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Game Hack: Triggering Skills

14 October 2019 - 6:00am

I’ve never been a fan of when players just say they want to use X skill, such as, “I want to use Perception to check for traps”, or “I want to make a Diplomacy check with the town guard to find out what’s going on with the prisoner.” Technically there’s nothing wrong with doing that in your games. I’m not here to tell you your fun is wrong or anything. If you like playing that way and it’s enjoyable, then more power to you. What I am here to do is give you a hack that will help you flesh out the game around your skill checks and some of the reasons you might want to implement this fairly minor change to your game if it doesn’t have it — the idea of triggering a skill. See how I bolded, underlined, and italicized it? It’s because I wanted you to notice it. Really I just wanted to make sure I noticed it when I read back through the article. It’s not on you. It’s on me.

What is triggering a skill?

I’m glad someone asked. Granted, I asked myself. I wonder if that makes me a little crazy. Probably. Anyways, to trigger a skill the player should narrate what their character is doing until it becomes clear the character is attempting to do something that would require the use of a skill and they’ve done enough in the game to warrant the skill being rolled. 

But wait. Why not just let people call skills they want to use and let the GM fill in the blanks?

Good question. Here’s a number of reasons.

Providing Options. By narrating through how you’re triggering a skill, you’re giving the GM and the other players a number of ideas and elements to help them react to whatever the die roll is once the skill is triggered. If the game or the GM allows for some wiggle room when failure happens, then the GM has some material to work with to help keep the game moving forward and to have failed states that are more than “nothing happens”.

Character Development. Moments like this show how a character skill set manifests in the actual game world. The description of how someone swings across a chandelier to kick an Ogre Magi in the face and disrupt their spell can show a lot about a character. One player could describe a trapeze artist like performance with a graceful flip kick at the end, while another could describe a leap where they barely grab on with one hand, accidentally let go at the most opportune moment to kick the Ogre Magi, and land. Functionally, they’re the same thing and use the same skill, but show very different characterizations.

Player Engagement. This gives the players another way to engage with the game by having some ownership in telling the story of their character. They can choose to narrate in 1st or 3rd person, or not at all and let the GM or other players offer suggestions for how their character acts. In the end it’s prompting the player to engage in the play of the game outside of the mechanical choices and the die rolls or whatever the game’s randomizer is.

Shared Vision. Pushing players to tell GMs how their characters are doing things, even to just get a little bit more information, helps the GM understand how those characters function.  This helps if the GM needs or wants to narrate something the character is doing after a bad die roll. It also helps in games where the GM has control of the narration post die rolls because it can help guide them to where they can go with the follow up description.

Those are four reasons that seem reasonable.

They are in fact reasonable and have been playtested at tables for, how old am I? Multiply by the leap year, carry the extra month for that light speed travel situation, and divide by my great grandmother’s age… 32 years, give or take a century. All time traveling silliness aside, I hope you give the idea of triggering skills a chance at your table. If you do trigger skills in your games, or do something like it, let us know. We want to know why and how it works at your table. Catch you later. I gotta run so I don’t get this clone thrown in the stew.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Let’s Make a Date!

11 October 2019 - 6:34am

One of the challenges in creating and running a campaign is keeping track of dates. To do this, you need to create a calendar that fits in with your campaign. Not every world will have a 24-hour day or 365 days in a year but it is important to make those choices relatively early in your campaign. Not only does a calendar help track any seasonal changes (if any) but it will assist you in creating your living world.

What use is a calendar?

The calendar assists the game master in a number of important ways. It encourages proactive thinking about your campaign setting. Are there holy days that need to be accounted for? Are there civic (or other) events that occur on a regular day? Is there a common day of rest – religious or otherwise? Are there “truce days” when fighting is forbidden?

This also helps with the task of character ageing, as pointed out in the Gnome Stew article “Character Birthdays and Advanced Ageing” by J.T. Evans, because it allows the game master (or the players) to choose a “birthday” for the characters. Building a calendar can also be a constructive “Session Zero” activity.

A calendar can help establish some fundamental guidance to provide context for your campaign setting. For example, the old Roman or Julian calendar (on which our current calendar is generally-based) had market days set every nine days and certain days each month were considered lucky or unlucky (but not Friday the 13th). The ancient Greeks divided the year into 10 months. There may be different calendars by race (Tolkien wrote that the Elven “long year”, for example, is 144 human years), religion or region.

If you are running a space-based campaign, where there are worlds with different daily rotations and different orbits around their star, you might have to consider the local calendar as well as the “Interstellar Standard” (if any).

Customize your Calendar

You can also decide the number of days in a week or month, or dispense with the idea of weeks and months entirely. You decide the number of days in a week or a month, or dispense with weeks and months entirely. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email In my own campaign, I have decided to create a calendar of 364 days. I divided the year into four quarters (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) of 90 days each with a separate day between these quarters for the equinox or solstice, which is celebrated in different ways around my world. There are a variety of internet sites that provide different names for the months, such as those created by Tolkien or used in other parts of our world.

In ancient Rome, the numbering of years started with the founding of the city 753 years BCE. In mediaeval times, the years of reign by a sitting monarch (the third year of Kind Edward, for example) was used to date edicts, contracts and so on, which made calculating the overall passage of years difficult.

It may be that, as in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, your world has irregular seasonal changes. An annual calendar is still required, if only to regulate the collection of taxes, the dating of contracts and marking the passage of time.

Calendars reflect your living world

If your world does have seasonal changes, a calendar assists the Game Master in how the seasons work and the impact of these seasons on daily weather. As in parts of our world, there may be only two seasons (rainy season and dry season), or different seasonal variations, such as a three-season Mediterranean/California-type climate. All of these would have a different impact on daily weather (or your daily weather control for advanced sci-fi worlds).

Thinking about the calendar helps the Game Master in the act of world-creation. It also assists in creating a more immersive world for the player characters. Do the characters need to prepare for winter? How does the weather impact the way characters dress? Plate mail, for example, would be extremely uncomfortable in either high summer or deep winter. Would three days of rain affect the ability of massed troops to move? Would drought have implications for your adventuring party?

In any case, creating a calendar for your campaign (or world) is a useful tool. You need not have everything nailed down at the start but it will assist both the Game Master and the players in doing their forward-planning. Make a date (or dates) today!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf – Kickstarter Edition

9 October 2019 - 5:00am

Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Usually, each article in this series highlights a different small press roleplaying game. In this installment, however, I’ve decided to take a look at Kickstarter as a prominent means of getting indie games to market. Plus, to help showcase the wide variety of games available, I want to highlight a few campaigns that are currently underway. Finally, to keep all of this related to the Indie Game Shelf series, I’m going to give readers the chance to help choose a game for a future article!


There’s no doubt that the crowdfunding model of financing game development, with Kickstarter being a standout in that field, has drastically changed the landscape of the tabletop hobby. Design and production of tabletop roleplaying games has exploded in recent years due in no small part to the popularity of using Kickstarter and sites like it to fund project development, particularly for first-time designers who now have a way to bring their games to market without going through an established publisher, the very definition of publishing an indie game.

For those not already familiar with this model, a brief explanation follows. Designers, writers, editors, artists, printers, technology, materials, and all the other people and tools needed to transform a cool idea into an actual game would cost some amount of money. In the traditional publishing model, that money would come from a publishing house or sometimes a self-publisher, with the funds generally coming from a single source, and hopefully those costs would be recouped once the game was published and sold. In the crowdfunding model, instead of one large investor, the game development is instead funded by tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of smaller contributions, generally consumers who want to see the product available and get a copy for themselves. Kickstarter is a website that facilitates the implementation of this model by giving creators a platform with which to advertise their idea and collect pledges from people who wish to contribute. Crowdfunding allows anyone with a design idea the chance to find people who want to buy into that idea and turn it into a game.

The Story

The leadership at Kickstarter has, in recent weeks, come under scrutiny firstly for firing employees that were organizing a union, and more recently for failing to voluntarily recognize the union. As this news made its way around gaming circles, there was a lot of talk (both from game creators and crowdfunding backers) about boycotting Kickstarter for its anti-union stance. However, (as of the time of this post) boycotting has explicitly been discouraged by Kickstarter United, the union seeking recognition, and instead displays of solidarity have emerged among creators, backers, and employees.

It is in the spirit of this solidarity that I would like to highlight just some of the indie RPG crowdfunding campaigns that are currently underway. The last several weeks have seen the launch of quite a few new RPG crowdfunding campaigns, and the collection that follows is just a sampling of what’s currently available. Not only that, but dozens of new games and supplements come up for funding every month. If you’re interested in keeping up with the latest and greatest in indie RPGs, Kickstarter is a great source of both information and games.

The Games

Below are some of the crowdfunding campaigns that, as of this post, are still available to back. They are listed in order from soonest campaign end to latest. Remember that there are even more RPGs out there than the few listed here, not even to mention all the gaming supplements and other RPG-adjacent projects like dice and miniatures! The breadth of products available in the indie RPG space is as varied as the hundreds of creators all looking to bring their ideas to life.

Disposable Heroes (Oct 15) – This is a heavily modified Powered by the Apocalypse game that uses a deck of cards to represent a whole collection of ready-made characters in a highly lethal, neon-splashed, futuristic setting. The publisher, Sandy Pug Games, already has a few titles under its belt, but this is their first major physical product offering, and is still looking to reach its funding goal.

Heart: The City Beneath (Oct 17) – This intense dungeon-delving game by Rowan, Rook & Decard uses rules based on the Resistance system and takes place in the same world as one of RR&D’s earlier products, Spire. This campaign that has already exceeded its initial funding goal, and the additional funds, besides backing common extras like more art and writing, are also going toward a developer commentary podcast and even a game soundtrack.

The Nuadan Chronicles (Oct 25) – This game is a sizable two-volume undertaking detailing a “post-post-apocalyptic electro fantasy” setting featuring strange technology and fantastic magic. The design follows a traditional model and the narrative centers on a mercenary-adventurer party in a dangerous and largely unexplored world. The game is the inaugural offering from Brooke and Jason Junker, the married couple design team at BrokenDice.

Agon (Oct 25) – Agon is a game about epic heroic adventures in a mythic fantasy setting. The publisher, Evil Hat Productions, is perhaps best known for Fate (and many such associated games like Dresden Files), but it is also the production house behind such greats as Blades in the Dark, For the Queen, Monster of the Week, and many more. This campaign is for funding an updated edition of this 2006 classic from designer John Harper, who is not only behind the aforementioned Blades in the Dark, but also the much-hacked free game Lasers & Feelings.

Visigoths vs. Mall Goths (Oct 31) – This self-described “tabletop roleplaying game and dating sim” pits Rome-sacking warriors against 90s spooky teens. This is a self-publishing effort by designer Lucian Kahn who has several titles already under his belt including Dead Friend and Grandma’s Drinking Song (a game featured in an issue of The Gauntlet‘s Codex zine and which is played using an actual onion), but this is his first game design to be launched on Kickstarter.

Haunted West (Nov 1) – This alternate history Weird West game proposes wild west adventures while highlighting heroes in those adventures that have been largely forgotten by our own history. The game posits an alternate course of American history with the addition of fantastical horror elements for a truly fresh take on the Old West. This is the second offering from designer Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios who took the indie RPG scene by storm with his previous work, Harlem Unbound.

Ross Rifles (Nov 4) – In contrast to a fantastic alternate history as presented above, Ross Rifles instead deals with an all-too-real and more recent piece of history by telling the stories of soldiers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force fighting in the trenches of World War One. The game looks to focus on the character drama and violence of brutal warfare, life in the trenches, and the terror of no man’s land. This Powered by the Apocalypse offering is the first Kickstarter outing by Dundas West Games, and one of the designers is Gnome Stew‘s own Daniel Kwan!

The Shelf

Just as there’s no shortage of great indie RPGs on Kickstarter, there’s also no shortage of information sources for what’s out there. If, however, you want comprehensive regular overviews, I can’t recommend enough the “Crowdfunding Collection” series on the blog Teylen’s RPG Corner by Jennifer Fuss. Jennifer posts weekly updates on pretty much the whole world of RPG crowdfunding, and for the indie RPG fan, there’s always something new and interesting to check out!

Finally, at this point I normally ask if there are any games on your shelf that you’d like to highlight and to share them in the comments section below. However, since this article already mentions so many games, I want to hear what you’re excited about that has yet to make your shelf! Tell me what crowdfunding game you’re interested in, (whether listed above or not) and I’ll see about highlighting it in a future installment of The Indie Game Shelf! This time we can fill my shelf together!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Turn Review

8 October 2019 - 4:30am

It is probably no secret at this point that I enjoy games that have mechanics derived from Apocalypse World. I am often stunned at the variety of play experiences that can come from a very similar set of mechanics. Even games that approach similar genres can often bring out very different aspects of that genre based on a few cleverly worded moves.

The game I’m looking at today is Turn, by Brie Beau Sheldon. It is a game about shapeshifters in a small town, and while you may think that tells you a lot about how this game plays, in many ways the emphasis is on the “small town,” and not the “shapeshifters.”

The Package

This review is based on the PDF version of the game. The PDF is 158 pages long, with black, white, green, and grey color. Pencil drawings illustrate the book, and the bold splashes of green serve to highlight text and images in the sketches. Sidebars and essays are shaded in grey, against the standard black and white text.

There is a two page index, a two page summary of the author’s Script Change safety tool, and a page of special thanks, which also lists several of the game’s playtesters. Each chapter starts with a thematically appropriate piece of original poetry.

Introduction and Some Things to Explain 

The beginning chapters give an overview of the types of stories that this game is hoping to evoke, the core assumptions of the game, and the game mechanics used to do so. Players will be taking the role of shapeshifters in a small town. The shapeshifters are not tied to any existing lore, and this is an important point. The conflict in the game is less about having an animal form that will do things you don’t want to do, so much as it is about being something more than people may be willing to accept, and the tension between the comforts the closeness a small town provides, versus the difficulty in being truly different than others.

