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Esoteric Gaming Jargon

10 August 2018 - 5:00am

In our hobby and industry, there are quite a few terms of jargon tossed about. Not all of them are specific or unique to tabletop gaming, but for enough of them we gamers have our own definitions. Someone new to RPGs might need a little guidance on understanding what we’re saying when we drop some of these terms.

About ten years ago, Walt put together an RPG glossary here on Gnome Stew. This list is by no means a replacement, but, rather, an appendix to his wonderful and in-depth article. I’m not going to cover the basics like GM, PC, NPC, etc.. Walt’s glossary does a wonderful job of this already.

This post will be a little long in the tooth because of the number of terms I’m going to lay down on you, so I’m just going to jump in the list. Also, I tried to group the definitions together in a way that made sense instead of alphabetically.

Grognard – French for “grumbler.” An old soldier. I suppose grumbler and old soldier can be synonymous. In the RPG world, we use it to describe folks who enjoy older RPGs as opposed to the newer selections.

Newb/Newbie/N00b – A newcomer to the hobby. Can be applied to pretty much any hobby or profession. Usually used in derogatory terms, so be careful with this one.

RAW – Acronym: Rules As Written; Some groups will run a game RAW. This especially applies to organized play, so that all players and the GM are on the same page as far as rules go.

RAI – Acronym: Rules As Intended; This occurs when different people or groups interpret the written rules in different ways. This can come from ambiguous wording in a rule, or a shift from RAW due to personal preference.

House Rules – House rules are used to alter the RAW language to adapt the game to personal play styles, personal preferences, to adjust for shortcomings in the rules, or to overcome serious flaws in an otherwise playable game system.

Homebrew – A homebrew RPG can apply to both worlds and rules. With worlds, the GM will run in a setting they have come up with themselves (or within a group effort). With rules, the GM is running a set of rules that they (or a group) have come up with. In many cases, homebrew worlds and systems never see the light of day outside the immediate gaming group immersed in the worlds/rules.

Organized Play – This is where a character is not part of an ongoing campaign, but the player controlling the character moves from adventure to adventure and levels up according to proscribed meta-rules. Some examples of organized play are Pathfinder Society, D&D’s Adventurers’ League, and RPGA’s “living campaigns.”

THAC0 – Acronym: To Hit Armor Class Zero; This method of determining if someone hits a target with an attack has fallen out of favor because of the difficulty of the math involved. THAC0 has its roots in the wargaming systems Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson played and used as a basis for the original D&D system in the 1970s and continued to be found in mainstream gaming until D&D 3.0 was released. It can still be found, sometimes with variations, in some modern games.

Metagame – The information outside the game that involves the game. This is generally player knowledge that is outside what their character knows. An example of this would be the knows that trolls (in D&D) can’t regenerate fire or acid damage, so they throw oil on the troll and light it up, even if their character has no way of knowing this tactic at the time.

Monty Haul – A style of gaming or campaigning where the GM loads up the PCs with treasure, magic, experience points, and other loot even if it’s not fully earned. This is named after “Monty Hall” from the “Let’s Make A Deal” TV show.

Hack ‘n’ Slash – A style of gaming where the players are basically playing a tactical simulation against the monsters the GM throws at them. The whole point of the game is to Munchkin a character to become the most effective killing machine possible to slay as many monsters as possible.

Min/Maxing – This concept is where a player will completely cripple (or minimize or min) one or more aspects of his or her character in order to trade off for additional powers in areas where they want to be supreme (or maximize or max).

Munchkin – A player who must “win” the game at all costs. This can be a power gamer, a min/maxer, a cheater, or someone who will memorize every bestiary, every spell, and every rule in order to metagame the process of playing to gain an advantage.

Power Gaming – A player that, within the rules provided, will find a way to create the strongest and most capable character possible. This is a slight difference from Min/Maxing in that most power gamers will do everything they can to avoid having any weaknesses that are exploitable by the GM during the course of the game.

On The Fly GM – A GM that changes the direction of the campaign or storyline because players’ ideas are better than the GM’s.

Anonymous NPC – These are NPCs who have no names. They typically are the barkeeps, shop owners, messengers, etc. who the PCs interact with in a transactional manner, but not in a way that changes the direction of the story.

Named NPC – Named NPCs are people in the world under control of the GM who have a name. These tend to be folks who alter the course of the story, plant new story seeds, are targets of quests, or obstacles to overcome.

Mook/Minion – These are synonymous with Anonymous NPCs in that they aren’t important to the storyline. However, they do pose an obstacle the PCs must work together in order to overcome. Mooks typically work for a Boss or BBEG.

Boss/BBEG – BBEGs are the Big Bad Evil Guy/Gal of a campaign or story arc. They control mooks, set their own plots into action, have goals and motivations, typically have a back story, and consider themselves to be the hero of their own story. Generally, when the BBEG is taken down, the world changes, the story arc concludes, and, unless a fresh BBEG is presented, the campaign might roll to a close.

GMPC – Acronym: Game Master Player Character; A GMPC is a fully-fledged character controlled by the GM, is an equal member of the party, collects loot and experience points, and travels with the rest of the party. The GMPC is generally protected by plot armor, and tends to be more of an annoyance to the players than any benefit. Temporary GMPCs (such as an experienced guide or bodyguard) can work well in games, but generally not for the long term.

Plot Armor – This occurs when a single character has become so vital to the continuation of the storyline or campaign arc that the GM cannot afford to kill the character off. The plot itself has become “armor” or immunity from death for the character.

Railroading – A style of running the game in which the players’ decisions have limited impact on the story arc that is being told. This can work well in one-shots or convention games due to the limited scope and time involved, but long-term railroading can lead to player dissatisfaction.

Sandbox – A style of running the game in which no predefined story arc exists. The GM may prepare encounters, locations, treasure, and other vital items to the game beforehand, but when the GM sits down at the table he or she may not have a true idea of what will happen next because the world (or local area) is laid out in front of the players for them to pick a direction.

Fail Forward – This is a style of running the game in which failure to overcome an obstacle will not stall or stop the progress of the story being told. It will certainly alter the story and will generally produce some sort of interesting consequence while allowing the obstacle to be overcome, avoided, destroyed, or somehow mitigated.

Dungeon Crawl – A style of game in which the PCs make their way through a dungeon (usually one of large scope or a “megadungeon”) during the course of the campaign. They might retreat to the entrance (if possible), return to the handy village that is nearby, and resupply at the Anonymous NPCs’ shops. However, the bulk of the gaming is done within the confines of a dungeon.

The Three Pillars – A concept in which RPGs are described as being part exploration, part social interaction, and part combat. These three parts make up the three pillars holding up RPGs.

Session Zero – A session in which the GM and players get together to define a social contract, pick a game, generate characters (and potentially a world/setting), agree upon a theme and style of play, and generally kick off the start of a campaign.

Rule Zero – A understood concept in which the GM has final say on any ruling, despite what a rulebook may say. This is where many house rules are generated when a GM is consistent in implementing rule zero.

Crunch – The hard and fast rules, numbers, tables, charts, and other artifacts of the game that can be rigidly defined or understood.

Fluff – The descriptive text of a rulebook or setting book in which the ambiance, style, themes, genres, and feelings of the game are encoded, but not rigidly defined.

PvP – Acronym: Player vs. Player; This occurs when a player decides to use their character to attack another player’s character. This can be part of a story arc, caused by a BBEG, or can be a sign that the gaming group has come to an violent and ugly end and should disband (or alter membership).

Buff – The act of boosting another PC’s ability or abilities. This can be done via assistance, spells, magic items, or innate character abilities that alter other abilities or other characters.

Nerf – The act of lowering another PC’s (or mook’s or BBEG’s) ability or abilities. Has the same sources as buffs.

Tank – A character designed to absorb as much damage as possible while allowing the rest of the group to take down the opponents.

DPS – Acronym: Damage Per Second; This phrase has come to describe a character who has the main job of doing as much damage as possible in order to take down opponents before they get taken out of the fight.

Controller – A character designed to control the battlefield, area of play, or other locale in order to gain an advantage for his or her group.

Healer – A character who is mainly focused on keeping the rest of the group alive and in as good of shape as possible. Often combined with buffs to offset nerfs.

Leeroy Jenkins – When a player gets bored or tired of planning, they will kick down the door, charge into the lair, and attack whatever is on the other side. The phrase comes from a moment in the World of Warcraft online game where a player tired of the excessive planning of one of the players, screamed his name, and charged into the BBEG’s lair. The event resulted, as you would expect, in a TPK. You can see the video on YouTube.

Murder Hobo – A person or group of people who have no base of operations and they respond to every encounter as a physical fight in which they kill everyone around them. Very little social interaction occurs with murder hobos, and very little story telling occurs during games involving murder hobos. This can be fun if, during session zero, the group agrees to go with a hack ‘n’ slash style game.

Rules Lawyer – A player who knows every rule, every nuance, every errata, and every combination of how these things work. They typically will correct and attempt override GMs who are attempting to invoke rule zero.

Bennie – Abbreviation for “benefit.” These are in-game bonuses given to players by the GM for exceptional play or to help shore up a weaker character during random character generation. Bennies can also be a metagame currency allowing players to adjust rolls or influence the storytelling aspect of the game.

Boxed Text – The text in adventures or modules that the GM is supposed to read out loud (or paraphrase) to the players when an event occurs or locale is discovered.

FLGS – Acronym: Friendly Local Game Story; This is where gamers can get together to acquire supplies for gaming, play in a back room, post notices on cork boards about games, and build their community.

LARP – Acronym: Live Action Role Playing; A style of gaming in which the players can be in costume, use props, and physically move around an area to marked off locations in order to meet with each other, NPCs, the GM, etc.

OOC – Acronym: Out of Character; Generally this is limited to comments and questions about food, bathroom locations in the house, or rules questions. Most conversation around the table should be IC, not OOC.

IC – Acronym: In Character; These are the words spoke by the player to represent the actual things his or her character is saying.

PBeM – Acronym: Play by Mail; This is a method of gaming in which the players and GM communicate via physical mail. However, email has mostly supplanted these types of communication due to the near-immediate delivery of email.

PbP – Acronym: Play by Post; This is a method of gaming which the players and GM communicate via some form of posting or message board on the Internet. There are many variations of this approach to gamine because of the various technologies available today.

Social Contract – An agreement between everyone within an RPG group on style of play, themes, trigger areas, genre, and other choices made at the table to guide how the players will interact with the GM and each other.

TPK – Acronym: Total Party Kill; This usually occurs through a series of poor decisions by the players, bad dice rolls, new GMs making judgement mistakes, or experienced GMs deciding to end the campaign via “in rule” fiat that kills every last member of the party.

Now that this list is done, I have some people to thank who helped out on this article:

  • Angela Murray — For starting the conversation that led to this article.
  • John Arcadian — For jumping on the ideas and requesting I write this article.

For suggested phrases:

  • The Gelatinous Rube (@TempestLOB)
  • Guy Milner (@milnarmaths)
  • Duke Aaron McGregor
  • David Dolph
  • Rob Abrazado
  • Darren Wade
  • Travis Casey
  • thom_raindog (@thom_raindog)
  • Buddy Fazzio
  • LoneWorg (@LoneWorg)
  • Craig Barnes

So, did I miss any esoteric or weird phrases used in RPGs? If so, drop a comment with the phrase and your definition. If you’ve heard a word or phrase and aren’t sure what it means, feel free to drop that in a comment and request a definition. I’ll see what I can come up with.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #46 – Gen Con 2018

9 August 2018 - 5:34am

Join Head Gnome John for a series of short interviews with attendees at Gen Con 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Settle in for a bonus-sized episode!

Download: Gen Con 2018

The interviews in this episode include:

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

Check out John at

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

Want some bonus bonus content?

Gnome Stew frequent guest author Keith Garrett was at Gencon with his camera and took a bunch of pictures!  Here’s a photo album of some of the sites of Gencon 2018!

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    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Genre As A Tool For Meaning

    7 August 2018 - 6:30am

    by kellepics on Pixabay

    Genre is a powerful tool. Fantasy, Horror, Sci Fi, Historical Fiction, Anime… the definition of genre is broad and wiggly, but no matter how you’re defining it genre plays an interesting roll in how we tell our stories. While present in all media, genre is specifically a focus of tabletop roleplaying games and LARPs, where a realistic setting is the odd one out (except in the original concept of Nordic LARP, where the rule is no dragons, no NYC). This means our stories have so much potential to be packed full of meaning about ideas that spawn from the cultural consciousness.

    How Humans Make Meaning

    Every game has a message. Games are stories, especially roleplaying games, where we play characters and interact with narrative and create tales together. We are collaborative storytellers when we play roleplaying games. Stories are how we humans make meaning of our world. All stories have meaning, all roleplaying games have meaning.  Stories are how we humans make meaning of our world. All stories have meaning, all roleplaying games have meaning. Share6Tweet6+11Reddit1Email

    Who you are means you often get the privilege of “just telling stories” without thinking about their meaning, and there’s an implicit power in that ability. How much you admit the meaning in the stories you are telling, how intentional the meaning is in that story, and what your subconscious unthinking mind creates in a story are all conveying messages. Meaning is conveyed through storytelling.

    A Love Of Genre

    Storytelling is a way of sharing images, characters, and journeys in a world that the storyteller wants to see. Genre and speculative fiction allows us to imagine so many different ways this could occur, outside the boundaries of modern life. What’s so awesome about genre is that we can wrestle with these big themes and big ideas that we face in contemporary life without having to skirt away from the heaviness of those themes. Genres give us freedom to imagine different worlds and rules of existence and realities… which is why speculative fiction is such a meaningful tool for feminists and marginalized folks in particular. We can imagine better futures for ourselves.

    Genre is an alibi for these meanings in stories.  We can wrap up these meanings in afrofuturism and speculative feminism, space opera and other worlds, other times, fantastical times. In these other worlds we can imagine what these burning questions in our modern lives might be like in a different scenario than the one in the real world. That imagining can lead us to real solutions in our minds and hearts.

    Genre Games

    In Call of Cthulhu players approach the horrific and the unknown to try and see more than humans can see, and are punished because of this curiosity. In Dungeons & Dragons, players travel to different locations and use their wits and weapons to solve puzzles, find treasure, to gain power over time. In Blades in the Dark criminals survive in a dark city by making their fortunes against all odds. These all have implicit meaning behind them, and paint the world with different brushes to purposefully tell specific stories about specific types of people.

