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Updated: 3 hours 33 min ago

The RPG Zine Revolution

20 November 2019 - 6:00am

All the way back in February of this year, Kickstarter hosted an event called Zine Quest, where RPG creators launched a huge variety of projects – short, small, self-contained projects in the form of zines. All told, 108 Zine Quest campaigns were launched in just two weeks. And for me, my eyes were opened to all kinds of possibilities.

Just a few months later, I was lucky enough to host an RPG zine meetup and swap at Metatopia, a game design convention earlier this month. It was a really fun little round-table discussion for people who’ve made zines and who want to make zines. We talked about why people chose to make zines over other forms of books, about the pros and cons of the zine scene, about where the format has been in the past and where it’s going in the future (pro-tip: Zine Quest 2 is coming in February 2020 so get ready!).

Zine Quest 2 Logo

For me personally, until this year, I had thought of zines as something that were kind of dead (of course, they never really went away, they just went more underground). Zines were something that old punks made before the internet was a thing, not something that was relevant to the modern day. We didn’t “need” zines in the modern world of self-publishing and blogs and social media. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When I put the meet-up on the schedule for Metatopia, I expected to see some cool zine work (I did!). I expected to meet some awesome zine makers (I did!). I expected to learn some fun facts I didn’t know (I did!). I didn’t expect to have my whole perception of the format challenged… but I did, and I loved it.

 What defines a zine is pure attitude. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailI think I was wrong about not needing zines because my definition of a zine was wrong. I was too mired down in the details. A zine is a small book, I might have said before. A zine is under a certain page count, probably 5.5” by 8.5” or smaller, is one way to define it. A zine is something made by just one or two people working out of a home or a print shop, not something that got a print run from a big press or made by a big team, maybe. A zine is a one-time thing, not a series, sometimes. A zine is a book that’s cheap to make and cheap to buy, usually.

Some or all of those things are true of… most zines. But I can no longer say that I think that’s what defines a zine. What defines a zine is pure attitude.

Ye olde zine makers

To make a zine is to work outside a major publishing structure. It’s to work without a team of marketers saying “you shouldn’t do this” or “you shouldn’t write about this”. To make a zine is to make a project out of love and passion for the subject, no matter what it is. When I read some of the zines that I picked up at the swap, I hear the writer’s voice so clearly that it feels like they’re with me. Zines are, to put it briefly, punk as hell.

So many times, in the modern world of publishing and game creation, you hear “no”. No, we’re not publishing your game. No, I’m not buying that. No, I think your idea is bad and you should feel bad. But when you make a zine, you’re telling yourself “yes”. Yes, I care about this thing. Yes, I can make a game without needing a big company or a big audience or anybody but myself and my friends. Yes, I can use my voice.

But when you make a zine, you’re telling yourself “yes”. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailI think this is particularly relevant to roleplaying games, where so often the most money and the most attention goes to the biggest names, but there’s thousands of others out there doing their own little punk-rock thing anyway. Sometimes it gets big and sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s a game out there for every mood, every genre, every tone, every age group, every possible theme, and they were almost always made by someone who refused to be told “no, you can’t game that way”.

Earlier this year, I published my own first zine (about fanfiction, another rich source of zine history!), and now I have a zine project on Kickstarter – both work that I’m extremely proud of, and I know that my collaborators are too. I used to think that publishing by zine would be “lesser” than publishing in another format, but now I know that isn’t true at all. It’s a wonderful accomplishment to know that every copy of this game passed through my hands, to know that I made each one. And I don’t see myself stopping any time soon.

All of Metatopia was an invigorating and exciting experience – I left feeling so energized to make games and play games and learn about games. But more than anything else, this little panel made me feel particularly excited to make zines, and I hope everyone who attended was able to leave feeling the same way. Because every new voice making their own punk-rock DIY game adds brightness and color to our RPG landscape, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Did you participate in Zine Quest last year? Will you be participating next year? Tell us about a zine you love, or show us your zine collection!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Tapping an Old Vein

18 November 2019 - 5:00am

About a year and a half ago, I was in one of my local used book stores searching for ancient tomes. While perusing the shelves, I stumbled across a large collection of books by the same author: David Eddings. He hit it big in the 1980s and had quite a prolific career through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. During these decades, he was a staple for fantasy readers, and his books came highly recommended to me for this entire time.

However, somehow I’d missed the Eddings boat. I knew of his works and how highly people talked about them, but I never did delve into his lengthy catalog… until now. When I came across the solid row of David Eddings books on that shelf, I knew I had to have them. I picked up all of them before anyone else could snatch them from my grasp. A credit card transaction later, I had a paper bag packed with what I hoped would be wonderful fantasy tales.

I don’t regret the purchase. It took me a few months to finish up the current read, and then I dove headfirst into the Belgariad series. Five books later (and a year later), I came up for air from one of the greatest tales I’ve read in a very, very long time.

This spawned some ideas for me on the role playing front.

I’ve been a player in a few games that were “based on the book by <insert author here>” and we always seemed to have a blast living in those worlds. I’m not talking a direct translation of book-to-game (like The Dresden Files or similar games), but using a system to live out the events and times from a book. The key game I’m thinking about was run by a good friend of mine, Bill. He took a space opera game and setting and translated it into the Alternity RPG. We did our best to fight the Von Neumann machines that were eating our part of the galaxy. Along the way, we encountered key characters from the novel, came into contact with cultures and people that were taken whole-cloth from the book, and saw (and sometimes changed) events that occurred during the course of the original author’s story.

Even though we knew we were “living in a borrowed world,” we had a blast. I think there are some key take aways that I have from that lengthy space opera campaign that I could apply to emulating the events, people, places, and world of the Belgariad in a fantasy game I want to run.

Leverage the Setting as a Character

I think to capture the true feel of a novel or series, the setting needs to feel like a character. It needs to feel lived in and experienced and ready to take action in response to the PCs actions. If the GM can give the flavor of the setting (or the parts the PCs will interact with), then the level of immersion for the players will increase exponentially.

In the Belgariad books, there are numerous maps of the different areas the characters move through. I’m pretty sure I could find those maps all stitched together in one large map. Even if I couldn’t find such a thing, I can easily put the maps in the books to use. My approach would be to pick a nation (I’d probably start in Sendar), and drop the PCs there as a starting point. I’d make Sendar as real as I could by borrowing flavor and text from Eddings to set things up and give the area that realistic texture that it needs.

Bump into Key Characters

While in Sendar, I’d have the PCs travel through Faldor’s Farm (which is where the whole Belgariad series starts), but I wouldn’t make Garion or Aunt Pol or Durnik or any of the other Really Important People From The Book a focal point. Sure, they’d be there, but they’d be side characters to the main story.

To keep the spotlight off of these various main characters, I would amp up the focus on NPCs of my own creation that fit within the location. Of course, while at the inn at Faldor’s Farm, the PCs would see the scullery boy and his aunt with the white-striped, raven-black hair, but at this point the boy (Garion) is just a young lad who scrubs pots and makes messes. Likewise, Aunt Pol (aka; Polgara) is just the kitchen’s cook who has some mysterious past that no one is aware of.

By allowing the PCs to “bump into” the main characters of the story, the players who know the tale will get that Easter egg moment and that will increase their enjoyment. If a player hasn’t read the books yet, then if they do turn to the novels down the road, they’ll have their own sweet memories of how their character interacted, even if it was briefly, with Aunt Pol or Garion or Old Wolf or any number of other important characters from the stories.

Witness Important Events

With the Belgariad being five books long, there are plenty of awe-inspiring events that come to be, and many of them happen in front of other people. What would happen if the PCs are in a place to witness, perhaps alter, a key event in the book? Would this change the story? Probably. Does it matter that your story is different from Edding’s efforts? Not one bit. This is your turn to play in the author’s playground. You and your group are not committed to marching lockstep with the author’s words.

This next bit is a tad spoilery, but the books have been out for decades, so I don’t feel compelled to hold back. In the fourth book (Castle of Wizardry), Ce’Nedra dons armor and raises an army. At this point Ce’Nedra is betrothed to Garion, but is still very much a spoiled young woman of noble descent. She’s demanding and hard to be around, but something changes in her during the course of this book that makes her quite a bit more admirable. If the PCs are nearby Ce’Nedra when she and Polgara work together to raise the army, they could witness (or even be swept up in) the building of a massive army that follows Ce’Nedra’s every move.

Make It Your Own

I’m pretty sure I said this before when I talked about The Expanse and adopting the books and/or TV show to your own gaming table, but I feel it’s work expressing again. Make the world and characters your own. Put them to use at your gaming table and make them work for you. You’re not beholden to the tale Eddings has already put forth in the world.

Go out and tap a vein from an old story and see what gold you can mine from the mountain.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Camdon Turned Me Into a Vampire Part 3–Fimbulwinter

15 November 2019 - 4:30am

Over the last two months, I’ve been looking at the game Thousand Year Old Vampire, by Tim Hutchings. It is a journaling game that you play by recording facts about your character, then rolling dice to answer prompts. These prompts may make you change some of those facts. You have a limited number of memories, and eventually, you have to fight to remember everything that you once were.

Camdon Wright, amazing fellow gnome and game designer extraordinaire, is the one that first asked if I would be interested in looking at this game, and as I’ve never played a journaling game like this before, I was very curious to see what would happen.

Holding Back the Years

As a refresher, my vampire was Jorgrimr, a Viking mercenary who helped secure Kiev around 1000 CE. Jorgrimr was turned into a vampire by a mysterious black wolf, fled Kiev, moved to Germany, and adopted the name Wolfhart.

While he violently clashed with a rival’s troops and fed on them, in his new life, Wolfhart met a girl named Kisaiya, and found a cure for her blood ailment by researching the Blood of Czernobog. He’s feeling pretty human for the first time in about 50 years.

This is going to get messy.

Content Warning

I don’t get too graphic in this chapter, but there is still a lot of violence, reference to severed body parts, and a general disdain for human compassion on the rise, so if that isn’t your thing, please continue accordingly.

Prompt #13

This prompt tells me that I fall asleep for 100 years, and must strike out any mortal characters on my character sheet.

Wolfhart begins to chronicle who he is and what he has accomplished. Foremost on his mind is his arrival in Kiev, his family, Kisaiya, and his invention of the elixir that cured her. He is tired from his work with the mortals, but almost feels human again.

When he awakens, Kisaiya and his work, even who he was, is like a dream that he can only remember when he reads his diary. When he finds out how long he has slept, he realizes Kisaiya, Anichka, Ranssi, even Konstantine are all long gone.

He wants to mourn, but he doesn’t know why.

Wolfhart creates a Diary, and moves a memory to that Diary. All his mortal Characters are gone.

Prompt #14

The prompt tells me that my Diary has been damaged, and I have to remove three nouns from the Diary.

Wolfhart spends another 100 years in a blur. Everything is like a dream. He feels nothing. He does the bare minimum to maintain what he has. He haunts Germany, and when he finally realizes how much time has passed, and what he must do to maintain his estate, he realizes he has neglected his Diary.

He cannot remember the girl he saved with the elixir. He cannot remember his father’s name. The ink is smudged in the diary. He does not even remember the city where he won his glory.

Why am I going through the motions of this long unlife?

Prompt #15 

This prompt tells me that generations have passed, and I wake up covered in dust. I lose a resource to determine how I escape.

The remnants of the house guard of Wolfhart’s estate, the children of his mercenary company, loot the estate that they once guarded. They set fire to the home under which Wolfhart was buried after an unfortunate rockslide trapped him in the caverns under the manor. After the fire burns away the passages, the rocks fall away, and he realizes that he has lost even more time to his carelessness. He must get control again. He must not let time keep sliding away like sand through his fingers.

He forgets everything about his old love. He knows she existed. Or maybe she was a dream. Has he ever known love?

Wolfhart strikes out his memory of Anichka and his earliest friends. Wolfhart strikes out “My Loyal Troops” as a resource.

Prompt #16

This prompt tells me that I gain a creative skill based on a lost memory due to timeless introspection.

Wolfhart is sure he loved at one point in time. He reads poetry and stories of doomed lovers. He learns to write his own stories, and shares those stories with others. He feels the shadow of something he once knew, and he is even less sure that he ever truly knew love. Can the written word cast such a spell on the mind?

Wolfhart gains the Writer of Love Stories skill.

Prompt #17

This prompt tells me to check a skill to avoid arrest, and if necessary, create a mortal character to take the blame for your crimes.

Gregor Langstrom is a “monster hunter,” using Karina Strausshammer’s inventions to fight the supernatural. He is getting closer to Wolfhart. Wolfhart does not want to feed on the people reading his books, but he can’t make himself care about the real people as much as he cares about the people he makes up in his stories.

The authorities close in on Wolfhart, so he manages to frame Langstrom as a crazed, obsessive zealot, killing people that were reading “perverse” books, and undermining society’s moral framework.

