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Multi-Layered Encounter Tables

22 October 2018 - 5:00am

Table… layers… nothing?

Recently I was thinking my encounter tables seemed kind of dull. Taking some inspiration from this great article series from Justin Alexander, (specifically this part) I decided to add some layers to my encounter tables. This is accomplished pretty simply. By making a handful of themed tables that are rolled on simultaneously, it creates a more complicated set of results that are easy to work with and determine.

For my game I kept my standard encounter table as is, and just added another 2 layers: a table for interesting environmental features and a table for small treasures. By rolling on all three at once, I can create any combination of the three layers and make the result more interesting both because it has more interesting parts and because of interaction between the features. For example, if I roll some monsters and a small gem vein, maybe the monsters are trying to dig up the vein themselves. If I roll a water feature and a treasure maybe the treasure is corroded and lying at the bottom of the water, etc…

Here’s an example for exploring a ruined city area:

To check for an encounter, roll a d10 each of the three tables. On a 1-2 that component is present. on a 3-10 it is not. Then roll on the individual tables as needed.

Roll 2d4 Encounter 2 1d2 dust devils 3 1d6 worn skeletons with decayed weapons/armor 4 1d4 small rubble elementals (re-skinned earth elementals) 5 1d6 Treasure hunter NPCs 6 1d4 wild dogs 7 nest of 1d8 rats and 1d3 dire rats 8  giant hunting spider


Roll 2d4 Terrain feature 2 precariously balanced pile of rubble 3 Sinkhole hazard 4 Ruins with vantage point/platform 5 Water filled area (depression, fountain, basement etc…) 6 Overgrown scrub/grass may be edible variety 7 Bit of carving/plaque 8 small 5 room basement/lower level


Roll 2d4 Treasure 2 Map or note 3 piece of art or jewelry worth 10-80 gp 4 Misc interesting object* 5 3d10 lbs of bent and rusty metal salvage 6 Well preserved piece of gear 7 1d10 each loose cp, sp, gp, and pp 8 Dented lockbox with 3d4 small gems of 10-40 gp value each

So we might get any of the following encounters:

  • Nothing
  • The remains of an old garden. It is overgrown and thorny but a few bitter green melons can be harvested from it.
  • A group of 5 treasure hunters. They have recovered a misc interesting object.
  • 3 worn skeletons with ruined gear
  • etc…

A few notes:

  • Because we’re rolling for each table separately, it’s possible to have one or two of the components without the other(s) I don’t have a problem with that. If it doesn’t work for your game, feel free to change your roll method.
  • Also because we’re rolling separately, the chance of “something happens” isn’t .2 even though each table triggers on a 1-2. Instead the chance of “something happens” is 1-(chance of fail 1 * chance of fail 2 * chance of fail 3). In this case 1-(.8*.8*.8)=.488 If you don’t like that rate, change the base rates for the three tables. They also don’t all have to be the same. I used .2 each for simplicity, but you could decide that encounters have a .2 chance, features a .3 and treasures a .1 (which gives an overall chance of .496) or .2 .2 .05 (.392). Whatever works for you.
  • Hey, that’s a lot of rolling. If you like the old school approach, this is a great use for the die ten million. For me, I’ve got most of my notes in Google Docs anyway so I used Google Sheets and the randbetween, if, vlookup, and match functions to roll an entire day’s worth of encounters on every update. Easy-peasy.
  • Of course what tables you find useful and interesting are entirely up to you and depends on your game.

And a shout out:

  • You see the table above has a Misc Interesting object on it. On my tables, that’s just a link to the 100 Filched Items From Picked Pockets And Cut Purses PDF from Fishwife Games but you could just as well use the 5e DnD Trinkets table (Players Handbook page 160) or any other similar table you like. I just find it’s fun to have a big ol’ list of little interesting crap in my treasure tables.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Don’t Invest In Your Campaign…At First

19 October 2018 - 5:00am

It is fair to say that I have run a number of campaigns. Some epic, some pretty good, and plenty that were meh or worse. Over time, I have gotten a good feel about if a campaign has what it takes to be worthwhile or not, but it takes a few sessions to be sure. Knowing that, I have made it a practice not to put too much detail or effort into an early campaign until I am sure that it is going somewhere.

The 50 Page Campaign

I did not always follow the advice above. There was a time when I would spend quite a bit of time working on campaign ideas, settings, plots, NPC’s, etc in order to prep for a new campaign. Some time back, at the turn of the century, I was setting up to run a Mutants & Masterminds campaign. I got really into creating this alternative history for the world, deriving all the changes in modern history and culture with the arrival of superheroes during World War II.

As settings go, it was easily one of my best ones, and it culminated with a 50-page alternative history that explained the whole setting. The campaign lasted about 4 sessions before the players lost interest. Truthfully the setting had some issues. It was plenty realistic…too realistic.

The point is that I spent way more hours working on the setting/campaign than getting to play the actual campaign. That for me was rock bottom. After that, I swore off investing too much in campaign prep.

The Campaign Prep Tightrope

There is a problem with not investing in campaign prep, and that is that the game may not be interesting enough to keep running unless you do some prep, and that by doing none you may have committed your game to failure. So you have to do some prep to make sure the game takes off, but not so much that if it fails you will regret the time spent. It’s a tightrope.

Depending on the game you play, what you need to prep for a campaign is going to differ. Some RPG’s — like many Powered by the Apocalypse games — do enough initial prep that just running the first session generates enough material to get going. Other games are not that helpful, and you wind up having to do some work to have enough to get the game started.

The Rule of Four Sessions

I have a rule about campaigns. I give them four sessions (defined as the time we sit down to play a game) before I ask my players if the game is worth continuing. Four sessions gives you a reasonable time to understand the mechanics, the setting, etc. Four sessions also gives the players enough time to figure out if their characters work, need tuning, etc.

 Here is the thing. I don’t save limping campaigns, I humanely put them down. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailHere is the thing. I don’t save limping campaigns, I humanely put them down. Either my players are positive and want to keep playing, or I take the next book off the massive stack of unplayed games I have collected via Kickstarter, and we play something else. A’s are passing in this class.

Just Enough Campaign Prep

Now we are getting somewhere. Knowing that in four sessions the fate of the game will be decided, your prep should be scaled appropriately. What does that mean? Here are a few tips:

  • Avoid deep conspiracies and plots. Those are a lot of work and need more than 4 sessions to complete. If the game takes off, you can build one of those starting in session 5.
  • Be evocative and vague. When you name and describe things, make sure that you are being evocative enough to capture the players’ attention, but at the same time be vague so that you don’t have to invest time in creating backstory. For instance: The God of Smiling Retribution.
  • Run a one-shot. Depending on how much material you can get through in four sessions, you may not need more than a one-shot (defined as a single story; start, middle, and end) to play through all your sessions. In many cases published material winds up being able to fill that time.
What If It Takes Off?

So after the fourth session, everyone is on board. Now is the time to ramp up your campaign prep, and get this campaign into full gear. Here are a few ways to make that happen:

  • Build an Arc. Plan out a multi-session story arc to be the first arc of the campaign.
  • Add depth to a few NPCs. Based on the NPCs that the players took interest in during the first four sessions, add some backstory and motivations to them.
  • Build your villains. Did the opposition in the first four sessions survive? If so, its time to get them ready for a campaign. Figure out who they work for, what other plans they have, and who works for them. If they did not survive, who is going to miss them and want revenge?
  • Retcon. If you made something in the first four sessions and your game survives, then you can retcon what that meant to the greater campaign world.
Know When To Hold ‘Em…Know When To Fold ‘Em

Starting a campaign can take some work, but don’t make it too much work for yourself until you know you have something good going on. A solid four sessions will let you know if you have a campaign or if you have been playing a slow one-shot. Make sure you prep enough to make the game interesting but no so much that you will regret if the game does not take off. Likewise, once a game takes off, dive in and build out that awesome campaign you envision.

What about you? Have you ever over-prepped on a campaign? Do you have a four-session rule? How do you know when a campaign is a hero or a zero?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #51 – Non-Violent Games

18 October 2018 - 5:11am

Join Ang, Camdon, and Taylor for a discussion about Taylor’s recent Gnome Stew article “Skipping Stones: RPGs Without Conflict.” They may be exploring the idea of games that can solve problems without violence, but will they be able to non-violently avoid the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #51 – Non-Violent Games

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

Some people, places, and items of note referenced in this episode include:

Follow Taylor at @LeviathanFiles on Twitter and check out his work at Riverhouse Games. If you’re seeing this before October 19, 2018, there’s still time to back Thirteen Demon Princes on Kickstarter!

Follow Camdon at @camdon on Twitter and at

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

IQ In Dungeons And Dragons

17 October 2018 - 5:35am

So you may be expecting this to be another one of those articles going on at length about how much smarter RPG nerds are than other people. It’s not that. But we do have an article that disagrees with that position in our archives if you’d like to read it. It doesn’t quite predate Unpopular Opinion Puffin, which is a shame because it would have made a stellar example of the meme and that would be a good excuse why we didn’t include it.

So that aside, where the hell am I headed instead? Well, here’s a common rule of thumb for Dungeons & Dragons or any RPG that shares its 3d6 stat generation (or RPGs that have a similar range of stats): Your character’s IQ is equal to their INT score times ten. In fact, Gary is said to have repeatedly endorsed this interpretation. This came up on a discussion board I’m part of recently and I had a minor epiphany I’d like to share here (along with some math). While it may be valid to say: “Your INT score times ten is equal to the approximate real world IQ equivalent to their mental capacity”, it is absolutely not valid to say “Your character’s game world IQ is equal to their INT times ten.” Minor difference, but to me, the fun part is why this is clearly the case.

The explanation starts with something called the Flynn Effect. Very loosely, this effect says that aggregate results on IQ tests change, sometimes dramatically, over time. But why then do IQ scores stay in the same range and are interpreted the same all the time? In order for IQ scores to be useful, they have to be standardized even over time so they are routinely normalized so that recorded IQs at a given time follow a normal distribution with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15.

Which of course means that after converting a 3d6 stat score which has mean 10.5 and standard deviation of square root(35/4)* to an in game world IQ score, INT 10 would not be an IQ of 100. INT 10.5 would be an IQ of 100. Similarly, shifting by a stat point would not change your IQ 10 points. It would change it by 15/square root(35/4) or about 5.1 points.

Now, of course different roll methods will result in different conversions but surprisingly enough PC rolling methods aren’t really of interest. In most campaign worlds if we include both assumed and explicit instances generic NPCs will so outweigh PCs and NPCs of interest that the game world’s “IQ distribution” will be based entirely on generic NPC INT scores. This means that for most common 3d6 stat systems, in world IQ scores would be based off of a 3d6 roll. Of course the message board where this came up was a 1e message board, which often used three “averaging dice” for generic NPC scores. These are six sided dice with faces 2,3,3,4,4,5. Those dice create a less bell shaped curve with the same mean of 10.5 but a standard deviation of square root(11/4). So INT 10.5 would still be IQ of 100, and shifting by a stat point changes your game world IQ by 15/square root(11/4) or about 9 points. Which is pretty darn close to Gary’s rule of thumb after all.

One last note: All adding a bonus or a penalty to a stat does is shift the distribution over by that much. So if you’re looking at a +2 INT race, just add +2 to the mean score and keep the standard deviation the same. So for the below table, you’d just add 2 to every value in the INT column.

INT Score 3d6 game world IQ 3 averaging dice game world IQ 1 52 14 2 57 23 3 62 32 4 67 41 5 72 50 6 77 59 7 82 68 8 87 77 9 92 86 10 97 95 10.5 100 100 11 103 105 12 108 114 13 113 123 14 118 132 15 123 141 16 128 150 17 133 159 18 138 168 19 143 177 20 148 186


*Variance of a single d6 is 35/12. Since the 3d6 are independent of one another, the variance of the three of them added is 3* 35/12 or 35/4. Standard deviation is of course square root of variance.

** Variance for a single averaging die is 11/12. Independent, so variance for 3 is 11/4. Standard Deviation is then square root(11/4)

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Spire–The City Must Fall Review

16 October 2018 - 5:00am

The drow have become a fixture in Dungeons and Dragons, and that brings a lot of baggage to the game, since they live squarely at the corner of “a lot of players like even sentient, free willed beings to be born evil so it’s okay to kill them” and “hey, this thing that was born evil looks a lot like a human being and also happens to have dark skin.” Over the years, there have been several attempts to reconcile this concept, but those attempts just seem to multiply the awkward tropes associated with drow, oddly, without decreasing the overall appeal of them as an element of the game.

Given that most of this baggage is associated with a species that is unique to Dungeons and Dragons, it’s interesting that a game that addresses the politics of occupation and occupiers controlling the narrative of a culture, utilizing elves and drow as examples, comes from a game that isn’t derived from any version of the d20 SRD. In this review, we’re going to look at the game Spire, a unique RPG system that explores what life is like in a drow city occupied by elves, and to what ends your drow will go to make a lasting change to their home. Spire successfully funded on Kickstarter last August and went on sale in March of this year.

The Construction of the Spire

This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The PDF is 220 pages in length, with about five pages of thanks and the names of Kickstarter backers, a character sheet, and a two-page index.

Major sections of the book have full page artwork, which is color line art in washed out colors, highlighting the tone of the work. The artwork consists of bold black lines, and splashes of color are more representative of the emotional impact of the scene being presented than a realistic use of lighting or colors.

Headers are underlined in red, with blue sub-headers and dark grey sidebars. All of this is on blue pages with a light background image of concentric circles. It is a visually striking presentation that helps to convey the tone of the stories the game is trying to tell, but the easily seen headers and sidebars do an excellent job of breaking up the information presented into logical divisions.

Welcome to Spire and The World of Spire

The first image you see in this section is an amazing image of the titular city of Spire with an overlay graphic showing the relationships of the neighborhoods to one another. Welcome to Spire, the first section of the book, gives a high-level pitch about the tone of the game, the dice used, and paragraphs on what it means to be a player and a GM. If you are wondering if this is the kind of RPG that has a “what is an RPG” section, it does, but it’s contained on two pages and interspersed with discussions of tone and expectations for the setting.

The World of Spire section describes the broad status quo of the world. If you already know that drow are elves that live underground, dislike sunlight, and have an affinity for spiders, none of that is subverted. After that, just about everything else is. The core concept is that the players are portraying drow characters that are members of The Ministry, a secret cult/revolutionary organization, trying to reclaim Spire from the Aelfir (high elf) oppressors.

The aelfir can’t feel sadness and may not feel empathy either. According to the aelfir, the drow were once aelfir who were cursed for their evil ways and forced to flee from the sun, although there are drow that believe that drow have always been the way they are now, no curse involved. Spire is a huge, mysterious tower like city, that had plenty of space within it to shield those living in it from the sun.

Humans also figure into the story, as a mercenary element crazy enough to dig around ancient cities that predate the modern age, reverse engineering arcane medical procedures, steam-powered devices, and firearms.

There are sidebars that discuss lands beyond Spire, Drow Traditions, and Aelfir Traditions, and while there is a lot more lore coming, this relatively short section already showcases that the game is walking a tight line between recognizable and subverted tropes.

The Rules, Skills and Domains, Equipment, and Bonds

The next sections of the book are The Rules, Skills and Domains, Equipment, and Bonds. While these are all distinct sections, the unified way in which these elements work with one another makes these sections feel like more of an extended explanation of the game.

Characters roll a d10 to resolve an action. If they have a skill that pertains to the roll, they can add a d10. If they have a domain—an area of expertise where they are comfortable operating—that applies to the roll, they can add another d10. Sometimes equipment, circumstances, or character abilities will allow the character to roll with mastery, adding another d10. Since mastery can only be applied once per action, most die rolls will cap at four dice, although some character abilities play with this cap.

