It’s easy to picture some literary characters slotting right into your next D&D campaign. For starters, you could fill up a party with adventurers plucked right out of Middle-earth, from Gimli the dwarven fighter to the mysterious ranger Strider, a grim stranger whose weatherbeaten looks hide the noble bloodline of an incognito king.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to Lord of the Rings, which feels almost like cheating. After all, its role in shaping high fantasy as a whole makes it a not-so-distant ancestor to D&D. To really stretch your creative muscles, why not swap out Tolkien for Cervantes, turning Don Quixote into an ardent, windmill-tilting paladin? Or, try building out Odysseus, the “man of twist and turns,” as a rogue who’s ten steps ahead of everyone else on the map.
If you’re the kind of bookworm who longs to slip between the pages of your favorite classic, the tabletop is the closest you’ll get living out those portal fantasy dreams. Just think: roleplaying is all about storytelling, so why not let some of the best storytellers in literary history join you on your next campaign?
And if you don’t feel up to homebrewing a whole setting in homage to your preferred literary masterpiece? Don’t let that stop you. Here are four games that make classic literature playable right out of the box, whether you’re in the mood for axe-shattering adventures or white-gloved courtship.
Released within a decade of the original D&D, this minimalist offering from Fantasy Games Unlimited is ancient among RPGs. Of course, it’s got nothing on its epic source material. The 1980s might have been the greatest decade, but the eighth century BCE was the greatest century. Or so you probably believe, if you’re tempted by the sound of a Homeric adventure game.
No matter what your feelings on the Odyssey-versus-Iliad debate, Odysseus has you covered. Contrary to its name, it’s an equal-opportunity Homeric game engine. In other words, you can use it to relive the Trojan War or to fight your way back home to Ithaca after its conclusion. In fact, because the rulebook focuses so heavily on combat (hand-to-hand and, in a true Homeric fashion, ship-to-ship) it might actually be better suited for running an Iliad game than an Odyssey one.
Either way, Odysseus makes it easy to get an ambrosial taste of life as a Homeric hero, complete with high-stakes battles and prying patron gods. As for whether to outwit a Cyclops or to stoke the rage of Achilles, that part’s up to you. May I suggest you kick off your gameplay with an invocation of the muse?
Speaking of “epic,” here’s an option for aspiring heroes whose tastes lean more Geat than Greek. Like Odysseus, Handiwork Games’ Beowulf claims descent from the western epic tradition, broadly speaking. But this is a very different game.
Created last year for D&D’s 5th Edition, Beowulf has a relationship to its source material that’s far more playful and meta, if no less reverent. Rest assured: this is a more sophisticated adaptation than that Angelina Jolie movie from 2007. For one thing, Grendel’s mom won’t be wearing built-in stilettos.
Beowulf provides a particular boon to those of us who are a little crunched for time: it’s optimized for duet play. The rules will stretch to accommodate a more traditional party, but all you really need to run it? A hero and a gamesmaster. That way, you’ll be able to play even if you only manage to rustle up a single friend who shares your enthusiasm for aiding the Spear-Danes against the monster Grendel.
Whether you’re the player or the GM, you’ll have need of song and good cheer before the evening’s done. Just make sure one of you remembers to bring the mead!
3) The Play’s The Thing
Imagine having the Bard of Avon as your GM. Mistaken identity and ill-timed suicides, donkey transformations and exiting pursued by a bear…. He’d have plenty of plot twists to throw at your unsuspecting party. But of course, you wouldn’t be unsuspecting, not if you’re a Shakespeare fan. Ophelia drowns, Romeo drinks the poison, Lady Macbeth goes mad from the stain of murder on her hands. You can see the tragic endings coming from a mile away.
Luckily, this playful offering from Magpie Games gives you a chance to mix things up (or to save your favorite character from their grisly, scripted fate). This open-ended storytelling game lets you play as, well, a player: a member of a theater troupe putting on a Shakespearean drama.
But you and your fellow actors quickly throw off the Playwright’s attempts to railroad you (which, in this case, means “get you to perform the play as it’s written”).
This isn’t a number-cruncher’s game: if you prefer minmaxing to melodrama, The Play’s the Thing may not be for you. But for armchair thespians and wannabe dramaturges, it provides the perfect stage for acting out Shakespearean what-ifs to your heart’s content. If you’ve ever wanted Juliet to run off with Rosaline instead of Romeo, now’s your chance. Now ask for your robe and crown, because your immortal longings are about to be fulfilled!
4) Good Society
This lavishly produced jewel of a game ranks among the best that indie RPG has to offer. If you didn’t think Jane Austen would translate well to the tabletop, the folks at Storybrewers Roleplaying are here to prove you wrong.
With its focus on romance, reputation, rumor-mongering, and social events, the game boasts social mechanics sophisticated enough to put many combat systems to shame. But the game’s narrativist (sense and) sensibility means you won’t be rolling dice to “win” the social season. (In fact, there aren’t any dice at all!) Instead, you’ll be fleshing out your character’s relationships and motivations to tell a compelling, collaborative, Austen-worthy tale.
To keep your DIY regency romance coherent, Good Society comes pre-stocked with tonal playsets: Farce, Romantic Comedy, and Drama. That way, you’re free to channel Emma with light-hearted social satire, or to go full-on swoon-worthy with a Pride and Prejudice remake.
Maybe you’re a diehard bibliomane whose Penguin editions share shelf-space with your rulebooks, or maybe you want to relieve your AP English glory days. Either way, there are plenty of games that can bring some literary flair to your time around the tabletop. It might make you see a hoary old classic in a playful new light.
Lucia is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the industry’s best editors, designers, and book marketers in self-publishing. In Lucia’s spare time, she enjoys drinking coffee and trying to shoehorn a character from an interwar comedy of manners into a medieval fantasy campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magpiegames.com/our-games/theplay/
Dungeons and Dragons is all about imagination and improvisation. But sometimes, we can get caught up in the grind and the game loses its magic. Bring your game group together for a no pressure day or night of fun with a figurine Painting Party!
1) Make it a Party
Organizing a "painting party" with your DnD campaign group can bring you together in a fun and relaxing way. The campaign party is more than just a group of people playing a game, you’re, presumably, friends. And a great way to bond as a group is to kick back with some paints and some snacks, and have a blast talking about your favorite adventure or even what’s going on IRL (in real life). Painting the figurines together also gives the opportunity for input from your party. You might need a tie-breaker for what color your armor should be, or you might receive the best suggestion on what color will best show off your special weapon.
2) Bring the Game to Life
The adventure of Dungeons and Dragons relies on a lot of imagination, and sometimes having tangible representations can make the magic of the game even more real. Utilizing figurines on the board, rather than just tokens or markers, makes you feel more connected to the action. But taking it a step further and painting your figurines gives another layer of “reality” to the campaign while making the game feel more unique to the party. Of course, there is the option of buying figurines already painted, or commissioning an artist to paint them for you, but you lose that personalized quality that comes with painting them yourself. Painting figurines by yourself can sometimes seem like a lonely chore. Making the activity into a party with your group makes the work go by faster and makes it a lot more fun.
3) Conquer as a Team
Painting your character figurines, and even helping the Dungeon Master (or Game Master) to paint some of the monsters you'll face, can bring out even more ideas about your character and how you'll interact together as a team. It could be a fun surprise for the DM to reveal that you’ll be painting a Lich that the party will be fighting at some point down the road, without revealing when that fight will be. It makes the game board more engaging to customize the monsters and NPCS (non-player characters) you face to give them added personality. What if your skeleton army suddenly had runes painted on their bones? A whole new story could be unfolding in the DM’s mind because of some creative painting choices the group made just for the fun of it.
4) Take a Break from the Grind
Hosting a painting party can also be a great break to take in between long campaigns to refresh your imaginations and get back to the roots of why you love playing the game and with whom you love playing it. Painting isn’t about rules or the luck of the dice, it’s all about letting your imagination take over. Sometimes the game can get too serious and tempers can flare. Getting back to basics and spending time with your group in a no pressure setting is the perfect way to bring back the fun of the story and the rewarding challenge of working together.
5) Discovering a New Hobby
An afternoon painting figurines with your friends might be the opportunity that reveals your love for painting. Whether it be painting figurines for other groups on commission, or even doing canvas paintings, all it takes is that first joy of selecting colors and seeing your creation come to life. DnD is a great platform to discover and grow other creative pursuits, such as drawing and writing stories. Exploring color and form through painting is just another way you can tap into your imagination and experience the magic of the DnD world.
It's important to remember that a Painting Party is meant to be fun, so painting skills are not required. Have a laugh or two, swap stories of your favorite battles, and get back to the magic that turns game night into an epic quest!
Alice Liddell is an author, artist, and performer who loves bringing magic and fantasy to all aspects of her working and personal life. Whether it’s DnD with friends, or a round of Fable solo, Alice has always loved gaming of all kinds. You can find her work on her social media handles Facebook, or under littlalice06 on IG and Twitter.
Online gaming is bigger than ever, with role-playing games growing in popularity with each passing year. As technology continues to improve, so does the gaming experience. Gone are the days of slow load times, poor graphics, and boring storylines. These days, it’s the highest-quality games that see the most success.
Gamers in Canada in particular, have developed an affinity for online casinos. More than ever before, sites offering casino bonuses explicitly for Canadians are seeing loads of traffic on a regular basis. Looking at the google trends data for casino bonuses in Canada, it validates our research to be true.
But the experience itself isn’t only about betting money. It’s the unique thrill that casino games and even seemingly innocent mobile games offer, that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people are chasing.
Which leaves us wondering, why haven’t we seen a high-quality RPG related to gambling yet?
CasinoRPG.com Falls Short of Filling the Void
If you have a combined passion for RPGs and online casinos, you probably know about CasinoRPG.com. It’s a game that, from the outside, seems like exactly what many gamers are looking for, right? Not so fast.
Arguably the main reason CasinoRPG.com gets so much attention is that it’s the only game of its kind out there. But that’s just as much as a negative as it is a positive. Without any real competition, CasinoRPG.com lacks the pressure that would perhaps motivate it to be a better RPG.
Instead, it seems as if those who designed it relied on the fact that it was a one-of-a-kind game. Given the amount of potential that exists simply by combining an online casino and an RPG, you would think we would have a lot more at our fingertips. Simply put, we don’t.
Elements of A Successful, High-Quality RPG
Have you ever given much thought into what it takes to make a great RPG? The most popular and successful RPGs like Final Fantasy 7 and Zelda have the following ten elements in common:
CasinoRPG.com, unfortunately, lacks several of the elements listed above, which is why we are still left yearning for something else.
A quick look at some of the top online casinos will show you what is particularly popular in the industry. Many online casinos have even gone as far as to develop their own fantasy “worlds” for the sake of entertaining their customers. How hard can it be to take it a few steps further and transform that world of online gambling into an even more immersive RPG?
Additionally, part of what makes RPGs so exciting is the opportunity they create for players to “escape.” Online casinos tend to avoid this, worrying that it can lead to unhealthy and addictive gambling habits. But what if we could combine the two in a way that allows a person to escape reality, without putting themselves at risk. That’s precisely what a high-quality casino RPG can do.
Whether real money is involved or not, it all comes back to the gamer’s desire to be entertained in a way that feels real. Recreating the lights, sounds, and overall ambiance of a casino, for someone who never even has to leave their home.
The opportunity is there. The interest is more present than ever before. It just comes down to someone having the desire to create the ultimate gaming experience that can bring millions of people from two different worlds together.
Once you have a world, you need to build a campaign, this will give you an idea on where to start.
1) Start With A World, Either A Published Campaign World Or One You Have Created For Yourself
There are several products online from which to choose from, from many reputable publishers. There are also a countless number of homebrew worlds, so the precedent for custom world creation is more than evident. Once you have chosen a world then you need to determine what you are going to do with its history. You can either follow it or not, change it or not, or combine a couple of other worlds histories into one until you get a history you like. Or just start from scratch. The advantage of using a pre-created world’s history is that you can use the various supplements that are published for that world.
The advantage of using your own history is that no one will know it like you will and you can write as much or as little as you want. You can also take a set of nice maps and then create a totally custom history that has nothing to do with what the world’s publishers had planned. That is fine; that is what makes it your own world. For example, the Pathfinder world of Golarion has a crashed spaceship and gunpowder was discovered. I know quite a few DMs who hate to allow gunslingers and a few who ignore the spaceship references because they don’t want science fiction in their D&D game. So they ignore those parts of Golarion’s history and just don’t have them in their world. However, they can use other parts of the published system and the supplements written for the game and the world of Golarion.
Gary Gygax was all for people creating their own material. He gave the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide as possible items that could be customized, changed, or improved as the DM wishes. When it came to artifacts he wrote in blank lines and a list of suggested powers and lists of drawbacks for each artifact, several lists in fact. One of the first rules in the DMG was “All rules herein are optional.” That means you can do whatever you and your players want in campaign creation. The important line here is “you AND your players.” Make sure your game is interesting for your players and something that they will want to play in. Gary Gygax published the little book set, then the red and blue book set, then 1st edition and then a couple of years later he published the World of Greyhawk, which was his campaign world. He wanted people to create their own worlds and not just use stuff that he created. He was reluctant to lock people into his ideas. The World of Greyhawk had a beautiful color map with a hex grid, but only a pamphlet for the history section. Some nations got only a paragraph of history. The idea was to present a starting point and have you build upon it and create your own stuff. If you bought his dungeons and modules then you would get more of his campaign’s history, but if you made up your own stuff that was perfectly fine.
2) Good Places To Start
You could start with a discussion from the DM, a poll, a list of ideas, or a gab session where you as a group discuss ideas that you would like to see in a game. The first three require that the DM comes up with the ideas, while the final suggestion allows the group to come up with the idea, although it has the ability to grow out of the DM’s hands.
Another consideration for planning your game is its future. I have created over half a dozen different worlds and used several published worlds in my game. Each game was its own entity and I seldom worried about what type of game would take place after the current game. My first campaign world was just the Geomorphic maps from Avalon Hill tank games. I know a DM who has run the same set of three game worlds for over 30 years. He takes what players have created in the past and builds upon it. When players make changes in his worlds they are reflected in the next game. He has a long complex history because of this. This is fine for him, but bad for his friends and his wife who played in multiple games and were told that they were using out of character knowledge when they referred to knowledge a past character had. That penalized his regular players. Now if he had some items that were part of the historical record and some items that were secret then he wouldn’t have penalized his players as much. He could have used some characters as NPC heroes and heroines in his game. He could have let them use some of the common history those characters knew instead of requiring everyone to start at ground zero.
D&D is designed to be run over however long the DM and the rest of the group can sustain it, usually years. There are some groups that have been playing for a decade or longer and there are new groups starting each day and groups falling apart each day. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking only for the next session, the next game, or the next module. Start planning for the future, whatever that may be. Yes, almost always some of these plans will go unused, but you can always recycle the data later. Always keep this thought in mind: “what next?” What will happen after this session, after this module is done, after this game is done, and in my next game? The job of a DM is to think outside of the box and to think ahead of the players. This is the chief reason why it is so hard to be a good DM and why so many of us love the job.
3) Session Zero
Assuming you have an idea for your game the next step is to plan session zero. Session Zero is that session where you sit down and talk with your players, inform them of what game you plan on running, and find out what characters they are going to play. This is important to do, it can be done in person or done over Skype, over the phone, or over email. The important thing to do is to build a campaign the party will be interested in and have a crew of players and characters that fit. For example, if you have a freewheeling pirate adventure where the players skate the edge of the law and on the run, then it would be foolish to expect a paladin to star in such a game. Not impossible, just unusually hard on the paladin. By the same token, a last-ditch defense against a horde of orcs with the party manning and organizing the defenses would be a good game for a paladin to join.
Founded in 1888m, the National Geographic Society organized and sponsored expeditions to explore the darkest corners of the world. When a party was planned to explore Egypt, an arctic explorer was not brought along, nor was a big game hunter. Instead it was an Egyptologist, someone who spoke the local languages, and someone who spoke the former languages of Egypt who were included. D&D was designed for a party of core characters; a rogue, a fighter, an arcane magic caster and a divine magic caster who can heal. The further you move away from this “standard party” the harder it is going to be on your group. Now the DM can make adjustments like removing traps or allowing wands of cure light wounds to fall into the party’s hands early, but these are forced constraints. A game is better when you don’t have to force the issue, especially when dealing with the basics like the “standard party.” Just like a National Geographic Society party is going to include the proper mix of people, your game should include the proper mix of characters.
Now you could hold a Hogwarts Academy adventure where the party all are fledgling wizards who are trying to get an education, but this would require a custom game and a way for the party to heal themselves or a way for them to bypass traps. All standard Adventure Paths and Modules are written for a party of 4 who are of the “standard party.” If you don’t want to run a “standard party,” or the players don’t want to form a “standard party” then you can’t use standard Adventure Paths or Modules. This has been true since the times where there were only six-character classes and it is still true today. You can do it, but it will be harder on the party if you do and as DM you need to make adjustments.
