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Gnome Stew Notables – Alex Roberts

18 May 2018 - 6:15am

Welcome to the second installment of our Gnome Spotlight: Notables series. The notables series is a look at game developers in the gaming industry doing good work. The series will focus on female game creators and game creators of color primarily, and each entry will be a short bio and interview. We’ve currently got a group of authors and guest authors interviewing game creators and hope to bring you many more entries in the series as it continues on. If you’ve got a suggestion for someone we should be doing a notables article on, or want to do an interview with someone send us a note at headgnome@gnomestew.com. – Head Gnome John

Meet Alex

Alex

Alex Roberts is a writer, designer, journalist, and roleplayer of boundless enthusiasm. She wants roleplaying to be a site of interior exploration, transformation, and healing. When not hosting her acclaimed interview show 

  • Talking With Alex 1) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.  Big question! All right, here’s my deal. I’m bright and enthusiastic, and I have a podcast called Backstory where I interview fascinating folks in roleplaying. It’s thoughtful and gentle and even people who don’t like podcasts like it. I write fun stuff for other people’s games, like Sig, Dialect, Threadbare, and Misspent Youth: Sell Out With Me. I do production support and project management and marketing stuff for game publishers; right now with Bully Pulpit Games. And, of course, I make my own dang games! My first was HUGPUNX LIVE, for Pelgrane’s #Feminism supplement. I’m semi-secretly working on a little card-based thing right now. And of course there’s Star Crossed, the two-player RPG of forbidden love, which will be on Kickstarter April 10th – May 10th! That game has been in progress for years and I am losing my mind over how great it’s going to be.
      You’ve probably heard me on podcasts or at cons talking about two player games, or romance and sexuality in game design. These are some of my favourite topics!

    Backstory Podcast

    2) What project are you most proud of?

    It’s hard to pick just one! I do feel a certain special love for my first RPG writing credit, in Sig: the City Between. I had no idea what I was doing; Crystalia just kind of emerged from me. Sig is planar fantasy, and I was moved to write about a beautiful, perfect world of vibrations and lights in glorious pastels. Beings grow in caves and emerge fully formed, and where things are easily broken and impossible to repair. Without my intention, it came to represent this overwhelming fear of making mistakes, of imperfections, of asking for help or accepting nurturing. I still get into that headspace sometimes but I’m at least better at recognizing it, since writing it out as something external to me. I’ll think to myself: whoops, I’m in Crystalia again. Better turn around.

    3) What themes do you like to emphasize in your game work? Queerness, obviously, but also the excruciating joy of being alive. 4) What mechanics do you like best in games?

    I like when a game system perfectly matches the real, felt, lived experience of something in the world. Sometimes a game mechanic makes apparent something you only sensed before, but couldn’t express. You point to it and go, “yes! That’s how it is!” Not an external realism, but an internal resonance.

    5) How would you describe your game design style?

    Intuitive. I am making games to feel my way through what the heck is going on. With me, with the world. Star Crossed is not just about Attraction and Relationships, it’s me making meaning of my experiences of attraction and relationships, and trying to make them into a system that I can comprehend (if not master.) Even “comprehend” is a bit too intellectual, actually. Maybe a word like “integrate” is a bit closer. Really, by making a game I’m going, okay, this is how attraction works, it’s sorta like this, a thing I can see the whole of, and live with. Star Crossed is my little diorama of attraction, with moving parts.

    6) How does gender/queerness fit into your games?

    I like when my work is very obviously feminine even though I find femininity hard to define. I guess, again, I must prefer to make stuff to understand rather than express. More likely I’m doing both. If pressed I would say that all my games, even when I was working digitally, put harmony, creativity, and grace at the forefront. And of course my games are going to be queer because that’s where I’m coming from. I could never make a game where relationships have a pre-determined path forward which is generally agreed upon by not only the people in it but also their broader community and culture. I’ll keep letting you get into messy, baffling, ecstatically exciting but fraught relationships instead.

    7) How do you make sexy games fun?

    Star Crossed

    Sex is already absolutely ludicrous. And I think sex is one of most adults’ few opportunities to be playful. So, let’s just acknowledge that and make a game where you can tell ridiculous, sexy stories. It’s so much easier than people seem to think. I get the fear around making anything about sex (even in this answer I’m resisting the urge to say something like “Star Crossed doesn’t just tell sexy stories!” which is true but irrelevant) because we’re taught that whole area of life is inherently dangerous. Reflecting the reality of sexuality – that it is honestly just the most ridiculous and interesting thing – is better than trying to deliberately frame it any particular way.

    8) How did you get into games? Like everyone else, I played all the time as a kid. I was just lucky enough to keep doing it. After absorbing the cultural concept of “Dungeons and Dragons” I ran what were essentially ongoing fantasy storytelling sessions, with no rules except total DM fiat, in various treehouses and backyards and slumber parties, until I was a teen and I made friends with some boys who had the actual books and knew the actual rules. It took me a couple of years of trying to get into that to get bored and decide I didn’t like RPGs after all! Then I met a friend who showed me The Burning Wheel. And then organized a game of Fiasco. And then gave me his copy of Kagematsu and asked me to GM it. The rest is history. Thanks, Patrick! 9) What one thing would you change in gaming?

    I would like to have a sophisticated culture of critique. “There’s no wrong way to have fun!” is an attempt at kindness, of course. I get that it’s a fallback to avoid a recurring set of self-fuelling arguments. Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to have fun that hurt other people. I’ve seen play used to bully, and game systems that reinforce and re-create much broader systems of harm. Being able to precisely and compassionately critique different games might help us build more fun, innovative, groundbreaking work while also helping us avoid some of those problems.

    10) What are you working on now?

    I have a little game about a queen’s retinue that I’m specifically cultivating for first-time roleplayers, and it turns out long-time roleplayers have been enjoying it too. It’s been fun so far! It’s been a lifeline of creativity while pushing Star Crossed past the finish line. Those are two different kinds of satisfying that fuel each other.

    Thanks for joining us for this entry in the notables series.  You can find more in the series here:
    and please feel free to drop us any suggestions for people we should interview at headgnome@gnomestew.com.
  • Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnomecast #40 – World Building

    17 May 2018 - 5:34am

    Join Ang, Chris, and JT on this episode of Gnomecast as they build a setting together using randomly generated items from Matt’s Gnome Stew article “100 Overland Descriptors Table.” Will these gnomes’ new world be enough to keep them out of the stew?

    Download here: Gnomecast #40 – World Building

    Also referenced in this episode is Matt’s article “Steal This Area: Rhymereach.” Check out the article, and for more information about map commissions, send email to mapcom.gnomestew@ gmail.com and include the word “Details” in the subject line.

    Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

    Follow Chris at @Thelight101 on Twitter, and check out the Misdirected Mark network at @MisdirectedMark on Twitter, the Misdirected Mark Google+ Community, or point your browser to misdirectedmark.com. You can also catch the Misdirected Mark Podcast recording streamed live weekly on Tuesdays at 8:45 PM Eastern on the Misdirected Mark Twitch channel.

    Check out JT at jtevans.net and follow the links there to JT’s social media.

    Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and find her in the Misdirected Mark Google+ Community.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Bringing Diversity To Our Imaginary Worlds

    16 May 2018 - 5:00am

    I remember the first time a player pushed a pregen player character back to me at a convention game. He said, “I don’t play women. I don’t know how they would act,” and I was left asking myself, “What the hell does that mean?”

    I’m pretty subtle in my speech so I think I said something like, “What the hell does that mean? Half of the people on the planet are women.”

    That was the beginning of an important conversation within myself. Why wasn’t I putting more thought into the characters that I brought to the table? It was a transformative moment that pushed me to purposely choose to reflect the world in which we live inside of the game worlds I create. My fellow Gnome Angela Murray makes it clear in her own work that I’m not the only one that feels this is important. Representation in pregens has been discussed before but the conversation needs to continue.

    Fear of racism

    I’ve spoken to several GMs that are afraid of the possible prejudices of their players. They told me that they’re scared that having one or more African American or LGQTB+ characters on the table at a convention means that roleplaying stereotypes are inevitable. While I acknowledge that possibility is real I reject the idea that the fear of bigotry outweighs the need for representation in games. I’ve had some players try to lean into stereotypes and I dealt with it in the moment. It can be an uncomfortable conversation, depending on your personality, but it is a necessary one. Can I truly claim to be part of a welcoming community if I’m not willing to stand up and tell someone that is being racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist to stop?

    I’m actively working to eliminate the idea that white male characters and a token white female are the only “safe” pre-gen PCs. The characters that I bring to the table must represent the variety of humans that I want to show up at my table. Some of my pregens will be like me, some different than me, but always as honest as I can make them.

    A variety of PCs

    It varies slightly from country to country but approximately 50% of the world’s population identifies as female. Around 63% of the United States’ population is non-Hispanic white people in the last census. That’s the lowest it has ever been. If you look at the non-Hispanic white population on a global scale that percentage drops dramatically. If games reflected our world as a whole they would be filled with Asian and African characters. If they represented the United States of America, where I live, they would be almost 40% people of color.

    The PCs in the games that I run are thoughtfully created with representation in mind. The mix varies dramatically from games that feature all women, all African Americans, to a diverse mix of police officers. Other games fit a model that lets the players choose to be whomever they choose. The important part for me is that a historically underrepresented player has a solid chance of seeing a character that reflects some part of themselves. I have worked hard to include a spectrum of gender identities beyond the traditional binary roles in my characters but it’s still something that I struggle with. I’m getting better despite feeling like a confused fossil some days.

    In the past couple of years I’ve seen an increase in representation found in the artwork and character options for TTRPGs. Many companies have made a commitment to diversity and inclusion in their games. If you look at the top RPG book covers you’ll often see, when humans are featured, a variety of skin tones and genders. I believe that the industry has begun the journey to creating more inclusive games and community. The tools, pictures, and intent are there so use them to create an imaginary world that includes all of the richness of our own.

    Diverse games

    There are an increasing number of games designed around the stories of marginalized groups. They tell honest and thoughtful stories that are not often told in the mainstream TTRPG world or by media in general. In the game Harlem Unbound by Chris Spivey you’ll be playing an African-American character living in the Harlem Renaissance as seen through the lens of Cthulhu horror. Darker Hue Studios has produced a great example of thoughtfully designed, extensively researched, and unexplored stories in a RPG. You can read John Arcadian’s review of the book here on Gnome Stew

    The most common reason that I’ve heard from GMs for not running Harlem Unbound is a fear that they will get the “black experience” wrong. They don’t want to run it without a person of color at the table to make sure that it’s more authentic. It’s important to realize that it’s not the job of a POC/woman/LGBTQ+ to be your mentor and guide you through the world of all things “different”. They may choose to do the labor but that should never be your expectation.

