All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG. Bring these games to your table!
A long time ago… No. Even longer ago than that. Yes. That far back. We’re going to change reality for that long ago, and that change is going to ripple forward into the current time.
I’m not talking about going back in time to kill someone we all consider the epitome of evil. I’m also not talking about the really cool idea of “the butterfly effect.” I’m talking about something that is sometimes cool and sometimes insidious.
I’m talking about retconning. That’s right. Today, we’re going to see how to handle changing reality using “retroactive continuity.”Definition We’re going to see how to handle changing reality using “retroactive continuity.” Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
Let’s put on Phil’s “definition panda” hat for a moment and throw out the meaning of “retcon” really fast. A retcon is a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency. Basically, it means that we’re going to give a new understanding of past events in order to change them up some to free us to move forward in the current storyline that we have going on.Literature Examples
One of the earliest retcons in literature is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrecting Sherlock Holmes from his death at Reichenbach Falls by claiming that the whole series of events was a clever ruse pulled off by Holmes to stage his death.
As an author, I have an advantage of being the sole controller of the story being told. That’s awesome because I get to make up the rules. If Marcus Barber (my protagonist in my Modern Mythology series) dies, he rises from death 3 days later, is weak as a baby for another 3 days, and then gets to go on about his immortal life as a bounty hunter. Pretty cool, huh? What happens if I kill him and I need him alive and well a mere 2 days later? Too bad. Can’t do it without a serious retcon to my entire character, and I’m not allowed to do that.As an author, I have an advantage of being the sole controller of the story being told. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
I’m certain if I tried, my editor, continuity readers, publisher, and possibly even a few fans would show up at my door with torches and pitchforks in hand. Well… maybe not, but those 1-star reviews would certainly pour in!Game Time
However, at the RPG table, retconning does happen from time-to-time, and it is more acceptable to do so. There are several reasons for this.
The main one is that RPG storytelling is a shared narrative. One player may forget (or may have been absent for) certain events and make a decision based on a “false history.” If this false history is more cool or compelling than the real history of the tale, then a quick retcon can flip-flop things around and make this false history now the true events of what actually happened.RPG storytelling is a shared narrative. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
Another valid reason for slipping in a retcon is the fact that much of the storytelling is improv. If the GM or player has to make up some fact about a location or NPC on the fly, they’ll usually do a pretty good job of it. However, given even a few minutes of time to reflect on the statement, a better idea can come along. That’s when a quick pause of the game can help. Then the person can quickly retcon their statement of fact into something a little different.Who Can Retcon? A retcon should be exceedingly rare. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
Honestly, I think the GM has the final call on this, but players are certainly free to throw out ideas for retcons. The reason I say the GM has the final say is that she may have some prepped material based on a past event, location, or NPC. By making changes to the past, this can screw up the GM’s future plans. If the GM denies a retcon, then she probably has a really good reason for it. As a GM, it’s also okay to say something along the lines of, “I have plans for that. Let’s not change it, please.” As a player, respect that.How Often?
Actually implementing a retcon should be exceedingly rare because then things get all squirrelly with timelines, events, past notes, and recollections. Do it too many times, and you get a mind-bender of a history for your characters that will more closely resemble the movie Inception. Only do it if really necessary, not just because a “cool idea” came along. The more distant the past event is in the game, the more difficult it is to retcon that event. If a decision is merely a few minutes old, then retcons are more easily implemented because their impact waves haven’t been felt yet.How About You?
Have you ever retconned in a game? How did it work out for you? I’d like to hear from our readers some examples of how this went well… or not.
There has been a lot of discussion in the past year about cyberpunk as a genre, and the core purpose of the genre. Much of this discussion has focused on the comparison of cyberpunk as an aesthetic versus cyberpunk as a parable. Is it about looking cool as the world burns down around you, or is it about trying to put out the fire even if there is no way you can do so before everything you love is gone?
Headspace, a Powered by the Apocalypse game about Operatives who are linked to each other’s minds and share emotional space with one another, definitely frames the narrative as one of putting out fires. The core game assumes a world where the PCs were part of the machine that they are now trying to pull apart. The game assumes several corporate bad actors, an incident that has made the current world what it is, and various projects that the corporations are attempting to achieve. While the players are working against one corporation, another is advancing their agenda, so it may not be possible to put out all of the fires, just manage which ones rage out of control.
The core game introduces settings that can be used for the game, but the product we’re looking at today, Dystopian Dreams, introduces more settings that can be used for the game, including multiple new corporations, agendas, opposing agents, and even a new playbook.Disclaimer and Content Warning
A few of my fellow gnomes had their hands in this product, either in writing the intro or one of the settings. I wasn’t in contact with them about this review, and the PDF that I’m reviewing was one of my own purchase, but I wanted that to be known upfront.
These settings deal with some tough issues, including violence, drug trafficking, the marginalization of groups of people, and harm to animals. I’m not going to go into too many details about any of these things, and for the most part, the settings don’t do a deep dive into the description of these things, but the themes are present in various settings.UI
This review is based on the PDF version of the product. It is 133 pages, with black and white pages and art, containing customized borders, sidebars, and text that looks almost like a computer interface. There is a three-page section at the back that credits and highlights the various contributors to the book.
Like the core book, the artwork is by Brian Patterson, and not only does this serve to unify the look from the core book, but the artwork does a great deal to convey the bridge between a dark future with looming threats, and characters that are trying to create a brighter tomorrow.Settings and Overview
This section of the book explains the structure of each setting, and how it conforms to the assumptions of the core game. Each setting has four corporations, with an agent (which acts as the face for that organization) and an agenda for each corporation. Each setting also has five events, five issues, and five corporate issues.
I love this kind of standardized presentation of setting information, because one of the issues that I often have with setting books is, “what do you want me to do with this information?” Sometimes it is self-evident, but I wish more setting information for RPGs was written acknowledging the conceit that the information is for use in a game, rather than being presented as a travelogue of a fictional reality, divorced from the tone and genre assumed by the game itself.Neo-Tokyo Pleasure Dome Ultra 20XX
This setting assumes that World War III has come and gone, and Japan has become an insular state, with many of its citizens living almost entirely in cyberspace. Many of the corporations that have come to power in this environment are corporations that help to maintain and protect society while citizens are living their lives inside the digital realm. Humans in the Cyberzone still need their physical bodies cared for, and this becomes big business.
The corporations include Oroshi Medtech, Nikumono Custodial Services, Delicious Future Nutritional Assistance Corporation, and Brilliant Diamond Technologies. With human beings spending so much time in the Cyberzone, these corporations are moving into areas like flash cloning, industrial espionage, and the ability to get a wider number of people to be compatible with the Cyberzone.
Overall, I like the concept of corporations fighting over the real world while an increasing number of humans are living their lives completely in the Cyberzone. It’s a manifest analogy for people not seeing what is going on in the world, leaving the “real” world to the corporate agents and the protagonist operators.
Compared to the core setting corporations and events, the corporations in this setting feel a little more generally bad, rather than horrifically bad. Wanting to reduce humans to products is terrible, but contributing to the war machine that everyone else in the world participated in, or hiding corporate incompetence feels like less of a personal gut-punch versus some of the corporate crimes in the core book. Some of the Japanese tropes in the setting also feel a little on the nose, such as the naming conventions for some of the corporations and organizations.Hieroglyph of the Whale
This setting posits a world where humans are desperate to develop space travel, because they have allowed Global Warming to hit apocalyptic thresholds. Surface mining can’t produce what is needed for this industry, so underwater mining operations and archologies are developed to find more resources. Cetaceans are pressed into service in the mining operations, and eventually the whales have an uprising, which leads to the abandonment of the facilities. At the assumed beginning of the campaign, corporations are attempting to re-establish contact with the archology’s survivors and restart mining operations.
The corporations in this setting are Taneo Exploracion, Invector Biogen, Chidao Corporation Global, and Polyorceanus Deci Corps. The corporate goals include making the re-founded archology into a desirable upscale living space, killing any surviving cetacean workers, sabotaging the efforts of anyone else trying to mine the location, and making humans into better, more pliable workers to subvert the need for the less reliable cetacean workforce.
I love the spin put on undersea cyberpunk in this setting, and the quandary of co-opting cetacean lifeforms into an unwilling workforce. The corporations have the right balance of understandable public goals and nastier agendas under the surface (so to speak). I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as a challenge, but unlike most of the other settings presented for the game, Operatives won’t be part of an established population, but infiltrating organizations that are attempting to make contact with, and reestablish, an archology, which may play out a bit differently than the more traditional cyberpunk assumptions of the core game.Artifice and Ice
This setting presents a world where the arctic is being developed as premium vacation and living space, but corporate incompetence and greed leads to a sparsely populated wasteland with a failing economy. Unlike the other settings in the book, the introductory information on the setting is presented as the ruminations of a citizen of the region, thinking about everything that has gone, and is going, wrong.
The corporations involved in this setting are Oceanix Unlimited, Nexen, Tower Shield & Sword, and Green Surf. The corporations are involved in trying to start a new housing boom in the region, intentionally undermining government for greater corporate control, floating a conspiracy theory to justify defense expenditures, and hidden ecoterrorism to bring to light corporate and government mistakes in the region.
This is an odd mix for me as I read it. The most compelling secret to me is the conspiracy theory that keeps the security firm going, but two of the corporations feel like general “bad actors,” and the big event of the setting is that the place never caught on the way the corporations wanted. There is also an interesting quandary presented (which appears in a few more settings later), where one corporate entity might not be always working against what the Operators’ interests are, so it may be okay to let their agenda move forward once in a while, curbing the more zealous aspects of its implementation.New Motor City
New Motor City is set in the Detroit of the future, where abandoned buildings are used for urban farming, and electric street racing is part of the culture. Corporations promote real-time streaming events covering aspects of the city, like the street racing scene.
The corporations at play are Agricum, Nusafe, XO Velocity, and LiveEye. Their interests are urban farming, security, the electronic automotive industry, and reality entertainment. The less savory elements at play involve poisoning habitats with pesticides, manipulation of human brain waves to pacify them, unsafe vehicular manufacture, and eliminating public entertainers that become problematic.
I’m not doing this setting justice in trying to explain it. I greatly enjoy this one. I love it when a setting can walk the fine line of framing the traditional aspects of a genre, and then finding just enough aspects to change and personalize to give the setting its personality. The idea of the high rise reclaimed farms, street racing culture, and a setting where “influencers” might get offed because they are influencing “improperly” really resonates with what I love about cyberpunk and it’s possibilities and adding a new spin to them.Paraiso Amazonia
In this setting, a section of the Amazon has been placed under a dome, and there is a return to monarchy, as well as an upswing in criminal activity, as living spaces are defined in the region.
A lot is going on in this setting. The “corporations” are Seibetsu Technology, The Satans, Petrocorp, and Orleans Braganca Construction. I put corporations in quotes because The Satans are a crime syndicate, and the Orleans Braganca Construction company is strongly tied to the interests of the resurgent monarchy.
The corporate interests of the setting involve tracking immigrants via technology, establishing a caste system to make the restriction of land and influences a quantified aspect of the government, and to exploit the maintenance of the biodome to produce exclusive biotechnology, which then becomes necessary for everyday life.
This is a fascinating setting, but there is also a lot going on, and it feels a little constrained by trying to reframe it into the normal Headspace definitions. This is another setting where one of the corporations, the Satans in this case, may have projects going on that the PCs want to come to fruition, adding nuance but also a little bit of confusion to the overall expected structure of the game.100% Pure
This setting takes place in New Zealand, after a series of disastrous turns including earthquakes, uprisings, and a gene plague spread by corporate modified foodstuff. New Zealand has been divided into Green, Orange, and Red zones, based on the safety of the people in the region and the relative comfort of their lives. One assumption of this setting is that there are displaced rebels in the Red zone that may be allies to the Operatives.
The corporations here are Maturanga Digital, Always Tikanga, Kaitiakitanga Solutions, and Clearwater Developments. Corporate goals include recovering telecommunication data from reclassified Red zone regions, inter-corporation fighting over the ownership of land, stopping smuggled resources from reaching the “wrong” hands, and securing the rights to the Red zone to completely remake that region under corporate control.
One particularly interesting aspect of this setting is that, unlike some of the others, it expressly mentions Operators as part of the assumed description of the Red zone resistance, while many of the other settings are more open to how the group is going to integrate Operators into the established setting story.Carteles Unidos
The final setting of the book details a U.S./Mexican border struggle that has been exacerbated by ecological disasters, the collapse of the Mexican government and the rise of cartel control of the country, and U.S. political unrest that has led to civilian vigilante groups and a militarized border agency.
This is another case where “corporation” is a very loose term for the power groups in the setting. Las Calaveras Blancas is the new cartel overlords of Mexico, BORTAC is the US border agency, Hard Light is the organized civilian vigilante force, and Las Sombras De La Serpente is a civilian organization in Mexico opposing the cartels.
