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Gnome Spotlight: Lawful Good Gaming

17 hours 6 min ago

Welcome to Gnome Spotlight – an article series celebrating gamers doing good in the world, both within the realm of gaming and outside of it.

The idea for Gnome Spotlight came from posts by Shanna Germain, senior designer and co-founder of Monte Cook Games, who was on the hunt for a curation of games, artists, and companies doing great work at being inclusive and representing diverse people. There tend to be voices that call out large missteps made by companies, and this is an important step towards positive change (“Be critical of the media you love”). However, the other side of the “Better, Kinder, Inclusive, Accessible Gaming” coin is to bring attention to projects and people that are already doing great, brave work. As Shanna asked,

“Who’s praising the great stuff and elevating those profiles? That’s what I want to read.”

Gnome Spotlight isn’t the only voice doing this, but we hope to be a consistent source of comforting, happiness-inducing news in your media deluge, and hope that we can shed light on projects that are actively trying to put good into the world and make gaming a better place. For each Gnome Spotlight, we’ll tell you what folks are doing and how you can help, if you have the time and resources to do so!

Lawful Good Gaming

Play games, donate to charities. Volunteers run RPGs online for people who donate to a supported charity, which are selected around different themes for each “season” of Lawful Good Gaming. Season 1 is “Champions of Equality.”

How you can help: Run games, play in games, donate on behalf of games, or volunteer at Lawful Good Gaming. Participants of all alignments welcome.

Disclaimer: I am a part of Lawful Good Gaming’s leadership committee; typically I will not be involved in the organizations featured!

On a cool autumn day in Rivendell, Elrond scowled before the assembled nerds, asking himself: “How did it come to pass that the fate of Middle-Earth lay in the grubby, Funyan-soiled hands of such dorks? Truly, that bafflement Galadriel must be playing one of her jokes.”

In January, James Walls voiced frustration at the treatment of American citizens due to the executive orders of Trump’s immigration ban (itself now on temporary restraining order due to its unconstitutionality). James heard the American Civil Liberties Union speaking out against the ban and saw unaffiliated attorneys traveling to airports to help stranded citizens pro bono. James felt the need to contribute, but found himself at a loss for what he had to give. Then it struck him:

“My initial reaction was to find the right charity and send a donation. I still plan on doing this, but can I do more? Can I get a ball rolling? Can I somehow leverage my time and talent? Unfortunately, as a gamer nerd, there’s no direct way for my talent to benefit those most in need by this executive action. But I think I can do it indirectly… and I’d love to get more folks involved if possible. Maybe you.”

What ensued was a whirlwind of meetings, charity games, and social media outreach that has produced Lawful Good Gaming, an organization with a simple plan: gamemasters volunteer to run games (typically online), with the “price” of entry being proof of direct donation to a featured charity. Note: no money is exchanged with the organization or its members – all donations are direct to the charity organizations themselves.

The first organizational meeting assembled over 20 participants clamoring over a Discord channel, each wanting to know what they could do to help. A third of this crew stepped up to join the leadership committee, which James lauds as the lifeblood of the organization. Christina & Keith Garrett, Social Media Mages who run the Lawful Good Gaming Twitter, told me how James’ call to action resonated with them. Keith felt exactly the same urge to contribute, and Christina was smitten by the idea of gamers doing what they love to effect positive change.

That first night was an emotional one; the committee had to pick a focused direction for the group, a name, and figure out which charities they would feature. The decision was made to start now, start small, and gather some “quick wins.” The hope was to channel people’s frustration and desire to do good into immediate (if small) actions, rather than try to bite off more than they can chew and lose steam.

Choice of Charities

One of the touchier subjects was the decision to support charities that dealt with partisan issues, as it risked alienating some participants. However, because Lawful Good Gaming came about in response to the immigration ban, the committee felt it had to have some chance at making an impact in those areas too.

The committee decided to have seasons, in which they support different suites of charities to bring together people from broad political leanings who all want to support good causes. Each season’s charities surround a theme, but there will be some breadth to ensure that most people should be able to find a charity they find worthy of their support.

Lawful Good Gaming began Season One: Champions of Equality at the beginning of April, running games on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center, National Immigration Law Center, and Government Accountability Project.

Lawful Does Good

Since its beta test in February, Lawful Good Gaming has run 7 games, which have been enjoyed by 29 players, resulting in $1,140 donated to the four sponsored charities from players and an additional 3 people who have matched donations or donated on behalf of sessions. Five more games are on the docket.

I’m impressed at the diversity of games being run! Games that have been/are going to be run include:

  • Lamentations of the Flame Princess
  • 13th Age
  • Night’s Black Agents
  • Delta Green
  • the GM-less game The Quiet Year
  • Powered by the Apocalypse Engine games: Masks, World Wide Wrestling
  • a bevy of Cypher System games: The Strange, Numenera, Gods of the Fall, Modern, a Supers-genre game inspired by One Punch Man which still has seats!
 I think it brings out a side of gamers that we always knew was there, but now we’re tapping into that and bringing it to light Reception

Most of the activity is currently happening over at Lawful Good Gaming’s Facebook group, where 179 members are geeking out about the fabulous games that are happening, some of which are being livestreamed and archived, like this Cypher System Modern game.

A highly contagious passion seems to sweep through all levels of the organization. Rohit Sodia, creator of play-by-post website Gamer’s Plane, is doing the work of many lesser mortals as he creats a custom website for Lawful Good Gaming, which will eventually live at The entire leadership committee (besides yours truly, the slacker PhD-pursuing gnome) has a finger on the pulse of the organization and its needs, constantly helping participants and adapting to new needs and opportunities. Apart from the leadership committee, gamemasters engage deeper by posting delightful play reports, followed by asking “What should I run next?” Players in some games are even advancing to become gamemasters themselves!

This stepping up has been heartening to James Walls. “We gamers are escapists,” he says; it’s against the stereotype that gamers would band together over such real-world issues. “I think it brings out a side of gamers that we always knew was there, but now we’re tapping into that and bringing it to light.”

There is so much good on the horizon for this organization. To tantalize a few possibilities, look forward to exciting new supported charities, audience-interactive twitch streaming games, and potential online game weekends or mini-conventions.

How You Can Help
  • Join Lawful Good Gaming’s Facebook group, follow them on Twitter, and keep an eye out for their forthcoming website.
  • Donate to featured charities, and play in games! Upcoming games are posted in a pinned post on the Facebook group.
  • Volunteer to run games by posting an event in Lawful Good Gaming’s Facebook group. Leadership committee members will help you with any logistical questions you may have.
  • Tell your friends! This initiative has to reach new people to continue to work. There’s currently no minimum donation (although some gamemasters have opted to have a minimum donation for their individual games).
  • If you have a connection with gaming companies (or are one), Lawful Good Gaming would love to work with you! This could be as simple as sharing the news, to arranging something more special.
  • If you have some skillset to volunteer, definitely let Lawful Good Gaming know. The group could particularly use assistance in design and graphic work, as well as twitch streaming know-how.


Special thanks go to all of the gamemasters, players, and the small but hardworking leadership committee: Ethan Hammersmith, Christina Garrett, Keith Garrett, Alexander Lepera, Monica Marlowe, Ray Slakinski, Rohit Sodhia, Brenna Sydel, Jennifer Walls, and James Walls.

Find out more about Lawful Good Gaming:

What kinds of charities would you like to see supported for future Lawful Good Gaming seasons?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

When You Realize You’re the Problem

21 April 2017 - 12:00am

The Sprawl… chrome it up and then make it dirty. In game, not in real life.

Over my time here at the Stew, I’ve written different articles that talk about problem players and ways to handle them. Problem players (and, let’s be honest, GMs) are the type of thing you can run into when you play with a wide variety of people, but it can also occur at your own table. It’s good to be prepared with different tools to redirect or cope with the issues created. But what do you do when you’re in the middle of a game and suddenly realize that YOU are the problem player?

This past weekend, my regular group got together to play a one-shot of the Sprawl. We’re in-between campaigns right now and two of our players were unavailable due to spring break and the holiday. One of the players who doesn’t run that often volunteered to bring something to the table and after some suggestions, he chose to run the Sprawl. I love me some cyberpunk, so I was happy.

Come game day, he limited our choice of playbooks to a certain few and told us up front that the scenario was going to be a heist. The scenario was presented as a bit farther into the future, where solar system space travel was common (there was a war on Mars) and we were based out of New Angeles, a massive city in Ecuador, where several space elevators were in operation. Our job was to intercept and steal a valuable package being sent down the elevator.

If you read my articles, you know I run quite a few Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) games, so I was a little disappointed he didn’t take more input from the players on the setting and scenario, but I also knew it was his first time running one of these style games and the setting he presented us was an interesting one. Going into the game I was determined not to be a back-seat GM. My success there was minimal. I wanted to be a resource, but I found myself speaking up with rules and precepts far more than I should have for someone who wasn’t running the game. He was having some issues grasping the way rolls are handled in PbtA games, but he was also obviously trying to make the game run smooth even with these obstacles. My interjections weren’t helping and were just undermining his confidence.

Be a bad ass, not a bad player.

That wasn’t the only problem, though. When the players started discussing how to plan the heist, I totally went into bossy player mode and started telling people what to do and how to play their characters. Yeah, I was THAT player. “Your character should know this and do this thing.” “You’re the social one of the group, reach out to your contacts to get that thing done.” “You can pretend to do this thing while we do this.” It wasn’t just helpful little suggestions or building upon ideas. It certainly wasn’t in-character direction since my Driver was definitely not the mastermind type. She was a bad ass, ex-biker gang speed junkie who named her souped up classic car “Abuela”, but she was absolutely not someone you could call a thinker.

So what do you do when you find yourself in the position of being the problem?

Stop Doing That Thing

The moment you realize what you’re doing is a problem, whether or not other people at the table are bothered, stop doing that thing right away. If you realize the behavior is causing issues, even if no one else has complained, the best thing to do is to make sure the behavior doesn’t continue. In my case, I stopped bossing the other players around and just played my character as best I could. I also stopped trying to tell the GM how to run the game. Unless he asked for my help, I didn’t interject. This may not fix the earlier part of the game, but it should make going forward better for everyone at the table.


Whether you do it right then for everyone at the table or later in private, own up to what you did and apologize to those affected. While others may brush it off and say it wasn’t that bad, it’s still best to recognize what was off and let people know you’re sorry for how you were adversely affecting the game. I ended up sending an e-mail to the GM after the game and apologized for being obnoxious. I also let him know the things I enjoyed about the game. After the game, the group had discussed how what he did was different from how PbtA games are supposed to be run, so that didn’t need to be rehashed, but I did want to let him know that I thought he had some really cool concepts in the game.

