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Updated: 4 hours 26 min ago


19 April 2019 - 4:20am

Let us continue our look at the town of Foot from last article.

7. The Carpenter. This shop smells like sawdust as soon as you enter it. There’s wood, stain, saws, hammers, levels, crank drills, chisels, and all other manner of tool and wood around the shop. Sarah Hanner is a short stocky and well muscled woman in her late 30’s. Healthy and always wearing a wry smile. Sarah specializes in furniture and the wooded parts of a wide variety of farm equipment while also being able to patch up buildings that have seen better days. She loves her work and does a wonderful job, even if she’s sometimes a little late.

8. Fredmon’s Thread and Stitch. Fredmon Tailor comes from a long line of tailors but came to the Airy Peaks to seek adventure. Then he lost his foot to a spikey mawed beastie. After than he decided to get back to his roots and sew for adventurer’s instead of going on adventures. Fredmon can work with cloth and leather while being quite versed in the layering of a variety of materials and cloths. He often works quite close with Kurnig on the undergarments of armor.

The shop is a clean place with a variety of different sets of clothing displayed on wooden mannequins. It’s all functional dress for farmers and adventurer’s which gives the clothing a high contrast. Fredmon also specializes in bags and pouches for every day adventuring, seed carrying, and any other function a bag could serve.

9. The Torn Page. Lillard Copse is a wizened old man who wears glasses, can barely see, and is stooped over with age. That is, until the sun goes down. Once the sun dips out of view this old man straightens up, moves with the vigor of someone half his age, and can see just fine.

The shop is filled with books and mpas which he buys and sells. Some are from adventurers and others are more mysterious in origin. Even though he has tons of maps, those maps are all quite contradictory in their descriptions and depictions. If asked, Lillard is convinced the Peaks might even move and rearrange themselves, or at least the Fire Tube Tunnels do.

10. The Goblin Wares. Jacob Flack is a thin unassuming man with brown hair, who runs one of the most common shops in town in one of the more unique locations. His shop is in a tunnel just inside one of the entrances to the Airy Peaks. The shops entrance is marked by a wooden sign with a goblin painted on it with its eyes xed out.

The shop is just a small cavern lit by oil lanterns and an torch that burns with a magical light that never consumes and never goes out. On the walls are mesh nets and hanging from them are all manner of weapons, larger adventuring gear, and armor. There are crates stacked in rows with potions, rope, pouches, trinkets, small devices, and the other smaller, more portable things one might find useful when traversing the Airy Peaks.

Sometimes special things find their way into the Goblin Wares, sold to Jacob by adventurers who don’t know what they have. This is also the place that gear gets shipped to from the outside world. If you want to show how the gear changes from week to week in the Goblin Wares you can make this move every third time the party makes camp or when you have decided that a week or so has passed.

When time has passed roll 2d6 + nothing. On a hit a delivery occurs and restock according to the refresh. On a 10+ roll a d10 twice. Each roll adds the interesting item listed below to the goblin wares. On a 12+ a magic item finds its way into the Goblin Wares. Create the magic item and place it in the shop. On a miss the refresh doesn’t happen.

Special Item List
  1. Hunters Bow
  2. Dueling Rapier
  3. Elvish Arrows
  4. Elven Bread
  5. Oil of Tagit
  6. Bloodweed
  7. Goldenroot
  8. Serpent’s Tears
  9. Bag of Books
  10. Edged Black Steel Weapon. Add 2 piercing and 100 coins to any edged weapon

Black Steel Weapons come from the Dragon Fire Forges within the Airy Peaks. Edged weapons forged there have 2 piercing.

Jacob’s has the following on hand when an Airy Peaks campaign starts:

Dungeon Gear
  • Adventuring Gear (x100)
  • Bandages (x10)
  • Healing Potion (x4 refreshed 1d4-1 to a max of 4)
  • Antitoxin (x1 refreshed to a max of 1)
  • Dungeon Rations (x 50)
  • Dwarven Hardtack (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Halfling Pipeleaf (x1 refreshed to a max of 1)
  • Leather (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Chainmail (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Scale Mail (x2 refreshed by 1 to a max of 2)
  • Plate (x1 refreshed by 1 to a max of 1)
  • Shield (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Ragged Bow (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Crossbow (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Bundle of Arrows (x20 refreshed by 5 to max of 20)
  • Club (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Staff (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Dagger (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Throwing Dagger (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Short Sword (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Axe (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Warhammer (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Mace (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Spear (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Long Sword (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Battle Axe (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Halberd (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Rapier (x1 refreshed by 1 to a max of 1)

Ok folks. I’ve reached my word count limit for this installment so next time we’ll be talking more about the town of Foot. Enjoy and we’ll get back to it next month.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #64 – Shadow of the Century with Mike Olson and Morgan Ellis

18 April 2019 - 5:00am

Join Jared for an interview with Mike Olson and Morgan Ellis, two of the developers who worked on Shadow of the Century from Evil Hat Productions as a follow-up to Jared’s review of the product here. Will this interview be enough to keep the Review Gnome (and his guests!) out of the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #64 – Shadow of the Century with Mike Olson and Morgan Ellis

Follow Mike Olson at @devlin1 on Twitter.

Follow Morgan Ellis at @mc_ellis on Twitter.

Follow Jared at @KnightErrant_JR on Twitter and his blog What Do I Know?

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, 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!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Teaching Tabletop Role Playing Games

17 April 2019 - 5:11am

In 2011 I offered to DM a 4-hour session of DnD as part of a silent auction for NAMI. My friend Toni bid on it, totally not out of pity. On the successful note of raising a whopping $20, Toni told me she wanted to play with her wife and two friends except… none of them had ever played DnD or any other TTRPGs before. Without thinking it through, I said yes. Then when I started to plan the session, I stared at a blank page for what seemed like hours realizing I had no idea how to teach someone else how to role play.

It’s easy to overwhelm someone new in any hobby especially if it’s something you love and understand. Often we unintentionally miscommunicate for a very simple reason–the newbies don’t speak our language yet. Did you glaze past the terms “DM,” “DnD,” and “TTRPG” in the paragraph above? That’s probably because you know those abbreviations mean Dungeon Master, the one who plans and leads a tabletop role playing game specifically Dungeons and Dragons; Dungeons and Dragons, the flagship game of the role playing industry; and tabletop role playing game, the more generic term for the entire hobby. On the other hand, did you know what NAMI is? From context you know it’s a charity, but unless I spell out the full name as the National Alliance on Mental Illness you may not know what they focus on.

Before You Teach…

If you’re fluent in RPGs, there’s a step I recommend before planning a session for newbies. Play a game you’ve never played before. Preferably something radically different from what you normally play. If you’ve played from levels 1-20 in the same DnD 3.5 edition campaign for the past five years, try picking up something story-forward like Protocol or Fiasco. If you normally play the serious Dark Heresy, try the hilarious Crash Pandas. If you have local conventions, you can look for someone new there. If you don’t, ask your normal group to take a session off and try something different. Or, ask online or find a community like the Gauntlet where you can sign up for online games. If you have no idea what game to play, I recommend John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings or one of its hacks like Love & Justice by my copodner (co-host podcast partner) Senda Linaugh. Handily, you can listen to an adventure of Love & Justice on my podcast She’s A Super Geek BUT don’t just listen–you need to actually play something new. 

 Play a game you’ve never played before. Preferably something radically different from what you normally play. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

I get to play new games all the time because of She’s A Super Geek which does one-shots of different games focusing on women as GMs (that’s Game Master, similar to the term DM but considered more generic). When we started SASGeek almost 4 years ago, Senda and I were learning and running all the games. We’ve gotten to a place where a lot of creators, writers, or someone who has run the game a lot come onto the show to run those games for us. It’s amazing, and it means I’m constantly learning new games from the point of view of a player. It can be hard to break out of our fluent understanding of RPGs, so forcing yourself back into that newbie space can break you out of your fluency and give you some insight into what newbies at your own table might be experiencing.

But I didn’t have that experience back in 2011 when I sat down with Toni, her wife, and her two friends. I’m actually not sure of how good of a job I did teaching DnD to them. I remember that we told a good story, and they all had fun. The bard embarrassed herself in front of her crush. The rogue got to back stab their rival (emotionally and literally). The cleric  In the end, that’s what we want newbies to experience. We want them to understand why we spend time in this hobby, what draws us deeper into it, and why it’s worth continuing to learn. We don’t want to bog them down in rules, hard math, or (Cthulhu forbid) table lawyering. We want them to walk away with a hilarious story they want to tell others. So here are a few tips for you as the GM to ensure that happens.

GM Tips
  1. Make the characters–there’s nothing worse than wanting to learn a role play game only to get bogged down in details you don’t understand with the promise of ‘it gets more fun later.’ Create character sheets before hand with gentle role play prompts. If your newbie runs with another idea, that’s ok; but try to give them somewhere to go since they haven’t had experience building a character’s personality. Feel free to use pre-made characters from your system if they’re available.
  2. Plan a straightforward adventure–we all love red herrings, but we’re focusing on teaching the game. Make sure there’s an obvious thing they’re supposed to do. Don’t be afraid to use simple ideas like stealing a magical item from that castle, protecting a caravan as it travels to another city, or rescuing a kidnapped prince. Having a clear goal makes it easier to think of ideas about how to get there. Asking players to think of classic tropes from movies and tv shows can give them a reference point if they become a deer in headlights. A newbie may not know how their character would get into an exclusive club, but they may know what Buffy, Luke Skywalker, or Steven Universe would do.
  3. Have an experienced player at the table–newbies will look to an experienced player to set the tone and show them what’s possible. Just don’t let the experienced player take over the spotlight. Have a talk with them before the game and make sure they’re ok playing with newbies and either holding back or pushing forward depending on how the newbies react.
  4. Don’t overwhelm them with rules–don’t try to explain all the rules in the game up front. Assure the newbies you will teach them the rules as they come up in game. Let them choose their character’s name and go over the basics of reading the character sheet.
  5. Don’t overwhelm them with jargon–don’t use acronyms if you can help it. Try to explain things when the newbies are confused. Ask them if they’re confused. Encourage them to call out when you’re using a term they don’t understand.
  6. Create an inviting first scene–Give the players a reason to interact with each other. Are they all stuck in the same jail? Do they all know a retired adventurer who’s called them together for an unknown reason? This doesn’t have to be a traditional go-around-the-table-and-introduce-your-character-scene, but there’s nothing wrong with that!
  7. Create a skill challenge or small combat as the second scene–It doesn’t have to be an all-out battle. It could be a patron asking the characters to prove that they can handle a task or a simple go kill that low-level monster over there. They’ve stretched role play legs in the first scene. Now they get to work those mechanics a little. If it gets overwhelming, cut it short and move on. You just want to give the new players a chance to get a feel for the mechanics so that they know what’s possible within the game. 
  8. Make sure every character gets the spotlight–since you’ve made the characters, you know what they’re good at. Make sure everyone gets some spotlight time to do what they’re good at. If you’ve got a hacker, make sure there are computer locked doors in the way. If you’ve got a wizard, make sure there’s a book that only they can read. If possible you want the light to shine on each character for something both mechanical and role play-focused. 
  9. Laissez les bons temps rouler*–It’s ok if your straightforward plot goes off the rails. If they’re not having fun, do something different. A bad guy kicks in the door. A distress cry is heard from the next street over. Someone’s sword leaps out of their hands and starts singing. Just keep the game moving and make sure people are having fun!

Giving someone a window into our hobby can be amazing. Don’t be afraid to ask new people to play. You can teach them. After all, we were all newbies at some point. Someone else helped us learn how to play, probably multiple someones else. Being that person for someone else allows us to pay our experience forward, and hopefully they will do the same when the time comes. 

What games have you found the easiest or most difficult to teach? What did someone teach you badly or goodly when you started gaming?


*Let the good times roll

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Leveraging Tech at the Table

15 April 2019 - 5:00am
The Obvious: Distraction

I know a few (probably more than a few) GMs who don’t want or allow technology at their table. That’s their call, and I urge players to respect it. This is because devices, especially those with online capability, can lead to distractions in the form of text messages, phone calls, social media, web browsing, and watching funny cat videos. I get it. I really do.

However, there is a place and time for technology at the table. If you, as a player, have a GM that doesn’t want technology at the table, build a case for streamlined play, quick rule lookups, online tools/utilities, electronic character builders/sheets, and easy-to-reach references. If they still don’t relent, respect their desires and move on.

Having said all that, let’s assume technology is allowed at the table and explore its extensive capabilities and uses.

Technology and Limitations

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the word “technology” quite a bit. What I’m referring to here are the portable electronic devices most of us carry everyday. This will include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. I’m mainly going to focus on using a tablet, though.

This is because I find smart phones too clunky for smooth use at the table when information is needed on-demand. Character sheets are too small (or require massive pinch-zooming and swipe-scrolling) to effectively make use of. PDFs can be read on smart phones, but when you’re reading half a paragraph per screen, it’s not that speedy. Also, taking notes on a smart phone just isn’t efficient. I have a hard time composing a tweet in any reasonable amount of time on my phone, let alone trying to capture the rapid-fire events of what’s going on at the table. Of course, you may be a world-class typist on your phone, so give it a whirl.

On the flip-side, laptops tend to be too large and consume tons of table space, especially if someone lugs out their massive 17-inch gaming laptop. They can’t easily be set aside and then pulled back out for quick reference. They’re great for note taking because of the keyboard, but doing dynamic notes (like maps) on a laptop is still problematic unless you have a touchscreen variant.

In the middle-ground between smart phones and laptops exist, of course, tablets. They’re great. They lie flat on the table, don’t take up tons of room on the table, and can be set aside or propped against a chair leg when space is needed. Tablets also have the same advantage of laptops with a larger screen allowing for easy reading of rulebook PDFs, interacting with electronic character sheets, and taking notes in a document, especially if you have a stylus or other writing device that works with your table.


For the remainder of this article, I’m going to dive into details about how I use a tablet and stylus at the table. I currently have a an 11-inch iPad Pro and use an Apple Pencil. The screenshots I’m going to throw your way come from an app called GoodNotes 5. I also use an app called GoodReader for viewing, bookmarking, and annotating PDFs. With these bits of technology and just these two apps, I can do everything I need at the table as a player or GM. I still keep a small notepad and pencil nearby for passing notes when appropriate. Oh. Dice. Yeah. Lots and lots of dice are part of my kit, but that’s not the point of this article.