As might be expected, this setting feels a lot different than the assumed structure of Headspace. The “secret” that Las Sombras De La Serpente has is more a matter of them not thinking through the consequences of their actions, and while some of the other settings have “gray” organizations that the PCs may not mind advancing some of their agendas, Las Sombras De La Serpente is way closer to a benevolent faction than just about any of the other “corporations” in the book.The Insider
Aside from the credits, the final chapter in the book details a new playbook for the game, The Insider. The playbook immediately got my attention when it mentioned Transmetropolitan as an influence, because I loved that comic.
The Insider is about knowing dirt and people and planting dirt on people. The edges involve having corporate contacts, dirt that can be sent to the media if anything happens to you, flexible IDs, strong followings, lots of wealth, or lots of drugs.
Interestingly, this takes is inspiration from Transmetropolitan, but the character is not just a journalist. You can see how you could model that since Spider knows a ton of people and where the bodies are buried, but the playbook is flexible regarding exactly how you come by your dirt and the nature of your connections.
The flavor of some of the edges does reinforce how pushing the limits on what is defined as a “corporation” changes the core assumptions of the game. For example, the Insider can have an edge where they know all of the communications officers for the corporations, but what does that look like when two of your factions are essentially civilian militias, or one of them is an expansive crime syndicate?Sync
This is a great collection of settings. I love the game focused structure of the presentation. While all of the settings offer an interesting and unique twist to a cyberpunk setting, I particularly love The Hieroglyph of the Whale and New Motor City settings, and I’ll admit my biases as an American in the current political climate make Carteles Unidos a compelling setting to examine. I always love new playbooks in PBTA games, especially when they are well defined and draw on recognizable tropes.Stress Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
Pushing the boundaries on how “corporations” are defined makes me a little less sure how the core assumptions will work with those entities, or what the consequences are when the PCs might feel a little safer letting some corporate clocks slide. Given the tightly integrated number of playbooks in the core book, as much as I love The Insider as a concept, I’m not sure if I should add the playbook as someone else present as a “ghost” if the group doesn’t take the playbook, or if it should replace one of the core playbooks for this purpose. Its internal integration is fine, I’m just wondering a little about the nuance of the integration into the game as a whole.Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is a great wellspring of setting information for cyberpunk games. Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well. The ideas on where the future could be heading, as well as the concisely formatted goals and directions of various power groups, make this useful as a setting book beyond the game for which it was designed.
What are your favorite cyberpunk settings? What are your favorite subversions in cyberpunk settings? What are some of the best ways you have seen modern issues translated into the cyberpunk genre? We would love to hear your thoughts below!
GM Screens can be controversial things. A lot of people don’t consider them necessary, and others think they actively create a boundary between players and GMs that should not exist. On the other hand, lots of GMs want to keep their notes and resources hidden from the eyes of the table. I’ll admit that I’m pro-GM screen, but much of that comes from the concept that when the screen is up, I’m officially running the game. When the screen is down, I’m “off the clock.”
The controversy doesn’t stop at the presence or absence of the GM screen, but extends to the material on the screen. What information is the most important to display to the GM? How often does the GM use that material? What a designer chooses to put on a screen can communicate what they consider important when running the game.Similar, But Different
Let’s take a look at multiple screens for the same system, and see what that tells us. I have the D&D Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated screen next to me, as well as Kobold Press’ Midgard 5e screen. Between the two screens, the Kobold Press screen omits damage by level examples, object hit points and armor class, skills and associated abilities, travel pace, services, encounter distance, cover, and lighting rules. In exchange for that information, the Midgard screen adds healing potions, the status rules for the setting, Shadow Corruption, and ley line effects.
While all of the omitted information is likely going to be useful in a D&D campaign, in or out of the Midgard Setting, the Midgard screen is communicating that the setting-specific rules of status, Shadow Corruption, and ley lines are important enough elements to reference regularly, and this communicates to the GM running the game that these things are key aspects of the setting that should have a regular impact.
The Adventures in Middle-earth screen, another system that has it’s basis in the 5e OGL, dispenses with almost all of the 5e rules references seen on the standard D&D Dungeon Master’s Screen, and instead focuses on starting cultural attitudes (which are used for Audience rules), Degeneration (connected to Shadow Weaknesses), Tainted Treasure, Misdeeds, Anguish, Corruption, and Journey rules. All of this communicates that, despite using 5e as its core, the setting-specific rules are important enough to supersede the normal reference tables that even the Midgard screen communicates as important.
All of the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars roleplaying games have their own screen, but the information presented on them is almost identical. None of them reference the different subsystems that differentiate the systems from one another (Obligation, Duty, or Morality), and may, unintentionally, communicate only a superficial difference between the three games. The GM screens provide the same general summary tables for difficulty levels, suggested symbol spending tables, weapons and gear (with a few variations between games), item qualities, critical charts, and medical and repair procedures.But Wait, There’s More
For a long time, the assumed “bonus” item that came with GM screens was an adventure, and this still happens with some regularity. All three of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPGs have included adventures, as does The Expanse RPG. Adventures in Middle-earth also includes an adventure. However, an increasing number of GM screens either do not have additional material, or provide something in addition to, or instead of, an adventure.
While the Star Wars RPGs have included adventures, the Edge of the Empire screen includes expanded Nemesis character rules, the Age of Rebellion screen includes rules for squads and squadrons, and Force and Destiny includes rules for lightsaber creation and advice for starting characters at higher XP totals.
Both The Expanse and Star Trek Adventures include player handouts with rules summaries, both for general rules, and for contextually relevant rules (social scenes, starship combat, etc.) that would otherwise require the players to reference sections in the core rulebook.
The Adventures in Middle-earth screen includes individually printed pre-generated characters for the adventure included, which can act as handouts.Customized Options
There are a growing number of “specialized” screens releasing for some games. As an example, nearly every major adventure release from Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons and Dragons has been accompanied by a specialized screen for that adventure released by Gale Force 9. In these cases, the screens often have maps on them that reference the regions visited by the player characters in the adventure, and may have summarized versions of specialized rules used specifically in that adventure (like the nautical rules that accompanied Ghosts of Saltmarsh).
In addition to the variety of traditional screens, there is an increasing number of available inserts for various games, usable in customizable GM screens. Various Savage Worlds settings have been utilizing this approach for years, allowing for many different art inserts for the outside of the screen, and allowing for customized material to be inserted into various internal reference pockets. I own a landscape, a portrait, and even an oddly sized GM screen (whose dimensions I didn’t check before buying) with pockets that can be personalized for various games.
I don’t think GM screens are a must, and even with my “screen up, screen down” table mindset, I don’t use GM screens with Powered by the Apocalypse games, for example, even if I could throw them together with my custom GM screens. This leads me to my thoughts on some of the developments in GM Screens and what they may say about what the gaming community has learned about functionality.
Many GMs and players over the years have talked about how the flow of the game is maintained more effectively without continually referencing the rule book. Summarizing the right rules becomes very important for this, and games like Powered by the Apocalypse games or Forged in the Dark games often have detailed rules handouts that can be referenced during the game, dramatically cutting down on what rules need to be referenced during the game.Sharing the Love With The Players
In my reviews of both Star Trek Adventures and The Expanse, I noticed that while the rules were very simply expressed, there are situations in both games where having specific game references would be very useful. For example, in Star Trek Adventures, during starship combat, the resolution of tasks is still relatively simple, but there are many structured circumstances that determine the context of what actions can be taken by a character. This is based on the station the character inhabits on the ship. Security officers can only do certain things involving the shields or phasers, and the helm can only do certain things involving maneuvering, for example. The Expanse is based on the AGE game engine from Green Ronin, and that stunt system is very simple to resolve, but the table references for stunt point spends can be cumbersome to look up.
The GM screen for Star Trek Adventures contains player handouts that have the general rules of the game summarized on one side, and the specific rules regarding different starship stations on the flip side of the handouts. The Expanse GM Screen has player handouts that summarize conditions, personal combat, space combat, and the various stunt pool tables. The Conditions and Actions summaries appear on two separate handouts, and the flip side of one of these is an initiative tracker, which means there is one that can circulate among the players, and one that the GM can reference.
I have mentioned in the past that I’m a fan of including a starting adventure in a game, to show what the assumed pacing and structure of a session looks like in the game. Looking at how GM screens have developed, however, I’m not sure that an adventure is always the right pairing for a GM screen. I am a huge fan of useful player handouts to summarize the base rules of the game, and I’m an even bigger fan of the contextual role summaries on the Star Trek Adventures handouts. I’m less excited about including useful additional rules with the GM screen, as I feel that those rules either belong in the core rulebook, or in an appropriate supplement.
When playing in a Numenera game at Gamehole Con this year, all of us had access to a rules summary playmat, and while I’m not sure that GM screens are needed for every game, I do think that a GM summary playmat would be a great addition to the materials available to GMs. These playmats and reference sheets don’t need to be physical products. In many cases, having a clearly laid out PDF that can be printed is just as useful as a professionally produced physical playmat (and some of us love our laminators).Lowering the ShieldsI may not need a GM screen for every game I intend to run, but I do want some kind of “at the table” facilitation kit to help guide the game Share12Tweet1Reddit1Email
Looking at how GM screens have progressed over the years, I’m not sure that the reference tables were always the main point of screens in the beginning. I think the physical barrier could be seen as the primary purpose, but adding reference tables seemed like a logical addition to the functionality of the screens. I think we have reached a time where the charts point towards what the hobby may need more than the screen, more reference material at the table, facilitating smooth play with relevant references, easily at hand.
In the future, I may not need a GM screen for every game I intend to run (even if I have a habit of reflexively picking them up when they are available), but I do want some kind of “at the table” facilitation kit to help guide the game, cutting down on page flipping. And while looking at tools to add to a GM kit for running the game, why not make safety tools a part of that kit as well?
What have been your favorite GM screens/GM kits for games that you have purchased? What kind of tools for facilitating play at the table would you like to see become a standard part of games? We would love to hear your opinion below, and we’ll look forward to reading your responses!
I have been incredibly vocal on my social media accounts about the importance of involving Asian creators in the writing, artistic, and editorial processes behind Asian campaign settings. While hiring sensitivity readers like Clio Yun-Su Davis, James Mendez Hodes, and myself is an important step in ensuring an equitable portrayal of Asian people, cultures, and themes, not everyone can afford our services or will seek them out. Furthermore, those producing campaign settings for their home games (with no production aspirations) won’t need our services, but may still want our insight.
In a series of blog posts for the Stew, I will outline an author who’s work can elevate your fantasy Asian campaign settings and cultural depictions to a more respectable level. For this post, I’m going to start with China – my own culture – and a story about my connection to this featured author.
From 2010 – 2018 (plus a year of medical leave until 2019), I worked as an academic archaeologist. I conducted field research in Jordan, Greece, and China, and wrote my Masters thesis on prehistorical Jomon material from northern Japan. I know a bit about Asia. Much of what I learned about China, can be traced back to one man – Kwang-Chih (K. C.) Chang (1931 – 2001). K. C. was in many ways, the godfather of modern Chinese archaeology and the general study of East Asia. Chinese archaeology is primarily a historical discipline, contrasting the scientific approach employed in the West. Scholars in China actively seek to validate historical texts USING archaeological finds (Lothar von Falkenhausen explains it well HERE). K.C. was one of the first Chinese scholars to hold prestigious teaching positions at Ivy League institutions like Yale and Harvard and helped bring multidisciplinary anthropological archaeological research methods to East Asia. He was also a proponent for viewing East Asian prehistory from a pluralistic perspective – where China, Japan, and Korea co-existed in a state unbound by modern geopolitical boundaries. This last fact is of particular significance to you, my gamer friend.
One of the greatest pitfalls of Asian campaign settings is how they reduce Asian cultures into a problematic, reductive amorphous blob. Cultures blend, yet never engage in dynamic exchanges. Reading K.C’s work is one of the solutions to avoiding this. While academic in nature, his book – The Formation of Chinese Civilization – is the perfect entry-level guide to China’s archaeological past. From extraordinary works of jade and clay to the fantastic palatial complexes and tombs of the Shang lords. This book, if taken completely out of context, reads exactly like a campaign setting. Chang weaves a story of kings and queens but contextualizes everything within times of great cultural exchange. China is not home to a single culture. Since the earliest dynasties, it’s home to a rich tapestry of regional cultures that Chang introduces to readers.
This is why archaeological literature, particularly of the academic variety, is so important. They’re written with the intention of making a culture feel real. They’re written with the intention of telling a story based on bone, bronze, jade, and ceramic. These are real ancient stories come to life and if we want our fantasy worlds to feel the same, we should strive for this level of detail, structure, understanding of regional interaction.
So, if you’re out there writing a homebrew campaign setting for your friends and family inspired by ancient China, look no further than K.C. Chang’s work. If you’re looking to publish a campaign setting, take a look at his academic legacy. Look to how this pioneer of East Asian archaeology breathes life into cultures that are thousands of years old, and consider how you can do that for the ideas in your head.
