All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG. Bring these games to your table!
Behind every great adventure, there’s a group of plucky players rolling dice to decide the fate of their avatars. Behind those players is a GM—their smile partially obscured with a well-placed screen—secretly rooting for their victory. When the dice and dust settle and the players set out on their journey to a satisfying night’s sleep, the GM quietly packs their gear: the screen, the books, the minis, the maps, their dice, and all the ad hoc gear they’ve gathered for this particular session.
The GM has a satisfied, yet bittersweet look on their face; they wanted the players to succeed, yeah, but they’ll always wonder if it was ever enough. Could they have done more? Perhaps prepared more? Was it challenging enough? The GM knows that the players inevitably win some way or another and that their adventure was always a challenge to be surmounted eventually. But, it can be hard knowing that your own victory could lead to a raucous at the table. With those thoughts, they, too, pack up for bed, their mind constantly on the players and the story at hand.
“Good to see you’ve finally come, I’ve been waiting for you lot for some-”
“I shoot him with an arrow. Sneak attack, yeah?”
If you’ve ever played a long enough campaign you’ve likely faced your fair share of villains: from mid-boss to big-bad, from minor to world-ender. Even the evil campaign has its own villains, in a sense, as the holy law enforcement seeks to end your reign of terror. With any important enough antagonist there will eventually be a moment where the plots and schemes have been thrown to the side and they face you confidently and tell you the tale you’ve earned, explaining their modus operandi and reasons why they’re acting as they do, or some sort of critical plot point or piece of information that could change the world as you see it.
Or in other words, a monologue.
In a recent thread on a D&D-based Facebook group, there was a discussion about players interrupting a villain’s monologue. A majority of the responses in that thread could be summed up between ‘Yeah, interrupting them is hilarious!’ and ‘I hate it when my players do this.’ While there were quite a few cases of overt GM overreaction(ie, immediately killing players that do this or making them completely helpless before monologing), there was an evident frustration from GMs as a whole concerning this. There was an even greater number of players explaining all the ways they’ve gleefully dealt with it as well. From Sneak Attacking to surprise Fireballs, from charging at them to casting Silence to prevent it entirely.When did roleplaying become a zero-sum game? Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
Perhaps it’s due to all the monologing we observe in media, or perhaps it’s the flashbacks of being lectured by parents, but at some point monologuing as a whole started being seen as an intrinsically negative function that needs to be dealt with. In nearly every group I’ve run for, there has been at least one player who is especially keen on making sure no monologue gets to see the light of day. When the villains go down that quickly, all the players are happy, but the GM is often left feeling unsatisfied. When did roleplaying become a zero-sum game?
I think that’s unfair.
“How could you betray us!?”
“Allow me to explain! Secretly, all along I’ve been—”
“While they’re distracted, I’m going to charge at them.”
When a GM creates their campaign//adventure//session they go in knowing 95% of the content they make is going to be bested. Aside from the few instances like a recurring villain escaping or a character dying cinematically, a GM is not really meant to ‘come out on top.’ When we do, it often frustrates the party, and so the GM must act with these in great moderation. A game is balanced around the party besting obstacle after obstacle for their coveted EXP. The GM goes in, prepping exorbitant amounts of content in maps, NPCs, quest lines, encounters, monsters and more, all while knowing it’s supposed to be bested and often forgotten in the running narrative in the game. The GM plays the game knowing they’re going to—meant to—lose almost every single fight.The GM plays the game knowing they’re going to—meant to—lose almost every single fight. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
When a villain monologues the GM already knows they’re likely going to die. However, this is one of the few cases where a GM can really let loose, can ‘come out on top’, without doing anything overly frustrating towards the players. No one has to die, the players haven’t failed, or even let someone escape; this is simply the preamble to the villain’s death. It’s likely their last chance to leave an impression on the players.
Often the final speech is about the futility of the player characters, but can easily have room to be much more than that. As a GM I’ve spent hours scouring old notes and chat logs, looking for hints of character-backstory to tie in, or lost campaign-imperative information that needed to be revealed. When a villain dies too soon, so does any narrative attachment they might have. Everyone wants a memorable story just like in the podcasts many of them have come to admire, but by not giving the narrative a chance, players could potentially lose out on big dramatic moments they could have been talking about for years to come.
The players already have an infinite number of opportunities in-game to express themselves and to do whatever they want. Players can choose to save the damsel’d blacksmith, break into any NPC’s house, or even spend the entire session punching trees. But the GM only gets so many opportunities to express themselves fully in a way that doesn’t inconvenience or frustrate the players.Players can choose to […] spend the entire session punching trees. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
I’m not saying the GM doesn’t have fun when they’re not monologing. As a GM, I’ve found myself honestly *giddy* watching my players best the odds, or find unique solutions to my obstacles I hadn’t considered. I enjoy myself plenty when a player engages in the world in a way that adds to the narrative meaningfully. I also enjoy myself, perhaps far too much, watching the players struggling with my plethora of pit traps.
All I’m saying is that the GM spends a lot of time prepping and preparing a game where everyone can enjoy themselves. I don’t believe GMs get enough credit for all the effort they put in. We’re not asking for much, but for just enough time to show you all this thing we wrote. So just once in a while, let the villain monologue.
Di, signing out.
Cover art by: @NotveryAvery
Cursing is an interesting part of our culture. The idea that certain concepts can be inherently offensive, but only when voiced using words derived from a certain language stock is a strange one. Have you ever given this concept, its origins and the nature of it serious consideration? Today we’re going to to that with two broad aims. First, a study of why cursing exists, how the concept is used and applied in the real world and its actual and downright magical effects, will help to insert an analog into your game that will have interesting roleplaying as well as mechanical applications. Second, this is sort of a soapbox issue for me, so I get to have a nice cathartic rant. Feel free to agree/disagree in the comments, though they may get more NSFW than our usual ones given the content (although I’m guessing not as NSFW as some of our other articles on issues of prejudice).Part 1 – the interesting origin of foul language:
How did we come to have a subset of vocabulary deemed as offensive in modern English, a language that it has often been joked: “has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.” (James D. Nicoll). This is also a language where coining new Neologisms on a moment’s notice is considered clever. Certainly this is a language where anything and everything is allowed. And yet we have this curious phenomenon where a small set of words, exclusively of one cultural origin are not allowed. How did that come to pass? And how can you leverage it in your games?
Turns out this language phenomenon dates back to the early 1000s with the Norman conquest of England. Back in the 1060s the Normans and the English had a disagreement over the succession to the throne of England. This dispute was resolved in 1066 at the battle of Hastings with the death of Harold Godwinson, one of the claimants to the throne. Within 20 years, the Normans had seized almost all of England.
How does this lead to the invention of today’s proscription against select words of Germanic origin? Well, it turns out that the Normans spoke Old French whereas the common man of England spoke Old English (which ironically, is a Germanic language). With the Normans in charge and with their society strongly divided into castes, the language of the land was split as well, with the nobility speaking Old French (why should they bother to learn a new language just to communicate with peasantry after all) and the peasants speaking Old English (they probably would have liked to learn to speak with their noble masters, but were too busy being oppressed and forced into crushing labor to say, take night classes even if that were a thing back then).
As is usually the case, the nobility felt that they were better than the people they were oppressing in every way, and that included the language spoken by the peasants. In fact our modern word vulgar comes for the old word vulgaris: “used by the common people”. Literally, the proscription against swearing came from the noble Norman caste being offended by hearing the crude language of the common folk. How dreadful it must have been for their delicate sensitive ears!
Now, one can make the argument that not all words of Germanic origin are offensive (in fact the most commonly used words in English are almost all of Germanic origin) but instead it can be claimed that the commonly proscripted words deal with biological functions or are of a sexual nature. One can almost imagine the genteel Norman lords and ladies wincing at the thought of the peasants engaging in these generally private acts. But for that argument to hold any water, words of any origin that relate to the same concepts must be held at the same level of distaste. We can talk about defecation, feces, stool, poop, just not …. moving on, we can talk about copulation, fornication, intercourse, even whoopee, but not … well, you know.
So the key concept here is that in the English language, “private” words are not outlawed, nor are Germanic words, but where the two intersect, there we find the “BAD” words This must imply one of two things: That either there is some interaction effect between the two subsets that make Germanic private words somehow offensive when neither are alone, which makes no sense, or that both private words in general and Germanic words in general are considered lightly taboo or crass and to combine the two combines the effect. We can in fact point to other evidence that this second case is the one that applies. We can see plenty of people that are uncomfortable discussing private matters without claiming that doing so is offensive. We also can point to the curious phenomenon of most English speakers changing their speaking style to a heavier mix of non-Germanic words when they want to lend weight to their words or sound more educated. (don’t worry. I have sources below). This leads us to conclude that private words are mildly taboo, but not overwhelmingly so, and that Germanic words are considered “low class”, which makes sense given their history, but not enough to be offensive, but combining the two is too much, and thus we have today’s curse words.
Side note: This isn’t the only source of “BAD” words in the English language. There is also a much smaller set of “He who is not to be named” words similar to Hastur, Lord Moldybutt, or rktho (primal word for bear. Yes really). These words come from the concept that using something’s name either offends it (because we are using its pure name with our filthy human mouths) or calls to it (and thus puts us in danger). Many of the “religious themed” “BAD” words come from this source. This is not the primary source of our offensive words, nor are these commonly cited, but they will be useful in the discussion later.
We’re almost to the gaming part, I promise. But first it makes sense to cover:Part 2 – the prejudice against the vulgar tongue:
So we’ve covered why the prejudice against language of a Germanic root historically exists, and how that combined with a mild taboo against discussing private functions and matters combine to create swearing. But what is the net effect of the overall prejudice against the language and against swearing specifically? Let’s unpack a few of the common prejudices (none of which are true, by the way, but we’ll cover that later).
- The myth of a poverty of vocabulary: Cursing is often viewed as a crutch for lacking a sufficient vocabulary. The argument goes that if the speaker knew a word that would substitute for the curse word, they would use it.
- The myth of low intelligence: Those who curse are viewed as being less intelligent than those who do not. This is just the poverty of vocabulary myth taken to the next level. If you curse, you must have a limited vocabulary. And if you have a limited vocabulary it’s because you are stupid. That’s the assumption anyway.
- The myth of motivation: Cursing is often associated with being lazy. Again, it’s linked to vocabulary. They might know a better word. They’re just too lazy to think of one.
- The myth of impulsiveness: It is sometimes assumed that those who swear are impulsive or highly emotional. They know better than to swear, the thought goes, but just lack the self control.
- The myth of poor social skills: The assumption here is that those who swear can’t read a room and know when swearing might or might not be acceptable or that they lack consideration for the potential offense their words carry.
- The myth of unfriendliness: Hinging on the myth of impulsiveness and poor social skills above
- The myth of poor job performance: This one hangs on more or less all of the above. If you’re dumb, have a poor vocabulary, are lazy, have no self control, and lack social skills, how could you possibly be good at your job?
So, the history of curse words and the source of their offensiveness established, and the prejudices those who use those words are subjected to enumerated, how can you make use of this in your game? The first questions you have to ask are: “Should you?” and “Have you discussed this with your players?” Why? Well, just like any source of prejudice, adding aspects of it to your game allows for a richer role playing experience and allows you to build stories around real world issues, BUT these themes can make games uncomfortable for those at the table, some of who don’t want to deal with the same nonsense they deal with day in and day out in their game time too. This is reasonable, so a conversation about inclusion of these sorts of topics in your game would be appropriate first.Inventing your own curse words:
Sure you could just say your game world cursing mirrors our own world’s and call it a day. Many aspects of game worlds go that way. There’s no problem with doing that. But you’re missing a chance to say something important about your game world. Look at the two main sources of cursing: private functions described in a language of an oppressed people and the names of sacred or dangerous beings and places. This gives you the opportunity to ask a few questions:
- If curse words come from the language of an oppressed culture, What is the culture? Does anyone still speak their original language? How are native speakers treated? Are their vestigial aspects of that oppression today?