While there are many essays in the book that revolve around the topic, because I like to show my biases early and up front, the essay on “Why Small Towns?” is really one of the reasons I felt drawn to review this product. The game is an exploration of why small towns can be both comforting and terrifying, and why its hard to fully shed those aspects of a small town that speak to you. I grew up in a town of 600 people, and feeling the tension between not quite fitting in, but still loving the familiarity, and missing the town from time to time, is something I can keenly feel.

In addition to the most familiar aspect of similar games (2d6 + stat, three tiers of resolution), Turn has a few aspects unique to the game. Characters track Exposure, which is how well others around them notice how different the character is, and Stress. While a character never acts against their will, when a character has a full Stress track, they shift to their other form. Exposure can be positive or negative, which may alter how a character’s special nature is received by those that find out about it.

Characters can also add a Turn die to their roll, if they can justify some aspect of their character that calls for it, and they take stress for doing so. The unique rules often called “Moves” in other similar games are called “Struggles,” because they represent the ongoing stress of juggling multiple natures and managing exposure with the locals.

How Shapeshifters Work and Your Town

The next section of the book elaborates on what the game setting is, and what it is not. There is a deeper exploration of shapeshifters in the actual setting, and how they are intentionally not tied to any real world tradition or mythology.

The interesting dichotomy isn’t that the PCs are the only shapeshifters, but that often there are family lines of shapeshifters, while at the same time, shapeshifting isn’t a thing that most people acknowledge. This means there can be some multi-level societal maneuvering, and for animals that are especially social and also have a structure, this can add yet another layer.

Characters create families, add some traits to them, and connect those traits to a town. Towns have specific themes that emerge, and players create mundanes (NPCs from the town) that are tied to them. Characters track exposure with their connected mundanes, as well as with the town as a whole.

How to Play Turn, Human Roles, and Beast Archetypes

This section contains a discussion of Player Purposes, what is often called agendas in other games with similar mechanics. These stress finding balance, setting goals, and exploring the town.

Creating characters involves picking a Human Role, and then a Beast Archetype. The Human Roles are:

  • The Beastborn
  • The Heir
  • The Late Bloomer
  • The Lover
  • The Organizer
  • The Overachiever
  • The Showoff

The Beast Archetypes are:

  • Bear
  • Bison
  • Cougar
  • Otter
  • Raccoon
  • Raven
  • Snake
  • Wolf

Humans have their own “moves” called abilities, while beasts have “powers.” Humans have stats called Habits, while beasts have stats called Instincts. All of these have an absolute rating, and depending on the struggle being triggered in the fiction, that absolute value might be a bonus or a penalty to the roll. This means that while a character always remains in control of themselves, some tasks are less complicated depending on the character’s form, and if the habit or instinct is a benefit or a bane to the task at hand.

There have been other Apocalypse World derived games in the past that use the structure of “add this to this” instead of having a singular playbook, and in many of those cases, I haven’t been as satisfied with the results as I was with games that had a singular playbook. In this case, I love how the interplay between the person and the archetype drives the story, and it is a really clever bit of design to have the absolute value work for or against a character depending on the context of the roll.

Town Manager Guide

The game moderator in Turn is known as the Town Manager. This section has advice on Town Manager Purposes (the principals of the game), as well as how to manage the information created by the players. Because characters generally don’t come to harm, and can accomplish what they set out to do, the main move that the Town Manager is performing is to assign consequences.

The consequences are broadly described as assigning stress or exposure, revealing secrets, putting town characters in danger, causing damage, shifting relationships, and changing lifestyles. In addition to the general advice, there is a full page, 13 step list of items for a session zero of the game.

Characters move towards their goals by filling in segments of a progress by for complex tasks (not unlike clocks in other games). There is also a gossip phase at the beginning of the session where the Town Manager can introduce potential plot hooks that may or may not be picked up on by the players. Advancement is based on season progression, and seasons progress when multiple characters complete complex tasks.

Now, as we’re about to talk about the long term resolution of Exposure, comes all the gut punches of the game. Exposure is marked as positive or negative. Tallying the positive and negative exposure creates a score to roll when an Exposure track is maxed out. Characters can gain exposure with town characters, animal groups, and with the town itself.

Depending on the Exposure roll, a acquaintance might revile the character, grow distant, or accept them for who they are. When it comes to the town, the stakes are much bigger. The lowest result with the town can have very bad consequences, while the median result can mean that the character is tolerated, but not loved, in the town, once their secret is known. If their resolution gains the best possible result, they may be accepted by the town.

When it comes to getting the worst result when filling your exposure track with the town, the options are different degrees of exile or violent resolution.

I don’t think I’ve often had a game where, upon reading the “end state” of the game, I had such an emotional reaction. It really struck me the finality of some of the results, especially in light of the broader context of the game. The importance of either changing hearts and minds, or never being able to go home again, but reaching a point where nothing would ever be the same, really tugged at my heartstrings, even without playing through a campaign.

Script Change

The final chapter of the game is a summary of Brie Beau Sheldon’s Script Change tool, which in my opinion is one of the best tabletop safety tools you could ever hope to employ. The language used to explain the tool is a little more canted towards how it can facilitate playing Turn, specifically, but I can’t help but gush over this as a great invention.

If you have never seen it before, the tool effectively creates easy to recognize signifiers for pausing the game, moving through content without adding details, or restarting a scene to edit out problematic elements.

Positive Exposure While I can’t say that everyone will have the same reaction to explanations of small-town life, Brie Beau does an amazing job with their essays, and I think it’s worth the purchase just to read them. Share9Tweet9Reddit1Email

I really enjoy how this game uses elements that might seem familiar to tell a very specific kind of story. The tenor of the discussion on small town life and both the positive and negative aspects spoke to me, and the way that the game mechanizes tracking acceptance or rejection is very well done. The absolute values that can be utilizes as negatives in certain circumstances is clever design, and this is possibly the best use I can think of for “add X to Y” playbook character creation.


I have a hard time objectively judging this, so the degree to which the small town struggle to fit in, versus an outsider’s nature may not be as universal to those that didn’t grow up in a small town. While I think it is a great approach for what it is trying to do, for those that are accustomed to the presentation on other Apocalypse World derived games, the terminology and expression of the rules may not feel in line with what has become more standard.

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

I can’t help but recommend a game where I got emotional just reading the possible resolutions for a campaign. While I can’t say that everyone will have the same reaction to explanations of small-town life, Brie Beau does an amazing job with their essays, and I think it’s worth the purchase just to read them. Additionally, there are some very clever mechanical tricks to do some novel things with a tried and true formula that wouldn’t be bad for anyone to examine for future development.

Have you ever gotten emotional just from reading the rules of a game? Has any game really spoken to some element of life that is a key component of your personal development? Do you want games to pull on your heartstrings? Let us know in the comments below—we’re looking forward to hearing from you!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

System Splicing: D&D 5th ed.

7 October 2019 - 7:10am

*System Splicing is a series looking to break down tabletop RPGs into mechanics you can apply to other games.  Splicing is about focusing on add-on mechanics rather than entire systems.  These mechanics can set the tone, support the system, and improve your experience, but are not imperative to play.  Through this series, you should be able to one day splice them all together into some sort of wonderfully horrific frankensystem.

Or, Aviv, and Eran Aviram. “Time to Get Role-Ing.” Up to 4 Players, 2 July 2015.

D&D 5th ed.

In geek spaces it’s near impossible to talk about tabletop RPGs without someone mentioning 5e, Critical Role, or the plethora of other 5e actual-play podcasts.  So before we get to dissecting the odd and esoteric, let’s talk about the monolith in the room.  D&D 5th, originally called D&D Next, is the latest installment for the most culturally referenced tabletop RPG in existence.  Prior to the majorly popular Critical Role, Dungeons & Dragons has been referenced in Community, Big Bang Theory, Stranger Things, and more.  It’s currently a d20 attrition-based system with a strong emphasis on medium-to-high fantasy heroics.

What makes the system stand out from its previous iterations is its ease of play, accessibility to newcomers, and a streamlined ruleset compared to prior editions.  It has never been easier to get into Dungeons & Dragons than it is today, and 5e has brought in a massive wave of starry-eyed newbies and long sleeping veterans.  So of course, we have to start here.

If there’s anything from 5e you should be jumping to splice outta the system, its going to be the Legendary Actions, as well as the Advantage/Disadvantage systems.

Legendary Actions

Before 5e, while it wasn’t impossible, it was rather difficult to implement an intimidating boss without using a score of GM tricks.  Alone, a single boss is limited by Action Economy and any group of four or more adventurers could absolutely destroy the enemy before it had a chance to react.  The common GM tricks to handle/mitigate this included HP inflation, adding swaths of minions to the encounter, or just giving the enemy additional actions.  5e took the last point and realized it properly through Legendary Actions.

To catch anyone up, creatures with Legendary Actions are capable of being taken those actions either the end or beginning (in the case of Rezmir, Hoard of the Dragon Queen) of a turn.  They have 3 actions, and often choose from a list of two to four actions.  Some of the listed actions could cost multiple actions, and you regain all actions on your turn.

Legendary Actions add narrative value to the fight, emphasizing the greatness of a boss, and allow them to interact with the party more often.  This is all done without having to artificially extend the fight through massive HP or minions just to let your villain have their moment.

This style of initiative interruption isn’t something entirely new either.  In more narrative games like Powered by the Apocalypse and Dungeon World (moreso emphasized in the latter), the GM acts in-between player actions, turning the battle more into a scene than straightforward combat.  The enemies in these games are constantly interacting with the players and raising the stakes with each hit point taken.  Implementing this in 5e, let alone the plethora of other systems we can use it with only serves to make the fight more engaging.

That being said, despite 5e being the codifiers, I don’t necessarily believe 5e has the best implementation of Legendary Actions in their creatures.

What’s Bad? What’s Rad?

Legendary Actions in 5e tend to boil down to either attacking, skill checks, or perhaps one unique action (often movement).  The epic Adult Red Dragons of lore, at best, can throw down a tail attack, can make perception checks, or do a wingover and fly around.  Vampires, the masters of life and death, can move, make unarmed attacks, and bite.  I think Legendary Actions could be better than that — or at the least flavored better.  Dragons should be able to release plumes of exhaling flame, dealing fire damage and pushing the players backward like 10ft.  Vampires should flavor their simple movement as swarms of bats, teleporting behind the wizard across the field that’s next in initiative, completely shifting the tactical situation at a moment’s notice.

5e does have a few rad cases of Legendary Actions in the game — primarily in Liches and Unicorns.  Liches have the ability to throw down any cantrip they have, as well as a plethora of other options such as Frightening Gaze or their Paralyzing Touch.  Meanwhile, a Unicorn can grant itself or allies +2 to AC, or heal itself when it’s in danger (personally I’d allow them to heal allies as well).  Actions like these keep the identity and spirit of the creature intact and allow you, the GM, to show personality and nuance through them.  Legendary Actions as a whole need to be kept interesting, engaging, and visceral.  Make the narrative itself legendary.

Legendary Actions as a whole need to be kept interesting, engaging, and visceral.  Make the narrative itself legendary. Share9Tweet1Reddit1Email

Legendary Actions have a lot of potential that I don’t believe have been fully realized in the current confines of the system.  Personally, I use a much lesser “Villainous Actions” mechanic for direct antagonists that aren’t quite boss level.  These ones I only give 2 actions to, with one of them being “Kick: +5, 1d4+2.  On hit, push an enemy 5ft away.”  In any case where you feel a halfway important NPC is about to get swarmed by your PCs, consider giving them a fighting chance.  This becomes more necessary for the higher number of players you have.

When & Where

Legendary Actions can be implemented in any system that uses a structured initiative.  Nearly every d20 system can use it, as well as systems like Savage Worlds’ card initiative.  This is also doable with alternative structures like popcorn, group, or queue initiatives.  You’re also capable of just adding initiative structures to games that don’t normally have it, like in FATE.  In FATE I tend to just use Savage Worlds’ card initiative and use Stunts in place of Legendary/Villainous Actions.

Done well, Legendary Actions can make your encounters more interesting, more dramatic, and more dynamic.


Iachini, Michael. “Advantage Disadvantage Probabilities.” The Online Dungeon Master, WordPress, 12 May 2012.

If you’ve been playing 5e to any degree you already know about Advantage and Disadvantage.  To sum it up, roll two d20s and take the higher (advantage) or lower (disadvantage) result.  But how helpful is this?  As the chart to the right will tell you, it’s quite a lot.

Attempting to roll a 12 has a 25% increase or decrease in probability, or the equivalent of a +/- 5 modifier.  However, in play we don’t simply say ‘you have a +5 bonus to this’, and this subtle choice encourages the players to focus more on the situation that generated this advantageous outcome, rather than the statistics behind it.  It’s rewarding in a meaningful, non-statistics-focused way.

When utilizing Advantage properly, you want to encourage the players to place themselves in positions where they could potentially gain an edge, and not punish them for giving something a try.  I personally use an “Attempt” rule where players can attempt to do creative things like swing onto a chandelier for a height advantage, but it only uses up their action if they succeed.  If they fail, they’re able to still move and act normally.

If they wanted to jump on that chandelier and roll a 10 and fail, I suggest not punishing them with damage or Disadvantage, but they could now be hanging just at the edge of it.  This is where you could give them a choice to still gain advantage by offering a Devil’s Bargain: if you let go, you still gain Advantage on the attack, but you’ll take falling damage.  Disadvantage should only come up during say, Nat 1’s (if you play with critical failure), attacking in bad conditions (heavy rain and wind), or if the enemies impose it on them.

By punishing players for attempting to be creative, you’re just conditioning them not to do interesting things.  It’s just negative reinforcement at that point.  But when you make the normal answer boring, the players will make accomplishing the interesting their mission.

What’s Rad?