Oh, and maybe hire a Chinese sensitivity reader like myself. I kid, but only partially. Check it at danielhkwan.com
For starters, I’d like to thank the fine folks over at Writing Excuses for sparking this idea in my head with one of their recent podcasts. If you want to hear what they have to say about unusual resources and how it can impact a world or economy, head over to href="https://writingexcuses.com/2019/11/17/14-46-unusual-resources/">/
This article is more about prep and world building from the GM’s perspective than how to run a game, so I hope you can enjoy the read as I walk through these concepts.
Both fantasy and science fiction realms run rampant with weird resources. At least, they’re weird as compared to what we have here on our regular old Earth. This article could be jam-packed with examples from games and literature, but I’m going to limit it to just two.
The first is from The Expanse and the protomolecule. It’s clearly extra-solar in nature and completely alien to everyone in the story, but it changes the balance of power between the different human cultures. It also causes characters to go to extremes to try and either harness or destroy the protomolecule. This introduction of an alien lifeform is done very well because it’s not just here to hunt us, eat us, or procreate with us.
The second example is the Murgo red gold from the Belgariad series. In these books, the power of the red gold is subtle and horrific. The red gold can be bartered with just like the regular yellow gold and apparently has the same monetary value. However, the more red gold a person has, the more they desire to acquire even more of it. This is hideously subtle because the Murgos of the realm know this and leverage this desire into currying favors from people that would otherwise be morally or loyally immune to such influence.
In both cases, the resource at hand is highly unusual but changes the way the game can be played. Wars break out. Millions die. Characters’ goals are upended or redirected. Conflict happens. Great storytelling ensues.
While you’re crafting your realms (or playing in an existing property), take a step back and think about what kind of unusual resource exists in the world. Try to go beyond the trope of using body parts of mythical or supernatural creatures. These are fine for side quests, but if you want to push forward with a main goal, a deeper connection to the world is needed beyond setting your PCs out into the world to “murder hobo” their way through the world’s population of mind flayers to acquire a nodule of their brain or their mouth-tentacles or whatever.
I also encourage you to think about what’s weird or abnormal about a resource beyond the rarity and/or value of the item. If you listen to the podcast I’ve linked to above, you’ll find out that the value of diamonds is an artificial creation or that aluminum (you know, what you put your leftovers in) was incredibly valuable and rare to find in pure form because the methods to smelt the metal out of ore had not been created yet.
I’ll throw out two examples off the top of my head and see if it sparks any creative ideas in your own world building.
From science fiction: What if the element that is needed to power FTL travel only comes from the heart of a star? We managed to collect enough material “outside the heart” for one drive that will last forever. Now we, as humanity, have to choose which stars to destroy by taking their heart in order to power our FTL drives. Clearly, destroying a star will remove any chance of life surviving in that star system, so here comes the conflict! Does humanity have a greater need for “yet another” FTL drive in exchange for wiping out life in the area? What about regulations or doctrines that require “star heart miners” to prove that a system is devoid of life before they destroy the star? Will this lead to piracy and privateers? Ohh… The options and implications of how this changes starfaring society are fun to think about, but I’ll leave that exercise up to you.
From fantasy: Imagine a metal ore that can store magical/mystical energy. Of course, magic users will flock to that ore like crazy. Now shift the creation of all magic items to require this ore, but once the ore has been tempered and forged, it loses its ability to store magical energy in exchange for it gaining magical abilities. If the party finds a large vein or collection of this natural ore, here we’ll find conflict as the magic users will want to keep it in its natural state. However, the fighters will want a new magical sword or the rangers will want magical arrowheads. This simple rock is now a treasure to bit split more aggressively than any pile of gold coins from a dragon’s hoard. Now expand this thinking to the rest of the world and how it’ll impact economics, trade, and society.
Join Ang, Jared, and J.T. for a discussion about the meaning of niche protection and how to implement it in your games. Will these gnomes’ niches be protected enough to keep them out of the stew?
Download: Gnomecast #80 – Niche Protection
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When I was talking with Ang and J.T. on a recent Gnomecast, we were discussing niche protection with characters. The discussion turned to the 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons concept of character roles. Those roles, if you are unfamiliar, are as follows:
- Controller–Spreads damage or conditions across an area to change the tempo of a fight
- Defender–Soaks up damage that would otherwise hit other characters and provides a steady source of reliable damage
- Leader–Provides boosts and healing to other party members
- Striker–Provides definitive targeted damage under the right conditions and is often mobile enough to move out of danger after doing so
While there has been a lot of discussion about 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons, defining the expected roles of characters in a game that has a lot of tactical combat provides a roadmap for what combat looks like and what characters should be doing in combat.
What is interesting is that we don’t typically see a commensurate set of similar roles for in-game social interaction. While 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons considers social interaction one of the pillars of play, often this “pillar” is resolved without mechanics, or is reduced to single rolls.Social Roles
Adventures in Middle-earth, Cubicle 7’s adaptation of the 5th Edition OGL to Tolkien’s fantasy works, includes a structured social mechanic called the Audience. In an Audience, characters set the difficulty by making an introduction, and then describe how they are interacting with the NPC in question. Depending on the NPCs motivations, saying or doing certain things might provide a bonus or a penalty to the final check in the Audience, and using certain tactics may fail utterly. For example, a proud, warlike chieftain might shut down an audience immediately if intimidation is used, while a weak-willed bureaucrat may dislike flattery and only really respond to threats or bribes.
While I’m citing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in this article, my real point is to show how, in a game with enough structure provided to those scenes, you can develop similar social interaction roles that parallel the tactical combat roles. In many cases, social interactions are reduced to a single “face” character that is generally good at “charisma things.” Looking at a more granular resolution, such as the Adventures in Middle-earth’s Audience mechanics, you can see that social roles can develop as well. Here are the roles that occurred to me while I was speaking with Ang and J.T.:
- The Face–Good at getting people to like them and to frame themselves and the party favorably
- The Heavy–Good at intimidating and shutting down debate
- The Silver-Tongue–Good at deception and getting the party out of trouble once they have been put in a bad situation
- The Sage–Good at providing context to the social situation at hand
A single character may be at least passably good at all these roles, but isolating specific roles in social encounters may help to give more texture to social interaction in games where it devolves into singular rolls, and may also provide something for other members of the group to do if social scenes.Talking in Action
Let’s look at how this might play out in a more structured scene. Let’s say that our hypothetical party is attempting to attend a council meeting and they wish to convince the mayor to take a specific action. Various council members may be for or against the action that the adventurers are advocating.
In this situation, the Sage makes some kind of insight check to read the room, or they may rely on a knowledge check that tells them about past trends. In either case, they know that there are two influential council members that the mayor won’t take action against that dislike the plan. The sage also determines that the mayor is generally honest and proud, so they can’t be bribed or intimidated. The Sage imparts this to the rest of the party.
The Heavy looks at one of the opposed council members, deciding how they are going to intimidate them into being silent. This might be with a more subtle intimidation check, glaring at them with a general sense of menace, or they might overtly touch their weapon and look at the council member. Depending on how they do this, they may have a long term enemy in the future, but currently, if they are successful, they have taken out one piece of opposition.
The Silver-Tongue isn’t going to be the one to plead the party’s case, because they don’t want the mayor to grudgingly go along with their plan. That said, the Silver-Tongue can talk to the other opposing council member and heavily imply that it may be profitable for that council member to sit this discussion out in the long term. Again, if there isn’t any real profit to be had in the endeavor, that may create a long term enemy, but it shuts down opposition if the Silver-Tongue is successful.
The Face can then make an honest and impassioned plea to the mayor about the proper course of action, and without opposition, they are only attempting to win over the mayor. They are relying on the mayor trusting that they are being upfront, and presenting a course of action that is reasonable and the right thing to do.
Since we don’t want checks to outright stymie the progression of a game session, we might have situations where the two council members add conditions that advance their agendas to step out of the way with the mayor. The mayor may have another condition to add if this check is failed. If the Heavy fails, the Silver-Tongue may attempt to smooth over what happened with their councilor, and if the Silver-Tongue failed, the Heavy might glower at the other councilor that they didn’t previously engage with. The Sage might make a check to suggest the proper course of action with any character that wasn’t suitably impressed or to intuit exactly the approach that the NPC is waiting for.Introducing the Concept The goal is to make it feel like granular decisions are important to the development of the scene, so that it isn’t entirely the job of the singular charismatic character to carry everything that is going on. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
Once you define roles for social scenes, you may want to explain these roles to players as they are making characters, to reinforce that one character in the party doesn’t need to take all of the traditional “social skills,” so that the group has a more diverse social skill set in addition to having other diverse “hard” skills.
You may also want to devise a more layered encounter using these roles early in the campaign to show that there will be opportunities for characters to use these abilities. In more tactically focused RPGs, it’s still not likely that a scene as structured as the one outlined above is going to take as long as a regular combat, and that isn’t the goal. The goal is to make it feel like granular decisions are important to the development of the scene, so that it isn’t entirely the job of the singular charismatic character to carry everything that is going on.
I am not suggesting this is the only way to structure a more granular take on social scenes, and this is flavored by a contrast to the tactical roles defined in games that have a more granular combat system with more constrained combat abilities. But I think it can serve as a template for how to engage more players in scenes that aren’t tactical, and to move the onus of resolving social interaction scenes from a single role to multiple roles that might have various evolving complications.
Have you seen the roles for social interaction well defined in the games you have played? What did the game do to define those roles? Did the game have a similarly granular combat system, or was the focus of the game the social interaction? We would love to hear about your experiences below!
As a long time table top gamer, I’ve played a pretty wide gamut of games. I spent years in crunchy Pathfinder and 3rd edition D&D before my tastes in gaming changed and sent me on the hunt for games that give me the feels. My fun has shifted away from joy of mechanical mastery to the joy of the story created through group improv and through making the most interesting choices, even when they aren’t in the best interest of my character. Enter the freeform/parlor larp: a confined one shot intended to be played in someone’s home or otherwise moderate space; frequently with little or no conflict resolution mechanics and focused on relationships in some sort of pressure cooker situation. Or y’know. That may just be the kind I’m really interested in.
Last night I played in my first ever larp. And I loved it.
There’s a stigma table top players have about larpers because we think that removing the table makes things more intimate and embarrassing and most of us remember that wild youtube video from the early 2000s of some guy throwing ping pong balls and yelling “Lightning Bolt! Lightning Bolt!” over and over again. I never had a desire to move my mechanical mastery fun to a live action setting, but my interest began to perk up when my primary fun shifted to feels, story, and relationship drama. If what you enjoy are the more social aspects of gaming, then I can strongly recommend the experience — we’re already planning our next one.What was different? There’s no table (of course).
- There’s nothing to keep you from interacting directly in character with the other people who are playing, or from specifically not interacting with them as the case may be. You have the opportunity to be both more intimate and more removed. Your physicality in the space can reflect your play more. Two of our characters did not like each other, and every time they were in the same space they pointedly ignored the other, or even pushed past. We didn’t find out until later they were related!
- You don’t see everything else that’s happening, or hear it. I spent a lot of time meeting in small groups with other people because I had a secret — I was a werewolf. I didn’t want to hurt anyone but I also couldn’t just tell everyone…but moonrise was only ninety minutes in. When the game was over, we sat around chatting for quite a while and there were so many undercurrents besides my own at play, and there were even people that I didn’t end up having a single interaction with all night who also had wonderful story arcs of their own. Putting all the pieces of the story together to understand the whole picture can become more of an after the fact as you act only on the information that your character (and you!) have at the time. When you’re playing with a table, you know the story even of the scenes you’re not participating in, so this feels very different. Each experience is truly unique.
- Because you are physically interacting, you have the opportunity to include props much more prominently. They matter more because they help to suspend your disbelief and give you something physically representative to hold on to. They’re also a visual way to create shared narrative — especially useful when you may have missed some parts of a conversation because something different was happening for you! For example, I walked back in to the room to find a ritual circle laid out on the floor, created by a character I didn’t trust at all but whom I desperately wanted to succeed.
- It’s neat that a larp has the potential for more physical interaction, but because it does, the base line of what is acceptable needs to be clearly defined before play. It can be negotiated further on an out of character person by person basis, but how much contact you can make with someone before you pause to ask for consent should be clear. It might be none at all, or it might be hand to shoulder — but it should be known before you play. On an individual basis because of our in game relationship status, I negotiated more with specific people. Mostly so that I could end up holding lapels and crying about how I didn’t want to hurt anyone, while the moonrise drew ever closer.
- Safety is just as key, or even more so. Being physically in the space can make experiences more intense. Consent is a key conversation — consent about physical touch, consent about what happens to our character in the game (we played a New Magischola scenario, for example, and you get to decide what, if any, effect any given spell has on you). Larp is the source of the OK-check in that I am already using at my tabletop games because it gives us the ability to check in on each other during play — it can be hard to tell if you are upset or if your character is upset, for example — so being able to check in nonverbally is very important. Having a way to walk through the larp space invisibly to remove yourself for whatever reason is akin to the open door policy, although scaled up to manage the larger space scale of the game.
- We can explicitly play pretend together. You can say out of character that the necklace you’re holding is silver, even if in actuality it is not; we agree to see it that way together for the purposes of the narrative. After all, if it weren’t silver, it wouldn’t be useful to restrain a werewolf.
