Looking for a dark fantasy D&D module to slot into your early campaign, or just as a fun one-off? The Curse of Sapphire Lake is part of the Critical Hits series, each module of which is designed for a single evening’s play. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy (full disclosure: the author, Neal Litherland, contributes to this blog) and thoroughly enjoyed my night GMing this spooky tale. Here’s why I think it’s worth your time and money, presented with minimal spoilers.
1) As Dark As You Like
While the tale presented here falls within the genre of dark fantasy, I found it profoundly simple to include levity at several points throughout. One can certainly keep the tone foreboding should one wish, but should the party be in the mood for laughs, there’s plenty of opportunity here. The party is investigating disappearances in a northern viking-esque town, and its leaders are desperate to solve the issue swiftly to keep the population growing. This desperation, and the cast of colorful characters, can lend themselves to keeping things light; perhaps the town leader drops the macho act when he’s alone with the PCs and begs them for help. Maybe the self-styled witch who advises the town leader joins the party and regards the situation with a bit of humor. Whatever the case, the module allows for the GM to turn the levity down and bring the spookiness back whenever they so choose. This way, the flavors of the evening never feel too vanilla.
2) Crafty References
Cinephiles and even casual horror fans will pick up on some sly references in this story. My players picked up on them, and instead of tipping them off to the direction of the narrative, they simply added to the fun with unexpected twists and turns. We had a blast exploring the town and meeting NPCs, even if I took a few liberties with some of them. The tale doesn’t feel tropey at all; even though most horror themes have been done to death, this module stayed fresh throughout. It manages to walk the tightrope that any referential material must, and does so deftly. I cannot say more without spoiling the fun. Suffice it to say your players will have a good time interacting with both adversaries and locals, and the story beats will keep everyone pushing ahead.
3) Room To Improvise
The most important part of any module for me is the capacity for a GM to get off track and not be too lost. My players are like many others: they love to stop the plot train, hop off, and sightsee. Luckily, the module is written to accommodate such scenarios, and I found it simple to throw in my own details and even new NPCs to add to the story without deviating from the main thrust of the narrative. The adversaries are balanced well, and even with my terribly unlucky rolls, I was able to keep the story on track and provide an interesting challenge for the players, with minimal GM fiat. The players enjoyed their stay in the town, had fun with the combat, and I never felt like I needed to run back to the module text and retcon anything to salvage a situation. As a fun aside, let me mention that certain 1st level spells are far more powerful than they appear, and provide a challenge instead for the GM to overcome them!
4) Fun Factor
If it isn’t already apparent, we all had a blast playing this one-shot. As it is built for a small group of 1st level characters, the threat of danger was real and palpable, which allowed me to easily play up the darker aspects of the story. Then came the nervous jokes, and the party was quickly off to the races. What made this transition even easier was the inclusion of a “Reasons Why You’re Here” section. There are four great examples as to why a PC might be going to town, and I assigned them to players based on their characters (with the players’ input, of course). This gave each PC not only a backstory, but a real presence in the narrative. As an example, one of our players wanted to clear the town of misfortune because they had already purchased a home there. This ended up becoming a major plot point, because the character absolutely ran with this idea, and kept accusing the town leader of scamming him. I made his house the “flipper” house, where new arrivals would move in, then flee or simply disappear. Everyone really enjoyed diving into that aspect of the narrative, and it all sprang from the character’s motivation. Settling into roleplaying a one-off has never been easier, and I commend the creators for this inclusion.
Overall, my group, which included one new player to 5e D&D, had a ton of fun with this one. As a side benefit, I'll mention also that it includes awesome artwork and a map of the area. Really high quality stuff, and the layout is great. I especially recommend it to horror film enthusiasts, or to those who like a little darkness in their fantasy tale. Take a look, you won’t be disappointed!
David Horwitz is the Blog Manager ‘round these parts and a freelance writer/editor with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact.
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275191/Critical-Hits-The-Curse-of-Sapphire-Lake-5E?affiliate_id=657321
There are a lot of different ways to play tabletop games, and to be entirely honest, no singular “correct” way, no matter what some people may tell you. But, for those of you who are interested in creating interesting story-based campaigns, oftentimes the largest hurdle is coming up with an actual story and ways to make it meaningful. In truth, it’s a lot more simple than it seems, so don’t let the Matt Mercer effect get to you.
1) Know Your Players
This is a surprisingly simple trick that can net you some pretty rewarding gameplay and roleplay. What keeps a player invested differs from player to player, and as such, it’s key to understand what gets the proverbial motor running behind each one of your players. A nice and easy way to gauge what they want is to ask them to rate the Three Pillars of D&D, which are Roleplaying, Exploration, and Combat. (Please note that these are the official pillars as laid out by WOTC, I would argue there are at least two more, that being Problem Solving and Story Telling, however, you could in theory group storytelling in with roleplaying. But I digress.) If you get your players to rate these things, you’ll have a much easier time leading the group.
One of the parties I DM for meets up very sporadically and only for around two hours when we do. As such, a prolonged storytelling experience isn’t nearly as practical as it is with the other group I’m with, who meets bi-weekly for upwards of four hours. I asked both groups what they were looking for and the one very much so wanted much more combat and exploration, while the other prefers roleplaying. This sort of awareness of your players’ expectations are going to make it much easier to plan for them, and to know what will keep them involved in the game. Don’t forget to also ask them what kind of difficulty they’re looking for. I typically run my games on a homebrew critical system, where any critical can in theory instantly kill a character or monster. For people who are looking for a more relaxed game, this sort of overhanging threat of death at any moment might be a bit too much, same goes for players who are looking for a more character driven experience.
2) Create Meaningful Stakes
People are inherently selfish, to a certain extent anyway. As such, saying “the world is in danger” often isn’t good enough to motivate players to get into the mood. Besides, if it’s that important won’t some other, far more legendary and powerful group be dealing with this? (Don’t get me wrong, writing a campaign of world-shattering importance is totally alright if that’s what your players are looking for. See point 1.) I find that smaller, more personalized stakes usually motivate parties best, and can almost always be a good way to introduce a larger plot. Starting with something as simple as a character’s family heirloom being stolen, or the wizard’s spellbook being mixed with a different wizard’s, or the mysterious death of a childhood friend or mentor can all open the door into building a deeper narrative and leading into what you want to be the main plot, by making the players already attached to some of the characters you implement.
This can feel a bit too general to get a good handle on, but the best way to do this is to know your players. If combat is what they’re looking for, then toppling a tyrannical king via military dominance might be the way to go and the stakes can be their own lives, and the lives of their families. If they’re looking to explore, have them sent out to discover new lands or gather artifacts, with some sort of rival adventurer party trying to steal their prize before them. Alternatively, perhaps one of the players decided to try to learn a new language through an ancient magic game, but if they fail to keep up with the lessons a large green owl will kidnap their family.
3) Enjoy What You Make
This probably sounds cliché, but if you don’t enjoy writing the campaign, your players won’t enjoy playing it. This is honestly true of most writing endeavors, however, I find it rings especially true in a table-top environment. This is, after all, a game. And games are meant to be fun for everyone. Including the GM. If you want to make a pirate based adventure, then make one. You’re better off making it and trying to make it work than making something you don’t have any interest in. The reason behind this is that quality is usually tied rather closely to effort, but one thing that is often overlooked in quality is passion. Because passion is also very closely tied to effort. It’s like a little reduce, reuse, recycle sign, but for writing your tabletop campaign.
As the GM it’s very easy to forget that you are just as much a player as the rest of the people at your table, and if you’re not enjoying the content at the table, the table will undoubtedly suffer because of it. When I first started DMing, I thought of it as a responsibility, and while that is partially true, it’s not all that it is. It’s having fun with traps and putting people in strange situations and seeing how they react. It’s messing around with your friends and describing a goblin named Tinkle for twenty minutes until the barbarian kills him. It’s exploring, it’s roleplaying and its combat -- oh goddamnit.
If there’s one thing to take away from this article it’s that if you feel you’re writing your campaign right, then you probably are. Everyone's table is different from another and in all honesty, the most important part is having fun. As mentioned before, this is a game.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/gms-3-tips-to-help-you-run-one-shots-like-a-pro/
Today we are happy to give you an interview with Robert Buckey about his Savage Worlds setting book, Sagas and Six-Guns! I’ve been tracking this project since Robert suggested it on the SW Facebook group, and I’m really hoping it catches your eye too. Of course, as a historian with an interest on both Norse society and the era of Manifest Destiny, my spurs got ringing when I heard this was coming down the trail.
So, Robert, tell us a little bit about why this setting. What about the Wild West and Norse/Viking society aligns to make this an excellent idea?
Well, it’s funny. The way the idea came to me was a total fluke. I was driving to work one day, and switching between Volbeat’s Western themed album, and Amon Amarth (a Swedish death metal band what themes all their music from Norse legends), and it just hit me that mixing the two would be awesome.
Now that being said, there actually are some overlaps between the two cultures. The Norse were hardy explorers, just like many of the men and women that settled the American frontier. There were similar concepts of honor and masculinity, and similar concepts of law and society that they shared. But ultimately, the idea of mead being imbibed from drinking horns in saloons, old west style signs with runic script, and wanted posters for trolls and Jotun just seemed way too cool to pass up.
I’ve noticed instead of our real world West, you’ve chosen to set this campaign world in an unsettled terrain. Was that to avoid some of the problems of the Western genre, or what else made that make sense?
So making this North America settled by the Vikings would have required an enormous amount of work, especially because it would require in depth writing regarding the Native cultures and what happened with them, as well as what’s going on with the rest of the world!
Obviously, North America, or even only part of North America, being settled by the Vikings five hundred years before Columbus made his voyage would resulted in major changes to the timeline worldwide. Trying to come up with any kind of accurate representation of how the Native Americans would have been affected would have been a monumental task, as it would have required extensive research into what group was where and when.
Ultimately, it just made sense to create this alternate world, and give myself a blank canvas to work with, so I could concentrate on what I really wanted to focus on, telling the old Sagas like Beowulf through an Old West lens.
Tell us a little bit more about the social rules systems you’d laid out here, what’s up with Ring giving and why is that important?
There are two major social rules that this setting introduces, Sagas, and Ring Giving. Your characters will have a personal Saga, which will give you certain benefits as it increases, representing your fate changing as you become a more well-known and celebrated hero, in which we integrate the Conviction rules from Savage Worlds, and also gives you certain effects in social situations, such as Jarls and other important people knowing who you are and calling on you and offering you work. It can even give you a negative modifier if you’re trying to go about unnoticed, as people find it easier to recognize you.
Ring Giving takes its name from Beowulf, when Hrothgar bestows rings and other gifts upon Beowulf and his men. The currency in this setting is rings, and this rule represents you gathering warriors to fight under you, and you throwing them a massive feast in which gifts are given and mead and food is consumed. The better your heroes do with this, the more enthusiastic the men are to follow you.
As you know, HLG is an Ace as well so we love SW, but why did you settle on Savage Worlds Adventure Edition as the backdrop for the rules?
I’ve gotten big into Savage Worlds the past few years. Not only that, residing in the Phoenix Area, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting its creator, Shane Hensley, on more than one occasion at local conventions. I’ve even had the honor of playing in one of his games of Deadlands, and he played in a game of mine of another setting I’ve been working on. He’s a great guy, and the Savage World’s community is just awesome. Not only that, the rules are amazingly versatile. It’s a rules system I just know very well, and it was on the Savage World’s Facebook page that Alan Bahr from Gallant Knight Games and I connected regarding this project, so it’s only natural that this would be what we would go with for this setting.
What’s the one thing you want people to know that you think will drive them to back the project?
Vikings are awesome. Cowboys are awesome. This setting lets you play both at the same time. Want to be that steely eyed gunslinger facing down a line of Draugr? You can do that. Want to be a fire and brimstone Godi exhorting your fellows to seek a valiant death so they can sup with the Gods in Valhalla? You can be that too. Want to be a Valkyrie trapped on Midgard, questing for a means to return home, while dealing with this strange new land and era? That’s right, you can be that too. How many cowboys can say they’ve skinned their smoke wagons against a troll?
I truly believe this game will allow you to tell stories that are faithful to both our favorite Viking and Western tropes.
Check out the campaign on Kickstarter now.