While frequent use of Advantage allows players to feel heroic, epic, and successful, I find that proper use of Disadvantage can lead to just-as-dramatic results.  I have a small bag of 24 paired d20’s hidden in my GM bag that I use for my “Volley Pool.”  One of my favorite moves is just opening up the bag and letting all of them roll out as a volley of arrows and scorching rays fall upon the players.  However, since they’re all being flung out at a volley, it’s all at a Disadvantage.  I’ve never loved an expression more than a player wracked with dread, watching closely as I peel away the high rolls, as a glimmer of hope and relief fills their eyes.  This can create tension where there was none and can allow players to really grasp that they might be in a pinch while still providing a safety cushion against it.  Even against an army, the average 7th level wizard with fireball won’t blink — believing they can wipe out the lot — until they find themselves only narrowly evading a wave of two dozen arrows.  Proper use of Disadvantage can be a very humbling factor for otherwise arrogant players.

When & Where I’ve never loved an expression more than a player wracked with dread, watching closely as I peel away the high rolls, as a glimmer of hope and relief fills their eyes. Share9Tweet1Reddit1Email

Advantage/Disadvantage can be used anywhere that uses non-narrative dice.  The most common application would be other d20 systems like ICRPG or OSRs like Lamentations of the Flame Princess; however, it can also be used with systems like FATE or dice-pool games like World of Darkness (if you REALLY want to reroll all those dice).  It cannot, however, be used for games based around semi-success; this means Powered by the Apocalypse systems, as well as Narrative Dice games ala Star Wars RPGs/Genesys.  A core element of gameplay in those systems is based on semi-success, or success at a cost — adding Advantage/Disadvantage would only dull the impact and goals of the system.  As an aside, I also don’t recommend using it with Savage Worlds, as the Wild Die itself acts as a unique implementation of Advantage.

I find Advantage/Disadvantage particularly engaging; I would even go on to say it’s one of the best elements of D&D 5e and one of the main draws of the tabletop RPG.  It pulls the game towards healthy narrative structures and acts as a fantastic tool for both GM and players alike.  Whereas Advantage can create triumph, Disadvantage can create dread — as well as hope.

Di’s Addendum

What about Proficiency?

The ultimate goal of System Splicing is to take a look at the best parts of add-on mechanics and find ways to implement them into other systems.  Proficiency is too imperative to the system identity, as it is written too deeply into the core elements and classes of the game.  If you were to implement Proficiency into a random d20 system you would have to majorly rewrite the system to make it fit.  At that point, you might as well play 5e.

What about Short Rests?

While Short Rests are amazing, it is technically an import from 4e — a system that definitely deserves more credit than most players give it.  The only real change and shift from 4e to 5e were that Short Rests were moved from 5 minutes to 1 hour, making it more difficult to rest in general.  However, it still belongs to 4e so I’ll talk more about it when I get there.

What about Lair Actions?

Lair Actions, while fairly clean and interesting, are ultimately just an additional Legendary Action attached to a list of environmental effects.  Just remember that when you use Lair Actions, the effects are ultimately ‘fantastical’ in nature.  The lair is reacting to the power of the Legendary creature, or perhaps has a series of reasonably magical effects, or a natural environment made active and magical.

With the Adult Red Dragon example (D&D Basic Rules, p.8) you have the dragon’s lair erupting in fire, rumbling with earthquakes, and spewing with poisonous vapor.  This is an environment where all those conditions can happen naturally but are violently stoked by the presence of the dragon.  However, you can have lairs that raise and lower with water, or lairs that have statues that fire off various energy blasts.  Ultimately, however, it’s just a 1/round free Legendary Action.

Wrap Up

I think that’s all I can really say about 5e.  Keep your actions legendary and find several dozen d20’s to keep your players on their toes.  Mind the point of what a mechanic is trying to do, and make sure it fits the game well before implementing them.

–Di, signing out.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

A Completely Serious Review of Wendy’s Tabletop RPG | Feast of Legends

4 October 2019 - 6:22am

I have a lot to tell my therapist.

Where’s the beef? Right here Wendy’s. As of now you and I have beef. And now I’m ready to throw it on my table and toss dice at it.

I don’t hide the fact I love Wendy’s. I actually owned the most popular(at its time) Wendy’s fanblog on Tumblr. This is one of the first things I tell new friends. I honestly and earnestly love Wendy’s, only second to tabletops. If they sponsored me to do any amount of content I would probably sell out in a heartbeat.

But this, Wendy’s? What the heck are you doing?

Very recently Wendy’s released their tabletop, Feast of Legends, to be played and run by members of Critical Role. In the spectrum of corporate memes like the fake Wendy’s / Taco Bell fight or the recent KFC meme visual novel, this is on the latter side of that scale. This tabletop isn’t some low-quality meme. It has legitimate, high-quality art reminiscent of D&D 3.5. There are mechanics and abilities. The website even has a dice roller. “Hey, guys! I know yall roll dice but can I use the Wendy’s dice roller,” is a perfectly legitimate, completely plausibly-serious question in this timeline now.

Is this legit? Is this just a meme? In the words of a scholar of this age, “Is this real life?”

Wendy’s could have stayed in their corner of the internet, intermittently tweeting memes and fake fights. I would’ve lived my life happily enjoying and consuming them with a ‘haha I do that’ once in a while. But this? Fine. You want to throw down on the table, marching into my domain and trying to get up in my corner of the internet?

Fine, Wendy’s. Let’s throw down.

Structure & Presentation

From a quick breakdown of the PDF, it has a staggering 97 pages including the front and back cover. The back cover, of which by the by, has a completely fictitious ISBN. If you’re going to go this far you could’ve at least gone all in, cowards.

It’s separated into three main parts:

  • Part 1: PHB, 30ish pages
  • Part 2: Rise From the Deep Freeze Campaign, 50ish pages
  • Part 3: Magic Items and Monsters, 10ish pages

The first thing to address is that the art is honestly gorgeous. Alex Lopez’s depictions of the Frysta and the Ice Jester, the lovely maps, the high-quality Queen Wendy, the various character vignettes in the Order’s guide, all of it screams nothing but top quality and I wouldn’t be surprised if he actually did work with Wizards of the Coast or Paizo. I plan to yoink quite a few of these resources for my own games at home.

While the formatting is lovely and something I’d expect to see in any adventure module, I have a great issue with the PDF bookmarks. Despite the otherwise high quality in the content, the bookmarks(labeled _GoBack, Part 2, _Goback) link to pages 50, 51, and 62 seemingly randomly. I’d also potentially like to see the area maps of Freshtovia, The French Fry Forest, and the Ice Jester’s Playhouse to have a slightly darker coloration to it all? Just a personal preference.

My biggest problem with the book as a whole is the rampant number of memes and references scattered throughout the book. Rather than take a Xanathar’s Guide style with flavor written in the margins, Wendy’s takes to writing the flavor into the content. It turns what should be simple and straightforward descriptions into a second glance, having to read it over again just to get the point.

It’s funny haha for the first bit, but leaves the reader with a constant sense of “What did I just read?”

Classes– I mean Orders
  • Order of the Chicken(OtChicken): Rogues/Bards
  • Order of the Beef(OtBeef): Warriors
  • Order of the Sides(OtSides): Mages/Bards/Whatever else they could fit in there?

Simple. It’s not clear off the bat, and the ‘Art of the ___’ sections at the beginning of the descriptions help. You can clearly see the OtBeef’s identity as warriors fairly clear, but I feel the OtChicken’s and OtSide’s descriptions to be fairly vague and lacking.

“There are still many side paths in the world for those who see things differently than the rest of the realm. Their ways are unique and often needed in a world of sameness. Those who study the Art of the Sides are the perfect complement to an epic combo.” – Pg 21

Like honestly, what does this even mean? I feel in the pursuit of a bad joke at the end, it loses out on clarity of the Orders outside of the specific archetypes under them. However, when it does comes to the specific Orders like the Order of the Spicy Chicken Sandwich(OtSCS), there’s a lot of flavor and identity with each and every one. As an OtSCS you burn your enemies, create smokescreens, create heat auras and even have a rad ability called “True Fire.”

How did Wendy’s come up with something this freaking cool?

Another interesting element with the Orders is that they have inherent Base Defenses, HP, Stat Bonuses, Skills, and Limitations. In a way, Wendy’s was able to combine standard Race + Class choices in an incredibly clean manner. I almost want to call this innovative?

Each Order is also only limited to 5 levels, with each level only granting additional HP and new abilities. Almost immediately I get similar progression vibes from Dungeon World. While more veteran players would complain at the lack of progression in other facets, the abilities each Order gains are honestly really fun and cool.

I’m honestly stumped to imagine who exactly designed this all. Considering that Wendy’s credits the artists, yet completely fails to credit any designers on this product, I have to imagine that there might more behind this story than we see on the surface.


This is legitimately a fantastic ability.

The gameplay is clean and simple. Roll your dice, add your modifiers, and have a list of abilities you can do. I don’t exactly know what constitutes D&D 5e’s Essentials, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was tossed in there and someone told me that those were the rules.

My biggest complaint about the gameplay is concerning the food-based Buffs and Debuffs. Essentially when you eat Wendy’s based food you gain stacking +1 bonuses. When you eat non-Wendy’s food you take a staggering -2 penalty that can seriously wreck your character. Tip for playing this at home? Homebrew out these Buffs/Debuffs.

I understand Wendy’s is a burger joint and all, but vegetarians that want to play this are pigeonholed into only getting +1 Defense when they eat salads(which are way pricier than burgers or fries!). Talk about a lack of accessibility and balance. Yeah, I get that this is a burger ad but at least find some way to make it just a bit more player-friendly. What if they got a +1 Defense bonus with baked potatoes, but a +2 attack on salads?

On the flipside, however, one thing that does bewilder me is the incredibly interesting Feast Mode critical hit.

For every crit, you do maximum damage, and attack again at an advantage? It’s an epic interpretation of crits that I hadn’t heard before now. Almost immediately I get the sense of Warhammer 40k’s Righteous Fury. While my peers have told me others are currently practicing with these sorts of crits, to me it’s something I only learned about exclusively due to Wendy’s.

And I’ll never be allowed to forget that.

The Campaign

Queen Wendy. Seriously.

As much as I’d like to go into depth about the story, the progression, and the content, I honestly don’t think the remaining brain cells are able to comprehend the sheer number of memes and references in it. All I can truly say is that the maps were well thought out and the sections were well separated into arcs. Honestly, this is not an adventure you can do in a single session. I honestly think it might take anywhere from 5-7, maybe up to 10-12 sessions depending on how slow or fast the party goes.

Can I also bring up that any individual character at max level could have anywhere from 29-68 HP? The Ice Jester alone has 121 HP, which you only get to after dealing with a Freezagorgon and an Evolved Frysta.

I can’t believe these are real words now.

That said, the boss fight alone where the Ice Jester can do three actions/skills per turn almost screams like TPK bait to me. Admittedly I have little(see: none) experience with the system so it could be fair but I’m skeptical.

The Takeaway

Throughout this article, I’ve been flip-flopping quite a bit; for every complaint, I have something to praise about it. This confusion, this rapid oscillation of shock, awe, and confusion completely reflect my turbulent emotions going through the PDF over and over. It’s not entirely bad, but it’s not entirely good either. For all my complaints there’s one major takeaway: it’s… it’s really high quality. The Orders are interesting and combine Races + Classes well, the adventure is interesting, and the monsters are memorable and epic. I can sense the inspiration from D&D 3.5 and 5e, from Dungeon World, and even from Warhammer 40k.

This is not some low-quality meme any half-baked corporation would generate in a week tops. This took time, effort, and plenty of deliberation. They brought in industry names that have likely worked on other, top quality products. For all its flaws, there are legitimate traces of solid game design smattered throughout the meme. Chicken nuggets made of solid gold that had to have come from a creative mind.

That said, I completely reject it on its premise. The very idea of Wendy’s joining the tabletop world with this system, a system that acts mostly like an extended burger advertisement using 5e-like mechanics, is… dishonest and disturbing.

I don’t think they needed to drive the Wendy’s element as hard as they did. If Wendy’s honestly and earnestly made a solid tabletop RPG and marketed that, wouldn’t that somehow be more amazing? That alone would have made headlines even without the blatant pandering.

“Oh, Crimson Halberd? That game made by Wendy’s? Yeah, I heard it’s really really good.”

Wendy’s apparently has the manpower, the connections, the drive, and the incentive to make tabletops. Why don’t they? Why don’t they use their massive amounts of money and power to create a powerhouse dream team and shake up the tabletop world with not only memes but legit quality?

I ultimately reject this game because Wendy’s can do better. They’re, in a manner, trying too hard yet not trying hard enough. This has the makings of a legitimately solid 5e-like system, but their ‘hip, millennial ad-meme lingo’ is holding them back and, despite directly trying to market to a certain demographic, I feel my revulsion overtake my interest. I feel like someone threw a bunch of memes and bad Wendy’s references at the wall and tried to stitch it together onto potentially great and innovative content, only for it to come out looking like some odd franken-millennial horror. They could have done so much better if they actually took their content seriously—if they took their audience seriously.

So until that day comes?

Wendy’s and I got beef.

~Di, signing out

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #76 – Meet a New Gnome: Di

3 October 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang for the latest installment of “Meet a New Gnome” as the latest gnome, Di, joins the stew! Learn about Di’s gaming origins, current projects, and plans for future Gnome Stew articles. Well this brand new gnome be spared the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #76 – Meet a New Gnome: Di

Mentioned in the show is the video game Kind Words.

Also mentioned in the episode is Di’s upcoming appearance at Kumoricon (Nov 15-17, Portland, OR). Find this appearance and more, plus convention appearances by other gnomes, at the Gnomespotting page.

Follow Di at @DiceQGM on Twitter, and check out her blog, Dice Queen.

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

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

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out The Lounge!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Second time through

2 October 2019 - 12:01am

Ever replay a published adventure? If so, how are you making that second time through memorable?

Roleplaying games have a long tradition of replay. 

Like an old friend, some GMs pack a tried-and-true adventure with them on a trip to  conventions and run it for new strangers. Gnome Stew’s John Arcadian does this with his Tarrasque carnival sideshow adventure.

Other groups will pull a favorite adventure off the shelf, deciding to tackle it with a different set of characters and see if the challenges are different.

I think for Dungeons and Dragons players, old standards such as Keep on the Borderlands and Temple of Elemental Evil fall into the latter category. 