More difficult tasks remove a die from the die pool, so that four dice pool, against a difficulty 2 task, only allows the character to roll two dice. The highest die resolves whether the action is a critical failure, a failure, a success at a cost, a success, or a critical success.

Failure usually results in stress, which is tracked under five main resistances (some characters might also have an armor resistance added to the list as well):

  • Blood (Physical health)
  • Mind (Mental well-being)
  • Silver (Wealth and resources)
  • Shadow (Ability to operate secretly)
  • Reputation (Social standing)

The stress taken will vary depending on the stakes of the initial action, and might be generated with a d3, d6, or a d8. As soon as a character takes stress, they roll for fallout, which has minor, moderate, and severe levels depending on the total amount of stress the character has taken.

What this means is that some failures don’t have immediate consequences, but every failure starts to add up. It also means that the rules for taking a hit to your personal funds are the same as taking a blow to the body in combat, although the fallout, when it happens, will be different.

Different character types have different actions that allow them to remove stress when they take those actions, which reinforce the theme of that character type. The world makes more sense to a vigilante that can bring transgressors to justice, and someone well versed in commerce is going to set things right by cutting some deals.

Bonds work the same way as resistances, but they have their own list of fallout, and a character doesn’t check for fallout as often as they do for their regular resistances. Most equipment has something it’s very good at doing (which might allow a roll with mastery), and something it’s not suited for (which increases the difficulty). Weapons and armors have their own tags, which have special effects when rolling a 1 or a 10, or allowing stress to be rolled multiple times, keeping the best or worst result.

Characters and Combat

The next sections of the book cover characters and combat. Character creation consists of choosing a durance, a class, and picking a few starting abilities and equipment.

The durance is a period of indentured servitude that the drow serve under the aelfir to “repay” them for what the aelfir contribute to society. Depending on the durance selected, your character might gain more skills, or special boxes they can add to their resistance that doesn’t count against their normal stress.

The character classes available in the core rules are the following:

  • Azurite (A well connected mercantile priest)
  • Bound (A vigilante with items that have minor gods dwelling in them, boosting their power)
  • Carrion-Priest (Death worshippers with pet hyenas)
  • Firebrand (True believer revolutionaries)
  • Idol (Famous, well-regarded artists)
  • Knight (A member of a once proud martial organization that now operates like a gang)
  • Lajhan (A priest of the moon goddess of the drow)
  • Masked (A drow that learned subterfuge and espionage while serving under the aelfir)
  • Midwife (A drow that is part spider and protects the young and the future of drow society)
  • Vermission Sage (A drow sage that has learned secrets of the city’s extradimensional spaces)

Several of the class abilities grant the character the ability to use magic. Magic in this setting always has a price, and often spells will cause a character to mark stress, usually in a manner that matches the tenor of the religion and the type of spell being cast. A character using their own pain to fuel a spell might take blood stress, while someone sacrificing valuable items may take silver stress, and some spells might require more than one type of stress to be taken.

Each character class has a list of Low, Medium, and High advances, and there is a list of extra advances based on narrative choices the character has made in game. For example, joining the city guard allows for advances other characters may not be able to access, as does getting infected with a magical blood disease that is trying to bring an extra-dimensional being into the world.

Advances are earned by making some kind of change to the city. Small changes earn low advances, moderate changes earn a medium advance, and severe and potentially irreversible changes result in high advances. Characters are expected to gain low advances often, with the other advances gained at the end of major, long term objectives.

Combat is handled as a conversation, a convention that shouldn’t be too difficult for players accustomed to Powered by the Apocalypse or similar games, but for gamers from a more traditional background, this might be a trickier adjustment. Unlike most of those games, however, Spire suggests that you may want to just ask for an action and then move to the next player at the table, unless there is a logical follow up action that would make sense to resolve before moving to the next player and asking them what they are planning.


There are multiple chapters detailing the districts of the city, and they comprise a large portion of the book. In addition to giving locations, the various sections include example NPCs, organizations, and sidebars that call out more of the setting or potential adventure hooks.

The districts covered in this chapter are:

  • Districts and Factions of Academia
  • Districts and Factions of Commerce
  • Districts and Factions of Crime
  • Districts and Factions of High Society
  • Districts and Factions of Low Society
  • Districts and Factions of the Occult
  • Districts and Factions of Order
  • Districts and Factions of Religion

The details on the various characters operating in the different districts reveal a great deal of depth about the setting in an almost incidental, yet memorable way. You find out that some of the aelfir don’t agree with the oppressive ways of their kin, that gnolls, who are portrayed by almost everyone else in the setting as savages, are given to being inquisitive and intellectual, but for various reasons still cultivate their savage reputation. There are intelligent corvids the size of drow, and floating sky whales, and a failed interdimensional sub-way system that may end up causing everything to collapse into an alternate dimension.

There is an amazing depth of setting lore touched upon in these chapters, almost always in a way that makes you want to use that lore at the table. Each district has several easy to grasp plot hooks that almost write themselves if the PCs only wander into the district.

Running the Game

The earlier sections of the book make it clear that there can be several difficult topics in the game. It’s based on resisting an oppressive force, and characters are assumed to be members of a revolutionary organization that can easily fall into terrorist tactics. Several of the character types are borderline nihilistic. This tone is addressed in this section, and right at the beginning of the chapter there are discussions about lines and veils and the X Card, as well as the importance of checking in with players.

There is also discussion about turning the dials up and down in the game. While characters may always have to make hard choices to fight for a better future, they may attempt to be more heroic or at least compassionate about their actions. GMs are instructed to consider how evil, alien, or just out of touch they want their aelfir to be.

There are several places where expectations are broken into different stages, such as the usual progression of a story arc, or the questions you should ask when designing a villain. I especially like the sidebar that details what kind of story elements you might expect to be introduced if players pick certain character classes.


There are various appendices in the book detailing new gods, random items and events, a glossary of city slang and terminology, ancient cities that humans have found and what they salvaged from them, antagonists, suggested media, and the best appendix of all, goats native to Spire.

Much like the information in the district chapters, there is a lot of implied setting detail on the random lists, in what special words exist in the setting, and the fact that there are very specific, special goats in the city (some of them are just bursting in arcane energies and are great to sacrifice, and others are really big and probably not good eating).

The section on new gods also provides advances for followers of those gods, allowing for more customization for players that want to go that route. Antagonist don’t provide specific stats (most NPCs just have a set amount of stress they can absorb before being removed from the scene), but there are random tables to see what other factions might get involved in a mission when the PCs are operating on the streets or effecting city level change.

Side Note—Introductory Adventures

I am a huge fan of introductory adventures in core rulebooks. I can’t say that I’m always likely to run them, but I think just seeing the structure of an adventure, as laid out by the game’s creators, often shows a lot about how the game should run.

Spire doesn’t contain an introductory adventure, but there are several products referred to as “campaign frames” available as “pay what you want” digital products at the One Book Shelf sites. The titles currently available are Kings of Silver, Blood and Dust, and Eidolon Sky.

Revolution! The lore is compelling and delivered in gameable sized chunks that make it easy to digest. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

There is a ton of lore in this book that is just familiar enough to feel comfortable, and then quickly subverts that comfort zone to make the setting its own unique place. The lore is compelling and delivered in gameable sized chunks that make it easy to digest. The mechanics are new and engaging, but, like the lore involved, the mechanics feel just familiar enough, until they go their own directions. It can be a huge boon to be able to introduce a system where everything, from combat to social climbing to buying and selling, can be introduced in a unified system.


The book has a well-placed and well-written safety section, but topics like cannibalism, terrorism, and oppression may override the wondrous weirdness of potentially living cities, sky whales, and god powered ropes. While the text does a great job of breaking down elements that might be introduced when different character classes are in play, I think a little more discussion of what classes work best together to create different campaign frames may have been helpful as well.

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

I think if you have even a passing interest in fantasy settings, the information in this book is going to make for a solid purchase, even if you never use the ruleset. I would never advocate for someone to push themselves into territory where they feel unsafe, but if the themes discussed in this review are within your tolerance, exploring the setting is going to be a joy.

Additionally, the mechanics of stress and fallout are both familiar and combined in a new and exciting fashion, and I think that even people that are a little burned out on fantasy may want to keep an eye on these mechanics and how they managed to promote and resolve story elements.

What are some of the most refreshing fantasy games that you have encountered? What games managed to redefine genres for you? Are you a fan of games that find a way to resolve very different actions in a unified fashion? Let us know below! We would love to hear from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Adding a New Player to Your Stew

15 October 2018 - 5:43am

The night we started back in on our Tales from the Loop game was nearly breathless with excitement. We’d taken about a six month break and played another truly epic medium size campaign, but this game had stolen our imaginations for months. We wanted to know what had happened to Harrison, Stacie, Mags, Ivanka, and Shoya in the intervening ten years. We wanted to know what the next mystery would be. We were chomping at the bit.

Life is life, though.

Between our first campaign and this continuation, circumstances had changed for some of our group. Dear friends had to call it and a new friend had joined in. This kind of shuffle is inevitable as we get older — we have other priorities, other responsibilities and claims on our time. Life doesn’t proceed smoothly as we might wish for ourselves or the people we care about and sometimes gaming is the casualty. So, as we gathered to set up the next chapter, we found ourselves down two players and up one, facing the age old dilemma: how do we integrate this new player into our campaign? It’s time to riff off the old recipe and make something similar, with some new flavors. 

There are a number of key items to consider:

  • Relationships – Drop the new player in with relationships to the existing party
  • Player prior knowledge – How will you deal with them not knowing things in-game?
  • Goals – Align the new character’s goals with the party’s goals
  • Investment – Get the player invested in the game quickly

 A character made in a vacuum will have no reason to relate to the others.   Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailThe primary way to embed a new character in your game is by immediately having relationships with your long standing characters. The newcomer needs to have a minimum of one relationship to someone in the party that has the same level of commitment as the other characters do to each other. How you create this will depend on how you’re adding this person in to the game — are you coming back to a game that you’re picking back up, where you can have a session zero again? Are you dropping them in cold mid arc? Consider if there’s no pause taking a little time as a group to establish these relationships. A character made in a vacuum will have no reason to relate to the others.  A single ingredient off to the side is not part of the stew. Marry the flavors. 

How you play with relationships will vary what kind of depth you need to make the new character feel like they have interaction options and aren’t blocked out of role playing in scenes. At my game table, we routinely play with friendships, romances, and rivalries, so when it came to integrating the new player we negotiated doing both with him: Chaz is Stacie’s fiance, which immediately made him Harrison’s rival. He is committed to being in this story because Stacie’s not going to go off without him and he’s not going to leave her (at least not without some seriously good drama — I guess we’ll find out!).

Player Knowledge

The next thing you’re going to have to make a decision about is how to handle the player’s lack of knowledge of what has gone before. There are a number of ways to do this, from having everyone try to explain it to handing this poor player a manual of your previous gaming stories to study, but my favorite is to justify why they won’t know, and as a GM, make sure to have fun playing with that. This is the route we’ve gone, where Chaz knows some of what Stacie’s told him, but he didn’t truly take her at face value when she told him there were time travelers and dinosaurs involved. Now he’s confronted with the reality of the situation and we get to see his character evolve to process and handle the realities of both Stacie’s past and their shared present. The important thing about specifically integrating a character without plot and story background is that you can play with their lack of knowledge, but you can’t punish them for it. It should be fun that they can discover things or you can have deep conversations with them about what came before. It can’t be not knowing some key thing, therefore this monster kills you.

Having said all of this, we are also playing in the 90s. We know the 90s. There’s no setting to really have to explain beyond our basic location information, which we set up in our session 0. You are going to need to communicate more unique settings at least in general, and work with the player in a meta sense if there are things their character would know that they simply don’t yet. 


The goals of the new addition need to align, at least in the short term, with the party. If you meet someone new in a tavern, they should be planning to travel the same way as you are, or maybe they’re the only other person who fights back when the demons attack the patrons. In my game, Chaz and Stacie just want to get married! And if that means stopping an invasion and an interstellar war, well, you don’t want to see Stacie in bridezilla mode. The relationship is helping us out here a lot in terms of goal alignment. Chaz has his own unique goals, of course — one day, one of his whacky inventions is going to be huge! It’s always just around the corner. In this moment though, in our campaign, his goal is aligned with ours: save the world, get married. Salt and pepper — different but meant to work together. 


 If the player is not invested in this game, they’re not going to have fun…and really, isn’t that what we’re all here for? Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailThe last and possibly most important consideration is investment. If the player is not invested in this game, they’re not going to have fun…and really, isn’t that what we’re all here for? It’s key that you get them invested in the game, the character, and the stakes as soon as possible. Some of that can happen in your session zero (or character creation for the addition if you’re not coming back from a pause), and some of it needs to be the responsibility of the GM to pull everything in as quickly as possible. Relationships with the other characters create investment, and so do goals that are aligned. Once the game actually starts, all of that needs to be brought to the table hard to drag the new character right into the story along with everyone else. Chaz was immediately offered a Vice Presidential position where he can invent new things all day at the new company his Dad just bought (yes, he absolutely just purchased the Loop and surrounding campus), tossing him directly into the cross hairs of our story line (I can’t even begin to explain but it has to do with clones and aliens). Immediately he was invested not only in the theory of the game, but now also in the practice. And with that, soup’s up and we’re all digging in!

Have you had to integrate a new person in to an ongoing campaign? How did you do it? What worked, and what didn’t?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Adding Safety Tools to Your Games

12 October 2018 - 5:00am

Participant safety can be enhanced with a few add on mechanics. Here’s how.

Recently I’ve had a few conversations about using safety tools in role playing games and it seems like a topic worthy of bringing up with the Gnome Stew audience. Whether you run a high fantasy dungeon crawl or a modern day police noir game, safety tools offer the opportunity for deeper vulnerability with a mechanical way to rein in subject matter that becomes too intense.

Note: This article is not a discussion about available safety tools or why to use them. Once you have decided to use one or more safety tools in your game, this is how to move forward with implementing them into your game.

Introducing Safety Tool and Content Discussions

When opening a game session or kicking off a campaign, start with a discussion that includes content warnings and safety tools. It is best to lead with this before there is a problem whenever possible.

One of my favorite ways to introduce safety tools was given to me by a player in one of my convention games. The message is: we may not know each other very well and because of that some people may be inclined to hold back their role playing. Having clear safety tools in place lets us amp the role playing up to 11 while knowing that, when needed, we can rein things back. It’s a get out of jail free card. (Thanks Terra!)

Let participants know that the initial discussion of content and safety tools is just step one. The game facilitator is not solely responsible for the safety (or fun) of each individual, role playing is a group activity and people should be taking care of each other. As a game develops the content and tone may shift and participants may need to self-advocate to stop a certain line of role play that was not anticipated.

Trust and Respect for the Tools

As a Game Facilitator it is your responsibility to set the right tone and create buy-in for safety tools and self-advocacy. If the participants can’t trust that the safety tools will be respected then they are of questionable value at the table.

It is vital when a safety tool is introduced that the game facilitator takes it seriously. Make it clear that the tool will be respected every time and that there will be a clearly understood result when the tool is used (ie the game stops and the subject matter is retconned). Require verbal confirmation that all participants agree to use the safety tools and hold people accountable to that social contract. There are consequences for not respecting the safety tools – such as a warning or removal from the game – and those should be clear up front as well.

It is useful to highlight that participants can use the tool in relation to the game facilitator’s content in addition to their fellow players. Safety tools are add-in game mechanics that apply to all participants equally.

Make the tools easy to use

After introducing the function of the safety tool and explaining how to use it, make sure that it is easy to apply. This can take on different meanings depending on the tool. Here is an example related to using the X-card, one of the most basic and prevalent safety tools in table top gaming. For those who may not know, the X-card is typically a 3×5 index card with an “X” drawn on it. To activate the tool, a participant touches the X-card which indicates a hard stop of the game. When activated roleplaying should immediately discontinue and the story rewinds to exclude whatever led directly into the X-card being used.

