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The Gaming Blog
Updated: 3 hours 41 min ago

Pride, Ego, and Game Creation

16 April 2018 - 5:28am
“I have written 11 books but each time I think ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’” —Maya Angelou Creating is an act of bringing a piece of your dreams into the real world to live its own life. Letting other people […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Inclusion and the Game Retail Experience

13 April 2018 - 5:00am
Today’s Gnome Stew article is co-authored by Camdon Wright and Wendelyn Reischl. Both are role players with experience spanning multiple decades. Wendelyn and Camdon are game masters, game creators, and well known participants in the gaming community. This article is co-written because they shared the refreshing experience at the heart of the matter. Headings below […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Conventions Are My Favorite Laboratory, Part Two

11 April 2018 - 5:00am
In my last article, I mentioned how, in recent years, I’ve been playing various Apocalypse World-derived games at my local convention, and how this gives me the opportunity to look at the differences in these systems and how that helps to enforce different genres and tones between them. I tackled the first half of the […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Conventions Are My Favorite Laboratory, Part One

9 April 2018 - 5:00am
For the last few years at my local convention, I’ve been running multiple sessions of games that are derived from the original format established by Apocalypse World. If you aren’t familiar with the game, it is a highly narrative game where you map the described actions of a player character to a move. Once that […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #37 – Sentinels and Superhero RPGs

5 April 2018 - 5:34am
Join Ang, Jared, and Chris in this super new episode of Gnomecast as they discuss Jared’s “Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Starter Kit Review” on Gnome Stew and superhero RPGs in general. Will these gnomes’ superpowers be enough to keep them out of the stew this week? Download here: Gnomecast #37 – Sentinels and Superhero RPGs […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Top (Around) 30 Articles, 2018

4 April 2018 - 6:00am
A while back I noticed that the Top 30 Articles page was getting pretty long in the tooth (9 years old next month!). I brought it up with the rest of the gnomes and I guess that was code for “Hey guys! I’m volunteering to compile a new Top 30 Articles Article!” Several months of […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Star Wars Dawn of Rebellion Review

3 April 2018 - 5:00am
Depending on who you talk to, recent Star Wars media has produced some mass market offerings that have firmly embraced the type of story near and dear to the heart of many longtime Star Wars roleplaying fans. Both Star Wars Rebels and Rogue One show Rebel operatives fighting against the Galactic Empire in stories that […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast Bonus Episode – The Search for 21

1 April 2018 - 5:34am
Join a whole stewpotful of gnomes for this very special episode of Gnomecast as dark mysteries are uncovered and secret truths are revealed. Is there anything that can keep our intrepid gnomes out of the stew this time? Download here: Gnomecast Bonus Episode – The Search for 21 Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Dear Me, Don’t Let Them Keep You Out

30 March 2018 - 2:00am
This week at the Stew, some of us were inspired by a series of disparate recent events to send some love and sentiments out to young gamers, especially those who are marginalized. We wrote these letters to our younger selves, because in you, we see ourselves, and we hope that we can give you the […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

An Open Letter About Making Gaming Work for You (and building your strengths through role play)

29 March 2018 - 5:00am
This week at the Stew, some of us were inspired by a series of disparate recent events to send some love and sentiments out to young gamers, especially those who are marginalized. We wrote these letters to our younger selves, because in you, we see ourselves, and we hope that we can give you the […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

A Letter To Little Kira: You Don’t Have to

28 March 2018 - 6:00am
This week at the Stew, some of us were inspired by a series of disparate recent events to send some love and sentiments out to young gamers, especially those who are marginalized. We wrote these letters to our younger selves, because in you, we see ourselves, and we hope that we can give you the […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

An Open Letter to My Impostor Syndrome (Maybe It Will Help You Too)

26 March 2018 - 5:23am

This week at the Stew, some of us were inspired by a series of disparate recent events to send some love and sentiments out to young gamers, especially those who are marginalized. We wrote these letters to our younger selves, because in you, we see ourselves, and we hope that we can give you the words of encouragement we needed to hear. You are welcome in this space. 

Dear little Senda,

There’s a trick to it, not letting it get to you. We’ve internalized it so much already—all the stereotypes that tell us we aren’t the people who play games, who run games, who write games, who work in this industry. I’m not saying I’ve got this down pat now, because the impostor syndrome still gets me. The trick is, as hard as it is, to do it anyway. And when you do it, you prove to that little voice you can, and it gets easier every time. The trick is, as hard as it is, to do it anyway. And when you do it, you prove to that little voice you can, and it gets easier every time. 

It’s Okay To Love Your Games

Okay, past me. You love games and you know you do, and you do that thing where you admit it grudgingly, laughingly downplaying your passion so that others won’t be uncomfortable. You say things like “oh, I’m just a player. I can’t imagine running a game.” I have some news for you. You can run a game. Your ideas are good, and people like them. It’s okay not to know every single rule in the book backwards and forwards. You don’t need to. These are your friends. You can craft this experience together. You will help each other out. When you don’t know, it’s okay to ask – even if you’re running the game – whether it’s grapple rules or what to name this NPC. No matter how it may seem from the outside, GMing is a set of skills (some people would say eight but I’m not committing) that is completely learnable and teachable. There is no magical master GM springing forth fully formed from Zeus’s head. They are not some rare breed. There is a game that will work for you, that you will enjoy running, and it’s out there—and you can do it!

I know you tried running D&D, and then Pathfinder, and it didn’t really work for you. It made you nervous, flustered, feeling like you couldn’t track all the moving parts of your carefully constructed adventure. That’s totally okay, although once you can let go of your players having to follow your exact path, it will become easy to run nearly anything. Sure, knowing the rules helps keep things smoother at the table, but it’s your ability to have a story, to think like water (allowing it to move and shift so you are never at a loss) that makes running anything possible. Heck, here we are, ten years later, having run a 4e campaign without ever having read the book whatsoever. And that game was awesome. Don’t let it hold you back.

What will make running a game fun and comfortable for you?

  • Appropriate prep
  • Comfortable genre
  • Giving yourself permission to stray from your plans or the module if occasion calls for it
  • Playing with people who know the rules when you feel comfortable asking
And There’s More

And now . . . it’s not just that I believe in you to run games. I know you can. With a little bit of chutzpah to get over that initial hump, to get that first good game going and the energy clicking at the table, I know you will be hooked. Now I know you are saying “I just play games. I run them too, but I don’t know enough to write them.” Except . . . you do.

Shakily, with not very much confidence right now, like a new foal. To build confidence, the foal uses its legs more, and learns to walk. To build confidence, you can start with little games, or commenting on games you play, or internalizing their mechanics and seeing why they’re there, what the designer put them there to do. And having seen why something is there, looking in to that next layer, you can do this too.  Sometimes, no matter how much you know and how much you’ve done and how involved you are, someone is going to ask you if you have a right to be there. You can talk through why something works and why it doesn’t. You can learn this language—you have been learning this language, without even meaning to. And now, you can write games too. It’s just the same, a little bit of determination to get over that first hump, just like GMing. A little bit of bravery. I believe in you, and now it’s your turn to believe in yourself too.

