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.
Header image is in the public domain
Is your 5E game too heroic? Is it not grim and frostbitten enough? Do you want grimy firearms to cover your PCs in soot? Well we have good news: HLG COO Josh Heath recently dropped a Kickstarter for our new setting Snowheaven, created by Justin Weaver. Josh was kind enough to answer a few questions about Snowhaven and what you can expect from it.
Snowhaven is billed as a grittier, darker, and much more frostbitten version of Dungeons and Dragons. What mechanical changes has Justin brought in to reflect the intrigue and cold of the setting?
We’ve actually written a pretty extensive set of conditions to simulate cold illnesses, like frostbite, hypothermia, and more. All in all, those conditions don’t yet exist in 5E’s core rulesets, so it will help GMs running the setting. Mechanically, there are also new archetypes for a few of the classes, and we’ll expand these in 2nd Edition, which will lean into the intrigue and corruption elements of the setting. Much of the grit though is pure setting and doesn’t really have to have new mechanics.
The description of the setting says that it originally “created during the original D20 Era.” Does this mean that Justin has been working on this setting since the days of 3rd Edition, and if so what changes has it gone through?
Easy answer, yes. The setting has been run in 3.0, 3.5, Pathfinder, and 5th Edition. There are a lot of elements that have come and gone, ideas that have been pushed on, and some that have sustained themselves. It’s hard to catalogue all of the adjustments over the years, honestly.
At the time of writing, only one playable race has been previewed; the totally rad Yetu, a race of skiing, herding yeti. Are there other races planned based on other mythological/cryptozoological creatures?
Actually, the Yetu are a steamweaving species who are one of the more technologically advanced species in the region. Yes, they are skiers, but they also know how to steamtech it up. Yetu gunslinger should be a cool concept for people to dig into if they would like.
So far, we’ve also written a species of Fox people, the Lapsa, that have descended out of the Feywild due to some sort of war that is happening in the snowy extraplanar realms close to Snowhaven. We are also testing out the idea of a snow siren species, and several other cold weather sea creatures.
Do you have plans to expand Snowhaven beyond 5th Edition, Pathfinder, and Savage Worlds?
Yes, potentially. I know this might be disappointing but we are probably going to hold off on a 13th Age conversion and some form of OSR edition until after the Kickstarter. We know that there are dedicated communities for both types of systems, and we would really like to expand into them, but we’d have to go really high on the Kickstarter for it to be a good financial decision to do so at this time. So, if we can get over the $10,000 mark, will we do it? It’s not impossible, but it isn’t particularly likely.
On that note. Once we hit our last stretch goal we are likely official done with stretch. But, the positive thing I want to tell folks about is that we will make more Snowhaven. If we have more people that back the project we will spend more time developing, expanding, and creating more products in the Snowhaven setting. If you love it, we’ll make it, and we love it, so it will not be hard for us to invest the time, money, energy, and excitement into the setting. So, come by, back the project and know that we will take the money you give us and do great things with it.
What can you tell us about the new rules for firearms?
We’ve gone back into some elements of rules for previous editions of the OGL to borrow some things that can help firearms stand out without breaking the ruleset. One of those things is the possibility of increasing the threat range of weapons. We’ve tried not to go overboard with this, but some firearms do have a critical hit range of 19-20, which fits what makes sense of their deadliness, but also is a little deviation from 5th Edition’s core ruleset. Allowing some flexibility between editions to pull in some of the best elements is something I really think makes sense for third party creators and I’m happy we are doing that with Snowhaven. The rules for Pathfinder and Savage Worlds will need some other elements, but the good thing with those rulesets is that they already exist because of the way the systems were designed.
Check out Snowhaven on Kickstarter here. The campaign ends on March 31st, so be sure to grab it while you can!
Phil Pepin is a grimdark-loving, beater extraordinaire. You can send him new heavy metal tunes, kayak carnage videos and grimdark RPGs on Twitter: @philippepin.
Imagine a world where instead of plain ole George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Marquis De Lafayette, you had superheroic battles across revolutionary war America. Well, now gamers, you have a chance to do just that in Legion of Liberty: Superheroes of 1776. To learn more about this Savage Worlds setting book, we reached out directly to Happy Monster Press and Josh Heath, our COO found out this awesome information from them.
First, tell us a bit about who you are and previous projects that folks might know you from.
Happy Monster Press is a collaboration between Joy and Scott Marchand Davis. Joy is a published science fiction, fantasy, and horror writer, and an RPG player. Scott is a game writer, with 25 years of experience as an RPG gamemaster. Our previous project, Children of the Apocalypse, is currently available on DriveThruRPG. https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/237254/Children-of-the-Apocalypse Happy Monster's goal is to produce fun, flexible, and inclusive RPG setting books, and our current focus is the Savage Worlds RPG system.
So, folks. why the Revolutionary War? What about the time period calls out for a supers game?
The American Revolution is a United States creation story, and superheroes are part of modern myth-making, so combining them made sense to us. We were also inspired by genre-mashing works such as Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which is the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons.
Ok, as a Son of the American Revolution the semi-historical nature of this setting is important to me. How much actual history of colonial America can we expect from the book?
Happy Monster games are intentionally written to provide gamemasters and players maximum flexibility, allowing gamers to focus on the tabletop battle aspects, to engage in both role-play and tabletop combat, or to focus more on role-playing, where players are empowered to create their own back story, play out personal goals, and explore the issues of the time as deeply as they wish. Another core value is to make games that are quick to start, welcoming to everyone, and easy to play. In the setting book, we include historical sidebars and links to online resources for anyone (gamemasters and players) who wants to dig more deeply into the issues surrounding key points of the campaign. We’ve included only enough history to get the ball rolling—we expect gamers to take the ball and run with it in whatever direction they prefer.
The background sections of the setting book, therefore, are mostly descriptive rather than prescriptive; the Plot Point Campaign is based on the course of the Revolutionary War, with key battles presented in sequence. However, we give the gamemaster some tools for altering the course of history, both to meet the needs/interests of the players, and to ensure the game doesn’t have the players plodding through battles they know they’ll win. For example, the heroes might lose the Battle of Trenton after Washington crosses the Delaware! In that case, Washington is captured by the British, and the next adventure in the Plot Point Campaign involves rescuing Washington from a prison ship off the coast of New York City!
The first adventure in the Plot Point Campaign is based on a historical event in Salem, MA (home of Happy Monster Press). A few months before the Battles of Concord and Lexington, a British detachment led by Colonel Leslie tried to confiscate some cannon from the Salem militia, leading to a standoff at the drawbridge to North Salem. Fighting nearly broke out, but a local parish minister negotiated a compromise, wherein Leslie would march 40 rods into North Salem, do an about-face and return to Boston without violence. This incident, known locally as Leslie's Retreat, almost started the war, and in the Legion of Liberty Plot Point Campaign it does start the war! However, gamers who want to play out the Revolution exactly as it did historically are encouraged to modify any element of the campaign to better suit their needs and interests. Flexibility is key to every Happy Monster Press setting book.
The British have their own squad of supers, The Greycoats. Can we play these characters? Sure, I might want to trounce Tories all day long, but it might be fun to swap sides in a story.
The Plot Point Campaign assumes that the players are on the side of the Patriots. If the funds raised in this Kickstarter greatly exceed our expectations, we could add a stretch goal to create a follow-up Peninsular Wars campaign, where our heroic Greycoats fight Napoleon’s elite force of superhumans! However, if gamemasters want to modify the Plot Point Campaign to allow Greycoat player characters, more power to them!
One of the areas that many stories of the era overlook is the importance of alliances with Native peoples in the Revolution and various conflicts prior to and after. How will you handle these with nuance and respect?
In the Revolution, according to standard history books, Native Americans mainly sided with the Crown, trusting that the British would honor their agreements with the Native peoples regarding land and settlement (and, for good reason, not trusting the colonists to do the same). One of our Savage Tales touches on the historical conflicts within the Iroquois Confederation; some members of the Confederation sided with friends among the Patriots, and others sided with the British. The players are tasked to convince the Oneida Nation to side with the colonists, and, in the adventure, the odds are stacked against the heroes, as they would have been historically.
So, High Level Games is a Canadian company, so sorry about that, so I’ll ask a question for our loyal fans from the North. Can we expect any elements of the setting to touch on the Canadian side of the conflict?
Absolutely! The invasion of Quebec is part of the Plot Point Campaign, which means the players can change history by capturing Quebec for the Patriots! (Sorry about that. We do encourage any enterprising Canadian gamemaster to revise any Savage Tale to play out however they want, though. Flexibility is key!)
For the Kickstarter, what reward level are you most excited for fans to jump on?
We're happy for backers at any level, but we were thrilled to see our first General of the Continental Army grant himself a field promotion on Day 2 of the campaign. This level is designed for anyone who wants to give their gaming group a live action experience. All Generals of the Continental Army will receive five signed hardcover copies and five PDF copies of the setting book, plus Scott and Joy of Happy Monster will run a custom game on Roll20 for the Backer and four friends.
Thank you very much for inviting us to talk about Legion of Liberty, and for asking such excellent questions about the game. We send everyone at High Level our gratitude for your effort and consideration. We hope that you and your community will check out our Kickstarter, and help us get over the finish line and beyond!
Scott and Joy – For the Revolution!
Find the Kickstarter Here!
Five room dungeons are an idea from Johnn Four that makes a dungeon from five small challenges. The rooms can be large or small and arranged in many formations. The rooms are:
1. Entrance or Guardian
2. Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
3. Trick or Setback
4. Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
5. Reward, Revelation, or Plot Twist
They make session to session locations a breeze to make, giving you a nice, simple template to work with. I like that they are short, quick to make, and can be used for anything, not just dungeons. This really feeds my lazy prep style, and I enjoy making them. Here are six of my Five Room Dungeons.
1) Treasure Vault
Entrance or Guardian: Upon opening this hidden away area, you notice that it is or was recently inhabited. A tattered rug covers the floor, a table and two chairs sit off to the side, a small collection of books on a shelf of a bookcase, a comfy chair for reading them, and a long hallway stretches off in the distance. The rug hides a pressure plate that starts a slow rumbling in the hallway. If the players move immediately they can escape with no rolls required. If the players wait, they realize that they will be cut off from the rest of the dungeon if they don’t move. At this point a dexterity saving throw will get them past the falling rocks with no damage, half for failure. After the hall crumbles, it will take 250 man hours to unearth the whole 250 feet.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a woman, Sarin, caught in a circle of magical energy. She tells the party if the salt circle is broken, she can go free. She is a high level thief looking to loot the vault. She will betray the party if necessary.
Trick or Setback: This is a large room, it has small, mouse-sized holes that lead into hidden areas in the walls and ceiling. There is a hag, Hilda, hiding here who entered a pact to guard the vault for 101 years. If the vault is breached she will be trapped here forever. The hag uses the holes to enter the walls and cast from cover.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The vault is locked by a large circle divided into four quadrants. They are colored yellow, blue, brown, and white. To open the lock a spell from each element (fire, water, earth, and air) must be cast in succession. The order does not matter, as long as they are cast one after another.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Aside from gold in the vault, there is also a Ring of Three Whooshes. It can cast longstrider three times per day.
2) Giant Burial Chambers
Entrance or Guardian: An unnatural pond, on a mountain top far from much of anything. If you submerge yourself in the pond you will emerge in a dark, carved stone entry room with a similar pool.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: Three stone giant ghosts guard this area. They will warn the characters (in giant) not to disturb the contents of the tombs.
Trick or Setback: A stone giant lairs here, melded into the stone and watching over the tombs. He has been shunned by his people for something he did long ago.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: A fey lurks here in the shadows, seeking revenge on the giants that lay here. The fey will encourage the characters to seek the sword.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: A sword that contains their souls is here, if used and reduce a creature to 0 HP it will release a soul as a giant shadow under the wielder’s control for 1 hour before vanishing. It has 10 'charges' and turns to a non-magical sword after they are all used, damning the giants’ souls to the Abyss.
3) Shadow Monastery
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted monastery lies in near ruins; the veil between worlds is thin here and shadowy apparitions of the former students can be seen eternally practicing, trapped between life and death. An entrance can be found deep in the bowels of the old monastery, linking to a shadowfell version of the building.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A monk on the other side says that they are all trapped here by a bell that can be heard ringing in the distance.
Trick or Setback: If the party goes toward the sound they will have an encounter with aggressive monks.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The Bell is a construct with sonic attacks.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: Before the monk leaves the shadowfell behind, he will open a portal back and give the party a ghost rune. The ghost rune can be transferred to a non-magical suit of armor or weapon. If attached to a weapon, the weapon can instead do cold or necrotic damage. If a creature is immune to cold damage, it is reduced to resistance for this attack; if it is resistant it is reduced to normal damage. If the creature does not have a resistance or immunity to cold damage and cold is chosen, critical hits do three times the normal effect.
4) Tower on the Border
Entrance or Guardian: A haunted tower is guarded by the ghost of a wizard; he warns that the darkness shall destroy you.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: There is a black pudding here trapped in a large glass container with a door facing out. On the other side of this large room is an area that has one inch holes in the floor that go down twenty feet to a pressure plate that opens a secret blue portal. The pressure plate must have the weight of a large creature on it (the black pudding). The black pudding can then squeeze its way through a passage under the floor and back into the glass container through a hole in the bottom, resetting the puzzle.
Trick or Setback: There is a portal on each wall of this rectangular room, the one the characters step through changes to a different color (green). The other portals are (right to left) black, yellow, and red. If the players choose any but the black, they are teleported d4 hexes (24 miles each) away.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The wizard from the entrance is here and shadow touched. He is invisible and holds the key of a great cage that surrounds the party. There are signs of someone have been here recently and a tracking check will lead them to bump into the wizard. Defeating the crazy wizard or otherwise finding the key will let the PCs out of the cage. The wizard will explain how the players can get back using the closest shadow portal (d4x6 miles away).