Consider the realities of using the X-card. Some game tables are large and cluttered with books, maps, minis, dice, snack and drinks. Having one central card may not be useful and accessible to every participant. The safety tool has to work with the physical set up of the game, including if the game is run online through a voice or video conferencing software. The physical ability of the participants may also inform safety tool choice or modification.

Here are some optional ways to enhance the accessibility of the X-card as a safety tool:

  • Give every player their own copy of the X-card.
  • Instruct players that they can say the phrase “X-card.”
  • Let players know that they can hold up their arms to form an “X” to activate the X-card.
Use Tools that are Right for Your Game

There are a multitude of safety tools and more will be introduced. Explore what safety tools are available and use the right ones for your game and your group. Ask your players and your community what tools they have heard of and what works for them. Different safety tools have different functions and are appropriate for different styles of play.

For me, one of the places that safety tools in table top role playing fall short is based on passive versus active consent. In the case of a tool like the X-card, someone has to reach out and stop the role playing from happening, effectively saying “No more.” If for whatever reason a person does not do this, their discomfort likely won’t be recognized by the group.

In LARPing there is the OK check-in, where players introducing challenging content use the “OK” hand signal to ask their fellow players about the content without breaking the moment. Each player must give a response positive, neutral, or negative to this question. This encourages more active consent, as opposed to a participant asking someone to stop, the player initiating asks permission to continue.

Emotions and Body Language in Role Playing

 If someone seems agitated or disengaged it is useful to step back, break the immersion, and check in. While this is not specifically a safety tool, giving yourself permission to pause the story is important. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailAs a convention game master I meet and play with new people all the time and often my games touch on darker themes and graphic violence. I want players buy in on a deeper level, I want them to feel emotion in my games. But is a player avoiding eye contact or becoming aggressive in character or because the player is on edge? For me, this is where it can get confusing especially among very expressive players or with people I don’t know well.

If I am running a horror game, I want the player and their character to feel tension. My ultimate goal is to create a memorable experience where the player wants to come back and play at my table. I may heartlessly inflict trauma on characters, but I want my players to have fun. It can be a real challenge to determine if someone is reacting in or out of character. That’s why it is best to ask plainly.

It is helpful to keep an eye on the body language of the participants, but it also means trying to differentiate between in-character and out-of-character responses. If someone seems agitated or disengaged it is useful to step back, break the immersion, and check in. While this is not specifically a safety tool, giving yourself permission to pause the story is important. It probably won’t be your favorite thing to do, but if it means keeping participants safe and included throughout the game, it is worth it.

Pro Tip: Use a Safety Tool if You Experience a Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response

There aren’t that many times in my decades of role playing that I’ve needed to use a safety tool. I’m lucky. I play with people I trust and I have lived a relatively easy life. I can explore hard content through role playing and it doesn’t feel that close to my reality, hence in most games I’m starting from a position of safety (not vulnerability).

The few times I can think of where I needed a safety tool were not related to gore or violence. I needed safety tools due to things that were happening in my life that I did not want to relive through play. For example, role playing a support group for people who recently lost loved ones after my mother had died. That’s not something I had anticipated in the game, nor something I would have thought I needed a safety tool to stop. If someone had asked me in advance for a list of things I didn’t want to role play, I never would have thought of that one. It caught me off-guard in the moment and I didn’t recognize that I needed to stop play and I should have.

 If you, as a participant, are experiencing a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response: use the safety tools. Whether that means stepping away from the table for a break or pausing the whole game is up to the person in the moment. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailIf you, as a participant, are experiencing a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response: use the safety tools. Whether that means stepping away from the table for a break or pausing the whole game is up to the person in the moment. Step one if you feel a physiological response to a game is to protect yourself and use the safety tool. This isn’t the only reason to use a safety tool, but for me, it was the time I didn’t use my “get out of jail free” card when I should have.

Final Thoughts

Safety tools are a valuable addition to the tabletop role playing hobby and they are becoming more and more prevalent. While at first I was skeptical, I have learned their value, especially as I gravitate towards more intense role playing experiences.
What safety tools have you used? Have you ever experienced someone disrespecting the safety tools? Was there a time you probably should have used a safety tool but didn’t/couldn’t?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Pathfinder Playtest Review, Part 3

10 October 2018 - 5:00am

This is part 3 of my review of the Pathfinder Playtest from Paizo. You can see part 1 here and part 2 here. In this part of the review, I’ll comment on Advancement and Options, and Playing the Game. The fourth segment will contain my thoughts on with Game Mastering through Appendices.

If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site: Advancement and Options Advancement

When I hit the advancement section, I was expecting a long and involved process, which is the nature of the crunchier games like Pathfinder. I was pleasantly surprised to find the advancement instructions to be only a single page. It’s straightforward and simple. I like this quite a bit.

One thing I made a strong note of is that each level is 1,000 XP. The increasing experience point requirements for higher levels has gone the way of the past for Pathfinder. This means gaining levels is a linear process, not an increasing barrier. I find this incredibly interesting on how higher-powered obstacles will turn in experience points for the characters. I’m assuming the XP award information will be found in the GM section, so I’m looking forward to getting the other side of the coin for this process.


There are seven archetypes offered in the playtest book, and they mention that this is a sample. The seven they have are just enough to give a taste of how things work, but still provide some options for characters during the playtest process. Based on this taste, I can’t wait to see the full buffet of choices for the archetypes.

Archetypes appear to be replacements for prestige classes. Like with prestige classes, some of the archetypes can be taken at lower levels, which others have higher requirements, including some events that must happen with the character before the archetype can be chosen.

There are two types of archetypes: multiclass and prestige.

Multiclass archetypes allow a character of one class to tap into the powers of another class, but in a limited fashion. This allows for a fighter to gain some healing ability or maybe some rogue skills. Like with the rest of the power-gain systems, these are based on feats. One thing to note here is that a character cannot multiclass into a class they already have. In other words, you can’t be a cleric and gain extra cleric goodies by multiclassing as a cleric also.

Prestige archetypes are, as the name implies, more like prestige classes. These archetypes can focus in a character’s abilities and adds some new options for their class. While the text in the playtest book is limited, I can see some expansion happening not only with the choices available, but more in-depth descriptions of the archetypes as well.

I like that the archetypes are placed in the “options” section of the book because they are far from required to call out a character as being special or unique, but there is extra flavor and style that can be gained by leveraging an archetype. One thing to note, is that an archetype does not directly deliver extra “class abilities or powers” like prestige classes did. Choosing an archetype just opens up more options for feats that a player can choose from for her character.

Animal Companions

Building an animal companion is much like building a character in that you have stats, feats, actions, and types of companions. There are some sample builds of animal companions, but they are base stats, not final stats. I’ve read through the animal companion section three times so far, and I have to admit that I’m still fairly well confused about how to stat out an animal companion. Seeing a “final stat block” of one of the examples would have helped me piece things together to see how it all works. My advice to Paizo for this segment is to look at the descriptive and rules text in this section an clarify things quite a bit.

Having said this, I think there are some slick options and actions for animal companions. I like them quite a bit, but I also didn’t see a limitation on which actions which types of animals could use or have. Maybe there were some things taken out of the final text to make the playtest book shorter that could have clarified everything in here.

There is also a section on familiars, and this section is pretty brief, but does explain familiar abilities and how they interact with the spellcaster. Somehow, this section is very clear to me on familiar stats and abilities, unlike the main animal companion section. The only thing I see that’s missing, which will probably land in the final product, is what happens when a familiar dies. This has always been key to this genre of RPGs, so I’m kind of surprised at the oversight in this area.


There are two pages of brief summaries for the deities found within Golarion. There are 20 of the world’s deities summarized here, and these summaries include alignment, edicts, anathema, and favored weapon. If you note that domains are missing here, that’s because they are included with the cleric class information earlier in the book. This is what I was talking about in my “part 1” of the Pathfinder playtest review. The deity information is split across two section and hundreds of pages, which makes finding all of the details about a single deity cumbersome and slow. The domain listing should be combined with this section for ease of use.

Playing The Game

Now for the meat of the game mechanics themselves. There are 35 pages of rules. I’m hesitant to dive into the details of all 35 pages of the rules because that would make this portion of the review extremely lengthy. Instead, I’m going to gloss over repeating the rules, and just give my impressions and the highlights.


There are three modes called out in the text. Any veteran player will quickly see these and wonder why they are called out as they are “obvious.” However, to a new gamer, these are excellent call outs for them and are also top-notch reminders to the grognards in our groups.

The modes are encounter, exploration, and downtime. In short, encounter modes occur when seconds matter, detailed tactics come into play, and determining the order of PC and NPC actions really matters. Exploration modes occur between encounters. This can be creeping down a dungeon corridor, traversing overland terrain, or moving across a densely populated city. Lastly, we have downtime modes, which occur when the characters are in their home base, passage of time is measured in days or weeks, and not much dangerous action is going on.

I like these different modes because I’ve made plenty of characters that could create magic items, but never really had a chance to leverage those abilities. Calling out the fact that downtime exists, would allow such a thing to take place.


The detailed descriptions of how to do a check make things clear. This is a good thing because there are subtle adjustments to the game between current Pathfinder and the new Pathfinder on what gets added into a die roll. The main change is skills are simplified. Basically, each skill add is equal to your level. Then an adjustment ranging from -2 through +3 is added based on the character’s proficiency rank.

The math formula for calculating the final result of a die roll is a little intimidating, but it’s not that bad. Of the 10 numbers involved in calculating the final result, one is the die roll, 4 are captured on the character sheet and summarized there. This leaves circumstance bonuses/penalties and conditional bonuses/penalties as well as the mysterious “untyped penalties” left to deal with. The circumstance/condition/untyped numbers don’t always exist, so it’s still basically, a d20 added to a single number that’s pre-calculated and written on the character sheet. Honestly, the diagram at the top of page 292 is great an should remain a reference.

Degree of Success

Success and failure are still the same. If you get higher than the target number, you succeed. Lower than the number, and you fail. Pretty simple. However, critical successes have changed a bit. If you get a “natural 20,” then you get a critical success. Also, if you get greater than the target number plus 10, then it’s also a critical success. I like this change to reward specialized characters and great die rolls. On the flip-side, a “natural 1” or less than the target number minus 10, then it’s a critical failure. This change makes for interesting storytelling for those times when the die rolls go extraordinarily well, or drastically poor.

Fortune and Misfortune

A new addition to Pathfinder, but not a new addition to gaming in general is the concept of “fortune” and “misfortune.” With fortune, there are two options. One is a reroll, and the other is rolling two dice and taking the better of the two. The same thing applies with misfortune where a successful roll may require a reroll, or two dice are rolled and the lower of the two are taken. This is explained in a sidebar before the actual rules of when fortune and misfortune applies, so I hope they clarify how to obtain and lose these conditions.


There’s an interesting twist and change with dying. Instead of it being based on HP or constitution, there’s a new concept here called “dying value.” If a character’s dying value reaches 4, then they die. When a character hits zero HP (you can’t go negative in this system), then you gain 1 or 2 dying value points (1 for a lethal hit, 2 if it was a critical hit). At this point, saving throws kick in to see if the character recovers. Success indicates a return to 1 HP. Failure adds 1 dying value, and a critical failure adds 2 dying value. When a dying value of 4 is reached, the character dies. Of course, these rules only apply to PC, main villains, important NPCs, etc. The typical minion or mook should be removed from combat if it reaches zero HP, but that’s up to the GM to decide.

Honestly, I don’t think I like this system very well. It could be that I’m comfortable with the current system and it makes sense. I’m not sure how this simplifies or improves the game any, but I’m willing to give it a shot and see how it plays out.

Actions and Activities

As I talked about in part 1 of this review series, there are different actions and activities. There are free actions, reactions, and activities. Some activities consume more than 1 action in a character’s round. Each character gets 3 actions in a normal round. These can be moves, attacks, spellcasting (which usually consumes more than 1 action), reactions, and so on. These changes in how many things a character can do in a round appear to really streamline and simplify things. I think this is a beneficial thing for the overall gameplay in a system that many already complain that takes too long when encounter mode kicks in. We’ll see how actual gameplay works out when I get a chance to put rubber on the road with this system.

Areas of Effect

I just wanted to note here that with all of the changes Paizo is making to Pathfinder, they are leaving the various “areas of effect” from spells and powers untouched. This tells me they think that these portions of the rules are already clear, play well, and are dialed in. I agree.

Hero Points

Each PC starts a session with 1 hero point. She can earn more through good role playing, heroic action, taking notes, running initiative, bringing food/snacks to the game, etc. The book outlines that no more than 1 hero point should be awarded for in-game actions per session. Also, no more than 1 her point should be awarded for out-of-game actions per session. All PC’s hero points reset back to 1 at the start of each session.

Hero points can be used for three different things: staving off death, rerolling a d20, or taking an extra action in a round. These cost 1, 2, and 3 hero points, respectively.

I’m conflicted on the addition of hero points. I like the meta-game currency that many games use because it allows the players to drive the narrative of their characters more. This is a good thing. However, I think that Paizo dropped the ball here. The use of hero points is so incredibly limited, and expensive in hero point cost, that they are likely to be rarely used. Because of this, I’m not sure Paizo should have wasted the ink on printing the rules. They should open up the use of hero points with more options and consider reducing the cost of rerolling a single d20 to 1 hero point.


The section on perception explains everything a new or experienced player/GM needs to know about how the difference senses work, how things are detected (or not), and how different levels of light impact vision. While it feels like second nature to “know” these things about a game, having them defined in clear terms will help remove or reduce disagreements about how perception works.

Encounter Mode

This section details how combat works. The key change here is that initiative is based on the perception skill, so make sure your fighter-types have some focus on this skill. Also of note, is that initiative is rolled once at the start of combat to determine turn order and this order stays this way (barring someone with a high roll shifting to a lower position).

The steps in encounter mode are well delineated and easy to follow. I think even a newcomer to the hobby could leverage the text to fully understand how things work. Well done here, Paizo.

Basic Actions

The basic actions are lined out in their own blocks of text. I love this layout choice. In past iterations of games within Pathfinder’s lineage, each action type was smooshed in a paragraph alongside other blocks of identical text without the breaking headers that make things easy to find and reference. The way they have things lined up here, it’s easy to read, easier to understand, and surprisingly easy to find on the page when needing to do a lookup of a detail.

The common basic actions are outlined here along with some of the less common things like burrow, fly, mount, etc. that are in their own list to prevent muddying the waters for the common actions.

Exploration Mode

The exploration mode section is divided up into areas like traveling, socializing, and resting.

The travel section of things calls out most of the common activities that go on while traveling across large swaths of land. The details are fairly high level and allow the GM and players to collaborate on how things go.

The socializing section calls out different activities that go on here, but again it is at a high level. I hope Paizo does a bit of a deeper dive into this area beyond two-thirds of a column on the socializing. Maybe this is just a taste for the playtest?

Rest and daily preparations is pretty basic and doesn’t need much detail, so they cover it well here. To call note to the HP recovery, it is now the constitution modifier (minimum 1) times the character level in HP regain for natural healing.

Downtime Mode

There is all of half a page dedicated to this mode, and I was hoping for more. Granted, the skills section covers the various rules for the skill-based activities that can occur, but I really hoped for more. Things on my “expectation list” were: managing a stronghold, running a business, overseeing a guild, and so on. Perhaps this will land on the list of things we’ll see in an expansion book down the road.


The “Playing the Game” section wraps up with a lengthy segment on conditions. It’s a long list of the various ways a character can be changed, adjusted, boosted, and limited. The list is, in traditional Pathfinder style, very long, but it’s also necessary for the game play to run smoothly. I like what I see here. The only thing that could make this a little better would be a bullet list of all conditions with a brief summary like what would be found on a GM screen. Putting something like this up front, before the details descriptions, would be a handy reference for GMs and players alike.


