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Should ALL Dungeons Be Five Room Dungeons?

1 November 2017 - 3:00am

After having read several great articles on Mike Shea’s blog, I picked up his book The Lazy Dungeon Master. It’s a fast read, and worth the $5.99 asking price, (It’s around 60 pages and mostly about common things DMs spend a lot of time prepping that they don’t need to and how to streamline them, supported by a pretty cool survey he collected about DMing.) In his book, Mike talks about the minimal level of prep required for locations and gives (among others) this example location:

The Saltmines: Former center for the town’s industry, now closed down when they found a dark power buried deep within. Leads from Yellowtop to Ashland Fortress.

What the book doesn’t discuss, and what I was curious about, is how exactly, using Mike’s “lazy” method, one goes about mapping and populating a location like this that has the potential to be the proverbial “twisty little passages, all alike“. So, I emailed Mike and asked how he handled that type of location.  He very quickly got back to me and I asked for his permission to share here. Here’s an excerpt: (Link to his product is mine, not his):

On the Lazy Dungeon Master and maps.

If the characters are going to explore a dungeon-type setting, I’ll usually try to steal and reskin a map to fit the situation. Either that or I’ll sketch a very rough stick-figure map that shows how locations are connected.

Since writing the Lazy Game Master I focused a fair bit of time on the idea of building “fantastic locations”. These are the interesting places that characters discover in their journeys and can be connected by various caves, tunnels, or passages. To me, the overall dungeon isn’t as interesting as the individual interesting locations in that dungeon so I tend not to let them get too complicated.

… There might be five fantastic locations in the cove interconnected by natural water-carved caves. Each location will have a name and three interesting traits (or “aspects”) that the characters can investigate or use if there’s a battle. Here are some examples:

  • The Tentacle Pillars: Huge stone tentacles that appear to pierce out of the ground; sinkhole that leads into the tunnels below; old octopus statue sitting on a pedestal that appears very old.
  • The Weeping Caverns: Stone caverns eaten away by streams of saltwater; carvings of strange symbols on the walls; illuminated shells of phosphorescent mollusks.
  • The Nursery: Submerged oily pool filled with psychic baby octopuses; large channeling crystal piercing down from the ceiling; chained screaming madman on the wall.

Those three come to mind but its early and I can’t think of three more at the moment. Hopefully you get the idea =)

If you poke around on Sly Flourish for more discussions of Fantastic Locations you’ll find more about it including the book of 20 locations I wrote around these ideas.

Hope that answers your questions. …


The two approaches that Mike offers are good ones: swipe a map from elsewhere, or reduce a big complicated complex to a five room dungeon with “you travel east for a while, through a maze of tunnels until you come across . . . “. I don’t have much to say about the first one, except to point everyone to my favorite site for random dungeon generators. But the second suggestion about reducing a big complex to a five room dungeon with handwavey bits between rooms has made me think quite a bit.

You see, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up my twisty mazes full of empty rooms, red herrings, and minor treasures just yet.

Maybe it’s nostalgia for the afternoons of lonely fun (which I have just amusingly learned is now called a game’s “solitaire component“) and gold box CRPGS, maybe it’s just me perpetuating the same skinner boxes of my youth where poking into nooks and crannies of maze like passages eventually resulted in a handful of GP until they could be traded in for a new breastplate, but to me half the fun of RPGs is skulking down damp passageways, ransacking moldering garbage heaps and searching areas where the map is weird in hopes of finding secret doors.

Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between the two. In one of his “MegaDungeon Monday” articles, The Angry GM discusses the “encounter space” which by his definition is a piece of the dungeon in which all inhabitants work as a unit. So if you have the stacks of a great library with study cubbies and there’s a wight in the stacks and skeletons in the cubbies, but engaging with the wight will alert the skeletons and they will open the cubby doors and surround the PCs, that’s an encounter area.

This middle ground definition allows for a bit of both worlds. You can create just a handful of encounter areas, each with something interesting in it, but you still get the nooks and crannies to explore, because each encounter area (most anyway) is comprised of a handful of rooms, some of which are interesting, some of which are not, some of which hold secrets and treasure, some of which don’t etc . . .

But, how much exploring and poking about in otherwise uninteresting space to do is really a secondary concern. Because the trivial answer is that you should do only as much of it as is interesting. Uninteresting exploration of uninteresting space is a waste of time and should be avoided. I have indeed played in games where no one did much exploring and if there was space that wasn’t an active encounter, paused only long enough to say: “I loot the room.”, toss off a search check, and move on. It may just be selective memory, but the reason for this was that exploration in these games was boring. Rooms were just a collection of squares, sometimes from a battle map, tiles, or a software program, description was minimal and there was the feeling that if a room contained a statue or a desk it was because it was filler, not because it may have been something interesting to interact with.

So the bigger question is, how do you make exploration interesting, even of areas that aren’t inherently interesting themselves? While I don’t claim to be an expert, there are a few tips I can give:

  • Grid maps are counter productive: Grid maps are great for combat, but shitty for exploration gameplay, which is good because it implies that there’s not a lot of reason to painstakingly map areas that you want players to explore, only combat encounters (and if one turns into the other that a very simple map with walls and features of interest is sufficient). Players will naturally imagine areas you describe verbally, in ways that they will not when presented with pictures, and it’s very easy to ad lib and add as much detail as you can improvise with verbal descriptions, which is not the case with drawings.
  • Pick a few adjectives: Part of the draw of exploration is immersion, which is enhanced by good description (in fact, a quick search of the stew shows we’ve written articles about using sensory cues to describe things no less than a half dozen times). In this case, I suggest giving a few seconds of thought to the traits of an area (a dungeon as a whole is fine, but you can break it down further if it warrants) and make a back of the envelope (3×5 card) list. Refer to this list often and weave a few of the traits into every description. If that library above is “crumbling” you can describe the collapsing shelves, the piles of tumbled books that fall apart at a touch, the dust in the air. If instead it’s “flooded” you can describe the mold crawling up the shelves, the ankle deep black water with floating piles of mush that may once have been books, and the warped damp pages.
  • There have to be successes,especially early ones: This goes back to that skinner box I mentioned earlier. Even if you explicitly tell your players that searching and exploring will net secrets and treasure, if they meet with no success while doing so, they’ll stop. On the other hand, even a few small successes will have them searching under the cushions of every moldy couch they find. Of course these finds have to be of value. Finding a handful of coins is (should be) of value to low level characters, but the same isn’t true for high level ones. As such, it’s fine to have these caches be money, but it’s equally useful to hide secret paths, maps, clues and items of strange origin, as well as items which do little except establish flavor, all of which will retain value through characters’ careers. Consider having a small table of incidental loot that can be found in each large area so this is easy to do off the cuff.

So I put it to all of you, because I’m not sure what the end conclusion is. Is poking into nooks and crannies, riffling through the pockets of ancient moldering coats, and sifting through dungeon trash heaps a valid and fun play style or am I biased and it’s more fun to hop between big set pieces? If it is a compelling play style, what are your best tricks to keep it fun and interesting? Like I said above, I’m not the expert on this, so I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts and techniques.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Now I See, Cold, It Was Them He Loved: Ten Candles And Winter Terror

31 October 2017 - 3:56am

“Now I see, cold, it was them he loved.
Where is he now? Tonight my heart froze.”
-excerpt from “Crust on Fresh Snow” by Rolf Jacobsen

“Winter is coming”
-virtually every character in Game of Thrones

In the winter of 2015 I experienced two life-changing texts that sucked me into enjoying horror as a genre. The first was when I purchased my PlayStation 4 and got Until Dawn on sale with it. The second was when my friends and I saw Krampus in theaters. Until Dawn lured me in with steamy young melodrama and the tease of alpine horror. Krampus felt like a campy “are they serious?” popcorn flick. Over the course of both stories, I saw that easy fun twist and create anxiety that was thrilling to jump at. Both titles are now winter traditions, and I revel in playing & watching them multiple times a year, but never during spring or summer. In fact, it’s only during the colder months that I feel a pull towards horror at all. These things are true: the world is dark and we are alive. 

These things are true: the world is dark and we are alive. These words start off every scene in Stephen Dewey’s horror game, Ten Candles. For those unfamiliar, Ten Candles is a game of tragic horror, with every character finding their end in the final scene, exploring a darkened world with no sun or stars, and facing off against a nebulous Them who are always coming. You play in a completely darkened room lit only by ten candles which you progressively extinguish through play, and with each light gone, They get stronger. As you play, you also burn aspects of your character, yes literally burn them to ash, lit by candle flame, while you sit at the table. It’s bleak, terrifying, and one of my favorite games ever written.

I’ve played Ten Candles in the spring and summer: once in Chicago visiting friends while our host serenaded us with cosmic metal and made spicy sausage stew, and once on the balcony of a sketchy high rise hotel in St. Louis, MO as a thunderstorm raged and the St. Louis Arch rose above us like a portal to hell. Both games were fun and heavy, but they pale in comparison to playing Ten Candles in winter.

Preparing to play Ten Candles on a frozen winter night, complete with grisly props

Riverhouse Games is named after a real house on the bank of the Mississippi river just outside of Minneapolis, MN, where I would visit to spend time with close friends and run games. Minnesota winters can be harsh, with windchill hitting 40 degrees below zero and blizzards that take fleets of plows hours or, in some extreme cases, days to fully clear.

“These things are true: the world is dark, and we are alive.” I intoned last year, running Ten Candles for the first time as we sat inside a toasty room in the Riverhouse, with glass windows iced around the edges. The sun had gone down hours ago and the light of the full moon bounced off of the snow which blanketed everything in sight. More than eight inches had dropped over the evening and it was still coming down in muffling clumps. Other than the flow of the river outside, with the occasional creak as chunks of ice cracked into the stone banking, or off of each other, the world lay blanketed in a white silence. A friend’s family owns a small taxidermy business up north, so the room was adorned with odd skulls and bones, centered on a nexus where ten lit candles flickered in the stale warm air of the room. We made our own winter terror, surrounded by set decorations, and staged on the same snow in which our characters would soon die.

Boneshaker Books in Minneapolis, MN is a great (and appropriately spooky) place to run games


I don’t know what it is, but as soon as that first frost hits, I feel a need in my bones to run Ten Candles. Like all roleplaying games, it can have silly moments, the best horror always has a joke here or there to cut the anxiety like a knife and refresh the scene. And, like the other semi-silly titles I enjoy every year, it’s becoming another winter horror tradition and takes its place next to Until Dawn and Krampus. I’ve already played my first game of the season, a one-on-one game after hours at a volunteer bookstore, with the echoes of a reading room holding two people skittered over the flames as the chilled wind blew through the city around us and we made our winter terror tale. I can’t wait until the snow falls (which may be a while still as we hit an uncharacteristically balmy 75 degrees up here while I write this) and I can bust out my tea lights and cackle out “the world is dark, and we are alive.”

What do you think? I’m definitely interested in padding out my roster of frozen fear if you have further recommendations. Do you have any winter terror traditions?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Give Me the Feels – Emotional Gaming

30 October 2017 - 3:00am

With graceful fins and cruel sharp teeth, I have waited for years for this moment. Finally my revenge is nigh—the woman who sold me to a circus, once my love, is once more within reach of my ill tended tank. I have just cut a deal, sacrificing myself, to ruin her as she ruined me. As she succumbs before me, she asks me why I am doing this. She was here to save me, to bring me back; she couldn’t protect me but the circus could, just for a while, until she could get me back. And at the game table, I, a normal human, stare at the GM of this game (the masterful Kate Bullock), with tears streaming down my face at the cruelty in this world of pretend. After the game, I am so impressed with her for the intensity of the experience. I need a hug, and I can’t stop talking about the game, it was just so darn good. I can’t wait to play like that again.

I remember a time not so very long ago when I would have been horrified by this experience at the table. Expressing that much vulnerability was a scary and uncomfortable experience, and the emotional work involved in quashing it was intense. For that version of my gaming self, this game would have been a disaster, and yet it’s now the experience I can’t forget in the best possible way. So what makes these experiences possible for me?

  • Safety – tears do not necessarily mean stop for me, but some triggers still do.
  • Consent/Buy In – everyone at the table needs to be playing for the same experience.
  • Trust – I need to know everyone will abide by our agreements.
The Safety Dance

There are many tools for safety in gaming, and I know I still haven’t played with all of them. I play with an X card these days even in games where I am not expecting high levels of emotion, simply because it makes me, the GM, feel safer. I have messed up before, and I have messed up even with the card on the table, but it’s at least a basic net. Lines and veils are the next line of defense, and if you know your triggers and want to avoid them in play, then setting them up before the game is key. We all sometimes play in to unexpected situations, though, discovering things that we didn’t know were going to cause feelings in a bad way, and this is where we come to two other schools of thought that play in to emotional gaming: No One Gets Hurt and I Will Not Abandon You.

The theory behind No One Gets Hurt is that if you start dancing around someone’s triggery spaces, they tell you, and you back off and move on, draw the veil, fast forward, whatever is necessary to get out of that space. The theory behind I Will Not Abandon You is that you agree as a table to push at triggers, maybe intentionally, to experience those emotions, but that no matter what happens at the table, you stay for each other and remain emotionally available.

 Being open to the empathetic experience of a character, no matter what the circumstances create might mean telling my fiancé I’m a vampire, or telling my daughter to report her boyfriend to the police, or realizing I’ve sacrificed my immortality for revenge on a woman who did truly love me after all. I have found that my real comfort zone is almost the merging of these two. There are feelings and discussions that honestly belong with my therapist and not at the table, and those triggers for me function as hard limits. I am simultaneously willing to invest very heavily in these games, and be very vulnerable in them; I am playing to push at boundaries and have intense emotions. There is a difference to me between having a strong emotional experience and the terrible panic fear of a real trigger. Being open to the empathetic experience of a character, no matter what the circumstances create might mean telling my fiancé I’m a vampire, or telling my daughter to report her boyfriend to the police, or realizing I’ve sacrificed my immortality for revenge on a woman who did truly love me after all. They are strong feelings, and they’re not feelings that feel good in the moment; anger, fear, social anxiety, regret, guilt, and hate are not things I enjoy experiencing in my day to day life. Experiencing them at the table is intense, and offers the release of feeling them and then allowing them to go again, washed away by the end of the game. These limits, not wanting to feel emotions I usually consider “bad,” are much more soft limits, if you will. It’s these soft limits that I find catharsis in pushing.

Yes Means Yes

Okay, consent is important for pretty much everything, and the gaming table is no different. Consent and buy-in in a game work hand in hand for me—do we all consent to have this experience together? Having consented, are we all buying-in to the same scenario, and type of safety? If you’re playing No One Gets Hurt and I’m playing I will Not Abandon You, someone is going to get hurt. Being on the same page and buying-in to the same experience is key to making these games work for everyone.

