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The Dominant Player

23 February 2018 - 5:00am

Yeah, dominant can mean that guy too.

They’re easy to spot when you start playing. Confident and forthright or pushy and obstinate, they’re often the first voice the GM hears. You certainly can’t ignore them. Dominant players are difficult to miss and they end up being either a blessing or a bane at the table.

At a recent convention, I ran a one-shot of Nights Black Agents that didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I had run the scenario before, but the previous run had been with four players that worked well together. At the con, I had a full table of six players and for a variety of reasons, they didn’t gel into a cohesive team. Almost immediately in the scenario, they ignored the clues that were in front of them and started going in drastically different directions from one another. They were definitely not embodying the tight team of elite mercenaries that were on the character sheets. While I try very hard not to railroad players, I still had to resort to some ungentle nudges to keep the game moving forward. As it was, we ended up having to handwave much of the big finale fight with the vampire villain because it took so long to get to him.

That wasn’t the worst problem, though. Because I was so frustrated with their lack of cohesion and how often they were refusing to look at the clues they already had in hand, I missed a social dynamics problem at the table until it was too late to fix it. One of the players was talking over the other players, not listening to them, and outright stealing ideas on occasion. This was the bad kind of dominant player and I had missed how frustrating his behavior had become to the rest of the table.

Now, understand, dominant players are not always a bad thing. In fact, hopefully you usually get a good dominant player. These are the folks that make the GM’s job easier by offering a natural leadership that pulls the rest of the players into the game. They’re often the rainmakers who can take a tiny seed of an idea and grow it into one of the best plot threads of the game. When they’re good, they’re inclusive with the other players and always helping push the game forward. The best ones I’ve ever played with keep me on my toes and challenge me to be a better GM, and I know they’re making the game something even better than I could do on my own.

The best ones I’ve ever played with keep me on my toes and challenge me to be a better GM, and I know they’re making the game something even better than I could do on my own. 

When they’re a problem, though, they’re still taking that leadership role and demanding attention, but they’re not doing it for the benefit of the table. Sometimes it’s a matter of being a spotlight hog and wanting all of the GM’s attention during the game. Occasionally it’s an arrogance that dismisses the ideas of the other players and pushes them aside because they think they know better. There can be varying levels of this, but eventually it will frustrate the other players and create a social dynamic that will be untenable in the long run.

As a GM, it can be difficult to realize when this is happening. In my case, I was so caught up in trying to make sure the players actually had the information they needed for the plot that I wasn’t realizing how problematic that particular player was being. It’s important that we TRY to keep tabs on the social dynamics at our tables, but it doesn’t mean it is easy. When you’re trying to handle the adversaries, all the NPCs, the entire world of the game while keeping it moving forward at a reasonable pace, and keep the spotlight moving around the table, you can sometimes miss the little clues that will let you realize you’ve got a problem.

The moment you realize you do have a problem, step in and try and fix it. Be more mindful of how that one player is dominating the game. If they’re a regular player, have a talk with them after the game and maybe you can nudge them into being a more beneficial dominant player. During the game, keep the spotlight moving and be aware of when the bad dominant player is getting up to their old tricks. If you can’t get them to work on the problem, maybe consider asking them to find another game to play.

For players, you need to stand up for yourselves and each other too. When you see someone getting pushed aside or talked over, absolutely speak up. Maybe you’re not comfortable taking that domineering, leadership role yourself, but you can still defend and support everyone at the table. Occasionally those dominant players may not even realize they’re being that big of a problem and just need a nudge to remember it’s a cooperative game for everyone at the table.

Hopefully, all your dominant players are the good ones. When you’ve got a good one at your table, you know your job is easier and the game is going to be a good one.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The 8 Steps to Adventure Design

21 February 2018 - 5:32am

I noticed something. There are zillions of articles talking about *running* an adventure. There are volumes of information on campaign design. There is a lot of writing dedicated to campaign and world building. But there is comparatively little written about creating adventures and story arcs. The 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide finally contains some helpful advice and tools, but still, in my mind at least, could have gone farther. Besides that, with the exception of some half assed EHOW articles, and one very obscure TSR book, virtually nothing exists about building the actual adventures themselves. I have a big problem with this. One, because it turns our entire hobby into an inside conversation, which in turn makes “taking up the chair” that much more difficult. Two, this hobby is decades old. Some of us are teaching it to our kids. It’s about time someone just set this down like stereo instructions. (I’m going to say that’s a Beetlejuice reference, and not a statement that carbon dates me.)

This is my attempt to describe adventure design to someone who hasn’t done it before. This is by no means the only way to do this. But it is a functional way. This may look like playing scales to more experienced GMs, or (hopefully) they might find something they like in this approach. Either way, everyone is more than welcome to contribute their ideas. That all being said:

The 8 Parts of Adventure Design

Adventures can be broken down into these component parts:

  1. What is the objective?
  2. Who are the bad guys?
  3. Who needs the help?
  4. Where does it happen?
  5. How many/what kind of fights?
  6. How many/what kind of crime scenes?
  7. How many/what kind of challenges?
  8. What is the hook? Why will the players want to get involved?

This is what happens when an adventure lacks a clear objective.

A solid objective gives a game a sense of direction and purpose. It unifies the other elements in your adventure, and it unifies and focuses the players. It is why your players are adventuring in the first place. A good objective is always an actionable goal (break into a tyrant’s treasury vault and rob him blind). But, an objective that also contains a possible consequence is often better (the treasury actually belongs to a sleeping dragon, and it is expected to wake up sometime very soon).

Bad Guys

Who is the villain? What does the villain want? Who is the villain employing/working with to achieve this goal? You develop the villain and the villain’s objectives because these all inform the villain’s methodology and actions. You don’t need to write a novel of backstory, but development here allows bits of the adventure to write itself. For example, Hissy Fit the Halfling Barbarian leads a growing gang of bandits that now rivals a small army. No longer content with taking tribute from surrounding villages, she has set her sights on a nearby city and, some say, a campaign of conquest throughout the region. With this premise, you have your main villain, your villain’s objective, and the main troops involved.

Who needs help?

Who benefits from the actions of the players? Why do they need the players’ help? Are they being completely honest with the party? Common examples include a town’s mayor asking for help against a hostile army, a rich benefactor who needs to work outside of official channels, a simple farmer trying to locate a missing child, or perhaps even the player characters themselves have scores that need settling. As a side note, you know your objective is a good one if failure causes bad things to happen to these people.


Where does the adventure take place and how does its location influence the player’s actions? Also, when does it take place? What time of year? What is the weather? Who are the locals? What is the local culture like? What types of terrain and conditions predominate? Also, where are the inevitable battles going to take place? Who will be attacking who? What will be the backdrops? What sort of terrain features will affect the outcome of the fights? Will the party be operating in a city? The wilderness? Underground? In a shipwreck? A fully operational clock tower just before it strikes midnight? Also, how many different places will the players need to travel to before they accomplish their mission? World and local city/town maps can be very useful aids here, assisting in role play and also allowing everyone to be on the same page.

The Fights

How many combats will this adventure contain? Who will the party be fighting? Under what circumstances will the fighting start? Will there be an ambush or will the villain pause to do some boasting before sending his lackeys against the players? How hard will the fights be on the party? How lethal will the injuries be? How smart are the enemies? Can they be reasoned with or talked down? Maps used here cut down confusion and also allow the use of minis.

Crime scenes

Sometimes the players will be investigating actual murders. Most times they will simply be searching for clues about the bad guys. In either case, they’re often acting like detectives, and detectives need chains of evidence to follow toward a conclusive end. People leave behind all sorts of things, and spells/sci fi tech allows all kinds of novel ways to discover hidden information. Perhaps the most important rule to remember here is to offer more than one trail to your next scenes/encounters/sets of clues. This is because players will often ignore the things you think should be obvious, and yet somehow find new and ingenious methods that threaten to unravel your plans. Also keep in mind that if an adventure fails because a player failed to discover relevant evidence, players will tend to feel cheated, railroaded, or both.

Other challenges

RPGs aren’t just about fights and playing Scooby Doo. A party might encounter a physical challenge, get stuck in a game of riddles, negotiate, or need to perform any number of other interesting tests of capability. Consequences for failure may be expensive, or harmful, or slow the party’s efforts. Such challenges are associated with the terrain or location the party is in. They may need to win a game of cards to get the attention of a crime lord. Encounter a sphinx in a dessert tomb. Or simply need to climb a rope over a chasm after the rotting rope bridge breaks apart. Occasionally, adding such challenges to a combat can make both the combat and the challenge more fun and interesting. Perhaps the sphinx insists on playing riddles while a host of undead mummies tries to eradicate the party. Or maybe that rotting rope bridge fell apart because it couldn’t support both the party and the bad guys sent to stop them.

The Hook

Why should the players even bother? True, there is no game unless they take the job. But logically speaking, adventurers are in the business of doing very dangerous things. They need a compelling reason to take on the risks found in the endeavor. Money may not be enough. They might not care if a town gets destroyed. They may hate the long lost brother who shows up asking for a favor. Never assume that your party will just dive into your adventure. You will need to sell them, pull heart strings, make them angry, or otherwise find some sort of genuine motivation. The more personal investment you can get out of your players, the more likely they will experience all of the highs and lows your designing into your day’s events. You don’t have to think too hard on this, just be sensitive to your players, what they want, and the type of characters they build.

And, oddly enough, that’s basically it. There is certainly more that can be said about all of these elements. But as long as you’re using each of these eight parts, adventures can (and often do) write themselves. Follow this method long enough and eventually you might find you have the ability to employ it on the fly, which can really come in handy when your players inevitably do something you hadn’t planned.

And this is where I invite the GMing universe to chime in and let the world know what they consider adventure nuts and bolts. What steps do you follow? What structures and skeletons do you use? How do you progress from idea to game day?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Scene and Sequel

20 February 2018 - 5:00am

I’m going to leverage another writing concept for today’s article. In fiction writing, there is a concept called “scene and sequel.” Of course, most of us think of a “sequel” as something along the lines of Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers. However, the phrasing “sequel” in this context has an entirely different connotation. In this case, a sequel is what happens after a scene.

Fiction Scenes

In fiction, a scene is where the action happens. Most folks think of this as where the protagonist battles an obstacle. This is true, but it’s not the only type of scene out there. Intense dialogue, a chase scene, disarming a series of traps, or getting past watchful guards are just a few examples of scenes that can play out. Basically, if some activity moves the plot forward, then it is most likely a scene.

Fiction Sequels If the main character has accomplished everything, then we’re pretty much at the end of the story. 

Once the action is done, the protagonist has either moved closer to the final goal or encountered a setback. Obviously, if the main character has accomplished everything, then we’re pretty much at the end of the story. Since that’s not the case throughout most of the story being told, the character (or characters) involved in the results of the scene need to collect themselves, perhaps tend to wounds, consider the results of the encounter they just had, make a set of decisions about how to proceed, make plans, and then execute those plans. The execution of those plans naturally leads into another scene where the cycle continues through the story.

RPG Scenes

Scenes in RPGs aren’t too much different from those in fiction. There are fights, traps, obstacles, skill checks, dialogue and so on. Typically a scene will start with the announcement of, “Everyone roll for initiative.” This is a tried and true signal to every gamer in the world that Something Important is about to happen. There are, of course, more subtle ways to begin a scene. Typically, once dice are rolled, points are spent, and skills are checked, a scene is underway.