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The wizard wears a Robe of Illusion, it has seventeen charges that can be used to can cast an illusion spell from zero to fourth level (DM chooses one spell per level). Each spell can be cast for the spells level +1 charge; e.g. a cantrip is 1 charge, a first level spell is 2 charges. It disintegrates after the last charge is used.
5) Prison of the Ravager
Entrance or Guardian: A shadowfell prison holds a bound carrion, or ghoul demon. To enter the foul jail requires a pound of flesh placed into a bedrock mortar in a large boulder in an out of the way place in the forest.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: The Ravager has been imprisoned here for countless years, he asks the party to free him and offers to make them generals in his army as well as lead them out of the prison.
Trick or Setback: This room contains five cauldrons full of burbling liquids. When the red, green, blue, yellow, and orange liquids are drank by themselves they do nothing, when mixed together they do a random result.
2 +1 strength
3 +1 intelligence
4 Paralyzed for an hour.
5 +1 wisdom
6-8 Aged by twenty five percent of current age.
9 +1 charisma
10 polymorphed into a sheep for an hour.
11 +1 constitution
12 +1 dexterity
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: An undead fey guards the exit and will die before he lets the demon leave. He knows the Ravager’s true name.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: There is a secret room that has a magic mouth that speaks the demon’s true name, Catullus.
6) Astral Erratic
Entrance or Guardian: An astral dragon, Ansmon, makes his lair in this huge chunk of rock and stages attacks on astral raiders from here.
Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge: A very young elven ranger named Laira resides here and serves as guardian to the dragon. She was captured infiltrating the dragon’s lair and has since joined the cause.
Trick or Setback: A monk, Ranek, lives here, forced into a contract when the dragon destroyed his monastery on a separate errand in the astral plane. He has been here for only a few years, arriving after Laira.
Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict: The dragon will attack any who enter here without Laira.
Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist: The dragon keep a journal of his conquests, including mind wiping Laira after destroying her trespassing family.
As you can see five rooms can vary greatly. A little inspiration and a half hour can generate two hours worth of content for your gaming table. Hopefully I’ve inspired you to try out this tactic next time you need a small destination.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture Reference: https://www.roleplayingtips.com/5-room-dungeons/
Depending on how you play the game, creating a backstory for your character is either the easiest or the hardest part of character creation. Or at least that’s what I’ve noticed in the tabletop community for the last few years. Especially with the relatively recent influx of player thanks to the many mainstream representations of it such as Critical Role. In both seasons of that game, all of the players have had rather complex backstories that intermingle with both the world and the other players. Which can be intimidating. However, it isn’t terribly difficult if you have an outline. The first tip to give to any player, new or old, is to talk to your DM about backstory. They are the ones that will be able to help the most with integration into the world, because they are the ones who control the world. With that out of the way, I give you some story arcs.
1) The Redemption Arc
I mean, with Red Dead Redemption still being so hot, of course I would mention the redemption arc so I could name drop something that’s popular and increase the likelihood that someone stumbles onto this article while looking for something different. This is a very popular arc in both D&D and other forms of media because of how easy it is to build off of. If you used to be a criminal, then you likely have some contacts in the underbelly of society. If you betrayed them, then you likely have made a powerful enemy out of a thieves guild. You fled the country to avoid persecution? No contacts in the new one. You met a kind priest along the way who brought you to a church and began to make you pietus and bam you have your cleric with more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.
While this is very easy to write and work with, it can also be very interesting to play. The thought of working hard to fend off your more malevolent habits such as torture or violence can make for a very interesting dynamic, especially with good aligned characters, however make sure you don’t slip into murder hobo mode. Because no one wants to see the cleric stabbing a shop keep for a discount. I mean... I kinda want to see that. It’d be funny: “The power of Ao compels you… to give me a thirty percent discount.” Then the shopkeep is like, “I’m an atheist” and the cleric just starts chanting “by the power of Ao…” But all that aside, at its core the redemption arc allows for a lot of contrast within a character's personality, the residual gruffness from being a killer for hire contrasted by your new Paladin-esque oath, for example.
2) The Runaway Arc
At first you think “oh geez, is this guy just going to tell me to do what X-Men does with all its characters to trick the audience into caring about them?” And the answer to that question is yes… kind of. While the idea of a character running away from home because some sort of uncomfortable physical trait or power making people scared of them is novel in theory, in practice it only really works for certain groups of characters, in a tabletop setting. But here is the runaway explained better: for whatever reason, your original home is no longer an option to stay at and you flee to avoid death or further abuse. That’s it. The creativity comes from the reason. One of my players made a character who, as part of her backstory, was married away to an abusive noble to forge a peace treaty between her race and the humans that were beginning to settle in the area. Later, the noble violated the treaty and started a genocide of the race, while keeping the player character captive and treating her as something closer to a pet or trophy. She was abused both mentally and physically and she ended up running away from the place that she had lived her whole life. Not only did that set up a greater villain in her plot, but it also left her with a reason to adventure and travel. It even left the door open for random encounters during travel, as agents of the noble could track her down. In short, this backstory can wrap everything up in a nice little bow and even open a few doors for DMs.
The Runaway arc has a few endings which can really go in a number of directions. One is they return home after whatever force that opposes them is dealt with. Another would be that said force is destroyed, but so is their home in the process, forcing them back into the role of wanderer or having them decide to make a new home for themself and the people they used to live with. There is always the option that the force that opposes them never is defeated, and they simply change everything about themself and move on. All of this can be an appropriately dramatic way to flex your roleplaying muscles. Of course, if you’re just developing the character by the seat of your pants, then do whatever feels right in the moment. That is how most people play after all.
3) The Lost Soul Arc
We all know “that guy” who went backpacking through Europe and he like “totally found himself” and thought it was a “really spiritual experience” and that you should “totally do it sometime if you have the time to really connect with yourself.” While people like that, who will remain nameless (Keith), are typically obnoxious and won’t shut up about it, the need to find oneself is actually very common in the world. An old soldier who has seen too much death and wants to see what else the world has the offer other than blood, screams, and loss. A confused young wizard who has no idea what he’s going to do with all his academic knowledge, but knows he wants to see more. Even a lanky blonde douchebag whose dad paid for his two years off in Europe and wanted an excuse to eat foreign food and meet people whose grasp of english was poor enough to think he’s clever.
The Lost Soul Arc has a rather obvious conclusion; the finding of their purpose. It doesn’t have to be some great cosmic truth, perhaps the fact of the matter is, that young wizard was never happier than when he was with his wife and kid, so he hangs up the robe and wand to be the family man he’s happy being. Perhaps that grizzled veteran finds out that he has a passion for painting, and that's how he spends the rest of his days after his adventures. Of course at the same time, that young wizard could discover his spark for magic far surprasses almost all others and becomes the arcane protector of the entire kingdom, or as the veteran passes on into the next life a god approaches him and tells him of the fact that he was meant to be an instrument of war from birth, and that his stories will inspire hundred more young men and women to march headlong into danger for their loved ones. (He could take that a few ways depending on weather or not his perception on war has changed, but that's an article for another day.)
4) The Fallen Arc
Lucifer, Anakin Skywalker, Gwyn Lord of Sunlight, and Michael Jackson all have something in common. They were all once much greater than they are considered now. This is definitely the most difficult one to work out with both your DM and yourself. It's a tricky process, turning dark. Bad eggs are rarely always bad, and a fall from grace is much easier to fit into a backstory, which would lead into a redemption arc, however if you want to develop your character in this direction it’ll 100% be something you need to work out with your DM and tell them about from the start. They would need to leave open opportunities for you to start exploring the darker side of your character. You’ll need to decide if your character plans to abandon, betray or simply continue to have conflict with the party. At least in most cases you’ll end up having some sort of conflict with the party as you begin this arc.
Of course the next thing to consider is that the most work often comes with the biggest payout. Your character could become the next BBEG of your DM’s next campaign. Your sudden but inevitable betrayal will certainly coax out the curses of your party, and as such maybe you’ll become the next villain of this campaign. Depending on how well liked your character was before their fall, it could cause major waves within your group, with both the players and the characters.
5) The Joe Schmo Arc
“It ain’t much, but it’s honest work,” isn’t just something said by loveable farmers. You can say it too, in sharp ironic contrast with the imagery of you suplexing an orc into the dirt and snapping his neck instantaneously. This arc is seen time and time again. Good examples include Frodo and Bilbo from Lord of the Rings, Harry from Harry Potter, and Kayley from the Quest for Camelot. A very good start for level one characters is just having them be a normal person who was swept away by circumstance. Perhaps you were just in the right place at the right time and everyone put you on a pedestal. For example, perhaps a giant monster was terrorizing your village and happened to fall off a cliff to his death, and you looked as if you were the one that rushed in and pushed him, when you were actually cowering. From there on you were heralded as a hero and slayer of monsters, despite only being a farmer for most of your life. The circumstances are wide open, and that is, once again, the best part. The development of these characters is always very unique, as a simple farm boy turns into an arch mage of near godly power, but still stops by home every other weekend to have dinner with mom and help milk the cows. The change of view is what changes the character and the literal gain of experience. Often times this is the best way to get a character that is shaped, almost entirely by the events that happen in game. Whether or not you consider that a good or bad thing, is up to you.
Really, this is the arc with the most built in comedy. It’s a big world out there, and having a view of the world where the best a person can get is a simple life with a family of 18 before dying at the ripe old age of 35 is typically very different from the reality of magic rich game universes. It’s very easy to forget the little guy when you’re out stopping wars, delving dungeons and slaying dragons. Being one of the little guys is very grounding for many parties out there (and in some cases can stop murderhobo-ing).
All of these are very general suggestions for characters and how they COULD develop. However, the simple fact of the matter is, more often than not you’re just better off building your character in response to the things that occur in game. You don’t have to have every little thing planned out from the beginning. The most important part of the game is the fun, and as long as everyone is having it, you’re playing it right.
Jarod Lalonde is a young roleplayer and writer whose passion for both lead him here. He’s often sarcastic and has a +5 to insult. Dungeons and Dragons is his favorite platform. Although he’s not quite sure if it’s Cthulhu whispering to him in the small hours of the night, or just persistent flashbacks to the Far Realm.
Picture Reference: https://www.buzzfeed.com/ishabassi/zuko-avatar-the-last-airbender-best-character
Japan and its tabletop games have long been an area of fascination of mine, and it’s also why I have an ever growing pile of games from Japan I’m as yet unable to read. Among the games in this collection is a game about an out of control dungeon, and the plucky adventurers called Landmakers that can bring some semblance of order to this wild world. This game is called Meikyuu Kingdom!
1) Who Made This?
Meikyuu Kingdom, also sometimes known as Make You Kingdom, is a game published by Adventure Planning Services of Japan. An official English translation was announced in 2013, however no new information has since been released, though rough drafts of a fan translation exist.
2) What’s The Premise And Setting?
Meikyuu Kingdom is, as its name implies, a Kingdom building game, set in a world called the Infinite Dungeon. The players take on the role of the members of the royal court. In addition to working to build the kingdom, each member of the court also has their own personal goal, such as claiming a certain territory as part of the kingdom, or slaying a certain number of monsters.
However, the dungeon is, in fact, infinite, and even familiar places can change abruptly through a process known as Dungeonification. Additionally, your kingdom isn’t the only one in the dungeon, and the others may not always get along with yours.
3) What Are The Mechanics Like?
The dice mechanics of Meikyuu Kingdom are relatively simple: you roll 2d6, add the relevant attribute, and compare it to a target number. This mostly pertains to combat and skills. Meanwhile, the game’s management system is more binary; you either have the items or stats you need, or you don’t.
The game is also divided into two distinct phases: the Kingdom Phase and the Dungeon Phase. The Kingdom Phase is where you make decisions pertaining to the kingdom’s development, as well as preparations to enter the dungeon. By contrast, the Dungeon Phase consists of the sort of classic dungeon crawling challenges fans of fantasy roleplaying games would be more familiar with.
There’s also a somewhat unique mechanic Meikyuu Kingdom introduces called the d66 roll. The d66 roll is used for randomizing options on charts, such as random names or encounters. You roll two d6s as if you were rolling d%, but the lower number is always in the 10s place, and the highest number is always the ones place. With this setup, a result of 6 and 1 would be 16, or a result of 3 and 2 would be 23.
4) What Is It Similar To?
The most apt comparison to Meikyuu Kingdom is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, particularly with how the scope of the game changed past level 9, where the focus of the game began including building and maintaining keeps. Additionally, both games have a simple core mechanic, but numerous sub systems with all manner of charts.
However, being a more modern game Meikyuu Kingdom is more refined; the core mechanic is consistent throughout, and the subsystems are related to each other in meaningful ways. Exempli gratia followers are the lifeblood of the kingdom, a staple in many skills, and there are numerous ways to gain them.
Despite these similarities, though, it’s worth mentioning that this is still a Japanese game, and thus much more structured than most games you can expect to find in the English speaking tabletop gaming community.
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes, but only if you’re interested in a silly, light hearted, kingdom making game. Being from Japan, this game is kind of rigid in terms of what it can be used to accomplish. Much of the listed skills all work towards one of two ends: either building up the kingdom, or crawling through the dungeon.
Another consideration is also that the fan translation doesn’t include any of the official artwork; so for many of the items, monsters, classes and jobs, you’ll be relying on names alone. (Which is a shame, because some of the monsters, such as Mayonaise King, are just plain absurd!)
To support the official release, you’ll need to import the books from Japan. This is great since they had released a new edition in October 2018, but not so great since importing is a risky and expensive prospect.