Trust me, I’m a Gamer

Now I’m sitting at the table. I know how we’re handling the safety in the game; I know we’re all on the same page. I still have to trust the folks at this table, whether these are my friends or people I’m just happening on at a convention, that they will abide by our group decisions about safety and play, and that they will respect me and my emotional output in the game.

I don’t want to have this experience every time I game, nor do I want it at every table I game with. In the same way that many people enjoy haunted houses, scary movies, or intense TV dramas, I like to take my pretend with a side of catharsis that I can revel in when I, personally, feel safe. It’s akin to the ancient Greeks, watching tragedies to indulge their emotions in the same way they indulged food and drink. I am playing to indulge my emotions, safely. Sometimes it’s all about the tragedy . . . and sometimes, I just go back to wanting a comedy.

Do you play high emotional intensity games? Why or why not? What’s your favorite?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Role of Role Playing

27 October 2017 - 5:00am

Tabletop role playing has been part of my life and a core part of my identity for decades. It fills many roles for me personally including as a creative outlet, a method to meet people, and simply as a fun hobby. Role playing will always be these things for me, but I also see a higher goal for role playing games.

But let me step back for a minute.

I’m in four role playing groups and each group scratches a slightly different itch. One of my weeknight games is a great way to decompress after the work day. We eat snacks, sling some dice, and have a great time killing monsters and saving the world. On alternating Sundays I’m in a campaign that has run for more than five years with primarily the same group. I’m deeply invested in the story and have notebooks full of session notes and intricate machinations. I love each of my groups for different reasons. I also love the diverse game systems and settings wherein I live my other lives.

 Real world growth can come from imaginary situations. As much as I need role playing for the fun and creative outlet, for me the higher calling of role playing is as a method to examine the human condition and build empathy. The game table is one of the places I go to understand different perspectives. I use role playing to challenge my preconceptions, including on fundamental topics such as law and justice. This is a low risk, high reward opportunity that I am very thankful for.

In May 2016 my mother suffered and died after several years of battling cancer. Logically, I know this isn’t my fault. That doesn’t change that I have struggled with guilt for things I could have done or should have said in the preceding months, years, and decades. Since her death each of my RPG characters has taken a role in exploring the themes of redemption, atonement, and ultimately forgiveness. Role playing is the forum I’ve used to prod and process my sense of failure from a safe distance. I have gone through this exploration with relative privacy thanks to the overt storyline.

The other night, I played in a game where exploring the human condition and building empathy was the core experience.

There are no super powers and there is no fixing the past. The characters succeed by mentoring the child about how to move forward. One Child’s Heart is a role playing experience centered on love, trust, and empathy. “One Child’s Heart” from Camdon Wright is an exercise is vulnerability. It is an emotionally intense experience about processing the small but consequential traumas from childhood. The characters are the helpers: a social worker, a therapist, a psychologist, and a police officer working to give the child (played by the GM) the tools needed to deal with past trauma. There are no super powers and there is no fixing the past. The characters succeed by mentoring the child about how to move forward. One Child’s Heart is a role playing experience centered on love, trust, and empathy.

It is not every day that a game makes me -as a player- feel real emotion. After the game, as I lay awake, I finally decided to forgive myself for my shortcomings related to mom’s death. I realized it was up to me to absolve myself of the sense of guilt and to accept my powerlessness over the situation. I have been working towards this for a year and a half and it is thanks to role playing that I came out the other side.

Real world growth can come from imaginary situations. Mountain Dew, dice, and a side of empathy. For me, that is the true power of role playing, and something I hope everyone experiences at least once.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: More Cues from Your Character Sheet

25 October 2017 - 3:04am

In 2014, I wrote “Three Cues from Your Character Sheet” — which was advice to players on how they could introduce roleplay elements without preparation, simply by identifying three key parts of the character sheet and using them to good effect.

It was advice intended to encourage players to roleplay even in one-shot settings, such as conventions or impromptu gaming opportunities.

To recap, the three things were: 1) You are your weapon; 2) You are your best ability (either your high score or class-granted power); 3) You are what you wear (like an actor “inhabits” a character from their costume or physical description).

I thought I’d return to this subject and guide players who are looking to dive a little deeper into their character, maybe because they ported that one-shot character into a campaign or that pop-up game developed into an ongoing arc.

Here are more things to glean from the character sheet that can guide your roleplaying.

1 Raistlin’s Rasping Cough

Raistlin is the sickly ambitious mage of the Dragonlance series, famous for his rasping cough and arrogant demeanor — depictions that made the character memorable in novels by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis. But it was Terry Phillips, who portrayed Raistlin in Hickman’s playtest games for the series, that first gave Raistlin his rasping, sickly voice – in part, based on the character’s low constitution score.

In a longer game, consider playing up a PC’s low ability score in some fashion. Introducing a frailty into the character gives you a hook.

Now things don’t have to be roleplayed to such extremes (and it’s probably best if they aren’t).  A fighter with a 9 intelligence isn’t stupid, by any means. But he might need time to ponder or figure things out. For example, the thoughtful Onion Knight Davos Seaworth rises to become counselor to Stannis Baratheon in “A Game of Thrones” in spite of being illiterate and cautious.

Low score roleplaying moments help others at the table identify in one another individual weaknesses that the party as a whole might be able to compensate for. A bard adorned in frippery — even at her best — might not sweet-talk her way past a castle guard; but if she’s in the company of the party’s imposing strong-armed swordsmen — who are without a charisma bonus between them — it provides a greater chance of success because they look like they belong.

2. Deep pockets

Another defining personality characteristic is their attitude toward wealth and currency.  Even though desiring more gold pieces is an almost universal trait among adventurers, a character’s starting gold amount and their subsequent approach to money handling can be telling.

Does the monk from the mountain retreat have need for a personal account, or is she more like Batman – who pours riches into a career of vengeance? Does the cleric seek donations for his church? Is the barbarian carefree with her treasure? Is the bard buying ostentatious clothes with her share, or does she accompany the rogue to the horse race track where they bet it all on a “sure thing”?  

Does the character apportion a share of the loot toward a faction or organization to which they belong, to a master they apprenticed under, or to their silver-haired grandmother back in Waterdeep?  Is it about sober business commitments in shipping or long-shot investments in odd inventions? Does the character hoard their money like the dragons they stole it from or is it being put to work buying better gear and exotic magics for the next adventure?

Whatever your character’s predilections might be, their attitude toward money, and their attitudes toward others who do other things with it, all reflect the character’s position and outlook. Playing that up can create “moments.” In the marketplace, for example, the sorcerer holds the party treasure and isn’t going to loosen those purse strings just because the barbarian saw something tasty served on a stick.  Just like the real world, the fantasy world is made up of people who make impulsive buying decisions, who fall for get-rich-quick schemes and who are misers capable of making Scrooge blush.

3. ‘I have many skills’

The familiar catchphrase of Xena: Warrior Princess (well, it’s familiar to me) draws our attention to the skill list on the character sheet. While the skills the character is most proficient at can help frame the player’s personality, it is more often the skills the character does not possess that make things interesting.

Similar to “You are your weapon,” you are your skills can be a handy prompt when roleplaying opportunities surface. Conversely, play up instances when skills outside the PC’s range also instructs.

Roleplay using skills with ranks with confidence in their competence. “I’ve got this” or “This is child’s play” come in handy here. But it’s also important to address skills the character doesn’t posses. These should be tried as shots in the dark or reflected with tentative answers, such as “What’s the worse that can happen?” Again, demonstrating frailty, weakness or lack of skill can be useful, defining the parameters within the party dynamic.

Now you’ve got three more things on the character sheet to guide your interpretation of the character. Have fun bringing them to life.



Categories: Game Theory & Design

D&D Beyond Review

24 October 2017 - 5:00am


D&D Beyond is an online service for managing content officially published by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. The service grants access to online character creation, rules references, monster statistics, and, if you purchase the assets, the hardcover adventures that Wizards of the Coast have published up to this point.

I was really on the fence for a long time about D&D Beyond, and buying into the resources. From what I could access in the beta, I wasn’t overly impressed, and I really wanted a functional app that was designed to be used on a phone, instead of just using the mobile setup of the website. Additionally, the initial outlay of funds to get up to speed was high, and while I didn’t think it was unreasonable, the fact that someone that has already been into D&D for years has to play “catch up” made the (reasonable) cost daunting.

While it wasn’t a concern for me, there was also that nagging bit at the back of my brain telling me that the digital plan for D&D, with players potentially buying the same resources for a virtual tabletop, a physical copy, and D&D Beyond was something I couldn’t fully dismiss.

Ultimately, though, curiosity won out. I really do enjoy D&D 5th edition, and I really do want to have easy digital access to the information about the game. I decided to play around a bit more, and if I liked it, I would buy it.


I’m much happier with the interface now than I was previously. It was always a good tool for looking up rules in the SRD, if you didn’t purchase any of the packages, but I like the way the information is organized.

If you own any resources (such as the Player’s Handbook or the Dungeon Master’s Guide), you can access those in multiple ways. You can look up individual chapters, formatted for a web page, in the way they were organized and constructed in the books. There is some content, such as optional rules, that can only be accessed in this manner. In other words, if you want to look up the optional slow healing rules or flanking from the DMG, it’s only going to show up in that resource, but if you search for those things, it will take you to the header on the chapter for the web page that contains that information.

However, any information that is organized into the individual resources is also included in similar format if that information falls under another header. In other words, if you look up spells, all the spells from all the resources you own will show up in the spells section, and likewise with the monsters.

Character creation is another place where this comes up as well. You can look up the individual classes, races, and bits of equipment in the resources where they appear, but when you do the walk through for character creation, all the resources you own will be available at the appropriate tab. If you pick race, and you enable all your resources, you will get a list of every playable race that has been created for 5th edition D&D by WOTC, that appears in the resources you own.

Everything in character creation is covered, and the interface is intuitive, except in a few places. Some options feel a little “tucked away,” and you have to really pay attention to the screen to notice them, such as picking standard equipment or starting gold. Unless I miss my read on the characters I created, languages are a little scattered as well, as you have to look up the individual elements of your character that grant them to find all the languages you might speak.

Custom Content

I will admit, I’m not all that excited about custom content. It’s not that I don’t think there are likely some brilliant people adding new monsters, spells, and items to the game. It’s that calling up a list of homebrew items tells me nothing about how well the person that submitted that item understands the rules.

One of my fears about the custom content has been assuaged a little, although I’m not sure even this process can eliminate what I was worried about completely. My fear is that people could pick up resources from 3rd parties, and those resources could be entered into the homebrew database for free, without any attribution.

This system is only as good as the person on the other side of the screen, but you have moderators that review items submitted to the homebrew section of the site. Just to see the process at work, I added “reckless” to a Frost Giant and called it a Frost Giant Berserker. It’s something I did in my home game of Storm King’s Thunder just to have some variety in giants.

After about a week, I got back a response rejecting my monster, saying it was too similar to the base monster in the monster manual. I’m not upset by this in the least–I just wanted to see how long the process took, and how deliberate it seems. I don’t know how many submissions they get on a regular basis, but I’m actually happy that it wasn’t a quick turnaround.

You don’t have to submit your homebrew content to the site itself. You can make it so that you have access to your custom creations, for reference at the table (which is what my main interest would be anyway). So, if you just want your stat-blocks of humanoid creatures with different weapons than what they have in the Monster Manual, you can do that.

You can enter all the various fields, and the result will be something that looks like the formatting used for spells, items, or monsters on the website. For a quick start, you can “clone” an existing monster and make modifications, however, it looks like this option is only available for items that appear in the SRD or the Basic Rules.

Live Character Management

The final bit where I made the site jump through my hoops was taking a character to Adventurer’s League and running the character completely from my phone. I received my DM’s permission for this one–don’t assume your DM will allow this, because nobody says they must do so.

  • Calling up your character, you can toggle inspiration on or off (just to track it), you can actively track hit points, with a virtual “wheel” that lets you dial hit points up or down and then apply the number, and when you take enough hit points to drop you, you can track your death saves on the screen as well.
  • Once you select your prepared spells, the site can keep track of how many spell slots you have used, and if you look up a prepared spell, you will get a reference for how much damage it causes or heals, based on your ability modifiers and level, and you have the option of casting it at a higher level.
  • This could have been a failing on my part, but while I saw my bonus to hit with spells where an attack roll is used, I didn’t seem my spell save DC (which is easy to derive from your to hit bonus, but it might be nice to have it pop up–again, it might have been right in front of me and I just missed in in the middle of the other bells and whistles).
  • Another potential issue is that I didn’t see a way to limit resources, so with a class like the cleric, all the spells across all the resources I owned appear on my list of available spells, so for Adventurer’s League, I have to be careful not to use anything that isn’t in my +1 or the Player’s Handbook.
  • You can also set up your character to level up based on milestones or XP, and if you set up XP, you can manage your XP level, which will tell you when you gain your next level. By the end of the night, I had 420 XP, so I leveled up to 2nd level, which was very easy to manage.
  • It didn’t come up for my character, but there are three slots that appear on the character where you can assign attuned magic items as well.
  • When you click on the short or long rest buttons, any of the resources that the site tracks for that character (like spell slots or channel divinity uses) that would refresh when that rest is taken are “reset” on the character.

Given that I was running this from my data plan, through a website and not a native app, the mobile formatted pages seemed to work well. It did strike me that there is not native support for Adventurer’s League on the site. While I understand that the AL is managed by a separate entity, it’s still the official organized play for the game, so I’m curious to see if this changes in the future. In case you don’t want to run your character in real time, you can export any character you made as a PDF, which formats your choices into a character sheet that resembles the official character sheets available from Wizards of the Coast.

What I’d Like to See

A service that provides value through a website is obviously something that can change and grow over time, so I thought it was worthwhile to think about what I’d like to see in the future.

  • Official 3rd Party Support–I know it would potentially be a pain, but I’d love to see a company like Kobold Press get their material on the site as an option
  • The ability to “clone” more than SRD creatures–I really want to get my hands on orogs or even NPCs that appear in adventures and make some tweaks to them for my own reference
  • Native Adventurer’s League Support–It would be great to have options limited to AL legal sources, and to have something like a built-in log sheet on the site for characters flagged for use in the AL
  • Tweaks to Where Items Appear–It may just be me, and what I was looking for, but there are a few things, like equipment (during character creation), save DCs, and languages, that don’t appear to be as intuitive as they could be
  • Dynamic Adventure Tracking–Players get dynamic tools for tracking hit points, spells, and other resources; it might be nice if the DM had something similar for tracking the NPCs in the adventures that they own

Largely well organized, functional customization, character creation real time tracking, and easy look up of resources owned all work well. The site itself is responsive, and after some heavy use, I haven’t run into many hiccups in service or anomalies in how it functions.

Disadvantage this worked amazingly well for me in “real time,” and there are a host of options and useful look up features.

