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Updated: 3 hours 58 min ago

Descent into Midnight First Look

17 February 2020 - 4:00am

Games that use the framework originally established by Apocalypse World have often been praised for their ability to model existing genres, due to the ability of the rules to heavily customize results to the narrative. Because the building blocks of most games that have descended from Apocalypse World are moves, and moves can have dramatically different names, calibrated outcomes, and links to other moves, you can have many games that superficially resemble one another, with dramatically different tones and themes.

Apocalypse World itself, while emulating post-apocalyptic stories, doesn’t lean too heavily on any one recognizable property or sub-genre of post-apocalyptic story, but rather takes some tropes from the genre, while creating its own personality and quirks. In some ways, Descent into Midnight is much more like Apocalypse World in execution than some other descendants of the game.

Cityscape by Devon George

Into the Deep End

Descent into Midnight is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about an undersea civilization. Instead of repeating the structure of stories that deal with lost oceanic cultures or seabed aliens, Descent into Midnight is a game about alien aquatic worlds that do not involve humans, but do involve species with psionic powers and bioengineering technology, fighting for the stability of their community against an encroaching Corruption.

While certain setting elements are assumed to be true across game tables (aquatic environments, no human beings in the world), other aspects of the setting, such as the actual nature and form of the Corruption, are up to the table to decide. Part of the process of playing the game is creating a Community, and asking some questions about how it functions.

There are no set guidelines as to what species populate this community, although there are some suggestions based on various aquatic species given in the beta rules. The playbooks currently included in the playtest packet include the following:

  • The Awakened
  • The Cultivator
  • The Empath
  • The Muse
  • The Orator
  • The Redeemed
  • The Seeker
  • The Specialist
  • The Touchstone
  • The Traveler

In addition to the individual playbooks used by each player, there is also a community playbook, and players can spend their advancements to add elements to the community as well as their own abilities.

Communicating a Theme

Whale by Taylor Livingston

The playtest material stresses that at the heart of this game is a sense of community, contemplation, and awareness of the consequences of actions that are taken. The players take the role of defenders of the community, but it is important to assess what actions must be taken in order to rectify a situation. 

The stats used in the game are Hope, Altruism, Community, Calm, and Drive, and the names really set the tone for the expected play style. The one move in the game dedicated to doing violence intentionally isn’t based on stats, but on the number of affirmative responses to questions that interrogate the mindset of the character attempting to solve a situation with violence.

Much like Masks, Descent into Midnight doesn’t track harm, but instead tracks conditions that speak to the state that an individual character is in once they have taken actions. One of my favorite things from the playtest document is the move “What Have We Done,” which is triggered when characters stop and think about the actions that they have taken.

On one hand, it struck me as a bit amusing, because I’ve thought about all of the times when I’ve actually said that in an RPG session after things have spiraled out of control, but I am also reminded how often our group moved on rather quickly from that flash of insight back into the core loop of the game, because contemplating the consequences of actions wasn’t a mechanized component of play. I love that it is in these rules.

The Community of Gnomes There are wonderful leading questions that make every community unique and interesting. Share10Tweet1Reddit1Email

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to schedule a playtest of the rules myself, so I decided to call in the experts. When I started gathering information to write this first look, I reached out to some of my fellow Gnomes to see what they had to say about their experiences. Here are the answers I received:


Review Gnome (Me):

What was your favorite part of Descent into Midnight?


Creating our undersea community was awesome! There are wonderful leading questions that make every community unique and interesting. In the game we played on She’s A Super Geek, we ended up with big fish that functioned as public transportation, eel based cell phones, and doctor crabs. These elements all came up in our actual adventure in the best ways. 


My playtest was quite some time ago, so I’m sure many of the mechanics of the game have been refined and evolved from where they were, but I know the heart of the game then was the character creation. We were encouraged to think beyond being humanoid characters and delve into the beautiful and vast biodiversity of the oceans and seas of our world, or even beyond. 

Every character created during the game I played was unique and amazing. Mine was an empathic healer named Dellannia, partially looking like a seal, but with octopus-like tentacles for her lower half, allowing for graceful movement and fine manipulation. 

Review Gnome (Still Me):

What makes Descent into Midnight different from other Powered by the Apocalypse games?


This is not completely unique anymore, but it’s not a game about violence. It’s almost more investigatory, and definitely about being local trusted pillars of the community.


I can’t speak to specific mechanics, but I particularly appreciated the emphasis on community problem solving and cooperation among the characters. 

Review Gnome (Continues to be Me):

Who do you think will most enjoy Descent into Midnight?


Anyone interested in the ocean or playing in different and interesting locations–it’s an extremely unique setting and it makes you think about world-building differently. People who like playing with problem-solving and being community protectors will definitely love this.  Fans of PbtA games won’t find anything shocking here, but it clicks along just fine.


This game would be good for anyone who enjoys exploring truly alien cultures but are still founded in an emotional reality. Placing it an aquatic setting already moves it beyond what we are accustomed to in our daily lives, but the game works hard to ground the emotional center of the game in the way the characters interact with their community. Also, there’s the whole PbtA aspect which can encourage people to try genres they may not have otherwise looked at. It’s definitely worth diving into. (HA!)

Coming Up For Air

What I have read of this setting has me very interested to see how the final product develops. There is already a very strong set of tools in place for first sessions, advice on running one shots, lists of potential inciting incidents and events, and even some nice scripts for introducing the setting and the assumed gameplay to a group that may not know what the game is about going into a session.

I particularly appreciated the emphasis on community problem solving and cooperation among the characters.Share10Tweet1Reddit1Email

There is a lot of discussion of safety in the playtest rules, although not a dedicated safety section (not something I’m going to fault the playtest version of rules for, especially when there are so many call-outs to being aware of practicing safety techniques at the table). The only concern I really had is just my own personal hang-ups.

I may not be the target demographic for this game, but it greatly appeals to me. However, both the expansive nature of the ocean, and the potential for aquatic environments to become claustrophobic are called out as key elements of the setting, and as someone that has a fear of being submerged and is claustrophobic, I worry if too much of the key experience is going to be lost on me due to my own personal issues. 

What I read doesn’t lead me to believe so, and I really want to see more in the finished product about how to evoke the wonder of the deep, as well as any additional inspiration the designers care to cite.

Would You Like to Know More?

Ang’s character, Delannia, by artist Victor Allen


If you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out to the designers at:, or on Twitter @DiMRPG. If you are interested in streaming actual play shows, the first stretch goal for the Kickstarter is a streaming show being made by Eric Campbell, producer and Game Master of Callisto 6, Shield of Tomorrow, and Clear Skies, along with QueueTimes Studios in Los Angeles. The Kickstarter launched on February 15th, and is running for 30 days.

Do you have a favorite aquatic setting for RPGs? What is it about an undersea campaign that excites you? How often have you attempted to play a game where you are adopting a truly non-human mindset? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Infinite Galaxies Review

11 February 2020 - 4:00am

Space Opera is one of the earliest genres to enter the roleplaying game space, along with fantasy and cosmic horror. While it’s never quite broken through to the same popularity, space opera is always out there, on the fringes of imagination, waiting to go where no campaign has gone before.

If you have never seen the term before, Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction where scientific accuracy often takes a back seat to adventures that involve starships, multiple planets, and melodramatic storylines. If you’ve seen Star Wars or Star Trek, you know the genre, even if you didn’t think you knew it.

Today we’re going to look at Infinite Galaxies—Roleplaying in a Bright Future.

Calibrating Sensors

This review is based on the PDF and physical copy of Infinite Galaxies. The book is 298 pages, with a full-color cover and black and white interior art in both the printed book and PDF. There is a two-page index and three pages of Kickstarter backers.

The layout of the pages has a starfield border, with a faux-computer display at the top right-hand page. The pages are single column, with clear, bold headers, and chapter introductions have full-page black and white artwork. The gear, vessels, and mounts sections all have separate tables and various illustrations of the topics in those sections.

All of the artwork is attractive and professional, but it does feel like some of the art is thematically dissonant from some of the other pieces in the book.

Physically, the book is a paperback, and digest-sized. The black and white pages are clear and well reproduced, although the thickness combined with the size of the book makes it warp a bit. The front and back artwork looks great in physical form.

Part One: The Basics

The opening sections of the book describe the type of action that the game is seeking to present. Very early on it explicitly mentions playing in a bright future, with positively motivated heroes, and that the biggest inspirations for the game are Star Wars and Star Trek. It mentions being flexible in providing a framework for a wide range of space opera stories, as well as providing a default setting for players that want to engage with it.

Early in the “How to Play” section, we get a detailed explanation of game terms that will be used in the book. Many of them may be familiar to people that have experienced Powered by the Apocalypse games before, but I don’t remember many that are this thorough with terminology explanations this early in the book.

If you aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, it examines the 2d6 + stat resolution mechanic, and the three-tiered outcomes of moves (miss with complication, success with complication, success), and the basic moves (those not associated with a specific playbook) are presented in the section as well. While most of the moves are very straightforward, there are a few more fiddly mechanics presented in this section as well (such as using gear and restocks, which allow for expendable gear to be replenished under certain circumstances).

The How to GM section gives some example NPCs suitable for a space opera setting. These include hostile cyborgs, explorers, pilots, merchants, raiders, military, diplomats, smugglers, robots, and beasts in various descriptions.

There are also several pages on running your first session, and how to deal with characters with multiple playbooks (unlike some PBTA games, Infinite Galaxies only recommends distinct starting packages, with some overlap between playbooks working on a conceptual level).

It’s a very solid, informational, well-detailed start to the book. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the sample playgroup, used throughout the book from this point on, appears to be an all-male group, with all-male characters except for one, who is playing a character that uses she/her pronouns. That feels like a huge missed opportunity for inclusion just in the examples.

While it’s present in a lot of science fiction, some of the raider stat blocks also fall back on some uncomfortable “tribal warrior/warrior culture” stereotypes in portraying one of the setting villains.

Part Two: Characters and Gear

The next section of the book gives a breakdown of character creation, playbooks, and gear. Gear, in this case, includes starships, vehicles, mounts, vehicles, and tools. This is probably the biggest section of the book, but much of that is from the various descriptions of gear, vehicles, and mounts, many of which are summarized in charts.

The beginning of the character creation section has a nicely organized checklist for how to walk through the process of creating characters. In addition to picking playbooks and assigning statistics, players will also be picking a starting package for their character (if the playbook is your class, the starting package is your sub-class or customization), as well as establishing relationships with other characters.

The playbooks include the following:

  • The Ace
  • The Explorer
  • The Jack
  • The Leader
  • The Psi
  • The Robot
  • The Scientist
  • The Soldier

There are additional playbooks for The Ship and The Companion. The Ship is a function of The Ace playbook, and The Companion is an advance that players can take to have their own personal best friend/sidekick. Each playbook has a set of drives, relationships, starting equipment, and origins. Except for The Robot, one of the origins on each playbook is expressly for “alien” characters.

Relationships work very similarly to the bonds in Dungeon World, where you have a series of fill in the blank questions, although one relationship will be special, that rolls with an extra bonus in instances where other relationships come into play.

The drives are specific things that a character wants to accomplish. For each milestone (established subsections of the story that the GM can declare), players pick two drives for their character, which act as XP triggers. Players can swap these drives whenever the GM determines that a milestone has been met and a new one is active.

Infinite Galaxies wears a lot of its Dungeon World DNA on its sleeve in the playbooks. Instead of having a more space opera-themed set of stats, the game goes with STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA, and many of the wilderness exploration moves from Dungeon World are still expressed in this game, interacting with rations and disposable survival gear. Depending on the type of space opera you are familiar with, the wilderness moves and gear feel like they could easily not come up if no one takes a scout, and no milestones call for heavy exploration of planetary wilderness for extended periods.

Characters can be harmed in multiple ways. They can take debilities to ability scores, they can take vitality damage, or they can take wounds. Wounds are generally lasting injuries that are marked when a character has run out of vitality, which is much easier to regenerate. Not unlike Dungeon World, each playbook has an assigned damage die that the player rolls to determine damage, if a move indicates they do so.

Gear takes up a bit of space, because it does have a bit more granularity than PBTA games often give gear. In addition to having tags that generally function as narrative guides or permission, some rules govern the difference between personal and vehicle scale damage, boosts to the damage dice being rolled, gear that can ignore armor, and medical treatments that can remove injuries from characters.

Part Three: Setting

This section spends time detailing what you should have ready to draw from if you are creating your own setting, the importance of having a theme and tone in mind, as well as a few pages painting the broad strokes of the assumed baseline setting of the book, the Star Patrol setting.

In addition to providing some checklists for things to include, and guidelines for establishing theme and tone, this section also spends time on the importance of how technology is expressed, and how naming conventions play into choices on theme and tone. There is even some discussion on how to change or create new playbooks to fit a customized setting.

This is really great high level, high concept information on setting, and even though the next section moves into story, specifically, there were a few places where I wished they had drilled down a little more on one of the many big topics they touch on in this section. What they do is good, but it remains at the higher conceptual levels for much of the discussion.

Part Four: Story

A lot of the story section is focused on an area that is often overlooked, which is reading player input. There are discussions about asking good questions, taking worthwhile feedback, and reading choices in playbooks and gear as communication about the types of stories and the direction the players want the game to move.

What I wish we had a little more of in this section are example story arcs. Space opera is a huge genre, and while the book spends a lot of time looking at big arcs and ways to make settings memorable, it doesn’t give many examples of exactly what a group of adventurers might be in the setting. While part of this is going to be reading player desire, having some framing conventions going in would be welcome as well.

For example, we’re told a little about Star Patrol, and what side Earth is on, and who the main enemies are. But we aren’t told what a fighter pilot squadron as an adventuring team would look like, versus smugglers and bounty hunters in the border regions, versus a team of relief workers going to galactic disaster sites. I wanted just a little bit more campaign framework level concepting

Back Matter

The final section has a grab bag of different materials in it. First is the section for thanks and the Kickstarter backers. Next is the section that gives more detail on the Star Patrol setting. That detail comes in the form of more detail on various power groups, geographical sectors of the galaxy, and specific alien options that can be swapped for the more generic alien origins given on the playbooks, to customize the species active in the setting.