For you Android/Microsoft users, I apologize for focusing on Apple products here. I don’t like recommending or pointing people to apps or hardware that I have no experience with in case I lead them astray. I’m certain there are options out there for Android and Microsoft tablets, styluses, and applications that can perform in a similar fashion to what I do here. A search along the lines of “GoodReader for Android table” or “GoodNotes for Microsoft Surface” might lead you in the right direction.


When I can, I buy the PDFs of rulebooks. This is because my days of carrying 150+ pounds (no exaggeration) of books with me to the FLGS are over. I’m tired of doing that, and my back isn’t getting any younger. Where I can’t find legal PDFs, I suck it up and lug the books, but this article is about electronics, not calisthenics with a bag o’ books.

GoodReader is my application of choice for reading and marking up PDFs. It’s fast to load even the largest books. In my current campaign, I’m a player in a game of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The PDF is 68 megabytes in size. Not small, but I’ve seen bigger. If I don’t have the PDF open, it takes about 5 seconds to load. Once loaded, page transitions and scrolling through the document is rapid-fire fast. It can also have multiple PDFs open at once in tabbed layout like in your web browser. That’s super handy for leaping between multiple source materials.

There is also a bookmark feature where you can save links to pages that are frequently referenced, and if the bookmark is properly outlined with an electronic table of contents, then the outline feature comes in very handy.

Here are some screenshots with captions about what the various functions do:

GoodReader Toolbar

GoodReader Outline View

GoodReader Bookmark View

GoodReader Search Feature

GoodNotes 5

For my handwritten notes, I use GoodNotes 5. Version 4 was great, but the upgrade to version 5 is a whole new world of note taking! I use it at the table, during classes, at conferences, and anywhere else I need to scribble something down for later review or sharing.

GoodNotes comes with a wide variety of “backgrounds.” Of course, I go with the gridded background for all RPG notes even when I’m not mapping. It helps me align the notes and indentations and such as I go. For mapping, the obvious choice is the gridded background. Another fantastic feature is that you can use a PDF as a “background.” Just import the PDF and start writing on it. The “eraser” feature won’t delete the PDF text/lines because it’s the background. This allows me to import the PDF version of a game’s character sheet and just use my iPad for the character sheet as well. This importing of a PDF as a background also works great for your GM maps. This allows you to take notes on the maps and highlight areas without worrying about accidentally erasing or messing up the original map.

GoodNotes, like GoodReader, allows multiple files to be open at once in a tabbed interface. In addition to being able to track notes, maps, and character stats on the fly, I can export the files to PDF format and save it on a cloud drive for sharing with the rest of the group between sessions. This is a fantastic feature since I track the campaign notes, treasure gained, maps, and my character in GoodNotes.

The main features I like about GoodNotes is the different line widths and colors available for the pen. I can also highlight in different colors. The eraser tool is handy when my handwriting gets super messy or I misplace a door on the map and need to redraw it. There is also a lasso tool that allows you to select an area and then drag ‘n’ drop it or cut/copy/paste it to another page or elsewhere on the same page. If you’re into type-written notes, but still want the ability to draw lines between text boxes to link things together, you can do that too.

Here are some screenshots of files I’ve created in GoodNotes, so you can get a flavor of what they look like. I apologize for the horrid handwriting, but I want you to see the different pen colors, highlighter colors, and so on.

GoodNotes Toolbar

GoodNotes Notes

GoodNotes Map

GoodNotes Character Sheet

What Do You Use?

What technology do you use at your in-person games? Let us, and your fellow readers, know what you have in your hands!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Superhero Games and Stories

12 April 2019 - 2:00am

DC Universe is letting me watch the old Justice League series too…

Recently, I signed up for DC Universe, primarily so I could watch the new season of Young Justice, but I’ve also taken advantage of all the DC animated movies available on the streaming service. There’s also an excitement in the air related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what with Captain Marvel having come out last month and Avengers: End Game arriving in just a couple weeks. It’s made me think quite a bit about superheroes and gaming.

Anyone who’s gamed with me for any length of time knows I love superheroes and their games. In recent years, I developed a reputation for running Masks at cons, and my regular group often asks me to pick up the GM cape once more and run a supers game for them. Heck, the very first campaign I ever ran was a Mutants & Masterminds campaign.

I already have my tickets…

Thing is, superhero stories are not this monolithic, single type of story or game. While it is easy for many to mistakenly make this assumption, when you really dig down into it, superhero stories are more of a framework you hang over other stories. This is one of the secrets to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve focused on telling interesting stories with compelling characters that just happen to have special abilities, rather than focusing on only the special abilities. It doesn’t matter how cool the costumes are or how awesome the special effects for the abilities are, if the story is boring or the characters just caricatures of people no one is going to care.

(Another open secret to MCU’s success is in how they know how to be true to the essence of the characters and then nail the casting for that character. I could wax poetic about these movies for hours, so I’ll keep a lid on it.)

Back in the late 80’s and 90’s, when RPGs all seemed to be obsessed with simulation, superhero games like Champions did everything they could to provide meticulous ways to emulate the powers of all our favorite heroes. Unfortunately, this often pushed the heart of the story and characters into the background, losing the spark that makes us love super heroics. I’m very careful about the superhero games I sign up for at conventions, because too often, that spark is lost and the game just ends up being a simulation for a superhero smash up fight. There’s nothing wrong with a fun, bombastic combat, but that’s not necessarily the only kind of game I’m looking to play or run.

If you, like me, are considering running a supers game in the near future, here’s a few things to consider before bringing the game to the table for your players:

  • Tone: Once you decide the tone of your game, other things will fall into place easier. Are you looking for a light hearted romp around the cosmos, or a gritty and complicated story of difficult choices? Take a look at the first season of the Justice League animated series from the early 2000’s compared to the first season of Daredevil on Netflix. Yeah, they’re both superhero stories, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. If you don’t establish the tone you’re looking for from the get-go, you’re going to have problems. Your players also have a wild and wide understanding of the superhero genre, and they may be all over the place in the tone they’re expecting. Their characters will reflect that and while it’s not impossible to make a game work with characters of varying tone, it’s difficult to maintain that for the long haul.
  • Setting: Some superhero stories take place in a single city, or even just a single neighborhood. Others span galaxies, taking the heroes from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy. As you can imagine, deciding the scope of your game’s setting can help determine the types of stories your game is going to be telling and the types of characters that should come into play. Setting a game in an afro-futuristic city like Wakanda guides the themes and characters in very specific ways. Or imagine using a setting like Smallville, telling the stories of some young heroes learning who they are and what they can do.
  • Don’t let them get lost in the minutia of what powers they have and what those powers do, because WHO the character is beneath the costume and abilities is what makes the game truly heroic.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailLimits: What are the limits of the characters you want in play? Can your game handle Batman and Superman in the league together? Can you provide a variety of challenges for both Thor and Hawkeye? Or do you want to limit the origin stories for your players and have them all have some common bond like being students at an upstate boarding school for ‘special’ students? The options for this are almost limitless (ha!), but if you take a look at the best superhero stories, they keep all the characters within a certain framework, at least to start with. We may enjoy the idea of having Captain Marvel and Jessica Jones in the same universe, but you’re going to have to sacrifice something to run a game that includes both of them. Put Jessica in the far-flung cosmic encounters Carol is capable of and she’s going to be a little lost. And annoyed since there’s no alcohol. Put Cap in Hell’s Kitchen and she’s going to have to limit her capabilities to not just obliterate the neighborhood. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s just that you’re going to have to make choices and sacrifices with the stories your game tells.
  • Character: Last, but absolutely not least. Don’t forget that everything you do still boils down to the characters the players bring to the table. What I mean is that while Captain Marvel’s powers are cool, she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without her in-your-face determination to do what’s right. Batman may have all those wonderful toys, but his best stories are fed by the gravitas of his tragedies. When your players start working on their characters, don’t let them get lost in the minutia of what powers they have and what those powers do, because WHO the character is beneath the costume and abilities is what makes the game truly heroic.

Another good example of how to do an ensemble cast right…

There are so many options out there for superhero games. So many. Many games come with tone, setting, and limits established within the design of the game, while others come to your more as a toolset to build your own world. Another consideration is the level of crunch that you’re comfortable. I lean more towards the narrative games these days, but I can understand the draw of a crunchier game. Make sure whichever game you pick actually works with the tone, setting and limits you want to try for in your game. The wrong combination can be painful to work through.

After several of my regular group saw Captain Marvel, they cornered me and said, “Ang, you’ve GOT to run another supers game.” Honestly, I can’t disagree with them, because I certainly feel that pull as well. Between now and when I start, I’ve got quite a few things to figure out. What about you and your gaming crew? Any super heroics on your horizon? We’d love to hear about it.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf: BLACKOUT

10 April 2019 - 5:00am

Welcome to the first installment of The Indie Game Shelf. Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game, and the series as a whole aims to increase the visibility of the wide variety of games available today. Whether you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new or brand new to the hobby and wanting to explore what’s out there, we hope The Indie Game Shelf holds something fun and new for you to enjoy.

BLACKOUT: A Game about Women & the Blitz

BLACKOUT by Erika Chappell/Newstand Press is a game Powered by the Apocalypse and designed to take one GM and 2-5 players through a one-session scenario. Each session of the game represents one night during the Blitz, 8 months of World War II during which the German Luftwaffe made nightly devastating bombing runs over London. The characters in the game are women who have volunteered with various civil defense organizations and respond to the constant danger and harm that results from these air raids.

The Story

BLACKOUT is a game designed to tell a specific kind of story. It is undoubtedly a game about war, but rather than the glories of battle, characters are instead concerned with the tragedies of destruction. The characters’ party (called a “Section”) is made up of people from various walks of British life and a variety of larger organizations specialized in dealing with specific kinds of danger. The Section is one of many dedicated to the safety and care of a “Community,” a specific part of the city under attack. Character relationships are also important to playing this game, as much of the story is about teamwork and solidarity. Not only is it important to know how the main characters relate to one another, but also how they relate to the community.

As mentioned, a single session of BLACKOUT represents a single night of the Blitz. Over the course of this night, you can be sure that an air raid will occur, but you can never know when the attack will come, how severe it will be, or how long it will last. There are no rules for stopping the raid. You play the game until you’ve told the story of that night and, hopefully, have taken a look at the stories yet to come.

Rather than the glories of battle, characters are instead concerned with the tragedies of destruction.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailThe primary task of the characters is to provide assistance at bomb sites and other disasters, but they may not be able to finish at one site before another appears. Characters must choose not only who to help, but also how much to help before moving on. In addition, they also must care for each other and, just as importantly, themselves. Disaster relief is difficult work. If a person gives too much of themselves in an attempt to help everyone, they’ll quickly become less able to help anyone. At the same time, any moment taken for valuable rest is another moment during which a new bomb might fall. This is a game about help and survival in a time and place sinking under the horrors of war.

The Game

BLACKOUT is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), meaning that the rules are inspired by Apocalypse World. Players of that game or any similar games will be familiar with the core mechanics of BLACKOUT, namely that gameplay is governed by discrete rules packets called “moves” which almost always call for a roll of the dice, modified by a character stat, that results in one of three result states (a miss, a partial success, or a full success) which then informs the fiction of the game.

Where the core of characters in many other PbtA games is contained in a character’s playbook, BLACKOUT uses a combination of two playbooks to create a character. One type of playbook, the Identity, describes your character’s nature as a person and provides a baseline of character stats. Examples include “The Working Lass” or “The Old Bird.” The other type of playbook, the Role, describes the organization for which the character has volunteered and provides professional skills and other abilities relevant to rescue work. Examples include “Rescue Services” or “Fire Guard.” By combining a playbook from each set, a complete character is created for use in the game, with many different combinations possible.

The driving force of the game is having disasters occur for the characters to respond to, and these disaster are governed by a central mechanic called “The Raid Clock.” The Raid Clock moves based on various triggers during the game, and a die roll against a target number set by the Raid Clock determines when disaster strikes. The Raid Clock also indicates how bad the disaster is, and therefore how much attention it requires from the characters.

Over the course of the game, characters can suffer not only physical harm, but simply the nature of relief work itself can incur Exhaustion. If left untreated, Exhaustion may lead to a Break, which is some additional burden the character must now shoulder. In contrast, characters may also accomplish Victories for successful work. At the end of the session, Breaks detract from Victories, but any Victories remaining provide narrative rewards which allow players to tell the stories of character’s survival of the night, the Blitz, or even the entire war.

The Shelf

BLACKOUT is currently available for purchase in both print and PDF formats from DriveThruRPG. For other games along similar thematic lines, one can firstly look to other work by the same designer, namely PATROL, a game about the Vietnam War. Additionally, further similar recommendations include Night Witches by Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games, a mission-based campaign game based on an all-woman regiment of Russian bomber pilots in World War II, and The Watch by Anna Kreider and Andrew Medeiros, a fantasy game of women and non-binary folks fighting a war against an invading supernatural force. 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!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Android Shadow of the Beanstalk Review

9 April 2019 - 4:30am

I grew up in the 80s, but I was a latecomer to cyberpunk. I loved Blade Runner, and read a few Philip K. Dick short stories, because at one point in the 80s I think 98% of all movies were adapted from one of his stories (this figure may be slightly exaggerated). But I didn’t read Gibson’s Neuromancer, and I never got into the crop of cyberpunk RPGs that I saw popping up in Dragon Magazine over the years. Shadowrun was that game that my friends learned without me when they went off to college.

In fact, what finally got me into cyberpunk was reading collections of Transmetropolitan in my late 20s. When I later picked up on a few more of the staples of cyberpunk, what struck me about Transmetropolitan was that it could be very cynical and grim about its world, and yet have some glimmers of hope in the stories. Life could be terrible and strange, but it could also still be strange and wonderful.

Having set the parameters of my primary interface into the subsystem of science fiction indexed as cyberpunk, let’s plug into the specific coordinates of my vector for this review run, the Fantasy Flight Genesys supplement Shadow of the Beanstalk, a sourcebook for playing in their Android setting.

How Much Chrome Does It Have?

This review is based on both the PDF of the product as well as the hardcover. The product is 258 pages long, with a two-page index in the back. Both formats are in full color, and there are full page pieces of art introducing each chapter, as well as several half-page images, maps, and illustrations of gear throughout the book. Like other Fantasy Flight products, the artwork is high quality, and many of the images may be familiar, as they appear in multiple product lines associated with the Android IP.

