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Updated: 10 hours 42 min ago

Synthicide Design Diary: Keeping Grid Combat Fluid

24 March 2017 - 3:04am

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

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

The Decision to Use Grids

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

The Flaw of Grids

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

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

Sidestepping Complexity

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

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

Embracing (Good) Complexity

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

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

A Solution and Another Question

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

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

The Unanswered Question

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

FAITH Review and Kickstarter

22 March 2017 - 1:00am

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

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

Just the Facts

Title: FAITH: A Garden in Hell — Starter Set

Publisher: Burning Games

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

Cover Art

Score: 4 out of 5

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


Score: 4 out of 5

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

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


Score: 4 out of 5

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

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

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


Score: 5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

Interior Art

Score: 5 out of 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonus Points

Score: 3 out of 5

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

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

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

Overall Score: 25 out of 25 Overall Thoughts

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

Kickstarter Campaign

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

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

20 March 2017 - 1:00am

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

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

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

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

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

Start with a strong central concept

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

Why did this thing come to be?

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

Involve your concept in your descriptions

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Living Through the Satanic Panic

17 March 2017 - 12:00am

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

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

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

Will Adams

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

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

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

Needless to say I no longer attend that church

Angela Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Neagley

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

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

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

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

Sinister hobby shops!

Ed Rollins

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

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

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

Chris Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission achieved!

Fashion only your grandparents thought were cool…

John Arcadian

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

Rudy Becker

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Categories: Game Theory & Design

A Randomized Hex Crawl Generator

15 March 2017 - 1:00am

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next table is for water features.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Game Theory & Design


13 March 2017 - 1:00am

There are costs to improving in any endeavor. If you want to be a great writer, artist, or 70’s disco champion, you have to pay your dues. Folks may think that good gamemastering (GMing) is just a result of natural talent. In reality, we know that there are costs to running a session right. In this article, we’ll look at some of those costs. The goal is not to be negative, just realistic. Also, we’ll look at some ways to lessen those burdens or to view them in a positive light. The first obvious cost is time.

It’s difficult to estimate prep time required for gaming. Some GM’s can put together a memorable session quickly, while others take a lot of time to get things ready. However, there’s always some time required. You have to prepare maps, session notes, tokens or minis, etc… If you’re running online, you have to load them into your virtual tabletop (VTT) ahead of time. Even if you are running a commercial, prepackaged campaign, you still have to read all the material. You may have learn the basic rules for new systems and perhaps prepare pregenerated characters. Preparing for a game will always take at least some time away from other interests or family time.

However, we can look at this in a different light. The time spent preparing a game can often be a joy, a way to escape from daily troubles. Other hobbies can be incorporated into prep time. If you enjoy writing, you might love to write a campaign journal or blog. If you enjoy art, you can draw and paint maps or images for your game. You might even be fortunate enough to fold family time into your gaming time. My family was kind enough to help me playtest my first convention scenario, even though they are not gamers.

Another time cost involves logistics. As a GM, it falls primarily on your shoulders to recruit players and arrange gaming sessions. (You may also need to clean the house!) Also, between sessions you may need to update character sheets and your notes. There are even times when you’ll have to rewrite the next part of your adventure based on players zagging when you expected them to zig.

You can alleviate some of this cost by asking players to update their character sheets or write a session summary. Ask them if they know anyone who might like to play to help with the recruiting process. There’s no law that says the GM has to shoulder everything. (Though they probably won’t help clean your house. Sorry).

There are some expenses associated with the hobby. For face to face sessions, you’ll spend money on gas and snacks. Any convention or gameday will also charge a fee. Adventures, settings books, maps and miniatures aren’t free either. When a game launches a new edition, you may be looking at buying one, two, or three hardcovers just for the core rules.

However, the hobby doesn’t have to turn you into Oliver Twist. Many gamers stick with older editions primarily for economic reasons. Find some players and party like it’s 1982 forever! Cloned versions of many old games are also available so everyone can have a copy of the rules. (I run Basic Fantasy as my primary old school game. And it’s free.)

If you’d like to move into newer games, many companies provide free starter kits or basic versions for download. That’s a great way to try the latest and greatest without mortgaging your house. With an internet connection and printer, you’ll have more maps and tokens than you could ever use. While minis and professionally printed maps are nice, you can get by without them. If you are crafty, you can turn junk into viable scenery. I used giant mushrooms made from empty yogurt containers recently. No one complained.

This last item is something that’s probably not discussed all that often. When GM has to deal with difficult players, it can take an emotional toll. We all have enough chaos and drama in our work and personal lives. It’s a lousy situation when it invades your game life as well. Also, there are times when you have to cancel a game at the last minute which can bring great disappointment. Sometimes, even when you do get to run the game, it comes across as flat and “meh.”

Unfortunately, these emotional costs are the hardest ones to avoid. Often, you have to do the best you can with tough situations, learn what you can from them, and then try to move on.

Prepping and running games is a lot of work. And there are times when it isn’t going to be a bed of soft puppies and kittens. However, it’s all worth it when something you’ve created takes on a life beyond your intentions. Sure, you had to spend some time and maybe even money creating the scenario. Occasionally there will be emotional bumps in the road. But when you and the players are really digging deeply into your world, the costs all fade right away.

How about you? What other costs are there in being the GM? Why do you keep at it year after year? Let us know below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Putting your frog princes to work

10 March 2017 - 1:02am

One way to keep a party of adventurers on their toes is to present them with unappealing allies.

These are nonplaying characters who, for one reason or another, have an aspect of their personality, demeanor or appearance that the PCs might be inclined to dismiss, keep at arm’s length or even despise.

Just as PCs might be caught in the allure of a charismatic or a beguiling villain, they might find themselves rejecting help when it comes from someone they despise or pity.

Beyond being a great storytelling technique, it is an interesting social experiment. Even within the confines of the make-believe of an rpg game, will the PCs reject help if it comes in the form of a smelly beggar (the king in disguise) or a talking frog (a cursed prince) because the player reflexively recoils from people with undesirable traits?

Presenting such NPCs before the PCs helps break down those stereotypes. The old woman with a visible defect is kindly hearted, and can point the PCs in the right direction if they’ll just behave in decent manner toward her. The stunted worker from the pig stye knows all about the villain’s plans, he just needs someone capable who’s willing to listen. The deformed wanderer whose disabilities came from battlefield injuries in service to the king might be too proud to ask for help, but once shown kindness, reciprocates with a warrior’s heart.

Present an NPC with some sort of skin disease, rash or irritation and watch the players flinch. Will they overlook the leprosy and see the human being within?  

One of my favorite NPC types to toss into the mix is, forgive the language, the self-righteous sonofabitch. This guy or gal knows the value of living a wholesome life, being god-fearing, hard-working, practicing fidelity and frugality. But they are always in your face about it, and even their well-meaning declarations — “if you would just follow my example, your life would improve” or their stock “I make no judgements!” (when, in fact, they do, constantly) emphasize that they are a hard case. Such folks are often difficult to take, even in small chunks, but time-after-time they’ve shown they don’t buckle under pressure and, despite their personal feelings, they come through in the clutch. I always give that NPC a deep-set prejudice — usually directed at one or two of the PCs — to set up conflict, and see what percolates. A snob can fill a similar role, but snobs are too easily dismissed (or ridiculed). But the self-righteous sonofabitch has a bearing that invites grudging respect, even if their worldview might be the polar opposite of the PCs.

