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Constraints And Creativity

4 December 2017 - 3:00am


Several years ago while I was working on my fundamentals before I started my stat degree, I took a creative writing class as an elective*. For one of the assignments, the professor had a local poet visit and speak to us about his craft. I remember his readings being very interesting despite the fact that I’m not really a poetry guy, so I wish I also remembered his name so I could link him here. However, one of the things he said during his question/answer session came back to me recently and it struck me how important it is to my own, and I suspect many people’s, creative process. Asked to comment about his choice to use various structures of poetry, he said something akin to (and this is me paraphrasing from memory, not an exact quote):

“I know a lot of people like writing in free verse because it’s easier than having to deal with all the rules of for example, iambic pentameter,  but to me the reverse is true. I like choosing a structure and a subject and then knowing exactly how I have to write my poem to fit the structure. It allows me to focus on less things. I actually find writing in free verse harder because there are so many more things to consider.”

It’s pretty obvious that what he was talking about is the concept of option paralysis: having so many options that you find yourself unable to make a choice. The other night when I remembered this, I suddenly realized that this is the fundamental conflict I’ve been trying to deal with for years. I’ve written articles about templates, articles about how-to guides, articles about random generation tables, articles about limiting your prep, all in service of making creativity easier by adding constraints. Heck, it even helps explain the article I wrote a few years back about how I love minecraft but hate drawing maps. In construction games your crafting list sits right there on screen like a checklist. Have you made a library? You can build bookshelves and an enchanting table, so you probably need one. Have you made a bathroom? Well, you can’t construct a toilet and you don’t poop, so you probably don’t need one.** In addition, the limited blockset and game physics are both constraints that make construction choices, if not simple, at least limited.

This also explains some of the complaints I have about certain, to be unnamed, RPGs that have endless book after book of race options and endless books of class options. Ironically, several pages of point buy system provides more options than 10 books of races and classes, but causes less option paralysis because everything you can choose is in one central location and follows a simple formula. (It also doesn’t sell dozens of system bloating, unnecessary, expensive books though, so I know why publishers might choose the books over the purchase point system.)

It also explains, for those of us who are old enough to remember 1e and Basic, why the time it takes to do anything with RPGs has ballooned. Not only have the options for each component in your system increased but so have the types of challenges, the play styles, the genres, etc . . .

If you’re unsure that addition of constraints makes creativity easier: Make an adventure using the following constraints – Use one of the 9 forms of the 5 room dungeon. Your rooms are only allowed to be 20’x30′ rectangles or 30′ diameter circles. Your enemies are 3 types of orcs or orc allies and you get one trap. It does damage and adds a status effect. Go. Takes like, 5 minutes, at most, right? Of course everyone who participated has results that look similar, but each is going to be different. There are still nominally 288 dungeon layouts before you flavor it up, you still have dozens of types of orcs and orc allies (warriors, archers, scrubs, shamans, goblins, worgs, bugbears, ogres etc . . .), and dozens of types of traps (darts with slow poison, falling rocks that create difficult terrain, barbed nets, etc . . .) that meet the criteria. In addition, this is just a factor of the chosen constraints. If I had said: Make a village of 5 small buildings populated by were-cats and their animal spies with one hidden dark shrine, it would take the same 5 minutes but be completely different.

So what’s the takeaway? How does this help us? Simple: If you’re staring down a blank sheet of paper at a loss***, start writing constraints on it until you have something manageable enough that allows your creativity to just flow out of your pen (or screen and keyboard – whatever, you get it.) Remember that while it may seem limiting to add constraints, all you’re doing is pre-selecting large swaths of choices to NOT use, and you can constrain differently next time. Here are some easy constraints to add:

  • Large scale
    • Books: For the love of god, constrain books. Don’t go digging through 50 books to find your monster of the week. Don’t hit the internet and dig through a million character builds for your NPCs. Just pick a few books (I’m a fan of just using the core necessary ones) and use only what’s in there.
    • Genre: This is often implied by system, but especially if it isn’t, pick a genre. Even if it is specified by system, you can usually narrow it down a bit. This often greatly constrains your options.
    • Gygaxian Unnaturalism: Pick a reason for Gygaxian Unnaturalism and run with it. Say goodbye to worrying about what monsters eat, why they poop and if they can be reformed (they can’t).
  • Monsters
    • Books again: Lots of systems have monster book after monster book. They’re quick cash-ins. But you don’t need more than the base one. When was the last time you used most of the monsters in the core monster book anyway?
    • Choose a handful: Back in 2009, Martin wrote an article about the Decamer (roughly: ten turds) Campaign. In this concept, your campaign contains only ten monsters total. You don’t have to pick ten awful ones, but constraining yourself in this way makes picking monsters pretty easy.
  • NPCs
    • Generators: Pick a random generator for NPC name, race, class, personality etc. Stick with it.
    • Templates: Alternately, pick a template you like and stick with that instead.
    • Monsters: Need an NPC in combat, reskin a similar monster from the one monster book you allowed yourself. Done.
  • Maps
    • Generators: Find an online map generator. Run it and run with it.
    • 5 Rooms: As linked earlier, there are only 9 (or 3 depending on how you count) forms of the 5 room dungeon. Grab and go.
    • Geomorphs: Plenty of geomorph sets are available. Pick one and use it exclusively.
    • Symbol sets: Pick a symbol set and only use it. For dungeon maps, you may want to also restrict yourself to a handful of room sizes/types.


* Only sorta, but the full story isn’t relevant here.

** Ironically, in Ark you can poop but can’t build a toilet. In 7 Days to Die you can build a toilet but can’t poop. In both games you need poop to make fertilizer though.

*** In a recent blog article on scope and scale, The Angry GM called facing a blank piece of paper “the most powerful, most insurmountable obstacle in the entirety of GM-ing-dom”

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Design Flow : Conveying Table Culture

1 December 2017 - 1:00am

“What is your game about?” Your first reaction, the most obvious one, is to talk about the setting of the game—the elevator pitch. Hydro Hackers has an elevator pitch that I think does a pretty good job answering that question (see the end of the article). Let’s go one level deeper, and we can ask that same question about what the themes and tropes of the game are. As a Powered by the Apocalypse style game, H2O has an Agenda and Principles which answer this question. But if we go one more level deeper, there is another answer to this question, which might be better stated as “What is the culture your game creates at the table?” That is what we are going to look at . . . the table culture of a game.

What is Table Culture?

If you know me, you know I like definitions—and I am not afraid to coin them when I need to. This time is no different. Let’s start with a generic definition:

Culture: The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.

For the definition we need in this article, the organization is the group of players (GMs are players) who play a game.  With that our definition now becomes:

Table Culture: The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes the group of players who play a game.

That will do.

This means that different games and different game systems have their own cultures. In other words, different games produce different practices, attitudes, etc when played. The players of the game then demonstrate their culture as they play the game, when they talk about the game, etc.

We can see this in different games: Savage World players have a custom of calling themselves Savages. The OSR values a DIY approach to gaming, with their use of house rules and zines. Powered by the Apocalypse players value things like being fans of the players, and the goal of playing to see what happens.

So games have cultures, with all the good and bad that come from them. They can create a home for people, but they can gate-keep or ostracize people. They can create unity and be a source of identification, but they can also cause clashes with other cultures as well. This means that as game designers, we have a responsibility to consider the culture our games will create.

How is table culture conveyed?

The table culture of a game starts at the rulebook. The rulebook is the source document that will be read by the players, which will create a new culture. Without being insulting, it is akin to the Bible (please don’t read deeper than the most surface of comparisons). It contains the source material which is then put into practice within the church and congregation. The rulebook does the same thing. It is the source information that is then put into practice at the gaming table with the group.

The table culture of the game is expressed in a number of ways throughout the rulebook:

  • Text – The general text of the book, how it is written, the use of pronouns, the inclusion of a safety chapter or a chapter on inclusivity.
  • Art – What kind of art is being shown. Is there diversity and representation? Have we avoided stereotypes and cliches?
  • Fiction – Similar to Art, does our in-game fiction show diversity and have good representation? How do the characters behave – are they combative and aggressive, or thoughtful and cautious?
  • Mechanics – What rules have we created around what activities, and how many rules have we created to support them. Does our game rely on violent solutions to conflicts or have we presented other choices?
  • Examples – In our example text are we showing the mannerisms we want to be seen in the game? Are we making sure everyone gets an equal voice? Are we showing how to handle the delicate situations in our game? Or are we just showing how different rules resolve?

<Climbing on my soapbox and addressing my fellow designers>

 We need to be clear about our stances on how we expect the table to run when the game is played.  

As game designers, we need to stop and think about the culture that will form around this game, and then make sure the rulebook supports this. In fact, we need to do this in a deliberate manner. We need to go beyond just talking about how the rules work and what the setting includes. We need to be clear about our stances on how we expect the table to run when the game is played. We need to be explicit about inclusion and diversity and not expect the readers of the book to “put their own spin on it”.

Just at it is our responsibility to teach the rules of the game, and to empower the GM to effectively run a game, we have an equal responsibility to convey how we want our games to be played, and the culture we are trying to foster.

</Gets off of the soapbox>

What is H2O’s Table Culture?

As I am getting ready to make the push to finish the manuscript, I have been giving this some thought. What are my expectations for the culture of Hydro Hacker Operative players? I have been brainstorming and here is what I am thinking about (by no means finished or in its entirety) . . .

  • Violence is not the best tool
  • There is strength in collaboration and diversity
  • There is beauty in diversity
  • Everyone’s voice is heard
  • Oppression is evil and not to be celebrated
  • Resistance against oppression is necessary
  • There is humor and love even in the darkest of times

These are things I want expressed in the rulebook and also at the table. So the big question is . . .

How is that going to be expressed?

I think that the first thing I am going to do is to put the final list of objectives right into the game and state it upfront and clearly. This is what this game is about, and this is how I hope it is played at the table.

The next thing I am going to do is make sure that the text, including the fiction and the examples, is supporting these ideas. Most of those parts are not written yet, and so I have a chance to make sure that it’s written in from the beginning. I know for one example I want to make sure that I show someone cutting another person off at the table, and someone else intervening to make sure that the first person was heard.

In the rule text, which is the most developed part of the manuscript,  a number of these things have been worked into the mechanics. For instance, the main move for doing violence (Throwing Down) is not a great move; even on a 10+ there are consequences. Also, Sneak Around (stealth) is a basic move available to everyone, to encourage stealth over force. There are strong social mechanics in the game, to be able to talk your way around things. There is also a group action move that fosters collaboration.

In the artwork, our initial illustrations of the sample characters are very diverse, and that is something we will continue going forward. John Arcadian is a brilliant art director, and I have complete faith that we will continue that as we start the art orders for the game.

The Rulebook Will Only Go So Far

The cultural messages that are seeded in the book will only go so far. They need players to read and put them into practice. This is where the designers do not have direct influence. We cannot make people play our game the way we intended. We can only convey our wishes. Just as a group may house-rule your game to cut away some of the mechanics, a group of players can ignore the cultural tone you have set in your rules.

But designers are not without influence outside of just the rulebook. There are two places where designers can exert their influence: Actual Plays and Online Communities.

Designers need to take an active hand in creating the early Actual Plays for their games. These Actual Plays will be listened to by the early adopter players, who will be the first members of your community. The way you play the game in your Actual Play will demonstrate your game culture to them, and they will adopt those practices because we as humans are hardwired to do just that.

You can also take an active part in the culture of your game by creating and tending to its social media. Take the initiative to create the G+ group for your game and engage in active discussions with those people playing the game. The rulebook may have initialized the culture, but by being an active member of the social group, you can steer it, clarify things, and give further examples.

Final Thoughts

The culture of a game can work for or against the game. There are people who won’t play certain games that they would likely enjoy because they don’t feel comfortable with the culture that surrounds the game. Game designers have a responsibility to shape that culture in the rulebook, and can greatly help to foster the culture through Actual Play and being active in the community that surrounds the game.

For Hydro Hacker Operatives, there will be an explicit expectation for the culture of the game, and then it will be reflected throughout the book. I already have my initial Actual Play planned, and when the time is right a Hydro Hackers G+ community will appear.


For those who made it through the article, the Elevator Pitch for Hydro Hacker Operatives is:  You are hydro-punk Robin Hoods stealing water from corporations to keep your neighborhood alive.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Ghosts of Dathomir Review

28 November 2017 - 5:00am

Fantasy Flight Games Ghosts of Dathomir Product Page

Fantasy Flight has been producing Star Wars RPG material since the introduction of Edge of the Empire in 2013. In that time, they have produced seven standalone hardcover adventures, spread out over each of the Star Wars RPG lines. If you are interested in some of my previous reviews of the FFG Star Wars RPG line, you can find reviews here: What Do I Know About Reviews? Fantasy Flight Star Wars

This brings us to the most recently released Fantasy Flight Star Wars adventure, Ghosts of Dathomir. This adventure is for the Force and Destiny line, so it focuses on Force sensitive player characters and things that would utilize the Force as a theme.

The Mists of Dathomir’s History

Many of the adventures and sourcebooks in FFG’s Star Wars lines touch on what is now Legends material, as well as incorporating the most recent material being produced in the canon movies, novels, comics, and television shows.

Dathomir and the Nightsisters have been around in Star Wars circles since The Courtship of Princess Leia, published in 1994. At that point in time, the Witches of Dathomir were split much like the Jedi and the Sith, with the Nightsisters being the dark side representatives. Throughout Legends continuity, the witches of Dathomir were utilized in many places right up to the end of the previous extended universe.

In canon stories, they first appear in the Clone Wars television series, and from a canon standpoint, only the Nightsisters exist. Canon Nightsisters, however, are a little less clear cut than their Legends counterparts—sources such as the novel Dark Disciple make it clear that the Nightsisters will use the dark side of the Force, but they still consider it dangerous. Giving in to the dark side, as the Sith do, is something to be avoided.

When the lore on Dathomir is utilized in this adventure, it seems to lean heavily on the canon version of the witches, with only the Nightsisters referenced. The history of the planet, when events outside of the adventure are mentioned, sticks with events as they unfolded in canon sources such as the Clone Wars animated series.