Most of the pages are shades of blue, with darker “file folder” sidebars to call out special information. A few sections, such as the section on the net, have a different color scheme, with the net pages appearing almost black, and the adversaries’ chapter being largely in golds and orange.


The introduction sets the stage for what this book is, what it details, and what else you will need for a campaign. As a supplement to the Genesys RPG, this product is assuming you will have a copy of both the core rules and at least a set of the narrative dice that Genesys utilizes (experience tells me that you may need more than one set).

Fairly early into the introduction, the book suggests that for a more detailed look at the setting, you may want to pick up a copy of the Worlds of Android art and setting book. This immediately made me wonder how “table ready” this book was going to be, but we’ll revisit that later.

The rest of the introduction outlines the core concepts of the setting. Some of this information is delivered as online articles complete with digressions from a character that is currently hacking into the site. The actual date is never mentioned, but the setting revolves around New Angeles, a mega-city in Ecuador dominated by multi-national corporations, and home to a massive space elevator that provides access to the lunar colony of Heinlein and allows for shipping to Mars.

Why is the setting called the Android setting? One of the defining aspects of future society is the invention of androids. Androids are a term used for competing technologies, fully synthetic mechanical constructs called bioroids, and genetically engineered, purpose-built clones, neither of which have full rights as citizens.

While the setting clearly has cyberpunk elements, including multi-national corporations and a world-spanning computer network, the wars, colonies on Mars and the moon, and social issues like clone and bioroid rights also remind me of science fiction stories like The Expanse series of novels.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

Character creation unfolds in a manner similar to the process outlined in the Genesys core rules, but this section addresses changes in the process. The main points of divergence are the setting specific archetypes, careers, skills, and talents, and the introduction of factions and favors.

Factions are important for the favor economy because they will determine who you owe, and who owes you. Favors are divided between small, regular, and big favors, and you can owe bigger favors to get more resources at character creation. It’s not entirely unlike Obligation in FFG’s Star Wars Edge of the Empire, except the discreet favors and their size are tracked, rather than creating an obligation score that can be triggered.

Archetypes include the following character types:

  • Natural (unenhanced humans)
  • Bioroid (synthetic constructs)
  • Clone (purpose-built biologicals)
  • Cyborg (mechanically enhanced humans)
  • G-Mods (genetically enhanced humans)
  • Loonies (humans native to the lunar colonies)

The careers specifically detailed in this book include the following:

  • Academic
  • Bounty Hunter
  • Con Artist
  • Courier
  • Investigator
  • Ristie (rich heirs to the corporate elites)
  • Roughneck (blue collar space workers)
  • Runner (people that stick their brains into computers for fun and profit)
  • Soldier
  • Tech

Since Edge of the Empire is my favorite expression of FFG’s Star Wars RPGs, I’m not surprised that I really like the concept of favors and the rules surrounding them. I did find it a little ironic that the rules note that you can reskin the Animal Companion talent from the core Genesys book to account for drones, but the rules also subdivide the core Genesys computer skill into Hacking and Sysops. While I realize that in the real-world computer skills are definitely more granular than a single skill, I’m not convinced that they need to be broken out for an RPG. There are a few more details on what each skill gets used for later on in the book.

Chapter 2: Equipment and Vehicles

This section has a few more details on the favor economy but also details a slew of cyberpunk style equipment for the player characters to interact with. This chapter is also the home of the single most 90s piece of equipment I’ve ever seen, the charged crystal katana. Most of the weapons skew more towards monofilament blades, flechette guns, mass drivers, and masers.

There is a section that details various substances that may have addictive properties. There is a sidebar that discusses treating this topic with care, and being mindful both of real-world issues and any concerns players may have at the table, and I appreciated that inclusion.

Because this is a Genesys game, various pieces of equipment have hardpoints that allow for equipment to be customized in various ways. If you are familiar with cybernetics from the Star Wars RPGs, one way that cybernetics differ in this setting is that strain threshold is very important to their installation and operation. Augmentations lower strain threshold, limiting the number a character can have. Additionally, various special effects are triggered by spending strain.

The good news is that Shadow of the Beanstalk avoids old school concepts like “humanity” or “essence,” and doesn’t imply that enhanced people lose hold of their humanity with too many augments. There is just a limit to how many major augmentations a character can reasonably utilize. Unfortunately, there are still a few lines of text that imply having an altered emotional state is “creepy,” and the tone feels overly harsh and judgmental.

Chapter 3: The Network 

Since a large portion of the setting is based on cyberpunk vibes, we have a chapter on The Network, and what it looks like to hack into various systems. This chapter gives a history of the global Network, as well as details on evocative things like God Code (programs that spontaneously write themselves in the Network), “ghosts” of runners that lost themselves while submerged in the Network, and religions that have arisen from these quirks of the virtual world.

There are also rules for hacking. This is not shocking for a cyberpunk setting. While they are a little more involved than I would like, a big benefit of how the rules work is that everything is framed in a manner similar to other aspects of the rules. ICE programs have a program strength that operates in a similar manner to character health. Icebreaker programs work in a manner similar to weapons in the “real world.” Remember earlier in the book where they split the computer skills up? If you are intruding on a system, you are using hacking. If you are defending against intruders or acting against someone entering a computer that you are “supposed” to have access to, you use sysops.

What I really appreciate is that there is a simplified version of hacking included in this chapter as well, which the GM is encouraged to use in situations where a more involved run would be cumbersome, which still gives benefits for having icebreakers and ICE installed.

Chapter 4: New Angeles and Heinlein

This section goes into more detail on the setting. While it briefly mentions a few areas outside of New Angeles, the Beanstalk, and Heinlein (the lunar colony of New Angeles), the main focus is on those core areas of the setting.

Each of the main districts of New Angeles is detailed, and each of them is essentially a small city in its own right. The various districts have information on the undercity, plaza, and penthouse levels of the area, and most of them follow a format of presenting general information, then providing a specific example location, and NPCs native to those locations, rather than giving exhaustive details on every major business and location.

In addition to the city districts on Earth, there are sections on Midway Station (the space station halfway up the space elevator that dominates the city), the Challenger Planetoid (a rock towed into geosynchronous orbit to facilitate the shuttles launched from the elevator), and Heinlein, the lunar colony that provides Earth with He-3 from its mines.

Despite mentioning the additional details in the Worlds of Android setting book, there are plenty of setting details in this chapter, with a ton of adventure hooks. There should be more than enough for multiple campaigns worth of material in what has been provided.

While I really like these details, I would much rather have a few more out of setting sidebars discussing potential issues with introducing topics like war, labor disputes, and slave labor that is a constant part of the setting with bioroids, clones, and even AI. Players may even be playing characters that don’t have full rights as people, or characters that are marginalized as being on the losing side of a war, so a little more discussion on safety would have been appreciated.

Chapter 5: Adversaries

The adversaries chapter gives a whole range of stats for security guards, drones, cyborgs, gang members, animals, and criminals that PCs might run into in the course of a game. These are organized in the standard Genesys groupings of minions, rivals, and nemeses, meaning that the NPCs work better in large groups, are fairly similar to PCs, or are more formidable than any single PC, in broad terms.

By far, the best entry is the teacup giraffe. Not because it’s a fearsome beast, and not just because it’s adorable. The Too Cute and Way Too Cute abilities are just too good not to enjoy.

Chapter 6: The Game Master

The Game Master chapter opens by explaining the mindset of people that live in the setting, and how that mindset changes based on the character’s position in society. It also includes advice on descriptions, the importance of social encounters and capitulation, referring to the social encounter rules in the core Genesys rules. It then wraps up with the Android Adventure Builder, a section that has several base jobs, escalations, and climaxes. While the hooks have a fairly linear outline, the escalations and climaxes can be mixed and matched with different hooks to create different adventure progressions.

I normally like a setting book to have a sample adventure, but in this case, I think the Adventure Builder is a solid toolkit for outlining what adventures should look like in the setting, with enough flexibility that it can be used multiple times. What I do think was lacking in this section was a discussion on how groups get together. Most of the hooks broadly assume PCs that are sort of outlaws, maybe mercenaries, but I would have loved to have had a few group templates to give examples of how the disparate archetypes might come to work together.

There is also some discussion on how there isn’t much discrimination based on nationality or ethnicity in the setting, with the exploration of similar topics being focused on android and clone rights, and societal stress between loonies and humans on Earth. That said, there are definitely some nationality-based stereotypes that echo in the setting, including Russian, German, and Japanese companies and neighborhoods that both feel a little too one dimensional in places, and belie the concept that only the manufactured prejudices are present in the setting.

There are a handful of paragraphs about creating micro-cultures in the setting, neighborhoods that are based on cultural backgrounds, religious affiliations, or other signifiers. There are examples of these in the setting chapter, and the book encourages players to use those as examples to make more, but three paragraphs of discussion feel really thin to fully convey the care you would have to use in creating a micro-culture based on any existing modern-day signifiers. I feel like this section would have been better served with advice on keeping these micro-cultures based on unique setting elements or exercising care and collaboration with those that understand the real-world foundations of such cultures.

Strong Signal While the setting draws heavily from cyberpunk tropes, it also draws broadly and allows for a wide variety of campaign styles. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

While the setting draws heavily from cyberpunk tropes, it also draws broadly and allows for a wide variety of campaign styles. The setting information is concise enough for campaigns, but evocative enough to inspire further research. In general, rules for limiting cybernetics avoid some of the pitfalls of other cyberpunk games, and the mechanics for gaining benefits give similar items in this setting a different feel than, for example, cybernetics in the FFG Star Wars games. There is some very solid advice on structuring jobs in a manner appropriate to the genre, and while the opening scenarios are very specific, the twists to be introduced later are broadly applicable. This is a deep mine for campaign material.


The only real content warning in the entire book is about addiction, but the setting has many points that could cause safety concerns, including politics, religion, class, and national origins coming into conflict. The section on creating micro-cultures introduces the concept of creating a micro-culture and is especially thin and potentially fraught. While it is great that the setting is wide open for many kinds of stories, there isn’t much time spent examining how to bring together disparate character types, or examples of what different teams of player characters may look like, beyond assuming they will be criminals doing jobs, defaulting to one of the most common cyberpunk tropes.

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.

The setting really speaks to me. It manages to be grim and dystopian without being so cynical that it doesn’t allow for some feeling of hope. It leaves room for more heroic goals, instead of painting a life of endless jobs for the sake of survival. It does fall into the same pattern that many setting books fall into, presenting the setting without diverting enough to discuss how the various parts can be used at the table.

The GM advice is solid but could be fleshed out more, and for a cyberpunk setting, there isn’t nearly enough discussion on safety and the potential problems that could come up when introducing elements of the setting at the table. Because of that, anyone bringing this to the table should know that they will be doing the safety work on their own.

What are your favorite cyberpunk settings and games? What cyberpunk media informs your enjoyment of the genre? We would love to hear about it in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Trying out The Alexandrian’s Urbancrawl System: Designing the City of Juntial Part 2

8 April 2019 - 5:00am

So to recap from last time: I was excited about a system for creating urbancrawls outlined at The Alexandrian and was also inspired by the feeling of the Steve Jackson Sorcery! gamebooks and decided to give the urbancrawl system a shot to design a “strange magic” city.


We left off last time with a list of districts, a definition of what a neighborhood was and a list of layers we were going to use. This time we’re tackling a rough map and a neighborhood list. Since there are plenty of neighborhoods, I’m tackling the four smaller ones this time and detailing on the districts for the two largest. I’ll cover the neighborhoods in those next time.

Here’s the (very rough) map. It’s just a set of neighborhoods surrounded by the city walls an bordered by the wall, the five major rivers, the major roadways, and the shores of the central lake. Note that none of those have names at this point. This is just one step up from a sketch, and then only because I figured using software would result in a slightly more readable result than hand drawing it.  Districts are color coded, Neighborhoods are labeled with a key. We’re also not going to name them at this point either. That’s something we can handle later and something that takes up an awful lot of brainspace and time while being subject to change if the neighborhood map or list changes under it.