Aaron der Schaedel has no impulse control, and usually winds up buying any books in Japanese that have cute anime girls on the cover. His legitimate copies of the Meikyuu Kingdom books are no exception. You can try tempting him by showing him other such books via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://randompunk.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-world-of-meikyuu-kingdom-13-daily.html
As a reviewer I get to read a lot of games and almost without fail fantasy games come with magic fitted as standard. When faced with 90 pages of spells for forty three different professions I am simply not going to read every spell. I dip into each one. I read a few of the simpler spells that starting characters have access to, a few mid-range spells to see how things develop, and then some of the most powerful magics to see what greatness a GM will get to throw at players at the climax of their campaigns.
That is... normally. Sometimes you find a system that, before you know it, has you reading every word and that little devil on your shoulder is whispering, “How can I house rule this into my own game?”
Magic is one of those fantasy gaming essentials that is extremely difficult to separate from the setting. When I see a game pitching itself as “setting neutral” I wonder how the creators are going to justify the existence of magic in their world. If a setting has no gods, exactly how does divine magic work?
Setting neutral magic can be done, however, and what I consider the best magic system of all time is indeed setting neutral. In fact, I have played this game on and off since the late 1980s and I only learned last year that there was an official setting for it.
So here are my top three. Each is very different and it made little sense to try and put them in any other order than my own personal preference.
1) HERO System by Hero Games
HERO System is now in its sixth edition. I first played it as Champions back in the 1980s and it was my first introduction to ‘point buy’ as a way of creating characters. HERO System doesn’t really have a magic system at all. What it does have is a system for creating any special or super power, and that includes magic.
The tools provided for creating powers fall broadly into two styles. The first is all about defining one explicit power, or in this case spell. Each would be unique and one would end up with a very long list of such spells. The second set of tools are for grouping powers. A variable power pool is bought using the point buy system and that pool can be reused repeatedly for different effects. The size of the pool balances the magic in play but the sorts of magic that can be created are limited only by the player’s imagination.
You see, it is not the point buy or variable nature that makes Hero System’s treatment of magic outstanding. It is HERO System’s treatment of special effects that make it outstanding. To quote the rules, “If you read through this book, you won’t find any specific rules for things like ‘fire blasts’ or ‘lightning bolts’ or ‘magic’. Fire, lightning, and magic are all special effects, and HERO System rules let you pick the special effects you want.”
What the rules do provide you with are basic power descriptions such as Invisibility, Teleport, and Energy Blasts. You can then apply limitations on those basic powers so a Flame Arrow may be an Energy Blast but you can tailor the effects to emulate its fiery nature. You can also apply advantages that enhance the basic power to further get that spell effect spot on.
It is the coming together of pools of power that can be shaped any way the player wishes, limited only by their imagination, the visual effects that are also limited only by the imagination, and a set of mechanics that support but don’t restrict that makes this a genuinely universal magic system.
2) 7th Sea by John Wick Presents
7th Sea does not go down the setting neutral route. It is the setting for 7th Sea, Théah, that helps make this a standout game for me. The magic system for 7th is perfectly interwoven with this setting and so, naturally enough, it fits it like a glove. The rules define six explicit types of sorcery. Each one is a complete entity in its own right: they do not share game mechanics, and they are most certainly not a shuffling off of spells into piles so sorcerers get these spells, summoners get those and so on.
With 7th Sea each type of magic is a complete magic system. Each could easily have been the core magical system for a different game. Each is related to a world culture within Théah and reflects that cultural flavour. It is analogous to how the magical culture around Haitian Voodoo is totally different to European Wicca and to Native American Spirituality, the latter of which does not see itself as magic at all.
It is this individual treatment of each cultural tradition that makes these magical rules so strong. Nothing has to be compromised to fit in with a guiding mechanic. If one form has a dozen effects and the next two dozen, it doesn’t matter. No one is trying to make everything entirely equal, balanced, or fair. Your magic is your own and you make of it what you will.
When I read these rules the first time I didn’t skip from spell to spell. These pages deserved to be read and actually once I read them rather than moving on to Dueling, the next chapter in the rules, I found myself reading the Sorcery chapter again simply for the pleasure of it.
3) Zweihänder by Grim & Perilous Studios
Zweihänder claims to be setting neutral but it has a certain style, and that style is grim and perilous. The core of the Zweihänder magic, or magick in Zweihänder parlance, system is professions and those professions have lists of spells. This may not sound like a groundbreaking system. It does mean that should you want to translate your existing game into the Zweihänder rules, or play a Zweihänder powered game, in your favourite setting then it will work. The professions will most likely exist and they cast the sorts of spells you expect them to.
That alone is not really enough for an accolade, but there is more. Zweihänder has a rather simple mechanic that works for every single action in the game. It is a d100 game at its core and if you roll an 01 or a double, 11, 22, 33 etc., then that is a critical roll. If it is critical and successful then you get some bonus or beneficial effect. If you get a critical failure, as you may guess, things do not go well for you. Remember I said that this applies to every action? It applies to spell casting as well.
Every single spell in Zweihänder has a list of effects for Critical Success, Success, Failure and Critical Failures. As these are built into the actual spell itself this is not one of those, “Oh you failed, we will roll on the spell failure table,” games. Zweihänder criticals, be they successes or failures, will happen in one in ten attempts to cast a spell. You will fail, and critically fail, at some point.
It may seem odd to praise a magic system for its handling of failure, but this has more to do with its recognition that this is a real part of the magical world, integrating that failure into the spells themselves, and then using that failure to move the story forward.This isn’t a situation wherein a player misses their turn if they roll poorly. In this magical world stuff happens and it is not always good.
These three systems are so very different, with the ultra-flexibility of HERO System, the tightly integrated sorcery of 7th Sea, and the built in fallibility of magic of Zweihänder. What makes these three stand out is that they all have incredibly high design standards. I don’t mean page layout and pretty pictures. I mean that they have coherent and tight design goals and they hit them spot on. I think that their efforts in striving for excellence that makes these three that extra bit special.
Peter Rudin-Burgess is a gamer, game designer, and blogger. When not writing his own games he creates supplements for other peoples to sell on DriveThruRPG. His current obsessions are Shadow of the Demon Lord, 7th Sea 2nd Edition, and Zweihander.
Permission for picture given to writer for use in this article.
I was gone for quite some time. Decades, in fact. Now, don’t get me wrong, I kept cursory interest in the comings and goings of 3rd Edition and 3.5 Edition. I don’t think that I truly REMEMBER the release or products for 4th Edition due to my nearly all-consuming involvement in playing, Storytelling and writing for White Wolf Game Studios’ World of Darkness setting. But somewhere along the way, life happened and role-playing, running and writing games about monsters and the darkest aspects of the human condition stopped being fun for me and became more and more tedious in and of itself.
For me, my answer to the doldrums of role-playing was to pretty much abandon it altogether for a hobby quite new to me, which was tactical table-based miniature combat games such as Warmachine and Warhammer 40K.
I was “gone” for quite some time.
When the local store where I played my games closed in the Spring of 2011, I moved “full-time” to MMORPGs such as Elder Scrolls, EVE, and of course, World of Warcraft, which I had played off and on since its release. However, in the back of my mind and nearly always, there was this itch; all these games and all these settings and all the imagery and imagination that birthed them – all of them – had come from a singular parent.
Dungeons & Dragons.
So, I started to look online at where Wizards of the Coast had taken the game that had taught me – literally TAUGHT ME – how to tell stories, how to craft adventure, how to play, run and write for a role-playing game. I saw that 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a new, fat-faced four-year-old, was still pretty much in its toddlerhood… so I began to gobble up the books one at a time and search for a group to play with.
It didn’t take long.
Here’s what I learned from my origins in D&D to my abandonment to my rediscovery:
1) Always Imitated, Never Duplicated
There is a form and a function to Dungeons & Dragons that sets it apart from every other role-playing game, table top or MMO. The worlds created within Dungeons & Dragons have, since 1974, dwarfed and, in many ways, miniaturized Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Hyperboria and Moorcock’s Melnibone. Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Eberron, the Underdark, Faerun, Spelljammer… the Basic Rules set for Dungeons & Dragons looks like a small island off the coast of Virginia with the rest of the individualized settings for the game spanning out away from it like the rest of the known world. It is the format against which other RPGs – nearly every “World Sized” RPG in publication since the release of Dungeons & Dragons – measure themselves. Some have met success.
Most have not even come close to being able to call themselves a mediocre knock-off of the original.
The scope of the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons is, for all intents and purposes, a world without end. Always imitated but never duplicated, in so many ways, all RPG roads seem to lead back to the world(s) of Dungeons & Dragons.
2) High Adventure, High Fantasy
The 80’s were absolutely rife with high fantasy tropes; Conan: the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Ladyhawke, Willow… the list goes on and on and on. In a lot of ways, these cinematic offerings were a response to the times and there was a huge demand for them. On the other hand, these movies gave rise to the visualization of a lot of our campaigns and ideas that swam within RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. We began to write our own stories, inspired by the works of Moorcock, Salvatore, Donaldson, Brooks, Jordan, McAffrey, and McKiernan. With these scribblings, we learned how to tell stories. More importantly, we learned how to bend stories to our will because we became so well read. We learned how to not fall into tropes that worked just because they worked. We learned how to keep our players on the edges of their seats. We learned how to make a bad dice roll into something wonderful. We learned how to inject emotion and empathy into a game founded on myth and mathematics. We learned these things from playing Dungeons & Dragons. We learned that even though we may have had boring or inauspicious lives, all we needed for high adventure on a cold winter’s day was a couple of friends, a set of dice, some paper, a pencil and a good freakin’ story to tell each other.
What’s BEAUTIFUL about 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons is that much of what has been released and written regarding pre-generated campaign publications has come with emotion and empathy included at no extra charge. The writing has been top notch, there seems to be no expense spared on the artwork, and in a world where game stores can be hard to find and where bookstores close on the daily, sites like Amazon and D&D Beyond serve to provide to-the-door delivery for books, supplements, and gear you may want or need to create your own provinces within the aforementioned world without end.
3) No One Does It Better Than Wizards of the Coast
Let’s be honest here; book publishing and games are a part of entertainment. Entertainment is one of those things that you spend discretionary income on. I played Magic: The Gathering for about 15 minutes when it was first released in the 1990’s. The CCG scene simply wasn’t my bag, personally, but I always admired people who stuck with it and who became strategically good at mastering the ins and outs of it. But that’s the FIRST TIME I heard the name “Wizards of the Coast.” I remember wondering in the mid-90’s, when WotC bought TSR and the rights to Dungeons & Dragons, how long it would be until the company completely consumed the whole of the RPG industry. Then, in 1999, Hasbro played the wildcard and bought WotC for somewhere around the sum of $325 million.
Close to 2 decades later, we have Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. While Wizards of the Coast suspended previous products from being sold in .pdf format on sites like DriveThruRPG.com, in July of 2014 they released the Basic Rules box for 5th Edition.
In between 4th and 5th Editions of the game, a lot of the RPG community had gotten used to “community generated” content and “print-on-demand,” .pdf-formats for RPG books that allowed for less overhead and risk for game manufacturers and publishers on the one hand, but that opened the door for a stunning potential for piracy on the other.
5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons books are hardbacks with crisp, quality printed paper and bindings that seem to be able to go the distance. They harken back to the “good old days” of RPGs, when there were core books and hardback supplement books and things people called splat books and the biggest difference (one that I personally like, to be completely honest) is that now, instead of your “modules” being these sort of flimsy little paper things that come in a little folder that can get grease-stained when some mouth-breather uses it as a pizza coaster on game night, they’re called “Campaign Sourcebooks,” and they’re hardbound, too. Woe to he that places a slice of pizza on the DM’s book…
Dungeon Tiles have been released to keep you from having to draw maps, Spell, Monster and Magic Item card decks have been released so that players and GMs have a more portable way to manage what they need when they must travel to and from a game. In short, it’s a class act. Wizards of the Coast has learned through doing what they do EXACTLY what players and consumers want. They listen to their marketing team, their play testers, and their product development people. Are their books and products expensive? Perhaps. When you’re talking
about discretionary income, ALL HOBBIES are expensive.
But they’re not Games Workshop’s level of expensive.
And when you buy a product from Wizards of the Coast, you most certainly will get what you pay for.
4) What’s Old Is New Again
I could sit here and literally rattle off a list of horror RPGs that I have played, or written for, or read about, or reviewed. Dungeons & Dragons did it first. Call of Cthulhu? Dungeons & Dragons’ 1st Edition of Deities & Demigods had the Cthulhu Mythos statted out for use as PC/NPC deities for use in the game. If you look long and hard enough, and you’re willing to pay the price for a copy in semi-decent condition, you can still find this book and you can, with a little elbow grease and brains, adapt Lovecraft’s mythos into Dungeons & Dragons. ShadowRun was (and perhaps still is, although I’m not certain that it is still in publication) Dungeons & Dragons in a science-fiction, Blade Runner-meets-Cyberpunk setting. Eberron takes Dungeons & Dragons into a fantasy, sort of steampunk-esque flavoring that works to compete and, in many ways, surpass games that have attempted to do the same thing in the past like Exalted. Here’s the deal: there is not a single RPG that I am aware of that is worth playing as it was written and published that CANNOT be adapted into a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a talented Dungeon Master at the helm.
