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Making a Thing: Being Visible as a Creator

30 August 2017 - 1:00am

If you write, draw, paint, sculpt, build, or do any kind of creative work, there has probably come a point where you’ve made something and have decided to show it to a close friend. Someone you trust. Someone safe.

“This is great!” they say. “You should share it!”

There it is. That frisson of fear. All of the tiny voices come crawling up.

It’s not ready

It’s not good enough

No one will care

I’m not good enough

This is a set of feelings that I’m pretty sure every creator has felt at one time or another. I know I have. And today I’m going to talk about something that I think is very important and that often gets overlooked when you’re doing creative work (this includes GMing or even playing games):

It’s Important To Be Visible As A Creator

I’ve been listening to a lot of the back catalog of Talking TableTop, a podcast that Jim McClure hosts through the ONE SHOT network. In it, he talks to RPG designers and notable industry people, and they range through a lot of topics. For creators, I noticed a trend—they’d be recounting their history of how they became a game designer, and there was a common thread. Many of them had a moment at some point where they realized: there are people who make these games. This is a job someone does.

That kind of revelation seems simple, but it’s really important. When you’re a kid, teen, or whenever, there are lots of these moments. Everything we use and touch was, at some level, made by someone. When those things are games we love, that means there’s a person who we can model ourselves after. There’s a path to follow.

The more that the act of creation is seen and normalized, the more people will do it—and that’s a good thing.

Without being able to see people making things, it can be difficult to imagine that you could make things. This is also why representation matters in the media we consume. If a black child only sees white people making things, they may assume that they’re not allowed to do the same.

Make Games, Talk About Games, Don’t Stop

More people than I care to count have ideas about how games should work, what they could do, how they could be presented, etc. Most of those people will never do anything with those thoughts aside from share them with friends.

This is my call to you: please talk about the things you care about. Redesign character sheets if you don’t like the ones you see. Write fanfiction if the plot doesn’t go the way you wanted it to. Make up new worlds where people who look like you are center stage. Do these things, and do them where people can see you. Here’s why:

If people see creators try, fail, try, mess up, try, succeed, try, try, try? That’s encouragement.

It’s really easy to get discouraged when you’re creating things. The picture in your head will almost never match what ends up down on the paper. You don’t know the right people. You’re afraid people won’t care.

There’s often this perception that you need permission to do things in a professional capacity. I see this all the time in RPGs and other tabletop games. This is an industry where the line between hobbyist and professional is really blurry and, in some cases, nonexistent. The truth is: no one needs to give you permission to make games except yourself. You just need to decide to do it.

Everyone starts somewhere, and everyone needs feedback and refining. Putting your work out there for people to see gives you access to those things. That said…

There Are Real Concerns Out There

Everything I’ve written here is true as I understand the world. I’m also a white, dude-like person in a heterosexual relationship. I’ve got privilege in spades. By and large, I haven’t had the world telling me no, I don’t get harassed online, and the society we’re in basically tells me I’m tops all the time.

If you have few or none of those versions of privilege, all of what I’m saying to do could be much harder for you. In my mind, that makes it even more important for you to do them because the more people who are not white, straight, cis-gendered dudes make and talk about things, the more people who are not white, straight, cis-gendered dudes will be encouraged to make. A rising tide raises all ships.

HOWEVER, that puts all of the burden on you. So here’s my promise: I’ll support you. If you make things, you have my axe. I’ve got your back, think you’re awesome, and will do what I can to use my voice to help you succeed. I’ll use my privilege as a weapon and a shield.

My Twitter handle is @TheOtherTracy. My DMs are open if you want to talk or need help.

This is a complicated issue, this visibility as a creator. It doesn’t come with instant anything, is hard work, is often thankless, can feel like shouting into the void, and can make you feel invisible for all that you’re putting yourself out there. I promise this: the more voices there are, the less void there is. The more we shine, the less room darkness has. Put yourself out there, if you can. I’m with you.

* * *

Next article, I’ll go back to a more traditional look at game design as I keep working on my re-write of Iron Edda. For now, I’m happy to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter about the awesome things you’ve been making.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Stew’s Gencon 50 Photopalooza!

28 August 2017 - 2:32am

Many of us Gnomes just got back from the 50th Gencon, but many of us Gnomes were unable to attend for one real life reason or another. We know that is the case for many gamers out there. It was a packed Gencon, but a lot of us didn’t get to make it to the historic event. Don’t worry though, we’ve got you covered! We made it our mission to take as many pictures as we could during the event, cataloging and showcasing everything we could find as we went along our merry Gnomish ways.

We pulled in frequent guest author Keith Garrett ( who took many photos as well and together we created a MASSIVE (545 photos, so far) archive of high resolution photos of Gencon 50. The best part – they are all creative commons licensed. You can use these photos as you like, and when Gencon 100 rolls around there should hopefully be some available for the next museum showcasing the convention through the years. The only requirements on using the photos is to keep attribution to the original authors intact.

Go check the photopalooza albums out over at for the full high resolution images, or give the photo gallery a second to load from FLICKR and prepare to scroll a LOOOOOONG ways down, and then realize that only about 1/2 of the photos fit in the photo gallery, so you should click on that FLICKR link to check out EVERYTHING.



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    × Previous Next jQuery(function() { // Set blueimp gallery options jQuery.extend(blueimp.Gallery.prototype.options, { useBootstrapModal: false, hidePageScrollbars: false }); }); Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar Remember, this only shows about 1/2 of the pictures. Click here to see them all! The Gencon Exhibit Hall Rush

    That’s a Lot Of Pictures, But it Could Be Better!

    All the Gnomes were wearing multiple hats throughout the convention, so we know there are things we missed or couldn’t get. We want to make sure people who couldn’t make it to Gencon 50 can visually experience as much of it as possible, so if you have photos that cover things we missed, send them our way. You have to be okay making them creative commons licensed, having a visual tag with your name attached, and have taken them at Gencon 50. We’ll add them to the archive and make sure you get credit for them as a guest photognome! Use the form below to submit your photos to the archive.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Troy’s Crock Pot: Summer delights

    25 August 2017 - 12:01am

    I’m kicking back during a few days of summer vacation. As I sit by my backyard firepit, I was thinking of gaming-related things I’ve been enjoying that I thought I would share. Here they are:

    Pathfinder Legends

    I pride myself on staying current on gaming items in the d20 sphere, but I was unaware that a series of audio dramatizations for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game existed until I stumbled across them in a search of my local library’s digital offerings.

    After listening to two of them, I can say they are quite a treat.

    Pathfinder Legends are hour-plus long dramatizations of Adventure Paths come to life using the Paizo Iconics as characters.  Like the Adventure Paths themselves, each episode stands for an installment of the game books. The voice actors and production values are professional, and the adaptations faithful to the source material.  So far, I’ve listened to two episodes in the Rise of the Runelords series, “Burnt Offerings” and “The Skinsaw Murders.”

    I’m certainly looking forward to the third installment, “The Hook Mountain Massacre,” Nicolas Logue’s riff on “The Hills Have Eyes.”  Of particular interest, I can’t wait to see how the character of Mammy Graul is depicted.

    The audio dramas are produced and sold by Big Finish Audio, a company responsible for producing a wide range of BBC-licensed Doctor Who audio dramas, often featuring actors Peter Davidson, Sylvester McCoy and Tom Baker reprising their most famous role.

    The cast for Pathfinder Legends includes Trevor Littledale as Ezren, the elderly wizard and wannabe Pathfinder, Ian Brooker as Harsk the tea-drinking ranger, Stewart Alexander as vain-glorious fighter Valeros, Kerry Skinner as the fiercely independent rogue Merisiel.

    Life of the Party: Realities of an RPGer

    Travis Hanson, illustrator of the comic series “Bean”, has created a series of single-panel comic strips. Each one is a delightfully humorous take on the intersection of playing rpgs, and the archetypal fantasy characters.

    As Hanson describes the strip at its website:

    “Once an avid gamer himself Travis took his love of adventure and some of the unique and wild situations he found himself in and created a daily comic.  Come join, share, laugh and maybe cry at his imagination, the adventurers and the magic of something that many us deal with when we play games.”

    The strips were compiled into a book for fans supported by a Kickstarter that went out to backers in June.

    “Life of the Party” has become a daily destination, a daily laugh. Hanson clearly captures the spirit of gamers, their foibles and fun as they navigate the incongruities of rules and player interactions.

    The strip was compiled into a book through and supported by Kickstarter backers.

    WizKids Unpainted Miniatures

    It did my heart glad to see Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures win a Silver ENnie award at this year’s GenCon. Reaper has certainly done a stellar job of providing affordable unpainted miniatures, something those of love to paint truly appreciate.. But when the mainstay companies of fantasy roleplaying games — Wizards of the Coast and Paizo — give unpainted minis a little love it is noteworthy.

    With both Nolzur’s and Pathfinder Battles Deep Cuts, WizKids has produced two companion lines of quality unpainted miniatures. I am particularly keen on the displacer beast and unicorn sculpts.  The inclusion of two figs in a blister for the player character class sculpts, showing two versions of the hero’s progress,  is also a nice touch.

    The figs also come already primed. Open the blister and start painting. That’s sure to encourage more painting, removing one of the hurdles to working with unpainted sets.


    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Starting at Higher Level

    23 August 2017 - 1:00am

    Some of your stories may involve a higher power scale than starting off at “level one” or the equivalent in your game system. Perhaps the tale you want to tell with your players is on a greater epic scale. Perhaps you tire of struggling to keep those lower-level characters alive. Perhaps it’s just time to tell a story involving higher powers, increased competence, and more daring dangers. Regardless of your reasons for wanting to start at a higher level, there are some considerations to take into account with firing up a campaign with higher level characters.

