Gnome Stew

Subscribe to Gnome Stew feed Gnome Stew
The Gaming Blog
Updated: 3 hours 18 min ago

Take Me to the Upside down – a Review of Kids on Bikes

14 June 2019 - 5:57am

Before Google mapped out the world and Wikipedia made it possible to know just about anything with a couple taps of your thumb, even a small town could be full of adventure. There were all these places you weren’t supposed to go to, dangerous places like abandoned warehouses and old biker hangouts. There was always that one kid who’d heard a rumor about the place from their cousin’s friend’s sister, and they swore up and down that it was the truth. You didn’t know how much of it was true, but you knew you had until the streetlights came on to get to the bottom of it.

That experience is at the heart of Kids on Bikes, an RPG riding on the hype of the 80’s nostalgia popularized by Stranger Things. With the third season just around the corner, many of us want to know what it’d be like trying to outpace the Demogorgon or shady government agents in their black vans. But how does Kids on Bikes rate, not just as an RPG but as an experience?

I’ll be reviewing the print version of this game. The book has 74 pages of content, plus a couple extra pages in the back for a character sheet and Kickstarter acknowledgments. It’s not a big book, but it’ll only set you back $25, which for an RPG can either be a great deal or a trap.

The book’s formatting and design are simple and straightforward. This leaves plenty of room for the extensive examples the book uses to describe some of its mechanics. The book is divided into the following sections:

  • Setting Boundaries
  • World-Building
  • Character Creation
  • Playing the Game
  • Powered Characters
  • Information for the GM
  • Appendices (A-F)
Setting Boundaries

This is a quick, one-page section about making sure your players are safe during play. Disclaimers like this have been common in recent RPG’s (and re-releases of older games), and there’s not much here that a seasoned player hasn’t seen before. The book encourages players to talk about topics they want to avoid or to write lists they can give the GM if they don’t feel comfortable addressing the issue openly. The tone here is supportive, discouraging confrontational attitudes towards these boundaries. While this isn’t anything new, it’s appropriate in a game about dangerous things happening to kids.


The book offers rules and suggestions for collaborative world-building, taking the brunt of the work off of the GM’s shoulders. A list of incomplete statements guide this process, such as “Our town is famous for…” and “A notable local organization is…”. Players take turns completing a statement, each contributing their own ideas and helping bring a small town to life. After each player has provided an equal number of answers (usually 2 or 3), they each come up with a rumor about the town. The section closes with suggestions about what the ideal town for this game looks like, as well as how it should change over multiple sessions.

As a GM and writer, I’m used to stuffing my campaign worlds with all the unnecessary details a player might randomly ask for. I also know the traps and pitfalls of exposition and the challenges that come with trying to give just enough information so the players know what’s going on. The collaborative world-building offered by Kids on Bikes eliminates most of this problem. The players know this place because they helped build it. Together, they create a living, breathing place with at least a couple interesting spots that stand out as obvious places for adventure.

I’ve found that players have a lot of fun answering these questions, and it saves the GM a ton of work (which is always a plus). I recommend doing this world-building in a “session zero,” since the rumors your players come up with can make great adventure hooks. They’re telling you what interests them. Use them and they’ll stay interested. Overall, this is a great strength of the system and having it so early in the book really sets the tone for the kind of game Kids on Bikes wants to be.

Character Creation

The book’s first meaty section deals with character creation. Kids on Bikes cares more about who a character is than what they can do. Rather than character classes, Kids on Bikes uses tropes from the TV shows and movies that inspire the game’s theme, such as Popular Kid, Loner Weirdo, and Blue-Collar Worker. Kids on Bikes uses standard RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) which are attributed to each stat depending on the chosen trope. For example, a Popular Kid’s best ability is Charm, so whenever they make a Charm check, they’ll roll a d20. I’ll be going over the system in more detail in the next section of this review.

After a trope is selected, players will choose strengths and flaws for their characters. Strengths are trope-specific and give a character mechanical advantages. For example, the Tough strength allows a character to reduce the negative consequences of losing a combat roll. Strengths give additional depth to characters, helping differentiate even those with the same tropes from each other. Sure, two people at the table may be playing a Loner Weirdo, but one might be Tough while another is Intuitive. Do you think those characters would solve their problems the same way? Just like strengths, flaws are tied to specific Tropes. However, they don’t have any effect on the mechanical aspect of the game. They’re there mostly to fuel roleplay and help players build well-rounded characters.

Next, players will introduce their characters to the table. Rather than simply going around the table and listing their character’s traits, Kids on Bikes players are encouraged to figure out relationships between each of their characters. Are there siblings at the table? Parents and children? Rivals? Players will then answer questions about the other characters. Kids on Bikes offers three ways of doing this (Quick Start Questions, One-Sided Questions, and Complete Questions) but the basic premise is the same; players are answering questions about characters that aren’t theirs. Questions like “What volunteer work have you heard that this character does?” and “How did this character betray you the last time you confided in them?” These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems. These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

All in all, character creation goes rather smoothly. Even with a single book for the table, the process takes much less time than other games with deeper mechanics, such as D&D. While Kids on Bikes’ mechanics don’t have the same depth, a character in Kids on Bikes is just as deep, if not deeper than the ones found in other games. Because players are encouraged to think about where their character comes from and how they relate to others, they end up with an intimate understanding of their character and their place in the world. Character introductions can eat up a good chunk of time (the Complete Questions method alone can take 8 minutes per player), but if you’ve got the extra time, going through them is a lot of fun.

Playing the Game

The “game” part of this roleplaying game is simple and straightforward. This is a game about characters and story, not about rolling dice. That said, we do need the dice to figure out the things that we can’t just decide. As mentioned earlier, Kids on Bikes uses a dice chain to determine a character’s stats, from a d4 to a d20. That means each character is fantastic at one thing and terrible at another, with the rest of their stats falling somewhere in the middle.

Using those stats is fairly straightforward. You pick the one you want to use and roll to beat a target number, set by the GM. Because each stat uses a different die, a straightforward challenge for one character can be near-impossible for another. By itself, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Kids on Bikes adds other mechanics to make things interesting:

  • Exploding Dice: If you roll the highest value on your die (eg. a 6 on a d6), you roll it again and add the values together. With a bit of luck, a character rolling a d4 could end up doing something truly amazing.
  • Adversity Tokens: Whenever a character fails a check, they receive an adversity token, which they can use to get a +1 bonus on their check. A player can spend more than one at a time, and can even use them to improve another player’s check. Some strengths also use adversity tokens as a resource, allowing characters to spend them for other benefits. For instance, a character with the Treasure Hunter strength can use an Adversity Token to find a useful item in their surroundings.
  • Planned Actions vs. Snap Decisions: Every check is either a planned action or a snap decision. For the former, characters can take half the value of their die (eg. 10 on a d20) to succeed on their check, as long as this matches or beats the difficulty of the check. You can’t do this on a snap decision check, and other players can’t use their adversity tokens to help you.

Combat uses this system as well, except the GM doesn’t set a numerical difficulty for the check. Instead, the attacker and defender each roll their own die, usually Fight for the attacker and Flight or Brawn for the defender. The difference between the rolls determines the outcome of the fight. If the defender’s roll is equal to or greater than the attacker’s, the attack is ineffective. However, if the attacker’s roll is higher, they’ll deal some damage, the severity depending on the difference between the rolls, from a grazing hit to a death blow. If the defender is still up and wants to fight back, the roles swap and the dice are rolled again. Because there are no hit points, everything is handled narratively, and a single roll could end a fight.

Overall, the Kids on Bikes system is incredibly simple. The book encourages failing forward, not only through the use of adversity tokens but in the language it uses to describe failure. The system is meant to guide the narrative decisions your characters make, not bind them. This makes for smooth play with fewer dice rolls than other systems, although the game is not without its clunky bits. The difference between planned actions and snap decisions can be arbitrary, and combat can be a bit of a slog, especially when an enemy just won’t go down. For the most part, the system knows how to stay out of its own way, leading to a better game as a result.

Powered Characters

From E.T. to Eleven, characters with strange abilities have often been part of 80’s adventures. Kids on Bikes refers to these as powered characters. This isn’t an option the players can play, but a character that they control collectively. This is done with aspects, bite-sized parts of the powered character that are written on cards and passed out to the players. When an aspect becomes relevant, the player with that aspect turns the card sideways to indicate that they are taking narrative control of the powered character. Any player can activate any aspect, but narrative control remains in the hands of the player who controls that aspect. These aspects can vary wildly, from “sarcastic” to “able to control the weather.” In theory, this helps to make the powered character feel like a part of the group rather than just another NPC. In practice, however, spreading out the aspects and narrative control of the powered character can be confusing, and because some aspects are more pertinent than others (like the actual psychic powers) some players may end up controlling the powered character more than others. While making the powered character a collective character is an interesting idea, it falls kind of flat and can lead to the powered character fading into the background.

Besides aspects, powered characters have their own specific system for psychic abilities, which use Psychic Energy Tokens (PE Tokens). Using the powered character’s abilities starts the same way as any other check, with the GM setting a numerical value for the difficulty. Then, the player making the check will spend one PE Token and roll 2d4, subtracting the roll from the target number. If the result is zero or negative the attempt succeeds. If the result is one or greater, the player can either spend PE Tokens to increase their roll (thus decreasing the overall result towards zero) or the attempt fails.

Confused? You’re not the only one. The powered character system is the major drawback of Kids on Bikes. The “roll 2d4 and subtract it from the difficulty” system feels somewhat arbitrary, with no precedent in the rules. Combine this with the fact that the book doesn’t have rules for setting the difficulty of a powered character’s check, and this system feels like an afterthought. Supernatural abilities are an inherent component of the strange 80’s adventures this RPG tries to emulate, and it’s a shame that this aspect of the game isn’t as robust as it could be.

Information for the GM

I’ll be honest here. When I was preparing to run this game, I completely skipped this section, and no situation has come up in my games that had me rushing to it for help. The first few pages are about player safety, expanding on the Setting Boundaries section found earlier in the book. It encourages GM’s to create a gaming environment that is supportive and safe for all players, as well as giving players ways to stop the action if they’re feeling uncomfortable, relying on pre-existing systems such as Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool. While this is not something that has been needed in my games (we’ve all been playing together for years), it’s a welcome addition, especially for groups who might not know each other as well.

Beyond safety precautions, this section has advice for GM’s on crafting stories and adventures for their games. This advice goes from the general (discuss the desired tone of the game with your players) to the specific (use the rumors from the World-Building phase to craft your story). The book also stresses the importance of shared narrative control here, making sure the players have more of a say in what’s going on than in a typical game of D&D. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. For instance, there is zero information on creating NPC’s and no examples of NPC’s to throw in your games. The book forces you to figure out how to handle the NPC’s your players will run into on your own which is disappointing. Overall, this is not the most useful section, unless you’re absolutely new to running an RPG. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The Appendices

This section holds much of the game’s important information, such as the aspects used by powered characters and the tropes used for character creation. There’s not a wasted page in the appendices, and you’ll be referring to them often.


While I would definitely recommend this game for certain play groups, I can’t give it a blanket recommendation. If you want a light system and the theme interests you, you’ll have a lot of fun with Kids on Bikes. However, the lack of pertinent GM information and lackluster powered character system makes it difficult to recommend this to new GM’s. A game like this is best for groups who have played together before. But considering this is a $25 RPG, you don’t have much to lose in giving it a try.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #68 – Breakout 2019 Panel – Running a Good Con Game

13 June 2019 - 5:00am

This week’s episode is a convention panel recorded at Breakout 2019 in Toronto, Ontario. Senda moderates for panelists Ang, Camdon, and the self-described gnome-adjacent Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios for a discussion about running good con games. Will this good advice be enough to keep these gnomes (and their gnome-adjacent friend) out of the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #68 – Breakout 2019 Panel – Running a Good Con Game

Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd on Twitter, and also at her shows @PandasTalkGames and @sasgeekpodcast.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and see pictures of her cats at @orikes13 on Instagram.

Follow Camdon at @camdon on Twitter and check out his website

Follow Chris Spivey and Darker Hue Studios @darker_hue on Twitter and check out the Darker Hue Studios website.

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 Expanse Roleplaying Game Review

11 June 2019 - 4:00am

A few years ago, I saw a lot of chatter about a science fiction book series. I had never heard of it before, but I decided that it had been a while since I picked up a good sci-fi book, so I gave it a try. Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series, is now one of my favorite novels.

To call The Expanse hard science fiction misses out on a lot of nuance, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Expanse is. There is action, political maneuvering, mercenary adventures, and noir detective action going on, and that’s before you get to the really weird stuff. If you were to make an RPG of the setting, you would have to cover a lot of ground to capture the feel.

On that note, let’s look at Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game. Based on their AGE System, the same underlying rules that are used for the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game, this one is tackling a completely different genre.


 This review is based on the PDF of the RPG, which is 260 pages in length. The book is full color and features a copious amount of artwork. All of the artwork is impressive, but of special note is that the artwork is based on the novel series. My personal preference when it comes to adaptations is to see a wide range of interpretations, so I’m all for this.

There are plenty of half-page images introducing chapters, with many headers and sidebars to break up text into more readable pieces of data. There are also full-page images introducing some of the larger sections, as well as a two-page spread of the solar system. There is a two-page index, two pages for a character sheet, and the Churn Tracker, in addition to the regular material. This is a very attractive book.