You Belong Here

Sometimes, no matter how much you know and how much you’ve done and how involved you are, someone is going to ask you if you have a right to be there. They won’t say that exactly, they’ll say something like “What games do you run?” or “What games have you written?” or “How long have you been playing RPGs?” And they’re saying it because they’re trying to decide if they think you have enough cred for them to care about your opinion. It doesn’t matter how many games you’ve played. It doesn’t matter how many games you’ve run. It doesn’t matter how many games you’ve written or if they’re published or not. You have the right to be here. You do belong here. This is your space too. And when they ask you those questions, my friend Kate from Blue Stockings has some suggestions you can use to prepare yourself with appropriate responses, because it can be really hard to think in those moments.

  • Return the question—ask them their qualifications.
  • Point out what they are doing: “Why do you need my credentials? Are you asking how important my opinion is?”
  • Walk away.  Sometimes, these people are not worth engaging. You do not have to defend yourself and your passion to these people. You are worthy and you do get to be in this space as well. And you are worthy of safety and comfort in your games and at your tables.

Sometimes it’s not other people, though. Sometimes you cred check yourself before anyone else even has a chance. You already know what they’ll say, and it’s the same every time: you don’t have enough experience to do this, you don’t know this well enough, you haven’t practiced enough, you’re not prepared. You are your own worst critic. This is the part where you have to take a deep breath, trust yourself, and leap. The worst case scenarios are not as bad as your head would like you to believe, and even if it doesn’t come out the way you envisioned, it’s still okay. It’s still a triumph because you did it. It’s still a stepping stone. It’s still creation, it’s still passion, it’s still forward momentum. So take it. Don’t let yourself hold you back from being passionate and creative in the activities that make you passionate and creative.

There is one last thing I want you to remember. You can make a difference. By existing in these spaces and supporting each other, we’re all making a difference. And we can tell the next people how worthy they are, and that their passion is valid, so that they can tell the next, and the next. And we can all belong in this space, together.

Have you ever cred checked yourself, as in, nah, I can’t do that I’m not x enough? Has anyone ever cred checked you? Do you have any other recommendations for dealing with it?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #36 – GMing Difficult Decisions

22 March 2018 - 5:34am

It’s an easy decision to listen to this podcast, but not all decisions are that easy! Join Ang, Phil, and Senda on this episode of the Gnomecast as they discuss Senda’s Gnome Stew article “Difficult Decisions in Your Game.”

Download here: Gnomecast #36 – GMing Difficult Decisions

Keep up with the Gnome Stew blog at, on Twitter at @gnomestew, or on the Gnome Stew Facebook page.

Catch Phil and Senda on their podcast Panda’s Talking Games! Or catch Phil on the Misdirected Mark Podcast and Senda on She’s a Super Geek.

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

Follow Phil on Twitter at @DNAphil.

Follow Senda on Twitter at @IdellaMithlynnd.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Why Polyhedral Dice On A Deck Of Cards Will Never Work… Or Will They?

21 March 2018 - 6:00am

A few months back, I was reading a post over on Tenkar’s Tavern about one of Tenkar’s most/least favorite topics and I discovered a link to a kickstarter I had missed from back in 2015 (funded, but still unfulfilled from what I gather). It was for “Deck Dice” – a standard deck of playing cards that also act as a full set of polyhedral dice. I had two initial thoughts on this:

  • That’s super cool!
  • Too bad it will never work

So why did I think this concept would never work? Well, it boils down to the math. In order to properly simulate a polyhedral die, you need to have a randomizer with an even multiple of the number of sides of the die. So to simulate a d4 properly, for example, you need a deck with a number of cards that’s a multiple of 4. In order to do this for an entire set of polyhedral dice, you need to have a number of cards that’s a multiple of the Least Common Multiple of 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20. If you can’t remember how to find that off the top of your head and don’t want to look it up, you have to find the product of the largest group of like factors across all the dice, which ends up being 2x2x2x3x5=120. So the only way to perfectly simulate an entire set of polyhedral dice with a deck of cards is to have 120 cards.

There are some ways around this, but each has its own issues or quirks:

  • You can just get sort of close: put the numbers 1-20 on the deck twice, and then include 14 random numbers from 1-20 to fill out the other cards for example, but that’s not going to give you a very good distribution and you have to choose the distribution you’re going to create. Do you favor odds? Evens? High numbers? Low numbers? High and low numbers? Middle numbers? No matter what you choose here, you’re making a problem for someone.
  • You can leave some die values off of some cards: 54 isn’t a perfect multiple of 8, for example, but 48 is. So, you could put the numbers 1-8 on the deck 6 times and then have 6 cards with no d8 value. What do you do if you need a d8 and the card you draw doesn’t have a d8 value on it? You keep flipping. Not so bad with that d8. 11% of cards wouldn’t have a d8. But for a d20, 26% of cards will be missing values.
  • You can use multiple draws to build results, just like we do with d100s: 54 is divisible by 2 and 3, so all dice except the d10 and d20 can be built perfectly this way. Flip 2 cards, and you’ll always have a perfect d4 or d6 roll. 3 flips will give you a perfect d8 or d12. D10s and 20s still don’t work though. And who wants to flip 2-3 cards for every die roll?
  • You can add some extra cards: a few extra cards will create different sets of factors to work with. but few of them work very well until you add 6 extra cards. That brings the deck up to 60 cards, which perfectly models all dice except the d8. But it also means that the deck of cards is now no longer a standard set of cards, which means you’ve lost whatever functionality you were hoping to achieve by having your dice on a standard deck of cards in the first place.
  • You could use two decks of cards: This nets you 108 cards instead of 54, which means the 4, 6, and 12 all work perfectly, but personally I would never go this route. Why? Because if you have to go up to two decks to get a good distribution, that means you’re NOT getting a good distribution from a single deck. And it doesn’t matter where or how clearly you point out that you need to use all 108 cards to get the right distribution, someone somewhere is going to miss or ignore that, use only one of the two decks and then complain because the distribution isn’t right.
  • You can mix and match parts of several of these methods: You could for example leave some die values off some cards, for 4s, 6s, 8s, 10s, and 12s, and then for 20s you flip till you get a d10 value, then flip again and add 10 if the second flip is red. There are plenty of ways to do this, some better than others.

The kickstarter that Tenkar had referenced combined two methods. First, they added 6 extra cards to a deck and they used two decks. That gave them 120 total cards, allowing them to perfectly simulate all types of polyhedral dice. Which is excellent. But it made the decks completely useless as an actual deck of cards, so what was the whole point of the product? And then you still have the “using only one of two decks” issue, although in this case, as long as each individual deck of 60 has a complete distribution of 4s, 6s, 10s, 12s, and 20s, at least only the d8 suffers for it, and not that badly.

