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Gnomecast #35 – Meet a New Gnome: Kira Magrann

8 March 2018 - 5:34am


Join Ang and get to know the newest Gnome, Kira, in this new episode of the Gnomecast! Enjoy this full episode of getting to know a gnome and learn about Kira’s game design and snake babies. Will Kira successfully avoid the stew, or will her first appearance be her last?

Download here: Gnomecast #35 – Meet a New Gnome: Kira Magrann

Keep up with all the gnomes by following @gnomestew on Twitter, Gnome Stew on Facebook, and the website and blog.

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

Follow Kira at @kiranansi on Twitter, the Kira Magrann Patreon page, and check out her new game A Cozy Den.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

It’s Your Game Too You Know

7 March 2018 - 5:00am

One of the channels that keeps popping up in my YouTube feed is Puffin Forrest. It’s a guy who animates stories from RPGs he has played or run. For the most part I get a laugh out of these or shake my head at the shenanigans he has had to put up with on both sides of the screen, and then I move on. But recently I came across a video that I just had to write something about. Take a look here and hopefully you will see exactly why I’m calling this out as badwrongfun:

I’ll sum up if you can’t slash don’t want to watch it: Narrator was sick of his DnD character (the healer) and wanted to play something else. He brought it up with the game master and other players and they told him he couldn’t because “It wouldn’t make sense in the story”. Cue shenanigans with the narrator trying to suicide his character in combat, finally succeeding, only to have the game master fiat him getting a free rez from his goddess. In the end the narrator concludes that “I shouldn’t have tried to force his (the GM’s) hand by being suicidal. I still want to play with the group and it’s not my game. It’s their game. It’s not my place to try and sabotage it.”

To that I say: BULL. SHIT. Absolute BULLSHIT. your character is yours and you should be happy with it

Yes, gaming is a collaborative effort. Yes, that game belongs to the other players at the table and to the game master. But it also belongs to you just as much as any other player at the table. Yes, not every second of every session has to be something you’re absolutely nuts about, but something as fundamental as your character is yours and you should be happy with it.

First, the excuse that the narrator changing characters a year into the game “wouldn’t make sense in the story” is a bullshit excuse.

  • There are plenty of stories where a main character disappears halfway through and gets replaced and more than enough ways and reasons to do it. Maybe the character:
    • Falls in love and settles down
    • Gets a promotion in his priesthood and has to tend a congregation somewhere
    • Decides to devote himself to his power in a non murder-hobo fashion
    • Is kidnapped and the rest of the group (plus a new addition) has to hunt him down and save him but by the time they do the character has had enough and retires
    • Is turned eeeeeevil by a devious alignment changing trap!
    • Maybe he even falls down a hole and hits the ground so goddamn hard he turns into a swordmage, like what happened when the tiefling warlock in this very same party (I assume) wanted to change his character. I shit you not.
  • This is the entire point of a retcon. It is 100% completely within the power of the game master to wave his hands and say “Yep, Ben’s character is now and has always been . . . I don’t know . . . a dragonborn monk.” Done. Finished. Story unbroken and contiguous from the beginning.
  • Given that the story excuse is obviously garbage, you can’t help but assume that the real reason was the old “every party needs a healer” excuse. But frankly, given how hard it was for the narrator to suicide his character while actively trying (It took an obvious grudge monster slash plot clutching to do it), that excuse clearly doesn’t hold water either. Not that it ever does.

So then what do you do if you are in the narrator’s shoes: You want to change your character and the group has collectively vetoed it?

  • You could always stop playing with assholes that are interested in making you play something they want you to instead of something you enjoy. That’s always an option. But assuming the game isn’t awful and you like the players more than you’re uninterested in the game, this won’t work.
  • Pitch some short plot arcs that get your character off the roster and a new character in their place. Come prepared with a list like the one above and pitch them to the group. See if anyone buys into one or more of them. Start a brainstorming session with the group. After all, you don’t care all that much how the character exits, just that they do.
  • Bring in and start training your replacement. Hunt down and hire an NPC or start taking more ownership of an existing NPC. Increase the spotlight time they get. As they move into the spotlight, move your old character out. Eventually step into the NPCs shoes and relegate the old PC to an NPC. Just get buy-in from the game master first. Set a timeline while discussing with the game master too, otherwise you may find this taking far longer than you’d like.
  • Worst case, start transitioning the character to something you’d like to play more. Riff off an event in the game and start roleplaying a shift in attitude. Maybe the narrator’s priest becomes disillusioned with a non-violent approach, heads down a more merciless path and starts multiclassing into paladin. Maybe they start hearing voices and having visions after being exposed to an outsider, starts speaking in riddles and multiclasses into sorcerer.

If you’re the game master in this situation, same deal. No amount of “important to the story” is something that can’t be worked around for a player to have a character they can enjoy. You may have to weave in a subplot, you might have to scale back encounter difficulty for a while till you get a hold on the way a new character clicks with the group, but those are things you’re doing anyway. Don’t be a big jerk.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Why Safety Tools Are Important To Me

5 March 2018 - 5:00am

I grew up in the 1980’s when D&D came in two flavors: Basic and Advanced. Back then, we just played the game and didn’t worry about table safety and how people felt. That was in a large part for two reasons: First, we lacked the experience and lexicon to describe the concept of table safety. Second, we were kids and safety, in general, was mostly an alien concept. As evidence, I submit the giant dirt ramp we jumped on our bicycles without helmets, Roman candle fights, and riding in the back of station wagons without seat belts.

So it might sound like I am not a big fan of table safety or safety tools. Wrong.

Today, I am going to share some of my reasons why, and how I handle safety at my tables.

We Got Better At This

Just because we rode in the back of station wagons without seat belts then, does not mean that my kids don’t need to wear seat belts now. Nor are my kids allowed on their bikes without helmets on. The reason being is that as time goes on, we learned more and develop better safety tools (helmets, airbags, etc), making things safer. Why wouldn’t we want to be safe or make the people we love safe?

The same is true for role-playing games. Yes back in the Moldvay D&D days I was not using an X-card, but I was certainly triggered by an adversarial GM who could (and did) ruin sessions based on their mood. Today, we have learned about table safety and we have real tools we can use to communicate safety. Similar to how I won’t leave the driveway until everyone is seat-belted in, I don’t start running a game until I put my X-card on the table.

Safety Recap

This article is more about why I use safety tools than what they are, but for those not totally familiar with them, here is a brief recap of some major concepts.

  • Safety – the feeling of being respected, having a voice at the table, not being bullied, being candid, and not having any emotions triggered.
  • Safety tools – items and procedures that can be used during a game to set boundaries and to indicate when safety may have been compromised.
  • Safety break – when something in the game causes one or more players in the game to lose safety. Sometimes referred to as triggering or being triggered.

There are a number of great safety tools that can be used. Each approaches safety a bit differently, but all have the intention to maintain safety at the table. For an awesome list of safety resources, check out the Safety webpage for Breakout Con (shout-out to Rachelle Shelkey for compiling the list):   My Favorite Tools

I have three favorite safety tools that I use in my games today. I don’t use all three in every game, but I have all three available when I play. They are:

  • Lines and Veils – This tool establishes boundaries in a game; defining what we won’t include in the game (Lines), and what we will include but not in great detail (Veils).
  • X-Card – This tool is a card on the table that any player can touch to indicate that some content in a scene is breaking safety for them and that we should move on. This is like a circuit breaker, it kicks in when safety is about to be compromised and allows us to change direction.
  • Support Flower – This tool is pretty new (to me) and it works similar to an X-Card. It allows players to check in with three levels: green (ok), yellow (slow down), red (stop). This is more analog to the X-card’s binary state. Also, it creates an environment of active consent, where everyone can check in where they are during a scene.
How I use them

I use a safety tool in all the games I run, at home and especially at conventions. What I use, and how I use them, differs.

At Home

Here, I am playing with friends who I know fairly well. We have played a number of games together, hung out socially, etc. I know most of their triggers, like Bob’s fear of spiders. For my home table, I use the X-Card. This turns out to be all the safety I need for the average game. It does not matter if we are playing Blades in the Dark or Damn The Man Save The Music, I have an X-Card on the table.

At a Convention

These tables are a mix of strangers, acquaintances, and friends. I don’t know everyone’s triggers, so safety is much more precarious. Here I like to start with Lines and Veils and create some boundaries of things people do not want in the game. Then I will put down an X-Card so that during the game if something was not covered with Lines and Veils, we have a way to identify and deal with that.

Specific Games

One last case: there are certain tools I will use for certain games. Turning Point, a game that Senda and I are developing, can deal with heavy emotional content. In this game, we often start with Lines and Veils and if the subject matter is not too emotionally charged, then we will use an X-Card. For the more delicate subject matter, however, we will use the Support Flower to make the safety a bit more active and granular.

What Having Safety Tools Says

When I put out safety tools, another GM puts them out for their game, or a convention provides or requires their use, it conveys a message. It says two things:

Imagine that you got in the car with your parent driving and they did not tell you to put on your seat belt. You would feel put out as if they did not care for your safety. 

Your safety is important. The fact that tools are being used means that this table (and convention) values your safety, and wants you to have a positive experience at the table. This is important. Imagine that you got in the car with your parent driving and they did not tell you to put on your seat belt. You would feel put out as if they did not care for your safety.  Having tools at your table is like telling people to put on their seat belt. It shows you care.

Its ok to say something. When we put out tools, we are also telling people it is ok to express their discomfort at some content in the game. We are not asking people to “suck it up” or “get over it”. We are encouraging them to express themselves and telling them that we will respect their feelings. It says that we will work together to avoid those things that would make someone not feel safe.

But I Run A Safe Table, I Don’t Need Tools…

It’s a common excuse used by people who don’t use safety tools. They just run safe games, so tools are not needed or are at worst silly. Back to my car analogy – I am a really safe driver. I use blinkers, mostly drive the speed limit, and at least sometimes use two hands on the wheel. If you have never met me, would you be ok being in my passenger seat without a seat belt and if I disabled the passenger-side airbag? But seriously, I am a safe driver.

Yes, you may be a very conscientious GM who runs a clean table. That does not mean that you have any idea what is going to break safety with any random player at your table, nor does it guarantee that you are going to see the signs of someone who is in distress when their safety has been broken.

Put the seat belt on, put the safety tool on the table.

Keeping It Safe

Over the 30+ years I have been gaming, games have gotten more sophisticated and elegant. We began to develop a language for what is going on in the mechanics of our games and what is happening at our tables. From that understanding, we came to understand safety and then learned how to protect it.

Just like cars went from only seat belts to include airbags, crumple zones, backup cameras, and now collision detection, our gaming community developed tools to help make games safer. We have tools to define boundaries, to indicate threats to safety, and ones to convey active consent. There is no reason not to use them. They don’t make you weaker. Rather, they say that you care about who you are playing with, care that they remain safe, and that they have a good time at your table.

So buckle up before you role…play, that is.

