never existed. If this sounds appealing to you, consider the following questions before deciding if you want a low magic campaign.
1) Do The Players Want It?
Sure, it’s your game, but the players need to have fun too. This is especially true if you’re playing with a group of friends and not some random people who signed up to play your game because it sounded fun. Do your players want a low-magic campaign? Depending on “how low you go” they would be limited to either completely martial classes, or third-casters (ranger, paladin, eldritch knight, arcane trickster), and would have access to very few magical items. Make sure they know what they’re getting into and be clear about what kind of game each person wants to play before imposing a low magic campaign upon them.
2) Does It Fit The Narrative?
Is there a narrative reason why magic would be rare in your world? Maybe the gods are absent or dead. Or perhaps some natural disaster has disconnected the “weave” from the material plane. You could even say that magic has been feared, and as such, it’s been destroyed and bred out of all but the most remote reaches of the world. No matter what you decide, come up with a legitimate reason for limiting or removing magic in your world. If you say, “I just don’t like magic as a Dungeon Master,” you’ll lose a bit of credibility with your players.
3) Will It Handicap Your Players?
Will removing magic severely limit the access your players have to vital healing, damage, and roleplay? While healing is frequently done through other means (like hit dice), a majority of it occurs through healing magic. If you’re looking for a deadly, gritty campaign, removing or weakening healing magic is definitely a good way to accomplish that, but it’s likely you’ll have to redo a few class mechanics as well as augment things like the healer’s kit and medicine checks. A large part of narrative and roleplaying also revolves around magic. If your players want that level of difficulty, that’s great, but make sure you are all aware of this when you discuss a low magic campaign. They will die, and probably quite often.
4) Will You Play By The Rules?
Don’t be one of those DMs who take magic away from the players and then uses magic against them. If you’re doing low or no magic you take away a significant amount of creatures you can throw at your players. No liches, arguably no dragons, no magical beasts, no animated objects, no lycanthropy. If you’re being fair you can’t even have anything with innate magic or psionics (illithids). Even undead like skeletons or zombies are out unless you can figure some non-magical way they are being resurrected. Sure, you can make up a reason you have magical creatures in a non-magical world, including the fallback “I’m the GM,” but none of your players will actually want that. Before you consider a low magic campaign, consider just how many creatures you’re willing to go without.
5) How Will You Make Up For It?
How are you going to make up for the vacuum that magic won’t fill? Will you have technology to make guns or other damage-dealing items? Will you allow for scientific alchemy to provide healing and utility mechanics? The replacement should be both mechanical and narrative, but as a DM you shouldn’t eliminate magic without replacing it with something. If you want to, I’d suggest playing a system other than 5e.
Wanting a low magic setting is understandable and can even be fun if it’s done in the right way. It is most important to talk with your players about it; discuss all the above questions with your players, and if you all agree, you could have an excellent campaign!
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://inthelabyrinth.org/the-fantasy-trip/magic-low-fantasy-settings/
While scanning your monster manual for fresh nasties to batter and maim your closest friends, you may be tempted to flip past the Stirge. As a tiny beast with four measly hitpoints you might fail to see its value as an adversary to even the lowest level adventurers. Stop. I’m about to teach you five steps to turn a buzzing gnat into pure terror and all-out panic.
For the uninitiated, the Stirge is a horrid flying thing that looks like a mixup between a bat and a mosquito. Its wingspan is roughly two feet across, and a six-inch long proboscis hangs limp from its face. To feed, the creature flexes powerful jowl muscles, transforming its sagging sucker into a ridged spike that it plunges deep into the flesh of its prey, drawing great volumes of blood as sustenance. They’re weak, they’re crunchy, they’re barely a snack, but when run right the stirge is absolute nightmare fuel.
1) Scourges Of Stirges
A stirge is like a locust or a rat. A pest by itself, but like all pests, you’ll almost never find it by itself. Stirges travel in scourges. No seriously, that’s the collective noun for a group of the horrid things. If you encounter one or two of these bloodsuckers a good crack with the business end of a heavy stick will probably do the job, but a scourge of stirges is something very different.