Punch It For anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly. Share7Tweet1Reddit1Email

I enjoy how clearly the playbooks convey space opera archetypes, and I like how flexible the starting packages for each of the playbooks make them. Just the choice of playbooks and packages can easily inform the kind of game a group will be playing. This is one of the best Powered by the Apocalypse games for explaining exactly what the terminology used in the game means, spending more time on deliberately explaining soft versus hard moves and the transition between then.

From an “at the table” perspective, I’ve run this game at multiple conventions during the “beta” phase of production, and I ran it for several players that had no experience with PBTA games previously. It was very easy for them to pick up on the archetypes and understand them, and the drives worked well to push them towards resolving the jobs and dilemmas I was establishing with milestones.

They Told Me They Fixed It

The game does a great job of explaining all the terminology that it uses, but it feels like it borrows more from Dungeon World than it needs to convey a space opera setting. The abilities scores don’t inform the feel of the setting in the same way other PBTA game stats do, because Dungeon World is calling back to Dungeons and Dragons, which isn’t what Infinite Galaxies does.

Using multiple polyhedral damage dice, and having exploration moves that hearken to ration use and encumbrance are a few other artifacts that I don’t think resonate with a game that is trying to capture the feel of stories like Star Wars or Star Trek. They aren’t poorly written or expressed rules, just rules that don’t feel like they are as relevant to the extant tropes.

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

Infinite Galaxies is a solidly written and expressed game that will give you all the tools you need to run an exciting space opera game. For anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.

It loses some of its edge by not fine-tuning a few of the borrowed pieces of Dungeon World tech to fully align the game with the genre and tropes that it is playing with. It does what it does well, it just might have done it with a stronger adherence to tone by cutting loose a few more rough edges.

What are some of your all-time favorite science fiction RPGs? How often have you played in space opera campaigns? Do you favor existing pop-culture settings, or settings that have been unique to your group? We would love to hear your answers in the comments below. I’ll keep hailing frequencies open for them.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #85 – Decuma Interview with Kimi Hughes

6 February 2020 - 5:00am

Join Jared and special guest Kimi Hughes of Golden Lasso Games for a discussion about Kimi’s new game Decuma, on Kickstarter now!

Download: Gnomecast #85 – Decuma Interview with Kimi Hughes

Check out Decuma, crowdfunding on Kickstarter through March 3rd, 2020.

Follow Kimi at @GoldenLassoGirl on Twitter and @GoldenLassoGirl on Instagram, and check out her other work at Golden Lasso Games and Happy Jacks RPG.

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

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

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out She’s a Super Geek!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Moodlists; Making Better Playlists

5 February 2020 - 7:30am

I believe anyone would agree that the right kind of music can improve any given situation. However I find that it’s done too similarly to video games; scenes and situations are given one song to codify them. That sort is often insufficient and distracting in tabletops as is, but scenes are typically measured in hours, not minutes. With this article, I’d like to introduce to you how I make playlists based on moods, and how a bit of effort can go the distance, and last you an eternity.

The Current Situation

Most gamemasters I’m aware of in the modern age produce playlists of two sorts: they either have lists of ambient noises(such as taverns and fields), or they have a single song tied to each situation.

Ambient noises are interesting in that they are included in order to improve immersion. This can work for gentle and immersive scenes, but, however, I find that all it does is fill up background noise in a manner that does not capitalize on the ability to ascribe emotional meaning to a situation.

On the other hand, having a single song can add emotional quality to a situation. This is common to the experiences of gamers used to Original Sound Tracks (OSTs). However, it doesn’t translate incredibly well to the timespan of tabletops. A scene in-game that lasts only a few minutes is easily half an hour to an hour or more in a tabletop. Those emotional 3-minute songs end up being replayed 10, 20, 30 times before the scene shifts.

Which gets dull really, really quickly.

Moodlists at work!

Di’s Moodlist Proposal

I prepare playlists based on one simple idea: Moods.

In essence, it’s about trying to capture the right overarching feeling and emotion of the scene. The exact song doesn’t matter as much as the general tone of the unfolding events. It sacrifices a bit of that ‘perfect song for the perfect moment’ for a bit of overall ease and less fiddling with your music bars. The GM does so much already so you should be trying to reduce the amount of work you’re doing whenever you can!

You don’t have to do the moods I have here; rather, you choose the sort of moods you want in your own game. Personally, I tend to populate these moodlists with video game or anime OSTs. Specifically, the instrumental songs lacking vocals. Often at the table, there are already 6+ people clamoring to talk over one another—why add another?

When I fill my moodlists I can often find a single song fitting several moods. For example, the amount of times I have “Forest” and “Peaceful” songs overlap is rather high. In these cases, I tend to lean on only having it in one of the moodlists, but will place it in multiple if the situation calls for it.

When I play these, I put them completely on random, allowing the songs to cycle through the plethora of songs available. In order to get a good variety of songs, I tend to have a minimum of 10 songs per moodlist, but my “Cutscene” and “Peaceful” ones have nearly 30 apiece.

The Last Note

The main major downside behind this is that it takes quite a bit of time to generate these lists. You need to listen to a large amount of music and effectively sort it into your games. Plus, if you want your different campaigns to have certain tones, you’re going to have to generate several full-on campaign-specific playlists. This can eat up a lot of time sorting music, a lot of money buying OSTs, and a lot of space on your mp3 players. Honestly, I have a 16gb tablet I mostly only use to store music and browse the internet.

On the upside, however, with a bit of time and effort, these moodlists can last you far more in the long run. The main one I use for fantasy has lasted me 2-years so far and I haven’t found a pressing need to improve on it aside from the incidental updates. With less fiddling with music, you can even delegate one of your players to change the music! Just tell them to change to “City, Lively” and be on your way! Plus, every once in a while you get a situation where the mood epically changes to a critical hit.

And trust me: for your players that’ll feel really really good.

-Di, signing out

Categories: Game Theory & Design

GM Currencies and Building Trust

3 February 2020 - 4:00am

I’ve seen some recent discussion online regarding rules that constrain and inform how game moderators modify ongoing narratives in games, and this made me think about why I like GM currencies. In many cases, these narrative changing rules default back to some kind of GM currency, either by providing players with a resource to spend or by limiting the amount of GM modification that can be expected by mapping those modifications to a pool of resources. Most of what we are going to explore in this post involve a more traditional game structure, where the GM frames the setting and the scenes, and the PCs interact with those scenes. This is by no means the only RPG structure in existence, but it is the setup most likely to spawn a debate on the efficacy of GM currencies or constrained scene modifications.

What I would like to explore is how GM currencies can act to reinforce trust in a roleplaying game session. Even a GM that has been playing with a group for a long period of time is still reinforcing or straining the level of trust they have every time they present a scenario that involves conflict. A GM that sits down with a group of new players may have the complete trust of their players, because those players have no reason not to trust their GM to fairly introduce elements into a game, and a GM that has been running for years, may still introduce difficulties and evolving complications in a manner that alienates a group of long term players.

Economics Lesson 

What am I talking about when I refer to GM currencies? For this post, I’m going to be looking at game rules that do one of the following:

  • Provide the GM with a resource they can give to players to entice the players to perform in a specific manner, even if the currency is unlimited on the GM’s side of things
  • Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to introduce new elements into a scene after the scene has already been established
  • Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to increase the established difficulty of a given task
  • Provide the GM a pool they can spend to increase the odds that GM controlled characters can complete a given task
  • Provide the GM a pool of points that allow them to undertake a specific action that should be rare and meaningful in the genre emulated

An example of an unlimited resource that a GM can use to entice behavior might be fate points in Fate, where characters might be compelled to play to their character aspects, bennies in Savage Worlds, when a player suffers the disadvantages of their flaws, or hero points in Mutants and Masterminds when a character’s weaknesses or relationships have a bearing on the narrative. Players do not do what is optimal in the situation, but is logical for their traits, in the short term, to get a benefit they can use later on in the game.

An example of a resource that can be used to introduce elements into a game after a scene has already been established might be threat from Star Trek Adventures, a despair result from Genesys, or the dice in the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. In these cases, a scene has been described and players have interacted with that scene, but now a new challenge or element of the scene can evolve that may not have been set in the narrative from the beginning of the framing sequence.

In many cases, GM currencies might serve dual purposes. Some of the currencies mentioned above that can be used to add a new complication to a scene might also be spent to increase the likelihood of an NPC action succeeding. For example, that same die from the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that may have introduced a countdown of some kind may just add an extra die to the pool of a villain taking an action. The same threat spent in Star Trek Adventures to create a blanket complication situationally affecting actions in a scene may be spent to add an extra die to an NPCs dice pool when they resolve a task.

In some games, some actions are restricted by GM currencies, to emphasize that the action being taken is rare and meaningful. For example, a villain in 7th Sea 2nd Edition has to spend a point from the danger pool to strike a mortal blow on a hero, and in Star Trek Adventures, an NPC that attempts to finish off a wounded player character has to spend threat to do so. This reinforces the idea that death is a consequence in these stories, but not until there is a certain amount of tension established first.

With and Without Spending Limits

To illustrate how GM currencies might reinforce a greater level of trust at a game table, let’s look at a situation that might come up in a game, and how that situation is framed. Our base situation is going to see our heroes fighting hostile forces on a narrow bridge. Implicit in this framing is that opponents might harm the PCs, and that the PCs might be forced off the bridge.

Next, let’s look at a development that we might introduce into the scene. The bridge starts to deteriorate. Even PCs that aren’t near the edge might fall off into the darkness below, so falling becomes a greater threat than it was when it would only be the consequence of not resisting the efforts of an opponent forcing the PC off the bridge.

In a game without GM currency, the GM may have this idea in their head going into the fight, and they may even want to make sure it feels fair for this situation to evolve, so they add into their description of the bridge the cracks and weathered appearance of the bridge, to telegraph the potential for the bridge to fall apart.

After a few rounds of combat, the GM decides to pull the trigger on the crumbling bridge, and a PC falls into the abyss below. That PC is now upset, because while the state of the bridge may not have been pristine, the narrative thrust of the description was more focused on the lack of handrails and the opposing force, not the deteriorating state of the bridge.

Currency and Negotiation

Often, GM currency introduces an element of negotiation into the game. For example, in a Cypher System game, a GM can introduce an Intrusion, and the player has the option of paying off the offered intrusion with their own resource. This is also true in Fate, when a GM offers a fate point to compel an aspect. As long as the PC has a pool of resources themselves, they can negate the spending of GM currency to modify the narrative.

As part of this negotiation, clarification of intent can be practiced.

“If my character falls off the bridge, will they die?”

“No, I don’t want to give too much away, but death isn’t one of the stakes of this situation.”

“Am I going to end up getting injured?”

“No, just taken to another location that we can cut to after this fight.”

“Okay, I’m in, let’s do it.”

Even in games where there isn’t an implicit negotiation process, the GM spending the resource is often taking the time to explain how the narrative is evolving in ways that make the changing dynamic clear.

“I’m spending threat to introduce a Cosmic Storm (3) complication into this scene.”

“What does that mean?”

“Any task involving long-range communication with electronics, the ship’s sensors, or the transporter have their difficulties increased by three.”

Navigating Difficult Areas

There have traditionally been areas where it is difficult for a GM to assert narrative control without also creating the feeling of removing agency from players. For example, when characters are mind controlled or when they might be affected by fear. GM currencies can help in these situations.

In many Powered by the Apocalypse games, some moves generate hold for a GM to spend to introduce negative elements. Having a set amount of hold to spend reinforces that the negative consequences introduced will have a finite number of recurring instances. In Fate, creating an aspect of fear is mainly going to give an NPC another aspect to compel, but it’s now available as a source of fate points for a PC that wants to compel this aspect on themselves, giving them greater agency in how they want to express that fear. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, characters that have a Mind-Controlled complication provide NPCs with extra dice for their action pool, but the player can also roleplay the mind control to general plot points for their character before they are complicated out of the scene.

In this way, traditionally difficult situations where a player may lose agency can instead be handled by allowing for some minor setback, which the PC can make into a more significant setback when they choose, to access the game’s economy.

Trust Your Feelings

While a lot of the discussion about GM currencies can be framed as building trust between players and the GM, one of my favorite aspects of GM currencies is that it may allow you to build trust in yourself. One of the greatest dilemmas of the GM can be paraphrased in the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcom:

“…your [Game Masters] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Sometimes it’s hard to know when to introduce twists or increased difficulty into a game, and having an ever-growing pool of some GM resources can help create a natural trigger for pushing the narrative of the game. Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate.

If you are in pitched combat, but your dice have just not been making your villains seem like the threat they should be, boosting their competency might be a good spend. If a scene is getting predictable or has played out like an earlier scene, introducing a complication may be a good way to spend that pool. If your players have relied on a specific set of gear or circumstances in multiple scenes, spending points from the pool to deny or complicate the PC’s assets may be a logical direction.

It can be very difficult even from the GM side of the game to determine if taking away a piece of equipment, or keeping the PCs from being able to leave a planet is being arbitrary or falls into the dreaded category of “railroading,” but when there is a finite resource being used, the GM can feel more confident that they aren’t being arbitrary. Spending the GM resource is part of the game, and it will only happen when the GM has the resource to spend.

Unlimited Power

Not every game with the traditional GM/Player dynamic has GM currencies, and because so many traditional games have not used this dynamic, this may make the introduction of enumerated constraints seem . . . unnatural.

That said, a lot of discussions about creativity touch on the idea that constrained creativity can produce better results than leaving all possibilities open. Using most of the tropes of a genre makes it more impactful when you deviate from another trope. Making sure everyone knows what the “rules” of the universe are going into a story makes people more comfortable when following the narrative of the present story, rather than devoting effort to understanding complex world-building that is intentionally overflowing traditional bounds.

 Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate. Share4Tweet1Reddit1EmailNone of that is saying that working without a net, so to speak, is bad, just that it is a greater cognitive load, and for purposes of what we are discussing here, it is also a situation that requires more trust to be extended. There are times when the energy that it takes to manage expectations and read the natural level of engagement and frustration might be better invested down narrower storytelling pathways.

Additionally, if you like the idea of the trust engendered with GM currencies, there may be ways to work it into games where it doesn’t already exist. For example, instead of rolling for random encounters, have the group make skill checks to scout a location, and add points to a pool for failures. When exploration gets stale, spend those failed scouting checks as “encounter points” to liven up a natural lull in the game. Instead of waiting for players to actively roleplay their traits, look for situations where that trait would naturally trigger a fun interaction, and bargain some inspiration for the player, contingent on a mutually agreed upon display of a given trait.