RPG Sequels

Once a scene has come to a conclusion, the party has to get together to figure out what they’re going to do next. New information has come to light, wounds must be treated, loot must be collected and split, maps have to be referenced, and the group needs to come to a consensus on what to do next. Sometimes this is as simple as “left door or right door” but this isn’t always the case. Where more complex decisions and plans have to be made, this can lead to analysis paralysis. The larger the group of players at the table, the longer the paralysis lasts. As a GM, I tend to let the players find their own way as I don’t feel I have a voice to contribute to their plans. However, if a sequel goes on too long, I’ll step in and boil down the players’ options for them and ask them to pick one to run with. This can help move the story forward and get everyone back on track.

Scene Length vs. Sequel Length Don’t try to force a scene or sequel to consume a certain length of time. 

There is no proscribed length (in word count or time spent) for a scene or a sequel. Once one has accomplished its job of moving the story forward, it’s time to shift into the next phase of things. I’ve seen sequels in fiction that are just a few sentences long that were packed in between scenes that lasted most of a chapter. Likewise, I’ve seen action scenes that were very brief but had a high impact on the characters. These were followed by lengthy discussions about the ramifications of what had just happened. Don’t try to force a scene or sequel to consume a certain length of time. They’ll end when they end.

Fiction vs. RPG  I can see sequels being “skipped” rather often in a role playing game environment. 

With fiction, a single person (or a collaborative team) dictates and guides when scenes end. It’s a set thing. However, a role playing session is a live collaboration where a single person could decide to chase down the lone goblin who is escaping. This will naturally extend the scene or lead directly into an immediate follow-on scene without interjecting a sequel. This is perfectly fine. Just because the guidelines request a scene-sequel-scene-sequel pattern, this doesn’t mean the story will be ruined if things don’t boil down this way. There may even be times where the players decide that their characters don’t need downtime, so they’ll rush forward to knock down the next door and face the next obstacle. This is fine as well. Honestly, I can see sequels being “skipped” rather often in a role playing game environment.


There are other storytelling structures that can be applied to RPGs, but I feel that they would require a great deal of railroading and the GM forcing the story to conform to those structures. This isn’t conducive to good role playing and can make the players feel as if their characters have lost agency in the story itself. Some of these approaches are the “Yes, But; No, And” formula, and the “Yes/No Cycle.” Feel free to investigate them on your own, but only implement them with a heavy dose of care to not steal PC agency.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Levels of Interpretation

19 February 2018 - 6:43am

Literature can be interpreted on different levels – why not games?

When I was a younger man, my friends often joked that the only reason I studied Literature in University was to become a better game master. While that was not my primary motivation, there was certainly some truth in that humor. The study of English is littered with different ways of interpreting a piece of narrative art: Structuralism, Psychoanalytic, Reader-Response, Deconstruction, etc. During my first year of study, I was introduced to a very simple means of analysis that has stuck with me to this day. It is not widespread by any means; in fact, it was the creation of my first year English Professor. As I moved into writing scripts and stories and games, I found this model to be an easy one to consider as I work, and when I teach others how to analyze stories, I often fall back on the Levels of Interpretation taught to me by Professor John Blaikie.

So, how does it work? The idea is that, with each piece of narrative art, be it a novel, a film, a play or an RPG campaign, there are different ways in which to engage with the creator, and different levels of meaning that the audience can take away. The great works of art, which remain relevant well past the life of their creator, function well on all four of these levels.

Literal Level –Narrative / Plot

This is the most surface level of interpretation. What happens in the story? A lot of popular pop-culture entertainment is based on this level alone. Stories that operate only on this level are typically not very memorable, but this level is very important for creating an interesting story. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker leaves his home to join a rebellion against the Empire. He helps to rescue Princess Leia, learns of the Force, and eventually joins a rebel attack that results in the destruction of the Death Star.

In terms of games, the literal level of interpretation describes the plot of the story. For example, a group of young wizards explore territory occupied by tribal orcs, and in doing so uncover a source of magic that will help turn the tide in their homeland’s war.

Psychological Level – Characters

At this level, the motivation of the characters is considered. Why do the characters in the story do what they do? In stories that function on the psychological level, the characters will have consistent internal motivations. If the story has characters that seemingly do random or nonsensical things just to move the story along, the story is not really operating at this level, and typically, these stories are not going to connect with audiences in a very strong way. Conversely, characters with consistent and interesting internal motivations can become enduring fan favorites. In Star Wars, Luke is a young man who feels stifled by his over-protective Aunt and Uncle, and yearns for adventure. This is why he leaves home to join a dangerous rebellion without really thinking through the dangers involved. He argues with Han Solo in order assert his masculine superiority in front of Leia, to whom he is attracted. He is willing to believe whatever Obi Wan Kenobi tells him because of the absent father figure in his life.

In terms of games, this level is primarily the responsibility of the players. Players will often forgo the narrative elements of a game in order to further explore or indulge their character’s motivations. The best games have the characters motivated to engage in the plot in a manner that is consistent with the characters’ internal logic. For example, the family of one of the young wizards from the previous game was destroyed by the very same tribe of orcs that the group is now investigating. He views the orcs as monsters, rather than people, because at an early age they became something to hate: what sociologists would term the “other.” He is able to project all of his own insecurities and failings onto them, and will deem himself worthy if he is able to avenge the death of his family.

Sociological Level – Setting

The function of this level is to criticize some aspect of society, typically in the present. Stories that function primarily on this level are usually stories with a message. They are often trying to “say” something about the realities of our modern world. These types of stories are likely to be popular with critics, and termed “art,” but if this is as deep as they go, their relevance may be fleeting; once the social issue is no longer relevant, then the story becomes less meaningful. In Star Wars, we have a Science Fiction setting with an “Empire” and a “Rebellion.” The story can be interpreted as a struggle against a fascist regime. In the modern light, we might look at it as an exploration into the distinction between terrorists and revolutionaries.

In terms of games, the fictional society that we depict can certainly be more than “generic fantasy.” When we challenge our players with difficult choices in the setting, hopefully we enable them to make meaningful choices that influence the world and encourage them to consider the parallels to our own society. For example, the tribal orcs lead a subsistence existence in the woods, having been forced off their land by the dominant humans. The player characters may enter the orc territory ready to loot the village and take what they need, viewing the orcs as nothing more than monsters, but they are shocked to find the squalid conditions that they live in. This elicits sympathy and compels the PC’s to negotiate with the tribe rather than simply steal their magic.

Thematic Level – Philosophy

This level concerns itself with the “big questions” of life, and explores some aspect of the human condition that is universal. Stories that function at this level can retain their relevance for long periods of time because the issues that they explore are timeless. Is there such a thing as true love? Are our actions determined by our choices, or by the forces of destiny / God / brain chemistry? Is there a true reality, or just what we perceive through our senses? These questions ultimately don’t have an answer, and the search for an answer to them is what makes us human. In Return of the Jedi, Luke must confront the evil in himself and accept it on order to forgive his father and resist the dark side. He learns that there is no absolute good or evil, but rather all people have some level of good and evil within themselves. He cannot claim moral superiority over Darth Vader, or even The Emperor, because there is as much capacity for good and evil in them as there is in himself.

In terms of games, when I read advice for game masters, I often come across the idea of a “theme” for a story or a campaign, and this is, ultimately, what they are getting at. When I look to start a campaign, this is the level of interpretation that I begin with – what philosophical issue would I like to explore in this game? For example, the character whose village was destroyed by orcs sneaks into the tribal village at night and confronts the old orc who led the raid against his village so many years ago. This orc is now sad and old. He begs for his life. He tells the young wizard that, when he was a child, a group of humans stole his family land, driving his father to suicide. He blamed the humans for his life’s miseries, and vowed revenge upon them. The character is now forced to see himself in the old orc’s experience, and must make a choice – to satisfy his life-long quest for revenge, or take mercy on the orc, who is not so different from him. Does justice or revenge fuel his anger? Is there really a difference between the two?

Final Thoughts

This method of analysis is fairly simple, yet I find myself returning to it over and over again in order to create memorable campaigns for my players that are satisfying for them and for me. Ultimately, games should be about meaningful choices, and the more levels that we are operating on, the more meaningful those choices can be. Do you have a way of looking at the stories you tell to make them more meaningful? If so, please share it in the comments!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Assembling a player’s dice box

16 February 2018 - 3:00am

A goal for the new year was to assemble a portable player’s dice box, with the conceit that it look like a tome or spellbook.

While I do enjoy crafting and painting—and I still have the option of decorating it with a design of my own—I am content, for now,  to use what I found.

(I had several inspirations for my dice box. I recommend checking out the D&D Alchemy Dice Box Tutorial by Maladroit Marcy on YouTube as one of the best. She gives her box cover the full Mod Podge treatment!)

Most of these are objects I found at the local craft store or supplemented with my own supply.

Step 1: Select a false book box

These are nifty little bookcase hidey-holes—boxes in the shapes of books. They are often displayed on the coffee table and hold a crossword puzzle book and assorted pens, or even the TV remote control.

The key was to find a box wide and long enough to accommodate other boxes for nesting—my alternative solution to creating sub-compartments within. The one I selected was 7.5 inches wide, 10.5 inches long and had an internal compartment 2.45 inches deep.  It had a magnetic clasp to hold the cover, which had the design of an old-world map.

The first thing I did was apply a new bottom to the inner layer of the box, a thin brown foam over the interior felt—mainly to ensure even rolls of the dice and to muffle the hollow clatter of dice on wood without sacrificing “dice bounce.”

Step 2: Potion of Healing

This little nifty craft has been making the rounds in D&D circles, Pinterest and other places, and I certainly wanted one included in my player box. It involves a glass bottle or vial with a cork stopper and contains the d4s needed for rolling a dose. With a handcrafted label and a dab of glue, I had my first component for the box.

Step 3: Dice box

Next, I found a little latch case that could hold a set of polyhedral dice. I put foam in the bottom, so it could double as a dice roller, too.

Step 4: Miniature box

A small keepsake box in the form of a treasure chest was the perfect size to hold a 25 mm miniature to represent my player character. Again, I added a layer of foam because this box did not have a felt interior.

Step. 5: Journal

I got lucky in that I snagged a small sketch journal that would nestle in the remaining space. This book could serve as a record of the PCs, be a place to record spells, even allow in-game notes or maps.

Step 6: Foam interior

To ensure that the items didn’t rattle against one another, I cut out sections of the foam so the tiny chest and the potion bottle would fit snugly. I think I added another piece of foam the size of the journal to elevate it to the top of the box. On the underside of that piece of foam I cut a slice where I can tuck a small pencil and a dry erase marker.

Step 7: Metal plate

On the interior felt of the lid I added one more touch: A thin metal plate. This surface can take dry-erase marker and be wiped clean.  I can use it to make in-game notations, such as tallies for hit point damage, recording initiative rolls and jotting down spells used.

Warning on price: I kept the entirety of my purchase under $35, but I timed my shopping by going on a day with deep discounts on the boxes and I had a coupon I could use, too. Shopping at list price might double your outlay.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Happy Valentine’s Day From Gnome Stew! Remember when we wrote a romance novel?

