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Conventional Snacking

19 July 2019 - 1:00am

Sometimes at cons I feel like the Templeton from Charlotte’s Web…

From the obligatory treats to share at game night to the nearly professional planning that some people put into convention supplies, we gamers really like our snacks. While I am not necessarily the best person to be giving advice on nutrition, I attend enough conventions to have some experience on the subject. After getting back from Queen City Conquest this past weekend, I thought it might be worth diving into the topic in relation to snacking (or eating in general) at conventions.

Most of us go into game conventions knowing our regular eating habits are going to be changed up for the duration, either a little or a lot. Maybe you’re not going to be eating as healthy as you do at home, maybe you’re going to be eating less frequently than you do at home, maybe there’s going to be a little more alcohol than normal. There are differences between large cons in big cities with many options or smaller cons with limited nearby choices for food or snacks, but your regular habits are still going to go off kilter.

It’s super easy to fall into unhealthy choices. The most convenient food to access or buy during conventions isn’t necessarily the best for you, leading to lots of fast food and few fresh, healthy options, and snacks are often just sweet or salty with little in between. Now, when you’re young and invincible, this might be just fine with a packed schedule of awesome gaming and not enough sleep, but as someone who is no longer young and absolutely not invincible, I can wreck myself during a convention if I’m not careful. I currently travel with an emergency supply of Tums, just in case. Not to mention, I know the crappier I eat, the larger the chance I’ll go home to develop a lovely case of Con Crud.

Here’s some thoughts on the subject:

  • Water, Water, Everywhere. All good convention guides or tips will remind you to stay hydrated, and this one is no different. I’m touching on this point first because it is really so crucial. You can get your caffeine in whatever manner suits you, and you do you when it comes to the bars in the evening, but absolutely keep a water bottle handy. Most hotels and convention centers will have water out for the attendees, so make sure you take advantage. Even smaller cons will often note where the water fountains are or have bottles of water on hand. I mentioned that whole not being young thing anymore, so let me tell you that getting dehydrated becomes harder and harder to deal with as you get older. So yeah, drink lots of water.
  • Healthy, Portable Snacks. While it seems easiest to load up on salty and sugary snacks, it is possible to bring some healthier snacks along with you. Celery sticks and carrot sticks are pretty easy to pack in small containers and actually keep quite well. Nuts are also quite portable and offer a relatively healthy boost. If you’ve got to mix in a bit of chocolate, make your own trail mix. It’s always nice to be able to choose what you want in the mix and not end up with a pile of what you don’t want left in the bag. I mean, raisins are fine but I don’t want THAT many in my trail mix.
  • Don’t Let Yourself Get Hangry. Regardless of what your plans are for meals, make sure you pack SOMETHING to snack on in times of need. No one wants a distracted or irritable player or GM that’s in need of a snack at their table. Having a granola bar or couple of pieces of candy to tide yourself over will go a long way to making sure you get through the con in one piece. Let’s say you’ve scheduled yourself two 4-hour games in a row and then plan on getting dinner after that. Well, 8ish hours can be too long for some folks to go without a snack. Be prepared to keep your energy and mood up so you can enjoy the games you’re there to play.
  • Go Easy on Yourself. I say this for two reasons. First, be kind to yourself. Maybe you intended to stick to your diet, but that goal went out the window on the first day of the con. Don’t beat yourself up over it. You can get back to your regular plans when you get home. Second, on the other side of the coin, don’t go completely hog wild with your choices. Just because you’ve decided to indulge doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be a little kind to your body. Maybe the next choice after that deliciously cheesy and greasy order of pizza logs is a salad or something a tiny bit healthier.
  • People Eat Together. Eating together is one a major bonding mechanism we use to grow closer to our friends. Take advantage of being at a con with all kinds of awesome people to plan meals together and enjoy each other’s company. Another option is to bring enough snacks to share at the gaming table. I have a handful of friends who will bring bags of candy to share with whoever even glances at the bag of goodies. Another friend always makes sure he has a couple extra water bottles on him to hand to folks who look like they’re in need.

Ultimately, the Sunday of the con comes around and you’ll see the over planner trying to hand off the leftover snacks they brought. Even if they have a ludicrous amount to get rid of, I can guarantee you they’re happy they brought enough to share and make it through the convention with some tasty snacks.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Coriolis: My Favourite Sci-Fi TTRPG

18 July 2019 - 5:00am

For years, I’ve raved endlessly about Coriolis, a science fiction RPG by Fria Ligan (Free League) co-published with Modiphius Entertainment. It’s my favourite science-fiction tabletop roleplaying game of all time. Scratch that. It’s maybe one of my favourites irrespective of genre. There is something in the game for everyone. That’s why I rave about it at any given opportunity. Here’s why.

Choice. Character creation is one of my favourite parts of any tabletop RPG. PbtA playbooks read like branching stories – with your narrative changing directions as you select new moves and abilities. They differ from other styles of tabletop RPG in that playbooks come in different forms for a single game. In D&D, character sheets are not individualistic in structure. You’re led along a linear path of new abilities, with the narrative having little effect on how your character class changes. Meanwhile, Coriolis sits right in the middle. I very much enjoy the wide variety of character “concepts” – Artist, Data Spider, Fugitive, Negotiator, Operative, Pilot, Preacher, Scientist, Ship Worker, Soldier, and Trailblazer – presented to the reader. Now, unlike PbtA character sheets or D&D classes, your initial concept is more like a springboard into a unique creation of your choice. When you begin character creation, the loose concept you pick only has a mechanical bearing on certain skills you are particularly talented with and the strongest attribute you start with. But that’s really where it ends. You can pick any skill. Have any weapon. Be anyone. Like the idea of being a space archaeologist? Let the Scientist guide you in the beginning as you determine who you want your character to be through play. Want to be a corporate bodyguard? Pick the Operative if you want a more low-key background, or a Soldier if you want the military to figure heavily in your backstory.

Structured growth from freeform roleplaying. In many ways, tabletop roleplaying games are like real life. Like us, characters in tabletop RPGs encounter challenges, experience failure and triumph, and experience the world in a unique way. If we’re particularly lucky or insightful, we learn and grow from these experiences. In popular games like Dungeons & Dragons, player characters “grow” by obtaining “experience points” earned from overcoming challenges commonly taking the form of a combat encounter. See the antagonist. Kill said antagonist. Grow in ways unrelated to the mass murder you’ve just committed. In Coriolis, players improve their characters’ quantifiable skills and abilities in a much more self-reflective manner. The game system rewards players “experience points” by facilitating a structured debrief and discussion between players and the GM at the end of every gaming session This is based on the overall narrative actions of each character and not necessarily what they killed or how many challenges they overcame. Some of the questions asked include:

  • Did you participate?
  • Did you overcome a difficult challenge and help your group reach their goals?
  • Did you learn something new about yourself?
  • Did your personal problem(s) put your group at risk?
  • Did you sacrifice or risk something for a member of the group to which you share a close bond?

Especially when playing tabletop RPGs with strangers or family members, systems like D&D and Pathfinder causes players to become preoccupied with “doing things” to level up their characters. Games generally descend into, sessions of “if we kill this many _____, we’ll gain this much experience.” Experience and growth are reduced to the consequences of death. Learning becomes a task. A game like Coriolis can be used to encourage more self-reflective (yet, goal-oriented) roleplay. The structured end-of-session debrief and discussion is a great way to have players recognize the weaknesses and strengths of their characters, mediate their own problems, and identify how their actions and behaviours can positively and negatively affect others.

I do, however, have mixed feelings about the “Arabian Knights in space” description attached to this product. While on one end there are clear undertones of Orientalist themes. But on the other, it presents a fictional Islamic world in a way that doesn’t problematize religion or depicts Muslims unfairly. As someone who’s spent a lot of time living and working in a Muslim country, I can very much appreciate what this game does for fair and positive representation. Perhaps I’ll discuss this in a future post on its own. Needless to say, the freedom to which you are able to create characters, the emphasis on storytelling and complications, and an easy to learn, yet highly tactical combat system makes Coriolis a unique game. It lets you be what you want and do what you want, all while providing a scaling degree of structure. It’s accessible and highly reflexive, and that’s what’s really important when assessing the value of a tabletop RPG.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Scion: Origin Review

16 July 2019 - 4:00am

I follow a predictable theme where I tend to be just a wee bit attracted to urban fantasy related games and media. When a friend of mine invited me to play in a game of Scion, it didn’t take too much for me to pick up the big bundle of PDFs and dive into the game. I made a character that was the scion of Hel, who I envisioned as a cross between House and Dexter. He was a forensic pathologist, with a magic scalpel and the ability to summon his dead father for advice.

As it turned out, making my character really good at his job and giving him a flavorful gift from his mother meant that he wasn’t particularly good at anything to do with combat, other than jabbing someone with the scalpel once in a while, and eventually, my poor character was eaten by one of Fenrir’s overgrown pups. I also found out that Vancouver, where I said my character was from (a joke based on where many television series are filmed) has very, very few actual murders, meaning my character was also probably very bored for most of his career.

Anyway, about the time my character was being digested, the Kickstarter for Scion 2nd Edition came along, and my curiosity got the best of me. I’ve been waiting to dig in for a while now. I have to admit, part of me is wondering if my character would have to make the same hard choices about skills versus combat ability in the new edition.

The Book of Origins

This review is based on both the physical and PDF version of Scion: Origins. The book is 180 pages long, with a one-page character sheet, no index, and a Table of Contents.

The book is very attractive. Some of the artwork has been reused from the previous edition, but what makes it a little harder to pinpoint is that many of the same iconic characters are depicted, with some of them appearing in new artwork.

If you have seen any other Onyx Path books, there is certainly a similar style to the formatting, with “typeset” style headers and double column layout.

Fiction, Introduction

The book opens, even before the Table of Contents, with a piece of fiction by Kieron Gillen, who may have written just a few pieces of fiction dealing with urban fantasy and modern gods in the past. To flash forward a bit, this piece of fiction is a stand-alone piece, but there is an ongoing narrative that appears between the chapters. This ongoing story follows a scion from their day to day life up to the moment of their visitation (meeting with their divine parent, after which the character would move up to the rules in the next volume, Scion Hero).

The introduction explains the concept behind Scion, that the player characters are mortal children of gods (or others touched by divine power), who eventually gain an increasing amount of supernatural power, and become embroiled in more and more supernatural conflicts as their powers grow. Origin, specifically, details characters that have learned they have supernatural powers, but haven’t yet been visited by their divine parent or an agent of the supernatural power that has touched them.

In addition to a primer on roleplaying games (or storytelling games), the introduction mentions the themes and moods that should be present in a game of Scion. The primary pantheons that will be detailed are summarized, and inspirational material, ranging from novels, comics, and television, are also cited. There are even a few recommendations for non-fiction books on mythology. The introduction ends with a lexicon defining various terms used later in the book.

I appreciate a game that lists the themes and moods that they hope to include in the game up front, as well as some example media that the game has drawn from, because this helps to set expectations. It gives you an idea of why something might have been added, as well as giving you a measure to use for comparing if the mechanics are doing what you want them to do, and what they are intended to do.

Chapter One: The World

Chapter One details the setting of the game, and it takes up the next 32 pages of the book, so it isn’t a light treatment. In broad strokes, the chapter covers a wide range of topics.

Primordials are beings that very much are the embodiment of a given primal force. They don’t have much of a personality. They just kind of exist. Titans are one step down from Primordials. They don’t have much of a personality either, but they are self-aware, and what personality traits they have are dictated by an obsessive devotion to their portfolio. Gods have broader portfolios than Titans, and are more fully realized personalities. Part of this is because they have interacted with mortal worshipers, and the more mortals interacted with them, the more the mortals believed that the gods had to have some similar traits to mortals. The downside to this is that, if the gods spend too much time with mortals, those mortals start to define other elements of the gods. So the gods need human belief just enough to keep them as more fully developed personalities, but not enough that mortals can radically redefine them with their faith.

The World looks much like our own, but the pantheons included in the book never stopped being worshipped, they just lost a little bit of ground as more modern religions came into being. The supernatural isn’t so much a hidden world, as an obscured one. Everyone might know one person who has genuinely seen the supernatural at play, and every once in a while, a rampaging monster from folklore may make the news, but the vast majority of people haven’t seen anything literally magical their whole lives. They make due with cars and computers and email just like we do now.

There are supernatural “otherworlds,” known as Terra Incognito, and there are various ways to access these places, including the Axis Mundi, transition points between worlds where one can travel between the two by performing a specific set of trials.

Several cities in The World are outlined, with sections detailing the Terra Incognito and Axis Mundi that exist near that city, as well as what pantheons are most influential there, and where they might be connected to other cities in the world.

While most of the details about gods deal with the pantheons mentioned in the introduction, there are a few references to “new” divinities that have arisen in the intervening years from antiquity to the present. Columbia, the goddess of America is an example, and she is mentioned as having multiple potentially conflicting manifestations, as she is still settling on a core identity because of the beliefs of mortals and their relationship to her and their culture.

This section gives a whole lot of flavor on what The World should feel like, but doesn’t nail down a lot of absolutes. It establishes a few different conflicts (pantheon versus pantheon, god versus god, new god versus young god, gods versus titans), but because of the time and effort put into it, the conflict with titans feels like the default narrative well to draw from. The references to Columbia are interesting, as I remember her mainly from a supplement to the original edition of Scion, along with various national pantheons that arose specifically around World War II, with these gods being an optional expansion in the original material. Neither Columbia nor any other “younger” deity appears in the summary of gods at the end of the book, so her only reference is in this section.

The Storypath System

On its surface, the resolution mechanic for Scion resembles other Onyx Path games, in that it uses d10 dice pools, counts numbers of successes, and derives the dice pool from adding the number of dots a character has in two different sections of the character sheet together.