    Mr. Spivey does an excellent job of addressing the racial issues involved in the Storytelling section of the game. Accept the guidance offered from the person that wrote the game! The humanity of the game is lovingly crafted into every part of Harlem Unbound. Read it, listen to those around you, and do your best. Insist that your PCs be played as human beings and not stereotypes. Don’t be afraid of the mistakes you’ll make. Learn from the struggles instead.

    While I commend people for understanding that daily truths of the life of a POC and women are different than that of a CIS gendered white male, treating them as an enigmatic mystery does harm to everyone. It prevents exposure of these games to a wider audience, which hurts the creators financially. It reinforces the ideas that white GMs bringing diversity to the table is too dangerous of a thing. With as much energy as I put into representation I am guilty of pushing its importance aside too.

    I am a vocal fan of Sarah Richardson’s game Velvet Glove but I have struggled with the idea of running it. I had a chance to play the current ashcan version and loved the experience. I told myself I shouldn’t ever offer it as a con game because I fear making a mistake and dishonoring the heart of the game. I run games filled with female characters all of the time! Why is my initial reaction to push away the idea of running Velvet Glove? Why is there a disconnect for me? It deals, in part, with my discomfort with the sexual realities of being a teenage girl. All I can think of is every mistake I ever made with women. The truth is that I’ve kept myself from running this beautiful game because I can’t get over my own guilt at being a jerk.

    Everything about that runs antithetical to the GM, gamer, person that I work to be. Ms. Richardson’s game needs to be celebrated and played as much as possible. I’m denying myself the chance to tell new stories and support a creator and friend that I admire. It looks like it’s time to make myself uncomfortable, learn, and grow.

    Investing in humanity as a player

    The one thing that I can bring to any character that I create or play is a sense of their humanity and an understanding that the color of their skin or gender identity is only one part of who they are. Figuring out how and why their marginalizing characteristics shaped who they’ve become is where the story lies. The why of the societal, social, and familial differences is where some of the best, most interesting, parts of humanity live.

    Without a personal or researched understanding of these characters where should you start? When you don’t know what to do you should always fall back to their humanity. I keep repeating it because it’s true. Discover who they love and why they invest themselves in the people around them. Ask yourself what they have to lose and what price they are willing to pay to keep that from happening. Make them into real people and not caricatures based on media stereotypes. There are rivers that flow through all of us, despite different origins, that you can tap into. Maybe after you’re done with the game you’ll be inspired to read up or listen to folks talk about their real life experiences that are similar to those of the character you were playing. Then you can bring another level of understanding the next time you have an opportunity to play.

    It shouldn’t be hard to imagine a stalwart gay female paladin with the ability throw herself into battle against a dragon. The courage in her imaginary heart should reflect the best ideals of the world that she lives in. If imagining a person from any marginalized group is an insurmountable barrier to you playing a pregen then maybe you should spend some time on a military base. You’ll meet real life warriors and see the diversity of bravery our world contains. If you visit firehouses, hospitals, or schools you’ll see that they contain the same spectrum of goodness and commitment to doing good. None of those places are perfect but they all contain flesh and bone heroes. Why would we want less for the people that we invite to share a gaming table?

    Why is it important?

    If I won’t demand diversity in the characters and scenarios that I create and play what does that say about my commitment to equality in real life? It speaks volumes to new players if they sit at my gaming table only to find a pretend world that is racially insular, LGBQT+ free, and limited in its gender roles and identities. It’s an ugly message that I would be sending if only a small portion of humanity represented my idea of heroism. I can’t expect players to feel welcome into our community if I present them with heroes and idealized worlds of adventure that don’t include them at all.

    Kids need to see themselves represented as heroes. We all need it. A simple act of choosing character images that speak to the beauty and diversity of the world is a welcoming act. When we welcome the entire world to become our PCs, we also welcome marginalized groups to our real world gaming tables. That is important to me.

    Do you have a favorite PC that you’ve created for your convention games? Do you have a favorite character from a convention that unexpectedly represented a piece of yourself? What steps are you taking to increase representation in your convention games?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    I Have A Secret (About Secrets In Play)

    14 May 2018 - 5:22am

    Me, The Character:

    I am the rookie on an established task force. They all call me “Boot” but my father was in this police department, and my grandfather, and as one of the youngest graduates of the academy in recent memory, I am prepared to follow in their shining footsteps. There’s something a bit funny though — everyone on my new team keeps talking about this thing that was in the papers months ago. It was all cleared up, pretty unfortunate, but one officer from this team turned out to be the responsible party. Every time they talk about it, I feel like I’m missing something, but they stop talking and give each other meaningful looks if I ask anything… About that, or about how the Lieutenant lost his eye. There’s a pool on the eye so everyone’s trying to find out. I voted swordfish but on second thought maybe pool cue would have been a better bet…

    Me, The Player:

    We world built this together. I am in on the secret. I delight in believing only the best of my teammates with bright eyed innocence, not that they could be hiding anything dark. Because I know the secret, I can push them in to awkward situations by asking questions that seem and feel innocent and give them all a chance to be the group who’s been through thick and thin. Playing the rookie in this game works out for me — I don’t know this genre well but I’m having a blast playing it, and any goofs can be easily covered by my newness to the team.

     Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table.  Me, The Character: I am the rookie on an established task force. They all call me “Boot” but my father was in this police department, and my grandfather, and as one of the youngest graduates of the academy in recent memory, I am prepared to follow in their shining footsteps. There’s something a bit funny though -- everyone on my new team keeps talking about this thing that was in the papers months ago. It was all cleared up, pretty unfortunate, but one officer from this team turned out to be the responsible party. Every time they talk about it, I feel like I’m missing something, but they stop talking and give each other meaningful looks if I ask anything... About that, or about how the Lieutenant lost his eye. There’s a pool on the eye so everyone’s trying to find out. I voted swordfish but on second thought maybe pool cue would have been a better bet… Me, The Player: We world built this together. I am in on the secret. I delight in believing only the best of my teammates with bright eyed innocence, not that they could be hiding anything dark. Because I know the secret, I can push them in to awkward situations by asking questions that seem and feel innocent and give them all a chance to be the group who’s been through thick and thin. Playing the rookie in this game works out for me -- I don’t know this genre well but I’m having a blast playing it, and any goofs can be easily covered by my newness to the team. [pullquoteright] Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. [social_warfare][/pullquoteright]But the secrets. That’s really what it’s all about. Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. Someday, maybe, it will actually come out we’ll have that moment when Ras, around whom all of the whispers swirl, will have to actually tell me what happened that night when shots were fired. But until then...until then we all get to lean in to it. Why Have A Secret You might say, why even have secrets if all the players at the table are in on them? Well, my gnome reading friend, gather near to these pointy hats and listen to their whispered thoughts. Having a secret drives both character actions and character evolution. Having a secret does not stay stagnant. As a character, there are two general ways to handle a secret, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that you are constantly working to conceal it — it will drive your actions even if it causes you to do things that aren’t in your best interest (which just makes everything more interesting). The second is that you may have confused or evolving emotions tied to your secret. You may be torn between keeping your secret and another force -- care for a person or thing that is being harmed by your silence. You may be on a path to realizing that you will still be liked and accepted if you reveal your secret. All of these make brilliant role playing opportunities at the table. Our characters are not one dimensional any more than we are (unless we want them to be). The kind of secrets that are fun to play with as characters are also frequently tied up with guilt, remorse, sadness, or other emotions that are easy to lean in to at the table. If you are worried that a different cop in your department took the fall for what may have been your bad call, you’ll react differently to him suddenly showing up than if you parted knowing that he fired the bad shot. Since I love feelsy games right now, of course I want the complication of secrets to raise the stakes and push more interesting decision making at the table. So How Do I Have Secrets Successfully At the Table, Senda? Gosh, I’m so glad you asked! There are a couple of key items I don’t think folks always consider when dealing in table secrets, and using them successfully. [pullquoteright] Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. [social_warfare][/pullquoteright]Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. If they do, they are likely to feel annoyed or betrayed that you would keep something key to the game from them. Trust me: it is more fun to play with secrets if you are put in positions where you have to make difficult decisions about keeping them or not, which the other folks at the table can only do if they’re in on it. Remember that this is a cooperative exercise and give them the tools to make this story the best for everyone. Get the investment of the other folks at the table. This is pretty much consent. Are they okay with this secret your character has? Is it safe for them? Does it sound like something that will be fun to play with? And from there, is it interesting? Does it get them excited about the direction the game is going? If your table is invested, having a secret can give you all something to play with in downtime, or in tense moments. It’s fun both to have a secret and to be trying to figure out what one is, and we can do both of those in a game. Share the spotlight. Just because you have a secret doesn’t mean that you are the only character worthy of attention at this table. As long as your secret is fostering interaction among characters and not causing the game to warp to your lone wolf ways, you’re doing fine. In fact, you can have a shared secret with other characters that ties you together tighter -- in the police procedural I’m playing now, I am the only one not in on it! Some Secrets So you want to try having a secret! Fantastic. They can be very fun to play with. Here are some leading questions in case you are stuck for ideas:

    • Whose death or injury are you responsible for and why are you hiding it?
    • What dangerous treasure are you keeping? What does it do? Who is trying to find it?
    • What do you keep slipping scraps of food to when you think no one is watching?
    • You are under a permanent spell of polymorph. What are you really?
    • Who are you related to and why don’t you want anyone to know?
    • What were you famous for in a previous life and why don’t you want anyone to know?
    • Why do you refuse to touch that particular kind of weapon?
    Secrets are fun when they create opportunities to lean in to your characters at the table. Secrets less fun when they’re a bait and switch on your friends, or if you have one that no one notices. Create situations in which you can play off that secret and the ways you work to conceal it. Give other people moments to interact with you as you interact with it. It can be fun to be a character who is left out, but it’s not so much fun to feel left out as a player. As with implementing anything at your table, communication and table buy in are key! Have you ever played with a secret? What was your favorite? Did your fellow players know?But the secrets. That’s really what it’s all about. Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. Someday, maybe, it will actually come out we’ll have that moment when Ras, around whom all of the whispers swirl, will have to actually tell me what happened that night when shots were fired. But until then…until then we all get to lean in to it.