The Ritual of the Book

Ghosts of Dathomir maintains the standard structure for the Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG adventures. It is a hardcover book that clocks in at 96 pages. The book starts with a one page “crawl” summarizing the adventure, and the final page of the book is an ad for other FFG Star Wars products.

The production values of Fantasy Flight’s books are always high, and this one is no exception. Each chapter has a two-page spread summarizing a potential action scene for that chapter, and there are numerous half and quarter page illustrations. There are a few repurposed pictures from other Fantasy Flight products (such as a few illustrations of Stormtroopers), but most of the art is specific to this adventure, portraying NPCs and locations detailed within the book itself.

Fantasy Flight Games Ghosts of Dathomir Product Page

Never Tell Me the Odds

This review touches upon a few plot points for the adventure. As such, there may be a few spoilers scattered throughout. If you don’t want to stumble across any spoilers, you may want to skip the in-depth look at the various sections of the book.


The adventure opens with the single page of fiction that Fantasy Flight uses to kick off their products, detailing an event that sets up the starting point of the adventure. From there, we have an adventure overview, which explains some of the backstory leading into the adventure. We have a list of important NPCs, and an adventure summary, explaining how each chapter is intended to unfold. There is a section on game preparation, as well as a new Force Power tied to the main villain of the story.

One aspect of the backstory that I really liked was the idea of a mega-corporation sending floating cities to various planets that they are strip mining to oversee the process. Inhabitants of the planet causing the floating city to crash is a suitably epic event to have occur. This feels very Star Wars in scale, and yet isn’t something we have explicitly seen previously.

The new Force Power is something introduced in Chronicles of the Gatekeeper. I like these, because they illustrate that the Force Power trees are just a means by which one tradition may learn to use the Force, not the only “true” way to progress within a limited set of pre-determined powers.

This power tree allows a character to generate fear in opponents, eventually allowing them to feed off that fear to regain strain. At the highest levels of mastery, a practitioner can use fear to cause an opponent to take actions they wouldn’t normally take. It’s a nice villainous power tree, but one that will potentially cause a lot of Conflict for any PC that starts to learn it.

As in Chronicles of the Gatekeeper, there are numbers that indicate at what point in the adventure the PCs can start to learn different levels of this power tree. Specific events that trigger in certain episodes allow the power to be accessed and advanced, if the PCs choose to do so.

Episode I: Inquiring Minds

The adventure starts with the PCs attempting to track down an artifact that is rumored to have a connection to the Jedi or the Sith, and starts them on Toydaria, looking for an art dealer that is going to auction off the artifact.

As they look for the shop, depending on the skills they are using to find the place, they may be able to find out some ancillary information that may clue them in on the wider story of what is going on surrounding the dealer and his shop, but there aren’t really any stakes. It is essentially having the PCs land on the planet and then make several checks until they can narrow down where the shop is located.

Eventually the PCs will find out that the shop owner and the artifact have been taken by thugs, and they have the chance to either beat up or bribe the local thugs for information on where he’s being held. Upon arriving at the estate, they can poke around for more clues to the greater context of what is going on. They are detected and fight the kidnappers in their attempt to recover their prize. The villain of the adventure shows up, but only long enough for them to see her and potentially figure out what that crazy circular lightsaber on her back means.

The initial searching for the shop feels like a very cold open to a Star Wars adventure. It also feels like there are a few other missed opportunities.

  • The initial encounter in the shop could have been comedic gold if they had fleshed out the encounter in more detail—a protocol droid leading cleaning droids to defend the household is just begging for its own chart of potential mishaps using the narrative dice symbols.
  • There is the feeling of balancing risk versus reward as the PCs explore the estate where the NPC and artifact are being held, risking discovery as they do more research and pick up more clues—unfortunately, the only explicit “timer” on the PCs being discovered is that eventually, they will fail a stealth check when moving around.
  • Some of the information the PCs might gain from a successful roll when looking around is a false lead for what is really going on—I would much rather hand the PCs a false lead than force them to “spend” a success on learning it. That just feels a little dishonest from the GM side of things.


Episode II:  Deadly Visions

Fantasy Flight Games Ghosts of Dathomir Product Page

In this chapter, the PCs get pressed into service to find another NPC that will allow them to find out more backstory for the adventure. They also start having Force visions triggered by the artifact that they recovered. Eventually they get an idea of where their final destination might be, and they are pointed towards a place where they can research that location before heading out.

The PCs head into the wilderness on Toydaria to help recover the person that owned the artifact before the art dealer, and between the wilderness encounters and a run in with Imperials, potentially debilitating Force visions start to kick in.

  • I really like that the Force visions are keyed to the characters’ emotional weaknesses, as well as being divided between those that are likely to appear to light leaning Force users versus dark side using Force users—I wish that the visions themselves more explicitly stated what the PCs should be taking away from them.
  • It’s fine for visions to be vague, but if the clue is in one sentence out of the five provided in the description, that’s the difference between “I don’t know why the blue bottle is significant,” and “wait, there was a blue bottle in my vision? I don’t even remember you reading that.”
  • As presented, the PCs have their ship impounded by a Hutt until they recover the previous owner of the artifact, but there is also an ISB agent involved. The ISB agent is looking for the villain of the story, but is utilized mainly to go after the PCs as an added complication.

I think it might have been more interesting to have options where either the crime lord or the ISB agent impounded the ship and pressed the PCs into service, instead of forcing a more linear resolution of this chapter. Moral quandaries are part of what sets Force and Destiny apart from the other Star Wars lines, so what better way to introduce one than to have them work with the Empire against another Force sensitive?

Episode III: Echoes of the Past

Fantasy Flight Games Ghost of Dathomir Product Page

Between the visions and the clues provided by the NPC in the previous chapter, the PCs should be able to determine that the resolution for this story is on Dathomir, the planet where the main villain is from—she was a Nightsister recruited by an Imperial Inquisitor, who then killed her master and went rogue. It is also the planet of origin for the artifact.

Because Dathomir doesn’t have many modern settlements on it, the GM is instructed to have the PCs look around for a while to find the final resting place of the crystal mass where the villain is going.

There are some modular encounters that take place either in the ruins above the crash site, or in the underground location the PCs are trying to find. There isn’t a set number of these that should be used, and there is no mechanical trigger for any of them, they are just included as examples of encounters the PCs could have.

Eventually the PCs will find the villain, who has begun to learn how to control the greater crystal mass to boost her powers, and she will have Nightbrother guards to help her in this final confrontation. Then she literally summons illusory ghosts of Nightsisters with the stone to help her attack the PCs.

I’m still a little confused about the chain of events here, even after taking notes and reading several sections multiple times.

  • The villain wanted both shards that broke off a larger crystal mass on Dathomir, but after attempting to get the shard that the PCs have in the first chapter, she decides she only needs the one she has always had. She then proceeds to go to her own home planet, which she always knew was the origin of the crystal?
  • The NPC Nightsisters that live nearby are “neutral” but “positively disposed” towards the villain, because she took the crystal away, and its influence faded—but she’s bringing it back, so why be positively disposed towards her?
  • The Nightbrothers that show up in the final act also seem to be thinly drawn—the villain used to be a Nightsister, so they decide to follow her.
  • While the text instructs the GM to make sure the PCs feel that the search takes a while, and they are told to resolve this with only a few rolls, there aren’t really any tools provided to increase the stakes of searching.

There are some good seeds in this section that I wish had been utilized more. Instead of just giving up and taking her one shard, the villain could have taunted the PCs into coming to Dathomir to either join her or try to take her shard, so she could ambush them and gain theirs.

Side Note: How Much Dathomir is in Ghosts of Dathomir?

If you are a fan of Dathomir and the Nightsisters, this adventure may not have as much content as you were expecting. The crystal mass that produces the artifacts that put the story in motion aren’t tied to any Legends or canon lore on the Nightsisters or Dathomir. This mysterious mass could have sprung up on just about any planet.

Fans think of a lot of things that are synonymous with Dathomir. The Nightsisters with their energy bows. Zombies. Giant rancors. In this adventure, only the Nightbrothers show up, justified in that they are following a (former) Nightsister. There is a brief mention of negotiating with the local tribe to get them on the PCs side, but they have no statistics, and no Nightsister NPC is named or given any personality traits in this adventure.

The Force is My Ally

The floating factory cities of the mega-corporation are a great visual that could be used as a recurring theme in a campaign. The main villain has a great backstory, being tied to both the Nightsisters and the Inquisitors, and she is made more interesting by the fact that she is also on the run from the Empire. The Force power tree is a great inclusion for GMs to use with NPCs, or to dangle in front of PCs to tempt their moral fiber. The structure of having visions keyed to emotional weaknesses and dark or light side leanings is a great tool. Modular encounters are always good to drop into other adventures where appropriate. It wouldn’t take much to repurpose elements of this adventure for use in an Edge of the Empire game.

There are some useful tools in this adventure that might appeal to you if you are a Star Wars RPG completest, but if you are looking for a good Force and Destiny adventure, Chronicles of the Gatekeeper holds together better than this one, and if you are interested in the potential Dathomir lore, it is only superficially addressed in this adventure. Spread The Stew:

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing

While the motivation for some of the primary NPCs makes sense, the secondary NPCs in the adventure seem to exist just to move the plot forward. False leads that should just be given to the PCs, for them to accept or scrutinize, are handed out as part of their successes for some tasks. The clues that exist in the adventure to explain the backstory of what happened may never come together. The clues are very discreet from one another, and may not be obvious, meaning there could be a lot of wasted backstory in this adventure.

The actual plot structure feels a little rushed, especially at the end of Episode II and going into Episode III. Its linear, but the main villain just drops everything to do the next thing on her list because it’s time for the next episode. It’s clear that Dathomir, as a setting, is intended to be a selling point, but the climax of the story could have happened on almost any planet where the GM wanted to have the crystal mass show up.

Tenuous Recommendation—The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.

There are some useful tools in this adventure that might appeal to you if you are a Star Wars RPG completest, but if you are looking for a good Force and Destiny adventure, Chronicles of the Gatekeeper holds together better than this one, and if you are interested in the potential Dathomir lore, it is only superficially addressed in this adventure.

The two main issues with the product are that it adheres to a much more “traditional” structure for designing an RPG adventure that doesn’t take advantage of the unique aspects of the FFG system, and that there are areas that were not developed in the space allowed, which may have made the overall adventure better. Specifically, the ISB agent hunting the main villain and the nearby village of Nightsisters needed more information to make them matter.

What did you think of the review? Agree? Disagree? Is there anything I might have missed? Please let me know in the comments. Additionally, feel free to let me know what kinds of reviews you would like to see in the future, and thanks for your time!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Improv And The Art of Group Story Telling

27 November 2017 - 3:00am

“I know you think you can handle this,” our superhero mentor says to us as she heads off to fight evil in what we know is the wrong place. “But you can’t. Stay here, and stay safe.” We look at each other for a moment in the empty room before immediately making our own plans.

When a group really clicks and plays off each other, there’s nothing quite like it. Not every group will do it every day or every game, but the moments are worth every session. My favorite games to play right now lean towards guided improv, so the skills that help you improvise better as a group are one hundred percent at play. That means picking up on the things your friends are doing, remembering them, and building on them. It also means sometimes you prioritize the story you’re telling as a group over the welfare of your individual character. It means making the other characters look good, and it means trusting your table, actively communicating in and out of character, and being giving and game as a player.

“I know you think you can handle this,” Kel says to her dog, looking him in the eye as we prepare to head to Shyree’s spaceship to get us to the island none of the adult superheroes seem to think is important. “But you can’t. Stay here, and stay safe.” He cocks his head to the side at her and whines. We head to the ship.

One key difference in improving our games vs. the kind of improv we see in most improv theatre is length. We’re committed to playing these characters and remembering their history and their ongoing moments for the length of this one shot or campaign. Whether it’s four hours or two years, the ways that you can call back to your group history give depth and meaning (and frequently comedic relief) to your games. What isn’t different is the need to trust your fellow players to have your back in storytelling and making character failure okay, especially in service to the overall narrative. As long as everyone is safe, there are no mistakes in improv . . . only happy accidents.

“I know you think you can handle this,” Shyree whispers to her ship as we split up to search the island. “But you can’t. Stay here, and stay safe.” The ship fades a little more into the background, shutting down its non-essential systems. She heads off into the forest. [Masks – She’s A Super Geek]

When you can improv your way into the kind of things that happen in prewritten scripts — like the rule of three — it’s sheer magic. So how do you create this atmosphere at your table?

 When you can improv your way into the kind of things that happen in prewritten scripts — like the rule of three — it’s sheer magic. So how do you create this atmosphere at your table? Spread The Stew: Make Your Table a Safe Space

Please please make your table a safe space for everyone in general, but in this particular case, to get this kind of play, you have to trust each other. That means knowing the GM isn’t out to get you, and it means knowing that as people and players you are invested in telling a good story. To tell the kind of story we really engage with as humans, your characters are going to face adversity, and they are going to fail. And that’s okay. Heck, that’s great. To allow a story to really unfold, failure has to be just as acceptable as success. Personally, I find it harder to achieve this level of table trust in a game like Pathfinder where bad die rolls can take you out of the game than in Dungeon World or something else Powered by the Apocalypse, where failure becomes a mechanic that gives codified narrative power to the GM to make the story more interesting. And why wouldn’t I want the story to be more interesting? Fail away! One of my most enjoyable recent games was a round of Protocol, where we spent the evening vying for the Goblin throne. Did I win? Not at all. My character ended the game lying dead over her lover’s body Romeo and Juliet style, both of us killed by our own competing machinations. And I loved every second.

So how do you make your table a safe place to improv?