Click for larger image

But, after kicking it about a little, I think I have a better solution: make all the cards symmetrical, so it’s impossible to tell when it’s right side up and then put different rolls on the left and right side of the card, thus which side of the card is up when you draw it will give you different results. 108 cards means that only 4 or 8 blanks need to be left in for any given die, and since each card has two rolls on it, that’s 2 or 4 cards. Here’s what a sample card might look like:

So what’s all that extra junk at the top and bottom? Well, I had some leftover space, So I added a bunch of other fun stuff. There’s a generic fantasy class (Healer, Rogue,Warrior, Wizard) , a generic fantasy race attribute (Adaptable, Clever, Magical, Nimble, Savage, Sturdy), a general level (High, Mid, and Low), a reaction (30% Friendly, 40% Neutral, and 30% Hostile), a gender (M,F, ~2%Non-binary), a little rainbow symbol(~15%), and a random dungeon room.

So, there you have it. There’s my attempt at how I would make a set of Polyhedral dice cards, and as a bonus, it only took me about a month and a half – and everyone can download a free printable PDF below! On the other hand, the art is absolute crap, there are no faces on the face cards, and there’s no back, so you get what you pay for.

Of course, I could always scrounge up a few hundred bucks for some pro layout assistance and art, fund it with my own kickstarter and put it up in a print on demand venue. Anyone have opinions and feedback while I mull that one over? Don’t be shy.

Click on this image to download the PDF Prototype

P.S. If you find the concept of dice on a deck of cards interesting, here are a couple other ones that are available. If you know of any others, put a link in the comments.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Let’s Meet in a Tavern

19 March 2018 - 3:00am

So, the household’s budding roleplayer, a sixth-grader, asked innocently — and insightfully — enough about this trope: “Why start in a tavern?”

Fair enough question, considering he’s never been in a tavern, let alone one catering to adventurers. But even as a young gamer, he’s already challenging some of roleplaying’s conventional aspects. I hope he applies such critical thinking skills to math and science, too, but that’s for another day.  

(As an aside, I can attest to the fact that I had been in plenty of taverns by the time I was his age. They were tame establishments, to be sure, but they had a bar, and we were there because they had a special on family-style chicken or offered fish’n’fries on a Friday night.  It was a different era then. My home village didn’t have fast-food restaurants — but it had taverns.  I mean, if you don’t expose your kids to drinking and smoking at a young age, how will they ever learn?)

So, the sixth-grader is persistent: “Why a tavern? Is that where you learn about the adventure?”

No, I said. Hopefully, your party already has a lead on a good adventure location by the time you get to the tavern.  I mean, if you’re waiting for the bard performing by the fireplace to drop hints about where you should go next, the chances are the dungeon is cleaned out already.

“I don’t get it.”

“So this is how it works,” I start to say, posturing as a member of the Old Guard of Gamers. I’m about to explain how things are done, but passing it off as supposed wisdom. This is one of the things I can do, now that I have an AARP card.

Your party has its location. Maybe it’s a map. Maybe some crafty old wizard has tricked you into going after a magic item she needs. Maybe the uncle of some friend’s cousin has begged you to search for an heirloom.

Then you look across the table at your fellow adventurers, and you take the measure of each other.

“I’m a Dragonborn Ranger,” he says.

That’s a given, I reply.  What about the others?

“Well, there’s a rogue and a sorcerer.”

So, what’s missing?

“Cleric, for certain. Maybe an archer. But if we get healing cures and if the rogue can handle a bow and check for traps, we might be OK.”

Well, I say, you are thinking like a gamer. You know you need healing and a ranged combatant, so long as you feel your dragonborn ranger is up to the task of being a front-line fighter.


But I want you to think, instead, like an adventurer. It’s the middle ages — or some fantasy equivalent. Times are tough. Life is difficult and brutally short. You’re going into a dungeon. You have an inkling as to the types of monsters that might be lurking there. But it’s underground. Dangerous place. And there’s just the three of you.

“Three PCs can handle most monsters with the right challenge rating …”

Adventurer … not gamer. Think adventurer.

He pauses, considering.

“We’re gonna need more people.”

Yes, indeed. Hirelings. Spend your money on useful people instead of some overpriced, one-trick wondrous item. Hirelings come with a range of skills. And because they’re being paid — or request a share of the treasure — they’ll do what you ask, mostly. You won’t ask a torchbearer to fight like a man-at-arms, but that’s what mercenaries are for. And if your party doesn’t have a full-blown priest, maybe a fledgling acolyte at the monastery has a hankering to get out and explore after being cloistered away for a few years.

“Where do you get hirelings?”

Not to cast any aspersions on their motives or lifestyles, where do you think hirelings might hang out?


Bingo. At least the ones that are trained to fight. Other experts might be found at guildhalls. Those are private meeting halls for member craftsmen. I presume alcoholic beverages are served during guild meetings, but maybe it’s tea, soda and coffee like at my guild meetings. Worthwhile scouts might be found at cheap inns or bunk houses. Pack handlers, teamsters and lackeys also come in handy. Again, check the village inn. But you get the idea.

“So these guys take care of all the other stuff …”

So you can focus on adventuring … and slaying monsters.

“So, anything else happen at the tavern?”

Well, you get to know these NPCs, and the new players roll up any PCs if they need them, cultivate any of their character’s roleplaying hooks and introduce themselves to the other players. Then they plan for how everyone is going to be deployed in advance, that way there is a standard procedure and we can focus on adventuring once we start delving. I think the new gamers call it “Session Zero,” but in my day, it was just “You meet in a tavern.”


There is a moment of silence as the sixth grader ponders this long-standing rpg tradition.  

“So how about keeping track of all the gear and weapons they have to carry?”

That’s encumbrance, and that’s a whole ’nother blog post …




Categories: Game Theory & Design

Mashups & Conceptual Writing In Roleplaying Games Pt. 2

16 March 2018 - 5:00am

Featured image is of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, sourced from The Poetry Foundation.
You can find the first part of this article posted here.

I’ve found myself more and more intrigued with single player roleplaying games. The Beast by Alek­san­dra Son­towska and Kamil Węgrzynow­icz is an unsettling erotic game for one player where you answer daily prompts in a journal, detailing a sordid relationship with a monster. A Real Game by Caitlynn Belle is an interrogation of body, self, and the idea of a Game that also includes introspection on prompts give as the game progresses. Even games that are meant to be played with others can be repurposed into a single player experience. Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year is a fascinating game about a community rebuilding after a devastating war. The game plays one “week” at a time with players answering prompts on drawn cards and then creating a shared map of the environment. I’ve been engaging in a fantastic reimagining of The Quiet Year as a solo experience, pulling one card at a time over the course of many, many weeks. You can hear the entire game on the podcast From The Jackals To The Shepherds if you are interested.  The poem had taken my story in its jaws, literally one hundred years after it had been published, and run feral with it into the woods. 

With all of these single player games using prompts as game mechanics the opportunity presents itself to create a mashup of play itself. Taken as written, the rules ask you to answer the prompts, with the assumption that you are composing your answers alone (or with others in a live environment like The Quiet Year). However, if you were interested in transforming this structure, I’d encourage you to look into Conceptual Writing, a genre adjacent to fanfiction. Conceptual Writing is interested in teasing apart our assumptions on ownership and authorship, how we frame and contextualize art, and where art does and does not belong. The specific approach I’ve found interesting recently is the capture, repurposing, and mashup of poetry and roleplaying games.