Now that I’ve consumed the “meat” of the book, I’m liking what I see. I think some refinement to the rules descriptions here and there would benefit the final product. This, of course, is what playtesting is for, so I think Paizo is on the right track for getting a 2.0 of Pathfinder nailed down and running smoothly.

Am I convinced to “upgrade” to the new version yet? I’m not sure yet. I think part of this comes from the “edition inertia” that I currently have. I own 30+ Pathfinder rulebooks and Golarion books at this point. That’s not counting third party support material, adventures, campaigns, etc. that I also own. This is a lot of things to step away from and set aside in favor of investing in the new edition. It’s become clear to me that conversions between Pathfinder editions will be required, so I can’t just pull a “1.0” book off the shelf and use it on the fly.

I am liking what I see, and I think this would be a fine entry point for a new gamer (especially if Paizo does a “Beginner Box 2.0”). Overall, I like it, but we’ll wait until I finish up with the book to make a final determination on what I do with the new version of Pathfinder.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Black Lightning Strikes Truth — Running Great Superhero Games

8 October 2018 - 6:21am

*Black Lightning: My Man!

Today’s guest article is by Chris Spivey, talking about how the TV show Black Lightning makes fertile ground for a great superhero game and how to run one. Chris is the award winning author of Harlem Unbound and is currently working on an un-named superhero game for Chaosium. – Head gnome John

Considering the second season is airing any day now, I am coming to this retrospective and exploration later than most. The show spoke to me in a similar intensity, if not manner, as Black Panther did. That feeling made me consider staying in a quiet(ish) mood, keeping my overall thoughts and perceived implications of the show to myself rather than with the world. But my mind kept coming back to this show—its vision of superheroes, world building, relationship dynamics— and how it lined up with so many of my thoughts related to superhero gaming. A number of the beats have appeared in my superhero campaigns.

What changed my mind? Someone told me they don’t know why we need Black Lightning if we have Luke Cage. My first thought was, “What kind of logic is that?” If we all believed that, then we don’t need Arrow, The Flash, Daredevil, Punisher and especially not Ironfist. But each of those shows is telling a different story with a different lead, (mostly) addressing issues differently. If anything, we need more shows like Black Lightning, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Agent Carter (we miss you, Peggy). I am still rallying for Photon, Blue Marvel, and Ms. Marvel. Hearing that comment solidified my need to share my thoughts about the show and how gamers can add the essence of the show to their own supers game.

A Brief History of the Superhero Genre

We can’t talk about superhero comics-related media without touching on the comic ages. Anything I write about superheroes has to include their importance and impact on society, each age reflecting society at the time:

  • The Golden Age (1938–1950ish) ― Coming out of the Great Depression, America was looking for light entertainment and a diversion from reality and found it in Superman! The Kryptonian boy scout jump-started the age, surpassing his masked predecessors, and his success solidified the comic industry. The wave rode into World War II with heroes shifting to patriotic themes and providing moral support for troops and people back home. The superheroes frequently fought gangsters, supervillains, crooked politicians, and Fifth Columnists.
  • The Silver Age (1956ish–1970) ― The Silver Age moved towards more science-based superheroes rather than magical ones of the previous age. The idea of superheroes on teams with constant bantering, bickering, and facing greater challenges sold in droves; such teams as the Justice League, the Fantastic Four, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and X-Men were hot items.
  • The Bronze Age (1970–1985) ― Comics became more complex, lost the frivolity of the Silver Age, and evolved into what they were meant to be: a mirror for society. Comics became a voice to those without a voice, a chance to inspire as they did in the Golden Age but with more modern values and diversity. There were too many issues plaguing the world to ignore: street riots, the Vietnam War, a corrupt law and order system, and drugs. This exponential increase minority superheroes with the likes of Luke Cage (the first black superhero to have his own comic book), Shang-Chi, and Storm.
  • The Modern Age (1985–Now) ―  This could easily be broken down into two or three new ages; building on the concept of social issues and complexity led to a desire for grim and more adult-themed comics. Independent comic publishers were able to establish themselves as power players in the market, such as Image Comics, Milestone Comics, and Dark Horse Comics. These independent comics could do things that the larger companies couldn’t, as they did not need to hold a middle ground of ideas to keep their fanbase.

The Skinny Upfront

Black Lightning is one of the best DCTV superhero shows (heck, just any television series) airing, in my opinion, with Arrow as a distant second. There you go, I said and stand by it. Netflix/Marvel’s Luke Cage is excellent but a very different show with a different vision that is a different discussion. The characters are well developed, the story moves at a solid clip, and the cast is engaging. All of that makes it a great show and fertile ground for superhero roleplaying game ideas. It does not reinvent the superhero genre or even attempt to, and Black Lightning does something better…it elevates the bar.

One of the show’s primary focuses is on what superhero comics were meant to do ever since the first pages of Action Comics #1 in the Golden Age, and more solidly addressed in  the Bronze age of comics: hold a mirror up to society exposing the ugly truths while holding us to a higher ideal through our superhero avatars.  This has been done to varying degrees of success since its inception and when it is done, it is frequently whitewashed. The X-Men are a perfect example of this, being an analogy of the civil rights movements with some people casting Professor X as Martin Luther King and Magneto as Malcolm X, and the mutants representing African Americans. And yet they are primarily all white, even in today’s incarnation. The analog has continued to evolve with the times to include those in the LGBTQ community and more, but the characters are still principally cis, white, and usually male.

Black Lightning’s creation had the other DCTV shows attempt to address social issues with baby steps. For instance, Super Girl’s Jimmy Olsen’s, a black hero, needing to decide if he should come forward to show a black man can be a hero. In those shows,  all of the people of color are sidekicks, their struggles barely acknowledged, and their stories are quickly wrapped up before the end of the episode. This show casts people of color as the primary protagonist and integrates the struggle into their daily lives making it a near-perfect superhero tale for television or the gaming table, balancing real life with the responsibility and repercussions of superheroics.

Relationship Diversity

The show focuses on community—on family and friends—by placing them all into the central plot of making their city a better place; they are pillars of the story.

The reason this show speaks to me so much: I am an educated black man of a certain age raising a daughter in our dangerous world.  I endure racism, being targeted by the police, and the crushing weight of depression from the current administration politics. To see a strong realistic African American family battling the same issues I do daily is uplifting and inspiring. At its core, that is what superheroes are supposed to do. They inspire us, make us want to be better, and are a reflection of our lives.

That spark of inspiration is something that can be reflected in a game. It may seem small but it establishes the player characters in the world and reinforces that their actions have positive consequences. So many games focus on the damage the superhero battle inflicts on the city, which should also be considered, but they don’t highlight the “civilians” cheering them on. For Black Lightning, they can be found in the random doorman that opens the door for him and praises his work before a battle. Those moments tie the supers more strongly into the world. They can even translate into a minor mechanical bonus to hit or dodge, or a Sanity bump.

Bringing it to the Gaming Table — A Template for Assessing your Superhero Game

How does any of this help you run a superhero game? How do you apply it? Here are a few questions to ask and things to consider as you prep for a great superhero game.

  1.  What Comic Age Do You Set It In? Decide on what age the campaign will fall into. It doesn’t need to be a direct correlation but rather a general tone or vibe and it should set the values of the universe. Whatever the age, it can be modernized and interwoven into the game. This is something the players should know before making characters as it also lets them have a better sense of the type of game they are playing in. The Punisher blasting his way through a group of criminals doesn’t generally work in a more simple Golden Age Style game.
  2.  Know Your Vision: You need to know the scope of the “world” for the first “season” of the game. The scope may change after contact or after a few sessions with the players and that’s fine. The initial setting may be focused on a single city block, neighborhood, or the entire city. By establishing that baseline it enables the game to expand naturally.
  3.  Player Characters vs NPCs:  The players should know both the Comic Age and your Vision before creating characters. This lets them build a character that fits into the campaign mechanically.  If a player knows that the game has a Silver Age vibe and deals with keeping the city safe, they may decide to build a mechanical engineer working for a private company knowing they are more likely to encounter alien technology rather than magical power rings.
  4. Backstory. Backstory. Backstory: Backstories are more vital in superhero games than in almost any other genre. The character is living dual existences. This conflict is fertile ground for drama, roleplaying, and enhancing player buy-in. This is the element that makes superhero games more than just punching a bad guy in the face.
  5.  What Are The Key Relationships? With the world and superhero backstories established, relationships are going to need fleshed out. These relationships should feel natural by creating complications and moments of joy. My personal balance for this would account for this being 25-30% of the campaign’s focus. These relationships can be both as a superhero and within their secret identity.
  6.  What System and Why? Picking a system is always tough. The game needs to feel super-heroic, allowing incredible feats, but not be too crunchy. There are many systems out there that tackle superheroics in different ways — choose the one that fits your play style best.
Lightning Strikes! Running Black Lightning With The Template

Let’s break down a few of the key elements of Black Lightning into the steps above so you can be ready to run a Black Lightning themed game.

  1. Comic Age: Modern Age
  2. Know Your Vision:  Protect Freeland. Much of a Black Lightning game revolves around keeping the city safe and stable.
  3. Player Characters vs Key NPCs:
    Players: Jefferson, Jennifer, Anissa, Lynn, and Gambi
    Key NPCs: Tobias, Henderson, Lala, Syonide, and Kara
  4. Backstory. Backstory. Backstory: I won’t delve in too deeply so there aren’t spoilers, but the backstories in Black Lightning are often about uncovering the past and finding out how those things hidden in history affect the future where the current story is being told.
  5. Relationships: There are many relationships that interweave between the main characters, and some of the Key NPCs change throughout the show and in relation to the characters. I don’t want to spoil much, but in a Black Lightning game, relationships will change based on the choices the characters make  — where they put their efforts and what they leave behind to protect Freeland.
  6. What System and Why:  My first thought would be Wild Talents. Wild Talents has the ability to create various powers; the Will mechanic dovetails with the character’s moral drive, and the ease of research. Black Lightning could also easily be run in my upcoming superheroes campaign for Chaosium. That allows for a number of powers, occupations, and sanity effects. An interesting take would be to run the game as a One-2-One. The player would choose one of the main cast, while having the other main cast members be sources, and tackling the series’ story.

Black Lightning as a show is great, and Black Lightning as a game played among friends brings the story to the people at your table. It takes the narrative and makes it a living thing. When you’re jonesing for a new superhero game, look to Black Lightning as something that might give your group a good narrative framework. Where’s the future? Right here.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Seven (Plus Or Minus Two) Reasons You Should Consider Using Maps in Your Game

5 October 2018 - 5:44am

Image courtesy of Blue Sword Games:

If you’re like most people, you’re capable of effectively keeping track of seven plus or minus two “things” at a time. This phenomenon is sometimes called “the magical number seven plus or minus two.” We can remember and juggle around seven pieces of information—numbers, words, names—and use them without too much effort. Much more than seven, and we start to lose track, dropping details and never quite picking them back up.

These “things” are chunked together in our minds in ways that make them meaningful as a unit to us, so we can remember a “cat” as “that furry thing that keeps knocking my coffee off of the table” (one “unit” of information) rather than as a collection of cat-like traits, with each trait being its own “unit”.

We’re a tool-using species—when we find ourselves reaching the limit of our abilities or our willingness to expend effort, we find ways to offload some of that work to things we make. When we’re sick of lifting things, we use levers. When we want to move farther than it’s convenient to walk, we use wheels. When we need to remember what more than seven things are, we use lists. When we need to remember where more than seven things are, we use maps. When we need to remember what more than seven things are, we use lists. When we need to remember where more than seven things are, we use maps. Share79Tweet1+11Reddit2Email

It’s tempting to think of maps as suitable only for huge set-piece battles and aggressively tactical games that linger over detailed rulings on range and movement. There’s nothing wrong with that, but having a physical representation of characters and objects in space is useful for so much more than just dungeon crawls and skirmish games. So with that in mind, here are seven (plus or minus two) reasons why you may want to inject some more maps into your game.

1. Because your players might “chunk” information differently than you do

I’m really, really bad about getting lost when I go places. Not “loses track of routes after two or three turns” bad at directions, but “ends up in the wrong ZIP code” bad. “Donner Party” bad. While I haven’t yet had to eat any of my passengers, I wouldn’t recommend myself as a partner for a road trip through any place that has bad GPS reception or barbecue restaurants with lax supply standards.

Image courtesy of Joseph Carriker:

For me, even the most basic directions are not a matter of “remember this distinct route,” but a string of relationships that require all of my attention to manage. Directions that would be a single “chunk” of information for many (maybe most) drivers instead require all of my memory to keep straight.

Your players may be having a similar problem when it comes to imagining the situations their characters are in. This isn’t necessarily just the case with battles, either. Relative positioning matters in games for everything from picking pockets to genteel but vicious cocktail parties. For some people, keeping track of where all the moving pieces are while also keeping track of the board they’re moving on is a really difficult task.

Players who are spending all of their mental energy trying to juggle what is going on in the room aren’t concentrating on adding to the game; they’re struggling just to keep up with what’s already there. A map—even a simple one—provides an easy reference for everyone at the table.

2. Because maps don’t need to be a big deal

To expand on the pickpocketing example, a “map” can be something as simple as setting up a handful of coins to represent where the party leader is standing while they distract the guard, where the guard is, and where the party thief is sneaking from to try to snag the key to the cell your bard is being held in after yet another disastrous liaison.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can sketch out a couple of lines to represent the alleyway where all of this is taking place in case the thief wants to take the roof approach. It takes seconds to draw two lines and set down three coins, but it saves time, frustration, and confusion when the dice start rolling.

3. Because it helps clarify the confusing

Your players only have the information you give them, and as anyone who has ever tried to give instructions can tell you, there are a lot of wrong ways to interpret a sentence. For instance, take the statement “there are two goblins in the corner of this room.” The GM could mean to communicate this (goblins in green):

Meanwhile, the players are imagining this:

These are two very different configurations, and the difference between them becomes very important when the party wizard says those three words every GM longs to hear:

“I cast fireball.”

4. Because creating stuff is fun

Tabletop RPGs throw a pretty long shadow—almost any skill you can think of has a place somewhere in it. Tabletop RPGs throw a pretty long shadow—almost any skill you can think of has a place somewhere in it. Share79Tweet1+11Reddit2Email

If you like woodworking, your table is likely to have some pretty neat wooden props. If you’re a writer, your game’s fiction (or your characters’ backstories) are likely to be deeper and richer for it. Even folks who do statistics for fun add to our games in ways that someone without those skills or interests couldn’t.

Maps, like props or probability curves, are a way to bring your creativity and valued skills to the table—it doesn’t take being a cartographer or an artist to add to the game, but more than a few times, making maps for games has awakened an interest in art or cartography.

5. Because it encourages players to engage the details of the environment

There are probably people out there who really enjoy listening to the GM recite lengthy, detailed descriptions of everything in a room from lighting placement to the number and types of pieces of furniture. I have never met any of these people, and I’m not entirely sure I could stay awake in their games.

Practically, there’s a limit to the number of things in the environment that are available for players to remember their characters can interact with (that limit is probably right around seven). But with the details that come with even a simple map, that list expands dramatically, limited only by the detail that the GM or players are willing to add. Tables exist to be flipped over, cupboards are filled with cutlery for hurling, and windows provide curtains for swashbuckling swings. The map provides a concrete reminder of the availability of those things, and prompts players and GMs to use them.

Image courtesy of Blue Sword Games: 6. Because it improves immersion

Theater of the mind is wonderful. I don’t want to downplay it or say that it doesn’t have its place, but not everyone has the creativity or attention necessary to see a masterpiece in every blank canvas. Having details available for players to look at and think about when the GM isn’t directly talking to them invites players to speculate about (and add to) the world that the GM is building, rather than letting their attention wander.