Foreword, The Last Flight of the Cassandra, Introduction

 The book is introduced by the authors of the novel series, giving a brief summary of the history of the setting, including the fact that it was once the framework of a tabletop RPG campaign. In addition to the foreword, the authors also wrote a short story that is included at the beginning of the book, detailing a day in the life of a freighter crew. Finally, we get a quick primer on the rules used in the system, mainly the 3d6 resolution method used.

Anyone familiar with other AGE System games may pick up on the fact that the third die used to roll checks in the game is called the Drama Die in this iteration, although there is more on that later. While this section has the standard quick pitch explanation of roleplaying that many games have, I was surprised at how much time the introduction spent on explaining group dynamics and making sure that everyone at the table respects one another and gels as a group.

Player’s Section

 The next section of the book is dubbed the Player’s Section, and this is subdivided into the following chapters:

  • Game Basics
  • Character Creation
  • Character Traits
  • Technology and Equipment
  • Game Play
  • Spaceships
  • Future History
  • Earth
  • Mars
  • The Belt
  • The Outers
Game Basics

In this section, we get more information on why the Stunt Die from previous AGE games gets a new name this time around. The Drama Die is used to determine several ancillary story elements whenever a check is made. It can break ties, determine the degree of success, and also determine if other random elements happen when making a check.

Characters in the setting have a resource called Fortune. You can spend Fortune to reduce damage done to your characters (not entirely unlike hit points), but Fortune is also a resource you can spend to change your dice results, although you can only change one die of the three you roll, and changing the Drama Die costs extra.

Ability Tests function in a manner similar to many RPGs. Roll 3d6, add a modifier, see if you match the difficulty number. The Expanse also includes Advanced Tests and Challenge Tests. Advanced Tests have a Success Threshold. Just rolling the target number doesn’t finish the task, but instead, you check the Drama Die against the Threshold. Once the total of the Drama Dice from each successful check match the Threshold, the task is accomplished. This can be used for tasks that might take a while, where the GM only allows a check once in a while, or in a situation where there is a time crunch, to see how long the check takes.

Challenge Tests are similar to Advanced Tests, except each time a character fails an Ability Test, a complication happens in the narrative. This might be a separate situation that has to be mitigated with an unrelated Ability Test, an opponent appearing, or the difficulty of the core task increasing.

There are a number of conditions that can be applied to a character, and a character that takes damage that they can’t mitigate with Fortune can take some of these conditions to further mitigate damage.

In addition to what players may be familiar with regarding terms like narrative time and action time (being out or in initiative order), there are also Interludes. Interludes are essentially downtime, where the GM can let the PCs know how much they can accomplish before they get back to the main action of the campaign.

I really like how the Advanced and Challenge Tests work, because they feel like a more mechanically structured Skill Challenge mechanic that is explained in a logical manner and doesn’t feel too far removed from the narrative. I also like the idea that Fortune does serve a similar function to hit points, but allowing it to be spent for something else reinforces that it’s not equivalent to health or stamina.

Character Creation

Next up is actual character creation. Characters can roll randomly for their stats on a chart, which yields results from -2 to 4, or they can use a standard array or a point buy system, but in this case, the range allowed is only 0 to 3. As you may surmise, these abilities are similar to abilities in other games, but rather than having a score that provides a bonus, the score and the bonus are the same. The abilities in the game are:

  • Accuracy
  • Communication
  • Constitution
  • Dexterity
  • Fighting
  • Intelligence
  • Perception
  • Strength
  • Willpower

Anyone familiar with d20 games may note that the wider array of abilities means that there aren’t as many definitive “must have” combat stats. Accuracy is used to shoot, but perception adds to ranged damage. Fighting makes it easier to hit in melee, but strength adds to damage.

The three origins in the game are Belter, Earther, and Martian. These origins have different charts to use when deriving social class, but the main difference between them depends on whether the characters are operating at higher gravity (which is normal for Earthers) or very low gravity (where Belters excel).

Once a character determines their social class, there are charts that determine their Backgrounds. Backgrounds are what provides ability bonuses, focuses, and talents. After determining your Background, you can generate your Profession, which provides more focuses or talents. While each of these items can be randomly generated, you can also pick from the lists if you have a specific character in mind.

The next step is to determine a Drive. There are twelve predetermined drives given in the book, and they provide a Quality and a Downfall, which are mainly roleplaying guides, and also a choice of talents to add to the others you have gained.

The following steps will also generate an income score. Rather than tracking individual currencies, characters have a wealth score. Succeed on a test, and you buy something, but then your score goes down. Get a temporary bonus on a job, and you get a bonus that you can apply to a single roll. Over time, Income can go up, if that is one of the rewards the GM provides for the adventures the PCs are on.

In this section, we don’t get much of a preview of talents or specializations, but an Ability Focus is essentially a skill, and some of the Focuses indicate that you can’t make an Ability Test to do work related to that Focus without the Focus. There is also a chart that shows what advancements the PCs get when they gain a level. Levels are gained whenever the GM deems that it makes sense to do so.

It feels a little odd that there isn’t a big level by level table summarizing what characters get at each level, just a description of what your choices are when you level up. I’m a big fan of bonuses and focuses coming from Backgrounds and Professions, and I like that the Drive has a little bit of mechanical reinforcement in addition to the roleplaying guides.

Character Traits

The character traits section goes into what Focuses fall under what Ability. It also explains what the various Talents do, and how Specializations work. Talents have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier. They may or may not also have a prerequisite, such as a specific Ability Score. These usually provide special situational bonuses, re-rolls, or exemptions from other existing rules.

Specializations are very similar to Talents, and also have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier, but usually have a broader application.

Technology and Equipment

Technology and Equipment come next. I was a bit surprised to notice that most weapons are very broadly defined (i.e. a pistol style weapon does X damage, etc.). What denotes a big flashy pistol versus a smaller, more concealable one is Item Qualities and Item Flaws. These might provide a bonus to hit, bonuses to intimidation, or it may require the user to spend an action to ready the item, or it may quit working if an Ability Test is failed and a certain number is rolled on the Drama Die.

Given its special and very restricted role in the setting, Power Armor gets a little more detail than regular armors, but it is still basically comprised of various qualities. That said, never, ever make Bobbie Draper mad.

Game Play

The next section is Game Play, which fleshes out some of the rules touched upon earlier. If you roll doubles on your tests, you can spend the Drama Die on stunts, and there are charts for the following special groups of stunts:

  • Chase
  • General Combat
  • Gun
  • Grappling
  • Melee
  • Vehicle
  • Exploration
  • Infiltration
  • Investigation
  • Attitude
  • Membership & Reputation
  • Social

This seems like a lot, but for the most part, it’s just a matter of reading something that seems applicable to the situation and spending the stunt points on that effect. The worst aspect of this is reading through the entries to see what all of them do. Until you start to remember some of your options, the tables might lead to a bit of option paralysis.

In combat, if you take any damage that you can’t mitigate, your character is taken out of the scene, and given a condition dictated by the character that took them out. If someone is trying to kill you, if you are taken out, you can end up with the dying condition. If you decide you are taken out of the fight early, you can “roll over,” and assign yourself a condition that would be appropriate, and you are no longer part of the encounter. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see a mechanic that reminded me of Fate in this book, and I like the idea that the real damage isn’t represented by numbers, but by conditions.

This chapter also has a good deal of information on running investigations in the system. In essence, the point is to create a number of clues that lead to a final location. Clues should be found, but Ability Tests can be used to gain additional information, or to skip clues in the chain that leads to the final location of the investigation.

The specific Interlude Activities are also defined in this section. These include requirements and resolutions. For example, in some cases, you just need to spend time in an interlude doing something to do it, and that’s what you “spent” your Interlude on. But in some cases, like building something new, you make a check for each instance you can take the time in your Interlude to work on that item.

I appreciate that the book spends the amount of time that it does on investigations. Not only has that been important to several of the novels, but investigations, in general, are adventure elements that come up a lot in RPGs, and having a guide to what checks should accomplish is welcome. I also like that the chase rules give you a reason to know why one character is slightly faster than another, but I’m a little sad that the game uses standard movement instead of range bands (especially since the next chapter expressly does use range bands for starships).


There are actually several pages in this section dedicated to actual science and the scientific speculations that make the space travel in The Expanse possible. It’s written in an interesting and engaging manner, but strictly speaking, the chapter doesn’t really start in with any game rules until about five pages in.

Since this is more of a hard science fiction setting, there are charts showing the average travel time between planets and the time it takes to send transmissions from various points in the solar system. Ships have qualities just like the equipment in other sections. The hull size of a ship allows it to roll dice to reduce incoming damage, and if any damage gets through, there are conditions that the ship can suffer. Ships can also “roll over” like characters, leaving a fight but voluntarily taking on a condition.

One interesting aspect of combat is that the game simulates how weapons work in the setting. That means that the person targeting the weapons is pointing the computer guidance at someone, but doesn’t roll. There is a difficulty to dodge or shoot down the incoming attack that is rolled by the defender. It makes sense, but it feels odd, and I would like to see this system in action.

Future History, Earth, Mars, The Belt, The Outers 

The next chapters detail the history of the setting, laying out how Earth unified under the UN, colonized Mars, stagnated, and how the Belt and the outer planets were reached. It explains the tension between all of these locations, recent events, and the corporate shenanigans that led to a dangerous alien contagion spreading across various locations.

In addition to historical and geographical information on the locations and the various power groups like the OPA, these chapters also have stats for a few of the more famous characters from the novels, detailed in the relevant sections (Avisarila in the general history section, Holden in the section on Earth, Bobbie in the section on Mars, etc.).

Game Master’s Section

This section is comprised of the following chapters:

  • Game Mastering
  • Threats
  • Rewards
  • The Expanse Series
  • To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Game Mastering

The Game Mastering section has solid advice on how to run the game, as well as some specific tips on how to use this particular system. There are guides to structuring adventures and combat, and how to determine proper opposition.

This section also has what is called The Churn, a mechanic for tracking ongoing unforeseen complications. The Churn Pool has a list of triggers that cause it to grow, and at various points the GM is advised to add new effects to the ongoing narrative. There are suggestions for different types of encounters, such as challenges, hazards, investigation, or social encounters.

There is also a pretty exhaustive list of GMing styles and player styles detailed in the GM section of the book. The most important aspect of the chapter is probably the Unspoken Rules, a section that details important things like being inclusive, checking in with players to make sure they are comfortable at the game, and making sure that players are feeling accepted.

This is a very extensive chapter, and its good material, but I really wish the Churn was less a set of “mile markers” for introducing things, and more of an active pool that a GM could spend at various times for defined effects. It also feels like the very detailed discussion of GM and Player types is more of a “200 level” game mastery discussion, and might make someone newer to running games feel like they aren’t doing it right if they can’t identify and act on all of those defined types. I think the final section does a good job stressing the importance of everyone’s comfort at the table, but I wish there had been some discussion of active safety tools during the game session.

Threats, Rewards

Threats include not just adversaries like thugs or corporate experiments gone wrong, but also hazards like radiation, and how they might play out in an encounter. Rewards include when to increase Income bonuses and when to give temporary boosts, but also honorifics, memberships, and relationship bonds.

Honorifics might provide different bonuses depending on what the character is known for—they might help boost an ally, or give them an edge if their opponent knows who they are and what they are good at. Memberships are ranked, and provide bonuses when dealing with other members of that organization. Relationship bonds are also ranked, and provide bonus stunt points any time the object of the Relationship Bond is affected by a check.

I would have to see how often it comes up in a regular game, but I do like the idea of the relationship bond making it easier to do something extra when your good friend/significant other is part of the situation.

The Expanse Series

The final section before the sample adventure details different styles of campaigns that you might play. The steps presented include finding a theme for the game, determining where and when the series is set, then finding what the actual series will be. Examples include Freelancers, Military, Political, and Rebellion, and also discusses how much you may want to include canon information in the game.

I like the sample campaign series that are presented. Sometimes in a licensed game, it can be easy to be stuck in a rut, trying to determine how to do the same thing the main protagonists are doing, but in a different way. In this case, there is a wide range of ideas inspired by, but not identical to, the paths taken by the main characters of the novels. It probably helps that the novels have a main crew as well as ancillary characters to weave criminal investigations, politics, diplomacy, and military action in around the main plot.

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

Starting adventures in games are a great way to see how the developers intended the game to work. Obviously these should feel appropriate for the setting, but in this case, I am really impressed with how much this feels like something I would expect from The Expanse, without touching too much on the main storyline from the books.

You have the chance to interact with an important character from the books, but only in a more peripheral manner. Beyond that, the characters get hired to investigate something that leads them to corporate impropriety and a dangerously overindulgent personal goal, and its probably one of the better starting adventures I can remember in a core rulebook.

Yam Seng Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

This rulebook adds some amazingly versatile tools to the overall AGE System framework. The versatility of Ability Tests gives the game the mechanical impact to make action scenes other than combat meaningful, and the investigation rules do a great job of giving purpose to Ability Tests without letting the PCs hit a dead end. The way Fortune works, and the interaction with the combat system conditions, feels like a great trade-off between the grittier feel of the setting and the needs of the game’s ongoing shared narrative.

Vedi Fong

I wish The Churn had been a little bit more of a dynamic tool for the GM. I’m not sure that the time spent on the various GM and Player types was the most practical for newer GMs. I wish the book had spent a little more time on active table safety as well as discussing safety in the broader context of the campaign.

Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

I think this is my favorite iteration of the AGE System rules. There are so many useful tools, and enough bits to make a game interesting without adding in bells and whistles like powers or magic. If you like the setting, and you don’t mind your narrative elements having some mechanical impact, you should enjoy this game. Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.

What are your favorite sci-fi RPGs? If you like hard science fiction, what can a game do to express that successfully at the table? We want to hear from you, so please comment below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design


10 June 2019 - 5:00am

Obligatory recap: I’ve read about a system for creating urbancrawls (similar to hexcrawls but set in a city) from The Alexandrian. I had also been enjoying the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson and their strange magic setting. Enter this series of articles, where I use The Alexandrian’s urbancrawl system to design my own urbancrawl with a strange magic theme.


We left off last time with:

  • a list of districts
  • a definition of what a neighborhood was
  • a list of layers we were going to use
  • a rough map
  • a neighborhood list
  • neighborhood breakdowns for the Temple, Palace, Ruins, Crafting, and Bazaar districts

This is the last installment where I outline neighborhoods. This time I’m tackling the final districts: the slums. Next time I’ll start working with layers (multiple encounter keys).

Here’s the (very rough) map. It’s just a set of neighborhoods surrounded by the city walls and 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 brain space and time while being subject to change if the neighborhood map or list changes under it.

  • S – Slums: This is actually two districts, the northern and southern slums, noted as NS and SS. 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. Unless otherwise noted, homes in slum neighborhoods are simple and usually one room. Shops are mostly one or two rooms, and contain an attached bedroom for the proprietor. Public areas are small, poorly kept and often inhabited by those with nowhere else to go.
    • NS1 – Chokestreet: This slum is downwind and downstream from the crafting district. Though the crafting district is supposed to shunt the worst of its pollution outside the city, a fair amount of it ends up here. The air in this slum is foul and on poor days difficult to see through. Water is contaminated with runoff, mostly undrinkable and is occasionally flammable. Residents will often travel to the edges of the neighborhood to procure potable water.
      Landmark: The Pit – At the lowest point of the neighborhood, the accumulated pollution creates a permanent eye burning fog. Lower still is a pool of polluted water and runoff. Occasional gouts of brightly colored flame light up the smog.  
    • NS2 – The Itch: Much like the animal pens that this neighborhood borders, residents here deal in animals and animal products. However, they deal more with small animals, offal and the like. In addition, because of the close quarters, stores of feed, offal, bedding and waste, the neighborhood crawls with all sorts of vermin. Rats are plentiful, but more common are bugs of all description, some as large as a man’s hand. Vermin traps and few very small windows (sometimes covered with firm cloth or rarely slices of horn to keep vermin out) are common features. Public areas have a notable lack of water features, as they tend to breed flying insects.
      Landmark: The Hive – a cluster of small buildings in this neighborhood has been taken over by a hive of giant bees. These bugs are rarely dangerous if left alone, but they emit a loud noise and can be seen flying about the city. A few residents take precautions and harvest as much honey as they dare.
    • NS3 – The Bloom: This neighborhood was unremarkable if poor, before the accident that destroyed the ruined district. The accident caused a number of issues here. Most immediately, a number of buildings were destroyed and many have yet to be repaired. In addition, many refugees from the now ruined magic school have taken up residence. The population of the neighborhood is swollen with low level mages and alchemists. Finally, one of the fragments of the college that rained down on the streets contained spores for dozens of strains of fungus. In a wet city like Juntial, these spores spread rapidly. Structures in this neighborhood often sprout many varied types of fungus and residents regularly scrape their homes clean to avoid damage.
      Landmark: The lost house – Perhaps the first structure to be hit with the fungal debris, this building stands completely covered in several feet of fungus of unusual size and colors.
    • NS4 – Catwalks: This neighborhood is densely packed and has the occasional taller building similar to The Heights. It also features a number of hastily assembled catwalks over the narrow streets. Braver residents will often travel via catwalk as a shortcut. Residences here are simple, and densely clustered. Thought not all of them have ladders, stairs, and ropes to the roof, many do.  Only a few have second stories. Public areas are often on the roofs of other buildings.
      Landmark: Candletower – Towards the center of the neighborhood is a stone tower and short attending building . This is Candletower, ostensibly the home of a local noble. However, it receives few visitors, so little is known about what goes on inside.
    • SS1 – The Warrens: More an extension of The Maze than a neighborhood in its own right, the warrens are made up of densely packed shifting lean-tos and tents clogging the streets of an already tight neighborhood. Paths within change from day to day and there is no room for mounts or vehicles of any sort. Buildings are small, simple and sometimes divided into multiple tight rooms. Public areas are nonexistent.
      Landmark: Garbage Fortunes – roaming the outskirts of the warrens with the rest of the trash vendors is a bent old crone who tells fortunes. Her price is simply a handful of garbage, which is thrown into her trash fire. Strange, but she is a regular fixture of the neighborhood and her fortunes are of good quality.
    • SS2 – Old City: This neighborhood was one of the earliest in the city. Originally typical if snug buildings with stone foundations, most of the buildings were lost in an attack by the native inhabitants of the swamp. Rebuilt later, most are now only enough wooden construction over the old foundation to permit entrance and exit. A few of the original buildings survive, towering over their now diminutive neighbors. Because the houses and shops are so short, streets are lined with local fast-growing woody plants to form a privacy screen.
      Landmark: The Dust Pit – Most places in Juntial are constantly damp, especially the lower class districts and lower elevations. Thus the sunken foundations in Old City are perpetually in danger of flooding and seeping moisture. A few of them, however, hold enchantments from before their ruin that keep them dry. The Dust pit is one of these enchanted foundations. Filled with dry sand and silt, it is in use as a fighting pit. Seating is arranged outside the foundation. Barkers and pennants advertise the fights.
    • SS3 – Artisan’s Alley: During the upgrade of the Raised Market, each founder hired various types of workers. Just before completion of the work, one of the founders mysteriously disappeared. It was discovered that he had nowhere near enough money to pay the workers and artists that had been working on the project on his behalf. Many of them were not from Juntial, and now with no pay for their labor couldn’t afford to return home. Of these, a good number moved into the nearby slums, opened up shop and took on apprentices. Several generations later, the neighborhood is festive, bohemian, and adorned with artistry of all types. Homes and shops are simple but well decorated in eclectic styles. Public areas showcase artworks of both permanent and temporary nature.
      Landmark: Founders Square – One of the pieces of art that was commissioned and never paid for was a larger than life statue of the founder responsible for stiffing an entire neighborhood. Several of the artists stole it in a drunken midnight horse cart raid and erected it in the middle of their new neighborhood. Since, it and the square in which it rests has been routinely defaced with mocking artwork depicting the subject in an endless panoply of unflattering and rude representations.

That’s all our neighborhoods, a description and a landmark for each. Though these may be fleshed out more or tweaked as I go, for the purposes of this article series, I’m going to move on. Next time we’re going to look at layers of encounters.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Using Someone Else’s Setting

7 June 2019 - 5:00am

Here in a few weeks, I’ll be firing up a new campaign based on The Expanse (books/TV/RPG), so this has gotten me thinking about “using someone else’s setting” quite a bit. This is an especially potent concept for The Expanse. There are (as of this writing) eight books with a 9th coming in 2020. There are also 4 seasons of TV available to stream on Amazon Prime. In addition to all this, the deep origins of the setting come from an RPG that Ty Franck ran for Daniel Abraham and some other friends. The reason I mention Ty and Daniel specifically is that Ty created the setting we now know as The Expanse and Daniel was one of his players. They’ve teamed up to create the pen name “James S.A. Corey” to write the novels.

Green Ronin Kickstarted their version of The Expanse RPG, and as I type this, the books are in transit to my house. To say that I’m “excited” for the arrival of this material is a weakness of the English language. To say that I’m “nervous” about doing the setting justice is also a weakness of the English language.

How am I going to handle these nerves and excitement? I’m going to work with my group to make it “Our Expanse” while we’re at the table together.

Make It Your Own

Any experienced author will tell you that their words are no longer theirs once the book is published. The words belong to the reader. They get to make of the words what they will. There is no wrong interpretation, but there are many right interpretations, including the author’s.

There is no wrong interpretation.Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

This means the author (or in this case, the team of game designers) has their intents and purposes for the game, but when the game hits each table out there in the world, the gaming group gets to turn those intents and purposes to their own game. This means they are making it their own. This is part of releasing a game into the world. Again, there is no wrong interpretation of the setting, but there are as many right viewpoints on the setting as there are gaming groups playing the game.


How do we interpret an existing setting? That’s a hard question to answer because we all bring numerous perspectives, backgrounds, traumas, loves, dislikes, and angles to the table. This means there are many ways to interpret the setting that’s published in the game (or on TV or in a series of novels).

The first step is to understand (as best you can) what currently exists in the existing canon. This is fairly easy with a “small” body of work like The Expanse. If you take on Star Trek, Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, or another large property, then things get more difficult. Don’t try to absorb it all. That pathway leads to insanity and a huge waste of time. The best thing to do is to focus on what’s in the game book(s). This is what the creators of the game wanted you to focus on, so it’s probably a good idea to follow their lead.

The second step is to find a place to drop your personal story and characters. This is the sweet spot because you’ll make this area your own for you and your players. This is where you’ll make your changes to the setting to fit your needs.

Once you’ve identified your target, dive deep into that area. Absorb even more than you already have, but avoid rabbit holes of research that can lead you astray from your target. (To quote a famous space battle scene, “Stay on target.”)

At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article because of their “low or zero prep” philosophies. I agree with their approach to some extent, but this is more research than prep work. Yes, this can be time consuming, so don’t go overboard. Make sure you have index cards or some other note taking method handy. You’ll want to call out page numbers, references, and brief snippets of brilliance that you find. You’ll also want to note what you intend to change or use in the setting.

 At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Once you have this knowledge at hand, note the changes or shifts you want to make. You’ll want to create a brief list of bullet notes for the players to let those “in the know” what’s going to be changed. Also, during your session zero, you’ll want to explicitly call out that there will be changes and that if some “misinformation” about the setting is used, then it will become “canon at the table” for this particular game.


Here’s where a problem arises. If you’re using a setting that has deep lore (see my list above) or has been around a long while, then there is a risk that a player at the table will know more about it than you. This happened to me in a Dresden Files game I ran. I’ve read the books, the short stories, and seen the TV show (no comment on that last one). However, my brain doesn’t hold the massive amounts of knowledge and information contained within that lore. There were many things I got wrong or didn’t have answers to.

There are two approaches for this player.

Lean on the player. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The first is the least desirable. This approach is to shutdown the player and let them know that their intense depth of knowledge isn’t helpful in the game. This allows you to run the setting as your own, but it will also alienate your player(s) who have this knowledge. It does allow for more freedom, but it’s making use of something valuable within your game.

This leads to the second option. Lean on the player. Make it known that your knowledge is lacking. Admit to the group that you’ll welcome input and advice on how to handle the setting. Also let them know that you get the final call on how things will go in the game at the table. Once these two “ground rules” are in place, don’t be embarrassed about turning to the player for help with getting the little details correct. This will empower the “know-it-alls” and bring them deeper into your game.


Relax. Someone else may have created the setting, but this version belongs entirely to your group. Own it. Make it your own and interpret the setting as you see fit.

Most of all.

Enjoy the setting!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf: Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (Second Edition)

5 June 2019 - 5:00am

Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new or brand new to the hobby and wanting to explore what’s out there, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!

Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (Second Edition)

Legacy: Life Among the Ruins from UFO Press and Modiphius Entertainment is a Powered by the Apocalypse game designed for one Game Master (GM) and 2-5 players to tell the epic, era-spanning tale of rebuilding society after a cataclysmic fall. Apocalypse World, the progenitor of the Powered by the Apocalypse movement, is a game about surviving the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland. In its wake arose an army of games based on similar design principles but exploring different settings and themes from classic fantasy like Dungeon World to imaginative futurism like Headspace. When Legacy first emerged in 2015, a game about surviving the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland, I mused that we’d come full circle with a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was once again about…well, the apocalypse.

Legacy is a different game from Apocalypse World, though, with a different focus and a very different style. In this edition of The Indie Game Shelf, I’ll be focusing on the second edition of Legacy, published in 2018. The second edition is an update of the first, as opposed to it being a different set of rules. The core of the game remains, but gameplay is improved and material expanded by the second edition, so I recommend the second edition over the first.

The Story

Legacy is a game squarely set in the post-apocalypse genre, but where the game differs from most others is in the scope of the narrative. The stories told in this game span generations, truly living up to the game’s premise of world-building. Players in this game do control characters as in other RPGs, but the main interface between players and the game world are the Family playbooks, which represent whole groups of people across the duration of the world’s development. The framing of the game’s fiction zooms in and out between the two perspectives, with some stories being personal to Characters and others taking a wider, more epic view of the activities and relationships of Families. In this context, a Family is not necessarily a group of people related biologically; they can be united by ideology, culture, circumstance, or anything that forges a bond of loyalty between people. Families grow and change, are driven by various purposes, have relationships with each other, face threats, and can pursue grand, world-changing events in the game called Wonders.

Like in many Powered by the Apocalypse games, the rules present a style of play more than a detailed setting. There is assumed to have previously occurred some great disaster that tore civilization down, and the game’s story is meant to take place in the aftermath, but the details of the world and its history are left to each game group to decide. However, Legacy provides rules for determining these details through playbook choice and configuration. The selection of a playbook can describe aspects of the game’s world, but the choices made within that playbook refine the setting’s history.