    Baked In Power Levels

    Quite a few systems have higher power levels baked right in. I’m mainly thinking of point-buy systems, such as GURPS, Hero System, and similar games. These are the “easy route” for starting at higher power levels. Just provide more points or higher levels of points acquired via disadvantages. There are also character generation systems, such as Traveller, which can produce more potent characters. Another system is the Dresden Files RPG, which includes different power levels for the PCs to play with. The main thing to keep in mind here is that all players should start out at the same power base.

    Non-Level Experience Point Systems

    Some systems, such as Savage Worlds, MechWarrior, Top Secret S/I, Fate Core, and Paranoia increase the power of the character via gaining experience points that are then spent or applied toward increases in skills, abilities, special powers, equipment, and other items that make the character a more powerful force in the world. My advice here is to tell the players that they’ll be playing higher level characters, but to create a “baseline” character just like they normally would. Then provide them with the amount of experience or advancement points you want them to have. This will reduce the information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis.

     Reduce information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis. If they have their starting character to build on first, the players can then focus in on how to improve what they have. If they get their experience points up front, then they’ll start looking at the higher power stuff and trying to figure out how to get there. Since the combination of “starter” and higher level powers can be overwhelming, the players might spend longer than you want them to spend while deciding where to take their character. The baseline character will provide a creative compass to focus their efforts on advancement.

    Another approach is to dole out the experience points in chunks. In Savage Worlds, it takes five points to advance something. Instead of giving the players 30 points to play with, it might be wise to not tell them the max amount they’ll get. Just give them five, wait for everyone to do their quick advancement decision, then give them another five, and repeat this process until you’ve reached your predetermined maximum. This may sound like a slow way of doing things, but it can actually speed up the character creation process.

    Level-Gain Experience Point Systems

    With games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Starfinder, and so many others, characters gain their new abilities, spells, powers, and such when they achieve a new level. My recommendation here is to strongly advise the GM to have the players make a first level character. Then dole out the levels one at a time until they’ve reached the level you want them to be. I’ve seen GMs arrive at the game and drop the bomb, “Make a 12th level character,” and then the players struggle for a full session (sometimes two!) to get things “just right.” Making the level advancement more organic will speed things up. The GM can inform the players that they’ll be making a character higher than first level, but don’t tell them the final target.

     Start at first level, then dole out the experience points or levels. If you’re setting up the game beforehand and allow the players to roll their stats and create the character prior to “session zero” where they all meet up and start adventuring, then the players will have more time to work on their characters. In this case, telling the players what their target level is and to show up with a “12th level character” is perfectly fine.

    Money and Equipment

    There are two approaches here.

    The GM can assign gear (magical or otherwise) appropriate to each character. However, this takes quite a bit of time on the GM’s part, and the gear might not be exactly what the player wants for their character.

    The other approach is to give out a certain amount of currency for the game, and tell the players to go hog wild spending on what they want. Just make sure the money is in alignment with the level of the characters. Dropping 30,0000 GP on a 4th level character is probably excessive in D&D. If this approach is used, I recommend setting limitations on the spending. Something like, “No more than half your money can go toward a single item.” This will prevent that special player from spending 100% of their money on a single, incredibly powerful item that can unbalance the game and ruin the story.

    World Benefits

    Separate from extra powers and equipment, work with the players to determine if their character has accolades, titles, land holdings, a headquarters, and other world benefits. Sometimes, this is built into the point buy systems, so encouraging (or requiring) a certain number of points be dedicated to “worldly goods” like a headquarters might be appropriate for the game. It all depends on the type of story you want to tell.

    If you’re going with a system where level does not equate to titles and land holdings, you can give the players a separate pool of money that can be spent on things like this. Just be very clear that this monetary gain is not to be spent on equipment or items specific to their character. I’d also make this pool of money in the style of “use it or lose it.” No banking the money for later use. I like this approach because it gives more freedom to the players on getting what they want and encourages them to establish themselves in the world.

    Allocate Time

    Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. Most “session zero” events that I’ve held take about half the session to get the numbers down on the character sheets and the other half to get the characters together in the world and establish the where, when, what, and basics of the start of the campaign. Obviously, with more things to choose from and more items to purchase, extra time will be needed to get the first half of the session finished. Odds are that it will take the entire “session zero” to get the characters created, so don’t get frustrated at the extra time it will take for the players to make their decisions.

     Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. Don’t worry, you (the GM) won’t be sitting there bored while you watch people pick through core books and expansions. The players are going to have tons of questions about how certain powers work, what books they can use, where they can find certain information, and how certain things work in the world you’re going to be running the campaign in. If anything, you’ll be busier than the deli guy when the number machine is broken. You’ll be hit from different directions with wildly different questions. Take them one at a time and get back to the players as you can.

    Leveraging Technology

    As most folks know, the higher the level of the characters, the more crunchy the math gets with powers and abilities and stacked numbers and equipment and such. The rules get a bit more complex at higher levels because of the increased abilities of the powers. This is where software like PCGen and Hero Lab can come into play to help the players keep their characters straight. Yes, this means allowing laptops and tablets at the table, but so long as you are not incredibly opposed to this, it’s a good thing to let the players use. It might even speed things up if the players are comfortable with the software they’re using.

    Adjusting the Encounters

    Once the characters are made and it’s time to roll into the world with your story, the encounters will need to be adjusted to the power level of the characters. The only reason I mention this is that I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to do this. I took an intro adventure for first level characters and ran fourth level characters through it. It started as a cakewalk because it completely slipped my mind that, “first session does not equal first level.” I completely failed in my preparations. Fortunately, I recovered after the first two encounters (and a couple of questioning glances from my players) and managed to adjust on the fly to increase the challenge. Make sure you have in mind what the challenges, traps, monsters, riddles, and social encounters have to offer to put the PCs to the test are.

    Adjusting the Storyline

    Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. That’s not the case with higher level characters, especially if you start at the extremes of height in the power structure. Who have the characters already met? What contacts/friends/enemies do they have in the world? Have the characters already “saved the day” in some smaller manner in the past? How does society view them? Are there members of organizations (church, guild, army, leadership, councils, etc.) that will want or need things from them? Can the characters lean on someone else for assistance, monetary or otherwise? Do they have henchmen? Do they have apprentices, squires, or assistants?

     Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. These higher level characters didn’t leap from their players’ foreheads fully formed. There needs to be a backstory and history to them. Of course, if you’re doing an old school dungeon crawl, perhaps you can go lighter on the backstory. However, if you’re interested in telling a story that involves interaction with NPCs in the world, some of these details are going to need to be figured out. Probably not to the extent of a full world-building bible like what some authors do for their novels, but there need to be some hooks to grab onto here and there.


    If the characters are high enough level, they may have followers of some sort. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the players to create (usually after session zero) lower level characters for them to control in side quests or alternate story arcs. I’ve seen this done to good effect, but it can be overwhelming for the players if you show up and tell them something along the lines of, “You’ll be making a 12th level character, a 4th level character, and a 1st level character.” Dropping three characters on the table is rough. Start with the main character, and then slowly ease into the creation of the lower level underlings. Maybe allow the players to create those lower-level characters on their own time between sessions.


    While starting at higher levels can be daunting for some players, especially those newer to the hobby, it can be quite fun to unleash the powers and abilities of the more potent characters without spending the weeks, months, and years of getting them to those levels. I don’t recommend this become your normal mode of starting games, but it is a refreshing change of pace.

    Have you ever started a game at higher levels? How did that work out for you? Any words of warning or encouraging advice for your fellow Gnome Stew readers?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Design Flow: Gear

    18 August 2017 - 1:00am

    The last new chapter of Hydro Hackers that I wrote was about Gear. It is the last thing I designed for the game. After this, I will be just adding text and mechanics to all the existing chapters of the game. Gear was a tough thing for me to wrap my head around. I knew I wanted gear in the game, but I was not hot on the idea about a game driven by gear. So I kept putting off the design and just putting some token, undefined items on the playbooks. But as the manuscript neared completion, I knew it was time to address gear.

    Design Goals

    As mentioned previously, Hydro Hackers roots came from work I did on a Fate cyberpunk toolkit. Cyberpunk games are known for their gear—be it cybernetics, weapons, vehicles, drones, etc. Hell, most cyberpunk games of yore have whole books dedicated to this subject. Historically, there is an expectation that Cyberpunk games have gear.

    But I wanted something different for Hydro Hackers. Early on it had more of a cyberpunk feel, but over time I kept trimming away those elements and drifted the game from cyber to hydro. With that, I eliminated cybernetic implants. I also did not want the game to rely heavily on armed conflict, because the players are supposed to be struggling against a superior and nearly-intractable enemy. So, having hundreds of weapons options would also run counter to the spirit of the game. Lastly, I did not want to write lists of gear. I just didn’t.

    So what I wanted was to have a set of rules for gear where I could make some examples and then just let players and GMs come up with their own ideas. This would eliminate me from writing tons of gear lists, and it would let the group put their own emphasis on gear.

    A Lexicon

    Powered by the Apocalypse games often use Tags, words that contain narrative impact. The tags are then applied to gear or other things as a narrative shorthand to tell you something about the item in question. So if a gun has the tag Noisy, then when it is fired, people nearby are going to hear it.

     I wanted there to be a lexicon of tags that could be combined to describe a piece of equipment. 

    I very much wanted the gear system in H2O to be tag-based. I wanted there to be a lexicon of tags that could be combined to describe a piece of equipment. This idea is not new, you see it in all sorts of PbtA games. In fact, as I was doing my early designs, I dug into some of my favorite PbtA games—Dungeon World, The Sprawl, and Headspace—so that I could see their lexicon.

    Eventually, I began to construct my own lexicon. Some of it was borrowed or inspired by the tags in those games above, and some were my own. I created a general lexicon that could be used for any item. Then, as I designed different types of gear, I began to add words to the lexicon. Now there are tags that are specific for weapons, some more for drones, and some for vehicles.