Do you use safety tools? Do you use them for your home games? Con games? Which tools do you prefer? Which ones are you curious about?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Love Your Players, Love Yourself

2 March 2018 - 5:00am

gay love too <3

The night was cold, the fireplace was roaring, and we were gnawing on the delicious ratatouille and fresh baked bread our host Leslie had made. We warded off the three adorable pups as we idly chatted and a few people lazily looked over the Monsterhearts skins.  It finally happened, my lady and genderqueer friends convinced me to run them a Monsterhearts campaign. I’ve run this game about a billion times for friends and at game conventions and I’m even (abashedly) in a link on the Monsterhearts site that leads to a youtube game I ran a few years ago. So its easy for me to run it, even a few wines in. This time though, I wanted to try something a little different than my usual fare, since it was potentially a campaign instead of a one-shot. It turned out really successful! Here’s what I did.

Prep Work

I did some real basic prep work, cause I don’t like doing prep work. I’m an adult – ain’t nobody got time to stat NPCs. Just in general I’m also not a fan of “lonely fun”, basically spending time on my own with game stuff (unless it’s design, then I’m all in). The fun in game play, for me, is the collaborative stuff. To prep for this game of Monsterhearts, I made a series of lists I was going to share with my friends when we got together. I made lists loosely named “Inspirations”,”What I want to see”, and “Locations”. So kinda like this:


  • Suspiria: ballet school? something trippy
  • Ouran Host Club: all the characters are part of a school club?
  • Hemlock Grove: good trash, small town-ish

What I Want to See

  • dopplegangers, demons, people talking backwards, vampires, evil mermaids, scary cell phones, drugs, etc…


  • rooftops, pool, graveyard, ghost towns, bathrooms, lake, forest, cornfield, tunnel, etc…
Player Collaboration

I brought this list to game night with a general idea of the order of how I wanted to do things. Propose the inspirations first, then do character creation with everyone, then go through the “What I want to see” and “Locations” sections with everyone, then build some villains, then play a few intro scenes! Everyone loved the idea of the ballet school so we went with it, although we did consider just a normal dance school for a little while. Another player, C, even added a few more inspirational media to ballet list: Black Swan, Center Stage, and First Position.

This collaborative discussion of “I want this in the game” and also “I think I’d like to see it this way instead” and “can we maybe add this too?” are not only essential for MY fun, but essential to allowing creative input to the game we’re all about to play. The more people have input into what they’re about to do, the more agency they have, and the more agency people have, the more likely they feel the game belongs to them too!

The GM is a Player Too

This note is super important. REMEMBER, THE GM IS A PLAYER TOO. Definitely highlight the players and try to create as much fun for them as possible, but if you’re the GM, don’t forget your own fun. You’re playing this game too! Make sure to include things that are fun for you, or even ask for your own fun, or x-card out things you don’t want in the game as well. Don’t go too far on the servant side or too far on the dictator side of GMing… find somewhere more along the lines of collaborator. I find that when I conceptualize myself as a player having fun too, I more easily scale how much work I’m willing/able to do for the game and players. If I’m having fun, I usually have more creative energy! I find that when I conceptualize myself as a player having fun too, I more easily scale how much work I’m willing/able to do for the game and players. If I’m having fun, I usually have more creative energy! 

Being Transparent

There’s a few things I do to maintain a level of transparency with the group. I find that when I lay out my agenda for the evening people are more prepared mentally for what’s about to go down. They’ll know, ok, we’re going to do character creation next, and I can take a break after themes and locations, and can ask “oh I can only stay this long can we fit all that in by ten”? Additionally, they know I’m organized cause I’ve thought what order everything should go in! Trust and efficiency go up among everyone.

I’m also real transparent with my goals for the game! I share most of my ideas, like “I want vampires cause they’re awesome and scary and I’m vampire trash!” so it’s totally clear what my agenda is and nobody needs to guess. Then, when I’m running the game, I can decide when, where, and how to place those vampires, but everyone knows there’s vampires coming. It creates a fun sense of anticipation, while also being clear that nothing untoward is coming that someone wasn’t expecting. It also allows me to still be creative and free-form, adding the vampires where I like! Maybe they’re the villains, but oh wait, we have a werewolf character now, and everyone knows how werewolves and vampires feel about each other.

Checking-In About Content

After character creation, I shared the lists of “What I want to see” and “locations” with everyone, so that we were able as a group to determine what’s cool, what we all want, and what we’d rather leave out. These were ideas I kinda whipped out as a starting point. I can, as the GM, say where I’d like to start, and then the players can add or delete some of my ideas. So I’m kinda providing a rough draft of the game, like, “how do you like the way this looks”, and then the players can tweak and give me feedback on those ideas.

I, for example, am hilariously terrified of dolls and clowns. Sometimes I like being scared by them! But most of the time I’d just rather not engage. So I vetoed those in our game. Some of the other players decided to veto cornfields cause we wanted a forest, and other things in the setting because we decided we’d like it to be on a mountaintop. So with these lists established, I easily checked-in with my players about the kind of content they were comfortable with, and also what else they’d like to see added. Someone added a field of beautiful flowers, for example, and it wasn’t on my list.


So it worked out really well! We played a few scenes, and we all had these lists to pull inspiration from if we needed a location, or if I needed inspiration for a GM move. Although we totally forgot to create villains, but we’ll be doing that next session. Collaboratively creating villains is so fun, everyone basically has input into what they want to be up against in the game fiction. Super fun. Do you use lists like this in your game prep as well? What ways do you work toward group consent of content in your games?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Unsolicited Advice and Player Agency

28 February 2018 - 5:00am

In role playing we are all the actors and the audience. It is important to pass the spotlight to the other players to ensure everyone shares in the fun!

Recently a gamer friend sent me a message asking for my perspective about a situation that unfolded at a game table where they were a player. In the situation, some players and the game master were directing a player on how to spend her turn. Shortly afterwards, an article began circulating on social media that covered an extreme case of the same topic, titled “Honey, Let the Real Gamers Play.” The confluence of these two events inspired me to share my perspective on what can generously be referred to as providing unsolicited advice but can be more directly referred to as taking away a player’s agency.

Note that this article is not about the intention of the people offering unsolicited advice. This is about catching people, including yourself, on the edge of overwhelming another players agency and how to move forward in game.

The Situation Here’s one of the golden rules in role playing: Let the other players do their thing.

In the aforementioned article, the writer shares a situation in which the GM and other players take away the writer’s sense of control by taking her turns for her. In the ultimate denial of agency, she was not allowed to select her own actions or even roll dice to determine the outcome. In my friend’s situation, the game master and several players at the table “helped” the player (playing a caster with some healing capabilities) to choose how to play her character by collectively suggesting what action she take or what spell she cast. By the end of the game the player called out the other participants for effectively taking over her turns.

My Perspective

It sucks to be the player on the receiving end of unsolicited advice. It makes assumptions both about the character’s personality and the player’s ability to bring that character to life. Unsolicited advice tells a player in not so many words that their fellow players – often their friends – think they are better at playing the character than the player herself.

It can feel like bullying to be on the receiving end of even well-intentioned, excited, or enthusiastic suggestions. A player may feel like they are disappointing a friend or the team if they don’t use the idea, and that’s basically the best outcome. Bottom line: It is not fun.

Here’s one of the golden rules in role playing: Let the other players do their thing.

Transforming Unsolicited Advice into Help  If a player seems to be floundering but remains silent, go ahead and ask, “Do you want a suggestion?” Full Stop. Wait for consent before offering advice, that’s the magic that transforms the unsolicited advice into help. 

Don’t get me wrong, cooperation is great – this is a team game after all. But that has to be a two way conversation. A person’s control over their character’s decisions is absolute – otherwise it’s not truly their character.

If a player is stumped and needs ideas or rules clarification I hope that player speaks up and asks for help. But silence doesn’t always mean someone needs or wants help. They may just be trying to decide their reaction to the prior player’s actions. That’s part of the collaborative nature of RPGs, the story evolves as we play – contemplation is part of responding effectively.

If a player seems to be floundering but remains silent, go ahead and ask, “Do you want a suggestion?” Full Stop. Wait for consent before offering advice, that’s the magic that transforms the unsolicited advice into help.

Why shouldn’t I freely voice my awesome ideas?  Part of being an all-star player is passing the spotlight to your fellow players and helping everyone to have fun. 

I’ve done this. I’ve got a big personality and when I have ideas bubble up I want to share them with the world. But when I realized how much I hate it when people tell me how to play my character, I started making a conscious effort to rein myself in. Part of being an all-star player is passing the spotlight to your fellow players and helping everyone to have fun.

Tables where everyone feels like their ideas are enthusiastically encouraged are where players thrive and surprise us with their ingenuity. It is the starting place for games that are pure magic. It would be absolutely boring to play an RPG with a table full of people who think exactly the same way as each other. No one would ever be able to surprise anyone. That’s the beauty of role playing, the story unfolds in unexpected ways for the players and facilitator alike.

How can I help tamp down on unsolicited advice at the game table?

As the player offering unsolicited advice:

  • Always get permission from a player to give them advice before doing so. If they do not want your advice, do not voice it. Kick some ass on your turn.
  • Charge yourself an in game resource to give advice. Spend your action role playing to persuade your counterpart to take an action. Spend a Benny or a Fate Chip to offer advice. In essence you are potentially getting a second turn, so yes it should cost you enough that you consider whether it’s worth doing.

As the Game Master at a table where unsolicited advice is flying:

  • Take control of the situation and shut down people who are overwhelming another player. Part of the role of game facilitator is to create a space where everyone shares in having fun. If players don’t feel in control of their own character they are not going to have fun.
  • Regardless of if the player takes the suggested action, charge the player(s) giving the unsolicited advice an in-game resource: an action, a Benny, an Advantage, or something else. Make the cost matter.
  • Ask the player directly “What do you want to do?” Make eye contact and use other body language to make it clear you are giving the spotlight to the current player.

As the player on the receiving end of unsolicited and unwanted advice:

  • If you are comfortable being assertive, tell the other player(s) “I’ve got this.”
  • Ask if they are spending their action trying to persuade you in character.
    • If not, tell them if they aren’t keeping it in game your character would have no idea what they want and move forward with your turn.
    • If so, have them role play it. Accept the suggestion or not as best suits you and your character.
  • Above all, remember: you are playing pretend. Your ideas are equally as right as anyone else’s, and you are always right when it comes to your own character. If anyone takes away your sense of agency in the game, don’t play with that person anymore.
Power Dynamics

Power dynamics come into play when offering advice. Before voicing advice, consider if the person you are advising may see themselves as having a different status within the gaming community. If so, you may unintentionally be creating a situation in which it is hard for them to say no.
If you:

  • are a more vocal player
  • are a more experienced player
  • know other participants in the group better
  • have a different gender identity, cultural heritage, age, etc.
  • are a gaming celebrity, game master, game event staff, or otherwise well-known member of the gaming community

Then you may have a perceived higher status, and you should be especially careful about offering unsolicited advice. This is tough because it means flipping a switch in your own mind to try see how other people may view you as having higher status even when you like to think “I’m just a regular person.”

Whatever the situation may be: always assume the other person is equally as adept at playing pretend as you are and act accordingly.

Final Thought

As either a player or the game facilitator, make a conscious decision to support and encourage all of the players at your table. Challenge yourself to build off of other players’ ideas by employing the improvisational technique of “Yes, and…!” Your enthusiasm for what someone else brings to the table will help them to feel valued and your own role playing ability will grow.

Here’s my wish for everyone at the game table: assume you and all your companions have an equal level of creativity. Then together, play a game that surprises everyone.