Prompt #18

The prompt tells me to bond with an ancient enemy Character, checking a skill to become friends, and sharing a resource with them to gain a shared resource from them. 

Wolfhart is increasingly annoyed with humans. They feel so ephemeral compared to the people he writes about. His stories speak of epic people that live life on purpose, not weak-willed folk that don’t appreciate beauty or the thrill of living. They might as well be dead.

Wolfhart decides to find his “origin,” to track down the Black Wolf. He uses his skill at ambushing others to trap the wolf, but he doesn’t kill it, as he once fantasized. Instead, he feeds it half the Heart of Czernobog, while eating the other half. He wants the Old Gods back in the world, and he wants to know if the Son can become the Father.

The Black Wolf feasts with him, and shares control of the Great Pack with Wolfhart.

Wolfhart checks the Ambush skill, and shares the Heart of Czernobog. He gains access to the Great Pack resource.

Prompt #19 I don’t know that I will ever truly sleep again . . . I may only lie awake in the dark, in my mockery of a life, waiting to journal again. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

This prompt tells me that I am physically trapped in a place from which I can never be rescued, and asks me to come up with what I think about for the first thousand years. It informs me that the game is over.

Wolfhart feels no kinship with the mortals any longer. It has been too long since he had a friend. Wolfhart has the pack now, and he rampages, destroying Strosshammer’s new society that is spreading across Europe. He will single-handedly turn back the clock and make mortals live by the sword and their wits again.

Then, the Black Wolf turns on Wolfhart. This is a Europe rife with possible worshippers. Wolfhart has served his purpose, and the Black Wolf drops him into the Void of Czernobog, a place of darkness between worlds. Because Wolfhart shared the feast of Czernobog’s Heart, he will always have a feeling of what the world is like, moving on without him. For a thousand years, Wolfhart hears the prayers of the faithful in the Black Wolf’s ears, but Wolfhart shares the hunger that he obsesses over, unable to feed.

The Black Wolf thinks about Wolfhart’s hunger, and he becomes a mad god, one that demands as much sacrifice of flesh as of will. In this way, at least, Wolfhart knows he continues to shape the world from the void. Or does he?

Is this all a dream? Is this Niffelheim? Did you die all those years ago, when the wolf bit you? You are so hungry. You are so cold. But you must be still affecting the world. Surely you wouldn’t lie in the cold, eternal winter, having lost your greatest battle, unmourned and unremembered.


Thoughts On An Unlife Well Lived 

I really enjoyed this process. Now that I have a taste of journaling games, I think that I may have been transformed. I may have to feed on more of them. I don’t know that I will ever truly sleep again . . . I may only lie awake in the dark, in my mockery of a life, waiting to journal again.

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

This has been an unorthodox journey of a review process, but if you enjoy wondering exactly what you would do in challenging situations, I think you are going to find a lot of worth-while material in Thousand Year Old Vampire.

I’ll be honest, I’m kind of worn out after that roller coaster spiral that my vampire went into at the end. It took a lot out of me to try to do the story justice, but I also really enjoyed the process.

Do you have any other journaling games you would recommend? What was your experience with them, and what kind of emotional charge did you have after completing them? We want to hear about your experiences below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #79 – Table Size

14 November 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Matt, and Senda for a discussion about how many players is a comfortable number. There may also be talk about actual furniture. Will these gnomes find the right-sized game to keep them out of the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #79 – Table Size

The three-part Gnome Stew article series that Matt mentioned:

Obliquely referenced in this episode:

Matt’s prep-heavy article series can also be found on Gnome Stew. The latest installment is here.

Ang’s three-part Masks run on She’s a Super Geek:

Follow Senda at @IdellaMithlynnd on Twitter and on her other podcasts She’s a Super Geek and Panda’s Talking Games.

Don’t follow Matt, because he doesn’t hang out on the Internet.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and see pictures of her cats at @orikes13 on Instagram.

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, catch the Gnome Stew YouTube channel, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Misdirected Mark!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf: Dialect

13 November 2019 - 5:00am

Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun for you to enjoy!

Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies

Dialect by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu (Thorny Games) is a GMless(-ish) roleplaying story game designed for 3 to 5 players to explore the story of a community’s rise and fall in a one-shot session. The story is told from the points of view of specific, persistent characters and uses the community’s own unique branch of language to tell the tale. The game is, if not wholly card-based, then at least card-driven, and it requires both the core game rules and a special deck of cards used throughout play.

There is a caveat attached previously to the term “GMless” because although the structure and mechanisms of the game do not distinguish between different player roles, the game does ask one player to act as “Facilitator” to clarify rules, maintain order during play, and adjudicate at the table if needed. The role is logistical, however—truly earning the moniker “Facilitator”—and does not confer special narrative authority.

The Story

Dialect is, as the text itself makes explicit, a game about language. More specifically, it examines the development of a unique regional language form (the titular “dialect”) and its eventual extinction. The textual content of the game’s story is of a particular community or segment of a larger society that has been separated from its parent culture, but the game also provides for examination of what is lost when a language dies. The specifics of the setting are not dictated by the game and are decided upon as the first steps of play of each session (with each session of Dialect designed to tell a self-contained story). Players do also each create and play their own characters in this setting to tell the community’s story.

The arc of a session of Dialect spans the birth and death of an isolated community. Over the course of this story, a unique language is created piece by piece by players adding words and phrases to the characters’ shared vocabulary that only they understand. Roleplaying scenes make use of these new words to explore characters’ relationships with the community and each other. The story arc is divided into “ages,” and the transitions between ages also explore the way in which the community itself changes over time. Finally, the endgame examines the end of the community, the death of its language, and the implications of both to the outside world.

The Game

The frameworks for the settings in Dialect are outlined in structured playsets called Backdrops. While each Backdrop provides some information about the setting a session of Dialect will take place in, much of what the Backdrop offers are questions to be answered during the game, so even two games of Dialect using the same Backdrop are likely to turn out very differently. Even so, four core Backdrops and a dozen more contributed Backdrops are available in the core rules. In addition, Backdrops adhere to an easy-to-follow structure, and there is an entire appendix in the rules to guide you to constructing your own, so there is no shortage of ways different sessions of Dialect can be played.

At the start of a session, the players collaboratively come up with three Aspects, two of which are guided by the Backdrop and one of which is completely open-ended. The Backdrop also provides a series of Community Questions which further guide the players in explaining more detailed characteristics of the completed setting, called an Isolation. It is in this Isolation that the story of a session of Dialect takes place.

Sharing a story with others is what roleplaying games are all about, but sharing a unique language with others is what makes this game truly stand out.Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailOnce the Isolation is created and named, each player then creates their own character for the story. Character creation involves choosing an Archetype card provided in the game deck. The Archetype provides brief prompts describing the character’s role in the community, how community members regard them, and the character’s relationships to various Aspects of the Isolation.

While the creation of the Isolation and the Characters form the setup of the session, the core loop of the game involves the creation of words and use of them in character conversations. The story told in a session of Dialect is divided into three Ages, and each Age is divided into Turns. In each Turn, a player Makes a Connection by relating a Language Card from their hand to one of the Isolation’s Aspects. The Language Card generally prompts by supplying an object, event, concept, or some other item for which the community will develop new language. Collaboratively, a new word is constructed to fulfill this linguistic need, and then a conversation is held between characters, again prompted by the Language Card. Some Language Cards may be special Action Cards that modify this usual mode of play. For example, special actions may include coming up with a nickname for someone, narrowing or expanding a word’s meaning, or even a player coming up with a new word on their own using special rules. Action Cards are, however, still followed by an in-character conversation using that turn’s new word. Throughout gameplay, words and information about the Isolation are recorded and arranged in a Language Tableau, a common area assembled from index cards that represents the culture of the Isolation and how it has evolved.

As the story progresses from Age to Age, the Backdrop provides information and questions for the players to answer about how the Isolation is changing. Each Backdrop includes two Pathways, each of which guides a different story about the community’s rise and fall. As play proceeds, one of these Pathways is followed through the Backdrop, and the story of the Isolation proceeds as the Backdrop prompts are answered by the players. Language Cards are also keyed to different Ages in the story, so as play continues, the selection of possible Language Cards also changes to reflect the Isolation’s approaching end. After the third and final Age, Legacy Cards have players choose a prompt on which to base an Epilogue they narrate about the Isolation’s impact on the world at large.

The Extra

I’m including a special additional section to this edition of The Indie Game Shelf to share a little more information about what this game book contains besides, well, a game. In support of the game itself, besides the aforementioned instructions for constructing a custom Backdrop, there is also a quite comprehensive guide to inventing completely new words from scratch without using an existing language as a base. There is also an entire chapter devoted to actions and exercises designed to foster sustaining languages in our own world, including other games you can play!

I personally find the book a delight. It features a crisp, striking layout and attractive and evocative full-page art pieces between sections. Rules explanations are supplemented with easy-to-follow play examples and illustrations, and it is clear that in addition to the game rules, the designers also put a lot of thought into the play culture and safety they think will result in the best experiences with this game.

Finally, playing the game adds a little something more than the usual exciting stories and fond memories that come from most roleplaying games. The act of constructing and sharing a whole new language creates not only a unique play experience with each session but also something special that continues to link players to each other long after the game session is over. Sharing a story with others is what roleplaying games are all about, but sharing a unique language with others is what makes this game truly stand out.

The Shelf

Dialect is available from Thorny Games in digital format as well as in both standard and deluxe physical form. Dialect is a terrific and unique game; so much so that I have difficulty listing similar titles to explore. The designers are trained linguists, and so for games along similar themes to Dialect, I heartily recommend checking out the rest of the Thorny Games catalog, which includes Sign, a parlor LARP in which players do not speak and invent a whole new form of sign language, and the upcoming Xenolanguage, a game of deciphering an alien language and how that experience changes how you see the world.

If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!


Categories: Game Theory & Design

You Can’t Build Worlds by Yourself

8 November 2019 - 7:00am

Your world is basic as all hell.

Mine is too, don’t worry about it.

As a GM, I’ve been working on my own homebrew setting for several years. As GM veterans and aspirants, you all likely have one of your own or are at least thinking about the one you might make in the future. As creators and storytellers, it’s somewhat inevitable to imagine ‘what would a world I make look like?’ For some, they might spend their lifetime building upon a single world and constantly adding to its depth. For others, they might have made a new world for each and every campaign. But more often than not, these worlds are made in the confines of our laptops and notebooks, something we build in secrecy by our lonesome. While we may come out and talk about our world to our friends, I’ve seen many a GM recoil when suggestions concerning it come out. After spending so long nurturing it, it can feel like whiplash when others provide feedback. Many builders here continue to work on it, alone.

But a sword does not take shape until it is hammered by steel and whet by stone.

This is not to say your world sucks; it could be deep and expansive, with long histories and family lineages tracing back hundreds and thousands of years. It could have dozens of quirky npcs, races, and cultures. However, I posit that unless you’re developing it with the opinions and voices of many others, it’s a world that’s going to be entirely dyed by your preferences. A world written entirely by yourself is like painting with a single color: you can have a single red square on a white canvas be worth $15mil at some art gallery, but it doesn’t change that it’s basic as all hell.

Our biases, interests, and preferences are hard to separate entirely from our work. If you happen to prefer swords or have consumed a large amount of media that features swords, you’re far more likely to have cool and magical swords as relics over any other weapon in your world. If you were heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings, you probably have an idea of elves and dwarves that’s hard to shake. If you happen to like Terry Pratchett, you’re far more likely to be interested in weird, or in other words gonzo, fantasy and—by extension—Old School Revival(OSR) systems.

We are already the product of many different sources of influence, that’s just how we are. However, despite all that, we’re still limited in that all that information goes through filter after filter of our preferences. We keep what we like, toss what we don’t, and can’t fully capture the nuances of all the content we absorb. We’re all a collection of those preferences and biases, so how can we imagine a nuanced world when the only point of view we have is our own?

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters The magic of others

There’s this system, Microscope, that works in one part tabletop, two parts world-building engine. Between a group of players, you begin by deciding how the world starts and ends, then take turns filling in the various ages and events in-between. When I played it, my friends and I created a world where a giant hole to hell opened up in New York’s Time Square, which then ended when everyone on Earth was a demon. Personally I had a timeline in my head where the demons rose up and fought an excruciatingly long war with the humans, and that we’d detail a large number of the battles that happened in-between.

On my turn, I progressed that story.

But then the humans turned magical girls happened.

And the demons were friendly.

And more holes opened up and the demons monetized an intercontinental wormhole subway which led to a nomadic and free-love otherwise unheard of.

