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Gnome Stew Notables – Brie Sheldon

2 July 2018 - 7:41am

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

Meet Brie


Brie is a game designer, editor, and journalist. They currently have a blog at which features interviews and thoughts, a Patreon to support it at, and an itchio where their games are featured at

Talking With Brie 1) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work. 

I’m Brie Sheldon, a tabletop game designer, editor, and journalist. I’ve been working in games since like 2011 or so, on everything from more traditionally structured and complex games to simple narrative games. I write smaller games for my Thoughty. I worked on the main design team for the game – specifically we did the reputation mechanic, which is a pretty cool piece of tech, and I wrote the archetypes for the book.

I developed a content tool called , which is for handling tone, content, and safety in games. It uses fast forward, rewind, and pause as phrases or cards to guide narrative and play, from inception of the game to wrap meetings. It means a lot to me and is a big testament to what’s important to me in games.

I did a curated project of lonely games, which are single-player games where you respond to questions in a series to tell a story, called . It contains games from other designers, Kimberley Lam, Moyra Turkington, Meera Barry, Chris Bennett, and Adam McConnaughey, and the proceeds go to the Trevor Project. I’m also working on a game that I hope to publish someday soon called Turn, which is a quiet drama about shapeshifters in small, rural towns. I think I just like to keep doing more every chance I get!

2) What project are you most proud of?

Of my published work, I think I’m most proud of my game collection , which is a series of live action games using selfies. There are five games, and they all mean something to me as a designer and as a person. One of the games, The Story of My Face, is a single-player horror game where you use selfies to share the emotions you feel as you create a scary story of being chased by magical threats. It’s inspired by Sherlock Holmes and cosmic horror, as well as the paranoia I experienced during the height of mixed bipolar episodes. It’s so fun and spooky to play because we know what scares us the best, and because capturing those moments of your own self-inflicted fear is so fascinating.

It also includes Don’t Look at Me, which is about a long-distance relationship where one partner is sick and the other is in serious danger. It’s based on my experience when my husband was deployed in Iraq and I was experiencing severe depression and degrading health. It means a lot to me, and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. John (my husband) read it, and he said he never wanted to play it or even see someone play it – that’s how I knew I wrote it right. Let Me Take a Selfie is my heart and myself, expressed in selfies.

3) What themes do you like to emphasize in your game work?

I really love to look at identity, emotions, and self-reflection, including how others perceive us. In Who Made Me Smile?, which is in my Let Me Take a Selfie collection, you have to take selfies while in a room with other people while trying to express different emotions, then other people have to guess which story you were reading that caused the emotions. It’s so bizarre and fun to play and watch people play because it frames our self-consciousness and also how people read our emotions. I played it at Big Bad Con last year with some people who don’t take a many selfies, and I take tons of selfies, so seeing the contrast in our ways of taking selfies, and expressing and reading emotions – it was so good!

I also really like things like horror, fantasy, and various -punk media. I wrote a spotlight for called Solarpunk that’s about flares, pacifists in a futuristic post-scarcity world who live off the grid in communes and try to prevent fossil fuel barons and capitalists from restricting access to goods and safety. That sounds super nerdy, but hey, you get to have sweet bio- and cyberware and hovercrafts!

4) What mechanics do you like best in games?

I like simple mechanics a lot, just like, talking ones where you tell stories together in a loving way without having a bunch of heavy rolls and math. However, I also like to roll a bunch of dice, and I’ve made Shadowrun 3rd edition characters with fractional essence left, so, that’s kind of a lie I guess. I like when the mechanics suit the setting and the vibe of play, so crunch for Shadowrun makes sense, but simple as hell for Microscope works too. I also love asking questions as a mechanic.

I will note that as far as fidgety bits, I much prefer dice over playing cards. I want to try out some stuff with tarot cards because yesss. I also like nontraditional tools (like selfies!) and things like token exchange. Oh, and I normally dislike betting or bidding mechanics, but the bidding mechanic in Undying is freaking choice.

5) How would you describe your game design style?

Destructive. Legitimately, I refer to my design style as destructive design. A lot of my design starts from seeing games that I’m like, hey, yeah, that’s cool, but I want something completely different, so I’m going to take apart the game piece by piece – or another game that is closer to what I want, or even old mechanics I have sitting in my files – and mash them together or break them until they do what I want. I did this with Turn!  with Struggles and Powers and the 2d6+1d6 rolling mechanic is basically “Well I guess Powered by the Apocalypse is cool but what if I just took this, and I stomped on it, and make this mean something completely different,” and I love it.  Turn’s core mechanic with Struggles and Powers and the 2d6+1d6 rolling mechanic is basically “Well I guess Powered by the Apocalypse is cool but what if I just took this, and I stomped on it, and make this mean something completely different,” and I love it. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email Sometimes breaking things is such a brilliant way to create newer, better things.

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

Some of my work is about examining things about ourselves, including our gender and orientation, but I don’t know if it’s obvious. One of my original lonely games, Locked Away, which is in the Of the Woods collection, is actually about the loss of innocence and the familial suspicion when there’s social deviance. is explicitly about long-distance queer romance, and is a game that means a lot to me but I don’t know if anyone’s ever played to find out why!

I’m working on a project called Posers, too, about queer psuedo-cowboys – closeted masc people, typically men, who are part of the rural equestrian community and have to perform masculinity to an extreme, but struggle with their own queerness (it’s not like that’s personal or something!). It’s a ways off release, but you use twine and knots to resolve emotional scenes. Turn itself is just a bundle of this kind of thing, so much so I don’t quite have the words for it.

A lot of my expression of my gender and queerness is about trying to stop hiding it, and to feel validated in it. I don’t always know until I’ve already made a thing how much it is queer, except for Solarpunk, which is explicitly framed around emotions and ideas that are tied to queerness for me!

7) Why are you so into cyberpunk and technology?

My dad was an engineer, but an underemployed one, so mostly he made up for it with magazines about tech stuff. My favorite was Popular Science, which always had futuristic nonsense in it that I loved. Add onto that watching movies like The Fifth Element as a kid, tech was a fun and exciting thing. I didn’t have the best science education, but I liked it!

As I got older and started to have health issues, future tech sounded even better! I started playing Shadowrun around age 15, and it just stuck with me.- I was dissatisfied with a lot in my life and the possibilities… so much. Also, rebellion sounded pretty fucking cool. These days, it’s still a lot of “down with the establishment” and “please can you cure my lifelong disability” and wanting to see more – always more.

8) How did you get into games? Who did you try to emulate in your designs?

I got into tabletop gaming itself when I was around 15, when my husband (then boyfriend) introduced me to D&D and Shadowrun. I got hooked pretty fast. As far as design, I did some dungeon design and editing for Rogue Comet, and just kind of did whatever came at me. I kinda flailed at it.

I don’t really aim to emulate anyone – and I didn’t then. I’m sure stuff slid in, but I just always like to do my own thing, often to a fault. I probably could benefit from reading more game books, or at least that’s what people like to tell me.

9) What one thing would you change in gaming?

I’d make design and play more accessible for marginalized people. There are a lot of barriers – prejudice, bias, nepotism, bigotry, financial limitations, and so on. If people would just get over themselves a little bit and respect each other, we might have more of a future. It’s kind of obscene to me at times, seeing how people seem to only want to prop up the same people, and the same modes of play even! People rejecting safety mechanics, saying that people of color aren’t gamers, not hiring cis and trans women and nonbinary people, like holy hotcakes, people. It’s getting better but we still have too far to go, including the stuff inside the books.

10) What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on Turn, which I’m hoping to have done before the end of the year (how publishing will go is undecided) – I still need to find a writer for my race in small towns essay, but finding a person of color who has lived in a small town has somehow been unsuccessful. I’m expanding my search tho!

I’m also taking some smaller games and putting them up on, and doing a project on teaching leadership through games. I’m trying to work on some smaller games as well, collaborations and some personal stuff. I am finishing grad school so my free time is a little limited, but I am hoping that soon I’ll be able to dig in a little more deeply!

11) Who/what games are some of your influences?

Some of the designers I particularly like are Nathan Paoletta and Jason Morningstar, Caitlynn Belle. I try not to get too into the loving-designer culture in part because people are Notoriously Disappointing, and because I don’t want to design just like anyone else. I really love elements of these designer’s work, though – and I also just like how they do their work. Caitie designs in a very visceral way – something I’d love to be known for but it’s not quite me. I’ve tried it, didn’t go.

Nathan creates clever designs integrated with visual design, which I envy but I’m not a visual designer so that’s harder for me. Jason does sooooo much research, which will never happen for me (that’s why I design what I know most of the time). Everyone has their own style, I guess? If anything, I’m more likely to design in rejection of someone else’s work (more destruction), and for politeness’ sake I’m not about to say whose work made me mad enough to make something.

As far as specific games, I like some thematic stuff like Shadowrun’s setting is great, Sagas of the Icelanders is awesome in the way it handles gender and social norms, and I try to learn from everything without copying. It’s sometimes hard because you see stuff and you’re like “oo cool I wanna do that too!” but then you’re like “I wanna do my own thing!” For me though, a lot of the time it’s like, “this pisses me off for [any given reason]! I gotta do something about that!” It’s fun that way, though.

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

Troy’s Crock Pot: World-building: Draw in those nations

29 June 2018 - 12:01am

A continuation of last month’s article, where we took some maps, turned the one of Italy and the Mediterranean sideways, and created coastal outlines for a summertime world-building exercise.

Next step: Define nations

Geographically, that means establishing borders. You’ll often hear that natural landforms are definitive for borders. In some cases, that is true. Rivers, mountains, deserts — they all can be demarcation lines for nations. That is often the case, if during your world’s history, two diplomats at a negotiation table hammered out peace treaty plans. “You get everything east of the canyon, we’ll take everything west. Sound good? Excellent. Open that bottle of wine and let’s celebrate.”

A map that only has natural landforms as boundaries never quite looks right, however. There’s always more to it than that. Perhaps invading armies went so far, stopped at a defensible point, such as a castle; then either waited for their supply lines to catch up or got pushed back by another army, until finally, someone in charge said, “That’s it, we’re planting the flag here.”

Check out this historical atlas of Europe.  The shape and definition of borders are flexible. They ebb and flow as time, climate, and economic and military conditions change.  Coalitions and confederations dissolve. Alliances form and reform. Empires of economic might and martial prowess emerge. Domestic politics and economic conditions, not to mention disease, all affect stability. Or, more plainly, governments fall.  Dominance, history has proved, is fleeting.

Projected power, not boundaries

Two things to keep in mind, as your world-building continues, is that regardless of lines on a map, a nation’s “true border” only extends as far as it can 1) project power and reasonably enforce, 2) what neighboring political entities will respect.

Our example map of a peninsula-styled continent, for instance, has many coastal nations. Once we reach the stage of putting dots for cities, I’ll adopt a “points of light” model.  Many will be city-states with a maritime flavor, but beyond being able to protect a key trade road, most of the territory beyond the city-state will be wilderness. There might be pockets of organized agriculture — plantations and farming enclaves — but these will be the exception.

For fantasy adventure and exploration to flourish, there needs to be an untamed wilderness. If you need this map for political campaigns — a “game of thrones” game of intrigue and ambition, the wilderness serves as a place from where invading forces coalesce or where armies clash.

Reflecting the ‘now’

Rather than let this devolve into geopolitics with a dash of sociology, I’d say there are enough variables at work that there is no “wrong” way to set borders. Its arbitrary. Let your map reflect that. The “now” has history behind it.  The location of a river might be more valuable than a network of roads. A national border might simply be the traditional range of grazing cattle or the growing region for a cash crop. The families that are good stewards might end up being kings by virtue of their holdings; feudal systems, ultimately, reward those who manage the land well. Or, perhaps, rulers rise on other factors, such as they are better at raising armies and winning battles than their predecessor. Or maybe, it’s the converse, they are just smart enough to raise defenses that will withstand any attack or seige.  

Let these things percolate in your mind as you start carving up your fantasy map and placing nations and city-states here and there.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #43 – Gnomecast at Origins 2018

28 June 2018 - 5:48am

Join a whole stewpotful of gnomes for a collection of mini-interviews recorded during the Origins Game Fair 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Ang interviews Camdon, Wendelyn, and John, then John interviews Ang, and then John goes on to talk to Chris, Phil, Senda, Bob, Tracy, Darcy, and Kira!

Download: Gnomecast at Origins 2018

You can catch a whole bunch of the gnomes at Queen City Conquest September 7-9 in Buffalo, New York. Other upcoming conventions mentioned in this episode are:

  • Crit Hit! July 13-15 in Phoenix, Arizona.
  • Gen Con August 2-5 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
  • B-Con August 30-September 2 in Denver, Colorado.
  • RinCon September 28-30 in Tucson, Arizona.
  • BigBadCon October 11-14 in Walnut Creek, California.
  • Metatopia November 1-4 in Morristown, New Jersey
  • Con on the Cob November 8-11 in Richfield, Ohio.
  • AcadeCon November 9-11 in Dayton, Ohio.
  • U-Con November 9-11 in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
  • PAX Unplugged November 30-December 2 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Some previous conventions mentioned in this episode are Breakout in Toronto, Ontario, New MexiCon in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and ChupacabraCon in Round Rock, Texas.

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Esper Genesis Review

26 June 2018 - 5:00am

Esper Genesis is an ambitious project that is attempting to utilize the 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons based OGL to create a space opera counterpart to D&D’s fantasy implementation. Like Dungeons and Dragons, the Esper Genesis rules aren’t fully encompassed in a single volume. Just as Dungeons and Dragons is split into the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual, Esper Genesis will eventually be comprised of the Core Manual, the Threats Database, and the Master Technician’s Guide.

This review is focused on the Core Manual (the only product currently available), but like Dungeons and Dragons and the Player’s Handbook, most players will only need this book to play the game, and the Core Manual provides most of the rules that will govern play, so it serves as a good overview of what the system will look like.

Examination of Contents Commencing in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

This review is based on the PDF of the product, and the physical books should be available later this summer (as of the time of this review). The book is 304 pages, including an ad for the other upcoming books, and the Crucible Core, the organized play program for the game. There is also a two-page list of Kickstarter backers and play testers, a four-page index, and a three-page character sheet.

The production values of this book are comparable to most top tier RPG publishers, with some striking art and clear, attractive formatting. The flourishes, such as borders around sidebars, take on a more “holographic” look, and stat blocks for things like threats or powers use the same format as the Dungeons and Dragons books.

There is impressive artwork throughout the book, but the artwork on the cover, as well as several pieces showcasing starships or the species native to the setting are particularly impressive.


The introduction gives a brief description of roleplaying in general, the core resolution mechanic, the three aspects of play, and the underlying assumptions of the setting. The core mechanic (d20 + modifier compared to a difficulty number) and the aspects of play (exploration, social interaction, and combat) should be familiar to players of 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons.

The explanation of espers and the Crucibles sets the broad expectations of what the setting is—it is a space opera game set across an entire galaxy, where the player characters are people that have developed extraordinary powers, tied to the ancient, lost technologies that created the Crucibles, which generate the cosmic energy known as Sorium.

Character Creation

The next chapter of the book walks players through the steps of creating a character, as well as showing the XP progression chart, as well as ability score and proficiency bonuses, which all match those same items from the OGL.

The steps, as laid out, are as follows:

  • Create a Concept
  • Choose a Race
  • Choose a Class
  • Generate Ability Scores
  • Select Your Equipment
  • Finalize Your Character

One thing that stands out is that race seems to be used as a term here and in the next chapter, but the races are also referred to as species in multiple places as well. Terminology seems to be used to highlight the similarity to the D&D rules, even though other 5th edition based games, like Adventures in Middle-earth, utilize different terms like “culture.”


