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How to Build a Custom GM Screen

7 July 2017 - 1:00am

There are plenty of advice articles out there (much of it here on Gnome Stew) about how to learn a new system without having someone teach it to you. If you’re attempting a high level of system mastery from a book or box set, there are several things you can do.

  1. Skim the books, followed by a second pass of actually reading.
  2. Create some characters, preferably a variety of them to cover different rules and sub-systems.
  3. Have those characters fight each other. Roll all the dice yourself and push the rules.
  4. Get online and read forums and see what questions or issues others have encountered thus far.
  5. Create your own game master screen.
  6. Dive in and have fun with the game despite weird rulings or mistakes you may make.
  7. Adjust game play as you learn and grow with the system.

The area I’m going to focus on with this article is step #5 from the above list. I feel that creating your own GM screen can help improve your system mastery of a new RPG in a few different areas. Before I dive into these areas, I want to mention what you want to include on the GM screens.

 You want to use all of that space to maximum effectiveness. The things you want to capture from the rulebook are things like charts, tables, lists that contain sequence of events, and handy page number references. Keep in mind that you’re going to have four panels of 8.5 inches by 11 inches to work with. You want to use all of that space to maximum effectiveness, but you don’t want to overload everything into the panels and be forced to use a six-point font to make it all fit. Another thing to consider is the player side of the screen. Will it be different or contain the same information as the GM side? I fall into the camp that the player and GM sides should be identical. This allows the players to have a quick reference as well. There are no reasons to hide the rules from the players, right? (I suppose there could be exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, you don’t want the players to be blind to their options and how they work.)

While you’re walking through the rulebook, keep the following topics in mind as you seek targets for capture.

Learn the Rules

While skimming/reading through the book looking for items to capture for your custom GM screen, you’ll be immersing yourself into the rulebook.  This will help you get a better mental grasp on the rules.  I’ll point out that full immersion into running the game is always the best way to master a rule set, but you need the basics down before getting to that point. You should be looking for the higher level rules and sequences of play for inclusion on your custom GM screen.

Find the Nuances and Exceptions

Of course, there are plenty of nuanced systems, sub-systems, and exceptions to the core rules. These are, quite honestly, the most painful parts of GMing a game. It’s near impossible to memorize the exceptions with 100% accuracy, and the more nuanced the rulings, the harder it is to get them right. If you can fit a summary of the rules on your GM screen, you’ll never have to wonder how grapple works again. (Yeah, you all know what I’m talking about.) You’ll have those grapple rules handy at your fingertips for quick reference.

No Rote Memorization

If you run across a chart, table, or nice reference within the rulebooks that you just know you’ll never be able to pack into your headspace’s permanent memory, then you’ve found a wonderful item to pull into your custom GM screen.

Less Book Searching

Obviously, if you’ve dropped an item onto your GM screen, you’ll never have to search for it in the rule book. If you’re not able to jam the whole rule, or even a summary, onto your GM screen, I highly recommend reserving a sidebar area on the screen for a custom index of things you’ll want quick access to. This index can be keywords or phrases and page numbers associated with those items. This will help you find things quickly, especially if you’re playing a game system in which the books don’t have great reference materials baked in.

Nut and Bolts

Now that we have some ideas on what to put into the GM screen, let’s talk about the actual construction. I can’t recommend “The World’s Greatest Screen” by Hammerdog Games highly enough. There are a few options from their web site. I have about half a dozen of these for various games, and they’re wonderful, durable, reusable, and really easy to work with. If you’re strapped for cash, snag some cardstock or a cardboard box and some tape and build your own backing.

 Do not scan, photocopy, or copy/paste the information into a document and use that as your base. Once you have the back to put things on, you need to build out the sheets of paper that’ll be taped to the screen (or slid into the sleeves if you go with the Hammerdog Games screen). This is probably the most important piece of advice I can give you. Do not scan, photocopy, or copy/paste the information into a document and use that as your base. I want you to develop some very minor layout skills by reproducing tables in a spreadsheet program and then printing those out. Likewise with the rules, drop the text from the book, through your brain, into your keyboard, and finally on a document that you can print. The act of reading, typing, proofing the typing for accuracy, and then printing it out and cutting the paper up to place onto your screen will really drill the information home.

A piece of advice: If you go with a “sleeved screen” like the Hammerdog Games screen, tape all of your little squares and rectangles of paper to a standard 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper, and then photocopy that assembled sheet. Drop the clean photocopy into the sleeve. The reason for this, is that you don’t want tape down in the sleeves. In a hot car or with the bump and bustle of moving gaming gear around, the tape will “bleed” some of its adhesive around the edges of the plastic backing on the tape. This could lead to a sheet of paper being permanently attached inside the sleeve. I’ve had this happen once, but I managed to rescue the paper, tape, and sleeve. It was a near thing, though.

Once you have your layout (digital and physical) done, it’s a matter of choosing which pages go where. Most screens have four panels. In this case, you want the most commonly referenced items in the middle two panels and the more rare items on the outer edges. This is simply for each of finding things visually. If you decide to drop the same information on the players’ side of the screen, I recommend putting the identical pages directly opposite the pages you have on your side, so that it’s kind of a mirror image. This way, if a player is having issues finding something on the screen and you know where it’s at, you can point out the appropriate panel for the player. This will help speed up the game, which is the whole point of the GM screen in the first place.

Here is a (slightly blurry) photo of a GM screen I made for TechNoir:

I hope my information here has helped you out with your GMing efforts. There are plenty of great GM screens out there on the market. I’m wondering which ones (from the past or present) have really helped you out with your gaming needs.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #18 – Camp Adventures

6 July 2017 - 8:17am

Welcome to the Gnomecast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good. This episode we have Tracy & Ang talking about Camp Adventures.

Making a Thing: Camp Adventures
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Genius Loci

5 July 2017 - 1:00am

The genius loci is a concept most people are familiar with from fiction: a spirit or intelligence of an area. It can be seen in enchanted forests, in haunted houses, in the rogue smart building. Putting a genius loci in a location in your game can be an interesting element to play with. In some settings it’s even assumed that most locations have their own genius loci even though most of the time they aren’t heard from or interacted with.

Adding a genius loci can be done for a host of reasons:

  • Atmosphere: having a genius loci in a location in conjunction with some of the powers at their disposal can enhance the atmosphere of an area, for good or for ill. 
  • Extra variety: A genius loci is an extra source of challenges and encounters that can also be of a different nature than what is typical for the setting.
  • Setting information: While “The spirit of the mountain did it” isn’t a huge step away from “It’s magic” it adds flavor to your setting and gives an additional way for characters to interact with your game.
  • Big story goal: A genius loci of an important location can be a major NPC in your game. This means that contacting them, negotiating, appeasing, or even cowing them can be major goals for your campaign.

Often these being have a host of powers, at their disposal which can provide interesting challenges for characters:

  • Awareness: Genius loci are usually aware of everything happening in the area they inhabit. They are conscious of the location of those inside and, if they share a language, can eavesdrop as well. It’s possible that this can be avoided by magic but some sources point to even this being imperfect as the genius loci may become aware of a break in its awareness.
  • Change weather: depending on its power and nature a genius loci can control the weather in their area. Benign spirits may summon traveling weather or cool breezes, hostile powerful or angry ones may blot out the sun with endless rain or snow.
  • Manipulate emotions: Many of these spirits can manipulate the emotions of those within their domain. This can take the form of calmness, euphoria, terror, despair, or other strong emotions depending on the nature of the spirit and the end it is trying to achieve.
  • Influence locals: most creatures and NPCs who have lived under the influence of a genius loci for long times have become susceptible to its whims. The loci can command them to take actions or change their reactions to others at will. This can result in dangerous creatures giving visitors a wide berth or making a beeline for them. It can also mean that usually savage beings may become meek and complacent or that usually benign creatures become hostile or dangerous.
  • Change hazards: Within the area they control genius loci can create or remove native hazards and difficult terrain. They can often do this suddenly and subtlety making hazards hard to spot and placing them on ground that was clear moments earlier. Smart genius loci can also use this ability to subtlety guide visitors towards or away from exits and larger hazards.
  • Change terrain: More powerful spirits can outright change terrain, moving rivers creating and removing clearings or landmarks. No map is reliable in this sort of territory even ones made recently.
  • Twist reality: truly powerful genius loci can even warp reality itself, making intruders climb up endless hills or down an infinite hallway, can exhaust them chasing mirages and them unceremoniously dump them outside when they tire of playing with them. Escaping these traps may require attention to even the smallest detail, luck, or even magic.

These beings can provide an interesting challenge for any power level or composition of party and can provide some interesting subtext for your world while doing so. Have you ever used one in a game? Tell us about it below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

How To Host A Rad Tales From The Loop Game

3 July 2017 - 5:18am


Frequent guest poster Keith Garrett
has been getting into Tales From The Loop recently, and he’s been writing about it on his blog. He decided to doff a red hat and swing over with some of his articles about this awesome looking game.  Check out the first one below. – Nostalgic John

I’m hooked on a new roleplaying game called Tales from the Loop. It came out just a few months ago, and puts players in the role of kids dealing with strange things in an “80s that never was.” And I like it so much that I’ve been writing blog posts about it every day this month.

A Little Background

The game is inspired by the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, who depicted realistic scenes of an alternate Swedish suburbia in the 1980s. Stålenhag’s art featured robots, dinosaurs, giant floating vehicles, and other weirdness alongside Swedish scenery and curious kids. In 2014, Stålenhag’s art saw print in the Tales From the Loop art book (2015 for the English version). A second art book, Things from the Flood, followed in 2016.

In November 2016, the art books’ Swedish publisher, Fria Ligan (Free League), launched their Kickstarter project for the roleplaying game set in the world Stålenhag created. This is when I first found out about all this coolness, and jumped on board immediately. At the time, I thought it was inspired by Stranger Things, not realizing Tales From the Loop predated that show! But it IS certainly inspired by E.T., and Goonies, and similar 80s-era movies and shows featuring plucky kids.