I was constantly face to face with scenarios I never would have expected and had my ideas responded to through angles I never would have imagined. We eventually created a world that had magical girl armies building on the moon, demons slowly integrating with human society(and so each generation had more demon blood), and with one lone immortal Japanese ramen chef forced to cater to weeaboo magical girls for all eternity. He was literally the last full-human to ever exist.

If you’ve GM’d before, you’re likely used to this feeling. No, not the magical girls and such, but the feeling when something is going ‘off the rails’ in a manner that you’re honestly 100% okay with. When you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen and suddenly you need to improvise your butt off and, while it’s nerve-wracking, it’s exhilarating because you want to see where this it’s all going. Ultimately this is where I end up feeling the most alive in tabletops. When once I finally pull away from the moment I can’t help but laugh and wonder ‘wait, just how the heck did we get here?’ I’m okay with that in the end because, at that moment, I’m fully aware that I alone wouldn’t have been able to come up with the idea in a hundred years.

 [There was] one lone immortal Japanese ramen chef forced to cater to weeaboo magical girls for all eternity. Share27Tweet1Reddit1Email

Alone, your world is unlikely to have that degree of complexity.

In another example, I’m currently playing a Fantasy AGE game where I’ve allowed the players to go all out with character creation. Fantasy AGE, in particular, has this race called the ‘half-blooded’ which allows characters to derive ancestry from literally EVERY monster in the bestiary. The game also has strong support for mixed-raced characters, allowing you to do things like half-human/half-dwarf. Combine that with half-blooded, however, and we’ve got wacky combinations like dwarf/gargoyle, gnome/carnivorous tree, or—through utilizing half-blooded/half-blooded—something like ooze/mothman.

I know. I had apprehensions too but bear with me.

Obviously there was no bloody way I was going to spend a bunch of time trying to figure out all the reasons why this worked, or what the various cultures behind those mixes would be like. So from the very beginning, I went with one rule for my players:

“You all have the final say about your culture.”

Not even two sessions in and I suddenly get a wide variety of stories I couldn’t have dreamed of. The gnome/carnivorous tree goes on an entire creation myth about the world starting with a gnome and a tree, and therefore through a complicated family tree, all gnomes and trees and distantly related. We spent nearly an hour in a session brainstorming about dwarf/gargoyle culture and how they harden over time into diamond, so elderly gargoyles need to be protected by the younger ones from poachers, and how their burial grounds are effectively El Dorado’s but with statues of diamond made from grandma.

And here I am, the GM, just throwing bonus exp out left and right for their amazing roleplay and world-building. I’m honestly worried they’re going to level up too fast, but I can’t not reward them for all this.

Where I’m going with this

Let me say this again: even if you make your world by yourself, it’ll be fine. Despite everything I’ve said here, you’ll likely create an interesting world that your players will enjoy. To be honest, the opening line was mostly out of shock factor.

But I wasn’t kidding with the rest of it. A world written alone might be a great reflection of your imagination, but I don’t believe it’ll truly be a world one could call complex. Our own world might currently be going through several crises but it’s beautifully complex and built over centuries of conflict and collaboration, where many minds made their mark upon it over and over. We still find pieces to this day that can completely and radically change how we see the past.

Meanwhile, for most worlds, it’s often just a single lost ancient civilization, tops.

I think there’s a lot more we can do for world-building that can drastically improve the quality of worlds we make and the games we run, but I’ll save that for another article.

~Di, signing out

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Afterlife–Wandering Souls Review

5 November 2019 - 4:30am

Death often defines the RPGs that we play, even when we don’t realize it. The style of gameplay of many games is determined by the frequency of character death, but even in games where that isn’t a consideration, the absence of character death is often a consideration in reinforcing the tone and themes of a game.

Instead of death being an aspect of the wider game, the game I’m reviewing today is entirely about death, and what comes after. Today, we’re looking at Afterlife—Wandering Souls, a game about finding out who you were in life, now that you are dead.

The Book of the Dead

This review is based on the PDF for the game, which is 153 pages long. This includes a two-page character sheet and a single page index at the back of the book. The book itself has clear headers and table entries, but saying that feels like I’m definitely underselling this book.

When I say this book has full-color art, I mean there are gorgeous borders on each page, as well as full-page chapter illustrations, and various half-page illustrations for various entries in the book. Vibrant flowers contrast with grey skulls and characters that encompass both extremes in appearance throughout the book.

Traveling the Dark

The book begins with an explanation of the setting of the game. The Tenebris is shadowy real that isn’t the afterlife that you should have reached. It’s kind of a strange world between worlds, where the player characters aren’t natives.

Player characters are Wanderers, trying to collect Resonance to unlock memories that lead to Death Marks, which appear on their skin once they have had a Break that allows them to reintegrate a memory. Enough Death Marks, and the character can find their way out of the Tenebris and into their intended afterlife.

If they gain too much Stagnation, they become Unrequited, characters that have lost their will to move out of the Tenebris and find their intended afterlife. Characters remember very little about their past lives, and are attempting to find out who they were, before moving Beyond. There is more on Mirages, Limbos, and the people native to the Tenebris later on in the book.

By this point in the book, I was already greatly intrigued at what this kind of surreal journey through the spaces between life and death would look like, and this is a great, evocative chapter to bait the hook.


Characters have a stat for Body, Mind, and Soul. They have Attributes linked to each of these core stats, that represent a specialization in applying that core stat.

In addition to attributes, characters have pools derived from adding a core stat to an attribute. One pool is Concept, and the other is Vitality. Concept can be spent to gain special results when that pool is relevant to what is being done, such as spending points to generate a success on your roll, or to add a success to an allies check. The Vitality pool represents how well you resist stress to the relevant area—for example, Health represents physical wellbeing, Hunger represents want (more on this later), and Will represents your ability to carry on.

Health and Will function as you might expect—zero out your pool and you may need to accept a consequence or you die (again, and permanently this time) or you start gaining Stagnation and eventually become an NPC that doesn’t have the motivation to find out who you are or your final afterlife any longer. You can save yourself from permanent death by giving up Will, and if you zero out Health or Will, you suffer a memory.

Hunger is interesting, because it can track you having your basic needs met, but you can also spend from this pool to buy things, representing you giving up your potential to sustain yourself to secure an item. This is what you do instead of tracking any kind of wealth. If you zero out your Hunger, you start taking Health damage until you aren’t quite so destitute anymore.

When characters fill up their Resonance track, they gain Death Marks, and Death Marks allow characters to pick up abilities like Tricks, which can lower the difficulty of certain tasks. Characters also have an Approach, which is a manifestation of the character’s self. This manifestation is either a Bow, a Shield, or a Sword, and each one gives benefits to checks in different situations. Characters can also have Talents, which are very much like Feats or Stunts from other games—a discreet ability that modifies the game rules in specific circumstances.

While Death Marks and Approaches are manifestations of who the Wanderers are, Wanderers can also obtain Curiosa, items that have a level from 1 to 3 that can increase damage or reduce difficulty when used in an appropriate circumstance.

Making checks involves rolling a pool of d6s derived from adding a Core Stat to an Attribute (with potential bonuses from other aspects of the character), and counting certain numbers as successes. The GM sets difficulties, and when the PCs fail, Things Get Worse, which means that the action in the scene escalates, or the PCs take damage to one of their Vitality pools. The GM never rolls dice.

Two things in particular jump out at me in this design. I am interested to see how the flow of Hunger works as both a substitute for tracking currency and for measuring the “needs” of a character. I’m an easy mark for anything that tracks wealth or resources in a new way. I also like that failure isn’t just failure, it is always escalation. I feel like this is a long term legacy of games derived from Apocalypse World, and a key component to game design that doesn’t involve the GM rolling dice or using the rules that work in a parallel manner to the player facing mechanics.

Playing Afterlife

This chapter details the assumed course of play in a game session. Characters are traveling across the Tenebris and interact with the inhabitants. They find Limbos, which are special “pocket dimensions” where they can gain Resonance. When they gain enough Resonance, they can suffer a Break, which allows them to unlock a Death Mark, which moves them closer to their Requeum, their final trip to their intended afterlife.

Characters can mark XP for each Things Get Worse result that comes up, and these can be used to advance attributes. XP can also be marked by answering questions at the end of a session. Death Marks and their associated abilities are only unlocked through interacting with Limbos and gaining Resonance.

In each Limbo, a character can claim something in that Limbo as a Fragment, a powerful link to a memory that immediately triggers a Break and creates a Death Mark for them. This can only happen once per Limbo, and the same character can’t claim a Fragment in a Limbo until everyone else in the group has done so.

I like the idea of characters being able to name their own fragments and have the agency to say when they will experience a Break and what about that memory helps them to remember who they are. It is a nice interaction between the surreal nature of the setting and player agency to allow this kind of declaration, and I like that the built-in mechanics address who can claim a fragment and when, to keep people from dominating a  trip into a Limbo.

World, Mirages,
and Limbos

The next three chapters detail the settings and give examples of existing people and places in the Tenebris. Mirages are established settlements in the Tenebris, usually populated by people that are native to the Tenebris itself, rather than wandering souls that are either looking to travel Beyond, or have given up that quest.

Limbos are strange pocket dimensions that hold Resonance that the Wanderers need to unlock their memories and gain Death Marks. Limbos tend to be even stranger and more thematic than the Mirage settlements in the Tenebris.

These chapters introduce some of the hazy mythology of the setting, including the giant serpents that live under the sands of the Tenebris and that were present at the dawn of creation.

There are native people of the Tenebris, such as:

  • The Kiin (human appearing, but born to this world)
  • The Nagiin (serpentine natives of the Tenebris that see themselves as heirs of the giant serpents)
  • Venefolk (multi-armed near humans with a talent for Magick)
  • Usurii (small, spiritual bearfolk)
  • Ungkiin (hooved humanoids subdivided between satyrs and centaurs)

There are also the other Wanderers as well as the Unrequited

The Wanderers have philosophical factions based on their view of the true nature of the afterlife Beyond, and there are factions of Unrequited as well. Individual Mirages have political aspirations that might reach across the Tenebris and hinder or harm the efforts of PC Wanderers on their journeys.

Example Mirages include a city built on the back of a giant dinosaur, the towering city of Babel with its 77 circles, a city built on the edge of a chasm, and what appears to be a crashed starship. There are frozen wastes, cities built inside of an enormous skeleton (with districts in the various body parts), a city composed of reflections, and a mirage based on M.C. Escher architecture.

Example Limbos include a region that exists in the flame of an enormous candle, an ever-expanding version of Atlantis, an ever dark jungle, and a giant garden. Other examples are a living steampunk land, a maze of broken glass, a giant void, and a world based on truths established by ancient science and alchemy. Because the Limbos are both highly conceptual and the area where the heart of adventuring is assumed to be taking place, the entries have a section for what themes the Limbo has, as well as various plot hooks listed at the end of the Limbo’s entry.

I don’t always enjoy surrealist fantasy. I may be no fun, as I can’t always enjoy a world that aggressively doesn’t make sense for the sake of reveling in the chaos. That said, there is something very charming and engaging about the Tenebris and its details. Something about the framing device of the setting existing between and outside of the real world and the afterlives that “should be” makes my brain embrace all of the weirdness and want to engage with it, especially with the meta-conceit of essentially seizing the dreamlike qualities of the Limbos in order to regain memories and remember who your character really is.

Running Afterlife

This section summarizes and expands on the mechanics presented in previous sections. It also defines the modes of play and switching between them (in this case, what it is like to travel the Tenebris, versus encountering a Limbo, versus having a Break or suffering a Memory).

It gives advice on setting difficulty and defining what happens when Things Get Worse. There are some guidelines for creating your own Limbos, and charts to help generate inhabitants that the PCs may encounter.

There is also a section on the various factions in the Tenebris, their motivations, and their goals. There is also a section on tracking the activity level of the various powers in the setting, to determine how ascendant and important they are in your version of the Tenebris.

Character Creation

Character creation is situated at the end of the book, most likely because creating characters is essentially a very active “session zero” for the game, where you don’t determine anything about your character until everyone is together on The Boatman’s ship, arriving in the Tenebris together.

Each character gets three dice of Clarity, which allows them the potential to reroll the results they get as they being to remember details about themselves. If characters have Clarity left at the end of character creation, they can spend it to move points from one attribute to another.

Characters rolls on the following charts, which give you base level numbers for your Core stats and Attributes depending on the entries:

  • My Life Was . . .
  • What I Learned . . .
  • What I Know Now . . .

Even once you come up with all of this, you don’t have a huge amount of details on your characters, but you have a framework to start building on, and your memories (which you have more control over defining), will let you add context. Even at that, some of the facts of your life (you murdered someone, you were a liar, etc.) may not be what you want to build on, so you can roll a Clarity die to see if you can reroll on the chart.

This isn’t framed as “that last roll never happened,” but “you started to remember something, but that wasn’t exactly how it was.” I like that this contributes to the fuzzy nature of trying to rebuild your identity in the Tenebris, and how fragmentary memories can be misleading.