This section includes nine species that are prominent in the setting, and most of those species have subspecies associated with them. In addition to the species presented in this section, there is a sidebar that notes that the Master Technician’s Guide will have more rules for randomly determining species of NPCs, underscoring that these are the most common, not the only, sentient species in the galaxy.

The races that appear in this section are:

  • Ashenforged (Artificially engineered from the dead)
  • Belare (Energy beings in containment suits)
  • Dendus (Tentacle haired inventors)
  • Eldori (Spiritual and philosophical humanoids)
  • Human (With multiple subspecies based on where they grew up)
  • Kesh (Shape shifting explorers)
  • Matokai (Reptilian creatures associated with different elemental energies)
  • Promethean (Neo-humans with genetic modifications)
  • Valna (Catlike hunters)

Many of these species lean heavily on sci-fi tropes, but I was pleasantly surprised that there were fewer direct correlations between existing D&D races and the races in the game. Except for humans, the closest D&D correlation is probably the Matokai and the Dragonborn, but the subspecies of the Matokai are more significantly different than just having a different breath weapon and a different damage resistance.


The classes chapter details the various available classes and what abilities they pick up at each level. In case you are a player that doesn’t come into the hobby from Dungeons and Dragons, the classes represent, broadly, the adventuring occupations of the characters. When a character gains a level, they get some static benefits, and they may have a choice between multiple paths that reflect exactly how they pursue that profession.

The classes that appear in this section are as follows:

  • Adept (Channels supernatural power through willpower)
  • Cybermancer (Analogous to the D&D Warlock in mechanics, manipulates powers by tapping into “online” avatars)
  • Engineer (Analogous to D&D Cleric in mechanics, uses toolkits to summon, modify, boost, heal, and attack using Techniques)
  • Hunter (Analogous to D&D Ranger in mechanics and function)
  • Melder (Channels supernatural powers to produce external effects)
  • Sentinel (Analogous to D&D Paladin in mechanics, melded to combat cybernetics to boost energy to weapons when attacking and to produce Techniques that can boost allies)
  • Specialist (Analogous to D&D Rogues in mechanics, with the option to pick up some powers based on subclass choices later)
  • Warrior (Analogous to D&D Fighters in mechanics, with the option to pick up some powers based on subclass choices later)

While it is explained more fully in a later chapter, instead of powers being magic and divided into Arcane and Divine, the powers that classes gain are instead divided into Channeling or Forging. Channelers have powers that allow them to directly manipulate cosmic energy, while characters with Forging abilities have powers that allow them to interact with technology in ways that regular users cannot.

The Engineer, Hunter, and Sentinel are probably the easiest to grasp for people that have played D&D 5th edition, as they gain a number of “tech slots” that they can spend on prepared techniques, and those techniques have levels, much like D&D spells. Forging-based characters will use their toolkits to assemble devices that can perform microsurgery, or that can assemble into mechanical allies, for example.

Channelers don’t have a direct analogy in the D&D Player’s Handbook, but borrow a bit from the point based spellcasting optional rules in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and from the Mystic class that was released for playtest in Unearthed Arcana on the Wizards of the Coast website. Channeling talents have a level, and it costs a certain amount of points to trigger that ability, but the Esper Powers chapter has more rules on using more points to channel powers at a higher level, or to attempt to channel a power when a character doesn’t have enough points to trigger them.

Warriors and Specialists each have three subclass options, one of which, for each, gives them a channeling progression, while each class also has two subclass options that only gains “powers” that are essentially represented as abilities that can be used between rests or that grant situational bonuses. In D&D terms, each class has two non-spellcasting subclasses and one spellcasting subclass.

I wanted to particularly mention the Cybermancer, because I think the class flavor is a good example of what Esper Genesis does well when the game is at its best. The Cybermancer is very much like the Esper Genesis version of the Warlock, but the flavor feels very rooted in a science fiction game. The Persona that the Cybermancer manifests is essentially an avatar in the SIM, the computer network used throughout the galaxy. While Cybermancers are channelers, meaning they directly manipulate cosmic energy without manipulating a toolkit or implants, they learn their techniques by interfacing with what their Persona learns on the SIM. It is a wonderful mirror of the Warlock/Patron relationship, but made into something different and appropriate for a science fiction setting.

Personality and Background

In this chapter, there are details for character height and weight based on species, alignment, languages, backgrounds, and Esper Genesis. Backgrounds, for anyone unfamiliar with D&D 5th edition, grant a few skills, some gear, a situational benefit thematic to the background (such as always getting food and lodging from a certain organization, as an example), as well as traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws, which can be roleplayed to gain Inspiration.

I am not a fan of utilizing alignment in this setting. Even in D&D 5th edition, alignment has limited mechanical impact, but there are still cosmic forces from other planes of existence that literally embody those alignments. In a science fiction setting, I worry that alignment becomes permission to treat some NPCs differently with impunity, which even in the most black and white space opera seems to run counter to the core elements of the stories.

The Esper Genesis table has a list of circumstances under which the character first found out that they have Esper powers. Since all players have at least some minor Esper power that the average member of their species doesn’t have (even if it’s just a little bit of a boost on some skills because of their natural synergy with cybernetic implants), this chart is potentially relevant to all characters in the game, and can provide some nice additional backstory for characters that want it.


The Equipment chapter has details on how much it costs to buy a variety of gear in the game, including weapons, armor, and vehicles. Cubil, the currency of the galaxy, can be physical in form, or just numbers in an account that can be transferred as long as everyone has access to the SIM.

While there are several hand to hand weapons, there are more ranged weapons than D&D has, and many of those weapons have the option to attack an area rather than firing at a single target, changing the attack from an active attack roll to a save made by targets in the area that has been fired upon.

Weapons that have the high-velocity or explosive trait either do an extra die or double damage to characters that either don’t have high tech armor or a PSD (Portable Shield Device). It’s actually a nice way to keep the damage ranges in the same expected range that D&D establishes, while still explaining that high tech weapons would tear up characters from low tech worlds that don’t have natural protection from those weapons.

Some weapons have a recoil trait, meaning that a character needs a minimum strength score to fire that weapon without a penalty. There is a relatively short list of weapons compared to other granular science fiction games, but there is a sidebar mentioning that the damage from an auto-pistol, for example, could be projectiles, plasma bolts, or radiation blasts, and to achieve that effect, leave all of the other game stats the same, and just change the damage type to piercing, radiant, or necrotic damage.

While not fully detailed, forged weaponry is mentioned as something that will be detailed in the Master Technician’s Guide, and represent items made from ancient, lost technology, or experimental gear that is analogous to D&D magic items. They can be made, but not reliably mass produced, and may produce more impressive results than the gear commonly available.

Vehicles are touched on in this section, but only to the extent of displaying the price, carrying capacity, and speed of various planetary vehicles. Starships appear later in the book.

Customization Options

The Customization Options detailed in this book deal with multi-classing and introducing feats into the game. Multi-classing allows exceptional characters to start taking levels in a second class to gain some of those benefits, and feats are special abilities that expand a character’s capabilities in one specific area.

Notable to players familiar with 5th edition D&D—Forging and Channeling don’t stack when multiclassing. In other words, in 5th edition D&D, there is a consolidated spell slot progression for spellcasters that multi-class, which can be used for both Arcane and Divine spells. Forging and Channeling don’t work the same in this setting, so while your character can get a special progression chart if you multi-class between, for example, Engineer and Hunter, or Melder and Adept, an Engineer/Adept would be limiting their progression in both Forging and Channeling.

Feats are similar to the feats that appear in D&D 5th edition. Some of them have effects that often grant a bonus to an ability score and a situational bonus to an ability, as an example. However, there are more feats that modify ranged weapons, explosives, or vehicles.

Using Ability Scores, Adventures and Exploration, and Combat

With very few exceptions, these chapters have the same content as the similarly named D&D chapters in the Player’s Handbook. This section includes how and when to use ability checks, when various skills apply, outlines of what exploration or social resolutions might look like in the game, and rules spelling out how to determine initiative and procedures in combat.

The very minor expansions to the rules involve how high gravity, low gravity, and zero gravity might affect various situations, and those rules are usually very simple and logically extrapolated from how the core OGL rules handle similar situations.

 Starships and Space Travel

The Starships and Space Travel chapter details the various size of ships, how combat differs for starships versus ground based combat, and gives some sample stat blocks for smaller ships, as well as NPC stats for ships of those same sizes.

Combat works very similar to ground based combat, except that all the characters on a ship act collectively. Characters can perform various maneuvers that can either target their own ship, or a ship within sensor range of the ship, and depending on the maneuvers used, those maneuvers may allow allies to use a bonus action to do something, or allow an enemy to spend a reaction to mitigate the effects of a maneuver.

Ships stats are directly affected by pilots and engineers on the ship. For example, the ship has a base defense score, modified by the pilot’s wisdom, and the ship’s hull points have a base level, modified by the intelligence bonus of the engineer on the ship. Ships also have Hull dice, which function in a manner like Hit Dice for characters. Under certain circumstances, crew members might be able to spend Hull dice to repair the ship in combat, but the ship needs to make port and get repairs to restore its Hull dice.

Starship combat always seems to be a sticking point for science fiction settings, where characters can easily run out of things they can do to contribute to the overall game. I like the maneuver system, how characters assigned to roles can affect ship stats, and how maneuvers can generate options for reactions and bonus actions, so I’m optimistic that this will be a robust and dynamic system for starship fights that doesn’t leave too many players without something interesting to do. Although the initiative turns change from individual turns to ship turns, it also feels like it does a good job of still utilizing the same concepts and action economy present in the rest of the game.

Esper Powers

This chapter details special rules that involve triggering and using Esper Powers, as well as detailing the many Esper Powers in the game. There is more detail on how Channeling varies from Forging in this section, including different options available to power users of each type.

Lower level Forging powers often have enhanced effects if triggered with higher level slots, but all it takes to trigger a Forging power at higher level is to use the higher-level slot. Channelers, on the other hand, can eventually trigger powers at a higher level than 5th level, but they can only do so a limited number of times per day (even if they have the points to trigger them), and must make a special saving throw to see if they can do it successfully, suffering consequences if they fail.

I am unsure what is gained from changing the “safe” range for Channeling, and how to trigger higher level slots. While it gives that set of powers a unique feel, it also introduces the ability to take penalties and lose the points used to trigger a power without gaining any benefit if the save is failed. I feel like it may be a disincentive to playing higher level Channelers if the only “safe” course of action is to only use 5th level or lower abilities consistently. It seems like it would be the equivalent of making a wizard roll a concentration check for any 6th level or higher spell any time they cast them, with the consequence of them not only failing to cast the spell, but losing the spell slot.

This section has another example of a “flavor change” that is simple, but really conveys the difference between genres. Instead of spells that can be cast as rituals, which take longer to cast but don’t expend a spell slot, some Esper powers can be used “Conventionally,” meaning that the device you have on you can utilize the power as part of its normal function, it just takes longer to do so without pumping extra cosmic juice through the device.

The Galaxy

This section of the book gives a very broad sketch of the setting. There are explanations of various regions, corporations, and power groups that operate in the galaxy. There is a color map showing the relative position of the various regions in the galaxy.

The Crucibles, giant moon sized devices built by an extinct civilization, are synched in such a way to allow a galactic standard year. The Crucibles are mined for Sorium, which allows for the most advanced devices in the galaxy to work, and FTL drives can latch onto the location of a Crucible to transport from one Crucible to another.

Finding and activating new Crucibles is a big deal, since it expands the capacity for reliable space travel, and provides a new source for Sorium. Sorium seems to renew, if it isn’t extracted faster than it can regenerate, but control of the power source for almost every advanced device in the galaxy is a major motivator, and the more active Crucibles, the more Sorium can be harvested without worrying about exceeding the Crucible’s capacity to produce more.

I really like the Crucibles and Sorium as a source for the extraordinary powers in the setting, because it provides a good corollary to magic in the OGL rules, while still latching onto an established trope in the space opera genre—the lost, ancient alien culture that was way beyond anyone in the current era.

Appendix A, B, C and D

The appendices to the Core Manual include a summary of conditions, stats for various threats, inspirational material, and the list of Kickstarter contributors and play testers.

The threats that appear in Appendix B are examples of creatures that can be summoned by powers or bonded to characters due to class features, although several of them can serve as examples of what threats look like in the setting. One side effect of seeing the stats for various threats is to highlight that the Core Manual doesn’t explain much about the various creature types. They are mentioned in the Hunter class entry, and they are assigned to various threats here, but we really don’t know why Spyders are Netherants, for example.

I particularly like that the Inspirational Material in Appendix C includes not only books, but also graphic novels, manga, motion pictures, anime, television, and video games. While just about any roleplaying game published in the modern era could include a wide range of media for influences, science fiction, especially, spans a wide range of storytelling media.

Reviewer’s Log—Supplemental

Over the years, I’ve developed a very specific opinion on Dungeons and Dragons and how it emulates genre. Dungeons and Dragons is generally not the best game to play any specific setting that wasn’t created FOR Dungeons and Dragons. As written (not referring to an adaption like Adventures in Middle-earth), D&D isn’t the best game to run a game in the Hyborean Age, Nehwon, Narnia, Middle-earth, or Westeros. However, it is one of the best games to play if you want to get a taste of multiple styles of fantasy in one game system. Dungeons and Dragons creates its own subgenre by blending in elements from multiple other subgenres.

Esper Genesis does something similar with science fiction. It isn’t a game system to run Star Wars, Star Trek, The Expanse, or Asimov’s Foundation series with. It does appear to be appealing to those that may want at least a taste of multiple settings in their science fiction, creating its own form of hybrid space opera from the elements of the best examples of the form.

In fact, if I were to point out existing science fiction settings that are close to the baseline assumptions of the setting of Esper Genesis, it would be the settings in video games like Mass Effect or Destiny, likely because those video games are attempting to do the same thing—synthesize a level based gaming experience from the tropes of the best of space opera media.

Genesis It is easy to find a cross-section of archetypes from some of your favorite science fiction in this game, and if you already understand the 5th edition OGL rules, the learning curve is low. Share29Tweet14+11Reddit1Email

There are several places where Esper Genesis does an amazing job of taking the structure of something that exists in Dungeons and Dragons and re-flavoring it perfectly to space opera. The Cybermancer, for example, it just similar enough to something that exists that you can see its basis, but diverges enough that you don’t constantly think that it is just a re-skinned Warlock. The species strike a great balance between playing on tropes and being too familiar. The starship rules do a great job of using existing templates from the games rules and doing something just a little bit different with them, making them feel familiar but customized to work in a special circumstance. The overall conceits of the setting, with the ancient alien technology, the Crucibles, and the Sorium, all feel like they have a science fiction story behind them, while also being a perfect bridge to explaining “magic” and “magic items” in this setting.

Genesis Wave

There are a few places where race and gender are used, where the science fiction setting would have been a perfect place to use more precise and proper terms like species and sex. For all the places where the book does a good job balancing changing an element versus a more direct adaption, I’m not sure that the higher-level Channeling rules tell a story with the rules that need to be told. Even though it is beyond the book’s scope to provide detailed rules on threats, an explanation of creature types would have been nice, since they are mentioned in multiple places.

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.

If you don’t like the underlying rules of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, or level based RPGs in general, this will not be the game that changes your mind. It very intentionally, and very skillfully, recreates the 5th edition D&D experience for a new genre.

If you like d20 based systems, and want one that does a good job of playing with the tropes of space opera, this is a game you will likely enjoy picking up. It is easy to find a cross-section of archetypes from some of your favorite science fiction in this game, and if you already understand the 5th edition OGL rules, the learning curve is low.

