Gnome Stew

Subscribe to Gnome Stew feed Gnome Stew
The Gaming Blog
Updated: 2 hours 48 min ago

Review And Giveaway — Mortzengersturm,The Mad Manticore Of The Prismatic Peak

26 May 2017 - 2:42am

So you’ve read that title, you’ve seen the sixties-riffic art, and you’re curious about what exactly this thing is. That was how The Hydra Cooperative hooked me when they sent us a request to do a review of their 5e adventure Mortzengersturm,The Mad Manticore Of The Prismatic Peak. I’m going to pick apart this quirky adventure for you here, but if you’re interested in seeing it yourself, go leave a comment on the post and we’ll automatically enter you into the random draw to receive a physical copy of the 32 page adventure!

What Is It?

One look at the cover for this 5e adventure and you can tell it’s not your standard D&D dungeon crawl. The tagline of “THE CHALLENGE – SURVIVE THE MAGIC MANSION OF A MAD MANTICORE WIZARD!” and the 60s cartoon style art are super-evocative of the whimsy and tone that you’ll find throughout the book. Everything in this adventure calls back to the pink panther, Dr. Seuss, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and Rankin-Bass animated specials of the sixties and seventies. While this wouldn’t easily fit into a more serious or grim adventure, the adventure’s dedication to the style and tone will make it an incredibly fun aside or one-shot. In a less serious game, you’ll find this a great fit. Geared at a party of 5-6 characters at 4th level, this module might work well with a younger audience with a little tweaking or leniency on the Game Master’s part, and the cartoony style will fit in well with children. That all being said, the adventure is in the OSR styling and more about the nostalgia than made to entertain kids.

Writing and Content

The focus of the adventure is that the party must go to Mortzengerstrum’s lair atop the Prismatic Peak and acquire the Whim Wham stone. A section at the beginning explains various hooks and reasons you can use, and gives some background on the Mad Wizard who turned himself into a Manticore through the use of restricted Wild Magic. The Prismatic Peak is a crystal mountain atop a plateau, perfect for Mortzengersturm to set up his lair and continue his experiments in changing and manipulating the forms of things. The adventure is laid out in terms of various challenges and interesting sites, but is in no way a forced Dungeon Crawl. It is suggested at the beginning that the party peacefully find their way inside so that Mortzengerstrum can give them a tour.

Many opportunities are given throughout the adventure for the party to gather information from the many inhabitants (trapped imps, goblins being birthed out of some kind of slime machine, a dwarf polymorphed into a horse, and Thedabara a vampire companion to Mortzengersturm). There are many strange and mixed up creatures here as well. The adventure also has a “board game” component which can be used or ignored, but works as a good “tour” of the peak and the many oddities found there. The layout is very old school reminiscent, utilizing compressed stat blocks and margins to provide a main description with stats and info to the sides. It makes it very useful for snagging what you need quickly.

I heavily appreciate the many puns and references that the writing takes, things like the Gruebird or Miszm Throppe. 8 very interesting and whimsical pregen character cards are included with the adventure, which makes it easy for quick one-shot play.

Art and Design

Okay, I’m a sucker for good and and interesting design, and this has that in spades. The style and look are appealing to me since I watched many cartoons in this style growing up. The look and feel is well done and the art is of incredibly high quality. Interesting maps and visuals provide interesting ways to convey information. There is a lot of art that is going to be useful in conveying the proper tone to the players. In terms of that, the PDF version of the book will be useful to extract or selectively convey art elements.

The design and layout are in line with the theme, and the 32 pages of the physical adventure are fit into a comic book style presentation. That in itself only adds to the uniqueness of the adventure. The 32 page physical version doesn’t contain some of the appendices and extras of the 38 page PDF, but it’s beautiful and quirky and fun. The comic book size is PERFECT for the size of the adventure and it is making me consider printing adventures as comic books from here on out.


Final Thoughts and Giveaway

Mortzengersturm,The Mad Manticore Of The Prismatic Peak ($7.99 on RPG NOW) is an incredibly fun and whimsical adventure! It is great as an aside adventure in a regular campaign or as the start of a game that emphasizes humor over grittiness. The style and design are superb and really evoke the feel of whimsy alongside the OSR elements of the module. The writing and setup are solid and allow easy use of the adventure as is or the ability to easily pick it apart and rework it. I’ll be running this as a one-shot in some form soon, and I’m looking forward to Hydra Cooperative’s future adventures in The land of Azurth.

We procured an extra copy to use as a giveaway for Gnome Stew readers! As always, every member of our Patreon is automatically entered in the giveaway, but you can enter to receive a free physical copy of the adventure by leaving a comment here. Tell us what you think about this style of adventure, tell us if you’ve played it, or just tell us you love us and we’ll enter you in the drawing! Comment before 06/02/2017 when we will close off the contest.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Kickstarter Spotlight: Cortex Prime

24 May 2017 - 1:00am

I’ve been lucky enough to know Cam Banks for about six years, now. In fact, the first time I mat Cam, I interviewed him about the then-brand-new Leverage RPG. I had no idea what I was doing, but he was kind enough to talk to me. Fast-forward to now and Cam is Kickstarting a brand-new, all-inclusive version of Cortex, the system that underpins Leverage, the Marvel Heroic RPGSmallville, and more. I had a chance to send Cam some questions about Cortex Prime, so sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Cortex Prime, Live on Kickstarter!

Tracy Barnett: What motivated you to take on a project like Cortex Prime?

Cam Banks: When I was approached by Margaret Weis Productions with an offer to license the rights to publish Cortex from them, there had already been plans underway to put out a new and updated version of Cortex Plus in the form of Dramatic Roleplaying, Heroic Roleplaying, and Action Roleplaying. Although those never eventuated, the idea was a good one. But I felt it was time to abandon those labels and just embrace the fact that Cortex is and always has been a modular rules set that just gets expressed in different ways depending on what game you build out of it. In order to make that work, and to make it possible for third-party designers to make content for it, I knew I had to bring all of the various sub-games together and under one singular title.

TB: What do you hope to accomplish with Cortex Prime that wasn’t accomplished in previous Cortex projects?

CB: I want to not only make it much easier to customize your game howe you like, and publish your own games based on the rules, but also to present something more consistent and more lasting than the half-dozen or so Cortex licensed games that had already come out. I didn’t want to lose the chance to publish something just because a license had run out, either.

TB: Say more about that, if you would. I’m not sure most folks know the complexities that go into working with a major license, and that’s what Cortex Plus traditionally was used for. Do you have a standout experience you can dive into a little bit for us?

CB: Most people don’t know how complicated a major license can be when it comes to managing the timelines of production and clearing everything with the licensors. It’s one thing to announce that you have the license to make an RPG based on an extremely popular media universe, but quite another to execute an ambitious release schedule that launches not only the core rules but a lineup of adventures and sourcebooks all in the space of a year. Schedules inflate as more people get involved, and as the realities of passing books back and forth for approvals, fitting your books into the schedules of printers at some of the busiest times of the year, and keeping the momentum going in the marketing and distribution of the books you already have.

It’s a lot of work to design and produce an RPG book, and so much more to make it a licensed game on top of that. So I’d like to avoid as much of that as I can with the core rules of Cortex Prime and just make it an evergreen product that doesn’t have to be renewed with a movie studio or television network.

TB: How are your previous game design efforts informing this one?

CB: Updating and revising games is one of the main things I do at Atlas Games, and hacking games to create new ones has been part of my design style since I was very young. I still remember hacking Red Box D&D to make a GI Joe game, a TRON game, and a bunch of others. I did that when I was still in the New Zealand equivalent of middle school.

TB: What’s one of your favorite hacks that you’ve ever done?

CB: One of my favorite hacks as a kid was redesigning the Pacesetter game Star Ace from the ground up to tell stories in the Shadowfire and Enigma Force universe. Those were awesome Commodore-64 games from Beyond Software back in the Eighties that I loved, and so I designed the whole game, illustrations and red and blue and green inked text, in a school maths book. That was how we always did it. To this day I love quad math exercise books because they’re just asking to be filled up with a hand-made DIY RPG.

TB: This is one of your first non-licensed design projects in a while. How has that transition been for you?

CB: Honestly it’s been very freeing, but I’ve also been developing non-licensed RPGs at Atlas for the past couple years, so it’s not as different as all that. In this case I have total freedom to do whatever I want, which is perhaps the biggest difference.

TB: What’s been the most fun/interesting thing you’ve done with that freedom?

CB: One of the things this freedom gives me is the ability to take bigger risks, try all-new things, and work with people I haven’t worked with before. I am really looking forward to the Prime Spotlight designers, for example. It’s a really talented group, and choosing artists to go with their work is also going to be a lot of fun.

TB: What’s your “ideal” Cortex Prime game session or campaign? What do you want to run or play in Prime the most?