And that brings me to my last reminder. If you are playing a game, say like Pathfinder or Dungeons and Dragons, the “heroes” of your story might not seem like that to ordinary folk. Remember, townsfolk might see the PCs through a narrow lens, as battle-hardened brigands, who slay monsters and loot dungeons. Certainly not the sort that upstanding folk invite in for a sabbath meal or to “meet the folks.”

Don’t let the PCs assume the posture of the “good guys” without earning it. More often than not, the PCs are the “outsiders” and rightly viewed with suspicion. The other townsfolk might put up with the self-righteous sonofabitch NPC, but he’s “their” self-righteous sonofabitch, and that still puts him higher in the pecking order than any group of adventurers that’s come to town.

In a dark medieval world of feudal lords and rampaging monsters, trust is a hard thing to come by. And who’s to say the Frog Prince has learned his lesson? One kiss, and you may have released a tyrant.

Or, at the very least, a self-righteous sonofabitch.  


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Hot Button: It’s Only a Game!

8 March 2017 - 2:10am

And the old Gnome Emeritus Walt Ciechanowski speaks from the comfort of his rocking chair on the porch of the Gnome Retirement Home…

My D&D 5e group is a mix of 5 seasoned players (including myself) and 2 teenage newbies. Obviously, there’s a bit of hand-holding for the new players and it can take some coaxing to get them beyond seeing their characters as a combat piece on the grid and engage in social roleplaying. This is, of course, completely okay; I remember how difficult it was for me to make the leap.

One of the teenage players, we’ll call him ‘Tom,’ is a sorcerer with a habit of tossing fireballs into areas where other player characters are standing. Believe it or not, this is often encouraged by the seasoned players, as they’d rather soak the damage in return for battering the enemies. Generally speaking, he usually only does this when enemy forces seem overwhelming.

In a recent session, however, Tom had already pulled the trick once and was considering doing so again. Unfortunately, one of the PCs was badly injured and the affected player, Tina, was trying to call this to Tom’s attention. Tom decided that Tina (out of character) was being too annoying and decided to throw another fireball.

I called a time-out and explained that I had an issue with Tom’s reasoning, since it was based on Tom’s feelings towards Tina and not anything going on with their respective characters. Another of my seasoned players, Harold, then added that “it’s only a game.”

At first, I thought Harold was backing me up, but I quickly realized that he was actually advocating for Tom’s action. In Harold’s mind, if Tom felt like throwing the fireball, then he was entitled to do it; the only thing getting hurt was character sheets, which could be replaced.

My take on “it’s only a game,” however, is that everyone around the table has a responsibility to ensure that everyone else is having fun. Picking on other players violates that responsibility. I’d rather not game at all than allow that to happen; I’ve seen too many campaigns with great potential disintegrate early because player infighting made its continuance impossible.

So what say you? How would you resolve this situation? Are you in Harold’s camp or mine? Does “it’s only a game” give players carte blanche on their actions? Is it okay for a GM to say “no, you aren’t doing that because…”? Where do you draw the line?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Designing And Running A Kickstarter Campaign – Guest Article by Bruce Cordell

6 March 2017 - 1:32am

We’ve been working on acquiring different types of content that we think would be interesting to the Gnome Stew audience. Today, we’ve got a guest post by well known author Bruce Cordell of Monte Cook Games, picking apart what goes into making a successful Kickstarter. His current Kickstarter is for a boxed set of The Strange. – Recursive John

At MCG, we’ve run nine Kickstarters. Those include campaigns that launched Numenera, The Strange, No Thank You Evil!, the Cypher System and its various settings, and Invisible Sun. And as I type this, we’re running our tenth: A Strange Box. Lots of things go into designing and running a Kickstarter. Here are just a few principles I’ve picked up by taking point for MCG on A Strange Box. There are many more principles for designing and running a Kickstarter than just these few, but this should give you a good snapshot of how we put together our latest campaign and what has brought us success.

Do The Work Ahead Of Time

Well done graphics help sell the idea of your kickstarter as complete and less risky.

The first principle of Kickstarter design at MCG involves doing as much of the work related to the campaign as we possibly can ahead of time. This means writing the main “story” page of the Kickstarter, the backer levels, and even all the stretch goals. Add to that a first draft of all the updates that will be posted as the Kickstarter funds if all is going well and as each stretch goal is (hopefully) achieved.

By writing all the text early for A Strange Box, we were able to have our editor Dennis Detwiller take a pass at the text to make sure everything looked reasonably good. Getting the text in early also allowed our Kickstarter gurus Monte Cook, Shanna Germain, and Charles Ryan a reasonably extensive period to look things over, make suggestions, and allow me time to write “second drafts” of the foregoing material, especially the backer levels and stretch goals, based on that feedback. As a matter of fact, we were also able to discuss the entire package at an in-person summit, which allowed even more refinement.

And of course, you can’t pull graphics out of thin air. Getting everything done well in advance of the start date meant that our Art Director Bear Weiter could begin design on the box itself as well as all the many graphics (and the video!) that helped bring the Kickstarter to life. In a perfect world, we’d have given our coding guru the material he needed to create the pledge calculator we wanted, but even the best-laid plans don’t survive contact with the enemy. On the other hand, having so much done in advance meant that the few outliers that we had to accommodate because of changed plans still managed to get incorporated.

Learn From What Has Come Before

When designing the script of a Kickstarter, it’s worthwhile to look at other successful campaigns to see what they did that proved successful. For us, that means looking at our own past campaigns, but also at the plethora of wildly successful campaigns other people in the industry have run.  In the case of A Strange Box, I already had a really great model to draw upon, which was the Numenera Reliquary boxed edition. Despite it’s success, I didn’t want to follow the Reliquary model exactly. For instance, it was clear that offering both a base boxed edition that didn’t grow with stretch goals, as well as a Reliquary box that did get in-box upgrades to content, didn’t get too much uptake, despite how it complicated our offering. So we decided to strike that level from the current Kickstarter.

What was successful before? Do more of that. On the other hand, an appetite for interesting levels offering an even more deluxe experience was evident from the Invisible Sun campaign, so I wanted to try something similar here. Which is why we created levels that offered deluxe options and versions that would be unique to the Kickstarter, in this case the ESTATE VAULT and AWAKENED OPERATIVE levels. I’m gratified to see that they’ve gotten a lot of attention. In fact, the AWAKENED OPERATIVE level sold out in just 2 days.

Wherever Possible, Keep It Simple

Fulfilling a complicated Kickstarter can be taxing, both in design and in administration. Even though there are a few different levels offered in the box set, you’ll see that each higher level also includes the lower backer level as a baseline, without leaving any holes or exclusions in the offerings that only invite confusions and questions. Offering a lot of additional small items unlocked via stretch goals can quickly grow out of hand, which means that designers can suddenly discover they’re on the hook for writing more discrete products than they realized, or that the 160 page book they thought they were done writing is actually a 198 page book because of a last minute stretch goal that the designer failed to remember. Not that any of this has ever happened to me. Ahem.

A Kickstarter’s success depends on people hearing about it so they can be sold on it by the engaging parts of the Kickstarter page.

That’s not to say that complication should be avoided. Look at the aforementioned Invisible Sun campaign. But complexity isn’t something that should be sought in and of itself, but instead only if it serves a purpose.It basically comes down to this: What was successful before? Do more of that. What was terrible, difficult, and hard to pull off? Don’t do that any more.