     If we were to drop these themes into stories of straight drama, they’d be too on the nose. Who would want to play a game about traveling to a different country, attacking a group of people it’s decided are evil without really getting to know them, and stealing their treasure so you can become more powerful, for example? Share6Tweet6+11Reddit1Email If we were to drop these themes into stories of straight drama, they’d be too on the nose. Who would want to play a game about traveling to a different country, attacking a group of people it’s decided are evil without really getting to know them, and stealing their treasure so you can become more powerful, for example? When put in a realistic context, it’s easy to see the colonialist meaning behind that story. Genre acts as an alibi for stories though! If you’re fighting dragons, it’s easy to tell they’re evil, right?

    Genre As Intentional Tool

    While unintentional meaning can arise from genre stories that don’t consider the meaning behind the story, many genre games do a great job of using genre as an alibi to talk about serious things. In the tradition of Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin with their social science fiction, roleplaying games can tell meaningful fantastical stories about our current lives and identities.

    The Blades in the Dark example above is derived heavily from the TV show The Wire, which is about how marginalized people don’t have many choices when the system doesn’t support them, and criminal action is the only way to survive. Mutants in the Night, much like the X-Men, uses the sci fi concept of mutants to highlight the lives of marginalized folks and how to fight back against systems of oppression. Monsterhearts uses monster romance as a metaphor for realizing you’re queer as a teenager. Kagematsu takes a typical samurai tale and subverts it by making the women of the village the main characters, thus portraying the gendered assumptions of emotional work.


    The potential of genre as a tool to tell stories about contemporary issues is huge! Especially in roleplaying games, where we act out the lived experiences of the characters in the tale, and gain empathy through doing so. The fantastical and the unreal have great power in our imaginations. What meaning do your stories tell? What genre games tell your favorite types of stories about our contemporary lives? Let me know in the comments!


    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Troy’s Crock Pot: World building — Homeland

    6 August 2018 - 12:01am

    Our summer world-building exercise keeps zeroing in. We started with a broad overview, grabbing a continent and carving up land areas into nations. Now we’re ready to sketch out the PCs’ homeland.

    I’m selecting the territory in the center map, the one at the heart of the peninsula with a river running through it. I like it as a homeland because it has access to the northern and southern seas, meaning that if a player wants their character to come from elsewhere in the setting, there is a plausible explanation for their emigration.

    Nentir Vale Model

    The Nentir Vale is the setting presented in the fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. As an example of what a homeland filled with adventure potential looks like, it is very good. It is only two and a half pages long, proving that a useful gazetteer can still be concise.

    Broken down, the Nentir Vale has five towns or safe places, “points of light” in the vernacular of the setting. It describes five major wilderness encounter areas. (Though to be fair, the setting has more. But these are simply names of geographic features on the map without description — locations to be fleshed out by the DM later). Lastly, and more importantly, the setting describes six adventure sites, all ruins and dungeons. A handful of places giving the PCs some choice of where they want to explore next, but not too many as to overwhelm them.  

    Our Homeland

    Let’s give it a name: Mendathis. It’s people are the Mendati.

    Points of light. (For simplicity’s sake, all the place names will be real, in this case, Bulgarian. I can change them later if I wish).  The old provisional capital on the north coast is Borovan. It’s rival city is Opaka and is on the southern coast at the mouth of the Pernik River.  Upriver is the centrally located frontier trading hub of Vestran, a walled town amid rugged wilderness. The eastern border town is Devin, which has an active garrison. Slivinika is the regional capital from land annexed from a neighbor along the southwestern coast, and thus, has a different character and culture from the rest of Mendathis.

    Dungeons and ruins: An ancient and abandoned fortress lies at Kiustendil, abandoned when the Pernik River changed course. A highland stronghold overrun with monsters is Soljam near the source of the Pernik. An abandoned temple to the old gods lies at Ajtos on the trade road between Borovan and Devin. Svoge is a lawless area with many dungeon complexes in the eastern mountains.  Ardino was a wizards’ tower and enclave in the annexed territory.

    Wilderness locations: The dark and forbidding Omurtag Forest fills the central frontier. The Lodogorie mountains occupy the southeast. The Cliffs of Elenia are where the mountains meet the sea. The fens and wetlands in the vicinity of Slivinka are known as the Kula.  The highlands that serve as the source of the Pernik are called the Telerig Crags.

    Next time, we’ll be adding detail to the PCs’ home base, the frontier town of Vestran.


    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Dusk City Outlaws Review

    31 July 2018 - 5:00am

    Image from

    I think the heist story may occupy a special place in my gamer heart as a tale I greatly enjoyed in media such as television and movies, and yet wasn’t high on my list of adventures to attempt to emulate in tabletop gaming. When I was a fledgling gamer, a lot of cyberpunk and espionage games were geared around modeling the heist by giving extensive floorplans, exact details of where the cameras were located, and exactly how fast the reinforcements would arrive in the case of a botched skill check.

    I was never comfortable with that level of detail. Most of the time, I was the one running the game, and I never felt like I could give enough details to be fair to my players. I knew I wasn’t able to juggle all the sweeping fields of vision, patrol patterns, and response times.

    I also have to be honest about another aspect of the heist. I am very impatient. I love coming up with quirks when PCs are interacting with NPCs, and I’ll come up with all kinds of side quests on the fly if they wander away from my plot. But if the players take too long planning, I get anxious. It’s not just that I’m in a holding pattern, it’s that the more they plan, the more I feel like I “owe” them something for that planning, even if they completely misread the clues and wandered off the beaten path completely.

    In recent years, there have been numerous games that have addressed the heist in a much more narrative manner, recreating the tropes of the heist without the people around the table rolling out actual blueprints or timing how long it takes for someone to map a lap around the block. We’re looking at one of these newer heist-centric RPGs today, with Dusk City Outlaws.

    There’s Something You Oughta Know About . . .

    I initially purchased the PDF of Dusk City Outlaws, but I was provided a physical review copy by Scratchpad Games. I had thought about reviewing the game based solely on the PDF, but given the design of the game, I felt it was better to wait until I had a physical copy, and that copy was provided by the company itself.

    What’s In The Box?

    As you might have inferred, this review is based on the physical copy of Dusk City Outlaws. Since the box contains more than just rulebooks and reference guides, we will be going over the components of the box as well. The boxed set contains the following:

    • Cartel Sheets (19 total)
    • Specialty Sheets (26 total)
    • Character Sheet Pad
    • Player Rulebook
    • Judge Rulebook
    • Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven
    • Deck of Quirks (60 cards)
    • Deck of Enemies (40 cards)
    • Deck of Time (20 cards)
    • Advantage Dice (4)
    • Challenge Dice (4)
    • Percentile Dice (5 sets)
    • Heat Tokens (30 total, in both 1 and 5 heat denominations)
    • Influence Tokens (18)
    • Player Component Tray
    • Judge Component Tray

    The books are well formatted, with big, bold headers and various sidebars explaining rules or concepts in the setting. It’s very easy to read and follow. As a lover of bullet points, I was not disappointed. The artwork has an exaggerated style that is unique and attractive, and very evocative of the setting and its mix of influences. In keeping with the name of the game, much of the artwork is in red, orange, and dark blue.

    Both the Player and Judge books are larger, square format softcover books. They are both on high quality, glossy paper, but the cover is the same stock as the pages, so I’m a little concerned about wear and tear over time. The Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven is a digest-sized paperback that clocks in at 240 pages, with a heavier cover and full-color art throughout.

    All the Cartel and Specialty sheets are on cardstock and feel sturdy. The cards all look amazing. The Deck of Time and the Deck of Quirks have the game logo on the back, and the Deck of Enemies has the same artwork of the adversaries on the back, without the stats that appear on the opposite side.

    The tokens are on heavy cardstock and seem like they will hold up well over time. My set has percentile dice in yellow, purple, orange, blue, and green, enough for four players and the Judge to have their own set right out of the box. There are also sets of advantage dice (d8s) and challenge dice (d10s) with special symbols on them.

    I was surprised by the plastic component trays that came with the set. They hold the components nicely, and the sheets and Traveler’s Guide all fit into the covers that go over the trays. The only real downside I can bring up about the trays is that if you are a compulsive sleever of cards, the Deck of Quirks and Deck of Enemies overflow their compartments a bit, although you can still seal the plastic lid on the tray.

    Player Rulebook

    The Player Rulebook is 28 pages, including a player reference sheet on the back that summarizes some of the most commonly used rules for players. The first two pages are a summary of the components of the game, with the next 16 pages summarizing rules and the sequence of play. The last ten pages before the summary on the back-cover deals with campaign play.

    Character creation is basically picking a Cartel Sheet and a Specialty Sheet, and then drawing three quirk cards and picking the one that you like the most. Between the specialty and the cartel chosen, your character will have several things they know going into any job without making any checks, some things they can accomplish by spending influence, some gear, and a list of skills ranked at a specific percentage.

    All characters start with 100 Luck, which is a buffer against being attacked, and can also be spent to boost skills. Getting help from other players, or doing something especially favorable for your character, allows you to roll advantage dice. Spending luck or doing something in less than ideal situations causes you to roll challenge dice. The symbols on the dice cancel each other out, and they don’t alter your ability to succeed, but they may let you learn something extra, do extra damage, take more damage, or build up more heat.

    Once you are out of luck, Judge characters can force you out of a scene if they are making a social attack, or they can start causing you to take real wounds, if the attack is physical. When making an attack or attempting to reduce the luck of a challenge, the best thing you can do is roll as close to your skill number as possible, as the number you roll equals the damage you do in luck.

    Heat builds up naturally as time progresses, but certain actions, like firing a gun or committing a crime against a noble, can cause even more heat to be generated. The Judge can then spend that heat to make life more difficult on the players as the job progresses.

    The Deck of Time measures how many segments the crew has to pull their job. Each segment some heat automatically builds up, and the crew must decide if they will do legwork (learning information and setting up favorable situations), plan, or rest (to recover lost Luck or heal wounds). If the crew decides to plan, the Judge sets a timer and lets them make plans for 15 minutes of real time, then the segment is over.

    The job will have a set number of obstacles that have to be overcome to be completed, and through legwork the players can find out what some of these obstacles are and mitigate or lessen them before they play the final act of the job.

    Campaign play involves players earning XP as a crew and progressing story conflicts. When a crew completes a job, they get XP tied to that faction. They can spend it to gain advantage dice or to gain the effects of influence when spent. Story conflicts are broad themes that a character works towards resolving as they play, such as “I’ve got a bounty on my head.” When they lead a legwork scene, they can introduce that as a potential complication in the scene, and when there have been ten complications along that story conflict, the conflict will reach its climax – usually during a job – and afterward, the character picks a story award. Story awards often grant situational bonuses, or additional resources under the right circumstances, but can also be a means of retiring the character with some control over how that character’s story resolves.

    Judge Rulebook

    The Judge Rulebook is 48 pages. The first 15 pages expound on the rules from the Player Rulebook, summarize how to run scenes, give more details on spending heat, lay out how to construct a job and the challenges that comprise that job, and then present two pages of options and variants to the standard rules. There are eight pre-written jobs to use that round out the book, with a Judge Reference page on the back.

    The jobs essentially lay out what the objective is and what any additional side goals may be (which can earn the crew more XP than just doing the bare minimum). There are a set number of obstacles to doing the job, and each of those obstacles has a list of information that the PCs may know or discover, summarized by information that players with a certain knowledge know automatically, things that require a legwork scene to learn, and deeper secrets. The jobs also have customized expenditures of heat that are tailored for that scenario.

    This isn’t really an “expected” order of events. Once the Judge lays out the number of segments the crew has until they must pull off the job, the player leading the legwork scene explains what they want to get out of the scene, and where they want the scene to take place, and the Judge determines how many obstacles will stand between the players and their goal. More likely developments are represented with the custom heat expenditures (for example, explaining what kind of NPC is likely to show up in some areas to complicate the job for a certain amount of heat).

    Legwork may be freeform in many ways, but there are guidelines for the Judge on how many challenges to put between the PCs and their goal. Additionally, the exact obstacles for the final goal are clearly expressed, and the degree of information handed out is succinct and bullet-pointed. If a character gains a boon on their successful check to find out about an obstacle, there is a clear list of deeper secrets to choose from, if the player wants to find out more by spending that boon.

    Because each crew member has certain areas of knowledge, the information handed out to players with that sphere of knowledge preloads the crew with several leads to start their legwork. Given that an average job might hand out knowledge based on six or seven categories, it seems unlikely that the players will ever be starting out without some starter clues from which to make their plans.

    Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven

    This book is a digest-sized, 240-page guide to the setting. It gives details on the city, neighborhoods, history, and factions at play. Each chapter contains a few headers introducing broad topics, and a few sidebars, including the Thief Signs sidebars, which is usually a paragraph or two that explains how the information in a given section is relevant to the criminal organizations of the setting.

    The setting has enough interesting details to make it functional, but it avoids hard dates, and the further away from New Dunhaven the lore gets, the broader the descriptions get. Elderland, the Vladov Empire, and Taona are extremely vague, other than being generally European, Russian, or broadly Asian in influence.

    Even the city is mainly given “functional” details. There is a map showing what cartels control what sections of the city, but other than the broad strokes of slums, commoner, merchant, or noble district, the book seldom zooms in on specific neighborhoods, although the broader entries above have some example names for some of those districts.

    The guide provides the level of detail I’ve been increasingly enjoying in-game settings — there is enough detail that two different Judges will likely recognize the city from one another’s games, but no one is going to correct you that district A is right across the canal from district B.

    Between the cartel sheets and the information given out in the various jobs, much of the setting information is conveyed. If you picked up the box and wanted to play it only reading through the Player and Judge books, you can do that and not feel like you missed much vital setting information. In fact, I ran two jobs as a playtest before I finished this book.

    That said, if you want to get the most out of campaign play, where characters are creating long-term story conflicts and adding recurring allies and villains to a game, it is much easier to do with this information. Many of those conflicts and ancillary characters are going to be more interesting when they aren’t drawn from the same pool of power groups that are directly associated with the jobs that are being done. I particularly liked the secret police, elite private detective agency, and zealous anti-criminal citizens organizations that are presented as complications to otherwise straightforward jobs.

    Other Components

    Image from and shows the deluxe tokens instead of the standard cardboard influence and heat tokens.

    While the Judge Rulebook has statistics for general categories of opposing NPCs – such as minions, antagonists, minor, and major villains – the Deck of Enemies has much more specific examples, such as bounty hunters or sorcerers. These cards have artwork on the back showing an example of this type of NPC, and on the other side there are stats that the Judge can use to run them. Many of these characters have their own special rules that are quickly summarized in their stats, such as giving the Judge a new way to spend heat when they appear in a scene or adding challenge dice when a given action is attempted in their presence.