One of the Agendas, driving instructions to all players, of Monsterhearts, is to “Keep the story feral”. This is a piece of advice that I like to carry over into every game I play. Keeping it feral means that the fiction is alive, unpredictable. A story becomes feral because we can’t read our friends minds at the table, and the game encourages you to keep things messy, to recombine ideas, and to play off of each other, with the abrasions between everyone’s personal story drives producing the most interesting play. With that in mind it might seem difficult or impossible to have a feral single player game. You know everything in your own mind. At that point, is it feral play or is it fiction composition? By embracing conceptual writing techniques and repurposing text you create a single player experience in discovery writing that can get close to feral stories.

In my single player, year-long game of The Quiet Year, I had an idea one week. I would pull in quotes of poetry and weave them into the prose of my narration. It started as a way to flower up my descriptions, pulling natural imagery from the works of Wordsworth or Blake was a way to emphasize the pastoral image of a small community rebuilding. It became a way to develop plots, assign characters themes & motifs, and surprise even myself while writing. In one session, I pulled a poem called “Renascence”, by poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. I pulled the poem at first because of its natural imagery, the repetition of the phrase “three long mountains and a wood” perfect for the moody forest environment the community found itself. But the more I wove the poem into the prompt for the week, the more it took up the labor of moving the story forward. As the poem’s speaker narrated for me, I wove the verse and the events of the story into my journaling of that week’s prompt.

In “Renascence”, the poem’s speaker falls into a disturbing examination of the self & its position in the world. They confront immediacy and eternity, walking between life and death, sinking into the very earth itself. The underlying plot to this point had been trying to hide horrible forest spirits from the community, trying to navigate arcane rituals to prevent a cycle of destruction, keeping ourselves safe in our new environment. “Renascence” pushed all of those together, culminating in one of the recurring characters in the community finding herself above the world and apart from it, transcending into the forest itself and reincarnating with a terrible revelation.

Repurpose old pages, favorite passages, unread chapters

I had not read “Renascence” before starting to work it into my log for that week. I was caught off-guard by the new direction it had given my story. The poem had taken my story in its jaws, literally one hundred years after it had been published, and run feral with it into the woods. Edna St. Vincent Millay died in 1950 but she had become an integral part of my play. I had adapted and transformed her poem and her words had transformed my narrative.

Repurposing text is only one example of the various techniques under the umbrella of conceptual writing. Blackout poetry, where the poet takes a longer text and obscures portions, leaving the uncovered text to create something new, is another popular example. Constrained writing, where the author places rules on what may or may not be allowed in composition is another popular practice. I encourage you to play with existing text, re-examine some of your favorite poems or song lyrics, and create something new by engaging in past art in a way that changes how you see the art as well as impacting the games you play.

If you do, I want to hear all about it.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Future of Pathfinder Seminar from Gary Con 2018–An Overview

15 March 2018 - 5:00am

The original Pathfinder roleplaying game beta launched at Gen Con in 2008. At the time, I was one of the volunteers for the brand-new Pathfinder Society, and attended the “Future of Pathfinder” seminar held that year. Now, in 2018, I was at Gary Con, when it became clear that the “Future of Pathfinder” event being held there was going to be a seminar on the direction of the 2nd edition of the Pathfinder roleplaying game. It seemed fitting to attend.

The event was hosted by Paizo Senior Designer Stephen Radney-MacFarland and Paizo Director of Game Design Jason Bulmahn. This was a two-hour seminar, which was about half presentation, half question and answer. The summarized information on the design directions of Pathfinder 2nd Edition is organized into broad themes that developed from the discussion, rather than being presented in the chronological order in which the information was presented.

The Look of Future Products

Wayne Reynolds, the artist that worked on the original Pathfinder core rulebook, as well as many other products, will be returning to detail key images for Pathfinder 2nd Edition. Paizo has often used named iconic characters to illustrate various classes, as well as using them as the “stand in” adventurers for illustrations in adventures. There were a few details given about the iconics going forward.

  • Seoni, the iconic sorcerer character, will have a redesign that will be “less salacious,” but will highlight her signature tattoos more prominently
  • Characters like Valeros and Harsk will be given different gear to highlight how new class features work (for example, Harsk has two axes and Valeros will be carrying a shield)
  • An iconic goblin alchemist is being added to the core lineup, to highlight that both goblins and alchemists will be in the core rulebook
Playtest Schedule and Products

The playtest will start in August of 2018, at Gen Con. A PDF of the rules will be made available, as will a PDF of a playtest adventure, and a PDF with a selection of monsters available, which will not be included in the playtest rulebook. The playtest document will be similar in size to the 2008 playtest for 1st edition Pathfinder.

  • There will be pre-orders for soft-cover, hard-cover, and commemorative leather-bound copies of the rules, as well as physical copies of the adventure and map sheets specifically highlighting locations in the adventure
  • The adventure will have specific surveys asking directed questions about the parts of the game highlighted in various sections, to make feedback more directly actionable
  • There will be further playtest adventures as the playtest continues, with their own surveys
  • The playtest timeline will assume play of a specific section, and will move on to a new section approximately every two weeks
  • Each section of the starting adventure is predicted to take about 6-8 hours to complete
Guiding Principles of Design

Both presenters mentioned that it is very important to Paizo to capture the proper feel for the game, and for it to meet the expectations that players already have for the game. They mentioned cases where the game is not intuitive in its design, such as with skill points or in some sub-systems that only affect certain classes. All the classes and what were previously known as races will be in the core 2nd edition rulebook, with the addition of goblins and alchemists, due to their popularity.

They noted that many players enjoy the system mastery elements of a more complex system, so their goal is to design a game that is complex, but logical, where multiple systems work in a similar fashion, while still allowing players to enjoy building characters based on “corner cases.”

Core Rules and Resolution

The core gameplay experience of the game will still be the same, with characters taking actions and resolving those actions by rolling a d20 and adding a bonus to measure against a difficulty number, but the way actions work, as well as the range of bonuses and difficulties, will be changing.

  • Instead of having a move action or a standard action, characters will now have three actions they can take per round, to do any action they wish, although repeated attacks with have penalties
  • All characters will have a reaction, which may trigger under different circumstances and do different things, based on class
  • Some characters may have multiple reactions that they may set up by taking a specific type of action on their turn
  • Difficulties and armor classes will have their ranges shifted to a different range of numbers—it was specifically noted that a wizard with some armor bonus would still have a statistically relevant benefit from that bonus within the new range, which is not currently the state of the game at higher levels of play
Modes of Play

The game was stated to always have multiple modes of play, but the new edition with quantify those different modes of play with different rules to support them, and to give the GM more guidance in how to move between them. In addition to the modes of play, a bit more time was spent discussing structured encounters and initiative resolution.

Encounter mode will be in structured time, with rounds that take approximately six-second intervals, and characters keeping track of initiative order. Exploration mode will be any time where characters are taking more specific action, investigating, and moving, but not in a manner that requires strict turn order. It was stated that the GM has more freedom to state time intervals based on the requirements of the adventure in exploration mode. Downtime mode is the time between adventures, where adventurers state the way they spend this time and various kinds of training and crafting that they might engage with.

