Gnome Stew

Subscribe to Gnome Stew feed Gnome Stew
The Gaming Blog
Updated: 11 hours 25 min ago

The Indie Game Shelf: Prism

1 May 2019 - 5:00am

The Indie Game Shelf: Prism

Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new or brand new to the hobby and wanting to explore what’s out there, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!

Prism: An Aquatic World of Relationships and Intimacy

Prism by Whitney Marie Delaglio/Little Wish Productions is a diceless RPG designed for one GM and 1-4 players to explore character interactions, relationships, and conflict resolution in a mystical aquatic world. The setting of the Prism RPG is introduced in the free online comic Prism the Miracle (also from Little Wish Productions) and involves a variety of aquatic humanoid species, elemental magic, and a collection of deities responsible for the creation and oversight of the world. Both the game and the comic promote a sex-positive environment of exploration of emotional and physical intimacy, so that’s something to keep in mind when picking up and sharing this game; it is recommended for players of age 18 and older.

The Story

Stories in Prism will focus on the characters’ values, their relationships, and the obstacles they must overcome, often by working together. The game provides a setting backdrop and mechanics that support these story elements. Each player character (PC) in Prism hails from one of the six Realms of the setting, each being associated with a different color and one of the world’s deities. For example, the Gold Realm is headed by a descendant of the God of Life. A PC’s Realm gives them a cultural and ethical background, describing things that the Realm “values” and “resents,” which have both mechanical and narrative significance. Similarly, players also track mechanics for their characters’ Relationships, providing both mechanical and narrative fuel for the game’s stories. Relationships can be of any kind (platonic, sexual, familial, etc.), and they track on a negative-positive spectrum (from the character’s viewpoint) and are asymmetrical, meaning that one character can have a Negative Relationship to another character while the second character might have a Positive Relationship to the first.

The world described by Prism, besides being aquatically themed, includes many mystical elements that can be used to contribute to an interesting and emotional story. The six deities who created the world each have different personality traits and hold a strong influence over the inhabitants of this world. They have representatives who speak on their behalf, and the gods themselves still wander the world and are at least watching, and may even be moved from time to time to interfere. The people whose bodies die in the world of Prism leave behind Silhouettes, shadows of their souls, that remain active until they can find peace. The setting also features elemental magic and a dark contagion known as the Punishment, a magical infection that awakens destructive emotions in people and often causes them to be shunned by their communities.

The game explores themes of deep emotional involvement and intimacy, and the consent and safety of everyone at the table is of great import. The game begins with the “Tea Party,” a kind of pre-game session zero that includes not only character creation, but also group worldbuilding and game topic discussion. The GM and players are reminded of the importance of enthusiastic consent during this pre-game process, and the X-Card is explicitly mentioned as an important tool to use. While the game itself focuses on particular story elements, the overall plots of the stories are left to the group to decide, and much of that discussion takes place during the Tea Party.

The Game

Characters in Prism are created as a combination of several different types of background. The Realm, mentioned previously, ties the character to a culture and value system. The Template offers some insight into the role or nature of the character, including if they’ve been infected with the Punishment! Characters are rounded out by Family (species), Vocation, and a starting Relationship to another PC, and they are completed by rating the characters Skills, which have already been affected by the earlier choices made. For example, a PC may favor the Insight Skill for being from the Violet Realm and also favor the Etiquette Skill for choosing a Vocation of Diplomat; all other Skill ratings would be filled out at the end of character creation. The background choices made also assemble a collection of Traits and Talents for the PC, such as a PC from the Barbed Fish Family gaining a special Fish Form Trait or a PC using the Nocturnal Template receiving a Trait that grants them initiative in certain circumstances.

The game explores themes of deep emotional involvement and intimacy, and the consent and safety of everyone at the table is of great import. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailPrism is a diceless game. The core mechanism of task resolution is simply comparing a PC’s rating in a Skill against a static difficulty number with the difference between the two dictating success and whether the resolution includes a bonus or complication. This core, however, is surrounded by additional mechanics and modifiers that can tie the characters’ values and relationships to the resolution of every problem. Acting in accordance with the values outlined by a PC’s Realm can bestow Blessings or Curses which alter the rating of the PC’s Skills. In addition, the Relationship mechanics, due to their asymmetry, confer a variety of mechanical modifiers in different narrative situations. For example, in a two-way negative relationship, one PC could get a bonus while taking an action to show up the other, while a PC with a positive relationship to someone with a negative relationship to them could get a bonus to get the other character to notice them.

A spellcaster sings an Inferno spell of “Simple” difficulty — a torch-sized flame — and “Typical” difficulty — a flying fireball.

Besides tracking Relationship mechanics, players also track Physical Endurance and Emotional Endurance, giving physical combat and social strain equal mechanical footing. The magic system is also streamlined; magic “spells” simply describe an element or group of elements that can be controlled, and the actual effect of magic is just another type of action to take, governed by a specific Skill. The game is geared toward multi-session play, as Relationship ratings are changed between sessions based on what has transpired in the fiction.

It’s also worth pointing out that the artwork communicates much about the game, even mechanically. In most games, even the best artwork goes far enough to illustrate the setting and perhaps even convey a sense of the atmosphere of the fiction or even the tone of gameplay. All of this is accomplished in Prism, but it also takes the extra step of using artwork to communicate mechanical significance, as well, such as how to set the difficulty ratings for task resolution.

Character creation is neatly procedural, and the core mechanics of the game are quick and easy to learn. The complications for new players or GMs may be the specific situational triggers for individual PCs’ special Traits or the conditions dictated by Relationships, but players keeping their own characters’ Traits in mind will help keep things flowing. The pre-game Tea Party procedure definitely makes this game easy to pick up and play, since everyone can learn all they need to know during the character creation process, and everyone at the table gets to contribute to the setting of the game and goals of the stories. With immediate player buy-in and long-term play encouraged by Relationship mechanics, this game wants you and your group to take your time to explore these characters and their world.

The Shelf

Prism is currently available for purchase in print and PDF formats from DriveThruRPG, and don’t forget you can read the Prism the Miracle comic online for free. If you’re looking for other games with similar themes, you can check out Deep Love by Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games, a four-player game of deep-sea exploration and, in the words of the publisher, “a feel-good game about the complexity of love and sea monsters.” Although not published yet, if you’re looking for underwater settings and emotional exploration, keep an eye out for the upcoming Descent Into Midnight, a Powered by the Apocalypse game of underwater community, teamwork, and corruption. The game is still in development, but public playtest materials are available now from their website. I can’t mention RPGs with underwater settings without also mentioning Blue Planet from Biohazard Games, a detailed look at a whole underwater world for gaming and exploration. Finally, if your interests lean far into exploring character intimacy, I cannot recommend enough Star Crossed by Alex Roberts (also from Bully Pulpit Games), a two-player game of complicated love.

If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Tabletop Gaming Creators You Need to Follow

30 April 2019 - 9:30am

On social media, people are always talking about how the tabletop game design space needs to be more diverse. Here’s the deal, it already is. As one of the co-hosts of the Asians Represent podcast, I’ve been able to meet and interview some incredible creators from around the world. Here are a few of my favourites.

Ben Chong (aka Flowers on the internet) is a game designer and game development lecturer at KDU University College in Malaysia. If you’re like me, and you enjoy the wonders of micro-RPGs, Ben is a creator you should keep an eye on.  Of the 8 micro-RPGs he’s uploaded to, the ones that have stood out to me are Monolock and Magic Swords. The former is a sci-fi survival game about a mecha squadron being hunted by an unrelenting horror. Think Faster than Light meets The Predator. Even cooler, it’s low-prep and interestingly GM-less! Magic Swords is a fantasy game where you character is an enchanted weapon with a criminal past! That’s right, you play as a weapon.

Follow Ben on Twitter @SwordsnFlowers and buy his games at

Fans of worldbuilding will really enjoy the work of Munkao, a visual artist and game designer also based in Malaysia. Since 2015, they’ve been working alongside another fantastic creator named Zedeck Siew on Thousand Thousand Islands – a Southeast Asian-themed fantasy visual world-building project. Thousand Thousand Islands is not your average reimagining of European medieval settings. This ongoing project takes inspiration from precolonial Southeast Asian culture, folklore, and mythology. This is the kind of campaign setting that the Stabletop gaming world needs. So far, four gorgeous zines have been released, and I’m eagerly awaiting more. Perhaps even a large-scale volume?

Photo credit: Zedeck Siew

Learn more about Thousand Thousand Islands at and follow Zedeck on Twitter @zedecksiew

Jeeyon Shim is a survival skills instructor and LARP designer based in the United States of America. Jeeyon designs evocative, thought provoking games that challenge our ideas of the nature of games. For instance, Pin Feathers and Cloud Studies are a pair of solo LARPs about pain, change, and recovery. They’re games, but also contemplative exercises that make you feel! In fact, both are so innovative that they were listed on the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s (SFWA) 2018 Reading List for the Nebula Awards.

Follow Jeeyon on Twitter @jeeyonshim and buy her games at

Every list like this needs to feature a great visual artist. Khairul Hisham is that artist. Based in Malaysia alongside its growing RPG community, Khairul is a visual artist and teacher who uses games like Dungeons & Dragons to help his students learn English. He’s worked on a variety of games as a visual artist and often posts free downloads of player tokens on his website. I’m a big fan of his Star Wars work!

Follow Khairul on Twitter @hishgraphics and check out his work at

Sangjun (aka Magister Ludi) is a game designer and translator based in Seoul, Korea. I recently interviewed him for an episode of the Asians Represent podcast and learned of some pretty cool projects he’s working on! It never occurred to me, but TTRPG (tabletop roleplaying game) kind of reads like tater pig. Sangjun definitely thought so, and made a “no-player” RPG about making a pig out of a potato. Seriously. This is a game and it’s very cool. In addition to this, Sangjun has published games of incredible emotional depth like Moonflower and span like the One Card RPG project, which he challenges himself to design a single index card game nearly EVERY DAY.

Follow Sangjun on Twitter @heofonkoppe and buy his games at

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Randomer Encounters

29 April 2019 - 8:11am


If you have run a game campaign for any period of time, it becomes apparent that the random encounter tables for your adventurers become stale-dated or dull. Even if there are variations by terrain, climate or civilization, the game-provided tables become repetitive.

One solution to this challenge is to create your own table of “randomer encounters.” This approach has many advantages and can be used in any game system or situation. The primary advantage is that it is customizable to your particular game, adding depth and flavor to your sessions.

How to get started

The first step is to determine how many of these encounters you want to create. Ideally, you want to choose a number of encounters that can be selected at random by using dice. When I first started this concept, I started with 24 of these encounters (which can be randomized by using a 12 sided die with another die (a six-sided would do) to determine if I would add 12 to the result (on a 4 to 6) or not (1 to 3). After further experimentation, I found that 30 of these encounters (a ten-sided die rolled with a six sided die – add 10 if you roll 3 or 4, add 20 if you roll a 5 or 6) work best for my campaign. The point is to create a list where the dice can provide you with an easy, random result.

The random factor is important. As a GM you have control over events and situations that occur in your sessions. By introducing a random factor, you are yielding this control to your list. Ideally, your “randomer encounters” would run the gamut from the frivolous and incidental to the serious and consequential – as long as it fits into your game. It also keeps you on your toes as a GM.

Creating your list of encounters

Once you have your frame, you can start populating the list. This is where the fun is. You can use almost any source for creating these encounters. You can introduce some neighborhood scandal, foreshadow a future event, even note the actions of an NPC or refer to past events within the campaign. For example, if the party had betrayed someone in the past, it may be that this person/organization/demi-god is seeking information on the party (or that a rival of this individual wants to reward the party for their “good works”). This could be represented as “A shifty individual at the Local Pub has been asking questions about the party.”

Rumors are a favorite of mine. In my High Fantasy Campaign, the “randomer encounters” table has led to a persistent rumor that local authorities are considering a tax on magical items. This has been overhead as a bar room conversation, as a worry on the part of an NPC Alchemist, and as a debate between clerics whether or not holy items should be exempt from this tax.  A randomer encounter might be inserted to foreshadow a future plot hook. They can also be the source of mischief, misdirection and even outright lies. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email It may be that taxing magical items is a task that is beyond the local authorities. However, it is just a rumor and, as we all know, the crazier the rumor, the quicker it spreads.

A randomer encounter might be inserted to foreshadow a future plot hook (“There is increasing discontent among the aristocrats” or “No one has seen the Chief Mage for two weeks.”). They can also be the source of mischief, misdirection and even outright lies (“I am the heir to the Crown of Eredorre”).

This list of encounters can be used to introduce oddities into your campaign. Again, these can range from something out of Monty Python (“A well-dressed elderly man is walking down the street in a very odd and peculiar manner.”) to a cross-campaign event (“In a mirror, you see a party of strangely dressed adventurers trying to unlock a box of flashing lights.”) or even an encounter drawn from a film or novel. (“Four nervous and travel-worn Halflings are grabbing a quick meal. One appears introverted and moody.”).

These encounters should be suitable for your party’s capabilities.

How to use Randomer Encounters

You want to create opportunities for a quick scene or an interesting dilemma, not starting a new story arc or a creating a wasteful diversion (unless that is what you want). Therefore, you need to exercise some judgement when a “randomer encounter” occurs.

If the action is proceeding quickly, then an encounter of any kind is likely to be an unwelcome diversion. If the party is just waiting for the next day to occur, or if the GM needs to stimulate some new thinking, then an unusual encounter might be a good choice.

These encounters should be used to complement the existing random encounter tables. Typically, a random encounter reflects the local surroundings. It may be an encounter with wild beast while travelling through the forest or just part of the dungeon ecology. A “randomer encounter” should occur as part of the overall randomness of your living world.

Whenever an encounter is rolled, I re-roll to see if there is the possibility that the list be used. Typically, I roll a six-sided die, with a six indicating a “randomer encounter.” Sometimes, especially when things are dragging or the party becomes indecisive, I go straight to the list.

I always roll for a random result from the list. The unexpected is always fun and It keeps me sharp with regard to my own game mastering abilities.

Some Examples


High Fantasy (Urban) Randomer Encounters 1 A well-dressed Half-Orc is trying to sell an “ugly chicken” inside a locked box. (It’s a cockatrice.) 2 An alchemist is closing shop and items are at half-price. (Low quality products) 3 A handsome prince is desperately searching for the women who lost her shoe at the Ball. 4 The gall stones of red-headed Halflings give invincible luck to gamblers. 5 You are accosted in the street by a crone who claims you stole her youth. 6 The Eunuch’s Guild is recruiting – males only! 7 Graffiti is found in a nearby alley “Chaos is Boss!”, “Lawful is Awful.” 8 A pedlar is selling Amulets of Demonic Protection – a deal at 5 gold pieces each. (A scam) 9 Street urchins are running in fear from a gang of thugs. (Urchins have stolen their beer money). 10 A mage is looking for spell test volunteers (polymorph). 50 gp for each volunteer. (A lot more to be changed back.)