- To play together, we’re agreeing that outside the limits we’ve put in place and the mechanics that give us agency in our own character’s actions, the things that other people say are true.
- It matters who you play with. It’s easier to engage when you have a level of trust with the people you’re interacting with — even if that just means a solid understanding that playing a relationship of some sort doesn’t leave the larp itself.
- It’s still group story telling and will benefit from the same kind of group improv tips that your table will.
- You probably won’t be able to stop talking about it after a good one.
I honestly can’t believe it took me so long to try this since it’s right up my alley, and I’m excited to get the crew together and do more. Next time maybe ghost hunters or a murder mystery!
Do you larp or play tabletop RPGs exclusively? Do you mix them together?
One of the cool things about RPGs is that you constantly evolve through your time in the hobby. One of the bad things about being a blogger for so many years is that everything you ever said is captured for posterity. Seven years ago, I wrote an article about how I did not like published adventures. Which back then was entirely true, and upon re-reading I still partly agree with most of my points. But we constantly evolve and my feelings about published adventures are coming around. Right now I am running three games, and all of them are using published adventures (with my own touches added in), and I am having a great time.
Seven years ago I told you why I did not like published adventures, now it’s time for me to tell you why I like them.It’s Mostly About Time
The truth is that time was the driving factor into why I got back into published adventures. I am running three bi-weekly groups, and with my other design, podcasts, and blogging responsibilities it would be impossible to keep up. Published adventures, for the most part, do all the heavy lifting in getting the adventure together.
And while adventures are an added expense for gaming, when I compare what my time is worth, and the enjoyment I get from gaming with all of my groups versus the amount of money I am spending it is worth it, for me. Please recognize that comes with some economic privilege, where I have some disposable income to spend on adventures. There have been times in my life where that was not true, and I am fortunate today where I can make that expenditure more casually.
So I am trading money for time, and that seems to be working. Having an adventure that needs some tweaks and some customization is time-saving, compared to brainstorming something from scratch, writing, reviewing, etc.Writing is Getting Better
I have nothing to base the next statement on, but I think overall adventuring writing is getting better as the hobby matures. At various times in my life, I have gotten published adventures and was never blown away by them. In most cases, I turned my nose up at them and thought I could do better. Honestly, I was pretty arrogant when I was younger.
To be 100% clear, there have always been great adventures written every year, written by some great writers and designers. Most of my bias amounts to a sampling error and hubris, but it was one that colored my perceptions of published adventures for a while.
But recently, as I started to look at published adventures for various games that I am running, I find that the plots are solid and the writing and the structures for writing are really good. They are not only entertaining stories but many of them are laid out in ways to facilitate running them. More on that in a bit.I Still Prep
I have not encountered an adventure that I have not done some customized, to make it either run for my group or to get it to play better with my style of GMing. I always take time, the week before a game, to read and prep my notes for the game.
The first part, as I mentioned, is that I make changes to the game to better fit my group and our campaigns. That is totally reasonable because the writer of the adventure knows nothing about my group (see my original article). But having come from a place where everything I wrote was customized, I always take an hour or two, to customize the adventure to make it fit nicely into my campaign. Mostly this is done on the starting and end of the adventure where I add in NPC’s, events, etc to make it better dovetail to the campaign narrative.The most often things I fix are for things like asking for a roll to find out something interesting when it’s just more interesting to give that to the players and see what they will do with it. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
There are times when I change things in the middle of an adventure. The most often things I fix are for things like asking for a roll to find out something interesting when it’s just more interesting to give that to the players and see what they will do with it. Once or twice, I have had to tweak the plot of the adventure to make it run more like an adventure I have written, but I try to avoid that as much as possible.Favorite Published Adventures
It’s only fair that I highlight a few games that have great published adventures. These are games I am running right now and in all of them, I am using published material.Tales from the Loop / Things From the Flood
Free League is doing some great things. The mysteries in both Tales and Things are excellent, entertaining, and fit perfectly with the genre. Where they really excel is that they have a mystery framework, which they dedicate a chapter to explaining how it works, and their adventures all follow that format. That framework makes reading and prepping the mysteries fast and the format is helpful as a reference while running the game. Mysteries are not always the easiest of adventures to run, and the framework facilitates making them playable. While they don’t create the most intricate mysteries, they are entertaining and the right kind of strange to support the game.Forbidden Lands Adventure Sites
Again Free League is doing it right. The adventure sites in Forbidden Lands are great to run. Though, they are set up differently than Tales or Things. They take a very different approach, one that more supports the sandbox feel of Forbidden Lands. They present a site, fill it with interesting things, and potential problems, and then leave it to the GM to use as they see fit.
What this does mean, is that you need a bit more prep for these to make them into stories (if you want to play that way. I do.), but everything you need to make those stories, is right there, it just needs some narrative thread to connect them up.Dungeon Crawl Classics
DCC knows exactly what it is and their published adventures give you that experience. The DCC adventures feel like better versions of the D&D Modules with which I entered the hobby. For the most part they are…well…Dungeon Crawls… and they are strange as hell, in all the best ways possible. DCC does not worry about if something is too over the top, but rather has a way of making it work, and any level of play.
One of the real gems of DCC adventures is the cartography. Doug Kovacs creates maps that are not only maps but are works of art. The only downside to them is that you can’t show them to your players until the adventure is done.Evolution Is Good
So if I am blogging seven years from now, will I have gone back to only writing my own adventures? It’s possible. But I think it’s more likely that for some games I will use published adventures and others I will write my own. What I do like is that its now an option. So when I get a new game, I typically look at one or more of the published adventures and see how they line up with my thoughts about the game, and then I make my decision. Growing up and expanding your options is good.
So what are your feelings about published adventures? Do you use them? Do you want to give a shout out to one of your favorites?
All the way back in February of this year, Kickstarter hosted an event called Zine Quest, where RPG creators launched a huge variety of projects – short, small, self-contained projects in the form of zines. All told, 108 Zine Quest campaigns were launched in just two weeks. And for me, my eyes were opened to all kinds of possibilities.
Just a few months later, I was lucky enough to host an RPG zine meetup and swap at Metatopia, a game design convention earlier this month. It was a really fun little round-table discussion for people who’ve made zines and who want to make zines. We talked about why people chose to make zines over other forms of books, about the pros and cons of the zine scene, about where the format has been in the past and where it’s going in the future (pro-tip: Zine Quest 2 is coming in February 2020 so get ready!).
For me personally, until this year, I had thought of zines as something that were kind of dead (of course, they never really went away, they just went more underground). Zines were something that old punks made before the internet was a thing, not something that was relevant to the modern day. We didn’t “need” zines in the modern world of self-publishing and blogs and social media. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
When I put the meet-up on the schedule for Metatopia, I expected to see some cool zine work (I did!). I expected to meet some awesome zine makers (I did!). I expected to learn some fun facts I didn’t know (I did!). I didn’t expect to have my whole perception of the format challenged… but I did, and I loved it.
What defines a zine is pure attitude. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailI think I was wrong about not needing zines because my definition of a zine was wrong. I was too mired down in the details. A zine is a small book, I might have said before. A zine is under a certain page count, probably 5.5” by 8.5” or smaller, is one way to define it. A zine is something made by just one or two people working out of a home or a print shop, not something that got a print run from a big press or made by a big team, maybe. A zine is a one-time thing, not a series, sometimes. A zine is a book that’s cheap to make and cheap to buy, usually.
Some or all of those things are true of… most zines. But I can no longer say that I think that’s what defines a zine. What defines a zine is pure attitude.
To make a zine is to work outside a major publishing structure. It’s to work without a team of marketers saying “you shouldn’t do this” or “you shouldn’t write about this”. To make a zine is to make a project out of love and passion for the subject, no matter what it is. When I read some of the zines that I picked up at the swap, I hear the writer’s voice so clearly that it feels like they’re with me. Zines are, to put it briefly, punk as hell.
So many times, in the modern world of publishing and game creation, you hear “no”. No, we’re not publishing your game. No, I’m not buying that. No, I think your idea is bad and you should feel bad. But when you make a zine, you’re telling yourself “yes”. Yes, I care about this thing. Yes, I can make a game without needing a big company or a big audience or anybody but myself and my friends. Yes, I can use my voice.
But when you make a zine, you’re telling yourself “yes”. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailI think this is particularly relevant to roleplaying games, where so often the most money and the most attention goes to the biggest names, but there’s thousands of others out there doing their own little punk-rock thing anyway. Sometimes it gets big and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s a game out there for every mood, every genre, every tone, every age group, every possible theme, and they were almost always made by someone who refused to be told “no, you can’t game that way”.
Earlier this year, I published my own first zine (about fanfiction, another rich source of zine history!), and now I have a zine project on Kickstarter – both work that I’m extremely proud of, and I know that my collaborators are too. I used to think that publishing by zine would be “lesser” than publishing in another format, but now I know that isn’t true at all. It’s a wonderful accomplishment to know that every copy of this game passed through my hands, to know that I made each one. And I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.
All of Metatopia was an invigorating and exciting experience – I left feeling so energized to make games and play games and learn about games. But more than anything else, this little panel made me feel particularly excited to make zines, and I hope everyone who attended was able to leave feeling the same way. Because every new voice making their own punk-rock DIY game adds brightness and color to our RPG landscape, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Did you participate in Zine Quest last year? Will you be participating next year? Tell us about a zine you love, or show us your zine collection!
About a year and a half ago, I was in one of my local used book stores searching for ancient tomes. While perusing the shelves, I stumbled across a large collection of books by the same author: David Eddings. He hit it big in the 1980s and had quite a prolific career through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. During these decades, he was a staple for fantasy readers, and his books came highly recommended to me for this entire time.
However, somehow I’d missed the Eddings boat. I knew of his works and how highly people talked about them, but I never did delve into his lengthy catalog… until now. When I came across the solid row of David Eddings books on that shelf, I knew I had to have them. I picked up all of them before anyone else could snatch them from my grasp. A credit card transaction later, I had a paper bag packed with what I hoped would be wonderful fantasy tales.
I don’t regret the purchase. It took me a few months to finish up the current read, and then I dove headfirst into the Belgariad series. Five books later (and a year later), I came up for air from one of the greatest tales I’ve read in a very, very long time.
This spawned some ideas for me on the role playing front.
I’ve been a player in a few games that were “based on the book by <insert author here>” and we always seemed to have a blast living in those worlds. I’m not talking a direct translation of book-to-game (like The Dresden Files or similar games), but using a system to live out the events and times from a book. The key game I’m thinking about was run by a good friend of mine, Bill. He took a space opera game and setting and translated it into the Alternity RPG. We did our best to fight the Von Neumann machines that were eating our part of the galaxy. Along the way, we encountered key characters from the novel, came into contact with cultures and people that were taken whole-cloth from the book, and saw (and sometimes changed) events that occurred during the course of the original author’s story.
Even though we knew we were “living in a borrowed world,” we had a blast. I think there are some key take aways that I have from that lengthy space opera campaign that I could apply to emulating the events, people, places, and world of the Belgariad in a fantasy game I want to run.Leverage the Setting as a Character
I think to capture the true feel of a novel or series, the setting needs to feel like a character. It needs to feel lived in and experienced and ready to take action in response to the PCs actions. If the GM can give the flavor of the setting (or the parts the PCs will interact with), then the level of immersion for the players will increase exponentially.
In the Belgariad books, there are numerous maps of the different areas the characters move through. I’m pretty sure I could find those maps all stitched together in one large map. Even if I couldn’t find such a thing, I can easily put the maps in the books to use. My approach would be to pick a nation (I’d probably start in Sendar), and drop the PCs there as a starting point. I’d make Sendar as real as I could by borrowing flavor and text from Eddings to set things up and give the area that realistic texture that it needs.Bump into Key Characters
While in Sendar, I’d have the PCs travel through Faldor’s Farm (which is where the whole Belgariad series starts), but I wouldn’t make Garion or Aunt Pol or Durnik or any of the other Really Important People From The Book a focal point. Sure, they’d be there, but they’d be side characters to the main story.
To keep the spotlight off of these various main characters, I would amp up the focus on NPCs of my own creation that fit within the location. Of course, while at the inn at Faldor’s Farm, the PCs would see the scullery boy and his aunt with the white-striped, raven-black hair, but at this point the boy (Garion) is just a young lad who scrubs pots and makes messes. Likewise, Aunt Pol (aka; Polgara) is just the kitchen’s cook who has some mysterious past that no one is aware of.
By allowing the PCs to “bump into” the main characters of the story, the players who know the tale will get that Easter egg moment and that will increase their enjoyment. If a player hasn’t read the books yet, then if they do turn to the novels down the road, they’ll have their own sweet memories of how their character interacted, even if it was briefly, with Aunt Pol or Garion or Old Wolf or any number of other important characters from the stories.Witness Important Events
With the Belgariad being five books long, there are plenty of awe-inspiring events that come to be, and many of them happen in front of other people. What would happen if the PCs are in a place to witness, perhaps alter, a key event in the book? Would this change the story? Probably. Does it matter that your story is different from Edding’s efforts? Not one bit. This is your turn to play in the author’s playground. You and your group are not committed to marching lockstep with the author’s words.