  • Some critical social encounters may be run in encounter mode, with an initiative order
  • Initiative is now primarily determined by perception, which is a score which all characters have and is no longer a class-specific skill
  • Depending on what the character was doing in exploration mode, they may use different skills to determine initiative (such as a rogue that is scouting using stealth as initiative, or a bard using perform when they attempt to assassinate a noble at a gala)
  • The core rulebook may give a suggested amount of downtime to award at each level, and specific adventures may call out specifically expected downtime allotments as well
  • One downtime activity will be retraining, so that characters are not permanently locked into the decisions that they have made at a particular level
  • One reason for increasing the importance of downtime is to alleviate the feeling that characters go from low-level characters to being among the most powerful adventurers in the world in a few months’ time
Classes, Ancestries, and Character Creation

At the seminar, it was stated that both the witch and the oracle nearly made it into the core book, but the alchemist was added so that the alchemy rules could be added as rules that anyone can interact with, not just members of that class. Alchemical items will scale over levels, and the alchemist will be using their own system instead of defining their abilities in terms of spells. Alchemists will still have bombs and mutagens as other abilities are added to them.

Races will now be referred to as ancestries, and goblins will be added to the list of core ancestries. It is noted that player character goblins will most likely be outcasts from goblin society, so that the core concepts of goblins as monsters do not change.

Character creation was stated as following ABC, picking ancestry, background, and class. Backgrounds will be replacing the trait system that was previously introduced in Pathfinder products, and in addition to backgrounds in the core rulebook, there may be adventure path specific backgrounds available to tie a character more closely to a storyline.

  • Archetypes will still be part of the game, and there will be archetypes introduced from the start
  • When asked about multi-classing, the response indicated that you would be able to get “things” from other classes—the importance of sticking to a theme instead of cherry picking rules elements was mentioned
  • Background will grant a specific Lore, which is similar to a specialized knowledge skill, such as Lore—Alcohol being granted to a character with barkeep as a background
  • Classes will have abilities that highlight what they do—specific examples given were that spellcasters will be impressive on their own turn when casting spells, rogues will have surges of damage dealing, and fighters will be able to “lock down” opponents

When discussing gear, a “dent system” was brought up. Shields are specifically being designed to take damage and to be more disposable, but also more functional. The dent system is not likely to interact with all gear, but only gear that might have specific rules interactions outside of a single purpose. The encumbrance system is also going to be reworked to measure bulk, and to be more directly based on the strength score, rather than a separate chart.

  • One of the previously mentioned actions that might “load” a specific kind of reaction is readying a shield to absorb damage as part of a reaction
  • The encumbrance system was mentioned as being similar in concept to how the topic is handled in Starfinder
  • The terms “light bulk” and “heavy bulk” were used, but not further examined
  • In some circumstances, a character may have “signature gear” that they choose which can level up with them
  • Some downtime activity may relate to repairing “dented” items

Skill point calculation was stated as being one of the most complex aspects of the game, and one of the least intuitive to process. A future blog post on Paizo’s site will be dealing with the skill system in more detail, but skill points are “kind of” gone.

  • Still a limited range of skills to pick for starting characters
  • Characters will likely pick some skills to have access to them, and pick other skills that they want to improve over time
Spells and Spellcasting

There was a broad discussion of some aspects of spellcasting, and the role that spellcasters play in the campaign. Questions were asked about whether the game addresses the usefulness of spellcasters versus non-spellcasting classes, as well as how spellcasting will specifically work.

  • Cantrips will be more broadly useful across the life of the character
  • Shield is a cantrip, and can be “loaded” for a reaction in a manner like physical shields, and can react to magic missiles
  • Most spells will cost two actions to cast—they may get an extra boost to power if another action is added, and some will only cost one action to cast
  • Spellcasting actions are related to what is currently listed as spell components—if a spell has a verbal and somatic component, it will take a verbal action and a somatic action to cast
  • The intent is to make spellcasters “cool on their turn,” then let the spotlight move
  • Some changes will be made so that spellcasters have limited ability to encroach on the niche of other classes outside of their turn in combat

The game will aim to make monsters easier to create on the fly, and to make the underlying math simpler. Examples of what a monster should have for stats at various levels will be given, as well as adjustments based on the creature’s role (for example, making a monster that is hard to hit, but goes down quickly, and how those stats should be adjusted).

Monsters will have unique reactions native to them. For example, if fire magic is used near a red dragon, they may use a reaction to control the fire magic. Jason Bulmahn also stated that he created a reaction on the fly in a game where a serpent creature received a reaction to strike anyone moving next to it regardless of turn order, because it felt appropriate to the creature. The goal is to create monster reactions that will be logical for the monsters, but will make them fresh and surprising to use in a game.

Influences It will be interesting to see what problems are isolated as the most important to address, and what the solutions to those problems might be. 

During the question and answer portion of the presentation, a question was asked about games that may have been an influence on the design direction of the new game rules. It was stated that the team looked at many games, not just roleplaying games, to help develop their direction. They also did not look at any game for rules inspirations, but for ideas on what problems they were addressing and how they handled elements like narrative structure or rules presentation.

Some specific games were mentioned, including the following:

  • Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition was not an influence, beyond seeing what problems were being addressed in that game and where similar problems overlap with Pathfinder, but they are aware of the game and interested in solving those problems in their own way
  • Stephen Radney-MacFarland mentioned being a fan of Shadow of the Demon Lord and friends with Robert Schwalb
  • The original white box edition of Dungeons and Dragons was mentioned as a source that the team consulted as they developed design goals
  • Magic the Gathering was stated as a game to look at for how to present rules and rules interactions
  • Historical miniatures games were also cited as something the team looked at, analyzing rules and how the various games resolved combat and movement
  • Tales from the Loop and Star Trek Adventures were both mentioned as games that the team looked at to see how they utilized narrative structures

In the next year, there should be ample opportunity to participate in the playtest and have the chance to shape the game going forward. It will be interesting to see what problems are isolated as the most important to address, and what the solutions to those problems might be.

Now that you’ve seen the roadmap that Paizo is following in this new edition of Pathfinder, what do you think? I’d love to hear from you, and if you are going to follow along with the playtest, participate, or wait for more news. If you left the game, are you going to come back? Looking to check it out for the first time? Let me know in the comments below, and thanks!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Yes, And; No, But

14 March 2018 - 5:30am

In writing fiction, a popular concept to make things harder on your main character is a concept called, “Yes, but; No, and.” At a high level, you present a character with a challenge and then ask the ever-important question of, “Did the character succeed?” If the answer is “yes” on the first challenge, you have a very short story. However, if you answer, “Yes, but…,” and add a complication to the story, the tale continues and become much more interesting. To really crank up the tension and pressure on the character, the answer could be, “No, and…,” which means that the character failed and something else went haywire in the scene to make things even worse.