Get The Word Out Early And Often

If no one knows we’re running a Kickstarter, it won’t be successful. We usually start letting people know a few weeks before we plan to go live, using our social media and company sites. We continue to reach out after the campaign has gone live, offering news, review, and similar sites interviews, time, or even Design Diary articles as a way to help build awareness and share our methods ;).

Lean On The Team

At MCG, designing and running a Kickstarter is a team effort. No one is an island, and that’s especially true at MCG. Leaning on that experience makes everything we do better, including designing and running a Kickstarter.

Like I said at the top, there’s a lot of principles that go into designing and running a Kickstarter. I’m still learning them. We’re about a quarter of the way through A Strange Box as I write this. I’m hoping it goes smoothly and successfully, but if not, that’s more opportunities for us to learn something new. Hopefully this look behind our Kickstarters helps others running their own and provides an interesting look behind the scenes of what goes into making a Kickstarter.

What are your favorite components of a Kickstarter and what makes you back one? What is your preferred level to back one at? What things make you not back a Kickstarter?

Categories: Game Theory & Design


3 March 2017 - 1:00am

Saving throws have been around since the beginning of the hobby. However, that doesn’t mean that they’re always easy to understand. Sometimes it can be difficult to know when to call for a particular Saving throw, especially in some older systems. Does a “Save vs. Spells” work for every spell? Can a “Save vs. Dragon Breath” be used to jump out of the way of an arrow trap?

The purpose of this column is not to answer those kinds of questions. Rather, it is to look at Saving Throws in general. We’ll look at three mechanical approaches to Saving Throws, not advocating any one over the others. Hopefully, this will be of interest for gamemasters (GM’s) who wish to homebrew their own systems or hack an existing one. For others, it may simply spur some thought and discussion on Saving Throws in your favorite system.

(For a more detailed look at Saving Throws at the beginning of the hobby, I recommend listening to a recent episode of the SaveOrDie podcast. You can find it here.

For this article, we’ll consider Saving Throws to be mechanics whose purpose is help player characters (PC’s) avoid damage, death, or other consequences. Their main function is to allow the PC’s to remain alive and in the game. That doesn’t mean there are no consequences or damage: just that they aren’t harsh enough to end the session for that PC. Generally, Saving Throws are reaction rolls, called for by the GM after something else has happened. They aren’t declared at the beginning of a turn. They may be called for after an opponent has hit a PC in combat, after a trap has been sprung, or after a spell or device has been aimed your way.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive, academic definition,just a working definition for what follows.

Not every system has saving throws. For example, in combat you might roll to hit, then your opponent rolls to hit. That’s it. Armor may soak up some of the damage, but you have no other way to avoid it after the fact. When crossing a room with a trap, the GM might simply roll to see if the trap hits you, or use your action roll (“I’m walking slowly and gingerly across the room”) to determine the outcome. For spells and devices, the opponent or GM may roll to determine if you take damage or have other effects.

This approach may be more dangerous and deadly for PC’s, as there is no “last ditch” way to avoid problems. This may encourage players to be more careful in dangerous situations (which is just about every situation in some games). The main advantage of this approach is simplicity. Every situation is resolved in the same way. This is good for simple systems (like RISUS) and games that you don’t run very often. I use something similar for my homebrew system which I only run a few times a year. It’s easy to remember and adjudicate.

Rolling to avoid every possible setback can take a lot of time. For example, some systems have a “Dodge” mechanic that’s rolled every combat round. This can really bog down combat situations (WEG Star Wars, I’m looking at you). To reduce die rolls, some systems adopt a static save, an unchanging, unrolled number that opponents try to beat. Armor class might be considered a form of STATIC SAVING THROW. Dexterity or reaction bonuses are usually factored in, simulating characters’ ability to get out of the way of blows. In games where spellcasters have to roll for their combat spells, a static magical defense might be used. The GM would roll to see if traps or defensive systems hit as well.

This variation isn’t much more complex than the NO SAVING THROWS option. However, it allows characters’ abilities to play a roll in avoiding damage. They may improve their defenses as they progress in experience. One disadvantage of this system is that some players prefer to roll these defensive rolls themselves.

Traditionally, saving throws are dice rolls called for as a reaction to possible damage. After it has been determined that some form of attack (mundane or magically) has hit, or that a trap has been spring, the dice hit the table. A ROLLED SAVING THROW does provide more player control over the outcome. It also adds to the suspense of the game. It may prevent arguments because players were at least given a chance to avoid damage or an effect. The original intent may have been to prevent spellcasters or psionic characters from being too powerful.

However, more dice rolls can slow down play. This is especially true in combat if you have a “to hit” roll, followed by a “dodge” roll, followed by a “soak” roll, etc… Some games take a hybrid approach using an “armor class” or “defense” target number to speed up combat. In those systems, Saving Throws are reserved more for spells and traps.

Saving Throws have evolved over the years, and different games take different approaches. Some games use separate statistics like “Reaction” or “Will”, while others simply use skill or ability rolls. If you plan on homebrewing or hacking a system, you’ll have to consider how to handle Saving Throws. Would you prefer lots of rolls, static defense numbers, or some mixture of both? It’s probably best to keep it as simple and standardized as possible, but that’s certainly not your only option.

How about you? What version of saving throws do you prefer? What other options are available? Do you like them at all? Let us know below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Megaforest And Mapping Concerns?

1 March 2017 - 1:00am

As I may have mentioned in the past, I am always toying with the idea of finally putting together the megadungeon promised by Dungeons and Dragons in my youth. Recently, I found this amazing series of articles on the topic and while my goals are slightly different than those of the author, I felt like I was finally prepared to actually put pencil to paper and start working on my megadungeon project. But, reading another set of articles, a few stray comments caught my eye.

The first mentioned that megadungeons don’t have to actually be dungeons, and I started to consider the megaforest a megadungeon like a forest full of maze-like deer paths, forgotten glades, ruins, dungeons etc… that act much like the classic megadungeon.

The second discussed that you cannot make a megadungeon in a vacuum, that players will eventually grow bored of the megadungeon, wander off to pursue other adventures, then return later so the world and adventures around your megadungeon must be detailed to some extent, which was something I absolutely did NOT want to do.

Turns out that while talking with my primary players a few days later, the topic of classic White Wolf came up, and we went with that instead of either a megadungeon or a megaforest—so this whole line of thinking has been tabled, but I wanted to toss out a conundrum for all our readers to tackle and give feedback.

My first worry was that the commenter who mentioned the necessity of world building was correct. For me world building is one of those great black holes that seems unconquerable and makes me give up on campaigns in disgust. I like it in theory, and the World Builder’s Guidebook is one of my favorite 2e DnD books, but in practice it ends up being a ridiculous amount of unused work that I have very little interest in pursuing. As a consequence, I considered how I could have a campaign centered around exploring a megaforest (or megadungeon) in which I didn’t have to do any world building. True, I could just request out of game that the players focus on exploring the forest, but that seems like an inelegant solution.

My solution was to start the characters in the middle of the megaforest, searching for the way out. Here’s the rough synopsis: characters are in a small village on the edge of a haunted forest no one enters (because few ever return). A large force of savage berserkers starts looting and pillaging the region, putting people to the sword and villages to the torch. When they get to this village, the people flee into the forest—taking near certain death over certain death. The flight is exhausting and terrifying with marauders and forest beasts on their trail the whole time, but otherwise it’s surprisingly easy until the refugees come to a ruined keep at the heart of the forest. However, once in the forest it’s much harder to leave. If you’re trying to leave the terrain is difficult, paths are confusing and monsters are deadly. There’s a lot more “backstory” but the immediate campaign goals are clearing and upgrading the ruins so the refugees have somewhere relatively safe to stay, then finding a way back OUT. You could do something similar with a dungeon:  a pit trap drops the characters into an underground river, they wake up later washed up on the shore of an underground sea and have to find their way home.