The title of this article is intentionally inflammatory, because there is honestly only one big reason we are going to hit another RPG Industry extinction event. In Designers and Dragons, Shannon Appelcline lays out the major developments in the RPG industry, and the one recurring rockslide is a series of what I’m going to call extinction level events. These are crises that cause the industry to implode and cause us to lose company after company that has built up during boom times in the industry. The last one of these happened at the end of the 90s into the early 2000s, which coincided with the d20 boom and bust, with the bust being caused by two things: a glut of product serving one dominant game system and an increase in the cost of paper. The paper cost increase made printing costs a major factor and since this industry is already built on small margins, small adjustments to production costs have a devastating impact. We’re about to head into another of these moments unless, you, the creators, and you, the consumers, help us do something about it.
How is this about to happen?
While this blog is Canadian, the integration between Canada’s and the United State’s economic systems is strong and this means that actions by one government have major economic effects on the other country. President Donald Trump, and the United States Trade Representative are calling for a 25% tariff on toys, games, and dice, as well as on paper printed products, like books. Hearings begin on June 17th to discuss this issue. I encourage you to tweet to https://twitter.com/USTradeRep to let them know about how this will impact you. I’m going to lay out a few of the reasons this is going to have a major, harmful impact to our industry below. If you live in the US, like I do, I also encourage you to contact your Representatives and Senators expressing your frustration about these tariffs. What am I talking about? Here’s an article on the topic.
Why is this about to happen?
2) Production Costs
You might think I’m engaging in hyperbole. But here’s the thing: RPGs are a very low margin industry. If you go on DriveThruRPG or look through a FLGS you’ll notice that most books cost between $20-50, with small press books usually being on the lower end of that scale. Having been involved with the creation of 70 products over the last three years, I can tell you that making a profit on these books is very hard. With most $20 books you are lucky to have net margin between $6-8, if you’re lucky. That’s not profit, that’s money that you get in hand after publication and marketing efforts. With the costs of writers, art, layout, etc, you’re lucky to make a profit at all, and usually only do so with sales exceeding 100 individual products. If you increase the cost of making physical copies of these books? You’ve wiped out the profit margin for nearly all small to medium publishers.
3) Digital Will Save Us?!
Digital/PDF options will mitigate this issue to some degree. The increase in PDF production happened when the cost of paper increased during the D20 Bust era. That’s something, and it does provide hope. However, it will not totally prevent this from being an issue. Most companies that are mid-sized have just begun pushing back into selling their books to stores, and pushing for regular bookstores to carry their games again. Many have been tentative about this move because it is fiscally risky and it has only just become profitable enough to do this again. Guess what? These tariffs will ruin that margin and will make a lot of companies step back and end distribution to FLGS and bookstores. This limits the industry, it limits the market, and it will hurt gamers.
The way this proposed tariff is currently being floated, it will have the biggest impact on game accessories like dice, miniatures, etc. While 3D printing will help to some degree it will not mitigate this issue completely. Manufacturing in China is so much cheaper, and it is still expensive to make quality board games that require a lot of miniatures. While I’m all for moving industrial production, it will cost more and it will not be a quick process to develop the infrastructure to do this in different places. While we don’t HAVE to have these things, a lot of gamers find them incredibly useful, and this will increase the cost of entry into our hobby, which is already perceived to have a high barrier to entry by new folks that don’t know if they want to invest in all the books and accessories to play these games. Do they need them? No, but it is the perception of cost that will push people away.
These proposed tariffs will reduce the ability of new talented and creative folks to publish products and kill the renaissance of gaming that we are experiencing right now. . While this will not destroy High Level Games right now, it makes it much harder for us to move from very small press to small press as we’ve planned over the next 2-3 years. We won’t be able to produce traditional print runs in the way we hoped. We are hardly the only company that will find this to be a major issue.
Please contact the USTR: https://twitter.com/USTradeRep
There are many issues for us to fight in today’s world, but this one is deeply personal and we need to strike now or watch our industry burn again.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Editor's Note: New Gamemaster Month is technically in January, but it's never a bad time to share insight and advice to new GMs. Happy gaming!
There is a natural order to roleplaying games, in which players and gamemasters coexist sharing wonderful tales between each other, and at some point during this magical connection a player will declare themselves worthy enough to run their own game. Most meet with success, while some others fall sadly short of their own expectations. The memory of this defeat either leads the charge into the next attempt, or becomes the final blow into retreating back behind a character sheet. My initial foray into running a game was disastrous, but I didn’t let that stop me from pushing through and trying again. The next few attempts were better, but not by much, so I figured what better way of explaining how bad things got with a few regrets from my first swing at this GM thing.
1) Reading The Rules
My very first attempt was at D&D 5th Edition, using the starter set. I had a copy of the rulebook and read all the character creation rules and set about getting the group together. Eight people made characters, only six played my version of Mines of Phandelver. No one really knew what was going on or how anything worked; play was broken up by the rulebook being pulled out and a 20 minute section took the whole evening. No one enjoyed it. What I really needed was a small group to help playtest the rules first using the provided pre-generated characters.
2) Not Reading The Whole Adventure
Getting so far through the adventure on my second attempt, I realised I had no idea what was coming next: a huge embarrassment. I had read what I thought would take the whole session but the players had whipped through to a point that I was unprepared for, and I had to fudge a few details to keep the flow. This would have been fine if I had any idea where the story was leading afterwards.
3) Over Preparing
I decided, after my blunder with not having read the whole story of Phandelver, to give writing my own adventure a shot. I spent a month meticulously planning an adventure in my own kingdom, created multiple storylines around various decision points, and populated the setting with a variety of NPCs who I built from the ground up, each for specific reasons. The players blasted through it in two sessions. The best advice I have ever been given with regards to preparation is to have a good story in the background running its course and improvise everything else.
4) Accepting Anyone
Looking back, a few of my non-D&D attempts were sunk by one or more players not really ‘feeling’ the setting or style of gameplay. Had I vetted my players better and communicated what I was expecting more effectively, I would have been running a game for a group who wanted to play the game I was offering. This kind of thing should definitely be established before you ask people to join your game to ensure everyone enjoys what you are trying to create, together.
5) Trying To Change Mid Game
The one huge thing that comes to mind is the intent behind the game. I tried running a light-hearted game with a player who wanted to bend the rules to their will and destroy all who stood before them. So I tried to change the mood of the game to suit them, which in turn alienated the rest of the players.
These were just five of my regrets from my starting years. I have since learned from my mistakes and try to create fun and enjoyable games whether or not I'm running a game. I always try to add to the enjoyment of the players. I still make errors when running games, but usually I can iron them out quickly. My one big recommendation for any newcomers to the realm of game mastering is to ensure you and your players are on the same page: know what you and they want from the game to maximize enjoyment.
Ross Reid is a roleplayer of many characters and has enjoyed many a good story, currently only running a game for his children, he plans a grand return in play by post format. His system of choice is FATE but will dabble in anything that looks interesting.
Picture Reference: https://www.montecookgames.com/new-gamemaster-month-is-coming/
Everyone has their own idea of what a gaming experience should be. However, one of the more popular defenses that comes up whenever a player points out that there’s unnecessary racism or sexism in a setting, or how certain themes or tones aren’t what they’re looking for, is simply to say, “Well, that’s just the way things were back then.”
This is a colossally stupid statement. Let’s break down some reasons why, shall we?
1) Back When, Exactly?
The biggest reason this defense falls flat on its face is that most of our games aren’t taking place in a real history (or even a real future, for the sci-fi players out there). They’re drawing on historical elements and weaving them together into a fantasy narrative. Just because there’s knights and lances along with crossbows and feudalism, though, that doesn’t make Westeros a realistic depiction of medieval England anymore than it makes a leopard the same thing as a leopard seal.
Comparing the reality of your game world (a game which often has dragons, magic, and dozens of sentient races in it) to, say, Germany in the 1300s is nonsensical. You need to take the game world as it exists on its own merits, rather than justifying why things exist by comparing them to a completely different planet and saying they’re somehow comparable. Because they aren’t.
2) The Game World Is What You Want It To Be
Unless you play with absolute purists, most groups are willing to alter the rules of a game in order to make it better fit with what they want. They’ll ignore this feat, or toss out that restriction, or change the damage die this particular weapon deals, until everyone agrees this version of the rules better suits them.
Altering the rules of the world so they’re amenable to everyone at the table is no different.
Some time back, I wrote a blog post titled Authors, Every Awful Thing That Happens in Your Book Really is Your Fault. The point of that post, which definitely applies here, is that a thing exists in your game world because you choose for it to exist, and because everyone at the table, in some capacity, agrees that it should be there. If you all mutually agreed that you didn’t want dragons in your game, or the ability to resurrect the dead, you could mark it out with a single stroke of your house rules pen. You could do the same for prejudices, abhorrent behaviors, or things that make your players uncomfortable, too. There is literally nothing stopping you.
3) History is Likely WAY Different Than You Think It Is
Something I’ve noticed is that the more often someone raises a defense of historical accuracy, the less often that person is deeply learned in the history they’re talking about. As an example, the article Vikings Were Never The Pure-Bred Master Race White Supremacists Like to Portray, talks about how there was a surprising amount of diversity among Viking crews. And why wouldn’t there be? They’re pirates after all! One man dies in a raid, you don’t sail all the way back to Scandinavia to find a replacement; you recruit whatever local talent is around who can do Einar’s old job.
Examples of stuff like this are all over when history is used to defend the negative aspects in a setting; from intolerance to a refusal to allow migration (in case you wanted to play someone who was the child of immigrants, as an example) it’s the same tune over and over again. Yet at the same time, we forget just how gay the Spartans were, or how Japanese mercenaries warred with the Dutch when that enemy was half a world away. For every example of prejudice, othering, and violence we find in the history books, there are equal examples of cultures where certain ideas we consider fringe, radical, or just uncommon were a part of the everyday; like how Native Americans respected trans identities in ways that seem like a utopia compared to what we often see in today’s world.
Take Inspiration From History, But Responsibility For Your Game
History is full of cool stuff, unusual personages, lost empires, and strange legends. It makes for great reading, by and large. However, it’s important to remember that the game you see in front of you is your responsibility, and no one else’s. If something is upsetting your players, or people object to a certain kind of content, you don’t get to shrug your shoulders and duck the blame.
It’s your game, so make it the best it can be.
For more gaming insights from Neal Litherland, check out his blog Improved Initiative, as well as his Gamers archive. Alternatively, to take a look at some of his books, head over to his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://geekandsundry.com/song-of-swords-the-historical-fantasy-tabletop-rpg-with-gritty-tactical-combat/
I love building and exploring weird worlds, and there is no medium better suited to this than tabletop RPGs. There is no limitation based on art, or programming, or computational power; the world can be anything and everything your imagination can bring to the table. Given how important worldbuilding is to me, and many others involved in the hobby, I’m surprised by how few tabletop RPGs have settlement building as a major conceit. As someone whose imagination runs at a mile a minute, I get the appeal of going on adventures, of new places and new things always around the corner. But I think there’s something to be said for depth in world building as well. If your city, or spaceport, or hub location of another kind isn’t deep enough and interesting enough to set a whole campaign in, then what does it amount to, other than a wondrous novelty? So let’s talk about how to do interesting things with settlements in tabletop RPGs.
1) An Argument For Settlement Building Mechanics
If you’re like me and prefer games with as few mechanics getting in the way as possible, you may question whether we even need mechanics for settlement building. Of course you don’t need them, but I do think that having at least a few mechanics is a good idea. For starters, it serves as a signal to your players. Having some mechanics for settlement building in your game tells the players “this is a thing you can do, and can be a priority in this game”. The fact that there aren’t codified mechanics for settlement building in D&D (or at least, they’re often supplemental) is I think part of why we don’t consider this to be a major trope of tabletop RPGs along with adventuring and dungeoneering. Mechanics for settlement building also facilitate the process, compared to a free-form approach. Players can often be aimless and indecisive, but having mechanics for how to build a settlement gives players the direction they need to keep the game moving and keep the players engaged. It also gives GMs a framework to integrate settlement building into a campaign.