This is where you abandon the standard course for encounter design. Most encounters are fought to the bitter end. Not this one. Stirges travel in swarms so big that no adventuring party could exhaust their numbers. Maybe no army. Like locusts they descend on entire towns, leaving utter devastation in their wake. Where locusts obliterate crop fields, stirges suck the literal life out of every warm-blooded creature they can get their creepy pincers on; livestock and people alike.
Step one is to think of stirges as an event rather than an encounter. It’s not something you come across, it’s something horrifying that happens to you, to the town you’re in, to the community of people you’ve sworn to protect. A stirge encounter should be run like a hurricane.
2) Foreshadow The Event To Build Suspense
In The Birds, Hitchcock didn’t drop flocks of feral seagulls out of the sky without warning. He lets the tension build throughout the film by gathering more and more of them on wires and jungle gyms.
Set up the encounter long in advance by making your players think about the stirges before they’re a threat. Have a few perched on fence posts or circling above like vultures, then have their numbers gradually grow. Have townspeople who have experienced scourges of stirges in the past start becoming unnerved and then unglued as more of the little beasties arrive, as sheep and cattle start turning up dead with big hideous sucker holes in their sides. Give some of those people big old scars from proboscis wounds in their own necks and chests. Make this place well aware of what’s coming.
Watch the drive-in scene from the movie Twister. These people live where tornadoes are a persistent threat. Most days are normal days, but the threat of an unstoppable cataclysmic force dropping out of the sky is always looming. When the winds pick up, it takes about a minute for absolute panic to set in. That’s the way to run a stirge event. The people of this community know the danger they’re in better than the party does, but they’re about to learn.
3) A Scourge Is Not A Stirge
A stirge will grab onto you, plunge its proboscis deep into your flesh and suck the blood out of your body. That’s the threat. Absolutely horrifying obviously, but I want to impress upon you that the threat of a scourge of stirges is much more than just a lot of that.
Don’t get me wrong, it is going to be a lot of that. One after another of these repulsive bloodsuckers are going to latch on and pierce you with their fleshy spike-ended mouth-straws, and if you rip one off, two more are going to take its place. I just don’t want you to think that that’s the extent of your problems. What happens when a few hundred of them land on the roof of the rickety old barn you’re hiding in? It collapses on your head. If you’ve never been smashed in your face place by a big swinging joist take my word for it, you’re going to lose half a skull and a good bit of brain. With that many wild things thrashing around, mounted torches and candle sticks are going to get jostled. Things are going to catch on fire. People are going to go crazy. Your party will be dealing with absolute pandemonium, and anything you can dream up that goes along with that.
4) Keep Them Outside, Keep Them Moving, Make Shelter Scarce
If you’ve ever had to deal with a hornets nest you know that the terror mostly disappears when you scamper flailing back into your house and the door clacks shut behind. Don’t give your party that. Give them reasons to go outside. Give them long distances to run with only a few sparse overhangs, tree branches, or wood-sheds to crowd into for moments of respite before they’re overcome again. If they find a really good shelter give them a moment to build up that false sense of security before burning it to the ground. Give them children and infirm elders to protect in wide open spaces. Watch The Birds, The Mist, Twister, The Swarm, or any other movie where people are trying to survive a catastrophic event by hiding in doors. You’ll find that there’s always a reason to go outside.
5) Lay Waste And Move On
I think this final point is the one that really matters for inspiring a feeling of earnest dread. When the event is finally over, it’s not because the party saved the day. It’s not because of some daring do or some heroic sacrifice. It ends the way most catastrophic events end: without rhyme or reason. The sky clears, the daylight returns, the scourge moves on. It leaves of its own volition and you realize that you’re powerless against it.
Then you’re left with the aftermath. A town has been raised, people have died, the communities entire store of livestock has been decimated, and now they must recover. A stirge event reminds us that while our characters may be heroes of great power, the world they inhabit contains dangers well beyond even them.
With these five steps you can turn a 4hp ⅛ CR monster into an event that your players are sure to never forget. From that moment on, anytime a stirge turns up or flies by you’ll send waves of terror rippling across the table, and they’ll never look at a mosquito the same. Good luck!