So here’s the conundrum: I had two conflicting design goals. First, I wanted to be able to map the forest in a fairly small scale (1 mile hexes) so that the characters could explore a reasonable amount of it between having to find a safe-ish place to hole up for the night (about 18 hexes a day), almost like exploring a dungeon made of forest. Second, I wanted the forest to be large enough that a determined set of characters couldn’t just pick a direction and hike until they got out easily (about 3 weeks in any direction from center). This meant that I was faced with detailing a huge area at a small scale which is a daunting task. Here were the options I was kicking around to deal with this issue when my group decided to toss the whole idea and do something else instead:

  • Detail a smaller area at high detail (a few pages of 1 mile hex map) and just make the forest difficult to escape via other means. Walls of briars, dangerous beasts that drive you back when you get too far from the center, distorting distance, direction and time making getting lost more likely the further from the center you get, etc…
  • Detail a larger area at a larger scale (several pages of 6 mile hexes) This means characters can only explore a small area in a game day (3 hexes a day) and eliminates the “should we camp for the night or press on” as well as the “navigating around or through difficult or impassible terrain” in play concerns so it results in shallower day-to day gameplay
  • Detail a large area at a large scale (few pages of 6 mile hexes) and switch to small areas at small scale at certain points of interest (partial page of 1 mile hexes) in the same way as we traditionally do when we switch from overland scale to dungeon scale in a typical game, but this is a switch from a 3 hex a day scale to an 18 hex a day scale in the valley, swamp, etc…

So, I’m interested in feedback on a few things (though you’re welcome to comment on anything you want I suppose):

  • Forest as megadungeon: pretty cool right?
  • Is “cheating” and trapping your PCs in a campaign setting and not letting them wander off kosher? Or is it railroading of the worst form?
  • Is “Hey, I’ve only prepared this. I know you can wander off that way. Please don’t” poor design or completely reasonable?
  • What do you think of those 3 options above (small scale, large scale or large with zoom in points of interest)? Which, if any, appeals to you and why, or do they all suck? Is there a better option than any of them that I’m missing?
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Updated Hands On With Heroforge Premium Grey Plastic Review and Giveaway

27 February 2017 - 1:38am

When Hero Forge first came out with their 3D printed miniatures, I did an interview with the creators and backed them on kickstarter. I used my kickstarter codes to order miniatures for review and I did a review of the miniatures from stem to stern, showing what they looked like by getting miniatures made of my gaming group. A few months back, Hero Forge sent me complimentary codes for their new Premium “Grey” plastic option. It took me a while to get them painted and prepped, but here is an update to the previous review.

Overall Thoughts

The Premium “Grey” plastic option is right in line with the level of detail, quality, and durability I would expect from any plastic miniature. They paint as easily as Reaper miniatures and have a lot more details than the level of detail I could get from 3D printing them myself or using the Strong plastic. The premium plastic has just a bit more detail than the Ultra Detail options from Hero Forge, but the durability is much higher. I’ve had many of the ultra detail miniatures break at weak points, and even the fiddly bits on the strong plastic pieces have broken on me once or twice, but the Premium “Grey” plastic option holds up far better.

Painting Tips

I’ve rarely had to use  primer on many of my reaper bones miniatures, but with the Premium “Grey” plastic, I found it very helpful to prime them first. Unlike the strong nylon miniatures, which soak up paint, these almost repel it. The first layer of paint I put on the miniatures was fairly slippery, and the thinner my paints, the less likely they were to stay on. I usually use a flow agent to make my paints a little lighter, but for the Premium “Grey” plastic, I had to have a slightly thicker paint to get it to stick on the plastic easily. It took two coats for the miniatures, and having a primer layer would have made it take only one. The miniatures were easy enough to paint, and I mimed the color schemes and setup of other Hero Forge miniatures I had for comparison. Bear in mind that I am not a master painter by any stretch of the imagination. I can do okay, but I am perpetually jealous of the miniatures I see posted in DM Scotty’s facebook page.

Photo Review

Really, the only way to show how well these do is through photos, so check out the picturesbelow to see the comparisons and be sure to check out the other review I did to see the other plastic options from Hero Forge.




Compared to other Hero Forge Options




Comparison to Reaper Bones


Conclusion and Giveaway

I’m a big fan of the Premium “Grey” Plastic option for a miniature. The quality, detail, and durability of the Premium “Grey” Plastic far surpass the other options out there for 3D printed miniatures and are on par with Reaper bones miniatures. For a character or the Big Bad for my game, it is well worth the cost, especially if I plan to play the character for a long time. Now let’s talk giveaway. For the miniatures we created, I duplicated one of my primary characters and we did a female gamer gnome.

That unique and original gamer gnome can be yours! How do you get it? Well, there are two ways.

  • First, everyone who is a Patreon supporter is already entered into every giveaway contest we do.
  • Second, you can leave a comment here.

We’ll compile all of our patreon supporters and the commenters here and roll a die to pick a random winner, then we’ll contact that winner by email to get shipping information. So, if you want to see what the Hero Forge grey plastic is like in person, and have your very own custom painted gamer gnome from Gnome Stew, go back our Patreon (because you love us and want to help us make cool stuff for everyone!) or leave a comment here before 03/06/2017 to be entered into the giveaway!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Ties That Bind

24 February 2017 - 12:00am

Family can mean so many combinations. Mix it up a little.

There sure are a lot of orphans in roleplaying games.

From the brooding warrior with no ties to hold her back to the super skilled agent with a family lost to tragedy, it’s very common to find a table full of characters that have no family ties. Sometimes you’re lucky if any of them have any connection at all to anyone outside of the scope of the game. It’s a trope that many players fall into and if you’re not careful, your game’s PCs could represent a vast wasteland of loneliness and isolation.

When I started thinking about writing this article, I considered the six PCs in my Eberron (Pathfinder) game. They each have a pretty rich history, but four of them are still orphans. The Gunslinger was an abandoned infant taken in by a Lyrandar family in Stormhome. The Oracle’s family was slaughtered in the Demon Wastes by cultists that sought to enslave his powers. The Fighter’s merchant parents were casualties of the Last War leaving her to grow up on the streets of Sharn. The Wizard does have a brother, but their parents were also killed during the Last War. The only two characters with any significant family still around are the Witch and the Cavalier. All of these backgrounds make sense for the characters and the world they’re playing in, but it’s still a significant number of orphans.

Family is complicated and messy and can make the game world so much more real and interesting for your character.It really is an easy trope for players to latch onto when creating their characters, and I am certainly not innocent of doing this for my characters. My Jedi in our FFG Star Wars game was a young Padawan on her way to Coruscant when she barely escaped Order 66, forcing her to live as a street urchin. The loss of family or loved ones can be a good catalyst to explain why a character started adventuring or fighting whatever evil lies at the heart of the game being played. At the very least, it can help explain why a character would be willing to give up the creature comforts of home and go on an adventure. If you’ve got nothing you care about at home, or even no home, there’s nothing left to lose.