One thing that I want to make clear is that I very rarely advocate for a single solution to every situation. There may be games that work fine without GM currencies or specific GM narrative constraints, and there may be groups for which it doesn’t work. All I ask, as I continually ask, is for people to consider why these game designs exist, and to actively, intentionally include or exclude elements from your games.

What was the first game you encountered with GM currencies? What is your favorite GM currency? What GM actions would you prefer to be governed by a limited currency? We want to hear from you below! We’ll keep an eye out for your comments.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Height of Annoyance

31 January 2020 - 12:00am

“Why does everyone keep going, ‘KITTY!’ when I’m a dangerous and deadly predator!?”

One of my regular groups has been playing a modern paranormal game using Savage Worlds. It’s a mash up of the Dresden Files along with a little bit of the World of Darkness, but with our own spin on the setting. Our eclectic group of supernatural folk include a nervous changeling fae, a rich kid selkie, a witch blood that talks to dead people, a water wizard that is a descendant of lost Atlantis, and my exiled werewolf. Since I was playing a werewolf, I pictured her human form as muscular and tall, but when the group started talking about what our characters looked like, I learned that everyone else in the group was either the same height as my character, or taller. Hrmph!

Okay, so my annoyance at this is kind of petty and a bit silly. In the grand scheme of the game, so what if most of the group is 5’10” or over 6’? Does it really matter if the character I pictured as tall enough to stand out in a crowd is suddenly eye to eye or overshadowed by everyone else? Not really, but it can still be a little frustrating when the vision you had of your character doesn’t quite work in the light of what the other players have chosen for their characters.

In this particular case, the disputed feature is height, but I’ve seen this kind of disconnect come up with other kinds of physical features before. Someone made a red head, only to find out that almost every character in the party is a ginger. Or, the player who made a character they wanted to come off as tough, only to discover the rest of the party looks like a biker gang on a bad day.

So, what do you do with a frustration like this?

  • Session Zero is for more than just balancing stats and mechanics. While not everyone may have a vision of their character in their head yet, it’s worth bringing up some basics if you’re aiming to try and be noteworthy in a particular area. Let folks know if you’re picturing your character as being particularly tall, short, stout, or whatever. Doing this doesn’t necessarily claim ownership of that characteristic, but folks might consider other aspects if they know you’re going that route with your character.
  • Be vague and stay away from actual numbers. While this doesn’t work with some physical features, your group could agree to stay way from specific numbers for height and weight and just use descriptors. This may come as a surprise, but the designation of tall and short is completely dependent upon point of view. To someone who is only 5’2”, someone who is 5’8” is tall. To someone who is 6’2”, someone who is 5’8” is pretty short. One of my gaming friends is somewhat ‘height blind’. He fully believes me (5’8”) and my roommate (5’3”) are the same height. When we point out the difference in our height, he is legitimately surprised. In his world, people are either short (shorter than him), normal (about 6’ or so) or tall (taller than him). Switching to descriptors can help let the rest of the group adjust their perception without having to put real numbers to those features.
  • Adjust your description of your character. If you’re just getting started with the game, there’s usually no foul in changing up various things about the character within reason. This includes the description. If you really wanted to have your character be unique with their emerald green eyes, but then learn that everyone else also gave their character green eyes, go ahead and switch it up to another color.
  • Embrace the commonalities. Maybe you wanted your character to stand out with bright blue hair, but when play starts you realize everyone else also gave their character unnatural hair color, it could be fun to lean into that. Maybe the bright colors are something they could have all bonded over. Maybe it’s a choice they made when they started working together. Either way, it could become something to celebrate rather than get annoyed at.

Whatever route you choose to get around your annoyance, the biggest suggestion I can make is to not be a jerk about it. Yeah, it might be annoying that the description you gave your character doesn’t quite line up with what you hoped after you hear about the rest of the characters, but it’s usually not anything someone did on purpose. Figure out a way to get over your annoyance and get back to the important stuff: the game.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Intrusion of the Fantastic

29 January 2020 - 12:00am

Gamers, such as I, who are devoted to Dungeons and Dragons and similar tabletop experiences, are all about big, showy magic.

It’s all about fireballs and magical webs and dazzling color sprays. 

And if the spells in the main player’s handbooks aren’t enough, there are usually equally thick supplements replete with even louder, more demonstrative magic.

But what about games where there is magic, but it’s rarely in the players’ control? What about magic that intrudes only occasionally, but with significant purpose?

I think if you game in that sphere, then I would look to the 14th century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for inspiration as to how magic could be incorporated in an otherwise mundane world. 


A magical moment

The Green Knight’s first appearance and the challenge of the beheading game takes place at the dawn of the New Year — the solstice — as part of a Christmas celebration.

A holiday, a festival, a celestial convergence, the annual ritual rites at solstice and equinox are all great occasions to have magic pierce the veil, so to speak. 

Magic won’t work on just any old Tuesday. But Friday the 13th? The start of a new moon? A planetary alignment? 

Magic becomes plausible, then. Not just for the adversary, but if they are prepared, for the PCs as well. Will it break the otherwise continuity of your non-magical world if it seems to intrude on just this one, particular time? 


A magical mixture

In the poem, Lady Bertilak’s kissing game and the reward of the impervious girdle highlights how to infuse competing paragon virtues with the attainment of a magical item.  

The knight must live up to a vow of fidelity but also their reputation as a great lover so as to obtain the one thing that can protect them from sure death in the coming confrontation with the Green Knight.

The formula to follow for your game, then, is to have a PC weave a path through two competing virtues particular to them so as to obtain a magical item deemed essential to the final event. If you are able to throw in any social or cultural demands to confound or challenge them, so much the better.


A magical place

Magic is tied to a location. There is some of this in the first meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, for Camelot is certainly a mystical location in its own right. But Camelot represents the new. Let the final confrontation occur elsewhere, somewhere unfamiliar. The Green Chapel represents something else — a connection to something old, mysterious and not entirely understood. Camelot is a place of vibrant occupation, a hub of activity. The chapel is a forgotten location, a ruin. 

New and old magical locations are easily manufactured in the real world. The quest may begin at SoFi stadium, still under construction in Los Angeles, and end up at the temple of Zeus in Olympia.


As you contemplate magic in your nonmagical world, look for the extremes and things of a contrasting nature around you. That’s where magic — if it exists at all — lives and works. 


Whether its effects are lasting are up to you.







Categories: Game Theory & Design

Destroying Clever Maps

27 January 2020 - 5:00am

In the early days of published adventures, quite a few dungeon features were used in a clever* manner to add confusion to the mix. This confusion was largely placed on the shoulders of the players, especially those that tried to create a player map to track where the party had been and where they need to go. This level of “cleverness” did nothing more than up the frustration levels of the players without really challenging the characters. In addition to being frustrating, they really weren’t all that plausible in the first place. Let’s talk about some of these implausible dungeon features.

Imperceptible Slopes

I put this one at the top of my list because it always gets my goat when a GM (or adventure creator) deems a slope to be too gentle to be noticed by someone walking on it. Then, when you look at the map, the slope covers a 20 foot decline into the next dungeon level, but is only 60 feet long. How can this be “imperceptible?”

 A 12 inch rise ramp must be at least 12 feet long. Share3Tweet1Reddit1Email

The American Disability Act declares that for a slope to be considered wheelchair accessible it can’t be taller in inches than it is long. In other words, a 12 inch (1 foot) rise ramp must be at least 12 feet long. It’s preferable that it be even longer for ease of access. These slopes are clearly noticeable by anyone on them or observing them from either end.

Let’s go back to my example. A 20 foot decline comes out to 240 inches. This means for the slope to meet ADA requirements, it needs to be 240 feet long, not a mere 60 feet. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for a slope to be truly imperceptible, it would need to be at least 6 times longer than ADA requirements, maybe more. That’s a slope that’s 1,440 feet in length. That’s about a third of a mile.

Spinning Rooms/Floors

 This leads to a player cleverness vs. GM cleverness battle. Share3Tweet1Reddit1Email

There are rooms and/or intersections with floors that rotate in a manner that confuse the mapper and players. Sometimes this is done in a manner that is so violent that the resulting facing of the party is unknown. I’ve also seen it described where the entire dungeon rotates around the room while all four doors are closed, so the party doesn’t know that the orientation of the passages on the other side of the doors is known shuffled.

This, quite honestly, leads to a player cleverness vs. GM cleverness battle. The players, once they are aware that their perception of relative space is being messed with, will start chalking walls, doors, and floors with symbology and numbers to allow them to easily figure out where they are at all times. The discussion of “our standard operating procedure” is to chalk arrows in the direction we ware walking and sequential numbers on each arrow is a waste of time and really not fun for most folks. Then, once the party is lost in the cleverness, there is the ensuing conversation to figure out which arrow and number combination they come across next. That’s bookkeeping of minutiae, not role playing or storytelling.

Undetectable Elevators

This is similar to the imperceptible slope in that the adventure states that the players are being lowered deeper into the dungeon (which in those days meant increased danger and higher rewards for survival), but they can’t tell they are being lowered down because the elevator is moving so slowly. Of course, there was usually a caveat that if the party had a dwarf with them, then the dwarven character could detect the movement through some mystical connection to the earth or some such that’s never explained.

I don’t know about those of you out in Gnome Stew land, but when even the slowest elevator in the world starts to move, I feel it in my guts (if going down) or in my knees (if going up). I’ve been on some really slow elevators in Europe, too.

The undetectable elevator is something I can’t get behind as a gimmick to confuse the players.


There’s magic in the world. Use it! Share3Tweet1Reddit1Email

Of course, all of these methods are there to confuse the players or trick them into thinking they’re safely on level one of the dungeon when they’re actually on level three. There are approaches to getting players into lower levels without being secretive about it, but still forcing the issue. Here are a few of my favorites:

In the original Ravenloft adventure, a panel in a long hallway would fold into a ramp and drop one character (maybe two if the second person was quick enough to react) onto a slope that eventually slid the character(s) into the depths of the castle. This forced the party to explore deeper and faster. It also intentionally split the party, so they could more easily fall prey to Strahd’s machinations. This is more of a trap than a secretive manner to get the party to delve deeper, but it works very well.

The good old “pit trap that leads to the lower levels” trick is good. This is especially good if the party is higher level and has the hit points to spare in taking that falling damage. Don’t forget that the denizens of the lower level are probably aware that “food falls from that hole in the ceiling” and will be waiting for the next meal to arrive.

There’s magic in the world. Use it! Permanent dimension doors that go to somewhere else in the dungeon are always “fun” (for some definition of that word). Teleportation traps are good as well, but don’t go down the road of “you’ve been teleported, but you don’t know it” road. Just let them know that they’ve been transported. The PCs won’t know where they’re at in relation to the former location and that’s the right level of “being clever.”


What other ways can the party be shifted around a dungeon that doesn’t trigger the “don’t be clever” warning? How do you go about adding a drab of uncertainty to the PCs’ mapping efforts without getting it to the level of frustration?

*As Senda and Phil have said many times on Panda’s Talking Games, don’t be clever. It just leads to unnecessary confusion at the table.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Finish Strong

24 January 2020 - 5:00am

Over the last few years, my gaming group has gotten really good at something… finishing campaigns. We have over the last two years and four campaigns been able to bring our campaigns to a satisfying conclusion before moving to the next game. This is in contrast with nearly all my past gaming where we would often just drop campaigns and move on to the next shiny thing. So, I thought I would talk for a bit about how we’ve gotten so good at ending our games well. 

A Good Finish

Our brains have been wired for stories and we know the satisfying feeling of a complete story. A good story has a beginning, middle, and an end. Our brains enjoy the feeling of things being completed. If something must end, otherwise, we are left with a nagging sense of something being incomplete. 

To make this point…we get agitated when other media end abruptly. One of my favorite police procedurals, Life, fell victim to the Writers Strike of 2007. The show, which had a very compelling meta-arc, and several strong character arcs just ended when the show was canceled. The feeling was terrible, I was beyond annoyed.

The same holds true in RPGs. A satisfying campaign comes to some kind of conclusion. But it can be hard to bring a game to a conclusion when you are either bored with it or excited to try something new. But it does not take much to bring your campaign to a conclusion.

Tale of Two Endings

There are two ways that campaigns end. The first, and optimal, is planned. As in the group knows that the conclusion of the current story arc will conclude all the arcs in the game, and the game will have a formal ending. For instance, in my Tales From The Loop game after a number of investigations, the kids made a bold attempt to save one of their mothers and stop one of their aunts from destroying the Loop. When that played out, the game wrapped up nicely with all the story arcs concluded.

The other way campaigns end is spontaneous. At some point, someone in the group or the group as a whole decides that the game should end. There are numerous reasons for this (waining interest, changes in the group, etc). If the decision to end the game had not come it’s likely that the game would have continued past the current story arc. For example, in my Masks game, the end of our “big crossover” event felt like a good time to take a break and switch games, but a new arc could have easily started up after.

Ending Well

Regardless of how you decide to end your campaign, there are some things you need to do in order for it to have a satisfying ending. They are:

Conclude the Current Storyline

Finish playing out the arc you are currently in. Nothing feels less satisfying than to just stop mid-story. 

Wrap up Character Arcs

Bring any character arcs to an end. Some arcs if they are close to being done, will be easy to conclude, while others will be less developed and may need more of a narrative approach on how they conclude. It may be impossible to conclude them all, so try your best. 

Conclude the Meta-Arc

If you have an overarching story arc in your game, you should try to bring it to some conclusion. In a planned ending, this should have been part of your plan, but in a spontaneous ending, this can be much harder and may require some work to get it to fit in your remaining sessions. 

Show What Happens Next

The characters will continue to exist past your time of playing them. Take time to show what their lives will be like after the campaign is over.

Just A Little Patience

Doing all or most of the things above requires time, which means you need some patience in order to get there. Base on the last few years, here are the things we have done that have greatly aided this:

Candid Discussions

My group has built up a lot of trust with one another, and we are honest about how we are feeling about a game. It is welcomed in my group to say that you are starting to lose interest in a game or that the game is “not doing it for you.” This communication, when done early, allows the group to work towards an ending.

