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H&FotSOR#19 – Carl “Black Powder” Bussler

23 September 2017 - 11:00am

On this episode Hobbs is joined by Carl “Black Powder” Bussler. They talk Well of Souls, Black Powder Black Magic, and weird west gaming. Enjoy the show and let Jason know how we’re doing in the comments below or email us at

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Why Do I Review?

22 September 2017 - 4:00am

The following originally appeared on my blog, back in August, during the “RPG a Day” event. One of the prompts for that event was to mention where you go for your RPG reviews. I noticed a lot of chatter on that day about the validity of reviewing RPGs, and the way it should be approached. That prompted me to post this to my blog.

Today’s RPG A Day question, which asked where you go for your RPG reviews, sparked a lot of discussion that I wasn’t expecting. Primarily, it pointed out to me that some people that I respect a great deal either don’t think the RPG industry is large enough to support traditional critical reviews, or that reviews that do not include play experience with the game are of great value.

I’m not taking to the internet to tell anyone that they are wrong, or to defend why I do what I do. In fact, the existence of my blog or my reviews is ancillary to my personal beliefs on this topic. My only point is to explain why I do think there is value to reviews, even reviews that are written before the play experience can be factored into that review.

Let me summarize some of the (entirely valid) points that I have seen made across the internet today:

  • People would not review movies or video games based only on scripts or instructions
  • The play experience that you might envision from reading the rules may not match the play experience of running the game
  • The RPG industry is too small to be served by more academic reviews, and is better served by discussions about games

The first thing I would like to do is to say that I agree with all those statements, if they were amended to say that all those things are important, but not to the exclusion of thoughtful reviews.

People would not review movies or video games based only on scripts or instructions

Comparing a review of an RPG rulebook to a script or set of instructions misses some of the nuance of what the game book actually does, and what players of an RPG are expected to do. The rules in the book are the code that the players use to run the game. They aren’t exterior instructions, but the actual language that should be understood and engaged to make the game work. It is not the whole experience, but it is a greater part of the experience than the elemental components of other styles of entertainment.

I used this analogy in a recent review, but if you saw an impressive Lego set, and you wanted to build the model shown on the front of the box, you would likely be disappointed if the instructions were deficient in telling you how to do this. You have all the components. The Legos are no less awesome, and the final product will still be impressive, but it is important to explain to a prospective buyer that they are going to invest a significant amount of time in just analyzing the components and using their own knowledge to fill in the gaps in the instructions.

The play experience that you might envision from reading the rules may not match the play experience of running the game

The play experience will almost certain not match exactly what you envision in your mind when you read through a book. When you engaged the rules as you read, you were facing the rules one on one, directly. At the table, you will have multiple people thinking of interactions that did not occur to you when you were reading. But while I will certainly agree that the play experience will be different than you envision, I also think that it is possible to find where you, personally, will have problems engaging with the rules before it comes to the table.

The RPG industry is too small to be served by more academic reviews, and is better served by discussions about games

The RPG industry is relatively small compared to other entertainment industries. I think it is very important that there be open and communicative places for gamers to go to ask questions and posit new ideas. It is also true that some people are new to any given RPG community at any given time, and may not be comfortable engaging in conversations about an RPG. Some people, even when they have been part of a community for a long time, remain more comfortable as spectators and consumers than active participants in conversations. In fact, it is a trap that various RPG communities fall into, when they assume that only the people that are actively communicating are receiving any benefit from the existence of the community.

Because there are people that are not active conversationalists, I think it is even more imperative that reviews exist that might spell out, clearly, what the reviewer expects from a product, what the product delivers, and where the product may not be as it seems. To those people that either do not wish to engage, or just don’t wish to engage consistently, I think there is a definite value to presenting a thorough, well-reasoned review.

  • Actual play experience is always going to be a valuable piece in evaluating a game
  • Dynamic conversation is always going to create a more textured understanding of a topic than the static opinions of one reviewer

Neither of these facts invalidates the usefulness of reviews, and specifically, reviews that are based only on the product, and not the full play experience.

Why I Love Reviews

When I was younger, I loved watching Siskel and Ebert. My mother hated the show. Her opinion was that these were two people that sat in judgement of things other people might like, and told them what they should think. For some reason, despite being in my formative years, I never adopted her opinion. I would go out of my way to watch the show, especially if something I wanted to see was featured.

Yes, there were times I would get angry when something I was sure was the greatest movie ever made got panned. But I kept watching. I even watched those “boring” reviews of things like dramas and romances that I knew I was never going to like. Why couldn’t they just keep talking about action movies and sci-fi and horror? But things started to seep into my brain. They weren’t just watching these movies deciding what they liked and what they didn’t without any guidance. They compared them to other movies that had attempted the same techniques. They pointed out where some aspects of the movie were good, even when the movie, as a whole, didn’t work.

Eventually, I realized that what I liked was the analysis, not the final opinions.

By the time I started to realize how much I liked the analysis of pop culture, I started reading RPG reviews in Dragon Magazine. I started reading reviews before I ever played anything other than Dungeons and Dragons. I read reviews from people like Jim Bambra, Rick Swan, and Allen Varney, and I started to see that not all RPGs had similar rules to D&D, and that the way an RPG held together internally was more important than if it seemed like a cool way to use laser guns in a d20 level based system.

To this day, I haven’t played half the games I read reviews for, and yet, the analysis of presentation and rules in those articles helped create in me an appreciation for multiple rules that can be used to accomplish similar things in different context.

But It’s Not That Simple, Right?  While I don’t think a reviewer needs to have played the game in question to write a valid review, I do think that a reviewer needs to have played a wide range of RPGs to give the best review. 

For a review to have value, I think there are some important elements that must properly align. While I don’t think a reviewer needs to have played the game in question to write a valid review, I do think that a reviewer needs to have played a wide range of RPGs to give the best review.

A person that has only played level based d20 games may give a decent accounting of a supplement for a game with that same base assumption, but when faced with a more narrative game, they aren’t going to be able to provide as many useful insights. I can attest to this myself. When I first read Dungeon World, I didn’t get it, and while I stated that fact on the blog, I didn’t frame it as a review. I needed to play a wider range of more open ended, narrative games before I really understood it.

It’s also very important for a reviewer to state their biases, and what they find important. No one is without bias, and knowing that a reviewer has a weakness for a certain style of adventure or genre is going to provide context for the reader. Evaluating how much the reviewer’s tendencies match the reader’s is going to be extremely valuable.

The reviewer should also call out enough important details that they provide an accurate picture of the product. No review is going to be able to explain exactly what is on every page of a book, but understanding the structure and level of detail that the product utilizes is going to help the reader weigh what level of effort has gone into different aspects of the production.

Knowing is Half the Battle

The worst mistake anyone, reviewer or consumer of reviews, can make, is to assume that the purpose of a review is to find a source to tell them if they should or shouldn’t buy a product. This may sound counter-intuitive, but this is an important bit of nuance. The purpose of a review should be to help the reader determine if the product is for them, but that determination does not need to match the reviewer’s conclusion for the review to be successful. The review should provide enough texture that the consumer can form their opinions based on facts that they have gathered, not based on the specific conclusion of the reviewer.

Why would a reviewer even come to a conclusion then, if they believe this to be the case? I can’t speak for everyone, but I know that if I don’t hold myself to some kind of metric, my reviews meander. Without that metric, it is hard for me to see if my positives have more weight than my negatives. It is a way for me to clarify my own thoughts.

Ideally, a consumer can find more than one reviewer that they find entertaining and informative, and they can contrast where one reviewer’s biases may have led them to omit details important to the consumer of the review. Even without that, the consumer can’t be passive in reading a review if they hope to gather the best results. I can’t speak for other reviewers, but my actual score is a tool to bring out the points I want to make in the review, rather than the actual point of process.

And on that note, I’m going to wrap this up before I go on a rant about how Rotten Tomatoes is killing useful movie reviews.

Thanks for joining me on this flashback WAY back to last month. If you have any thoughts on RPG reviews, or pop culture reviews in general, as well as suggestions for what you would like to see in the future, please chime in!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Buzz About The Giant Bee

20 September 2017 - 5:00am

Bees. Bees have an interesting place in our world today. Not exactly domesticated, they are still an incredibly important resource for agriculture, pollinating billions of dollars of crops annually, and the source of an amazing food product.

Let me tell you a story about one of my characters from years back. The character themselves was rather unremarkable. I don’t remember much about them, but one of our first adventures involved scouting out a system of natural rose quartz canyons. In one of them we discovered a nest of dire bees. We didn’t need to mess with them and they were a difficult encounter for us, so we left them alone. My character scraped together his gold, bought the land rights to the canyons and spent the rest of the campaign hiring glassblowers, alchemists, scribes, builders and soldiers and spending his downtime between adventures setting up trade contracts for his dire bee honey (in attractive rose glass flasks).

So let’s take a closer look at this fantastic relative of the common bee, the dire bee. Dire bees can be about five feet long, and build nests of about one and a half million cubic feet in volume (an orb ~140 feet in diameter or a cube ~110 feet on a side). In temperate climates these nests are usually built in dark enclosed spaces such as caves, huge trees, or abandoned buildings – with a preference for high places if available. In tropical climates, nests are more likely to be built in the open if no enclosed area is available. While these hives are often hidden from sight, the noise they produce – and the comings and goings of worker bees who can forage up to several hundred miles from the hive – makes it almost impossible to stumble upon one unaware.

While the standard drone dire bee isn’t a particularly deadly foe, they are dangerous in swarms – and bulkier soldiers and even larger royal varieties exist. In addition, some species have unique attacks, such as a variety that creates a zone of heat attack if they surround a target (some real life bees use this tactic to kill much larger hornets). Most dire bees won’t attack unless provoked, but aggressive species do exist, and they are attracted to bright colors – often driving them to investigate humans and their habitats.

Dire bees collect no treasure aside from the honey they produce, but incidental spoils can often be found near their hives left over from interlopers who got too close. Careful scavengers can often get a meal or some treasure this way. Adventurers with nerves of steel can sometimes sneak into a nest and gather up some honey. A typical dire bee nest can produce a ton or more of honey over the course of a year, though transporting out large quantities of it is a logistic nightmare. Dire bee chitin is strong and valuable, and of course just like real world bees, dire bees are effective pollinators – so lands close to a hive are often extra productive.