  • Set expectations clearly as a group before you play. That’s things like, how deadly is this game? How serious is this game? What kind of story are we telling? Are there safety mechanisms to allow us to explore things without being scared of hurting someone, and how do they work? This is part of a good session zero if you’re starting a campaign.
  • Actively demonstrate the kind of play you expect. As a GM, if I want my table to improv, I start sourcing the table for more and more parts of my game. Inviting input sets up an atmosphere of shared story building that will continue beyond the moments when you actually ask.
  • Catch each other. If someone is drawing a blank, don’t leave them dangling. Ask if they want some help or start spit-balling. The final choice on what happens is theirs (and don’t take it from them), but sometimes getting ideas flowing as a group is all it takes to give someone support and a couple of directions, instead of the infinite possibilities. There’s no audience and we’re not on stage . . . there’s no reason to put someone on the spot and give them stage fright among friends. We all freeze sometimes.

Don’t try to get your hands on the GM’s notes. Do take a moment to step out of your story and present an idea to your fellow players about a really interesting way you see a conversation or relationship going. If you can get enthusiastic buy in from the other player(s) about a direction to move in, you’re on your way! It is okay to pause and check in with people, especially if it’s an idea that will push in directions you want to be sure everyone else is comfortable pushing. Backing out a level to check in about the story you’re all telling together is perfectly valid and encourages conversation and contribution at your table.


You won’t pick up on an opportunity to call something back if you don’t catch it the first time. Sometimes that means catching that subtle hint that someone just dropped that they have a fear of bunnies, and sometimes that means spotting a glorious line you can hit again and again as your story unfolds. A key part of communicating is actively listening. You can’t truly be involved in this conversation/story unless you are picking up everything your table is putting down — even if it’s only to store it for later.

Be Giving  If you want to play the storytelling kind of game, it means prioritizing the story over your own spotlight as the main character. Spread The Stew:

Sometimes the story organically gravitates more towards one character’s plot than yours. If you want to play the storytelling kind of game, it means prioritizing the story over your own spotlight as the main character. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get spotlight time. It means you may be using your spotlight time to drive towards a story that isn’t intrinsic to your character. For example, I’ve played several games of Lady Blackbird. Generally it leans towards an ensemble cast kind of play, which is very typical to most games most of the time. Once it notably warped in to a romantic comedy very strongly. That’s not at all to say that we didn’t all share our action time, but the story started to have a clear direction, and as players we all took it and ran. In the Masks game that demonstrated the rule of threes so magically at the beginning of this article, we also called back a piece from our beginning tableau to the end to tie up Shyree’s crush on Kel, which my character had no part of. Bringing those pieces back around, though, completed the story in a much more poignant way for all of us.

Whenever I get all these elements at my table, I have a wonderful experience, whether it’s funny or serious or somewhere in between. In the end we’re really talking about a specific type of support at your table — the kind where as a group you are all working towards the same goal. It’s the same kind of cooperation we see in theatrical improv, and it’s the same place we stole “yes and” from. Being both a cooperative player and a cooperative GM is my current preferred playstyle all around, so when I can get a table of giving, communicative folks, I know it’s going to be an extra good game!

How about you — do you play like this at your table? What’s your favorite moment of brilliant improvisation in game?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Beating the Holiday Scheduling Blues

22 November 2017 - 3:08am

Today’s guest article is by Craig Dedrick, who talks about holidays around and in gaming. He forgets to mention the best holiday of all – gnomexodus! It’s the holiday all the Staff Gnomes celebrate when they escape the warrens and get to avoid becoming part of the stew for one more day!- John”Only closed my eyes for a minute” Arcadian

With Thanksgiving, Festivus, and Christmas fast approaching, many RPG groups will encounter conflicting scheduling priorities as both family and work events demand attention. This is certainly a problem for many groups, but where others see problems, I see opportunities; opportunities to build a sense of community, if not family, with your gaming friends. There are a few ways to take advantage of these opportunities.


Holidays are a time for family and friends, and in my case, my RPG groups are comprised of many of my best friends. Every year I plan a Christmas party on a game night. Families are invited, food is brought, and a turkey is cooked. This provides a chance for families to meet each other, and fosters a sense of community around the game. Spouses and significant others get a chance to put faces with names, and may be more forgiving of the time set aside for regular game sessions. When this sense of community is created around a game, it increases the players’ commitment, and it tends to make for a more stable and long-lasting group.

Celebrate the Holiday In-Game

Organizing a holiday feast can be a lot of work, and some expense. However, you and your group can celebrate a holiday in-game as well. With a bit of planning and coordination, a clever game master can arrange for the “annual feast day” in your fantasy world to coincide with the Christmas season. Characters purchase gifts for each other and attend a gathering of some sort. It always amazes me how excited players get about purchasing and receiving gifts for their characters, and some very memorable moments can be created with this method.

Gift Exchanges

Gift exchanges don’t necessarily need to be limited to in-game exercises. Over the years, I have been in several groups that have organized an annual “secret Santa” gift exchange. The goal is to get something that the player will appreciate but is thematically appropriate for the character as well. Some memorable gifts include a toy car that had been modified to be a model of the character’s car in the game, an electronic “orc detector” for a player whose character had a hatred for orcs, and a fake magazine cover that featured articles and pictures of characters from a superhero game. This is another way to celebrate the holiday, and to foster emotional connections between players and around the game.

Theme Games

This type of activity works particularly well if festive snacks are provided at the table, and a few holiday-appropriate decorations go up. One of my groups are big fans of dressing in character at Halloween and eating grotesque amounts of tiny candy bars. Once the appropriate atmosphere is set, you can run a session with some sort of holiday theme. Perhaps Krampus is on the loose and needs to be stopped for a Christmas-themed game, or a coven of witches is planning something nefarious for a game on Halloween.

Something to Look Forward to

In the past, the holiday season was something that, as a game master, I viewed with some trepidation, knowing that a scheduling nightmare was around the corner. Now the Christmas-party games are something that everyone looks forward to, and players bend schedules so that they do not miss the special event.

How do you celebrate holidays with your gaming groups? Do you prefer in-game or out-of-game celebrations? Are there any other suggestions out there for avoiding the holiday scheduling blues?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Using Your Creative Obsessions & The Three Things Trick

20 November 2017 - 2:53am

David Lynch, eating cheese, in character.

Today’s guest post is by Kira Magraan, who talks about obsessions and how to use them to fuel your creative desires. – John “Bookhouse Boy” Arcadian

I get obsessed with things pretty easily. It’s part of being an artist, or at least so I hear from other creative types and all those silly huffpost articles about how creative brains work. I guess its also part of being a dreamer and imaginer: my brain doesn’t stay on one thing for very long, it likes to be stimulated and imagine new things. It’s good to have healthy obsessions, as an artist, and a game designer. They help me channel my feelings in directions that are useful.

I’m working on like, a bazillion Tabletop RPG and LARP projects right now, and that’s my preferred method of creation. Working on multiple things means when I hit a wall with one, I can bounce to another. Having a healthy amount of healthy obsessions means that I’ve always got inspiration for games I can prune from my current list of OMG HAVE YOU SEEN TWIN PEAKS YET or HEY DID YOU KNOW I’M IN 15 DIFFERENT SNAKE FB GROUPS. It also means the stuff I’m writing is stuff I’m super excited about… right now! Not something I have to get pumped up for to write. Like Blade says, take that inspiration and uuuuuuuuuse it.

Current Inspiration

One thing I’ve learned is, if I’m obsessed with something, I have to jump on it and use it right away. Like, three months from now, I will no longer be obsessed with Twin Peaks and the creative energy I have to work on projects around those ideas will disappear like fog in pine covered mountains. So when I realize the obsession is at its, ahem, peak, I’ll usually take a deeper dive into that thing and figure out why I like it. Usually, I’ll make lists. I’ll think about the themes, setting, genre, gender dynamics, identity politics, feelings, characters, and story that are involved. Then, I’ll usually end up with something like this:

Obsession = ?

I’m often working on many freelance projects at once, and usually, these are small projects for bigger games. So like, a setting, scenario, or small game for an anthology. So its most useful for me to have a list of inspirations always in my back pocket. Now that I’ve worked out what it is about Twin Peaks I love so much, when someone needs a setting I can easily identify “oh, right, its that retro American aesthetic I’m into, with a bit of the supernatural, and also a self referential awareness of itself.” This is a lovely thing to have rattling around my brain, because I can then apply it to a setting for a project when it comes along.

Specifically, a Twin Peaks type setting would do great in a supernatural game, right, BUT I can also use this inspiration to create a dozen related things. I’ve applied it to a Cortex Plus supplement that will help players build scenarios and drama in a small creepy town, for example, and I’m also going to write a more horror based scenario for Fear Itself for Pelgrane Press. Deconstructing my obsessions in this way has been incredibly helpful!

The Three Things Trick

The Three Things Trick – Take three of your obsessions and recombine them in weird ways.  Spread The Stew:

This is maybe my favorite obsession thing to do, and I recently learned that David Lynch does the same thing so I feel legit as hell. Take three of your obsessions and recombine them in weird ways. I do this in all my creative endeavors but one I did recently was for Rob Bohl’s Misspent Youth. PUNK ROCK + FEMINISM + FAST FURIOUS was the combination I used, and what it got me was “The Diesel Ceiling”, a rad scenario about lady and genderqueer humans in future Dubai racing cars in an all dude street game and being punk rock about it. Interestingly enough, the thing I learned most from writing that project was gender, queerness, and punk rockness in Dubai, which was super interesting.

If you want to do this for your own game design, or even a session of a game you’re running, make a list of all your current obsessions. Try to think of at least ten, even if they don’t seem to match up with what the main themes of your game are. Then, go through that list and find three that might be combined well together, and compare to your game or game session. Once you have the big three, write them down. Then, make a new list of all the ways this could apply to your project. Voila, now you’ve got your new obsession based idea!

Write your heart, but know your heart first, lads. Follow obsessions to find what really drives those excited feels, and then recombine til you find that magic something that inspires all your weirdest ideas.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Campaign Frames – How to Tell the Kind of Story Y’all Want to Tell

17 November 2017 - 3:00am

Like I said in my first post about campaign frames, we all use them Every time we sit down by ourselves or as a group and decide what kind of game we want to play, we’re establishing the campaign frame. What’s the genre? What kinds of experiences do we want to have? Are there particular types of content we’re looking to emulate?

Establishing those things is key to the foundation of a campaign. From my perspective, anyway. In my world, if I don’t do that work and just wing it things unravel quickly and I’m lucky if we get 5 sessions in before I’ve lost the plot. Literally.

Today we’re gonna break campaign frames down even more and spend time looking at how they can help us emulate the kinds of stories we see on TV and in movies.

To Know What it Is, You Have to Know What it Is

If you’re looking to emulate things, you have to know what those things are first. With DD&D, it was pretty easy. I watch a lot of food-based television, a lot of competition-based reality TV. Shows like Chopped, Iron Chef, Project Runway, and RuPaul’s Drag Race are very familiar to me. So much so that, in wanting to emulate them in DD&D, I was able to come up with the lynchpins pretty quickly:

  • Food has to take center stage
  • The more in-setting the food can be, the better
  • Use TV terminology when framing scenes
  • Character roles are production staff
  • It’s all a reality TV show about making a TV show, so use “confessional booth” cutaways
  • It should be about friendship, too, because I’m tired of games that focus on intra-party conflict

To make a campaign frame that emulates a genre of something, you need to be able to pull out those kinds of lynchpins quickly, too. That means if you’re really interested in doing a Pokemon-style game about wandering around and collecting monsters with your friends, all while defeating the bumbling antics of a dynamic duo/trio of antagonists, you should internalize those tropes.

Real Quick, What’s a Trope?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines “trope” as…

Gotcha. No, not gonna do that.

However, what I just used was a trope. You can call them prevalent themes, or even cliches. They’re the metaphorical ideas present in something, and they often follow well-worn paths. Starting a college essay with “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines…” is a cliche and could serve as a trope in a college-type frame. Tropes can be obscure or right in your face, but they’re the thing that, when someone interacts with it, they know exactly the kind of story they’re getting.

Aside: A lot of contemporary media likes to turn tropes on their heads. That’s good for a form of media in which the audience has no creative control. In tabletop RPGs, though, it can be confusing. For the purposes of starting out with campaign frames, keep your tropes easily identifiable and steal from the best resources you have available.

One You Know It, Do It

This is the fuzzy, weird area of a campaign frame. These frames aren’t mechanical in nature, so you don’t necessarily have rules to fall back on. What they are is an agreed-upon set of ideas that the whole table will participate in playing out. Your use of game mechanics, ideally, will reinforce that.

DD&D, to continue using the example at hand, would work in most any campaign setting or with most any mechanics. It’s an easy adaptation because you all just agree you’re going to tell road movie food stories with confessional booth-style asides and bob’s your uncle.

However, if you’re looking to emulate a genre where, say, you’ve got a lot of emotional connections or there are tropes present like the melodrama of a CW TV show, that’ll be more work. You’d be best served by coming up with an Apocalypse World-style set of Agendas and Principles to back up your campaign frame. If you don’t put some constraints and guidelines in place, it can all fall apart.

You’re In This Together

Most importantly, for any campaign frame, your group has to be on the same page. This is true of any game really, but when you’re getting into the kinds of stories that aren’t traditionally told using, say, D&D, you have to have that buy-in. Nothing’s worse than trying to frame a shot of the chef expertly preparing some medium-rare aboleth tentacle and having the Barbarian attack the kitchen staff because the player is bored and just wants to kill things.

Campaign frames can bring new ideas and ways of playing games to your table. Do your research, establish your tropes, and if you need to, outline a list of things you want to see emulated in play. Keep refining as you go, and have fun! (Oh, and you’ve got to try the seared invisible stalker steak. I had some around here, but I just can’t seem to find where I put it.)

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Adventures Of Post Apocalyptic Old MacDonald

15 November 2017 - 3:00am

Old MacDonald had a farm. E-I-E-I-O!
And on this farm he had some sheep! E-I-E-OH-NO!

By the way, you can google cyclops sheep to get pictures of what cyclops sheep really look like, but think carefully about it. They are adorable, but in a disgusting sort of way.