Ryan Cartner and Dustin Hoogsteen are indie tabletop game designers at epiclutesolo.com. They are creating one game every month in 2019. You can download the first of these twelve planned releases for free at www.epiclutesolo.com/blog/games
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/432204895463483101/
First, this isn’t designed as therapeutic advice, nor should it be construed as such. Mental health coaching and support is its own thing and we recommend you seek out a professional if you need that support. Second, this is not an attack on you if you are a chronically ill writer who is struggling in a way that makes everything you do harder. I empathize. I support you. Your productivity does not give you value as a person. These are the ways I make myself feel better, while fighting chronic illness and mental health monsters. Your mileage may vary, your output may vary, and you are still a writer. You are still a wonderful person that brings something to the world. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.
These are my suggestions for writing through chronic pain and depression. You’ll find that some are on numerous blogs and suggestion lists. That’s fine, they might be good advice. If you have others, please leave them in the comments or refer to this work in your own blog! I’d love to have the community lift each other up and support one another.
1) Write Something
In 2004 I spent several months living in my car in and around San Diego. I worked, but I couldn’t afford an apartment. So, every night I’d go to Starbucks for 4-6 hours, read a book, and write. What I wrote wasn’t anything ‘useful’, it wasn’t a novel, or a game, or even a short story. It was the inner turmoil of my brain. One night, I realized I was depressed. Not because I was living in my car, but because my life had stalled. Then the next night I realized I knew where I wanted to go down the line. The day after that, I wrote out a plan to hit my goal. Most of my writing was internal ravings about writer’s block up until those three days. What I didn’t realize was that I couldn’t write because I wasn’t supposed to be writing a story or a novel or anything like that. Instead, what I needed was a direction in life and I needed to write that. Writing whatever came to mind helped me to get somewhere, it just wasn’t where I thought I was going. I still have this notebook, in a box, somewhere in my house. It’s not filled with things I’ll ever publish. That wasn’t the point of writing those nights.
2) Acknowledge You Are Sick
This is also known as, TAKE A DAMN BREAK. It’s ok to realize you can’t keep writing. Hell, you might need to take a year, two, or more off before you can pick up the pen or slap the keyboard again. This is hard if you earn your living writing, though, and trust me, I understand. If the words are not traveling in their little caravan from your mind to the screen, or page, or whatever, then you can only force it so much. It’s ok to say, “I’m sick, and doing this isn’t good for me.” That doesn’t make you weak, or a failure, or a bad writer. It’s totally, unconditionally, without question, fair. If you wake up and you think, wow, the pain is a 9 today. I’m going to take it easy, drink a cup of tea (or coffee, or whatever), and that’s great. Admitting you need a break and taking one is strong, healthy, and helpful. Admitting you are sick is GOOD. Admitting where you are is a HUGE step toward making plans that work for you.
Writing through illness can be particularly hard because you do have ideas and you often start on them before a bad day slams you over the head and takes your brain away. So, how and what can you do with this? Collaborate. Seek out folks that are willing to work with you. Maybe you get 75% through a project and you get whammed. Reach out to your collaborators and go, I’ve got this piece, it’s this far finished, I think it should go here and here; does anyone want to work on it with me? 9/10, someone will go, yes, I’d love to work with you on this. Now, I’m not telling you not to pay them or cut them in on a percentage. I think you probably should do that, but it depends on your collaborator and how your relationship works. That’s on you, but I usually cut my collaborators in on a percentage or I pay them a bit up front to show them I appreciate their time, effort, and work. THEN I make sure to credit them alongside myself whenever I market the piece.
4) Work On Something Else
This can be having a few pieces to work on at a time, or it can be totally non-writing work that you feel is helpful to you to work on. For me, I’ve been doing layout for books that others write as a way to feel like I’m still doing something/producing work that I can be proud of. This works for me, it uses a different part of my brain, and it doesn’t require the same sort of mental health that my writing work requires of me. Now, for you, it might be knitting, building a car, whittling, playing video-games, or whatever it is. Find something else that you can do, that you love to do, and work on that for some time. You might get writing ideas while you do it, and even if you don’t, you are still doing something you love. Of course, this can be hard too, depending on your chronic illness. I’m with you. Go back to point 1, 2, or 3 if you are at this stage and you don’t know what to do. It’s ok to take the space and time you need to be healthy and happy.