The difference in this case is that successes are used to purchase effects. Simple success is one thing you can purchase, but there may be other elements present on a given test that are worth purchasing as well. For example, there might be complications that are present, so that if you simply succeed, you have to deal with the complications if you don’t spend successes to mitigate the complications. There may be benefits that you may be able to gain, in addition to a simple success. Any given test might have enough extra elements going on to make deciding on what complications you want to buy down or what additional benefits you want to purchase an important decision.

Additionally, scale might be at play. Scale adds an enhancement for each level difference between the parties involved in a test, and enhancements are successes that are only added to your total if the initial roll is already a success. So a giant may have a hard time striking your human scion, but if they connect, they will have an easier time applying extra damage.

Whenever a character fails, they may gain momentum, a group resource that can be spent to activate special abilities, add dice to a die pool, or to add an interval to the round. Failing on something where you have a specialty grants you extra momentum. Failing and botching a roll (rolling a 1 on one of the dice in addition to gaining no successes) grants an additional momentum, and allows the Storyguide to add a new complication to the scene.

All of this sounds very simple, but the explanations for this get a little convoluted, to the point that I felt like I was missing something. For example, when explaining a test, the Storyguide is instructed to choose an arena for the test, from Physical, Mental, or Social. Since a roll is based on Skill plus Attribute, my assumption is that stating the arena limits the attribute to those under the given header (for example, Intellect, Cunning, and Resolve are under Mental). But the way the actual section is written, it almost sounds like the arena itself has a number of dots, rather than the attributes under them. Further confusing this is that the player chooses an approach, from Force, Finesse, or Resilience, which corresponds to which row a given attribute appears on the character sheet.

All of the test examples cut straight to the chase–the test is X, the character is doing Y to resolve it, so they add this skill to this attribute to get their pool. I can understand stating the Arena to narrow attributes, but the approach seems to be something that only really comes in to play when picking a favored approach for the number of available dots in character creation. It’s a matter of a fairly simple resolution mechanic that feels a little over explained and gives the impression of more complexity that is actually in evidence. That said, there is the option of attempting to spend successes to achieve unrelated goals on the same action (like entering a code with one hand and firing a gun with another), which requires you to roll with the least advantageous pool, and approach may be a useful tool for adjudicating just what the difference between those approaches may be.

The book also details three modes of play, Action-Adventure, Procedural, and Intrigue. This is important for two reasons–not only does it establish the expected cycles of play, but with the addition of stunts and complications, these frameworks give examples of how to use those rules in the context of these narrative frameworks. One particular aspect of the Intrigue section that I liked involved Bonds. Characters can create bonds with characters when they spend a scene creating or reinforcing a bond, which allows them to roll a pool of dice that creates a reserve of successes that can be used whenever the character’s bond is relevant to what is going on.

Creating a pool of successes to spend helps to address situations where a player wants to know how much they can do on their turn, and adding complications and enhancements are nice, built in ways to make tests more interesting by reinforcing them with narrative weight. I really like the idea of awarding the players a resource that they can utilize that builds from failed rolls, because it gives them more of a choice to lean on that resource when the resolution of a test is particularly pivotal. I just feel like some of the more straightforward details got lost in the explanations.

Chapter Three: Character Creation

The character creation chapter starts with five example characters, from multiple pantheons, as well as multiple real-world backgrounds. There are three male characters, and two female characters, and with that number of characters, I wish we had maybe seen a non-binary character in the mix as well. The character sheets don’t include a section for gender or pronouns, so their genders are all expressed by reading their backstories and finding the pronouns used there.

Characters pick a concept, an origin, role, and pantheon path, a favored approach, and a calling. The process of making these choices gives the character the number of dots they have available in skills and attributes, and will also let them know where they can pick their Knacks from (special abilities that are often subtle or overt supernatural powers). There is also a derived pool from Defense, and the number of boxes a character can check at each level of harm is determined by attributes.

There isn’t a bullet-pointed summary of character creation in the chapter, and I would have really appreciated that. In order to make sure I understood the instructions, I defaulted to checking the sample characters. In addition to the lack of summary, the character sheets can be a little confusing.

Characters have three Storypaths, which influence their starting skills, and can also be invoked, not unlike aspects in Fate. A Storypath can be invoked once per session without much trouble, but invoking it more than that may cause the character to generate ill-will or be forced to complete a long-term goal dedicated to repairing the good will of their contacts.

An element of advancement that I like is that XP is earned by setting, then achieving, short- or long-term goals. In addition to short- or long-term goals, the group as a whole can also set up group goals for them to work towards. While the rules mention that you can have up to five goals active at any given time, the character sheets only show short, long, and group goals as options.

The advancement section mentions Birthrights and Legend, neither of which are available to Origin characters, since they have not yet been visited by their divine parent. While these rules are mentioned briefly (but not defined), it is clear that this is a section of the rules that will be addressed in supplements.

Going back to my introduction, the ability to assign dots to skills and attributes feels less fiddly than in the previous incarnation of Scion, and it feels easier to make someone competent in their “mortal pursuits” without shorting them too much in survivability, I just wish there had been a better summary of character creation and a little clearer organization of the character sheet. I am glad they provided the sample characters, but I’m not sure sample characters should be doing the heavy lifting for clarification.

Chapter Four: Combat

The previous edition of Scion had a “shot clock” style initiative, where the action you choose to take would add a number to your score, moving you up on the clock, and meaning that taking some actions meant that some opponents might act more than once before you, if you took a particularly time-intensive action, and they took relatively quick actions.

In second edition, characters roll initiative, and then create slots for themselves and their allies, that can be used by anyone they are allied with. This method is very similar to the initiative system used by Fantasy Flight’s Genesys games.

When making combat rolls, characters spend their successes to buy stunts in combat. The simplest stunt is the inflict damage stunt, which costs a number of successes equal to a character’s armor. Inflicting a second instance of damage costs more successes to inflict a critical. Characters can spend defensive successes to dive out of range or to make themselves harder to hit.

Weapons and armor have special tags to define them. Weapons don’t specifically have damage ratings, but they may have tags that give the weapon enhancements or allow them to ignore cover. Armor tags can make the armor soft or hard. Soft armor increases the number of successes needed to successfully attack an opponent, while hard armor gives them more injury boxes to check.

In a trend I’m starting to see in more games, characters have the option to concede a fight, getting taken out without taking all of the various steps of injury in between, and keeping the character from potentially getting killed. This will take the character out of the scene, and may leave them in a bad position at the end of the scene, but it also adds momentum to the pool.

There are also rules to handle recovering injuries, first aid, disease, and poison. There aren’t rules for starting gear, just a note that most mundane gear only has three points worth of tags. This isn’t a change from 1st edition Scion, where only supernatural gear required a character to spend character options.

Chapter Five: Storyguiding

There is a lot of material in this chapter on researching myths, following the hero’s journey, alternating between multiple heroes in the spotlight, and how to reinforce the tone specifically for an Origin level game, where gods don’t show up directly, and there are more omens and signs than overt communication and miracles.

This section also contains what the text refers to as the Plot Engine, a series of steps to work through to generate appropriately themed campaign ideas.

At the very beginning of the chapter there is what has become a standard in facilitator advice, the tacit permission to ignore or modify rules, and in this section, there is also the advice to make sure that everyone at the table is comfortable and happy with the content of the game. While I appreciate this inclusion, it is a pretty light treatment on the broader topic of safety.

In various other chapters, the text spells out that the old gods don’t want to change their ideas as they move into the modern era, so they often hold antiquated and problematic opinions about acceptable actions, forms of worship, and the worth of human life, and that this can serve as a point of conflict for scions. Given that this is spelled out as a potential theme of campaigns, I think a better discussion of how much of this content to include, and how to do so would have been a good idea. In addition to the light touch on general safety, there isn’t really any discussion of active ongoing table safety, such as using safety tools during play.

Chapter Six: Antagonists

Antagonists in the game are assembled by giving them ranks in a primary pool, a secondary pool, a desperation pool, a health, defense, and initiative rating, then adding in qualities (modifiers to the above ratings), and flairs (special abilities that activate under certain circumstances).

In addition to outlining how antagonists are built, this section also details Tension, the resource that the Storyguide has which is similar to Momentum for players. Tension can be used to boost defenses, have an opponent take an extra turn, or to trigger certain types of flairs.

While I don’t want to spend too much time on the various pre-built antagonists that are included in the chapter, for some reason, I really appreciate that in The World, Men in Black aren’t aliens or government agents–they work for the Titans, probing for information on the gods and how to weaken the prisons where various Titans are held.

I have definitely become a fan of opponents in games that don’t require the same amount of rigor to create as player characters, and I like the a + b and maybe c approach to this creation. I’m also a fan of facilitator resources that can be spent, so I appreciate the Tension mechanics as well.

Appendix I, II, and III

The three appendices to the book deal with Supernatural Paths, Pantheons, and changes to the game between 1st edition Scion to 2nd edition Scion.

The Supernatural Paths are beings that might eventually end up ascending in power, but aren’t the literal children of the gods. The examples given include:

  • Saints (strong believers in a given pantheon or religion)
  • Kitsune (long lived shape changing foxes)
  • Satyr (the exact mythological creature you would assume)
  • Therianthrope (were creatures)
  • Wolf-Warrior (berserkers)
  • Cu Sith (self-aware fey canines)

There are also rules for modifying these paths to make them fit a variety of supernatural archetypes, such as using Wolf-Warriors to model Amazons.

The pantheons summarized in the book include the following:

  • Aesir
  • Manitou
  • Theoi
  • Netjer
  • Kami
  • Tuatha De Danan
  • Orisha
  • Deva
  • Shen
  • Teotl

There isn’t a lot of information given on each of them, but there is a list of skills, gods, callings, and purviews to facilitate character creation for scions of each of the pantheons.

The section on explaining the changes from 1st to 2nd edition is very brief and there are lots of fine details not addressed, but reading through it actually makes a few of the 2nd edition rules clearer even if you don’t have a frame of reference from 1st edition.

Heaven Sent The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

I enjoy that the setting isn’t so much a hidden world as it is an obscured world. I really enjoy the idea of being able to spend successes to achieve multiple goals when you take action. I am a big fan of spendable resources in game, and I really enjoy the flow of Momentum to the players. Making adversarial characters a modular building process is something I am on board with, and I am a huge fan of advancement being tied in part to story elements written by the player characters.

No Legend Quite Yet

There are places where it really feels like this book wants you to speed through the Origin level of play to get at the “real” starting point of Scion: Hero, even though I think there is a lot of value to getting comfortable with the starting level of play. There are some fairly simple concepts that are expressed in ways that seem more complicated than necessary, and the character sheet design implies that the rules may work in ways that they actually don’t. Given that this tier of play is closer to “mortal” level, I think more guidelines on starting equipment may have been useful (since characters aren’t receiving magical gifts from their parents yet). While I think all modern games need to discuss safety on some level, given some of the themes and topics brought up in this game, there really needed to be more space devoted to the topic.

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

Scion: Origin is an imaginative game that will feel very comfortable to people that want open-ended stories, but want a little bit more support than a rules-light game would give them. The rules are well suited to improvisational gaming within a defined space, and for many gamers, that is the creative sweet spot. I really like what I have seen of the Storypath system, I just feel that to grasp it, it made me work a little harder than was needed.

How often have your games revolved around the plans of the gods? Do you prefer to have gods included in your game as story elements, vague notions, or active, ever-present characters? What are your favorite games for achieving your preference? We would love to hear about it in the comments below! We’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Categories: Game Theory & Design


15 July 2019 - 5:00am

Obligatory recap: I’ve read about a system for creating urbancrawls (similar to hexcrawls but set in a city) from The Alexandrian. I had also been enjoying the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson and their strange magic setting. Enter this series of articles, where I use The Alexandrian’s urbancrawl system to design my own urbancrawl with a strange magic theme.


We left off last time with:

  • a list of districts
  • a definition of what a neighborhood was
  • a list of layers we were going to use
  • a rough map
  • a list and brief description for all neighborhoods.

Here’s a recap of our layer list from way back in part 1 and a few notes/additions along the way:

  • Gazetteer/Landmarks: Done! This was part of the last few articles. We got a Gazetteer layer entry for each neighborhood along with the description for each.
  • Gangs: This is getting broken down into two separate layers, a guards layer and a gangs layer. The gangs layer will be a little different than most others because I want “contested” neighborhoods but this wasn’t worth making multiple layers for since I want many small gangs all over the city. In this case I’ll note each neighborhood with a “primary” gang, but neighbor gangs may also be encountered there as they vie for territory.
  • Guards: While the guard forces of the city are technically independently contracted mercenaries (and thus sometimes come into conflict), there is no overlapping territory, so outright conflict is more likely to be result of some key event rather than regular clashes between say the city guard and the temple district guard.
  • Heist: This promises to be one of the most difficult layers to make. While some layers we can get away with being handwavy or templaty, this one looks to be 24 actually planned out 5 room dungeons or bigger.
  • Weirdness: This is another layer that can’t be handwaved or templated. Each one of these has to be unique.
  • Aboleth: This layer is all plots and minions of the aboleth overlord. They’re not on it. Like the example for the Alexandrian’s articles where Count Ormu is lord of the vampires, and once you collect enough vampire clues you can confront him, the aboleth is somewhere on the map but isn’t up for random encounter or hunting down until a certain critical mass of interruption of their minions.
  • Patrons/houses/politics: Like the gang layer, this layer is high contested/populated by multiple groups with a “primary” house or independent noble that is technically tasked with oversight of the neighborhood, but with the possibility of encountering representatives from other houses there as well.
  • Shops: Though I don’t know how much use it will get, I want to put a unique/special shop in each neighborhood for PCs to find.
  • Ruins/undercity: The event that destroyed most of the university district also destroyed buildings all over the city. In addition, there are numerous entrances to the sunken levels underneath the current city.
  • Bugs and fungus: I’ve got an idea for a bug themed “boss critter”. This means I want bugs to have their very own layer (otherwise it makes it harder to amass the clues needed to start hunting down the bosses. Before this concept, I had toyed with the idea of adding slimes to this list, but with bugs in their own layer, I’m not sure I see a value in a fugus/slime layer. They’re just too inactive and uninspiring for anyone to go hunting for them. Unless maybe a cult of Jubilex. Hmmmm…
  • Cultists: I have this idea that the area was populated by some reclusive people before the city was built. They tried to stop further building before it got too big but were sent packing. Their descendants have infiltrated the city and work to bring it down or at least return it to their possession.