Still others make it a tradition to play a certain adventure at a certain holiday. Ravenloft, for instance, was born as a Halloween adventure and continues to be enjoyed as such.

Our table is taking a return trip through Waterdeep Dragon Heist, a D&D adventure published last September.  

Now, WDH was designed for reply. Specifically, it offers four different adventure tracks — one for each season of the year — and four different adversaries keyed to each season. That does take the workload off a GM’s shoulder when it comes to putting new flesh on old bones.

Regardless of your favorite adventure’s design, here are some tips for bringing an old favorite to life anew.


  1. Make the locale or nearby base as dynamic as possible.  In the case of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I am using the randomized locations from Waterdeep: City Encounters, a DM’s Guild Adept product, to give life and sizzle to street-level engagements in Waterdeep. But even without an additional supplement, the urban encounter lists from the Dungeon Master’s Guide would suffice. Both provide a new way to introduce sideways encounters that amplify the experience. New encounters can mix with old ones in ways that take adventures down entirely new paths.
  2. Provide a new motive for the quest-giver or patron NPC. The boss says you have a new goal. Maybe it’s not Lord Neverember’s treasure this time. Maybe its something else, say a magic item that Laerel Silverhand once possessed and is now lost? Yep, it might be as simple as scratching off the big treasure item from the first run and replacing it with something equally (or more) tantalizing.
  3. On the flip side of that, provide a new big baddie? W:DH has this built in. Don’t want to fight the Zhentarim this time? How about trying to out-maneuver Jarlaxle Baenre and his cohort of Bregan D’Aerthe mercenaries?  But really, the switch-aroo need not be vastly different to punch it up. If you run the Sunless Citadel again, but think the Gulthias tree is a tad too stationary as an adversary — being a rooted tree and all — throw in an evil druid or an honest-to-goodness vampire spawn to be an additional mastermind.
  4. Politics, politics, politics. Whatever side (or neither) the PCs declare themselves to be on, it’s a guarantee they’ll be on the wrong side when it comes to amping up narrative tension. The republished Ghosts of Saltmarsh is a wonderful example of how adding new political factions to the town puts the players into situations they will have to think or fight their way out of. 
  5. History and lore. I’m not talking about expecting the PCs to know stuff about the setting in order to solve the mystery or crack a puzzle. It’s rather the opposite. Give the PCs the info up front — then incorporate it into play. The information can be used to amp up tension, raise the stakes or give them a leg up against adversaries to salvaging the treasure. Let them know stuff like: Everyone knows that Kheleck is an evil wizard, but did you know he has a demon ally and a sister who is a sorceress?  (Besides, if they’ve run through the adventure before, they probably already know its “secrets.” Find a way to leverage that information so that the PCs can use it without guilt or feeling they are metagaming.)
  6. Loosen the reins/go with the flow.  If as a GM you feel like it is important for the PCs to reach the end of a published adventure the first time around (maybe you play for organized play purposes), you can relax a bit on the second go-around. Let the PCs explore, resist the urge to course-correct, let things develop more naturally. You might be surprised at how PCs will be able to more effectively use the location to achieve their goals — even if their solutions seem more outlandish or unorthodox. 
  7. Reward the nostalgia. Part of the fun of running through an old module is seeing favorite NPCs and hearing a GM bring them to life once again. It’s not the Sunless Citadel without Meepo or the Temple of Elemental Evil without Lareth the Beautiful. I know that if I ever run Hoard of the Dragon Queen again, it will be a big misstep if a certain Red Wizard doesn’t return. 

As always, keep good notes and keep those NPCs straight. 


Categories: Game Theory & Design

How to Get the Most Out of Playtesting

30 September 2019 - 6:00am

Playtesting can be a fraught experience, even in the best of circumstances. This goes double if the designer of the game is involved in the playtest, or if you’re friends of the designer (which is pretty likely in the early stages). I’ve found over the past year that I actually really enjoy playtesting, so I wanted to share my top tips on how to run a really helpful playtest and how to be a great playtester.

15 minutes before every playtest

Let’s start at the start: what is the goal of a playtest? What are we trying to accomplish when we do this? As a designer, I’m looking for three main categories of information:

  1. What did people enjoy vs not enjoy?
  2. What did people find confusing?
  3. What did or did not support the intent of the game? Or, shortly, what worked and what didn’t work?

The whole goal of a playtest is to refine the game, to help make it the best game it can be. The above questions are how I do that. The first two are pretty self-explanatory. If people are obviously not having fun or are just constantly looking at me in bewilderment, something isn’t working. The last one is the main point I want to expand on, and how it differs from the others.

One of the key things to understand when you’re coordinating a playtest – whether you’re the designer of the game or not – is the intent of the game. What is the designer (yes, you too!) trying to accomplish? What type of game are they trying to make? What are they trying to say? And yes, I have gone into playtests where the designer (me!) didn’t have answers to those questions, and as a result, the whole thing pretty much ended up being useless.

What I think a lot of people struggle with is finding where the game’s intent and their own expectations don’t match, and providing feedback accordingly. If the designer’s intent is to make a suspenseful horror game and you think it’s going to be a zany beat-em-up, giving the feedback “well, I thought all those suspense rules really got in the way of me kicking this monster’s ass” isn’t helpful. There’s a mismatch somewhere in that situation, and it’s always worth explaining the intent of the game before you start.

In the first playtest of a game, you might just be trying to figure out “does this work as a game at all?” Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailIt also helps to have a clear idea of what areas to focus on and what questions you want to ask at the end. In the first playtest of a game, you might just be trying to figure out “does this work as a game at all?” but in the later stages, you’re more likely to be refining specific mechanics. You can ask your players to pay special attention to those at the start of the game, you can let them know ahead of time what type of questions you’ll be asking. Saying before you begin “hey pals, I’d really like to focus on the dice pool system” can prevent a situation where you ask about the dice pool at the end of the game and everyone says “oh I don’t know, I wasn’t really focusing on it, but it seemed fine.”

As the playtest coordinator, I find it helpful to watch what your players do and not just what they say. It’s not that they’ll be intentionally misleading you or anything sinister! It’s because sometimes they might not think to mention something or that you want to remember for later. To give an example, I have a game in playtesting where the character playbooks were two-sided and in the initial playtests people had to keep flipping back and forth between the two sides. Mechanically, there wasn’t anything wrong with the information on the sheets, but where it was placed made a big difference in terms of players interrupting themselves to check their character sheets.

To that end, my biggest piece of feedback for a playtest coordinator is to take copious notes during the game. So many notes. Take notes on everything, even if you never end up using all of them. It can be hard to take a lot of notes while staying engaged in what’s happening in the session, but everyone else should be understanding about the fact that this is the whole point of a playtest. I know some designers actually like to use audio recording during their playtest sessions and then go back and listen later (I personally don’t do this, but I definitely see the value in it!).

When it comes time to provide feedback, there’s a tried and true critique method called the compliment sandwich – say something you liked, something you didn’t like, and then another thing you liked. It goes a long way towards sparing feelings, but this should go without saying: you can tell someone what you didn’t like about their game without being a jerk. For myself, I tend to structure the feedback phase in three parts, in this order specifically:

  1. I ask them what (if anything) they liked
  2. I ask them what (if anything) they disliked
  3. I ask them what (if anything) confused them or they didn’t understand

A lot of designers ask their testers to point out problems but NOT to offer solutions, and I personally tend to agree with that methodology. I don’t mind one or two small points, but mostly – let me solve the problems. I’m the designer, that’s what I do, and you can trust me to find the right solution for what I’m going for. It’s absolutely not intended as a slight against the playtesters, but in my experience, it’s needed to keep things moving. Brainstorming solutions to problems takes time away from finding the problems. Everything in its time, you know?

As a sidenote, if you’re a fellow game designer testing someone else’s game, it can come across as terribly condescending and rude to say “well if this was MY game, this is what I would do.” It’s usually well-meant, but rarely well-received.

I do like to emphasize this to my playtesters: you can ask questions too. You SHOULD ask questions! A majority of the time, the coordinator/designer is going to be asking you questions, but don’t let that stop you. If something isn’t clear in the game, if something needs to be spelled out, if something is an assumption that never made it into the game text – they need to know that.

Telling them what worked … really is just as important as what didn’t work. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailAs a final thing to remember for playtesters: not all the feedback you give is likely to be incorporated into the final game. Don’t take it personally! Sometimes there was conflicting feedback – if one playtester tells me something is too complex and another tells me it’s too simple, I have to weigh both of those. Sometimes the game changed drastically enough over time that the feedback ended up not being relevant, or it was incorporated elsewhere. And always keep in mind – telling them what worked and what you liked really is just as important as what didn’t work.



What do you think? Have you had particularly good or bad playtest experiences? What are your top tips for getting the most out of the playtest process?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Creating Legacy Campaigns

26 September 2019 - 5:00am

Life is funny. Last month I was hacking up a John Wick game, and today I am here to tell you about work I am doing for Things from the Flood. As it turns out, my player who was going to be out for his new baby, was ready to come back sooner than we expected. So the next thing I knew, I was cracking open my Things from the Flood book and reading up. 

For our group, though, this was going to be special. We had previously run an 11 month Tales from the Loop game, where we had a large meta-mystery about one of the character’s mom’s missing as part of a revenge plot by one of the other character’s aunts. In the climax of the story, the kids were able to save the mom and get the aunt arrested. 

We all agreed that we would play the same characters in Things, aging them from where they were when we ended Tales. That is what today’s article is about. How to take the legacy of your past campaign and bring it forward for a new campaign.

The Legacy Campaign

I am fond of defining things before we talk about them, and I want to define something I am going to call the Legacy Campaign. 

A legacy campaign is a campaign whose setting is derived from a previously run campaign and uses some or all of the past events, locations, and NPCs in the new campaign. 

In my case, my Things from the Flood campaign is going to be based on the events, locations, and NPCs that were part of my Tales from the Loop campaign. Furthermore, and this is not a requirement, the characters will be the older version of the characters in the Tales game. 

Why are Legacy Games fun?

Campaigns, in general, are fun in part because of continuity. The idea of something growing, changing, or even staying the same, between sessions, gives our brains a sense of comfort, as we are accustomed to our lives having some level of continuity. 

Inside a campaign, having the barista that your detectives get coffee from evolve from studying between coffees, to graduating, to having their last day before they start their new career gives the players a sense of the passage of time, as well as seeing the growth of the NPC.

The Legacy Campaign then builds upon that by taking the accumulated stories and growth from the past campaign and using them as seeds for building a new campaign. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The Legacy Campaign then builds upon that by taking the accumulated stories and growth from the past campaign and using them as seeds for building a new campaign. What makes this even better is that this is not history written by a game designer, but rather this history was created by the players of the past campaign, which if they are in the current one, will be more intense because they will remember it better and will have a higher emotional investment because it was created by the players. 

Creating a Legacy

Creating a legacy is an exercise in extrapolation. The goal is to find the things that are important and interesting from the first campaign and determine how those things change over time. This can be done in a number of ways, including reviewing session prep, notes taken during the session, talking with the players from the first campaign, etc. 

However you review your past campaign, here are some things to consider using for your legacy:


The NPCs who survived the first campaign have a chance to be in your new campaign. Consider which ones resonated with the past group, the ones they really enjoyed. Those you will want to pull forward. Also, look at a few more obscure ones. The obscure ones, when they come back into the game, will give that “deep cut” feeling.  Don’t feel the need to include every NPC from the past game. It is fine to have some of them fade into obscurity. 

Important Events

Look over the important events from the past campaign and think about the ones that would resonate forward to the time of the new campaign. Some events in the past campaign were important at the time but may not have the gravity to affect events in the new campaign. 

There will be some events that will resonate in the new campaign, and those are crucial to include. They are the ones that everyone is wondering how they would have changed the world. If the Great Wyrm was killed in the past campaign, how has the world changed in its absence? 

Here is a thing I love. Take something that seemed very small in the past campaign and have that event be the trigger for something that will be prominent in the new campaign. Perhaps the paper delivery girl in your past campaign is now the Mayor of the town after one of the PCs from the past campaign gave her a bit of advice about following her dreams.


Locations are really their own type of character. So, much like the NPCs consider what locations you may want to carry forward. To keep things fresh and to show the passage of time, consider subverting some of those sites. The hottest bar in the past campaign might now be a dive, a new place has now become the “in” place to be. 

While technically not part of the past campaign, look at new locations that can be added to the campaign. Review the past setting and look for areas that never got a lot of attention, and promote them to be a more prominent location.

Moving Time Forward

Once you know what you are keeping, you need to think about how you want it to change. This is where you will be extrapolating. What you want to consider is how this thing changed as time passed. Which means we have a few options.


Things got better for this item. People grew and improved, a location became updated, an event had a positive effect going forward. 


Things got worse for this item. People grow apart, a location becomes run down, and an event had a negative effect in the future.

No Change

Things remained constant for this item. Some people are iconic, some locations never weather, and some events do not create change.


This item did not last. Some people leave or die, some locations are demolished or abandoned, and some events are forgotten. 

It’s best to have a variety of these outcomes for the items you selected to persist in your game. Mix it up and pick up some to contrast. Perhaps the village inn has gotten worse and is now run down and falling apart, but the innkeeper just got married. Some things will track together. The consequences of an event that got worse over time also have made several people worse in the process. 

Collaborating vs. Solo

As a GM, you could easily do all this work yourself. This could all be part of your campaign prep. I will say, though, that collaboration is always better, so share this process with your players — especially if the players who are playing the new game were the players who played the past game. 

You can do a bit of prep for this by making a list of items to look over. Go through your session notes and pull out all the interesting bits. Then at Session Zero bring out the list and brainstorm with your players what happened to each of these things. Follow all the rules of good collaboration, yes..and, make sure everyone gets heard, etc.

Together you can build this new future.

Time Keeps On Slipping… 

A legacy campaign is a great way to play something new while holding onto the memories of past games. It is a campaign that has a higher level of emotional investment and deeper understanding. Legacy campaigns are not hard to create, they just need a little prep work and that work is best shared as a group.