    Three Types of Gear for Hydro Hackers

    In talking to Chris Sniezak, one of my partners at Encoded Designs and my co-host on Misdirected Mark, we got into a discussion of what I was thinking that gear should be in the game, mechanically. I had not fully thought it through, but after some discussion, he shared with me some thoughts and I really liked his approach. It worked well with where I was going with the lexicon of tags, but it also gave me some actual design goals.

    In essence, we defined three types of possible uses for gear:

    As Narrative Positioning

    This type of gear allows a player to do something in the game that they could not normally do without it. For instance, if you want to get across town quickly, then having a car would allow you to do that. If you want to attack someone from a distance, you will need a gun. The importance of the gear is to allow you to do something in the narrative, but you will still use the normal Basic Moves and the moves on your Playbook.

    As Bonuses to Moves

    This type of gear grants a bonus to the character when they use it. For instance, you may have some Breaking & Entering gear that grants a +1 to moves when you are breaking and entering into a location.

    As Moves Themselves

    This type of gear is its own move. When you use the gear it triggers the move, and the resolution of the move determines how the gear performed.

    The Final Design

    Chris’ thought was that gear should be for Narrative Positioning. I liked that idea, tut I wanted to leave open the possibility of the other two, although as much more the exception to the rule. This was for a few reasons. The first was that it kept gear more focused on the narrative of the game and away from mechanics, so there would not be the urge to “kit out” for a mission.

    Second, bonuses in PbtA games are very attractive. Getting a +1 can be all you need to improve the category of your outcome, pushing a -6 into a 7-9. If you have a lot of gear granting bonuses, there is a pull on the players to keep getting more and more of this gear.

    Lastly, having lots of gear with their own moves makes designing gear cumbersome. Designing moves is not trivial, and if you needed a move every time a piece of gear was being thought of, it would create a lot of drag on prep and play.

    As a result, the vast majority of the gear is for Narrative Positioning. There are 1-2 pieces of gear that grant bonuses, and another 1-2 that have their own moves.

    Here are three examples from the draft of the Gear chapter:

    As Narrative Positioning

    The RobotCop Pistol (Printed, 2-Conditions, Near, Loud, Reload, Concealable, Illegal) Cost: Marks

    This is a replica of a pistol from a famous movie about a Cyborg Law Enforcement Officer. The plans can be downloaded and printed on any home printer.

    As Bonuses to Moves

    B&E Gear (5-Uses, Illegal) Cost 2 AC

    This is a collection of mechanical and electronic door bypasses, picks, crowbars, etc. It has one purpose—to break into locations.

    Use: Spend one Use to gain a +1 to any Roll which involves Breaking & Entering.

    As Moves Themselves

    Authority Issued Water Suit (Conspicuous, Loud, 5-Uses) Cost: NA

    All US Citizens are issued a free Water Suit, as well as any necessary replacements. This suit is designed to reclaim any water from sweat and urine to make drinkable water. Most people do not put these on unless they have run out of Water Rations. When worn, the following move is available:

    Reclaim Water

    When you wear your suit and Sweat, mark a Use. When you want to reclaim water, Roll+Uses.

    On a 10+: You can reclaim half (round up) of the Uses as Water.

    On a 7-9: You can reclaim 1 Water.

    On a 6- : You fail to reclaim any water from the suit.

    Geared Out

    With most of the gear used as Narrative Positioning, it makes creating gear fast and easy—but leaving the door open for bonuses and moves means that there is flexibility when trying to create something more complex. Overall, I like how the draft of the gear chapter has gone. It still needs development and playtesting, but my hope is those will focus more on tuning the lexicon and less on making any significant changes to how gear works in the game.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Tips For Starting Prep

    16 August 2017 - 1:00am

    For starters, take these tips with a grain of salt. First, different approaches to productivity work for different people. Second, I have to be the world’s worst person at parking my butt and getting prep done. These are all things I have tried with varying degrees of success, but I am certainly not the world’s guru on getting things done (for that I would probably direct you to David Allen). For what they’re worth, here are a handful of tips for sitting down and starting prep. If you have experience with these and want to weigh in one way or the other or have your own tips or secrets, let everyone know below. I’ll be immensely grateful for another approach to try.

    • Simplify, simplify simplify: don’t try to tackle a massively complex system for which a single encounter write-up takes a page or more. Don’t try to plan an epic level-spanning adventure path featuring dozens of NPCs, an original setting and 45 pages of world history. Start small with a five room dungeon or a similarly sized adventure with minimal required world building in a system that’s easy to wrap your brain around or that you’re already familiar with. This lets you make progress before your attention fades or the next shiny rears its head.
    • Go low tech and low distraction: while there are all sorts of fancy tools for prep on computers these days, there are also a lot of distractions right there ready to pull you from prep. The internet, games, etc. Instead, find a quiet place with minimal noise, no TV and no internet. Prep in a notebook old-school style if you need to. This makes it a lot harder to take a “quick break” that ends up lasting for hours.
    • Try a time management technique: several years back I wrote about the egg timer prep system. A similar technique that I’ve been told is all the rage these days is the pomodoro technique. It’s less important which specific technique you use and more important that you try one or a few out and see if they work for you. The point is, of course, that they structure your time and “obligate” you to work on a task, but keep the initial barrier low to make it easy to start.
    • Try meditation: a simple meditation technique can help you with starting tasks and other willpower hurdles. In her book “The Willpower Instinct,” Dr. Kelly McGonigal notes that meditation is difficult, but it is the practice of reigning in your rogue thoughts as they interrupt your focus that is precisely the value of meditation. So the worse it feels like you are, the more practice you’re getting. Here are some simple steps, but there are more in-depth guides all over the internet:
      • Set a timer for five minutes, or longer on later attempts.
      • Sit still, don’t fidget. Try to experience but resist the urge to scratch itches or adjust your position.
      • Close your eyes or stare at a single spot on a blank wall.
      • Inhale and exhale deeply and slowly. Focus on the sensation of breathing.
      • As your mind wanders (and it will) try to catch it and return it to focusing on breathing.

    Now it’s your turn. How have you given yourself a jumpstart to get your prep moving? Let us know in the comments below.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Playing Characters Gamers Hate

    14 August 2017 - 1:00am


    Oh no, not one of THOSE!

    There is one thing I can say on the internet in game spaces that I know will garner immediate eye rolls and groans of “oh, you’re one of those players.” All I have to say is, “I play kender.” Visions of spotlight hogging, thieving, obnoxious, self absorbed players dance into everyone’s minds like sugar plums the night before Christmas. Yet, when I take the way that I play a kender at the table and apply it to a different character trope, like a magical girl who’s a little hyper, or a hengeyokai rogue, folks have fun and no one bats an eye. There are lots of tropes that fall into this category — the lawful stupid paladin, the lone badass, a Gungan. Sure, they can be tricky to work with, but they’re just as likely to be a fantastic rainmaker style character. So why do we assume that a particular race or class is at fault for bad play experiences when we are all at the table to play together?

    You want to play a what now?

    There are several assumptions people make when you say you want to play an “annoying” character:

    • You will not share the spotlight with everyone else at the table.
    • You will take actions without consideration for what the rest of the party would like to do.
    • You will steal from your party members/specifically work against your party in some way.
    • You will use this character as an excuse to be a jerk.

    Unfortunately there are people who play like this anyway, without regard for their friends at the table, and they are disproportionately drawn to the kind of races/characters who will give them the excuse to do so. If that has lead you to ban kender from your games, more power to you; I understand.

    I’m Shellzy Oakjumper, Very Pleased to Meet You!

     I played a kender in my very first D&D game, before I knew any better.  I played a kender in my very first D&D game, before I knew any better. The campaign lasted two years of weekly play, kender and all. While at first I suspect I was a bit problematic, we soon found the rhythms necessary to keep everyone happy at the table — and considering that it was many of our first time playing, there was a learning curve for everyone involved anyway. Soon enough, little Shellzy Oakjumper was the fearless face of the party, doing the talking and Charisma-ing and definitely all the sneaking. Playing her meant feeling my way through some specific social dynamics to make it all work.

    • No stealing from party members (learned that the hard way…I was young!)
    • Letting other people take the lead whenever it made sense
    • Letting my party stop me if they ever didn’t agree with my actions…or begging them to if I hadn’t expected them to let me go through with something
    • Talking like a kender — a lot, in a rush — but only when it was my turn (and never ever expecting to finish a story about my Uncle Trapspringer, which only got me in trouble when they actually did want me to finish the story)
    You Must Have Dropped It! Can I play It?

    As with any edgier gaming idea, playing with a crazy race/class/persona requires the whole table to be onboard, and for the players and GM to trust each other enough to create the sense and feeling of a character without it taking over the entire game.

    Although I lucked out the first time I played, you will have a much better experience if you plan it from the start. Communication, as always, is the key for being successful at the table. With good communication, those races that everyone loves to hate can add depth and forward momentum to a game. Here are some things to sort out before your game starts:

    • Make it known that when you do stupid things, you are okay with and expect to be stopped. This is the RPG equivalent of being an actor who is planning to be interrupted but will keep the sentence going until their partner jumps in.
    • Make it known that as a player you are happy to work with the group to make decisions. If your Gungan curiously starts wandering off down a side path, use the same expectation as above that if the party has decided on a different direction, you expect to be dragged back by the back of your shirt.
    • Create clear expectations about what is acceptable in your party. Can your kender “borrow” things from other party members, or just NPCs? Can your lawful stupid paladin take physical action against a party member they think is being evil or are they limited to vocalizing their displeasure? Sorting this stuff out before the game starts means you can find in-game reasons for the boundaries if necessary.
    • Have a reason to be in the group. If you are the kind of character who is just going to brood and wants to do something totally different, make sure you have a reason to play the same game as everyone else, even if in character it’s reluctantly. Don’t make your party talk you into every single action they want to take as a group. Express your reluctance in ways that don’t slow down the game, like muttering to yourself.