Some additional thoughts I’ve been kicking around:

Levels: Since this is an “open world” game, such that it is, I’m a little worried about PCs wandering into locations/encounters etc… that are far more than they can handle. I want it to be possible, but not something that happens regularly. To deal with this, the DC to find points of interest will scale with the challenge it presents. This will include an additional bump if what they’re looking for is kill on sight (which doesn’t include that many items anyway).

Roster: While some layers will be carefully keyed with every item on them premade, others don’t need to be so meticulously planned. With a fw planned points of interest, the rest of the layer can be handled by a roster of NPCs (some generic some specific) and maybe some on the fly 5 room dungeons. Thus most layers will need at least one roster, and some several.

Random encounters: I want random encounters in the city. Most, if not all of the encounters here can be pulled from the rosters of the various layers with just some differences in the encounter list for each neighborhood based on which layers are active and which are common and uncommon there.

Contents: I want to be sure to include a variety of types of items on the layers list. It would be boring if say, everything on the bugs layer was just bugs to fight. Here are the basic categories I want to be sure to include:

  • NPCS: Using the very old school definition here which encompasses both (demi)human and Monsters, etc… Some of these will be best dealt with with diplomacy, others by skill checks, others by combat, but I’m not going to shoehorn which is which. Let the players figure it out.
  • Tick/trap/puzzle: Probably not as common as in a dungeon setting, but it wouldn’t do to lease these out.
  • Point of interest: Just some fun/notable scenery
  • Combination: These come in three sizes, a single room/location, a small location (like a 5 room setup), and a large location (which will probably have to be pre-planned)

So now I know what I’m making, and how I’m making it. It’s time to stop procrastinating and eat this elephant. So next time I’ll have a layer roughed out and we’ll go from there. Wish me luck!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Homebrew setting tips with Dustin

12 July 2019 - 4:49am

Homebrew setting creation is an important facet of the RPG experience. For many of us, world creation is what got us interested in RPGs in the first place. But whether you’re designing a setting for the first time or the hundredth time, there are some simple tips that can make the experience more productive and enjoyable.

Getting Started

The first step is don’t be intimidated. Playing published RPGs can give you the impression that hundreds of genius ideas must be put to paper before the game even starts. This is not the case. Many RPG settings are developed organically through play and experimentation, and yours should be too. So focus on having fun, don’t be over-worried about originality, and let the creative process take its course. While there is preliminary work to do before playing, it’s probably not as much as you think.

Think of the Aesthetics

A great place to start is thinking in big, broad terms. Be inspired by your favorite media, and look for themes and ideas that get your creative energy flowing. Love Ghost In The Shell? Definitely lift some cyberpunk aesthetic. Get pumped about Avatar: The Last Airbender? Some elemental magic and spiritual themes could be good. Genre mash your heart out, and don’t shy away from cliches. Instead, embrace a cliche and put a spin on it. So if your cyberpunk world is full of neon tubes, corrupt corporations, and elemental masters, maybe the strongest elemental masters are the most powerful CEOs! And the more powerful your magic, the more neon tube cybernetics you have to contain all your power flowing through your veins. Maybe elemental magic isn’t just for fighting; it powers all sorts of technology and daily life, and has become so important, it’s used as currency.

Think of the Core Conflict

Every great piece of media, while having a rich world, has a core conflict to explore. This makes the world feel alive, like it’s in motion and taking the players along for a ride. So what’s the big problem in your setting? Connect it to the aesthetics to make things feel cohesive. Maybe in this corrupt magical CEO world, a huge economic crisis has happened and companies are calling in all their debts. They’re forcibly reclaiming magic from the lower castes, and sometimes over pumping so much power out of people, it kills them. A classic haves and havenots story tailored to your world design. But don’t forget to connect this conflict to the players! In order to make it seem real, this problem needs to affect the players’ lives, their allies’ lives, and day to day struggles. Perhaps the players are all debtors trying to escape possibly lethal debt collection, and trying to train, focus, and gather enough elemental magic to pay off the creditors. Or maybe the players are actually a paid team of debt collectors, and have to journey to dangerous places and reclaim what “belongs” to the corporation, dealing with the moral struggles that entails.

Think of Factions

This is my favorite part of setting creation. The world really starts to feel fleshed out when you think about the social factors at play. The important thing to remember when creating factions is that dynamics matter much more than detail. It’s not so important to think about what a faction wears or eats or what language they speak, unless that somehow directly relates to the conflict and how that faction interacts with others. We already have the idea of two groups: haves and havenots. And we know one is oppressing the other. So what are some more interesting dynamic ideas to come out of this? Perhaps the havenots use extensive smuggler networks to move magic around and keep it hidden from the collectors. Maybe the havenots aren’t as educated or well trained, making it hard for them to produce useable elemental magic on their own. Or better yet, maybe the magically gifted among the havenots are forcibly recruited into wealthy society and removed from the people, keeping the economic disparity strong. This means gifted people hide their talents to try and support their communities from the sidelines.

Embrace the Unknown

You’re not going to answer every question about your setting while you brainstorm it. A lot of it is going to work itself out naturally as you play. What does it look like when the wealthy extract a magically gifted person from their neighborhood? Maybe you can brainstorm a whole session around it, and play it out to fill in the details. Or better yet, maybe a player has that sort of event in their backstory, and they can contribute their own ideas on how and when that happens. Don’t be afraid to let the players contribute! In fact, you can invite the players to contribute to this whole process, because great ideas can come from many minds when everyone respects and builds on each other’s contributions. My game Heroic Dark makes use of this fact, and makes setting creation into a structured, collaborative process for everyone at the table. The players become invested in the game world, because their ideas are a piece of it, and it makes the dangerous adventures in that world so much more compelling. Everyone is more willing to take risks, face challenges, and do heroic things because they want to see how their and others’ ideas play out in the high intensity story everyone is crafting together.

So after setting creation, it’s important to remember that worlds evolve. As you play the game, the players experience a mix of wins, losses, narrow survival, and tragic deaths. But as the consequences play out, you might find a setting detail is starting to feel vestigial or incongruent based on what has happened. Let the gameworld change! In our sample setting idea, if magic extractions always went unchallenged before, but now the havenots have been pushed to the edge, maybe they don’t take things lying down and extractions become dangerous and violent. This change could lead to another; as the wealthy see their authority challenged, they invent new, more brutal methods of extraction that are harder to resist.


Setting creation can be a much more fluid, relaxed, and flexible exercise than you may be used to. Following a stripped down process like this produces surprising results, because when you don’t weigh yourself down with figuring out every little detail and trying to be a genius, your creative juices can really flow. Between aesthetics, conflict, and faction dynamics, you should have a rich and living world ready for a fantastic adventure. By diving in before everything is nailed down, you let the details fill out organically and naturally, instead of arbitrarily making decisions just to put words on a page. But the most important thing to remember is to have fun. This is ultimately a game, not a writing competition, so the best measure of the success of your setting is having a good time.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Check Out and Vote In The 2019 ENnies!

11 July 2019 - 10:19am

Head Gnome John Arcadian here with some GS news! The 2019 ENnies voting is live and ready for your eager vote. We’ve got some personal selections and GS affiliated projects we want to encourage you to vote for.

Wait, where’s Gnome Stew? Aren’t you usually in the running?

Yes, Gnome Stew has submitted to the ENnies and won silver or gold for MANY years. We decided not to submit for consideration this year. This year the ENnies changed a few things and merged a few categories. There is no longer a Blog specific category. We could have submitted for Best Online Content, but we’ve had more than a few years to build up an audience and a name. This, alongside the great content and great voices we try to give a platform to, has helped us do very well in the ENnies. Every year  we always consider whether we should step into the field or not since we’ve had a few wins under our belt. With the removal of a blog specific category, we decided this was the year we were going to leave it to others and not nominate ourselves. That being said, we’ve got a few Gnome Affiliated projects and some very good projects out there that we would encourage you to look at. Remember, the ENnies are one person one vote and has a tiered voting system so mark your favorite with 1, second favorite with 2, etc.

Gnome Affiliated Projects

Podcasts – There are two great podcasts with Gnomes on them.

  • She’s A Super Geek with Senda is a podcast featuring female GMs and something you should definitely vote for.
  • Asians Represent! has newer gnome Daniel Kwan and is also something you should vote for.
Other Things We’d Encourage You To Look at
  • Best Online Content – Molten Sulfur Blog by Tristan Zimmerman is a great RPG blog with a focus on bringing in historical emphasis to your games.
  • Best Monster/Adversary – While there is a part of us that loathes suggesting something attached to Kobolds, the Creature Codex is a great supplement for 5e games.
  • Best Layout and Design – Bluebeard’s Bride: Book of Rooms has a fantastic layout and is IGDN affiliated, and many gnomes are IGDN members.
  • Best Electronic Book – Uncaged Volume 1 is a phenomenal resource in every way and well deserving of a vote.
    Best Free Game – Die Laughing, Sliced up is another IGDN product and a very funny one that is fun to play.
  • Best Game – There are many incredible contenders in Best Game. Companions’ Tale and Dialect are two I’ve (John) had wonderful experiences with and are both worthy of your vote.

There are a ton of great entries in the ENnies this year and we applaud the ENnies for the changes they have made to make the event and competition better. Go vote in the ENnies and give your support to some incredible gaming.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #70 – Meet an Old Gnome: John Arcadian

11 July 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang for the first installment of our new series where we give the “Meet a New Gnome” treatment to some of our old gnomes. We start things off with Co-head Gnome John Arcadian. Catch John’s various origin stories and plans for the future of Gnome Stew. Will both these head gnomes grant each other immunity from the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #70 – Meet an Old Gnome: John Arcadian

Follow John at @johnarcadian on Twitter, check out his work at or find him wherever fine John Arcadians are bartered or sold.

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.

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 Bone, Stone, and Obsidian!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Indie Game Shelf: Eden

10 July 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 and new for you to enjoy!


Eden by Marc Hobbs and Less Than Three Games is a no-prep, GMless story game designed for 3-5 players to explore the development of new human beings as influenced by their talking animal companions. It is a roleplaying game in the sense that each player creates a single character and is responsible for narrative control of that character throughout the game, but it is a story game in the sense that the mechanics focus on the structure, procedure, and outcome of a narrative. The game does not use dice, cards, or any randomizers, instead depending on narration and consensus to resolve conflicts.

The Story

The stories explored by Eden describe the emergence of the first generation of humans, who have arisen from the Garden, a setting collaboratively constructed at the beginning of play. All that is known prior to the game’s story is that the Garden is a land contained by a Wall and a Gate and is populated by these new humans and some intelligent, talking animals. Each player’s primary character is one of these humans, though as the narrative focus changes throughout the game, players may also roleplay talking animal characters or secondary human characters that are not the focus of the overall story.

Two primary themes that drive the game’s fiction are personal development and social dynamics. Personal development primarily motivates the main human characters. They begin play understanding and interacting with the world the way their favorite animals do. Over the course of play, the humans learn through interacting with more animals and other humans how they can come to understand the world for themselves and find their own place in it and a sense of their own selves. Social dynamics influence the world around these humans and generally take the form of how various animals regard the humans and their activities. Of particular interest is that the animals don’t have a moral sense; they operate on instinct. Though intelligent, they do not act like animal-shaped humans would act. Instead, they act as animals would act; they are just given the tools to communicate as humans would.

The characters’ relationships with the world may figure into individual tales, but the game as a whole is far less about the Garden than it is about the people who live there: how they act, what they learn, and how they change. Share1Tweet1Reddit1EmailAs a “no-prep” game, Eden encourages the “play to find out” ethos of story creation and does not depend on predetermined scenarios or any particular narrative goal. How (and when) the story ends is up to the players, and the game does not call for any particular advancement or resolution for characters. The setting is explicitly changed as the story progresses, but the narrative is decidedly focused on the main characters and not on the world around them. The characters’ relationships with the world may figure into individual tales, but the game as a whole is far less about the Garden than it is about the people who live there: how they act, what they learn, and how they change.

Because the bulk of the game mechanics relate to narrative procedure and because there are so few prescribed characteristics of the setting, Eden is an easy game to reskin for other stories. The core book itself contains some exciting variations on setting and play. For example, “The Playground” involves children learning how to act, and instead of talking animals, they might be guided by their toys or imaginary friends. Another variation is “Starship Eden,” which could follow newly-awakened clones being instructed by computerized artificial intelligence systems. The core components of any Eden story remain a group of protagonists looking to develop codes of belief, some established (if narrow) behaviors to draw from for inspiration, and an insulated social environment for them all to play around in. There are many stories that can be derived from that set of ingredients and themes, and all could be examined in a game of Eden.

The Game

The rules of Eden outline a structured procedure to generate stories. Much attention is paid to setting up both the overall game setting and individual scenes, but once the narrative portion of the game takes over, there are few to no mechanics that guide the story. Gameplay is divided into three main stages. The game begins with two setup phases and then proceeds to a roleplaying phase that is broken up into repeatable rounds of play.

The first setup phase concerns the setting of the story, the Garden. The Garden is assembled from different animals, lands, and other features, all determined by the players. The choices are recorded on a collaboratively drawn map, and this map will later be updated throughout gameplay as the world (and the characters in it) are changed by the fiction.

The second setup phase is dedicated to the humans in the Garden, the main characters controlled by the players as well as secondary characters that are not exclusively controlled by any specific player but who can appear in main characters’ stories and be roleplayed by any available player. This human setup stage is what would be thought of as character creation in a more traditional RPG structure, and it is a this point that characters gain a favorite animal, a Skill learned from that animal, and a Lesson imparted by learning that Skill. Skills are not mechanically significant in the sense that might be expected in other games; they are more useful as narrative prompts. Lessons form the record of the character’s development as a person; they make up what might be thought of as a moral code or some other means by which the human makes decisions or determines values.