This next bit is a tad spoilery, but the books have been out for decades, so I don’t feel compelled to hold back. In the fourth book (Castle of Wizardry), Ce’Nedra dons armor and raises an army. At this point Ce’Nedra is betrothed to Garion, but is still very much a spoiled young woman of noble descent. She’s demanding and hard to be around, but something changes in her during the course of this book that makes her quite a bit more admirable. If the PCs are nearby Ce’Nedra when she and Polgara work together to raise the army, they could witness (or even be swept up in) the building of a massive army that follows Ce’Nedra’s every move.Make It Your Own
I’m pretty sure I said this before when I talked about The Expanse and adopting the books and/or TV show to your own gaming table, but I feel it’s work expressing again. Make the world and characters your own. Put them to use at your gaming table and make them work for you. You’re not beholden to the tale Eddings has already put forth in the world.
Go out and tap a vein from an old story and see what gold you can mine from the mountain.
Over the last two months, I’ve been looking at the game Thousand Year Old Vampire, by Tim Hutchings. It is a journaling game that you play by recording facts about your character, then rolling dice to answer prompts. These prompts may make you change some of those facts. You have a limited number of memories, and eventually, you have to fight to remember everything that you once were.
Camdon Wright, amazing fellow gnome and game designer extraordinaire, is the one that first asked if I would be interested in looking at this game, and as I’ve never played a journaling game like this before, I was very curious to see what would happen.Holding Back the Years
As a refresher, my vampire was Jorgrimr, a Viking mercenary who helped secure Kiev around 1000 CE. Jorgrimr was turned into a vampire by a mysterious black wolf, fled Kiev, moved to Germany, and adopted the name Wolfhart.
While he violently clashed with a rival’s troops and fed on them, in his new life, Wolfhart met a girl named Kisaiya, and found a cure for her blood ailment by researching the Blood of Czernobog. He’s feeling pretty human for the first time in about 50 years.
This is going to get messy.Content Warning
I don’t get too graphic in this chapter, but there is still a lot of violence, reference to severed body parts, and a general disdain for human compassion on the rise, so if that isn’t your thing, please continue accordingly.Prompt #13
This prompt tells me that I fall asleep for 100 years, and must strike out any mortal characters on my character sheet.
Wolfhart begins to chronicle who he is and what he has accomplished. Foremost on his mind is his arrival in Kiev, his family, Kisaiya, and his invention of the elixir that cured her. He is tired from his work with the mortals, but almost feels human again.
When he awakens, Kisaiya and his work, even who he was, is like a dream that he can only remember when he reads his diary. When he finds out how long he has slept, he realizes Kisaiya, Anichka, Ranssi, even Konstantine are all long gone.
He wants to mourn, but he doesn’t know why.
Wolfhart creates a Diary, and moves a memory to that Diary. All his mortal Characters are gone.Prompt #14
The prompt tells me that my Diary has been damaged, and I have to remove three nouns from the Diary.
Wolfhart spends another 100 years in a blur. Everything is like a dream. He feels nothing. He does the bare minimum to maintain what he has. He haunts Germany, and when he finally realizes how much time has passed, and what he must do to maintain his estate, he realizes he has neglected his Diary.
He cannot remember the girl he saved with the elixir. He cannot remember his father’s name. The ink is smudged in the diary. He does not even remember the city where he won his glory.
Why am I going through the motions of this long unlife?Prompt #15
This prompt tells me that generations have passed, and I wake up covered in dust. I lose a resource to determine how I escape.
The remnants of the house guard of Wolfhart’s estate, the children of his mercenary company, loot the estate that they once guarded. They set fire to the home under which Wolfhart was buried after an unfortunate rockslide trapped him in the caverns under the manor. After the fire burns away the passages, the rocks fall away, and he realizes that he has lost even more time to his carelessness. He must get control again. He must not let time keep sliding away like sand through his fingers.
He forgets everything about his old love. He knows she existed. Or maybe she was a dream. Has he ever known love?
Wolfhart strikes out his memory of Anichka and his earliest friends. Wolfhart strikes out “My Loyal Troops” as a resource.Prompt #16
This prompt tells me that I gain a creative skill based on a lost memory due to timeless introspection.
Wolfhart is sure he loved at one point in time. He reads poetry and stories of doomed lovers. He learns to write his own stories, and shares those stories with others. He feels the shadow of something he once knew, and he is even less sure that he ever truly knew love. Can the written word cast such a spell on the mind?
Wolfhart gains the Writer of Love Stories skill.Prompt #17
This prompt tells me to check a skill to avoid arrest, and if necessary, create a mortal character to take the blame for your crimes.
Gregor Langstrom is a “monster hunter,” using Karina Strausshammer’s inventions to fight the supernatural. He is getting closer to Wolfhart. Wolfhart does not want to feed on the people reading his books, but he can’t make himself care about the real people as much as he cares about the people he makes up in his stories.
The authorities close in on Wolfhart, so he manages to frame Langstrom as a crazed, obsessive zealot, killing people that were reading “perverse” books, and undermining society’s moral framework.Prompt #18
The prompt tells me to bond with an ancient enemy Character, checking a skill to become friends, and sharing a resource with them to gain a shared resource from them.
Wolfhart is increasingly annoyed with humans. They feel so ephemeral compared to the people he writes about. His stories speak of epic people that live life on purpose, not weak-willed folk that don’t appreciate beauty or the thrill of living. They might as well be dead.
Wolfhart decides to find his “origin,” to track down the Black Wolf. He uses his skill at ambushing others to trap the wolf, but he doesn’t kill it, as he once fantasized. Instead, he feeds it half the Heart of Czernobog, while eating the other half. He wants the Old Gods back in the world, and he wants to know if the Son can become the Father.
The Black Wolf feasts with him, and shares control of the Great Pack with Wolfhart.
Wolfhart checks the Ambush skill, and shares the Heart of Czernobog. He gains access to the Great Pack resource.Prompt #19 I don’t know that I will ever truly sleep again . . . I may only lie awake in the dark, in my mockery of a life, waiting to journal again. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
This prompt tells me that I am physically trapped in a place from which I can never be rescued, and asks me to come up with what I think about for the first thousand years. It informs me that the game is over.
Wolfhart feels no kinship with the mortals any longer. It has been too long since he had a friend. Wolfhart has the pack now, and he rampages, destroying Strosshammer’s new society that is spreading across Europe. He will single-handedly turn back the clock and make mortals live by the sword and their wits again.
Then, the Black Wolf turns on Wolfhart. This is a Europe rife with possible worshippers. Wolfhart has served his purpose, and the Black Wolf drops him into the Void of Czernobog, a place of darkness between worlds. Because Wolfhart shared the feast of Czernobog’s Heart, he will always have a feeling of what the world is like, moving on without him. For a thousand years, Wolfhart hears the prayers of the faithful in the Black Wolf’s ears, but Wolfhart shares the hunger that he obsesses over, unable to feed.
The Black Wolf thinks about Wolfhart’s hunger, and he becomes a mad god, one that demands as much sacrifice of flesh as of will. In this way, at least, Wolfhart knows he continues to shape the world from the void. Or does he?
Is this all a dream? Is this Niffelheim? Did you die all those years ago, when the wolf bit you? You are so hungry. You are so cold. But you must be still affecting the world. Surely you wouldn’t lie in the cold, eternal winter, having lost your greatest battle, unmourned and unremembered.
Why?Thoughts On An Unlife Well Lived
I really enjoyed this process. Now that I have a taste of journaling games, I think that I may have been transformed. I may have to feed on more of them. I don’t know that I will ever truly sleep again . . . I may only lie awake in the dark, in my mockery of a life, waiting to journal again.Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This has been an unorthodox journey of a review process, but if you enjoy wondering exactly what you would do in challenging situations, I think you are going to find a lot of worth-while material in Thousand Year Old Vampire.
I’ll be honest, I’m kind of worn out after that roller coaster spiral that my vampire went into at the end. It took a lot out of me to try to do the story justice, but I also really enjoyed the process.
Do you have any other journaling games you would recommend? What was your experience with them, and what kind of emotional charge did you have after completing them? We want to hear about your experiences below!
Join Ang, Matt, and Senda for a discussion about how many players is a comfortable number. There may also be talk about actual furniture. Will these gnomes find the right-sized game to keep them out of the stew?
Download: Gnomecast #79 – Table Size
The three-part Gnome Stew article series that Matt mentioned:
Obliquely referenced in this episode:
Matt’s prep-heavy article series can also be found on Gnome Stew. The latest installment is here.
Ang’s three-part Masks run on She’s a Super Geek:
- She’s a Super Geek #61 – Masks: Origin Story
- She’s a Super Geek #62 – Masks: Leave the Maude, Take the Dog
- She’s a Super Geek #63 – Masks: I Know You Think You Can Handle This
Don’t follow Matt, because he doesn’t hang out on the Internet.
Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, catch the Gnome Stew YouTube channel, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!
For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Misdirected Mark!
Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun for you to enjoy!Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies
Dialect by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu (Thorny Games) is a GMless(-ish) roleplaying story game designed for 3 to 5 players to explore the story of a community’s rise and fall in a one-shot session. The story is told from the points of view of specific, persistent characters and uses the community’s own unique branch of language to tell the tale. The game is, if not wholly card-based, then at least card-driven, and it requires both the core game rules and a special deck of cards used throughout play.
There is a caveat attached previously to the term “GMless” because although the structure and mechanisms of the game do not distinguish between different player roles, the game does ask one player to act as “Facilitator” to clarify rules, maintain order during play, and adjudicate at the table if needed. The role is logistical, however—truly earning the moniker “Facilitator”—and does not confer special narrative authority.The Story
Dialect is, as the text itself makes explicit, a game about language. More specifically, it examines the development of a unique regional language form (the titular “dialect”) and its eventual extinction. The textual content of the game’s story is of a particular community or segment of a larger society that has been separated from its parent culture, but the game also provides for examination of what is lost when a language dies. The specifics of the setting are not dictated by the game and are decided upon as the first steps of play of each session (with each session of Dialect designed to tell a self-contained story). Players do also each create and play their own characters in this setting to tell the community’s story.
The arc of a session of Dialect spans the birth and death of an isolated community. Over the course of this story, a unique language is created piece by piece by players adding words and phrases to the characters’ shared vocabulary that only they understand. Roleplaying scenes make use of these new words to explore characters’ relationships with the community and each other. The story arc is divided into “ages,” and the transitions between ages also explore the way in which the community itself changes over time. Finally, the endgame examines the end of the community, the death of its language, and the implications of both to the outside world.The Game
The frameworks for the settings in Dialect are outlined in structured playsets called Backdrops. While each Backdrop provides some information about the setting a session of Dialect will take place in, much of what the Backdrop offers are questions to be answered during the game, so even two games of Dialect using the same Backdrop are likely to turn out very differently. Even so, four core Backdrops and a dozen more contributed Backdrops are available in the core rules. In addition, Backdrops adhere to an easy-to-follow structure, and there is an entire appendix in the rules to guide you to constructing your own, so there is no shortage of ways different sessions of Dialect can be played.
At the start of a session, the players collaboratively come up with three Aspects, two of which are guided by the Backdrop and one of which is completely open-ended. The Backdrop also provides a series of Community Questions which further guide the players in explaining more detailed characteristics of the completed setting, called an Isolation. It is in this Isolation that the story of a session of Dialect takes place.
Sharing a story with others is what roleplaying games are all about, but sharing a unique language with others is what makes this game truly stand out.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailOnce the Isolation is created and named, each player then creates their own character for the story. Character creation involves choosing an Archetype card provided in the game deck. The Archetype provides brief prompts describing the character’s role in the community, how community members regard them, and the character’s relationships to various Aspects of the Isolation.
While the creation of the Isolation and the Characters form the setup of the session, the core loop of the game involves the creation of words and use of them in character conversations. The story told in a session of Dialect is divided into three Ages, and each Age is divided into Turns. In each Turn, a player Makes a Connection by relating a Language Card from their hand to one of the Isolation’s Aspects. The Language Card generally prompts by supplying an object, event, concept, or some other item for which the community will develop new language. Collaboratively, a new word is constructed to fulfill this linguistic need, and then a conversation is held between characters, again prompted by the Language Card. Some Language Cards may be special Action Cards that modify this usual mode of play. For example, special actions may include coming up with a nickname for someone, narrowing or expanding a word’s meaning, or even a player coming up with a new word on their own using special rules. Action Cards are, however, still followed by an in-character conversation using that turn’s new word. Throughout gameplay, words and information about the Isolation are recorded and arranged in a Language Tableau, a common area assembled from index cards that represents the culture of the Isolation and how it has evolved.