    The Deck of Time is a set of cards with the time of day on one side, and a reminder of the heat generated when a segment ends. If the crew has three days to do a job, there would be three day cards and three night cards – and a visual reminder of what time of day is current for the segment is important, as some of the specialty sheets have abilities that trigger depending on the time of day.

    The Deck of Quirks is one of the means that can be used to customize a character. The default method of using it is to draw three cards and pick the one quirk that the player most likes for that character. Quirks include things like having specific contacts, having a skill not listed on the character’s specialty sheet that may be useful in some jobs, or knowing something about a topic that is not already granted to the character by their cartel or specialty sheets.

    Image from

    At The Table

    While I don’t always get a chance to playtest a new game before I can review it, having the physical copy of the game, and knowing that it was designed for minimal preparation, I asked some of the members of my regular game group if they would be interested in a playtest. Because of this, we had the opportunity to see the game in action.

    Without reading through the Traveler’s Guide to New Dunhaven, just flipping through the cartel cards gave a clear idea of the setting and the various themes of the cartels. Between the images on the cards and the sheets, and the available gear, the components communicated a lot about the setting without the need for heavy research into the setting.

    We played through two jobs. One was a job that I outlined myself, and the other was a job from the example jobs in the Judge Rulebook. The players played different characters for both scenarios to give them a wider range of how the different cartels and specialties played. I did have a few players that weren’t happy with any of their potential quirks, so I let them shuffle and redraw their cards to pick a better quirk for their concept.

    Because the game is designed to be played with minimal prep, I decided I wanted to try to come up with a job without any previous work, in addition to running a job from the book. I wrote down what the job was, what the objective was, and how many complications the PCs would have to deal with and decided I could fill in their automatic knowledge on the fly. I would come up with information on the obstacles as they did legwork.

    This taught me a valuable lesson—all the well-structured answers about all the relevant topics in the example jobs let the Judge relax a lot when they are running this game. Trying to make sure you are giving out relevant and useful information in legwork scenes when you haven’t planned out the facts of each of the relevant obstacles or complications is a little bit exhaustive, because those details will become relevant once they start to connect to other details. Unlike some other games where you can abstract large sections of a heist, you are detailing the ending of the heist, and then letting the PCs back-fill those details. I would recommend that any Judge who is going to run their own jobs look at the example jobs and make sure they have a similar level of detail on all the components that are going to come into play in the final scene. You don’t have to do any complicated number crunching, just have an organized list of things that fall under the categories of knowledge, as laid out in the assumed job structure.

    • The characters were framed for a botched job
    • They had to recover the evidence that would clear them with their own cartel before the false evidence about the job was delivered to agents of the Black Council
    • We ended up with multiple troops of randomly summoned distractions, and a church assassin that our Forsaken made into a recurring ally once he explained the situation

    The second game we ran went much more smoothly from my perspective. I ran one of the jobs from the Judge Book, and it felt like I could relax and react to whatever crazy scheme my players came up with, because I had some clear lists of information to hand out to them when they did their legwork scenes.

    • One of the players took an assassin and attempted to take out an NPC that would complicate the job later during a legwork scene — this went spectacularly wrong, since no one else followed him into the legwork scene, and the NPC was a major villain
    • Another player that received the “Seduce Someone” skill from their quirks engaged the same NPC, but this time set up a date away from the site of the final scene, with the intention of standing them up on that date and keeping them away from the climax of the job
    • Thanks to the previous botched assassination and other mishaps, I managed to introduce a second assassin to the scene, as well as a watch officer and his second
    • After a massive display of sorcerous power that accidentally set fire to part of the district, the target was acquired and the job was done

    I was really impressed with how smooth the game ran when using the pre-written jobs. The players had a lot of fun and expressed that they would like to play the game again in the future, but they weren’t certain that the long-term campaign play looked as robust as they would like. I think a lot of this can be attributed to not having enough setting information to come up with deeper conflicts or recurring NPCs, and not having time to put some of the story awards into context when paging through the book. That said, characters don’t change much mechanically, gaining favors, more resources to spend, and narrative permission to do things more than any change in core abilities.

    Gaining Influence The rules for legwork, the timer on planning, and the clear format and structure of the example jobs make it very easy to roll with whatever crazy plans the players may come up with, while keeping everyone focused on playing the game and maintaining the pace. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

    The stated goal for this game is to be an RPG you can pick up off the shelf and play on those nights when you don’t have something else planned, and it works exactly as intended. It is easy to pick up on the mechanics, and to get an impression of the tone and themes at play. The artwork not only sets the tone, but because of the construction of the components, players will see that artwork more often than they would in other games. The rules for legwork, the timer on planning, and the clear format and structure of the example jobs make it very easy to roll with whatever crazy plans the players may come up with, while keeping everyone focused on playing the game and maintaining the pace.


    The artwork does a wonderful job of showing a diverse range of characters, including people of color. The setting book even goes out of its way to explain that New Dunhaven has a much more enlightened view of gender roles and interpersonal relationships than we might even see in the real world. That said, the world doesn’t draw on many cultures for its tropes outside of Europe and Asian.

    Running example jobs is great, but a Judge that wants their own scenario needs to get familiar with the assumed structure and put in a little extra work. The campaign progression rules may not be robust enough for players that like more granular advancement, or advancement that allows for more dramatic change in the character they are playing. Getting the most out of campaign play involves investing more in the setting, and while the setting is enjoyable and engaging, that runs slightly counter to the pick up and play design philosophy.

    The rule summaries on the back of the character sheets, Player Rulebook, and Judge Rulebook are great, but they could have used the chart for weapons and the charts for spending boons and drawbacks to fully eliminate page flipping.

    Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

    If you even vaguely like the idea of a fantasy heist game, this is a great game to have in your gaming library. There have been many times when I have wanted to play an RPG at a moment’s notice, but even some games with minimal rulesets felt like they required too much effort to easily throw together a pickup game. While I didn’t have the opportunity to try the game with people that have done little to no gaming, with the clearly presented components and the regimented table management built into the game, I feel like new gamers could really engage with this game quickly.

    This feels like a good “bridge” product, no matter what someone’s primary RPG introduction might be. It contains many elements that are present in other modern games, but those elements are introduced in discreet, easy to process packets. The specialty dice introduce the idea of a secondary axis of success and failure without making the dice interpretation complex, and the primary resolution is still the purview of the d100, which may help to keep people that aren’t fond of specialty dice happy.

    The game also introduces other modern game elements, such as spending a resource to resolve certain actions instead of rolling for those actions and having a pool that represents a buffer against attacks that can also be spent as a resource. These mechanics can serve as a bridge for explaining similar concepts that might appear in other games that the players may not have encountered.

    What do you think of games designed for minimal prep time, or even for pickup games? How much prep is too much, if you want to start a game at the spur of the moment? What games already exist that do something similar? What other genres would benefit from having this kind of “pick up and play” design? I’d love to hear your ideas on these topics, so please take some time to respond below—I’ll look forward to hearing from you!


    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnome Stew Notables – Lucian Kahn

    30 July 2018 - 5:02am

    Welcome to the next installment of our Gnome Spotlight: Notables series. The notables series is a look at game developers in the gaming industry doing good work. The series will focus on game creators from underrepresented populations primarily, and each entry will be a short bio and interview. We’ve currently got a group of authors and guest authors interviewing game creators and hope to bring you many more entries in the series as it continues on. If you’ve got a suggestion for someone we should be doing a notables article on, send us a note at – Head Gnome John

    Meet Lucian

    Lucian Kahn

    Lucian Kahn is the designer of the tabletop RPGs Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy and Grandma’s Drinking Song, and project manager for the upcoming anthology You & I: Roleplaying Games for Two. He is obscurely famous as singer and guitarist for the now-defunct transgender, Jewish, klezmer-punk comedy band Schmekel. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his cat, Beastie. Follow him at @oh_theogony on twitter.

    Talking With Lucian 1) Tell us a little bit about yourself and your work. 

    Flamboyant absurdism with surprising moments of dire seriousness? Myself and my work.

    2) What project are you most proud of?

    Dead Friend: A Game of Necromancy. ( />product/234653/Dead-Friend-A-Game-of-Necromancy) It’s a two-player tabletop rpg in the structure of a magical ritual, using Tarot cards to randomize story prompts. You play a pair of friends, one living and one dead. The living ceremonially evokes the dead to battle out unresolved issues from their friendship. I’ve found that this game generates fascinating ghost stories ranging from spooky humor to emotional horror – I’ve seen secretly gay medieval nuns, politically disenfranchised Martians, you name it. Players also tell me they get a kick out of the occult aesthetic.

    3) What are you working on now?

    I’ve just started playtesting Grandma’s Drinking Song, a verse-writing, song-singing rpg based on my matriarchal Jewish family’s stories of bootlegging liquor in the Bronx during Prohibition. I’ve also been project-managing an anthology of two-player rpgs called You & I: Roleplaying Games for Two, which will feature games by at least 13 different designers. I also just sent along a module to John Harness’ An Exquisite Game, a collaborative science fiction project inspired by surrealist art.

    4) What designers and games are some of your influences?

    I’m still reeling from the experience of playing the Romantic composer Robert Schumann in a LARP called Deranged by Maria and Jeppe Bergmann Hamming. That game has had a huge impact on Grandma’s Drinking Song. I’ve also recently drawn inspiration from Fall of Magic, Shooting the Moon, The Quiet Year, Bluebeard’s Bride, and Before the Storm. Also my friend Sharang Biswas’ bizarre one-player game Verdure about witchcraft and making salad.

    5) What mechanics do you like best in games?

    Rituals and ceremonies, open-ended story prompts, physical objects that affect both control flow and atmosphere, real-time character development, spontaneous creation of art, poetry, and music.

    6) What themes do you like to emphasize in your game work?

    Memory and unreliable narration, religion, emotional conflict, moral ambiguity.

    7) How would you describe your game design style?

    Surreal in content but accessible in mechanics. I want my players to enjoy a strange, immersive experience without needing to learn too many rules ahead of time.  I want my players to enjoy a strange, immersive experience without needing to learn too many rules ahead of time. ShareTweet+11RedditEmail

    8) How does queerness fit into your games? Transness?

    The true answer to this is quite bleak. A few years ago, another trans friend of mine died of suicide, and I went into a depression during which the only social activity I could get excited about was a campaign of Dungeons & Dragons with complete strangers. I was playing a 356 year old dwarf bard hag named Briney Hilda with magical bagpipes who hit on every young male elf, including the minion of the vampire Strahd. This creepy yet goofy surrealism was the only thing that helped me endure my friend’s death and the resulting upheaval in my queer circles, which are repeatedly shaken by suicide. It’s not a coincidence that I eventually made a funny friendship game about ghosts. Morbid humor is vital to my resilience.

    9) What one thing would you change in gaming?

    I think all artistic subcultures eventually gravitate toward generating cliques and pockets of hero-worship, so game design is not special in this regard, but I would like to see the hobby focus less on creating new canons of form based on emulating the work of two or three designers, and more on continuing to stretch stylistic boundaries.

    Thanks for joining us for this entry in the notables series.  You can find more in the series here: and please feel free to drop us any suggestions for people we should interview at
    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Change Your Campaign With Grace

    27 July 2018 - 5:00am

    Summer. It’s that time of the year, where publishers launch new games during the major gaming conventions. With all sorts of new games hitting the market, we gobble them up, anxious to get them to the table. The problem is we already have a game we are playing. And so comes the age-old conundrum of how to finish up one game and start a new one gracefully. How can we have both a satisfying end and an exciting beginning? Because seriously, I just got this game and its burning in my hands — I need to run it nooooowwwww.

    The Shiny

    Yea. The shiny gets all of us. We recently talked about it here on the Stew and on the Gnomecast. It’s tough to resist. For me, right now, I am running this amazing Tales from the Loop game, but I got my PDF copy of Scum & Villainy. I really want to play S&V. I loved Blades in the Dark so much, that doing it in space can only be better…like really better. At the same time, my Loop game is all sorts of amazing, and building up to a big reveal. Ok, so how do we do this?

    It’s More Work For The GM

    Welp, here is the honest fact. If you want to transition between games well, you are going to have to do some extra work. If you are up for it, it will totally be worth it, but make sure you have the time to commit.

    In a nutshell, you will need to bring your game to a satisfying conclusion, while at the same time prepping your new campaign. While this seems pretty easy, you are going to have to keep focus and remain committed to the campaign that is ending, while you crack open the new shiny and bask in its lovely glow. You are going to have to resist the urge to dump everything and fall into that siren’s song of the new game.

    Why Bother?

    Too many campaigns end without satisfying endings. They just one day stop. And we as humans are creatures that are conditioned to stories. Deep in our animal brains, we like things that have a start, middle, and an ending. It is why we lost our shit when Firefly was canceled. The same is true for campaigns. They are so much more satisfying when they end cleanly.

    Bringing The Old To An End

    So the first thing we need to do is plan the end of our campaign. Finishing a campaign with the end of a meaningful story or arc is a good way to wrap things up. Look at your current storyline and the arc you are in and look for how that will logically complete. Also, consider if you also need to conclude any minor arcs, character arcs, etc in order to give the campaign a sense of completion.

    Next, with some understanding of how the campaign could end, go and talk to your players. You need to get their consent for this. In many cases, they are just as excited for the new shiny as well, so you won’t have to sell them too hard, but depending on the game it could be harder than you plan. As you are telling them about wanting to run the new game in the future, you can also give them an idea of where the campaign will end, and likely when based on how many sessions you think it will take to get there. Talk it through, ask if they have any arcs they would like to see completed before the game wraps, and if possible, make sure they are included.

    BTW – it’s not that you need all the players’ consent to switch games – after all, you are the one who is running the game – but it is polite to ask everyone for the input, especially if this is the group that you are planning to run the shiny game with.

    If everyone is on board with the plan to end the game, then make the commitment to do so and work towards that goal. Often there is an energy to the game when everyone knows that a major arc is going to conclude, and this can add some new excitement to the game.

    Prepping the New Game

    Now that you know when and how your old game is going to end, you can start your work of getting the new game prepped. The first thing you likely have to do is to start reading the rules, so get cracking. As you get into the rules, you are going to start to have ideas for the campaign you want to run. Start jotting those ideas down. Eventually, you will need to get some player input and that is where it gets tricky.

    We Suck At Finishing Things  …we humans love starting things and we hate finishing them.

    So everything we have been talking about up to this point is really straightforward advice… finish one thing before starting another. But from experience as a GM and as a Project Manager let me tell you that we humans love starting things and we hate finishing them. Rarely does a Project Manager have issues getting a new team started on something, but rarely does that team surge across the finish line with the same excitement.