2) A Framework For Settlement Building
I like to keep games rules-light, so this is a simple framework for settlement building intended to be translatable to various systems. I’ve recently been reading Numenera Destiny, which was a major inspiration for this post, so my ideas are loosely based on their mechanics, but streamlined. Building resources should be separated into two categories. Mundane resources are things that can be found or bought fairly easily, like wood or metal in most fantasy settings. These resources should be abstracted to some combination of regular currency value such as gold and/or time to get the resources (or pay someone to get them). The second currency should be resources that are precious, difficult to acquire, or in such high demand that they cannot easily be bought. This currency should be specific to building (or maybe crafting more generally) and should not normally be able to be purchased with regular currency. As an example of how this would work, we can imagine a fantasy setting where the party wants to build a magic lightning turret to protect a village plagued by undead fiends. The construction will be mostly wood and metal (some gold value), but the magic lightning will require some magically conductive materials (our secondary resource). Assuming they have the resources, they can either spend time to build the construct, hire laborers, engineers, and artificers to build it, or if the settlement has attracted a sufficient number of specialists already, the city budget may already account for labor costs. If they want to add additional features, like multiple magical lightning rods to target multiple enemies, or a longer rod for longer range, or some enhancer to give it an area of effect, this will increase the secondary resource cost, whereas just making it better fortified may be a simple gold cost increase. It may help to give the structures levels, where the level determines some range of gold cost and secondary resource cost (and possibly also the time cost). There are, however, other things we need to consider when it comes to adding settlement building into a campaign.
3) The Practicalities Of Settlement Building
As stated above, construction takes time, and managing downtime is always tricky in tabletop RPGs. One option is to hire builders, as suggested above. Another option is to roleplay out “vignettes” of various activities that the party gets up to periodically during the course of construction (a construction accident where somebody may be in danger, a necessary schematic has gone missing and is believed stolen, etc.). This “vignettes” idea could work as a general mechanic for dealing with downtime, but given that downtime may be more prominent in a settlement building campaign, it’s especially important to think about how to make it fun in this context. The mechanics for settlement building in Numenera Destiny require a series of rolls to determine how successful the building process is, where the failures may add time to the construction, or add a defect into the structure, but I’m not a fan of this approach. First, multiple rolls for a single outcome is cumbersome. Second, adding time to the project just delays the thing the outcome (and by extension game progression) without adding any value to the game. Third, given the time and cost of building, ending up with a defect seems unsatisfying. I think the building process should be treated more like a “take 20”, where it’s a guaranteed success unless it’s at some critical moment where it would create tension (the enemy army will be here in two days and we haven’t finished the wall!), or where a defect would make the game interesting (the teleporter accidentally sent the party to an alternate universe!), and then it can be reduced to a single roll like any other skill check.
4) Progression In A Settlement Building Campaign
The settlement can be thought of as a character. A level 1 settlement will have a small population (relative to the setting), access to few resources, at most one advanced structure (a structure that would require the secondary resource to build or repair), and would have only mundane shops. There would be few settlers (or travelers) of note, and the quest board or NPC quest-givers would be few and simple. The settlement may have some needs, like a wall or other defenses, a road, a grainery or some other resource-related structure. To advance from level 1 to level 2 will require a few mundane structures that cost a decent amount of gold, and one advanced structure that costs a secondary resource. If you also used a level-system for structures, you could have a cap like a level 1 settlement can only have level 1 structures, and a settlement levels up after some number of structures have been produced or upgraded. The resources (mundane or advanced) may be found in a nearby forest, or would be more available if they could cut a deal with the neighboring village, giving the players a justification to explore and go on quests and adventures. Once the settlement reaches level 2, new and more interesting NPCs move in, or old NPCs gain new skills or have resources that allow them to do more interesting things, like the blacksmith being able to make better weapons and armors, and higher level structures can be built. My OSR Weapon Hack, where a base weapon is given added qualities of different cost values, may be a good basis for filling out these shops as the settlement advances, and I may at some point design a similar generator for settlement building as part of a larger crafting system. In addition to new and improved shops and more or more interesting quest-givers, the settlers may be able to build certain mundane, lower-level structures at a lower cost, or without assistance from the party (besides resources). The players are rewarded for investing in the settlement, both in a quantitative sense, like leveling up their own character, but also because the settlement will grow and change, partially in ways they designed, but sometimes in interesting and unexpected ways.
5) Settlement Building Campaign Seeds
I wrote a settlement building campaign scenario for my current campaign in my Aquarian Dawn setting, but there are all sorts of possibilities:
After crash-landing on the planet, the crew of the starship must find a way to integrate into the nearby village while they work on their repairs. Normally they have strict rules about interfering with less advanced civilizations, but while they’re stuck here, how can they sit by while they watch people suffer due to inadequate knowledge, poor infrastructure, and external threats? Also, without processing facilities, how will they repair their ship?
In the near future, global warming and the subsequent series of wars and economic disasters has devastated the planet. A coalition of peoples from throughout the world have united to send a generation ship into space, to colonize a distant world and give humanity a second chance. The crew will have to maintain order on the ship for generations, maintain its systems, and eventually terraform and colonize the distant world. Very loosely based on my Antikythera Nova setting, which could also be used for a settlement building campaign.
A group of wandering warriors / adventurers find themselves resting in a small, peaceful village, far removed from the wars and plights of the kingdoms. However, no peace is everlasting, and various bandits and warlord “tax collectors” exploit the hard-working villagers, taking more of their crops than the village can sustain. The villagers beg the wanderers to help them, but the wanderers won’t be able to do it alone. They’ll need to train the villagers to defend themselves, and build traps and fortifications to defend against the marauders who vastly outnumber and would otherwise overpower them.
Settlement building as a mechanic and campaign premise deserves as much recognition as a core feature of tabletop RPGs as adventuring and dungeoneering, and I hope this framework inspires more people to try it out. As my current campaign progresses, I will likely flesh out this system in more depth, and I hope people will be interested to see how this develops. As a worldbuilder, this is a fun way to add depth and to bring a collaborative worldbuilding element to your campaign: by allowing the players to determine how the settlement progresses. If you have thoughts on how to add settlement building mechanics to tabletop RPGs, or how to run a settlement building campaign, please leave a comment!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations!
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/240655/Numenera-Destiny?affiliate_id=657321
In any creative medium that lasts long enough, there’s bound to be stretches where it seems like everybody is just copying what everybody else is doing. (In art history, they refer to these periods as movements.)
Tabletop roleplaying games are no exception. An acquaintance of mine once lamented that so many games were using Powered By The Apocalypse, but not really doing anything to really make their game unique, and made the leap in logic that they were just doing so because everybody else was making a game that used PbtA.
I remain largely unimpressed if a game bears a logo signifying that it uses a certain ruleset. However, I have also witnessed a few instances of people reacting strongly to such labels, both favorably and not. I try to remain dispassionate whenever I notice a trending game engine or game style in our hobby. I’ve seen it happen numerous times before. More often than not, it’s just that: a passing trend that in time, will be mostly forgotten.
In light of that sentiment, for your reading pleasure, I present you with “5 Creative Movements In The RPG Fandom” so as to celebrate the unique inventions of our hobby.
1) The Fantasy Heartbreakers
A term coined by Ron Edwards of the web forum The Forge, Fantasy Heartbreakers is a type of game that Edwards identifies being prominent in the 1990s. They were independently published games of the fantasy genre that seemed to be products of people trying to bring their own take on what Dungeons and Dragons could be.
He describes many of them as having great ideas, but being trapped behind the shortcomings of D&D, for one of three reasons. They don’t play to what truly makes them unique, they make some minor adjustments to some of the apparent problems D&D had at the time, or they just flat out keep some of the absurd themes that D&D was stuck with.
The reason these are titled Fantasy Heartbreakers is twofold: they were obviously fantasy games, but more importantly, this was a considerably more difficult time to self-publish. The internet was budding, and some of these games did take advantage of having websites, but DriveThruRPG didn’t quite take off till some years after 2000. This meant the cost of self-publishing was considerably higher, to the effect of thousands of dollars just to print. (The cost of commissioning artwork, if you could even afford it, would compound the issue.)
And so, a fantasy game designer’s dream of being the next Gary Gygax would often end in a broken heart -- so much effort, so much investment, all to be forgotten in a market too small for them.
2) There’s A GURPS Book For That
Generic Universal Roleplaying System is the flagship RPG of Steve Jackson Games, the company that may be better known for the Munchkin franchise. While now typically scoffed at as having way too much math to be enjoyable, there was a time when GURPS addressed issues of contemporary games. Issues such as character creation being too rampant, or playing in a different setting requiring learning a completely new game.
In the 90s, GURPS was all the rage, and much like how Steve Jackson now licenses out Munchkin whenever he needs to pay the rent, he did the same with GURPS during its heyday. While both Steve Jackson’s own web-store and Drive Thru RPG boast staggering collections, this isn’t the complete library.
There were numerous books published that bore the GURPS logo, including the now out of print Vampire: the Masquerade GURPS sourcebook, and even a few Japan-only exclusives such as GURPS Runal. The heyday of GURPS may be over, and large swaths of its library may now be difficult to find, but it’s hard to deny that it’s an important artifact of tabletop gaming history. (Especially since the Secret Service once seized all of Steve Jackson Game’s equipment over one of their GURPS sourcebooks!)
3) D20 System
After the Fantasy Heartbreakers bled out, but before the weight of GURPS’s massive library collapsed on itself, Wizards of the Coast acquired the remains of TSR, and brought us Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition, and with it, the Open Gaming License and the moniker d20 System.
With the freedom to use the rules to D&D to make one’s own supplements and games came a deluge fan made splat books, along with officially licensed games. Some of these were good, or at least well received, such as Mutants and Masterminds, or Blue Rose by Green Ronin publishing.
I’ve read through Blue Rose; frankly, this was much like one of the Fantasy Heartbreakers opined upon by Ron Edwards close to two decades ago. It added a few new mechanics and a different setting, but at the end of the day, it was Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition with a different coat of paint.
Most games either fell into the above category, or showcased some of the flaws of Dungeons and Dragons’ core mechanics. Big Eyes Small Mouth d20 is one such example of the latter. It tried to include the freedom of a point buy game with the structure of a level based one, and failed pretty miserably at both with a kitchen sink setting.
The surge of the d20 system died down some the flop of Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition, and the revival of D&D in the public eye with 5th edition. Though somewhere between the 4th and 5th edition being released, a new movement gave way.
4) Powered By Fate (Or The Apocalypse)
Sometime before Dungeon and Dragons 5th edition being released, FATE and Powered by the Apocalypse picked up in popularity. I remember some of the ways friends of mine initially described FATE when its 4th edition was released in 2013. They described it as being “easier to understand” and “letting you do anything.”
Which brings us to where we stand now. We’re in the middle of a movement marked by narrative games using FATE or Powered by the Apocalypse cropping up, either as fan made games like the numerous Star Wars FATE games, or as independent publishing, such as a Nahual, a Mexican game about urban fantasy, set in (surprise) Mexico.
Social movements have a strange way of not being all encompassing, though. The Fantasy Heartbreakers were happening at roughly the same time GURPSmania was, which dragged on sometime into the era of the d20 System’s reign. Moreover, with Dungeons and Dragons having some of its rules released under the Open Gaming License, we’re seeing a second wind of extra Dungeons and Dragons material during our current age of FATE and PbtA, including High Level Games’s own addition to this canon: Snow Haven.
5) Bonus! Standard Roleplay System
To illustrate that this isn’t exclusively a trend in the English speaking roleplaying game community, I’d like to touch on something similar that’s happened in Japan. The game publisher Far East Amusement Research is one of the big names in publishing RPGs in Japan. They’re known for two things: having published Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as creating the Standard Roleplay System.
The Standard Roleplay System is exactly what its name implies: a standard set of rules that FEAR’s games use, creating a similar wave of games in Japan as we’ve had in the West. One of the most bemoaned examples from Western fans of Japan’s RPGs is a game called Monotone Museum, which was designed to prove a point about SRS: anybody, even those who don’t have much experience in RPGs, can make one.
The rules deviate very little from the SRS document, and shares a lot of common themes with other FEAR Games, including Tenra Bansho Zero and Double Cross. Themes such as stacking multiple archetypes to make your character, having a cosmic force that both empowers and corrupts your character, and having to take steps to avoid being lost to said force.
I’ve initially bemoaned how similar so many different RPGs can all be the same, but as I wrote this article and took the time to organize my thoughts on the matter, a few things did dawn on me. The first is that every so often, something truly new does come around and shake things up. The other is that even within a familiar framework, there can still be room for something interesting to be made.
After all, despite basically being a clone of JRPG video games of the time, Earthbound is still one of the best games of its kind.