Space/Sci-Fi Randomer Encounters 1 The authorities are trying to keep knowledge of sabotage at the space port secret. 2 A desperate person is willing to part with longevity serum (reduces age by five years) for transport off-planet. 3 Protesters are picketing a local educational institution. “Down with the Eugenics Ban!” 4 Some children are playing Rangers and Aliens with an antique blaster (non-working but fixable.) 5 An autodrive cart is running down pedestrians at a nearby mall. 6 A “red shirt” crew member is deserting because she fears being killed on the next OA mission. 7 An Artificial Intelligence is seeking work after being fired for being “too controlling.” 8 Would you buy a pill to make you smarter? Of course, you would! (Reduces social inhibitions) 9 An asteroid mining company is looking for recruits. “Double Hazard Pay and great benefits!” 10 Organizers for the Robot Union are soliciting new members.

Using randomer encounters supports the overall thrust and character of your game. You can use them to shake things up or to finish off the tail-end of a session. It does require you to think about your campaign world and explore some interesting tangents. What would your table of “Randomer Encounters” look like?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Truth About Your Prep

26 April 2019 - 5:00am

A few weeks ago, I got all ranty on Twitter about something I am calling Prep-Shaming. It is that thing when someone brags to you or just to the world about how little their prep for their game was. It always sounds something like this, “It took you four hours to prep that game, I prep my game in 5 min with six words I write on a Post-It ™ note.”

Here is a secret from the guy who wrote the book on Prep (seriously look over to the right, its right over there)…

It does not matter how much or how little you prep.*

What matters is did you run a great game for you and your players?

There. That.

Why is there an asterisk? Well, there is one caveat, which I will get to in a little bit.

But first, let’s talk about prep.

What Is Prep?

Most people will say that prep contains your notes, monster stats, clues, etc that you need when you run your game. They are only partly right. Sure we put those things in there, sometimes we put too many things in, sometimes we put the wrong things in there. But all we have established is what prep IS. We need to understand what prep does, before we define what it is, to us.

Prep is what we need to feel confident enough to run a session of whatever game you are playing.

Prep is short for being prepared. If you are prepared to run your game, then it means you are confident enough to run your game. Does that mean the game will be good? No. Prep does not determine a good game. Your GMing and the players will determine that.

But if you are confident and relaxed because the Prep you did has you prepared to run your game, then the chances of a good game are much higher than if you are stressed and freezing up because you can’t find the Dragon Grappling rules.

The Size of Your Prep

Ok. So now that we know that prep is the thing that we use to make us confident to run a game, we can start fresh and figure out what should go into it.

Never Unprepared does a good job of talking about this, so I will sum it up. Put into your prep the things that as a GM you are not going to be able to do off the top of your head as the game is unfolding. That may be maps, or monster stats, clues, key dialog, rules for swimming in armor, etc. Don’t put things in your prep that you are good at, let your brain take care of those.

Also, different games need different prep. A Powered by the Apocalypse game requires a small amount of prep, but a complicated investigation in Gumshoe will likely require more.

 In the 36 years I have been gaming, my prep for a single 4-hour session has varied from 15-20 pages to 1… Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

So, in the end, your prep will be whatever size you need it to be. In the 36 years I have been gaming, my prep for a single 4-hour session has varied from 15-20 pages to 1, but one thing remained constant. No matter how big or how small, I was confident when I got to the table. That allowed me to focus on running good games.

So don’t let anyone prep-shame you about your prep, and don’t compare you prep to anyone else. Your prep is for you alone.

What about that asterisk?

Oh right. That asterisk, we should talk about the caveat about how big your prep is.

Your prep is only ever the wrong size if you can’t prep your game in the time between games, and that is causing you to not feel so confident at the table — or worse, causing you to cancel games because you are not ready.

So if you are playing weekly and writing 10 pages of prep, and you can do that every week, then you are doing fine. But if you are playing weekly and you can’t always get those 10 pages done, then you need to change something.

You have a few things you can change:

  • The frequency of your game.  You can move your game from weekly to bi-weekly and increase the time between sessions to get your prep done.
  • Change games. You can change the game you are running to something that requires less prep.
  • You can get supplemental material to aid your prep.  You can buy maps, magic items, or other things on DriveThruRPG, and use them rather than make them yourself.
  • You can reduce what you prep. You can figure out what other things you can eliminate from your prep, based on what you can handle in your head. I wrote a series of articles years ago called Prep-Lite that detail some of this, and it’s in Never Unprepared as well.

As your life changes, your free time to prep is going to grow and shrink. Additional responsibilities such as children, advanced degrees, gig work, etc are all going to shrink your free time each day, and your prep will get crunched.

How you solve that problem is up to you. Often its a combination of the things listed. For me, when my kids were born, I eventually did three of the four things. I started by changing my games from weekly to bi-weekly. Then I started to reduce my prep. Eventually, I changed to games that were more improv in nature and supported lower amounts of prep.

Keep On Prepping

Your prep is a personal thing. It is made by you, for you, to use to run awesome games. Do not fall for the trap that your prep has to be like anyone else’s. It needs to be what you need it to be. The most important thing is that you get to the game and behind the screen feeling confident and ready to have a great time with your players.

Over time our lives change and we often have to adapt in order to keep that confident feeling at the table. Sometimes that means that we have to change our prep and hone it to be more concise.

To paraphrase a popular saying, “you prep you.”

Tell me how your prep has changed over time. Share some details, but no prep-shaming.  

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Monster of the Week Tome of Mysteries Review

23 April 2019 - 4:30am

Powered by the Apocalypse games have been a major force in the RPG hobby for years, but it took me a while to fully understand how they really worked. One of the first Powered by the Apocalypse games that helped me to understand the concept, as a whole, was Monster of the Week. Given that it was also a game about one of my favorite genres, the text of the game really spoke to me.

An interesting aspect of the product that I’m looking at today is that I saw various bits and pieces of it take shape in the Monster of the Week Roadhouse, a Google+ community for fans of the game. Monster of the Week Tome of Mysteries is a little bit of everything, and serves as a supplement to the core rules of the game. It contains new rules, playbooks, advice, and mysteries.

Now that we’ve scoped out the location, let’s find out what we’re dealing with.

The Tome Itself

This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is 278 pages long. The PDF has a full-color cover, with black and white artwork throughout. The formatting is the same single column setup of the core rules, with bolded headers in a different font than the regular text, making it easy to follow the information on each page. There are several full-page illustrations marking the individual sections of the book.


Often, the Foreword is just a brief set of comments that flow right into the introduction, but I wanted to specifically call out the foreword in this book, because in addition to reflecting on the history and creation of the game, it is written in a manner similar to the moves in the game, and is one of the most on-point forewords I have read in an RPG product.


The next section in the book contains new alternate rules that can be implemented in a Monster of the Week game. These include the following:

  • Alternate Weird Basic Moves
  • Phenomena Mysteries
  • Special Moves
  • More Flexible Investigations

Monster of the Week is based on tropes established by monster hunting television shows over the years, and in most of those shows, the heroes are capable of performing various rituals when the plot calls for it. Alternatively, they can tinker with super science to do what needs to be done in a more science fiction-based monster hunting story. These are represented in the current rules with the “Use Magic” move.

The alternate weird moves introduce a more granular approach to hunters and how they do that “something special.” A character that doesn’t take use magic as the thing that “makes them weird” can still perform magic, but it’s more difficult and has more consequences. In exchange, they get the ability to choose one of the following options:

  • Empath (reading emotions)
  • Illuminated (connected to a secret conspiracy)
  • No limits (pushing beyond physical limits)
  • Past lives (remembering past lives at convenient times)
  • Sensitive (minor psychic abilities)
  • Telekinesis (moving things with your mind)
  • Trust your gut (getting hunches to act on without formal investigation)
  • Use magic (the default from the core rules)
  • Weird science (kind of like use magic, but explicitly with scientific trappings)

What is interesting about these moves is that they serve to “customize” playbooks in a way that goes beyond the options for the individual characters. You can have a wronged that will never think of touching magic but has trust your guts, and they will seem very different than one that gets flashes of past lives to guide them on their quest for vengeance. Although I have always loved how flexible the use magic rules are in the game, I’m really interested to see the freshness that some of these options may add to a playbook that has seen a lot of use over time.

Also in this section is a discussion of “phenomenon” mysteries, mysteries where the hunters aren’t trying to stop a specific kind of monster, but rather, they are trying to reverse some adverse supernatural effect plaguing an area. These call back to shows like Fringe that feel very much like a monster of the week style show, but the weirdness isn’t a monster, but a device or cross-dimensional rift. It also models television programs like Eureka or Warehouse 13. This section includes phenomenon types, threat moves, and modified questions for investigating a phenomenon.

Many of the playbooks in the game include a move that triggers when Luck is spent, and there is a section of the new rules dedicated to making sure that all of the playbooks (including some of the expanded playbooks available online, and the new ones included in this book) also have moves that trigger when Luck is used.

The section on more flexible investigations is one that I know some of my players would have appreciated. It is a discussion on making the investigate a mystery move results a little less rigid, for when players have questions they want to have answered that don’t fit into the assumed template.

Overall, I’m really interested to see everything in the section at play at the table.

New Hunters

The next section of the book introduces new playbooks to the game. The new hunters include:

  • The Gumshoe (a regular private eye caught up in supernatural cases)
  • The Hex (a general magical practitioner, more flexible than The Spooky or Spellslinger)
  • The Pararomantic (a hunter with a romantic tie to a monster or supernatural creature)
  • The Searcher (someone that has become a hunter after a brush with the unknown)

The Gumshoe draws on a lot of different private investigator tropes, even beyond the monster hunting genre, and revolves around following a specific code. The Hex is based around creating custom use magic moves and turning them into predictable rotes. The Pararomantic has a special track for determining the path of the relationship and the fate of the playbook’s significant other. The Searcher gets slightly different abilities based on the encounter that first introduced them to the supernatural (for example, if they saw Bigfoot, or if they were abducted by aliens).

It is interesting to see how some of these playbooks encompass an aspect of characters that served as the basis for other playbooks. For example, Harry Dresden is almost as much Gumshoe (at least early on) as he is Spellslinger, and Buffy is both The Chosen One and a Pararomantic in early seasons. Beyond playing the playbooks “straight,” it is interesting to see what kind of customization might come from taking advanced moves to access bits and pieces of these.


On their own, I like all of these, although the Hex feels the fuzziest. I think there is definitely a space for a dedicated spellcaster that isn’t as flashy as The Spellslinger or as touched with potential ruin as The Spooky, but I’m not as excited as I should be over customized use magic moves being the core conceit of the playbook.


The Advice section is a series of individual essays on various topics that touch on Monster of the Week specifically, and more broadly, on urban fantasy tropes and running games in different environments.

Some articles are more about topics like convention games, one-on-one gaming, sub-genres like gothic horror, less structured games, and the intersection between monster hunting and kids on bikes. Other articles are more specific to the game itself, introducing moves for things like spellbooks.

This section has some of the most specific language about safety in the book, which is not so much a separate section, as interspersed into discussions on other topics. The rules on spellbooks can be carved up rather than used whole, but the advice that really jumped out at me involved the advice on running at conventions, which has very detailed discussions on timelines and how to pace a game, and the detailed checklists of items to introduce at various stages of a mystery that appears in the article on less structured games.


There are almost thirty mysteries that are outlined in the final section of the book. These involve concepts, hooks, the countdown (the developments that will happen if the hunters don’t intervene), monsters, and in some cases, custom moves.

This section is a good resource, not only for mysteries to run, but to see how mysteries should be structured, how custom moves can play into them, and for monsters that can be cut and pasted into other mysteries. I am especially fond of The Circles, a mystery that puts a spin on crop circles and utilizes a classic monster in a way that really feels like an episode of the source material. The Curse-Speech is an attention grabber, utilizing a migrating evil language as one of the plot hooks. Everybody Get Psycho is another favorite, as it has a great twist on the classic trope of a cursed object and heavy metal music. The Quiet is a creepy, cult focused mystery with a great custom move and lots of atmosphere. By no means are these the only mysterious I would recommend checking out, but these are some of my favorites, that walk the line between calling back to great tropes while doing something fun and different with how the plot might advance.

Because the concept of “Monster of the Week” is very broad and can cover a wide range of stories, there is a great deal of variety in this section. Some, like the opening mystery, are a little bit too gonzo for me. Time travel and futuristic AIs push a little outside of my comfort zone for expected Monster of the Week stories. I also know that for my own tastes, homages that are a little too on the nose aren’t my favorites.

There is a wide variety of authors on these mysteries, so I don’t think this was a conscious design decision, but a few too many of the mysteries veered into very traditional roles for women in horror scenarios (vengeful spirits from relationships, witches tampering with powers beyond their control, etc.). No individual mystery is especially insensitive in how it utilizes these tropes, but similar tropes become a recurring factor. I also would have liked a content warning for the issues dealt with in the various mysteries at the beginning.

Those disclaimers in place, there is a ton of material to use, either for a quick night of play or to pull bits and pieces from to construct other mysteries. There is a lot of material here to use for resources.

Successful Hunt  The material in this book is equally suited to add excitement and variety for veterans of the game, and to give someone brand new to the genre plenty of tools to work with. Share8Tweet12Reddit1Email

The material in this book is equally suited to add excitement and variety for veterans of the game, and to give someone brand new to the genre plenty of tools to work with. While it’s a great resource for Monster of the Week, the material in this book is also a great resource for urban fantasy games in general, along with some really strong advice for convention games.

Out of Luck

The book is very strong, but if you aren’t a fan of gonzo or obvious pop culture references, some of the mysteries may not be as useful to you. A few too many mysteries lean heavily on some specific roles for women, and individually these are fine, but it is a bit of a recurring, if unintentional, theme. Safety, as well as appropriate topics for individual tables, is discussed, but not specifically called out in their own section of the book.

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

I think this is going to be a solid purchase, not only for anyone that is already interested in Monster of the Week, but for anyone that wants more material to build on for monster hunting and urban fantasy stories. There is a lot going on in this book, and so much of it provides a solid basis for telling stories at the table, as well as best practices for setting up those games.