The game started shipping in April 2017. My copy arrived on April 24th. I was only a few pages in when I fell in love with the book, and realized I needed to tell the world about it, whether they wanted to hear it or not!


What’s the Game Like?


Remember all that cool stuff I said is in the art books? Robots, technology, dinosaurs, weirdness? The RPG features all that cool stuff too!

In Tales from the Loop, players take the roles of Kids aged 10-15, living in a town that contains a giant underground particle accelerator. The default setting of the game is the Swedish Mälaren Islands, but the book also details an alternate American setting, Boulder City, Nevada.

The game’s rule system is a simple one, based on another Free League game called Mutant: Year Zero. Players roll a number of 6-sided dice equal to the value of an attribute plus a skill that are appropriate to what they’re attempting, and any 6 rolled counts as a success. (Usually only one success is needed.) The game also includes ways to re-roll failures in interesting ways.

When creating your Kid, you’ll start with an archetype (such as Bookworm or Weirdo) and customize it. Some of the ways you’ll make your Kid unique are your Iconic Item (such as a boom box), your Problem (e.g. unrequited love), your Drive (e.g. motivated by thrills), your Pride (e.g. I’m the smartest kid in school), your relationships to other Kids and NPCs, and your Anchor (such as your parents or science teacher).

In addition to the rules and setting info, the book has tips on creating Mysteries (the game’s name for adventures), four complete Mystery Stories, and a Mystery Landscape—a mini-setting useful for sandbox play without a predefined plot. Also, on page 185, you’ll find my name as a backer. (If you meet me at a con or something I’ll autograph that page for you.)


Strange Appeal


When I first started showing this game to my friends (and extended friends on social media), I was surprised at how quickly it inspired rabid interest. In addition to interest among other gamers, I also saw enthusiasm from people who said that although they weren’t roleplayers, this would be their first roleplaying game. The first time I ran the game, one player (of six) had never played an RPG and another had only played once. I was also happy that 4 out of 6 of the players were women.

The game even has one of my die-hard players saying she prefers Tales from the Loop over my favorite game, Ghostbusters. (Heresy, I know.)

Since I’m certain part of the appeal of this game is the similarity to Stranger Things (and 80s nostalgia in general), I decided to capitalize on this and decorate the play area for our Tales from the Loop game. It went so well, and was so much fun, that I wanted to share our ideas with you. Use them for the premiere of your own Tales from the Loop game, or (with minor modifications) for any game set in the 80s.


Get Strange


The first thing I knew we needed to evoke Stranger Things was a set of Christmas lights draped across the alphabet. My decorating genius (and former Ghostbusters loyalist, may her fandom rest in peace) Jenny achieved this by writing the letters on the window using a washable window marker and then stringing lights back and forth across the window. (The result is in the image at the top of this article.)

Another way you can evoke Stranger Things at your gaming table is to print signage using a Stranger Things type generator, such as the one at Use this to print out signs, character tents, or other handouts.

One last Strange Thing you might do is show your connection with the character Eleven by serving frozen waffles before or during the game. I think they make great finger food snacks when paired with fruit, peanut butter, jelly,  chocolate, whipped cream, or hazelnut spread.


Celebrate Sweden


Since Tales from the Loop’s primary setting (and its publisher) are in Sweden, I also wanted to represent the country in some way. Since I live near an IKEA store (and I’m too cheap to fly to Sweden for a blog post), I raided it for Swedish decorating inspiration.

Mostly in the form of edibles.

Our Swedish food centerpiece was a large bag of mixed candies (or Lördagsgodis). In addition to this we I can recommend Swedish chips, cookies, crackers, and jelly. (The latter went well with the waffles.) If the event hadn’t been at a vegetarian’s house, I’d have brought Swedish meatballs.


Hey, Remember the 80s?


Now let’s talk about the real star of the show: the 80s. Even non-gamers have 80s-themed parties, so finding decorations—or even costumes—to represent the decade shouldn’t be difficult.

My prize item of 80s nostalgia was a genuine Trapper Keeper that survived its journey through time in excellent condition. Since I didn’t have the official GM’s screen for the game, I improvised! The Trapper Keeper did a great job of keeping those meddling kids’ eyes off my notes.

I also recommend turning your game room into a museum of 80s culture for the game, using whatever items you can find. Display old electronics, such as the Commodore 64, Atari console, or Walkman in your attic. Set out other artifacts from the period like a Rubik’s Cube or Magic 8-Ball. Serve retro snacks like candy cigarettes, Big League Chew, and Pop Rocks. You might even leave a trail of Reese’s Pieces to help lure in any visiting extraterrestrials.

For background entertainment as the players arrive, you might play music videos from YouTube. If you don’t have an actual running computer or console from the period, you could run emulator software on a computer and have a game of Pac-Man or Frogger on display.


Make a Bitchin’ Mix Tape


Once the game begins, you’ll probably want to switch from music videos and electronic games to a playlist that will serve to complement tabletop play. In my game, I did this in three different ways.

For general background music, I created an instrumental playlist consisting of thematically appropriate 80s movie soundtracks. I like these instrumentals as my default because sometimes songs with lyrics can be distracting during play.

Then I made a playlist containing popular songs from the 80s. (This was pretty easy for me, because that’s pretty much how I describe my music library anyway.) I like having these songs on hand to remind the players of the game’s setting in a non-visual way. It’s a handy playlist for when the PCs are at a dance, or playing out a montage scene, or one of them feels the sudden impulse to breakdance.

One last thing I did was to create a playlist for each player character. One of the entries on the Tales from the Loop character sheet is “Favorite Song.” After everyone at the table finished telling the group about their main character details, I quickly downloaded all the songs they mentioned—the few I didn’t have, anyway—and used them to start a playlist for each Kid. I plan to add to each of these over time and use these playlists when we switch to the occasional solo scenes the game suggests. This will serve as an extra cue to the players as to which Kid is in the spotlight, and perhaps give these scenes a different feel.

That’s it for my ideas. If you enjoy decorating your gaming area to match the theme of your game, I’d love to hear about how you do it in the comments!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making a Thing: Camp Adventure – Part 4

30 June 2017 - 1:00am

NPCs are a GM’s best friend (as far as I’m concerned.) It’s one thing to describe the world to your players. It’s an entirely different thing to show them the world through the varied eyes of the people who call it home. Camp Adventure is no different. The NPCs of the setting are what bring it to life, both the counselors and the other campers.

Today, we’re going to take a look at some of the counselors and how I like to set up NPCs.

Think Anawanna-wanna…

Here’s a section from the text about the counselors:

At Camp Adventure, we believe in real inclusion. It’s possible that campers will encounter people of races and backgrounds of whom they had only previously heard stories. The goal of Camp Adventure is to prepare would-be adventurers for the world. Our world, especially below The Line, is a diverse, complicated place. Camp Adventure reflects that diversity as actively as possible.

This is brochure-style speak, but I wanted to make sure to have it in the text. This diversity is important to me, in a lot of ways. To that end, the counselors I’ve written so far are a varied lot. Let’s meet them!

Dolruum (Head of the Camp) – Minotaur Bard

  • More voice than horns
  • Doesn’t take any guff
  • Always wants to see people do their best

Gorrat Mountainbreaker – Ogre Fighter/Rogue

  • Friendly to a fault
  • Patient and kind
  • Loves all reptiles

Senda Slepshir – Elven Wizard

  • Proudly reckless
  • Happiest when teaching others
  • Fond of shenanigans

Bolbat – Hobgoblin Barbarian

  • No tomfoolery
  • Proud of the accomplishments of those he trains
  • Loves romance novels

Gulplood – Bullywug Cleric of Light

  • Pays attention to everything
  • Devout but kind
  • Gambles and games

This lot of folks is the first batch of NPCs I created, and they’re there because I needed them for the playtests I’ve run.

For me, for those purposes, an NPC needs to have a few things:

  • A name. Always a name.
  • A role. This is their class, or in the case of Dolruum, his role at the Camp itself.
  • Some Background-type information, so I can roleplay them.

Like I said, this was for playtests. The actual stats behind these folks were largely unimportant. I have enough knowledge of where the numbers need to fall if I have to add bonuses to any of their die rolls. And for the spellcasters, I can skim the book really quickly if I need a spell. The information above is enough for me for one session of play. In those moments I need to make them memorable to the players, not worry about the crunch behind them.

If I were writing these NPCs just for my own purposes, this is where I’d stop. I might flesh them out a bit more, but the counselors aren’t the focus of the action in Camp Adventure. They’re not the ones in combat, or facing challenges; that’s the players and the kid NPCs. The role of the counselors in Camp Adventure is to be the larger-than-life badass mentors and instructors that the campers need to have an awesome summer and leave the camp as adventurers.


I am working on making this something that gets published, so these NPCs need more than that. Those descriptions above are a good start, but they’re just that: a start. If people who aren’t me are going to use these folks, we’ll need something more solid.

Let’s start with Gulplood.


Race: Bullywug
Class and Level: Cleric 6
Domain: Knowledge

STR: 11 (+0)
DEX: 13 (+1)
CON: 9 (-1)
INT: 15 (+2)
WIS: 20 (+5)
CHA: 12 (+1)

HP: 34
AC: 11
Speed: 20ft., Swim 40

Racial Abilities: As Bullywug Entry in the Monster Manual

Light and Medium Armor, Shields
All Simple Weapons
Saving Throws – Wisdom (+8), Charisma (+4)
Skills: Religion (+11), Persuasion (+4), History (+7), Nature (+8)
Languages: Common, Bullywug, Amphibians, Celestial, Abyssal, Elven, Minotaur

Background: Seeker of the Truth

Personality Traits
Devout, but Kind
Pays Attention to Everything

The Truth May Never Be Found, but I Will Never Stop Seeking

I Hold to the Faith and Will be a Light to Others

I Can’t Say No to a Deck of Cards

Spells and Abilities
0 Level: Light, Sacred Flame, Mending, Thaumaturgy
1st Level: Cure Wounds, Purify Food and Drink, Sanctuary, Shield of Faith, Identify*
2nd Level: Aid, Calm Emotions, Silence
3rd Level: Dispel Magic, Remove Curse, Sending, Suggestion*
* Domain Spells

Channel Divinity: 2/rest
– Turn Undead
– Knowledge of the Ages
– Read Thoughts

Blessings of Knowledge

Details: Though they are newcomers onto the the national stage in the 12 Marches, Bullywugs have become indispensable to many local economies. A number of different races who are unable to speak common share amphibious backgrounds, and Bullywugs are able to communicate with them. This is how Gulplood came to leave his family’s pod and venture out into the world. It wasn’t long before he was consumed by both a lust for knowledge and for the Ultimate Truth. His journeys have taken him far and wide across the 12 Marches, and down below the Line on more than one occasion.