  • B – Bazaar District: Since the city is a trading hub, this is the main district. It encompases three of the five water entrances to the city, three land entrances, and much of the lakeshore. Though it comprises two non-contiguous pieces of land, it is considered a single district because the palace (P1) and temple (T2) neighborhoods that separate the two parts are also mainly economic, and the two parts can be easily bridged by the smaller roads that circle the lake shore and by ferry and skiff across the lake.
    The neighborhoods in this district contain many densely packed shops of all descriptions around their exterior. Inside are mostly middle class dwellings and a fair amount of local services, amenities, and green areas.
  • C – Crafters District: This single neighborhood district is home to the most noisome crafting shops in the city: tanners, papermakers, animal processors, alchemists, smelters, etc… The district is located on the wall to keep unpleasant smells and smoke to a minimum. They have rerouted a distributary of the river that borders their neighborhood  and use it to fuel their industries, dumping wastewater into outflowing streamlets that in theory exit beyond the wall. This district is smoggy, and the air smells and even tastes strange. This neighborhood did suffer some damage from the incident in the ruined district. It has been mostly repaired though a few buildings are still missing.
    Landmark: the central aqueduct that feeds the neighborhood with fresh water, a marvel of engineering and stonework
  • P – Palace District: This district is where the city’s nobility and government services are located. The district is is one of the cleanest and best guarded districts. It is patrolled by the city watch, a well funded and trained militia that ostensibly protects the entire city, but focuses mostly on the palace and bazaar districts.  The district is elevated above the rest of the city with a level of crushed stone that keeps the ground dry and solid. Buildings are well constructed. Neighborhoods are ringed by shops or services and the inner areas are filled with upper middle class dwellings, large noble estates, and copious gardens, water features and statuary.
    • P1 – Palace Trade Neighborhood: The government hold a monopoly on certain valuable commodities. The stores that ring this neighborhood deal in many of those goods and are spacious, well guarded, and heavily constructed. Business owners have official government scales and purchases often require official permits, identification, and forms signed in triplicate. In addition to these goods, this neighborhood also houses official government buildings where you can find government services, paperwork available to the public. The inner parts of the neighborhood generally holds housing for government workers, militia families and the occasional middle class citizen or minor noble house. Public spaces are well tended and fair in number, if not too flashy.
      Landmark: The transfixed column – a stained marble column with a spear embedded deeply in it. Said to be the last stand of a squad of soldiers during an attack in the early days of the city. One of their archers was pinned to the column by the spear and continued to fight.
    • P2 – Palace Government Neighborhood: This neighborhood houses the city’s government buildings, all of which are large and impressive. This includes several courthouses, headquarters and barracks for the city watch,  the palace of the current lord of the city: the mummified remains of an earlier lord, and the council buildings: where the small inner circle of the highest nobles interpret the will of the lord of the city. Inside the neighborhood is homes for mid level noble families and the highest castes of government workers and civilians. Public spaces are many and impressive.
      Landmark: Palace of the mummy lord – a large opulent palace the houses the lard of the city and his many caretakers and servants who upkeep the grounds to the highest standards.
    • P3 – Palace Noble Neighborhood: The businesses that ring this neighborhood sell goods and services of the highest quality. These buildings are large and crafted and decorated richly. The residential area is a mix of fair sized apartments for individual nobles and walled estates for families. Public areas are plentiful and impressive, high quality statuary,  water features and gardens. The city watch is ever-present and visitors without business are largely unwelcome.
      Landmark: The garden maze – a large impressive garden with enchanted plots that keep perfect conditions for an impressive collection of plants from all over the world. The gardens have many brick path mazes and in the center is a hedge maze rumored to hold even more impressive specimens.
  • R – Ruined District: This district used to be home to a magic university and related facilities, but is now largely ruined due to a massive accident of an unknown nature. Buildings had once been built of traditional stone and wood construction, but many are collapsed, burned down or dangerous. No one goes into the district if it is possible to avoid it.
    • R1 – Fallen Neighborhood: Though many of the buildings in this neighborhood are badly damaged, people still live and work here. At one point this neighborhood sold mostly necessities and paraphernalia needed for study at the now destroyed university. Now the few staff and students that survived pedal what useful goods and services in the broken buildings of the neighborhood. The residential portion is shabby and in poor condition as well, and public areas are damaged and often stripped of anything of value. One area which is not lacking is security. Especially at night, all buildings that are still standing are barred tightly.
      Landmark: The Study Hall – One of the more popular college haunts this inn and tavern managed to survive the accident fairly unscathed. It is now home to a large number of squatters and is heavily fortified with all doors and windows boarded up or blocked with furniture. It forms a good forward base, if shabby and lawless for forays into the ruins.
    • R2 – The Crater: This neighborhood is mostly collapsed and or burned. A fine ash settles over ruined and hollow buildings. The outer ring is mostly standing but badly damaged. The inside is mostly piles of ruined construction materials and burned out husks. Since a large portion of the neighborhood was interconnected university buildings this is now mostly one massive ruin full of hazards and remnants of school facilities. No one lives here and few venture inside. Whatever the accident was that destroyed the neighborhood has left strange and dangerous things in its wake.
      Landmark: The Crater – in the center of the maze of ruined university buildings lies a huge still smouldering crater. There may be clues to what happened still here.
  • S – Slums: This is actually two districts, the northern and southern slums. Like all other districts, the outer areas of slum neighborhoods also host shops, but the goods to be found here are usually inferior or of a questionable nature. Residential areas are overcrowded and dirty. Public areas are all but nonexistent. Buildings are mostly made of wood and are in poor condition. In many places, structures are crowded close together or touching.
  • T -Temple District: This District houses the city’s temples and other religious institutions. Like the Palace District, it sits on a raised bed of crushed stone that keeps the ground dry and solid. It is also clean and well guarded. The temple district is patrolled by its own guard force the temple guard a military and religious militia which enforces not only the law but also a minimal level of “proper” moral behavior as interpreted by the most popular and wealthy religions. Those who are disrespectful or blasphemous may find themselves on the wrong side of the law in this district. Buildings in this district are well constructed, usually of stone and often decorated with religious motifs. Residential areas mostly house priests, other temple employees and the occasional upper middle class civilian or minor noble. Public areas are often impressive displays of religious figures or places for quiet contemplation.
    • T1 – Temples of the Small Gods: This neighborhood houses many small temples from less popular religions. The actual stature of the god themselves within their religion is less important than how many worshipers they have. Many of these temples are small buildings. Others are simple open air shrines. Others are simply a bust and a small space for offerings. Since the neighborhood serves so many religions, it is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. People from many different cultures can be found worshiping their respective gods here. The residential areas of this neighborhood feature many small crowded apartments. They house not only the local priests but also many of the minor religious personnel from other neighborhoods. Public areas are as diverse as the temples, worshipers and priests themselves. There are gardens for quiet contemplation, feast halls, dance circles and more.
      Landmark: Shrine to the Unknown God – tucked away in an alleyway is a simple untended stone bowl where those whose gods are not represented elsewhere in the city can come to make offerings.
    • T2 – Temple Trade Neighborhood: This neighborhood holds a number of shops for religious needs. Everything from vestments, to holy symbols, to sacrifices can be found here. Buildings are usually either dedicated to a single god of pantheon and bear their symbols or are festooned with symbols of dozens of religions. Though these structures are build solidly and highly decorated, only the ones dedicated to the most popular gods are of any large size. Residential areas are usually quiet and well guarded. Public areas are understated but plentiful.
      Landmark: The Pens – one of the easier sets of shops to hear and smell is the pens where temple merchants sell various blessed animals to be used in sacrifices.
    • T3 – Temples of the Large Gods: This neighborhood houses much larger temples dedicated to the most popular pantheons and gods. The buildings are ornate convered in sculpure and inlay appropriate to their religion and guarded day and night. The structures here rival even the Palace Noble Neighborhood. The residential areas house the priests, their assistants and a few noble families and are the equal of the quarters of minor nobles, although there are a wide range from simple dwellings to small palaces depending on the religion in question. Public areas are as varied as the religions they serve but are many and impressive.
      Landmark: The white-gold pyramid – the size of a small temple, a pyramid sits in a garden a short distance off one of the main roads. It looks like a temple and is richly adorned with polished marble and gold leaf, but it may be statuary, as there appears to be no way to enter it.
  • Where are the docks?: So last time I mentioned a Docks district that was actually neighborhoods around the water entrances in the city and the lake shore. I’m still deciding if this will be neighborhoods proper or just layers within appropriate neighborhoods. It has the potential to add a fair number of neighborhoods unless handled correctly.

Next time: I finish the other half of the neighborhoods, make a final decision on the docks. After that, we start populating layers.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Climbing The Dice Chain

5 April 2019 - 5:34am

In the old school-flavored Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, they use a lot of “funny” dice. And I don’t just mean the d20 that your uncle Tom can’t stop fiddling with, I’m talking about d16s, d14s, d7s, even the dreaded d24. DCC uses these dice to describe improvement and hindrances. As your warrior advances in level (for example), the die you roll for mighty deeds grows from a d3 to d4, d5, and so on until d10. Similarly, the die you roll for critical hits also advances up this “dice chain.”

The dice chain, in full, runs like so:

d3, d4, d5, d6, d7, d8, d10, d12, d14, d16, d20, d24, d30

As you can see, the gradations between these dice are sometimes pretty granular (d4 to d5, say), but with a little creativity, we can apply the same concept — shifting up or down the chain — to our non-DCC games, even without the specialty dice.


Use the dice chain to make your players feel powerful (or like the world is out to get them). Using standard dice, our dice chain might look like:

d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20

In other words, the dice that come in a standard set from any FLGS. Here are just a few creative applications that you can use at the table to surprise your players. Finding that Advantage in D&D 5e is getting a little rote? Give your players the option of using their Advantage to go up a die size instead, whether that’s on damage or attack rolls! Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

  1. A second-level character has 2d6 hit dice. After ridding a holy abbey of a demonic infestation, when the character heals, they instead roll 2d8 hit dice. (When the player looks up at you, puzzled, simply inform them that the gods of the abbey thank them.)
  2. A player describes their warrior’s mighty swing via chandelier, arcing across a castle ballroom and cutting the rope at the last second, crushing three of their foes and then rolling across the tile, unscathed. When they roll to hit, call for a d24 (or d30!) roll instead of the usual d20. (Similarly, if you’re playing a game that uses standard damage based on characters instead of on particular weapons, that character can roll a higher base damage.)
  3. In a Powered by the Apocalypse game, after a particularly epic moment narrated by a player, have them roll one d6 and one d8 (instead of the usual 2d6) for whatever move they find applicable. (Some moves in certain Dungeon World playbooks play with this idea already.)
  4. A character obtains a magical artifact that affects one of their rolls: now, whenever they roll damage, their weapon’s base die is improved by one; or, their hit dice (associated with health) are always improved by one — so long as they have the item (call it the “Amulet of Improved Combat,” or the “Tiara of Healing,” respectively). This gives you a powerfully flavorful tool to toy with — players won’t give up something so powerful easily, and you can build whole adventures around it.
  5. Finding that Advantage in D&D 5e is getting a little rote? Give your players the option of using their Advantage to go up a die size instead, whether that’s on damage or attack rolls!

My own instinct would be to use this idea to make characters feel special and powerful, as opposed to using it to apply restrictions, but of course you could come up with creative examples of hindrances just as easily. Just remember, if you’re breaking the rules as blatantly as this, your players are going to know, so make sure to keep things fair (or at least seemingly so). (If you want access to those crazy dice, or even more granular options, you can use any internet-based dice roller to the same effect.

You find yourselves in the caves of healing, which the monks have used for generations to treat their sick and injured. While you explore these caves, all of your hit dice are improved by one die (d4 to d6, d6 to d8, etc.).

With an example like this one, your troupe of adventurers has suddenly become much heartier, and you can throw at them some higher-level monsters that they normally wouldn’t have encountered for several more levels.

As the example above also illustrates, however, be aware that if you’re going to use the dice chain in a meticulously balanced game (like D&D 5e, for instance), it’s going to break things a bit; but, if you’re okay with some silly rules experimentation, this can be a fun way to turn the tables on player expectations for a one shot or single session.

What do you think? Have you played games that climb or descend the dice chain during play? Give this a try and let us know how it goes!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #63 – Meet a New Gnome: Daniel Kwan

4 April 2019 - 5:19am

Join Chris and get to know one of the newest Gnomes, Daniel, in this “Meet a New Gnome” episode of Gnomecast! Learn about Daniel’s gaming origin story, his current projects, and his future plans and Gnome Stew articles! Will new gnome Daniel be able to avoid the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #63 – Meet a New Gnome: Daniel Kwan

Mentioned on the show is Gaslands from Osprey Publishing. You can find the game here.

Learn more about Daniel’s work at Level Up Gaming and the Dungeons & Dragons program at Royal Ontario Museum. Learn more about Daniel’s games at Dundas West Games.

Follow and learn more about Asians Represent! at @aznsrepresent on Twitter or Asians Represent! on Facebook.

Follow Daniel at @danielhkwan on Twitter or find him at his website,

Follow Chris at @Thelight101 on Twitter.

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, 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!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Airy Peaks – The Town of Foot. Part 2 (05)

3 April 2019 - 7:00am

The town of Foot is the home base of any Airy Peaks campaign. It’s a place for adventurers to rest between delves into the Peaks, pick up rumors, spend their coin, make alliances and enemies with other adventurer’s, find hirelings, and get caught up in an intrigue or two, especially since it’s the home of the Cult of the White Fangs, the Church of Purity, and a nest of vampires. The characters might even meet a young lady who is really a golem and yet so much more.

Why the Town of Foot Exists

This village is only here because it’s part of Eyetog’s plot to lure adventurer’s into the Airy Peaks and it’s where the White Fangs have cultivated the Cult of the White Fang. (See Part 2 of this series) Once the cult and the town has served their purposes they’ll be wiped off the map by the denizens of the Airy Peaks.

Now none of the townsfolk know that, not even members of the Cult of the White Fangs. What people believe is a wizard put an enchantment on the town so that no monster can set Foot within it. There are wild rumors of where the barrier exists, how far it stretches, and days of the year when it stops functioning. It’s all hogwash, but if anyone looks there is a magical aura around the town. No one is really sure what it’s for.

Important Places and People in Town

1) The Scales Inn and Tavern. The three story Inn and tavern in the middle of town is a local legend. Run by the motherly Jana Kane and worked by her small crew consisting of a couple of locals who clean and help keep the place up and her cook Jorgen Sur who supposedly was an adventure who traversed a large part of the Peaks. It’s the best place for a meal, a rumor, or to hire someone to go into the Peaks.

2) The Alchemist Shop. A shop where adventurer’s can buy and sell alchemical potions and sell or buy reagents. It’s run by Mora Verve, an older yellow skinned woman. She’s a no nonsense kind of person and part of the town council. Her assistant is Indras Verve, her very pale skinned and lovely daughter who often wears highly concealing clothing that only shows off her hands and head. The reasons Indras wears such clothing, even in the hottest days of summer, is because she’s a construct given life. Mora made a deal with the White Fangs of the Peaks to serve without question and in return the White Fangs gave Mora a method to create the daughter she could never have.

3) The Blacksmith Shop. This sprawling building is run by the dwarf Kurnig Tor his human wife Barta Tor, three sons Karn, Torin, and Leif and two daughters Marta and Beryl. The sounds of hammer on anvil can be heard most of the morning and into the evening until dusk. They repair, sell, and buy armor, weapons, farm implements, and anything else that can be forged. Kurnig is also a member of the town council.

4) The Jail. Campbell Sureman is more of a diplomat than a law enforcement person. He and the deputies, known as The Watchmen’s Eyes or The Eye’s for short, often are throwing drunks in the one cell jail which is all it gets used for. The rest of his job is talking to adventurers and getting them to behave or leave town before he has to let the adventurer’s police themselves. Which he does. Foot isn’t a lawful place. Foot is about keeping the peace.

5) The Red Water Bathhouse. This little luxury is a wonderful place that adventurer’s can go and get clean, pamper themselves, and enjoy a bit of relaxation. It’s run by the lovely and pleasant Effie Carson. She’s all about hospitality but anyone who’s does anything to cross her or try and cause her harm with find them surprised when she melts their face off with a fire spell.

6) The Scarlet Lady. This river boat appeared one night in the Red Lake and that evening the unnatural beauty Ms. Ursula Scarlett and her lovely ladies and gentlemen were there to service the adventurer’s of Foot. This boat known as The Scarlet Lady leaves dock at midnight every evening and returns just after dawn every morning. An adventurer can find pleasures of the flesh, games of chance, beverages of all kinds, and any other vice one might be interested in.