That said, I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with the idea that spending your Clarity dice only allows you a random chance to roll a new memory from the charts. While the game is very much about playing to the story, and not manipulating the rules, this mechanic rewards saving your Clarity dice to customize your character at the end more than just having a chance to play with different established details in your past life.


The appendix includes the Death Marks, listed in alphabetical order, as well as providing alternate lists for all of the steps of character creation, which could be useful for long-term play, as well as varying results when players end up with similar results within the same group.

Resonance It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

There are so many imaginative elements to this setting, and fun details to play with. I love the concept of the Limbos, and the agency that players have in claiming fragments and regaining memories. It is such a strong, fun theme to play with, and the details of the people and the Mirages in the Tenebris act as a really well-defined pacing mechanism so that the players have more to do then just racing to the next Limbo.


I’m not a huge fan of spending a resource for only the chance at rerolling a result, especially when Clarity is the only real input that a player has on their character in character creation driven by random rolls. While players have more agency “on the back end,” first impressions can be strong, and this mechanic feels like its rewarding arranging numbers more than controlling narrative elements. There is discussion in many places in the book about player input and getting the permission of the table for elements of the story, but with some of the themes of the game, I would have liked a more concentrated and direct treatment of table safety. It’s not missing, it’s just not a single reference point that can be accessed.

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

This is an imaginative setting, with fun and accessible mechanics, and lots of tools for adding creative content into games. There is space for player agency and contribution to the story, but lots of room for the GM to have fun adding the fantastical to the game. It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within.

Do you love surreal fantasy, and if so, what games have captured the feel that you want the best? How much does a setting need to make sense for you to enjoy it? What other games have you played that dealt with the disposition of souls after death, and what are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below, we’re looking forward to hearing from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Art Of Traps: Making The Rogue Cry

4 November 2019 - 7:32am

Even the simplest of traps can be lethal when done right.

Traps. We all know what they are and how they work. Bait something with the proverbial carrot, the machinations whir, boom! Trap sprung, prey caught. Simple enough in theory but have you ever looked at your traps and wondered, “Gee, this isn’t a very good trap! What am I doing wrong?” Well I’m going to dissect your problems and show you the correct way to go about trap-making to the point your rogue curl into a ball and learn to fear your evil reign whenever you even mention a pressure plate!

To make the best traps, you have to follow a few rules that seem obvious but are often forgotten. As much as you might think that your trap is perfect, you have to remember that three or more people will be actively trying to solve your clever tricks by either bashing it, brute forcing through it, deactivating it, or simply ignoring it. Traps have to be made with the party in mind. Some will excel at trap busting and can speed-run through a mega dungeon in one session if they are good enough. Others will struggle with any kind of trap you throw at them and forget they can actually take the time to search around them or use their resources creatively. Knowing your party’s strengths and weaknesses is half the battle with actually making the traps the true challenge you’ll be facing. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on what characters you are GMing.

So before I mention anything else, I have to bring up the rogue. Why? In most games that have a rogue or rogue-like character, they tend to be the most dextrous and the most adept at finding traps and disabling them. Some even go to great lengths to excel at this type of skill set and become trap maniacs, hoping that the Perception checks they make every five minutes will reveal something for their spidery little hands to mess around with. Varying on what system you are playing, the rogue will most likely be your sworn enemy if you are a trap-loving GM. Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day.

Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day. Share13Tweet1Reddit1Email

The first and biggest rule you have to remember about traps is that they can’t be solved by just a roll of the dice. Imagine. You are going through a dungeon with your group, hoping to set off a pitfall trap on them when the party rogue uses a Spot or Perception check to look around. They roll. They succeed. The trap has been ruined in a short minute and they navigate about it in one way or another. A simple example but one seen too often. If you’re going to be setting up traps, you have to make it more advanced than that.

Layering on traps can be an effective tool for this issue, having the party focus on one trap when pow! Another trap activates right after they think they’ve solved the first one! If you’re in a bind with simpler traps, like when using kobold or goblin enemies, have them roll more dice instead. Layers of camouflage covering different sections of the trap or multiple aspects and mechanical parts can require several rolls being involved to deactivate it. Even if they get one part right, they will still have more chances to fail, giving the trap more presence and an actual risk involved. Do they risk setting it off at that point? Do they try another route? This gives some interesting decisions and can dynamically change a dungeon layout. Using one easily passable trap to trick the party to set off another one is also a great method. A pitfall that has a hidden pressure plate right after you cross it is a great example. A good rule of thumb when doing this however is to consider how much it will take to beat the trap in question and will it be worth it for your particular party to interact with.

The next thing to consider is how many traps you place in your campaign. One trap, two traps, three thousand traps, the same thing will always happen. Once that first trap happens, the rogue goes Perception super sleuth and slogs the party down by demanding a new roll every ten feet they move. Nobody likes this and much less you who might have eight or so traps in the dungeon still waiting. It’s a tiring process and even if in character they don’t do this, there is a lingering overhead thought amongst the group of the possibility of more traps. It’s always a difficult task to balance out meta knowledge in your groups but a few simple tricks can help alleviate this.

Having your party deal with traps only once in awhile and in specific places like dungeons and ruins is the easiest solution and can actually be used to perk up some of the less involved members in a group too. Sometimes the biggest trap can be the illusion that you have a trap readied for them, though this can backfire easily with more paranoid players. You can also give those who do constant trap checking a bit more leeway when looking for traps. If they roll to check for traps in say a normal room, you can give them one check and describe that the whole room is safe even if they might just be doing just one area. Not only does it hasten the pace but requires less work to describe the area and can ease tensions for the group. Keep in mind that you should aim to create a balance for your group so that they will actually move more than fifty feet in a session but still be wary of situations you present to them. This takes at least a few trial traps to see how they react but you’ll eventually learn what’s good for them and use that knowledge to improve your future sessions.

Explosion traps are fun, but the fourth one in a row gets boring.

Pitfalls are fun and all but basic traps like them, no matter how many you have or how well they are incorporated in a dungeon, will fall flat once a player knows how to navigate them properly. A wooden board over the pit. Throwing heavy rocks onto pressure plates. Using the ten foot pole to hit far reaching parts and switches. Those are classic workarounds but in more recent table tops, these are the poor man’s choices with the sheer plethora of spells, magic items, and abilities often at their disposal. So when the players fly over your pitfall trap for the third time in a row, it’s time to consider your options.

Subverting the expectations of the players is key to a good series of traps. Take what they conventionally know about a trap and twist it on its end! That pit they are trying to cross? It actually has a transparent ooze that uses its tendrils to swipe at passing prey, party included. The arrow trap that trails down the hall? Malfunctioned and shoots in a cone shape now. The pressure plate that was discovered on the floor? It’s magical and certain races activate it instead of just anyone, confusing the orc and surprising the gnome. In fact, using spells against the party for your traps can be tremendous fun, especially spells that aren’t necessarily damage dealers. Nobody expects the giant rolling boulder to actually just be an illusion after all. Surprising your party and setting solid but fair rules on how your traps work can be rewarding for both players and GM if done correctly.

Less a rule and more a suggestion is that not every trap should be meant for the rogue to solve. This might trigger the red alert for some of you but consider this. The party has no rogue. The rogue is more of an assassin build. Or for whatever reason, they didn’t get the trap necessary skills needed to perform at their very best. It happens and sometimes parties get rather lopsided in their composition.You may be stuck with all front-liners or your group is more based around magic or social themes. Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that even without a rogue can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths.

Of course all of this stems from an understanding of who is in your party and how much you know about your players and their characters. Even the most shy will be able to contribute in some way if you make a trap that only their character can solve. Have a strength-based trap that would require the barbarian to lift up a portcullis for an extended period of time. Use a series of precarious platforms a monk could hop upon to get the switch in the back of the room. The wizard may need to solve a series of arcane writings in just the right order so the party doesn’t get thrown into an extradimensional maze. Incorporating traps that other party members would excel at can set a great variety for the party and give you a better arsenal at your disposal. Not only that but you can easily get the whole group involved with one or two well thought out traps instead of just having them rely on one person to get the job done.

Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that … can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths Share13Tweet1Reddit1Email

I shouldn’t have to mention this one but don’t let your party know about your traps. It is not up to you to remind the party that they have the ability to ask you what they see around them. You’ve worked hard on these traps and, in the nature of their design, they are meant to surprise their victims with often lethal consequences. So after spending time and creative resources, are you going to point out to the party without any reason or provocation about the “slightly raised rock” in the middle of the path? It might be a personal experience but I’ve seen plenty of GM’s reveal such information to my party and, of course, we pounce on it, leading to them having less than desirable results.

Make sure to keep your traps hidden or else you’ll be setting up for immediate failure. What I don’t mean is that you have to have every trap secreted away behind a Perception check. What I mean is that if you put a sign that points down two paths and it says “One is trapped”, don’t have a footnote where it points to the right side that screams that the trap is down that road. They should know that going down into a long forgotten ruin will bound to be trapped and they should take precautions beforehand to deal with them. Keeping them a secret is also incredibly satisfying, especially when the trap fully works and everything falls into line against the party.

You are the GM of a massive, ever expanding world of canonical content and homebrew designs. Use every resource and every clever idea at your disposal. Look at real life examples and older editions of your choice of game for inspiration. Find something interesting and incorporate it into the most insidious thing your party can encounter. If your party finishes the session talking about how they activated a trap or how they overcame one then you have achieved the apex of what it means to make a proper experience for your party. The biggest thing we can achieve in our time of playing any tabletop is the memories we make out of it. So I hope that the advice I’ve given will prove to work for you in some way or another, making plenty of memorable splatter death falls and Indiana Jones style situations. If any of you have these stories, don’t be shy and share them in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Accessibility Tools ft.FATE

1 November 2019 - 7:00am

Tabletop gamers are fairly all over the place and I would argue that we’re now possibly the most diverse subculture in the world now. We have folks from all genders and backgrounds, with interests ranging from cosplay to technical programming to working out in the gym. Long gone are the days where it’s only ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ rolling the dice, as you’re just as likely to find a ‘jock’ or even model at the table.

This diversity isn’t simply limited to stereotypical backgrounds either: for every child under 8 getting into the game, we have a veteran gamer over 60 that’ll regale you with a tale of their first slain dragon, be that over 40 years ago, or just last week. In that vein, while there are plenty of able-bodied players, there are also scores of adventurers with disabilities that often get looked over.

As I was wondering in what ways could I account for disabled folk and such, a copy of the FATE Accessibility Toolkit fell into my hands.

In going through it I’ve found that, while it’s grounded in covering FATE specific mechanics, it has a lot of fantastic tools and advice for GMs and players regardless of system.

How much of it is FATE?

While picking up content for FATE as a FATE player is automatically a no-brainer, I have to stress that the content here is more universal than the system can contain.

In the 126 page pdf, if you don’t count the first 5 pre-pages and the last 4 closing pages, it has 117 pages of raw content. Going through it, I marked roughly around 50-55 pages that explicitly referred to FATE mechanics. This allows the rest of the book to act as a handbook and guide to handling disabilities and such in a positive manner.

While it certainly helps to understand FATE(such as the difference between Aspects and Stunts) it’s general enough in its coverage that you get a solid idea.

At the end of the book, in the Appendices, it also covers several major sans-system tools such as the X-Card, the Script Change tools, as well as an ASL Reference section. As the pdf(at my time of review) is a prototype it doesn’t have the full, comprehensive charts just yet, but I’m excited to see it in its completion.

The Core of it

The most eye-opening part of the book for me turned out to be the “The Nitty Gritty of Specific Disabilities” section. In its 43 pages, it goes through disabilities such as blindness, deafness, chronic illness, autism, and many more. It starts with informing the reader what the disability is like and what sorts of situations one might go through, before leading into how to incorporate it into the game.

A deaf character might have the aspect Perfect Lip Reading, allowing the character to perfectly understand a conversation until the target turns away, or a character with chronic illness might have Lay Medic(lore), giving the character bonuses to know hospital procedures and recognizing conditions. Personally, it was particularly nice to see the book also tackle subjects like schizophrenia and PTSD and show it in a really positive manner.

Not only was the Nitty Gritty chapter written with care, but with accuracy as well as the writer consulted or worked with contributing authors to get a comprehensive look at each disability. You can clearly tell as the writing style changes quite a bit where the writers change hands.

Each part is then punctuated with several small blurbs, giving advice to players and GMs alike, as well as advice on how to handle antagonists with the disability as well. What tropes to avoid? To lean into? Often the answer is simply “Don’t make their disability their critical weakness and undoing.”