Now, in his capacity as a counselor at Camp Adventure, Gulplood seeks the truths that can be found through teaching. He views every camper as an opportunity to enrich his view of the world, and he voraciously collects as much information about a camper’s views and options as he is able. The quests he gives are almost experiment-like, in that he varies them little from group to group; he wants to see how different groups react to the same situations, thus expanding his knowledge, albeit within a limited sphere.

So, there’s your fleshed-out version of Gulplood. Obviously, this is still a draft, and there’s a lot more that could be done here. The point of this was to make sure that the most important things were down here. From that perspective, it doesn’t matter what gear he has or how much gold is in his purse. With the stats and information above, most GMs could pick up Gulplood and run him without much issue.

That, to me, is the heart of writing an NPC: you have to give the GM what they need to make the character come to life. That’s priority number 1. Without that, the NPC is just a bunch of stats on a page and you might as well just lift a monster from the Monster Manual and re-skin it. The details of Gulplood’s Background (there will eventually be a fleshed-out version of a bunch of different Backgrounds) are what can bring him to life.

There are other details in his character that point to how to roleplay him as well. His spell selection is designed for what he sees on a daily basis. Calm Emotions for a group of rowdy campers? Silence? Yes, please. All of those choices speak to who this character is and can inform a GM of how to approach playing this NPC.

Awful Waffle, Awful Waffle

(I’m in a Salute Your Shorts mood. What can I say?)

For the first time in this series of articles, I think I’ve found a vein I want to keep digging up. In the next article or two, I’ll show you sketches of more NPCs, as well as some fleshed-out versions that you could pick up and use in your games right now. In the meantime, if you’ve got thoughts about NPC presentation in game supplements, or want to share how you NPC when you’re GMing, drop that stuff in the comments.

Until next time!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Design Flow: Kill Your Darlings

28 June 2017 - 1:00am

Right now I am sitting here, not wanting to write an article. Not that I don’t love writing to you all, but rather this article is between me and further game design work I am doing, and I have fallen into the design rabbit hole; a place where nothing matters other than designing—not eating, not sleep, not anyone else, just a burst of ideas on a page as you try to make a thing. Today’s article is not about the rabbit hole, rather it’s why I am in the hole. That starts last week at Origins . . . 

When A Playtest Goes Bad

So I was at Origins, and I was running a playtest of Hydro Hacker Operatives for a group of close friends that I only see at conventions. I was very excited to show off the game to them, as I have run it a number of times now, and I am pretty proud of the Hydro Hacking mechanics. The mechanics are a push your luck card based (was token based) game that simulates the flow of water.

During the playtest, I began to notice something. The Hydro Hacking mechanic was working (it has its own way of building tension), but what I realized was that no one was role-playing—their tension was from the players engaging the mechanic, which is something you see more in boardgames. Truth be told, the Hydro Hacking mechanic is very boardgame-like, and it was something of a sticking point for me.

You see, as a boardgame mechanic it works great. People who get to the hack have this fantastic time of turning cards and seeing if they can get the water they need before the hack comes crashing down. But as part of a role-playing game, I was noticing that there was not a lot of role-playing happening at the table, and that upset me. This was a group of people who represented my test audience for the game—and the game was not doing what it needed to.

As the playtest wrapped, I realized that I was going to have to do the hardest thing a designer has to do . . . Kill My Darling.

Killing Your Darlings

The phrase originally comes from William Faulkner, who said:

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

Not to get too scholarly today, but what I got from Faulkner’s quote was: don’t hold onto anything in your writing; that the story is the most important thing. Do what the story demands. Holding onto a character, location—even an idea—can prevent you from making the best possible story.

 No matter how awesome you think a mechanic or a chunk of setting is, if it isn’t working it’s got to go. 

That same thing holds true in game design. No matter how awesome you think a mechanic or a chunk of setting is, if it isn’t working it’s got to go.

And that was where I was. The Hydro Hack mechanic, by itself, works great; players love it. As part of a role-playing game, it was not working. In fact, it was not only not working, but it was impeding actual role-playing. There it was—my darling, the first mechanic I designed for the game. It was lying on the altar, helpless. I was standing over it, knowing there was only one thing I could do—so with a silent prayer to Faulkner, I raised the editorial blade and in one downward stroke, I cut the mechanic from the game.

There Is Always Another Solution

With the resignation to remove the Hydro Hack mechanic, it created a space to come at the idea fresh. With six different playtests under my belt, I had a much better feeling for what needed to take its space. So I got some paper and a pencil and went to work. I sat with my fellow designers and hashed out my ideas, got input, and kept iterating.

I got home from Origins with a sheaf of pencil scribbled paper. I wanted to start designing right away, but first—Con Drop. I spent three days exhausted and emotionally drained as my body acclimated back to the world.

Then I got in front of a keyboard and started to design. Using the notes as a guide and keeping an eye on the target of a more role-play-centric mechanic, I went to work. The initial design came quickly, in about 2000 words; I needed to pause and make the Hacking Sheet, in Illustrator, that would be the focus of play; I needed to update the six playbooks with Moves to work with the new system; I needed to finish the remainder of the rules, with another 2000 words; I found a problem with part of the rules and brainstormed some ideas on how to fix it. That was two days of work. In between, I watched some Steven Universe, watched some Young Justice, and read a bit of Blades in the Dark.

Honestly, the new system looks pretty good. It’s a much better fit for the game than the original system. I am going to be playtesting it soon so that we can start working out the kinks.

Not All That Is Killed Is Dead

So that board game mechanic that worked so well? It’s not dead. I took all the materials and put them on the side. With a little work, that is totally going to be a board game. I just need to remove a few of the role playing parts from it, and it will be set.

See, the thing about your Darlings is that you may need to kill them from your current project, but that does not mean they are bad or broken. Sometimes they are, but other times they are just not the right fit for the project you are working on.  So you keep them, you put them in a folder, and you dig them out later to repurpose them.

That deck building, push your luck game of hacking water—that board game is coming. It’s coming after I finish the role-playing game. For now, that darling will sit in a folder until I have some time to get back to it.

Now, I need to climb back into the rabbit hole and get to work. This is the first time in months I have been truly inspired to work, and when you have momentum, you take it. So until next time, love your darlings, but never be afraid to kill them when you need to.




Categories: Game Theory & Design

IN THEORY: Gamemaster Rolls

26 June 2017 - 1:00am

Gamemasters (GM’s) occupy an unusual position. They have great power over the game, adjudicate the rules, and make major decisions. Sometimes they willingly give up that power, rolling dice and letting fortune decide the outcome. GM’s are not really players, but they’re not quite “not players” either.

In this article, we’ll look when and why GM’s roll dice. Sometimes it’s easy to know when a GM should roll: but sometimes it’s not as clear. This article is not meant to provide rules for GM’s, merely a deeper look at how we decide what when to roll ’em.

NPC’s in Combat
In most games, if a player character (PC) rolls to hit in combat, a GM will roll for a non-player character (NPC). This simulates the stress and randomness of combat on both sides. Similarly, if damage is rolled randomly by players, the same rules apply to NPC’s. Some games streamline the GM’s rolls by using an average damage value.

Similarly, if players get to make a saving throw against a spell or other effect, GM’s generally roll those for NPC’s as well. All these rolls are done to simulate a more level playing field during combat. Fighting is rough business for both sides. Morale is another form of saving throw. Some games have GM’s roll to see if an NPC will remain in combat or flee.

NPC’s in Non-Combat Situations
Similarly GM’s may roll for NPC’s for physical challenges. Perhaps an enemy needs to make a CLIMB check to get to the PC’s. Perhaps a retainer needs to cross the same raging river as the PC’s. Perhaps the PC’s singing partner could lose their voice during the final round and Usher won’t choose them.

NPC’s may also get a “save” in social situations as well. Just because the PC made his CHARISMA check doesn’t mean that the NPC will do everything they ask or divulge all information. Players should get some benefit for rolling well in social situations, but that doesn’t mean that NPC’s can’t have some level of resistance.

To Add Randomness
Some GM’s enjoy introducing a little randomness as they run their sessions. They’ll roll dice and consult tables to determine wandering monsters, environmental hazards, local holidays, and the nearest star system. This approach will certainly stretch your improvisational skills during play. More cautious GM’s (like me) might consider using these tables beforehand. That introduces a little randomness, and can sometimes produce ideas we wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

To Resolve Uncertainty
Roleplaying games allow players to do ANYTHING. Sometimes there won’t be a rule for what they’d like to know or try. Sometimes you don’t want to stop the action to look up an obscure rule. In those cases, consider using the GM’s secret weapon, the humble six-sided die. On a 1-3, things go in the players’ favor. On a 4-6, they don’t. Feel free to adjust the probabilities on a case by case basis if you like. Is there a knife in the room? Does the apothecary sell healing potions? Will Tony dance tonight?

Roll a d6 and see.

To Create Tension
Secret GM rolls can be used to increase the tension at the table. For example, suppose the party is deliberating for a LONG time. Roll behind the screen, look at the dice and ignore the numbers. Then make a concerned face. See if that gets them moving. This technique isn’t for every GM or every situation. You may not want, or need to bluff your players. Even if you do use it, use it sparingly. Otherwise players may suspect that you fudge many of your rolls.