Some may say that they systems of play are too complicated, and to an extent I agree, but 5th Edition has streamlined the rules into very smooth playing with as little mathematics as possible slowing down the pace of the game. Some say that straight up d10 or d20 RPGs are superior because they – by the very nature of the dice you use to play them – eliminate most of the complications inherent to Dungeons & Dragons. I disagree with this in that when one mechanic is removed due to complication, another complication will arise due to individualistic perception of a rule as written, to wit, the only RPG that will ever be completely free of rules and systems complications will be the RPG that has no rules or systems. That’s not a game. That’s just chaos and tomfoolery while sitting at a table, so you might as well be playing Go Fish… although, there are rules for that game, too.
I find that the streamlined, more accessible and easier to understand rules system of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons a breath of fresh air. I sincerely missed it. I missed the Saving Throws. I missed the Perception Checks. I missed all the nuances that were available to you if you decided that you wanted to play a Halfling archer, although now, I’m more solidly set into the saddle of my Svirfneblin Gloom Stalker w/ Bracers of Archery.
While there are still some components of the game that can take some time to get used to, once you latch onto them, you’re hooked in, and things start to run as smoothly as clockwork… just like every edition before 5th.
5) It Makes Me Feel Young Again
I sincerely cannot remember a time when sitting down to write an outline for an RPG that I wanted to run didn’t feel like work to me. I cannot remember a time when playing an RPG didn’t disappoint me. Either there were too many constrictions on my splat, or there weren’t enough options for what I wanted to do with professions or skills or there were no modifiers for a specialization that I wanted to take for my character… so many of them just fell flat for me. It started to feel like work, and then, for a time, it WAS work, so I just gave it up for something else.
Then, about a month ago, I bought Mordenkainen’s Guide to Foes, and it was like looking at a photograph of your high-school sweetheart in her prom dress.
There they were: the Gith, the Lords of the Nine Hells, the Red Wizards of Thay. Names I hadn’t heard in literally decades. And it wasn’t enough. I got a fix… but I needed more.
So, I started to look up things that I didn’t know anything about; the Warforged… the Tiefling… the Dragonborn…
And I consumed these tomes one after another after another. Volo’s Guide to Monsters is hilarious… I read that one to my wife chapter by chapter, section by section (I did, however, skip the architecture of the lairs and dens to keep from putting her to sleep). Xanathar’s Guide to Everything - written by the Eye Tyrant Crime Kingpin of Waterdeep – Was fascinating in regard to the new subclasses and magic items that weren’t in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And then, around Christmas of 2018, I bought a DM’s Screen and I waited to hear whispers of someone needing a DM.
That fell into my lap recently, as the DM of the group that I’ve been playing with for about six months got a new job and dropped out of the game. I was asked “Hey, Shannon… do you think YOU could run a game for us?”
I hadn’t been asked that question in I don’t even know how long.
And I smiled.
And I said yes.
And now, as I bring this blog entry to a close, I begin preparations for the second night of running Curse of Strahd for my players.
For them, it will be a well-orchestrated and organized dive into the horrors of Barovia and the treasures of Ravenloft if they are able to withstand the onslaught of a vampire older than the Harpers Guild itself.
For me, well… I’ve never felt quite as young as I do when I get to say “Well, you can certainly roll to try.”
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
We got a chance to ask Ray Machuga some questions about his in-progress Kickstarter for Lex Draconis, which is a supplement for Modern RPG. This is an awesome looking indy RPG that I really recommend you checking out.
1) Tell us about Modern RPG, what is different about it from other games?
Modern RPG is a unique spin on fantasy. It places the characters in a story-driven urban fantasy setting that takes place in modern Earth, but one in which magic and monsters have always existed. It gives a rich, deep story to typical fantasy tropes and takes a very gritty stance on the role playing experience overall. Modern RPG gives realistic stories to the fantasy tropes you know, and creates a deep tapestry within which to play.
2) Why dragons?
Why not? There is no other beast that is more iconic. No other monster that is as clever or powerful in a fantasy setting. Much like Vampire: The Masquerade did for vampires in the 90s, I'm attempting to do with dragons in Lex Draconis. I want to give the myths and legends of dragons an anchor within which to create a deeply driven setting. I want to give dragons life. Moreover, I want to give players the chance to play dragons in a realistic, storied way.
3) What sort of game is this?
I like to say that it's story-driven urban fantasy. It's a d20-style tabletop role playing game in which you play the traumatized ancestors of the dragons of myth that embody mortal bodies.
4) From a long-term chronicle perspective, what sort of stories do you see being told with this game?
The beauty of Lex Draconis is that you can play a wide array of stories using the setting and system. Stories can center around draconic conflict where you and your clutch (a group of young dragons) face off against other clutches or even buck in rebellion against the machinations of the Old Wyrms - dragons of great age and power. Stories can also center around deeper issues of personal conflict where the dragon must come to terms with her new nature as a dragon, and determine what, if anything, can be salvaged from her mortal life from before she became what she is now. Balancing a dragon's previous mortal life with her newfound primordial power can be heart-wrenching and delve into great personal stories. Dragons can dive headlong into their legendary natures as well. These stories can delve deeply into the history of Earth and the cosmology within the setting and allow the dragon to "come into her own" as a Primordial Power. And of course, there is always the quest for a bigger, better hoard.
Check it out on Kickstarter now!
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.
When coming up with a setting it’s easy to hit a block. Have you used up your creative juices on the last huge campaign you ran? Gotten halfway through and just got stuck? When writing up a campaign I like to use real world events to help my players connect to the game. “Write what you know,” as they say. So I have compiled a small list of six events in history that can be used to throw a bit of life into your creativity.
1) World Wars
The world wars were horrific, bloody and long lasting. If you have a huge campaign setting throw in one of your own wars, either one already started or one about to begin. Achtung Cthulhu! uses the backdrop of World War II to set its tone and offers an alternative timeline for supernatural and magical events throughout the war. Using this setting can be great for increasing tension or throwing your PCs into a huge battle to make them feel insignificant right before having to take on a great horror from the depth of space.
2) The Crusades
The crusades are similar in scale of the wars mentioned above but were very single sided in cause. A vast army of believers marched to cleanse the non believers from the lands. This concept could be used in many of your campaigns in various scales, whether a single cult or an army poised to attack a neighbouring land. This setting could be used very similarly to the world war setting with a more religious or belief driven story hook. Adding a magic system to this setting could be interesting, using it as the driving force of aggressor attempting to cleanse the land of magic or perhaps wishing to destroy ‘tainted’ magic similar to some wizards in the Harry Potter novels.
Long ago the greatest kingdoms sought to expand their empires by taking lesser kingdoms and utilising their resources. Colonisation was not met with warm welcomes; each smaller kingdom fought and most failed to deter the claims to their lands. The few perks of this were overshadowed by the treatment of the indigenous population and the attitude of the oppressors. Using this as a setting could set up guerrilla factions trying to stop their homes being taken by force, or even have the players on the side of the aggressor, enticing the players with land for conquering a region or simply wealth from the exploitation of the resources from with the area seized. Either way you could persuade the players with an item of great significance or usefulness to the party and let them decide how best to acquire it.
4) Cold War
The cold war was a tense time between nations and sparked a large espionage campaign by multiple countries. Tested alliances and covert treachery was rife throughout this period and makes a perfect setting for covert missions into enemy territory and delivering misinformation to sway events in your favour. This is the best conflict to read up on if you are interested in spy versus spy settings and can be readily applied to many cyberpunk style games.
5) Navajo Conflicts
The Navajo Conflicts were a series of battles ranging from skirmishes to raids between the Navajo people and various enemies including the Spanish and the American military. Using this as a setting could inspire very low tech guerrilla style combat where the party must infiltrate an enemy base steal supplies and escape unnoticed before beginning a full scale assault on the enemy positions.
These have been rife throughout history, anywhere there is power to be exploited there will be those who wish to do so. From Hitler to Castro there will always be people who feel superior to others. There will always be people who think that their ideals are more important than the public, those who believe that they are the only salvation for their country and will defend their power with everything they have. The perfect time for a band of misfits to come blow stuff up. Enter your PCs and a storyline that takes them on an opposing view from the dictator and let the chaos ensue.
History can teach us many lessons in real life and in our roleplaying games. If you do use a setting from history read up on it and find out the motivations behind the conflicts and how it affected the people around it. Try to find a way to allow your PCs to feel like they are part of a true struggle in their game world so they want to help the cause and no just farm the loot. There are many many more settings you can look into throughout history and chances are if you have read it in a supplement it probably has real world ties that you can look into and adjust for your own use.
Ross Reid is an RPG enthusiast who loves all things roleplay, from creating a local group to sponsored gaming marathons, he will dip his toe into anything that catches his eye.
Image source https://www.deviantart.com/zguernsey/art/Men-Of-Honor-111150790
I pay attention to what newbies ask in regards to running games, or what they hope to achieve. The common thread I find is about how to make or plan a more epic campaign. I always advise against making long term plans in games, because players very quickly derail things. For that reason, I always suggest learning how to improvise (a topic we’ve talked about quite a bit at High Level Games).
It’s still never the advice people want, though; they’re hell bent on planning a big elaborate campaign. In their defence, they may not have felt the crushing defeat that comes with a game falling to pieces before it gets to the good stuff you’ve planned. Or if they have, they remain optimistic about their long running campaign. (Good on you if you have that optimism.)
With that in mind, I have another unconventional piece of advice: plagiarize. I realize that’s a loaded term, and also often confused with copyright, but hear me out. When we’re in art or music class, we learn the basics before we go off developing our own style. To do that, we often copy what our teacher’s do, and what they do is copy masters who came well before them. This was even done by Hunter S. Thompson, an outstanding journalist and writer from the 1960’s and 70’s.
What I’m suggesting is this: if you’re new, borrow the plot lines from somewhere else, and adapt them to your new medium. Video games seem like a good place to start, since they’re a medium built around interactive story with challenge built into them. So with all that said, let’s look at some video game plots you can adapt into your roleplaying games!
1) Collect The Items To Defeat The Evil
As Seen In: The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy 1
There’s a great evil out there, and in order for the hero to defeat it, they must first collect a bunch of random items. In the original Final Fantasy, it was the four elemental crystals the Warriors of Light were looking for. Meanwhile, in Legend of Zelda, there’s usually some series of trials or items Link needs to collect before he can get the Master Sword and teach Ganon a lesson about screwing around with Hyrule.
Almost every Legend of Zelda game is just one giant series of fetch quests, yet the formula never gets old. This is because there’s always a feeling of progression as the player is exploring and completing dungeons. To replicate this same sort of feeling around a game table, be generous with the magical items if you aren’t normally. If they’re looking for elemental crystals like in Final Fantasy, go ahead and include things like a short sword +1 that’s made of never-melting ice in the dungeon with the ice elemental crystal.
2) Defeat The Minions To Reach The Evil
As Seen In: Megaman, the last world in Final Fantasy 5
Much like our first point, there’s a great evil out there, but to reach it, the players first have to defeat all of their equally evil minions first! In Megaman, this was the 8 Robot Masters you combat before tackling Dr. Wily’s Castle, or in the very end of Final Fantasy 5 when you’re wandering through the void looking for the Exdeath, you encounter all manner of other evil beings loyal to him that were hitherto unmentioned. This can be used in conjunction with the first point, as it was in Final Fantasy 5, or on it’s own like in Megaman. In either case, progression remains important.
For an interesting twist, you can make the minions optional, as a few entries in the Megaman X series have done. However, to execute this well, you mustn’t scale down the big evil, the minions should serve to prepare the heroes in some way. If you insist on taking on the final boss fair, though, you can always make a tactical retreat an option. (As Final Fantasy 5 does when the heroes enter the void; they can freely leave at any time.)
3) Chasing After The Evil To Defeat Them
As Seen In: Super Mario Brothers, the first disc of Final Fantasy 7
Evil isn’t always stationary. They’re either always on the move, like Sephiroth in the beginning of Final Fantasy 7, or they’ve got multiple fortresses throughout the land and are constantly running from one to the next when the heroes catch up, such as in many of the later Super Mario games.
This one is ideal for GMs who like to make maps and track how worlds change based on PC and NPC actions, and also provides some interesting twists! If the evil has a lot of fortresses and gained too much ground in the chase, the heroes could decide to instead draw the evil to them by razing the fortresses. Additionally, locals who were liberated by the heroes during the chase could help slow down evil should they wind up needing to backtrack during their flight.
4) Rebuilding After The Evil Has Done Their Worst
As Seen In: Dark Cloud, recurring theme in Final Fantasy 14’s Realm Reborn arc
Sometimes, evil wins and everything is destroyed, as is the case of the PS2 game Dark Cloud. The journey is all about reversing the damage as you strive to find a way to prevent another such catastrophe. In the Final Fantasy 14 Realm Reborn arc, evil was stopped, but at a great cost, and the story continues with a new generation of heroes picking up the pieces.
If a big cataclysmic battle happens, that may lead to collateral damage. If mighty spells are flung by both sides, what sort of impact would that have on the cosmology? How might it have scarred the landscape? The villages razed by an evil overlord don’t necessarily come back just because the one who razed them was defeated. If the cause of the evil is gone, there’s still the task of figuring out what damage was done, and how to fix it.
You’ve no doubt noticed a theme with all these, or at least that they’re all very similar or even overlap in some cases. That’s because there’s only so many original ideas, so much so that scholars have found how every story can be intertwined into one another, and even given this phenomenon a name: The Hero’s Journey.
Furthermore, just as every story archetype is inevitably intertwined, so is the history of video games and tabletop games; they’re both games that eventually came to be adapted as storytelling media. Players give their input, it gets parsed, the state of the game is updated, and story is progressed. The only difference is that video games use machines that can do the parsing.
However, what works for a video game, won’t necessarily work for tabletop. It’s expected that in a video game that things will be locked off; certain doors will only open if you have a key. In a tabletop game, however, expectations are different. If I have a super human strength and can smash wood and stone columns easily, why can’t I bash down a door made of similar materials?