7. Because it encourages the GM and players to add and flesh out detail they may otherwise miss

Drawing boxes for rooms is quick, but boring.  With a few extra seconds, GMs can look at a room and think about details that a verbal description could easily gloss over. Does the room have a door (probably)? What about windows (sure)? A spike-lined pit full of snakes (always)?  With a few extra seconds, GMs can look at a room and think about details that a verbal description could easily gloss over. Does the room have a door (probably)? What about windows (sure)? A spike-lined pit full of snakes (always)? Share79Tweet1+11Reddit2Email

By seeing all the elements of a room at once, the places where more can be added become more apparent. Even better, it encourages players to add their own flourishes to the imaginary space where the game is taking place.

When players ask “is there a campfire?” if you place a coin or a die or even a piece of pocket lint to represent that fire, it becomes a persistent detail that otherwise may not have existed, and that adds to the options players have to interact with the world, improving gameplay and verisimilitude.


7+1: There are a lot of cool maps already out there, many of them free

If you’re into quickly providing lots of detail for your players to engage with in your games, there are a lot of maps already out there, ranging from the expensive but awesome, like map packs/tiles put out by Paizo and Wizards of the Coast, to cheap or free options on Patreon or DeviantArt. If you have access to a printer, you can print out and tape even the free options together to add a “wow factor” to any game. Building up a library of these gives you the option of flexibility when your players go in an unexpected direction, and provides inspiration when you’re brainstorming session ideas.

7+2: There are great tabletop crafting and mapping communities out there

There are large communities of people who make maps for fun, sometimes using specialized software and sometimes using more standard office products. If you find yourself going down a deeper rabbit hole than you expected, there’s a whole world of tabletop crafting out there. Some crafters make entire cities out of foam and paint; others use 3D printing, and at least one designer is making animated maps for display on TV screens. Here are few resources to get you started.

Final Thoughts

Maps aren’t all gridded excuses for arguments about bonus actions and five-foot steps; they can serve a variety of purposes: enriching the game world and providing clarity so that all players are operating with the same set of assumptions being only two. As a player and as a GM, I find that having visual references greatly improves the experience of everyone involved, but I’m interested to hear if your groups have a different perspective. What do you think; do maps have a place at your table?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #50 – Not Just Kid Stuff

4 October 2018 - 5:25am

Join Ang and Chris on this special 50th episode of Gnomecast! Our hosts discuss their personal history with RPGs, the state of the hobby today, and what their futures might hold. Even with 50 episodes under their belts, will the gnomes be spared a trip to the stew pot?

Download: Gnomecast #50 – Not Just Kid Stuff

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

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

Find Chris and the whole Misdirected Mark network at @MisdirectedMark on Twitter, the Misdirected Mark Facebook Group, and the Misdirected Mark Google+ Community.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Steal This System: Pathfinder’s Discovery Points

3 October 2018 - 6:00am

For years I’ve been kicking around a system in my head for simplifying hex crawls, point crawls, West Marches style games, megadungeons, etc… Something that keeps but abstracts the process of wandering, searching, and eventually discovering points of interest without requiring the potential for entire sessions to end up as fruitless wandering and random encounters and without demanding ridiculously detailed maps. It would probably revolve around skill checks of some sort with a chance to discover points of interest and add them to the map. I even hinted at it in a prior article, but I never really firmed it up or got it to a state that I thought it would work quite right. So of course in the process of looking up overland movement in the Pathfinder system, I discover that last November they beat me to it, publishing a “Discovery Point system” in their book: Ultimate Wilderness that not only hits all the high points I would want to and is elegantly simple but is largely system neutral. It DOES make use of Pathfinder-based skill checks and DCs but it would be simple to swap them out for skills and DCs or an analog from another system. What’s more, it’s scalable and nestable in a way that means with appropriate scaling and adjustment you can use it or a variant for pretty much any exploration mechanic that you need in your game.


The basics of the system are simple:

  • Discovery Points: The system introduces a new currency type called “Discovery Points” that are used to uncover points of interest on the map.
  • Each day each character makes a survival check: More success=get more discovery points, More failure=LOSE more discovery points (because you just drew part of the map upside down or misidentified a landmark or something). This encourages characters who aren’t really cut out for exploration to use the aid another action or spend their time doing other things: fortifying camp, using a subsystem to make maps and gazetteers, hunting for food and water, translating an old book the party found, whatever.
  • Characters can accumulate bonus discovery points by “interpreting waypoints”: This terminology makes it sound like inspecting physical landmarks but it’s just shorthand for any way of figuring out the location of points of interest other than stomping through the wilderness. In the example territory given three methods are flying overhead, talking to locals, and decoding a journal.
  • After some discovery points are accumulated, the party spends them to uncover known or unknown points of interest: Points they KNOW are there, they just don’t know WHERE, get paid for directly. If they’re looking to just uncover anything of interest they can blow a specified amount of points and hope there are unknown points of interest that cost half that or less.

The SRD explains the system as well as some subsystems and details target numbers and some other finer points. There is an example territory to illustrate, a small canyon with 3 points of interest and 4 defined waypoints, along with target numbers and a small random encounter table. For a free system on the internet that’s easily portable into any number of other systems it’s surprisingly useful. While the book has no new material (on this system anyway. It has 250 pages of additional material on other things) the PDF is also pretty cheap and it’s on sale at the time I type this. Here are some additional thoughts I have on the system so far:

  • A day and four encounters per day isn’t quite right: The system assumes a certain size of territory. See the example territory given and the suggestion that a single 12 mile hex constitutes a territory. But consider that sometimes an area of a much different size warrants territory status and that while the system still works as described, it creates some interesting issues.
    • For a larger territory: (let’s say a few dozen hexes across) you run into the issue that you can conceivably accumulate discovery points and “discover” a point of interest much further away than you could have traveled to in the time it took to discover it. You COULD figure out a bunch of sub-rules for where the party is in the territory and thus what they can and cannot discover, BUT it’s far easier to just change the length of time it takes to make a check and the number of potential encounters that could happen during that time. Using the initial hex and day, a good rule of thumb is that the time it takes to make an exploration check for a territory is about the same amount of time it takes to travel across that territory. That assumes the characters are traveling the length and breadth of the land beating bushes and peeking into corners and ensures that no matter where they discover a point of interest it makes sense. While that also means that you should check for 28 encounters for a discovery check that takes a week, that seems excessive. Instead assume that the party has many encounters over a time of that duration and avoids or overcomes most of them and instead make the regular four checks, assume the party is fully rested between each and populate your table with a selection of “notable” encounters. i.e.: with powerful individual creatures or with multiple encounters with weaker creatures. So you might say: “You explore the area for a few weeks. During that time you have to fend off many goblin hunting parties but several days into your exploration, through either accident or because of the creature’s determination you are attacked several times in succession.” Then run a single encounter with several “waves” of goblins that are separated by minutes to hours of “real time”.
    • For a smaller territory: example: the PCs are searching the local rancher’s back 40 for clues to his disappearance, it makes more sense to make a check every few hours and roll for an encounter each check. That said, if they area gets too small it’s probably best to move to a traditional dungeon exploration system or series of checks.
  • Where’s the rest of the party?: The base system allows each character to make a separate survival check to gather discovery points. While that makes sense, it also assumes that you’ve split the party and that each character (or group of characters if some are using aid another actions) is by themselves exploring or back at camp doing other stuff. This introduces the issue that any number of characters might end up meeting an encounter. In this case I think it’s safe to assume that characters are relatively close to one another and have some way of signalling one another (from magic items to bird calls to outright yelling) so in the case of combat, you can probably assume that missing characters show up in a few additional rounds. If you go this route, make sure that players understand it might happen so they have the option of not letting the mage wander off by themselves.
  • Other uses: While this system is presented as a system for handling overland exploration with minimal (or no) reskinning it can also be used for:
    • dungeon exploration: think really big dungeons like megadungeons
    • investigation: where waypoints might be clues that point to other evidence and points of interest are evidence, and the checks made are investigation instead of survival
    • information gathering: where waypoints are hints as to who may know things and points of interest are pieces of information and checks are gather information or diplomacy etc
    • social networking: waypoints are people who aren’t interesting or useful except they grant access to those who are (think a bouncer or David Spade’s secretary character), points of interest are contacts etc
  • Nesting Nesting Nesting!: One of the coolest aspects of this system is that it can be nested. You can start with a large territory and one of your points of interest can then be another territory all it’s own, but on a smaller scale. Conceivably this could go through multiple layers. Imagine a reasonably sized territory the size of a hex or two and one of it’s points of interest is the ruins of a city which is much smaller than a hex (a few square miles) but which can be explored as it’s own territory with it’s points of interest being buildings of interest, treasure caches, five room dungeons and the like, one of which is the entrance to a large megadungeon, which is its OWN territory. Nesting would also work very well for sci-fi star exploration, first discovering systems, then planets, then points of interest on those planets.
  • Save some for later: when placing points of interest, remember that not all of them have to necessarily be level appropriate challenges for their territory. While it’s not necessarily fair or fun to have characters stumble onto some alpha beastie’s lair and immediately get TPK’d, putting said beastie on the random encounter list (and letting players know that there will occasionally be out of level challenges they need to be careful of) and giving them bonuses to avoid it once they know the location of its lair gives them a reason to come back later and remove the menace or capture a trophy. Similarly, putting in treasures hidden in vaults with DCs too high to crack at the time they are likely to be found, and sealed doors in point of interest dungeons give the players a reason to return.
  • Gazetteers are awesome: One of the fun parts of the system is the ability for characters with the right skills to make maps and gazetteers for territories. The rules in the system allow for creating these even when most of the points of interest in a territory are still undiscovered. More complete ones might be worth more, or less complete ones might be worth less (or worthless depending on how incomplete) BUT one of the really fun ways to expand this subsystem is the potential for different kinds of gazetteers. The base assumption is that a gazetteer is a written guidebook of the territory and they take the literacy skill to create. But there is lots of potential information that can go into a gazetteer and characters should be able to make more money, though not necessarily increase the bonus they get to survival checks by making a similar number of successes with secondary skill checks to add in additional useful information to their gazetteers. Two or more characters might even work on this simultaneously, one cataloging and recording additional information while the other makes the literacy checks to do the actual writing.
    • Knowledge: Nature checks will create a guidebook with detailed information and sketches of the local flora and fauna and their uses and properties
    • Profession: Miner will create a guidebook with information about local rock structures and composition
    • Diplomacy will create a guidebook with information about the cultures and practices of the local inhabitants
    • Craft: Painting creates a guidebook with multiple attractive pictures of local landmarks of interest
    • etc… The limit is really the imagination of your players.
  • West Marches: So if you have a massive crush on Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign but don’t have the motivation to crank out insane vector maps like he did to prep for it, today is literally the day you get started. All of that gets wiped away and replaced with this simple system… except maybe not. Because there is one major difference between these rules as presented and the West Marches: Multiple groups. If you want to run a West Marches style for a single group, then go get started. I mean it. Go. But if you’re going the whole nine yards and running for multiple fluid groups with all the complexity, confusion and jealously guarded secrets that entails, you’re going to need a few more tweaks to the system. For this you will have to figure out how to handle points of interest that are only known about by some players, if a character who was in a group when a point of interest was discovered can get back without the rest of the group or a map, who “owns” and “carries” discovery points that a group gathers but has not yet spent and other concerns. My initial thoughts are:
    • The local lord or some other NPC organization wants the land explored and is paying for all the info they can get. They are the primary market, aside from other PCs, for maps and gazetteers of unexplored territory.
    • Existence and location of points of interest become common knowledge when a map that contains them is sold to an NPC (similar to the West Marches communal map). We can assume this represents the map eventually making its way to the aforementioned patron who then makes it readily available to aid exploration.
    • That no one can find a point of interest they have discovered without a map or re-paying a fraction of it’s initial cost, but that once points are common knowledge, maps are cheaply available (cribbed from the communal map probably)
    • Discovery points are held by those who created them with their survival check or by interpreting a waypoint. If large numbers of them are gathered in a single roll, some may be shared with a character who used the aid another action to help gather them.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Art of the Convention Game Description

1 October 2018 - 5:00am

Writing convention descriptions can be a challenge, but getting the right players to your table will set everyone up for a fun time.

The more conventions I attend the harder it is to decide how to allocate my limited time among the many amazing people that I want to play with and exciting games I want to try. I typically sign up for convention games months in advance, and I tend to forget what I signed up for until I pick up my tickets. However, each one had something special in the description that put it on the top of my list.

At its core, the art of writing a convention game description is all about establishing expectations. They say brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also a necessity when it comes to writing convention descriptions where the word (or even character) count is extremely limited.

Why it Matters

 Convention descriptions are less about the setting, rules system, or story that will be told and more about getting the right players to your table. Convention descriptions are less about the setting, rules system, or story that will be told and more about getting the right players to your table. If you have players show up who are a good stylistic fit to the kind of game you run, it will be less work as a facilitator, and everyone is more likely to have a fun experience.

For example; I love the Warhammer 40,000 setting, but there are lots of games one can play in 40k. I gravitate towards intense political intrigue games filled with treachery and social manipulation. Other people may gravitate towards playing a game rooted in tactical combat. Those and other options are available in a Warhammer 40,000 game, hence a convention game description focusing simply on the setting or rules system is not inherently descriptive of the style of play. That’s why writing a convention description is so important.


One of the easiest and quickest ways to convey the expectation and tone of the game is through keywords, key phrases, or tags in the description. While I typically begin the convention description with 1-2 sentences that are descriptive of the goal or mission the characters will undertake, the keywords are the meat of the convention description.

I use keywords to convey not only the type of game I want to run, but also the style of players I think will thrive in a session I am running. The trick to an exceptional convention game is not about having the best plot, it is about having players that will respond to and embrace the experience the session provides. In short, the purpose of the convention description it to attract people who will have the most enjoyment, satisfaction, and fun during the game session.

Here are some examples of keywords and phrases that I have used.

  • The core experience: Roleplay heavy, rules light. Tactical combat. Puzzle game. Learn to play.
  • Tone of the game: Dark Fantasy, Horror, Pulp Adventure, Sci Fi, Four Color Superheroes, Space Opera.
  • System and Setting: Warhammer 40,000 RPG Wrath & Glory/Dark Imperium, Savage Worlds Deluxe/Deadlands Noir, AD&D 2nd Edition/Dragonlance, Gumshoe/Harlem Unbound etc.
  • Player familiarity: Rules taught/characters provided, beginners welcome. System experience preferred. System expertise required.
  • Maturity of the players: All ages welcome, teen 13+, mature players 18+
  • Important callouts: Play with the designer! Role Playing or creative writing experience preferred. Organized play/bring a character level 4-6. Emotionally intense/heavy subject matter.

It is most important to relay the core experience, but after that prioritize the keyword categories that are most descriptive of what you are trying to communicate. Skip any categories that aren’t useful to you or your specific game event.

For example, if your game is like Whose Line Is It Anyway where everything is made up and the points don’t matter, it may not be meaningful to spend your valuable word count on describing the rules system or setting. Ask yourself what kind of signals your are sending when you highlight certain features of your game and who will focus on those signals. If the game session uses a popular rules system like Pathfinder but your game won’t be the typical Pathfinder experience I don’t think it is helpful to call out the system. There are people who are going to see that system and sign up immediately regardless of what else the description might say, and that does not set the player or the GM up for success.

Establishing Appropriate Expectations

For me, the mark of a good convention game is much like an end of year review; did the game meet or exceed my expectations? Perhaps it’s my analytical nature, but a significant amount of my “fun” relates to whether or not the game facilitator clearly defined what the game’s core experience will be and whether or not they deliver on that promise.