- If curse words come from the names of sacred or dangerous beings and places, what are those beings and places? Does using their name actually have effects or is it an old wives tale?
There are plenty of reactions to cursing. In addition to the people who carry and act on the prejudices listed above, there are also:
- those who just use the proscription as an opportunity to feel superior over others. If you have characters in your game who are status seeking, holier than thou or otherwise consider themselves above others, they will be quick to chastise those who curse, often citing the above prejudices. Note that because these NPCs have demonstrated their superiority, they are able to ignore and dismiss any complaints about their prejudices. Obviously, this potty-mouth is just too ignorant to understand the situation.
- The prejudice against cursing is often closely linked to misogyny as well. Many who consider curse words “offensive” consider them doubly so for the delicate ears of women, which must remain pure. Some NPCs who “have no problem with cursing themselves” will react quite poorly if it is done in front of women. These are also the same ones that shame women for their “unladylike behavior” when they curse. NPCs who are misogynistic will often latch on to this prejudice in this fashion.
- The “think of the children!” crowd. Like the above, many people will get upset at cursing that “doesn’t bother them” but they don’t want children to learn to do it. Feel free to have them completely baffled by the question: “If YOU see nothing wrong with it, why is is bad if children learn those words?”. Which usually leads into:
- It offends other people! Surely THEY are enlightened. THEY understand there’s nothing wrong with it, in fact THEY do it sometimes themselves. But you mustn’t do it. Because it could offend other people. Never mind that they will happily admit that the practice is nothing but prejudice, and makes no logical sense. It’s important not to offend other people, to keep the peace. Note the correlations here to other, bigger name prejudices. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with it, but other people don’t understand, so rather than work to normalize it or educate those people, just hide it. NPCs that like to avoid conflict, keep the peace (literally, guards don’t want to be bothered with nonsense like this. They have better things to do), or are afraid of confrontation often use this excuse.
- Since cursing often carries a connotation of intensity, you will also encounter a lot of tone policing while using it or discussing it. “You would get further if you could just discuss this more civilly” Even in discussions which don’t actually involve you cursing, simply discussing the concept will often invoke tone policing. If characters start to argue with others, this is one of the most common responses.
- Conflation of issues: While there is all sorts of hurtful and hate filled speech, and while cursing can absolutely be turned to those purposes (and often is), the two are not synonymous. One can be hateful in perfectly “polite” speech, and one can paint a blue litany and not be hurtful of anyone. However, there are plenty of NPCs who will just not understand the subtleties here and insist that the two are one in the same. And point of note: be careful yourself. It’s possible to get buy in and include cursing in your game. It’s also possible to get buy in and include hateful or hurtful speech in your game. But don’t conflate the two yourself, get buy in for cursing and then start using it (or any other language) in a hateful manner without also getting buy in on that.
- People with power: So while all of the above are annoying to deal with, and are excellent candidates for RPGs that make use of introducing complications, there are also NPCs that not only are prejudiced but have the power to enforce those prejudices. This could be people in a position to impact your PC’s wallets: boss’s, fixers, or quest givers. They could also include those in positions of authority: CEOs, Kings, Religious officials, some of which have the power to put the PCs into a serious bind for having the temerity to abuse language in their presence. While in a fantasy game, the local lord could well have the PCs thrown into the dungeons to rot for sullying his ears with profanity, that’s probably best saved for an adventure hook as opposed to a random complication.
It’s also important to note that the prejudice against profanity is so entrenched in modern society that it is often outright codified in rules of workplaces, guidelines for professionalism etc… and that many people won’t bother to question that their reaction and support of others’ prejudice here is based on their own assumption of it being the correct world view. This is not one of those prejudices that most people understand is a prejudice. It is one of the deeply entrenched culturally integrated ones.Part 4 – But what about the magic? You promised secret powers!
So here’s the flip side of cursing: despite the prejudices that accompany it, there are actually definite benefits to using profanity. Oddly enough though, many of these effects stem specifically FROM the fact that cursing is considered taboo language. That is to say, that if you use “bad” words that no one really cares about, you don’t get any effect from it. So in a way, all the people who hold prejudices about vulgar language are necessary to give that language power. It’s pretty darn close to magic. Here are some of these positive side effects:
- People who curse are actually smarter and more fluent than those who do not (in direct opposition to the prejudice)
- Swearing alleviates both pain and stress
- Cursing forms closer and more intimate bonds between people more quickly than they otherwise would and increases group bonds
- Cursing is a marker for honesty and credibility
- People who use profanity appropriately are perceived as more attractive than those who do not
- The effects of public speaking is enhanced by swearing, even as people claim that it makes the speaker less convincing
So from these scientifically proven effects we can see that swearing actually helps perform tasks of endurance and improves social abilities (The intelligence causation is probably the other way around). Since we’re considering introducing vulgar language in our games as sources of conflict it’s reasonable to balance out the extra complications. In this case, science supports that using profanity during these sorts of challenges should result in a bonus over those who do not, but that it’s fair that those bonuses cause additional complications where relevant.
So there you have it: The origin of cursing in modern English, the prejudices using profanity subjects one to and the actual effects of swearing, all wrapped up in a bundle that you can dump screaming and cursing into your game world to help flesh out your world building and add a unique set of complications and invokable bonuses. Enjoy!
Sources (many of these are compiled fluff news pieces, but if you click through on individual topics they will lead eventually to books by experts or scientific papers):
This one is a fun one that digs into the history of cursing and misogyny as well as a case where chimps were taught sign language and immediately invented their own swear words!
Sometimes, when you sit down at the table to play, something special happens. Something magical turns that game into something more. Was it the GM bringing their A game? Was it the players at the table, all getting into their characters just so? Could it have been the game itself? Or is it combination of all of these? Either way, magic happened and that game is going to live on long after the players leave the table.
I’ve been thinking of this as one of my home groups dives back into a campaign that has had several of these magical moments happen. The GM has done some of his best work with this game, deftly weaving together at the perfect pace a city full of intrigue and conspiracy with NPCs we both love to love and love to hate. On top of that, we players are fully invested in our characters, with a deep fondness for their escapades. While not every session is perfect, we’ve had enough moments of amazingness that I can confidently say that most of us would label this one as absolutely ‘magic’.
These are the game moments that become the stories we tell each other when we pull out our gaming war stories. They’re the some of the things that keep us creating and imagining even when we can’t be playing. The question then becomes, how do they happen and can we make them happen more often? Can we make this type of game magic happen on command?
To be honest, probably not.What you can do, though, is keep working on improving the elements you bring to a game, either as a GM or as a player, so the opportunity for those fantastic moments is always there.Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
There is just no way to guarantee that every session is going to be pitch perfect and full of awesomeness and thinking of like that could set you up for failure and disappointment when things aren’t perfect. What you can do, though, is keep working on improving the elements you bring to a game, either as a GM or as a player, so the opportunity for those fantastic moments is always there.
It is important to leave yourself open for when those games do happen in unexpected places. Sometimes they come from unexpected places. I’ve had con games with complete strangers rise to amazing heights of wonder as the table somehow lucked into the right combination of everything to turn that game into magic. There have been campaigns that were okay, but not quite hitting all the right notes perfectly until suddenly one night, everything clicks and that game becomes one for the group’s personal history book.
Basically, keep exploring this hobby, improving yourself as both a GM and a player, and keep the door open for magic to happen. I’ve been playing for over thirty years now and I have a ton of awesome games in my past and look forward to tons more in the future.
What are some of the most magical games you’ve been in? What made that game sing?
Join Ang, John, and Chris for a discussion about getting comfortable running games without any prep and relying on improvisation. Will these gnomes be able to improvise their way out of getting tossed in the stew this week?
Download: Gnomecast #72 – GMing from NOTHING
Resources mentioned in this show include:
- Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley
- Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters from Engine Publishing
Get details on GEM fund-matching for the 2019 IGDN Metatopia Sponsorship here.
Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!
For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Panda’s Talking Games!
I confess: I’ve often thought that in both professional adventure design and for GMs bringing a game to their home table — too much hand-wringing and navel gazing has accompanied the presentation of “adventure hooks.”
Why is your character going on an adventure? It is a responsibility that, strangely, both published adventures and most rule sets hoist upon the GM.
Why is it up to the GM to dangle an enticement in front of the players? Why must the GM be the one who concocts the motivations that will snare the players’ interest?
Provide the adventure? Yes, the GM does that. Provide the “hook”? Uh-uh.
I’ve heard that “adventure hooks” are akin to a film or stage director providing a motivation to an actor for a given scene.
In my experience, however, most directors provide but an outline, sketching in broadest terms their perspective on a given scene. But they still rely on the cast members themselves to develop their assigned character. A studious actor usually finds their own motivation, rather than relying on someone else to interpret things.
Should such a task befall a GM, then I say, let that hook be a quest. Now and forever, from this point forward. If any player comes to the table needing a “hook”, then I say: make it a quest.
“Ah, Lady Aethelflaed, no one but you and your friends are suited for this task. Please, go forth, and see that it is done. For the glory of our kingdom and our god.”
If a player can’t get jazzed about embarking on a quest — then why on earth have we gathered at this table, character sheets in hand? Our time might be better spent playing Parcheesi.
Come ready to play. Be willing to let imagination take hold. Be the hero — do the deed — return with the treasure.
By all means, feel free to negotiate with the quest giver. Suggest a quest of your own to the GM. Even better. There comes a time when players are ready to move on from their quest-giver, especially if it is a king. (Kings expect to be obeyed, and admittedly, the imbalance of that interpersonal dynamic may wear thin after a while.) That’s understood. And such initiative should be rewarded.
But none of these players need “adventure hooks.” They are engaged. They are part of the conversation.
Now, I get it. Novice players may need to be instructed. But honestly, most new players don’t need help with “adventure hooks.” They probably need help deciphering their character sheet or understanding when it is “their turn.” But are they lacking zeal for adventure? Hardly.
So, go forth! And don’t forget to close the dungeon door on your way out.
There was a tendency, when I was running years ago, to run into players that would use the following logic, “you can do anything in an RPG, so let’s do [insert thing not well supported by the game or setting].” Because I have been running a lot more roleplaying games that have a focus on genre emulation, and because I’m much more likely to discuss campaign frameworks and to have session zeros to set expectations, I don’t see this as much now as I once did, but it still comes up on occasion.
Because this may be something that game moderators may still run into from time to time, I thought I would walk through some thoughts on why this may be a problem, and how to get a focused game back on track.Addressing the Issue Head-On
Whenever a player wants to go off on a vector that isn’t really what the game or setting supports, it is really important to actually have a discussion. One of the most important things to do in these situations is to make sure that you don’t try to fix this problem “in game.” Setting up the campaign to remove the player’s desired course of action without a discussion is just going to create an adversarial relationship and create frustration.
When a player wants to do something outside of the expected realm of the game, one of the first things you should do in a discussion is to frame your game as a “writer’s room.” Everyone at the table is a collaborator on a story, and you want the input of your players. The next thing you should discuss is what you think the game, setting, and campaign is good at doing well, and ask if the player agrees with that vision.
If the player disagrees, and thinks that the actions their player wants to participate in fits in the core competencies of the game, listen to their reasoning. It may be that the game is more flexible than you initially thought, or it may be that you misunderstand what the player really wants to get from their deviation.Drilling Down
If the player wants to go off on a tangent, ask them if they want a short- or long-term deviation. If it is a short-term deviation, it may be something easily adjudicated. The player may just want to roleplay a certain scene, or it may just be a quick roll to see if something can be accomplished or not.
One style of short-term deviation often seen in various television shows or movies is the change of pace scene that transitions into the traditional action of the game. This may end up being more invigorating, because it accomplishes the same end goal of the game, but forces you to begin in unfamiliar territory, and find a way to connect those activities to the expected narrative of the game.
