All RPGs and Storygames by Tod Foley are now available at DrivethruRPG and RPGnow. Bring these games to your table!
Join Ang and Chris on this special 50th episode of Gnomecast! Our hosts discuss their personal history with RPGs, the state of the hobby today, and what their futures might hold. Even with 50 episodes under their belts, will the gnomes be spared a trip to the stew pot?
Download: Gnomecast #50 – Not Just Kid Stuff
For years I’ve been kicking around a system in my head for simplifying hex crawls, point crawls, West Marches style games, megadungeons, etc… Something that keeps but abstracts the process of wandering, searching, and eventually discovering points of interest without requiring the potential for entire sessions to end up as fruitless wandering and random encounters and without demanding ridiculously detailed maps. It would probably revolve around skill checks of some sort with a chance to discover points of interest and add them to the map. I even hinted at it in a prior article, but I never really firmed it up or got it to a state that I thought it would work quite right. So of course in the process of looking up overland movement in the Pathfinder system, I discover that last November they beat me to it, publishing a “Discovery Point system” in their book: Ultimate Wilderness that not only hits all the high points I would want to and is elegantly simple but is largely system neutral. It DOES make use of Pathfinder-based skill checks and DCs but it would be simple to swap them out for skills and DCs or an analog from another system. What’s more, it’s scalable and nestable in a way that means with appropriate scaling and adjustment you can use it or a variant for pretty much any exploration mechanic that you need in your game.
- The system on the Pathfinder SRD with an example
- The book on Paizo’s site in case you want the full work it comes from
The basics of the system are simple:
- Discovery Points: The system introduces a new currency type called “Discovery Points” that are used to uncover points of interest on the map.
- Each day each character makes a survival check: More success=get more discovery points, More failure=LOSE more discovery points (because you just drew part of the map upside down or misidentified a landmark or something). This encourages characters who aren’t really cut out for exploration to use the aid another action or spend their time doing other things: fortifying camp, using a subsystem to make maps and gazetteers, hunting for food and water, translating an old book the party found, whatever.
- Characters can accumulate bonus discovery points by “interpreting waypoints”: This terminology makes it sound like inspecting physical landmarks but it’s just shorthand for any way of figuring out the location of points of interest other than stomping through the wilderness. In the example territory given three methods are flying overhead, talking to locals, and decoding a journal.
- After some discovery points are accumulated, the party spends them to uncover known or unknown points of interest: Points they KNOW are there, they just don’t know WHERE, get paid for directly. If they’re looking to just uncover anything of interest they can blow a specified amount of points and hope there are unknown points of interest that cost half that or less.
The SRD explains the system as well as some subsystems and details target numbers and some other finer points. There is an example territory to illustrate, a small canyon with 3 points of interest and 4 defined waypoints, along with target numbers and a small random encounter table. For a free system on the internet that’s easily portable into any number of other systems it’s surprisingly useful. While the book has no new material (on this system anyway. It has 250 pages of additional material on other things) the PDF is also pretty cheap and it’s on sale at the time I type this. Here are some additional thoughts I have on the system so far:
- A day and four encounters per day isn’t quite right: The system assumes a certain size of territory. See the example territory given and the suggestion that a single 12 mile hex constitutes a territory. But consider that sometimes an area of a much different size warrants territory status and that while the system still works as described, it creates some interesting issues.
- For a larger territory: (let’s say a few dozen hexes across) you run into the issue that you can conceivably accumulate discovery points and “discover” a point of interest much further away than you could have traveled to in the time it took to discover it. You COULD figure out a bunch of sub-rules for where the party is in the territory and thus what they can and cannot discover, BUT it’s far easier to just change the length of time it takes to make a check and the number of potential encounters that could happen during that time. Using the initial hex and day, a good rule of thumb is that the time it takes to make an exploration check for a territory is about the same amount of time it takes to travel across that territory. That assumes the characters are traveling the length and breadth of the land beating bushes and peeking into corners and ensures that no matter where they discover a point of interest it makes sense. While that also means that you should check for 28 encounters for a discovery check that takes a week, that seems excessive. Instead assume that the party has many encounters over a time of that duration and avoids or overcomes most of them and instead make the regular four checks, assume the party is fully rested between each and populate your table with a selection of “notable” encounters. i.e.: with powerful individual creatures or with multiple encounters with weaker creatures. So you might say: “You explore the area for a few weeks. During that time you have to fend off many goblin hunting parties but several days into your exploration, through either accident or because of the creature’s determination you are attacked several times in succession.” Then run a single encounter with several “waves” of goblins that are separated by minutes to hours of “real time”.
- For a smaller territory: example: the PCs are searching the local rancher’s back 40 for clues to his disappearance, it makes more sense to make a check every few hours and roll for an encounter each check. That said, if they area gets too small it’s probably best to move to a traditional dungeon exploration system or series of checks.
- Where’s the rest of the party?: The base system allows each character to make a separate survival check to gather discovery points. While that makes sense, it also assumes that you’ve split the party and that each character (or group of characters if some are using aid another actions) is by themselves exploring or back at camp doing other stuff. This introduces the issue that any number of characters might end up meeting an encounter. In this case I think it’s safe to assume that characters are relatively close to one another and have some way of signalling one another (from magic items to bird calls to outright yelling) so in the case of combat, you can probably assume that missing characters show up in a few additional rounds. If you go this route, make sure that players understand it might happen so they have the option of not letting the mage wander off by themselves.
- Other uses: While this system is presented as a system for handling overland exploration with minimal (or no) reskinning it can also be used for:
- dungeon exploration: think really big dungeons like megadungeons
- investigation: where waypoints might be clues that point to other evidence and points of interest are evidence, and the checks made are investigation instead of survival
- information gathering: where waypoints are hints as to who may know things and points of interest are pieces of information and checks are gather information or diplomacy etc
- social networking: waypoints are people who aren’t interesting or useful except they grant access to those who are (think a bouncer or David Spade’s secretary character), points of interest are contacts etc
- Nesting Nesting Nesting!: One of the coolest aspects of this system is that it can be nested. You can start with a large territory and one of your points of interest can then be another territory all it’s own, but on a smaller scale. Conceivably this could go through multiple layers. Imagine a reasonably sized territory the size of a hex or two and one of it’s points of interest is the ruins of a city which is much smaller than a hex (a few square miles) but which can be explored as it’s own territory with it’s points of interest being buildings of interest, treasure caches, five room dungeons and the like, one of which is the entrance to a large megadungeon, which is its OWN territory. Nesting would also work very well for sci-fi star exploration, first discovering systems, then planets, then points of interest on those planets.
- Save some for later: when placing points of interest, remember that not all of them have to necessarily be level appropriate challenges for their territory. While it’s not necessarily fair or fun to have characters stumble onto some alpha beastie’s lair and immediately get TPK’d, putting said beastie on the random encounter list (and letting players know that there will occasionally be out of level challenges they need to be careful of) and giving them bonuses to avoid it once they know the location of its lair gives them a reason to come back later and remove the menace or capture a trophy. Similarly, putting in treasures hidden in vaults with DCs too high to crack at the time they are likely to be found, and sealed doors in point of interest dungeons give the players a reason to return.
- Gazetteers are awesome: One of the fun parts of the system is the ability for characters with the right skills to make maps and gazetteers for territories. The rules in the system allow for creating these even when most of the points of interest in a territory are still undiscovered. More complete ones might be worth more, or less complete ones might be worth less (or worthless depending on how incomplete) BUT one of the really fun ways to expand this subsystem is the potential for different kinds of gazetteers. The base assumption is that a gazetteer is a written guidebook of the territory and they take the literacy skill to create. But there is lots of potential information that can go into a gazetteer and characters should be able to make more money, though not necessarily increase the bonus they get to survival checks by making a similar number of successes with secondary skill checks to add in additional useful information to their gazetteers. Two or more characters might even work on this simultaneously, one cataloging and recording additional information while the other makes the literacy checks to do the actual writing.
- Knowledge: Nature checks will create a guidebook with detailed information and sketches of the local flora and fauna and their uses and properties
- Profession: Miner will create a guidebook with information about local rock structures and composition
- Diplomacy will create a guidebook with information about the cultures and practices of the local inhabitants
- Craft: Painting creates a guidebook with multiple attractive pictures of local landmarks of interest
- etc… The limit is really the imagination of your players.
- West Marches: So if you have a massive crush on Ben Robbins’ West Marches campaign but don’t have the motivation to crank out insane vector maps like he did to prep for it, today is literally the day you get started. All of that gets wiped away and replaced with this simple system… except maybe not. Because there is one major difference between these rules as presented and the West Marches: Multiple groups. If you want to run a West Marches style for a single group, then go get started. I mean it. Go. But if you’re going the whole nine yards and running for multiple fluid groups with all the complexity, confusion and jealously guarded secrets that entails, you’re going to need a few more tweaks to the system. For this you will have to figure out how to handle points of interest that are only known about by some players, if a character who was in a group when a point of interest was discovered can get back without the rest of the group or a map, who “owns” and “carries” discovery points that a group gathers but has not yet spent and other concerns. My initial thoughts are:
- The local lord or some other NPC organization wants the land explored and is paying for all the info they can get. They are the primary market, aside from other PCs, for maps and gazetteers of unexplored territory.
- Existence and location of points of interest become common knowledge when a map that contains them is sold to an NPC (similar to the West Marches communal map). We can assume this represents the map eventually making its way to the aforementioned patron who then makes it readily available to aid exploration.
- That no one can find a point of interest they have discovered without a map or re-paying a fraction of it’s initial cost, but that once points are common knowledge, maps are cheaply available (cribbed from the communal map probably)
- Discovery points are held by those who created them with their survival check or by interpreting a waypoint. If large numbers of them are gathered in a single roll, some may be shared with a character who used the aid another action to help gather them.
The more conventions I attend the harder it is to decide how to allocate my limited time among the many amazing people that I want to play with and exciting games I want to try. I typically sign up for convention games months in advance, and I tend to forget what I signed up for until I pick up my tickets. However, each one had something special in the description that put it on the top of my list.
At its core, the art of writing a convention game description is all about establishing expectations. They say brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also a necessity when it comes to writing convention descriptions where the word (or even character) count is extremely limited.Why it Matters
Convention descriptions are less about the setting, rules system, or story that will be told and more about getting the right players to your table. Convention descriptions are less about the setting, rules system, or story that will be told and more about getting the right players to your table. If you have players show up who are a good stylistic fit to the kind of game you run, it will be less work as a facilitator, and everyone is more likely to have a fun experience.
For example; I love the Warhammer 40,000 setting, but there are lots of games one can play in 40k. I gravitate towards intense political intrigue games filled with treachery and social manipulation. Other people may gravitate towards playing a game rooted in tactical combat. Those and other options are available in a Warhammer 40,000 game, hence a convention game description focusing simply on the setting or rules system is not inherently descriptive of the style of play. That’s why writing a convention description is so important.Keywords
One of the easiest and quickest ways to convey the expectation and tone of the game is through keywords, key phrases, or tags in the description. While I typically begin the convention description with 1-2 sentences that are descriptive of the goal or mission the characters will undertake, the keywords are the meat of the convention description.
I use keywords to convey not only the type of game I want to run, but also the style of players I think will thrive in a session I am running. The trick to an exceptional convention game is not about having the best plot, it is about having players that will respond to and embrace the experience the session provides. In short, the purpose of the convention description it to attract people who will have the most enjoyment, satisfaction, and fun during the game session.
Here are some examples of keywords and phrases that I have used.
- The core experience: Roleplay heavy, rules light. Tactical combat. Puzzle game. Learn to play.
- Tone of the game: Dark Fantasy, Horror, Pulp Adventure, Sci Fi, Four Color Superheroes, Space Opera.
- System and Setting: Warhammer 40,000 RPG Wrath & Glory/Dark Imperium, Savage Worlds Deluxe/Deadlands Noir, AD&D 2nd Edition/Dragonlance, Gumshoe/Harlem Unbound etc.
- Player familiarity: Rules taught/characters provided, beginners welcome. System experience preferred. System expertise required.