CB: If I’m honest, probably action-adventure games with epic stakes and some form of investment in a base, a headquarters, or a small settlement. I’m really glad to see so many cool settings being unlocked via the Kickstarter because there’s going to be something in there for everyone. I think of the settings I’m designing for the Game Handbook, EIDOLON ALPHA (which is Greek-style fantasy but with Final Fantasy summoner super heroes) and HAMMERHEADS (which is basically Thunderbirds only a larger organization, focused on rescue and disaster management scenarios) are the two I’m looking forward to playtesting the most.

TB: This is like asking you to pick favorite children, but what are a couple of stretch goals you want to highlight? Things you’re just super-stoked to see getting made.

CB: I’d tell you about some of my favorite Prime Spotlight settings, but honestly I don’t want to have to pick just a couple. It’s probably more true to say that I’m looking forward to settings that nobody’s seen before in Cortex Prime – Joseph Blomquist’s Cosa Nostra, for example, or Brie Sheldon’s utopia-in-peril Solarpunk. And of course all of them are original and diverse and not just a retread of something older, which I think makes the lineup seem fresh.

Thanks to Cam for taking the time to answer questions for the readers here. The Cortex Prime Kickstarter has blown past its initial goal, and is well on the way to unlocking a bunch more of its stretch goals. (Full disclosure: if the campaign goes high enough, I have a stretch goal planned, as well).

If you liked what you read, go back it!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Setting that moral compass

22 May 2017 - 1:01am

In the early part of running a campaign, it can be a useful exercise to take the temperature, so to speak, of the player characters’ moral compass.

I know a lot of games have that familiar spot on their character sheet for “alignment.” Players will often declare, as their character is introduced, where they land on that scale of good and evil/lawful and chaos.

Of course, for the DM, it is far more informative if a character’s outlook is revealed during the course of play. Do you have a rogue with a heart of gold? It that cleric far more selfish than he lets on? Will the sower of chaos be the first to demand a fair trial?

The party’s first wilderness journey can be a great time to put the player’s declarations to the test. Instead of rolling on the random chart to decide whether it will be kobolds or bugbears that torment the characters on the road, devise some encounters that feature moral conundrums. Then sit back, watch and take note on what transpires.

These need not be time-consuming or even taxing, in terms of combat. But they can be revealing about elements of their character’s character. Here are a few:


Lost and found

The player characters find a bag of gold or follow a trail of coins. Follow the trail and the PCs eventually overtake a horse-drawn cart. The cashbox lashed to the back seems to break or a unsecure seam where the coins are spilling out.

Little John and his merry men

Bandits try to waylay the party. There appear to be children in their early teens among the robbers. Some of the robbers appear to be well-dressed and well-armed for this business, others seem to be in rags and brandishing improvised weapons. If any of the bandits are subdued or captured, they plead for mercy, saying they only doing what they can to survive. They were tenant farmers evicted by the new lord of the land. Their families are nearby, hiding in the woods.

Public punishment

The PCs come upon men and women crucified on crosses that line both sides of the road, but there are no authorities in sight. Those that still have breath plead in the tiniest whispers for “mercy.” (Perhaps a bit strong? Put the transgressors in the stocks or hanging cage, or hobbled to a post, with the remains of vegetables they’ve been pelted with laying all about.)

Tax man cometh

A well-dressed official with a unit of soldiers are brutalizing a father or mother while the rest of the family is forced to watch outside their cottage or farmhouse. “If you don’t pay your taxes, I have the authority to take the lord’s share from your hide,” the official says, brandishing a whip.

An intolerant bunch

An unruly mob are dragging a man or woman toward the shoreline of a river or lake. The mob is chanting “Witch!” or “Transgressor!” along with their various complaints: “My Bessie’s dried up!” “His spell my husband’s virility!” “There’s a devil riding on her shoulder!” They intend to take the person to the water for a dunking – testing the validity of the accused’s claim of innocence. (Of course, the only way to prove their innocent is if they drown, but it’s in the hands of a higher power, now, anyway.) Some folk with weapons are moving through the onlookers (including the PCs), demanding of them if they are associates of the accused, insinuating they might be a witch in league with them.

Cheaters’ prosper

A village festival prepares for the big event, a horse race (or, whatever is at hand, pigs, ducks, dogs, owlbears). Someone is suspiciously hanging around the starting line, bending over and doing something to the creatures. Is he a handler, or is he trying to cheat by hindering some of the entrants?)

Oh Romeo!

Two young lovers of rival clans request that you serve as lookout for one of their secret meetings. If the PCs agree, then they have been entrusted with the time and place of the rendezvous, then asked to stand watch. (If the PCs refuse, let them know that the lovers have later approached someone without scruples to be their secret keeper).  Both families then send representatives (as in a goodn squad) to the PCs offering to buy information about the secret meeting.

Finally, “I think I saw this in a movie”

A ragged youth clutching a loaf of bread bursts from the trees onto the road near you, takes one terrified look at you, then ducks into the brush to hide. A moment later, a patrol of knights on horseback arrive and demand to know which way the miscreant they’ve been chasing went. “The criminal is a deer slayer and a thief and must be brought to justice. He must have come this way! On your oath, did you see him and which way did he go?”  

Run your players through these and  see where their true colors lie. And if you have any other scenarios meant to test the player characters similiarily, I’d love to have you share them in the comments below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Power of No

19 May 2017 - 1:00am

One of the worst pieces of GMing advice I ever gave myself was to always make sure the players were happy, even over my own happiness; to avoid saying No. This ridiculous piece of advice has lead to more campaign deaths in my career as a GM than I should admit. The thing is that saying yes to every idea or whim a player has isn’t a good idea. Sometimes we have to say No. No, so that we keep the stability of the campaign intact. No, so that the game remains fun for the majority of the group. No, so that we maintain safety.  We often discount the power of No, but let’s take a look at why it may just be the thing you need to make your game better.

What about say “yes, and…”?

Ok. Let’s get this out of the way right now.  There is this belief of many people who give GMing advice, myself included, that says that you should always listen to what a player does/says, say “yes, and…” and keep going. The idea is that “yes, and…” prevents shutting down players, and keeps everyone engaged and happy. That is true up to a point.

“Yes, and…” is an amazing improv tool, to be used during actual play. In play, it is a way to move a story forward and foster creativity for everyone at the table. I love “yes, and…”. Here is the thing that is missing—when it’s used in improvisational play, there is an assumption that all actors [players] are going to follow the theme of the story and are going to play well with others. This is why in improv theater, it looks magical. Those actors know the boundaries and know their fellow actors.  Under those constraints, “yes, and…” is an amazing tool, and I do highly encourage its use.

But there are a lot more parts of a game than just play. And in those cases “yes, and…” does not apply. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Power of No

I am a parent, like many of you may be. If you are not, let me tell you that there is real power in No. No stops kids from doing things that could get them hurt, and it stops them from doing things that will damage property—yours or someone else’s.

 No is used to protect things as well. It can and should be used to protect safety, to ensure fun for the majority of the table and the integrity of the campaign, for long-term stability. 

In RPGs, No is used to protect things as well. It can and should be used to protect safety, to ensure fun for the majority of the table and the integrity of the campaign, for long-term stability. That is not to say players are children, but rather that sometimes what is fun or a good idea for one player is not true for the group. And sometimes, you just have to remember what Spock says,

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.

So Where is No Ok?

So going on the understanding that “yes, and…” is something you do during the playing of scenes, there are plenty of places where this does not apply, and you should not feel obligated to use it. So let’s talk about a few of those places:

Campaign Creation

When we are setting up our campaign collaboratively, we need to consider using a No from time to time. You don’t want to be heavy handed with this, but there are definitely times when you, as the GM, need to say no to a suggestion. The reason you want to do this is to keep the integrity and long-term stability of the campaign intact.

Most often this is going to be preventing the addition of some element in the game that is going to either mechanically destabilize the game, or some element that goes against the established tone and tropes of the game so much that it is jarring for others to engage the setting.


  • Adding Ninjas into a Dragonlance game.
  • Including the Ultimate Book of Firearms into your Forgotten Realms game.
  • The inclusion of divine powers into your hard sci-fi setting

You can totally say yes to these things if everyone at the table thinks it’s amazing and wants to play in that world. Say no when someone brings it up and everyone else either says “meh” or is uncomfortable with it.

Character Generation/Advancement

In my history of GMing, this is where I fail the most to say no, and where most of my campaigns break. These are the cases where the player wants something for their character. This is a hard one to often say no to because the character is the primary vehicle that the player has for enjoying the game, and as GM’s we try to allow as much autonomy in this area as possible. We then feel this obligation to say yes to their requests.


  • Wanting to play a Class out of a third party supplement (like a ninja in your Dragonlance game).
  • A player taking the perfect storm of feats to show you how broken the game can become.
  • The player asking if they can start the game with this one magic item.

I will be bold. In most cases just say no. I know it trumps player choice, but once one broken character gets into the game it will destabilize everything. It will have one of two effects: either everyone will be annoyed at the broken character and they will disengage from the game, or it will start an arms race—and every player will try to emulate the broken character so that the entire group breaks.

Group Formation

A cohesive party is a productive party. If you are into intra-party conflict and player squabbles, skip this one. For the rest of us get ready to brandish a few no’s. When the group is working out how they are a group and their group dynamics, don’t hesitate to drop a no if you think that something in the dynamic is going to cause the group to collapse.