    As a player, there are some things you also need to be okay with going in that won’t really effect anyone else at the table. Just because your character is always talking doesn’t mean that you should always be talking, player. 

    • Be okay with taking the consequences for your actions in game if you aren’t stopped from doing something stupid or self harmful. They may see you walking towards that trap and decide they don’t feel like babysitting that day. That doesn’t mean in character you should not take that action, but be cheerful about taking your lumps.
    • Share the spotlight. Just because your character is always talking doesn’t mean that you should always be talking, player. When it’s your turn, give the feeling and impression of not stopping, but always stop when it’s time for someone else to talk. Don’t linger on your brooding ways at the expense of everyone else having a moment to take action, or, paladin, even if something is evil, sometimes let someone else react first.
    • You may have to jump out of character to differentiate that you, the player, are onboard with group actions or do not have a strong opinion. This is part of clarifying that you will not be offended or hurt as a player if your lone wolf gets plunked on a horse sitting backwards glowering while you all go off to do a thing.
    • Don’t slow down the game. Pick your moments to express the character and give that flavor to your play, but don’t make it every single minute and every single decision. If no one is jumping in, ask another player if they would be comfortable doing x to stop you (“would it be okay if you snagged my topknot and dragged me away from the display of shiny rings before I get there?” or “I’m going to do this! Please stop me…”). Don’t interfere with the game running smoothly.
    So…Can I Play a Kender At Your Table?

    The thing that makes character types that people despise work in games is a player who is extra careful not to be a jerk and very attuned to the table around them. Playing this kind of character requires better than your average dungeon crawl communication, but when done properly they can be a memorable addition to any campaign. Do you have any experience playing the characters everyone loves to hate? Have they been in your game? Did it buck the trend or were they just as bad as you expected?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Which Game Changed the Way You Play?

    11 August 2017 - 12:00am

    Drawing back the curtain and seeing the possibilities . . . 

    If you’re out and about on social media with a preponderance of RPG loving friends, you may have seen the #RPGaDay thing that’s been going around for the month of August. I’ve been putting them up each day on my Facebook and it’s been sparking some interesting discussion. It’s especially fun to see friends that don’t know each other, and will probably never meet in person, bonding over love of RPGs.

    That’s not really what I want to talk about today, though. It’s been fun, but one of the questions really got me thinking. Day 7 asked “What has been your most impactful RPG session?” Some people responded with which game session hit them hardest in the feels and evoked a real emotional response. Many of the anecdotes shared talked about some of the emotional highs and lows of their characters’ lives. One friend spoke of a horror western game where they were fighting a man that ‘no living man could kill’. So, when the time was right, he put his head between the gun and the bad guy and pulled the trigger. Another friend who played that same game popped into the thread to shudder in remembrance of that particular bad guy.

    That wasn’t the only way the question was interpreted, though. Myself and some of the other folks responding looked at it from the perspective of games that changed the way we play. The intense emotional moments of investment in a game are why I keep playing, but sometimes you just experience a game that completely changes the way you look at RPGs and how you play them. Maybe it was the brilliance of a game system you hadn’t looked at before, or the way a GM or another player approaches the game, giving it a different flavor than you expected. Regardless, it ultimately changes how you game from then on.

    One friend, Jason, spoke about how his group was vehemently against playing anything other than D&D. Whenever they’d tried something else, it was disappointing and they always found themselves going back to D&D. One game night, though, their regular GM was unavailable and another player offered to bring Star Wars to the table. Well, playing something was better than playing nothing, so they begrudgingly agreed to give it a try. By the end of the session, everyone there had a fantastic time and they were begging the new GM to turn that game into a campaign. Jason said it opened up the whole group to trying new things and broadened their outlook on what RPGs could be.

     Suddenly I was reminded of what games could be and shown what they SHOULD be.Another friend, Cheryl, mentioned a game that changed her outlook in a different way. During a HarnMaster game, the GM asked for a climbing check that her character failed, causing her to lose her grip and fall to her death. After an awkward moment around the table, the GM quickly ret-conned the whole action and everyone pretended that climb check had never been called for. For Cheryl, it taught her the value of never asking for a roll unless you’re open to all outcomes the dice might bring you.

    For me, it was a moment that came after a very long hiatus from gaming. It was 2003 and it had been about ten years since I’d been part of a regular RPG of any kind. I’d played a bit online, but it wasn’t the same. Realizing I needed RPGs in my life, I started looking for people to play with. I eventually found a face-to-face game, but the GM was really bad. I mean really really bad. Gaming horror stories levels of bad. But, it was a game and the other players seemed kind of cool. If you wanted to game, you had to take what you got, right?

    After a couple months of this awful game, I learned that there was going to be a gaming convention in my city that month. Figuring it couldn’t hurt and would give me something to do that weekend, I showed up and signed up for a couple of games. Talk about revelations.

    The first game I played at the con was worlds away from the ridiculous slog of a D&D game the awful GM was running. The GM had actually put thought into the world and the NPCs that inhabited it. He responded to the players and their characters’ actions without railroading them into what he thought should happen. In another game that con, I got to play a game where we built characters together and essentially created the world of the game, making what our characters did matter on so many levels.

    Change is the only constant…

    Suddenly I was reminded of what games could be and shown what they SHOULD be.

    I never went back to the awful game. A few weeks later, one of the other players contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in gaming if we didn’t play with the bad GM. Basically, after I left, the other good players also ended up defecting and we started our own group that’s still going strong today. That one reminder taught me to never settle for sub par gaming, to always strive for a better game experience. There have been other revelations over the years, but that was probably the most pivotal and crucial in my gaming life.

    So what about you? Was there a single game or a campaign that changed the way you look at RPGs forever? I’d love to hear your stories too.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Social Anxiety at Large Conventions

    9 August 2017 - 1:36am

    Gen Con Crowds in 2013 by Flavio Galvao


    It’s August 8th, 2017 and Gen Con is about a week away. I’m going through all of my pre-Gen Con rituals – planning for the Gnome Stew dinner at St. Elmo’s and the ENnies immediately afterwards, getting the books and materials for the games I’m running compacted into better traveling boxes, setting up the tech equipment for the booths of the companies I help out, cursing the fact that I haven’t planned for any games to actually play in, etc. One of the rituals I undergo is figuring out how to get my social up and actually enjoy a big convention.

    Social Quandaries

    I don’t have social anxiety the way some people do, but I get some when I’m gearing up for a big convention and I get a lot of social fatigue just thinking about them. I love conventions. I love seeing my friends and feeling the rush and excitement of the throngs of excited people around me. I enjoy walking as a semi-invisible face in the crowd and getting to people watch. I love all of these things, by the second or third day if I’m lucky. For me, the time before Gen Con, or any other large convention, is when I’m working my brain around what it is like to be at a big convention and getting myself built up to handle the throngs and the rush of people. I like people, I really do. If you meet me at a convention, you’d never guess that I get anxious in situations like this. I’m loud and talkative. I have a big, goofy smile plastered across my face. I often have a flask of whiskey tucked away in a kilt pocket that I share with friends while at parties. I stay out way too late and meet a lot of people. This is one aspect of my personality at a convention, but it’s one that has largely grown as a defense mechanism out of the fertile soil of anxiety.

    Don’t get me wrong, this is part of who I am. I’m not putting on a big show, not completely, but when my anxieties kick in during social situations,  I tend to move to the offensive rather than the defensive. I try to find a way to fit in and spend the energy building up inside of me and move it away from being self destructive. Like many self described nerds/geeks/outsiders, I’ve spent many years not knowing how to deal with social situations and being on the awkward, awkward fringes of many a conversation and social group. My teenage years were as awkward as the bowl cut hair that was still framing my head and my ability to hold a conversation was as blurty and nervous and fidgety as you can imagine, and this was in the time before being passionately excited about something nerdy wasn’t as acceptable as it is now.

     I’m not telling you this so you know my story, I’m trying to mirror the story thousands of us have but can’t talk about.  At some point in my life, I decided to take that anxious energy about social situations and figure out how to channel it into something useful. I spent years of self reflection and gradual improvement, testing and learning new ways to interact with people. I used gaming as a way to test out different social voices and I watched what worked for other people and what failed and when I was feeling that nervous energy, I threw it into a new experiment in how to behave rather than let it pull me down. Some 20 years past my awkward teenage time, I can reliably pass for well adjusted and I actually feel confident in most social situations, but something like the tens of thousands of people at Gen Con and trying to juggle that with a busy schedule of meetings, games, and constant socializing can push me close to a null zero place on my social desire meter. Once I’ve gotten into the crowds and found my groove, I’m usually enjoying it a lot more and am more tired than just socially tired, but it takes a lot of brainspace and energy to push myself past my mental hurdles to not want to bail on Gen Con on the Tuesday beforehand.

    I’m not telling you this so you know my story, I’m trying to mirror the story thousands of us have but can’t talk about.

    Everyone Has Something They Can’t Readily Tell You About Their Anxiety

    Talking about anxiety is hard. It’s hard in geek culture especially. Most of us come from mental places where we haven’t always been socially accepted. It’s hard to make yourself that vulnerable when everything is normal in your life, but when you’re in a giant venue with tens of thousands of other people, fighting against a tight schedule to maximize your time, and you barely have an inch of personal space, it’s not hard to understand how a person’s anxieties can be overwhelming.  The one uniting factor of all of these anxieties, for all of these people, is that they are invisible.  I know many people who can’t make it out to conventions due to their anxieties, some of them professionals in the industry who rely on the networking and connections that a convention can bring. I know many people who have pushed past or channeled their energy to make it to the con floor, but find themselves needing to constantly retreat away from the crowds. I know many people who channel their anxiety into only playing a certain set group of events that they know and can be sure of the rules (social and game) so they don’t have to spend brainspace on anything new. I know people who are anxious about being harassed, or ogled, or groped and won’t wear the cosplay they made to a convention this large. I know women who just don’t feel comfortable around conventions because people can be assholes sometimes.