    The same is true about GMs and players. All of your instincts are going to drive you towards dumping that campaign and playing the new shiny next session. First, there are going to be the doubts that creep into your mind… why do you need to finish the campaign, it was fun enough. Then the new ideas from the shiny are going to jump into your mind… oh man, I can’t wait to do this and that in the new game, it’s going to be so awesome. Third, it will all get worse when your players get excited as you ask them questions or tell them about the game, and they start having that feeling of doubt about the old and excitement of the new.

    This is where you need to dig in and hold the line. If you are going to do this right and give your campaign the ending it deserves, you are going to need to fight your own inner voices, and you are going to have to keep the group focused on finishing.

    Here are a few tips:

    • Share info with them as late as possible. The less excited they get the more energy you can use on keeping yourself focused.
    • Have a target date in mind. It helps to know that there is an ending and it’s getting closer. When we don’t know when things will end we lose hope of getting there.
    • Get it out of your head. The reason we obsess over things is because your brain does not trust you to remember them. For example, why can’t you remember you need a light bulb when you are in the store, but you do two seconds before you turn on the light with the burnt light bulb. So when you have some great campaign idea, write it down into something you can look at later. Get it out of your head, and your brain will calm down.
    • When you do involve the rest of the players, remind them of the goal of closing out the campaign and when that it is. Set expectations.
    Be Ready To Start After You Finish

    So if you have held it together, you have been prepping all your stuff for the new game while bringing the old one to a conclusion. Pay that off to the players by being ready to jump into the new game the session after the old one concludes. Finish the rules, start working on campaign ideas, and get materials ready for your session zero. Be ready to start right after you close out the current campaign.

    On that note, take a little time after you close the old campaign to reflect with your group on the fun you had. In fact, a little ending ritual or party never hurts.

    It Is All About Self-Control

    Our human nature to chase the greener grass can mean that we play the newest and shiniest games, but we sometimes leave incomplete campaigns in our wake. With a little awareness, planning, and a bunch of self-control, we can transition between games and end a successful campaign before starting a fresh new one.

    Right now, I am reading S&V while planning out the last 3-4 sessions of my Loop game. I am pretty calm and committed to bringing the Loop to its season finale. I will let you know how it goes.

    How are you at this? Do you drop campaigns for the new shiny, or can you get them concluded properly? How tempting are new shiny games to you? How do you do it?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnomecast #45 – Actual Play in the World Today

    26 July 2018 - 5:58am

    Join Ang, Jared, John, and Senda on Gnomecast for a follow-up discussion of Ang’s Gnome Stew article “Actual Play, Character Death, and Fan Toxicity” and a discussion about RPG sessions as public, consumable media and how they affect the hobby. Can these gnomes rally enough fan support to keep out of the stew?

    Download: Actual Play in the World Today

    Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

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

    Follow Jared at @KnightErrant_JR and his blog What Do I Know?, and you can find his actual play videos on his YouTube channel.

    Check out John at and you can see his TED Talk “Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Social Practice.”

    Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd and follow her podcast She’s a Super Geek at @sasgeekpodcast.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Stealth GMing

    24 July 2018 - 4:00am
    Stealth GMing

    Over the past few years my game mastering to playing ratio has significantly shifted towards running games. I love both roles, but now that I understand more about GMing role playing games I am certain I have become a very different (read: better) participant overall.

    Sometimes when playing I feel my GM instincts kick in when the facilitation of a game starts to nose dive. At a convention earlier this year, some friends and I were talking one night when the topic arose about how myself and another person had each taken on an undercover facilitation role to try and improve the respective games we were playing in. Upon reflection, I realized I had “Stealth GMed” the game – at least for a while. This wasn’t something I had set out intentionally to do, but I realized the value of having this concept in my toolbox and now I’m spreading the word.

    TL:DR: Stealth GMing is working intentionally to support the GM, fill in gaps to make the event run smoother, and enhance the joy for everyone at the table. This is NOT advocating taking a GM’s game away from them.

    What is Stealth GMing?

    Facilitating a role playing game is about much more than being prepared with interesting characters and a great plot. Being an exceptional Game Master is about trying to maximize the enjoyment of all the participants within the framework of the game (yourself included). GMing absolutely requires strong facilitation skills; keeping each of the players engaged, keeping the story moving, and gently herding the cats towards making something (anything) happen. Stealth GMs support the authority of the official GM and help to fill in areas that aren’t being managed well on a short term basis. The goal of a stealth GM is to enhance the enjoyment of the game for all of the participants in the moment, including the official GM. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1Email

    The opportunity to act as a Stealth GM arises when playing in a game where the official GM’s facilitation skills are in need of bolstering. I consider this a step beyond being a great player, because Stealth GMs are assisting with the table management. This is done in a way that supports the official GM’s authority and helps to defuse out of game problems that detract from the game.

    I see the usefulness of Stealth GMs arising at one-shot games or perhaps for extremely brief spans of time when the GM is having a bad day or gets thrown off by a specific occurence. If you find yourself repeatedly Stealth GMing an on-going campaign, that’s the time for a one on one conversation with the GM about table management and facilitation skills. (In fact, GMs should mentor one another much more frequently, the gaming sphere would be much better off if we did.)

    Why would anyone Stealth GM?

    The goal of most games is for the participants to have fun and be entertained. If people at the table seem to be disengaging and the game master either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care; that’s when a stealth GM has the opportunity to step up. Keep in mind that as a player there’s no obligation to Stealth GM. However, when a game or GM is flailing, stepping up to help out will likely lead to a better event for everyone. It is a judgement call, but I think that’s worth it.

    Why be stealth about it?

     Stealth GMing isn’t about ego or starting a power struggle with the official GM, it’s about maximizing fun during the session. Taking on the mantle of Stealth GM explicitly calls for subtlety – think calm, collected, and confident – not antagonistic. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailStealth GMing isn’t about ego or starting a power struggle with the official GM, it’s about maximizing fun during the session. Arguing with the GM or telling them how they aren’t doing a good job is just going to create friction and make people uncomfortable. That isn’t likely to result in a better game, it may even abruptly end the game. Like roleplaying, GMing is a type of performance art and undercutting the GM’s confidence mid performance it a jerk move.

    Taking on the mantle of Stealth GM explicitly calls for subtlety – think calm, collected, and confident – not antagonistic. You won’t be recognized, lauded, or given laurels. Your name will be lost to the ages when other players recount the game session. This is about being such badass that you don’t need recognition. Your satisfaction comes from enhancing the game for everyone without making the official GM feel like they failed.

    If you aren’t able or willing to keep it to yourself, or discretely provide the GM feedback one on one, there are two options besides Stealth GMing. First: be the best player you can be and have as much fun as you can. Second: politely excuse yourself from the game and move on with your day. Taking any other action is going to create friction and likely lead to a very uncomfortable session for the participants, yourself included.

    What could Stealth GM’s do for a game?
    • Support the authority of the Official GM. If the GM makes decision in order to move the game forward support their authority and move on. If someone is stopping the action to argue rules, let them know that isn’t fun and (unless this is some kind of tournament) it doesn’t matter.
    • Keep the game flowing. If the other participants are stuck, whether directionless or overwhelmed with the minutiae of planning, try and gain consensus about how to move forward. Either throw your support behind another player’s idea or present a compromise the majority of people can get behind.
    • Ask for and (as needed) use the safety tools. At the start of a session ask what safety tools are being used and prompt the GM for content warnings. At a recent convention a player inflicted a harmful and inappropriate backstory element on another player’s character. I tried to redirect his insinuation, but he doubled down. I’ve never hit the X-card so fast. No one objected to the use of the X-card except the guy who made the statement, that’s when the GM shut him down. Be brave and lead the way with safety tools, especially when harmful remarks are directed at other members of the community who have less status/power than the person making the statement.
    • Engage the other players. If someone seems to be getting left out or is disengaging, find a way to direct the spotlight their way. An easy way to do that is to invite them to work in tandem with your character on something, encourage them to offer ideas on how to get the next step done, or engage them in role play.
    • Shift the focus off of dominant players. If someone at the table is hogging the spotlight or telling other people what they should do, step in calmly but firmly. Assert that “X is taking their turn, I want to hear what they have to say.” Then shift your full attention to player X. [Use similar calm confidence when telling someone to stop if they are calculating other folk’s dice results or grabbing someone else’s dice, cards, or character sheet.]
    • Be helpful with rules when called upon. If the GM calls themselves out for not knowing a rule or has a memory lapse, go ahead and help out if you know it. Otherwise, offer the GM an out and say “you’re the GM, make a call.” If the GM is really concerned about getting it right, look it up for them while the game carries on.
    • Help defuse out of game tension. If there is an out of game issue that the GM doesn’t know how to handle, help out however you can. One good option is to ask for a 5 minute break to use the bathroom and either pull a player or the GM aside to talk to them privately. I’m very thankful to have received this kind of support from a player during a convention game earlier this year. Three quarters of the way through my story game a player asserted they didn’t like the plot we had collaboratively crafted and wanted to completely rewrite it. I was at a loss and glad to have someone step up and help me talk the other player through continuing the story as created.
    What Stealth GMing isn’t
    • Taking over another GM’s table. If the game is flowing well and people are enjoying themselves, leave it alone. If your GM sense is tingling, there is probably one specific area where you can direct your support. Focus on that and don’t take over functions that are already going fine. People learn by doing, so don’t take away their opportunity to make a few mistakes and learn how to do better. Stealth GMing is about keeping a game from nose-diving, not nit-picking.
    • Explaining/correcting rules or trying to override GM rulings. If the game is flowing well and people are enjoying themselves, leave it alone. If a game master seems to be floundering or stops the game to look up a rule, offer to help. Don’t correct or explain rules the GM hasn’t asked for help with. Let the GM answer any rules questions – this is their table. When the GM makes a ruling, accept their authority and move on.
    Stealth GMs are rarely needed

    When a game is going well, there isn’t the need for a Stealth GM. Observe the people at the table. If the other players are smiling, engaged in the game play, and having fun: leave it alone. Be a badass player and enjoy your time and dearth of responsibility. That is a gift! Inserting yourself just to do so when everything is going well is overstepping your bounds and will likely lead to tension with the GM and the other players. It will take people out of the moment and it won’t lead to more fun.

    Note: Sometimes the group style at a table doesn’t fit your style of play. That’s a bummer but it doesn’t mean the table is being run poorly.

    Rules objections are not Stealth GMing

     The most frequent way players try to take away the agency of the Game Master is through rules or lore discussions. This is a way that players try to subtly (or not so subtly) assert control over the table and specifically over the GM. Even if the intentions aren’t malicious, it is still a jerk move. Share1Tweet1+11Reddit1EmailOne more time for the people in the back: Objecting to GM rulings is not Stealth GMing. 1. it is overt and 2. it does not support and uplift the official GM.

    The most frequent way players try to take away the agency of the Game Master is through rules or lore discussions. This is a way that players try to subtly (or not so subtly) assert control over the table and specifically over the GM. Even if the intentions aren’t malicious, it is still a jerk move.

    While there could be groups who are more concerned with getting rules right than with keeping the story flowing, I assert that the majority of the time rules discussions diminish the overall fun and satisfaction people have with the game. Fudging the rules and continuing play is almost always the best option. If this is hard to swallow, feel free to silently acknowledge in your head “That’s not the exact rule, but everyone is having fun, so I am going to let it go.” That is one of the most powerful ways to be a badass player.

    Final Thoughts

    Most games won’t need a Stealth GM, this is a tool to be used on rare occasions. If the need does arise, it’s likely you’ll only have to do this for part of the game, it could just be for five or ten minutes to navigate an awkward or tense situation. While this is a good option to have in the back of your mind, no one is ever required to step up and facilitate a game they didn’t sign up to run. Finally, keep in mind the goal is to enhance everyone’s experience by helping out with easy confidence, and it’s not about getting into a power struggle with the official GM.

    Have you ever been a GM and had a player go above and beyond to support you? Have you ever had the opportunity to uplift another GM by helping them through a rough patch?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Adding a New Gamer to an Existing Group

    23 July 2018 - 5:00am

    For those of us who have gamed for a long time (I just hit 35 years of RPG experience myself), it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that not everyone is a gamer, or that “gamer” is really a spectrum. There are those folks that only like Yahtzee and Spades. There are folks that prefer chess, backgammon, and a rare game of Risk. Some people like cards only, or dice only, or just board games, or just family games. There are folks (like me) that enjoy any assortment of tiles, cards, dice, minis, books, playmats, or whatever hilarity hitting the tabletop. We live in blessed times that there are too many quality games to choose from. A side effect of this is that we have a wide variety of gamers to choose from, and I love them all.

    Preparation Before Invitation

    Let’s focus in on role-playing games for a bit, though. If you have a friend who is interested in joining your RPG group, there are some steps to take in preparation for extending the firm invite to the group.

    • If you’re not the host, get the homeowner’s permission to invite the new person into their home. This might involve the host meeting the prospective player in a neutral location, depending on how closely the host guards their privacy and home.
    • Talk to the group as a whole about the new player. At a minimum, get the GM’s permission. Preferably, everyone should be accepting of the new player, if not outright approving of it.
    • Talk to the prospective player about group expectations, including your social contract. If you’re not sure what a social contract is, I recommend these articles:
    • Talk to the new player about table conduct. This includes what kind of jokes to expect, if alcohol is allowed during the game, general age ranges of the other players, if any children are in the group (or present in the area of the game area), etc.
    • Talk to the new player about game style. This includes system, themes, existing characters, events leading up to the game’s “present day,” and what kind of GM the person running the game is. This article by Wendelyn will be useful in this area.
    Newb to Veteran

    Once everyone is on board with the new player (including the new player), then you have a new gamer in your group! Make sure the new player will stay long enough to become a “grizzled veteran” of your campaign. There are some ways to tackle this.

    If you are the GM, try to get some one-on-one time with the new player and work with her to create a character that will fit in. If your gaming style/system needs another player or two present during character creation (such as Fate Core), you can either sub in for the missing players or invite the more laid back or experienced players to join in for the character creation process. I’d also recommend running a one-hour solo game with the new player to get them into the rhythm of playing the character, running in the system, and getting used to acting in character without the pressure of doing so in front of a group of strangers.

    If you’re not the GM, then still arrange some one-on-one time with the newcomer. Show up with a pre-generated character and a one-hour solo game in mind. Try to run the one-shot in the same style as the existing GM, so the new player can get accustomed to the styles, themes, ideas, and so on of the game system your group is using. Let the new player know that the actual GM will be the final say in rules, assisting with character creation, and will be running the game to avoid any confusion.