Have you ever made a legacy campaign? Tell us about them in the comments below. 

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Review – Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game (Pre-Kickstarter build)

25 September 2019 - 5:30am

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to play a pre-Kickstarter build of Magpie Games’ Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game during a recording of the Terrible Warriors podcast. Root is based on the award-winning board game Root: A Game of Woodland Might and Right.

I’ll put this out there at the beginning: I had a blast.

Taken from the Kickstarter page,

“Root: The Tabletop Roleplaying Game is a game of woodland creatures fighting for money, justice, and freedom from powers far greater than them. Based on the Root: A Game of Woodland Might & Right board game and officially licensed by Leder Games, Root: The TTRPG brings the tales of the Woodland to your RPG table!”

In Root, players inhabit the lives of anthropomorphic vagabonds, outcasts in normal woodland society, belonging to various warring factions. You might be a stalwart arbiter and defend the interests of their lords. Like me, you might play a scoundrel, causing mischief and mayhem as you shift between alliances. Now, you’re probably thinking, if games like Mouse Guard, Ironclaw, The Warren, Tales from the Wood, Bunnies & Burrows, and Pugmire/Monarchies of Mau already allow you to roleplay as anthropomorphic (to varying degrees) woodland creatures, why bother with Root?

What I found most compelling about Root wasn’t the cute art or simple character creation mechanics, but rather the way it manages to immerse players in the living world of the Woodland. The Woodland is a deep, dark forest that is home to ancient ruins, dangerous beasts, and warring clearings (settlements for the woodland creatures). Navigating the paths and forests of the Woodland is an essential part of gameplay. Similar to the board game, the Root tabletop RPG will come with a map of this region. However, there are rules for making your own! Our GM for the session, Justin Ecock, came prepared with one he crafted using the mechanics that will be featured in the finished game. As our tale progressed and we ventured from clearing to clearing, the world around us shifted. The interwoven politics of the Woodland birds, foxes, mice, rabbits, and sinister cats was “simulated” in the background independent of our characters. As we returned to clearings, we were delightfully shocked to find them under the control of enemy factions! In many ways, this feels like Magpie games is trying to blend the workings of the source material board game and the narrative stylings of an RPG. Part of me suspects that players might be turned away by the fact that their actions have little impact on the world around them. However, I also believe that this presents itself as a fantastic tool with the potential to help new gamers feel immersed in a fantasy world. Time will tell, and I’m sure we will follow up on these mechanics when the final version of the Root tabletop RPG is released for wider consumption.

At the time of writing, nearly $400,000 Canadian dollars have been raised on Kickstarter against its $13,000 funding goal. This game is a runaway crowdfunding hit. Will its novel approach to crafting “living” game worlds for players earn it critical praise? I suspect so!

Listen to my playthrough of Root! Back Root on Kickstarter!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Exploring Encounter Theory: How to Craft RPG Adventures

23 September 2019 - 6:30am

Want to write better adventures?

Want to prep more efficiently?

Sick of players skipping all of your best content?

Prep Smarter, Not Harder, with Encounter Theory

Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Workbook is a fresh way to look at adventure design by Ben Riggs, the voice of the Ennie-Nominated Plot Points podcast. Using his background in teaching and adventure review, he dissects what we think of as an adventure and helps us get to the core of what makes a one great—the encounter.

Adventure Craft and You

How did you learn to write tabletop adventures for your players? You’ve had creative writing assignments in English, maybe even taken a course in creative writing. Perhaps, you started by delving into old D&D modules or stared at the cloudlike white space of a sheet of paper until a story began to form. But, what are the steps? Where are the instructions on how to do this? Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure? Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure? Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

But Pete, I’ve run many great adventures!

Sure, but how did you do it? How do you write a good adventure, can you explain it? Better yet, can you show me how? A good GM can make the best of a badly written adventure just as they can homebrew their favorite system to work for any setting. It doesn’t have to be perfect to pass for fun. As GMs, we get SO good at improvising, that we can work with “good enough”. But, do you really want to settle for “good enough” adventures?

Principles to Adventure By

Why the encounter, because the encounter is the core experience of play and our most quantifiable unit. As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play. As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email Each encounter or scene feeds the player a description of the setting and the characters, something for the players to mentally chew on. Then, narrative control shifts as players are free to act on that description, often begging the question, what do you do? That’s the moment all of this work goes from prep to play.

Description is the BIG word there. Adventure writing is hard, mostly because we drown the reader in it or offer too little, too generic, to capture the mood. Arguably, the greatest feature of Encounter Theory is that it can help a GM narrow down just how much description we should apply in adventure design.

Guiding Principles of Encounter Theory Design:
  • Face the Player and Free the Player
  • Present Problems Not Solutions
  • Use the Dungeon as Adventure Structure
  • Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description

Encounter Theory is a method of efficiently focusing GMs on creating adventure plans that are ONLY player facing and that maximize player agency. Unlike other mediums of fiction, tabletop roleplaying is collaborative. So, providing any description that is not actionable for a player at the table is a waste of your prep time, as it doesn’t fit how the content is used (excess location history or long NPC backstories). Players need specific descriptive information that is short and sensory. They need to be provided description in a way that their characters can interpret (smell, sight, touch, hear, feel). Anything that does not help a player understand a situation through their character is more to read, more to say, and ultimately, more to delay play. Players come to play!

Unlike writing short stories, the narrative of where play goes should be decided by the players, not the Game Master. A GM should present problems but avoid presenting solutions. That’s not to say that you can’t help players if they get stuck in the fog. It is to say that players should be free to create solutions and find their own way to the next encounter, their own way through the adventure. We have the freedom to explore endless options to solving problems, why limit ourselves to a few dialogue options like some sort of a video game.

What Does This Look Like

Imagine the model of a dungeon for your game session, plot plan, or campaign storyline. Players begin their adventure at its start with a call to action. As the GM, you set the scene, describing where they are, what’s going on, and a problem for them to fix. No matter how they go about solving their problem, there is a clue, a lead, to have them visit the next room, the next encounter. A series of encounters act as rooms leading to the climax, boss fight, or final revelation.

Encounter Theory helps a GM create only as much information as is necessary, minimizing prep, and helping players to get to play faster. It trims down the size of adventures, so that we as GMs can get to running them faster. It helps to focus GMs on player facing information that is immersive (five senses) and to the point. When writing RPG adventures you shouldn’t be writing novels. We’ve learned how to write short stories, maybe even written books, but writing adventures isn’t the same. They are imaginary sandboxes put out for our players to play with, and for the GM to revel in. Save time and focus on your players. Give them what they need to find their fun!

Want to Know More

For more on Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Handbook, pick up a copy at DriveThruRPG. The book offers a variety of playplans (as seen in images throughout) to help you put these principles into practice for a variety of settings and situations. Use the Adventure Starter to develop adventure ideas, the Opponent Starter to create worthy adversaries, the list goes on and on. Ben even includes a 5E adventure laid out as an example or for your use at the table. For more on Ben Riggs, adventure design, and his work chronicling TSR, download an episode of Plot Points.

What did Ben miss?

How would you add to Encounter Theory?

How did you learn adventure design? 

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Camdon Turned Me Into A Vampire–The Introduction

20 September 2019 - 4:30am

One day, a few weeks ago, I received a message from the incomparable Camdon Wright. Camdon asked me if I would be interested in looking at Thousand Year Old Vampire, a single player “journaling” RPG by Tim Hutchings, Kickstarted in November of 2018.

When I started reading through the PDF, I was seized with a cold and compelling thought. My greatest regret is that I cannot always playtest the games I am reviewing. This thought clouded my brain, burrowing deep into my consciousness, and caused me to focus on a singular aspiration—I could play this game!

This is when I realized that I was doomed. Camdon had turned me into a vampire.

Content Warnings

I’m not planning on spending too much time on the potentially problematic aspects of the questions in this game, but I did want to issue a warning up front. The game intentionally asks you some hard questions, and puts you in bad situations where your vampire is likely to do terrible things.

Because the prompts ask you pointed questions to determine your skills, resources, and contacts, when they reference these items that you have generated, you must resolve questions through the lens of the skills and resources you have. This often means that when all you have is a hammer, every mortal looks like a nail.

While I’m not planning on making the choices too detailed, the game does funnel you towards the consequences of immortality and losing touch with humanity, so it may touch on some issues like the cheapening of human life, resolving threats through violence, and other events in the vampire’s history.

How Does it Work?

The game asks you a number of questions to establish your character, including the generation of skills, resources, memories, mortals, and immortals in the story.

You can only have five total memories, with three experiences under each memory. Your experiences are essentially the answers to the questions that you generate from the prompts. Eventually, you start to lose memories. You can start a journal to save memories, but the journal is a physical object that you can lose, and those memories, once saved, aren’t really “part” of you anymore.

Various prompts will ask you to spend resources or check off skills to resolve a situation. That means that if you only have a specific skill to resolve something, you need to answer the prompt in a manner that incorporates that skill.

You roll d10 and subtract d6 from this, and this tells you how many prompts to jump ahead. The further forward in the prompts that you move, the closer you get to a question that essentially draws an end to the story of your vampire.


How did I come up with my starting point? If you know me, if you give me infinite options, I will spend infinite time trying to narrow down my options. To break this loop, I looked up an event exactly a thousand years from the date I was generating my vampire.

The event I found in 1019 was Yaroslav I becoming the Grand Prince of Kiev with the help of the Novgorodians and Varangian mercenaries. This particular event jumped out at me for one reason—Godbrand, the Viking vampire from the Castlevania animated series on Netflix (voiced by Peter Stormare) was one of my favorite characters in the series. Viking vampire it is!

Our Vampire

We’re going to wrap things up by summarizing the vampire I created from the initial prompts in the game. As I answered questions, here is what developed:

  • Killing with heavy weapons
  • Enduring hardships on the road
  • Knowing what business partners to trust
  • My loyal troops
  • My hoard of gold
  • The goodwill of other Varangian mercenaries
  • Ranssi—the broker that found our band and made us wealthy as mercenaries
  • Anichka—the woman I have fallen in love with in Kiev, that my friends fear has made me soft
  • Konstantin—the Novgorodian soldier that causes trouble and hates my men as outsiders
  • The Black Wolf—a supernaturally large wolf that savaged me in the woods, and left me for dead. It is part of the local legends that all of us assumed was but a story to scare children.
  • My fangs are always present
Memory #1
  • Experience #1

    I am Jorgrimr, son of Julfir, come to Kiev to help the Great Prince secure his throne, for the promise of gold.

Memory #2
  • Experience #1

    When my gold is delivered, I buy a lavish home in Kiev for Anichka, and possibly for myself.

Memory #3
  • Experience #1

    After the city is secured, Konstantin’s troops threaten us, but Ranssi calms everyone with his words.

Memory #4
  • Experience #1

    The mercenaries we saved last month come to our aid, and there is great friendship after the battle

Memory #5
  • Experience #1

    I travel into the wilderness to duel with Konstantin, to rid myself of him. Instead, a huge black wolf savages me, and I inherit its fangs.

Future Installments I am already worried that the prompts are going to tear my heart out as I deal with my bonds to my fellow mercenaries and Anichka. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

In this first article, I wanted to focus on just the creation of my vampire. I am already worried that the prompts are going to tear my heart out as I deal with my bonds to my fellow mercenaries and Anichka. I’m already hoping the people closest to me end up just . . . drifting away, rather than facing what I have become, and what that means for them. Tragedy right from the start!

Journaling Games

While we’re talking about journaling games, have you ever played one before? Which one? Did you feel like sharing that journal, or was it something that felt deeply personal when you finished? Has playing a journaling game every given you ideas for other games that you might be playing or running?

As always, we would love to hear about this in the comments below. I’ll be looking for your responses. From the shadows. Hungrily. Are my teeth growing?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #75 – Get to Know an Old Gnome – Phil Vecchione

19 September 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang as she continues the “Get to Know an Old Gnome” series with one of the original gnomes, Phil Vecchione. Learn Phil’s gaming and blogging origins, his current projects, and his plans for the future. Will this founding gnome keep from finding himself in the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #75 – Get to Know an Old Gnome – Phil Vecchione

You can catch Phil at the Gauntlet Con 2019 (Oct 24-27, online) and Metatopia 2019 (Nov 7-10, Morristown, NJ) conventions.

Follow Phil at @DNAphil on Twitter, and catch him as co-host of the Misdirected Mark podcast (recorded on a live stream every Tuesday) and Panda’s Talking Games.

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

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

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Jianghu Hustle!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf – Unity

18 September 2019 - 5:00am

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


Unity by Anson Tran and Zensara Studios is a GMed fantasy roleplaying game designed for 3 or more players (including a Game Master) to experience adventure in an apocalyptic fantasy setting. The game book contains not only plenty of setting history, but also a generous portion of short fiction to help communicate the feel of the world. The book also features plenty of beautiful full color artwork by Nguyen Dang Hoang Tri and Raph Lomotan and is worth flipping through for that alone.

The rules structure of the game evokes the traditional school of RPG design, but it also makes use of some modern elements and streamlining techniques for a more cinematic feel. Though not, strictly speaking, a d20-based system, the rules are nonetheless built around the traditional polyhedral dice set, and the mechanisms will be familiar enough to anyone versed in d20-based games.

The Story

Rather than the game being narrowly focused on telling a particular story, Unity instead presents a detailed setting with a rich history. The text provides some recommendations for tone and theme, but the game otherwise offers an open invitation for a variety of play styles and narratives.

The setting of the game is the titular world of Unity, known to its denizens as a single continent bracketed by two oceans, themselves bordered by a (thus far) impenetrable wall of storms and whirlpools. In addition, the world of Unity shares space with the Drift, a spiritual plane fed by the psychic and emotional experiences of the inhabitants of Unity. The history of Unity is one largely punctuated by the primary gods of the world (the Skyfather and the Ivory Queen) screwing up the world by creating intelligent life on it. Get ready for a tale.

