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Whose Game Is It Anyway?

7 December 2018 - 12:00am

It’s the tug of war between whose fun is most important.

Where’s the line between the game the players want to play and the game the GM wants to run? Is the GM bad if they’re getting upset that the players are completely ignoring their setting and plot? Are the players bad if they’re bored and uninterested in what the GM is presenting and they’re trying to pursue things that would be interesting to their character? Who does the game belong to — the GM or the players?

Think back on the favorite games that you’ve ever played or run. I know mine have always been a beautiful mix of the best of a GM’s prep and skill combined with players elevating the game in exciting and unexpected ways. 

Of course, the answer is ‘both’. If everyone at the table isn’t having fun, then something is wrong with the game. Now, the specifics of what’s wrong could be any number of things. Yes, it is possible the GM is being inflexible and railroading their players through a game that isn’t nearly as engaging or interesting as they thought it would be. And yes, it’s equally possible the players are being deliberately obtuse and disregarding the time and effort the GM put into prepping the game they’re playing. Over the years, I’ve seen both of these extremes happen but usually most examples fall somewhere in the middle.

As with most things, it’s not a black and white situation and the middle ground is super broad and very fuzzy. Think back on the favorite games that you’ve ever played or run. I know mine have always been a beautiful mix of the best of a GM’s prep and skill combined with players elevating the game in exciting and unexpected ways. Unless you’re one of those GM’s that craves absolute control or one of those players that craves pure chaos, your favorite games are probably also a similar mix of what both sides bring to the table.

On the GM’s Side…

A friend complained not too long ago that he was seeing a lot of advice in various RPG communities that was essentially telling GMs they should always just roll with whatever the players want to do, even if that completely disregards the setting or plot the GM had prepped for the game. Having talked to a fair number of GMs, I know how absolutely frustrating that advice is when you’re no longer having fun running games. While we are there to bring an entertaining game to the table, our fun shouldn’t be completely disregarded in favor of the players.

At the same time, if we’re not cognizant of the players’ expectations and running a game without their engagement in mind, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. No matter how awesome our ideas as GMs are, if they’re not offering the players an opportunity to add their own flavor and change the game world, we’re essentially asking them to just sit there and be an audience to our greatness. In addition, no matter how excited you are about a game or campaign idea, if the players you’re presenting it to are lukewarm on the idea you’re unlikely to get a very good game out of it. Not every game is meant for every group of players. If you want a high intrigue game of politics and mystery and your players just want to blow off some steam by cracking jokes and punching evil in the face, you’re both going to end up frustrated.

On the Player’s Side…

Tug-of-war might be fun, but fighting between the players and GM isn’t.

Players aren’t completely innocent in this equation. I’ve seen plenty of players who think messing around with the GM’s plan is the height of entertainment, so they go out of their way to screw up any perceived plot. This is always a little sad but funny when I run a Powered by the Apocalypse style game and mostly run improv style. There are also players who get wrapped up in their own ideas to the point that they’re trying to slam the square peg of their character into the round hole of the GM’s planned game. Players absolutely can make or break a game by their willingness to engage with what the GM is presenting.

Now, this isn’t to say players should just lay down and take it when a GM is running a bad game, and no one should feel forced to play a game they’re not interested in. There are times when a game is just bad and any fun you get out of it as a player is going to be what you make of it for yourself with the other players. Or, sometimes a GM’s logic behind their scenario fails and the players make the game go sideways through no ill intent on their part. If I am completely honest with myself, I’m a horrible player to have at the table when I’m not enjoying a game. My impatience is obvious and I don’t hesitate to call out things that are making the game less fun for everyone at the table. Diplomacy isn’t always my best skill.

It’s OUR Table…

What can we do to avoid this tug-of-war between GM’s and players? Neither the players nor the GM have a game if the other half of the equation isn’t there, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to figure this balance out.


  • Be clear with your players about what your expectations for the game are. Explaining the tone and principles of the game up front, regardless of whether you’re starting a campaign or running a one-shot, is going to help get everyone on the same page right at the beginning.
  • Give your players very explicit character creation guidelines and stick by them. Allow them the flexibility to create someone they’re going to enjoy playing, but don’t feel pressured to let a player build a character that won’t fit the game. You’ll regret it from the moment play starts.
  • Be flexible and learn how to think on your feet when your players aren’t engaging with things the way you expected. You can lead your players to a plot hook, but you can’t make them bite. Every GM makes an occasional misjudgment on what is interesting for the players, so we all learn to adjust when needed.


  • Don’t agree to play games you know aren’t your cup of tea. While I encourage everyone to stretch their horizons with new games, you know yourself best and will know when you’re not going to have fun with a game.
  • When you do agree to play a game, play the game the GM is bringing to the table. Find a way to balance a character you’ll enjoy with the setting and tone of the game. Talk with the GM and work out what you’re hoping to get out of the game with what they’re bringing to the table.
  • Remember that your fun at the table is dependent on the fun of everyone else at the table, including the GM. Figure out how to facilitate your own fun while drawing in the other players and even with the plot the GM is dangling in front of you. Do that and it will make you a player any GM wants at their table.

Ultimately, roleplaying games are a collaborative hobby.  Bring out the best in both the players and the GM and your game will be an amazing thing you and everyone else at the table will be talking about for a very long time.

What are your experiences with finding the balance between the GM’s fun and the player’s fun? I’d love to hear your stories.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Don’t forget the unicorns

5 December 2018 - 12:01am

So, both as a designer and as a player I prefer fantasy roleplaying games that have a slightly darker backdrop than, say, the Forgotten Realms, which retains its hopeful outlook at all times.

(Not that FR isn’t awesome — I spend a lot of time there — though I usually turn the dial on the darkness setting higher than what appears on the page).

The pseudo-European backdrop of my homebrew setting Steffenhold is a dark fantasy reflection of the pre-Renaissance period.

And Kobold Press’ Midgard, which is steeped in Slavic legends and folklore, filled with imposing ghoul-stocked forests and tricksy gods who never reveal their motivations nor true selves, fits in my wheelhouse.

I’m also up for most Gothic-inspired horror. Baron von Strahd and Count Dracula are fearsome adversaries — plenty of room for heroics in an otherwise ink- and blood-stained milieu.

With that out of the way, however, I’d suggest that gamemasters not forgot that they should always make room for unicorns — or some other symbol of hope — in their fantasy adventures. Let a little sparkling light pierce the darkness.

I use unicorns as an example simply because in film and literature, unicorns were used to good effect in both The Last Unicorn and Legend. In war-torn lands troll- and goblin-filled, the mythical equine beast represents chastity and fidelity, an enduring quality that gives hope to good-hearted folk that they may yet triumph over oppression and tyranny.

But, of course, the maiden’s lure need not be the only bright light in your setting. Consider salting your universe with any of these options if you feel unicorns are a tad to cliche.

Dog. The “master’s hound” has represented fidelity and obedience for centuries, but was a powerful symbol during the middle ages. Dogs of great heroes have been recorded in many legends, King Arthur’s favorite hound was Cavall, and Ulysses’s dog was Argos — who recognized his master from his return from Troy and then died of joy. In fantasy gaming, a hound archon is one of the great celestials.

Elephant. A Danish order of knighthood that once consisted of 30 knights. Although a “white elephant” carries the connotation of a burden, the King of the White Elephant was a title born by the great king of Ava (Myanmar).

Griffin. The offspring of two creatures said to be of noble heritage, the lion and the eagle, the griffin represents valor and magnanimity. The griffin also guards sacred treasures.

Phoenix. This magical beast represents resurrection, a powerful symbol in both ancient times and in the middle ages. The creature also has an association with alchemy.

Serpent. Turning the Semitic/Christian connotation of the tempter on its head, adopt the other characteristics of the serpent — eternal, healing, wise and spiritual guardian — instead. Probably best represented as a coatl, symbol of the Aztec winged serpent Quetzalcoatl.




Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide Review

4 December 2018 - 5:00am

I really enjoy books about roleplaying games. Not just products that are rulebooks, supplements, or adventures, but products that discuss the process of roleplaying. I enjoy products that discuss how to run games, and how to play them. Even in a single game system, the value added to long-term play by looking at the game from multiple directions is tremendous.

There is no shortage of books that look at roleplaying games from the perspective of game moderators. In fact, some of the other gnomes have been involved in some amazing books on the topics of preparing, managing, and executing various games at the table. What is less common is a book about roleplaying that isn’t designed for a particular system that is aimed squarely at players instead of moderators.

There is an increasing number of games that give players an opportunity to flesh out their player characters in deep and interesting ways. Traveller was one of the earliest RPGs to address detailed backstory with its lifepath system, which some modern games such as Modiphius’ Conan and Star Trek also use. Pathfinder includes Character Background rules in Ultimate Campaign. Shadow of the Demon Lord has some detailed character background tables in the core rules, which are expanded in the Victims of the Demon Lord line of supplements. The Dungeons and Dragons supplement Xanathar’s Guide to Everything also includes a detailed This is Your Life section that can be used to generate a more detailed backstory.

System specific backstory rules can be useful but are often created as a means of narrowing mechanically defined character options. In other words, these backstory elements often explain why a character picks the game elements they have for a character or narrows the options to help eliminate option paralysis. That doesn’t mean that those backstory systems are deficient, it just means that even the depth that is added in those systems may not touch on important backstory elements or motivations that a character might have.

The next natural extension of this would be for a player to have a guide that isn’t tied to a specific game system or setting. A guide aimed at getting a player to get inside their character’s head in a way that isn’t just a means of determining if they should specialize in using a sword or an axe. The Ultimate RPG Character Backstory Guide is a book that aims to add details to a character’s life story that aren’t just a means of justifying what game elements went into mechanically building that character.

The Chronicle of Chronicles

This review is based both on the paperback version of the book, and on the Kindle version.

The book is 272 pages long. It contains no illustrations, but does have solid formatting throughout, with headers, bullet points, lists, and call out boxes. The colors present in the book are black and orange-red. The formatting for the various bullet points and lists remains consistent in the Kindle version of the book. Because so much of the book is comprised of lists and questions, the formatting makes it very easy to follow from one exercise to another.

Introduction and What Can We Accomplish?

The first three pages of the book establish the goal of this work. There are numerous exercises in the book to help a player find the perspective of their character. These exercises are largely written with a game like Dungeons and Dragons in mind, but the What Can We Accomplish section helps to define the power level and experience of a player for which an exercise is written.

Humble Beginnings

As you might expect from the title, these exercises are for low-level characters to help determine how they got into adventuring in the first place, and how they determine party dynamics as they first begin to work with one another. The suggested character range is levels 1-7, but that’s essentially short hand for adventurers that are still relatively new to adventuring.

The following exercises exist in this section:

  • Idioms
  • Save the Cat
  • Holidays
  • What Gets Left Behind
  • Beanstalk
  • Five Lessons
  • Ventur
  • My Associates
  • Across a Crowded Tavern
  • Orphan Details
  • What Can You Do For Me?
  • A Matter of Status
  • What Drives You Forward?
  • Where I’m From
  • Finders Keepers
  • Well Worn
  • Five Things You Packed but Shouldn’t Have
  • Of the Cloth
  • Five Fears
  • What Does It Mean to Be . . . ?
  • Private Mysteries
  • Prophesy Half-Remembered
  • On the Line
  • Red Flags
  • Damn Merlinials
  • Rival
  • The Taming of the Wolverine
  • My Grimoire
  • Familiar, but Not Too Familiar
  • A Touch of Home
  • Vision of the Future
  • Mentor
  • Magic Mirrors
  • Visualizing Intellect

Some of these exercises cover the basics you would expect when discussing a character’s backstory, like the very basics of where they were from, and the people that they knew. Other exercises go a bit deeper, examining how a member of the party would petition another to gain their help for a goal, as well as examining what it means to have interactions with characters that have a different status (higher or lower) than the player character.

Some of the exercises are relatively straightforward, while others are multi-step procedures that build on the answers provided in previous steps.

Veteran Heroes 

These are questions geared towards characters that have been adventuring for a while. The level range provided for a more traditional D&D style game is 8-14, but it’s easy enough to use this for characters that have been working as adventurers for a significant amount of time in non-level-based systems.

The exercises in this section include the following:

  • Five Scars
  • Wed, Bed, or Behead
  • The One that Got Away
  • Never Have I Ever . . .
  • Last Will
  • My Friends
  • I Know You From Somewhere
  • Five Things You Can’t Throw Away
  • These Things Rarely Work Out
  • A Traveler’s Taste
  • I’ve Heard Stories About These
  • Cursed
  • We Clean Up Well
  • Song of Folly
  • Old Haunts
  • Atonement
  • Wanted
  • It’s More Than Personal
  • Movements of a Master
  • Campfire
  • Hero’s Best Friend
  • Unheard Confession
  • A Taste of Death
  • Conquered Fear
  • Getting to Know You
  • A Show of Force
  • Five Times Your Name Was Cursed
  • Mountains and Molehills
  • Life Goes On
  • In the Eye of My Enemy
  • Irrational Taste
  • Fish Story
  • You Have No Idea
  • The Gauntlet
  • Honey Pot
  • Trusty Steed

The exercises in this section are designed to add details that characters may not have thought to stop and add as they began to advance in levels or get more adventures under their belts. Many of them examine how the appearance of a character may have changed, or how they might describe their fighting style or abilities differently now.

Instead of having exercises about how the group deals with sudden adversity, there are exercises that look at how the group would plan for events that they know are coming. Additionally, there are exercises that ask about what supporting characters and areas look like now that the PCs have left their mark.

Some of my personal favorites are “I’ve Heard Stories About These,” which is a generator for coming up with wildly inaccurate things a character might believe about a monster they still haven’t run into at this point in their career, and “Fish Stories,” which is a guide to determining how exaggerated an exploit from your past has become. I couldn’t help but think of the Hero of Canton from Firefly.

Myths and Legends

The final section of exercises is recommended for characters of levels 15-20, or at least those adventurers that have become larger than life in the campaign.