    Before the new player shows up, make sure they know the exact days, time, and location of the game. If it’s a person’s house, make sure the new player knows not to show up too early (no more than 10 minutes early, or whatever the host likes), and not to show up too late (usually no more than 10-15 minutes late). If you can, be early to the game, so the friend isn’t hanging out in a stranger’s house without a familiar face around. Even better, arrange to carpool to the game, so you arrive together. Also, let the player know (though this should be covered in the social contract) about splitting food costs or showing up with snacks/drinks or showing with food already in the belly or however your group works these logistics.

    Once the new player shows up at the first game with the full group, make sure they have a seat immediately next to the GM. This will make it easier for them to ask questions about rules, the world, her character, and so on without having to shout down the length of the table or feeling isolated. If the group is large enough, the GM may not have the time or ability to give that much focus to the newcomer. In this case, ask for a volunteer to “mentor” the newcomer and have an experienced player assist the new player.

    One thing I love to do for people who are brand new to role playing is to give them some dice with a dice bag. I kind of go overboard with it, and you certainly don’t have to go this far if you don’t have the finances to do so. I always arrive at games with my “regular dice” and my “loaner dice.” If someone consistently needs to use the loaner dice, I just give them the bag. I usually do this on the third time in a row someone needs to borrow dice. It’s a nice gift. I don’t make it seem onerous or overbearing. I make it a funny and happy moment to “christen” them into gamer culture. My loaner dice bag is always a Chessex “Pound o’ Dice” and a large dice bag to fit them all in. This can run me anywhere between $25 and $35 dollars depending on if I can find the dice on sale. If you can’t afford this, then maybe prepare a set of loaner dice that constitute “retired” dice or a couple of the less expensive sets of dice found at your FLGS.

    In addition to the dice, I always make sure I have spare paper, pencils, graph paper, and other sundry tools to ensure the newcomer has the proper tools. I’ve seen plenty of people who were hardcore board gamers think that RPGs contained “everything you need to play” and show up empty handed. Loaning them stuff is a clear way of showing them how to be prepared for future sessions.

    Phil has a great article about using safety tools. While I usually game with people that I’ve known for years (if not decades), I don’t need those tools at my table. However, introducing these tools for the first few sessions is an excellent idea as everyone gets to know everyone else. Just make sure your existing group is aware of the change at the table beforehand, so it’s not a surprise to anyone.

    Encourage everyone (if you aren’t already doing this) to build on the new player’s ideas with the “Yes, And” approach of gaming. This will make the player’s ideas inclusive into the overall story and give them some valuable spotlight time early on.


    I’ve used these techniques to good effect over the years. It’s usually worked, but not always. Sometimes the folks try out RPGs for a month or three and then discover they prefer to spend their Friday nights playing bridge or horseshoes or the latest MMORPG. That’s perfectly fine, so don’t judge or belittle someone if your hobby is not right for her.

    What are your tips for inviting new players to the group? Have anything to add to what I laid out here? I’d love to hear from you.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Actual Play, Character Death, and Fan Toxicity

    20 July 2018 - 12:00am

    The two parties from Critical Role’s two campaigns, as drawn by @GalacticJonah. Used with permission.

    An interesting RPG related convergence happened this week. The incident brought into alignment the burgeoning spotlight of Actual Play entertainment, the continuing specter of character death, and the rising levels of toxic fan behavior. Yeah, I’m going to talk about some spoilers for a recent episode of Critical Role and the reaction it received, so spoiler warnings for any Critical Role fans that aren’t up-to-date.

    Mollymauk and Yasha by @rachebones. Used with permission.

    In full disclosure, I do not regularly watch or listen to Critical Role. I’ve taken in some of their one-off episodes, but I haven’t had the time to take in the full series, either of the original Vox Machina campaign or the new Mighty Nein campaign. I do, though, have several friends who follow the show at varying levels of devotion, so I am peripherally aware of the show’s current events. I do know that I admire Matthew Mercer’s abilities as a GM and how he brings the game world around the players to life.

    So, those that aren’t in the know are probably wondering what I’m going on about. Critical Role’s episode that dropped on July 12th included the death of one of the player characters. Most fans took to Twitter in shock and grief at the loss of a beloved character, but a large enough segment of the fan base decided this character death was justification to declare war on Mercer and the guest player, Ashly Burch. Thankfully, most of those attacks seem to have been drowned out by the support of fans, but it was enough of a problem that several cast members asked people to chill out and Mercer himself even commented on it from his own Twitter account.

    Actual Play podcasts and streams are an interesting development in the hobby and Critical Role is probably the farthest-reaching example of the medium. For those unfamiliar, Actual Play refers to live or recorded game sessions that are then served up as entertainment. I’m sure that game sessions have been recorded as long as gamers have had access to video recording equipment, but it’s only in the last few years that this particular type of entertainment has started rising in popularity. The level of editing on Actual Play shows can vary from show to show, with some going for the authenticity of the game play to others editing down to just the narrative. Our very own Senda and Chris are both involved in Actual Play podcasts, with Chris being part of the Wednesday Evening Podcast All-Stars, while Senda is one half of She’s a Super Geek (where you can listen to the session of Masks I ran for the show last year).

    Critical Role has been running since 2015 and the GM and the players are all professional actors, so the quality of roleplay and improvisation takes the entertainment to a different level. Their episodes are aired live, so get no editing, but with the level of acting talent the cast has, that almost doesn’t matter. As of their 100th episode last summer, the show had hit 68 million views. Whatever you think of the show, it’s done a great deal to spread awareness and interest in 5th edition D&D and RPGs in general. It’s brought the hobby to a far wider audience than I could have possibly imagined ten years ago.

    Of course, the growing popularity of Critical Role and Actual Play podcasts brings up an interesting dilemma as strangers are invited to ‘watch’ a game being played as if it were a scripted show or movie. As much as I love being true to the narrative and leaning into the cinematic qualities of roleplaying games, we all know that games don’t always work out as neatly as a scripted show can. But if you’re recording your game as entertainment, your audience has expectations and that’s where things took a turn for the ugly for some of the fans of the show.

    Another image of Mollymauk by @rachebones. Used with permission.

    Character death, especially when it’s dramatic and tense, can be tough to deal with. Back in the day, I saw immature players have total meltdowns when a character unexpectedly died, and I’m sure others have similar stories. Even if you are mature enough to deal with it, it can still knock the wind out of you as you say goodbye to a beloved character you’d carried through so many other adventures.

    Now take those emotions and give them to thousands upon thousands of fans watching/listening as the scene is being played out. They’ve become just as invested in that character as the player. If you want to see how deeply this affected fans, just take a Twitter stroll through #mollymauk and you’ll see the mourning of fans through both words and amazing artwork.

    But add in a dash of toxic fandom. Take that sense of ownership fans develop for their favorite properties and combine that with the anonymity of the internet, creating the freedom to be a troll. You end up with a small, but not insignificant, portion of the fans attacking the very GM that has guided something they’ve loved for hundreds of episodes. Or attacking the guest player of the character they felt screwed up and didn’t do enough. Welcome to the internet age and the way toxic fans destroy that which they love.

    Fandom devotion to the things they love is nothing new and doesn’t have to be destructive. At the dawn of the last century, letters from devoted fans helped convince Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write Sherlock Holmes out of his previously established death and into more stories. In the late 1960’s to the early to mid 1970’s, Star Trek was saved by fans creating a thriving community around a canceled TV show, eventually convincing Hollywood the property might still have life left in it. In May of 2007, concerned fans sent 20 tons of various nuts to CBS in an attempt to save Jericho from cancellation. The studio begged fans to stop sending them nuts and renewed the show. I don’t think it had anything to do with peanut allergies, but who knows.

     It’s as if a whole wave of people saw or read Stephen King’s Misery and decided Annie Wilkes should be their role model on how fans treat the creators of their favorite thing. Share414Tweet73+11Reddit1Email

    Entitled and obnoxious fans have always existed among the hordes, but the digital age of social media that we live in now has given these jerks an opportunity to have their vitriol heard in ways they never had before. Now we end up with things like Ghostbuster ‘fans’ forcing Leslie Jones to leave Twitter after a barrage of attacks. Or Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley from Star Wars both deleting their Instagram accounts because dealing with the trolls was getting to be too much. Or the whole Szechuan sauce debacle from Rick and Morty fans. It’s as if a whole wave of people saw or read Stephen King’s Misery and decided Annie Wilkes should be their role model on how fans treat the creators of their favorite thing.

    While we definitely have some problematic corners of the RPG hobby, it’s weird seeing this particular type of problem of toxic entitlement happening here. Thankfully, this particular incident has been drowned out by waves of support from fans. You have to really dig to find some of the nastier tweets or posts about the topic, so most of what you’ll find are the cast or fan reactions to the hate.

    It’s a weird place to be in, where a roleplaying game’s character death created a backlash from people who weren’t even playing the game. My final takeaway from this is to just remind people to not let your friends be this toxic type of fan. Remind them that ‘We don’t do that here’. And even if you’re upset at the direction something you love is going, don’t be that jerk. Don’t be an Annie Wilkes.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    2018 IGDN Metatopia Sponsorship

    18 July 2018 - 5:00am

    Some of us have the desire to create. Pictures, words, structures, ideal communities, or songs chase us into our dreams and demand release from our mind into the world. Some of us fight those ideas using our self-doubt as a weapon of mass destruction. Others of us find ways to quiet or embrace the voices enough to bring art into the world.

    I recognize that others are filled with self-confidence and seldom question their choices. I have no idea what that’s like so I can’t offer much insight there.

    Taking a chance

    In 2017 I submitted, at the urging of my best friend Wendelyn Reischl, an application for the Indie Game Developers Network (IGDN) Metatopia Sponsorship. I knew that Metatopia was a design convention but I assumed that it was for people that were better than me. You know, more experienced, better designers, well known, and maybe just an unknowable “better.”

    The one thing I was sure of was that I would never win. I had the beginnings of a weird game about empathy and bringing hope into a child’s life that I was sure no one would ever want to play.

    Like some many things that I decide are true, I was wrong. I couldn’t see my value as a designer but my friends and a group of strangers did. That group of strangers saw value in my words and gave me a chance to be seen and celebrated.

    I thought that they had made a terrible mistake. My opinion didn’t stop me from getting on the plane and taking a chance on my art. I’m not sure why I took the risk but I’m grateful that I did.

    From dreams to reality

    Looking back at the last 10 months I realize that my growth as a game designer began the moment I got the email saying, “You’ve been chosen…”
    I threw myself into getting my game ready, organizing playtests, and dealing with the logistics of last minute travel. I didn’t have time to try to make my design perfect so it just had to be functional. There wasn’t enough time to sit around and come up with reasons that I shouldn’t go. I made sure to find time to list all of the reasons I wasn’t good enough. It didn’t stop me.

    My personal life exploded in the middle of the work and preparations for Metatopia. I spent many days writing through tears. I struggled and fought to keep moving forward. Despite everything feeling impossible and hopeless, it didn’t stop me. You can read about this time in my life here if you’re curious.

    In a world filled with great ideas, special stories, and new voices most people won’t share theirs. The act of creating art and sharing it with the world can be a difficult journey and it’s not for everyone. I believe that everyone has at least a small glowing spot of art inside of them. It’s up to you if you want to tend it and put in the endless hours of work to see it grow.

    Who should apply for the Sponsorship?

    For all of you out there that don’t have someone around to encourage you to apply, I’m here to give you some guidance and support.

    If you have an idea for a tabletop game to test at Metatopia you’re already part of the way there! It doesn’t matter if the game is an RPG, LARP, board game, or card game. There is room for everything. The important thing is that you’re bringing as much of yourself to the project as possible. The point of Metatopia is to get feedback, provide feedback for others, and learn. Bring the game that you’re proudest of and not only what you think others will like. You might be surprised, like I was, about what the community is looking for.

    The tabletop gaming world needs a variety of voices. We need more people of color, the spectrum of gender and sexual identities, and people from a variety of cultural experiences in the industry. If you’ve ever been homeless, struggled with a serious mental illness, or lived in a unique circumstance then you have seen the world through a lens that most don’t ever realize is there. I believe that bringing those viewpoints are not only valuable but necessary to seeing the gaming world grow. You application to the Sponsorship is one way to make that happen.

    Tips for your application
    • Don’t be afraid to talk about your life when you’re answering questions. This is a place for you to tell the truth of your experience and where you’ve come from.
    • Be specific when you describe your game and your plans for it moving forward. You don’t have to have all of the answers but offer your best ideas.
    • At least one part of your game needs to be playable in a two-hour block. You need to have enough there for people to provide constructive feedback. You can test different parts of your game while you’re there.
    • If you need time to plan your answers, get help with the language, or any other accessibility issues download the PDF before you apply. You can copy/paste your answers from an electronic document into the online form.
    • Be yourself! I was my natural weirdo self on my application and it served me well. I talked about my racist experiences at conventions, struggles with gaming groups, and my family lineage. I’m sure that I said some goofy things too because that’s who I am. Let them see you.
    • Don’t give up. There are only a limited number of spaces each year so not everyone that deserves a spot gets one. Don’t think that not being chosen says anything about your value or the worth of your ideas. Keep creating and try again next year.
    How things have turned out for me

    It has been almost 10 months since I attended Metatopia via the Sponsorship and my professional life is in a much different place. I’m lucky enough to become a regular contributor here at Gnome Stew, published an adventure for Savage Worlds, I’m preparing to Kickstart my game this year, and I’ve been a featured guest at several conventions. Winning one of the Sponsorships was where that all started but it keeps moving because of a tremendous amount of work. I’m learning to be more social in a convention setting, limit my self-deprecating language, and how to grind through the days when I feel worthless. I work to improve so I can grow and bring a clearer voice to my work. I am constantly overwhelmed by the support and encouragement I receive from the people I’ve met on this journey.

    To quote Martha Graham, “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

    Donate or Apply

    You have between now and August 15th, 2018 to get your application submitted. Take your time, be brave, and give the world a chance to meet you.

    You can also support the program with your donations. The GoFundMe is up and running. 100% of the donations received go to the Sponsorship program. Up to eight designers will get to attend their first Metatopia, for free, and get ongoing mentorship from a professional that’s already in the industry. It’s your chance to change the gaming world and ensure that cool games get made.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Lands of Gold and Fire Review

    17 July 2018 - 5:00am

    My first brush with 7th Sea was to see all the 1st edition books on the shelves of one of the local game stores when I was getting back into roleplaying after my brief, early adulthood hiatus from the hobby. It looked interesting, but at the time, I was still locked into the mindset that if it didn’t use a d20, I wasn’t going to get into the game. I didn’t get in on the 7th Sea 2nd Edition Kickstarter when it was hitting all those records, either — though again, the setting really called out to me. At the time, I was finishing up a degree, and couldn’t afford to get too distracted by Kickstarters, no matter how shiny.