It should also be mentioned that Ursula and her people are all vampires or servants of the vampires. They’ve made a deal with the Cult of the White Fang to be here in exchange for the secrets they learn about the adventurer’s who delve deeply into the Peaks.

(Not on Map) The Church of Purity. The Church of Purity are a group of people who hate everyone and everything that isn’t human. They work the farms and provide most of the food that the people of Foot eat. Reverend Cross is the leader of the church. He’s a tall gaunt man with grey hair and a pair of spectacles. He is often wearing black with a white collar and carries a leather book to the god called The Scar. He has the eyes of a zealot but is polite in public, even to non-humans, while the rumors say he’s vicious and brutal to all non-humans where eyes can’t see him inflict terrible pain and eventually death on those he considers tainted races

That’ll wrap up this installment of the Airy Peaks. In the coming articles I’ll be fleshing out more of the town, talking about some of the adventurer’s that are in and around the Airy Peaks, dishing about some more of the services, and taking a closer look at some more of the locations and people of the Peaks.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The April Foolio of Fiends

1 April 2019 - 5:30am

The April Foolio of Fiends! Arthur will try not to eat you, at least not on purpose.

Happy April First, everyone!

We here at Gnome Stew are dedicated to bringing you the finest of gaming material, so we are proud to present The April Foolio of Fiends, an astounding collection of ridiculous monsters in a variety of systems. Feel free to use and abuse these foolish folks in your own games. We don’t condone cruelty to monsters, but they’re just as eager to have fun with you, so have at it!

This is just a taste of all the foolishly fun fiends we’ve created for you. The full collection of critters is available in a pay-what-you-want PDF at DriveThru RPG. The best part is that all proceeds are going to benefit Child’s Play, a game industry charity dedicated to improving the lives of children in a network of over 100 hospitals worldwide. You get to have fun with these ridiculous rascals and we all get to help make the lives of some kids a little brighter.

Mapless Fury

By Camdon Wright, Art by Toast

In a world full of monsters, traps, portals to unknown dimensions, and inns full of quest giving magicians sometimes you get a little turned around. Only the most foul of creature would take advantage of these moments of assistance to send you in the wrong direction. The mapless fury has no mercy when it comes to disrupting your travel plans.

Seeming able to point in all directions at once, a mapless fury will do its best to send you in the opposite direction of your intended goal. If you return to ask for clarification it will send you in an equally wrong but brand new path claiming to have forgotten to tell you about a crucial turn. Mapless furies seem very friendly and helpful.

Which way to go?

Medium Undead, Chaotic Neutral
Armor Class 11
Hit Points 71 (13d8 + 13)
Speed 30 ft.

STR 11 (+0), DEX 12 (+1), CON 12 (+1)
INT 19 (+4), WIS 17 (+3), CHA 17 (+3)

Saving Throws: INT +7, WIS +6, CHA +6
Skills: Arcana +7, Deception +6, Insight +6, Perception +6, Persuasion +6, Stealth +4
Senses: Darkvision 120 ft., Passive Perception 16
Challenge: 1

Special traits

Always Helpful: All Persuasion checks are made with advantage.


Dominate Travel: The mapless fury chooses one creature that can understand spoken language, and begins to give them directions. The target must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw.
On a failed save, the creature will follow whatever directions the mapless fury has given them for one hour. The affected creature will not follow any directions that would cause direct harm to themselves or their party like walking off of a cliff.
The affected creature makes a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw at the end of the hour. Failed save: The creature continues on following directions given for 24 hours. All spell effects dissipate at the end of that 24 hours.
After a successful save, the creature is no longer controlled, but is confused for 15 minutes about how they got where they are.

Disorienting Touch: Will only attack when defending itself as it is only trying to be helpful. Attack +3 to hit, 11 (2d8+3) psychic damage.

Mimic Beer

by J.T. Evans, Art by Crystal Neagley

This nefarious creature slips into taverns, alehouses, and other establishments that serve fine drinks. The mimic beer will peruse nearby labels of dwarven stouts, halfing porters, gnomish lagers, and elven pilsners until it finds an appropriate draft to take the place of.

Unsuspecting barkeeps will pass the mimic beer down the bar to a hapless patron. When the patron brings the drink to their mouth to enjoy a quality brew, the mimic beer will explode into shards of glass in an attempt to kill or maim the patron.

While relatively weak, the sudden attack of a mimic beer can bring down even the heartiest consumer of alcoholic beverages, especially if they’ve already downed a few draughts earlier in the night.

Though attacks by mimic beer are rare, they become much more frequent during the creatures’ mating season, a time often referred to as Oct-faux-beer-fest.

But is it an ale, a lager, or a stout?

High Concept: Fake Beer
Trouble: The Trick’s On You!
Other Aspects: Perfect Replication, Tastes Great, Less Filling
Scale: Good (+3)
Good (+3): Fight, Deceive
Fair (+2): Notice, Will
Average (+1): Burglary, Stealth
Reproduce Label: Once per day, the mimic beer can perfectly reproduce the label from a nearby bottle of brew. Once the label is set for the day, the mimic beer can’t change its label until the next day.
Explosive Attack: As the first attack during a scene, the mimic beer can gain a +2 Fight on its attack and place either the aspect of Shocked or Outraged on the target.
Physical Stress: Ο Ο
Mental Stress: Ο Ο Ο
Size: The size of a large bottle of beer.



by Angela Murray, Art by Nuactna

That is one very annoyed cat.

A mad scientist once thought he had solved his city’s stray dog problem with a robot programmed to round them up humanely. But then, like most interesting robots, it got some ideas of its own. This nab-catcher-bot has gone off-script and decided that they needed to help in the canine revolution that only they see happening.

As a result, this nab-catcher-bot has been causing chaos throughout the city as they round up all cats they find, as well as the occasional squirrel and raccoon. Thankfully the birds don’t seem to qualify.

Where it’s taking all these annoyed felines (and other critters) no one is sure.

NAB-CATCHER-BOT (Dungeon World)
(Solitary, Medium, Robotic)

8 HP
2 armor

Taser Net (d6 damage)
Reach, Stuns

Special Qualities: Metal chassis

To round up furry things
Ignore original programming
Assist all good puppers

Anger Drake

by Chuck Lauer, Art by KC Preston

A semi-intelligent, distant relative to the couatl, the anger drake is native to similar ecology, but is much smaller and much, much cuter. Though not able to speak, anger drakes seem to understand the concepts of goodness and law well enough to follow them broadly.

Prone to flitting around humanoids playfully in order to gain their attention and affection, the anger drake makes a distinctive sound that has been described variously as “like a purr dipped in honey,” “a unicorn yawning after a nap” or “the most obnoxious thing I have ever heard. How can you stand that? Kill it. Kill it now.”

For whatever reason, characters and NPCs of neutral or evil alignment find the mere presence of an anger drake to be insufferable to the point of self-destruction, and will often go to extreme measures to just get rid of the things. While anger drakes understand physical aggression, they appear to be driven to find the good in even the most violent individuals, never attacking, even in self-defense, and only flying away when asked politely by a good character or when dropped to fewer than 20 hit points.

But it’s soooo cute…

Small celestial, lawful good
Armor Class 19 (natural armor)
Hit Points 80
Speed 30 ft, fly 90 ft

STR 3 (-4), DEX 20 (+5), CON 17 (+3)
INT 6 (-2), WIS 20 (+5), CHA 20 (+5)

Saving Throws: CON +5, WIS +7, CHA +7
Damage Resistances: Radiant
Damage Immunities: Psychic, bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Senses: truesight 120 ft., passive Perception 15
Languages: None
Challenge: 3

Special Traits

Innate Spellcasting: The anger drake’s
spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 15). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring only verbal components (specifically, its distinctive cry).

At will: detect evil and good, detect magic
3/day: bless, create food and water, cure wounds, lesser restoration, protection from poison, sanctuary, shield
1/day: dream, greater restoration, scrying

Aura of Affection or Obnoxiousness: Each creature within 100 feet of the anger drake
that can see or hear it must make a DC 15 Charisma saving throw each round or be affected by the Aura of Affection or
Characters of a Good alignment find the creature adorable, and cannot make any attacks, direct or indirect, against it.
Characters of a Neutral or Evil alignment find the anger drake irritating beyond the point of reason, and can take no action other than attacking the creature until it is driven away or asked to leave.

Grumbleface (Chitterface)

by Jared Rascher, Art by Toast

The Grumbleface/Chitterface is a fey that has attached itself to mortal rituals surrounding coffee. As with most faeries, the mortal behavior being mimicked is, slightly, exaggerated.

In the morning, it begins in its chitterface form, until it is either asked a question that requires cognitive energy to answer, or until it is exposed to sunlight. Once either of these triggers happen, the chitterface transforms into the grumbleface.

The grumbleface is not nearly as aggressive as it sounds, but its bellowing about needed coffee and need to avoid human contact is enough to cause stress and concern in any near it. If it goes too long without coffee, it may begin to actively destroy any work it previously did that has not been completed.

The grumbleface cannot be changed until it has had “enough coffee,” at which point, it transforms back into its chitterface form. The chitterface form is far less intimidating, but shortly after transforming, the chitterface will let out a burst of questions about daily projects and ancillary tasks that might be equally overwhelming.

In some instances, the grumbleface/chitterface transformation will trigger in the afternoon, often triggered by “one too many stupid questions.”

Get that mid-level manager a coffee, quick!

High Concept: Highly Motivated Faerie Creature
Trouble: High Energy Can Be High Maintenance
Other Aspects: Not Even Supposed to be Here Today, This Needs to be Redone from Scratch, Wait—I Have An Idea!
Great (+4): Intimidate (Grumbleface)/
Organization (Chitterface)
Fair (+2): Throw Paperwork (Grumbleface)/Navigate Co-workers (Chitterface)
They Have a Point (Grumbleface): Whenever the grumbleface causes stress with an intimidation attack, they can also give that character a “They Have A Point” aspect with a free invoke. If the character with this aspect spends their turn drinking coffee, they may remove this aspect and the free invoke.
Making Up for Lost Time (Chitterface): Whenever the grumbleface transforms into its chitterface from, the chitterface immediately makes an area attack on everyone in its area and all adjacent areas, using its Organization skill. This causes stress to everyone that fails to defend against the attack, as they cannot answer questions fast enough to get the chitterface up to speed.
The chitterface does not have traditional stress boxes, only a set of countdown boxes.

Countdown (Enough Coffee) Ο Ο Ο Ο
Trigger (All Boxes): Character has made an overcome action to determine what kind of coffee the grumbleface needs and how best to deliver it.
Outcome: The grumbleface transforms into a chitterface

Countdown (One Too Many Stupid Questions) Ο Ο Ο Ο
Trigger (All Boxes): Someone asks the chitterface a question that is obvious or has nothing to do with the current situation, and another character has failed in an overcome action to determine how to answer the superfluous question.
Outcome: The chitterface transforms into a grumbleface.


by Jen Adcock, Art by Laura Sorenson

Yeah, it’s all the things.


(Large, Solitary, Magical, Intelligent)

16 HP
5 armor

Bite (2d12+5 damage, 3 piercing)
Reach, Forceful

Special Qualities:
Entrancing look, Shooting tail spikes

To charm prey
Act with disdain


Little Bunny Tooth Tooth

by Matt Neagley, Art by Crystal Neagley

Little Bunny Tooth Tooth
hopping through the forest,
scooping up the field mice
and knocking out their teeth.

Down came the Good Fairy and said:

“Little Bunny Tooth Tooth,
I don’t want to see you
scooping up the field mice
and knocking out their teeth.
I’m going to give you a chance to change,
and if you don’t, I’m going to feature you in
a book of silly monsters.”

But the very next day…

Little Bunny Tooth Tooth
hopping through the village,
Visiting the children
and knocking out their teeth.

Down came the Good Fairy and said:
“Little Bunny Tooth Tooth,
I don’t want to see you
bothering the children
by knocking out their teeth.
I gave you a chance to change,
and now I’m going to feature you in a book
of silly monsters.”

But that very night…

Little Bunny Tooth Tooth
skulking through the forest
found a little cottage
And stole some pearly teeth.
Then out came the Good Fairy and said:
“Little Bunny Toof Toof,
I don’t like you attitude.
You’re such a little cretin,
Give me back my teef!”

And then she put him in a book of silly monsters.

Well, that tooth was kind of hurting…

Tiny fiend, chaotic evil
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 23 (8d4 + 3)
Speed 40 ft.

STR 15 (+2), DEX 17 (+3), CON 13 (+1)
INT 11 (+0), WIS 12 (+1) CHA 14 (+2)

Skills: Deception +4, Stealth +5
Senses: passive Perception 11
Languages: Infernal, Sylvan, Common
Challenge: 1 (200)

Special traits
That Rabbit’s Dynamite: Whenever Little Bunny Tooth Tooth’s final attack roll is 3 higher than it needs to be to hit a target, the target must make a DEX or CON save, DC 13 or Little Bunny Tooth Tooth rips out 1d4 of their teeth. If the target has a full helm or other such protection, Little Bunny Tooth Tooth must score a critical hit to rip out teeth. (Humans have 32 teeth. Dogs have 42, Horses have 40. Warning! Do not Google pictures of horse teeth unless you have a paper due soon and want to be unable to sleep.)
Dentamancy: Little Bunny Tooth Tooth starts each encounter with 1d8 teeth in his bag of teeth and gathers more with his That Rabbit’s Dynamite ability. He can expend up to one tooth a round (he holds it up and it rots away) as a bonus action to gain a hero point.

Bag Swing/Rabbit Punch Melee Weapon: Attack +5 to hit, reach 5 ft. one target. Hit: 10 (3d4 +3) Bludgeoning damage. This attack may trigger Little Bunny Tooth Tooth’s That Rabbit’s Dynamite ability.

Hermit Mermaid

by Chris Sniezak, Art by Toast

The hermit mermaid is a mer-creature that finds living creatures that are large enough to kill and then occupy by using their bodies as a propulsion engine within the water. They most commonly utilize fish as their tails, because they are excellent propulsion and the mouths are often easy to slide into. Because of this, they are regularly mistaken for your coral variety merfolk. Though, the dead fish eyes on their bodies are often a dead giveaway to their true nature.

When they’re not attached to a creature their lower bodies are a mass of nerve endings that probe and writhe in the water. The bioelectric currents they send out are what they use to kill their prey before sliding inside the carcass and taking it over. When in a body they are carnivores and will eat any fresh meat they come across and have a special fondness for humanoids.