The exercises for this section include:

  • Tower of Terror
  • Monuments
  • Classifying Villains
  • Home Heraldry
  • “It Is My Distinct Please to Announce . . . “
  • God, No
  • Five Commandments
  • Pocket Dimension
  • For the Myth that Has Everything
  • Inventory
  • Art of Facts
  • Terror of Wisdom
  • A Cutlass Carol
  • Private Secrets
  • It Sounds Good on Paper
  • I Knew Them Well
  • Alive Only in Memory
  • Collecting Dust
  • Sign of a Legend
  • Hobby
  • Five Lives
  • You Made It Weird
  • In the Eyes of Mortals
  • Hangover
  • Apprentice
  • Five Enemies
  • Impossible Trial
  • Not Looking to Get Merlined
  • Crisis of Faith
  • Your Kind of King

The exercises in this section deal with campaign elements such as how a character may have made a major change in the setting without contemplating the ramifications, as well as looking forward to how the character’s actions will be viewed in a historical context. There are also exercises that look at how many enemies a character has vanquished and what that means, people and places that are long gone, and how supporting characters in the service of the player character operate or act.

Some of my favorites in the section are “God, No,” which is an exercise that details how the player character would deal with a visit from a deity, and “For the Myth That Has Everything,” which is about trying to determine what you could provide your fellow epic player characters as a gift.

Ultimate Ups The book does a wonderful job of bringing up motivations and off-screen events that neither a player nor a game moderator would commonly think to add to a game. 

The book is a great resource for thought exercises. Just reading through the exercises without doing them is entertaining, but there are some deep character examinations that can evolve by following several of the multi-step procedures.

Wandering Guide

It’s not really a downside, but because there are so many exercises, it may be easy to get lost in them if you really want to specifically narrow down some details about your character. Being written through the lens of games with similar conventions to Dungeons and Dragons means that some exercises will either not be as useful to non-fantasy gamers or may take a little bit of adaptation to be useful. Some of the exercises, by default, give the player a little more world-building authority than a game moderator may be willing to hand out, especially if they are playing in an established setting. While entertaining, some of the exercises exist just to be humorous, and don’t do much to flesh out the backstory or history of a character.

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

Anyone that has been a player in an RPG is likely to get some enjoyment from this product, even if it is geared towards fantasy gaming. Even without using it to flesh out a specific character, the various exercises are both entertaining and instructive about the kinds of elements players may want to add to a character. Reading the exercises is also likely to give a game moderator some ideas about what questions they want to answer over the long term in established campaigns.

What are your favorite system agnostic, player-facing products? How often do you read products about roleplaying games that aren’t about a specific system or genre? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Three Things I Learned From My Last Campaign

3 December 2018 - 6:32am

Sometimes you play one of those games that’s just so good, you can’t stop talking about it. I’ve already written several articles inspired by the Tales from the Loop game I played, and so has my fellow gnome Wen — and here, at the end of the campaign, is one more. A tribute to the intensity, the feels, the fun, and the amazing experience we all had, if you will: here are three important lessons I learned (or relearned) from the end of that campaign. To preface these lessons — Tales from the Loop is a wonderful game! If you have played it in setting, you will probably notice my stories from this campaign bear little resemblance to the book. We riffed a lot and for this return to our characters didn’t wait for Things from the Flood. We just fast forwarded everything 10 years, played a round of Microscope to fill in the timeline, and jumped back into a world with aliens, cloning, and time travel technology.

1. You shouldn’t always have a sequel.

That game was good. It was the kind of good you never want to end. I could have played that game into eternity, but…by the time we got to eternity, it wouldn’t have been the same game anymore. Despite my desire to continue playing out Stacie and her terribly messy love and life situation, there is a point where it would become boring. Routine. No longer shocking, fascinating, and surrounded with questions. The end of this campaign was bittersweet to be sure — some lived, some died, relationships ended — but we know how their stories will go. All the major questions have been answered (yes, Stacie ends up with Harrison, yes, she will eventually have to kill him). I want more…but I shouldn’t have more. This story is complete, and like any good story, it has an end point. I want more…but I shouldn’t have more. This story is complete, and like any good story, it has an end point. 

Ending on wanting more is a lesson we learn again and again in this age of sequels and trilogies that were only intended to ever have one movie or one season — the sequels are rarely as good. So I’m happy to leave our wayward band of time travelers in their alternate past. The world is an absolute disaster, but the questions we started with about all our characters are answered brilliantly. It’s time to bid them goodbye.

2. Just because it’s crazy doesn’t mean it’s not deathly serious.

I run crazy games all the time, and I love them! My games hit a level of crazy that’s very silly because they aren’t serious. (See: The Art of the Off the Wall Con Game) The thing with games that go a bit crazy like that is that they are frequently unsustainable, because you can’t keep raising the levels forever. The thing with this game was that while the level of crazy started…well, pretty off the wall, the emotional intensity started lower and built beautifully over the course of our sessions. The plot twisted into a roiling mass of time travel and time loop events, but the true drama was ours, our kids from part one, ten years later, just trying to figure out how to be themselves and grow up in a world that couldn’t let them be normal. And sure, things were seriously all over the place — but we were absolutely and completely committed to the emotional play of our PCs. Sometimes we laughed a lot, but those meta moments were interspersed with scenes worthy of Oscars dealing with difficult decisions and trust. Trying to describe the events of this game is definitely one of those narratives that gives gaming stories a bad name (you simply had to be there), but there wasn’t an in game moment that wasn’t worthy of the kind of apocalyptic time travel epic it became.

 Knowing that there is a safe space to revoke your consent in play if something goes too far means we can be much more willing as a group to see just how far we can go. Having a culture of safety and trust with the people that you play with is storytelling magic. Games with anything goes kinds of plots can be functionally covered in knives from a safety perspective because everyone can drive the story and we are always reaching for the next level, to go further. Knowing that there is a safe space to revoke your consent in play if something goes too far means we can be much more willing as a group to see just how far we can go. I feel unbelievably privileged to play with these folks and have that space, where we can just keep pushing things harder and see what happens.

3. Music is not the enemy.

I am not always a fan of background music in games. Frequently I find it distracting and often not on the right tone for whatever is happening in game right now. It can be technically challenging and slightly disjointed as a GM to try to manage keeping up with music and making it match the current mood — it’s like improvisational sound design, which is a lot of extra cognitive load.

In this game, our GM Quincy used music so brilliantly I don’t even have words.

The songs that we each selected as representative of our characters when we recreated their 90s selves came back to haunt our much wiser, much worse for wear selves as we concluded the campaign, creating a brilliant circle and a reminder of where we’d started before our timeline went to hell in a handbasket. Halfway through a scene of me telling my fiance that I didn’t want to marry him after all, quiet in the background comes up the song I chose so many weeks before: Don’t Speak (No Doubt). Perfection incarnate. I am rethinking my feelings about using music in my games, because intentional, specific music for those moments is truly magical.

It was truly a pleasure, Tales from the Loop. Perhaps someday we’ll visit you again.

Do you have those games that left strong memories for you? Did they end at the right time, or go on too long? Did you learn anything from the way they ended?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Have A Quick Story Framework

30 November 2018 - 3:00am

I am in the car on my way home from Thanksgiving at my parent’s house. It is the second leg of the trip, and I am now a passenger. We are due home in about two hours, just in time for me to run Scum & Villainy for my Sunday evening group. That was when the text came in.

I am not feeling well. I need to waive off tonight.

Blown Session. Time to initiate Blown Session Protocol.

I texted the other players in my group, and everyone wanted to play something; a backup game. That was fine. I had just finished reading Beach Patrol, and I was down for some Baywatch action. The only thing is, I had no session prepped. The book had an adventure idea generator, but it comes up with a premise, which is good, but I also needed a bit more structure in terms of scenes, beats, etc.

So I opened my phone, clicked on OneNote and started writing some quick session notes, using a pretty standard story framework that is my go to when I am improvising games.

What is a Story Framework?

A story framework is a narrative structure, a formula of sorts, that tells a story. Which means that it has a start, a middle, and an ending, as well as some number of scenes. It is not an actual story but rather a framework that you can adapt to create a story, or in this case a gaming session.

There are numerous frameworks for stories but the one that most people who were educated in the US know is Freytag’s Pyramid.

This is a simple structure but very effective. Basically, the story starts, some things happen to build up to the climax, and then things start to resolve in the wake of the climax, and the story ends.

If you want to really jump into the rabbit hole when it comes to plot structures, check out Plotto by William Cook.

Using a Story Framework

So what is the deal with story frameworks? It has to do with prepping sessions. When we prep a session, we use some kind of framework to lay out our encounters and how the plot of the session will unfold.

So if you are doing traditional prep, this often takes the form of an outline. We sit down and outline how we think the session will go, and then write our notes. Often when we are doing this, we are using some kind of framework either intentionally or unintentionally.  These frameworks make prepping your game faster because they are known structures that you can employ.

 Where these frameworks really shine is when you are doing a low/no-prep game. Because if you know one or more of these structures, you can quickly come up with a session on the fly… Share9Tweet3+11Reddit1EmailWhere these frameworks really shine is when you are doing a low/no-prep game. Because if you know one or more of these structures, you can quickly come up with a session on the fly, using the structure to give some shape to your session. Often what I do, when I run a no-prep game such as Action Movie World or Beach Patrol, is that I use a framework to write myself a quick outline in my notebook or on an index card, as the players are making characters. This then gives me an idea of where my game can go, which helps when you are improvising, because you have some idea of where the story can go — making your contributions to the story more focused.

My Go-to Framework

The framework that I have committed to memory, and the one that I use the most when I am improvising sessions, is this:

  1. Opening to show how cool the characters are
  2. Introduce the Problem
  3. Goal 1
  4. Goal 2
  5. Goal 3 (optional – based on time)
  6. Showdown
  7. Aftermath

In this structure, there are multiple goals that the players must achieve in order to be able to confront the cause of the problem in the showdown (climax).

Quick Example:

It’s a game of Rockerboys and Vending Machines and the characters are trying to extract a Singer from a nightclub. So my outline would be:

  1. Opening scene at their home bar where they get the job
  2. Problem: Scouting the Nightclub
  3. Goal: Getting into the Nightclub
  4. Goal: Getting past security to get to the back of the nightclub
  5. Goal: Getting to the Singer to extract her
  6. Showdown: Extraction & Opposition
  7. Aftermath: Delivering the Singer and getting paid.

That right there is all I need for a few hours of play. Now when it comes to running the game, we may deviate wildly from this initial outline, but at least I had a starting point for the game.

Elaborating on the Framework

So I am in the car with two hours until I get home, so I have some time to work up a slightly more complex story for Beach Patrol. So, I take the basic framework but I decide to have two plots going on during the session.

A-Plot: A calendar photo shoot is taking place on the beach and creating issues.

Possible encounters:

  • A model that can’t swim
  • Heavy crowds watching
  • Stalker following one of the Models
  • Dangerous shooting setup that endangers beachgoers

B-Plot: A new version of Ecstasy has hit the beach and is causing a lot of teens to get into trouble.

Possible encounters:

  • Drowning victim
  • Sex on the beach
  • User falling off the cliff in Lovers Cove
  • Drug deal going down on the beach

Then I adapt my standard framework a bit to look like this:

  1. Opening: Briefing at HQ
  2. Goal: A-Plot encounter
  3. Goal: B-Plot encounter
  4. Goal: A-Plot encounter
  5. Goal: Resolve B-Plot
  6. Showdown: Emergency A and B-Plot
  7. Aftermath: End of Shift

In this case, I am weaving the A and B plot in alternating scenes, and then in scene 5 I look to close up the B Plot, but I bring back some elements of it in the Showdown.

For the Goals, I pulled from the list of possible encounters, based on what felt right at the time. But I decided that the showdown would be a boat rescue situation where the drug dealers crash their boat into the model’s photo shoot out in the ocean, and there are all sorts of people who need to be rescued.

Blown Session Protocol – Engaged

Thirty minutes after I received that text, I had brainstormed and created a genre-fitting adventure for a game that I was running for the first time. We played that night and had a blast. The models were rescued and the drug dealers captured. The Beach is safe once again.

Having a go-to story framework, one that you are comfortable with, is a great tool for any GM, but especially for improv GMs. It helps with coming up with a game with little or no time to prep, and when you have more time, you can elaborate and subvert the structure to make more varied plots.

Do you have a go-to story framework that you use in your games? Are you now thinking of making one? What are some of your favorite frameworks?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #54 – Book Learnin’

29 November 2018 - 5:13am

Join Ang, J.T., and Senda for some tips to help you learn to play a game right out of the book without someone to teach you! Will our gnomes learn enough to avoid the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #54 – Book Learnin’

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

Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd on Twitter and find her on her other podcasts Panda’s Talking Games and She’s a Super Geek.

Follow J.T. at @jtevans on Twitter, J.T. Evans on Facebook and at his website

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Five Tips For GMing Convention Games

28 November 2018 - 5:00am

There are a lot of reasons why I go to gaming conventions. I get to meet new people, try new games, and see old friends. One truth that remains constant throughout the varied cons I’ve been to over the years: they succeed or fail based on the GMs and players that they attract.

Great GMs give players an excellent experience, which brings them back to the con next year. Great players that come back build a strong culture of excellent gaming. When those positive GM/player interactions happen, it lifts everyone up and creates spaces that grow and thrive.

I’m going to do my best to prepare you for the special challenges that a convention experience holds by sharing my top five strategies for success.

#1 Know Your Game

Convention games demand a certain level of rules mastery. I learn the game system so that I can focus on the people at the table instead of the rules. I don’t need to have every rule and exception memorized but I should have a full understanding of the game I’m running.

In a convention setting, I know that I will need to make quick decisions when questions come up and I don’t have time to look up the rule. It doesn’t need to be a perfect call but it should be in line with the spirit of the game and the story.

I am excited to celebrate every type of player that may show up to play a game that I am facilitating. I have to be prepared to guide players with no experience, make sure that players with an encyclopedic knowledge of the minutia have fun but don’t take over the game, and encourage those players that live in the middle.