Infiltrating a dire bee nest can be made less dangerous by the application of certain varieties of smoke, application of the correct oils or chemicals to one’s body or even application of illusions or other magic which can either keep dire bees sluggish or fool them into not noticing an intruder.

The honey of a dire bee nest is largely similar to real honey, but access to large amounts of fantastic plants can create honey with weak magical effects. In addition, even more fantastic varieties of dire bee are said to exist with equally amazing properties to their honey.

A clever town may form the same kind of relationship with dire bees that we have today, providing them with cropland from which the bees can harvest pollen, while harvesting and selling honey under the protection of a local alchemist or hedge mage. In addition, the two can engage in a mutually beneficial protection arrangement. In other areas this arrangement might be overseen by the local druid or shaman, or the hive might simply be raided for honey and chitin on occasion.

Adventures around the dire bee:
  • fetch some honey/royal jelly/eggs
  • investigate the nest for signs of disease/predator/other malady
  • recover a macguffin that was lost near the nest or was left in the site in which the nest was built
  • recover some dangerous plants/rare plants/plants from a dangerous location to plant near the hive
  • harvest some chitin from dire bee corpses or kill some bees for their chitin
Variant dire bees:
  • nest with a hive mind or sentient royal caste
  • particularly aggressive species
  • nest with fantastic plants nearby: clouds of pollen near the nest have strange properties, honey shares these properties
  • outsider variety similar to formians
  • elemental bees with special attacks and odd behavior
  • reskinned bees that look more like large hummingbirds

Dire bees are one of many traditional role playing game “monsters” that actually have a lot of applications more interesting than sacks of xp and treasure. What is your favorite monster with overlooked depth?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Long Con

15 September 2017 - 1:00am

No we’re not talking about heists or con artists, but Long Convention Games. So let’s answer the first obvious question – what is a Long Con? From what I’ve been able to gather from talking to multiple people, it is a convention game that lasts multiple sessions. I’ve found three to be typical, but I believe there have been two session versions and longer session versions of the long con. With that said, the long con feels a lot like a mini-campaign or even a regular campaign. I know the Dungeon World long con I just ran at the QCC felt a lot like a campaign that had a beginning, middle, and end. It was one solid story arc.


There’s probably a lot of ways to structure a long con, but this is how I did it for Odvek’s Castle, my Dungeon World long con. I don’t do a lot of up front prep for my Dungeon World games, but I do a lot of what is called foundational prep. Odvek’s Castle was set up with a point crawl map, a map of the main entrance to the castle, and an idea of what was going on inside the castle for the characters to get involved in. Lets move on to the sessions.

Session I

Since it’s Dungeon World and I have playbooks, the first thing I do is have the players make their characters and connect themselves to each other. While we’re making characters I’m asking questions about what happened to them to give them their looks, why they wear what they wear, and how their skills came to be. I’m getting to know the characters. Then I have them do the bonds thing where they connect themselves to each other. Last, I have some questions about a specific item called the Statue of Odvek, which can answer any one question the characters might have. Once I have that, we start playing and I let the setting breath for a while, have the players settle into their characters, and give them time to get a feel for me and let myself get a feel for them. When we were getting ready to end the session I dropped a cliffhanger to pique their interest for next time. Now let’s break down what I was doing there, which can be used in any long con:

  • Interactive character creation. Let the players make characters in a way that gives them some choices about who they are, how they’re connected to each other, and the situation you’ve set up for them to deal with.
  • Let the game breath. Once play starts, give them some time to explore their characters and the setting you’ve put them in. It’s all about the introductory phase. If you have any NPCs, locations, themes, or tones to establish this is the place to do it.
  • The cliffhanger. End the session by dropping a cliffhanger of some sort. It can be a mystery, a new NPC or organization that hints at some of what’s going on in the background—something to indicate there’s a larger plot at work. What we’re looking for here is a new element that feels like a hook for the next session.
Session II

At the end of Session I dropped a tidbit that made them think there was something more going on than they realized at the beginning. They found the Statue of Odvek, which was sentient and became an NPC. They eventually named it Rook, since it didn’t actually have a name before that. It said something about “She’s in control.”  So with that ending I could have just picked up next session with them speaking with Rook, but instead I asked them if they’d let me set a scene. They agreed, so I went with action. I had the bard and wizard running away and a giant stone statue with a shards of stained glass arm chasing them. Each shard contained the image of a woman’s face who didn’t look very pleased with them. It had just kicked the dwarven fighter through the wall, no damage because I was just dropping in some flavor, and the rogue was riding on the statue’s back—I like to start with a bang if I can.

From there they split up and escaped from the statue into the Halls of Chaos, where they started learning things about the castle, the background, and their actual foe, Petra—the one time apprentice to Odvek. There were a variety of encounters and some magical items found. Rook was there for me to use to interact with the party, and they found a mechanoid construct which had a telescopic lens that let someone see the magical patterns of the castle.

Eventually, they retreated from the castle back to the safety of the courtyard of the motte-and-bailey structure, which is where their base camp was. There – with all the information they gained about Petra – they plotted their next move, interacted with some of the NPCs who had set up shop in the courtyard, and before they were going to go back into the castle someone new entered the courtyard. It was the bard character’s background coming to haunt them, as their was a bounty on him for sleeping with a noble—which was a no no. That’s where we ended, with another cliffhanger, setting up a final session where they were going to confront Petra before she pulled off her plan to ascend to godhood. Once again let’s look at what I was doing here in a more general sense:

  • Started with a charged situation. It doesn’t have to be a fight or something action packed, but something with a higher tension level works best.
  • Provide information. This section is about revealing the plot that is going on in the background, moving it to the foreground, and arming the characters with the information they need to make a move to deal with the situation.
  • Keep the setting living, breathing, and evolving. Odvek’s Castle is a strange Gygaxian place so I kept spewing forth more strange Gygaxian stuff. If your game is a spy game, then spew forth spy tropes of trust issues, black sites to get information, and other spies coming to kill the characters.
  • End with a hook. A cliffhanger or a problem they weren’t expecting to deal with works really well. Some complication related to the main issue that arises is also an excellent way to deal with the situation.

Middles are hard because there’s not really a resolution that you can have. Maybe it’s getting the MacGuffin that sets up the final act. This could be anything from an item to some bit of knowledge. The try fail cycle is a good one to use, as they try and fail to get what they need until they succeed. Another is gathering information which leads to other places to get more information. This ends once your characters have the information they need to try out a plan to deal with the situation. You could also have one or more unresolved threads, and you have the hook into part three, then you can wrap up and get ready for the final session.

Session III

Session III started with the end of Session II since I had a charged situation. They dealt with the bounty hunter and his comrades by using a bit of persuasion and a dagger to the throat. Then it was back into the castle to find a magic baton for the bard before finally going off to deal with Petra. They descended into where she was performing the ritual, and one of the players pulled me aside to ask if they could possibly die and have their story continue on. I did one better and brought their story to the final encounter. The dwarf had a beef with the Troll King so I had Petra Summon the Troll King during the final conflict. This conflict consisted of different versions of Petra as her main version was attempting to ascend to godhood in a ritual that Odvek once achieved. The PCs disrupted the ritual and Petra was supposedly killed, disappearing into a pit of blackness. After that I gave the players a chance to give some epilogues for their characters. Now lets talk about the break down:

  • Tie up the open threads. Anything you revealed in Session II and Session I should be tied off if possible.
  • Tie up character threads. If there are character threads out there, make sure you provide an opportunity for those to be tied off.
  • Keep the setting living, breathing, and evolving. This is a constant for the game and really helps with providing a connectivity to the play of the sessions and making it feel like a unified story.
  • Go Big or Go Home. Have something appropriate and large for the final confrontation or two.
  • Epilogue. Assuming the characters survive, give them a chance to have an epilogue. It’s a nice way to let them tie up their long con stories and gives them some closure.

There’s the Long Con. I hope you enjoyed this article and if you have an questions or comments, or have done the long con yourself, please let me know in the comments. I’m planning on doing more of these in the future and I’d love to have your input and ideas so I can get better at this style of game.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Players as Characters

13 September 2017 - 1:00am

Composited from stock art and art by Juan Ochoa

If someone plays RPGs long enough, the thought of “What if I were a character in a game?” will inevitably pop into the brain. Most people shy away from this idea for fear of the introspection or the fact that they must be themselves 99% of the time and want to use role playing as an escape. I completely understand these inclinations, but I’ve been a player in a few games where my character was, well, me. One of them was a Werewolf: The Apocalypse game, and the other was a GURPS game. The Werewolf game was incredibly enjoyable because “me” was actually “me with werewolf abilities,” so there was the sense of escapism involved. The GURPS game, however, fell flat because there weren’t any fantastic or sci-fi or horror elements to the game. It was quite boring being a real person in the real world tackling real world problems. There was no true sense of escape or enjoyment.

I always get player buy-in on a campaign concept, and if one or two players are lukewarm about the game, I adjust things a small bit to bring them into the fold. If I were to ever run a “players as characters” game, I’d go for 100% buy-in. If even one person is uncomfortable with the concept of being themselves in a game, I’ll back off. Because of this very strict rule I have, I’ve never managed to actually fire up a game like this. I have gone through a few session zeroes for these concepts where characters are made, but at the end of the day, someone backed out.

Game Concept

In addition to getting the players to accept playing themselves, the GM must be extra careful with the game content. Most horror games trigger something in the players. When the players are themselves, this can be especially true. I highly suggest avoiding horror-themed games, but they can work if everyone knows what they are in for up front. I’d also avoid the “you’re real people in the real world” idea. We get enough of that as it is. Almost any twist on reality or change in location or time period can work for the group, so long as everyone is on board with it. This has to be a group consensus.

Sense of Wonder

There needs to be a sense of wonder or fantastic things happening to really immerse the players into the game. Dropping them into a fantasy world can be a nice touch. Also, using a historic period would be a great idea (take a look at Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for ideas). Basically, displacing the players, as they are now, into a different and fantastic location, strange time (future or past), or changing the modern reality to be wondrous is key.

Another approach is to leave the real world as it is (maybe with a few twists), and change the players. These changes can be drastic or subtle, but need to come with benefits and hindrances that flow naturally together. As I’ve already mentioned, I got to play myself as a werewolf. That was great fun! I also wouldn’t mind seeing what I would be able to do with cybernetic enhancements or minor magical talents. These ideas really intrigue me.