Once in a body they exist within it until they grow out of it. The hermit mermaids never stop growing as long as they keep finding larger and larger bodies to exist within. There’s even a rumor of a hermit  mermaid who inhabits a kraken’s body.

A hermit mermaid’s stats depend a lot on what it’s lower body is. You’ll be choosing between sets of numbers to make this monster fit the flavor you decide for your hermit mermaid.

Wouldn’t wearing a shark hurt?

Medium humanoid, neutral
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 28 (8d8 – 8)
Speed 0 ft., Swim. 15 ft

STR 10 (+0), DEX 12 (+1), CON 9 (-1)
INT 15 (+2), WIS 14 (+2), CHA 16 (+3)

Senses: Darkvision 120ft., passive perception 12
Languages: common, primordial
Challenge: 3 (450)

Special Traits
Plug and Play: When the hermit mermaid has a dead body it can can take a minute to enter that dead body and gain the following:

  • The higher of the AC, movement, Str, Dex, and Con.
  • Any Physical special abilities of the body that make sense for it having been took over. Of course anything to do with the mouth or the brain is just out since the creature is dead and the hermit mermaid inhabits the mouth.
  • Add the former creatures maximum HP to the hermit mermaid’s total HP. When taking damage the HP gained from the creature are the first lost.
  • Add any attacks that make sense.
  • If the hermit mermaid leaves the body it loses all of the benefits.

Punch: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 2 (1d4) bludgeoning.
Shocking Neromass: Melee Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 21 (6d6) lightning damage and the target must make a DC 13 constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of the hermit mermaid’s next turn. The hermit mermaid can only use this attack when they’re not utilizing a dead body.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Reviewing Safety In Games

29 March 2019 - 4:30am

The discussion on table culture in roleplaying games often turns to safety tools. This was not always the case, and it is a welcome and needed development. The discussion about safety tools, however, is often had outside of any discussion that is presented within the text of a game. If you have purchased some of the most popular RPGs on the market right now, and that is your only exposure to roleplaying games, you may not have seen a dedicated section discussing table safety specifically for that game.

The World That Was

You may have seen table or player management sections. You may have seen sections on best practices and even the importance of general empathy at the game table. But most of the biggest players do not have sections in their books discussing safety tools, nor do they have sections that call out content in their games that might cause problems or stress for some players. Many times the advice given to game moderators is not geared towards alleviating potential problems with the content and themes of the game itself.

I’m not specifically calling out those publishers, although it would be great to normalize safety discussions and content warnings in games. I bring this up because many of the biggest game publishers are working with intellectual property that has been in existence for decades. The unfortunate truth is that while some game innovations can be revolutionary, many aspects of the RPG industry are still governed by inertia, and it will take effort to move aspects of gaming in another direction. The inertia at the upper end of the roleplaying hobby is to let individual tables “sort it out.”

I have started to include more discussion on safety and content warnings in my reviews. This didn’t occur to me when I first started doing reviews. It was very easy for me to move in the direction I had always moved in. I was suffering from my own inertia. I knew what affected me in games. I knew how the tables I had gamed with for years reacted to certain topics. I did not attempt to take myself out of my own perspective in order to see where other problems might develop.

I have included in my reviews which games have sections on safety or content warnings, and when they do not. In many cases, I still believe that many games without safety sections or content warnings are worth purchasing and playing, but without discussing safety, a modern game designer is either assuming that no one will have this discussion, or that the discussion will happen without any prompts. I think this is a mistake, and it is a mistake worth pointing out.

Growing Pains

I have seen the argument that people will “work out” the safety issues within their own groups, and that they don’t need the rules to address the topic. The problem with this line of thinking is that it defaults to either assuming that everyone at the table has known each other for a long period of time, or that someone new to the table will go out of their way to introduce the topic when they join a group. This is problematic in that it is assuming a static population of gamers, or that the burden of emotional labor lies solely on people new to the table.

We have new game moderators every day. When they read a new ruleset, they need to know that it is normal and expected that they are concerned about safety. We have people that have never thought about safety at the table before. This is not because they want to introduce harmful content, but because it has never occurred to them that they might. They need to know that safety is an aspect of roleplaying, and it affects the table, consciously or not.

The World that Could Be

If a game includes a section on safety or content warnings in the same way that a game might address the rules or scenario creation, it makes safety a normal, healthy, expected part of the game. Directly examining the aspects of your game that may lead to problematic content is designing with intentionality, and discussing those potential issues with game moderators will make their ability to create scenarios within the game stronger. Not only will closely examining the elements of your game make people at the table safer, dissecting the elements used for storytelling is one of the best ways to make sure that the good experiences you have at the table do not just happen by accident, but can be addressed and repeated.

As much as it is important to focus on safety as a community of gamers, if the only drive to include safety tools and to have discussions about content comes from individual gaming groups or people discussing safety on the internet, that puts an undue amount of stress on the participants of the hobby. Every person that creates a game thinks about the content they are creating. Directing those thoughts towards safety, and why troubling content may or may not be included, can be used to help push gaming in a new direction and to give us inertia towards a positive future where more gamers feel included in the hobby.

The Road to Empathy Without those stories, I would not be as likely to try to be better, and I honestly believe that the greatest benefit of roleplaying games is in creating empathy Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

If you aren’t certain that content warnings and safety discussions are needed in games, try to think back to all of the media that you have consumed over the years. Is there a novel, comic, movie, or television show that received a lot of accolades, but you were unaware of some of the content in that work? If something was more graphic, somber, or violent than you initially thought, would you have felt better knowing those things? Running into that content, did it make you less likely to consume media from that source, knowing that you might be exposed to items you don’t enjoy?

Empathy isn’t something you can turn on or off. We can strive to be empathetic, but until we have the opportunity to interact with others, we will never know how careful we are in observing the needs of those around us. Because empathy is something we must be open to, and that we must constantly refine, we cannot assume that because we do not mean to do harm that we will not do harm. The first step on this path is to open the discussion, and when the game you are playing already includes the discussion, it is that much easier to begin.

Thank You

I want to stop for a moment and thank every person that has shared their stories about safety at the table. Without those stories, I would not be as likely to try to be better, and I honestly believe that the greatest benefit of roleplaying games is in creating empathy. We continually put ourselves in the place of other people, and attempt to see the world from a perspective that is not our own. This is the true power of the hobby.

Do you have any games that you feel do a particularly good job at introducing safety-related topics? Do you have any stories about safety discussions that made you feel particularly safe at a table? What do you think the best practices in starting a safety discussion should be? We want to have this discussion with you, so please feel free to post in the comments. We will be looking forward to hearing from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Assuming positive intent when met with ignorance at conventions

28 March 2019 - 8:00am

It’s been nearly two weeks since the end of Breakout Con 2019, and I think I’ve recovered enough to reflect on my experience at what I believe is one of the best indie gaming conventions in North America. In my experience, Breakout Con is reliably one of the most inclusive and safe spaces to run and play games in the Greater Toronto Area. Now, this doesn’t mean that interesting incidents can’t happen.

I am a firm believer that convention panels are places for productive dialogue between the panelists and audience members. Yes, it’s great for people with expertise to talk at the audience. But in my experience, the best panels I’ve been on have been those when audience becomes fully engaged and the conversation flows both ways. During the Designing Asian Themes in Games panel I moderated with Agatha Cheng (my Asians Represent co-host), Banana Chan, Sharang Biswas, and James Mendes Hodes, our open conversation was derailed by a question we weren’t necessarily expecting.

“What do you mean by white games?“

This was met with a near-unanimous “excuse me!?” followed by a brief moment of confusion as we attempted to process this person’s question. As the moderator, I was treating this panel as I would any podcast I host. I was here to not only moderate the conversation, but also the tone of the conversation. My fellow panelists (myself included) were at a crossroads. Do we react negatively? Do we shut this person down for a “silly question”? Do we call them out for their ignorance?

Things were getting tense.

To put the reaction of the panel into context, our discussion featured the following questions:

  • How do you deal with performative wokeness?
  • How do you demonstrate that you’re doing good without being problematic?
  • What is diversity? What does it look like?
  • What are our opinions on call out culture? Where is the line? Who should do it? Is it always the solution?

As a moderator, I took it upon myself to practice what I believe to be one of the most important aspects of being a good GM and Player – assume positive intent. At my tables, and in my life in general, I try to assume that someone generally means well despite what they say. By giving people the benefit of the doubt and assume positive intentions, a bigger picture emerges and we are met with an opportunity to have a true interaction. Now, let me be clear – ignorance isn’t a crime and should not be met with aggression. While the question this member of the audience asked was certainly not the kind we were expecting, it’s still one that deserved an answer because ignorance should be met with compassion. When we assume negative intent, we foster a culture of suspicion and ostracization. This is not the goal. I have the ability and emotional bandwidth to take care of this situation, so I offered to chat with the person after the presentation so that we could allow other audience members to ask questions. As the moderator, I felt that it was my responsibility to do so.

So after the panel ended, the audience member and I went outside to avoid disrupting the panel that followed ours to continue the conversation and answer their question. I so strongly believed that their question came from a place of ignorance, rather than hate. I was determined to turn this moment into a learning opportunity so that they could come out of the panel in a positive way. So we talked about what the panelists meant by Asian games – those that feature Asian cultures, motifs, and experiences. As we talked, it became clear that they honestly did not know anything about the types of games we were discussing, how many were problematic, and why their question struck a nerve with the panel. Assuming positive intent put that all into context. As we concluded our conversation, I politely invited them to our Asians Represent meetup that was happening that evening and encouraged them to purchase or learn about games designed by my peers.

As very visible members of the design community, assuming positive intent when interacting with people does wonders to building trust in the community, fostering mentorships, and help all of us grow and earn new opportunities. My fellow panelists at Breakout Con are amazing people and the perfect public-facing representatives of the Asian design community. Interactions like this are so very important to fostering a more welcoming and tolerant community. What could’ve been a negative interaction turned into a positive outcome – we welcomed someone new into our amazing community.

So take a moment if you can, breathe, and try to dive deeper into the conversation.

For further reading, I strongly recommend reading James Mendez Hodes’ blog at and listening to the Asians Represent! podcast.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Save the Applause

27 March 2019 - 7:02am


Do you wish that your players got more into character when they play?

Do you have a problem player in your group that you just can’t quite get through to?

Do you want to praise someone at your table but just don’t know the right time to do so?


I have a very easy solution for you. The answer may even surprise you.

Talk more at the game table…just save it for the end.


Tabletop Role-Playing Can Be Social Interaction at Its Finest
  • We can learn to problem solve together using a combination of the best of our individual skills or backgrounds.
  • We can express ourselves in a different light, opening the eyes of our friends and families to see us in so many different ways.
  • We can share time together as communal creatures having fun and enjoying one another’s company.

In general, I think we get so much out of our tabletop gaming sessions that I think a lot of us take the benefits for granted. Especially the people we play with and the time that we have together. As gamers, we are all so busy these days. Each of us is racing around trying to make the most of our time. It’s like we’re all stuck in the MMO of life, trying to efficiently grind, so that we can raid, while beholden to every ping or notification. This pace has affected our game table habits, shortening the time we share after each session. I get it! If you hurry, you can still make it home for dinner or to fit in another episode of the Dragon Prince on Netflix. At what cost, though?

Talking about the games that bring us together is almost as important as playing them.

If you are lucky enough to be gaming regularly, it is so important to fight for a little more time at the end of each session. Even if it is just to hang out! The time you used to walk home talking with your friends. The time you would walk out to the car talking, standing around for an extra hour or two instead of leaving like you thought. These are the moments we reflect on the game we played and the fun we shared together. We can’t lose sight of that!

As a Game or Dungeon Master, we can do one better! Plan to stop the game about 15 minutes early. Use those 15 minutes to remind us of why we came here and why we play these games together. Use it to express your gratitude for the time shared and to ask others to do the same.

Plan to stop the game about 15 minutes early. Use those 15 minutes to remind us of why we came here and why we play these games together. Use it to express your gratitude for the time shared and to ask others to do the same. Share42Tweet1Reddit1Email Try it at your next game session!



Ask each player to share one thing that another player did to make their experience better. Don’t let players overgeneralize either, the more specific the better!

  • It could be something they said in character creation that helped you make a better character.
  • It could be something hilarious that a player said or did in character that made you laugh.
  • It could be something that a player did to really get everyone invested in the game.

Whatever you choose, it doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to say thanks.

And, GM, don’t worry! The players will send some love your way, no matter how much you tell them to focus on the other players.

Besides, gratitude is a great way for players to recognize and praise one another when they take chances. How else do we grow and get better at things, if not by taking chances? If you like how a player role-plays their character, then praise them for it. If you got a great idea from another player, let them know they were inspirational. Positive reinforcement will make them feel good and want to do it again. Don’t let players overgeneralize either, the more specific the better! Share42Tweet1Reddit1Email

Role modeling good behavior is something we all do in our social circles. What we praise as a group helps us define whom we are and what kind of a group we want to be.  It’s also a great way to help new players break the ice with one another and feel like they belong. Heck, it is also a great way to end a session or a playtest! It never hurts to end on a good note.


Give a little gratitude. It’ll go a long way!


What do you do to praise your players? How do you reward good role-playing or great sessions? Do you have a different endgame ritual to share?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Liminal Review

26 March 2019 - 4:30am

I will let you all in on a secret. I may have a little bit of a weakness for urban fantasy. There is something that speaks to me about being in the modern world, but still finding the strange and magical just out of regular view. Tell me about ghosts and shadows and fey that still hang out just down the street and explain why I don’t always see them when I look their way, and you’ve got my attention.

There is no shortage of urban fantasy RPG products today. What is less common is one that details a specific setting that does not default to the United States. It’s very easy for me to view urban fantasy through a lens crafted from watching Buffy and Supernatural, and reading the Dresden Files. Liminal, the RPG that I’m looking at today, features the UK as it’s setting, and that important distinction is evident in several places.

Ghostly Forms

This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is a 286-page full-color document. It has single column formatting, and unlike many RPGs, where art is limited to full page chapter introductions and potentially half page or quarter page illustrations, there are many pages that utilize thematic imagery blended across half the page, under the text, or pages that have a running theme such as a city skyline across the bottom of the page.