The roleplaying stage of the game is divided into “scenes.” Each scene is framed according to a specific procedure, but once the scene framing is complete and the narrative play begins, gameplay switches to a more freeform process and ends only when the players decide it is time to end. Each player controls one scene in a “round.” The game consists of at least three rounds, but again, it is up to the players how many rounds that particular session will consist of.

Throughout play, there are two major ways that game progress is recorded. Focusing on personal development of the main characters, players can add or change (or remove!) Lessons on their character sheet, in this way showing how their main human character is growing and changing as they encounter various situations, challenges, and people. In addition, changes to the world at large are recorded on the shared map of the Garden. These changes are mostly driven by what has happened in each scene, but also they are not required to be; in some cases, changes to the Garden may take place that are unrelated to what it happening in scenes.

Finally, once the final round has ended, each player contributes an Epilogue, either about their character or about how the world was affected by their character, depending on what has happened to the character during the story.

The Shelf

Eden is available for purchase in print and PDF from Less Than Three Games and Indie Press Revolution. As previously established in this series, I do love games involving collaborative map-building. Eden specifically calls out The Quiet Year (Avery Alder/Buried without Ceremony), which I highly recommend. Some of my other favorite map-building games include Companions’ Tale (Laura Simpson/Sweet Potato Press) and The Skeletons (Jason Morningstar/Bully Pulpit Games). For a game with a similar theme of humans and their animal companions, I heartily recommend Familiars of Terra (Liz Chaipraditkul/Angry Hamster Publishing).

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

3 Medieval Tortures And The Exercises You Can Do To Experience Them

8 July 2019 - 5:00am

The oubliette, it turns out, really tightens your core. Image Courtesy of

I am currently writing this post with my nose, as my arms are hanging uselessly from my sides like two of those sticky hands from grocery store vending machines; please forgive any typos. You see, being in the midst of what looks suspiciously like a full-fledged midlife crisis, I recently signed up for a personal trainer. My reasoning was, that while expensive, a personal trainer is still cheaper than a new Mustang and less destructive than an affair. Most of the time I think I made the right decision. Most of the time.

Growing buff enough to turn heads (or to do even a single push-up without my life flashing before my eyes) sounds great on paper, but the grim reality is that in doing this, I have opened myself up to a whole new world of pain. And so, being the kind of nerd I am, while gasping for breath on a sweat-slicked gym mat and trying to find my happy place, I found myself wondering: “what can I do to make this completely unrelated thing all about RPGs in ways that will alienate absolutely everyone at my gym?” And that, dear readers, is where this post came from.

Content warning: this article will contain lavish descriptions of the horrors that sadistic, merciless* human beings are willing to visit upon the bodies of other people, all while believing it is for the victim’s own good. It will also contain descriptions of torture (also jokes whose construction is so old, they might themselves predate the Spanish Inquisition**).

In seriousness, actual torture is terrible, and in some cases, still going on today. While I make a lot of jokes about the ways that medieval folks performed atrocities on each other, many of the things still happening today all over the world are just as traumatizing and terrible, just with different actors and different tools. If you’re able, consider a donation to Amnesty International to help them fight it.

As gamers and GMs, we may occasionally find ourselves trying to put ourselves more fully in the mindset of those experiencing the horrors of torture. It turns out that the Tower of London doesn’t offer hands-on demonstrations anymore, no matter how loudly you shout heresies, and your tour guide gets really uncomfortable when you try. It turns out that the Tower of London doesn’t offer hands-on demonstrations anymore, no matter how loudly you shout heresies, and your tour guide gets really uncomfortable when you try. Share22Tweet1Reddit1Email So our best option is also among the most intimidating for many of us: going to the gym. Even on the surface, the similarities between exercise and torture are obvious: they both use elaborately-engineered devices designed to extract suffering from the bodies of their subjects, frequently under the watchful gaze of a theoretically blameless authority. Sure, instead of being without grave sin, authorities in the modern era have never had more than 15% body fat, and Reddit progress pictures have replaced the auto-da-fe as the preferred method of public penance and humiliation, but beyond that and the fact that relatively few people actually die at gyms (no matter how much they want to), not a lot has changed.

Should you find yourself wanting to more fully put yourself in the place of a PC being put to what they euphemistically used to call “the Question,” or if you just need to think of something else while you actually do one of these exercises, I offer to you the following four examples of Medieval European tortures and the common exercises they most resemble. Again, some of these descriptions are pretty graphic, so if you’re bothered by reading that kind of thing, stop reading now and click here. You’ll be happier for it.

Torture 1: The Oubliette/Planks

This place would still rent for $2,000 a month plus utilities in some DC neighborhoods.

The Torture:

An oubliette, is by its purest definition, just a dungeon cell with an opening only at the top. However, some designs of the oubliette (and most of the famous ones) are cells too small for the victim to sit or lie down in. In some cases, they cannot even fully stand up. In such a painful predicament, a victim experiences no rest and must remain standing (or crouching awkwardly) until they are finally released. There is no rest or comfort in an oubliette, only the snail’s pace march of time until your captor or death releases you.

Image courtesy of

The Exercise:

If you really need to work on your core, and you don’t care about how miserable doing so makes you, planks are pretty great. You “rest” on your forearms and tiptoes (or do jazz hands like the showoff in the illustration to the right here) while keeping the rest of your body ramrod-straight. That’s it. You don’t move, so it doesn’t feel like exercise. But you also can’t be comfortable, or anything like comfortable. The first five minutes or so, it’s fine. It’s just a weird position. Then you look at the clock and realize it hasn’t been five minutes. It’s been exactly two-and-a-half seconds. Another hour passes, and you look again. Seven seconds. If you’re lucky, you can make it to a minute or two absolute time. In relative time, you have experienced several small eternities. Theoretically, you could have solved the most intractable problems of human nature in that time. Of course, you haven’t actually solved anything because a) that’s not really how problems get solved, and b) well over 100% of your available brain capacity has been devoted to screaming at you how horrible this experience is. There is no rest or comfort in a plank, only the snail’s pace march of time until your trainer or death releases you.

Torture 2: The Wheel/Combo Exercise Machine

No, I will not put up an illustration of what any of these options look like. Image courtesy of

The Torture:

We often hear (or read) power-hungry rulers of some variety requesting that a victim be “broken on the wheel.” What this actually meant, it turns out, depended heavily on the ruler in question and their available equipment. The actual torture could be as simple as just strapping someone to what looked like a wagon wheel and hitting them with all the usual methods. Like moving to a new area and getting your driver’s license renewed, it’s the same painful experience—just different seating. More sadistic torturers would have two wheels, arranged like cogs in a clock, and run a victim through the intersection, or over fire or spikes, or just leave them exposed to the elements. Finally, in some cases, the occupant of the wheel might have their limbs broken, and then braided through the spokes of the wheel like Satan’s own friendship bracelet. What I’m saying is that “the wheel” is kind of like another great British innovation, “puddings” in that they both can mean lots of completely unrelated things that make no sense whatsoever.

The Exercise:

Home gym machines are great. They can theoretically do anything (even if what they mostly do is gather dust in a garage until being passed off on Craigslist to the next sucker in the world’s slowest game of Hot Potato). You can do awkward bench presses, or awkward lat pull-downs, or awkward leg presses, or whatever that exercise is called where you try but fail to assemble something with instructions that look like they’ve been run through a version of Google Translate that has somehow gotten very, very drunk. No matter what you choose to do, you will look ridiculous, and since you’re doing it at home, you’re guaranteed to call it the wrong thing. Also, you’ll almost certainly smash body parts and end up in excruciating pain. Just like on the wheel!

Torture 3: The Brazen Bull/Literally Anything In July

The best part is how over it the bull looks in this.

The Torture:

In ancient Sicily, the tyrant Phalaris (in this case, “tyrant” was an official title, as well as apt descriptor), found himself terribly entertained with a life-sized, bull made of brass. The inside of the bull was hollow, with a door on the side that a human could be forced into. Beneath, a fire could be stoked, such that the victim was slowly roasted alive inside. Inside the head of the bull was a complex of pipes that reportedly transformed the agonized screaming of the victim into the snorts and bellows of an enraged bull. In a suspiciously-pat piece of turnaround justice, reportedly both Phalaris and its inventor, Perillos, were eventually placed in the bull in order to suffer through it. Thankfully, as with many spectacularly gruesome exercises in human suffering (like the Viking “blood eagle“), there is some controversy over whether this “Brazen Bull” ever actually existed, or was just a political fable.

The Exercise: 

The most obvious analog to the Brazen Bull presents itself to anyone who has ever had to get into their car to go to the gym (or anywhere, really), in most of the U.S. in July. Every surface burns like red-hot brass, and even attempting to turn on the air conditioning just feels like you’ve opened a gateway directly into the center of the sun and had it blast into your face. Every surface burns like red-hot brass, and even attempting to turn on the air conditioning just feels like you’ve opened a gateway directly into the center of the sun and had it blast into your face. Share22Tweet1Reddit1Email If you have leather seats, enraged/pained bellowing is virtually guaranteed. Of course, that’s not actually associated with exercise or gyms (unless you count trying to somehow position yourself so that you’re hovering several inches in the air as some sort of isometric workout). Realistically though, if you’re doing any kind of workout in a gym in July, you are already intimately familiar with the feeling of being roasted alive, since there is no gym in the world that is capable of maintaining adequate climate control for both normal people doing normal things and the grunting, pained masses of people trying to force their bodies into some kind of shape.


All joking aside, exercise is really good for you (and, again, torture is really bad). Not everyone has the ability or motivation to exercise in the same way, and that’s fine. But subject to your own limitations, it’s almost never a bad idea to get a little bit of movement in. The benefits to physical and mental health are clear, and while we all look ridiculous working out, let’s be honest with ourselves—if looking a little silly bothered us all that much, we’d probably have picked a hobby other than consulting tables and screaming at strangers about how well our imaginary elves are doing at fighting imaginary goblins. I personally find that framing real things in imaginary ways helps motivate me to persist through difficult tasks, and I sincerely hope that this gives your imagination just the little push it takes to join me. So with all that in mind, what exercises do you do? Do you find yourself imagining gaming-related stuff while you do so? If so, tell us in the comments.

For real. I’m genuinely curious how big of a weirdo I am with this.

*I am of course mostly kidding. My trainer is amazing and I’m making a ton of progress. Haha. Please don’t make me do any more mountain climbers. **Completely unrelated: I learned while “researching” this article that the Inquisition technically continued until 1808. So, uh. Thank you, Napoleon?
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Character Birthdays and Advanced Aging

5 July 2019 - 5:00am

Tomorrow is my birthday. I’ll be obtaining my 46th level as a human being. I also received my very first RPG product (the Mentzer D&D red box set) a week or so after my 10th birthday. This means that this month, I’ll be bumping up to a level 36 RPG slinger with the archetype of Game Master.

This got me to thinking about aging in characters since I’m clearly getting older while on this world (which is better than the alternative, right?)

There are a scant few games that I’ve come across that allow a character to start out older. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Most folks don’t think much about their character’s starting age unless they have a character archetype in mind (wizened old mage, high muckity-muck of some religion, battle-scarred veteran of three war campaigns, etc.). To be honest, most games assume that the characters are just starting out in life, so they’re somewhere in their human-equivalent of “late teens” when session zero concludes.

Some games allow for more freedom of choice in starting age with proper mechanics to support the aging of a character. Even the games that I’ve encountered that support the “starting with an older character” concept only scantly touch upon the aging process. It usually comes in the form of boosted mental capabilities and lowered physical prowess. Pretty simple. Pretty accurate for most folks. It works, but just scratches the surface.

There are a scant few games that I’ve come across that allow a character to start out older and fully represent the hardships, successes, failures, and toils that go into achieving those “higher levels” as a person. Traveller is one of the classic examples (but who really likes to die during character creation?). Cyberpunk 2020 does a decent job of this, but the upper limit of the starting age is somewhere in the early twenties. Your classic point-buy systems (GURPS and Hero) have a good grasp on the older characters at the start of the adventure. With the right aspects, so does Fate Core.

However, I’m still in search of a game (please leave a comment on this post if you know of one!) that gives small, incremental boosts to skills/abilities/powers as you age up, but also combines it with random events that can happen to the character as they make their life choices. These life events can be beneficial or detrimental to the character, and can provide a more in-depth background story for the character.

Life Choices

 Life choices presented to the player for their character would be wide and varied. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Each life choice ages the character a certain number of years, but they’re not all equal. An “entry level soldier” may only age a year as they learn the basics of how to be a soldier and go off on their first deployment. Meanwhile, an apprentice wizard would age 5 (or so) years as they master the basics of mystical powers. During these time periods, the soldier would learn quite a few different skills, but all at small increments. The apprentice wizard would probably be the opposite because of their focused learning. The wizard would only learn a handful of skills, but the increments would be larger for the wizard because of the focus (and time) spent on those skills.

In my mind, the life choices presented to the player for their character would be wide and varied. It would also allow a progression tree to be followed, so the apprentice wizard could eventually qualify to be a wizard, then an archmage, then a battle mage, and so on. Someone could even “change careers” in a way where they start out as a soldier, become a veteran, and then drop into apprentice wizard because of a life event.

Life Events

Life events are great for collaborative world building between the GM and the players. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

During the course of the life event, random things would happen to the character. This is life. It likes to throw random things in our paths to see what we do with them. Each life choice made by the player for their character would result in rolling on a few tables to see what happens to them. It could be romance, friendship, enmity, finding a mentor, imprisonment (which could last for a certain number of additional years to age the character more), a financial windfall, and so on. There are lots of options here, and each one should be played out a bit between the GM and player to determine the exact facts of the results and people involved in the life event that occurs to the character.