What are your favorite science fiction RPGs? Do you prefer your space exploration to lean more towards hard science fiction, or space opera? Do you like having a wide range of well-defined careers in your science fiction games, or do you want a more open selection of skills and talents? Let me know in the comments, I’d be glad to hear from you!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Senda’s 3, 2, 1, Let’s Con

25 June 2018 - 6:35am

Con season is upon us! While con tips are a dime a dozen, my personal tips have not been written down yet. I won’t bore you with thoughts on taking breaks and (for Gen Con) carrying your own toilet paper to the ladies room, but there are some things we should all be thinking about. I am just getting back from Origins, so these are fresh in my mind. Okay, three, two, one, let’s con!

GMs 1. Make a welcoming table.

 Welcome ideas, even if they are different than what you expected.  Even if you need to take a break to figure out what it means for the rest of the game. Share23Tweet6+11Reddit1EmailA welcoming table means your words, body language, and actions make people excited to sit down with you. It means when you’re looking for players you aren’t hunched over the table hiding your face from the world. It means saying hi to people and being social. It means setting clear expectations so that everyone is on board with how you plan to run the game.

It means not judging a player based on their appearance or gender or the color of their skin. It means not judging a player by their disability or lack thereof. It means not judging the intelligence of your players based on if they’ve played this game before or not. Pretty much just…don’t judge. The one thing you shouldn’t welcome at your table is judgement or gatekeeping. Be ready to drop a “we don’t do that here,” X card a player, or otherwise maintain the safety of your table for all of your players.

Welcome ideas, even if they are different than what you expected.  Even if you need to take a break to figure out what it means for the rest of the game. Take breaks.

2. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Yes, you are leading this table, facilitating this game, or mastering this dungeon. You are still a player at this table, and you’re all here to have fun. You are not here to use the players to play out your novel or your fantasies, and chances are they don’t know you from Eve. You are probably a great GM, but act like you’re not, and put in the work to make sure you are.

Play with a safety tool. You are not infallible. You probably don’t know all the little things that could make the players at your table miserable, so have an escape hatch. Having it there won’t hurt anything if you don’t need it, but wouldn’t you rather have a way for someone to stop you if they do? (More on safety here.)

3. Know the rules.

Flipping through rule books is never fun, but at least at your home game the timing is more flexible. Here, your time requires precision. Know the rules or be ready to make a ruling on the fly. If there is a player at your table who knows them better than you, don’t be scared to let them fill you in and move forward. Don’t waste time on the rules.

Know the rules of the convention. Know what to do if there is a problem at the table, and where to bring your tickets. If you don’t know these things — ask!

Remember: it’s temporary! Even if you have to roll with some punches to have a successful game, once it’s done, it’s done! Then get as much sleep as you can and do it all again tomorrow.

Players: 1. Play the game

 Your commitment in showing up is investing in making this game work. Share23Tweet6+11Reddit1EmailYou came here to play this game. Don’t fight it by deciding your character wouldn’t do this. You knew what the description was for this game when you signed up, so come prepared to play. Don’t build a character who won’t act in this plot. Don’t turn up your nose at the plot hook. Your commitment in showing up is investing in making this game work. If a game isn’t working for you, you are not obliged to stay at the table. Apologize, be polite, and remove yourself before you ruin everyone else’s fun.

2. Share

Share the spotlight. Don’t talk over other players. Everyone paid for tickets to be here — now is not the time to use the table to push your own agenda or story line you’ve been plotting. In fact, unless the GM specifically has requested otherwise, it’s better not to walk in to a game with a preconceived notion about how play will go beyond the description you read. (More here.)

Whether you knew these people before or not, for this time at this table we are working together as a team. Be a team player.

Everyone: 1. Respect

Be on time. Listen. Be safe. Respect your fellow players as people; this includes checking your sexist and racist jokes at the door and using the correct pronouns. This means respecting their personal boundaries physically and emotionally. The more we care for one another, respect one another, and uplift one another, the better this experience can be for everyone. 


What are your favorite social con tips? What’s your next convention?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Safety as Risk Management

22 June 2018 - 6:00am

A few months ago, I posted an article on why I use Safety Tools. It was met with some mixed criticism and there were a number of respectful objectors with whom I engaged in a back and forth dialog about their perceptions of how safety tools are used at the table. What I learned was that there was a misconception — that some people believed that using safety tools was to dilute the content of your game; taking away elements that your average player enjoyed (e.g. violence), while others thought that there was no need for tools if you can just “talk it out”. So today, I am going to follow up my article to address some of those misconceptions as well as to try to explain safety by drawing in some other areas of my life.

The Goal is to Play Harder AND Safer

I have played a lot of games in the decades I have been in this hobby, and I have murdered my share of orcs and goblins, robbed crime lords, attacked space pirates, etc. I have had most of the standard RPG experiences that we all think about when we think about this hobby — most of those occurring before the hobby even began to explore the idea of safety.

But I also like another kind of RPGs, ones that have deep emotional connections, ones where my pregnant widowed French Revolutionary is executed outside of Paris while trying to escape a siege, where my character gets into a heated argument with their partner about what kinds of sex are intimate and not, and where my teenage vampire’s sexuality is challenged. I like games with charged emotional content, and often with content that I am unsure how I am going to feel about during play.  

 And the thing is, I don’t want to have to use the safety tools I have put out, and I don’t want to water my games down or remove charged content. Quite the opposite, I want MORE of that. Share24Tweet13+11Reddit1Email

And the thing is, I don’t want to have to use the safety tools I have put out, and I don’t want to water my games down or remove charged content. Quite the opposite, I want MORE of that. The safety tools are like a Safe Word, in Kink terms (a future Safety article). I want my more intense play to take me up to the edge, to where I am uncomfortable but still safe. The tool is there so that in case any of us miss the mark and we go too far, we can signal that to everyone else.

So when I sit at the table, sometimes I am there to loot a dungeon and have some fun and sometimes I am there to push my emotions and challenge my beliefs. While both are RPGs, they are not the same kinds of experiences. That will be important in a few minutes, but first, we have to nerd up about Project Management.

Risk Management

In my day job, I am a Project Manager. One of the activities as a Project Manager is to perform risk management of the projects I am planning. That activity has me looking at a project and imagining what could possibly go wrong: a component may be on backorder, the solution proposed won’t work when implemented, or this code may not scale as planned. Identifying potential problems is only part of the process, otherwise, it would just be worrying. Once we have identified risks we then look at them in three ways.

Likelihood & Impact

The first thing we do when we identify a risk is ask, “How likely will this happen in the project?” We have different ways of ranking them but the simplest is: none, not likely, possible, most likely. We also ask, “If this does happen, how bad is it for the project?” Here we look at the impact as: none, minor, significant, major. That creates a spectrum of risk across which individual risks fall into.


We then want to figure out what we can do, proactively, to reduce the likelihood of the risk occurring. So for our example component that may be on backorder, we can mitigate that by contacting our supplier ahead of time to make sure things are in stock before we commit to using that component in our design.


The second thing we do is to address what to do if the risk actually happens, because no matter how much planning and mitigation we do, sometimes things still go wrong (keep that in mind). In this case, we come up with a plan that we can enact when the problem occurs so that we can keep the project moving. So with our component, we may identify a second supplier, who is more expensive but has the component in stock. If our primary vendor is out, we will spend a bit more and order from the secondary one.

The Risk in RPGs

So coming back to RPGs. How does risk management fit into a discussion about safety tools and gaming?

 When we play games there is a risk that some content of the game is going to emerge that will upset, hurt, or make someone at the table feel unsafe. Share24Tweet13+11Reddit1Email

When we play games there is a risk that some content of the game is going to emerge that will upset, hurt, or make someone at the table feel unsafe. That sounds fairly simple, but it’s quite complex. There are two things at play: the actual content and the players’ reaction to the content.

When it comes to content we have all sorts of things that can come up in the game that have the potential to be problematic. Most of these center around violence, but can also include things like trust, greed, and addiction.

We then have players (including the GM) who react to that content. How we react is very complex, and draws on our past experiences, the culture we were raised in, the life we lead, etc. Because of that, it’s possible that a piece of content that is distasteful for someone can cause someone else to hurt greatly. For instance, the characters witness the King slap his teenage son across the face after he spoke back. For some of us, we may look at that and wrinkle our nose, and casually cast disdain on the King. For someone who was abused as a child, it could create a visceral reaction and make them upset or angry. The really tricky part of this is that both of those things can happen at the table at the same time in two different people.

Risk Management and Safety Tools

So now that we know we have a risk, we can do some risk management, using the material discussed above.

Likelihood & Impact

When thinking about how to address safety in your game, you can start by looking at the content of the game you are running. What is the likelihood based on what you are playing and what you prepped that you have content that could make someone feel unsafe? In your standard high fantasy game, the likelihood will be much lower than playing a psychological thriller of a group hunting a sadistic serial killer.

As for impact, most of us are not trained to be able to guess the impact content will have on individuals. But if you are playing with people you have known a while, you may be able to take some guesses. For instance: I know that Paul is a recovering alcoholic, therefore having an NPC who is an out of control alcoholic may make him feel unsafe. For things like that, which are obvious, you can easily just change the content, in prep or at the table, to avoid any problems.


With our risk of making people feel unsafe, we can take actions to mitigate that risk. That is, we can use safety tools that are designed to lessen the likelihood of making someone feel unsafe. Some of those tools are:

  • Trigger Warnings – we can give people a heads up about problematic content right at the start of the game/campaign, like letting someone know that this Cthulhuian adventure has content about child abandonment and body horror. Then people can make the decision if they want to play this game or not.
  • Lines & Veils – with lines and veils we ask people what content they do not want to come up in the game (lines) and what content we can have but should not be overly detailed about (veils). This helps us reduce the likelihood we are going to hit problematic content.
  • Open Door – allowing someone to get up and take a breath during or after an intense scene can sometimes be all a person needs to center themselves and return to the game. Having an Open Door allows people to de-escalate the intensity and stay in the game.

As we said before, no matter how much mitigation we do, something can still go wrong and someone may suddenly feel unsafe during the game. For that, we need a plan, which is nearly always to stop play and/or remove the problematic content from the game. Some of those tools are:

  • X-Card/Consent Flower – Both of these tools are used to indicate to the table that someone is not ok and that it needs to be addressed in some manner. By tapping the X or touching the red spot, you are indicating that you need to pause the game and deal with what is going on.
  • Script Change – Allows someone to either rewind to address something problematic, fast forward past something uncomfortable, or to pause a scene to let the intensity lower.
  • Open Door – Sometimes there is no other solution but to get up and go. Having the Open Door policy means that you are telling people it’s ok if you need to go, removing the societal pressure and anxiety of getting up in the middle of something which can sometimes make people sit through things they are uncomfortable with.
Risk Analysis For Your Games

So using the risk management tools above, we can look at what we are playing and decide what tools we think we need based on what game we are running, what material we are playing, and who we are playing with. We can group the games into three simple buckets: Low, Medium, and High. There is no None category, because you can never be 100% sure what content will emerge through play.

Low-Risk Games

These are games where the content of the game is not charged and you know the people you are playing with.

Example: You are going to play a Superhero game with your normal gaming group.

Tools: X-Card.  

For me, this is my Tales from the Loop home game. I just put down the X-Card and we get playing. It’s there if something goes wrong, but it hardly, if ever, gets used.

Medium Risk

These are game where the content may be a bit more charged and/or you don’t know the people you are playing with.

Example: You are going to run a really intense horror game for your home group, or you are going to run something gritty for a group of strangers at a convention.

Tools: Trigger Warning, Open Door, X-Card (or other Contingency tools).

For me, this is when I run Hydro Hackers at a convention. I let people know the game has some themes of poverty and authoritarianism, and if anything comes up to use the X-Card or get up from the table, and if all goes well, it does not come up.

High Risk

These are games where you are sure that the content is problematic for your players or you may not know the players.

Example: You are going to play a deeply emotional story that centers around abuse and drug use with your home group that has an abuse survivor.

Tools: Trigger Warning, Lines & Veils, Open Door, Consent Flower or Script Change (or X-card)

For me this is a game like Bluebeard’s Bride or the game I am developing, Turning Point, where I know the content is going to be challenging and I want to make sure that I have mitigated as much as I can, and that I have more granular contingency tools to allow us to navigate the content, as the group feels is ok.

The idea is that you can tailor your safety tools based on the risk of the games you are playing. For many people who are playing their published D&D adventures with their home groups, the risk is low that safety is going to break. This is why many people don’t see the need for safety tools because their games are generally low risk. Though I still advocate for something like the X-card because there is no such thing as no risk.

For some of us, who go looking for charged content, that risk increases, and with it we can employ more safety tools to make sure that we can keep the game in a place this is enjoyable.

Plan For Your Risks

Our goal in any RPG is to give people an enjoyable experience. But there is always a risk that the game will cause someone to feel unsafe. By thinking about what we are playing and who we are playing with, we can select the safety tools that fit the game we are running. We can mitigate the risk and we can have a contingency in case something goes wrong.

How do you think about the safety tools you use in your game? Is it a one-size-fits-all, or do you tailor your tools to the type of game you are running?

Note, if you do not believe in safety tools, I am willing to have a respectful dialog about this topic in the comments, it’s doubtful you will sway me, but I am curious to hear your points.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Stew Notables – Laura Simpson

20 June 2018 - 6:18am


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

Meet Laura

Laura Simpson is both a game and user experience designer, who designs compelling and creative games. In 2017 she concluded a successful Kickstarter supporting Companions’ Tale, a storytelling and mapmaking game that builds up the mythos of a hero from the perspectives of the people and world around them. She also authored the nanogame “Driving to Reunion” for the #Feminism anthology. Laura co-created and shares the Sweet Potato Press imprint with Dev Purkayastha. Sweet Potato Press, as described on its website, creates games that “tell surprising, memorable stories from a variety of perspectives.”

Her works include: Companions’ Tale, “Driving to Reunion”

Talking With Laura

Note: This is an abridged version of the full interview. Some questions were added after the fact to divide the interview up more and promote readability.

Question 1: Could you start off by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you got into game design?

I’m Laura Simpson. I’m a game designer, and also a user experience designer. That combination really informs how I approach game design and they just kind of inform each other. I’ve been a gamer most of my life. I would say that, I was that kid running around saying, let’s play pretend. I got an Atari when I was five, and every new generation up until—when my parents wouldn’t buy them for me anymore, then I’d buy them for myself. And I would make up games. I was really interested in games and technology, so I played a lot of various online based games, like stuff in Prodigy (an online service that predates the Internet in the 90s), like Mad Maze, a RPG on Prodigy. I was really excited about what type of emergent narrative you could get out of those sort of games. I played a lot of MUDs and MUSHs in the mid to late ’90s. Instead of hanging out and having fun in the outside world, it was like, I’m going to have some fun on the internet with these randos.

Question 2: So how do you think that influenced your game design now?

I think that the way that a lot of those MUDs and MUSHs were structured was a big influence for me. It made me really think about how to make it fun for everyone. Sometimes you’d just be sitting in a room by yourself, essentially, and then someone would join, and you had a lot of … A lot of the communities, you had control over your own narrative, and there was a lot of talk about, what does it mean when someone tries to force a narrative onto you?

I got really used to the idea of autonomy. I would put the effort into introducing myself. My first experience with Vampire Masquerade was through a MUSH and thinking really carefully about how I interacted in the world and the environment around me. Even though there wasn’t a ton to really reinforce the environment.

But I think that all of this really kind of informed me, and I had a really strong concept of wanting to play games, wanting to play with other people, wanting to have a good time.

Question 3: What other experiences have influenced you as a gamer and designer?

I went to Smith, a women’s college. I was a part of this science fiction and fantasy society, even though the organization wasn’t explicitly about gaming, I attended during a time when there were many members who wanted to game.

And that was a huge deal to me. One of my first GMs was a woman. I eventually GMed some games myself, and we were really encouraging, even when it went badly, we were really encouraging.

There was just a lot of room to be interested in gaming, to read game books, and just to be an ecstatic fan.