Examples of this kind of short-term deviation include stories with all-powerful characters trying to teach the characters a lesson or impart a clue about a greater threat, where they get dropped into a very unfamiliar situation (think Q transporting the Enterprise across the galaxy to see the Borg, or Gabriel dropping Sam into a version of Groundhog Day to deal with Dean’s impending death). Other examples might be seeing the characters on vacation, where similar problems find them abroad that they usually deal with at home.Long Term Deviations
If the player wants to make a long-term deviation from the regular action of the game, it might be worth finding out if they want a break from their character, or just from what their character does. If they still enjoy playing their character, but want to do things that the current game system is not adept at handling, you may be able to drift the campaign to a new rules system.
Characters that want to hunt monsters, but want to do so in a more direct manner, might convert their characters from Call of Cthulhu to Monster of the Week. Characters that have enjoyed low level, over the top, highly lethal fantasy games for a while, but want more rules support for downtime and less lethality may want to keep the same characters but shift from Dungeon Crawl Classics to Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.
The important part about this kind of drift is that the whole group needs to be enthusiastic about playing the same characters and moving to a new game system, and the game moderator needs to either be enthusiastic about running the new system, or handing the GM reins off to a new player.
This kind of drift might happen more than once. If the party is okay with it, it may even be possible to drift just one character from the previous campaign to a new game. The Professional from Monster of the Week might end up bringing that character into a Night’s Black Agents game, as the monster hunting moves from open-ended to focused on a massive vampire conspiracy.
When performing this kind of drift, it’s important to make sure that everyone is okay with the concept that their game happens across different game systems. This can be similar to characters from one cast getting a spin-off series (like several characters moving from Buffy to Angel), or moving a single character from one show to another (think Frasier or Worf). The important thing, as always, is to discuss this as a group and to make sure everyone is enthusiastic about the change.New Campaigns it is very important to not attempt to use game rules to fix interpersonal issues, because that’s not what they are designed to do Share20Tweet4Reddit2Email
Sometimes, people don’t know what they want, and having an open discussion on why the fighter wants to start having more adventures where they sell goods from one nation to another in your D&D game might reveal that they really don’t want to play that character any more.
Sometimes people have invested a lot of time and emotion in a character, and even when they aren’t getting what they want out of the game anymore, they don’t want to abandon something they have invested so much into. In this case, it is important to discuss that it might be possible to end the campaign in a less permanent manner. Put it on hold, make sure you have a special, secure, safe place to store the PCs, and do something new.
If it makes the players feel better, plan the new campaign as a short sequence of 3-5 adventures, just to have a change of pace. Maybe you don’t want the campaign to end, but you really want to take the summer off of thinking about the troubles of this world you have been in for the last year or so.Checking In
When a player starts wanting to take actions that the campaign doesn’t support, or that the game you are playing isn’t good at, try having a conversation with the following steps:
- Discuss what you think the campaign is about, and what you think the game is good at
- Listen to what the player thinks the campaign is about, and what they think the game is good at
- If there is a disagreement, try to understand a broader point of view
If you agree on what the campaign and the game are about, determine if the player wants a short- or long-term deviation from what the game is about. If it is a short-term deviation, determine what you can do to satisfy this desire:
- Adjudicate quick scenes that introduce new elements into the narrative
- Start adventures in new ways that can eventually shift to the expected action of the game
If it is a long-term deviation, determine if the game system or the characters are what the player wants to drift from:
- Determine if the group wants to find a game system that can handle similar, but different, assumptions to convert the characters
- Determine if anyone wants to change characters when others are converted
- Determine if the GM duties will change
- Determine if the group wants to put the campaign on hold for a while to try something completely different
If the group is worried about putting a game they enjoy on hold:
- Make sure they know you can return to the original campaign
- Schedule a short interlude game with a definite endpoint to allow them to decide if they are ready to return to the old campaign
Finally, and potentially the most important step, is to make sure that the player is happy in the group. If they want to do things that the group isn’t doing, they may not be enjoying the gaming group in general. The important part of this discussion is to make sure the player realizes that if a game group isn’t for you, it isn’t the same as determining that you dislike the people in the group. Play cultures develop, and sometimes a gamer’s sensibilities do not fit with that group. It’s important that leaving a group is not portrayed as being synonymous with fighting with or making a judgement call about a group of people.Many Facets to the Same Solution
As with a lot of gaming problems, it’s important to have focus, open discussion, and to clearly define the purpose of discourse. It is important for adults to have reasonable conversations that remove blame or moral judgements from personal preferences. And it is very important to not attempt to use game rules to fix interpersonal issues, because that’s not what they are designed to do.
I have a bad habit of overloading myself at conventions, and I know I’m far from the only one. There’s just so many games and so little time and I want to do it all. In particular, I tend to load my schedule with GMing. I can’t help it; I see the event registration open up and I say “okay I’ll run three games! Well, maybe four. And one more can’t hurt. Oh and there’s nothing being run in this slot, so I’ll add another.”
At Queen City Conquest in 2017, I ended up running games in every slot, all seven slots of the weekend. And what’s more, I ran seven different games. No repeated systems or adventures. And I’ll be honest, I had a ton of fun at that con and I thought all my games went well… but by the end of it, I felt like my brain was leaking out of my ears. I went home and fell asleep at 5 pm and slept for something like 14 straight hours.
And I know I’m not the only person who does this. Far from it, in fact. So I’m here to tell you why you shouldn’t completely overload yourself with running games at cons… and then I’m going to tell you how to make it easier on yourself if you go ahead and do it anyway, as I continue to do myself.
…the most obvious first reason not to do this is so that you can actually play games yourself. Share51Tweet3Reddit1EmailSo, to get it out of the way, the most obvious first reason not to do this is so that you can actually play games yourself. I used to think “I have more fun as a GM than as a player”, so I never signed up to play anything. Turns out, I just wasn’t playing the right games for me. By branching out and trying different games with different GMs, I found that I actually love being a player just as much as I love GMing. It’s a great way to try different games before you buy them, or to find something new that you may not have heard of before.
I also found that by running every time slot, I was missing out on some of the social element of cons. Conventions are often the only place that I see friends who live far away, no matter how much we interact online. I’ve made lots of new friends at cons just by being available to spend time with people, something I can’t do if I literally can’t be dragged away from the gaming table. Just having quality time to see people face to face is something I really treasure at cons, and so I had to start running fewer games to make sure I had that time. Game time is one thing, free social time is another.
This last bit I’m going to tell you didn’t really sink in for me until this year’s Queen City Conquest, when I ran one of the worst con games of my career as a GM. See, the reason I ran all those different systems is because I think of cons as my time to play the different games that I don’t necessarily get to play during the rest of the year. If I can’t normally find people interested in a certain system, I’m much more likely to be able to at a convention. But here’s the kicker: when you overload yourself with games, you’re much more likely to run them poorly. I ran one of the worst con games of my career as a GM. Share51Tweet3Reddit1Email
Because I was so focused on preparing two of my other games, I completely underprepared for another one. I thought that because I had run it before (albeit, not in a long time) I would be fine. Instead I went in with a half-baked concept, I was scatterbrained, I had forgotten the rules of the system, and the game ended way earlier than I intended it to. Luckily I had wonderful players, and that wasn’t everyone’s first introduction to that system, but I keep thinking about “what if it had been?” If that game had been my first introduction to that system, I don’t know that I ever would’ve sought it out again. I used to think that by bringing lesser played games to cons, by exposing new people to them, that I was doing everyone a service. But you’re not doing anyone a favor if you under-prepare for a game you love, least of all yourself.
So with all that out of the way… I’m still going to run more games at cons than there are days of the con. No matter what, I like to be busy and I’d rather be over-scheduled than under. But I’ve learned some methods to make it easier on myself, and to make it so I don’t end up with brainmelt again.
First up, I like to make at least one or two of my games a GM-less game or a no-prep game or both (most GM-less games are kind of no-prep to begin with). That inherently reduces the amount of work you need to do before the con even starts. It also means that the mental load of “running” the game is shared between you and all the other players. You will still need to be more a facilitator than the others, but that’s still a lesser load than running the whole thing. There’s a reason some people have taken to calling them “GM-full” games instead of “GM-less”.
…importantly, it gives you a second shot at running the game well. Share51Tweet3Reddit1EmailSecond, I’ve started repeating games. If I’m going to run five games at a con, I used to run five unique games. Nowadays, I might run three unique games, repeating two of them. This has a couple of benefits – it reduces your preparation needs, right off the bat. It gives other people with busy schedules a second opportunity to get in on a game they might be really into (how many times have I heard “oh I would love to play this, but it overlaps with the other thing I signed up for that day!”). And importantly, it gives you a second shot at running the game well. I’m not saying you should treat the first one as a trial run (you shouldn’t), but running it a second time gives you a chance to fix issues you noticed the first time.
Third – and this is probably really obvious to everyone who isn’t me – I’ve begun to recognize the importance of taking a break or two during the game session itself. I used to try to avoid taking breaks during the game, in a misguided effort to cram as much gaming as possible into a short amount of time. But all that was doing was burning me out faster. Turns out, it’s easier to run games all weekend if I’m not letting myself get dehydrated and hungry (and inevitably, hangry). And it’s better for your players, too. Taking a couple of 10 minute bio breaks wasn’t cutting into my gaming time; it was making me more able to focus on my gaming time because I wasn’t thinking “oh my god I would kill for a snack” every three minutes.
A lot of games even have built-in break points where stepping away from the table is natural and not disruptive. In a game where character creation is done together at the table (like most Powered by the Apocalypse games, for example), after character creation but before jumping into play is a natural time to stop and take a break. Other games may even have act breaks as part of their story structure. How many pre-written adventures and modules have you seen that break up their text into smaller objectives? Those are great pause points.
So those are my tactics – while I don’t ever intend to stop filling my schedule at cons, I have cut back some, and found ways to make it so I don’t break my brain in the process. What are your methods to keep con fatigue at bay? How do you prepare for marathon con weekends of GMing?
While I was at Queen City Conquest two weeks ago, I ran a handful of games during the weekend as well as got to play a few games. During the weekend, I was very happy to see how quickly people at the table would start making table tents for their characters. I have been doing this for a while at home and in public games, but I don’t think I have ever talked about why table tents are such great tools for your games.
So, here we are, get an index card and a sharpie and let’s dive into table tents!What Is a Table Tent?
I don’t know where I got started on this, but a table tent is a small piece of paper folded so that it stands up in front of you. On the paper, you write your character’s name and sometimes other information about your character. You then place the table tent in front of you, so that all the other players, GM included, can see.
In the US, table tents are often made from index cards, though some dry erase table tents are showing up, making it more ecologically friendly. If you are using an index card you fold the card along one axis, often the short axis so that the tent stands taller. You then write your information on one side to face out, though I will encourage you to also write it on the other side, facing you so that people directly next to you can also see it.
I also recommend writing your table tent with a marker over a pen or pencil, so that the lines are thick and easy to read across the table.Alternate Formats
Before we get any farther, I need to acknowledge that table tents are a visual tool, and that what I described above only works for people who do not have any visual impairments. A person who is visually impaired may not be able to see a tent across the table. In that case, a possible alternative could be to have a list of all the character’s names in front of them. When in doubt, simply ask the person how they would like to help organize the other character’s names.Etiquette
If I am running a game, I will take it upon myself to have index cards and makers to pass out to my players to make their table tents. Often, I will fold them and have them ready, and then during the start of the session, have everyone make their table tent as I am explaining rules and getting things oriented.
If I am a player in a game, and the GM has not passed out table tents yet, then I will take it upon myself to get out a marker and some index cards and lead by example by making a tent and encouraging everyone else to do so.What does it do? Having easy access to character names while playing will help you stay in character as well as helping other players stay in character by addressing them by their character’s name. Share110Tweet5Reddit1Email
So what does a table tent do for the game? First, it helps greatly with immersion. Having easy access to character names while playing will help you stay in character as well as helping other players stay in character by addressing them by their character’s name.