I was once in a game with three players. We had just split the group and a power gamer had left. When we reformed the new party all of us took on hybrid characters. I was a magus, so I had to handle front line fighting as well as arcane use. The shaman had to handle his pet as well as cure wounds and the Investigator took other skills rather than Disable Device. One problem was this DM felt we had to design our characters on our own, with no input from each other. We honored that rule and we suffered for it. That game didn’t go well and for the first seven levels my character died at least once a level, and I didn’t die the most, nor do I recall the amount of times I came close to death as it was too many times to recount (practically every fight). If I had been a fighter class then I would have had more hit points, worn better armor and would have handled the front line better. It took the DM a while to adjust to the party mix and our inherent handicaps by not being a party of core characters. Now there are a lot of people who will argue about this and say that they can build a party out of any characters. They are ignoring one of the core concepts of the game; the “standard party.” You ignore the standard party and the requirement for it at your party’s peril. I recommend that you hold a Session Zero and you let the players discuss what they are going to play and try to form a “standard party.”
A way to make sure you have the “standard party” is to include more players or to include an NPC who picks up the missing role. Just be sure that if you use an NPC, they don’t steal the show from the players. I have seen too many DMs who have major NPCs who act to do amazing things and steal the shine from the party. This is a case of the DMs roleplaying with themselves; I call it DM Masturbation. If you have to include an NPC in the group then make sure that they have some clear flaw, like an unsound tactical mind, or a tragic flaw which could be their undoing. Or maybe they are reluctant. It is up to the party to recognize the flaw in this NPC and to make sure that it is not their own undoing. Make the flaw one that is playable and not fatal. A rogue who sneezes every 10 minutes is going to have a hard time sneaking around, where a rogue who is absentminded may have to be reminded now and then what they are doing or trying to do. The first flaw is very taxing to play and may make the character unplayable, the second character will make sure the players follow the absent minded one around and keep prodding their memory. If you don’t have an NPC with a flaw, then make him a coward or make him hesitant or give him some feature that will cause the party to not trust him. In short, make them fallible. You don’t want them to outshine the players.
4) Starting The Game
Once you have your party, and once you have your Session Zero, then you can start your game. Most DMs like to find or plan a module or an Adventure Path before they talk to their players about starting a game. What you might consider is a range of Adventure Paths or modules that can be strung into a game; then you can give your players a choice of what they want to play. Of course, this means having to prepare or read a bunch of modules, but one way is to use rotating DMs and when a DM is half-way through their game have the next DM discuss what they want to do for their next game. You can hold a gab session or vote from a list of planned items, then the DM who is to run next can take the rest of their friend’s turn at DM to write up or prepare their campaign. This not only helps to prevent DM burnout, but it gives the next DM the ability to prepare before they have to run.
5) What Happens Next?
So now you have created your world, or found one, and you have a world history, either custom or cookie cutter. You have talked with your players about what the party composition should be, you have picked a campaign you want to run, you are ready to start your campaign. So, what do you do next?
You need to inform your players if you plan on using canned history, or a custom history. If you have a custom history, then you should give the players the highlights. In a fantasy setting the education of the people is variable from primitive, to basic, to advanced often depending on your social class they belonged to. The nobility had more education than peasants, so how much background you chose to give out is going to vary with the player, their social class, and frankly their attention span. Few people are going to want to sit through a long lecture on the obscure vintage of a glass bottle or a country that they are never going to visit. So, be careful about how much text you dump on your players. But even peasants knew the name of the pope and their king and queen, they also knew the names of their enemies be they nations or different faiths. When Guttenburg invented the movable type press he printed a smash best seller: the bible. Coming off of that bestseller he published the work of an obscure Catholic Monk who had problems with the way the Church was being run: a guy named Martin Luther. He included a woodcut picture of Martin Luther on the inside cover, and his face became the most famous face in Europe, better known than any king or queen. And believe me, it steamed those nobles.
The invention of the movable type press and publishing books increased the education level of all of Europe. So, one big question you have to answer in your game is how common are books and are they printed, or do they have to be copied by hand. If there are books and they are available, then a lot of people are going to read them and that will improve the education level of the populace. One nice method available to us nowadays is creating a website. Google Sites allows you to create free websites of almost any length. There are other organizations on the web that allow you to create your own website, like Earthlink, or you can take information from the web and refer to it in your own website. The important thing to do here is to make sure you are abiding by the Open Gaming License, where you are not using copyrighted material. If you do use copyrighted work, then make sure to get permission from the original authors and give them credit for their work. This is also true for any illustrations you use. There is no harm in copying work, but there is big harm in plagiarism, that is theft of work and claiming that it is your own. In my book, that is theft of property and lying to your players.
6) Handling Player Knowledge Vs. Character Knowledge
All players will start with some knowledge and have some character knowledge, both of which are rarely the same. Keeping that knowledge straight is important and not easy. Don’t burden your players with too much knowledge and then not expect them to use it. Just like you wouldn’t want to run a module that someone else has already played in or run, you don’t want to include too much knowledge that is restricted information. Also, once a character gains knowledge then it is hard to restrict that knowledge. You can tell players not to use restricted knowledge all you want, but it is hard for them to do so. One common tactic of TV lawyers is to ask a question of a witness that they know will be objected to. The judge will then instruct the jury to disregard the testimony. The problem is the jury never disregards the testimony. In the old days of 1st edition there were only three Monster Manuals and most DMs and players had read them from cover to cover several times. That is why they would ask you to show them a picture of the monster. If you showed one from the Monster Manual page, then often they would recognize it and could quote its stats. You only had to say werewolf and the players would know its armor class, that you needed silver weapons to damage one, and its Hit Dice. With Pathfinder there are half a dozen Bestiaries, so it is harder to memorize all the monsters, but a werewolf still requires silver weapons to damage them properly. This is now reflected in the Knowledge Skills. This is how you can limit a player’s knowledge to a character’s knowledge. You can also use Knowledge (History), Knowledge (Local) and Knowledge (Nobility) to limit how much your players know about the world in general, and in specific. This is good if you are using a shared world or a canned world created by someone else. You don’t mind if you players know more than their characters, but you don’t want their characters to know more than their DM. Also part of the challenge of meeting a monster for the first time is learning what it can and cannot do and what does and does not work on it. In previous editions of D&D that joy was lost once you read the monster manual or once you had played against that monster. Now with Knowledge checks your players can have that joy again and again.
7) Now How Does All This Relate With Each Other?
Well the character class that the players choose, as well as their traits or their background history may determine their social class which would then determine their basic knowledge. What they know would factor into what happens and what the players can count on in the game. The availability of books also determines the education level of the populace. What they know will shape their reaction to how the game goes. For example, most people in the hobby know about the Adventure Path Skull and Shackles and that it is a pirate game. This is common knowledge and even if your players haven’t read the module, they are probably going to know this as a minimum. The game starts with the DM shanghaiing the party onto a pirate ship. You can roleplay that out, or you can do it with a cut scene. A cut scene is a scene in a video game where character agency is taken away. Part of the story is acted out on screen and the player is told some important things and then given control over their character again. You can do a cut scene where you “convince” the party to join your pirate crew, assuming that they will join to go on with the module, if not then you are wasting your time. If you held Session Zero then you would know that the party will go on with the mission so you can save some roleplaying time by using a cut scene to introduce the party to their new ship and crew. Use cut scenes rarely, as you do not want to too often take away player agency or their ability to react.
8) What To Tell Your Players?
Most modules and Adventure Paths come out with a Player’s Handout. If you are doing a custom campaign, then you should make one for the players. Distribute this handout prior to the game and include things like well-known history for the area, rumors for the area, important people in the area, important locations in the area and what the basic adventure idea is. I don’t like to encourage DMs to lie to their party, but there is no rule against misdirection. Some of the rumors could be false, some of the places could not factor in the adventure, some of the people might only factor vaguely in the module and some of the things you tell the players could be commonly known things that are actual factual errors. In Vampire the Masquerade it is well known, among the public, that salt not garlic is what vampires are allergic to. In fact, most vampires aren’t allergic to garlic in the game. Part of the Masquerade is spreading around false information about vampires and even making them fictitious to most people so that if they see a real vampire, they are not likely to believe it, at least long enough for the vampire to escape or to kill the person. Say that there are vampires in your game who have spread around common rumors that vampires are allergic to salt or werewolves who pass around rumors that werefolk are allergic to cold iron not to silver. A simple knowledge check can be used to recover from these falsehoods, but that is something very few first level characters are going to have enough knowledge to know. This could be true in that the Kessel Run is a hard run for even a fast ship to make in Star Wars, or that bottle caps are used as currency in the Fallout universe. Any game could have secret information in it that is known or hidden or not known. If you have secrets, then as soon as they are revealed you had better determine a way for them to be uncovered in other games. Maybe it is a Knowledge (Nature) DC 15 check to know that Fay are allergic to cold iron, maybe it is a knowledge 10, maybe the fay have planted a rumor that they are allergic to silver and it is actually a Knowledge (Nature) DC 20 check to know the truth. That way if you keep using the same campaign world then when it comes time for a new set of adventures to explore the world you will know what they need to do to not act on “out of character information.”
Handouts are good for a game, as they increase player immersion and make the game feel more real to the players. If you are creating a handout then include some pictures with it that relate to the topic at hand. In the early days of D&D the only images that related directly to the topic were those in the monster manual. Often the rulebooks and modules used stock images or images from people who didn’t know the game or the situation in the game. That changed with Third Edition and since then the editors have tried to make sure the images relate to the topic you are reading. This increases immersion and understanding. I have collected a lot of images from Facebook and Deviantart.com so when I plan on showing a monster’s image in the future, I can use one of my images I found instead of the canned one from the Bestiary. That way the players won’t be sure it is monster X with Z and W abilities. Another way to avoid that is to reskin a monster; use one image for another monster’s set of stats. It is best to use a custom image this way. The players will have no way of knowing what you are using or what its real stats are so you can juggle around a few abilities or weaknesses. Now it is harder to do this with a classic monster like a dragon or a medusa, but how many know what a flumph can do, or can picture one? They are lesser known monsters published in the Fiend Folio and were hardly used because they were designed poorly.
Now what if you take a panther man and create a werecat (not a weretiger, there is one of those already) who can take the forms of a house cat up to that of a mountain lion. They get the mountain lion’s attacks or the normal cat’s attacks or the attacks of a small cat (as per the animal companion) if in bobcat form. Now you have a totally new were-creature and no one is exactly sure what it is since you are simply using a cat’s stats and a were-creature’s ability to shape shift and their damage resistance to silver. You can have a village that is suffering attacks from some nasty animal and no one would suspect the housecat lounging on the windowsill. The easiest monsters to make up are demons since they are chaotic and there is an endless array of shapes that they can be formed into. The most common demon is a mashup creature like a Marmolith; a cross between a giant snake, Kali (the Hindi goddess of destruction) and a human female. So, you can escape players from knowing too much by using nonstandard images for monsters, nonstandard monsters, or reskinning a monster. Making up a new monster from scratch is hard to do and even the experts make mistakes now and then. I saw a monster in a module that appears in another module in a toned-down version, because the first appearance of that monster it has a 75% chance of taking out at least one party member in one encounter and that encounter was a major one and couldn’t be avoided. Also, there was no way in the module to bring back the dead at the level the party should be at.
9) Ideas Are Powerful Things And You Need To Include How The Ideas Are Going To Work In Your Game And In Your Future Games
World building is a tremendous task. If you build a world with a secret underground demonic organization that the players find out about, then the next time you run your world the same set of players will expect to find that same organization active again. If you don’t want to throw out your past history, make sure that you have rules for how the players can uncover that information for their characters. For example, the demonic conspiracy may be secret and only known to a few churches and cults, so a character has to have joined a cult or church and gotten past the first circle of knowledge to learn about the demonic cult. This is a simple safety factor. In some games those organizations can be clear and easy to join, in others hidden and hard to find. It all depends on what you want to do for your game. This would let you avoid the traps my DM friend who used his same campaign world over and over created for his players. His wife knew far more than any of us, but he penalized her when she tried to use that knowledge and he didn’t have any rules by which her other characters could get that knowledge, or to rule that they didn’t have it. He just assumed that everyone started out with no knowledge at all and if his wife showed any knowledge, he would accuse her of using out of character knowledge. He could have gotten around that by giving his wife’s character a flaw and access to extra knowledge for that flaw. Then she could even serve as our guide in certain regions and she could be a font of knowledge and an inside track for the players to learn more about his game and thus get deeper immersion and generate more interest. He had a lot of secrets in his campaign worlds, but once we found out about them it was hard to not use that knowledge with our other characters. A few times we learned the same secrets over and over, it took some of the fun out of learning them in the first place. It also took the joy out when we came across his favorite NPC time and time again. It got to the point where I, at least, was sick of them. He had a large world, but we kept coming back to the same areas for his adventures. So, if you create a world or use a canned one then make sure it is large enough that other games can exist in it without falling over each other. One advantage of using Golarion, the Pathfinder world, is that the history was written by a team of writers and the world is vast so it can contain a lot. There is a lot published about the world, but there is a lot of space in between the areas where things can happen and you can make minor changes, like forgoing gunpowder, to make it your own world. Don’t be afraid to do that with any canned world you run.
In summary, start with a world, custom or canned; find what game your party wants to play in and build it; build a party as close to the “standard party” as possible and hold Session Zero; publish a set of your rule variants for the players to learn, use and know; inform your players of what they need to know for background information for the campaign; determine what knowledge is what and how hard it is to obtain, learn, and utilize.
Daniel Joseph Mello is active under that name on the Facebook under the fans of d20prfsr.com and Pathfinder Gamemasters Groups. Feel free to login to Facebook, on of these groups and drop him line. He has been involved in D&D since 1981 and by the 5th game he was the DM. He has gamed in the Army, in college, and at conventions, including AggieCon and NovaCon. He has written tournament level modules for gaming conventions and been writing about D&D on Facebook for over 3 years. He is also a budding fantasy writer.
Picture Reference: Red Hand of Doom: Elsir Vale Map (Player) by Antariuk
Whenever I’ve brought up RPGs from Japan to people, their minds go to the most obvious sort of imagery: ninja, samurai, those neat looking castles, and maybe Shaolin monks (whom are more closely related to the Chinese). After all, most games in the western market are Fantasy based on Medieval Europe, it’s not too much of a stretch to think Japan would do the same.
That isn’t exactly true, since a quick look through the Japanese Amazon site’s 本 (book) section for the term “TRPG” actually yields Call of Cthulhu as their first result, as well as (at least as of this writing, Summer of 2019) the Konosuba and Goblin Slayer TRPGs. The Japanese roleplayers seem to at least harbor a similar love for feudal Europe as we do, though mystery and horror are also big hits there.
However, with the way Amazon’s algorithms work, only the most popular things at the time will typically float to the top, and so if you want to find something really unusual, you should expect to do some digging and asking around. As it turns out, Tenra Bansho Zero isn’t the only game that provokes ye olde Nippon imagery out there the Japanese have made.
Today, for your reading pleasure, I will tell you about Shinobigami, one of Japan’s RPGs about a modern day ninja war!
1) Who Made This?
Shinobigami was originally published in Japan by Roll and Role Imprint, with the English version being translated by Kotodami Heavy Industries, the same company that brought us Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero. KotoHI announced Shinobigami and successfully funded the publishing effort via Kickstarter in 2015.
The translation effort for Shinobigami took a great deal of time, for much the same reason that Tenra did: there are numerous cultural nuances that the translation team wanted to preserve. An additional obstacle KotoHI had to overcome was some of the updates to the technology surrounding crowdfunding games such as Backerkit, and the incompatibilities these new tools have with Japanese banks.
These constant delays lead to fans of KotoHI starting a call and response in joke whenever somebody would mention Shinobigami. One group would shout “WHEN” and another would reply “SOON.”
2) What’s The Premise?
Shinobigami is a game about the very sort of thing one might expect when they hear the phrase “Japanese roleplaying game”: it’s a game set in the modern day about ninjas, fighting an invisible war against one another.
Though it’s not enough that they’re ninjas in a world of secrets and espionage; the ninjas in Shinobigami are superhuman! They all move at superhuman speeds and perform feats that are otherwise not humanly possible as if those feats were nothing. Plus, every ninja belongs to one of many different clans with their own agendas and traits that make them unique, such as a clan dedicated to serving Japan’s national interest, or another that’s composed entirely of supernatural beings such as vampires and werewolves.
Basically, Shinobigami is a game set in the modern world with all manner of intense ninja action!
3) What Are It’s Mechanics Like?
The game follows a pattern of players taking turns choosing between Drama Scenes and Combat Scenes with other characters. Their objective is to discover what each other’s secrets are, as well as setting themselves up to accomplish their mission. After so many cycles, all players take part in a grand battle known as the Climax Phase where everybody involved in the scenario fights each other. During this battle, you either team up with those you think you can trust, or against everybody else.
What truly makes Shinobigami unique is the Skill Matrix: a table of 60 some odd skills that you have no chance of mastering all of since you’ll typically only have 6. However, anytime a particular roll is called for and you don’t have that skill, you can substitute another skill in place of it at a slight penalty based on how far apart the two skills are on the matrix. Assuming you can explain why that substitution should be allowed, that is. This can lead to bizarre or even hilarious circumstances, such as explaining how Necromancy can be counteracted with Cooking.