I think that the timing of being there really meant a lot for me in terms of growing into gaming, being able to have access to people who were interested in it, passionate about it. There was one particular [first year] woman in my senior year who was like, “I’ve ran games for all my friends throughout my high school years.” And we had this incredible game of Big Eyes, Small Mouth. She really introduced a lot of structure in the thematic arcs, and all the women in the game, we all got to be mighty, big heroes. It felt great.

In this close-knit community, there was an opportunity to explore. We were all between 18-22 and we were trying to figure ourselves out. It was a fruitful time to explore different social dynamics and expression. You’re growing so much during that time, and you’re also trying to figure out what it means to navigate a game, and a game table.

It was an opportunity to be really flexible about what kind of gaming that you do.

Question 4: So how did you move, then, from playing and all these games to designing and making your own?

After college, I had a gap when I wasn’t playing with other people in-person. I was mostly doing online gaming. World of Warcraft had come out, so I was playing that, as well as other RPGs, like various Final Fantasies. I moved to Florida to complete a second bachelors in fine art. In my senior year I discovered a passion for new media and electronic art. I took a game design class, but I did not do a game design for my thesis.

Also around that time, I met some indie gamers in New York. It was totally different from what I was doing before. I was playing really small, intimate games where I was actually sitting at the table with the person who might have written the game.

With all those things on my periphery, I realized I wanted to stay in the know of what’s going on with tabletop roleplaying games. I started thinking: what else can I do? What do I feel comfortable doing? What kind of topics do I want to take on?

I started reading a lot more, and socializing with all these indie game designers. They had different ideas for games that astounded me. It felt similar to the design process involved in a strong community of practice.

The community also reminded me of art. There’s a lot of exploration and sharing concepts you want people to engage with. There’s an adage in both design school and art school: in design, you’re solving problems, whereas in art, you’re creating them. Then, in gaming, you’re doing both. You’re engaging people and creating the situation for them to think about and react to. The players have to come up with ways to comprehend what’s going on and contextualize it, because everyone has different experiences. I find that exciting.

Then I got into user experience design, which developed into a design practice where I can think about each aspect of the experience I want someone to have, such as the table atmosphere or the type of play I want to see or encourage.

The experience expands beyond the game’s genre or the type of play taking place. It includes safety concerns and the questions I want someone to think about at the table. For example, what does it mean to have an unreliable narrator, and accept their humanity? In Companions’ Tale—it’s all about questioning what exactly makes a hero a hero, and humanizing this person. It is also about understanding that there’s not a single ownership of the truth, and expanding the meanings of archetypes.

Question 5: Do you want to explain a little bit about what Companions’ Tale is?

I describe it as a map making story game that tells the hero’s journey through the perspective of the hero’s companions.

The hero is not a playable character, nor are they represented by any type of face card. The hero is not necessarily like the heroes in Hollywood blockbusters; they are a person who has done some acts others consider heroic.

In this game players are not only telling the story about this person who’s a hero, they’re telling these stories about the companions, the people who occupy all these different roles that are important to this hero’s life. In the course of play, each player has a lot of autonomy over who the companions are, how they see themselves, and how they see the hero. Each person has their individual spotlight and moment to share their truth and importance. No one says, “No, the hero really wouldn’t have done that.” It’s really important to allow someone to say, “I am the mentor of the hero,” and they tell a story about [their time] with the hero.

The only thing that the players do not have is power over their face. I commissioned a set of 20 cards that all have different faces, different ages, different backgrounds. They’re all different potential faces of the companions. Any of those faces can be any of those companions.

Question 6: Why is that?

At first, I had the cards face up, giving players a limited choice. Then, during an early playtest with an alpha of the game, a player drew the lover card and looked at the faces. They chose a young light-skinned woman who looked very feminine and said, “Oh, this looks like the lover.” So I asked them what they meant by that. I don’t want to reinforce these sort of ideas. I want people to actually challenge themselves.

I decided in this one moment, that the companion’s face is not something players are going to choose, because every single one of these face cards could be someone’s lover. There’s not a limit on who you can be in love with. And the same thing for any of these other roles.

Question 7: Do you enjoy playtesting?

Playtesting makes me super happy because you have an opportunity to put together something and see what happens. I love it when players point out something that’s not working, because it’s an opportunity. It lets me take that mechanic, that rule set, or the way I laid something out, and make it better. That’s really important.

Question 8: So what is your advice for play testing, then? What advice would you give someone who wants to be better at play testing?

As a user experience designer, I design software. One part of being a user experience designer is writing scripts for when doing usability tests with software. The idea behind scripts is that they take away the pressure of having to remember what to say.

When you’re playtesting, think about the things you want to test, what makes sense to test within the timeframe you have, and how you want feedback. Some people want to give feedback as it goes. Other people want to get to a certain point, and then get feedback.

Experiences will vary. If you’re unsure the first time you playtest, tweak your process a little and try again. You don’t have to have one single way of testing.

Don’t be afraid to change your plan if it’s not working or stop people mid-game. If you’re doing a playtest, you want people to have fun, but you’re really there to gather information so that your full game is fun.

I tend to say, “Okay, so I’d like to do this type of scenario,” and I set it up. I’m not there to GM; I’m testing whether specific mechanics, the ordering, and game works. I think people get caught up this idea that they’re playing a game for recreational purposes, but during a playtest, the focus is really about testing. Players will understand.

Question 9: Where you think gaming in general is going, and where do you hope it goes?

I think that gaming is becoming more inclusive. At first, when I went to conventions, I would sometimes feel a little sad and lonely. Now I meet all of these wildly different people who are really excited and passionate. It’s way broader than I ever thought it’d be.

There’s also so much room for making different types of games. I love that there’s so many different types of games and creators. I think that that variety is going to continue growing and improve even more. The resources are out there.

Kickstarter is also, in many ways, creating more equal, even ground. It’s not perfect, but it allows people to take a concept and reach people that would otherwise never hear of it.

Gaming is also mainstream. It’s not weird to be gaming. It’s incredible. We’re not so niche anymore. I love that there’s so many different people, and I love meeting people who are interested in playing all kinds of games.

Question 10: All right, I have one last question, unrelated to gaming entirely. What are some books, TV shows, or songs that you think people should check out?

I know it requires a subscription, but you should watch Star Trek Discovery. It’s amazing. I think some people go in expecting Next Generation, but it’s not. The genre has moved on. A lot of other space-oriented entertainment has happened since then. I think it’s completely worth the subscription.

As for reading, look up N. K. Jemisin. You should read all of N. K. Jemisin without exception, no caveats. I adore all of her work. She is incredible. The Dreamblood Duology has such lush and incredible writing, you could smell the air just reading it. So, yes, all of it. I recommend all of her work.

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

When It’s Time To Say Goodbye

18 June 2018 - 5:00am

My favorite gaming groups are, at their best, a place that feels like home. They are filled with the gaming versions of younger siblings, crazy relatives, loving friends, and supportive people. Each meeting is a chance to tell new stories and deepen friendships. They aren’t perfect but they are honestly valuable in my life. Everyone’s best gaming group looks a little different but they are all equally important and fulfilling.

The problem is that some gaming groups don’t live up to that ideal. Sometimes I am playing with great folks, in a setting or system that I love, but the pieces don’t fit together in the way that’s right for me. It can also be that life gets in the way of playing pretend with my friends and I have to make tough choices. No matter the reason, there might come a day where I need to say goodbye to my gaming group.

Looking at the big picture

Figuring out the style of game and gaming group that best suits your needs can take some trial and error. I signed up for a regular Pathfinder game without knowing the playstyle of the group and ended up in a miserable situation. I’ve invited folks to my game without looking at the big picture of their wants in an adventure and they end up not having a good time.
I’m always excited before the start of a new game and I will often rush in without giving any of the above a single thought. In a perfect world I would always consider the overall goals that I have for games before I start, but nothing about me is perfect. Understanding exactly what I want, what I have to offer, and what the other people you’ll be gaming with are looking for sets everyone up for success. It’s never too late to step back and look at everything.

Complain, listen, act

I don’t like the idea of complaining, of feeling that I’m a whiner or a burden to the group. That has a lot to do with how I was raised. I’ve had those moments as a player where I’ve started to get upset during a game because of the actions of another player. I’ve had times where I’ve nodded off at a table because we were too busy doing math to have an adventure. Those were terrible experiences but I often said nothing.  Those were terrible experiences but I often said nothing. Share39Tweet8+11Reddit1Email In my brain there is a huge difference between advocating for someone else and speaking up for myself.

When I like the people that I’m gaming with on a personal level but I am struggling with the game, it’s time for me to initiate an honest conversation. It has taken me many years and many mistakes to learn this lesson. I’ve stayed in uncomfortable situations because I didn’t feel like I had any other options. I ended up dreading every game and started resenting the people involved, all because I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. That always ended up with me getting so upset that I walked away from the group in a rage without trying to work anything out. I imagine that hurt a lot more feelings than an honest conversation would have. Over the years I’ve grown and changed to better support myself and the people around me.

Maybe the right person to start talking with is the host of the group. I’ll contact the host, outside of our normal meeting time, and talk about any logistical or personal problems that I’m having with the game. It gives me a chance to tell them about my struggles and hear their struggles with me as well. If it’s only a specific player that I’m struggling with I’ll reach out to them individually in as nonthreatening a way as possible. Just like in any healthy relationship it’s possible to talk through many of these issues and find a common ground that works for everyone. Other times I need to draw a firm line and say, “No.”

Listening is where the answer between those two situations becomes clear to me. If they are unwilling to listen to me and make compromises, then my experience at the table is not being valued. If I’m not of value then there is no reason for me to stay.

When they say goodbye to you

 Like any healthy relationship, the group needs to work for everyone involved. Share39Tweet8+11Reddit1Email What do I do when I’m the problem and the other gamers are coming to me with complaints? I treat them in the way that I hope that they would treat me. I listen with an open mind, consider what adjustments I can make, and then act on that information. If the problem isn’t something that I’m willing or able to adjust then I leave graciously.

It’s difficult for me to not take those moments personally despite my understanding of the real reasons that it didn’t work out. That said, I can appreciate the trust and honesty that it took to have that difficult conversation even if my feelings are hurt. The problem might be something as simple but insurmountable as my work schedule affecting my ability to attend regularly. Like any healthy relationship, the group needs to work for everyone involved.

People have come to me with blame, toxicity, and anger at who I am. That was a red flag telling me that it was time to walk away immediately. Personal attacks aren’t about honest conversation or finding common ground. Don’t stay in a group that belittles you, your characters, or your ideas. Listening with an open mind doesn’t give permission or excuse people victimizing or abusing you.

Awkward moments

After I’ve made the decision to leave I will probably run into folks from my old group again. I might see them happily gaming with my replacement or have to tell them all about my new gaming relationship. That can be an uncomfortable moment confirming that we’ve all moved on. I try not to let those meetings affect my desire to see my friends. I don’t want 5 minutes of discomfort to ruin the next 20 years of friendship so I push through. Finding a perfect gaming group can be a lot like dating. Seeing each other after breaking up is just as awkward too. If things ended on a positive note then stay friendly and don’t lose important people in your life just because it didn’t work out at the game.

Why you’re important enough to leave

Are you ready to hear some basic truths about yourself?

You matter. You’re a worthwhile human being and you deserve to be happy, appreciated, and respected. The stories that you have to tell are important and you should feel safe sharing them with your group. You’re not perfect and you still deserve kindness, joy, and support.

Time is such a finite resource that I do my best not to waste it. Every person that takes time to play a game with me has given me an irreplaceable gift.  Every person that takes time to play a game with me has given me an irreplaceable gift. Share39Tweet8+11Reddit1EmailIt’s not ideal for any of us to throw that gift away by not taking the opportunity to find our best chance at joyful gaming.

When you take the time to complain you are making gaming better and safer for yourself and those around you. If you don’t feel safe talking to your group about your issues I would invite you to ask yourself why you’re returning to what feels like an unsafe situation. You deserve better than that.

Walk away when it becomes clear that you’re not heading towards your best gaming life.

Finding something new

There are many options out there when it comes time to try again. Websites like,, and offer options to connect with gamers in your area. Facebook, G+ groups, and can be a great resource to find online games if you live somewhere that local gaming is a struggle to find or completely unavailable. Online gaming communities like The Gauntlet offer a chance to connect with like-minded gamers to increase your chances of getting what you’re looking for. If it doesn’t work out the first time then please keep looking. You’re worth the effort.

What would your perfect gaming group look like? Who would you invite and why? Have you ever had a tough gaming group breakup?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Creativity in Languages

15 June 2018 - 5:00am

 Having a common language between the staff at a pizza place fostered good teamwork. Share12Tweet8+11Reddit1Email

When I was younger, I worked at all-but-one of the pizza joints in my hometown. I guess that was my thing. One of the key things I learned about teamwork in that situation is the importance of clear communication. If the team’s ability to get information from one person to another broke down, then things slogged to a standstill. During the busy Friday night crush of pizza deliveries, a collapse of teamwork drove morale down, decreased our speeds of getting food out the door, and generally made a (mostly) miserable job even more painful.

I’m going to state the obvious here: Having a common language between the staff at a pizza place fostered good teamwork.

The same holds true for our adventuring groups within our games. While I’ve not run off and done research into why a “common tongue” exists within the early RPGs, I can assume it’s based on the fact that if everyone can speak at least one universal language, it makes the game experience easier. The focus can be on the stories and experiences, not the clumsy attempts at having player A translate what player B says for player C.

Adventure Hooks

However, there are times when obfuscating information, providing misleading directions, or generally muddling the PC’s brains can lead to good fun for everyone at the table. GMs and adventure creators have historically used something along the lines of, “The discovered scroll is written in a language unknown to the party members, but they recognize the ancient script and know of an old man at the edge of the forest who might be able to translate it.” This is a classic trope and a decent adventure hook, especially if the old man at the edge of the forest requires payment in the form of a favor instead of gold coins.

Another good hook is to have the party find a note that they mistranslate. This can lead them astray from what they feel is their main goal, only to take them through a circuitous route back around to where they need to be to continue the main story arc. These types of “side quests” are subtle in their execution, and can allow the party to gain the necessary experience, items, information, and such to present themselves to the Big Bad as a formidable threat to the Big Bad’s plans.

Sibling Languages

 This can lead to quite a bit of fun with missed translations. Share12Tweet8+11Reddit1Email

One solution I am particularly fond of is to figure out how the languages relate to one another and draw up a relationship mapping between the spoken tongues. This can allow for the GM to develop a piece of information in the orcish language, and if one of the characters happens to speak goblin, then the translation efforts are “two steps higher” in difficulty because the goblin language is only a single line removed from orcish. However, if the same character who speaks goblin wants to translate something written in gnome, then it’s “six steps higher” in difficulty because goblin is three languages removed (per my relationship mapping) from goblin.

This can lead to quite a bit of fun with missed translations, slightly inaccurate information, or just plain nonsense that may come out of the translation. A little bit of prep work on the part of the GM as she comes up with the original text might be necessary to think of how a partial success or complete failure (or critical failure!) will impact the resulting information.

In my games, when “sibling languages” come into play, I generally don’t allow more than three steps to be taken between a known and an unknown language. This keeps the players from doing ridiculous things like translating druidic directly into goblin.

National/Cultural Tongues

One thing my illustration doesn’t cover is different languages for different nationalities or cultures. This is because I didn’t want to impose my world on something generic like the relationships I created above. I wanted you to be able to use this. My basic way of handling it is to create a different image that shows how the cultural languages relate to one another. I’ll work under the assumption that these types of languages are subsets of the “common tongue” of the world, and when translation has to happen, each step on the relationship diagram is “one step higher” in difficulty instead of two steps. This represents the tight-knit nature of the languages.