Be Mindful in the Future

Once you’re aware of a tendency to behave in a certain way under certain circumstances, stay mindful of when you might be drifting into those problems again. You might have become the problem because you knew more about the game, or were really into the genre of it. Maybe you were having a bad day at work and inadvertently started taking it out on people in the game. Whatever combination of things made it happen, recognize when it might be happening again. I know I can be loud and forthright in games, but I know how much I hate being told how to play my character, so why would anyone else like it?

Everyone has a bad night occasionally. The trick is recognizing the behavior, stopping it right away, apologizing for it, and making sure it doesn’t happen again. We had a crew of fun characters at the table and it was a fun scenario once I stopped being a problem.

Have you ever found yourself being the problem at the table? How did you fix it? I’d love to hear your stories.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Board games for your RPG

19 April 2017 - 1:02am

Put those board games in your closet to work in your RPG.

Sometimes a quick board game can resolve situations in an RPG. Probably the best example of this as a fully realized game mechanic is Dread, which uses a Jenga tower to resolve a character’s fate in that game of suspense.

But other games — or stripped down versions or just elements of other games — in your closet can come in handy too. Here are some worth considering:

World Building

Risk has a lot of uses, actually. One that I really like can jump-start a post-apocalyptic campaign.

Play a few rounds—not so that anyone is actually eliminated, but enough that the board is changed by a few battles. Take a snapshot of it. This is how the new world is aligned after the great cataclysm. Note the key battles where swaths of territory were won or lost—best thing you can do is take a snapshot of it.

Assign names to the new—or evolved—nations. Each “player” can come up with a ruling entity for that territory. And note the relative position of forces, maybe this could come into play.

This can be done on any fantasy map, of course. Want to advance the timeline, change things up from the published setting? Play a few rounds of Risk on your fantasy map, assigning players to nations, and see what takes shape. Is that an attack of orcs or an aggressive move from Silverymoon? You decide.

Naval battles on the fly

After all these years, I still haven’t found anything to replace Battleship when it comes to resolving ship conflict—of any era, from sail to spaceships—quickly without fuss. You may have to limit the number of ships or account for a third player, but mostly hiding two ships on one corner of the grid makes for a very quick and decisive game.

Land battles

What Battleship is to sail, Stratego is to massed land battles. Chess and checkers can work too, but usually the ability of the player determines outcome. A set of cards for “war” works, too.

Decipher a “coded message”

Some in-game puzzles take too long to solve, and are actually tests of the player’s ability, not those of the character. On the other hand, sometimes you want more than just a skill check on the PC’s character sheet.

Turn the Boggle tray over and set the egg timer. The player that finds the most words “solves” the puzzle. There is a moment of accomplishment and the game carries on. (It also means that as the GM, you don’t have to come up with an original puzzle or riddle for every one of these.)

Trivial Pursuit also can fill this gap. The player that answers the most of the six questions on a card solves the puzzle.

Finish line

Horse race. Foot race. Cart race. Chase. Need to know who got there first? Cribbage board. Dice. I don’t think this needs an explanation. On your mark, get set, go!

I wish I were a rich man

Need to know if a PC has a hefty purse or is a noble? Shuffle up the property cards from Monopoly. Anyway, after distributing the properties randomly, each player adds up their rents. The one with the most becomes the rich uncle for the group. Cards from a standard deck or an Uno deck work too, but don’t have the same Atlantic City vibe.

Spell duels

Got a couple of wizards who are comparing wands? Pull out that game of Connect 4. Winner takes the spell duel, as mastery of the arcane mysteries are tests of will and intellect. Also works for tests of psychic abilities.

Battlefield surgery

Maybe a little cumbersome to haul out, but if you really want to know if your battlefield patch job did the trick, let Operation be your buzz kill.

These only touch the surface of this subject. Surely our readers have employed such minigames in their rpgs before. Feel free to share them in the comments.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Prep, Planning, and Podcasting

17 April 2017 - 1:00am
So Much Prep, So Little Time

Things are going well in my gaming world. Almost too well. With the advent of TheOtherCast, I’ve added hours of audio editing to my dya job work, other writing, and game prep. I only run game every other week, which is good, but that’s about the change. In addition to the Star Wars game that I record for the podcast, I’m going to start a likely-once-a-month Planescape game. I figure that about a week out from the first session of that game would be a good time to talk about getting a new game going with all the other stuff going on.

Why Add Another Game?

One of the first things that’s useful to consider when you’re looking at starting a new game is a very basic question: why? Sometimes it’s because you’ve got a game idea that you can’t let go of. Others, it’s your players coming to you with a game idea they’d like to play, but there’s no one to run. Maybe you’ve got no game currently and you just need to scratch that itch.

In my case, I got a comment on one of the early episodes of the podcast asking if there were any women playing in the game. The asker found it difficult to listen to a bunch of dudes. Makes sense to me. We do normally have at least one woman in our regular games, but she’s not able to be part of the Star Wars game due to scheduling. That got me thinking about a way I could add a game to the podcast that gave some more diversity.

That also brings up another reason for the new game, one that’s pretty particular to me: I’d like to have more than the one Star Wars game on the podcast. I’ve got plans for this podcast, and I want to see where I can take it. To that end, I’m working to add more content to the feed. In addition to the Planescape game, we’re also going to record a game that I’m not running. That’ll be a nice change of pace, as playing is a different beat than prepping and running. (I’ll still be editing the audio, though.)

Whatever your reasons for adding another game, make sure that they’re either reasons that will sustain your interest in running the game, or that you plan for a short campaign (or even one-shot). GMing is a lot of work. If you’re not feeling it, it’s really easy to burn out and then the game fizzles.

What’ll Get the Job Done?

When you’re busy and running a game, you need to use your time wisely. Everyone uses a different prep style, and learning what works best for you is key to getting your game up and running in short order. So, here are some preliminary steps that I’ve done:

  1. Know the System and Setting
    If you don’t have a good grip on both of these things, then you’re setting yourself up to fail. Obviously, you have to take your players’ preferences into account, too, but make sure you do what’s good for you. If you need to learn the ins and outs of a new setting or system, look to find a primer online, or take time to talk to other players or GMs that know those things better. Also – if you’ve got a player who knows either of these things better than you, talk to them ahead of time and empower them to help you at the table.

    I know I’ve talked about the importance of knowing a system, and I always feel that a good story is the most-needed thing. However, if you don’t know how the basic mechanics work, the game’s more likely to clunk. No one wants to clunk.

    In my case, I know and love Plancescape, so that’s one of the hurdles down. For the other part, I talked to my players and we’ll likely use Fate for this game. It suits our playstyle well, and I know the system well enough to be able to improvise anything (story or mechanics) on the fly. It’s a good combo for us.

  2. Make the Basic Notes You Need
    The image for this post is what’s sometimes referred to as a “hipster PDA.” I hate that name with a passion, but I find the most useful thing for my sessions prep is a stack of index cards, a sharpie or nice black pen, and a binder clip. (USB cable for synching your recordings to your computer is optional).

    I make all of the necessary notes on my cards and use the binder clips to keep them all together. I’ll make the following cards for easy reference:

    • One card for each character with basic bio and stat info
    • One card for each major setpiece or area play will happen in. Use Aspect-type descriptions for ease
    • Same for NPCs. No need for a ton of stats, just make sure you know who these characters are. Voice notes are helpful if you find yourself giving them a distinct sound.
    • Adventure/session notes – Just a thumbnail sketch of what could happen and the plot points. This is the framework I can riff on during the session.
    • Recap notes – If I’m a few sessions in (and because I’m lucky enough to be able to listen back to previous sessions, rather than taking notes during), I’ll make some notes about what happened before so both the players and I don’t get lost.
  3. Grab Any Stats You Need
    If you need to make sure that you have stats for NPCs or enemies, make that info readily accessible for you during game. Mark the pages of the Monster Manual, write the basics down on other index cards, or whatever you need to do.

    For the games I’m running, I use the Fantasy Flight NPCs cards for all those stats and just pull the ones I need at the start of each session. For Planescape, I’ll likely end up coming up with the stats on the fly, as that’s really easy for me to do in Fate; I just jive with it.

  4. Get Your Mind Right
    When you’re busy, whatever the reason, it can be really easy to rush from work to home to dinner to game and not be in the right mental space to bring the fun to your players. If you can at all, take 10 or 15 minutes before you leave to just relax your mind and clear yourself out. GMing is hard work and you should come into it to ready to give the best you can to your players. And for your own peace of mind, take that time. When you’re rushed, it’s super-easy to look at GMing as just another chore. That can sour you on the good times. Take some time, center yourself, and come to game as ready for fun as you can.
Mind the Basics

Some of this stuff might seem simple, but I find myself forgetting any of it at any given time. What works best for me as a GM is coming back to the fundamentals on a regular basis. If I don’t, I get too into my own head and I forget to do some relatively simple things that will make my games so much better. I find revisiting good advice a very good idea. To that end, I’m gonna recommend you check out a book that echoes some of what I’ve said here. Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master is a good, solid read for low-impact prep. Go check it out.

As well, I’m always on the lookout for new ideas. If you’ve got suggestions, leave them in the comments.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go edit some podcast audio.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #12 – 26.5 Shades of Scarlet

13 April 2017 - 9:16am

Welcome to the Gnomecast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good. Today we have J.T. Evans, Senda, Matt, and myself, Ang. Today the topic at hand 26.5 Shades of Scarlet. I hope you enjoy and let us know how you’ve handled the things we talk about today.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: D&D’s Little Corner of the Library

12 April 2017 - 1:02am

During March, elements of my Dungeons and Dragons collection were on display in the main room of the headquarters branch of our local library.

My wife, the Motorcycle-Riding Librarian, who is a clerk in the Putnam County Library system, had suggested I do the display. The display was up in advance of my running an introduction to the game in April.

Knowing many of the Stew’s readers are unlikely to visit Hennepin, Illinois, I thought I would share the parts of the exhibit here and the process that went into selecting various pieces.

Theme of the Display

Being a library exhibit, I wanted to emphasize the link between literature and the game. I had four shelves to work with, so I devoted the top one to fiction.

The left side of the cabinet includes the quote by co-creator Gary Gygax that appears in the Player’s Handbook about how stories of the fantastic influenced the creation of the game. Along with that I displayed books by influential authors mentioned in Gygax’s “Apprendix N,” including Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard and C.L. Moore.