Game Elements

For the FATE players, the Accessibility Toolkit comes loaded with tons of suggested content. While it comes with the standard fare of Aspects, Stunts, and Extras—all handedly organized via disability—it also involves its own unique elements of Conditions, Adaptive Devices, and a little gem called Anchors hidden on page 14.

To sum them up quickly, Conditions reflect states your character will sometimes be in due to their disability. It’s something done to help model disabilities. Adaptive Devices, which is paired with conditions, can actually grant bonuses and special abilities(Extras) to your characters. “Anchors” are an alternate rule to track mental trauma, which can grant your character bonuses when you’re out of resources, at the risk of affecting the Anchors that keep you stable. As someone that constantly has to balance between my mental health and doing what needs to be done, Anchors honestly spoke to me and made me feel heard.

With what the book already gives you, you can practically plug-in and play from the get-go. It has a surprising amount of content between its pages.

And my point!

I think we need more content like this. Not just for FATE, but for more systems out there. I originally thought that I’d like to see this sort of book for all systems but after some time to think, I think that this just had to be FATE. Almost no other system focuses as heavily on player added content than one that literally requires the players to create their Aspects, then numerically ties that in with the game’s mechanics. It’s a system where its driving principle is based on empowering the players and their capacity to affect the narrative. So of course this system was where this sort of empowerment had to start.

As someone that has had friends with disabilities, personally goes through a few mental health concerns myself, and has consequently become more familiar with such conditions outside of my prior realm of understanding, I am overjoyed to see this sort of content on the metaphorical shelf. From a first glance, disabilities can seem difficult to tackle and something to tip-toe around, but they don’t have to be. Improving the handling of a situation starts with becoming informed.

If you happen to pick it up in its prototype stage, by the way, you’re also directly contributing to getting it full art and an ASL hand sign chart! Something to think about.

~Di, signing out

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #78 – Creepy Critters

31 October 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Chuck, and Matt for a discussion about using monsters in games and making them…spooooky! Will these gnomes brave enough scary creatures to keep them out of the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #78 – Creepy Critters

Check out The World’s Greatest Roleplaying Game: The Zine on Kickstarter through November 27th!

You can get the April Foolio of Fiends on DriveThruRPG for pay-what-you-want, with all proceeds going to Child’s Play.

Follow Chuck at @InnocuousChuck on Twitter.

Don’t follow Matt, because he doesn’t hang out on the Internet.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and see pictures of her cats at @orikes13 on Instagram.

Keep up with all the gnomes by visiting, following @gnomestew on Twitter, or visiting the Gnome Stew Facebook Page. Subscribe to the Gnome Stew Twitch channel, check out Gnome Stew Merch, catch the Gnome Stew YouTube channel, and support Gnome Stew on Patreon!

Gnome Jared will be at Gamehole Con and gnome Di will be at KamCon this weekend, and a whole potful of gnomes will be at Metatopia the weekend after! Keep up with Gnome Stew convention appearances at the Gnomespotting page!

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Down with D&D!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Joy of Insects: 4 Real-Life Creatures You Can Use to Bug Your Players

30 October 2019 - 5:00am

Image courtesy of
















Content warning: as you’ve probably gathered from the title and picture, this article deals with insects and spiders, topics you or your gaming group may not be totally comfortable with. Proceed with caution and/or a can of Raid.

From Shelob in the Lord of the Rings to whatever that guy’s name was in The Metamorphosis, since as far back as I can be bothered to “research,” insects and spiders have been used to terrify audiences and/or also make them feel very smart: a tradition this article plans on proudly continuing by providing paper-thin overviews of really cool things without getting into the nitty-gritty of the stuff that actually makes it work. I’m no biologist, and this certainly isn’t Gnational Geographic.

On that note, none of the images in this article are actually of the insects or arachnid behavior in question. I would like to pretend this is because I’m worried about the well-being of Gnome Stew readers and that I want to prevent y’all from, I don’t know, licking a bullet ant or something. But the reality is: 1) it’s almost impossible to find unrestricted, royalty-free pictures of obscure insects and 2) if you want to lick a bullet ant, there is no way I’m going to try to prevent you from doing that. That would be awesome.

(Editor’s note: don’t do that.)

Bullet Ant

Image courtesy of

Schmidt’s Sting Pain Index, which ranks insect stings from least to most painful, reads like Torquemada’s tasting menu. Insect bites and stings are given descriptions like “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” On this scale, the bullet ant’s sting is described as “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”  “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.” Share7Tweet1Reddit1Email With that kind of recommendation, how can we not use it in games?

In a fantasy setting it’s always tempting to make insects huge versions of themselves, so why not mix things up a little bit and have your PCs face a swarm of completely normal-sized, non-magical ants, any one of which can potentially knock characters out with a single bite?

In order to simulate this, there should be half a dozen or more ants per PC, each of which should have only a single hit point (or game equivalent). Character parties with extensive area of effect damage options will need to face more ants, and those without any such options should face fewer. The ants, when they hit, should only do a single hit point worth of damage. The secondary effects of this damage should be incapacitating, however. When hit, PCs must make a difficult Constitution/Endurance/Might/Etc. roll or be entirely incapacitated until they succeed on subsequent rounds. Additionally, when  bitten, characters are in such evident (and loud) pain that all other players within visual or auditory distance suffer penalties to attack and defense rolls due to distraction and fear. Finally, any character who fails one of these rolls should suffer these same penalties for the rest of the encounter, as the memory of the sting is fresh and painful. When a character is incapacitated, all the ants in the immediate area should begin swarming that character.

The key to this encounter is to ensure that the ants are not individually powerful or threatening, but even a handful could easily swarm and kill a character who succumbs to their sting. These ants could also easily be used in a trap in a jungle encounter, or as the mindless but dangerous servants of a local nature spirit.

Bombardier Beetle

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In nature, there are defense mechanisms, and there are defense mechanisms. When threatened, the Bombardier beetle responds by shooting a stream of boiling water and caustic foam from its rear end—while anyone who has eaten a handful of those gas station taquitos can perform the same trick, few of us have the courage or shamelessness to use it as an actual method of self-defense. When threatened, the Bombardier beetle responds by shooting a stream of boiling water and caustic foam from its rear end—while anyone who has eaten a handful of those gas station taquitos can perform the same trick, few of us have the courage or shamelessness to use it as an actual method of self-defense. Share7Tweet1Reddit1Email A pity, really.

A giant bombardier beetle should be a fairly straightforward fight—its rear armament should be devastatingly powerful, but deployed sparingly. In OGL-adjacent games, a recharge roll is one potential way of handling it. In AGE games, a high-cost stunt may be warranted, while in Cypher System games, getting hit with a giant beetle’s butt cannon is a pretty great GM intrusion.

The bombardier beetle represents an opportunity for a character to take something out of  a battle other than treasure or experience points. After the combat is where things have the potential to get interesting. These beetles have chambers in their bodies filled with caustic and volatile chemicals—curious, ambitious, or reckless adventuring parties might want to capitalize on that potential. A difficult crafting, nature-related or similar skill check should allow characters to harvest the chemicals inside the giant beetle. However, failing by sufficient margin should activate the chamber, spraying the character in question with another round. Additionally, if the character carries these reagents into battle, fumbles, intrusions, or enemy stunts can potentially set off the chemical reaction as well.

Mad Honey Bees

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In certain parts of Nepal and Turkey, bees gather nectar from rhododendrons, giving their honey a slightly-reddish tinge. More interestingly, these flowers also make the honey hallucinogenic. The bees that make this honey nest in sheer cliffs, making gathering the honey as dangerous as any combat encounter.

In the vein of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, you might use Mad Honey Bees and their honey as the key to certain puzzles, or even to an entire dungeon that can only be navigated by those who have eaten the honey. Such an adventure would have three key parts:

  1. Following a set of clues that indicate that the key to the dungeon or encounter is mad honey. Such clues might include carvings or statues of bees or jars of a viscous, reddish substance. Characters who wander too far afield in trying to figure out what they mean might be corrected by a local NPC.
  2. Finding a deposit of mad honey and somehow gathering it despite the bees guarding it. In high fantasy settings, this might not take long at all, as characters often have the ability to fly, teleport, or climb sheer surfaces without effort. Resist the urge to make the climb part harder—your players spent resources to get those powers, and often times being able to use them to overcome what would otherwise be a very difficult obstacle is half the fun. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should make the gathering easy. Feel free to play up the danger of the bees guarding their honey, and even make the battle more difficult for characters that have to maintain concentration or hand holds. If you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you can even use the rules recommended for the bullet ant stings above.
  3. Finally, the encounter itself. Remember that characters who have consumed mad honey are poisoned with a hallucinogen. As a result, they should question at least some of their perceptions, and even the most mundane tasks should be more difficult. If only one member of the party has taken the mad honey, play up distinctions between what they are perceiving and what everyone else is perceiving. They may see invisible things, or be able to make connections between places or ideas that un-poisoned characters cannot make.
Ballooning Spiders

Yes, I know spiders are arachnids, not insects. This is still too cool to not talk about, though. Image courtesy of

It’s gonna be hard to hear this for some of you, but spiders can fly. Not with wings, and not quickly, but they’ve been found up to two and a half miles in the air, just kind of chilling out. They do this by finding a high area, extending their abdomen, and letting loose a long string of silk. This behavior is called, alternately, “ballooning” or “the most horrifying thing I have had to learn; kill all spiders with fire.” Scientists have recently learned that the earth’s electromagnetic field plays an important role in how they are able to do this.

Ballooning has the potential to drive your player group into thinking about battle encounters in three dimensions, rather than the usual two. If your characters spend a lot of time in the air, whether with airships, on flying mounts, or through other means, ballooning spiders are a great, unusual encounter to give them. Because this is fantasy, you can also feel free to take some liberties with the science involved in ballooning. Real spiders extrude a single strand, repelled by the Earth’s negative charge. Fantasy spiders the size of a Prius might instead have entire elaborate webs, supported by nothing but invisible, non-magical forces the characters do not understand.

You could even go farther and give such spiders a resistance to lightning or electrical damage, since they spend much of their time surrounded by electrical charges. You might even have the web itself do lightning or electrical damage. If, on the other hand, your players prefer a more grounded approach (ha!), you can also have more conventional giant spiders unexpectedly begin ballooning in order to escape, or in order to catch players who would otherwise be able to get away from them.


Even in the real world, people are terrified of insects. What they represent, where they’re found. They sting, and they bite, and they’re present where rot and disease has taken hold. In short, they’re the perfect representation of the darkest sides of nature. Leaning into this and using it is a great way to add a visceral thrill to your games, while still keeping them grounded.

So what do you think? How have you used insects or arachnids in your games recently?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

9 Steps for a Successful New Group Launch

28 October 2019 - 5:00am

I recently tried to launch a new gaming group, and for the first time in a long time, I failed to get the group off the ground. Well, that’s not entirely true. We had a session zero for The Expanse and then a first session where an introductory game was played. However, it took me about three months to arrange session zero and almost another two months to get enough people at the table between session zero and the first session. Then, at the end of the first session, we were talking schedules and if/when we’d get together again. It clearly looked like it would be almost another two months before we could all arrange schedules again to get enough players at the table.

After much deliberation and consideration over the course of a few days, I decided to hit the self-destruct button on the group. We were only able to meet for about 4 hours at a time. If two months go by, then at least 20-30 minutes of our time will be spent recapping and blowing off the “pre-game social steam” (idle chatter) that all groups have to get through when separated by vast quantities of time. That’s a considerable percentage, and I really didn’t feel like moving forward in this manner. This is especially true considering that I tried to make the game a weekly affair. It just didn’t like up to my expectations.

 After much deliberation and consideration over the course of a few days, I decided to hit the self-destruct button on the group. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Since the group’s launch was aborted mid-flight, I’ve done some carful thinking on what I could have done a little differently to avoid cancelling the game sessions. I came up with nine distinct steps to focus on when creating a new gaming group. Some of these I did well (like the first 4 steps), but others I could have improved upon somewhat. That’s where things fell down for me, and I’d all of you to avoid these same pitfalls if you can.

Here are my steps:

1) Create a Core Membership

This should be yourself and at least one or two other people. This is a difficult step because you need to already know a couple of people that are interested in firing up a new group. This is where social circles come into play, and you can pick up a few people there. In my case, it was myself and one other person from my Friday Night Magic sessions at the FLGS.

2) Set Schedule

Once you have your core membership, talk with all of them and collaborate a day of the week, a time of that day, and set how frequently you want to play. This can be weekly, every-other-week, monthly, or something along those lines. Once the two or three of you have determined a day, time, and frequency, vigorously defend that time with your family, other friends, and social lives. If you can’t even clear up (or find a clear spot on) your calendar from the outset, then your gaming group is in big trouble. By setting these details, when you get to step seven, you’ll have information to clearly communication to those that are interested.