Setting Expectations

When it’s time to end the game, I figure out how many sessions, it will take to bring things to a conclusion, and then I communicate that out to the group. This way the group knows that the game is coming to a conclusion and how much time we have to bring it all together.

 Not all arcs and plots are equal, and I want to make sure I finish off the ones that are important to the players and not burn our remaining sessions on ones that people are not interested in. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email Wish List

I ask the players what things do they need to be concluded before the game ends. Not all arcs and plots are equal, and I want to make sure I finish off the ones that are important to the players and not burn our remaining sessions on ones that people are not interested in. 


Often as we are finishing one game, I am getting the next game ready to run. There is great temptation to just jump to the shiny new thing, but I have over the years been able to resist that call, in part because I know how many more sessions I have to go. To aid that, I don’t talk too much about the new game with the players, as not to tempt them. 

Setting A Campaign Up For A Comeback

I don’t often flat out end a campaign, but rather I try to get the campaign to a place, that if we ever want to come back and play it, that we can. In order to do that, there are a few additional things that need to be done besides how to end well.

Archive all Artifacts

After the last session, I collect all the character sheets, any paper campaign documents, maps, etc and put them into a single folder. That gets filed away. 

Clean up Campaign Notes

My campaign notes are a mix of my prep in OneNote, and the index cards I fill out during play. I make sure that all my index cards digitized and stored in OneNote. I use an app called Office Lens to take pictures and scan my index cards right into OneNote. I then take my index cards and file them with the rest of the other artifacts.

Note to Future Me

The last thing I do, is I write a note to future me from current me. I write down anything that I need to know about the campaign that is not already captured somewhere else. I write down any ideas about where I thought things might go and ideas about the characters and NPCs. This way if I do revive the game, past me has given future me somewhere to start.

Final Curtain

Ending a campaign is satisfying for everyone involved. It requires a little bit of patience and some work but is worth the effort. You and your groups will have fond memories of the great stories you told. 

Do you bring your campaigns to a conclusion or do you drop them and move on to the next new things? What are some of your techniques for ending or wrapping up campaigns? 

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #84 – Without the Books

23 January 2020 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Di, and Senda for a discussion about when and how to run a game without the rule books. Can these gnomes wing it well enough to keep out of the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #84 – Without the Books

Check out Di’s list of open SRDs here.

Follow Di at @DiceQGM on Twitter, and check out the Dice Queen blog.

Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd on Twitter, and find her on her other shows Panda’s Talking Games and She’s a Super Geek.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter, and see pictures of her cats at @orikes13 on Instagram.

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

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out The Lounge!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Imp of the Perverse Review

21 January 2020 - 4:00am

There are times when I am drawn to a game because it seems like a twist to a similar concept that already interests me. Anyone that has read a good number of my reviews knows that I’m an easy mark for urban fantasy and monster hunting games, so a game about hunting monsters inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe caught my attention quickly.

Imp of the Perverse goes beyond trying to be a Poe simulator, however. Instead of leaning heavily on elements intrinsic to any of Poe’s works, the game is much more about looking at the themes established in Poe’s work than recycling the literal elements found in any of them.

With all of that said, let’s take a look at Imp of the Perverse.

Defining the Opus

This review is based on the PDF and physical copies of Imp of the Perverse. The book deserves special commentary, because unlike many modern games, it eschews external artwork, but has a striking red cover with a gold title on the front of the book. The texture and appearance of the book reminds me of some of the older books I would find in my grandmother’s bookshelf, and it is a great aesthetic for the subject matter.

The PDF is 225 pages long, with red and black ink, and color plates that are highlighted in shades of red. The art in the book is reminiscent of political cartoons or illustrations of the time, with exaggerated but expressive figures. In many cases, given that the topic includes supernatural horrors, these figures are often very exaggerated.

There are also several bordered sidebars discussing ancillary topics throughout the text.

Content Warning

This game touches on a lot of potentially difficult subject matter. It is set during the Jacksonian era, and I have to admit, that made some sections difficult for me to read. While the core action deals with hunting monsters, the context of different perversions often deals with the evils of the time.

Topics touched on include racism, slavery, reproductive rights, and violence against domestic partners and children. There are several historical sidebars discussing how various marginalized people were treated in the Jacksonian era. While some of this exists to create a discussion about what to include and exclude in your game, the discussion brings up many of the least pleasant aspects of the era.

Part One

Part One of this book contains the Introduction and Central Concepts. As subcategories under these sections, the following topics are addressed:

  • What You’re In For
  • A Dark Reflection: Jacksonian Gothic America
  • A Trembling Framework
  • The Arc of Play
  • Getting Started
  • Continued Play
  • Using This Book

In broad strokes, this section explains what the game is about. The game is very focused in America during the cited time period. Characters will have regional differences based on their origin, and each Protagonist (player character) will have their own Imp of the Perverse, a supernatural creature urging them to indulge in their worst traits.

Characters are tracking down monsters, people who have fully given in to the temptation presented by their own imps. The protagonists follow clues and stop the monster. The structure of play doesn’t make it a question of “if” the protagonists confront the monster, but rather how much damage the monster has done before it’s rampage is over.

Part Two

Part Two contains the subsection Making Monsters, which is split between Born of Perversity and Making Monsters from Protagonists.

Monsters are connected in some way to The Shroud, the name for the supernatural in this setting. Monsters that are still alive are Close to the Shroud, monsters that have died, but never left the mortal realm are Past the Shroud, and monsters that have returned from the afterlife are Returned from Beyond the Shroud.

Monsters that are further removed from life can influence the imps attached to the protagonists more profoundly, resulting in more Weirding Dice for the Editor (Game Moderator). Monsters also have a web that shows different levels of victims. The longer it takes for the protagonists to confront the monster, the further out from the center the monster moves. The furthest points on the monster’s web will touch on characters important to the protagonists, making the monster’s rampage more personal the longer it goes on.

There is a sample monster, focusing on a monster Close to the Shroud that is obsessed with exacerbating the flaws of others, and who destroys lives with blackmail. A sample web is shown for this monster as well.

There is also a section on converting a protagonist to a monster. If the protagonist fully gives in to their perversity, they become a monster themselves. This means that the current editor can create a protagonist and let the player whose character became a monster take over the editor position, or the player can allow the current editor to use their character as the monster for the next session.

One thing I would like to touch on here, and revisit later, is that once someone becomes a monster, the game assumes there is no way out for them except to destroy them. There is not a redemption path for someone that has fully given in to their imps. It’s also worth noting that monsters are not meant to follow an existing monster’s structure. In other words, there aren’t vampires or werewolves, but individual perversions may cause someone to turn into a blood-drinking creature or something with bestial traits.

Part Three

Part Three of the book includes the following:

  • Dramatis Personae
  • Composing a Protagonist
  • The Workshop

There is also a sample protagonist shown at the end of this section.

There are a series of questions that the player answers. These questions are slightly different depending on what part of the country from whence the character originated. Depending on how questions are answered, points are added to various parts of the character sheet.

Characters will determine what kind of career they had, what kind of family life they had, and their marital and immediate familiar situation. Then the player must determine if the character has hunted a monster before, the perversity they struggle with, and their greatest strength. There are a lot of checklists and bullet points to guide a player through and to explain the differences between choices.

This section has a sidebar emblematic of both the positive aspects of what this game is doing, but also the challenges it presents. The sidebar discusses slavery, and mentions the practical realities of having a protagonist that is a slave (how free will they be to move about for the adventure), and rightly mentions that playing a slave or any marginalized person that will be dealing with the oppressive nature of the setting on their character needs to be discussed with the group and met with enthusiastic consent, and that the game should be played with safety tools.

This is all good advice, but what makes me a little more reticent is that there isn’t a discussion on the potential pitfalls of having non-marginalized players running marginalized protagonists, or any kind of best practices for that situation. It’s good to remind people to be careful, but there aren’t deep safety guidelines to show what that would look like in this case.

Another aspect of the game that is both intriguing, but also potentially frightening, is the character’s perversity. The text instructs players not to base their perversity on what people of the era would consider perverse, but something they find problematic. While this partially addresses characters built around harmful opinions of the time, perversity is left very open. Even the term “perverse,” while very era-appropriate, feels very loaded. In-game terms, it’s much more like a moral shortcoming of the player, but “perversity” adds a level of connotation that might push someone further than, for example, “I have a bad temper.”

I’m also a little uncomfortable with the sample character in the chapter. I am glad to see an example using a Creole sailor in New Orleans, showing the game’s inclusive nature, but I’m less thrilled with what could be seen as a stereotypical element added to the character, a child out of wedlock that is being cared for by a relative.

A welcome inclusion in this section is The Workshop, the phase of character creation where the table comes together to look at the concepts and the themes in the game, where they can discuss what they do and do not want to explore in play.

Part Four 

Part four includes the following subsections:

  • The Basics
  • Processes of Play
  • Aesthetics
  • Ontogenesis
  • Games with 1 or 2 Protagonists

Protagonists have several pools that represent their resources and their contacts, which they can spend to answer questions. Questions get increasingly more expensive, requiring more of an expenditure of the pools, as the anxiety die goes up in play. The anxiety die is a six-sided die that the editor has on the table to show how far the monster’s plans have progressed, and while the game itself does not play out similarly, this immediately reminded me of the Escalation Die from 13th Age.

Protagonists can ask their Imp a question directly. If they don’t want to spend points (or can’t) and don’t want to resort to giving in to their Imp, they can make an Exertion roll, representing them imposing their will on the world. Depending on their qualities, strengths, and relationships, they can add black dice to their pool. Depending on their perversity or edge, they can add red dice to the pool.

Other players have Weirding Dice they can offer to the player making the check, representing temptations from the character’s imp, and the Editor can spend their Weirding dice to replace dice in the protagonist’s pool. Protagonists have Lucidity and Composure as stats. Dice equal or above Lucidity are a success, but if more red than black dice scored hits, you record a red checkmark, and if you have more black than red, you record a black checkmark. Rated traits are at risk of going down if you don’t spend successes to maintain that aspect of your character, so this can represent losing part of your personality, or straining a bond with a family member.

At the end of a chapter, players roll a number of dice equal to their checkmarks of each kind, red and black. If a character rolls higher on the black dice, their Lucidity goes up. If they roll higher on their red dice, their Composure goes down. Characters that have spend points from their Empathy pool can choose to remove red checkmarks before making this check. If a character maxes out their Lucidity, they have banished their imp. They aren’t tormented by the supernatural any longer, but they are no longer part of the “hunting” community. If their composure drops to 1, they become a monster, losing all of their humanity.

Why not use the pools for everything? Because it gets increasingly more expensive to do so, and the pools take some time to replenish. Based on the number of black or red checks you have, you can modify relationships or traits, replenish pools, or even potentially increase your capacity in pools.

This section mentions safety in the process of play once again, and goes into detail on The Red Mist. This is a technique in this game where any scene where action is about to happen that the table does not want to describe in detail is shrouded in The Red Mist. In this case, the group knows something terrible has happened, and the general idea of what has happened, but it happens under the mist, out of sight.

Part Five

Part five is an exhaustive look at Jacksonian America, with the following subsections:

  • Why Now?
  • Jacksonian America
  • The East
  • The South
  • The West

This section explores why this point in time works for these types of stories, being a time where America was beginning to wrestle with its positive image of itself versus the actions taken in the name of Manifest Destiny.

From a historical standpoint, it’s a really extensive look at the period and the various conflicts that were brewing. Even outside of potentially running the game, I found the section to be a great read. That said, this section was also a potentially stressful read, because it clearly outlines some of the worst aspects of the time period, and I’ll admit that I have a great deal of antipathy for Andrew Jackson and the events that took place under his watch.

This section doesn’t just touch on the differences in the various geographical locations, but also discusses how those areas change over several decades, and what emergent issues come to light as time moves forward.

Part Six

Part six is divided into A Menagerie of Horror and Ready-to-Play Chapters. The Menagerie introduces some sample monsters submitted by Kickstarter backers, and fully realized for use in play, and the Ready-to-Play chapters introduce monsters, webs, and notes on scenarios that can be used in the game.

This is another difficult part of the book. Some of the monsters touch on potentially troubling aspects of human existence, and while the workshop session should help establish boundaries, and active safety tools at the table should help to manage emergent issues, some of these monsters are so predicated on their perversities that an emergent issue is going to make them very difficult to modify at a moment’s notice.

This section also reminds me that I’m a little uncomfortable with the fate of all monsters being destruction. One of the monsters feels as if they are dominating and controlling situations, but it feels strange to kill someone as a response to even extreme domineering. The monsters Past the Shroud and Beyond the Shroud feel easier to reconcile with a destructive solution.

One interesting aspect of the Ready-to-Play chapters is that there are pre-made characters that leave enough blanks to quickly fill in with specific details, but cut down on the lengthier questioning process for protagonist creation.

I also don’t want to give the wrong impression of this chapter. There are a lot of fascinating horror scenarios posited in this section, I just think that this book’s greatest strength is often its sharpest edge. It pushes a lot of boundaries thoughtfully, but aggressively.


This section includes a bibliography, maps of various regions, the ludography (games that inspired this one), and the index for the book.

Full Lucidity

Emulating Poe by modeling that you will resolve the situation, and the only variables are what toll the resolution takes on you and others, makes perfect sense. I also love that the stakes aren’t life or death, but the state of your character’s soul.

I enjoy the idea of spending resources to advance the plot for much of the game, and reserving the use of dice for situations that feel a bit more desperate. In this case, the resolution mechanic then plays back into the idea of moving closer to freedom from, or total domination by, your imp.

Lack of ComposureI enjoy the idea of spending resources to advance the plot for much of the game, and reserving the use of dice for situations that feel a bit more desperate. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

For some of the topics brought up, I would feel a lot better having a more in-depth treatment of how to handle various issues in discreet, dedicated sections. The era demands addressing issues of race, gender, and marginalization, but even though the book has some excellent discussion of safety tools, the safety tools themselves are more useful for the horror elements than the sociological elements.