#2 Be an advocate for the players

Without the players, I would live a lonely life at an empty table. I certainly have plenty of horror stories about difficult players but the reality is that they are the minority of people I share a gaming table with. Almost everyone that I meet at a conventions are wonderful, giving, and fun people.

I take my job as a game facilitator very seriously. I am there to create a safe space, make sure that players respect each other and the rules, and help tell a cool story. I help set the social contract for the group by starting each session with a talk about my boundaries and expectations for the game. Clear communication makes it easier to understand what the table needs from me.

I make sure that everyone at the table understands that I will enforce the use of the X-Card by moving the story in a different direction when it is used. I warn and/or remove anyone that doesn’t respect, or demands an explanation of why, someone has used it.

While we all contribute to creating a safe environment I recognize that I have taken on an extra level of responsibility to do my best to advocate for anyone that needs it.

If a player is trying to take agency and control away from another person then it’s my job to talk to the offender and give them the opportunity to either adjust their actions or leave the game. If someone is being rude or exclusionary the need for those conversations becomes immediate and serious. It’s important to me that I say, “We don’t do that here. I need you to stop or we can try to find you another game.”

Many conventions have staff members and clear procedures in place to help GMs deal with any problematic players that won’t respect the convention’s code of conduct. Make sure you familiarize yourself with what safety procedures and policies the con you’re at has.

I’m not just there to stop negative behavior. It’s even more important that I highlight the players and their strengths so they get a chance to shine. I endeavor to provide each of them a task that is especially suited to their character. Take the time ask each person, “What do you want to do,” or “Describe what happens when you punch the cyborg ape!”

I work to help them tell a great story and create memories by encouraging the players to support each other. I support this group of strangers as they build friendships and create community by keeping the space inclusive and welcoming. I share their love of gaming and give them the encouragement they need to be amazing.

#3 Be an advocate for the story

Tabletop RPGs are, at their best, an opportunity for collaborative storytelling. This is not tied to any one particular game system. Even if I’m running a module, I can give the story room to breathe, grow, and feel personal to the players by letting them explore, interact with the world, and having the world react to their choices.

If someone at my table wants to talk to the bouncer at Club Red Herring in the game I’m going to let them. If I didn’t want characters to interact with him I shouldn’t have described him. I’m going follow along as they run down the wrong road and adjust the road so it leads where they need to be. Maybe I had a major confrontation planned for a power plant on the outskirts of the city but there is no reason that I can’t move it to the basement of the club. I make a slight adjustment that better serves the story that we’re telling.

Convention games are a one-time experience so I want them to play pretend and have a joyful time.  In your home game the life and death of your character matters because you’re coming back next week and you don’t want to start over. Players at a convention don’t need to worry about long term repercussions of their choices so they can be as reckless and heroic as they want.

The stories we tell aren’t mine alone. They belong to the table and to our shared experience. I expect a con game to go off the rails and for everyone to have fun. That’s why we’re all there and that is what the story if supposed to be, fun. If my desire to control the narrative keeps the players from having a voice then I have failed them.

#4 Time is precious

Keep track of the clock. I mean it. Don’t make me type this in all caps. Manage your time.

In a four-hour convention game I will have about three hours and 15 minutes of actual gaming if I’m lucky. Those 45 minutes are filled with bathroom breaks, late players, introductions, chatting, and cleanup after we are done. I’m left with around three hours to answer questions, tell a complete story, and build friendships. That time goes quickly if I’m not focusing on the clock. The converse happens too, where I’m speeding through content and discover that I’ve still got over an hour left despite being at the end of what I had planned.

I would rather end early than run over the time I have. I watch the clock constantly but I still make mistakes sometimes. It happens and I deal with it as best I can. I will remove portions of the adventure that aren’t crucial to overall story to save time. I cut whatever is necessary to make sure to end on an epic moment.

If things are going too fast I’ll add in another piece to the adventure on the fly. I won’t add content that ends up feeling like a chore to the players just to make the game longer. If I add something I want it to be fun

Those final moments of the game are what the players will remember about their experience with me. I try to leave them with the triumph, tragedy, or conflict of that final scene and not a disappointing moment.

#5 Be the leader your table needs

The gaming table doesn’t belong to me. It is a shared space that I have agreed to guide while we tell a story together. When does this space need me to step up and take a leadership role? When the players don’t know how to move the story forward. When someone needs me to step in and enforce an agreed upon boundary. When conflict threatens to disrupt or derail the table. What do I do the rest of the time? I get the hell out of their way.

Because of the time constraints of a convention game, the story can’t afford to bog down and stall. When that happens I step in and offer suggestions about what options are currently available to the players. If they are arguing about what to do next I will call for a vote from the players and then move forward in the direction that the majority has chosen. I’m there to support them not control them.

It’s my job to be kind, attentive, and fair to everyone at the table. I set the expectations of conduct, tolerance, and kindness with my words and actions. I want to be a leader not a dictator.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

4 Ways to Make Your Game Better By Making It More Accessible

26 November 2018 - 5:22am

He ain’t heavy, he’s my clone. (Image Courtesy of

A couple of months ago, a friend sent me this great Lifehacker article about how using audio descriptions in streamed content can help teach the fine art of providing enough (but not too much) description as a GM. Audio descriptions, initially intended to make media more accessible, also have the delightful side-effect of creating a tool that has the potential to help everyone have a better time of it. This phenomenon, usually called the “Curb Cut Effect” refers to how making something more accessible for some people ultimately makes things better for everyone. It takes its name from those small ramps (or “cuts”) that you find on curbs near crosswalks. These were originally intended for those with wheelchairs or other mobility considerations to be able to get up on sidewalks without being hit by the nearest bus. However, if you’ve ever pushed a stroller, had to jump a curb with a shopping cart, or had the kind of Saturday night that leads to a greater-than-average number of stumbles (*cough*), you’ll have noticed that clever little piece of design is useful in a whole lot of ways.

Of course, the biggest benefit of accessibility is, and will always be, accessibility. More accessible games mean fewer people being shut out for reasons that have nothing to do with the games they want to play or run. Fewer people being shut out means more different perspectives on this hobby we all love. More perspectives means (and I cannot highlight this enough), more stuff for us to play with. We live in a world with D&D and Pathfinder and Blue Rose and Harlem Unbound and Monsterhearts and Bluebeard’s Bride and the Cortex System and the Pip System and the Cypher System and Dread and literally hundreds of other games full of unique and interesting stories and mechanics. No single person, no matter how brilliant or driven, could ever, ever come up with all of those things on their own. Making space for more people at our tables makes our tables better in every way we could imagine.

Which brings me to an important point. I don’t personally have any accessibility concerns. I’m lucky enough to be able to cruise through most situations without being made aware of my limitations. However, I have some friends who do have these considerations, and I try my best to listen to them. My life is immeasurably better for having those folks in my life and at my table when I’m lucky enough to play with them, but I’m not an authority on any of this.

Look: I’m a half-functional manchild, barely able to dress myself in the morning, and I’ve been doing that since at least high school.  I’m not an expert on anything except how to eat fifty cent ramen for a week without dry heaving (the secret is butter and low expectations). Share13Tweet18+11Reddit1EmailI’m not an expert on anything except how to eat fifty cent ramen for a week without dry heaving (the secret is butter and low expectations). I’m most especially not an authority on the experiences of the people at your table. If you have a player or a GM who requests accommodations that are different from or contradict anything I say here, listen to that player or GM. Everyone is an unparalleled expert in their own lives; listen to that expertise.

However, with all of that said, I can now climb down off of my soapbox and present to you 4 Ways to Make Your Game Better By Making It More Accessible.

Turn On Audio Descriptions When you Watch TV

Accessibility Functions: helping blind or visually impaired media audiences engage with media.

How it can make your game better: If you’re not used to it, the experience of listening to descriptions as they take place is jarring at first, but very rapidly the descriptions begin to recede into the background of your attention, and you begin unconsciously following along with the meter and language of that description. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself moving faster and more evocatively in your descriptions almost immediately.

 Nothing will ever, ever make conversations between two NPCs anything but painfully awkward for everyone involved. Sorry. Share13Tweet18+11Reddit1EmailOver time, it also becomes easier to tell how to smoothly transition between character dialogue and description. Though nothing will ever, ever make conversations between two NPCs anything but painfully awkward for everyone involved. Sorry.

Pay Attention to Space

Accessibility Functions: People with mobility concerns or mobility aids like canes need clear walkways and adequate space between tables, walls and chairs. Cluttered surroundings can lead to your friends struggling to move around in the space you’ve set up for them, or in extreme cases, not being able to participate at all.

How it can make your game better: Paying attention to how your space is laid out helps all of your players move in and out to grab snacks, quickly step away from the table without disrupting others, and, for an added bonus, helps make cleanup quicker and easier, too.

Take Breaks

Accessibility Functions: Players or GMs with joint, back, or muscular problems, attention issues, or some conditions like Crohn’s disease need to take breaks more frequently than players without those issues.

How it can make your game better: Getting into the habit of taking more frequent breaks (five minutes or so every hour or hour-and-a-half of gameplay) helps to keep your players fresh, and allows them to plan their next moves. It also takes the pressure off of you as a GM to keep the game running for long stretches of time. When setting the expectation for frequent breaks, it also helps maintain focus during other times, since everyone knows that there will be another break coming soon, and provides a convenient stopping point for a session.

Note that it’s critical to keep short breaks short—especially at first, it’s very easy to allow a five-minute break to stretch into a ten-minute or fifteen-minute break, but that can very rapidly turn into not getting to play at all. Having frequent breaks means everything that isn’t a break needs to stay on task.

Focus on Visual Aid Design

Accessibility Functions: Players and GMs with ADHD, dyslexia, and visual impairment sometimes struggle to read rules or handouts that are overly long or designed for those with sharper vision.

How it can make your game better: There are a few clear ways that paying closer attention to how your visual aids are designed can help you and your players enjoy your handouts more. Paying attention to this kind of thing is 25% graphic design, 50% writing, 30% putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, and 7% being terrible at arithmetic. But don’t let that intimidate you; if you’re thinking about this at all, you’re already light years ahead of many GMs.  The harder something is to be used, the less likely it is that it actually will be used. And your stuff is there to be used, right? Right? Share13Tweet18+11Reddit1EmailThe harder something is to be used, the less likely it is that it actually will be used. And your stuff is there to be used, right? Right?

  • Keep handouts short and sweet. It’s tempting to add additional evocative language to your handouts. Don’t. That’s what your narration is for. More words means crowded text and longer sentences. Every second your players spend reading is a second they’re not listening or engaging the game. Most players should be able to take in everything (unless it’s a puzzle) at a glance. Your handouts are reminders, not instruction sheets. Speaking of:
  • Don’t rely on written rule instructions. I have a dyslexic friend who is one of the best players I know; I enjoy every game I’m in with him, and if he hadn’t told me, I never would have known he was dyslexic. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact his experience. Once, in a large con game, this player was handed over a dozen pages of densely-packed rules when he walked in to play. While the rules were e-mailed out before the game, predictably, almost none of the players read them. Anyone would have struggled to understand such complicated instructions in a compressed timeline, but for my friend, that wall of text erected a barrier it was completely impossible for him to get over in time to participate in the game. In that situation, the GM taking the time to boil down the essence of the rules to the players all at once would have gone a long way to making sure everyone could play. There are a lot of challenges out there, and not every player who has them will be comfortable telling every GM.
  • Remember that design matters. Use big, simple fonts. Usually, I try not to use anything smaller or more complicated than size 14 Calibri. Fancy fonts may look cool, and occasionally have a neat immersion effect, but use them sparingly and intentionally. There’s nothing wrong with using simple black text on a white background; odds are good your players won’t even notice. The real imagination is in the game, and other combinations run the risk of making it exhausting for your players to read.  You’re not trying to create a logo here—you’re trying to create a tool to get your players more in the game. Share13Tweet18+11Reddit1EmailYou’re not trying to create a logo here—you’re trying to create a tool to get your players more in the game.

So what do you think? Do you do anything at your table to help make it easier for your players or GM to engage?

  • Fans for Accessible Conventions (Facebook Group). A great group of folks with a wonderful perspective on the intersection of fandom and accessibility. I can’t recommend this group highly enough, and a couple of these suggestions came directly from this group.
  • Usabilablog’s Article on Design for Color Blindness. The same blog’s article on readability is also worth a look.
  • Interactive Design Foundation’s Usability for All While focused on web design (like much of what you’ll find on the web, unsurprisingly), has a great overview of how accessibility is broader than thinking about how someone with a given disability may interact with your stuff. Worth a read.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Storytelling and Games

23 November 2018 - 1:00am

My #tableselfie for the class. I forgot to take it until the end, so we missed a couple students.

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to an honors seminar class at Finger Lakes Community College. The class was called Storytelling and Games, and I was asked if I was interested in coming in and talk to the class about narrative in roleplaying games. Was I interested? Ooh boy, was I ever!

Of course, the closer we got to the date, the more nervous I got. It was a two-hour class that met once a week with about twelve students. I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by a large audience, but I still wanted to make sure I gave them a good presentation. My friend, the instructor who invited me, had let me know they were a bunch of awesome nerds, and whatever I brought in should be fine. While all of them were definitely folk of a nerdy flavor, only a few of them had actually played table top RPGs before.

So, what did I do? Well, first, I talked about the history of RPGs and how narrative was kind of an accidental byproduct of early games. I’m sure some grognard somewhere is screaming sacrilege, but RPGs were born out of miniature wargames. The theming of early games was on point right from the beginning, but rules that lead to the story the game’s theme promised weren’t really there yet. Obviously, something about the characters and the stories that did come out of games was captivating, otherwise those original players would have wandered back to minis and war games.

As games evolved, the narrative they were advertising became more and more important. In the early 90’s, Vampire: the Masquerade debuted and they called the game runner a storyteller, right out of the gate. The rules still had some issues lining up the story of a monster’s struggle with its own humanity with the rules as presented, but the mechanics were getting closer. Then there was the D20 Boom of the early 00’s. In the shadow of D&D 3.0 and all the other publishers making D20 compatible products, an indie aesthetic arose in designers looking for something different. Slowly, the idea of aligning the mechanics the story the game is promising became more prominent and part of many designers’ goals.