14 February 2018 - 5:24am

It’s Valentines day, and whatever that means for you, it means warm and tingly feelings for us! Mmmm Warm and tingly stew! Hey, remember when we teased and then actually wrote a romance novel? Like, legitimately wrote it with some saucy bits in it. Well, it’s still out there, and you can get it, for free or whatever you want to pay. You should really go check it out, even though we warn you against doing so on the cover. You’ll only be mildly embarrassed after reading it…



From The Gnome Hunters

…and yet how could she lie to this man?
“Raphael.” His name tasted foreign and exhilarating on her lips.
“Please….I know what they’re after. And I know why.”
He turned to face her and she saw some slight concern cross his
features. “Laila, darling, please tell me what you know. Anything that could
help me protect you is precious. Here.” He gestured to a sumptuous living
room with large cozy couches, and then, once she had sat, settled in next to
her angled in to face her. “Please.”

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Starter Kit Review

13 February 2018 - 5:00am

The year 2012 was an important year for me when it comes to both superheroes and roleplaying games. In 2012, I first encountered Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, a game which utilized the Cortex Plus system (actually a set of subsystems that work similarly, but emphasize different elements in different genres). I was not initially a fan of the game, but it grew to become one of my favorite games and is a large part of why I moved into exploring games with more narrative elements, over more traditional RPG structures. Because of Marvel Heroic, I started to explore games like Fate and the various Apocalypse World-derived games like Monster of the Week.

That is also the year that I first picked up the initial set of the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game, which became my pre-game warm-up for my DC Adventures game. Because the game reinforced so many comic book superhero tropes, it was a great lead-in to a night of playing costumed adventurers.

The reason I mention both of these super-powered games in the lead up to this review is due in part to the fact that several of the designers of Marvel Heroic were tapped to design the Sentinels of the Multiverse Roleplaying game, and it doesn’t take the Wraith’s portable forensics kit to see those fingerprints on the game.

How Do These Heroes Assemble?

My review of this game is based on both the physical Starter Kit and the PDF version of the product. The artwork and layout are simple, colorful, and evocative for both versions of the product, but this is one case where I think the presentation is hurt a bit if you are utilizing only the PDF version of the product.

The physical version of the product has a cover with references on the inside, that wrap around the bundle of other booklets. Inside this cover are two bookmarks advertising the upcoming Kickstarter for the core rulebook and The Letter’s Page, the podcast dedicated to discussing the fictional history of the comic book setting portrayed in the Sentinels games. In addition to the bookmarks, the following booklets are present:

  • Gameplay Guide (20 pages)
  • Character Booklets (six total, for Absolute Zero, Bunker, Legacy, Tachyon, Unity, and Wraith; all 4 pages plus covers, which have references and character histories on them)
  • Issues (six linked game scenarios titled and numbered to be consistent with an ongoing comic book series, all 10 pages, except the final issue, which is 14 pages)

These all feature the same style of artwork (from Adam Rebottaro) that appears in the other Sentinels games, and there are numerous color-coded call outs and bullet-pointed lists throughout. The biggest issue is that the content being sequestered in different booklets works well for the physical product, but makes the PDFs a little unwieldy.

Gameplay Guide

The Gameplay Guide walks players and GMs (here designated as the Game Moderator) through how to take actions and resolve scenes and then spends some time talking about how to utilize the other material in the Starter Kit.

Marvel Heroic used some terminology from Fate but did so in a manner that was a little different than how those elements are used in Fate. The Sentinels of the Multiverse game takes this Fate emulation one step further, and borrows the concept of having a list of basic actions under which almost everything in the game will be defined. The actions as defined by the game are:

  • Overcome
  • Attack
  • Boost or Hinder
  • Defend

Taking those actions involves assembling a die pool from applicable traits, rated in die sizes, from a character’s sheet. The three sections that you refer to are Powers, Qualities, and Status. If your flight power is the most relevant to the action you are describing, that’s the one you add to the pool. If you have nothing in a pool that is relevant, you can use a d4 instead of the rating of any of your traits, which are similarly expressed as die sizes.

For Overcome or Boost or Hinder actions, a chart will determine how successful you are with your action, while Attack directly subtracts from Health and Defend allows a character to subtract their result from incoming attacks. For most rolls, your result die is going to be the middle number of the three you rolled, but different abilities might allow you to use the highest die as your result die, or to add others together.

In the end, it comes across as using even more of a Fate framework, while still retaining the die step Cortex mechanics, but eliminating the Doom Pool for some set opposition values and adding in a Health pool to characters.

Abilities allow you to add extra effects to one of the standard options when you use certain abilities under certain circumstances. For example, when Absolute Zero uses his Cold power, if he uses the Defend action, he can use the highest die to defend an ally, and use the smallest die to boost them as well.

Not Heroes

Villains are built in a manner similar to heroes, but lieutenants and minions are represented with a single die type, which is the only die they roll on their turn. Attacking them causes them to attempt to roll over the damage or be removed from the scene, or have their die type lowered by one until they are removed.

People familiar with the card game probably remember that the environment gets its own turn in that game, and that is true of the RPG as well. The environment gets a turn, which may allow it to do things like taking one of the standard actions or spawning new opposition. Additionally, there is a Scene Tracker that advances once everyone has taken a turn. If the Scene Tracker advances to the end of its track, there is usually some detrimental effect that the heroes have failed to stop. This may mean a bomb goes off, the villains escape, are any number of other plot elements.

Altering Probabilities

In some cases, heroes can accept a twist, which can be minor or major, which allows them a partial success in situations that otherwise went against them. This may mean new opponents appear, or the hero is hindered for the rest of the scene, and both the sample heroes and the environments have example minor and major twists to draw from.

Characters can also pick up hero points or develop collections. Heroes can gain up to five hero points in one session which they can convert to floating bonuses in the next session, and for each game session they can give that session a “name,” and once you complete a story arc, you can gather those sessions into a Collection. Each collection you have allows you to invoke the collection for several special effects. To do this, the player cites something that happened in that collection that could be a flashback or an editor’s note in the current comic, which allows the players to manipulate the scene.

Overall, the game feels like a nice refinement of what was introduced in Marvel Heroic. The actions are clearly defined, and I like the idea of powers adding “kickers” to standard actions. That said, the way hero points are explained feels a little clunky. It feels nonintuitive to earn something for the next session, but to track it in the current session. Additionally, I don’t think I fully understood how the bonuses worked until I saw them expressed on the character sheets. I like the idea of invoking past collections to selectively use continuity from the past to modify the present—there is something very appropriate to that reasoning in a comics RPG.


Character Booklets

Each of the six character booklets contains a character sheet, a summary of the rules, and a walk-through of the various parts of the character sheet. The back page of each character booklet has a multi-paragraph history of the character, explaining who they are and how they got their powers.

  • Each character has principles that guide their actions and provide some minor or major twists, and contribute some of the abilities that can modify their die rolls
  • There are sections showing the die ratings for their Powers and Abilities, and the health range where they shift from green, to yellow, to red
  • When either the character or the environment is in the yellow or red zones, more abilities are available to the character than when both are in the green zone at the start of a scene—essentially, a hero is pushed to accomplish more the higher the stakes become
  • There is an “Out” ability at the bottom of the track that the character can use to contribute even when their character has been removed from the scene due to their health dropping to zero

The Freedom Five and their former intern are a good cross-section of heroes to use as introductory heroes, and include a character with cold powers, a power suit hero, a flying powerhouse, a speedster, a martial arts and gadget using vigilante, and someone that manipulates technology and electricity.

There is no section anywhere in the rules on building your own heroes, so while you might be able to mix and match some of the other rules to make your own scenarios, it will probably take a little bit more effort to reverse engineer the principles and abilities to create heroes that aren’t at least a little similar to the ones presented.


The Starter Kit includes six issues, linked scenarios to play to introduce the game and the status quo of the setting going into the new core RPG. Each booklet is designed to be about a two-hour session, and the middle three “crossover” issues can be played in any order, until everything funnels back to the final issue of the collection, and reveals the villain behind all the events portrayed across the rest of issues.

The overall story arc involves helping another team of heroes come back together after they have gone their separate ways, while discovering the identity of a mysterious villain that has been manipulating the course of the whole series of events.

I love how these adventures are laid out. There are very clear sections explaining the starting point of the adventure, what adventures should feed into this one, what the stakes are for the individual scenes, what happens if the heroes succeed or fail, and the assumed steps it takes to complete various tasks.

I knew I was in love when I realized that things like tactics were bullet-pointed, and resolution steps are given checkboxes to call them out.

Again, I love how the adventures are laid out, and all the setup and connective tissue sections in them. I really wish more adventures looked like this. That said, the specific impact of bringing the other team of heroes back together, the new heroes encountered, and the revealed villain don’t feel as if they are going to have as much impact if you are picking this game up because it looks like a fun supers RPG versus if you are picking this up because you already follow the card or miniatures games and have delved into the lore of the setting.

It’s even a little tricky to give the players a primer on why the villain reveal might be important, since it turns into “hey, this guy is really important to the setting and has been a thorn in your side for a while—who knows where he went, but he’s probably not coming up in these adventures, right?”

Green Zone Resolution mechanics are simple, and adding a secondary effect for the standard actions is a really nice way to model specialized uses of powers. 

The artwork is wonderful, the formatting calls out rules and examples well, and the bright colors are in perfect keeping with the source material. Resolution mechanics are simple, and adding a secondary effect for the standard actions is a really nice way to model specialized uses of powers. I really like the visual representation of the zone tracker and scene objectives, and how they help to highlight the stakes in the scene.

Red Zone

As a Starter Kit, this is designed to primarily play the included heroes for the 12 hours of assumed play. There are some guidelines for coming up with very basic scenes of your own, but building new heroes or villains will require some reverse engineering that may be beyond the time you want to invest in the game. The mechanics are simple and work well for the genre, but in a few places, the explanation for those mechanics feels a little clunkier than it could be.

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

This game looks like a lot of fun, and I hope that it helps to nudge other publishers towards more table friendly adventure presentation. It seems to emulate fast paced super heroics well. Unfortunately, some of the impact of the product is based on knowledge of the setting, and as an introductory product, it’s hard to maintain excitement when we don’t have a date for the actual Kickstarter yet, or a projected release date for the core rules (a recent episode of The Letters Page mentioned a possible early 2019 release date, meaning that there could be over a year from Starter Kit release to full rules).

Definitely worth checking out for people interested in adventure formatting, dice step mechanics, or the setting itself, but it may be worth noting that the full version of the game may still be a little way off. From all indications, it should be worth the wait, but the degree to which you want to get a sneak peek may be a determining factor on how soon you pick this up.

One further recommendation that I don’t usually make—because of how the components are structured, this is one where I recommend the physical product if you have the space for it. Additionally, make sure to pick up the PDF from an outlet other than the Greater Than Games site, as the webstore limits your downloads.