- Maturity of the players: All ages welcome, teen 13+, mature players 18+
- Important callouts: Play with the designer! Role Playing or creative writing experience preferred. Organized play/bring a character level 4-6. Emotionally intense/heavy subject matter.
It is most important to relay the core experience, but after that prioritize the keyword categories that are most descriptive of what you are trying to communicate. Skip any categories that aren’t useful to you or your specific game event.
For example, if your game is like Whose Line Is It Anyway where everything is made up and the points don’t matter, it may not be meaningful to spend your valuable word count on describing the rules system or setting. Ask yourself what kind of signals your are sending when you highlight certain features of your game and who will focus on those signals. If the game session uses a popular rules system like Pathfinder but your game won’t be the typical Pathfinder experience I don’t think it is helpful to call out the system. There are people who are going to see that system and sign up immediately regardless of what else the description might say, and that does not set the player or the GM up for success.Establishing Appropriate Expectations
For me, the mark of a good convention game is much like an end of year review; did the game meet or exceed my expectations? Perhaps it’s my analytical nature, but a significant amount of my “fun” relates to whether or not the game facilitator clearly defined what the game’s core experience will be and whether or not they deliver on that promise.
I think this is true of nearly every form of entertainment and media. When a movie trailer sets my expectations, they have set the bar they must overcome for me to fully enjoy it. When advertisements or word of mouth recommendations oversell or misalign my expectations to what the core experience is, I often feel dissatisfied. When a facilitator sets expectations and delivers on them the players are more likely to feel the “payoff” when the story arc is completed. (Give the people what they want!)The Bait and Switch
A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying. Players have allocated their very limited time to play in a game as advertised. Always deliver on what was promised. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailHere’s a story; years ago a friend signed up for a convention game based on a description because they were a huge fan of the specific pop culture setting that was referenced. That description generated interest and excitement from people in that fandom who registered for the game. However, just minutes into the game the GM revealed an unexpected twist: they cleverly plucked the game from the advertised setting and dropped it into a completely unrelated setting. Even the overarching tone was different jumping from Exploration Sci Fi to Epic High Fantasy.
Don’t do this.
A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying (reminder: conventions aren’t free). Players have allocated their very limited time to play in a game as advertised. Especially when referencing a specific intellectual property setting or world, know that you will likely attract fans of that setting and they expect you to deliver. If a player starts out disappointed the GM is going to have a much harder time keeping engaged and having fun. If the game you intend to “switch” to is so good, then use that as the advertised game! Simple.Introduction at the Event
This is your opportunity to remind players exactly what they signed up for. When the event starts, give an introduction that re-establishes the goal for the session. There are only a few hours to play, so aligning the group’s expectations up front will make the event run more smoothly.
First, I give a brief description wherein I may even read the convention description blurb to the players verbatim. I’ll include the system, the tone, content warnings, and review the safety tools we’ll use in the session.
Additionally, I set the players expectations about the purpose of the game. When I run a Protocol RPG I tell my players that we’re here to have fun and collaboratively tell a story. I specifically call out that there are no dice, no stats, and that “Winning is telling a great story.” In these games I facilitate the rules, but the system is there to support the core experience: the story.
This is in contrast to my purpose while running Wrath & Glory at conventions this summer. I want everyone to have a fun and satisfying roleplaying experience, but as a game designer and GM the story is there to support the core experience: learning the system. Since Wrath & Glory is brand new, my goal is to showcase the game system and teach the players the rules. Hence, my introduction focuses on setting a time expectation for learning the rules before we get into roleplaying.
These are two very different goals. By reiterating the core experience to the players up front I’m setting myself up for success. Since these goals tie back to the convention description this should seem familiar to the players and should help them to remember that this is the experience they signed up for.Final Thoughts
When certain features are important to the game experience prioritize and highlight those in the convention description. Make it clear what the core experience of the game is and it will help to attract the players who will enjoy your game the most. Finally, follow it up during the introduction to the session to ensure you are setting the players expectations about the experience they signed up for.
What features are most important to you when writing or reading convention game descriptions? Do you have any other helpful tools for creating convention descriptions? What are other pitfalls you have encountered?
Mix tapes, horror movies on VHS, magnetrine ships, and robots; it must be time to talk more about Tales From the Loop. You are totally right. So, get some fresh batteries for your Walkman, grab your Members Only jacket and let’s talk about the Tales from the Loop adventure supplement: Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries.Previously On Phil Reviews Things…
Back in May, I did a review for Tales from the Loop, where I spent some time gushing about how much I enjoyed the game, and how I liked using their published material. So when I had the chance to play some of the material from Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries, I could not resist.Disclaimer
I was provided a copy of Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries from the publisher.Claimer (it totally is a word now)
I ran some of the content from this book in my Tales From the Loop campaign. My review will lean more heavily on the things I ran because I have more experience with those.
So let’s get on with the review…The Big Mysteries
The book starts with three full-sized adventures that are on par in size with the adventures that were included in the Tales From The Loop book. This means that they have a fully developed mystery, a scene map that outlines the flow of the adventure, and a showdown which brings the adventure to a conclusion. These adventures will easily fill a session or more, depending on the pace at which you run your games.
I ran one of these, the adventure that shares the name from the book…Our Friends the Machines
Spoiler: They are Transformers!
Thinly veiled Transformers. But trust me you won’t care.
This is the mystery you have wanted since you were a kid — an adventure about toy robots that are self-aware and being controlled by a pair of AI’s. There are two warring factions: the Convoy and the Deceivers. The kids get wrapped up in the middle of this war, as they try to solve the mystery and figure out how to save the day.This mystery plays upon every kid’s fantasy of their Transformers coming to life, mixed with the weirdness you love about Tales From the Loop. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
This mystery plays upon every kid’s fantasy of their Transformers coming to life, mixed with the weirdness you love about Tales From the Loop. The plot drives towards an abandoned factory full of danger that eventually leads to the final showdown. The adventure is open-ended, in that there is not a single way for the adventure to end. The GM will need to do a bit of work in-game to convey some options for the players of how the adventure can end, otherwise there can be some analysis paralysis. The nice part is that the ending is designed for a solution that can be violent or not. I appreciated this option in the game, since my own campaign was one with a low level of violence, and more about problem solving.
My players loved this adventure and the nostalgia it invoked. In terms of running this mystery, I found this one had a lot going on with the plot and subplots. I actually cut this adventure down a bit, and customized it to my gaming group. My story was more focused on the kids helping the Convoy work to defeat the Deceivers. That was easily done with the material provided.Mixtape of Mysteries
The next section of the book is a series of small mystery plots (8 in total) that are all based on 80’s songs. Again, the authors totally get where this game fits, and there is a cool blend of nostalgia mixed with the weirdness of the Loop. These plots run the range from fitting closely to the other Tales mysteries to being much darker. In fact, I found a few of these to be too dark for use in my campaign, which tended to be a bit more innocent.
These plots are not fully formed adventures. They have a plot, some hooks to get the game going, and a countdown of bad stuff that is going to happen. You will have to do a little prep on these, especially if you are working them into an existing campaign. Based on the size of the plots, these are good for single-session adventures.
I prepped the Nightrain mystery; a mystery about a Pied Piper kind of character who has a weird amplifier for his guitar that lures children who come from troubled families. Prepping the plot was pretty easy. I used the mystery templates and techniques that were in the Tales From the Loop core book.Machine Blueprints
The next section contains some blueprints for some of the iconic machines in the Loop. These are also complemented with additional illustrations from Stalenhag’s work. Each one of these comes with a description about the machine and a few suggested mysteries. That last part is what makes this section great; more plot material.
What I really liked about the blueprints is the nostalgic call back to two things I loved from the 80’s: the Knight Rider blueprints, detailing KITT, and the blueprints included with all the GI Joe vehicles. I was a collector of all of those, and having just a few of these included in the book was a nice touch.Hometown Hack
The last section is one that I think a lot of people were hoping to see. It is a set of guidelines for how to create the Loop in your hometown. Remember that in Tales From The Loop there is the default Swedish setting and an alternative Nevada setting. This chapter allows you to take all the tropes that are key to the Loop setting and overlay them onto the town of your choosing, like your hometown.
The chapter takes you through, step by step, how to make this happen, and uses an example to illustrate each section, including a map for a British setting. The sections do a good job of ensuring that all the tropes you will need for making a new Loop town that will work with the other published material will be included.
I did not make my own town. We are using the Swedish setting for our game. But I have thought of doing one for a 1980’s Buffalo, NY (where I live now).Be Kind Rewind
Our Friends The Machines & Other Mysteries is a solid adventure book for Tales From The Loop. It provides you a large number of mysteries in various levels of detail from the fully written adventures in the front of the book, the summarized mysteries in the Mixtape section, to the mystery seeds in the Blueprints section. You won’t be lacking for something to do in your game.
In addition, the book continues to build upon the setting material of the game. The machine blueprints, more Stalenhag artwork, and deconstruction of how the setting works all build toward making the Loop a richer location.
If you are running Tales from the Loop either in one-shots or campaigns, this book is a good resource and worth having in your library.
This is part 2 of my review of the Pathfinder Playtest from Paizo. You can see part 1 here where I cover the first three sections of the book (Overview through Classes). In this part of the review, I’ll comment on the next four sections (Skills through Spells). The next review should cover Advancement and Options, and Playing the Game, which will be a big chunk of the review process since this is the “meat” of the game. Lastly, I’ll finish up 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:
One note that I forgot to drop into my first review is that I’m making notes as I go through a section, then I do my best to accurately expand on those notes “in media res,” so that I’m giving an accurate depiction of my thoughts as they come to me as I read the text. Certainly, there will be some things that pop up later in the book that may change my mind, but I wanted to be clear that this is not a “I’ve read the whole book and am now making comments.”
One note that I forgot to drop into my first review is that I’m making notes as I go through a section, then I do my best to accurately expand on those notes “in media res,” so that I’m giving an accurate depiction of my thoughts as they come to me as I read the text. Certainly, there will be some things that pop up later in the book that may change my mind, but I wanted to be clear that this is not a “I’ve read the whole book and am now making comments.”Skills A new concept for Pathfinder is the use of skills in untrained and trained manners. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
A new concept for Pathfinder is the use of skills in untrained and trained manners. There are some actions a character can take even without being trained in a skills, but the more potent or advanced uses of a skill are reserved for those with training. This is pretty cool. I like this change in the game. In the playtest book, the list of untrained uses feels a little longer than the trained uses do. Perhaps this will be adjusted in the final product. I really hope to see the trained uses for the skills expanded upon.