Seeing the above video made me think of all the weird livestock floating around in pop culture and made me want to add a few of my own to the milieu. But first, a short list that you can steal from reality, the web, video games, RPGs, and TV shows:

  • The afore-listed cyclops sheep
  • The Brahmin, two-headed bottom-heavy cows from the Fallout Franchise.
  • The very real double muscled cow (pig varieties also exist)
  • Blinky, the mutant fish from The Simpsons
  • Order of the Stick’s all you can eat hydra
  • In what might be one of history’s strangest crossovers, the humanoid chicken gallus-gallus from Gamma World and Netflix original TV show Bojack Horseman
  • My own article about the Giant Bee

So there’s eight oddities ready to swipe for a game, but how about some original content? I would feel bad if all I gave you was a link roundup (even though it’s a pretty cool one)

  • Nippers: small bipedal alligators built similar to tiny t-rexes, nippers are still pretty vicious and, as their name suggests tend to bite, so ranchers wear heavy leather aprons, pants, and gloves when handling them. Nippers eat carrion and fish, so they’re often raised in conjunction with other non-meat livestock, so culls (sheep, cows or chickens too old to give wool, milk or eggs that are usually humanely terminated and made into dog food or the like) can be used as nipper feed. Alternately, pens have access to an active body of water so the nippers can hunt fish at their leisure.
  • Giant worms: These three to six foot long fleshy worms are similar to earthworms. Like some species of earthworm, they can even regenerate their tail if cut in half. They are a bit hard to contain, requiring piles or layers of dirt or organic material on a wood or stone base so they don’t simply burrow away. These critters even have the advantage of composting organic material with low levels of nutrition and hot manure (animal feces with a nitrogen content that is released too quickly is called “hot” and can cause chemical burns on plants it is applied to) into a rich fertilizer. Ranchers will pile huge mounds of dirt, feces, wood chips and other cellulose/keratin heavy organic material on a stone base surrounded by a low wall (to prevent rain runoff) and let the worms feed and reproduce. By the time the worms are ready to harvest, the pile has been reduced into nutrient rich fertilizer for crops.
  • Tunnel Dusters: These turkey sized birds have a gamey, foul-tasting flesh that keeps them from being a staple meat animal (although predators and the very hungry will eat them from time to time). They also however have a dizzying array of feathers in a myriad of types and colors. They sport a long peacock like tail and a dense undercoat of down with a variety of shape and size of outer plumage. For most of the year tunnel dusters do little but take up space and eat bugs and seeds. Once a year however, they shed all their plumage and spend a few weeks completely naked while their feathers regrow. In the wild, these birds are native mostly to cold climates. During molting season they huddle in their nest of shed feathers. In warmer climates they make small family burrows and are primarily active during dawn and dusk. Farmers in warmer climates provide them with cool basements and networks of tunnels connected to outdoor runs and shaded boxes that keep them cool during hot months and give them shade during molting season. Bugs the birds scavenge from the earthen walls of tunnels and their run are supplemented with grain and other plant matter.

There you go: eleven total types of odd livestock for your game, most of which can be re-skinned into a variety of genres. Old MacDonald needs more animals though. Point us to more animal oddities or describe your own creations!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Star Trek Adventures Review

14 November 2017 - 5:00am

Long before I ever picked up my first d20, my older brother received permission from my parents to let me stay up late on Sunday nights so I could watch syndicated episodes of the original Star Trek with him. Whenever a new Star Trek movie would come out, my brother and I would make a point of seeing it together in the theater.

Because of these family traditions, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Star Trek. Despite this, I never owned a Star Trek roleplaying game until I picked up the PDF of the latest version, published by Modiphius.

Structural Integrity

As I finish up the review process, the hardcover of this game is currently available, but I am still working from the PDF version of the rules. The PDF is 376 pages, including five pages of ads, two page spreads showing the Star Trek galaxy at the beginning and end of the book, a four-page index, three pages of play tester credits, a character sheet, and a ship sheet.

There are several half and quarter page pieces of painted artwork from both the original series era and the Next Generation era, and most of the chapters start with a full-page schematic spread of a ship, station, or piece of technology from Star Trek lore. The entire book is laid out to look like the L-CARS computer display from the Next Generation era of the show. That is impressive adherence to theme, and it is consistent throughout.

Chapter 01–Introduction

The introduction has standard “what is roleplaying” and “example of play” sections. This chapter mentions what dice are needed for the game (d20s and d6s), and that special dice are available to make conversion easier. The special characters on the dice mainly apply to the d6s, and the number of special characters and alternate values is much less than in a game like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs, as an example.

Some terms used later are mentioned in passing in this introduction, for example having tokens for momentum, the threat pool, and determination.

Chapter 02–The United Federation of Planets

The next chapter is on the United Federation of Planets. It spans pages 11-43, and is broken up into an overview, early history, the twenty-third century, and recent federation history. Initially this information takes the form of a Starfleet briefing, and starts with general galactic geography, and a summary of the powers at play in various regions.

The chapter then moves into Federation history. The different time frames mentioned correspond to the suggested campaign time periods, namely the time periods around the time of the show Enterprise, the original series time frame, and the Next Generation time frame—although the most attention is paid to the Next Generation time frame in this book. None of the material in the book presents information beyond the events of the Generations movie, so the history ends just before the war with the Dominion begins.

There are a lot of in-universe sidebars that show the perspective of characters from different factions on the major events of the setting’s history. Some of these are fascinating from a fan’s point of view, but I’m not sure that most them are providing gameable information. This section really seems to play to the diehard fan, and I wish there was just a bit more tailoring to make this section more functional at the table.

That’s not to say it isn’t well written or entertaining, it just isn’t as functional or focused as it could be. This is also probably a good place to state my preference that a ruleset with a default setting present basic setting and genre information up front, detail the game and how to play it, and then dive into the specifics of the setting later in the book.

Chapter 03–Your Continuing Mission

Pages 53-66 detail topics like Starfleet’s Purpose, the Prime Directive, Starfleet Academy, Duties, and Away Teams. There are illustrations of the various rank pips used in the 24th century, department colors, and sidebars showing in-universe perspectives on these topics.

This is the section I would have led with. Without getting too deep into history and perspective, this lays out in 13 pages what Starfleet stands for, what a member of Starfleet does before they start exploring space, their duties on a ship, and what they do planet-side in an unknown situation. It’s a much more succinct primer for what a Star Trek game looks like in action, and is a lot easier to digest for a casual fan that just wants to play the game.

Chapter 04–Operations

The operations chapter includes the subsections to introduce players to the game, basic operations, and advanced training. This covers things like rolling dice, determining success versus difficulty, and defining terms. The final section is an introduction to some of the situational rules in the game.

To determine success, you add your attribute to your discipline, which determines the number you will attempt to roll under. You roll 2d20, and for each die that rolls under this target number, you get a success. If you have a focus, and you also rolled under your discipline range, you get another success in addition to any others you generated. Difficulty ranges from 0 to 5 for tasks.

In any given scene, you might have traits, advantages, or complications that can move the difficulty up or down. Rolling a 20 on one of the dice allows the GM to introduce a new complication to the scene, or to add threat to the threat pool.

What’s a threat pool? It’s a pool to track one of the currencies in the game, those currencies being threat, determination, and momentum.

  • Threat is spent in the same manner by the GM to boost their characters
  • Momentum can be spent on extra dice or effects when rolling or resolving tasks
  • Determination can only be spent when a directive or a value is in play, but it allows for an automatic 1 on a roll, or the ability to reroll a player’s entire dice pool
  • Players can also add to the threat pool to get the same effect that they would get from momentum

Directives are things Starfleet wants you to accomplish, and will vary depending on the mission assigned, and values are things that make up what has shaped your character and drives them. In some ways, traits, advantages, complications, directives, and values are like aspects in Fate, except that there are more specific ways in which they allow for changes in difficulty, rerolls, or other benefits and penalties.

That’s a lot of simple individual concepts, tied together in a moderately complex web, and a lot of that information comes at you in close proximity. None of this has yet introduced personal combat, starship combat, or discoveries. The advanced rules section does touch on challenges (multi-part skill challenges that may need to be done in a certain order) or extended tasks (which have two separate tracks to measure success). Extended tasks are noted as being optional, but there are several rules later in the book that relate to them, so optional is a bit of a fuzzy term in this case.

While each step of resolution is simple, it might feel like a bit much to take in all at once. One thing that I like about this resolution mechanic is that you can attempt a difficulty 0 task to gain momentum. You can’t fail, but you can introduce a complication. That immediately communicates to me that you can have those holodeck scenes or musical recitals, and those scenes can actually affect momentum, if the player is willing to risk a potential complication that might be generated.

Chapter 05–Reporting for Duty

This is primarily the character creation portion of the book, and introduces both lifepath creation, and creation in play. There is also a section on creating supporting characters, talents (special abilities that modify the existing rules), and character development.

Lifepath creation walks the players through each aspect of the character’s history, from where they grew up, their education, and early career. There are special talents that can be taken to reflect an inexperienced new character (Wesley) or a character with a long career behind them at the start of the campaign (Picard).

The range of ability between characters isn’t too broad, so everyone can contribute. At various points in the Lifepath creation, players are prompted to create a value based on that part of their lives, but values are very broadly defined.

Creation in play gives a set of numbers to use for attributes and disciplines, and characters can add values as they emerge in-game. I can see advantages to both ways of creating characters, but the GM is encouraged to use the same method for all players. One value should be reserved for a connection to another player or the ship they serve on.

Species is addressed in this section, and gives several attribute adjustments for Vulcans, Denobulans, Trill, Bajorans, Betazed, Andorians, and Tellarites. There are also species-specific talents that a character can take to show different aspects of a given culture, such as a Vulcan that has learned to mind-meld, or a Trill that has a joined symbiont.

There are a set number of “named” NPCs that the ship will support, and they have their own stats, which are just a bit less robust than player characters. Whenever a player’s character wouldn’t logically participate in a scene (like, if you are the captain, and your first officer won’t let you go on an away team mission), that player can play the “named” supporting character. This character belongs to the whole group, not just the player using them in that scene. They are created in a fashion not entirely dissimilar to the “Creation in Play” option, but with fewer choices to make.

Character advancement reminds me a bit of Fate. You have milestones, spotlight milestones, and arc milestones, that allow for different levels of changes in a character.

  • Normal milestones allow characters to do things like changing a value or adjusting numbers between disciplines, but they can also “bank” that milestone to cash in for Determination in a later mission
  • Spotlight milestones allow a character to swap their attribute scores around, switch out talents, or advance the ship or a supporting character’s stats
  • Arc milestones allow for actual increases to attributes or disciplines, or new focuses or talents

Normal milestones involve just being active in a game session, while spotlight milestones are awarded to characters that “starred” in an episode, which can be voted on by the players. There is a minimum number of spotlight milestones that the group needs to have achieved before an arc milestone is awarded. All of this is perfectly functional, but as with a lot of elements of Star Trek Adventures, the simple elements can be a little complicated to follow, because there are so many options under each type of advancement. I do enjoy that advancements can be “donated” to supporting characters or to the ship.

Finally, the chapter introduces reputation, which is a means of tracking how well regarded a character is, and how successful their career is perceived to be by others. Reputation checks are resolved like other tasks, but the roll involves the reputation score, a privilege score (determined by rank), and a responsibility score (determined by rank as well).

Characters with higher rank are more likely to get more successes, but when they fail, they are more likely to accrue extra failures, or to potentially have a failure range that extends into their success range, robbing from some of their normal successes.

I understand the inclusion of the idea. The original series started with a court martial, Kirk has been in trouble a number of times, and a system like this is almost tailor made for fleshing out a character like Tom Paris. Despite this, it feels clunky, in part because it is “almost” like the rest of the system, but not quite. You may not be playing with this aspect of the system much, unless you have a lot of demotions or court martials in your game, or you really want to heap on the extra praise for extraordinary mission success.

Chapter 06–The Final Frontier

This section further elaborates on the types of things a crew will encounter during their missions. The sections in this chapter are Strange New Worlds, Alien Encounters, Stellar Phenomena, and Scientific Discoveries and Developments.

Strange New Worlds touches a bit on the kind of damage you can expect from hostile environments (and we haven’t gotten to the part of the book that explains harm to characters yet), but that section, Alien Encounters, and Stellar Phenomenon are really overviews of what a crew might encounter. This section really feels like it could have been rolled into the Gamemaster section and connected to the mechanics that appear there.

Scientific discoveries and developments are examples of extended tasks that the PCs might engage with to come up with specific outcomes. While noted as “optional” in the Operations chapter, this is only one of multiple times extended tasks get revisited.

I like how they explain that characters might create their own solution to a scientific or engineering problem, and the book lays out a specific procedure for how to resolve these situations. However, for everything they assign a rigid structure to, they leave a lot of nebulous area in the rules. This could be a bug, or a feature, depending on how much the players and the GM jump on narrative elements of the game, but I can’t help but feel just a wee bit more explanation could make these rules clearer.

Chapter 07–Conflict

This chapter is broken down into an introduction, social conflict, and combat. The introduction spells out the order in which structured scenes will unfold, with the logical initiator taking the first turn, and handing off between the PCs and GM characters until everyone has taken a turn.

Social conflict can utilize any of the previous rules for getting something done, but might have an opposed NPC taking part as well. In that case, the character with the most amount of successes “wins” the exchange, and counts the number of remaining success. This can come up when negotiating with a new species while Ferengi are trying to cut a deal with them, for example. Social conflict can also utilize advantages called social tools, which make it easier to score successes, and the process can even involve characters rolling specifically to create certain scene traits before attempting to “win” a negotiation.

Combat involves punching, kicking, shooting phasers at, or firing makeshift mortars at opponents. In Star Trek tradition, if you make a lethal attack attempt, you add to the threat pool. Characters have a set amount of stress.

  • Being reduced to 0 stress, or taking too much stress at one time, causes a wound
  • A character can spend momentum and determination to mitigate wounds, but if you have one that hasn’t been dealt with in some fashion, the character is incapacitated for the rest of the scene
  • If you took lethal damage, you die if not treated before the end of the scene

This is a little reminiscent of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars games, where taking wounds doesn’t kill you, but taking critical hits can kill you. The GM is encouraged to not end a scene before other characters have a chance to treat a wounded character.