And THAT, my fledgling GM friends, is why improvisation is also important: so you can keep your epic campaign moving along without a hitch!
Aaron der Schaedel once wrote for a now defunct website called Game Master’s Game Table, and one of his favorite articles for that site was one telling the intertwined history of video games and tabletop ones. This was his attempt at a spiritual successor to that article. Something something, absurd plug for his Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://na.finalfantasyxiv.com/
5th edition Dungeons and Dragons was created to be high magic. Healing is readily available, spellcasters are relatively powerful from their first level, and magic items are often powerful and common. As a reaction to this, a lot of Dungeon Masters try “low magic campaigns” where spellcasters are rare and not allowed as PCs, magic items are nearly impossible to find, and magic itself is either a distant memory or never existed. If this sounds appealing to you, consider the following questions before deciding if you want a low magic campaign.
1) Do The Players Want It?
Sure, it’s your game, but the players need to have fun too. This is especially true if you’re playing with a group of friends and not some random people who signed up to play your game because it sounded fun. Do your players want a low-magic campaign? Depending on “how low you go” they would be limited to either completely martial classes, or third-casters (ranger, paladin, eldritch knight, arcane trickster), and would have access to very few magical items. Make sure they know what they’re getting into and be clear about what kind of game each person wants to play before imposing a low magic campaign upon them.
2) Does It Fit The Narrative?
Is there a narrative reason why magic would be rare in your world? Maybe the gods are absent or dead. Or perhaps some natural disaster has disconnected the “weave” from the material plane. You could even say that magic has been feared, and as such, it’s been destroyed and bred out of all but the most remote reaches of the world. No matter what you decide, come up with a legitimate reason for limiting or removing magic in your world. If you say, “I just don’t like magic as a Dungeon Master,” you’ll lose a bit of credibility with your players.
3) Will It Handicap Your Players?
Will removing magic severely limit the access your players have to vital healing, damage, and roleplay? While healing is frequently done through other means (like hit dice), a majority of it occurs through healing magic. If you’re looking for a deadly, gritty campaign, removing or weakening healing magic is definitely a good way to accomplish that, but it’s likely you’ll have to redo a few class mechanics as well as augment things like the healer’s kit and medicine checks. A large part of narrative and roleplaying also revolves around magic. If your players want that level of difficulty, that’s great, but make sure you are all aware of this when you discuss a low magic campaign. They will die, and probably quite often.
4) Will You Play By The Rules?
Don’t be one of those DMs who take magic away from the players and then uses magic against them. If you’re doing low or no magic you take away a significant amount of creatures you can throw at your players. No liches, arguably no dragons, no magical beasts, no animated objects, no lycanthropy. If you’re being fair you can’t even have anything with innate magic or psionics (illithids). Even undead like skeletons or zombies are out unless you can figure some non-magical way they are being resurrected. Sure, you can make up a reason you have magical creatures in a non-magical world, including the fallback “I’m the GM,” but none of your players will actually want that. Before you consider a low magic campaign, consider just how many creatures you’re willing to go without.
5) How Will You Make Up For It?
How are you going to make up for the vacuum that magic won’t fill? Will you have technology to make guns or other damage-dealing items? Will you allow for scientific alchemy to provide healing and utility mechanics? The replacement should be both mechanical and narrative, but as a DM you shouldn’t eliminate magic without replacing it with something. If you want to, I’d suggest playing a system other than 5e.
Wanting a low magic setting is understandable and can even be fun if it’s done in the right way. It is most important to talk with your players about it; discuss all the above questions with your players, and if you all agree, you could have an excellent campaign!
Ryan Langr is a DM, player, and content creator of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. His passions include epic plot twists, creating exceptionally scary creatures, and finding ways to bring his player’s characters to the brink of death. He also plays Pathfinder/3.5. In his real life, he is a stay at home dad, husband, and blogger of many other interests.
Picture Reference: https://inthelabyrinth.org/the-fantasy-trip/magic-low-fantasy-settings/
Listen, I love D&D. Medieval fantasy is my main jam and no matter what other games I play, there is a spot in my heart that will always be kept for that game and that genre. But for the good of D&D, I want you to stop playing D&D.
Now, let me explain: I’ve been playing D&D since I was 12, using a battered Red Box with no polyhedral dice and less understanding of the rules. I started DMing right away, and have remained in that position for the majority of the time that I have been in this hobby. I played out of the Basic Rules Cyclopedia, I played out of Gygax’s AD&D books, I played out of the 2nd Edition books, and eventually was dragged kicking and screaming into 3.0 and 3.5, where I spent the next decade. I didn’t get to play (but read) the 4E books, and have been off and on playing 5E since the day that it came out. I have played Pathfinder and 13th Age and I like a lot of what they bring to the table, but let’s face it, they are still D&D. I would guess that something like 90% of the hours I have actually spent playing tabletop RPGs have been in D&D.
But I am not playing it right now. And I am doing that, partially, so I can get better at D&D.
A little over a year ago, I challenged my home group to take a one year break from D&D. It was mainly because I had continued to become more and more aware of all of these other games; a buddy of mine ran a FATE Core game for about a year, which we made into an actual play you can find here. I backed the second edition of APOCALYPSE WORLD because I had been hearing about it and devoured it. It read like a profane graduate thesis in rethinking how you run any game!
So at this stage I started to devour and take a chance to play any game I hadn’t played before, from Mouse Guard to Call of Cthulhu to Night’s Black Agents. I learned a tonne of stuff and eventually ended up running a Star Trek Adventures game on Roll20, a Numenera game with my regular group, and playing an amazing Savage Rifts group. This all led me to write this challenge.
You need to stop playing D&D. Play and read all the other games you can. Come back to D&D after a bit. It’ll change your life.
That being said, I know most of you won’t take that advice, so being the good sport that I am, I have a few things that I have learned based on the games that I have been reading and playing.
1) FATE Core - Zones
I have started to use zones when I am running more tactical games that typically can either require or heavily suggest a grid map. Now, I am no opponent to grid maps, but there is no replacing theatre of the mind for ensuring that you are really envisioning the most badass things your character can do. So, in FATE as opposed to things like D&D you don’t use grids or hexes, you have zones. With zones, you break up an encounter into sections of the space in which people are acting.
Let’s use a bar fight for example, you would take out some Post-It notes or index cards and on one, you would write, “Common Room,” on the next, “Behind the Bar,” and on the next, “The Back.” We decide where our players are given those cards and then we can even place markers representing them on those cards. Each zone card represents an area of the bar that PCs can be in, or move into our out of.
Now, players can do pretty much anything, make their attacks, move around, etc., within a single zone. The amount of feet moved doesn’t need to be tracked, but passing outside of a zone means you used your full movement to get there, assuming it is feasible to move between the zones. If the door to the “Back Room” is locked, you may have to be more creative to move from the “Common Room” to the “Back Room.” This helps decide if folks get hit by an area of effect, decides what enemies are where and seeing which PCs, but beyond that it takes all of the grid-tracking usually required.
Of course, if the fight takes them into zones that you haven’t put down at the beginning, simply add them. They head out the back door? Now give a quick description of it and add a card that says “The Alley.” Goes the other way? “The Street.” See?
I find this stuff a little less effective in large scale or longer distance battles, but it is really effective at managing indoors, and small, dirty, battles with lots of terrain types or changes.
2) Numenera - Less DM Dice Rolling
In Numenera, the Game Master doesn’t touch dice. If a player wants to say, make an attack, they roll against the rank of the thing they are attacking, and if that thing wants to attack them back, the player rolls to defend. It is a simple and elegant system, and no one at the table is unsure if the GM is taking it easy or going hard on the group. Everything is all out in the open. Now, I am personally (but your fun isn’t wrong, it’s just me) against fudging rolls from behind a DM Screen. If I know or suspect that my DM is doing that, I automatically have about 25% less fun according to my calculations. The main reason? I want to know that the spectacular thing I accomplish was accomplished by me, not because the DM took pity.
So now, when I DM for D&D, I try to make most if of my rolls out in the open, for everyone to see. It adds tension to the table, people are staring at the dice as it tumbles across the table, wondering if the big bad is going to smash down their character, and I think it is the ultimate in fairness.
3) Apocalypse World - Threat Clock
I haven’t personally used this one yet, but I am aching for an opportunity to try it. In Apocalypse World the basic use of the clock is to provide a visual of rising threats in the fiction of the world that you are playing in. There are several things that can raise the threat level and if it hits say, “midnight” then something happens. Something like this is used in the D&D 5E adventure Out of the Abyss wherein *SPOILERS* a crew of drow hunters are pursuing your party, and if you do certain things, like leave a trail, wait too long in one place, or if the dice gods hate you, they can get closer and just spring on you wherever in the story you are, regardless of whether you are ready for them. I think that is a very effective tactic in making situations in your world somewhat unpredictable and tense.
In D&D I would adapt the Threat Clock to be specific to whatever you are facing. Let’s say for example the threat that is designated in your world is that the cultists are trying to raise a forgotten dark god to destroy the world. Every time that your players do something that hinders that, move the hand on the clock back, and every time they do something that either takes too much time or fails to hinder, or even helps them, the clock moves forward. If it hits midnight, something terrible happens. At lower levels it could be that the cultists find out that the players are after them and start to dispatch assassins. Mid-level, maybe they can summon a couple of demons to hunt the players or even that they suddenly change their plans to befuddle the players’ plans. High Level? Announce that if the clock hits midnight one to three (depending on how often it is happening for your group) times, the dark god will be raised. Each time it does, something bad happens, until the end of all things is upon the world.
4) 13th Age - One Unique Thing
OK, this may be cheating a bit, as I stand by my assertion that 13th Age is still technically D&D. That being said, it’s fantastic designers (Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, the lead designers of D&D 3rd and 4th Editions) have done a few things that are elegantly simple and add a bunch to gameplay. The one that I keep coming back to us your One Unique Thing. The One Unique Thing is something about your character that is completely different from everyone else. It provides no mechanical benefit but should be something that helps to define your character and at its best, provides a springboard for stories involving that aspect of your character.
For example, if your One Unique Thing is that you are “The last in a long line of warriors sworn to protect a dying religion” that sparks a lot of questions that can be answered in gameplay. Why are you the last? Why is the religion dying? What is the religion? And so on. At best, these things are not fully defined previous to gameplay but are discovered organically during gameplay.
5) Night’s Black Agents - GUMSHOE Style Investigations
In Night’s Black Agents you play disavowed spies uncovering a supernatural conspiracy, it is a game about investigations. And you know what is super not fun about most D&D investigations? Binary pass/fail rolls. Let’s face it, rolling a d20 an then adding a bonus or two, especially at low levels, mean that skills are very swingy, giving a relatively high percentage that “expert” characters routinely fail to notice things or find clues, or see something out of the corner of their eye, etc. They either do or they don’t. The GUMSHOE rules system was designed to address that problem, by just making any clue that was imperative to move the plot along, automatic. And the more I thought about it the more that I realized that that is exactly how it should be. How fun is it to have your plot grind to a halt because of one bad roll? Zero! It is zero fun.
In GUMSHOE, the primary clue is automatic, but you can spend skill points to get additional detail or additional clues that help. This can be easily adapted into D&D by allowing the roll, but no matter what that roll is, they get the main clue, the rest is to see extra detail or additional clues that may provide more context or speed up the investigation. And yes, that means that if you are playing that a Nat 1 is a critical fumble of some type on skill rolls, they need to be able to both fumble and get the clue.
OK, so you probably don’t have to stop playing D&D to learn these things.
I am just going to suggest that you read and play as many other games as possible, even just to try them and learn from them, because let me tell you, the designers of D&D do, they always have, and it make them better. And a version of 6th Edition’s best and most innovative mechanic is already out there being used somewhere, and it’s awesome.
Quinn C. Moerike is the CEO and Managing Partner of High Level Games, and is continuously working on a million projects. Right now, he is working with a team here at High Level Games to develop a new setting featuring anthropomorphic heroes for Savage Worlds called Archons of Nikud. He is also the resident grognard here and deeply appreciates his childhood tactical play of moving ten feet and then checking for traps.
Picture Reference: https://www.amazon.com/Numenera-Corebook-Monte-Cook/dp/1939979005
There has been a lot of complaining about the Pathfinder playtest, and believe me, I’ve done my share of it. And though I summed up what I felt was wrong with the game as a game back in October with My Final Thoughts on The Pathfinder 2nd Edition Playtest, I’d like to talk about something tangential that I feel hasn’t been covered as much in the debate of whether or not the playtest is or is not a good game.
Because I’ll admit that it’s functional, even if I feel it’s held together with duct tape and string in a couple of places. However, what it is not is Pathfinder as we know it.
That isn’t just grognard-speak for, “This new version of the game isn’t the one I learned, so therefore it’s ruined!” either. Because Pathfinder wasn’t just another fantasy RPG in a market where you can hit one of those by chucking a rock. It was a game with a very distinct identity, as well as a unique heritage that allowed it to fill a particular niche. It had a brand, and the people who played it (or who asked about it) understood what made it different from the competition.
This new version we’ve seen and played, though, doesn’t carry through any of that uniqueness, and it feels like it’s trying to ride the brand name without offering any of the things that players associate with the brand. For example…
1) Copying What’s Popular (Instead of Being The Unique Stand-Out)
When Pathfinder first claimed its market share, it did so by lifting the falling light of the DND 3.5 engine. There were other games using it, sure, but Paizo took that engine and made it bigger, faster, louder, and stronger. They carved out their own niche, and when the 4th Edition of DND under-performed, Pathfinder existed as a viable alternative that was mechanically different from 4th Edition in a lot of meaningful ways.