The gods first created the Valla, long-lived collectivists psychically linked together by Spirit Stones embedded in their foreheads. Unsatisfied with the Valla’s eventual lack of ambition to spread across the world, however, the gods then created the Furians, volcano-born craftspeople and warriors. Once the Valla and the Furians settled into peaceful trade relations, the gods tried again to create people who would finish the job of populating the world. The third attempt, the Humans, were made short-lived and vulnerable in an attempt to motivate them to thrive, which seemed to do the trick. Lacking the elder races’ divine physiological blessings, Humans learned to harness resources and develop technology, which put them on more equal footing with the others. Eventually, as happens, everyone went to war with each other.

The game can be played to focus on the struggle of physical survival, but it also makes room for the quest for an exploration of better lands as well as the examination of moral thought and quandaries. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailThe two gods, displeased by this development, reacted in different ways. The Skyfather disappeared and headed off to parts unknown. The Ivory Queen, encouraged by a whispered voice from somewhere beyond the void, decided to populate the world with horrible monsters to give all three races a common enemy to fight against. At first, this enemy, the Crimson Horde, did too good a job, nearly finishing off each of the earlier peoples. But in the end the Valla, Furians, and Humans banded together and drove the Horde out of civilized lands. This unification finally seemed like what the gods wanted, as it led to a Golden Age. However, the Children of Unity eventually turned their might against the gods themselves and killed the Ivory Queen.

This act of deicide caused the Skyfather to return…and return angry. Raging at what the Children of Unity had done, he smote the world and broke it. The spiritual realm of the Drift, which had been amassing terrible psychic energies not only from the people warring among each other, but now also against the Horde, cracked open and spilled onto the world of Unity in what came to be known as the Great Calamity. Demons poured forth from the Drift, the dead on Unity rose from their graves, the technological automata the Humans had created as labor-saving devices awakened to sentience and revolted, and the world filled with corruption and blight. In addition, all three Children of Unity were divinely cursed: the Valla lost their collective psychic link, the inner strength of the Furians was twisted into uncontrollable rage, and a number of Humans inherited a supernatural disease called the Phage which ultimately resulted in the formation of an additional subrace, the Afflicted.

It is into this world that the characters are thrust to begin their story. The world has been torn apart, literally and figuratively, by the Great Calamity. I call this apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic because the protagonists, like the societies of the world at large, are still trying to find their way in this new and dangerous situation. The world is wounded, but not dead. Dangers abound, but the people trying to survive still have access to martial might, mystical powers, and magical technology. A lot has gone poorly for the world, but a lot of hope remains. The game can be played to focus on the struggle of physical survival, but it also makes room for the quest for an exploration of better lands as well as the examination of moral thought and quandaries.

In terms of genre markers and tropes, the game draws from a variety of traditions. The way the game is presented makes it seem based primarily on familiar fantasy ideas: fantastic peoples and creatures, gods and magic, epic tales of good and evil, and the like. There are, however, also strong elements of horror presented, particularly cosmic horror, existential horror, and body horror. I stop just short of calling the game dark fantasy or fantasy horror…though only just. The elements are present, but it doesn’t feel like the action-oriented game is strongly pushing a fear-based tone that I associate with the horror genre. In addition, the Afflicted feature mechanical body part replacements or augmentations reminiscent of a game revolving around cybernetics, and some of the magical technology available includes gigantic war engines known as Titan Rigs for that dash of mecha aesthetic. There’s a lot going on in this game!

The Game

The rules and structure of mechanics in Unity are at minimum reminiscent of traditional design. Characters are defined by the combination of several elements: Race (one of the three Children of Unity races or the Afflicted), Class, four Attributes (Might, Agility, Mind, and Presence), and three Core Paths (fairly freeform backgrounds that take the place of a skill list). In addition, a character’s Class confers Features, Perks, and Powers which are the primary pieces that differentiate Classes from one another and which let characters engage with the rules with more than the core resolution rolls.

The primary resolution mechanic is a 2d10 + modifiers roll vs. a target number. The modifiers involve an Attack Rating and/or Defense Rating for combat rolls or Attribute and Core Path modifiers for skill checks. There is also a Benefit/Hindrance mechanic which includes an additional die to the pool which will either help (keep highest) or hinder (keep lowest) the result of the roll, as appropriate. Rolling doubles in combat introduces extra benefits, and rolling double tens is the equivalent of a critical hit (resulting in extra damage). The target number is generally an opponents Defense or Attack Rating (in combat) or a number based on the difficulty of the challenge (for skill checks).

Combat is based on rounds, as in many traditional designs, but the turns within the rounds are team-based such that all the player characters act together, and then the GM-controlled characters act together. Initiative is primarily decided narratively, though under certain circumstances it can be altered in the first round by skill checks. There is a familiar action economy per turn, with one each of different categories of actions available (Standard, Movement, Quick, and the like).

Departing from a more familiar trad structure, Class Powers are mostly fueled by an economy of power points specifically flavored to each Class. For example, Dreadnought Powers are fueled by Might, while Phantom Powers are fueled by Guile. The points are flavored differently for each Class, but the mechanics are mostly the same. Some Classes even use two different power point economies, and this is only one type of economy used in the game.

Equipment is highly abstracted, divided into Necessities (which are spent during rest and recovery periods) and Gear (which represent the items of adventuring tools and similar available to the characters). There is a player-facing narrative currency called Spark Points (which are earned for descriptive prose and spent on mechanical bonuses to rolls) as well as a GM-controlled narrative currency called Ruin (accumulated by the passage of time and various character actions and spent by the GM on complications or to power opponent powers). Distance and position in combat are abstracted as well for a more fluid and cinematic approach than offered by grid-based maps. There is a traditional hit point track, and loss of all hit points leads to a death save mechanic called Fading.

There are many other game mechanics, some of a more traditional bent and some more indie. There is a whole rules section for piloting a Titan Rig, which is a cooperative success-collecting exercise for the entire party. A session zero (pre-story collaborative character creation session) is explicitly recommended in the game. The “failing forward” technique is also explicit in the rules, as a failed combat roll results in the player choosing whether the attack misses or deals some damage while opening up the character to a counter-attack.

Finally, I’d like to note that this game is best enjoyed with plenty of pre-game discussion about tone and content, and (as with all games) I cannot recommend enough the use of safety tools in play. There is much in the setting that can easily lead to problematic content at your table, and it’s worth taking that under advisement before diving in with both feet. The Afflicted in particular can easily strike notes of ableism if not handled with care. In addition, there may be troubling cultural elements present in, not just the history, but the present day of the playable peoples, like slavery and ritual suicide. It is explicit that part of the game is the examination of moral decisions and thought, but the game offers some ideas that players may not be willing to take on in play, and there are no warnings in the text to let you know. Proceed with understanding and care for your fellow players.

The Shelf

Unity is available for purchase in print and PDF from the Zensara Studios online store. Mechanically, this game is not only reminiscent of mid-to-late editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but some design elements (like Core Paths) also remind me strongly of 13th Age (one of my personal favorites in the fantasy d20-based space). Thematically, Unity falls somewhere for me in the neighborhood between Shadow of the Demon Lord and Numenera, a kind of mashup of fantasy horror and science fantasy.

If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Consent in Gaming Review

17 September 2019 - 4:30am

Generally speaking, I don’t usually review short-form products on Gnome Stew. Additionally, I often don’t do formal reviews for products that are free. I also try very hard not to do reviews for the same company in back to back review articles. This week’s review is going to be a special case. This week, I’m going to look at Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games, a free product released last week.

If you have read a wide range of my reviews, you may have noticed that I am especially concerned with the roleplaying game industry providing better safety guidelines and content warnings in products. It is something I strongly believe in, and I hope it is the direction in which more game companies move.

Online Storms

One thing I wanted to address in this review is that this product was met with a lot of negative commentaries online the day it was released. Many people ridiculed the concept of a document that provides guidelines for consent at the game table. Other people made the case that concern for the boundaries of others at the game table would ruin a gaming group or the hobby as a whole.

The Thing Itself

The product is a 13 page PDF, including a cover, 12 pages of guidelines, and a Consent Checklist on the final page. The product features pieces from MCG’s impressive art library, and is formatted like other MCG products, with double column layout and additional space for sidebars worked into the page design.


In the 12 pages of discussion on consent, eight sidebars are summarizing the information presented in the text, or reprinting relevant portions of Your Best Game Ever. The sidebar format is also used to provide a side note to various topics brought up in the text, without interrupting the flow of the discussion.

In addition to the initial presentation of the topic, which stresses that no one but you can set your boundaries, and how the default assumption without informed consent is “no,” the PDF dives into several other topics, such as:

  • Important Consent Highlights
  • No Words and Go Words
  • The X-Card
  • Recovering from Consent Mistakes
  • Aftercare & Checking In
  • Using the Consent Checklist
  • How Not to Use the Consent Checklist
  • Additional Resources

The document covers a lot of ground in 12 pages. While I was expecting a general description of consent, and an explanation of the consent checklist and how to use it, I wasn’t expecting the broader range of topics like recovering from consent mistakes or the importance of aftercare and check-ins.

What is noteworthy is that while consent is integral to a safe table, it also acknowledges that in some instances, people make mistakes, and discussing the proper way to mitigate those mistakes is as important as having a resolve to not make the mistakes in the first place. It’s very easy to decide to follow a procedure, then give up on that procedure when making a mistake. This stresses the importance of a sincere apology and desire to rectify any harm that has been done.

I am also thrilled to see an examination of how not to use the safety checklist, that even with consent, topics that are agreed upon for game content don’t need to be the predominant element.

While I think this document presents a very solid outline for consent in games, I am also glad that the final page lists additional resources on the topic of safety at the game table, rather than trying to be the final word on the subject. Anyone with this document in their campaign toolkit is going to be well prepared for a safe and enjoyable campaign, but it never hurts to expand knowledge of safety and consent issues.

RPG Consent Checklist

The checklist itself provides areas to record the planned theme of the campaign, the “rating” of the campaign and then provides some potential sample content that players can rate as red, yellow or green. Red ratings are those that the player does not want in the game, yellow ratings are those items that the player doesn’t want detailed heavily in the campaign, or used very carefully or sparingly, and green items are those that the player is fine having in the game.

The sample sections include topics grouped under the following headings:

  • Horror
  • Relationships
  • Social and Cultural Issues
  • Mental and Physical Health
  • Additional Topics

There are also lines to write in any topics that aren’t mentioned on the list, as well as a section that allows the player to provide feedback on their concerns for the GM. I appreciate the utility of this checklist as a handout for tabletop groups.

Making it Personal

A lot of discussion that has surrounded this document has revolved around the need for it, especially in established gaming groups and communities. I thought I might share a few of my personal experiences, experiences that I feel would have been much easier to navigate if safety and consent had been a greater priority in the hobby.

Personal Mistakes

A few years after I started running RPGs for my friends, I was running a session where the party was deep in a series of caves. I provided a very detailed, very specific description of the giant spider that the party encountered. One of my friends was very uncomfortable with this description.

Because I was very bad at empathy and had a lot to learn about being a good friend and a good human being, seeing his discomfort, I layered on even more disturbing descriptive elements. He left the table. After several years of being part of the gaming group, he never came back. It took me far too long to realize that he quit showing up for game night after I pushed him past his breaking point. We were all still friends, and we still spent time together, but I lost a player and some valuable time with a friend, sharing something we both enjoyed.

Personal Experiences

I won’t go into details, but I had a moment with a character in a campaign, where I described my character putting herself in a vulnerable position. I was playing with people I had played with for years. Another player crossed a major boundary in the narrative between his character and mine. I was too stunned to react. When I reflected on the situation, the first thought was not to bring up the problem, because it was my fault for putting my character in that situation. Then I realized how much that sounded like the guilt and recriminations that far too many people face in real life. I could never play that character again.

I was in a convention game, with a GM that was well regarded by most convention-goers. The game was marked “for mature players,” but I had assumed this would be because of the flurry of F-bombs I usually heard emanating from the table. In the session, our characters were whimsical superheroes fighting Greek gods run amuck. In one scene, we came dangerously close to being compelled to perform actions that I’m not comfortable having a character commit against their will. The only thing that derailed this was player action, not GM discretion.

Finally, a regular player that I considered a friend was in several games with me, at a point in time when I was having some serious turmoil over my religious convictions. He had no way of knowing this without me mentioning it, but he was continually making jokes about religion, and it became especially stressful for me to be at a table with him, even though I generally enjoyed his company. I eventually wrote him an email, directly, but instead of discussing the issue, he dropped out of any games with me. I wish we had a better framework in place to have set up the discussion on the topic of religion at the table.

These are just a few of the mistakes that I have made, and the uncomfortable positions I have been in, as a gamer. I’m a cis white male, and I’ve run into these issues. The potential feeling of power imbalance and concern about upsetting established group dynamics becomes even worse for anyone from a marginalized community.

Go Words Even if you don’t use this exact set of tools, it’s a free and well-written examination of the topic that also gives you a jumping-off point to look at other safety tools and practices that you should be using at your table. Share28Tweet33Reddit2Email

This is a great document. I normally don’t factor price into reviews, but the fact of the matter is, it’s hard to argue with free. This covers a wide range of topics and more broadly than I would have expected for a free product. The consent checklist is a wonderful addition for any campaign toolkit, and is something that should see lots of use at session zeroes across the gaming hobby. Additionally, not only does this address its premise well, it gives resources for even more research on an important topic.

No Words

There isn’t much I can say to detract from this product. The closest thing I can come up with is that I wish this text was included specifically in various game products, as well as being a separate download. As a slight accessibility note, the red/yellow/green rankings for topics might not be as friendly to some disabilities as it could be, but this is partially addressed by also providing shapes unique to each color as well as color-coding them.

Strongly Recommended–This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.

This is something everyone should be downloading. Even if you don’t use this exact set of tools, it’s a free and well-written examination of the topic that also gives you a jumping-off point to look at other safety tools and practices that you should be using at your table.

What are some of the things you have done to make your game tables more welcoming? What kind of check-in procedures do you have in place? What are your favorite safety tools? We would love to hear about it in the comments below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Playing Non-Verbal Characters

16 September 2019 - 6:03am

Image taken by Mike Sinko and used via Creative Commons Attribution license.