What do you think of supers games? Where you a fan of Marvel Heroic? Are you more likely to check out a supers game with a strong connection to a setting, or would you rather have a solid framework without a setting? I’m looking forward to hearing from all of you, and thanks!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Mashups & Conceptual Writing In Roleplaying Games Pt. 1

12 February 2018 - 5:00am

Recycling isn’t just for paper & plastics anymore. Turns out you can recycle anything, even art. A popular exercise in many internet music circles is the Mashup, two or more distinct tracks chopped & screwed together to make one new piece of art, that would not have been possible without the presence of the old. I’m a fan of mashups, they allow me a new perspective on both the old and the new and I’m fascinated by the effort that goes into the more complicated ones. Introduce identifiable and distinct elements that together create a new experience rather than altering existing structures to create a new lens on which to experience the art of roleplaying games. 

Mashups turn the experience of enjoying music from a passive one (Artist creates music, I listen to music) into an active one (Artist creates music, I listen to music, I transform music into something new, gaining new appreciation for the original and enjoying a hand in creation, someone down the line enjoys the transformed music). On a basic level all roleplaying games are mashups. At some stage the designer of an RPG has created a piece of art. Game books are fantastic artifacts, the best of them featuring elegantly composed text, evocative artwork, mechanics presented in ways that inspire us upon reading. We as consumers of these products take them and transform them on our own, processing all of the art (visual, mechanical, and textual) and perform this transformation live at the table for people who then (hopefully) enjoy the experience.

We are the medium through which the original art has been processed, and no two GMs will produce the same game.

But I’m always interested in pushing one step farther into analysis, so I’m looking for more ways to mashup RPGs, to transform the art and have a more active role in the production of my experience. A common practice among gamers is to hack their favorite games, to alter and transform the mechanics of games to produce something new. Hacking to me feels more like remixing music, similar to making mashups but not quite what I’m after. Certainly the practices I’ll describe here could be seen as hacking, but the intent here is not to alter or change a game’s structure or execution, but rather to introduce identifiable and distinct elements that together create a new experience rather than altering existing structures to create a new lens on which to experience the art of roleplaying games.

People don't mix and match PbtA playbooks nearly as much as I want.

— James Malloy, Tide Commercial (@AndTheMeltdowns) January 23, 2018

One way to run a mashup game is to utilize character options from compatible systems, for example, running a vibrant Beacon from Magpie Games’ Super-Youths game, Masks in the melodramatically black & white Noir World by John Adamus. Game systems like Cypher, D20, PbtA, all build themselves off of the same engines, which makes it easy to smooth out any wrinkles in combining their different elements. Think of this like taking two music tracks that have the same key and tempo and mixing & matching. If I take this class from this game, the feats from this other one, and the spell list from a third, I’ve created either an unplayable nightmare or an optimization board’s dream. Where the final cog in the equation comes in is justifying the disparate parts and finding the synthesis that makes the whole concoction sing. Mashups need to go beyond “here are two things that are now one”, they need to have a thematic throughline that produces the magic. What does it mean that these elements come together, what do you get out of this new combination? What message is your story telling if The Beacon, a paragon of optimism, finds themselves in the gritty world of film noir? Your job will be to make that story fit, and make the mashup compelling.

Join me in the next article for another way to mashup your RPG experience that redefines how you approach some of your favorite texts.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Difficult Decisions In Your Game

9 February 2018 - 6:07am

“You could wear the suit,” he said to me, in his most logical, persuasive voice, “and then she wouldn’t get hurt. I know you love her.”  If this were real life, it would be tragic, but since it’s a rousing game of Fiasco, it’s fun. I stared at him, speechless — do I don the suit that will inevitably catch me on fire, or watch the love of my life put it on instead, and hope that I can save her? My indecision becomes a decision, and I’m there to witness the consequences of my actions. If this were real life, it would be tragic, but since it’s a rousing game of Fiasco, it’s fun. I love having to make difficult decisions as a character, to see what I think they would do and weigh their past experiences and the narrative and make the most interesting choice. These kinds of decisions are key challenges for your players.

What Do I Mean By Difficult Decision?

Before we jump into how to think about decisions, let’s get a quick definition out there:

Decision: a conclusion or resolution reached after consideration. In psychology, decision-making is regarded as the cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several alternative possibilities.

Difficult: needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand.

So a difficult decision in a game is when you are presented with two or more possibilities whose outcomes are hard to weigh between — for instance, do you wear the flaming suit, or do you let your evil manager put it on the girl you’re in love with? Both outcomes are bad, but maybe if you’re not wearing the suit you can save her fast enough? Except what if you can’t get to her in time? Or, for a less Fiasco decision, do you hand the magical book of instant wish granting over to the evil cultists in exchange for the safety of the city you protect, or do you save the world at the possible cost of your home and loved ones?

 Fun from challenges is the fun of overcoming obstacles, and what is a difficult decision if not an emotional obstacle for us in game?  We game to fulfill many different needs. Sometimes it’s just fun, and sometimes it’s an exploration of ourselves, our world, and our society. If we talk about the kind of fun that difficult decisions are, I see them as one of the inherent challenges of RPGs (a reference to the 8 Types of Fun). Fun from challenges is the fun of overcoming obstacles, and what is a difficult decision if not an emotional obstacle for us in game? Full disclosure, I have a game in joint development right now called Turning Point that is an exploration of how humans make decisions. It is, at its core, the game of hard decision making. The challenge of a hard decision is one of the things that draws me to gaming.

Why Include Difficult Decisions In Your Game?
  • They add conflict and interest to your games, both internal to the players making a decision, and to the table as a whole. The choices they make will affect both their characters and their world as they go forward. They add depth to the characters, the world, and the narrative.
  • It’s a moment to make your PCs stop and think instead of just smash, smash, smash. When they are presented with no clear positive or negative outcome, they have to think, or possibly even look outside the box for more creative answers.
  • It’s safe to make hard decisions in games—it is pretend, after all, no matter how the outcome goes. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun if it goes badly, because our consequences are imaginary and can be left in the game. Real life doesn’t let us fail gracefully, but in an RPG, we can.
  • Your game table can be a safe place to explore moral dilemmas because again, the consequences are imaginary. Even so, we take the memory of making those decisions with us, and from a purely social standpoint, those experiences can help us when we come to decision points in our own lives.
How Do You Make a Decision Difficult?
  • Have clear stakes. When you present them with the problem or situation, lay out clearly what is at risk here. Will the hostage be killed if they make a wrong move? Will the priceless artifact they’ve been hunting for weeks tip in to the pool of lava if they don’t choose wisely?
  • Raise the stakes. Once you have clear stakes, or if the stakes are known, raise them. Hit them where they hurt—in the feels, in the wallet, whatever it is that motivates your players. Does their baby sister turn out to be the big bad? What happens if they take her out? What happens if they don’t?
  • Make no clear positive or negative course of action. Work in shades of gray. If that’s the PCs baby sister chanting on the pedestal while she plunges the sacrificial knife downwards, do they know if she’s possessed? What if they can save her? What if they can’t?

The most difficult decisions I’ve ever made are some of the best gaming memories I have. I always hope that I am making difficult decisions for my players too—these decisions also make truly interesting stories. What are some decisions you’ve presented your players with?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #34 – Directing the Camera

8 February 2018 - 4:34am

Lights! Podcast! Action! Join Ang, Matt, and Tracy on this episode of the Gnomecast for a discussion based on John’s Gnome Stew article “Directing the Camera.” Can these gnomes’ cinematic approach to describing roleplaying game action save them from the stew this week?

This episode references All Flesh Must Be Eaten, designed by George Vasilakos and published by Eden Studios, Inc.

Visit Gnome Stew, check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

Learn more about Tracy’s projects at The Other Tracy, follow him on Twitter at @TheOtherTracy, and check out TheOtherCast on Patreon.

Learn more about Matt’s projects on his Gnome Stew page.

Follow Ang on Twitter at @orikes13 or find her in the Misdirected Mark G+ Community.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

100 Dungeon Descriptors Table

7 February 2018 - 6:00am

Nothing fancy today, just a list of dungeon descriptors, helpfully listed in d100 format. Oftentimes I find myself wanting to make a new dungeon or area and am short on ideas. This list is useful for inspiration, kickstarting design with an idea or two about which ideas can be formed. Alternately, you can pick one or two as overarching themes and then flavor smaller areas with another selection. Of course you may need to get creative if you end up with conflicting descriptors that make no sense together, but if it’s too bizarre you can always ignore the one you like least and/or roll again.

Here’s an example: We’ll go with an area with two random descriptors and three sub areas each with an additional descriptor of it’s own. Our rolls* are 9, 53 , 51, 14, 90. That gives us main traits of Icy and Rectangular rooms. So we have a start of an idea. Rectangular rooms is pretty standard dungeon stuff. Icy implies cold or ice creatures and a certain environment. Maybe this is high in the mountains, deep underground, a magical cold, or far to the north/south. We’ll decide later. Our three sub zones are Large scale, Geothermal, and Non-euclidean. Giant is easy. So we have a giants’ castle in the high mountains covered in frost and ice. Under the castle we’ve got a series of geothermically active caverns. We could go fire elemental here, but I like making the geothermal energy a power source for the giant’s castle better. So the castle has steam driven gates and other cool steam type devices, as well as few “ice giant engineers”, although no steam heat. In the caverns themselves, there are a few ice giant taskmasters (nearly naked because of the heat) and a bunch of slaves that maintain the steam pipes. Beyond the castle, carved into the mountain is a series of rooms with odd magical geometry. Let’s combine that with the ice to have sliding traps and block puzzles that rely on the non euclidean nature of the space, placed to protect some appropriate artifact. On advice of my test audience, we’ll also add some man sized blind penguins and ice-template gibbering mouthers to this area. That even gives us three adventure hooks: against the giants, free the slaves, capture the relic.