Have you received unsolicited advice at the game table? How did you deal with it? As a game master how do you support and uplift the ideas of players who seem unsure or hesitant? What are some other ideas for how to rein yourself in or others who are offering unsolicited advice?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

High Plains Samurai Legends Review

27 February 2018 - 5:00am

Genre mash-ups can be a great premise for a campaign. There are times when a genre doesn’t interest you all that much, but you understand it well enough that if there were just something “more” added to that genre, you would be all over running or playing a game in that setting.

In my case, I have enjoyed several westerns, but I’m not sure if I could run a western game without anything else attached to it. On the other hand, throw in horror or supernatural elements, and I start having a lot of ideas about how a campaign should play out.

Or, in the case of the game I’m reviewing this time around, take the western genre, add steampunk, samurai, wuxia, gangsters, and the post-apocalyptic genre, and you have something that catches my attention. High Plains Samurai Legends is the starter product for the High Plains Samurai roleplaying game coming later this year.

The Concoction

This review is based on the preview copy PDF of High Plains Samurai Legends sent out to the Kickstarter backers. I checked with Todd Crapper, of Broken Ruler Games, to make sure that nothing drastic would be changing from this version of the product to final release before writing the review.

The PDF is 82 pages long, including front and back covers, a list of Kickstarter backers, pre-generated characters, and the rule and setting information itself. The front and back covers are full-color art, with the interiors graced with sepia-toned line art, with bright red headers and black and white formatting throughout. There is also a full-color map of The One Land included in the document.

The artwork is well done and evocative, and the use of red highlights for the headers and tables is striking and attention-grabbing.

Book One: A Land Once Whole

The opening chapter of the book details the history of the setting and how it looks today. This is not our world in a dark future, but an alternate reality shattered by gods. The setting, as presented, consists of the Five Cities and the Wastes.

Several of the cities favor one of the core, mashed-up genres more than others. Rust is the steampunk city, for example, and Monsoon is where the samurai call home.

The history is very broad. It doesn’t give specific dates, or say much about the world before it was shattered. The final page of the chapter explains that this is an intentional design choice to give individual groups room to customize and add details as they want.

For me, it was enough detail to get my attention and begin to envision what kinds of adventures could be run utilizing the setting. It shows a nice, light touch, given how easy it would be to overload this chapter with details informed by all the different influences the setting draws from.

Book Two: How It Works

This section explains the rules used to play out scenarios in the setting. The rules are based on the Screenplay rules that are available separately (but without any implied setting). This game is a procedural narrative game, meaning that story elements are more important than any kind of simulation, but there are specific, defined ways in which story elements can be introduced.

The game divides players into Writers and Directors. The Director serves largely the same purpose that a GM might serve in another RPG. Writers are each responsible for a Lead Character, which functions much like a PC in other games. Writers can also introduce supporting characters into scenes, assuming the Director doesn’t call for a Rewrite.The language of the game heavily favors terms used in television and motion picture production.

Characters are made up of several parts.

  • Potentials are rated as dice from d4 to d12, and are rolled to attack or to overcome challenges
  • Perks are special ways in which a specific character amends the rules in a given circumstance
  • Vitality is a rating of how long a character can affect the scene, which may encompass health, but also composure or cognitive stress

For anyone familiar with Cortex games, Potentials are similar to powers or attributes from that game, except that they also set a limit to the number of details a character can introduce on their turn, and they set a defense number when others act on the character.

Because the game is framed heavily as an emulation of film or television, Vitality isn’t just health, but also the ability of the character to stay active in a scene. A character that is “attacked” by a devastating argument and runs out of vitality is taken out of a scene just like a character that is attacked by a baseball bat and knocked unconscious. Based on how a character is roleplayed and the goals of a scene, characters may regain Vitality, and any character that gets taken out of a scene and isn’t described as being permanently removed from the story regains some Vitality so they can participate in the next scene.

Details are just that–they are how many items you can describe in the scene that then become facts. If those facts detail elements that were introduced by another player, they can call for a Rewrite. Most of the time, this means that a character can state that they accomplish something in the narrative unchallenged, but the Director can spend their complications to force a character to use one of their Potentials to roll against a difficulty to see if they avoid the complication.

When a character wants to remove another character from a scene, they can attack them, and attempt to remove their Vitality so that they can no longer participate in a scene. This involves rolling the potential die versus the defense difficulty set by the die step of the potential that the defending character is using.

Each character has a Qi power. There are charts that show what kind of powers are available under a broader heading, but if a character has a Qi power that lets them do something, they can narrate themselves doing something that relates to that Qi power, unless the Director introduces a Complication or another character is opposing them.

Characters also have Resource slots. Resource slots are equipped at the beginning of the story, and if they are relevant to an action, they might grant either a boost to the die step of a Potential rolled, or a bonus to damage. Qi powers are “always on,” but if a character wants their Qi power to give them a specific benefit in combat or overcoming obstacles, it needs to be equipped in a Resource slot. The following things can be equipped as Resources:

  • Skills
  • Backgrounds
  • Teachings
  • Props
  • Qi powers

When a character acts, they add a number of details to the scene, based on the number allowed by their Potential. If they need to roll the potential to attack, all their details should be used to describe actions or circumstances leading to the attack. The Potential represents how much a character can accomplish, so the die starts at the bottom and can go up to a maximum of the die rating. In addition, characters must use a detail to explain that they are using one of their Resources for it to be factored into a roll.

Now that the system clicks in my mind, I really like it, and want to see it in action at a table. It did take a careful reread to fully understand some of the rule interactions at play. While much of the system is very narrative in nature, there are a few throwbacks to more simulationist rules, such as specific bonuses from different types of cover, and between that and learning to translate the new terms and mapping them to game concepts, I was initially a bit lost.

Book Three, Book Four, and Book Five

The next three chapters are starting adventures for the game. The specific scenarios are Showdown in Yung Zhi, To Catch a Train, and Black Scorpion. These adventures have a timeline, as in how long it should take to run various parts of the game at the table, a plot summary, key initiatives spelled out, and supporting characters.

Each one does a very nice job of explaining what is happening in the adventure, what triggers an encounter, what ends a scene, and how the story wraps up. This is done not just in the text, but with specific sections that call out triggers, goals, and what characters are in the scene, and with special highlighting and formatting to make it easier to see those key elements of the adventure.

I feel like all three scenarios do a good job of showing you what adventures look like in this world. Showdown in Yung Zhi is probably the most standard adventure of the three with a straightforward bounty hunting plot. To Catch a Train has some wild setting elements related to both the steampunk side of the setting and the chaos of the wastes. Black Scorpion introduces a major recurring character in the setting, and does a good job of letting you know why she is important in the adventure itself, in a manner that can be presented to the Writers in the game.

There is a character that is suggested as being allowed to escape at the end of one of the adventures, which might feel contrived in a less narrative system, but in a game that is already talking about manipulating the meta-structure of the narrative and introduces Rewrites, I don’t think it feels out of place.

Appendix:  The Finishing Touches 

The appendix includes pre-generated characters to use for the adventures, blank sheets to use for creating Director characters, summary charts all collected in one place, and a random table for determining Qi powers.

+1 Step Modifier If you are already prepared to jump into a narrative game . . . there is a lot of potential for cinematic action in a wild and imaginative setting, in a book that looks great and is structured to be very friendly to the Director running the adventures. 

The book’s appearance is striking, and that’s relevant beyond just the aesthetic value. That striking appearance helps to call out items in the adventures, sidebars, and special rules. The setting is evocative and has lots of room for play, and gives just enough detail to be useful. The rules provide a structure that allows for narrative descriptions that can be as cinematic as the players are able to provide, but still have some built-in mechanics to remind the players when to move the spotlight. The adventure structure is very useful at a table, and even divorced from the specific rules would be a nice template to follow to keep track of triggers and the flow of information about the plot.

-1 Step Modifier

The stated purpose of this product is to serve both as an introduction and potentially as a quick reference for players at the table. While I think it serves as a good introduction, I’m not sure that it will be the best reference book. It took a little bit of effort to assemble the rules in my head when reading, and there is text mentioning a limit to perks and how to refresh the ability to use them, but it’s only found on the pre-generated characters or in one line on a table.

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.

High Plains Samurai Legends does seem as if it would be a good introduction to the setting and style of the finished product. It looks great, the formatting is on point, and the adventures appear to be very table friendly.

That said, if you aren’t already someone that enjoys more narrative games, I’m not sure if this is going to be the game to convert you. With the ability to use Rewrites and potentially introducing supporting characters that don’t belong to the Director, and certain rules that protect elements introduced by the Writers, it may feel too many steps removed from a more traditional game.

On the other hand, if you are already prepared to jump into a narrative game, and you don’t mind thinking through all the rules interactions, there is a lot of potential for cinematic action in a wild and imaginative setting, in a book that looks great and is structured to be very friendly to the Director running the adventures.

Do you have a favorite game that mashes up genres? How do you feel about framing RPGs in terminology from other media? Any games you think I should check out in the future? Please let me know. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Magician’s Choice: Using an Age-Old Conjuror’s Trick at the Table

26 February 2018 - 6:08am

Today’s guest article, by Noah Lloyd, is about the illusion of choice and makes multiple references to the classic film Labyrinth, which hooked us from the beginning. – John “Hoggle is Bae” Arcadian

When Sarah encounters two doors, “one that always tells the truth, and one that always lies,” in the Labyrinth, why does she still wind up in the oubliette, even though her answer to the riddle seems sound? It’s not that Jareth is cruel, or that The Labyrinth is just a topsy-turvy place, but that the oubliette and the helping hands are more interesting to the story.

I’d like to propose that the riddle Sarah encounters at this point in the film is an example of a “magician’s choice.” Also called equivocation, “magician’s choice” refers to a technique by which a spectator believes that a choice (of a card, an image, etc.) is freely theirs to make. Risking exile from the halls of magicians the world over, allow me to give you some insight into this simple technique, and how we can incorporate it into our own roleplaying games.

How it Works

The long and the short of equivocation is that, no matter how much freedom a spectator believes they have, they wind up choosing the precise card the magician needs for the trick to continue. This can be accomplished in a few ways. In a classic example, the magician has contrived the situation so that a card you selected earlier in the trick is now card A:

For argument’s sake, let’s say you pick B. The magician might then say, “okay, interesting, we’ll remove that card from the table.” You now have three options. A, B, or D? You select C, and same thing, C’s taken off the table. But here comes the interesting part. When you next pick A, the magician tells you to leave your finger on the card. “So that’s your final choice…” they say, taking D off the table. And, magically, there’s your card, freely chosen.

Did you see what happened? When you selected A, instead of removing it from the table like they did with all the other choices, they removed D, changing the logic of the choice on the fly, brazen as anything. (Before you go saying, “Oh that’s so simple, that would never work…” trust me, it works.)

Do I even need to mention that if you select A as your first card, all the magician has to do is smile?

The Magician’s choice works because you don’t know what to expect at each step: when you select a card, the magician hasn’t told you beforehand that the card will be removed or stay, nor do they tell you if the rules will work the same on your next choice. Instead, they change the rules at will, depending on your selections.