These life events are great for collaborative world building between the GM and the players. It can be done in a manner which gives the players come control of the names, status, professions, etc. of the NPCs in the setting as well as some narrative control over the setting itself. This will invest the players more deeply into their characters and the world as a whole.


I recommend setting an age cap on the characters during session zero. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

Of course, the more life choices someone makes, the more potent their skills are going to be. For game balance, there does need to be some sort of artificial limit put in place by the GM to ensure the characters are as balanced as possible. I’m not talking the “perfectly equal in power” type of balance, but we don’t want a party of Rifts characters where someone has a rusted knife and another character in the same party has high-powered psychic abilities and yet another character has the Most Deadly Power Armor In The Universe.

If older characters are more potent in the game system because of additional skill levels, then I recommend setting an age cap on the characters during session zero. If someone is dead set on playing the wet-behind-the-ears character that takes just a few life choices, then maybe balance some things out by giving them a boost elsewhere in the game, such as a few contacts, some extra income, or something similar.


Of course, if someone really pushes their luck with life choices and events, they may (intentionally or otherwise) find themselves playing the older character with some physical infirmities and about to go do battle against the invading horde of undead monstrosities. That’s where some good role playing opportunities come into play for everyone. While the young whipper-snappers are preparing for a rousing charge into the midst of the leading edge of the invasion, the limping gray-beard can stand back and use his razor-sharp wits to observe the goings on of the enemy and give guidance before the battle ensues. Quite honestly, the larger scope of age ranges in a party allows for a more broad approach at role playing than if everyone is freshly minted off the RPG PC assembly line.

Happy Birthday!

 There are loads of questions and approaches that can be used around birthdays. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

To bring the concepts full circle, when are birthdays celebrated? Is it an annual thing (usually springtime) where “everyone gets older by a year” or are the “you’re older now” celebrations done individually? What if being the center of attention just because it’s the character’s birthday drives them nuts or elicits a rage-filled response? What if a PC decides that their birthday is an official day of rest for them and they refuse to work, march forward, or go adventuring on that day?

There are loads of questions and approaches that can be used around birthdays. Some are cultural. Many are personal. I know that this is just one day out of the hundreds that most calendar years have, but making a day special for a PC can really help create some fun adventures… especially if that special day gets interrupted by a dark nemesis.


As I asked for above, if you know of a game (outside the ones I’ve mentioned) that handles something similar to my concepts of life choices and life events, please let me know. I’d love to snag it and explore it. Also, if you have any special traditions (be it cultural, familial, or personal) that have to do with birthdays, and you’re willing to share them, please drop a line.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Craving More Narrative Drama in Your D&D Game?

3 July 2019 - 5:00am

I LOVE drama. Well, only when it comes to my tabletop RPGs.

So what happens when your fellow players (and GM) enjoy having narrative drama at the table, but might not be practiced at introducing it? Here are a couple of my favourite tools from D&D and beyond!

1) DRAMATIC POLES. Introduced in Hillfolk (the first DramaSystem game), dramatic poles are an integral part of character creation that represent internal oppositional forces – an inner struggle between two impulses, aspirations, or identities – that result in characters with built-in dramatic depth. The differences between these poles might be very obvious; maybe in a contradictory way or in one that results in an ambiguous duality. An example can be found in screenwriting, where there is often a dichotomy between the concepts of identity and essence. Identity refers to who our characters are at the beginning of the story, a false self-designed to protect them from aspects of the world they fear. Essence, on the other hand, represents who our characters need to become in order to achieve their goal. Perhaps one of these poles is a false self your character presents to those around them? Maybe the other is a truth they want to live? What lies between them is the journey of facing their fears.

For instance, my gnome monk Fizz has these poles: 1) his commitment to his martial arts tradition and 2) his curious nature and desire to “improve” his art with pieces from other cultures. He wants to honour those who trained him and honour the complete nature of their martial art. However, his experiences outside the walls of his temple have taught him about the world beyond – one he was not prepared to face.

I personally prefer the use of dramatic poles as a replacement for alignment in games like D&D because they provide far more depth from which players can inform their role play. Alignment can come off as singularly focused on particular characterizations. At the surface, they don’t add depth.

Examples of dramatic poles can be found on design Robin D. Laws’ blog! Check them out at

2) HERO & PLOT POINTS. Contrasting my use of dramatic poles in D&D are Hero and Plot Points. These optional, variant rules in the 5th edition D&D Dungeon Masters Guide (pages 264 and 269 respectively), provide players with structured, mechanical means for dynamic and dramatic role playing. Hero Points are a great tool for role playing as characters more akin to super heroes than common adventurers. Starting at 1st level, each character has a pool of 5 Hero Points that do not replenish (to a total of 5 + 1/2 character level) until they level up. Hero Points can be spent to allow for a d6 to be added to any roll or turn a death save into a success. This gives players an incentive to take heroic risks!

Plot Points are a tool that allows players to introduce plot complications into the game. At the start of a session, each player gets a single Plot Point. These can be spent to introduce a narrative point that the group must accept as truth. An example could be that a monster currently in play is actually a long lost ally polymorphed into a bestial form. However, when a Plot Point is spent, the player to the right of the one who spent the point must introduce a complication to the scene. For instance, that monster who’s actually an ally in disguise? Well, now they don’t remember you and are slowly being consumed by their new monstrous nature. Plot Points can even be used to “tag in” as GM!

Based on the needs and desires of your group, dramatic poles, hero points, and plot points all present powerful tools that will help draw that drama out of character creation and narrative interaction. Give them a try, and let us know what you think!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Sticky Situations (Harnessing Office Supplies For Better Gaming)

1 July 2019 - 4:00am

Over the last few years, whenever I watch a movie at home, it is not uncommon for me to do so with a notebook next to me. It started, where most things did for me, with Star Wars.

Back when I was running multiple FFG Star Wars campaigns, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t losing touch with what actually made Star Wars unique. Sometimes it can be easy to remember the shape of something while losing the spirit of the thing.

I started at the beginning, and whenever a certain trope jumped out at me, I would write it down. Then, when that trope came up again, I would mark it down. After a while, I came up with a “map” of how often certain tropes came up in the Star Wars movies, along with a few keywords that modified how that same trope was used later in the series.

For example, racing might come up multiple times, but it’s not always a literal race that is taking place, just racing terminology or references to races. Its a recurring theme in some form, but not always expressed the same way.

Expanding The Practice

While I started doing this for Star Wars, I decided that any game I was running that had a lot of strongly recurring tropes could benefit from this approach. So later on, when I was running Monster of the Week, the notebook would come out when I was watching Hellboy, Grimm, or Supernatural. When I was running 7th Sea, I watched Black Sails and the BBC Musketeers series with the notebook at hand.

While I think I retain a good amount of genre knowledge when I run a game, taking these notes helped me to remember that I would have a “surface level” of comfortable tropes that came to mind, but other tropes came up nearly as often, and I didn’t use them nearly as much. Taking the notes deepened the degree to which I was getting immersed in the storytelling conventions of the media I was watching.

The next step beyond taking notes was to come up with short phrases that summarized some of the recurring themes and elements that I had in my notebooks. This might be something like “there is a race going on somewhere,” or “what kind of races do they have in this part of the galaxy.”

After coming up with these phrases, I would transfer these notes to sticky notes. Why would I do that? Well, let’s look at how I’ve been plotting my games.

How I Structure My Games

Instead of having a detailed outline or formalized adventure structure, I’ve been writing up many of my games as a series of potential scenes, summarized on notecards. This will be just a few notes, explaining how the PCs might get into this scene, how it might play out, and what the possible “exits” from the scene are.

For example, “if they get arrested” might be the introduction. “If they bribe the police,” and “if they fight their way out” might be exits. These aren’t meant to be the only way to exit the scene, just some ideas. The main purpose of the introduction and exits are to form connections between the scenes that don’t need to be linear.

Now, back to those sticky notes. While my index card scenes are very much rooted in the specifics of the campaign, I will often add the sticky notes to some of those cards as reminders to add something extra to the scene, but only if it has room for it. In the above example, the PCs might get arrested by Corporate Sector Authority police. The PCs have already been arrested, because they got into an all-out brawl with a bounty hunter in public, and got knocked out.

I already know that, if the PCs don’t attempt anything else, there will be a power fluctuation and the force field will drop. Maybe they will run. Maybe they will get into a fight. But before that, I want to give them a chance to roleplay and come up with their own solution. I’ve put the “there is a race going on somewhere” sticky note on this index card. If it makes sense, I’m going to work that into the scene.

The players start to talk about how bad the situation is, and what they need to get done once they get out of jail, but they aren’t engaging the scene yet. In this case, I might have the CSA police start to have a conversation among themselves. I have two of the cops discuss how much they have lost on the local skimmer races. It’s just something I’m throwing into the scene, but it’s in keeping with the genre. If it doesn’t bear fruit, it at least reinforces the overall tone of the setting.

The PCs, in this case, decide to act on that comment. One of them mentions that they know a local mechanic and they have inside information on the races. When the cops don’t seem upset about inside information, they press a little further and offer to talk to their friend about “fixing” the race, if their arrest report “gets lost.”

The PC ends up being supremely charming, but the cops mention that there are surveillance cams all over, and they have their ship registry, so don’t leave town without talking to their friend. It’s not exactly a bribe, but its close enough that that might be a good “exit” to use to connect to the introduction of another scene I may have wanted to introduce, for example, a local contact that wants people to dig up some dirt on the local authorities for some credits.

The players may never have gotten to that point in the scene. One of them may have a talent that lets them cause devices to go haywire once per session, and they use this to get out of the cell and start a chase scene to run from the CSA cops. No chance to logically bring up a race in this instance.


If the players don’t bite, or you never get a chance to bring up the “extra” element on your sticky note, it doesn’t go away. You just tuck it back into your notebook and add it to another index card in the future, because it’s a recurring trope for the game that you are running.

You don’t want to hammer even recurring tropes that you have identified too often. If you put a sticky note on an index card, and it isn’t used, you may just want to save it for the next session. If you do use it, you may want to initiate a “cool down” period for that trope. In this case, you may want to have two pages in your notebook, one for “active” elements, ready to be put on index cards, and one for “recharging” elements, that you won’t move back on to the “active” page until you have cycled through all of those post-its.

What if you don’t sketch out your encounters on index cards as I do? You can still use the sticky notes to remind you of these tropes, as long as you have something where your adventure or adventure outline is written. You can stick your sticky notes to the side of an encounter in a notebook, or next to an encounter section in a published adventure, to remind you to use the trope as well.

Converting Adventures and Importing Tropes If you put a sticky note on an index card, and it isn’t used, you may just want to save it for the next session. If you do use it, you may want to initiate a “cool down” period for that trope Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

You can also drift this technique from just injecting tropes from certain genres to adventures that you have adapted. For example, let’s say you want to run Storm King’s Thunder in Eberron. You have already done the major work of deciding where it is going to take place, and what organizations will be swapped out to make the adventure work. Looking over the adaption you have done, however, you still feel like much of this is just a matter of swapping out proper nouns. There are some elements of the setting you feel make Eberron unique from Faerun.

This is a perfect time to create “trope” post-its for elements of Eberron that you feel are unique to the setting. You might have post-its reminding you to have someone mention what they did during the Last War. You might add other notes to have air travel referenced. You may even just leave notes to make sure to mention that presence of warforged or shifters in a scene, since the standard descriptions won’t add those setting specific elements.

A Lightly Applied Sledgehammer

Finally, there may be something in an adventure that the PCs have encountered, but they may not have picked up on the significance of that item yet. You can add a sticky note to your rotation to bring up something about that item later on. Putting it in the rotation with your regular “trope” sticky notes means that it won’t be too obvious that you are hitting the PCs over the head with references to the item they may not have thought important, but it will keep coming up, giving them a chance to think about it again every time you work in a reference to that item.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one that desperately tries to justify buying office supplies in this hobby. If you have some favorite tricks for running or playing games that involve various office supplies, let us know in the comments below. I’m looking forward to impulse buying all new things based on your suggestions.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Monsters & Manners: A Mini-Etiquette Primer for TTRPGs

28 June 2019 - 6:30am

 Dice–they’re almost as important as manners at a gaming table

Well, it finally happened. It took a couple of weeks or longer, but you’re finally getting comfortable with your fellow adventurers in the tabletop game you’re playing! You might even think you’re starting to become a group of friends. However, you’re start noticing some things: curses and profanities start slipping out easier when you’re sitting with them when you’ve rarely used such language before, maybe a few party members say some things that make you uncomfortable but you’re not quite sure how or if you want to confront them about it, maybe few of you are actively taking notes during a bit of exposition or writing down what you’ve found during an Investigation check, but the rest of the table are on their phones or zoned out a bit. It’s all well and good that you’re getting comfortable with your new friends and having a good time, but don’t let your manners fall to the wayside because you’re all having fun. However, if you found yourself in a situation like this, then this article will give you an idea of what to do or at least it’ll help start a dialog.