    For anyone not familiar with the game, 7th Sea portrays a world that is very similar to Earth in the 1600s, with pirates and swashbuckling, musketeers and duelists. But Terra also has sorceries, monsters, and faeries, and an ancient supernatural species that predated humans, although it’s not quite as “high fantasy” as, for example, a D&D campaign world.

    While the original edition of 7th Sea focused squarely on an analog of Europe, one of the design principles of the new edition was to reach out to other continents and to detail places like the Crescent Empire, the New World, and the Lands of Fire and Gold with as much detail as Theah had received.

    Additionally, cultures that were similar to those that had been devastated by colonization in our world in 7th Sea would be given as much weight in the setting as all of the European analogs. While those cultures would have some clashes with colonizers and narrative tension arising from those clashes, those cultures wouldn’t be presented as having been dominated or devastated by those clashes.

    The product I’m looking at now is Lands of Gold and Fire, which presents analogs to African cultures for the 7th Sea setting, specifically detailing the continent of Ifri and five current nations on that continent.

    Side Note: While I can recognize certain cultural touchstones presented in the book (the Egyptian influences are easy enough for me to spot, and there is even a sidebar mentioning the Barbary Pirates in one section), I am nowhere near as well versed in African history and folklore as I would like to be. While I started doing some additional research as part of this review process, I’m going to avoid making any specific real-world observations because I am no expert, and wouldn’t want to make any assumptions from the rudimentary research I have done. I will say that the research is ongoing, and is something I want to continue as I look at potentially using this material in my home game.

    Was This Book from the Mad Library or the Half-Sunk Library?

    The review for this book is based on the PDF version of the supplement. The product is 208 pages long, and has end pages that have a glorious full-color map of Ifri at the end of the PDF. The book has the standard formatting of the other 7th Sea books, with attractive font, sidebars, and formatting. Special material is called out in formatted sidebars to make it easy to notice.

    The artwork in this book is amazing. There are vibrant colors, gorgeous landscapes, and clear illustrations of the different clothing, weapons, and architecture of the various nations presented in the book.

    If I have any complaint about the appearance of the book, it’s the opening fiction. Most of the 7th Sea books open with a few pages of establishing fiction, but it’s usually in the same font as the rest of the book. In this case, it was presented as pages from a journal, and while they look nice enough, I found the font was a little harder to read than the rest of the book.

    Introduction and An Overview of Ifri

    The opening section of the book introduces readers to the nations in the book, the themes of adventures in Ifri, and contains a glossary of the most commonly used terms in the region. The next section gives a few more details on those themes, as well as diving into elements that will be common to most of the nations detailed in the book.

    In general, most faiths coexist in Ifri, with a few unifying themes that help to explain why seemingly disparate beliefs are practiced side by side. In addition to some commonly held ideas about faith, much of Ifri has been beset by the Bonsam, a force of pure evil that many Theans equate with Legion (the Devil), and the Jok, and ancient society of powerful beings that passed on knowledge of the supernatural and influenced the history of the region.

    Another recurring element is the villainy of the Atabean Trading Company, an evil organization that, among other things, is the primary force for slavery in the setting. This section also includes a sidebar that clearly states that the practice of slavery is unambiguously the province of villains. It is not the only conflict in the setting, or even the dominant one, but at the same time, it is an important recurring theme.

    The section on geography details the larger continental details that help define and separate the various lands that are detailed, as well as giving a brief description of how some of those features are tied the stories of creation.

    The section on the Bestiary of Ifri details some supernatural creatures that are found across the continent. If you are familiar with other 7th Sea books, a section like this sometimes suggests the strength or monstrous traits of creatures, but in this case, there is only a description of the creatures and how they affect the setting.

    The Abonsam are the lesser demonic servants of the Bonsam, and vary in form and power based on the type of corruption they are associated with. The Black Ship is a ghost ship made from the bodies of the damned and captained by a woman with no face. The Dan Ida Hwedo is a giant snake associated with fertility, and has a very impressive illustration that appears later in the volume (page 197). The Kishi and Scorpion Belly are supernatural predators that are horrific amalgams of humans and animals that prey on humans in different ways and for different reasons, but both are nightmare fuel.

    The Manden Kurufaba

    The Manden Kurufaba is the first nation to be detailed in the book. Manden is the richest nation in Ifri, and is made up of a council of smaller nations that came together as one. The nation is characterized by layers and layers of bureaucracy, as well as a love of the culture of the Crescent Empire. The ancient Ori are worshiped alongside the practice of Al-din from the Crescent Empire, and it’s not uncommon for ancestors or Ori to sometimes inhabit the bodies of the people here. Because the Ori sometimes carry on relationships while in the body of a mortal being, some of the heroes of Manden can claim to be demi-gods.

    One of my favorite aspects of this nation is the International Kurufaba. The ruler of Manden feels that he can bring peace to the entire world if he can establish the International Kurufaba, where representatives of various nations can come together as one. Because of Manden’s wealth and importance in Ifri, there are diplomats and representatives not only from Ifri, but also from Theah, Jaragua in the Atabean Sea, and the Crescent Empire. Having a place for court intrigue and diplomatic maneuvering is great in a swashbuckling game like 7th Sea, and the International Kurufaba is an excellent way to make connections between other regions in the game world. The presented delegates have some juicy secrets, goals, and quirks to play with in a campaign.

    Manden also has one of my favorite adventure locations in the entire book (and possibly in the entire setting)—The Mad Library of al-Ghaba. The bookwraiths maintain some hilariously on point rules for the library, and getting cursed means partaking in a multi-part story whose length is determined by how long it takes your character to return their books.

    This section presents the template that the other sections detailing the rest of the regions follow. After the nation and its culture are discussed, there is a section detailing locations, relations with other regions or organizations, and it then presents two example heroes and two example villains. Example heroes don’t have stats, just a description of what their concerns and drives are. Villains have a strength and influence listed, but they don’t have more granular details like advantages assigned to them. After each location and in each hero and villain’s section, there are example adventure hooks that tie into the entry.

    The Kingdom of Mbey 

    Mbey is a kingdom where the ATC has invested heavily. The king, in order to restore the balance of power with the evil trade organization, set loose some ancient evils which proceeded to replace various members of his advisory council, and gave him his own villainous witch to advise him.

    Manden opened the book with a nation that was largely about trade and diplomacy, with some supernatural craziness on the edges. Mbey wears its supernatural influences right out in the open, with fields of black stone that serve as the prisons of demons, and a perpetually burning jungle covered in green flame that is one line of defense for the king.

    Bellete is the foothold of the ATC in the nation, from which they essentially antagonize all Mbey’s neighbors and attempt to solidify their hold on the nation. The ATC also has unfortunate leverage on the king in the form of his missing sons.

    In addition to everything else going on, Mbey has a place that is part location and part monster, in the form of the Village That Walks, a moving settlement that may be filled with the restless dead.

    The culture of Mbey is addressed, including a section on gender roles and how they are expressed in the nation. While there are some stations that are expected to be filled by a specific gender, Mbey society also allows for a formal declaration of a person’s gender to change, allowing that person to assume new roles.

    Mbey’s entry follows the same pattern for location, heroes, and villains, all with the adjunct adventure hooks following them. It stands out to me that the king, despite letting loose an ancient evil, is presented as one of the heroes of the setting, having made a bad decision at a time when he had few options. I particularly like the hero Jaineba, who is a refugee leader that has had to inherit their own responsibilities in addition to their brothers, and as such, has refused to accept only one assigned gender. The character is a great example of how to incorporate a gender fluid character into a setting.

    The Kingdom of Maghreb

    Maghreb is a nation founded by a warrior goddess, and protected by a sisterhood of women warriors that travel the countryside making things right. The country is oceanic coastline on one side, and desert on the other, and has the most impressive ships in Ifri. Montaigne (the French analog from the main setting) has attempted to make inroads into Maghreb, and the queen has moved her court to an oasis near the Heart of the Desert, a volcano that is also a holy site where many of the exalted dead have been interred in ages past.

    In contrast to the ancient supernatural elements present in Mbey or Khemet later in the book, Maghreb’s ancient mysteries are more . . . mysterious. For example, Maghreb’s Half-Sunk Library is a structure filled with ancient texts and containing prophesies about the current queen, but nobody even really has a theory where the library came from.

    There is a tension in how the nation is presented. The supernatural things that appear aren’t part of the nation’s past. The vague images of the queen don’t give her a clear idea of what she should be doing. Montaigne and Vodacce both have their eyes on the nation, and there is a Montaigne Duke that is certain that it’s his destiny to marry the queen.

    I love the idea of the Women of Cyrene wandering the countryside with their singing swords, but of all the nations presented in the book, I have less of an idea of what I would do with this nation in a campaign. It is a great source as the origin of the corsairs of Maghreb or the lion pelted warrior women.

    The Kingdom of Aksum

    Aksum is a nation that widely practices an orthodox version of the faith shared by the Church of the Prophets, but they have their own take on exactly what happened, and what holy texts are accurate. Despite this deviation from accepted practice, they are generally on good terms with the Vaticine Church. Aksum has less influence from the old gods than other nations in Ifri, with only one of the older deities still getting much attention outside of the Hibridi Church. It is also a place where mathematics is used to understand the supernatural, where demons strike up bargains with children, and where they are really worried about hostilities flaring up with Manden.

    I went back and reread the Manden section again after realizing how major the war between the nations appears to be in the Aksum section. In the Manden section, the war is presented as something that could flare up in something goes wrong. In the Aksum section, the war is presented as something that will flare up again if something doesn’t go right. While I initially wondered at the difference in how the conflict was portrayed, it makes sense given that the conflict is being exacerbated by an outside agent, and because Aksum has a different view of the conflict than Manden.

    Aksum is a nation of mountains, lakes, and plateaus. Everything would be fine, except that demons try to get children to exchange favors for power, their most powerful wizard has become the nation’s biggest villain, and there is a tomb that may house a troupe of undead assassins.

    The Chamber of Wonders is one of the locations presented in Aksum, a secret location that the current ruler of the empire knows, that contains a map of all of the plinths erected by adherents of the older faiths, which can be used to track the ebb and flow of energies in the nation. One of my favorite details comes from the section on art in Aksum, where it is noted that often clues to the plans of local villains or supernatural elements can be found in the local artwork.

    The Kingdom of Khemet

    If the section on Aksum presented the war between Aksum and Manden in a different light than the Manden section, the section on Khemet presents the Jok in a different light than the other chapters. The Jok are presented elsewhere as beings that helped humans deal with and master the supernatural. In Khemet, they dispelled a supernatural darkness in ages long past, served as the nation’s gods, and founded the families that would become the rulers of the nation.

    Khemet is starting to fall under the same curse as it did in ancient days. The days grow more dim, and shorter, except for the current residence of the royal family. The queen’s son should be old enough to take the throne, but she hasn’t relinquished it to him. Additionally, she has begun to force the destitute into indefinite service to the kingdom, and has even started to purchase foreign slaves from the ATC, lying about where they came from to her people.

    Unlike other nations presented in the book, the religious tension isn’t between the people of Ifri and outsiders that don’t understand their ability to allow multiple faiths to be practiced side by side. Instead, there is rising tension between the Dinists and those that worship the Ennead in the nation, caused in part by the general unrest in the nation over the ongoing curse. While there may be religious tensions in the nation, when describing family dynamics in this chapter it is noted that in Khemet lineage is important, but same-sex marriage is perfectly valid, and those married form the equal head of the family.

    The Ennead is detailed in their own section in this chapter. Anyone that read the section on Numa in Pirate Nations will probably recognize how the gods are presented in a manner that is similar, but doesn’t exactly match the culture being emulated.

    Adventuring in Ifri

    This chapter details the specific rules to portray the setting elements introduced in the book. This includes new backgrounds, advantages, sorcery, rules for Vile Dice, and dueling styles. I noticed that a few of the backgrounds refer to advantages in Nations of Theah Volume 1 and 2, as well as The Crescent Empire. I checked the two most recent releases, The Crescent Empire, and The New World, and both contain backgrounds that refer to advantages in other, non-core books, although Lands of Gold and Fire contains three such backgrounds instead of one each in the previous volumes.

    While a few of the advantages are tied to nations of Ifri, most are generally applicable and are going to be widely useful to players of 7th Sea even if they aren’t making an Ifri hero. The sorceries offered include one that draws on a heroes own life force while creating sympathetic items to influence the world with magical power; a power that allows a character to play with Corruption and convert it to a somewhat dangerous resource called Blight that can be used for various effects; a sorcery that allows for bargaining with demonic forces in exchange for favors; and a “sorcery” that uses the sorcerous rules to track the varied powers of weapons and items made from a unique metal found in Mbey.

    Melber, the sorcery that revolves around trading favors with demons, is intentionally similar to Sanderis from the core rulebook. The main difference is that the demonic forces in the Sarmatian Commonwealth strike up bargains with desperate adults, while the Abonsam of Aksum intentionally start trading favor with children, to corrupt them early.

    The concept of Vile Dice really fascinates me, but I’m not sure they will get much play at the table. I love the idea of tempting players with additional dice by accepting the help of the Abonsam, but the problem is that it interacts with the punishingly unforgiving Corruption mechanics from the core rules. Even accepting a little corruption is inviting a 10% chance that you flat out lose your character.

    The new dueling styles seem to be in line, mechanically, with other styles that we have seen, but the best part of this section is the lead up to it, which details how dueling differs from the way it works in Theah, and the common practices associated with various types of duels.

    The Light of the Heavens. . .  this is a solid, entertaining, useful game product that is filled with heroes and villains that are people of color, and presents heroes that don’t conform to traditional gender roles or sexual orientations. We need more of this kind of game product . . .Share14Tweet5+11Reddit1Email

    The book presents five great places to adventure that all feel distinct, and with as many plot hooks and adventure sites as any of the core nations. There are some amazingly evocative locations, like the Mad Library, the Stones of Bonsam, or The Burning Jungle. There are tragic heroes that need help, villains that have a good story thread, and lots of things for a swashbuckling hero to do. There are also so many ways to tie Ifri into a larger 7th Sea campaign.

    The Spreading Night

    Other 7th Sea supplemental products have introduced optional rules that could be used across the board for other campaigns, such as the new monster traits and mass combat rules in The Crescent Empire, or the amazing Hazard rules in The New World. The Vile Dice are hindered by being tied to the Corruption rules that are already unforgiving enough that I’m not sure I want to add more ways to engage them. Mechanically, you lose a few options if you only use this and the core rulebook, but not many.