It’s a reasonable choice, but it skips the rich opportunities having a family can present for your character. While it can provide some simple motivations behind a character, there is a lot to be said for having someone or something to fight for. Rather than doing it because you’ve got nothing left to lose, you could be doing it to ensure the safety of a parent, a sibling, a lover, a child. Family doesn’t have to be limited to blood relations either. Many of us can name friends that might as well be family, people that we would do anything for. Consider creating the same for your character. Family is complicated and messy and can make the game world so much more real and interesting for your character.

  • When you start going down the well tread orphan route, take a moment and reconsider. It’s too easy a choice. Consider giving your character a big family with plenty of ties all over the place. Or maybe a small, intimate group of friends that they had to leave behind. How about a lover where things got a little complicated and you haven’t had a chance to say you’re sorry yet. Dig a little deeper for some connections and it will help ground your character in the reality of the game.
  • Don’t feel you need to map out a full family tree at character creation. Family stuff probably won’t come up in the first session, but don’t shy away from those connections if the opportunity presents itself later. If the characters are heading into a town where your character has history, consider who they know there and mention it to the GM. Recently in the Eberron game, we learned the Gunslinger had a fling with the Witch’s kid sister before they knew each other. That made for some fun scenes all predicated on their ties to the world around them.
  • Sure, it can suck to have loved ones in danger, but that’s what drives so many great characters. Katniss Everdeen sacrifices so much to try and protect her little sister. Peter Parker keeps his identity a secret to keep Aunt May safe. John McClane may be going through a rough patch with his wife, but he’ll still take on a bunch of terrorists to save her. Would any of these stories be quite so engaging if it weren’t for the relationships driving these characters? Probably not.
  • Close as could be as children, now on opposite sides… Go!

    Don’t let your players’ characters exist in a vacuum. Ask questions about their friends and family. They came from somewhere and didn’t raise themselves, so they have people in their lives somewhere. Find out who they care about, who they never want to see again, who they miss. Everyone they ever loved being dead is a pretty extreme place to be and shouldn’t be allowed lightly.

  • USE the connections the players give you. Asking questions helps build the world, but if the ties they create never show up in the game, what’s the point? When it makes sense, weave the family and friends of your players’ characters into the game as NPCs. Bringing pieces of their background into play helps reward them for helping add to the world around the characters and they’re great ways to get the players invested in what’s happening in the game.
  • Finally and very importantly, don’t be a dick. Never fridge their loved ones just for the sake of messing with the players. Absolutely make the lives of the characters and those around them dangerous and challenging, but doing horrible things just for the sake of getting a rise out of your players is a cheap move and takes away their agency. This is also one of the reasons why some old school players will shy away from creating ties for their character. I’ve heard players state, “I don’t want to give the GM that kind of leverage.” Well, that’s either a player who doesn’t quite get it yet or someone who had a bad experience with an awful GM.


How have your players handled creating family ties in your games? Or, if you’re a player, when have you had family used well? I’d love to hear your stories on how your games made use of extended relationships like these.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Player Intent

22 February 2017 - 1:00am

A famous quote from German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke is, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” The way of saying almost the same thing in role playing games is, “No game master plan survives contact with the players’ actions.”

This means the players will be throwing curve balls to the GM with a fairly high level of consistency. They’ll go left when the GM planned a right-hand turn. They’ll head off to the orc mountains when the GM expected a trek to the goblin hills. At a smaller level, a player may pull a trick of out her bag during combat that will surprise the GM and put him on his heels.

These unexpected activities can’t be planned for, but they need to be understood by the GM in order to make maximum effect of them on the game. This can be an alteration to the story, or just a change in strategy for the NPCs and monsters. It’s relatively easy to know what the players are doing. Understanding why they are doing leads to a greater depth of knowledge about what the players are expecting as an outcome of their actions.

Macro Decisions

In my current Pathfinder campaign, I placed a set of goals across the nation of Brevoy. The PCs were to gather friendly forces from across the nation to assist them in reclaiming the capital city from an undead scourge. I mostly expected them to either gather the largest force first even though it was a great distance away. Instead, they shot for the nearest band of rangers and druids in hopes of gathering them to the army they had to build. This really surprised me.

 Once my understanding was more clear, I was able to better tailor the upcoming encounters… After the decision was made, I had to break the fourth wall and ask, “Why are you headed to one of the weakest forces? What do you hope to gain? Help me better understand why you’re doing what you’re doing.” I didn’t challenge their decision or attempt to change their minds. When the response came back that they were the closest force available, and the group hoped to recruit assistance in spreading the word about the undead horde in the capital city, I got it.

Once my understanding was more clear, I was able to better tailor the upcoming encounters, NPCs, and activities at hand. Rather than going into the situation blindly, I was able to better allow them to reach their stated goals after some appropriate challenges were overcome. Because I knew their motivations, the story we told together was stronger and more engaging than had I just stayed silent and guessed at what they were trying to do.

Micro Decisions

These types of decisions usually come up in combat, but can also apply when a player wants some oddball piece of equipment for her character. This can also occur when dungeon delving and a choice about which direction to explore has to be made.

In combat, know why a PC wants to take an “off the books” action, but they don’t explain what they want the outcome to be, it’s time to stop and ask. Many moons ago, I had a group fighting a demon, and the rogue pulled out a flask of oil and threw it in the demon’s face. I assumed the next thing to follow would be a lit torch. Nope. He pulled a small bag of flour from his pack and threw it at the oil. I had no clue what the rogue hoped to have happen, so I didn’t know what ruling to apply to the situation. When the player explained that he was trying to make a thick paste to blind the demon, I then understood what his intent was. That allowed me to then give the demon a saving throw roll against the paste blinding him. As it turns out, the demon failed the roll and the group managed to escape.

For the weird bits of equipment or magic items, know what the player intends her character to use the item for. This Q&A conversation can lead to a fun bit of brainstorming to make the item come out exactly as the player had envisioned it. This prevents the bad kind of conflict later in the campaign when the player pulls out the gizmo and uses it, only to find out the GM had a different intent for the use of the item.


While I’ve advised GMs to ask questions to gather more information, this is actually the exception, not the rule. A vast majority of the time, the players’ actions are crystal clear on what they want the outcome to be. Experienced players know when they’re doing something strange and will offer up a quick bit of reasoning behind the actions. Don’t interrogate the players on each of their decisions. This will lead to doubt, mistrust, and analysis paralysis among the group. If you find yourself mentally asking, “Why are they doing that?” then it’s probably time to ask a few questions of the player. I’ve found that after doing this a few times, the players tend to learn to explain when they’re doing something not quite covered in the rules of the book.

What are some of the things your players have done to throw you for a loop? How did you handle it?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Components of Romance

20 February 2017 - 1:00am

I think romance is a wonderful part of storytelling that we see in just about every form of media. Thing is, in RPGs I feel it often gets the short end of the stick. Why is this?

First, I think we’re uncomfortable having romantic moments with our friends in games. It can feel weird, strange, abnormal, pick an adjective. Emotions and even pretending to have intimate and sappy moments can be awkward.

Second, that might not be the kind of game you’re looking to play or story to collaboratively tell together. Understandable, whatever your reasons.

Third, and where I’m going to focus on with this article, is while we’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of love stories play out on the small and large screens, in our books and audio dramas, and on stage from the bard himself Shakespeare, we might not understand what goes into setting the stage for a love story. So lets get into it.