3) Set Location

Once you know when you’re going to game, then set a location. This can be someone’s house, the gaming area at a game store, library meeting room, and so on. I highly recommend setting the day of the week and time before settling into a location. However, the day/time you pick may not work with your dream location. You may have to cycle through steps 2 and 3 a few times to figure out the best combination of schedule+location. If you can, try to pick a central location in your area. This will boost the number of people that will be interested in your game. In my case, the location was going to be my house because of personal obligations that I have (gotta be home to watch the kid). I live fairly remote, so this reduced the number of people that were interested in making the longer drive to my home.

4) Pick a Starting Game

With the core membership, choose which game you’re going to start with or which game you’re going to dedicate the entire game time to. It’s fine to be willing to switch between games. That was the advertised intent of my failed group. We were going to play short-run campaigns in a wide variety of systems. I think that may have been a barrier to gaining an adequate number of players because most folks seem to want that long-running, epic-feeling, overly-long, and other-hyphenated-adjectives campaigns. My offering of “short but sweet” didn’t attract too many folks.

5) Establish Public Liaison

If you have 2-3 core members, pick one to be the public liaison for the group. This person’s email address and/or phone number will be the contact points for the public when you get to the next step and advertise. Make sure this person is aware that random strangers are going to be reaching out, so that they are prepared for the interactions and conversations.

6) Advertise

There are an abundance of ways to advertise a new game these days. I stuck with the cork board at my FLGS, but you can also expand to the World Wide Web and leverage,, and I wouldn’t advertise the session location. This would just lead to massive surprises as people appear without notice. I would put down the day and time, though. This will allow folks to pass by the advertisement if they know they won’t be free at that time. This will reduce the number of time-wasting phone calls the public liason gets. Basically, you want the size of the group, the game(s) that will be played, the day, the time, and the frequency to be on the advertisement. If you can make it flashy, eye-catching, or bold (but still contain the right information), that’s great. Tear-off tabs at the bottom with email and/or phone on them are a good idea as well.

7) Clearly Communicate

When someone answers the advertisement, clearly communicate the day, time, frequency, game, etc. to them. This will prevent confusion. I fell down in my efforts with one player. I did not communicate to them that this was a weekly game on Sunday afternoons, and it turned out they could only make one game a month. With just four players (and a GM) at the table, this meant that for 75% of the games, we’d have 50% to 75% of the players present. Oops. My bad. Don’t make this same mistake. If a person is interested, but says they can’t make that scheduled time, pass on them. Things are already set, and it’s best to try to keep it that way for the core membership.

8) Safe Initial Meeting

Bob, Ang, and I talked about this a bit on episode 67 of the Gnomecast, so give that a listen. If you don’t have time, I’ll sum it up a bit. Meet the prospective player in a neutral location. Only bring 1-2 people from the group to avoid overwhelming the prospective player. If the player is from a marginalized group and you have a representative of that group in your gaming circle, make sure to bring that representative if you can. This will create a zone of comfort and acceptance, which should be at every table.

9) Before Session Zero

Session Zero with a group of new players that you don’t know might need to be delayed. You may need a “Session Negative One” (is that a thing?) where the players get to know each other before they focus in on the characters or game at hand. That’s perfectly fine. The Session Negative One isn’t a requirement, but the opening of Session Zero should open up with social contracts, safety rules, expected behaviors, adult content levels allowed (PG, PG-13, R, etc.), and so on. These are some deep topics with some great articles written by our Gnomes. Check them out for more details.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Camdon Turned me Into A Vampire Part 2—Into the Vampire-Verse

25 October 2019 - 4:30am

Last month I started my detailed playthrough of Thousand Year Old Vampire by Tim Hutchings, given to me by that notable siren of vampiric power, my fellow Gnome (and all-around awesome person), Camdon Wright. This time around, I’m going to play through a few of the prompts, and we’ll see where Jorgrimr, son of Julfr, a Norse mercenary who helped the Grand Prince of Kiev solidify his holdings, ends up. Unfortunately, The Black Wolf, a strange supernatural creature, attacked Jorgrimr.

How the Prompts Work

I touched on this last time around, but once the character has been created, you play through the prompts in the game by rolling a d10 and a d6, subtracting the d6 from the d10. If you land on the same prompt more than once, there are three prompts for that entry, often tied together and representing that plot thread becoming more intense.

Various prompts will have you check off or strike through a skill or resource, and for each prompt, you make a new Experience, meaning eventually you need to drop a Memory to contain more of your Experiences. You can make a journal to hold a memory, but you don’t actually remember it at that point, you can just reference things that happened to you that you can no longer recall.

Some prompts will give you more skills or resources as you go along, and some prompts will have you introduce more mortals or immortals into your story.

Content Warning

I’m not going into too many details in this series of articles, but there are going to be some descriptions of violence relating to the prompts, so if the kind of violence you might expect in a vampire story might be an issue for you, you may not want to keep going.

Prompt #1

This prompt told me that I have withdrawn from society, looking for a place to hide, establishing a feeding pattern, and gaining a Resource reflecting my new shelter.

I have decided that Jorgrimr doesn’t want his mercenaries or Anichka to see him like this, especially now that his fangs are permanent. Jorgrimr decides to take over Konstantin’s estate and feeds on his soldiers—it’s not a valiant death in battle, but they deserve it for serving Konstantin. Konstantin has many other homes, so he hasn’t noticed Jorgrimr taking this one over yet.

Prompt #2

This prompt is directing me to create another immortal character, lose a Resource, and gain a skill, and is asking me what I lost to the new immortal character.

Otgar was another of the Varangian mercenaries brought to this land by the Prince. He was abandoned by Konstantin and left to die, but The Black Wolf also found Otgar. Otgar maintained control over his men and assaulted Konstantin’s estate. The Varangian mercenaries saw my true nature, and I marked out The Goodwill of other Varangian Mercenaries as a Resource.

Jorgrimr eventually managed to drive Otgar away from the estate, and I add a new skill, Fighting Other Vampires, to my list of skills.

Prompt #3

This prompt is directing me to create an advantage over another immortal character, taking something from them to become a mysterious resource, and striking out a memory to convert that memory into a skill.

Jorgrimr forgets about the warm thoughts of camaraderie between the mercenary companies, and his hardening heart learns the skill Controlling Others. Because Jorgrimr is not happy about how vulnerable he felt, he searches out The Black Wolf, and while he does not find it, he finds a cave and locates The Black Wolf’s Heart, which does not reside in the creature’s body.

Prompt #4

This prompt tells me that I develop a system for feeding, and asks me to determine what happens to those who die, and tells me to create a skill to reflect this.

Jorgrimr still wants to feel human. He doesn’t want to be a predator. He limits his feeding to the soldiers that patrol near the estate, and he sets up ambushes where he can engage them. I start two mass graves near the back of the estate filled with heads and headless bodies. I pick up the skill Ambush from this prompt.

Prompt #5

This prompt tells me to introduce a new immortal character, move to a new location, lose any location-based resources, and pick a new name when I move. 

Konstantin finds out that he lost control of his estate, after he returns home from an extended trip for the last few years. Konstantin reaches out to the Unholy Man of the Woods, a sorcerer with a foul reputation in the area. The Unholy Man of the Woods subverts curses and takes control of the cursed, and Jorgrimr flees the estate and moves rather than become a thrall.

Jorgrimr adopts the name Wolfhart when he relocates to Naumberg, Germany.

Prompt #6

The next prompt directs me to create a new immortal character and tells me that I gain a new Mark, and that I played a trick on this new immortal character.

Jorgrimr runs into the alchemist Karina Strosshammer. She retains eternal youth by administering her philosopher’s stone on the living to draw out their life force. I allow Karina to attempt to draw out my life force, knowing that I have no life to steal.

Karina gains permanent immortality. She is not a vampire, but an undead abomination that no longer ages, and she is very angry to have lost the warm glow of life. The philosopher’s stone turns my eyes red permanently.

Prompt #7

Two mortals come into conflict, and I can gain a Resource from exploiting that conflict.

It has been over a decade since Jorgrimr was turned. He wants to know what has become of Anichka and his friend Ranssi. He finds out that they are quarreling over his estate. He sends word to them that he was secretly exiled for a crime he did not commit, and that it was all the fault of Konstantin.

It pains Jorgrimr that Anichka was worried about material gain, because Jorgrimr has lost sight of the fact that she needs that material wealth to survive. Jorgrimr has Ranssi sell off his assets and send them to Wolfhart in Germany, and he establishes a new estate.

Prompt #8

The prompt tells me that an immortal character ends up being more than they initially seemed, and that I need to check a skill or else lose a Resource or a Memory, but that the event also allows me to gain a Resource or a Skill.

Jorgrimr travels to find out more about The Black Wolf. He does not enter into Konstantin’s sphere of influence, but he finds out, while traveling in Eastern Europe, that The Black Wolf is the child of the god Czernobog. He finds a vial of the Blood of Czernobog. Jorgrimr uses the skill Enduring Hardships on the Road to make this journey of discovery.

Prompt #9

This prompt tells me that society has been drastically changing due to the meddling of immortals, and asks that I determine who benefits, what resources I lose, and tells me to gain a Resource, a Skill, or a Mark.

It has been another five years, and the Unholy Man of the Woods has been on Wolfhart’s trail. They initiate a shadow war, as Wolfhart uses the Heart of the Black Wolf to force the creature to engage the Unholy Man, and Jorgrimr manipulates his old allies, those that are still alive and in the region, to oppose Konstantin’s forces. The mercenaries die, and the countryside is terrified of the unholy creatures ravaging their homes at night.

Karina Strosshammer rises greatly in power, as she collects the bodies and captures the rogue spirits set loose in the shadow war.

Prompt #10

This prompt tells me that there has been a major shift in how trade works, and that it somehow works to my advantage. I need to check a skill and create a skill-based on a memory.

Karina Strosshammer has created steam-powered conveyances that can move goods efficiently across the continent, revolutionizing trade. While Wolfhart is no ally to Karina, he uses his ability of Knowing What Business Partners to Trust to set up his own shipping company, and acquires the skill of Shipping Magnate.

Prompt #11

This prompt tells me that I’m outside when the sun is rising, and I need to create a mortal child character, and to create an experience that reflects the humanizing effects of this meeting.

Anichka is getting older. Wolfhart wants to see her before she is gone. He travels back to Kiev, but he is not being careful, and the sun comes up. Kisaiya, a child that is part of a traveling caravan, takes Wolfhart in, and tells her family that Wolfhart is ailing.

The family cares for Wolfhart, offers him food, drink, and company, and he feels more human than he has felt in decades.

Prompt #12

This prompt tells me that I have mastered a new science or field of knowledge, and that my vampire nature gives me special insight to master these studies, and I can make a skill based on a memory.

Wolfhart visits Kisaiya for the next few years, as she is growing up, and he finds out that she has a strange disease of the blood. Wolfhart uses some of his blood, and the Blood of Czernobog, to create an elixir of health that soothes those with blood diseases, and Kisaiya recovers.

Wolfhart gains the skill Alchemical Physician.

The First Few Decades of Immortality It occurs to me that after playing through this, I might have a good framework for an urban fantasy or horror campaign, with several notable NPCs and world events to build on. Share2Tweet3Reddit1Email

I am having a lot of fun playing through these prompts. I especially like that I’m not just defining my story, but several prompts are widening what the world looks like as more characters and events are introduced.

It occurs to me that after playing through this, I might have a good framework for an urban fantasy or horror campaign, with several notable NPCs and world events to build on. Because the prompts don’t explicitly mention the exact passage of time, it has also been interesting getting an idea of how long it is between these prompts.

What the Future Holds

If you have any questions about the process so far, please let me know in the comments below. It is a fascinating ongoing process to try to get into the head of Jorgrimr/Wolfhart and think the way he would think as history unfolds.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Big Bad Con: A Lesson in Inclusion

24 October 2019 - 5:00am

The Best Convention…Ever

It’s been almost two weeks since the end of Big Bad Con 2019, and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what I am now calling my favourite tabletop gaming convention.

Taken from their website: Big Bad Con is a tabletop and live action gaming convention featuring fantastic games and even better company! We’re a volunteer-run non-profit organization comprised of wonderful volunteers, staff, GMs, and players.

Prior to writing this post, I was certain that the organizing staff of this convention were paid for their efforts. They were professional, responsive, and ensured that everyone attending was comfortable, safe, and able to access every aspect of the convention. However, after reading the About section of their website, it became clear to be that this stellar convention is a true labour of love – a convention run by gamers, for ALL gamers.

Accessibility in action.