I don’t always factor price into things when I weigh pros and cons. That’s going to be up to the individual, and if they buy PDFs or physical copies, or they find a discounted bundle, etc. In this case, though, it is hard not to bring up that catching up on all available resources is over $300, and that if you want unlimited characters stored on your account, you need to have a subscription plan.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying that the rates are unreasonable. I think they are fine. The cost, up front, is steep, and there are people that may not find much value in the subscription option other than saving multiple characters.

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

While I can’t attest to how well it runs on other mobile devices, even without a native app, this worked amazingly well for me in “real time,” and there are a host of options and useful look up features. That said, it’s a serious investment to get started, and unless your whole group is on board, the subscription model is probably mainly netting you a few extra slots to store characters.

You will also need to do a deeper analysis of cost if your primary means of playing D&D is through a virtual tabletop.

Have you had a chance to play around with D&D Beyond? What did you think? What about other online tabletop tools–what are some of the best, and why? We would love to hear from you!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Review: Writing with Style

23 October 2017 - 3:00am

Writing with Style by Ray Vallese is a short PDF packed with advice for RPG creators. It’s written from the perspective of an editor who has more than twenty years of experience. The focus of the book is on clarity in writing and executing words in a manner that will allow for the proper expression of ideas from the creator to the reader. This book assumes the creator is crafting a role playing game and that the readers are players or game masters. However, anyone who slings words in a professional manner can benefit from this book.

Break the Rules

One of the greatest pieces of advice in this book can be found at the top of page four. The advice is, “Do you have to follow all of these tips all the time? Nope. It’s fine to break them to add variety to your writing. In fact, you should. Don’t hammer all the flavor or voice out of your text to rigidly adhere to guidelines. Just be sure you understand the rules before you break them.” This is classic advice that should be required at the start of any writing seminar, class, or panel at a conference. There are few absolutes in writing, but the key thing to remember is that you must first know the rules. This will allow you to know why they are there and what intent to use when breaking them on purpose.

Overall Impressions

One of the reasons I stepped up to review this book when it was presented to us is that I’m in the final stages of polishing up my own role playing game. I wanted to see what kind of nuggets of gold I could glean from the pages. I must say that I found quite a few shiny tidbits within the pages. I thought about listing them out here, but I soon realized that I’d be touching on almost every section of the book. Most of the advice that I found was on target, succinctly stated, and clearly described to me. There were a few items  If there is a class on tabletop game creation somewhere, then this should be an introductory textbook for that class. that missed the mark for me, but I quickly realized those items were things I’d already mastered and didn’t need someone to list out for me. This isn’t to say that what I’ve mastered has been mastered by everyone. There are gaps in my knowledge and experience that don’t align with everyone else’s gaps. This means those items that didn’t resonate with me could very well be the perfect golden nugget for someone else.

I read through the book twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and at the end of the second read, I found myself to be quite impressed by the large number of areas covered in a mere 44 pages. The book contains a great balance of general writing tips that can be applied in any situation and tips that are specific to RPG publishing.

Quite a few conferences and conventions exist for teaching writing, support gaming, and overlap those two areas a small amount, but I’ve never seen someone put these two areas together as well as Ray has here. If there is a class on tabletop game creation somewhere (and I’m sure there is, but I’m not aware of it), then this should be an introductory textbook for that class.


Outside the “learn the rules before breaking the rules” section, I want to call out two important sections of the book.

The first is the section about creating and using style guides. If you’re working with a team of creators, this is vital to keep everyone on the same page and expressing different ideas in a consistent manner. If your team doesn’t have a style guide, it would be wise to pause the creation of words for a day or three until a starter style guide is created. One thing I didn’t see in the Writing with Style was the mention that a style guide should be considered a living document, not one that is etched in stone and forever treated like a holy text.

The second section is a painfully hilarious section called, “Fear the Dawizard.” In this section Ray recounts an instance where someone did a search-and-replace for “mage” to change it to “wizard” everywhere… and then clicked the “replace all” button without selecting “whole word match.” This, unfortunately, changed “damage” to “dawizard” and similar goofs. The reason I find it hilarious is because I’ve been there, done that, and have the t-shirt to prove it. I think anyone that’s worked on a reasonably lengthy work has encountered this disaster. The moral of this story is that technology is a great lever to get things done more efficiently, it can also be a force multiplier for mistakes.

Layout Advice

This book focused on the use of words in a role playing game, but I’d love to see if Ray (or someone he’s worked with) would produce a similar book that focuses on layout. I don’t mean the specifics of how to use certain software, but the styles, guides, “do this,” “don’t do this,” and other advice on how to format a book for both print and PDF consumption. While I’m talking about layout, it’s very clear that the layout person (Lj Stephens according to the credits page) knows what they are doing with this book. The headers are clear, the callout text blocks are easy to read, and the font choices make it easy on the eyes to read. In addition to the functional pieces of the layout, everything runs together smoothly and is appealing to the eye at the same time.


If you’re a writer, this is an excellent investment of $4.95. If you’re thinking about creating role playing materials (adventures, rules, setting books, anything else), then this is a great expenditure of $4.95 for the PDF. If you happen to be doing both, like I am, then you owe it to yourself to pick this book up.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Missing Stairs – Why We Need To Listen and Why We Can’t Be Silent

20 October 2017 - 3:18am

The beginning of this week saw the hashtag #metoo trend to increase awareness about how many women have been harassed in their lives.  On my Facebook feed alone, I’d estimate that around 85% of the women I know posted something. The actual number of women who have been harassed is higher than that, based on the stories I know about and was told about in private chats,  but not everyone felt comfortable talking about their experiences on Facebook or Twitter and a person’s experiences are theirs alone to share. Talking about that sort of thing can be hard, and it’s uncomfortable all around. Talking about a constant problem that you could be the potential victim of feels like inviting that problem into your life. Having any part of your identity attacked (even if it isn’t a personal attack) can trigger feelings of self-defense and a desire to stand up and say not me. These are just SOME of the things that make talking about issues of harassment, gender, race, equality, or anything else that really matters hard to do.

Likely prompted by the #metoo posts, Jessica Price tweeted about interactions she had with Frank Mentzer.


If you’re unfamiliar with the expression, a missing stair is a problem everyone knows about, but works around and never fixes. I just learned that phrase in our staff gnome discussion chat. The tweet chain unfolded a story about Frank Mentzer contacting Jessica Price with a flirtatious message, and how Mentzer communicated his opinions on another post of Price’s about a woman getting groped on a Seattle bus.


A few others have talked about issues, and reactions have been strong. Mentzer’s Empyrea Kickstarter (which we posted an article and Q&A about earlier in the month) was cancelled last night, possibly due to low funding and probably because of backlash from this incident. With the backstory of the events prompting this article down, let’s talk about these issues.

This is an issue for our hobby, and for every male dominated industry — which is all of them, but we need to talk about the one we’re a part of

 Talking about a constant problem that you could be the potential victim of feels like inviting that problem into your life. Nerddom isn’t super kind to women, and it never has been. We can’t take umbrage at that, it’s a truth. Football isn’t kind to women either, neither is the business world, Hollywood, or any other industry that exists. For a woman in most industries or hobbies, there are many more struggles to gain acceptance and equal standing than there are for men in the same arena. This is partially due to how these systems have evolved (and been guided) over the years to keep people in power, and it is partially because we participate in those systems since dismantling and rebuilding them would be harder than trying to fix them, although what we often do is ignore the issues.

Nerddom has its own particular issues, and tabletop gaming has its own unique issues on top of that. Try finding as many non-sexualized female characters to cosplay as there are non-sexualized male characters to cosplay as. Look at the amount of art still being created that shows the female version of any monster as a sexy version of the monster. Read through the developer list on any book and see how many more males there are than women, look at how many of those are on the highest positions or are likely getting paid royalties in perpetuity. Mention an issue like that and wait for someone to say “But that’s because women aren’t as interested in games” in response, or to have an instant push-back on any exposure of an issue that exists in the industry. Look at the stories of women being harassed openly at gaming conventions or gaming stores, or just listen when someone makes a joke about women around a gaming table and how you would feel if you heard that joke from a group of women talking about men.

One of my favorite D&D novels, with art and armor that could do a whole lot more than it currently does.

If you want to focus in on issues that are less speculative, here are 3 of many that I’ve heard about from friends in the past week. This morning while riding the bus I saw a female friend of mine who is studying for her PhD. She’s nerdy and was involved with a local comics convention, where she was offered a gig to be a “brand ambassador” for a small comics company. She learned, before showing up to an event to help promote the brand, that she was going to have to wear a ninja costume that left most of her midriff and arms bare, not the social media work she had been told about when offered the position. One of my friends told me that while sitting in a group of friends at Gen Con, that everyone assured them that a certain friend was all right and everyone vetted him, despite every woman in the conversation circle expressing discomfort about that certain friend’s behaviors. I was messaged by a friend and told that they won’t attend a certain small convention if some people (guests of honor) that we both know are present at them. They’ve brought up their issues with the convention runners, but gotten the same “he’s harmless” kind of responses.

I’d love it if I only had a few stories like that, but I haven’t even pulled a cup of water out of the well of stories I’ve seen personally or heard about harassment and how much it has been ignored. Our gaming hobby has a ton of positive things going for it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have bad areas as well. Sadly, we don’t need to feed those bad areas to make them grow, we just have to ignore them. I don’t believe anybody set out to be a misogynist asshole when they drew the first piece of gaming art that could be considered “chainmail bikini” art. That sort of art was inspired by the art of Sword and Sorcery movies of the 70s, which pulled inspiration from the shocker movies of the 50s and Star Trek’s sexy green women, which pulled inspiration from 30s and 40s pulp noir covers, which pulled inspiration from . . . on down the line. It doesn’t matter their intention wasn’t to cause any distress, it was a product of the conditions that existed at the time and the people creating the products not going against a status quo.

We didn’t start the fire, but sometimes we’re caught holding the gas can

These issues didn’t start in our hobby, and they don’t exist in a vacuum, but in our sphere of gaming and other associated nerddoms we have unique problems with them. Many of us,  nerds and geeks of every gender and myself included, come to be nerds because of social awkwardness. We are drawn to the nerdy things at the fringes because we don’t quite fit the normal boundaries that occur around us. We find a kind of camaraderie in being awkward together and expanding our social circles despite not being great at traditional socialization. We tell stories that create avatars that are bigger than life and are analogues for the people we want to be and how we want life to be, and most of these stories (and the associated imagery) over the years are aimed at heterosexual white males and place women in greatly objectified roles.

You don’t even need to go to the blatant chainmail bikini art to see examples of the issues we have. Sometimes the messages are subtle – just look at the iconic first Star Wars posters below. While one might argue that Luke and Leia are both baring similar amounts of skin, you would have to ignore that Leia’s costume is nothing like her actual costume in the movie.  Leia has a pose worthy of the Hawkeye Initiative and an exaggerated chest size that is nothing like Carrie Fisher’s. Luke’s pose says look how awesome I am as I’m about to strike down evil, while Leia’s says observe my physical, sexual assets as I bare my neck and legs, also I don’t need shoes. While the Star Wars movies are great, we can’t ignore the sorts of issues they have, and we don’t even have to go to the actual metal bikini of Return of the Jedi. We can’t ignore that this is the sort of message our associated nerd industries have had for a long while. We are very subtly saying that it is okay to objectify women, and that is a subtle message that says it is okay to harass them, or to not believe them when they speak up about it.

No matter what version of this poster you look at, it subtly speaks volumes about how nerddom says it thinks of women.

We may not personally draw chainmail bikini art, we may not run the game that makes people feel uninvited, and we may not have personally harassed anyone (but the chances that we unintentionally did aren’t zero), but no matter what we personally haven’t done we are still responsible for what survives in gaming into the future. When we talk about the gaming industry, what are we talking about? We’re talking about it all, every interconnected bit and what we’ll allow as members of this hobby. If we are participating in the tabletop gaming hobby and we aren’t speaking up about the issues we see with harassment, the issues that we see that disadvantage certain groups of people, the unintentional or unexamined decisions that act as gatekeepers, or the actions of others that make people feel unsafe around us, then we are responsible if those things don’t change as we move forward. And if you think that these issues will continue despite us talking about and bringing them to light, google D&D 5e art women and look at the official art. Talking about the issues over the years has had an impact on what sorts of art gets created, which has an impact on the perception of the hobby and how the hobby operates.

What we need to do

Listen, nobody is perfect and nobody has a silver bullet to end issues like this, but we can always do better. That’s the goal. Do better than we currently are. So, how do we do better? That is always a moving target, but thankfully one that is often moving upwards. There are a few constants we can always work towards.

  • Believe Victims – The first is to believe the stories of victims, especially if the currents of the hobby are usually against them. Bringing to light harassment by someone with a large following of people makes you a target. While Mentzer has a right to tell his side of the interaction, there has been a huge wave of backlash against Price merely for telling her story. In researching the facts of this, I’ve found 4chan boards drumming up support and planning campaigns against Price just by googling the terms “jessica price frank mentzer”. Social and public backlash keeps victims from talking about abuses, so not believing the victims or not providing a safe space for people to tell the stories of harassment cuts off any good that could be potentially done by them telling their story. Sure, we may want to defend the things we love, but we can’t do it at a horrible cost of enabling harassment.
  • Stop The Harassment We See – Stand up for your friends and people that you know that have been victims of harassment or are potential victims of harassment. When you see someone acting in a way that harasses someone, or saying things that make people uncomfortable, call it out in whatever way you can muster at the time. You don’t necessarily need to jump up on a table and tell a person they’re being an asshole, but calling it out and making sure it is known that it is uncomfortable has to happen if it’s going to get better. The grand gesture may not be the best tool to use in that situation, but saying “Hey, that’s not cool to say” and explaining the factors that a person doesn’t see in that moment may mitigate future behavior. Choose how you fight your fight, and choose the best way available to you, but never choose not to fight the fight. We need to stand up and call out harassing behavior whenever we see it, not just for our friends and loved ones, but for the complete stranger who may benefit because you provided some push-back and helped craft a social situation that prevented that behavior in the future. Do it for your friends and for the complete strangers who deserve the same feeling of safety that we all do.
  • Don’t Make It About Yourself – Whenever we encounter these sorts of situations, we need to make sure the solutions and help we provide don’t end up being about us. Every single person is, by innate nature, primarily self focused. That’s the nature of survival and the base way we experience the world, through our senses and our experience with the world, but when someone is having an issue we need to make sure we aren’t making our part of the solution about us. We need to make sure the focus of anything we do is about the actual issue and trying to make it better, not our reaction and efforts to make it better.
  • When You Have a Position Of Authority As The Gamemaster, Make A Safe Space – As a Gamemaster, there is a bit of authority that means you can make the environment safer. Make sure to be open and available to talk with people and listen when someone says they feel uncomfortable. Make a policy that you are there to help if anyone feels uncomfortable or has an issue with something, and if someone in your group comes to you for help, provide that help. It can be scary to be a woman in a world of men, and it can be scary to be the gay gamer dealing with the homophobic slur someone else said while you weren’t around, and it can be scary to just be the person made uncomfortable when anyone else at the table is doing something different. As the game master, you can use your privilege as a proxy to deal with some issues more easily.