  1. Wet: Moldy – damp, and mold grows everywhere
  2. Wet: Flooded  – ankle to waist deep water everywhere
  3. Wet: Underwater – entire place is underwater
  4. Wet: Rotten – sodden, and everything is ruined, turning into mush
  5. Dry: Crumbling – dry rot, crumbling stone
  6. Dry: Dusty – a layer of dust and grit cover everything
  7. Dry: Parched – dry air that makes you thirsty and uncomfortable
  8. Dry: Dehydrating – moving air the pulls moisture away, full of mummified husks of small creatures, etc…
  9. Cold: Icy – covered with a layer of ice, formations on walls and ceiling
  10. Cold: Clammy – cold and damp air, works through your clothes
  11. Cold: Glacial – biting cold, walls of ice
  12. Cold: Crisp – cool but invigorating
  13. Hot: Smoldering – piles of still warm ash, may have low oxygen levels
  14. Hot: Steamy – geothermal vents, geysers, etc…
  15. Hot: Magma – flows of magma (1500k about 3 times as hot as a campfire, 500k) in large rooms, heat may dissipate enough to approach, in small rooms maybe not
  16. Hot: Warm – general warmer temperature
  17. Live: Positive aura – depending on the strength, area may be covered in growth or items may animate or burst into frantic activity
  18. Live: Swarming – filled with large swarms of vermin
  19. Live: Live rock – dripping mineral water creates slow growing formations
  20. Live: Genius loci – a spirit caretaker oversees the area
  21. Dead: Bodies – corpses litter the area
  22. Dead: Negative aura – may cause a feeling of illness or unease, bolster undead or even damage the living
  23. Dead: Ruined – once worked the area is falling apart
  24. Dead: Eerie – feelings of being watched, prickling of the skin, etc…
  25. Vegetation: Overgrown/roots – plant growth and hanging roots block passages and cluster about the ground
  26. Vegetation: Flowering – strange cave flowers grow or sprout from bushes or vines
  27. Vegetation: Fungus/mold – large fungi or molds grow throughout the area
  28. Vegetation: Gardens – carefully tended (once?) gardens dot the area
  29. Natural: Solution caves – caves formed by minerals dissolving, often wet
  30. Natural: Lava tubes – formed by magma flowing out of a space, stone is hard, rooms are tunnel like
  31. Natural: Fracture caves – full of debris,  layers of rock collapse to form caves
  32. Natural: Erosion caves – made by action of wind or water wearing down rock, may have strong winds or high tide
  33. Manufactured: Hewn – crudely carved out of rock, surface still shows tool marks
  34. Manufactured: Supported – soft stone supported by columns or beams
  35. Manufactured: Rough Brick – simple stone bricks carved from rock shore up and finish walls
  36. Manufactured: Advanced Brick – smaller, fancier, or simply better made stone bricks
  37. Sounds: Whistling – sound of wind forced through tight passages or over odd formations
  38. Sounds: Rumbling – perhaps an indication this area is unstable or of seismic activity
  39. Sounds: Battle noises – inhabitants often get in noisy conflict
  40. Sounds: Moaning – the wind? or something more sinister?
  41. Smells: Decay – death, decomposition, mold
  42. Smells: Dirt – the smell of earth and dirt
  43. Smells: Chemicals – strange acrid brews, sickly sweet tangs, some kind of strange chemicals are on the air
  44. Smells: Metal – the distinct smell and taste of metal, is this a metallurgists, a mine, or just an ore rich area?
  45. Denizens: Beast – area is populated with animals, predators, scavengers etc…
  46. Denizens: Lowlives – slimes, fungus monsters and insects
  47. Denizens: Magical – elementals, undead, constructs and other unnatural things
  48. Denizens: Humanoids – primitive or advanced humanoid tool users
  49. Scale: Tight – small rooms, tight passages, crawling and squeezing through tunnels
  50. Scale: Standard – normal room and passage scale
  51. Scale: Large – larger passways, huge rooms, perhaps natural or built by giants
  52. Scale: Mixed – a mix of scales, often natural but also a characteristic of an area inhabited by different sizes of creature
  53. Shapes: Rectangles – standard square and rectangular rooms
  54. Shapes: Ellipse – circles and ellipses
  55. Shapes: Angled – angled rooms other than squares and rectangles, triangles, hexagons, unusual shapes…
  56. Shapes: Natural – caves and natural passages
  57. Maintenance: Maintained – the area is being maintained, passably clean and repairs are made
  58. Maintenance: Expanding – the area is maintained and new areas are being built on the edges
  59. Maintenance: Abandoned – no one is doing maintenance, most things still work but some don’t and wear is obvious
  60. Maintenance: Collapsing – no one has done maintenance for a long time, few things work, most are broken, missing, or destroyed
  61. Airy: Strong winds – winds howl through the rooms and halls, light items are blown away, doors may be flung open or characters pushed down
  62. Airy: Cavernous – huge open caverns with vaulted ceilings
  63. Airy: Chasms – deep chasms voids and pits
  64. Airy: Open – one monstrous cavern with discrete areas within, sneak a little overland into your dungeon
  65. Architecture: Monolithic – huge construction from large slabs of rock
  66. Architecture: Sparse – clean unadorned construction
  67. Architecture: Embellished – covered with engravings, runes, patterns, etc…
  68. Architecture: Stylistic – an unusual or alien style
  69. Obscured: Foggy – mists, steam or fog blanket the area
  70. Obscured: Screened – webs, vines or other obstructions shroud the area
  71. Obscured: Magic darkness – rooms or the entire area is covered in magical darkness
  72. Obscured: Twisty – no special obstruction, just very few straight passages so vision only extends to the next bend
  73. Size: Small – your classic 5 room dungeon
  74. Size: Medium – larger complex, 5-15 rooms
  75. Size: Large – larger yet, 20-50 rooms
  76. Size: Extra large – sprawling multi-“zone” area
  77. Unique: Architecture – contains a unique piece of architecture, statuary, or other landmark
  78. Unique: Foe – contains a unique monster, NPC or the like
  79. Unique: Magic effect – contains a special magic effect, either an aura over the whole area or a specific feature like a magical portal or pool
  80. Unique: Treasure – has a special one of a kind treasure that may have its own backstory or associated quest
  81. Danger: Hazards – venomous critters, naturally occurring rockfalls, pits or fire gouts
  82. Danger: Traps – area is/was home to a trap builders and has many traps
  83. Danger: Monsters – area full of deadly monsters
  84. Danger: Curses – area holds curses or other magical dangers
  85. Treasure: Coin and items – standard treasures
  86. Treasure: Raw ore/gems – area has been or can be mined for raw ore and gems
  87. Treasure: Art – area has art objects that can be looted as treasure
  88. Treasure: Goods – not much in the way of treasure, but area has trade good that can be sold
  89. Magic: Changing – shifting walls, moving rooms and other tricks
  90. Magic: Non-euclidean – the area has a definite arrangement but its full of portals, bends in reality or other weirdness that make it difficult to map
  91. Magic: Wild – magic in this area acts unpredictable
  92. Magic: Null – magic in this area is suppressed or nullified
  93. Crystal: Studded – walls are studded with raw crystal
  94. Crystal: Monsters – monsters in this area are weird crystal versions or crystal themed monsters
  95. Crystal: Walls – this area is carved from a massive crystal deposit, glass or obsidian
  96. Crystal: Items – furniture, decorative items, tools, and weapons in this area are all made of crystals
  97. Technology: Stone – denizens of this area use stone age technology
  98. Technology: Bronze – foes in this area use bronze or another soft metal
  99. Technology: Steel – this area has steel or another hard metal technology
  100. Technology: Steam – this area features early steam tech


*Using my Polyhero Wizard dice, because they’re what I have on hand. Now I can use the old “mad wizard” excuse when players look at me funny.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

How to Create When You’re Angry

5 February 2018 - 5:29am


Whew, there’s a lot to be angry about in our current American political climate. That’s not the only reason you might be angry though. If you’re anything like me, your emotions could spike because you got into a stupid internet argument, the local government bureaucracy is inhumanely disorganized, or your chronic pain is high that day. Emotions just happen! So what to do when they’re distracting you from designing an amazing setting or prepping for your PbTA game tonight? I’ve developed some techniques that might be useful for you, too.

Hack Your Brain

I love hacking my brain and one of the most useful hacks I’ve learned is to smile when you’re angry. It will trick your brain into feeling happier, because the brain associates that movement with laughter or happiness. Seriously your brain is that dumb. It’s incredible how we can influence our feelings with the chemicals in our bodies. Do the equivalent of smiling with your creativity. So make something that is silly, or wholesome, or makes you laugh.
I love hacking my brain and one of the most useful hacks I’ve learned is to smile when you’re angry.


Are you really angry? Like Hulk angry? Channel those feelings into whatever monster you’re creating for the PCs of your game to encounter. Write something angry. Focus on venting what you feel and you might even feel better afterwards too. I usually do! It’s also really authentic to use what you’re feeling in whatever you’re designing.

Be Gentle With Yourself

It’s ok if you’re angry you’re allowed to feel that way. Sometimes we focus so much on anger having the stigma of a “negative” emotion that we forget it’s important to feel all emotions and none of them are bad. Write a little then take a break to really stew like one of those anime characters brooding with lines coming off their head. Then make yourself go back to creating that really cool witch teacher NPC that’ll feature in tonight’s game.

Sandwich with Self Care

This one might be my favorite because I looooooooove pampering myself. Put on a face mask with coffee and watch a half hour of youtube to chill. Then write for a few hours. Then make yourself a smoothie and have some cute time with your snake. The care will help you get into creative mode despite the stupid emotions. Bonus, you’ll get a reward after you’ve been designing for a little while.
 Then write for a few hours. Then make yourself a smoothie and have some cute time with your snake. 

Give Into The Anger

Dark side of the force style, you know, like emo shirtless Kylo Ren, only more productive and less evil. Admitting you’re angry is really half the battle. Allow yourself some time to reach out for emo support among your friends and family before you start creating. Usually when I do this I remember the clever amazing queen I am, and it helps heal my heart. With renewed vigor I then go on to create without this anger bullshit weighing me down as much.

Just Do It

I know, I know “but Kira if I could just do it I wouldn’t be here reading this helpful list.” Sometimes when the rest of me is saying nooooo I don’t wanna, it’s the best time to sit down and just do it, because I’ve made it way harder in my head than it actually is. It might be hard to convince yourself to take this route cause too many emotions, but I’ve found this is one of the most effective strategies. If you wanna get it done, just do it.

I hope you can put these techniques to good use, and they help you overcome those angery feels and create some awesome things for your friends or your game designs.


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Trello For Campaign Management

2 February 2018 - 7:30am

I’m fairly surprised that Phil isn’t writing this article. He’s my go-to person for organizational and project management tools to use for gaming, since he does it in his day job and project manages many gaming books and projects that I’ve been involved with. He knows his stuff, so I’m kind of proud that I’m scooping him on this.*
(*I’m using Scoop in a very broad way, since I’m sure he’s done this in some form, but it doesn’t look like he’s written an article about it yet.)

So, onto the story. I’m running a campaign that I started at a meetup to broaden my current gaming group and built through the first parts of buying a house, transitioning to a new job, and packing everything and moving. I haven’t been the most organized in keeping my game notes about sessions and planning forward. I’ve got a hundred scraps of notes about things I’ve done in the game, I’ve got 3 bullet point lists of the plot ideas for the next sessions and I’ve got NPCs names and plans written down, but sometimes when I’ve introduced an element on the fly, I forget to add it all in.

Trello To The Rescue

So, I’ve been running the game, 6 or 7 sessions, trying to remember the names of the NPCs or exactly where on the map I put that organization’s base, all while looking through my half-unpacked gaming stuff to see where I threw those notes on that one list, and I finally realize how I should have been doing this all along – Trello. I use it for work, I use it for writing and art direction projects, I use it to organize my daily life, so why the heck am I not using it to keep track of my gaming stuff? I started up a Trello board for my campaign and this is what it looks like:

After a few weeks of use, there are many benefits to using Trello to organize a campaign.

