Listen, I love D&D. Medieval fantasy is my main jam and no matter what other games I play, there is a spot in my heart that will always be kept for that game and that genre. But for the good of D&D, I want you to stop playing D&D.
Now, let me explain: I’ve been playing D&D since I was 12, using a battered Red Box with no polyhedral dice and less understanding of the rules. I started DMing right away, and have remained in that position for the majority of the time that I have been in this hobby. I played out of the Basic Rules Cyclopedia, I played out of Gygax’s AD&D books, I played out of the 2nd Edition books, and eventually was dragged kicking and screaming into 3.0 and 3.5, where I spent the next decade. I didn’t get to play (but read) the 4E books, and have been off and on playing 5E since the day that it came out. I have played Pathfinder and 13th Age and I like a lot of what they bring to the table, but let’s face it, they are still D&D. I would guess that something like 90% of the hours I have actually spent playing tabletop RPGs have been in D&D.
But I am not playing it right now. And I am doing that, partially, so I can get better at D&D.
A little over a year ago, I challenged my home group to take a one year break from D&D. It was mainly because I had continued to become more and more aware of all of these other games; a buddy of mine ran a FATE Core game for about a year, which we made into an actual play you can find here. I backed the second edition of APOCALYPSE WORLD because I had been hearing about it and devoured it. It read like a profane graduate thesis in rethinking how you run any game!
So at this stage I started to devour and take a chance to play any game I hadn’t played before, from Mouse Guard to Call of Cthulhu to Night’s Black Agents. I learned a tonne of stuff and eventually ended up running a Star Trek Adventures game on Roll20, a Numenera game with my regular group, and playing an amazing Savage Rifts group. This all led me to write this challenge.
You need to stop playing D&D. Play and read all the other games you can. Come back to D&D after a bit. It’ll change your life.
That being said, I know most of you won’t take that advice, so being the good sport that I am, I have a few things that I have learned based on the games that I have been reading and playing.
1) FATE Core - Zones
I have started to use zones when I am running more tactical games that typically can either require or heavily suggest a grid map. Now, I am no opponent to grid maps, but there is no replacing theatre of the mind for ensuring that you are really envisioning the most badass things your character can do. So, in FATE as opposed to things like D&D you don’t use grids or hexes, you have zones. With zones, you break up an encounter into sections of the space in which people are acting.
Let’s use a bar fight for example, you would take out some Post-It notes or index cards and on one, you would write, “Common Room,” on the next, “Behind the Bar,” and on the next, “The Back.” We decide where our players are given those cards and then we can even place markers representing them on those cards. Each zone card represents an area of the bar that PCs can be in, or move into our out of.
Now, players can do pretty much anything, make their attacks, move around, etc., within a single zone. The amount of feet moved doesn’t need to be tracked, but passing outside of a zone means you used your full movement to get there, assuming it is feasible to move between the zones. If the door to the “Back Room” is locked, you may have to be more creative to move from the “Common Room” to the “Back Room.” This helps decide if folks get hit by an area of effect, decides what enemies are where and seeing which PCs, but beyond that it takes all of the grid-tracking usually required.
Of course, if the fight takes them into zones that you haven’t put down at the beginning, simply add them. They head out the back door? Now give a quick description of it and add a card that says “The Alley.” Goes the other way? “The Street.” See?
I find this stuff a little less effective in large scale or longer distance battles, but it is really effective at managing indoors, and small, dirty, battles with lots of terrain types or changes.
2) Numenera - Less DM Dice Rolling
In Numenera, the Game Master doesn’t touch dice. If a player wants to say, make an attack, they roll against the rank of the thing they are attacking, and if that thing wants to attack them back, the player rolls to defend. It is a simple and elegant system, and no one at the table is unsure if the GM is taking it easy or going hard on the group. Everything is all out in the open. Now, I am personally (but your fun isn’t wrong, it’s just me) against fudging rolls from behind a DM Screen. If I know or suspect that my DM is doing that, I automatically have about 25% less fun according to my calculations. The main reason? I want to know that the spectacular thing I accomplish was accomplished by me, not because the DM took pity.