I touched on this in the previous sections, but the language in this book is carefully used to convey the setting. Despite this, perversity feels like a very loaded term. I think I may have felt more comfortable with this terminology if we had more examples that emphasized “perversity” as “negative trait.” The strict definition is “a deliberate desire to behave in an unreasonable or unacceptable way,” but a more connotative definition is “human behavior that deviates from that which is understood to be orthodox or normal.” Under the second definition, it’s a lot easier to see behavior that isn’t negative, but just “not part of the mainstream,” being twisted into being a “perversion.”

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

The same things that make me love this game also make me hesitant to widely recommend it. Honestly speaking, I think the game does great things, and if you want to read a game that engages an interesting topic in a well-realized, gamified manner, you really should get this book. The historical aspects alone are a great read.

On the other hand, if the topics addressed are ones that cause you potential stress, or if you are planning to bring this to the table, you may need to examine what you want to get out of the game a bit more closely.

What games are your favorite alternative takes on history? What genres have you seen blended with other eras that you particularly enjoy? Let us know in the comments below, we’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Death in a Smoky Room: A (Mostly) System-Neutral Fantasy Murder Mystery

20 January 2020 - 5:00am

Sometimes, you just need a good atmospheric murder mystery. It seems like the options are endless: mysteries involving British trains. Mysteries with British aristocrats solving murders involving tea. Mysteries involving time-traveling British people who are also somehow aliens. Mysteries involving unspeakable cults in Massachusetts from storied British families. British murders by British people, solved Britishly.

What I’m saying is that in time-honored historical tradition, maybe if you travel in Britain (or are from there), have someone else taste your food before you eat it. They will also probably find it bland and flavorless, but if you can detect the difference between your taster choking because they would shiv their grandmother for chili powder in that moment vs. actually being poisoned, you’re golden (note that none of this applies to Scotland, which has both curries and haggis, which are delicious. Fight me).

But what does this have to do with you, dear reader? Well, if you’re at all like me, you’re pretty much constantly absorbing media and thinking “this is fine, but it would be better with wizards and dice.” Sure, it makes for tiresome and bewildering conversation with strangers at the DMV, but it does tend to lead to a profusion of gaming scenarios rattling around in one’s head.

Assuming that you’re into running a mystery for your players, but don’t want to show up on a watchlist because you Googled “hiding a body” one too many times, I have a treat for you: a mostly system-neutral murder mystery.

I say “mostly system neutral,” because I initially wrote this scenario for my local Blue Rose group, and I didn’t so much “file the serial numbers off” as “clumsily try to change one number like a guilty elementary-schooler with an F on their grade card.” I say “mostly system neutral,” because I initially wrote this scenario for my local Blue Rose group, and I didn’t so much “file the serial numbers off” as “clumsily try to change one number like a guilty elementary-schooler with an F on their grade card.” Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

System and Assumptions:

This game assumes that your world is high magic and reasonably civilized. Think magic crystals, colleges, and adequate public sanitation. Waterdeep, anywhere in Eberron, or (of course) Aldis are all appropriate settings.

Politically, this game works best with a hostile neighboring nation that was recently defeated, but is clawing its way back into being a threat. For purposes of this scenario, we will call this nation “Badveria.”

A note on clues: borrowing from the central conceit of the brilliant GUMSHOE system, it is assumed that characters find every clue they look for. Exceptional rolls or specific skills provide additional insight, as opposed to finding things in the first place. Nothing grinds a murder mystery to a halt faster than just…failing to find a clue.

The Backstory/NPCs:

Orthallen Dagworth, a brilliant young alchemical student with Setting Appropriate College (GO, MASCOTS!) was murdered by agents of Badveria, who were seeking out his notes. His research is tremendously valuable to Badveria in its desire to build a more effective method of ensuring air superiority, as well as driving forward their understanding of ballistics.

The murderer, Aiden Strelley, is also a student at the college. He is from a prominent local family who has made their fortune mining magical crystals on their ancestral land, where there was a rich vein, but this vein ran out five or so years ago. Aiden’s father, Mardic Strelley, made a deal with Badveria to continue to supply crystals in order to maintain the appearance of wealth. Badveria has been doing this for several years—the crystals supplied by the Strelley line are now used in infrastructure, weapons, and toys across the nation. Aiden, who is studying medicine, poisoned Orthallen and set up his lab to look like he died in an accident.

Orthallen’s received orders from Badveria through Tulli Bettesthorne, a deep cover agent. Tulli is an anatomy instructor, as well as the functional medical examiner for the city. Tulli arranged for the death to be declared an accident from inhaling alchemical fumes while he was studying. Aiden has never met Tulli as her true self, and only knows her as “Mortissa,” which he overheard a Badverian agent calling her after she thought he left.

Trevor Peckham: Orthallen’s partner. Devoted, fiery, furious, smart, and tenacious. He is also an alchemy student, and the only person alive (not working for Badveria) who had any knowledge of Orthallen’s research. It is Trevor who draws the characters’ attention to what he strongly suspects was foul play.

Location 1: The Scene of the Crime

It is assumed that characters will start here, but feel free to modify according to the needs of your group—it’s entirely possible they will come up with creative and/or ludicrous ideas. Roll with it.

  • Clue 1: Orthallen’s body has already been removed. However, the room still is covered in stains and stinks strongly of the alchemical reagents that are the official cause of his death. Several books of Orthallen’s notes still remain. Careful examination of the notes reveals that some of them are missing. Though the notebooks he used are rough, there are clear stresses on the binding that indicate pages have been taken out. Had the pages been ripped out while the notebooks were in use, the whole things would have fallen apart. Use of an appropriate investigation skill (with a high difficulty) reveals that the sections missing were on gases that are lighter than air, as well as the properties of ashes of certain trees near the border of Badveria.
  • Clue 2: There are several books on the desk that refer to the work Orthallen was doing. However, it’s very clear from suspicious gaps in the mess on Orthallen’s desk that these were not the only books he was using, indicating that it’s an incomplete overview of his research. It is common knowledge that the library only allows one book to be taken out at once without special dispensation. The fact that Orthallen had three (or more) indicates that he had specific permission from the administration to check out more—a sign of groundbreaking and important breakthroughs on the horizon. Characters without any sort of academic background, or who fail an appropriate (and difficult) roll, are unable to tell anything about the books themselves—they’re highly specialized and incomprehensible to anyone outside of Orthallen’s field of study. Characters who pass their roll are given the following titles:
    • Luminous Gases and their Properties, Volumes 1 and 3.
    • On the Hermetic Sealing of Flexible Materials for Maritime and Agricultural Use.
    • Volatile Miasms: Manufacture and Storage: Introduction.
Location 2: The Morgue

This area is kept cold by means of magical crystals; the workers in the morgue are very proud of them and declare as soon as the characters arrive that “These are Strelley crystals—the best you can get!” Orthallen’s body is currently the only one in the morgue.

  • Clue 1: any discussion with the staff of the morgue, or review of the paperwork in the morgue reveal that the medical examination was conducted by Aiden Strelley.
  • Clue 2: Any examination of Orthallen’s body reveals that it shows no contamination from the alchemical reagents that were theoretically the cause of his death. There is no staining, and not even a hint of the stench in the room. A successful healing or other investigative check reveals that he was killed through a sudden hemorrhagic event, with no sign of trauma to his windpipe or lungs. This is wildly inconsistent with the reports of his death, which indicate that he choked on gases that he was working with as part of his research. A truly exceptional success should reveal that the cause of death was an overdose of a common painkiller derived from the bark of the fevertree—something that only a medical student would have access to in sufficient quantity to cause death.
Location 3: the Library (Probably)

This scene can take place anywhere, but most likely, the characters will attempt to investigate at the library to find out what other books Orthallen had been reading.

  • Combat! The characters discover that Badverian agents have been told by someone they only know as “Mortissa” to watch out for anyone snooping around after looking in on the alchemical laboratories. Build this encounter according to the rules and appetite for challenge of your players—since this is only one of three potential combat encounters, it should be challenging enough to keep combat-heavy players happy.
  • If the characters manage to avoid burning down the library, they are able to piece together that Orthallen was researching how to make lighter-than-air transport and gunpowder, and that Badveria was interested in the results. The only way they could have known what he was researching though, was if they had a person on the inside.

The Badverian agents should have access to a special ability (a recharge ability, stunt, or other system-appropriate power) that enables them to turn off or control any crystal-based magic on the characters or in the library.

Location 4: Aiden’s Chambers
  • Aiden can be found (alone) in the dormitories. These are small, windowless rooms with heavy doors and thick stone walls, clearly older than the rest of the college.
  • When the characters confront Aiden, if they have sufficient evidence to convict him, he panics by closing the dormitories and knocking together several flasks on his desk. The combination causes the room to begin to fill with a noxious gas.
    • Figuring out how to ventilate or neutralize this gas should be a complex task, though as usual, clever roleplay or the use of magic should be both encouraged and effective.
    • Every round that takes place, the characters must lose an aggregate of 1/5 of the total party’s hit points from the characters breathing in noxious gas. The characters may assign this as they wish.
    • Additionally, each round, one character gets one level of fatigue or other appropriate condition. This can also be assigned by consensus of the players.
  • If the characters fail, they come to in the healer’s college. Aiden has died from inhaling noxious fumes, and they’re regarded as something kind of like heroes for uncovering the treachery.
  • If they succeed, they can confront Aiden, who has an appointment with “Mortissa” later that night, and is willing to tell them the details in exchange for his life.
  • Confrontation with Mortissa can take place anywhere that speaks to your players, but by default, it should be somewhere out of the way, and unlikely to be visited by the city watch. This is a boss fight, so be sure to make it difficult. Don’t skimp on the henchpeople. If Mortissa/Tulli beats the characters, she knows her cover is blown, and she leaves the characters to flee back to Badveria with all possible speed. If the characters beat her (and leave her alive for interrogation), she reveals the whole scheme.
Epilogue/Further Adventures

As of the end of the game, the characters should be able to connect the dots and realize that virtually all of their military and infrastructure is potentially contaminated with Badverian crystals, and thus vulnerable to Badverian meddling. Additionally, the Badverians are now ahead of the characters’ own nation in terms of both air travel and gunpowder. If this knowledge were to get out, it would cause mass panic, but something clearly must be done—it’s up to the characters to stop the Badverians before it’s too late!

So what do you think? Does this sound like the kind of scenario your group would enjoy? Sound off in the comments!




Categories: Game Theory & Design

Josh Fox Interview – Last Fleet

17 January 2020 - 12:00am

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Josh Fox about his latest game currently on Kickstarter, Last Fleet. I have a few different genres that I’m drawn to like a bear to honey, and space opera and its more serious cousin, science fiction, is one of those genres I find almost irresistible. Before I go on too much about my own love of this genre, let’s let Josh tell us about this particular journey through space.

Can you give us the elevator pitch for Last Fleet? Why play this game over another?

Last Fleet is set on a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from the implacable inhuman adversary that destroyed their civilisation. You play the brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists who are trying to hold the fleet together, keep themselves in one piece and keep humanity alive. It’s a game about action, intrigue and personal drama in a high-pressure setting.

What the game does really well is to create this atmosphere of high stakes, high pressure, fear and paranoia, and then make it human. We’ll get to see your individual contribution, whether it’s flying tense space missions, hunting for infiltrators and saboteurs, or handling political dissent, resource shortages or breakdowns in the fleet. But we also see how the stress and strain of the situation generates interpersonal drama, driven and supported by the mechanics of the game.

What are some of your influences on Last Fleet? I can guess that Battlestar Galactica is in there, but can you expound upon that some more?

Yes, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is the number one influence and the fundamental reason for writing the game – I wanted to be able to play through those tense exciting situations, explore the paranoia and distrust, the faction politics and so on. As the game has developed I’ve folded in influences from other SF I love like Star Wars, Star Trek, the Ancillary Justice books and more. Plus I’ve developed a unique set of bad guys that are sort of a cross between the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000, the Borg from Star Trek and the Goa’uld from Stargate.

BSG remains the closest analogue, though. It’s got the white-knuckle space battles that put individual lives at stake, with officers shouting orders from the command room or civilians watching helplessly. It’s got the paranoia and self-doubt that comes from knowing that anyone on the fleet could be working for the enemy – even to the extent of distrusting your own motives. It’s got the fractious faction politics, the sense of a fleet that is never far from collapsing into in-fighting. It’s got the post-apocalyptic resource crises and technological problems. And threaded through it all, it’s got those dynamite interpersonal relationships – the rivalries, the romance, the feuds and the fights.

What were some of your RPG influences on making Last Fleet?

The big ones are Night Witches and The Watch. Both games are playing in the same wartime drama space. They both use ingenious mechanics to provide just enough depth and detail about a large conflict, and showing those highlights of what your individual characters are doing. They both make interpersonal interactions and drama key to generating the game currency you need to win battles later on. In both cases you get a virtuous cycle where the trauma and terror of the war provide grist for the mill of your relationships and conversations, which in turn help to make the conflicts matter by providing human stakes.

The other influence I’d mention is Bite Marks, which my partner Becky was developing at around the same time I was writing Last Fleet. I like to think that both games have influenced each other, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from how Becky builds relationships and cultivates interesting tensions between characters. That cycle I mentioned above is present in Bite Marks too.

Why PBTA (Powered by the Apocalypse)? What about that specific system spoke to you for creating this game?

It’s no coincidence that all the games I mentioned above are PBTA. It’s my favourite design framework to GM and play in, and so it’s more like I was waiting for a concept I could use PBTA for. What I love about PBTA is the way that each individual component of the system is tuned to do one specific thing. I’ll talk about some of Last Fleet’s moves in a bit, but it’s enough to say that you’ve got moves that are designed to generate interpersonal strife, moves that are focused on bringing characters closer together, moves that are tuned to feed into a sense of paranoia, and moves that are built to create exciting action sequences. And because they’re individually designed in this way they are interlocking, feeding into each other and coming together to be more than the sum of their parts. It’s excellent for creating a highly specific genre experience, and that’s what I’ve done here.

The playbooks are very intriguing, built around the zodiac. Can you go into how that works, and the reasons behind theming them to the zodiac?

The playbooks have been a lot of fun to write. I had clear ideas about what I wanted them to be like, but initially struggled to come up with evocative names for them. So as an experiment, I assigned them zodiac names, mostly as a tip of the hat to the BSG influence (in BSG the planets and their peoples are all named after zodiac signs). But it had an interesting effect on the design process because I ended up creating new playbooks driven by the zodiac conceit – and the ones I made because of that are some of the best in the game.