Lawrence Watt-Evans is one of my favorite authors. He created the world of Ethshar for a long-running series of novels he’s been writing since 1985. Somewhere in an author’s note or interview he explained that the various nations of Ethshar speak roughly the same language. He took ideas from history during the Germanic tribal days where each tribe had it’s own “language” and there were dozens of iterations of a common tongue. This allowed nearby neighbors to communicate with each other easily, but the distant tribes had a little more difficulty. He applied these real-world concepts to Ethshar to explain how the different nations could communicate with relative ease.

In game terms, my approach of “one step away” equals “one step higher” in difficulty works well, especially if there are lots of relations and connections between languages. These can also be used to show dialects and subtle shifts in a single language between different people.

Magic Overrides

Of course, there are easily obtainable spells (like Comprehend Languages in Pathfinder and D&D) that throw a monkey wrench into the whole “unknown language” angle. The easy route out of this is to boost the level of those spells, make them harder to find, or just simply not allow them to exist within the campaign. These are all heavy-handed approaches, though.

One thing I like to do is to alter the material component from “a pinch of soot and salt” to something a little less mundane like “a crystal orb at least three inches in diameter.” This ups the cost (thus preventing lower level characters from easily accessing the spell) and might require some action on the part of the party to obtain the material component. When I do this, I make sure to clearly state that the material component in this case is not consumed in the spell.

Your Thoughts?

What are your thoughts on using different languages? How do you handle the communications errors that can occur during translation, especially during the rapid-fire exchange of spoken words? I’d like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #42 – Letters to Ourselves Follow-up

14 June 2018 - 5:34am

Join Ang, Kira, Senda, and Wendelyn on Gnomecast for a follow-up discussion of their “Letters to Our Younger Selves” series of Gnome Stew articles. Will their accumulated wisdom and the benefit of hindsight be enough to keep them out of the stew?

Download here: Letters to Ourselves Follow-up

This episode references Ang’s article “Dear Me, Don’t Let Them Keep You Out,” Kira’s article “A Letter To Little Kira: You Don’t Have To,” Senda’s article “An Open Letter To My Impostor Syndrome (maybe it will help you too),” and Wendelyn’s article “An Open Letter About Making Gaming Work For You (and building your strengths through role play).”

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

Follow Wendelyn at @WendelynReischl on Twitter or visit Wendelyn’s Facebook Page.

Follow Kira at @Kiranansi on Twitter.

Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd on Twitter, and check out her other podcasts Panda’s Talking Games (@PandasTalkGames) and She’s a Super Geek (@sasgeekpodcast).

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Fate Horror Toolkit Review

12 June 2018 - 5:00am

When I was younger, my older siblings continually conspired to scare me. They would hide around corners and jump out at me, force me to watch scary things on TV, and — my favorite — pretend to be dead, waiting for me to run screaming to my mom. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m pretty sure I’ve been sick of jump scares since before I was even in first grade.

Despite this baggage, I still managed to develop a fascination with various horror franchises. When my friends and I were in middle school, we would rent all kinds of scary movies. One of the first movies I watched when my little town got cable was Aliens, and through high school I became at least a little obsessed with the Nightmare on Elm Street movies.

I’m not quite as conversant in modern horror, but when I saw that Evil Hat was releasing a Horror Toolkit for Fate, it got my attention.

The Purple Beast

This review is based both on the PDF of the Fate Horror Toolkit, and the physical copy of the book. The book is 152 pages, and the physical copy is the same size as the standard Fate line, in hardcover.

The interior art is black and white, and matches the theme of the chapter in which the art appears. For example, when the topic is the zombie apocalypse or body horror, the art style is different than when it features Spooky Fun. There are some detailed images of dead bodies, insect creatures, and mutated body parts, but viscera and gore are limited (unless you count shadowy textured areas).

The formatting follows the clear and easy to read style that is present in other Fate books, with clearly bold headers, offset example paragraphs, and lots of bullet points.

Chapter 1: Gazing Into the Abyss

This chapter has an overview of the horror genre, what elements make up a horror-themed game, and a summary of the chapter contents. There are page references to specific rules in this book, and references to sections of the Fate Core rulebook.

This chapter also has a sidebar on the responsible execution of horror, and a two-page spread on safety and consent. Given the subject matter of the book, I think it was a very good move to put this right up front. The “Horror Doesn’t Excuse Being Horrible” paragraph hits about a third of the way through the first page, and you can’t miss it.

Chapter 2: The Raveled Sleeve of Care

This section addresses setting up a horror campaign and making characters that will fit into the horror genre. There is a list of media to consume for inspiration (most of which revolves around sympathetic and flawed characters in a horror story), as well as new optional rules to help reinforce the genre.

The tools presented in this section help build connections to the source of the horror and to give players reasons to compel their own aspects. There are also new rules that revolve around the following:

  • Enhanced self-compels
  • Group Fate Pools
  • Heroic Sacrifice
  • Legacy Aspects
  • Hauntings
  • Group Aspects
  • Intensity Aspects
  • Moral Dilemmas

There is a lot of great material here even outside of horror games. Enhanced self-compels work with the group Fate Pools to reinforce the PCs working together against a problem. Heroic sacrifice, legacy aspects, and hauntings all incentivize a PC to accept death as part of the story, while giving them a way to continue to participate in the story. Group aspects dovetail with the rules for group Fate Pools, and intensity aspects introduce a rating system for aspects that tie the character to something potentially horrible or dangerous in the game. Moral dilemmas set up a resolution where X or Y equally hard resolutions are the most obvious ways to resolve the situation, and anything outside of those options automatically becomes more difficult.

Many of these tools highlight the agency of the player by creating rewards for their investment in the horror genre. Rather than just making things harder for the player characters, many of these tools highlight how the players can make life worse for the group to tell a better story, while still giving them some options to nudge the story in each direction.

Chapter 3: Some Scars are Invisible

This chapter addresses the portrayal of the mental stresses that are present in the horror genre. There is another list of media inspiration for horror media dealing with the mental toll of horror, and introduces some rules for portraying the long-term repercussions of trauma on the characters.

Some of the optional new rules include the following:

  • Trauma Aspects
  • Coping Conditions
  • The Mental Toll of Gore

In addition to the game advice and new rules, there is also a thoughtful discussion of mental health and the proper way to utilize it in a game without trivializing it. This includes determining what the trauma was, how that would affect a person, and what they would do to lessen that effect. The emphasis is to do this without trying to find a specific medical condition, which could lead to stereotypical behavior based on a shallow reading of a diagnosis.

Trauma aspects are taken on by a character when something seriously disturbing happens, and coping conditions can be checked to allow the character to continue to function. There are different levels of severity for these conditions, based on the condition rules introduced in the original Fate Toolkit and elaborated on in the Dresden Accelerated game.

The mental toll of gore is a means by which the GM can attack the stress track of characters with the disturbing nature of an environment. It functions as an independent element that has a turn where it attacks, although some character aspects may, optionally, be used to explain why a player is inured to such attacks.

Chapter 4: Who’s Who of the Damned

This section is all about making monsters, and giving example monsters. Like the previous chapters, there is a list of media inspirations, this time focusing on media that has strong and memorable antagonists. There are discussions on how to use monstrous skills or approaches, as well as monstrous conditions, to build threats. The final sections of the chapter deal with body horror including rules for how a player character’s body part can function as a monster. There is an extensive section on The Other as a villain–a societal force that is attempting to subsume or eliminate the PCs if they don’t conform.

There are several fully built example threats, like the Vampire, the Slasher, the Killer Swarm, and the Created. There are also stat blocks and special rules for hands, tongues, hearts, and eyes to function as monsters while still connected to a character. This includes effects that might take place when the body part acts against its host, and what happens if a body part breaks free of its original body. As a brief aside, there are times I really love being part of this hobby.

When discussing The Other as a threat, there is advice about using care in choosing what “other” you are portraying. Because it represents more of a societal force or movement, there is more discussion on how a campaign involving The Other progresses over time.

Chapter 5: We Are All Going To Die

This chapter is about playing in a horror campaign where all the characters will eventually die, and how to facilitate that. The media sources cited as inspirational in this section revolve around horror media featuring doomed protagonists, and there are rules for a countdown clock and how it should function.

When setting up the countdown clock, the players and the GM set up what triggers the clock to tick forward, and what, if anything, rolls the clock back. The assumption is that there will be less causing it to roll back than causing it to move forward.

In a campaign like this, the group sets up what their goal is, so they still might accomplish something before the end. Once the clock ticks off its final segment, everyone is doomed, but the amount of time they have to “wrap things up” will vary based on the length of the campaign.

The discussion of this style of campaign was particularly interesting to me, as I like the concept of having an end game in mind when starting a campaign, and I like the dynamic way that a countdown clock might play into that. It also seems like a tool that could have broader applications than just the horror genre.

Chapter 6: The High Cost of Living

If you ever wanted rules to help model survival horror, this is your chapter. Inspirations cited in this chapter revolve around horror media where survivors have limited resources and ever-present external threats, and the optional rules include consumables, consequences and NPCs, and havens.

Consumables drive a lot of play, since they get used in different circumstances. There are general rules for the number of NPCs in a haven, and how they might be removed from play. Havens get assaulted and damaged, and must be defended and repaired.

The rules for connections between the NPCs and the PCs allow for some of the danger of survival horror to remain present while still having a stable cast of protagonists.

Chapter 7: Horror is the New Pink

Chapter seven is all about managing aspects of horror that overlap with the unique way the genre interacts with assumptions about women. It has the usual inspirational material, and has additional rules for feminine horror aspects, horror points, and several thematically linked scenarios.

Much of the material in the Horror Toolkit gives players agency while incentivizing causing problems for their characters, even beyond what Fate Core normally allows. In this case, characters will have a feminine horror aspect linked to the theme of the campaign. Self-compelling this will give the player a horror point, which acts as an especially effective Fate point.

The generation and use of feminine horror aspects and horror points allow for the player to have greater control over when they might be put in a position of vulnerability, and how much agency they will have in the resolution of the scenario.

The example story arcs explored in this section include the following:

  • Poisonous Sexuality
  • Anticipated Blood
  • Alien Pregnancy

These include setups, feminine horror aspects, stunts, NPCs, current issues, and lingering issues. Lingering issues are a specific aspect that characters in a feminine horror scenario have, which represents past events and how they still affect the player character.

While the chapter has several tools for modeling the story structures described, this is definitely one of the chapters where reading the breakdown of the elements, and the usual progression of these stories, is as interesting as the mechanics reinforcing that story structure.

Chapter 8: Spooky Fun

Compared to the heavy topics in some of the other chapters, chapter 8 looks at a slightly lighter side of horror. The optional rules in this section deal with stories inspired by Goosebumps, Scooby Doo, or Nancy Drew. This includes inspirational media suggestions, a new way to present skills (the report card), conditions, stunts, and new rules like courage and fear. It also defines what being taken out looks like in this genre, and introduces formalized rules for twists in the narrative.

The report card version of skills presents a version of skills that is similar to approaches from Fate Accelerated, with the rating of a subject that can be broadly applied depending on the fiction. Player characters using these options do not have a stress track, but mark several conditions that they can clear over time. The group has a Courage stat that builds as they find clues. It can also go up when players introduce a twist to the story. The courage stat is available when the group is together, but not when they get separated, unless there is a special circumstance.

I like the concept of building the Courage stat, and how finding clues is less about having a convoluted mystery, and more about building resources until the group is ready to confront a threat. It reinforces the genre concept that having all of the kids together for the confrontation is the best way to get a favorable resolution.


There are two appendices in the book, and both involve safety tools that can be employed at the table. Appendix 1 deals with the X-Card by John Stavropoulos (which can be found here online), and Appendix 2 deals with the Script Change tool by Brie Sheldon (which can be found here online). While some of the text of both tools is included in the appendices, there is also some additional discussion on why these tools might be useful or preferable for a group.

I appreciate that these tools are both in the book in usable forms. Often, when outside safety tools are referenced in RPG material, it can be easy to not follow up on links presented in the text. In this case, while there is more material on both sites, there is enough to make both tools functional from the book itself.

I have a lot of respect for both tools, but I am especially happy to see Script Change referenced in an RPG safety section, as it is a great tool that I have seen used very well at a table, and Brie Sheldon did a great job designing it. I’m looking forward to more “safety in gaming” sections referencing their work.

Plenty of Stakes, Lots of Garlic Many horror stories manage to be scary or impactful even when they are using established tropes. This toolkit does a great job of explaining how to use those tropes to maximum effect. Share49Tweet9+11Reddit1Email

The tools in this book are useful for a horror game, but many of them, like the group Fate Pool, heroic sacrifice, and trauma aspects, can be used for games that aren’t explicitly in the horror genre. The discussion of doomed campaigns, survival horror, and feminine horror, as well as the outline of The Other and how it progresses in a game, provide strong campaign frameworks. Almost all the tools provided have a strong, built-in aspect of agency to them.

Should I Have Invited Them In?

If there is any downside to the book, it’s that the tools may work better for creating a good horror story than being immersed in a good horror story. There has been discussion about how well Fate can do horror in the past, and while the tools in this book incentivize players to make the decisions that will put their players in harm’s way, for some players, knowing that they can pump the brake may drop them out of the immersion they were previously hoping to experience.

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

If you are even a little interested in Fate or in horror as a genre, it is unlikely you will regret this purchase. In addition to providing a wide range of useful Fate related tools, the discussions on genre and campaign structure are going to be of broad appeal, even for people not running their game using Fate.

If you are the kind of player that is more focused on the flow of the story and hitting the right beats, you may appreciate this a bit more than if you want to be immersed from your character’s point of view, but even in that instance, many horror stories manage to be scary or impactful even when they are using established tropes. This toolkit does a great job of explaining how to use those tropes to maximum effect.

What do you think of horror RPGs? Do you need to feel scared for them to be successful? What horror games have done this the best? What Fate toolkits would you like to see in the future? I’m interested to find out all of that and more, so please leave me a comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomespotting – Gnomes At Origins 2018!

11 June 2018 - 9:40am

Origins Game Fair 2018 in Columbus, Ohio is startlingly close! Did you know that many, many Gnomes will be there running incredible games, hanging out, being on panels, and doing awesome gaming stuff? Well we will! Here is a listing of the Gnomes who will be at Origins 2018 and what we’ll be doing.

Angela Murray

Ang is running a couple of games for Matinee Adventures this year, both of which were full when last checked. On Wednesday evening, she’s running a Firefly/Serenity game called “Old Friends, Old Debts”. On Friday afternoon, she’s running a Dresden Accelerated game titled ‘Good Mojo, Bad Juju.” Beyond those two events, she’s got a fully packed schedule of playing games and hanging out with a wide variety of awesome folks. If you see her, feel free to say hello! Or give a nudge on twitter @orikes13.

Camdon Wright

It’s my first time at Origins so there is an extra level of excitement for me! I’ll be facilitating game at Indie Games on Demand on Thursday night, Friday afternoon, and Saturday afternoon and evening. I’ll have my own game, One Child’s Heart, and a prototype story game written by fellow Gnome, Wendelyn Reischl. Please say hi if you see me around the convention! I should be easy to reach via Twitter @Camdon Wright if you want to track me down.

Chris Sniezak

I’ll be running several games and hosting a couple of panels. Games: The Temple of the Snake God in The Sequence System by Encoded Designs on Thursday at 3pm and Saturday at noon and The Oracle of the Spire in Dungeon World on Friday at Noon and Sunday at 10am. The Panels: The Buisness of D&D with Shawn Merwin where we will dish about doing business on the D&D side of podcasting, writing, the ins and outs of the DM’s Guild and much more on Thursday at 1pm and Play Better Games Damn it where as many of the Misdirected Mark Productions crew will be to talk about GMing advice, game design, and we will be getting up to all kinds of other shenanigans in this irreverent and entertaining panel. If you’re looking for a little fun on Friday evening we will also all be at Barcadia starting at 8pm. If the ski-ball machine is open we’ll have an impromptu ski-ball tournament and there will be a prize in the form of a game book. Looking forward to seeing you there. Twitter @misdirectedmark

John Arcadian

I’ll be running games of the Tarrasque and some Rockerboys and Vending Machines / Love and Justice , but they are all sold out. When i’m not running, I’ll be hanging out with the other gnomes, people I know, and generally milling around in my kilt likely on the big bar on two. Say hi, I’m friendly! Ping me on twitter @johnarcadian and I will have about a 50% chance of seeing it.