  • A List for every Category – I can make a list for each category of things. I can make one for locations, one for people, one for organizations, one for loot, etc. Whatever is useful to my game structure, I can make one list for that and plan it out.
  • A Card For Every Element – Every element I create can be a card, and can contain useful information about that element (more on this later. In Trello’s framework, the cards I create can be moved between lists, which makes it incredibly versatile for planning and for note keeping. I can create a macguffin card that has all the information I need to know about the element, and I can move it from list to list as it becomes useful to that area. Perhaps the macfguffin is going to be part of the next session, so I can move it to the Current Session list and visually connect it to other elements that I have moved there.
  • Trello Cards Contain Multitudes – A card in trello can have many elements. It can have attachments (like images for reference), it can have a description and a title (the base concept of the element), it can have links (such as to a music file that serves as the elements theme music), and it can have multiple checklists. I find the checklists useful, since I can make ones for properties, ones for GM specific elements, ones for plans that the NPC I’ve attached it to has, etc.
  • Non-linear Visualization – One of my favorite gaming theories is adventure and campaign design through Island Design Theory (I wrote about it on GS and for Unframed), and using a Trello board is a great way to organize based on this. I can set up the elements, add to them as the game goes along, and move them between containers, all without visualizing in my mind what is going to happen, but what all elements are in play and how easily they could change.
  • Session Logging – Trello can also serve well as a session logger. While I keep the bulk of the information for an element attached to the card for the element, I can make a card at the wrap up of each session and type into a checklist there all the things of note that happened. This serves as a great, bullet point list to reference later. I can then open up other cards and add to them as needed, but I have one single log of the session. I can keep all the previous sessions on a list for previous sessions and I can copy and paste those session logs for the players to have a running, broad log.
Trello’s Utility As A Cross Platform Device And Archive For Old Games

I can keep Trello’s app up on my tablet and enter notes or reference things that I set up on my computer previously. I can add a note or reference the image attached to a card and wave my tablet at the players so they can see the image without revealing other elements about the element. I can always enter notes as needed on the cards, then move back to the computer since it is all hosted on trello’s servers.

One of the beautiful things about the Trello board is that it can be exported or saved on the server so that you can reference it at some later point in time. I have folders and binders and notebooks full of old campaign information, mostly for nostalgia’s sake. I also have a half unpacked gaming space and constant questions about why I’m keeping certain things around in physical file formats. Trello, alongside its export feature, means I can store my campaigns digitally and save them to archival quality CDs if I am concerned about the long-term storage of my campaigns, at a fraction of the physical space. While I have no idea how future proofed Trello as a service is, the export format is JSON, which is a very popular format that will likely be readable in some format when we’re all heads in jars at the head museum.

Campaign Organization

I’ve become a big fan of tools that let me organize my campaigns digitally. I’m familiar with Trello due to other ways it intersects with my life, but I’ve used programs like Basecamp, Google Drive, And Slack for campaigns as well. Trello is made to organize projects, and that dovetails nicely with the utility needed for organizing a campaign. The fact that it is free is, of course, a major selling point to being able to test it out and try it. If I want to share it with other people for feedback, adding team members or making the board public is an option. Trello hits a lot of sweet spots for me to keep campaigns organized, but it’s certainly not the only way.

Everyone has a different method of campaign organization, and having the right tool to keep some structure to your plans can help you feel more confident in your improvisation. What is your preferred method of campaign and game organization? Have you used Trello or an alternative? What worked and what didn’t?

Categories: Game Theory & Design


31 January 2018 - 1:21am

I wrote a tweet Monday night, playing off of a meme, and it went a little viral.

Is your child texting about Dungeons & Dragons?

LOL: Loads of Liches

FFS: Feather Fall Saves

LMAO: Longswords, Maces, Armor, Oozes

TTYS: Tell the Treant You're Sorry

STFU: Subterranean Tunnels, Frightening Underdark

IMO: In Mordenkainen's Opinion

— Tracy (@TheOtherTracy) January 30, 2018

It got me to thinking: every culture has its own acronyms, so why not cultures in the D&D settings? So, for your convenience and entertainment, here are the most popular acronyms in some of my favorite D&D settings.


SUL: Strahd’s Unrequited Love

FTDP: Find the Damn Phylactery

VTAAA: Vecna Tries Again, Again, and Again

BIFL: Barovia is for Lovers

DKL: Death Knight, Lovely

Dark Sun

DMD: Despoilers Must Die

AHSK: All Hail the Sorcerer-Kings

TIYB: Thri-Keen In Your Brain

HCS: Holy Crap, Sand

NGHM: No Gods Here, Mate


BTMB: By Tanis’ Mighty Beard!

ZIPYF:, Zifnab is Paladine, You Fools

SLHO: Soth Lived Here, Once

OSP: Otik’s Spiced Potatoes

BTC: Before the Calaclysm


MCR: Modrons Coming! RUN!

ADWD: Angel Drinking With a Devil

LPB: Lady of Pain, Berk

PIC: Pike It, Cutter!

ADCBAPATWWYBB: Any Door Could Be a Portal and Then Where Would You Be, Blood?

Forgotten Realms

WDEHI: Why Doesn’t Elminster Handle It?

DFC: Disease from Chult

HRZD: Harpers Rule, Zhentarim Drool

RBRMBANE: Reality’s Been Rewritten, Must Be a New Edition

TLOMSPBIHDSSASOMPCSBSITPSSTWA: The Lord of Murder Shall Perish, But in His Doom Shall Spawn a Score of Mortal Progeny, Chaos Shall Be Sown in Their Passage, So Sayeth the Wise Alaundo


GLG: Giffs Love Guns

TTMAB: To the Moons and Back

FCS: Freaking Crystal Spheres

SIS: Screw Illithids, Seriously

MGSHFR: Miniature Giant Space Hamster, Really??

Have any acronyms you think would come up in these settings? Drop them in the comments!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Online Play and Table Control

29 January 2018 - 3:00am

She must be playing Call of Catthulhu.

One of the most exciting things the internet has given us (in my opinion) is the ability to play role playing games with geographically distant folks. Playing online solves a number of problems—having trouble meeting like minded gamers in your area? Don’t have child care? Really want to play with your friends in New York, Illinois, and Canada? Ice storm? No problem! The internet is here—with streaming video, handy mapping systems, and dice rolling plugins—to save us! But GMing online comes with some extra challenges that are amplified from playing at an in person table. How can you mitigate these to make playing online the best experience you can?

Some quick definitions

Firstly, so that we’re clear, by playing online I mean you are playing via Google hangouts, Skype, Roll20, etc., and not at a physical table. Specifically, you’re all remote from each other—playing with one or two people remote and other people local presents its own set of challenges, which I have not personally found an effective solution for. (If you have one let me know in the comments!)

Secondly, table control is the ability of the GM to socially keep the table on track or bring it back to order after breaks etc. Table control in person looks like this:

  • Reading verbal and nonverbal cues to push the game faster or slow it down
  • Managing the amount of out-of-game talk to keep it appropriate for your game and play style
  • Managing social dynamics at the table
  • Making sure the spotlight is spread around
  • Making sure no one is bored
  • Making sure everyone is safe
So What’s Different?

 And of course, there are always audio and video glitches, blurs, freezing, and the most fun part where you all turn into Autobots or Decepticons. 

Online, you are responsible for the same things, but you are going to face some different challenges. Online, especially depending on the video quality, it can be much harder to read nonverbal cues. It’s a lot easier to talk over each other, both due to the slight delay in audio, and because it’s easy to say things that would fall to the background at a table but that get picked up by a mic at full volume. It’s also tricky with a max volume of whatever output your players are using because you don’t have a way to raise your voice over everyone else’s to be heard if you need to get things back on track. And of course, there are always audio and video glitches, blurs, freezing, and the most fun part where you all turn into Autobots or Decepticons.

There’s no way to completely eliminate these issues, but there are some practices you can use to mitigate them as much as possible.

  • Use video as much as possible—it helps. Even if it’s blurry or when the quality is less than you might wish, you’ll still pick up more from posture and movement than you’ll get from audio only.
  • Ask for full attention. You’re not at a table. People are more likely to do things like have the Google Hangouts window open and also Twitter and Facebook. There are many more distractions readily available when your players are already looking at their computer screens.
  • Don’t mute other folks when it’s not their turn to talk—joining in on the laughter and small talk is how you create the energy feedback loop like you would have at a real table. If you’re having trouble with interrupting or talking over each other, address it as an online specific table issue, gently. Usually it’s because your players are so excited they just can’t help it! Don’t tell them their enthusiasm is bad, but do let them know we have to be more careful because of the technical limitations than we would at an actual table.
  • Do mute folks talking to their cats, husbands, children, roommates, etc. until they are back at full attention. Just because we’re all sitting at home doesn’t mean we should let those things put the game on hold for everyone. Let the player who needs to deal with another issue mute and carry on until they can rejoin you.
  • Be even more aware of your spotlight time—it’s easier to forget someone and harder to notice them losing interest. If someone hasn’t said anything in a while, it means their image hasn’t jumped up to take over the screen in front of you for just as long, and that makes it easier to miss folks who are starting to lose interest because they haven’t gotten to act.
  • Have cool digital versions of props people can get excited about and engage with—maps, pages of a book, etc. Things that are still exciting to interact with in digital (codes, puzzles, etc.) are best, over just images. Be aware that while there are many more tools that give you access to things like background sounds, many players can find this really hard to concentrate through, so it’s worth asking what is distracting vs. immersive.
  • It takes more energy output because the wire translation eats some of your effort. Know that if you are tired or stressed etc., or your players are tired/stressed etc., it will have an exponentially higher effect on your game. Be willing to refer to the final point below:
  • When all else fails, relax and do your best. Be willing to say when it’s not working and try again next time.

Having the internet gives us so many new options for playing RPGs in situations where we’ve previously been limited, but it definitely has its own challenges. Do you play games online? What are your best recommendations for keeping things going smoothly despite the lack of physical proximity?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Directing The Camera

24 January 2018 - 7:05am


I was playing in a game where Amit Moshe (City of Mists) was running us through a noir based supernatural game. As our characters were running around, using our powers to chase down a cult, and playing a generally narrative based game, Amit said something that solidified a bunch of nebulous thoughts I’d had about how to narrate things as a Game Master. Amit said “And now let’s direct the camera out from our current group, up over the rooftops of the misty city, and back down on the cultists at the old church…”.

Direct The Camera struck me in my brainpain and put a nice bow on a lot of narrative concepts I’ve worked with. I have a background in video production, at one point in time in my life having worked on audio and video production for sports, PBS stations, and corporate video, as well as my own projects. A lot of the similarities in putting together a dynamic and ever changing story that I love about gaming dovetail into what I love about movies and TV as a medium for telling a story with many avenues that information can be delivered. When Amit called out Directing The Camera, I realized how much I GMed in that style already – describing what might be seen by a viewer watching the TV show of the game I was running, putting together basic animations to start off campaigns, thinking of sessions as episodes in a story arc, etc. I’ve written many articles about it and even 1/3 of a book with a theme of a movie studio (Focal Point) to codify the GMing advice.

Looking Behind The Curtain

Calling out the movie-themed nature of the narrtive was a totally different step into the meta sphere that I’d never really considered taking, but in retrospect I realized how incredibly useful solidyfing that experience for the players can be. In many ways, the group at the table is the audience for the story they are telling, but their experience is of the actors and people pushing the story along. In a game that relies heavily on rails and structure, the group may be feeling much like the audience, feeding the machine with the proper actions to move it forwards, but in more open games the group feels their ability to modify the world first and often forgets that other things are going on around them. Directly calling out the “Camera” moves them temporarily into the audience perspective and directs their attention to the action in a way they may not have considered.

Moving the camera is as simple as saying that you are doing it. When you would otherwise describe that “the plasma blasts come flying through the air, impacting around you and leaving scorch marks on the metal walls”, imagine the epic way this would look if it were a movie, and call out the camera, like so:

“The guards blaster fires, and the camera swings away from you to the guards face, his eyes squint as he aims, the camera moves to the barrel of the gun with the light and plasma blast escaping from the end in slow motion. Fire flares out the exhaust vents on the side and the oval of light and sun-hot fire flies through the corridor in slow motion, moving past combatants, looking like it is standing still and the world is moving around it. As it reaches near you, the camera zooms out and the blast impacts in the wall right next to your head. Ok, what next.”