Characters get a minor action and a major action each round, and can get extra minor actions (such as moving or aiming) by spending momentum for additional minor actions. Determination can be spent to gain an additional major action. There is a chart showing other uses of momentum in combat, and if those expenditures can be made more than once, it is noted on the chart. Ranges are abstracted into areas rather than providing specific measurements, in a sort of hybrid of Fate zones and Fantasy Flight Star Wars range bands.

Chapter 08–Technology and equipment

Most of the technology amounts to narrative permission to do something. You can talk to people that are on the ship or the other side of the planet if you have a communicator. You can scan for things you can’t see, hear, smell, or touch directly if you have a tricorder.

There are some very basic rules for how many items a character can carry, and what they are assumed to have issued to them based on their rank and position on the ship. “Buying” extra gear that isn’t assigned to you isn’t done with any form of currency. If you look for something in an action scene, it may cost momentum or threat to find it.

Personnel that aren’t considered secondary characters are treated as equipment. They can provide minor boosts, like a tool that a character can requisition. Sometimes they will be wearing red shirts.

This may be a shock if you’ve been reading the rest of the review, but there are some really detailed, and yet somehow loose narrative guides for adding traits to existing technology. This can be done to add permissions in the story, beyond what is already assumed, or can be used to overcome scene traits that have developed during play.

While most of the game does a good job of giving as much detail to non-combat sections of the game as it does to combat sections, weapons do get a lot more specific details compared to other equipment. There are charts and lists of traits that various weapons have. Some weapons default to lethal damage, and are harder to use in a non-lethal fashion. Some weapons may knock someone out even if they haven’t done enough stress to normally incapacitate a character, and some weapons do extra damage when an effect is rolled.

The effect dice have been mentioned in the rules previously, in the extended tasks and combat section, but any place in the rules where more granularity is called for, the d6s get rolled. When tracking points (like the amount of stress done), 1s and 2s count as 1s and 2s, 3s and 4s don’t count for anything, and 5s and 6s count for 1 point and one effect. In the case of weapons, those effects rolled can be exchanged for special weapon abilities.

Chapter 09–A Home in the Stars

This section goes over Starships, Starbases, Colonies, Starship Rules, Starship Combat, Starfleet Ships of the Line, and Alien Vessels. The first three sections go into explaining how such things function in the setting, while the last three sections include more specific game mechanics.

Example Starships from various eras are detailed. Specific years that ships were put into service are called out, because older ships may still be in service. After several years in service, overhauls can add new items to that ship’s base stats. This means some ships from the 23rd Century could still be in service in the Next Generation era, but they are likely to have a few extras added to them as time and technology advance.

Starship combat seems to be the most involved subsystem of resolutions in the game.

  • Ships have resistance (which reduces damage) equal to their scale
  • Their shields function as stress does for a character in personal scale combat
  • Damage that gets past resistance and shields directly damages various ship systems
  • Depending on how damaged that system is, a ship loses some of its functions, certain starship actions may not be taken, or the ship may be on its way to a warp core breach

There is a list of what each station on the ship can do in combat, and there are details for repairing a system that has been damaged in combat, which can optionally use the extended task rules. NPC ships don’t need fully fleshed out crews, and they get a number of actions equal to their scale. Instead of tracking individual damage for NPC ships, the amount of punishment they take is determined by their scale, and instead of the specifics of system ramifications, they can lose one of their turns when they take serious damage, until they become incapacitated.

Several starships are given base stats in the section, with examples from the original series era and the Next Generation era, as well as a few Klingon, Romulan, Ferengi, Borg, Cardassian, and Jem’Hadar ships. There are stats for shuttle craft as well, but despite mentioning the Enterprise era a few times in the book, there isn’t really any support for it here.

Different ships have different stations, which allow for different actions in combat. Weapons have specific qualities for how they are grouped and do damage. Each individual resolution still follows the general rules, but Starship combat seems to be where more specific rules interact with each other than any other section of the game.

It’s a running theme with the more complicated parts of this game that the rules feel very Star Trek in what they highlight, but also feel very exacting. I would really want to make sure I either created some cheat sheets or considered the handouts that come with the GM screen before running Starship combat.

Chapter 10–Gamemastering

The gamemaster advice section has areas that highlight running and creating missions, gamemaster facing information on character creation, managing the rules, the differences between player facing rules and how those rules work for NPCs, experience and promotion, encounter building, and creating memorable missions, NPCs, and locations.

One big thing I would point out about this section is that a few of these topics are touched on in other sections of the book, and many of them would have made more sense to have been wholly in this section. In some instances, it feels like this chapter is calling back to previously touched on topics, which didn’t need to be touched on earlier. It feels a bit disjointed.

For players that might not be as comfortable with narrative rules elements like aspects from Fate, or Hard Moves from Apocalypse World derived games, there isn’t as much advice for using the more open-ended aspects of the game as there might have been.

Chapter 11–Aliens and Adversaries

This section contains some of the more commonly encountered “archetypes” of humanoids, aliens, and other creatures that a GM can adapt for their own use in missions.

NPCs are categorized as minor, notable, and major NPCs. This category determines which special rules that NPC can utilize. Minor NPCs can avoid injuries, for example, and Major NPCs have Values that let them spend threat in special ways to mimic how PCs can use of determination.

There are specific traits that different NPCs might have, such as invulnerable (the creature might be incapacitated for a time, but never takes injuries), or menacing (as soon as the creature shows up, the GM adds threat to the threat pool).

Some adversaries have special rules, like the circumstances that cause the Borg to adapt to weapons, or a Klingon’s additional resistance to non-lethal attacks. There are sidebars about stat adjustments for different species introduced in this section (so you could make a Klingon or Ferengi officer if you wanted to, but there are no species related talents in this section).

While most of the things detailed in this section are active beings, some powerful alien artifacts from various media are detailed here, such as the Guardian of Forever, or the Planet Killer doomsday ship from the original series.

The final section details animals or creatures that are either non-sentient, or don’t have a consciousness that can be measured by those that have interacted with the creature. Targs, Shelats, and Mugato make an appearance here, as does the Crystaline Entity.

Chapter 12–The Rescue at Xerxes The book looks amazing, and that appearance does a tremendous job of keeping you in the mindset of the various series. The procedures for various tasks, such as starship combat, or using social tools, feels very much in keeping with the source material. 

Note: I played in this adventure during the playtest for Star Trek Adventures, and this adventure serves as the first adventure for the organized play campaign created by Modiphius to support the game.

This adventure serves as an incremental introduction to Star Trek Adventures. Various aspects of the rules, such as Challenges and Extended Tasks, appear in the adventure, but they are introduced in a very simple, isolated way, making them more accessible.

The adventure has enough decision points to allow characters to challenge their values or debate over the right course of action. My medical officer was in favor of not risking lives in the present, just to potentially help people in the future, and that got to play out for a bit at the table.

Shore Leave on Risa

The book looks amazing, and that appearance does a tremendous job of keeping you in the mindset of the various series. The procedures for various tasks, such as starship combat, or using social tools, feels very much in keeping with the source material. The book spends a lot of time on resolving scientific and social situations, and avoids the criticism that falls on a lot of RPGs that want to promote non-combat scenes, namely, that there isn’t as much support for non-combat resolutions. The way the individual rules components work is quite logical.

Vacationing on Seti Alpha V

The in-setting information presented up front may be fun for a die-hard fan, but it may not be what a more casual fan wants to wade through when learning the game. The Shackleton Expanse is mentioned briefly and would have been great to detail in the book, making the setting more usable out of the gate, but the details of that sub-setting are reserved for the organized play campaign.

The resolution mechanics for various situations is very detailed, but the way that some of the narrative elements work within those mechanics is left vague. Information that seems as if it should be grouped together, isn’t.

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

The game has a lot of information that a die-hard Star Trek fan will likely love. It is definitely a narrative based game, but it is not a rules-light game. Because of the balance between more open ended narrative elements, and more rigid, procedural resolutions, it may be more difficult to get a good feel for the game.

The game does a good job of emulating the source material. Casual fans should probably keep in mind how much of the book is dedicated to a deeper look at the setting. Fans that may not be comfortable with broad narrative elements, or fans that are comfortable with broad narrative elements, but aren’t as enamored of exacting resolutions, may want to know what is in store for them before diving into the game. Given how well the game evokes the feeling of Star Trek, I imagine it will still work very well for a wide number of fans.

Let me know what you thought of the game and this review. If you have ideas for future reviews, I’ll be happy to see those as well! Looking forward to hearing from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Tabletop Gaming and the Visually Impaired

13 November 2017 - 2:26am

I have so many fond memories, in my 35+ years of tabletop role-playing, of sitting around the table with my gaming buddies . . . tossing dice, laughing when a “1” was rolled and cheering when a natural “20” saved the day. I remember coloring in my first set of dice, frantically flipping through the Player’s Handbook for the perfect spell before my turn came around . . . and debates that started with, “It says right here in the book that . . .”. I also remember trying to figure out what the red bull-shaped creature, with bat wings, was on the cover of the Monster Manual, being blown away by the artwork of Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, Larry Elmore, and so many other great artists . . . the image of the rust monster still cracks me up . . . so silly looking, yet one of the most terrifying creature’s my fighter every encountered!

[Image Description: This image depicts 3D renderings of split, braille dice 3D printer models. On the left is an orange d4 split horizontally, on the right is a blue d10 split vertically.]

These wonderful memories involved comradery, imagination, gaming icons that brought fantasy gaming to life, and one very important factor that I took for granted all these years . . . sight. It never occurred to me that all the gaming materials I came to love were designed for sighted players and that an entire community was completely overlooked. Then I met my buddy “D”.

I went to my first gaming convention in Richmond, VA about 8 years ago . . . and honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I poured over the game signup sheets and saw one that captured my attention . . . Changeling. So, when the time slot came around, I sat down at the table and met “D”, our game master for the session. I had never played a World of Darkness game before and was a little daunted at the details I saw on the character sheet, but D was awesome, and so well-versed in teaching new players that he walked me through the character creation process in no time . . . handed me books and walked me through the spells and abilities. We then proceeded on an incredible adventure, one of the most creative and vivid adventures I’ve ever played in. OK, I know, this sounds like a normal convention gaming session . . . but what you don’t know is that “D” is totally blind.

Over the years, “D” and I became good friends, always looking forward to the con so we could hang out, toss dice and laugh at how my dice repeatedly tried to murder me. Then a few months ago it hit me, “How was “D” so well versed in the gaming material and how did he run such fluid games?”. I reach out to “D” and asked him if I could head to Richmond and chat with him about this. My first question inquired as to how he “read” the game books . . . were there audio books, PDFs run through a screen reader, etc.? You see, there are no braille books and most game PDFs are designed for sighted players and don’t meet all the accessibility criteria to be easily read with screen readers. Now, there are some wonderful pieces of equipment out there, braille readers that work in conjunction with a computer or SD card to translate text into braille and then the braille “pops” up, line by line, on the braille reader . . . basically a living translation machine.

[Image Description: This is a picture of myself and my buddy D, the man that got me started on this project. To the left is an old guy with white hair, blue glasses, and sporting a pride t-shirt with rainbow dice. To the right is D, a handsome person of color wearing a grey t-shirt].

But here’s the problem . . . equipment like this is exceedingly expensive and a lot of visually impaired readers can’t afford to purchase items like this. D’s answer really hit me like a ton of bricks, “Jack, I have a fantastic group of players that I trust. They read the books to me and I remember what they say. I rely on them because there aren’t any braille gaming books for me to refer to.” So, my next question was, “Do you ever have other visually impaired friends ask about getting into RPGs?” . . . and this was the answer that broke my heart and spurred me into action. “Jack, I’ve had several blind friends ask me. Sadly, I had to tell them that they needed a sighted player to take them in because there are no accessible RPG products that enable blind players to independently jump into the hobby.”

Now, if you’re like me, you might know one or two people, or have seen someone in public who is blind . . . and never really considered the expanse of the scope of visually impaired people—it’s quite large. Additionally, there are many forms of visual impairment, not just blindness. The following is taken directly from an article entitled “Statistical Facts about Blindness in the United States”, by the National Federation of the Blind:

There are several ways to define blindness.
  • Many people regard blindness as the inability to see at all or, at best, to discern light from darkness.
  • The National Federation of the Blind takes a much broader view. We encourage people to consider themselves as blind if their sight is bad enough—even with corrective lenses—that they must use alternative methods to engage in any activity that persons with normal vision would do using their eyes.
  • The United States Bureau of the Census question about “significant vision loss” encompasses both total or near-total blindness and “trouble seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses.”
  • The statutory definition of “legally blind” is that central visual acuity must be 20/200 or less in the better eye with the best possible correction or that the visual field must be 20 degrees or less.
  • There are no generally accepted definitions for “visually impaired,” “low vision,” or “vision loss.”
As gamers, we like numbers . . . so let’s delve a little deeper to provide a little more perspective:

Prevalence of Visual Disability

The number of non-institutionalized, male or female, ages 16 through 75+, all races, regardless of ethnicity, with all education levels in the United States reported to have a visual disability in 2015.

  • Total (all ages): 7,297,100 (2.3%)
  • Total (16 to 75+): 6,833,000 (2.7%)
  • Women: 3,738,400 (2.87%)
  • Men: 3,094,600 (2.53%)
  • Age 16 to 64: 3,847,100 (1.9%)
  • Age 65 and older: 2,985,900 (6.4%)

(Source: Erickson, W., Lee, C., von Schrader, S. (2017). Disability Statistics from the American Community Survey (ACS). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Yang-Tan Institute (YTI). Retrieved from Cornell University Disability Statistics website:

I don’t know about you, but for me (personally), I find these numbers staggering . . . 2.3% of our entire population is visually impaired, and over 3.8 million of these people are 16 years old and up. That’s no mere drop in the bucket.