The playbooks are designed around personality or story niche rather than a functional role. So you can be a hotheaded person who likes to take risks and break orders (Aries). You can be a tough person who cares deeply about their friends and their principles, with a bit of a martyr complex (Taurus). Or a serious person who strives to do their best and puts themselves under enormous pressure as a result (Virgo). Some of the playbooks are slightly more about story niche, like Scorpio is about being a sleeper agent and the self-doubt and fear that comes from that, and Pisces is about having strange psychic abilities that might connect you to the enemy.

I should stress that they are only loosely linked to the actual astrological signs, before any astrologers (or indeed, Scorpios) come and yell at me.

Can you tell us about some of the unique moves that were created specifically for this game?

The core of the game’s mechanics is the pressure system. Each character has a five-box pressure track. You mark it when bad stuff happens to you, so physical wounds for sure, but also emotional and social stuff like if you fail at something that was super-important. But more importantly, you can voluntarily mark it any time you want to get a bonus to a dice roll – one point of pressure yields a +1 bonus. You get to do it after rolling the dice, so you can get at least a partial success on almost any roll you want, if you’re prepared to pay for it.

If you let your pressure track fill up, you hit Breaking Point, and then you have to choose from a list of Breaking Point moves, including some that will be unique to your playbook. Each Breaking Point action is something outrageous or dangerous that your character does to express the fact they’ve reached their limit. One of them is to take your character permanently out of action (usually through death).

If you want to avoid hitting Breaking Point, you have a number of options, including specialised playbook moves, but the two that are available to everyone are Letting Loose and Reaching Out.

Letting Loose is arguably the easiest of the two to do, because all you have to do is go and indulge a vice in an uncontrolled way. It’s simple enough to go and get drunk. It’s also the most reliable, because any time you roll a hit you’ll get a pressure reduction for everyone involved. But it’s also automatically generates consequences, even on a strong hit, such as making a promise you really shouldn’t, revealing a secret that you oughtn’t to, or falling into the arms of the wrong person. The fallout is fun and dramatic.

Reaching Out is much more controlled. You have to reveal your innermost thoughts to another character, whether it’s your fears and doubts or your hopes and dreams. If they respond positively then you both stand to reduce your pressure. The downside of Reaching Out is that, although it doesn’t generally produce high-octane drama right now, it gives you a (game mechanical) relationship with the other character. If a character that you have a relationship with dies or betrays you or cuts you off socially, all the pressure you lost by Reaching Out to them comes back, all in one go. That normally means you hit Breaking Point, which means more drama in the future.

How well does the game work with one shots or campaigns? Does it do better with one over the other?

The game is definitely optimised for campaigns, as quite a few of the mechanics really get going over multiple sessions, as does the process of building up compelling relationships. I also enjoy the ability to do some leisurely character generation and world-building, which is easier in a campaign. As usual for my games, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into how you can make it work for a one shot. The quick-start scenario that comes with the game provides a pre-generated situation and relationships, and mechanics that have been set to be just at the point of crisis, to ensure that you get juicy charged action and drama straight away.

What was your inspiration to start working on Last Fleet and carry it through to publishing?

Last Fleet is a game I’ve been waiting to write for years. I’ve been passionate about the ideas in the game, and kind of working on them in the back of my mind, the whole time. Other things took priority but when I found myself with an opening I took it, and that stored up energy carried me through the design and promotion process. The experience of producing Lovecraftesque and Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars has left me with an abiding love of the delivery side too – the art creation, commissioning and editing the stretch goals and doing all the work to get a beautiful physical book in my hands, are all (mostly) fun to me. I can’t wait to look at the finished book!

If you’re interested in learning more about Last Fleet, head over to Kickstarter and take a look. There’s still a couple of weeks left for the campaign.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Apparently I’m a 40-year-old man…

15 January 2020 - 7:30am

…and I love it.

My future

Back in November 2019 I attended Kamcon, a budding convention in Canada in its second year of conception.

While there I did one of my workshop panels, where I talked about messing with your players and how to secretly manipulate the pacing of the game to a science but that’s not what this article is about. While I was there I was able to play several games I haven’t had the chance to, well, play as I spend a large amount of time GMing instead. It can be hard when you’re GMing constantly, exclusively for systems that mostly only other people want to play. Despite tabletops supposedly being in a new golden age, with new games coming out left and right with more players than ever before, for the majority it kind of only boils down to people wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e.

I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, but despite having just under 50 differing systems I own and am capable of running, I’m constantly being asked to run 5e. It took several weeks alone to open up my current players to even giving Fantasy AGE a shot.

Either way, I was able to sit down and play Savage worlds and likely had one of the greatest player sessions in my entire life. Admittedly when I sat down at the Savage Worlds table I had my reservations; as someone that’s been gaming for the last 11 or so years, right before the Critical Rolepocalypse, I was used to often being one of the only women at the table. In those years, it was a world dominated by older men that would talk over you, get their fingers coated in Cheetos dust, and then go on to describe their character’s bathing habits in excruciating detail.

When I sat down at the table, surrounded by those exact people I’ve dealt with all those years ago, the stereotypes and concerns were at the front of my mind. I was fairly ready to want to run back to my group of 20-30 somethings with horror stories. For that, I’m deeply sorry.

At the table

This was my bible

The moment I sat down, my ears were immediately flooded with talk of Pathfinder 2, which turned to Pathfinder 1, then went into AD&D 2e and finally D&D 3.5e. I was quick to join in and suddenly the table was chattering on using jargon and references I haven’t heard in nearly a decade. Nods and references and grins and smiles accompanied “Vow of Poverty monk?” “No, it’s the chimera druid. HYDRAS man” “I miss reserve magic” “guys, guys, CHICKENMANCERS.” In moments I’ve felt more at home, more with my people, than I have in many many years.

I’m in several 5e circles. While it can be fun, I tend to hear the same stories and get a solid idea of what a character is like as soon as I hear a race and class. In 5e there’s honestly only so much variance and even the Warlock—whom of which is regularly praised for its breadth of character options—only has so many possibilities. Running back to the 3.5 days held a world of… esoterica of a certain kind. Through a spot of content split between sourcebooks and hundreds of Dragon Magazines, 3.5 held nearly 27 base classes and I want to say 70-130 prestige classes(don’t quote me on this); back in those days, prestige classes were near required due to the design flaw of ’empty levels’ which you could level up and gain absolutely nothing. In those days you couldn’t stop at class and race to describe your character, but had to go through what they could do completely, often going through the long list of saying you were a “Human Stalwart-Battle Sorcerer 5/Abjurant Champion 5/Swiftblade 10.”

Through all the highly specific jargon going on, I felt air rush into and fill my lungs. It was thick, musty, and I could swear it was the same air as when I first opened that used 3.5 Player’s Handbook.

“These were my people,” I realized.

Playing the game

We were going to be playing Savage Worlds that session. Despite only having 4-hours we had to use 1 for character creation. Admittedly I didn’t think we’d get through all too much that night. I played this one character, Kitty Kat(herine), a mediocre bar singer in the roaring 1920’s who was hiding she was secretly Sandra Dee, a country bumpkin from Alabama, who was also secretly Katyusha, an intelligence agent for Russia. We worked for The Duster, an underground boxing ring and bar during prohibition times. When we started playing I was ready for a fairly standard session.

How wrong I was.

You see I’m very used to players wanting to get in on the action at every turn, often leaping in logic as to why they’re at each and every scene. It tends to clog up scenes. But that wasn’t the case here. When we had to pick up Jenny, a bar singer that hadn’t shown up to work in a week, three members of the crew sat back, having no reason to be at the door. One kept a lookout, but the other two just hung out by the car, completely at ease. It allowed the scene with the bodyguard and I to go incredibly fast. We moved onto the next scene where I sat out of it, then the next where two others sat out. Through the other player’s experience, they wanted to act in line with their characters first and foremost, even if they didn’t get any action.

Others in my own circles don’t understand why I don’t clamor to be everywhere. For me, I’ve played a lot and will for decades to come; I’m in no rush. I knew, deep inside, that the members of my party felt the exact same way.

We ended up rescuing a girl from an abusive relationship, killed the guy that did it, recruited a seedy boxer to stage a fight, dealt with the scene leading up to the major fight, watched as a riot broke out, then handled a wild car-chase scene through the streets of 1920’s Atlanta.

All in 3-hours.

While Savage Worlds is known for being a particularly fast-paced system, this was a speed I hadn’t really expressed before. For me, it had to be in part due to the players, in part in their ability to race forward on strong character-driven actions, but also in their patience to know when to sit out. Through this, it allowed those in those scenes to really shine and have their own epic moments.

Where I’m at

It’s been a while since I’ve really felt the degree of synergy I had with others as I did with this party. While I have many similarities with people in my various ttrpg circles, I’ve always felt… a bit removed and distant. I’ve always attributed it to the types of systems we were into, or the difference of experience. I’ve GM’d every week of my life since I’ve started and there was even a period of time where every single day of Summer had a tabletop waiting for me. While I’ve been able to avoid burnout, I was scared I’d become jaded in that time compared to the newly hatched chicks telling me about their 5e characters.

Yet here I was, with this group of 40-something guys having the time of my life.

Despite being a caricature of diversity as an lgbt filipino/chinese immigrant woman, I started to wonder if, somewhere deep inside, I was secretly just like everyone else at the table.

Would I have had a blast, rocking it with Gary Gygax in the Tomb of Horrors?

Did I secretly have the soul of an older man, born twenty, maybe thirty, years too late?

Maybe. Just maybe.

~Di, signing out.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf: Cabal

13 January 2020 - 5:00am

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

Cabal: An RPG of Corporate Conflict

Cabal from Corone Design, written by Andrew Peregrine, is a GMed roleplaying game designed for 2 or more players to explore the activities of a single, secretive company, conspiracy, or other organization dedicated to a specific purpose. While designed as a standalone game, it is also explicitly noted in the text that Cabal can be integrated into other games to provide a framework for managing the exploits of a large organization featuring covert aims and activities. Cabal‘s resolution system (based on d10 or d100 rolls) is simple and looks to provide outcomes of major milestones around which a story is built. The focus of the game’s mechanics is on organization management and missions, and the game is geared toward long-term play.

The Story

Cabal does not come with prescriptions for a particular setting or story. The presentation assumes a modern-day time period (with room left over for fantastical elements like occultism or advanced technology), but the mechanics are abstract and flexible enough that the “default” setting is easily hacked into whatever is preferred for a particular group’s needs. The core of the game supports a secret society or group pursuing hidden ends through a variety of means (political, economic, military, or whatever), but the specifics of this organization are decided at setup for each game group.

The organization on which the story focuses is considered the protagonist of the story—the only “character” recognized by the game. The players represent the Board of Directors of the organization, and so together all represent the game’s single “character,” but board members have no mechanical distinction or impact; they are simply the in-fiction representation of the players’ decisions made on behalf of the titular cabal.

There are people in the game (“Employees”), and opportunities are presented for those people to be portrayed by players over the course of the game. However, mechanically, people are merely resources brought to bear by the true character, the organization, and player ownership over a particular Employee is not assumed. In addition, Employee creation is very simple and quick, and Employee survival is similarly not assumed, nor is it even particularly desirable if the ends of the Board of Directors could be furthered without it.

The story, therefore, is truly “about” the organization. The game begins with the organization having some core purposes as its motivating force, and the narrative produced through play is about the organization’s pursuit of its aims. The overall story is mechanically broken up into Missions, which are in turn broken up into Operations. The game mechanics drive the organization’s conflict with other organizations or static obstacles, and the structure of these conflicts drive the smaller stories involving individual people. As stated, though, those individual people’s stories may be quite short in service to the organization. The organization is what matters.

The game rules encourage (and are designed for) groups to design their own Cabal, but the game text also includes a collection of sample organizations that can be used as templates for playable organizations as well as ready-made antagonists for the Board. The sample organizations were contributed by a variety of writers and include descriptions and game information for groups ranging from a cult of shadowy psychics pulling the strings of various world powers all the way to a global disaster relief and rescue organization. The text also includes sample team construction, suggested mission ideas and structures, so while the rules allow for a completely built-from-scratch game, the text also contains plenty of starting points and guidelines to help the story along.

The Game

The game begins with the the non-GM players (the Board of Directors) designing their Cabal, the organization that forms the center of the story, and the only “character” recognized by the rules of the text. Cabal creation involves narrative elements like the type of organization and its goals, but the real mechanical meat is deciding on the organization’s Attributes. This is accomplished via a point-buy system and decided collaboratively among the Board. Attributes function as both a measure of the amount of strength an organization can bring to bear as well as a kind of “hit points”; when organizations fight each other, they do so with the intent to damage each other’s Attributes. While all Attributes serve the purposes mentioned, a few also have additional mechanical impact. For example, a higher “Finances” score raises the maximum score of other Attributes, and the “Specialists” Attribute directly impacts how mechanically powerful the Cabal’s Employees are.

Once the Cabal is constructed, the organization then assembles Teams. Teams are also constructed using a point-buy system (with the number of points available depending on the Cabal’s “Specialists” score). While deciding on Attribute scores defines the organization’s inherent traits and strengths, constructing Teams decides how the organization performs on the ground. Teams are largely defined by what they’re good at. With a fixed number of points to spend, would the Cabal be better served by a single, generalist team, or a larger number of more specialized teams? Should all teams be of equal strength, or does one elite team get the lion’s share of organization support? These are the kinds of questions the Board must answer for the good of the Cabal when designing Teams.

Each Team contains a number of Employees equal to the number of players on the Board of Directors. The Team construction phase dictates how much each team is backed by the organization, which indicates how much each team member has access to training, equipment, and the like. However, this backing is not so much a resource pool as it is a template from which all team members are built. This template can (and usually does) leave some room for customization, so individual team members can be distinct from each other, but in any kind of specialized team, most will have similar core strengths and all will be of roughly the same power level until improved by experience. The organization can, over the course of the game, recover from team losses or even replace an entire team by hiring new personnel. When they do, however, the new personnel arise from the organization’s team design specifications, and any previously gained experience disappears along with Employees that are lost. Everyone’s replaceable, but there’s also no substitute for experience.