This narration, calling out the camera and taking the simple scenario and turning it into a cinematic moment, functions much like a cutscene in a video game would. Even if you don’t got into the same detail, the step aside from being actors in the action to being the audience creates a secondary perspective for the players, one of thinking of the action going on as a cinematic experience. They may already be imagining these incredible things in their head, but calling it out with a small bit of narration from the “camera’s” perspective, helps them do this alongside all of their thoughts about how to overcome the BBEG and when the pizza is going to arrive.

A Little Goes A Long Way

The technique of Directing the Camera is something that has a deep impact, and works well when focusing on the actions of NPCs, the reactions to incredible moments, and when revealing some information to the players in a more interesting way that you want them to focus in on. It isn’t the sort of thing that you want to use for every narrative element in your game. Narrating every attack this way would quickly make it wearisome and time consuming, but doing the first attack of the epic combat, or using a quick camera narration for every third or fourth attack of the boss as it really pummels a character with multiple attacks really inceases the narrative tension and engagement.

Directing the Camera is realy just a recategorization of a narrative technique that a Game Master already does. We already narrate the events as if there is a camera on them. Whether that camera is our own mind’s eye, the eye of an invisible audience member, or the eyes of a bystander in the scene we are describing, calling out the camera makes it an agent and puts the players in dual places – one within the action and one watching it. It’s almost like grabbing the player’s head and making them see things from a certain perspective, just without any physical assault at the game table.

What narrative techniques do you use to control the player’s perception? Have you found that breaking the 4th wall in this way increases or decreases immersion? Did you have a eureka moment like I did when Amit used the phrase in his game?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

When It’s Not Fun Anymore

22 January 2018 - 1:00am

I’ve hit a rut recently where a few bad experiences have soured me on role playing games. I’m still in love with the various card/board/dice games that I play at random with friends. However, I’m starting to dread cracking open the dice bag, whipping out my character sheet, and reading through the rule books for the RPGs. This put me on the trail to think about what I could possible do to inject more fun into the gaming experience.

Hit a Convention  Conventions are always a change of pace from your regularly scheduled games. 

Conventions are always a change of pace from your regularly scheduled games. You’re going to game with new people, experience new styles, and find a new game to fall in love with. I highly recommend signing up for sessions involving a game system you’ve never played before or are slightly familiar with. This will really shake things up, and you might find a new game to fall in love with. Sometimes, being disgruntled with RPGs isn’t RPGs themselves, but the fact that you’re doing the “same old, same old” week after week.

You may also find new people that are local to your gaming group that can be invited into the group to shake things up. Fresh blood and new ideas are a great way to get out of that rut of running or playing the same style of games, even if the game mechanics don’t change.

Play Something Old  It could be a one-shot or even a brief adventure that takes a few sessions. 

If you’ve been gaming long enough, there is at least one game (if not dozens of games) that you’ve fallen in love with in the past. Drag one of them off the back of the shelves, dust it off, refresh your memory of the rules, and fire up a new game with one of them. This doesn’t have to be a giant commitment of a multi-month campaign. It could be a one-shot or even a brief adventure that takes a few sessions. You’ll find new ideas, fresh takes, and a renewed sense of adventure with the old game. If you don’t own the game anymore, then it might be available as a PDF on one of the many online retailers of role playing game PDFs. I also highly recommend Noble Knight for finding out-of-print gaming materials. Many FLGSs have used RPG sections as well.

Play Something New

Speaking of an FLGS . . . head into your local shop and peruse games you don’t already own/play. Find one. Buy it. Play it with your group. If you’re not sure what to pick up, then talk to the shop employees. My FLGS, Gamer’s Haven, has a great staff with a wide variety of perspectives and high levels of experience in all things gaming. I’m lucky to have that. I hope you’re as lucky as I am. Tell the staff (in brief) what you’ve been playing and ask them for something that’s slightly (or drastically) different. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

Granted, in this situation, you’ll probably land in the GM’s chair and in a position to teach the game to your group. That’s fine. I have an article here on Gnome Stew about how to go about teaching a new system to a set of players. Yes, it will be more work than playing your regular game, but the payoff can be worth it to get you out of a rut.

Change Genres  Don’t drag too many genres into the game. 

If you’re playing a “generic” rule system (GURPS, Hero System, Fate, Savage Worlds, etc.), and you’ve been solidly in the “high fantasy” genre, then maybe it’s time to talk about dropping some cyberpunk action into your group. Maybe superheroes? What about urban fantasy, space opera, or weird westerns? You’ll be amazed at how a simple shift in genre can reignite the imagination and drop you back into enjoying the game.

I can also recommend mixing genres up (weird western with cybernetics and a horror theme anyone?) to really put you in a new mindset for gaming. A word of warning, though. Don’t drag too many genres into the game. It’ll be confusing, disjointing, give the players and GM too much to keep track of, and could unbalance the game as a player finds that “just right combo” of cybernetics, magic, the enchanted Colt Peacekeeper on his hip, and an android horse that allows amazing leaps over dry gullies.

Change Seats

If you’ve been the GM for a long time, maybe it’s time for you to be a player. Simplifying your game down to keeping track of a single character and her abilities can be amazingly refreshing. Honestly, it is quite a bit of work to prep for the game, build the world, track the NPCs, set up fair encounters, generate treasure, reward the players . . . and so on. Sometimes it’s exhausting, and this can lead to being disgruntled with the whole prospect of playing RPGs. Shifting to a chair that’s not behind the screen can be amazing. Just moving over one chair around the table makes all the difference in the world.

If you’re a player and aren’t challenged by what’s going on in the game, maybe it’s time to up your skills, step behind the screen, and take on the laundry list of things (and more) that I outlined above. I’m a firm believer that everyone should GM at least one adventure. It provides for new perspectives (and respect for fellow GMs), and can really entice a person who is stoutly “only a player” to open up their mind and check out gaming from a new angle.

Play Non-RPGs

If you’re tired of the role playing game experience, maybe it’s time to check out some card/board/dice games. This can be with your current gaming group if they agree to shelve the RPGs for a few sessions, but it can also mean you step away from your group for a while to see what random games you can find to play with random people in the back room of your FLGS. Most role players that I know also have a wide and expansive collection of non-RPGs on their shelves as well. Drag one of those out and spend a while relaxing with a variety of tabletop games.

Take a Break  Just step away from gaming for a month or two. 

Another option, and one of the more extreme ones, is to take a break. Just step away from gaming for a month or two. I’ve done this a few times, and when I found myself missing it, I contacted my old group and asked them if they still had a seat for me at the table. I found that the time away to collect my thoughts, regroup, gather more energy for gaming, and just relax was amazing. I came back to the table as a better player and enjoyed the game more.

Change Groups  If you’re not able to find an existing group, then start your own! 

This is probably the most extreme option here, but if the group you’re in isn’t filling your needs in gaming, or you don’t quite fit in (either socially or in play style), then this is time for you to step away from the current group and go find a new group. Searching online is one approach, but I love hitting the cork board at the FLGS and seeing what kind of gaming shenanigans I can get into with a fresh group of people.

If you’re not able to find an existing group, then start your own! If you live in a decent-sized city, I’m sure there are orphaned gamers out there that are in need of a group as badly as you are. Just throw up a notice on an FLGSs cork board and let folks know you’re looking for players for a certain game style or a particular game.

When I first moved to Colorado Springs almost 20 years ago, I found a gaming store right away. Before I’d even unpacked the last box in my new apartment, I had found a freshly-started gaming group for Vampire: The Masquerade. I’m happy to report that I’m still friends with two folks from that group to this day.

I do want to throw out a word of warning, though. Not all encounters with random people from a notice on a cork board will go as well as mine have. Do an initial “meet ‘n’ greet” at a public location to get a feel for the person. This is especially true if you plan on hosting the game in your home. Just use some caution and common sense. Most gamers I’ve met are great, upstanding, and perfectly good people. However, “most” does not equal “all.”


I’m certain many of you out there have fallen out of love with gaming at some point in your gaming career. What have you done to return to the hobby? I’d love to see what other advice is out there for finding new ways to enjoy role playing.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Cultivating New GMs

19 January 2018 - 12:00am

 Sow your fields so that you too may one day play again…

When I started gaming back in the RPG bronze age of 1986, the role of Dungeon Master was a job cloaked in mystery and the polished veneer of extreme expertise. I was admonished, under no uncertain terms, to never ever look into the Dungeon Master’s Guide. EVER! The secrets of running a game were a precious knowledge that could only be shared with the truly worthy.

Now, admittedly, we were all teenagers at the time, so weakness of any kind was to be hidden away. Even if the DM had been uncertain on how to handle a rulling, he could have never shown that weakness to the players at the table. If he did, he would have instantly been consumed by wolves. Or, at least, that’s the way we acted. College wasn’t much better, as I switched to Champions and its math intensive rules. As much as we players loved the game, the game master was treated as if royalty because only he could possibly have the level of knowledge needed to properly run a game.

I was almost twenty years into the hobby before I met someone who didn’t treat GMing as a sacred mystery to be kept from the unwashed masses. He wanted to play and that meant finding GMs. Since he couldn’t find any, he started creating some. With his insistent prodding, I tried my hand at running a game and I found that I enjoyed it and it wasn’t as hard as I had been led to believe.

 Never underestimate the power of mentoring. Today, there are a ton of resources available for people who want to try their hand at GMing, but it can still take a personal nudge to get someone to actually take those baby steps and run their first game. Never underestimate the power of mentoring. Here are some of my thoughts on how to cultivate new GMs:

Don’t treat GMing as something only the talented few can do.

It is very easy to get caught up in the myth of awesome that can come to surround a good GM. We players really do like our skilled GMs and that is a huge boost to the ego. Between good GMs basking in the legend of their own greatness and the entertaining stories of horrible GMs, it is understandable that a non-GM will assume that it takes an accomplished skillset to even attempt to run a game. Even today with all the resources available at our fingertips on the internet, I still hear players say they couldn’t possibly run a game.

Don’t get complacent in just accepting the praise your players give you. Be honest about the areas you struggled with in a game. Have some transparency on what goes into running a game. Explain things you tried that didn’t work the way you wanted, or how you had to adjust on the fly to accommodate something unexpected. We all get hit by imposter syndrome on occasion and sharing that vulnerability with your players can let that potential GM understand that even experienced GMs occasionally have doubts.

Seek out the players you think might have the right skill set.

A good player won’t always translate into a good GM, but if you pay attention to which players add to the game in certain ways, you can tell who has a potential to enjoy being a game. Who are the rainmakers, the players that can make things happen for the betterment of the whole table? Do you have a player that seems to instinctively know what to add to a game to push things forward? How about someone who is good at drawing the quieter players into the action?

You can usually spot the difference between players who are really passionate about the game and those that enjoy it but don’t have quite the same level of investment. Start dropping suggestions that the passionate player should think about running their own game. Be honest about wanting a chance to play too. If you can see that a player inherently has an understanding of how to ‘yes, and’ in the game in such a way that it makes it fun for others at the table, they’re someone you should start attempting to mentor into running their own game.