The right side was devoted to fiction created for the game, including Andre Norton’s Quag Keep, a Dragonlance omnibus, comic books, Elaine Cunningham fiction from Dragon magazine, Choose Your Own Adventure booklets and two hardback novels of recent vintage by best-seller’s R.A. Salvatore and Erin Evans.

Second Level

I selected adventure modules that were reflective of the game’s history. I went with The Keep on the Borderlands, the B2 adventure that was included in the Basic game box sets and was instrumental in popularizing the game – not to mention instruct GMs in the craft of dressing dungeons and designing their own chambers and rooms. From the current game, I picked Hoard of the Dragon Queen, first of the 5E releases. The other two adventures were Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and Mauer Castle, which I thought were representative of the Third Edition era and were also both set in the Greyhawk setting.

The right side shelf was an assortment of gaming accessories, dice (including some that you had to use crayon to fill in the figures), character sheets, a DM Combat Shield, tokens, dungeon geomorphs, a Deck of Many Things, monster stat cards, cardstock Dungeon Tiles, and, last but not least, miniatures (some personally painted, others pre-painted) in a Hirst Arts diorama.  I even found room for a black dragon. You can’t have a dungeon without the dragon, after all.

Third Level

Where do we set adventures? In fantastic worlds. On the left we have two items from the Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting and a monster book from the 4E era of Dark Sun. Obscured by the other items I included my much beloved A Mighty Fortress Campaign Sourcebook designed by Steve Winter.

On the right, the Ruins of Greyhawk adventure and a color map showing the main continent of Oerth, the Flanaess; there is a player’s guide to Eberron and one of the most familiar maps in D&D, the hex map showing the Known World.

Bottom Level

This shelf displayed rule books through the years. I included my favorite rules set, the paperback Basic and Expert rules, a player’s handbook from first edition AD&D that featured the iconic art of thieves on the idol, and a second edition (revised) AD&D dungeon master’s guide.

On the right side were books of more recent vintage. The fifth edition Starter Set box, from third edition the player’s handbook, from 3.5 the Beginner’s Box and from fourth edition, the Monster Manual, which I believe still has the most evocative illustrations of monsters the game has ever done.

What did I leave out?

Oh plenty. But for a general interest display, I think I hit many of the highlights.

So, if you were tasked with making a display for your library, what would be your essential elements? I’d love to hear what you’d include.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Texting in Character

10 April 2017 - 3:16am

CC 4.0 Attribution: Helar Lukats

Today’s guest articles comes from Craig Dedrick and covers a way to make texting in game… hold on let me just reply to this… not an annoyance at your… wait, hahha. Man that was funny… table. – Phonebound John

I think that we can all agree that when players start to check their phones at the table, it is a signal that there is a problem. For one reason or another, the player is not engaged in the game. Who is at fault in this situation? Is the GM to blame for not creating a compelling scenario? Or is the player at fault for not giving their full attention to the game? Is it even a problem when players pull out their phones when the spotlight is on someone else? Recently, I encountered texting at the table for a different reason.

At a recent convention event, I had arranged to run a session of Dread: Pandemonium for a group of players, all of whom were significantly younger than me, and several of whom are relatively new to the RPG hobby. Things proceeded admirably and predictably for the first while, and then the texting started: but not the sort of texting that I had been expecting.

My players began texting in character.

The Dread scenario involved a group of demon hunters investigating some suspicious deaths in a small town. I had listed “phone” on everyone’s character sheet, and really thought very little about it. However, once all of the players realized that they all had phones, they decided to make use of them, starting with a social media search of the victims. When the players began their proper investigation, they eventually split up, but decided to keep in touch via text. Rather than using notes or talking across the table they opened a group chat on Facebook, changed their nicknames to their character names, and texted in character. This happened, on and off, for the rest of the session.

Not only was this unexpected: it was fantastic!


Keeping Everyone Engaged

When the group was split up, it gave players who were not in on the action a chance to participate. It allowed them to instantly funnel information and warnings to each other without breaking character. Furthermore, it completely sidestepped the issue of players going on their phones to check their out-of-game messages and what have you when not in the spotlight because they were interacting with each other in the group chat.

Enhancing Character Traits

One of the players, who was playing an older, less tech-savvy character, decided to text like one of her parents and only used emoji because spelling out the words was too slow, which caused amusement and frustration for everyone else.


Maintaining Immersion

One of the risks of having all of the players present at the table once the group has split up is that the players will have knowledge of what is happening elsewhere that their characters would not have, which impacts the feeling of immersion when that knowledge is used. Not only can the players share the knowledge in a realistic way through text (instead of saying “I text all of that to everyone”), but the players can enforce their own level of immersion with each other. Here you can even see one of the players correcting another for using out-of-character knowledge, thus preserving the immersion:

Final Thoughts

Once it started, the group chat continued throughout the game. Although I am confident that the game would have been a hit regardless, the texting made it all the better, and ended up being one of the highlights for all involved. The players even used it to break the bad news of a fatal injury to one of the PC’s:

And to celebrate victory:

I have had characters maintain Twitter accounts for the other PC’s to follow during games, and a few other things, but this was, by far, the most integrated bit of texting I have had in a game, and I think that I will try it again, though perhaps with a bit more planning and intent.

What do you think? Have you done something similar in your games? Would this be a good way to help keep players engaged when they are not present in a scene?



Categories: Game Theory & Design

Adversarial GMs

7 April 2017 - 1:00am

In a recent GnomeCast, Chris, Phil, and I got a little sidetracked from the idea of player intent and waxed poetic for a bit about “adversarial GMs.” We all agreed that a GM who considers himself or herself a direct opposing force to the players’ desires can be a detriment to having fun at the gaming table. Phil and I chatted about this a bit away from the mics, and I thought it would make a great article to dig a little deeper into.

My Definition

In my own words, I consider an “adversarial GM” to be the person running a roleplaying game, but with the mindset of directly opposing all actions the players wish to take or outright denying the players’ desires to do what they wish with their characters.

This is pretty broad in scope with plenty of wiggle room for splitting hairs to happen, but I think it covers the basics.

Why would someone want to be adversarial while running a game, especially a game where they are most likely to be among friends? I’m not going to try to psychoanalyze the phantom idea of the adversarial GM. Mainly because I’d fail miserably, but mostly because I have some experience on where this behavior sprouts from based on my own past.

Let’s talk about that, shall we?

My Distant Past

When I entered roleplaying games at the tender age of ten, my experiences with games were that there was a single winner and one (or more) losers at the game. That was the nature of games. This very much led to the “me vs. them” attitude many gamers of my generation adopted. This was mainly because we didn’t know any better. The idea of “collaborative storytelling” hadn’t quite made it into our collective consciousness.

 This, naturally, led all of us to think of the GM as the opponent. This, naturally, led all of us to think of the GM as the opponent. The GM also held the same conceit with regards to the players. Through reading the rule books (thinking of the original Mentzer red box set here), it was quite clear the players needed to cooperate to overcome the challenges the GM threw at them. It was also clear that the GM needed to provide those challenges. However, I don’t recall from my distant memories of reading the red box that it clearly stated that the GM needed to be a fan of the PCs and collaborate with them.

Taking all of this into account, we all set ourselves up with our past experiences, biases, and concepts to take roleplaying into the dark side of a battle between the PCs and the GM. Things did get better, though.

My Recent Past

It took quite a while for me to mature beyond the “me vs. them” attitude. Quite a few years passed of playing games where the GM wasn’t a “fan of the PCs.” Honestly, this left a sour taste in my mouth, but it took experience with other groups, playing games with older players, and growth in my own maturity to break past the adversarial concepts that rubbed me the wrong way.

 They weren’t out to get me. I didn’t have to be out to get them. Around the time I turned fifteen, I met Joe and Buddy in two separate campaigns. They were naturals at running games and being supportive of what the PCs wanted to do. It shattered my concepts of gaming. I’ll admit that I was a disruptive force in their games for a few months until I learned that I didn’t have to hide my agenda or be hostile toward the GM.

They weren’t out to get me. I didn’t have to be out to get them.

Once I unlearned my bad habits, I started paying closer attention to how the better GMs around me handled situations. I took the wisdom and experience they put on display and began to improve my own game mastering skills. When Joe moved away for college a few years later, I felt I was ready to run a “real” game. That’s when I volunteered to step into the GM role for the remaining folks in our group and ran a Lankhmar-based campaign. I still hear from those players that it was one of the best two years of their gaming life.

I owe the quality of that game to what I learned from those who had adopted a more cooperative gaming style, especially Joe and Buddy.

My Current Styles

In the quarter century that has passed since that wonderful Lankhmar campaign, I have evolved and improved my GM skills. I’ve gone from opposing PC actions to accepting PC desires to actively cheering for the players as they push their characters through the challenges I present.

This is not to say that I don’t push the PCs at my table. I still throw incredible obstacles and issues (physical, emotional, moral, political, and religious) at the players.

I’m not there to make it easy on the players. Far from it. However, I am there to cheer them on and celebrate with them when they overcome their own Kobayashi Maru situations.

I also mourn with the players when a beloved character (or NPC) dies a horrible death. Then we pick up the pieces together and work together to figure out the smoothest way to integrate a new character into the storyline with the rest of the group.

The Next Generation

As Chris, Phil, and I discussed, when we launched into gaming in the early 1980s, there weren’t many people around to teach us to avoid confronting the GM or players in a direct and combative manner. That’s no longer the case these days. It’s probably quite rare for a new gamer to pick up a rulebook in isolation and teach themselves the game. The more likely scenario is that a new gamer is brought into the folder because they know a gamer willing to teach them how to play. I’m not merely talking about mechanics and rulesets, but also styles of gaming and how to work together to tell a better story.

 We’re handing down our hobby to the next generation with our own styles of teaching. We’re handing down our hobby to the next generation with our own styles of teaching. It is vitally important to ensure we not only impart rules accuracy, but also how to be a friend with the person/people on the other side of the screen.

The Future?

I don’t have a TARDIS or crystal ball, so I’m not sure what the future holds. The “traditional RPGs” aren’t go to go away, nor do I want them to fade into the distant horizon. I love playing games with strong mechanics and elaborate storytelling structures.