Kira Magrann

I’ll be running games at Games on Demand Thursday and Friday! I usually hang out there even when I’m not running games. It’s a great mini community withing the con, and there’s usually games available three times a day, and each game costs two generic tokens. You sign up once you get to the room. The games I’m running are mine: A Cozy Den, SYNC, and Something is Wrong Here. There’s tabletop and LARP games, and it’s diverse and has a great harassment policy. AND the A Cozy Den book will be available at IPR I’m so excited! Follow my on Twitter @kiranansi, I’ll definitely be taking some film footage for youtube too!

Phil Vecchione

On Thursday and Friday will be running sessions of my game Hydro Hacker Operatives, and Turning Point, which I wrote with Senda. Saturday, I am in two seminars, one with Senda, talking about One Shots and Campaigns, and one with the rest of the Misdirected Mark network. Sunday, I am ending off by running a game of Rockerboys & Vending Machines. If you spot me, come by and say hello, and you can follow me on Twitter @dnaphil if you want to see what I am up to.

Senda Linaugh

I’ll be running HydroHacker Operatives, One Last Job, and Turning Point (the new game Phil and I have been writing) on Thursday and Friday. You can catch me Saturday at the One Shot and Campaign Tango, where Phil and I will be doing a live version of our show Panda’s Talking Games, and you can catch me at the Misdirected Mark network panel that evening. On Sunday I’m wrapping up with my game Love & Justice. I’m super excited to see everyone and I will have swag for both my podcasts if you come say hi! You can find me on twitter @idellamithlynnd if you’d like to catch me.

Tracy Barnett

I’ll have playtests of Iron Edda Accelerated and Terrorform at Games on Demand mornings on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday, and the afternoon slot on Friday. Other than that, I’m hanging out and talking about games with people. If you see me say hi! And if you want to know where to see me, find me on Twitter @theothertracy.

Wendelyn A. Reischl

Wendelyn A. Reischl will be running her product Wrath & Glory, the forthcoming Warhammer 40,000 RPG, in the first public demonstrations of the game in the US. Since she is running seven (7!?!?) sessions Wendelyn can be found mostly in and around the Ulisses North America RPG space. She’ll be at the big bar on two when possible and y’all can find Wendelyn at the Three Legged Mare bar Saturday night starting around 8pm! Her new fade haircut and d12 tattoo may help you to spot this game designer in the wild. Twitter @WendelynReischl

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Stew Notables – Avery Alder

11 June 2018 - 5:12am

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

Meet Avery

Avery is an experienced game designer interested in bringing meaningful and easy-to-learn games to a wider audience. Emphasizing collaboration and games where players decide ‘what is possible’, Avery’s games work to realize the potential for roleplaying games to challenge our politics, transform our lives, and bring about social change. Her works include: Monsterhearts, The Quiet Year, Ribbon Drive.

Talking with Avery 1.) You have a new game out! Tell us about your latest game on Kickstarter. It’s called Dream Askew?

Yes! My latest project is on Kickstarter now! It is actually a split book with two games that are sort of companion games. I wrote Dream Askew, which is about a queer community amid the collapse of civilization, where the characters are influential people and explore what they would do with all the potential and scarcity that they now have. It is explicitly about a marginalized community banding together, and acknowledges that the apocalypse won’t reach everyone at the same time. I like that all of that possibility could be really hopeful… Benjamin Rosenbaum’s game Dream Apart is about being members of a Jewish shtetl in 19th century Eastern Europe. Both are designed as diceless and gm-less games that are good for seasoned players but are also beginner-friendly.

softcover, full colour, half-letter (5.5 x 8.5), approx. 100-180 pages

2.) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work.

I have been designing games since high school and have explored a lot of different themes and approaches, but I keep coming back to themes of self-doubt, troubled communities—with conflicts like ideological differences—and relationships, queer community, and the post-apocalypse or exploring what would happen after the collapse of civilization. My games don’t focus on despair and suffering though. They focus on finding out where hope survives in that process.

I am really proud of my game Ribbon Drive, which was a freeform game that used songs from music playlists brought by the players to inspire the scenes and framing that players responded to in the game. For me, this game was about players coming in with a vision of the future—the places the game would go—and learning how to re-examine, and eventually let go of, that vision.

In 2012 I released probably my most popular game, Monsterhearts, where players are teenage monsters—both literally and metaphorically. They are teens making sense of their changing bodies and social worlds, while being monstrous creatures with their associated behavioral traits. This game had a lot of queer themes, with monstrosity standing in as a metaphor for a lot of things, but especially queerness. Sexuality and its confusing ambiguities are core mechanic for the game.

I also designed The Quiet Year, which is a map drawing game about a community that has survived the collapse of civilization and is trying to rebuild. It is sort of a combination of board game, world building, and abstract poetry exercise!

3.) Can you tell me a little bit more about how you make those thematic choices? Are these intentional and goal oriented? More personal?

I think it’s a mixture of personal interest and goal. I have lots of ideas and start working on lots of games and then abandon most of them…so the ones that have a burning need to be created are the ones that make it through. They are the games with themes I find really compelling, and that do mechanical things that push back against prevailing design trends…or build on those trends. There was a period in the indie design community when every design revolved around scene-level conflict resolution mechanics, and play pushed toward these conflicts in every scene. Ribbon Drive was designed as a game where you didn’t have conflict, and even when there were obstacles you could take a detour. You couldn’t use traits in the same scene that you introduced them. I think it’s important to have games about learning humility and self-reflection, not just conflict. One factor in choosing these elements is that they feel like a timely contribution to the community at a meta- level. Play can serve to promote belonging to a world working towards revolution and looking really critically at our own goals and actions. The games I design that make it to production really further that…it’s not coincidental.

4.) How did you get into games? Was there a memorable or meaningful gaming (or design) experience that encouraged you to get involved?

I have always been excited about games. D&D 3.5 was my first RPG experience. I was in a logging town where there weren’t a lot of opportunities, but with D&D I was able to imagine a world bigger than my small town. I was playing with a group of boys who were all smarmy know-it-alls, and would argue that the one GM-ing was wrong or could have done better. The games would always fizzle. From the get go I could see the potential in the medium and see us all having trouble accessing that potential, and with all our play styles wanting really different things. So I started designing my own games pretty quickly to try to see how to make the play experience better. I released my first game a month after I graduated high school.

5.) Who did you look up to when you got started in the industry? Or who do you look up to now?

Paul Czege wrote My Life With Master, the first indie role playing game I ever ordered, and it was the game that introduced me to tight minimal design. In that game, you play as a minion to an intimidating master—a figure like Dracula or Frankenstein. There was the tension of wanting to do something for your master while also knowing you can’t escape them, but slowly developing curiosity about the townsfolk and the bravery and competence to overthrow the master. Your character was represented by only a few stats: Self-Loathing, Weariness, and Love for the townsfolk was all the definition that you needed. Czege’s focused, minimal, tight, thematic mechanics really informed the kind of designer I became.

6.) Are there any important changes you see (or would like to see) occurring in the industry?

I have seen more games by and about women, which is really exciting. I see women designers getting a spotlight more often and also more queer themes being included in stories—both by queer designers and by designers working to exclude fewer people from their stories. I also see a push for diversity generally, and more conventions thinking about diversity of guests they bring out…but I see most of that push for diversity in ways that focus on gender and sexuality and not on race. I’ve seen panels on bringing diversity to the games industry that are all white, so I’d want more designers of color to be given guest spots at conventions and to get their work spotlighted more often. And maybe more attention on decolonization led by indigenous people in the community. From a design perspective, the thing I’d really want to see are games accessible to new players and that play in a few hours (ex. Jason Morningstar’s games point a way forward). I work to design games that are mechanically simple, but they still typically require a lot of high concept thinking and take 3-4 hours. There aren’t many games that play in just one or two hours.

7.) I’m glad you mentioned the time commitment that many RPGs take. Are there other ways these games could be more beginner-friendly?

In terms of a way that a book presents its concepts, not using acronyms is huge! Acronyms make it really imposing. In terms of design, games that require less math and that explain the concepts in the same place that you find them on the character sheet make them more accessible, so new players aren’t just looking down and seeing all these numbers. For play, thinking about making spaces accessible to new parents since many people have young children. In terms of themes, I think that as designers and storytellers we need to be really mindful about what themes will make sense to a general audience, and which are recursive tropes and memes that gamers have developed that are inscrutable to the outside world…like the progression of rat killing in sewers to becoming a demi-god doesn’t make sense to people who don’t already know it. If you are going to tell those stories and want them to be welcoming to new players, you really have to spell it out for new players…and what else might they know that looks similar. We like to think that these stories are like Lord of the Rings, but they really aren’t. The model for a D&D character arc is outside the usual.

I think a thing that comes up with my work is that people who are long time gamers have more trouble connecting thematically with what I’m writing than people who haven’t played RPGs before. For example, with Ribbon Drive, if you are coming in from D&D and Pathfinder as a point of reference to this game you are going to stumble more because really obvious cultural touchstones for some aren’t necessarily gamer touchstones, so people stumble over them.

8.) I am very excited for your new project. Can you tell me a little more about it before I let you go?

One of the really cool things about this Kickstarter project is the way Dream Askew & Dream Apart are in dialogue. They both are about marginalized communities that have created this place of belonging and possibility, while at the fringes of society. They build off the same themes but take them to really different places; in one case taking those themes in the context of a group that really existed, while the other is about a more fantastic range of possibilities. One asks you to build upon and explore your relationship to history, and the other asks you to imagine and build a world together. I’m interested in ways these games are both very similar and very divergent, and compliment each other and tease out the themes and possibilities of each. With Benjamin, thinking that if this project is about them both being a type of game, we’ve included a chapter on designing this type of game—encouraging people to continue exploring community, development, and juggling tensions and choices though game design. The book is not just a manual for how to play a game but is a manual for how to play a particular kind of game, as well as a piece that encourages you to design and explore further on your own.

I think it is really important to say that, in addition to Dream Askew & Dream Apart being rich games with powerful themes, I think they are really fun. Fun games that are for anyone. The first time I played Dream Apart we were high-fiving and laughing…it was just so fun to play!

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

Troy’s Crock Pot: NPC aspirations

8 June 2018 - 5:01am

Part of a GM’s job is to provide NPCs and to breathe life into them.

A lot of time is often spent figuring out their distinguishing characteristics. What color hair do they have? Do they wear it short, down or up?  Do they walk with a limp? Do they speak with a certain dialect?

Don’t forget their clothes. Or their makeup. And hey, everyone notices the shoes. Don’t they?

Some setting books have tools to help with this. The 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide, for example, has a d20 chart listing identifying features that can set an NPC apart. It’s a useful tool, insofar as it goes.

But …

Unless your party is tracking down a fugitive NPC, though, a lot of that description goes for naught. It might even be important in the moment — how did you know she’s a silver dragon in disguise? Maybe it has to do with that shimmering evening wear, eh?

But for the long term, what makes an NPC carry a scene or stick with the players is how it expresses its goals, motivations or ambitions.

The NPC, like anyone, wants something out of this world. The PCs aren’t going to remember if Sally wore red socks, or were they blue? But if Sally puts in long hours as a barista to earn enough money to study at the technical college — there’s a better chance of that information sticking.

Moreover, Sally has “utility” from the the PCs’ perspective. Coffee. Education. Relating to customers. Local info.

Such goals inform roleplaying. Is Sally too busy to help the PCs with their mission because there is a line of customers? Will Sally cheerfully help because the player character’s career is related to what Sally wants to study? Does Sally remember the PC fondly/poorly from their high school association, and does she appreciate/resent her current situation because of it?

Motivations and goals roll into how a GM presents information, and makes it fun for the GM too. The GM gets to put on their own roleplay hat and interact with the PCs beyond tracking attack bonuses, hit points and creature damage.

So, as you organize and plan for games this summer, consider spending more time on how your NPC sees the world than what the PCs want from it. When those perspectives meet within the context of your scenario or encounter, you are more likely to have memorable interaction and an NPC whom the players will remember by name.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Steal This Area: Alhasa

6 June 2018 - 5:00am

A brief plug: for the foreseeable future, I plan on writing about one of these a month. If you think you can do a better job than I do at making maps (and who can’t?) and want to sell me one and have your work featured here, send an email with the subject line “details” to and my bot will tell you all about what I have in mind!

It’s insanely busy time at work, so of course I decided it was a good time to start kicking around GMing a new campaign. (No one has ever accused me of being excellent at making practical decisions.) Since my primary player is always my wife, I decided to include her in the process for a better chance of buy-in. Plus she comes up with cool stuff. Since I’ve been using my new overland descriptors table, I asked her to roll on the table eight times and we’d look at the results and pick which ones we wanted to apply to the entire area, which ones we wanted to apply to sub areas, and which ones we wanted to discard.  These were her results:

  • 34 Live: Genius Loci – a spirit inhabits the land and can manipulate it to a limited degree
  • 40 Dead: Ancient – similar to ruined but far fewer and far older ruins
  • 100 Magic: Effects – odd effects can be found here, fountains, auras etc…
  • 41 Hot: Desert – covered in sand and blistering heat
  • 64 Government: Monarchy – a single ruling figure
  • 84 Technology: Steam – steam tech
  • 4 Water: Rivers – an area criss-crossed with many rivers large and small
  • 47 Cold: Spires – ice makes strange flowers and spires

Some of these appear to work well together. Genius Loci, Magic Effects, Ancient and Desert imply a pseudo mythological Egyptian setting, but Ice Spires and Rivers seem out of place. I was originally toying with the idea of having a northern ice wall for the ice spires, but my wife suggested a central ruined city coated with ice, a remnant of some ancient magic apocalypse.  We went with that, which handily also explains the rivers.

So we now have the main idea for the setting: a desert nation with a city in the center magically covered in bizarre ice growths. This ice is simultaneously constantly melting and being regrown and the result is that several rivers of water flow out of the city into the desert where they branch out and form a web of survivable arable land.

We can easily tie several other aspects into this main one. As the ice forms, it takes in moisture and pushes out heat. That’s why the surrounding area is a desert: the city is acting like a huge dehydrator and heater. This means that the ancient ruins are from whatever civilization the central city belonged to. When the ice started forming it slowly transformed the land around it into desert. We can say that the steam tech is actually from this older civilization and a few functional golems and other guardians inhabit these ruins. The modern inhabitants of the land are able to restore, jury rig, and reverse engineer crude examples of this older tech.

This raises the question of what this steam tech uses for fuel. Wood would be in short supply. Other fossil fuels might work, but would mean no ancient golems stomping about (who would be keeping their boiler topped off?) so we can fall back on “It’s magic”. But in this case, we’ll go with a specific magic: trapped elementals power the boilers indefinitely, fire elementals providing the heat, while smaller water elementals provide water. This means that steam guardians are especially dangerous because if they are disabled, there is a chance they overheat and rupture, releasing a pair of agonized dangerous elementals which are likely to attack anything around themselves, including each other since “dying” is a reliable way to get back to their home plane.