So now, when I DM for D&D, I try to make most if of my rolls out in the open, for everyone to see. It adds tension to the table, people are staring at the dice as it tumbles across the table, wondering if the big bad is going to smash down their character, and I think it is the ultimate in fairness.
3) Apocalypse World - Threat Clock
I haven’t personally used this one yet, but I am aching for an opportunity to try it. In Apocalypse World the basic use of the clock is to provide a visual of rising threats in the fiction of the world that you are playing in. There are several things that can raise the threat level and if it hits say, “midnight” then something happens. Something like this is used in the D&D 5E adventure Out of the Abyss wherein *SPOILERS* a crew of drow hunters are pursuing your party, and if you do certain things, like leave a trail, wait too long in one place, or if the dice gods hate you, they can get closer and just spring on you wherever in the story you are, regardless of whether you are ready for them. I think that is a very effective tactic in making situations in your world somewhat unpredictable and tense.
In D&D I would adapt the Threat Clock to be specific to whatever you are facing. Let’s say for example the threat that is designated in your world is that the cultists are trying to raise a forgotten dark god to destroy the world. Every time that your players do something that hinders that, move the hand on the clock back, and every time they do something that either takes too much time or fails to hinder, or even helps them, the clock moves forward. If it hits midnight, something terrible happens. At lower levels it could be that the cultists find out that the players are after them and start to dispatch assassins. Mid-level, maybe they can summon a couple of demons to hunt the players or even that they suddenly change their plans to befuddle the players’ plans. High Level? Announce that if the clock hits midnight one to three (depending on how often it is happening for your group) times, the dark god will be raised. Each time it does, something bad happens, until the end of all things is upon the world.
4) 13th Age - One Unique Thing
OK, this may be cheating a bit, as I stand by my assertion that 13th Age is still technically D&D. That being said, it’s fantastic designers (Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, the lead designers of D&D 3rd and 4th Editions) have done a few things that are elegantly simple and add a bunch to gameplay. The one that I keep coming back to us your One Unique Thing. The One Unique Thing is something about your character that is completely different from everyone else. It provides no mechanical benefit but should be something that helps to define your character and at its best, provides a springboard for stories involving that aspect of your character.
For example, if your One Unique Thing is that you are “The last in a long line of warriors sworn to protect a dying religion” that sparks a lot of questions that can be answered in gameplay. Why are you the last? Why is the religion dying? What is the religion? And so on. At best, these things are not fully defined previous to gameplay but are discovered organically during gameplay.
5) Night’s Black Agents - GUMSHOE Style Investigations
In Night’s Black Agents you play disavowed spies uncovering a supernatural conspiracy, it is a game about investigations. And you know what is super not fun about most D&D investigations? Binary pass/fail rolls. Let’s face it, rolling a d20 an then adding a bonus or two, especially at low levels, mean that skills are very swingy, giving a relatively high percentage that “expert” characters routinely fail to notice things or find clues, or see something out of the corner of their eye, etc. They either do or they don’t. The GUMSHOE rules system was designed to address that problem, by just making any clue that was imperative to move the plot along, automatic. And the more I thought about it the more that I realized that that is exactly how it should be. How fun is it to have your plot grind to a halt because of one bad roll? Zero! It is zero fun.
In GUMSHOE, the primary clue is automatic, but you can spend skill points to get additional detail or additional clues that help. This can be easily adapted into D&D by allowing the roll, but no matter what that roll is, they get the main clue, the rest is to see extra detail or additional clues that may provide more context or speed up the investigation. And yes, that means that if you are playing that a Nat 1 is a critical fumble of some type on skill rolls, they need to be able to both fumble and get the clue.
OK, so you probably don’t have to stop playing D&D to learn these things.