Second, you can put other information on the card (see below) that can help facilitate the game. By including additional information you are helping the GM in running the game because they will not need to ask you for certain information during play.
Third, it can help people feel more comfortable at the table. This is especially true when it comes to pronouns (see below).Additional Information
So besides your character’s name, there is more information you can put on your table tent. Here are a few suggestions:Class/Playbook
Including what niche your character represents will help the GM and others at the table to identify who the right person is for specific parts of the game. If a player is thinking someone should pick this lock, then scanning the table and seeing that there is a table tent with Rogue on it let’s them know who to address.
Also, some classes/playbooks may have special moves or abilities that the GM may take into account during the story. Knowing who is playing that character facilitates them providing information to the right person. For instance, you may be looking for secret doors in a B/X D&D game, and the GM knowing you are an elf will make a difference in the chances of finding it.Species
If your game has multiple species then having it on your table tent allows everyone to identify which species you belong to. This is of great help for everyone to visualize your character properly. Also if you enter part of the story where being of a certain type of species is important, then having that quick visual reminder helps the flow of the game. For instance, a Dwarven magical artifact has different abilities if wielded by a Dwarf than anyone else.Pronouns
Having your character’s pronouns on your table tent is very helpful in a number of ways. First, it helps prevent everyone from misgendering your character. Having your pronouns accessible makes it quite easy for people to use the correct ones. This is helpful if your character’s gender and pronouns do not match with how you as a player present. By default, people often assume that a person will make a character who’s gender and pronouns match the player’s visual coding. For example, a character I make (cis-male) by default would be male. Since many people play characters that are not the same as their gender, having your pronouns on your table tent makes it clear what pronouns your character uses.
Second, having pronouns displayed is just good overall and something we should all be working towards. We need to normalize the act of displaying our pronouns. So including them with your table tent is one more step into making that a more commonplace activity for our characters and for ourselves.Stats and Info
In many games, there is information that the GM often needs. It could be something like Armor Class, or a passive sense rating, etc. Displaying that information on your table tent helps the GM access that information without having to ask your character outright, and keeps the flow of the game smoother.Player Name
Players can also put their names on their table tent so that everyone else at the table knows who they are. I will also say if you are putting your name on the table tent, also put your pronouns. Again, let’s normalize that.Multiple Characters
If for any reason you are playing games where someone could be playing multiple characters, then have a table tent for each character and put the one you are playing forward, or hold it in your hand when you speak.
By the way, this works for GMs too. You can totally make NPC name tents and use them this way while you are running.Covers/Secret Identities/Shapeshifters
If your character has another identity — a spy with a cover, a super with a secret identity, or a shapeshifter of some sort — you can turn your table tent inside out for your other identity, or use multiple tents for your identities. This will help everyone at the table know which persona you are in at any given time. Having a talk with your teacher in a Masks game is very different when you are The Slayer vs when you are Susan Montgomery.Take One, Fill It Out
Table tents are an inexpensive and effective tool for helping everyone at your table keep track of your character. It is something that all the characters in a game should do. It only takes a few seconds to fill one out and doing so can help deepen the immersion of your game as well as make everyone at the table more comfortable.
Do you use table tents? At home? At Cons? What do you normally put on your table tents? Also if you have some really artistically cool table tents, share them out on Twitter to @gnomestew and @dnaphil so that we can take a look.
We all start somewhere — many of us with D&D, although certainly there are a myriad of entry points to gaming. Whatever you start with ends up being the thing you’re most comfortable with, because it’s the thing you’ve been doing the longest. I started in D&D and moved over to Pathfinder; it took me years to understand why I might want to play other games, and now I have to remember there was a time that I didn’t care to. Sometimes when you play a lot of different games, it’s easy to be a snoot about it: we all like to have a reason to feel special.
Any creative endeavor, especially a new one, requires a space that makes failure safe, and role playing in a new way or a new game is no different. Share42Tweet10Reddit1EmailWe need to be done with that. People will not be excited to play games that are different and potentially a bit intimidating, games that require mastery of a whole new rules set or even a whole new set of skills, if all they see is a bunch of folks looking down their noses at the fun that brought them into gaming to begin with. It’s far more exciting to share — to introduce people to new games and new styles and new experiences. When I’m trying to show someone new the best face of small book gaming, the last thing I want is for them to feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, or scared of not doing it right. Any creative endeavor, especially a new one, requires a space that makes failure safe, and role playing in a new way or a new game is no different.
I was lucky enough to be the custodian of two first forays into indie gaming this year at two different Turning Point tables. The first was someone who had never played an RPG before — up to that weekend, she hadn’t played anything even like it. She walked in looking for exactly the kind of experience Turning Point creates, with no prior expectations, and we had a wonderful game (you can actually read her follow up here). We played the game as written — the mechanics for Turning Point are very light, and it’s written as a one shot game, so mechanical mastery for new people is not a big issue. With no previous assumptions, it was easy to slip into the scene by scene, modern slice of life feel Turning Point defaults to.
The second was someone who had gotten back into D&D and was looking to expand her horizons and play new things she hadn’t played before, and we also had a wonderful game, although it was very different. With the knowledge of her previous experience in hand, and knowing that Turning Point feels very different from AL D&D, one of my other players had the brilliant idea to move our setting for that game to be a high magic fantasy setting with the familiar trappings. It’s not that a current modern setting isn’t (of course) familiar to everyone, but that sitting down to a game table, a high fantasy setting can feel more normal if that’s what you’re used to. The neat thing about Turning Point is that as long as the decision that the character is faced with makes sense in the setting you choose, and as long as you’re all invested in the stakes of that decision and they feel important to you, the when and where of your setting doesn’t particularly matter. I’m always pleased when I can make a game be the thing the players want it to be, especially when it’s my game!
Even though these two scenarios are somewhat different, there are three key things that worked for me about how I approached them.
- Player investment: even more than usual, it’s important that people new to this experience are invested, and quickly. A player who is bored at a table is less likely try any other similar games. As a facilitator of a first experience, the best thing I can do is get everyone on board and excited as quickly as possible. Of course, this can be potentially harder than with an experienced table — a player new to a particular style of gaming may be less familiar with some of the expectations. In Turning Point, it’s all about creating stakes and investment proactively.
- Don’t use inside language: At one point in explaining Turning Point, I unthinkingly described one of the roles as being like the NPC. For someone who had never played an RPG before, what an arcane reference that was! A quick rethink on how I talked about that role in the game immediately solved the language barrier. Don’t create communication issues by using technical terminology unless you define it first.
- Don’t treat people like they are dumb if they don’t know the rules: This applies to the game rules, your table safety, etc. — don’t make anyone feel bad for not knowing the assumed table culture of a game, or for not having read the book before they came. Explain it and don’t be patronizing. For new people and many people coming from D&D, their first story game experience may also be their first experience with safety tools. It was therefore even more important to me that I made the tools themselves clear, as well as the culture of safety at my tables in which the tools can be used without judgement.
I believe in our ability to share the joy of story games and indie games with anyone who is interested, and I believe in making gaming fun, safe, and welcoming. Really when it comes down to it, welcoming new people to any table is about that — making an environment where failure doesn’t mean disaster or shame, where getting investment and ideas alive is your primary goal. We’ve always told stories, and we’ve always played pretend. The games will speak for themselves to our human nature if we let them. All they need is a table where they can shine.
You can check out the QuickStart for Turning Point now on DriveThruRPG!
When was the last time you had someone new at your table, or ran a game for someone who’d never played it before? How did it go? Are there any key points I missed?
Back in March of this year, I wrote a series of three articles about PC backgrounds. You can find part one, part two, and part three with their respective hyperlinks. Today, I’m going to be talking about NPC backgrounds. You’ll notice that this is going to be roughly one-third the size of the PC background series. That’s because GMs have enough to do without creating a five-page dissertation on the NPC’s past starting with their first memories and leading up to today. This means that we’ll be tackling some “quick ‘n’ dirty” backgrounds for the NPCs.How Much Is Too Much?
It’s all about return on investment (or return on time, which is more accurate for what we GMs are doing.) If an NPC is going to be frequently recurring or even traveling with the party for a while, then I delve a little deeper into the NPC’s backstory. I won’t go the total depth like I do with a PC, but there’s some good stuff in there. Borrowing from my PC background series, I’ll briefly sketch out the following details:
- Societal Role/Rank
- Physical Details (height, weight, eye, hair, scars, tattoos, etc.)
- Personal connection to at least one party member (if possible, perhaps tangential)
- 1-2 Quirks
- 1 Like
- 1 Dislike
- Motivation for said goal
- 1 Fear (optional)
- Limitation(s) if necessary
This is about the max that I’ll do. It’s gotta fit on an index card, or I won’t use it at all. Basically, if I can’t flip to their card and remind myself of a detail within a handful of seconds, then I’ve developed too much information for the NPC.
If I plan for a character to have less “screen time” with the party, then I’ll drop a few of these off the list, starting at the bottom of the list. Sometimes the NPC’s goal and motivation really don’t matter to their interactions with the PCs.
If you need to prepare more information than what’s on my list, that’s fine. Some people need more to hang their hat on. However, I would urge you to ensure whatever quick reference system you’re using allows you to ingest all of the details about an NPC in a single glance. (I’m about to make Phil SO happy about this next statement.) Index cards are your friends. If you can drop the information in a legible format on a single side of an index card, you’ll be doing just fine.How Little Is Too Little?
Using my list from above, my minimum NPC prep for one that I know I’ll be using (beyond “transactional NPCs”) will be the first five bullet points. Once I have a quirk down on the list of minor details about the NPC, I’m good. I’ll stop there. If I stop at the physical details, I know the NPC will come off as a “cardboard cutout” of a character, and that’s the best they’ll ever be. Just by throwing in one quirk, I’ve given the NPC some personality and a detail for the PCs to remember the NPC by.
If you struggle with the quirks aspect of NPCs, then hit our benevolent information overlords… Er… I mean Google, and search for “rpg random personality quirks”. You’ll find a whole slew of options to pick from for generating some quirks.Is Random Okay?
If you’re creating an NPC (especially if you hadn’t planned on creating many details about them) and that NPC is a “one shot” NPC, then it’s perfectly fine to turn to the countless “random NPC generator” tables, web pages, and so on that will create 3-5 little details about the NPC to make them a little more flavorful.
If the random table(s) you’re using only determine height, weight, eye color, hair color, and one physical affectation, then I’d recommend moving on to a different set of tables or adding to the resources that you’re using. While physical descriptions are fine for some basic characteristics, they really don’t define the character and how they act toward the world and react to stimuli. I’d much rather know that an NPC is brave and impulsive than knowing that they are tall and fat.How Did You Meet?
This is a great opportunity to leverage the creativity and imaginations of the players at the table. If they invent a situation where an NPC is introduced to the party or just flat create the existence of an NPC on the fly, don’t panic. You don’t have to stall the game while you create an NPC from random tables or think too deeply about the NPC’s goals and motivations.
Simply ask the player the created the NPC a simple question: How did you meet [insert name/label here]?
Of course, this isn’t going to go very far because it’s open-ended and non-leading. You truly want to use leading questions here. Give them some bait to entice them to bite deep into the “backstory hook.” Here are some sample professions for NPCs and how you can lead a player into a brief introduction of the NPC.
Barkeep: Why did the barkeep throw you out that one time?
Grocer: What did the grocer do when he caught you stealing an apple from him when you were five years old?
Weaponsmith: You apprenticed with the weaponsmith for a few months, but things didn’t work out. Why not?
Stablemaster: You helped save every horse from a stable fire when you were a wee lad. How did the stablemaster reward you?
Innkeeper: She caught you kissing her little brother/sister when you were thirteen. How did she react?