  • One player asks if they can be a traitor and be allied with the bad guys, unbeknownst to the rest of players.
  • One player wants to have a secret from the other PLAYERS (key word being players).
  • Two players have diametrically opposed alignments/beliefs, that can’t be reconciled.

These issues fall into two categories that both need a no: they involve keeping secrets from players (keeping secrets from characters is a different thing..and can be just fine), and they involve creating atmospheres that make cooperation impossible. Neither of these will make for a productive group. So ready up a no-bomb, and preserve the peace.

Chaotic Stupid Actions

There are times when players are either being funny or ridiculous and do something that will trigger an immediate or intermediate reaction that will stymie the game and possibly end the campaign. Often this is done under the shield of a certain alignment or belief system, and covered with “I was just playing in character”. No and no.


  • A player just stabs the friendly King in the face because they are bored, to which the GM has no choice but to throw the castle full of guards at them.
  • Shooting a fellow character over an in-game argument.
  • The thief stealing from the party because “that’s what thieves do”.

Perhaps you don’t like stopping and rewinding things in your game to edit these things out. I didn’t either, like 50 dead campaigns ago. Today, I will just stop the game and talk it out to see if there is something else going on, and find a way to address it. But I have seen plenty of games descend into chaos due to one of these moves.

Safety Issues

Up to this point, I have been a bit cheeky and ranty in my advice. Let me change my tone for this section.

Safety is nothing to joke about. We are all here to have a good time, to feel included, and to be comfortable physically and emotionally. If we are failing on any of those, something is seriously wrong. Our jobs as players, and a bit more GM’s as the de facto head of the game, is to insure safety for everyone in the game. When safety is broken, saying no is the best thing to do:


  • One player is getting physically too close to another, who has not consented.
  • A GM deciding that the guards sexually abuse one of the captured characters.
  • Someone wants to play out a torture scene during an interrogation.

No. Stop the game, and address the problem. In this case, Spock is dead wrong. Safety is not a majority rule. If everyone but one person is fine with the torture scene, you don’t have it. GM’s, if you are in the wrong for an action and get called out, take it and apologize. It is not your game, it’s everyone’s game.

Your best bet is to deploy a safety tool like the X-card to facilitate addressing these proactively, and always make your decision based on what is safe for everyone.  

The Power Of No

For all the advice I have given above (except for the Safety advice) you may say, that is fine in your game. That is totally cool. My point wasn’t to tell you what to say no to, but rather to give you an idea of areas in the game where actions can occur that destabilize games, and make good candidates for saying no. Hell, if you want Ninjas in your Dragonlance campaign, wielding firearms and mixed in with the Ultimate Handbook of Ninja Badness—and your group is into that—then assault Raistlin’s tower with your AK-47 toting Ninjas.

Rather my point in this article has been that sometimes we have to say no to things in the game for its long-term stability. After all, the goal of campaign play is to play session after session, developing a tale. But that won’t happen if the game destabilizes because you tried to make a player or players happy with a decision that you or the rest of the group were not comfortable with.

So what were some of the No’s you have said to preserve your games? What were some of the Yeses in your games that should have been No’s?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Five Fantasy Forest Features

17 May 2017 - 1:00am

I was recently kicking around a game set in a deep forest. While it didn’t pan out, I did manage to salvage a few set pieces that can be dropped into your game as landmarks or adventure sites.

The Spire:
A massive petrified tree standing over the rest of the treetops. Hollow on the inside, it has on occasion been a bandit fortress and a wizard’s tower. It would make an excellent druid’s keep, or lair for the monster of the week.

The Runestones:
A collection of overgrown boulders, rolled into a complex geometric pattern and carved with weathered runes. They may be a map of the stars, a calendar, or a seal to keep a demon trapped in another dimension. No one knows, but their nature tends to attract casters and outsiders.

The Oubliette:
This might have at one point been a well or cistern for an isolated cottage. Now it’s a dangerous vertical drop obscured by vegetation. At the bottom is mercifully a pool of water and a small series of natural caverns. What was that noise? Is there something down here with you?

The Lightning Rod:
What is it about this old tree that attracts lighting strike after strike? The tree is long dead and it’s outer layer is hardened ash. The ground around it is scorched and bare of vegetation. Breezes stir up ash clouds. The entire area seems devoid of life.

The Gibbet:
A man sized cage hangs from a large tree. It’s heavy iron bars are badly corroded, and it’s door is stuck. Carrion birds and strange noises haunt the area. A few human looking bones can be found beneath the sod under the cage.

What are some interesting set pieces you’ve used in your games, and what horrible fate befell your PCs there? Let us know in the comments below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design


15 May 2017 - 1:00am

In a previous column, we looked at some reasons why you might want to restart with a new campaign. Maybe players have maxed out their characters, met all their goals, or maybe you just need a fresh start as a gamemaster (GM). However, there may be times when you may want to restart, but probably should keep on with the current game.

In this article, we’ll look at some reasons for NOT restarting. We’ll also look at some ways to manage the urge to restart. As with anything, these are meant to provide food for thought, not proscriptions or rules.

Sometimes a new genre or system is tugging at your GM heart. Maybe a new movie or the latest edition of your game system just came out. However, your players are having a blast with their current characters and have built up relationships with NPC’s in your game world. In this case, forcing a restart on the group might be a bad idea.

If a new edition has your eye, you may want to just house-rule a few things from it into your current campaign. Who knows, players may like it so much that they’ll want to make the switch. If a different genre has your attention, offer to run a one-shot and see if your players are interested. You can also “reskin” an adventure so that is fits your current genre. Perhaps your fantasy characters come a across a strange new island or pocket civilization and must make first contact. Perhaps they obtain a tower that let’s them travel to anyplace (or time) on their planet. Little nods to other genres might help you resist the urge to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

For some players, restarting can be a deal breaker. They may be very committed to their characters or a particular rules edition. They are playing in your world, and using that particular system for a reason. That’s not to say that you have to run the same campaign or rules system forever. Just be aware that some players may not make the move with you.

To possibly prevent losing players, you might run a one-shot to give players some exposure to the new system. No promises, but this may help you keep those current players in your game.

A bad session or two can really do a number on your gamemastering confidence. You might think that this game just isn’t working and it’s time to restart. Resist that urge and give it a few more sessions. Sometimes you or the players are just having a bad night. Spend a little more time fleshing out your NPC’s and encounters for your very next session and things will most likely go better. Even longtime GM’s have a bad night. It’s just part of the deal.

Some gaming groups change systems and campaigns frequently. That’s great, but may not work in every gaming situation. For most groups, restarts should happen occasionally. This provides a sense of familiarity for players, and a chance for their characters to advance and mature. So how often is too often? That’ll vary from group to group. A rule of thumb might be that if you are restarting more than once or twice a year, it may be too often.

Starting over can bring new energy to your gaming. However, restarting does have its own concerns. Talk to your players to see if they think it’s time. It might not be just yet, and you don’t want to overturn the checkerboard too early.

How about you? What problems or concerns have you had with restarting? What games have turned out better than expected because you hung in there? Let us know below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making Connections

12 May 2017 - 12:00am

One of my players doodled this during the game. What better way to unwind after a bloody fight than a cooking competition?

I made a thing and want to share it with you, but let’s talk about character relationships first.

One of the things I love about RPGs are the small stories that pop up between characters amidst the larger story of a game. Back in the day, this type of thing often happened organically over the course of a campaign. Other than a few rare exceptions decided on during character creation (usually siblings or cousins), the characters brought to the table were strangers with one another and relationships formed as the game progressed. Of course, back then, I had far more free time and I was able to play the same game once or twice a week for months at a time. I certainly don’t have that luxury anymore and I imagine most of you are in the same boat.

Convention one-shots back then occasionally handled relationships in a different way. While many characters were just numbers on a piece of paper, some GMs would put some thought into who the characters were and how they related to one another. If done well, it could jump start the RP and get the players quickly invested in the game. You’d know that gal was your drinking buddy, while you were still mad at that guy for something that happened months ago.

I love this type of set up for a one-shot when it’s done well. Sometimes, the relationships for a given character can even transcend the rest of the character. A few years ago, I got to a Serenity game late and ended up with the only character left, a ex-farm boy, grease monkey that kept the ship flying. Not exactly my first choice, but beggars can’t be choosers. By pure happenstance, a friend was also playing that game and had picked up the charming con artist of the crew, a character my good ol’ boy considered to be his adopted little sister. When she ended up getting herself in trouble and went missing, it gave my character a whole new level of emotion to explore as we tracked her and the people threatening her down.

Many modern games have started recognizing that time is a precious commodity for most us and we don’t all have time to build up characters like we used to. To help a facilitate games getting a running start, they’ve begun encouraging forming relationships at the start of a game through a variety of mechanical means. Dungeon World has its bonds, Monster of the Week has its history, Monsterhearts has its strings, Bubblegumshoe has relationships. Even D&D 5.0 has its background section and Fate has aspects. Perhaps not exactly the same thing, but it still jumpstarts the roleplaying opportunities.