At the same time, the surge of storytelling games that are coming to the forefront are a wonderful breath of freshness. They may very well be the next generation of gaming for us and may very well push traditional RPGs into the background. I’m okay if this happens because this is the trend my own styles are pointing toward.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Fantasy Crops For Your Game

5 April 2017 - 1:00am

Something that rarely comes up in fantasy games, though characters often travel through farming villages, is agriculture. Yes, sometimes there’s a fight in a field, or a possessed scarecrow, or orc raiders are burning the fields or slaughtering cattle, but medieval fantasy peasants grow the same crops that we do in the modern world. Which is odd when you think about it. Because yes, mad wizards are more likely to make owlbears and oubliettes* than magical corn, but farm boys become apprentices sometimes and then there are times that magic just happens: Stray magic warps things or a wish ends up weird.

So here is a seed pouch of odd crops to drop in your game. You can use them to add some fantasy flavor or a touch of magic to a location, or securing them can be the focus of a quest.**

Rockwheat: A magical cross between a lichen and a grain, rockwheat isn’t an impressive crop. It has a poor yield, low nutritional value and isn’t particularly tasty. It is however extremely hardy, growing in rocky and barren terrain and cold temperatures that would kill other typical crops. Mountain villages often raise rockwheat on sheer hillsides, the walls and roofs of their buildings and even on the walls of mine shafts (though it does grow poorly in low light conditions).
– Similar crops: Desert carrots with hairy taproot systems that reach several yards deep in the ground for moisture, Shadow Melons that grow pale and squishy in complete darkness. Pick an environment hostile to traditional crops and twist one to fit.

Shreikers: The traditional screaming mushroom is edible, and fields of them serve as a useful early warning system for villages. Like most fungi, they’re not terribly nutritious and they require warm moist growing conditions, but with some good livestock waste for fertilizer, will grow quickly and abundantly.
– Similar crops: Lots of the traditional “hazard plants” from games such as sundew and assassin vines make excellent defenses as well as food sources, as long as villagers are able to protect themselves from their own defenses during harvest time.

Lightfruit: Native to the underdark, these scraggly bushes grow small fruit that shed a gentle light. They make useful exterior light for gardens, yards and city parks as well as providing food. They come in a variety of colors and properly processed juices, wines, jellies and candies retain their illuminating properties.
– Similar crops: Edible varieties of mosses, mushrooms, and even seaweeds can provide illumination as well as nutrition

Firebulbs: Through some strange alchemy or magic these sulfuric onions release considerable heat when bitten or cut.  They will actually cook themselves as well as other ingredients they are mixed with, and make excellent hand warmers. They grow exceptionally well in ash or volcanic soil
-Similar crops: Oilgrapes are a similar but inedible plant with military applications. When one of their oily sacs is crushed, it undergoes a violent heat reaction which quickly sets off its neighbors, spraying burning oil all around itself. For obvious reasons, their stems and vines are highly fire resistant.

Wonderroot: A starchy root similar to potatoes with no flavor of their own, mashed up and mixed with a small quantity of something else, wonderroot will weakly mimic other flavors. This is a popular crop among the poor to stretch more expensive food. It grows well in wet mucky earth.
– Similar crops: There are other plants that mimic tastes and a psionic fruit that reads your mind and tastes like you want it to.

What other fantastic crops can you imagine for your game? How would you use these?

* Awesome name for a DnD retro clone
** Knights of the dinner table did a series of strips on a quest to secure some orc turnips which were so large and hard they could be used as a thrown weapon that did 1d10 damage.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

IN THEORY: The GM Levels Up

3 April 2017 - 1:00am

What player doesn’t like to “level up”? Their characters get improved abilities, and perhaps new ones as well. They can now face stronger adversaries and overcome greater challenges. It’s one of the true joys of the game.

Gamemasters (GM’s) level up as well, though not in a formal fashion. With experience, most GM’s will hone their skills and even develop new ones. In this article, we’ll look at six theoretical GM levels. Obviously not every GM progresses in this exact order. However, it may provide a framework for thinking about how we develop as GM’s. It might even suggest new areas to venture into. Think of it as sort of a Bloom’s Taxonomy for gamemastering.

We all started here. When we first decide to run a game, we focus on knowing the rules and the adventure well enough to make it through a session or two. Making it through by the skin of your teeth is considered a major success. Often at this level, GM’s run published adventures or sample adventures provided with the game book.

This level should not be denigrated. We all have to start somewhere. If we switch games or systems, we could do worse than run published adventures. They help us better understand the rules and the setting, and can still provide memorable sessions. In a way, we never actually leave level one, we only build on top of it.

Most GM’s will want to design their own adventures at some point. LEVEL 2 is a great place to learn the system and how rules interact with one another. We may even realize that writing a good session is harder than we thought. This is a level to make mistakes and learn from them. No matter how carefully you plan things out, your players will find a way around them and push your improvisation skills forward.

Once a GM is comfortable running and writing sessions, they can focus more on the storytelling aspects. They learn to be vivid in their descriptions, and more dramatic in presenting non-player characters (NPC’s). This may be the level where GM’s start to speak in character. A skilled LEVEL 3 GM learns how to do all this without taking anything away from the players. Descriptions can be dramatic, but not too long. NPC’s shouldn’t hog the spotlight, only provide chances for player characters (PC’s) to ask questions and get answers.

If you’ve played with a strong LEVEL 3 GM, you remember their sessions well.

At this level, a GM starts to build more choices into their sessions. For example, instead of just suggesting that players talk to the barkeep, they might design four or five patrons. Then players can talk to whomever they’d like. Adventure outlines become less linear. There may be several ways to enter a dungeon or encounter area and the GM can handle that just fine. Want to climb in through the second story instead of going in the front door? No problem. (I’ll just switch the floorplans!)

At this level, GM’s will challenge themselves to try different types of stories. For example, they may try to bring a mystery TV show feel to a fantasy game. They may take PC’s to alternate worlds, or mix a little science fiction into their fantasy games (or vice versa).

Not every gaming situation requires a tightly woven, epic campaign. However, it is something most GM’s will want to try at some point. A strong campaign can provide life-long memories for both players and GM’s.

At this level, GM’s start planning multiple sessions, thinking ahead to an epic finale. Sessions don’t have to follow that plan rigidly, however it does provide a general road map. GM’s will begin to drop hints about quests to come. They’ll subtly introduce villains who will plague the PC’s down the road. They may even adjust published adventures to support their ongoing storyline.

At this level, GM’s try to bring something deeper to the table. Now, don’t get scared thinking that it has to be “War and Peace.” One way to add meaning is to design adventures that support the PC’s goals or touch upon their backstories. These types of adventures provide deep connections for individual players, and also the ones who support them in reaching their goals. Rotating the spotlight between PC’s helps all players feel included. In fact, a few sessions based on each PC can provide an excellent campaign.

You might even try to include themes in your sessions to give them meaning. Perhaps PC’s work to defeat giants who are enslaving dwarves. This can touch upon the theme of the value of freedom. Literary dabbling can be tricky. We aren’t writing novels and players often make unexpected choices. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, gently. For myself, this is an area I’d like to develop more.

As GM’s, we don’t develop in a linear, step-wise fashion. It may be more like a buffet. Sure, we all start out at one end of the table, Level 1. However, we may skip ahead or go back for seconds, and probably will do this for our entire gaming career. The idea of levels does provide a way to think about where we’d like to go as GM’s. You may rank things differently or include different elements. But you probably still have a path in your mind, a destination you’d like to reach. I’m not there yet either, and that’s the fun of it.

How about you? What levels might you wedge in between the ones suggested here? What more advanced levels would you add? Tell us below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Twenty Six Point Five Shades of Scarlet – The First Gnome Stew Gamer Romance Novel!

1 April 2017 - 3:12am

Back in 2015, we teased a project we had been considering for quite some time, a foray into writing Gamer Romance novels that focused on Gnome Centric erotica. Too long had Vampire erotica and Elven erotica taken the mainstage, it was time for the might gnomes to get some sexy times! It took us a while to get into production, but we proudly present our very first gnomrotica gamer romance novel – Twenty Six Point Five Shades of Scarlet!

Lovingly written by Gnomes Troy E. Taylor, Senda Linaugh, Matthew Neagley, and J.T. Evans, our nearly 50 pages of hot gnome on gnome/dwarf/anyone willing action are ready for your perusal over at Drive Thru RPG!

The title is pay what you want, and we’d love if you checked it out. If you appreciate the effort we put into this, please pay a dollar or two for it, because we’re not taking ANY of the money for ourselves. We’re giving it all away to Planned Parenthood, who provides incredible healthcare to people in need in all parts of America. We’re not just stopping there either. We will be donating $150 dollars up front to Planned Parenthood, but every dollar you give us for our nearly 50 pages of Gnome Based erotica will help raise that number higher.

Click here to see exactly how far we took this and enjoy a little light hearted, punny, not quite safe for work reading as well as helping out a great organization in need.


Click here for a 10 page sample of the book.

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.”


From A Lady’s Beard

     “I suppose it has happened awfully fast. But it was right.” She
frowned a bit. “Didn’t even know I was a dwarf? What did you take me for?”
“Oh I don’t know. But my silly old uncle told me once that all
dwarven ladies have very fancy beards and you don’t have one. So I thought
maybe you weren’t a dwarf.”

     Then she shot me another of her smiles, “Your uncle wasn’t so silly.”

     And then she leaned down and whispered, her breath hot on my skin, and I
blushed the whole way to the very tips of my ears.


And don’t forget to #sharethelove and let people know about this!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Design Flow: One on One Play

29 March 2017 - 1:00am

I first learned D&D from the boy who’s house I was living in, during a rough period of time my Mother and I were going through. He was older than me, and I was not cool enough to play in his group, so he ran a game for me, alone. For a while, my only experience of D&D was one on one play, and I rather enjoyed it, despite the challenges of not having a party for support. Over time, I would get my own gaming group, and rarely ever got back to one on one gaming. When I have tried it, it’s always had its challenges.

The Challenge with One on One Games

There is nothing wrong with one on one play. It’s a perfectly acceptable form of play, but not all games are designed for that type of play. Therein lies the problem. Most RPGs are designed for group/party play. From D&D’s Fighter/Rogue/Wizard/Cleric, to Shadowrun’s Decker/Samurai/Mage, most games make the assumption that you are playing with multiple people, and that each person is fulfilling a specific role. The problems then arise when the assumed roles are not present.  

From a design perspective, having defined roles—even to the point of Classes—is a good way to make sure that everyone at the table has something special they can do and a way to contribute to the party as a whole. The challenge arises when there are too few players to fill the roles. The issue is even more pronounced in one on one play, where the player selects a single role, or if lucky some multi-class selection; which makes them broader in abilities but weaker in power.