    Descriptively, the ATC and the Crescent Empire are important enough to this book that without Pirate Nations or The Crescent Empire, some of the references might be a bit harder to follow.

    Finally, and this may just be me, but I would have much rather had some kind of mathematics based sorcery for Aksum. The backstory of children being threatened by demonic corruption is strong, but it almost feels like it could have been modeled by more directly referencing Sanderis.

    Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

    This is going to be a strong purchase if you are a fan of 7th Sea in general, but I think the book is really a solid buy as setting material even outside of the game. It’s a gaming product that gives a strong voice to distinct, African inspired nations. Much of the book is presented free of mechanics, meaning that if you want to use Ifri in some other game system, you shouldn’t feel that a majority of your purchase is lost to pages that won’t be applicable to another game.

    More importantly, this is a solid, entertaining, useful game product that is filled with heroes and villains that are people of color, and presents heroes that don’t conform to traditional gender roles or sexual orientations. We need more of this kind of game product, and I can already picture the heroes from my first 7th Sea campaign setting sail for Ifri.

    Let me know what you think the best historical analogs in various games settings have been, as well as settings that you have always wanted to see for your favorite games. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Arcknight Spell Templates, Plastic Miniatures, & Map – Review and Giveaway

    16 July 2018 - 5:00am

    The Tarrasque’s (Kaiju Reaper miniature) giant base nearly covers one of the very large radius spell templates, and that’s pretty impressive.

    Last year at Gen Con, I was given a slew of things by Josh Wardrop at Arc Knight Publishing to review for the Stew. I was in the middle of a move, a new job, and closing out my old web development company. The Spell Templates, Maps, and Flat Plastic Miniatures got stuck in a box and only unearthed a few months ago. I’m finally getting around to reviewing the work, and apologize for the delay in getting this out there. On the plus side, Arc Knight gave us so much stuff we’re going to be giving away MULTIPLE things with this review, so there are multiple chances to win. So, check out this picture heavy review and go to the bottom for info on how to get in on the giveaway!

    What All We Are Reviewing

    Arc Knight gave us 4 distinct things to review – 5e Spell Templates, Pathfinder Spell Templates, a selection of Flat Plastic Miniatures, and one of their Map Packs. I’ll break the review into 3 sections, detailing each separately but joining together the spell templates into one review. Arc Knight makes spell templates in both Pathfinder rules and 5e Rules variations, and they’ve got some unique elements to them.


    Spell Templates

    Let’s talk about the spell templates. The first time I saw these spell templates was when a friend brought them along to a game to use for his wizard. They immediately caught the attention of everyone in the group and worked well for the crunchy style of game we were playing at the time. All of the Arc Knight stuff is made with high quality and fairly thick plastic. It’s certainly not flimsy and it holds up well.

    Cut It Out – The templates come in a large size and all have to be cut out. I posted up with my wife and a friend of ours one night and we took scissors to the templates. They cut well, and the thickness wasn’t too tough to get through, unless we were using very small scissors. A box cutter or x-acto knife would have made the work more precise, and that is what we used for some of the smaller ones, but it wasn’t any major pain to cut them out of their overall sheets.

    Use In Game – I used a set of these in my own games (5e D&D) and they really added some flavor and engagement. We would often count out the spaces to figure out if a spell would reach, but placing the template on the table around the miniatures gave that level of immersion and engagement I like to get out of miniature heavy games. One square elements like the familiars, arcane eye, magic weapon, and mirror image worked well when we had a lot of elements on the table at once. Since they were flat (in comparison to our 28mm miniatures) they stayed out of the way and didn’t make the field feel too cumbersome. The line spells were more often than not always long enough to reach whatever was being aimed for, so we didn’t need to pull those out except for the large scale battles. Having a visual, well drawn lightning bolt to lay down on the map as it worked its way through multiple enemies really made the players feel like part of the game world.

    Really Useful Notations – One incredibly useful thing about these templates is they have the basics of the spells right on them. Can’t remember if it’s a DEX or a CON save? It’s right there. can’t remember how many dice, it’s on the template. The lettering is easy to read and this extra detail takes it from a cool game aide to an incredible addition to your gaming chest.

    Pathfinder – The pathfinder spell templates worked a little differently from the 5e ones, because of the difference in how they do squares. Arc Knight accommodated for that, giving two ways to read each line template, whether you were going straight or diagonal. These templates line up with squares on each correct angel, so you always know exactly which “square” it hits. It takes a lot of the ambiguity out of the rules lawyering that can occur in a very crunchy game. The multiple line spell template was great for giving different lengths and effects for different spells. It was a great detail.

    Minor Annoyances & Transport – There are some very minor annoyances with using spell templates like this, but they would hold for any non-hollow spell template. If we wanted to get the templates on the table under miniatures, we had to pick up and move all the miniatures. We could hold the templates above and gauge the general distance and know they would hit, but if we needed to do it exact (say in pathfinder to see which of the large group it hit) we’d have to do a little shuffling of the board to get them all synced up. If your play style is crunchy, you’re used to that though, as every step matters.

    The other very minor annoyance was the length of the long line spells, again nothing to do with the actual product. 120 feet in 1 inch squares is going to be what it is. I like to try to keep my gaming materials so that they can fit inside of an 8.5 by 11 inch envelope or folder for transport, but that wasn’t quite doable with some of these spell effects due to their size. With one set I engaged in some experimentation and cut and taped the bigger templates to be “foldable”. It worked out adequately enough and made the spell templates a little more managable for my particular usage scenario.

    Final Verdict – I really like the immersion these provide, and the art is fantastic. It really adds something to be able to look at a table and see the mage’s spell effects interacting with the map. These spell templates make a very invisible gaming effect shine in the gameplay environment and in the players’ imaginations. I think the templates are worth the money if you are playing casters in D&D or just want something for your group to be able to share.

    Update – Learn From My Mistakes, Remove The Film

    Arcknight reached out to us to comment that the spell templates actually have an opaque white film layer that peels off. It’s a testament to the strength of the manufacturing that the film didn’t come off when we cut out multiple spell templates. Other pictures I’ve seen are completely clear, which is what I expected with the first review. Below you can see a mix of the original photos (with film on the templates) and some updated photos after I removed the film.



    Flat Plastic Miniatures

    The spell templates were something I had encountered before, but the flat plastic miniatures were something new to me, and I instantly fell in love with them. At first look, they seem to be a bit bigger than other miniatures, but put side by side they are in line with other gaming miniatures, painted and unpainted. The art on these is FANTASTIC! It’s detailed, expressive, bright, and really shows off the subjects. Each of these sets is packed as well, offering multiple miniatures for a fairly cheap price.

    They don’t have the physical feel of Reaper or other molded or lead miniatures, but they look beautiful on the gaming mat. The art is just beautiful and it really makes the table look great. The clear backgrounds also don’t interfere in the same way white backgrounds on cardboard ones do. It’s easy to just forget the plastic see-through areas and to focus on the drawings. The plastic is hearty and strong as well. They don’t feel flimsy and the front and backs of the miniatures are drawn, so you know which way they are facing.

    I’m probably spending a decent chunk of my Gen Con budget on getting a few sets of these for my collection.  The flat ones are great for travel and I run a lot of convention games.




    The Arc Knight map pack we were given for the review was a robust set of 8 pages that had multiple sides. They had a 1 inch grid that was very light but easy to use and didn’t interfere with the art, although I’ve gotten used to seeing grids rather than points at the edges from my own games. The quality of the maps are good and sturdy and the art is in line with other digitally designed maps out there. The mix and match options connect together well, and one map page is large enough to comfortably handle a lot of dungeon crawl.

    The maps aren’t 100% seamless, so one page may not sync up quite how you want it with another one, but that is easy enough to mitigate. They definitely beat the dry erase maps I pull out of thin air. These pages are dry erase friendly, so you can easily make modifications or add things as needed. Overall, a very nice map set that will work well for your games and stay strong for years to come.



    Okay, let’s give some stuff away! We’ll be splitting our review set up into multiple sets to spread the love as much as possible. There will be 5 prizes for this giveaway.

    1. A full uncut set of 5e Wizards spell templates
    2. A full uncut set of the Pathfinder Spell Templates (A few of these were cut out for the review, but most pages remain uncut.)
    3. Another full set of 5e Wizards spell templates (The one we used for the review.)
    4. The Grove’s Horde plastic miniatures & The Spider Queen’s Horde plastic miniatures
    5. The Winding Caverns Map Pack

    To enter, all you have to do is leave a comment on this blog post with a valid email between 07/16/2018 and 07/23/2018. We’ll be randomly selecting (by die roll or random generator) 5 winners to take home one of these review copies.

    Some disclaimers:

    • We can’t give you a choice of review item, unfortunately. We’ll pick an option, roll the die, and give that person the review item.
    • If you live outside of the U.S. and the shipping is prohibitively expensive (over $15), we may ask you to cover shipping.
      • These are LARGE items and we’ve paid 3 times in shipping what a product is worth in some of our giveaways. We think the flat nature of these will make them fairly cheap to ship, but we wanted to warn this might happen. We don’t want to prohibit our international readers from being eligible, and we’ll do our best to work out all the details and not have to ask you to cover shipping if we can afford it.

    So, leave a comment, let us know what mapping options you like or if you’ve used spell templates like these, and best of luck in the giveaway!

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    The Art of Convention Game Descriptions

    13 July 2018 - 4:00am

    A Paizo game master describes a scene emphatically.

    At its core, the art of writing convention game descriptions for the preregistration website or booklet is all about setting expectations. They say brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also a necessity when it comes to writing convention descriptions where the word (or even character) count is extremely limited.

    The more conventions I attend the harder it is to decide how to allocate my limited time among the many wonderful options. I typically sign up for convention games months in advance, so I tend to forget what I signed up for until I pick up my tickets. However, each event I registered to attend had something special in the convention game description that put it on the top of my list.

    Why it Matters

    Convention descriptions are less about the setting or story that will be told and more about getting the right players to your table. If you have players show up who are a good stylistic fit to the kind of game you run, everyone is more likely have a fun experience.

    For example, I love the Warhammer 40,000 setting, but there are lots of games one can play in 40k. I gravitate towards intense political intrigue games filled with treachery and social manipulation. Other people may gravitate towards playing a game rooted in tactical combat. There are many options available in the Warhammer 40,000 setting, hence a convention game description focusing simply on the setting or rules system is not inherently descriptive of the style of play.


    One of the easiest and quickest ways to convey the expectation and tone of the game is through keywords, key phrases, or tags in the description.

    I use keywords to convey not only the type of game I want to run, but also the style of players I think will thrive in the game. The trick to an exceptional convention game is not about having the best plot, it is about having players that will respond to and embrace the experience the session provides. In short, the purpose of the convention description it to attract people who will have the most enjoyment, satisfaction, and fun.

    Here are the types of keywords and phrases that I focus on from most important to least important:

    • The core experience: Role play heavy/rules light. Tactical combat. Puzzle game. Learn to play.
    • Setting tone: Dark Fantasy. Horror. Pulp Adventure. Sci Fi. Four Color Superheroes. Space Opera.
    • System/setting: Savage Worlds Deluxe/Deadlands Noir. AD&D 2nd Edition/Dragonlance. Gumshoe/Harlem Unbound. Powered by the Apocalypse/Monsterhearts 2.
    • Player familiarity: Rules taught/beginners welcome. System experience preferred. System expertise required.
    • Maturity of the players: All ages welcome. Teen 13+. Mature players 18+.
    • Special callouts: Play with the designer! Role Playing or creative writing experience preferred. Bring a character level 4-6. Emotionally intense/heavy subject matter.
    Setting Appropriate Expectations

    For me, the mark of a good convention game is much like an end of year review; did the game meet or exceed my expectations? So if you have to pick one message to convey, ensure you know what the core experience will be and put that in the convention description. Perhaps it’s my analytical nature, but a significant amount of my “fun” relates to whether or not the game facilitator clearly defined what the game’s core experience will be and whether or not they deliver on that promise.

    I think this is true of nearly every form of entertainment and media. When a movie trailer sets my expectations, they have set the bar they must overcome for me to fully enjoy it. When advertisements or word of mouth recommendations oversell or misalign my expectations to what the core experience is, I often feel dissatisfied. When a facilitator sets expectations and delivers on them the players are more likely to feel the “payoff” when the story arc is completed. (Give the people what they want!)

    The Bait and Switch

    Here’s a story; years ago a friend signed up for a convention game based on a description because they were a huge fan of the specific pop culture setting that was referenced. That description generated interest and excitement from people in that fandom who registered for the game. However, just minutes into the game the GM revealed an unexpected twist: they cleverly plucked the game from the advertised setting and dropped it into a completely unrelated setting. Even the overarching tone was different, jumping from Exploration Sci Fi to Epic High Fantasy.

    Don’t do this.

    A convention description is a promise to the players about the experience they are buying (remember: conventions aren’t free). Players have allocated their very limited time to play in a game as advertised. Especially when referencing a specific intellectual property setting, know that you will attract fans of that setting and they expect you to deliver. If a player starts out disappointed the GM is going to have a much harder time keeping them engaged and having fun. And one unhappy player can bring down the enthusiasm of the whole table. If the game you intend to “switch” to is that good, advertise that as the game! Simple.

    Introduction at the Event

    When the event starts, give an introduction that reminds players of the goal for the event. There are only a few hours to play, so aligning the group’s expectations will make the game will run more smoothly.

    First, I remind the players the basics of what they signed up for. This is a brief description wherein I may even read the few sentences of the convention description blurb to the players verbatim. I’m sure to include the system, the tone, content warnings, and safety tools at that time as well.

    Second, I set the players expectations about the purpose of the game. When I run a Protocol RPG I tell my players that we’re here to have fun and collaboratively tell a story. I specifically call out that there are no dice, no stats, and that “winning is telling a great story.” In this case I facilitate the rules, but the system is there to support the core experience: the story.

    This is in contrast to my purpose while running the brand new Wrath & Glory system at conventions this summer. I want everyone to have a fun and satisfying roleplaying experience, but the story is there to support the core experience: learning the system. Hence, my introduction focuses on setting a time expectation for learning the rules before we get into roleplaying.

    These are two very different goals. By reiterating the core experience to the players up front I’m setting myself up for success. Since the goal ties back to the convention description this should feel familiar to the players and remind them that this is the experience they signed up for.

    Final Thoughts

    By writing convention descriptions that effectively summarize the spirit of the game, I attract the players who are the best fit for the given game session. This has proven true time and again with players who stay engaged and leave with smiles on their faces, even when running diceless story games at conventions based around old school style RPGs.