While the list is shorter in this edition, I’m not going to go into each skill. I’m just going to comment on some of the larger changes. I do like the shorter list of skills, though. They feel more focused and on target for what a modern roleplaying game should be. Having said that, I think each skill needs more actions (more on this later when we get to feats) to make them worthwhile to the game.Identifying Items/Effects I’ve always felt it was too easy in Pathfinder to identify items. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
Something I find interesting is that identifying magic items or magical effects is now a skill check without needing the spells of “detect magic” or “identify.” This takes a full hour per item/effect. I like this change for several reasons. First, I’ve always felt it was too easy in Pathfinder to identify items. In the “old school” versions of D&D, it was exceedingly difficult to identify items. I think this approach strikes a fine balance. Secondly, this skill-based approach aligns more closely with what we read in fantasy literature, which is all about the storytelling. This brings some storytelling back into the game. While I’m on this topic, I also noticed that there are several skills that can be leveraged for identifying magic. These are arcane, nature, occultism, and religion. It’s pretty neat that they applied this use to all of these areas.Aside: Read Magic
The ability to read magical (or occult or holy) texts is now skill-based. As a matter of fact, the spell “read magic” is no longer in the book. It just takes some time, effort, skill, and a decent die roll to interpret magical writings. Like with identifying magic items/effects, I like this change quite a bit because it more closely aligns our collaborative storytelling efforts with what we read in fantasy novels.CMB/CMD/Attack Actions
I hadn’t noticed that CMB and CMD weren’t part of the character sheet or character generation process until I got to the athletics skill. Some of the uses of the skill allow for tripping, grappling, shoving, etc. However, instead of the CMB/CMD combination, Paizo has streamlined these actions even more! I’m impressed that they’ve managed to pull this off. Now, it’s a skill check against a saving throw (usually Fortitude or Reflex) to see if the action has the desired effect.Downtime Skills This turns downtimes into more fun roleplaying instead of the less fun rollplaying. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
Crafting, lore, and perform can be used between exploring and adventuring to earn some coin for the characters. The subsystem for earning these coins is consistent, easy to implement, and quick to resolve. By moving some of the crunchy bits into a simpler system, there can be more focus on what goes on with the characters during downtime other than doing the necessary math to figure out how much income someone earns. This turns downtimes into more fun roleplaying instead of the less fun rollplaying.Lore
It appears that the lore skill is now the combination of knowledge and profession skills from the previous edition. I like this simplification because it helps players pick skills in a faster manner, reduces confusion in the game, and allows for a greater breadth of skill choices to be made. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been asked something along the lines of, “What is profession? What do I use it for? How it is different from craft or knowledge?” Dropping these two skills together under a single entity is a boon.Society
This skill feels misnamed. I like the actions and activities under it. They make sense. However, this is more of a “streetwise” skill than a “society” skill. Paizo should consider renaming the skill to streetwise.Feats
(Author note: I’m using “feat” here even though I like the word “talent” better because I think that’s what Paizo has turned them into for this version of Pathfinder. I’ll stick with Paizo’s naming convention to avoid confusion.)Of the skill-based feats, there are some pretty cool ones in here. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
Remember how I said above under the “Skills” header that I wanted more uses for the skills to make them worthwhile? Yeah. I take that back. Now that I’m in the feats section, I see that a vast majority of the feats (all but 20) are there to give skills more oomph. Now I see why characters get so many feats at character creation and as they level up. I was truly concerned that a 1st level character would have a chain of feats that would overpower them out of the gate. It doesn’t appear to be the case.
Again, I’m not going to go into each feat in detail. There just isn’t enough room in a single article to do so. I’ll just say here that there are some really cool feats that allow for both player and GM interactions with the characters’ skills that can drive a story forward (or sideways) in an excellent story-driven manner. It feels to me, as I read through the feats, that Paizo is taking on a bit more “fluff” into their rules and a little less “crunch.” What I mean by this is that Paizo seems to be taking on less of a “tactical simulation of combat” feel that has put some people off and shifting their balance a little toward the story side of things. Don’t get me wrong, Pathfinder still has those crunchy bits for when combat arrives, but that’s not all there is to this game.
Of the 20 “general feats,” only one requires a level higher than first. This gives quite a few options for starting characters, but I’d like to see the list expanded in the final book. While reading through the feats, my gut tells me there is room for growth of options there, but I can’t quite pin down what’s missing. A more thorough analysis than a read-through would probably reveal this to me.
Of the skill-based feats, there are some pretty cool ones in here, and there are quite a few options to customize and make characters special in their own way. No two masters of a single skill will look the same or use that particular skill the same. This intrigues me and piques my interest quite a bit. A friend of mine complained about the number of feats as “too many options,” but I don’t think there’s quite enough here to cause analysis paralysis, to be honest. It’s a good set to work with, and I can see the list being expanded in the final release or in expansion books.Equipment
Equipment is equipment, right? Well, there are some subtle changes to how equipment is acquired and handled in game that need to be illuminated. Again, I’m not going to go into each bit of armor, each weapon, each piece of gear, etc. here. I’m going to talk about the rules exposed in this section.Rarity
Items now have a “rarity” attribute. These start with common and range through uncommon to rare and finally land at unique. A color code is used to denote the rarity when an item is listed, which I’m not a big fan of. A single letter (C, U, R, X) inside parentheses after the item name would suffice. There are also folks that are color blind out there, so the red (uncommon) or blue (unique) item listing may be problematic for them. It’s best to stick with black (or dark hued inks) on white (or pale hues) for text, Paizo. I hope someone on the development team sees this and perks up a bit. Also, either I missed uncommon/rare items in the equipment lists, or they’re not present in the playtest book. I couldn’t find anything in the regular equipment other than black text (common items). Having said all this, I do like the potential I see in the rarity of items.Item Level
When I saw this, I panicked. I thought Paizo was going the way of MMORPGs and stating that characters couldn’t have or use certain items until they were of a certain level. Fortunately, this is not the case. The “item level” listing is a guideline for GMs, so they don’t accidentally hand out something as treasure that might unbalance the game.Bulk
Instead of weight and strength determining a weight limit for encumbrance or not, Paizo abstracted things away to a degree. Now items have a “bulk” listing, which determines how much stuff a character can carry before slowing down or being forced to drop something. The system looks straightforward and simple enough that I might start using encumbrance again. (I currently “hand wave” encumbrance for my players in Pathfinder, so long as they don’t get crazy with it.) There’s even a page (along with some handy tables) dealing with items made for a creature of different size. It’s pretty easy to figure out the bulk of a small creature trying to use or carry something intended for a large creature.Item Quality
Items have “levels” like characters skills do. They can be normal, expert, master, or legendary in make. This isn’t even counting the magical weapons. This is a cool expansion on the “masterwork” concept that’s been around since D&D 3.0. The hardness, cost, and bonuses of the item go up as the quality increases. This new feature in the system can be leveraged in “low magic” settings where most sword aren’t be magical, but legendary weapon crafters can produce high quality swords that are +3 without magic. This spawned quite a few setting ideas for me. I really love this shift and addition to the game. Oh, before I forget, there are rules for items of “poor” quality as well. This is an excellent addition for settings like Dark Sun.Spells
This article is already getting a little long in the tooth, so I’ll try to make this as brief as possible while giving spells the attention they deserve. Like with the other sections, I’m not going to delve into each spell.Heightened Spells
A caster can choose to prepare a spell at higher spell slots to increase the effects of the spell. Not all spells can be heightened, but many can. The example in the book is that a fireball (3rd level) will do 6d6 damage. If you heighten the spell (by putting in a 4th level slot), it will do 8d6 damage instead. This system provides for greater flexibility in how prepared spellcasters do their thing and plan for the day. It’s subtle, but effective, and I like it. There are also rules for the spontaneous casters to be able to do the same thing, but the rules are subtly different.Spell Schools and Traits
The typical spell schools we’ve all grown to love and adore are still present in the game. The various spell traits that exist within the Pathfinder playtest book are also outlined and clearly explained. The list of traits is a bit short, though, as I found some spells without explained traits. However, the “good” trait is pretty clear, but it would be best to explain them all for those who are new to Pathfinder or roleplaying.Rarity of Spells
In the equipment section, I talked about the different rarity of items. A similar system of common, uncommon, and rare exists within the spell lists. Players are restricted from automatically choosing uncommon and rare spells without the GM’s permission. One thing of note here is that Paizo uses a superscript of U or R for uncommon and rare spells instead of the strange color-coding mentioned in the equipment section. I hope that Paizo finds a proper superscript for “Unique” equipment as well and applies the superscript (or some other symbology) to use to alleviate the color blindness issue that some players may have.Actions in Spellcasting Each part of casting a spell (material, somatic, and verbal) takes an action. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
As I mentioned in the first part of this review, each PC gets 3 actions per round. I found an interesting quirk here in the spellcasting section. Each part of casting a spell (material, somatic, and verbal) takes an action. This means that a spell with all three components to cast will consume all three actions of the caster during that round. Something with only somatic and verbal will take two of the three actions, and so on. I had stop and ponder the implications of this for a bit. I can see the game balancing effects of this approach. However, I had to flip the very last page of the book (where the spell sheet is at) and look at it. Having a variable number of actions for different spells requires the proper bookkeeping, memorization, or stopping the game to look things up to figure out how many actions a particular spell consumes. The spell sheet does have an “actions” section with three blanks in it for each spell. This will assist in keeping the game running smoothly if players do the right thing and fill out the sheet with all details as they acquire new spells.Spell Details
While I’m not going to dig through each spell in the book, I wanted to point out that powers gained from various ancestries, classes, feats, backgrounds, etc. that are spell-like in nature are comingled in the alphabetical list of spells. This can easily lead to confusion because the section is clearly labeled “Spells” in the tabs on the right edge of the page. I would recommend that Paizo take the “Spells” label and change it to “Spells and Powers,” so players new to the game can easily track down the specific section of the book they need to find the details about all of the supernatural things their characters can do.
Also, in the spell details section, Paizo falls back to a colored background for the rarity of spells to indicate uncommon and rare. Again, I’m not a fan of this because it requires rote memorization (or a spot in the GM screen) to translate the rarity of a spell from color to meaning. Sorry to harp on this poor decision by Paizo, but it’s really gotten to me. I’ll step away from the soapbox on this topic.Conclusion, For Now
Coming into reviewing the Pathfinder playtest, I was hesitant to even pick up the book, but I wanted to give the game a fair shake. So far, I’m liking what I’m seeing. Yes, there are limited choices within the book, but it’s also a “slim” book (for a core Paizo book, at least) at only 428 pages. Compare that against the current edition’s core book size of 575 pages, there’s ample room to expand and grow and improve.
So far, I think I would play this game as a replacement for the current Pathfinder. However, as the saying goes, “The proof’s in the pudding.” So far, I’ve been reading about the “ingredients” of the overall recipe. The next few segments of the book will be telling on how good the actual pudding is going to be.
I’ll roll this part of the review to a close, so I can get to how to mix the ingredients together and make the pudding. You’ll be seeing section 3 of the review here in about two weeks if all goes according to plan. See ya then!
I’m really interested in the types of ways games make me FEEL. In general, I’m less concerned with the plot of a game session, the world it’s in, or even the types of characters I might be able to play, and more invested in whatever kinds of feelings it allows me to play with and analyze after the fact. I interact with most media this way! I feel the same way about movies, tv shows, music, fine art, theater… the most impactful art is the stuff that makes me feel things. Arguably, I think its the most important art.
So how do you design a game toward the feels? Almost all my games have this agenda in them somewhere, but my most recent game that is currently on Kickstarter (til Oct 4th) Something Is Wrong Here is specifically designed to create an emotion based experienced. How did I do this, I know I know you’re on the edge of your seat. Well let me tell you a few tricks I’ve learned along the way, as well as some touchstones for emotional play I’ve experienced in the past.Emo Games
I’ve played a lot of games in the past ten years or so that have delivered amazing emotional experiences. When I say emotional, I truly mean the full range of emotions, from joy to love to sadness. An obvious one is Monsterhearts! Monsterhearts doesn’t have specific emotional mechanics that go “feel this thing!” but they do encourage emotional play by mimicking the emotional behaviors that arise from those feelings. So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you might try to Run Away, or Lash Out, two move options in the game. The unspoken thing these moves encourage you to do is roleplay the emotions first, prompting the move. Share2Tweet1+11Reddit1Email The unspoken thing these moves encourage you to do is roleplay the emotions first, prompting the move. I find that even on this level of emotional roleplaying, if play is focusing on feelings, and my character is feeling them, I tend to feel them too!
A LARP I played a long time ago called Mad About The Boy encouraged emotional play by pairing personality types of the player with the character. This causes a fair bit of bleed, because when roleplaying your character you’re thinking a lot like you’d normally think in everyday life. It’s also an incredibly emotional game, and the most emotional moments tended to arise through guided meditation sequences, where they would ask you to imagine what you would do in the real world if all the men were gone from your life. The concept of this game itself drives emotional experiences… it’s a fantastical feminist thought experiment that posits, what would the world look like without patriarchy? (There’s some gender issues with this thought experiment but that’s already been thoroughly covered elsewhere). It made me look at the world differently after I left. Sometimes all it takes is engagement with a heavy concept.
Most recently, a LARP I played by Brodie Atwater called Here Is My Power Button has an incredible emotional impact on everyone who plays it! Almost everyone cries at the end of the game, and there’s a lot of psychological tools at work in the game to make that happen. Specifically the use of sad music at key moments in the game, the fact that it moves between group scenes of about five people to one on one scenes with individuals, and the specific scenario of giving someone power and then taking it away. It’s brilliantly emotionally manipulative, in the way a good movie can push and pull your feelings toward a sad scene.Mechanics Of Emotions
I took what I learned from these emotional game experiences (and even more I’m not mentioning here!) and tried to utilize my favorite ones in Something Is Wrong Here. The main techniques that create the most emotion in the game are:
Intentional Bleed. You’re encouraged to play close to home, the facilitator will sometimes switch between calling you your real name and your character name, and before the game begins you’re asked to think about things you’re afraid of in your own life and dreams. What this does is make thin the veil between your character’s experiences in the game, and your own. While it’s up to each player how deep they want to dive into this emotional playing field, the option is there to correlate the character’s feelings with your own.