Let’s assume that we are playing D&D, one on one, and the player selects the Fighter. Now in that game, the character is lacking stealth and lockpicking (Rogue), the ability to heal (Cleric), and the ability to cast spells (Wizard and Cleric). This makes things challenging for the character as they go through any kind of standard D&D adventure.

How Can We Adapt Games for One on One Play

While there are some games that are designed for one on one play, they are not plentiful, and so in most cases we need to adapt the game we have for one on one play. The way you do that is to first understand what the sum of assumed abilities and skills are for a standard group. Once you know what that is, then you can work on how to minimize the need or supplement them for the single player.

Here are a few tips for how to make that happen:

    • NPC on a Rope – the solo player could have a companion or NPC that helps fulfill some of the missing skills/abilities. This could be a magical familiar, a trusty companion, etc. So you might give your D&D Fighter an animal companion which has a high perception and might be able to sense traps.
    • Item Based – you can provide the player a device that has some of the abilities needed. This could be a magical artifact or an AI Program. You might give your D&D Fighter a rod of healing, so that they can heal themselves between battles.
    • Session Design – as the GM you can write your adventure in a way that minimizes the need for the missing skills and abilities. So perhaps you avoid a horde of zombies for your solo D&D fighter, who lacks the ability to Turn Undead.



The Legacy Weapon  And it was while listening to the hosts of Discern Realities talk about the challenges of one on one play that I came up with a potential solution… 

One of my favorite games is Dungeon World. And Dungeon World, much like its inspiration D&D, has classes in the form of Playbooks. The playbooks represent all the major D&D classes, and are very focused.  The game does work for one on one play, as heard on one of my favorite podcasts, Discern Realities. And it was while listening to the hosts of Discern Realities talk about the challenges of one on one play that I came up with a potential solution…the Legacy Weapon.

The Legacy Weapon is an item-based solution. It is a magical weapon that has passed from one wielder to another. Along the way it has collected various Moves (abilities) from those past wielders, which it can bestow upon the current wielder. This comes at a cost, as the weapon has its own needs which must be satiated. Should the wielder fall in battle, the weapon tries to acquire one of its owner’s skills before they pass through the Black Gates.

From a design perspective, it was a simple design—but it’s implementation was a bit more tricky.  The biggest challenge was that a number of the moves in the playbooks augment other moves or require other moves to be present. After writing the basic mechanics of the weapon, I had to go through all the basic playbooks and determine any challenges for each move if they were bestowed by the weapon, and provide advice for how to use them.

After getting all that worked out, I had a chance to playtest the design at Dreamation with Jason Cordova from Discern Realities. The design played very well, but Jason was able to find two tweaks that helped to center the design back to Dungeon World’s core principle of leading with the fiction. Jason suggested that any time a new ability is used by the current wielder, that you have to narrate a flashback about the previous wielder using that ability. In doing that, not only does the Legacy Weapon supplement the missing moves a solo player needs, but it then tells a story about the history of the weapon. Thank you, Jason.

If you are a fan of Dungeon World and are interested in one on one play, you can check out the Legacy Weapon on DriveThruRPG .

Give It A Try

One on one play can be a very intense form of role playing.It’s solo spotlight time and focus allows for deep role playing and exploration. The challenge is that few games are designed for the experience. With a little forethought and work you can make nearly any game work as a one on one. Do you play one on one games? Have you ever run one? What have been your highlights and your challenges?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Listen Back

27 March 2017 - 1:00am
Sound and Fury

Have you ever listened to how you run games?

That small pause was for all of the “oh gods, I hate the sound of my own voice” reactions that no doubt rippled through the Gnome Stew readership. The basic makeup of how we hear what we say in our own heads means that we sound different on recordings than we expect. It can be hard.

I’ll tell you this, though: nothing has improved my GMing skills more than recording the audio of my sessions and listening back to it.

Enter TheOtherCast

Back in September, when I started writing my article series about how to use Powered by the Apocalypse-type techniques to improve my Edge of the Empire game, I also started recording the audio of those sessions. I’d done that before, and even posted the audio online. However, back in January, I launched a podcast with those recordings: TheOtherCast. (Soundcloud || iTunes)

As part of getting this podcast ready I had to listen back through the entire campaign, to-date. I’d never really done that before. When I’d posted my audio before I did no editing. I leveled the voices out and threw the files up online. I wanted TheOtherCast to be different, so I took the time to work with the audio and to take out the stuff that’s not interesting to listen to.

 Listening to yourself run or play in a game can be even more weird. It’s really easy to become self-conscious. 

At first, it was hard. I winced at every um, uh, “okay so,” and all of the other stuff that I found awkward. It felt kind of like passing through a crucible of my own making, and I did it pretty much all at once. I edited about 9 hours of audio during the weekend that I started. When I got done, though, I was really excited to get back to the table and play our next session.

What Doesn’t Kill You…

When I started the Rogue Trader campaign, I didn’t have any grand designs for it. Yeah, I used it as the basis for testing out how I could take my favorite GMing techniques and apply them to a game that didn’t have that tech baked in. But there was no plan for it, really. As I kept running the campaign and recording sessions, I did get more focused. I developed the short arc that the players are neck-deep in (in real time), and are just about to get into in the chronology of the podcast.

That agenda was a fine one, but listening to the entire game helped me in a bunch of really strong, tangible ways. Let’s dive into some of those.


It is so, so easy to forget the little details of a game session, especially when you play every other week. With this campaign, it’s been even worse. We’ve had multiple gaps of 4 weeks or more. One was almost 8 weeks long. Having an audio record of those games let me go back and refresh myself in a way that I couldn’t pull off without the recordings. I can barely take good notes as a player, let alone as a GM. The recorder didn’t miss anything. It literally became my planning wingman.


It’s easy to forget characters, too. There are so many off-the-cuff moments that happen in games. NPCs that you made up for a moment that could become so much more if they had the chance. Going back through the audio brought all of those characters (and the voices I did for them) back to me. Even if I weren’t working to put out a podcast that other people would enjoy, those things make the game better for my players, which is the real point of all of this anyway.

Plot Threads

It can be very easy for my group to lose sight of the big picture. Yeah, I’ve got my notes, but we really enjoy diving deep into the weird little interactions and character-driven side plots that come up. Having a record of the continuity means that there have to be fewer reminders of what’s going on, even if there’s a large gap. It helps that my players listen to the podcast, too. Makes start-of-session recaps a breeze.

Flat-Out Better GMing

If you never take time to look at how you’re doing what you’re doing at the game table, it can be a lot harder to improve. Not impossible, by any means. In my recent experience, though, going through the recorded audio means that I have specific, actionable things to work on. It’s a lot more than the vague sense of how a game went, or working on the obvious mistakes. On those recordings I heard myself stammer, stumble, make jokes in poor taste, be unfocused, a whole pile of stuff. Since listening back, I’ve been able to really tighten up how I run games. It’s like I’ve got a mental checklist of what not to do, or what to do better. It has been incredibly helpful.

It also has helped me retain better what my players really engage with at the table. It can be very easy to get caught up in my own expectations for the time we’re gaming together. When my players really light up at a character or sequence of events, I can plan to aim in those directions again. And since I can’t take notes, the audio is my guide.

Easy? No. Worth it? Yes.

Like I said at the top, listening to your own voice can be weird. Listening to yourself run or play in a game can be even more weird. It’s really easy to become self-conscious. I think that kind of self-reflection is super important, though. This verges into a wider set of issues, like self-esteem. It’s difficult to accept things that are relatively immutable about ourselves, like how our voices sound. It might even seem to be a contradictory thing: games are escapism. Why would you want to analyze that?

For me, games are how I’ve come to know myself the best. I can experience things at the game table that I’ll never experience in real life. They’re not real-real, but they’re no less impactful. Sometimes they’re more impactful because the persona of a character puts a buffer up and lets me feel without having to deal with the repercussions of events like I would in real life.

As a GM, I always want to be at my best. Literally hearing where I’ve made mistakes so I can correct course is a hugely valuable tool for me. Since September, I feel like I’ve become a more capable, confident GM than I ever have been before. The analysis of my own successes and shortcomings through the audio files has been a vital part of that improvement.

As a final note, you don’t need much to make these recording happen, either. I bought an Olympus digital recorder and that’s what I’ve been using for the audio in TheOtherCast. It picks up the sound well and didn’t cost too much.

So what do you think? If you’ve recorded your own games, think you might want to, or want to bury that idea under 10 feet of concrete, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. And in another shameless plug, I hope you check out TheOtherCast. It shows the results of those planning techniques I outlined before and I’m pretty proud of it.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Synthicide Design Diary: Keeping Grid Combat Fluid

24 March 2017 - 3:04am

Today’s guest article is by Dustin DePenning and is part of our Design Diary series. It covers the use of grids in games and talks about how they make interesting combat options. Check it out, and check out his beautiful and intriguing game Synthicide! – Not a Cylon John

Synthicide is set in a violent, post-war galaxy where life has no value. As the tagline goes, “When robots are gods, killing humans is fair game.” Players take on the role of sharpers: human drifters fighting for their next meal. They get by doing dirty work for gangs and corporations, even taking illegal contracts to kill robots. All this conflict made a battle system central to Synthicide’s design.

The Decision to Use Grids

As I began developing the battle system, I took stock of what I liked playing other games. My favorite battle experiences involved tactical decisions: finding superior ground, taking cover, knowing how to rush the enemy, and so on. Grids make these sorts of decisions concrete. I can visually compare my position to the enemy’s. I can see where good cover is. I can map a path from point to point to advance on my target. I wanted this for my game, so grid combat was locked in early for the design.

The Flaw of Grids

Grids have design downsides. Commoditizing spatial relationships raises questions. How does having higher-ground work? Does moving next to an enemy endanger them or me? Does the side of an enemy I stand on matter? Can I force an enemy to move?

It is tempting to answer these questions with individual rules and special maneuvers, growing game complexity. Perhaps you design a rule to push enemies with physical strength, but then think of pushing enemies with attacks or intimidating them to step aside. Suddenly you have three rules for the same effect: moving enemies. And the more complex the rules get, the harder the game is to play and adjudicate. Battles become a slow, mental chore. To keep play fluid, I needed something simpler.