Crass Language During The Game:  It’s all well and good that you’re getting comfortable with your new friends and having a good time, but don’t let your manners fall to the wayside because you’re all having fun. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email
  • One of the trickiest things to deal with during a game is language. Sometimes a Player Character or an NPC’s personality leans itself on the rougher side, so crass language may happen while they speak. Other times a curse may slip out depending on which way the dice may roll. No matter what happens, you have to be mindful of your words and surroundings especially if you’re playing in a public place—because let’s be real, you don’t want to be indirectly responsible for a little kid learning about curse words, do you? So be mindful and modify your language depending on where you’re playing, and just give your fellow party members a little nudge when they slip up too. We’re only human.
Showboating Party Members:
  • You’ve met those kinds of people before: they talk a little loud, try to hard to lead the party, and gets more than bit too huffy when they don’t get their way or they aren’t the center of attention. They’re the types to seem to forget that Tabletop RPGs are a cooperative storytelling medium—especially if it’s their first time playing and they’re not sure what to do. In any case, try pulling them aside and talk to them once the game’s over. Say something along the lines of “Hey, I saw you were really taking charge the past few sessions, but you were ignoring any input the rest of us were adding. Maybe you could take a set back next time, let the rest of have a shot?” If the behavior still persists, the try talking to your GM to see if they can’t smooth things over.
Disengaged During the Story:
  • If you start noticing glazed over looks around the table as the story’s going, don’t panic. There are simple ways to fix the issue of your players zoning out during your game. On the player’s side, try to avoid lingering on your phone or tablet during the game. If your GM is cool with the table using online tools or you’re queuing up the ambient music for the scenario, then that’s fine; just make sure you’re still paying attention and actively listening to what’s going on. On the GM side, talk to your players before and after to the game to gauge how they’re feeling. If they’re feeling bored with the increase in exposition and RP, maybe add more encounters next time. If they feel like they’re wading through too much combat, try adding in puzzles to solve or ask if they want to RP some downtime at the table. The goal is to tell a story, but communication is key if you want your table to have fun while doing it.
Discomfort During the Game:
  • Everyone has different gut reactions when dealing with uncomfortable subject matters during a game–for me, it’s a cold shiver running up my arms and cold, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. There are many ways to deal with discomforting and triggering content during game time, but I’ll give best advice now–if you know you can’t deal with it, politely remove yourself from the table. It’s just a game, don’t have your mental health suffer for it.
  • This piece of advice is for the GMs, however: talk to your players so you know what their fears and discomforts are so this doesn’t come out of the blue for them. I highly suggest asking what kinds of things your players find uncomfortable during a Session Zero-type scenario–it’ll make things easier in the long run, and if you have redo or throw out an entire encounter or plot-hook, then so be it. Your players will thank you for considering their needs and will want to stay because they have a GM who’s compassionate and listens.
You Are A Guest, Act Like One:
  • I know, I know, this is self-explanatory but it still needs to be said. If you’re playing your game in a public space, a gaming store, someone else’s house, or any public place then please clean up after yourselves. Don’t leave your garbage lying around, clean up any spills you see, etc. Maybe I’ve gotten a tiny bit jaded from college or going to conventions, but seeing people not clean up after themselves always bothered me. You are a guest in the space you’re playing in, so don’t treat it like your home, okay?
Communication is Key:
  • This is the biggest piece of advice I have: communicate! GMs, talk to your players. Players, talk to your GMs and your fellow adventurers. You’re all building this story and this world you’re wandering in together, so talk and discussion is the most powerful tool you have. The more you talk, the more you’ll get to know what everyone around the table is thinking, and that will lead to better ideas, clearer plans, and people who will catch and pull you back if you start straying. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people, the best thing you can do is start talking to them.

Honesty I could go on at length about this for days, but I just wanted to give you guys a launching point to start the conversation. Whatever you do at your table is yours and your alone. Just remember your manners, be good to the people who are at the table, have fun, and if you have to leave the table then there’s no shame in leaving. But what about you guys? What’s your experience with manners at your tables? If you have any great or not-so-great stories about your table’s etiquette, then leave them in the comments below–though hopefully it’s more good experiences than bad. 

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gnomecast #69 – Romance in Games

27 June 2019 - 5:00am

Join Ang, Jen, Phil, and Senda as they celebrate episode 69 (nice) of the Gnomecast with a discussion of romance in games. Will their dedication to character relationships be enough to keep these gnomes out of the stew this week?

Download: Gnomecast #69 – Romance in Games

Games mentioned:

Follow Jen at @JenKatWrites on Twitter and support her at

Follow Phil at @DNAphil on Twitter and find him on his other podcasts Misdirected Mark and Panda’s Talking Games.

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

Follow Ang at @orikes13 on Twitter.

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 Cypher Speak!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Time To Game

26 June 2019 - 5:00am

This past week I was at Origins and doing my best to play all the RPGs I could. Mostly I ran games, meaning it was my job to get the game started. That means from sitting down at the table, getting characters made, and then getting the story going. I did this for a number of games, Hydro Hackers, The Warren, Swords Without Master, and For The Queen. Along the way, I started to notice how important that effort is in order to get a good game, and just how long the process can take. That is what I want to talk about today, something a friend called, Time To Game (TTG).

Credit to Scott R. for teaching me the term TTG.

Time To Game

Time to game is the time it takes from the time you start to play until you are playing the scenario that you have provided.

This concept is more important for one-shots and convention games, where you have a limited amount of time to play the game, and you have to get the game set up and the scenario started. In ongoing campaigns, this is not an issue because you have made your characters awhile ago and just bringing them out from game to game.

There are a number of activities that get encompassed into this TTG phase of play. While not exhaustive, here are the most common high-level activities:

Introduce Setting

Depending on how common your game is you may have to explain very little or a lot of the setting to the players sitting down. If you are running something like Star Wars: Age of Rebellion your setting description can likely be pretty minimal, condensed down to something like we are playing just after Episode 4 and we are on Dantooine. But if you are running something less familiar like Hydro Hacker Operatives then you need to have a description of the setting so that players have an idea about what the game is about.

So games or settings that are popular require less explanation and games that are not as popular require more.

Character Generation/Selection

Depending on your game you will either have to make characters up, select pre-gens, or some combination, with the goal that before you are done, everyone has a character ready for play. Many indie games encourage you to make characters at the table, and in Powered by the Apocalypse games that is pretty much the norm, with Playbooks designed to facilitate that process. Other games, that have more in-depth character creation processes (including those that require software assistance) are better to just have pre-gens to pass out.

If you are creating characters at the table this is often more time consuming than people picking out pre-gens.

Teach Important Rules

Similar to setting the better known the game, the fewer rules need to be taught up front. In general, you should only be covering the most important rules before the game starts, and then introducing other rules once play has begun. If you do have to teach rules before play starts, then the focus should be on the core mechanic of the game.

For a game of Dungeon World very little needs to be explained up front, other than how a move works. In Hydro Hacker Operatives there are some special rules about Hydration and Sweat that need to be reviewed that are outside of what common PbtA games have. In something like SW: Age of Empire it would be good to review how the dice work for task resolution.

This will also be impacted by how experienced everyone at the table is. A table of people who have never played the system before requiring more explanation than a table of veterans.


Finally, there needs to be an introduction of safety tools (don’t comment here if you object to safety tools…find my past articles about them and comment there). Playing convention games with a safety tool is a good idea.

Different games need different safety tools. A rollicking game of Action Movie World may only need an X-Card to keep it from getting out of hand. While a game of Turning Point (coming soon) has three different tools embedded into the game that requires an introduction.

While the familiarity of safety tools can help speed this up, its always good to take a moment and make sure everyone is on the same page, before getting started.

That Adds Up

So when you look at those general categories, these things can add up. So I know that for Hydro Hacker Operatives that it takes nearly an hour to go through all of that, with Character Generation being the longest part. In a four-hour game that is a quarter of the time is TTG, leaving three hours to run the game and conclude it before your time is up.

Tips for shorter TTG  If we cut things too deeply we run the risk of starting the game with players who are not ready to play, and we will spend a portion of the game time getting them up to speed. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

So how can we improve on that? There are for sure efficiencies that we can find and we are going to look at those in a minute, but we also have to remember that there is a point of diminishing returns. If we cut things too deeply we run the risk of starting the game with players who are not ready to play, and we will spend a portion of the game time getting them up to speed.

So there is a sweet spot where we spend some time getting everyone ready to game that is not too long and leaves them prepared enough to play. Then during the game we can fill in the additional setting and rules.

So here are some ideas for how we can go about doing that for each of the sections.

Introduce Setting

Here we want to reduce the time talking to the players while they sit and listen, as much as possible. The best way to do that is to have handouts and other aids that we can give the players to look at as we are getting ready to play and while the game is going on. Remember the adage, a picture is worth a thousand words, and at least a few minutes of explanation at the table.

When we do have to introduce the setting verbally, avoid lengthy histories. In most cases, they are not relevant to getting the game going. For instance, in every scenario of Hydro Hacker Operatives I have written, you do not need to know the history of how the water table and with it the US government collapsed. I need only say that it happened.

Character Generation/Selection

When possible if you can use pre-gens. Use them. The act of selecting a pre-gen is always faster than making them at the table.

If your game encourages creating characters at the table, then figure out the order to make them, and directly lead the group in making them. Gently prod players along. This is one area where side chatter can creep up, so keep people focused and moving from one section to the next.

Teach Important Rules

The first thing to do is to ascertain the experience level at the table, and then teach to the least experienced. So if everyone at your table has experience in your system, then you can just do a quick check to see if anyone has questions or you can check to see if they know the rules you think are important.

But if one person at the table has never played before, or has only played a few times, then you need to teach some rules to them, and the experienced players need to chill while that happens.

As for teaching rules before the game starts, as I said above, stick with core mechanics: skill checks, combat rolls, etc. As a player, I like to know the core mechanics of a new game before I start playing so that I have some idea of how the things on my character sheet and the dice I need work. It helps me understand if my character is good at something or not, which will help me decide what actions I take during the game.

I do not advocate not teaching any rules upfront and waiting for play for the reason I mentioned above. If someone does not know how their character works they will make choices that may be dangerous or foolish only to regret them once they pick up the dice.

So figure out for the game you are playing the minimal rules you need to teach and write them down so that if you need to teach them, you do not wander off script.


This starts with knowing what tools you need for the game you are running. My minimum is an X-card for any game, but then for other games, I may pull in other tools.

You should also be fully familiar with how to explain and use any safety tool you use in the game or comes with the game. I find that many gamers are still getting familiar with safety tools beyond the X-cards, and sometimes they don’t know how the X-card works.  So make sure you have a very smooth explanation that is clear on how to use the took and what the tool does in terms of safety. Know things like an X-card revokes consent while Lines & Veils establish boundaries.

Put it to practice

If you frequently run convention games or at game days, look at your TTG and see if it is acceptable and perhaps set a goal to reduce it by 10% to 25%. Then review what you are presenting upfront compared to what is happening at the table, and see if there are things you can remove.

I highly recommend that you outline your pre-game activities, so that you stick to a script and do not ramble or wander into other topics. Put this at the front of your prep.

Then try it out see what works and does not work and keep tweaking between events.

Smooth and Fast

Time to Game is an important part of running convention and one-shot games. The longer it takes to get the game going, the less time you have to play your scenario. By being mindful and purposeful we can find ways to decrease the Time to Game while at the same time making sure that all players are prepared to play when the scenario starts.

What are the things that hang you up when you are introducing a game? What tips do you have for reducing the TTG for a game? What games hit the table faster/smoother than others?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Good Society Review

25 June 2019 - 4:00am

Every so often, when watching made for television movies, certain character names will pop up, and it becomes obvious that the creative team is attempting to make their version of a Jane Austin story. My wife, daughter, and I have turned this into a game, where we guess what is coming next, and end up rating the moving on how well it actually seemed to be a retelling of a Jane Austen story, versus someone that liked recycling names for their film.

If you have ever played this game while watching made for television movies, take heart! There is no reason to play that game, when there already is a Jane Austen RPG available. Today, we’re going to look at Good Society — A Jane Austen RPG.

The Place Setting

This review is based on the PDF version of the product, which is 280 pages. This includes a three-page glossary and a three-page index. There are page references that exist as sidebars to the main text, as well as various illustrations and flourishes that recall Regency era decorations. One thing especially noteworthy in the artwork — while the art portrays many different Regency era scenes, from dances to picnics, the characters depicted are much more diverse than you might see in most film adaptations of Austen’s work.

The book contains several images showing the cards that can be used with the game. It is possible to play the game just using the rulebook, but generating some of the elements that come from the cards takes a bit more setup time, and if I get this game to the table, I’m definitely investing in the physical decks.

The cards are included as print and play PDFs with the PDF purchase of the game. There are printer friendly versions that are mainly text, and more artistically rendered versions. The characters that appear on the connection cards are as diverse as the characters seen in the various scenes in the rulebook.

Chapter One: Overview

Much of the information about the game as a whole is contained in this opening chapter. In addition to discussing the concept of collaborative storytelling, this chapter also explains the roles of people participating, including the differences between the players and the facilitator.

The game can be played without a facilitator, and while that is touched on in this chapter, there are more guidelines for this style of play later in the book. It is probably fair to say that the facilitator is less like a game moderator for some games, and more like someone that is performing part of the role that the players perform in order to be free to play extra characters and help keep the game on track.

The game has the following cycle of play:

  • Novel Chapter
  • Reputation
  • Rumor and Scandal
  • Epistolary
  • Novel Chapter
  • Reputation
  • Epistolary
  • Upkeep

The characters primarily portray Major Characters, and those characters have a Character Role Sheet. If you have seen a game like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark, the concept is similar, although there aren’t any statistics used to determine success or failure. Instead, the Character Role Sheet explains what defines the character, sets up a list of actions to track for a character’s Inner Conflict, and has a list of actions to check in the Reputation phase to see if a character has gained a positive or negative aspect to their reputation.

Characters have connections, which are played by other characters. They give out relationship cards, which define the connection between two of the player characters, and they have a secret desire, which may be kept secret from the table, although the only requirement in the game is that it is a secret from the other characters to start.

Each character has a number of resolve tokens, including characters connected to the Major Characters, which can be spent to accomplish something they want to have happen. In addition to the resolve tokens, each player has a Monologue token, which they can play on another player to have them explain their inner monologue about a current scene.

There are tips for what aspects of the game to emphasize for shorter games versus longer games, as well as some information on what might be helpful for an online game versus an in-person game.

Chapter 2: Collaboration

There is an entire section on how the group should work together to establish tone, the degree of historical accuracy, gender roles, hidden information, and topics to avoid. This section also encourages the use of an active safety tool at the table, such as the X-Card.

Collaboration is especially important, as some of the rules involving negotiation and the Playsets require players to be able to agree on moving the narrative forward. This section also mentions that race was not a major factor in Austen’s work, but gender issues are, and that the party needs to be clear on how they are going to handle this.