Character Creation

Character creation is probably one of the hardest things to do in this situation. You’re not creating someone imaginary. You and your players are trying to emulate the players themselves in the game statistics and numbers. This requires an open mind, a dump truck full of honesty, and a cargo ship packed with acceptance of others’ opinions of you and your abilities. Some physical stats (such as strength) can be measured with relative ease. However, things like intelligence, wisdom, charisma, chutzpah, charm, or other mental/social abilities are harder to judge.

There are two approaches I’ve seen that work. The first is to have each player anonymously “vote” on one player’s stats. The GM then collects these votes and produces an average of the votes that the player has to accept. This prevents hurt feelings over a low score. Another approach is to trust the players to do what is right and let them self-evaluate. Some players have a hard time with this depth of introspection, so some nudging and guidance by the GM might be needed.

Lastly, I like the idea of allowing the players to add a point or three to abilities and/or skills. This will allow them to be themselves, but a slightly better version. This will help increase the fun of the gaming.

Character Balance

We’re not all created equal. We didn’t all have the same opportunities to improve or learn or practice. It’s just a fact. This means if you go with the “dead honest” approach, there will be some players that are more potent than others. This needs to be avoided. I suggest that once the characters are created, find the most powerful ones and either adjust them down closer to an average or allow the weaker players to boost up to be a match for the more powerful ones. This is very easy to do in a point-buy character creation system. With a race+class+level type system, this can be done via special items, more money (Congrats! You won the lottery.), more contacts/connections, a sidekick, a potent pet, and so on.

Character Death

This is touchy. What happens when a character dies? Normally, this is a great storytelling moment to make the death dramatic and impact the plotlines. However, this is a player playing themselves. I advise not to allow the players to have “plot armor” as protection just because they are playing themselves, but acknowledge up front that character death is a possibility and collaborate on what to do if this happens. Does the player then create a more traditional character? Does the player drop out of the game (it’s an option, but not one I like unless it’s a one-shot)? Do the rest of the players find a way to bring the dead character back to life? There are quite a few courses of action that can be taken, but I feel this needs to be addressed and planned for before it actually happens. I highly recommend going back a short bit in our archives and reading Avery’s article on how to make death matter.

Middle Ground

If you’re not interested in leveraging a normal RPG for representing the players as themselves, there is a series of games designed to be one-shots or short run campaigns from Fantasy Flight Games. They are called “The End of the World.” In the series, the players get to be themselves with whatever they have at hand in the real world to do battle against either zombies, elder gods, aliens, or the robot uprising. I’ve had the books for a while and have read most of the zombie version. It really looks like a fun game to immerse into for an evening, but I’ve not had the right chance to pop the game into a group due to adulting too much.

You can find more about these books at Fantasy Flight’s web site.


Have you ever been in or run a game where the players play themselves? What pitfalls did you run into? What were the high points? Let us know how things went!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Immersed in the Jungle

8 September 2017 - 12:01am

Grab a vine and give a mighty Tarzan yell. Dungeons and Dragons is going to the jungle.

Tomb of Annihilation, the brand’s next adventure storyline is slated to be released Sept. 19. After the announcement in May, I’ve been stoked about this development. Roleplaying in the jungle hits one of my sweet spots.

Since then, I’ve been indulging in jungle-themed media, hoping to heighten the vibe.

Here are some recommendations if you want to mimic the experience:

1 The full Tarzan

Edgar Rice Burroughs may have written “Tarzan of the Apes” as a lark, but it still holds for me a special place in my heart. It’s one of those formative adventure stories young boys and girls read that enraptures and captivates, despite its shortcomings in tone and stereotypes. Make time to read the original, if you can. Burroughs writes action like few others. It’s a treat.

Then spent at least a couple hours with an interpretation in film. The first adaption came out only six years after Burroughs first published Tarzan’s exploits, and Hollywood has never stopped churning them out. I’d recommend Christopher Lambert’s turn in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes from 1984. But not to be overlooked was 2016’s Legend of Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgard, which reimagines Tarzan as from the mid-19th century and set against the backdrop of Belgium notorius rule of the Congo. (But hey, if 1981’s Tarzan, the Ape Man starring Bo Derek, Miles O’Keeffe and Richard Harris is more your speed, then by all means, indulge yourself.)

Do yourself a favor and read a few issues of DC Comics’ Tarzan during its run at DC Comics from 1972 to 1975. Another visual treat: The covers Neal Adams and Boris Vallejo did for Ballentine Book’s reprinting of the Tarzan series.

2 Enter Michael Crichton’s “Congo”

The novel, written in 1979, succeeds as a pulpy mashup of the Search for King Solomon’s Mines, the legends of the Great White Ape and his usual brand of scientific techno-suspense.  Once you’re on board with Amy, the “talking” gorilla, the story takes off. I think it’s superior to “Jurassic Park,” but you can read them both and decide for yourself. (You can skip the movie adaption of Congo, though, it’s still a guilty pleasure for me, since it includes a bit with Bruce Campbell and a great characterization by Ernie Hudson speaking with a posh accent as a “great white hunter, who just happens to be black.”)  

3 Game books

As we are mining material for roleplaying adventures, I have three recommendations. Southlands campaign setting by Wolfgang Baur, Ben McFarland and Brian Suskind is a must stop. Secrets of Xendrik by Keith Baker, Jason Bulmahn and Amber Scott is worth mining, as is the companion Eberron supplement City of Stormreach, which details a coastal jumping off point not unlike Chult’s Port Nyanzaru. Want to learn the secrets of the tropical forest? See if you can score a copy of Into the Green by Thomas Knauss.  

I guess it goes without saying that the classic D&D Expert module  X1 Isle of Dread is a must read, too.  In fact, the blank hex player’s map of the island is being adapted for Tomb of Annihilation.

How many game products was that supposed to be? Three? Oh well.

4 National Geographic

No one brings stories of real exploits and current conditions from the tropical rainforests to today’s readers like the National Geographic Society’s magazine. The current issue, in fact, has a piece on Dian Fossey and her research and conservation of the Virunga mountain gorillas. But, of course, over recent years there have been other compelling pieces, including an investigation into the ivory trade and how it is decimating and endangering elephant and rhino species. Plus, the photography is first rate.

5 Go to the zoo

Simple as that. Visit a zoo or preserve. Get a sense of the immensity / exotic nature of the creatures on exhibit. For example, seeing a lion, giraffe or white rhino — the African creatures on exhibit at our local zoo — can do a lot to help GM’s when describing how these animals move and act.

6 Sight and Sound

OK, so you could watch jungle-themed movies and never hit bottom. Add war films set in the jungle to your search and you’ll never leave the video library. As I mentioned before, Hollywood loves jungle movies. In addition, many have outstanding soundtracks, which you can adapt as background sound cues for your playing sessions, especially if you make use of a service such as Spotify.

Chult, where Tomb of Annihilation is set, features dinosaurs prominently. So, go ahead, take in Jurassic Park and the Lost World and revel in the horror. Everything is bigger in the jungle, so find a King Kong movie to your liking. “Skull Island” is out now; it’s good if you like seeing things blow up, but of course, there’s almost as many Kong movies as there are Tarzan films.

Want something with a little more realism, or is at least grounded in the real world? Give Medicine ManLost City of Z or Gorillas in the Mist a chance. Also, the roundup scene from Hatari is what inspired the dino roundup from Lost World, and since Hatari has John Wayne, it’s instantly better. *wink*

But if you only watch one jungle-themed movie, then I will insist it be African Queen starring Katharine Hepburn and  Humphrey Bogart. Everything you’ll need to know about adventure story-telling in that environment is evident in the film — even if there aren’t any dinosaurs or ape-men swinging from trees.

Closing note

Of course, one not need wait for the hardback book to enjoy adventuring in the jungles — those of our real world and those in imaginary places. Moving your game into a tropical forest requires only the willingness to imagine a sweeping canopy of trees and a desire to keep reminding your players they are soaked through to their shoes by the moisture and rain.

There are lost cities, territorial tribal peoples and dangerous forest creatures in the jungle. They are just waiting for you to find them.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Make Adventuring Great Again

6 September 2017 - 1:00am

If you keep up with news (from America if you’re not), you may have heard something about a wall. I’m not talking about current events today. I don’t want that much hate mail. Instead, Let’s talk about adventures you can drop in your campaign when an NPC is building a wall. A massive wall. The biggest. It’s gonna be huge!

  • Escort quests: To build a giant wall, the logistics involved are equally massive. Materials and workers have to be moved to the build site. Food, water and other necessities have to be shipped in to the workers (unless necromancy or other shenanigans are in play).
  • Defense: Usually, a huge wall is built to keep out some kind of enemy – and often they won’t sit idly by while the wall gets built. Thus, workers building the wall need protection while they labor. Sections of the wall that are already built can be attacked or undermined while defenses are concentrated on the new construction, requiring fast moving teams to counter attacks or run for reinforcements.
  • Rescue / recovery: When defense fails or doesn’t arrive in time, workers can be taken captive and resources stolen. Someone needs to strike into enemy territory to recover them.
  • Rounding up a workforce: Depending on the attitudes of the NPCs building the wall and the PCs themselves, recruiting a workforce can take the form of aggressive recruiting and acting as paymasters, to press-ganging the locals, to raiding for slave labor.
  • Clearing a building site: It’s not easy to route a massive wall around obstacles, so sometimes the path has to go through dangerous territory. Lairs, ruins, or hostile settlements all have to be cleared, and in some cases torn down or incorporated into the wall.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Bedlam Hall Review

5 September 2017 - 1:00am

Bedlam Hall is a Powered by the Apocalypse game by Monkeyfun Studios that attempts to capture the feel of a household staff of servants in an estate in 1920s-ish England. The twist is that the family is involved in all kinds of bizarre and supernatural hi-jinks. The pitch is that this is Downton Abbey by way of the Addams Family.

Reading that pitch, I backed this on Kickstarter rather rapidly, and what you are currently reading is my review of the final copy of the PDF, delivered to Kickstarter backers.


What Does a Tome of Unsettling Electronic Lore Look Like?

As you may have surmised from the above, this review is based on the final PDF version sent out to backers. That means I haven’t had a chance to see this in physical form. The PDF is 180 pages, including six pages of Kickstarter backers.

The book itself is in black and white, with line illustrations that look like all those New Yorker cartoons that gave you nightmares as a child. Wait, they didn’t give you nightmares? Oh, and it happens to call back to the look of the original Addams Family comic strip as well.