Recently, I ran a one-shot of Uncharted Worlds for my regular group. UW is one of the few PbtA games that doesn’t have a bonds or relationship section in character creation. There is a Cramped Quarters move involving relationships, but that is for use during the game and doesn’t help establish who these characters are to one another at the start. I decided we would still establish bonds between the characters even if it wasn’t part of the rules.

After the players created and introduced their characters, all members of an elite problem solving team in service to a powerful corporation, we went around the table and each player picked a connection to another player off a list I had created. Instantly, it set up some fun dynamics between the players.

  • Holgar Enright, the ex-space-marine, decided that he and Hina Janus, the reckless explorer, had gone drinking together and ended up in jail. Hina added that they didn’t remember what they did to get arrested, but they both knew it had been a fantastic time.
  • Troy Boxy, the surveillance techie, decided that he witnessed Xan, the stealthy scout, do something underhanded and didn’t trust him. Xan expanded that this was because they came from drastically different cultures and didn’t really get one another.
  • Zolanda Shawphezh, the eight-foot-tall lizard engineer, decided she’d had a fling with Hina’s mother, but that Hina was still upset about this. Hina clarified that it wasn’t that she was upset about it so much as she refused to acknowledge that it had ever happened.
  • Hina decided that her recklessness often got her into trouble, so she was indebted to Dr. Hauss, the wealthy doctor, because his intervention and medical expertise had saved her life more than once. Hauss, being a bit arrogant, was completely willing to go along with this.
  • Xan decided that he and Holger had served together during a galactic conflict and the two of them had barely survived a battle that had taken out the rest of their team. Holger added to this that their combined skills working in concert were what got them out alive.
  • Dr. Hauss decided that he and Troy had both lost a good friend that they were working together to try and save. Together, they defined that their friend had been grievously wounded during the war. They tried to outfit her with cybernetics to save her life, but her body rejected the implants.

They were having so much fun making connections, they added a couple more in:

  • Holger and Zolanda decided that they were fooling around together, but were keeping it quiet from the rest of the crew. Despite being a big, tough guy, he liked being the ‘little spoon’. The rest of the crew pointed out that with the two of them, it was unlikely people didn’t know.
  • Zolanda and Xan decided that they both shared a love of cooking and had bonded over doing little iron chef competitions with one another. This was something the rest of the crew dreaded because sometimes their culinary experiments were a little strange.

These connections came into play almost instantly. Their mission was to rescue a kidnapped scientist who was close to a breakthrough on ship hull construction that would allow taking advantage of faster interstellar travel. She had been kidnapped by the Kyett, the adversaries from the last galactic war. They had her on a cargo carrier that was obviously more than it seemed. Peace with the Kyett was tentative at best, so the team was instructed that they must recover the scientist, but must also avoid causing a diplomatic incident.

When I started to name the scientist, Zolanda’s player asked, “Is the scientist Hina’s mom?”

Yes, yes it was.

Throughout the rest of the session, other connections continued to pop up. Xan and Troy bickered over Xan disabling the camera in his body armor so Troy couldn’t spy on him. Zolanda kept making Hina uncomfortable by mentioning her ‘friendship’ with her mother. Holgar and Hina ran into a guard patrol that let them discover that while on their bender, they’d apparently developed some hand signals that let them work in concert together. Neither remembered it, but both responded and took out the patrol. This earned a fist bump between them.

When we got to the finale, the dice were amazingly cooperative at making it tense and dramatic, but it was really the character connections that sold the scene. Upon finding her mother hooked up to a machine while an unknown alien experimented on her, Hina charged into the room using her Reckless move to attack. She failed spectacularly, allowing the alien to stab her in the gut and toss her across the room to bleed out.

This sent Dr. Hauss into a panic and forced him out of the safety of their shuttle to try and get to her in time to save her life. Again. Meanwhile, Holgar and Xan separately attacked the alien in response to Hina’s seemingly fatal wounds. They both had horrible rolls for their first moves, giving the big bad an upper hand. Both were hurting and starting to worry they might not be able to successfully complete the mission. Then, they looked at one another and recalled the battle that had nearly killed them both. Moving in concert, they combined their attacks to try and get the alien off balance. This time, the dice gave them spectacular rolls and they took the bad guy out. Dr. Hauss got to Hina in time to stop the bleeding and they were able to get her mom out of there, leaving the cargo carrier rigged to explode as it passed too close to an asteroid field.

Without establishing those relationships ahead of time, it wouldn’t have been nearly as engrossing or dramatic for the players. Sure, the game probably would have been fun enough without it and there are times where starting with a bunch of strangers is the way to go, but why not kick start your game with some established connections?

I’ve cleaned up the Connections sheet I created and linked it here for download. Feel free to take it for your own games. I’ve kept it as generic as possible, so it may need some tweaking to fit different genres. Here it is:

Have you done this type of relationship building in your own games? Did you get a chance to use this sheet? I’d love to hear stories of connections from your games!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

World Building

10 May 2017 - 1:00am

Photo by J.T. Evans — World creation by Mike Braff and Kevin Hearne

While at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference a few weekends ago, I took a half-day class on world building. The class was taught by Del Rey editor Mike Braff and fantasy novelist Kevin Hearne. I’ve taught my own world building classes in the past, but I wanted to see their take on things to see what nuggets of gold I could mine from their experiences. The class was highly interactive and resulted in as much of a “complete” world as a group could build in three hours. Here are the highlights of what was taught for you game masters out there who are considering building your own world for your campaign settings.

Tectonic Plates

Tectonic plate theory can get very involved, so I’m only going to cover the basics here to give you an idea of how things work. There’s no need for PhD-level knowledge to make do with creating your own world. Tectonic plates are thick layers of a world’s crust that float around and press against (or retreat away from) each other. This causes all sorts of fun and games with the terrain.

There are two basic types of plates: Oceanic and Continental. As the names imply, oceanic plates are those that are thinner and are covered in oceans and large seas. The land masses that jut up from the water generally sit on continental plates, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Take a look at the multitude of volcanic islands sticking up around the Pacific Rim on Earth. These plates can press against each other or retreat away from one another.

When two plates strike (think in geological time frame here), mountains, volcanoes, hills, and other rising land features are created. Earthquakes can be very common in these areas. The more pressure two plates apply to one another, the more extreme these features will be. If two plates move away from one another, they don’t expose the magma trapped beneath. More crust will rise up to “fill the gap,” but the result will be very deep waters rich in life, which will impact the way civilization interacts with those areas.

Natural Features

 There are generally two types of rivers: fast and slow.  Once you’ve figured out how plates are interacting, the first step is to generally draw the mountains, hills, and volcanic regions created by these interactions. From there you figure out where snow will fall in the higher elevations and where it will flow when the snow melts or rain runs off. This may be stating the obvious here, but it’s an important point: Water flows downhill. Gravity is the cause of this. I’ve heard many people state that rivers flow “toward the equator.” This is statistically true on Earth, but the equator has nothing to do with this. It’s just happenstance. Make sure your rivers flow downward unless you have a solid magical reason for a few of them to do otherwise.

There are generally two types of rivers: fast and slow. Take a look at North America for a moment. There are two major mountain ranges (and several smaller ones). The taller mountains of the Rockies produce fast-flowing rivers because of the acceleration of the water down the sides of the mountains. In the eastern side of North America, there are the Appalachian Mountains. They are older, shorter, and less extreme. This produces slower moving rivers. Keep in mind that these are generalities. There can be slow rivers off of the Rockies, depending on the specific local terrain. There are also some faster-flowing rivers in the east, but that also depends on the local terrain.

Large mountain ranges also drastically affect the weather. The areas in North America between the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Rockies contain very dry, desert-like terrain. This is because storms are stopped by the Sierra Nevada mountains and most of their energy and rain is dropped along the mountains. By the time the storms regain their power, they’re at the Rockies where the same thing happens. This drastically affects the weather patterns in North America.


Where there is water, there is abundant plant life. Think about the weather patterns of your world when placing forests, swamps, marshland, jungles and other natural resources. The more water there is (either from rainfall or rivers), the thicker the vegetation will be. This is largely the difference between a jungle growing in a location versus a forest appearing there. Always determine your plant life situation in an area before moving on to what animals may live or thrive there. Even though you’re not recreating Earth, it’s a wise choice to model your terrain and plants off of what can be found on our planet. Again, if you have a high tech or magical cause for a shift from the “normal” way of doing things, that’s great. Those things make for very interesting stories.


Once you know the climate, water, and plants of an area, you can determine what kind of animals, critters, monsters, and other beasts live in the area. More confined spaces, like thick forests and jungles, tend to create smaller, more agile creatures. Wide open plains are typically dominated by giant beasts and herd animals. The harsh climate of deserts creates large varieties of insects, birds, and snakes who have adapted to live off of as little water as possible.

At this point, I tend to limit my thinking to non-human (or human-like) creatures. I try to consider only “natural animals” during this phase. We’ll drop humans and other civilized peoples into the realms in the upcoming sections.