I am just going to suggest that you read and play as many other games as possible, even just to try them and learn from them, because let me tell you, the designers of D&D do, they always have, and it make them better. And a version of 6th Edition’s best and most innovative mechanic is already out there being used somewhere, and it’s awesome.
Quinn C. Moerike is the CEO and Managing Partner of High Level Games, and is continuously working on a million projects. Right now, he is working with a team here at High Level Games to develop a new setting featuring anthropomorphic heroes for Savage Worlds called Archons of Nikud. He is also the resident grognard here and deeply appreciates his childhood tactical play of moving ten feet and then checking for traps.
Picture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/Numenera-Corebook-Monte-Cook/dp/1939979005
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If you’ve been playing roleplaying games beyond D&D for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Pelgrane Press. From 13th Age to a wide array of GUMSHOE products featuring the Cthulhu Mythos, vampires fighting super spies, and time-traveling hijinks, Pelgrane has been a force to be reckoned with. Managing Director Cat Tobin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about Pelgrane Press’ fantastic 2017, and what’s shaping up to be an even better 2018.
The past year has been great for Pelgrane Press, with the release of the Bestiary 2 and completion of the Battle Scenes series for 13th Age, Cthulhu Confidential, #Feminism, and a very successful Kickstarter campaign for The Yellow King. What big projects are you excited about for this year?
2017 was a record year for us, and I think 2018 is going to be even bigger for Pelgrane. The reason for that are the two projects I’m most excited about. The first is Fall of Delta Green. This is Kenneth Hite’s 1960s setting, which adapts Arc Dream’s intense thriller Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game for the GUMSHOE system. The 1960s brought us the moon landing, war in Vietnam, and counterculture in Haight-Ashbury, and so this decade offers a wealth of roleplaying opportunities to investigate through the twisted lens of the Delta Green mythos. I knew this was a great match of setting and system when I playtested the game, but it wasn’t until I saw the amazing art and design that Jen McCleary brought to the interior layout that I realised it was going to be one of the best books we’ve ever published on all metrics. I can’t wait for this to be released.
The other project I’m excited about is the delivery of Robin D. Laws’ The Yellow King RPG. This is a four-book core set, featuring the main rules – a streamlined version of GUMSHOE that we’re calling the Quick Shock system – in with the earliest setting, the Belle Epoque Paris featured in Robert W. Chambers’ original short stories. As a four-book set in a slipcase, it’s the most significant core book we’ve done, and Robin’s chosen top artists to illustrate it - Aaron Acevedo, Melissa Gay, Rachel Kahn, and Jessica Lee - so the art is stellar. Robin’s nearly finished the writing now, and most of the art is done, so we’re currently on track to have this to Kickstarter backers before December. Dean Engelhardt, who you might remember designed The Hawkins Papers for the Dracula Dossier for us, has now finished Absinthe in Carcosa, an in-world supplement for The Yellow King RPG. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Dean’s an industry leader at producing realistic aged documents, and he doesn’t disappoint in Absinthe.
Outside of Night’s Black Agents: SOLO, will GUMSHOE One-2-One be expanding to any other properties?
Cthulhu Confidential really scratched an itch for a lot of people who were looking for games to introduce partners to roleplaying, and its two-person format makes it really easy to run games online, too, so it has a lot of potential. The solo protagonist is a classic of both genre and non-genre media, and so the problem we have is too much choice of which setting to adapt next!
I really like Agatha Christie’s work, and I’d love to do something like a Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot One-2-One setting. I’m very keen to do a non-genre One-2-One book, so that’s likely up next after Night’s Black Agents: SOLO. Our writers have pitched at least half a dozen other projects for One-2-One, so there’s definitely more settings coming!
First with Seven Wonders in 2016, and more recently with #Feminism in 2017, it seems like Pelgrane is moving more into micro game anthologies. Do you have plans for any this year, and what themes would you like to explore in future anthologies?