While Aaron der Schaedel has been in the RPG fandom for a very long time, he’s spent most of that time in the fringes of it, where he’s found all kind of wonderful, bizarre, and even horrifying things. You can (and should) ask him questions about the things he’s found via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/224851/GURPS-Fantasy
We’ve been in the middle of an RPG renaissance for several years now. More games are coming out than ever before, and we’ve had huge inrushes of players eager to snap them up. And while creative changes in the industry, positive outreach from the community, and the ascension of geek culture have all played their part, something we can’t ignore is the popularity of YouTube campaigns like Critical Role or Acquisitions Inc. These games have allowed audiences who have never seen an RPG in action before to watch how it’s done by the pros, allowing them to get an idea of how all these moving parts should look when you flip the switch.
In broad terms, we can all agree that’s a good thing. Especially for players and dungeon masters who want to get into the hobby (or into a particular game), but who lack more experienced people to reach out to, and could use some examples of how things work.
In specific terms, though, there has been a definite up-tick in complaints that a particular game isn’t run like what they see on the Internet. So if you’re a player or dungeon master worried about how your game doesn’t look like the sort of game Matt Mercer would put together, take a deep breath, and relax. That’s okay. In fact, it’s great.
Here are some reasons why.
Reason #1) This Isn’t Your Job
Most people out there who love RPGs play them for fun. What a lot of folks forget is that, for the YouTube dungeon masters and convention games that people buy tickets to watch, that’s not the case. They are doing this to entertain you, the viewers.
Is it fun for them? Yeah, probably. But their main concern is more about what gets more viewers. Hence the celebrity guest players, the carefully crafted story lines, making sure a lot of stuff is worked out in advance for rules calls, etc.
If you’re running your game for the purpose of drawing ears to a podcast, or getting a lot of hits on YouTube, then by all means mimic what the successful games are doing. But if this is for funsies, remember that you don’t have to put on the whole three-ring show the way the pros do.
Reason #2) Professional Games Aren’t Cheap
You see all the props, the cool minis, the fully laid-out map, etc. that are on these shows? Well, they’re there in order to give the audience something cool to look at. Because the advent of popular 3D printing may have made such things cheaper, it has in no way made running a game that looks that good cheap. So if you’re not working with a big budget, there is zero shame in using re-purposed green soldiers, monster figures from SCS, or just Lego figures, and drawing with dry-erase markers on the map.
This same logic applies to all the complaints you might see regarding production values. From the ambiance of the set, to any music used, or just to how much in-depth RP the players and dungeon master do. Remember that these things have costs in terms of time, energy, preparation, and setup. If you don’t have the budget for bells and whistles, don’t worry. Engage with the game, and the story you’re all telling.
Reason #3) Every DM Is Different
While he catches a lot of flak, Matt Mercer himself has said that every DM should be free to develop their own style, and to find what makes their game work for them and their table. RPGs aren’t like organized sports, where if you want to be the best you should imitate those who are most successful (which, in this case, means the people who are known professionally for running entertaining gaming sessions).
Are there things you can learn from the folks who captain these YouTube campaigns? Of course there are! But there’s a big difference between learning a lesson or taking a bit of flair to work into your own routine, and outright copying what they’ve done. So remember, there are no rules when it comes to this hobby. And if the only objection someone has is, “That’s not how they do it on TV,” then you should politely inform them that they and their character are not a part of that particular show.
Reason #4) Are You Not Entertained?
Have you ever had a discussion with someone who tried to game shame you? This happens more with video games where people will talk down to you if you prefer a game that is older, doesn’t have good graphics, or isn’t the current in thing to play, and it’s just as asinine in those situations as it is with tabletop games.
Don’t compare yourself to others, especially in a story-based, creative endeavor. It doesn’t matter if your sword-and-sorcery campaign doesn’t feel like a Robert E. Howard adventure, and it’s immaterial if your horror game leaves out the earmarks of Lovecraft’s finest work. And it’s no more important that your game looks or feels like a professional podcast, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves playing it.
Reason #5) You Have Different Needs
Not to get repetitive, but these popular games exist to entertain an audience. That is the driving goal behind a lot of the decisions that get made (one in particular that comes to mind is Critical Role switching from Pathfinder to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition in order to speed up play so the audience wouldn’t get bored). However, you and your players may have needs or wants that this kind of format simply cannot provide for.
As an example, if you want that kind of mechanical complexity (or you feel that rules which have been truncated or re-written to speed up the game on-camera should be run differently), then it’s okay for you to play games that scratch that itch. If you want to deal with the kind of subject matter that wouldn’t show up on these shows, or if you want to do deep dives into game setups that might not seem as interesting to a broader audience, you can do that as well.
Games on YouTube are about what makes the audience happy. Your game is about your and your group’s needs, and unless you’re broadcasting, focus on what you need out of the game in order for you to enjoy it.
For more from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, as well as his blog Improved Initiative! And if you’re looking for a new YouTube channel dedicated to gaming, stop by Dungeon Keeper Radio.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/78320481003470118/
This is an introduction to how to build your very own campaign world. In it I hope to introduce you to some world building concepts and ideas that you can use or chose to ignore when designing your own campaign world.
There are a lot of campaign worlds out there, but nothing is as unique, and as well known by you, as your own campaign world. There are lots of ways to build your world, but the best way, in my opinion, is to model off of our own world. After all it is the world we know best and the only world that we know can support intelligent life, at least for now.
1) Start With The Macro Scale
Is your campaign world even a planet and if so, what shape would it be in? A spherical world is common and the result of constant gravitational effects on assembled particles. It is theorized that dust was formed when the Sun, Sol, was born and out of these dust clouds the planets coalesced. Then the asteroids that formed clumped together or fell to the planets and some became moons. Most though were absorbed by the planets and evolved into the round balls we know so well. Well, what if your world is flat (it sure would be easy to map)? What if it were a toroid or square, or some wild shape? The intervention of magic can do a lot, so could a planar gate with connections to other planes either outer or inner. The majority of worlds will be spherical and resemble earth, but that doesn’t render the rest of this discussion different if you chose a different shape for your world. What shape will you choose for your world?
2) What Is The Density Of The World And Its Organization?
Jack Vance, the science fiction author, invented a big world in one novel. It was the size of Jupiter and had a low density. Its size allowed it to hold its atmosphere, but its huge size allowed for vast land areas and huge continents. The only problem was that metal was rare, most of it came from the occasional meteor that crashed into the planet and those deposits of metal were very valuable. Nations would go to war over them. Philip José Farmer invented the Riverworld; it was a unique world designed for unknown reasons to hold the afterlife of all humans who died before sometime in the 21st century. The world was one Mississippi sized river bordered by mountains that wrapped around the entire planet in a loop. Along its shores everyone who had ever been born got to live again. The first and best novel in the series centered on Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and his quest to build a great steam powered riverboat that could circumnavigate the planet in a goal to find out why Riverworld existed and what the motives of its creators were. Along the way he had to work with evil King John (out of Robin Hood) and he read about the journeys of Richard Burton who was able to explore the world and find its headwaters.
Larry Niven wanted to invent a world, so he took a blue ribbon, laid it on its side and stuck a candle in the middle. Then he expanded the world into his famous Ringworld and the candle at its center became a small sun. One DM I knew invested heavily in Judge’s Guild maps and modules and he strung them together side-by-side to create a ringworld for his home world. Which world will you build, how will it be unique, and what will it have in common with standard D&D worlds?
3) Choosing The Right World
Your choice of a world and its shape should be determined by the kind of campaigns you want to run in it. In a massive world you can fit a whole lot of continents and civilizations, monsters, and everything else. But travel across this world would be a difficult deal, especially if you have to go a large distance. Remember that Teleport only has a 500 mile per level range. If you want a world were all the past people have come to life, then you can do Riverworld. If you want a huge world that is science fiction in origin you can create a ringworld. You could also do a torus (donut shaped) or one of Larry Niven’s early ideas: Diskworld. On Diskworld the sun is at the core the world is flat and there are huge mountains at the outer edge to hold in the atmosphere. As you go closer to the sun you had deserts and hotter people like magma men, as you got further from the center you got colder lands and arctic creatures. You had a huge area to adventure in and that was only counting one side of the world. If you wanted, you could make the outer planes on the flip side and the elemental planes as zones on the disk. Most people will want to stick to a standard spherical world. How will your campaign design shape your world? Do you want to bring back all the famous people of history, do you want a huge area to explore, do you want to have your players discover new lands or do you have something even bolder in mind?
4) What Makes Up A Spherical World?
Most are plates of crust that sit on a molten core. These tectonic plates float on the sea of magma and move around. They may have started as Pangaea, but they have moved around before. Australia has been a past neighbor to India, South America used to be a neighbor to Africa and so on. Currently, the Pacific Ocean is shrinking, and the Atlantic Ocean is growing wider as the plates slowly drift. Half of California and the San Andres plate is shifting north and half of it is shifting south. If you have a world it is theorized that a dynamic ecosystem is due to volcanic action releasing heat and gases into the world which interacted with lightning to create the building blocks of life and went on to form life in the seas. Now it is true this is a theory, no one was around to witness the early earth so we can only make theories about it. This theory is one that is almost universally accepted by the scientific community, but it doesn’t have to be true for your world. Did your world have a more biblical creation by the god(s)? Did they get together and forge the planet out of their imagination? Or do your peoples just believe that? It is your world so you can do anything, and you can make any arguments about how it was formed. Is your world actually a liquid world with floating islands on it, or is it a huge gas world with floating continents moving around in the air cylinder (I once had a world like this and the natives used massive ships that would sail between floating continents). If you use tectonic plates then where they split oceans will form, where they clash mountains will form. Where they rub against each other earthquakes will happen, and where they are thin volcanoes will form. This action will be the major land and sea forming method on many worlds.
5) Water Runs Downhill
This simple and obvious statement is how most of the Earth has been formed, but the action of wind, wave, and running water. Water carved the Grand Canyon and its action has weathered down the mountains. The lack of water causes deserts and where there is too much there are rainforests. Water will always try to flow to the sea and often it dives under the earth and comes to the surface as springs and the headwaters of a river. Both the mighty Columbia River and the Thames River start as small creeks and streams that come together to become a big river that runs to the sea. The Nile river is sourced in Victoria Lake and starts coming across some of the greatest falls in the world, Victoria Falls. It was a major expedition to reach the headwaters; you could plan a similar campaign for your group. Most life and civilizations occur where land meets water. Water is an inescapable need of every living creature (but not always of aberrations or outer planner creatures). Water also makes a great way to travel, you go slower by most river travel, but you can travel 24 hours a day, so you can go faster than if you travel on horseback, and both forms of travel are faster than walking. Bodies of water were early highways for civilization and spread limestone to Egypt, Portuguese merchants to as far away as China and Japan, allowed the colonization of Easter Island, Hawaii, and Australia, and the great English Empire was built on their mighty warships and trading fleet. How will the forces of magic and nature shape your world?
6) Similarities Among Worlds
Most fantasy worlds will develop along similar lines. Most fantasy worlds work in a time period from Hellenistic Greek to Ancient Rome, to the Dark Ages, to the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, to even the early Industrial Age. When will your time period for your world be set? Hellenistic Greeks and Ancient Rome had bronze plate mail, as steel wasn’t invented until centuries later. Centuries after that gunpowder was invented. When I ran an Ancient Roman World, glass was very rare, so potion vials were clay. On Pacific islands metal was not that common so clubs lined with shark teeth made great weapons. Different time periods and different locations had different technology. It took the Chinese to develop gunpowder. When they did, they used it in everything from life prolonging potions to fireworks. It took the more militant Europeans to develop guns. How would this affect the technology of your world and what equipment is available to the party?
7) The Flow Of History
Why were the Europeans more militant and driven more to explore than the Chinese? A big part of it was their world view. The Chinese called themselves the Middle Kingdom. Once they had united their nation they were happy and didn’t see much of a reason to go out into the world exploring. The Warring States Period was when China tried to unite itself, often under different nations and by different rulers. Sun Tzu lived and wrote during this period and his book on tactics is still studied to this day. The Chinese fought to form one nation as did the Japanese. Over in Europe there were various tribes of barbarians and primitive people. Many of those people were, at one time, ruled from Rome. Rome was comprised of the literal descendants of the Ancient Greeks. In Europe the competing tribes of barbarians took over various lands and used their own language as a basis for those lands. That is why there are so many languages in Europe and their constant rivalry was a bitter issue. The European barbarians first held Rome to ransom and then sacked it. Most Roman statues had their heads cut off and disfigured by the Vandals. That is the root of the world Vandalism. When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals turned their savagery on other tribes and eventually founding Germany and the other nations of Europe. Europe was almost constantly locked in a war of some sort as the various rulers tried to take over or hold onto their lands. This constant competition became a source of great scientific development as well as great human horror like the Black Plague and the Crusades. These two forces had global consequences from trying to oust the Islamic from the Holy Lands to the rise of the middle class. The Islamic Revolution has its roots in the Crusades and the Black Plague finally made the labor of one skilled man valuable and those craftsmen were higher paid and became the merchants, skilled labors, and builders of strong economies. The biggest event in the Forgotten Realms was when the Gods walked the planet and some lost or gained their divinity during this time. The imprisoning of Rovaug, the crash of the spaceship Divinity and the death of the God of Humanity, Aroden were all major events in the development of Golarion. What forces were at work to shape the history of your world?