This wasn’t a history class, though, so kept the lecture to a minimum. I wanted to frame the games I was presenting to them to show the evolution of the hobby and how modern games build the narrative into the core fabric of the game. What I really wanted to do was SHOW them how roleplaying games work.

The Games!

I split the class in two and gave one half Monster of the Week playbooks and the other half Masks playbooks. Both games have very strong, easy to understand themes and the playbooks do a good job of guiding character creation quickly. Because both games have a large number of playbooks, I could have stuck with one or another based on the number of students, but I felt it was more realistic to divide them into groups that were better representative of what an actual gaming table might have. We wouldn’t be able to get in a full game, but I still wanted to give them a taste of it all.

The Monster of the Week crew chose a Monstrous, a Crooked, a Spell-Slinger, and a Chosen. After they worked through their playbooks, we ended up with a Chosen that didn’t really understand that he was destined for something important, but kept being nudged by outside forces into saving the day. The Crooked was a pick-pocket who acted like he was made of Teflon because nothing bad could stick to him. The Spell-Slinger started off as a direct homage to Harry Dresden, but ended up with a little Karrin Murphy flavor in there as well. The Monstrous was a vampire that had decided humanity was getting too good at creating evil on its own, so out of self-preservation, she was working for the good guys to keep the world from going to complete crap.

The Masks players!

The Masks group chose a Transformed, a Delinquent, a Doomed, an Outsider, and a Bull. The Transformed was a metal dude trying to figure out how to still be a normal kid in his new body. The Delinquent developed his powers naturally and just used them to get even more rebellious with his illegal urban exploration. The Bull was an ex-football player that got experimented on, but ended up rescuing all the other kids getting experimented on with them. The Outsider came from the planet Glarfunk, was bright blue with bizarre hair, and never ever passed for normal. The Doomed, on the other hand, was normal enough that her primary enemy was a high school bully that was trying to kill her off.

Once we got the basics of the characters out of the way, we did connections. I did this to show how you can build the narrative of the game at the beginning by interweaving all of the characters together. With the Masks group, most of them revolved their connections around the Bull. During a regular game, I would have pushed them to spread their connections around, but they were all having so much fun making the Bull their social lynchpin, I didn’t want to stop them. For the monster hunters of Monster of the Week, the connections weren’t as cohesive and took a little more prodding. In the end, they eventually came up with enough connections to logically explain why they were all in Houston working together to stop a cult trying to summon a major demon.

With the connections out of the way, I ran a quick scene for each group. With each, I tried to demonstrate how the story builds from the scene I set as the GM, but evolved from the actions they took. RPGs should be a collaborative affair, after all.

With the Masks kids, like you sometimes see with new players, I had to nudge them into acting on what they were seeing. They were all super into the world building during character creation, but weren’t sure how to dive into the game once we got rolling. The scene I sent for them was a mall that was being attacked by someone or something. One fun thing that happened early was me being able to demonstrate how their ideas can help influence the game. I described the wreckage of a Build-A-Bear store and one of the players asked if they were going to be fighting a giant stuffed bear? Yes, yes you are. Eventually they started to get more proactive and after a couple of times around the table, I ended on a cliffhanger, letting them discover that their real enemy was a little girl on the merry-go-round, animating giant dolls and statues as her ‘friends’.

The Monster hunters!

For Monster of the Week, I gave them a set up where the cult they were fighting against had kidnapped a bunch of innocent civilians and was about to sacrifice them on the floor of the Houston Texan’s stadium. Right out of the gate, I had to have a talk about tone. Again, as you sometimes see with newer players, they were a little more bloodthirsty than the tone of the game calls for. The Crooked’s solution for dealing with the cultists was to blow up the stadium and the kidnapped people would be ‘acceptable casualties’. I pointed out that they are supposed to be the heroes and blowing up innocent civilians goes against that. If it had been a full game, I would have spent more time guiding them into the proper tone of the game, but that was a luxury we didn’t have. In the end, as is often the case in Monster of the Week, the dice made things go sideways anyway. When I ended it, the explosion didn’t go off like they had hoped and the vampire was being held by the cult leader as an acceptable sacrificial alternative.

I had a really fun time with the class and I hope to get the chance to do it again in the future. The students all said they had fun, and I’ve been told that a couple of them expressed that they really enjoyed their first taste of RPGs. Huge thanks to April Broughton for inviting me to the class and good luck to all the students!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gaming with Non-Gamer Family

21 November 2018 - 5:00am

It’s that time of year where family members from near and far gather together for the wide and various holidays of the winter season. This is a great chance to game with some folks that you normally don’t get a chance to roll some dice with. Some of your family may not be aware of your gaming, while others will. Their attitudes may range from eagerness to participate to approval to neutral to scorn. You obviously know your family better than I ever will, so please take this advice and apply it where you can. Where things don’t quite align with you and your family, feel free to ignore me.


Most gamers have a decent level of “weird” in their psyche. After all, we enjoy getting together to play make-believe in a structured manner with our friends. Even though it’s weird to do this as adults, I think it’s pretty darn cool. You should think it’s cool, so let your “weird light” shine bright and clear! (Yes, even in front of your family).

…But Not Too Weird

However, don’t get too weird. You don’t want to ook out your family members who may be unaware of this part of your life. To be more specific, I would advise avoiding games that get deep into psychological horror (or horror in general), politics, religious statements/evaluations, or that tend to lead to inter-party conflict. While I love a good game of Paranoia as much as the next person, the inter-party, clone-on-clone violence can completely ruin the next family meal as people may still hold a grudge because Little Billy killed Uncle Frank’s very last clone. Know what I mean?

Fun and Simple!

Try to find a game that’s fun and simple. The simpler the game, the more fun it will be because there will be fewer rules to explain and go through. Avoid the crunchy games like recent iterations of D&D and Pathfinder. GURPS, Hero System, and most other point-build systems are straight out (even though I love those types of systems).

A stripped down Savage Worlds (no edges or hindrances) could work. I’ve done this before at a horror-based literary convention with a LARGE group (14 players, only 2 of whom had played RPGs before) and it worked very well. Fate Accelerated (with maybe 1 or 2 simple aspects per player) can also be run smoothly.

Basically, if you can legibly fit the “character sheet” on an index card (yes, you can use both sides), then you’re in good shape. I would also highly advise pre-generated characters because you’ll basically be playing a con-style game during a holiday gathering. We have plenty of articles on prepping for and running a convention game, so I suggest you search for those and check them out.

Safety Tools

I’m not going to delve into the different types of safety tools because Phil did a great job of it here, but I will press you to include them at the table. If you (or another player) upsets the random stranger at a con game, there are typically few long-term negative impacts on your life. However, if you get under Uncle Frank’s skin in a serious manner and he has no way to politely let you know to back off a certain topic, then it could cause friction in your family for the long-term. Then again, maybe your family structure is more stable and able to handle this than what I’m used to, and I could just be a “Nervous Nellie” in this area. Better safe than sorry, I think.

In Game Meta Currency

Lots of games have Bennies or Fate Points or some other mechanic. While I normally state that these tokens should not be edible, I’m going to say that tossing out mini-candies as bennies is a good thing in these scenarios. Just let your family members know that if they eat the candy, then the empty wrapper is not valid as a Bennie… Or maybe it is? Depends on how you want to play the game. I think tossing candy out is a great ice breaker. I’d also be more generous with them than the rules (or other standards) dictate. This will encourage higher levels of participation as people will amp things up in the role playing side of things in order to score some more chocolate from your stash. Just make sure that stash is stocked!

End Words

Finally, I hope this is a great holiday season for you. I don’t care who you’re celebrating with, how you’re celebrating it (if at all), or what games you get to play. I just want everyone out there in the Gnome Lands to be safe, sound, and happy around the gaming table.

If you do end up celebrating the season with family at the gaming table, I’d love for you to come back here and let me know how things went.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Getting Started on the DMs Guild – Part 2: Publishing and Marketing

19 November 2018 - 7:27am

Welcome back, folks! I hope you found Part 1 enlightening because we are going to take it a level deeper today. You’ve crafted your beautiful D&D work and now you’re ready to publish it. But I want to talk about some of the foibles of publishing on the DMs Guild, because it’s not quite like publishing anywhere else. This is where I think I’ve tripped up the most, so come and learn from my mistakes so you don’t have to make your own!

More Bubble-Bursting

Oh hey, remember how last time I started with the less-good stuff? I’m going to do that again. Some things on the DMs Guild don’t sell as well as other things, by a fairly wide margin. I didn’t include this in the previous article because I think it’s more important to write what you want to write than to write what you think will sell well. But since we’re going to talk about marketing, I think it’s important to bring it up now.

Player options like character classes or subclasses, character races, new spells, and new magic items sell very well in comparison to DM options like written adventures, monster and NPC stat blocks, or DM guides. It makes sense when you think about it; there’s at least a few players for every DM. Sure, a lot of players become DMs, but plenty don’t. In my experience, this can be a drastic difference in sales expectations.

 …it’s more important to write what you want to write than to write what you think will sell well. Share15Tweet18+11Reddit1Email

To give you an example – my best-selling adventure, up until recently, had only sold about a third as many copies as my worst-selling compilation of magic items. To put that another way, my “worst” magic items still sold three times as many copies as my “best” adventure, if we were to use sales as a measure of quality (spoiler alert: sales are not a good measure of quality).

I’d like to reiterate – this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write the adventure you want to write. You very, very much should. Writing just for sales or writing only what you think will be popular is a much faster route to failure than writing what you have a passion for writing.

Pricing and Payment

One of the things I struggled with the most when I first started out was how much to sell my products for, and I think this is still confusing for a lot of newcomers. There’s three options on the DMs Guild: full paid, “pay what you want”, and free. Free is pretty self-explanatory – you aren’t getting paid for this, it’s being given away. Don’t undervalue yourself. It’s fine to do promotional items for free, but I wouldn’t do it for much else.

Full paid is the flat rate for your product. I didn’t know this when I got started, but many writers on the DMs Guild use this very simple formula: # of pages x $0.10, then round up to the nearest 0.99 or 0.95. For example, if you have a 25 page product, that puts you at $2.50, then round up to $2.99. And yes, not bringing it up to exactly $3 is surprisingly important. I dropped several smaller products from $1 to $0.99 and I saw a fairly significant jump in sales. I don’t know why the human brain is this way, but it sure is. You can charge more, you can charge less, but this is a solid baseline, I’ve found.

 Don’t undervalue yourself. You have a valuable skill and you deserve to be paid for it. Share15Tweet18+11Reddit1Email

“Pay What You Want” is, and I’ll be blunt here, the worst of both worlds. 95% of the people who download your product just won’t pay anything or will pay a pittance. Again, this can work for promotional items, like one stat block from a larger collection that you’re advertising… but then just go with free. This is my experience; your mileage may vary. Don’t undervalue yourself. You have a valuable skill and you deserve to be paid for it.

As for what you get paid, well, you get 50% of whatever the item costs. If someone were to buy my example $2.99 adventure up there, I would get $1.50 and Wizards of the Coast and OneBookshelf would split the other $1.50 (full disclosure; I do not know what their agreed-upon split is and it probably isn’t pertinent here). This is… fine. This is part of why I mentioned going direct to DriveThruRPG way back in Part 1. When you publish on DriveThruRPG, you receive 65-70% of the item’s cost, not 50%. Again, use your best judgment.

Marketing and Social Media

So, let’s get to the really good stuff here: where and how to market your product. Yes, I do strongly recommend marketing it across social media, though which social media platforms will do well for you depends on what your product is. There’s just enough stuff being published on the DMs Guild that people aren’t so likely to just stumble across your product very often. So here’s my breakdown of the big social media platforms.

  • Facebook – there’s a few Facebook groups I recommend joining and promoting your products there. The first is the official “Dungeon Masters Guild” group, created recently by the new community manager, Lysa Chen. The second is the “Dungeon Masters Guild Creators Circle” group, which served as an unofficial primary group until the official one was created. The third… if you really must, is the main “Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition” group. Your posts will be buried quickly, but it does have massive reach.
  • Twitter – there’s no denying it, Twitter is a very useful cesspit. There’s a small handful of hashtags that I recommend using: #dmsguild #dnd5e #ttrpg are the main ones. If you use more than two or three hashtags, your tweets are more likely to get flagged as spam and hidden from people’s news feeds, which is the last thing you want. Twitter tends to serve most people well, in my experience.
  • Reddit – I don’t know how else to put this, but Reddit will probably only serve you well if you have free or pay-what-you-want products. Reddit likes free things. I don’t know why it’s so different from the others in this regard, but it sure is. I’ve seen massive threads turn into flamewars that have to be locked by mods because people seem to think that D&D writers shouldn’t need to be paid for what they do. r/dndnext is the biggest and most active subreddit. There is one for r/dmsguild but I hear it’s not very active at all.
  • Tumblr – there is a really significant D&D subculture on Tumblr, in large part thanks to The Adventure Zone, and to a lesser extent, Critical Role. If your content is the kind of humorous, even zany stuff that TAZ specializes in, you may do very well on Tumblr. The Tumblr community is also kind to works that include strong elements of social justice, like the recent “Blessed of the Traveler: Queer Gender Identity in Eberron”. It can be hard to build a following there, but once you do, you have a built-in fanbase.
  • Instagram – yes, Instagram! If your work includes evocative or eye-catching art, definitely use Instagram. It’s not as useful for strictly-text works, but both modern and historical art tend to do quite well there. Even moreso than Twitter, Instagram is a game of hashtags, and using many, many hashtags is encouraged by the almighty algorithm. It’s not uncommon to see a post tagged “#dnd #dnd5e #dmsguild #art #vintage #fairies #fantasy #writing #rpg #ttrpg #gaming”. Again, your mileage may vary, but since it’s so easy to cross-post to and from Instagram, you might see very big results for very little effort.
Lifecycle of a Product

There is, of course, an initial boom around the first week or two of a product’s release. The longer you stay in the “Newest DMs Guild Titles” promotional ribbon, the better. But what happens after that?

 Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Share15Tweet18+11Reddit1Email

Well… a long, slow drop. Or a fast, sudden drop. I’ve had products see a trickle of sales for months; I’ve had others not sell a single copy a few weeks after release. I don’t have a good way of predicting this, unfortunately. But do know that unless you see massive, breakthrough success, your product is not going to keep selling in the same kind of numbers as it does the first few days. Never expect to have massive, breakthrough success. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Sooner or later, most products outside of the top bestsellers hit a point where they’re kind of “dead”. They’re not really selling except maybe one or two spotty, inconsistent sales. That’s okay. That’s like the circle of life but for art. You can keep promoting them, but if you keep hitting up the same few sites, you’re going to reach a point of saturation, where everyone who’s going to buy a copy already has. You can stave this off to some extent by staggering your promotions. Maybe Twitter in the first week, Reddit in the second, Tumblr in the third. It’s not guaranteed by any means, but it can help.

What Next?

You may not want to hear this, but the best thing you can do is get another product out the door, and the sooner, the better. A “career” of any kind of longevity on the DMs Guild depends on regular, semi frequent releases. If you can get a product ready every few weeks without burning yourself out or sacrificing quality, go for it. Link to your other products in each new release. There’s a ribbon on every product page for “Customers who bought this title also purchased” and if you can gain a consistent following, that eventually just advertises for yourself.

If you can build a reputation for quality, the work will speak for itself. Don’t rush releases if you are feeling like burning out. It’s better to release better work less frequently than crummy work more often. This is where the Facebook groups I mentioned earlier really come in handy – a lot of people work on collaborations for the Guild. Many of the most successful products are the result of many D&D creators working together. If everyone contributes a small piece of a release, it’s easier for everyone. Six or ten or twenty heads are better than one.

If you like RPGs other than D&D, there are other community content programs, though none are quite so large as the DMs Guild. There’s also the Miskatonic Repository for the Call of Cthulhu system, and the Storyteller’s Vault for the White Wolf series of games like Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Awakening. I’m sure there are more in the works, in no small part because publishers have seen the success of the DMs Guild and want that for their own games.

So, that’s what I’ve got in terms of wisdom, folks. I hope it helps you and I wish you all the best when you publish your own DMs Guild content. Don’t be nervous, you can do it!

Tell us what you’re working on in the comments!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Stew Notables – Caitlynn Belle

16 November 2018 - 5:11am

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

Meet Caitlynn

Caitlynn Belle is a queer game designer and writer from Savannah, Georgia. You can find her Patreon at where she makes so many weird games about sex and feelings.

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

My name’s Caitlynn Belle, I’m a queer games girl from Savannah, Georgia, and I mostly release small, experimental games through my Patreon ( and at 2) What project are you most proud of?

Ugh, it’s hard to pick. I like them for different reasons, but if I just had to pick, then I’ve got a game called Kirigami Dominatrix Display Simulator which is about being a hologram domme and using stationary tools like pens, scissors, paperclips, and so on, to metaphorically sexually dominate a sheet of paper, which represents your client. You enact consensual sadism on the paper this way, and I really just think it’s a clever bit of immersion, how you get to physically damage something in creative ways and use that to journey through a sexual experience.


3) What themes do you like to emphasize in your game work? Sexuality and identity, I think, are the big ones. I want games that represent me and I want to do my best to put games out that represent others. I want spaces to talk about sex in a safe and healthy way and I want to explore identity and self-expression and what it means to really dig into yourself and figure out who you are, year after year. 4) What mechanics do you like best in games?

I appreciate finding interesting ways to divine outcomes other than dice or cards, anything quirky that ties back into the theme of the game somehow (Jenga towers for tension / fear, for example), and to be honest, I really like just pure narrative storytelling. Games like Fiasco where the structure of the game enables you to just wheel out and say whatever. I don’t like randomizers much in the games I play – my friends and I are used to creating characters and arcs and just driving towards their conclusions with as few speed bumps as possible.

5) How would you describe your game design style?

Sexy and weird. Just like me. But for real, all I’m trying to do is give you interesting things to say and interesting ways to say it. I think if you have that as your foundation, your game stands a much better chance of being awesome. I try to be authentic in voice, so it sounds like me and the image of the game I have in my head is the same image you get in yours, and I try to let my excitement for whatever it is I’m giving you shine through.

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

They’re all tools to tell stories about queer identity. There’s things you feel weird or like an outcast over that you shouldn’t, but there’s no media for you, nowhere to explore people like you, and I want to start normalizing the idea of having cool gay characters do cool gay things. All of these games are coming from a girl who’s still on her own adventures, figuring out gender and love and who she is, and I think those themes are apparent in the text. I know very, very few people who aren’t exploring feelings about themselves in at least some tiny capacity, who they are and how they’ll express themselves, and that’s a real, honest, vulnerable thing, and I really want to see those kinds of characters out there as well.

7) How does the process of making small games influence your design?

It lets me latch on to any tiny idea I get and give it a proper home and just enough space to breathe and be a thing. You get small ideas sometimes and they can’t fill a larger game – just these little inklings of plots or rules – but they fit wonderfully on a three-page game that focuses in on a single experience. You get small ideas sometimes and they can’t fill a larger game – just these little inklings of plots or rules – but they fit wonderfully on a three-page game that focuses in on a single experience. Share3Tweet+11Reddit1Email There’s a lot of things that I couldn’t make into a larger product but I don’t think that makes them less valid. Like, I legitimately feel the 200 word RPG challenge that David Schirduan puts out each year has made some of the best games in our community, and I mean that sincerely. They’re beautiful, wonderful games, powerful and captivating, better than most anything in our collections or up on Kickstarter. But, making smaller projects lets you really focus in on what an idea needs and how you edit, and what you should be editing, and it helps strengthen your writing overall. I try to follow these small ideas to completion each month or every other month and it lets me play around with a lot of strangeness that would otherwise drown in deeper pools.

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

I’ve been roleplaying and playing board games forever, so eventually I took the next logical step and tried to make a game I wanted to play that I hadn’t seen yet. My brother played D&D, and when I was little, I didn’t understand how they were playing a game with no board and why they were talking so much and all the funny dice, so even back then I was trying to pick apart social interactions to form it into a cohesive whole? Which I think sounds a little heavy for a little girl to be doing? But like, I just love taking things apart and seeing why they’re working the way they are, and why people make the choices they do. Once I got an idea of what roleplaying was I just kept doing it forever and ever! As far as who I try to emulate, my secret goal is to make a game that Jason Morningstar really loves. I really like Jason’s work, it’s well-written, thoughtful, and fun. I feel like he’s got a really good handle on how to present a product and how to structure play towards a type of story, and how to do that with as few tools as possible, and that’s something I really admire. I like to picture him as some kind of lich, and only by stealing his phylactery and drinking in his soul will I understand his methods.

9) What one thing would you change in gaming?

How games look. We’ve got this vision of a roleplaying game as a thing with character sheets and dice and rules for doing skills and progression towards conflict and violence. There’s very little space for games that don’t want that – games that have weird formats or physical requirements, or that don’t want to tell stories about conflict and fighting, or games that don’t want to engage in long-form campaign play. They don’t get the same kind of attention and it makes for a drab, textureless playing field. I would really like to see games that just throw everything out the window and tell more personal stories, or find other ways to engage in narrative besides the same tools we’ve been using for decades.

so many games!

10) What are you working on now?

A million billion things – I’ve got a collection of tiny games about goblins, and they’re all dealing with things like intimacy between friends, processing death, body image and self-esteem, consent and boundary issues, etc. I wanted to take a traditional mindless monster and show them in vulnerable moments. My bigger project though is a game about telling the story of a world left to grow outside of its bounds after society left it: you play as the landscapes and memories instead of people (as it’s an overgrown apocalyptic jungle at this point) and build a narrative about what life used to be. It’s proving really challenging, because I have to consider how one might portray blades of grass or forgotten songs, and what that looks like in play! But I think it’s a sweet game and I hope people will like it!

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

Jason Morningstar’s stuff for telling stable, structured, fascinating stories out of sparse, thoughtful tools – his larp Juggernaut is absolutely excellent and is easily one of the top ten storytelling games of all time. Ross Cowman, especially Fall of Magic, because Ross’ games capture a sense of wonder and heartbreak that just destroys you. We play Fall of Magic once a year and every time it’s just this fucking experience, this thing that sends chills down your back and keeps you up at night. It’s so good. Everything Ross touches is gold. Meguey Baker’s wonderful seasonal games are just magic, too, just dripping with mischief and wonder and crystalline imagery. Emily Care Boss’ romance trilogy, for taking romance seriously and giving you just really fucking great games to explore them with, Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast & Starlit for just being the most concentrated genius you can fit on a business card, I could write entire essays about that game. Ben Lehman, though I don’t get to play his games as often as I like, he always writes things that make me stop and reconsider what I’m doing and how it could be better, just these great little bits that form a much greater whole. I could really go on and on naming all these people I love. Everyone makes great games. Play every game.

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

Gnomecast #53 – Thankful for RPGs

15 November 2018 - 5:58am

Join a whole stewpot full of gnomes ready to share their Thanksgiving messages with you. We at Gnome Stew and Misdirected Mark would like to thank you, all our podcast listeners and blog readers, for making this the best year in gaming yet!

Download: Gnomecast #53 – Thankful for RPGs

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

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

Find Troy at his blog The Dungeon Delver.

Follow J.T. at @jtevans on Twitter, J.T. Evans on Facebook and at his website

Follow Jared at @KnightErrant_JR on Twitter and his blog What Do I Know?.

Follow Phil at @DNAphil on Twitter and see what he’s working on at Encoded Designs.

Follow Camdon at @camdon on Twitter and

Follow Matt around if you can find him.

Follow Tracy at @TheOtherTracy on Twitter and at his website

Follow John at @johnarcadian on Twitter and his website


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making a Game Into a Book – Editing

14 November 2018 - 8:00am

I’ve worked on the publishing side of tabletop RPGs for almost seven years, now. One part of that process which is newer to me is one that I think is the most vital: editing. A good editor will help a game designer take make sure their words shine. And that means doing a lot of different things.

Today I’m going to talk about those things in brief. Truth be told, there’s an entire article series that could be devoted to just editing. To do that, I’m going to use a project I’m working on right now: Turn, by Brie Sheldon (live on Kickstarter now.)

What Does Your Writer Need?

To start with, I set up a call with Brie to discuss how I would approach the edit, what my philosophy is, and to find out what his expectations were. This is so important. Everyone who edits text is going to approach things differently and I wanted to make sure we were on the same page.

My single biggest goal when approaching this game is to make sure of two things:

  • That Brie’s voice as a writer is maintained and enhanced
  • That someone who isn’t Brie will be able to run Turn without Brie at the table, just by reading the book

Those two things are the core of editing for me. Every game is different, as every writer is different. As well, every game should be able to help someone re-create the experience of being at the table with the creator, or to get as close as they can. That process takes a few distinct steps.

As a sidenote: if you’re writing a game, working to keep your own tone in mind and writing to ensure the game doesn’t need you at the table are important, too. Those things from the writer make the editor’s job much easier.

The Big Steps

This is an oversimplification because some of these steps happen concurrently, and there are lots of different terms people use. However, editing a game can be broken up into a few distinct types of editing:

  • Developmental Editing
  • Copy Editing
  • Proofreading

Developmental Editing is the most in-depth. It take a sort of birds-eye view of the text and make sure that all of the information that needs to be present, is present. It can mean moving chunks of text, rearranging entire sections, suggesting re-writes, additions, subtractions, or even telling a writer that they need to go back and think through their entire work again.

Copy Editing looks at the grammar and style. This is where you figure out which terms are going to be capitalized, if something is bolded the first time it appears only, or every time, and you generally concentrate on polishing the text itself. This is making sure that the words the writer used are the right words to get everything across.

Proofreading is all of the fine detail of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. This is often the last step before the game text is declared final and sent to layout.

With Turn, at this point, I’ve gone through the first part of the developmental edit. That means I’ve read through the entire game, I’ve broken it down into chapters, I’ve rearranged sections to ensure the content flows logically, and I’ve given Brie a bunch of edits to accept (or reject, as is the writer’s prerogative), and comments where I think more work might be needed.

As a game writer, I can tell you that this is the most difficult part of having a game edited. In my world, anyway. I’ve never been great at editing my own work. I long to be done with what I’m writing as soon as I’ve finished the first draft and, for a goodly while, the thought of going back and making revisions was anathema to me. I’ve since learned better, but it’s still difficult to receive edits on my work and see that I have so many changes to make.

Like a Refining Fire

That’s the thing about having an editor on your project, though: editors make games better. Editors help you take your text and turn it from a set of notes you can use to run a game into a book other people can use. That’s some alchemy, there. It’s a difficult process, for certain, but it’s absolutely worthwhile.

Being on this side of the edits is different and I like it. Having had my work edited before means that, at nearly every turn (har), I’ve tried to make sure that Brie knows that I love what I’m reading and that my changes are just to make his great game into a great book. I think great editors need to actively be cheerleaders for the book because getting it there is hard. Knowing your editor wants you to succeed is so, s important.

Lastly, I’m going to give a huge shout-out to Bob Everson, the Unsung Gnome. If you don’t know his name, it’s because Bob is the editor for all of our posts here at Gnome Stew. He’s also my editor for Iron Edda: Accelerated. Bob’s fingerprints are on every post you see here, even when the writing isn’t happening until the day the post is due (hi, Bob!)

What d’you Think?

What are your experiences with being edited? How open are you to having other eyes and hands on your work?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Tachyon Squadron Review

13 November 2018 - 5:00am

I was extremely young when my family took me to see Star Wars at the drive-in, and there were a lot of details I didn’t remember until years later when I viewed the movie again on HBO–but I remembered Luke flying in his X-Wing. A year later, with slightly better cognitive functions, I was fascinated by Battlestar Galactica and the starfighter combat between the Colonial Vipers and the Cylon Raiders.