4) What’s It Similar To?
In practice, Shinobigami is a game of hidden information: you’re learning secrets and other information, and trying to deduce what the best course of action is based on what you can find out. This makes it much akin to games like “Werewolf” or “Mafia.” Though for the unfortunate players that lack guile, there’s a few added steps between the mob deciding to kill your character and then dying.
Shinobigami uses a game engine known as Saikoro Fiction, best explained as one of Japan’s narrative focused games. The skill matrix is a recurring part of other Sai-Fi titles, such as Beginning Idol and Yankee vs Yog Sothoth. The other hallmark of these games is that the rules are built around supporting a narrative, e.g. any skill can be used in place of any other, as long as you explain why, and are willing to take the appropriate penalty. (These penalties don’t include the absurdity of your explanation, only how far apart they are on the matrix.)
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes!! Kotodama Heavy Industries has brought two other games to the English speaking world, and has done them great justice in the translation. This attention to detail made the wait for each of them worthwhile.
Shinobigami is therefore a great example of what RPGs from Japan look like, a fact that the translators took great pains with Shinobigami to ensure. The first half of its rulebook is what the Japanese call a Replay, similar to Actual Plays, but on a written medium instead. The second half of the book contains all the rules needed to play.
Shinobigami also demonstrates that gamism and narrativism can be a false dichotomy. It has rules that are specific and must be followed, yet don’t interfere with building narrative. (In fact, sometimes it promotes narrative!)
Shinobigami is in my list of games that everybody should play at least once.
Aaron der Schaedel sat on this article for half a year, waiting for the release of Shinobigami to be finalized before he passed it along to the editors. This is still a shorter time than he and many others waited for the release of Shinobigami. Apropos of nothing, here’s a link to his Youtube Channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/diamondsutra/shinobigami-modern-ninja-battle-tabletop-rpg-from
When 3rd edition hit the market back in the 90’s, the “Open Gaming” design made a huge splash. Suddenly third parties could make and sell their own products for the game - hobbyists could become writers, creators, entrepreneurs. It was heady stuff, but it didn’t take long for reality to check in. Many products flopped when authors thought that everyone would love their creations as much as their players did, and others lost their heart for the task after having to do bookkeeping. Still, the hobby moves on, and while it’s not the Wild West that it used to be, every few days it seems another hobbyist tries their hand at going pro. I came across the debut module of the Magnificent Creations team, and I have to say it’s as solid as I’ve ever seen. To understand why, take a trip with me through some of the back halls of the gaming industry….
1) Extras To Make Harold Johnson Proud
Most well known as the inspiration for the kender of the Dragonlance setting, Johnson wasn’t big on the meaty stuff as a writer, but he knew his seasoning. In the space allotted to a single adventure, Johnson would cram in three small outlines, plus an abbreviated rogues gallery from the local village to inspire more. Unfortunately, as with kender, Harold often left his adventures so wide open that it was hard not to get lost; everything was an adventure hook and nothing ever concluded. He would lose the steak in all that seasoning. I believe Magnificent Creations has achieved Harold’s often-sought, rarely-found ambition: a small campaign setting packaged as a single adventure, that manages to do both jobs well. The final pages of this short adventure don’t just have a regional map, but a campaign background page with a hot take on each species that can be cross-referenced with the map for anyone who wants to go exploring. The eight deities are enough to cover any non-evil paladin or cleric concept, with symbols and portfolios ready for expansion. The art, the sidebars, the DM’s summary all lend themselves to expansion without confusing or interfering with the strong narrative of the original adventure.
2) Truly Playable NPC’s
One of the best sources of useful flavor is a strong gallery of NPC’s. Just like the balance between the adventure and the campaign hooks, each NPC has to have a balance of visible traits and subtler motivations. It’s unlikely the barkeep will ever mention his absent father issues by name, for example, but drying the same glass over and over again when eavesdropping isn’t useful when you don’t know what topics interest him. Corwyn Catacombs gives all NPC’s a three-part profile for roleplaying purposes: Appearance, Motivation, and Mannerisms/Personality. The first and last allow for strong and varied first impressions: a tall dark blacksmith who fidgets if he can’t keep his hands busy, a blonde cartwright who taps her foot and scratches the backs of her hands, constantly bickering middle-aged shopkeepers. The motivation is useful when you have to extrapolate how the mayor would react to a PC who was an orphan, or how the innkeeper gets along with other dragonborn.
3) Solid All The Way Through
This compliment may not sound like high praise but is actually among the highest: Corwyn Catacombs has everything you would want, and nothing else. There’s no embarrassing sidebar about an optional mechanic that no one would use in actual play, nor is it missing the motives of the major antagonist. There’s a tiny sidebar about how aurks have green skin because they get nutrition from sunlight, but it doesn’t distract or confuse - it inspires. The module doesn’t have any glaring contradictions in the timeline nor a conclusion that relies on the party figuring out that one bizarre weakness the author was so fond of. This may seem like a low bar, but a staggering amount of the material from “official” publications has tripped over that bar, only to land on “The DM can always ignore that part and fill in what they want.” Of course we can, but we buy modules to reduce our workload. Such advice could also be phrased, “Don’t buy our product, just make your own,” yet apologists are shocked when people do exactly that. I don’t see such a fate for Magnificent Creations. This adventure is solidly written, with a craftsmanship that needs no such excuses.
4) Flexible Spine
While DM’s don’t like being forced to do the author’s job for them, it’s still nice to have an adventure that lends itself to adaptation, and here again Corwyn Catacombs performs nicely. It has a cleverly modular structure that allows the DM to insert appropriate campaign flavor in at any point. The most obvious such point is at the end, when the party encounters the final villain. This section of the catacombs has structure and artwork that suggests an ancient and advanced culture, but apart from that, there’s very little foreshadowing as to who the villain is. This makes it amazingly easy to slot in anything appropriate to the setting. If your players would find a necromancer boring, the hibernating spellcaster can be an invoker from long-dead Netheril, or a long-lost dragon highlord, or anything else that fits the bill.
Is it a perfect adventure? Absolutely not; it starts out in a pretty stereotypical watering hole, and I did say the villain is Yet Another Necromancer. In addition, the narrative stretches belief just a little when it says a confused teenager is only “gaunt and haggard” after three days holed up in catacombs that killed a party of seasoned adventurers; more realistic DM’s might have the boy barely clinging to life, and gritty ones might just say he’s dead. Still, the risk of a who’s-on-first skit featuring half-aurcs (i.e green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) and half-orcs (i.e. green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) is far, far outweighed by the volume of information, the solid quality of the characters, and the strong narrative that manages to avoid boxing players in. New DM’s can find plenty here to get started with, and novices can work this adventure into any setting or adventure path. Experts ought to buy it just to rip off the format, so that published material stops tripping over that bar. As of this writing, Corwyn Catacombs is priced at $2.95, making it a solid bargain for any budget.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magnificent-creations.com/the-corwyn-catacombs
I want to get this out of the way. I love writing plot hooks and the first thing I ask a person who is writing a plot is, “What is the hook?”
That said, plot hooks can be a huge problem. You just wrote this huge adventure for your players and you desperately want to give it out, but you can’t think of a really natural way to introduce it. Everything you think of feels wrong or fake. You don’t want to railroad, but you’ve got to have something for game, right? You really have 4 options, the last of which is the one I will be talking about the most, but let's get the others out of the way.
In a Magician’s Choice campaign, you write a broad outline of an adventure with the sorts of things you want them to encounter, traps, NPCs, etc and just reskin it for wherever the party goes.
The party knows about these five hooks
You only wrote one adventure. In it there will be 4 battles of increasing difficulty. They are a scouting party, a guard post, a big enemy, a minor foe, and the big boss. You decide that any of them can be rolled up into the next group as needed. You know that there will be a trap near the beginning with a riddle. Finally, you make a list of basic treasure and draw a rough map.
The characters pick the weirdest one, and the hardest to improv your adventure to, the walking tree. Either before, or in the moment, you decide that the tree’s motive is that they are (fill in the blank here) and the party needs to do (fill in the blank) to help/stop them.
You planned a dungeon, but now you aren’t so sure how it will work. After a bit of thought, you decide that the tree went stomping off through the forest tearing a meandering path through the thick underbrush that just happens to match your rough map. Then flipping through the Monster Manual, or equivalent, you quickly pick out a group of related monsters or reskin something you were going to use before. Orks can be plant men and you only have to look up a cool boss. You can do all this in the customary 15 minute break to get snacks and pee before the action begins.
Now, you know you have a trap and a riddle. The swinging blade is now a whipping thorn bush and the riddle is an encounter with a spirit.
The first few times you do this, it will feel a bit awkward, but over time, your improv skills will improve and you can seamlessly reskin a variety of different adventures to make them appropriate for the moment. In particular, if you do this while keeping the player’s backstory in mind, and drop details in related to their past, they will think you are a genius for always having something ready no matter what they do. And on the occasion where you do need to write a whole adventure that they will definitely be going on, your improv and quick thinking, and design skills will serve you well.
Over time, you will learn that this works really well with adventure based games, but it also works with games more about story, intrigue, and politics. Lean into to tropes, tweak them as needed, and lampshade for moments of surprise. Shakespeare wrote dozens of plots and basically none of them were original. Agatha Christie followed a basic formula in her famed murder mysteries. The real art is in the telling of the story and that is a technique you can learn.
Check me out at OnARollPodcast.com and on our Facebook Group!
Jason Hughes has been involved in playing and running roleplaying games for the past 20 years and wishes that he had been able to do it for longer. He has been a national level Storyteller for a World of Darkness organization and now is on a podcast about improving gaming.
Barak thumbed the edge of his axe as he listened to his companion drone on about the intrigues of court. Prince Kheldar was a master of political schemes, but Barak would have none of it. Give him a good honest fight any day.
“Get to the point!” he snarled. “Did you talk to your aunt about the Bear Cult?”
Kheldar nodded. “You aren’t going to like it.”
“She won’t help?!” Barak was incredulous.
“Oh no, she’s fine with it. We can get the information we need...if we all come to dinner tonight.”
One of the ancestors of the D&D game is the writings of H. Rider Haggard, whose barbarian protagonists solved problems in Gordian fashion. There can be a refreshing clarity to quick violence, but domains like Richemulot, Borca, and Dementlieu are expected to have courtly intrigues, and Nova Vaasa and Darkon are no strangers to social schemes. If you’re looking for a challenge that doesn’t look like a battlefield, consider a formal social event. Whether a private dinner party or a public auction, a social event can have all the thrill of slaying a dragon, if you focus on these seven major challenges. For the first six, it’s easy enough to assign points for varying degrees of success and total them up at the end. The seventh requires a little more scorekeeping, but it’s all worth it to hear a player yell that their insult landed a critical hit.
1) Pleased To Meet You
It’s normal for adventurers to brag about their exploits, but few cultures view brave deeds as the first thing they want to know about you, and many consider it gauche for you to tell the tales yourself. You’ll need to know if formal introductions are based on noble titles, academic degrees, lineage, birth sign, or something else. If you rank below your peers on this yardstick, it’s usually best to admit so up front with a little modesty and wait for an opportunity to speak about your deeds. A good host may give you an opportunity to do so immediately, or a respected member of the group might step in when you are forced to be modest.
2) A Token Of Esteem
Depending upon the occasion, formal gift giving may be expected. If not, it pays to know how a small unexpected token would be received. Whether you’re giving, receiving, or exchanging, gifts represent status, and the subtext underneath a particular choice may have many layers. In the real world, a single birthday gift of Cuban cigars, for example, might snub other gift-givers by the price tag, beard the authorities by being contraband, and bear a secret reminder of a lost weekend in Cuba. On other occasions, gifts can scream rather than whisper. A powerful figure who knows her rival intends to publicly shame her with a priceless gift at their next meeting may hire outsiders to steal it, or to find something worthy of exchange.
3) Clothes Make The Man
In all but the most barbaric of societies, social gatherings call for clean clothes, but that’s just the beginning. Clothes indicate status as much as gifts, and following the latest trends in fashion--or deliberately setting your own--involves a significant amount of time and attention. Even the smallest accessories can speak volumes, and usually do: social movements often identify themselves by a pin, badge, or ribbon showing you support the cause. Even without such explicit accessories, adept socialites can convey subtle messages in the choice of a hat or lapel pin. Reading the messages in a person’s clothing may grant a bonus towards influencing them, or at least eliminate the faux pas of asking where someone stands on a matter when they are literally wearing their sympathies on their sleeve.
4) Soup Or Salad?
You can generally judge how challenging a dinner party is going to be by the number of courses. Each course has a specific set of expected behaviors: utensils to use, bites to take, how to speak, etc. To know how to behave, a PC can either rely on their knowledge of nobility, or just watch other people carefully and do what they do. Prepping ahead of time can grant a bonus to either of these rolls. Failure, however, means an error that the character must mitigate diplomatically to avoid diminishing their status in the eyes of those present.
5) Small Talk: The Smaller The Better
Career adventurers will get the reputation of being crass and insensitive unless they learn to avoid “shop talk” around people who don’t engage in regular mortal combat. The weather may be a boring topic, but it’s a safe one: it’s slightly different every day and no one can be blamed for it. Topics with equally high variety and low sensitivity might include crop expectations, the latest opera or public games, and how fast children grow. Middling territory for small talk would be things like popular books and what people do for a living. If someone at the table brings up politics or religion, that doesn’t make it open season. You’ll usually score more points by steering the conversation back into safe waters than you will by joining in on boorish behavior.
6) Double Your Speak, Double Your Fun
It’s rude to have prolonged side conversations at the table, so folks who want to go beyond small talk had better get good at hidden meanings. Know your default values to exchange innuendo, and consider establishing code words and phrases ahead of time to grant a bonus to these checks. The Message spell is also useful for unobtrusive speech, but the whispers it employs can be overheard. Try covering your mouth with a napkin, or whisper while pretending to take a sip of wine. Once away from the dinner table you may be able to talk more freely with your target, but only if you have an excuse to meet together. Even the most casual meetings can become fodder for gossip, especially across political lines or between sexes, especially in societies that have strict gender roles.
7) Casual Debate
Small talk is intended to avoid arguments, but some settings actually call for something more spirited. To engage in a casual debate is perhaps the closest thing to social combat, and I highly recommend the use of some kind of reputation point system so players can actually feel the progress of the fight. For example, you can extrapolate the “hit points” and AC of each person’s argument from their related skills and abilities, and let people take aim at an argument using various social skills in place of an attack roll. Everyone should have a role to play, but those roles are often reversed from traditional combat: if a previous support character like a bard is suddenly the front-line fighter, allow the mighty thewed barbarian with minimal social graces to support the bard by laughing at jokes and glaring at the opponent to throw him off.
Done properly, a good social event can feel like the party went through a minefield blindfolded, followed by a pitched battle. The fact that reputations were the only casualties only complicates the matter, because losers may have long memories and yearn to settle the score. Of course, this is an adventure game, but you should have enough here to keep it from being boring even before things take a turn for the deadly. If your players enjoy it, you can discuss whether they want just the occasional change of pace or a longer detour. Who knows? Your next campaign might be set in a more socially dangerous setting. With scheming courtiers hiding behind pleasant faces, there’s hardly a need for monsters at all.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.etsy.com/listing/688840794/monte-cristo-invitation-regency-wedding
First, I’m going to flat out tell you I’m biased about this amazing Kickstarter happening right now. I wrote the 5e compatible adventure that comes with the miniatures. However, the reason I bought into working with Northumbrian Tin Soldier was the quality of their miniatures and the excitement and energy of the folks involved. The Kickstarter is already funded, by a lot. They have added stretch goals that really increase the value of each pledge level too.
1) High Quality Miniatures
Northumbrian Tin Soldier creates some of the best miniatures I’ve seen on the market. I have a slew of miniatures I’ve picked up over the years, from Ral Partha, to Warhammer, to Wiz Kids, whoever, I’ve likely got a box of unpainted miniatures from them in my crate of gaming equipment. (Yeah, I’m the guy that never paints his figs… like everyone else). So, when I saw the quality of the miniatures this company produced I was BLOWN away. They are absolutely beautiful. The quality the company produces on a regular basis picks me up and hurls me to the floor.
2) You Get a 5e Compatible Adventure
This is the self-serving item on the list. I wrote the adventure to accompany the miniatures and I think it is a lot of fun. While I don’t want to give away spoilers, it includes some puns, engagement with the setting and NPCs of Crumptown, and hints at a deeper backstory for the world the miniatures live within. My goal with the adventure was to give you a good start for deeper stories in and around the Darkewood, and I think it helps as a pathway into that world. Will there be more in the future? I’m not sure, but it would be great to see this universe get expanded.
3) The Miniatures Are A Great Value
For $78 you get 22 miniatures. I don’t know of any other miniature set which is that good of a value. This includes the stretch goals which have already been unlocked, making this a really good value campaign. On top of that, you can back the campaign for as low as $33 and get 4-5 miniatures that are high quality. The more we add, the more we get other miniatures added to the list too, so, it’s really something that will become an even better value as time goes on.