As the story progresses from Age to Age, the Backdrop provides information and questions for the players to answer about how the Isolation is changing. Each Backdrop includes two Pathways, each of which guides a different story about the community’s rise and fall. As play proceeds, one of these Pathways is followed through the Backdrop, and the story of the Isolation proceeds as the Backdrop prompts are answered by the players. Language Cards are also keyed to different Ages in the story, so as play continues, the selection of possible Language Cards also changes to reflect the Isolation’s approaching end. After the third and final Age, Legacy Cards have players choose a prompt on which to base an Epilogue they narrate about the Isolation’s impact on the world at large.The Extra
I’m including a special additional section to this edition of The Indie Game Shelf to share a little more information about what this game book contains besides, well, a game. In support of the game itself, besides the aforementioned instructions for constructing a custom Backdrop, there is also a quite comprehensive guide to inventing completely new words from scratch without using an existing language as a base. There is also an entire chapter devoted to actions and exercises designed to foster sustaining languages in our own world, including other games you can play!
I personally find the book a delight. It features a crisp, striking layout and attractive and evocative full-page art pieces between sections. Rules explanations are supplemented with easy-to-follow play examples and illustrations, and it is clear that in addition to the game rules, the designers also put a lot of thought into the play culture and safety they think will result in the best experiences with this game.
Finally, playing the game adds a little something more than the usual exciting stories and fond memories that come from most roleplaying games. The act of constructing and sharing a whole new language creates not only a unique play experience with each session but also something special that continues to link players to each other long after the game session is over. Sharing a story with others is what roleplaying games are all about, but sharing a unique language with others is what makes this game truly stand out.The Shelf
Dialect is available from Thorny Games in digital format as well as in both standard and deluxe physical form. Dialect is a terrific and unique game; so much so that I have difficulty listing similar titles to explore. The designers are trained linguists, and so for games along similar themes to Dialect, I heartily recommend checking out the rest of the Thorny Games catalog, which includes Sign, a parlor LARP in which players do not speak and invent a whole new form of sign language, and the upcoming Xenolanguage, a game of deciphering an alien language and how that experience changes how you see the world.
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!
Your world is basic as all hell.
Mine is too, don’t worry about it.
As a GM, I’ve been working on my own homebrew setting for several years. As GM veterans and aspirants, you all likely have one of your own or are at least thinking about the one you might make in the future. As creators and storytellers, it’s somewhat inevitable to imagine ‘what would a world I make look like?’ For some, they might spend their lifetime building upon a single world and constantly adding to its depth. For others, they might have made a new world for each and every campaign. But more often than not, these worlds are made in the confines of our laptops and notebooks, something we build in secrecy by our lonesome. While we may come out and talk about our world to our friends, I’ve seen many a GM recoil when suggestions concerning it come out. After spending so long nurturing it, it can feel like whiplash when others provide feedback. Many builders here continue to work on it, alone.
But a sword does not take shape until it is hammered by steel and whet by stone.
This is not to say your world sucks; it could be deep and expansive, with long histories and family lineages tracing back hundreds and thousands of years. It could have dozens of quirky npcs, races, and cultures. However, I posit that unless you’re developing it with the opinions and voices of many others, it’s a world that’s going to be entirely dyed by your preferences. A world written entirely by yourself is like painting with a single color: you can have a single red square on a white canvas be worth $15mil at some art gallery, but it doesn’t change that it’s basic as all hell.
Our biases, interests, and preferences are hard to separate entirely from our work. If you happen to prefer swords or have consumed a large amount of media that features swords, you’re far more likely to have cool and magical swords as relics over any other weapon in your world. If you were heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings, you probably have an idea of elves and dwarves that’s hard to shake. If you happen to like Terry Pratchett, you’re far more likely to be interested in weird, or in other words gonzo, fantasy and—by extension—Old School Revival(OSR) systems.
We are already the product of many different sources of influence, that’s just how we are. However, despite all that, we’re still limited in that all that information goes through filter after filter of our preferences. We keep what we like, toss what we don’t, and can’t fully capture the nuances of all the content we absorb. We’re all a collection of those preferences and biases, so how can we imagine a nuanced world when the only point of view we have is our own?“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters The magic of others
There’s this system, Microscope, that works in one part tabletop, two parts world-building engine. Between a group of players, you begin by deciding how the world starts and ends, then take turns filling in the various ages and events in-between. When I played it, my friends and I created a world where a giant hole to hell opened up in New York’s Time Square, which then ended when everyone on Earth was a demon. Personally I had a timeline in my head where the demons rose up and fought an excruciatingly long war with the humans, and that we’d detail a large number of the battles that happened in-between.
On my turn, I progressed that story.
But then the humans turned magical girls happened.
And the demons were friendly.
And more holes opened up and the demons monetized an intercontinental wormhole subway which led to a nomadic and free-love otherwise unheard of.
I was constantly face to face with scenarios I never would have expected and had my ideas responded to through angles I never would have imagined. We eventually created a world that had magical girl armies building on the moon, demons slowly integrating with human society(and so each generation had more demon blood), and with one lone immortal Japanese ramen chef forced to cater to weeaboo magical girls for all eternity. He was literally the last full-human to ever exist.
If you’ve GM’d before, you’re likely used to this feeling. No, not the magical girls and such, but the feeling when something is going ‘off the rails’ in a manner that you’re honestly 100% okay with. When you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen and suddenly you need to improvise your butt off and, while it’s nerve-wracking, it’s exhilarating because you want to see where this it’s all going. Ultimately this is where I end up feeling the most alive in tabletops. When once I finally pull away from the moment I can’t help but laugh and wonder ‘wait, just how the heck did we get here?’ I’m okay with that in the end because, at that moment, I’m fully aware that I alone wouldn’t have been able to come up with the idea in a hundred years.[There was] one lone immortal Japanese ramen chef forced to cater to weeaboo magical girls for all eternity. Share27Tweet1Reddit1Email
Alone, your world is unlikely to have that degree of complexity.
In another example, I’m currently playing a Fantasy AGE game where I’ve allowed the players to go all out with character creation. Fantasy AGE, in particular, has this race called the ‘half-blooded’ which allows characters to derive ancestry from literally EVERY monster in the bestiary. The game also has strong support for mixed-raced characters, allowing you to do things like half-human/half-dwarf. Combine that with half-blooded, however, and we’ve got wacky combinations like dwarf/gargoyle, gnome/carnivorous tree, or—through utilizing half-blooded/half-blooded—something like ooze/mothman.
I know. I had apprehensions too but bear with me.
Obviously there was no bloody way I was going to spend a bunch of time trying to figure out all the reasons why this worked, or what the various cultures behind those mixes would be like. So from the very beginning, I went with one rule for my players:
“You all have the final say about your culture.”
Not even two sessions in and I suddenly get a wide variety of stories I couldn’t have dreamed of. The gnome/carnivorous tree goes on an entire creation myth about the world starting with a gnome and a tree, and therefore through a complicated family tree, all gnomes and trees and distantly related. We spent nearly an hour in a session brainstorming about dwarf/gargoyle culture and how they harden over time into diamond, so elderly gargoyles need to be protected by the younger ones from poachers, and how their burial grounds are effectively El Dorado’s but with statues of diamond made from grandma.
And here I am, the GM, just throwing bonus exp out left and right for their amazing roleplay and world-building. I’m honestly worried they’re going to level up too fast, but I can’t not reward them for all this.Where I’m going with this
Let me say this again: even if you make your world by yourself, it’ll be fine. Despite everything I’ve said here, you’ll likely create an interesting world that your players will enjoy. To be honest, the opening line was mostly out of shock factor.
But I wasn’t kidding with the rest of it. A world written alone might be a great reflection of your imagination, but I don’t believe it’ll truly be a world one could call complex. Our own world might currently be going through several crises but it’s beautifully complex and built over centuries of conflict and collaboration, where many minds made their mark upon it over and over. We still find pieces to this day that can completely and radically change how we see the past.
Meanwhile, for most worlds, it’s often just a single lost ancient civilization, tops.
I think there’s a lot more we can do for world-building that can drastically improve the quality of worlds we make and the games we run, but I’ll save that for another article.
~Di, signing out
Death often defines the RPGs that we play, even when we don’t realize it. The style of gameplay of many games is determined by the frequency of character death, but even in games where that isn’t a consideration, the absence of character death is often a consideration in reinforcing the tone and themes of a game.
Instead of death being an aspect of the wider game, the game I’m reviewing today is entirely about death, and what comes after. Today, we’re looking at Afterlife—Wandering Souls, a game about finding out who you were in life, now that you are dead.The Book of the Dead
This review is based on the PDF for the game, which is 153 pages long. This includes a two-page character sheet and a single page index at the back of the book. The book itself has clear headers and table entries, but saying that feels like I’m definitely underselling this book.
When I say this book has full-color art, I mean there are gorgeous borders on each page, as well as full-page chapter illustrations, and various half-page illustrations for various entries in the book. Vibrant flowers contrast with grey skulls and characters that encompass both extremes in appearance throughout the book.Traveling the Dark
The book begins with an explanation of the setting of the game. The Tenebris is shadowy real that isn’t the afterlife that you should have reached. It’s kind of a strange world between worlds, where the player characters aren’t natives.
Player characters are Wanderers, trying to collect Resonance to unlock memories that lead to Death Marks, which appear on their skin once they have had a Break that allows them to reintegrate a memory. Enough Death Marks, and the character can find their way out of the Tenebris and into their intended afterlife.
If they gain too much Stagnation, they become Unrequited, characters that have lost their will to move out of the Tenebris and find their intended afterlife. Characters remember very little about their past lives, and are attempting to find out who they were, before moving Beyond. There is more on Mirages, Limbos, and the people native to the Tenebris later on in the book.
By this point in the book, I was already greatly intrigued at what this kind of surreal journey through the spaces between life and death would look like, and this is a great, evocative chapter to bait the hook.Mechanics
Characters have a stat for Body, Mind, and Soul. They have Attributes linked to each of these core stats, that represent a specialization in applying that core stat.
In addition to attributes, characters have pools derived from adding a core stat to an attribute. One pool is Concept, and the other is Vitality. Concept can be spent to gain special results when that pool is relevant to what is being done, such as spending points to generate a success on your roll, or to add a success to an allies check. The Vitality pool represents how well you resist stress to the relevant area—for example, Health represents physical wellbeing, Hunger represents want (more on this later), and Will represents your ability to carry on.
Health and Will function as you might expect—zero out your pool and you may need to accept a consequence or you die (again, and permanently this time) or you start gaining Stagnation and eventually become an NPC that doesn’t have the motivation to find out who you are or your final afterlife any longer. You can save yourself from permanent death by giving up Will, and if you zero out Health or Will, you suffer a memory.
Hunger is interesting, because it can track you having your basic needs met, but you can also spend from this pool to buy things, representing you giving up your potential to sustain yourself to secure an item. This is what you do instead of tracking any kind of wealth. If you zero out your Hunger, you start taking Health damage until you aren’t quite so destitute anymore.
When characters fill up their Resonance track, they gain Death Marks, and Death Marks allow characters to pick up abilities like Tricks, which can lower the difficulty of certain tasks. Characters also have an Approach, which is a manifestation of the character’s self. This manifestation is either a Bow, a Shield, or a Sword, and each one gives benefits to checks in different situations. Characters can also have Talents, which are very much like Feats or Stunts from other games—a discreet ability that modifies the game rules in specific circumstances.
While Death Marks and Approaches are manifestations of who the Wanderers are, Wanderers can also obtain Curiosa, items that have a level from 1 to 3 that can increase damage or reduce difficulty when used in an appropriate circumstance.
Making checks involves rolling a pool of d6s derived from adding a Core Stat to an Attribute (with potential bonuses from other aspects of the character), and counting certain numbers as successes. The GM sets difficulties, and when the PCs fail, Things Get Worse, which means that the action in the scene escalates, or the PCs take damage to one of their Vitality pools. The GM never rolls dice.
Two things in particular jump out at me in this design. I am interested to see how the flow of Hunger works as both a substitute for tracking currency and for measuring the “needs” of a character. I’m an easy mark for anything that tracks wealth or resources in a new way. I also like that failure isn’t just failure, it is always escalation. I feel like this is a long term legacy of games derived from Apocalypse World, and a key component to game design that doesn’t involve the GM rolling dice or using the rules that work in a parallel manner to the player facing mechanics.Playing Afterlife
This chapter details the assumed course of play in a game session. Characters are traveling across the Tenebris and interact with the inhabitants. They find Limbos, which are special “pocket dimensions” where they can gain Resonance. When they gain enough Resonance, they can suffer a Break, which allows them to unlock a Death Mark, which moves them closer to their Requeum, their final trip to their intended afterlife.
Characters can mark XP for each Things Get Worse result that comes up, and these can be used to advance attributes. XP can also be marked by answering questions at the end of a session. Death Marks and their associated abilities are only unlocked through interacting with Limbos and gaining Resonance.
In each Limbo, a character can claim something in that Limbo as a Fragment, a powerful link to a memory that immediately triggers a Break and creates a Death Mark for them. This can only happen once per Limbo, and the same character can’t claim a Fragment in a Limbo until everyone else in the group has done so.