 The game mechanics of Legacy drive toward changing the in-fiction world during play, from character death to the mechanics of Wonders, both of which create huge narrative and mechanical changes to the game which are felt for the rest of the campaign. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailFor example, choosing the Family playbook “The Order of the Titan,” which describes a group dedicated to hunting, fighting, or scavenging gigantic alien beasts called Behemoths, means that you now know that Behemoths are a part of your game world. Once a playbook is chosen, however, then a stat line must be selected, and the choice of stat line might dictate “your studies woke the Behemoths and set them loose” or “the Behemoths brought the Fall to the world.” In this way, Family and Character setup also result in setting up the world, not only historically but also geographically with the building of a collaborative world map. (I love games that use collaborative map-building!)

In addition to a Family playbook, players also begin by selecting a Character playbook to represent an exceptional member of the Family who will serve as one of the protagonists of the story. These playbooks start with an archetype (the Elder, the Scavenger, the Firebrand, etc.) and are customized from there. A campaign of Legacy spans generations, so Characters come and go as the game progresses. While players control one Family to usher through the rebuilding of the world, they’ll get the chance to play many different Characters over the course of the campaign.

The focus of the stories of Legacy lie in the building of the world. This is only partially due to the pre-game or start-of-game “worldbuilding” as I use the term in discussing other games. The game mechanics of Legacy drive toward changing the in-fiction world during play, from character death to the mechanics of Wonders, both of which create huge narrative and mechanical changes to the game which are felt for the rest of the campaign.

The Game

As a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, Legacy sports core mechanics familiar to anyone who plays Apocalypse World or any other games of that design family. Playbooks have stats which modify 2d6 rolls triggered by the fiction and resulting in different outcomes defined by rule packets called moves. Legacy also adds an advantage/disadvantage mechanic to die rolls (replacing the usual +1 or -1 forward or ongoing), but the biggest structural difference from other PbtA games is the concurrent use of multiple playbooks by each player.

Players in Legacy control two different playbooks at any given time: a Family and a Character. The Family is the focus of the “zoomed out” epic view of the world’s story, and a player will generally control and evolve a single Family over the course of a campaign. Characters, however, both advance and retire at a faster pace, starring in the “zoomed in” views of the fiction, telling their stories and then moving on to be replaced. Families have one set of basic moves for their fictions, and Characters draw from a separate set.

Family playbooks have stats and playbook moves. They also have Traditions, which is basically like the Looks section of other PbtA playbooks, the relationship mechanic is a currency called “Treaty” (as opposed to things like “Hx,” “Bonds,” or “Strings” in other games), Doctrine and Lifestyle provide mechanical tweaks based on a Family’s ideology or attitude and their population’s geographical arrangement, and Resources and Assets decide what a Family needs to survive, what they have to offer, and what special equipment they can offer their Characters. Each Family playbook also comes with an Alliance Move governing how they gain Treaty, and Inheritance, which confers benefits to that Family’s Characters and also contributes to quick character creation, a valuable tool for adding side characters to many stories.

Character playbooks similarly have stats and playbook moves. They have Looks and Backstory as well, but it bears mentioning that there is no Character relationship mechanic as there is for Families. Characters also have a Role which broadly describes their place in their Family’s society. A Character’s Role changes during the game and serves as both a character advancement marker (in place of XP) as well as a source of additional mechanics. The Harm track contains descriptors and mechanical effects unique to each Character playbook, and finally the Death Move describes how the Character leaving play affects the world after they’re gone.

The overall story of the campaign is divided into Ages. At the end of each Age, a time-passing move is triggered which describes affects to each Family, the world map gets updated, and Family playbooks are updated to suit the new fiction. During play, Families also have the option of devoting their surplus Resources toward Wonders, world-changing events on a massive scale. When a Family completes a Wonder, it is a special kind of advancing an Age, and it guarantees at the very least a change in the world map and mechanical effects felt by every Family in the game. A variable amount of fictional time passing between Ages means that the world can have changed very little or quite a lot before the next Age begins. The game allows tremendous opportunity for the complete exploration of the rise (and perhaps fall) of an entire world.

The Shelf

The second edition of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is available for purchase in print and PDF. You can also check out Titanomachy (free PDF download or purchasable print-on-demand softcover), the quickstart for Legacy which contains core rules, pregenerated characters, and a setting starter so you can jump right into playing. If you’re looking for expansions, the Worlds of Legacy collection offers a variety of alternate settings and new playbooks and moves you can bring to the game, like the political sci-fi of a new planet colony in Worldfall or the evolution of sentient species at the dawn of time in Primal Pathways.

If you’re looking for similar games, there’s certainly no shortage of post-apocalyptic RPGs to be found, from classics like Gamma World (all 30+ years and seven editions of it) to more recent offerings like INDE’s dark fantasy-style Shattered or Hebanon Games’ intersection of zombies and economics, Red Markets. The big noise is, of course, Apocalypse World, and Legacy is solidly rooted in the Apocalypse World Engine, so if you’re looking for games with similar rules, you can have your pick of the Powered by the Apocalypse catalog. If you’re more interested in the zooming-in and zooming-out style of play, definitely check out the story game Microscope from Lame Mage Productions. If you’re particularly interested in the society-building aspect, Lame Mage also offers the game Kingdom, and you could also take a look at Ziapelta Games’ Wrath of the Autarch.

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

Drawing Initiative -The Best Initiative Trick You Probably Never Thought Of

3 June 2019 - 5:18am


I was at a meetup game the other week and was watching a new GM struggle to remember the initiative order of the players and the NPCs. After the game ended, I asked if they wanted to hear a cool trick I came up with to remember initiative and track HP at the table with little prep. They said sure, and I outlined the trick that has saved my life in running D&D or action / initiative heavy games over the last few years. I call it DRAWING YOUR INITIATIVE and I can’t believe I haven’t yet written an article on it.

Drawing Your Initiative

This system is super simple, and requires a small paradigm shift in thinking, but helps out incredibly if you are the type of game master who forgets the order or names of characters / npcs often. Here’s the process.

  1. Take your sheet of scrap paper (any size will do, but a bigger one leaves room for more info) and draw the shape of the table somewhere near the top.
  2. Point from left to right and ask for players initiatives, then mark them down based on their approximate positions at the table. Bonus: Write their character names next to the initiative number.
  3. Draw a small table (or just mark it in a space at the bottom) and put in the enemies initiative and any reminders (A, B, Fighter 1, Mage Red Cloak, etc.) to denote the NPC.
  4. Draw a line under the NPC initiative and then write the current HP, marking it off and scratching it off as the NPC gets hit.

This simple visual trick merges the physical space of the table and gives you an easy reminder for the quick information you need. You can expand it by making notes next to the players and NPC names (a C for charmed, a D for disadvantage, etc.) and scratching it off is easy. If you keep the concept to a Top for PCS, Bottom for NPCS and use an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper, you’ll have plenty of expansion or note space.


Hopefully this helps some of the GMs out there who struggle with keeping track of initiative order and HP for the crunchier games. If you’ve got a clever initiative trick, I’d love to hear  about it. I’m always up for new ideas to incorporate into my games.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

X-Cards w/Alex Roberts

31 May 2019 - 2:00am

The cover art for Star Crossed. A great game and innovative use of a block tower.

As tabletop RPGs continue to spread like butter on hot toast, scores of people from all sorts of backgrounds find themselves gathered around tables to meet equally estranged strangers. This is especially true for gaming leagues, as well as the summer convention circuits, where many players will join together for a single adventure, only to never meet again.

If you’ve played around in convention games you’ve likely heard of the infamous X-Card, an index card with an X drawn on one side. Whenever a player feels uncomfortable with the subject matter, be it something being said or an in-game event, they can then either tap or raise the card to indicate their discomfort. They do not need to indicate why the subject makes them uncomfortable. The GM, as well as the other players, should then find a way to change or skip through the parts that make them uncomfortable.

As a player-safety tool, you’ll find it the most in pick-up games. However, it’s a fantastic mechanism many Gamemasters old and new can import into their own games. As it’s also part of the creative commons, creators are even able to incorporate it in their tabletop games freely.

Such was the case when I picked up my copy of Star Crossed, a two-person romantic tabletop RPG. I was pleasantly surprised to find high quality and glossy X-Card included in the game. While I’ve used one in the past, it was a delight to see a commercial game actually include one in their box. Very recently I was even able to sit down with Alex Roberts, the creator of Star Crossed and the upcoming For The Queen, and talk about her thoughts on X-Cards.

When the doc around x-cards popped up in 2012 there was a lot of buzz around it. How and when did you first hear about it?

Alex: It would have been a while later than that – 2014, maybe? I wasn’t very plugged into the broader RPG scene; I was just playing with my local group.

What were your first thoughts when you heard about it?

Alex: I was pretty dismissive! It was explained to me as a convenient way to avoid talking about serious topics at the table. I thought, hey, shouldn’t we be using our words? Let’s all be grownups about this! Let’s care for each other a little more proactively than that! It’s easy to dismiss something when you don’t do all your research on it (I hadn’t even seen the X Card document at this point) and when you haven’t been in the contexts where it becomes necessary. I hadn’t yet been in a situation where an X Card would really have helped me. I’ve been there since.

One of the main topics around x-cards is around editing content and censorship. Do you feel X-Cards limit creative freedom?

Alex: When we’re playing an RPG, we’re creating something with and for each other. All the players are creators and audience in one. It’s pure folk art; that’s what I love about roleplaying. In that context, you work within the needs and desires of your co-creators. Or you deliberately push their limits and ignore their desires I guess? I don’t know why you would want to do that. But yeah I guess the X Card would make that harder.

You have a new game, For The Queen, that deliberately lists x-cards as a game feature. I think that’s really cool, personally, especially since it’s the first I’ve seen to include it as a headlining element. Could I ask your thoughts on listing it there?

Alex: Star Crossed comes with an X Card as well, but in For The Queen it’s integral to how the game is played. Players draw question cards and then answer them, pass them to the next player, or X them out of the game. It actually helps make each playthrough unique. I was in one game with someone who kept X-ing out every question that implied cruelty or violence from the Queen, and it made for a much softer, gentler story that was no less interesting than some of the more brutal ones that can come out of the same game. I honestly believe that tools that help us articulate our desires and limits help us tell more interesting and unique stories. People are more creative when they can let their guard down, I’ve noticed.

Last question: What is your personal, or perhaps preferred, vision for the future landscape of tabletop gaming? Where do you see it going?

Alex: Honestly, for all the pain and frustration I see and experience from this weird little world, I think we’re headed in a good direction. When I see the discussions we’re finally having around labor, profit, power, care, conflict, colonialism, I feel optimistic. And I think it’s crucial to note that most of these conversations have arisen in spaces where BIPOC’s voices are being uplifted and respected more. So I think we should keep at that.

Was there anything else you wanted to say concerning X-Cards? “I just wanted to have fun. I’m really grateful we had a simple tool that made it easy for me and my friends”

Alex: Can I share a little story? I honestly think it’s more important than anything else I’ve written here.

I was once in a game very shortly after my grandfather passed away. It helped take my mind off of things, I got to connect with friends, and we told a cute and uplifting story together. But during character creation, someone said they were going to be another character’s grandpa. I immediately tapped the X Card and I think everyone was confused, but then another player who knew I was grieving – well you could see the light bulb go off above his head and he suggested an Uncle instead and we moved on!

That first player was completely within the tone and content of the game and offered his character idea with no intention of doing harm. But wow I was not up for talking about a grandfatherly relationship for the next few hours! And I would have explained why but I really didn’t want to do that either. I just wanted to have fun. I’m really grateful we had a simple tool that made it easy for me and my friends to look out for each other.

Thanks for your time, Alex. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts on what I see to be a step towards an overall positive and safe gaming environment.

Alex: Thank you for reaching out!

Despite its positive intent and implications, when talk of X-Cards first popped up in 2012 there was initially a large amount of negative buzz around it. Both players and Gamemasters alike were critical of X-Cards giving players too much power to edit content, even going as far to call using it akin to censorship. Since then, there have been major shifts in the community as a whole. It is long since past the age where tabletop gamers were stereotyped to simply be single, male, and heteronormative hermits that played their games in basements. Now we’re complex, gender- & sexuality-diverse hermits that only sometimes play in basements.

Now we’re complex, gender- & sexuality-diverse hermits that only sometimes play in basements.

As we move forward in the community we not only need to be able to look at current trends, but we need to plan for the future. We need to shape the community of tabletop RPGs and board games alike with positive checks and balances. This is especially true with settings set in older, less hospitable times. Especially since the highly popular high-fantasy is particularly rampant with uncomfortable topics.

X-Cards, in the end, are a powerful tool allowing safer navigation around complex and often upsetting topics even in unkind settings. Despite this, it’s also important to understand that X-Cards do not absolve responsibility from the GM or the players to be respectful of others; it’s simply a means for the players to healthily assert their own levels of comfort. As we continue to grow as a community of players and content creators, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to enable our own checks and balances over the content of the game.

We’re only at the start of a long climb to the top and I’m excited to see where we go.

You can find the official documentation for X-Cards by John Stavropoulos here: [LINK]
You can also find Alex Roberts’ upcoming game, For the Queen, here: [LINK]

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #67 – Inviting New Players

30 May 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Bob, J.T., and John for a discussion about inviting new players to your table. Will these gnomes’ tips for a warm welcome be enough to keep them out of the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #67 – Inviting New Players

Follow Bob at @RobertMEverson on Twitter.