Again, if you are creating mythical, magical, or high-tech creatures to populate your world, try to think about how the ecology and food chain will be affected by the introduction of these creatures. For example, dropping owlbears into a forested area might cause them to compete for the same food as the natural bears. Would this cause the bears to die out and not exist in the area because of the competition? Perhaps they’d live together in a pseudo-harmony? Probably not. That’s up for you to decide.


Now we get to the “interesting” part: humans and other “civilized” creatures and where they settle. Rivers, sheltered harbors, and areas with abundant natural resources are the key target areas for the larger cities and centers of culture. Don’t forget about roaming nomads (think about the Mongols, Native North Americans, and other societies) in the open plains or even in the desert areas. What resources are available to the peoples inhabiting the areas? Wood, ores, water, plants, animals (large and small), herbs, spices, toxins, and many other things will shape how a society establishes itself and evolves over time.

Society and Culture

When building a fantasy world, many people lock into the stereotypical western European feudal system with castles, lords, kings, serfs, knights and so on. This is deeply rooted in the hobby of role playing games, so I can understand the reflex to go with what is comfortable. However, the armchair historian in me must urge you to think outside those bounds. Yes, the European feudal model was a vast influence on the rest of the world, but there are so many other options.

India’s caste system can be explored and expanded upon to generate a wonderful set of role playing experiences. Native American traditions and the way they interacted with the world around them can likewise push players and GMs into chances to tell fantastic stories. The honor systems of the Far East led to many intriguing stories within history, and can do the same at your gaming table.

Even a mashup of all of the above (and more) can help you create a vibrant, detailed, and wonderfully interactive world.


Within the confines of a typical fantasy (and many sci-fi) RPG system, there is a “common” language, or a lingua franca that everyone knows with many different sub-languages, national tongues, and racial speech. This rubs many anthropologists, historians, and linguists to a fit of frenzy. However, since you’re presumably creating a world for gaming and having a common tongue makes the game run more smoothly, this can be hand-waved. I personally find the use of national/regional languages fun to incorporate into the game. We all expect the human adventurers to be unable to speak to the goblins (unless someone was smart enough to take the language as a skill), but twisting things around to make communication difficult between different groups of humans can lead to some interesting moments within the game.

While on the topic of languages, proper names are derived from the natural speech of the people. Having a flowing, lilting, almost sing-song language like what is spoken in Earth’s Far East is great, but if you drop a character named “John” or “George” in the midst of that language, it doesn’t quite fit. Come up with concepts on what you want the language to sound like and then pick names and titles based on how the language sounds.


The clothing a people wears is largely determined by the resources and terrain around them. Folks living in forests will mainly wear greens and browns to blend in, and those will largely be made from plant matter or the sewn hides of small animals. Out in the plains, the thicker leather from the larger beasts will be used. In a hot jungle area, there may be very little clothing worn at all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, people living in the northern tundra will dress in many layers to stave off the cold. Again, putting conscious thought into where the inhabitants will get their raw materials will lead you down the right path for what they’ll wear.

Weapons and Armor

 I prefer the maduvu from India in my left hand and a Celtic leaf blade in the other. Strange, eh? Not everyone had abundant access to metal ores or mining/refining techniques. Dropping steel blades into the hands of the “savage, leather-wearing elves” will make the players wonder where the elves came up with such fine weaponry. Perhaps there is a good explanation for this that you’ve come up. I certainly hope so. Take a look at the Native Americans. They had adopted bows and arrows with flint arrowheads for their ranged weapons and clubs with stone (or flint) heads for their axes. Very little metal was involved in their garb, armor (if they wore any at all), and weaponry. This was because they held no interest in digging deep into the earth for iron, and had not developed the technology to make use of it.

As someone who loves medieval weaponry and has studied the craft of making it and putting it to use, I want to quickly point out that not all swords are the same. It goes far beyond “short sword” and “long sword” as a differentiation. Damascus steel is held in high regard for its durability and quality, but this is a European view. I’d gladly take a folded, steel blade from Japan over the finest Europe has to offer. Both are great weapons, but their balance and use are very different. Also look at the Germanic Zweihänder, which takes a very large man to properly wield. I’ve tried using one, and it’s just not for me. I prefer the maduvu from India in my left hand and a Celtic leaf blade in the other. Strange, eh?

An area’s foliage is also going to determine ranged weapon uses. Slings are great weapons, but not highly useful in dense vegetation. Also, the more open the terrain, the stronger the bows will be. Mongolian bows weren’t quite as tall as English longbows, which stood about six feet tall when strung. However, the average English longbow had an effective range of about 250 yards, and the Mongol bows outdistanced that impressive feat by an additional 100 yards. This was largely due to the construction techniques, which was determined, yet again, by the natural resources available.


What do your people eat in the different regions? Until large scale trade and the proper preservation of food comes on the scene, they’re going to eat what lives in the areas where they settle. Coastal and river people will largely subsist on fish and seafood. Nomadic people will have to survive on preserved meats from the large beasts of the plains and whatever plants or grains they can quickly harvest and cook while on the move. Folks living in forested areas will live largely off of the animals of the forest and the abundance of plant life in the area.

Economy, Trade, and Warfare

Most cultures can be self-sufficient, but as they expand their domain, they’re going to bump up against other folks’ domains. This can lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings (see language above), which can lead to warfare. Perhaps one group is naturally aggressive and thinks everything they can see is theirs. If like-minded (and able to communicate) people get together, they can both enrich their own domains by opening up trade and economy. The most basic of this is barter where chickens are traded for pigs are traded for spices and so on.

Of course, hauling live animals across great distances and keeping them alive and healthy is problematic. This is why barter is largely a local economy, but magic or science can overcome this limitation. Where barter is not possible, money (or other portable valuables) come into play. Of course, how one nation values the gold and gemstones of their neighbors can largely sway a trade negotiation. Sometimes this comes out fairly, but many times it does not. Just look at the “purchase” of Manhattan Island from the Lenape people by Peter Minuit.


 Keep the mythos relevant to the people and their surroundings. Here is where my creative juices really get flowing, and I tend to go way overboard with the creation of gods, goddesses, mythological creatures, folklore, and background stories for my peoples. I have two pieces of advice here.

Keep the mythos relevant to the people and their surroundings. Many religions or folklore stories were created to explain the unexplainable. These stories also gave succor, strength, and comfort when times got hard. Figure out what a culture needs to explain or find their hardships and center the stories around those items.

Keep the mythos relevant to the stories you want to tell around the table with your group. If the epic tale of Goulginshan the Great takes you three weeks to write because it’s a “cool story,” but that story never impacts the lives of the PCs, then it was probably three weeks that could have been spent in a more productive manner. When coming up with these tales I try to keep the salient points in mind, but not the whole story. This allows me to say something along the lines of, “The shaman relates a tale to you regarding the treachery of the Great Owlbear that led to the loss of the Golden Acorn, and crops have failed in this area ever since.” Boom. Instant adventure hook and a cool, evocative summary. If you have more than this written about the Great Owlbear, that’s fine, but don’t go overboard.


Honestly, there are more aspects to world building than what I can cover in an article, even one as lengthy as this one. I hope this article helped point you in the right direction in a few areas. There are plenty of books on world building on the open market. Many are focused toward novelists, while others cover the craft from the aspect of role playing games. If there is interest in a bibliography of books I’m aware of on this topic, I’ll drop them in the comments. Just put in your own comment on the article asking for the list, and I’ll compile something and post it.

Now that we’ve gone through this, what is your favorite part of world building?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making a Thing – Camp Adventure, Part 1

8 May 2017 - 1:00am

I’ve had an idea banging around in my brain for a while and I thought I might let it out. When I’m writing things, I like to talk about them while they’re in progress. It helps me do a couple of things that writing by myself doesn’t accomplish.

  • When I write just for myself, things tend to go around in circles. I start and stop, and I end up not getting much done. I need a reason to write that’s beyond me to get much of anything done.
  • Along that same line, it helps me think clearly. It gives me an audience to write towards. Having that audience helps keep my accountable, even if that accountability is only my posting schedule.

So, to that end…

Welcome to Camp Adventure!

Camp Adventure is a thing that I want to finish that’s aimed at making a 0-level space in which to play 5e D&D. It points the focus more at the characters and the story, and make acquiring 1st level abilities the aim of a summer spent at camp. This approach makes the can-be-too-complicated rules of 5e more accessible, which makes it great for playing with kids. It also is a big help for experiences players because the change in focus and the lack of class abilities to fall back on means the characters and what they do take center stage.

I’ve got a work-in-progress document for Camp Adventure, and it’s from there that I’m going to pull everything I’ll talk about in these articles. This document will obviously grow and change over time. Checking out the draft revisions will give you a good idea of the progress (or at times, lack thereof) that I’ve made.

Behold, the Camp Adventure Draft

What Do I Have? What Do I Need?

One of the most useful exercises I can name for checking in on an in-progress design is asking the above questions. I’ve been tapping away at Camp Adventure for about six months, now, and have playtested it three times.