8) Populating Your World
Now it is time to get down to the smaller scale; where are your various races sourced? Where do they live, where do they come from and where do they want to go? Are humans the most common race, as D&D assumes? Do dwarves come from an underground civilization, are the orcs their rivals and hated foes. Are there Drow in your world? With the light of the Elves should come the evil of the Drow as a counterbalance. What about the dwarves, do they duergar (evil slaver dwarves) exist? Is there an evil counterpart to the gnomes or just the good deep gnomes? Do you have halflings in your world or an evil counterpart to them? Races are the core foundation for civilization and the formation of countries, but humans are rarely allied just by race so often they work against each other, this keeps the humans from taking over from the other races or from exterminating them. Humans are more interested in killing off each other than other races. In Tolkien's world Halflings were jovial people who ate second breakfast and were isolationists. It is not that they didn’t like the biguns of the world, it is just that they thought they lived their lives too strangely, too fast, and with too much magic. Bilbo broke the mold when he became a thief and an adventurer. What are the races of your world and what are the forces; political, racial tensions, or the fight between good and evil that are at work in your world? Don’t feel you have to include a race just because it is in the handbooks and don’t feel that you can’t create an entirely new race just because you want to. What are the politics of your world?
9) What Adventures Are Available?
Now that you have gotten down to this scale you can start to think about what you want your player characters to do. Will they form a hearty band of adventurers on a noble quest like the destruction of an evil relic or are they on the search to restore a kingdom? Or will your group be aimless adventurers gathered for no particular purpose, coming from no particular area, and only going on missions you send them on to kill monsters and get paid for it, by robbing their corpses? This creates a group of murder hobos; people who shiftlessly move around and get rich through petty crime sometimes verging on the felony. Now there is nothing wrong with doing this, if this is what your players want to do, but most DMs have a nobler quest in mind, if not in the vein of Tolkien, then something similar to it. If you create a fantasy world with a new land to be discovered, then you can have your players be either conquistadors or be members of the primitive tribes trying to fight the incoming Europeans. Will you have an Europe analog or a Oriental analog? Most of the character classes are drawn on European models, but monks with a flurry of blows, ninjas and samurai are from an Eastern world and if you don’t have that world represented in your setting, then you will disappoint those players who want to play those type of characters. Of course, the Bard and the Skald came from Scottish and Irish tales and heroes, yet we apply them to entire continents. There were monks in Europe, but they were far more scholarly than adventuring. The monks of the Shaolin Temples were both; keeping vast temples full of records from clay tablets to written books. They also adventured across China as righters of wrongs; dispensers of wisdom and justice. What type of campaigns you want to run will have a major influence in how your form that world, so how do you form your world? What goals will you have in mind for the party and for future parties?
10) Detailing The Histories
A well developed world has history to it; that lends it gravitas, dignity and power. I know a DM who has had the same world for over 20 years, and he brings in changes made by players into each campaign. If you play with him in several games then you learn certain features of his world, what exists and where, and even some things you and get away with in certain areas. I have played in wide ranging games in his world from the pocket dimension to safeguard civilization to an exploration of the catacombs under a megalopolis, to the crushing of a slave uprising. He has a rich developed world with a lot of NPCs both weak and powerful and institutions that have a long history. There are parts of his world that are ignorant of other parts and even pockets that are near impossible to escape from. They use pocket dimensions to house the town’s population and feed and clothe them. Undead can become recognized citizens. There are a lot of unique factors in his world because of his development and because of what he has added to the world over the years that he has been playing.
Golarion has a well developed history because a full team of writers have worked on it. There is an analog to Egypt, China even America. There is an evil empire, a lost world ruled by a demon ape, a crashed spaceship, a Norse analog, a barely restrained demonic invasion, and a crusade against it. There are a lot of factors going on in their world. In contrast Greyhawk had only a little development, because most of it was in mind of Gary Gygax and he didn’t want people to copy what he had done, but to do their own creative work. The Forgotten Worlds was mostly in the mind of Ed Greenwood and so there wasn’t a lot written about it without his approval or permission. He had a limited world because he had a small staff working on it; himself. He was using the world he had developed from his own game, and he just spread it to the larger world. Eberron and the Spelljammer universe were well developed, but aside from the Dragonlance chronicles little went on in the Dragonlance world. I have read about all these campaign worlds and more.
When you build your world, you should take examples and inspirations from other worlds and use it in your own. You can take what you like, ignore what you don’t like, change things around, and be unique all on your own. Happy gaming and happy world building.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters forum. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him a line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and has been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: www.shutterstock.com
Break out the acetone, cause I'm stripping that Ravnica sheen off of Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica. The latest setting book from Wizards of the Coast has a lot to offer someone who enjoys the setting of the world's most popular collectable card game, but is it any good for someone who doesn't? In a book all about a specific, high magic setting, can we take away the Ravnica and come away with something usable? Here is a quick list of things we can all use by just filing off those serial numbers.
1) New Races
Need I say more? Oh, ok, I guess I will. Centaur, Loxodon, Minotaur, Simic Hybrid, and Vedalken make their appearance here. Two of those, Centaur and Minotaur have existing places in any mythical fantasy setting. Loxodon, or elephant people, have the same half-man half-animal thing going on, so not too much of a stretch. Simic hybrid and Vedalken are a bit more on the science end of fantasy, but we can work with that. Those running a spelljammer campaign have an easy fit for Vedalken, but they could exist right along side of elves, albeit with a shorter lifespan, which could give them the time and the separation for an alien point of view. Simic hybrids are a bit easier, replacing their expertly grafted appendages with the grotesque, Frankenstein-like stitching of the mongrel folk from earlier editions and Curse of Strahd.
2) Guild, Contacts, And Advancement
Here's my take on the guilds:
Azorius is a lawful neutral police force, Boros is a lawful good army, Dimir is a lawful neutral spy organization, Gruul are chaotic neutral tribes of wanderers who hate civilization, Golgari is a chaotic neutral sewer dwelling guild of the creepy and dead, Izzet is a chaotic good guild of crazy inventors, Orzhov is a lawful evil church syndicate, Rakdos is a chaotic evil circus of demon worshippers, Selesnya is a neutral druidic nature group, and Simic is a society of scientists building the perfect future. Each guild is mechanically a background, giving you access to guild features such as guild spells (for spellcasters), contacts, and tiered rewards as you progress in the guild. Guild spells are extra spells added to a caster’s list they can choose from. These spells are themed to each guild and balanced very well. Player characters start with three contacts. The contacts are kind of generic, but at least can be tweaked a bit. Judge, procognitive mage, and “promoted into secrecy” are a few examples. Once you get to know the guilds it's easy to substitute your local military for a Boros Sunhome Guard or a thieves guild member for a grateful Dimir spy. Each guild uses ranks which grant rewards. This is a great melding of factions and the renown system in the Dungeon Master's Guide with the bonus of something to strive for. Each rank gives you more access to guild hierarchy and usually other faction members you can call into action for you.
3) Adventure Building Tools
I really hope Wizards continues this in future supplements; they put so much goodness into this chapter. This chapter makes the book worth buying. First, every guild has an adventure map to use. These are good sized maps with a lot of rooms: great for tactical play. The maps are done by Dyson Logos and are minimalist and very easy to copy onto a battle map. The lack of specifics in each map (chairs, tables, rugs, etc.) make these maps easy to use in any setting or location. I've already pulled a few out in my home game. There are five tables for each guild, d10 adventure goals, d8 villains, d6 assignments and hooks, and d12 adventure ideas for each map. There are also one hundred adventure goals, eighty villains, 120 assignments and hooks, and 120 adventure ideas. While I haven't sat down and used these tables, they are a great addition to my already extensive collection. If I need a certain trope, say a spy or a military villain, I can just pick a similar guild, Dimir or Boros, and roll up a quick villain and scenario. Through the previous chapters you have gotten to know the guilds, and understanding how the guilds relate to fantasy tropes really makes these tables useful at any table, especially in the middle of a session.
4) New Monsters And Magic Items
Some stand out magic items, based off of magic cards, are included in the book. A few are heavily thematic, but can be changed to suit your campaign world. There's a dwarven thrower that explodes and requires an action to call back; a pair of bracers that let you cast a copy of a cantrip cast with a bonus action. There’s another set of bracers as well which allow you to cast a spell you don't have memorized or know with a chance for a random spell if you fail. As far as monsters go, there's a rage beast template for boosting beasts, an evil angel and krasis. A krasis is basically an upgraded version of mongrel folk; customizable with three sizes (medium, large, and huge) and two d8 tables of major and minor adaptations.
Some of the creatures come with new traits we can steal for our regular ones. Aura of Blood Lust makes creatures within thirty feet attack randomly. Feed on Fire causes a creature that takes fire damage to grow bigger until it finally explodes and starts over.
Taking Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica apart and incorporating it into your home game is a relatively simple and painless process. Even in the area descriptions of the Tenth Ward I found some really cool ideas to use in my game. Digging in a bit for yourself, you can find more little gems building off of the existing rules, new favorite monsters, or even a new favorite class. So go out and grab yourself a copy, and if you already have it, let me know what you are using at your table!
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Patreon.
Picture Reference: http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/rpg-products/guildmasters-guide-ravnica
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
I’ve known Jason Andrew since 2016, when I met him during White Wolf’s Grand Masquerade in New Orleans. Jason is part of the development team for By Night Studios, as well as having a large history as a game writer. He was a guest at HLG Con, and I’ve talked about his book Mystical Rome on this blog before as an example of a setting that would work really well for an RPG. Well, now Jason and his team at Mighty Narhwal are bringing us a game system that takes a crack at a universal system for tabletop and larp under the Morra Cinematic Roleplay banner. Oh, and that crew is running Mystical Rome as a larp in the Pacific Northwest this year, which is going to be amazing.
During HLG Con, I got the chance, briefly, to play some Morra with my friend Victor. The game was run by both Jason and Andrea of Mighty Narwhal and I was really digging both the setting and the system. Their team just released an Alpha Slice of rules for people to dig into. It's a playtest document, and I really want to suggest you look them over. Below are my highlights.
1) Defining A Genre
This was the first thing that caught my eye with this system. There is an entire backend development system where you can create your own genre of play, based on movie tropes and styles of cinema. Want horror? You can do it with Morra. Want Superheroes? You can do it with Morra. Whatever you think would make a fun genre, you can do that with Morra and it will work. Because the system mimics cinema, rather than being perfectly simulationist, it allows for a lot of flexibility of genre that is sometimes hard for universal systems to really crack. If you want the feel of the genre to really be there, you can build it into the way you run the game.
You do this through a series of choices, Define the Target Audience, Rating and Content Descriptors, Media Length, Pitch, and Budget. So, if I create a Teen, PG-13 Superhero Show, that usually runs 30 minutes (3-6 game sessions), with the idea that these are Teen Heroes struck by the power of the gods, with a low budget, I now have enough to craft the basic confines of the world we’ll be playing in. It’s straightforward and allows for both safety calibration from the start and a way to get a sense for what play will look like.
2) Character Creation Is Quick And Light, But Also Deep
One of my biggest struggles with games I like is how long it takes to create characters. I love games that have systems that are deeply intertwined from character creation onward into play and development, but there are times games can get too big and clumsy in that integration. Morra isn’t one of those. The systems for character creation can be done in 20-30 minutes, tops, with lots of distractions. How do I know? I think I got pulled away from CC at least 4 times during HLG Con and still really was able to get my character done.
Archetypes, Motivation, Quirks, Background, Side, Attributes, and Skills are at the core of the system. Archetypes are developed as part of the genre, motivations are cross-genre, as are quirks, backgrounds and side are influenced by both, and attributes and skills are universal, but can be customized to the setting if required.