Emotional Music. I curated the game’s soundtrack to be particularly manipulative at different times in the game. The music plays in the background at key times, sometimes repetitive, sometimes grating, to enhance the feelings those scenes are about. David Lynch famously has done the entire musical landscapes of many of his films, and I’m incredibly influenced by music in the media I watch! I sometimes joke that I like something at least 50% based on the excellence of it’s music.
Safety Mechanics. There’s an emphasis on safety both before and after the game. This is a trick that’s used in kink play as well, where basically, if you create a space that is safer to explore a certain type of vulnerability, people are more likely to explore! If you know that at any time you can stop a scene if it gets too intense, ask for support, or remove a specific topic that’s personally difficult for you, you’re going to trust the environment a little more and get emotionally heavy if you want to. Saying “this is a space to talk about heavy emotions if you want to, and we’re gonna be here for that and you” is a powerful statement that allows people to play more emotionally than they normally would.
Character Connection. While each character is an archetype of something in a David Lynch type uncanny Americana world, there’s room for each player to inject ownership of that character on the character sheet. Specifically, the player determines what past trauma they’re trying to deal with, and naming which other character they think can help them. In creating the trauma, a player can easily insert themes that are important to them, consciously or subconsciously, therefore playing through issues with their character they care more about.
Emotional Cues. Each scene is literally focused around the goal that players have to portray a specific emotion associated with that scene. Since emotions are the goal of each scene, that becomes more the focus of play than whatever the literal plot is.Uncanny Feels
The second goal though was to communicate an Uncanny Game Feel. So similar to the uncanny feel you’d get watching a David Lynch gig, but more like something you’d feel in game media. Where does this feeling happen? How do we encourage it to happen? I looked at the tools that horror games used, and plugged em in, as well as some similar inspiration from other uncanny media, specifically film.
Disturbing Music. Half of what gets ya in a horror film is the sound scape. Having the right sounds to create tension, discomfort, or suspense are key to invoking that sense of the uncanny. I got some great electrical sounds for the most uncanny parts of the game.
Pacing. Pacing is KEY, KEY!!!! You have to build suspense to something scary, and waiting, not seeing the monster, knowing that… something is wrong here, can be the most potent tool in creating an uncanny or scary feeling. I deliberately paced both acts and the scenes within them, creating repetition, making sure the timing is all meticulously kept by the facilitator, creating rituals that are later to be broken in the second act… these all have subtle impacts on us as we experience a narrative.
Buy in. In any horror game, the most important thing is to get everyone involved to COMMIT to being scared. Really, no matter what the game is doing, the commitment to being scared is what’s gonna scare people the most. They have to be ready to have fun being scared, like they’re walking into a haunted house, or sitting down with a scary movie. I tell the facilitator to just outright ask players to commit to this! No side talking, try to stay in character and immerse as much as possible. This will get you the scariest experience.
Atmosphere. Creating the room feeling is essential to uncanny game feel. Lower the lights, start with some moody music, add a few freaky in game props. Ask people to costume if they want to. With roleplaying games, we have the unique ability to influence the space around our play.
These might seem like simple mechanics, and in a sense, they are! It’s all how they’re remixed and utilized that makes the most impact in a game. Since my design goals for Something Is Wrong Here were to create an emotional, uncanny experience, I’ve leaned heavily on the ones that make that impact the most. Have you ever experienced these mechanics in a game before? Do you love experiencing emotional game play as much as I do? Let me know in the comments!
Roleplaying games are this sometimes weird mix of game and storytelling. In old games, story was almost a reluctant side effect of the game’s mechanics, so trying to recapture the magic of certain types of stories in RPGs could be a struggle. Over the years, RPGs have gotten much better about designing mechanics that facilitate the style of story the creators intended, but there are still some areas that struggle to seamlessly merge the line between game and story. For this particular article, I’m pondering on damage mechanics and how they work against the heroes’ last-minute triumph in the final fight.
In many of the stories that inspire our games, the climactic battle finds the heroes getting a severe beatdown from their antagonists, but just as it looks like the villain is going to win, they suddenly find it within themselves to do something spectacular to win. Whether the hero has an epiphany about why they do what they do, or they realize if they fail everyone they love will pay the price, or perhaps they suddenly put together how they can use the villain’s weakness against them, or whatever the reason, they dramatically dig down into themselves and find the reserves to save the day.
Thing is, most RPGs handle damage as attrition of resources. Either you’re losing points off of some kind of health meter or you’re losing the ability to do the things listed on your character sheet. In D&D, you lose hit points. Mutants & Masterminds saps at your ability to stay in the fight by piling up negatives on your roll to resist damage. Savage Worlds also piles on the negatives and leaches away your precious bennies. Various PbtA games use one variation or the other. Masks piles on the negatives as the characters get emotionally battered. Dungeon World essentially has hit points. By the time you reach that pivotal, climactic moment in an RPG, the chances of the character being able to actually land a spectacular finishing blow are often minuscule and not nearly as dramatic as the stories we’re trying to emulate.This isn’t to say that this type of dramatic moment never occurs in games. Many of the most memorable games people have in their repertoire of gaming war stories involve moments like these. But they tend to be happy accidents rather than purposefully crafted by the mechanics of the game. Share1Tweet5+11Reddit1Email
This isn’t to say that this type of dramatic moment never occurs in games. Many of the most memorable games people have in their repertoire of gaming war stories involve moments like these. But they tend to be happy accidents rather than purposefully crafted by the mechanics of the game.
Now, not every fight in a game needs to or should follow that style of story trope. Sometimes a fight is just a fight and whatever happens is fine. Also, not every player or GM cares about capturing the essence of story as much as I do. I’ll admit it is kind of an obsession on my part. Most of the mechanics we have for damage in games work fine, I just get a little frustrated during those final boss fights when the damage mechanics discourage players from leaning into the drama of the story and going for those big, bold moves.
I don’t really have a particular solution in mind to this issue. I could stick to strongly narrative games where the rules encourage leaning into the drama of the story, but to be completely honest, I find myself sitting in the middle between indie narrative games and traditional playstyles. I’m trying desperately to make some sort of mash-up between the two into my preferred style of game.
I do have a little bit of advice for anyone else pondering these things too:
Players, recognize the tools the game offers to help you along the way and try saving those for the big moments of the game. Many games have some kind of mechanic in place to get a boost or a reroll, so as a player, the key is to just recognize the right moment to utilize that mechanic. It can be tempting to use it on your first failure, but they’ll be more satisfying to use when the stakes are at their highest. The dice might still be fickle and still stymie that awesome moment, but at least you stand a better chance than if you’d spent them on something trivial.
GMs, if you’re interested in encouraging this type of drama in your big boss fights, there are things you can do to help your players go for the big finish. You know your game and campaign better than anyone, so you’ll have the best understanding of when a fight has dramatic importance to the game’s story. Throw yourself into narrating the set up and emphasize the importance of the fight. Heck, pretend you’re backed by dramatic music and you’ll probably get the right feel. In addition, don’t be afraid of rewarding your players for creative thinking or dramatic roleplaying. It’s not going to break the mechanics to toss them a bonus to the roll, another inspiration point, or more bennies. That last minute reward can be enough to make the player throw their character into the fight with renewed vigor.
Damage mechanics may be a war of attrition on character resources, but you can still find ways to make those final fights dramatically worthy of movie’s climactic scene. What methods do you use to try and encourage that big, bold finale?
Join Tracy and Wen in this episode of Gnomecast featuring two gnomes interviewing each other! Learn about Wrath & Glory—the new Warhammer 40,000 roleplaying game that Wen worked on—and Tracy’s new game Iron Edda Accelerated! Will all this awesome game design keep them out of the stew?
Myself and six others gathered around a table strewn with red heart shaped beads, plush fantasy animals, and adorable character sheets. We were here to play Golden Sky Age, a Dragon Age hack of Golden Sky Stories run by Modifier Podcast host, Meghan Dornbrock. Golden Sky Stories is a game about helping friends, village spirits, and celebrating innocence. Dragon Age is a game about the immediate apocalypse, the corruption of power, and the lengths friends go to protect those around them. The two meshed extremely well under the guidance of Meg, and the bubbly personalities of the players. I could spend an entire article about the joy of extruding cuteness out of Mature Fantasy™ and may very well do so in the future, but it is not this article. Today I want to talk about one moment in this Golden Sky Age game that woke me up to something I’ve been feeling for a while without putting words to it.
I played a Halla, an aloof, glittery, mysterious forest deer. My neighbor played a Fennec, a wily fox. We started a scene playing in the forest, as players we were waiting for another character to deliver plot information so that we could justify going to help others, but as characters we were skipping stones. As we roleplayed skipping stones, complimenting each other on our splashes, and finding fun colors of rock, I felt a sense of calm wash through me. This was my eureka moment.
As a player at this table I was completely satisfied with this roleplay of… nothing? Was there a story here to two animals skipping stones? Not really. Was there conflict? Maybe to begin with, but as our characters lost themselves in the fun of splashing in the river we quickly forgot about any challenge. As we connected with the rest of the group and played through our story, I fell in love with Golden Sky Stories’ mechanics of warmth & friendship, but I kept wishing that we could have more scenes like our skipping stones.
Gen Con 2018 was a surreal, joyful experience, but it had its stresses. High emotions, fast paced con life, swarms of people were all great to be in but they were a lot to experience. Even outside of conventions life can be stressful with job concerns, social responsibilities, or simply existing in this political climate. We hear a lot how games can be wish fulfillment, escapism, or a power fantasy. However, my unspoken wish in that moment at the table was for calm joy. My escapism was play that wasn’t centered on violence or struggle. My fantasy was being able to relax with a new friend. Nowhere in those desires was the need for rising action, dramatic conflict, or challenges to overcome. I just wanted to exist happily. My unspoken wish in that moment at the table was for calm joy. My escapism was play that wasn’t centered on violence or struggle. My fantasy was being able to relax with a new friend. Share4Tweet6+11Reddit1Email
Stories without conflict aren’t a novel idea with other media, but roleplaying games seem to focus on conflict as their sole narrative vehicle. When people talk about games, even to a mechanical level, we talk about how to set up conflict, how to create drama, or how to overcome challenges. Many people talk about a game’s conflict resolution system, deconstruct an encounter’s challenge rating, or how to plot Fronts or Threats. The idea of a game seems to center on a challenge that, through confronting, creates story. However, in playing a scene with no challenge, story, or conflict, I felt fulfilled.
I left Gen Con with the desire to explore further. I want to seek out games that are explicit in their refusal of conflict. I want the fanfiction no-plot-just-fluff of roleplaying games. I want to create a story that is satisfying and fulfilling in the way that skipping stones with my Fennec friend was. I know there are other games out there like this.
There’s a game that I’ve loved for a while called Formative, by designer Amy Weston, that does no conflict stories by forming scenes around a series of prompts on playing cards, similar to Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year. In Formative, you play characters undergoing radical transformation, in a group that can range from found family to erotic intermingling. Some prompts have conflict baked into them (The stares, muffled comments, and veiled insults are too much today. You retreat to a safe space.) while others create moments that can be easily played without conflict (After spending time together with [another character], your body subtly changes to be more like theirs). Taken in random order, a “traditional” story may emerge with rising action, conflict, climax, and denouement, but in my experience playing the game, the stories we tell in Formative are cozy, slice of life fiction that may have tense moments but are otherwise poetically lacking in conflict.
I encourage you reading this to seek out experiences like these. Allow characters to exist without a Plot. Sure, give them things they want, goals, whatever, but try and create a story about them existing, being happy, and comfortable. I also encourage you to chime in with game recommendations for systems that can create these moments I’m chasing. I need more caring moments near a river. That purple gem won’t discover itself.