The organization on which the story focuses is considered the protagonist of the story—the only “character” recognized by the game. Share6Tweet1Reddit1EmailIn the way the Cabal is defined mechanically by its Attributes, Employees are defined by their Skills. Also in the way the Cabal’s Attributes serve double-duty as both a measurement of capability and as “hit points,” Employee Skills work similarly. As Employees accumulate wounds, they also amass skill penalties; once their penalties overcome their skill ratings, they are incapacitated.

Resolution rolls take place in one of two scales. On the organization scale, the roll is pretty much a d100 vs. (roll under) an Attribute. This basic roll may be modified based on the difficulty of the goal. An unmodified roll might be an Average task (“getting a good deal on supplies”), while a -50 modifier may apply to something “Almost Impossible” (“getting hold of experimental tech”). For organizations taking on (read: directly attacking) a rival organization, resolution instead goes to contested d100 rolls vs. Attributes with outcome and degree decided based on a combination of whether each opposing roll succeeded or failed and by how much.

The difficulty modifiers of organization-level rolls can be impacted by the organization planning and executing Missions. Further, aside from attacking other organizations, Missions are also the means by which Cabals can gain points with which to raise their Attribute scores. Missions (particularly larger-scale Missions) can be broken into multiple Operations, with each Operation potentially involving a different of the organization’s Teams. Task resolution involving the Employee scale generally involves a d10 roll vs. a target number that is dictated by the Employee’s Skill rating. Teams participating in Missions are the means by which Employees gain experience and can raise their Skill ratings.

The design of Missions, rather than a GM responsibility, is a collaborative effort between all players. The Board decides the scope of the Mission they would like to attempt (which dictates the potential reward as well as the difficulty), but the GM arranges complications and obstacles. This process benefits from being split up across sessions, so the game overall is geared more toward long-term campaigns than toward one-shot play.

The Table

There were several design points in this game that stood out to me. Firstly, the idea of the players assuming basically anonymous roles and acting as a single “character” is quite an exercise in collaborative play. I say “anonymous” in the sense that although there could easily be in-fiction representations of the individual members of the Board of Directors, each as simple or detailed as desired, the board members’ avatars are mechanically neither distinct nor significant. Decisions are made, and the organization acts; the resulting mechanistic resolutions and effects apply to the Cabal as a whole.

Secondly, I enjoyed how individual Employee’s power scales are controlled by investment and backing decisions made by the Cabal but not affected by the number of Employees on a Team. In effect, if this game were played with two different groups, and both groups identically allocated their Cabal points, but Group A had more players than Group B, then Group A’s Teams would be more powerful than Group B’s, simply by virtue of having more Employees per Team. But at the same time, the individual Employees of Group A’s Team would be equal in power to the individual Employees on Group B’s Team. This lets the structure of an organization scale seamlessly to any number of players, from a single board member on up, which I find a very cool piece of design.

Finally, while players do sometimes take on the roles of actual people in the fiction of the game (the Employees), the rules and mechanics of the game ensure that these people are largely fungible and ultimately disposable. The rules go so far as to call out Employees as not characters themselves, but as “assets” belonging to the game’s lone character, the Cabal. This breaks from the model of play of most RPGs, and to my mind requires a significant amount of player buy-in before the game is even brought to the table. The value of Employees is literally measured in the game mechanics solely by what they can do for the organization, which is a pretty dehumanizing idea that might strike some people a little close to home.

The use of people as mechanical resources (effectively, equipment) casts an interesting shade to this game’s overall tone. As a design decision, I applaud its effectiveness in supporting the game’s theme that, basically, individuals don’t matter; only the organization matters. As a theme, it may require some sensitive handling, as the game if not encourages, then at least actively makes room for the players to make decisions that may involve agent sacrifice for the good of the organization. Whether this involves a studied callousness or moments of great dramatic tension will differ from group to group and player to player. The potential exists for some very dramatic storytelling moments focusing on the needs of the collective over the rights of the individual, and between that and the overall tone of ultra-capitalist and corporate attitudes of people as resources, this game is one that deserves some group discussion before a campaign begins. What’s significant is not the theme being explored; what’s significant is that the game’s players are cast in the roles of the “bosses” making those decisions.

The Shelf

Cabal is available in print and PDF from Indie Press Revolution, and in print-on-demand and PDF from DriveThruRPG. What strikes me most about this game is its conceit that the players are not portraying mechanically significant individual characters, but are instead collectively representing an entire organization as a single “character.” It puts me in mind of Bluebeard’s Bride (Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson), the dark fairy tale game of feminist horror, in which players assume different aspects of a single central character. That game, as well as the intensely problematic Everyone is John, both mechanically rely on a kind of rotating control of the main character, however, and not particularly on collaborative decision-making. The theme of mechanically representing a party’s parent organization or other common resource comes up in many games, notably lately in games in the Forged in the Dark family. The recent entry Band of Blades (Stras Acimovic and John LeBoeuf-Little) even introduces PCs that are not under individual player ownership, but they are still central to the game’s story. Finally, I can’t think of games involving characters acting collectively without thinking of Headspace (Mark Richardson), in which cybernetically altered agents inhabit a collective consciousness and share both each others skills and emotional burdens. What Cabal offers in a collaboratively run organization without playable people being central to the story, however, strikes me in my experience as unique.

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #83 – Demihumans Interview with Robert Bohl

9 January 2020 - 5:00am

Join review gnome Jared for an interview with special guest Robert Bohl for a discussion about Robert’s new game, Demihumans. Will Jared’s interview skills be enough to keep him out of the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #83 – Demihumans Interview with Robert Bohl

Find out more about Demihumans at

Follow Robert Bohl at @robertbohl on Twitter and and check out his website

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

Check out the Capers Deluxe Edition Kickstarter today!

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

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Bonus Experience!

Categories: Game Theory & Design


6 January 2020 - 5:00am

With the start of the new year, some folks are starting to think about processing and paying their taxes for the previous year. I’m certainly one of them since I have more complex taxes than the Average Joe. Deductions. Expenses. 1099 income. W2 income. So on and so forth….

Another reason this topic is on my mind is that one of my players is about to inherit a manor and nearby abandoned village. His claim to the area is partially based on familial ties (he’s the only surviving son of a dead branch of a noble family) and partially based on right of arms since he and his party cleansed the area of a devil infestation. This means he’s going to have to reestablish the village, its industries, restore the manor house, and get people to settle back into the area. All of this means he needs a large set of income to pull this off, and we’ve already started talking about how to handle his expenses and tax income from the new villagers.

Here’s the deal, though. We don’t want to devolve our D&D game into paperwork and minutia of tracking every coin that goes in an out. This has put me to mind to develop a decent system for allowing him to influence some set of die rolls that will determine gains and losses over time.

 We don’t want to devolve our D&D game into paperwork and minutia of tracking every coin. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

Each month, the PC will make either a wisdom or charisma saving throw (with all appropriate modifiers and bonuses and such). I’ll allow the player to pick which saving throw he wants to leverage. The wisdom saving throw would reflect the quality of his decisions to determine how well he did. If he goes the charisma route, then this would be an indicator of how inspired his new villagers are to work hard and do the best they can for their new leader.

The base “cost” of running the village, manor, and surrounding area is going to be 1,000 GP for each month. This would represent all of the day-to-day expenses, paying hirelings/servants/workers, and accounting for those crazy things that happen from time-to-time in the Forgotten Realms that can make life a little rough on a given area.

I’m also going to allow him to “buy” advantage on the die roll by means of investing money into the area. If he puts at least an additional 1,000 GP into the new economy in a particular month, then he’ll get advantage on the die roll. This isn’t just a raw pumping of gold into the villagers’ pockets, but a reflection of material support, improvements to the area (better roads), securing the area from threats (militia and/or guards), and so on.

I’m still noodling on the math. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

If he doesn’t have the bonus GP on hand for a particular month, but still wants advantage on that die roll, then he can earn it through downtime efforts. If he spends at least a tenday each month performing downtime activities to support his village or directly work to make the villagers’ lives better, then the player will have advantage on the die roll as well. How this plays out will be part of the collaborative storytelling that we’ll do at the table.

Depending on how well he rolls, this will determine the amount of income he receives for that month. A poor enough roll would indicate a loss of gold (or perhaps a loss of villagers if he doesn’t have the spare coins) for that time period. Instead of coming up with a chart like the “running a business” section from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I’m just going to boil it down to a target number and some math.

I’m still noodling on the math, but I think a target number of 13 is fair for the die roll. I want it to be easy, but not an automatic success either.

If the die roll matches the target of 13, then there is no loss or gain based on the GP investment for that month. It’s all a wash.

If the die roll is higher than 13, then the character will make a 5% profit (50 GP) for each point above the 13 rolled. If the character invested an additional 1,000 GP to get advantage, then I’ll be kind and roll that into the “base expense” to boost the 50 GP to 100 GP profit for each point over 13 the player rolls.

 I think this system will be simple to implement, easy to use, and will reduce headaches. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Of course, if the die roll is lower than 13, then the character will lose 5% of the investment per point below 13 rolled. This will mean a 50 GP (or 100 GP if an additional 1,000 GP was invested) loss per point lower than the target number.

Overall, I think this system will be simple to implement, easy to use, and will reduce headaches and “game mechanic overhead” while we go through the process. Since the check only happens once a month, that leaves more real-life time at the table to go forth and adventure and have fun instead of doing our taxes.

I would love to hear what system(s) you folks out in Gnome Stew Land have used. If you have a link to a product in the DM’s Guild or some other PDF outlet that contains systems/methods to use, please provide those as well. I’m always interested in learning how holding lands or managing estates comes into play for the higher level characters that have these responsibilities.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Rules in the Way

3 January 2020 - 4:30am

I have to admit something. I’m not always thrilled to hear an analysis of a game that includes the term “the rules get out of the way.” I understand the concept, but I’m not always sure that “rules can be easily dismissed” is an example of optimal game design. I think that rules in a game should inform the core loop of the game being played, so rules should be present when you are doing what the game expects you to do.

I don’t want to presume to reframe the comments of others, but I do wonder if rules “getting out of the way” might not be exactly what is meant when the term is used, at least not every time it is used.

Defining the Edges

Before examining the concept of rules getting out of the way, I think it might be worth a few moments to examine what rules getting “in” the way would look like. I suspect that “rules getting in the way” means that the game has rules and processes that are assumed to be engaged, which drags the game away from the expected core loop of the game.

This might either mean that the game has too many rules for an aspect of the game that is rarely engaged, but still an expected aspect of the game. It may mean that the game has a set of rules for adjudicating some situations that don’t resolve like other aspects of the game. In general, it feels as if many times rules getting in the way means that the rules ask you to devote too much time and energy to an aspect of the game that isn’t going to provide enjoyment in the manner that the game usually provides enjoyment.

As an example, the game might be about exploration and combat, but the social encounter rules are more complicated than either, even though they only come up once every four sessions or so in a standard campaign. Another example may be that most skill checks in the game are simply roll plus stat versus target number, but for some reason, one specific type of skill check requires multiple rolls and active formulas to determine the target number, but the result of the skill check doesn’t have any more (and possibly less) narrative weight than the other, more simply resolved skill checks.

We spend so much time in our own heads, sometimes we can remove ourselves from how things will play at the table. It’s really easy to assume that if something is logical in the abstract, it may still not work in practical application. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailWhere Do Obtrusive Rules Come From

I suspect that some of those rules that don’t quite feel right for the core loop of the game come from previous experience. Maybe the designer feels like an expert on a given subject, and even if that subject isn’t intrinsic to the game’s core experience, they want to express what they feel is important to address the topic.

Maybe the designer had players that always gravitated towards the same experience, regardless of the core experience of the game, so biases created by personal gaming experience caused the designer to feel as if this was something that must be addressed in the rules.

Sometimes it also feels as if these obtrusive rules are born from a feeling that the rules are “too” minimalist compared to other similar rules. This may be exacerbated when the current rules are a new iteration of a previous edition, so there is a sort of “page-count inertia” that sets a precedent for where the game needs to spend those pages.

Before anyone thinks I’m pointing fingers or mustering unearned sagely wisdom on game design when my main claim to fame is reading a lot of the books I spent too much money on, I get it. When I run games, I have all kinds of thoughts about how I wish the rules would work, and where they may need to be expanded or contracted. I’m not so far removed from the days when I would have said “hey, trust me, let’s use this house rule,” instead of saying, “would you enjoy it if we did this,” or “what problems can you see if we tried this?”


We spend so much time in our own heads, sometimes we can remove ourselves from how things will play at the table. It’s really easy to assume that if something is logical in the abstract, it may still not work in practical application.

Even games that get serious playtesting may not fully engage that one corner of the rules that just doesn’t work right, because if you playtest ten times, and on average that corner of the rules comes up one time in ten, maybe that one time your playtest group touches on that corner of the rules, it just doesn’t fall as flat as it does for a wider range of players.

I’m never going to criticize a contractor when they make a beautiful house, but I just happen to find the one proud nail over in the corner, behind the couch. By no means does my ability to notice the nail constitute my ability to build a house.

Rules Running in the Background

While the term “rules getting out of the way” has become very widely used in RPG circles, I think what we may want is “rules that run in the background.” We have all kinds of programs that run on our computers in the background. Not only are these doing important things that we don’t want to actively deal with, they also allow us to call up a process that might take a while to boot up much more quickly, because it is already running.

Rules that aren’t intuitive cause us to stop and think about how they work. Rules that are simple, but don’t contribute to the core loop of the game, feel like busywork. It is not unlike waiting for a really simple app to open, when what that app does isn’t all that important.

Many times if a subsystem runs in a manner that is similar to other aspects of the game, when the table resolves the situation without addressing the rules, the group later realizes they weren’t too far off of the “official” way to resolve the situation.

Informing the Core Loop

Knowing what rules will feel obtrusive, or “in the way” means examining a game to realize what it is doing with intentionality. This means determining the core loop of the game. What do you do in the game? What should you be spending most of your time doing, and what feeds into doing that thing?

In a cyberpunk heist style game, the core loop is pulling the heists. If you have rules for gathering information and buying gear, the rules for gathering information and buying gear play into the core loop of the game.