I like the idea of characters being able to name their own fragments and have the agency to say when they will experience a Break and what about that memory helps them to remember who they are. It is a nice interaction between the surreal nature of the setting and player agency to allow this kind of declaration, and I like that the built-in mechanics address who can claim a fragment and when, to keep people from dominating a trip into a Limbo.
World, Mirages, and Limbos
The next three chapters detail the settings and give examples of existing people and places in the Tenebris. Mirages are established settlements in the Tenebris, usually populated by people that are native to the Tenebris itself, rather than wandering souls that are either looking to travel Beyond, or have given up that quest.
Limbos are strange pocket dimensions that hold Resonance that the Wanderers need to unlock their memories and gain Death Marks. Limbos tend to be even stranger and more thematic than the Mirage settlements in the Tenebris.
These chapters introduce some of the hazy mythology of the setting, including the giant serpents that live under the sands of the Tenebris and that were present at the dawn of creation.
There are native people of the Tenebris, such as:
- The Kiin (human appearing, but born to this world)
- The Nagiin (serpentine natives of the Tenebris that see themselves as heirs of the giant serpents)
- Venefolk (multi-armed near humans with a talent for Magick)
- Usurii (small, spiritual bearfolk)
- Ungkiin (hooved humanoids subdivided between satyrs and centaurs)
There are also the other Wanderers as well as the Unrequited
The Wanderers have philosophical factions based on their view of the true nature of the afterlife Beyond, and there are factions of Unrequited as well. Individual Mirages have political aspirations that might reach across the Tenebris and hinder or harm the efforts of PC Wanderers on their journeys.
Example Mirages include a city built on the back of a giant dinosaur, the towering city of Babel with its 77 circles, a city built on the edge of a chasm, and what appears to be a crashed starship. There are frozen wastes, cities built inside of an enormous skeleton (with districts in the various body parts), a city composed of reflections, and a mirage based on M.C. Escher architecture.
Example Limbos include a region that exists in the flame of an enormous candle, an ever-expanding version of Atlantis, an ever dark jungle, and a giant garden. Other examples are a living steampunk land, a maze of broken glass, a giant void, and a world based on truths established by ancient science and alchemy. Because the Limbos are both highly conceptual and the area where the heart of adventuring is assumed to be taking place, the entries have a section for what themes the Limbo has, as well as various plot hooks listed at the end of the Limbo’s entry.
I don’t always enjoy surrealist fantasy. I may be no fun, as I can’t always enjoy a world that aggressively doesn’t make sense for the sake of reveling in the chaos. That said, there is something very charming and engaging about the Tenebris and its details. Something about the framing device of the setting existing between and outside of the real world and the afterlives that “should be” makes my brain embrace all of the weirdness and want to engage with it, especially with the meta-conceit of essentially seizing the dreamlike qualities of the Limbos in order to regain memories and remember who your character really is.Running Afterlife
This section summarizes and expands on the mechanics presented in previous sections. It also defines the modes of play and switching between them (in this case, what it is like to travel the Tenebris, versus encountering a Limbo, versus having a Break or suffering a Memory).
It gives advice on setting difficulty and defining what happens when Things Get Worse. There are some guidelines for creating your own Limbos, and charts to help generate inhabitants that the PCs may encounter.
There is also a section on the various factions in the Tenebris, their motivations, and their goals. There is also a section on tracking the activity level of the various powers in the setting, to determine how ascendant and important they are in your version of the Tenebris.Character Creation
Character creation is situated at the end of the book, most likely because creating characters is essentially a very active “session zero” for the game, where you don’t determine anything about your character until everyone is together on The Boatman’s ship, arriving in the Tenebris together.
Each character gets three dice of Clarity, which allows them the potential to reroll the results they get as they being to remember details about themselves. If characters have Clarity left at the end of character creation, they can spend it to move points from one attribute to another.
Characters rolls on the following charts, which give you base level numbers for your Core stats and Attributes depending on the entries:
- My Life Was . . .
- What I Learned . . .
- What I Know Now . . .
Even once you come up with all of this, you don’t have a huge amount of details on your characters, but you have a framework to start building on, and your memories (which you have more control over defining), will let you add context. Even at that, some of the facts of your life (you murdered someone, you were a liar, etc.) may not be what you want to build on, so you can roll a Clarity die to see if you can reroll on the chart.
This isn’t framed as “that last roll never happened,” but “you started to remember something, but that wasn’t exactly how it was.” I like that this contributes to the fuzzy nature of trying to rebuild your identity in the Tenebris, and how fragmentary memories can be misleading.
That said, I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with the idea that spending your Clarity dice only allows you a random chance to roll a new memory from the charts. While the game is very much about playing to the story, and not manipulating the rules, this mechanic rewards saving your Clarity dice to customize your character at the end more than just having a chance to play with different established details in your past life.Appendix
The appendix includes the Death Marks, listed in alphabetical order, as well as providing alternate lists for all of the steps of character creation, which could be useful for long-term play, as well as varying results when players end up with similar results within the same group.Resonance It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
There are so many imaginative elements to this setting, and fun details to play with. I love the concept of the Limbos, and the agency that players have in claiming fragments and regaining memories. It is such a strong, fun theme to play with, and the details of the people and the Mirages in the Tenebris act as a really well-defined pacing mechanism so that the players have more to do then just racing to the next Limbo.Stagnation
I’m not a huge fan of spending a resource for only the chance at rerolling a result, especially when Clarity is the only real input that a player has on their character in character creation driven by random rolls. While players have more agency “on the back end,” first impressions can be strong, and this mechanic feels like its rewarding arranging numbers more than controlling narrative elements. There is discussion in many places in the book about player input and getting the permission of the table for elements of the story, but with some of the themes of the game, I would have liked a more concentrated and direct treatment of table safety. It’s not missing, it’s just not a single reference point that can be accessed.Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is an imaginative setting, with fun and accessible mechanics, and lots of tools for adding creative content into games. There is space for player agency and contribution to the story, but lots of room for the GM to have fun adding the fantastical to the game. It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within.
Do you love surreal fantasy, and if so, what games have captured the feel that you want the best? How much does a setting need to make sense for you to enjoy it? What other games have you played that dealt with the disposition of souls after death, and what are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below, we’re looking forward to hearing from you.
Traps. We all know what they are and how they work. Bait something with the proverbial carrot, the machinations whir, boom! Trap sprung, prey caught. Simple enough in theory but have you ever looked at your traps and wondered, “Gee, this isn’t a very good trap! What am I doing wrong?” Well I’m going to dissect your problems and show you the correct way to go about trap-making to the point your rogue curl into a ball and learn to fear your evil reign whenever you even mention a pressure plate!
To make the best traps, you have to follow a few rules that seem obvious but are often forgotten. As much as you might think that your trap is perfect, you have to remember that three or more people will be actively trying to solve your clever tricks by either bashing it, brute forcing through it, deactivating it, or simply ignoring it. Traps have to be made with the party in mind. Some will excel at trap busting and can speed-run through a mega dungeon in one session if they are good enough. Others will struggle with any kind of trap you throw at them and forget they can actually take the time to search around them or use their resources creatively. Knowing your party’s strengths and weaknesses is half the battle with actually making the traps the true challenge you’ll be facing. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on what characters you are GMing.
So before I mention anything else, I have to bring up the rogue. Why? In most games that have a rogue or rogue-like character, they tend to be the most dextrous and the most adept at finding traps and disabling them. Some even go to great lengths to excel at this type of skill set and become trap maniacs, hoping that the Perception checks they make every five minutes will reveal something for their spidery little hands to mess around with. Varying on what system you are playing, the rogue will most likely be your sworn enemy if you are a trap-loving GM. Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day.Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day. Share13Tweet1Reddit1Email
The first and biggest rule you have to remember about traps is that they can’t be solved by just a roll of the dice. Imagine. You are going through a dungeon with your group, hoping to set off a pitfall trap on them when the party rogue uses a Spot or Perception check to look around. They roll. They succeed. The trap has been ruined in a short minute and they navigate about it in one way or another. A simple example but one seen too often. If you’re going to be setting up traps, you have to make it more advanced than that.
Layering on traps can be an effective tool for this issue, having the party focus on one trap when pow! Another trap activates right after they think they’ve solved the first one! If you’re in a bind with simpler traps, like when using kobold or goblin enemies, have them roll more dice instead. Layers of camouflage covering different sections of the trap or multiple aspects and mechanical parts can require several rolls being involved to deactivate it. Even if they get one part right, they will still have more chances to fail, giving the trap more presence and an actual risk involved. Do they risk setting it off at that point? Do they try another route? This gives some interesting decisions and can dynamically change a dungeon layout. Using one easily passable trap to trick the party to set off another one is also a great method. A pitfall that has a hidden pressure plate right after you cross it is a great example. A good rule of thumb when doing this however is to consider how much it will take to beat the trap in question and will it be worth it for your particular party to interact with.
The next thing to consider is how many traps you place in your campaign. One trap, two traps, three thousand traps, the same thing will always happen. Once that first trap happens, the rogue goes Perception super sleuth and slogs the party down by demanding a new roll every ten feet they move. Nobody likes this and much less you who might have eight or so traps in the dungeon still waiting. It’s a tiring process and even if in character they don’t do this, there is a lingering overhead thought amongst the group of the possibility of more traps. It’s always a difficult task to balance out meta knowledge in your groups but a few simple tricks can help alleviate this.
Having your party deal with traps only once in awhile and in specific places like dungeons and ruins is the easiest solution and can actually be used to perk up some of the less involved members in a group too. Sometimes the biggest trap can be the illusion that you have a trap readied for them, though this can backfire easily with more paranoid players. You can also give those who do constant trap checking a bit more leeway when looking for traps. If they roll to check for traps in say a normal room, you can give them one check and describe that the whole room is safe even if they might just be doing just one area. Not only does it hasten the pace but requires less work to describe the area and can ease tensions for the group. Keep in mind that you should aim to create a balance for your group so that they will actually move more than fifty feet in a session but still be wary of situations you present to them. This takes at least a few trial traps to see how they react but you’ll eventually learn what’s good for them and use that knowledge to improve your future sessions.
Pitfalls are fun and all but basic traps like them, no matter how many you have or how well they are incorporated in a dungeon, will fall flat once a player knows how to navigate them properly. A wooden board over the pit. Throwing heavy rocks onto pressure plates. Using the ten foot pole to hit far reaching parts and switches. Those are classic workarounds but in more recent table tops, these are the poor man’s choices with the sheer plethora of spells, magic items, and abilities often at their disposal. So when the players fly over your pitfall trap for the third time in a row, it’s time to consider your options.
Subverting the expectations of the players is key to a good series of traps. Take what they conventionally know about a trap and twist it on its end! That pit they are trying to cross? It actually has a transparent ooze that uses its tendrils to swipe at passing prey, party included. The arrow trap that trails down the hall? Malfunctioned and shoots in a cone shape now. The pressure plate that was discovered on the floor? It’s magical and certain races activate it instead of just anyone, confusing the orc and surprising the gnome. In fact, using spells against the party for your traps can be tremendous fun, especially spells that aren’t necessarily damage dealers. Nobody expects the giant rolling boulder to actually just be an illusion after all. Surprising your party and setting solid but fair rules on how your traps work can be rewarding for both players and GM if done correctly.
Less a rule and more a suggestion is that not every trap should be meant for the rogue to solve. This might trigger the red alert for some of you but consider this. The party has no rogue. The rogue is more of an assassin build. Or for whatever reason, they didn’t get the trap necessary skills needed to perform at their very best. It happens and sometimes parties get rather lopsided in their composition.You may be stuck with all front-liners or your group is more based around magic or social themes. Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that even without a rogue can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths.
Of course all of this stems from an understanding of who is in your party and how much you know about your players and their characters. Even the most shy will be able to contribute in some way if you make a trap that only their character can solve. Have a strength-based trap that would require the barbarian to lift up a portcullis for an extended period of time. Use a series of precarious platforms a monk could hop upon to get the switch in the back of the room. The wizard may need to solve a series of arcane writings in just the right order so the party doesn’t get thrown into an extradimensional maze. Incorporating traps that other party members would excel at can set a great variety for the party and give you a better arsenal at your disposal. Not only that but you can easily get the whole group involved with one or two well thought out traps instead of just having them rely on one person to get the job done.Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that … can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths Share13Tweet1Reddit1Email
I shouldn’t have to mention this one but don’t let your party know about your traps. It is not up to you to remind the party that they have the ability to ask you what they see around them. You’ve worked hard on these traps and, in the nature of their design, they are meant to surprise their victims with often lethal consequences. So after spending time and creative resources, are you going to point out to the party without any reason or provocation about the “slightly raised rock” in the middle of the path? It might be a personal experience but I’ve seen plenty of GM’s reveal such information to my party and, of course, we pounce on it, leading to them having less than desirable results.
Make sure to keep your traps hidden or else you’ll be setting up for immediate failure. What I don’t mean is that you have to have every trap secreted away behind a Perception check. What I mean is that if you put a sign that points down two paths and it says “One is trapped”, don’t have a footnote where it points to the right side that screams that the trap is down that road. They should know that going down into a long forgotten ruin will bound to be trapped and they should take precautions beforehand to deal with them. Keeping them a secret is also incredibly satisfying, especially when the trap fully works and everything falls into line against the party.