Obviously, these are things that can happen in fiction, and if you’re constantly making things worse for your PCs, you might find yourself without a gaming group after doing this too much. These two answers can be done, but I recommend doing so sparingly.

Let’s Flip It Around

In RPGs, I encourage GMs to flip these answers around to continue the story and narrative in a more positive manner. These answers can be given as results of die rolls, decisions by the players, character actions, questions around activities, declarative moves, and many other things. By flipping the “Yes, but; No, and” concept into “Yes, and; No, but” you open doors for forward progress in your collaborative storytelling efforts. Let’s dive into this flip of the concept. Continue the story and narrative in a more positive manner. 

Yes, And

In this case, the character succeeds, and something even more beneficial than a “simple” success happens as well. It could be the case that the barbarian charges the stuck (or locked/barred) door in an attempt to get it open and the player rolled well enough to not only bust down the door, but send shards flying into the shocked Bad Guys on the other side who were preparing an ambush. Now, instead of the party being the target of the surprise attack, they can go on the offensive against the startled Bad Guys. In some games (depending on style of gameplay, rules in the book, and or simple GM fiat), the GM might declare that the magically juiced-up barbarian smashes through the worm-eaten wood and the same results happen.

No, But

Let’s take the same scenario where the barbarian is busting down the door. However, the dice aren’t quite as generous to the PC this time around. Instead of having the plot stall out because of a single roll against a single door (As a side note: I’ve seen entire campaign ideas abandoned because of a rigid GM and a series of poor dice rolls that prevented the party from moving forward), let’s shift the momentum of the story. There are several outcomes I can envision off the top of my head for this circumstance. The barbarian could have jarred the door loose from the hinges, but the door is now cantered in the frame and stuck (though not as badly as before, so a second attempt is more likely to succeed.) The barbarian could have succeeded in getting through the door, but in such a clumsy manner that she lands, sprawled out on the floor, at the feet of the Bad Guys who are well-prepared for their ambush. Time for initiative with the barbarian away from the safety of the group and face-down in a horrific situation!

Other Options  Sometimes a simple “Yes” or “No” is the best option. 

Sometimes a simple “Yes” or “No” is the best option. If the success is squarely over the target number, but not excessively so, then just having the character do what they had planned is just fine. Likewise, if the die roll is below the target, but not to excess (and not a “barely missed), there’s no need to pile on the poor PC who is now dejectedly staring down at her dice. Save the “Yes, And” and “No, But” moments for when they truly matter. They’re like a spice in the stew of gaming. You want them in there to enhance the core ingredients (e.g.: story), but not there to take over or overwhelm the main course.

Have You Done This?

Are there any other author-type people out there? If so, have you heard of these concepts? Have you applied them (in any fashion) to your game? How about alternative takes on these ideas? What steps do you take to continue the story regardless of what the dice dictate? What ya got?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Edition Wars Inside My Brain

12 March 2018 - 2:00am

Nerd Wars always feel a little like kids arguing about whose hand makes a better laser gun…

Did you hear the big gaming news last week? Paizo announced they’re working on a second edition for Pathfinder. Cue the Sturm und Drang of the conflicting excitement and irritation that the announcement of a new edition always elicits. Have they released another wave of the endless Edition Wars upon us?

I am avowedly polygamerous. My passion for superhero RPGs is almost legendary, you can pry my science fiction games from my cold, dead hands, and don’t even think of trying to stop my monster hunting inclinations in modern paranormal games. While not every indie game hits my interests, I’m always excited to see what developers are coming up with. Thing is, though, when it comes down to it, D&D still provides a solid backbone for my gaming life. I never seek it out at conventions, but it and its variations are still a staple of my regular group. Currently, one of the less experienced GMs is running a 5e game, and we have several other 5e and Pathfinder games on seasonal hiatus.

For the new or the sheltered, what are the Edition Wars? Essentially, it’s the conflict that happens between the people who are excited for a new version of a game and the discontent of those that are perfectly happy sticking with what they already play. The extremes of both sides often get vitriolic and adamant that their preferred edition is the only correct choice.

Before I go any further, let’s talk a little bit about the history of the editions of D&D, as these are momentous events in the history of the game:

    So many editions…

  • In 1977, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released. While the original version of the game arrived in 1974, a large number of gamers in the late 70’s and 80’s experienced AD&D as their first taste of the game. There were a variety of ‘Basic’ versions that came out in the intervening years, but AD&D seemed to be regarded as the main version of the game. By the time I started playing in 1986, there was even edition-war-like grumbling about the changes introduced from Unearthed Arcana the year before.

  • 1989 saw the arrival of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. I was still new to the hobby, but this was huge. Do you have any idea how excited I was to be able to play a bard without having to go through the ridiculous path laid out in 1e materials? My group even converted our characters from 1e to 2e so we could play with the new hotness. Beija Tavelar, my scrappy, red-headed, lute-playing mage-thief became the bard I had always wanted her to be. Then she died in a stupid pit trap with everyone else in the party and we had to make new characters anyway.

  • TSR, D&D’s original publisher, was struggling financially in the 90’s and was bought by Wizard of the Coast in 1997. It would take three years, but Wizards finally released Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition in 2000. This was BIG. If you want a more detailed look at the impact this edition (and its OGL – open game license) had on the industry, I highly recommend diving into Designers & Dragons entries on TSR and Wizards of the Coast. At the time, it had been way too many years since I’d been able to play regularly but even I heard about the arrival of 3e. While the d20 boom was changing the lives of many game companies and designers, it helped me realize that I needed gaming in my life and I couldn’t wait around for my old gaming group to suddenly find time and motivation to game again.

  • In 2003, things took a left turn as Wizards abruptly released Dungeons & Dragons v 3.5. The edition addressed a few different problems that existed in the previous edition while still retaining the same core concepts. Unfortunately, it caused a huge problem for many of the third-party creators of d20 products. Again, take look at Designers & Dragons entries on Wizards. It’s a fascinating read. This was also around the time I found a new group to play with and it doesn’t take a genius to guess we started playing 3.5.

  • Only five years later, Wizards released Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition. Edition Wars had existed since the grognards of old complained about 2e back in the late 80’s, but 4e almost instantly developed a troubled relationship with the fanbase. While the bones of the game were still D&D, some of the concepts and mechanics went in a different direction meant to attract a new generation of player. The feel was often described as being more ‘video game’ than anything like previous editions. I actually thought 4e was fun. One of my favorite campaigns was run in the system and it actually did make it easier to introduce new players to the hobby. That said, there was still a lot of animosity towards this edition. I’m still irritated at some of my friends who would gleefully make fun of the game every time I mentioned a 4e game I was playing in. Not cool, folks.

  • At the same time as 4e was being released, Paizo released Pathfinder, a fantasy game based around the OGL of 3.5. Calling the game D&D 3.75 isn’t completely out of bounds. It tried to fix a few different rules problems from the original edition and worked to make the classes interesting at every level, but the game was still obviously an evolution of 3.5. Many of the players who were irritated at 4e flocked to Pathfinder helping the game become a huge success. In late 2011, when I started my Eberron campaign, the group was a bit tired of 4e, so we decided to use Pathfinder. The SRD available online provided most of the material I would need to run the game.