4) The Cats
The Cats themselves are awesome, both the miniatures and their story information. These cats have been changed by dark forces deep within the Darkewood. No one knows why, no one knows what this may mean for the future, but honestly, the story hooks and ideas are endless. There are cats for each of the 5e core classes, with a short backstory and hooks for other stories that you can run for them.
A.C.: After Collapse™ (A.C.) is a flexible d20 based post-apocalyptic tabletop role playing game. A.C. encourages classless character creation and dynamic world building after a societal collapse of many causes. These could include any type of civilization ending scenario: nuclear Armageddon, ecological disaster, medical epidemic (including zombie plagues or other imagined ills), civil or political factors, an AI menace, or anything else that can be imagined. Gameplay starts five decades or more after the last national government ceases to function. Men and women of this period think of themselves as “Survivors” because they must contend with the unforeseen consequences of actions taken long ago.
All major aspects of the post Collapse experience are scalable in a way that allows each participant to enjoy basic or advanced play. Referees control the extent of knowledge that is available to players before play starts, including background knowledge that provides context and Basic/Advanced skills that could be hard to find or nonexistent.
Temperature sensitive Structure Points can be assigned by referees to anything breakable. These simulate wear and tear that causes irreplaceable equipment to eventually fall apart. Armor Points can be similarly assigned to simulate the durability of armor, weapons, etc.
Players and referees alike benefit from scalable effects of poison, radiation, and the effects of combat (i.e., lethal and/or nonlethal damage). Player characters are awarded Character Points (CPs) by the referee as a form of experience that can be used to improve attributes, acquire new skills, or upgrade basic skill subfields to advanced skills that represent more meaningful expertise.
2) Extent Of Knowledge
Knowledge becomes power as referees decide if contextual background knowledge by category is common, obscure, or lost. Having that context informs players and referees alike of what is familiar to postapocalyptic makers and takers or what is mysterious to them when they first encounter it. The same framework is applied to the Basic/Advanced Skills that represent what heroes and villains can really do.
3) Classless Character Generation
Age determines how much background knowledge and how many basic skills any character has before they are introduced to the setting. The number of dice rolled for each of the nine attributes is determined by the age of the character before they are introduced to the setting. Each is allotted 1d6 for every six years of age, to a maximum of 30 years. One category of background knowledge can be chosen for every full six years of age a character is before play. One basic skill group for every three years of age can be selected for characters prior to starting the game. Players are free to mix and match Basic skills that have been allowed by the referee (i.e., as common knowledge).
Violence is adjudicated in 10 second rounds using a d10 initiative system to decide who goes first on a second by second basis. Characters and NPCs have Target Profile Numbers that serve as “To Hit” numbers (similar to armor class) when opponents want to attack them. That number is reduced according to amount of encumbrance the character or NPC has to slow them down, making them easier to hit. Some attributes provide additional modifiers. Injury is simulated by subtracting Hardiness points when blood is drawn or bodies are harmed; loss of Vigor points represents depletion of physical energy that can result in unconsciousness. Heat signatures and electromagnetic emissions are included for advanced game play.
5) Structure Points, Armor Points
A.C. presents a system of temperature sensitive Structure Points and Armor Points that can be assigned to anything for the purpose of simulating durability. Structure Points are subtracted on a one to one basis when items or objects are damage by combat effects. Armor Points must be overcome and reduced before individuals can be harmed, simulating physical protection factors relevant to combat. Loss of all Structure Points or Armor Points indicates the item has been destroyed.
6) Poison, Radiation
Nothing is more quintessentially postapocalyptic than toxins and radiation. Threat level scales have been assigned to both in an effort to flexibly simulate them in any form the referee wants to portray. Poison can be fast or slow, debilitating (weakening), or lethal. Radiation can be debilitating, harmful, mutagenic, or harmful AND mutagenic. When combined with the effects of weather, sighting rules, heat signatures, and electromagnetic emissions, poison and radiation become formidable threats for any group of intrepid explorers.
7) Renaissance Or Ruin?
A.C. is a postapocalyptic tool kit that allows you to simulate and experience a wide variety of themes and situations. We’ve provided a big backstory to get you started, involving the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Everything from firearms and body armor to electronics has been presented with enough detail to encourage the exploration of a shattered world, crafting to make what you want or need, and as much empire building as you can handle.
Will you learn from the past and make a better future or will you forget the old world and make the most of whatever you can take?
Justin Oldham is a visually impaired writer and game designer who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. He is the creator of A.C.: After Collapse, as well as the anthologies and novels based on the game. They include: Before The Collapse, During The Collapse, Haven’s Legacy, and Search for Haven Justin has written on the subject of his vision impairment. Other credits include: Tales from the Kodiak Starport, Showdown at the Kodiak Starport, Crisis at the Kodiak Starport, Bibix, The Fisk Conspiracy, and How To Write Conspiracy Fiction.
Picture provided by the author.
Three reasons you might love it, and two you might not
Do you love Dungeons and Dragons? Great! Do you love Greek mythology, and have you ever wanted to combine the two? Well, keep reading.
What is ‘Odyssey of the Dragonlords’?
Simply put, it is a campaign guide for 5th edition Dungeon and Dragons, and in this sense is not unlike the official campaigns by Wizards and plenty of other third party products. Where it differs is its setting which, according to its Kickstarter page, aims to “blend classic fantasy with Greek mythology.” Its main selling point seems to be that it is designed by James Ohlen, former creative director at Bioware, responsible for critical darlings such as Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic.
As someone who has long been a fan of Greek mythology, to say I was excited for this would be an understatement. As such, I approached this both as someone who loved reading the (original) Odyssey and someone who’s an avid D&D player.
So what did I think? Well, it’s complicated.
1) It’s A Well-Made Book
The campaign guide itself starts out very well, outlining its mission statement, as it were. It summarises very simply what aspects from Greek myth it will incorporate into yir auld D&D: fate and prophecy, fame and hubris, the importance of oaths. These are indeed major themes in pretty much all stories involving the Olympian gods and ancient heroes, the likes of Herakles, Achilles, Jason. Aside from that, these can make fantastic - if you’ll pardon the pun - elements to add on top of your normal dungeon crawling adventure. These can inform your roleplaying decisions, and seriously affect your characters and the world around them. To that end, I was very glad to see them included and with attached mechanics (more on that later).
Aside from the mechanical aspects, the book is well put together aesthetically too. Right from the beginning you can see the familiar format of a D&D campaign book, but with some Mediterranean flavour on top. The artwork is nice, though in some parts it can get a bit extra - it does sometimes give the impression of an anime take on Greek mythology (make of that what you will). Nevertheless, the book itself is gorgeous, and the character sheets especially are a wonder to behold.
N.B.: The “book” I’m referring to is the campaign guide itself, which is where most of the meat is. The Player’s Handbook is really just more of the same.
2) It’s Some Proper D&D
And it’s not just pretty to look at, it certainly is a competent D&D campaign. The outlined plot works well in its own universe; it even includes a major twist that the GM can have spoiled as soon as they begin preparation. You do get warned, but there isn’t really a way to avoid it if you want to be a good storyteller for the game. Also, you should get over your fear of spoilers, people.
The world that serves as your sandbox is well crafted, with place names, an established pantheon, and even constellations for you to navigate by. The world map being entirely encircled by the sea, one can imagine this will come in handy. The impressive part is that none of this is window dressing, it all has story hooks, plot hooks, with some especially linked to the unique backgrounds you can read about below. That is to say, this world feels alive.
And it’s good to get acquainted with the world, because the campaign’s story will have your party of adventurers wander all over the finely crafted map (and under it, even over it), you’ll interact with a lot of major NPCs and get to decide the fate of the world. More than that, it is a proper sandbox for your players. Not every inch of the map is linked to the story directly, but at a lull in the apocalyptic plot (yes, even the Apocalypse gets downtime), your party will want to explore some locations to discover loot, treasure, quest items, or even some side quests. At higher levels, the PCs are even encouraged to found their own settlements, which is a good way to have them truly become part of the world.
3) It Brings New Things To The Table(top)
In addition to a decent campaign, this setting offers some elements that make it more than just another D&D book. Appropriately enough, these are the Greek elements of the story.
From the beginning, the book emphasises the importance of oaths, curses, fate, and prophecy. So sure enough, these can make their way onto the tabletop. It is a good sign that the designers chose to hardwire these into the game itself by creating appropriate mechanics.
For instance, we know that hospitality is important and that breaking this custom is a heinous crime against the laws of gods and mortals. But in this world, if you break that sacred custom, you get cursed. Break an oath? Cursed. Rob a grave? Cursed! Park your chariot in the wrong spot? CURSED!
Ok, I made that last one up. But the prologue does mention a few major curses than can fall upon the heroes’ heads should they misbehave: curse of the harpy, medusa, graverobber, and the curse of the treacherous. That last one governs oathbreakers and those who abuse hospitality. Break that one and you get the furies sent after you. The literal furies. Well, not those three, but the D&D ones.
Another element, and one that is unique to this setting (in a way), is the pathway to becoming one of the eponymous dragonlords. The concept itself is not original, sure, but it carries a certain weight within the world’s own mythology. Plus, you get a dragon for a ride. Sweet! The process is thankfully more involved than that, with some more or less epic tasks that must be completed. By the end you will become a hero of legend. Which, by that point you probably will have been already, but hey - dragon mount!
Finally, the Epic Paths are another element that are worth mentioning. These are essentially backgrounds in addition to the ones that are part of character creation. Rather than giving you mechanical bonuses, though, they will come up regularly during the game to help or hinder the heroes. Each has a set of tasks that the respective PC must accomplish to fulfil their destiny. This not only adds flavour to the story, but can guide your party’s role-playing choices, as well as give the PCs a proactive task to work towards. Several, in fact.
That was the good stuff. Now onto the less than great parts of it.
4) It’s Really Not That Greek
In the end, it isn’t much more than a regular D&D campaign with a mild Greek flavour.
The story can function unchanged with any pantheon in the multiverse of Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, it seems to be tailored for one such game rather than staying true to its Greek origins and breaking the mould of standard high fantasy. The elements borrowed from its Hellenic source material are essentially aesthetic rather than being a core element of the campaign. Strip aside anything about it that calls itself “Greek” and you’re left with just another D&D adventure book. A good one, but still - for those of us hoping to see proper Greek mythology in play, this is a bit of a letdown.
This is made even more jarring considering that many of the elements that it hopes would set it apart were already incorporated into D&D. The so-called “high fantasy” we’ve all become used to is a smattering of the Western world’s myths all thrown into the same salad bowl. Centaurs were already known to us; harpies, nymphs, dryads, even the erinyes - the furies - these were all present in the Player’s Handbook.
The parts that do make it stand out are really just a bit of seasoning on top of the salad. A bit of added feta, if you will. The epic paths are nice, but it boils down to “get the Mcguffin, be a hero” - you don’t need to be Herakles to do this, any old paladin with an oath is a hero on a mission. The curses are rather underwhelmingly undone by casting the spell Greater Restoration. Sure, it’s a high level spell and it is a common enough element to D&D, but this does make them just another affliction that can be encountered and subsequently ignored in a high level game. At least the oathbreaker curse sends the erinyes after you - who, I remind you, are already in the core Monster Manual.
5) Thematically Uninspired
But more than that, it feels like a huge let down to me personally, as I imagine it will be to anyone who cares enough about the source material and wanted to see it better represented in our tabletop games.
I’ll list off a few elements, as going too deep into this would require an actual thesis.
The moral ambiguity and rapacious nature of the Greek gods has been replaced with your standard D&D alignment bingo - your Lawful Goods, your Chaotic Evils, and what have you. A special notice goes to the goddess of death who, rather than being the only actually decent deity in the pantheon (your mileage may vary on that one), is just straight up evil. An evil sexy woman - for those of you playing the cliché drinking game at home, take a shot. Medusae (rather than gorgons) are a playable race now - and apparently, they got snakes for hair and petrifying gaze because they were greedy in life; it’s an odd perversion of Medusa’s story, mixed with king Midas for no apparent reason.
On top of that, there are several smaller incongruous elements that add up: centurions show up out of nowhere, which are Roman, and in no way Greek, but whatever. One of the magical Mcguffins you get is boldfaced called “the Antikythera.” This part sort of betrays the fact that research into it was probably just a quick snaffle on the webs of anything “Greek.” Sure, the name is Greek, but it literally (and I mean literally ‘literally’) means “opposite to (the island of) Kythera,” which doesn’t exist in this world. The device was named for where it was found, not for any special properties it holds.
Finally, and this part really gets to me, they’ve gone and released the Kraken. Yes, the Kraken, not Ketos, Kraken.
It’s that last gripe that shows my issue with this setting. It isn’t “Jason and the Argonauts,” it’s “Clash of the Titans” - the reboot. If you came here looking to take part a faithful retelling of Greek mythology for your D&D game, look elsewhere. If you want to roleplay in an authentic reimagining of your favourite mediterranean myth, go make your own.
Ultimately, Odyssey of the Dragonlords is a finely-crafted, well-designed campaign book for D&D that many will find fun and engaging. Those more interested in the actual source material might be disappointed, while mythology buffs will certainly be let down.
It really is just D&D with a bit of tzatziki.
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).
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arcanumworlds/odyssey-of-the-dragonlords-5th-edition-adventure-b
What happens when an art studio is looking for a product to sell, but decides to think outside the box? Degenesis! That’s what!
The German art studio SIXMOREVODKA (WARNING: link may be NSFW!!) decided that the best way to sell their art would be to attach it to a roleplaying game. Because if we’ve learned anything from Invisible Sun, it’s that hundreds of dollars for an RPG is not only a price your average gamer won’t balk at, but will in fact vehemently defend.
So for those of you willing to pay a premium for RPGs, I present to you for your reading pleasure: 5 Setting Details About Degenesis, The Primal Punk RPG!
1) Post Apocalypse World
Degenesis takes place 500 years into the future, after an incident involving meteors raining down on earth. The meteors were numerous and large enough to disrupt and destroy modern civilization, but not enough to wipe out humanity. This world comes complete with all the trappings one could expect from a post-apocalypse: societies have begun to rebuild, sometimes atop the ruins of the old world, sometimes by striking out on their own.
Despite humanity coming back together, fresh food and water can remain scarce, and for anybody who dares to brave the wastelands, the environment is very inhospitable. And of course, the inhospitable nature of the land can easily bring out the worst in people. Those brutal and violent people can quickly become jealous of the people living the high life in the cities, and seek to integrate themselves in the only way they know how. (Violence. The implication is violence.)
2) The New Threats To The World
Degenesis shares some characteristics with Fallout and Fist of the North Star: violent maniacs roaming the wastes, while under the earth’s surface, the ruins of the old world still harbor ancient machines capable of wondrous feats, or untold destruction. (Some of which may still be active, but out of control!)
However, Degenesis adds something else to post-apocalypse formula. A new species is seeking to claim the top spot of the food chain that humanity has held onto for so long. A fungus that they call Sepsis has emerged. It’s everywhere, and it’s absolutely sinister.
Sepsis propagates by infecting humans and other animals by releasing spores into the air. A brief exposure is not enough for somebody to worry about. However, past a certain point, Sepsis begins to take over the host’s mind, and fills them with thoughts of wanting to aid the propagation.
An easy task, when you consider that pods of the spores can be ruptured and inhaled for their hallucinogenic and narcotic properties. One of the ways that human society has managed to rebuild in this world, is through illicit trading of these spore pods to people desperate for some solace from the brutal reality of the world. Sepsis is more than willing to not only provide this feeling, but also to show those that are infected where they can find more.
The results of what happens when somebody “overdoses” is not pretty, by the way. Obviously, they become more fungus than man past that point, and no matter how much they may resemble their former selves, that person is long gone, and may as well be dead. (Last of Us fans, eat your heart out.)
3) Various Ways Society Has Managed To Rebuild
With the myriad problems and opportunities of this new world, and the countless generations that have been able to pass since the calamity, it’s no wonder that people have banded together around many different causes and ideologies. These are the Thirteen Cults; despite the modern connotation of the word “cult,” they aren’t necessarily religious in nature. (Though some certainly are.)
Here, cult uses its more classical definition, referring to the cultivation of an ideal. Such as the removal of Sepsis from the world, or using the ruins of the old world for the betterment of the new.
4) Numerous Conflicting And Coexisting Ideologies
The ideals of the cults are as varied as their methods. While two cults could share the same ideal, they may approach it in wildly different ways. For example, both the Spitlans and the Anabaptists wish to remove Sepsis from the world, but their philosophies are very different. The Spitlans are of a paramilitary groups of scientists and physicians, while the Anabaptists are a religious order of knights and farmers.
And their missions are often at odds with the Apocalyptics: globe trotting pirates who make their way in the broken world by getting people whatever it is they’re willing to pay for: including spore pods.
Meanwhile, there are also the Chroniclers, technology fetishists who seek to bring the old world technology back to its former glory, while also spying on all the other cults and playing them against one another to ensure the Chroniclers are left alone.