 Did I outgrow my love of starfighters when I got older? Not if the hours I spent playing TIE Fighter, Freelancer, or Rogue Squadron are any indication. Even today, my favorite part of Star Wars Battlefront 2 is the starfighter missions.

 Tachyon Squadron is a supplement for Fate Core that focuses on playing military science fiction campaigns that center on a starfighter squadron and the pilots of that squadron. 

Sizing up the Spaceframe

 This review is based both on the PDF version of the product, and the hardcover release. Tachyon Squadron is a 184-page product, with a four-page index, two-page quick reference sheet, a ship sheet, and a character sheet in the back.

The physical book is a digest-sized hardcover, similar to other Evil Hat releases. It is a full-color book, with numerous line art illustrations of pilots, starfighters, and capital ships. Formatting is similar to other Fate releases, with clear headers, call-out boxes, and very easy to digest pages of information.

Tachyon Squadron and Creating a Pilot

There is a brief five-page introduction to explain the style of science fiction that Tachyon Squadron is emulating. It’s a has a strongly military flavored sci-fi feel, and features humans skirmishing with other humans, rather than dealing with alien threats. Adversaries will include pirates and oppressive regimes, and FTL and artificial gravity technology exists without too many details. There is also a quick callout box to explain how the Fate rules are used and modified for the setting.

Creating a pilot delves into some of those ways in which the setting utilizes and modifies the Fate rules. While creating a character will look familiar to anyone that has spent some time with the Fate Core rulebook, there are a few key differences.

  • You don’t just need a name, you need a callsign
  • You don’t have a Trouble aspect, you have a decompression aspect
  • You get two personal stunts and a gear stunt–the gear stunt representing a special piece of equipment you have available to your character

There are example names and callsigns, as well as some archetypical skill assignment arrays. There are sidebars discussing player safety when it comes to exploring decompression aspects, as well as some guidance on how disability isn’t a limiting factor to fighter pilots in the setting.

Unlike a standard game of Fate, in Tachyon Squadron, the Trouble aspect is, instead, replaced with the decompression aspect. This aspect is split between a positive means that the pilot can decompress, and a negative means. The only way a pilot recovers stress is to decompress. If they fail their check to decompress in a positive manner, they can always blow off steam in a less productive manner, which is likely to cause problems for them, now or in the future.

Skills and Stunts

The next section of the book delves into skills available in the setting, example stunts, and new rules for gear stunts that are introduced in this book.

Skills are broken up into the following groups:

  • Spacefaring Skills (Gunnery, Pilot, Tactics, Technology)
  • Action Skills (Athletics, Fight, Notice, Shoot, Sneak)
  • Social Skills (Discipline, Empathy, Investigate, Provoke, Rapport)

Those categories help to summarize the expected scenes that pilot characters will play through in the game, as they fly their ship, participate in ground-based missions, and interact with civilians and military personnel between starfighter missions.

Gear Stunts introduce some new rule interactions into Fate. These stunts represent equipment that a character has available on their missions, but they can allow characters to maximize a die in certain circumstances. Maximizing a die is just taking a die from the dice, after they have been rolled, and setting it to “+.” If multiple pieces of gear would both help, you may get to maximize more than one die, but you can never have more than two maximized on one roll.

While the Gear Stunts introduce ways in which characters can maximize their dice, this is also where the concept of minimizing dice is introduced. In some disadvantageous circumstances, characters may need to set a die from the rolled dice aside and set it to a “-.” Like maximized dice, you never need to minimize more than two dice in a single roll.


The turn order in starfighter combat is resolved in a different manner than other Fate conflicts. The next chapter in the book explains how to run engagements, and what the phases look like.

Engagements have the following parts:

  • Detection
  • Maneuver
  • Action
  • End of Round

Detection involves using the technology skill to determine if both sides know how many fighters the other side has, and where those ships are. Maneuvering involves using the tactics skill to determine what order the ships take their actions. The action phase involves performing standard Fate actions using whatever skill is appropriate to the action. The end of round phase degrading the tactics score that was used to determine ship order, as well as being the phase of the engagement where ships that declared their intent to escape leave the scene.

At a brief pass, that all can sound a lot more complicated than a standard Fate conflict, but the maneuver chart included in the book helps to illustrate how the rules work, and the individual phases are very clearly explained.

Undetected ships can’t be attacked and can attack anyone in the fight. Other ships can only attack ships with their own tactics result or lower. A ship that attempts to bug out can be targeted by anyone, but if they make it to the End of Round phase, they escape the fight unscathed. There are undetected and special spots on the maneuver chart, and the special slot goes after everyone else. This is where capital ships take their actions in a fight.

Unlike a standard Fate conflict, in the action phase, players may take actions in Step 1 or Step 2 of the round, with some special actions taking both Step 1 and Step 2 slots. Some actions allow a pilot to reroll their tactics check to move up (or down) the chart, while others may allow a pilot to harass an opposing pilot to change their score and position on the chart. Characters can also do things like making emergency repairs or recovering ejected pilots.

Fighters have specific fighter sheets that show what happens when a given component takes damage. Enemy fighters might use full ship sheets, they may use simple damage rules, or they may be organized as flights (several fighters using simple rules, adding shifts to damage as they act as a unit), or as swarms.

Swarms are one of my favorite rules for adding a ton of fighters to a battle. They act as free invokes for other ships, and the aspect representing the swarm can be removed depending on the actions taken by the PCs on their turn. Nobody in a swarm is wearing a Corellian Bloodstripe.

The Galaxy and Combat Pilots at War

The next two sections detail what the galaxy looks like and what the pilots of Tachyon Squadron do on a day to day basis. There are various example planets and space stations, as well as explanations of the daily duty and routine of fighter pilots, and what various mission profiles look like.

In short, the galaxy was split between two big human empires, who were at war. The war came to an end, but a third group split from one of those empires and is now catching all kinds of heat from the less friendly of the two superpowers. Because the Draconis System is a new player in the galaxy, the fighter pilots of Tachyon Squadron are technically volunteer civilian contractors, waiting for the full-fledged Draconis military to get up and running.

This sets up the player characters as the underdogs in most fights, trying to cause enough hassle to their better funded and backed enemies to get them to back off, rather than trying to conquer or overthrow any empire on their own.

GMing Tachyon Squadron

The next section in the book starts off by presenting consistent, current, impending, and future issues for a typical Tachyon Squadron campaign. Consistent issues are thematically appropriate story beats for the whole campaign, current issues are the “starting” problems that the group will likely be taking on, impending issues are those that are ready to move into the forefront in the near future, and future issues are emerging long-term issues that surface once the PCs have had a chance to play with the setting for a while.

The chapter then moves into advice on how to structure engagements, with some example opposition for different types of missions of varying difficulty. There is advice on how to handle concessions in starship combat, as well as how to transition missions into “out of cockpit” encounters.

The chapter wraps up with examples of how to structure a campaign, with advice on how to determine the opposition’s objectives, and how many times the PCs can stymie them before they change tactics, and eventually start to turn the tide.

I’ve always been a big fan of games clearly presenting how they are intended to be played, and this chapter has a very clear set of examples not just for individual missions, but for how the beginning, middle, and end of a campaign should look. 

Ships to Fly and People to Meet and Example Player Characters

The next two chapters have statistics for spaceships, modular equipment, and characters that can be found in the setting. The example player characters can serve as examples, pre-generated characters, or NPCs if the players decide to make their own characters.

There are statistics for capital ships and fighters, and the opposition fighters have separate stat blocks for “regular” opposition and aces. The ships have aspects, skill ranks, and stunts, and the more detailed ships have lists of damaged components that can be used in a similar manner to minor consequences, with each damaged component having a special narrative effect, or causing certain rolls to be minimized.

NPCs and sample player characters are very diverse, including characters with various gender identities, sexualities, physical abilities. While I always appreciate an RPG setting that has that degree of diversity, it’s great to see actual examples of that diversity, rather than just seeing it stated in the higher-level descriptions of the setting. The commanding officers, other pilots, and civilian contacts your character runs into will reinforce that element of the setting. 

The Pirates of Kepler Valley and Defense of Arcosolari Kalamos

The next two sections of the book contain sample campaign arcs for the game. One campaign focuses on defending outposts and caravans from pirates while also fighting the Dominion, and the other revolves around a space station hub where the PCs may have to root out spies and Dominion sympathizers as well as flying starship missions.

To reinforce the idea that Tachyon Squadron doesn’t have unlimited resources and is fighting against a bigger, better-supplied force, the campaign setup section lays out what equipment the PCs can expect to have available to them when their own gear conks out, or when they need specialized tech for missions. There are also outlines of specific scenes that may come at pivotal moments in the campaign, and new NPCs and locations.

 If you have ever thrilled at starships shooting lasers at one another while dodging fire from capital ships, the text is going to hold your interest. Share4Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailInspirations and Influences

Inspirations and influences is a section of the book where various media that inspired the game can be found. One thing that interests me is that, the longer the RPG industry is around, the more diverse the inspirations become. In this instance, I’m not just referring to a broad range within certain media, but that influences now include tabletop games (including older RPGs) and video games.

Target Lock

Tachyon Squadron does a remarkable job of explaining exactly what it is trying to do and showing you how to achieve that goal using the rules and structure provided. Minimizing and maximizing dice are tools that may prove useful for modeling other thematic elements in future Fate games. The structure of starfighter engagement creates a procedure that feels like dogfighting without needing to track exact positioning, distance, and orientation. The diverse range of characters reinforces a setting element with substantive content.

Pull Up

One of the book’s strengths could also be a weakness–the procedure for engagements may be just a little bit too structured depending on the flavor of Fate you prefer. While it’s not hard to adapt, Tachyon Squadron defaults to gritty “everybody’s human” military science fiction, so if your love of starfighter combat involves lots of crazy ship types, alien co-pilots, and maybe space wizards, you may need to pull from other Fate sources to fill out your preferences.

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

This product is a great example of using existing rules to reinforce the tropes of a genre. If you have ever thrilled at starships shooting lasers at one another while dodging fire from capital ships, the text is going to hold your interest. Even outside of Fate, the structure for creating tactical dogfights without using exact positioning is something you may want to check out.

Have you ever adapted an RPG to model your favorite starfighter video games? Do you have a preference on how to model tactical maneuvering between ships in a sci-fi game? How gritty do you like your military sci-fi? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Getting Started on the DMs Guild – Part 1: Your First Product

12 November 2018 - 7:04am

In early 2016, Wizards of the Coast and OneBookshelf launched the Dungeon Masters Guild, a site with a new kind of license that allows fans of D&D to publish and sell their own D&D content. I began publishing on the Guild in October of the same year, and in the last two years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Do you want to publish on the Guild? Because I’m here to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve gleaned from others so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes as we have.

The Initial Bubble-Bursting

Do you have an idea you want to work on? Something to write, to publish, to share with other passionate D&D fans? Awesome. Let me get the less-good stuff out of the way now, then, before you start writing.

There are some things you cannot publish on the DMs Guild at all. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Your own homebrew settings – the only settings licensed for publication through the Guild are the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, and Eberron. I’m sure more are in the works behind the scenes, but this is what we have access to for now. You can also publish things that are “setting neutral” or “setting agnostic” meaning that they don’t have a specific world that they’re linked to.
  • Any editions other than 5th – the current edition is the only one eligible for the Guild. WotC is selling PDFs of older edition books through the Guild, but previous editions are off-limits for us regular publishers.
  • Work that contains intellectual property for Critical Role or The Adventure Zone or your other favorite D&D show – the licenses for these shows aren’t owned by Wizards of the Coast. ‘Nuff said.
    • Vecna – yes, this includes anything mentioning or pertaining to the lich god Vecna, who is technically from the world of Greyhawk and thus not eligible for the Guild. I’m specifically calling that out because I’ve seen more than one product pulled from the shelf for including an Eye or Hand of Vecna.
    • Any other intellectual property – this should be fairly self-explanatory by now.

DMs Guild Licensing and the SRD

The DMs Guild uses a slightly different licensing system than things published elsewhere using the SRD, or System Reference Document. For example, you can write an adventure in which the player characters fight Xanathar, the renowned Waterdhavian beholder, not that I’d ever recommend going toe-to-eyestalk with him. That could be published through the Guild, because the license gives publishers access to exclusive WotC intellectual property, like beholders, mind flayers, specific places and NPCs, etc.

On the other hand, if you were to publish elsewhere using just the SRD, you couldn’t include Xanathar or Waterdeep or any beholder at all. The trade-off here is that if you were to publish directly through DriveThruRPG, you keep a higher percentage of the royalties as a content creator than you do through the DMs Guild.

 …they’re more likely to turn to the DMs Guild than DriveThruRPG. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

It’s also key to mention here that anything published on the DMs Guild is then considered the property of Wizards of the Coast and cannot be published elsewhere. Even if you take it down from the Guild, making it no longer available there, it is still not “eligible” for publication elsewhere.

What I’ve found to be the main benefit of the Guild is that it has a much larger audience of D&D fans specifically than DriveThruRPG. When people want a new, unique monster or magic items to include in their games, or they want a pre-written one shot so they don’t have to prep much for game that night, I find they’re more likely to turn to the DMs Guild than DriveThruRPG.

Writing and Playtesting

So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s get down to business writing that neat idea of yours! My biggest advice here is to look at how information is presented in the three core D&D rulebooks. For example, if you want to publish a bunch of new magic items, take note of how the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are shown. The name of the item, the type and rarity, if it requires attunement, and then any other description text. Your readers will already be familiar with that format, and anything you can do to make using your product easier for them is a good thing.

For adventures, look to the published adventure modules – Storm King’s Thunder is my favorite example because I feel it’s the best organized of the current storylines. A description of a location might be the first thing under a new header, followed by events that happen while the players are there under a “Developments” header, and then all that good loot under a “Treasure” header. Sticking to the familiar layouts wherever possible is going to help you, in part because it makes your work look more professional.