The formatting on the book is well done, and is easy to read. Everything is single column with numerous headers for individual sections. The artwork does a good job of conveying and reinforcing the tone presented in the book.

A Note On Structure

Instead of having a larger chapter covering broader topics, the book is broken up by smaller topics. Because of that, I’m grouping them by theme to make it easier to summarize.

An Apology from the Author and A Foreboding Introduction in the Foyer

The introduction sets the tone for the whole book—the book is written as if the family referenced in the examples was a real-world family, and this is just a game that happens to turn stories of that family into a tabletop experience. This means that the writing can accomplish a nice trick right from the start. It can stay “in character,” and yet still address examples as an author explaining how to play the game.

The introduction then begins to explain what the game is about, exploring themes of a life of service, dealing with social ranking within the staff, and unexpected supernatural weirdness. After a few paragraphs explaining each of these themes, there is a scenario presented and bullet pointed to show how this situation would be presented in game.

Setting the Table—Preparing for Play, How to Play, The Simplest of Expectations—Your Basic Moves, Positions and Duties, Clearing the Table—At Session’s End

While the previous sections did a good job of framing some scenes and exploring the situations that player characters will be dealing with, these sections go into the actual mechanics of the game.

There are definitions of staff positions, attributes, and game terms used in the book. If you are familiar with other Powered by the Apocalypse games, you might notice that the book doesn’t immediately default to using the most commonly used terminology. That terminology is introduced later in the book, but here, the game terms are presented “clean,” with no assumptions of familiarity.

  • Prestige is almost like a combination of Luck and XP from other Powered by the Apocalypse games. You can spend up to three to increase a roll, spend one to drop or learn a suspicion, or you can spend five at the end of a session to get an advance.
  • Trauma is a broad label for injuries or psychological stress that a player character sustains. Too much, and your character dies or is no longer fit for service.
  • Every character has at least one Secret. A character can create a new Secret when they hit three Trauma to clear their Trauma track. The Innuendo move is a roll +Secrets, meaning that if you know another character’s secrets, you get a bonus for each one you have confirmed. Having a suspicion allows you to attempt to confirm a Secret.
  • We are also introduced to Cruel Moves, special moves that just trigger when the player decides, once per session. These moves can do nasty things, such as causing Trauma to everyone in the house, triggering a family member’s Trouble (which hasn’t been mentioned much at this point in the rules), or causing everyone to lose Prestige.

I really like the playbooks, and they are very indicative of the tone and setting of the book. There are six playbooks: the Butler, Housekeeper, Chauffeur, Maid, Cook, and Valet. Nobody gets to play the Gardener—ever. The Gardener is reserved as an NPC that the Master of the House can use to advance the plot, and the person running the game is encouraged to make them difficult to understand and strange. I really love this concept.

Other than adding an attribute and any bonus from the character spending Prestige, other bonuses or penalties are handled by rolling with Something Extra (3d6, take the highest two), or rolling with Something Less (3d6, take the lowest two). This isn’t new to this game, but it is a mechanic I like. Rolling more dice is a physical thing that creates more drama than a bonus or negative to the die roll, and it should work well in a game like this.

There is a section on romance in the game, and how it differs between staff, between staff and outsiders, and between staff and the family. It seems out of place when it appears, and seems to be something that should have been in the Master of the House sections of the book.

It becomes very clear in this section that the game is very much a player versus player experience. Many moves include ways to succeed while causing another player character Trauma or a loss of Prestige. The writing consistently reinforces that the best way for people in these dreadful circumstances to find joy is to undercut other members of the staff. In a group that is very good at separating their character from themselves, I can picture this being very enjoyable. But any player versus player situation, in my experience, should be approached carefully. Characters “can” be dismissed if they lose Prestige and they are currently at 0, characters can die or need to be permanently retired if they max out their Trauma. Prestige is used to advance characters, as well as to boost rolls and plant suspicions. Given all of this, it feels like the player versus player in this could easily get a bit heated.

Adding to the Dreadful Décor, and Navigating the House

This section of the book has notes on various aspects of running the game. This includes giving the Master of the House examples to use, such as a list of names to use or some terrible food that might be requested by the family. There is also a brief treatment about drifting the game to other settings. There is a procedure outlined for creating the unique version of the house to use in the game, and the standards and principles for the Master of the House to use when running the game are also found in this section.

There is some commentary on gender roles that states the game isn’t assuming that a role is only covered by the gender traditionally associated with that role, and that assumptions of the real world in England in the 1920s don’t need to intrude on the game. I appreciate this section, although I wish the playbooks themselves had a note on them to explain that they are more open than the terms and even the art would indicate.

The other genres listed are interesting (cruise ship, asylum, department store), but there isn’t much to support those genres other than broadly explaining them and giving alternate names for the playbooks.

The House details are great. This section has a list of different rooms that might exist in the house, and each room has several different example traits that explain the quirks and how to use that room in the game. The rooms are written down on index cards and positioned on the table, and it’s up to the table to decide if the layout remains consistent between sessions (in other words, shifting rooms may be a trait of the house as well).

A Useless Guide for the Master of the House

There is a guide to creating Troubles for the family. These have levels, and when they reach their maximum level, the family member causes something major to happen that must be dealt with. While players may have an idea about a family member’s quirk, to get the full extent of what is going on with their trouble, they need to confirm it much like they would another player character’s Secret. There is also some advice on balancing different types of Troubles, so that some family members have more mundane Troubles (like a gambling debt or an affair) versus more over the top Troubles (like being possessed by a demon).

This section reinforces that the group is expected to work as service staff. It isn’t their job to solve the Troubles. It’s their job to manage the Trouble. Eventually, it may come to a head, and then the family member gets a new Trouble that makes sense for them, but the staff isn’t fixing problems, just limiting the impact of the Trouble when it manifests.

There is a brief treatment of how characters might play more collaboratively, but there isn’t much in the way of mechanical support. Some of this amounts to “they don’t have to use the moves that harm each other,” and that’s true, but in some cases, the difference between a 10+ on a move and a 7-9 is that the character succeeds and causes Trauma or a loss of Prestige, instead of just succeeding, which just lowers the success threshold without replacing the “complication” threshold with anything.

As an aside, I’m a little surprised there isn’t much of a discussion of safety, or the X-card, or anything similar. This is a game that has horror elements, violence, psychological Trauma, and sex. It seems like a game could easily slip out of a player’s comfort zone if there aren’t some discussions up front, boundaries set, and safety procedures agreed upon.

The Terrible Tale of a Dreadful Birthday Party and Household Standards (Or Lack Thereof)

The sample adventure for the game gives you an opening scenario, some family members with detailed Troubles, and some sample rooms with some quirks already determined. Between the family members involved, where the action is likely to take place, and the event that is happening (the birthday party), the adventure is largely playing to find out what happens, with lots of moving parts in place that can trigger if the PCs start to move in that direction. There are a few sample resolutions for when Troubles reach their peak, with multiple ways for them to resolve, some of which interact with other Troubles that may be ongoing.

Overall, it feels like a very good introduction to how this kind of scenario should work. I like the family members involved, the room descriptions, and the potential resolutions. This seems like it would be a good convention scenario to introduce the game.

After the adventure, there is a section that gives a sample of a fully detailed version of the family. The family members mentioned in the adventure are referenced here again, but the text refers you back to the adventure for their current, ongoing Trouble.

While I like the idea of creating the family from scratch, I really enjoyed the sample family members provided, and I can see getting some good use out of the default family before customizing them.

A Horrible Compendium of Moves and Suggested Inspirations and Unsavory Influences

The final sections of the book contain a summary of all the moves across all the playbooks and what they do, and a section on inspirational material.

A Note on Terminology

The game went with Master of the House as the term for a GM in this game. That’s very in tune with the vaguely 1920’s English setting they are going for. However, they switch back and forth between Master of the House and Mistress of the House. On one hand, I’m glad they do this. On the other hand, I’m just not a fan of alternating terms for the same thing while reading. I would have been happy with “we’re calling this Mistress of the House, but use the term you are comfortable with.” It’s a tricky balance between inclusivity and atmosphere, and how those interact with clunky wording.

 I haven’t read many RPG books that are so consistently entertaining to read. This goes beyond just being entertaining. What’s So Good About It, Anyway?

I haven’t read many RPG books that are so consistently entertaining to read. This goes beyond just being entertaining. The narrative conceit of talking about the family as if they really existed allows the text to be entertaining, and to constantly convey the tone of the game. There is much less work to do when you get to the principles of running the game when the prose has been so illustrative throughout. The sample adventure, family members, and house creation make me want to get this game to the table. The other aspect of this book that I really enjoy is that it’s kind of sneaky, in that you could totally remove the supernatural elements and make this a straight up Downton Abbey game, just dealing with the family members and their affairs, tantrums, and health problems. The book knows what it’s emulating, and does a very good job of conveying that.

A Spot of Trouble Coming Up

The full extent of some of the rules are split across multiple sections, making it harder to understand the full process of using them. While the player versus player nature of much of the game isn’t automatically a negative, it’s worth noting. Even when players think they are okay with adversarial play, it is very easy to lose control of a player versus player situation. Some of the moves feel overly broad (Ignore the Strange is kind of your default “Defy Danger,” but it’s also “I’m ignoring something not immediately threatening because I can’t show that I’m phased by this.”). Given the topics involved, more of a discussion on safety would have been a welcome inclusion.

Clearing the Table and Putting Away the Silver

This book was so much fun to read. My initial impulse after I started reading was that it was going into the list of Powered by the Apocalypse games that I am planning on running at my local convention. The more I read, however, the more I realized that I need to do some work up front before presenting this at the table.

If you are looking at this book just to read an enjoyable, darkly humorous RPG, you will not be disappointed. The book never fails to be entertaining. If you are picking this up to use at the table, you will likely want to be very sure to have some discussions up front, especially about player versus player style games. The player versus player elements, as well as the slightly confusion organization when the rules are first introduced, impacts how broadly I can recommend this game.

TL;DR – Bedlam Hall is a Qualified Recommendation

A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases. It’s a fun, entertaining read, that could be a lot of fun at the table, but know your players, and keep an eye out for potential conflicts, if player versus player isn’t your usual play style.

Let me know your thoughts on the review, Bedlam Hall, and what reviews you would like to see in the future down below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Opening the Door

1 September 2017 - 12:00am

That moment she stepped off the ladder . . . right in the feels.