When I speak about an accessible convention, I speak about one where people of all abilities can participate. Accessibility does not happen by accident. It has to be purposefully planned, built, and tested. Big Bad Con is the perfect example of this. The convention staff made sure that loaner accessibility gaming gear was available to all those wishing to participate in opening gaming or Games on Demand events. This featured dice aids like extra large foam dice, oversized dice sets, and even braille dice! Furthermore, there were accessories like dice trays, felt-lined dice cups, dice towers, standing card holders, illuminated magnifying glasses, and tools for grabbing things from the table. The gaming space itself was made inclusive with thick fabric barriers set up between tables in the main room to minimize the noise between them.

Inclusivity at the core.

First and foremost, Big Bad Con is a social event. Unlike larger, more corporate conventions like Gen Con, this wasn’t at all a retail event. Yes, there was a small space for purchasing games, but features like an exhibitor hall were completely absent. Now, that isn’t to say conventions like Gen Con are bad. They just aren’t the kind of conventions that feel like social gatherings. Big Bad Con actively encouraged it through events like the POC Meet and Greet and the POC Dinner. The dinner was an event that gave people of colour to mingle and share a meal. The meet and greet? Something even more amazing. All participants of the 1st annual POC Meet and Greet were sent pre-surveys that the organizers used to recommend who would be the best connections for each person at the event! Upon arrival, I was given a card outlining 5 people working in the tabletop gaming industry that were looking for services I could offer, purchase games, or those who had had similar interests and professional goals.

In fact, bringing people of colour was a huge priority for the convention. Founded by DC (@dungeoncommandr), the Babble On Equity Project (BOEP) brought 33 people of colour (myself included) to the convention. This was the first time I felt like I belonged at a convention. This was the first time I felt wanted at a convention. I was more than just “that Asian podcaster”. Instead, I saw others that looked like me or shared my experiences. I felt more than just a resource for white creators. I was part of a community.

Big Bad Con did three important things for me.

  1. It respects and celebrates human diversity.
  2. It caters to everyone.
  3. It makes spaces and information accessible to all.

To all the convention organizers reading this, take note of Big Bad Con.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

This Ones’s For Us

23 October 2019 - 1:39am

It’s a Friday night. I’ve got my backpack over my shoulder, a cold beverage in a bag, and I’m headed up a set of very familiar stairs. I’m greeted by an eight year-old who announces my arrival to the rest of the group. When we started gaming together, that kid was a double handful of months old.

I sit down at the table, not in my usual spot. Jason’s to my right, Jeff across from me. Ben’s on the same side as me, with a chair between us. Jared’s opposite him. Talcott’s feeling under the weather, so they can’t make it to game that night. I look at the chair between me and Ben, then at the group.

“I don’t really feel like recording tonight. That alright with everyone?” I see a shrug, a nod, a couple of verbal assents. 


The chair between me and Ben is gonna stay empty.


Jason gets out the character sheets and we start playing, a one-shot of Agon tonight. We get to the bit where we all need to have dice ready and I dig through my backpack to find mine. Past a Yeti microphone, a shock mount, my audio-testing headphones. There, at the bottom of the bag. I grab the dice and leave the rest of the stuff where it is.

The game goes on, and it’s a blast. Everyone’s having a good time, cracking jokes, using ridiculous character voices. I even take time to draw my character, something I never do. Towering Theodosia is immortalized forever.

At one point something outrageously funny happens, and I feel a pang. I say, to no one in particular “dang, it’s a shame we’re not recording this.” Jeff looks across the table at me, smiles, and says “it’s okay. This one’s for us.”

Being On

On a typical game night, that chair between me and Ben would have the shock mount clamped on one of the back supports. The Yeti mic would be positioned in the air over the middle of the table, set so the condensers are picking up a 360 degree field, but set so the hot spot is facing back, so we all have a decent chance of being picked up.

I’d be at one end of the table or the other, laptop out, taking up over half of the space I’d use at the table. I’d miss out on the early conversations, because I’m recording them, applying non-destructive filters, and checking levels. Before we’d start, I’d remind everyone to watch the cross-talk.

As we’d play, we’d call time-outs for kids calling for parents from upstairs, cans being opened, or someone running water at the sink in the adjacent kitchen. Too much background noise. Don’t want it to have to be talked over for the recording.

Tonight, we don’t have to worry about any of that, and it’s a lot of fun. Like Jeff said, this one’s a session just for us. Yeah, we took some pictures, tweeted about the game, etc. but that’s different from having to be on and focused for a recording. Recording isn’t bad. We all really enjoy performing for the mic, the audience, and each other. Heck, we’ve been doing it for almost three years, now, across a wide variety of games and types of sessions for TheOtherCast.


Tonight is different. It’s nice to not have to worry about those things. It’s nice to have the thing we do together as friends be just that. It’s not being monetized, it’s not a product. It’s, well, just for us.


Find Moments Just for You

Even if you don’t have aspirations to be a professional in the TTRPG industry, it can be easy to forget that, at the end of the day, game sessions are people coming together to have a common experience. It can end up being about obligation and responsibility in a lot of unexpected ways. If you felt anything resonate in reading this, I encourage you to find time, heck, a whole session, where you get to do it just for you and your group.

Remember the fun and take a night to have just that. It’s refreshing, and a hell of a good time.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

A Look at Phone PDFs

21 October 2019 - 4:30am

Drive-Through RPG is an important fixture of the RPG industry. It is the largest consolidated site for electronic RPG products, mostly in the form of PDFs. There has been a lot of discussion about the suitability of PDFs for the delivery of RPG material, and this isn’t likely to be a matter settled any time soon, but the site is now introducing a new format — the Phone PDF.

The Phone PDF format is not a format that the site itself creates, but is a new format that has several common traits, which a few companies have created to show off the format’s features. In general, the traits are:

  • Specific format with larger fonts, usually only displaying a few paragraphs at a time
  • Bottom navigation buttons with “back” and “contents” links — these move the PDF back a page, or display the table of contents of the PDF
  • Heading hyperlinks in the index to navigate quickly to multiple sections of the PDF

Within this format, there is some variation. In this instance, I looked at the Phone PDFs for Masks, Pugmire, and Zweihander. Because of the special formatting of the pages and the larger font sizes, the number of pages increases greatly in these PDFs. The already huge Zweihander balloons to over 2200 pages in this format.

A Tale of Three Layouts

Pugmire has the most “standard” setup of the three PDFs. All of the above bullet points are true of the PDF, and several hyperlinks allow for quick navigation from the table of contents to the various headers in the book. While it is difficult to do an in-depth read of each page on short notice, one particular oddity of formatting I noticed in the Pugmire PDF was the sideways oriented “average monster statistics” table, which is also spread across two pages.

Masks has several custom-built landing pages in the PDF, and has an overall more visual navigation system. There are specially formatted landing pages for topics like playbooks or villain rules, and the book can be navigated by both standard index and newly organized topics pages. The addition of the specialized landing pages still does something similar to the standard additional hyperlinks, but they feel like a more self-evident, guided manner of presenting the same options.

The Zweihander Phone PDF has its own customizations compared to the “standard” elements of the Phone PDF construction. It has a “back” and “contents” button at the bottom of the page, but there are also letters lined up on the right-hand side of the pages, and clicking on one of the links on the side takes the reader specifically to the index, to the letter indicated by the letter touched.


I took some time to use these PDFs using different PDF readers, and using them on phone, tablet, and PC. For anyone wondering, I’m still rocking the Galaxy S7 for my phone, and using a Galaxy Tab 10.1 for my mobile devices. The PDF readers I used were ezPDF reader, Adobe, Foxit, and Xodo on my phone and tablet, and Foxit and Adobe on my PC.

The recommended PDF reader for Zweihander is Xodo, although the “back” button doesn’t respond in this format. I’m also not a fan because if Xodo has a “read out loud” feature, I was hard-pressed to figure out where it is. Additionally, while the Foxit reader works fine for PC, the Foxit app won’t open the Zweihander PDF.

Aside from the above issues, I didn’t notice a great deal of difference between the formats. ezPDF’s default screen usage causes some issues, as the interface often covers the bottom of the page, making it difficult to navigate the buttons at the bottom.

While I haven’t used any of the PDFs “in play,” I did write down a few topics, and then tried to see how quickly I could track down data on that topic. While I can’t speak to use at the table yet, I can say that it was much easier to jump to a topic after a few clicks in all of the formats than it was to use the search function. Part of this is that the format makes multiple hyperlinks a necessary addition to the document.

Between my fingers and the phone cover, I had a few clumsy moments navigating the PDFs on my phone, because the navigation buttons are so near to the external buttons on my phone. Despite this, it wasn’t too bad to deal with, and was less of an issue with PDF readers that aren’t fighting to take up real estate in the same area. The tablet navigation was much easier, with more room to click on links and less potential for accidentally hitting multiple screen items at once.

Clicking on the links by mouse on PC was extremely fast. While the PDFs are formatted for Phones, the additional hyperlinks and contents pages (as well as the landing pages and index shortcuts on some of the PDFs) made navigating the topics fast.

Ghosts of PDFs Past

While the Phone PDF format is new, some of the features are not. Nova Praxis and Titan Effect are both RPGs that have “enhanced” PDFs. Instead of just having a few hyperlinks in the table of contents, both of these PDFs have navigation bars at the top or sides of the pages.

Nova Praxis, specifically, is formatted for a horizontal display, with topics along the left-hand side, and sub-topics that pop up along the bottom of the page for navigation. Titan Effect has a more traditional layout, but there are multiple topics displayed across the top of the page that allow for quick navigation to different sections of the PDF.

My Two Crypto-Currency Bits

My credentials as a “futurist” are probably not particularly strong, but when it comes to mobile access to game data, it has been my feeling lately that proprietary apps that can be tailored to the needs of the game rules being displayed are the most likely way forward. These apps may even incorporate tools like token tracking, dice, or cards that are native to the game being played.

From the various press releases and discussions of this format, it takes a considerable amount of effort to reformat PDFs for this particular style. I’ve never laid out a PDF in this manner, nor have I ever created an app, but I do wonder how much extra effort it creates to move in one direction versus another.

I can’t deny that the Phone PDFs were far more useful for reference than a standard PDF. I have several times wondered if the RPG industry could realign to accommodate the idea there is some worth to publishing rules that are primarily a reference document, versus a core set that exists to introduce and teach the game. While the Phone PDFs released have the same content as the standard rulebooks, the “meta-construct” of the Phone PDF navigation buttons, to varying degrees, merge “reference” to “teaching document.”

Varying Opinions

Reading comments from various gamers over the last few days, I’ve seen comments like “I don’t think this is for me, since I view PDFs on my PC.” I’m wondering if the marketing of this format as specifically for phones is undercutting the advanced navigation tools that the format is adopting.

I have also seen some discussion about the wisdom of creating this format, which is static regarding page size and font, versus epub formats. I’m not an expert in this area, but every RPG epub that I have seen loses some of the trade dress of the game in favor of the flexibility of the format, and while some gamers may not care if the epub of the game looks like other epub books they are reading, sometimes part of the “experience” is to see how the book was designed to look.

This preservation of trade dress is another reason I wonder about the “third way” of proprietary apps. While it doesn’t yet have the full functionality of the desktop site, the D&D Beyond app allows for some of the customizations of font size and page set up, while retaining the “look” of the D&D book from which the content is derived.

The Digital Road Goes Ever On I can see them being popular in the “short term,” as others are developing the next generation of data presentation. That said, the RPG industry is very good at hanging on to old ideas for a very long time. Share13Tweet1Reddit1Email

I don’t think that Phone PDFs are the wave of the future, but I do think that the functionality of the format may introduce players to options that they want in electronic rules references in the future. I can see them being popular in the “short term,” as others are developing the next generation of data presentation. That said, the RPG industry is very good at hanging on to old ideas for a very long time.

I also have the odd concern that if this format does become popular, it may end up being a potential issue for some independent publishers. While there are more and more tools that allow a single newcomer to produce impressively formatted products at a reasonable price, the amount of time it might take to add the extra functionality, which is largely comprised of a web of interconnected hyperlinks, may end up creating some expectations that can’t be met at the entry-level.

Overall, I’m excited at the increased functionality, and I hope it heralds a change in mindset regarding teaching and introduction versus referencing information, but I wonder if the specifics of delivering this new functionality will prove to be more cumbersome than as yet undreamt of future paradigms might provide.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Adding A New Player – Rocks in a Pond

18 October 2019 - 5:00am

I got a text message a few weeks ago letting me know that my good friend Jim was moving back to town, after 20 years. Jim was the first gamer I met when I moved to Buffalo in the mid-’90s and we played a number of great games together. Then, one day Jim moved away for work, and he never came back. I had honestly never expected him to come back, and we kept in touch over the years online and meeting at the occasional con. Needless to say, his return is exciting, and I started talking to him about gaming with him again, excited to have him join the games we have running. But I also knew that having Jim join a table was going to be a disruption to any game, no matter how cool Jim is and how cool the group is. So I started to think about that change and how it could be mitigated. 