 Sticking to the familiar layouts wherever possible is going to help you… Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

When it comes to playtesting, I’ll be the first to tell you that while playtesting is good and important, it’s not the be-all, end-all of your product. My bigger suggestion would be to run your work by other players and DMs (both experienced and new ones if you can) and ask them what they think. Ask a DM if they would run your adventure and if anything glaring is missing. Ask players if they’d be interested in your magic items if they happened to appear in a hoard. Don’t try to make your product perfect. Perfect is the enemy of done.

Art, Covers, and Formatting

Speaking of looking professional… you don’t want to just upload a plain word document, do you? Of course not. You want a spiffy PDF, complete with the nice D&D fonts. If you intend to publish anything on the Guild, your next download needs to be the “DMs Guild Creator Resource – Adventure Template”. It’s a free resource provided by WotC and OneBookshelf to help you make your products look clean, professional, and uniform with the rest of the D&D brand. Use their official fonts, headers, stat block templates, etc. and you will save yourself a headache later wondering if your document is legible.

As for art and fancy covers… opinions vary, to say the least. Some people will say that a beautiful, full-art, full-color cover is the only way to sell a product, to hook a potential buyer. Other people will say that the plain-text cover with the big bold title and the DMs Guild logo is good enough for the Adventurer’s League (see above), so it’s good enough for them. There’s pros and cons to both: art can be an expensive upfront cost for a new creator, and a badly-designed cover is worse than no cover at all. Use your best judgment, and if you find that you’re getting really stressed out about the cover, don’t bother with fancy design. Make sure the title is legible and let everything else go. The same goes for interior art. I personally consider it nice-to-have, but not need-to-have.

 As for art and fancy covers… opinions vary, to say the least. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

If a budget is all that’s holding you back from including art, there is quite a lot of free or low-cost art available. Many artists sell bundles of images through DriveThruRPG and only ask that you provide proper attribution in your final product. Other times, you can find public domain and historical art that is able to be used for free (but should still be credited to the creator – come on, guys). I like to use illustrations from old books of fairy tales and folklore, which bring a classic look and feel while still having an element of the fantastical. You don’t have to commission full, unique pieces with exclusive commercial rights. I downright would advise against it, just because you will never see a full return on investment for that.

DMs Guild Logo

Dotting Your i’s and Crossing Your T’s

A few finishing touches are all it takes to make your product ready for publication. Make sure you have all of the below. Then double check. Maybe triple check, too.

  • Legal boilerplate text – a chunk of legal boilerplate is available in the FAQ under the “Content Guidelines” section. Read it and then copy-paste it at the end of your product, tweaking the year if need be. This is to cover you, to cover WotC, and to cover OneBookshelf. No one wants a lawsuit over this.
  • DMs Guild logo on the cover – it has to be there, no ifs, ands, or buts. You also cannot include any personal logos on the cover. You can put those inside, but not on the cover. There is a high-resolution image of the DMs Guild logo on that same “Content Guidelines” page (and above!).
  • Proper attribution and credits – if you used art, credit the artist. If you had playtesters, list their names. If an editor revised your project, list their name. This isn’t technically part of the DMs Guild Content Guidelines, but if you don’t do it, you’re a jerk.
  • Save it all as a PDF, but keep a separate Word doc version to incorporate later edits – yes, you may likely find your product will need edits or revisions later on.

And voila, just like that, you’re ready to publish! If that’s got you a little intimidated, never fear- in Part 2, we’ll talk about publication, marketing, and sales.

Let us know in the comments what you’re working on for the Guild!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Bringing The Streaming Fan To The Table

9 November 2018 - 5:12am

Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace fans of streaming RPG games

It has finally happened to you. You, the veteran Dungeon Master, are adding a new player to your gaming group. You’re taking in a new player into your home game, your inner sanctum. Your baby. Maybe a player at the table is bringing along a significant other, or maybe a friendly coworker wants to make the leap to tabletop RPGs and has asked to play.

“No problem.”, you think. You’ve taught a lot of people to play. Why would this be any different? This isn’t your first rodeo. You get know the person socially to see if they’ll be a good fit. You ask the questions about schedule and commitment. The stars align, and they look like a good fit. So you ask the tough question, “What inspired you to invest time into a tabletop role-playing game?” (You may even silently think yourself so clever and accommodating to avoid the gatekeeping three letter acronym “AR-PEE-GEE”.)

“I love Critical Role.”

And there it is. It can’t be taken back. They watch streaming RPGs ON THE INTERNET and a million questions form in your brain. “How do they find the time?” “Why would they watch a game of Dungeons and Dragon without ever playing?” Maybe your first reaction is defensive. “Ugh. So Hollywood.” Maybe some self-doubt creeps in. “I’m not as good as Mercer. He’s a professional voice actor. And he has all that DwarvenForge”. Or “I’m not Chris Perkins. I don’t have his encyclopedic knowledge of the Realms.”

“Ugh, why me? This sucks.” How could this happen to you? You’ve been a Dungeon Master for decades. Hell, you still have your Basic Edition Redbox. When people are asked about their favorite artists, your friends say things like “Jackson” or “Picasso”. You mumble something socially acceptable, but inside you scream “LARRY ELMORE”. Have no fear fellow Dungeon Master, we’re here to help you through these difficult times.

How do you, the person who has been DMing for so long you can convincingly lie about liking Fourth Edition, handle this situation?

What is all this streaming about, anyway?

Let’s take a moment to review the most influential streams, in case you’re not familiar with the streaming scene.

Dice, Camera, Action! (DCA) is a Skype-based stream produced officially by Wizards of the Coast and run by the legendary Chris Perkins. DCA features the current storyline published by WotC and features four players with an occasional guest star. The game has been playing for several years and features the same characters across multiple published campaign books. The characters advance slowly, deliberately keeping suppressing the power curve to allow the characters room to grow and expand without breaking the power curve of the setting. Each session lasts about two hours and is streamed weekly. DCA is a helpful reference for deconstructing published campaign material into a player focused experience, yet keeping the flavor of the original book.

Acquisitions Incorporated (AcqInc) is a live play game run again by the legendary Chris Perkins played live at the table during most Penny Arcade Expos (PAX). These games are short, lasting about two hours, and feature the founders of the Penny Arcade webcomic Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins as well as noted fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. A fourth player is frequently rotated in and out of the game. This game started in 4th Edition days and focuses and grand set pieces and largely absurdist comedic in Forgotten Realms. The PAX Acquisitions Inc game can provide guidance for running a classic “beer and pretzels” game with a focus on high action and hilarious moments.

A relatively late entry into the streaming realm is the Acquisitions Incorporated: C-Team (C-team) game. This is also a live table game, DMed by Jerry Holkins. Thematically, it is very similar to the AcqInc main game but features a very different table feel. The game is more chaotic and self-referential than any of the other games on the list and can be challenging to follow due to a large amount of crosstalk and inside jokes told at the table. The game streams for two hours on a weekly schedule. Of all the major streamed games, this feels most like a traditional table game.

The most prominent of the RPG streams is, of course, Critical Role. Critical Role has been streaming for several years and is DM’d by voice actor Matthew Mercer, featuring a cast of more professional voice actors. Critical Role’s success, while polarizing in some communities, has been an important influencer on the success of 5th Edition.

Let’s get started

So, where to begin? First, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Showing interest in what excites the player will forge an early bond every Dungeon Master needs to make with their players. Unlike most new players, the stream fan will have a solid understanding of what an RPG is, and how to behave in at the table. Ask them what they like about their chosen stream. Find out who their favorite character is on the show. Do they answer with a character name or with a player name? Answering “I like Liam.” versus “I like Vax.” can tell you a lot about the new player’s expectations. For example, answering with a player’s name may indicate they enjoy strong performances at the table. Answering with the character’s name may show they are more interested in a building a deep, tragic story for their character.

Second, understand watching a stream is a way for a person to be a part of the RPG community. A DM prepping for a game, or players plotting out how to attack the next session are just ways we interact with our hobby away from the table. Taking in a stream is no different. It’s critical to keep in mind playing in a game is just one of many ways we build and participate in our hobby.  A person who enjoys talking about Critical Role will almost certainly bring that level of engagement to your table.Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email Armed with this information, you’ll be able to direct your game in a manner enjoyable for your new player. Hopefully, this opportunity can be used to expand your perspective on DMing, too.

Lastly, it helps to understand how RPG streams differ. There are many different streams a person could choose to watch and this will give you helpful information useful for integrating a new player in your game. A Critical Fan vs an Acquisitions Inc. fan could indicate predilection in tonality (a more dramatic tone instead of a more comedic tone. A fan of Dice, Camera, Action might be into world building or enjoy game steeped in lore.

Join us

Of course, people are complicated, and it’s not all chromatic orbs and CR 2 unicorns. A player coming to D&D from a streaming background will have a head start over the traditional new player. They’ll understand rules, table protocol, and probably spotlight sharing better. This knowledge will also come with certain expectations one should be aware of to ensure a good experience for you and all of your players. There are some basic steps you can take you help ease the player in your game.

The obvious answer, watch some episodes of the stream, is probably the least practical one. The task before you now is setting expectations. Based on the game you’re running, the player’s expectations may need to be managed in different ways. Running a published adventure comes with engagement challenges to even the most experienced D&D player, much less a player whose only experience with D&D comes from a campaign built only solely around extract the most from a player backstory.

Running homebrew content also comes with challenges. Every Dungeon Master injects themselves into the world they create. Interests, beliefs, or even our aspirations influence our world and might cause friction with the player’s expectations. As with most situations, open and honest communication is the key to working through these situations.

In short, “How do you want to do this?” is a great way to integrate a streaming fan into the participating at a table, be it physical or virtual, and expand our hobby to new fans!

With the influx of new fans to 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, how have streaming shows like Critical Role changed your game?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Spectacularly

7 November 2018 - 1:02am

I was recently invited to a friend’s house to take part in their playtest of the second edition of Pathfinder RPG.

The first week went fine.  Gameplay quickly revealed that my player character —  Spindle, a gnome bard — had little affinity for the shortbow he was carrying.

It was hardly surprising. Singing and inspiration were his hallmarks.

If Spindle’s arrows went ker-plunk, that was to be expected. He was a first-level character, after all.

The following week I arrived determined to emphasize Spindle’s bardic skills. One problem — the player with the dwarf fighter couldn’t make it. I looked at the player with the rogue, and he looked back at me. Then we both looked at the druid and the wizard.  For this night’s play, our characters would be the melee combatants?

OK Johnny, rosin up that bow …

But this isn’t a story about how our misfit band of spellcasters prevailed in a dungeon designed to test the ruleset — although that did happen. It’s really about me rolling spectacularly bad, owning those rolls in the moment, and incorporating that into the role-play.

Spindle’s first d20 attack roll of the night was a 1.

It appeared to be a continuation of Spindle’s record of near- and not-so-near misses.

So be it.

As a player you can throw a pout, get angry at the die, curse, or demonstrate your displeasure in any number of ways.

Or, you can scoop up the die and describe how spectacularly bad that arrow shot was.

I chose the latter. (If I was GMing, it’s what I hope my players do.)

It was a move that paid off.

Not by getting better rolls, but by continuing to roll poorly and bringing those fails to life with energy and interaction that other players could feed off of.

Spindle offers to assist the rogue attempting to disable the trap by holding back a distracting gate.


Spindle searches for the key to the locked chest.


Spindle attempts to climb the rope to reach the ledge.


Spindle makes a skill check.


And with each 1, Spindle was coming alive at the table. With every miss, his personality emerged. Admittedly, he wasn’t contributing to the general welfare of the party — which could have used a nice solid attack roll. But I was getting to know Spindle, and so were the other players.

Hands jittery and nervous hovered over the quiver. Reaching in, they shook so badly he knocked two or three arrows out for each one he withdrew.

He might be a hapless, inept bowman, but he was my hapless, inept bowman. And that’s what the table got to experience. A gnome that was out of his league, out of his element, off-balance … perhaps, even a liability.

Spindle renewed his attack and almost tossed another 1, but the die stopped on the seam in the table … hovered at 1 … but then teetered onto 19. Clearly, that shot ricocheted past the target, bounced off the back wall and got the goblin on the rebound. Something like that.

With that, I sensed I was in for a change of fortune, so I switched gears.

“Enough!” Spindle declared, tossing down the bow. He drew out the rapier, tossed magic missile and true strike at the boss opponent and was suddenly back on offense.

I have written in a GS post before about the importance of the GM taking roleplay cues from dice results.  

But having a player do it is important, too.  Probably moreso than relying on the GM to shoulder the burden. When four players around the table are riffing off their dice rolls, the narration sizzles. The rogue takes poison from the needle trap, and despite the illness and the loss of hit points refuses to retreat. The druid steps up into the fight, slicing at her foe with her scimitar. The wizard calls forth lightning, but it fizzles out, doing only 1 point of damage. Oops.

Unlike a stage play, an rpg session doesn’t have a script.

But it does have lines, of a sort, and they are revealed with each toss of the dice. Hit those cues and you’ll have a session to remember.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Craft Free Magic Items In 3, 3.5 And Pathfinder? Yes Please!

5 November 2018 - 5:00am

I was reading the Pathfinder item creation rules recently and I was struck by one piece of the RAW. Aside from some exceptions, creation of magic items requires “materials” equal to half of the end market value of the item produced. These items are specifically left vague. One presumes this is for several reasons:

  • So the rule books don’t have to be a grocery list of items required for magic item creation.
  • So that reasonable substitutions can be made. Do you really need Medusae venom for ink for your scroll of flesh to stone? Can you not use distilled Gorgon Breath?
  • So that you can flavor items depending on materials. A magic sword created from iron ingots, obsidian chunks, or the trophy teeth of a great beast will all look very different and might lend themselves to different secondary enchants.
  • So that I can explain why the RAW explicitly allows for free item creation… Whaaaa? Yeah really. (but seriously, as GM you don’t HAVE to allow this any more than any other rules loophole but I think it’s kind of cool personally and would allow it.)