Do you have a favorite monster hunting scenario that you have played through? A particularly fun twist that your group experienced? We want to hear from you in the comments below, so please let us know what you think.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

4 Funky Fungi to Liven Up Your Game (And A Few Ways To Use Them)—Part 1 of 2

22 April 2019 - 5:00am

This is as pretty as mushrooms get. Fair warning: it’s all a horror show from here on out. Image Courtesy of

Beneath the soil they wait, oozing digestive juices to liquefy and absorb any edible material hapless enough to fall in their path. Silently, patiently, they spread hidden tendrils thinner than a hair under the ground, linking threads to form an invisible net below the feet of the hapless humanoids lumbering above them. Relentlessly, they burrow through the ground. Growing, consuming, they bide their time over months, years, centuries, even millennia until the time arrives that they burst through the ground, hurling copies of themselves into the air and preparing to begin the cycle once more.

Sure, this is a workable description of any number of ancient evils in fantasy gaming, but it’s also a pretty solid way of talking about the fungi you probably have in the patch of ground nearest to you right now. What we think of as “mushrooms” are really only formed by a small fraction of fungal species; …in fact, the “mushrooms” that we see are just the mechanism by which fungi spread. This means that Toad from Super Mario Brothers, myconids from D&D, and any other mushroom creatures you can think of are just ambulatory reproductive organs, and the Smurfs village is basically a scene from a Saw movie. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Emailin fact, the “mushrooms” that we see are just the mechanism by which fungi spread. This means that Toad from Super Mario Brothers, myconids from D&D, and any other mushroom creatures you can think of are just ambulatory reproductive organs, and the Smurfs village is basically a scene from a Saw movie.

The majority of the “body” of a fungus is its mycelium (yes, like the network in Star Trek), which grows out in all directions, seeking food and forming a network within the soil. This underground network exists in nearly all areas with vegetative life, and in addition to decomposing materials that would otherwise pile up, it is used by plants as a kind of external digestive system, forming a symbiotic relationship whereby plants can gather food and nutrients that they can’t reach with their own root systems. There is even evidence that this network of fungi is also used in a form analogous to communication between plants, forming what is sometimes called (and I could not possibly be more delighted to tell you this) a “wood-wide web”.

Until around 1960, fungi were considered to be plants — which makes sense; they grow from something that looks like seeds, and they don’t move on their own. However, later science determined that they were much more closely related to animals, just completely immobile and without any sort of muscle tissue — which really makes me wonder whether I might technically be a fungus. They store energy as glycogen (like animals) rather than starch (like plants), and their cells are given rigidity not by plant-based materials like cellulose but instead by chitin, the same material that makes up the exoskeletons of insects like cockroaches. Yum!

Fungi can be medicinal or poisonous or delicious (or sometimes a combination of any two of those things), and the difference between a good dinner and an early grave is sometimes a matter of how they’re prepared. Indigestible or poisonous mushrooms can be rendered edible (or at least less harmful) by any number of techniques. I’m not going to go into more detail than that because a) this is the Internet, and no one should try to do this kind of thing based on the advice of an RPG blog, and b) even if that were a good idea, I’m the absolute last person who should be giving that kind of instruction. With that in mind…

Warning: mushrooms can kill you. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email Warning: mushrooms can kill you, just like they were rumored to have killed the Roman emperor Claudius, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, Pope Clement VII, and the composer Johann Schobert. And that’s just some of the famous people. About seven people per year die of mushroom poisoning in the U.S, and hundreds more are made seriously ill. Even though there are pictures in this article, and for the most part I tried to find reasonable approximations of what the fungi in question looked like, this is not an identification guide. I can’t even match my socks in the morning, and I can barely avoid killing my family when I cook for them even when I don’t use potentially poisonous ingredients — do not take anything I say as adequate reason to put these things in your mouth.

However, describing such things is not only safe, but extremely cool. And with that in mind, I present to you 8 Funky Fungi To Liven Up Your Game (And A Few Ways To Use Them).

Mind-Controlling Ant Fungus (ophiocordyceps unilateralis)

Strangely, the animated “Antz” movie left this scene on the cutting room floor. Is that reference dated? I feel like that reference is dated now. Oh, well. Look it up.

By itself, there’s nothing especially new or interesting about a fungal infection. If you’re alive, which I assume most of you reading this are, you are already host to a dizzying array of fungi, yeasts, and other creatures that call you home. They’re like roommates (good or bad). They do their thing to varying degrees of intrusiveness and stink. You also do your thing, and if you’re too incompatible, one or the other of you gets evicted. Cordyceps is more like that friend who visits from out of town and suddenly surprise! They’re moving to your city and need a place to stay. First they start eating all the food out of your fridge, then they start making demands, and before you know it, they’re trying to hollow you out and turn your body into a nutrient paste they can use for reproduction. Which is not, in fact, something that everyone does, Harold.

This particular species of Cordyceps infects carpenter ants, and then even while eating them alive, hijacks the nervous and muscular system of the ant, forcing it to travel to an appropriate piece of plant cover, climb to the ideal elevation for reproduction, clamp on to the grass with their mandibles, and then die. The fungus continues to spread within the ant, before eventually sprouting out of the long-dead husk and throwing its spores to the wind, beginning the cycle all over again. Some scientists think that the ants may be cognitively unaffected during all of this, and that the mechanism is actually a little less like mind control, and a little more like being controlled like an agonized marionette from within. Nature is amazing.

Potential Game Use:

A prodigal son from a local farming community finally returned, but the day after his tearful homecoming, he wandered into the woods and disappeared, only to be found again a week later dead, hollowed out, and filled with a mysterious powdery substance that creates a powerful feeling of well-being when inhaled, even accidentally. The heroes have been called in to investigate the case, as local law enforcement has no idea what is going on.

At first, all signs point to a horrible drug deal gone bad, until the characters find several locals attempting (and maybe succeeding) in stealing the mysterious powder, claiming that they feel compelled to share with their friends and family. “Addicts” at first violently resist any attempts to prevent them from taking or spreading this powder, eventually becoming a kind of hive mind that exhales spores onto the PCs. If not helped, the entire village will die in agony, possibly spreading the infection to other nearby areas.

In such a story, there are plenty of opportunities for medical or nature rolls (to determine the nature of the illness or the drug), social rolls (to determine that individuals are being non-magically mind-controlled) and constitution-type rolls to avoid infection. Potential solutions include spells curing disease, exotic alchemical reagents, introducing another fungal or bacterial species to counteract the infection, and good old-fashioned fire (for games that tend to be a little darker in tone).

Candy Cap Mushrooms (lactarius rubidus)

Sure; when a mushroom hunter finds something on the ground that tastes like maple syrup, they’re “nature-loving” and “exploratory,” but when I do it I’m “too old to still be doing this kind of thing” and “need to put on pants.”

Edible mushrooms, by themselves, aren’t all that much to write home about (unless “home” has a mycologist, in which case you should definitely write home to make sure you’re eating the right ones). Edible mushrooms that make for a workable ice cream flavor start to get a little more interesting. Where lactarius rubidus gets really fun though, is after the initial consumption. When dried and then reconstituted, this mushroom tastes like maple syrup (because, it turns out, it produces the same chemical that is used to make maple syrup flavoring—now who’s being unnatural, Canada?). The real magic happens later, when the sweat and tears of people who eat the mushroom start to smell like maple syrup as well. It’s like someone with more imagination than impulse control stumbled across a wish-granting leprechaun and demanded a combination of dessert and cologne, and I’ll be darned if the little guy didn’t make it work.

Potential Game Use:

The characters are invited to a feast by a local fae noble. Because interactions with faeries in folklore and fiction are one part entertainment to three parts weaponized manners, eventually, a character is going to insult someone. To keep this adventure from feeling too “on the rails,” feel free to use a character loosely associated with the fae whom the PCs have insulted or irritated previously. For a little foreshadowing fun, include some sort of massively dangerous but largely mindless beast in a cage, leashed or otherwise bound near the tables as the characters eat. After the feast, the heroes are offered an especially delicate and exotic dessert mushroom, which is also given to the dangerous creature. The creature immediately tears into the dessert mushrooms with terrifying abandon: think “Cookie Monster” meets “Sharknado.” Because players aren’t dumb, they will almost certainly check the dessert to make sure it’s not poisonous, magically or otherwise trapped (which of course, it’s not), and/or wait to see what happens with the Hungry Hungry Horror. Offer the character some sort of minor benefit for eating the mushrooms — healing, one additional use of a power, or whatever form of play currency is used in your game (e.g. inspiration, conviction, XP). Keep track of what characters eat the mushroom and how many they eat.

Following the meal, the characters discover the delightful side effect of the mushroom — they smell exactly like the delicious dessert they just consumed thanks to their unrefined humanoid biology. Their fae hosts, of course, have more refined digestion. As the characters look on in horror, the fae lord at the head of the table lets the leash slip on their pet monster, who lunges at the nearest character while the nearby court of fae watches and applauds. This is a fairly straightforward mostly-combat encounter, but with a lot of potential fun in the form of set pieces for combat. Think flipped tables, improvised weapons, flying crockery, and lithe, mocking figures darting in and out to make things more “interesting.” This may also be an opportunity for more socially-oriented characters to use their charm to request assistance from particularly engaged onlookers.

Octopus Stinkhorn (clathrus archeri)

Apparently, they smell as good as they look.

To the right, you will see a picture of what I absolutely swear is not only a fungus, but the single grossest fungus I have ever read about (and that’s including a species coming up in the next article that grows exclusively on herbivore dung). The Octopus Stinkhorn begins its visible life as a slime-covered bolus of egg-like material with its forming tentacles barely visible. Eventually, the tentacles strain against their “egg” and burst outward, covered in a thick, black-brown goo that smells like rotting meat. The stench attracts nearby flies and other decomposers, which wander around on the surface of the tentacles, picking up spores that they drop elsewhere (basically pollination, as imagined by Clive Barker).

Potential Game Use:

Look. If you’re going to have something sprout up unexpectedly from the ground that looks like Cthulhu’s dust bunnies, you might as well lean all the way in. Something unclean has been here before. “Here” can be the site of some sort of horrible sacrifice, sacrilege, or slaughter, or it can just be a case of “wrong place at the wrong time.” As another straightforward combat encounter, it’s hard to beat a tentacled creature that can unpredictably reproduce from any spot on the ground, but the real challenge will come in the form of the creatures that are attracted to and defend the Supernatural Stinkhorn. Take this as an opportunity to drag out every gross monster you’ve ever wanted to use. Giant cockroaches? Go for it! Slime molds, gelatinous cubes, worms that walk? They’re all fair game, and they’re all making heart eyes at this festering mound of thrashing goop. Every successful strike results in everyone within 10 feet getting splashed with putrescence, triggering some sort of constitution-type roll to avoid either taking damage or losing the next round heaving breakfast onto the ground.

What’s more, who’s to say what characters who take damage from such an attack might not themselves be the source of the next infection?

Bioluminescent Fungi (~80 species)

Preeeeeeeety sure this is a Photoshop job, but you get the idea. Glowing mushrooms: They’re A Thing (TM).

I almost didn’t include bioluminescent fungi in this list. They’re such a cliche that it’s almost not worth it. But there are about 80 species of bioluminescent mushrooms, and that’s a pretty big chunk of the fungal kingdom to just leave out because everyone already knows about them. So, with that in mind, yes. Glowing mushrooms are real, and there are a bunch of them, and yes, they all look very, very cool. Do yourself a favor and do an image search of them sometime.

Potential Game Use:

Lighting is a sometimes-underutilized part of adventure and encounter design. I can’t count the number of modules and supplements I’ve read that treat lighting as sort of a throwaway — there’s almost always magical ambient lighting, or unexplained torches (which are, if you’re a sucker for verisimilitude, extremely unlikely), or sometimes no lighting  at all. Which makes sense on a certain level — much like encumbrance or precise weapon details, not everyone likes thinking about and tracking questions of visibility in exploration or combat. However, I propose that if you’re looking for a quick and easy way of making things interesting in an otherwise bog-standard dungeon or cave, start caring about lighting. Have unseen things chittering in dark corners, or drips just out of eyesight, or things darting out of view as soon as the characters get too near.

Another consideration: do your players have darkvision? Of course they do. If it’s a fantasy game, pretty much everyone has darkvision. Things without eyes have darkvision. A soup tureen has darkvision in some rulesets. You know who doesn’t have darkvision though? The large group of frightened prisoners the characters may have just freed. Alternately, some puzzles or clues may only become visible when viewed under the light of a specific species of mushroom, the identification and gathering of which can be an encounter all by itself. For an extra “wow” factor, consider making a homemade blacklight to represent the mushroom’s glow, and using lemon juice to write a hidden clue, message, or even whole puzzle.

In Conclusion:

Fungi are really, really neat and can add to just about any fantasy game, above or below-ground. They’re terrifying, dangerous, delicious, poisonous, useful and frustrating in equal measure, and if you let them, they can give your game a touch of alien whimsy that few other things in the real world can. If you’ve enjoyed this article, come back in a couple of weeks for Part 2, where I give four more kinds of fungi you might want to use in your game.

In the meantime, do you think you’ll be using more mushrooms in your games? Do you have a favorite fungus (or a suggestion for me to cover in the next piece)? Let me know in the comments!

Further Reading:

  1. Six Bizarre Things about Fungi : A cool, quick little article about the weirdness of fungi, prominently featuring three of the species that made this list (h/t Luke: thanks for the heads up!).
  2. Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone. There aren’t a lot of books on mycology out there that aren’t aimed at mushroom hunters, farmers, or people looking for psychedelics. While this is an engaging and entertaining overview in a field that isn’t exactly crowded, I can’t entirely recommend this book, as it contains some flip statements about several vulnerable populations that have little if anything to do with fungi, and that kind of soured the read a bit for me. Your mileage may vary.
  3. The Magic of Mushrooms. A documentary available in the US on Netflix (as of the time of this article), this fairly short but fun film walks you through the basics of fungal biology, as well as introducing some of the ways fungi may well shape our future. Fun, quick, and relentlessly British, I can’t recommend it highly enough for someone who likes documentaries.
Categories: Game Theory & Design


19 April 2019 - 4:20am

Let us continue our look at the town of Foot from last article.

7. The Carpenter. This shop smells like sawdust as soon as you enter it. There’s wood, stain, saws, hammers, levels, crank drills, chisels, and all other manner of tool and wood around the shop. Sarah Hanner is a short stocky and well muscled woman in her late 30’s. Healthy and always wearing a wry smile. Sarah specializes in furniture and the wooded parts of a wide variety of farm equipment while also being able to patch up buildings that have seen better days. She loves her work and does a wonderful job, even if she’s sometimes a little late.