So, here’s what I have:

The Focus

Like I said above, the focus of Camp Adventure is on the characters. To accomplish that, I needed to figure out how much of the base 5e rules to present to players when they’re making their characters. To start off with, characters in Camp Adventure only have a few different things:

  • Ability Scores
  • Race
  • Background
  • Class They Want to Become

Those things give you a framework for who the character is. In D&D, everything stems from those basic things. You need ability scores so you know what modifiers to apply to rolls. You need a race because that’s a central feature of D&D; it modifies ability scores, gives some proficiencies, and gives you thinks you can do that other people can’t. Backgrounds out some meat on the bones of Ability Scores and Race. A Background gives you Personality Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws. It can also give you an Alignment. With those things established, you’ve got a good base idea of who a character is. Lastly, you define the class (or classes) a character wants to attain at the end of the summer. This gives the character a basic goal for play.

Those things are foundational. From there, I moved to how to build out the class abilities themselves.

Merit Badges!

When you’re at some types of summer camp, you learn how to do things by earning merit badges. Same’s true at Camp Adventure. Every class ability and skill proficiency is a merit badge and the campers will spend the summer earning them. I’ve got all of the different badges listed out in the draft document, but I’m going to pull one of them out to give you an idea of what this looks like.

Barbarian Anger Management (Rage) Armored Combat I (Light Armor) Armored Combat II (Medium Armor) Athleticism (Athletics) Brawny (Str Save) Combat Training I (Simple Weapons) Combat Training II (Martial Weapons) Foraging (Survival) Fortitude (Con Save) Lookout (Perception) Strong-arming (Intimidation) Training and Domestication (Animal Handling) Unencumbered Combat (Unarmored Defense) Wilderness Lore (Nature)


I renamed the abilities to give things more flavor. Since this is a work-in-progress, some of these names are bound to change. However, I think it’s a lot more fun for a player (or character) to be able to say “I earned my Lookout merit badge” rather than, “I’m proficient in the Perception skill, now!” The latter doesn’t have as much zing to it.

So, I have basic characters, and a framework for how class abilities are broken down. Next up is setting.

It’s Literally Called Camp Adventure

The setting is an offshoot of the first campaign setting I ever made. Magical apocalypse happened X number of years ago, and rifts to other planes/dimensions/places opened up. The landscape shifted and melted like a time-elapse computer rendering. Magic entered the world. Everything in the world changed and the settled parts of it are only a few decades removed from complete post-apocalyptic chaos. People discovered runestones that would lock the land in place and stop the shifts. Now there’s a settled portion of land called the Twelve Marches, and along the southern border there’s a series of runestones that hold back the Chaoslands.

People venture into the Chaoslands to literally tame the landscape. And the kids who attend Camp Adventure are being trained to do just that. The focus of the Camp is to help kids learn the skills they need to adventure, and to help instill in them an outlook that benefits the world.

Camp Motto
“Making the World a Better Place, One Adventure at a Time”

Camp Philosophy
Respect All

Help Where You Can

Leave the World Better Than You Found It

The camp itself is designed much like a traditional summer camp, but with adventuring in mind. The lodge is styled like a fantasy tavern, the cabins house groups of students who are all to adventure together, and the campgrounds can be anything the counselors want them to be, thanks to the harnessed power of the shifting landscape. There are magical wards to prevent most physical harm to the campers, and for all intents and purposes, they are adventurers while at camp.

In the draft, I’ve got some of the specific areas described, as well as a list of some of the camp counselors.

So that’s a good start to what I have. Now, what do I need?

Details, Details, Details

This is always the hardest part of any project that I want to have finished in a way that lets other people use it. When I’m writing for my own games, I can fudge a lot of things. I can make stuff up on the fly, and at the table, it works. That doesn’t work for a published project, though. In that vein, here’s what I specifically need:

  • Adventures – The campers earn their merit badges by literally going on adventures on the campgrounds. I need what amounts to a plot point campaign, with narrative arcs, side-quests, and lots of interesting stuff for the campers to do.
  • Stat Blocks and Such – One of the ideas of this is that players can pick from a wide variety of playable races, including stuff that’s not usually done in D&D (awakened skeleton, anyone?). But to pull that off in D&D, I need to have all of those stats written up in a way that’s balanced.
  • Backgrounds – The default backgrounds in the 5e books are good, but making new backgrounds really gives you a lens through which the setting can become clear. I want a full slate of new backgrounds that really reflect the nature of this setting.
  • Locations, Locations, Locations – All of the defined areas of the camp need to be written up, and in an evocative way. If I name a place “The Wailing Hills,” it needs to be wailing for a reason, and campers need to want go there. DMs need to want to set adventures there. You get the idea.
  • A Whole Bunch of Little Things I’m Not Seeing Right Now – This kind of stuff usually comes through the editing process, or as the writing is progressing. There are tons of little details like in-character quotes, items, spells, and descriptive snippets that make a final product really stand out. Those things will become more clear as I write, but it’s good to know at some level that they need to happen.
The Road From Here

I hope that this breakdown is useful for anyone who’s been thinking about how to set up a new-type game for an existing system. The various elements that I’ve written for this can be broadly applied to a lot of different systems, settings, and presentations.

I want to keep writing about Camp Adventure here, and to do that, I need to keep working on it. I’m going to try to do another write-up in two weeks or so, and to keep to that schedule. If you’ve got a particular piece of content you want to see fleshed out first, let me know in the comments. Same goes if you dig the idea, etc. And until next time, stay adventurous, campers!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Staring With A Split Party

5 May 2017 - 4:38am

Today’s guest post is by Michael Headley, and he tackles the idea of splitting the party as a starting tactic. – Split Decision John

Splitting the party is associated with tactical nightmares and GM headaches, but it can actually be a fantastic way to start a big campaign for a group that really enjoys role-playing. Used properly, it can create a dynamic player experience and increase the verisimilitude of your campaign.

Starting with split parties means dividing players into two (or more) smaller parties, and for each of them running their own character creation session and introductory scenarios. The payoff to running double the introductory scenarios is that it can improve the role-playing of the group. With a tight scenario and fewer characters to interact with, players can figure out the personality of their character, and how they play off other players. When the party finally all meets up, the characters are actually meeting for the first time, and it becomes a much richer experience than the “Name-Class” shorthand that players can fall into at the beginning of a game.

I actually really like knitting and papercrafts.

Tips to Make it Work

There’s a bit of extra work to starting with a split party. Here’s a few tips to help get the most bang for your buck.

Relationships Matter Even More. Players often have NPC relationships, but these become even more important in a game with a split party. Take notes of all of these NPCs. Feel free to have NPCs for someone in one party show up for the other. And those relationships need not be entirely cozy. It will make the future meet up all the more interesting.

Make Your World Round. Give one party a name to an NPC that the other actually meets. Give one party rumors, and the second party different rumors. Did one group hear, in passing, about a fire that burned down the mayor’s house? Imagine the glee when they meet the characters who tossed the torch. Also take the chance to give each set of players some different tools, locations, or relationships that they can take advantage of later.

If you give the players a different knowledge base to start from, when the party meets up the characters will have to sincerely communicate their different experiences.

Parties should have access to different tools.

Have a Plan for Meeting Up. When it comes time for the meet up game, I suggest picking one of the groups to use as the POV. I tell the other players some kind of signal I am going to give them so that they know when to step in and introduce themselves. While you don’t want to overdue it – half of the players are just sitting – this can work for a short duration because everyone will be wondering when they will actually meet. The party that’s waiting to be introduced gets excited as they try to figure out when their character is being spotted.

And when the characters actually meet? Step out of the way. Let the characters talk, interact, tell stories. Don’t rush that interaction.

How it can go wrong

There’s also some common pitfalls to this approach, and they can undermine a campaign. Here’s some things to avoid.

Players that don’t get along. This can cause a game to sour in a hurry. To prevent this, make sure you have a general meeting before any character creation so everyone can meet and agree on the tone. You don’t want one group to really want to play a dark and gritty fantasy while the other group is just running around making slapstick jokes. Those sorts of contrast in tone don’t jive together.

If you do find one party has a very different tone than the other, typically there’s one player pulling the group in that direction. Talk with the player directly about it after a game, and make suggestions for things they can do to be more in line with expectations. And if that player keeps causing problems, go ahead and give them the boot.

Introductory Scenarios that Streeeeetttch. Keep these succinct. It’s okay if they take more than one session, but try to keep it as succinct as possible and try to keep all of the introductory scenarios the same number of sessions. This keeps rewards roughly similar, and avoids a situation where one party is waiting two months for you to finish that “other” game.

Not Taking Enough Notes. Notes are important for every game, but with one party it’s easier to fudge and improvise. With two parties, there’s less flexibility: you need to keep the same NPCs consistent across different characters. Poor planning will also cause you to forget exactly what each group knows. The good news is that the more notes you take, the more connections you can draw between the groups to make the world feel more round.

Notebooks are cheap. Use one!