That’s a great question. We don’t plan it, but every now and again, one of us come across a game in the experimental/micro-game space that really grabs our interest; for me, Becky Annison’s When the Dark is Gone inspired the Seven Wonders anthology, and when I heard that #Feminism, which I wrote a nano-game for, was looking for a new publishing home, I jumped on it immediately – that’s a project that really resonates with our company goals. Recently, Simon’s played Steve Dempsey’s Da’Zoon, which is a GUMSHOE-lite system which distributes some elements of world creation to the players, and he really likes it, so that might end up on the publishing schedule as part of an anthology or setting collection. Simon and I have both playtested Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s drone, which is a futuristic short game, where three players play controllers of a reanimated drone, played by the fourth player. It’s got a solid core, and we’re likely to end up publishing that in some format, too, although likely not as an anthology.
In terms of actual plans, we’re seriously considering two anthologies featuring our systems; the first, a new anthology of DramaSystem Series Pitches, and the second, an anthology of short GUMSHOE games. These are both longer-term projects, and likely to be next year or the year after, though.
One of the big successes for you last year was The Yellow King. What one big tip can you give to others who may be looking to fund their own projects through Kickstarter?
A thing I always say about Kickstarters is that you have to bring your own audience. Unfunded Kickstarters are often the result of creators who’ve set up a campaign and then sat back, expecting an audience to show up. That’s not how it works! You have to establish a fanbase, and get them really excited about your project, before you Kickstart it. Then once you’re up and running, tell everyone about it. Talk about it on your social media channels. Share previews with reviewers and popular online hangouts for your target market. Which brings me to another point – make it look good. Your video and sample art are the things most likely to get your campaign shared, so make them as professional and slick as you possibly can.
What conventions will Pelgrane Press be making appearances at this year? Can we expect to see any Pelgranistas at HLGCon in October?
We always have a booth at three conventions: Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio; Gen Con in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Dragonmeet in London, UK. Last year, we also had a booth at PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, and we’re likely to be back there again this year. I love going to conventions, and I always try to get to one of the Double Exposure conventions in Morristown, New Jersey. So you never know – I might stop by HLGCon on the way!
Check out Pelgrane Press’ website here, and their DriveThruRPG products here.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: http://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/about-us/
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Lovecraft was an amazing author. His horrifying stories of cosmic indifference have influenced countless authors, game designers, and heavy metal bands. But Lovecraft always had a darker, more disturbing tinge to his stories than unfathomable beings from another dimension, the mere knowledge of which will cause a human to go insane: he was horribly racist, xenophobic, and sexist. This facet of Lovecraft has not discouraged those he hated from enjoying his work, creating new tales within his Mythos, and even working to subvert the tales they love. Enter Harlem Unbound, a source book from Darker Hue Studios for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, set, unsurprisingly, in Harlem in the 1920’s, with a mission to upend the worst part of an amazing author. Lead Designer Chris Spivey was kind enough to spare some time and tell us a little about the book.
1) What new mechanics are you bringing into Call of Cthulhu and the GUMSHOE variant, Trail of Cthulhu, that brings 1920’s Harlem and the African American experience to life?
I created the Racial Tension modifier to provide a mechanical effect to aid in play and establish a baseline both for both player and keeper. This mechanic helps remove some of the out-of-play tension and lets the player know that Keeper is not just being a jerk by providing a benchmark for Keepers.
2) Tell us a little bit about your background with the Lovecraftian Mythos. What got you interested in this particular type of story?
I am actually going to pull a big chunk from a blog post I did about this, as it sums up everything…
I was part of a group that had to stay in a house for an estate sale. The owner had passed away and had these massive piles of books, and I stumbled onto H.P. Lovecraft. We were given free reign of the house but chose to all stay in one area together. Come on, empty house + young kids + reading horror fiction = ghosts!