I think this is true of nearly every form of entertainment and media. When a movie trailer sets my expectations, they have set the bar they must overcome for me to fully enjoy it. When advertisements or word of mouth recommendations oversell or misalign my expectations to what the core experience is, I often feel dissatisfied. When a facilitator sets expectations and delivers on them the players are more likely to feel the “payoff” when the story arc is completed. (Give the people what they want!)

The Bait and Switch

 A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying. Players have allocated their very limited time to play in a game as advertised. Always deliver on what was promised. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailHere’s a story; years ago a friend signed up for a convention game based on a description because they were a huge fan of the specific pop culture setting that was referenced. That description generated interest and excitement from people in that fandom who registered for the game. However, just minutes into the game the GM revealed an unexpected twist: they cleverly plucked the game from the advertised setting and dropped it into a completely unrelated setting. Even the overarching tone was different jumping from Exploration Sci Fi to Epic High Fantasy.

Don’t do this.

A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying (reminder: conventions aren’t free). Players have allocated their very limited time to play in a game as advertised. Especially when referencing a specific intellectual property setting or world, know that you will likely attract fans of that setting and they expect you to deliver. If a player starts out disappointed the GM is going to have a much harder time keeping engaged and having fun. If the game you intend to “switch” to is so good, then use that as the advertised game! Simple.

Introduction at the Event

This is your opportunity to remind players exactly what they signed up for. When the event starts, give an introduction that re-establishes the goal for the session. There are only a few hours to play, so aligning the group’s expectations up front will make the event run more smoothly.

First, I give a brief description wherein I may even read the convention description blurb to the players verbatim. I’ll include the system, the tone, content warnings, and review the safety tools we’ll use in the session.

Additionally, I set the players expectations about the purpose of the game. When I run a Protocol RPG I tell my players that we’re here to have fun and collaboratively tell a story. I specifically call out that there are no dice, no stats, and that “Winning is telling a great story.” In these games I facilitate the rules, but the system is there to support the core experience: the story.

This is in contrast to my purpose while running Wrath & Glory at conventions this summer. I want everyone to have a fun and satisfying roleplaying experience, but as a game designer and GM the story is there to support the core experience: learning the system. Since Wrath & Glory is brand new, my goal is to showcase the game system and teach the players the rules. Hence, my introduction focuses on setting a time expectation for learning the rules before we get into roleplaying.

These are two very different goals. By reiterating the core experience to the players up front I’m setting myself up for success. Since these goals tie back to the convention description this should seem familiar to the players and should help them to remember that this is the experience they signed up for.

Final Thoughts

When certain features are important to the game experience prioritize and highlight those in the convention description. Make it clear what the core experience of the game is and it will help to attract the players who will enjoy your game the most. Finally, follow it up during the introduction to the session to ensure you are setting the players expectations about the experience they signed up for.

What features are most important to you when writing or reading convention game descriptions? Do you have any other helpful tools for creating convention descriptions? What are other pitfalls you have encountered?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries – Review

28 September 2018 - 5:30am

Mix tapes, horror movies on VHS, magnetrine ships, and robots;  it must be time to talk more about Tales From the Loop. You are totally right. So, get some fresh batteries for your Walkman, grab your Members Only jacket and let’s talk about the Tales from the Loop adventure supplement: Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries.

Previously On Phil Reviews Things…

Back in May, I did a review for Tales from the Loop, where I spent some time gushing about how much I enjoyed the game, and how I liked using their published material. So when I had the chance to play some of the material from Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries, I could not resist.


I was provided a copy of Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries from the publisher.

Claimer (it totally is a word now)

I ran some of the content from this book in my Tales From the Loop campaign. My review will lean more heavily on the things I ran because I have more experience with those.

So let’s get on with the review…

The Big Mysteries

The book starts with three full-sized adventures that are on par in size with the adventures that were included in the Tales From The Loop book. This means that they have a fully developed mystery, a scene map that outlines the flow of the adventure, and a showdown which brings the adventure to a conclusion. These adventures will easily fill a session or more, depending on the pace at which you run your games.

I ran one of these, the adventure that shares the name from the book…

Our Friends the Machines

Spoiler: They are Transformers!

Thinly veiled Transformers. But trust me you won’t care.

This is the mystery you have wanted since you were a kid — an adventure about toy robots that are self-aware and being controlled by a pair of AI’s. There are two warring factions: the Convoy and the Deceivers. The kids get wrapped up in the middle of this war, as they try to solve the mystery and figure out how to save the day.

 This mystery plays upon every kid’s fantasy of their Transformers coming to life, mixed with the weirdness you love about Tales From the Loop. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

This mystery plays upon every kid’s fantasy of their Transformers coming to life, mixed with the weirdness you love about Tales From the Loop. The plot drives towards an abandoned factory full of danger that eventually leads to the final showdown. The adventure is open-ended, in that there is not a single way for the adventure to end. The GM will need to do a bit of work in-game to convey some options for the players of how the adventure can end, otherwise there can be some analysis paralysis. The nice part is that the ending is designed for a solution that can be violent or not. I appreciated this option in the game, since my own campaign was one with a low level of violence, and more about problem solving.

My players loved this adventure and the nostalgia it invoked. In terms of running this mystery, I found this one had a lot going on with the plot and subplots. I actually cut this adventure down a bit, and customized it to my gaming group. My story was more focused on the kids helping the Convoy work to defeat the Deceivers. That was easily done with the material provided.

Mixtape of Mysteries

The next section of the book is a series of small mystery plots (8 in total) that are all based on 80’s songs. Again, the authors totally get where this game fits, and there is a cool blend of nostalgia mixed with the weirdness of the Loop. These plots run the range from fitting closely to the other Tales mysteries to being much darker. In fact, I found a few of these to be too dark for use in my campaign, which tended to be a bit more innocent.

These plots are not fully formed adventures. They have a plot, some hooks to get the game going, and a countdown of bad stuff that is going to happen. You will have to do a little prep on these, especially if you are working them into an existing campaign. Based on the size of the plots, these are good for single-session adventures.

I prepped the Nightrain mystery; a mystery about a Pied Piper kind of character who has a weird amplifier for his guitar that lures children who come from troubled families. Prepping the plot was pretty easy. I used the mystery templates and techniques that were in the Tales From the Loop core book.

Machine Blueprints

The next section contains some blueprints for some of the iconic machines in the Loop. These are also complemented with additional illustrations from Stalenhag’s work. Each one of these comes with a description about the machine and a few suggested mysteries. That last part is what makes this section great; more plot material.

What I really liked about the blueprints is the nostalgic call back to two things I loved from the 80’s: the Knight Rider blueprints, detailing KITT, and the blueprints included with all the GI Joe vehicles. I was a collector of all of those, and having just a few of these included in the book was a nice touch.

Hometown Hack

The last section is one that I think a lot of people were hoping to see. It is a set of guidelines for how to create the Loop in your hometown. Remember that in Tales From The Loop there is the default Swedish setting and an alternative Nevada setting. This chapter allows you to take all the tropes that are key to the Loop setting and overlay them onto the town of your choosing, like your hometown.

The chapter takes you through, step by step, how to make this happen, and uses an example to illustrate each section, including a map for a British setting. The sections do a good job of ensuring that all the tropes you will need for making a new Loop town that will work with the other published material will be included.

I did not make my own town. We are using the Swedish setting for our game. But I have thought of doing one for a 1980’s Buffalo, NY (where I live now).

Be Kind Rewind

Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries is a solid adventure book for Tales From The Loop. It provides you a large number of mysteries in various levels of detail from the fully written adventures in the front of the book, the summarized mysteries in the Mixtape section, to the mystery seeds in the Blueprints section. You won’t be lacking for something to do in your game.

In addition, the book continues to build upon the setting material of the game. The machine blueprints, more Stalenhag artwork, and deconstruction of how the setting works all build toward making the Loop a richer location.

If you are running Tales from the Loop either in one-shots or campaigns, this book is a good resource and worth having in your library.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Pathfinder Playtest Review, Part 2

26 September 2018 - 5:00am

This is part 2 of my review of the Pathfinder Playtest from Paizo. You can see part 1 here where I cover the first three sections of the book (Overview through Classes). In this part of the review, I’ll comment on the next four sections (Skills through Spells). The next review should cover Advancement and Options, and Playing the Game, which will be a big chunk of the review process since this is the “meat” of the game. Lastly, I’ll finish up with Game Mastering through Appendices.

If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site:

One note that I forgot to drop into my first review is that I’m making notes as I go through a section, then I do my best to accurately expand on those notes “in media res,” so that I’m giving an accurate depiction of my thoughts as they come to me as I read the text. Certainly, there will be some things that pop up later in the book that may change my mind, but I wanted to be clear that this is not a “I’ve read the whole book and am now making comments.”

Skills  A new concept for Pathfinder is the use of skills in untrained and trained manners. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

A new concept for Pathfinder is the use of skills in untrained and trained manners. There are some actions a character can take even without being trained in a skills, but the more potent or advanced uses of a skill are reserved for those with training. This is pretty cool. I like this change in the game. In the playtest book, the list of untrained uses feels a little longer than the trained uses do. Perhaps this will be adjusted in the final product. I really hope to see the trained uses for the skills expanded upon.

While the list is shorter in this edition, I’m not going to go into each skill. I’m just going to comment on some of the larger changes. I do like the shorter list of skills, though. They feel more focused and on target for what a modern roleplaying game should be. Having said that, I think each skill needs more actions (more on this later when we get to feats) to make them worthwhile to the game.

Identifying Items/Effects  I’ve always felt it was too easy in Pathfinder to identify items. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

Something I find interesting is that identifying magic items or magical effects is now a skill check without needing the spells of “detect magic” or “identify.” This takes a full hour per item/effect. I like this change for several reasons. First, I’ve always felt it was too easy in Pathfinder to identify items. In the “old school” versions of D&D, it was exceedingly difficult to identify items. I think this approach strikes a fine balance. Secondly, this skill-based approach aligns more closely with what we read in fantasy literature, which is all about the storytelling. This brings some storytelling back into the game. While I’m on this topic, I also noticed that there are several skills that can be leveraged for identifying magic. These are arcane, nature, occultism, and religion. It’s pretty neat that they applied this use to all of these areas.

Aside: Read Magic

The ability to read magical (or occult or holy) texts is now skill-based. As a matter of fact, the spell “read magic” is no longer in the book. It just takes some time, effort, skill, and a decent die roll to interpret magical writings. Like with identifying magic items/effects, I like this change quite a bit because it more closely aligns our collaborative storytelling efforts with what we read in fantasy novels.

CMB/CMD/Attack Actions

I hadn’t noticed that CMB and CMD weren’t part of the character sheet or character generation process until I got to the athletics skill. Some of the uses of the skill allow for tripping, grappling, shoving, etc. However, instead of the CMB/CMD combination, Paizo has streamlined these actions even more! I’m impressed that they’ve managed to pull this off. Now, it’s a skill check against a saving throw (usually Fortitude or Reflex) to see if the action has the desired effect.

Downtime Skills  This turns downtimes into more fun roleplaying instead of the less fun rollplaying. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

Crafting, lore, and perform can be used between exploring and adventuring to earn some coin for the characters. The subsystem for earning these coins is consistent, easy to implement, and quick to resolve. By moving some of the crunchy bits into a simpler system, there can be more focus on what goes on with the characters during downtime other than doing the necessary math to figure out how much income someone earns. This turns downtimes into more fun roleplaying instead of the less fun rollplaying.


It appears that the lore skill is now the combination of knowledge and profession skills from the previous edition. I like this simplification because it helps players pick skills in a faster manner, reduces confusion in the game, and allows for a greater breadth of skill choices to be made. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been asked something along the lines of, “What is profession? What do I use it for? How it is different from craft or knowledge?” Dropping these two skills together under a single entity is a boon.


This skill feels misnamed. I like the actions and activities under it. They make sense. However, this is more of a “streetwise” skill than a “society” skill. Paizo should consider renaming the skill to streetwise.


(Author note: I’m using “feat” here even though I like the word “talent” better because I think that’s what Paizo has turned them into for this version of Pathfinder. I’ll stick with Paizo’s naming convention to avoid confusion.)

 Of the skill-based feats, there are some pretty cool ones in here. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

Remember how I said above under the “Skills” header that I wanted more uses for the skills to make them worthwhile? Yeah. I take that back. Now that I’m in the feats section, I see that a vast majority of the feats (all but 20) are there to give skills more oomph. Now I see why characters get so many feats at character creation and as they level up. I was truly concerned that a 1st level character would have a chain of feats that would overpower them out of the gate. It doesn’t appear to be the case.

Again, I’m not going to go into each feat in detail. There just isn’t enough room in a single article to do so. I’ll just say here that there are some really cool feats that allow for both player and GM interactions with the characters’ skills that can drive a story forward (or sideways) in an excellent story-driven manner. It feels to me, as I read through the feats, that Paizo is taking on a bit more “fluff” into their rules and a little less “crunch.” What I mean by this is that Paizo seems to be taking on less of a “tactical simulation of combat” feel that has put some people off and shifting their balance a little toward the story side of things. Don’t get me wrong, Pathfinder still has those crunchy bits for when combat arrives, but that’s not all there is to this game.

Of the 20 “general feats,” only one requires a level higher than first. This gives quite a few options for starting characters, but I’d like to see the list expanded in the final book. While reading through the feats, my gut tells me there is room for growth of options there, but I can’t quite pin down what’s missing. A more thorough analysis than a read-through would probably reveal this to me.

Of the skill-based feats, there are some pretty cool ones in here, and there are quite a few options to customize and make characters special in their own way. No two masters of a single skill will look the same or use that particular skill the same. This intrigues me and piques my interest quite a bit. A friend of mine complained about the number of feats as “too many options,” but I don’t think there’s quite enough here to cause analysis paralysis, to be honest. It’s a good set to work with, and I can see the list being expanded in the final release or in expansion books.


Equipment is equipment, right? Well, there are some subtle changes to how equipment is acquired and handled in game that need to be illuminated. Again, I’m not going to go into each bit of armor, each weapon, each piece of gear, etc. here. I’m going to talk about the rules exposed in this section.


Items now have a “rarity” attribute. These start with common and range through uncommon to rare and finally land at unique. A color code is used to denote the rarity when an item is listed, which I’m not a big fan of. A single letter (C, U, R, X) inside parentheses after the item name would suffice. There are also folks that are color blind out there, so the red (uncommon) or blue (unique) item listing may be problematic for them. It’s best to stick with black (or dark hued inks) on white (or pale hues) for text, Paizo. I hope someone on the development team sees this and perks up a bit. Also, either I missed uncommon/rare items in the equipment lists, or they’re not present in the playtest book. I couldn’t find anything in the regular equipment other than black text (common items). Having said all this, I do like the potential I see in the rarity of items.

Item Level

When I saw this, I panicked. I thought Paizo was going the way of MMORPGs and stating that characters couldn’t have or use certain items until they were of a certain level. Fortunately, this is not the case. The “item level” listing is a guideline for GMs, so they don’t accidentally hand out something as treasure that might unbalance the game.


Instead of weight and strength determining a weight limit for encumbrance or not, Paizo abstracted things away to a degree. Now items have a “bulk” listing, which determines how much stuff a character can carry before slowing down or being forced to drop something. The system looks straightforward and simple enough that I might start using encumbrance again. (I currently “hand wave” encumbrance for my players in Pathfinder, so long as they don’t get crazy with it.) There’s even a page (along with some handy tables) dealing with items made for a creature of different size. It’s pretty easy to figure out the bulk of a small creature trying to use or carry something intended for a large creature.