Wonder Woman made me cry. I was not the only one. Why?

Sitting in the theater on opening weekend, I watched as Diana made the decision to do what needed to be done rather than what she had been told should be done. In that moment, as she stepped into No Man’s Land and implacably moved forward, she truly became Wonder Woman. The impact of that scene hit me hard. Emotion welled up in my chest and I could feel my eyes tearing up. There are many reasons why my feelings were so intense about that scene, but the one I want to discuss today has to do with the fact that I have spent over thirty years of my life playing at being a hero through RPGs. I needed to SEE that moment. To see the truth of HER heroism as an echo of affirmation for every time I’ve tried to bring one of my own heroic girls and women to life.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked about representation in my articles. One of my early articles talked about character gender in games. Another talked about diversifying pregen PCs for games and gave specific ideas on how to come up with characters that fit. I’m bringing the topic back up because I’ve come face to face with the ideas and I’ve been trying to walk the walk instead of just talking the talk. Bringing a wider, more diverse cast of characters to games is something I think is vital to the health of the hobby.

Most of the games I run at cons are off-the-cuff style games where I don’t know what the hooks are going to be until the players tell me who their characters are. Sometimes, though, I like to dig into setting up a game with pregen characters that are designed specifically for the scenario. I love seeing what different players do with the same characters and scenarios. For this year, I decided to run two games that required prep and pregen characters: Bubblegumshoe at Origins and a 5e D&D game at Gen Con.

For both of these games, I deliberately set out to create a broad cast of PCs, crossing gender, racial, and orientation lines. The primary goal was to create interesting characters that worked in the game, but beyond that, I wanted to stretch myself and what I was offering to the players. My determination didn’t completely erase my nervousness, though. I’ve been gaming a long time and even today it’s not uncommon to sit down at a table and find the majority of PCs offered to be male and white.

A friend drew the cast for me, since I was having trouble finding images.

My Bubblegumshoe game was a riff on Stranger Things. I started planning this game before Tales from the Loop came out, so Bubblegumshoe was my chosen system. The game takes place in 1984, set in a fictional New York town on a fictional Finger Lake. Riffing off the dynamic of the show, the PCs ranged in age from 13 to 18, with three being younger kids and the other three all being older. The youngest and oldest characters were a black brother and sister being raised by a single mom. One of the younger kids was the child of Vietnamese refugees rebuilding their life. One of the older kids also came from a Hispanic family that had changed their last name to try and ‘blend’. Putting these backgrounds together, I tried to be as ‘true’ and respectful as I could be while still making characters that would be fun to play for those sitting down at the table. The racial diversity of the PCs isn’t an integral part of the game’s story but it opened up players to looking beyond the stereotypes the characters represented: the nerd, the jock, the bookworm, the cheerleader, and so on. I’ve run the game twice, once as a playtest at home with friends, and then at Origins. Both games were a success.

For the D&D game, I wanted a set of interesting and interconnected characters. The set-up for the game is that the Queen is dying and without a clear heir, she has called for a quest to find an ancient artifact that will help name the next heir. Not exactly a traditional adventuring party, each character has a reason to be there, even if they’re not sure who they want to be named heir. I don’t want to go into too many details about the characters since their secrets are part of the game and I do plan on running it again at future cons. So, how are these PCs diverse? There is a hidden same-sex romance between two of them, one is a bisexual polyamorous character with a complicated history, and another is transgender.

For this one, I also ran a playtest at home with friends. The game went really well and helped me clean up the adventure and fine tune the characters before I was running it for people who paid to be there. At Gen Con, I was running games for ConTessa, a fantastic organization dedicated to inclusive gaming. That probably inspired me to make the characters I made, but as I was sitting there waiting for players to show up, I realized that people searching for games wouldn’t see the host organization. They’d just see it was a 5e D&D game. What if I ended up with a table full of players who weren’t interested in the story and just wanted to murder hobo it up a bit? What if I ended up with a table of out-of-touch grognards that still think it’s weird that girls play RPGs? What if it all goes wrong?

When my players showed up, five were guys that had bought their tickets as a group so they could play together. The last seat was a woman on her own. As they read over their characters, I sat there nervously hoping this didn’t blow up in my face. I was adamant that creating diverse characters is important, but with today’s political climate, I was also worried about how some people might react. One of the players hit the point in his background that explained his relationships to the other PCs and I saw his brow furrow. He looked around the table and found which of his friends was playing his character’s secret lover.

“Hey dude, have you read your background yet?”
“Nah, I’m still looking at my sheet.”
“Read your background. It’s… important.”

Thankfully, my worries about it going south were unfounded. There was a brief bit of juvenile humor in the beginning, but that faded quickly as they settled into the characters. By the end of the game, they were so invested in the characters, regardless of how different they might be from their own experiences, they dove headfirst into trying to get what was right and true for the characters rather than what they as a player might have chosen. It was awesome.

If you can play an elf or an alien or someone who has a set of skills you’ll never be able to master, why not try playing someone who’s got a different skin color or is attracted to a different type of person than you? It may be easy for me to settle into a PC that’s white, straight and female, but why not go a little further beyond what I normally play?

We need to be able to see ourselves in our heroes. We also need to see others in our heroes.I mentioned at the beginning of this article how important and profound it was for me to see Wonder Woman on the screen. We need diverse representation in our entertainment because we all need to see some of ourselves in our heroes. We can absolutely love and adore Han Solo or Iron Man or John McClane or any number of the multitude of white male heroes that dominate our entertainment, but being able to look to Wonder Woman or Luke Cage or Kurt or Furiosa or Bill or Korra is so important for those of us that aren’t white, straight and male. If it’s important on the screen, it’s also important at the table. We need to be able to see ourselves in our heroes.

We also need to see others in our heroes. Another aspect of diversity that is super important, but maybe less obvious, is the need to see under represented people being the hero. Opening up their stories to a wider audience lets us look beyond what we know and expand our view of the world. Stepping into a character that’s different from you, but still provides a fun and engaging avatar for a game can help broaden empathy and understanding, even if just a tiny bit. I’m not saying that just because I mixed it up with the orientation and race of my pregens, I expected the players to leave the table changed people, but maybe it opened the door on their idea of who a fun character could be.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making a Thing: Being Visible as a Creator

30 August 2017 - 1:00am

If you write, draw, paint, sculpt, build, or do any kind of creative work, there has probably come a point where you’ve made something and have decided to show it to a close friend. Someone you trust. Someone safe.

“This is great!” they say. “You should share it!”

There it is. That frisson of fear. All of the tiny voices come crawling up.

It’s not ready

It’s not good enough

No one will care

I’m not good enough

This is a set of feelings that I’m pretty sure every creator has felt at one time or another. I know I have. And today I’m going to talk about something that I think is very important and that often gets overlooked when you’re doing creative work (this includes GMing or even playing games):

It’s Important To Be Visible As A Creator

I’ve been listening to a lot of the back catalog of Talking TableTop, a podcast that Jim McClure hosts through the ONE SHOT network. In it, he talks to RPG designers and notable industry people, and they range through a lot of topics. For creators, I noticed a trend—they’d be recounting their history of how they became a game designer, and there was a common thread. Many of them had a moment at some point where they realized: there are people who make these games. This is a job someone does.

That kind of revelation seems simple, but it’s really important. When you’re a kid, teen, or whenever, there are lots of these moments. Everything we use and touch was, at some level, made by someone. When those things are games we love, that means there’s a person who we can model ourselves after. There’s a path to follow.

The more that the act of creation is seen and normalized, the more people will do it—and that’s a good thing.

Without being able to see people making things, it can be difficult to imagine that you could make things. This is also why representation matters in the media we consume. If a black child only sees white people making things, they may assume that they’re not allowed to do the same.

Make Games, Talk About Games, Don’t Stop

More people than I care to count have ideas about how games should work, what they could do, how they could be presented, etc. Most of those people will never do anything with those thoughts aside from share them with friends.

This is my call to you: please talk about the things you care about. Redesign character sheets if you don’t like the ones you see. Write fanfiction if the plot doesn’t go the way you wanted it to. Make up new worlds where people who look like you are center stage. Do these things, and do them where people can see you. Here’s why:

If people see creators try, fail, try, mess up, try, succeed, try, try, try? That’s encouragement.

It’s really easy to get discouraged when you’re creating things. The picture in your head will almost never match what ends up down on the paper. You don’t know the right people. You’re afraid people won’t care.

There’s often this perception that you need permission to do things in a professional capacity. I see this all the time in RPGs and other tabletop games. This is an industry where the line between hobbyist and professional is really blurry and, in some cases, nonexistent. The truth is: no one needs to give you permission to make games except yourself. You just need to decide to do it.

Everyone starts somewhere, and everyone needs feedback and refining. Putting your work out there for people to see gives you access to those things. That said…

There Are Real Concerns Out There

Everything I’ve written here is true as I understand the world. I’m also a white, dude-like person in a heterosexual relationship. I’ve got privilege in spades. By and large, I haven’t had the world telling me no, I don’t get harassed online, and the society we’re in basically tells me I’m tops all the time.

If you have few or none of those versions of privilege, all of what I’m saying to do could be much harder for you. In my mind, that makes it even more important for you to do them because the more people who are not white, straight, cis-gendered dudes make and talk about things, the more people who are not white, straight, cis-gendered dudes will be encouraged to make. A rising tide raises all ships.

HOWEVER, that puts all of the burden on you. So here’s my promise: I’ll support you. If you make things, you have my axe. I’ve got your back, think you’re awesome, and will do what I can to use my voice to help you succeed. I’ll use my privilege as a weapon and a shield.

My Twitter handle is @TheOtherTracy. My DMs are open if you want to talk or need help.

This is a complicated issue, this visibility as a creator. It doesn’t come with instant anything, is hard work, is often thankless, can feel like shouting into the void, and can make you feel invisible for all that you’re putting yourself out there. I promise this: the more voices there are, the less void there is. The more we shine, the less room darkness has. Put yourself out there, if you can. I’m with you.

* * *

Next article, I’ll go back to a more traditional look at game design as I keep working on my re-write of Iron Edda. For now, I’m happy to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter about the awesome things you’ve been making.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Stew’s Gencon 50 Photopalooza!