Wherein, I Take a Detour

Fantasy RPGs sometimes have a fuzzier core loop. Some know exactly what they mean to do, but others aren’t quite sure what is primary to the setting. For example, is the core loop going on adventures to face down powerful evils in the world, or is the core loop adventurers getting rich and famous? Saving the world when you are getting rich and famous is a subset of things you can do if your core loop is becoming the best adventurer, but if your core loop is facing the evils of the fantasy world, buying gear and having rules for things that are primarily used for self-aggrandizement are taking away from the core loop of the game.

In some cases, games are broad enough to encompass different types of core loops, but in that case, the people at the table need to realize that rules that broad tend to be modular. You don’t need to engage with the rules modules that don’t inform the specific sub-type of game you are running, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t engage those modules. A broad game needs to be designed so that its modules can be isolated and jettisoned for different game experiences.

Ideally, the game itself makes this modularity expressly evident in the presentation of the rules, but the less the game does this, the more the players at the table will need to interrogate the theme of the game they are playing, and have an open discussion away from the actual game session about what and how to engage the existing rules modules.

What Informs the Core Loop?

Let’s take a look at three different situations. We’ll look at a hypothetical superhero game, and where the game places its rules.

The core game loop is going to be that players fight supervillains and save civilians from dangerous situations, and learn broader applications of their powers and skills, so that they are better equipped to handle a wider range of threats the next time they fight supervillains or save civilians.

This tells us that the core loop is on the action side of the superhero narrative. This is modeling a more traditional superhero comic experience, rather than a comic like Astro City, where the game experience would be more about exploring what it means to live in a comic book world.

 I’m always a fan of doing things with intentionality, and I think the RPG hobby is getting better at this every year. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailExample Time!
  • Game model number one has extensive rules for interpersonal conversations. These rules don’t work in a manner similar to how the game engages turning a tornado inside out or punching alien robots. It requires the GM to track a model of NPC desires, and creates a multi-round resolution with shifting difficulty classes based on the previous round and the social approaches of the acting player. While some players may love this, others, who enjoy using laser eyes to blow up the engines of invading space ships, don’t like spending this much time and effort on talking to their boss when their character is at work.
  • Game model number two hand waves anything that isn’t directly saving civilians or fighting supervillains. It would be possible for players to completely ignore anything that doesn’t involve action. There aren’t any rules that “get in the way,” but some of the players remember some great storylines about Peter Parker missing dates, or Henry Peter Gyrich making the Avengers jump through hoops to continue functioning, and they wish that it was easier to have those “away from the action moments.”
  • Game model number three is formulated looking at the core loop of the game and the genre emulated. We don’t want superheroes away from the action for too long, but it also knows that some “downtime” scenes are iconic to superhero stories. There is a quick resolution mechanic that shows how that downtime is resolved. If the hero puts strain on their relationship, they get a resource they can use during the action, and they don’t get it back unless they successfully resolve a quick downtime scene. Whenever the relationship is strained, there is a chance for a complication, but the complication is resolved as part of the core loop. Maybe a complication means that a loved one is on a train during a disaster, meaning that the heroes now have an additional objective when it comes to saving civilians. Maybe a complication with a team government relationship means that the team has to fight off government agents because they are being arrested for something a villain has framed them for, while they are busy fighting another supervillain.

If the rules model in the second example is followed, the rules are “getting out of the way.” It’s not part of the core loop, so there aren’t rules for the situation. If the rules in model number three resolve quickly, and add complications to situations that game is already going to assume will happen, these rules aren’t “getting out of the way,” but they are “running in the background.” It’s a quick check between action scenes to give texture to the heroes’ lives, which give them resources to power their resolve, and create complications in scenes that will already be happening.

Stepping Away from the Microscope

I’m the kind of person that likes to over examine the kinds of things that become common wisdom. I’m hoping this long digression into dissecting gaming etymology is worth reading through. I’m always a fan of doing things with intentionality, and I think the RPG hobby is getting better at this every year.

What games do you think have just the right amount of rules? What games do you feel add too much weight to the rules where it doesn’t benefit the overall experience? In general, what kind of situations do you feel either don’t need rules, or need more rules to give them their proper weight? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Anatomy of the GM Curse

1 January 2020 - 7:00am

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

“Are you sure?”
“It’s going to be a high DC.”
*Rolls dice behind the screen*

If you’ve played tabletops to any degree you’re aware of these /things/ that gamemasters do. Some refer to them as ‘GM moves’ or just ‘things GMs do’ but, for the purpose of talking about it, I’m going to give them a name: GM Curses. This is partly due to making them easier to talk about, but also in the fact that any gamemaster using them ‘curses’ the players with equal parts dread and wonder.

—What Makes a GM Curse?

A GM Curse, as I would define them, is a speech act or action designed to elicit an apprehensive response from your players. Essentially, when a GM uses a Curse, they want the players to think ‘why did they just say/do that?’ They want to pull you out of the situation just a touch and consider the game in a more meta manner. When successfully executed, a GM Curse brings about an air of uncertainty and tension into the scene. Different curses, while joined with a similar purpose and goal in mind, are pulled out for a handful of differing reasons. With the common “Are you sure?” the reason could be of the following:

  • the GM wants you to reconsider your action,
  • to inform you that the action is (by their interpretation) stupid,
  • to confirm that you are choosing an action that’ll get you killed,
  • the GM is looking to stall you out

As mentioned, GM Curses come in two main flavors: speech acts and actions. Speech acts, borrowed from linguistics and as shown in the example earlier, are parts of speech designed to incite action from the receiver. Typically a spoken GM Curse is accompanied by an exaggerated, dismissive, or apprehensive tone. This helps to alert the various players that this is a moment that should be paid attention to. Cursed actions are often accomplished in a similar manner, but are best highlighted as the addition of what would be an otherwise unnecessary action, then often accompanied by a lack of resolution. What I mean by this is that all actions should have a reason as to why they are occurring: if there is nothing happening, then the GM shouldn’t be doing anything at the moment. Therefore, by the GM taking action something is happening and, by the lack of resolution, something is occurring that the players aren’t aware of.

“Oh god, why is she borrowing all the d8s. WHO NEEDS THAT MANY D8s!?” – Hapless player.

Obviously, not everything meant to or that could be perceived as curses are actually curses. Such ambiguous curses include: waving your hand dismissively while saying “Don’t worry about it,” or saying “Well you can certainly try!” While these can be and have been interpreted as curses, it’s not a surefire thing. “Well, you can certainly try” could equally mean “I didn’t expect this but roll the dice” or “Oh boy, you’re screwed unless you roll SUPER high.” I call these statements ‘Bicursious’ because they’re quite possibly one or the other, or both.

—Pros and Cons Pros Cons + stall tactic – encourages metagaming + adds tension – supports player vs gm + preventative measure – limited uses

The Pros

+1. Stall tactic

GM Curses are perfect ways to stall out a game when you’re uncertain what you’re going to do. If you have particularly apprehensive and cautious players, a single Curse at the right time can incite a discussion or argument within the party. I’ve had groups in the past that could be stalled upward to ten-to-twenty minutes at a time. It gives you, as the GM, the ability to quickly come up with an event or an encounter (another stall tactic).

you know, this one

+2. Adds tension

If there was ever a time for a player to reconsider their action it should be when the GM leans forward and adopts the pose Gendo Ikari from Evangelion is known for. This effect is especially pronounced if you’re able to incorporate that doubt and pause into the narrative. “Are you sure? The sunlight reflects off the blade of the imposing knight, shining into your eyes the insignia of the Goodfellows, the troupe of bardic paladins known across the land.”

+3. Preventative measure

Whenever the gamemaster calls an action into question it allows the players to reconsider their action. The natural rhythm of the story is broken and, often, the emotions or thought processes that led the players to handle that action are put on pause as they re-evaluate the situation from a more meta-view. This warning can save hapless players and—in a way—indirectly confirm that no, that lava is not an illusion they should jump into.

The Cons

-1. Encourages metagaming

As stated earlier, a GM Curse allows the GM to break the emotions or thought processes of a player. This pulls players out of whatever state of immersion they’re currently in and asks the player, in the meta field-of-play, if they think what they’re doing is a good idea.

-2. Supports player vs GM mentality

GM Curses don’t work for everyone. The curses are all about playing up a Villainous GM type of role—it can feel like the GM is taking actions to surprise the players in an implicitly unfriendly manner. This can sometimes lead players to resent the GM and see them as a form of opposition to be overcome. Not every gaming group can handle that.

-3. Limited uses

There’s only so many times you can actively use a curse in a single setting before it gets stale. There are only so many times you can pull it on a group in short succession till they realize that you’re just messing with them for no reason, especially if you can’t follow through on them. You can’t use curses constantly or they lose all meaning. They need to be spaced out and, if unheeded, need to be followed through with actual consequences.

—My Favorite GM Curses


Speech Acts Actions “Are you sure?” *sharp inhale through teeth while wincing* “Oh really now?” *rolls dice behind screen* “It’s going to be a high DC…” *double eyebrow raise + smile* “I mean, I wouldn’t but alright!” *loudly scribbling notes* “OH! So you’re doing that?” *starts gathering a lot of d6s from players* “Ahahahahaha that’s perfect.” *barely holding back evil laughter*


—The Takeaway

The art of the GM Curse is a tricky one to handle. Whether or not you’re familiar with tabletops as a whole, you will eventually come across the concept of messing with your players fairly quickly either on your own, or one of those D&D meme pages. GM Curses can be extremely helpful for a large variety of reasons and, so long as you’re aware of the benefits, the setbacks, and how to use them properly, you’ll be able to improve your skills to a whole new level.

As it relates to the GM Curse, I’d like you to pull out of this article with the following notes: use them sparingly, use them epically, and use them as warnings that, if unheeded, show your players you mean the utmost of business.

If you happen to have a favorite curse, lemme hear about it.

Until then,

~Di, signing out.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Two Factors for Game Mastering Success

30 December 2019 - 7:37am

As a long-time game master, I have pondered the reasons why some campaigns work over the long-term (and why some campaigns never get off the ground). There are the usual subjects – good game content, adequate prep, interesting players, and so on – but none of these really address how a game master can sustain an ongoing campaign that maintains the interest and involvement of the players.

On this, I speak from experience. For the past five years, I have been conducting a weekly game using the same characters (and players) in a campaign. The setting is a home brew world using D&D 3.5 rules. Even with the occasional night off, I have game mastered over 250 sessions for this campaign, each session lasting a minimum of five hours. And we have no signs of stopping. This has been a tremendous commitment for myself as well as the players (who have grown from the original five to eight regular attendees).

So, how is this done?

I rely on two key factors: agency and immersion.


Agency is the ability of the player characters to make the substantive decisions that affect their lives and actions. In a “high agency” campaign, the player characters decide what adventures to take on or what challenges to avoid. Even if the GM has prepared an elaborate dungeon, a high agency campaign would allow the player characters to decide whether to explore it or not.

 In a “high agency” campaign, the player characters decide what adventures to take on or what challenges to avoid. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The GM has tremendous tools at their disposal to coerce the player characters to do what ever the GM wants. In a “low agency” game, the GM guides the players through whatever tasks or challenges that may occur. More often than not, this style of gaming relies on set scenes and pre-determined outcomes for every encounter. This style is like running a railroad, ensuring that everyone arrives at the same destination at the same time but with little choice along the way.

The main advantage of a high agency game is that the players (and player characters) become more invested in their roles. Since they are the main decision-makers in the campaign, they feel a strong sense of ownership. This encourages them to explore the possibilities of an open-ended world and build a sense of purpose.

A high agency game also provides consequences (good or bad) for the decisions that the player characters make. Just because the player characters have agency does not mean that they get what they want. They have the opportunity to make real choices that affect their future. The GM still runs the show


The other key factor is immersion.

Deciding what constitutes immersion can be problematic. For some, a high immersion game requires costumes, distinct character voices, custom miniatures and so on. But this is not the case.

In the theatre, actors rely on the suspension of disbelief among audience members to work their magic. The same goes for the GM who seeks to run a high immersion game.

For the players to shed their daily lives and become player characters, the GM must rely on their individual and collective imaginations. The GM needs to spark the creative process and provide an atmosphere where the players believe they are part of a larger world, one where they have a place and a history.

Player character backgrounds become more important. The goal of the player is to develop their character. How can you know where you are going if you do not know where you are coming from?

To do this, I ask my players to decide their family situation and their reason for embarking on the adventuring life. Often, the two are interlinked. A dull family situation, the (un)likelihood of inheritance, parental expectations and sibling rivalries (or alliances) can round out the starting character. Likewise, the reason for their career choice might provide an ongoing character motivation, such as revenge, glory-seeking, or the need to survive.

Once the background is set, I ask the players to decide the appearance of their characters. Differences in character attributes or ability scores need to be taken into consideration, of course, but the goal is to have the players visualize their characters. A written description or picture is helpful in this regard.

A high immersion game is one where the player characters become immersed in both the action and the story arc. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

A high immersion world puts a significant burden on the GM. Maps, whether it is a local area or the known world, are very helpful. Likewise, creating ephemera to support your campaign, such as handbills, pamphlets or notices, is another way of creating a high immersion setting.

The most important tool I use in creating a high immersion campaign is the campaign gazetteer. This is like the encyclopedia of the campaign, organized by entry. I include a synopsis of the player character’s career to date, key non-player characters, geography, and a short history of the world (as it is known). As the campaign progresses, the gazetteer grows in detail and scope.

As a reference document for the players, the gazetteer should only include the information that is popularly known or is known to the characters. While I do hide some clues that reward the careful reader, you can also include common gossip or speculations to give your entries flavor.

A high immersion game is one where the player characters become immersed in both the action and the story arc. A low immersion game, like chess, can still be enjoyable and intense. However, there is no continuing story or personal identification with the chess pieces.


If you can achieve both high agency and high immersion, you will have built a campaign for the long run. Both factors are key to achieving high player satisfaction, which is the only thing that can sustain player interest.

You will find that giving the players real choices will stimulate their thinking about what possibilities may lie ahead. Likewise, a world where they can fully role-play their characters will encourage them to explore the lesser known parts and places.

What is your campaign like? Is it more of a low-agency game where the player characters are largely standers-by or do your characters make real choices? Do you put effort into setting the scene and building real relationships with non-player characters? Or is it really just a series of dungeon crawls?

Tell me what ideas you might have to engage the players in a high-agency, high immersion campaign.




Categories: Game Theory & Design