    Look up Spoon Theory if you aren’t familiar with it.

    The one uniting factor of all of these anxieties, for all of these people, is that they are invisible. No one will readily tell you about their anxiety, and in many cases they can’t. Talking about it is often a hit to social credibility, a token that you aren’t strong enough to handle your issues. No one wants to be seen that way, so often people can’t bring it up or signal that they are feeling anxious. This year, I’ve seen a lot of people online talking about the “rules” for interacting with them.

    These are preemptive defense mechanisms to limit things that might drain them socially. While you might be a hugger, they may not be and ceding to your desire for physical contact may take a bit more of their spoons (or spell slots) than they feel free giving up. They may have problems saying it at the time, so they don’t. For some people, saying it on Twitter or Facebook as “rules” is an attempt to preemptively cut off some potentially anxiety inducing issues.

    Help Others Out At Big Conventions

    It’s nearly impossible to know what another person’s anxiety inducing elements are, and it’s also as difficult to know when they might be on the edge of their tolerance due to situations that have nothing to do with you. So, how do you help them out when they may not be able to tell you?

    • Be respectful of personal space, more so than you would be for yourself. Another person’s needs are different, so give everyone the space you think you need, but double or triple it. If you know you are a person who has few personal space needs, quadruple it.
    • If a person is giving off signals that they are nervous about something in the social situation, consider excusing yourself from the conversation but leaving it open to pick up later. Say “Hey, I hate to do this, but I need to get going to make it in time for a game, but if you are around later it’d be cool to pick up the conversation.” and give them a little time to recoup. This might be their chance to get the breathing and thinking space they needed, even if they didn’t have the “spoons”, or social energy, to step back themselves. However, this may not be what they need, which is why I bolded consider. The best way to become socially savvy is to shut up and analyze what is going on. Spend more time listening and looking for clues, and if you think that a person might be out of energy, make sure there is space for them to gracefully recharge. That may just mean having less conversation and more hanging out, it may mean letting them chill out on their own, but the way to figure that out is to watch out for their needs.
    • Signal your emotions and choices. When people are anxious, they are bad at reading other people and making big decisions. The “Hey, I’ve got to jet to make a game” may be interpreted as “this person hates me because I’m worthless!!!!”. That’s anxiety speaking. If you describe the mental or emotional reasoning that is dictating your actions, it will save them some brainspace trying to decipher it. “Hey, I have really liked talking to you, and I hate that I have to cut it short, but I need to make this game on time. I’ll catch you at the party later and we can pick up the conversation.”
    • Make sure another person has room to talk and to think. Sometimes you’ll be in a large crowd and someone will be really quiet. It may be that they can’t find a way into the conversation and they’re too nervous to edge some space for themselves. Try to open it up so that they have a chance to talk. One of my favorite party tricks is to ask everyone about their “favorite part of the week”, or their “weirdest thing they saw getting to the convention”, or “what was your best character death”. I direct this at the group in general, so that the person doesn’t feel like they are on the spot, but can have time to build their story. I make sure to play “GM” on the group and turn the spotlight their way once it seems like they are ready.

    Overall, just be respectful, be aware of consent and don’t step on anyone’s boundaries, and watch people for signs that they may be having issues dealing with the crowds or social situations. Try to be a good friend, even to strangers, and make sure people have the room they might need to feel comfortable but can’t tell you about. Everyone has some anxieties that they can’t readily show, and those come out in bigger ways and large and crowded conventions like Gen Con.  Do what you can to help them, even if it just means being aware of your own personal boundaries and trying to respect those in others.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    How To Make Death Matter

    7 August 2017 - 1:00am

    Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a character dies. Maybe the dice weren’t in their favor, maybe they made a tactical error, maybe they grabbed that glowing skull even though it was so completely obvious it was an evil relic, oh my god, it could not have been more obvious if you’d lit it up with neon signs, but whatever. The character is dead. Your player is crestfallen, but one of the others claps them on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, dude. We have, like, 500,000 in the party bank. We’ll get you back tomorrow.”

     And bam, any tension is gone.

    If you like this kind of game, great! You’re here to have fun, this is a fine way to keep your players happy, no problemo. But, if you want a game where death means something, where a character kicking the bucket makes an impact, it doesn’t work. Conversely, unless you want a really brutal campaign where dead means DEAD, you might want some way for a player to recover a beloved character. Losing someone who hasn’t finished out their story can be disappointing, even depressing, and not just for the player. If part of your game is structured around your player’s personal stories, changing things up can be a real headache.

    So how do you walk the line? How, in worlds where resurrection is a sack of gold away, can you make death feel like something more than a commercial transaction? How do you give players a way to keep their character without removing the consequence?


    The Orpheus Solution AKA Let’s Go a’Questin’

    If you want something back from the land of the dead, you better be willing to work for it. I am always a fan of story solutions to mechanical problems, and this is the ultimate one, pointing the plot directly at the issue. It stays truest to the spirit of adventuring games: hunt the MacGuffin, enter the unknown, rescue the prince/ss. You can take the direct route, run with the characters making an incursion into the underworld, astral plane, god realm or what-have-you, but there are other ways too. Maybe there’s a ritual that can bring a person back, but it requires three rare jewels held by three dragons. Or the AI network that stores all memory could be convinced to release your friend, but it requires serious political acumen to negotiate as its representative in the galactic council. There’s the traditional game of chess. Or . . . maybe you need to track down someone else, someone of equivalent “value”, to take the character’s place.

    This can be flipped. If your players are up for it, you could run this from the perspective of the recently deceased, spending a few sessions following their battle back to the world of the living. In both situations, this is a great place to create temporary characters, running with concepts the players like but would not have played in a longer game. In the previous example, the story of the dead PC, it would be really fun to put together a ghostly entourage, either a crew of helpful underworld denizens, or maybe other souls looking to make a break for it.  Just make sure your players don’t get so attached to their temps that you have to run another quest to recover them.

    Do they freeze up in combat, remembering the bite of a blade in their heart? Oh Woe, Woe, Woe Is Them!

    Should you and your players desire a solution that doesn’t derail the current plot, you may rely on personal drama. This approach doesn’t change a world’s given rules, but spends time with a PC’s reaction to their own death. Instead of letting them off with a shrug and a “wow, that was bad”, engage them in roleplay about how their character feels about their demise and return, how it affects their worldview going forward, how it changes behavior. If they were religious, did it have any impact on their personal philosophy? Do they freeze up in combat, remembering the bite of a blade in their heart? Or have night terrors featuring things they saw behind the veil? Maybe they didn’t want to come back, either at peace with the way they perished or happy in whatever version of an afterlife awaited them?

    If your game isn’t all that heavy on the drama, there are still options for you. In many systems, dying has penalties to stats. Tinkering with these can up the ante, but can lead to awkward situations where characters are no longer on the same page challenge-wise. No one wants to feel like the odd man out, playing catch up, so think of other ways you can use physical consequences. Coming back might entail the character now sworn to serve something from beyond the grave, a plot hook you can deploy at your pleasure. An object or piece of equipment that means a lot to the character could be destroyed or lost.

    And there are interpersonal consequences. All the weird feelings a character could have about their expiration could apply to the people around them. From party members who feel awkward to family trying to cash in an inheritance you technically gifted them, or a lover who tried to follow you into the dark, there’s lots of ways to use a PC’s relationships. Twist the knife, they’ll thank you. After crying.

     It might be difficult, it might mean dealing with some really shady characters, it might mean making deals you’d prefer not to make, but it can be done. It’s a Mad, Mad World

    I’m prepping to run a game in the near future, hence the mulling on this problem. Likely, I’ll use elements of the other approaches, but I’ve settled on applying a little outside pressure to add both challenge and flavor to the game. In this setting, resurrection magic exists, but the culture of the area considers it highly taboo. Not only is it outlawed, it’s a matter of personal and religious morality, an affront against nature, the gods, and civilized ethics. The dead are dead, the living are living, and you do not cross that line. Of course, just because it’s reviled doesn’t mean you can’t find someone willing to do it. It might be difficult, it might mean dealing with some really shady characters, it might mean making deals you’d prefer not to make, but it can be done. The GM help you if people find out, however. Dire consequences await offenders.

    This is only one example of the myriad ways one can employ the world at large as your enforcer. Culture, yes, but also technology, religion, biology, even geography are at your disposal. The fabric of space-time itself might start causing problems for your party, or it could be as simple as being trapped in a dungeon so deep that there’s no way you could get a body back in time. The benefits of this approach– and the reason I’ve chosen it for my upcoming game in particular– are how it helps reinforce a sense of place, a sign of a wider existence beyond the party’s whims. They aren’t the center of the universe, even if they’re the center of this story, and the universe doesn’t have to make things easy for them when they buck the system.  This can also work really well in conjunction with other approaches, too: for character drama, think about how difficult it’s going to be for lawful characters to seek out such forbidden magic. Even better, what if the resurrected PC is someone from the culture, and is utterly horrified to find out what the PCs have done on their behalf?


    You Want How Much? Perhaps most simple, you can up the cost of the actual resurrection. Scaling the gold price to party resources keeps the sting but doesn’t single out the dead PC for their failure, hitting the wallets of the whole party (or a particularly generous member or two). The price could ask for something other than gold, as well, such as rare potions, magic items, holdings, favors. This is different from the questing approach in that you don’t have to spend as much time on the acquisition of these extras, either having them on hand or figuring out where to get them in the span of a single session. The focus is on getting the PC back as fast as possible. Word of warning, though: I’d be very careful using this approach if you think your players might harbor ill will for having to sacrifice so much on account of a character death. The last thing you want is to feel like the teacher holding everyone back because one kid was late. That way lies malcontent mistreatment of you or the player of the dead PC– or just makes things un-fun in general. This isn’t supposed to be a punishment, but a way to make dying have more meaning.