8. Fredmon’s Thread and Stitch. Fredmon Tailor comes from a long line of tailors but came to the Airy Peaks to seek adventure. Then he lost his foot to a spikey mawed beastie. After than he decided to get back to his roots and sew for adventurer’s instead of going on adventures. Fredmon can work with cloth and leather while being quite versed in the layering of a variety of materials and cloths. He often works quite close with Kurnig on the undergarments of armor.

The shop is a clean place with a variety of different sets of clothing displayed on wooden mannequins. It’s all functional dress for farmers and adventurer’s which gives the clothing a high contrast. Fredmon also specializes in bags and pouches for every day adventuring, seed carrying, and any other function a bag could serve.

9. The Torn Page. Lillard Copse is a wizened old man who wears glasses, can barely see, and is stooped over with age. That is, until the sun goes down. Once the sun dips out of view this old man straightens up, moves with the vigor of someone half his age, and can see just fine.

The shop is filled with books and mpas which he buys and sells. Some are from adventurers and others are more mysterious in origin. Even though he has tons of maps, those maps are all quite contradictory in their descriptions and depictions. If asked, Lillard is convinced the Peaks might even move and rearrange themselves, or at least the Fire Tube Tunnels do.

10. The Goblin Wares. Jacob Flack is a thin unassuming man with brown hair, who runs one of the most common shops in town in one of the more unique locations. His shop is in a tunnel just inside one of the entrances to the Airy Peaks. The shops entrance is marked by a wooden sign with a goblin painted on it with its eyes xed out.

The shop is just a small cavern lit by oil lanterns and an torch that burns with a magical light that never consumes and never goes out. On the walls are mesh nets and hanging from them are all manner of weapons, larger adventuring gear, and armor. There are crates stacked in rows with potions, rope, pouches, trinkets, small devices, and the other smaller, more portable things one might find useful when traversing the Airy Peaks.

Sometimes special things find their way into the Goblin Wares, sold to Jacob by adventurers who don’t know what they have. This is also the place that gear gets shipped to from the outside world. If you want to show how the gear changes from week to week in the Goblin Wares you can make this move every third time the party makes camp or when you have decided that a week or so has passed.

When time has passed roll 2d6 + nothing. On a hit a delivery occurs and restock according to the refresh. On a 10+ roll a d10 twice. Each roll adds the interesting item listed below to the goblin wares. On a 12+ a magic item finds its way into the Goblin Wares. Create the magic item and place it in the shop. On a miss the refresh doesn’t happen.

Special Item List
  1. Hunters Bow
  2. Dueling Rapier
  3. Elvish Arrows
  4. Elven Bread
  5. Oil of Tagit
  6. Bloodweed
  7. Goldenroot
  8. Serpent’s Tears
  9. Bag of Books
  10. Edged Black Steel Weapon. Add 2 piercing and 100 coins to any edged weapon

Black Steel Weapons come from the Dragon Fire Forges within the Airy Peaks. Edged weapons forged there have 2 piercing.

Jacob’s has the following on hand when an Airy Peaks campaign starts:

Dungeon Gear
  • Adventuring Gear (x100)
  • Bandages (x10)
  • Healing Potion (x4 refreshed 1d4-1 to a max of 4)
  • Antitoxin (x1 refreshed to a max of 1)
  • Dungeon Rations (x 50)
  • Dwarven Hardtack (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Halfling Pipeleaf (x1 refreshed to a max of 1)
  • Leather (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Chainmail (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Scale Mail (x2 refreshed by 1 to a max of 2)
  • Plate (x1 refreshed by 1 to a max of 1)
  • Shield (x3 refreshed by 1 to a max of 3)
  • Ragged Bow (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Crossbow (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Bundle of Arrows (x20 refreshed by 5 to max of 20)
  • Club (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Staff (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Dagger (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Throwing Dagger (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Short Sword (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Axe (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Warhammer (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Mace (x5 refreshed by 5 to a max of 5)
  • Spear (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Long Sword (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Battle Axe (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Halberd (x3 refreshed by 3 to a max of 3)
  • Rapier (x1 refreshed by 1 to a max of 1)

Ok folks. I’ve reached my word count limit for this installment so next time we’ll be talking more about the town of Foot. Enjoy and we’ll get back to it next month.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #64 – Shadow of the Century with Mike Olson and Morgan Ellis

18 April 2019 - 5:00am

Join Jared for an interview with Mike Olson and Morgan Ellis, two of the developers who worked on Shadow of the Century from Evil Hat Productions as a follow-up to Jared’s review of the product here. Will this interview be enough to keep the Review Gnome (and his guests!) out of the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #64 – Shadow of the Century with Mike Olson and Morgan Ellis

Follow Mike Olson at @devlin1 on Twitter.

Follow Morgan Ellis at @mc_ellis on Twitter.

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Teaching Tabletop Role Playing Games

17 April 2019 - 5:11am

In 2011 I offered to DM a 4-hour session of DnD as part of a silent auction for NAMI. My friend Toni bid on it, totally not out of pity. On the successful note of raising a whopping $20, Toni told me she wanted to play with her wife and two friends except… none of them had ever played DnD or any other TTRPGs before. Without thinking it through, I said yes. Then when I started to plan the session, I stared at a blank page for what seemed like hours realizing I had no idea how to teach someone else how to role play.

It’s easy to overwhelm someone new in any hobby especially if it’s something you love and understand. Often we unintentionally miscommunicate for a very simple reason–the newbies don’t speak our language yet. Did you glaze past the terms “DM,” “DnD,” and “TTRPG” in the paragraph above? That’s probably because you know those abbreviations mean Dungeon Master, the one who plans and leads a tabletop role playing game specifically Dungeons and Dragons; Dungeons and Dragons, the flagship game of the role playing industry; and tabletop role playing game, the more generic term for the entire hobby. On the other hand, did you know what NAMI is? From context you know it’s a charity, but unless I spell out the full name as the National Alliance on Mental Illness you may not know what they focus on.

Before You Teach…

If you’re fluent in RPGs, there’s a step I recommend before planning a session for newbies. Play a game you’ve never played before. Preferably something radically different from what you normally play. If you’ve played from levels 1-20 in the same DnD 3.5 edition campaign for the past five years, try picking up something story-forward like Protocol or Fiasco. If you normally play the serious Dark Heresy, try the hilarious Crash Pandas. If you have local conventions, you can look for someone new there. If you don’t, ask your normal group to take a session off and try something different. Or, ask online or find a community like the Gauntlet where you can sign up for online games. If you have no idea what game to play, I recommend John Harper’s Lasers & Feelings or one of its hacks like Love & Justice by my copodner (co-host podcast partner) Senda Linaugh. Handily, you can listen to an adventure of Love & Justice on my podcast She’s A Super Geek BUT don’t just listen–you need to actually play something new. 

 Play a game you’ve never played before. Preferably something radically different from what you normally play. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

I get to play new games all the time because of She’s A Super Geek which does one-shots of different games focusing on women as GMs (that’s Game Master, similar to the term DM but considered more generic). When we started SASGeek almost 4 years ago, Senda and I were learning and running all the games. We’ve gotten to a place where a lot of creators, writers, or someone who has run the game a lot come onto the show to run those games for us. It’s amazing, and it means I’m constantly learning new games from the point of view of a player. It can be hard to break out of our fluent understanding of RPGs, so forcing yourself back into that newbie space can break you out of your fluency and give you some insight into what newbies at your own table might be experiencing.

But I didn’t have that experience back in 2011 when I sat down with Toni, her wife, and her two friends. I’m actually not sure of how good of a job I did teaching DnD to them. I remember that we told a good story, and they all had fun. The bard embarrassed herself in front of her crush. The rogue got to back stab their rival (emotionally and literally). The cleric  In the end, that’s what we want newbies to experience. We want them to understand why we spend time in this hobby, what draws us deeper into it, and why it’s worth continuing to learn. We don’t want to bog them down in rules, hard math, or (Cthulhu forbid) table lawyering. We want them to walk away with a hilarious story they want to tell others. So here are a few tips for you as the GM to ensure that happens.

GM Tips
  1. Make the characters–there’s nothing worse than wanting to learn a role play game only to get bogged down in details you don’t understand with the promise of ‘it gets more fun later.’ Create character sheets before hand with gentle role play prompts. If your newbie runs with another idea, that’s ok; but try to give them somewhere to go since they haven’t had experience building a character’s personality. Feel free to use pre-made characters from your system if they’re available.
  2. Plan a straightforward adventure–we all love red herrings, but we’re focusing on teaching the game. Make sure there’s an obvious thing they’re supposed to do. Don’t be afraid to use simple ideas like stealing a magical item from that castle, protecting a caravan as it travels to another city, or rescuing a kidnapped prince. Having a clear goal makes it easier to think of ideas about how to get there. Asking players to think of classic tropes from movies and tv shows can give them a reference point if they become a deer in headlights. A newbie may not know how their character would get into an exclusive club, but they may know what Buffy, Luke Skywalker, or Steven Universe would do.
  3. Have an experienced player at the table–newbies will look to an experienced player to set the tone and show them what’s possible. Just don’t let the experienced player take over the spotlight. Have a talk with them before the game and make sure they’re ok playing with newbies and either holding back or pushing forward depending on how the newbies react.
  4. Don’t overwhelm them with rules–don’t try to explain all the rules in the game up front. Assure the newbies you will teach them the rules as they come up in game. Let them choose their character’s name and go over the basics of reading the character sheet.
  5. Don’t overwhelm them with jargon–don’t use acronyms if you can help it. Try to explain things when the newbies are confused. Ask them if they’re confused. Encourage them to call out when you’re using a term they don’t understand.
  6. Create an inviting first scene–Give the players a reason to interact with each other. Are they all stuck in the same jail? Do they all know a retired adventurer who’s called them together for an unknown reason? This doesn’t have to be a traditional go-around-the-table-and-introduce-your-character-scene, but there’s nothing wrong with that!
  7. Create a skill challenge or small combat as the second scene–It doesn’t have to be an all-out battle. It could be a patron asking the characters to prove that they can handle a task or a simple go kill that low-level monster over there. They’ve stretched role play legs in the first scene. Now they get to work those mechanics a little. If it gets overwhelming, cut it short and move on. You just want to give the new players a chance to get a feel for the mechanics so that they know what’s possible within the game. 
  8. Make sure every character gets the spotlight–since you’ve made the characters, you know what they’re good at. Make sure everyone gets some spotlight time to do what they’re good at. If you’ve got a hacker, make sure there are computer locked doors in the way. If you’ve got a wizard, make sure there’s a book that only they can read. If possible you want the light to shine on each character for something both mechanical and role play-focused. 
  9. Laissez les bons temps rouler*–It’s ok if your straightforward plot goes off the rails. If they’re not having fun, do something different. A bad guy kicks in the door. A distress cry is heard from the next street over. Someone’s sword leaps out of their hands and starts singing. Just keep the game moving and make sure people are having fun!

Giving someone a window into our hobby can be amazing. Don’t be afraid to ask new people to play. You can teach them. After all, we were all newbies at some point. Someone else helped us learn how to play, probably multiple someones else. Being that person for someone else allows us to pay our experience forward, and hopefully they will do the same when the time comes. 

What games have you found the easiest or most difficult to teach? What did someone teach you badly or goodly when you started gaming?


*Let the good times roll

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Leveraging Tech at the Table

15 April 2019 - 5:00am
The Obvious: Distraction

I know a few (probably more than a few) GMs who don’t want or allow technology at their table. That’s their call, and I urge players to respect it. This is because devices, especially those with online capability, can lead to distractions in the form of text messages, phone calls, social media, web browsing, and watching funny cat videos. I get it. I really do.

However, there is a place and time for technology at the table. If you, as a player, have a GM that doesn’t want technology at the table, build a case for streamlined play, quick rule lookups, online tools/utilities, electronic character builders/sheets, and easy-to-reach references. If they still don’t relent, respect their desires and move on.

Having said all that, let’s assume technology is allowed at the table and explore its extensive capabilities and uses.

Technology and Limitations

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use the word “technology” quite a bit. What I’m referring to here are the portable electronic devices most of us carry everyday. This will include laptops, tablets, smart phones, and the like. I’m mainly going to focus on using a tablet, though.

This is because I find smart phones too clunky for smooth use at the table when information is needed on-demand. Character sheets are too small (or require massive pinch-zooming and swipe-scrolling) to effectively make use of. PDFs can be read on smart phones, but when you’re reading half a paragraph per screen, it’s not that speedy. Also, taking notes on a smart phone just isn’t efficient. I have a hard time composing a tweet in any reasonable amount of time on my phone, let alone trying to capture the rapid-fire events of what’s going on at the table. Of course, you may be a world-class typist on your phone, so give it a whirl.

On the flip-side, laptops tend to be too large and consume tons of table space, especially if someone lugs out their massive 17-inch gaming laptop. They can’t easily be set aside and then pulled back out for quick reference. They’re great for note taking because of the keyboard, but doing dynamic notes (like maps) on a laptop is still problematic unless you have a touchscreen variant.

In the middle-ground between smart phones and laptops exist, of course, tablets. They’re great. They lie flat on the table, don’t take up tons of room on the table, and can be set aside or propped against a chair leg when space is needed. Tablets also have the same advantage of laptops with a larger screen allowing for easy reading of rulebook PDFs, interacting with electronic character sheets, and taking notes in a document, especially if you have a stylus or other writing device that works with your table.


For the remainder of this article, I’m going to dive into details about how I use a tablet and stylus at the table. I currently have a an 11-inch iPad Pro and use an Apple Pencil. The screenshots I’m going to throw your way come from an app called GoodNotes 5. I also use an app called GoodReader for viewing, bookmarking, and annotating PDFs. With these bits of technology and just these two apps, I can do everything I need at the table as a player or GM. I still keep a small notepad and pencil nearby for passing notes when appropriate. Oh. Dice. Yeah. Lots and lots of dice are part of my kit, but that’s not the point of this article.

For you Android/Microsoft users, I apologize for focusing on Apple products here. I don’t like recommending or pointing people to apps or hardware that I have no experience with in case I lead them astray. I’m certain there are options out there for Android and Microsoft tablets, styluses, and applications that can perform in a similar fashion to what I do here. A search along the lines of “GoodReader for Android table” or “GoodNotes for Microsoft Surface” might lead you in the right direction.


When I can, I buy the PDFs of rulebooks. This is because my days of carrying 150+ pounds (no exaggeration) of books with me to the FLGS are over. I’m tired of doing that, and my back isn’t getting any younger. Where I can’t find legal PDFs, I suck it up and lug the books, but this article is about electronics, not calisthenics with a bag o’ books.