None of us are perfect, and none of us live in a vacuum. We’ve all been shaped by the forces of our lives and the hobby that we love, we’ve all been bombarded with messages about what is appropriate and what isn’t, and those messages aren’t always direct. They’ve shaped behaviors that we may not even know we have and they’ve shaped what we find appropriate or what even registers on our radars as inappropriate actions by someone else. We all need to understand what issues exist in our hobby, and those of us of the male persuasion need to understand what it is like for women in a hobby that we dominate and that has catered to us for years.

We can listen to people who have been harassed and make sure anyone with a story feels safe to tell it and prevent future harassment. We can stop the harassment we see in our spheres of influence and spread the message that anything less than respect for others isn’t acceptable. We can choose to be the grease that helps our hobby in its switch of gears to becoming a more open and inviting place for everyone to be. We can do better.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Forges Of Power

18 October 2017 - 3:00am

Many are the epic arms forged in your fantasy game. But sometimes the most powerful armaments require tools as powerful as they are. Enter these forges of power, able to bring forth the most fantastic of creations.

  • Cold Iron Forge: Created by a race of arctic dwarves, for whom fire was a luxury, this huge rune carved anvil allows purification of ores and forging of weapons and armor using blistering cold instead of heat. Hammering ore on the anvil causes it to crumble to fragments and re-merge purer each time. Refined ores can be tempered and shaped with the cold fire of the runes. Weapons and armor created in the cold iron forge are often heavy and dull, but are infused with the power of cold and brutally effective.
  • Forge Weaver: And intricate device built by a genius spider elf tinker, the forge weaver looks like a cross between a huge loom and a twisted metal spider. Metal placed into it’s hopper is processed into thread like cable, which can be woven into material as strong as plate, but much more flexible and light. The forge can also be used to produce bowstrings and a few select weapons, but most weapons are beyond its abilities.
  • Golem Forge: A few golem forges exist. All of them resemble golems and eat raw ore, scrap and refined metals and refine them into weapons and armor internally. Some were made to mass produce a common quality armament to supply large forces, but the most impressive of them were constructed to take rare materials and components and produce a single powerful weapon or armor with more skill than its creator could produce.
  • Lightning forge: The lightning forge sits on a desolate hilltop, and operating it is the task of a lifetime. Material is held aloft on a pole and left there for lightning to strike. When it does, the smith must quickly lower it and work it as long as possible until it cools. This process, which may take dozens, if not hundreds of years results in arms that are blackened and electrically scarred, but which carry the fury of the sky. Of course, you may be able to speed the process with the help of a powerful caster.
  • Ocean Forge: In the crushing darkness of the ocean, over a volcanic vent sits the ocean forge. Just getting there is a major challenge. Forging weapons and armor in the pressure and heat with salt water contaminating materials and wicking away heat faster than air taxes the skills of even a master smith. The strangely patinaed arms created here are almost indestructible and highly resistant to the elements.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Running a Solo Game GM-less

16 October 2017 - 6:59am

Tell me if you’ve heard this one: It’s Thursday night and you want to play a game. But everyone in the party is across town, and it takes too long to set up, so they’d need to leave half an hour into actually playing. So you look over at your significant other, and they want to play too, but you can’t help but notice the dishes are piling up and the trash is full. Just then, your kid walks up and you have no idea what they got into, but it’s all over the walls now.

While my wife is going through grad school, we have almost no time to play. This is a huge change for me; for the last decade, I was running games twice a week for my FLGS. I was in withdrawal, to say the least. Even online play still requires scheduling with a whole party, and grad school, full time work, and a toddler make that hard. We also thought about running a solo game, but that meant one person on each side of the GM screen. So, we needed a tabletop RPG we could both play and share GMing responsibilities with, as well as be able to set up and walk away from quickly.

What we decided to do was take a rules light RPG that was something we were familiar with, Mircolite 20, and pair it with a system to help us run the game, a GM emulator. GM emulators are something special, and fall into their own, unique category of gaming, mixing tabletop RPGs, storytelling, and a whole lot of chaos.

What’s a GM Emulator?

GM emulators seek to help solo players answer questions their chosen ruleset can’t answer. A ruleset or system like Dungeons and Dragons does a fine job handling questions about conflict resolution. Is my character talented enough to open the locked chest? To bamboozle the mayor into giving me the keys to the city? To sumo-wrestle the tarrasque? The GM Emulator can help you answer questions about the state of the game world. Rule sets are not capable, except usually in a rudimentary fashion, of telling you if the town guard prepared for the orc raid, or if the planet your crew finds has sentient life. You could arbitrarily decide on an answer to that question, or you could ask the GM emulator to generate your answer.

CRGE is one of many GM emulators available on the market. You can find it as a Pay What You Want item on DriveThruRPG. The core of the system works like this: you ask a yes/no question (“Does this city have any sweet magic item shops?”), roll a percentile die, and compare the results against a chart that will help explain what you find.

Most answers result in a binary yes or no. “Yep, the sweet magic shop is near by.” But the closer you go to 0 or 100, the results begin to change for to “yes/no but”, then “yes/no and”, and finally “yes/no, and unexpectedly“. “But” results diminish the results. (“Yes, but it’s closed because a errant Robe of Many Things got loose.”). “And” results augment your answer. (“Yes, and there’s a buy one-get one sale on empty potion bottles!”).

Narration In Your Hands

Once you know your result from the chart, it’s up to you to interpret it. Whatever makes sense to you, and the story you want to tell, how your characters see the world, or whatever other factors you want to think up. And then go with it. The system provides just enough structure to move the story along. Not define it, but guide it. You get the pleasure of filling in the details.

All of that can still become too comfortable though, so “Unexpected” results throw you a curve ball. These spots sit on the extreme ends of the chart, and there is a separate list of unexpected things that may occur, such has characters (good or bad) showing up unexpectedly, or scene changes that force you to move the current event along quicker than you expect. These work well to keep the players on their toes, and can be a lot of fun to handle creatively. How do you explain the arrival of a new character in a locked room, or when the scene has to wrap up before you’ve accomplished what you wanted?

There are some other optional rules than can help the game along as well. Surge counters get added anytime you roll a simple “yes/no” answer, and each counter adds +2 to your next roll, resetting once you roll something other than a simple “yes/no”. It’s a simple addition that forces the game to keep things interesting, so you aren’t stuck taking vanilla answers for too long.

Optional Rules and Downfalls

Another optional rule is story threads. Threads represent story elements that you are interested in focusing the story on. It’s important to have a running list of current threads as some unexpected results ask you to change focus from one thread to another. These can be closed and opened as you feel that they reach resolution, depending on your character and what they consider the end of their stories to be. CRGE also provides three different probability charts to use, depending where you believe the story is heading, either to knowledge, to conflict, or to ending, with each chart progressively becoming more final (less “and” and “but” answers). Story threads are a great way to keep major plot points in mind as you try to weave your story. Roll something on the chart and what to put it in context? Grab a thread that makes sense and tie things together.

In practice, not every question about the game world needs to be answered with the emulator. A good rule is that you should only roll to answer questions that help move the narrative along. If you decide that something makes sense, or is very likely, a roll isn’t needed. No need to check what’s in every room you enter or village you plunder. Or, should you just come up with an interesting answer instead of rolling- go for it. The emulator is there just to provide a framework when you can’t fairly answer a question, but should be left by the side in the interest of good storytelling.

If all of this seems complex, the whole PDF for CRGE is 32 pages long, and mostly filled with examples and references. And keep in mind, it can be scaled to be as complex or simple as you feel appropriate for your game. My wife and I felt that, after the first couple of rolls, it was easy enough to manage the whole system during our game. The option rules do a lot to help guide the story, but players who feel natural at storytelling might find them restrictive. GRGE also recommends you keep track of threads, story developments, and your surge count by using index cards. This also makes cleanup a breeze. No need for journaling, just tuck your index cards away for the next game. This works especially well when our two year old decides to wake up from her nap in the middle of one of our gaming sessions.

When we feel that we can’t fill in a story element, or need help generations character or place names and details, we move over to donjon’s suite of online generators. If you haven’t played with the plethora of tools on his site, you should give them a try.

Choosing A System To Use With A GM Emulator

For our rule set, we choose Microlite20 as we are most familiar with d20 systems, so it’s easy to come up with content on the fly, or pull from the uncountable masses of existing stuff on our shelves. Also, with Mircolite, we can easily keep the folder of rules for the system, plus the rules for CRGE, index cards, and our dice, in a convenient place on our book shelf, meaning we can pick up and start a new game quickly.

Since the GM Emulator can help you answer questions about the game world, we intentionally left our setting open to grow during our sessions. We did make a number of starting assumptions about what we wanted from the game: for instance, we wanted non-human races to feel very special, and decided that we would not create non-human characters for now. With just the simple assumptions, we asked some questions of the emulator as we played to begin filling the details, occasionally using donjon to generate names for places and people.


Our impressions so far is that while CRGE works very well for us, there are some pros and cons in using a GM emulator. I enjoy tactical combat, but the CRGE doesn’t work well to handle the depth of tactical situations. You would have to ask the emulator too many questions to get reasonable responses to do things like move troops and choose targets. There are though a number of alternatives systems written for that purpose (I like The Solo Wargaming Guide by William Silvester).

Another concern is deciding how to manage odd results like “yes/but” or “unexpected”. There have been times where it seems that the question doesn’t need more information than a binary answer. When the system begins to fault or leaves you unsure – just drop it, make a decision, and keep the game going.

One final note: this isn’t going to feel exactly like your normal experience with a full group. It’s definitely different, but that’s not a bad thing. If you hope to make a bigger narrative impact on game, using a GM emulator liberates you from convention and give you some new space to explore.

What other solutions have you used to be able to run small games without a GM. What other systems do you recommend in its place?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Elements of a Good One-Shot

13 October 2017 - 12:00am

GenCon, Masks, where they ended the beat the bad guy Guardians of the Galaxy style… by holding hands…

I’m doing things a tad bit backwards here. This week’s GnomeCast was Matt, JT and myself rambling about the elements of a good one-shot game. It was a hastily thrown together episode due to how busy I’ve been, but Matt jumped in and did some research on the Stew’s archives and noted that, other than an article where I talked about one-shot characters, we haven’t had a focused one-shot article since Martin posted some way back in the day. So for today’s article, I’m reversing the streams and following the GnomeCast up with an article.

If you’ve read any of my articles, you might realize I attend quite a few conventions. I think this year my total will end up being ten. These vary in scale between barely surviving college cons, thriving college cons, medium sized and growing cons, to the monsters of the summer—Origins and Gen Con. Some of my favorites are what a co-worker calls my ‘bespoke artisanal cons’, basically private get-togethers of folks who still game like crazy for a weekend.

Anyway, as a result of my frequent con attendance, I end up running quite a few one-shots throughout the year. Some cons I only ran one game. At Gen Con, I ran four different games. I’m not a workhorse GM like some because I rather enjoy being a player, but I still want to do what I can to bring games to conventions. While I never think of myself as an expert, my experience with the subject at least gives me room to talk about the subject.

Now, just to clarify, not every one-shot needs to be run at a convention. Home groups rely on them too; in between campaigns, when the regular GM can’t make it, when the group is missing key people for the next session, or because they want to try out a new game. Even if a group is super dedicated to a particular campaign, there can still be opportunities for the occasional one-shot and the elements of what makes a good one remain the same.

Here are some of my thoughts on what makes a one-shot successful:

They’re Self-Contained

Origins, D&D. Brett from Gaming & BS’s Avalon game. Only two hours, but incredibly memorable.

Because you need to start and finish during the same session, it’s key to know how to pace a game. Regardless of the type of prep a GM brings to the table, they need to give their players a good opening scene and a satisfying conclusion to the game. What happens in the middle should be plug-and-play as needed. Some groups will speed through a game and need everything the GM has prepped or ready to throw at them. Other groups will fixate on a particular aspect of the game and may not need any middle encounters before they get to the finale of the game.

Speaking of the finale, make sure you have one for your one-shot. If you don’t give your players some kind of conclusion at the end of the game, it’s not going to feel like a very satisfying game. You don’t need to wrap up every loose end, but any major plot points of events should be explained and wrapped up.

As a side note, I will argue that a well done cliffhanger can serve as a good conclusion, even for a one-shot. Take a look at how Empire Strikes Back ends. There’s a climactic fight at the end and there’s no question on how that shakes out. Just because you’re left with some burning questions at the end doesn’t mean the ending wasn’t satisfying. It may make the players ask you to run it again at some point, but you still gave them a solid game experience. In one Monster of the Week one-shot I ran, there was a big, emotional revelation at the end of the climactic fight. The logical conclusion was for one player to break her sacred weapon and walk off into the night. The players still talk about that ending. Use cliffhangers sparingly and make sure it’s suitable for the game as it’s wrapping up, but they can be quite effective.

Get the Players Invested Quickly

In one-shots, you don’t have time for your players to build a slow, organic connection to their characters or the game itself. You need them invested right away. If you’re going to make a habit of running one-shots, it’s good to develop a few different techniques for this. During the GnomeCast episode, Matt and I discussed how we have different things we value in games. I am far more into the story and the characters, while he’s more interested in the tactics and problems to solve that the game presents. The players you get at the table may also vary like this, so you may not be able to please everyone, but having a handful of techniques you can use to get them involved right away will help.

I’ve rambled on about how to create characters for one-shots, so you can read about that over here. For pre-gens, keep the backgrounds interesting and relevant to the game, but also succinct. I know I have a tendency to write a book, so I always have to go back and edit my backgrounds down. If you give your players a book, many players will tune out from the tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) and important bits of background can get missed. I also enjoy creating hooks between the pregens, so I’ll always weave connections into the characters to help establish some roleplaying hooks right away.

Origins, Bubblegumshoe, they followed the clues with their own style, but still solved the mystery. 

Every character at the table should have something to do in the game ahead. Do not include characters that don’t have a place in the adventure you have planned or expect to run. You don’t have to specifically plan encounters for each individual character, but you should have in mind a way that each character can be useful. One convention failure I played in included two very social characters among the pregens, but the adventure the GM had planned sidelined both characters quite thoroughly by sending them off into the wilderness to an abandoned mine. Good players will make their characters integral to the game, but there’s only so much they can do when their character’s skill set is completely unnecessary to the game’s scenario.

With many indie games (including PbtA games that I love to run), the players should be creating their characters at the table. These games usually don’t encourage pre-planned scenarios, but the same rules apply. The GM should make sure all the characters created have a role to play in the game ahead. Pay special attention to the things that players are calling out in their characters because they’re essentially telling you what they want to see come into play.

Beyond the characters, have an interesting and engaging opening scene. Don’t dawdle getting them the hooks for the adventure. If the game is about finding a missing person, they should know in the first ten or fifteen minutes who that missing person is. Get to the action! Make sure that introductions happen so everyone knows who is playing who (table tents can really help here), but you don’t want to drag the opening out too long before they start getting involved in the game world.