The big news from the Paizo arena is, of course, their Pathfinder Playtest. I picked up a copy of the physical rulebook at my FLGS about a month ago with the intent of writing a review. Guess what? This is that review. Normally, I have a system for my reviews of RPG products, but I’m going to set that aside for this effort since the book is bigger than simply cover art, mechanics, prose, layout, and interior art. This review will be split up over the course of multiple articles because of the in-depth nature of the playtest book.
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:
The book is split up into twelve different sections: In this segment of the review, I’ll be covering Overview through Classes. The rest of the book will follow in other articles.
The book is split up into twelve different sections:
In this segment of the review, I’ll be covering Overview through Classes. The rest of the book will follow in other articles.Overview What is a Roleplaying Game? The “Gaming is for All” segment speaks very well to the fact that each player is different. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
The Overview section starts with the typical “What is a Roleplaying Game?” segment, but Paizo does a fine job in this section. It covers more than the typical basics of players, characters, game masters, collaborative storytelling, and other things found in these types of entries. It’s a great introduction to RPGs for new players as well as a solid reminder to veteran players and GMs why they are at the table and how to comport themselves while gaming.
The section here that impressed me the most was the “Gaming is for All” part where Paizo dives into responsibilities as a player and GM at the table. It’s not just “pay attention” or “know the rules.” As a matter of fact, these aren’t even mentioned. The “Gaming is for All” segment speaks very well to the fact that each player comes from a different background, culture, family, environment, and so on that influences how they play. No player (or the GM) should contribute to behavior (in or out of character) that promotes or reinforces racism, bigotry, hatred, or any other form of action that can offend, make someone uncomfortable, or that will drive someone from the hobby. These are strong statements, and I feel they need to be said.
The book also states that no one at the table (especially the GM) should allow this kind of behavior to exist at the table. I’m very happy Paizo included these segments. Also, for the first time in a major publication, I now see reference to a social contract (search in the upper right corner for this phrase for multiple Gnome Stew articles on this topic).Basic Concepts
This section explains things in very clear terms. There are quite a few core changes to a familiar product, and having these Basic Concepts explained up front helped me wrap my head around things that I’ve known in my heart for the past nine years. It set me up to adjust how I see the rules for the new version of Pathfinder, and it also was a great introduction to the basics of the rules for those new to Pathfinder.Activities
To help simplify the game, the overview gives three options for activities a PC can take during a single round. These are Actions, Reactions, and Free Actions. Each PC gets 3 Actions and 1 Reaction per round. Some activities may consume more than 1 Action, so while this sounds like quite a few things going on in a round, I doubt it’ll be quite as crazy as first impressions give. To be honest, it feels like it’s simplified things, so it will be (I hope) easier to avoid analysis paralysis that some players (and GMs) go through when presented with all of the options available to a higher-level character.Key Terms
The Key Terms section runs through an alphabetical list of terms that constitute the core of the game with clear summations of what the terms mean to players and to the game. Again, this section helped me mentally point out to myself where the game is changing from the first edition.Character Creation
The character creation overview section did leave me a little lost. While page numbers were listed to refer to the more in-depth rule explanations, I found myself flipping around the book to excess. There are only nine major steps to character creation, but each of those nine expand out considerably with sub-steps and references. The sample character sheet on page 11 calls out the various places you have to fill out. There are 27 different things to go through. This is on par with the first edition of Pathfinder, and many editions of D&D, so I don’t feel it’s too much to handle. However, I felt like there could be a little more explanation of each of the nine steps in the Overview section of the book. This could have prevented the flipping around the book like I did. Of course, I’m comparing this experience to what I do with the current version of Pathfinder, which I know well enough to be able to skip over sections I don’t need and get directly to the meat of where I need to read for the character choices I’ve made. I suspect I can get comfortable enough with the new version to do this as well.Ability Scores Rolling for ability scores is now optional! Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
Here is a doozy of a change! Rolling for ability scores is now optional! You read that right. The core mechanic of developing your character’s six main abilities (which haven’t changed in this edition), is now an additive system. Everyone starts with a base 10 in each ability. Then the player will subtract or add (mostly add) 2 points to specific abilities depending on their choices in ancestry, class, background, and so on. There are quite a few options in there that are “Free boost” where the player can pick which ability to add their 2 points to. This means that every “elf ranger” won’t end up with the same ability scores. One thing I love about their changes is that no single ability can be above 18 at first level. They can creep above that threshold at higher levels, but not to start the game with. This helps prevent a considerable amount of min/max building for starting characters that is possible with decent die rolls and munchkin builds in the current version of Pathfinder. Their two side-by-side examples of generating ability scores in the playtest were very clear and illuminated the process very well.An Aside: Alignment I feel leaving alignment in the game is a missed opportunity for Paizo to do something better in this area. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
As you can already tell, there are quite a few changes to how things are approached in this version. Unfortunately (in my opinion), alignment remains attached to Pathfinder. I had hoped with this new version that Paizo would take advantage of the shifts and ditch this outdated, often ignored, and clunky method of determining a moral base for characters. I feel leaving alignment in the game is a missed opportunity for Paizo to do something better in this area.Another Aside: Hit Points
A very clear change to the game is that rolling for hit points at each level is now a thing of the past. Instead, each character starts with a base amount for the chosen ancestry, adds some more hit points based on the chosen class, and then adds more hit points with each level taken. Maybe I’m just being a grumpy grognard here, but I feel like this is a violation of the spirit of Pathfinder’s storied history. Few die rolls are more important (or thrilling) than the vaunted “roll your hit points” moment. Then again, it always sucks to roll a natural 1 in those times, so I guess I can get used to the steady increase in hit points.Ancestry
You’ll notice so far that I’ve not used the word “race” within this article to describe a character option. That’s because Paizo has taken the correct forward step to remove this off-putting, charged, and insensitive word to rest in their game materials. From here on out, Paizo will be using Ancestry as the overarching label for dwarves, elves, humans, etc. Hats off to Paizo for doing the right thing for the members of our community.
I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow of each ancestry presented in the book. That would probably be an article unto itself, and I’d rather not have this series of reviews run on until the actual game comes out.Hats off to Paizo for doing the right thing for the members of our community. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
Each ancestry (except for humans, oh those complex humans) is covered by a two-page spread. There are ancestral feats only available to the specifically listed ancestries. Most of them are options at first level, but some can only be taken at fifth (or higher) level. The samples in the book include many first level options and only a few fifth level options. There are none for levels higher than that, so I am assuming the final product (which will most likely be larger than the 427-page playtest book) will have these options. Of course, expansion and splat books will expand these lists considerably. One addition is a “heritage” feat, which can only be taken at first level. These heritage feats help establish some core principles of the character, and are, quite honestly, pretty cool. I like these inclusions.
Before I move on from ancestries, I want to point out that goblins are in as an officially playable ancestry. This, as you can probably tell, makes me happy. These plucky little fellows have been fodder and mooks for way too long. I’m not surprised that Paizo made this move based on the wide variety of goblin-centric products they’ve released over the years.
Unfortunately, I have something in the ancestries that makes me sad. Half-orcs and half-elves are now just specific types of humans, and a feat has to be used to gain access to the orc or elf ancestry goodies at a later level. I’m not sure I like this change because it’s going to reduce the number of players playing these ancestries. This removes some diversity from the gaming gene pool, and I’m not entirely convinced this is a good thing. Perhaps things will be adjusted in the final version that’s not apparent in the playtest book that will make this a good decision from Paizo.Backgrounds
Paizo included a brief list (two pages worth) of backgrounds to pick from during character generation. I really hope they expand upon this list. What they have is pretty solid, but I can see players clamoring for more options, and we GMs will have to deliver. These backgrounds are used to tweak characters, make them unique, and boost abilities, feats, and skills. I love the inclusion of these types of things in modern RPGs, and Paizo has a good start here. (As a note: I really want to play someone who has a Barkeep background now.)Languages
Everything in here is pretty typical of what most players expect to find in this section based on the past 40+ years of roleplaying game publishing. However, Paizo has also included a section on sign language. This is pretty cool. It’s a great description of sign language, how it impacts the game, and how it can be used. I love that they’ve acknowledged not everyone has the ability to speak or hear, thus increases the inclusivity of their game another notch.Classes
As with ancestries, I’m not going to do a deep dive into each class. That would also be an entire article unto itself. The most interesting change here is the addition of the alchemist as a playable class to the core list. All of the usual classes players are used to finding are still in the book, so don’t fret that your favorite core class won’t exist until the proper expansion book is published.
Each class, like with the ancestries, gets certain base abilities automatically, then there is a list of feats to choose from at the various levels as the character advances. Because of the vast number of combinations going on here (ancestries, ancestral feats, backgrounds, classes, and class feats), I can see character creation and leveling up taking some time because of the inclination to want to pick the best thing for a character. This will up the levels of analysis paralysis in many players, so be warned. This will only become worse as more content is added to this version of the game.
Having said this, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I love many options to pick from. This allows me, as a player, to play a cleric in back-to-back campaigns, but without playing the same cleric both times. This makes me happy, but I still felt the need to point out the possible issue with so many choices laid out before the players.
(I know I said I wouldn’t do a deep dive into the classes, but I have my eye on a monk character for my first Pathfinder Playtest character class. Combine that with the Barkeep background? Hrmm… I wonder how a goblin monk who used to be a barkeep would work out?)Aside, the Third: Feats I recommend Paizo do a massive search/replace for “feat” and drop in the word “talent” because that feels like a more accurate descriptor for what these are in this book. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
I seem to be mentioning feats quite a bit here. Right? Yeah. I am. That’s because almost every power, ability, spell, trick, or effort is based on a feat. There are quite a few to pick from. While Paizo chose to continue the use of the word “feat,” I suspect the re-use of that label will lead to some false assumptions in the players between the editions. These are not the same power level of feats found in D&D 3.0 through D&D 3.5 and into Pathfinder. The Pathfinder Playtest feats could have been relabeled to avoid confusion. I recommend Paizo do a massive search/replace for “feat” and drop in the word “talent” because that feels like a more accurate descriptor for what these are in this book.Yet Another Aside: Deities and Domains
One thing I dislike about the first edition Pathfinder core rulebook was the fact that information about the Golarion deities and domains was jammed into the cleric class section. I can see the decision behind this, but in a world where the deities can directly impact life in more than the spiritual sense, there will be more believers and worshippers. This includes non-clerics. I feel like the descriptions and summaries of the deities deserves its own sub-section within the book, not a sidebar for clerics. Unfortunately, Paizo made the same decision here. I’d love to see more pages dedicated to their deities (like they did with the Key Terms section). Of course, not everyone is going to use Golarion in their games at home, but since the defaults of Pathfinder assume Golarion it’s safe to dedicate more paper and ink to the deities.
For the domains in the cleric section, I love the list here. It feels comprehensive, expanded, and with more cool options for the multitude of those that wield holy (and unholy) powers.Conclusion, For Now
Overall, I’m pretty happy with what I see up through the Classes section of the book. I hope this review has been helpful to you if you’re on the fence about downloading the PDF (or buying the book). Up next, I’ll dive into Skills, Feats, and Equipment. If word count for the next section allows, I’ll also briefly cover the Spells section, but without doing a deep dive into each spell.
Recently I came across another video featuring the float test for testing die fairness. For those not familiar, the float test consists of floating your dice in a dense bath of salt water and repeatedly spinning, rolling, or shaking them and letting them settle to see if a certain face or set of faces routinely float to the top. This result is supposed to be indicative of voids or differences in density of your dice and proof that they do not roll fairly. In theory, if a die fails the float test you shouldn’t use it.
I’ve always been skeptical of the float test though. Yes, it certainly can tell you if your dice have imperfections that make one face or collection of faces lighter or heavier than others, but do those differences really result in a meaningful difference in rolls? So, I set out to do a not at all repeatable, not at all scientific test to see if the results from a float test on my d20s, were borne out by a chi-square analysis.
- I wanted to test all my d20s, but I discarded three of them for the purposes of the test: two which had insufficient contrast to read easily, and one that is an old-school double d10, not a true d20
- I was left with 22 d20s. I wanted to perform a float test on all of them and note which ones failed and which face(s) repeatedly floated to the top.