    Why Have A Secret

    You might say, why even have secrets if all the players at the table are in on them? Well, my gnome reading friend, gather near to these pointy hats and listen to their whispered thoughts. Having a secret drives both character actions and character evolution. Having a secret does not stay stagnant. As a character, there are two general ways to handle a secret, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that you are constantly working to conceal it — it will drive your actions even if it causes you to do things that aren’t in your best interest (which just makes everything more interesting). The second is that you may have confused or evolving emotions tied to your secret. You may be torn between keeping your secret and another force — care for a person or thing that is being harmed by your silence. You may be on a path to realizing that you will still be liked and accepted if you reveal your secret. All of these make brilliant role playing opportunities at the table. Our characters are not one dimensional any more than we are (unless we want them to be).

    The kind of secrets that are fun to play with as characters are also frequently tied up with guilt, remorse, sadness, or other emotions that are easy to lean in to at the table. If you are worried that a different cop in your department took the fall for what may have been your bad call, you’ll react differently to him suddenly showing up than if you parted knowing that he fired the bad shot. Since I love feelsy games right now, of course I want the complication of secrets to raise the stakes and push more interesting decision making at the table.

    So How Do I Have Secrets Successfully At the Table, Senda?

    Gosh, I’m so glad you asked! There are a couple of key items I don’t think folks always consider when dealing in table secrets, and using them successfully.

     Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out.  Me, The Character: I am the rookie on an established task force. They all call me “Boot” but my father was in this police department, and my grandfather, and as one of the youngest graduates of the academy in recent memory, I am prepared to follow in their shining footsteps. There’s something a bit funny though -- everyone on my new team keeps talking about this thing that was in the papers months ago. It was all cleared up, pretty unfortunate, but one officer from this team turned out to be the responsible party. Every time they talk about it, I feel like I’m missing something, but they stop talking and give each other meaningful looks if I ask anything... About that, or about how the Lieutenant lost his eye. There’s a pool on the eye so everyone’s trying to find out. I voted swordfish but on second thought maybe pool cue would have been a better bet… Me, The Player: We world built this together. I am in on the secret. I delight in believing only the best of my teammates with bright eyed innocence, not that they could be hiding anything dark. Because I know the secret, I can push them in to awkward situations by asking questions that seem and feel innocent and give them all a chance to be the group who’s been through thick and thin. Playing the rookie in this game works out for me -- I don’t know this genre well but I’m having a blast playing it, and any goofs can be easily covered by my newness to the team. [pullquoteright] Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. [social_warfare][/pullquoteright]But the secrets. That’s really what it’s all about. Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. Someday, maybe, it will actually come out we’ll have that moment when Ras, around whom all of the whispers swirl, will have to actually tell me what happened that night when shots were fired. But until then...until then we all get to lean in to it. Why Have A Secret You might say, why even have secrets if all the players at the table are in on them? Well, my gnome reading friend, gather near to these pointy hats and listen to their whispered thoughts. Having a secret drives both character actions and character evolution. Having a secret does not stay stagnant. As a character, there are two general ways to handle a secret, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that you are constantly working to conceal it — it will drive your actions even if it causes you to do things that aren’t in your best interest (which just makes everything more interesting). The second is that you may have confused or evolving emotions tied to your secret. You may be torn between keeping your secret and another force -- care for a person or thing that is being harmed by your silence. You may be on a path to realizing that you will still be liked and accepted if you reveal your secret. All of these make brilliant role playing opportunities at the table. Our characters are not one dimensional any more than we are (unless we want them to be). The kind of secrets that are fun to play with as characters are also frequently tied up with guilt, remorse, sadness, or other emotions that are easy to lean in to at the table. If you are worried that a different cop in your department took the fall for what may have been your bad call, you’ll react differently to him suddenly showing up than if you parted knowing that he fired the bad shot. Since I love feelsy games right now, of course I want the complication of secrets to raise the stakes and push more interesting decision making at the table. So How Do I Have Secrets Successfully At the Table, Senda? Gosh, I’m so glad you asked! There are a couple of key items I don’t think folks always consider when dealing in table secrets, and using them successfully. [pullquoteright] Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. [social_warfare][/pullquoteright]Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. If they do, they are likely to feel annoyed or betrayed that you would keep something key to the game from them. Trust me: it is more fun to play with secrets if you are put in positions where you have to make difficult decisions about keeping them or not, which the other folks at the table can only do if they’re in on it. Remember that this is a cooperative exercise and give them the tools to make this story the best for everyone. Get the investment of the other folks at the table. This is pretty much consent. Are they okay with this secret your character has? Is it safe for them? Does it sound like something that will be fun to play with? And from there, is it interesting? Does it get them excited about the direction the game is going? If your table is invested, having a secret can give you all something to play with in downtime, or in tense moments. It’s fun both to have a secret and to be trying to figure out what one is, and we can do both of those in a game. Share the spotlight. Just because you have a secret doesn’t mean that you are the only character worthy of attention at this table. As long as your secret is fostering interaction among characters and not causing the game to warp to your lone wolf ways, you’re doing fine. In fact, you can have a shared secret with other characters that ties you together tighter -- in the police procedural I’m playing now, I am the only one not in on it! Some Secrets So you want to try having a secret! Fantastic. They can be very fun to play with. Here are some leading questions in case you are stuck for ideas:

    • Whose death or injury are you responsible for and why are you hiding it?
    • What dangerous treasure are you keeping? What does it do? Who is trying to find it?
    • What do you keep slipping scraps of food to when you think no one is watching?
    • You are under a permanent spell of polymorph. What are you really?
    • Who are you related to and why don’t you want anyone to know?
    • What were you famous for in a previous life and why don’t you want anyone to know?
    • Why do you refuse to touch that particular kind of weapon?
    Secrets are fun when they create opportunities to lean in to your characters at the table. Secrets less fun when they’re a bait and switch on your friends, or if you have one that no one notices. Create situations in which you can play off that secret and the ways you work to conceal it. Give other people moments to interact with you as you interact with it. It can be fun to be a character who is left out, but it’s not so much fun to feel left out as a player. As with implementing anything at your table, communication and table buy in are key! Have you ever played with a secret? What was your favorite? Did your fellow players know?Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. If they do, they are likely to feel annoyed or betrayed that you would keep something key to the game from them. Trust me: it is more fun to play with secrets if you are put in positions where you have to make difficult decisions about keeping them or not, which the other folks at the table can only do if they’re in on it. Remember that this is a cooperative exercise and give them the tools to make this story the best for everyone.

    Get the investment of the other folks at the table. This is pretty much consent. Are they okay with this secret your character has? Is it safe for them? Does it sound like something that will be fun to play with? And from there, is it interesting? Does it get them excited about the direction the game is going? If your table is invested, having a secret can give you all something to play with in downtime, or in tense moments. It’s fun both to have a secret and to be trying to figure out what one is, and we can do both of those in a game.
    Share the spotlight. Just because you have a secret doesn’t mean that you are the only character worthy of attention at this table. As long as your secret is fostering interaction among characters and not causing the game to warp to your lone wolf ways, you’re doing fine. In fact, you can have a shared secret with other characters that ties you together tighter — in the police procedural I’m playing now, I am the only one not in on it!

    Some Secrets

    So you want to try having a secret! Fantastic. They can be very fun to play with. Here are some leading questions in case you are stuck for ideas:

    • Whose death or injury are you responsible for and why are you hiding it?
    • What dangerous treasure are you keeping? What does it do? Who is trying to find it?
    • What do you keep slipping scraps of food to when you think no one is watching?
    • You are under a permanent spell of polymorph. What are you really?
    • Who are you related to and why don’t you want anyone to know?
    • What were you famous for in a previous life and why don’t you want anyone to know?
    • Why do you refuse to touch that particular kind of weapon?

    Secrets are fun when they create opportunities to lean in to your characters at the table. Secrets less fun when they’re a bait and switch on your friends, or if you have one that no one notices. Create situations in which you can play off that secret and the ways you work to conceal it. Give other people moments to interact with you as you interact with it. It can be fun to be a character who is left out, but it’s not so much fun to feel left out as a player. As with implementing anything at your table, communication and table buy in are key!

    Have you ever played with a secret? What was your favorite? Did your fellow players know?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    The Usual Suspects: NPCs and You

    11 May 2018 - 2:00am

    Tell us which evil NPC did the bad thing.

    I originally discussed this topic in an older article on Rogue Princess Squadron, but after a couple of recent games I thought it was worth discussing again.

    One of the primary ways a GM can bring a game world to life is through the NPCs the players interact with. They can give information, point the characters in the direction of adventure, be adversarial challenges, or even provide emotional motivation for the characters to do what they do. Through them, the GM breathes life into a setting and turns it into more than just a green screen backdrop for hacking and slashing away at some monsters. But what happens when a GM’s NPCs all feel the same and the players start to get bored or annoyed?

    Recently, tension in a semi-regular game came to a head when we players butted heads with one of the NPCs. The session opened with our boss confronting us about a botched mission we didn’t even know we botched. The problem was, the NPC was played as incredibly antagonistic and downright rude. Our reactions to this took the GM by surprise as the session suddenly went in a direction he didn’t expect. As I eventually pointed out, I wouldn’t take that behavior from a real-life boss, so there was no way my bad ass character would just sit there and take that kind of abuse. This wasn’t the first time the GM was taken off guard with how we responded to one of his NPCs, but it also wasn’t the first time one of his ‘friendly’ NPCs pissed us off, pushing us to respond in ways he didn’t expect. In fact, most of his NPCs came off very similarly antagonistic.

    The situation reminded me of years ago when a friend was trying his hand at GMing with a D&D game. We were both relatively new to GMing, so often offered each other feedback and suggestions to help us both improve. After one game night in that campaign, I struggled to come up with a diplomatic way to express my concerns. Finally, in my nuanced and oh-so-tactful way, I blurted out, “All of your NPCs are dicks.”

    Luckily, he’s used to my style of tact and we were able to have a conversation about his use of NPCs. I pointed out that every NPC we had met, from the peasants in the village to the nobility running the region, was rude, condescending, demanding, shady, or just downright unfriendly. Ultimately, my character had no reason to put her life on the line to help these people, regardless of whatever monetary reward they were offering for us to fix the problem. My friend had fallen into a trap where he was defaulting to the same style of NPC for every character we came in contact with, and the game was starting to suffer because of it.

    Some may be blessed with a natural acting ability that lets them bring the residents of a game world to life with minimal fuss, but the rest of us need to work at it. 