Join Ang, Jared, and J.T. for a discussion about how to keep gaming when it feels like life has other ideas. Will these gnomes be able to make time to escape the stew this week?
Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!
For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Bone, Stone, and Obsidian!
It would be a shame to not use all your toys in this situation simply because you reasonably limited your campaign to one rule system… Share43Tweet4Reddit1EmailIf you’re like me and play multiple games from different companies, you probably have multiple products for different game systems lying around. Perhaps you have maps from the Conan board game by Monolith, some model train terrain, and D&D 5e dungeon tiles; however, you’re currently trying out the Pathfinder 2.0 Playtest rules, but you also want to run that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay adventure book Lure of the Lich Lord that you impulsively purchased two years ago. It would be a shame to not use all your toys in this situation simply because you reasonably limited your campaign to one rule system; this is why we need conversion rules. Now I’m not necessarily talking about creating a homebrew that’s a hybrid of multiple rule systems. I’m talking about taking a product designed for a different table top game than the one you’re currently playing and giving its features meaning within the rule system you’re currently playing.
I discovered a method to creating conversion rules that I can demonstrate to you by explaining how I made my conversion rules. Share43Tweet4Reddit1EmailI did this with BattleTech terrain maps throughout the entirety of running D&D 5e in The Storm King’s Thunder and The Curse of Strahd adventure books. Both of those campaigns have great dungeon maps or indoor maps where combat may take place, but those maps required time for me to draw or buy digitally before game day. What’s more, most of the combat spontaneously occurred outside because my players were traveling murder hobos, and I wouldn’t let them fast travel. My players traveled regularly from one edge of the world map to the other. I rolled for random encounters for every half hour of game time. As a DM, I couldn’t prepare for where a wilderness terrain combat would take place or even what kind of wilderness the combat would take place in. So, my large collection of BattleTech map sheets came in handy. Those map sheets contain a hex grid on top of terrain for all kinds of wilderness, but they’re made and labeled for a very different rule system from D&D 5e. This necessitated my creation of conversion rules for the BattleTech map features to D&D 5e rules. I discovered a method to creating conversion rules that I can demonstrate to you by explaining how I made my conversion rules.How To Make Conversion Rules, Step 1
Start by analyzing the kind of features you’re converting over to your current campaign’s rule system. They will likely be for combat or role play. I used my terrain based BattleTech map features for combat, so my conversion rules had to do with combat and how terrain affects combat. Then, gather data on what your current campaign’s rule set contains to deal with the kinds of features you’re converting. In my case, terrain affects combat in D&D 5e by adding movement penalties or altering attack modifiers. The concepts D&D 5e has to deal with terrain and combat include difficult terrain, half cover, three-quarters cover, climbing, and swimming. Learning those rules thoroughly and labeling them for quick reference was important for me, and it is important for you to do the same with whatever system you’re working with before moving on to the next step.How to Make Conversion Rules, Step 2
The next step requires identifying the converting features. For example, BattleTech maps yield an abundance of terrain: level 1 hills, level 2 hills, level 3+ hills, light woods, heavy woods, depth 1 water, depth 2 water, depth 3+ water, and rough terrain. At least know the definitions of your converting features. In my case higher numbers represent higher level hills or deeper water depths; light woods contain few trees with less cover; heavy woods contain more trees with great cover, and rough terrain simply contains some kind of debris.How to Make Conversion Rules, Step 3
Compare your current rule system’s concepts from step 1 to the features’ definitions in step 2 and hope everything lines up somehow. Fortunately for me, things lined up nicely.
Walking onto any non-clear terrain hex on a BattleTech map in D&D 5e simply converts to difficult terrain for movement purposes. It’s also intuitive to see that a D&D 5e character in a light woods hex should receive half cover, and a character in a heavy woods hex should obtain three-quarters cover. A character in water of a certain depth needs to swim and traversing hexes with a level change of a certain height requires climbing.
Once you see what generally needs to be done, write down the specifics and really get into the nitty gritty of everything. Be prepared for the worst from your players. Give them a page or two of the conversion rules that relate to their character, and give them the full rules you made also. If you made your conversion rules well, everything should be close to the rules as written in your current campaign’s rule system.
Check out my conversion rules if you desire exemplification of what I mean by, “getting into the nitty gritty of everything”:
I also made a YouTube video over my conversion rules that you can check out here:
On The Importance Of Writing Down Your Conversion Rules
Writing down rules can be a pain. I didn’t write down my rules at first. This led me to inconsistently apply how things in my world worked. My players did not enjoy that. One week moving about my world worked one way, the next week a different way. They couldn’t use their past experiences to help them plan out what to do in the future, and I want my players planning their move before their turn comes up. All that changed after I wrote my rules down and handed my players a page over how their characters may move across the BattleTech terrain with their D&D 5e characters. The game ran faster. If I made a mistake, a player could point to a sentence in my rules and remedy the mistake; this is always nicer than hearing a player complain: “Hey, that’s not how it worked last week!”
Do you have any conversion rules that you want to make? Have you made any conversion rules? What other different toys could we combine together in a campaign? Let’s talk about such things in the reply section below.
From the obligatory treats to share at game night to the nearly professional planning that some people put into convention supplies, we gamers really like our snacks. While I am not necessarily the best person to be giving advice on nutrition, I attend enough conventions to have some experience on the subject. After getting back from Queen City Conquest this past weekend, I thought it might be worth diving into the topic in relation to snacking (or eating in general) at conventions.
Most of us go into game conventions knowing our regular eating habits are going to be changed up for the duration, either a little or a lot. Maybe you’re not going to be eating as healthy as you do at home, maybe you’re going to be eating less frequently than you do at home, maybe there’s going to be a little more alcohol than normal. There are differences between large cons in big cities with many options or smaller cons with limited nearby choices for food or snacks, but your regular habits are still going to go off kilter.
It’s super easy to fall into unhealthy choices. The most convenient food to access or buy during conventions isn’t necessarily the best for you, leading to lots of fast food and few fresh, healthy options, and snacks are often just sweet or salty with little in between. Now, when you’re young and invincible, this might be just fine with a packed schedule of awesome gaming and not enough sleep, but as someone who is no longer young and absolutely not invincible, I can wreck myself during a convention if I’m not careful. I currently travel with an emergency supply of Tums, just in case. Not to mention, I know the crappier I eat, the larger the chance I’ll go home to develop a lovely case of Con Crud.
Here’s some thoughts on the subject:
- Water, Water, Everywhere. All good convention guides or tips will remind you to stay hydrated, and this one is no different. I’m touching on this point first because it is really so crucial. You can get your caffeine in whatever manner suits you, and you do you when it comes to the bars in the evening, but absolutely keep a water bottle handy. Most hotels and convention centers will have water out for the attendees, so make sure you take advantage. Even smaller cons will often note where the water fountains are or have bottles of water on hand. I mentioned that whole not being young thing anymore, so let me tell you that getting dehydrated becomes harder and harder to deal with as you get older. So yeah, drink lots of water.
- Healthy, Portable Snacks. While it seems easiest to load up on salty and sugary snacks, it is possible to bring some healthier snacks along with you. Celery sticks and carrot sticks are pretty easy to pack in small containers and actually keep quite well. Nuts are also quite portable and offer a relatively healthy boost. If you’ve got to mix in a bit of chocolate, make your own trail mix. It’s always nice to be able to choose what you want in the mix and not end up with a pile of what you don’t want left in the bag. I mean, raisins are fine but I don’t want THAT many in my trail mix.
- Don’t Let Yourself Get Hangry. Regardless of what your plans are for meals, make sure you pack SOMETHING to snack on in times of need. No one wants a distracted or irritable player or GM that’s in need of a snack at their table. Having a granola bar or couple of pieces of candy to tide yourself over will go a long way to making sure you get through the con in one piece. Let’s say you’ve scheduled yourself two 4-hour games in a row and then plan on getting dinner after that. Well, 8ish hours can be too long for some folks to go without a snack. Be prepared to keep your energy and mood up so you can enjoy the games you’re there to play.
- Go Easy on Yourself. I say this for two reasons. First, be kind to yourself. Maybe you intended to stick to your diet, but that goal went out the window on the first day of the con. Don’t beat yourself up over it. You can get back to your regular plans when you get home. Second, on the other side of the coin, don’t go completely hog wild with your choices. Just because you’ve decided to indulge doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a little kind to your body. Maybe the next choice after that deliciously cheesy and greasy order of pizza logs is a salad or something a tiny bit healthier.
- People Eat Together. Eating together is one a major bonding mechanism we use to grow closer to our friends. Take advantage of being at a con with all kinds of awesome people to plan meals together and enjoy each other’s company. Another option is to bring enough snacks to share at the gaming table. I have a handful of friends who will bring bags of candy to share with whoever even glances at the bag of goodies. Another friend always makes sure he has a couple extra water bottles on him to hand to folks who look like they’re in need.
Ultimately, the Sunday of the con comes around and you’ll see the over planner trying to hand off the leftover snacks they brought. Even if they have a ludicrous amount to get rid of, I can guarantee you they’re happy they brought enough to share and make it through the convention with some tasty snacks.
For years, I’ve raved endlessly about Coriolis, a science fiction RPG by Fria Ligan (Free League) co-published with Modiphius Entertainment. It’s my favourite science-fiction tabletop roleplaying game of all time. Scratch that. It’s maybe one of my favourites irrespective of genre. There is something in the game for everyone. That’s why I rave about it at any given opportunity. Here’s why.
Choice. Character creation is one of my favourite parts of any tabletop RPG. PbtA playbooks read like branching stories – with your narrative changing directions as you select new moves and abilities. They differ from other styles of tabletop RPG in that playbooks come in different forms for a single game. In D&D, character sheets are not individualistic in structure. You’re led along a linear path of new abilities, with the narrative having little effect on how your character class changes. Meanwhile, Coriolis sits right in the middle. I very much enjoy the wide variety of character “concepts” – Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker, Soldier, and Trailblazer – presented to the reader. Now, unlike PbtA character sheets or D&D classes, your initial concept is more like a springboard into a unique creation of your choice. When you begin character creation, the loose concept you pick only has a mechanical bearing on certain skills you are particularly talented with and the strongest attribute you start with. But that’s really where it ends. You can pick any skill. Have any weapon. Be anyone. Like the idea of being a space archaeologist? Let the Scientist guide you in the beginning as you determine who you want your character to be through play. Want to be a corporate bodyguard? Pick the Operative if you want a more low-key background, or a Soldier if you want the military to figure heavily in your backstory.
Structured growth from freeform roleplaying. In many ways, tabletop roleplaying games are like real life. Like us, characters in tabletop RPGs encounter challenges, experience failure and triumph, and experience the world in a unique way. If we’re particularly lucky or insightful, we learn and grow from these experiences. In popular games like Dungeons & Dragons, player characters “grow” by obtaining “experience points” earned from overcoming challenges commonly taking the form of a combat encounter. See the antagonist. Kill said antagonist. Grow in ways unrelated to the mass murder you’ve just committed. In Coriolis, players improve their characters’ quantifiable skills and abilities in a much more self-reflective manner. The game system rewards players “experience points” by facilitating a structured debrief and discussion between players and the GM at the end of every gaming session This is based on the overall narrative actions of each character and not necessarily what they killed or how many challenges they overcame. Some of the questions asked include:
- Did you participate?
- Did you overcome a difficult challenge and help your group reach their goals?
- Did you learn something new about yourself?
- Did your personal problem(s) put your group at risk?
- Did you sacrifice or risk something for a member of the group to which you share a close bond?
Especially when playing tabletop RPGs with strangers or family members, systems like D&D and Pathfinder causes players to become preoccupied with “doing things” to level up their characters. Games generally descend into, sessions of “if we kill this many _____, we’ll gain this much experience.” Experience and growth are reduced to the consequences of death. Learning becomes a task. A game like Coriolis can be used to encourage more self-reflective (yet, goal-oriented) roleplay. The structured end-of-session debrief and discussion is a great way to have players recognize the weaknesses and strengths of their characters, mediate their own problems, and identify how their actions and behaviours can positively and negatively affect others.