Check out J.T.’s work and social media on his website,

Check out John’s work and social media on his website,

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and see pictures of her cats at @orikes13 on Instagram.

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

Setting as a Character

29 May 2019 - 5:00am

There’s a bit of advice that floats around writing workshops, conferences, classes, and such that goes: Your setting should be a character.

It’s good advice but (like most advice) maybe it doesn’t always apply in every situation. Today, I’m going to assume it does apply to your campaign and chat about how to go about making your setting into a character. I’m not talking about a stat sheet or “How many blacksmiths are in town?” or the stats of the leadership/powerful people that are in town, or anything like that.

We’re going to talk about giving your setting some soul, some will of its own, and a good, old-fashioned character arc.

Setting Spirit

 Between the two cities, they shared a soul, a kindred spirit, and a reason to exist and support one another. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

In the early 90s, I came across a new friend who became one of the best friends I ever had. I met him through role playing, and he’d recently relocated from Los Angeles to our small city in west Texas. He frequently made the comment, “This city has no soul. There’s something missing here.” A few months go by with me trying to figure out what he meant. Maybe my hometown did, indeed, lack a soul. Maybe that’s what I was used to. I didn’t know.

We finally took a brief trip to the neighboring city (20 miles away), and while trundling around this other town, he suddenly exclaimed, “Ha! Here it is. Here’s the missing half of your hometown.” In a way, he was right. My hometown was largely white collar that ran the businesses in the oil industry of the area. The neighboring town was largely the blue collar workers that performed the industry to keep the area alive and prosperous.

Between the two cities, they shared a soul, a kindred spirit, and a reason to exist and support one another.

In your settings, you need to also give your settings a reason to be. This constitutes the locations spirit creature. You don’t have to write up entire books on the backstory of every location. Just jot down a few simple words or a couple of phrases that will guide you in representing what the location has to offer to the rest of the world (and the PCs as well).

Here are some samples:

  • Border town between friendly nations that supports trade and collects taxes.
  • Outpost guarding against frequent orc raids.
  • Remote school of magic where unpredictable experiments are performed.
  • Sprawling, chaotic metroplex that is the center of the nation’s government.
  • Abandoned temple overlooking an ancient stone quarry.
Setting Goals and Motivations

 What does the setting want and why? Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

In addition to giving a brief descriptor to your location, I also recommend giving your setting a goal. Any good character is going to have a goal and a reason or motivation to obtain that goal. Honestly, if these two elements are missing from a character, the thing is going to come off as flat, two-dimensional, or be described as a “cardboard cutout.” No one wants that of their character.

The same holds true for a setting. What does the setting want and why?

This goal+motivation combination can be driven by the citizens, the leadership, a guiding spirit, the local religion, an alien sentience, an artificial intelligence, or some combination of those and more. Sometimes, if the setting’s spirit is strong enough, the goal could be as simple as “drill for more oil to support our industry” because that’s pretty much what has always been done. It’s a spiritual inertia, so to speak.

Setting “Character” Arc

There’s a great saying that fits here: Time waits for no man.

In this connotation, I’m interpreting this to mean: If the PCs take a break, the setting keeps moving.

What I mean by this is that just because the party stops adventuring, that doesn’t mean the setting (and other characters within the setting, including the Bad Guys) doesn’t stop changing, flowing, doing their thing, or evolving around the party.

 Time waits for no man. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

I’ve heard of an entire party of elves who found a beautiful beach in the middle of adventuring and decided to set up camp in the lush, wonderful area for a decade. Not because they had to, but because they had the years to spend and wanted to. I was talking to the GM about this event, and he said it took him most of a month to re-jigger his campaign world around that passed decade and figure out “how the setting aged and changed over the ten years.”

Most of the breaks your PCs take won’t be a decade in length, but even a “short rest” (about an hour) can have massive consequences if the party is on a tight schedule or the Bad Guys are going to do something at a particular time. Likewise, a “long rest” (about 8 hours) can have even more of an impact on the storyline as the setting continues to move forward around the resting adventurers.

If you can, figure out when certain events are going to happen along the ever-forward-marching timeline, and still have them happen unless the party manages to somehow alter future events by taking out certain antagonists, resources, monsters, or organizations.

By allowing your setting to breathe on its own and change on its own, this will create a more “lived in” feel for the players as they move their characters through your world.


Settings are a hoot to create for some of us out there in the gaming sphere. If they weren’t, then we’d have only a handful of settings to use across the multitude of games that exist today. When creating your next setting or group of locations, put some thought into why they’re around, what they want from the rest of the world, why those wants are important, and plan for future changes and/or events to occur in the setting as time progresses forward.

Just a little forethought in this area will add layers of realism to your world that your players will intuitively dive into.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

D&D Live 2019: A Retrospective

27 May 2019 - 5:00am

I’m back from D&D Live 2019 (May 17-19) and full of inspiration. Not just from the content, but from the overwhelmingly positive interactions I had with influencers and fans alike.

So this is what went down. I traveled to Los Angeles to play in a live-streamed podcast GM’d by Victoria Rogers of The Broadswords alongside Jef and Jon of System Mastery, Eoghan of How We Roll Podcast, and James D’Amato of the One Shot Network (parent to my show, Asians Represent). In costume, I played Fizz Bubblefist of House Sparklewater, Chief Hydration Steward to the Earl Willoughby Twizzleton of Gnomandy. Despite my character’s admittedly goofy name, our adventure was one of many that would introduce the audience to the new Wizards of the Coast storyline – Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, a hellish adventure featuring war machines fueled by the souls of the damned.  Think Mad Max meets Evil Dead.

Once, our show was over, I had the rest of my time in LA to enjoy the festivities and hang out with many of my favourite friends in the industry.

Mingle with D&D Luminaries, Grab Exclusive Merch, and Play in a D&D Epic!

This was truly an event made by fans, for fans. This was not your average “convention”. In general, it’s really hard for me to assign that label to this “event”. Yes, there was a marketplace for purchasing D&D-related merchandise like Death Saves streetwear or Wyrmwood dice containers. Yes, there were celebrity signings. Yet, everything about D&D Live felt distinctly unlike a convention in all of the best ways.

Over the course of three days, attendees of the event were able to get a glimpse at the kind of narrative and mechanical content Wizards plans on releasing in the future through panels, games, and incredible epics. The focal point of this event was definitely the live shows, which provided fans with the opportunity to watch their favourite personalities engage with the new source material. I managed to watch the Relics and Rarities session featuring Deborah Ann Woll, Jasmine Bhullar, Julia Dennis, Janina Gavankar, Xander Jeanneret, Matthew Lillard (childhood me was screaming), and Tommy Walker. Each main stage live show was not only hosted in front of an audience of fans, but also simulcasted via Twitch, Twitter, and YouTube for the rest of the world to see. It’s brilliant. While fans can pay to attend the event, purchase exclusive swag, and mingle with celebrities, others can still enjoy the event from the comfort of their home by watching ANY of the Decent games or panels. On the last day, I joined some fans of my podcast in the exclusive epic, an adventure where all of the tables in the room simultaneously interact with the same adventure and affect each other. We descended into hell aboard massive war machines of our design to steal soul coins for a sinister character known as Mahadi. It was…epic. They had hellish atmospheric lighting, costumed actors portraying imps, kenku, and devils that wandered the room soliciting tables for deals, and several characters that provided in-character updates on the status of the heist. During the intense 3-hour game, one player made a deal with a devil that resulted in everyone in the room losing half of their hit points (they later gave their life to Arkhan the Cruel! Our table managed to get killed not once, but twice in this frantic, morally ambiguous adventure.

One of the questions I kept asking myself and discussing among my peers was, “how does it grow? Should it expand to the size of say, Gen Con?”

While there were certainly improvements to be made on the production side (many of the streams suffered from extreme lag or poor connections), in my mind it really can’t (or shouldn’t) expand in size. The small number of attendees made for a very intimate event. With a seemingly equal ratio of talent to attendees, fans were given a unique opportunity to mingle with their favourite creators and form genuine bonds with fellow event-goers. I found myself chatting with people like Joe Manganiello, or engaging in intense conversations with fellow podcasters like the D20 Dames and fans of both our shows. At D&D Live, you felt like a member of a community. The only real change I’d make to future events would be to invite content creators from around the world to truly and accurately showcase the international scope of D&D’s fan base.

That factor aside, I’ll say this now. D&D Live is the future of tabletop conventions.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Time and Time Again

24 May 2019 - 2:00am

Keep the pressure on the players as the time loop keeps getting more dangerous…

Troy’s article on running a Ground Hog’s Day scenario reminded me of a Doctor Who one-shot I ran that put the characters in a time loop they had to solve from the inside. I thought it would be fun to follow up on Troy’s article and talk about that adventure and some of the tricks I used to get the players into the game.

A few years ago, my go-to game for convention one-shots was usually Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space. I adore the system and its flexibility, and while I knew not everyone was necessarily into the property, I came up with some non-canonical characters that let players easily step into a game with a modern setting and some weird, timey-wimey, wibbly-wobbliness.

All of these games were set in San Francisco. Why? Because I wanted to have a US metropolitan setting with a deep history and wildly varied terrain surrounding it. Some of the adventures I ran made better use of the setting than others, but the time loop scenario took fantastic advantage of the setting. After all, the players had to navigate the city multiple times to figure out how to solve the time loop.

I may have run this game using Doctor Who, but the concepts can be applied to almost any game where you want to work in a time loop adventure. Feel free to adapt and modify any of these concepts to your game.

Have a Strong Opening You Can Revisit Again and Again

The opening is probably one of the most crucial points in the game. Normally, I try and start one-shots with all the PCs in the same place so there’s no fuss or muss about getting everyone involved. In this scenario though, I deliberately started them in different locations so part of the adventure was figuring out how to coordinate together. I announced that it was a beautiful Wednesday in October at 2 pm and then asked, “What is your character doing right now?”

Going around the table, I played out a quick scene with each player, setting up what their character was doing. I kept notes on each one and focused on interesting and distinctive details in each scene. Here are some examples:

    • The Intern was at Starbucks in line behind an annoying young corporate type in a power suit ordering the most obnoxious soy latte drink you can imagine.
    • The Veterinarian was volunteering at the local shelter and trying to give one of the new intakes, a dirty but affectionate pit bull, a bath.
    • The Artist was trying to concentrate on a painting, but was distracted by the sound of a truck backing up outside their open windows.
    • The Historian was trying to read the newspaper, but was interrupted by a needy student that was again trying to convince them to give a better grade on a paper.
    • The Ex-Cop was in session for their court-mandated therapy and being annoyed by the touchy-feely therapist trying to get them to embrace their emotions.

The key is to find some distinctive moment in each of these scenes that you can call back on to signal that the time loop has reset. The sound of a truck backing up, the obnoxious coffee order from an arrogant businessman, the exuberant shaking of a wet dog happy to getting attention, the whiny wheedling plea of a student that couldn’t handle having gotten only a B, or the irritating calm of a therapist using the wrong tactics to reach their patient. Each of these became a signal to the players that the time loop had started over.

After the first play through of the opening scenes, I had the players make the equivalent of a willpower check to determine who figures out they’re stuck in a loop first.

Be Aware of Geographic Issues, But Stay Flexible

In this scenario, the Mission Blue Butterfly was a very important clue.

When I started the game off, I also took careful note of where each character was in the city. For this game, the players would need to reach a specific location to stop the device causing the time loop. For this scenario, the location was the Sutro Radio Tower, which is fairly close to the geographic center of the San Francisco peninsula, but that doesn’t mean it would be easy to reach.

I’m not into super tactical, realistic games, but I wanted to have enough verisimilitude in the way I ran the game to make sure players took into account how long it would take them to reach certain locations. Part of the scenario is having the players try different things each time to try and get to specific locations and slowly shaving their time down. At the same time, you don’t want to get caught up in being too pedantic about time and distance.

If someone gets stuck in a traffic jam during one iteration of the loop, assume they can easily avoid that issue the next time around. Each iteration of the time loop should let them get better at navigating from point A to point B. Take that into account as you reset the loop.

Have Fun With the Consequences

With a time loop scenario, the consequences of the PCs actions get reset every time the time loop resets. Have fun with this! For this scenario, the loop was set to exactly an hour, so the characters were often caught in the middle of the action as the time loop reset.

    • While recklessly driving through the city, one of the characters gets into a car accident. BOOM, time reset.
    • A character gets rude with an NPC that’s getting in the way and the situation escalates into a fight. BOOM, time reset.
    • While sneaking into a place they’re not supposed to be, one character comes face to face with a bad guy that has a gun. Literal BOOM as they get shot and time resets.

Of course, another fun aspect is when the time loop is finally resolved, you can remind the players of the short-cuts they took that might make the current timeline a little more interesting. As a little epilogue, point out that the Gambler now needs to deal with the fact that they stole a car from their attractive one-night stand they quickly ditched an hour ago.

I really enjoyed running this scenario and I highly recommend giving the concept a shot. It works really well for modern or futuristic games where characters have the means of communicating quickly and easily with one another, but you can make it work in a wide variety of settings.

Troy’s article on running a Ground Hog’s Day scenario reminded me of a Doctor Who one shot I ran that put the characters in a time-loop they had to solve from the inside. Hopefully this article helps a little when you run your own time loop scenario.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

What I Prep

22 May 2019 - 5:00am

Last month I got on my soapbox about prep, specifically talking about how it does not matter how long your prep is, and I thought I would stay on the topic and talk about how I prep a game today.  This article will be a snapshot of my prep process because this is a GM skill that constantly evolves. It is one that is both a product of the way I GM, and the games I play. What I want to show you is the thought process behind how I get a game ready for the table, what stays in my head, and what gets written down.