Now that we have some stats to consider, let’s look at how this comes into play since the advent of fantasy role-playing games. Most of us are familiar with D&D™ (1974), Empire of the Petal Throne™ (1974), and Tunnels & Trolls™ (1975) as the fore fathers of all tabletop RPGs . . . the games that set the stage for all modern tabletop RPGs. Since that time, and this is purely a guess, hundreds and hundreds of tabletop RPGs have been created; from home brew games, the indie press, and the big mass market companies. Yet . . . for all the games created, nothing has been created with the needs of the visually impaired considered. Now, there could be a few braille game books out there . . . I just couldn’t find any references to them and none of the visually impaired gamers I’ve spoken with know of any. So, please understand that I’m simply writing this based on my research and don’t claim to be “all knowing”.

Regardless of 100% historical accuracy, however, what I do know is that in the gaming community, the needs of the visually impaired are not being met . . . and I find that very saddening. Now, I do want to flip the coin and look at things from a designer’s point of view. First, if you were like me, I honestly didn’t realize that the need was there. Secondly, there is the simple matter of cost versus demand.

I recently translated David Black’s The Black Hack RPG into braille, so I understand the process that goes into it. First, I had to teach myself braille, which ended up being one of the most incredible experiences ever! Braille is not a language, it’s a code . . . a beautiful and amazing code. There are two levels of braille, Grade 1 deals with straight, letter-for-letter translation and basic punctuation. Grade 2 braille is much more advanced and delves into contractions and single braille cell representation of complete words (I’m just now starting this journey!). So back to The Black Hack . . . the printed game booklet weighs in around 35+ pages or so and it took me about two hours, as a complete novice, to copy the text to Word, format it, then run it through an open source translation application called Braille Blaster . In this application, I had to go through, line by line, to make sure that the translation was accurate and that the page layouts would make sense to the reader. Setting aside the time it took to learn braille, it only took me a couple of hours to create a braille version of the game. Not bad . . . but then I ran into a new challenge. The 35+ page, 6” by 9” booklet, once translated into braille, turned into an 80 page 8” by 11” book. That’s a lot of pages . . . but not impossible to overcome.

Seeing as that I’m just one person, I decided to send the game PDF to a non-profit agency that specializes in doing exactly what I did . . . just to see if outsourcing the process would be a viable option for game designers. The price quote I received back blew my mind.

  • Translation fee (6 hours at $90 per hour) = $540
  • Printing Fee for 1 Copy = $45
  • Shipping = $10
  • Total Cost . . . roughly $600 for a 35+ page booklet using much better software and equipment than I had.

Here’s a short video showing how I got started in the translation process.

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*** Please share to help spread the word to open the doors of roleplaying games for the visually impaired! ***Project 1: The DOT Hack adaption of The Black Hack RPG by David BlackI created a short video to show what the braille to text game translation process is like and also talk a little bit about the DOTS a Stylus & Slate RPG Project. Let's blow open the doors of roleplaying games for the visually impaired community!

Posted by Jack Berberette on Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Now, my point in sharing this is not to say the company is price gouging—after all, they have utilities, rent, and employees to pay for. The issue is that, depending on the page count of the game book, outlaying hundreds to even thousands of dollars for an unknown ROI is not generally in reach for most companies, especially indie designers.

The question now becomes, “How can game designers also incorporate the needs of the visually impaired into the design process?” It’s a fair question, but one that with some ingenuity we’ll eventually figure out.

This article is not about the project I started, but I do want to share what I’ve done so far, which has since gained momentum that is hard to keep up with.  You see, most game designers, once they realize the need, genuinely want to help . . . mainly because gamers are, in general, awesome people who love the hobby and want to share it with everyone they can.

So here’s what I’ve done:

  • I reached out to several visually impaired gamers to get their feedback on things such as braille books, existing technology, and what specific things they struggle with the most.
  • I taught myself braille—it’s surprisingly easy to pick up on and I promise you that once you start learning, you’ll be fascinated and as obsessed with it as I am!
  • I realized that getting print houses with the proper printers to print the translations was out of the question. So I raised money and purchased a braille embossing printer, and now that same $40 print of the Black Hat (mentioned above) costs me about $1.75 to print. Now I can print things at cost and get them into the hands of visually impaired players.
  • I reached out to several blind gamers, proficient in braille, and asked them if they would be my proof readers/editors for the braille translation process.
  • I designed braille dice in photoshop, then hired a Shapeways designer to create 3D models that can be purchased on Shapeways (at cost) or downloaded for free for people with access to 3D printers.
  • I network, network, network, then do a little more networking to find like-minded people who embrace the quest. I have made some amazing friends in the gaming industry just by reaching out and each one is fully on board with getting their games translated into braille and having fully accessible, screen-reader ready, PDF files that can be made available to visually impaired gamers.
  • I also just found some new fonts that are designed to help make reading easier for readers who deal with Dyslexia. So basically, with a few extra clicks, I can create PDFs that help Dyslexic gamers on top of blind readers (we’re in the process of testing these fonts currently to see if they work well).
  • Lastly, I research (constantly) the different digital technologies available to see how many of these can be leveraged in a way that will help empower independent game play for visually impaired players. As an aside, I’ve spoken with several blind players and simply using audio files at the game table can be a real challenge. So, I’m looking at ways we can work with designers who are experts at designing mobile apps for the visually impaired.

Here’s what it looks like when a veteran, visually impaired gamer get’s his hands on accessible
gaming books, dice, and character sheets for the very first time!

So, where do we go from here? How can you, the reader, get involved? First, help spread the word that there is a real need for the visually impaired and if the gaming industry embraces that need, it could literally open worlds for many people! Next, take some time to learn braille . . . trust me, it’s freaking cool, and once you start, you’ll never want to stop learning. If you are presented with the opportunity, get to know someone who is visually impaired . . . learn about their lives and if they are interested, take them under your wing and share the magic of tabletop gaming with them. Lastly, and this is very important, don’t talk to or treat a visually impaired person any differently than you would a sighted friend. They did the same things we do, they just experience it through touch, sound, and most importantly . . . trust.

I hope you enjoyed this article and found it interesting and inspiring!

~ Jack Berberette – DOTS RPG Project


Categories: Game Theory & Design

In All Their Looks & Words: The Tomb Of Niankhkhnum And Khnumhotep Part 2

10 November 2017 - 3:00am

This article consists of prep material that works better if you’ve read the intro and Part 1 of this series.

Investigative Game Prep

I will say, investigation games take a lot more prep than I’m used to. Do some more research into how these types of RPGs are planned and try to work that into your prep. What I can give you here is more of an atmosphere or setting, as well as an outline that could be a short session, or a side adventure B Plot to your normal game. This follows a generic Three Act Structure and should be loose enough to work into your prep. Obviously no plan survives first contact with the players so you will likely need to tweak this as appropriate.

Act 1:

The Esoterrorists (Pelgrane Press) could be an intriguing system to wrap around this story

An up and coming scholar is trying to do some research on ancient sexuality for an upcoming conference and has decided to investigate Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep. However, he is barred from entering the tomb itself because his boyfriend is currently in prison and he himself has been flagged by a watchdog organization. He reaches out to the PCs to provide some more interesting evidence, or to go to the tomb on his behalf.

Act 2:

Upon reaching the tomb (or upon returning home) the PCs find that the scholar’s work has been challenged by a conservative organization, and his spot has been pulled from the conference. The scholar asks the PCs to look into what happened. It turns out that the scholar has an academic rival who tipped off the hate group and stole the scholar’s conference spot. If investigated, the PCs discover many artifacts in the rivals study that could be traced back to the Saqqara burial plots.

Act 3:

As the date of the conference approaches, the scholar’s boyfriend is released from prison and the two men again call the PCs for help. Desperate, the scholar tells the PCs that he may not have much time in the country left and this conference was his chance to make a name for himself before he has to return home. Later, if the PCs stay with the scholar they are privy to these events, but if not, the rival shows up at the PC’s home and recounts a tale: the scholar and his boyfriend confront the rival either because of, or despite the PC’s advice, but get in over their heads. A small artefact, a plate taken from the tomb and on loan from a museum in Egypt, is damaged in the scuffle. The scholar & his boyfriend double over in pain and shrivel over before crumbling to dust. The rival admits to sabotaging the scholar but has no clue what happened and is in a state of panic. If the PCs go to the conference, or see any promotional material, the two faces of Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep stare out from a flyer, eerily similar to those of the scholar and his boyfriend.


YA-Fiction Style Game

Monsterhearts, by Avery Alder, is a great game to tell this story.

Heru & Seth have been an off-again-on-again item for the past four months. Now, as the Halloween Dance approaches, the local art history museum in which the dance is to be held receives a last-minute addition to their Ancient Egypt wing: duplicates of Niankhkhnum & Khnumhotep’s burial engravings. With this addition came a wave of anti-gay protesters and historical “purists” who malign these relics’ inclusion. Now it seems like Heru & Seth’s relationship is rockier than ever before, and as committee members on the Dance Planning Committee, their split may cause the whole production to fall apart. (Catch this third-party skin for Monsterhearts, The Mummy)


Heru – Junior & part time lifeguard who loves sunbathing & eyeliner. Comes from a rich family & likes to go falconing in his spare time.

Seth – Senior & amateur storm-chaser, Seth is a key figure on the school’s rowing team and loves to tell the story of how he rowed a race with a frantic garter snake who had stowed aboard.

Ambrosia Tun – Museum Curator who is a little too excited about Ancient Egypt, and a little “doesn’t quite get it” when it comes to relationships.

Gerred Gere – Evangelist & self proclaimed “historical purist” who’s in town protesting the “gaywashing” of ancient history.

Menace: The Looming Halloween Dance

Stakes: Will the Dance Planning Committee reconvene in time to save the Halloween dance? Will the PCs find dates? Will Heru & Seth get back together or are they better off split up?

Threat: Heru & Seth were the backbone of the Dance Planning Committee.

Craving: Intimacy (Isolate them)

Offerings: Sex (Seclude them & seek promises)

Capacity: Cold Betrayal (Turn their friends against them)

Custom Moves:

When you make plans for a date to the dance, roll with Hot. On a 10+ you have what you need to see the date through. On a 7-9 you’ll  Isolate them, seclude them & seek promises, turn their friends against them. need to ask someone for help lining things up.

When you try to get the planning committee together, tell the MC if you go to Heru or Seth first. They’ll remember your choice later.

Menace: A Charged Exhibit

Stakes: As “moral panic” spreads over a modern reading of ancient relics, will the discussion remain academic? To what lengths will the protesters go to shut down the museum? How does the town see the role of ancient art in modern lives?

Threat: Gere’s right wing protesters rail against a modern view of Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep as lovers.

Craving: Ownership (Viciously protect coveted things)

Offerings: Inclusion (Show them what they’re missing)

Capacity: Sudden Violence (Outright kill someone they love)

Custom Moves:

When you try to deescalate a bigoted mob, roll with Volatile. On a 10+ choose two from the following list. On a 7-9 choose one.

  • The media is on your side
  • You don’t get hurt
  • The mob disperses

You have some connection to the museum. When you first visit the new exhibit, choose one from the list below and work with the MC to flesh out its inclusion in your game:

  • A Friendly Face: You know someone who works in the museum who could sneak you in whenever you want
  • Research Skills: You know your way around the museum’s research systems, providing you with special access to their records
  • Cultural Ambassador: You spent some time as a neighborhood liaison for the museum & have cultural connections on its behalf


Dungeon Crawl:


Dungeon World is my go-to for dungeon crawling fun

For a chance to explore the space during a dungeon crawl or more traditional hack & slash RPG feel. The PCs stumble across a tomb while exploring ancient burial grounds. The debate on the ethics of grave robbing is better left for other folks, and the party ventures inside.


Agenda: Make the world fantastic. Fill the character’s lives with adventure. Play to find out what happens.

Goals: Establish details, describe. Use what they give you. Ask questions. Leave blanks. Look for interesting facts. Help the players understand the moves. Give each character a chance to shine. Introduce NPCs. Fill out your worksheet.

Dungeon Moves: Change the environment. Point to a looming threat. Introduce a new faction or type of creature. Use a threat from an existing faction or type of creature. Make them backtrack. Present riches at a price. Present a challenge to one of the characters.

  • When did you realize you were lost in the burial grounds?
  • Whose tomb were you originally looking for, and what treasures did you hope to find?
  • What curse did the locals threaten you with to try and keep you out?
  • Why did you venture forth anyway?
  • How thick was the layer of dust outside the tomb, and how thick is the dust inside?
  • A cracked stone door, impossibly old
  • Shattered remains of a beautiful fresco
  • A noise, just down that dark stone hallway
  • The grinding of sand between two stone objects
  • A large statue of two men holding hands
  • Darkness, total and complete darkness
  • A plaque, declaring this tomb to be the burial site for Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep, royal manicurists of the great pharaoh
  • A room full of inexplicably labeled containers
  • An empty burial chamber where two bodies once lay together for eternity
  • Footsteps in the dust that may be weeks old, or centuries old
  • Dozens of images of the two men holding or supporting one another in various poses
  • A cool breeze as if from outside air
  • A scene where the men enjoy the outdoors together, spearing fish and bird hunting
  • The sound of competing grave robbers, hopelessly lost but unaware of your presence
  • The entrance to their offering chamber, where Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep are shown nose to nose, kissing as their belt buckles touch, joining them at the waist.
  • A hallway nearly blocked by debris, or the wreckage of a cave in
  • In some hieroglyphs, their names are joined in a wordplay that could suggest that they are now joined in death as they were in life
  • Some creature that’s made its life down here
  • One inscription featuring a musician calling for a song about The Two Divine Lovers
  • Sand, so much sand…
Custom Moves:

When you enter a new room, roll +Str. On a 10+ you enter unimpeded. On a 7-9 you are winded from clearing debris and must take a moment to breathe & look around you.

When you closely examine the art, roll +Wis. On a hit, you learn a new detail of the lives of these two men. On a 10+ you take +1 forward when acting on this information.

The silence of the grave is complete. Take -1 ongoing when you try to discern reality based on your hearing.