Not Having a Plan for the Meet Up. Things can also go wrong if you don’t have a clear plan for the different parties to meet up. The last thing we want is one party to decide to attack and loot the others. Personally, I find using either a mentor, a common organization, or a common mystery is a good way. Maybe the mentor is seeking out the heroes and directing them to meet up, or the organization is hiring them all to work together after they’ve proven themselves. This will make the meet up game actually easier to run and ensure that characters have a motivation to start working together organically.


What do you think? Have you experimented with a technique like this? How did it go?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Extrema Drop Map

3 May 2017 - 1:00am

In math terms an extrema, the plural of extremum, are the high and low points (either locally or globally) of a function. This translates into maps as the high and low points of various features. Elevation is an obvious application, but they can also denote any number of other things.

The procedure to make an Extrema drop map is simple:

  • Pick a feature: elevation, water, vegetation, population, danger level, etc…
  • Drop a bunch of d20s on a piece of paper
  • Interpret results:
    • One option: X lowest dice are minima, rest are maxima. This fixes the number of maxima and minima and just randomizes magnitude and location.
    • Another option: Roll of X or lower is a minima, higher is a maxima. This randomizes the number of minima and maxima, though it will tend to be in a proportion matching your split value.
    • Another option: Certain dice are minima, others are maxima regardless of roll. This method may tend to create odd features like craters in mountain ranges and oases in the middle of desserts, but the results will be interesting.
    • Across all options, the more extreme the roll, the more extreme the extremum, either from the min or max roll, or from the value that splits your minima and maxima, depending on the roll method you’re using.

Here’s an example map using this method. It features some complex topography, a few towns (including a small dwarf hold in the northern cave and an aquatic elf city, a few spots of heavy vegetation and some barren spots, a few water features, and a particularly deadly area mid map.

Categories: Game Theory & Design


1 May 2017 - 1:00am

Most campaigns have a finite lifespan. At some point you’ll either wrap it up with a finale, fade into something else, or real life factors will stop it. It’s a sad duty to end a campaign. However, it offers a chance to grow as you start your next one.

In this article, we’ll look at some reasons for restarting with a new campaign. Any fresh start (new campaign, new system, new genre) counts as a restart for this article.

As your player characters (PC’s) reach very high levels, sometimes it can be difficult to provide them with appropriate challenges. They now have the skills, equipment, or spells to easily overcome common problems. Designing high-level challenges can be a great opportunity to develop as a gamemaster (GM), and you don’t need to trigger a restart just because PC’s have reached “level X.” However, if things are generally too easy for them, and you’re having trouble keeping their interest, a restart might be in order.

Character goals are GM gold. The best adventures often come from merging character goals with GM creativity. However, once those major goals have been met, it might be time to move on to new characters or a restart. As with “MAXING OUT”, meeting a goal is not an automatic trigger for a restart. However, if everyone has met their major goals (rescue the prince, steal the Death Star plans, become the disco king of 70’s NYC), it might be time for something different. Players may even keep their old characters around to train the new PC’s. This eases the transition.

Another aspect of “DONE IT ALL” is campaign bloat. While a detailed campaign world is a beautiful thing, sometimes it becomes too much to keep track of. A restart may be in order to clean the slate.

Unfortunately, players come and go. Some have work or personal commitments, and others just move on. Integrating new players into an ongoing story can be done. However, if you have more new players than current players, a new campaign might be a good option. If your current players wish to keep their current characters, offer them the chance to play a younger or alternate version of that character. (Or have them go up against an old school wight and drain those levels, baby!)

TPK (Total Party Kill)
Well, don’t do this too often, anyway.

Sometimes you just know. Maybe, as a GM, you’ve exhausted a particular genre or are burned out on a particular system. Maybe a new movie or TV series has everyone’s interest. Players may also be approaching you with new character concepts or asking if you’re restarting soon. Sometimes the time to move on is obvious.

Starting over is a tricky affair. There’s no formula to use or one right time for every group. Even when the need for a restart is obvious, it can still be awkward. It takes time for players and GM’s to settle into the new world. But like a blank canvas, it’s a chance to paint something that’s never been done before. And you’ll do it together.

Share your ideas on restarting below. What reasons did I miss? Tell us about your negative and positive experiences with restarting.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Design Flow: Teaching Setting

28 April 2017 - 1:00am

The last few weeks I have been working on writing the setting of Hydro Hacker Operatives. For an RPG with a defined setting, this is an important task. You need to be able to teach the setting to the GM and the players, so that they can share in the world you created, and give them enough interesting elements that they can go off and have their own adventures. Previously in this series, I talked about designing worlds. This week I want to talk about the ways that this information can be presented, and the approach I decided to take.

Games With Setting

Settings are not an absolute with RPGs; some games have them and some games don’t. Some games have incredibly detailed worlds, and some have them loosely defined. Let’s take a quick look at a few games and how the setting is handled:

  • Dungeon World – does not have a formal setting, but does have a theme (i.e. Dungeons). The world is often created as a collaboration between the GM and the players and details emerge through play.
  • Night’s Black Agents – Set in the real world (a Ken Hite favorite) it has a loose setting about spies and vampires with a European backdrop. The game puts up the constraints but leaves the details more in the hands of the GM to define. (Not to be confused with the Dracula Dossier, which has a far more detailed, yet open setting).
  • Legend of the Five Rings – This is the PhD dissertation of settings. It is detailed, and its understanding is necessary for successful play.

A detailed setting is a double-edged sword, in a number of ways:

  • It’s a treasure trove of ideas for a GM, but all that detail can sometimes be more constraining in that adherence to canon can trip you up.
  • It means there is more material that needs to be read, digested, and recalled. This means more work on the GM (who has to really understand the world) and to a lesser extent to the players.
  • It can be an inspiration by providing ideas and hooks, but it can also stifle creativity because the world has a distinct feel.

Light settings also have their pro’s and cons:

  • They are less reading, but it’s more work for the group to come up with something fun to play.
  • They leave the world open for all kinds of ideas, but sometimes the lack of constraints produces either analysis paralysis or a blandness of ideas, as people retreat to their safe places.
  • They can be somewhat incongruent as it becomes a collection of ideas without a thought-out setting

Needless to say, there is a lot going on with the setting.

Teaching Setting

As a game designer, setting becomes part of the game design process, and it brings up a lot of questions:

  • Does my game need a setting or not?
  • If yes
    • How much detail needs to be in my setting?
    • What are the crucial events, places, people, etc that define my setting?
    • How much do I include, and how much do I let the players create?
    • How should this information be presented (factual, through a narrator, in lists, maps, etc)?

 It’s a daunting task, and akin to the children’s game of telephone. If we are going to have a setting in the game, then our job as designers is to convey and teach the setting to the GM and players. We need to take this fantastic world in our head and find a way to express it to someone that we may never meet, with whom we may or may not share common experiences, and express it in such a way that they can sit down at a table and explain it to their friends. It’s a daunting task, and akin to the children’s game of telephone.

In order to convey setting we often find ourselves describing:

  • Environment & Geography
  • History
  • Culture
  • People and/or Creatures

There is a design question of what do you include and not. How much detail should each element have? And then finally, how do we convey this to the reader?

As a designer, we need to design how we want to teach our setting. There have been many approaches over the years. In the 80’s boxed sets were popular, with their gazetteers and fold-out maps; settings like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. Other games like Vampire and Underground took the approach of having chapters of the background right at the front of the book, to immerse players into the setting before having any rules come up.

In addition to the written word, art and cartography are also ways to convey setting. That statement about a picture being worth a thousand words is quite true. An evocative art piece can do wonders for conveying setting. The problem, especially for us small publishers, is that art is far more expensive than words, and having an art-rich book is costly to publish.

My Approach

Hydro Hackers is definitely a game that has a setting, and it in some ways runs counter to other Powered by the Apocalypse games, where settings are often less defined. In this case, I am holding hard to that. I have a vision of what this world is like, and I want it expressed in the game.  Here is the elevator pitch for the game:

You are hydropunk Robin Hoods stealing water from corporations to save your neighborhoods.

That is a great premise for a game, but not good at conveying setting. In fact, in explaining the game to people, some people thought it was a Mad Max-like setting, with tankers of water being transported over wastelands. It’s not. In fact, the setting is more Neuromancer than Mad Max. The world is a sci-future, with Sprawl cities, and artificial intelligences, drones, and printed weapons. The roots of the game are in cyberpunk. It also has this crazy premise that drinkable water is the rarest substance on Earth. That brings up a lot of questions and speculations from people.

Clearly, I have my work cut out for me.

So after some thought, I decided to take a two-pronged approach. First, a brief history. I feel like there needs to be some explanation about how drinkable water became the rarest substance in the world. Clearly, some things happened for the world to get that way.

Second, a tour of how the world is different—because the lack of drinkable water has changed the world, and the players and GM need to have a good grasp of those changes so that they can act appropriately in the world. In this section, I have selected some major topics like: Water, Technology, Government, and Travel, and I am writing five things about each one (e.g.five ways water is treated differently in this world).

The history will help fill in some of the “how did we get this way”, and the tour will give the players an idea of how the world deviates from our own. My intent is that the combination will give the players some context about the world, and some things they can immediately interact with in the game.