While many products evoke a feeling with the included artwork, the way Liminal uses its imagery tends to weave in and out of the narrative to create an otherworldly feeling in several places in the book. While some artwork is used traditionally as half page pieces, there are several pages where the artwork also serves as the background image for the page.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 serves as a basic introduction to the premise of the game, introduced with a short piece of in-character fiction. The game revolves around liminal characters–characters that are part of both the mortal world and the supernatural world–forming crews and solving cases. There is also a quick reference to the base resolution mechanics, which utilizes two d6s + a modifier, versus a target number. If modern game design leads you to wonder if this is a Powered by the Apocalypse Game, it isn’t, but we’ll get into more of the mechanics later.

The basic framework of the setting involves the following “truths”:

  • There is magic, and magicians
  • There are vampires with their own power group
  • There are werewolves and werewolf gangs
  • There are fae with multiple courts
  • There are ghosts
  • The myths of the UK, as well as many cultures that the UK has interacted with, have a basis in fact
  • Some religious organizations know about the supernatural
  • The UK has a police division that deals with the supernatural
Chapter 2

Chapter 2 delves into character creation. This involves coming up with a character concept, picking a drive, choosing a focus, and then buying skills and traits.

The drive is what the character wants to accomplish by getting involved with supernatural cases and interacting with the hidden world. The character’s focus is the chassis on which the character is built, and includes the following options:

  • Determined (someone with strength of will and a strong mind)
  • Magician (someone trained or with a natural talent to use spells and magical abilities)
  • Tough (someone with a strong body or powerful endurance)

Some of the traits listed later in character creation are keyed specifically for each of these character foci. While most forms of magic use are restricted to the magician focus, shape changing is available outside of the magician focus to represent lycanthropes and other were-creatures, although only magicians can learn multiple animal forms.

Initial skills have a skill cap which can later be increased during character advancement, and some skills can double as stats used for casting spells. For example, most magic will use Lore, but Glamour magic uses Art to resolve effects.

Characters have Endurance and Will as attributes, which measures how much physical and mental wear and tear they can take, respectively. These have a base number, modified by the Athletics or Conviction skill.

Traits are similar to what other games would call feats or stunts. Picking up the ability to use a specific form of magic is a trait, but there are also traits like Graceful or Rich as well. Characters can also pick up to two limitations, which can get them additional points to use for character creation. These limitations are also the means to represent characters that fit a specific supernatural origin, so giving a shape-changing were creature a weakness to a specific material can help create the overall theme, as can giving someone with vampiric abilities an aversion to sunlight.

In addition to focus, skills, traits, and limitations, there are example archetypes in this chapter to cover what a formally trained wizard might take, versus a mortal investigator, versus a lycanthrope or a dhampir. There are also sample player characters, which are the same characters utilized in the text for various in-character quotes and introductory fiction.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 details the rules on creating crews and adjudicating factions. There is a specific list of things to detail about a crew before the game begins, and the information derived from this helps to shape what the campaign will look like. It is essentially a mechanized session zero for the group.

Crews have a goal, much like a group version of the individual drives that characters create for their characters. There is a list of crew resources, and each player picks one of those resources for which the crew has access. This can involve having greater starting capital, a headquarters, a safe house, or even a bonus when dealing with specific enemies.

The group determines what major factions are at play in the campaign, and each PC determines if they have a positive or negative relationship with that faction. Rankings for each faction at play go up one for each positive relationship, and down one for each negative relationship, to a maximum of +/- 3, with an extreme rating meaning that the crew is either known as an ally to, or devoted enemy of, that faction.

Additionally, each player will provide a hook, an open-ended supernaturally adjacent bit of news that is floating around the game world, that the GM can then weave into the greater campaign.

I really like this formalized way of setting up the crew, and even separated from the specific mechanics of the game, it serves as a good way to start a campaign and to poll the table as to what the campaign should look like and what the players want from the game. The biggest sticking point I think may be the hooks–it’s a great idea, but not every player is going to have a strong hook to contribute early in the campaign, and it may feel a bit like putting them on the spot.

Chapter 4 

This section deals with how the game rules work at the table. Base resolution is 2d6 plus a relevant skill versus a target number, but there are a number of ancillary rules that make this resolution a little bit more robust.

Opposed tests involve a base number plus the opponent’s relevant skill, rather than having both sides roll against one another. Characters can spend points from their Will attribute to modify their rolls. When a character fails, the GM gets to determine which of four options apply to the failure, so failure doesn’t feel quite as binary as it might otherwise. Additionally, if a character succeeds by 5 or more on a test, there is a list of additional effects that can be added to the result.

One of my favorite rules bits in this section involves persuading or coercing other characters. Successfully doing this doesn’t mean that the character has to do what you want them to do, just that they either have a penalty to actions that don’t line up with what you want them to do, or they must suffer a hit to their Will to shake off the effects of the failed contest.

In conflicts, initiative is handled in a manner similar to Cypher system, in that the players roll against the highest opponent’s skill to determine if they go before or after the opposition.

Chapter 5 

Chapter 5 is all about magic. Way back during character creation, you could buy the base level of various forms of magic, but this chapter has a number of upgrades that you can purchase to allow more thematic effects based on the type of magic being enhanced. The magic traditions included in this chapter include:

  • Blessings and Curses
  • Divination
  • Geomancy
  • Glamour
  • Necromancy
  • Shapechanging
  • Ward Magic
  • Weathermonger

Most of these are straightforward effects that utilize the game rules. For example, base necromancy lets you talk to spirits, and one of the upgraded effects lets you drain life energy from opponents. Shape changing gets a little tricky and confusing, at least for me. Bigger than human forms get a bonus to Endurance, smaller than human forms get a penalty, and animal forms grant a bonus to skills that animal form is good at performing–all this works for me and adjudicating what an animal form is good at on the fly isn’t too hard in this kind of game.

Where I got a little turned around is that the description of the ability in this chapter starts mentioning traits that may go with the animal form, and that some of those may carry over to the mortal form, and I don’t know if that’s just flavor for how a character should build their character, or if you are meant to give them bonus traits based on animal form, and to decide if they should be split across animal and mortal forms. I don’t think this is the case, but for some reason, I got turned around it this particular form of magic and its description.

Chapter 6 and Chapter 7 

I’m grouping these chapters together, as they are both descriptive of what the assumed setting of Liminal should look like. Major and minor factions are detailed, as are various cities and sites in the UK. One of the elements that sets Liminal apart from other urban fantasy games is that the factions and locations often have ties to specific elements of UK history. Some historical figures were turned as vampires, and their deaths covered up. The Council of Merlin may have looked the other way during some historical events while protecting the isles during others. There are a lot of details that feel like they add one extra layer to history, without burying the setting in lore, and without changing some important, sensitive events by shifting the blame from human shortcomings to supernatural involvement.

There are major factions for wealthy, formally educated wizards, less formally trained and potentially less lawful wizards, government agencies, Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim religious organizations that deal with the supernatural, a powerful werewolf family attempting to unite the various gangs, fey courts native to various geographical areas of the UK, and the primary vampire organization in operation.

There are some subtle and not so subtle commentaries going on with some of the factions. Vampires are dangerous, but their organizational goals tend to be a little out of date. The Council of Merlin is very much a rich male organization that thinks it is being very progressive by allowing women to join and having a reasonable application fee that only the wealthy could possibly front. The police unit that investigates supernatural crime doesn’t actually formally record any supernatural details of events, to shield information from the public record, but there is also an ancient group of wizards that still nominally works for the crown as well.

One interesting aspect of the setting that becomes apparent as organizations and locations are detailed is that creatures like demons and angels aren’t really a feature of the setting. Gods are mentioned as potentially being powerful fae creatures, and djinn and rakshasas seem to be fae as well, so it may be that all of the ephemeral creatures from “other realms” fall into this category.

There are a few places in the text where this struck me previously, but in these chapters, especially, I am very aware that there are no specific sidebars or separate discussions on safety or content. Not only are we dealing with some fairly ghastly werewolf rituals, predatory vampires, and gruesome means for ghosts to come about, but we’ve also got the misogyny of the Council of Merlin, potential religious friction, at least some discussion of political tensions between various regions of the UK, and fae king who kidnaps women to be his bride (they are mentioned as needing to willingly accept the position, but they are also mentioned as being kidnapped, coerced, misled, and put in suspended animation when he is ready for a new bride).

It is a rich history that has been woven into a real-world location, and it has been done better than some urban fantasy setting material, but in this era of games, there really needs to be more awareness of content that could be problematic, and how to deal with that in a game that touches on those topics.

Chapter 8, 9, and 10

The final three chapters in the book are the chapter on gamemastering, the chapter for “faces” (which includes stats for various supernatural beings PCs might encounter, and the chapter for sample cases.

The gamemastering chapter has sections on how to structure cases, advice on setting difficulty, and places outside of the UK where Liminal stories may take place. I like the very solid, practical advice on how to structure a case, and its advice that could work for structuring other urban fantasy games as well, making it even more broadly useful. It’s also interesting to see the setting assumptions applied to locations in the US and Germany as well as the baseline assumed setting.

The faces section includes new traits, some of which can be available for PCs, but may push them further into the fully supernatural, rather than the border between. These traits mainly exist to help with the stats found in this chapter, which include fae, ghosts, clued-in mortals, ordinary mortals, vampires, and werewolves.

The final chapter sample cases do a really nice job of explaining the setups, the facts of the case, the point at which complications may occur, and ways that the case may be resolved, but not much about detailed specifics between certain “notes” in the case. The outlines are more interested in pointing out that you need to find out about X, not that you need to do a specific thing to find X, but that once you find X, some kind of complication should happen. I like the solid outline with flexible sections between approach.

That said, between gamemastering and sample adventures, no dedicated discussion on safety or content warnings for a game that can have some potentially uncomfortable content.

Index, Concepts, Sketches, Process, Afterword, and Acknowledgements

The final sections in the book include an index, a section that showcases the art that serves as the backdrop of most of the book, without the words and formatting that obscures it, an afterward, and an acknowledgments section that details the various backers and playtesters.

Geomantic Node  The setting resonates as a strong urban fantasy realm that is both familiar and unique, because of the rich ties to historical locations and events. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The rules do a nice job of riding the line between simple and granular and pick up some of the best modern game design notes by building in ways to fail forward and to add detail to skill tests. The setting resonates as a strong urban fantasy realm that is both familiar and unique, because of the rich ties to historical locations and events. The crew creation rules provide a solid structure and direction for the campaign and ensure a degree of intentionality that would benefit a lot of games.

Shadowed Path 

The rules are just granular enough that they may have benefited from a few more summaries or examples, especially where magic is involved. While not entirely a negative, players need to have some creative investment to get most of the structure of the rules. In a modern game, there really needs to be more discussion on safety and content warnings at the table, especially when modern problems and elements of horror stories are assumed aspects of the game.

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.

This is a rich urban fantasy setting with a solid set of rules for adjudicating the game, but you may need to do your own work to reinforce safety at the table without any support from the game, and you may want to be sure your players are up to coming up with their own elements that help to shape the setting.

Have you also been bitten by the urban fantasy gaming bug? What are your favorite urban fantasy games, and what subgenres within urban fantasy are your favorites? What games do you think have most effectively utilized the tropes of your favorite subgenres? Let us know in the comments below–we’re excited to hear from you!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Playing Prequels

25 March 2019 - 5:43am

The ship is facing off against an entire House’s army. The gate to the unknown is behind them, but no one has ever come back. With her standard confidence, the pirate queen takes her lover’s hand, smiles at him, and says “We will come back. We will be the first.” A crack pilot, she flips the ship and snaps through the gate before the army can react.

And that was the last anyone knew of my mom and dad, before Uncle J brought me back.

Sometimes game night just doesn’t happen the way you expect. Sometimes out of five players only three show up — and there’s just no easy way to go on with the story as it stands. We’ve talked a lot on this site about some things you can do when schedules collide, but I’m going to propose one more option: the prequel. Our Scum and Villainy game was just not going to go off that night, so we jumped in to a big hole in our backstory — my character’s parents, how they met, and how, being different species, they had managed to procreate (and that’s how there was me).

Why a Prequel?
  • You can keep building on your story without creating pieces that will mess with the other players. We were all super ready to play the game that night — our session zero had left us amped. We wanted to engage with the setting and our characters, but we didn’t want to play things that our other players would miss when we jumped back in. We zeroed in on playing backstory for my particular character because we didn’t know much about her parents except that (we thought) they were dead. We didn’t know how they met, how they fell in love, how they had me, and how they died — but this information wasn’t likely to effect characters other than mine, so it didn’t matter so much that the other players were out.
  • You can establish character backstory. Since we didn’t know how my parents had managed to procreate, we discovered that my character in this game is a clone…a fact that she does not actually know. Her uncle does in theory, but since he doesn’t remember much lucidly, it’s unclear if he knows from moment to moment. When I sat back down to play with the whole group again, my character was immediately more fleshed out, and there is a whole host of hints at her true origin starting to work their way in to the game.
  • You get to keep world building. We discovered how the House that runs the information network in our game (use the out of the box setting? Hah– as usual we immediately mangled that) manages safe zones for underground exchanges. We learned that there are pirates in this universe, living on the edges of the law. Clones were created as soldiers, and age differently than humans, and they have a specific shelf life. And we learned what symbiotes do to their hosts over time, as they merge personalities in to one being.
  • You can build more investment. I thought I was invested in this game after our cracking session zero. I am even more invested in this game because I want to play to find out how Snaps will learn she is a clone, what happened to her parents when they jumped through the gate that no one had ever returned from, and how her uncle got out with her. And…is Uncle J really on her side? He hated her mother, but he’s raised her ever since she can remember. And to make the stakes higher, the House that chased our ship gate all those years ago is the same one that’s looking for us now.
How To Make It Work
  • Play to leave more questions, not fewer. In my example, we answered a couple of questions: how did my parents meet? How did they procreate? But left many, many more that are pertinent to our current timeline: what is on the other side of the Gate to the unknown? Are my parents really dead? What did Uncle J see in there that made him in to the rather senile druggy he is today? Does the House remember that this ship escaped them? Is that why they’re after us? Am I really my mother’s clone?
  • Don’t play with characters of people who aren’t there. None of our actual game characters were in this story, with the notable exception of Jonas (my Uncle J). Because the original character concept for Jonas was specifically a mentally unstable addict, we weren’t worried about his player missing details. He ended up playing a bigger role than we expected, but part of the reason I love this game group is that his player was super excited to get an extra secret email from the GM with all sorts of awesome plot information for him to play with. I consider myself very lucky! I would not recommend snagging anyone’s character for a prequel without their permission — agency is all we truly have in a game, and playing someone’s character without their permission and in their absence removes their agency. Handle with care.
  • Add details that build forward in to your current game. We already had established some rocky relations between our ship and a specific character on it and the information based House. We leaned in hard and gave them even more reasons to dislike us and have history with us that none of our characters would or could logically know. All this history plays extra nicely against Wen’s character, who’s lover works for them. Who knows when that will turn against us?