5) It’s Our Own World
The kicker of all this is that Degenesis takes place in our own world. The landmasses remain mostly the same, but, with the old world fargone, the political boundaries are little more than a formality. However, this means that contemporary media could make an appearance. Contemporary as in media that you, me, or my editor who has already read this, would be familiar with.
In fact, there’s a faction of the Clanner Cult (a catch all for any cult not large enough to be a global force) in the region of Franka called the Resistance that resides in what we would know as France. They’re the enemy of the Pheromancers, people who have given themselves over to Sepsis.
The Resistance have a fanatical devotion to classical French literature and visual art, which they use as a psychological defence mechanism against the temptations of Sepsis. For them, it is a reminder that humanity has their own culture, and their own things that can bring them together without the help of soul stealing fungus monsters.
This is all just scratching the surface. Degenesis is a very lore rich game; it’s initial release comes in two books, each breaking 300 pages in length. One covers the game’s setting and the other its mechanics.
Though with how intertwined the setting is with the mechanics, it’s a game for which you’ll spend quite a bit of time reading about the setting before you may feel comfortable making a character.
Assuming the artwork doesn’t scare you off, first!
Aaron der Schaedel loves games with steep learning curves, be they because of lore or mechanical difficulties. (Though he prefers the latter.) He likes to break these games down for the benefit of other people on his YouTube Channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.geeknative.com/62768/degenesis-rpg/
While I almost exclusively run games in my own settings, I am obsessed with science fiction and fantasy across all mediums. Here are five settings from books, movies, tv, anime, comics, or videogames, that would make for a cool tabletop RPG setting (or that you could borrow ideas from). I tried to avoid settings that I think are already really well known and popular, or that have already had tabletop RPGs made from them.
1) Vampire Hunter D
This is a Japanese light novel series that has also been made into a manga, and two of the books have been made into movies. There was a pathfinder supplement that briefly outlined this series, but that’s minor enough that I’m willing to allow it. This series has that perfect combination of anachronism and Japanese weirdness, fascinating worldbuilding, and jam-packed with cool ideas. It feels very “Appendix N”; a post-post-apocalyptic science fantasy that combines elements of traditional fantasy, gothic fantasy, and weird west in a uniquely Japanese way. The “nobles,” immensely powerful vampires, long ago took over the world and built a science fiction empire, only to recede under mysterious circumstances. The humans left behind have salvaged their resources and technologies to the best of their ability, and fight to survive in a world of noble-made monsters. It has all the best elements of the recent Castlevania anime and the videogame Bloodborne.
2) Powder Mage
A novel series set in a fictional world reminiscent of the Industrial Age and Victorian England. There is political and social intrigue, diplomacy, large-scale battles, and cool superpowers. Knacks are individuals with single, low-level (yet often uniquely useful) special abilities. Sorcerers are massively powerful combat mages with a weakness to gunpowder. The titular Powder Mages are rifle-wielding soldiers who can sense gunpowder, remotely ignite it, eat or snort it to gain enhanced physical abilities, or use it to remotely enhance the distance or change the trajectory of bullets. There are also anti-sorcerers who can shut down other sorcerers’ abilities; wardens who are hulking aberrations created from living humans, and specially-trained superhuman mercenaries who are OP at everything from combat to spycraft to business. There’s a lot to play with here, in every sense.
3) Valkyria Chronicles
A videogame series with a watercolored, cel-shaded, anime art style, set in a fictional setting with a roughly World War 1 to World War 2-era aesthetic. It deals with a world war between a faction reminiscent of the Allies, and a faction reminiscent of Nazi Germany crossed with Stalinist Russia with Imperial European dressing. There’s a valuable, glowing blue mineral resource known as ragnite used as explosives and power sources for tanks. There are scouts, shocktroopers, engineers, snipers, lancers (heavily-armored soldiers with rocket-lances to fight tanks), and the legendary superhuman valkyria. There is a cultural faction roughly analogous to Jews and Romani during World War 2, and other interesting social and political nuances. The videogame series places an emphasis on tactics, which would lend itself well to tactical tabletop RPGs, but it also places a strong emphasis on episodic narrative, which could lend itself well to dramatic scenes in games like FATE or Apocalypse Engine games.
4) Goblin Slayer
This one may be too obvious, and also it would normally be too traditional fantasy for my taste, but it’s so exceptional that I’ll excuse it. It was originally a light novel series that I have not read, but was also made into an anime. While surface-level it is very much traditional fantasy, it has a few neat little twists that give it personality. It is also very obviously inspired by tabletop RPGs, and as such, it does a good job of uniquely integrating (and subverting) the tropes of tabletop RPG fantasy. In a world where every adventurer wants to be a legendary hero, mundane monsters such as goblins are frequently overlooked. As such, these creatures, which are in fact quite dangerous to civilians or to inexperienced combatants, are an under-acknowledged problem. Inexperienced adventurers underestimate them and get slaughtered, while experienced adventures can’t be bothered, or expect too much gold for their services. The Goblin Slayer has no magical abilities, nor magical or mastercrafted equipment; he relies solely on his wits, coming up with all sorts of clever approaches to goblin slaying that would be a thrill to play out at any table.
5) The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O
This is a book co-written by Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite science fiction / speculative fiction authors, and Nicole Galland, who I was not familiar with prior to reading this book. I should mention that I’m actually still actively reading this book, so there may yet be some twists that I’m unfamiliar with. The general idea is that magic is the ability to manipulate quantum mechanics, and there were once witches who could do it. It’s a somewhat similar premise to Charles Stross’ Laundry Files, a series I would have recommended here but it already has a tabletop RPG (although it is apparently no longer available on drivethrurpg). Like Laundry Files, Stephenson and Galland do a good job of realizing the implications of this speculative fantasy, and to their credit, they take it in a very different direction. The majority of the book is centered on Sending, the process of sending individuals back in time, engaging in Cold War-style spycraft and espionage across history in order to manipulate events up to the present. It’s a cool idea, and one that I think could lend itself well to tabletop, exploring a variety of historical (or pseudo-historical) settings, and playing out the implications of those missions on the present.
Even if you’re like me and prefer to build your own worlds, there is no sense in reinventing the wheel. Whether it’s snagging a really interesting, tight premise, or borrowing bits and pieces of cool little details to expand your own world, there are a lot of interesting ideas from other media to be explored in a tabletop game. They say there is no such thing as true originality, but if you bring concepts like these to the table, your party will have the next best thing.
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://thumbor.forbes.com/thumbor/960x0/https%3A%2F%2Fblogs-images.forbes.com%2Folliebarder%2Ffiles%2F2016%2F12%2Fvhd_interview1-1200x919.jpg
As a dude with a history degree, one of my pet peeves is people taking pop history and the way history has been presented through media at face value. Vikings didn’t wear badass leather biker outfits like you see on TV. Spartans had armor and didn’t fight with their abs bared for all to see. And not all cowboys were white dudes. That peeve is one that seems to be shared by Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios. Chris recently launched a Kickstarter for his new game Haunted West, a weird west setting with a focus on bringing to life Western stories we don’t typically hear about, weird or otherwise, and sat down to answer a few questions.
Where does the history of Haunted West diverge from our own?
As the Kickstarter has officially launched, I can say that it happens a few years into the Reconstruction and immediately after the Civil War. Haunted West: Reconstruction creates a timeline in which, in addition to taking out Lincoln, Booth's plot also eliminates Johnson, who is from the South and a former owner of enslaved people, as he had originally intended.
Lafayette Foster becomes President, and without presidential opposition, the Southern confederates are not allowed back in congress. The land is divided and given to the enslaved people as was actually planned in our known history, changing the power dynamic of America, with black landowners battling against traitors who are terrorizing them and trying to steal their legally-owned land.
We are creating an ongoing narrative of how that one moment changes the world as we know it.
What sets Haunted West apart from other Weird West settings like Deadlands and Wild Wild West?
That is kind of like asking what sets Star Wars apart from Star Trek or DC Heroes from Marvel Super Heroes. The games are different in approach, setting, tone, and have different teams behind them.
Haunted West is doing something no other current Western RPG has done, to my knowledge. We are telling the true history of America while highlighting many of the people whose voices have been forgotten, providing an entirely new and unexplored timeline, and including a three-tiered modular system. That's just the tip of the iceberg.
You’ve developed a new system for Haunted West. Is it based on an established system, or is it something we’ve never seen before?
The Ouroboros System is unique in its approach to modular play and has a number of easy-to-apply rules. The core mechanic is a 1D100 roll under system with degrees of success and failure that have different impacts. Skilled Paragons are able to invest a portion of their successes into ‘The River’ and use that portion for a later challenge when the chips are down. Each skill is associated with 1 of 7 different attributes that confer a starting percentage in the skill.
You’re best known for your work in the Cthulhu Mythos, and at first glance, it doesn’t have much in common with Haunted West. What led you to work on a Weird West setting?
The Mythos and I (trademarked!) may be the first musical I write in a few years. One of the stretch goals is actually to introduce the Mythos into the Weird West. I am hoping we hit that one.
Part of the reason I chose the Weird West was my love of Westerns that came from watching them with my grandmother every Saturday morning growing up. Watching those paragons of the west making the world better became our ritual. But it always bothered me that no one looked like me unless they were cast as the villain or, sometimes, the butt of the joke. Haunted West aims to change that.
It lets me add my knowledge and interest in the supernatural, history, science fiction, and cinema. The Weird West is such a large and expansive genre encapsulating so many different things--the skies the limit.
What kind of tools will you have in place for developing frontier towns and settlements?
I am known for my love of random chart generations, ranging from scenarios to encounters. You can fully expect charts, directions on how a town should be built, and the tools a Narrator (how we refer to Game Moderator in Haunted West) will need.
With your work for Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Confidential, Chaosium’s new sci-fi game that you’re heading up, you’re a pretty busy guy. How much support do you plan to have for Haunted West post-launch, and what plans do you have in store for Darker Hue Studios moving forward?
That’s a great question. I actually have quite a bit of time and fully intend to use it for Darker Hue Studios. I am finishing up Masks of the Mythos, The Mythos in Scion, for Onyx Path and have turned in my work for City of Mist by Son of Oak, Doctor Who for Cubicle 7, and my superhero book to Chaosium months ago.
At the moment, Chaosium, with the recent acquisition of a few new game lines (Pendragon and 7th Sea), has put the science fiction game on hold. Pelgrane Press has my last Langston Wright adventure for Cthulhu Confidential, and now I have something that I have not had in years: time.
So, I can fully support Haunted West and maybe even turn my hand to writing a novel. I have this burning idea for a science fiction piece and now I have the time to do it.
“Don't mistake my kindness for weakness. I am kind to everyone, but when someone is unkind to me, weak is not what you are going to remember about me.”
- Al Capone
Check out Haunted West on Kickstarter here.
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.
What is 'Pulp'? Pulp is a series of sub genres usually set between and around the world wars. It was named after the very cheap material it was produced on, wood pulp. The result was a cheap book ideal for a time of financial depression in the states. Almost everyone bought pulp novels to take their minds on amazing adventures with daring heroes and dastardly villains. These stories were over the top and cut to the good stuff of the stories. Some famous authors had their break writing pulp fiction, including HP Lovecraft, L. Ron Hubbard, and Robert E Howard with his Conan series. So what makes a pulp story good? How can we implement this into a game? Well hopefully I can help with that by giving you some tips for running a pulp RPG setting.
1) Characters Should Be Larger Than Life
Characters are the centre role for your story, from the players to the villains. In pulp that means they have the most drama around them: when they show up things go down, hoodlums slink off to inform their boss of your arrival, who just so happens to be sitting in a darkened corner of the speakeasy,and then bullets fly as a grand shootout ensues.
2) Throw In A Timer
Any time that a scene is lacking in tension, add a timer, things like a bomb timer is on the nose and fits well. “But what if explosives aren't in my game?” I hear you ask. Well, anything that forces the players to act fast is a timer. A collapsing building, the villain escaping, someone bleeding out; these are all great examples of natural timers that add a sense of urgency.
3) Grand Dialogue
You've no doubt seen the movies where the Big Bad and the hero have witty back and forth every time they meet. Those scenes are pulpy as hell. The cheesy one liners delivered after a fight and the villainous monologue explaining key details of a dastardly plan… all pulp. Don't be shy to encourage this with your players, as they will enjoy a break in seriousness and you will collectively gain some great anecdotes to share with fondness.
4) Out Of The Box Thinking
Reward any player who comes up with an idea that is so crazy it might just work. Creating a catapult using a plank of wood a small stack of wooden pallets and another player jumping is worth a little GM help to pull off, these ideas help reinforce tip 1 that the characters are larger than life and have the potential to do insane and incredible things.
5) Don't Take It Too Seriously
Pulp was brought about to help the working class through the depression after World War One so it was designed originally as light hearted adventure stories, so people could escape the poverty of daily life. Later it evolved into some more serious aspects, but the feeling of pulp is best explored with a slight tongue in cheek approach.
6) Be Inspired
There is a plethora of pulp sources in the world, from the original stories printed on the cheapest paper available to glossy movies from the 80s like Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Even in modern day films you can still see the influence of pulp ideas, of over the top heroes having fantastic adventures. Great examples include any film based on a comic or those which have a child chosen by destiny or other unseen forces to fulfill a role by defeating a darkness.
Pulp influences are everywhere. We see them everyday without even noticing it. Pulp is all about heroes battling evil and doing so in style. They leap from a moving train and gracefully land in the saddle of their horse, who somehow can run faster than a train at full speed. They swing from a vine through a forest that somehow doesn't seem to descend lower than the hero needs it to and lasts as long as is needed. Pulp villains deliver monologues, they twirl their evil mustaches, and they are almost equally larger than life as the heroes. They reappear after you think they have died; they escape just in time. However you run your pulp game… enjoy it!
Ross Reid is an enthusiast, currently running a Achtung! Cthulhu campaign, while studying nursing, he has contributed several articles to HLG and is a strong advocate for all things FATE.
Picture Reference: https://paizo.com/products/btpy8oj2?Rolemaster-Third-Edition-RPG-Pulp-Adventures
I’ve talked before about borrowing plots from video games, citing that both video games and tabletop roleplaying games are similar media. A scenario is set forth to the players, they give direction to a character or other entity they control, and the state of the scenario is updated based on that input. The primary difference between the two often comes down to input methods, and what entity is doing the parsing of these commands.
I digress, though.
Today, I want to discuss with you some of the fantastic settings in the realm of video games. This list is of course by no means exhaustive, but each of these on this list were chosen because of how unusual they are compared to the so called “standard fantasy” that is Dungeons and Dragons.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Unusual Video Game Settings You Should Play Your Next Game In!
1) Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has recently become one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises; there’s numerous games in the series, and every one of them boasts a huge cast of characters. Some people love Fire Emblem for these huge casts of characters, as well as the ability to see how certain character’s relationships bud through the course of the story.
This is a story that is told between numerous tactical battles, pitting one army against another, with false steps often leading to characters permanently being lost. Most stories in Fire Emblem showcase different conflicts between neighboring countries, and ultimately climax with a battle between good and evil after the powers of some mythic artifact has been discovered. (Such as the titular Fire Emblem.)
While it’s often lampooned for being formulaic, this is precisely what makes it easy to emulate in a tabletop roleplaying game!
So How Would You Do It?
You can easily recreate something like Fire Emblem using Dungeons and Dragons if you play up the tactical combat element; interesting terrain and fighting to secure important strategic locations. Players would be restricted to playing Humans, since other races like dragons or werewolves are the stuff of legend, and most conflict is between humans.
However, Fire Emblem is known to take place over a massive scale. Casts range upwards of the 20s or even 30s in some games. To make this sort of campaign work, occasionally, the war would need to be fought on more fronts, and players would take control of a different cast of characters aiding a different theatre in the war effort.
2) Sunless Sea / Fallen London
Sunless Sea and Fallen London are part of a gothic horror series of games by Failbetter Games; they both play like choose-your-own-adventure books, though the aforementioned also has extra gameplay elements that make sense with its nautical namesake. They take place out of the city of London, in an alternate timeline where Hell literally broke loose, and London sank beneath the waves.
The Londoners have adapted to their strange new biome, where darkness warps reality, one’s neighbors could literally be devils, maps have become useless, and sunlight, should one happen to find your way back to the surface, is as lethal as it is pleasant. (That is to say, very, on both accounts.)
So How Would You Do It?
Combat in Fallen London is meant to be a dangerous prospect. Sure, you can easily beat up other mortals, but the world is rife with all kinds of creatures that seem familiar, but defy all reason. These otherworldly creatures? They never truly die; if they hit 0 HP or are otherwise defeated, they just fade back to where they came from, and they’ll come back later. When they do return, they’ll be bigger, stronger, and still nursing the grudge from their previous loss.
Furthermore, one of the laws of reality in Fallen London is that light brings order to the world. Because of this, even if you somehow can see in the dark, you want light. Light from torches, oil and gas lamps, or even just starting fires; because the darkness doesn’t just hide monsters, it stains the very fabric of reality.