So according to the magic item creation rules you need half the market value of the item to be created in unspecified “materials”. And creating the item takes time based on item value (and in 3, 3.5 also xp). But since “materials” is left vague, there’s no reason at all that those materials can’t themselves be magic items as long as they are also appropriate materials for crafting the item in question. So magic ingots of metal, magic wood, magic silks, magic crystals, magic nuggets of pure elements — if you can imagine it, you can make magic items out of it. Again, that’s part of the goal of the system. Making a magic greatclub from any of the above makes wildly different items, each of them interesting and cool in their own way.

But here’s the catch: You can make a magic sword worth 16000 gp from 8000 gp worth of magic iron ingots and magic crystals. But how much does it cost to make 8000 gp worth of magic iron ingots and magic crystals? 4000 gp of “materials”. But can those materials be magic? Why the heck not? So you can make 8000 gp worth of magic ingots and crystals from 4000 gp worth of magic ore and uncut gems. But can those be magic? Hell yeah! You see where this is going, right? Start with a nearly worthless commodity and enchanting it into “unspecified magic version of itself” doubles its gp value. Rinse and repeat, doubling each time. And there is even historical precedent in fiction. You are literally spinning straw into gold there, Rumpelstiltskin.

You can just trust me and leave it at that. Kind of hand wavy but it clearly works and is RAW. As a GM you can deny it to your players, that’s up to you but that is the way the rules work. But if you don’t want to leave it there, let’s codify it a bit:

Ingot of Crafting
Price: Varies; Slot: None; CL: 1; Weight: Varies; Aura: Transmutation
These gold ingots come in a variety of sizes and values. Any Crafter can concentrate on any number of them while crafting which causes the ingots to transform into an amount of materials appropriate to the craft the user is creating equal to the value of the ingots used.
Construction Requirements:
Cost: Varies; Feats: Craft Wondrous Item; Special: Caster must have access to the transmutation school of magic

So if you wanted a 500 gp ruby to use in your staff you could gather 500 gp worth of Ingots of Crafting, concentrate on the pile and poof! Ruby!

Clearly the market value of these Ingots of Crafting is equal to the value of materials they produce. First, it says so right in the item description. Second, if the Ingot was worth more, no one would pay for them over just buying the materials themselves. If the Ingot were worth less people would buy up all the ingots selling for LESS than the value of materials they produce (thus driving up the cost of Ingots to material value), turn them into materials and sell those materials. So: obviously market value equal to what they produce.

Note that this seems weird but absolutely works and has been borne out by many discussions about how DnD and Pathfinder magic works off market value in the past. The classic example that you can find discussed ad nauseam online is the 3, 3.5 pearl. If you crash or rig the pearl market, you STILL need a 100gp pearl for identify. It doesn’t matter if that pearl is a seed or a monstrosity. It only matters that it’s market value is 100gp.

Note: In Pathfinder, this may seem to be in opposition to the 3rd party Artificer’s Salvage ability, but it’s really not. The Salvage ability lets you turn a magic item that is not an appropriate material for an item you are crafting into half its value of materials that are appropriate to any crafting attempt. In effect it is making explicit that universal magic materials that are useful in crafting any and all magic items do in fact exist.

So the catch is: if you have an Ingot of Crafting you could use it as materials to make: an Ingot of Crafting worth twice as much (because it has half the market value of what you’re creating) and you could use that one to double again, etc… etc… until you have the value you need to make whatever item you want.

Doesn’t have to be exactly this. You could create enchanted iron ingots or ensorceled silk that give you a bump to your crafting roll when you use them as materials or whatever. The Ingots just are a simple obvious example.

BUT of course it’s not quite that simple. The additional crafting steps still take time, and in 3, 3.5 also xp. In order to make an item of value X, you need 1/2X in value. In order to make the 1/2X of value you need 1/4X etc… etc… and since crafting takes linear time (and xp), making the components for an item worth half it’s value takes half the time (and xp) the item does, and making the components for that item takes half the time (and xp) again, 1/4 the original etc…

This is a classic geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8+ 1/16… = 1
So according to RAW you can craft any item you want for essentially free, but the catch is in order to do so you have to spend twice the time (and xp) making it. This means that rushed crafting of items still takes money/materials. It also makes sense that to create magic materials you would need the Craft Wondrous Items feat and perhaps access to certain appropriate spells, meaning that creating free items has additional prerequisites.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Pathfinder Playtest Review, Part 4

2 November 2018 - 5:00am

This is part 4 of my review of the Pathfinder Playtest from Paizo. You can see part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. In this part of the review, I’ll finish up my comments in this series with Game Mastering through Appendices.

If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site: Game Mastering

The section starts off with six bullet points to give overall guidance to the GM. I think the guidance misses the mark a bit, but it’s a good start. Unfortunately, the advice given out in that brief segment makes it appear as if the bulk of the work for the world, characters, events, and storytelling land firmly on the GM’s shoulders. This is, to some extent, true. However, I feel that this was a grand opportunity to let the GM know that they are not the driver in the storytelling effort, but a participant with the players in the storytelling. The advice given is solid, but the tone here sets the stage for making new GMs think they are in charge. Any veteran GM will certainly tell you that this is not the case once the players start rolling with their own ideas.

Starting a Session

The segment that covers how to start a session is fantastic! I hope to see this expanded a bit in the final book, but this is a wonderful set of advice. I even learned a few new tips and tricks in this area. Well done, Paizo!

Adjudicating the Rules

This area gives great advice about not looking up specific rules and gives guidance on how to “wing it” when necessary. This is something every “core” rulebook for every RPG should have.

Sharing Responsibilities

This section is given in a brief sidebar. I have a problem with this because quite a few readers of RPGs will skim those areas thinking they are not important. This is a perception thing because if it were important, it would be in the main text, right? I think the six bullet points I mentioned above could be combined with this sidebar to create a new approach to collaborative gaming that excels at great fun and excellent storytelling. Merging these two concepts, I think, would lead to a more powerful statement.

Modes of Play

Just as a refresher, modes are split up into encounter, exploration, and downtime.

The encounter section is too brief. This is the most technical part of the game, and this can lead to it being the hardest to adjudicate properly because of the number of rules, feats, spells, skills, powers, items, monsters, and characters involved. I know. I know. Many books (and articles!) have been dedicated to this very topic, and I don’t expect Paizo to replicate what’s already been covered. However, I think a deeper dive into encounters would be best.

The exploration and downtime modes are covered very well. These two sections are lengthy and solidly give the GM the right information to execute what is a new concept for Pathfinder. The guidance and tips found within these two sections will make running them go very smoothly for an experienced or fresh GM.

Now that I’ve read the entire “Modes of Play” section, I think I figured out what is bothering me with the encounter section beyond its brevity. The encounter section was written for experienced GMs. The exploration and downtime sections were written in a manner that targets new GMs. I feel that Paizo needs to take a fresh look at the encounter section and rewrite it (and expand it) as if they were attempting to teach a brand new GM (as in, brand new to RPGs, not just Pathfinder) how to run an encounter. If they revisit and expand the encounter section with this in mind, I feel it would be a much stronger contribution to the GM section of the book.

Difficulty Classes

I’m going to be brief here. These three pages are well thought out, clear, and give some great examples on how to come up with target numbers on the fly or apply adjustments where necessary. Paizo’s team did an excellent job on this section.


I’ve been looking forward to hitting this section ever since I learned that each level requires an even 1,000 XP to obtain instead of an upward-climbing slope of more experience points for the next level than the current one.

Unfortunately for me, the “kill a monster” XP is listed in the supplemental bestiary, which I haven’t taken the time to flip through the PDF yet. I guess that’ll be next on my list of reading (but not reviewing). On the flip side, the XP awards for minor, moderate, and major accomplishments are laid out as 10, 30, and 80, respectively. Even though they call it “group XP” it’s not divided between all the characters. If the group accomplishes a moderate goal, then all the PCs involved gain 30 XP.

There’s a sidebar for “Story-Based Leveling” that is in this section that calls for the GM to decide if and when the characters level up. This puts a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a personal opinion here, but I really don’t like these approaches at all. The players should see the steady gain of XP for their characters (even if they don’t level yet), so there is a sense of accomplishment in that area. Having the GM suddenly decree, “You go up a level.” feels too much like the GM is controlling things. Of course, this could just be me and my experiences with GMs wanting to have too much control. Your mileage may vary in this area.


There are several pages dedicated to terrain, climate, and hazards. While the lists aren’t complete (I’m assuming they will be more comprehensive in the final, larger book), what is listed there and how the various environmental conditions impact the game are well stated. I like what I see as a set of building blocks toward more content.

The hazards section is very well done. A hazard is the generic term for traps, pits, dangers, and magical effects that can harm or impede the PCs. There are ways to find, trigger, disable, destroy, and/or dispel various hazards depending on their nature. The playtest book came with a sample of three hazards. I had kind of hoped for a few more, but I’m assuming they didn’t want the playtest book to bloat up too much. I’m looking forward to seeing what the final product (and the various expansion books and adventures) have along these lines.


The loot! We’re finally at the gold and shiny and magic and wonderful stuff portion of the book. Yeah, I’m a little excited here because I’m interested in seeing how things change up in this section, if at all.

This section opens up with the usual text explaining what they’re going to be talking about, teaching some keywords, and generally laying out the approach to treasure.

After this comes all sorts of tables outlining (almost proscribing) what treasure different level parties should (must?) receive for a fair and equitable game to be run. The fact that the treasure allotment is so heavily proscribed makes me extraordinarily sad.

No more random treasure.

Yeah. You read that right. There are no more dice rolls involved in generating treasure with Pathfinder. This breaks my heart, to be honest. As a GM, I always loved rolling up treasure because it would spark new ideas, thoughts, plot arcs, and cool stuff in my brain. Yeah, if I happened to roll up a majorly disruptive magic item for a low-level group, I’d probably shift things around a bit (or re-roll). However, randomly creating magic items for folks to find is gone. I’ll be over here in the corner shedding a tear for days gone by.

Okay. I’ve had my cry. I’m mostly better now. Looking at the new approach at handing out treasure is fair and balanced. It will assist new GMs from overloading their group with disruptive items while keeping the party well-equipped for future challenges. This is super helpful for new GMs, and I can appreciate this approach at handing out goods. I just wish they’d kept gems, jewelry, and/or artwork as a form of gaining wealth because those can, once again, inspire stories and side plots, not just a gain of wealth. Now, the party will just gain some gold from the hoard and move on.

If I ever run this version of Pathfinder, I’ll most likely break out my 2nd edition AD&D treasure generators (or the first Pathfinder versions) and run with those. They’re more fun than hand-picking treasure, to be honest.

After the list o’ treasure tables ends, the book delves into materials, which is one of the best write-ups of “non-normal” materials I’ve ever seen. Excellent job here. Obviously, the list isn’t complete, but I expect it to expand in the final version.

While flipping through the treasure section, I hit the sections for snares (crafting, detecting, triggering, etc.) and I was baffled here. I’m not sure why these were listed here under treasure, instead of above with the hazards. Did the wrong pages get dropped into the layout in the wrong place?

After snares, comes the alchemical items. This is a cool section. I highly encourage everyone to check this part out. There are oodles of examples, tons of ideas, and great information about how they play in the game. Loud applause for you here, Paizo.

Runes come next, and this is the part of enhancing weapons and armor with special powers. I love how weapons and armor must now be etched with cool-looking runes to become super special. This adds flavor to the world and storytelling options (as well as some neat intimidate/perception uses when someone wearing a well-etched suit of armor walks in the door) to the whole feel of the game.

Last come the details of the various magic items that don’t fall into “weapons and armor.” This comprises the bulk of the treasure section, and I’m not going to detail each item or neat thing. I do want to say that I really want to play an archer (preferably with the elven ancestry) with an Oathbow.


This is probably going to be my shortest write-up of any of the sections in the book. The appendices simply are: traits and glossary.

The traits are all of the capitalized keywords (such as Strike) used within the book. The glossary is a good collection of phrases, terms, and things found within the book that may not be readily known to every player.

Final Thoughts

I think the most telling part of “is this a promising product” would be to answer the question, “Would J.T. play this game?”

The answer is, “Yes.”

This is a good foundational book for what promises to be a pretty cool system. There are some rough edges (as there are with any playtest document), but I figure Paizo is wise enough to listen to the feedback sent to them (and hopefully this series of articles) to improve the game.

There is another question looming, however. That question is, “Would J.T. play this version instead of the original Pathfinder?”

The answer is, “No.”

There are a few reasons for this.

The first is that I’m already heavily invested with knowledge, money, habits, and familiarity in the first version of Pathfinder. I have too much “edition inertia” going on to abandon Pathfinder 1.0 for Pathfinder 2.0. If the shift were more subtle between the two, I could see picking it up. However, everything will require major conversions to get from 1.0 to 2.0.

The second is that I’m extremely concerned with the lack of random treasure. Yeah. It’s that big of a deal. I feel it’s a departure too far from the “source material” that was created way back in the 1970s. I don’t like that one bit.

The third is that I don’t see anything drastically improving the game that much. There are tons of incremental improvements and quite a few major changes in the playtest document, but none of them really blew my socks off. There are some new concepts and ideas in here that I think I could shift back into a Pathfinder 1.0 game, but that now leaves me with Pathfinder 1.0 and some house rules (which I already have).

Final question is, “If J.T. were completely new to RPGs and presented with both versions, which one would he pick?”

I’d probably go with the playtest version, to be honest. It’s a better game, and my prejudices built up from playing RPGs for decades (and my Pathfinder edition inertia) would not be a factor in choosing which game to go with.

I know. I know. I’m giving a mixed message here, but there are different angles to look at things.

Paizo put out a solid effort here. I’m impressed with the amount of thought, care, effort, and experience that went into developing this game. They’ve certainly evolved the game. There are some high points in the evolution and some low points as well. I think the high drastically outweighs the low.

I’m very much looking forward to the final version of the game. I’ll take a look at it then and reevaluate things at that time to determine if my stance on moving forward to the new version will change.

Thanks to the Gnome Stew readers out there that stuck with me through these very long articles!

Categories: Game Theory & Design