28 August 2017 - 2:32am

Many of us Gnomes just got back from the 50th Gencon, but many of us Gnomes were unable to attend for one real life reason or another. We know that is the case for many gamers out there. It was a packed Gencon, but a lot of us didn’t get to make it to the historic event. Don’t worry though, we’ve got you covered! We made it our mission to take as many pictures as we could during the event, cataloging and showcasing everything we could find as we went along our merry Gnomish ways.

We pulled in frequent guest author Keith Garrett ( who took many photos as well and together we created a MASSIVE (545 photos, so far) archive of high resolution photos of Gencon 50. The best part – they are all creative commons licensed. You can use these photos as you like, and when Gencon 100 rolls around there should hopefully be some available for the next museum showcasing the convention through the years. The only requirements on using the photos is to keep attribution to the original authors intact.

Go check the photopalooza albums out over at for the full high resolution images, or give the photo gallery a second to load from FLICKR and prepare to scroll a LOOOOOONG ways down, and then realize that only about 1/2 of the photos fit in the photo gallery, so you should click on that FLICKR link to check out EVERYTHING.



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    × Previous Next jQuery(function() { // Set blueimp gallery options jQuery.extend(blueimp.Gallery.prototype.options, { useBootstrapModal: false, hidePageScrollbars: false }); }); Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar Remember, this only shows about 1/2 of the pictures. Click here to see them all! The Gencon Exhibit Hall Rush

    That’s a Lot Of Pictures, But it Could Be Better!

    All the Gnomes were wearing multiple hats throughout the convention, so we know there are things we missed or couldn’t get. We want to make sure people who couldn’t make it to Gencon 50 can visually experience as much of it as possible, so if you have photos that cover things we missed, send them our way. You have to be okay making them creative commons licensed, having a visual tag with your name attached, and have taken them at Gencon 50. We’ll add them to the archive and make sure you get credit for them as a guest photognome! Use the form below to submit your photos to the archive.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Troy’s Crock Pot: Summer delights

    25 August 2017 - 12:01am

    I’m kicking back during a few days of summer vacation. As I sit by my backyard firepit, I was thinking of gaming-related things I’ve been enjoying that I thought I would share. Here they are:

    Pathfinder Legends

    I pride myself on staying current on gaming items in the d20 sphere, but I was unaware that a series of audio dramatizations for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game existed until I stumbled across them in a search of my local library’s digital offerings.

    After listening to two of them, I can say they are quite a treat.

    Pathfinder Legends are hour-plus long dramatizations of Adventure Paths come to life using the Paizo Iconics as characters.  Like the Adventure Paths themselves, each episode stands for an installment of the game books. The voice actors and production values are professional, and the adaptations faithful to the source material.  So far, I’ve listened to two episodes in the Rise of the Runelords series, “Burnt Offerings” and “The Skinsaw Murders.”

    I’m certainly looking forward to the third installment, “The Hook Mountain Massacre,” Nicolas Logue’s riff on “The Hills Have Eyes.”  Of particular interest, I can’t wait to see how the character of Mammy Graul is depicted.

    The audio dramas are produced and sold by Big Finish Audio, a company responsible for producing a wide range of BBC-licensed Doctor Who audio dramas, often featuring actors Peter Davidson, Sylvester McCoy and Tom Baker reprising their most famous role.

    The cast for Pathfinder Legends includes Trevor Littledale as Ezren, the elderly wizard and wannabe Pathfinder, Ian Brooker as Harsk the tea-drinking ranger, Stewart Alexander as vain-glorious fighter Valeros, Kerry Skinner as the fiercely independent rogue Merisiel.

    Life of the Party: Realities of an RPGer

    Travis Hanson, illustrator of the comic series “Bean”, has created a series of single-panel comic strips. Each one is a delightfully humorous take on the intersection of playing rpgs, and the archetypal fantasy characters.

    As Hanson describes the strip at its website:

    “Once an avid gamer himself Travis took his love of adventure and some of the unique and wild situations he found himself in and created a daily comic.  Come join, share, laugh and maybe cry at his imagination, the adventurers and the magic of something that many us deal with when we play games.”

    The strips were compiled into a book for fans supported by a Kickstarter that went out to backers in June.

    “Life of the Party” has become a daily destination, a daily laugh. Hanson clearly captures the spirit of gamers, their foibles and fun as they navigate the incongruities of rules and player interactions.

    The strip was compiled into a book through and supported by Kickstarter backers.

    WizKids Unpainted Miniatures

    It did my heart glad to see Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures win a Silver ENnie award at this year’s GenCon. Reaper has certainly done a stellar job of providing affordable unpainted miniatures, something those of love to paint truly appreciate.. But when the mainstay companies of fantasy roleplaying games — Wizards of the Coast and Paizo — give unpainted minis a little love it is noteworthy.

    With both Nolzur’s and Pathfinder Battles Deep Cuts, WizKids has produced two companion lines of quality unpainted miniatures. I am particularly keen on the displacer beast and unicorn sculpts.  The inclusion of two figs in a blister for the player character class sculpts, showing two versions of the hero’s progress,  is also a nice touch.

    The figs also come already primed. Open the blister and start painting. That’s sure to encourage more painting, removing one of the hurdles to working with unpainted sets.


    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Starting at Higher Level

    23 August 2017 - 1:00am

    Some of your stories may involve a higher power scale than starting off at “level one” or the equivalent in your game system. Perhaps the tale you want to tell with your players is on a greater epic scale. Perhaps you tire of struggling to keep those lower-level characters alive. Perhaps it’s just time to tell a story involving higher powers, increased competence, and more daring dangers. Regardless of your reasons for wanting to start at a higher level, there are some considerations to take into account with firing up a campaign with higher level characters.

    Baked In Power Levels

    Quite a few systems have higher power levels baked right in. I’m mainly thinking of point-buy systems, such as GURPS, Hero System, and similar games. These are the “easy route” for starting at higher power levels. Just provide more points or higher levels of points acquired via disadvantages. There are also character generation systems, such as Traveller, which can produce more potent characters. Another system is the Dresden Files RPG, which includes different power levels for the PCs to play with. The main thing to keep in mind here is that all players should start out at the same power base.

    Non-Level Experience Point Systems

    Some systems, such as Savage Worlds, MechWarrior, Top Secret S/I, Fate Core, and Paranoia increase the power of the character via gaining experience points that are then spent or applied toward increases in skills, abilities, special powers, equipment, and other items that make the character a more powerful force in the world. My advice here is to tell the players that they’ll be playing higher level characters, but to create a “baseline” character just like they normally would. Then provide them with the amount of experience or advancement points you want them to have. This will reduce the information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis.

     Reduce information overload which can lead to analysis paralysis. If they have their starting character to build on first, the players can then focus in on how to improve what they have. If they get their experience points up front, then they’ll start looking at the higher power stuff and trying to figure out how to get there. Since the combination of “starter” and higher level powers can be overwhelming, the players might spend longer than you want them to spend while deciding where to take their character. The baseline character will provide a creative compass to focus their efforts on advancement.

    Another approach is to dole out the experience points in chunks. In Savage Worlds, it takes five points to advance something. Instead of giving the players 30 points to play with, it might be wise to not tell them the max amount they’ll get. Just give them five, wait for everyone to do their quick advancement decision, then give them another five, and repeat this process until you’ve reached your predetermined maximum. This may sound like a slow way of doing things, but it can actually speed up the character creation process.

    Level-Gain Experience Point Systems

    With games like Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Starfinder, and so many others, characters gain their new abilities, spells, powers, and such when they achieve a new level. My recommendation here is to strongly advise the GM to have the players make a first level character. Then dole out the levels one at a time until they’ve reached the level you want them to be. I’ve seen GMs arrive at the game and drop the bomb, “Make a 12th level character,” and then the players struggle for a full session (sometimes two!) to get things “just right.” Making the level advancement more organic will speed things up. The GM can inform the players that they’ll be making a character higher than first level, but don’t tell them the final target.

     Start at first level, then dole out the experience points or levels. If you’re setting up the game beforehand and allow the players to roll their stats and create the character prior to “session zero” where they all meet up and start adventuring, then the players will have more time to work on their characters. In this case, telling the players what their target level is and to show up with a “12th level character” is perfectly fine.

    Money and Equipment

    There are two approaches here.

    The GM can assign gear (magical or otherwise) appropriate to each character. However, this takes quite a bit of time on the GM’s part, and the gear might not be exactly what the player wants for their character.

    The other approach is to give out a certain amount of currency for the game, and tell the players to go hog wild spending on what they want. Just make sure the money is in alignment with the level of the characters. Dropping 30,0000 GP on a 4th level character is probably excessive in D&D. If this approach is used, I recommend setting limitations on the spending. Something like, “No more than half your money can go toward a single item.” This will prevent that special player from spending 100% of their money on a single, incredibly powerful item that can unbalance the game and ruin the story.

    World Benefits

    Separate from extra powers and equipment, work with the players to determine if their character has accolades, titles, land holdings, a headquarters, and other world benefits. Sometimes, this is built into the point buy systems, so encouraging (or requiring) a certain number of points be dedicated to “worldly goods” like a headquarters might be appropriate for the game. It all depends on the type of story you want to tell.

    If you’re going with a system where level does not equate to titles and land holdings, you can give the players a separate pool of money that can be spent on things like this. Just be very clear that this monetary gain is not to be spent on equipment or items specific to their character. I’d also make this pool of money in the style of “use it or lose it.” No banking the money for later use. I like this approach because it gives more freedom to the players on getting what they want and encourages them to establish themselves in the world.

    Allocate Time

    Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. Most “session zero” events that I’ve held take about half the session to get the numbers down on the character sheets and the other half to get the characters together in the world and establish the where, when, what, and basics of the start of the campaign. Obviously, with more things to choose from and more items to purchase, extra time will be needed to get the first half of the session finished. Odds are that it will take the entire “session zero” to get the characters created, so don’t get frustrated at the extra time it will take for the players to make their decisions.

     Building higher level characters takes more time than building a base character. Don’t worry, you (the GM) won’t be sitting there bored while you watch people pick through core books and expansions. The players are going to have tons of questions about how certain powers work, what books they can use, where they can find certain information, and how certain things work in the world you’re going to be running the campaign in. If anything, you’ll be busier than the deli guy when the number machine is broken. You’ll be hit from different directions with wildly different questions. Take them one at a time and get back to the players as you can.