I do, however, have mixed feelings about the “Arabian Knights in space” description attached to this product. While on one end there are clear undertones of Orientalist themes. But on the other, it presents a fictional Islamic world in a way that doesn’t problematize religion or depicts Muslims unfairly. As someone who’s spent a lot of time living and working in a Muslim country, I can very much appreciate what this game does for fair and positive representation. Perhaps I’ll discuss this in a future post on its own. Needless to say, the freedom to which you are able to create characters, the emphasis on storytelling and complications, and an easy to learn, yet highly tactical combat system makes Coriolis a unique game. It lets you be what you want and do what you want, all while providing a scaling degree of structure. It’s accessible and highly reflexive, and that’s what’s really important when assessing the value of a tabletop RPG.
I follow a predictable theme where I tend to be just a wee bit attracted to urban fantasy related games and media. When a friend of mine invited me to play in a game of Scion, it didn’t take too much for me to pick up the big bundle of PDFs and dive into the game. I made a character that was the scion of Hel, who I envisioned as a cross between House and Dexter. He was a forensic pathologist, with a magic scalpel and the ability to summon his dead father for advice.
As it turned out, making my character really good at his job and giving him a flavorful gift from his mother meant that he wasn’t particularly good at anything to do with combat, other than jabbing someone with the scalpel once in a while, and eventually, my poor character was eaten by one of Fenrir’s overgrown pups. I also found out that Vancouver, where I said my character was from (a joke based on where many television series are filmed) has very, very few actual murders, meaning my character was also probably very bored for most of his career.
Anyway, about the time my character was being digested, the Kickstarter for Scion 2nd Edition came along, and my curiosity got the best of me. I’ve been waiting to dig in for a while now. I have to admit, part of me is wondering if my character would have to make the same hard choices about skills versus combat ability in the new edition.The Book of Origins
This review is based on both the physical and PDF version of Scion: Origins. The book is 180 pages long, with a one-page character sheet, no index, and a Table of Contents.
The book is very attractive. Some of the artwork has been reused from the previous edition, but what makes it a little harder to pinpoint is that many of the same iconic characters are depicted, with some of them appearing in new artwork.
If you have seen any other Onyx Path books, there is certainly a similar style to the formatting, with “typeset” style headers and double column layout.Fiction, Introduction
The book opens, even before the Table of Contents, with a piece of fiction by Kieron Gillen, who may have written just a few pieces of fiction dealing with urban fantasy and modern gods in the past. To flash forward a bit, this piece of fiction is a stand-alone piece, but there is an ongoing narrative that appears between the chapters. This ongoing story follows a scion from their day to day life up to the moment of their visitation (meeting with their divine parent, after which the character would move up to the rules in the next volume, Scion Hero).
The introduction explains the concept behind Scion, that the player characters are mortal children of gods (or others touched by divine power), who eventually gain an increasing amount of supernatural power, and become embroiled in more and more supernatural conflicts as their powers grow. Origin, specifically, details characters that have learned they have supernatural powers, but haven’t yet been visited by their divine parent or an agent of the supernatural power that has touched them.
In addition to a primer on roleplaying games (or storytelling games), the introduction mentions the themes and moods that should be present in a game of Scion. The primary pantheons that will be detailed are summarized, and inspirational material, ranging from novels, comics, and television, are also cited. There are even a few recommendations for non-fiction books on mythology. The introduction ends with a lexicon defining various terms used later in the book.
I appreciate a game that lists the themes and moods that they hope to include in the game up front, as well as some example media that the game has drawn from, because this helps to set expectations. It gives you an idea of why something might have been added, as well as giving you a measure to use for comparing if the mechanics are doing what you want them to do, and what they are intended to do.Chapter One: The World
Chapter One details the setting of the game, and it takes up the next 32 pages of the book, so it isn’t a light treatment. In broad strokes, the chapter covers a wide range of topics.
Primordials are beings that very much are the embodiment of a given primal force. They don’t have much of a personality. They just kind of exist. Titans are one step down from Primordials. They don’t have much of a personality either, but they are self-aware, and what personality traits they have are dictated by an obsessive devotion to their portfolio. Gods have broader portfolios than Titans, and are more fully realized personalities. Part of this is because they have interacted with mortal worshipers, and the more mortals interacted with them, the more the mortals believed that the gods had to have some similar traits to mortals. The downside to this is that, if the gods spend too much time with mortals, those mortals start to define other elements of the gods. So the gods need human belief just enough to keep them as more fully developed personalities, but not enough that mortals can radically redefine them with their faith.
The World looks much like our own, but the pantheons included in the book never stopped being worshipped, they just lost a little bit of ground as more modern religions came into being. The supernatural isn’t so much a hidden world, as an obscured one. Everyone might know one person who has genuinely seen the supernatural at play, and every once in a while, a rampaging monster from folklore may make the news, but the vast majority of people haven’t seen anything literally magical their whole lives. They make due with cars and computers and email just like we do now.
There are supernatural “otherworlds,” known as Terra Incognito, and there are various ways to access these places, including the Axis Mundi, transition points between worlds where one can travel between the two by performing a specific set of trials.
Several cities in The World are outlined, with sections detailing the Terra Incognito and Axis Mundi that exist near that city, as well as what pantheons are most influential there, and where they might be connected to other cities in the world.
While most of the details about gods deal with the pantheons mentioned in the introduction, there are a few references to “new” divinities that have arisen in the intervening years from antiquity to the present. Columbia, the goddess of America is an example, and she is mentioned as having multiple potentially conflicting manifestations, as she is still settling on a core identity because of the beliefs of mortals and their relationship to her and their culture.
This section gives a whole lot of flavor on what The World should feel like, but doesn’t nail down a lot of absolutes. It establishes a few different conflicts (pantheon versus pantheon, god versus god, new god versus young god, gods versus titans), but because of the time and effort put into it, the conflict with titans feels like the default narrative well to draw from. The references to Columbia are interesting, as I remember her mainly from a supplement to the original edition of Scion, along with various national pantheons that arose specifically around World War II, with these gods being an optional expansion in the original material. Neither Columbia nor any other “younger” deity appears in the summary of gods at the end of the book, so her only reference is in this section.The Storypath System
On its surface, the resolution mechanic for Scion resembles other Onyx Path games, in that it uses d10 dice pools, counts numbers of successes, and derives the dice pool from adding the number of dots a character has in two different sections of the character sheet together.
The difference in this case is that successes are used to purchase effects. Simple success is one thing you can purchase, but there may be other elements present on a given test that are worth purchasing as well. For example, there might be complications that are present, so that if you simply succeed, you have to deal with the complications if you don’t spend successes to mitigate the complications. There may be benefits that you may be able to gain, in addition to a simple success. Any given test might have enough extra elements going on to make deciding on what complications you want to buy down or what additional benefits you want to purchase an important decision.
Additionally, scale might be at play. Scale adds an enhancement for each level difference between the parties involved in a test, and enhancements are successes that are only added to your total if the initial roll is already a success. So a giant may have a hard time striking your human scion, but if they connect, they will have an easier time applying extra damage.
Whenever a character fails, they may gain momentum, a group resource that can be spent to activate special abilities, add dice to a die pool, or to add an interval to the round. Failing on something where you have a specialty grants you extra momentum. Failing and botching a roll (rolling a 1 on one of the dice in addition to gaining no successes) grants an additional momentum, and allows the Storyguide to add a new complication to the scene.
All of this sounds very simple, but the explanations for this get a little convoluted, to the point that I felt like I was missing something. For example, when explaining a test, the Storyguide is instructed to choose an arena for the test, from Physical, Mental, or Social. Since a roll is based on Skill plus Attribute, my assumption is that stating the arena limits the attribute to those under the given header (for example, Intellect, Cunning, and Resolve are under Mental). But the way the actual section is written, it almost sounds like the arena itself has a number of dots, rather than the attributes under them. Further confusing this is that the player chooses an approach, from Force, Finesse, or Resilience, which corresponds to which row a given attribute appears on the character sheet.
All of the test examples cut straight to the chase–the test is X, the character is doing Y to resolve it, so they add this skill to this attribute to get their pool. I can understand stating the Arena to narrow attributes, but the approach seems to be something that only really comes in to play when picking a favored approach for the number of available dots in character creation. It’s a matter of a fairly simple resolution mechanic that feels a little over explained and gives the impression of more complexity that is actually in evidence. That said, there is the option of attempting to spend successes to achieve unrelated goals on the same action (like entering a code with one hand and firing a gun with another), which requires you to roll with the least advantageous pool, and approach may be a useful tool for adjudicating just what the difference between those approaches may be.
The book also details three modes of play, Action-Adventure, Procedural, and Intrigue. This is important for two reasons–not only does it establish the expected cycles of play, but with the addition of stunts and complications, these frameworks give examples of how to use those rules in the context of these narrative frameworks. One particular aspect of the Intrigue section that I liked involved Bonds. Characters can create bonds with characters when they spend a scene creating or reinforcing a bond, which allows them to roll a pool of dice that creates a reserve of successes that can be used whenever the character’s bond is relevant to what is going on.
Creating a pool of successes to spend helps to address situations where a player wants to know how much they can do on their turn, and adding complications and enhancements are nice, built in ways to make tests more interesting by reinforcing them with narrative weight. I really like the idea of awarding the players a resource that they can utilize that builds from failed rolls, because it gives them more of a choice to lean on that resource when the resolution of a test is particularly pivotal. I just feel like some of the more straightforward details got lost in the explanations.Chapter Three: Character Creation
The character creation chapter starts with five example characters, from multiple pantheons, as well as multiple real-world backgrounds. There are three male characters, and two female characters, and with that number of characters, I wish we had maybe seen a non-binary character in the mix as well. The character sheets don’t include a section for gender or pronouns, so their genders are all expressed by reading their backstories and finding the pronouns used there.
Characters pick a concept, an origin, role, and pantheon path, a favored approach, and a calling. The process of making these choices gives the character the number of dots they have available in skills and attributes, and will also let them know where they can pick their Knacks from (special abilities that are often subtle or overt supernatural powers). There is also a derived pool from Defense, and the number of boxes a character can check at each level of harm is determined by attributes.
There isn’t a bullet-pointed summary of character creation in the chapter, and I would have really appreciated that. In order to make sure I understood the instructions, I defaulted to checking the sample characters. In addition to the lack of summary, the character sheets can be a little confusing.
Characters have three Storypaths, which influence their starting skills, and can also be invoked, not unlike aspects in Fate. A Storypath can be invoked once per session without much trouble, but invoking it more than that may cause the character to generate ill-will or be forced to complete a long-term goal dedicated to repairing the good will of their contacts.
An element of advancement that I like is that XP is earned by setting, then achieving, short- or long-term goals. In addition to short- or long-term goals, the group as a whole can also set up group goals for them to work towards. While the rules mention that you can have up to five goals active at any given time, the character sheets only show short, long, and group goals as options.
The advancement section mentions Birthrights and Legend, neither of which are available to Origin characters, since they have not yet been visited by their divine parent. While these rules are mentioned briefly (but not defined), it is clear that this is a section of the rules that will be addressed in supplements.
Going back to my introduction, the ability to assign dots to skills and attributes feels less fiddly than in the previous incarnation of Scion, and it feels easier to make someone competent in their “mortal pursuits” without shorting them too much in survivability, I just wish there had been a better summary of character creation and a little clearer organization of the character sheet. I am glad they provided the sample characters, but I’m not sure sample characters should be doing the heavy lifting for clarification.Chapter Four: Combat
The previous edition of Scion had a “shot clock” style initiative, where the action you choose to take would add a number to your score, moving you up on the clock, and meaning that taking some actions meant that some opponents might act more than once before you, if you took a particularly time-intensive action, and they took relatively quick actions.