Two Page Prep

Today, my prep is basically two pages, or one-page front and back, if you are getting really technical. That is not a constraint, but rather where I wind up. That prep is good for 4-8 hours of play, depending on how hard I am driving the game. I don’t have a single format, allowing the prep to fit the structure of what I am playing, but I do have elements that are always present. When I run a game for the first time, I usually spend a bit of time figuring out the template for my prep, which involves incorporating the important elements I need with the overall structure of the game. For instance: In my prep for Blades in the Dark, the middle portion of my prep is sectioned into Freeplay, The Job, and Downtime, to reflect the three major phases of the game.

How I GM and What I Play

I mentioned in the intro that your GMing style and what you run has a major impact on how you prep. So that the rest of this makes sense, let me take a few sentences to explain both of those. My GMing style is about 70% improv and 30% planned, with my planning mostly up front. I like to come up with a general idea of what is going to happen in the session, set that up, and then let the players loose. I then improv as I play off of what the characters do, always using where I had originally intended the game to go as a guide to where play should lead, but never adhering to that too hard. I am very much a play to see what happens GM.

As for what I play, I mostly play Powered by the Apocalypse games, because they mesh well with how I want to GM. Aside from PbtA games, I have been enjoying the Mutant Year Zero mechanics, used in Tales of the Loop.

The Essential Elements … For Me

When it comes to what I put into my prep, here are my essential elements that are always in my prep:

What Is Going On

This section was inspired by Fear The Boot and has never left my prep, once I learned about it. It is a few paragraphs that describe what is going on in the adventure and can sometimes take up to 25% of my 2-page prep. It is nearly always written in the absence of the player characters and does two things. One, it gives me a background of what has been going on, before the characters get involved. Two, it tells me what the forces in play will do if the characters do not succeed in intervening.

I cannot emphasize enough how important for me this piece is. If I had to reduce or eliminate most of my prep, I would not cut into this section one bit. I can do more with just this section than anything else I prep. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

This piece is crucial for me because this gives me the logical construct for the game. What I mean is that as a background, it gives me some understanding of why things are going on and what has happened before. That is important for understanding motivations, clues, and for answering questions about what is going on. As a direction of what is going to happen, it gives me a direction in which to improv the actions/reactions of the NPCs, which then makes their actions drive towards a logical goal.

I cannot emphasize enough how important for me this piece is. If I had to reduce or eliminate most of my prep, I would not cut into this section one bit. I can do more with just this section than anything else I prep.

Major Scenes

Building off the information in What Is Going On, I then come up with 4-6 scenes that I think are most likely to happen in the session. The earliest scenes are the most probable to happen while the latter ones are less possible, as the game unfolds through play. These scenes are typically based on the story beats that would need to be achieved to accomplish the players’ goal, which is nearly always to interfere with the NPCs goal that I outlined above.

As I do for the overall story, I prep these scenes to set up a problem but not how to solve it (something learned from Vincent Baker in Dogs in the Vineyard). They are always based on a logical path to how the problem would be solved.

Example: In a dungeon exploration game (not a dungeon crawl) where the players are to recover a holy artifact, my major scenes would be something like this:

  • Entering The Dungeon – encounter with some monsters to set the tone.
  • Finding Clues of The Big Monster – a scene where I reveal something much worse is in the dungeon, that the players did not know about.
  • Navigating Ancient Traps – a scene about getting past an elaborate trap.
  • Dangerous Battle – combat scene in a location with difficult/dangerous terrain.
  • The Big Monster and the Artifact – A confrontation with the big monster who is also trying to use the artifact.

In each of those cases, there is a clear set-up for what the scene will be about, and then I leave it up to the players’ ideas, the mechanics of the game, the genre we are playing in, and my improv skills to do the rest.

Essential Dialog or Clues

At all costs, I never want to retcon my game to give the players some important piece of information or clue that I was supposed to give them earlier, that I forgot in a past scene. So all of those essential pieces of information get written into my prep so that they can be referenced in play.

Stat Blocks

I always include the stat blocks for anything that the players may encounter. Even if the block is listed in the main book, I copy it into my notes. I do not want to stop and look things up, mid game. I want that information right at my fingertips.

If my game has a lot of different stat blocks, then I may make this its own page (sometimes expanding past my 2-page prep, if needed) and then I have them all in one place. In most cases, I will just put the block or two I need inline with my text.

Relevant Rules

If the scene has any esoteric rules that are not part of my normal play, then they get copied into this section so that, once again, I am not flipping through the book during the game.


As a way to wrap up the session, I have a section where I have notes about how to bring the session to a conclusion. These are often in the form of, “If the players do this, then that happens”. It also includes reminders for any end of session mechanics that need to be engaged.

Putting That All Together

In the absence of the elements or structures needed for a specific game, this is what my prep looks like, at it’s core:

  • What is going on
  • Opening Scene
    • Essential Dialog/Clues
    • Stats
    • Rules
  • Scene
    • Essential Dialog/Clues
    • Stats
    • Rules
  • Scene
    • Essential Dialog/Clues
    • Stats
    • Rules
  • Scene
    • Essential Dialog/Clues
    • Stats
    • Rules
  • Conclusion
I Showed You Mine…Show Me Yours

Your prep is a constantly evolving structure. It changes as you grow as a GM and as you play different games. It is something that both naturally evolves as well as something you can hone.

I showed you what goes into my prep, now show me yours. What elements are essential to you? What structures do you use? What element could you never give up?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Make Time for What You Love

20 May 2019 - 5:30am

To create a game is to learn that the act of gaming is more important than your creation. The same can be said for preparing a game.

     The activity is bigger than the product or plan. The product is a tool of the activity, not the other way around. The same could be said about any creative endeavor.

An Augmented Reality

We live in an interesting world full of more things to do and more places to see than we can ever hope to accomplish.

Marketing teams remind me every time I check my email.

  • RE: your next trip—Just For You
  • Must-Try Activities
  • NEW Weekend Deals

Social media knows what I look at and who I care about, targeting me with content.

  • Flashy pictures of who, what, and where I search
  • Click bait headlines of what I read about
  • The ever-evolving drama of friends, family, and associates

Overwhelming amounts of advertisements lead the lists of our search engines and surround our shows, it is almost inescapable! Our constant connection to the internet can distract us with something new or something noteworthy at nearly every moment. Trying to reduce the number of notifications by unsubscribing, changing settings (in each app), and unfollowing people is a constant battle as software updates and mailing lists grow.

When was the last time you were bored? When was the last time you didn’t have something you needed to do?

I didn’t ask the last time you had to replace your cell phone.

I mean truly bored. Bored enough to try something new.

A War Is Being Fought For Your Attention

Your attention, your time, is precious and you only have so much of it. Just think about it.

When do you have a valuable attention span?

  • First thing in the morning?
  • Just before noon?
  • After the kiddos are asleep?

What do you do with it and when do you spend time doing what you love?  Do they align?


Fight Back

Make time for what you love to do. In the battle for your attention, you must make it a point to spend time doing what you love.  Because when you are not, you are allowing all the distractions, all the advertising, all the junk—to occupy your valuable time.  If you don’t choose how to spend your time, someone else will choose for you. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

What activity will make your heart sing? What do you create to share with others, enrich others?

Look around, if you have even one person nearby, you’ll see it. It isn’t just you or me. The clutter is robbing us of time with our loved ones too. Why do you think it is so hard to get people to show up to game? Everyone is short on time. Everyone is a victim.

If you are not standing up for what you love, you are letting it wither. Letting it just fade into the background—the void. So many things are vying for your time and the time of others, don’t lose the things you love in the process. Maybe you draw dungeons, maybe you write worlds, maybe you write for Gnome Stew. When people no longer pay attention to tabletop role-playing games, what is left of your creations?

If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Don’t let your thing go quietly.



I love role playing games. We have been through thick and thin together. Like a constant companion, we have visited dangerous places, faced great challenges, and even managed to save the day on occasion. I have so many great friends and shared memories thanks to this hobby. I have been able to explore new worlds and creatively express myself without the repercussions of a society that is too quick to judge. I’ve been so many different characters and lived so many different lives. Who else can say that?

Profess your love, don’t hide from it.  Don’t hide it from other people.  

Take the time to stand up for what you are passionate about.  Make a point to pursue the things you love, before they fade behind the noise of notifications or the next new iphone game.

Make time for what you love.


What do you need to make more time for? How do you remind players to make time for gaming? How do you find more time for gaming? 

Categories: Game Theory & Design

4 More Funky Fungi to Liven Up Your Game (Part 2 of 2)

17 May 2019 - 5:00am

Image Courtesy of

















You’ll sometimes run across the phrase “springing up like mushrooms after a rainstorm” to describe something that makes an appearance too quickly to be pure coincidence. Mushrooms are able to do that because the mushroom, which is only the visible part of a larger fungus, is often fully-formed and ready to go, just waiting for the correct conditions to inflate like a water balloon and pop up out of the ground, ready to absolutely wreak havoc on people with mold allergies. This is a great metaphor for a lot of things—lawyer phone calls after a car accident, complaints after a Star Wars movie, or those moments when you realize you’re overdue for your next tongue-in-cheek listicle. Luckily, like a mushroom, this article was already mostly-formed because of part 1 of this series.

Just a quick reminder and warning: mushrooms can and will kill you if you eat the wrong ones. Warning: mushrooms can and will kill you if you eat the wrong ones. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailDon’t eat anything that appears in this article based on what I write. I am not a person you should trust about what you should eat or drink, as both my waistline and liver demonstrate.

But enough introduction. You’re here for gaming advice and lowbrow humor.

The Humongous Fungus (armillaria ostoyae)

I genuinely could not find authoritatively whether this mushroom was actually edible, but WAS able to find out that a bunch of mushrooms that look like it are super poisonous. So don’t Definitely, definitely don’t eat these based on this article. Image courtesy of

Nearly 2,500 acres and 2,000 years old, the single largest organism on Earth is not, contrary to what you may have heard, a slumbering elder god or tarrasque. The “humongous fungus” as it’s called, makes an occasional appearance in the form of honey-colored mushrooms scattered throughout its body that scientists have recently discovered are clones of one another, meaning that this single organism has been spreading for centuries, sapping life and resources from the place it calls home, which reminds me that I have some old roommates I should probably call and apologize to.

Potential Game Use:

Okay, so first of all, if you can’t think of something to do with a millennia-old evil the size of a small town hiding under the ground and only occasionally showing itself, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, I guess, my idea of what to do with a millennia-old evil the size of a small town hiding under the ground and only occasionally showing itself:

The adventuring party has been hired at a ridiculously high rate of pay by a frustrated but distant noble in order to investigate why an area’s crops and/or forest is inexplicably dying, threatening the livelihood of both the locals and the noble in question.

As the characters visit, they are enthusiastically fed a nonstop diet of delicious and filling mushroom steaks, pastas, soups, and breads; they should quickly realize the situation actually isn’t all that inexplicable: the populace realizes there’s a fungal infection in the area, but it’s providing them a seemingly-endless supply of tasty, healthy food that requires no work whatsoever to produce. Further, because the noble doesn’t know or especially care about what the people gather if it’s not crops or other easily-inventoried resources, they get to keep all of it. Upon learning how heavily the people are being taxed, the characters should better understand their position. A new era of art and leisure has dawned for the locals, as much of the time they would have spent tilling fields or hunting for sustenance is both unnecessary (because of the mushrooms) and useless (also because of the mushrooms).

Investigating further, the characters discover the underground lair of the sapient mushroom presence that has been preying (?) on the region and its people by draining vital energy. The characters are left with a conundrum: should they do thing adventurers do and delve into the subterranean (and almost-certainly mushroom-themed) lair of the creature that is simultaneously feeding the people and destroying their land? Or should they leave the locals to their entertainments and free time, knowing that, someday soon, their resources will run out? If they do decide to slay the mushroom beast, will the people help or hinder them in their efforts to restore them to their old lives of thankless and exploited labor?

The Bleeding Tooth Fungus (hydnellum peckii)

Mother nature needs to floss more.

I’d be lying if I pretended the number one reason for this mushroom making the list was anything except how incredibly metal its name and appearance are. Seriously. Look at that thing. It’s like Pennywise the Clown got ahold of some cauliflower and decided to really up the ante on the “caul” part.

But by happy accident,that gory-looking fluid on the mushroom is both an antibacterial agent and an anticoagulant. “Magical plant that saves the heroes” is a staple of genre fiction, and for good reason. Prior to the advent of modern medicine, local plants, fungi, and animals were basically the closest thing humans had to a medicine cabinet. Only the oldest and most daring of those who lived in the woods knew the secrets of which plants save lives and which killed, which is honestly as perfect an example of survivor bias as you’re ever likely to get.

Potential Game Use:

A dangerous affliction has struck an important NPC; maybe he foolishly tried to use a cursed magical item to escape some bad guys and was stuck by some sort of ghost-sword, therefore slowly becoming one of the undead while his companions look on helplessly. Obviously, the best solution would be to stick with his friends and count on them to protect him, ESPECIALLY WHEN SAM WAS ALREADY TRYING TO FIGHT THEM LIKE A HOBBIT ON FIRE BECAUSE HE IS THE BEST PART OF THOSE MOVIES.