Concluding Thoughts
The GM doesn’t even have to roll dice. Some games like Dungeon World resolve all actions based on player rolls alone. Other systems could be adapted to eliminate GM rolls, perhaps with a degree of success/failure chart. However, in most games, you’ll need to roll some of the time. Hopefully this article provided some food for thought about when and why we roll.

What reasons can you add to this list? Are there times when you would always roll, or times when you never roll? Let us know below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Origins 2017: Social Choices

23 June 2017 - 12:00am

#tableselfie for Saturday night. Detroit ’75, a recurring M&M game.

Origins was last week and I’m still walking around in a gamer high haze. There were games galore and many, many people to see and talk to—so many people! As I made my way through the convention center to a variety of games, both scheduled and off-book, I realized I know a crap-ton of people. How the heck did that happen?!?

Don’t get me wrong, I like people, but I’ve never considered myself particularly socially adept. While I’ve been told I’m wrong, I’ve always felt a bit shy. Despite that, this year I found myself regularly stopped to say hi in the hallways or between games. The entire convention was a journey of decisions on where to go and who to hang out with. The very fact that there were choices blows my mind. My very first Origins in 2007 was mostly me wandering around by myself, playing games and wondering where the only person I knew there had gotten off to.

The Dude!

Some of this can be explained by the fact that I’ve been coming to Origins for ten years, so it’s inevitable that I’ve collected a number of friends and acquaintances along the way. Some of it can be explained by the fact that I’ve become a wee bit embedded in the gaming community by writing for the Stew, helping out with the GnomeCast, and honestly just getting involved in the larger gaming world. I also make a concerted effort, in my own sort of awkward, self-conscious way, to try and stay in contact with the people I like. Living in the future has definitely been nice for this. The internet and all its social media options makes this so much easier.

I learned a long time ago that if I want someone in my life, I need to take responsibility for staying in contact. All relationships take effort by both parties and friendships are not absolved. They sometimes can be easier to maintain because of common interests and regular contact, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a little love and care too. While I’m often a little hesitant and full of self-doubt (they couldn’t possibly want to hang out with me, could they?), once I know someone isn’t going to reject me, I make an effort to stay in contact and hang out when possible. Because of all of this, I’ve collected a large number of friends and acquaintances I want to see and spend time with at cons.

The lightsaber would win, but Negan is still a jerk.

I hear you saying, “That’s nice Ang, but what’s that got to do with giving us gaming advice?” Well, having to decide between which friends to game with isn’t a problem exclusive to me and my Origins experience. The more involved you are in the gaming community, the more you’re going to be faced with choices. It’s definitely a problem of an abundance of riches, but it’s still a situation that can require careful navigation.

Maybe, like me this year at Origins, you have different groups you need to choose between at cons. Maybe it’s just a matter of having two local game groups you want to play with. What if you’ve got more people that want to game than fit comfortably in one group? Decisions need to be made and I know I don’t want any hurt feelings anywhere along the way.


Be realistic with your time. When trying to juggle between different groups, it can be very easy to over-commit yourself, but that’s not going to be doing you or anyone else any favors. Whether its planning out your con or deciding how many games you can handle during any given week, know your limits. This Origins I almost committed to a 9am game in the effort to hang out with someone cool. Thing is, I’m a night owl and don’t do mornings. Forcing myself to get up and show up to that game would have not endeared me to anyone.

Don’t fall into the new shiny trap. Be mindful of not neglecting old and familiar friends in the face of the shiny new people you’ve started to collect in your life. Sometimes this is inevitable as interests begin to diverge and friends grow apart, but it’s important to be aware that it’s happening. It sucks if you realize you’ve hurt a relationship with one group to hang out with another group. This Origins I somewhat neglected some of my older gaming friends, but I did so knowing I’ll get to hang out with many of them at another con this Fall.

ALL the foam weapons.

Make plans and stick to them. This particular piece of advice can be applied as much as fits your particular needs, but I know it helps me to make specific plans with people and stick to them. This way I can try and balance the time I spend with the gamers I want to play with. When I planned my con schedule, I made sure to slot in games or make meal plans with specific people so I knew I’d get to spend time with them. This is going to apply to my home group as well as this summer we’re gaining at least two more players and we’re probably going to split into two games to accommodate everyone.

His eyes lit up too!

So, there’s some advice on how to balance the social choices you may face when you know way more people than you realized you did. When the hell did I ever become the social butterfly? Either that or it was an excuse for me to share a whole bunch of Origins 2017 pics.

Have you ever had to deal with making a choice between who to game with? I’d love to hear your stories and how you dealt with it all.


(NOTE: I utterly FAILED at getting a #tableselfie for the first game, which was a Dresden Accelerated game run by Tom of Knights of the Night. My bad.)

Categories: Game Theory & Design

IT Wizardry

21 June 2017 - 1:00am

In fantasy settings with sufficient magic, there is likely to be a low level spell to send a simple message from person to person. Consider that a permanent magic item with this power is essentially a one way cell phone. This is such an indispensable item that no one who could afford it would be without one. Most mid level adventurers, wealthy NPCs and government offices would all have one. The watch might have a handful so active patrols could requisition one to call in reports, update movement, and request backup. Merchant caravans are likely to do the same. Similarly, adventuring parties could spring for an extra device and leave it in town with a henchman who is responsible for mapping, keeping tabs on where everyone is, and sending in mercenaries when things go pear shaped.

But wait, there’s more! Let’s looks at economics: manufacture of magic items is often expensive but costs can usually be reduced with the right combination of rare items. With these devices being so in demand, it makes perfect sense that industries would spring up around farming these materials to drive down the cost of manufacture. This might reduce the price to the point that even lower level adventurers, smaller businesses, and minor government officials might have one.

And where there’s a booming industry there’s going to be innovation. Soon you’re going to see all kinds of variants: tablet versions that you write on to send written messages and that heat up when you receive a message; perfect for the rogue who doesn’t want their position compromised when someone calls them unexpectedly, versions you can see through so the mage can memorize spells with his spell book safely at home with his apprentice, versions that scan surroundings and automatically note dimensions of rooms for mapping, etc. All these niche versions will be pricey. There’s unique spell research put into them and there are no ready sources of special materials they require, but the professional adventurer will be willing to shell out the extra gold both for the additional functionality and for the prestige of owning bleeding-edge magic.

Of course don’t overlook the specialty wizard build that’s constantly researching new functions and tinkering with the team’s devices. They’re not only enhancing the team’s functionality, they’re also a constant springboard for adventures: “Sure I can upgrade your crystal to do that, but I’m going to need the heart of a fire elemental and some pristine obsidian.” Whether they’re an NPC or a PC, they’re going to be a welcome addition to any group.

But this is just the beginning. How long before this technology is leveraged into full blown computers? After that comes a fantasy internet. Adventurers can quickly run a magisearch for “tips for fighting medusas” and get advice from other veterans (and from armchair know-it-alls, so be careful what you read). This opens a whole new realm for adventure and campaigns. Helping expand the magenet, researching new information for upload, testing new technology. You can even run a campaign where PCs are part of a resistance fighting an oppressive state that censors the magenet. Sure, this seems a lot like turning your game into a fantasy…er Shadowrun, and it is, but it’s an interesting twist to the assumptions of fantasy RPGs for a game or two.

Of course the dwarves have a completely different system (vibrations through stone made and picked up by small earth elementals imbued into devices), as do the elves (massive storage in living trees, distributed by interconnected plant life force). Plenty of other minor nets exist as well. There’s even segments of an ancient net of some sort running through the astral plane. The teams charged with interfacing these systems maintain bizarre hodgepodge sub-systems just to get them barely communicating (a mud elemental rigged into the dwarven network with plants tied into the elven network planted in his body for example) and constantly need some oddball component or another to keep the entire thing from crashing down around their ears.

How would a fantasy internet enhance a campaign? What challenges would it bring? What does a goblin internet look like? Does this go the whole way to Mechanus?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Using Intellectual Property

19 June 2017 - 1:00am

There are more pre-created settings in role playing supplements than you can shake a stick at. There are even more settings out there in other creations outside just the role playing industry. These include TV shows, movies, novels, graphic novels, comic books, and video games. Some of these have already been adapted to a role playing system (Dresden Files, Mistborn, Robotech, and many more). What do you do if you want to represent an existing intellectual property into a game of your own? There are a few steps to it.

Keep it Private or Get Permission

You are free to adopt anyone’s intellectual property into your private games. There are no restrictions there. So long as you don’t turn it into a “public performance” or make a profit off of your efforts, you’re free to delve into another creator’s world to your heart’s content. Let’s clarify a few things here. A public performance would be something along the lines of an “actual play” podcast, a YouTube channel, or other distribution method. Playing in the backroom of your FLGS around others would be okay. I’m no lawyer, but I don’t feel that playing the game “in public” would constitute a “public performance.” I’m pretty sure “don’t turn a profit” is pretty clear, but this basically means that you’re not allowed to pad your wallet with cash from others while running the game. This includes publishing your material. Another point of clarity: Giving it away for free still constitutes a copyright violation. While the game, NPCs, PCs, specific settings you create, and so on will be yours, it will still be based upon (and most likely make use of) copyrighted items in the existing creation. If you’re going to make your system/setting highly derivative enough that the original work can’t be recognized, then you may as well make your own, unique setting.

 I need to add a caveat here. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. I have done serious research in this area, but I can’t give legal advice. If you intend to publish your materials (for free or pay), you must acquire the rights to the world, characters, settings, and other items made by the creator. The creator typically owns the rights to sell or grant them to someone else. This is not always the case. If the creator has passed away, then the estate, literary manager, or other entity (usually a literary agent or law firm) will manage the rights grants and/or purchases on behalf of the creator’s inheritors. Acquiring rights can sometimes be simple, but don’t count on it going quickly or easily. Getting your hands on the rights can also cost you money. Sometimes lots of money. Be prepared for this. The more popular the intellectual property, the higher degree of complexity and increased expenses you’ll encounter. If you really want what you’ve made to be published, then I highly recommend acquiring the rights before you start serious work on it. This will prevent you from spends months or years on something that’s dead out of the gate.