What’s important here is that the spectator selects a card that’s necessary for the trick to continue. Because the card is important, the spectator feels empowered, or even magical. Similarly, we should use this technique in games when the result of the choice is going to advance the narrative, or prove important to the characters in some other way.

A few things are important for us to take away from this example. If we can meet these criteria, we’ll have accomplished our goal:

  • The spectator feels magical;
  • The card selected is important to the trick;
  • The spectator doesn’t realize that their selection was predetermined.
How it Looks to Players

The Magician’s choice works because you don’t know what to expect at each step  How, and why, should we adapt this to our GMing? The magician’s goal is to make the spectator feel magical (not the magician). The spectator should feel like they’ve selected their card by fair means, not been controlled by the magician. To players, a magician’s choice should look like the choice Sarah faces halfway through The Labyrinth (“She should never have made it as far as the oubliette!”). The choice is never arbitrary (not like our card selection example above), but behind a memorable challenge, like Sarah’s riddle.

As GMs, our jobs are even easier than the magician’s—we don’t have to change the rules anywhere along the way or remove any of the options the players ignored. Whatever road they take, whatever door they open, the helping hands (which we spent all morning prepping for) wait on the other side.

Presenting a Magician’s Choice

Always make the choice important to continuing the story. In The Labyrinth, Sarah’s encounter with the riddle marks a chokepoint in the film, and in the labyrinth itself, funneling the story from aboveground to belowground. It’s an important turning point in the film and in Sarah’s development. The result of the choice we craft for our players should have an impact on the rest of the adventure—there’s no going back.

The question, of course, is why bother? Why put two doors at the end of a hallway when you’ve only prepped one room? It’s all about, as a friend of mine put it, “the illusion of choice.” Significantly, the players (your spectators) should never realize what’s going on. And that’s the thing about illusions, they add depth to the world (“there were more doors you could have opened, more roads you could have taken”) without adding to a GM’s limited prep time.

This is essentially the classic advice that if your players decide not to go into a dungeon, don’t throw away your prep for that dungeon. This is equivocation, but temporally delayed instead of spatially. So long as the players go into a dungeon, someday in the future, they’ll always wind up in the selfsame crypt you prepped all those sessions ago.

For Sarah, and for anyone else watching The Labyrinth: what’s on the other side of the door Sarah didn’t pick? The answer is better than “we don’t know,” or even “certain death,” the answer is worlds of wonder we’ll never see.

The Railroad Accusation, or, Maintaining Consequences

 what’s on the other side of the door Sarah didn’t pick? The answer is… worlds of wonder we’ll never see. I can hear some of you shouting at your computer screens that this is simply another kind of railroad. But is it really? Players dislike railroads because they feel like they can’t affect the world. Unlike most railroads, this choice feels like it has consequence: that’s the real value of a magician’s choice. When the door locks behind the heroes, or vanishes altogether, the hallway stretching out before them, dripping with blood, feels ominous and consequential (even though the other door led to the same hall).

Note that I’ve said nothing about leading players to a magician’s choice, or about restricting their agency after making their choice. Their ability to influence the world on either side of the choice is deeply important to maintaining the illusion—another reason why we only use these choices around important moments.

A Recipe for Magical Equivocation
  • Make sure the result of the choice has a major impact on the story;
  • Place the choice behind a memorable challenge or obstacle;
  • Hide the choice behind other layers: these could be spatial, temporal, etc.;
  • Always create repercussions for the players’ choice. Even when multiple choices lead to the same scene, the choices themselves are different;
  • Eliminate their ability to go backward and explore other options (“A portcullis drops over the door! You’re trapped!”).

Try this out at your table sometime, like a wily old conjuror. And let me know how it goes…

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Dominant Player

23 February 2018 - 5:00am

Yeah, dominant can mean that guy too.

They’re easy to spot when you start playing. Confident and forthright or pushy and obstinate, they’re often the first voice the GM hears. You certainly can’t ignore them. Dominant players are difficult to miss and they end up being either a blessing or a bane at the table.

At a recent convention, I ran a one-shot of Nights Black Agents that didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I had run the scenario before, but the previous run had been with four players that worked well together. At the con, I had a full table of six players and for a variety of reasons, they didn’t gel into a cohesive team. Almost immediately in the scenario, they ignored the clues that were in front of them and started going in drastically different directions from one another. They were definitely not embodying the tight team of elite mercenaries that were on the character sheets. While I try very hard not to railroad players, I still had to resort to some ungentle nudges to keep the game moving forward. As it was, we ended up having to handwave much of the big finale fight with the vampire villain because it took so long to get to him.

That wasn’t the worst problem, though. Because I was so frustrated with their lack of cohesion and how often they were refusing to look at the clues they already had in hand, I missed a social dynamics problem at the table until it was too late to fix it. One of the players was talking over the other players, not listening to them, and outright stealing ideas on occasion. This was the bad kind of dominant player and I had missed how frustrating his behavior had become to the rest of the table.

Now, understand, dominant players are not always a bad thing. In fact, hopefully you usually get a good dominant player. These are the folks that make the GM’s job easier by offering a natural leadership that pulls the rest of the players into the game. They’re often the rainmakers who can take a tiny seed of an idea and grow it into one of the best plot threads of the game. When they’re good, they’re inclusive with the other players and always helping push the game forward. The best ones I’ve ever played with keep me on my toes and challenge me to be a better GM, and I know they’re making the game something even better than I could do on my own.

The best ones I’ve ever played with keep me on my toes and challenge me to be a better GM, and I know they’re making the game something even better than I could do on my own. 

When they’re a problem, though, they’re still taking that leadership role and demanding attention, but they’re not doing it for the benefit of the table. Sometimes it’s a matter of being a spotlight hog and wanting all of the GM’s attention during the game. Occasionally it’s an arrogance that dismisses the ideas of the other players and pushes them aside because they think they know better. There can be varying levels of this, but eventually it will frustrate the other players and create a social dynamic that will be untenable in the long run.

As a GM, it can be difficult to realize when this is happening. In my case, I was so caught up in trying to make sure the players actually had the information they needed for the plot that I wasn’t realizing how problematic that particular player was being. It’s important that we TRY to keep tabs on the social dynamics at our tables, but it doesn’t mean it is easy. When you’re trying to handle the adversaries, all the NPCs, the entire world of the game while keeping it moving forward at a reasonable pace, and keep the spotlight moving around the table, you can sometimes miss the little clues that will let you realize you’ve got a problem.

The moment you realize you do have a problem, step in and try and fix it. Be more mindful of how that one player is dominating the game. If they’re a regular player, have a talk with them after the game and maybe you can nudge them into being a more beneficial dominant player. During the game, keep the spotlight moving and be aware of when the bad dominant player is getting up to their old tricks. If you can’t get them to work on the problem, maybe consider asking them to find another game to play.

For players, you need to stand up for yourselves and each other too. When you see someone getting pushed aside or talked over, absolutely speak up. Maybe you’re not comfortable taking that domineering, leadership role yourself, but you can still defend and support everyone at the table. Occasionally those dominant players may not even realize they’re being that big of a problem and just need a nudge to remember it’s a cooperative game for everyone at the table.

Hopefully, all your dominant players are the good ones. When you’ve got a good one at your table, you know your job is easier and the game is going to be a good one.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The 8 Steps to Adventure Design

21 February 2018 - 5:32am

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

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

The 8 Parts of Adventure Design

Adventures can be broken down into these component parts:

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

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

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

Bad Guys

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

Who needs help?

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


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

The Fights

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

Crime scenes

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

Other challenges

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

The Hook

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

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Scene and Sequel

20 February 2018 - 5:00am

I’m going to leverage another writing concept for today’s article. In fiction writing, there is a concept called “scene and sequel.” Of course, most of us think of a “sequel” as something along the lines of Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers. However, the phrasing “sequel” in this context has an entirely different connotation. In this case, a sequel is what happens after a scene.

Fiction Scenes

In fiction, a scene is where the action happens. Most folks think of this as where the protagonist battles an obstacle. This is true, but it’s not the only type of scene out there. Intense dialogue, a chase scene, disarming a series of traps, or getting past watchful guards are just a few examples of scenes that can play out. Basically, if some activity moves the plot forward, then it is most likely a scene.

Fiction Sequels If the main character has accomplished everything, then we’re pretty much at the end of the story. 

Once the action is done, the protagonist has either moved closer to the final goal or encountered a setback. Obviously, if the main character has accomplished everything, then we’re pretty much at the end of the story. Since that’s not the case throughout most of the story being told, the character (or characters) involved in the results of the scene need to collect themselves, perhaps tend to wounds, consider the results of the encounter they just had, make a set of decisions about how to proceed, make plans, and then execute those plans. The execution of those plans naturally leads into another scene where the cycle continues through the story.

RPG Scenes

Scenes in RPGs aren’t too much different from those in fiction. There are fights, traps, obstacles, skill checks, dialogue and so on. Typically a scene will start with the announcement of, “Everyone roll for initiative.” This is a tried and true signal to every gamer in the world that Something Important is about to happen. There are, of course, more subtle ways to begin a scene. Typically, once dice are rolled, points are spent, and skills are checked, a scene is underway.

RPG Sequels

Once a scene has come to a conclusion, the party has to get together to figure out what they’re going to do next. New information has come to light, wounds must be treated, loot must be collected and split, maps have to be referenced, and the group needs to come to a consensus on what to do next. Sometimes this is as simple as “left door or right door” but this isn’t always the case. Where more complex decisions and plans have to be made, this can lead to analysis paralysis. The larger the group of players at the table, the longer the paralysis lasts. As a GM, I tend to let the players find their own way as I don’t feel I have a voice to contribute to their plans. However, if a sequel goes on too long, I’ll step in and boil down the players’ options for them and ask them to pick one to run with. This can help move the story forward and get everyone back on track.

Scene Length vs. Sequel Length Don’t try to force a scene or sequel to consume a certain length of time. 

There is no proscribed length (in word count or time spent) for a scene or a sequel. Once one has accomplished its job of moving the story forward, it’s time to shift into the next phase of things. I’ve seen sequels in fiction that are just a few sentences long that were packed in between scenes that lasted most of a chapter. Likewise, I’ve seen action scenes that were very brief but had a high impact on the characters. These were followed by lengthy discussions about the ramifications of what had just happened. Don’t try to force a scene or sequel to consume a certain length of time. They’ll end when they end.

Fiction vs. RPG  I can see sequels being “skipped” rather often in a role playing game environment. 

With fiction, a single person (or a collaborative team) dictates and guides when scenes end. It’s a set thing. However, a role playing session is a live collaboration where a single person could decide to chase down the lone goblin who is escaping. This will naturally extend the scene or lead directly into an immediate follow-on scene without interjecting a sequel. This is perfectly fine. Just because the guidelines request a scene-sequel-scene-sequel pattern, this doesn’t mean the story will be ruined if things don’t boil down this way. There may even be times where the players decide that their characters don’t need downtime, so they’ll rush forward to knock down the next door and face the next obstacle. This is fine as well. Honestly, I can see sequels being “skipped” rather often in a role playing game environment.


There are other storytelling structures that can be applied to RPGs, but I feel that they would require a great deal of railroading and the GM forcing the story to conform to those structures. This isn’t conducive to good role playing and can make the players feel as if their characters have lost agency in the story itself. Some of these approaches are the “Yes, But; No, And” formula, and the “Yes/No Cycle.” Feel free to investigate them on your own, but only implement them with a heavy dose of care to not steal PC agency.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Levels of Interpretation

19 February 2018 - 6:43am

Literature can be interpreted on different levels – why not games?