I’m a d10 or d20 chucker in most games, so it was interesting to see Morra using a two-d6 system, which it utilizes really effectively. It’s a dice pool system though: Attribute + Skill + Wild Card + 2d6 = Action Pool set against a difficulty that changes based on various factors. All in all, it feels intuitive to me, and easy to follow during play enough that I was looking at my sheet and suggesting rolls I could make by the middle of my first session. That’s often a hard thing for me when I’m playing new games where I have to try and figure out what I can do in play before I can look toward how to make my character do what I think they should be able to make happen.
There is more to the system, but this basic set-up is a solid underpinning and you can find out more in the Alpha slice yourself.
4) Mystical Rome
First, go and check out Jason’s Mystical Rome novel. It’s really well written and very interesting. It looks at Roman culture without a lot of baggage that most writers bring to the setting and while it is slightly creepy at times, it presents an alternative Rome in a light that is simultaneously engaging and in-keeping with history. Then go and check out the section on Mystical Rome in the Morra Alpha, and then sign up for the larp. I am in no fit state financially to attend this event, but I really wish I were because it looks amazing. The setting sells itself, but attached to a universal system like Morra it means I can run Mystical Rome and then turn around and switch genre’s without having my players have to memorize an entirely new ruleset every time we decide to go in a different gaming direction. It’s a win-win.
Morra is one of the cooler universal gaming systems out there to date and I think it’s going to create some serious excitement. It’s tapping into the gaming zeitgeist in a way we need. Check it out, and let us know what you think in the comments.
Josh is the intrepid Chief Operations Officer of High Level Games and he organized the first HLG Con. With 20 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. He runs, www.keepontheheathlands.com to support his gaming projects. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook. He’s a serious advocate for inclusive gaming spaces, a father, and a graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C. You can also find Josh’s other published adventures here and here.
Picture Reference: https://www.redbubble.com/people/mightynarwhal/works/21654245-mighty-narwhal-productions?p=t-shirt
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
Back in August of 2016, Monte Cook Games launched a kickstarter for their game Invisible Sun. At the time, there was a lot of secrecy surrounding the game, with very little details of what all the obtuse terminology the game was using meant. It had numerous components, each with a name that wasn’t explicitly indicative of what purpose it served, and further, the game wasn’t made available online. It was described as a “Luxury RPG Experience.”
As of February 2019, however, Monte Cook Games has announced that they were going to release Invisible Sun digitally in pdf form, along with a digital preview of the game. When it initially came out, I mostly ignored it. Though with the release of the preview, I decided to dig into it a little bit, because I believe that an informed marketplace is a healthy one.
If the title of this article is any indication, I was not impressed with what I was able to surmise. So for your reading pleasure and to help you make a more informed decision as to whether you should get this, I bring you Five Things Wrong With Invisible Sun!
1) It’s Expensive And Excessive
When it was initially funded via Kickstarter, the lowest tier that gave you a copy of the game was set at approximately 200USD, and since then, the price for a pre-order of the next batch of these to be shipped out is about 300USD. This is a steep price tag for any game, especially when you consider that the trio of books for Dungeons and Dragons is about 150USD (oftentimes much less), with the options to eschew certain books if you don’t want or need them. Even the digital copy of Invisible Sun goes for about 100USD.
While Invisible Sun does come with numerous books, there’s also other props it comes with that, frankly, probably aren’t necessary. Props such as The Testament of Suns, which is a plastic hand meant to hold a card for everybody around the table to see.
Invisible Sun’s weight, according to its listing on Amazon, is 30lbs (about 13.5kg). There’s a lot in this box which, even if one isn’t opposed to paying a high price point, still means you’ll not only need to find room for this 30 inch cube (about 75cm), but you’ll need to lug it around and move it about when you’re going to play.
And the game has several books, several decks of different cards, and several other things that contribute to our next concern...
2) It’s Poorly Designed, Organized, And Explained
The rules and all the pertinent information needed to play the game are spread across four different books, as well as numerous different decks of cards. Some of these decks contain information that isn’t reproduced in any of the books, according to their web page. This means if one of these cards is lost, that’s a part of the game that’s likely to be lost as well.
Four books sounds like an incredible thing for a game to have, and I will give props to Invisible Sun because they do seem to divide the content of the books up pretty reasonably: basics information in one book, setting information in another, etc etc. That’s an idea I can get behind, since one of my favorite games, Tenra Bansho Zero, has a similar setup for its English edition.
However, if the table of contents is to be believed, the index for Invisible Sun is located in the back half of the book “The Gate.” While I’m fond of the multi-book approach, putting the index in just one book like its an encyclopedia does open up some problems. What if that book is unavailable, and you need to find a specific piece of information within it?
Furthermore, on the subject of indexes, Invisible Sun does a little bit of indexing throughout itself. This is a welcome answer to the issue of the index being in only one of the books, but, they picked a jarring place to put these mini-indexes: right in the center of the page.
3) It’s Not As Original As It Claims
Invisible Sun makes some very bold claims; among these being that it’ll change how RPGs are played, it’s a new way to play RPGs, and also that it includes “magic that is truly magical.” These are all claims that, at best, are exaggerated, with one of the big selling points being that includes rules for how to play without having everybody present, or even when the GM isn’t present.
On its own, that isn’t a problem. How to handle player absence would ordinarily be something I’d welcome in a rulebook. It’s one of the praises I sing of Meikyuu Kingdom. In fact, if a player character is absent for a session, there are codified rules on how that character can still contribute to the game.
However, these are issues the greater RPG community has, for the longest time, already solved. We’ve figured out how to run games without a GM, we’ve already come up with and codified the idea of flashbacks as a gameplay device, and we’ve also come up with having one-on-one scenes between GM and Player.
It takes hubris (or being wildly out of touch) to codify these things we’ve been doing for so long, and use it as a selling point for your boutique priced game.
4) It’s Pretentious
“Invisible Sun is deep. It’s smart. Just like you. Invisible Sun will change the way you play rpgs.”
That is the the final line in the original sales pitch for Invisible Sun, the crowning gem after a passage of nonsense and promises of solving problems that were already solved. This page has since fallen off the Invisible Sun website, replaced instead with a somewhat more informative one that describes the setting and premise a little better.
Arguments could be made in contrast to the first three points: Invisible Sun is smart because it codifies these solutions the community has solved. It should command a higher price for this benefit, since there are games that don’t do this. Other games have obtuse settings and a blurred line between where rules and setting information are.
However, it’s this collection of traits, convoluted layout, obtusely described setting, high price point, and being described as a smart game for smart people, that marks the sort of snob appeal that makes it pretentious.
Given that this hobby is social in nature, though, it behooves me not to villainize anybody who likes this games. So more power to you if you were one of the folks who got your hands on the limited quantities of Black Cubes out there. Just keep this in mind: high barriers to entry, monetary or otherwise, means there’s not likely to be as many players for your game.
I’ll end this article on a slightly more amusing note.
5) Bonus! Poor Security For Their Web App
This factor isn’t really a strike against the game, so much as something that makes me think perhaps the team at Monte Cook Games is out of touch with the modern world. (After all, never blame on malice what could just as easily be incompetence.)
Invisible Sun also had a companion app developed for it, though it isn’t available on the Google Play or Apple App stores. It’s instead what could best be described as a web-app, a website that has the functionality of a smartphone app. In my quest to dredge up more information on Invisible Sun, I came across the app, and wondered if registering might yield any secrets.
There’s one field that asks for a specific word, from a specific page, of a specific book that Insibile Sun comes with. This is what we call a Dictionary Encryption, and it’s an old form of securing information that was also used as a form of copy protection in about the 1990s.
However, the app doesn’t seem to include a captcha verification. Meaning somebody handy with scripting languages could potentially brute force their way through registration, trying every possible word to fulfill the Dictionary Encryption. (An activity that, we at High Level Games do NOT condone.)
Aaron der Schaedel is aware of the folly of punching up at a name like Monte Cook in this hobby. Having been chased out of other circles for more absurd reasons, though, he remains unperturbed. You can chastise him for questioning a long time member of the industry via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://www.montecookgames.com/store/product/invisible-sun-preorder/
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
When I saw the early teasers for this setting I almost exploded with excitement. When the Kickstarter launched I was a backer really early on, and I am thrilled to have gotten a chance to learn more about Swordsfall from Brandon Dixon, the creator. I hope you are as excited as we are to learn more about the game and how it's going to rock your world.
1) Tikor is an animist world, and Swordsfall is an Afro-futurist setting. Honestly, that was all I needed to read to be excited for this project. But, for those folks that haven't been able to dive deeply into the material on your website, what are the key elements of the setting you think people should know?
Well, the biggest key element for anyone to know is that Swordsfall is first, and foremost, Afrocentric. That means that all the underlying lore, and structure is from Africa. Specifically Pre-colonial Africa. So at first, there are a number of things that might feel like business as usual, but you'll quickly notice its not. This comes into play with things like the position of King. In pre-colonial Africa, King just meant ruler. And there were quite a few nations that were matriarchies. So you had lines of Kings that were all women. And they enjoyed all the same power as their male counterparts. It's a small change, but you quickly realize how much that ACTUALLY changes.
Swordsfall has a number of things like that. When you start taking out the European based parts of fantasy, you quickly become surprised at how different it can actually be.
2) T'umo Mere is doing the amazing art that goes along with the book, and I think the art goes along so strongly with the setting it nearly speaks for itself. That said, what were some of the principles that went into deciding what elements to focus on in the art for the setting?
Well, T'umo is an artist I picked specifically for his style. I had browsed Pinterest and Google Images for about 7 to 8 months while I was world building. There was a lot of great art out there, but not a lot of black art. And I knew that for Swordsfall I needed an artist who didn't just occasionally draw minority characters but did it OFTEN. And in various characters and types. I've always been a fan of that "old school" sketchy style. I came across T'umo's work when I came across a Black Panther fanart piece that just blew my mind. The style was PERFECT and after cruising through his Artstation, I saw that he drew a ton of black characters. Then I found out he was actually from Botswana. I knew I had found the perfect artist for my project.
When I contacted him and started telling him about the project, he was almost immediately on board. Then he started on the first piece, the Minos picture that's broadly displayed on the Kickstarter banner. And now, we're here.
3) The one thing that I'm not seeing on the Kickstarter, or the World Anvil is information on what system the RPG will use. Is this going to be all new game mechanics or are you using a system that is already out there?
Haha, ah yes, the rules. The question everyone has asked since I launched the Kickstarter. Well, the main reason I haven't talked about it is because I don't like to talk about things till they're done. Or done enough for me to REALLY talk about. It's why I didn't really launch Swordsfall till I was almost a year and 150,000 words deep.
But I'll tell you a bit about it. The system itself is a mix. It was originally a hack of the Genesys system and it's grown into more. I wanted a narrative system, but one with a bit more crunch. Something solid enough to feel rooted, but free enough to be fun and fluid. A lot of people bring up the custom dice when I say Genesys, but one of the first things I did was break the dice down. I show how to play with regular dice, and it's super easy actually. In some ways easier than the dice symbols...
I call it Cinematic Play. As rather than be about battle by numbers (Crunchy) or imagination (Narrative), I'm taking bits of both where it makes sense. Part of that combo comes from the Profession system which is my answer to Classes. "Welcome to Tikor" is actually a giant clue to the tenants of the game mechanics, as they're all born from lore rather than gamification.
4) Can you tell us more about the various nations in Tikor? I'm particularly taken with the various locations, particularly Vinyata and Grimnest, but I'd love to know more about the people that live in these places.
So there are two Great Nations; Garuda and Vinyata. That's where the bulk of the meta-plot happens, and they make up almost 70% of the landmass on Tikor. So needless to say, you'll deal with them a lot. Garuda has a moderate climate, so lots of trees and forests in between open plains. Garuda is run by the Divine Order of the Phoenix, an organization partially founded by the deities of Garuda. As a nation, it's fairly decentralized, with the populace spread across the land and some in remote locations. It's very much a place that differs depending on where you go.
Vinyata is basically one giant desert. The Southern Hemisphere of Tikor is almost all desert and ruined land. This was caused by a mix of the ancient battles between Dragons and Deities in the area, and the punishing heat from the second sun, Adume. The main people that live there are the Dracon. They are the descendants of Ryuu-jin, a dragon who rebuked his kin and fought for the side of Tikor. His betrayal is what helped tip the battle toward the side of good. However, the world was never able to look over the fact that he was a dragon. And this ingrained hatred was passed down to his children, the Dracon.