    Do you have any other helpful tools for creating convention descriptions? What are other pitfalls you have encountered?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Gnomecast #44 – Resisting the Shiny

    12 July 2018 - 5:16am

    Join Ang, Camdon, and Phil on Gnomecast for a follow-up discussion of J.T.’s Gnome Stew article “Resisting the Shiny” and a discussion about ways to handle that constant urge to try new games. Will they be able to resist the shiny sufficiently to keep them out of the stew?

    Download: Gnomecast #44 – Resisting the Shiny

    Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Check out Gnome Stew Merch, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

    Check out Camdon at and follow him at @camdon on Twitter.

    Follow Phil at @DNAPhil on Twitter and check him out on the Misdirected Mark Podcast and Panda’s Talking Games.

    Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Making Roleplaying Games in Troubling Times

    11 July 2018 - 6:30am

    In a political climate that involves neo-nazis, the rise of fascism, ICE, loss of healthcare, capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, global warming… are roleplaying games important?

    Like shouldn’t every waking moment be about fixing what’s wrong in America right now?  Like shouldn’t every waking moment be about fixing what’s wrong in America right now? Share35Tweet17+11Reddit1Email It’s easy for me to feel like designing roleplaying games is not the most important thing to be doing right now. Shouldn’t I be working to lobby for environmental protections and be volunteering my spare time to go door to door for my local candidates?

    Here’s the thing. When you’re making and playing roleplaying games, you are performing activism.

    Stories change and affect culture

    At the heart of roleplaying games is collaborative storytelling. Stories are important. When a new story becomes dominant, cultural norms shift and that’s how social progress works. Nanette, a Netflix one hour special, focuses on the power of stories that come from minorities, and how speaking your truth can be healing both to you and to culture. When we tell stories, even in roleplaying games, we have the ability to shift culture.

    This is why it’s so important to examine the stories we’re telling!

    Games have messages

    Many roleplaying games are actively telling stories that are about overcoming and creating change. Dog Eat Dog, Kagematsu, War Birds, Night Witches, Harlem Unbound, Monsterhearts, Steal Away Jordan, A Cozy Den… these center on the stories of minorities and outsiders with the intent of educating and changing people’s perception of them through play.

    When you’re playing a fae in Monsterhearts, you might not learn exactly what it’s like to be a “fairy”, but you will gain empathy for people who feel like monsters and outsiders because they’re queer teens.  When you’re playing a fae in Monsterhearts, you might not learn exactly what it’s like to be a “fairy”, but you will gain empathy for people who feel like monsters and outsiders because they’re queer teens. Share35Tweet17+11Reddit1Email In Dog Eat Dog you’ll learn the specific systems of oppression that colonizers have implemented since forever. These games can teach alternate perspectives you might not have been aware of and are shifting the culture around these issues and identities.

    There are all different kinds of activism

    I can no longer march or hold signs because with fibromyalgia my body can’t maintain that kind of activity anymore. BUT I can call reps, vote, sign petitions, send money, raise awareness on social media and in person, and always speak my truth – especially to relatives and people I know who are ignorantly working against me.

    Sharing games that are created by people of color, trans people, people with disabilities, people of gender minorities… supporting them, buying them – that’s activism in gaming. Especially games that spread a message of inclusion or showcase a minority experience!

    You still need to have fun even when politics are hard

    Playing games is FUN. People need to recharge, we can’t be activists all the time 24/7 without getting exhausted and wearing ourselves out. Spending time gaming with friends can be healing and recharging, so that you can keep fighting oppression the other six days of the week.

    Roleplaying games can bring people together

    Roleplaying games are a unique form of art that involves communicating with multiple humans in an interactive setting. The ability to communicate and share stories with friends is powerful. We are a community, and we grow stronger the more diverse people we have sharing their stories. Make friends, build community, change the community.  The ability to communicate and share stories with friends is powerful. We are a community, and we grow stronger the more diverse people we have sharing their stories. Make friends, build community, change the community. Share35Tweet17+11Reddit1Email

    Share your truth, and some young roleplayer out there will see themselves in your work, and we’ll make the community better for it. Run games that support inclusion, and tell stories that prop up diverse voices. In roleplaying games we share the common language of storytelling, and the more we can give people tools to tell more diverse stories, the better!


    What do you think about making games in today’s political climate? Are there any games you’ve played recently that have shifted your perspective on a minority group? Let me know in the comments.

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Adventure and Campaign Design By Checklist

    9 July 2018 - 5:24am

    The Question from DC comics. (Image from Justice League Unlimited)

    As my 8 month campaign was beginning to wrap towards its conclusion, I started to plan things a little differently than I had when it was just beginning. When the game was new, I was using Trello to plot out and organize story arcs, character options, and connect different cards to each other to make a complex spiderweb that would be worthy of a conspiracy theory developed by The Question. As I was beginning to wrap the various story arcs to their conclusions, I began to think of the important notes I wanted to hit in different ways. I became very goal oriented, wanting to make sure certain things occurred for each player before our time together ended (due to travel and changing life situations). One feature of the Trello boards began to spill over into all of my game prep, and by the time I was done, everything in my game was resting on one solid foundation – checklists. Trello’s feature letting you create checklists was super useful, and as it bled over into my prep mindset, I started to see the beauty of thinking with the end result first. Starting game prep with the end result in mind could lead you to railroading, but if done correctly it can focus you on what really matters – the players.

    Designing By Checklist

    Designing by checklist is really just about focusing on what could happen and less on exactly how you get there. I used checklists in two primary ways. First, every character had a checklist of things that enabled player fun. What the player liked to do, what the character liked to do, what unique things the character had that I could incorporate. With this checklist in place, I could quickly parse it before the game and see if there were any elements I could incorporate into that game session. Knowing that Mayte had a magic goat and liked to hit things (two very true things about her character), I could decide that a race/fight might be a good idea to let her use her mount and get some good combat. I hadn’t really planned for that before, but the character option checklist reminded me of things her player would find fun and that I could incorporate, rather than just having a simple battle.

    The other primary way I used checklists for game design was creating plot “armatures” of things I wanted to happen for a particular session. Much like my Island Design Theory of game design, this focused more on elements than how to navigate between them. A simple checkbox could contain “vital NPC betrays party” and if it doesn’t happen in one session it can be moved to another. I can check the elements off that occurred, or make small notes next to them to note something that changed, and because of the minimal amount of work I did in planning the setup, I wouldn’t feel bad about missing out on something.

    Here are some of the checklists I used during the game.

    In essence, using checklists as the main organizing structure of a game or campaign forces you to look at what happens, and not fret the details of how to get there. You still focus on what you want to occur, but rather than plot building in a linear fashion, you check things off the list in the order they occur. This helps keep the spotlight on the players (if you use player goals or player focused items) and it breaks the linear mold, even if you write down what you expect to happen. In one of the sessions above, we knew what was going to happen. The group would get to meet a council of mages in Limia, a character would return and replace their doppelganger in the party, and their eventual mission would play out with them going to hell. That sounds pretty cut and dried, but it occurred in a very different way. The players opted to go directly to hell, spent way more time dealing with the reconciliation with the real Salazar, and their time talking with the council was minimal. The story still moved along, just focusing on some elements rather than others.

    That session was a setup session to prep for the finale, and it required certain elements that were the culmination of their previous actions and approaches. The other sessions had more openness, so the checklist items were more general approaches and options I could bring in. In session 2 of the finale, they knew they were traveling through hell to find a knot connecting two worlds. How they moved through hell and what approaches they used were totally up to them, but the one definite was that one of the characters would find the knot being guarded by a demon she had a personal vendetta against. Those two things were all that was on my checklist and based on how the characters approached the challenges, I could redo the connecting elements in whatever way made sense.

    How did it work?

    My last game sessions had something for everyone, and if I realized we didn’t get to something for a player in one session, made sure their checklist was start of next session. The checklists were goals I wanted to accomplish, even if I didn’t know how. They kept my last few sessions structured, but malleable. They kept me focusing on characters and their individual goals. I’ve written a lot about designing and planning games to be malleable, and anything that helps move you to a different headspace and envision your game in a different way is going to be useful. I think the checklist idea worked incredibly well, especially when focusing on character goals or elements I wanted to happen but didn’t NEED to happen to complete a story.  All of the players seemed to walk away with a sense of satisfaction and completion. I think, as a campaign design ideology, it’s worth trying out.

    What do you think about paring down your campaign prep to just checklists? How much would you hold yourself to completing them? What methods do you use to organize your prep?

    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Want To Be Interviewed On The Gnomecast @ Gencon?

    8 July 2018 - 6:18pm

    John Arcadian interviews Cubicle 7 about The One Ring

    Hey, let’s Talk At Gen Con!

    Are you going to be at Gen Con? Do you have an RPG or a an RPG project that you want to be interviewed about on the Gnomecast? Are you a gamer that wants to talk about your Gen Con experience? I {Head Gnome John Arcadian} will be at Gen Con with a fairly open schedule and will be doing short audio interviews while there. I’ll be focusing interviews on a few specific areas:

    • Interviews with Gamers about the coolest things they’ve seen and games they’ve played.
      (We’ll be grabbing people randomly, but if you see John walking around and want to be interviewed, say hey.)
    • Interviews with content creators about their projects and kickstarters.
    • Interviews with people in the industry about the state of the industry.

    If you want to be interviewed, send us an email at and we’ll try to fit as many interviews in as we can. Use one of the following templates to make sure we get all the relevant data. Replace the bracketed areas with your info.


    Interview Me @ Gen Con – Content Creator – {Content Creator – project} {Put this in the subject}

    Name: {Name}
    Project: {Project}

    Why this is interesting or unique: {Wow us with your pitch, show us why it is different from similar things. Include two or three interesting things we can talk about or potential questions we can ask. Show us where your project will be interesting and unique for the listeners. }

    Times and places: {Where and when are good times to talk?}

    {Day / Time 1 – Place}
    {Day / Time 2 – Place, etc. }



    Interview Me @ Gen Con – Industry Talk – {Name} {Put this in the subject}

    Name: {Name}
    Projects or Publications: {Project}

    What do you want to talk about in the industry: {What sorts of things do you want to talk about in the industry? What sorts of interesting insights can you bring? }

    Times and places: {Where and when are good times to talk?}

    {Day / Time 1 – Place}
    {Day / Time 2 – Place, etc. }



    I’ll work to schedule interviews where they fit in my schedule and I’ll try to bunch as many together as possible, so shoot me an email and I’ll see what I can do. If you are a fan of a particular content creator or game company, forward this on to them and have them contact us using one of the above templates. The sooner the better as I add interviewsout my schedule, my open times will become more constrained.

    Looking forward to talking with you @ Gen Con 2018! – Head Gnome John
    Categories: Game Theory & Design

    Don’t Just Sit There!

    6 July 2018 - 12:00am

    If you’re not going to DO something, you may as well be a potato.

    You’ve worked hard prepping for a game with some interesting investigation scenes, cool action sequences, and plenty of opportunities for roleplaying. Bringing it to the table, most of the players dive right into it, but during what you thought would be an exciting scene, one player shrugs and declares, “I can’t do anything here.” Good GMs work hard to provide opportunities for everyone at the table, but unfortunately, you can lead a player to the action, but you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to.

    This is player behavior I began considering recently after running two games at Origins. In both the games I ran, there were varying degrees of players failing to engage with the scene or the game as a whole. One of those games was particularly frustrating for me because the character failing to act had been pivotal during the playtest I ran.

    Before I go any further, I want to caveat that players failing to find something for their character to do isn’t always their fault. Good GMs seriously do need to plan and run their games looking for ways to get everyone involved. You’ve got to balance the session or the campaign around making sure everyone gets to do their thing during the game at least some of the time. Bad or weak GMs may not consider the characters in play when designing their adventures or even may squash people doing things they don’t expect.

    All that said, it is ultimately up to the player to find ways to get their character into the thick of things. Not every scene is going to be suited to you doing that one thing your character is really good at. But just because you can’t do that one thing doesn’t mean you just sit there or go wait in the car until everyone else finishes up. Well, you could, but what fun is that?

    This whole situation was really brought home by the one game at Origins. I had run a playtest a couple weeks beforehand, so I could make sure I understood the system (at least passably), be sure the PCs worked, and that the scenario itself was solid. In that playtest game, a reporter with fae leanings was played by a player who got her deeply involved in the investigation and made her essential for the resolution of the problem they were dealing with. At Origins, the exact same character did no investigating and had to be prompted to do anything. And even when prompted, the player struggled to come up with something for the character to do.

    Don’t be that guy. You know he loses in the end.

    Not long ago, Senda wrote a great article talking about the difference between proactive and reacting gaming. This was something else completely. This wasn’t a difference in preferred play style as much as it was a difference between players understanding HOW to get involved in a game. One player took a look at the character and saw all the opportunities she presented. The other player took a look and only saw the character’s limitations.

    Some of this difference could be chalked up to experience. During the playtest, the character’s player was someone who has been playing for years and is someone I count on to always dive headfirst into whatever game or character he’s playing. The player at Origins seemed very hesitant and uncertain and somewhat inexperienced with roleplaying games. While I did what I could to coax her into getting involved, trying to run the game while also doing that was … difficult.

    It isn’t always a problem with experience, though. I’ve seen otherwise seasoned players do the exact same thing when they’ve gotten themselves into a repetitive rut with their characters. They’re so used to doing the same thing over and over again, they fail to start thinking creatively about what they could do when they can’t do that awesome thing.

    So, what’s my point with all of this? Players, just DO something.

    Yeah, maybe you can’t do that one thing your character is really good at, but you’re still there in the scene. Not being able to do your shtick doesn’t mean you can’t do anything:

    • Do something to assist one of the other characters. Most games have mechanics that provide some benefit to the other players when you try and help out or do something to assist them. Gang up bonuses, flanking, assisting with the skill check.
    • Do something to set yourself up to be more effective on your next attack or action. Plenty of games also have mechanics that let you take a round to make your next move more effective. Taking aim in combat or taking ten in non-combat.
    • Do something to help investigate or figure out what’s going. Maybe you can’t be effective in the combat or the social interaction. That doesn’t mean your character isn’t in the scene. Take a look around, see if there’s something else you can do for the long term goals.
    • Do something in character. Just because you can’t do something super effective in the moment doesn’t mean your character is sidelined. Roleplaying your character’s reactions (but not screwing over the actions of the other PCs) is a great way to still be involved even if you can’t be pivotal to the scene.

    You’re in a game, you’re playing a character. Get involved and just DO something. That’s what we’re all at the table for, so dive in and get involved!


    Categories: Game Theory & Design