In Medias Res can be a good tool to use, but handle it carefully. The players should have an understanding of why they’re in the scene as it starts. I’ve seen too many GMs try and use this type of opening without giving their players a working understanding of why they would be in that situation and why they would be working with the other PCs. Establish that information first, then dive right in.

Manage Time Mindfully

By their very nature, one-shots have a set time limit. At cons, it’s often four hours, though they can range from two to six hours as well. Regardless, they all have a deadline they need to be finished by. Make no mistake, it is incredibly disrespectful to your players to assume they can stay longer for YOUR game. It’s one thing if it’s your regular crew playing in your dining room and you ask if they can stay later. At a convention, your players have people and places they need to go see. If I run into a GM at a convention that runs over their time slot, they get put into a ‘do not play with again’ list.

Keep some sort of time-keeping device nearby. I usually have my phone on the table where I can quickly glance at what the time is. This way I know when to let my players have a quick break, but also when I need to start moving towards a finale. As mentioned above, different groups will fixate on different things and move through the scenario at different speeds.

You absolutely do not want to railroad your players through the scenario, but feel free to nudge them along when they seem to be fixating on an unimportant aspect of the game. If you have to, move them along by external forces pushing them forward. Maybe the villain finds out their location and attacks them before they can finish planning their own attack. Either way, keep the game moving and get them to that finale.

So there are my thoughts on the important elements to a good one-shot. Did I miss anything? What do you feel are the most important things to keep in mind so your players have a good one-shot experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Fate Adversary Toolkit Review

10 October 2017 - 3:00am

I’m going to admit something right up front. I’m cheating with this review. I’m running a Dresden Accelerated game, and reading through this book is allowing me to review it, as well as potentially steal things for my campaign. Does that make me a bad person?

My love of the Dresden Files is what led me to start looking at Fate. I picked up the Dresden Files RPGs, and while I loved the “story” side of the RPG, I couldn’t quite grasp the rules. This was around the time that the Fate Core Kickstarter was going on, so I jumped on board, and as soon as I started reading the rules in Fate Core, things started to click.

Fate is a broad, powerful system. You can handle the same situation a multitude of ways, and none of them are wrong. The downside to this is—you can handle the same situation a multitude of ways, and none of them are wrong. With such a broad system, seeing different ways to apply the broad concepts introduced in context can really help a Fate GM narrow down how they want to use the game.

As part of the Fate Core Kickstarter, a book called the Fate Toolkit was produced, which had a series of optional rules and concepts for handling specific situations, and some of these options were used to flesh out how Dresden Accelerated handles the same topics as its older sibling. The Toolkit mentions that future Toolkits for the system would be produced, and the first of the new line of Fate Toolkits is the Adversary Toolkit.

The Sourcebook’s Aspects

 I have both the physical copy of the Fate Adversary Toolkit as well as the PDF, so this review is informed by both. The book is a lean 112 pages, with a single page ad at the end. The trade dress is similar to other Fate products, with the purple color denoting the Toolkit line. The physical copy is hardcover and digest size, and feels solid for a smaller hardcover book.

Like most of the core Fate products, the cover art is full color, and the interior art is black and white. The art is high quality, and a mix of different genres to illustrate various examples in the book. Yes, there is at least one image of a cyborg ape.

The Fate Toolkit Series and Introduction

 The introductory sections of the book mention that this series is meant to be ongoing, with references to things like the Horror Toolkit. The design intention for these rules is to be modular, with the ability to swap out specific rules in other Fate games without changing anything except the specific rules being used from this series. The introduction then gives a brief overview of what the chapters are in the book.

Types of Adversaries

This chapter introduces the broad categories under which adversaries get organized using the Toolkit’s rules, which breaks down to Enemies, Obstacles, and Constraints.

  • Enemies are further broken down into Threats, Hitters, Bosses, and Fillers. Threats are designed to survive long term in a fight; Hitters are meant to do damage, but aren’t too difficult to dispatch; Bosses have a combination of traits, but they are often the “point” of an encounter; and Fillers aren’t so much good at anything as they exist in a scene to show that they are there.
  • Obstacles are broken down into Hazards, Blocks, and Distractions. Hazards cause harm, Blocks exist to force characters to overcome or go around them, and Distractions are choices that might slow down the character’s progress.
  • Constraints are subdivided into Countdowns, Limitations, and Resistances. Countdowns are boxes that tick off when something happens, and change the scene when the boxes are all full. Limitations are elements that make performing certain actions less desirable, but not impossible, and Resistances are facts that make dealing with a given adversary impossible unless a specific way of dealing with that thing is engaged.

This is a short chapter, and it just introduces the concepts and describes them in a little more detail than I did above. I’m intrigued at this point, and I’m interested to see how all of this gets implemented in the actual rules. I’m also a sucker for well laid out explanations of what is coming next in a book like this, so I like that everything is defined up front.

Building Adversaries

This section of the book gets into the actual mechanics of how to make everything work. There are also numerous examples of the various types of adversaries, showing off the rules explained in this section in the example stat blocks.


For many of the enemy types discussed above, there is advice on applying skill bonuses to what that enemy is designed to do, as well as using the Weapon rules to dial up or down the threat level. The book also addresses how many stress boxes and/or consequences different roles should have. There are also some example stunts that are intentionally not built to work as PC stunts. These might allow for a boss enemy to escape, or to give a big bonus in the situation where it will give the enemy the biggest advantage.

Much of the information on enemies revolves around asynchronous design, where you don’t build GM characters the same way you would PCs. This comes up in other Fate products (for example, several Fate products only assign minor characters special skills for what they are intended to do in a scene), but in this case, there are several pages of guidelines on what to “break” for your enemies and what effect that will have in the game.

I’m a big fan of grouping large numbers of lesser bad guys together as one character, and this chapter has rules on doing this on the fly, when those bad guys have been introduced as Fillers. There are some rules for throwing their stress boxes together in a specific way and what direction to remove stress from them, but I’ll be honest, grouping Filler enemies together is my least favorite part of the enemies section. I can see the advantage to doing it, but I’m just much more likely to make them into a slightly larger single enemy to begin with.


The next section is on Obstacles. The biggest difference between an Obstacle and an Enemy is that the Obstacle might get a turn in initiative, or just go off when a certain thing happens in the narrative, but the Obstacle can’t be directly stressed out. Some might allow for an Overcome action to determine how to shut it down, but directly engaging it is meant to be a multi-step process.

Hazards are designed to do damage when they are triggered, and Blocks narratively separate parts of the scene. They may do damage, but they aren’t primarily designed to do so, the way Hazards are.

Distractions are put into the Obstacles category, but they feel a little different than the other two. They are meant to put some texture into an exchange by causing the players to decide. Innocents need to be saved, which might let the bad guy escape, for example. The book introduces a format for detailing Distractions, which helps the GM determine the purpose it serves in the scene.


The final section in the Building Adversaries chapter is Constraints. Depending on how they are used, Constraints might be more like modifiers used for enemies than actual adversaries by themselves.

Countdowns are fairly simple–you set a number of boxes, what happens to cause a box to tick off, and what happens when the countdown is finished. There is some discussion about how to portray the final effects of the countdown, depending on the scale of the countdown and what you have established as the stakes.

Limitations are modifiers meant to make certain direct actions less desirable. A pool is filled with electric eels, a room is flooded with radiation, etc. They mention establishing a Limitation as a Fact or an Aspect, and how if you establish it as an Aspect it has more application to the rules. I think the discussion on Facts should have been a bit longer, because I’m not sure why I should use a Fact instead of an Aspect in this case.

Resistances are essentially hard pronouncements. A creature can only be harmed with X. No starship can fly past the boundaries of this nebula without special shielding. Narratively, a thing cannot be done unless a specific other thing is used or done first. I like the hard narrative statement, because other implementations of similar rules in other versions of Fate have felt a little clunky. There is a lot of freedom in determining how to get the “key,” so limiting the solution to the big problem is just one part of the story that doesn’t need to be overly mechanized.

Using Environments

This section gives an in-depth discussion of planning the zones that you use for exchanges, and how to place things like Blocks and Hazards within those zones. I will freely admit, I’m pretty loose on establishing more than two zones or so at a time, and this section shows the benefit of putting some thought into those potential zones that could come up, but haven’t when the exchange starts.

On top of general advice on designing zones with adversaries in mind, there is some discussion about relative zones and conceptual zones. Relative zones can be used for things like chases, where the area that the character inhabits is based on context. This section also mentions that when using things like relative zones, characters might occupy more than one zone at a time. For example, you might have the city where the chase is taking place, with its own aspects, and the character is in the city zone, as well as the “a few steps behind” zone in the chase.

I like the idea of conceptual zones, but I really want to see more about them. Essentially, they are introduced to be used for games where exchanges are less about beating people up than about convincing people that they are right or wrong. Conceptual zones might be things like “no standing at court” or “allowed in the inner council room,” and certain actions just aren’t possible until characters are “close” to one another in conceptual terms. As introduced, they are intriguing, but I really want to see more about them before I feel comfortable using them.

Rogues Gallery

This section of the book is by far the largest section, and takes up over half the pages. With a name like Rogues Gallery, you might expect a large number of pre-made adversaries for a game, and you would be right. However, those pre-made adversaries are all collected in adventure outlines that you can use for one shots, with advice on how to expand those one shots into short campaigns, as well as thoughts on how to drift the adversary and the situation into other genres.

The genres used are Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Cyberpunk, Pulp, 80s Action, Space Opera, Spy Thriller, Supers, Post-Apocalyptic, and Regency Romance. Examples of all the different rules introduced in the previous chapters can be found in this section, but not every rule is used in every example adventure. This makes sense, because the whole point is using the right tools for the right job.

The Cyberpunk and Post-Apocalyptic adventures felt a little flat to me, but they certainly serve to illustrate using the rules in the context of those settings. If you are wondering, 80s action could be read as “G.I. Joe,” and Spy Thriller could be read as “Mission Impossible.”

I really love the inclusion of the Regency Romance scenario as an example of a Fate game that revolves around social interactions instead of straight up combat. There is a brief discussion of the conceptual zones in this one, but it feels like it could have used a deeper treatment.

Success with Style  Straight up, this book does what it says it will do—it’s a toolkit to make using adversaries in Fate simpler and more effective. 

If you want options for building adversaries that are simple and straightforward, and should work even if they don’t engage all the special rules in a particular version of Fate, this book should serve your purposes. If you want a book that is going to give you plenty of Fate scenarios for short campaigns or one shots, this book is also going to work for you. The discussion of the more tactical use of zones and the proper levels of skills and application of the weapon rules is going to be extremely useful for GMs that have been running Fate for a while. Straight up, this book does what it says it will do—it’s a toolkit to make using adversaries in Fate simpler and more effective.

Free Invoke of a Consequence

I wish the book had spent more time on the conceptual zones, and given a few more detailed examples of using them in the sample adventures. Some of the sample adventures felt a little flat. I wish there had been more than one adventure that revolved around social or political maneuvering, rather than physical combat, since Fate can adapt so well to other kinds of stories. I would have liked a more traditional collection of enemies, obstacles, and example constraints all in one place, instead of sprinkled throughout the book as contextual examples—although I think if the book only has one or the other, the contextual examples were the right call.

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

If you are generally interested in Fate, it’s unlikely you will regret picking this book up. Not only does it give you solid guidelines for building adversaries that do what you need them to do in the scene, in a clear format, it also gives you several options for one shots or short campaign ideas in addition to the rules for building and modifying adversaries. It does what it says on the cover, and then goes a little bit beyond.

If you have the Fate Adversary Toolkit, let me know what you think of it. If you have some ideas on what you want to see in the future (specific products or broad games lines), let me know as well! I would love to hear from you.





Categories: Game Theory & Design

Always Give Your Players A Receipt

9 October 2017 - 3:00am


“The sword of duquesne gets stolen by the naked man…”
Community did an excellent episode where they played Dungeons and Dragons, and it was advanced! One of the things that has always struck me about that episode was the part where the character Neil’s sword gets stolen out of spite by another player . It sets up a ton of plot threads and talks about inter-party conflict, but it has always struck me that the episode could have gone a totally different way had it not ended with them recovering the sword. It would have sucked for Neil, having an heirloom and important part of his concept of his character get stolen and not recovered, and would totally have changed the outcome of the effect of the game on Neil’s mental attitude towards life (a major part of the plot of the episode).

It also struck me how similar that experience of having something taken away from a character is similar to experiences I’ve heard about from people, and how similar it is to experiences I’ve had as a player. The ability to threaten things that are close to characters is an important tool in the GM’s toolbox, as it gives them a way to make the game’s outcomes feel meaningful, but the legacy of adversarial GMing — where it is the players vs the GM and everything victory is hard fought — can totally sink a player’s morale if they suddenly lose some part of their agency in moving the story forward.

There’s an easy way to overcome that though:


Always Give Your Players A Receipt For Things You Take Away

A character losing a valuable item, the party being thrown in jail by the guards, or really anything that removes the players ability to react to the situation or attempt to get out of it, deserves some assurance that you aren’t going to be an asshole and make things horrible for them. Pretty much anything that asks the player to bear with you for a bit deserves a receipt, a promise that you’re not taking their ability to interact with the story away, just putting it on pause and they’ll get it back.

“The Guards apprehend you and demand you go with them to jail! Ok everyone, this is a bit meta, but if you go with them without a fight, this token is my assurance that it won’t stop everything. You’ll get your gear back, you’ll get out of the jail at some point, however you make that happen, but it won’t stop the story. Maybe you’ll break out and have a record, but we’ll keep moving on and I’m not taking anything away, and if you lose something, like a guard steals your magic sword, you will get it back at some point, or something as cool. June, maybe this is how you get that ice sword you were talking about rather than the fire one, I don’t know yet. So, you don’t have to go with the guards, but if you do I’ll make sure you get everything back.”

That’s all a bit meta, but what matters most from the players side of the table is knowing that the things you are doing to move the story along aren’t just out of spite. They may already know that by your play style and have full trust in you, and they may be 100% down for that style of play and won’t get annoyed when you burn up their gear because they didn’t explicitly say they were being super careful around the fire elemental — and if those expectations are set, awesome. No need to change the paradigm you’ve already established. It is never a bad idea to reaffirm that you are on their side though.

 Pretty much anything that asks the player to bear with you for a bit deserves a receipt, a promise that you’re not taking their ability to interact with the story away, just putting it on pause and they’ll get it back.  I will never forget an early game in my career where I wanted to make use of my characters tanning skills to make some leather while we were camping, and with a gleeful smirk that said “I like screwing with your character” a GM told me that creatures made off with the leathers I was tanning in the night. No real reason, maybe a passing roll to see the likelihood behind the screen, no moving forward of the story or hilarious side quest where we chase down creatures chewing on the leather that was supposed to be my new hand-made armor, just that sense of “Wow, the GM just wants to screw with us if we don’t stay in line.” That was the second to last game I played in that campaign, and I think the third to last game that ever occurred in it. A different take on that situation, a validation that there was a reason for it other than “I’ve had a crappy day and you are my target” might have saved the campaign.