    A lack of variation in the tone and behavior of the NPCs a GM presents is an easy trap to fall into. When running a game, there’s so much to keep track of and creating and running NPCs isn’t a skill that comes naturally to everyone. Some may be blessed with a natural acting ability that lets them bring the residents of a game world to life with minimal fuss, but the rest of us need to work at it. This is also a thing that can happen to new and old GMs. I’ve seen it happen to newbies getting their feet under them and old pros that don’t realize they’re stuck in a repetitive rut.

    I have always believed that NPCs are a hugely important aspect of GMing. Without them, the game world is just a stage with set dressing on it and unless I develop a strong attachment to the other PCs, I stop caring about the world and just focus on the combat and the puzzles, which isn’t what I game for. As a GM, I work to breathe life into a wide array of NPCs and I know I struggle with the more subtle, Machiavellian types. I can do scene chewing bad guys and big bad monsters, but the slimy, shady NPC you need to work with though you know he’s going to stab you in the back is one I have to work at.

    Here are some thoughts that will hopefully help with creating and running NPCs:

    The subtler aspects of NPCs are going to be lost on the players, so paint them with broad strokes. At some point, ask your players what they remember about certain NPCs you’ve introduced in previous sessions. More than likely, they’re going to remember the larger details of personality and deeds. “Oh, he was the smarmy and growly guy that ran the fight ring.” “She’s the airhead socialite that dated the monkey!” Unless the NPC is one that’s in play every session (almost a GM-PC, which can be a minefield of its own), NPCs with subtly nuanced personalities are going to get overlooked and forgotten in the face of bolder and easier to ‘get’ characters.

    Plot hooks land better when they’re presented by NPCs that catch the players’ interest. Sure, you can use the generic bartender to give your players a plot hook, but they’re only going along with it because it’s what’s expected of them or there’s nothing better to do. Breathe a personality into your NPCs and the players are going to be far more interested in what they have to say. They’ll remember that mission they went on to help the wizened and grandmotherly goblin-witch (that looked like Yoda’s mother) far more than they’ll remember the job they got from generic ‘insert here’ bartender. Don’t hesitate to fade away NPCs the players don’t have any interest in and refocus on the ones that catch their attention.

    Vary your NPCs up a bit and it’ll make things more interesting for you too.

    Keep track of your NPCs! Having to play the rest of the world is a big job, but it is an important one. As an extension of that, it is also vitally important to keep track of the characters you’ve introduced to your players. It’s not as much of a problem with NPCs you’ve put together through careful prep work before the game and intend to use long term, but there are often NPCs made up on the fly as the players bring up ideas you hadn’t thought of beforehand. If there’s a chance at all they’ll interact with that character again, make sure you note who they are and what their involvement was. The ‘airhead socialite that dated the monkey’ mentioned earlier was a throwaway NPC made up on the spot when they decided to call some of the numbers in the monkey’s little black book (it’s a long story). They got such a kick out of talking to her that they called on her several times during the rest of the campaign.

    If you’re not good with coming up with NPCs on the fly, make a cheat sheet. A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I played in an awful game where all the NPCs were named Joe, Bob, or Joe-Bob. This included the NPCs the GM had prepped beforehand. This GM was a problem on many levels, but it was also clear he didn’t think he needed to improve at anything. Needless to say, I didn’t stay in that game for very long. Even GMs that are good at coming up with NPCs on the spot may need a little help now and again. I find a cheat sheet of names relevant to the setting and types of characters the PCs could interact with is handy. Naming your shady Russian fixer ‘Bill’ is likely to push the players out of immersion. You can also come up with a cheat sheet of personality and physical traits to pull from if that’s something you struggle with as well.

    Be Mindful of Stereotypes. If every bartender in your game is middle-aged man with a beer gut, you might want to take a moment and reconsider. It’s easy, in that modern game, to say the beat cop is an Irish guy named O’Malley, but it’s also been done to death. What if you made that beat cop a no-nonsense Latina named Rodriguez? Does that change the purpose the NPC serves? Probably not. While sometimes stereotypes can be a quick shorthand, it’s good to be mindful of them and subvert them on occasion. If you automatically think of a particular type of person for an NPC you need to put in play, maybe take a step back and consider some other options.

    Occasionally take stock of the NPCs you’re using most often While relevant to our topic of NPCs, this is crucial for any element a GM uses, from settings to plot hooks and more. We all have tools we’re comfortable using, but falling back on those too often without changing things up will get repetitive for your players. Review the NPCs you’ve used most often and determine if you need to bring in someone with a different flavor to spice things up. Try and think about it from the player’s perspective as well; you may know the background differences between some NPCs, but they may all look the same to the players.

    Not every NPC needs to be distinct and interesting. Sometimes a bartender really is just a bartender. The ones that do matter, though, should be as varied and interesting as the rest of the world your PCs inhabit. It’s a skill that can take time to develop, but with a little practice you’ll see the difference in how your players interact with the world. The first time they get emotional about an NPC, whether they’re protective of them or intending to murder them, you’ll know you’ve gotten it right.

    Have you found yourself in a rut with your NPCs? I’m curious how other people have fixed the problem of NPCs not helping bring the game world to life quite right.

     

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Tales From The Loop — Review

    9 May 2018 - 5:15am

    When I was a kid, I saw the movie Goonies and wanted to be those kids more than anything; out adventuring with my childhood friends. When I watched Stranger Things, I was pulled right back into my childhood and relived the idea of adventuring kids. And I am not alone in this. Recently there has been a rise in the kids on bikes genre of games, where early teens are solving mysteries. It is a genre that is picking up steam, as it resonates with older gamers who wax nostalgic, as well as younger gamers for whom those years are there or just past. Today, I am going to review one such entry in this genre, and one of the most icon ones in this emerging genre: Tales From The Loop.

    Note – My first draft of this article was more objective and clinical, where I was going to do a full objective review of the game. But I LOVE this game, so this is going to be a review of the game via my own love letter about why this game is awesome. So let me get my walkman on, my Def Leppard cassette loaded and a can of New Coke poured, and then I can tell why you should be playing this game.

    Disclaimer

    I received a PDF and hardcopy of this book for the review from the publisher.

    Claimer… is that even a word?

    I am running a Tales From The Loop campaign for my home group, and have played 6 or so sessions of the game, making me familiar with the mechanics and material. I also own the Tales From the Loop art book as well.

    What Is Tales From The Loop?

    My first exposure to Tales From the Loop came from the Kickstarter from by artist and creator Simon Stalenhag. Stalenhag created these amazing illustrations depicting life in a part of Sweden, located near a particle accelerator knows as The Loop. In this world, technology had made some significant leaps and by the 1980’s there were robots and a maglev ships. The island where the Loop is located is this fantastic mix of the 1980’s (VCR’s, cassette tapes, and bulky computers) mixed with mad science (mind switching, rogue robots, and the occasional dinosaur). In that backdrop, Simon painted what life for typical kids would be like: climbing on weird discarded devices, taking over a robot, wandering through scrap yards of discarded experiments. Stalenhag’s art style is evocative and nostalgic, blending the fantastic and childhood in a way that you can’t help but be drawn into.

    And if the art was all we got, it would have been enough inspiration to kick off hacks of games everywhere, but instead, Free League Publishing published the Tales of the Loop RPG, using the Year Zero Game Engine.

    What is this Game About?

    In TFL, you play children between the ages of 10 to 15 years old. You solve mysteries. These mysteries are often science fiction in nature, due to the Loop, a massive particle accelerator that is nearby. The Loop and the company who runs it, has created numerous technological marvels and created an equal number of anomalies. The Adults are useless when it comes helping out, so you and your friends have to solve the mystery on your own. In the backdrop of your mystery solving, you have the normal trials and tribulations of children of that age, bullies, tests, crushes, etc.

    What I Love About This Game

    The rest of this article is going to be what I consider to be the highlights of this book. Overall this book executes wonderfully. The rules of the game support what this game is about, and there is ample material in the book to support a GM who is running this game. Though a Swedish pronunciation guide could have helped a tad…

    That aside, let me show off some of the things I love about this game.

    Principles Of The Loop

    I am a big fan of Powered by the Apocalypse games (of which this game is not), in part, because they give the GM a set of principles to inform the GM what the game is about, and how it should run. Tales has followed suit, and included 6 principles for GMs to keep in mind when running the game.

    They are:

    1. Your hometown is full of strange and fantastic things.
    2. Everyday life is dull and unforgiving.
    3. Adults are out of reach and out of touch.
    4. The land of the Loop is dangerous but Kids will not die.
    5. The game is played scene by scene.
    6. The world is described collaboratively.

    Each one is then expanded upon with examples and ideas.

     For me as a GM, I started reading the rulebook and when I encountered this section, I actually yelled out into my empty living room. 

    For me as a GM, I started reading the rulebook and when I encountered this section, I actually yelled out into my empty living room. While I have played enough games over the years to be able to extract this information from the book, having it laid out for me, clearly, made it clear what my job as a GM was, and what this game was going to be about.

    Setting

    Here we are standing on the shoulders of giants. This book is full of Stalenhag’s art, and its used thoughtfully through the book. These images are all evocative and do a lot to convey this strange version of the 80’s. The text then builds off of that. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the history of the setting as well as the geography of the loop. The default location for the game is in Sweden in the Malaren islands. The text conveys things about life in the 80’s (for you young folks), life in Sweden in the 80s (for those of us who did not grow up there), the geography of the islands, and a full history of the Loop and the state agency who controls it, Riksenergi.

    If you are looking to play in the US, the game also comes with a second setting, set in Nevada, where the US loop is located. There is a chapter dedicated to this setting as well, and it covers all the same things as the Swedish one.

    These setting chapters really help ground you in the setting of the game. While I was around in the 80’s, there were just enough differences between my American experience and the Swedish experience that it was helpful to read what life was like there for kids. Again, a pronunciation guide would have helped with the town names and NPC names, but we fumbled through it just fine without.

    Kids

    This game is about kids and there is a chapter dedicated to making your kid for the game. Overall character generation is pretty simple…in a good way. There are 4 stats and 12 skills. With a few other mechanical choices that need to be made.

    There are eight archetypes in the game, that come out similar to a Powered by the Apocalypse playbook. They are: Bookworm, Computer Geek, Hick, Jock, Popular Kid, Rocker, Troublemaker, and the Weirdo. They are iconic and easy to get into. My players had no problem picking from the list nor making unique characters from the questions each archetype presents.

    One of my favorite things in this section, while not mechanical, but genre enforcing, was for each character to name their favorite song. It’s a nice touch, and a way to help connect the characters to the time period.