GoodReader is my application of choice for reading and marking up PDFs. It’s fast to load even the largest books. In my current campaign, I’m a player in a game of Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The PDF is 68 megabytes in size. Not small, but I’ve seen bigger. If I don’t have the PDF open, it takes about 5 seconds to load. Once loaded, page transitions and scrolling through the document is rapid-fire fast. It can also have multiple PDFs open at once in tabbed layout like in your web browser. That’s super handy for leaping between multiple source materials.

There is also a bookmark feature where you can save links to pages that are frequently referenced, and if the bookmark is properly outlined with an electronic table of contents, then the outline feature comes in very handy.

Here are some screenshots with captions about what the various functions do:

GoodReader Toolbar

GoodReader Outline View

GoodReader Bookmark View

GoodReader Search Feature

GoodNotes 5

For my handwritten notes, I use GoodNotes 5. Version 4 was great, but the upgrade to version 5 is a whole new world of note taking! I use it at the table, during classes, at conferences, and anywhere else I need to scribble something down for later review or sharing.

GoodNotes comes with a wide variety of “backgrounds.” Of course, I go with the gridded background for all RPG notes even when I’m not mapping. It helps me align the notes and indentations and such as I go. For mapping, the obvious choice is the gridded background. Another fantastic feature is that you can use a PDF as a “background.” Just import the PDF and start writing on it. The “eraser” feature won’t delete the PDF text/lines because it’s the background. This allows me to import the PDF version of a game’s character sheet and just use my iPad for the character sheet as well. This importing of a PDF as a background also works great for your GM maps. This allows you to take notes on the maps and highlight areas without worrying about accidentally erasing or messing up the original map.

GoodNotes, like GoodReader, allows multiple files to be open at once in a tabbed interface. In addition to being able to track notes, maps, and character stats on the fly, I can export the files to PDF format and save it on a cloud drive for sharing with the rest of the group between sessions. This is a fantastic feature since I track the campaign notes, treasure gained, maps, and my character in GoodNotes.

The main features I like about GoodNotes is the different line widths and colors available for the pen. I can also highlight in different colors. The eraser tool is handy when my handwriting gets super messy or I misplace a door on the map and need to redraw it. There is also a lasso tool that allows you to select an area and then drag ‘n’ drop it or cut/copy/paste it to another page or elsewhere on the same page. If you’re into type-written notes, but still want the ability to draw lines between text boxes to link things together, you can do that too.

Here are some screenshots of files I’ve created in GoodNotes, so you can get a flavor of what they look like. I apologize for the horrid handwriting, but I want you to see the different pen colors, highlighter colors, and so on.

GoodNotes Toolbar

GoodNotes Notes

GoodNotes Map

GoodNotes Character Sheet

What Do You Use?

What technology do you use at your in-person games? Let us, and your fellow readers, know what you have in your hands!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Superhero Games and Stories

12 April 2019 - 2:00am

DC Universe is letting me watch the old Justice League series too…

Recently, I signed up for DC Universe, primarily so I could watch the new season of Young Justice, but I’ve also taken advantage of all the DC animated movies available on the streaming service. There’s also an excitement in the air related to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what with Captain Marvel having come out last month and Avengers: End Game arriving in just a couple weeks. It’s made me think quite a bit about superheroes and gaming.

Anyone who’s gamed with me for any length of time knows I love superheroes and their games. In recent years, I developed a reputation for running Masks at cons, and my regular group often asks me to pick up the GM cape once more and run a supers game for them. Heck, the very first campaign I ever ran was a Mutants & Masterminds campaign.

I already have my tickets…

Thing is, superhero stories are not this monolithic, single type of story or game. While it is easy for many to mistakenly make this assumption, when you really dig down into it, superhero stories are more of a framework you hang over other stories. This is one of the secrets to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve focused on telling interesting stories with compelling characters that just happen to have special abilities, rather than focusing on only the special abilities. It doesn’t matter how cool the costumes are or how awesome the special effects for the abilities are, if the story is boring or the characters just caricatures of people no one is going to care.

(Another open secret to MCU’s success is in how they know how to be true to the essence of the characters and then nail the casting for that character. I could wax poetic about these movies for hours, so I’ll keep a lid on it.)

Back in the late 80’s and 90’s, when RPGs all seemed to be obsessed with simulation, superhero games like Champions did everything they could to provide meticulous ways to emulate the powers of all our favorite heroes. Unfortunately, this often pushed the heart of the story and characters into the background, losing the spark that makes us love super heroics. I’m very careful about the superhero games I sign up for at conventions, because too often, that spark is lost and the game just ends up being a simulation for a superhero smash up fight. There’s nothing wrong with a fun, bombastic combat, but that’s not necessarily the only kind of game I’m looking to play or run.

If you, like me, are considering running a supers game in the near future, here’s a few things to consider before bringing the game to the table for your players:

  • Tone: Once you decide the tone of your game, other things will fall into place easier. Are you looking for a light hearted romp around the cosmos, or a gritty and complicated story of difficult choices? Take a look at the first season of the Justice League animated series from the early 2000’s compared to the first season of Daredevil on Netflix. Yeah, they’re both superhero stories, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. If you don’t establish the tone you’re looking for from the get-go, you’re going to have problems. Your players also have a wild and wide understanding of the superhero genre, and they may be all over the place in the tone they’re expecting. Their characters will reflect that and while it’s not impossible to make a game work with characters of varying tone, it’s difficult to maintain that for the long haul.
  • Setting: Some superhero stories take place in a single city, or even just a single neighborhood. Others span galaxies, taking the heroes from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy. As you can imagine, deciding the scope of your game’s setting can help determine the types of stories your game is going to be telling and the types of characters that should come into play. Setting a game in an afro-futuristic city like Wakanda guides the themes and characters in very specific ways. Or imagine using a setting like Smallville, telling the stories of some young heroes learning who they are and what they can do.
  • Don’t let them get lost in the minutia of what powers they have and what those powers do, because WHO the character is beneath the costume and abilities is what makes the game truly heroic.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailLimits: What are the limits of the characters you want in play? Can your game handle Batman and Superman in the league together? Can you provide a variety of challenges for both Thor and Hawkeye? Or do you want to limit the origin stories for your players and have them all have some common bond like being students at an upstate boarding school for ‘special’ students? The options for this are almost limitless (ha!), but if you take a look at the best superhero stories, they keep all the characters within a certain framework, at least to start with. We may enjoy the idea of having Captain Marvel and Jessica Jones in the same universe, but you’re going to have to sacrifice something to run a game that includes both of them. Put Jessica in the far-flung cosmic encounters Carol is capable of and she’s going to be a little lost. And annoyed since there’s no alcohol. Put Cap in Hell’s Kitchen and she’s going to have to limit her capabilities to not just obliterate the neighborhood. It’s not that it can’t work, it’s just that you’re going to have to make choices and sacrifices with the stories your game tells.
  • Character: Last, but absolutely not least. Don’t forget that everything you do still boils down to the characters the players bring to the table. What I mean is that while Captain Marvel’s powers are cool, she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without her in-your-face determination to do what’s right. Batman may have all those wonderful toys, but his best stories are fed by the gravitas of his tragedies. When your players start working on their characters, don’t let them get lost in the minutia of what powers they have and what those powers do, because WHO the character is beneath the costume and abilities is what makes the game truly heroic.

Another good example of how to do an ensemble cast right…

There are so many options out there for superhero games. So many. Many games come with tone, setting, and limits established within the design of the game, while others come to your more as a toolset to build your own world. Another consideration is the level of crunch that you’re comfortable. I lean more towards the narrative games these days, but I can understand the draw of a crunchier game. Make sure whichever game you pick actually works with the tone, setting and limits you want to try for in your game. The wrong combination can be painful to work through.

After several of my regular group saw Captain Marvel, they cornered me and said, “Ang, you’ve GOT to run another supers game.” Honestly, I can’t disagree with them, because I certainly feel that pull as well. Between now and when I start, I’ve got quite a few things to figure out. What about you and your gaming crew? Any super heroics on your horizon? We’d love to hear about it.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf: BLACKOUT

10 April 2019 - 5:00am

Welcome to the first installment of The Indie Game Shelf. Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game, and the series as a whole aims to increase the visibility of the wide variety of games available today. Whether you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new or brand new to the hobby and wanting to explore what’s out there, we hope The Indie Game Shelf holds something fun and new for you to enjoy.

BLACKOUT: A Game about Women & the Blitz

BLACKOUT by Erika Chappell/Newstand Press is a game Powered by the Apocalypse and designed to take one GM and 2-5 players through a one-session scenario. Each session of the game represents one night during the Blitz, 8 months of World War II during which the German Luftwaffe made nightly devastating bombing runs over London. The characters in the game are women who have volunteered with various civil defense organizations and respond to the constant danger and harm that results from these air raids.

The Story

BLACKOUT is a game designed to tell a specific kind of story. It is undoubtedly a game about war, but rather than the glories of battle, characters are instead concerned with the tragedies of destruction. The characters’ party (called a “Section”) is made up of people from various walks of British life and a variety of larger organizations specialized in dealing with specific kinds of danger. The Section is one of many dedicated to the safety and care of a “Community,” a specific part of the city under attack. Character relationships are also important to playing this game, as much of the story is about teamwork and solidarity. Not only is it important to know how the main characters relate to one another, but also how they relate to the community.

As mentioned, a single session of BLACKOUT represents a single night of the Blitz. Over the course of this night, you can be sure that an air raid will occur, but you can never know when the attack will come, how severe it will be, or how long it will last. There are no rules for stopping the raid. You play the game until you’ve told the story of that night and, hopefully, have taken a look at the stories yet to come.

Rather than the glories of battle, characters are instead concerned with the tragedies of destruction.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailThe primary task of the characters is to provide assistance at bomb sites and other disasters, but they may not be able to finish at one site before another appears. Characters must choose not only who to help, but also how much to help before moving on. In addition, they also must care for each other and, just as importantly, themselves. Disaster relief is difficult work. If a person gives too much of themselves in an attempt to help everyone, they’ll quickly become less able to help anyone. At the same time, any moment taken for valuable rest is another moment during which a new bomb might fall. This is a game about help and survival in a time and place sinking under the horrors of war.

The Game

BLACKOUT is Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA), meaning that the rules are inspired by Apocalypse World. Players of that game or any similar games will be familiar with the core mechanics of BLACKOUT, namely that gameplay is governed by discrete rules packets called “moves” which almost always call for a roll of the dice, modified by a character stat, that results in one of three result states (a miss, a partial success, or a full success) which then informs the fiction of the game.

Where the core of characters in many other PbtA games is contained in a character’s playbook, BLACKOUT uses a combination of two playbooks to create a character. One type of playbook, the Identity, describes your character’s nature as a person and provides a baseline of character stats. Examples include “The Working Lass” or “The Old Bird.” The other type of playbook, the Role, describes the organization for which the character has volunteered and provides professional skills and other abilities relevant to rescue work. Examples include “Rescue Services” or “Fire Guard.” By combining a playbook from each set, a complete character is created for use in the game, with many different combinations possible.

The driving force of the game is having disasters occur for the characters to respond to, and these disaster are governed by a central mechanic called “The Raid Clock.” The Raid Clock moves based on various triggers during the game, and a die roll against a target number set by the Raid Clock determines when disaster strikes. The Raid Clock also indicates how bad the disaster is, and therefore how much attention it requires from the characters.

Over the course of the game, characters can suffer not only physical harm, but simply the nature of relief work itself can incur Exhaustion. If left untreated, Exhaustion may lead to a Break, which is some additional burden the character must now shoulder. In contrast, characters may also accomplish Victories for successful work. At the end of the session, Breaks detract from Victories, but any Victories remaining provide narrative rewards which allow players to tell the stories of character’s survival of the night, the Blitz, or even the entire war.

The Shelf

BLACKOUT is currently available for purchase in both print and PDF formats from DriveThruRPG. For other games along similar thematic lines, one can firstly look to other work by the same designer, namely PATROL, a game about the Vietnam War. Additionally, further similar recommendations include Night Witches by Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games, a mission-based campaign game based on an all-woman regiment of Russian bomber pilots in World War II, and The Watch by Anna Kreider and Andrew Medeiros, a fantasy game of women and non-binary folks fighting a war against an invading supernatural force. If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Android Shadow of the Beanstalk Review

9 April 2019 - 4:30am

I grew up in the 80s, but I was a latecomer to cyberpunk. I loved Blade Runner, and read a few Philip K. Dick short stories, because at one point in the 80s I think 98% of all movies were adapted from one of his stories (this figure may be slightly exaggerated). But I didn’t read Gibson’s Neuromancer, and I never got into the crop of cyberpunk RPGs that I saw popping up in Dragon Magazine over the years. Shadowrun was that game that my friends learned without me when they went off to college.

In fact, what finally got me into cyberpunk was reading collections of Transmetropolitan in my late 20s. When I later picked up on a few more of the staples of cyberpunk, what struck me about Transmetropolitan was that it could be very cynical and grim about its world, and yet have some glimmers of hope in the stories. Life could be terrible and strange, but it could also still be strange and wonderful.

Having set the parameters of my primary interface into the subsystem of science fiction indexed as cyberpunk, let’s plug into the specific coordinates of my vector for this review run, the Fantasy Flight Genesys supplement Shadow of the Beanstalk, a sourcebook for playing in their Android setting.

How Much Chrome Does It Have?

This review is based on both the PDF of the product as well as the hardcover. The product is 258 pages long, with a two-page index in the back. Both formats are in full color, and there are full page pieces of art introducing each chapter, as well as several half-page images, maps, and illustrations of gear throughout the book. Like other Fantasy Flight products, the artwork is high quality, and many of the images may be familiar, as they appear in multiple product lines associated with the Android IP.

Most of the pages are shades of blue, with darker “file folder” sidebars to call out special information. A few sections, such as the section on the net, have a different color scheme, with the net pages appearing almost black, and the adversaries’ chapter being largely in golds and orange.


The introduction sets the stage for what this book is, what it details, and what else you will need for a campaign. As a supplement to the Genesys RPG, this product is assuming you will have a copy of both the core rules and at least a set of the narrative dice that Genesys utilizes (experience tells me that you may need more than one set).

Fairly early into the introduction, the book suggests that for a more detailed look at the setting, you may want to pick up a copy of the Worlds of Android art and setting book. This immediately made me wonder how “table ready” this book was going to be, but we’ll revisit that later.

The rest of the introduction outlines the core concepts of the setting. Some of this information is delivered as online articles complete with digressions from a character that is currently hacking into the site. The actual date is never mentioned, but the setting revolves around New Angeles, a mega-city in Ecuador dominated by multi-national corporations, and home to a massive space elevator that provides access to the lunar colony of Heinlein and allows for shipping to Mars.