This new playtest, though, feels like it’s trying to play catch-up rather than stand-out.
While it’s true that it isn’t exactly the same as Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition, you can see whose homework Paizo was copying with this playtest. And while 5th Edition is a stand-out in the marketplace, it’s on the other end of the kind of play that Pathfinder tends to be associated with. So it feels like Paizo is just trying to be more like the latest success story, which isn’t working because that game already exists, and this attempt to hybridize it is just not going to appeal to players who like Classic Pathfinder or players who like 5th Edition.
2) Limiting Mechanical Freedom
One of the biggest selling points Pathfinder has, in my view, is the sheer amount of mechanical freedom it offers. If you have a character concept, there is probably some way you can make it happen using the rules and options as they exist. And you aren’t just re-skinning an existing mechanic so that it looks different; you have the specific mechanics you need to manifest your idea.
My best example for this is playing someone descended from storm giants. In 5th Edition, for example, there is nothing that stops you from making this claim. You can use it to justify a maxed-out strength score, and describe your character as blocky and gray-skinned. If you’re playing Pathfinder, though, you can take a feat that states explicitly that you are a storm giant for all effects related to race. And if you take a second feat, you are now immune to any effects of electricity damage. It’s more than story justification; according to the physics of the world, you have storm giant heritage.
There are dozens of examples in Pathfinder Classic of this kind of mechanical freedom. You want to play a character that’s half-orc and half-elf? Cool, take this racial option and this feat. You now have a half-elf with a bite attack and tattoos, or a half-orc that can do tricks with a bow usually reserved only for elves. You want to play a Jekyll and Hyde character who literally transforms into someone else? There’s a prestige class for that. You want to be a celestial being raised on another plane who is coming to the material world as a foreigner? There’s options for that, too!
The playtest, though, is all about rigidity of path and tamping down on your mechanical freedom as a player. Multiclassing is discouraged to the point that it feels token, all classes are forced to make choices that narrowly define their abilities and progression, and the new feat system has all the complexity of the old one without any of the mix-and-match ability you had to make exactly the character you want to play.
One of Pathfinder’s greatest strengths as an RPG was the flexibility of its mechanics, and how you could blend them to form exactly the concept you wanted without having to bend any of the rules as they were presented. In this playtest you’re stuck with archetypes whose abilities are rigidly defined, and which gives you almost no options to meaningfully deviate from the path that’s been laid before you.
3) Pointless Complication
Pathfinder was always the crunchier fantasy game on the market. If you like a game that had rules for what penalties you deal with when you’re drunk, to exactly what saves you need to make to avoid drug addiction, then Pathfinder was your jam. However, even if you found some of the rules cumbersome or unnecessary, you could at least envision situations where they would be useful.
The playtest kept all the complexity, but distanced it from scenarios where it helped rather than hindered.
The best example of this is the bulk system. In Pathfinder Classic (and most games with encumbrance rules) you simply look at your Strength score, and that tells you your light, medium, and heavy loads, as well as your maximum amount of ability to lift, push, etc. The playtest uses a bulk system, which means you have to look up an individual item, determine what its bulk value is, and then run your attribute through a formula to figure out how much bulk you can carry.
You might argue that they were just trying to do something different, but any playtester would have told you immediately it was a bad idea. It overcomplicates a simple mechanic that most players would like to ignore in the first place, so why would you do that?
You see it all over the place in the playtest. If you want to make a combat maneuver like a disarm check or a grapple (things that, previously, any character could just try to do), now you need to make a specific skill check. Not only that, but if you’re not trained in that skill, then you may not even be able to attempt the thing you’re trying to do. It’s the same line of thought that staggers out your racial abilities over a dozen levels, because it makes complete sense for a half-orc to get darkvision only once they’ve killed enough monsters to activate the eyes they were born with.
Pathfinder players aren’t scared of a complicated game. But they’re used to the complications at least making sense, and too much of this game seems to have been complicated for no other reason than to make it crunchier even if those changes added nothing to the experience but irritation.
For more gaming thoughts from Neal Litherland, check out his Gamers archive, his blog Improved Initiative. To read his fiction, drop by his Amazon Author Page!
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/pathfinderplaytest
While scanning your monster manual for fresh nasties to batter and maim your closest friends, you may be tempted to flip past the Stirge. As a tiny beast with four measly hitpoints you might fail to see its value as an adversary to even the lowest level adventurers. Stop. I’m about to teach you five steps to turn a buzzing gnat into pure terror and all-out panic.
For the uninitiated, the Stirge is a horrid flying thing that looks like a mixup between a bat and a mosquito. Its wingspan is roughly two feet across, and a six-inch long proboscis hangs limp from its face. To feed, the creature flexes powerful jowl muscles, transforming its sagging sucker into a ridged spike that it plunges deep into the flesh of its prey, drawing great volumes of blood as sustenance. They’re weak, they’re crunchy, they’re barely a snack, but when run right the stirge is absolute nightmare fuel.
1) Scourges Of Stirges
A stirge is like a locust or a rat. A pest by itself, but like all pests, you’ll almost never find it by itself. Stirges travel in scourges. No seriously, that’s the collective noun for a group of the horrid things. If you encounter one or two of these bloodsuckers a good crack with the business end of a heavy stick will probably do the job, but a scourge of stirges is something very different.
This is where you abandon the standard course for encounter design. Most encounters are fought to the bitter end. Not this one. Stirges travel in swarms so big that no adventuring party could exhaust their numbers. Maybe no army. Like locusts they descend on entire towns, leaving utter devastation in their wake. Where locusts obliterate crop fields, stirges suck the literal life out of every warm-blooded creature they can get their creepy pincers on; livestock and people alike.
Step one is to think of stirges as an event rather than an encounter. It’s not something you come across, it’s something horrifying that happens to you, to the town you’re in, to the community of people you’ve sworn to protect. A stirge encounter should be run like a hurricane.
2) Foreshadow The Event To Build Suspense
In The Birds, Hitchcock didn’t drop flocks of feral seagulls out of the sky without warning. He lets the tension build throughout the film by gathering more and more of them on wires and jungle gyms.
Set up the encounter long in advance by making your players think about the stirges before they’re a threat. Have a few perched on fence posts or circling above like vultures, then have their numbers gradually grow. Have townspeople who have experienced scourges of stirges in the past start becoming unnerved and then unglued as more of the little beasties arrive, as sheep and cattle start turning up dead with big hideous sucker holes in their sides. Give some of those people big old scars from proboscis wounds in their own necks and chests. Make this place well aware of what’s coming.
Watch the drive-in scene from the movie Twister. These people live where tornadoes are a persistent threat. Most days are normal days, but the threat of an unstoppable cataclysmic force dropping out of the sky is always looming. When the winds pick up, it takes about a minute for absolute panic to set in. That’s the way to run a stirge event. The people of this community know the danger they’re in better than the party does, but they’re about to learn.
3) A Scourge Is Not A Stirge
A stirge will grab onto you, plunge its proboscis deep into your flesh and suck the blood out of your body. That’s the threat. Absolutely horrifying obviously, but I want to impress upon you that the threat of a scourge of stirges is much more than just a lot of that.
Don’t get me wrong, it is going to be a lot of that. One after another of these repulsive bloodsuckers are going to latch on and pierce you with their fleshy spike-ended mouth-straws, and if you rip one off, two more are going to take its place. I just don’t want you to think that that’s the extent of your problems. What happens when a few hundred of them land on the roof of the rickety old barn you’re hiding in? It collapses on your head. If you’ve never been smashed in your face place by a big swinging joist take my word for it, you’re going to lose half a skull and a good bit of brain. With that many wild things thrashing around, mounted torches and candle sticks are going to get jostled. Things are going to catch on fire. People are going to go crazy. Your party will be dealing with absolute pandemonium, and anything you can dream up that goes along with that.
4) Keep Them Outside, Keep Them Moving, Make Shelter Scarce
If you’ve ever had to deal with a hornets nest you know that the terror mostly disappears when you scamper flailing back into your house and the door clacks shut behind. Don’t give your party that. Give them reasons to go outside. Give them long distances to run with only a few sparse overhangs, tree branches, or wood-sheds to crowd into for moments of respite before they’re overcome again. If they find a really good shelter give them a moment to build up that false sense of security before burning it to the ground. Give them children and infirm elders to protect in wide open spaces. Watch The Birds, The Mist, Twister, The Swarm, or any other movie where people are trying to survive a catastrophic event by hiding in doors. You’ll find that there’s always a reason to go outside.
5) Lay Waste And Move On
I think this final point is the one that really matters for inspiring a feeling of earnest dread. When the event is finally over, it’s not because the party saved the day. It’s not because of some daring do or some heroic sacrifice. It ends the way most catastrophic events end: without rhyme or reason. The sky clears, the daylight returns, the scourge moves on. It leaves of its own volition and you realize that you’re powerless against it.
Then you’re left with the aftermath. A town has been raised, people have died, the communities entire store of livestock has been decimated, and now they must recover. A stirge event reminds us that while our characters may be heroes of great power, the world they inhabit contains dangers well beyond even them.
With these five steps you can turn a 4hp ⅛ CR monster into an event that your players are sure to never forget. From that moment on, anytime a stirge turns up or flies by you’ll send waves of terror rippling across the table, and they’ll never look at a mosquito the same. Good luck!
Ryan Cartner and Dustin Hoogsteen are indie tabletop game designers at epiclutesolo.com. They are creating one game every month in 2019. You can download the first of these twelve planned releases for free at www.epiclutesolo.com/blog/games
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/432204895463483101/
Welcome back to our new feature, Storytellers Vault review, in which we take a look at various books our creators group is reviewing. We will be hosting various reviews of non-group works in the future as well.
1) Progenitors Crash Cart, Volume 2 by Shannon W. Hennessy - Matthew 7/10
The Progenitors Crash Cart took an interesting approach when organizing and presenting this book. All of the book spirals out from a single spindling point. This point is the fully fleshed out character Dr. Evan Grillard. The first chapter of the book covers the Doctor's history, current situation and a full character sheet. The following chapter after that covers in much greater details about organizations and the forces surrounding the Doctor and the city around him. The final go into merits, gear and rotes that would be used by progenitors. But all finding ways to connect back to this central npc. It was a fresh approach and the book makes it easy to base a story or even a campaign off the information presented just using this book.
From werewolf biker gang to an entrenched Verbena covenant. Even a mention of a nearby Black Spiral Hive. But to learn more pick up the book for yourself and give it a read. I should start this part with I'm not a good judge of art by any means. But, as much as I like this book I need to say, the art felt off. I like the art and the text, they seemed to having a jarring effect put together in this book. However, this is just my opinion. This supplement is useful in the hands of a Storyteller. It has great detail and plenty of ideas to pull from. Resonance granted for by this review is Bad Medicine.
2) Progenitors Crash Cart, Issue 2 - Josh 8/10
First up: full disclosure. Shannon and I have done work together and I admire him as a person and a creator. That said, I really enjoyed Crash Cart Vol 2 for the reasons my fellow reviewers have mentioned. By starting with a character, and moving into deeper elements of the world being built this book actually flips the normal style of approach to the World of Darkness, and it works. It works in a way that sort of makes me step out and wonder how to present books I do in the future.
Satyros Brucato does a wonderful job when he is at the helm of Mage, but it is always interesting to see another writer’s take on a topic, particularly when they are also doing the design and layout guidance. It’s like approaching the same spell from different paradigms, and it works. I’m very happy to have purchased a copy of this book and I would heartily recommend it to those that are interested in Mage and the Technocracy in particular.
3) Progenitors Crash Cart, Issue 2 - Emma 9/10
Despite its name, I found this book to be very much usable on its own!
Mostly for Storytellers, of which I am, I think this is one of the few Mage books that managed to be a great starting point for a couple of scenarios, be it directly for mage, or for other lines such as vampire which I'm far more familiar with.
I do not want to spoil its contents details, my apologies. Centered around one character's particular work and goals, the players can very much be their students or colleagues, as there are hints of other similar structures elsewhere (a subsidiary in another State? yas!), or investigate the events and rumors surrounding their existence, or plain antagonists to any other game. The author tackles tastefully one very specific American issue: healthcare and the opiod crisis, and the choice of Tampa, Florida isn't a coincidence, imho. I would have appreciated slightly more digging in that, but storytellers are free to do it on their own, so the choice is appreciated.
The powers described in this supplement are very fitting to the theme of the characters involved and would very much be useful to any Mage ST, and the relationship to the rest of the WoD cast is fueled enough to run on its own.
I believe this is a great product that can be easily tweaked to your personal chronicle or setting, and perhaps slightly toned down for those who play with more realism, or for players who aren't playing extremely experienced mages, or kept as it for a more epic over the top feel in terms of power level.
The unique aspect of this book relies on how it is presented with the character first, then the branches out. I found that very immersive and interesting.
The art placement and choices are quite fitting, including the hand drawn pieces that would have needed just a little digital clean up, but it's just nitpicking. I would have enjoyed a clickable table of contents but it is not much of a hinder in a 22p book.
4) Progenitors Crash Cart, Issue 2 - Sebastian
This book, primarily about a single character and his activity in the region, is a fun read. The author presented a web of usable personalities and motives which could be easily adaptable to our games. The presentation, layout, and uses of the game rules were all used very well. I might place more importance than others on layout. Perhaps it is superficial of me, but I like to feel like I am reading a Mage (or whatever other game when referring to other documents) supplement. This didn't disappoint.
The specific thing I liked about this short book was that all of the information was relevant to the characters and events. Yes, "flavor text" is great, but is a distraction when it isn't relevant. Same goes for entries like new powers, new items (Artifacts, etc), and other extensions of rules mechanics. This book made use of everything the author put into it.