But hindsight is 20/20 and the characters find themselves in a situation where time is of the essence. An adventure involving a bleeding tooth fungus takes place in three phases:

Phase I is identifying the problem (and the solution). In this phase, PCs must make medicine/arcana/lore rolls to identify the malady and its solution. Particularly good results or clever roleplay can be rewarded by providing the characters temporary options that slow the spread of the poison (elevate the wound, use magic to apply ice to the injured limb, have Sam tearfully confess his true feelings to Frodo so they can be together forever). Poor rolls result in lost time, but still lead to the same conclusion. The ultimate cure, of course, is a heaping helping of hydnellum peckii and/or slash fan fiction.

Phase 2 is finding the fungus. Because this is presumably an adventure, this phase can take the form of whatever best suits your group’s style. Options include anything from an extended scavenger hunt (“the Devil’s Tooth only grows near the trees that spring up where a wizard dies”), to a combat encounter (“the mushroom springs from the mummified remains of the giant spider Himmthrow’s victims”), to a tense negotiation (“the local Fair Folk control the whole supply, and demand unspeakable booms from those who seek it”). Be sure to offer players ways to make rolls in this phase easier or more successful by taking longer.

Phase 3 is where the clock set up in Phase 1 really becomes important. If your players have been wise stewards of their time (or especially lucky), they will have enough time to get back to the NPC and save them. This is a great opportunity to use chase rules and mechanics in an unusual way, as the characters scramble against time to save their friend. Remember failure should always be an option in order to give the situation stakes. However, in this case failure doesn’t necessarily mean death. If the PCs don’t make it in time, the NPC might lose a limb, go into an extended coma (which could provide the impetus for a whole other adventure) or, if deus ex machina is more your speed, the NPC could be rescued by a nearby elf who takes them to safety and treatment, but then proceeds to lord it over the PCs for the rest of the game.

In case it needs to be said: everything I’ve said about not eating mushrooms based on this article apply 10,0000 times as much to trying to use them as medicine. Just don’t. Also: #Frodo/Sam4Ever.

Hat-Thrower Fungus (pilobolus crystallinus)

This was almost a picture of tiny fungi on a pile of cow dung, but I decided against using that. You’re welcome. Picture from the Annual report of the Hatch Experiment Station of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (1864)

A previous article on medieval European/Classical jobs included references to a real-life fecal fireball. How could I possibly one-up that? With a poop rifle based on actual fungal biology, of course. Right now, you might be asking yourself “is he setting up a whole scatological armory?” And the answer is that I am definitely not not doing that, because my sense of humor hasn’t evolved since I was eleven years old.

Anyway, the hat-thrower fungus, as it’s sometimes called, is tiny (nearly-microscopic, in fact) and exclusively grows on herbivore dung. Its particular take on reproduction involves building up pockets of highly-pressurized fluid that, when ready, eject its spores with twice the acceleration of a modern rifle; [joke removed because this is a family-friendly website].

Potential Game Use:

Elves. They live in the forest and defend it against interlopers using techniques ranging from magic to animated trees to really hurtful comments about someone’s appearance. One of the great things about forests is that “real thing, except gigantic” fits their theme perfectly. Because this fungus only grows on the dung of herbivores, it stands to reason that giant versions of the fungus would only grow on the dung of giant herbivores. Shhhhh. Don’t think too hard about it.

So, imagine an elven village, defended by citizens armed with arm-length pilobolus stalks. Basically replace any given infantry charge from any given war movie with elves shooting single-use, bulb-headed mushroom cannons, and you’ve pretty much got the right idea.

Much like how actual firearms changed the face of war, our pointy-eared friends are nigh-unto unassailable in their forest. Except that their latest enemy, an unscrupulous lord seeking to turn the forest into timber, has discovered the secret to their defense, and sent his spies to the manure field/armory that the elves depend on and burned it to the stinking ground. The player characters have been charged with gathering additional weapons and refreshing the fields the elves depend on for their defense.

Remember how I mentioned that the imaginary pilobolus only grows on the dung of giant mammals? Here’s where that becomes relevant. The characters must find the territory of a wild giant deer (any other herbivore will work, but I like deer), identify its spoor, and figure out how to bring back enough of it to revitalize the martial strength of their elven allies, all without getting caught by the opposition forces who are also looking for the same deer. When those opposition forces find and try to slay the source of the elves’ strength, how will the characters save it? Assuming the characters survive, they might be granted a few “loaded” pilobolus stalks as a reward. Since these are single-use and extremely valuable, making them extremely damaging won’t overly impact the direction of the game, since once the characters use up the three to five they were given, that’s pretty much it.

This idea works best woven into an already-existing conflict. The defenders don’t necessarily have to be elves—they might instead be a group of druids defending a sacred grove, or even a clan of barbarians resisting the encroachment of their more “civilized” neighbors.

Truffle (~185 species)

These things may be some of the most valuable natural resources in existence, but I’d still be squicked out if I saw my dog digging one up in the woods. Image courtesy of

Truffles are well known for being expensive and requiring a well-trained pig to find, since they grow underground. Slightly less-famously, they give off a fragrance that strongly imitates mammalian pheromones, which is why pigs (and to a lesser degree, dogs) are so attracted to them in the first place. So, basically, at some point in time, some rich people decided that lumpy, underground balls of fungus that smell like an excited pig’s crotch are worth approximately $100 an ounce, which is probably an even better refutation of the “rich people are rich because they’re smart argument” than the rise and fall of the Juicero.

Potential Game Use:

A small farm has had its crops routinely destroyed by an endless, rotating cast of wild animals (mammals, specifically). No one is entirely certain where these creatures are coming from, or why they’re so obsessed with this particular farmer’s fields. Neighboring farmers’ fields are entirely untouched, and the animals that have been destroying the wheat, barley, beans, and similar staples have been leaving the plants themselves alone.

Investigating the fields, the characters should be able to see that the animals were extremely agitated as they hunted through the dirt. Particularly good rolls might reveal that the animals were obviously looking for something, and they took that something away with them. Characters who stalk these animals to their lairs will find nothing out of the ordinary, though those that kill the animals (or catch them in the act) may realize that whatever they’re hunting for, these animals eat. If players get stuck at this phase, feel free to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in the form of spots where the animals have stopped to eat the truffles that they find, or even catching one of these creatures in the midst of chowing down on some disturbing nuggets of what looks like dirt.

Successful nature-type rolls will enable the characters to realize that the things that these animals are eating are, indeed, truffles, and the reason why the crops are being destroyed is that these (extremely valuable) truffles are growing in the farmer’s field. If the characters fail their nature rolls, have the character who is most closely associated with high culture recognize what the tiny dirt balls actually are. While the players or locals could attempt to just keep killing animals that try to dig up the fungi, or wait for the animals to exhaust the supply of spores in the ground (which will happen if some part of the truffles are not placed back underground) players will probably want to work with the farmer to capitalize on the much more valuable crop they just discovered. This is a great jumping-off point for a low-stakes game of intrigue as the farmer fights with their local lord about the proper ownership of these truffles, neighbors begin sneaking into the fields with their own dogs or pigs to try to dig up the fungi to sell themselves, and traders from the nearest Big City (TM) attempt to negotiate the lowest possible price for these truffles, possibly using shady maneuvers that only the characters will recognize. This kind of intrigue/setup probably won’t work as well at higher levels, but it does create an immediate investment in an NPC (the farmer and their family) an area (the farm and the village), and rivals who, despite being various flavors of jerk and/or unethical, probably shouldn’t just be executed with a fireball for how they deal with the sudden presence of a valuable resource.

In Conclusion

Fungi can be just about anything you need them to be in your game: environment, medicine, food, weapon, ally, or antagonist. Now you have, in total, eight different ways to use fungi in your own game, and I hope you enjoy incorporating them into your world as much as I’ve enjoyed including them. So do you think you’ll be using more fungi in your games? If so, how? Sound off in the comments and let us know!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #66 – April Foolio Post Mortem

16 May 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Matt, and special guest gnome Crystal Neagley for a behind-the-scenes discussion about the production of Gnome Stew‘s April 1st project this year, The April Foolio of Fiends. Will these gnomes’ writing and art be enough to keep them out of the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #66 – April Foolio Post Mortem

Don’t miss The April Foolio of Fiends available for pay-what-you-want on DriveThruRPG. All proceeds from the sale of this PDF go to the Child’s Play charity, dedicated to helping children in a network of over 100 hospitals worldwide.

Follow Crystal at @thecrystalauthor on Instagram, check out, and subscribe to TheCrystalAuthor YouTube channel. You can also see some of Crystal’s art on Gnome Stew, like Matt’s article “Dadventures: An Amoosing Diversion.”

Follow Ang at @orikes13 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


15 May 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
  • a list of layers we were going to use
  • a rough map
  • a neighborhood list
  • neighborhood breakdowns for the Temple, Palace, Ruins, and Crafting districts

Since there are plenty of neighborhoods, I’m tackling the Bazaar district this time. I’m also finalizing what I’m doing with the docks. I’ll cover the two slum districts next time.

Here’s the (very rough) map. It’s just a set of neighborhoods surrounded by the city walls and 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 brain space and time while being subject to change if the neighborhood map or list changes under it.

Note, I finally made a decision on the Docks district. I’m just having a single dock neighborhood. Boats enter the city via the rivers, and dock at the central lake.

  • B – Bazaar District: Since the city is a trading hub, this is the main district. It encompasses 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.

    • B1 – Animal Pens: This fairly large neighborhood has its own docks, and shops and residences are fairly spacious. This is because most of the shops deal with livestock of some sort. Prices are generally high since the city has very little dedicated agriculture and imports most animals, feed, bedding and other needs. Shops all have pens and cages and are mostly open air. Residences often have their own pens and are unassuming. The animal handlers, farriers, and other caretakers that live here sell to citizens, shops, and the temple trade district. Public spaces are often simple and are sometimes used for grazing areas when not otherwise in use.
      Landmark: The dung heap – Excess animal excrement is piled high and sold as fertilizer and fuel. While this shop isn’t that impressive, it is easy to find by scent alone.
    • B2 – The Heights: At some point in the history of this neighborhood, one of the residents decided to get more real estate by building up as opposed to out. It quickly caught on and now the whole neighborhood boasts three to four story shops and residences that widen each story, crouching over the streets below, sometimes even meeting their neighbors — creating claustrophobic tunnels beneath. Inside, narrow staircases lead to cramped floors above and dizzying balconies. Within the neighborhood, navigation can be difficult without the sun as a compass. Residences are usually shorter, but still multiple stories. Public areas are often gardens in the few areas that receive a little direct sunlight.
      Landmark: The Heights Theatre – The theatre is a semicircle of buildings on the dockside road. Performances are held almost all day, with the best seats on streetside risers.
    • B3 – Floating Market: This neighborhood is still mostly underwater. The buildings are on stilts and small merchant boats and larger water striders weighed down with packs crowd into the remaining spaces. Though a pedestrian can make their way around by jumping or walking on planks between ships, it’s more common to hire a small skiff or a water strider to move around. Further in, the neighborhood has fewer boats, floating board walkways are strung between raised buildings. Public areas are often little more than bits of open water where residents can sit, fish or bathe.
      Landmark: Strider Market – Dockside is a stall with a pen of stakes driven into the muck that sells the local water strider steeds that can traverse both water and land with ease. They can even climb walls with the right tack and enough skill.
    • B4 – Junktown: The city currents eventually drag the floating detritus from all corners of the city to the edge of this neighborhood. The buildings here are made up of scrap wood, sailcloth and other  bits. Residents scour the incoming debris for anything of value and sell it at cobbled together stalls. Residences are often lean-tos and tents of scrap cloth. Public areas are often little swap meets in their own right where scavengers consolidate the day’s findings for later sale.
      Landmark: The Wrack – Dockside hosts the slowly growing pile that washes up from the rest of the city. Scavengers of all types can be found night and day sifting through the debris and carting off anything of value.
    • B5 – The Landing: Earlier in the history of the city, there was very little solid land and much of the population lived in small boats. Many of these boats became landlocked and stranded in this area as the Palace and Temple district were built. Though this neighborhood houses many traditional buildings, it also is home to these beached boats which have been converted to shops and dwellings. Inns in this neighborhood are popular tourist spots. Within the neighborhood, the remaining water is found in public park areas.
      Landmark: The Ghost Ship – In the early days of the city, an untended ship drifted downriver and was declared cursed. It drifted about for years, considered an ill omen, before getting beached along with the other ships in this area. Eventually it was taken over by a visitor to the city and now is a popular pub.
    • B6 – The Maze: One of the original districts of the city, the Maze was constructed before there was much dry land. As such, streets are very narrow. The neighborhood also grew haphazardly over time, so the layout is confusing for non-residents. Shops on the outside are small, densely packed, old and somewhat run down. Inside the neighborhood the maze-like streets have a reputation for confounding visitors. Because of its maze-like construction, rogues and thieves often make The Maze and its boltholes their home or base of operations. Public areas are often small sitting areas with just enough room for a few people.
      Landmark: The map shop – A small booth that sells maps of the city, this shop originally started as a place to buy maps of the neighborhood itself. As that task became more impossible, they branched out to the rest of the city and surrounding areas.
    • B7 – Raised Market: During the construction of the raised crushed stone foundation of the Palace and Temple districts, the wealthier merchants of the city funded the same renovation for one of the neighborhoods of the Bazaar district. The shops ringing this neighborhood are large, sturdily constructed, and well decorated, and sell expensive high quality goods. The residential areas are a range of mid-large sized apartments and smaller villas similar to what is found in the nobles district. Public areas are fairly large with statuary, gardens and water features.
      Landmark: Statue of the Founders – A larger than life construction of the merchants who paid for the upgrades to the neighborhoods, this statue is placed along the road facing the noble district as if a challenge to those dwelling there. In the time since, several of the founders have in fact entered the upper ranks of the government.
  • D – Docks District: This single neighborhood district sits in the heart of the city and is where most of traffic enters and leaves. Raising the land in the city for building has created a central lake which is ringed with docks and wharfs and populated with small crafts of all types. Most of the shops and buildings that ring the central lake are built similarly to the neighborhoods they front. Though most trading happens off the docks, bulk goods are traded from ship to ship right here. Though few people actually claim residency, there is a large transient population: sailors, traders, and travelers all fill the inns that ring the lake. There are few public spaces, but that doesn’t stop anyone from fishing or swimming off the docks.
    Landmark: The obelisk – half buried in the muck on the shore near the northern slums, a rune-scribed standing stone lists to the side drunkenly. 