When I was a younger man, my friends often joked that the only reason I studied Literature in University was to become a better game master. While that was not my primary motivation, there was certainly some truth in that humor. The study of English is littered with different ways of interpreting a piece of narrative art: Structuralism, Psychoanalytic, Reader-Response, Deconstruction, etc. During my first year of study, I was introduced to a very simple means of analysis that has stuck with me to this day. It is not widespread by any means; in fact, it was the creation of my first year English Professor. As I moved into writing scripts and stories and games, I found this model to be an easy one to consider as I work, and when I teach others how to analyze stories, I often fall back on the Levels of Interpretation taught to me by Professor John Blaikie.

So, how does it work? The idea is that, with each piece of narrative art, be it a novel, a film, a play or an RPG campaign, there are different ways in which to engage with the creator, and different levels of meaning that the audience can take away. The great works of art, which remain relevant well past the life of their creator, function well on all four of these levels.

Literal Level –Narrative / Plot

This is the most surface level of interpretation. What happens in the story? A lot of popular pop-culture entertainment is based on this level alone. Stories that operate only on this level are typically not very memorable, but this level is very important for creating an interesting story. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker leaves his home to join a rebellion against the Empire. He helps to rescue Princess Leia, learns of the Force, and eventually joins a rebel attack that results in the destruction of the Death Star.

In terms of games, the literal level of interpretation describes the plot of the story. For example, a group of young wizards explore territory occupied by tribal orcs, and in doing so uncover a source of magic that will help turn the tide in their homeland’s war.

Psychological Level – Characters

At this level, the motivation of the characters is considered. Why do the characters in the story do what they do? In stories that function on the psychological level, the characters will have consistent internal motivations. If the story has characters that seemingly do random or nonsensical things just to move the story along, the story is not really operating at this level, and typically, these stories are not going to connect with audiences in a very strong way. Conversely, characters with consistent and interesting internal motivations can become enduring fan favorites. In Star Wars, Luke is a young man who feels stifled by his over-protective Aunt and Uncle, and yearns for adventure. This is why he leaves home to join a dangerous rebellion without really thinking through the dangers involved. He argues with Han Solo in order assert his masculine superiority in front of Leia, to whom he is attracted. He is willing to believe whatever Obi Wan Kenobi tells him because of the absent father figure in his life.

In terms of games, this level is primarily the responsibility of the players. Players will often forgo the narrative elements of a game in order to further explore or indulge their character’s motivations. The best games have the characters motivated to engage in the plot in a manner that is consistent with the characters’ internal logic. For example, the family of one of the young wizards from the previous game was destroyed by the very same tribe of orcs that the group is now investigating. He views the orcs as monsters, rather than people, because at an early age they became something to hate: what sociologists would term the “other.” He is able to project all of his own insecurities and failings onto them, and will deem himself worthy if he is able to avenge the death of his family.

Sociological Level – Setting

The function of this level is to criticize some aspect of society, typically in the present. Stories that function primarily on this level are usually stories with a message. They are often trying to “say” something about the realities of our modern world. These types of stories are likely to be popular with critics, and termed “art,” but if this is as deep as they go, their relevance may be fleeting; once the social issue is no longer relevant, then the story becomes less meaningful. In Star Wars, we have a Science Fiction setting with an “Empire” and a “Rebellion.” The story can be interpreted as a struggle against a fascist regime. In the modern light, we might look at it as an exploration into the distinction between terrorists and revolutionaries.

In terms of games, the fictional society that we depict can certainly be more than “generic fantasy.” When we challenge our players with difficult choices in the setting, hopefully we enable them to make meaningful choices that influence the world and encourage them to consider the parallels to our own society. For example, the tribal orcs lead a subsistence existence in the woods, having been forced off their land by the dominant humans. The player characters may enter the orc territory ready to loot the village and take what they need, viewing the orcs as nothing more than monsters, but they are shocked to find the squalid conditions that they live in. This elicits sympathy and compels the PC’s to negotiate with the tribe rather than simply steal their magic.

Thematic Level – Philosophy

This level concerns itself with the “big questions” of life, and explores some aspect of the human condition that is universal. Stories that function at this level can retain their relevance for long periods of time because the issues that they explore are timeless. Is there such a thing as true love? Are our actions determined by our choices, or by the forces of destiny / God / brain chemistry? Is there a true reality, or just what we perceive through our senses? These questions ultimately don’t have an answer, and the search for an answer to them is what makes us human. In Return of the Jedi, Luke must confront the evil in himself and accept it on order to forgive his father and resist the dark side. He learns that there is no absolute good or evil, but rather all people have some level of good and evil within themselves. He cannot claim moral superiority over Darth Vader, or even The Emperor, because there is as much capacity for good and evil in them as there is in himself.

In terms of games, when I read advice for game masters, I often come across the idea of a “theme” for a story or a campaign, and this is, ultimately, what they are getting at. When I look to start a campaign, this is the level of interpretation that I begin with – what philosophical issue would I like to explore in this game? For example, the character whose village was destroyed by orcs sneaks into the tribal village at night and confronts the old orc who led the raid against his village so many years ago. This orc is now sad and old. He begs for his life. He tells the young wizard that, when he was a child, a group of humans stole his family land, driving his father to suicide. He blamed the humans for his life’s miseries, and vowed revenge upon them. The character is now forced to see himself in the old orc’s experience, and must make a choice – to satisfy his life-long quest for revenge, or take mercy on the orc, who is not so different from him. Does justice or revenge fuel his anger? Is there really a difference between the two?

Final Thoughts

This method of analysis is fairly simple, yet I find myself returning to it over and over again in order to create memorable campaigns for my players that are satisfying for them and for me. Ultimately, games should be about meaningful choices, and the more levels that we are operating on, the more meaningful those choices can be. Do you have a way of looking at the stories you tell to make them more meaningful? If so, please share it in the comments!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Assembling a player’s dice box

16 February 2018 - 3:00am

A goal for the new year was to assemble a portable player’s dice box, with the conceit that it look like a tome or spellbook.

While I do enjoy crafting and painting—and I still have the option of decorating it with a design of my own—I am content, for now,  to use what I found.

(I had several inspirations for my dice box. I recommend checking out the D&D Alchemy Dice Box Tutorial by Maladroit Marcy on YouTube as one of the best. She gives her box cover the full Mod Podge treatment!)

Most of these are objects I found at the local craft store or supplemented with my own supply.

Step 1: Select a false book box

These are nifty little bookcase hidey-holes—boxes in the shapes of books. They are often displayed on the coffee table and hold a crossword puzzle book and assorted pens, or even the TV remote control.

The key was to find a box wide and long enough to accommodate other boxes for nesting—my alternative solution to creating sub-compartments within. The one I selected was 7.5 inches wide, 10.5 inches long and had an internal compartment 2.45 inches deep.  It had a magnetic clasp to hold the cover, which had the design of an old-world map.

The first thing I did was apply a new bottom to the inner layer of the box, a thin brown foam over the interior felt—mainly to ensure even rolls of the dice and to muffle the hollow clatter of dice on wood without sacrificing “dice bounce.”

Step 2: Potion of Healing

This little nifty craft has been making the rounds in D&D circles, Pinterest and other places, and I certainly wanted one included in my player box. It involves a glass bottle or vial with a cork stopper and contains the d4s needed for rolling a dose. With a handcrafted label and a dab of glue, I had my first component for the box.

Step 3: Dice box

Next, I found a little latch case that could hold a set of polyhedral dice. I put foam in the bottom, so it could double as a dice roller, too.

Step 4: Miniature box

A small keepsake box in the form of a treasure chest was the perfect size to hold a 25 mm miniature to represent my player character. Again, I added a layer of foam because this box did not have a felt interior.

Step. 5: Journal

I got lucky in that I snagged a small sketch journal that would nestle in the remaining space. This book could serve as a record of the PCs, be a place to record spells, even allow in-game notes or maps.

Step 6: Foam interior

To ensure that the items didn’t rattle against one another, I cut out sections of the foam so the tiny chest and the potion bottle would fit snugly. I think I added another piece of foam the size of the journal to elevate it to the top of the box. On the underside of that piece of foam I cut a slice where I can tuck a small pencil and a dry erase marker.

Step 7: Metal plate

On the interior felt of the lid I added one more touch: A thin metal plate. This surface can take dry-erase marker and be wiped clean.  I can use it to make in-game notations, such as tallies for hit point damage, recording initiative rolls and jotting down spells used.

Warning on price: I kept the entirety of my purchase under $35, but I timed my shopping by going on a day with deep discounts on the boxes and I had a coupon I could use, too. Shopping at list price might double your outlay.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Happy Valentine’s Day From Gnome Stew! Remember when we wrote a romance novel?

14 February 2018 - 5:24am

It’s Valentines day, and whatever that means for you, it means warm and tingly feelings for us! Mmmm Warm and tingly stew! Hey, remember when we teased and then actually wrote a romance novel? Like, legitimately wrote it with some saucy bits in it. Well, it’s still out there, and you can get it, for free or whatever you want to pay. You should really go check it out, even though we warn you against doing so on the cover. You’ll only be mildly embarrassed after reading it…



From The Gnome Hunters

…and yet how could she lie to this man?
“Raphael.” His name tasted foreign and exhilarating on her lips.
“Please….I know what they’re after. And I know why.”
He turned to face her and she saw some slight concern cross his
features. “Laila, darling, please tell me what you know. Anything that could
help me protect you is precious. Here.” He gestured to a sumptuous living
room with large cozy couches, and then, once she had sat, settled in next to
her angled in to face her. “Please.”

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Starter Kit Review

13 February 2018 - 5:00am

The year 2012 was an important year for me when it comes to both superheroes and roleplaying games. In 2012, I first encountered Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, a game which utilized the Cortex Plus system (actually a set of subsystems that work similarly, but emphasize different elements in different genres). I was not initially a fan of the game, but it grew to become one of my favorite games and is a large part of why I moved into exploring games with more narrative elements, over more traditional RPG structures. Because of Marvel Heroic, I started to explore games like Fate and the various Apocalypse World-derived games like Monster of the Week.

That is also the year that I first picked up the initial set of the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game, which became my pre-game warm-up for my DC Adventures game. Because the game reinforced so many comic book superhero tropes, it was a great lead-in to a night of playing costumed adventurers.

The reason I mention both of these super-powered games in the lead up to this review is due in part to the fact that several of the designers of Marvel Heroic were tapped to design the Sentinels of the Multiverse Roleplaying game, and it doesn’t take the Wraith’s portable forensics kit to see those fingerprints on the game.

How Do These Heroes Assemble?

My review of this game is based on both the physical Starter Kit and the PDF version of the product. The artwork and layout are simple, colorful, and evocative for both versions of the product, but this is one case where I think the presentation is hurt a bit if you are utilizing only the PDF version of the product.