- Then I wanted to perform a chi-square goodness of fit test on those dice. However, since we had a clue which face(s) should be the most (or least) common according to the float test, we should actually be able to do a better test that the standard 19 degree of freedom test vs H0: all faces have a .05 chance of occurrence. Instead we would be able to do the better test against H0: the face(s) indicated by the float test have a chance of occurrence equal to .05 times the number of faces. This test is better since we’re able to target the specific faces that should be off rather than general deviation from the ideal distribution.
I started with 3 cups of water in a small bowl, enough to contain all my d20s at once. I then started adding salt to the bowl, one tablespoon at a time with the goal of getting all my dice to float. One of the dice started to float after I added about 3 tablespoons of salt (about a 1/16 concentration) but the rest stubbornly refused to float as I added tablespoon after tablespoon of salt. Eventually around 10 tablespoons of salt (about a 1/5 concentration), another die started to float, but the salt also stopped dissolving in the water with 20 of my dice still sitting solidly on the bottom of the bowl. I fished out all of the dice and microwaved the solution and was able to get another few tablespoons of salt to dissolve but no additional dice were floating. So, after a quick google search to make sure I wasn’t about to ruin my dice, I transferred the entire solution to a pan (featured above) and slowly heated it on the stove with a few of the stubborn dice on the bottom so I’d know when I had enough salt dissolved. I managed to get about 16 total tablespoons of salt to dissolve (about a 1 to 3 ratio, making my solution literally saltier than Poseidon’s trident) before two things happened:
- The salt stopped dissolving yet again.
- Impurities and seeding crystals into the solution (via adding salt) caused a rapid crystallization of the salt out of the solution into a thick crust on the top of the pan which broke loose and sunk.
So, I had gotten about as much salt into the water as I was going to be able to in my kitchen. But even after much of the salt crystallized out of the solution, I was able to float four dice (the four pictured above). That’s not a good result out of 22, but it’s something at least. One of them was very recognizable: my PolyHero Wizard die. The other three are generic d20s. If it’s important, the black one pictured above was the first one to float, the Wizard d20 was the second one to float, but may well have floated better because of its unique textured shape. The two translucent greens were the last to float.
Now that I had four floating dice, I was able to do a float test. The black d20 exclusively had the 16,19,6,9, and 3 cluster at the surface, the Wizard die exclusively had the 20 rise to the surface, and the other two had no discernible tendency. If the float test actually works to detect internal voids and bubbles though, the results of the green dice would make sense, as they are clear enough to visibly confirm that none exist. This gave me two dice to run chi-square goodness of fit test on, but I had already run a general 19 degree of freedom goodness of fit test on my PolyHero Wizard d20, so I was even more skeptical that I would find anything amiss with it. Still, for the sake of being thorough, I went ahead and tested it again.
Remember, that the end result of a chi-square goodness of fit test is a p-value and “if the p is low, H0 must go” i.e.: if your p-value is lower than a standard critical value (usually .1, .05 or .01 depending on how skeptical you want to be) you must reject your original hypothesis. Remember also, in this case our hypothesis is that the faces indicated by the float test came up a proportion of the time equal to .05 times the number of indicated faces (i.e.: the die follows the normal fair distribution). For each, I rolled the die 100 times and ran a one degree of freedom goodness of fit test on the two categories of “float test faces” and “other faces”.
For the wizard die, which had exclusively had the 20 rise to the surface, if it was a fair die we would expect 5 20s to be rolled and 95 other faces. Instead we saw 4 20s and 96 other faces. This results in a p-value for a chi-square goodness of fit with 2 categories (1 degree of freedom) of about .35. This is not sufficiently low to reject our H0, so we do not have sufficient evidence to conclude that the results of the float test are meaningful. As I stated earlier, this isn’t surprising, as I had already run a standard goodness of fit test on this particular die and not found sufficient evidence to reject it’s fairness.
For the black die, which had exclusively had the 16,19,6,9,3 cluster of sides rise to the surface, if it was a fair die we would expect those 5 sides to be rolled 25 times, and the other 15 sides to be rolled 75 times. Instead we saw 26 and 74 occurrences respectively. This resulted in a p-value of about .18. This is lower than the results of the wizard die, but still not sufficiently low to reject our H0. Thus we don’t have sufficient evidence to conclude the float test results are meaningful in this case either.
Honestly, this debacle is inconclusive. I couldn’t even get 18 of my 22 dice to float. Either better conditions, a better method of making the solution or a denser solution is required for me to test more dice. If anyone has suggestions of how to improve my results here, I’d love to hear them. I’m willing to give this another go with more dice. Reading sources online I also find that others have seen the same results I have with dice floating at wildly different densities of solution. It’s possible that this is related to the presence of bubbles and voids and more prominent ones make for denser dice. It’s also possible this relates to particular type of material used in manufacture.
However, given the difficulty in successfully executing a float test, and the proportion of my dice that resolutely refused to float, and the fact that in the two cases we could test, we found no evidence to support the conclusions of the float test, I’m going to tentatively call the float test as impractical and not supportable, but would be very interested in running more tests once I have a better protocol to work with.
Have you had better success with the float test? Swear by it? Have you conducted this or a similar experiment yourself? I’d love to hear from you so I can get tips for another go at this.
The big, bad villain.
You know, your Black Knight, Puppet Master, Wolf in Sheep’s Clothes or Evil Mastermind.
Not every adventure requires one. But if you’re stuck for ideas and you want to assemble a session that concludes on a memorable note, then you can’t go wrong having the PCs unravel the plans of a villain and close with a boss fight.
The trick is coming up with a villain’s scheme on the fly. If you’re a good-hearted person — like me — you might be hard-pressed to come up with the schemes and methods of a black-hearted villain.
Thankfully, there are resources to help.
Regular Stew readers will know I’ve long relied upon the Kalamar Villain Design Handbook for such work. It’s dependable, expansive in scope and detailed in its examples — just chock full of stuff regardless of game system. The Pathfinder GameMastery Guide has several pages devoted to villain archetypes you can build an adventure around. The Ultimate Toolbox is full of many charts that cover this ground, but there is a lot of page-turning involved. Trail of Cthulhu’s recommendations for Spine and Skeleton provide a spot-on framework for devising a path the PCs can take toward confronting a villain. (I’d also be remiss in saying that stories of true crime work too; check out the police reports in your local newspaper.)
Like I said, all good, and they still have utility.
But my new go-to spot are two facing pages in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. (And having the charts on facing pages is a big plus. Hats off to the layout and design team for making that part happen.) These are the Villain’s Scheme table and the Villain’s Methods table on pages 94-95.
Better yet, the material is system neutral. These charts will work with any rpg. (System neutral goodies always make us gnomes happy.)
Both charts are branching charts. So, a d8 role on the scheme chart will require a secondary d4 or d6 roll that expands on the result. For example, say a result of 3 puts you on “Magic.” The villain’s scheme involves magic. But how? Well the next roll answers that. A result of 2 means the villain wants to “Build a construct or magical device.” Ah-ha! Now we’re getting somewhere.
The second chart — Methods — is where things get really interesting. The results here are intended to amplify the scheme chart by giving the GM ideas for how nefarious/cruel/villainous the big bad can be. This d20 roll will inform you on how the villain achieves their misdeeds. Assault, coercion, lying, torture, vice, theft, stalking, and politics are all examples of what’s possible.
The secondary roll gives further examples: There are 10 types of theft/property crime, six types of torture, 10 ways to murder, eight types of magical mayhem, just to name a few.
Now, not every result on the methods chart fits as neatly as a puzzle piece with the results of the schemes chart. But between the two, any GM is four random rolls from coming up with enough villainy to make a single rpg session work.
Once you’ve got a villain’s scheme and ploy, the rest is selecting minions, monsters, victims, a crime scene and maybe a hideout and stats for your villain. Drop those in a dungeon, city or surrounding wilderness and you’re set.
So keep pages 94 and 95 bookmarked. You never know when your PCs need a villain to match their heroics.
Join Ang and get to know the not-so-new Gnome Taylor in this “Meet a Gnome” episode of Gnomecast! Learn about Taylor’s start in gaming, his game design work, and his future plans with Gnome Stew! Will Ang and Taylor finally having this interview keep them out of the stew?
Download: Meet a New(ish) Gnome: Taylor LaBresh
Check out Taylor’s podcast Game Closet. Taylor’s games mentioned in this episode include Creatures of Blood and Flesh, With Fire Thy Affections Hold a Wing, and Five Alarm Apromcalypse. Also be sure to check out the the Riverhouse Games shop to find the game too racy to talk about on this family-friendly podcast!
You can check out Descent Into Midnight at and follow the Twitter account @DiMRPG. You can find more information about Metatopia 2018 (November 1-4 in Morristown, NJ) at
You can find Jospehine Maria on Twitter at @JMYaLes, follow PanopLit on Twitter at @PanopLit, and find PanopLit on the web at
You can find Jospehine Maria on Twitter at @JMYaLes, follow PanopLit on Twitter at @PanopLit, and find PanopLit on the web at
My brother and I had a weird ritual when I was in high school. On Easter, we would stay up until my niece fell asleep, hide eggs for her, and then watch the Blues Brothers. There was something oddly comforting about watching an obsessed pair of ex-cons on a crazy quest as they traveled cross country and ran into various obstacles, including homicidal ex-girlfriends, the police, and Illinois Nazis (which I probably would have hated even without watching this movie, but it was nice to have the validation in place).
Proving that there is a gaming experience for just about any pop culture memory you might have, Trouble for Hire is a game that deals with completing not quite legal missions while on a road trip, with gonzo events following hot on your bumper. There is a LOT of inspirational material listed, but if you never thought you would find a game that would help you capture the feel of The Blues Brothers, The Cannonball Run, Pulp Fiction, or Death Proof, you may want to keep reading.Kicking the Tires
This review is based on the PDF version of Trouble for Hire, which comes in at 123 pages. This product is most definitely in color. There are some seriously bright 70s and 80s inspired color schemes in this book, including some enormous block letters for the chapter headings.
There are a few symbols to call out rules or just random facts to help reinforce the themes of the game, as well as big, bold, red sidebars to call special attention to various topics. Many of the actual character illustrations are restricted to simpler pallets to convey the tone of the image being presented. There are also some photographs of various southwestern United States locations as well. Its contained chaos selectively harnessed to convey a specific feel, and if you are familiar with the source material, it creates some serious resonance.
There is some violent imagery, as well as some nudity, so if those kinds of images are problematic for you, it is something you may want to know up front.Introduction and Spirit and Setting
The first two sections of the book introduce the concept of the game, and what tropes and genres that the game is hoping to invoke. This is where we are introduced to the #HTP symbol, which is placed in the text when the book is specifically addressing rules and how they are engaged, and #DumbFact, which is put in the text when something is being conveyed that may give you some useful trivia for the overall tone of the story, but isn’t all that important to the game itself.
The game isn’t a broad game that deals with a larger genre. There are a limited number of roles that players will take, but the overall story is about a particular smuggler who takes dangerous jobs. He goes on road trips to complete them, and bad people and people from his past show up to complicate the job.
We get a section on the protagonist of this series of stories, and some details on his car. At this point, you may be wondering what kind of game this is. You don’t learn that quite yet. It’s a storytelling game that will detail the jobs that Ruben Carlos Ruiz takes, and the challenges that develop along the road as he works as a smuggler, courier, or wheelman.
This text is written in a very conversational tone, and in a tone that is in keeping with the source material. For example, when the game posits that you might ask when the game takes place, it then scolds you for asking a stupid question. More broadly, the game is billed as presenting “Post-Western” stories, stories where the protagonist would have fit in the Old West more than modern times, and never really has a place in polite society. It also mentions that even if you are portraying stories set in modern times, it is perfectly in keeping with the tone for everything to look like something out of the 70s until you introduce a modern element.The Rules
This section dives into the mechanics of the game, but also early on jumps ahead of a debate that might be had about the game. There is a sidebar where the text indicates that this isn’t a roleplaying game, but it is a game that role-players might enjoy. I’m going enter my own opinion here and say that, if you consider a game like Fiasco a roleplaying game, this is definitely a roleplaying game, but let’s look at the mechanics so you can make your own decisions.