Overall, the world of Tikor is huge and it's one of the reasons why doing the setting book was so important. There's Grimnest, a land with no ruler or government but plenty of pirates. Then you have Hawklore which was founded and run by god turned king, Hawken. In the waters that surround the landmass, you have the island of Teslan where Crystal Priests study the secrets of the world's biggest source of energy, Azurean.
And you can't forget about the rest: Ramnos, Ebon Cascade, The Canopy, The Isle, Martalan and so much more.
5) With so much amazing lore on this game already, how long has it been in development? I find myself getting lost and learning new things every few clicks when I'm on the site.
Well proper, Swordsfall has been in development for just shy of a year. However, I started the original story when I was just 17. So the seeds were sown over 18 years ago, ya know? It all started when a group of friends and I decided we were going to make a video game. My job was the story and world, someone did programming and another person was doing music. Well, in the end, I was the only one that followed through. I wrote about 40 pages of world building and basically fell in love with the story. Back then it was called Ethereal though. Over time I'd tinker with it, write a small chapter here or there, and a character and such. I'd then take little pieces of the world and use it in other Tabletop campaigns. I used the character's names in video games and such as well. Haha, my World of Warcraft account after the novels come out is going to be hilarious. My toon roster is basically the names of all the main characters from the meta-plot and books.
One day I decided to do a "new" storyline for a campaign. But that time around, something was just different in me. I wanted to do more than a simple campaign. I wanted to do something deep, something fulfilling. I knew that this was the right time to finally make my old story happen. So I sort of did a giant world smashing event. I grabbed all the side stories, campaigns and random things born from Ethereal, and the campaign idea I had called Swordsfall and put it all back together. Once I did that, it was clear I had something special. My brain had just worked through this whole world in different sections over time. And when I put it all together finally, it just clicked. I spent the last year fleshing out all the parts of the story I had ignored. Connected pieces and doing in-depth research on pre-colonial Africa to give it a real backbone.
6) What is the central conflict that you expect players experiencing Tikor to focus on? There are so many interesting hooks that it is hard for me to pick just one, but what would a good starter idea be if I was a GM looking to drag some excited players into this world?
In a way, you can pick themes by picking places on the map. So like with any tabletop game, the first question will be "What's the tone going to be?". If you want to see the futuristic, Afropunk side of Tikor then you head to Northern Grimnest to visit the city of Prime. If you want to crazy tech and awesome tattoos, that's the spot to start. Looking for a more classic fantasy romp? Then head to Garuda, where the area is vast enough for huge sections to be unexplored or poorly mapped. When danger and death is a must, an expedition to the Ebon Cascade is the ticket. Waterfalls of acid and light emitting vampires are all there to be found.
Part of the fun with doing a whole world is that I didn't have to create any singular experience. I was able to let the history of the land truly transform it. One thing that's missing from some TTRPG's these days is the understanding that a world is actually quite big. Traveling a landmass is no small feat. The first thing a post apocalyptic world drives home is how FAR something like ten miles can be. While Swordsfall is not post-apocalyptic, it is a world unconquered by man. Travel isn't as simple as buying a plane ticket, nor is it as basic as foot travel. It's as a world as advanced as the world ITSELF seems to allow. It gives each land its own feel and vibe without being alien.
7) Is there anything else you'd like to leave us with? I'm already breathless.
I'm excited for everyone to finally be able to sit down and read what's been in my head for half my life. This isn't just a single setting to eventually be paired with a single rulebook. This is a world I truly love, and one my artists are quickly falling for. I want to do this for a long time, as long as I can in fact. I'm 50,000 words into the first novel with the outline for 7 more. I have a number of short story ideas, with one half finished. The comic book Stretch Goal won't be the last one we do either.
So if you enjoy what you see of Swordsfall, then pack a couple of suitcases. You'll be on Tikor for awhile.
Check out Swordsfall on Kickstarter
Josh Heath is the COO of High Level Games. He likes to do interviews when he isn't running Kickstarters and creating projects upon projects for the writers to work on.
There is an ongoing debate that most of us will be familiar with. It comes up at the office, it is especially prevalent at the local café, and it leads to fights at Comic Con. When it comes to coffee… how dark is dark enough? Some would argue coffee should stay in its natural state: black. Others - whom I shall refer to as heretics - choose to put milk in coffee, making it essentially tea. As you may have guessed, I like mine black.
All of this to say, I like my fantasy like I like my coffee: so dark it makes me contemplate the inescapable and all-encompassing vastness of the void, putting into sharp contrast my own meagre existence, a tiny speck of dust, insignificant in the greater scheme of things, and like most life in the Universe, essentially meaningless.
Welcome to Warhammer, kids.
Here are 4 reasons why Warhammer Fantasy is a… fantastic setting.
1) This Isn’t Your (Grand)daddy’s Fantasy
Are you tired of classic good vs evil tropes? Do you feel like your medieval fantasy setting isn’t quite apocalyptic enough? Ever find yourself thinking “these elves would be a lot more interesting if they looked more like a Norwegian death metal band?” Well, have I got the setting for you.
Warhammer Fantasy - or the Old World, for the setting specifically - manages to at once be familiar and derivative, while also original and different to everything else in this genre. You can’t call yourself a geek if you don’t know what an elf is. Orcs, dwarfs, trolls... these are all familiar to you as concepts. The great thing about Warhammer is that it takes these established tropes and builds them into a solid, interconnected web of factions that have complicated relationships with one another - and many an excuse to go to war against each other.
And all the while, the gods of capital ‘C’ Chaos want to literally watch the world burn.
In the simple sense, it’s Tolkien - but everyone’s an asshole.
If one were a little unkind, one might describe the setting of Middle Earth as a little naive, or at the very least, too black and white. In terms of morality, the Old World is definitely a greyscale, one that someone’s gone and spilled a bunch of Nuln Oil over (hobbyists know what I’m talking about); it’s all distinctively dark.
There are no “good” people. And, with the exception of Chaos and verminous Skaven, there is no real “evil”. Just when you think someone’s gone and done something unbelievably, irredeemably evil, someone’s already done something worse. There is conflict, and in conflict, there is victory and defeat. And depending on which side the pendulum swings towards, that faction is right on that particular day.
If anyone enters the forest of Athel Loren, realm of the Wood Elves, they are killed, skinned alive, and their corpses left to feed carrion. Are the Wood Elves evil? They are defending their realm, and when you remember those same humans will set fire to these forests and destroy the homes of ancient spirits, you have to think… maybe they had it coming.
Vlad von Carstein is a vampire, a ruthless overlord who will enslave a populace, turn their dead into a horde of zombies for him to wage war - but he does it to defend his territory and to claim that which was denied so long ago - his rightful (at least to him it is) title of Elector of the Empire. Cruel, but then, he’s more or less a regular feudal lord… with a little help from necromancy.
And Nagash - a priest who was obsessed with conquering death, in a culture who was obsessed with conquering death, and he murdered, lied, backstabbed, and dark magicked his way to obtaining immortality… thus conquering death. So he immediately begins to dish it out, like it’s promises on election day. Basically, Ramses but with actual necromancy. And, naturally, he wants to kill everyone, and raise their souls as his slaves.
Ok, Nagash is a bit of dick.
2) Everything Is Turned Up To 11
So the Old World has everything, but with a spin. That might be original enough to launch a product of minis and call it a day. But what truly sets Warhammer apart is how everything is absurdly exaggerated, whilst remaining - if not entirely believable - coherent in its own universe.
Dwarfs are known to hold a grudge. Warhammer dwarfs have turned it into literal bookkeeping. Their king rides into battle on a war palanquin carried on the shoulders of his warriors, with a giant tome containing every wrong, sleight, and heinous crime committed against his people. He is aptly named Thorgrim Grudgebearer.
The elves are noble and haughty. And in the Old World, they are a xenophobic, decadent and dying species, whose noble courts are ruled by infighting and backstabbing, hidden Chaos worship, and their noble prince turns into a bloodthirsty madman.
Furthermore, the elves are split into three factions: the depraved and xenophobic high elves - corrupt and dying. The Dark Elves, murderous slavers whose king and his sorceress mother would fit right on the cover of a heavy metal album. And the Wood Elves who will tear out your heart and sacrifice it to their forest gods if you step on a fern.
The lizardfolk are not just bipedal saurians you might encounter in caves. They have a sprawling empire, and are the most ancient of species. They guard life on this planet, and they have a grand plan - one that probably involves genocide of all other species.
Chaos are the lovechild of Abrahamic legend and Lovecraftian horror. I mean, there’s no “love” in that, but… you know. And yet, you could argue they’re not evil in the same way entropy isn’t evil. They are a dark mirror of this world’s own follies, come back into our “reality” to exact the toll of everyone’s own evil.
And, my favourites, the Tomb Kings - what if Egypt had actual necromancy. What if the pharaohs could actually become immortal, albeit undead? How would that society look? How would a culture whose sovereigns are immortal (and possibly insane) actually function?
The great thing about it all, which also sounds strange when you say it, is that it all makes sense. All factions and species are interconnected, and have got beef with each other. Dark Elves are a splinter faction of the High Elves whose king is the rightful heir to the kingdom of all elves. A dark elf sorceress gave Nagash the secret to necromancy, who created a kingdom of undead, one of whom became the first vampire, whose vampire lover moved North, where he became a count in the Empire, who are sometimes allied with the dwarfs, who fight the Wood Elves, who are another faction from the same kingdom of elves, and so on.
This is complex faction map with so much history and nuance that it should honestly be studied in political science classes.
3) The World Is Always On A Razor’s Edge.
While the post-apocalyptic genre has become established and has blossomed of late, there is a slightly less numerous style of world-ending fiction: the pre-apocalypse. It’s more difficult to do right, because if I may paraphrase an “established truth” of literature and filmography: if the world’s been ending for too long, it gets boring.
Likewise, there’s an inherent problem with grimdark (and I’m proud to have made it this far without using the word): if it’s all too bleak with no hope, then what’s the point?
Warhammer exists in a fine balance of shining heroism that stands out against the dark background all the more for how striking the contrast is. And with the world being as insane as it is, you might find yourself rooting for someone like Malekith (not the Disney one), the exiled prince of the elves whose civil war to claim his rightful throne left his kingdom in tatters, the elves forever divided and hateful of each other. I won’t say #MalekithDidNothingWrong, but the man’s got a point - he was betrayed. So when he finally got his throne back, I thought it was well deserved, if bittersweet. Plus, he’s a stone cold badass.
And that’s the other thing, with the world being so insane and in such constant and extreme danger, heroics are all the more impressive. Take the Empire, one of the human factions, or “what if the Holy Roman Empire had wizards”. Day to day life in Reikland, one of its richest provinces… is not easy, folks.
If it’s not ratfolk burrowing under the city to explode (literally) into the streets, it’s undead invading the burgh, or maybe it’s beastmen. If it’s not them, it’s Chaos. Daemons showing up everywhere, crazed followers of the corrupt gods invading from the North. Yir auld ma’s turned into a plague daemon. Everything is insane.
Yet the Empire endures.
4) You’ve Got A Bit Of Everything.
Besides amazing, inspiring, scary and insane, the word I’d use to describe the setting is: complete.
You can do anything.
This is why it is perfect for a tabletop RP campaign. There is dark mystery: exploring abandoned dwarf forges, going through ancient ruins, venturing into Sylvania and trying not to become a zombie-slave. And there’s grim horror in the land of the Tomb Kings or the Vampire Counts, and let’s not forget about the Lovecraftian monstrosities conjured by Chaos.
There is thrilling action and high fantasy adventure. Dragons’ lairs to explore, villages and cities to save (they constantly need saving, after all), ancient secrets that can save or doom the world - or moderately delay its inevitable demise, at least.
Combine this with the rich history built into this world, and the complex political map mentioned above and you’ve got a thriving, living (if diseased and dying) world to explore in a setting that is both familiar and like nothing else out there. Except maybe Age of Sigmar, but I’m still bitter about that.
Against this backdrop of constant danger and madness, there are those stories that inspire. A detachment of Reikland gunners holding the line while civilians flee a beastmen horde - that’s awesome. The dwarfs locking shields in a last stand against endless Skaven - that’s heartbreaking. Thorgrim getting vengeance for those deaths - inspiring. Durthu, a kind and ancient tree spirit is burned to a husk by the dwarfs, and turns into a gigantic, perpetually charred rage-monster - that’s tragic. Malekith the Witch King kneeling before an orc warboss in order to get the challenge-loving greenskins to attack his enemies - and, oh, by the way, all this to save the world - that’s amazing.