    Leveraging Technology

    As most folks know, the higher the level of the characters, the more crunchy the math gets with powers and abilities and stacked numbers and equipment and such. The rules get a bit more complex at higher levels because of the increased abilities of the powers. This is where software like PCGen and Hero Lab can come into play to help the players keep their characters straight. Yes, this means allowing laptops and tablets at the table, but so long as you are not incredibly opposed to this, it’s a good thing to let the players use. It might even speed things up if the players are comfortable with the software they’re using.

    Adjusting the Encounters

    Once the characters are made and it’s time to roll into the world with your story, the encounters will need to be adjusted to the power level of the characters. The only reason I mention this is that I’ve made the mistake of forgetting to do this. I took an intro adventure for first level characters and ran fourth level characters through it. It started as a cakewalk because it completely slipped my mind that, “first session does not equal first level.” I completely failed in my preparations. Fortunately, I recovered after the first two encounters (and a couple of questioning glances from my players) and managed to adjust on the fly to increase the challenge. Make sure you have in mind what the challenges, traps, monsters, riddles, and social encounters have to offer to put the PCs to the test are.

    Adjusting the Storyline

    Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. That’s not the case with higher level characters, especially if you start at the extremes of height in the power structure. Who have the characters already met? What contacts/friends/enemies do they have in the world? Have the characters already “saved the day” in some smaller manner in the past? How does society view them? Are there members of organizations (church, guild, army, leadership, councils, etc.) that will want or need things from them? Can the characters lean on someone else for assistance, monetary or otherwise? Do they have henchmen? Do they have apprentices, squires, or assistants?

     Most stories start out with the PCs barely able to do small things to alter the world. These higher level characters didn’t leap from their players’ foreheads fully formed. There needs to be a backstory and history to them. Of course, if you’re doing an old school dungeon crawl, perhaps you can go lighter on the backstory. However, if you’re interested in telling a story that involves interaction with NPCs in the world, some of these details are going to need to be figured out. Probably not to the extent of a full world-building bible like what some authors do for their novels, but there need to be some hooks to grab onto here and there.


    If the characters are high enough level, they may have followers of some sort. This provides a wonderful opportunity for the players to create (usually after session zero) lower level characters for them to control in side quests or alternate story arcs. I’ve seen this done to good effect, but it can be overwhelming for the players if you show up and tell them something along the lines of, “You’ll be making a 12th level character, a 4th level character, and a 1st level character.” Dropping three characters on the table is rough. Start with the main character, and then slowly ease into the creation of the lower level underlings. Maybe allow the players to create those lower-level characters on their own time between sessions.


    While starting at higher levels can be daunting for some players, especially those newer to the hobby, it can be quite fun to unleash the powers and abilities of the more potent characters without spending the weeks, months, and years of getting them to those levels. I don’t recommend this become your normal mode of starting games, but it is a refreshing change of pace.

    Have you ever started a game at higher levels? How did that work out for you? Any words of warning or encouraging advice for your fellow Gnome Stew readers?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Design Flow: Gear

    18 August 2017 - 1:00am

    The last new chapter of Hydro Hackers that I wrote was about Gear. It is the last thing I designed for the game. After this, I will be just adding text and mechanics to all the existing chapters of the game. Gear was a tough thing for me to wrap my head around. I knew I wanted gear in the game, but I was not hot on the idea about a game driven by gear. So I kept putting off the design and just putting some token, undefined items on the playbooks. But as the manuscript neared completion, I knew it was time to address gear.

    Design Goals

    As mentioned previously, Hydro Hackers roots came from work I did on a Fate cyberpunk toolkit. Cyberpunk games are known for their gear—be it cybernetics, weapons, vehicles, drones, etc. Hell, most cyberpunk games of yore have whole books dedicated to this subject. Historically, there is an expectation that Cyberpunk games have gear.

    But I wanted something different for Hydro Hackers. Early on it had more of a cyberpunk feel, but over time I kept trimming away those elements and drifted the game from cyber to hydro. With that, I eliminated cybernetic implants. I also did not want the game to rely heavily on armed conflict, because the players are supposed to be struggling against a superior and nearly-intractable enemy. So, having hundreds of weapons options would also run counter to the spirit of the game. Lastly, I did not want to write lists of gear. I just didn’t.

    So what I wanted was to have a set of rules for gear where I could make some examples and then just let players and GMs come up with their own ideas. This would eliminate me from writing tons of gear lists, and it would let the group put their own emphasis on gear.

    A Lexicon

    Powered by the Apocalypse games often use Tags, words that contain narrative impact. The tags are then applied to gear or other things as a narrative shorthand to tell you something about the item in question. So if a gun has the tag Noisy, then when it is fired, people nearby are going to hear it.

     I wanted there to be a lexicon of tags that could be combined to describe a piece of equipment. 

    I very much wanted the gear system in H2O to be tag-based. I wanted there to be a lexicon of tags that could be combined to describe a piece of equipment. This idea is not new, you see it in all sorts of PbtA games. In fact, as I was doing my early designs, I dug into some of my favorite PbtA games—Dungeon World, The Sprawl, and Headspace—so that I could see their lexicon.

    Eventually, I began to construct my own lexicon. Some of it was borrowed or inspired by the tags in those games above, and some were my own. I created a general lexicon that could be used for any item. Then, as I designed different types of gear, I began to add words to the lexicon. Now there are tags that are specific for weapons, some more for drones, and some for vehicles.

    Three Types of Gear for Hydro Hackers

    In talking to Chris Sniezak, one of my partners at Encoded Designs and my co-host on Misdirected Mark, we got into a discussion of what I was thinking that gear should be in the game, mechanically. I had not fully thought it through, but after some discussion, he shared with me some thoughts and I really liked his approach. It worked well with where I was going with the lexicon of tags, but it also gave me some actual design goals.

    In essence, we defined three types of possible uses for gear:

    As Narrative Positioning

    This type of gear allows a player to do something in the game that they could not normally do without it. For instance, if you want to get across town quickly, then having a car would allow you to do that. If you want to attack someone from a distance, you will need a gun. The importance of the gear is to allow you to do something in the narrative, but you will still use the normal Basic Moves and the moves on your Playbook.

    As Bonuses to Moves

    This type of gear grants a bonus to the character when they use it. For instance, you may have some Breaking & Entering gear that grants a +1 to moves when you are breaking and entering into a location.

    As Moves Themselves

    This type of gear is its own move. When you use the gear it triggers the move, and the resolution of the move determines how the gear performed.

    The Final Design

    Chris’ thought was that gear should be for Narrative Positioning. I liked that idea, tut I wanted to leave open the possibility of the other two, although as much more the exception to the rule. This was for a few reasons. The first was that it kept gear more focused on the narrative of the game and away from mechanics, so there would not be the urge to “kit out” for a mission.

    Second, bonuses in PbtA games are very attractive. Getting a +1 can be all you need to improve the category of your outcome, pushing a -6 into a 7-9. If you have a lot of gear granting bonuses, there is a pull on the players to keep getting more and more of this gear.

    Lastly, having lots of gear with their own moves makes designing gear cumbersome. Designing moves is not trivial, and if you needed a move every time a piece of gear was being thought of, it would create a lot of drag on prep and play.

    As a result, the vast majority of the gear is for Narrative Positioning. There are 1-2 pieces of gear that grant bonuses, and another 1-2 that have their own moves.

    Here are three examples from the draft of the Gear chapter:

    As Narrative Positioning

    The RobotCop Pistol (Printed, 2-Conditions, Near, Loud, Reload, Concealable, Illegal) Cost: Marks

    This is a replica of a pistol from a famous movie about a Cyborg Law Enforcement Officer. The plans can be downloaded and printed on any home printer.

    As Bonuses to Moves

    B&E Gear (5-Uses, Illegal) Cost 2 AC

    This is a collection of mechanical and electronic door bypasses, picks, crowbars, etc. It has one purpose—to break into locations.

    Use: Spend one Use to gain a +1 to any Roll which involves Breaking & Entering.

    As Moves Themselves

    Authority Issued Water Suit (Conspicuous, Loud, 5-Uses) Cost: NA

    All US Citizens are issued a free Water Suit, as well as any necessary replacements. This suit is designed to reclaim any water from sweat and urine to make drinkable water. Most people do not put these on unless they have run out of Water Rations. When worn, the following move is available:

    Reclaim Water

    When you wear your suit and Sweat, mark a Use. When you want to reclaim water, Roll+Uses.

    On a 10+: You can reclaim half (round up) of the Uses as Water.

    On a 7-9: You can reclaim 1 Water.

    On a 6- : You fail to reclaim any water from the suit.

    Geared Out

    With most of the gear used as Narrative Positioning, it makes creating gear fast and easy—but leaving the door open for bonuses and moves means that there is flexibility when trying to create something more complex. Overall, I like how the draft of the gear chapter has gone. It still needs development and playtesting, but my hope is those will focus more on tuning the lexicon and less on making any significant changes to how gear works in the game.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Tips For Starting Prep

    16 August 2017 - 1:00am

    For starters, take these tips with a grain of salt. First, different approaches to productivity work for different people. Second, I have to be the world’s worst person at parking my butt and getting prep done. These are all things I have tried with varying degrees of success, but I am certainly not the world’s guru on getting things done (for that I would probably direct you to David Allen). For what they’re worth, here are a handful of tips for sitting down and starting prep. If you have experience with these and want to weigh in one way or the other or have your own tips or secrets, let everyone know below. I’ll be immensely grateful for another approach to try.

    • Simplify, simplify simplify: don’t try to tackle a massively complex system for which a single encounter write-up takes a page or more. Don’t try to plan an epic level-spanning adventure path featuring dozens of NPCs, an original setting and 45 pages of world history. Start small with a five room dungeon or a similarly sized adventure with minimal required world building in a system that’s easy to wrap your brain around or that you’re already familiar with. This lets you make progress before your attention fades or the next shiny rears its head.
    • Go low tech and low distraction: while there are all sorts of fancy tools for prep on computers these days, there are also a lot of distractions right there ready to pull you from prep. The internet, games, etc. Instead, find a quiet place with minimal noise, no TV and no internet. Prep in a notebook old-school style if you need to. This makes it a lot harder to take a “quick break” that ends up lasting for hours.
    • Try a time management technique: several years back I wrote about the egg timer prep system. A similar technique that I’ve been told is all the rage these days is the pomodoro technique. It’s less important which specific technique you use and more important that you try one or a few out and see if they work for you. The point is, of course, that they structure your time and “obligate” you to work on a task, but keep the initial barrier low to make it easy to start.
    • Try meditation: a simple meditation technique can help you with starting tasks and other willpower hurdles. In her book “The Willpower Instinct,” Dr. Kelly McGonigal notes that meditation is difficult, but it is the practice of reigning in your rogue thoughts as they interrupt your focus that is precisely the value of meditation. So the worse it feels like you are, the more practice you’re getting. Here are some simple steps, but there are more in-depth guides all over the internet:
      • Set a timer for five minutes, or longer on later attempts.
      • Sit still, don’t fidget. Try to experience but resist the urge to scratch itches or adjust your position.
      • Close your eyes or stare at a single spot on a blank wall.
      • Inhale and exhale deeply and slowly. Focus on the sensation of breathing.
      • As your mind wanders (and it will) try to catch it and return it to focusing on breathing.