5) Bonus Point – Have Allies
Your network of supports is essential to feeling like you belong to a community. That’s a human thing, but I find it really essential to accomplishing things when things get bad. Post on social media talking about how you are having trouble. Call a friend and talk about whatever works for you. Having allies, friends, and a support network will always help. And if you don’t have folks that get it around you or on social media? Find a group of fellow creatives online who will understand where you are coming from. Lurk, read their posts, engage with them, post about where you are in your life right then. All in all, my friends and family have done the most to keep me going when shit has gotten hard. Without them, I’d have drowned by now. Also, being a good writer ally requires you to give back when you can. Trust me, you might not have the spell slots all the time, but when you have them, use them. You’ll build hope, trust, and strength when this happens.
I hope these ideas and thoughts are helpful. You might wonder what they have to do with a gaming blog, but, honestly, I hope it is obvious. I haven’t had an article of my own here since MONTHS before HLG Con. That event broke me, for a while. I’m only now starting to realize just how bad, and doing things to work through it. Of course, it isn’t easy. For those gamers that run games, or play, or create them when dealing with these struggles, I salute and honor you today. You are worthy and I’m thankful for you.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s running a Changing Breeds game. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Art by JH Illos
The most important element in roleplaying is communication. Sometimes players will assume that their DM has understood what they are attempting, only to find out a scene later that their idea went completely over the DM’s head. The following listicle will help your DM understand you better and reduce any problems that originate from a lack of proper communication.
This sounds trivial but most players will almost always assume the goal and not mention it. “I want to climb the wall” sounds like a goal but it isn't, because it doesn't let the DM know why you are trying to climb the wall. “I want to get to the top of the wall so I have a better position from which to shoot my bow” says clearly what your intention is. Without a clear goal, the DM may misunderstand and end up narrating a result that you didn't expect. Sometimes this issue can be solved immediately, but in other cases this won't become apparent until after the encounter. At which point arguments ensue: “During the fight I climbed the trees, but it never gave me any protective cover!” “Well, you just said that you wanted to climb the trees. You never told me why.”
How you are going to do what you are attempting. This is the big one because here you can be creative and ingenious. Your DM might even reward you with some in-game bonus depending on how you do it. Climbing a wall barehanded isn’t the same as using a grappling hook. A single goal usually has many ways of achieving it, so don’t always go for the trivial option. Imagine the surrounding environment, what things are around that can be used. The DM will usually not be exhaustive in his description which leaves room for imagination. This is also a good time to look through your inventory. DMs will usually pick the most obvious means, if one is not specified, and assume you are using no equipment. This can result in losing potential positive modifiers to your skill test or, even worse, getting negative modifiers!
Do not leave the skill test choice to your DM. Some games have an exhaustive list of skills and your DM won’t have all your skills memorized. He does not know what you are good at and what you are terrible at. If you want to use your “Lie” skill but the DM asks you to do a “Charm” test, go ahead and tell your DM: “I would like to use my Lie skill.” Some DMs might not like this style so be sure to talk it over with them. Try to be reasonable and not ask for a skill check with an unrelated skill, like using your strength skill to sing. Though sometimes using a completely ridiculous skill can have hilarious results. Your DM may and should encourage you to explain how your skill is being used.
Unless your character suffers from delusions of heroism, you might want to ask other characters for help. NPCs are not just side quest givers, some have skills that can and should be used to your benefit. Most DMs will fill the world with helpful NPCs just waiting to be used. Town guards can help you fight off those outlaws mugging your party in the alley. Some recurring NPCs, such as a previous quest giver, can become allies. They can provide information or resources for your current adventure. Even your enemies can be of aid if you understand their objectives and motivations. After all, if the dragon attacking your town is after gold why not lead him to your rival’s larger and richer city.
Skill tests are the best moment to show how your character behaves. A barbarian and a duelist might both fight with swords but how they fight differs completely. Think about how this skill test relates to your character. A fear of heights might make a wall climb more interesting, or perhaps an old grudge fills you with fury as you strike your enemy. Personality can also be used to show intent. A scholar holding his book to his chest with sweat falling down his brow while hiding behind a shelf is cleverly not going to try to ambush the beholder. Don't forget that you are playing to have fun and “I jump backwards as I flail my sword around while yelling ‘I hate skeletons!’’ is always more entertaining for everyone at the table than: “I attack with my sword.”