The Other Side

But doesn’t this take away risk? Yes, yes it does if not done correctly, but that is all dependent on your play style. A receipt in a game can take many forms, and it is best used when you are looking at removing something core to a character for a plot reason or asking the players to bear with where the story is headed. If mercenaries sneak on-board the star ship and flush all the cargo out the airlock while the crew is tied up, it is assumed that is part of the story and there is going to be an eventual escape and retaking of the ship. What can the players expect to still have intact after that episode plays out? Whatever moves the story along, or else give the players a receipt. There is still the risk that Jayne dies while fighting off the crew, if that’s your play style, but if he survives and Vera gets flushed out the airlock or broken, the receipt is a promise that he will take a bigger/better gun from one of the mercenaries OR that Vera will pop up in a vendor’s stall and a hilarious fight/kerfuffle will occur that puts Vera back in Jayne’s loving hands.


Final Thoughts

There is a natural power imbalance that comes up in games, when you as the Game Master can say “Rocks fall and you die” whenever a player annoys you. Giving a player a receipt in any type of game you are playing helps counterbalance that effect. You are assuring the player that you’re not just screwing with them, but instead you’re there to help them progress the story along. A receipt isn’t always a necessity, but it’s a token of respect for the players’ agency in the game and the sanctity of their characters. You’re promising you are going to screw with them, but only in the ways that push the story forward. It might not be a tactic that is great for every game, but it’s one that can be super effective, especially during one-shots or when used with a new table.

What experiences have you had that a receipt might have made better? Do you feel this eliminates too much risk from a game? Have you used something like this as a GM?




Categories: Game Theory & Design

Treasure Map Alternatives

4 October 2017 - 3:00am

One of the most time honored adventure hooks is the treasure map. Essentially they exist to get characters from point A to point B, maybe with a little adventure in the middle. Here are some alternatives to the basic treasure map that serve the same purpose.

  • The Compass: An enchanted compass that always points to some location. Similar to a map, but with just direction to go on. Characters will have to keep their eyes peeled for dangers to avoid stumbling into them, since there are no “here there be dragons” on a compass. Clever players may triangulate and overlay the results on a local map to help solve this problem. More powerful compasses may rotate through several locations as you reach them, or may activate additional locations via command word.
  • A Ruined Road: A bit of an ancient stone road mostly reclaimed by wilderness, the direction it once traveled is clear. Following it’s last known direction in either way probably results in finding more fragments until you arrive at the locations from which it started and at which it finished. Following the road may require a good deal of beating bushes and searching, and may go through some dangerous territory that the characters have little choice but to enter. Some of these roads may feature intersections that lead to even more destinations.
  • A clear Vantage Point: The reward for finding the ancient tree in the center of the forest or a lost wizard’s tower may be little more than the view from the top. From this clear vantage point, a character with keen eyes may spot any number of interesting locations, and any number of locations that seem to be interesting but are little more than a ditch. Clever use of scrying may be useful in determining which is which before outfitting a cross country expedition.
  • Unusual Treasure: Treasure, or even trash that has no business being where you find it is a dead giveaway that another location of interest is nearby. Furniture, tools, utensils, weapons, scrolls, clothes are all things that could be a clue to search the surrounding area. Of course, questioning the current owners of these things may get your characters a guide, or it may get them a fight first and an interrogation scene after.
  • Will-O-The-Wisp: Everyone knows not to follow the will-o-the-wisps, La Lorna, the haunting laughter of children, or the skittering black shadows into the deep swamp or the darkened wood. Especially as night approaches. But are they leading you to an ambush or a long forgotten site? Careful characters may find it well worth their while to follow these dangerous beings.

What clever alternatives have you used to guide characters to a new location? Let everyone know in the comments below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Q and A with Frank Mentzer about Worlds of Empyrea

2 October 2017 - 3:00am

Frank Mentzer, gamer and game designer who started working at TSR in 1980, has launched a Kickstarter for a new game setting: Worlds of Empyrea.  Here is the Q&A we did discussing this new project and his thoughts about the OSR.

Q. Let’s start with the title itself: “Worlds of Empyrea.”  Not the kingdom of Empyrea, not the continent of, nor even world of, but “Worlds.”  So how broad and far-reaching is this setting?

Greetings! Yes, it’s plural. For the first time in tabletop gaming history, a setting is being released for ten different game systems. You choose your favorite game when you order it, and all the statistics in the set are for that system.

We collect all the crunch in one System Book. When you need the crunch, you’re probably headed for action, so you switch to the System Book.  Once things settle down again, you go back to the main book, bigger maps, and so forth.

Adventures have more action, so you can’t separate the crunch. A setting is far less dependent on the numbers, being more about verisimilitude and historical context. Each character and monster has to have its relevant data, and things must be described using the right words and terms. Thus, each ‘world’ is the Empyrea of that game system. We’ll have dedicated sets for each of the following: D&D 5e, 1e/2e, and BECMI (my ‘red box’ series); Runequest and Savage Worlds; and five major D&D variants (Open Game License aka OGL games) Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Castles & Crusades, Swords & Wizardry, and Hackmaster… Ten Worlds of Empyrea.

If this works as planned, the next step is actively modifying that version of Empyrea to reflect the game system, not merely ‘patch’ it with stats. This is a longer project, to be undertaken with the cooperation of each creator and/or publisher involved.

Q. If I may … publishers and game creators today are very specific about defining how their settings and hobby games fit in terms of genre and play style, mostly so they can directly target their intended audience. But from what I’m hearing, does Empyrea hearken back to an era when audience interests in fantasy, sword and sorcery,  horror, adventure and science fiction more freely overlapped?  Or is this something completely new?

With its roots in the 1970s, Empyrea has Old School origins. But most of the development has been from 1990 to present, while watching the exciting new developments in the hobby, both mainstream and Indie.

The core campaign is so ‘pure fantasy’ that Tech items are actually Forbidden by the gods. Of course that implies a black market, and a source in the first place … which leads us to orbit. Future projects will look at this planet from outside, and the intent is to address Traveller, Starfinder, and other great SF RPGs as we’re doing Fantasy on this round.

Q. The FAQ on Empyrea states it has three main premises. Can we take them in turn and can you elaborate on what each means for the players whose characters will inhabit the setting?

Each premise affects vast parts of society, so I’m glad you focused on the players.

First, “Magic instead of Technology?”

The church distributes magical light pebbles and a recommended curriculum for home education. Simple elemental transformations (removing water from mud, or earth from air) produce superhighways and a fire suppressant, respectively. To the average player character, this has all been normal for a century at least, and is all taken for granted. That’s the focus of the ‘quickstart’ adventures we provide in the set.

A sentient but indifferent planet?

A group of cultists (druids) can smooth-talk it into revealing valuable clues. One was “since you can talk to animals, ask them what THEY want,” which produced animal crossings, less farm trouble, and more cooperation all around. Again, this produces more general effects than character-specific.

Royals who place quality of life above the unbalancing mass whims like war and wealth?

The people always get shafted when a power group rises. They want life to be both worthwhile and fair. Life isn’t fair, but if everybody tries, they can make it better. Royals encourage Diplomacy vs. war, People vs. greed, Quality of life vs. consolidated power. The Arts are subsidized, and creativity flowers.


Q. Much of that sounds almost idyllic. What’s the source or sources of conflict in the setting? What threatens this way of life? What impels adventurers to strike out?

Enjoy it while you can; the end is prophesied. The east and west are impassible, north is mountainous and hostile, and south is deepwood where the Evil One is gathering armies. And a nearby Orc realm is trying to become civilized, and all the Dragons are tired of being hunted by adventurers. And more ….

Q. Gnome Stew readers are mostly game masters. Speaking directly to them, what are the elements of Empyrea that you would dangle before them as an enticement?

It’s easy. It can become your “other setting” for your usual game, with a very short and easy learning curve. It contains almost no new game details. The epic plot elements are continental, not personal, and become a background to your own character stories. Many new concepts and details will inspire you to create your own Empyrea adventures.

Q. Can you spare a few moment to discuss your association with Gary Gygax and how that relationship fits with regard to the setting?

I lucked out when, unemployed in the Philadelphia suburbs in the 1970s, I was hired by TSR in 1980. He soon picked me to start the RPGA, and a friendship evolved. My fourth RPGA adventure to be published, “Doc’s Island” (R-4), had a background that involved Gary’s campaign. We discussed his, mine, and ours, and decided to add it to TSR publishing plans. One routine document (at the time) approved the ‘history’ part, placing both campaigns on the same planet. However, they were to have no interaction, primarily due to a great sea between them. (Actually we wanted to keep the Intellectual Property elements entirely separate and thereby more controllable.)

Sadly Gary was ousted in 1985, and Empyrea never got to the TSR drawing board. I wasn’t going to do it at TSR without him, since I created it before TSR (1977-80) and that would simply give it away. Gary would have taken care of me, but now I was alone. So it had to wait.

Throughout the 1980s I worked for game companies, and everything I wrote (and everything Gary wrote as well) belongs to the publishers thereof. We have no quibble with that, and we don’t steal from others. This is not a Greyhawk product; it’s all new, all original.

Q. Is this an appropriate moment to ask about the OSR movement?  What does the Old School Renaissance mean to you?  What contributions is OSR making that are having an impact on rpgs, either mainstream, third party or even personal press?

In many ways, corporate methods have controlled the D&D game, and many other RPGs, for decades. We all understand that means bigger and more widespread (distribution and support primarily). “Better” is a value judgment, so let’s just say ‘different’ artistic styles have been left for the OSR and others, categorized as “Indies” or small companies or just folks with day jobs.

Lower overhead brings lower prices and encourages volunteerism, amateur, and semi-pro efforts of all kinds. Some who scorn corporate productions will flock to sincere and different offerings, seeking the obvious creativity and freedom from big-market shackles. Many don’t seek corporate success; they just want to have a voice, to contribute. It’s great that a method exists for this; it’s a broad, rich, and vital part of our hobby.

Q. While not a universal sentiment among game designers, I have had several confess to trepidation when packaging their personal setting for publication. Sometimes it’s the social ties to the players at the table that hold them back, in others, it’s a proprietary concern, they are just reluctant to see it released into the wild, so to speak. They are perfectly willing to work up something from scratch for publication, but that personal game is another matter. Where do you, and Empyrea, fall on this spectrum, and have your thoughts on this changed over time?

I felt that way decades ago. Now I’m 67, and don’t have time to hold it back. Empyrea has been in the playtest lab for 25 years online, and existed in 4 major incarnations — 1970s Philadelphia area, 1980s Lake Geneva, 1990s Online, and 2000s Chicago area. As game masters, all of our ‘home games’ are in rough shape, nobody writes them like published stuff. So there’s a lot of typing still to tackle.

Q. Share with us what you can about your partners in this venture.  Publishing is a collaborative enterprise. Who are some of the people on your team and what are their various responsibilities?

Although I’ve been preparing for this for decades, the activity team started forming this summer. (The following list doesn’t include the 20 or so Legendary Names from the history of D&D, our contributing authors and artists.) Loxley Enterprises is the parent company; Empyrea is the project. For that, Darlene agreed to be partner and graphics manager as well as producing the big campaign map herself. Ted Fauster, my aide (creative and organizational), was the first hired, and will work with me and TSR veteran Tim Beach for text and development. I invited Peter Bradley, Don Higgins, Ogmios, and Mark Quire for our general art needs, plus Alyssa Faden and Anna Meyer for cartography. Mike Myler is our crowdfunding engineer and media coordinator, and TSR veterans Steven Winter and Anne K. Brown will handle the editing. Finally, former GAMA president Chris Wiese is handling contracts and other business aspects, and Kevin “Doc” Wilson is Mr. Organization, managing the flow of the many sub-projects. We still need a business manager and some accounting support.

Q.  I’ve got D&D rulebooks with red and blue covers that, I know now, were largely the result of your efforts. At the time, I didn’t care who wrote them, only that they were the source material for a game my friends and I spent countless hours playing.  We had fun, together, at the game table. Do you have similar hopes for Empyrea? That it too, can be a source of hours of game play in a magical, timeless setting?

I hope for far more. The invention of roleplaying as a pastime triggered a major change in games. Before that, everything was competitive, from racing to sports to checkers. This was a whole new world for millions … and then it got better! It taught us how to verbalize, to compromise with others and form a team, and how to improve at numbers and visualization. In the process, we befriended others, and the resulting bonds are precious in our hearts, no matter how much time passes. These games add depth to our lives.

All game companies have to focus on paying their own people and bills, and they just can’t address games they don’t publish. In offering Empyrea for 10 game systems, Loxley is encouraging community. If we all have a common setting, it’ll be easier to try new game systems. If we have common interests, that may spur outreach and dialogue. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I know the potential is there, and that most gamers are smarter than most non-gamers, and can transcend their minor differences. Together we can do this.

We can do this, and we will. See you in Empyrea.

Thank your for your time, Best of luck with Empyrea and the Kickstarter, which begins Oct. 2.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Design Flow: UI and Neighbors

29 September 2017 - 3:00am

For the past few months, I have been wrestling with this small but annoying problem in the Hydro Hacker playbooks. It is a section of the playbook that defines your relationships with the other players. When I run this at conventions or in playtest groups, players always fill the section out incorrectly. Over several iterations of playbooks I have tried to refine this section so that it would be more intuitive, but it has not panned out.  Then in talking to one of the Developers (Senda), she gave me an idea that changed how I was looking at the problem – and with that, a better design appeared. Here’s what happened . . . 


Nearly every Powered by the Apocalypse game has some kind of relationship mechanics, be it Hx in Apocalypse World, Bonds in Dungeon World, or Strings in Monsterhearts. I wanted something very similar for Hydro Hacker Operatives (H2O). In H2O, I created Neighbors. The idea is that in a group of friends, you can group your relationships into a few levels of intensity:

  • Tight – you are close friends; besties
  • Cool – you like the person more than average
  • Neutral – they are fine but not the first person you would hang with
  • Putting up with – the person that uses more energy than they give

Each character has a number of spots in each of those categories so they can be Tight with a person, Cool with 2, Putting up with 1 and Neutral with everyone else.

There are more mechanics that surround this, including how to change those values in and out of play, and how you always return to a homeostasis between stories.

The important part to take away is that during character creation you have to put your fellow characters into those spots.

The Grid

My initial approach to the user interface (UI) was focused on the Neighbors ranking: Tight, Cool, Neutral, Putting up with. I designed a simple table that looked like this . . . 

I was going to explain what the Neighbors grid meant, but I think that will defeat my point. Clearly there are some problems with this design, and for me it was super intuitive, but as it turns out there are reasons why we playtest . . . 