Each player in the game gets currency, called RPM, that they can spend to trigger effects from the sheet for various roles in the story. Once 10 RPM has been spent, the scene progresses, and everyone picks a new role. The player that is running Ruben may have to roll to resolve challenges, but the other roles in the story don’t resolve challenges, they only present them or help Ruben resolve them. There are also themes, which award RPM to players when they introduce the theme into the action they take on their turn.
The roles in the game include the following:
- Ruben Carlos Ruiz (the protagonist)
- Los Campanero (Ruben’s sidekick)
- La Villanos (the antagonists of the story)
- The Editor (a role that allows twists to be introduced and that can introduce narration and scene cuts)
- The Road Through the World (the various things along the way between point A and B)
- Los Espectadores (bystanders, characters that may be caught up in the story without being for or against Ruben)
- The Rider (a friend, mentor, rival, or wildcard from Ruben’s past—she is presented as a force of nature that could be anything from Racer X to Yoda to Ruben—if Racer X or Yoda rode a motorcycle topless)
- La Extrano (supernatural or unexplained events going on in the story)
Each adventure will have a plan. The plan has mile markers that show when the story progresses, but only in broad strokes. For example, a mile marker might just say that in this phase of the game, we find out something new about what Ruben is hauling, and what that thing is or how it is found out is left open to the players.
The plan might also spell out that some roles aren’t available in a story, or that those roles aren’t available until a certain mile marker. So, if a story isn’t about the supernatural, La Extrano isn’t a valid role for the adventure. If Ruben meets up with a character that counts as a sidekick at the third mile marker, the plan may say that Los Campanero isn’t available until after Ruben meets that character.
Players can spend RPM to trigger challenges, frame the situation, and then Ruben’s player will describe how they plan on overcoming the challenge. Ruben’s player will then roll two dice, then picks one die to be the results die, and the other will get measured against the chart for the Kick dice selected. The Kick dice have a separate set of “extra” results that happen, separate from the success or failure of Ruben’s actions. The Kick dice include:
- Wild Card (the default if nothing else applies)
- The Driver
- Los Campanero (only available if the sidekick is part of the story and contributed in some way)
If Ruben doesn’t quite get the job done, he might have to pay out RPM, or take a consequence, like a hard jump to a new scene, injuries, or finding out that previously established facts aren’t actually true. The consequence is set by the player that introduced the challenge.
The game also includes the Three Lights. This concept is both a reward mechanic and a built-in safety mechanic. There is a green light, a yellow light, and a red light in play in the game.
- Green Light—Keep doing what you are doing, and cash this in to pay up to 3 RPM
- Yellow Light—We introduced concepts I don’t want to delve into too deeply, let’s keep any future references off screen
- Red Light—I don’t want this content in the game, we shouldn’t use it anymore from this point on
Any player can pick up one of the lights and use them, but if you pick up the green light, you can only use it to award another player for the direction they have taken the game. Once they have it, they can spend it or award it to another player. Yellow and Red lights are always available to anyone that feels they need to use them.Adventures
This section goes into greater detail on how to create your own adventures, getting your friends to play, how to hack the game, teaching the game, and advice for play.
While I have sometimes seen a game go into detail about searching for online groups or visiting an FLGS or conventions, I don’t think I’ve seen many discuss the broader topic of picking out which friends would be likely to play this game and why it might appeal to them. For example, the text discusses the reasons that Role Playing Gamers, Film Enthusiasts, and Actors, Writers & Creative Types–as discreet groups–might find the game interesting.
The section on hacking the game delves into what roles might not make sense in other genres, and how the individual roles might look in other settings.Appendices
This section includes Characters You May Meet, Locations Out West, Adventures, and Inspirado. Characters you may meet include NPCs you can plug in and use in specific roles (other than Ruben and the Rider, who are who they are). Locations Out West have some noteworthy places to use for proper locations in various adventures. Adventures are more fully detailed scenarios that can be played out. Inspirado is a list of the various movies and media that inspired the game and its tone.
There are some colorful extras detailed in Characters You May Meet, from recurring perennial screw-ups, to creepy federal agents, to roadhouse owners, to scary criminal bad guys. While many are specific characters made to fit a mold, it is interesting to note that when dealing with some archetypes, the text introduces them, but doesn’t fully endorse using them, such as The Roadside Mystic, which is discussed as a trope, but not given an actual example character.
The Locations Out West section gives some example locations that might come up in the game. Some of them are very broad, just suggesting the types of locations that are appropriate for the kind of story being told, such as “a field of shipping containers.” Others are specific, notable real-world locations, like New Idria, California, a ghost town that doesn’t show up on most GPS.
The sample adventures include:
- Delivering a package for a washed-up porn producer while dealing with a crazy rival courier
- Kidnapping a pageant queen while dodging a federal agent
- Dodging cartel agents while delivering Canadian weed to Texas
- Participating in an illegal road race
- Working for a witch to dig up something valuable that’s been buried since the prohibition
- Doing a job for a vampire casino owner
Some of the elements in the above jobs reflect some of the inspirational material, at times in ways that may not mesh well with the table. As an example, the pageant queen is specifically described as morbidly obese, and I’m not sure what that would bring to a story given the context of the job. Other elements are going to depend on exactly what kind of criminal activity the players are going to be comfortable portraying.On A Mission From God The game provides a tightly focused package for telling very specific stories, with lots of room for variation within that prescribed band. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email
I really like the pacing of this game. I like the mechanic of using the currency of action to pace how quickly the story progresses, and I like the ability to match die results in either succeeding at an action or causing secondary effects.
Gaining RPM specifically when you introduce themes from the story into the game is a great way to mechanize recurring elements. I love the way that the safety tools are integrated into the mechanics of the story by turning them into traffic lights and fitting the overall theme. The game provides a tightly focused package for telling very specific stories, with lots of room for variation within that prescribed band.You Boys Drank $300 Worth of Beer
The genres that serve as an inspiration to the game have lots of problematic elements, and while the game itself has built-in safety elements, and even addresses the problematic content of those foundational stories in various places, the example roles and stories still include elements that could easily be used in a manner that is less than sensitive. It’s a very careful balance between risk and reward, trying to call back to certain tropes while not letting them devolve into something less healthy for storytelling.
The discussions about elements found in the inspirational media aren’t shy about pointing out what’s wrong with things like racism or cultural appropriation, but because of the overall conversational, generally humorous or sarcastic tone used throughout, some of that frank discussion may have less impact than it should.Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
I can’t help but compare this game to Fiasco, and in that comparison, I think this game holds up well in that company. It’s telling a narrower band of stories but provides more tools for pacing, themes, and the ability to turn the dials to make humor more or less of an element in the individual game session.
The biggest downside to that is that narrow band of stories has a lot of baggage that must be carefully navigated to keep the content from becoming overly exploitative. Because of that, people that might enjoy the pacing or the mechanical twists might still want to be sure they know what is part of the overall package before they dive into playing the game.
What are your favorite games for telling crime stories? What are your best practices for keeping gritty or controversial content safe at the table? What is your favorite movie and why is it Blues Brothers? Let me know in the comments below!
No matter how much you love gaming, inevitably there may come a point when you just don’t have the creative juices flowing to make the magic happen at the table. Sometimes it’s life — for example, you just got laid off, or you have a new baby, or there’s another major shift going on. Sometimes, it’s just a slump, and you can’t necessarily pinpoint a reason. It just happens.Weathering the Low Tide
Lack of creativity is hardest when you’re GMing the game. Even if you’re a mostly reactive GM and not doing much planning outside the game, you still have to have that creative energy available to be with your players and keep them acting and reacting to what you do at the table. When the juices aren’t flowing, what do you do? I have a few thoughts to hopefully get you out the other side, but mostly, remember that you are more important than the game. If you need time, take the time.At the Table
Be more reactive. Don’t try to force as much planning — give yourself a starting point and see where the story goes. Source the table for details, big and small. Get your players being active and proactive, then just keep things rolling. Take a side quest break to a game that gives you better mechanical support for this style of play if you need to. Play something really silly where you can use off the wall brainstorm style thoughts to solve real world problems, like floating a car over a chasm with the help of a single helium balloon (if you’re playing Crash Pandas, it just might work).Play the Game
Group creativity is easier than lone creativity. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailSee if you can play instead of run. I am very lucky — my standard local group is nearly all GMs, and fantastic ones at that. We pass the hat around as we want, so it’s easy to make sure I’m a player instead of the GM when I need more recharge time. Playing as a character usually requires less prep time, less out of game creativity, and functions in a supported story way where you rarely have to come up with something on your own. Group creativity is easier than lone creativity. The more reactive you can be, the less proactive creative spoons you have to generate to play a successful session, and as a player it’s very easy to be reactive to the world and people around you.Set Small Goals
Set yourself some small, accomplishable goals — and then achieve them. Whether that’s writing 200 words of plot, just doing the outline (or part of it), creating one NPC, finding one good name, break the larger task into smaller ones that you can do in pieces so that they don’t require as much sustained mental energy. Do one a day, or one at a time.Do Something Else
Do something else that gives you spoons or inspires you. Watch your favorite movie or read your favorite book (or a new one). Paint. Write. Dance. Walk in nature. Cook. Take the pressure off of yourself to come up with a brilliant idea and let your mind do other things. Worst case scenario, if nothing comes, play board games that week instead.Take a Break
If nothing is really getting you started again, take a break. You are more important than any game. If they’re not feeding you good feelings, they’re not fulfilling their purpose in your life. Take some time and come back to them when they’re calling you again — we all know they will. That siren’s song doesn’t stop. If you want to browse the internet for more tips on getting out of the dark well of no ideas, I also liked this one.
Why am I writing this? Because this week I need to remember that in the midst of all the upheaval of life, I don’t have a lot of creativity left, and that’s okay. It’s going to come back; in fact it’s very close. My desire to game and participate is not lessened, but I can’t wait to give it my 100% again. And sometimes in the interim, I just need to be one of three silly raccoons all trying to race a car through the streets of LA.
What are your favorite tips and tricks for getting your mojo back? What’s your favorite low energy game to run or play?
Today’s post is a very personal one addressing self exploration through role playing. This is about a positive life change discovered through roleplay that I’d like to share.
One of the golden rules of great game groups is to encourage each person to bring their personality and unique ideas to the game. As a dominant player (who basically thought my ideas were the best) this was a hard lesson to learn but infinitely valuable to enhancing my enjoyment of games. Additionally, when I bring more of myself to my role I am more fulfilled by the experience. Through play, each person gets to highlight what is important to them and their character. In many ways, role playing can be a window to the soul.
Sometimes the things explored through roleplay and the lessons learned have ramifications that reach far out into a person’s life. Roleplaying, and my character Harrison in particular, helped me reach a literally life changing revelation.Recognizing the Gift.
There are numerous skills I have refined through roleplay: speaking up, long term planning, problem solving, thinking outside the box. All of those are great, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. It’s self-discovery time.
At the beginning of 2018 I played in a Tales from the Loop game as Harrison, a 14 year old trouble maker, who I played only a half dozen times. He was a boy becoming a man who was struggling to find his place in the world. I wrote more than 100 pages of fiction and backstory about him. That amount of devotion to a character had never happened before and I realized I had to understand what was going on. Why did I *need* Harrison so much? Harrison was the tipping point in a major self-revelation that literally changed my life.
In role playing games I play as a fictionalized version of myself, sometimes my idealized best self, sometimes leaning deeply into my flaws and touching on the mixture of hope and tragedy that is the human condition. My characters have been tall, short, caucasian, people of color, human, daemon hosts, fat, thin, straight, gay, bisexual, happy, lonely, rich, starving, religious, agnostic, and many other things. But my favorite characters have shared one trait since I started playing at 6 years old, they’ve been male.
What I’m here to say is: it wasn’t just my characters who were always male. It was me.
Hi, I’m Wen and I am a transgender man.
Role playing has been the place I have been my fullest self for the last three decades. I can walk up to any game table, introduce my character and have them accepted for who they are without question. I was accepted as *who I was* without question. That is powerful beyond my ability to express. It vented steam I didn’t know was otherwise building up in my head. Roleplaying kept me safe and gave me the outlet I needed until I was ready to face myself.