Watch that new GM bloom…

Help them find a game that suits their interest and experience level.

If you ask a collection of gamers what’s a good first game for a GM, you’ll get dozens of responses all adamant that only the game they’re suggesting is the right choice for a new GM. The real answer is going to be far, far more complicated and should capture on what is going to capture the new GM’s imagination in a system that they’re going to be comfortable with.

Let’s say you’ve got a player who is highly experienced with Shadowrun, but they’ve never run a game. Shadowrun is far from the game I would suggest as a first game for a GM, but if that player is comfortable with the system and the genre, it just might be a good fit for them. I consider PbtA games to be easy, but that simplicity may not translate for someone who has limited experience with narrative games or the foundation of years of traditional games to build off of.

Help the GM you’re trying to create find the right balance between a genre they’re excited about and a system they think they’d be comfortable running. For me, my friend encouraged me to try my hand at running a supers game, which I did with Mutants & Masterminds. I had a passion for super hero RPGs and M&M was a game I had some experience with, so it was a relatively easy transition.

Offer honest, real constructive criticism on what went right, and what could have gone better.

Once they’ve dived into the deep end and run that first session, be sure to give them feedback on what worked and what didn’t. Be encouraging, but be honest. If their NPCs seemed a little lackluster, offer them suggestions on how to improve that. If the pacing of the encounters worked really well, reinforce that with praise. I recommend doing this privately and not turning it into a full ‘roses and thorns’ discussion with a full table, especially if the new GM is still feeling uncertain about their skills.

This isn’t just a one-off bit of feedback either. Each session is going to offer things that went well and things that didn’t. As long as the new GM appreciates the feedback, continue to offer guidance on running games.

I’m grateful that my friend was so determined to play instead of always run that he took the time to forcefully nudge me into running that first game. I might have fallen into doing it at some point in the future, but he guaranteed it happened and completely changed the course of my relationship to this hobby. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be writing GMing advice articles here on the Stew.

Did someone nudge you into running your first game? Have you ever mentored someone into trying their hand at it? I’d love to hear your stories.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

RPGS, Veblen, and Isms

17 January 2018 - 3:00am

Back when I was working on my masters, I had to take some PhD classes in econometrics. To do that I had to go to the economics department, fill out paperwork and ask them to let me into the classes (Since I wasn’t a PhD student, the department was rightly worried I might find the classes highly challenging. I did eek out a passing grade though.) While waiting to be seen, one of the professors walking by struck up a conversation with me. After about 5 minutes, he said to me (I paraphrase): “I like you. You should read Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. You’re just the right type of weird to enjoy it.” Turns out he was the professor I was going to have daily 6 hour long classes with that summer. He was pretty weird himself, but in a good way.

Wanting to be more into economics than I really was, and wanting to impress the professor, I picked up a copy of the book. (by the way, it’s public domain and you can find it for free online if you care to read it. PDF EPUB and other formats). Published in 1899, it’s a bit of a slog full of unfamiliar words and archaic structure, but that professor was right, I was just the type of weird to enjoy it. Oddly enough, for an economic treatise written seventy years before the creation of role playing games, it provides an interesting lens to view them through and insights into the nature of them.

(Veblen can also be used to explain a lot of human behavior both on the personal and macro scale. As this is not a political site, I leave you to draw your own conclusions on that front. I’m 100% certain that you can find multiple sites on the topic elsewhere on the internet if you want to read up on it.)

Veblen’s main thesis is that despite the complaints of the economists of his day, and non-economists still today, human behavior is more or less rational despite appearances to the contrary. Of course, keep in mind that humans are notoriously bad at evaluating small short term vs larger long term gains, and are often self benefit driven, both a legacy from when life was nasty, brutish, and short.  To explain seeming lapses in rationality, Veblen explains the concept of agency and status and posits that all so called irrational behavior are attempts to gather one or the other:

  • Agency: Veblen’s concept of agency is related to but distinct from the commonly discussed gaming concept of player agency. It consists of two parts- the ability to take powerful actions which hold the appearance of consciousness (appearance of consciousness means things like powerful storms have agency even though we now know they’re not conscious) and the ability to impose your will on others with agency. Thus the farmer does not have agency, or has very little, because he imposes his will on plants, which do not have agency; but the hunter, shaman, and warrior do because they impose their will on beasts, storms, and other warriors. Note that how one imposes this will is irrelevant. The warrior who imposes his will through brute violence and the rogue who imposes his will through clever action both have equal agency.
    In your typical game, there is a ladder of agency. PCs, foes and important NPCs have agency, players and GM influence them with their agency, and above all of that, playing the part of the capricious whimsical gods are the dice which, much like the storms of our ancestors, seem to have a will all their own.
  • Status: Status is the acknowledgement, deference, and special treatment we give to those with greater agency. In early or brutal civilizations it’s not mouthing off to the warriors because if you do they might just run you through. In more abstract examples, it’s not mouthing off to the king because even though you’re pretty sure you could take him in a fight, his soldiers will run you through and his bureaucrats will see to it that your taxes are doubled.

Veblen explains that the primary way of gathering agency is the heroic exploit, and that the primary currency used is courage and cunning. Enter the typical archetype of the warrior, hunter, and trickster. But over time he argues it becomes more difficult to show off just how heroic you are. Trophies and treasure gained in exploit can only take you so far. Enter two more ways to show how much agency you have: conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Eventually heroes have so much accumulated riches from exploit that they can afford to blow those resources on ever more extravagant goods and services and on long periods doing nothing of value. Remember back to the carousing rules from the early Conan RPG and the early DnD rules for building your own keep, crafting magic items and doing spell research. All these things signal to the rest of the world just how formidable you are. Different RPG archetypes focus on different mixes of these four building blocks of agency and status.

  • Courage: imposing agency via force of arms and brute strength
  • Cunning: imposing agency via cleverness or guile
  • Conspicuous Consumption: showing status via display of resources gathered in heroic exploit
  • Conspicuous Leisure: showing status via not performing otherwise productive work when not involved in exploit

Veblen says that the expression of these qualities has social value in that you get special treatment for having or displaying them. They are largely expressed in the form of what Veblen terms invidious comparison. I am stronger than that person, I am smarter than this other person, more moral than this person, etc. More abstractly, they can be expressed through trophies of exploits, what resources you have, what groups you associate with, who you work for etc. In the extreme, one who successfully gathers large amounts of resources via exploit can’t spend it all themselves, and may even hire retainers whose only job is to spend their lord’s money.  Interestingly, some of these expressions are cultural and change over time. Recent studies have shown that modern Americans are less inclined to give others status for having lots of leisure time and lots of expensive possessions, which were major status symbols in Veblen’s time and are still (apparently) status symbols in other places. (article 1 and article 2).

What in particular struck me while reading through the book was that a large part of RPGs was an attempt to emulate characters with far more agency, and thus status, than players generally have. That’s of course an oversimplification. Different people play RPGs for lots of different reasons, and you can probably find some that don’t hinge on playing with agency, but I can’t think of any . Feel free to correct me if you like. What this means is that in theory RPG experiences featuring the right balance of character agency (enough agency to impose their will on others but not so much that opponents don’t appear to have agency of their own) should be a more satisfying play experience, and giving the characters markers of agency and status should also lead to satisfying play. In fact, one could write an entire book digging through Theory Of The Leisure Class and pulling out elements to enhance games*.

As a side note, plenty of playstyles and even problem playstyles can be chalked up to Veblen’s agency. On the innocuous side is pushing for more PC vs NPC agency. On the destructive side is outright player vs player or player vs GM agency. If you’ve ever wondered what the player who enjoys making everyone else’s experience miserable is getting out of it, this is it: imposing their agency over that of the other players and GM, and if they can’t be convinced to pick a more suitable target, they should be shown the door before it gets worse.

However, even though Veblen explains RPG motivations very well it turns out that taken to extremes, pursuing agency and status also explains a variety of the more unsavory elements of humanity: Slavery, discrimination, sexism, racism etc. are all big markers for agency and status. Some of them, like slavery, are a direct application of agency. One person has the agency to literally own another. Isms are a little more abstract but boil down to an imbalance of status between two groups. If you belong to the group an imbalance favors, you benefit from that status boost. You can see the evidence of this in plenty of the fiction that inspired the RPG hobby. Conan, for example has a scene in at least every other story where he forces himself on a woman and halfway through the act, she stops struggling to get him off her and starts struggling to get her panties off, because he’s just so manly and good at kissing it changes her mind, and Robert E Howard doesn’t even hold a candle to John Norman in that regard. A lot of early space opera sci-fi was heroic American vs evil communist Asians . . . innnn spaaaaace! There are still plenty of vestiges of this era sticking around too. All dwarves are racist against elves, elves are racist against . . . mostly dwarves, but also everyone. Lots of sentient species are kill on sight morally repugnant, and every half-orc gets the one good half orc treatment.

So, TLDR: RPGs are big power fantasies about imposing your will on others and everyone fawning all over you for doing it, and taken too far the natural extension of this is some of the worst parts of the human experience. Lovely.

Let me put on my devil’s advocate hat for a moment and just take things too far. If the above is true, wouldn’t featuring all of those uncomfortable bits of bad human behavior and allowing PCs to wallow in them make your game a more powerful expression of what RPGs are all about, and wouldn’t your game be better for it? Shouldn’t I be saying: “All this stuff adds to the fantasy that is explicitly the entire point of the game, so put it in your game, lots of it!”

That would be an awfully weird position to take, wouldn’t it? Turns out it’s a tempting position, but not necessarily a good one. First, there’s more than enough opportunity for heroic exploit, agency and status in your average game. Dipping into the more problematic aspects of agency just isn’t necessary. Even if you wanted to, most are very sensitive subjects and should be handled with care and only with complete group buy-in. And of course if you don’t take sensitive issues seriously, like other problem play styles, you run the very real risk of trading in game status for out of game status (i.e.: you get labeled a jerk and no one wants to play with you because you don’t respect others’ boundaries.)

But, can dealing with these difficult extremes of agency and status in your game be done without issues? Yes, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. On the extreme end, with player buy-in you can absolutely play an evil game with PCs that push the envelope. In a more traditional game, you can include these issues but reserve them for villainous NPCs that heroic PCs put a stop to. You can include lesser versions of them (the faux racism of all dwarves and elves). You can reserve involuntary traits indicating a lesser status for non sentient or irredeemably evil beings (golems and demons are OK to pick on because even though their status is linked to race one is a mindless automaton, the other is literally made of evil. If your golems and demons don’t follow that mold, things get hazier. This is where the “all orcs are evil” problems come from. Are orcs inherently evil like in Lord of the Rings, or do they fall in a spectrum like most fantasy races?) In fact, these could lead to some interesting introspective role playing moments. Nothing groundbreaking. All common enough that this is not the first time you’ve heard of them.

So that’s it. That’s the short version of viewing role playing games through the lens of Veblen’s Theory Of The Leisure Class, and the problems that come with it. Hopefully it’s an interesting perspective.



* Writing said book has been on my “someday projects” list for quite some time. Also feel free to let me know if that sounds lame and I should let it languish or if it sounds awesome and I should move it up the list

Categories: Game Theory & Design