    Core Mechanic

    The core mechanic to Tales from the Loop is a straight-forward d6 dice pool. In the game, when the characters face Trouble, a challenge, they will generate a pool of d6’s based on a Stat and a Skill. Normally a success is a single 6 (there are cases where it may be 2 or 3 if things are difficult), and multiple 6’s allow the character to pick Bonus Effects, based on the Skill used. These Bonus Effects have a bit of the pick list feel that you get in a Powered by the Apocalypse game.

    If you fail to generate any 6’s on your roll, you have some avenues to try again, before the action fails. You can spend a point of Luck, which lets you re-roll any dice that were not 6’s. You can also Push your roll. In this case, you take a Condition and then can re-roll any dice that were not 6’s. Finally, you can invoke your Pride (something that you are known for, e.g being the smartest kid in school), and get an automatic success.

    If through those options you still fail to generate any successes then the action failed. The GM, in a similar way to Powered By the Apocalypse games, will decide what will happen. There is some good advice in the section of the rules for how to do this while not causing the mystery to stall out, which is often a pitfall in other skill-based games.

    During the course of play, there is a bit of a resource management aspect to the game. In order to solve the mystery you need successes, and in order to do that you are at times burning luck, or Pushing rolls and taking Conditions. Those Conditions, of which there are 5, have consequences, the four minor ones incur a -1 die to each roll, and the last has you automatically failing. Three of the conditions are emotional and two are physical. Players will want to manage these resources during the course of a session.

    Luck points are recovered with each session, but Conditions require you to have a scene with the character’s Anchor (an adult) and let them take of the character. And this is one of the great parts of the game. Over time, characters will take Conditions, either through Pushing or by failing rolls. This then drives them into dramatic scenes with adults. Which in turns refreshes them and allows them to continue to investigate.

    There is no formal combat mechanic. Any kind of “fight” the kids get in is handled with the same trouble mechanic, using existing skills, and can result in taking a condition for damage.

    Finally, there is the Extended Trouble, which is like a montage action, where the players need to amass a total number of successes against a difficulty. Each picks an action they will take in the Extended Trouble and then rolls. If they are close to the number they can also burn some Conditions to make it a success. This mechanic is best employed at the end of the mystery, but I have also used it in times when the characters have any kind of elaborate plan they want to enact.

     The mechanics are light enough that the focus is going to reside on the mystery but interesting enough that when someone picks up dice, you are going to want to see how it turns out. 

    Overall the mechanics of the game are easy to understand, and your players will pick them up quickly. The mechanics are flexible enough to cover any situation that comes up in the game, and the Extended Action is a great way to quickly resolve a group action. The mechanics are light enough that the focus is going to reside on the mystery but interesting enough that when someone picks up dice, you are going to want to see how it turns out.

    Mysteries

    This game is about mysteries, and it delivers them in three ways…

    The first way is that there is a chapter dedicated to Mysteries and it provides a nice formula for creating your own mysteries in the game. There are phases for each part of the mystery, and each one is given an explanation and examples. In addition, the book gives you several flow charts for how clues can be found and how they lead to the showdown at the end of the mystery. If you have never written a mystery before, this chapter is a great starting point. Even if you have written mysteries, the formula and advice in this chapter are solid. This chapter is gold and will ensure that GMs who are not familiar with mysteries can write their own material for the game.

    Next up… The Mystery Landscape. This chapter is a mystery sandbox. It contains locations and people found throughout the islands and the plots and mysteries they are involved in (if you are playing the US loop, they tell you the equivalent names and locations for every entry). Each entry contains what is going on as well as hooks for how to involve the players and a countdown of what will happen as this progresses. In addition, in the character chapter, the archetypes have a section that allows players to pick a few connections into the NPCs of the Mystery Landscape. You could run a campaign of Tales from the Loop from this chapter alone.

    But wait! There’s more! The end of the book contains 4 more chapters, each one their own complete mystery. The four mysteries are tied together and take place during the four seasons of the year. Each one is written using the formula from the Mystery chapter. They are easy to follow, they contain tips on how to keep the mystery flowing, and contain sketches of all the major NPCs. Honestly, I rarely use published material when I run games, but I have run the first two mysteries and they are great, and I will run the third one after a few more sessions. Each one has the right weirdness of the setting and stakes to make it something kids would investigate.

    The Book

    The book is an 8.5” x 11” hardcover that is 191 pages. The book (and the PDF) have a thematic layout, that is also clean, and easy to read. It is a full-color interior, and the inside front cover is a map of the Swedish Loop and the inside back cover is a map of the US Loop. There is both an easy to use table of contents as well as an index.

    The book pages have a nice heavy weight paper with a matte finish to them. The book is full of Stalenhag’s artwork, gracing every few pages, and often spanning pages. There are black and white drawings for the character types and the NPCs. In addition, there are floor plan maps in the Mysteries showing key locations.

    The book is easy to read and is organized well, making the ability to find information, during a session, easy. One tip, there are four pages in the Trouble Chapter that contain all the Bonus Effects for all the skills. Print out a few copies of these pages and put them on your table. They are the most referenced pages in the game, by the players and GM. Having a few copies to pass around will keep people from going into the book after each check.

    Where To Find

    You can find Tales from the Loop on the Modiphius website and on DriveThuRPG.

    Next Up

    Our reviews of Tales from the Loop are not done. Coming soon, I will be reviewing Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries, the first supplement for Tales From The Loop. But first I am going to run the title adventure so that I can tell you more about it…

    In the meantime, if you have any questions about Tales from the Loop, leave them in the comments below, and I will do my best to get to them all.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    The Sword, The Crown, and The Unspeakable Power Review

    8 May 2018 - 5:00am

    Roleplaying games have been tied to fantasy literature since the original Dungeons and Dragons boxed set started to circulate in 1974. Many people see the heroic fantasy influences of Tolkien’s Middle-earth books, but the original play style (adventurers trying to get rich, famous, and powerful) is much more inspired by grittier fiction, like Leiber’s Lankhmar stories or Howard’s Conan.

    Tolkien, Leiber, or Howard, the focus of much fantasy roleplaying has been on adventurers, in an adventuring party, taking on challenges from a shared perspective. Most fantasy roleplaying looks at the how the party tackles traps, monsters, and puzzles, and how they spend their rewards. While there have certainly been games that focus on politics and economics (Dungeons and Dragons had a whole setting dedicated to this principle in Birthright), that style of game isn’t always what springs to mind first and foremost when gamers discuss fantasy roleplaying.

    In the modern era, writers like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie have written popular fantasy stories where the protagonists aren’t really heroes (in the modern sense), the world is gritty, and the movers and shakers of the setting can make decisions that affect entire societies. While there is plenty of one on one swordplay, there are also coronations, wars, espionage, and vast criminal empires.

    The product I’m looking at today, The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power by Wheel Tree Press, is a Powered by the Apocalypse game that takes its cues from authors like Martin and Abercrombie when it comes to the focus of play.

    Reading the Signs

    This review is based on the PDF for The Sword, The Crown, and the Unspeakable Power. The PDF is 295 pages, and includes a single page index at the end. Normally, I would throw in how long supplemental material like the rules summary in the index are in this section, but . . . we’ll get to that.

    The cover is in color, in reds, oranges, and yellows, and the interior of the book is all in black and white. There are “illumination” style boarders and chapter headings, and the artwork is stylized, taking its cue from various medieval cultures across the world. The layout is easy to read, with clear headers and a single column format.

    Introduction and the Basics

    The introduction is very brief, and mentions the original Apocalypse World, as well as a host of games that inspired the design and tone of this game. In fact, the book spends more time discussing game inspirations than addressing the media that has shaped the genre that the game is attempting to emulate. If you weren’t sure what this game is attempting to bring to the table, the concept is pitched as “a fantasy game, but where politics is more important than adventuring.”

    The Basics walks through the core mechanics common to most Powered by the Apocalypse games, and touches on some specifics of this game. This includes how a group moves the scale of things like harm taken or inflicted up or down, the character classes, tracked resources like barter and honor, and patrons. There is also an outline of what happens in the first session of play.

    Moves and Character Classes

    While the basic structure of how a move works was laid out in the previous chapter, the Moves chapter spells out what all the basic, peripheral, and honor moves do. The character classes section lays out the different types of characters available to players in the game.

    One thing that often comes up when looking at Powered by the Apocalypse games is “what is the general move for avoiding something bad,” and if that move isn’t obvious, you may need to adjust your thinking on how to present threats. In this case, there is an obvious move that covers this territory, called Face Duress.

    The basic moves in the game are:

    • Face Duress
    • Threaten with Force
    • Engage in Combat
    • Persuade with Leverage
    • Study a Situation
    • Study a Person
    • Whisper to the Unspeakable Power

    Whisper to the Unspeakable Power is an interesting move, because it’s the “supernatural” move for people that aren’t supernatural types. The character classes that interact with magic have their own specialized moves, but this move is for characters who do things like saying “I’d sell my soul for X,” or “for all the things you have done to me and my family, I’ll call a curse down upon you.”

    The Peripheral moves are:

    • Patron Move
    • Help or Interfere
    • Taking Harm
    • Market Move

    The patron move is a move to determine if you are still on your patron’s good side. Help or Interfere will be familiar to anyone familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games. Taking harm is similar to other moves where you might have a secondary effect beyond just the harm your character marks, and the Market Move determines how easy it is to find something you are looking for.

    Honor moves are moves that interact with your honor score, and include the following:

    • Do You Know Who I Am?
    • Call on Your Faction
    • Refuse an Obligation, Duty, or Debt

    There is also a section with moves clarifications. This struck me as an odd choice for organization, since the moves chapter had in-depth discussions of the moves with examples. If there are further clarifications, why not roll those into the actual expanded move explanations?

    In the Character Classes section, we have the following characters detailed:

    • The Adept
    • The Beloved
    • The Black Hood
    • The Bloodletter
    • The Crown
    • The Gauntlet
    • The Hex
    • The Lyre
    • The Screw
    • The Spur
    • The Voice

    They are roughly organized into the titular categories, with classes that lean on martial power under The Sword, classes that lean on political power under The Crown, and classes that lean on supernatural power under The Unspeakable Power.

    I love the stylized images of the various classes, and my favorite visual cue in the whole game is using a hand to represent how much harm a character can take, with players drawing a line through each finger as they take harm.

    Each character class has a section on relationships, where you determine how the characters know one another. Unlike some Powered by the Apocalypse games, these relationships only direct you to inform a player of the connection, without a follow up question to add context or details.