Item Quality

Items have “levels” like characters skills do. They can be normal, expert, master, or legendary in make. This isn’t even counting the magical weapons. This is a cool expansion on the “masterwork” concept that’s been around since D&D 3.0. The hardness, cost, and bonuses of the item go up as the quality increases. This new feature in the system can be leveraged in “low magic” settings where most sword aren’t be magical, but legendary weapon crafters can produce high quality swords that are +3 without magic. This spawned quite a few setting ideas for me. I really love this shift and addition to the game. Oh, before I forget, there are rules for items of “poor” quality as well. This is an excellent addition for settings like Dark Sun.


This article is already getting a little long in the tooth, so I’ll try to make this as brief as possible while giving spells the attention they deserve. Like with the other sections, I’m not going to delve into each spell.

Heightened Spells

A caster can choose to prepare a spell at higher spell slots to increase the effects of the spell. Not all spells can be heightened, but many can. The example in the book is that a fireball (3rd level) will do 6d6 damage. If you heighten the spell (by putting in a 4th level slot), it will do 8d6 damage instead. This system provides for greater flexibility in how prepared spellcasters do their thing and plan for the day. It’s subtle, but effective, and I like it. There are also rules for the spontaneous casters to be able to do the same thing, but the rules are subtly different.

Spell Schools and Traits

The typical spell schools we’ve all grown to love and adore are still present in the game. The various spell traits that exist within the Pathfinder playtest book are also outlined and clearly explained. The list of traits is a bit short, though, as I found some spells without explained traits. However, the “good” trait is pretty clear, but it would be best to explain them all for those who are new to Pathfinder or roleplaying.

Rarity of Spells

In the equipment section, I talked about the different rarity of items. A similar system of common, uncommon, and rare exists within the spell lists. Players are restricted from automatically choosing uncommon and rare spells without the GM’s permission. One thing of note here is that Paizo uses a superscript of U or R for uncommon and rare spells instead of the strange color-coding mentioned in the equipment section. I hope that Paizo finds a proper superscript for “Unique” equipment as well and applies the superscript (or some other symbology) to use to alleviate the color blindness issue that some players may have.

Actions in Spellcasting  Each part of casting a spell (material, somatic, and verbal) takes an action. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

As I mentioned in the first part of this review, each PC gets 3 actions per round. I found an interesting quirk here in the spellcasting section. Each part of casting a spell (material, somatic, and verbal) takes an action. This means that a spell with all three components to cast will consume all three actions of the caster during that round. Something with only somatic and verbal will take two of the three actions, and so on. I had stop and ponder the implications of this for a bit. I can see the game balancing effects of this approach. However, I had to flip the very last page of the book (where the spell sheet is at) and look at it. Having a variable number of actions for different spells requires the proper bookkeeping, memorization, or stopping the game to look things up to figure out how many actions a particular spell consumes. The spell sheet does have an “actions” section with three blanks in it for each spell. This will assist in keeping the game running smoothly if players do the right thing and fill out the sheet with all details as they acquire new spells.

Spell Details

While I’m not going to dig through each spell in the book, I wanted to point out that powers gained from various ancestries, classes, feats, backgrounds, etc. that are spell-like in nature are comingled in the alphabetical list of spells. This can easily lead to confusion because the section is clearly labeled “Spells” in the tabs on the right edge of the page. I would recommend that Paizo take the “Spells” label and change it to “Spells and Powers,” so players new to the game can easily track down the specific section of the book they need to find the details about all of the supernatural things their characters can do.

Also, in the spell details section, Paizo falls back to a colored background for the rarity of spells to indicate uncommon and rare. Again, I’m not a fan of this because it requires rote memorization (or a spot in the GM screen) to translate the rarity of a spell from color to meaning. Sorry to harp on this poor decision by Paizo, but it’s really gotten to me. I’ll step away from the soapbox on this topic.

Conclusion, For Now

Coming into reviewing the Pathfinder playtest, I was hesitant to even pick up the book, but I wanted to give the game a fair shake. So far, I’m liking what I’m seeing. Yes, there are limited choices within the book, but it’s also a “slim” book (for a core Paizo book, at least) at only 428 pages. Compare that against the current edition’s core book size of 575 pages, there’s ample room to expand and grow and improve.

So far, I think I would play this game as a replacement for the current Pathfinder. However, as the saying goes, “The proof’s in the pudding.” So far, I’ve been reading about the “ingredients” of the overall recipe. The next few segments of the book will be telling on how good the actual pudding is going to be.

I’ll roll this part of the review to a close, so I can get to how to mix the ingredients together and make the pudding. You’ll be seeing section 3 of the review here in about two weeks if all goes according to plan. See ya then!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Uncanny Game Feel(ings)

24 September 2018 - 6:30am

I’m really interested in the types of ways games make me FEEL. In general, I’m less concerned with the plot of a game session, the world it’s in, or even the types of characters I might be able to play, and more invested in whatever kinds of feelings it allows me to play with and analyze after the fact. I interact with most media this way! I feel the same way about movies, tv shows, music, fine art, theater… the most impactful art is the stuff that makes me feel things. Arguably, I think its the most important art.

So how do you design a game toward the feels? Almost all my games have this agenda in them somewhere, but my most recent game that is currently on Kickstarter (til Oct 4th) Something Is Wrong Here is specifically designed to create an emotion based experienced. How did I do this, I know I know you’re on the edge of your seat. Well let me tell you a few tricks I’ve learned along the way, as well as some touchstones for emotional play I’ve experienced in the past.

Emo Games

I’ve played a lot of games in the past ten years or so that have delivered amazing emotional experiences. When I say emotional, I truly mean the full range of emotions, from joy to love to sadness. An obvious one is Monsterhearts! Monsterhearts doesn’t have specific emotional mechanics that go “feel this thing!” but they do encourage emotional play by mimicking the emotional behaviors that arise from those feelings. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might try to Run Away, or Lash Out, two move options in the game.  The unspoken thing these moves encourage you to do is roleplay the emotions first, prompting the move.  Share2Tweet1+11Reddit1Email The unspoken thing these moves encourage you to do is roleplay the emotions first, prompting the move. I find that even on this level of emotional roleplaying, if play is focusing on feelings, and my character is feeling them, I tend to feel them too!

A LARP I played a long time ago called Mad About The Boy encouraged emotional play by pairing personality types of the player with the character. This causes a fair bit of bleed, because when roleplaying your character you’re thinking a lot like you’d normally think in everyday life. It’s also an incredibly emotional game, and the most emotional moments tended to arise through guided meditation sequences, where they would ask you to imagine what you would do in the real world if all the men were gone from your life. The concept of this game itself drives emotional experiences… it’s a fantastical feminist thought experiment that posits, what would the world look like without patriarchy? (There’s some gender issues with this thought experiment but that’s already been thoroughly covered elsewhere). It made me look at the world differently after I left. Sometimes all it takes is engagement with a heavy concept.

Most recently, a LARP I played by Brodie Atwater called Here Is My Power Button has an incredible emotional impact on everyone who plays it! Almost everyone cries at the end of the game, and there’s a lot of psychological tools at work in the game to make that happen. Specifically the use of sad music at key moments in the game, the fact that it moves between group scenes of about five people to one on one scenes with individuals, and the specific scenario of giving someone power and then taking it away. It’s brilliantly emotionally manipulative, in the way a good movie can push and pull your feelings toward a sad scene.

Mechanics Of Emotions

I took what I learned from these emotional game experiences (and even more I’m not mentioning here!) and tried to utilize my favorite ones in Something Is Wrong Here. The main techniques that create the most emotion in the game are:

Intentional Bleed. You’re encouraged to play close to home, the facilitator will sometimes switch between calling you your real name and your character name, and before the game begins you’re asked to think about things you’re afraid of in your own life and dreams. What this does is make thin the veil between your character’s experiences in the game, and your own. While it’s up to each player how deep they want to dive into this emotional playing field, the option is there to correlate the character’s feelings with your own.

Emotional Music. I curated the game’s soundtrack to be particularly manipulative at different times in the game. The music plays in the background at key times, sometimes repetitive, sometimes grating, to enhance the feelings those scenes are about. David Lynch famously has done the entire musical landscapes of many of his films, and I’m incredibly influenced by music in the media I watch! I sometimes joke that I like something at least 50% based on the excellence of it’s music.

Safety Mechanics. There’s an emphasis on safety both before and after the game. This is a trick that’s used in kink play as well, where basically, if you create a space that is safer to explore a certain type of vulnerability, people are more likely to explore! If you know that at any time you can stop a scene if it gets too intense, ask for support, or remove a specific topic that’s personally difficult for you, you’re going to trust the environment a little more and get emotionally heavy if you want to. Saying “this is a space to talk about heavy emotions if you want to, and we’re gonna be here for that and you” is a powerful statement that allows people to play more emotionally than they normally would.

Character Connection. While each character is an archetype of something in a David Lynch type uncanny Americana world, there’s room for each player to inject ownership of that character on the character sheet. Specifically, the player determines what past trauma they’re trying to deal with, and naming which other character they think can help them. In creating the trauma, a player can easily insert themes that are important to them, consciously or subconsciously, therefore playing through issues with their character they care more about.

Emotional Cues. Each scene is literally focused around the goal that players have to portray a specific emotion associated with that scene. Since emotions are the goal of each scene, that becomes more the focus of play than whatever the literal plot is.

Uncanny Feels

The second goal though was to communicate an Uncanny Game Feel. So similar to the uncanny feel you’d get watching a David Lynch gig, but more like something you’d feel in game media. Where does this feeling happen? How do we encourage it to happen? I looked at the tools that horror games used, and plugged em in, as well as some similar inspiration from other uncanny media, specifically film.

Disturbing Music. Half of what gets ya in a horror film is the sound scape. Having the right sounds to create tension, discomfort, or suspense are key to invoking that sense of the uncanny. I got some great electrical sounds for the most uncanny parts of the game.

Pacing. Pacing is KEY, KEY!!!! You have to build suspense to something scary, and waiting, not seeing the monster, knowing that… something is wrong here, can be the most potent tool in creating an uncanny or scary feeling. I deliberately paced both acts and the scenes within them, creating repetition, making sure the timing is all meticulously kept by the facilitator, creating rituals that are later to be broken in the second act… these all have subtle impacts on us as we experience a narrative.

Buy in. In any horror game, the most important thing is to get everyone involved to COMMIT to being scared. Really, no matter what the game is doing, the commitment to being scared is what’s gonna scare people the most. They have to be ready to have fun being scared, like they’re walking into a haunted house, or sitting down with a scary movie. I tell the facilitator to just outright ask players to commit to this! No side talking, try to stay in character and immerse as much as possible. This will get you the scariest experience.

Atmosphere. Creating the room feeling is essential to uncanny game feel. Lower the lights, start with some moody music, add a few freaky in game props. Ask people to costume if they want to. With roleplaying games, we have the unique ability to influence the space around our play.


These might seem like simple mechanics, and in a sense, they are! It’s all how they’re remixed and utilized that makes the most impact in a game. Since my design goals for Something Is Wrong Here were to create an emotional, uncanny experience, I’ve leaned heavily on the ones that make that impact the most. Have you ever experienced these mechanics in a game before? Do you love experiencing emotional game play as much as I do? Let me know in the comments!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

A War of Attrition

21 September 2018 - 12:00am

What you hope to see when you take out the big bad…

Roleplaying games are this sometimes weird mix of game and storytelling. In old games, story was almost a reluctant side effect of the game’s mechanics, so trying to recapture the magic of certain types of stories in RPGs could be a struggle. Over the years, RPGs have gotten much better about designing mechanics that facilitate the style of story the creators intended, but there are still some areas that struggle to seamlessly merge the line between game and story. For this particular article, I’m pondering on damage mechanics and how they work against the heroes’ last-minute triumph in the final fight.

In many of the stories that inspire our games, the climactic battle finds the heroes getting a severe beatdown from their antagonists, but just as it looks like the villain is going to win, they suddenly find it within themselves to do something spectacular to win. Whether the hero has an epiphany about why they do what they do, or they realize if they fail everyone they love will pay the price, or perhaps they suddenly put together how they can use the villain’s weakness against them, or whatever the reason, they dramatically dig down into themselves and find the reserves to save the day.

Thing is, most RPGs handle damage as attrition of resources. Either you’re losing points off of some kind of health meter or you’re losing the ability to do the things listed on your character sheet. In D&D, you lose hit points. Mutants & Masterminds saps at your ability to stay in the fight by piling up negatives on your roll to resist damage. Savage Worlds also piles on the negatives and leaches away your precious bennies. Various PbtA games use one variation or the other. Masks piles on the negatives as the characters get emotionally battered. Dungeon World essentially has hit points. By the time you reach that pivotal, climactic moment in an RPG, the chances of the character being able to actually land a spectacular finishing blow are often minuscule and not nearly as dramatic as the stories we’re trying to emulate.

This isn’t to say that this type of dramatic moment never occurs in games. Many of the most memorable games people have in their repertoire of gaming war stories involve moments like these. But they tend to be happy accidents rather than purposefully crafted by the mechanics of the game. Share1Tweet5+11Reddit1Email

This isn’t to say that this type of dramatic moment never occurs in games. Many of the most memorable games people have in their repertoire of gaming war stories involve moments like these. But they tend to be happy accidents rather than purposefully crafted by the mechanics of the game.

Now, not every fight in a game needs to or should follow that style of story trope. Sometimes a fight is just a fight and whatever happens is fine. Also, not every player or GM cares about capturing the essence of story as much as I do. I’ll admit it is kind of an obsession on my part. Most of the mechanics we have for damage in games work fine, I just get a little frustrated during those final boss fights when the damage mechanics discourage players from leaning into the drama of the story and going for those big, bold moves.

I don’t really have a particular solution in mind to this issue. I could stick to strongly narrative games where the rules encourage leaning into the drama of the story, but to be completely honest, I find myself sitting in the middle between indie narrative games and traditional playstyles. I’m trying desperately to make some sort of mash-up between the two into my preferred style of game.

I do have a little bit of advice for anyone else pondering these things too:

Players, recognize the tools the game offers to help you along the way and try saving those for the big moments of the game. Many games have some kind of mechanic in place to get a boost or a reroll, so as a player, the key is to just recognize the right moment to utilize that mechanic. It can be tempting to use it on your first failure, but they’ll be more satisfying to use when the stakes are at their highest. The dice might still be fickle and still stymie that awesome moment, but at least you stand a better chance than if you’d spent them on something trivial.

GMs, if you’re interested in encouraging this type of drama in your big boss fights, there are things you can do to help your players go for the big finish. You know your game and campaign better than anyone, so you’ll have the best understanding of when a fight has dramatic importance to the game’s story. Throw yourself into narrating the set up and emphasize the importance of the fight. Heck, pretend you’re backed by dramatic music and you’ll probably get the right feel. In addition, don’t be afraid of rewarding your players for creative thinking or dramatic roleplaying. It’s not going to break the mechanics to toss them a bonus to the roll, another inspiration point, or more bennies. That last minute reward can be enough to make the player throw their character into the fight with renewed vigor.

Damage mechanics may be a war of attrition on character resources, but you can still find ways to make those final fights dramatically worthy of movie’s climactic scene. What methods do you use to try and encourage that big, bold finale?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #49 – Wrath & Glory and Iron Edda Accelerated Interview

20 September 2018 - 5:56am

Join Tracy and Wen in this episode of Gnomecast featuring two gnomes interviewing each other! Learn about Wrath & Glory—the new Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game that Wen worked on—and Tracy’s new game Iron Edda Accelerated! Will all this awesome game design keep them out of the stew?

Download: Wrath & Glory and Iron Edda Accelerated Interview

Iron Edda Accelerated has finished its Kickstarter campaign and will be published soon from Encoded Designs. You can get production updates at the campaign page.

You can follow Tracy at @TheOtherTracy on Twitter, check out his website, and listen to his actual play podcast TheOtherCast.

Wrath & Glory is currently available in PDF from DriveThruRPG, and will be available soon in retail. Check out Ulisses North America for updates!