I recently had the pleasure of playing Bad Horse at the gaming table. Yes, that Bad Horse. Leader of the Evil League of Evil. The Thoroughbred of Sin. Occasional Neigh Sayer. Actual horse. With some handy dandy Monty Python coconuts, what I hoped was a long nosed expression, and some whuffs and whinnies, off we went! For an entire scene I shifted on my hooves (coconuts), whuffed disgruntledly, and occasionally neighed definitively, but not a word past my lips as I alternately threatened, terrified, and rewarded the evil overlords who made up my league — and I had a blast. 

 Firstly, the assumption for this type of character is that while we as players may not understand them, the other characters do. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailLet me start by saying, up front, that this piece does not discuss playing with or playing people who are disabled in such a way that they are nonverbal, and none of the advice here should be taken as such. In fact, I would apply this advice to characters who are nonhuman, like muppets, horses, or magical furniture. This is not meant to be an excuse for you to treat other humans badly at your table, so don’t. 

Firstly, the assumption for this type of character is that while we as players may not understand them, the other characters do. This works especially well for characters like Bad Horse or droids. If you have a talking animal, you have a decision — are they a talking animal like Rocket or Mr. Ed, or are they a talking animal like Lassie? If you have a droid, is it C3PO or R2D2? In either case, this can be very interesting for NPCs like a wizard’s familiar or ranger’s animal companion, non-human (but not key plot introducing) NPCs, or non-human PCs in one shots or single scene settings. I wouldn’t recommend this as a PC trick for long games or campaigns because it might be difficult to remain involved in the game when you are never directly expressing yourself in scene. 

Playing this kind of character means leaving the interpretation of your actions and sounds up to the rest of the table. They can decide what that particular whinny meant, and they’ll make it understood in how they react to you or what they say in response. When I made an angry whinny, they cowered before my threats to trample them, apologized profusely and backed away to safety. When I whuffed at them they responded as if I’d asked them a particular question — think “Of course I am, Brain, but what would we do with all the marshmallows?” Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailWhen I whuffed at them they responded as if I’d asked them a particular question — think “Of course I am, Brain, but what would we do with all the marshmallows?” It’s also worth discussing if everyone in this game world understands this character, or only specific people. If only specific people, who are they and why can they understand? 

Leaving the interpretation of your character and their actions up to the rest of your table can be incredibly fun, but is also something you should save for game spaces in which you feel comfortable with the other players, and I would highly recommend (as always) that you are playing with some kind of tool to revoke consent. You are literally allowing other players to put words in your mouth, so it’s important to have trust and a way to remove content that’s not okay with you. It’s also important to have the involved players’ agreement in these shenanigans, since you are relying on them to fill in your part of the conversation and shifting that part of the gaming cognitive load to them. As always, it’s worth having a conversation in advance, whether that’s just checking in at your convention one shot as you build characters or part of your session zero. 

For your part, it’s important to make sure that you can make noises that express the tone you’re trying to convey to the other players, so that they can riff appropriately. If you think about the noises you get from R2D2, for example, there are very clear upbeat sounds, curious sounds, annoyed sounds, and so on. As the audience, even though we don’t understand the words, we definitely pick up on the emotional tone. It’s key to give that tone to your fellow players because that will drive their responses to you and give them something to play off of. It’s also important that you can make these sounds without breaking the tone and genre of the game — silly cartoon noises in a serious space mystery will break the tone for everyone, and may drag the game off course. Be aware and respectful of the intended feel. 

So the next time you’re looking at adding an animal companion or an astro mech to your game, give some thought to how you’ll manage their communication and who can understand them. Give your fellow players a little more power over this world. You never know when not saying anything at all means you’ll say the thing that is so good you never would have thought of it! 

Have you ever played a non-verbal character at a game? Are there some other good times to use them or good stories about when they’ve worked out beautifully?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Creative Curses

13 September 2019 - 5:00am

With this being Friday the 13th, I figured I’d roll with a post about curses. There are a multitude of reasons (some with more legitimacy than others) on why we’re so afraid of Friday the 13th. The historical event that I think makes the most sense is the capture and eventual downfall of the Knights Templar. The dawn raids on various Templar holdings and strongholds throughout France occurred on Friday, October the 13th in 1307 and were carried out under the orders of King Philip IV of France with approval by Pope Clement V. When the Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was finally executed nearly seven years later, it is rumored he threw forth a curse from his execution pyre before he slowly roasted to death.

 That’s a potent curse! Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The curse was aimed at King Philip IV and his descendants as well as Pope Clement V. Of course, the veracity of claims of a man speaking forth a curse while his lungs filled with smoke is in question, but the following events are clearly documented in history books. Pope Clement V died of a long-running illness within a year. Also within that same year, King Philip IV died suddenly of a stroke. Following Philip’s death, four Capetians (Philip’s long-standing noble family) sat on and died in the throne of France. All of them were direct descendants of Philip. This took roughly fourteen years to transpire, but after the fourth death, the centuries-old House of Capet suffered from an absolute collapse and faded out of power.

That’s a potent curse there! Jacques de Molay took down a pope and an entire French royal line with his final utterances. (Assuming, of course, curses are real and you buy this story.) It’s all of the above that led me to traverse the mental map from Friday the 13th to how we can be more creative in our use of curses within roleplaying games.

Now, let’s jump into RPGs now, shall we? That’s where curses exist and are real to our characters.

I’ve taken a bit of a historical trip into the “Bestow Curse” spell from D&D through the ages. The spell, quite honestly, hasn’t changed much from its early days to the modern incarnation of the game. I won’t bore you with yet another history lesson to demonstrate the subtle shifts of the spell. The effects of the spell include some options where the caster can choose to make ability checks more difficult, or attack/skill checks more difficult, or forcing the target to lose their ability to act 50% of the time.

Curses exist and are real to our characters. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

I’m going to talk about the last option before the other two. I flat-out don’t allow it in my game. It’s off the table. No PC, no NPC, no monster, no Boss Bad Guy, no one, is allowed to pick it. It just doesn’t exist as a house rule of mine. Here’s why: I will not take an option that requires a single die roll (the saving throw) that will effectively negate the existence and purpose of a character half the time on a permanent basis. That’s right. The Bestow Curse spell is permanent. Yeah. Yeah. I know that a Remove Curse spell will remove the curse, but I’ve been that player with a cursed character and the nearest available temple for a Remove Curse was a two-week (now a four-week because I can only move 50% of the time) walk away. It’s crippling and frustrating and all-around not fun. Of course, if I won’t do this to a player via any means, I need to level out the playing field by not allowing them to do it to my critters or NPCs. That’s why it’s completely off the table.

 I want some spice to my descriptors. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Now, let’s talk about the first two options. They need some flavor! As it stands, it’s a (*yawn* boring) mechanical effect. I’m good with the various mechanical effects that exist for the different versions of D&D throughout the ages. They’re well-balanced, fair, and have an appropriate impact on the game without completely removing a character (thus removing the player) from the game’s main action and high points.

However, I want some spice to my descriptors. I want some evocative descriptions to be thrown across the table when the caster drops a curse on some unlucky person. I need something that will tell me why a particular character or NPC can’t walk more than ten feet without stumbling and almost falling. That’s where creative curses come into play. Let’s drop some examples, shall we?

  • May your boot laces always come undone.
  • You will always be hungry (or thirsty).
  • May your sword’s grip become as slick as a slug’s backside.
  • The buckles on your armor will let loose at the worst possible moment.
  • A pox upon your face.
  • This is taken from Timur’s tomb and may be more appropriate for a plot hook than an individual curse:
    • “Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”
  • That back left molar? It’s now in constant pain.
  • You will carry the stench of a thousand dung beetles.

And I’ll leave one that (supposedly) comes from China and is entirely appropriate to a roleplaying campaign (for good or ill).

May you live in interesting times.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

What Games With Asian Settings Get Wrong — and Why They’re Important Anyway

11 September 2019 - 6:00am

I’m not the kind of person who gets sappy over poetry. But there’s this handful of lines from Ezra Pound that always make me feel like there’s a fist beneath my breastplate, pressing into the wet pink walls of my chest. They go like this:

A day when the historians left blanks in their writings
I mean, for things they didn’t know,
But that time seems to be passing.

These four lines come from Canto XIII, from a poem cycle usually called the China Cantos. They offer the famously Sinophile poet’s fractured, free versey take on imperial Chinese history, from the mythical, deep-BC sage-emperors to a century into the final dynasty. There are blanks in the narrative — presumably for the things they didn’t know: both Pound and his source, the Jesuit scholar Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, whose name was as long as the 12-volume history he wrote from the mission field in Beijing.

The poem’s speaker, who remembers historians leaving blanks? That was Confucius.

I don’t know why this bit of poetry always gets me, but the fact that they do feels overdetermined. The lines act on me like the mechanical dip of a switch, that makes the circuitry in my nerves and muscles dance just right. It’s this automatic sparking of feeling, like an electric current — so easy it feels cheap.

I’m a historian of China, a PhD candidate trying to ink over with citations and cleverness all the blanks of what I still don’t know. And I’m a Sinophile, like Pound. Maybe more reasonably, since I was born in China — though I’ve spent far less of my life there than De Mailla, who read better classical Chinese, I’m sure.

I’ve got this sense of unease that I’m really just an Orientalist of the old school, given to flights of irresponsible lyricism over the Middle Kingdom. Despite my blood and all my historical training, I can’t help but be moved when white, Anglophone poets write about Confucius. We all have our guilty pleasures, I guess.

Dungeons & Dragons & Poets

My favorite cheat sheet for the western canon was this webcomic called Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir running a game for Foucault, Derrida, Kant, and her real-life partner Jean-Paul Sartre. I started reading it because, in undergrad, a lot of my friends were people who all met in a Great Books program, without me. When I was trying to get my Mandarin up to speed, they were mainlining canonical texts — the white people kind, from Plato to Foucault. Acting on FOMO, I assigned myself some extra reading: a little bit of Aristotle — in Chinese translation, so it felt virtuous. For most of the major critical theorists, I stooped to Wikipedia. But there was nothing better than D&D&P.

In a hypothetical spin-off called Dungeons & Dragons & Poets, I can picture Pound playing Oriental Adventures. It’d be the first edition, released in 1985, and he’d march his, say, chaotic evil wu jen — a lawlessly eccentric spellcaster— across the exoticizing fever dream of Kara-Tur. But I think he’d feel more at home with Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, the blurb for which promises “ancient mysteries, opium smoke, great luxury and opulent cruelty.” Pound wouldn’t play through a campaign in Yoon-Suin— he’d be the one to run it, railroading his players through the smoke-wreathed landscape the way his China Cantos marched us through millennia of Chinese history.

That’s the thing about these OA-style sourcebooks: they trade in generalities, in dense, spidery webs of silken stereotype. If given the chance to page through one, my grad school professors would wrinkle their mouths in contempt, then lean forward and start pontificating about the distorted shape of East Asia in the western cultural imaginary.

It’s true that these games are ahistorical, to the point of hilarity: they flatten out Chinese and Japanese elements, 13th-century and 17th-century circumstances, into a single, tea-stained image of an exotic East. And it’s true that the leitmotifs of family and honor play out with all the subtlety of a hundred-strong trombone corps. Tellingly, tabletop gaming is virtually the only space where North Americans toss out words like “Oriental” with a total lack of irony.

Tellingly, tabletop gaming is virtually the only space where North Americans toss out words like “Oriental” with a total lack of irony. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Despite these flaws, there’s still something seductive about these games. They feel like translations that read well even when you know they got it wrong, and I’m drawn to them like I’m drawn to Pound’s Confucius. The defense lies in the fantasy. The OA aesthetic — like the Legend of the Five Rings aesthetic or the Bushido aesthetic, they’re all one aesthetic, really — is grounded not in history but film, Hong Kong action flicks and Akira Kurosawa. As they interpret Asian-made movies at one remove, it becomes clear they were never about a real Asia but an imagined Orient. It’s a Kara-Tur-like country that exists only in the minds of Asian auteurs and fantasists, and white poets and missionaries, shimmering in the cultural record like a opium-smoke mirage.

“A More Cosmopolitan Outlook”

The danger comes in when someone takes the fantasy for reality. It seems like a ridiculous mistake, like doggedly citing poetry as history. But a reviewer promised that 1979’s Bushido — set in a mythical, Kurosawa-inspired Nippon — would be “worth the price for the person interested in developing a more cosmopolitan outlook”. As if playing a gangster or priest in fake Japan would help someone understand the nuances of life in real Japan. Strikingly, the reviewer who made this claim was himself of Japanese descent, surnamed Okada. As a China Cantos fan surnamed Tang, I can’t help but relate.

I don’t want to condemn Asian campaign settings as bad historiography — for the simple reason that they’re not historiography. I don’t even want to dismiss them as mere guilty pleasure, as if playing them will gnaw away at your capacity for critical thought, the way endless cheeseburgers gum up overtaxed arteries. Like all departures from the Tolkienesque sword and sorcery, OA-style games diversify the tabletop, opening up other ways of contextualizing heroism and adventure, risk and right.

Actually, I’m tempted to read the tabletop’s transformation of themes and tropes from Asian media as a good sign. It’s an indication that the texts I study — and in some ways embody — are as durable and capacious as the western canon. After all, Hamlet, Satan, and the Lady of Shalott are constantly being stirred into new narratives, some transcendent and some bizarre.

We’re fortunate that, in the decades since OA 1e first appeared, game designers have started turning out Asian-inspired settings animated by nuance. Instead of building up a catch-all East Asia — an Orient — new-generation games home in on particular regions and eras with distinct textures, using them as scaffolding to build fully realized settings.

Tabletop storytellers — whether they’re game designers or GMs — often “care more about good writing than actual writers”. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The French-made Qin: The Warring States, for instance, focuses on the contentious lead-up to imperial unification, while Wandering Heroes of the Ogre Gates centers on the Southern Song, a shrinking empire teetering on the edge of collapse. Qin unification happened in 221 BCE. while the fall of the Song wasn’t till 1279 CE. It makes sense that these two worlds would be markedly different in texture and affect.