Why is the setting called the Android setting? One of the defining aspects of future society is the invention of androids. Androids are a term used for competing technologies, fully synthetic mechanical constructs called bioroids, and genetically engineered, purpose-built clones, neither of which have full rights as citizens.

While the setting clearly has cyberpunk elements, including multi-national corporations and a world-spanning computer network, the wars, colonies on Mars and the moon, and social issues like clone and bioroid rights also remind me of science fiction stories like The Expanse series of novels.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

Character creation unfolds in a manner similar to the process outlined in the Genesys core rules, but this section addresses changes in the process. The main points of divergence are the setting specific archetypes, careers, skills, and talents, and the introduction of factions and favors.

Factions are important for the favor economy because they will determine who you owe, and who owes you. Favors are divided between small, regular, and big favors, and you can owe bigger favors to get more resources at character creation. It’s not entirely unlike Obligation in FFG’s Star Wars Edge of the Empire, except the discreet favors and their size are tracked, rather than creating an obligation score that can be triggered.

Archetypes include the following character types:

  • Natural (unenhanced humans)
  • Bioroid (synthetic constructs)
  • Clone (purpose-built biologicals)
  • Cyborg (mechanically enhanced humans)
  • G-Mods (genetically enhanced humans)
  • Loonies (humans native to the lunar colonies)

The careers specifically detailed in this book include the following:

  • Academic
  • Bounty Hunter
  • Con Artist
  • Courier
  • Investigator
  • Ristie (rich heirs to the corporate elites)
  • Roughneck (blue collar space workers)
  • Runner (people that stick their brains into computers for fun and profit)
  • Soldier
  • Tech

Since Edge of the Empire is my favorite expression of FFG’s Star Wars RPGs, I’m not surprised that I really like the concept of favors and the rules surrounding them. I did find it a little ironic that the rules note that you can reskin the Animal Companion talent from the core Genesys book to account for drones, but the rules also subdivide the core Genesys computer skill into Hacking and Sysops. While I realize that in the real-world computer skills are definitely more granular than a single skill, I’m not convinced that they need to be broken out for an RPG. There are a few more details on what each skill gets used for later on in the book.

Chapter 2: Equipment and Vehicles

This section has a few more details on the favor economy but also details a slew of cyberpunk style equipment for the player characters to interact with. This chapter is also the home of the single most 90s piece of equipment I’ve ever seen, the charged crystal katana. Most of the weapons skew more towards monofilament blades, flechette guns, mass drivers, and masers.

There is a section that details various substances that may have addictive properties. There is a sidebar that discusses treating this topic with care, and being mindful both of real-world issues and any concerns players may have at the table, and I appreciated that inclusion.

Because this is a Genesys game, various pieces of equipment have hardpoints that allow for equipment to be customized in various ways. If you are familiar with cybernetics from the Star Wars RPGs, one way that cybernetics differ in this setting is that strain threshold is very important to their installation and operation. Augmentations lower strain threshold, limiting the number a character can have. Additionally, various special effects are triggered by spending strain.

The good news is that Shadow of the Beanstalk avoids old school concepts like “humanity” or “essence,” and doesn’t imply that enhanced people lose hold of their humanity with too many augments. There is just a limit to how many major augmentations a character can reasonably utilize. Unfortunately, there are still a few lines of text that imply having an altered emotional state is “creepy,” and the tone feels overly harsh and judgmental.

Chapter 3: The Network 

Since a large portion of the setting is based on cyberpunk vibes, we have a chapter on The Network, and what it looks like to hack into various systems. This chapter gives a history of the global Network, as well as details on evocative things like God Code (programs that spontaneously write themselves in the Network), “ghosts” of runners that lost themselves while submerged in the Network, and religions that have arisen from these quirks of the virtual world.

There are also rules for hacking. This is not shocking for a cyberpunk setting. While they are a little more involved than I would like, a big benefit of how the rules work is that everything is framed in a manner similar to other aspects of the rules. ICE programs have a program strength that operates in a similar manner to character health. Icebreaker programs work in a manner similar to weapons in the “real world.” Remember earlier in the book where they split the computer skills up? If you are intruding on a system, you are using hacking. If you are defending against intruders or acting against someone entering a computer that you are “supposed” to have access to, you use sysops.

What I really appreciate is that there is a simplified version of hacking included in this chapter as well, which the GM is encouraged to use in situations where a more involved run would be cumbersome, which still gives benefits for having icebreakers and ICE installed.

Chapter 4: New Angeles and Heinlein

This section goes into more detail on the setting. While it briefly mentions a few areas outside of New Angeles, the Beanstalk, and Heinlein (the lunar colony of New Angeles), the main focus is on those core areas of the setting.

Each of the main districts of New Angeles is detailed, and each of them is essentially a small city in its own right. The various districts have information on the undercity, plaza, and penthouse levels of the area, and most of them follow a format of presenting general information, then providing a specific example location, and NPCs native to those locations, rather than giving exhaustive details on every major business and location.

In addition to the city districts on Earth, there are sections on Midway Station (the space station halfway up the space elevator that dominates the city), the Challenger Planetoid (a rock towed into geosynchronous orbit to facilitate the shuttles launched from the elevator), and Heinlein, the lunar colony that provides Earth with He-3 from its mines.

Despite mentioning the additional details in the Worlds of Android setting book, there are plenty of setting details in this chapter, with a ton of adventure hooks. There should be more than enough for multiple campaigns worth of material in what has been provided.

While I really like these details, I would much rather have a few more out of setting sidebars discussing potential issues with introducing topics like war, labor disputes, and slave labor that is a constant part of the setting with bioroids, clones, and even AI. Players may even be playing characters that don’t have full rights as people, or characters that are marginalized as being on the losing side of a war, so a little more discussion on safety would have been appreciated.

Chapter 5: Adversaries

The adversaries chapter gives a whole range of stats for security guards, drones, cyborgs, gang members, animals, and criminals that PCs might run into in the course of a game. These are organized in the standard Genesys groupings of minions, rivals, and nemeses, meaning that the NPCs work better in large groups, are fairly similar to PCs, or are more formidable than any single PC, in broad terms.

By far, the best entry is the teacup giraffe. Not because it’s a fearsome beast, and not just because it’s adorable. The Too Cute and Way Too Cute abilities are just too good not to enjoy.

Chapter 6: The Game Master

The Game Master chapter opens by explaining the mindset of people that live in the setting, and how that mindset changes based on the character’s position in society. It also includes advice on descriptions, the importance of social encounters and capitulation, referring to the social encounter rules in the core Genesys rules. It then wraps up with the Android Adventure Builder, a section that has several base jobs, escalations, and climaxes. While the hooks have a fairly linear outline, the escalations and climaxes can be mixed and matched with different hooks to create different adventure progressions.

I normally like a setting book to have a sample adventure, but in this case, I think the Adventure Builder is a solid toolkit for outlining what adventures should look like in the setting, with enough flexibility that it can be used multiple times. What I do think was lacking in this section was a discussion on how groups get together. Most of the hooks broadly assume PCs that are sort of outlaws, maybe mercenaries, but I would have loved to have had a few group templates to give examples of how the disparate archetypes might come to work together.

There is also some discussion on how there isn’t much discrimination based on nationality or ethnicity in the setting, with the exploration of similar topics being focused on android and clone rights, and societal stress between loonies and humans on Earth. That said, there are definitely some nationality-based stereotypes that echo in the setting, including Russian, German, and Japanese companies and neighborhoods that both feel a little too one dimensional in places, and belie the concept that only the manufactured prejudices are present in the setting.

There are a handful of paragraphs about creating micro-cultures in the setting, neighborhoods that are based on cultural backgrounds, religious affiliations, or other signifiers. There are examples of these in the setting chapter, and the book encourages players to use those as examples to make more, but three paragraphs of discussion feel really thin to fully convey the care you would have to use in creating a micro-culture based on any existing modern-day signifiers. I feel like this section would have been better served with advice on keeping these micro-cultures based on unique setting elements or exercising care and collaboration with those that understand the real-world foundations of such cultures.

Strong Signal While the setting draws heavily from cyberpunk tropes, it also draws broadly and allows for a wide variety of campaign styles. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

While the setting draws heavily from cyberpunk tropes, it also draws broadly and allows for a wide variety of campaign styles. The setting information is concise enough for campaigns, but evocative enough to inspire further research. In general, rules for limiting cybernetics avoid some of the pitfalls of other cyberpunk games, and the mechanics for gaining benefits give similar items in this setting a different feel than, for example, cybernetics in the FFG Star Wars games. There is some very solid advice on structuring jobs in a manner appropriate to the genre, and while the opening scenarios are very specific, the twists to be introduced later are broadly applicable. This is a deep mine for campaign material.


The only real content warning in the entire book is about addiction, but the setting has many points that could cause safety concerns, including politics, religion, class, and national origins coming into conflict. The section on creating micro-cultures introduces the concept of creating a micro-culture and is especially thin and potentially fraught. While it is great that the setting is wide open for many kinds of stories, there isn’t much time spent examining how to bring together disparate character types, or examples of what different teams of player characters may look like, beyond assuming they will be criminals doing jobs, defaulting to one of the most common cyberpunk tropes.

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

The setting really speaks to me. It manages to be grim and dystopian without being so cynical that it doesn’t allow for some feeling of hope. It leaves room for more heroic goals, instead of painting a life of endless jobs for the sake of survival. It does fall into the same pattern that many setting books fall into, presenting the setting without diverting enough to discuss how the various parts can be used at the table.

The GM advice is solid but could be fleshed out more, and for a cyberpunk setting, there isn’t nearly enough discussion on safety and the potential problems that could come up when introducing elements of the setting at the table. Because of that, anyone bringing this to the table should know that they will be doing the safety work on their own.

What are your favorite cyberpunk settings and games? What cyberpunk media informs your enjoyment of the genre? We would love to hear about it in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Trying out The Alexandrian’s Urbancrawl System: Designing the City of Juntial Part 2

8 April 2019 - 5:00am

So to recap from last time: I was excited about a system for creating urbancrawls outlined at The Alexandrian and was also inspired by the feeling of the Steve Jackson Sorcery! gamebooks and decided to give the urbancrawl system a shot to design a “strange magic” city.


We left off last time with a list of districts, a definition of what a neighborhood was and a list of layers we were going to use. This time we’re tackling a rough map and a neighborhood list. Since there are plenty of neighborhoods, I’m tackling the four smaller ones this time and detailing on the districts for the two largest. I’ll cover the neighborhoods in those next time.

Here’s the (very rough) map. It’s just a set of neighborhoods surrounded by the city walls an bordered by the wall, the five major rivers, the major roadways, and the shores of the central lake. Note that none of those have names at this point. This is just one step up from a sketch, and then only because I figured using software would result in a slightly more readable result than hand drawing it.  Districts are color coded, Neighborhoods are labeled with a key. We’re also not going to name them at this point either. That’s something we can handle later and something that takes up an awful lot of brainspace and time while being subject to change if the neighborhood map or list changes under it.