In second edition, characters roll initiative, and then create slots for themselves and their allies, that can be used by anyone they are allied with. This method is very similar to the initiative system used by Fantasy Flight’s Genesys games.
When making combat rolls, characters spend their successes to buy stunts in combat. The simplest stunt is the inflict damage stunt, which costs a number of successes equal to a character’s armor. Inflicting a second instance of damage costs more successes to inflict a critical. Characters can spend defensive successes to dive out of range or to make themselves harder to hit.
Weapons and armor have special tags to define them. Weapons don’t specifically have damage ratings, but they may have tags that give the weapon enhancements or allow them to ignore cover. Armor tags can make the armor soft or hard. Soft armor increases the number of successes needed to successfully attack an opponent, while hard armor gives them more injury boxes to check.
In a trend I’m starting to see in more games, characters have the option to concede a fight, getting taken out without taking all of the various steps of injury in between, and keeping the character from potentially getting killed. This will take the character out of the scene, and may leave them in a bad position at the end of the scene, but it also adds momentum to the pool.
There are also rules to handle recovering injuries, first aid, disease, and poison. There aren’t rules for starting gear, just a note that most mundane gear only has three points worth of tags. This isn’t a change from 1st edition Scion, where only supernatural gear required a character to spend character options.Chapter Five: Storyguiding
There is a lot of material in this chapter on researching myths, following the hero’s journey, alternating between multiple heroes in the spotlight, and how to reinforce the tone specifically for an Origin level game, where gods don’t show up directly, and there are more omens and signs than overt communication and miracles.
This section also contains what the text refers to as the Plot Engine, a series of steps to work through to generate appropriately themed campaign ideas.
At the very beginning of the chapter there is what has become a standard in facilitator advice, the tacit permission to ignore or modify rules, and in this section, there is also the advice to make sure that everyone at the table is comfortable and happy with the content of the game. While I appreciate this inclusion, it is a pretty light treatment on the broader topic of safety.
In various other chapters, the text spells out that the old gods don’t want to change their ideas as they move into the modern era, so they often hold antiquated and problematic opinions about acceptable actions, forms of worship, and the worth of human life, and that this can serve as a point of conflict for scions. Given that this is spelled out as a potential theme of campaigns, I think a better discussion of how much of this content to include, and how to do so would have been a good idea. In addition to the light touch on general safety, there isn’t really any discussion of active ongoing table safety, such as using safety tools during play.Chapter Six: Antagonists
Antagonists in the game are assembled by giving them ranks in a primary pool, a secondary pool, a desperation pool, a health, defense, and initiative rating, then adding in qualities (modifiers to the above ratings), and flairs (special abilities that activate under certain circumstances).
In addition to outlining how antagonists are built, this section also details Tension, the resource that the Storyguide has which is similar to Momentum for players. Tension can be used to boost defenses, have an opponent take an extra turn, or to trigger certain types of flairs.
While I don’t want to spend too much time on the various pre-built antagonists that are included in the chapter, for some reason, I really appreciate that in The World, Men in Black aren’t aliens or government agents–they work for the Titans, probing for information on the gods and how to weaken the prisons where various Titans are held.
I have definitely become a fan of opponents in games that don’t require the same amount of rigor to create as player characters, and I like the a + b and maybe c approach to this creation. I’m also a fan of facilitator resources that can be spent, so I appreciate the Tension mechanics as well.Appendix I, II, and III
The three appendices to the book deal with Supernatural Paths, Pantheons, and changes to the game between 1st edition Scion to 2nd edition Scion.
The Supernatural Paths are beings that might eventually end up ascending in power, but aren’t the literal children of the gods. The examples given include:
- Saints (strong believers in a given pantheon or religion)
- Kitsune (long lived shape changing foxes)
- Satyr (the exact mythological creature you would assume)
- Therianthrope (were creatures)
- Wolf-Warrior (berserkers)
- Cu Sith (self-aware fey canines)
There are also rules for modifying these paths to make them fit a variety of supernatural archetypes, such as using Wolf-Warriors to model Amazons.
The pantheons summarized in the book include the following:
- Tuatha De Danan
There isn’t a lot of information given on each of them, but there is a list of skills, gods, callings, and purviews to facilitate character creation for scions of each of the pantheons.
The section on explaining the changes from 1st to 2nd edition is very brief and there are lots of fine details not addressed, but reading through it actually makes a few of the 2nd edition rules clearer even if you don’t have a frame of reference from 1st edition.Heaven Sent The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
I enjoy that the setting isn’t so much a hidden world as it is an obscured world. I really enjoy the idea of being able to spend successes to achieve multiple goals when you take action. I am a big fan of spendable resources in game, and I really enjoy the flow of Momentum to the players. Making adversarial characters a modular building process is something I am on board with, and I am a huge fan of advancement being tied in part to story elements written by the player characters.No Legend Quite Yet
There are places where it really feels like this book wants you to speed through the Origin level of play to get at the “real” starting point of Scion: Hero, even though I think there is a lot of value to getting comfortable with the starting level of play. There are some fairly simple concepts that are expressed in ways that seem more complicated than necessary, and the character sheet design implies that the rules may work in ways that they actually don’t. Given that this tier of play is closer to “mortal” level, I think more guidelines on starting equipment may have been useful (since characters aren’t receiving magical gifts from their parents yet). While I think all modern games need to discuss safety on some level, given some of the themes and topics brought up in this game, there really needed to be more space devoted to the topic.Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
Scion: Origin is an imaginative game that will feel very comfortable to people that want open-ended stories, but want a little bit more support than a rules-light game would give them. The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot. I really like what I have seen of the Storypath system, I just feel that to grasp it, it made me work a little harder than was needed.
How often have your games revolved around the plans of the gods? Do you prefer to have gods included in your game as story elements, vague notions, or active, ever-present characters? What are your favorite games for achieving your preference? We would love to hear about it in the comments below! We’ll look forward to hearing from you.
Obligatory recap: I’ve read about a system for creating urbancrawls (similar to hexcrawls but set in a city) from The Alexandrian. I had also been enjoying the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson and their strange magic setting. Enter this series of articles, where I use The Alexandrian’s urbancrawl system to design my own urbancrawl with a strange magic theme.
- Part 1 of this series
- Part 2 of this series
- Part 3 of this series
- Part 4 of this series
- The Alexandrian’s Urbancrawl series
- Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!
We left off last time with:
- a list of districts
- a definition of what a neighborhood was
- a list of layers we were going to use
- a rough map
- a list and brief description for all neighborhoods.
Here’s a recap of our layer list from way back in part 1 and a few notes/additions along the way:
- Gazetteer/Landmarks: Done! This was part of the last few articles. We got a Gazetteer layer entry for each neighborhood along with the description for each.
- Gangs: This is getting broken down into two separate layers, a guards layer and a gangs layer. The gangs layer will be a little different than most others because I want “contested” neighborhoods but this wasn’t worth making multiple layers for since I want many small gangs all over the city. In this case I’ll note each neighborhood with a “primary” gang, but neighbor gangs may also be encountered there as they vie for territory.
- Guards: While the guard forces of the city are technically independently contracted mercenaries (and thus sometimes come into conflict), there is no overlapping territory, so outright conflict is more likely to be result of some key event rather than regular clashes between say the city guard and the temple district guard.
- Heist: This promises to be one of the most difficult layers to make. While some layers we can get away with being handwavy or templaty, this one looks to be 24 actually planned out 5 room dungeons or bigger.
- Weirdness: This is another layer that can’t be handwaved or templated. Each one of these has to be unique.
- Aboleth: This layer is all plots and minions of the aboleth overlord. They’re not on it. Like the example for the Alexandrian’s articles where Count Ormu is lord of the vampires, and once you collect enough vampire clues you can confront him, the aboleth is somewhere on the map but isn’t up for random encounter or hunting down until a certain critical mass of interruption of their minions.
- Patrons/houses/politics: Like the gang layer, this layer is high contested/populated by multiple groups with a “primary” house or independent noble that is technically tasked with oversight of the neighborhood, but with the possibility of encountering representatives from other houses there as well.
- Shops: Though I don’t know how much use it will get, I want to put a unique/special shop in each neighborhood for PCs to find.
- Ruins/undercity: The event that destroyed most of the university district also destroyed buildings all over the city. In addition, there are numerous entrances to the sunken levels underneath the current city.
- Bugs and fungus: I’ve got an idea for a bug themed “boss critter”. This means I want bugs to have their very own layer (otherwise it makes it harder to amass the clues needed to start hunting down the bosses. Before this concept, I had toyed with the idea of adding slimes to this list, but with bugs in their own layer, I’m not sure I see a value in a fugus/slime layer. They’re just too inactive and uninspiring for anyone to go hunting for them. Unless maybe a cult of Jubilex. Hmmmm…
- Cultists: I have this idea that the area was populated by some reclusive people before the city was built. They tried to stop further building before it got too big but were sent packing. Their descendants have infiltrated the city and work to bring it down or at least return it to their possession.
Some additional thoughts I’ve been kicking around:
Levels: Since this is an “open world” game, such that it is, I’m a little worried about PCs wandering into locations/encounters etc… that are far more than they can handle. I want it to be possible, but not something that happens regularly. To deal with this, the DC to find points of interest will scale with the challenge it presents. This will include an additional bump if what they’re looking for is kill on sight (which doesn’t include that many items anyway).
Roster: While some layers will be carefully keyed with every item on them premade, others don’t need to be so meticulously planned. With a fw planned points of interest, the rest of the layer can be handled by a roster of NPCs (some generic some specific) and maybe some on the fly 5 room dungeons. Thus most layers will need at least one roster, and some several.
Random encounters: I want random encounters in the city. Most, if not all of the encounters here can be pulled from the rosters of the various layers with just some differences in the encounter list for each neighborhood based on which layers are active and which are common and uncommon there.
Contents: I want to be sure to include a variety of types of items on the layers list. It would be boring if say, everything on the bugs layer was just bugs to fight. Here are the basic categories I want to be sure to include:
- NPCS: Using the very old school definition here which encompasses both (demi)human and Monsters, etc… Some of these will be best dealt with with diplomacy, others by skill checks, others by combat, but I’m not going to shoehorn which is which. Let the players figure it out.
- Tick/trap/puzzle: Probably not as common as in a dungeon setting, but it wouldn’t do to lease these out.
- Point of interest: Just some fun/notable scenery
- Combination: These come in three sizes, a single room/location, a small location (like a 5 room setup), and a large location (which will probably have to be pre-planned)
So now I know what I’m making, and how I’m making it. It’s time to stop procrastinating and eat this elephant. So next time I’ll have a layer roughed out and we’ll go from there. Wish me luck!