Sidestepping Complexity

I tried to sidestep design complexity two different ways. First, I left out any rules covering most of the questions above. This made battles solely about finding cover. While simple, shootouts and scuffles were one-dimensional and predictable. Players needed more. At minimum, I knew players wanted to move enemies, get the upper hand, stop enemies from moving, and even make enemies lose turns.

So in the second design stage, I took a hint from modern RPGs employing “design for effect” methodology. Codifying mechanical effects was what mattered, rather than describing every method players used to create them. So I rolled everything up under one generic move called “Gain Advantage.” You imagined whatever maneuver you wanted, described it to the GM, and chose one of the four battle effects. If the GM approved and you rolled well, you succeeded!

Embracing (Good) Complexity

Believing I could address more battle situations without making the game too complicated, I looked at other questions. One that stuck out was moving next to enemies. I lifted the concept of opportunity attacks, calling my version “quick attacks.” The rule granted combatants with fast weapons a free attack if an enemy entered or left adjacent squares.

It seemed good at first. Quick attacks gave grid movement meaning and danger. But this created a second clunky problem: melee lock. High-defense enemies could barge in on you, shrug off your retaliation, and then brutally punish you for fleeing. Rifle-carriers would stand still while a knife-fighter wailed on them, just to avoid the extra attack.

A Solution and Another Question

There was an easy solution though. I made free attacks defensive instead of aggressive. Quick attacks became guard attacks, where weapons like pistols and swords got attacks when an enemy walked up to you, not when they left. A melee fighter could no longer trap a gunman just by standing next to them.

This solution raised one more question. The defensive paradigm didn’t make sense if a knife fighter could get the first strike against combatants charging with swords or pistols. So what could reactive, knife-like weapons do to make them useful? I invented one more attack called counter. It made sense that if an adjacent enemy successfully attacked you, you could leverage the opening and retaliate. This made knife vs. sword fights interesting. The sword fighter would hang back in a defensive stance, striking the knife fighter advancing, and the knife fighter would retaliate with a quick stab whenever they were struck.

The Unanswered Question

The final battle rules, while more complex than I initially planned, successfully prevented rules bloat and melee lock. However, one aspect of the system was never quite cracked. One decision I had made was to give weapons range limitations. This put even more emphasis on grid positioning, resulting in one thing I wanted and one thing I didn’t. The good part was the tactical significance; for example, pistol carriers needed to take careful aim to hit far away targets, or find a way to get closer. The bad part was the mental math of counting squares, comparing ranges, and calculating how much movement it would take to split the difference.

In the end, I decided the tactical richness outweighed the loss in fluidity. But I know there is a rule solution, some halfway between ranges having meaning and tic-tac square math. Any future expansions to Synthicide’s rules will address this. In the meantime, what do you guys think? Are there games that have a good solution to weapon ranges?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

FAITH Review and Kickstarter

22 March 2017 - 1:00am

I’m going to run with the usual format I use on my other review site for this game review. It’s what I’m used to doing, and it seems to cover all the bases.

For the record: Burning Games approached Gnome Stew with a request for this review to coincide with their Kickstarter campaign. (More info about the Kickstarter campaign at the bottom of the review.) They provided their “starter set” free of charge, but we’re not being sponsored or paid for this review.

Just the Facts

Title: FAITH: A Garden in Hell — Starter Set

Publisher: Burning Games

Description: FAITH is a science fiction RPG set in an alternate future several hundred years from today. The universe is dark and unforgiving, and technology and biological experimentation live side-by-side with a pantheon of gods. Traveling through the stars and exploring worlds is key to the survival of humanity, and the other starfaring races.

Cover Art

Score: 4 out of 5

There are two different covers to consider here. One graces the box and the main campaign book, and the other is displayed on the rulebook that came in the box set. Both sets of artwork are very well done and evoke what to expect between the covers of the books and in the other materials in the box. I think the only thing missing from box/campaign cover art is the indication that something isn’t quite right with the “garden” the PCs find themselves in. The simple addition of a shadowy figure looming behind some plants in the garden would have really added that special touch. Even without this aspect in the artwork, these are great covers.


Score: 4 out of 5

The mechanics provided use cards, not dice, to determine who goes first, if actions can succeed, and so on. It’s an interesting economy since each player gets seven cards (with some chances to draw more) for each scene. The economy here is to use the higher scored cards for vital actions, and not waste them on things like initiative… unless, of course, going first in a round is vital to end the scene in a favorable manner. I can see the hand of seven cards being exhausted rather fast, which invokes the draw mechanic of the rules. I wish I’d had a chance to run several scenes for my regular group to test this approach to handling conflicts. I did run a “mock combat” with some of the pre-generated characters and some NPCs from the NPC deck. It flowed smoothly and seemed to work, but the cards did get used up rather fast. I guess some mental adjustment in how to approach the use of cards would be in order. I don’t think this would take too much effort.

For the players, being able to determine what the “to hit roll” actually is by playing certain card(s) is neat. This is especially true since there’s no way of knowing what the GM might have in hand to counter actions. This is a cool bluffing portion of the game, but may not go over well with players (or GMs) that aren’t very good in this area of gaming.


Score: 4 out of 5

 I think anyone that likes Firefly, but wants some “far out” elements would really enjoy this game. The text for the pre-generated characters was a little lengthy. Most players are going to glaze over before they finish the text. However, I found the stories and backgrounds of the pre-gens very interesting, but a bit restrictive. Most players are going to “break the mold” and play the characters as they please, and the pre-set information on the sheets is a bit rigid. Pre-generated characters should have some guidance on attitudes and maybe a paragraph of backstory, not a full character profile like what was presented here.

The prose in the rulebook was pretty sparse as it focused mainly on explaining the rules. See the Mechanics section for my impression of this book.

The campaign book is full of great descriptions and evoked the proper sensations and feels at the different parts of the game play. I think the “box text” was a little heavy throughout the campaign, but this barely detracted from my experience reading the book. I typically paraphrase the box text from any supplement, and the provided text would allow me to do this with ease.


Score: 5 out of 5

Burning Games made an interesting choice with their two books. They didn’t open the books with a table of contents or place an index on the last page. Instead, they placed a detailed table of contents (that almost reads like an index) on the back covers of both books. It actually took me a bit of flipping around to figure this out, but now that I know it’s there, I like it. I’m not sure this would work well for a stand-alone book, but it’s cool in a box set.

The interior layouts of both books is well done. The font fell in line with the sci-fi feel, the spacing around the headers and size of the headers made it really easy to find the sections I looked for.

There’s an additional piece that I’m not sure if it lands in layout or mechanics. It’s a little of both, but I’ll put it here. There is a GM outline of the entire campaign. It lines up with the four acts (and epilogue) of the campaign with checkboxes for the chapters, encounters, and optional events. There’s a key on the front page to assist GMs in marking success, failure, or pending events within the campaign. It’s almost like a flowchart, but much simpler than what most people picture when they think of a flowchart. I think this is a great game aid that I wish more of the complex campaigns would do. This allows the GM a high-level overview of the events and knows how one success or failure can impact something later.

The only thing I wish Burning Games had done with the pre-generated characters and the GM outline is grant permission to photocopy on the pages themselves. I know most people would do this anyway, but it’s nice to give the legal permission for these types of materials. Also, these sheets are on the typical “slick paper” that is found in RPG books. This makes it very difficult to write on with most writing implements found at a gaming table. Standard office paper would have been better, but this is a minor nit-pick.

Interior Art

Score: 5 out of 5

Since this is a box set, I’m lumping the non-box, non-book artwork into “interior art.” The “interior” items containing artwork are the character portfolios, four over-sized creature cards, a Gear & NPC deck of cards, the Playing Deck (which is key to the gameplay), and two books.

The artwork on the character folios are great. They help ground the players in what their pre-generated characters look like. The art matches the text descriptions, so there’s no dichotomy of imagery going on there.

The creature cards are key monsters and/or encounters the players must overcome during the course of the campaign. They’re great quick-reference cards, and can easily be flashed to the players without them making out the vital details on the cards. All of them are well done, but I like the Carnivorous Grove the best. It looks like a fun encounter just from the artwork alone.

The Gear & NPC deck of cards is as wonderfully illustrated as it is useful to the game. The GM gets to keep the NPC cards on their side of the screen for reference, but can flash the cards to show the players what the NPCs look like. The gear cards are also very useful to hand out and give the players ideas about what their equipment looks like.

The playing deck artwork is absolutely gorgeous! I wouldn’t mind a few prints of some of the cards hanging on my walls here at home. Most playing decks along these lines I’ve seen with other systems have simplistic artwork (for expense reasons) or it looked like the artists had done so many cards that they just “phoned in” a few illustrations. That’s not the case here.

Lastly, the interior artwork on the books is equally stunning. There are a few maps that could stand on their own as pieces of art. When a publisher does this, the maps are generally hard to read or make sense of. I didn’t have either of those problems with the maps contained within the campaign book. If I could give more than 5 points here, I would.

Bonus Points

Score: 3 out of 5

These bonus points are where I measure the “cool factor” or “I really want to play this” angles. It’s more subjective than any other section, which is why they are bonus points. By adding in these points, it’s actually possible for a game to receive more than 25 total points.

There are some neat aspects of FAITH here. I love the world built up in the campaign book, and the flowchart in the GM’s handout is top-notch work. I love the look and feel of the artwork, and the people behind putting the content of the books together really know their stuff.

I think my only “gut feel” downside to the whole game is the lack of dice and the use of a hand of seven cards to replace rolling for resolving actions. Maybe this is me being stuck in a rut with dice. I would love to have a chance to see how this plays out with my regular group and see what their opinions are of the use of cards for taking care of action resolution.

Overall Score: 25 out of 25 Overall Thoughts

FAITH looks like a neat game in an interesting space of pseudo-magical biological enhancements and far future tech. It feels a wee bit like “magical Traveller” to me, which feels like a huge dichotomy of words to use like that, but that’s the sense I get from the game. I think anyone that likes Firefly (either as a TV show or as a game), but wants some “far out” elements would really enjoy this game.