3) Super Mario
The Mario Brothers are a duo that need no explanation at this point. “Duh-duh duh duh-duh duh duh” is a line almost anybody in the developed world can sing out loud properly. That isn’t to say there isn't any interesting to discuss in the Super Mario lore; as time went on and Nintendo tried new things with the franchise, more characters got added, and they each wound up with their own shticks and spinoff games. Spinoffs such as Luigi’s Mansion and Wario World.
Two such spin offs I want to bring attention to are Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga; video game RPGs that are very whimsical with rather expansive worlds, filled with all kinds of unusual creatures and environments. It’s the perfect setting for those “Only boring people play human” types!”
So How Would You Do It?
The Mario RPG video games are very gamey, with the occasional nod to new abilities gained over the course of play being usable to solve puzzles outside of combat. This isn’t a setting that lends itself to ruleslite games, but does have a wide variety of different mechanics through the series, so any sort of home-brewing of a crunchy game will do. (Or you can play this D&D 3.5 adaptation!)
4) Seiken Denetsu / The “Mana” Series
This is one of my favorite video game series of all time. When I hear the phrase “High Fantasy,” this is what comes to mind. A world with magic abound, and all manner of unusual creatures, friendly or otherwise, and clear divides of good and evil optional, depending on the entry in the series.
The timeline of the series is fairly long, starting with a cataclysmic war that didn’t quite destroy the world, but definitely wiped out the existence of magic. However, as the series goes on, magic eventually begins finding its way back into the world, with constant allusions back to that war, such as an empire trying to rebuild the technology that made the war possible, as well as junkyards filled with ancient relics from that war. (Some of which are still alive, and resentful of being left to rot!)
So How Would You Do It?
It’s a bad idea to try and emulate video game mechanics in tabletop form, especially on a one-to-one scale. Computers can handle large numbers and operations much more accurately than your average human. However, since even the Mana games have wildly different mechanics, mechanical accuracy can be forgone.
My choice for trying to recreate the Mana series would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Since it has rules for creating fantastic creatures, as well as possessing various rules for all kinds of different supernatural powers. Even though magic is prevalent in the Mana series, there is still plenty of allusions to other forces as well, and the backbone Anima’s magic system relies on the JRPG fantasy staple of the four classical elements, plus light and dark.
The triple digit arithmetic will just have to be something you adapt to. (Think of it as an opportunity to practice mathematics!)
Please don’t try this. (Warning: weird and a little gross)
So How Would You Do It?
No. Seriously. This is a bad idea.
Did you not pay attention to entry 4? Sometimes you have to be willing to make sacrifices because concepts don’t always translate between media. This is why some movies drop scenes that were in the book they’re adapted from.
Other times, you simply shouldn’t try because what makes the game truly unique, simply can’t be recreated.
Or what you’re trying to recreate is just a fever dream.
Aaron der Schaedel actually really likes Hylics, but realizes part of its charm is the surreal world it’s set in. It’s a quality that doesn’t quite come across as well in the spoken or written word, and is probably best left to the realm of other visual arts. Here’s a shameless plug for his YouTube channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/fire-emblem-three-houses-rpg-review-strategy-professor-combat-nintendo-switch-a9021831.html
Candle in the shadows: A multi-part Chronicles of Darkness Primer Part 1
The sweltering heat of your classroom is nearly lulling you to sleep and your potbellied professor isn’t helping matters. As you fidget in your seat to at the very least stay awake, you notice that the clock at the front of the room is broken. The hand that counts each second appears to be stuck, clicking with stubborn effort yet unable to move forward.
Wearily, you focus on the broken clock almost straining yourself to inspect the broken thing. You think you can hear the strained clicking of the second hand in your ears, until you realize that the clicking is all to real and has drowned out all other sounds around you, and its growing louder. Strange panic begins to overtake you as each deafening click pounds in your head, bringing a sharp flash of pain.
Unable to look away, you see the internal working of the clock with each small flash, with the small bundle of gears and cogs that will the machine to life. Every second that passes brings more visions and pain. The walls that enclose you are held up by strange piping and servos all feeding into a giant set of cogs where the ceiling should have been. Looking down to where your professor stood, you recoil in silent mouthed dread as a man made of wire and stained glass turns his gaze to you with gold and cold eyes.
The ticking is thunderous now as you return your gaze to the clock. It appears so small in comparison to the massive machinery the now encircles you. It seems small, insignificant and meaningless when one gazes at the big picture…..just like you.
The stained glass man is next to you now, you see him reach with claws made of sharp wires and yet cannot move or resist his attack. Afterall, why should you resist……you’re nothing but a cog in the great machine.
Tick…..Tick….. “ Jason?? Jay, are you OK?”
You open your eyes to see your professor shake your shoulder gently. The machinery and the stained glass monster are gone as if they never existed at all. You shake your head in acknowledgement and mutter an apology as you stand up and hurriedly grab your belongings. You look up at the clock as you stand to exit the room and put this nightmare behind you. The clock is working seamlessly.
You exit the room and laugh, just a strange nightmare…nothing else.
Welcome, to the first in an ongoing series of articles detailing the games and setting of the Chronicles of Darkness. Through this series, I would like to introduce or reinforce to veteran players of the value and storytelling potential of this often overlooked game line. Before all that though we need a brief history lesson.
1) Darkness Reborn
In the year 2003, White Wolf Publishing ended it all. Through their Time of Judgement storyline, the publisher brought the end of the world to their immensely popular World of Darkness(WoD) game line. Such a move was bold, as the World of Darkness consists of amazing and thought-provoking games such as Vampire the Masquerade, Werewolf the Apocalypse and Mage the Ascension, just to name a few. Players were aghast at the idea of their beloved games ending; however, White Wolf had a plan.
A spiritual successor to the original World of Darkness was announced and was met with excitement and skepticism. Promising a ruleset that would allow easier gameplay and crossover potential, this initially branded World of Darkness line was released in 2004 and has chugged along ever since, taking horror into new and unexpected places. The Chronicles of Darkness feature a base book that contains all the basic rules and setting for mortals in the Chronicles of Darkness, while the various game lines expand the players options for supernatural creatures and story hooks, all retaining the majority of rules making the whole setting easier for players and storytellers alike.
2) What’s in a name?
With the return of the original World of Darkness game lines, White Wolf Publishing has rebranded their successor games into a setting named the Chronicles of Darkness. To avoid obvious confusion, any of the games or books listen in this series will be referred to as such.
While the Chronicles of Darkness performed (and still does) well and has a legion of fans, comparisons to the World of Darkness game lines exist and are perfectly understandable. The differences between the two settings can often appear vague from outside eyes, but take it from me, the Chronicles of Darkness is a bold and experimental game line that brings an endless variety of horror to gaming tables everywhere. This is also not a criticism of the WoD, I am a fan and player of those games as well. Moving forward, this primer will compare and contrast the various settings in a way to showcase the depth that the Chronicles of Darkness contains.
3) We need to talk about Metaplot
One of the most obvious changes from the WoD, was a distinct lack of metaplot. While the WoD was famous for the beautiful and rich stories it told, it was also hampered at times by a large ever shifting mythology that was often intimidating and almost inaccessible to new and old players. The Chronicles of Darkness was created with a very flavorful base setting, that allows any storyteller to add anything and everything they want to their stories.
In this new world, the prejudices and rivalries between their various supernatural groups were erased, the cosmology defined across the various games in an effort to showcase a more modern and darkly eclectic reflection of our world. The focus shifts from global conflicts to a much more personal and local setting dripping with plot hooks...hell on of my favorite stories I've ever told started with a taco run.
4) Through a broken mirror
The world featured in the Chronicles of Darkness was made as a darker reflection of our own modern world. This world is a scary place full of mysteries and monsters, creeping closer to the thin semblance of reality that its unknowing people endure under. Horror exists in a kaleidoscope of multitudes and that is one of the Chronicles of Darkness's greatest assets.
Want to tell a ghost story? Easy!
How about a surreal modern fairy tale? Done, next.
Ever want to peek behind the curtain and see how the gears of the world really works?......be aware, these gears are very real.
Any story can be told with this system, all that is required is your imagination, and a willingness to explore the shadows.
Next time, we will be looking at subjective and personal horror in the base setting of the Chronicles of Darkness and how storytellers and players can get the most out of them.
Michael Jacobson is a freelance writer and an Active Duty US Sailor. His work has been featured in products like Snowhaven 2nd Ed, Night Horrors: Shunned by the Moon and many upcoming projects. He is currently ankle deep with running 1 D&D game, Werewolf the Forsaken game and attempting to understand how to edit a podcast.....it's harder than it looks.
Hey, Jim here! Before Frankie gets started, I wanted to remind you that High Level Games is bringing you game content and commentary absolutely free, as well as providing a home and launching point for a slew of great creators! If you want to support our endeavors, we'd love it if you stopped by our Patreon to show your support. Of course, if you'd like a little something for your hard earned money, you could always pick up one of our fine game products as well.
Greetings, traveler! It’s been quite a long time since we’ve had occasion to converse. I do, of course, apologize for the circumstances that led to your imprisonment in the dungeons of the Kargat. I hope that my efforts to arrange your…early release…might mitigate your ill feelings in this regard. Since you are no doubt fleeing through Tepest on your way south, I thought I might send this little gem on to you.
Tavaani al-Chole is one of the Tepestani Inquisition’s most ardent rising stars. In particular, he seems dedicated to turning the Inquisition’s attention away from the fairies and onto the witches his organization believe work alongside them. To that end, he’s distributed a little leaflet to his own supporters, helping them identify “witches” among the populace. I’m sure a seasoned adventurer like yourself will spot the dangers right away…
Trust Not the Witch
Brothers and sisters of the Inquisition, we have allowed the servants of the fey too free a hand in the mortal realm, and the will of Belenus demands that we address our laxity before their baleful influence proves our undoing! These fiendish beings masquerade as everyday citizens, and in most cases, the techniques developed by Brother Wyan will prove adequate. Some of these malevolents, however, have learned to shield themselves from our ministrations. The Inquisition, as ever, knows how to ferret out the demons in our midst.
1) Spell Components
Those holy warriors and devout priests pious enough to call upon the might of Belenus do so with merely the power of their faith and a brandished holy symbol. The vile fey sorcerers, however, require an assortment of trinkets and tokens to perform their lesser magics. By this, you will most easily recognize them. Be on alert for travelers carrying bric-a-brac with no clear purpose. Loose feathers, colored sand, clear stones, tokens from children’s games, carved figurines, spiderwebs or insect parts: all of these are documented paraphernalia for the occult. In addition to their use in the manufacture of wicked potions, various herbs and flora can be used for similar results. These items should always be viewed with suspicion by the canny Inquisitor. Be on the lookout for traveling artists, jewelers, herbalists, or those claiming to be students of the ‘natural sciences.’ These are often cover identities that allow a convenient explanation for carrying these arcane sundries.
Since there is no divine wellspring supplying their deceitful arcana, witches in the service of the fey often commit their devilry to paper so that they can pass it on to future generations of apostates. Traveling witches (who frequently call themselves ‘wizards’ to avoid execution for their crimes in foreign lands) carry working spellbooks called arcanabula, which function as eldritch workbooks and spell journals. These are easily identified. More cunning are the formal grimoires, finished tomes which can often present in coded passages decipherable only by those trained to understand their gibberish. Books or papers which contain unintelligible ramblings, which may appear to the eye of the studious Inquisitor as philosophy, poetry, or advanced ‘sciences,’ should be viewed as suspect and burned if necessary. Those capable of reading more than a single language should likewise be viewed as suspicious.
Witches are deviants, and thus are likely to find willing company with other deviants. The form of man is sacred, of course, and Belenus in his infinite wisdom has shown that the lesser forms of the dwarf, the elf, and even the pitiable caliban are acceptable in his sight, provided they show proper deference to Belenus’s true children. The beings of the Void and the Pit, however, taint the flesh they come in contact with, and spawn bastard races as surely as the acorn grows into a mighty oak. The goblin, the hag: these are only a few of their forms, whom witches often offer open acceptance to. Other folk are stranger still, with unnatural hair, eye, or skin colorations; scales or tails; even the ability to breathe fire or perform unholy feats! While the witches who claim such companions will betray their ‘friends’ at a moment’s notice if convenience requires, their allies are usually unaware of this, and will frequently fight to the death for their vile comrades.
Knowing the treacherous hearts of those that serve them, the fairy lords demand fealty through unholy oaths and pacts. These promises can prove to be an Inquisitor’s greatest tool, if he or she knows how to look for them. Keep an eye out for strangers who show bizarre behaviors that they then brush off as ‘cultural’ in origin. Witches of a shamanic bent in particular are known for eschewing metal tools and equipment. I have enjoyed great success in identifying witches among traveling groups by requiring strangers who view our executions to light the sacrificial pyres. Since their vows to their fairy masters forbid them from participating in Belenus’s rituals, they often violently refuse. By this method, I have identified no fewer than seven heretics, many claiming to be devout holy warriors of imaginary deities like ‘Rao,’ ‘Ilmater,’ or ‘Kiri-Jolith.’
Wyan has lit our fire, brothers and sisters. It us up to us to now go forth and spread it. With the tools I give you, and the tools Wyan has given you, let us be the torch in the night. Let us be light unto the believer, and let us burn the sinner to ash.
Real piece of work, isn’t he? Yvanova has uncovered evidence that Tavaani is really half-fey, and suspects that our young Inquisitor might be spurring the faithful to purge spellcasters in order to distract them from his own family’s machinations. If you wanted to ‘take care’ of Brother al-Chole while you were in Tepest, I’d see fit to reward you some 5000 gp on your return. If not, feel free to spread word of my offer to any interested parties you come across in your travels.
Good luck, and happy hunting.
Frankie Drakeson, Lord Mayor of Carinford-Halldon
Frankie Drakeson is a retired rifleman and the current mayor of Carinford-Halldon in Mordent.
He is married to Gwendolyn Drakeson, the granddaughter of Nathan Timothy.
Jim Stearns is a deranged hermit from the swamps of Southern Illinois. In addition to writing for the Black Library, he puts pen to paper for High Level Games and Quoth the Raven. His mad scribblings can frequently be found in anthologies like Fitting In or Selfies from the End of the World, by Mad Scientist Journal. Follow him on Twitter @jcstearnswriter, or listen to Don, Jon, & Dragons, his podcast.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/842736148994274726/ by Sir Tiefling
Premade settings are alright. Ravenloft is nice, but perhaps constant darkness is a little much. Maybe the Forgotten Realms has too much to keep track of and not enough flex. Waterdeep just doesn’t have the natural world aspect for your group. Well my friend, allow me to introduce you to perhaps the most honoured tradition of every DM: making it all up.
1) Don’t Be Afraid To Rip Someone Off
I have before and will again steal. I’m a criminal of the worst variety. I’m a pirate. And I’m in no way ashamed of my piracy. Mostly because it’s not really piracy but I pretend it is to justify my eyepatch and poofy hats. It’s also the reason I use the word “avast.” But, I digress. There’s no shame in taking inspiration from other works of fiction or other people’s games. Absolutely none. (At least not when you’re writing for friends, and not for profit.) Take characters and plots and big bads from all over the place if you want. There’s a lot of beautifully written characters, monsters, and settings out there. My friend Scott used a monster idea from the Netflix Castlevania anime - that being the petrifying cyclops - in one of his games and I didn’t find out about it until well after we played. (Also, I highly recommend that show. I’m not much for anime, but it’s witty, heavy, and brutal in all the right places in my humble opinion.)
Even if your players recognize what’s happening, you can account for that and change some things accordingly. Rip everyone off if you want. Call your MacGuffin the Singular Ring. Call your character Luke Windwalker. Call your bad guy Baldimort! No one can stop you! You’re the DM!
2) Don’t Rip Everything Off
This seems to run counter to the previous point, you may say. Well, you see, if you make everything the same as the thing you’re ripping off, then you might as well just go and experience the thing. There’s no real point in making your plot the exact same as the plot of Lord of the Rings, because the players will all know what to do. You have to mix things up. You have to make things up, typically on the fly. Which for some people may be very difficult. But don’t despair, my friend! There is a solution.
There are hundreds of “what if” ideas out there. What if Gandalf kept the One Ring? What if Alduin never came to return during the Skyrim civil war? What if Anakin didn’t fall to the dark side? Etcetera. I’m sure even you have some. Use them. Or rather use the equivalents. Don’t just rip off NPC names unless you’re making everything up. This brings me to my next point.
3) Need A Name? Combine Two Things
“Welcome to Bladeburrow. My name is Baldr Silverhand. This is the Valor Hall inn where we serve our world-famous Black Beer.” Boom. Easy. Made that all up in less than thirty seconds and all I had to do was mash a bunch of words that came to mind in a way that made general sense. The rest is just world-building and that’s where the real fun (or perhaps the real difficulty) comes in. This is perhaps the most time-honored worldbuilding tip for DM’s and GM’s that I am personally aware of. Give it a name and you’d be surprised how easily everything else can fall into place. Sometimes genius strikes after you make a name, and a whole campaign can spring from a single idea. Sometimes you make a name and it falls flat. It’s even a little awkward to keep using in-game so you give the thing a nickname and slowly phase out the original name. No issue. Other times, Fartsberg will never fall into obscurity. No matter how hard you try. Burn it to the ground and the players will just dedicate the rest of the game to rebuilding the damn place.