Reading that Lovecraft collection in the home of a recently dead person, tucked in my sleeping bag, and listening to the sounds of my sleeping friends made it magical. The shadows lurked around the room and every creak caused me to stop reading and stare into the darkness. Chilling!
The ideas that were presented resonated with me as an African American male growing up in the deep South. I understand the concepts of cruelty and the uncaring nature of the universe. Yes! I get it! The best man can do is struggle against the insurmountable evil and win for a day or two, and at the very best, delay the maddening doom and protect humanity.
3) What about the Harlem Renaissance makes it so suited to subverting Lovecraft?
The very heart of the Harlem Renaissance was about embracing change and celebrating the African American spirit. The movement highlighted African American intellectualism and creativity and sought to make the world a better place through racial and gender equality and more freedom of sexuality. It was everything Lovecraft was against, and dovetails perfectly with the concept of cosmic horror.
4) Part of your work revolves around Prohibition. Is there something that ties together the hidden world of speakeasies and the world of the Great Old Ones? (Author's note: this question is a result of misreading during my research for this interview. Chris gave a great answer anyway.)
That is a great hook, but doesn't appear in any of the current scenarios. You never know…
5) The book will contain five scenes for the games (including one with the Harlem Hellfighters!). Do any of the larger than life figures of the Renaissance make an appearance?
Harlem Unbound contains four scenarios and there is an additional digital scenario that will be released to Kickstarter backers in 2018. The backers received a few exclusive items as a thank you for their support.
A few high profile figures from Harlem do make appearances throughout the scenario, such as Jack Johnson and A’Lelia Walker, and the book provides detailed hooks to bring in many more. It was one of my goals to have players and keeper be able to engage with actual Harlem luminaries at this stage in their lives.
6) What advice would you have for game designers who are cautious about creating more inclusive games for fear of “getting it wrong?”
If you are working on something that is not your struggle but care deeply about it, team up with someone for whom that struggle is real. That means hiring them at a good rate, giving them credit and being a team. Their voice needs to be heard. Research is a powerful tool but lived experience is essential and is an important way to stop potential appropriation.
Check out physical copies of Harlem Unbound here. Buy digital at DriveThruRPG.
Phil Pepin is a history-reading, science-loving, head-banging, river-running nerd, who would like nothing more than to cuddle with his pups and wife.
Picture Reference: http://www.darkerhuestudios.com/shop/
Story is the main objective of a tabletop RPG. You sit down with a bunch of friends, play pretend, and make an awesome narrative while doing it. Some are better than others at this, and some only come to the table to mess around with math. The industry has started to adapt to this by incorporating rules into games that help the group collaboratively tell the story. They thrust power and agency into the hands of players, giving the GM more dough to knead before sticking it all in the oven for the final moments of a campaign. Since story is inherently system, and platform, agnostic, you can drag and drop some stuff to create a Frankenstein game! Here are some story mechanics that you could borrow from other games to make yours more cinematic, regardless of what RPG you play.
1) Skill Challenge (D&D 4e)
I wanted to get this one out of the way, just so I can stop hearing the moaning and groaning that comes with the territory. The fourth edition of Dungeons and Dragons had a plethora of problems, but the product itself had a few shining gems. This was honestly one of my favorite parts of that game. The basic outline of this mechanic is to mimic the passage of time; traveling from one place to another, performing a ritual, climbing a cliff while a battle rages below you, etc. In my opinion, it does that exceedingly well and is easy enough to translate to other games. The way it functions is that the GM determines a number of successful skill checks needed to complete the challenge before a certain number of failures. That scale can be tipped either way, depending on how difficult you want it to be. A house rule that my gaming group used when we played this game was that you couldn’t use the same skill twice in a row or the skill the player before you used, even if you failed. It helps force players (and characters) out of their comfort zone and into a creative one. Cleverly done, WotC.