If you’re from my game and reading this, this part is spoilers:
This goes full circle – What if the ancients were trying to build a massive steam engine to power something extra large? Let’s say the entire city? Do they enslave a literal army of fire elementals to do it? Or just one really big fire elemental? And who is the biggest fire elemental of them all? Imix, the fire prince of elemental evil. So somewhere in the city is a huge boiler holding Imix himself, heating water pumped from the elemental plane of water directly. But Imix is more than they bargained for, and the heat he’s pushing out has to be contained before he slags the boiler and burns down the whole damn city. First they tried venting some of the heat outside of the city but that wasn’t enough. So, since they didn’t have any trouble summoning and containing Imix, who’s the natural choice to keep him well contained? Well, Cryonax, the ice prince of elemental cold. Three guesses what happened next: Cryonax didn’t manage to escape. But he DID manage to break containment enough to freeze the whole damn city. Steam lines, powered by Imix, run through the whole city and keep encroaching ice melting and runwater flowing, but otherwise the whole place is coated in several feet of ice and blossoming with spires and ice flowers everywhere. Citizens that were trapped inside have been transformed into ice mummies, some steam golems still operate (including a crew that tirelessly chops up and carts away ice that’s blocking important roads and doors. And if the PCs manage to infiltrate their way to the heart of the city and kill or banish Cryonax, then it’s only a matter of time before Imix overloads his boiler and blows it to pieces.

So what did we leave out?
There are a couple of options for Genius Loci.

  • Maybe it’s an old “spirit of the wild” or “green man” a sort of pre-human savage spirit already ambivalent towards man and dangerous but twisted and maddened by the condition of the land such that it’s powers and avatars appear as dried and dying vegetation and are far more likely to harm than help.
  • Maybe it’s the same spirit but sane and still helpful, just incredibly weakened, so characters that help it might expect favors.
  • Maybe it’s completely different: Maybe the ancients had a literal “magical internet” and the Genius Loci is just a powerful bot living in this fractured system and largely ambivalent to those around it, but can be invoked with the right devices and knowledge and who might reward those who can restore lost functions and access.

My wife likes the BotNet idea. So do I, but I also like the tormented dark nature spirit, so heck with it, we’ll go with both.

More spoilers:
BotNet seems ambivalent and neutral, but is actually a villain. It’s always listening when it can, cares nothing for people and is primarily interested in advancing its own power. It draws a lot of the power from the still functional mega steam engine in the city, and it was an attempt to cripple it that made someone sabotage that system. In a way, they were successful. The downfall of the surrounding area has largely contained the threat. The nature spirit on the other hand is a minor player. Maybe back before the land became a desert it was more influential and maybe it will be again if the land is restored, but for now it doesn’t have much of an agenda aside from lashing out and protecting the few living areas that remain.

Magical Effects: We’ve firmly established that the earlier civilization was a highly magical one. They had steam tech, enslaved elementals, a magical internet etc. The magical effects are mostly artifacts of that era.

Monarchy: Monarchies are a staple of fantasy RPGs and we’re going to go with an asshole monarchy, which is also a staple. We’ve talked about the rivers flowing out of the city and how they’re the source of what little livable land there is in the setting. The largest river is home to a self proclaimed king-captain of a military unit. He seized control by holding a small keep near where the river exits the city and fending off the occasional attack by ice mummies while digging a basin and building a dam which he uses to control flow of the river, extorting fealty from everyone downstream. Under his control several more dams have been built across major branches allowing his subordinates to selectively deny water to specific locations.

Other smaller rivers exist and the monarchy has no control over these. They are smaller, independent and less secure without the presence of soldiers and defenders.

Along with this, we will say that while there is the occasional jury-rigged steamtech golem or vehicle throughout all the controlled areas, the largest concentration does NOT lie in the kingdom but instead with a band of nomads who use their collection of steam vehicles to range from water sources not under control of the monarchy. This freedom makes them enemies of the state and in return they often harass patrols and supply lines.

OK, that gives us an interesting and complex setting with lots of flavor, several types of locations and even three gray area factions to deal with. That should be a good start.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Life is Too Short

1 June 2018 - 12:00am

My gaming bucket list involves gaming with ALL the awesome people I can find.

I had a Monday afternoon game that recently died a sad and ignoble death. Over the course of about a year, myself and a few other folks played a couple of different one shots and three short campaigns before things became untenable and the group died. As much as we all wanted to game, it became apparent that we weren’t looking for the same things in our gaming. As sad as I am that it’s over, I’m also relieved. Life is too short to play games with the wrong people.

The easiest type of ‘wrong people’ are the trolls and jerks. We gamers are pretty good at picking those out of a crowd and avoiding them. Ask almost any gamer and they’ll have a story of some troll that ruined a game or a campaign for them. Seriously, just ask. Gamers love their gaming war stories.

A friend of mine moved across the country to a new state last year and had to find new people to play with. Eventually he found a group that seemed okay and he was happy to be gaming regularly again. One player was a little annoying, with some attention-hog type of behavior, but that player was also the host and had a nice house with a good gaming space. In the beginning, it seemed worth putting up with. Over time, though, that player’s behavior became a bit more odious and he became passive aggressive with snide comments about gaming sessions that he didn’t enjoy. Eventually the passive aggressive behavior turned into full on aggressive and my friend decided enough was enough. There was a bit of a blow up, but no matter how nice his house was, the guy wasn’t worth gaming with any longer. My friend walked. Luckily in this case, the rest of the group walked away with him and they simply found an alternative place to play at.

Sometimes you can like the person but something about what you both want out of gaming doesn’t click and the enjoyment of the game starts to suffer. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

Thing is, wrong people doesn’t always mean bad people. Sometimes you can like the person but something about what you both want out of gaming doesn’t click and the enjoyment of the game starts to suffer.

In the case of my Monday game, GMing mostly fell to myself and one other player. This player and I ended up butting heads throughout the course of the year, but he wasn’t someone I disliked. I appreciated his enthusiasm for gaming and I respected his efforts to organize and keep things moving, but it became apparent that we had very different styles and expectations. When he was GM, he felt that we players weren’t proactive enough and our reactions to his NPCs never quite went the way he expected. When it was my turn to GM, he felt I wasn’t pushing the rules hard enough or that I wasn’t offering what he expected as a challenge. Even though we liked the same types of games, it was obvious we were looking for different things out of them.

Of course, we were both too stubborn to give up. It took a very rough session and another player announcing he was done to make us admit that it was time to lay the group to rest. When the player that left announced his decision, it was a weight off my shoulders. I didn’t want to acknowledge how stressed I was trying to run for this group, knowing one player was dissatisfied with my GMing. I also didn’t really want to admit that I didn’t enjoy his GMing. Dissolving the group was the right thing to do, even if it feels like a failure.

What if the person you’re having problems with is someone you care about deeply beyond your gaming life?

I have at least two friends who separately had to stop gaming with someone they cared about because gaming was starting to cause a strain on the relationship. Both situations were very different, but they realized they needed to stop gaming with someone if they wanted to preserve their relationship with that person. They never stopped caring for the person but realized that gaming wasn’t the activity they should share. Neither case was an easy separation, but it needed to be done.

We can put up with a lot to keep gaming in our lives. It’s easy to find articles discussing finding the right game to play, but it’s just as important to make sure you’re gaming with the right people. The stress that can come from gaming with someone who is incompatible to your gaming needs is not to be taken lightly. Cultivate the people you enjoy gaming with and build around that. Thankfully, the rise of gaming over the internet has helped quite a bit in this area, taking distance out of the equation.

One important caveat to all of this. It’s important to protect yourself, but it’s equally important to keep the doors of the hobby open to new people. I’m a huge fan of convention gaming and finding amazing players I’d never met before. There’s such a thrill to sitting down at a table and finding out that stranger across the table is freaking awesome. When cultivating the group you want to game with, tread carefully when closing the door to other players.

Have you ever made the decision to stop gaming with someone because it just wasn’t a good fit? I’d be interested to hear your stories.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #41 – Meet a New Gnome: Camdon Wright

31 May 2018 - 5:34am

Join Ang and get to know the newest Gnome, Camdon, in this new “Meet a New Gnome” episode of Gnomecast! Learn about Camdon’s start in gaming and his plans for future games and Gnome Stew articles! Will Camdon’s favorite blue dragon be able to keep him out of the stew?

Download here: Meet a New Gnome: Camdon Wright

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

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

Check out Camdon at, follow him at @camdon on Twitter, and visit Camdon’s Facebook page.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Pros of Cons: Making the Most of Conventions with Your Family

30 May 2018 - 5:01am

Today’s special guest article is a repost of an recent article by Shanna Germain, one of the creators of No Thank You Evil! a great game for introducing kids to tabletop roleplaying games. Monte Cook Games approached us about running the article, and since introducing kids to roleplaying is important to us here at the stew, we decided to run it. – Head Gnome John Arcadian

One of my favorite parts of attending gaming conventions is interacting with families—kids are so enthusiastic about the games that they love, and it’s heartwarming to watch parents and kids sharing their passions with each other.

If you haven’t yet taken the con plunge with your family, it might be time! Conventions are becoming more family-friendly every year—and more and more families are enjoying the adventure of a convention together.

“One of my favorite developments as a convention director is the increasing family presence at our con,” Erik E Carl, Director, TsunamiCon LLC (Wichita, KS). “There’s nothing more important to bonding with your kids than play, and a lot of us learned all about playing games from sitting around the table with our parents or older siblings when we were young.”

Do Your Research

A good family-friend convention has something for everyone, no matter their age or interest—they may have special kids’ tracks, kids’ spaces, or even a mini kid-con inside the main con. Do little research to find out which conventions have what you’re looking for. Visit the con’s website or social media pages, and ask other parents who’ve attended the convention about their experiences. What worked, what didn’t, what were the highlights of the event?

It’s also useful to find out if a convention has rating scales or descriptions for the games that they’re offering. “These ratings matter because they are quick identifiers for not only parents and their children but also for adults who may prefer less mature content settings,” says Mysty Vander, UnCon (UnCoventional Gaming Convention). “Look at the schedule beforehand for the type of games you think are appropriate for your children.”


Create a Great Experience

You know your children better than anyone else—their interests, experience, physical and emotional ages, and their reaction when surrounded by thousands of strangers are all going to have an impact on your experience at a con. Planning ahead of time—and keeping expectations low—helps ensure everyone has a good time. Consider things like food, bathrooms, naps (or just breaks), and the kinds of activities your child is ready for.

“Don’t force your child to sit in a long session if you have not practiced this yet,” suggests Jack Berkenstock Jr., MHS, Executive Director/Co-Founder of The Bodhana Group. “If you know your child has any challenges with either patience or maybe attention and focus, assist by choosing sessions that match with their skill level, or by taking occasional breaks during appropriate times.”

Take the opportunity to be present with your child, especially at the gaming table, to ensure that they have the best possible experience. “Be attentive and involved in the sessions that your child is interested,” says Berkenstock Jr. “If they want to play Tales of Equestria – you can stand being a Brony for just an afternoon!  Don’t be afraid to be silly and get involved. This helps everyone have fun together and teaches good skills.”

Create Community

Meeting other gamers is one of the great joys of conventions. And meeting other gamer parents? Maybe even more so. Having a community of parents who are there for the kids creates a safer, calmer environment for everyone—and could create some long-lasting friendships.

“I’m not the only parent at the cons,” says father and gamer Matthew Dimalanta. “We all tend to get to know each other and look out for each other’s children. If you see your kid playing with another kid… it’s a good idea to strike up a conversation with the kid’s parent.”

He recommends something he does for his own family—talking to people before the convention, especially those who run kid-specific events, and making sure they know how to contact you. “For example, different events (like a Zombie Apocalypse LARP) had a thing specifically for kids. I talked to them ahead of time and they had my phone number just in case. Same deal with the arcade and the escape room. No matter where he was, there was an eye looking out for him.”

Be Prepared for Emergencies

No one likes to think about bad things happening, but it’s important to be prepared, just in case. Make sure that your child knows what to do if they get lost, scared, or hurt. Conventions can be loud and overwhelming for adults; the effect on children is heightened.

And check with the convention to see if they have a section for lost children, or a system for reconnecting lost kids with their parents. “Some conventions give badges with matching numbers so they can establish parent to child relationships if they get separated,” says Berkenstock Jr. “Download the map ahead of time if they have one available to be able to agree upon a meeting spot. Sometimes conventions can be very large and crowded and overwhelming if it is your first time. Usually registration or a designated area (if they have one) is best.”

Have Fun

It may seem obvious, but don’t forget to have a great time—and let your family do the same! Consider starting a convention scrapbook full of photos, character sheets, and other goodies that everyone can work on together after the event—it’s a great way to reminisce about all of the fun you had and get excited about the next one!

A Few Family-Friendly Cons

Here are a few family-friend conventions recommended by parents, based on their own experiences with their families. The big draws were: inclusivity, safety, dedicated family gaming areas or rooms, mini-kid cons inside the larger cons, tracks specifically for kids and teens, and lots of kid-focused content.

* Photos courtesy of Bodhana Group/Doug Hilton Photography and Matthew Dimalanta

Categories: Game Theory & Design

13th Age Glorantha Review

29 May 2018 - 5:00am

Many classic, imaginative worlds came from the dawn of the tabletop RPG era. For anyone that was around in that time, the names of some worlds were well known, even without personal experience with the products. It may not seem quite as impressive in the modern information age to be aware of a wide variety of product lines, but in the era where gaming news came from word of mouth or publications like Dragon Magazine, it is a bit more noteworthy.

The product I’m looking at today is 13th Age Glorantha, a melding of the much more modern 13th Age game system with a game world that goes back almost to the beginning of fantasy roleplaying, Glorantha.

Glorantha’s publication history is too in-depth to go into in a review like this, but the setting is originally associated with the RuneQuest RPG, which was first published in 1978, but elements of the game world first showed up on board games years earlier.

The Translation Made Manifest

13th Age Glorantha is a hefty tome, being 466-pages of material. This review is based on the PDF version of the product. The physical copy of the book releases in July.

The book shares a lot of the same formatting choices as the 13th Age books, but with a slightly more classical feel to the fonts used. The artwork ranges from pieces that are more historical and representational in appearance, to more modern photorealistic images.

This mix of art styles could lead to a lack of a uniform feel, but the formatting is strong and creates unity across the various art styles. Much like the setting, it takes inspiration from Celtic, Norse, and South Asian themes and symbolic elements.

Chapter One: Initiations

This section is a primer on the big concepts of Glorantha, as well as presenting a summary of what is in future chapters in the book. The book is very careful to, from the beginning, point out that this product is about a specific time period in Gloranthan history, in a relatively constrained region. While this product can be used for creating multiple campaigns, the goal of it is to serve as a broad introduction to a place and time where players can sample a relatively pure sample of the setting.

Chapter Two: Creating Characters

This section outlines the standard checklist for character creation in 13th Age, then introduces the differences between the standard game and 13th Age Glorantha. In addition to introducing several tribes of humans, Ducks, and Trolls, there is a detailed description of runes.

Runes replace the Icons from the standard form of 13th Age, with each character having several personal runes that govern how they interact with the world. Unlike the Icon relationships, runes can be triggered to narrate how a particular challenge is overcome, and a roll is made to see if there is a complication. The way the complication is subverted must be in keeping with what the rune governs, and runes generally can’t be used in structured combat situations.

Ducks are people that look like . . . small humanoid ducks. They are associated with fighting the undead, and rumors exist that they were a human tribe that is suffering under a curse of some kind. Trolls are big lumbering monstrous humanoids that live underground, and while they don’t exactly love humans, they hate Chaos, the big primal cosmic force seeking to ruin the universe, so they make alliances in troubling times.

The chapter also mentions that the setting of Glorantha has a whole lot of other beings that could qualify as player character choices, but as an introductory product, the human tribes presented, Ducks, and Trolls all represent some pretty foundational Glorantha lore.