What Went Wrong in Play

The trick in playtesting is not to jump at every potential problem someone brings up, but at the same time watch for trends. If you are explaining the same thing over and over . . . you have a problem. So the first few times I had people filling out the grid wrong, I noted it but waited.

Then I got some amazing advice from a fellow game designer, Jason Pitre. He told me that I should collect all the playbooks after the playtest and see how the players wrote on them – that it would identify problems. So the next playtest I ran, I did—and he was right.

What I saw was a lot of cross-outs and eraser marks on the page—clearly people were filling it out, then hearing me explain it, then fixing what they wrote. So it was a problem. I then tried to make some small fixes for clarity and came up with . . . 

Here I tried to label the columns and note that you could have an infinite number people you were neutral with. I took it to playtesting, and it was better, but I still found people getting it wrong. This was not the right design, but I did not know what else to do.

A New Perspective

I was doing a playtest/convention game at the QCC and we got to the Neighbors section. This time I was careful to explain (which is not what you want to have to do), and the players did something that had not happened before; In addition to their relationship slot, they decided to also create relationships between one another—two players were siblings, two were rivals, etc.

After that game, it dawned on me that there was another way that I could display this information and also give players a place to list their relationships. I could base the section on the Characters and not the Neighbor levels.

A New Design

I went back to the drawing board, and this is what I have come up with . . . 

In this design, there is a line for each player in the game (in truth you likely won’t have six people in your game). Then you just circle the intensity, and now you have a place to define a relationship.

My hope for this is two-fold: One, it will make more sense how to assign the Neighbor levels; and two, it will encourage the group to create relationships between the characters which will further strengthen their connections in game.

Back To Playtesting

I have started to show the design to my playtesters, and I will be trying it out at Metatopia to see how it works.

I will let you know . . . 

Have you ever encountered something on a character sheet that was not intuitive to fill out? How did you figure it out? Did you make your own sheets?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Diners, Dungeons, & Dives – How to Make Campaign Frames

28 September 2017 - 1:00am

A few weeks back a buddy of mine mentioned on Twitter that he’d like to play an RPG where you travel around, eat weird food, and record it all for a reality show—not unlike Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. This was right up my alley, so we started riffing on it.

Two days later, I’d written up a campaign frame inspired by his title: Diners, Dungeons, & Dives. It’s designed so you can play that kind of game in almost any system or setting. It’s pay what you want, so go ahead, check it out.

Writing this little thing got me thinking about campaign frames and how there’s a lot of design space there that doesn’t often get explored. This article is going to cover some of those thoughts and give you some tools to make your own frames.

So, What’s a Campaign Frame, Anyway?

We’re always using campaign frames, whether we know it or not. Every time we sit down with our groups and talk about the tone, mood, and focus of our campaigns, we’re talking about what frames the campaign. Doesn’t matter what system or setting you’re in. Different systems and settings lend themselves to different types of campaigns and may have wider or narrower scopes of focus, but they all have frames.

This framing is something that most games address in one way or another, too. Some games are explicit and up-front about it. If you’re playing a genre-based game, or something Powered by the Apocalypse, you’re getting a very distinct set of framing tools up front. Other games, like Fate Core or even D&D, don’t have such distinct frames. You can do a lot with those systems, choose a variety of settings, and play all kinds of different games.

No matter what, though, there are frames that are negotiated at the table. You decide you want to focus on treasure hunting rather than monster killing. Or maybe you want really personal, in-depth stories to explore rather than setting-altering epic events. Those decisions all help define the framing of the campaign and give your group a direction to go in.

Diners, Dungeons, & Dives is my first attempt to provide such a framing tool without the mechanical trappings of a system or the assumptions of a setting.

Cool. How Do I Make My Own?

Glad you asked, fictional reader. Here’s the first thing to realize:

Campaign Frames Are (Largely) Not Mechanical

If you’re thinking about the type of game you want to run or play, you usually start with a certain game type (say, heists), or you start with system. For our purposes, leave system out of it for now because the frame will lead us in that direction. Start off with the genre of game you want, or what you want the core activity to be. In the case of DD&D, it’s road movie-type friend interactions that happen while you’re eating strange foods and filming it for a fictional reality TV show. To my mind, this ridiculous idea can be done in most systems or settings. The frame overlays those things and gives you a focus for the game and the actions you’ll take. The path between this frame and a system is a long one because you can use it almost anywhere.

If you want to do a heist game, though, the path to system or setting becomes potentially much shorter. Sure, you can prioritize heists in many systems or settings, but there are entire games designed to do just that (Leverage, Blades in the Dark). It’s a quicker path to a setting or system.

This, incidentally, is the same kind of work to do before designing a full game. What kind of activities will be done in the game? How will they unfold, and where? A campaign frame stops short of running into (many) mechanics, though. In DD&D there are barely mechanical things: Take a pause and enjoy the scenery, decentralize violence, dig into the weird foods of the setting. Those are largely actions you’ll take which will verge into mechanics.

So when making a campaign frame, if you find yourself heading toward mechanics, you might actually be making a game—which is cool, just not what we’re doing here.

Focus on Theme and Moments

A route to follow is to think about how the game should feel. What kinds of emotions do you want players to feel? What kinds of scenes do you want to see play out? With DD&D, I wanted food shenanigans, moments of friendship, and sweeping views of the landscape or other scenery. Those things combined all evoke a particular feel for me, and none of them have to do with how the game works. They’re all things to aim for when using whatever system you’re using for the game.

I guess that’s the most important part of these: the feel. As a designer, I operate based on feel a lot. My struggle is to get the mechanics to evoke that feel when I’m writing a game. A campaign frame like this is ideal for me because it’s all feel. It helps me give the players and GM a set of feelings and I leave it to them to choose the system and setting that will get them there.

Art, Not Science (for now)

This is a new idea to me, and it’s something I’m still exploring. The items above should be enough to get you going. I’m gonna keep writing these if I get the time. It’s a design space that’s really interesting to me, even if I can’t do a great job of explaining how to work in it.

If you tinker around with campaign frames after this, let me know. I’d love to see what you do with them.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Pugmire Review

26 September 2017 - 4:00am

I like to put my biases up front, for all to see. Going into this review, you need to know that I love my dog. Even when he wakes me up at two in the morning to go outside, or because he’s barking at the squirrels that are running along the outside of the house. Unless, just maybe, he’s trying to warn me about the Unseen.

The Pugmire RPG is a game about playing uplifted dogs in a post-apocalyptic setting, where dogs, cats, and other animals have formed feudal kingdoms from the ruins of what Man left behind. The game, from Onyx Path, Kickstarted back in January of 2016, and the PDF of the final product is now available. The companion RPG, the Monarchies of Mau, recently completed a successful Kickstarter as well.

The game itself is built on the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons engine, as expressed in the latest version of the OGL from Wizards of the Coast, but the game has its own unique tweaks.

A Book Full of Good Dogs

This review is based on the PDF of the final product. The book comes in at 258 pages, which includes a character sheet, an extensive 14-page index, the standard OGL page, and 20 pages of Kickstarter backers.

The book itself has parchment colored backgrounds, and several full and half page illustrations, as well as repeated portraits of the dogs narrating the rules. The pages are filled with illustrations of anthropomorphic dogs in armor and fantasy clothing, fighting opponents like giant mutant insects.

While the artwork conveys some whimsy, the art is largely presented as the same kind of fantasy artwork you would find in high end fantasy RPGs that do not feature dog protagonists. The art leans towards “realistic” depictions, rather than comical or cartoonish, for whatever value of realistic you assign to a dog wearing armor and carrying a sword.

There are some sidebars expanding on the information presented in the chapters, and most of these take the form of two of the iconic dog adventurers discussing their personal feelings on the topic at hand. Whenever the iconic dogs are narrating a piece of the rules, the text is given a different font and color to denote that dog’s commentary.

Overall, it’s a very attractive book that isn’t going to look out of place next to other Onyx Path books, or next to D&D or Pathfinder releases.

Dog’s Guide to Adventure

 The opening section of the book contains a few pages of in-universe fiction, and then moves into an explanation of the theme, mood, and type of action in the game. It cites some inspirations for the game (D&D and Watership Down may be obvious, but it also lists sources such as Thundarr the Barbarian), and explains, very broadly, the d20 resolution mechanic used by the game.

Chapter One—The Journal of Yosha Pug

This is a quick overview of the setting, told from the point of view of one of the iconic dog adventurers depicted in the game. There are some side notes from another character, to add some nuance to what is being presented. The information is more of a “modern”, high level presentation of the setting. What is dog society, what are things called, who are dog adventurers—that kind of information is presented here.

I’m not usually a fan of presenting setting information ahead of mechanics in a core rulebook. My brain is always racing forward to get a look at what the mechanics do, and what they reinforce. This overview is relatively short, and does something very important for the game. It introduces the Royal Pioneers as an explanation for who dog adventurers are and what their exploits look like.

Presenting an imaginative, open-ended world with tons of adventure opportunities is great, but without an assumed starting point, the GM must spend time refining their vision of the setting, and then making sure it is consistent with how players see the setting. An assumed role and starting point does a lot to get people on the same page, quickly.

The final part of this chapter includes the narrator’s view of the Code of Man, the principles that dog society are based upon. These are important, as they tie into the themes presented later in the book.

Chapter Two—A Good Dog

 This chapter details character creation. While the game is built on the OGL engine, from the start, there are some notable deviations. Terms like ability scores and proficiency bonuses may be familiar to anyone that has played 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons, but, callings, breeds, and backgrounds have broader applications than class, race, and background as presented in the OGL.

In broad strokes, artisans are arcane spell casters (and can feel more like bards than wizards, depending on the tricks your character takes), guardians are fighters, hunters are rangers, ratters are rogues, shepherds are clerics, and strays are barbarians. But while those generalizations are functional, they don’t tell the whole story.

Instead of class abilities, callings, breeds, and backgrounds all grant one trick, which is an amalgam of class abilities, racial abilities, and feats from the OGL. As a character advances in level, they can pick up advancements, which can be used to increase ability scores, learn new tricks, or refine old tricks. Because each aspect of the character has a separate list of tricks, a character can be as invested in their breed as they are their background or their calling.

It is a flexible system, and feels like it would be easy to explain to new players. While much of the depth of the OGL still exists in this system, it is made even more modular, and easier to digest, one bite at a time.

The down side is that some tricks may not synergize as well with other tricks, and without an assumed baseline of class progression, it can be easy to create a character that can attempt a lot of things, but isn’t especially competent at any one thing, or that is hyper-specialized at one thing that may not come up consistently in the game.

Chapter Three—Playing the Game

This chapter begins by introducing more context for the d20 + stat resolution first mentioned earlier in the book. All rolls have the same tiers of success or failure, based on being at or above the target number, below the target number, or rolling a 1 or a 20 on the die.

  • What a triumph or a botch looks like in combat is a little better defined than what it looks like for ability checks or saves. In combat, a triumph lets you roll double your damage dice on an attack. A botch may either cause you to take disadvantage on your next action, or grant your opponent advantage on their action against you, as appropriate.
  • Advantage and disadvantage works the same as it does in the OGL, by rolling an extra d20 and either taking the most advantageous roll or the least, depending on if the roll has advantage or disadvantage.
  • Fortune is a mechanic like the inspiration mechanic from the OGL, and it can be spent to reroll a d20 check, but instead of being specific to one player, there is a “Fortune Bowl” that holds all the fortune generated by the party. If the party agrees with it, a PC can spend a point from the fortune bowl to reroll the die and take the best result. If a character voluntarily fails a check that is related to one of their personality traits, they add a point to the fortune bowl.
  • Initiative is a hybrid of traditional d20 game initiative resolution and the initiative system used by games like Marvel Heroic or Dresden Accelerated. Characters roll to see who goes first, but then that person decides who goes next after their turn.
  • Instead of forcing characters to mention when they would be vigilantly looking for traps or ambushes, characters make a wisdom save to see if they would think to check for a trap or an ambush.
  • It is possible for a character camping out in the wild to only get a partial benefit from rest.
  • Stamina dice (like hit dice from the OGL) can be spent to offset failed death saves, in addition to recovering stamina during a rest, or even restoring spell slots during a rest.
  • The anosmic condition is added to the OGL conditions—losing the sense of smell is thematic for dogs, and some spells allow characters to smell, rather than see, auras

There is a sidebar mentioning that the game, by default, doesn’t worry much about precise movement, and I would agree, but given that some of the runner breed tricks, specifically, deal with granting more speed to a character, I would be careful abstracting movement too much, so as not to undercut player choices.

Overall, there are some recalibrations of standard d20 assumptions that might be worth analyzing even outside of their specific application in Pugmire.

Chapter Four—Magic

The magic chapter explains how spell casting works in the game rules, as well as in the setting. On the surface, while there still appears to be the traditional split between arcane and divine magic, the setting details unveil a bit more nuance. Artisans find some object that lets them channel their magic, while Shepherds are infused with the Blood of Man to gain access to their powers. These details hint at one of the underlying themes of the game—that the “magic” of the setting is at least partially super science left over from the time of Man.

To cast a spell of higher level, characters spend additional spell slots from their total allotment of spell slots, so a 3rd level spell requires the use of three spell slots. Most damaging spells don’t scale the way they do in the OGL (i.e. having a base level, with additional damage or effects when cast as a higher-level spell), but healing spells often scale above their level.

Dog magic tends to avoid illusions or necromancy, and it’s noted in the text that this is an intentional flavor decision, as other species, such as cats, have access to different types of magic, as shaped by their nature and cultures. Dogs are more about direct damage, protection, and healing.

Note: I have run Pugmire using the starter rules, but only at 1st level. Because there are no cantrips, some of the 1st level spells do feel like more of a hybrid of 1st level spells and cantrips, and I had players reluctant to take spell casters at lower levels. I am very curious to see spellcasting at play in higher level games.

Chapter Five—World of Pugmire

Yosha Pug’s journal dealt with the setting in broad strokes, explaining what life is like for a dog in the setting, explaining the more commonly understood conventions in the setting. This chapter goes into more detail about settlements, history, other uplifted animals, and factions at play.

A good amount of space is assigned to Pugmire itself, specifically the city and its wards, which include a section of the city that houses most of the uplifted animals, that are not dogs, living in the region. It is notable that while cats and badgers are often portrayed as antagonists, some of them live and work with dogs on a day to day basis, so the other species aren’t so much portrayed as bad or evil, as they are sometime at odds with dog society. There is a movement in dog society that flatly hates other species, which is portrayed in a very negative light.

Other settlements are introduced, in less detail than Pugmire, showing allied realms, a trading port with even more interaction with other species, and some details of the wilderness around Pugmire.

There are some glimpses into other societies that make the setting feel deeper than just the perspective of Pugmire might allow, with lizard traders, a somewhat uneasy peace with the cats, and general distrust of the badger barbarian tribes. The specific dogmas of the Church of Man, almost all drawn from the Dogs imperfect understanding of the relationship of humans to canines in the past, are a lot of fun, and are so logically extrapolated that it’s easy to fall into roleplaying them.