When you open an ancient container, roll +Con as a cloud of arcane dust fills your senses. On a 10+ the dust grants you a vision. On a 7-9 you still receive the vision, but the dust Sickens you.

When you sleep in the tomb, you are visited in your dreams by one of the people from the decorations who will speak with you for a time but will not answer any questions. Sand, so much sand… 

When you inadvertently wake a mummy, roll +Cha. On a 10+ you can parley with it and it may even be friendly. On a 7-9 you can choose either to parley or to have it be friendly, but not both.

When you think you’ve found a way out of this room, roll + the amount of dreams you’ve had while in the tomb. On a 10+ you’ve found an exit. On a 7-9 you can see the other side but there’s no way you can reach it. On a 6- the mirage clears and you’re left once again in the darkness.

Well, that’s our show!

As we wrap up here, I’d like to do one small plug for this list of queer/LGBT+ gaming resources I curate over at my site, Like I said in the first installment, I don’t quite know how to answer my question of where I want queerness in tabletop to go. That said, reading others’ work, playing queer games, and working through some creative processes has given me some great enrichment in this area.  How about you? I’m only one person and I’m limited to my own experiences. What would you like to see in the future of this series?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

In All Their Looks & Words: The Tomb Of Niankhkhnum And Khnumhotep Part 1

8 November 2017 - 3:00am

Engraving from the tomb of Niankhnum & Khnumhotep, taken from Flickr by user Kairoinfo4u and licensed through CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Our first history lesson comes from Ancient Egypt, and may possibly be the very first historical record of same-sex relationships. It’s important to remember that just because it’s the first record we have does not make it the first to exist. People have been loving people of the same sex for longer than history has been a thing. Someone deciding to write something down doesn’t mean it hadn’t existed before. That said, this lesson comes to us from the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, approximately 2400 BCE. It’s really old. It’s the tomb of Nianknkhnum  and Khnumhotep.

In 1964, Mounir Basta, an Egyptian archaeologist, opened a tomb in the Saqqara burial ground and discovered a unique display. Many tombs in the necropolis were burial chambers for prominent husband and wife couples and their families, but this tomb displayed two men in various displays, both holding an equal share of the scenery and often together in affectionate poses. After seeing the two men in intimate portraits, Basta’s argument was that these two men must be brothers, a father and son duo, or perhaps really good friends, because what other option could there be for such a loving duo? Just some best friends getting buried together in a room full of pictures of them holding each other, no big deal.

Engraving from the tomb of Niankhnum & Khnumhotep, taken from Flickr by user Kairoinfo4u and licensed through CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s important to note that among the many scenes depicted on the walls of their tomb, and amid the various inscriptions in the tomb, not once is any mention of a biological relationship. What is contained on the walls is art which places the two men in various images that mimic scenes often used in husband/wife tombs from the same time period and geography. Decorations like a large statue of Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep holding hands, dozens of images of them holding or supporting one another, and one scene where they enjoy the outdoors together, going fishing and bird hunting and sharing in daily activities. The most intimate of the images is at the entrance to their offering chamber, where they are shown nose to nose, kissing as their belt buckles touch, joining them at the waist. In some hieroglyphs, their names are joined in a wordplay that could suggest that they are now joined in death as they were in life. One inscription features a musician calling for a song about The Two Divine Brothers, possibly a reference to the myth of Horus and Set. Probably meant as a ribald reference to what was a rowdy tale about two male gods having a sexual encounter, this reference further supports the idea that Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep were involved in a same-sex relationship with one another.

 The most intimate of the images is at the entrance to their offering chamber, where they are shown nose to nose, kissing as their belt buckles touch, joining them at the waist. Outside of what art survives the span of time, we don’t have much to go on for learning about these two men’s actual lives. They are listed in hieroglyphics as manicurists, hairdressers, and royal confidants. This means that they occupied a special position as one of very few people who could actually touch the Pharaoh. Tombs were extremely expensive, so the fact that these two shared one together meant that they were very powerful while alive. Both of their families were buried in the tomb with them, but the tomb was made specifically for these two. During the 4th through 6th dynasties, some experimentation was common with how tombs were displayed between husband and wife, speculation suggests that these two were able to take advantage of that experimentation to craft a lavish burial chamber for themselves.

Unfortunately, the theory of their relationship being one of desire between two men is still challenged within academia. Many scholars are hesitant to support a same-sex-affection reading of their tomb as the belief is that this interpretation may pull in a desire to read ancient culture in a modern lens. In other words, scholars think that a modern audience may try to pull in modern views on sexuality to artifacts that predate the idea of a “homosexual” by thousands of years. A challenge to that is being voiced by some that relationships between men and women in these artifacts are not expected to hold up to intense scrutiny. We just assume that men and women were involved romantically and sexually. Why must a relationship with two people of the same sex undergo such skepticism when the subjects in question follow the patterns of a different sex couple?

Use in your games

Knowing very little about both of these men may hamper your inclusion of them within your games, but there’s still many ways to incorporate them into some pretty popular RPGs out there. Thankfully we have a great number of words detailing their tomb, available online from many sources. It would take very little effort to overlay this floor plan on graph paper, jot down the art descriptions as some box text, and viola! Instant location to explore for your game. That’s probably not enough, though, so let’s look a little further.

Limestone relief from the tomb of Khnumhotep. Fifth Dynasty, about 2400 BC. From Saqqara. (British Museum)

If we are to take the hesitation of academia to embrace a same-sex reading of this tomb as a direct inspiration, we can play a little with what that does at the table. Investigative games like Gumshoe, Call of Cthulhu, or any campaign with detectives and high levels of roleplay would be good vehicles to delve into this. I’ve done some prep to come up with some locations, characters, and clues to build a conspiracy of an archaeologist trying to stem back this kind of reading and this prep will be included in the next installment of this series.

If you wanted to put the romance between these two men in the forefront, you might want to look at games that play with emotions & relationships. A common trope that could be useful here is that of parted lovers trying, or having struggles with trying, to reunite. In a romance setting that may mean a modern approach with Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep as young men in a school setting. I’ve laid out some prep for Monsterhearts that could be applicable to other PbtA games as well. The new edition of Monsterhearts slimmed down prep but I still enjoy drafting up Menaces & Threats, so there’ll be a couple to be found in the next article.

Finally, if you’re just looking to smash & grab in a dungeon crawl, but at the same time introduce some cool historical context, you can use the burial chambers as a dungeon setting. I’ve prepped a Dungeon Starter for Dungeon World below as well.

As with anything historical in your games, it’s important to do some research before you hit the table, especially if you’re looking to address the subject material respectfully. Let this be the first article you read, and seek out other sources as well. Greg Reeder is an archaeologist who has written about the tomb and presented about these two men, I would suggest at least briefly glancing at his work. Most sources reference his work to some degree. I’ll provide some further reading opportunities below.

One other thing to think about is the context of same-sex desire in ancient cultures. I’ve deliberately not used the word “gay” to address the relationship between these two men. Homosexuality as it’s thought of in a modern construction is still a recent development. People even a couple centuries back did not define or express non-normative sexuality or orientations the same way we do today and it becomes a grey area when using modern speech to talk about ancient cultures. Ancient Egypt almost assuredly had a different view of same-sex desire than we do now.

It’s important to do some research before you hit the table, especially if you’re looking to address the subject material respectfully. Cultural relativity also becomes important because if we start to project modern ideas of sexuality onto the past it becomes easy to connect stereotypes or caricatures onto history. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Reeder expressed some hesitations with giving a modern audience some historical information, saying “people laugh when you say manicurists.” A stereotype of many gay men, especially of men of color, is one of a grooming confidant, but that’s only a superficial modern take on what these two men were. It will be vital to respectfully address their position within the royal structure and the important role they played in court without engaging in harmful modern stereotypes. In addition, the western lens on ancient Egypt is fraught with exotification. Avoid the “jewel of the desert” stereotypes, the best way to do this is with research and context. Challenge some of the mythology we’re fed as westerners and look for papers or histories written by Egyptians about their own history.

Check the next installment for the game prep deliverables I promised above!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

In All Their Looks & Words: Introducing Queer History To Your Games

6 November 2017 - 3:00am

**Initial note: the word “queer” has a complex history for a lot of people in the LGBT+ community. For some it’s a painful slur that brings up traumatic events, for others it’s a powerful reclaimed umbrella term for all sorts of identities and orientations. In this series I’ll be using specific terms when possible (“Bisexual” or “Lesbian”) but whenever I need to be general about multiple identities or orientations I will be using “Queer”.

Although it’s been a long running event at GenCon, this was my first year attending the Queer As A 3 Sided Die panel thrown by the Tabletop Gaymers organization. Last year was my first Gen Con ever and by the time I had my badge and registered, tickets for the panel had already sold out. This year, however, it was the first thing I registered for, in addition to another event run by that organization, Queering Your Setting.

The two events run by Tabletop Gaymers that I attended were some of the highlights of a life-changing Gen Con 50 for me.

I loved both panels so much, seeing people in respected positions in the gaming world such as Jeremy Crawford, Crystal Frasier, and Tanya DePass was inspiring and encouraging. It may be an access or reach problem, but I feel like I have to try hard to find resources talking about queerness in games the way this information was presented. Much of these panels were about how many big titles (I’ll steal the phrase AAA from video games) are starting to add more queer inclusion into their lore and setting with queer characters. Blue Rose was talked up for good reason, and Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons both were mentioned as making efforts to put more queer characters on the page. I think inclusion is great, obviously representation is important, but it got me thinking, especially after reading an article about how adding queer characters is a promise D&D is making, about what’s next.

So What Is Next?

A question I’ve been going over is “How can we make games more queer beyond simply including queer characters in lore?” Again, representation is a powerful thing, especially given roleplaying’s feet-dragging at getting to a healthy portrayal of queerness in its games. “Queer people exist” should not be the end of this discussion. To me, that’s baseline, a given, that’s ground floor. Still, I think inclusion is a great first step and I want to know what the next steps can be. Smaller, more niche games can center queerness and queer stories in ways larger games seem reluctant to do, so how do we start moving AAA game spaces towards centering queerness? 

I want to make it clear that I don’t have an easy or quick answer at the moment, and that’s the driving force behind setting out to write more, podcast more, and develop more about the role of queerness & LGBT+ issues in tabletop. Because I don’t have an answer to “What’s next after we prove we exist?” I want to keep mulling these points over. Part of my growth as a bisexual man includes teaching myself about queerness, since mainstream culture and our public education system has done kind of a subpar job at that. In the past few years after coming out to myself and others, I’ve learned so much that I would have never discovered. Maybe by teaching some of this awesome queer history, I will learn myself. Using history as a vehicle to incorporate queer elements into games seems an obvious choice. From Feudal Japan, to the Viking North, to Medieval Europe or any of the hundreds of analogues of these, tabletop has had a fascination with history. In this series, I’ll be highlighting moments, figures, and themes in queer history and exploring how to incorporate these into your games. “Queer people exist” should not be the end of this discussion.

While I don’t know that I have a great answer to my question yet, at least I can take the queer characters represented in games and put them at the forefront. Exploring the lives of queer history can not only help me learn about an underrepresented segment of history, but also give myself a chance to explore that history in play. By highlighting these historical events, maybe we can put the focus on their context and not only check the box of “Does this game have a queer person in it?” but learn why that’s an important box to check.

I’m In, Let’s Go!

I’m no expert at Queer Studies. I took as many classes as I could in college and I take an active role in seeking out info on the subject, but there’s still an ocean of information out there. I’ll do my best at laying out the information I find while reading and learning, and by tying it into games, let’s do our best to work through this process together. I’m bound to get something wrong at some point. If that happens, let me know & I’ll try to fix it, or if I can’t fix it, I’ll try to do better next time. If you have a subject or question you’d like to see addressed, let me know! Otherwise, let’s jump right in and see what we can learn. The next installment of this series will start to dive into what may be the first ever recorded instance of same-sex affection, from around 4,500 years ago. Stay tuned!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Miniature Painting While Colorblind

3 November 2017 - 2:20am


Today’s Guest Article comes from Brandon Barnes, who talks about his experiences learning to paint while dealing with Red-Green Colorblindness. It’s an awesome look at learning to paint and what tools can make it easier to work around issues you might have. – John Arcadian

A gaming pub opened in our area and started providing free events like learning how to play Dungeons and Dragons, trivia nights, and even gaming mini take-and-paint. The later was presented with some short instruction on painting. It was run by the owner, a former professional painter for several companies. However, when I was about six years old I was diagnosed as red-green colorblind. But, my wife wanted to go and I thought I’d tag along. The worst outcome would have been a crappy painted mini and a couple beers, so why not.

I ended up finding the whole thing therapeutic and I wanted to do more. The mini everyone practiced on was your basic Stormcast Eternal from Warhammer.

The one that started it all. Remember newbies: Thin your paints.

I didn’t get too crazy with my color selection, going with a white base, yellow (wanted gold) trim, and brown leather. Largely I was too timid to get adventurous with colors that I sometimes can’t tell the difference in. What I didn’t realize at first was that even for the colorblind, there are quite a few tools that will help anyone to paint.

A Box of Crayons

Base colors. No shading or layers.

The class introduced me to Citadel’s paints as that was what the instructor always used. My wife had previously bought some of their paints and brushes, but we didn’t have a wide selection. We then made a trip to our FLGS and picked up some starter kits. The kits were for different steps in the painting process, which helps beginners like me ease into the process. The kits we got happened to be Citadel paints, so the colors were all themed from the Warhammer universe. That’s not to say there isn’t a “blue” or a “red.” In fact, there are several versions of various colors included in each kit. Like my giant box of crayons I had as a kid, they’re labeled with descriptive names, which helped me immensely.

Some of the names help colorblind people pick the right color even if they might otherwise have issues differentiating them. Names like Eldar (one of the elves of Warhammer) Flesh indicates a pale skin tone, which helps differentiate from (what I’m told) are redder based flesh tone paints like Ratskin Flesh. Having clear names can help if you have an idea of what the colors should be in context. I did picked up a set of minis and got a troop of wood elves, so I had to find the proper paints to use. Having evocative color names like Death World Forest and Mornfang Fur Brown helped me to pick the ideal combination of colors to represent the characters. Other manufacturers like Vallejo, Privateer Press, and Reaper have more general names that denote the colors, which is beneficial when you are mixing your own color palette. For someone with color-blindness, using paints with less descriptive names might mean having someone with full-color vision around to double check the color choices.