  • B – Bazaar District: Since the city is a trading hub, this is the main district. It encompases three of the five water entrances to the city, three land entrances, and much of the lakeshore. Though it comprises two non-contiguous pieces of land, it is considered a single district because the palace (P1) and temple (T2) neighborhoods that separate the two parts are also mainly economic, and the two parts can be easily bridged by the smaller roads that circle the lake shore and by ferry and skiff across the lake.
    The neighborhoods in this district contain many densely packed shops of all descriptions around their exterior. Inside are mostly middle class dwellings and a fair amount of local services, amenities, and green areas.
  • C – Crafters District: This single neighborhood district is home to the most noisome crafting shops in the city: tanners, papermakers, animal processors, alchemists, smelters, etc… The district is located on the wall to keep unpleasant smells and smoke to a minimum. They have rerouted a distributary of the river that borders their neighborhood  and use it to fuel their industries, dumping wastewater into outflowing streamlets that in theory exit beyond the wall. This district is smoggy, and the air smells and even tastes strange. This neighborhood did suffer some damage from the incident in the ruined district. It has been mostly repaired though a few buildings are still missing.
    Landmark: the central aqueduct that feeds the neighborhood with fresh water, a marvel of engineering and stonework
  • P – Palace District: This district is where the city’s nobility and government services are located. The district is is one of the cleanest and best guarded districts. It is patrolled by the city watch, a well funded and trained militia that ostensibly protects the entire city, but focuses mostly on the palace and bazaar districts.  The district is elevated above the rest of the city with a level of crushed stone that keeps the ground dry and solid. Buildings are well constructed. Neighborhoods are ringed by shops or services and the inner areas are filled with upper middle class dwellings, large noble estates, and copious gardens, water features and statuary.
    • P1 – Palace Trade Neighborhood: The government hold a monopoly on certain valuable commodities. The stores that ring this neighborhood deal in many of those goods and are spacious, well guarded, and heavily constructed. Business owners have official government scales and purchases often require official permits, identification, and forms signed in triplicate. In addition to these goods, this neighborhood also houses official government buildings where you can find government services, paperwork available to the public. The inner parts of the neighborhood generally holds housing for government workers, militia families and the occasional middle class citizen or minor noble house. Public spaces are well tended and fair in number, if not too flashy.
      Landmark: The transfixed column – a stained marble column with a spear embedded deeply in it. Said to be the last stand of a squad of soldiers during an attack in the early days of the city. One of their archers was pinned to the column by the spear and continued to fight.
    • P2 – Palace Government Neighborhood: This neighborhood houses the city’s government buildings, all of which are large and impressive. This includes several courthouses, headquarters and barracks for the city watch,  the palace of the current lord of the city: the mummified remains of an earlier lord, and the council buildings: where the small inner circle of the highest nobles interpret the will of the lord of the city. Inside the neighborhood is homes for mid level noble families and the highest castes of government workers and civilians. Public spaces are many and impressive.
      Landmark: Palace of the mummy lord – a large opulent palace the houses the lard of the city and his many caretakers and servants who upkeep the grounds to the highest standards.
    • P3 – Palace Noble Neighborhood: The businesses that ring this neighborhood sell goods and services of the highest quality. These buildings are large and crafted and decorated richly. The residential area is a mix of fair sized apartments for individual nobles and walled estates for families. Public areas are plentiful and impressive, high quality statuary,  water features and gardens. The city watch is ever-present and visitors without business are largely unwelcome.
      Landmark: The garden maze – a large impressive garden with enchanted plots that keep perfect conditions for an impressive collection of plants from all over the world. The gardens have many brick path mazes and in the center is a hedge maze rumored to hold even more impressive specimens.
  • R – Ruined District: This district used to be home to a magic university and related facilities, but is now largely ruined due to a massive accident of an unknown nature. Buildings had once been built of traditional stone and wood construction, but many are collapsed, burned down or dangerous. No one goes into the district if it is possible to avoid it.
    • R1 – Fallen Neighborhood: Though many of the buildings in this neighborhood are badly damaged, people still live and work here. At one point this neighborhood sold mostly necessities and paraphernalia needed for study at the now destroyed university. Now the few staff and students that survived pedal what useful goods and services in the broken buildings of the neighborhood. The residential portion is shabby and in poor condition as well, and public areas are damaged and often stripped of anything of value. One area which is not lacking is security. Especially at night, all buildings that are still standing are barred tightly.
      Landmark: The Study Hall – One of the more popular college haunts this inn and tavern managed to survive the accident fairly unscathed. It is now home to a large number of squatters and is heavily fortified with all doors and windows boarded up or blocked with furniture. It forms a good forward base, if shabby and lawless for forays into the ruins.
    • R2 – The Crater: This neighborhood is mostly collapsed and or burned. A fine ash settles over ruined and hollow buildings. The outer ring is mostly standing but badly damaged. The inside is mostly piles of ruined construction materials and burned out husks. Since a large portion of the neighborhood was interconnected university buildings this is now mostly one massive ruin full of hazards and remnants of school facilities. No one lives here and few venture inside. Whatever the accident was that destroyed the neighborhood has left strange and dangerous things in its wake.
      Landmark: The Crater – in the center of the maze of ruined university buildings lies a huge still smouldering crater. There may be clues to what happened still here.
  • S – Slums: This is actually two districts, the northern and southern slums. Like all other districts, the outer areas of slum neighborhoods also host shops, but the goods to be found here are usually inferior or of a questionable nature. Residential areas are overcrowded and dirty. Public areas are all but nonexistent. Buildings are mostly made of wood and are in poor condition. In many places, structures are crowded close together or touching.
  • T -Temple District: This District houses the city’s temples and other religious institutions. Like the Palace District, it sits on a raised bed of crushed stone that keeps the ground dry and solid. It is also clean and well guarded. The temple district is patrolled by its own guard force the temple guard a military and religious militia which enforces not only the law but also a minimal level of “proper” moral behavior as interpreted by the most popular and wealthy religions. Those who are disrespectful or blasphemous may find themselves on the wrong side of the law in this district. Buildings in this district are well constructed, usually of stone and often decorated with religious motifs. Residential areas mostly house priests, other temple employees and the occasional upper middle class civilian or minor noble. Public areas are often impressive displays of religious figures or places for quiet contemplation.
    • T1 – Temples of the Small Gods: This neighborhood houses many small temples from less popular religions. The actual stature of the god themselves within their religion is less important than how many worshipers they have. Many of these temples are small buildings. Others are simple open air shrines. Others are simply a bust and a small space for offerings. Since the neighborhood serves so many religions, it is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city. People from many different cultures can be found worshiping their respective gods here. The residential areas of this neighborhood feature many small crowded apartments. They house not only the local priests but also many of the minor religious personnel from other neighborhoods. Public areas are as diverse as the temples, worshipers and priests themselves. There are gardens for quiet contemplation, feast halls, dance circles and more.
      Landmark: Shrine to the Unknown God – tucked away in an alleyway is a simple untended stone bowl where those whose gods are not represented elsewhere in the city can come to make offerings.
    • T2 – Temple Trade Neighborhood: This neighborhood holds a number of shops for religious needs. Everything from vestments, to holy symbols, to sacrifices can be found here. Buildings are usually either dedicated to a single god of pantheon and bear their symbols or are festooned with symbols of dozens of religions. Though these structures are build solidly and highly decorated, only the ones dedicated to the most popular gods are of any large size. Residential areas are usually quiet and well guarded. Public areas are understated but plentiful.
      Landmark: The Pens – one of the easier sets of shops to hear and smell is the pens where temple merchants sell various blessed animals to be used in sacrifices.
    • T3 – Temples of the Large Gods: This neighborhood houses much larger temples dedicated to the most popular pantheons and gods. The buildings are ornate convered in sculpure and inlay appropriate to their religion and guarded day and night. The structures here rival even the Palace Noble Neighborhood. The residential areas house the priests, their assistants and a few noble families and are the equal of the quarters of minor nobles, although there are a wide range from simple dwellings to small palaces depending on the religion in question. Public areas are as varied as the religions they serve but are many and impressive.
      Landmark: The white-gold pyramid – the size of a small temple, a pyramid sits in a garden a short distance off one of the main roads. It looks like a temple and is richly adorned with polished marble and gold leaf, but it may be statuary, as there appears to be no way to enter it.
  • Where are the docks?: So last time I mentioned a Docks district that was actually neighborhoods around the water entrances in the city and the lake shore. I’m still deciding if this will be neighborhoods proper or just layers within appropriate neighborhoods. It has the potential to add a fair number of neighborhoods unless handled correctly.

Next time: I finish the other half of the neighborhoods, make a final decision on the docks. After that, we start populating layers.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Climbing The Dice Chain

5 April 2019 - 5:34am

In the old school-flavored Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, they use a lot of “funny” dice. And I don’t just mean the d20 that your uncle Tom can’t stop fiddling with, I’m talking about d16s, d14s, d7s, even the dreaded d24. DCC uses these dice to describe improvement and hindrances. As your warrior advances in level (for example), the die you roll for mighty deeds grows from a d3 to d4, d5, and so on until d10. Similarly, the die you roll for critical hits also advances up this “dice chain.”

The dice chain, in full, runs like so:

d3, d4, d5, d6, d7, d8, d10, d12, d14, d16, d20, d24, d30

As you can see, the gradations between these dice are sometimes pretty granular (d4 to d5, say), but with a little creativity, we can apply the same concept — shifting up or down the chain — to our non-DCC games, even without the specialty dice.


Use the dice chain to make your players feel powerful (or like the world is out to get them). Using standard dice, our dice chain might look like:

d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20

In other words, the dice that come in a standard set from any FLGS. Here are just a few creative applications that you can use at the table to surprise your players. Finding that Advantage in D&D 5e is getting a little rote? Give your players the option of using their Advantage to go up a die size instead, whether that’s on damage or attack rolls! Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

  1. A second-level character has 2d6 hit dice. After ridding a holy abbey of a demonic infestation, when the character heals, they instead roll 2d8 hit dice. (When the player looks up at you, puzzled, simply inform them that the gods of the abbey thank them.)
  2. A player describes their warrior’s mighty swing via chandelier, arcing across a castle ballroom and cutting the rope at the last second, crushing three of their foes and then rolling across the tile, unscathed. When they roll to hit, call for a d24 (or d30!) roll instead of the usual d20. (Similarly, if you’re playing a game that uses standard damage based on characters instead of on particular weapons, that character can roll a higher base damage.)
  3. In a Powered by the Apocalypse game, after a particularly epic moment narrated by a player, have them roll one d6 and one d8 (instead of the usual 2d6) for whatever move they find applicable. (Some moves in certain Dungeon World playbooks play with this idea already.)
  4. A character obtains a magical artifact that affects one of their rolls: now, whenever they roll damage, their weapon’s base die is improved by one; or, their hit dice (associated with health) are always improved by one — so long as they have the item (call it the “Amulet of Improved Combat,” or the “Tiara of Healing,” respectively). This gives you a powerfully flavorful tool to toy with — players won’t give up something so powerful easily, and you can build whole adventures around it.
  5. Finding that Advantage in D&D 5e is getting a little rote? Give your players the option of using their Advantage to go up a die size instead, whether that’s on damage or attack rolls!

My own instinct would be to use this idea to make characters feel special and powerful, as opposed to using it to apply restrictions, but of course you could come up with creative examples of hindrances just as easily. Just remember, if you’re breaking the rules as blatantly as this, your players are going to know, so make sure to keep things fair (or at least seemingly so). (If you want access to those crazy dice, or even more granular options, you can use any internet-based dice roller to the same effect.

You find yourselves in the caves of healing, which the monks have used for generations to treat their sick and injured. While you explore these caves, all of your hit dice are improved by one die (d4 to d6, d6 to d8, etc.).

With an example like this one, your troupe of adventurers has suddenly become much heartier, and you can throw at them some higher-level monsters that they normally wouldn’t have encountered for several more levels.

As the example above also illustrates, however, be aware that if you’re going to use the dice chain in a meticulously balanced game (like D&D 5e, for instance), it’s going to break things a bit; but, if you’re okay with some silly rules experimentation, this can be a fun way to turn the tables on player expectations for a one shot or single session.

What do you think? Have you played games that climb or descend the dice chain during play? Give this a try and let us know how it goes!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #63 – Meet a New Gnome: Daniel Kwan

4 April 2019 - 5:19am

Join Chris and get to know one of the newest Gnomes, Daniel, in this “Meet a New Gnome” episode of Gnomecast! Learn about Daniel’s gaming origin story, his current projects, and his future plans and Gnome Stew articles! Will new gnome Daniel be able to avoid the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #63 – Meet a New Gnome: Daniel Kwan

Mentioned on the show is Gaslands from Osprey Publishing. You can find the game here.

Learn more about Daniel’s work at Level Up Gaming and the Dungeons & Dragons program at Royal Ontario Museum. Learn more about Daniel’s games at Dundas West Games.

Follow and learn more about Asians Represent! at @aznsrepresent on Twitter or Asians Represent! on Facebook.

Follow Daniel at @danielhkwan on Twitter or find him at his website,

Follow Chris at @Thelight101 on Twitter.

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Airy Peaks – The Town of Foot. Part 2 (05)

3 April 2019 - 7:00am

The town of Foot is the home base of any Airy Peaks campaign. It’s a place for adventurers to rest between delves into the Peaks, pick up rumors, spend their coin, make alliances and enemies with other adventurer’s, find hirelings, and get caught up in an intrigue or two, especially since it’s the home of the Cult of the White Fangs, the Church of Purity, and a nest of vampires. The characters might even meet a young lady who is really a golem and yet so much more.

Why the Town of Foot Exists

This village is only here because it’s part of Eyetog’s plot to lure adventurer’s into the Airy Peaks and it’s where the White Fangs have cultivated the Cult of the White Fang. (See Part 2 of this series) Once the cult and the town has served their purposes they’ll be wiped off the map by the denizens of the Airy Peaks.

Now none of the townsfolk know that, not even members of the Cult of the White Fangs. What people believe is a wizard put an enchantment on the town so that no monster can set Foot within it. There are wild rumors of where the barrier exists, how far it stretches, and days of the year when it stops functioning. It’s all hogwash, but if anyone looks there is a magical aura around the town. No one is really sure what it’s for.

Important Places and People in Town

1) The Scales Inn and Tavern. The three story Inn and tavern in the middle of town is a local legend. Run by the motherly Jana Kane and worked by her small crew consisting of a couple of locals who clean and help keep the place up and her cook Jorgen Sur who supposedly was an adventure who traversed a large part of the Peaks. It’s the best place for a meal, a rumor, or to hire someone to go into the Peaks.

2) The Alchemist Shop. A shop where adventurer’s can buy and sell alchemical potions and sell or buy reagents. It’s run by Mora Verve, an older yellow skinned woman. She’s a no nonsense kind of person and part of the town council. Her assistant is Indras Verve, her very pale skinned and lovely daughter who often wears highly concealing clothing that only shows off her hands and head. The reasons Indras wears such clothing, even in the hottest days of summer, is because she’s a construct given life. Mora made a deal with the White Fangs of the Peaks to serve without question and in return the White Fangs gave Mora a method to create the daughter she could never have.

3) The Blacksmith Shop. This sprawling building is run by the dwarf Kurnig Tor his human wife Barta Tor, three sons Karn, Torin, and Leif and two daughters Marta and Beryl. The sounds of hammer on anvil can be heard most of the morning and into the evening until dusk. They repair, sell, and buy armor, weapons, farm implements, and anything else that can be forged. Kurnig is also a member of the town council.

4) The Jail. Campbell Sureman is more of a diplomat than a law enforcement person. He and the deputies, known as The Watchmen’s Eyes or The Eye’s for short, often are throwing drunks in the one cell jail which is all it gets used for. The rest of his job is talking to adventurers and getting them to behave or leave town before he has to let the adventurer’s police themselves. Which he does. Foot isn’t a lawful place. Foot is about keeping the peace.

5) The Red Water Bathhouse. This little luxury is a wonderful place that adventurer’s can go and get clean, pamper themselves, and enjoy a bit of relaxation. It’s run by the lovely and pleasant Effie Carson. She’s all about hospitality but anyone who’s does anything to cross her or try and cause her harm with find them surprised when she melts their face off with a fire spell.

6) The Scarlet Lady. This river boat appeared one night in the Red Lake and that evening the unnatural beauty Ms. Ursula Scarlett and her lovely ladies and gentlemen were there to service the adventurer’s of Foot. This boat known as The Scarlet Lady leaves dock at midnight every evening and returns just after dawn every morning. An adventurer can find pleasures of the flesh, games of chance, beverages of all kinds, and any other vice one might be interested in.

It should also be mentioned that Ursula and her people are all vampires or servants of the vampires. They’ve made a deal with the Cult of the White Fang to be here in exchange for the secrets they learn about the adventurer’s who delve deeply into the Peaks.

(Not on Map) The Church of Purity. The Church of Purity are a group of people who hate everyone and everything that isn’t human. They work the farms and provide most of the food that the people of Foot eat. Reverend Cross is the leader of the church. He’s a tall gaunt man with grey hair and a pair of spectacles. He is often wearing black with a white collar and carries a leather book to the god called The Scar. He has the eyes of a zealot but is polite in public, even to non-humans, while the rumors say he’s vicious and brutal to all non-humans where eyes can’t see him inflict terrible pain and eventually death on those he considers tainted races

That’ll wrap up this installment of the Airy Peaks. In the coming articles I’ll be fleshing out more of the town, talking about some of the adventurer’s that are in and around the Airy Peaks, dishing about some more of the services, and taking a closer look at some more of the locations and people of the Peaks.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The April Foolio of Fiends

1 April 2019 - 5:30am

The April Foolio of Fiends! Arthur will try not to eat you, at least not on purpose.

Happy April First, everyone!

We here at Gnome Stew are dedicated to bringing you the finest of gaming material, so we are proud to present The April Foolio of Fiends, an astounding collection of ridiculous monsters in a variety of systems. Feel free to use and abuse these foolish folks in your own games. We don’t condone cruelty to monsters, but they’re just as eager to have fun with you, so have at it!