Starting Up

Since we’re playing a RPG and not writing a story it’s important to understand you don’t want to, and probably can’t, force a romance. I mean you could but I imagine it goes poorly most of the time. Besides, who likes to be forced to do anything. With that said, what you’re doing as a GM, or player, is providing an opportunity for romance to happen. To do that you need to know what pieces you need to have in place.


You can’t have a romance without at least two participants, unless you’re doing something existential and self involved. If you are I want to hear about that by the way. That parts simple. Two or more entities to fall in love.


This is a moment when the Lovers realize there’s something more between them than just friendship or existence. This thing could be physical or emotional but often it’s best to have both if possible. This attraction is at times one sided and other times it is mutual. It can happen at the same time in a lust or interest at first sight or first conversation situation or it can happen for one lover later than another. In the end this attraction is opening the door for an opportunity.

Before we get to opportunity I want to talk about physical attraction in RPGs. I always felt physical attraction was tricky because RPG’s are often a spoken medium. This is where pictures can come in handy of NPCs to help visualize what people look like but I tend to go more with descriptions, not just of physical looks but the feel and tone of persona’s. A conversation with an NPC to get the feel of them and putting a flirtatious, kind, welcoming, or some other positive adjective tone in there voice can go pretty far. If you know your fellow players you’d actually be aware of what their interests, likes, and enjoyments are and can play to them. That’s a little inside baseball but we should use all the tools at our disposal to create the best possible experience for all of the players, including ourselves, at the table. Let’s move on.


So let’s review. You need two or more lovers and then some attraction between those lovers. How that happens is anyone’s guess. You could have two PCs who decide outside of game they want to have a romance in play. You could have the situation spontaneously show up during play between any characters, be they PC/PC or PC/NPC. The thing is that once attraction is there opportunities need to be presented in order to allow the lovers to create connections. These opportunities could be a moment in a hallway of the space ship they’re on together to have a conversation, a chance where one of them can save the other one from a burning building, or an opportunity a lover creates for themselves where they do something kind or sweet for the other lover, like bringing them the pendant of their father they’ve been searching for these past ten years.


Connections are those moments when the lovers realize they have something in common, have a shared belief or ideal, want the same things out of life, or whatever it is that takes their attraction and deepens it. Without those connections, those moments which deepen the bonds between the lovers, there isn’t a way to progress the romance.  Opportunities are one kind of moment that creates a connection but there are others.


These are internal struggles or personal challenges which keep the romance from progressing. They can come in the form of trust issues, having been hurt by lovers before, obligations to other parts of the lovers life such as work or family. They are stronger and often more emotional struggles because of their personal nature, but overcoming them can create deep connections between the lovers.


Threats are active and external forces that may or may not be trying to thwart the romance. Some examples of threats would be the police hunting one of the lovers, a gunshot wound causing one of the lovers to bleed out, or a sun about to go super nova and the lovers are on a ship in the same system. I mean death is a pretty solid threat as is incarceration.


The outcome is a good piece to have when love is either young and it hasn’t set in yet or it’s love on the rocks and you need to that moment to see if the romance will continue on or if it will end. These are the moments in stories where one or both of the lovers decide to carry on or go their separate ways. This could be the moment where one of the lovers confronts the other with the truth they know about and want to hear the others answer before they make a decision. It could be the moment where they profess their love for the first time. It could be the gesture or apology to help start healing what has been broken. This is that moment that answers the question “What is the current fate of this romance?

Tying Things Up

So those are the parts of a romance. I’ll be back in a few weeks to talk about what an arc of a romance can look like and provide an example. If you’re looking for more on romance in your games right now you can check out The Misdirected Mark Podcast Episode 247 – The Love Arc and Panda’s Talking Games Episode XX – Romance Is In The Air. Thanks for reading and before you go let me know if you’ve ever used romance in your games, how it went, and the story. I love a good romantic story.



Categories: Game Theory & Design


17 February 2017 - 1:00am

There are numerous ways to determine damage in a roleplaying game. It may depend on the weapon (or spell) used, the skill of the combatant, and/or the roll of the dice. In this article, we’ll look at four ways of calculating damage. It’s not meant to be a master’s thesis on the topic. Rather, it’s an overview of some major methods. This topic should prove useful for those gamemasters (GM’s) who wish to homebrew their own game or hack published systems. For others, it will hopefully provide food for thought and fodder for discussion.

Here are some options:

In many venerable systems, damage is rolled separately from “to hit” rolls. These are very familiar to most players, so they are a good option for convention games. There are no unique mechanisms to explain. They provide an added tension to each combat round. You’re never sure if you’ve landed a killing blow or not.

However, they do increase the number of overall dice rolls during combat. This may bog things down during large battles. Also, the additional roll can create the situation where you hit well, but do little damage. I’m sure most of us remember a time when we hit with a 20, but only did 1 point of damage. Some systems suggest dealing maximum damage on a “critical hit” to avoid this extreme situation.

In this mechanism, weapons do a predetermined number of damage points. For example, a sword might do 8 points while a dagger only does 4. This makes combat speedy, and damage easy to determine. For a one-shot or convention game, it might be just the thing. However, it may be a bit TOO simple and doesn’t provide any variability or tension. It also doesn’t account for any degree of success. Barely hitting an opponent does the same damage as a critical hit.

In this setup, your “to hit” roll also determines your damage. If you hit well, you do a lot of damage, if you hit poorly, you do less. It could be a static scale. For example, a full hit might do 10 points of damage, while a partial hit only does 5. It could also be a bonus added to a traditional damage dice roll. This system eliminates cases in which a player rolls well to hit, but then rolls poorly for damage.

How, this is a bit more complicated, and may require a little math to determine the degree of success. I use this system for my homebrew game and find a chart helps a great deal.

All three methods discussed so far imply a traditional hit point mechanic. However, some systems take a different, more story-based approach. In thoses systems, damage affects your ability to perform other tasks. For example, if you take a hit in a dice pool system (such as RISUS), you lose one die on future rolls. When you are out of dice, you are down for that combat. A penalty to a dice roll is another version of this mechanic. For example, you might suffer a -2 on the first hit, then a -4 on the second hit, and so on. This system is more cinematic than hit point systems, with the hero getting worn down because of combat. Also, there are no hit points to keep track of, perhaps streamlining combat.

This type of system may be a hard-sell for players who prefer more traditional games. There isn’t generally an easy way to differentiate between weapons. A dagger hit works about the same as a phaser hit, and you just have to accept that as part of the game. Finally, some call this the “Death Spiral” when it becomes difficult to succeed at any action as you lose dice or modifiers.

The type of damage system you select may depend on the type of game you’d like to run. What might work for a long traditional campaign might not be necessary for a light-hearted one shot. You’ll also want to consider the level of complexity that you are comfortable using during play. You don’t want to tie the albatross (or cumbersome system) around your own neck.

What method works best for your game? What other methods of calculating damage can you suggest? Let us know below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design


15 February 2017 - 1:00am

Yesterday, Exploding Rogue Studios released DEAD SCARE, a 1950s, feminist, zed-killing, fascist-punching tabletop RPG by Elsa S. Henry.

If you weren’t familiar, I co-own Exploding Rogue with Brian Patterson. We’re absolutely thrilled to have been able to help Elsa bring this game to the public, especially now.

So, let’s talk about representation in games.

Lots and Lots of White Dudes

In case you haven’t noticed, there are a bunch of white dudes in gaming. Doesn’t matter what kinds of games you’re talking, either. Tabletop? Yup. Video? Double-yup. So when Elsa approached me about DEAD SCARE and pitched it as a 1950s zombie apocalypse game where you play as the women and children who weren’t infected, I was really interested. I’ve been gaining more awareness about the lack of diversity in games for a while, now, and (being one of the aforementioned white dudes), I thought it would be a good idea to use my platform to help this awesome idea become a product.