With all this in mind, we can change: “I wanna climb the castle wall” to: “I want to get to the top of the castle wall so I can sneak in. I’m going to look for the best catapult expert in our unit and I want to convince him to launch me. I want to use my Charm skill and with a wink and a convincing smile I say: ‘If you get me on top of that wall, I will end the war and you can be on your way home before dawn.’”
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by author.
Metagaming, in a board game, is the game above the game. It's the social savvy in Bohnanza or Monopoly, tricky wording and deals in Cosmic Encounter or Diplomacy, or the planning ahead needed in a game of Chess or Risk. Metagaming is a board gaming skill used in most games, from Yahtzee to poker. So why is it so frowned upon in role playing games? The common scenario is that a group of players come across a troll and start burning it or throwing acid and the GM calls shenanigans. I believe this is because the dungeon master feels cheated because their encounter becomes trivialized with the knowledge the players bring to the table. In my opinion, player knowledge and skill helps the players get into the game. Who, in a fantasy world rife with orcs, trolls, and vampires, would venture out to fight monsters with no common knowledge? Tell me, how do you kill a vampire? Do you think someone who lived in a world where vampires really exist would have more or less knowledge than you? Taking all that into perspective metagaming takes many forms that we just don't recognize. Let's take a look at some of the oft overlooked forms of metagaming that we already do at the table and then we can talk about that player who brings a monster manual to the table.
1) It's A Game
First up, the shortest answer: it’s a game. Frank the fighter doesn't know what second wind or weapon proficiencies are. He only knows how to power through and what he can wield. Anytime you invoke mechanics not based in the fiction, react with rules, or state an action to perform, you are metagaming.
2) Player Skill
D&D has its roots in player skill. It is only in the later editions that emphasis on skill checks have made their way to the front of gaming. Deciding when to cast a spell or invoke an ability is player skill. Figuring out puzzles or how to get past an obstacle is the player using their skill to complete a challenge. Skill use is still metagaming by using a mechanic to eliminate a barrier. By leaving the decision in the players hands they can be the guide of their character and keep them in the game longer.
3) We're All Playing Together
Hey, let's have fun. We don't need to come down on a player that uses common sense, even if it's outside of a fictional character. Keeping the game moving and fun sometimes needs a little nudge from outside of the fiction. Sometimes the player, if they realize they've gotten off track, can be creative and move the group back in the right direction. If everyone focused on the fiction, there may be no reason to play after one adventure because that haul set you up for years. Besides, adventuring is stupid and dangerous. But since we all got together to roll some dice with familiar characters, buck up young cleric and head to into that dungeon anyway!
4) PvP Can Be Fun...
...but only when everyone has bought in. Can we have a discussion in real life before we start a fight to assure that we are all on the same page? We can in a role playing game, and if we can see both sides of the disagreement it makes the player versus player all the more fun. What could be more fun than taking the age old “paladin versus thief” conundrum meta? Maybe the paladin’s player sees the thief’s player roll a pickpocket check, but tells the dungeon master that he wants to hear the reaction and go to the person aid when they discover what’s missing. This can build tension at the table instead of resentment, especially if the thief’s player can get meta and explain the (lack of) remorse when the party offers to help retrieve the item. Other players can chime in with ideas that could lead to the thief planting evidence on one of her biggest adversaries and pinning the theft on them! A whole scene, and maybe an adventure, created by using the players to control the characters and the scene. So meta.
5) Keeping Secrets Is Bad
Who's the new guy and why is he so quiet? What's he hiding? If we all know these things at the table, then we can ask leading questions and make our scenes all the better. Why worry if the dungeon master brought in a ringer if the DM can just say, “this guy will betray you, but your characters don't know it.” What an exciting betrayal you all can set up together. I love working with my players to make plots against their characters. Two heads (or even more) are better than one, so why not let them in on the fun?! Of course I still like to play some things close to the vest, if only for the surprise factor.
Cooperative storytelling works a lot better if we all work together to advance the fiction. How better to bring a team together than by taking input from all sources? It’s like a brainstorming session; there are no wrong answers, only ideas! By sourcing our table and asking what is good for our fiction we can go beyond the limits of one mind and can riff off of each others’ suggestions. Playing in and building together a shared world remains the best reason to accept metagaming at your table.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games