Next time: I finish the northern and southern slums. After that, it’s time to start filling layers.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Bespoke Artisanal Conventions

10 May 2019 - 12:00am

Tailor the event to the games you want to play and the people you want to play with…

Last year I was chatting with a co-worker who asked about my plans for the weekend since I was taking an extra day off to make it a long weekend. When I described the gaming weekend my friends were hosting at their house, he replied, “Oh, it’s another one of your bespoke, artisanal conventions then.”

Anyone who has read my articles know I love conventions. I’ve got several scattered throughout the year, with Origins being a highlight in June. GenCon used to be part of my regular rotation each year, but I eventually had to back off due to expense and size of the con. As much as I love the big cons with throngs of people, there is also something wonderful and amazing about getting together with a smaller group still focused on enjoying each other’s company while playing as many games as possible. My co-worker may have been joking by describing my upcoming weekend as bespoke, but it does ring true. Bespoke essentially means custom tailored for the specific needs of a person, or in this case, a group. It’s a funny, but true way to describe a private mini-convention.

What qualifies as a ‘bespoke’ mini convention? By my definition, it’s any time you get together with a group of select people and play multiple games over the course of a day or several days. Here are some of the ones I have attended:

  • This year will be the 10th anniversary of a ‘House Con’ that friends have been holding for the last decade. They average about twenty-ish players a year with four slots of games between Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. They often have three to four games running during each slot.
  • When a GM running an ongoing, annual invitational game at Origins decided to end a session in a cliffhanger, we were ‘forced’ to gather a couple months later to find out what happened next. The group of us crossed several states to hang out and play the sequel to that game as well as a couple of other games that weekend.
  • One mini-con was born out of a desire to thank a group of GMs for running consistently awesome games at Origins and some other cons. For the last three years, about 25 folks have gathered at a hotel in Ohio that was chosen for being somewhat central to people in multiple states. We get downright serious about games and squeeze in five games between Friday evening and Sunday morning.

Beyond the fact that you’re getting to play games with people you know you like, there are a few different benefits to having a small gathering like this:

  • The cost can be significantly lower, opening up the opportunity for people to attend who may not be able to afford the not insignificant cost of a larger convention.
  • Many people don’t enjoy big conventions because they don’t like large crowds, or find no joy in playing games with strangers. Coming to a smaller mini-con gives them a safer space to still enjoy multiple games.
  • Events held close to home allow those with family or work responsibilities a chance to attend. While they may not be able to get to a big con in another town, getting to a friend’s house for a day is more doable.
  • A more intimate event can provide newer GMs a chance to run a con-style game in a safer space. Running for friends, but in an organized setting is really good experience for new GMs.

Group shot from one of these events.

A potential downside to be mindful of is the perception (or reality) of exclusionary gatekeeping. Any time a group gets together with a closed invite list, it can be purposefully exclusionary in all the wrong ways. Now, with each of the mini-cons I have mentioned above, they were essentially extensions that grew out of the larger cons we all attended. A goal of most public conventions should be to open doors and create welcoming, inclusive environments for gaming. This is my goal and the goal of many of my friends, but we all still want an opportunity to focus our gaming time with each other.

So, let’s get into some of the specifics for organizing a “bespoke, artisanal convention”:

  • Understand the space you’re working with. If you’re going to hold this at your home, be realistic about the number of people you can fit in the space. An apartment will work fine if you’re only having a handful of people, but isn’t a good idea if you’re inviting enough people for multiple games at a time. You also need to consider crash space if you’re inviting folks from out of town. Do they need to get a hotel room or do you have a guest room? When you’re organizing and hosting, it’s your job to at least consider the options available to your guests.
  • Have a plan, but be flexible. You’re holding a con, so you need to have a general itinerary of what’s happening when. Regardless of whether you have multiple games happening at the same time or just one table with different games throughout the weekend, your GMs need to know what they’re running and when so they can prep. You also want to tell the players what they’re playing when. Respect your attendees time and make sure you have a plan in place. At the same time, maintain enough flexibility to adjust on the fly when people can’t make it or other issues pop up.
  • Food is a thing. People need to eat. Whether you’re hosting this at your home or some external location, you need to account for how and when your attendees are going to be eating. Believe me, you don’t want to leave it up to the last minute and end up with a dozen or more people all going, “What do you want to eat? I don’t know, what do you want to eat?” Decide ahead of time if you’re ordering in, caravanning the group to a particular restaurant, or ambitious enough to try and cook for the crowd you’ve invited.
  • Keep in mind your costs. Organizing one of these isn’t necessarily cheap. If you need to rent a room or cover the cost of food and snacks, make sure you recognize when you need to spread the cost out to your attendees. No one is going to begrudge you asking for $20 if you’re feeding them for the whole weekend.

As I said, I love conventions. The people, the games, the concentrated gaming. It’s one of my joys in life. But, my friendships with my fellow gamers always end up stronger after these smaller, more intimate gatherings. There’s still a ton of gaming, but the chance to hang out with a smaller group makes my gaming even stronger.

Have you ever hosted or attended a ‘house con’ or a small mini-con like this? I’d love to hear about your experiences with them.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The GM and the Chef

8 May 2019 - 5:54am

It’s International Tabletop Game Day and I am lucky enough to be at a friend’s house to run a rousing game of Pasión de las Pasiones. I walk in to the smell of something delicious and the sizzle of a hot pan on the stove. Fellow gnome Camdon is standing in the kitchen and he’s got piles of chopped onions, carrots, and celery while the chicken cutlets in front of him brown with a touch of salt and pepper, and he’s got capers and dijon set aside to add in once everything is combined. We chat, and then we sit down to game and eat some wonderful food.

Running the game, I lay out my thoughts — there’s a pile of relationships, all tangled together. There’s the glitz and glitter and riches of the telenovela, shining for our theoretical audience. There’s the evil twin, working at cross purposes. I’m throwing all of these into the sizzling pan of El Jefe’s illicit alcohol smuggling operation, with a little extra seasoning from the helicopter that is about to explode. We chat, and we laugh, and we jump in to play a wonderful game.

In the same way that the practiced cook will trust themselves to create a meal, the practiced GM can drop a game. And in both cases it comes down to the same ideas — experience, practice, and trusting yourself. If I am going to toss together a meal, I need to have an idea of what ingredients I have on hand and what will work together to create a harmonious meal. When I’m running a game, I need to have an idea of what genres and tones of games I am comfortable running and what kind of tropes I can use or subvert to create a shared story experience that matches the expected tone. It’s fun adding that one flavor that makes the dish pop in the same way it brings me joy to throw in the twist that makes all my players gasp. And sometimes, when you’re tired, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a sandwich instead of doing anything fancy — just like it’s totally fine to run that game that is exactly and precisely in your comfort zone, that you don’t have to think about. (Except, maybe sometimes, grill it and put an egg on it. The sandwich, not the game.)

So what is the point of thinking of GMing the way we think about cooking? The thing about cooking is that anyone can learn how to cook if they don’t already know. Your taste buds will guide you as you learn, and there are so many recipes out there to help you get started. Some you’ll love and you’ll make again and again and get so comfortable with you’ll be willing to start tweaking. Some you’ll make and not see a need to make again — they just don’t hit the right flavor profile, or they were far more work than they were worth.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and not get it perfect the first time. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailGMing is the same thing. Anyone can learn the skills to do it. The games that you enjoy will guide you to what you will enjoy running. There are many pre-written adventures out there that you can run, or analyze the construction of so that you can start creating your own. Some adventures may work better for you than others, and you can learn from both what works and what doesn’t work for you. Or you may be more comfortable starting with something you know — like a sandwich — and building on it, adding things that seem like they’ll work and learning from experience what works well and what doesn’t. You don’t need to be an expert to GM a game — just like cooking, you can ask other people what might go well in that dish, or what the best way to cook something is (or how does this mechanic work). If you try to make a dish and it doesn’t work, you might eat it anyway and shrug, or you might throw it out and go out that night and try again later…but we don’t tend to put the same amount of pressure on successful cooking that we do on successful GMing. Don’t be afraid to experiment and not get it perfect the first time. Every time you run a game, no matter how successful or not it feels to you, you are learning more about how to run a good one next time — just like how every almost successful meal teaches you to add more salt or to lower the heat a little. So go out there, pick up some plots at your FLGS on your way home, and cook up a good story tonight.

It’s really no surprise that we call this blog the stew.

What’s your best GMing recipe? Soup’s on!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Running a Groundhog Day scenario

6 May 2019 - 12:01am

Gamemasters looking to pull themselves out of their gaming rut might consider running a scenario with a “Groundhog Day” time loop.

I have an affinity for such storylines, and will eagerly watch a TV show or read novels that employs the time loop trope, should they cross my path.

(Strangely, though, I have never actually seen the trope’s namesake, the 1993 film comedy “Groundhog Day” starring Bill Murray — I prefer to meander into these experiences through happenstance rather than intentionally seek them out, I suppose).

I unexpectedly encountered another such example when I recently watched Star Trek: Discovery for the first time. One episode in the new CBS Series features the rascal Harry Mudd using a time loop to exact vengeance upon the Discovery’s captain and crew.

My favorite comes, of course, from Xena: Warrior Princess. In “Been There Done That,” Xena, Gabrielle and Joxer keep reliving the same day until she finds a way to prevent a town’s young lovers from rival families from using the Romeo and Juliet “solution” to consummating their affair.  In one iteration, Joxer buys it with a chakram to the chest — perhaps the most therapeutic moment of the entire run of the series.

There are  others, of course. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Cause and Effect,” Doctor Who and Romana taking on Meglos and the classic X-Files episode “Monday.” And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Roland’s entire quest from The Dark Tower series or the repetitive Seven Ages that serves as the introduction of each novel in the Wheel of Time series. (“The Wheel of Time turns, and ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legends fade to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.”)

With that out of the way, how can you structure a scenario so that it presents a Groundhog Day scenario for your players?

Part 1: Construct a Decision Line.

This is the first, and most important part. Establish a sequence of decisions that serves as the spine of the scenario. Between five and seven decision points should prove sufficient. These are the “turn left, turn right” moments the PCs must correctly determine to correctly “fix” the timeline. Basically, these are knobs that must be turned to a correct setting so that time resumes correctly. To think of it another way: it’s like setting a combination lock or making sure a sequence of switches is open to complete an electrical current circuit.

Part 2: The first time

The PCs will go through the decision tree. There is no right or wrong at this point — yet. But the GM should note the decisions.  Once the PCs complete the “day,” begin the reset. Pick about half the decision points, and flick them “off.” That means those points in the narrative are the ones the PCs have the change. Keep these changes to yourself. It’s up to the PCs to discover the correct combination on subsequent loops.

Part 3: Every day in the loop starts the same

This is the cue to the PCs that their efforts in each loop were not successful and that time is, indeed, repeating.

Part 4: Establish an Objective

At this point, the GM must decide who or what is causing this time ripple and forcing events to repeat? A powerful entity, a god, quantum mechanics, a leaf on the wind — one is as good as another. The more important question is to answer “Why?” Before the sequence can be established, “something significant” must be corrected. Usually, this means that one of the PCs must fall in love / discover something about themselves / treat someone special with an appropriate amount of “love and/or respect. It is a McGuffin of sorts — and instead of digging into one of the characters’ psyche, obtaining an object is also a good substitute. Nothing can happen until someone has that proverbial Golden Apple.

Part 5. Interloper

The person or persons that are key to obtaining/understanding the object needs to be introduced on the second loop. This NPC must have characteristics that encourage one of the players to have a change in their personality or outlook — or if you are playing D&D fifth edition, causes them to reevaluate their bonds, flaws or ideals.

Part 6: Hand wave the rinse and repeat

Once the PCs establish points of the sequence that are correct, the PCs should be able to handwave over any sequences they know are correct. Essentially, they are fast forwarding past known decision points — just like they do on TV. This keeps the game moving along and prevents any miscues and keeps the session manageable.

Part 7: A magical thing

The final solution should an extraordinary demonstration of one PC’s ability — or, even better, group collaboration.  The PCs must somehow manage to do one magical thing correctly to carry the day. It must be a stretch of their abilities — and carry an element of risk. (For example, Xena making that most difficult chakram toss of her career).

Part 8: That day is done — at last!

How does one know the solution was effective? The next day starts differently for the first time.  The sun rises, the birds sing and all is right with the world …

… until the next adventure comes around the corner.


Categories: Game Theory & Design