Homebrew setting creation is an important facet of the RPG experience. For many of us, world creation is what got us interested in RPGs in the first place. But whether you’re designing a setting for the first time or the hundredth time, there are some simple tips that can make the experience more productive and enjoyable.Getting Started
The first step is don’t be intimidated. Playing published RPGs can give you the impression that hundreds of genius ideas must be put to paper before the game even starts. This is not the case. Many RPG settings are developed organically through play and experimentation, and yours should be too. So focus on having fun, don’t be over-worried about originality, and let the creative process take its course. While there is preliminary work to do before playing, it’s probably not as much as you think.Think of the Aesthetics
A great place to start is thinking in big, broad terms. Be inspired by your favorite media, and look for themes and ideas that get your creative energy flowing. Love Ghost In The Shell? Definitely lift some cyberpunk aesthetic. Get pumped about Avatar: The Last Airbender? Some elemental magic and spiritual themes could be good. Genre mash your heart out, and don’t shy away from cliches. Instead, embrace a cliche and put a spin on it. So if your cyberpunk world is full of neon tubes, corrupt corporations, and elemental masters, maybe the strongest elemental masters are the most powerful CEOs! And the more powerful your magic, the more neon tube cybernetics you have to contain all your power flowing through your veins. Maybe elemental magic isn’t just for fighting; it powers all sorts of technology and daily life, and has become so important, it’s used as currency.Think of the Core Conflict
Every great piece of media, while having a rich world, has a core conflict to explore. This makes the world feel alive, like it’s in motion and taking the players along for a ride. So what’s the big problem in your setting? Connect it to the aesthetics to make things feel cohesive. Maybe in this corrupt magical CEO world, a huge economic crisis has happened and companies are calling in all their debts. They’re forcibly reclaiming magic from the lower castes, and sometimes over pumping so much power out of people, it kills them. A classic haves and havenots story tailored to your world design. But don’t forget to connect this conflict to the players! In order to make it seem real, this problem needs to affect the players’ lives, their allies’ lives, and day to day struggles. Perhaps the players are all debtors trying to escape possibly lethal debt collection, and trying to train, focus, and gather enough elemental magic to pay off the creditors. Or maybe the players are actually a paid team of debt collectors, and have to journey to dangerous places and reclaim what “belongs” to the corporation, dealing with the moral struggles that entails.Think of Factions
This is my favorite part of setting creation. The world really starts to feel fleshed out when you think about the social factors at play. The important thing to remember when creating factions is that dynamics matter much more than detail. It’s not so important to think about what a faction wears or eats or what language they speak, unless that somehow directly relates to the conflict and how that faction interacts with others. We already have the idea of two groups: haves and havenots. And we know one is oppressing the other. So what are some more interesting dynamic ideas to come out of this? Perhaps the havenots use extensive smuggler networks to move magic around and keep it hidden from the collectors. Maybe the havenots aren’t as educated or well trained, making it hard for them to produce useable elemental magic on their own. Or better yet, maybe the magically gifted among the havenots are forcibly recruited into wealthy society and removed from the people, keeping the economic disparity strong. This means gifted people hide their talents to try and support their communities from the sidelines.Embrace the Unknown
You’re not going to answer every question about your setting while you brainstorm it. A lot of it is going to work itself out naturally as you play. What does it look like when the wealthy extract a magically gifted person from their neighborhood? Maybe you can brainstorm a whole session around it, and play it out to fill in the details. Or better yet, maybe a player has that sort of event in their backstory, and they can contribute their own ideas on how and when that happens. Don’t be afraid to let the players contribute! In fact, you can invite the players to contribute to this whole process, because great ideas can come from many minds when everyone respects and builds on each other’s contributions. My game Heroic Dark makes use of this fact, and makes setting creation into a structured, collaborative process for everyone at the table. The players become invested in the game world, because their ideas are a piece of it, and it makes the dangerous adventures in that world so much more compelling. Everyone is more willing to take risks, face challenges, and do heroic things because they want to see how their and others’ ideas play out in the high intensity story everyone is crafting together.
So after setting creation, it’s important to remember that worlds evolve. As you play the game, the players experience a mix of wins, losses, narrow survival, and tragic deaths. But as the consequences play out, you might find a setting detail is starting to feel vestigial or incongruent based on what has happened. Let the gameworld change! In our sample setting idea, if magic extractions always went unchallenged before, but now the havenots have been pushed to the edge, maybe they don’t take things lying down and extractions become dangerous and violent. This change could lead to another; as the wealthy see their authority challenged, they invent new, more brutal methods of extraction that are harder to resist.Conclusion
Setting creation can be a much more fluid, relaxed, and flexible exercise than you may be used to. Following a stripped down process like this produces surprising results, because when you don’t weigh yourself down with figuring out every little detail and trying to be a genius, your creative juices can really flow. Between aesthetics, conflict, and faction dynamics, you should have a rich and living world ready for a fantastic adventure. By diving in before everything is nailed down, you let the details fill out organically and naturally, instead of arbitrarily making decisions just to put words on a page. But the most important thing to remember is to have fun. This is ultimately a game, not a writing competition, so the best measure of the success of your setting is having a good time.
Head Gnome John Arcadian here with some GS news! The 2019 ENnies voting is live and ready for your eager vote. We’ve got some personal selections and GS affiliated projects we want to encourage you to vote for.Wait, where’s Gnome Stew? Aren’t you usually in the running?
Yes, Gnome Stew has submitted to the ENnies and won silver or gold for MANY years. We decided not to submit for consideration this year. This year the ENnies changed a few things and merged a few categories. There is no longer a Blog specific category. We could have submitted for Best Online Content, but we’ve had more than a few years to build up an audience and a name. This, alongside the great content and great voices we try to give a platform to, has helped us do very well in the ENnies. Every year we always consider whether we should step into the field or not since we’ve had a few wins under our belt. With the removal of a blog specific category, we decided this was the year we were going to leave it to others and not nominate ourselves. That being said, we’ve got a few Gnome Affiliated projects and some very good projects out there that we would encourage you to look at. Remember, the ENnies are one person one vote and has a tiered voting system so mark your favorite with 1, second favorite with 2, etc.Gnome Affiliated Projects
Podcasts – There are two great podcasts with Gnomes on them.
- She’s A Super Geek with Senda is a podcast featuring female GMs and something you should definitely vote for.
- Asians Represent! has newer gnome Daniel Kwan and is also something you should vote for.
- Best Online Content – Molten Sulfur Blog by Tristan Zimmerman is a great RPG blog with a focus on bringing in historical emphasis to your games.
- Best Monster/Adversary – While there is a part of us that loathes suggesting something attached to Kobolds, the Creature Codex is a great supplement for 5e games.
- Best Layout and Design – Bluebeard’s Bride: Book of Rooms has a fantastic layout and is IGDN affiliated, and many gnomes are IGDN members.
- Best Electronic Book – Uncaged Volume 1 is a phenomenal resource in every way and well deserving of a vote.
Best Free Game – Die Laughing, Sliced up is another IGDN product and a very funny one that is fun to play.
- Best Game – There are many incredible contenders in Best Game. Companions’ Tale and Dialect are two I’ve (John) had wonderful experiences with and are both worthy of your vote.
There are a ton of great entries in the ENnies this year and we applaud the ENnies for the changes they have made to make the event and competition better. Go vote in the ENnies and give your support to some incredible gaming.
Join Ang for the first installment of our new series where we give the “Meet a New Gnome” treatment to some of our old gnomes. We start things off with Co-head Gnome John Arcadian. Catch John’s various origin stories and plans for the future of Gnome Stew. Will both these head gnomes grant each other immunity from the stew this week?
Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.
Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!
For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Bone, Stone, and Obsidian!
Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!Eden
Eden by Marc Hobbs and Less Than Three Games is a no-prep, GMless story game designed for 3-5 players to explore the development of new human beings as influenced by their talking animal companions. It is a roleplaying game in the sense that each player creates a single character and is responsible for narrative control of that character throughout the game, but it is a story game in the sense that the mechanics focus on the structure, procedure, and outcome of a narrative. The game does not use dice, cards, or any randomizers, instead depending on narration and consensus to resolve conflicts.The Story
The stories explored by Eden describe the emergence of the first generation of humans, who have arisen from the Garden, a setting collaboratively constructed at the beginning of play. All that is known prior to the game’s story is that the Garden is a land contained by a Wall and a Gate and is populated by these new humans and some intelligent, talking animals. Each player’s primary character is one of these humans, though as the narrative focus changes throughout the game, players may also roleplay talking animal characters or secondary human characters that are not the focus of the overall story.
Two primary themes that drive the game’s fiction are personal development and social dynamics. Personal development primarily motivates the main human characters. They begin play understanding and interacting with the world the way their favorite animals do. Over the course of play, the humans learn through interacting with more animals and other humans how they can come to understand the world for themselves and find their own place in it and a sense of their own selves. Social dynamics influence the world around these humans and generally take the form of how various animals regard the humans and their activities. Of particular interest is that the animals don’t have a moral sense; they operate on instinct. Though intelligent, they do not act like animal-shaped humans would act. Instead, they act as animals would act; they are just given the tools to communicate as humans would.
The characters’ relationships with the world may figure into individual tales, but the game as a whole is far less about the Garden than it is about the people who live there: how they act, what they learn, and how they change. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailAs a “no-prep” game, Eden encourages the “play to find out” ethos of story creation and does not depend on predetermined scenarios or any particular narrative goal. How (and when) the story ends is up to the players, and the game does not call for any particular advancement or resolution for characters. The setting is explicitly changed as the story progresses, but the narrative is decidedly focused on the main characters and not on the world around them. The characters’ relationships with the world may figure into individual tales, but the game as a whole is far less about the Garden than it is about the people who live there: how they act, what they learn, and how they change.
Because the bulk of the game mechanics relate to narrative procedure and because there are so few prescribed characteristics of the setting, Eden is an easy game to reskin for other stories. The core book itself contains some exciting variations on setting and play. For example, “The Playground” involves children learning how to act, and instead of talking animals, they might be guided by their toys or imaginary friends. Another variation is “Starship Eden,” which could follow newly-awakened clones being instructed by computerized artificial intelligence systems. The core components of any Eden story remain a group of protagonists looking to develop codes of belief, some established (if narrow) behaviors to draw from for inspiration, and an insulated social environment for them all to play around in. There are many stories that can be derived from that set of ingredients and themes, and all could be examined in a game of Eden.The Game
The rules of Eden outline a structured procedure to generate stories. Much attention is paid to setting up both the overall game setting and individual scenes, but once the narrative portion of the game takes over, there are few to no mechanics that guide the story. Gameplay is divided into three main stages. The game begins with two setup phases and then proceeds to a roleplaying phase that is broken up into repeatable rounds of play.
The first setup phase concerns the setting of the story, the Garden. The Garden is assembled from different animals, lands, and other features, all determined by the players. The choices are recorded on a collaboratively drawn map, and this map will later be updated throughout gameplay as the world (and the characters in it) are changed by the fiction.
The second setup phase is dedicated to the humans in the Garden, the main characters controlled by the players as well as secondary characters that are not exclusively controlled by any specific player but who can appear in main characters’ stories and be roleplayed by any available player. This human setup stage is what would be thought of as character creation in a more traditional RPG structure, and it is a this point that characters gain a favorite animal, a Skill learned from that animal, and a Lesson imparted by learning that Skill. Skills are not mechanically significant in the sense that might be expected in other games; they are more useful as narrative prompts. Lessons form the record of the character’s development as a person; they make up what might be thought of as a moral code or some other means by which the human makes decisions or determines values.
The roleplaying stage of the game is divided into “scenes.” Each scene is framed according to a specific procedure, but once the scene framing is complete and the narrative play begins, gameplay switches to a more freeform process and ends only when the players decide it is time to end. Each player controls one scene in a “round.” The game consists of at least three rounds, but again, it is up to the players how many rounds that particular session will consist of.
Throughout play, there are two major ways that game progress is recorded. Focusing on personal development of the main characters, players can add or change (or remove!) Lessons on their character sheet, in this way showing how their main human character is growing and changing as they encounter various situations, challenges, and people. In addition, changes to the world at large are recorded on the shared map of the Garden. These changes are mostly driven by what has happened in each scene, but also they are not required to be; in some cases, changes to the Garden may take place that are unrelated to what it happening in scenes.
Finally, once the final round has ended, each player contributes an Epilogue, either about their character or about how the world was affected by their character, depending on what has happened to the character during the story.The Shelf
Eden is available for purchase in print and PDF from Less Than Three Games and Indie Press Revolution. As previously established in this series, I do love games involving collaborative map-building. Eden specifically calls out The Quiet Year (Avery Alder/Buried without Ceremony), which I highly recommend. Some of my other favorite map-building games include Companions’ Tale (Laura Simpson/Sweet Potato Press) and The Skeletons (Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games). For a game with a similar theme of humans and their animal companions, I heartily recommend Familiars of Terra (Liz Chaipraditkul/Angry Hamster Publishing).
If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!