If you’re not sure what route you should go, I would consult a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property rights. I need to add a caveat here. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t even play one on TV. I have done serious research in this area, but I can’t give legal advice. The above paragraphs should not be construed as such.

Choosing a System

Unless you’re going to homebrew an entire system of mechanics to handle playing in the world, you’ll probably want to go with a generic system. Some of the top systems currently on the market are Savage Worlds, Fate, GURPS, Hero System, and Cypher. There are, of course, others. If I were to adopt an existing setting into an RPG campaign, I’d go the easy route and try to find an existing RPG system that can handle the nuances of the setting. If the setting just can’t properly fit into a generic system without breaking the setting or the system, then it might be time to create your own RPG to reflect the fiddly bits and details of the setting. I’d be willing to bet that with a little work and expansions on a generic system, you’ll be able to get one to work with whatever setting you choose.

Teaching Others

 You just need to sit down with those that need to learn and watch the movie. If you’re adopting someone else’s creation into a game campaign, odds are that you already have a core group of players that know the setting and nuances. You won’t need to teach these folks much at all. It’s the people that haven’t read the book, series of books, graphic novel(s), or seen the movie that you need to teach. Obviously, if the game is based on a TV show or movie, that’s very easy to teach. You just need to sit down with those that need to learn and watch the movie. In the case of a TV show, I don’t recommend binge watching seasons at a time. Hand pick a two or three episodes that will land the feel and flow of the narrative and setting. This will bring the light of knowledge into the darkness of those ignorant of what you want to represent.

If the setting comes from book (and especially if it’s a series of books), then Wikipedia can become your friend. Point the newcomer to the setting to a Wikipedia page or two about the setting. If the property is popular enough, then it may very well have its own instance on one of the free, public wiki sites out there. This is true for Mistborn, Dresden Files, Buffy, and many other properties. Summaries of key characters, important events, and setting details can be found there. This will save you the time of writing up a summary. Someone has already done it for you!

Making It Your Own

The interpretation given to a property by you and your players will make it your own. If the campaign is based on a series of books, it’s trivial to set the campaign before the books begin, between books, or at the end of the series. This will create a tangent from the main storyline that will give you the freedom to do as you please with the PCs at the table. You can also choose locations only mentioned in passing in the novels, or choose something outside the main plotline of the property. To take a page from Dresden Files, most of those novels take place in and around Chicago. If you wanted to play a team of spell-slinging private investigators in Denver, go for it. There’s nothing stopping you. I actually highly encourage picking an obscure setting just for the liberation it gives you to tell your own tales.

 Avoid using the high-powered canon characters in your campaign as NPCs. If there is a magical/technical/futuristic/wondrous mechanic in the setting you’re trying to reflect, but you just can’t quite get the generic (or homebrew) rules to mesh with what is represented in the intellectual property, it’s perfectly fine to alter that mechanic to fit the rules of the game. Just be very clear with your players on what you’re changing and let them know why and how it affects the world and their characters. Someone may come to your table with a specific character concept in mind that gets broken or nullified by your alteration.

Avoid using the high-powered canon characters in your campaign as NPCs. These include people like Han Solo, Harry Dresden, Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), Elric, and many others. If the NPC somehow gets drastically changed or killed off, then it can break the suspension of disbelief for your players. They know that these characters “are still alive” in the setting, and the fact that they died can create high levels of cognitive dissonance. They can also become targets for the PCs that desire to change the world, which can distract from the story. Likewise, you may feel inclined to provide some level “plot armor” for these important characters, and that can unnaturally stymie what the PCs want to try to accomplish.

Break Canon

If you need Buffy to be dead (or kidnapped or removed from the direct story) in order for your campaign ideas to work smoothly, then kill her off (no hate mail please, she’s fictional). Yes, this breaks the canon of the setting as presented in the TV show, but that’s fine. This is your story to tell in collaboration with your players. Just make sure you have a good reason and think out the impacts of removing the character.

If you need a certain captain to be in charge of a certain Star Fleet ship in your Star Trek game, then do it. Don’t worry about breaking canon because you didn’t have the time or want to take the time to research things. If a player challenges you on the “mistake,” just point out that this is an “alternate universe” or a “reboot of the series” like what Hollywood is becoming infamous for. Most players will let it go or the change will intrigue them enough to deepen the hook into the unfolding story.

Relax and Have Fun

 If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. Don’t worry too much about “getting it right.” If you’re having fun, you’re doing it right. It’s that simple. If a certain event happened on a certain date, represent this close enough to get the point across to your players, and they’ll roll with it. If an important person from the intellectual property is in the wrong place, has the wrong equipment, develops a new power, loses an existing power, or is changed in a minor aspect, then roll with it. Once you adapt the setting to your private campaign, you are free to change things as you please. This goes for the players as well. If a particular religious group within a setting aren’t allowed to wear jewelry, but a player wants her character to always wear her dead mother’s ring, then allow it. Just come up with a compelling reason the character gets to be the exception to the rule.

Lean On Your Players

When you’re GMing a game, there’s lots to keep track of. If you’re focused on the flow of the story or a mechanic within the game, a detail about the setting can easily slip your mind. Don’t be afraid to look over the GM screen and ask the players about a small detail involving something from the property. Just be careful not to tip your hand about what might be coming at them from around the corner. If you’re not sure of a detail and don’t want to tip your hand, call for a five minute break in the game to let people refresh their drinks or relax and socialize a bit. This will give you a chance to look up details online using your phone, tablet, or laptop if you have one handy. The wikis mentioned above come in very handy.

In the Dresden Files RPG I’m currently running, I lean heavily on my players. I’ve read the books (fiction and RPG materials) and various short stories, but my memory is almost as bad as Swiss cheese. Both of my players have an uncanny ability to quote dialogue from the books. I don’t get it. However, I like it. This allows me to pick their brains for details before and during the game to make sure I’m close to the target, but they completely understand that I’m able and willing to break canon. However, when I break canon, I make sure to not break the “rules” of the setting as laid out in the core material.

What’s your favorite setting you’d like to turn into an RPG campaign or published material? What settings out there would you like to see adapted to an RPG setting book for a generic system?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnome Spotlight: Big Bad Con & Gaming For All

14 June 2017 - 11:38am

Welcome to the second installment of Gnome Spotlight, where we highlight gamers doing good.

Today I’m excited to share the really cool programs and practices of a convention that consistently gets rave reviews: Big Bad Con. It’s a tabletop and live action gaming convention, boasting a wide variety of RPGs, larps, and card/board games. It’s held in California’s Bay Area each October, where they hold games in traditional conference room spaces and ballrooms, but also rent out dozens of hotel rooms for private gaming, which sounds really cool.

Big Bad Con is Kickstarting NOW and will end its 2017 fundraiser on Thursday, June 22nd.

I spoke with the Steward of Big Bad Con, Sean Nittner, about how BBC has made a really positive atmosphere through the meta-game “Big Bad World,” and about how BBC is working to make its con a more diverse, inclusive, and welcoming space.

  • Big Bad Con is a “tabletop gaming convention dedicated to making a safe & welcoming place for all gamers, particularly gamers who are in marginalized & mistreated groups.”
  • You can help by:
    • Attending, and be excellent to one another! Back the Kickstarter to get a badge now, or apply for their scholarship program for financial assistance.
    • Donating to support their programs! You can back the Kickstarter, at a variety of pledge levels (support the scholarship fund, play an online game with big-name designers, or get a box full of swag with Baba Yaga’s Mystery Box). You can also donate directly to Big Bad Con, and in both cases BBC is a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity, so your donations are tax-deductible.

Big Bad World: Gamifying Being Awesome To Each Other

 When you’re awesome to someone, Mark XP. The RPG Apocalypse World has proved to be eminently hack-able, with its elegant components such as its core mechanic, Agendas, Principles, and Moves. Big Bad Con must be one of the first to turn this system into a meta-game, however. Attendees can get playbooks that they can “level up” by doing good over the course of the con.

This idea came about when Sean and his team were brainstorming over Big Bad Con’s Community Standards – how could they make their community standards less negative?

“Nathan [Black] realized early on that we have these community standards and things we don’t want people to do (harassment, abuse, intimidation, etc.). I wanted to give people something to do, something to be proactive about. For some folks, it feels like dancing on eggshells. So instead of a list of things you don’t do, how about a list of things you do do.”

“I don’t remember which of us said this, but one of us was like ‘When you’re awesome to someone, Mark XP.'” This is the lingo for gaining experience in Apocalypse World-powered games. Cue mind-explosion animation. “So we just sat there for the next few hours talking about the opposite of microagressions; micro-niceties: pulling up a chair for somebody, introducing someone, welcoming someone to your table, teaching someone how to play a new game.”

And so Big Bad World was born, and further developed by other BBC staff and playtesters.

Principles, Moves, and Marking XP. On one side the playbook lists the Principles that every player/attendee should uphold: Think about the wellbeing of those around you, Shine the spotlight on your fellow players. On the other side are a series of actions, these “micro-niceties,” for which players can gain experience (“Mark XP”). Some are universal Basic Moves: help someone be awesome or answer someone’s question about the game. Other moves are playbook-specific; for instance, an Ambassador can mark XP when they help someone find their game or introduce someone to a group of people. An Explorer marks XP when they play a game you’ve never played before, and the Mage marks XP when they teach someone how to play a game. As you level up, you can turn in your successful playbooks for a shiny pin and the opportunity to work on other playbooks with different roles.

Proactive micro-niceties. The first year Big Bad World was implemented, it was met with great excitement. “These are all things we would love for people to do, and it’s all things people feel like they can do, especially if they’re given explicit permission to do it.” Shy attendees may want to introduce people or pull up a chair for someone, but may not be bold enough to do it unprompted. This meta-game gives them that permission and confidence to take an active role in creating a welcoming environment.