I love being able to use off nights to build more investment in to the game that we’re playing, although of course it doesn’t always work out that way. When your regular game night is once every week or month, skipping one can make it easy to lose momentum. When you can pull it off, playing a prequel is a great way to keep the excitement going, build more story hooks, and really dig in on your world. In the time since I started this article, we ended up playing yet another prequel to find out why one of our other characters is traveling on this ship at all, and it was also fantastic! Playing prequels would not have previously been my default, but I am definitely a convert. 

Have you ever played a prequel game, either as a filler or just to go back and fill in details? How did it work for you? Did I miss any tips?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Welcome New co-Head Gnome Angela Murray!

22 March 2019 - 8:36am

Please join us in welcoming a new addition to the management team here at Gnome Stew – our new co-Headgnome Angelay Murray! You know Angela from her many phenomenal articles on the site and as the de-facto host of the Gnomecast. Angela will now be joining John as co-Headgnome and will be helping guide the future vision of the stew.  Join us in welcoming her with your best table selfie!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Another Day, Another Gold Piece: 9 Unusual Historical Occupations For Your Game

22 March 2019 - 5:00am

Image courtesy of

RPGs, like great historical dramas of imaginary history, tend to focus on the grand exploits of those whose names make it into the books: kings, queens, popes, caliphs, charlatans, and generals. But those are just the faces at the front; no movement, no city, no kingdom is possible without vast armies of people holding it up. Every bite of bread in a duke’s meal passes through hundreds of hands who till, mill, transport, guard, and bake it. Every stone that falls during a castle siege was once lifted by the back of a worker history forgot. But this is fantasy, and if our stories can raise the dead in howling masses to swarm over invading armies, surely we can raise up humble heroes who maybe never became kings, but instead made a difference in their small corners of the world.

Plus, if I read one more character backstory about a long-lost heir growing up in obscurity*, my eyes will roll so hard I might swallow them.

Most fantasy games do a pretty good job of providing a variety of backstory options: you can be royalty, soldiers, guild merchants, entertainers and more. Often, there’s an “other” option that provides the ability to play characters with more prosaic backgrounds. Frequently, these are light on detail, and for good reason. At first blush, it’s hard to argue for playing a mud-spattered peasant hacking away in a field when you can play a cloistered wizard or swashbuckling pirate.

With that in mind, this article is here to help you flesh out that “other” category a little bit, splitting into four main areas of lowborn adventure. The focus of this article is on games that at least somewhat model a fantastic version of semi-medieval or Renaissance Europe**. There are absolutely other games, and strong reasons to branch out beyond a teeny-tiny sliver of the world’s population when building out unbounded worlds of the imagination, but even that sliver has some depths we still haven’t plumbed in fiction and games. For instance: how did cities of tens of thousands of people handle waste without underground sewers? Read on to find out. You know you want to.


Guild artisans in most games tend to focus around martially-applicable skills. Woodworking, stonemasonry, and maybe brewing. While artists may be (in fact probably are) members of guilds, a player or GM may want to focus on those specialists whose areas of expertise purely operate within the realm of the decorative. It’s tempting to write off such characters as flighty, irrelevant comic relief, but consider this: for an individual to make a living in any of these fields, they had to be at the absolute top of their artistic game, with sufficient customers to make a living—often an extravagant one. When power stemmed directly from proximity to the throne (or its delegated representative), these artists were sometimes able to wield considerable influence …for an individual to make a living in any of these fields, they had to be at the absolute top of their artistic game, with sufficient customers to make a living—often an extravagant one. When power stemmed directly from proximity to the throne (or its delegated representative), these artists were sometimes able to wield considerable influence… Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email—Catherine de Medici’s personal perfumer, Rene le Florentin (Renato Bianco), followed her to court at France, and may have even had secret passageways between his laboratory and her quarters.

Perfumer: of all the roles to ignore, this seems the easiest, until you consider that in order to have any kind of success with this relatively new technology, practitioners required regular access to exotic substances like musk and ambergris, in addition to laboratory facilities robust enough to extract oils from a dizzying array of other plants and even animals. Combine this with the fact that many nobles liked to have everything from their stockings to their gloves scented, a perfumer is the perfect place to start as a poisoner, or as the victim of an elaborate framing (as may very well have happened to poor Mr. Bianco).

Clothier: Being a tailor is a demanding job for any population—people of all shapes need to wear clothes, after all. As with everything else, however, working with nobility carried greater risks and greater rewards. Like all artists in this section, a gifted tailor had direct access to the halls of power, and the ability to define tastes for a generation. Additionally, many nations had sumptuary laws that prohibited individuals from dressing above their station. Any attempt at deception in the halls of power absolutely requires, if not a professional clothier, at least someone with a keen eye for detail and access to clothing that it would otherwise be illegal to own.

Visual Artist: Are you a visual artist? If so, cool. You can skip this section. You already get why artists are awesome and I don’t need to convince you.

If you’re not an artist, do me a favor. Draw someone. Your best friend. Yourself. Take as long as you need. Okay. Done? Do you think you could hand this to someone and have them pick out who you drew from a lineup? Another exercise: do the same thing with an object. A building. A strange plant or an even stranger animal. Remember that (absent world-changing magic) characters in these games exist without cameras or photocopiers. In addition to the access that any successful artist has during this time to the movers and shakers in their corner of the world, a visual artist has the nearly-magical ability to reproduce sights and structures that their audience hasn’t actually seen. Consider the chaos that an artist who has witnessed a crime committed by a well-connected protagonist can create.

Of course, this ability isn’t sorcery—it’s the result of painstaking training that can take up to thirteen years. But in the real world, it’s hard to argue with the results; works like the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Vitruvian Man, as well as countless other visual masterpieces by artists named after mutant ninjas, speak to the power of art to speak to the human (or turtle, or rat) spirit.

Contrary to expectation, consider giving characters with artistic backgrounds bonuses to intimidation rolls (to represent the scary amount of power they can wield by proxy) or deception rolls, representing their skill in mimicking the customs of those they spend so much time around.

Noble Servants:

Dunrobin Castle, Scotland. Image courtesy of

Distinct from courtiers or hangers-on, these are the people who do the actual work in a palace or estate. For every pampered nobleman or noblewoman, dozens or hundreds of people scurried invisibly in the background to ensure that arms were properly sewn on clothes, bread was baked, and candles were made. The number of servants a given noble had varied by rank, with barons having about 45, and royalty sometimes having nearly a thousand just for themselves. Some roles have more potential for adventuring than others—the more a lord or lady relies on a character, the less likely they are to be able to go dig around uninvited in a dragon’s stuff. Servants can include the usual exciting fairy-tale entries such as hunters, knights, and whipping-boys but also include such easily-overlooked roles as:

  • Valet of the Chamber: this role encompasses a number of potential duties within the palace—while it can be as menial as looking after a noble’s clothing and ensuring he or she is dressed well, this can also include work such as scheduling a lord’s time and determining whose requests make it onto the Queen’s reading list. While such valets may not have much spare time when duties called, thankfully, in the case of more important royalty, a different valet is assigned for daytime and night-time roles.
  • Stable-Keepers/Carters: If someone’s coming or going in a castle, odds are good that those who are responsible for driving and maintaining the only available methods of transit are going to know all about it.
  • Groom of the Stool: Exactly what it sounds like. This person was responsible for helping a noble in their most vulnerable state. Sure, it’s not glamorous, but no one in a castle is more likely to know the precise, gruesome details of a king’s health. More than an encyclopedic knowledge of what a given member of the aristocracy ate the day before, such individuals are very likely also…privy…to state secrets, and if someone’s looking to hide a secret affair (or the fallout from one), no one is more likely to know than the groom of the stool.

Note that noble servants generally have the run of a castle, and can be virtually anywhere without arousing too much suspicion. They’re also the most likely to know all the ins and outs of palace intrigue, without necessarily being invested in any of it. GMs interested in creating a mechanical benefit for castle servants may consider providing a bonus to rolls for stealth within the castle or among other servants, or for knowing the deep, dark secrets of those in power. Alternately with unfettered access to treasuries, wardrobes, and other resources, careful or canny characters can supply an entire adventuring party if they’re careful to cover their tracks (or to return what they’ve “borrowed” before the next time a blue blood needs it).

City Infrastructure:

Image courtesy of

Even cities of just a few thousand can produce a truly prodigious amount of really gross fluid. And when you factor in the inherent squickiness Medieval or Renaissance diet, well…someone had to make the drains run on time. As anyone who has been to an outdoor festival can tell you, you can’t just take thousands of people into a field and expect everything to sort itself out. Those who are responsible for maintaining the gruesome underbelly of a city are every bit as important as those tending to the comfort of the upper classes, even (maybe especially) if those upper classes never see them.

Gong Farmer: Let’s talk about toilets. When heeding the call of nature, if a citizen of a medieval or Renaissance city was very lucky, they may find themselves near a “house of easement” over a river that conveniently washed away the evidence. As we all know, PCs are almost never actually lucky, so why not lean in and make a character or an NPC responsible for mucking out latrines and keeping the results outside the city? To add injury to insult, in the Ancient Roman Empire, these latrines were occasionally known to host dangerous creatures or explode, and …if there’s anything your game needs more than a fireball spell, it’s a spontaneous fireball made of methane and decaying feces. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Emailif there’s anything your game needs more than a fireball spell, it’s a spontaneous fireball made of methane and decaying feces.

Sure, the job may be gross, but it also has its upsides for PCs. Some cities (such as London) enforced a strict curfew during this time period, and not only were gong farmers allowed to be out during this time period, but they were only allowed to be out during this time period for obvious reasons. It’s hard to find a better job (or at least a better cover) for characters looking to skulk around a city at night. In the real world, gong farmers routinely succumbed to disease or even suffocation from their work, but heroes are above such concerns, and might get a bonus to resisting poisons or diseases.

Bathhouse Management: Contrary to popular belief, bathing was a popular practice during much of the middle ages. In addition to private baths, most large cities sported public bathhouses, which were destinations in and of themselves. In England, such houses were called “stews” or “stewes” and were popular places to socialize, play games, and…do other things that one would imagine might be done in such places. Simultaneously places to get squeaky clean and to purchase some company (*cough*) these bathhouses were often owned by prominent clergy, which prevented their somewhat less-than-savory reputation from getting them closed. Additionally, they were also often professionally run by members of a guild every bit as educated and exacting as any other. Characters who run a bathhouse likely make a good living, but also have access to members of every strata of society, a great deal of privacy, and eyes everywhere. Yes, everywhere.

Vermin Hunter: Forget rats. Give me wild freaking pigs. In the 1300s, London had so many wild pigs hunting through the garbage in the streets that they had to appoint official swine killers, paid a bounty for each pig they brought in. In a city without any centralized method of waste management, fighting vermin isn’t so much a battle as a continuous, all-out, unwinnable war against nature. Vermin hunters in an RPG have a perfect excuse to be pretty much anywhere gross creatures can be found (basically everywhere) and to lay traps, carry weapons, and drag suspicious-looking bags leaking bodily fluids through the street without anyone giving them a second glance. Consider giving characters with a background in vermin hunting bonuses to tracking and fighting creatures that share habits or anatomy with the scavengers of the city.


High-flying games full of nobility, honorable (or dishonorable) combat, and intrigue among the upper classes are a lot of fun. But in history, there was a whole world of stories going on beneath the noses, feet, and…other body parts…of the gilded elite. These stories can intersect with and inform kingdom- and continent-spanning adventures, or can provide fodder for games that never set foot outside their home city. Even if you don’t use these character occupations for your PCs or prominent NPCs, it’s worth thinking about how those with these jobs and hundreds more made their living when the circumstances of their birth didn’t guarantee them immortality in the history books.

So what are your favorite unusual occupations? Did I miss any that you don’t feel your game world is complete without?

  • The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: a laser-focused guide to England in the 1300s, this incredibly detailed guide is a romp through the history, culture, and ideas of a very specific time and place. If you can make it through the first chapter, the rest of the book is truly gripping.
  • Everyday Life Through the Ages: What can I say about this book? No, really. I have no idea what to say about this book.
  • Making Good Scents: Fragrance in the Middle Ages and Renaissance: This article by Barbara D. Diggs is an excellent overview of the topic of perfumery during this time period. Take some time to look at some of her other excellent writing too, while you’re there.
  • Medieval Jobs: A straightforward list of medieval jobs that goes a little bit further than nobleman, innkeeper, merchant, criminal. Useful for fleshing out larger lists of NPCs.


*Yes, I know that it’s a popular fantasy trope stretching back to the beginnings of the genre and that the biggest authors do it, but it loses its power when your ragtag adventuring party is basically a Dark Ages version of the UN in exile. If your group enjoys those characters, go you. But maybe consider branching out?

**If you find yourself digging through this article looking for any hint of historical inaccuracy, hooo boy are you in for a treat. I’m deliberately mashing together multiple areas and time-periods with game stuff in mind, so there’s going to be no shortage. You are very smart.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #62 – Post Twitch Stream Tech Talk

21 March 2019 - 5:53am


Join Ang, Chuck, John, and Matt for a discussion about the technology needed for presenting a gaming stream. This episode was recorded following Gnome Stew’s first actual play stream on Twitch, and if you missed the stream, you can catch the recording of “The Gnomes Do Mortzengersturm, the Mad Manticore of the Prismatic Peak” on the Gnome Stew YouTube channel! Will these tech gnomes be able to figure out how to avoid the stew this week?

Special thanks to Meghan Dornbrock for the fantastic gnome character art!

Download: Gnomecast #62 – Post Twitch Stream Tech Talk

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, the Gnome Stew YouTube channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

Follow Chuck at @InnocuousChuck on Twitter.

Follow John at @johnarcadian on Twitter and check out all his work at his website,

Check out Matt…if you can find a way.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.

Categories: Game Theory & Design