More than just the topic of the game, Elsa had the idea that she wanted everyone who worked on the game itself to be a not-dude. Aside from the publishing and distro (me and Brian), everyone else who wrote, edited, did art for, or layout for the game was a woman or non-binary person. She also brought in a number of PoC (people of color) to write Postcards for the project. This makes DEAD SCARE one of the most diverse projects I’m aware of, and I think the project is so much better for it.

But, What’s the Point? Why Do This?

Let’s break this down:

  • The concept is subversive – There are no playbooks in the game that are male-identified aside from a little kid. You play as expressions of femininity from the 1950s. Premises like that break out of the normative mold of tabletop RPGs.That’s Important Because: In my view, anything that gets the (largely white, male) gaming crowd to think about what it’s like to be a member of a marginalized population is a good thing.
  • Characters like this don’t feature in games – This is an extension of the previous point: we don’t see games like this often. It’s happening more and more, and I support that. This is a small effort to include more people in what gaming means. Marginalized people very often don’t see themselves reflected in games. DEAD SCARE changes that to put marginalized people front and center.That’s Important Because: The world is bigger than people in the majority make it. There are experiences that are normal for marginalized people that people in the majority will never experience. Being able to experience those things, even in the context of a game, can breed empathy and help people think about things differently.
  • Fighting against regimes is always a good idea – In DEAD SCARE, once the zombie apocalypse happens, a prominent 1950s political figure takes power: Joseph McCarthy. Not only do you fight back against zombies in this game, but also against a totalitarian political regime with broad powers and the belief that fear and terror are the things that most motivate people to action. That might sound familiar to you. Maybe.That’s Important Because: It’s really easy to be complacent. It’s really easy to sit in a pretty safe group of people and think that bad things just won’t happen to you. It’s hard to stir yourself to act on behalf of people who don’t have as much of a voice as you do. DEAD SCARE is a wonderful piece of political art, and it’s needed right now more than ever.
Your Reaction?

I’m gonna go ahead and guess that if you’ve gotten this far, you’ve had one of two reactions. One is excitement. That’s the one I’d hope for. After all, I wouldn’t be talking about this if I didn’t want people to get excited. However, because the game is what it is, I’d be foolish to think that there’s not another very probably reaction.

If you read the above and what I wrote made you uncomfortable or angry, I urge you: Take a beat. Breathe.

DEAD SCARE makes me uncomfortable. There’s no place for me to see myself in it, really. Any character I play would be taking me out of my comfort zone and ask me to deal with realities that I’ve never had to contend with in my life. That’s a hard thing. It’s also super valuable.

I can imagine people saying that games are supposed to be fun, escapist, not this political. I’d say they can be all of those things. Games allow us to explore amazing worlds, be people we can never be in our real lives, and experience things that we’ll never be able to experience. They are also art. And they’re political. If my reasons for wanting to help Elsa publish this game bother you, I encourage you to stop and do some self-examination before you dismiss the game or get upset about it.


DEAD SCARE is out and now we all have the chance to take a vacuum cleaner and use it to keep undead monsters at bay while trying to also make sure that our kids mind their Ps and Qs, and that the casserole for the church potluck gets made in time. It’s not my world, but I’m glad to have helped it come into being.

If you want to check it out, here’s the DTRPG link for the PDF. Print copies will be coming soon, from the same source. Now go on, bash some zeds.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Punching Injustice In The FACE: Interview With Anna Kreider About The Watch

14 February 2017 - 1:00am


Illustration by Claudia Cangini

…there’s something deeply satisfying about being able to punch allegorical injustice in the face.

Reapers, Reavers, Sauron, demons, vampires, darkspawn, magical corruption, Thanos-backed Kree warlord. Whatever the face of evil may look like, my favorite parts of these ensemble cast fantasy and sci-fi stories are the moments of character interplay, brought out by the tension of facing an overwhelming evil. Gimli and Legolas developing a friendly orc-killing rivalry in Lord of the Rings, Groot learning new words in Guardians of the Galaxy, Mal opening up to Inara in Firefly.

It can be tricky to facilitate these kinds of moment in a roleplaying game – the stakes need to be high, but you need those moments of reprieve from the push of plot to let these conversations and developments happen.

The Watch (Kickstarter) is some kind of freakish perfect storm; I trust it to produce these hard-to-reach moments, to be a gripping storytelling Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, and to inspire deeper thoughts about gender, society, resistance, and love. There is so much else to love about The Watch and its co-designers Andrew Medeiros and Anna Kreider, but I’ll let them introduce it:

The Watch is a low-fantasy game about women (and other female-of-center people) who are fighting to retake their homeland from the Shadow – a darkly sorcerous threat that has the power to possess men and use them for its own violent ends. So much has already been lost to the Shadow – land, loved ones, and traditions. But your people have come together, forming a new fighting force from those able to resist the Shadow, which they call the Watch.

The story of The Watch is structured around the military campaign against the Shadow’s forces. You will tell stories of war, love, and sacrifice as your characters fight to hang on to what they have left.

Co-orchestrators of this perfect storm build on a mountain of relevant experience: Andrew Medeiros is a game designer who has designed diverse games building off of the PbtA system, and is particularly well-known for co-designing the ENnie award winning Urban Shadows. Anna Kreider is a polymath, a 2016 Gen Con Industry Insider, acclaimed writer and researcher of gender representation in games at her blog, and designer of (often tragic) RPGs and LARPs.

The Watch is Kickstarting on this auspicious Valentine’s Day! Co-designer Anna Kreider sat down at the old Stew table with me to unpack the game experience, mechanical details, and dish out some succulent game design advice! Back the game today and get access to the playtest materials – don’t miss out on this one.

Illustration by Anna Kreider

Darcy Ross: What does The Watch feel like? What kind of moments or experiences does it create in the story or at the table?

…the relationships that develop between PCs can be intense and deeply meaningful.Anna Kreider: One of my players in the campaign that I ran for our home group once described The Watch as “feminist Vietnam”, and I think it was a pretty accurate description of what I was personally hoping for. The Watch is a game about fighting for survival against an enemy that wants to obliterate your people and your way of life, and the gradual toll that fight takes on the people who engage in it. And over the course of a campaign, you end up having to decide if you’re going to burn bright and fast, or if you’re going to try to hold part of yourself back so that you have the energy to see the campaign through to the end.

A campaign takes 10-12 sessions to play, so at points it can be a rough experience. But it’s also a game about the bonds between comrades, and the relationships that develop between PCs can be intense and deeply meaningful. And just speaking for myself, there’s something deeply satisfying about being able to punch allegorical injustice in the face, when it’s never that cut-and-dry in real life.

DR: What inspired you and Andrew Medeiros to design this game? How does this game relate to some of your other works?

AK: So, it’s kind of a funny story. Drew came up with the initial concept after watching a documentary by John Sheldon about diversity and inclusion in the games industry and told me that he had this idea for a game about all female soldiers fighting to repel an invasion by this nebulous threat called the Shadow. And then I got really excited and started yelling ideas at Drew via chat for two days until he bowed to the inevitable and asked if I wanted to co-design the game with him. (Thankfully, it’s proven to be a really great partnership.)