Big Bad World is continuing to grow and improve at BBC, and has already spawned hacks of its own: Flying While Trans by Vera Vartanian (soon to be on DriveThruRPG), and Ettin Con’s Team Player. “I’m just delighted to see people take whatever positive things they want folks to do at their convention to make it more fun for everyone there, and rewarding it. However you do that, that’s cool.”

Diversity, Inclusivity, and Accessibility

Two goals of an inclusive con is getting people there and supporting people once they’re at the con. Apart from Big Bad World, BBC approaches these goals in three interesting ways I want to talk about.

Teen Track: The Family That Games Together Levels Together

In 2016, Big Bad Con tried out a Teen Track of gaming: an entire room of the convention filled with games run by adults and teens. Player spots were prioritized for teens, but filled in with some adults as well. Prior to this, teens weren’t able to attend the con because the staff didn’t feel they could assure parents that teens would encounter only appropriate material for their age level.

 I have a very strong belief in gaming’s ability to teach empathy and allow people to explore things that they wouldn’t feel safe exploring otherwise, and to build bonds between people. When I asked Sean about his motivation for the teen track, he said “the selfish reason is that I have a teenager now, and I want them to be able to come to my con! It’s been rough for me because they’ve been around and helping me plan the con; in fact they even named it! We were sitting around the house thinking of what the con should be and we had all these different ideas, and my then 7-year-old said “What about Big Bad Con”?” The name stuck.

Besides Sean’s selfish reason, “the two big reasons were 1) to allow families to attend, and 2) to bring up a new generation of gamer. I have a very strong belief in gaming’s ability to teach empathy and allow people to explore things that they wouldn’t feel safe exploring otherwise, and to build bonds between people. I think that’s fantastic exposure for kids to have.” 

Outreach Program: Getting Local Teens Into Gaming

Big Bad Con opened its doors to teens last year, most of whom had been introduced to tabletop gaming before. This year, the team hopes to bring gaming to new teens with their outreach program. Prior to and after BBC 2017, local GMs and BBC staff will go to teen spaces (schools, libraries) and run games for a classroom of students there.

 What are the barriers to local people coming to the con? “My hope with the outreach program is that we can introduce the con to local teenagers in high school, and because we have the scholarship to support them and have the BBC teens track, we can say: ‘Hey, hope you had a great time this afternoon playing games with us. If this is something you’d like to do more of, here’s a convention where you can play games for 3 days straight. And, if you use some financial assistance, here’s a scholarship program we can help you apply to.'”

“It’s hopefully another piece in the puzzle of making the con more accessible for people, particularly on the awareness and financial axes.”

Better representation. Another motivator for the outreach program is to include a greater diversity of people at the con. “I think we have done a really good job making the con friendly towards women & queer folk. I feel like the area we are failing in, in terms of representation and diversity, is more people of color being at the con. That’s a direct reason for the outreach program.” The BBC staff would like to see better representation of the local demographics at the con: “If you go to any area in the Bay Area, you see tons of black and latinx people, and then you come the con…” Not so much.

Many of the people of color currently attending the con are coming from outside of the Bay Area, which on one hand is lovely, but on the other hand, Sean says “I think to myself, what are the barriers to local people coming to the con? Part of it is exposure, but then a huge other part of it is money & class divides. It’s very expensive to go to a convention. The con is the cheapest part; the hotel, travel, eating out is really pricey.” Here enters the Big Bad Con scholarship fund.

Scholarship Fund: Supporting Members Of Underrepresented Groups

 There are amazing bonds and connections that are forged at cons that you won’t find at other places. The Big Bad Con scholarship fund goes toward the costs of the BBC badge, hotel room, and travel to help “financially challenged women, people of color, disabled, and lgbtqia+ individuals attend the con.” It’s supported by the Kickstarter pledge level “Big Bad Scholarship” which starts at $20, as well as some individual donations. Sean says “It’s simple, there’s not a lot to it really, but it’s one of the things I’m the most proud of that we do at the con.”

Why would you want to support such a thing, even if you’re not attending? “I think there are amazing bonds and connections that are forged at cons that you won’t find at other places. Many of my best friends I’ve met at conventions; many of my best experiences have been at conventions.” There’s a personal satisfaction that comes with helping out as well – “To give people the opportunity to not just play the games, but to make those connections with others is huge. If you have the means to help someone else do that, it’s a pretty amazing feeling. We start the pledge level at $20, but frankly that goes a huge way towards making that kind of connection possible for people.”

Chipping in as a community. There are lots of other cons that have programs similar to this, but it’s very effective. BBC modeled their scholarship fund after Con or Bust, a non-profit that “help[s] fans of color go to SFF cons and be their own awesome selves.” Individuals sometimes run GoFundMes to support their travel to a con, which can also be effective, but on an institutional level, Sean says “I really like the communal nature of “Let’s throw a bunch of money in a pot and let’s see how many people we can get out to the con” And figure out who can room together, how much needs to get covered, to try to get as many people out there as possible.”

So far, the fund has been able to help out everyone who has applied, though not to the level they wish they could support each person. Whether you’re attending BBC or not, consider supporting such a great cause!

Big Bad Con: Kickstarting NOW!

“In today’s world, where I feel like a lot of things are crappy, BBC is one of the things I feel very good about, and that I feel like myself and the staff can really make a difference and a great place for a few days. And in fact we want to extend that to not just be a few days. We have the outreach program, and we have “Big Bad Online”, a pledge level you can back at to play games online with cool designers.”

Consider brightening the gaming world by attending Big Bad Con and supporting it on Kickstarter before it ends in a few days, on Thursday, June 22nd! As of the writing of this article, there are still some REALLY cool pledge levels, such as:

  • Big Bad Scholarship – donate directly to the scholarship fund, starting at just $20.
  • Big Bad Online (currently sold out, though keep checking back!) – For $60, play an online game with a big-name game designer sometime before the con.
  • Immortal Hero – For $100, have a private game room named after you or a cause you’d like to support, which will be displayed on a banner in the room thanking you!
  • Baba Yaga’s Mystery Box (currently only 3 left!) -Get mailed a box of really unique, cool swag! Sean says “A dozen or so contributors are making cool things: some art, some crafty bits. It’s really fun – last year people loved what they got, and this year is way better. This year we recruited artists for custom art!”
  • And “everybody who contributes at all gets put on the big Hall of Heroes!

Thanks so much to Sean Nittner (Twitter) and the Big Bad Con staff for doing awesome, positive things that make this Gnome’s tiny icy heart warm.

Find out more about Big Bad Con:

What do you love abut conventions you attend? What would you love to see in the future? Have any of you gnomes attended Big Bad Con, or too afraid of that big ol’ wolf?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Backpocket Adventure

14 June 2017 - 1:00am

Sometimes players zag when you expected them to zig. It happens to all of us. Often it’s easy to just adapt your current adventure to the changing situation. However, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes they go off into a totally different part of the world (or another plane or planet altogether). For those situations, you may want to have a “Backpocket Adventure” ready. (We’ll call it a BPA from here on out). In this article, we’ll look at several design principles for the BPA.

The BPA should probably be a short adventure. It’s designed to allow the heroes to get back to their homebase or regular adventuring routine. If you like, it can be a springboard to an entirely new phase of the campaign, but that won’t usually be the main goal. A short BPA allows you to support player choice (“We’re jumping though Guardian of Forever no matter what!”) without miring them in a long side adventure that might not be to their taste.

Creating a clear goal is a solid design principle for any game. It is especially important for the BPA. Players should know what they are trying to accomplish. They may need to break out of prison, steal a spaceship, or open a portal to their world. Without a clear goal, a BPA could seem like “just killing time.”

The problem with writing a BPA is that you may not need it. Players may stick to the expected line of action (though mine never do) and it will go unused. However, hard work should never go to waste. Perhaps the BPA can be used as a lead in for the next adventure. Another trick is to keep the maps, but change the NPC’s and monsters. Maybe the players in your fantasy campaign didn’t visit a particular village and help them with their monster problem. Change the villagers into alien farmers, and swap out the trolls with some wampas. Now you have a short scenario for a science fiction game. Also, you can keep the maps and increase the level of the opponents for use at a later date.

A BPA is a great chance to let loose. Since it is only designed for a session or two, you can have a blast. Want to run an Addams Family themed session? Now’s your chance. Take them to Oz, Narnia, Tatooine, wherever. Give them a good time.

Your adventure doesn’t need to be crazy to be fun. Bring back a favorite villain to taunt them, have them find a favorite NPC in an unexpeceted locale, set up a chance for them to use their magic items, gear, or skills to best effect. Fun comes in many sizes.

While a BPA requires extra work, it can be a lifesaver. Also, they may make you look like a genius gamemaster. With minor adjustments, you can reskin them for later use. Recycling is great, even in our gaming lives.

Have you ever written a BPA? How did it work? What other principles can you suggest for designing a BPA? Let us know below.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making a Thing: Camp Adventure, Part 3

12 June 2017 - 1:00am

Two weeks ago, I teased you with how different the cabin areas of the Camp would be for the campers. Rather than try to spend wrds describing them here, I’m going to give you the description directly from the text.

The Cabins

The cabin at Camp Adventure are perhaps the most unique and adaptable part of the campgrounds. Unlike the other parts of the camp, which are controlled directly by the counselors, the cabins are enchanted to simply respond to the needs and desires of the campers themselves.

Practically speaking, what does this mean for a camper?

As an example it means that if a camper needs a specific type of sleeping accommodation, the cabin will supply it upon the entrance of a registered camper. Bed, sleeping mat, dirt bed, water tub, the possibilities are as varied as the makeup of the campers who attend the Camp.

Bedding is just one example of these types of adaptations. Broadly speaking, whatever vision a camper has of what their cabin will be like, that is what they get. This is true for all campers who reside in a given cabin. Usually, this means four different visions of what it means to be a camper, and that is exactly the point.

One of the major purposes of Camp Adventure is to help aspiring adventurers learn how to work well with others of widely varied backgrounds. The cabins adapt to all campers simultaneously. There is no illusion magic involved. Campers must spend the summer adapting to and accommodating the environmental needs and desires of the other campers with whom they will adventure.