    Now it’s your turn. How have you given yourself a jumpstart to get your prep moving? Let us know in the comments below.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Playing Characters Gamers Hate

    14 August 2017 - 1:00am


    Oh no, not one of THOSE!

    There is one thing I can say on the internet in game spaces that I know will garner immediate eye rolls and groans of “oh, you’re one of those players.” All I have to say is, “I play kender.” Visions of spotlight hogging, thieving, obnoxious, self absorbed players dance into everyone’s minds like sugar plums the night before Christmas. Yet, when I take the way that I play a kender at the table and apply it to a different character trope, like a magical girl who’s a little hyper, or a hengeyokai rogue, folks have fun and no one bats an eye. There are lots of tropes that fall into this category — the lawful stupid paladin, the lone badass, a Gungan. Sure, they can be tricky to work with, but they’re just as likely to be a fantastic rainmaker style character. So why do we assume that a particular race or class is at fault for bad play experiences when we are all at the table to play together?

    You want to play a what now?

    There are several assumptions people make when you say you want to play an “annoying” character:

    • You will not share the spotlight with everyone else at the table.
    • You will take actions without consideration for what the rest of the party would like to do.
    • You will steal from your party members/specifically work against your party in some way.
    • You will use this character as an excuse to be a jerk.

    Unfortunately there are people who play like this anyway, without regard for their friends at the table, and they are disproportionately drawn to the kind of races/characters who will give them the excuse to do so. If that has lead you to ban kender from your games, more power to you; I understand.

    I’m Shellzy Oakjumper, Very Pleased to Meet You!

     I played a kender in my very first D&D game, before I knew any better.  I played a kender in my very first D&D game, before I knew any better. The campaign lasted two years of weekly play, kender and all. While at first I suspect I was a bit problematic, we soon found the rhythms necessary to keep everyone happy at the table — and considering that it was many of our first time playing, there was a learning curve for everyone involved anyway. Soon enough, little Shellzy Oakjumper was the fearless face of the party, doing the talking and Charisma-ing and definitely all the sneaking. Playing her meant feeling my way through some specific social dynamics to make it all work.

    • No stealing from party members (learned that the hard way…I was young!)
    • Letting other people take the lead whenever it made sense
    • Letting my party stop me if they ever didn’t agree with my actions…or begging them to if I hadn’t expected them to let me go through with something
    • Talking like a kender — a lot, in a rush — but only when it was my turn (and never ever expecting to finish a story about my Uncle Trapspringer, which only got me in trouble when they actually did want me to finish the story)
    You Must Have Dropped It! Can I play It?

    As with any edgier gaming idea, playing with a crazy race/class/persona requires the whole table to be onboard, and for the players and GM to trust each other enough to create the sense and feeling of a character without it taking over the entire game.

    Although I lucked out the first time I played, you will have a much better experience if you plan it from the start. Communication, as always, is the key for being successful at the table. With good communication, those races that everyone loves to hate can add depth and forward momentum to a game. Here are some things to sort out before your game starts:

    • Make it known that when you do stupid things, you are okay with and expect to be stopped. This is the RPG equivalent of being an actor who is planning to be interrupted but will keep the sentence going until their partner jumps in.
    • Make it known that as a player you are happy to work with the group to make decisions. If your Gungan curiously starts wandering off down a side path, use the same expectation as above that if the party has decided on a different direction, you expect to be dragged back by the back of your shirt.
    • Create clear expectations about what is acceptable in your party. Can your kender “borrow” things from other party members, or just NPCs? Can your lawful stupid paladin take physical action against a party member they think is being evil or are they limited to vocalizing their displeasure? Sorting this stuff out before the game starts means you can find in-game reasons for the boundaries if necessary.
    • Have a reason to be in the group. If you are the kind of character who is just going to brood and wants to do something totally different, make sure you have a reason to play the same game as everyone else, even if in character it’s reluctantly. Don’t make your party talk you into every single action they want to take as a group. Express your reluctance in ways that don’t slow down the game, like muttering to yourself.

    As a player, there are some things you also need to be okay with going in that won’t really effect anyone else at the table. Just because your character is always talking doesn’t mean that you should always be talking, player. 

    • Be okay with taking the consequences for your actions in game if you aren’t stopped from doing something stupid or self harmful. They may see you walking towards that trap and decide they don’t feel like babysitting that day. That doesn’t mean in character you should not take that action, but be cheerful about taking your lumps.
    • Share the spotlight. Just because your character is always talking doesn’t mean that you should always be talking, player. When it’s your turn, give the feeling and impression of not stopping, but always stop when it’s time for someone else to talk. Don’t linger on your brooding ways at the expense of everyone else having a moment to take action, or, paladin, even if something is evil, sometimes let someone else react first.
    • You may have to jump out of character to differentiate that you, the player, are onboard with group actions or do not have a strong opinion. This is part of clarifying that you will not be offended or hurt as a player if your lone wolf gets plunked on a horse sitting backwards glowering while you all go off to do a thing.
    • Don’t slow down the game. Pick your moments to express the character and give that flavor to your play, but don’t make it every single minute and every single decision. If no one is jumping in, ask another player if they would be comfortable doing x to stop you (“would it be okay if you snagged my topknot and dragged me away from the display of shiny rings before I get there?” or “I’m going to do this! Please stop me…”). Don’t interfere with the game running smoothly.
    So…Can I Play a Kender At Your Table?

    The thing that makes character types that people despise work in games is a player who is extra careful not to be a jerk and very attuned to the table around them. Playing this kind of character requires better than your average dungeon crawl communication, but when done properly they can be a memorable addition to any campaign. Do you have any experience playing the characters everyone loves to hate? Have they been in your game? Did it buck the trend or were they just as bad as you expected?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Which Game Changed the Way You Play?

    11 August 2017 - 12:00am

    Drawing back the curtain and seeing the possibilities . . . 

    If you’re out and about on social media with a preponderance of RPG loving friends, you may have seen the #RPGaDay thing that’s been going around for the month of August. I’ve been putting them up each day on my Facebook and it’s been sparking some interesting discussion. It’s especially fun to see friends that don’t know each other, and will probably never meet in person, bonding over love of RPGs.

    That’s not really what I want to talk about today, though. It’s been fun, but one of the questions really got me thinking. Day 7 asked “What has been your most impactful RPG session?” Some people responded with which game session hit them hardest in the feels and evoked a real emotional response. Many of the anecdotes shared talked about some of the emotional highs and lows of their characters’ lives. One friend spoke of a horror western game where they were fighting a man that ‘no living man could kill’. So, when the time was right, he put his head between the gun and the bad guy and pulled the trigger. Another friend who played that same game popped into the thread to shudder in remembrance of that particular bad guy.

    That wasn’t the only way the question was interpreted, though. Myself and some of the other folks responding looked at it from the perspective of games that changed the way we play. The intense emotional moments of investment in a game are why I keep playing, but sometimes you just experience a game that completely changes the way you look at RPGs and how you play them. Maybe it was the brilliance of a game system you hadn’t looked at before, or the way a GM or another player approaches the game, giving it a different flavor than you expected. Regardless, it ultimately changes how you game from then on.

    One friend, Jason, spoke about how his group was vehemently against playing anything other than D&D. Whenever they’d tried something else, it was disappointing and they always found themselves going back to D&D. One game night, though, their regular GM was unavailable and another player offered to bring Star Wars to the table. Well, playing something was better than playing nothing, so they begrudgingly agreed to give it a try. By the end of the session, everyone there had a fantastic time and they were begging the new GM to turn that game into a campaign. Jason said it opened up the whole group to trying new things and broadened their outlook on what RPGs could be.

     Suddenly I was reminded of what games could be and shown what they SHOULD be.Another friend, Cheryl, mentioned a game that changed her outlook in a different way. During a HarnMaster game, the GM asked for a climbing check that her character failed, causing her to lose her grip and fall to her death. After an awkward moment around the table, the GM quickly ret-conned the whole action and everyone pretended that climb check had never been called for. For Cheryl, it taught her the value of never asking for a roll unless you’re open to all outcomes the dice might bring you.

    For me, it was a moment that came after a very long hiatus from gaming. It was 2003 and it had been about ten years since I’d been part of a regular RPG of any kind. I’d played a bit online, but it wasn’t the same. Realizing I needed RPGs in my life, I started looking for people to play with. I eventually found a face-to-face game, but the GM was really bad. I mean really really bad. Gaming horror stories levels of bad. But, it was a game and the other players seemed kind of cool. If you wanted to game, you had to take what you got, right?

    After a couple months of this awful game, I learned that there was going to be a gaming convention in my city that month. Figuring it couldn’t hurt and would give me something to do that weekend, I showed up and signed up for a couple of games. Talk about revelations.

    The first game I played at the con was worlds away from the ridiculous slog of a D&D game the awful GM was running. The GM had actually put thought into the world and the NPCs that inhabited it. He responded to the players and their characters’ actions without railroading them into what he thought should happen. In another game that con, I got to play a game where we built characters together and essentially created the world of the game, making what our characters did matter on so many levels.

    Change is the only constant…

    Suddenly I was reminded of what games could be and shown what they SHOULD be.

    I never went back to the awful game. A few weeks later, one of the other players contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in gaming if we didn’t play with the bad GM. Basically, after I left, the other good players also ended up defecting and we started our own group that’s still going strong today. That one reminder taught me to never settle for sub par gaming, to always strive for a better game experience. There have been other revelations over the years, but that was probably the most pivotal and crucial in my gaming life.

    So what about you? Was there a single game or a campaign that changed the way you look at RPGs forever? I’d love to hear your stories too.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design