The only thing I didn't care for really only comes down to how we all play the game differently and enjoy different aspects of it. The characters involved seemed a little too powerful or heavy-handed. They could work as masterminds for a larger chronicle based upon the actions of the Doctor and his associates, but the book just scratched the surface for potential stories like that. Similarly, if scaled down, I could see them as being very fun elements for characters to directly interact with. I really love crossovers, but in this case I would likely adapt this book to just slightly reduce the amount of "heavy hitters" from each of the supernaturals present.
Overall: fun ideas, absolutely could see using it in my games, but would reduce the power levels of provided characters
This book can be found here, on the Vault.
D&D Beyond has been around for a while now. It promised a new way to access the game system and new tools to help with our games. I've spent a lot of time using D&D Beyond as a DM and player, so I think it's time for me to give it a proper review. Here are six things I like and a bit about what I don’t.
1) Quick Rules Reference
This has got to be the number one benefit to using D&D Beyond; I use this more than anything. As long as I'm spelling my search right it works well. D&D Beyond helps a bit with misspellings, suggesting as you type via dropdown, and after the search across the top in a “did you mean” fashion after the search as well. Searching for a spell or monster in the middle of combat is fast and will even show a preview of the top result so I can start reading right away. In addition to searching, having multiple tabs open to different characters, monsters, or spells is a wonderful substitution for phone pictures, typing in notes, or especially copying everything by hand. Linking is also possible if you want to have an encounter ready in OneNote, or your own digital note taking tool. If you dig into the code a bit (or use a chrome extension) you can even link to specific headers on the page! I have even set up a DM screen in OneNote with links to the appropriate rules.
2) Popup Information
Something as simple as a small window popping up while hovering over a link is so elegant it makes popups a top feature for me; one I want in everything now. Hovering over a hyperlinked spell, actions, conditions, items and other mechanical bits will give you a quick popup (providing your resolution is above a certain threshold) detailing that bit. It's super useful for conditions and spells. You can even add these into your own homebrew creations.
3) Traveling Light
I am an over-prepared DM. I like to have a lot of things ready at my table if I need them. Sometimes I pack a rolling bag full of minis to bring to a game. With D&D Beyond, I can leave all the books at home. With eight rules references and twelve adventures as of this writing, this lot can get big. I also have all the monsters, items, and characters bits from all the adventures integrated into the main lists, saving me having three books open at once for one monster casting spells. A tablet paired with my All Rolled Up makes it so I can have all my 5e gaming needs (and any others system in pdf) in a small, easily portable package.
4) Custom Homebrew And Tools
The D&D Beyond team has been working hard at delivering editors to create our own (at the time of this writing) backgrounds, feats, magic items, monsters, races, spells and subclasses. They've even made adding homebrew an easy task, not some technical chore, so you can let your creative juices flow. Using D&D Beyond with chrome opens up a whole other avenue of customization with plugins that let you easily link sections, as well as organize and build your own encounters, initiative lists, and even add links on maps to their respective room descriptions! The team has really supported the community in the building of the site.
5) Sharing Books
While still limited to three campaigns D&D Beyond lets you share your whole library with anyone in those campaigns. You can post notes (and DM secrets) to the campaign, whitelist homebrew content (your as well as others), and, as a DM view character sheets. This is great during preparation if you are looking to notify everyone of something, such as the next game time, and creating encounters balanced to the party.
6) Printing And Reading
I've encountered a couple of tricks while using D&D Beyond. Viewing on a mobile device, or with a browser at a smaller width, and using a scrolling screenshot, I can screenshot an item and print it out on a three by five card to hand out to my players. Reading on mobile or tablet is nice, especially with the app that is in beta, but I do most of my reading on a kindle. With the save to kindle extension installed in chrome I can view the books a chapter at a time and send them formatted for reading to my kindle.
All in all, I find D&D Beyond to be a boon to DMs but not as useful to players. The site is being worked on and updated constantly, however. More and more non-retail book content is being added, like Lost Laboratory of Kwalish and the Tortle Package, and two Extra Life donation rewards. Someday maybe even non Wizards of the Coast products will be on there. There is no reason for me not to embrace this fully, as while I love the feel of a book, I prefer to stay digital because of space and manufacturing resources. The only downside to digital that I've encountered is not being able to flip through the book to find a specific page by sight.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog, both of which can be found at www.slackernerds.com.
Picture provided by the author
A casual roleplaying game is one that has very few rules and mechanics. Most rulings are adjudicated on the fly, and for this reason they require a fair GM to run. The majority of roleplayers have a negative bias towards casual roleplaying games without having ever played any. Hopefully, with this article, I will be able to convince you to at least try them out!
1) Take A Break & Relax
Sometimes you can get tired of a really long campaign or a certain theme or setting. Maybe you’ve had a difficult week, and all you want to do is blast aliens with a space cannon instead of solving the delicate intricacies of a complicated plot full of intrigue and mystery. But you also don’t want to spend hours creating new characters or learning an entire new system.
Well in these cases, casual games are the way to go. They almost always have very short manuals, sometimes even being a single page long. They are also usually universal, meaning they have no setting or theme attached. Because of this, casual games are great for taking a short break.
2) Be Creative Again
Most crunchy roleplaying games don’t allow complete freedom, as you are limited by the mechanics of the game in one way or another. Your character ideas have to fit the predefined rules of the game or otherwise it can end up being unbalanced or ‘broken’. Casual games use the same rules for everything. This means that a time-traveling samurai with cybernetic implants is just as powerful as a wild barbarian with a two handed axe. It may seem weird at first, but it allows you to be creative with your character designs. It doesn’t matter what your character is, because it's going to be as strong as everyone else. So what really matters is how your character does things. Because the rules are also light, it means you can attempt almost anything and the rules will cover those actions very easily. This allows players to be as creative as they want without thinking too much about rules, and without putting any strain whatsoever on the GM.
3) Involve New Players
It’s also an ideal moment to invite new players to your table. Most detailed systems have very large manuals and a complicated rule set that must be learnt before a player can effectively join a game without slowing it down to a grind. Casual games usually take about 5 or 10 minutes to explain every single rule in the game. New players are also a great addition for casual games, because since they have never been bound by the rules of any system, they tend to be much more creative with their actions. After one or two sessions, these players might be willing to put a bit more effort and join your regular table.
4) Letting The GM Play
Contrary to popular opinion, most GMs like being players. A casual game is an excellent opportunity to switch who is running the game and let your GM take a break. I can assure you they will be grateful. Some casual games also have mechanics for in-game GM rotation, where everyone takes a turn at running the game. Others can even be run without a GM. It is also a great learning opportunity. Running a game will teach you many things that you can use when you are a player again. It is also good to learn what it's like being the one behind the screen.
5) Practice Your Improvising
Being a GM, one of the most difficult and useful abilities is improvisation. Without improvisation, every campaign you run will feel forced and players will lack any type of freedom. Most GMs don’t like improvising for fear it will ruin their campaign. Thats why, once again, casual games are a great time to train and hone those skills. If you’re feeling lucky, you could even improvise the entire oneshot, just following the players leads and seeing where that goes. I only recommend that as an exercise and not a style of running games. It can go either way, resulting in excellent stories or terribly dull ones.
Some of the universal casual games I recommend are GURPS-Lite, Risus, Tango RPG, and Freeform Universal. If you want to play a short casual game that is tied to a specific setting you can try Lasers & Feelings, Honey Heist, The Witch is Dead, and Cthulhu Dark.
There are many others out there, I hope you try some of them out!
Rodrigo Peralta is a roleplayer and a DM that likes to playtest many different rpgs. He enjoys both highly detailed complex systems and barebone casual games. He participates in local roleplaying events as both DM and player.
Picture provided by the writer
My earliest RPG experiences were with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, 4e, and Pathfinder. These are (each in their own right) wonderful games, full of arcane character options and high-powered tactical abilities that make it fun to build characters and fight monsters. However, while I have nothing against them personally, these are games I would have little to no interest in ever playing again and certainly never GMing again. This is in part because playing only those games gave me a narrow perception of what tabletop RPGs can be. Even D&D 5th edition, while more streamlined, is still far from my ideal game. I don’t mean to incite anyone to anger, again I have nothing against it personally, but for anyone with any interest in this artistic medium, it’s important to recognize that there are other kinds of games with other kinds of assumptions. With that knowledge, one can best leverage the strengths of a given system, or find the system best suited to a given game or to their preferred style, or bring aspects from one system to another. With that in mind, here are four games that changed how I think about tabletop RPGs.
1) Tenra Bansho Zero
This is a Japanese tabletop roleplaying game, one of the few that has been translated into English, and one of the first non-d20 games I ever read, although unfortunately I still have not played it. I would like to play it one day, but even if I never do, even just reading it opened up my mind to new ways to think about tabletop RPG mechanics. The setting is a science-fantasy alternate universe based heavily on Japanese culture, history, and mythology. It explores subjects such as the introduction of Buddhism into Japanese culture and its relationship with Shintoism, the conflict between the indigenous peoples of Japan and the ethnic Japanese, and the psychological impact of transhumanism through body horror. The biggest hook of the system, to me, was the karma mechanic. During character creation, you may accrue karma points to give your character stat boosts or special abilities, and karma can also be spent in-game to succeed when you would otherwise fail or do things that would normally be impossible, a sort of cinematic “anime-mode.” However, if you accrue enough karma, you become an asura, a demon, and your character is taken away from you to become an antagonistic NPC. Characters have a series of personal goals, and accruing these goals allows you to accrue points which can be converted to karma, but also resolving these goals allows you to relieve karma. While the mechanics in games like D&D 5e tend to focus on combat, the idea of using game mechanics to reflect a narrative or philosophical construct radically changed how I thought about what tabletop RPGs can be.
2) Narrative / Story Games (E.g. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, FATE)
Narrative or story games are generally defined as systems that are simple, flexible, and intended to facilitate a particular kind of narrative. There are some contentions around the usage and definitions of these terms, but for the purpose of this article I think this is a useful way of thinking of these games. FATE uses a simple and customizable skill pyramid as the skeleton of all of its mechanics. Characters can effectively do anything it would make sense for them to be able to do from a narrative perspective by rolling a relevant skill. They may spending FATE points on aspects, short descriptors that interact with the environment or narrative, to give themselves benefits to their rolls. Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, and other Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games are constructed for a very specific setting or genre. Actions are engaged with moves, meant to facilitate character interaction or interaction with the narrative. These actions are resolved with given degrees of success and failure on the roll that always keep the game moving forward. Both can be easily modified and are designed to be modified, but I like FATE Core for one-shots since it’s so simple and has a cinematic, fail-forward approach to gaming. I’m still wrapping my head around PbtA games, sometimes I feel like the mechanics in those games just get in the way of me doing what I would be doing anyway, but for someone with no experience with this style of play, these games can serve as good instructions for how to tell compelling narratives in a tabletop RPG.
3) Cypher System (Particularly Numenera)
Cypher system, initially created for the game Numenera, was designed by Monte Cook, one of the lead designers of D&D 3rd edition. He is a somewhat controversial figure in tabletop, but regardless of what you think of him as a person or businessperson, he is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in tabletop. Cypher is hands-down my favorite system, and while it seems to have carved a niche for itself, I think it’s a shame that it’s not more popular. Monte has stated that he designed the system as a way to correct for some of what he perceives as mistakes he made with D&D 3rd edition, and it feels as a result like a blend of the aforementioned narrativist games and traditional D&D, with some unique mechanics I have not seen anywhere else. It is super easy to run as a GM, with most obstacles or enemies being reducible to a single number. It also finds a strong balance between a wide variety of relatively deep character options that make character building fun, but does not pigeon-hole you into specific builds or become so deep or complex as to stifle storytelling. Many people seem to struggle with its three stat-pool system, which acts effectively as HP and ability points which can be spent to lower the difficulty of tasks as resolved by a d20 roll, but I think if you can wrap your head around it, it’s one of the most distinct and flexible mechanics of any RPG (although that may require a post unto itself).
The Numenera setting is also excellent. The book is packed full of beautiful art, the system is embedded within the game so the Cypher core book is not required, and the setting itself is flexible and open to interpretation. It’s a post-post-apocalyptic, far-future science fantasy setting, one where ancient and advanced technologies indistinguishable from magic are utilized by a medieval world that has sprung up in this glorious refuse. Besides being a perfectly weird setting in itself, it also explains how to build a weird world and tell stories within such a setting in a way that really changed how I thought about worldbuilding. Despite having read so many science fantasy novels, I don’t think I really understood what makes weird worlds work until reading Numenera.
4) OSR (e.g. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells)
OSR, or old school renaissance (some people prefer to say revival), refers to retro-clones of old school (pre-3rd edition) D&D or games derived from those systems. OSR is defined by a complex and highly debated set of properties and sensibilities, but is usually associated with player skill over character skill, intentional lack of game balance, high challenge, low heroics, high mortality, randomization, and GM “rulings” over rules. While once narrow in scope, this term has more recently been associated with games that share these sensibilities but are not strictly tied to old school D&D. Popular examples of OSR games include the weird 17th century-esque Lamentations of the Flame Princess, the slightly more mechanically deep Dungeon Crawl Classics, and more recent games like Into the Odd, Maze Rats, and Sharp Swords & Sinister Spells, which are novel systems in their own right. Honestly, OSR is not my preferred style of play, but it is certainly an interesting way to think about tabletop gaming. It is distinct from the crunchier, more tactical games like D&D 3.X, Pathfinder, and D&D 5e, and also from the narrative games. It is worthwhile to understand the history of the medium, and also to explore this new branch of an old style of game, and if nothing else, it has attracted a scene of writers and artists doing really weird, avant garde, novel worldbuilding and game designing. Quite frankly I think it’s the most interesting work in tabletop gaming at the moment.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every game you should play (or read), but these are a handful of games or game-types that have informed how I think about tabletop RPGs. I know I spend a lot of time in my articles talking about worldbuilding, and I consider myself a worldbuilder first and foremost, but game mechanics can inform a setting. Two games set in Forgotten Realms or some other traditional fantasy setting can feel completely different depending on whether you’re playing the heroic, tactical D&D 5e, or playing the deadly OSR games which encourage roguish behavior. A karma system like Tenra Bansho Zero allows you to explore philosophical conceits within the game itself. Narrative games allow you to tell a collaborative genre story without the game mechanics getting in the way of the story. Systems like Cypher may give you the best of all worlds, and a setting book like Numenera may make you a better worldbuilder and GM. No need to trash your D&D 5e or Pathfinder books, but if you’ve ever thought, “I wonder what else I can do?”, give some of these games a look!