It’s Not All About That Base

That’s just the base colors. Once you get to the next steps, you need to find the right paints to go with your base colors. The next two steps  in most painting are shading and then highlighting (also known as layering).

Shading and some terrible layering.

This is where some tools like charts come into play. Charts like this, helped me pick out what colors to use along with the base colors.

Before I found these tools, I struggled at the store. It was always a concern that some of the pigments might contain red or green and I wouldn’t even notice. Another tool that helped me was the app that helped out in paint selection. These tools show you, “if you used x base, use y shade, and z layer.” Since the apps I used were warhammer specific, it helped tell me what specific colors to use on what parts. For other miniatures, an app or chart like this can help you reference paint schemes from different miniatures to use on the miniature you are painting.

Further along the digital route, there are apps out there that will utilize your phone or tablet’s camera to “read” the color you point it at. These apps may also give you a breakdown of the colors in the RGB format usually used on computers. That can help you with mixing if you can find the ratios to red, green, and blue and map them to how the colors look to you. This can be handy if a person with full-color vision is not readily available.

Well, I Screwed Up, But It’s Not The End

 I should have started a long time ago and followed my own advice I give to my kids, “Never let your diagnosis be a barrier to what you want to do. Just do it.” If you feel you got your color combinations wrong and you feel you ruined your favorite mini, it’s not the end of it. With the right tools, you can strip the mini with something you might already have under your sink. Soaking your mini in Simple Green is one of the ways to remove paint from something they want to redo because you didn’t get it quite right. Of course, any super glue joined parts may come apart as well, and some paint thinners  may react to the plastic or metal that the miniature is made of. Knowing you can redo the work if it doesn’t come out right can be a confidence booster when dealing with color-blindness.


“Dad, why is there a mini in pickle juice?” – My daughter observing the Stormcast Eternal soaking in Simple Green.

There are many options out there for painting your minis while colorblind. Certain products can make it easy to find the right color, like charts and digital tools telling you what colors fit best with others, and then there’s the reset button of just stripping it and starting all over. Finding what works best for you is a matter of personal preference, but there is nothing wrong in attempting it to see what works for you. My advice – if you have been curious, go for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re colorblind. With anything, practice will make you better so long as you’re willing to learn from your mistakes. I should have started a long time ago and followed my own advice I give to my kids, “Never let your diagnosis be a barrier to what you want to do. Just do it.”

This isn’t a comprehensive tutorial on mini painting by any means, just an exploration of what I’ve done to help overcome my disability. I’d be curious to know what tools others might use to overcome personal obstacles, mini painting or not. Please share your story!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

8 Steps to Adventure Design

2 November 2017 - 7:50am

Today’s guest post is from “Tomcollective” Thomas Puketza, a frequent guest poster. Today he talks about adventure design.

I noticed something. There are zillions of articles talking about *running* an adventure. There are volumes of information on campaign design. There is a lot of writing dedicated to campaign and world building. But there is comparatively little written about creating adventures and story arcs. The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide finally contains some helpful advice and tools, but still, in my mind at least, could have gone farther. Besides that, with the exception of some half assed EHOW articles, and one very obscure TSR book, virtually nothing exists about building the actual adventures themselves. I have a big problem with this. One, because it turns our entire hobby into an inside conversation, which in turn makes “taking up the chair” that much more difficult. Two, this hobby is decades old. Some of us are teaching it to our kids. It’s about time someone just set this down like stereo instructions. (I’m going to say that’s a Beetlejuice reference, and not a statement that carbon dates me.)

This is my attempt to describe adventure design to someone who hasn’t done it before. This is by no means the only way to do this. But it is a functional way. This may look like playing scales to more experienced GMs, or (hopefully) they might find something they like in this approach. Either way, everyone is more than welcome to contribute their ideas. That all being said:

The 8 Parts of Adventure Design

Adventures can be broken down into these component parts:

  1. What is the objective?
  2. Who are the bad guys?
  3. Who needs the help?
  4. Where does it happen?
  5. How many/what kind of fights?
  6. How many/what kind of crime scenes?
  7. How many/what kind of challenges?
  8. What is the hook? Why will the players want to get involved?

This is what happens when an adventure lacks a clear objective.

A solid objective gives a game a sense of direction and purpose. It unifies the other elements in your adventure, and it unifies and focuses the players. It is why your players are adventuring in the first place. A good objective is always an actionable goal (break into a tyrant’s treasury vault and rob him blind). But, an objective that also contains a possible consequence is often better (the treasury actually belongs to a sleeping dragon, and it is expected to wake up sometime very soon).

Bad Guys

Who is the villain? What does the villain want? Who is the villain employing/working with to achieve this goal? You develop the villain and the villain’s objectives because these all inform the villain’s methodology and actions. You don’t need to write a novel of backstory, but development here allows bits of the adventure to write itself. For example, Hissy Fit the Halfling Barbarian leads a growing gang of bandits that now rivals a small army. No longer content with taking tribute from surrounding villages, she has set her sights on a nearby city and, some say, a campaign of conquest throughout the region. With this premise, you have your main villain, your villain’s objective, and the main troops involved.

Who needs help?

Who benefits from the actions of the players? Why do they need the players’ help? Are they being completely honest with the party? Common examples include a town’s mayor asking for help against a hostile army, a rich benefactor who needs to work outside of official channels, a simple farmer trying to locate a missing child, or perhaps even the player characters themselves have scores that need settling. As a side note, you know your objective is a good one if failure causes bad things to happen to these people.


Where does the adventure take place and how does its location influence the player’s actions? Also, when does it take place? What time of year? What is the weather? Who are the locals? What is the local culture like? What types of terrain and conditions predominate? Also, where are the inevitable battles going to take place? Who will be attacking who? What will be the backdrops? What sort of terrain features will affect the outcome of the fights? Will the party be operating in a city? The wilderness? Underground? In a shipwreck? A fully operational clock tower just before it strikes midnight? Also, how many different places will the players need to travel to before they accomplish their mission? World and local city/town maps can be very useful aids here, assisting in role play and also allowing everyone to be on the same page.

The Fights

How many combats will this adventure contain? Who will the party be fighting? Under what circumstances will the fighting start? Will there be an ambush or will the villain pause to do some boasting before sending his lackeys against the players? How hard will the fights be on the party? How lethal will the injuries be? How smart are the enemies? Can they be reasoned with or talked down? Maps used here cut down confusion and also allow the use of minis.

Crime scenes

Sometimes the players will be investigating actual murders. Most times they will simply be searching for clues about the bad guys. In either case, they’re often acting like detectives, and detectives need chains of evidence to follow toward a conclusive end. People leave behind all sorts of things, and spells/sci fi tech allows all kinds of novel ways to discover hidden information. Perhaps the most important rule to remember here is to offer more than one trail to your next scenes/encounters/sets of clues. This is because players will often ignore the things you think should be obvious, and yet somehow find new and ingenious methods that threaten to unravel your plans. Also keep in mind that if an adventure fails because a player failed to discover relevant evidence, players will tend to feel cheated, railroaded, or both.

Other challenges

RPGs aren’t just about fights and playing Scooby Doo. A party might encounter a physical challenge, get stuck in a game of riddles, negotiate, or need to perform any number of other interesting tests of capability. Consequences for failure may be expensive, or harmful, or slow the party’s efforts. Such challenges are associated with the terrain or location the party is in. They may need to win a game of cards to get the attention of a crime lord. Encounter a sphinx in a dessert tomb. Or simply need to climb a rope over a chasm after the rotting rope bridge breaks apart. Occasionally, adding such challenges to a combat can make both the combat and the challenge more fun and interesting. Perhaps the sphinx insists on playing riddles while a host of undead mummies tries to eradicate the party. Or maybe that rotting rope bridge fell apart because it couldn’t support both the party and the bad guys sent to stop them.

The Hook

Why should the players even bother? True, there is no game unless they take the job. But logically speaking, adventurers are in the business of doing very dangerous things. They need a compelling reason to take on the risks found in the endeavor. Money may not be enough. They might not care if a town gets destroyed. They may hate the long lost brother who shows up asking for a favor. Never assume that your party will just dive into your adventure. You will need to sell them, pull heart strings, make them angry, or otherwise find some sort of genuine motivation. The more personal investment you can get out of your players, the more likely they will experience all of the highs and lows your designing into your day’s events. You don’t have to think too hard on this, just be sensitive to your players, what they want, and the type of characters they build.

And, oddly enough, that’s basically it. There is certainly more that can be said about all of these elements. But as long as you’re using each of these eight parts, adventures can (and often do) write themselves. Follow this method long enough and eventually you might find you have the ability to employ it on the fly, which can really come in handy when your players inevitably do something you hadn’t planned.

And this is where I invite the GMing universe to chime in and let the world know what they consider adventure nuts and bolts. What steps do you follow? What structures and skeletons do you use? How do you progress from idea to game day?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Strict vs. Lax GMs – It’s Not That Simple

2 November 2017 - 1:00am

There is no such thing as a Strict or Lax GM.

Whoa . . . before you jump to the comments section to yell at me, let me explain. The idea of a strict or a lax GM is an oversimplification. GMing is way more complicated than that. There are too many facets of GMing to simply have the needle buried in one direction or the other. Sure, someone can be more strict than lax, but the idea someone is strict in every way possible as a GM is a bit more unlikely. That said, there are still a few of you that want to hit the comments now, but let me crack this open and explain in some more detail.

Previously on Panda’s Talking Games . . . 

A few weeks ago on Panda’s Talking Games, Senda and I addressed this topic, and we got some requests on Twitter to put this into some kind of print form. So here we are. I am going to write out the crux of my argument here in this article, but if you want to hear this in some more depth, complete with outtakes, jump over to Misdirect Mark Productions and give us a listen.

Strict vs. Lax

As I am wont to do, let’s set some definitions for this article.

  • Strict – demanding that rules concerning behavior are obeyed and observed.
  • Laxnot sufficiently strict, severe, or careful; relaxed.

Don’t jump to the comments section yet. Yes, I know that you must know someone that you would say is a strict or lax GM, but wait. Here is the rest of the argument:

GMing Is Not A Skill

I know . . . it’s like I am trolling everyone with these headers. GMing is not a skill, it’s a bunch of skills. Somewhere I once said it was eight different skills, but honestly, I am not sure if that is true. It feels like it’s true, but it could be more. Regardless of its true number, GMing is a collection of skills that a GM performs during the course of running their game.

So a GM is not strict or lax, rather they are strict or lax in these different skills. Some GM’s may trend towards strict and others lax, but for most of us, it will be a mix.

For this article, and for the podcast episode, let’s focus on a handful of those skills, what they are and what strict and lax would look like.

  • Mechanical
    • The mechanics of the game as written by the authors of the game.
    • Strict: We do what is written in the rules, every time.
    • Lax: The rules are a guideline that we can follow or not when needed.
  • Setting
    • The place where the games take place: location, events, NPCs, etc.
    • Strict: No. You can’t have that type of gun because it was not invented until 5 years after the time we are playing.
    • Lax: Oh sure, your knight can have a katana . . . I mean a sword is a sword.
  • Story
    • The continuity of the story as it plays out at the table.
    • Strict: No, no . . . it was the bartender, not the barmaid who threw you out. Come on . . . keep better notes.
    • Lax: You sure Jonesy was dead? If he was, he’s not now. You just thought he was, but he’s here.
  • Table
    • The control you have over the table in terms of getting the game moving, keeping people focused, side chatter, etc.
    • Strict: Everyone quiet, eyes forward, and pay attention – the game is about to start.
    • Lax: Oh hey . . . hey . . . it’s your turn. Yeah, your turn – can you roll some dice for me?
Why does this matter?

It matters in two main ways: It influences you as a GM, and it influences what your players enjoy in a game.

 We will gravitate to games that accommodate our preferences, and we will run games in ways that suit our preferences. 

Your GMing style is influenced by your strictness or laxness (Bob, is that even a word? – Yup! OML) in these areas. We will gravitate to games that accommodate our preferences, and we will run games in ways that suit our preferences. For example, I like to run games fairly strictly, but I also have limited time to read and learn games. The result is that I avoid crunchy games where I would have to work harder to keep all the rules in order, and play games with lighter rules that I can run with more control.

Your players have a preference for these areas as well. You may have a player that has a high amount of strictness for Setting, especially if you are playing Star Wars. On the other hand, you may be quite lax on setting, and not want to be penned in by canon. When you go to GM a Star Wars game, the player is agitated because you keep using non-canon information, while you are annoyed that you are constantly being corrected.

So understanding your preferences, and your players understanding theirs, can go a long way for figuring out what games to play, how to play them, and how your table should run.

An Exercise

If you want to know your preferences, you can do this exercise with your gaming group. List the four GMing skills I mentioned above, and any other skills you may think of (by the way if you do think of some, put them in the comments). Then rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with a one being totally lax and a 10 being totally strict. Now everyone rates these skills. When you are done, share your scores and discuss any large gaps.

My own scores for these are:

  • Mechanical: 9 – I love running games as written.
  • Setting: 5 – I am a bit lazy about being orthodox to canon.
  • Story: 9 – I love a tight story without any logical gaps or plot holes.
  • Table: 5 – I’m slow to start my sessions because I socialize a lot with my players.
Where do you fall?

The idea of strict or lax is an oversimplification. GMing is more complex than that, with many facets. In each of those facets, we can be strict or lax, and that is what makes our GMing style unique. There is value in understanding this both as a GM and as a player.

So take a look, score yourself, and if you are inclined, share your numbers with the rest of us.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Should ALL Dungeons Be Five Room Dungeons?

1 November 2017 - 3:00am

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

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

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

On the Lazy Dungeon Master and maps.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope that answers your questions. …


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

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

31 October 2017 - 3:56am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design