Grimdark doesn’t have to be constantly depressing and relentlessly hopeless. In an insane world, look to the mad ones to lead the way. Because against a tide of unrelenting Chaos, against constant attacks by monsters, mutants, daemons, and hordes of crazed bloodthirsty lunatics, who else could stand against the tide - but the utterly mad, and the truly heroic?
Anderson is a swarm of bees in a skin suit who have attained sentience and decided to infiltrate society as a writer. Their hobbies include: kendo, painting miniatures, scheduling Warhammer and D&D. When they’re not writing, they’re studying anthropology (to better understand humans).
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
Hey Loyal Readers! Welcome back to High Level Games and we'd like to welcome back Craig Campbell of Nerdburger Games to the site. About a year ago, Craig ran a successful Kickstarter for his game, CAPERS, which is a Supers game set in the Roaring 20s, filled with gangsters and lots of other fun tropes of the era. And now, a year later, Craig is running another successful campaign for the expansion to that game, CAPERS Noir.
Our intrepid Chief Operations Officer who lives in the shadows decided to reach out to Craig to talk more about what makes CAPERS, and CAPERS Noir special.
1) Craig, you've been busy since we had you on for an interview last. You created CAPERS, you developed Die Laughing, which you ran at HLG Con, where you were a game studio guest. How do you feel with all these great creations coming out from Nerdburger Games?
The past year has been huge for NerdBurger Games. We published two games, CAPERS and Die Laughing (and CAPERS has a bunch of support material that was part of the Kickstarter and is now also available online). I went to twelve conventions in twelve months, ran a ton of games, and met a lot of cool gamers. I started a Patreon, dipped my toes into Twitch streaming, and have announced the very first glimpses of a new game that’s under development.
CAPERS has turned out to have a very solid following and is seeing a lot of sales and interest, post publication. And to top it all off, CAPERS won a Judge’s Spotlight Award for the 2018 BAMFsies, which was totally unexpected and incredibly flattering.
It’s been a great year!
2) It seems like the core conceit about Noir, is that the timeline for CAPERS has moved into the 1940s. What should we expect to see with this setting shift?
The focus of the 1940s variant setting is that of crime noir. The intent is for the stories to swing more into the moody, atmospheric, mystery dramas of film noir and noir literature. To that end, there are investigation rules in CAPERS Noir and guidelines for GMs to create mysteries and adjudicate the investigations. The setting also has a bit of a horror bite, with dead things seeping into the world. So CAPERS Noir has monsters like ghosts and revenants, as well as a corruption mechanic called the “shade track.” Characters who perform terrible acts at the wrong time can fall to corruption of the soul.
Additionally, there’s a bunch of new powers and character options, as well as some new TM tools, all of which can be used for CAPERS Noir but also work just fine in the 1920s core setting without any modifications.
3) CAPERS was set in the Northeast (particularly Atlantic City), and Noir in Los Angeles. Tells us more about why you chose these locations?
CAPERS delved deep into Atlantic City, New York, and Chicago because those were pretty significant hubs of Prohibition activity with real-life personalities that people will recognize (Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, etc.). I hit on a bunch of other east coast, Midwest, and southern cities to flesh things out mostly because it’s easy for characters in the 1920s to road trip to nearby cities and because gangsters from nearby cities often ally themselves with each other.
For CAPERS Noir, I jumped to the other side of the country, specifically Los Angeles, for several reasons. First, it hadn’t been addressed in the core game. Second, because LA is the backdrop for so many great noir films, I figured people would feel at ease with it. Finally, Los Angeles has a different aesthetic than grittier cities like New York and Chicago and I thought that would help define the Noir setting as something different.
4) The core mechanic of CAPERS is a card based system. Should we expect any changes in Noir that would change the mechanic or adjust it at all?
There aren’t any significant changes to the core mechanic. The only variation is in the investigation rules. Nothing kills an investigation in an RPG faster than a rules system that says, “You fail the check; you get nothing.” So now you have no clue.
The CAPERS Noir system keeps the investigation moving forward. Trait checks focus more on complications that arise from failure and additional benefits you get if you succeed on a check. Get a boon on a check and you get to ask a question about the clue. Fail the check…you still get a clue, but a complication could make the rest of the investigation more difficult.
5) Tell us about the reward tiers for Noir, what should we as potential backers be looking for?
For those who already own CAPERS, $10 gets you CAPERS Noir in PDF, along with a discount link to buy a softcover at cost later. There’s also a $13 tier that gets you just CAPERS (PDF and discount link), a $23 tier that gets both books (PDF and discount links), and a $35 tier that gets you everything we’ve published for CAPERS so far, including discount links for other things like cards, maps, and paper minis.
There are also a few premium tiers that get you all the stuff you want, plus you get to help make an NPC, help make a monster, or get your likeness in a comic that’ll be in the middle of the book.
6) With the success of Noir, do you see a potential expansion of the world of CAPERS or perhaps for Noir?
I don’t think I’ll expand CAPERS Noir in any significant way -- maybe a small, free PDF of a few things at some point. As for the rest of the CAPERS world, I’d love to continue to explore. I have ideas for other time periods for supplements, going a little sci-fi/outer space in a supplement, or even producing a full-sized book for a larger CAPERS game set in a significantly different time/theme. I’m going to be asking backers to fill out a survey to help let me know what they’d like to see.
The specifics are a little up in the air right at this moment, but it’s looking like there will be quite a bit more CAPERS to come.
We are super excited to see where this goes! Find CAPERS here, and CAPERS Noir here.
I was fascinated to read Paul Bimler's article on Solo D&D.
I also enjoy solo gaming. As people say, there are as many ways to play D&D as there are DMs. With solo play there are as many ways to solo play as there are players.
My style of solo roleplay is somewhat different to Paul's. There are two significant differences. The first is Paul's flipmat and markers. I am much more in the ‘Theatre of the Mind’ school and do not use any physical play aids, but more about that later. The other big difference is the rule system. I prefer to utilise a much lighter rule system for my solo play. The primary reason is all about continuity. Once you start a solo adventure, if you find yourself breaking off from your narratives to check rules, roll dice and check tables, I find it makes it harder keep the story flowing.
Rules light games often have just one or two mechanics that are employed in every situation. Alongside simple mechanics you often get extremely simple characters. This means that you could in theory keep your character on a Post-it note and run your game from memory.
If you strip out the flipmat, miniatures, or tokens that leaves only the solo rules and the journal.
Paul has his The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. The Toolbox is one example of a “Solo Engine”. All the tables that make up the decision making rules in solo play are generally referred to as a Solo Engine, GM Emulator, or a GME as they drive your stories. When you would normally ask a question of your GM you instead ask the Solo Engine and roll for an answer. Once you have an answer you have to apply gut instinct, common sense and imagination to make that answer fit the game you are playing, the situation your character is in and the sort of adventure you want to have.
I have here five combinations of solo engines and games give you an alternative to Mythic GME and D&D.
1) Solo Engine for 7th Sea Role Playing Game
These rules were made specifically for the 7th Sea game. Where D&D can turn into a battle of hit point attrition, 7th Sea is a much more narrative style of game. You don't have to beat your way through hordes of kobolds rolling ‘to hit’ and the dealing damage to each one. 7th Sea deals with whole groups of these ‘minions’ as single entities which reduces your record keeping and speeds up play.
The solo rules have a more sophisticated set of question tools that go beyond the no, maybe, and yes that Paul talked about in his article. The basic principle is the same but you lose the maybe answer and in its place you get and… and but… modifiers.
The and… modifier means that your answer was what you expected and even more. To take Paul's example of ‘can you find an inn’, a Yes and… would be the first thing that you think of that would be even better than just finding an inn. My first reaction was ‘Yes you find an inn and the landlord is a retired adventurer friend of yours.’
The but… modifier adds a complicating factor or makes things not as good, yes but…, or as bad, no but…, to the standard answer. ‘Do you find an inn?’ Yes but… there is a mob gathering outside complete with torches pitchforks.
With the and, but, yes, and no there are six possible answers from the same simple ‘roll for an answer’ mechanic.
In addition to the yes/no roll, these rules give you a complex question tool. If you are watching a villain across a tavern and you try to overhear their conversion a yes/no answer is not going to help you. The complex question tool gives you a two word pairing that is to be used as the distilled essence of the conversation, in this case. The complex question tool is used for conversations, the subjects of books, or anything that conveys meaning.
Finally, these rules use dice to prompt NPC reactions and, should a fight start, their tactics.
That sounds a lot of work but the whole thing is about ten pages with full examples.
7th Sea is one of the most popular narrative games of recent years and you can run an entire campaign with this simple booklet and some note paper for your journal.
2) 3Deep Episodic Role Playing
This game uses a simple 2d6 mechanic for just about everything from stats to skills to driving cars and flying X-wing fighters. It was also written with a solo engine built into the game from the start.
3Deep's solo engine uses something called story arcs. You start with at least one story arc or thread that is part of your character’s background. As you ask questions the answers can make achieving your goals harder or easier and manipulate NPCs.
3Deep has a more structured journal and asks you to keep track of scenes, NPCs and unfinished plotlines as these often reappear in your character’s adventures making everything interconnected.
The game is genre neutral, and therefore equally at home with swashbuckling, special forces or stormtroopers.
3) Devil's Staircase Wild West Roleplaying
This game is so new it is not even released yet. You can download the playtest documents, a quickstart PDF, and a set of solo rules all for free from DriveThruRPG. Devil's Staircase is the underlying game system and is driven by a poker style playing card mechanic rather than dice. The accompanying solo engine has the yes/no/and/but and complex question tools as well as NPC reactions but this time they are driven by dealing cards rather than rolling d100s, d20s or d6s.
Of all the games here this is about the lightest in terms of rules and you really can have a character on a sticky note with space to spare.
Although the Wild West is not everyone's favourite genre, it is easily accessible for solo play as it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to picture the setting and NPCs. There are other Devil games in the pipeline.
By solo playing this game you can help with its play testing and help bring the game to market.
4) Grim & Perilous Solo Rules
These rules share a lot of their DNA with the 7th Sea rules above. They were derived from a set of rules called the One Page Solo Engine by Karl Hendricks. This version has been written to work seamlessly with Zweihänder.
You would not normally think of Zweihänder as rules light but there is an eight page rules summary to use as a reference in place of the main book if you are familiar with your character and setting. The game also uses a common mechanic for all skill tests and challenges so running the game without the book in front of you is relatively easy.
The Grim & Perilous Solo Rules are a stripped down version in comparison to the 7th Sea rules as the NPCs reactions have been cut back. Zweihänder has detailed rules for social interaction so the solo rules do not really need a ‘roll d100’ to see how the NPC reacts. What you do get on the other hand is an actual play written up where you can see how a complex plot evolves from just a few interactions with the solo rules.
5) Demonic Solo Rules
Shadow of the Demon Lord is not really a rules light game but the actual play is really easy to grasp. I have included it in this round up because it is, I believe, one of the only solo engines where the state of the character is taken into account by the oracle. Most oracles or solo engines remain unchanged by the status of the character. They change the distribution of results based upon the probability of the question being true or false, yes or no. This solo engine interacts with the character in a subtly different way. The core method is the same but Shadow of the Demon Lord has a mechanic called Fortune that can modify all the rolls made by a character until it is ‘spent’. In this solo engine when a character has Fortune it is used to nudge the result in the characters favour. It is a subtle difference but over the duration of a campaign a 5% difference in your favour has real consequences.
The big gain when using a solo engine that is build specifically to work with the game you are playing is that you don’t have to learn a new game mechanic. The solo rules should sit naturally alongside the existing game rules.
On the other hand, the big gain in using a rule light game is that you don’t have to interrupt your game to check the rules or consult endless tables. Rules light games often put more on the GM to interpret but where you are both GM and player and the entire world is being created by you on demand GM interpretation is intrinsic to solo play.
All of the games here are available as PDFs. Light rules, digital rulebooks and simple solo rules mean you can solo play anytime and anywhere from your commute to work to while waiting for a plane. The most expensive of the solo rules featured here is $7.99, the rest are one or two dollars, and Devil’s Staircase is completely free. If you have not tried solo play it is not a big investment to give it a go. If you have bought one of these games but not been able to play it then I would say give it a go and get those unplayed games off the shelf and give them a go.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
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