I’d argue that any people of Roma ancestry might take exception to the concept that Austen’s work was without racial component, given the scene in Emma where they are used as a threat to be run off by Frank Churchill, but I understand the concept that a deep exploration of race and ethnicity in Regency England isn’t what this game is designed to explore.

If you have read enough of my reviews, you know I appreciate when a rulebook will just explain things like tone, and speak frankly about safety, so I appreciate this section.

Chapter 3: Backstory

Backstory goes into more detail on the process of setting up the Major Characters. The first step towards this is selecting a Playset, which is detailed later in the book. This is important because the various Playsets determine what Character Roles are available for play, as well as establishing what kind of story is going to be explored.

The process for setting up the game and the characters is as follows:

  • Set up your playset
  • Choose desires
  • Form relationships
  • Choose roles and backgrounds
  • Flesh out the major characters
  • Introductions

It is interesting to note that you will be picking your desire and establishing relationships before picking the Character Roles and Family Backgrounds. That says a lot of the importance of desires and relationships, versus other details.

Desires sometimes have a public element, and sometimes modify your mandatory relationships, as well as instructing you to share something that is public information. Relationships define one player as the giver and one as the taker, and explain how each of those roles is expressed in the relationship.

Because of all of this, the chapter stresses that this process should be collaborative. Given that some relationships or desires might call for potential romances to be played out, or other emotional connections, like familial bonds, it’s important that everyone agrees that they want those elements in the game.

Characters create connections, which are affiliated characters other than the Major Characters. While they are not Major Characters, they each get their own pool of resolve tokens. The book stresses that these characters exist to be tools of the Major Characters, or to be foils. They aren’t spending these tokens to become the focus of the narrative.

Chapter Three: Rules of Play

This chapter goes into more detail on exactly how the resolve tokens work, how reputation is established and used, how inner conflict works (and when it should be used), inner monologues, and how connections should be used.

Resolve tokens are used to shape the story in the direction that the character using that token wishes it to go. There are some guidelines for what requires a token to be used and what doesn’t. Taking general actions that don’t conflict with anyone else, and don’t change the current narrative are just things that you establish when the scene plays out.

Getting private time with a love interest, or learning information about a rival, however, is a major development. If the narrative element you want to introduce into the story affects another character, you have to negotiate with them. Instead of just spending the token, the player pays the other character the token if they accept it. They may refuse, and the new element isn’t introduced into the story, or they may negotiate, and ask for additional narrative elements to happen as well as what the first player wants.

In the Reputation phase, characters may get positive or negative tags based on what has happened in the story and their Character Roles. These tags can be spent by others like resolve tokens if the reputation has something to do with what the character wants to accomplish. If a character gets enough reputation tags, they get a reputation condition, which is in effect until they fall below their tag threshold.

The conditions are story elements that vary based on Character Role, but might include things like being barred from visiting a certain estate, or having an especially strong bond with one of your connections.

Inner Conflicts are noted as being used in games that will be running for multiple cycles. After the first cycle, the character determines their inner conflict, and checks off boxes beneath it when reflecting on their actions. This allows them to gain more resolve tokens, and if a character fully resolves their inner conflict, they can take an Expanded Backstory Action, which is explained in the Cycles of Play section.

The chapter wraps up with the importance of the Monologue Token, which must be played in the Upkeep phase if it was not played before, and the role of Connections, reiterating that they are to be complications or tools, not the primary focus of the narrative.

I am increasingly a fan of narrative currency in games, and I am very interested to see a game based entirely on narrative currency. I know this isn’t the first RPG that has done it, but I particularly like how the economies work, and how tags can be converted.

Chapter Five: Cycles of Play

Cycles of Play revisits the concept introduced earlier in the Overview section, and gives more details on how each section of the cycle works, and how the rules might be modified depending on how many cycles you plan on playing. It also gives the players some ideas on how to place their game, and what each cycle should be about based on how many cycles the game will go on.

Following the steps, characters will determine what they want to see happen in the chapter, determine what type of chapter it will be, and generally outline the chapter before they start play. Example structures include events, visitations, or split scenes.

Events revolve around big social happenings, while visitations involve characters meeting in smaller groups, and split scenes involve a novel chapter where characters start in different types of scenes that are occurring at the same time. There is a comprehensive list of suitable events in case players have a hard time coming up with a suitable idea.

The Reputation phase is where the character looks at what they have done and what the criteria on their Character Role sheet says, and adds tags as indicated. The Rumor and Scandal phase is where players make up rumors, or chose to spread a rumor. A rumor that is spread has it’s own resolve token that can be spent when it makes sense, instead of using a player token, but a rumor that isn’t spread by the next rumor phase doesn’t have any traction.

In upkeep, characters determine if they are keeping their desires or if the desire has been played out, and the various currencies may refresh at this time as well.

I like clearly defined structure in games like this, but my favorite aspect of this is probably the Rumor and Scandal phase. It is a way to keep the world moving outside of the individual scenes, but the rumors aren’t necessarily started or spread by the characters, it is just the players adding their narrative input into what rumors and scandals they want in the game. It is a strong rule to pull players from the character level view of the story to the meta-level, and give them mechanical input into the world development.

Chapter Six: Facilitator

This section lays out the responsibilities of the facilitator, and makes it clear that while you have some ability to play connections and drive the narrative with your own resolve tokens, you are much less of a storyteller in this game than in others.

Not unlike Apocalypse World-derived games, there are principles for the facilitator, and several lists of questions to refer to whenever the facilitator might want to help flesh out a scene or come up with more ideas for the ideal amount of detail.

Advice is also laid out for first sessions, longer games, and short games with less than three cycles. There are tips on games with fewer players where the facilitator might play a major character as well, as well as some rules changes for games that may be run without a facilitator.

Chapter Seven: Playsets

Playsets define the style of story that will be used, and give more precise indications of what exact desires, relationships, roles, and family should be used in the game. For each playset, there is a different list based on the number of players, ranging from three to five, and they include an extra set as a spare, in case players want a little more choice.

The playsets are divided into two groups.

Tonal Playsets

  • Farce
  • Romantic Comedy
  • Drama

Thematic Playsets

  • Romance and Love
  • Scandal and Reputation
  • Rivalry and Revenge
  • Family Matters
  • Wealth and Fortune
  • Obligations

The chapter provides some details on what kinds of stories might develop from the different playsets, and also calls out when it might be suitable to use a given playset. For example, the Farce is noted as being a good playset for games with less than three cycles, new players, or groups that have a hard time maintaining a dramatic tone.

For some of the playsets, there is an event that is assumed to happen after a set number of cycles to change the direction of the story, such as the death of a family member. There are also guides for what playsets have older or younger characters, or a mix of generations, and how that affects the story.

Chapter Eight: Roleplaying in Jane Austen’s World, and Chapter Nine: Characters

Roleplaying in Jane Austen’s World gives several major themes of the stories, as well as some of the items that players should be aware of their characters knowing about the setting.

The Characters chapter breaks down each of the Character Roles, giving examples of characters from Austen’s novels that inspired the role, explains some key concepts associated with the role, and delves into what kind of connections they would have, and how they would view those connections.

Chapter Ten: Knowing Austen

This chapter is a crash course on Austen’s broad themes and setting for players that may be interested in the game, but unfamiliar with Austen’s work. It delves into where the characters live, what they do, what level of formality accompanies different events, and then moves into the more narrative aspects of Austen’s work.

Tropes and plot twists are laid out, so that players will know what kinds of surprises and scandals they should be playing towards.

There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unison The tools for playing out dramatic scenes are so strong that I think a lot of roleplayers would benefit from at least understanding the flow of the game and how it does what it does. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

This game has so many tools to prompt a player to be proactive and shape the narrative, as well as to tools to guide the player to a logical set of actions to take. Because there aren’t randomizers in the game, the narrative currency is important, and the flow of currency between characters is a powerful tool to keep shifting the spotlight around the table. The formal structure of play gives players the ability to zoom out from their character and add in the overall details to make the world more textured, and the Rumor and Scandal phase just feels like it would be so much fun to work with.

None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives

If you aren’t the type of player that likes to use ancillary objects, playing without the cards seems like it would make the flow of the game a little less smooth. Even with the tools provided, some players may not like the high degree to which they are driving the narrative, or the idea that they are using a randomizer to determine success, but spending a resource that they may want to save for later. The specific setting may not be to everyone’s tastes, even if they would be interested in exploring a more drama based roleplaying game.

Strongly Recommended — This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.

I know not everyone is going to like a more drama focused RPG, and not everyone is going to be a fan of the setting, but the tools for playing out dramatic scenes are so strong that I think a lot of roleplayers would benefit from at least understanding the flow of the game and how it does what it does. I think the game has a contagious enthusiasm and energy about it.

While the materials provided aren’t completely open, any setting where you have a wealthy class of people interacting with one another, where visitations and events are the norm, can probably be simulated rather easily. I’ve already got ideas for playing out a Downton Abbey style game, as well as doing a “behind the scenes” drama using the various noble houses of Waterdeep.

What genres that are more dramatic than action oriented would you like to see represented in roleplaying games? What games exist already that allow you to play out those dramas? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Player’s Take

24 June 2019 - 5:26am

You’re new to Dungeons and Dragons, and like me, watch a lot of Critical Role (and other streaming roleplaying games) on Twitch and YouTube. The story is compelling. The comradery at the table is obvious and comforting. This is something you want to experience.

You asked around and finally have been invited to play at your first table. This will be your first real D&D game. You’re nervous and feeling a lot of anxiety, but also excitement. How do you, the new player, make the most of your seat at the table to experience what you feel when watching Critical Role?

Rich characters, player bonds and friendship, and first-rate table etiquette propel the narrative in the Critical Role campaign. As new players and old, we all want to find the same level of emotional meaning in our own games. We can explore the emotional impact of Critical Role and other streaming games to help us reach such lofty goals all the while managing expectations when we realize we’re not all Liam O’Brien.

So, where do we start?

It’s important to acknowledge what makes us happy. As fans, what we find most enjoyable from our favorite streaming show varies from person to person. We leave our Thursday’s open to watch the stream live because we want to talk to like mind people in real time. Maybe we happen to own both Critical Role art books (collector’s editions of course) because the art inspires us. Shared experiences connect us. How you choose to engage with the Critical Role community or the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game is a personal decision. Only you can decide what engagement works for you.

First, it’s crucial to maintain perspective. It is important to differentiate between consuming content and building a shared narrative. We connect with the world building at an emotional level, but that connection that is largely passive. There’s nothing wrong with this connection, but it’s not the same investment and vulnerability required to build a collaborative experience. Engaging the hobby through streams is a generally singular experience, but the emotional impact we feel is shared with the people on the screen. They are not reacting to you, but we are reacting to them. This is a perfectly normal experience, whether you’re watching Critical Role with friends in Alpha’s chat or you’re cheering your favorite sports team at the local watering hole.

Trusting is hard.

Participating in the shared narrative at the table is a different experience than reacting to what you see on the screen. Making emotional connections we love so much in Critical Role takes work and trust. When one is consuming the game one’s actions or behavior are not impacting anyone but oneself. There’s actually a psychological term for this, “parasocial interactionShare14Tweet16Reddit1EmailThere’s actually a psychological term for this, “parasocial interaction“. While mean of this term was first developed in the 1950s to describe the attachment of the audience a TV personality, the concept can be applied to streaming fandoms as well. We can use the new found knowledge to make our games better.

When building the game with other players you should allow different parts of your personality to emerge and express themselves at the table. This exposure can lead to feelings of vulnerability. General feelings of anxiety can emerge. This is perfectly natural and if you have these feelings, it’s okay to step away or communicate with the DM how you’re feeling. If you think other players would be receptive, talk to them about your needs when roleplaying at the table. This will require some faith in your fellow players and trusting your vulnerability will not be used against you, but such a leap will assist in building trust at the table.

This is crucial because trust at the table is an important component for creating a shared narrative, story-driven game. The narrative components that likely hooked you into Critical Role were generated from these feelings of trust. Without a narrative arc or a compelling story, a game of Dungeons and Dragons is nothing more than a poorly implemented tabletop tactical miniatures game. While there’s nothing wrong with such a game, this experience doesn’t have us clearing our calendars on Thursday nights for months at a time. Building these relationships will take time. Be patient.

These relationships are important to not just finding the chemistry between characters in the game, but between the players at the table. These players will help you build your tower of storytelling. Pay attention, take notes. Try to identify the Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws of the other characters. 5th Edition is often criticized for the weak mechanical link between Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws and the game engine under the hood. This criticism is misplaced. Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws are not there to impact the mathematical aspects of D&D, but rather to remind the player of their character’s behavior. Practice using them with your own roleplaying to see if you’re giving a consistent character for others to work with.

Be Kind.

Generosity can also arise from what you don’t say, or don’t do. Allowing another player to have the spotlight is critical to having a harmonious table. This is often best accomplished by saying nothing. Think of it as a scene in a movie. Your character doesn’t have any lines, so you wouldn’t step in and intrude as another character has their moment. Support dramatic roleplaying by letting your silence create moments for other players to fill with something interesting and wonderful.

Liam O’Brien is exceptionally good at this. As a professional actor, he knows when a long pause or a furrowed brow is all the commentary a scene needs from his character. Sam Riegel has a very different approach. He is skilled using humor to fill in those gaps without drawing spotlight directly to himself. His sense of comedic timing is incredibly well honed, so this works to the table’s advantage. Just as the rules in D&D are just guidelines often requiring a subjective application, so does roleplaying off another person’s performance. Learning when a moment between two people is over and the table needs to rejoin the scene takes time.