The physical version of the product has a cover with references on the inside, that wrap around the bundle of other booklets. Inside this cover are two bookmarks advertising the upcoming Kickstarter for the core rulebook and The Letter’s Page, the podcast dedicated to discussing the fictional history of the comic book setting portrayed in the Sentinels games. In addition to the bookmarks, the following booklets are present:

  • Gameplay Guide (20 pages)
  • Character Booklets (six total, for Absolute Zero, Bunker, Legacy, Tachyon, Unity, and Wraith; all 4 pages plus covers, which have references and character histories on them)
  • Issues (six linked game scenarios titled and numbered to be consistent with an ongoing comic book series, all 10 pages, except the final issue, which is 14 pages)

These all feature the same style of artwork (from Adam Rebottaro) that appears in the other Sentinels games, and there are numerous color-coded call outs and bullet-pointed lists throughout. The biggest issue is that the content being sequestered in different booklets works well for the physical product, but makes the PDFs a little unwieldy.

Gameplay Guide

The Gameplay Guide walks players and GMs (here designated as the Game Moderator) through how to take actions and resolve scenes and then spends some time talking about how to utilize the other material in the Starter Kit.

Marvel Heroic used some terminology from Fate but did so in a manner that was a little different than how those elements are used in Fate. The Sentinels of the Multiverse game takes this Fate emulation one step further, and borrows the concept of having a list of basic actions under which almost everything in the game will be defined. The actions as defined by the game are:

  • Overcome
  • Attack
  • Boost or Hinder
  • Defend

Taking those actions involves assembling a die pool from applicable traits, rated in die sizes, from a character’s sheet. The three sections that you refer to are Powers, Qualities, and Status. If your flight power is the most relevant to the action you are describing, that’s the one you add to the pool. If you have nothing in a pool that is relevant, you can use a d4 instead of the rating of any of your traits, which are similarly expressed as die sizes.

For Overcome or Boost or Hinder actions, a chart will determine how successful you are with your action, while Attack directly subtracts from Health and Defend allows a character to subtract their result from incoming attacks. For most rolls, your result die is going to be the middle number of the three you rolled, but different abilities might allow you to use the highest die as your result die, or to add others together.

In the end, it comes across as using even more of a Fate framework, while still retaining the die step Cortex mechanics, but eliminating the Doom Pool for some set opposition values and adding in a Health pool to characters.

Abilities allow you to add extra effects to one of the standard options when you use certain abilities under certain circumstances. For example, when Absolute Zero uses his Cold power, if he uses the Defend action, he can use the highest die to defend an ally, and use the smallest die to boost them as well.

Not Heroes

Villains are built in a manner similar to heroes, but lieutenants and minions are represented with a single die type, which is the only die they roll on their turn. Attacking them causes them to attempt to roll over the damage or be removed from the scene, or have their die type lowered by one until they are removed.

People familiar with the card game probably remember that the environment gets its own turn in that game, and that is true of the RPG as well. The environment gets a turn, which may allow it to do things like taking one of the standard actions or spawning new opposition. Additionally, there is a Scene Tracker that advances once everyone has taken a turn. If the Scene Tracker advances to the end of its track, there is usually some detrimental effect that the heroes have failed to stop. This may mean a bomb goes off, the villains escape, are any number of other plot elements.

Altering Probabilities

In some cases, heroes can accept a twist, which can be minor or major, which allows them a partial success in situations that otherwise went against them. This may mean new opponents appear, or the hero is hindered for the rest of the scene, and both the sample heroes and the environments have example minor and major twists to draw from.

Characters can also pick up hero points or develop collections. Heroes can gain up to five hero points in one session which they can convert to floating bonuses in the next session, and for each game session they can give that session a “name,” and once you complete a story arc, you can gather those sessions into a Collection. Each collection you have allows you to invoke the collection for several special effects. To do this, the player cites something that happened in that collection that could be a flashback or an editor’s note in the current comic, which allows the players to manipulate the scene.

Overall, the game feels like a nice refinement of what was introduced in Marvel Heroic. The actions are clearly defined, and I like the idea of powers adding “kickers” to standard actions. That said, the way hero points are explained feels a little clunky. It feels nonintuitive to earn something for the next session, but to track it in the current session. Additionally, I don’t think I fully understood how the bonuses worked until I saw them expressed on the character sheets. I like the idea of invoking past collections to selectively use continuity from the past to modify the present—there is something very appropriate to that reasoning in a comics RPG.


Character Booklets

Each of the six character booklets contains a character sheet, a summary of the rules, and a walk-through of the various parts of the character sheet. The back page of each character booklet has a multi-paragraph history of the character, explaining who they are and how they got their powers.

  • Each character has principles that guide their actions and provide some minor or major twists, and contribute some of the abilities that can modify their die rolls
  • There are sections showing the die ratings for their Powers and Abilities, and the health range where they shift from green, to yellow, to red
  • When either the character or the environment is in the yellow or red zones, more abilities are available to the character than when both are in the green zone at the start of a scene—essentially, a hero is pushed to accomplish more the higher the stakes become
  • There is an “Out” ability at the bottom of the track that the character can use to contribute even when their character has been removed from the scene due to their health dropping to zero

The Freedom Five and their former intern are a good cross-section of heroes to use as introductory heroes, and include a character with cold powers, a power suit hero, a flying powerhouse, a speedster, a martial arts and gadget using vigilante, and someone that manipulates technology and electricity.

There is no section anywhere in the rules on building your own heroes, so while you might be able to mix and match some of the other rules to make your own scenarios, it will probably take a little bit more effort to reverse engineer the principles and abilities to create heroes that aren’t at least a little similar to the ones presented.


The Starter Kit includes six issues, linked scenarios to play to introduce the game and the status quo of the setting going into the new core RPG. Each booklet is designed to be about a two-hour session, and the middle three “crossover” issues can be played in any order, until everything funnels back to the final issue of the collection, and reveals the villain behind all the events portrayed across the rest of issues.

The overall story arc involves helping another team of heroes come back together after they have gone their separate ways, while discovering the identity of a mysterious villain that has been manipulating the course of the whole series of events.

I love how these adventures are laid out. There are very clear sections explaining the starting point of the adventure, what adventures should feed into this one, what the stakes are for the individual scenes, what happens if the heroes succeed or fail, and the assumed steps it takes to complete various tasks.

I knew I was in love when I realized that things like tactics were bullet-pointed, and resolution steps are given checkboxes to call them out.

Again, I love how the adventures are laid out, and all the setup and connective tissue sections in them. I really wish more adventures looked like this. That said, the specific impact of bringing the other team of heroes back together, the new heroes encountered, and the revealed villain don’t feel as if they are going to have as much impact if you are picking this game up because it looks like a fun supers RPG versus if you are picking this up because you already follow the card or miniatures games and have delved into the lore of the setting.

It’s even a little tricky to give the players a primer on why the villain reveal might be important, since it turns into “hey, this guy is really important to the setting and has been a thorn in your side for a while—who knows where he went, but he’s probably not coming up in these adventures, right?”

Green Zone Resolution mechanics are simple, and adding a secondary effect for the standard actions is a really nice way to model specialized uses of powers. 

The artwork is wonderful, the formatting calls out rules and examples well, and the bright colors are in perfect keeping with the source material. Resolution mechanics are simple, and adding a secondary effect for the standard actions is a really nice way to model specialized uses of powers. I really like the visual representation of the zone tracker and scene objectives, and how they help to highlight the stakes in the scene.

Red Zone

As a Starter Kit, this is designed to primarily play the included heroes for the 12 hours of assumed play. There are some guidelines for coming up with very basic scenes of your own, but building new heroes or villains will require some reverse engineering that may be beyond the time you want to invest in the game. The mechanics are simple and work well for the genre, but in a few places, the explanation for those mechanics feels a little clunkier than it could be.

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.

This game looks like a lot of fun, and I hope that it helps to nudge other publishers towards more table friendly adventure presentation. It seems to emulate fast paced super heroics well. Unfortunately, some of the impact of the product is based on knowledge of the setting, and as an introductory product, it’s hard to maintain excitement when we don’t have a date for the actual Kickstarter yet, or a projected release date for the core rules (a recent episode of The Letters Page mentioned a possible early 2019 release date, meaning that there could be over a year from Starter Kit release to full rules).

Definitely worth checking out for people interested in adventure formatting, dice step mechanics, or the setting itself, but it may be worth noting that the full version of the game may still be a little way off. From all indications, it should be worth the wait, but the degree to which you want to get a sneak peek may be a determining factor on how soon you pick this up.

One further recommendation that I don’t usually make—because of how the components are structured, this is one where I recommend the physical product if you have the space for it. Additionally, make sure to pick up the PDF from an outlet other than the Greater Than Games site, as the webstore limits your downloads.

What do you think of supers games? Where you a fan of Marvel Heroic? Are you more likely to check out a supers game with a strong connection to a setting, or would you rather have a solid framework without a setting? I’m looking forward to hearing from all of you, and thanks!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Mashups & Conceptual Writing In Roleplaying Games Pt. 1

12 February 2018 - 5:00am

Recycling isn’t just for paper & plastics anymore. Turns out you can recycle anything, even art. A popular exercise in many internet music circles is the Mashup, two or more distinct tracks chopped & screwed together to make one new piece of art, that would not have been possible without the presence of the old. I’m a fan of mashups, they allow me a new perspective on both the old and the new and I’m fascinated by the effort that goes into the more complicated ones. Introduce identifiable and distinct elements that together create a new experience rather than altering existing structures to create a new lens on which to experience the art of roleplaying games. 

Mashups turn the experience of enjoying music from a passive one (Artist creates music, I listen to music) into an active one (Artist creates music, I listen to music, I transform music into something new, gaining new appreciation for the original and enjoying a hand in creation, someone down the line enjoys the transformed music). On a basic level all roleplaying games are mashups. At some stage the designer of an RPG has created a piece of art. Game books are fantastic artifacts, the best of them featuring elegantly composed text, evocative artwork, mechanics presented in ways that inspire us upon reading. We as consumers of these products take them and transform them on our own, processing all of the art (visual, mechanical, and textual) and perform this transformation live at the table for people who then (hopefully) enjoy the experience.

We are the medium through which the original art has been processed, and no two GMs will produce the same game.

But I’m always interested in pushing one step farther into analysis, so I’m looking for more ways to mashup RPGs, to transform the art and have a more active role in the production of my experience. A common practice among gamers is to hack their favorite games, to alter and transform the mechanics of games to produce something new. Hacking to me feels more like remixing music, similar to making mashups but not quite what I’m after. Certainly the practices I’ll describe here could be seen as hacking, but the intent here is not to alter or change a game’s structure or execution, but rather to introduce identifiable and distinct elements that together create a new experience rather than altering existing structures to create a new lens on which to experience the art of roleplaying games.

People don't mix and match PbtA playbooks nearly as much as I want.

— James Malloy, Tide Commercial (@AndTheMeltdowns) January 23, 2018

One way to run a mashup game is to utilize character options from compatible systems, for example, running a vibrant Beacon from Magpie Games’ Super-Youths game, Masks in the melodramatically black & white Noir World by John Adamus. Game systems like Cypher, D20, PbtA, all build themselves off of the same engines, which makes it easy to smooth out any wrinkles in combining their different elements. Think of this like taking two music tracks that have the same key and tempo and mixing & matching. If I take this class from this game, the feats from this other one, and the spell list from a third, I’ve created either an unplayable nightmare or an optimization board’s dream. Where the final cog in the equation comes in is justifying the disparate parts and finding the synthesis that makes the whole concoction sing. Mashups need to go beyond “here are two things that are now one”, they need to have a thematic throughline that produces the magic. What does it mean that these elements come together, what do you get out of this new combination? What message is your story telling if The Beacon, a paragon of optimism, finds themselves in the gritty world of film noir? Your job will be to make that story fit, and make the mashup compelling.