Max Cantor is a graduate student and data analyst, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes people will use or be inspired by his ideas!
Picture Reference: https://cdn.pixabay.com/photo/2016/07/07/16/46/roll-the-dice-1502706_1280.jpg
In a world of vampires, werewolves, mages, and even stranger creatures, it can be hard to stand out. For White Wolf’s line of creature horror RPGs, it can be harder still to keep the formula fresh. The new World of Darkness series (later renamed Chronicles of Darkness) was built with uniformity in mind. Each creature type had 5 subtypes and 5 social groups that defined them. Therefore, even though some mechanics and flavor would change between, say, Vampire and Werewolf, much of the experience felt tired and formulaic. Enter Mummy: the Curse, one of the last of the creature RPGs to be released before the Chronicles shake up. Though it shares the same basic structure as the others in its line, Mummy wildly alters the game’s feel. Here I’ll discuss why it’s worth a look, even if that look is a brief one.
1) Inversion Of Power
In most RPGs, characters raise their power levels through experience and fight to accomplish greater and greater tasks. In D&D, this means leveling up and going from protecting the town to saving the world. In World/Chronicles of Darkness, this means watching your creature gain dots in a powerful supernatural trait (Blood Potency for Vampires, Primal Urge for Werewolves). This gives them access to stronger supernatural abilities and allows them to eventually increase their attributes beyond normal mortal limitations. The creators of Mummy needed a different style, else their undead beasties would basically just be Vampire reskins. When the Mummy wakes, they begin play with the highest level of supernatural power available to them (called Sekhem). They still gain experience and can acquire new power or raise their skills, but their sheer capacity for supernatural influence begins at near divine levels. Over time, the Mummy loses its raw might, eventually returning to slumber once more until called again, This makes for a mighty opening to a campaign; players can take their Mummies to an ancient enemy’s stronghold within the first few sessions and accomplish the incredible with little planning. There must, then, be a balance to this power. This comes with Memory, the antithesis to the Mummy’s almighty Sekhem.
2) Limitations Of Memory
In another major change, Mummies begin play with only 3 dots of their “morality” trait, less than half that of their creature counterparts. Memory not only serves as the morality rating of the Mummy, dictating what actions they can accomplish without compromising their human values, but also how much they recall about their previous awakenings and their origins. At 3 dots, they care little about inflicting harm on mortals, and can recall only vagaries about their previous existence. They know their name and their purpose, but little else. As the Sekhem wanes over time, Memory can increase. This replaces supernatural might with the personal history of the Mummy, uncovering the identities of past lovers, friends, and joys. The descent into madness and inhumanity that often accompanies World/Chronicle of Darkness games is here reversed, allowing for bursts of strength followed by a softening of one’s heart and one’s muscle. Will the Mummy break from their curse of unlife and find apotheosis amidst a world they scarcely recognize? Or will they ignore their relationships and connections in favor of accomplishing their duty, that they may again sleep? Suffice it to say this change has implications far beyond the mechanical.
3) Redesign Of Format
It is possible to play Mummy: the Curse in the same fashion as other World/Chronicles games. Each player takes the role of a Mummy and works, mostly in concert, to secure vessels of power and combat supernatural foes. However, Mummy lends itself quite well to a distinct design. In our game, for instance, only one player controls a single Mummy. A second player is playing his timeless companion, a Sadikh. And all the other players are cultists, normal humans with little to no supernatural power. Because the Mummy is so powerful, it can be cumbersome to have a group of 4-6 of them running around, wrecking a city within hours of game start. With this new format, the Mummy must choose when to apply their power and when to use more subtle means. Cultists can make deals, get the Mummy on planes, and exploit important resources. This becomes even more meaningful when we take into account the fact that the Mummy cannot interact with most of humanity within the first few days of their reawakening. The cult acts as that important medium. And while they are fanatically loyal to the Mummy, they are still independent actors; their will is their own. It’s unwise to disobey the great master, but not impossible.
If you play a lot of White Wolf or Onyx Path like I do, then you tend to know what to expect when you open one of their books. Mummy pleasantly surprises, and while the lack of a major power progression keeps it from being an effective years-long campaign, it certainly makes for a satisfying and interesting short one.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer 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: http://theonyxpath.com/category/worlds/chroniclesofdarkness/mummythecurse/
As an advocate of solo D&D, one of the most frequent questions I hear is “how do I get started?”
Such a question, when posed in a setting such as a D&D Facebook group, can elicit a wide range of responses.
“You can’t play D&D solo. It’s a social game…”
“I think there were some solo modules that came out with first edition...”
“You mean video games, right?”
...which can all be a bit discouraging for someone eager to get into a bit of solo play.
Despite what you may have heard, solo play has been part of D&D since the very beginning. The first edition Player’s Handbook was released with a solo adventure included to teach the basic rules. This was my introduction to the game, and being my first experience of D&D, is probably why I spend a big chunk of my time creating solo resources for players. Also, TSR created many solo modules for use with the first and second editions of the game, in particular the XSOLO series. Some of you may even be familiar with gamebook such as Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf, and if you grew up in the 80s (especially in the UK or New Zealand or Australia) and were into D&D, chances are you were into those gamebooks as well. In the US, “Choose Your Own Adventure” books were a big hit, but I never got into these as they never called for dice rolls or combat scenarios.
This is not to detract from the social aspect of the game in any way. In fact, as you will see, it adds to and supports the social aspect. This is for those times in between games, or when you can’t find a group to play with.
There are a number of reasons why someone might want to play solo D&D, but probably the main one is that they can’t find a game. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of five things that will get you started playing D&D solo. And by solo, I mean without a Dungeon Master.
1) Get A Flipmat And Minis
To really make your solo play tangible, tabletop is the best way to go. And the best way to do that is to get yourself a flipmat and some minis. Paizo put out a product called “Pathfinder Flip Mat: Basic Terrain Multi Pack” which is a set of two, double-sided flipmats that portray wilderness, dungeon, ocean and urban backgrounds for you to draw on with dry erase markers.
Add miniatures to this, and you’re all set. Of course, Wizards of the Coast has a huge range of minis for every class, which you can find online or at your local game store. My method is to buy the mini, then create the character that fits with it.
You can start tabletop adventuring even cheaper than this. Go and buy a bunch of one inch washers from your local hardware store, then get some sticky paper and a one inch holepunch. Find a cool image for your PC, then print it onto sticky paper, punch it out with the holepunch (or adhere it to the washer and cut around the edge with scissors) and voila! Flat, circular tokens for your gameboard. You can do the same with monsters also.
If you are really strapped for cash, you could use coins or even dice to represent PCs and monsters. And you can find all sorts of great maps on Dungeon Master’s Guild (there’s a lot of free maps packs) and sites like dundjinni.com. With a little creativity, you can have a cost-effective tabletop setup in no time.
2) Question / Answer Mechanic
All right, you’re all set up and ready to get started with your solo tabletop campaign. What now?
You are going to need some tools to effectively replace the Dungeon Master. And the most important of these is a question/answer mechanic.
Simply put, this is a way of getting answers to questions using dice rolls as you journey through the adventure. Solo adventuring is pointless unless we can create the adventure as we move through it, so that the twists and turns are revealed as we encounter them. The most well-known version of the question/answer mechanic is the Mythic GM Emulator, which uses D100 rolls to answer yes/no questions framed by the player. There are likelihood modifiers (adjusted according to the current situation) and also a Chaos Factor which goes up or down according to events within your game. Also, every time you roll a double (11, 22, 33, 44) you get a random event, the nature of which can be determined by rolling on another table (or by any table you might choose to introduce). Mythic GM Emulator is available on Drivethrurpg here).
In my product, The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox (available on Dungeon Master’s Guild here), I created my own version of the question / answer mechanic which uses d20 rolls to get yes/no answers, with a likelihood modifier. This is basically a stripped-down version of the Mythic Mechanic.
Let me give you an example of a question / answer mechanic in action.
Lorna and Dumon, a druid and a ranger, enter the town of Wadale after several days on the road. Casting her eye about, Lorna looks for an inn.
At this point, the solo player poses the question: Is Lorna able to find an inn? (All questions need to be framed so they can be answered with either “yes” or “no”).
The town is a reasonable size, so it’s likely that there is an inn here. Using my own Q/A mechanic, the player can use the modifier +2 (Likely), and then make a d20 roll. The results could be as follows:
In this case, the result is an 11, but when we add the “Likely” modifier of +2, it pushes the result up to 13, which is a “Yes”. (If “maybe” is the result, then perhaps an investigation check is required). From this, we know that Lorna is able to find an inn. Now we can move to another table which tells us the nature of the inn, the name of the inn, what NPCs are there, and other details. Combining those elements with question / answer rolls, we can move through the adventure with ease.
3) Story Elements And Setting
It goes without saying that you will need a world for your adventurers to travel in. There is something to be said for using an established setting. All the worldbuilding has already been done for you, so when you reach Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms (for example) all you need to do is grab your copy of the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting (or type “Neverwinter” into Google) and you will instantly see what sort of things your PC might be dealing with.
But then, there is homebrew as well. The beauty of soloing with homebrew is that you get to flesh out your world as you travel through it!
By “Story Elements” I am referring to a way of answering specific questions, or providing detailed answers that the question / answer mechanic is incapable of furnishing. In the Mythic system, there are the Event Meaning Tables, which provide 100 subjects and 100 actions. Using two d100 rolls, we can create infinite combinations such as Travel / A Burden, Malice/Magic, Inspect/Messages, Disrupt/Leadership and many, many others.
In The Solo Adventurer’s toolbox, I have a chapter called Story Element Interaction Tables which provides a list of basic situations according to terrain, accompanied by a list of 499 verbs which the player can roll on until a situation presents itself.
4) Tables. Lots Of Tables
In order to generate a wide variety of encounters, situations, locations, NPCs and all the other things that make up a campaign for your character, you will need a large selection of tables and random generators to help you generate these things. Let me introduce you to a few excellent tools that will help you create all the variables you need for your campaign.
DONJON RPG TOOLS: If you are not already familiar with this site, you need to get to know this one. This site is a go-to for DMs and contains generative tools for creating NPCs, taverns, merchants, monster encounters, loot, towns, dungeons… everything you need for a full campaign. Pair these resources with a question / answer mechanic, and you are underway. Check out the Donjon page here.
With a goal of creating a one-stop shop for soloing, I created a similar spread of tables for The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. But I also encourage players to use any tools that come to hand.
D100 TABLES: Here is another crazy resource that I found on Reddit one day. This is a community created selection of tables that covers just about everything you could think of, and more. Even if you’re not a solo player, this is well worth a look. Check out this insane collection of tables here.
And last, but by no means least, there is the concept of journaling, which is arguably the most crucial component of solo adventuring.
Simply put, journaling is the act of taking notes as you adventure, documenting your characters’ actions, discoveries, motivations, NPC interactions and everything else that occurs within the course of your campaign. There is no need to get overly detailed with your journaling. For example, you don’t want to be interrupting every stage of your quest to note: “Draxar moves down the corridor, then comes to a junction. He continues west, then comes to a door. It is locked. Taking out his thieves’ tools... “ etc. You don’t require that level of narration. Instead, you can let your PC complete stages of the quest, then summarise those stages in your journal.
What journaling does is make your adventuring concrete, and also provides you with a record of clues, quest notes, important NPCs and other things. It also goes a long way towards replicating DM narration. By entering the notes of the quest as you venture through it, you are effectively becoming a sort of pseudo-narrator yourself, telling the stories of your characters as they venture through your world. If you are venturing in your homebrew world, then these notes can form part of your worldbuilding.
And there is an added bonus to all this: once you are finished with your quest, you can convert the adventure concept for a full party. So your solo adventuring accomplishes two aims at once!
So, to summarise, solo D&D is definitely achievable, but we need to assemble a few tools to streamline the experience and make it easy and enjoyable. The five points listed above will be enough to get you started down the path of solo adventuring, and should provide you with a framework to create some meaningful and immersive quests.
With a view to facilitating freeform solo adventuring, I created a product entitled The Solo Adventurer’s Toolbox. It contains all the things listed above (apart from flipmat and minis) and much more, comprising a complete system for freeform solo adventuring within any world. However, following the points listed above should be enough to get you started.
Also, come and find us on Facebook: we have a group dedicated to solo adventuring named Dungeons & Dragons Solo Adventures. It’s a great community where you will find many tips and resources all related to solo adventuring.
Paul Bimler is a writer of solo adventures for D&D and releases under the small label 5e Solo Gamebooks. He also teaches music production and lives in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand. So far Paul has five gamebooks and a number of other products released on Dungeon Master's Guild. He also runs a Facebook page named D&D Solo Adventures.
Picture Reference: https://www.dmsguild.com/product/235268/DD-Solo-Adventure-Tables-Of-Doom--5E-Solo-Adventuring
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games