The DMG one and two explain how to do this specifically for 4e, but the Rules Compendium is definitely the better route to look at. They all give you some example DCs, but if you’re putting this in another RPG, obviously those DCs probably aren’t worth much. The concept overall is easy to adapt, as most all games have some manner of a skill check system. Amp up the creativity and tension with this one.
2) Finding Clues (GUMSHOE)
Investigative campaigns can sometimes be the hardest to implement, especially if you depend on character stats to find clues. Look no more for the fix, because the GUMSHOE system has a way to make investigating easy and effective. GUMSHOE isn’t a specific game, but an engine that runs a few games (Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, etc.). The basic philosophy of this rule is that characters automatically find the important clue. Of course, you have to make them work for it through the narrative, but they ultimately find it. This eliminates the problem of characters bumbling around trying to progress through the story but not having the skill checks work in their favor.
In the GUMSHOE system, you would have to make what’s called a “spend” to get more information than the clue itself at face value. For example, you automatically find the candlestick, but you would have to make a spend to make the connection that it’s sitting on top of the book that Colonel Mustard reads every night before bed. Replace this spend concept with a skill check and voila, you can put it in any game. It helps keep things moving, prevents the players (and GM) from becoming frustrated, and keeps the players engaged. What’s there to lose here?
3) One Unique Thing (13th Age)
I talk about this game all the time, I know. I just can’t help it, I love it so much, and this rule is testament to that fact. Every character in Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age RPG has a trait called a One Unique Thing. Basically, it’s something that is unique to your character that nobody else in the narrative is allowed to have. It can’t affect stats, it can’t give you an unreasonable edge. So, no, your one unique thing can’t be that you can fly faster than a speeding bullet. It can, however, be that you’re the child of the story’s big villain who ran away at a young age.
It doesn’t always have to be that drastic, but I find that the more drastic and rooted the OUT is, the more fun it is to play with. This mechanic serves as a springboard and idea cache in my home game. I’m always adding story elements to my campaign based off of my players’ OUTs. Never before have I seen someone so invested in the main story of a game. Obviously, since this legitimately has no mechanical benefit, this one is incredibly easy to bring to other systems.
4) Character Questionnaire (Dread)
You don’t have any stats, just the deftness of your steady hand to remove that block from the tower. Dread is a fantastic game on its own, but the way player characters are created can most definitely be put into other games. The character questionnaire is all you have; the answers to those questions are the foundation of who your character is and what burdens they carry. It’s awesome to see a situation be presented, a player look down at their sheet, look back up at the tower, and make a nervous gulp when you ask them how they react to a situation.
The character questionnaire usually helps identify flaws in a character’s… well… character! The questions can help players think of traumatic experiences their character has been through, their pet peeves, their relationship with the rest of the party, and even some random personal quirks like a drug habit or a stutter. A perfect tool for a session zero, if you ask me.
5) Character Death (7th Sea)
This one caused the pot to boil a bit in the RPG community, mainly because it seems that most people like gritty, mechanical games. John Wick’s train of thought with this one seemed to be, “Let’s make a movie into a game!” Let me tell you, based off of what I’ve read in the book, he did it exceedingly well. In movies, you very rarely see an important character killed by a random environmental hazard, trap, or crummy happenstance. 7th Sea’s take on character death definitely mirrors that.
Player characters can only be killed by a villain or hero. That means if a building comes down on your head, the GM (or players, I suppose) has to think of a way to explain how this wasn’t the end for the heroes. It makes things incredibly cinematic, though some people would probably whine calling this idea “plot armor.” I disagree. It just makes death more rewarding when it comes to claim you!
I’m a little biased towards all of these, as I’m a GM that’s overly focused on story. These ideas help make a game more robust and fun; far more fun than rocks fall, everyone dies, methinks. Explore around games that you haven’t read before, as almost every single one has something fun to take from it. Maybe it’ll even inspire you to create a game of your own!
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
Artwork by Jeshields, whose work can be found and supported at https://www.patreon.com/jestockart .
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games