It doesn’t take long for campers to learn that the cabins adapt to their needs and desires. This may seem to be an opportunity ripe for exploitation, but there are safeguards in place. The first of these is that the magic is able to discern the difference between true needs and whims. The magic has a limited intelligence, and is able to determine the value of what a camper requests of it. As well, it cannot and will not provide anything that is obviously dangerous or deadly. A camper cannot, for example, will poison into existence.

As well, the counselors has ultimate jurisdiction over this magic. As they observe the campers throughout the summer, they are able to curtail the abilities of the cabins to avoid problems.

It may seem as if putting a group of young campers into an environment where they can seemingly have their every desire granted would lead to a great deal of problems. This is the perfect kind of obstacle for a new adventurer to learn to overcome. The life of an adventurer is one that can lead to great riches, and even to magics that could grant wishes. Having a short exposure to a magic like this helps campers learn the depths of their morality and character. Lessons like this last a lifetime.

Functionally, the cabins serve as an indication to the campers of how amazing this camp is. When I’ve used them in playtests, I’ve described how they adapt and change as each camper comes into the cabin. One player wanted windows to peek through, and a chimney to sneak down. Another wanted writing desks and an area to study. Another, an awakened skeleton, needed a crypt along the wall and a place to hang their lute.

Most players, so far, haven’t tried to abuse the nature of the cabins. It’s just a cool way to introduce the camp. Those that have tried to push and get something that would derail the game or the narrative just got some pushback. “The cabin doesn’t seem to be able to create weapons.” It worked well. This kind of explanation would go in a sidebar in the final book itself: GM’s need to know how to handle this kind of stuff.

Next: People

The Camp is fairly well described so far. Next I’m going to move on to the people who make the Camp run. I’ve got a list of names and a few different descriptions, so I’ll explore how I go about writing NPCs and how to give GMs what they need to use those NPCs at the table.

Sidebar: Origins!

If you’re going to be at Origins this week, come say hi! For the first time in years, I don’t have events scheduled, so I’m planning on a lot of hanging out and chatting with people. Hit me up on Twitter (@TheOtherTracy) if you want to say hey. See you there!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Troy’s Crock Pot: Just Like 007

9 June 2017 - 12:01am

In level-based fantasy rpgs, trying to match the power level of the big bad adversary to where the player characters will be at that point in an adventure is like trying to thread a needle with your eyes closed.

As the GM, you’re anticipating where the PCs are going to be in terms of hit points and depleted resources. All the while, you hope the types and number of monsters, the NPC’s and the setback potential of traps, terrain and magical obstacles are also appropriate.

Easing in, easing out

One approach GMs might take is one I’ll call “easing in, easing out.” Instead of building a dungeon that results in a boss fight at the end, this puts the most powerful adversary in the heart of the session, when you can more safely presume the PCs are at or close to full power.

With the big bad in the middle, the session will begin and end with encounters against less challenging foes, hence the “easing in, easing out.”

It begins more easily as a warmup, to get the PCs comfortable with combat, and to give them an early accomplishment.

It ends with a less capable foe because it is presumed the PCs have diminished capabilities at this point — fewer hit points, spells and magic items at their disposal.

Storytelling beat

Doesn’t this run against everything we know about building a satisfying story — a slow build to a kitchen-sink encounter in the third act?


What it does is most closely resemble the “mop up” encounter of the sort that were a staple of James Bond movies of old.

What happens after Bond and a whole army defeat Goldfinger, Specter or Scaramanga? Well, in a closing moment, he has a more personal, though certainly less challenging, encounter with one of the henchmen, say Rosa Kleb disguised as the hotel maid, or the assassins Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint or the loyal assistant Nick Nack.

Taking this approach, the encounter at the heart of the session meets the story expectations of facing the big bad, and testing the PCs’ capabilities for saving the world, mastering great magic or resolving the overriding threat or problem.

The “easing out” encounter makes that battle more personal — a foe out for revenge, a delayed threat set in motion, a “new” foe that can serve as the next adversary (this is a common storytelling technique of comic books), or a dramatic complication for certain player characters (such as the sort serial TV uses to hook viewers for the next episode).

And really, are intimate encounters such as these any less satisfying from player perspective than the boss fight? The enemy takes a last desperate stab at our heroes, who then have the satisfaction of defeating this particular villain.

In some ways, it makes the henchmen encounter memorable, this moment in the spotlight. Certainly, for many Bond films, the henchmen can leave a lasting impression, be they Jaws, Odd Job or Xenia Onatopp.

All that’s left for the PCs to do is come up with a punny quip after dispensing with the villain.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Variant Fishfolk

7 June 2017 - 1:00am

Most fantasy RPGs have a type of fishfolk. Due to logistic concerns they don’t often see a lot of play time, so there are usually just a few varieties in any given system. While from a limited resources perspective, this is understandable, it does a great disservice to the diversity of marine life. Below are a handful of largely cosmetic variations for fishfolk to add a little flare to the limited screen time they get in your game*:

Anglerfish: The only rule changes for anglerfishfolk is that they emit light from growths on their head and their bite damage is greater than normal. Some species are also known for sexual dimorphism with females much larger than males, which could lend an interesting diversity to encounters with them.

Blobfish: To be fair, the classic blobfish picture that everyone is familiar with is actually inaccurate. Blobfish are a boneless deep water fish, so when brought to the surface, they experience a decompression that reduces them to vaguely fish shaped piles of jelly. But for the sake of fun, let’s forget we know that. Blobfishfolk are probably weaker than typical fishfolk. They’re scaleless and boneless so they’re easier to damage and their natural attacks do little damage.

Electric Eel: These long slender fishfolk seem to resemble snakes more than fish.  Stat wise they are normal fishfolk, but they have additional electric attacks, either AOEs in water or additional electric damage from natural attacks or attacks with metal weapons.

Flying Fish: Starting from a run, these fishfolk can fly over short obstacles and skim over long distances. They can glide over taller structures if they begin their movement from a vantage point. Otherwise they are very similar to standard fishfolk.

Lamprey: Another type of fishfolk that greatly resemble snakes, lampreyfolk are similar to standard fishfolk but have a bite attack that initiates a hold with continuous damage until the hold is broken. This damage may be exhaustion or ability score damage to represent blood loss.

Oranda: It’s believed these fishfolk were specifically bred to be a warrior caste by… we’ll say a mad wizard. They are belligerent and aggressive scrappers. Though they possess a variety of fleshy armor, these are no more protection than a standard fishfolk’s scales.

Scorpionfish: These fishfolk are well camouflaged and covered in weed like protrusions, gaining a bonus on hiding in natural environments. They are also covered in venomous spines and barbs which they can use in conjunction with their natural attacks and against those who attack them.

Wolffish: Fishfolk are usually temperate or tropical enemies but wolffishfolk are one of many species of fishfolk that are highly cold resistant. These folk do more than usual damage with their powerful jaws and take less damage from cold attacks.

These are only 8 species of fish that make for quick interesting reskins for fish folk. There are plenty of other fish in the sea. Which ones would you use for fishfolk in your game?

*and if Lovecraft has anything to say they’re also insane inbreeding diabolists.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

From The Horse’s Mouth

2 June 2017 - 2:45am

Today’s guest article is from Jerry Weis and covers the topic of chewing on player feedback. – Something in my teeth John

It’s no secret that one of the best ways to improve in any field is through regular feedback.  Game mastering is no exception; getting useful suggestions and recommendations from your players is a great way to help your game to grow.  That said, this is a very touchy area for most people; it’s not always the easiest thing to give or receive criticism.  Players can be loathe to nit-pick their GM, especially when it’s obvious how much effort they put into that last adventure.  By the same token, it’s not particularly easy for a GM to hear about perceived shortcomings in their latest and greatest creation.  When not handled right, feedback can degenerate into arguments, sour feelings, and even the breakup of gaming groups.  Nevertheless, meaningful player feedback is vital if you really want to take your game to the next level.  In this article, we’ll look at a number of effective techniques for soliciting honest and genuine feedback from your players without stepping on anyone’s toes.

Safe to Share

Both giving and receiving feedback require a certain level of trust.  For many people to open up, they need to feel that they can openly express their opinions without fear of reprisal; other players or the GM won’t belittle or criticize what they have to say, and the GM won’t seek retaliation by prematurely bringing about their character’s demise the next session.  Similarly, you as GM have to feel confident that your players are offering their feedback with the best of intentions.  

When asking for feedback, the discussion needs to start from a position of mutual respect and common courtesy.  If there are ongoing grievances or friction in your group, it would be best to address these issues before even trying to get feedback.  Otherwise, things could turn ugly.   Before soliciting feedback, make it clear that everyone is entitled to their opinion; all participants, including yourself, need to be respectful of each other’s thoughts and suggestions.  You should also mention that while all input will be considered, it may not necessarily be doable.

Getting the Goods

Once you’ve established the ground rules, take a little time to ask your players what they thought went well and, more importantly, what they thought didn’t go so well.  Many times you’ll be quite surprised by what your players have to say; challenges you thought went rather poorly may have been quite fun to some of your players for reasons you never considered.  Similarly, some challenges you expected to be favorites might have fallen short with your group.

Many times when people ask for feedback, they may inadvertently phrase their questions in a way that guides the audience towards a desired answer.  In some cases the request for feedback will even be asked in a way to discourage criticism: “You didn’t find any problems with this, did you?”.  To solicit true feedback, ask your questions in a way that doesn’t lead the answers in any particular direction.  Asking your players “Didn’t that final encounter with the Rat King go great?” suggests that you are soliciting only positive comments.  Asking instead “So what did you think about that final encounter with the Rat King?” allows for both positive and negative feedback.

When your players do offer their opinions and criticisms, keep an open mind; don’t attack or argue over what they share.  Doing so will only teach them to keep quiet the next time you ask for feedback. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with and implement every nuance your players come up with.  If a player makes a suggestion or recommendation which you don’t think will work, simply thank them for their input and make a note of it.  If other players agree with it or more than one person makes the same suggestion, then this may be a valid criticism to consider.