Join me in the next article for another way to mashup your RPG experience that redefines how you approach some of your favorite texts.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Difficult Decisions In Your Game

9 February 2018 - 6:07am

“You could wear the suit,” he said to me, in his most logical, persuasive voice, “and then she wouldn’t get hurt. I know you love her.”  If this were real life, it would be tragic, but since it’s a rousing game of Fiasco, it’s fun. I stared at him, speechless — do I don the suit that will inevitably catch me on fire, or watch the love of my life put it on instead, and hope that I can save her? My indecision becomes a decision, and I’m there to witness the consequences of my actions. If this were real life, it would be tragic, but since it’s a rousing game of Fiasco, it’s fun. I love having to make difficult decisions as a character, to see what I think they would do and weigh their past experiences and the narrative and make the most interesting choice. These kinds of decisions are key challenges for your players.

What Do I Mean By Difficult Decision?

Before we jump into how to think about decisions, let’s get a quick definition out there:

Decision: a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration. In psychology, decision-making is regarded as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities.

Difficult: needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.

So a difficult decision in a game is when you are presented with two or more possibilities whose outcomes are hard to weigh between — for instance, do you wear the flaming suit, or do you let your evil manager put it on the girl you’re in love with? Both outcomes are bad, but maybe if you’re not wearing the suit you can save her fast enough? Except what if you can’t get to her in time? Or, for a less Fiasco decision, do you hand the magical book of instant wish granting over to the evil cultists in exchange for the safety of the city you protect, or do you save the world at the possible cost of your home and loved ones?

 Fun from challenges is the fun of overcoming obstacles, and what is a difficult decision if not an emotional obstacle for us in game?  We game to fulfill many different needs. Sometimes it’s just fun, and sometimes it’s an exploration of ourselves, our world, and our society. If we talk about the kind of fun that difficult decisions are, I see them as one of the inherent challenges of RPGs (a reference to the 8 Types of Fun). Fun from challenges is the fun of overcoming obstacles, and what is a difficult decision if not an emotional obstacle for us in game? Full disclosure, I have a game in joint development right now called Turning Point that is an exploration of how humans make decisions. It is, at its core, the game of hard decision making. The challenge of a hard decision is one of the things that draws me to gaming.

Why Include Difficult Decisions In Your Game?
  • They add conflict and interest to your games, both internal to the players making a decision, and to the table as a whole. The choices they make will affect both their characters and their world as they go forward. They add depth to the characters, the world, and the narrative.
  • It’s a moment to make your PCs stop and think instead of just smash, smash, smash. When they are presented with no clear positive or negative outcome, they have to think, or possibly even look outside the box for more creative answers.
  • It’s safe to make hard decisions in games—it is pretend, after all, no matter how the outcome goes. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun if it goes badly, because our consequences are imaginary and can be left in the game. Real life doesn’t let us fail gracefully, but in an RPG, we can.
  • Your game table can be a safe place to explore moral dilemmas because again, the consequences are imaginary. Even so, we take the memory of making those decisions with us, and from a purely social standpoint, those experiences can help us when we come to decision points in our own lives.
How Do You Make a Decision Difficult?
  • Have clear stakes. When you present them with the problem or situation, lay out clearly what is at risk here. Will the hostage be killed if they make a wrong move? Will the priceless artifact they’ve been hunting for weeks tip in to the pool of lava if they don’t choose wisely?
  • Raise the stakes. Once you have clear stakes, or if the stakes are known, raise them. Hit them where they hurt—in the feels, in the wallet, whatever it is that motivates your players. Does their baby sister turn out to be the big bad? What happens if they take her out? What happens if they don’t?
  • Make no clear positive or negative course of action. Work in shades of gray. If that’s the PCs baby sister chanting on the pedestal while she plunges the sacrificial knife downwards, do they know if she’s possessed? What if they can save her? What if they can’t?

The most difficult decisions I’ve ever made are some of the best gaming memories I have. I always hope that I am making difficult decisions for my players too—these decisions also make truly interesting stories. What are some decisions you’ve presented your players with?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #34 – Directing the Camera

8 February 2018 - 4:34am

Lights! Podcast! Action! Join Ang, Matt, and Tracy on this episode of the Gnomecast for a discussion based on John’s Gnome Stew article “Directing the Camera.” Can these gnomes’ cinematic approach to describing roleplaying game action save them from the stew this week?

This episode references All Flesh Must Be Eaten, designed by George Vasilakos and published by Eden Studios, Inc.

Visit Gnome Stew, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

Learn more about Tracy’s projects at The Other Tracy, follow him on Twitter at @TheOtherTracy, and check out TheOtherCast on Patreon.

Learn more about Matt’s projects on his Gnome Stew page.

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


Categories: Game Theory & Design

100 Dungeon Descriptors Table

7 February 2018 - 6:00am

Nothing fancy today, just a list of dungeon descriptors, helpfully listed in d100 format. Oftentimes I find myself wanting to make a new dungeon or area and am short on ideas. This list is useful for inspiration, kickstarting design with an idea or two about which ideas can be formed. Alternately, you can pick one or two as overarching themes and then flavor smaller areas with another selection. Of course you may need to get creative if you end up with conflicting descriptors that make no sense together, but if it’s too bizarre you can always ignore the one you like least and/or roll again.

Here’s an example: We’ll go with an area with two random descriptors and three sub areas each with an additional descriptor of it’s own. Our rolls* are 9, 53 , 51, 14, 90. That gives us main traits of Icy and Rectangular rooms. So we have a start of an idea. Rectangular rooms is pretty standard dungeon stuff. Icy implies cold or ice creatures and a certain environment. Maybe this is high in the mountains, deep underground, a magical cold, or far to the north/south. We’ll decide later. Our three sub zones are Large scale, Geothermal, and Non-euclidean. Giant is easy. So we have a giants’ castle in the high mountains covered in frost and ice. Under the castle we’ve got a series of geothermically active caverns. We could go fire elemental here, but I like making the geothermal energy a power source for the giant’s castle better. So the castle has steam driven gates and other cool steam type devices, as well as few “ice giant engineers”, although no steam heat. In the caverns themselves, there are a few ice giant taskmasters (nearly naked because of the heat) and a bunch of slaves that maintain the steam pipes. Beyond the castle, carved into the mountain is a series of rooms with odd magical geometry. Let’s combine that with the ice to have sliding traps and block puzzles that rely on the non euclidean nature of the space, placed to protect some appropriate artifact. On advice of my test audience, we’ll also add some man sized blind penguins and ice-template gibbering mouthers to this area. That even gives us three adventure hooks: against the giants, free the slaves, capture the relic.

  1. Wet: Moldy – damp, and mold grows everywhere
  2. Wet: Flooded  – ankle to waist deep water everywhere
  3. Wet: Underwater – entire place is underwater
  4. Wet: Rotten – sodden, and everything is ruined, turning into mush
  5. Dry: Crumbling – dry rot, crumbling stone
  6. Dry: Dusty – a layer of dust and grit cover everything
  7. Dry: Parched – dry air that makes you thirsty and uncomfortable
  8. Dry: Dehydrating – moving air the pulls moisture away, full of mummified husks of small creatures, etc…
  9. Cold: Icy – covered with a layer of ice, formations on walls and ceiling
  10. Cold: Clammy – cold and damp air, works through your clothes
  11. Cold: Glacial – biting cold, walls of ice
  12. Cold: Crisp – cool but invigorating
  13. Hot: Smoldering – piles of still warm ash, may have low oxygen levels
  14. Hot: Steamy – geothermal vents, geysers, etc…
  15. Hot: Magma – flows of magma (1500k about 3 times as hot as a campfire, 500k) in large rooms, heat may dissipate enough to approach, in small rooms maybe not
  16. Hot: Warm – general warmer temperature
  17. Live: Positive aura – depending on the strength, area may be covered in growth or items may animate or burst into frantic activity
  18. Live: Swarming – filled with large swarms of vermin
  19. Live: Live rock – dripping mineral water creates slow growing formations
  20. Live: Genius loci – a spirit caretaker oversees the area
  21. Dead: Bodies – corpses litter the area
  22. Dead: Negative aura – may cause a feeling of illness or unease, bolster undead or even damage the living
  23. Dead: Ruined – once worked the area is falling apart
  24. Dead: Eerie – feelings of being watched, prickling of the skin, etc…
  25. Vegetation: Overgrown/roots – plant growth and hanging roots block passages and cluster about the ground
  26. Vegetation: Flowering – strange cave flowers grow or sprout from bushes or vines
  27. Vegetation: Fungus/mold – large fungi or molds grow throughout the area
  28. Vegetation: Gardens – carefully tended (once?) gardens dot the area
  29. Natural: Solution caves – caves formed by minerals dissolving, often wet
  30. Natural: Lava tubes – formed by magma flowing out of a space, stone is hard, rooms are tunnel like
  31. Natural: Fracture caves – full of debris,  layers of rock collapse to form caves
  32. Natural: Erosion caves – made by action of wind or water wearing down rock, may have strong winds or high tide
  33. Manufactured: Hewn – crudely carved out of rock, surface still shows tool marks
  34. Manufactured: Supported – soft stone supported by columns or beams
  35. Manufactured: Rough Brick – simple stone bricks carved from rock shore up and finish walls
  36. Manufactured: Advanced Brick – smaller, fancier, or simply better made stone bricks
  37. Sounds: Whistling – sound of wind forced through tight passages or over odd formations
  38. Sounds: Rumbling – perhaps an indication this area is unstable or of seismic activity
  39. Sounds: Battle noises – inhabitants often get in noisy conflict
  40. Sounds: Moaning – the wind? or something more sinister?
  41. Smells: Decay – death, decomposition, mold
  42. Smells: Dirt – the smell of earth and dirt
  43. Smells: Chemicals – strange acrid brews, sickly sweet tangs, some kind of strange chemicals are on the air
  44. Smells: Metal – the distinct smell and taste of metal, is this a metallurgists, a mine, or just an ore rich area?
  45. Denizens: Beast – area is populated with animals, predators, scavengers etc…
  46. Denizens: Lowlives – slimes, fungus monsters and insects
  47. Denizens: Magical – elementals, undead, constructs and other unnatural things
  48. Denizens: Humanoids – primitive or advanced humanoid tool users
  49. Scale: Tight – small rooms, tight passages, crawling and squeezing through tunnels
  50. Scale: Standard – normal room and passage scale
  51. Scale: Large – larger passways, huge rooms, perhaps natural or built by giants
  52. Scale: Mixed – a mix of scales, often natural but also a characteristic of an area inhabited by different sizes of creature
  53. Shapes: Rectangles – standard square and rectangular rooms
  54. Shapes: Ellipse – circles and ellipses
  55. Shapes: Angled – angled rooms other than squares and rectangles, triangles, hexagons, unusual shapes…
  56. Shapes: Natural – caves and natural passages
  57. Maintenance: Maintained – the area is being maintained, passably clean and repairs are made
  58. Maintenance: Expanding – the area is maintained and new areas are being built on the edges
  59. Maintenance: Abandoned – no one is doing maintenance, most things still work but some don’t and wear is obvious
  60. Maintenance: Collapsing – no one has done maintenance for a long time, few things work, most are broken, missing, or destroyed
  61. Airy: Strong winds – winds howl through the rooms and halls, light items are blown away, doors may be flung open or characters pushed down
  62. Airy: Cavernous – huge open caverns with vaulted ceilings
  63. Airy: Chasms – deep chasms voids and pits
  64. Airy: Open – one monstrous cavern with discrete areas within, sneak a little overland into your dungeon
  65. Architecture: Monolithic – huge construction from large slabs of rock
  66. Architecture: Sparse – clean unadorned construction
  67. Architecture: Embellished – covered with engravings, runes, patterns, etc…
  68. Architecture: Stylistic – an unusual or alien style
  69. Obscured: Foggy – mists, steam or fog blanket the area
  70. Obscured: Screened – webs, vines or other obstructions shroud the area
  71. Obscured: Magic darkness – rooms or the entire area is covered in magical darkness
  72. Obscured: Twisty – no special obstruction, just very few straight passages so vision only extends to the next bend
  73. Size: Small – your classic 5 room dungeon
  74. Size: Medium – larger complex, 5-15 rooms
  75. Size: Large – larger yet, 20-50 rooms
  76. Size: Extra large – sprawling multi-“zone” area
  77. Unique: Architecture – contains a unique piece of architecture, statuary, or other landmark
  78. Unique: Foe – contains a unique monster, NPC or the like
  79. Unique: Magic effect – contains a special magic effect, either an aura over the whole area or a specific feature like a magical portal or pool
  80. Unique: Treasure – has a special one of a kind treasure that may have its own backstory or associated quest
  81. Danger: Hazards – venomous critters, naturally occurring rockfalls, pits or fire gouts
  82. Danger: Traps – area is/was home to a trap builders and has many traps
  83. Danger: Monsters – area full of deadly monsters
  84. Danger: Curses – area holds curses or other magical dangers
  85. Treasure: Coin and items – standard treasures
  86. Treasure: Raw ore/gems – area has been or can be mined for raw ore and gems
  87. Treasure: Art – area has art objects that can be looted as treasure
  88. Treasure: Goods – not much in the way of treasure, but area has trade good that can be sold
  89. Magic: Changing – shifting walls, moving rooms and other tricks
  90. Magic: Non-euclidean – the area has a definite arrangement but its full of portals, bends in reality or other weirdness that make it difficult to map
  91. Magic: Wild – magic in this area acts unpredictable
  92. Magic: Null – magic in this area is suppressed or nullified
  93. Crystal: Studded – walls are studded with raw crystal
  94. Crystal: Monsters – monsters in this area are weird crystal versions or crystal themed monsters
  95. Crystal: Walls – this area is carved from a massive crystal deposit, glass or obsidian
  96. Crystal: Items – furniture, decorative items, tools, and weapons in this area are all made of crystals
  97. Technology: Stone – denizens of this area use stone age technology
  98. Technology: Bronze – foes in this area use bronze or another soft metal
  99. Technology: Steel – this area has steel or another hard metal technology
  100. Technology: Steam – this area features early steam tech