This is just a taste of all the foolishly fun fiends we’ve created for you. The full collection of critters is available in a pay-what-you-want PDF at DriveThru RPG. The best part is that all proceeds are going to benefit Child’s Play, a game industry charity dedicated to improving the lives of children in a network of over 100 hospitals worldwide. You get to have fun with these ridiculous rascals and we all get to help make the lives of some kids a little brighter.

Mapless Fury

By Camdon Wright, Art by Toast

In a world full of monsters, traps, portals to unknown dimensions, and inns full of quest giving magicians sometimes you get a little turned around. Only the most foul of creature would take advantage of these moments of assistance to send you in the wrong direction. The mapless fury has no mercy when it comes to disrupting your travel plans.

Seeming able to point in all directions at once, a mapless fury will do its best to send you in the opposite direction of your intended goal. If you return to ask for clarification it will send you in an equally wrong but brand new path claiming to have forgotten to tell you about a crucial turn. Mapless furies seem very friendly and helpful.

Which way to go?

Medium Undead, Chaotic Neutral
Armor Class 11
Hit Points 71 (13d8 + 13)
Speed 30 ft.

STR 11 (+0), DEX 12 (+1), CON 12 (+1)
INT 19 (+4), WIS 17 (+3), CHA 17 (+3)

Saving Throws: INT +7, WIS +6, CHA +6
Skills: Arcana +7, Deception +6, Insight +6, Perception +6, Persuasion +6, Stealth +4
Senses: Darkvision 120 ft., Passive Perception 16
Challenge: 1

Special traits

Always Helpful: All Persuasion checks are made with advantage.


Dominate Travel: The mapless fury chooses one creature that can understand spoken language, and begins to give them directions. The target must make a DC 16 Wisdom saving throw.
On a failed save, the creature will follow whatever directions the mapless fury has given them for one hour. The affected creature will not follow any directions that would cause direct harm to themselves or their party like walking off of a cliff.
The affected creature makes a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw at the end of the hour. Failed save: The creature continues on following directions given for 24 hours. All spell effects dissipate at the end of that 24 hours.
After a successful save, the creature is no longer controlled, but is confused for 15 minutes about how they got where they are.

Disorienting Touch: Will only attack when defending itself as it is only trying to be helpful. Attack +3 to hit, 11 (2d8+3) psychic damage.

Mimic Beer

by J.T. Evans, Art by Crystal Neagley

This nefarious creature slips into taverns, alehouses, and other establishments that serve fine drinks. The mimic beer will peruse nearby labels of dwarven stouts, halfing porters, gnomish lagers, and elven pilsners until it finds an appropriate draft to take the place of.

Unsuspecting barkeeps will pass the mimic beer down the bar to a hapless patron. When the patron brings the drink to their mouth to enjoy a quality brew, the mimic beer will explode into shards of glass in an attempt to kill or maim the patron.

While relatively weak, the sudden attack of a mimic beer can bring down even the heartiest consumer of alcoholic beverages, especially if they’ve already downed a few draughts earlier in the night.

Though attacks by mimic beer are rare, they become much more frequent during the creatures’ mating season, a time often referred to as Oct-faux-beer-fest.

But is it an ale, a lager, or a stout?

High Concept: Fake Beer
Trouble: The Trick’s On You!
Other Aspects: Perfect Replication, Tastes Great, Less Filling
Scale: Good (+3)
Good (+3): Fight, Deceive
Fair (+2): Notice, Will
Average (+1): Burglary, Stealth
Reproduce Label: Once per day, the mimic beer can perfectly reproduce the label from a nearby bottle of brew. Once the label is set for the day, the mimic beer can’t change its label until the next day.
Explosive Attack: As the first attack during a scene, the mimic beer can gain a +2 Fight on its attack and place either the aspect of Shocked or Outraged on the target.
Physical Stress: Ο Ο
Mental Stress: Ο Ο Ο
Size: The size of a large bottle of beer.



by Angela Murray, Art by Nuactna

That is one very annoyed cat.

A mad scientist once thought he had solved his city’s stray dog problem with a robot programmed to round them up humanely. But then, like most interesting robots, it got some ideas of its own. This nab-catcher-bot has gone off-script and decided that they needed to help in the canine revolution that only they see happening.

As a result, this nab-catcher-bot has been causing chaos throughout the city as they round up all cats they find, as well as the occasional squirrel and raccoon. Thankfully the birds don’t seem to qualify.

Where it’s taking all these annoyed felines (and other critters) no one is sure.

NAB-CATCHER-BOT (Dungeon World)
(Solitary, Medium, Robotic)

8 HP
2 armor

Taser Net (d6 damage)
Reach, Stuns

Special Qualities: Metal chassis

To round up furry things
Ignore original programming
Assist all good puppers

Anger Drake

by Chuck Lauer, Art by KC Preston

A semi-intelligent, distant relative to the couatl, the anger drake is native to similar ecology, but is much smaller and much, much cuter. Though not able to speak, anger drakes seem to understand the concepts of goodness and law well enough to follow them broadly.

Prone to flitting around humanoids playfully in order to gain their attention and affection, the anger drake makes a distinctive sound that has been described variously as “like a purr dipped in honey,” “a unicorn yawning after a nap” or “the most obnoxious thing I have ever heard. How can you stand that? Kill it. Kill it now.”

For whatever reason, characters and NPCs of neutral or evil alignment find the mere presence of an anger drake to be insufferable to the point of self-destruction, and will often go to extreme measures to just get rid of the things. While anger drakes understand physical aggression, they appear to be driven to find the good in even the most violent individuals, never attacking, even in self-defense, and only flying away when asked politely by a good character or when dropped to fewer than 20 hit points.

But it’s soooo cute…

Small celestial, lawful good
Armor Class 19 (natural armor)
Hit Points 80
Speed 30 ft, fly 90 ft

STR 3 (-4), DEX 20 (+5), CON 17 (+3)
INT 6 (-2), WIS 20 (+5), CHA 20 (+5)

Saving Throws: CON +5, WIS +7, CHA +7
Damage Resistances: Radiant
Damage Immunities: Psychic, bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks
Senses: truesight 120 ft., passive Perception 15
Languages: None
Challenge: 3

Special Traits

Innate Spellcasting: The anger drake’s
spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 15). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring only verbal components (specifically, its distinctive cry).

At will: detect evil and good, detect magic
3/day: bless, create food and water, cure wounds, lesser restoration, protection from poison, sanctuary, shield
1/day: dream, greater restoration, scrying

Aura of Affection or Obnoxiousness: Each creature within 100 feet of the anger drake
that can see or hear it must make a DC 15 Charisma saving throw each round or be affected by the Aura of Affection or
Characters of a Good alignment find the creature adorable, and cannot make any attacks, direct or indirect, against it.
Characters of a Neutral or Evil alignment find the anger drake irritating beyond the point of reason, and can take no action other than attacking the creature until it is driven away or asked to leave.

Grumbleface (Chitterface)

by Jared Rascher, Art by Toast

The Grumbleface/Chitterface is a fey that has attached itself to mortal rituals surrounding coffee. As with most faeries, the mortal behavior being mimicked is, slightly, exaggerated.

In the morning, it begins in its chitterface form, until it is either asked a question that requires cognitive energy to answer, or until it is exposed to sunlight. Once either of these triggers happen, the chitterface transforms into the grumbleface.

The grumbleface is not nearly as aggressive as it sounds, but its bellowing about needed coffee and need to avoid human contact is enough to cause stress and concern in any near it. If it goes too long without coffee, it may begin to actively destroy any work it previously did that has not been completed.

The grumbleface cannot be changed until it has had “enough coffee,” at which point, it transforms back into its chitterface form. The chitterface form is far less intimidating, but shortly after transforming, the chitterface will let out a burst of questions about daily projects and ancillary tasks that might be equally overwhelming.

In some instances, the grumbleface/chitterface transformation will trigger in the afternoon, often triggered by “one too many stupid questions.”

Get that mid-level manager a coffee, quick!

High Concept: Highly Motivated Faerie Creature
Trouble: High Energy Can Be High Maintenance
Other Aspects: Not Even Supposed to be Here Today, This Needs to be Redone from Scratch, Wait—I Have An Idea!
Great (+4): Intimidate (Grumbleface)/
Organization (Chitterface)
Fair (+2): Throw Paperwork (Grumbleface)/Navigate Co-workers (Chitterface)
They Have a Point (Grumbleface): Whenever the grumbleface causes stress with an intimidation attack, they can also give that character a “They Have A Point” aspect with a free invoke. If the character with this aspect spends their turn drinking coffee, they may remove this aspect and the free invoke.
Making Up for Lost Time (Chitterface): Whenever the grumbleface transforms into its chitterface from, the chitterface immediately makes an area attack on everyone in its area and all adjacent areas, using its Organization skill. This causes stress to everyone that fails to defend against the attack, as they cannot answer questions fast enough to get the chitterface up to speed.
The chitterface does not have traditional stress boxes, only a set of countdown boxes.

Countdown (Enough Coffee) Ο Ο Ο Ο
Trigger (All Boxes): Character has made an overcome action to determine what kind of coffee the grumbleface needs and how best to deliver it.
Outcome: The grumbleface transforms into a chitterface

Countdown (One Too Many Stupid Questions) Ο Ο Ο Ο
Trigger (All Boxes): Someone asks the chitterface a question that is obvious or has nothing to do with the current situation, and another character has failed in an overcome action to determine how to answer the superfluous question.
Outcome: The chitterface transforms into a grumbleface.


by Jen Adcock, Art by Laura Sorenson

Yeah, it’s all the things.


(Large, Solitary, Magical, Intelligent)

16 HP
5 armor

Bite (2d12+5 damage, 3 piercing)
Reach, Forceful

Special Qualities:
Entrancing look, Shooting tail spikes

To charm prey
Act with disdain


Little Bunny Tooth Tooth

by Matt Neagley, Art by Crystal Neagley

Little Bunny Tooth Tooth
hopping through the forest,
scooping up the field mice
and knocking out their teeth.

Down came the Good Fairy and said:

“Little Bunny Tooth Tooth,
I don’t want to see you
scooping up the field mice
and knocking out their teeth.
I’m going to give you a chance to change,
and if you don’t, I’m going to feature you in
a book of silly monsters.”

But the very next day…

Little Bunny Tooth Tooth
hopping through the village,
Visiting the children
and knocking out their teeth.

Down came the Good Fairy and said:
“Little Bunny Tooth Tooth,
I don’t want to see you
bothering the children
by knocking out their teeth.
I gave you a chance to change,
and now I’m going to feature you in a book
of silly monsters.”

But that very night…

Little Bunny Tooth Tooth
skulking through the forest
found a little cottage
And stole some pearly teeth.
Then out came the Good Fairy and said:
“Little Bunny Toof Toof,
I don’t like you attitude.
You’re such a little cretin,
Give me back my teef!”

And then she put him in a book of silly monsters.

Well, that tooth was kind of hurting…

Tiny fiend, chaotic evil
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 23 (8d4 + 3)
Speed 40 ft.

STR 15 (+2), DEX 17 (+3), CON 13 (+1)
INT 11 (+0), WIS 12 (+1) CHA 14 (+2)

Skills: Deception +4, Stealth +5
Senses: passive Perception 11
Languages: Infernal, Sylvan, Common
Challenge: 1 (200)

Special traits
That Rabbit’s Dynamite: Whenever Little Bunny Tooth Tooth’s final attack roll is 3 higher than it needs to be to hit a target, the target must make a DEX or CON save, DC 13 or Little Bunny Tooth Tooth rips out 1d4 of their teeth. If the target has a full helm or other such protection, Little Bunny Tooth Tooth must score a critical hit to rip out teeth. (Humans have 32 teeth. Dogs have 42, Horses have 40. Warning! Do not Google pictures of horse teeth unless you have a paper due soon and want to be unable to sleep.)
Dentamancy: Little Bunny Tooth Tooth starts each encounter with 1d8 teeth in his bag of teeth and gathers more with his That Rabbit’s Dynamite ability. He can expend up to one tooth a round (he holds it up and it rots away) as a bonus action to gain a hero point.

Bag Swing/Rabbit Punch Melee Weapon: Attack +5 to hit, reach 5 ft. one target. Hit: 10 (3d4 +3) Bludgeoning damage. This attack may trigger Little Bunny Tooth Tooth’s That Rabbit’s Dynamite ability.

Hermit Mermaid

by Chris Sniezak, Art by Toast

The hermit mermaid is a mer-creature that finds living creatures that are large enough to kill and then occupy by using their bodies as a propulsion engine within the water. They most commonly utilize fish as their tails, because they are excellent propulsion and the mouths are often easy to slide into. Because of this, they are regularly mistaken for your coral variety merfolk. Though, the dead fish eyes on their bodies are often a dead giveaway to their true nature.

When they’re not attached to a creature their lower bodies are a mass of nerve endings that probe and writhe in the water. The bioelectric currents they send out are what they use to kill their prey before sliding inside the carcass and taking it over. When in a body they are carnivores and will eat any fresh meat they come across and have a special fondness for humanoids.

Once in a body they exist within it until they grow out of it. The hermit mermaids never stop growing as long as they keep finding larger and larger bodies to exist within. There’s even a rumor of a hermit  mermaid who inhabits a kraken’s body.

A hermit mermaid’s stats depend a lot on what it’s lower body is. You’ll be choosing between sets of numbers to make this monster fit the flavor you decide for your hermit mermaid.

Wouldn’t wearing a shark hurt?

Medium humanoid, neutral
Armor Class 13
Hit Points 28 (8d8 – 8)
Speed 0 ft., Swim. 15 ft

STR 10 (+0), DEX 12 (+1), CON 9 (-1)
INT 15 (+2), WIS 14 (+2), CHA 16 (+3)

Senses: Darkvision 120ft., passive perception 12
Languages: common, primordial
Challenge: 3 (450)

Special Traits
Plug and Play: When the hermit mermaid has a dead body it can can take a minute to enter that dead body and gain the following:

  • The higher of the AC, movement, Str, Dex, and Con.
  • Any Physical special abilities of the body that make sense for it having been took over. Of course anything to do with the mouth or the brain is just out since the creature is dead and the hermit mermaid inhabits the mouth.
  • Add the former creatures maximum HP to the hermit mermaid’s total HP. When taking damage the HP gained from the creature are the first lost.
  • Add any attacks that make sense.
  • If the hermit mermaid leaves the body it loses all of the benefits.

Punch: Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 2 (1d4) bludgeoning.
Shocking Neromass: Melee Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 21 (6d6) lightning damage and the target must make a DC 13 constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of the hermit mermaid’s next turn. The hermit mermaid can only use this attack when they’re not utilizing a dead body.

Categories: Game Theory & Design