7th Sea: Khitai, meanwhile, revisits the premise of a mythic pan-Asian setting — but pitches it as an internally heterogeneous region animated by historical flux. Hearts of Wulin, a Kickstarter-backed wuxia game I’m personally excited about, seems — in its elegant approach to both romance and combat — to draw heavily on the late imperial fiction that informed my love of premodern China in the first place. Its creators include Agatha Cheng, of Asians Represent fame, as both co-author and cultural consultant.

There’s also Filipino-American designer James Mendez Hodes’ Kurosawa-inflected samurai fantasy Thousand Arrows, now live on Kickstarter, which promises to subvert “stereotypes and misconceptions about Asians which appear most commonly in gaming culture whenever a samurai or monk shows up”. Hodes’ Asian-American identity alone doesn’t promise that his work will be more rigorously researched, more attentive to detail, than the L5Rs of yore. What does is his graduate training in Eastern classics and his experience as a sensitivity reader for materials featuring Asian and African cultures.

Of course, you don’t need a master’s degree to play — or run — a game in an Asian setting “respectfully,” an ask this GM took to the gaming sages of Reddit. What you do need is the empathy and imagination to craft a compelling story, and the research to flesh it out with the details that make it ring true.

Isn’t that the fun part anyway?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Your Best Game Ever Review

10 September 2019 - 4:30am

At some point,  I realized that I enjoyed reading about how games work and why, as much as I enjoyed reading and learning new games themselves. While I have gone out of my way, in the past,  to find new books about the process of running and managing RPG campaigns, even if I wasn’t looking, it would be hard to miss Your Best Game Ever, a book about various aspects of learning, playing, and running roleplaying games from Monte Cook Games.

Dimensional Analysis

This review is based on the PDF version of Your Best Game Ever, which is 242 pages long. The book is full color, and features a greatest hits collection of artwork from other Monte Cook Games products. If you have seen any of the MCG books, you know these are impressive pieces.

Chapters have clearly outlined headings, with sub-headings and bullet pointed lists to emphasize material that has been presented in the text. There are sidebars that introduce various related topics and summarize them, as well as several full page interludes by various gaming personalities on a number of different topics. There is a single page index, which also includes an index of the contributor pages (21 separate short essays that generally appear at the end of various chapters).


While these are scattered throughout the text, I thought I would address them first, as they appear at the end of various chapters, are from a variety of writers, and touch on a wide range of topics. The contributors include:

  • Susan J. Morris
  • Matthew Mercer
  • Bear Weiter
  • Ajit George
  • Tom Lommel
  • Bruce R. Cordell
  • Alina Pete
  • Charles M. Ryan
  • Stacy Dellorfano
  • Shanna Germain
  • Matt Colville
  • Jennell Jaquays
  • Sean K. Reynolds
  • John Rogers
  • Luke Crane
  • Tammie Webb Ryan
  • Monica Valentinelli
  • Eric Campbell
  • Tanya DePass
  • Darcy L. Ross
  • Eloy Lasanta

I wanted to specifically start this review addressing the contributions because when the Kickstarter for this product was live, I misunderstood the structure of this book. I was expecting an anthology of essays by the guest writers as the primary content of the book. As it stands, I think the book is stronger for having a cohesive voice, and then adding these single page, focused essays.

In addition to these sidebars, there are comic strips from DnDoggos, John Kovalic, Aviv Or, Brian Patterson, Len Peralta, Alina Pete, and Stan!, often emphasizing the point being made in the previous section of the book.

Part 1: Roleplaying Games

This section includes chapters called So You Want to Play an RPG and Understanding RPGs. Right from the start, it is interesting to see that the opening section of this book is written to people that are assumed not to have played or read an RPG first. Most game advice books are, for lack of a better term, 200 level treatments of the topic. They assume you know what an RPG is, have probably run at least a few sessions, and want to get better at doing that. In this case, the book is starting from the ground up, assuming you have heard of, but not fully engaged with, the concept of tabletop RPGs.

So You Want to Play an RPG is aimed at explaining what the experience of reading an RPG book may be like, getting a wider view of how RPGs function. It also addresses engaging with online content and exploring local game stores. There is a section on what people that have been playing RPGs over the long term may forget or take for granted that new players should know, as well.

Understanding RPGs introduces more of the structure and procedure of RPGs. It introduces the concept of the Three Entities, the game master, the players, and the rules, and discusses how these interact in play. Then the chapter delves into styles of RPG games (discussing topics like fun first or story first), including complexity and genre. The chapter also explores the differences between longer campaigns and one shots.

The chapter touches on communities that surround games, such as online communities, local game stores, and conventions. Perhaps most importantly for a section aimed at new gamers, it talks about the importance of being comfortable and safe at the table with the other people, and how to determine if it is time to move on from the game.

As an important note, this chapter also introduces its own form of safety tool, The Pause Button, which, as described, functions much like an X-Card. I like that this gets the idea of safety tools into the discussion of RPGs early on for a potentially new member of the RPG audience.

If there is a general downside to this section of the book, it’s that most of this is written from a more traditional RPG point of view. While it ranges from games with different tones, genres, and levels of complexity, it generally assumes traditional aspects of games like the split between GM and player responsibility, and doesn’t touch much on games that may not even have a GM. This is understandable, given that many new players will be entering via games with more traditional structures, but it’s worth noting.

Part 2: Being a Great Player

This section is comprised of chapters on Player Basics, Creating Characters, Playing Your Character, Everyone’s Favorite Player, and Character Arcs and Bonds.

The first section, Player Basics, emphasizes that a player needs to learn varying degrees of creativity, problem solving, roleplaying, and teamwork. It’s a relatively short chapter, but I think it summarizes the broad strokes really well.

Creating Characters is a general advice chapter, so it doesn’t go into what individual games may have in their character creation rules. It does emphasize several things that a player should be doing. As an example, it points out the importance of understanding genre, setting, and tropes, and creating a character that works in that context. It introduces some broad character types, as well as the decisions a player may need to make involving mechanical choices, such as being focused on key tasks versus having a broad range of abilities. There are tips and strategies for developing a personality, goals, and a backstory, and different reasons for choosing how detailed your backstory should be at the beginning of the game.

Playing Your Character largely deals with the relationship that the player has with other players and the GM, and how that plays out at the table. The chapter delves into concepts like spotlight time, metagame knowledge, and the degree to which the player is adding story details to the campaign narrative.

Everyone’s Favorite Player goes beyond best practices for a player, and moves into “above and beyond” practices. Most of this revolves around how to help the GM and other players with creative solutions, being a good guest in general, and looking for ways to be a supportive friend to others in the game group.

Character Arcs and Player Bonds introduce established character arcs and relationships that a player could have as a goal, or as an established connection with another character. The section on character arcs presents the broad concept of the arc, and has sections for the Opening, Steps, Climax, and Resolution of the arc. The bonds include a broad description of the bond, a suggested benefit, and a suggested drawback for the bond.

The Character Arcs and Bonds chapter is one of my favorites in this book. I really enjoy how it clearly gives examples of various tropes and how they could play out at the table. Even if a player doesn’t rigidly follow the structure outlined, they are a great tool for players to visualize directions their characters might take. If there is a downside to them, it may be that the section tries to give advice on using arcs and bonds as character advancement or to provide mechanical benefits or penalties, and I think that’s a little beyond the scope of the player section of the book and hard to encapsulate in a book giving general RPG advice, divorced of a particular game system.

Part 3: Being a Great Game Master

This section includes chapters on Game Master Basics, Building a World, Creating Adventures, Running the Game, The GM and the Rules, and Being a Dynamic GM.

Game Master Basics starts by explaining that it may be easier to GM if you have played in a game before, but that situation may not work for everyone. It then moves into what to do first to get a game going, how to start a session, as well as the responsibilities and skills that a GM will need to develop. A particular point that I appreciated in this section is that while you may be Running the Game, it is the entire groups responsibility to deal with table issues.

Building a World discusses how GMs need to plan out the world that the game they are running will exist within. This talks about creating new worlds, using established game products, or adapting existing properties to your game. There is a lot of advice on starting small, hammering out details, and only building what the players are likely to interact with. There are sections giving advice on verisimilitude and adapting real world historical events, cultures, and religion for use in a game setting. There is a final section on getting player input on collaborative worldbuilding.

The section on using real world religions or historical cultures with a twist is a little thin, and given the topic, a lot can go wrong in that direction. I do appreciate that the text calls for people to be thoughtful and respectful when doing so, I just wish there were more pages and a few more examples of doing it “the right way.” I also feel like there are a few places, like discussing a campaign map or some of the items on the verisimilitude chart, that lean more towards a more traditional RPG approach. I really wish the collaborative world building section had been expanded.

Creating Adventures looks at broad categories of adventures, like location, event, or time based adventures, and then explores different goals and means of resolving adventures that might be considered. There are discussions on act structure, side plots, and potential pitfalls of different adventure styles, and the chapter concludes with a page of sample RPG plots. This is a solid section for examining the structure of adventures, and it is a great introduction to anyone trying to learn the moving parts of an adventure and how to manipulate those parts to potentially elicit a different effect.

Running the Game tackles topics like how to convey information, the importance of asking questions, pacing within a session and within a campaign, player agency, and NPC interactions. There are sections on best practices for maintaining session notes, how to vary adventure styles, NPC traits, and the best ways to end campaigns.

The GM and the Rules examines how the GM interacts with the rules of a game. It discusses rules mastery, house rules, game balance and what it actually means at the table, fairness, and resolving difficulties. There is a section on how to determine if two disparate rules are balanced, and goes into a detailed way of determining this by assigning values, then after the example is finished, the section recommends you don’t try to balance anything in this manner—I love that it illustrates this by going through the steps. There is also a section that jumped out at me that details not calling for anything to be randomly resolved if you aren’t prepared for any possibilities that the random resolution may indicate.

Being a Dynamic GM details concepts like using a session zero, checking in with your players, setting and communicating tone, learning about your players, and advancing your descriptive skills. Beyond these topics, the end of the chapter looks at different campaign or GM styles, including running intertwined campaigns with multiple groups in the same setting, or having multiple GMs for the same campaign.

Part 4: Getting the Most out of RPGs

This section includes chapters on The Game Group, Hosting the Game, Playing Games Online, and Solving Game Group Problems.

The Game Group examines topics like the right size group for the game that you are running, finding schedules that everyone can work around, communicating between sessions, rotating GMs, table rules, and bonding with your group. In addition to practical topics like when and how you are going to game, this section looks at topics like learning what members of the group don’t want in their games, and making the game comfortable for everyone. It also suggests some activities that the group can participate in to get to know one another and become more comfortable.

Hosting the Game looks at where the game will be run, if it is public or private, if the GM and the host will be one and the same, how to organize the play space, and considerations for snacks and meals during the session. It also addresses what the end of the night should look like, depending on how the session unfolds.

Playing Games Online looks at the benefits of running a game online, and balances these against a traditional face to face group. It also looks at the enhanced potential for communication and technological use in game, and talks about best practices for an online game that may not be as important face to face. The biggest weakness of this chapter, from my point of view, is that it deals very broadly with the topic, but without going into details on specific forms of technology that might be used, it can’t address some of the pitfalls of those technologies. On the other hand, I can understand the reticence of tying this chapter too closely to the “known” means of online gaming available when the book was written.

Solving Game Group Problems goes through a list of potential issues that might come up at the table, and how some of those behaviors can be addressed in a positive manner. While this touches on all kinds of “known” RPG group issues, it also touches on a few topics that aren’t always addressed in sections on game related issues. It talks about the importance of discussing how death works in the game beforehand, how this relates to player agency, and if the group will deviate from the game rules on the topic. It also brings up an issue I’ve seen at tables before, but have never seen addressed in a “game problems” chapter before, in this case, commenting on the rules of a game during a session, and how rules critique in the moment makes it difficult to play the game.

Back Matter

The main thing I wanted to address about this section is that it contains several recipes, including genre thematic recipes, and then concludes with an index. I wasn’t expecting a recipe section, but I’m pretty amused by it. There are even a few adult beverages outlined in this section.

High Roll I would love it if a large number of new roleplayers had this resource as their foundational knowledge of the hobby. It touches on so many important topics, and covers many things I would have like to have known when I was just getting started. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

I love books that discuss the hobby of tabletop roleplaying, and I really like that this book approaches the topic not from the standpoint of refining skills you already started to develop, but from the very beginning, for anyone joining the hobby. There are many important topics that are introduced to an RPG newcomer, while adding valuable information to people already participating that may never have examined a topic from that direction. In particular, I love the idea of introducing safety tools, the structure of character arcs, the overall elements of adventures, and the potential issues at the game table in a manner that new players can see, and established players can internalize.

Low Roll

Some of the advice definitely assumes a more traditional GM/Player structure to roleplaying games, as well as a more traditional narrative dynamic where the GM is the principal world/plot driver, and the player characters provide input by interacting with that structure. Some of the broad topics go a little too far afield, such as the suggestion of alternate advancement rules in the player’s section, and the book doesn’t have time to make that side trek pay off. While I think there is excellent material for new roleplayers in the book (as well as established roleplayers), 242 pages might be a huge investment for learning about the hobby for someone that may not even have read their first rulebook yet.

Qualified Recommendation—A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

I think if you know someone that is interested in roleplaying and is the kind of person that throws themselves into a topic, this is definitely a book for them. If you know someone that is an established roleplayer that loves meta-discussion of the hobby, there is going to be a lot of great material in this book for them as well. For someone that is interested, but less likely to invest heavily in a new hobby, the sheer size of this book plus the potential size of any other game books may be more intimidating than inviting.

With that disclaimer in place, I would love it if a large number of new roleplayers had this resource as their foundational knowledge of the hobby. It touches on so many important topics, and covers many things I would have like to have known when I was just getting started.

What was the first book you ever read about the RPG hobby, that wasn’t a game book? Have you read any books that are about tabletop gaming, but aren’t part of an RPG line? What makes you want to pick up books about the hobby, and what do you want them to address? We would love to hear from you below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design