I have finished writing the history and I am in the middle of the tours. I finished the water tour, and I came up with six, not five things, but I will re-visit that in editing.

In case you are curious here are the section headers for the history of the world:

  • Heading for Collapse
  • The Collapse
  • The Great Lakes Renaissance
  • The Second Collapse
  • In Too Deep
  • The Rise of the Authorities
  • The Canadian-American Water War
  • Post War
  • The World Today


And here are five things about how water is different in the world of Hydro Hacker Operatives:

  • Water is graded
  • Water detectors are everywhere
  • Water does not taste the same
  • Water is rationed
  • Water collection is highly regulated
  • Purification is expensive and unreliable
Setting The Setting

Settings are tricky. For games that use them, there is a balancing act between providing enough information to empower a group to play in the world, and burying them in details. After figuring out what to convey, you still need a method to convey it quickly and effectively. There is real art in making a detailed setting accessible and playable.

Next time, we will talk a bit about revising rules and adapting mechanics from other games into your design.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Why You Should Donate To A Library Or Community Gaming Program

26 April 2017 - 3:09am

Library patrons paint up some of the miniatures donated to the program.

Today’s guest article is a joint venture of Gnome-In-Chief John Arcadian and Lori Caskey-Sigety of the Middlebury, Indiana library. Lori reached out to us about the possibility of donating to their gaming program, so we donated some books and some miniatures to the program, then we pulled Lori into helping us write an article about why library and community gaming program donations are important.

It is no secret that I’ve always been a fan of libraries, especially when it comes to gaming. Libraries are a great place to use the community rooms and play games at, and the trend of libraries hosting gaming programs is awesome in my book. Any type of gaming that occurs out in public and in support of the community can only help bring in more people to gaming. Community centers and libraries running gaming programs adds an extra tone of community service to gaming and can help highlight the incredible benefits that gaming can have in terms of building up social engagement and helping teens (especially) get into gaming. I’ve written about all this stuff here. Today, let’s tackle a different aspect of gaming at the library — donating to and helping library gaming programs prosper.

Why Supporting Programs Is Important

The standard library gaming program probably doesn’t have a lot of funding behind it. I’ve worked in libraries and I know the process of program starting and budget requests. It’s gruelling. Every library handles it differently, but it usually starts with a Teen Services Librarian feeling that they have a group of teens that might be interested. They then go through the process of  proposing the idea to the director or board, defending the utility and benefit to the community in multiple different ways, submitting a budget and finding time in the schedule, sometimes putting it before a community review board, finally getting approval, being given ½ to ¼ of the budget, purchasing as many books as they can with that, and then finding people to run the game.

Think about how many core rulebooks, players’ handbooks, dice, maps, and miniatures your average group uses to do this as a hobby. Now think about how many resources a program that might have 3 to 5 tables running at the same time need. Now think about how that would work if there were a large community to serve and there is no local gaming store in the area. This is what some library programs need to deal with to get off the ground, and this doesn’t even get into the issues of finding Game Masters to run the various games as the program grows.

Helping these kinds of programs out helps people find gaming. For the kid who uses the library because they aren’t the most social or who needs a place to go after school that isn’t their home (I’m definitely referencing myself here, the local library was my safe away space when I was young.), this is another venue for them to discover Tabletop Role Playing Games, and kids who discover it in this way are the ones most likely to get the benefit out of the program by being able to socialize with people who are as nerdy as they are.

I’m going to stop talking about my experiences with libraries and gaming, and I’m going to hand it over to someone far more experienced. Lori, the Teen Services Librarian at the Middlebury Community Public Library is in charge of her gaming program and can tell you about it from the trenches.  – John Arcadian

Intro to Middlebury Community Public Library (MCPL) Program

Lori unboxes donations of miniatures to the gaming program.

First of all, thanks to John and the staff at Gnome Stew for the generous donations! I was thrilled to open several boxes of painted and unpainted figures, games, and Monte Cook Games gaming books. We are grateful for the kindness, and we have already put some of the gifts to good use, using them as giveaways at programs, and putting them in a D&D display at the Schurz Library at Indiana University-South Bend that features the Pathfinder game. The rest are stored to be used for future gaming programs.

Let’s talk about the library’s program. The Dungeons & Dragon Club at MCPL was formed in October 2016. I asked staff and tweens/teens at the library, and viewed other public library websites and their teen pages to see what programming trends existed. I found that many public libraries hosted a D&D club, so I thought, why not? We tried it in October on a Saturday morning,  and we were pleased to have 10 people in attendance. As of this writing, MCPL has had had 6 sessions with 76 people in attendance! The students who play refer to each other by their character names. We will have one more session in May, will take June and August off, and will have a character creation/painting figures program in July, then host 4 sessions from September-December.

Our program, originally designed for tweens and teens ages 12 and up, but expanded to include adults. It has been a joy to watch the players bring their parents to the programs.

A Better Look at How Library Programs Run

There are a lot of steps in pulling off a successful library gaming program.

  • Ask the Director for permission.
  • Plan the times and dates. How long is the program going to last? (Ours is a three-hour session with a break for lunch.)
  • Make sure there is adequate desk coverage.
  • Book the meeting rooms. Publish them on the online calendar. Have online registration.
  • Make sure there are enough Gamemasters to runt he games.
  • Write the blurb. Send it to your marketing person, if you have one. If you don’t, you’ll have to do the marketing.
  • Print out fliers and/or publish the program on the website.
  • Ask librarians to promote it at the schools.
  • On the day before the program, call, text, or email players as a reminder.
  • If refreshments are advertising, then make sure there are refreshments available and plan a budget for acquiring those for each session.
How a Library or Community Program Uses Donations and the Process of Donating

How a library or community program uses donations varies depending on available funds and resources. For D&D and other library programming, funds are used for materials, presenters, prizes, promotions, and refreshments. Mountain Dew and pizza can be expensive–and for gamers, or a  long running program, food is a necessity. Funds can also be used for operating expenses like keeping the lights on so we have space to play! Any community oriented gaming program will be  grateful for donations.

The best way to find out what a library needs is to simply ask! Despite the stereotype of being cranky curmudgeons, librarians are usually friendly and open to ideas, especially if patrons are wanting to assist.  If the person you are asking doesn’t know, they will most likely redirect you to the right person.

There are several ways a person can assist with programs and/or donate to a library gaming program:

  • Friends Groups and Monetary Donations: Library-sponsored gaming programs are usually funded by the Friends of the Library (FOTL). Joining the FOTL or a gaming-sponsored group will help defray the costs of food and supplies. You can also directly assist with funding the specific event. Ask for the person in charge of the event. Check with that person to see if they can accept cash, check, and/or credit cards. Sometimes there are honorariums for featured presenters.
  • Time: Volunteers make a gaming event successful, especially if you are a seasoned GM. Offering to run a single game or a longer campaign will help you hone your storytelling craft as a GM. The event is more fun if there are enough GMS for the amount of players. Groups of 4-6 are best, I believe. From my experiences, smaller groups are easier to run, and PCs have more interaction and play. Also, if you are an experienced player, you can sit next to a newbie and assist that person during the game. (That helps the GM, especially ifs/he is has a large party.)
  • Materials: There is a list of materials needed for running a D&D game. These include books, character sheets, dice and dice bag, figures, graph paper, paper for taking notes, pens, pencils, and maps. (If you want to be fancy, a vinyl battlement is often used for campaigns.)
  • Refreshments: Gaming and food go hand-in-hand. So, you can help by donating beverages and snacks to the event. Have the good soda pop handy—2-liters of Coke and Mountain Dew are gaming favorites. Also, providing chips, a veggie tray, and contributing to a pizza fund are helpful.
So Go Donate and Help!

John here again, with a callout to you — go find a community or library program to donate some time or money to. We all come to gaming through different means, but helping the programs that are putting gaming into the public spotlight and getting it out there to more people is incredibly important. It is especially important to reach out to communities where discovering gaming may not be as easy. Rural libraries or libraries and community centers in more impoverished parts of the city are great ways to reach out to kids who don’t fit the suburban gamer mold. Go see if you can donate some time to run a game, some money to help a program buy supplies, or see if you can start your own program in your area.

What programs are running in your area? What libraries or community centers are around that you could run one at? What are your best stories about gaming in public programs?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Spotlight: Lawful Good Gaming

24 April 2017 - 1:00am

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

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

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

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

Lawful Good Gaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choice of Charities

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

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

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

Lawful Does Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Find out more about Lawful Good Gaming:

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

When You Realize You’re the Problem

21 April 2017 - 12:00am

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

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

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

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

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

Be a bad ass, not a bad player.

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

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

Stop Doing That Thing

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


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

Be Mindful in the Future

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

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Board games for your RPG

19 April 2017 - 1:02am

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

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

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

World Building

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

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

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

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

Naval battles on the fly

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

Land battles

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

Decipher a “coded message”

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

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

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

Finish line

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

I wish I were a rich man

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

Spell duels

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

Battlefield surgery

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

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


Categories: Game Theory & Design