But the important thing is that even the dumbest of made-up-on-the-spot names can make for a memorable and enjoyable gaming experience. These games are often at their best when something stupid happens or is said or in the case of Fartsberg, exists. Don’t be afraid to give something a stupid quality when you’re making everything up. Stupid exists in the real world and that’s something a lot of worldbuilders overlook in my experience. Just think about allergies. Then think about the fact that cats can be allergic to humans. This simple fact is incredibly dumb.
4) Become the Description Master
This is a pretty obvious tip that’s easy to account for but hard to master. Learn to describe things masterfully. I find that in order to do this, you have to have a very clear picture of what you’re trying to describe in your mind. The next most important thing is to include stupendous adjectives. “The stone tablet glows slightly” is very different from “The smooth stone tablet glows with an ominous light.” Another thing to consider is color. Color is an often overlooked but critical part of the descriptive process. There are a hundred different articles online to teach you how to be better at describing things during writing, but a tip that I find to be the most valuable is to imagine yourself in front of the thing or in the room, or meeting the person in question and ask yourself what would stand out to you personally when inspecting that. Lastly, always try to stimulate all 5 senses when really getting into the description.
You walk into a large decrepit room. As the door opens, the cracked stone bricks around the frame sprinkle rocks onto your shoulders. You look around and an overwhelming feeling of dread fills you as you notice the large pile of slimy bones in the corner. The pale white of the bone is intermingled with the yellow stains of time and rot. A gentle dripping can be heard, but you’re not sure from where; there are no obvious leaks in the ceiling. As a wafting smell of rotting meat suddenly hits you, the realization that there is more to this ruin than meets the eye sets in. What do you do?
I hope this supplied a mix of ideas for new worldbuilders and new as well. Have fun with your games and don’t be afraid to mess up. Because you will. Repeatedly. Borderline constantly. Fartsberg taught me that.
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://assetstore.unity.com/packages/3d/environments/fantasy/medieval-world-creation-kit-36555
Welcome to Avalon, a city with secrets held tight to her vest, crime and corruption are openly practiced, and “strange” being the default state. While the general feel of Avalon is familiar, there are some distinguishing features that make it unique. Survival, hard choices, and player driven play are some things you will find on the Streets of Avalon. There are no real heroes here, just those trying to survive and those that do are counted among the lucky. As a kickstarter backer, I received an early release of the PDF to check out. Here's a few reasons to give it a try.
1) City Play
Streets of Avalon centers around a sprawling city, the last city after the final battle in the Soul War. Avalon is a gritty, steampunk (really steampunk, not steamfun or steam-is-cool), noir setting with aberrations, undead, and the mysterious Lamplighters: mystics from another realm with the urge to help the beings of this realm. The city is ruled by magistrates and their griffons, but money is the true despot here; seems everyone is open to a bribe. The history and current mood of Avalon is well explained, but still has plenty of mysteries left for the dungeon master to flesh out. This city setting isn’t a building by building account of the city, rather a background to set your games against. In a world with the highly detailed Forgotten Realms, one of the more exciting ideas in this book is “What does your Avalon look like?”
2) Unlimited, Changing Play
Avalon is a city campaign, there isn't really a reason to leave the city, and if one area gets boring or finished, you just move on to a new area of the city. Play centers around neighborhoods, small sections of the city that you build up with a three step process: 1 - who’s in charge, 2 - groups, people, places, 3 - adventure locations and ideas. This is explained in a succinct way with three sample neighborhoods provided to mine for ideas. With play focused on politics, heists, investigation, monster hunts, and dungeoneering, as opposed to the general theme more D&D products lean to, each neighborhood the players move to can be a different taste of what Avalon has to offer. The city has a really familiar feel which makes it easy to start playing in. The themes in this city can also be found in Marvel’s New York and DC’s Gotham, movies like Dark City and Brazil, or books such as Diamond Age, Boneshaker or The Difference Engine.
3) Unique Flavors Of Fantasy
Avalon has no gods. Priestly magic is granted through study just like arcane. This is a great choice by the author and has no real mechanical effect, and is just a small tweak on the game's rules as written (cleric's spellcasting functions like a wizard's spellcasting normally does). This book is full of flavorful delights that make Avalon strange and unique. Examples include Lamplighters, who are outsiders with knowledge and the compulsion to help citizens for a strange price, a different take on the investigation skill, focus on a living city that is not waiting for the characters to show up, and planar creatures trying to break through and affect Avalon in some devious way. Within the 5th edition D&D universe these things are all possible in any setting, but when you put the focus on them it brings out a new flavor that really compels players to act instead of react.
4) Random Encounter Tables
If you know anything from the articles I’ve written here, it’s that I love tables. Clocking in at thirteen pages of random encounters, a lot of the feel of Avalon is communicated in these tables. They are not just full of entries like “2d4 gang toughs,” but a sentence or two with little nuggets of story baked in. Most of these are designed to lead the players (and the dungeon master) onto an unplanned, emerging adventure. As a dungeon master, I appreciate the work that went into these tables, with many ideas about the people and creatures of Avalon, as well as setting information you could do worse than to start every session here. They lend themselves to development at the table instead of before, a style that I really enjoy, giving the dungeon master some unknown fun as well as the players. The tables go over eleven different areas each with twelve encounters. That’s one hundred thirty-two story starters! They are even fairly system agnostic so you can use them in your own campaign.
All these things lend to Avalon's dark, gritty theme. Bringing the game to a street level with focus on who you live by and what they are doing is the best part of this setting. If nothing else, this makes a good read for doing some alleyway adventures or even a Defenders-like campaign. This all works well with the newest version of dungeons and dragons and it’s heroic play; letting the characters persevere and play a part (albeit small compared to the vastness of Avalon) in the stories that unfold. Brett Bloczynski has some great ideas in his head, hopefully we’ll get to see more soon. Streets of Avalon is not yet available but will be soon on DriveThruRPG.
Richard Fraser has been roleplaying since the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and started with the red box in the eighties. He currently prefers to DM fifth edition D&D, though reads a lot of OSR and PbtA. He currently has podcast, Cockatrice Nuggets and maintains a blog at www.slackernerds.com, and recently started a Patreon.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/encoded/the-streets-of-avalon
In my posts here on HLG, I like to talk about theory of worldbuilding, or game design theory, or sometimes both, such as with settlement building. As much as I consider myself a world builder foremost, the ability to use game mechanics to evoke a “sense” of a world is something unique to tabletop, and so I enjoy exploring that design space. This time, I want to talk about “The Crawl”. The most common Crawls to my mind are Dungeon Crawls, Hex Crawls, and Point Crawls. There are better articles that define and discuss these concepts that you should read if you aren’t familiar, but I’ll briefly summarize a Crawl in the abstract. As defined in this article, a Crawl is a way to parameterize the game environment, and how players can interact with it. Dungeon Crawls are for navigating within a specific location, Hex Crawls for navigating a wider and more varied (but generally still thematic) area, and Point Crawls are more about abstracting at an Event level, rather than spatially per se. While not every tabletop RPG is trying to do Dungeons & Dragons-style Traditional Fantasy, often games in other genres are, from a design-level, doing very similar things to D&D. Alternatively, they operate in a more story-telling fashion where “The Crawl” may not be as prevalent or relevant (although I believe this distinction has more to do with dice probabilities than anything else, but that’s a separate topic).
I recently published my first game as part of DREAMJAM on itch.io, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG. I describe the game as attempting to simulate the feel of retro 2D platformer video games, implementing what I’ve called a Platform Crawl design. The game in its current form still needs lots of playtesting and additional content, and currently does not explain the Platform Crawl design as in-depth as I would like (although I’m expanding upon this in the devlog), but if you enjoy my articles, I would encourage you to give it a look! In this article, I’ll outline a few other concepts for unique Crawl designs. Try them out and let me know what you think, or share your own Crawl designs!
1) Environment Crawl
This is mainly just a variation on the Hex Crawl, although it could be adapted to other kinds of Crawls as well. A fellow blogger friend of mine has started a cool series for a Wilderness Crawl. Essentially, it’s an old-school D&D-style hack, with fairly simple game mechanics, meant to gamify the difficulties of wilderness traversal. There are mechanics for stumbling, traveling at different paces, foraging, exploring through brush, etc., and he’s also experimenting with giving character classes unique abilities for wilderness traversal. With a rules-light system such as old-school D&D, this doesn’t even need to be a separate game as much as a bolt-on for an ongoing game. I think this kind of thing could really spice up a game, so that an Arctic Crawl isn’t just a Wilderness Crawl with another paint of coat, but actually has unique features the players must contend with. Even an otherwise “standard” Crawl, from a worldbuilding perspective, can be made unique and interesting, if the ways the players can interact with it is suitably unique and interesting. Just imagine an Oregon Trail tabletop RPG! Speaking of video games...
2) Video Game Crawl
Pixels & Platforms would fall into this category, but I think there’s a lot more to mine with video game genres in tabletop than has currently been explored. The trick is in figuring out what makes a video game genre work, and how to make that work in a tabletop format. For instance, for most platformer video games, much of the fun comes from the real-time, “tactile” action of pressing the buttons at just the right time to make the jump or dodge the enemy attack. Trying to simulate that phenomenon exactly is unlikely to be as fun in a turn-based tabletop game, since the result is determined by a random dice roll or flat stats, rather than player skill per se. However, by creating circumstances in which the challenge is not about making the jump or dodging the attack, but about how to position yourself on the “Screen” to make the jump, and also avoid the attack, and also protect your party members, then it becomes more of a puzzle platformer-like challenge: a Crawl. The player skill is in the tactics, and the randomness from the dice rolls is something to be accounted for, not the core appeal of the game.
In addition to the platform crawl, another video game crawl is the beat-em-up crawl. This would be a type of point crawl, where the emphasis would be placed on fighting relatively large numbers of mostly weaker enemies, who have the ability to swarm characters and knock them down, making them vulnerable. The crawl becomes more of a tactical positioning game, without necessarily being a complicated Warhammer-style wargame. Some of these ideas end up being almost more like board games, and if you really wanted to get wacky with it you could attempt to integrate an actual board game as the resolution mechanic (but that might be for a future article)! In any case, there are lots of video game genres, many of which may require much more thought, creativity, or hard work to make as a functional tabletop game, but I think designing these Video Game Crawls is a fun exercise in how to challenge preconceived notions of tabletop game design.
3) Combat Crawl
I generally prefer rules-light systems with minimalist combat mechanics, where much of the variation is abstracted. That being said, whether in literature, movies, or video games, different kinds of combat can be evocative in different ways, and it’s worth exploring this in tabletop. However, rather than trying to create a really granular game, with very specific statistics for how every kind of weapon could operate, another approach is just to compartmentalize and gamify these kinds of combats into Combat Crawls. For instance, I’m currently running a campaign for the tabletop RPG Tunnels & Trolls, and as part of that campaign, I’ve developed a unique combat system for Dueling, for Massive Combat, and for Mech Combat.
These rules aren’t intended to simulate hard physics of the world, but to evoke a certain feel. Dueling removes most of the random chance, playing out more like a game of Rock Paper Scissors or even poker, which to me seems evocative of a duel. Dueling could be integrated as part of a Western Frontier Crawl, or maybe even a Trench Warfare Crawl, which seems really well suited for tabletop (I’m surprised not much has been done with that). In the anime Attack on Titan, soldiers use “omni-directional mobility gear” to rapidly traverse environments and gain verticality to strike at the titular titans (giant humanoid monsters). The massive combat rules, in combination with some unique traversal mechanics, could make for a Scout Crawl. The logistics of traversal and maintenance with a mech could make for an interesting Mech Crawl. Unlike the other Crawls, this is about designing a combat conceit, and building the Crawl around that conceit. The RPG Deadlands also includes some unique mechanics for dueling and spellcasting, the latter of which actually plays out like poker, and a generalization of those mechanics for other systems could make for good Combat Crawl mechanics as well.
All of this is to say that the intersection between game design and worldbuilding can and should be explored further. It is possible that some of these ideas just won’t work, or will require significant consideration and refinement, but to move the medium forward, we should be thinking about new ways to design games. In video games, there is a concept of ludonarrative dissonance, immersion breaking effects of a game and its story being at odds, such as a game where the “Hero” regularly goes on massive killing sprees. However, I think the idea of ludonarrative dissonance / consonance is just as, if not more, relevant to tabletop. I enjoy “story games” and rules-light systems that make it easier for me to tell a particular kind of story, but I also think that a game can be used harmonically with the world and the story. That being said, not every game is or should be like a Traditional Fantasy Dungeon Crawl, so let’s design some new Crawls!
Max Cantor is a data engineer, whose love of all things science fiction, fantasy, and weird has inspired him to build worlds and design games. He writes a blog called Weird & Wonderful Worlds and hopes to spread his worlds across the multiverse of imaginations! He also published his first game, Pixels & Platforms: The Platform Crawl RPG, and would encourage you to give it a look!
Picture Reference: https://img.itch.zone/aW1hZ2UvNDQ2Mzk1LzIzMTIyMzAucG5n/original/K%2FBtka.png
A while ago, I talked about Shadowrun: Anarchy, a rules-light version of Shadowrun that uses a narrativist ruleset called “The Cue System.” I’m not normally a fan of narrativist games. My experience is usually that most of the game elements I like get stripped out in favor of giving more wiggle room to keep the narrative in place.
As I was digging around, I discovered that Catalyst Games Lab applied the same rules system used in Shadowrun: Anarchy as they did the Valiant Universe RPG. Having recently got my hands on a copy of the Valiant Universe RPG, and being a casual (but uninformed) fan of Valiant Comics, I spent the next few hours reading it and sharing details about it to my friends who also like Valiant.
So today, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Reasons The Valiant Universe RPG is Super! (Hint: Most of them come down to “The Cue System Is Great For Narrativist Games.”)
1) Title Exposés
Any comic multiverse, mainstream or indie, is going to have a large collection of characters, settings, worlds, and story arcs: such is the nature of any medium that’s constantly being written, with an ever increasing lore. The Valiant Universe is no exception.
The Valiant Universe RPG uses Title Exposés, two page long series of synopses, to bring potential players and gamemasters up to speed on the setting. As many modern games seem wont to do, every Exposé is led by various tags and cues for what that arc is about. For example, if you were looking for something involving advanced technology, you can take a quick look at Shadowman’s Tags (which includes terms like magic, necromancy, and spirits) to see if it’s worth reading further.
2) Organizations and Sample Characters
The Title Exposés use a lot of Proper Nouns, without much further explanation. This is normally a pet peeve of mine, especially in original fiction. However, the Valiant Universe RPG functions a little bit more like an encyclopedia: even when something is mentioned in one place, you can often find another detail about it elsewhere. This is where Organizations and Sample Characters come in.
Many of the named characters or organizations are further described, and in the case of characters, they likely have a stat block for them. Just like the Exposés, they include tags and cues, too, so you there’s no wrong place to start; be it organizations, characters, or arcs.
The most important thing about the organization section, however, is that it describes not only their involvement in the setting, but also their day-to-day activities, meaning there’s plenty of room in the Valiant Universe for original characters!
3) Scenario Briefs
There’s sample characters, organizations, and different settings abound explained for people new to the Valiant Universe, but what if, even with all that, a potential GM still has trouble fitting all this information together? Enter the Scenario briefs!
These, like the Title Exposés, are two pages long and list cues and tags for players to work with. They follow the familiar Three Act Structure, with a setup, confrontation, and resolution across the introduction and three scenes. Furthermore, it lists objectives for the player characters to follow, and even refers to sample NPCs that might appear in given scenes!
4) The Cue System
One of the most prominent features of the Cue System is what the system gets its name from: Character Cues. These are one-liners and taglines that describe characters, settings, and scenarios. Some of the setting cues don’t mean as much if you’re not already familiar with the setting. However, if you notice a character you like in character section, you can make a note of their tags and flip through all setting, character, and scenario sections that share that tag to get a better idea of how everything fits together.
5) Valiant Comics Setting
A few years ago (when I could still afford them) I was a big fan of comic books. While I usually followed Marvel, I also really liked indie or smaller press companies, such as Malibu, Image, and even Valiant. Ever since I was a young boy, I always gravitated towards strange and unusual things, favoring Robert Frost’s proverbial Road Not Taken. It’s often led to me finding some real gems, and in modern days, things that address people’s grievances with pop culture.
Valiant is one such case. While many, including yours truly, sometimes bemoan how DC and Marvel comics reuse the same plots while rebooting their stories ad infinitum to create an eternal crisis in their universes, Valiant can only boast having done so once. (And this was because the company was being refounded two decades after it collapsed!)
Characters in the Valiant universe follow long standing arcs, many spanning thousands of years, and switching allegiances as they crossover from one story to another. This setup allows for all kinds of different stories to happen, and characters to be expressed in all manner of situations, without retconning what previously happened.