    Run With It

    And finally, what if you just . . . don’t?

    Think about the consequences of living in a world where resurrection isn’t rare. So many questions spin out of that, so many chances for roleplay and worldbuilding– what does society look like when they know, for sure, what happens to you after you die? What about morality? If there’s an associated cost, is it inherent, or is it a chance to make a little profit? If the world we live in now is screwed up by the deep chasm between the haves and the have-nots, what would happen if those haves could afford immortality? Where does evolution fit in, once the impetus for genetic survival is removed?

    So those are the ways I can think to make death meaningful in your game. What about you guys? Do you have any suggestions, or tales from the table to share?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Alls Well That Ends Well?

    2 August 2017 - 1:00am

    One of my long RPG love affairs is the well. I don’t know what exactly sparked it—a video game, a novel, an RPG adventure—but wells fascinate me. No RPG village is complete without one and every one holds a secret (well, that would get old and boring after a time, so most hold only water and sadness, but some hold secrets). In fact, I once placed a ruined village JUST so the well could hold a nasty secret. Here is a small table of 40 interesting things to hide in your wells. I encourage additional entries in the comments below. You can roll 1d4 for the tens place and 1d10 for the ones place.

    1. A talking fish: Maybe it can teach you how to talk to all fish, maybe it grants wishes, or maybe it just knows juicy gossip.
    2. A skulker: Whatever or whoever it is, it climbs out of the well under cover of darkness and makes trouble. It might wet children’s beds, steal their valuables, or it might drag them off to eat.
    3. An elemental: Water is the safest bet here, but earth would work just fine as would combinations of water and other elements. A steam elemental might even mean heated well water.
    4. A hermit: Why live in a well? There’s plenty of water and fish and fungus to eat, and lots of solitude for meditation and study. Just don’t think about where they poop.
    5. A monster: Whether a deadly fish or some other grue, this beasty is a danger to anyone it can get it’s claws into. It might be a mindless beast, a clever stalker, or building it’s own empire of evil right under town. But they usually stay put, an unwelcome surprise for intruders.
    6. A ghost: A strange apparition that hints at events of the past. It might be a victim of murder most foul, an accidental death, a criminal who faced vigilante justice, or any number of other possibilities.
    7. A prisoner: Who imprisons someone in a well? And what special precautions would they have to take to keep them from being found and rescued?
    8. A maze: Depending on how swiss-cheesy your world is, most wells might have a maze of twisty water-filled passages at the bottom. Getting lost down there would almost certainly lead to a slow death by hypothermia.
    9. A small dungeon: Down a well is a good place to hide a 5 room dungeon. Maybe it’s a series of natural caves, maybe it’s a more formal dungeon—in which case, who builds a dungeon in a well, and why?
    10. A collapsed entryway: I’d love to tell you that a well should be an entrance to a megadungeon (and it totally SHOULD) but that’s a lot of work unless you already have a megadungeon. Instead, how about what looks an awful lot like the entrance to a megadungeon, only it’s collapsed, or sealed, or otherwise unable to be opened . . . for now.
    11. A safehouse: The nefarious characters in your town occasionally need to lie low until the heat is off. Who’s going to think to look for them down a well? Depending on who built it, this might just be a dryish nook with a go bag stashed in it, or it might be a lavish apartment with all the amenities of home.
    12. A secret passage: Another option for the rogues of the city is a secret passage into a nearby building through the well. Depending on the prominence of the local thieves’ guild, this might be a single crude tunnel or an entrance to a city-wide network.
    13. A workshop: There are plenty of activities that are frowned upon inside town limits. A hidden workshop is just the ticket to practice these illicit activities without fear of reprisal.
    14. A shop: Similar to a workshop, hidden shops allow the sale of forbidden, illegal, or stolen goods without the trouble of taxes or the watch.
    15. A temple: In addition to those gods for whom open worship is considered unsavory, there are a few who would consider a lair close to water or underground, or in the dark.
    16. A treasure vault: Down a well is a good place for hidden treasure, in this case a full fledged vault complete with high quality locks, maybe traps or other hazards.
    17. A piece of jewelry: A glimmer in the water turns out to be a piece of jewelry.
    18. A lump of crusty coins: Wells are often used as wishing wells, so this well has several lumps of fused coins welded together in a mass.
    19. A handful of uncut gems: The lower walls of the well are unworked stone, and a handful of raw gems are embedded in the wall.
    20. A piece of gear: tucked away out of reach of the water is a corroded piece of equipment. How it got there is anyone’s guess, but cleaned up it could be made serviceable again.
    21. A watertight scroll case: Afloat on the water is a scroll case. Mostly watertight, it’s contents are only smeared in a few places. It could be a letter, a map, or even a spell of some sort.
    22. A skeleton: An old and brittle skeleton either on a bit of dry land or scattered in the water. Most of the evidence of how it got here has rotted away years ago.
    23. A mummified corpse: Wedged into a niche in a wall or lying on a shelf is a corpse that has been slowly dried out by the steady cold air billowing around. It’s possessions are still intact, but terribly brittle from age and dehydration. Some of it may yet be salvageable though.
    24. A waterlogged body: Bloated and foul, this corpse bobs gently on the water. It must be fairly new. Why is it here? There may be some clues nearby. Unless the reservoir is large enough, this is likely to foul the water unless it is removed.
    25. A set of gnawed bones: This skeleton is fairly fresh and scattered about. The long bones are cracked open and all show scrape marks. Obviously something cleaned these bones, but what? Is it down here with you?
    26. A stone cairn: A pile of small rocks placed over the dead. It has some small amount of loot all badly water damaged. More importantly who builds a cairn in a well? What happened to the person who built the cairn? If they left, how did they get out?
    27. A crypt: Carved out of the rock and covered in decorative touches, this crypt is the final resting place of someone of importance. It’s location is an odd juxtaposition with the care put into it’s production.
    28. A mineral encrusted corpse: A body covered with hardened mineral deposits. It’s gear may be salvageable under the rock if it can be broken free without too much damage.
    29. A pitfall trap: The sides of this well are coated in an extra-slippery algae, and the water isn’t terribly deep at the bottom. It has the potential for a nasty fall.
    30. A set of stone spikes: The bottom of this well is lined with sharp stone spikes. A hasty descent will lead to a good deal of damage, even though the water is fairly deep.
    31. An oddly sloped shaft: This shaft gets wider as it descends. The last few yards slope sharply outward, necessitating climbing on the ceiling to exit. No mean feat. Hope you used a rope to get down.
    32. A thick cloud: The bottom of the well is filled with a dangerous gas that is heavier than air. Descending to the bottom will at best lead to suffocation.
    33. An unstable ceiling: At the bottom the well widens to a small cave system. Too much noise and the vibrations cause chunks of the ceiling to collapse dangerously.
    34. A mess of vines: The water in the well is choked with water vines. Moving in the water is likely to get you badly entangled. This may result in drowning if one is unwary.
    35. A portal: The elemental plane of water is the most likely, but it could lead anywhere—from a nearby house to another plane. Strange locations are likely to alter nearby reality and the well water. A portal to the plane of fire will heat the well, to the negative plane may poison it.
    36. A madman’s scrawl: A set of writing in bizarre script. It is no existing tongue but can be translated with effort. Once deciphered though, it makes little to no sense.
    37. A ship: Depending on the size of the cave the well leads to, this could be a simple rowboat or a much larger vessel. Either there is somewhere to go, or this is an odd find indeed.
    38. A huge pile of bones: The floor of the well is home to a huge pile of bones of all description. This macabre monument might be the result of a predatory creature or someone with an interesting way of disposing of bodies. Either way there is certainly an interesting array of goodies beneath and within the pile, if it can be gotten to safely.
    39. A strange garden: Either lit by magic luminescent fungus or lightless and populated by pale colorless flora, this garden is host to a multitude of varieties of plant or fungus and was at least at one time tended. A bench and a stone path add finishing touches.
    40. A broken statue: At the bottom of the well is a statue shattered into several large chunks. It does not appear to have been carved out of the surrounding rock, so it has either been placed here and later broken, or shattered from being toppled into the well.
    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Making a Thing: Prioritizing What Matters

    31 July 2017 - 1:00am

    Have you ever been working on something, anything, and you get a brilliant flash of insight? Something hits you, out of the blue, and your mind starts racing. You’ve got ideas, plans, you know just how to implement everything . . .

    . . . and it has nothing at all to do with what you’re working on. In fact, with this shiny new set of ideas, what you’re working on now seems dull and drab by comparison. You look at what’s in front of you and wonder how you’re ever going to get it done. Or worse, you wonder how you’re going to make the old, dull thing as good as the fireworks of inspiration going off in your head.

    Or . . .

    You’ve got a passion project going, but it’s something that’s not paying. Another paying gig comes along and you’ve got to put the first project on the shelf. You’ve got no idea if you’ll ever be able to come back to it. What’s a writer, designer—or heck, just a good, old-fashioned gamer—supposed to do?

    That’s right, folks. Today we’re talking . . .


    I’ve been working on this Camp Adventure series for a couple of months, now. It’s a project I love working on, and I think it’s a great idea. Problem is, yesterday I signed a contract to do some work-for-hire with a publisher and it’s going to dominate my writing time for the next eight months or so.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m ridiculously excited about the upcoming project. It’s for an IP that I created, ever, and it’s a great opportunity. Thing is, I’m still going to look longingly over at my Camp Adventure documents and wonder what’s going to happen to them. Here are some things I’ve learned about that, and I’m writing them for you and because I’m going to have to remind myself of these time and again.

    1. It’s Okay to Let a Project Go

    There’s a feeling that I have a lot, and it feels akin to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. That’s the idea that something has more value because you’ve invested time and effort (or money) into it. Sometime’s that’s a totally valid feeling. Others, it’s you working to hold on to something because you feel like your time spent on it was wasted otherwise.