Chapter Two: Running Glorantha

This chapter tackles a lot of topics, most of which relate back to how running 13th Age Glorantha differs from running 13th Age. There are headings for narrating runes, combat rules, gear, heroquest gifts, and how to use traditional 13th Age magic items in a 13th Age Glorantha game.

A lot of the last chapter spent time explaining the most common runes, and this chapter dives into the topic with even more detail. Not only are there examples of narrating runes in a scene and how complications might play out with different runes, runes also play into runic gifts. Runic gifts are magical abilities associated with various runes that an adventurer might acquire for accomplishing important tasks. While the setting may have “normal” magic items, runic gifts fill a similar role for player characters. Runic gifts have similar categories, but with slightly different trappings. For example, the gift of Striking appears across many different runes, but what the secondary powers you may gain from the gift later may be will be flavored by the rune.

Glorantha is a bronze age setting, but most of that is reinforced through narrative, rather than extensive rules for how gear works. This shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone that has seen how equipment works in core 13th Age, but as an example — heavy and light armor is redefined for the setting. No real change in how either category works, just some notes on what each class of armor looks like in context. There is also a feat that you can take that just says you have more advanced iron armor and weapons on your person. No separate rules for how they work, just a feat to say that having advanced iron arms is part of your character concept.

One of my favorite concepts in this chapter is the heroic return. Instead of having magic that raises the dead, anyone can narrate a heroic return. Because the setting is a one that reinforces the mythic, characters might just sneak or fight their way out of the underworld, and find their way back to the land of the living. This gets easier the more heroic they are (or in game terms, at higher levels), but the difficulty of the check increases for each other time the character escaped the clutches of death. It is simple to resolve, and yet very mythic feeling.

There is a discussion of how some of the core 13th Age rules work in the setting, how they change, and how some of those rules should change in the 13th Age core rules as well. In general, I love the conversational tone of 13th Age books, since you never really need to worry about what the designers were thinking or how they expect something to be used. On the other hand, something that amounts to errata is very hard to follow in that same format.

Chapter Three: Classes

This section introduces Glorantha specific 13th Age classes, as well as some classes that get some remodeling to make them fit the setting more accurately. The following classes appear in this section:

  • Berserker
  • Earth Priestess
  • Hell Mother
  • Humakti
  • Orlanthi Warrior
  • Rebel
  • Storm Voice
  • Trickster
  • Wind Lord

Some of these classes look like they might have more direct analogies from 13th Age, but there are a lot of mechanics that go with them that make them a distinct class. Berserkers get lots of god flavored magical powers and effects that trigger on their own special die, for example.

Other classes, like the Rebel, are much more closely aligned to a class from traditional 13th Age. While the Rebel gets several pages of new powers, it is essentially a sneaky warrior that gets some powers to make it more of a skirmisher and less of a thief/assassin.

I’m going to take a few moments and address the Trickster here. It is a very integral Gloranthan concept that Tricksters exist to introduce randomness into the universe because of the blessings of Eurmal. A lot of this class is set up so that you draw damage to yourself instead of your allies, you set up allies to do more damage, and you can heal people that have dropped by begging them to get up. I am at once happy with how they mechanize playing this kind of character, and still not even the least bit enamored of the trope of characters that are accidentally competent.

There is a section at the beginning of the chapter that discusses how easy the various classes are to play, and I think it is worth reading through. My general impression is that the classes that are more complex to play tend to have a few more bells and whistles to them than the complex classes that appear in core 13th Age.

Chapter Four: Enemies

This chapter starts out with a list of existing 13th Age monsters, with notes on how they might be tweaked to represent existing elements of the setting. The remaining monsters are organized by what rune they are associated with. There are some encounter building charts that don’t replace previous versions, but do provide a little more granularity in determining how many monsters should go where for what kind of challenge.

This runic association is both thematic and helps when determining elements of things like heroquests and complications. I would go into some of the creatures outlined, but Glorantha has some very strange and very distinctive monstrous entities. If you like a setting where cultists have extra powers based on the severed heads they carry, there are bears with jack o’ lanterns on their heads, and dragon snails are very much what you would picture them to be from the name, you should probably at least look at what Glorantha has to offer.

Chaos creatures have whole tables of extra features that might be added to the base creature to make it unique. Some of these features make them less effective, some more effective, and some just shift where their strengths and weaknesses are. Chaos creatures can also steal the escalation die. For those unfamiliar with core 13th Age rules, the escalation die is a d6 that counts from 1 to 6 in combat, and goes up each round, allowing the adventurers to add that number to their attacks, representing the momentum that the adventurers have towards victory.

Chapter Six: Campaign World

This chapter has sections for Aspirational Feats, the outline of the default setting of 13th Age Glorantha, and a geography section organized by rune.

Aspirational feats are feats that you take to represent your connection to the setting, such as who your famous ancestor may have been. Each level after you take the feat, you roll to see if the gifts of that feat trigger, however, if you do a specific thing in the campaign, that will also cause the mechanics of the feat to engage. In other words, you are declaring a thing about your character, and if you do a thing in the game that plays towards that declaration, you get a reward.

The period chosen for the game is a time after most of the foundational myths are in place, but in a time that has enough murkiness to it that all kinds of PCs could have done important things, but it won’t seem too odd that they didn’t show up in later Glorantha lore.

The geography section is interesting, because while it gives very brief descriptions of a lot of locations in the Dragon Pass area, the locations are grouped by rune, giving a flavor for the kinds of threats or complications that might arise in stories that take place in that area. It’s a great thematic way to convey information, but it is also a tad confusing when you are still getting used to the runes, and cross referencing the map, the name, and the runic section the description falls under.

Chapter Seven: Heroquests

This section gives a few example heroquests, and provides some structure for how to build them, what kind of rewards they provide, and how to determine if a character just barely completed the quest, or did so in truly, well, heroic fashion.

Heroquests are one of the Glorantha concepts that I love the most coming out of this book. Essentially, mythic actions that have shaped history are super important. Between the mortal realm and the realm of the gods, there is the Hero Plane, where myths resonate. People of Glorantha sometimes enter the Hero Plane to reenact the myths to be strengthened by them, and to gain benefits from them.

The trippy part is that sometimes chaos gets into the Hero Plane, and if they mess with a myth, people forget it, and history may subtly change. Even if regular heroquesters screw up too often reenacting a myth, its importance may fade.

I really love the concept that myths can change over time, and that change can alter how history is viewed. It’s a huge meta-concept made literal in the game world, and as soon as I started reading about it, I wanted to apply it all over the place. But we’ll just look at it in context for now.

Heroquests often come up when a local area has fallen on hard times, and having someone perform the heroquest will provide a boon for the local area. It may be that adventurers are about to do something similar to what a god once did, so to prepare for their enemy, they heroquest to get into the same mindset as the god.

This section has a few way to structure heroquests, including marking the midpoint and ending scene of them, and how to score them to see how well adventurers completed them, which may have both campaign effects, and specifically effects on the kind of heroquest gifts the adventurers receive for completing the quest.

Some heroquests are presented as something characters can do at multiple levels, with scaling challenges, while other heroquests are presented as a big thing that they will only do once, when they have already proven themselves to be among the biggest movers and shakers.

Chapter Eight: Adventures

The adventures section has several example adventures across different level ranges for characters. While it isn’t quite an entire campaign, some of the adventures are more open-ended and can provide more time to advance than others. The adventures are:

  • The Horn of Snakepipe Hollow
  • Duck Point Venture
  • The Epic of Gagix Two-Barb
  • Against the Crimson Bat
  • Ascending with the Eleven Lights

The first adventure presented has the PCs performing a local heroquest for a community, the second involves an open sandbox area with a few key encounters and a few potential heroquests to go on, the third is the culmination of some hints dropped in other adventures, and Against the Crimson Bat is a multi-step adventure that is all geared around climbing onto a monster and defeating a cult living there, then coming back to actually take on the monster as a monster later on, instead of just using it for terrain.

The final adventure is actually an extended series of roleplaying scenes with an organization that doesn’t have the usual perspectives of some of the established groups in the setting, which can make for a contrast, not just to combat focused adventures, but also to the mindset already established in the setting from other adventures.

Sample adventures are one of my favorite ways to see exactly how I am expected to use a product, and by providing a wide range adventures across multiple levels, it feels like the answer is, “there is no right way, but here are a few different angles you can try.”


There is a lot going on in this part of the book. It’s got more notes on adapting core 13th Age classes to the setting, alternate multi-classing rules based on runes, summaries of the major gods, and reprints all some of the more important charts in the book. There are also some size comparison silhouettes for  visualization purposes.

I like all of the summary information in this section, but I have to say, I wish more of the class information had been in the actual class chapter. It feels like it might be easier to transition 13th Age players to Glorantha with more direct conversions than with the newer classes that are very steeped in Glorantha tradition, and it may be easy to forget this section in the back with some of the simpler, if less satisfying, conversions from the base game.

Restoring a Lost Myth

There is a lot to like in this book. Compared to baseline 13th Age, I think I like the rune mechanic better than the Icons mechanics, just because it is flavorful and easier to adjudicate. I am in love with heroquests and the entire concept of the Hero Plane, and I think the implementation of it in this book is great. The idea of heroic returns is something you could easily port to other games, and like the best aspects of the system, is giving simple mechanical resolution to something that drives a more detailed story element. The conversational tone of the rules means that you never have to wonder why something was done in the game.

Runic Complication The best summary I can make for this book is that it is like a starter set, except that instead of providing material for an adventure or three, or taking characters through the first tier of play, it has enough to run several campaigns before expecting the group to look at decades of other products. 

While I love the conversational tone, when using it to address things like updated rules, or even more complicated resolutions, it’s easy to lose track of exactly where you saw something, or how that rule interacts with other rules presented elsewhere. There are times that the thematic presentation of the book may conflict with ease of use, while conveying intent. The geography section springs to mind, but even decisions like separating character creation from classes, and then adding more pertinent class information in the appendix, can be daunting. While it may vary from reader to reader, the digressions on how great elements of the setting are that will not be detailed in this book, and the number of references to the other sources, may make this book feel less satisfying.

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.

The best summary I can make for this book is that it is like a starter set, except that instead of providing material for an adventure or three, or taking characters through the first tier of play, it has enough to run several campaigns before expecting the group to look at decades of other products.

While this product offers a lot to people interested in Glorantha and in 13th Age, people that are more interested in the book for general setting information will probably be able to find better sources. Even with that disclaimer in place, as with most 13th Age products, the insight into game design gives extra value, but you may want to weigh that extra value against 466 pages of material.

Have you seen newer material that introduced you to a long established game or setting? Have you jumped into a setting with a lot of lore for the first time recently? Let us know in the comments below! I’d love to talk with you about your experiences.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Summertime World Building

28 May 2018 - 12:01am

World building for your campaign — whether it is for an ongoing series of adventures or just a few ideas percolating in your noggin — is always a fun exercise. Imagine a world different than ours and consider all the roleplaying possibilities.

Is this going to be a game set in a fanciful, magic-filled ancient world? Is this going to be the far-flung future where tech, blasters and intrigue rule? Is it going to be earth, but viewed with a squinty eye, with a series of alternate events that have shifted history somewhat?

Or maybe it is something else — a new game you’ve purchased that you want to apply to a landscape filled with mystery and unknown lands ripe for exploration?

For many of us, the stumbling block is “the map.” Every fantasy world needs a map, right? Drawing one to your satisfaction, however, might be an iffy proposition.

If you are looking for some options, consider these:

In bookstores now

So the current — that is June 2018 issue — of National Geographic has this double-page spread of “Future Earth.” Basically, a map of what the continents will look like once they’ve drifted back together again sometime 200 million years from now.

The map shows the next supercontinent, Pangaea Proxima. Looks like a great place to set adventures. (New Zealand appears relatively unchanged, however, which is good news for hobbits, I suppose.)

Some of it is pretty cool. I’m particularly taken with the projection that my former home in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina — swampy lowlands of note — will boast the highest point on earth once the North American and African plates collide creating the newest mountain range. And the Atlantic Ocean will become a big lake.

If you are into real estate speculation with a particularly long view, I’d start buying up parts of Antarctica.

Now, keep in mind, it might not be the most pleasant landscape. Earth’s climate gets wonky whenever the continents drift together, essentially creating a single world-ocean. In fact, looking at this map, almost the entire world will be in the equatorial zone. Hot, sticky jungles and fierce deserts. Find some fresh water and settle in as best you can.

Setting all that aside, though, this map is ready to be carved up into feudal kingdoms, or if you are of a sci-fi bent, one-world government districts. And if your players are truly adventurous, you might consider exploring the area that isn’t on this map — that big blue ocean. I wonder what big fishes are out there?

Give ’em the boot

This trick is an oldy, but a goody. Turn that atlas page on it is side. Abracadabra, alakazam, it’s a continent-sized “world” map worthy of setting your fantasy world.

I’m particularly fond of the boot of Italy and Sicily as a playground for world building. The north coast of Africa can serve as the exploration touchstone of your “new world” across that narrow sea while the length of Italy can be your “old world.” Just change the scale and set the equator somewhere and you are good to go. Just remember, that’s a continent-sized landmass you’re staring at, not one of the great nations of Europe.

The beauty of this is you’ve got mountains, rivers and coastlines perfectly and sensibly arranged, leaving you with the fun part of making up nations, histories and adventuring locales. And because there is an ocean, you’ve got pirates. Every setting needs pirates. (Well, maybe not every setting, but most of them …)

Beware the barbarian invaders of the north islands (Corsica and Sardinia), I’m sure they are a proud, fierce people with swift boats who love to raid the mainland. Or maybe the twin islands are a land of dwarves and elves being exploited by the mainland? Or maybe giants and dragons live there and they generally eat any visitors? It’s up to you.

The other bonus of using a map like this? Place names. Maybe not all of them, and not in the exact location as their real world counterpart. But if you’re at a loss for finding a suitable name for a point on your map, well, you can do worse than the range of names on this map. In the four corners you’ve got Hammamet, Epipal, Levice and Copyright Rand McNally and Co., Surely, at least one of those is serviceable. And, there’s a ton more in between.

Ice, ice baby

I would be remiss if I didn’t suggest a map by Martin Vargic (JaySimons on, a Slovak artist who does jaw-dropping cartography.

My recommendation? The World – Ice Age, a global map showing expanded coastlines from about 14,000 BCE. For my money, it’s worth it to see northern Europe, the British Isles connected by Doggerland to the mainland, and the hop-skip-and-jump from Iceland, Greenland and North America.

Run this without mile-high glaciers (or do, if adventures beyond “The Wall” are your thing) and this has all sorts of amazing potential. New kingdoms, new ambitions, new religions. Maybe the Nordic sagas are the predominant faith? Or the beliefs of the North American eastern tribes? So many possibilities, so many adventures.

Another great locale on this map? The Sahara dotted by fertile lands and fresh-water lakes. Imagine the possibilities of such a landscape as the hub of African peoples, cultures from so many rich traditions and ages mingling and co-existing.

Other “new lands” your players will be eager to explore? How about the land bridges? There are lands connecting Australia to southeast Asia, Russia to Alaska and Japan to the Korean peninsula. And though there are gaps, the Caribbean Islands are much closer to Florida, Yucatan peninsula, Cuba and the Bahamas, which have beefier coastlines.

The beauty of maps like these for exploration games is that “things aren’t as they ‘should’ be” — but close enough to our present reality to be recognizable and still contain a sense of mystery.

And a map like this works for any type of game — not just one set in an ice age. A world of the near-future or even far-future works equally well, especially if you form new nations and new superpowers from what the map provides. Queensland, using the area around “Lake Carpentaria” as a base, could be the world’s new superpower. You never know.

Credits: “Future Earth,” National Geographic magazine, June 6, 2018 issue. “Italy,” Reader’s Digest Wide World Atlas, fourth printing, July 1984. The World-Ice Age, JaySimons, and


Categories: Game Theory & Design