Kickstarter Campaign

The folks over at Burning Games have started up a Kickstarter campaign to fund a core book for the game. There are even miniatures involved! The minis look fantastic, and if the core book is of the same quality as the Starter Set I reviewed, you’ll be in for a treat if you back the Kickstarter. I currently have my eye on the “Believer” level, so I can land a physical copy of the book along with some bonus decks and any stretch goals that are unlocked. I’m also going to throw in some extra Euro for several sets of the player decks as add-ons just so each player can have their own deck to draw from and shuffle.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Class Reskinning: Playing What You Want When It’s Not In The Rules

20 March 2017 - 1:00am

Sitting down to a game of Dungeon World, I don’t know what playbook I am going to pick up, but I do know that inspiration struck me in the Misdirected Mark chat room the night before and there is a flavor I have planned for whatever character I grab. Blade Singer. I don’t know what it means yet, although I have some images in my mind of valkyries singing as they descend with swinging swords from the heavens. I’m thinking through the play books as I look them over: the fighter, that one’s pretty clear as the blades work. Maybe she is trained by a fighting school where they associate each movement with a different note, and as she fights her moves create the song she sings. There’s the bard, another logical choice. She uses her songs to mesmerize opponents and then attacks. The thief might hum the steps of the acrobatic dance that turns her in to a twirling whirlwind of blades, appearing from the shadows and then whirling away again, leaving her prey in fear of those soft notes. The paladin sings righteous hymns of her faith as she hacks her way through evil, hair streaming with brilliant shine as her blade rises and falls. Magic users would have been more difficult for this particular thought, but I had some ideas about singing my spells. In the end, though, I picked up the barbarian.

 When she swings it, it sings the songs of the wind as it blows through the grasses of the Melodic Plains. When she joins her voice to the sword, they sing in harmony the joy of battle as they cut through any and all comers. An Amazonian elf woman from the plains beyond the mountains, her blade is carefully forged with small holes down the middle instead of a blood channel. When she swings it, it sings the songs of the wind as it blows through the grasses of the Melodic Plains. When she joins her voice to the sword, they sing in harmony the joy of battle as they cut through any and all comers.

A day later, I was listening to the episode zero for WEPAS Streets of Avalon, and in the midst of the discussion of how the setting plays as low magic they discussed how they were handling all the spell based 5e classes. Despite the low magic setting, in a party of four there is a Druid and a bard. It’s fun and inspiring to listen to them reskinning what we usually use as flashy spells into low magic equivalents with the same effects.  It got me thinking: how do you make a reskinning successful?

Start clear and simple, so that you can be flexible in your implementation

I knew my blade singer would incorporate singing into her fighting. Somehow it was going to influence how she fought, joining song and sword. How I was flexible on implementing it — there are a lot of different ways to accomplish that basic goal.

Start with a strong central concept

Your concept is the reason you’re reskinning to begin with, so make it something interesting that appeals to you! If you don’t have a strong theme for this reskin, you’ll find yourself grasping when it comes to describing actions, or on the fly flavoring of your skills or spells. For my blade singer, her primary influence is the interaction of song and sword, which meant where she came from had to create the kind of background that would give that to her. As I built on the sword that could whistle as it swings, the wind became an influencing factor, leading me to wind swept grass plains and nomadic people who travel them. It helps in this case of course that Dungeon World in particular, based on this playbook, tells me that wherever I’m from, it’s not around here.

Why did this thing come to be?

Once you’ve applied your central concept so that you know how it will be used in play, know why it’s come to pass. If your rogue is really a thieving hedge mage with no actual useful spells but the “magic” that can occasionally pick someone’s pocket or open a lock, fantastic! But why doesn’t their magic work like everyone else’s? Why does it sometimes fail in different ways? How do they do this hedge magic—is it something that was passed on through their family as tradition and superstition? Maybe then none of it is magic at all, they only think it is. Or maybe there are other superstitions they feel are important that don’t actually do anything. For my barbarian, putting her people in a place where they function as hunter gatherers, making her a hunter who runs fleet footed across the plains to take down a deer or engage in battle, these things lend to her joy in battle and her song.

Involve your concept in your descriptions

Both for yourself when you are creating the character, and when you describe your actions at the table. When Galdera takes her first swipe through the air with her sword, it begins the song that she echoes back at it, creating a union of voice and blade, mind, body, and sword. I don’t “take a swing” at a goblin, I run at it like the wind through the grasses of my homeland over the mountains, my sword singing in harmony with my battle song as I bring it down on my adversaries.

Do you have any favorite reskin you’ve done on a character class or playbook? Any other thoughts on successful reskinning?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Living Through the Satanic Panic

17 March 2017 - 12:00am

The cover. The art for this book is already so good.

Over on Kickstarter, Third Act Publishing is running a campaign to fund the production of their new game, Satanic Panic. Put together by Jim McClure, Jim Merritt, and Emily Reinhart, the game gleefully asks, “What if the Satanic scare of the 80’s had been real and gamers actually were summoning demons?” Set in an alternate, but no less nostalgic, 1970s and 1980s, players take the roll of secret government agents combating the evils of tabletop. It sounds hysterical and ridiculously fun, but especially amusing for those of us who were gaming back then.

Mentioning the game on my Facebook page dredged up a bunch of memories from folks, so I decided to put out a call on social media and collect some of those stories:

Will Adams

Growing up as a Christian in South Africa in the 80’s and 90’s I was exposed to the Satanic Panic for everything from music to toys to TV shows and, yes of course, RPGs I heard stories about people who had killed their parents because they thought it would get then to the next level. I heard about how you’d learn actual spells (nothing you haven’t heard a thousand times already in sure).

I never really got the chance to play much at any rate, maybe because of that, maybe I just had friends who genuinely aren’t interested in gaming… Who knows

The more interesting story was more recent (about 4 years ago) when I approached one leader in my church for counselling over another issue. The sessions were going well until on the penultimate session he handed me a what he called a “dump list” that included such things as Heavy Metal, fantasy novels, comics, tattoos, and surprise surprise, Dungeons and Dragons. At the next session I tried explaining to him that a fair bit of the list isn’t even remotely Satanic but he wouldn’t hear anything and made me “pray against” my involvement in each thing. I didn’t, I only thanked God for the enjoyment and prayed for his protection over me.

Needless to say I no longer attend that church

Angela Murray

It’s hard to imagine people took the panic seriously.

I was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to gaming. For me, it happened during my senior year of high school when a new kid joined my social circle. He saw me reading a big, fat fantasy book and asked if I played D&D, and if I didn’t, was I interested in trying? He didn’t have to twist my arm.

About two months after I started playing regularly with my new friend and his group, my mother asked me over her cup of coffee, “Isn’t that game Satanic?”

Now mind you, my mother wasn’t religious at all. Neither of my parents had much use for Church. My father claimed to be an atheist, and while I’m sure my mother believed in God, she certainly had no desire to attend church and was actually very distrustful of those who talked a great deal about faith and religion.

As she asked the question, I stopped and stared at her with a horrified expression and responded in the most teenage way possible. “MOOOOM!” So much, contained in one, drawn out syllable.

“Okay honey, just making sure. Have fun.” And that was the end of that.

Brandon Barnes

My story takes place just out of the 80’s. I was aware of Dungeons & Dragons due to the cartoon and the ads in my comics, but otherwise unaware as to what it actually was. But in 1990, just before Christmas, I started seeing commercials for Hero Quest. It went straight to the top of my Christmas list and my parents were wonderful enough to get it for me. It quickly became my favorite game and I wanted to play it at every opportunity. That even included my friend Mikey.

Mikey was the son of our neighborhood holy roller. I was raised Christian myself, but my parents definitely raised me to be very tolerant and have an open mind. But Mikey’s mom was infused with the holy spirit and it seemed little in their day to day life wasn’t related to their beliefs. This also led to a very sheltered upbringing for Mikey. I remember his mother scolding me for letting him watch Goonies. Something, something, demonic deformed man. She also had my favorite book about the paranormal pulled from the school library shelves.

One afternoon, I gathered a few friends (including Mikey) to play some Hero Quest. They made their way through zombies and skeletons only to finally face off against the gargoyle. Fun was had and even Mikey seemed to really enjoy it.

Later that evening our phone rang and my mom answered it. There was a long pause for what I assumed was a telemarketer’s pitch, followed by, “Yes, Lane… Yes, Lane… I’ll talk to him. Ok, thank you. Bye.” My mom hung up the phone, sighed and looked at me, “Don’t play that game with Mikey anymore, OK?”

A few days later I go over to Mikey’s house to play. I’m greeted at the door by Mikey’s mom. To which I’m given a half hour lecture about Satan, Dungeons & Dragons, witchcraft, sewers, kids dying, and a lot of other things that got lost in a Charlie Brown muted trombone sound.

Thankfully there were no book burnings or forceful baptisms. This may have just been the death throes of the fervent 80’s outcry. I’m still thankful to this day I had supportive, if not encouraging, parents that allowed my imagination to flourish.

Matt Neagley

In my school, D&D was banned. I was not aware of this until a High School project where my friend and I wanted to run a D&D game for our class (small class). Our teacher said it was a cool idea but we couldn’t do it. Always gaming the system, we designed our own RPG with the intent of running a game of it for our next project. You can see the game here in one of my previous articles.

Dave actually had a harder time than I did. His parents were so convinced D&D was a tool of the devil he and his brothers invented a code to discuss the game without being caught.

Quite a few in my circle were approached in stores while looking at books and told that we were going to hell if we didn’t stop playing the devil’s game.

My in-laws have offered to take all our game books and burn them for us multiple times. (Though not recently) my wife originally thought I was a creepy Satanist; partially because I had D&D books (and partly because I was creepy). The 2e Monster Manual art eventually won her over.

Sinister hobby shops!

Ed Rollins

I grew up in Appalachia, where most things not well established are bad for you; I think xenophobia sums it up well. I started playing D&D around 1976. The first couple of years were no big issue, other than the time I put into it. When the craze hit, and the radio preachers started tossing fuel on the fire, my mother took an interest in the cover of the first edition DMG. On several occasions I had to go looking for it only to find it where she and someone had been questioning the artwork and its meaning. Not once did she ever open the book.

My Dad was generally unconcerned, he actually encouraged the creativity, so long as my chores were done. Years later, and I mean decades, my Mom called one night and when my wife told her that I was downstairs playing D&D, it was the 70s all over again. I simply must be worshiping Satan, the televangelists all said so! This would have come as a real shock to the congregation for whom I was pastor at the time.

The full story, Mom said, “I can’t believe you let him do that.” To which my wife responded, “Have you met your son? No one LETS him do anything.” She then launched into the fact that my gaming group were our best friends, most attended church regularly, one was a Catholic lay minister and that any of them would help out without hesitation.

Chris Baker

As a long-time player (starting in ’79), I and my role-playing friends lived through the “D&D will kill you” craze that briefly entranced the media. I was already listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, so it was clear that my immortal soul was in extreme peril. No one that I knew ever treated this nonsense as anything serious – except for one person.