    (Incidentally, I think this is why people get so worked up when someone doesn’t validate their opinions about how great a game or game system is; it’s easy to be blind to a thing’s flaws because you’ve got so much invested in it. Anyway, I digress).

    The reality is that there’s only so much time. You have to choose how to spend it, and you have to choose what’s important. Working on this paying project is more important to me than Camp Adventure. There’s some sadness to that statement, but it’s true. I have to accept that.

    2. (Again) There’s Only So Much Time

    My other impulse is to think that I can just do it all.

    I’m effing amazing, right, so why wouldn’t I be able to handle anything I put my mind to.

    [Italics indicates my brain going off on its own and not doing a great job of seeing things realistically]

    I’ve fallen prey to this lie so many times I’ve lost count. There’s a fine line between being able to acknowledge your actual talents and assuming that you can handle absolutely anything. In my case, I assume that I’ll just be able to sit down, juggle projects, and write without any issues. Reality, in this case, is me sitting down to a computer and having the same problems that everyone else does when it comes to writing:

    • I don’t know what to write
    • I’m not good enough for this
    • Wow, this is a load of BS
    • Ooh! There’s a new game out today!

    Writing is work, and hard work at that. I can’t assume that I’ll be able to just do it without stopping when I choose. I have to spend my hours in the day doing a lot of other things, including giving my mind a break. That means, no matter how optimistic (that’s a kind word, let’s go with that) I am about my ability to DO ALL THE THINGS, I have limitations—major ones in some cases.

    That leads us to . . .

    3. It Takes Effort and Training to Write

    If I asked you to go run a marathon tomorrow, could you do it? Some of you no doubt could.

    If I asked those that could what kind of training it took to be able to do that, they’d tell me about a running regimen, ramping up mileage, eating properly, hydrating, stretching, and a host of other things that they have to continually work on to be able to do that kind of work.

    Writing a big project is a mental marathon. Very few people can sit down and write a coherent text without putting in a lot of effort. Articles like this I can write pretty well. But I only do them once or twice a month. It’s like a small sprint for me. If I have to carry these ideas across tens of thousands of words, back them up with research, source them, etc. it would take me a lot longer to write them and I’d probably do one every third month or so.

    Being able to write a game is similar. You’re not just delivering setting. You’re delivering system and ways to engage with that system. You’re giving procedures for play. You’re evoking settings that you often can’t just describe the way, say, a novel could. There are snippets of that but it’s always more complicated than you think. As well, you’re writing for people who aren’t you, so you have to make it accessible.

    It takes a lot of time and practice and help to be able to do that well. To that end (and to stay on topic), you have to take the time to work on those things, and that dovetails back into number 2. You can’t do that work all the time or your mind would wear out, same as a runner over-training.

    Now, it’s always possible you’re capable of more than you think you are. I’ve succeeded at things I never thought I had a chance to succeed at. Eddie Izzard ran a marathon a day for 27 days straight. It’s possible you can achieve amazing things. Just be aware of how much you can take at any one time.

    And, lastly . . .

    4. Ooooh, Shiny!

    This is my biggest problem because it feeds into the other three.

    New ideas are addictive and easy.

    When I get a new idea it’s like I described in the intro: my brain just lights up and everything seems so clear. I look at my current projects and wonder what I’m doing with myself. Why am I slogging away when I could be working on this new thing? The new thing is amazing! I know exactly how to approach it.

    It’ll be easier.

    Ideas, by and large, are easy. Cheap. They’re bright and shiny and fabulous because they don’t take any actual work. To have an idea unfold, I don’t have to sit down and look at real-world logistics or think about textual presentation or editing and revision or my audience or marketing and distribution or playing it with actual people or DOING ANY ACTUAL WORK AT ALL.

    No mistake, there is some part of the creative process that requires you to just dream and dream big. It’s about 1% of the process, but we like to think it’s more. I, especially, like to think it’s more because it’s certainly easier than sitting down and actually doing the work of writing. To carry back to the marathon example, it’s like imagining and visualizing the 26.2 mile run, not really running it.

    Know What Matters, What Doesn’t, and Do the Work

    This is tricky stuff to do and it takes time and effort (yes, more of those two) to learn it. In my current situation, it’s pretty easy: I get to work on a new, paying project I’m excited about. Camp Adventure is going to sit on the shelf with dozens of other half-finished projects. Will I ever come back to it?

    I don’t know.

    A valuable lesson for me was to learn to let go, like I said above. I have to accept that anything, from my bright shining ideas, to projects I’ve poured hours into, might never get done. That has to be okay for me to be able to do this work. If it weren’t, I’d be paralyzed and I’d finish nothing at all.

    So! Going forward, the Making a Thing articles are going to focus on the other things I’m making. I’m excited to share them with you and I hope that opening up my process will prove valuable. Summer camp for would-be adventurers will always be a cool idea. And I might get a chance to finish it . . . someday.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Design Flow: Campaign Playtesting

    28 July 2017 - 1:00am

    One of the great joys and challenges of game design is playtesting. On one hand, seeing your creation doing what it is supposed to—and people enjoying it—is incredibly uplifting. On the other hand, watching your perfect mechanic break under play can be heartbreaking. Despite the emotional roller coaster, having people that are not you playing your game is a necessity. Much like gaming in general, you can playtest using one shots, or in a campaign. Playtesting with one shots is pretty straight-forward, but playtesting for a campaign is a different beast altogether . . . and happens to be the topic of today’s design journal.

    The Necessity of Playtesting

    . . . there are some mechanisms that don’t come into play until you play consecutive sessions, and these need testing too—so we need to do campaign playtesting. 

    Playtesting is a crucial part of game design, much like in computer programming. This is largely because there are many similarities between the two. Both use a written set of code to act and react to input to produce output (that is its own topic for a later date). Unlike video games, RPG rules are even more tricky because they combine the freedom of player choice with GM interpretation, allowing for a nearly infinite combination of possibilities.

    That could make playtesting sound too daunting to even try—but in actuality, the actions a gaming group takes are more predictable than not, so you can test for the most common cases and let GMs make their own rulings or slug it out in forums about the fringe stuff.  

    When we playtest a game, we want to test the mechanisms of the game through actual play. That is, we want a group of players to play the game, to see what works and what doesn’t. Now one shot playtesting can cover many of the mechanisms of the game (combat, skill checks, spells, damage, etc). But there are some mechanisms that don’t come into play until you play consecutive sessions, and these need testing too—so we need to do campaign playtesting.

    The Challenge of Campaign Playtesting

    Campaign playtesting is tricky in some ways. For starters, you need a dedicated playtesting group who will be up for playing the game session after session. This requires a certain amount of commitment. Once you have a group, here are some other things you can run into:

    • Rules changing mid-campaign – as the rules are being developed and fixed, you need to update the campaign group with a new set of rules. This sometimes means that they will need to re-build their characters between sessions.
    • Slogging through broken stuff – sometimes you find something that breaks, but it keeps coming up in the game because you have not had time to fix it.
    • Parts getting dropped – some parts of the game may get dropped during the campaign, so players cannot hold too tightly to anything happening in the game.
    • You need to run a campaign – in addition to designing the game, you need to manage a campaign at the same time, rather than running a single scenario over and over.

    Despite all that, you still need the group to come committed to seriously play a campaign, even while everything is under construction.

    Hydro Hacker Playtesting

    For Hydro Hacker Operatives there is a large component of the game that can only be testing through campaign play. That is the Neighborhood; the place where the characters live.

    The Neighborhood is its own playbook, complete with Stats and Moves. It has a mechanism for advancement through Renovations, and it has some resource allocation mechanics where you need to allocate water to its stats in order to keep the Neighborhood running. There are also Threats, similar to other PbtA games, which target the Neighborhood.

    In the game, the Neighborhood activities take place at the end of a story (not a session), and Renovations take a number of stories to complete. Threats advance during play, but also grow and expand over multiple stories. So, the only way to explore those mechanisms is to run it in a campaign.  

    So for the past few months I have been running the game in a campaign mode, like I would if it were a game I purchased. We did character creation, session zero, and played our first story. In the coming weeks, we will begin to explore those Neighborhood mechanisms in more depth.

    Playtest Goals

    In addition to the normal playtest goals, here is a list of campaign mechanism goals that I want to see come up in play:

    • Start and complete a Neighborhood Renovation – I would like to see the characters improve some aspect of their Neighborhood through a project.
    • Advance a Threat to conclusion – I would like to see one of the Threats in the campaign come to fruition, and see how it affects the Neighborhood.
    • Have the players defeat a Threat  – I would like to see the characters take on a Threat and defeat it.
    • Become a Neighborhood Icon  – I would like a character to retire into the Neighborhood and see how that changes the Neighborhood and campaign.
    Test Twice, Cut Once

    Playtesting is an essential part of the design process. Some things can be tested in one shots, but other mechanisms can only be tested through multiple sessions of play.  Playtesting in a campaign form can be tricky as it relies on keeping a campaign going under a shifting set of rules.

    Have you ever playtested something in a campaign mode? What kinds of mechanisms have you encountered that only come out during campaign play?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Simple Tricks – Using Google To Blow Your Players’ Minds

    26 July 2017 - 1:32am

    The fabled Wow! signal, the strongest radio signal from space that may reveal an alien presence…

    While over at the house of my friend and fellow game writer and gnome, Tracy Barnett, I recently found my eyes wandering to his map of “haunted” locations in Ohio. He had picked up the map as a resource so that he could travel to different locations near him as weekend trips and see different places that were haunted or the sources of urban legends. Looking at that map planted a seed in my brain for a gaming concept – using Google to blow your players minds.