For a long time I’ve said that the highest function of role playing is the ability to create empathy through game play. What I missed was that role playing can foster deep self-exploration, the ability to not just understand or empathize with others, but to know yourself. As such, role playing as a hobby and my characters, including Harrison, have always been extremely important to me. In some ways my characters were more “me” than I was allowing myself to be.
Many players don’t need roleplaying in the way I have. Not every role player will have a revelation like mine. However some of us do. I think this is important to highlight because it is one of the reasons that a player’s agency in their character can be so extremely important. When you play, keep in mind that you never know how close a person’s character may be to their sense of self. Removing agency in the character may feel violating to the player in ways you don’t understand. Regardless of the circumstances, to keep your players trust, don’t compromise anyone’s agency in their character without their enthusiastic prior consent.What Can We Do Next?
For readers wondering if there is anything you can do to make life better and easier for transgender people like me, the answer is an emphatic: Yes! I’m writing this section of the article with our cisgender audience in mind, but everyone is invited to read on. These are my personal opinions and learnings but I think they are a good starting place for being an informed friend and ally.
I’m still me. While your perception may have shifted, at my core I am still the same person, and that is true of all transgender people. If you were acquaintances or friends before, there is no reason that should change. As a gamer, if your friend brought a character of a different gender to the table, I imagine you’d say okay and move on with the game. Follow that same model in real life. There isn’t any reason people should act differently (read: uncomfortably) around one another. Focus on what you have in common, just like always, and you’ll be fine.
Honest communication and education demystifies being transgender. If you don’t know what I mean when I say “transgender” or “trans” read this (for a quick refresher on terms look here). Start by doing some reading and branch out from there. Ask questions in good faith and clearly express the desire to listen, learn, and understand individual people’s perspective.
Transitioning 101. There are several kinds of transition, not every transgender person transitions in every way. A transgender person’s identity is valid regardless of a person’s ability or desire to do any of these steps. Safety comes first and each kind of transition has its own risks and costs. Internalize this fact, accept it, and please don’t judge one another about it.
- Social transition can involve several possible steps like coming out to friends, family, and coworkers; using a different name, pronouns, or titles; and updating gender expression through clothing, hairstyle, make up, etc.
- Legal transition can include a name change and/or updating gender markers on legal paperwork like identification cards and passports. Rules typically require some form of “proof” which may take an extended period of time to obtain.
- Medical transition can include hormone therapy, voice therapy, hair removal treatments, and surgeries. Rules require varying degrees of “proof” before medically transitioning, which may take months or years to obtain. If you aren’t in a relationship with someone where you already discuss deeply personal medical matters or each other’s genitals it isn’t appropriate to ask about medical transition. If someone wants to talk to you about it let them bring it up. That’s just common courtesy.
Pronouns: He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs, Name Only. Together we can normalize offering and asking for each other’s pronouns. If cisgender (non-transgender) people normalize this practice people who are trans (or non-binary or genderfluid) won’t effectively have to “out” ourselves every time we meet someone new.
- Start by offering your own pronouns and then asking other people’s pronouns when you meet. Opening that door for people to walk through who may not identify exactly as they appear on the surface is one of the best gifts you can give.
- Offering your pronouns in online spaces like on your social media pages, dating profiles, or email signatures also normalizes the practice and makes written communication easier. If you can take 5 minutes to do that now, that would be awesome! (Ex. He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs)
- When asking for someone’s pronouns you can leave out the word “preferred” as in “What are your preferred pronouns?” It’s extraneous. To me saying “preferred” implies that you are humoring me instead of simply respecting me. That’s not everyone’s take, but if someone wants to let you know that their pronouns are preferred, their response can simply be “My preferred pronouns are…”
- Respect a person’s name and pronouns. If a person uses a new name, use that and don’t refer to them by their birth name (often called a “dead name”). When someone calls me “ma’am” I respond with “It’s sir, thank you.” Typically people take that in stride and carry on, you can do the same. If you slip up, correct yourself and move on. If you make a big deal about apologizing it is going to make everyone uncomfortable. If you are trying to get it right no harm, no foul, I forgive you, the end.
- Help others to get it right. Be clear and be consistent, but don’t make a scene. I’m okay with folks correcting other people on my behalf, that takes some of the weight off my shoulders and spreads it around. It helps me to maintain my dignity and self-respect. Ask your friends if it is alright if you do this for them too and respect their decision.
- Some people do not use pronouns. In that case specifically use their name or other descriptors, honoured guest, my friend, the author.
- They/Them/Theirs can feel awkward in the singular form. The Associated Press Stylebook adopted it in 2017, we are living in the future, so this is your opportunity to be a strong ally and accept change. If needed, you can read more about it here.
Be a Visible Ally and Back it Up with Your Actions. Your words matter. Your actions matter. Your votes matter. Visibility matters (that’s why I wrote this post). It is important to nurture and embrace diversity in all spaces, including gaming spaces. Wear your rainbow colored shirts, pronoun pins, and Ally ribbons at conventions and game stores. I can’t tell you how happy I was that I could always pick at least one person in the crowd wherever I was at Gen Con 2018 with a rainbow shirt on. Listen and act in good faith. If you made it this far, you’ve already taken the first step, cheers! If someone tells you their experience and you aren’t transgender, listen, believe, and value their experience. Finally, human rights need to be inclusive of people of all genders and sexual identities. However those rights are called into question and potentially being eroded even as you read this. This is the time to unite, stand up for each other, and keep each other safe by working together as allies and friends.Final Thoughts.
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to share my experience, and I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this article. I cherish games and game players. I believe role playing as our common bond is a powerful force to unite people, I’ve always found my best friends through the hobby. I’ll always love and adore my characters, but now that I am myself all the time my characters have less of a burden on their imaginary shoulders. Roleplaying did its job shielding me for a long time, but it is a relief to be myself full time now.
It’s good to know you as myself beyond the game table.
Special thanks to: Deanna, Chelsea, Ang, Senda, Rob, John, and Camdon for their advance feedback; to my game group Quincy, Derek, Jake, Senda, Camdon, and Brett; and to the creators of Tales from the Loop for unexpectedly laying the groundwork for my exploration.
Three days from the time of this article going live, I’m going to be running a one-shot adventure at my FLGS at their first attempt at running a one-day convention at the store. I honestly hope the con goes well, so that they’ll consider expanding it to a larger venue, more days, etc. I also hope my game goes well, but I have a concern. At this point, I’ve been told that my game slot will be either 2 hours long … or 3 hours long. Bah. One hour difference. Not a big deal, right? Well, if I were being told that my slot would be 5-6 hours, I can work with that. However, potentially losing one-third of my time allotment at the last moment, I have to do some planning for both time allocations.
This got me to thinking about how to seamlessly, and on the fly, drop a full third of my adventure plans on the floor and not have the players notice. As most of you know, I’m a fiction author, so I tend to gravitate to those arenas when I think about things. Here’s what fell out of my head:One-Shot Game Time Fiction Equivalent Less than 1 hour Flash Fiction 1-4 hours Short Story 4-8 hours Novella 9+ hours Novel MICE/MACE Quotients
So, with the above table in mind, I’m looking at telling a collaborative short story. Cool. I can handle that, but how do I tackle unbolting a plot hook or encounter and throwing it away, but still give a consistent and pleasing game experience? In my world of writing fiction, there are two similar ideas floating around in how to structure and build out a short story. One is from Orson Scott Card and the other is Mary Robinette Kowal’s alteration to Card’s idea. Card came up with the MICE Quotient, and Kowal flipped one thing around to make it the MACE Quotient. I’m not going to dive into them here, but you can easily follow the links for your own research.
Now I’m going to present a new twist on both of the above, but with a focus on designing role playing game adventures. While I’m mainly focused on one-shot adventures here, I really believe the pacing, structure, and ideas packed into a longer adventure (or series of adventures) could benefit from this idea.LACE Quotient
Thus, I present to you, gentle reader, the LACE Quotient:
- Locations – Where things happen.
- Asks/Answers – Choices the PCs must make.
- Combats – Rolling dice, lots of dice!
- Events – Traps, riddles, non-dice-based social encounters, etc.
Let’s break down each one of these segments.Locations
This one should be obvious, but I want to make sure we’re on the same page. Some folks consider a single map to equate to a single location. Yeah. I can see this. It’s true. However, I challenge you to drill down to tighter view. Make each room its own location. This allows for more fine-grained tuning to an adventure. You can keep some rooms (that may be important to the plot), but alter or drop other rooms that have little to no bearing on how things turn out at the end.Asks/Answers
Left? Right? Straight? Each time the party has to stop and make a choice, the time dynamic at the table shifts. Some groups act like well oiled machines and always go left (Law of Left) or right (Rule of Right), so these ask/answer situations resolve quickly. If you’re thinking about putting in a dead end or red herring section of a cave system, think about all of the choices the players have to make. Perhaps there’s a chance to cut or add choices depending on the time limits you are working with for your one-shot.Combats
We all know that this is where the game clock and real world clocks fall way out of sync. Six seconds of game time may pass, but in our real world, it could take six minutes to get through it. Streamline your adventure to reduce unnecessary combats if you’re tight on time. Heck, if you are given more time than you need, perhaps that empty room could suddenly spawn a few orcs (or dirty kobolds) just before the party’s dwarven barbarian kicks in the door. Think about the special powers or abilities the mooks have. Perhaps save the spiffy abilities for the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). The more specials they have, the longer it will take for the combat to resolve.Events
This is my generic catch-all for the things that don’t fit neatly into the above categories. In this bucket you’ll find things like traps, riddles, social encounters, weather events, and so on. These are things that take time to work around, get past, push through, or describe. Honestly, these are the fun things of adventures, so I recommend having more events than the other areas, but without a location, the trap has no place to hide. You’ll need locations just as much as you do events.Where’s The Math?
So … I called this a quotient, and closest definition I could find for this approach reads, “a degree or amount of a specified quality or characteristic.” Well, I hate to break it to you, but there’s no straight application or formula where you’ll plug in your L, A, C, and E areas and get a time result. That’s just not possible.
My approach is to figure out how long I think it’ll take to describe a location and allow the PCs to interact with it. I do that for each room, not each map. Just in case they are the types of players that must explore every room, I add it all up. Larger, more ornate, more detailed locations will eat more time.
Then I figure I’ll add in another 2 minutes for each of the small ask/answer sections. These are the right/left type of ask/answers. For the larger ask/answer sections (such as strategizing about “do we use the back entrance or charge the front door”) I’ll allot roughly 5 minutes for each of those. When I’m actually running the game, I’ll keep a strict eye on analysis paralysis and call a stop to the debate if necessary. I hardly ever do that in my regular games, but in a con game, I’m on the clock and must finish and clear out in time.
Combats are more tricky than locations. The more mooks or BBEGs there are in a fight, the longer it will take. The more special abilities the mooks, BBEGs, and PCs have, the longer it will take to resolve than a simple “I swing my sword” action. This is where you’ll probably have to adjust things on the fly. If the combats have been moving slowly, I recommend flagging a few non-necessary combat scenes later in the adventure and just have the room be empty (or not there at all, depending on your map and layout).
I love loading up on events, but these can be very time consuming. Probably the most time consuming out of all of these categories. It’s fairly easy to remove a trap or riddle from an adventure. Sometimes the social encounters can vanish along with the NPC, but if the NPC is supposed to deliver important information for the plot or hook to continue the story in the right direction, this can be difficult.
As you’re going through your adventure design, mark things with a special highlighter (mine’s pink) that can be easily dropped from the game without impacting the overall story. This will allow you to sit back, think, consider, and then slather some pink (or whatever) highlighter over a room, stat block, riddle, or NPC. This will allow you to “on the fly” remove the element, but without having to do the thinking on the fly as well.Another Option: Play Test
If you have the luxury of running your one-shot for some friends, I highly recommend doing it before the con rolls around. However, if you don’t have that option (which I don’t for the upcoming FLGS con), then approaching adventure design with the LACE Quotient could lead you in the right direction for hitting the target on length. Whatever approach you use, I hope the addition of the LACE Quotient to your toolbox will assist you in future designs.