*Using my Polyhero Wizard dice, because they’re what I have on hand. Now I can use the old “mad wizard” excuse when players look at me funny.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

How to Create When You’re Angry

5 February 2018 - 5:29am


Whew, there’s a lot to be angry about in our current American political climate. That’s not the only reason you might be angry though. If you’re anything like me, your emotions could spike because you got into a stupid internet argument, the local government bureaucracy is inhumanely disorganized, or your chronic pain is high that day. Emotions just happen! So what to do when they’re distracting you from designing an amazing setting or prepping for your PbTA game tonight? I’ve developed some techniques that might be useful for you, too.

Hack Your Brain

I love hacking my brain and one of the most useful hacks I’ve learned is to smile when you’re angry. It will trick your brain into feeling happier, because the brain associates that movement with laughter or happiness. Seriously your brain is that dumb. It’s incredible how we can influence our feelings with the chemicals in our bodies. Do the equivalent of smiling with your creativity. So make something that is silly, or wholesome, or makes you laugh.
I love hacking my brain and one of the most useful hacks I’ve learned is to smile when you’re angry.


Are you really angry? Like Hulk angry? Channel those feelings into whatever monster you’re creating for the PCs of your game to encounter. Write something angry. Focus on venting what you feel and you might even feel better afterwards too. I usually do! It’s also really authentic to use what you’re feeling in whatever you’re designing.

Be Gentle With Yourself

It’s ok if you’re angry you’re allowed to feel that way. Sometimes we focus so much on anger having the stigma of a “negative” emotion that we forget it’s important to feel all emotions and none of them are bad. Write a little then take a break to really stew like one of those anime characters brooding with lines coming off their head. Then make yourself go back to creating that really cool witch teacher NPC that’ll feature in tonight’s game.

Sandwich with Self Care

This one might be my favorite because I looooooooove pampering myself. Put on a face mask with coffee and watch a half hour of youtube to chill. Then write for a few hours. Then make yourself a smoothie and have some cute time with your snake. The care will help you get into creative mode despite the stupid emotions. Bonus, you’ll get a reward after you’ve been designing for a little while.
 Then write for a few hours. Then make yourself a smoothie and have some cute time with your snake. 

Give Into The Anger

Dark side of the force style, you know, like emo shirtless Kylo Ren, only more productive and less evil. Admitting you’re angry is really half the battle. Allow yourself some time to reach out for emo support among your friends and family before you start creating. Usually when I do this I remember the clever amazing queen I am, and it helps heal my heart. With renewed vigor I then go on to create without this anger bullshit weighing me down as much.

Just Do It

I know, I know “but Kira if I could just do it I wouldn’t be here reading this helpful list.” Sometimes when the rest of me is saying nooooo I don’t wanna, it’s the best time to sit down and just do it, because I’ve made it way harder in my head than it actually is. It might be hard to convince yourself to take this route cause too many emotions, but I’ve found this is one of the most effective strategies. If you wanna get it done, just do it.

I hope you can put these techniques to good use, and they help you overcome those angery feels and create some awesome things for your friends or your game designs.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Trello For Campaign Management

2 February 2018 - 7:30am

I’m fairly surprised that Phil isn’t writing this article. He’s my go-to person for organizational and project management tools to use for gaming, since he does it in his day job and project manages many gaming books and projects that I’ve been involved with. He knows his stuff, so I’m kind of proud that I’m scooping him on this.*
(*I’m using Scoop in a very broad way, since I’m sure he’s done this in some form, but it doesn’t look like he’s written an article about it yet.)

So, onto the story. I’m running a campaign that I started at a meetup to broaden my current gaming group and built through the first parts of buying a house, transitioning to a new job, and packing everything and moving. I haven’t been the most organized in keeping my game notes about sessions and planning forward. I’ve got a hundred scraps of notes about things I’ve done in the game, I’ve got 3 bullet point lists of the plot ideas for the next sessions and I’ve got NPCs names and plans written down, but sometimes when I’ve introduced an element on the fly, I forget to add it all in.

Trello To The Rescue

So, I’ve been running the game, 6 or 7 sessions, trying to remember the names of the NPCs or exactly where on the map I put that organization’s base, all while looking through my half-unpacked gaming stuff to see where I threw those notes on that one list, and I finally realize how I should have been doing this all along – Trello. I use it for work, I use it for writing and art direction projects, I use it to organize my daily life, so why the heck am I not using it to keep track of my gaming stuff? I started up a Trello board for my campaign and this is what it looks like:

After a few weeks of use, there are many benefits to using Trello to organize a campaign.

  • A List for every Category – I can make a list for each category of things. I can make one for locations, one for people, one for organizations, one for loot, etc. Whatever is useful to my game structure, I can make one list for that and plan it out.
  • A Card For Every Element – Every element I create can be a card, and can contain useful information about that element (more on this later. In Trello’s framework, the cards I create can be moved between lists, which makes it incredibly versatile for planning and for note keeping. I can create a macguffin card that has all the information I need to know about the element, and I can move it from list to list as it becomes useful to that area. Perhaps the macfguffin is going to be part of the next session, so I can move it to the Current Session list and visually connect it to other elements that I have moved there.
  • Trello Cards Contain Multitudes – A card in trello can have many elements. It can have attachments (like images for reference), it can have a description and a title (the base concept of the element), it can have links (such as to a music file that serves as the elements theme music), and it can have multiple checklists. I find the checklists useful, since I can make ones for properties, ones for GM specific elements, ones for plans that the NPC I’ve attached it to has, etc.
  • Non-linear Visualization – One of my favorite gaming theories is adventure and campaign design through Island Design Theory (I wrote about it on GS and for Unframed), and using a Trello board is a great way to organize based on this. I can set up the elements, add to them as the game goes along, and move them between containers, all without visualizing in my mind what is going to happen, but what all elements are in play and how easily they could change.
  • Session Logging – Trello can also serve well as a session logger. While I keep the bulk of the information for an element attached to the card for the element, I can make a card at the wrap up of each session and type into a checklist there all the things of note that happened. This serves as a great, bullet point list to reference later. I can then open up other cards and add to them as needed, but I have one single log of the session. I can keep all the previous sessions on a list for previous sessions and I can copy and paste those session logs for the players to have a running, broad log.
Trello’s Utility As A Cross Platform Device And Archive For Old Games

I can keep Trello’s app up on my tablet and enter notes or reference things that I set up on my computer previously. I can add a note or reference the image attached to a card and wave my tablet at the players so they can see the image without revealing other elements about the element. I can always enter notes as needed on the cards, then move back to the computer since it is all hosted on trello’s servers.

One of the beautiful things about the Trello board is that it can be exported or saved on the server so that you can reference it at some later point in time. I have folders and binders and notebooks full of old campaign information, mostly for nostalgia’s sake. I also have a half unpacked gaming space and constant questions about why I’m keeping certain things around in physical file formats. Trello, alongside its export feature, means I can store my campaigns digitally and save them to archival quality CDs if I am concerned about the long-term storage of my campaigns, at a fraction of the physical space. While I have no idea how future proofed Trello as a service is, the export format is JSON, which is a very popular format that will likely be readable in some format when we’re all heads in jars at the head museum.

Campaign Organization

I’ve become a big fan of tools that let me organize my campaigns digitally. I’m familiar with Trello due to other ways it intersects with my life, but I’ve used programs like Basecamp, Google Drive, And Slack for campaigns as well. Trello is made to organize projects, and that dovetails nicely with the utility needed for organizing a campaign. The fact that it is free is, of course, a major selling point to being able to test it out and try it. If I want to share it with other people for feedback, adding team members or making the board public is an option. Trello hits a lot of sweet spots for me to keep campaigns organized, but it’s certainly not the only way.

Everyone has a different method of campaign organization, and having the right tool to keep some structure to your plans can help you feel more confident in your improvisation. What is your preferred method of campaign and game organization? Have you used Trello or an alternative? What worked and what didn’t?

Categories: Game Theory & Design