Chapter Six—Guide Advice

Much of the Guide advice chapter is written for people approaching their first RPG, and it holds up. There are a few pointers specifically about this setting that are worth noting.

  • While it could be inferred from the earlier chapters, this chapter explicitly states that the Royal Pioneers, dogs that belong to an adventuring organization directed by the crown to “fetch what has been lost,” have been included to give the Guide an easy way to explain what adventurers are in the setting, and what kind of adventures they are expected to have.
  • Plastic coins, which are the currency of Pugmire society, are measured in groups, rather than individual coins (as in, you have many, or a few, etc.), and the GM is encouraged to adjust the broad cost of things based on the situation. Dogs don’t keep close track of the value they assign to things. It might take “a lot of coins” to pay for something and only leave an adventurer with a “few coins” or even no coins. Significant gains are made from “fetching what has been lost,” not buying lots of gear.
  • There is a section on hacking the game that mentions house rules for dog families and keeping the same breed tricks available, dynastic play, playing at higher level than 10th, and multi-classing. Most of these didn’t jump out at me, except the multi-classing suggestions, which essentially say that once a character has advanced two tricks normally available to them, they can take one trick from another calling and can refine that trick, and only that trick, to gain some extra benefits.

This section also mentions that, since this game is based on the OGL, there are resources from which a GM may be able to draw items and inspiration.

Note: Having run the game at 1st level with the preview rules, I can say that it is a little tricky to include OGL creatures from outside sources in the game. At the very low end, it works fine, but just a bit higher CR being used against the PCs, and it feels like Pugmire PCs might have it rough.

The chapter wraps up by suggesting that if a group likes the setting, but may want to explore other rules, there are some other games that are recommended. The book then mentions Onyx Path storyteller path games, Fate, Savage Worlds, Apocalypse World, Pathfinder, and 13th Age. I won’t say any of those seem inappropriate for the game (although AW feels a little harsh, unless you hack the system a bit), but the list of suggestions doesn’t have much in the way of advice on how to utilize those games. I realize that’s not within the scope of the book, but it seems odd to even suggest that limited range of games without more context or guidance.


Chapter Seven—Masterworks

Masterworks are relics of Man that dogs can sometimes recover from ancient ruins across the world. Many are analogous to magic items from the OGL, but there are a few new items that are flavored to be a bit more “weird science” than fantasy.

Some of the more “weird science” objects are fun to evaluate from a modern perspective, such as the strange exploding eggs that dogs sometimes find, or the staff weapons that use crystals to fire powerful beams of light.

Characters can spend their advancements to refine a masterwork, so that a character might find a +1 weapon of some sort, and invest in it to give it special properties. If an item can be advanced in this manner, the entry calls out the potential refinements.

The chapter also introduces wonders, which are artifacts beyond the power of normal masterworks. Dogs can sometimes understand some of the workings of the masterworks they recover, but wonders are powerful items beyond a dog’s ability to comprehend. They have more potent effects than masterworks, and serve a similar purpose to artifacts in Dungeons and Dragons.

Refinement is a concept that is worth looking at in other d20 games, but it is another example of where characters could hyper-specialize in an area and not be as well rounded as they might otherwise be. Dogs are assumed to “own” something once they find it, so a GM shouldn’t permanently break or steal their masterwork, which helps to mitigate the potential problems of “specializing” in a masterwork item, but it still introduces the potential feeling that the item is more special than the character.

Chapter Eight—Enemies

This section has a wide range of opponents for a Pugmire game. Included are other uplifted species, animals that are unchanged by Man’s experiments, supernatural creatures like undead and demons, and mutant creatures like giant insects, and half-cat, half-dog giants.

The cat NPCs presented hint at what might be coming up in the Monarchies of Mau book (necromancers, monks, and assassins all appear in the cat entry), and I love the rat cultists who are obsessed with performing the experiments of Man on other creatures to gain enlightenment.

There is a chart showing assumed ranges of stamina, proficiency bonuses, and damage per round at different enemy levels. If you have the 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for Dungeons and Dragons, you will notice the similarity to a similar chart in that book.

There are also some optional rules for minion opponents (who have one communal pool of stamina and less stamina individually than regular opponents) and guidelines for legendary creatures, giving them more stamina than normal, and special abilities that trigger under certain conditions.

Chapter Nine—The Great Cat Conspiracy

The final section of the book is a sample adventure for the setting. I am a fan of books including sample adventures. I may never actually use them, but they serve as a template to show the assumed style and structure of adventures in the game, straight from the creators.

In this case, I think the adventure is sound, although I’m not convinced that the structure was the best choice. There are several NPCs presented at the beginning, who have additional plot hooks that go beyond the adventure presented. There is a starting hook to explain how the PCs interact with the plot, and a series of numbered encounters.

The encounters may not happen in sequence, and at the beginning and the end of most of the encounters, there is a section explaining what encounters may feed into that encounter, and what encounter the GM should go to next depending on how the encounter was resolved.

In general, I like this, but a half-page flow chart showing the possible directions for the adventure might have made it even clearer. The adventure introduces the NPCs first without much background on what this specific adventure is about, and this might cause GMs to wonder what hooks tie into this adventure and which ones exist to build on in the future. Despite these structural issues, the adventure reinforces that assuming any species is automatically good or evil is something only a bad dog would do.

Good Dogs  The game manages to be light and entertaining, while having a surprising amount of nuance. The presentation of the rules and the conversational tone make the OGL rules easier to comprehend than other games built on the same system. 

The game presents its subject in a fun and engaging manner, and manages to create a unique space that utilizes elements of D&D, post-apocalyptic settings, and anthropomorphic animal games, in a way that lets them flow well together. There are some mechanical innovations worth looking at for other d20 games.

The game manages to be light and entertaining, while having a surprising amount of nuance. The presentation of the rules and the conversational tone make the OGL rules easier to comprehend than other games built on the same system.

Visiting the Backyard

The open-ended nature of character advancement makes understanding the individual components of the rules easy, but may not spell out the interactions between those rules very clearly. It can be easy to build a player character that doesn’t have a broad range of skills, or that is only effective under the right circumstances, and a character that is only good at what they do in some circumstances might become frustrating.

It is a minor complaint, but Pugmire is a game that is just close enough to other OGL based games that some of the rules changes may not be easy to remember, and while some of them offer interesting alternatives to the traditional rules, they may not be different enough to warrant “unlearning” the assumed baseline.

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

The game is great fun to read, and seems to be a more intuitive way to introduce the OGL rules to a broader range of players. The setting is a new take on some traditional tropes that should be worth looking at, and if you are a mechanically minded player of d20 games, the game provides extra value by presenting alternate means of resolving situations than are seen in other OGL games.

And dogs are awesome, so there is that.

If you have thoughts on Pugmire that you would like to share, ideas for upcoming reviews, or questions or comments on the review process, please chime in below, and thanks for your time!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

H&FotSOR#19 – Carl “Black Powder” Bussler

23 September 2017 - 11:00am

On this episode Hobbs is joined by Carl “Black Powder” Bussler. They talk Well of Souls, Black Powder Black Magic, and weird west gaming. Enjoy the show and let Jason know how we’re doing in the comments below or email us at

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Why Do I Review?

22 September 2017 - 4:00am

The following originally appeared on my blog, back in August, during the “RPG a Day” event. One of the prompts for that event was to mention where you go for your RPG reviews. I noticed a lot of chatter on that day about the validity of reviewing RPGs, and the way it should be approached. That prompted me to post this to my blog.

Today’s RPG A Day question, which asked where you go for your RPG reviews, sparked a lot of discussion that I wasn’t expecting. Primarily, it pointed out to me that some people that I respect a great deal either don’t think the RPG industry is large enough to support traditional critical reviews, or that reviews that do not include play experience with the game are of great value.

I’m not taking to the internet to tell anyone that they are wrong, or to defend why I do what I do. In fact, the existence of my blog or my reviews is ancillary to my personal beliefs on this topic. My only point is to explain why I do think there is value to reviews, even reviews that are written before the play experience can be factored into that review.

Let me summarize some of the (entirely valid) points that I have seen made across the internet today:

  • People would not review movies or video games based only on scripts or instructions
  • The play experience that you might envision from reading the rules may not match the play experience of running the game
  • The RPG industry is too small to be served by more academic reviews, and is better served by discussions about games

The first thing I would like to do is to say that I agree with all those statements, if they were amended to say that all those things are important, but not to the exclusion of thoughtful reviews.

People would not review movies or video games based only on scripts or instructions

Comparing a review of an RPG rulebook to a script or set of instructions misses some of the nuance of what the game book actually does, and what players of an RPG are expected to do. The rules in the book are the code that the players use to run the game. They aren’t exterior instructions, but the actual language that should be understood and engaged to make the game work. It is not the whole experience, but it is a greater part of the experience than the elemental components of other styles of entertainment.

I used this analogy in a recent review, but if you saw an impressive Lego set, and you wanted to build the model shown on the front of the box, you would likely be disappointed if the instructions were deficient in telling you how to do this. You have all the components. The Legos are no less awesome, and the final product will still be impressive, but it is important to explain to a prospective buyer that they are going to invest a significant amount of time in just analyzing the components and using their own knowledge to fill in the gaps in the instructions.

The play experience that you might envision from reading the rules may not match the play experience of running the game

The play experience will almost certain not match exactly what you envision in your mind when you read through a book. When you engaged the rules as you read, you were facing the rules one on one, directly. At the table, you will have multiple people thinking of interactions that did not occur to you when you were reading. But while I will certainly agree that the play experience will be different than you envision, I also think that it is possible to find where you, personally, will have problems engaging with the rules before it comes to the table.

The RPG industry is too small to be served by more academic reviews, and is better served by discussions about games

The RPG industry is relatively small compared to other entertainment industries. I think it is very important that there be open and communicative places for gamers to go to ask questions and posit new ideas. It is also true that some people are new to any given RPG community at any given time, and may not be comfortable engaging in conversations about an RPG. Some people, even when they have been part of a community for a long time, remain more comfortable as spectators and consumers than active participants in conversations. In fact, it is a trap that various RPG communities fall into, when they assume that only the people that are actively communicating are receiving any benefit from the existence of the community.

Because there are people that are not active conversationalists, I think it is even more imperative that reviews exist that might spell out, clearly, what the reviewer expects from a product, what the product delivers, and where the product may not be as it seems. To those people that either do not wish to engage, or just don’t wish to engage consistently, I think there is a definite value to presenting a thorough, well-reasoned review.

  • Actual play experience is always going to be a valuable piece in evaluating a game
  • Dynamic conversation is always going to create a more textured understanding of a topic than the static opinions of one reviewer

Neither of these facts invalidates the usefulness of reviews, and specifically, reviews that are based only on the product, and not the full play experience.

Why I Love Reviews

When I was younger, I loved watching Siskel and Ebert. My mother hated the show. Her opinion was that these were two people that sat in judgement of things other people might like, and told them what they should think. For some reason, despite being in my formative years, I never adopted her opinion. I would go out of my way to watch the show, especially if something I wanted to see was featured.

Yes, there were times I would get angry when something I was sure was the greatest movie ever made got panned. But I kept watching. I even watched those “boring” reviews of things like dramas and romances that I knew I was never going to like. Why couldn’t they just keep talking about action movies and sci-fi and horror? But things started to seep into my brain. They weren’t just watching these movies deciding what they liked and what they didn’t without any guidance. They compared them to other movies that had attempted the same techniques. They pointed out where some aspects of the movie were good, even when the movie, as a whole, didn’t work.

Eventually, I realized that what I liked was the analysis, not the final opinions.

By the time I started to realize how much I liked the analysis of pop culture, I started reading RPG reviews in Dragon Magazine. I started reading reviews before I ever played anything other than Dungeons and Dragons. I read reviews from people like Jim Bambra, Rick Swan, and Allen Varney, and I started to see that not all RPGs had similar rules to D&D, and that the way an RPG held together internally was more important than if it seemed like a cool way to use laser guns in a d20 level based system.

To this day, I haven’t played half the games I read reviews for, and yet, the analysis of presentation and rules in those articles helped create in me an appreciation for multiple rules that can be used to accomplish similar things in different context.

But It’s Not That Simple, Right?  While I don’t think a reviewer needs to have played the game in question to write a valid review, I do think that a reviewer needs to have played a wide range of RPGs to give the best review. 

For a review to have value, I think there are some important elements that must properly align. While I don’t think a reviewer needs to have played the game in question to write a valid review, I do think that a reviewer needs to have played a wide range of RPGs to give the best review.

A person that has only played level based d20 games may give a decent accounting of a supplement for a game with that same base assumption, but when faced with a more narrative game, they aren’t going to be able to provide as many useful insights. I can attest to this myself. When I first read Dungeon World, I didn’t get it, and while I stated that fact on the blog, I didn’t frame it as a review. I needed to play a wider range of more open ended, narrative games before I really understood it.

It’s also very important for a reviewer to state their biases, and what they find important. No one is without bias, and knowing that a reviewer has a weakness for a certain style of adventure or genre is going to provide context for the reader. Evaluating how much the reviewer’s tendencies match the reader’s is going to be extremely valuable.

The reviewer should also call out enough important details that they provide an accurate picture of the product. No review is going to be able to explain exactly what is on every page of a book, but understanding the structure and level of detail that the product utilizes is going to help the reader weigh what level of effort has gone into different aspects of the production.

Knowing is Half the Battle

The worst mistake anyone, reviewer or consumer of reviews, can make, is to assume that the purpose of a review is to find a source to tell them if they should or shouldn’t buy a product. This may sound counter-intuitive, but this is an important bit of nuance. The purpose of a review should be to help the reader determine if the product is for them, but that determination does not need to match the reviewer’s conclusion for the review to be successful. The review should provide enough texture that the consumer can form their opinions based on facts that they have gathered, not based on the specific conclusion of the reviewer.

Why would a reviewer even come to a conclusion then, if they believe this to be the case? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that if I don’t hold myself to some kind of metric, my reviews meander. Without that metric, it is hard for me to see if my positives have more weight than my negatives. It is a way for me to clarify my own thoughts.

Ideally, a consumer can find more than one reviewer that they find entertaining and informative, and they can contrast where one reviewer’s biases may have led them to omit details important to the consumer of the review. Even without that, the consumer can’t be passive in reading a review if they hope to gather the best results. I can’t speak for other reviewers, but my actual score is a tool to bring out the points I want to make in the review, rather than the actual point of process.

And on that note, I’m going to wrap this up before I go on a rant about how Rotten Tomatoes is killing useful movie reviews.

Thanks for joining me on this flashback WAY back to last month. If you have any thoughts on RPG reviews, or pop culture reviews in general, as well as suggestions for what you would like to see in the future, please chime in!


Categories: Game Theory & Design