You can find Wen at his Facebook page or at @WendelynReischl on Twitter.

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Skipping Stones: RPGs Without Conflict

18 September 2018 - 6:00am

Myself and six others gathered around a table strewn with red heart shaped beads, plush fantasy animals, and adorable character sheets. We were here to play Golden Sky Age, a Dragon Age hack of Golden Sky Stories run by Modifier Podcast host, Meghan Dornbrock. Golden Sky Stories is a game about helping friends, village spirits, and celebrating innocence. Dragon Age is a game about the immediate apocalypse, the corruption of power, and the lengths friends go to protect those around them. The two meshed extremely well under the guidance of Meg, and the bubbly personalities of the players. I could spend an entire article about the joy of extruding cuteness out of Mature Fantasy™ and may very well do so in the future, but it is not this article. Today I want to talk about one moment in this Golden Sky Age game that woke me up to something I’ve been feeling for a while without putting words to it.

Golden Sky Stories is an RPG about friendship, care, and helping out.

I played a Halla, an aloof, glittery, mysterious forest deer. My neighbor played a Fennec, a wily fox. We started a scene playing in the forest, as players we were waiting for another character to deliver plot information so that we could justify going to help others, but as characters we were skipping stones. As we roleplayed skipping stones, complimenting each other on our splashes, and finding fun colors of rock, I felt a sense of calm wash through me. This was my eureka moment.

As a player at this table I was completely satisfied with this roleplay of… nothing? Was there a story here to two animals skipping stones? Not really. Was there conflict? Maybe to begin with, but as our characters lost themselves in the fun of splashing in the river we quickly forgot about any challenge. As we connected with the rest of the group and played through our story, I fell in love with Golden Sky Stories’ mechanics of warmth & friendship, but I kept wishing that we could have more scenes like our skipping stones.

Gen Con 2018 was a surreal, joyful experience, but it had its stresses. High emotions, fast paced con life, swarms of people were all great to be in but they were a lot to experience. Even outside of conventions life can be stressful with job concerns, social responsibilities, or simply existing in this political climate. We hear a lot how games can be wish fulfillment, escapism, or a power fantasy. However, my unspoken wish in that moment at the table was for calm joy. My escapism was play that wasn’t centered on violence or struggle. My fantasy was being able to relax with a new friend. Nowhere in those desires was the need for rising action, dramatic conflict, or challenges to overcome. I just wanted to exist happily. My unspoken wish in that moment at the table was for calm joy. My escapism was play that wasn’t centered on violence or struggle. My fantasy was being able to relax with a new friend. Share4Tweet6+11Reddit1Email

Stories without conflict aren’t a novel idea with other media, but roleplaying games seem to focus on conflict as their sole narrative vehicle. When people talk about games, even to a mechanical level, we talk about how to set up conflict, how to create drama, or how to overcome challenges. Many people talk about a game’s conflict resolution system, deconstruct an encounter’s challenge rating, or how to plot Fronts or Threats. The idea of a game seems to center on a challenge that, through confronting, creates story. However, in playing a scene with no challenge, story, or conflict, I felt fulfilled.

I left Gen Con with the desire to explore further. I want to seek out games that are explicit in their refusal of conflict. I want the fanfiction no-plot-just-fluff of roleplaying games. I want to create a story that is satisfying and fulfilling in the way that skipping stones with my Fennec friend was. I know there are other games out there like this.

Formative is a game about queer families, caring for your friends, and how to live in a body that’s changing.

There’s a game that I’ve loved for a while called Formative, by designer Amy Weston, that does no conflict stories by forming scenes around a series of prompts on playing cards, similar to Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year. In Formative, you play characters undergoing radical transformation, in a group that can range from found family to erotic intermingling. Some prompts have conflict baked into them (The stares, muffled comments, and veiled insults are too much today. You retreat to a safe space.) while others create moments that can be easily played without conflict (After spending time together with [another character], your body subtly changes to be more like theirs). Taken in random order, a “traditional” story may emerge with rising action, conflict, climax, and denouement, but in my experience playing the game, the stories we tell in Formative are cozy, slice of life fiction that may have tense moments but are otherwise poetically lacking in conflict.

I encourage you reading this to seek out experiences like these. Allow characters to exist without a Plot. Sure, give them things they want, goals, whatever, but try and create a story about them existing, being happy, and comfortable. I also encourage you to chime in with game recommendations for systems that can create these moments I’m chasing. I need more caring moments near a river. That purple gem won’t discover itself.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Pathfinder Playtest Review, Part 1

17 September 2018 - 5:00am

The big news from the Paizo arena is, of course, their Pathfinder Playtest. I picked up a copy of the physical rulebook at my FLGS about a month ago with the intent of writing a review. Guess what? This is that review. Normally, I have a system for my reviews of RPG products, but I’m going to set that aside for this effort since the book is bigger than simply cover art, mechanics, prose, layout, and interior art. This review will be split up over the course of multiple articles because of the in-depth nature of the playtest book.

If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site:

The book is split up into twelve different sections:

  1. Overview
  2. Ancestry
  3. Classes
  4. Skills
  5. Feats
  6. Equipment
  7. Spells
  8. Advancement and Options
  9. Playing the Game
  10. Game Mastering
  11. Treasure
  12. Appendices

In this segment of the review, I’ll be covering Overview through Classes. The rest of the book will follow in other articles.

Overview What is a Roleplaying Game?  The “Gaming is for All” segment speaks very well to the fact that each player is different. 

The Overview section starts with the typical “What is a Roleplaying Game?” segment, but Paizo does a fine job in this section. It covers more than the typical basics of players, characters, game masters, collaborative storytelling, and other things found in these types of entries. It’s a great introduction to RPGs for new players as well as a solid reminder to veteran players and GMs why they are at the table and how to comport themselves while gaming.

The section here that impressed me the most was the “Gaming is for All” part where Paizo dives into responsibilities as a player and GM at the table. It’s not just “pay attention” or “know the rules.” As a matter of fact, these aren’t even mentioned. The “Gaming is for All” segment speaks very well to the fact that each player comes from a different background, culture, family, environment, and so on that influences how they play. No player (or the GM) should contribute to behavior (in or out of character) that promotes or reinforces racism, bigotry, hatred, or any other form of action that can offend, make someone uncomfortable, or that will drive someone from the hobby. These are strong statements, and I feel they need to be said.

The book also states that no one at the table (especially the GM) should allow this kind of behavior to exist at the table. I’m very happy Paizo included these segments. Also, for the first time in a major publication, I now see reference to a social contract (search in the upper right corner for this phrase for multiple Gnome Stew articles on this topic).

Basic Concepts

This section explains things in very clear terms. There are quite a few core changes to a familiar product, and having these Basic Concepts explained up front helped me wrap my head around things that I’ve known in my heart for the past nine years. It set me up to adjust how I see the rules for the new version of Pathfinder, and it also was a great introduction to the basics of the rules for those new to Pathfinder.


To help simplify the game, the overview gives three options for activities a PC can take during a single round. These are Actions, Reactions, and Free Actions. Each PC gets 3 Actions and 1 Reaction per round. Some activities may consume more than 1 Action, so while this sounds like quite a few things going on in a round, I doubt it’ll be quite as crazy as first impressions give. To be honest, it feels like it’s simplified things, so it will be (I hope) easier to avoid analysis paralysis that some players (and GMs) go through when presented with all of the options available to a higher-level character.

Key Terms

The Key Terms section runs through an alphabetical list of terms that constitute the core of the game with clear summations of what the terms mean to players and to the game. Again, this section helped me mentally point out to myself where the game is changing from the first edition.

Character Creation

The character creation overview section did leave me a little lost. While page numbers were listed to refer to the more in-depth rule explanations, I found myself flipping around the book to excess. There are only nine major steps to character creation, but each of those nine expand out considerably with sub-steps and references. The sample character sheet on page 11 calls out the various places you have to fill out. There are 27 different things to go through. This is on par with the first edition of Pathfinder, and many editions of D&D, so I don’t feel it’s too much to handle. However, I felt like there could be a little more explanation of each of the nine steps in the Overview section of the book. This could have prevented the flipping around the book like I did. Of course, I’m comparing this experience to what I do with the current version of Pathfinder, which I know well enough to be able to skip over sections I don’t need and get directly to the meat of where I need to read for the character choices I’ve made. I suspect I can get comfortable enough with the new version to do this as well.

Ability Scores  Rolling for ability scores is now optional! Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

Here is a doozy of a change! Rolling for ability scores is now optional! You read that right. The core mechanic of developing your character’s six main abilities (which haven’t changed in this edition), is now an additive system. Everyone starts with a base 10 in each ability. Then the player will subtract or add (mostly add) 2 points to specific abilities depending on their choices in ancestry, class, background, and so on. There are quite a few options in there that are “Free boost” where the player can pick which ability to add their 2 points to. This means that every “elf ranger” won’t end up with the same ability scores. One thing I love about their changes is that no single ability can be above 18 at first level. They can creep above that threshold at higher levels, but not to start the game with. This helps prevent a considerable amount of min/max building for starting characters that is possible with decent die rolls and munchkin builds in the current version of Pathfinder. Their two side-by-side examples of generating ability scores in the playtest were very clear and illuminated the process very well.

An Aside: Alignment  I feel leaving alignment in the game is a missed opportunity for Paizo to do something better in this area. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

As you can already tell, there are quite a few changes to how things are approached in this version. Unfortunately (in my opinion), alignment remains attached to Pathfinder. I had hoped with this new version that Paizo would take advantage of the shifts and ditch this outdated, often ignored, and clunky method of determining a moral base for characters. I feel leaving alignment in the game is a missed opportunity for Paizo to do something better in this area.

Another Aside: Hit Points

A very clear change to the game is that rolling for hit points at each level is now a thing of the past. Instead, each character starts with a base amount for the chosen ancestry, adds some more hit points based on the chosen class, and then adds more hit points with each level taken. Maybe I’m just being a grumpy grognard here, but I feel like this is a violation of the spirit of Pathfinder’s storied history. Few die rolls are more important (or thrilling) than the vaunted “roll your hit points” moment. Then again, it always sucks to roll a natural 1 in those times, so I guess I can get used to the steady increase in hit points.


You’ll notice so far that I’ve not used the word “race” within this article to describe a character option. That’s because Paizo has taken the correct forward step to remove this off-putting, charged, and insensitive word to rest in their game materials. From here on out, Paizo will be using Ancestry as the overarching label for dwarves, elves, humans, etc. Hats off to Paizo for doing the right thing for the members of our community.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of each ancestry presented in the book. That would probably be an article unto itself, and I’d rather not have this series of reviews run on until the actual game comes out.

 Hats off to Paizo for doing the right thing for the members of our community. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

Each ancestry (except for humans, oh those complex humans) is covered by a two-page spread. There are ancestral feats only available to the specifically listed ancestries. Most of them are options at first level, but some can only be taken at fifth (or higher) level. The samples in the book include many first level options and only a few fifth level options. There are none for levels higher than that, so I am assuming the final product (which will most likely be larger than the 427-page playtest book) will have these options. Of course, expansion and splat books will expand these lists considerably. One addition is a “heritage” feat, which can only be taken at first level. These heritage feats help establish some core principles of the character, and are, quite honestly, pretty cool. I like these inclusions.

Before I move on from ancestries, I want to point out that goblins are in as an officially playable ancestry. This, as you can probably tell, makes me happy. These plucky little fellows have been fodder and mooks for way too long. I’m not surprised that Paizo made this move based on the wide variety of goblin-centric products they’ve released over the years.

Unfortunately, I have something in the ancestries that makes me sad. Half-orcs and half-elves are now just specific types of humans, and a feat has to be used to gain access to the orc or elf ancestry goodies at a later level. I’m not sure I like this change because it’s going to reduce the number of players playing these ancestries. This removes some diversity from the gaming gene pool, and I’m not entirely convinced this is a good thing. Perhaps things will be adjusted in the final version that’s not apparent in the playtest book that will make this a good decision from Paizo.


Paizo included a brief list (two pages worth) of backgrounds to pick from during character generation. I really hope they expand upon this list. What they have is pretty solid, but I can see players clamoring for more options, and we GMs will have to deliver. These backgrounds are used to tweak characters, make them unique, and boost abilities, feats, and skills. I love the inclusion of these types of things in modern RPGs, and Paizo has a good start here. (As a note: I really want to play someone who has a Barkeep background now.)


Everything in here is pretty typical of what most players expect to find in this section based on the past 40+ years of roleplaying game publishing. However, Paizo has also included a section on sign language. This is pretty cool. It’s a great description of sign language, how it impacts the game, and how it can be used. I love that they’ve acknowledged not everyone has the ability to speak or hear, thus increases the inclusivity of their game another notch.


As with ancestries, I’m not going to do a deep dive into each class. That would also be an entire article unto itself. The most interesting change here is the addition of the alchemist as a playable class to the core list. All of the usual classes players are used to finding are still in the book, so don’t fret that your favorite core class won’t exist until the proper expansion book is published.

Each class, like with the ancestries, gets certain base abilities automatically, then there is a list of feats to choose from at the various levels as the character advances. Because of the vast number of combinations going on here (ancestries, ancestral feats, backgrounds, classes, and class feats), I can see character creation and leveling up taking some time because of the inclination to want to pick the best thing for a character. This will up the levels of analysis paralysis in many players, so be warned. This will only become worse as more content is added to this version of the game.

Having said this, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I love many options to pick from. This allows me, as a player, to play a cleric in back-to-back campaigns, but without playing the same cleric both times. This makes me happy, but I still felt the need to point out the possible issue with so many choices laid out before the players.

(I know I said I wouldn’t do a deep dive into the classes, but I have my eye on a monk character for my first Pathfinder Playtest character class. Combine that with the Barkeep background? Hrmm… I wonder how a goblin monk who used to be a barkeep would work out?)

Aside, the Third: Feats  I recommend Paizo do a massive search/replace for “feat” and drop in the word “talent” because that feels like a more accurate descriptor for what these are in this book. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

I seem to be mentioning feats quite a bit here. Right? Yeah. I am. That’s because almost every power, ability, spell, trick, or effort is based on a feat. There are quite a few to pick from. While Paizo chose to continue the use of the word “feat,” I suspect the re-use of that label will lead to some false assumptions in the players between the editions. These are not the same power level of feats found in D&D 3.0 through D&D 3.5 and into Pathfinder. The Pathfinder Playtest feats could have been relabeled to avoid confusion. I recommend Paizo do a massive search/replace for “feat” and drop in the word “talent” because that feels like a more accurate descriptor for what these are in this book.

Yet Another Aside: Deities and Domains

One thing I dislike about the first edition Pathfinder core rulebook was the fact that information about the Golarion deities and domains was jammed into the cleric class section. I can see the decision behind this, but in a world where the deities can directly impact life in more than the spiritual sense, there will be more believers and worshippers. This includes non-clerics. I feel like the descriptions and summaries of the deities deserves its own sub-section within the book, not a sidebar for clerics. Unfortunately, Paizo made the same decision here. I’d love to see more pages dedicated to their deities (like they did with the Key Terms section). Of course, not everyone is going to use Golarion in their games at home, but since the defaults of Pathfinder assume Golarion it’s safe to dedicate more paper and ink to the deities.

For the domains in the cleric section, I love the list here. It feels comprehensive, expanded, and with more cool options for the multitude of those that wield holy (and unholy) powers.

Conclusion, For Now

Overall, I’m pretty happy with what I see up through the Classes section of the book. I hope this review has been helpful to you if you’re on the fence about downloading the PDF (or buying the book). Up next, I’ll dive into Skills, Feats, and Equipment. If word count for the next section allows, I’ll also briefly cover the Spells section, but without doing a deep dive into each spell.

Categories: Game Theory & Design