    Each of these classes has a sex move. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, that’s a move that triggers when the character has sex with another, and it’s a concept introduced in Apocalypse World. Given the genre, it is very appropriate, but I’m still a little wary of some of the moves. Not because of what triggers them, but because so many of them can be used antagonistically, against other PCs. While entirely appropriate for the genre, it is another thing that reminds me that we haven’t had a safety talk integrated into the text at this point, just a referral to the safety section at the end of the book.

    While we’re talking about safety—The Screw is specifically a character class about torturing people for information. I’ll be honest, I loved Sandan Glokta, the torturer from the First Law books. He’s sarcastic and ironic, and the comic relief is almost a necessary element to be able to stomach the character in the first place. I’m not sure how well that plays out at the table, and I almost wish there had been a more general “Inquisitor” playbook that was equally good at threatening economic or social well-being.

    Mythology Creation, Patrons, Factions, and Honor, and Weapons, Armor, Gear, and Tags

    I’m grouping these chapters together because they have a lot to do with how the Master of Ceremonies and the players work together to define the world. Each chapter has some bullet pointed lists to walk the MC and players through the questions they should be answering, and what they need to have in place at the beginning of the game.

    Since the text alludes to The Unspeakable Power being something dangerous or malevolent, I had expected the source of power to come up in the mythology creation. This is more about establishing what the prevailing culture believes to be the defining elements of history and folklore.

    PCs that aren’t at the top of their faction’s answer to patrons, and everybody has a faction. These both relate to how a character gains, loses, and spends honor. Additionally, a character may have another PC as a patron, and there are rules to determine the difference between an NPC patron and a PC patron.

    Weapons, armor, and gear get assigned various tags to determine what they are and how narrative elements around them might be manipulated.

    Advancement, The Master of Ceremonies, and Threats

    Advancement explains how a character earns advancement points and how they can spend those advancement points to get access to new moves and advanced moves. The means of advancement are:

    • Rolling a Highlighted Stat
    • Entanglements
    • Using an Honor Move
    • Triggering an Advancement Point from A Class Specific Move

    Each class has a list of entanglements, and each session the MC will choose one of those entanglements as active. I really like that, because the entanglements are tied to the class and what that class’ “story” would be. Using an honor move only triggers once per session, but it relates to the PC choosing to bank on their reputation. Then there is rolling a highlighted stat.

    I’ve never been a fan of highlighting stats in Powered by the Apocalypse games. I understand that it can mean that other players are asking you to tell stories where those stats are important to your character’s development. In practice, given that these games are very “fiction forward,” it feels odd to highlight a stat, when assigning a move comes after determining what the character is doing.

    The End of Season moves are all very emblematic of the twist of fate elements that happen in the source material that inspired the game. In most of them, you are essentially picking how your character will exit the game, and what kind of countdown you are tracking to see when that happens. These are one of the best tools to reinforce the tone of the genre, and I like the flavor in them, but since all of them are optional, and separated from the basic information and the character classes, I worry that it’s easy to forget about them.

    The MC section gives solid Powered by the Apocalypse advice, and spells out MC moves and details agendas, but I feel as if the agendas could be a little more pointed than they are. Making life interesting, dealing with adversity, and paying for what you get make sense in a lot of genres, but it seems like in this genre there should be a bit more “wondering if it was worth the cost,” and “giving up one thing you love for something you think you want.”

    The examples make it clear that player versus player situations are expected in this game, but there isn’t a lot of meta-discussion on managing that. There are mechanical explanations of what moves mean when used against PCs versus when they are used against NPCs, but it feels like a little more discussion could have been centered around how to deal with a game where PCs are expected to thwart one another and have conflicting goals.

    The Threats section gives you a series of bullet points to help you detail the adversaries that will challenge the PCs over the course of a campaign. These are some useful questions to help flesh out not just what the threat will do, but what it wants, and why it wants that thing. This section is a good reminder of what makes a good threat for just about any game, not just this one.

    Odds and Ends and Play Resources

    This is section contains several essays on playing the game in different ways, in different settings, and on the inspiration material for the game. It also contains an appendix on safety. This organization feels a little odd to me.

    When I read RPG products, I read them front to back, every page, while taking notes, and then refer to sections that I might have highlighted in my notes. But that’s my process, and I’m also reading these products for review. I’m not sure that the average player, when they read an RPG product, assumes that an appendix or an essay is relatively integral to understanding the game. It’s a “bonus” aspect of the product that might give more insight, like the extras on a Blu-ray. They might be fun and informative, but they aren’t the core essential experience.

    In this case, the inspirational media and its tropes, the expected play style, and the very important section on safety, are all part of this section. This section is good, I’m just concerned that the way this section is labeled, it may be skipped over by people that pick up the game for the first time. This section not only dives into the inspirational media more fully, it also makes it clear that the expected play style may not only put the PCs at odds with one another, but it might mean that they don’t directly interact with one another for several sessions at a time, meaning that the expected play experience is like running multiple smaller single player games in the same setting.

    It isn’t just the Odds and Ends chapter that has more integral information in it, however. Play Resources looks like it is going to be a table friendly resource summarizing the moves and various checklists for at the table play, but it also contains multiple example settings for the game, which I think are important to examine to get a good feel for what the game should look like in use.

    Seizing the Crown

    There are a lot of strong individual tools for running a political fantasy game using the Powered by the Apocalypse framework. The tracked resources make sense, the bullet points make the process for assigning details very clear, and various visual flourishes, like the finger based harm tracking, are great. The checklist for creating a mythology and detailing a threat would be broadly useful even outside of this game.

    A Wedding of Sanguine Coloration This game has the tools to emulate political dark fantasy, and it has some nice checklists to help you flesh out your setting’s history and adversaries, but it may take a little bit of work to connect those tools in a satisfying manner. 

    In several places, the naming conventions go for practical over evocative. Safety discussions need to happen more often, and in a more integrated fashion. Influences and expected play arcs don’t come into play until late in the book.

    Organization decisions had me scratching my head a few times, such as adding clarifications to the moves after the detailed discussion of moves, and mentioning that weapons should be detailed in a similar manner to harm moves for the Unspeakable Power in a later chapter, instead of rolling that into the character sheets. There are a lot of individual tools that could be tied together a little more tightly, instead of occupying separate spaces in the game. A lot more guidance could be added into the game for players being widely separated and directly acting against each other’s interests, other than simply explaining how that works mechanically.

    Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

    This game has the tools to emulate political dark fantasy, and it has some nice checklists to help you flesh out your setting’s history and adversaries, but it may take a little bit of work to connect those tools in a satisfying manner. This isn’t a game where you can read a few obvious key sections and get it to the table, because the organization distributes the important bits all around the book. If you are drawn to the political side of the game, and not the “nobody gets a happy ending” aspect of the inspirational media, there may be other games to check into as well.

    What are your favorite dark fantasy games? What kinds of mechanics help to reinforce that genre? Let me know in the comments, and feel free mention new games you want to see reviewed in the future.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Troy’s Crock Pot: We don’t need a mapper, but …

    7 May 2018 - 2:00am

    The Map!

    Back in the day, like when polyhedrals were high tech, a role undertaken by one of the players was that of a “mapper.”

    If you didn’t want your fellow adventurers to get lost, you needed an accurate rendering of where you’d been. Corridors of a dungeon run deep, twist around, reach dead ends and are magically tricked. Without a good map, finding the exit became problematic.

    Rarely is that sort of adventuring considered “fun.” By today’s standards, we want story. We assume the characters know where they are going, even if the players don’t. (As someone who has accompanied Boy Scouts on many hikes, I can say that even with a compass, this presumption would be misplaced in real life).

    But I admit, if you are gaming with a table with a projected map or sitting behind a computer console with a digital rendering of the adventure space, having a designated “mapper” does seem superfluous.

    Today’s adventure games sometimes require other jobs from players that may or may not be specific to their character but helpful to the party as a whole. Consider having a member of your table pick up one of these duties to make for better gaming:

    Party quartermaster.

    Basically, someone to keep track of the gear. This person can track encumbrance, if you use that rule, and equipment that might be kept on mounts, in carts, or stored at the headquarters. That way, when a player announces they will pull out their 10-foot pole, the DM can ask “from where” and get a reliable answer. A player who has stats for vehicles handy is always appreciated.

    Wizard’s apprentice.

    Similar to the quartermaster, but the wizard’s apprentice keeps track of all things eldritch in nature. Yes, this includes magic items (including descriptions of the item’s magical effects, should some particularly nagging rules question surface). But it’s also good to know how supplies are running on magical components, from bat guano to diamonds. Especially diamonds. The apprentice also knows the rules governing spellbook and scroll construction.

    Downtime tracker and calendar keeper

    What is today’s date? What is the weather? How did our various businesses fare while we were off adventuring? A diarist of this sort is a big help to the GM. Time passes, seasons change, days spent in Undermountain or the Underdark start to blend together without someone keeping track.  

    Accountant.

    What’s the party loot? How do we divide up the shares? Who gets what? In the course of adventuring, the party might see more treasure than they ever would playing Monopoly. Doesn’t it make sense that the adventuring party have a banker? The accountant and wizard’s apprentice will soon be fast friends, especially when they need to make a withdrawal to cast a heroes’ feast.

    NPC tracker.

    Ideally, you say, this is the GM’s job. Yes, it is. But how the PCs perceive the characters they encounter — and who they actually are — well, there can be differences. (Sometimes NPCs are disguised, use aliases or die — details that can be forgotten on the spur of a moment).  If keeping track of experience is also part of your game, this character can help check behind the GM, should a particularly XP-heavy encounter be forgotten. Mostly, though, this is less about keeping track of adversaries than it is allies. “Didn’t we know someone in that town we’re coming back to?” Yes, you did. And the answer is in these notes.

     

    If you have any suggestions for other adjunct jobs the PCs can do to take a load off the GM, share them in the comments.

     

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnome Stew Notables – Tanya DePass

    4 May 2018 - 6:26am

     

    Welcome to the first installment of our Gnome Spotlight: Notables series. The notables series is a look at game developers in the gaming industry doing good work. The series will focus on female game creators and game creators of color primarily, and each entry will be a short bio and interview. We’ve currently got a group of authors and guest authors interviewing game creators and hope to bring you many more entries in the series as it continues on. If you’ve got a suggestion for someone we should be doing a notables article on, send us a note at headgnome@gnomestew.com. – Head Gnome John

    Meet Tanya

    Tanya DePass is the founder and Director of I Need Diverse Games, a non-profit organization based in Chicago, which is dedicated to better diversification of all aspects of gaming. I Need Diverse Games serves the community by supporting marginalized developers attend the Game Developer Conference by participating in the GDC Scholarship program, helps assist attendance at other industry events, and is seeking partnership with organizations and initiatives.