You are the GM of a massive, ever expanding world of canonical content and homebrew designs. Use every resource and every clever idea at your disposal. Look at real life examples and older editions of your choice of game for inspiration. Find something interesting and incorporate it into the most insidious thing your party can encounter. If your party finishes the session talking about how they activated a trap or how they overcame one then you have achieved the apex of what it means to make a proper experience for your party. The biggest thing we can achieve in our time of playing any tabletop is the memories we make out of it. So I hope that the advice I’ve given will prove to work for you in some way or another, making plenty of memorable splatter death falls and Indiana Jones style situations. If any of you have these stories, don’t be shy and share them in the comments below!
Tabletop gamers are fairly all over the place and I would argue that we’re now possibly the most diverse subculture in the world now. We have folks from all genders and backgrounds, with interests ranging from cosplay to technical programming to working out in the gym. Long gone are the days where it’s only ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ rolling the dice, as you’re just as likely to find a ‘jock’ or even model at the table.
This diversity isn’t simply limited to stereotypical backgrounds either: for every child under 8 getting into the game, we have a veteran gamer over 60 that’ll regale you with a tale of their first slain dragon, be that over 40 years ago, or just last week. In that vein, while there are plenty of able-bodied players, there are also scores of adventurers with disabilities that often get looked over.
As I was wondering in what ways could I account for disabled folk and such, a copy of the FATE Accessibility Toolkit fell into my hands.
In going through it I’ve found that, while it’s grounded in covering FATE specific mechanics, it has a lot of fantastic tools and advice for GMs and players regardless of system.How much of it is FATE?
While picking up content for FATE as a FATE player is automatically a no-brainer, I have to stress that the content here is more universal than the system can contain.
In the 126 page pdf, if you don’t count the first 5 pre-pages and the last 4 closing pages, it has 117 pages of raw content. Going through it, I marked roughly around 50-55 pages that explicitly referred to FATE mechanics. This allows the rest of the book to act as a handbook and guide to handling disabilities and such in a positive manner.
While it certainly helps to understand FATE(such as the difference between Aspects and Stunts) it’s general enough in its coverage that you get a solid idea.
At the end of the book, in the Appendices, it also covers several major sans-system tools such as the X-Card, the Script Change tools, as well as an ASL Reference section. As the pdf(at my time of review) is a prototype it doesn’t have the full, comprehensive charts just yet, but I’m excited to see it in its completion.The Core of it
The most eye-opening part of the book for me turned out to be the “The Nitty Gritty of Specific Disabilities” section. In its 43 pages, it goes through disabilities such as blindness, deafness, chronic illness, autism, and many more. It starts with informing the reader what the disability is like and what sorts of situations one might go through, before leading into how to incorporate it into the game.
A deaf character might have the aspect Perfect Lip Reading, allowing the character to perfectly understand a conversation until the target turns away, or a character with chronic illness might have Lay Medic(lore), giving the character bonuses to know hospital procedures and recognizing conditions. Personally, it was particularly nice to see the book also tackle subjects like schizophrenia and PTSD and show it in a really positive manner.
Not only was the Nitty Gritty chapter written with care, but with accuracy as well as the writer consulted or worked with contributing authors to get a comprehensive look at each disability. You can clearly tell as the writing style changes quite a bit where the writers change hands.
Each part is then punctuated with several small blurbs, giving advice to players and GMs alike, as well as advice on how to handle antagonists with the disability as well. What tropes to avoid? To lean into? Often the answer is simply “Don’t make their disability their critical weakness and undoing.”Game Elements
For the FATE players, the Accessibility Toolkit comes loaded with tons of suggested content. While it comes with the standard fare of Aspects, Stunts, and Extras—all handedly organized via disability—it also involves its own unique elements of Conditions, Adaptive Devices, and a little gem called Anchors hidden on page 14.
To sum them up quickly, Conditions reflect states your character will sometimes be in due to their disability. It’s something done to help model disabilities. Adaptive Devices, which is paired with conditions, can actually grant bonuses and special abilities(Extras) to your characters. “Anchors” are an alternate rule to track mental trauma, which can grant your character bonuses when you’re out of resources, at the risk of affecting the Anchors that keep you stable. As someone that constantly has to balance between my mental health and doing what needs to be done, Anchors honestly spoke to me and made me feel heard.
With what the book already gives you, you can practically plug-in and play from the get-go. It has a surprising amount of content between its pages.And my point!
I think we need more content like this. Not just for FATE, but for more systems out there. I originally thought that I’d like to see this sort of book for all systems but after some time to think, I think that this just had to be FATE. Almost no other system focuses as heavily on player added content than one that literally requires the players to create their Aspects, then numerically ties that in with the game’s mechanics. It’s a system where its driving principle is based on empowering the players and their capacity to affect the narrative. So of course this system was where this sort of empowerment had to start.
As someone that has had friends with disabilities, personally goes through a few mental health concerns myself, and has consequently become more familiar with such conditions outside of my prior realm of understanding, I am overjoyed to see this sort of content on the metaphorical shelf. From a first glance, disabilities can seem difficult to tackle and something to tip-toe around, but they don’t have to be. Improving the handling of a situation starts with becoming informed.
If you happen to pick it up in its prototype stage, by the way, you’re also directly contributing to getting it full art and an ASL hand sign chart! Something to think about.
~Di, signing out
Join Ang, Chuck, and Matt for a discussion about using monsters in games and making them…spooooky! Will these gnomes brave enough scary creatures to keep them out of the stew?
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Content warning: as you’ve probably gathered from the title and picture, this article deals with insects and spiders, topics you or your gaming group may not be totally comfortable with. Proceed with caution and/or a can of Raid.
From Shelob in the Lord of the Rings to whatever that guy’s name was in The Metamorphosis, since as far back as I can be bothered to “research,” insects and spiders have been used to terrify audiences and/or also make them feel very smart: a tradition this article plans on proudly continuing by providing paper-thin overviews of really cool things without getting into the nitty-gritty of the stuff that actually makes it work. I’m no biologist, and this certainly isn’t Gnational Geographic.
On that note, none of the images in this article are actually of the insects or arachnid behavior in question. I would like to pretend this is because I’m worried about the well-being of Gnome Stew readers and that I want to prevent y’all from, I don’t know, licking a bullet ant or something. But the reality is: 1) it’s almost impossible to find unrestricted, royalty-free pictures of obscure insects and 2) if you want to lick a bullet ant, there is no way I’m going to try to prevent you from doing that. That would be awesome.
(Editor’s note: don’t do that.)Bullet Ant
Schmidt’s Sting Pain Index, which ranks insect stings from least to most painful, reads like Torquemada’s tasting menu. Insect bites and stings are given descriptions like “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” On this scale, the bullet ant’s sting is described as “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.” “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.” Share7Tweet1Reddit1Email With that kind of recommendation, how can we not use it in games?
In a fantasy setting it’s always tempting to make insects huge versions of themselves, so why not mix things up a little bit and have your PCs face a swarm of completely normal-sized, non-magical ants, any one of which can potentially knock characters out with a single bite?
In order to simulate this, there should be half a dozen or more ants per PC, each of which should have only a single hit point (or game equivalent). Character parties with extensive area of effect damage options will need to face more ants, and those without any such options should face fewer. The ants, when they hit, should only do a single hit point worth of damage. The secondary effects of this damage should be incapacitating, however. When hit, PCs must make a difficult Constitution/Endurance/Might/Etc. roll or be entirely incapacitated until they succeed on subsequent rounds. Additionally, when bitten, characters are in such evident (and loud) pain that all other players within visual or auditory distance suffer penalties to attack and defense rolls due to distraction and fear. Finally, any character who fails one of these rolls should suffer these same penalties for the rest of the encounter, as the memory of the sting is fresh and painful. When a character is incapacitated, all the ants in the immediate area should begin swarming that character.
The key to this encounter is to ensure that the ants are not individually powerful or threatening, but even a handful could easily swarm and kill a character who succumbs to their sting. These ants could also easily be used in a trap in a jungle encounter, or as the mindless but dangerous servants of a local nature spirit.Bombardier Beetle
In nature, there are defense mechanisms, and there are defense mechanisms. When threatened, the Bombardier beetle responds by shooting a stream of boiling water and caustic foam from its rear end—while anyone who has eaten a handful of those gas station taquitos can perform the same trick, few of us have the courage or shamelessness to use it as an actual method of self-defense. When threatened, the Bombardier beetle responds by shooting a stream of boiling water and caustic foam from its rear end—while anyone who has eaten a handful of those gas station taquitos can perform the same trick, few of us have the courage or shamelessness to use it as an actual method of self-defense. Share7Tweet1Reddit1Email A pity, really.
A giant bombardier beetle should be a fairly straightforward fight—its rear armament should be devastatingly powerful, but deployed sparingly. In OGL-adjacent games, a recharge roll is one potential way of handling it. In AGE games, a high-cost stunt may be warranted, while in Cypher System games, getting hit with a giant beetle’s butt cannon is a pretty great GM intrusion.
The bombardier beetle represents an opportunity for a character to take something out of a battle other than treasure or experience points. After the combat is where things have the potential to get interesting. These beetles have chambers in their bodies filled with caustic and volatile chemicals—curious, ambitious, or reckless adventuring parties might want to capitalize on that potential. A difficult crafting, nature-related or similar skill check should allow characters to harvest the chemicals inside the giant beetle. However, failing by sufficient margin should activate the chamber, spraying the character in question with another round. Additionally, if the character carries these reagents into battle, fumbles, intrusions, or enemy stunts can potentially set off the chemical reaction as well.Mad Honey Bees
In certain parts of Nepal and Turkey, bees gather nectar from rhododendrons, giving their honey a slightly-reddish tinge. More interestingly, these flowers also make the honey hallucinogenic. The bees that make this honey nest in sheer cliffs, making gathering the honey as dangerous as any combat encounter.
In the vein of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, you might use Mad Honey Bees and their honey as the key to certain puzzles, or even to an entire dungeon that can only be navigated by those who have eaten the honey. Such an adventure would have three key parts:
- Following a set of clues that indicate that the key to the dungeon or encounter is mad honey. Such clues might include carvings or statues of bees or jars of a viscous, reddish substance. Characters who wander too far afield in trying to figure out what they mean might be corrected by a local NPC.
- Finding a deposit of mad honey and somehow gathering it despite the bees guarding it. In high fantasy settings, this might not take long at all, as characters often have the ability to fly, teleport, or climb sheer surfaces without effort. Resist the urge to make the climb part harder—your players spent resources to get those powers, and often times being able to use them to overcome what would otherwise be a very difficult obstacle is half the fun. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should make the gathering easy. Feel free to play up the danger of the bees guarding their honey, and even make the battle more difficult for characters that have to maintain concentration or hand holds. If you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you can even use the rules recommended for the bullet ant stings above.
- Finally, the encounter itself. Remember that characters who have consumed mad honey are poisoned with a hallucinogen. As a result, they should question at least some of their perceptions, and even the most mundane tasks should be more difficult. If only one member of the party has taken the mad honey, play up distinctions between what they are perceiving and what everyone else is perceiving. They may see invisible things, or be able to make connections between places or ideas that un-poisoned characters cannot make.
It’s gonna be hard to hear this for some of you, but spiders can fly. Not with wings, and not quickly, but they’ve been found up to two and a half miles in the air, just kind of chilling out. They do this by finding a high area, extending their abdomen, and letting loose a long string of silk. This behavior is called, alternately, “ballooning” or “the most horrifying thing I have had to learn; kill all spiders with fire.” Scientists have recently learned that the earth’s electromagnetic field plays an important role in how they are able to do this.
Ballooning has the potential to drive your player group into thinking about battle encounters in three dimensions, rather than the usual two. If your characters spend a lot of time in the air, whether with airships, on flying mounts, or through other means, ballooning spiders are a great, unusual encounter to give them. Because this is fantasy, you can also feel free to take some liberties with the science involved in ballooning. Real spiders extrude a single strand, repelled by the Earth’s negative charge. Fantasy spiders the size of a Prius might instead have entire elaborate webs, supported by nothing but invisible, non-magical forces the characters do not understand.
You could even go farther and give such spiders a resistance to lightning or electrical damage, since they spend much of their time surrounded by electrical charges. You might even have the web itself do lightning or electrical damage. If, on the other hand, your players prefer a more grounded approach (ha!), you can also have more conventional giant spiders unexpectedly begin ballooning in order to escape, or in order to catch players who would otherwise be able to get away from them.Conclusion
Even in the real world, people are terrified of insects. What they represent, where they’re found. They sting, and they bite, and they’re present where rot and disease has taken hold. In short, they’re the perfect representation of the darkest sides of nature. Leaning into this and using it is a great way to add a visceral thrill to your games, while still keeping them grounded.
So what do you think? How have you used insects or arachnids in your games recently?