Setting all that aside, the beauty of The Valiant Universe RPG is all in it’s presentation. It’s detailed in its explanations of the setting and characters, and has all the important major characters from Valiant Comics’ story arcs. At the same time, it also includes shorter, easier to digest information via cues. The two ways of presenting this information makes it great for cover-to-cover reading, as well as just scanning and picking out specific information.
When I picked this up, I was originally only familiar with Shadowman and Bloodshot, and only had a passing familiarity with X-O Manowar. But, even with just some brief skimming, I was able to get a grasp on Bloodshot’s impact beyond his personal mission, and also found a new favorite arc in the Valiant Universe: Quantum and Woody, the two slapstick superhero brothers that fight each other almost as much as they do the villains!
Aaron der Schaedel is the host of an eponymous YouTube channel. On it, he talks about all kinds of different RPG, either slicing through the rules for really dense ones, or shining light on oddities. Aaron would greatly appreciate if you would check out his channel, and subscribe if you like what you see.
Picture Reference: https://www.catalystgamelabs.com/valiant/
I started playing D&D back in the days of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition. I was 10 at the time, and in the 20 years that have elapsed between then and now, I’ve witnessed four different editions of D&D and three different editions wars. Each “war” was spurned by the coming of a new edition that “ruined” what D&D was “all about.”
The above sentiments are hyperbole. Sentiments I’ve found myself spouting from time to time. Though there is an element of truth to it: every edition of D&D I was present for was wildly different from the last. These differences changed how D&D was played.
Somewhere along the line with all the changes across so many editions, I think we wound up losing focus on a few things. Things that really made D&D special. Things that, incidentally, are perfect additions to the “sandbox” style of play with an open world.
So for your reading pleasure, here’s some old school D&D ideas you should definitely consider if you’re looking to run a more open world kind of game.
1) Questing For Magic Items
5th edition was meant to be the unifying edition; whether that succeeded or not is a topic for another article. However, the effort to do so is present in this one line from the Player’s Handbook:
"...aside from a few common magic items, you won't normally come across magic items or spells to purchase. The value of magic is far beyond simple gold and should always be treated as such."
The above is a sentiment echoed from 2nd edition, since this and 5th edition don’t have much in the way of codified rules on the creation of magic items. By contrast, 3rd edition has extensive rules on the subject. However, I do recall in 2nd edition, there was some suggestions for how to make magic items, and it involved gathering several exotic items related to the effect of the item.
This is the perfect objective for a quest!
Let’s have an example: say a player wanted to make a magical sword with a flaming blade so they may better thwart evil. In addition to the materials needed for a sword, it could also include such things as pure brimstone collected from a sacred volcano, a brilliant ruby, and the ashes of a tree limb that a wicked person was executed under. You could even include more intangible things that require some interpretation on behalf of the players, such as the burning conviction of one dedicated to justice.
The key is to make the required components meaningful to the effect and purpose of the item. Such a ruby may be found in a grand bazaar in a trade city, but not everybody has a sacred volcano in their backyard.
2) Travel Rules
Travelling can be dangerous. Bandits, wild animals, and vicious goblins could strike anywhere. However if you’re a tough sort that’s used to beating down unsavory elements on the road, there’s nothing to fear. Unless you’re starving, dehydrated, and haven’t slept in a day. Then the errant kobold might prove to be a problem.
The metaphysical march up the stairs that is character level does some weird things to the universe. At the beginning levels, a small band of goblins can be a challenge. At higher levels, in order to keep this same sort of encounter challenging, something else is needed to make these goblins a challenge. Something like making them stronger via special gear, adding more of them, or introducing powerful new allies for them.
I get why this happens, though. In order to keep the game interesting, challenges have to escalate. Tougher enemies is one way to do this. However, the enemies are just one variable in this scenario. An often overlooked mechanic in D&D 5e is Exhaustion. Not having the right things for a journey, including food and water, can have drastic consequences. Enforcing travel rules, such as having the supplies, food, and water necessary for a long journey, adds a whole host of new challenges without needing to rely on making combat more difficult.
The core books for D&D 5e even state that a person needs about one pound of food and one gallon of water a day, which for a short journey can easily be kept on hand. However, on a longer journey, it becomes important to either know where nearby settlements are, or to have the ability to find these things in the wild. This also has the effect of making the Ranger class and certain backgrounds (such as Outlander) much more useful, since they’re more effective at foraging.
And if nothing else, players can always use all that gold they’ve been hoarding to hire NPCs to help carry all their supplies for a long haul journey!
3) Building Strongholds
With a vast wilderness with all manner of threats, or a universe filled with secrets to study and uncover, a hero is eventually going to want to find a place of their own to make this all happen. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a quick blurb on how much all of this costs, and the time it takes to complete, but not much else.
If you haven’t noticed the recurring theme in this article, regarding strongholds, there’s plenty of room for extrapolating from incomplete details!
An adventure can be made out of finding the skilled workers needed to build a stronghold. Additionally, player characters may also need to gain permission from the local rulers to build their stronghold, leading to further quests they’ll need to complete before they can begin construction.
This aspect was baked into 2nd Edition, with most characters gaining followers at level 9 if they possessed a stronghold. Later, supplements were released that included all the nitty gritty details of what it took in terms of followers and gold acquire a stronghold.
While no such official supplement exists for 5th Edition, it hasn’t stopped fans from creating their own.
4) Changing Parties
After so many adventures, and so many marks have been made on the map by one group, you eventually reach a plateau. This could be in terms of story arc, character level, or even interest in playing a given character.
So when there’s been a major accomplishment, such as beginning work on that stronghold or completing that magic weapon the players have quested so long for, it may be worth making a new cast of characters and starting a new adventure. (At least for a little while.)
As with everything else, there was a precedent for this shift in 2nd edition as well, in the Creative Campaigns sourcebook. The example they cited was that when the party reaches a city with a temple preparing to go on a crusade, the players would make new characters who are the knight readying to go on said crusade.
To bring this around to our example, though: a party that completed The Burning Sword of Justice could offer it as a gift to a local lord in exchange for a deed to land to build their stronghold. At that point, the players could take on a new set of characters who are vassals of this lord doing some initial surveying of this land. (And to ensure that the players still get to have fun with their weapon they worked for, the lord could have gifted it to one of the new player characters.)
The key to making a “sandbox” game work is that the players need goals to work towards, and these goals can’t be treated as a means of instant gratification. For all games, though, resources earned or found should be useable: if you’re going to give out mundane rewards like currency, it may be worthwhile to enforce mundane needs. (Like needing to resupply rations, or pay wages to hirelings.)
Aaron der Schaedel initially wanted to include an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” joke at the start of this article, and end it with the phrase “And stay off my lawn!” He cut those jokes when he realized this piece would be more effective if he just tied it to sandbox games instead of griping about how gaming has changed over the last 20 years. You can tell him to go back to bed via Twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_Campaigning
Anybody who knows me knows that I love playing RPGs for the game aspect. Before you go rolling your eyes and muttering under your breath about how I must be a terrible roleplayer and that I spell it with two Ls, allow me to state two things: 1) It’s not a dichotomy, 2) The evidence can speak for itself.
I earnestly believe one of the hallmarks of a good roleplayer is that they can make even a ridiculous concept make sense in setting, or adequately justify otherwise nonsensical character choices. With all that said, let’s take a look at some ridiculous such characters one can create using just the core rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition!
1) Explosive Backstabber
I’m suggesting this one because one thing I like about Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition is that they (mostly) eliminated alignment and other restrictions when picking classes; which allows for some ridiculous concepts and combinations, such as what we’ll be discussing now: what happens when you mix a Rogue’s backstab with a Paladin’s smite.
The things you need: Backstab from Rogue, Divine Smite from Paladin.
How it fits together: The requirements for both Backstab and Divine Smite are easily met by wielding a rapier, the strongest, finesse, melee weapon available to both Rogues and Paladins. The end result is that by level 3, a character can roll 3d8+1d6+Damage Modifier in one attack.
If somebody wanted to maximize this effect, they’d want to keep favor leveling up Rogue and take the Arcane Trickster subclass, since Smite becomes more powerful with higher spell slot usage, while Backstab becomes stronger with Rogue levels.
Conceptually? This setup will have naysayers, since traditionally Paladins and Rogues are anathema to each other. Though with the defanging of original thief-class by renaming it Rogue, and the addition of different kinds of Paladins such as those with the Oath of Vengeance, it’s entirely possible to justify that this is what Batman would be.
2) Literal Spell Sniper
Spell Sniper is a useful early game feat; it literally doubles the range of attack spells, and even lets you ignore cover. Great if you’re using a battle mat and plan to hide away from the action. Not so great if you have a GM that eschews the battle mat and uses the “eh, everybody is within range of each other at all times” method.
Even in that latter situation, there’s sure to be some utility from pumping range up to ridiculous levels, right? Like the previous setup, this one require multiclassing. You need two levels of Warlock and two levels of Sorcerer. Your sub classes for these don’t matter. You’ll also need to have the Spell Sniper feat.
The things you need: the Eldritch Blast cantrip from Warlock, the Eldritch Spear invocation from Warlock, and the Extended Spell metamagic from Sorcerer, along with the Spell Sniper Feat.
How it fits together: Eldritch Blast, when used with Eldritch Spear, extends the range of Eldritch Blast to 300ft. Spell Sniper doubles the range of a spell, making it 600ft. Extended Spell, doubles the range again for a total of 1,200ft. That’s enough to cover 240 squares on a standard 5ft square grid map.
I’m not sure when somebody would ever need to hit something from that far away, nor if the human eye can actually see at that range. Though if you’re crazy enough to try this, I’m sure these sorts of questions aren’t a major concern; you’ll either find a reason to make use of this range, or find some way around the sight problem.
3) The Invincible Iron Barbarian
When people discuss classes what class in D&D that’s meant to take hits like a champ (a tank, if you will), often Paladin is the one that floats to the top of the discussion, or sometimes fighter. Occasionally, though, Barbarian gets a mention with their d12 hit dice. Well, in D&D 5th Edition, the idea isn’t so far fetched for Barbarians to be the ones that take damage like it’s nothing.
Because for them? It probably IS nothing.
The things you need: Hill Dwarf Race, Barbarian class, Totem Warrior Subclass, Bear Totem Spirit, Tough Feat.
How it fits together: If we’ve learned anything the previous entry, it’s that if anything is worth doing, it’s worth doing to a stupidly absurd degree. Hill Dwarf gets a bonus 1 HP per level, and dwarves in general have a bonus to Constitution. Barbarian, when unarmored, gains an AC bonus based on their Constitution. This is on top of the normal bonus to HP one gets for Constitution. Tough grants a further 2HP per level, retroactively.
The end result of all the above, assuming an 18 Constitution, is that our Dwarf at level 4 has a MINIMUM of 43 HP. (12 from 1st level, 16 from +4 con bonus for four levels, 4 from Hill Dwarf Toughness, 8 from Tough Feat, 3 minimum from hit dice gained for levels 2-4)
The capstone to all this is Bear Totem Spirit from Totem Warrior, which grants resistance to all damage types but psychic.
Bears are terrifying.
4) The Rogue That Stole The Bard’s Role
Not all the ideas I propose today are going to be about how to break the rules of D&D combat over your knee like a twig. After all, despite the rulebook predominantly consisting of rules for how to kill things and solve problems with violence, Dungeons and Dragons is all about story!
So let’s make something that tells a story about a plucky Rogue that stole the show from the Bard!
What you need: Rogue Class, Skilled Feat. Half-Elf Race, Entertainer Background.
How it fits together: The Bard is described as Music and Magic, as well as a jack-of-all trades. In fact, that’s the name of one of one of their class features that grants them half their proficiency bonus to any roll they wouldn’t have proficiency in.
The idea with this setup is to cover as many skills as possible, and just for the sake of it, be better at music and charisma based skills than the Bard. Half-Elf grants 2 skill proficiencies, and the Skilled feat grants an additional 3 later on. Entertainer covers us for being able to make music, and comes with a reputation for doing so, to boot!
The two kickers, though, are the Rogue Class Features Expertise and Reliable Talent. Expertise, by level 6, gives a Rogue four skills they have proficiency in DOUBLE their proficiency bonus, and Reliable Talent treats any roll they make with a skill or tool they’re proficient in count as a 10. (Which, as a Half-Elf with Skilled, you’ll have many of.)
To take this a step further, you could also pick Arcane Trickster as your archetype. This, combined with numerous feats that grant additional spells, leaves the Rogue in a good position to fashion themselves as “like a Bard, but better.”
5) Your Dice Are Ruining My Story
If Dungeons and Dragons is all about story, though, why do I have to obey the whims of these dice? What if they don’t give me the result I want to tell the story that I want? Surely there’s something I can do! (Besides just write a book, that is.)
Well, hypothetical, whiny voice that exists less to prove a point and more to segue into my next entry, I’ve got you covered!
What you need: Halfling Race, Wizard Class, Diviner Subclass, Lucky Feat
How it fits together: This setup is all about abilities that play around with the dice in ways that are often considered straight up broken. First, starting with the Halfling’s Lucky ability; quite simply? It lets you re-roll any d20 roll that comes up 1.
The Lucky feat grants luck points that can essentially be used for rerolls, either on your rolls, or rolls made against you. And to top it all off, Diviner gives you the Portent Class Feature, which lets you roll two dice that you can use to replace any other die roll later on.
Dice tricks like that, combined with much of the Diviner’s spells about sussing out information, means that you can prepare for any unpleasant surprises, to the possible annoyance of your GM and fellow players!
These are probably nothing, at least compared to some of the unusual things you can find and mix in with other splatbooks such as Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. After all, there’s a reason class bloat is often a common complaint in RPGs: as a game allows for more options, more absurd things can happen. Plus, only so many more options can be added until everything just seems the same.
Dungeons and Dragons is Aaron der Schaedel’s favorite fantasy RPG published by WIzards of the Coast. He talks about the myriad other games out there on his YouTube Channel, and would greatly appreciate it if you would subscribe.
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/364158319865556047/
As you might know, High Level Games is a Savage World Ace, and as a company that is tied into what other creators of Savage Worlds are producing, we sometimes see things early that get us excited. Guardians of Umbra. I saw two things immediately, Tesla and Tesla. Anything Tesla related gets my attention. I have a brick at Wardenclyffe to prove it.
We talked to Michael Barbeau of Bumblebear about the project. Micheal told us his 3 reasons to be excited, and then he answered a few great questions.
3 Reasons to Be Excited for Guardians of Umbra
What genre influences are we getting from this setting? (Tell us more about Teslapunk, WWII Nazi punching, etc)
Our setting introduces Teslapunk technology during World War II. In Guardians of Umbra, a madman steals Tesla technology and uses it to create a wide array of weapons and strange devices. This alters the technological level like many steampunk games, only with more mad scientists and fewer rivets. It also opens the door for crazy enemies like cyborg zombies and Nazis using lightning guns.
The second influence comes from the world of Umbra itself. This is a place occupied by a wide variety of creatures from folklore, myths, and fairy tales. Players get to play as these creatures—once viewed as monsters and driven away--as they return to take on the far more frightening enemies of the Tesla Corpse.
Why Savage Worlds for the ruleset?
I have been playing Savage Worlds games for about a decade now and their system has always impressed me. The mechanics have a way of making everything feel gritty and dangerous, while allowing players to attempt epic feats. Like their tagline says, “Fast, Furious, Fun” and that is exactly what we wanted for our game.
Additionally, because players will be playing epic mythical creatures, we needed to make sure everything was well balanced. We were able to use the Savage Worlds system to give each race unique abilities and add new Arcane Backgrounds while making sure that no one race could dominate the game.
I noticed the Kickstarter includes information for paper miniatures. Can you tell us more about them and why we should be excited about them?
Many role players enjoy using theater of the mind, and I have done it plenty of times myself. However, we wanted to help players who love getting visually immersed see their characters and enemies on the board. Many roleplaying games use miniatures, however that can be a hefty investment, especially for a very specific setting. So, by using printable paper miniatures, players can get the same experience but for little cost.
What sort of adventures do you anticipate people running using Guardians of Umbra?
Many of the adventures we anticipate are smash and grab rescue operations. There are many allies that have been taken hostage or used as experiments that are in dire need of help. There is also a massive war going on that players can get involved in. Many adventures will be flexible based on whether the player characters decide to co-exist with humanity and come to their aid or seek to dominate and destroy.
We also have a Plot Point Campaign that will be included in the Game Masters Book. This campaign will provide a series of adventures that will pit players against the Tesla Corps, drag them through combat zones, and reveal a hidden darkness that threatens the world.
What's in the future for Bumblebear Games?
Being miniature lovers, once we deliver on Guardians of Umbra, we are launching another Kickstarter for a series of miniatures in-setting. We already have seven minis sculpted and ready to go, including a rogue demon, Rosie the Riveter, an avatar of nature, and one of the Tesla Corps failed experiments. After that, we have setting expansions and several board game projects lined up, such as the Guardians of Umbra board game, which is already in development.
Check it out now on Kickstarter!
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games