  • In 2014, Wizards released Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition and quietly let 4e fade into the background. Work on the new edition was announced in 2012 which raised some eyebrows, but they did some serious playtesting and player surveys before they released their final results two years later. Honestly, the results of their work showed. While plenty of folks stayed loyal to Pathfinder, 5e rejuvenated interest in the D&D brand and has proven to be super successful. My group jumped into 5e headfirst (as we do with any game that catches our interest). We have one beloved 5e game we’ve been playing in seasons and I’m about to start a 5e game with the teens I’ve been GMing for once a month.

  • I can’t even get into all the OSR (Old School Renaissance) retro clones that exist out there. They’re not exactly in my wheelhouse, so I haven’t had an opportunity to play any of them (which I would with a GM I trust), but they’re out there. Everything from Dungeon Crawl Classics, Labyrinth Lord, OSRIC, Swords & Wizardry, and many, many more.

To tally up, there were 12 years between 1e and 2e, 11 years between 2e and 3e, 8 between 3e and 4e (with an intermediary road bump with 3.5), and 6 years between 4e and 5e. Paizo waiting ten years to announce they’re working on a second edition isn’t really that extraordinary. Even if I can remember when Pathfinder was shiny and new, it has been a mainstay for a decade now.

Anyone that gets all pretentious about which edition is best gets an eye roll from me. Play what you want and what makes your group happy, but don’t be a dick about what makes someone else happy. 

I have my thoughts and preferences on the various editions, but I’ll mostly play whatever the people I want to game with want to play. Mostly. Anyone that gets all pretentious about which edition is best gets an eye roll from me. Play what you want and what makes your group happy, but don’t be a dick about what makes someone else happy. You won’t find me participating in any battles about which edition is king other than to tell people to chill out and stop telling people they’re having bad-wrong-fun.

That said, I do experience type of Edition War, but this one happens solo, inside MY BRAIN.

I’ve been gaming with a regular crew for close to 15 years now and in that time, we have started, finished and abandoned multiple games of at least four different versions of D&D (Pathfinder included). There’s only so much room for rules in this head of mine and I imagine it’s the same for most of us. It’s not that unusual for us to suddenly pause as we confuse the specifics of various rules between editions. Does flanking matter in this edition? How long does that spell last in this version? How many dice do I get to add to my sneak attack?

What do we do about the limited rental space for rules in our brains while playing multiple different variations of D&D? (Or any game system, really.)

  • Cheat sheets of the major and common rules is your friend. There are plenty of these out there if your google-fu is strong enough, but I always like creating my own when possible. It helps cement the info into my brain and is usually laid out in a way that makes sense to me. GM Screens often provide a great resource even when you don’t really feel the need to hide your rolls from your players.

  • Keep pertinent rules to your characters handy. Whenever I play a spell caster, I always keep a full list of available spells handy so I can quickly know the rules of whatever spell I’m about to use. The same goes for any special ability you’re going to use. Say what you will about 4e, but the ability cards the character builder created were damn handy.

  • Relax and just roll with it. Sometimes you or someone else at the table gets a rule wrong, and that’s okay. As long as no one is abusing the confusion to benefit themselves over everyone else, it’s okay to just roll with the mistake keep going with the game. No one wants to play a game constantly interrupted by rules lawyers, so unless everyone is cool with pausing the game to discuss a rule, just go with the GM’s call and discuss the issue after the game is over.

The confusion does get a little annoying, but in some ways, it’s a problem with an abundance or riches. We have a vital, thriving hobby with a version for almost everyone. I’m honestly looking forward to seeing what Paizo comes up with in their next edition of Pathfinder, even if I know it’s going to add a whole new set of rules to the jumble already in my brain.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Are You Crying For Real, or Just Pretending?

9 March 2018 - 5:38am

Phil Vecchione wrote an article on safety tools at the table, and we were approached around the same time about an article on larping lessons that could be applied to tabletop RPGs regarding safety. Since the topic of safety at the table is one of incredible importance, we decided to move up the running of this guest article by Jason Morningstar of Bully Pulpit games.  – John Arcadian

I think about safety all the time – my wife’s not-entirely-respectful nickname for me is “Safety Champ”. Live action games – freeform, larp, whatever – can be physically and emotionally intense, and while their capacity for actual harm is low, it is not zero. So as I make and play this sort of game, safety is on my mind. I don’t really want players to be thinking about it, but I want them to be embodying it – and there’s a lot of clever ways to approach this goal.

Metatechniques are tools that we can use to control a live action game from the outside. The idea of a GM whispering suggestions in a player’s ear is a metatechnique. For example, the “bird-in-ear” technique allows a GM (and sometimes other players) to whisper in-character thoughts or impulses into a player’s ear to help guide and motivate their character’s actions. While these are fun and useful, the most obvious use of metatechniques, as far as I’m concerned, is to make play safer. My thoughts here build on the work of many, many smart people with countless experiences using these tools – and others – both successfully and disastrously. I am not really saying anything new and urge you to follow the links at the end for insight, nuance, and revelation.

Take Care of Yourself

You need the freedom to leave a game for any reason, at any time.

All other safety metatechniques cascade down from this. The most common formulation of this principle (I hesitate to call it a metatechnique) is “The Door Is Always Open”, first articulated, as far as I know, by Eirik Fatland. Once this is understood, it is widely used in practice, to good effect. If you need to pee, go pee, even if we are all pretending to be locked inside a nuclear reactor. If you aren’t enjoying the experience, go do something fun and we’ll all be happier for it. If leaving somehow derails the game, that’s fine – sometimes that happens. Making it clear that people are more important than the game is remarkably freeing, and every other technique feels like a refinement of this sentiment.

Stop Everything!

Many larp communities use a single word to stop play in the event of immediate danger. The word “stop” is very likely to come up in play, between characters, in situations where nobody wants or needs the entire game to pause. A very common alternative, used in Nordic larp since the 1990s, is “Kutt”, or “Cut”, which is less likely to crop up as a word in play. Many campaign boffer larps, where combat with prop weapons may be a primary aspect of play, use “Hold” for this purpose during field battles, with an accompanying “Lay On” to resume the action. In my experience these are treated with deadly seriousness, and rightly so. This raises an important point – the more people involved, and the more potentially physically harmful the interaction, the more critical this tool is.

In practice Cut is rarely employed (although Hold is used readily, in my experience). When it is needed, though, it’s really needed. What’s more, the action of discussing and practicing Cut allows people to trust in the game and play more comfortably, even when it is never used. The down-side to Cut, as my friend Alex Roberts notes, being the person who grinds play to a halt and attracts the attention of everyone in the room is a social anxiety nightmare, particularly for people who might feel marginalized or uncomfortable already.

Ease Up, Buddy!