Try for the Why

While you should never attack a player’s criticism or suggestions, you definitely do want to get as much clarification as possible. Finding out what your players liked or disliked about an adventure is useful, but understanding why is invaluable.  A marketing expert for a prominent food label once pointed out to me that when it comes to getting feedback, it is important to understand not only what people want, but why they want it:   “Knowing the ‘why’ is when you can gain control/power because you better meet people’s needs.”   When getting feedback, try to learn the reasons behind why something worked for them or not; knowing the “why” gives you true insight into what makes for a fun challenge or adventure for your group.

Digging In

Even with a close-knit group, people can still be hesitant to provide anything other than positive feedback.  When someone invites you over for an action-packed game session that they put a lot of work into, its very hard to tell them that any part of it was short of great.  However, learning from mistakes is both the best and fastest way to improve as a GM.  If your players are still hesitant to criticize, here are some tips and suggestions to get them to open up:

  • Awkward Silence
    When you ask your questions, give your players time to mull them over; don’t just move on if you don’t get immediate answers.  Let the question hang in the air for a bit, then rephrase it.  Often, someone will venture an answer if only to end the silence.  
  • Mean It
    After asking a question, follow up with an earnest emphasis that this is important to you.  Remind your players that you really want to improve the game for everyone’s benefit. To do this, you need to hear what they think.  
  • Seeding
    Players are often more willing to share if they are not the first ones to go.  You can often kick-start a slow conversation with a little self-criticism; “On paper, that second trap room looked pretty cool, but I don’t think that it really did anything for the adventure; it just felt a little redundant after the first disappearing floor…  what do you guys think?”  
  • One on One
    Sometimes players are more willing to speak candidly one-on-one rather than in a group.  Reach out to individual players within a day or two after a session; directly soliciting their opinions.  The important thing here is to address specific individuals; people are more likely to comply with direct, personal requests as opposed to group emails or messages.
The Smartphone Test

In addition to straight-up asking your players, there are other, less direct ways of getting feedback.  One such example is The Smartphone Test.  In addition to looking rules and spells up, your players’ personal devices can serve a very useful purpose to you as GM.  If you want to know how the adventure is going, keep an eye on how much your players are using their personal devices during the game.  If phones are mostly sitting forgotten on the table with the occasional brief glance, that is a good sign that your players are engaged in the adventure.  If, on the other hand, some of your players are busy browsing and texting, then that might be a sign that the current challenge isn’t pulling everyone in.

Now it’s Your Turn

In this article I’ve covered some of the do’s and don’ts for soliciting useful feedback from your players.  I’ve also talked about some ways you can get your players to open up when they are hesitant to share criticism.  Now, it’s your turn; what are some ways that work for you?  Do you think these techniques would help you? Why or why not?  Have you found other techniques that work well for getting useful feedback from your players?  I’m always looking for other thoughts and ideas; I’d really like to hear what you think!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Making a Thing: Camp Adventure, Part 2

31 May 2017 - 1:00am

When I wrote the first Camp Adventure article a couple of weeks ago, I ended things up knowing I needed to pick a part of the project to work on next. I outlined a few possibilities in the post, but when I went back to the document, one of them jumped out to me.

Location, Location, Location

In my previous work on this project, I’d established a template for how I wanted to write up each area of camp.

The general structure goes like this:

Name of Area

Short Description

  • What You’ll See
  • What You’ll Hear
  • What You’ll Smell

These items give a good thumbnail sketch of the important areas of the camp. As well, sight, sound, and smell are key descriptive cues for a GM to give to a group. With those things established, you can begin to have a decent idea of what these areas are like.

Tools like this are really important for me as a GM. As you’ve seen in my articles, I don’t need or want to have things spelled out for me. What I need and want out of things like this are hooks and impressions. I want to have an image in my mind, one that’s unfinished. The finishing happens when I’m at the table with players. There are some exceptions (which I’ll get to), but generally that’s what I want, so that’s what I’m going to present in this project.

With that said, let’s explore the camp!

Where to Go in Camp Adventure

Here are the major locations in the camp:

The Lodge Proving Grounds Agility Challenge Watchful Forest Lake Shimmer Howling Cave Shifting Wilds

These are the kinds of locations you’d see in a brochure for a camp, for example. They’re also the places where the campers will likely have most of their interactions. These came from my thoughts about where each of the classes would train and who would want to be where. I also want to mimic the general structure of standard D&D adventures for camper training. To that end, I wanted locations the camp staff could control and in which they could set these adventures.

To give you an idea of how that looks, take a look at the Lodge.

The Lodge

Decorated and appointed in the manner of a traditional adventuring tavern, the Lodge is the central gathering place for counselors and would-be adventurers. All group meals, save for special events, are eaten here.

What You’ll See

  • Long trestle tables with benches
  • Oil lamps and candles lighting the room
  • Massive fire pits at either end
  • Food as far as the eye can see

What You’ll Hear

  • Conversation in dozens of languages and at dozens of volume levels
  • The clatter and noise of knives, tankards, and wooden plates
  • Songs from all across the 12 Marches
  • The daily and special announcements

What You’ll Smell

  • Food from a variety of locales. Plain fare, but hearty
But Wait, There’s More

When looking at these locations, you might think that there’s a pretty important part of the camp missing: the cabins. I mean, the campers have to stay somewhere, right? The Cabins are kind of a special location, one that’s going to get a more thorough write-up. They’re gonna get a special treatment because they’re kind of the game base for the campers. Plus, there’s some special stuff going on with them. Same goes for the counselor’s cabins.

I said above that I tend to prefer general descriptions. The cabins are exceptions to that. They’re a place where I want to be more prescriptive about how I describe things. There are specific things that happen in the cabins and specific things that cabins do, and I want to describe those things.

Obviously, if you’re writing a thing of your own, change this up according to your preferences or what you think will be useful. If you were writing Camp Adventure and you thought that the Lodge needed to be that kind of location or hub, go wild with it. The thing I think really makes sense for these kinds of project is a good mix of things like this. For me, I want the cabins to have that detail.

So, the cabins are likely where I’ll pick this up in two weeks. If you’ve got guesses about what they’ll be like, or have any thoughts on how I’ve described the other areas, drop them in the comments.

See you in two weeks!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Uh Oh! Monsters! More Fun For No Thank You, Evil!

29 May 2017 - 1:00am

You all remember that wonderful game for kids and families with various ages — No Thank You, Evil!? I am delighted to tell you know the newest set of accompanying resources is currently on preorder from Monte Cook Games. Full disclosure: they sent me a PDF to review for this article, which of course I was thrilled to get because this game is great for my own small person.

If you haven’t encountered No Thank You, Evil! before, it’s a kid oriented RPG with multiple levels of play difficulty for accommodating families and growing children. There is a d6 system with pools of points that you can use to adjust the difficulty of a problem you’re encountering by “trying harder,” and it plays fast and loose and light for short games (and short attention spans) — most games target play time of 30-60 minutes. The game is themed with candy, adventure, intelligent backpacks, and places in a child’s room.

The Monster Museum

Everything you actually need to play is in the original book, of course, but this supplement can help keep things easy and low prep. Uh Oh! Monsters! is essentially the Storia version of a monster manual, but this book reads as the adorable monster museum run by Bill Zubbub and his dragon friend. Don’t pet the critters without asking first! There’s also the museum gift shop, filled with cool monster related magical items (the Froggle Goggles are my favorite).

Each monster comes with the appropriate No Thank You, Evil! stats and information as you would expect from a book of monsters: Health, Damage, Skills, Quirk, and Stuff. It’s well laid out and quick to sift through, making it a perfect GMing companion even if that GM is your ten year old. And of course, on theme for Storia, the illustrations are fun and engaging: check out the Bunnyfu ninja bunnies, or the Furry Toothed Fairy Penguins. And don’t miss the Purple People Eater — it’s a bit of a misnomer since his favorite food is spaghetti. The monsters are measured for scale at the end of the book in how many children tall they are, which I thought was a great touch.

Making More Monstery Fun

Uh Oh! Monsters! is more than just a monster manual in the classic sense of the idea though — it also includes new Nouns for creating monstery type PCs, Alien and Stormbringer.  Your heroes can earn coins to spend at the museum gift shop by helping Bill Zubbub out with little problems here or there. It’s basically a zoo and it’s a big job to keep it running smoothly! And of course when we talk monsters, there are also new adorable companion ideas, because what’s a Storia companion except your own little weird critter? There are also some ideas for using the monster museum as your setting for an adventure. Your heroes can earn coins to spend at the museum gift shop by helping Bill Zubbub out with little problems here or there. It’s basically a zoo and it’s a big job to keep it running smoothly! For randomizing, like the Story, Please! deck, Uh Oh! Monsters! also comes with the monsters as a card deck for easy reference or random drawing. As a GM I love these randomizers. Why should players have all the fun thinking on their feet? Creatively composing a story is where a large part of my enjoyment comes from, so I love that Monte Cook Games continues to cater to this style with their No Thank You, Evil! expansions.

Lares and Scares

Lares and Scares is the second part of the current release and it’s a set of four adventure modules for No Thank You, Evil! using many of the monsters in Uh Oh! Monsters!. I’m not really a module running GM in general although I like using them for ideas. There’s one beginning level adventure with a holiday theme that would actually work brilliantly for a child’s birthday party (can I say that I’m planning a bit for next year?) and three that are for players more familiar with gaming. They’re all meant to run in about 30-60 minutes, although there’s one you can flesh out in to a campaign if that’s your jam. Each adventure has handouts premade and ready for you to throw on the table like the well planned GM we all want to be.

All in all if you’re playing and enjoying No Thank You, Evil! this expansion is handy and fun, and it’s always neat to add more fuel to a child’s imagination. It’s not a real requirement for game play, but if you’re playing a lot it’s a great way to broaden your game a bit more without much effort. My favorite part is the deck of monster cards, of course — because it just suits my style so well. Hooray for randomizers!

Find more No Thank You, Evil! fun and information at

Categories: Game Theory & Design