    Tanya is a lifelong Chicagoan who loves everything about gaming, #INeedDiverseGames spawn point, and wants to make it better and more inclusive for everyone. She founded and was the EIC of Fresh Out of Tokens podcast where games culture was discussed and viewed through a lense of feminism, intersectionality and diversity. Now she’s a co-host on Spawn on Me Podcast. Along with all of that, she’s the Programming Coordinator for OrcaCon, the Diversity Liaison for GaymerX and often speaks on issues of diversity, feminism, race, intersectionality & other topics at multiple conventions throughout the year. Her writing about games and games critique appears in Uncanny Magazine, Polygon, Wiscon Chronicles, Vice Gaming, Paste Games, Mic, and other publications.

    Talking With Tanya 1.)    Tell me a little about yourself, your work, and about I Need Diverse Games. What mediums do you work in? What’s one project or credit that you’re particularly proud of?

    I’m a born and raised Chicagoan, grew up on the South Side of the city, lifelong White Sox fan, and now I live on the North Side, near the Swedish part of town. As for I Need Diverse Games, it started out of frustration with the “it’s too-hard-to-animate women” that had been making the rounds in mid-2014. I tweeted out the hashtag on a few tweets before work in early October ‘14 and by the time I got to work it was trending a bit. After it stayed in the public sphere, I was getting tapped to talk about it on podcasts and for some articles. I was interviewed by Arthur Chu for Salon in December and from there things just kept growing.

    I work in both videogames and tabletop, with a lot of work in tabletop in the later part of 2017 joining the staff of OrcaCon as their programming coordinator; after being a Guest of Honor in January 2017. I was also a Industry Insider at GenCon in the last year, and I’m already looking into panels for 2018.  Most people do refer to me for video games but tabletop needs way more help in terms of diversity.

    As for what I’m most proud of, I’d say joining the Game Developers Conference Scholarship program. We get a chance to send 25 folks to GDC that may not otherwise have access to a week of professional development. It’s part of our mission and work to get more people into the industry, as well as help them stay.

    2.)    What genres and themes do you lean toward? Have your tastes in writing and development changed over the years, or are there things you are consistently drawn back to?

    I am a big RPG nerd, and have always been more into games like Dragon Age, The Witcher, and Dungeons & Dragons. I lean HARD into those because I have always been drawn to a narrative-driven game versus strictly action.

    My tastes have shifted to be more open to games like FPS, and games that are narrative-driven but have more action in them. I’ve fallen in love with Tom Clancy’s The Division, especially after the latest update. My first love will always be RPGs though, both western and Japanese titles. I’ll always go to bat for Final Fantasy VII and Dragon Age II. Those are comfort games for me, that I can pop in and enjoy no matter what.

    3.)    How did you get into games? Who did you look up to? Who do you look up to now?

    I got into games as someone who snuck and played D&D because my mother thought it was Satanic, and by spending a lot of time in arcades when I had the quarters to spare. Thankfully not a lot of people have made me disappointed and not look up to them, but as for current folks who inspire me, the list is long; too long to fully go into here but here are some folks. Ann Lemay, Ceri Young, Andrien Gbinigie, Manveer Heir, Rebecca Cohen-Palacios, Donna Prior, Charles Babb, Karen Lewis, Gordon Bellamy, Richard LeMarchand to name a few.

    4.)    You started INDG to create dialogue and action addressing the default of whiteness in games heroes and themes. What has that experience been like? Where are you hoping to go in the next few years with the project?

    It’s all been a happy accident that worked out well! The experience has been both great and terrible, with a lot of awesome opportunities including writing for games, doing an anthology that will be out this year. I was able to do a podcast, Fresh Out of Tokens for two years and join Spawn on Me earlier in 2017 due to the work I’ve been doing and the perspectives I’ve shared and learned doing this work.  In the coming years, I’d love to have a physical location for I Need Diverse Games, and be bringing in enough to fund others’ work, or trips to conferences. I’d love to have others step up and do some of the things I’ve been doing like going to conventions, conferences, running and being on panels about these topics.

    5.)    You’re a pretty powerful voice in the industry. Do you have any advice for women of color, particularly young women of color, on how to deal with an industry awash with racism and sexism without losing their creativity and self-worth?

    Find your circle, find other Women of Color in gaming. Join groups like the Blacks in Gaming SIG from the IGDA (International Game Developers Association). Network with others on twitter, and in game dev groups. Sign up on blackgamedevs.com and find others.

    Remember you are not alone in the industry. Know that the micro-aggressions you experience  are real, they aren’t over-exaggerated. Also self care is utmost. Know when to take a break, disengage and when to dig in. You don’t have to fight every battle, and don’t let people drag you into everything they want to make into a fight that you need to engage in. Remember you engage on your terms, for your health and well-being. Its ok to be angry, it’s fuel at times. Don’t let others burn your wick down, especially when they won’t even thank you for it in the end.

    6.)    Indie games are often on the frontlines of developing new, exciting things. What are some of the indie games that have come out recently that you feel are important not only as fun, but as contributions to a diverse genre?

    There’s Moon Hunters by Kit Fox studios, Read Only Memories from Midboss, the upcoming Speed Dating for Ghosts by Copy Chaser. A lot of Alexandra Van Chestiens’ work is awesome, though it’s mostly zine’s and small games. Robert Yang’s games are excellent and great commentary on sex, consent and queer culture.

    7.)    You do diversity consultation, as well as other freelance work. What are some of the services you offer, and where can people go to find information on how to hire you?

    I can review your script, character description, world building etc. I gave talks at Ubisoft Montreal and Arena Net on diversity in general as well as their games. If anyone is interested in my services, I have a handy contact form on my site! ( )

    8.)    Anything else you want to add? Open forum!

    I’ve got an anthology coming out this year, Game Devs and Others: Tales from the Margins published by CRC Press. It’s a follow up to Women in Game Development: Breaking the Glass Level Cap, which was edited by Jennifer Brandes Hepler. Its personal essays from marginalized folks in the industry and also adjacent to it. I’m also getting in some writing for a couple unannounced projects which I am excited to share soon!

    Thanks for joining us for this entry in the notables series.  You can find more in the series here:
    and please feel free to drop us any suggestions for people we should interview at headgnome@gnomestew.com.
    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnomecast #39 – PC Relationships

    3 May 2018 - 5:34am

    Join Ang, John, and Senda on this episode of Gnomecast as they discuss ways to build and use character relationships to enrich your game. This episode discusses Senda’s Gnome Stew article “Why Relationships” and two of Ang’s articles, “Making Connections” and “The Ties that Bind.” Will these gnomes’ relationships be enough to keep them out of the stew?

    Download here: Gnomecast #39 – PC Relationships

    Don’t forget, there’s only a few days left to back the Queen City Conquest 2018 Kickstarter campaign!

    Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and find her in the Misdirected Mark Google+ Community.

    Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd on Twitter and find her on her other podcasts She’s a Super Geek and Panda’s Talking Games.

    Follow John at @johnarcadian on Twitter and check out his other work at his website johnarcadian.com.

    Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting gnomestew.com, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page, and check out Gnome Stew Merch!

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Steal This Area: Rhymereach

    2 May 2018 - 5:00am

    Here’s an example area to steal for your game generated using my 100 Overland Descriptors Table article. Like the example in that article, I’ve rolled 5 results, and used the first two as general descriptors for the whole area, and the remaining three to apply to sub regions. My rolls are:

    46 Cold: Iced – freezing rain coats everything in a layer of ice
    24 Inhabitants: Lowlives – slimes, fungus monsters and insects

    88 Food: Advanced – uses advanced ag technology like aqueduct irrigation, crop rotation etc…
    62 Government: Democracy – government by a representative body
    38 Dead: Haunted – spirits, ghosts or just strange feelings haunt the area

    • So for the overall area we have a frigid icy land with ice-encrusted trees and grasses and crawling with slimes fungus and insect monsters. An area like this isn’t likely to be very hospitable to people, so it’s probably populated mostly by semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, fishers or herdspeople, whose insect livestock graze on what tough icy grasses are available. By the coastline, inhabitants gow an oily saltwater wort. Further inland there is less vegetation and the soil becomes rockier, making agriculture and gathering harder, but there are also flights of large grasshopper like bugs for those willing to travel this far. Technology in this area is fairly primitive and because the light construction suits the nomadic nature of the inhabitants and its ready availability, tools, weapons and armor constructed of hardened chitin are in common use. We’ll set the whole thing on a large bay.
    • Well inland there is a skeletal forest home to a plague of shield sized beetles that range out during the day and strip the nearby countryside of vegetation then return to roost. Among the trees is a village of long low stone and log buildings. The locals gather the dung from the beetles in rope baskets, mix it into a slurry with sea water delivered via a miles long stone lined chanel from the ocean and grow a variety of fungus for food and alchemical purposes, including a few fungus beasts that are barded in chitin armor and used to defend the village from intruders and wildlife.
    • In the middle of the bay there is an island just large enough for the village perched on it. Slickrock village subsists mostly on fishing and wortfields on its coast, but it is also home to several large longhouses built of logs and packed with mud. The Island People have historically stayed out of the conflicts of the various fishing and farming villages and the many roaming tribes of the Rymereach and are equidistant  from most people. After a long history of arbitration and peacemaking, they set up these longhouses to serve as government buildings and house delegations and representatives. Now any major trade deals, territory arguments, and other issues are resolved at regular conclaves here.
    • Encircling the Rymereach is a long stretch of saltwater marsh. While this area would usually be a great resource for the people living in the area, choked with saltwort and rife with biomass, it is said to be cursed and few people will brave even it’s edges. Silence hangs over the marsh and it seems to be devoid of the wildlife that it should host. Those who have braved it’s frigid knee to waist deep muck have reported feelings of being constantly watched, movement seen in the corner of the eye, and strange high-pitched calls, though they have returned with huge pieces of petrified chitin that belong to no known type of insect.

    I’ve also drawn, scanned in, cleaned up, and labeled a rough map of the area.

    I plan on making several more of these articles and would like to commission some simple maps like the one above. If you think you might be interested, send an email to mapcom.gnomestew AT gmail DOT com. Include the word Details in your subject line and hopefully my filters will respond to your email with more details immediately.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnome Stew Welcomes Camdon Wright!