    I’m a big fan of running modern day or recent time period games so that I can use real world locations or areas that are familiar to my players. I ran an epic game of Vampire the Masquerade set in 1920s Akron, Ohio when I was living there. All of my players knew the terrain and histories, and a similar map of 1937 Akron from the Akron Road Tourists club allowed us to get a little bit of historical accuracy as the players vied for control of the rubber city. I’m notebook sketching the idea for a modern supernatural game set in my current hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and while I was at a party at Tracy’s and kept looking back at that map, I realized I had an epic tool at my disposal – Google.

    The Concept

    So, how can you use Google to blow your players minds? Well, this is primarily of use to a modern themed or historical game, but whenever you are asked a question about something you don’t know, like “What movie was that person in?”, what do you do? You put it into Google or Duck Duck Go (Yahoo? Bing? What the heck are those?). When we run modern games, we have to assume that the characters our players are playing have access to, and have been conditioned to use, the same tools we ourselves would use to gather information. So, with a little planning, when you players perform a gather information roll or attempt to find something out, you can say “What comes up when you Google it?”

    The “Prestige” Part of the Trick

    If we’re using the metaphor from the movie, the Prestige (Google it) of magic tricks, when you ask your players to Google something, they are going to look at you a little quizzically. Did the Game Master really just ask them to get out their real life phones and Google aliens in central Ohio? Yes, they did. And if they Googled it, they might come up with this article from NPR from 2010 that talks about a strange signal found at the 1420mhz frequency by researchers from Ohio state in 1977. If they are trying to figure out why WOW! was written on a piece of paper you gave them with a street address after they just chased a person in a rubber mask that they believed to be a “grey” alien, and you tell them to Google it, they might come up with that article or more information about the “Wow!” signal found in space. This might lead them to the realization that 1420mhz is a frequency they should monitor which might lead them to being able to eavesdrop on the enemies they are pursuing, the ones they suspect of extraterrestrial origins.

    Setting up the “Turn” and the “Pledge”

    Following on with the metaphor from The Prestige, using a modern search engine or information resource in your game to great effect requires setting up the “Prestige” part where they search it out and find something relevant. To make this work, you have to search it out yourself first. If you know that your modern day game is going to focus on some element, like haunted houses in Cleveland, Ohio, then you should Google various search terms and find out what comes up. Once you have an idea that you might be focusing on something like Franklin Castle, and you have an idea of what kind of resources the players will turn up with a search, you can set up the “Pledge”. The Pledge, in this case, is whatever clue leads them to the “Turn”, which is where you tell them to take 10 minutes and Google it as if they really were in an episode of Supernatural and were researching something out of the ordinary. In the case of our Alien signal, it would be including the piece of paper that says Wow! and the words Ohio State Signal. They might come across a recording of it, an article describing what some currently believe it is, and the Wikipedia article on it, among other things.  After Googling it, they will be full of ideas, ones that may match in line with things you have already thought of and are ready for, because you have already Googled it. Better than that, the players will be excited because learning something new triggers endorphins and that will build up excitement in the players.


    Doing a little pre-Googling, of the sort you are likely to do for prep in a modern game anyways, and then building in a “Pledge” that gets your players to duplicate your Googling efforts and find relevant data, will make them feel a deeper connection to the game world. It will evoke a feeling that more of it is spilling over into real life, since they were just on their phones and found some actual, relevant, data. If you want to take it a step further, build a small website or hosted blog (Tumblr,, Blogger, etc) that has some game relevant information and would trigger with specific search terms. Something like a reporter researching a company in your game world but having the story shuttered and having to publish it on their own blog. Setting it up a week or so in advance and knowing that “Verana Company Corruption Vampire” will trigger it. It will have to be specific enough, as Google ranking is very hard to acquire, but the correct search term that is discrete enough will make your players gasp, since the Verana company does not actually exist in the real world . . . does it?

    What technology tricks do you use to enhance your games? Have you ever used real world resources, or mimicked real world resources to make your games feel more real?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Bennies For Notecards

    19 July 2017 - 1:00am

    I’m trying something new. As a GM, I like it when players come up with small contributions to the game. Players like bennies. So I’ve designed and printed out a handful of 3×5 index cards that players can fill out to get bennies. Each one has a template for a new NPC, location, monster or mystery. When a player needs a benny or wants to stockpile one, they can grab a card and add a bit of content to the game that I can make use of immediately or later. When the cards that I put out at the beginning of the session are all gone, so are the free bennies.

    I may tweak these as the thrown-together or stolen and mangled templates prove insufficient (in fact I am hoping for some feedback), but for now you can download a PDF of them here.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Troy’s Crock Pot: Adding some magical touches

    17 July 2017 - 12:01am

    We play fantasy rpgs because we love magic interwoven in our adventures. Wizards casting spells, sly bards with their enchantments, priests with their miraculous cures — all of it spurs our imagination into believing we are playing in a realm fantastic and weird.

    [Now, my next assertion is a bit of a generalization, and like all generalizations, may crumble a bit upon examination. So forgive me if you think I’m pinpointing a “problem” that — for you — may not exist.]

    But I’ve observed that when it comes to gamemasters, we seem to shy away from infusing new magical spells into our games.

    As GMs, we either hold tightly to the core rules of our rulebooks, using only the magic prescribed in that section (because we trust that it works within the system), or we rely entirely on the players to select new spells that their characters can use (because we see PCs as the change agents in our games).

    On the rare occasion we do “add” a new spell, it’s because it is appearing in a published adventure that we are adapting for use in our game. Again, it is a “prescribed” addition rather than a more conscious choice.

    [Told you it was a generalization. You may commence your protests.]

    So, I think as GMs, choosing to introduce new magic spells can — like selecting certain monsters or choosing descriptions of things from a historical period — help shape and contour your setting. The orange-robed wizards from the School of Mysteries can cast spell X, but only reveal the secret to its most devoted acolytes, for example.

    If the game is historical, it adds a twist of the fantastic. For example, now that your knight has been invited into the circle of Charlemagne’s paladins, the archbishop has revealed how you can call upon this inner power to do good.

    Gaining a new spell can be the source of a quest. It might be the surest way to exploit the only known weakness of the villain or dispelling the wards that guard a treasure. In a level-based game, it can be an indication of increased powers and abilities — only upon gaining the “5th level of enlightenment” is this spell, signifying the mysteries of the ancients, revealed to you.

    And so forth.   

    Choosing what spells to introduce is entirely a personal choice. But here are some of my favorites, gleaned from supplements I’ve acquired over the years. Where I can, I’ve included a story hook, to see how it might be introduced to a game. You might note I’m more attracted to the flavor surrounding the magic than the actual power imbued in the spell. But I have always liked spells that have more whiz than bang. (You may also notice I rarely get past the letter “B” when perusing spell books).


    This spell is favored by bards with a necromantic bent. Designed by James Jacobs for a Dragon magazine No. 328 article entitled “Tvash-Prill’s Symphony,” it was thoughtfully included in both Champions of Ruin and the D&D Spell Compendium for 3.5.

    Using a miniature fiddle of pure silver as a focus, the spell creates a phantasmal fiddle bow that “saws” through the target as it plays a haunting melody, dealing sonic damage as it goes. My favorite touch is the spell’s focus. Should the PCs find or steal this trinket, will they be immediately intrigued? What’s it for? Why was the bard carrying this? Why is the bard pursuing us so vigorously for it? The trinket is a great tool for GMs to introduce this spell into the game.

    Blood Spikes

    A necromancy spell with a yuck factor of 7 or 8 and a cool factor of 10, this one from Monte Cook’s The Complete Book of Eldritch Might. When cast it causes  the target’s blood to congeal into hardened spikes that spring out of the target’s body, dealing damage to the flesh as it does so. My favorite bit is the part of the description that says, should the target survive, it can use the spikes as weapons for the duration of the spell. (As if it will occur to the person whose has bloody spikes protruding from their flesh to rip them out and use them as weapons.) It’s like magic missile in reverse, but it has such a grotesque description, its perfectly suited for use by a demented villain — especially if she chooses to afflict a minion so that its other followers can be armed with blood spikes. On the other hand, PCs on a vengeance quest might find it a particularly attractive option. (So, how do I inflict pain on my enemies? I just don’t want to defeat them, I want them to suffer!)

    Bounce the Baby

    Wolfgang Baur wrote this nifty little cantrip for the Book of Roguish Luck. Basically, it’s an under-powered feather fall for thieves who occasionally slip while on their rooftop burglary excursions. It doesn’t mitigate all the falling damage, just enough to cause the PCs to land as if on a trampoline and spring away, hence the name, Bounce the Baby. The spell also anticipates its preferred use, to bounce about and go whack-a-mole on your foes. Before you can go boing, though, membership in the local thieves’ guild might be required. Better yet, it can be the discovery of a dabbler in magic, who in trying to recreate a feather fall spell, mangles it and comes up with this little ditty, which in his eyes is a failure but to the local mob bosses, is a little bit of gold. The dabbler suddenly finds himself being chased by the city’s major crime figures — so he seeks out the PCs for protection.

    Raise from the Deep

    Another from the Spell Compendium. This one is a cinematic wonder, pulled straight form a Pirates of the Caribbean-style adventure? Do you need to explore the shipwreck that sank to the ocean floor? Just like in the movies, this spell raises the wreck for a time so that it bobs on the ocean surface, just long enough to explore it and make off with its treasures. Because the spell has such a specific use, it’s great to have it written on a scroll (or equivalent disposable object, say a bamboo chart or roll of papyrus). That means before the PCs can salvage the wreck, they need a mini adventure to acquire this spell, which is secure in some sea captain’s personal collection, part of a sea priest’s chapbook of sea shanties, or written in secret script on the back of a prized navigational chart. It can even be obtained through one of those breadcrumb searches that are a signature part of the “National Treasure” or “Robert Langdon” movies.

    Have you any spells you enjoy introducing into your game? What’s the spell and its source, and the circumstances you brought it in?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design