So let’s talk about adding people to gaming groups…

Group Dynamics

A given group of people who game together for any period of time develop their own dynamic which includes things like: 

  • A social hierarchy (who leads, who supports)
  • Communication paths (frequency, platform, tone, etc)
  • Acceptable and unacceptable behavior (missing games, language at the table, etc)
  • Conflict resolution (controlled discussions, arguments, etc)
  • Shared experiences and stories (important stories to the group, funny things, etc)
  • Social touchstones (inside jokes, favorite quotes, etc)
  • Playstyle (murder hobos, talk to all NPCs, high drama, rules orthodox, etc)

This can be a thing that a group consciously creates through active discussion and deliberate action (e.g. a group may actively work not to be murder hobos). Other parts will come about organically through interaction (e.g. the day before the game everyone starts chatting online to remember what happened last session). 

The end result of this is that any established game group has a dynamic whether they know it or not, and as long as that dynamic is healthy, it is then comfortable and forms a kind of comfort zone for the group. It is, in essence, how that group plays and gets along. 

Change and Equilibration  Change is inevitable when a new person joins a group. So the question becomes how you handle the disruption until the new dynamic is formed. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

So, if an established group’s dynamic is a pond, a new player is then a rock who is dropped into that pond — the result of which is that waves are made for a while and then the pond settles out and accommodates the rock. 

The arrival of a new person into the group will force a change to the group dynamics, no matter what. This is not avoidable. A new person comes into a group with their own thoughts, outlooks, stories, playstyle, etc. They also arrive without the shared experiences, stories, and touchstones that the group has used to bond together. 

At first, much like dropping a stone into the pond, the disruption is large — but over time as the new person integrates into the group (assuming that the person is compatible and the group is not toxic) the disruption becomes smaller, and eventually, the group dynamic equilibrates to a new norm, and a new dynamic forms.

Change is inevitable when a new person joins a group. So the question becomes how you handle the disruption until the new dynamic is formed.

How Much Disruption A Person Will Cause

The first thing you want to consider before you add a person to a group is are they a good fit? What we mean by that is how big of disruption will that person be to the group. Likewise, is the group a good fit for the person?

The way we determine that is by looking at the factors that make up the group dynamic and assessing if the new person aligns closely to the existing dynamic, or if they are radically different. 

For example, if your group has a playstyle of being lawful characters doing good, and the person you want to add only plays evil characters and is a murder hobo, then the disruption will be larger. 

Another example: your group has a de facto leader; one of the players winds up playing the leader character in all your games. The new person you are adding was the leader person from another group. You are likely to have a disruption as the two leaders figure out how to work together.

You can do this exercise alone, by talking to the new player, by talking to the group about the new player, or all of the above. You should go through this exercise. Not every addition to a group is going to be a good one, and not every group is good for a new player.

Determine How Well Your Game Supports Change

The next thing you need to consider is if your current game will support the change of adding a new character mid-game. Some games have an open structure where the characters have a chance to meet new people and go adventuring with them, such as a fantasy game where you return to town before exploring the next section of a mega-dungeon.

Compare that to an ongoing political thriller at an isolated space colony. The addition of a new character will need to be worked in, but also that player has missed so much of the politics and intrigue that came before.

In some cases, you are going to find that the game won’t have a problem adding in another player, but in some other cases you may decide that it’s best not to add the new player to the current game, but rather wait until this game concludes and add them into the next new campaign.

Test Drive

If a new person seems like a good fit on the surface, and everyone is willing, have a one-shot game to let everyone get to know each other. You can start with some socializing before the game so that everyone can get to know each other, and then you can play out a one-shot adventure.

This gives everyone a chance to meet and check each other out, without any kind of commitment. The socializing will help to see if personalities mesh and the gaming will help to see if playstyles are compatible. 

Understand that one game does not reveal everything, but it will help you figure out if it’s worth investing more time to find out. If the game goes well and everyone had a good time, you can continue discussing adding the person, and if the game was a disaster, then everyone can part ways. 


So if the person seems like a good fit for the group and vice versa, your game is capable of taking on a new player easily, and the test drive went well, you can then have a few discussions. The first is with the new player to see if they want to join the group. The second is with the group to see if they want the new player to join the group.

The outcome of these two discussions needs to be an enthusiastic Yes in order to add the person to the group. If either the new player or the group says no, then it’s a No, and if either is luke-warm or hesitant then it should also be a No. Like everything else with consent, you cannot push through without the consent being enthusiastic. 

I have been in games were we added people and the group or the person was not enthusiastic — and eventually, things didn’t work out. Trust people’s instincts. If they don’t have a good feeling, then it’s likely not going to work (now if that is a self-fulfilling prophecy or not, I don’t know). 

You Seem Trustworthy… 

Adding a new player to a group can be a great thing. Group dynamics are the sum of the people who make it up. A new player can bring about positive changes to a group, and move a group in directions you were not expecting. But sometimes a group cannot withstand the change a new player brings, especially if they are very disruptive. Likewise from the new player’s perspective joining a group can either be very supportive or not. 

The thing we do know is that adding a new person to a group is going to bring about a change to the group. It is naive to think otherwise. By doing a bit of work, not rushing to push someone into a game, and having good discussions, you can make sure that the disruption you do cause when adding someone is manageable and leads to a fruitful new group.

What are some of your disaster stories and success stories about adding new players to a group? Do you test drive new players with your group? What games make it easier or harder to add players? 

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #77 – Weather!

17 October 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Jared, and J.T. for a discussion about how to use weather in your games. Will these gnomes’ all-weather gear be enough to keep them out of the stew?

Download: Gnomecast #77 – Weather!

Gnomes Ang, Chris, Phil, Rob, and Senda will be in attendance at the online gaming convention Gauntlet Con 2019 Oct 24th through 27th. If you’re seeing this in time, check out registration information here. If you’re going, get more information on Misdirected Mark events and panels here.

Follow Jared at @KnightErrant_JR on Twitter, and check out his blog, What Do I Know?

Follow J.T. at @jtevans, and check out his website,

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter and see pictures of her cats at @orikes13 on Instagram.

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

For another great show on the Misdirected Mark network, check out Bonus Experience (also coming to Gauntlet Con)!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Twain – A Review and My Missing Twin

16 October 2019 - 6:39am

I had a twin once. We did everything together. We learned magic, the two of us. I know she’s out there, still doing it…but I lost it. And I haven’t talked to her in years. 

Single player games are a new idea to many role players, and one of the most quickly growing experimental branches of game design. They are some mix of self directed story telling, choose your own adventure, and directed thought experiments. They are some mix of self directed story telling, choose your own adventure, and directed thought experiments. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email I find them fascinating and I am on a particular quest to find time to play more of them! Most will ask you to write based on some kind of prompt — in The Gentleman Bandit by Allison Arth, for example, you write poetry as an old West outlaw, based on the cards you draw. In The Beast, by Aleksandra Sontowska and Kamil Węgrzynowicz, you answer leading questions in a journal about dark desires (heads up: adult content). Last month, I played They Stole The Moon, a ritual and story by Aven Elia McConnaughey, which takes you through a story about yourself, your magic, and how we process loss. Today, I played Twain, by J Li, which is currently on kickstarter. All cards on the table, they sent me a promotional copy, which was the basis of this review. 

Twain is a single player game that you play by creating your imaginary twin, the magic that you used to know, and why you don’t talk to them anymore. It’s closer to a larp than a tabletop role playing game, and in it you may recognize the indie small games movement we’re seeing so much of in game jams and on — it’s a moment, an emotion, and experience; a dream of what might have been; a self guided, self fulfilling prophecy. It’s a game of leading questions and evocative language and holding a mirror up to yourself. When I played it, it became a way for me to tell myself what I needed to hear, and give that telling power. 

To play, you do a little character creation for your twin, and the life moment that broke you apart. Other than that, you play your current self. Then, you go somewhere non-residential to meet your twin. I went to my favorite park.
The single player games I’ve played frequently have some specific engaging task — writing a letter or drawing connections between items on a page, for example — but going out and having this very personal experience in a public place was a new feeling. I was a bit nervous that it would be extremely awkward. After all, here I am pretending to wait for someone that non-game me knows is not coming. I’m having a little bit of my very own Waiting for Godot moment. The trick is, though, that no one else knows you’re playing a game with yourself. I actually found it no more awkward than actually waiting for someone in a park…which was appropriate. 

Your twin is, of course, made up. But you are in the place you are expecting to meet them, for the first time in however long, and doing all the things we do when we’re waiting for someone and anxious if they’ll come or not. You text them. And you wait, filled with thoughts, when they don’t reply. And potentially the most genius moment in the game of tricking ourselves — you set your alarm with your ringtone, so that they “call” without you expecting the ring when it comes. It’s surprising how easy it was for me to fall in to how I’d naturally react in that situation. My particular story felt mostly positive, although I can absolutely see how other stories would not.

The game itself is beautiful and its printing (I had the deluxe edition in my hands) lends itself to the dreamy mystery of the situation. It almost pained me to write on it, and it definitely made me slow down and think mindfully before I marked up the papers that it insisted I write on directly. When I picked it up from the post office, I was surprised to find myself holding a thick square envelope — not what I’d expected since I’d come to pick up a game. Opening it revealed a sleek silver envelope emblazoned “Twain” and with the image and blurb on the back. The game itself is printed on high quality lightly textured cardstock and velum, is beautifully laid out, and fulfilling both by sight and touch. It was a good addition to the experience — and the experience is, of course, what single player games are all about. 

In many ways, we’ve lost sight of what it means to play alone. Culturally we place little value on alone time, day dreaming, or self reflection. Many single player games encourage all of these things, which creating an experience around them. Twain is a beautiful addition to this genre. 

Twain is available on kickstarter now through November 7th. 

Have you played a single player game before? What is your favorite?


Categories: Game Theory & Design

Game Hack: Triggering Skills

14 October 2019 - 6:00am

I’ve never been a fan of when players just say they want to use X skill, such as, “I want to use Perception to check for traps”, or “I want to make a Diplomacy check with the town guard to find out what’s going on with the prisoner.” Technically there’s nothing wrong with doing that in your games. I’m not here to tell you your fun is wrong or anything. If you like playing that way and it’s enjoyable, then more power to you. What I am here to do is give you a hack that will help you flesh out the game around your skill checks and some of the reasons you might want to implement this fairly minor change to your game if it doesn’t have it — the idea of triggering a skill. See how I bolded, underlined, and italicized it? It’s because I wanted you to notice it. Really I just wanted to make sure I noticed it when I read back through the article. It’s not on you. It’s on me.

What is triggering a skill?

I’m glad someone asked. Granted, I asked myself. I wonder if that makes me a little crazy. Probably. Anyways, to trigger a skill the player should narrate what their character is doing until it becomes clear the character is attempting to do something that would require the use of a skill and they’ve done enough in the game to warrant the skill being rolled. 

But wait. Why not just let people call skills they want to use and let the GM fill in the blanks?

Good question. Here’s a number of reasons.

Providing Options. By narrating through how you’re triggering a skill, you’re giving the GM and the other players a number of ideas and elements to help them react to whatever the die roll is once the skill is triggered. If the game or the GM allows for some wiggle room when failure happens, then the GM has some material to work with to help keep the game moving forward and to have failed states that are more than “nothing happens”.

Character Development. Moments like this show how a character skill set manifests in the actual game world. The description of how someone swings across a chandelier to kick an Ogre Magi in the face and disrupt their spell can show a lot about a character. One player could describe a trapeze artist like performance with a graceful flip kick at the end, while another could describe a leap where they barely grab on with one hand, accidentally let go at the most opportune moment to kick the Ogre Magi, and land. Functionally, they’re the same thing and use the same skill, but show very different characterizations.

Player Engagement. This gives the players another way to engage with the game by having some ownership in telling the story of their character. They can choose to narrate in 1st or 3rd person, or not at all and let the GM or other players offer suggestions for how their character acts. In the end it’s prompting the player to engage in the play of the game outside of the mechanical choices and the die rolls or whatever the game’s randomizer is.

Shared Vision. Pushing players to tell GMs how their characters are doing things, even to just get a little bit more information, helps the GM understand how those characters function.  This helps if the GM needs or wants to narrate something the character is doing after a bad die roll. It also helps in games where the GM has control of the narration post die rolls because it can help guide them to where they can go with the follow up description.

Those are four reasons that seem reasonable.

They are in fact reasonable and have been playtested at tables for, how old am I? Multiply by the leap year, carry the extra month for that light speed travel situation, and divide by my great grandmother’s age… 32 years, give or take a century. All time traveling silliness aside, I hope you give the idea of triggering skills a chance at your table. If you do trigger skills in your games, or do something like it, let us know. We want to know why and how it works at your table. Catch you later. I gotta run so I don’t get this clone thrown in the stew.

Categories: Game Theory & Design