This was the older brother of one of my close gaming friends. One day, he decided to call the local daily newspaper and report that the D&D cult had come to town and that I was the “Warlock” of the group. I don’t know what else he told them but it certainly got their interest. A reporter called me up and asked for an interview.

I was pretty shocked. As a churchgoer, I really did not want to be “outed” as some kind of black magic practitioner or cult leader. I also did not want to contribute to any misinformation about a game I played and liked. I accepted the interview request.

The next day, I appeared in the newsroom for my appointment. I had brought all of my D&D books as well as some books on mythology (a ton of books in all). The reporter was keen to begin and I did what I thought would be best – make the whole thing as boring as all get out. I was an 18-year-old pontificating on probability theory, J.R.R. Tolkien, the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the legends of the Greeks and Romans and how they shaped popular culture, blah blah blah.

It did not take long before the reporter’s eyes glazed over. Even as he closed his note book, I kept rattling on about military simulations using miniatures, Robin Hood, King Arthur and his Roundtable.

Finally, he shut the interview down. He wanted to interview a sex-and-death warlock but all he got was a talkative nerd with a lot of text-heavy books. There was no story here.

Mission achieved!

Fashion only your grandparents thought were cool…

John Arcadian

I wasn’t allowed to play D&D when I was younger, mostly because of things my parents saw in the news about the Satanic Panic. I don’t think they really believed it all, but they were unsure enough about it to not let me play it. They let me buy and read the books, which was odd, but I didn’t get to playing and running games until much later because of this kind of worry. That’s a huge pity, because gaming is where I found a lot of my confidence and strategies to succeed in other places in life. It let me test out different methods of socializing and gave me practice in “fake it till you make it”. It’s a pity that the Satanic Panic delayed that for me, and who knows how many others who gained similar benefits from gaming.

Rudy Becker

I was in seventh or eighth grade when I first started playing D&D. I was raised Roman Catholic, but my parents had not had any problems with my playing the game. I always got the idea that they did not quite get what all the fuss was about, but to them it was a game, nothing more. For birthdays and Christmas, I would get different books or other supplements. All-in-all they did not seem to distinguish the D&D books from any other Sci-Fi/Fantasy novels.

At some point in eighth grade my parents were talking to someone at church after mass. It was nothing out of the ordinary and I did not think much of it. However, on the way home, they suddenly had questions about D&D. They wanted details on the game, like what happened when my friends and I played. I answered their questions, saying that nothing happened, it was basically storytelling, only we were the characters in the story. I asked why the sudden interest and they told me that they had been hearing things from people at church. Things like the game was more real then what they had first assumed. My father even said that one of the people had suggested that my parents’ financial issues were all being caused by my playing D&D. My father thought the whole idea was ridiculous. We were not having any issues, beyond the norm. That being said, I got the feeling my mother was a little more concerned.

They stopped asking about it and likewise I did not think much more about the conversation. Then a few weeks later on a Saturday, my father asked if I would teach him how to play D&D. I thought it was a great idea and was thrilled at his sudden interest. We rolled up a character for him, a Fighter, I forget his name and I took him through a basic dungeon. We played for a couple hours and while we both had fun, I think I was having more fun with the whole experience than he was.

We never played again. My friends were somewhat astonished that he even tried D&D. Their parents had never once expressed any interest in learning how to play, and I am not sure if they would have wanted to teach them even if they did.

Looking back on the episode, I believe all that my father was trying to do was to figure out what took place during a game. I almost feel he was a little disappointed at the lack of ritual sacrifice. D&D was pretty much what he had always thought it was: A game played with pencils and dice, not daggers and demons.

Months afterward, my father mentioned somewhat offhandedly, that when the subject of D&D being the root of all our worldly problems was broached again at church, he basically laughed the whole thing off and asked if they had ever bothered to even open one of the books. He told them with finality that D&D was only a game and only a fool would believe that it was more than that.


Take a swing by the Kickstarter and check out the game. I’ve backed it and I’m looking forward to getting a chance to play. We’d love to hear your stories of living through the crazy days of the panic if you’ve got one you’d like to share down in the comments.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

A Randomized Hex Crawl Generator

15 March 2017 - 1:00am

In the comment section of my last article, reader Roxysteve commented about the random terrain generation of Source Of The Nile, one of the games on my “Great games of yesteryear” wish list. I have never read Source Of The Nile, and am only vaguely familiar with it (players compete for gold and glory by outfitting expeditions to the heart of unexplored Africa and discovering the randomly generated wonders therein) but his comment made me think about doing something similar for myself. What I came up with is a system that randomly generates terrain based on the hexes about it. To start, you need to make a seed hex by picking an elevation, vegetation and water from the lists below. From there, pick blank hexes adjacent to filled ones one at a time and roll on the tables below to fill them. This is of course an excellent time to make a custom d10,000,000. In this case, you’ll need a d12, d10, d12, d12, d12, d20, d20 combo.

For starters, if there is more than one filled hex bordering the hex you’re generating, you’ll need to randomly choose a source hex from those available. To do so, roll a d12 and d10 and consult the following table. Assume hex 1 is directly north or west (or whatever, it doesn’t matter) and count clockwise from there.

# of surrounding hexes d12 and d10 roll 1 1 2 d12/6 (round down) 3 d12/4 (round down) 4 d12/3 (round down) 5 d10/2 (round down) 6 d12/2 (round down)

From there, generate the elevation of your new hex with another d12 roll and the following table:

Source Elevation d12 result Mountains 1-6: Mountains 7-12: Hills Hills 1-4: Mountains 5-8: Hills 9-12: Plains Plains 1-3: Hills 4-9: Plains 10-12: Lowlands Lowlands 1-4: Plains 5-8: Lowlands 9-12: Valleys Valleys 1-6: Lowlands 7-12: Valleys

Interpret those results liberally. Mountains and hills both might be a single large elevated feature, or a cluster of smaller ones. They might be any number of shapes. Similarly, lowlands could be basins, deltas, swampland. You don’t have to limit yourself to only five options. This table results in a map that is approximately 2/14 Mountains, 3/14 Hills, 4/14 Plains, 3/14 Lowlands, and 2/14 Valleys. You can alter the table to achieve different distributions. I’ll cover the math behind that in a separate article.

Next, generate the vegetation of your new hex based on the vegetation of the source hex and another d12 table:

Source Vegetation d12 result Dense 1-6: Dense 7-12: Forest Forest 1-4: Dense 5-8: Forest 9-12: Grasslands Grassland 1-3: Forest 4-9: Grassland 10-12: Scrubland Scrubland 1-4: Grassland 5-8: Scrubland 9-12: Barren Barren 1-6: Scrubland 7-12: Barren

For the purposes of this table, I’m considering dense vegetation to be jungles, thick forests, choking swamps and the like, Grassland to include lots of small vegetation and frequent trees or other large plants, and scrubland to include short coarse grasses and infrequent scraggly brush. Like elevation, play fast and loose with those definitions and let the contents of the hex and nearby hexes inform your interpretation. Because the rolls are the same, this table creates a distribution the same as the one created by the height table: 2/14 Dense, 3/14 Forest, 4/14 Grassland, 3/14 Scrubland, 2/14 Barren.

The next table is for water features.

Source Water d12 result Lake 1-2: Lake 3-7: River 8-12: None River 1-4: Lake 5-8: River 9-12: None None 1-2: Lake 3-4: River 5-12: None

Water features should be present wherever makes sense. Feel free to add them in where appropriate, for example to connect a randomly selected water system to a nearby source. Also, take it as writ that there are dozens of streams and ponds too small to be shown on the map at smaller scales unless the terrain makes that unlikely. With the table above water will have the following distribution: 4/19 Lakes, 5/19 Rivers, 10/19 None.

The last component of the map is points of interest. The frequency of these will depend more on the scale of your map and your personal preference. According to this article from Hydra’s Grotto, the entirety of the massively populated game worlds of Skyrim and Oblivion would each fit into a single 6 mile hex, have hundreds of distinct points of interest each and roughly match real world distributions, so you really can’t pack them in too tightly. Instead, the limit is whatever distribution of points of interest to white space you’re comfortable with in your game. For these tables I went with 3/10 of hexes with points of interest with 1/6 of those being major points of interest. Roll on the next table. If the result indicates a point of interest, roll on the point of interest table.

d20 roll Result 1-14 No Point Of Interest 15-19 Point Of Interest 20 Major Point Of Interest (Use the same table, think big when interpreting the results.)

The following table is by no means exhaustive. Add entries, fiddle with weights to your heart’s content.

d20 roll Result Description 1-3 Ruins Wall or foundation fragment, tomb or graveyard, statuary, collapsed hut, ruined keep or tower 4-6 Caves Simple one room lair, 5 room dungeon, huge complex 7-9 Natural Formations Massive tree, oddly shaped boulder, waterfall 10-11 Lair of unique NPC/creature Lair of an “alpha monster”, odd or quirky NPC, unusual but non hostile monster etc… 12-14 Campsite Wayside shrine, small lean-to, small cave 15-16 Settlement Small encampment or village. May be hostile, friendly or neutral 17 Magic A magical feature of some sort. An endless fire, magic fountain, floating tower, etc… 18-20 Unusual Terrain A pocket of terrain that is different than the surrounding hex or an unusual type. A barren defile in the middle of a forested hex or a quicksand marsh

Once you finish randomizing the map you can add some additional features, connect water features, add roads between settlements, water features and points of interest as appropriate and any other finishing touches you feel like.

Here’s a sample I started with a seed hex of mountain forest in the upper left corner. You can see that even if the long term results tend to a single distribution, small regions are heavily influenced by their seed hex. It features 11 points of interest, key below.

1 – a small cave with the remains of a campfire and a few crude iron tools scattered about
2 – area between hills here is full of wet mucky forest detritus
3 – small cave complex full of giant mud wasps
4 – mountain in the middle of the forest is the lair of a great serpent, knows much, is dangerous, but can be bargained with
5 – hills riddled with boltholes and tunnels, home to morlock-like creatures
6 – a village of refugee duergar have a town in some caves here, they are shrewd and conniving but needy
7 – the caves in this forest basin are home to root-gnawing worm and crusted with strange salts
8 – a strange wild man lives in these woods
9 – an “undead” treant roams these wood infected with giant termites
10- several hills are connected by natural bridges
11- small hide tent village of desert lizard folk

So what do you think? Too complex? Not complex enough? Dying to see the math behind it? (Not holding my breath on that one.) Missing anything obvious?

Categories: Game Theory & Design