    30 April 2018 - 5:00am


    We’re super excited to announce a new Staff Writer here at Gnome Stew – Camdon Wright! We’re going to let Camdon say hey in his own words, and you’ve probably read some in the guest posts he’s done himself or with other gnomes or from some of his most recent work like One Child’s Heart or Madness and Desire.  Join us in welcoming Camdon!
    – John Arcadian, Head Gnome Who Can’t Think Of  Witty Tagline Right Now

    Hi everyone! I’m Camdon Wright and I’m currently living in Westminster, Colorado. In this wonderland of thin air and plentiful sunshine I create games, tend to my children, and ride motorcycles as often as possible. I do my best to be honest with my words and vulnerable with my emotions. My mother is an immigrant from Ethiopia who moved to the United States when she was a teenager to go to high school. My father was born in Arizona and is of German heritage.

    I’ve been reading TTRPG books since the late 70s but didn’t actually get to play anything until the mid-80s. I’ve made money writing ad copy, grants, website copy, and anything else people would pay me to do. Haikus, game adventures, and half-finished short stories dominated my personal writing projects. In the last year I’ve really committed myself to game design; pushing forward projects that I love.

    I’ve found my best friends at a gaming table. I learned to speak from my heart and embrace the truth of others while telling imaginary stories. The family of my choosing that I discovered while gaming fought for me, told me I was worth loving, and reflected the best parts of me so that I could see them too. When I say that I love games I mean it from the deepest part of my heart. People make the hobby and people will be the reason it survives into the next generation.

    I’m looking forward to bringing my voice to the chorus of amazing writers already at Gnome Stew. As a biracial man I feel like I can add a different perspective to the conversation about TTRPGs. It is my firm belief that inclusivity and representation must be at the foundation of the gaming world as we move forward. That won’t happen by accident so I work to challenge expectations in gaming culture. I support LGBTQ+, women, and people of color on their journey and include them in mine.

    TLDR: There’s a new Gnome in town. I came here to write blog posts, feel emotions, and eat the stew. I’m all out of stew.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Review: FAITH Sci-Fi RPG

    25 April 2018 - 5:00am

    I’m stepping into Jared’s shoes as the “review gnome” for the day and doing my own style of dance. You’ll learn very quickly that his style of reviewing and mine are quite a bit different. I am, by no means, saying my method is better. It’s just a different approach at accomplishing the same goal. I hope you get something out of this review.

    Today, I’m presenting to you an RPG called: FAITH, The Sci-Fi RPG.

    Just the Facts

    Title: FAITH, The Sci-Fi RPG

    Producers: Jon Egia and Helio de Grado

    Publisher: Burning Games

    Price Point: €49.95

    Find out more from Burning Games!

    FAITH is a science fiction roleplaying game of epic adventures, where starfaring alien civilizations race to explore a dangerous, unknown universe; while the Gods compete for followers; and the Ravager threaten civilization as a whole.

    It takes place in a far-future version of our universe, where sentient computers and space travel are a reality, and daring explorers carry high-powered plasma cannons and have their brains linked to formidable hacking devices.

    Cover Art

    Score: 4 out of 5

    My immediate thoughts on the cover art was that it definitely captured the feel of a cyberpunk game, but not necessarily one of a generic sci-fi game, which is what the title implies. The artwork is evocative, and beautiful to look at. The background cityscape behind the people on the hovercycle is stunning, rich, detailed, and evokes the feel of Blade Runner 2049 or Altered Carbon.

    Once I dove into the meat of the book, I reflected back on the cover art and found the inclusion of bio upgrades and tech upgrades to be inclusive in the ideals represented in the cover art. The interior artwork (more on that later) also reflects this style of focus on the characters and their upgrades and abilities.

    The book does make quite a big deal about starfaring and traveling the stars, and I felt like the book’s cover could have reflected this in some manner. Perhaps a starport instead of a city as the backdrop for the high action scene captured in on the cover? That’s really my only suggestion on this front.

    Mechanics

    Score: 5 out of 5

    The randomization mechanic in FAITH is based on cards. I always get a little nervous with card mechanics because of the age-old habits of rolling dice. However, I do my best to set that aside and press into the card mechanic systems with an open mind. I’m glad I did in this case.

    There are several different approaches to the deck of cards. There can be a shared deck (for small groups), a deck shared by the players and another for the GM, or one deck per person (for larger groups or longer campaigns). While there is a custom deck of cards that can be ordered from Burning Games, they were thoughtful enough to allow the rules to work with a standard poker deck (including the Jokers, which is so much fun!)

    Everyone starts a scene with seven cards in hand (eight for humans) and then plays, discards, and draws as needed or as triggered throughout the scene. Players aren’t allowed to share/show their hands to the other players, but they can give hints as to how confident they feel about their chances to be productive during the scene. Because there are options in hand on which card to play in a situation, the players get additional control of the potential outcome of their characters’ actions. This narrative-building element really pleases me. It’s not as harsh as rolling a single die and hoping the number is high enough to accomplish something. However, using a high card up front may gain some benefit, but will reduce the PCs odds of offsetting something else that happens later in the scene. Also, since the cards refresh at the end of each scene, the GM can adjust the difficulty of a single encounter by making scenes really short or really long. Longer scenes will have a higher difficulty because the number of cards the PCs get doesn’t increase.

    Overall, the game mechanic feels balanced and plays smoothly to me. The main issue is with analysis paralysis that some players can come into. This is where the GM needs to step in and encourage those types of players to think ahead or speed things up a bit.

    Prose

    Score: 3 out of 5

    Honestly, I feel there is too much world-building and backstory here. The book itself is 433 pages long, but the first 311 are dedicated to races, organizations, history, and building up the general sense and theme of where the characters are going to be living. I’ll admit that while reading the entire book (cover to cover!) that I started unconsciously skimming through some of the backstory. I love the parts about the races themselves, the organizations, and the subtle interactions between all of this, but the bits about culture, history, foreign affairs, and similar items didn’t feel like they were necessary in a core book. The parts I didn’t skim past were well-written, but I didn’t feel like they were needed. I could see most of this information coming in low-cost splatbooks or expansions that support FAITH.

    If 300+ pages of “backstory” feels daunting to you, don’t worry. You don’t need to know or memorize or even skim through most of what is provided. Sure, if you want to go “100% canon” with the game’s pre-set universe, have at it. There are purists out there like that. I’m not like that (even with canon for things like Star Wars or Firefly), so I’m more than willing to take the general concepts provided, the rules as written, and start engaging my players in telling our stories using this framework.

    The prose portions of things that were embedded in the “core rules,” “character,” and “vehicles” sections were spot on, though. They did their job of shining a light on things in the right moment and setting the feel and tone of the game.

    Layout

    Score: 5 out of 5

    Layout is very important to me. Not only should the content make sense and be engaging, but it also needs to be accessible. Weird, stylized fonts that are hard to read make for a pretty book, but a horrible reference. This is why I evaluate the layout as well as everything else.

    In this case, the use of a sans serif font as a universal in the book took a few minutes (no more) of getting used to, but it did put me in the mood that I was bringing good sci-fi fun into my brain as I read the words.

    The typical “long list of mods/equipment/supplies” found in most sci-fi games is completely absent here. Don’t get me wrong. The information is there, but the boring lists have been replaced by great thumbnail artwork, easy-to-read stats, great flavor text, and excellent presentation.

    Overall, the book is easy to read and ingest the material presented. My only complaint is the fact that the page numbers are on the outer, middle edges of the pages instead of on the outer corners of the pages. I had been flipping through the book at least 5 minutes before I found where the page numbers were located. Again, this is my “reader expectation” and not necessarily a horrible thing. All-in-all, the location of the page numbers is fine, so I’m not even going to ding them a point here. On the upside, the page numbers are surrounded by a colored background which “bleeds” into the edge of the page, so you can (by color code) easily find the section of the book you’re looking for. Big points for doing this. Perhaps this is why the page numbers are where they are?

    Interior Art

    Score: 5 out of 5

    The interior art really captures the feel, themes, and ideals behind the game itself. It supports the mood where necessary and sets the mood in other places. I’m incredibly pleased with the artwork for the character races and equipment as well.

    In addition to supporting the RPG, the artwork is highly consistent, and the art direction is superb. I can sense the level of effort that went into this aspect of the book’s creation.

    Bonus Points

    Score: 4 out of 5

    One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the fact that there are religions and faiths heavily involved in the game. This is fairly rare for an RPG based in the sci-fi genre. The good thing about the implementation of gods in FAITH doesn’t feel “bolted on.” It’s a natural part of the game and incorporates well with other aspects of the game. Not many people could pull off religion+technology+starfaring+mechanics+races and have it work well. Burning Games did just this. Big bonus points for doing this.

    Overall Score: 26 out of 25

    Whoa! Wait? How can a game get “26 out of 25” possible points? I don’t count the Bonus Points as part of the maximum. They’re bonus after all. These are like the “extra credit questions” on an exam in school. Being able to exceed the “maximum” of 25 is entirely possible in my review system, and when a game or product manages to do this, it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

    Overall Thoughts

    This game gives me the feel of wild and crazy adventures set in a fast-paced universe which brings joy to my heart. There’s also plenty of “weird” going on here, and this gives the game its own unique flavor. I’ve said this before about their starter set, and I’ll say it about the full game as well: If you like Firefly with some weird thrown into the mix, you’ll like this game.

    If you’re doubtful about the card mechanic, I can say this one hits the right mix of random, player control, highs, and lows to allow a great sci-fi story to be told. Give it a try and see what you think.

    SPECIAL NOTE: I was given a copy of the game by Burning Games for the purposes of this review. They did not pay me for the review (I wouldn’t do that!), and I’ve made no personal gains from doing this review. I simply wanted to do it for Burning Games since they asked so nicely, and to get the good word out about a good game.

    Bonus Content: Tiantang

    Burning Games also sent me a setting book for Tiantang, which is the campaign sourcebook for the dyson ring capital of the Corvosphere. I’m not going to dive deep into a review on this book, but it really amped up my excitement for running this game. While I dinged the core book for “too much backstory,” this 104-page volume had just the right amount. The book contained information about a handful of different sectors and the people/organizations found within. It also included a sweet little adventure called, “Secret of the Yinshen Shi,” as well as gobs of NPCs and some additional gear.

    Did I mention the fold out poster? That’s right! A poster of a space station with a cross-section cut out (yes, they have the physics right and “down” is really “toward the outer edge of the rotating ring”) along with a large spacecraft with a cross-section cut out to reveal the near-city-like areas within.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

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