Another best practice is one word that calibrates intensity. The Nordic companion to Kutt is “Brems,” or “Brake.” The idea behind Brake is that, when invoked, it signals scene partners that you are approaching a level of intensity with which you aren’t comfortable. Essentially you are saying, “this far, but no father, please. Tap the brakes.” Unlike Cut, there’s no clear and standardized understanding of what to do when you hear Brake beyond “take care of your scene partner.” Used as intended, it requires a player to be aware of their level of discomfort and think ahead a little, which can be challenging if not impossible. Brake also has the distinct disadvantage, in English, of being a common word with a homonym (break) that is likely to come up often is normal conversation. Brake, because of this homonym, sometimes gets confused with break, and gets used like the semantically identical Cut. That’s a lot of potential for confusion.

“Largo” is a North American alternative to Brake, developed by LearnLarp LLC and used very effectively in their New World Magischola weekend larps. Largo, when spoken as a metatechnique, means “take a physical step back and lower your intensity.” This has a couple of distinct advantages over Brake, in my opinion. First, nobody says Largo in everyday conversation, so it jumps out verbally and demands attention. Second, the meaning is very clear: get out of your scene partner’s physical space and lower the intensity of the scene. Usually the reason for calling Largo is obvious, but if it isn’t, you have the distance and opportunity to check in. If Largo has any disadvantage, it is that it sounds a little weird to say and may be hard to remember.

Checking In and Checking Out

There’s a whole universe of tools that may or may not be appropriate for your particular game.

You might want a way to discreetly ask another player if they are feeling all right – like the title of this article says, the difference between genuine emotional distress and being super into your character’s emotional journey is pretty opaque from the outside. The best tool for this that I’m aware of is called the OK Check-In, and it is a simple hand gesture that is offered and reflected, signaling either “I’m good” or “I could use some help, please drop character and see what you can do for me.” The OK Check-In is so simple, and so easy to instantiate, that it is being widely adopted across North American larp scenes.

You might want a way to enter a scene unobtrusively, or exit without disrupting the action. There’s a clever metatechnique called the Look-Down that’s excellent for slipping into a class at magic school late without your character actually being late.

That’s Not How We Do It Around Here

I should note that culture and style of play have a huge impact on how these metatechniques get used, and how effective they are. Cut and Brake emerge from a style of play that assumes they will be the only two out of character words ever spoken during play, for example, while Largo fits in well with a play style where, if a player isn’t sure why Largo was called, they can comfortably drop character and ask.

Other obvious choice would be “Slow Down” or “Slower”, but these present many of the same problems as using Stop instead of Cut: it’s easy to say the words as a character without intending to invoke a metatechnique. On the other hand, it’s obvious, direct, and easy to remember. The consequences of not remembering it when you need it are serious enough that I’d still consider “Slower” a good option. When accompanied by a distinctive hand gesture the intent is unmistakable.

Tools In A Game-Shaped Box

Safety metatechniques need to fit the very specific needs of individual games and experiences  – in a game with a small player count where everyone is going to be engaged with everyone else throughout, for example, Slow Down/Brake/Largo and a relaxed group of players may entirely obviate Cut. There’s no one true way, just the right tools for the job.

Consider the implications of strictly verbal safety metatechniques, for example. What happens when I say “Largo” to a player who is hard of hearing, or not as receptive to auditory cues due to extreme engagement or the way their brain is wired? Combining it with a codified hand gesture – like a gentle pushing away at chest level – solves this problem. If everyone makes a big “X” over their heads when “Cut” is called, you know there’s a problem a mile away.

It’s also worth considering the number and complexity of the tools you choose – there are many appealing options, but you rapidly reach a point of diminishing return if players can’t remember or implement them effectively.

An Example

For the most part, I’m designing short live action games for 4-8 players. I began with Cut and Brake, switched to Cut and Largo as soon as I tried Largo and saw how well it worked, added The Door Is Always Open, and am now switching my calibration metatechnique to Slow Down, and moving away from Cut toward a sort of “cascading trust” model that subsumes it in a broader landscape of informal communication. You can see an example of where this is heading in my own work below. I believe this stuff is important and worth constantly tuning based on my experiences with actual play.

Here’s my current safety framework for a 4-8 person, two hour larp that assumes zero larp experience from the participants:

Getting Ready Friendship

Always start with friendship. Make sure everyone is comfortable and has the tools to stay that way. Playing pretend – and that’s what you’re doing – requires a high level of trust! Trust that your friends are going to do their best to give you an experience you’ll love, and work hard to do the same for them. Approach the game with respect and love.

Three Ironclad Rules

There are three ironclad rules to playing this game.

  1. People are more important than the game. If you ever need to decide between the actual needs of a real person and literally any competing impulse, go with the person.
  2. The door is always open. No matter what’s happening in the game, take a break or stop playing entirely if you ever feel the need. Let people do what they need to do without questioning them. It’s their business; you can just keep playing.
  3. Slow it down if you need to. If you are ever uncomfortable – if things get too intense, or too weird, or too anything – say “slow down.” If someone says “slow down” to you, take a step back and take it down a notch. If you aren’t sure why you are slowing down, ask. You can say “slow down” for others, too!

You may have other safety rules. Feel free to add them, but always use these three as well.

Helpful Advice

Here are three tips to help you jump right in:

  1. Be obvious. Just do what comes naturally and say the most obvious thing. It isn’t a contest, and deliberately trying to be surprising or funny usually guarantees that you won’t be.
  2. Listen. Use the information the setting and other players provide. Part of helping others have a great time is making their characters interesting, and the best way to do that is to listen and use what you hear.
  3. Be kind. Respect your friends, share the spotlight, and do your best to make everyone else feel awesome. If this isn’t happening for you, remember the three ironclad rules and say something!
  4. Ask questions. If you aren’t sure what is going on, ask. If you aren’t sure someone is having a good time, ask. If you aren’t sure your idea will be fun for your friend, ask.

If this sort of game is new to you, you should know that new players are, without exception, the best players. It’s just a fact.

I feel like these guidelines strike a good balance between openness and constraint. Every conceivable safety ruling descends from following three clear rules: we care about each other here, anyone can leave at any time for any reason, and we control the intensity of play for ourselves and, if necessary, each other. There’s no jargon, low complexity, not much to remember in a potentially stressful moment. Obviously this is an inadequate set of safety rules for a weekend-long game, or a game predicated on physical combat, or a game for eighty people. But for six players and two hours? I feel like these are the right tools. You may note that nowhere do I use the word “safety,” preferring to position the discussion around trust, love, friendship and cooperation. “Safety” terminology introduces anxiety (“Why do I need to be safe? Is this a dangerous activity?”) and a false expectation (“If I follow these rules I will be safe”).

More Thoughts on Safety

The brilliant Lizzie Stark has loads to say on this topic

Johanna Koljonen has a whole blog about larp safety…

…with tons of resources

Eirik Fatland on Kutt, Brems and The Door Is Always Open

The Nordic Larp Wiki has a whole category

Maury Brown is Very Smart

For Discussion…

The techniques discussed here come from experience in collaborative tabletop RPGs, small-scale and 100+ player larps, and other game experiences in between. These principles seem broadly applicable, but how broadly? How are you thinking about safety in your current games? How will these tools evolve as new situations emerge?

Categories: Game Theory & Design