As for how it relates to other works… There’s a level of meta gender commentary baked into the Shadow, which ties pretty closely to most of my other game design work – be it satirical (i.e. SexyTime Adventures) or more serious (i.e. Autonomy). But there’s just as much of Drew in this game – a lot of what makes the game sing builds on Drew’s previous design work. The mechanical innovations he came up with work beautifully in modeling the accumulated toll of burnout and trauma, and people who have played Star Wars World or Urban Shadows will recognize elements of those games in The Watch.


DR: What are some of your favorite Moves and Archetypes that PCs can choose from?

…the Spider’s moves encourage them to play with forces best left alone, and that’s story gold for an MC. AK: My personal favorite Archetype to play is the Wolf, because that Archetype resonates very strongly for me. It’s a playbook that is designed to be fierce, loyal, and pack-oriented – which I find very enjoyable to play. My favorite Archetype as an MC [Master of Ceremonies, the game master role in Apocalypse World-powered games], however, has to be the Spider – which is an Archetype that is a weird meld of cleric and dark sorcerer. When there’s a Spider in play, I always get to do lots of weird stuff with the Shadow, because the Spider’s moves encourage them to play with forces best left alone, and that’s story gold for an MC.

As for a favorite move? I couldn’t possibly choose a favorite playbook move, but when it comes to basic moves I’d have to say that Blow Off Steam is my favorite. Blow Off Steam is a move that gets used when the PCs get back from the field and want to bond through release some tension, but what that ends up looking like can be really different. Players can Blow Off Steam by having an impromptu archery contest, or starting a drunken brawl, or by sleeping together. It creates interesting dynamics and always leads to fun scenes.

DR: I love what I’ve heard about the structure of The Watch. Can you tell us about what that looks like as the game nears its final form? I’m particularly excited by the aftermath phase between missions. It’s those interstitial scenes between plot-focused play that really grab me; the plot creates all this material that I can use to explore my character and their relationships to the world and their companions.

…missions exist to further the story of the campaign against the Shadow and to create lots of new complications that have to be dealt with. AK: The structure that we finalized will be pretty familiar to anyone who has played Night Witches. In Night Witches, there is the Day phase, where you play scenes back at the base, and the Night phase, where you go out flying missions against the enemy. It’s pretty similar in The Watch. There are missions, which have their own moves and mechanics, and then “normal” play, once a mission has been resolved. Missions take about twenty to thirty minutes to play, and over the course of a campaign you tend to average 1.5 missions per session, so mostly the missions exist to further the story of the campaign against the Shadow and to create lots of new complications that have to be dealt with.

Missions also tend to encourage world-building at the table, which enriches the fiction. As an MC, I like to get people to draw mission objectives or other locations on the map as part of the mission, and sometimes those are things that get tied back into the fiction going forward, which is fun.

Illustration by Claudia Cangini

DR: The Watch strikes me as a very replayable game, with its somewhat defined overall campaign & mission structure, its options provided regarding the nature of the Shadow & its minions, and the different Archetypes selected by the players. Can you talk to us about how differently the game can play out, or feel, or explore different topics based on these choices?

AK: It’s super replayable! When you play The Watch, you’re not playing to find out if you can defeat the shadow. If you play a campaign from start to finish, the Shadow will be defeated. What you’re playing to find out is what sort of relationships will you have? Who will be there at the end, and who will fall? On the day of ultimate victory, whose absence will be keenly felt? The relationships will be different every time.

The world-building that goes into playing will also make each campaign feel very different. For one thing, there are different options for creating the Shadow at the start of the campaign that will very much inform the genre that your game ends up feeling like – do you want to play low fantasy? High fantasy? Steampunk? Lovecraftian fantasy horror? There’s also the issue that the game provides you only with the barest outlines of the world and what it looks like, along with lots of questions to answer as a group. So each group is going to answer those questions about what the world looks like very differently, and the fiction will be very different from group to group.

Insight into Game Design

DR: I’ve been hearing great buzz about The Watch for a good year now! How has the playtest experience been for you? The way The Watch interacts with gender identity is pretty unique – was that something you refined with playtesting?

AK: From early on in the process, Drew and I felt like we knew what the game was and how it needed to work. The challenge was more how do we convey that to the people playing it? And how do we build it so that it does what it needs to do even when we’re not running it? But we knew very early on that this would be a game that affirmed trans gender identity and nonbinary gender identity – our very first outside playtest at Dreamation in 2016 forced players to choose their gender identity, of which “cis woman” was just one of several options. The challenge has been more figuring out the correct language around explaining that without falling into problematic language traps – we owe a lot to some pretty great folks who have helped us refine our language.

DR: What has the experience of co-designing with Andrew been like? Are there similarities between making a hack of a game (where you’re reacting and building on another person’s static work) and collaborative design de novo (where you react and build on your partner’s ideas)?

The thing that I enjoyed about having a co-designer was that design could be more of a conversation.AK: This is my first time co-designing a game with someone, although as the co-designer of Urban Shadows, it’s certainly not Drew’s first time on this particular ride. Drew has been a great partner to work with! We have a lot of the same design sensibilities, as designers who both work primarily by making hacks we tend to approach design problems the same way, even if I like to tease him about designing PBTA hacks “backwards”. (Drew always starts with Basic Moves, I always start with Archetypes.)

The thing that I enjoyed about having a co-designer was that design could be more of a conversation, and when one of us got stuck on something the other one of us usually was able to come at that problem from a different angle and get things going again. When you’re working on a game on your own, you end up getting stuck at points where you end up beating your head against a wall and having to put it down and walk away, so having a partner to talk through design problems with was a pretty good deal. That’s not to say that I want to do nothing but collaboration from now on. Both of us still have our own projects and ideas that we’re keeping to ourselves. No matter how good someone is to work with, sometimes it’s easier to do something by yourself.

DR: You’re an experienced designer of game hacks – do you have any inklings about hacks of the Watch that you or others might write? Any exciting hack or other stretch goals you can leak to our gnomes here at the Stew?

AK: We have some really exciting extended content planned as stretch goals, and I very much hope we get to fund that as playing with the extended content really adds a lot to the “base” game.

DR: You have amassed a wide range of game design accomplishments: hacks, full games, larps, playtesting, critique and deep analysis through your blog and other works. What advice do you have for game designers just starting out?

AK: Three things!

  • Do what you find interesting and don’t worry about whether you have the “cred” to be taken seriously, or if your game idea isn’t “serious” enough to be popular. If you want to write a game hack about glitter kittens fighting evil with cuddles and playing, do it! Don’t get wrapped up in the identity politics that our community attaches to being a game designer. If you want to make a game, make a game!
  • Remember that your first draft of anything you make is going to be TERRIBLE. And that is absolutely okay, because game design is an iterative process! With enough time and attention, anyone can make a polished game.
  • Find a community of game designers! (G+ is great for this.) Contrary to how we often talk about game design, designing games is NOT a solitary pursuit. Your game design will always be better if it’s part of an ongoing conversation.

Back The Watch on Kickstarter now, and gain instant access to the current playtest materials!

For more Anna Kreider goodness, follow her on Twitter & G+, check out her blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich, and go buy her other games at her Payhip store!

Follow Andrew Medeiros on Twitter & G+, support his Patreon to gain access to regular new game designs, and definitely check out the acclaimed Urban Shadows game over at Magpie Games.

Follow the hashtag #JoinTheWatchRPG on various social media (Twitter, G+) to get the latest news and discussions about The Watch!

Categories: Game Theory & Design