There are differences between watching professional actors play D&D and sitting down to play around the table with ‘everyday’ people. While it is true the Critical Role table is full of professionally trained actors, their skills are learnable by everyone. Body language and posture are good non-verbal clues to the scene’s maturity. Actively working to perceive the mood and tenor or the table are _active_ processes. Start by taking your cues from the Dungeon Master. Are they locked onto a single player? Or is their gaze actively moving from player to player, searching for a spark? The Dungeon Master is probably glancing at all the players at the table to see if they are engaged, so be sure to distinguish a quick glance from an active invitation to move into the scene.

Manage your expectations.

All of those wonderful moments you see on Critical Role didn’t happen overnight. There were culminations of months of work. It’s easy to overlook the fact they had been playing together for a year before streaming. Even after a year of on-stream play, the strong character bonds we associate with CR’s strengths were, at best, in their formative stages. The cast spent months learning to work together, both on and off camera. While the magic happened at the table, so much work happened between games. And it didn’t all work. There were failures. A troublesome cast member was removed from the show, likely because he wasn’t working within the table, but tried instead to work on top of it. Clear adjustments and evolutions in character arcs were made by the players as grew more comfortable together, even dipping into the minefield of character romantic relationships.

As a new player and a fan of Critical Role, which performances impact you the most? Are there any performances you don’t identify with, or understand?



Categories: Game Theory & Design

The 3 Tweaks I Make To Speed Up D&D Combat

21 June 2019 - 6:35am


I’ve gotten back into the D&D game with 5th edition (as many of us have), and running games at conventions, for home groups, and at events like meetups and social groups has given me a diversity of D&D 5e game types. I’ve always found that there is one thing in common with D&D combats between all these different types of games – combats still often drag. Especially at higher levels, there is something of a grind to taking down multiple enemies or big enemies with lots of HP. Sometimes you want to emphasize the drawn out nature of a tough and grueling combat through a dungeon, but sometimes you want to slide through the combats a bit quicker and move on with the narratives, or you want to pack more combat into the game so that the players feel a sense of progression and can move between the scenes rather than spend 2 hours on one combat. If you’re a purist that only wants to run things by RAW rather than RAI, skip over the rest of this because these tweaks are more about improving the experience rather than the pure mechanical game aspect. With that said, here are the 3 biggest things I do to make sure D&D combats move quickly and have a lot more action in them.

Three / Fourths HP For Enemies, Especially Tanks – Knock Down The Grind

I’ve often found the thing that slows down most D&D combats is that some enemies are just tanks compared to the players’ ability to deal consistent damage. That one roll that failed on a great spell, the lack of good damage rolls consistently… any small stroke of bad luck can turn the tide in a, let’s say tedious way. Dropping the standard HP of most enemies (but especially tank enemies with a lot of HP) can change this paradigm and speed up combats in a very satisfying way. If the players are rolling well or using really well thought out tactics, it makes their successes feel even better. They get to end a combat quicker because they were smart of successful. Three / Fourths HP has been my sweet spot, but for some really tanky enemies I might drop it to 60%. IF I find that the combat is just OVER within a few minutes because I was overzealous, I can always tweak it back up to normal. I’m much more about letting the players get the win though.

Increase Enemy Damage – But Not At Early Levels

The other problem I’ve had with some D&D combats, especially in shorter convention games, is that after a certain level many of the PCs feel untouchable. I can’t get them to feel threatened, even when I’m running the Tarrasque. (I’m looking at you barbarians…) Sometimes this is because I have to play the NPCs logically. E.G. they wouldn’t geek the mage first because she did a great job of disguising herself as a fighter, or the clay golem was ordered to destroy the bard who was shouting insults and he’s running away fast. When I want to speed things up, I edge up enemy damage just enough that it feels legitimate. Usually I rough judge this to about 150%. If the creature does 6 damage per hit, now it does 9, etc.

I moved into this paradigm once I started using Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts and a nasty (but fun) little creature called a Fext. It has a ranged ray attack that does a chunk of damage at will. That one aspect really put my players on edge and they felt a lot more sense of threat and action. I was actually able to take down a fighter or two and force the healers to engage and get those fighters back up and running. Combined with lower HP on the Fext, the fight suddenly became a quicker but more action oriented experience. I’ll use this rule often, BUT NEVER WHILE THE PCS ARE AT LOWER LEVELS. Low level PCs are squishy and you don’t need to do much to make them feel threatened. As they go up in level, getting that feeling into the game is hard and it sometimes drops into the tedious grind.

Make Sure PCs Have and USE their Healing

Now I’m not actually out to kill the PCs, I want them to feel like their actions matter and that there is a sense of threat, but I want them to get back up after they fall. So, I always make sure the players have access to healing and that they USE it. I’ll often provide some magic item to the cleric to use as a last chance healing item. Some staff of cure wounds or some extra potions so that when people fall they can be brought back. One of my favorite items to provide is the Healing Shillelagh. It is basically heal at will for 1d6, or damage at will for 1d4. Roll a d20. 1-10 and the magic fails to activate and it deals 1d4 damage. 11-20 and it heals 1d6 points of damage. It’s a fun little gimmick that players feel will often resolve in their favor.  Another fun option I’ve used is the Caduceus of Cautious Curing. It’s a small stone that can be placed on a person and anything with cure wounds can cast it as a ritual, up to 3 times per day. It forces healing out of combat, regenerates a little bit of HP and often adds some extra boosts during short rests.

Fun and shenanigans aside, any kind of boost to their healing ability, even if it takes a ritual to perform lets them know they’ll get some recovery once they are out of immediate danger. This assurance that they can recover after a vicious fight will make players feel more confident in taking risks and being less cautious during combats. That speeds up the combats immensely and prevents a lot of analysis paralysis.

Wrapping It Up

So, my three changes are:

  • Tweak 1 – Drop enemies to 3/4 their HP to start the fight, especially tanks.
  • Tweak 2 – Increase NPC damage to provide threat and speed up desire to eliminate the enemies, but never at lower levels.
  • Tweak 3 – Make sure the PCs have off-combat healing options that they can cheaply use.

These three tweaks have helped me incredibly while I’m running games. Players seem to like the combats and push through them a lot quicker. They get more of a sense of satisfaction when they down an enemy, especially when it is dealing out the damage.  Since they’re bleeding a bit more they feel like the  combat had more meaning and was less one-sided, even if it was against normally “weaker” enemies. 10 Goblins with at will high damage attacks suddenly becomes a threat (using tweak 2) even if they are being waded through with ease. The mage is more likely to use the fireball to remove the mass threat rather than hold off. These sorts of tweaks aren’t for everyone, but try them out in a game and see how it runs. What are your tweaks to combat and action scenes for crunchy games like D&D?

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Handouts, Props, and Mood Setting

19 June 2019 - 5:00am

Most of the time, the tactile sensations players get during the game are limited to their pencil, character sheet, dice, and mini on the board. As GMs, we can take it to the next level by leveraging handouts, props, and auditory mood setting.


Handouts are a great, and usually straightforward, method of drawing the players deeper into the game. Don’t tell the players that they found a map of the old ruins that sit atop the hill several miles outside the village. Actually hand them a map. Don’t draw the handout on grid paper, either. Slap it down using charcoal sticks (or black Sharpie) on white or yellow-aged paper. A great touch is to splash some water droplets onto the paper to smear/smudge the drawing, but without making it incomprehensible (unless that’s the effect you’re going for).

Other handouts are printouts of NPC appearances. If you leverage technology (like a tablet) in the same way I do, you can save the printer ink and hold up the tablet with the image prominently displayed on the screen. The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and this is true for visual cues. A “picture” they can touch and interact with (such as a map, contract, letter, or other physical product) is worth many more words than a mere thousand.


This leads into props. Instead of saying, “You find tufts of fur on the pathway,” you can give your dog or cat a good brushing and throw some fur bits into a baggie. Then remove the fur from the bag and toss it in the middle of the table. It’s evocative, surprising, and really lends a deeper immersion into the game than the words. Just be careful of possible allergic reactions from your players if they can’t handle animal remnants, especially the fur.

Another thing I’ve done many moons ago was to bring in a bag of dried leaves from the yard. Instead of telling the party that they hear footsteps on the dried leaves, I’ll jam my hand down into the gallon freezer bag and start crunching the leaves. Then I’ll tell the players that they hear that sound from behind them. It really draws them in a considerable amount.

A quick trip around a hobby supply store can provide many more ideas about props that can be used in the midst of a game.

Sound Effects

I’ve already mentioned the dried leaves. I’ve also grabbed some stage swords off my wall near the gaming table and clashed them together to demonstrate what the players hear in the distance. One of my players told me that it was the biggest adrenaline rush he’s ever had at the gaming table. The steel-on-steel sounds immersed into the scene, and he knew that the person they needed to save was being attacked just ahead.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) drag a million props with you to the game table just for making sounds with, there are digital options. I personally use an application called “RPG Sounds: Fantasy” by SuperFly Games on my iPad. It’s also available for iPhone and Android devices. The key features I like within this app are that there are four tracks (Atmosphere, Sound Effects, Music, and Custom) where you can play four different sounds at once and give each of them a different volume level. Maybe the atmosphere (like a cheering crowd) is right up in the PCs’ faces, but the music is very distant while the sound effects are midway. The app comes with gobs of different sound effects as well. It’s quite cool.

Mood Music

Back in the day when I ran the various World of Darkness games, I’d always start off the session with a set of theme music. It was rarely longer than two minutes long, but it always tied to key events that were coming up soon. This helped put the players in the mood.

These days, I’m running and playing more fantasy-based games, so I fall back to various soundtracks that emote that feeling. I try to find ones without lyrics to avoid that mental distraction. Good ones on my list include Conan the Barbarian, and the whole slew of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit soundtracks. Just snagging the LotR/Hobbit soundtracks will keep your background music filled for many game sessions.

Categories: Game Theory & Design

Take Me to the Upside down – a Review of Kids on Bikes

14 June 2019 - 5:57am

Before Google mapped out the world and Wikipedia made it possible to know just about anything with a couple taps of your thumb, even a small town could be full of adventure. There were all these places you weren’t supposed to go to, dangerous places like abandoned warehouses and old biker hangouts. There was always that one kid who’d heard a rumor about the place from their cousin’s friend’s sister, and they swore up and down that it was the truth. You didn’t know how much of it was true, but you knew you had until the streetlights came on to get to the bottom of it.

That experience is at the heart of Kids on Bikes, an RPG riding on the hype of the 80’s nostalgia popularized by Stranger Things. With the third season just around the corner, many of us want to know what it’d be like trying to outpace the Demogorgon or shady government agents in their black vans. But how does Kids on Bikes rate, not just as an RPG but as an experience?

I’ll be reviewing the print version of this game. The book has 74 pages of content, plus a couple extra pages in the back for a character sheet and Kickstarter acknowledgments. It’s not a big book, but it’ll only set you back $25, which for an RPG can either be a great deal or a trap.

The book’s formatting and design are simple and straightforward. This leaves plenty of room for the extensive examples the book uses to describe some of its mechanics. The book is divided into the following sections:

  • Setting Boundaries
  • World-Building
  • Character Creation
  • Playing the Game
  • Powered Characters
  • Information for the GM
  • Appendices (A-F)
Setting Boundaries

This is a quick, one-page section about making sure your players are safe during play. Disclaimers like this have been common in recent RPG’s (and re-releases of older games), and there’s not much here that a seasoned player hasn’t seen before. The book encourages players to talk about topics they want to avoid or to write lists they can give the GM if they don’t feel comfortable addressing the issue openly. The tone here is supportive, discouraging confrontational attitudes towards these boundaries. While this isn’t anything new, it’s appropriate in a game about dangerous things happening to kids.


The book offers rules and suggestions for collaborative world-building, taking the brunt of the work off of the GM’s shoulders. A list of incomplete statements guide this process, such as “Our town is famous for…” and “A notable local organization is…”. Players take turns completing a statement, each contributing their own ideas and helping bring a small town to life. After each player has provided an equal number of answers (usually 2 or 3), they each come up with a rumor about the town. The section closes with suggestions about what the ideal town for this game looks like, as well as how it should change over multiple sessions.

As a GM and writer, I’m used to stuffing my campaign worlds with all the unnecessary details a player might randomly ask for. I also know the traps and pitfalls of exposition and the challenges that come with trying to give just enough information so the players know what’s going on. The collaborative world-building offered by Kids on Bikes eliminates most of this problem. The players know this place because they helped build it. Together, they create a living, breathing place with at least a couple interesting spots that stand out as obvious places for adventure.

I’ve found that players have a lot of fun answering these questions, and it saves the GM a ton of work (which is always a plus). I recommend doing this world-building in a “session zero,” since the rumors your players come up with can make great adventure hooks. They’re telling you what interests them. Use them and they’ll stay interested. Overall, this is a great strength of the system and having it so early in the book really sets the tone for the kind of game Kids on Bikes wants to be.

Character Creation

The book’s first meaty section deals with character creation. Kids on Bikes cares more about who a character is than what they can do. Rather than character classes, Kids on Bikes uses tropes from the TV shows and movies that inspire the game’s theme, such as Popular Kid, Loner Weirdo, and Blue-Collar Worker. Kids on Bikes uses standard RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) which are attributed to each stat depending on the chosen trope. For example, a Popular Kid’s best ability is Charm, so whenever they make a Charm check, they’ll roll a d20. I’ll be going over the system in more detail in the next section of this review.

After a trope is selected, players will choose strengths and flaws for their characters. Strengths are trope-specific and give a character mechanical advantages. For example, the Tough strength allows a character to reduce the negative consequences of losing a combat roll. Strengths give additional depth to characters, helping differentiate even those with the same tropes from each other. Sure, two people at the table may be playing a Loner Weirdo, but one might be Tough while another is Intuitive. Do you think those characters would solve their problems the same way? Just like strengths, flaws are tied to specific Tropes. However, they don’t have any effect on the mechanical aspect of the game. They’re there mostly to fuel roleplay and help players build well-rounded characters.

Next, players will introduce their characters to the table. Rather than simply going around the table and listing their character’s traits, Kids on Bikes players are encouraged to figure out relationships between each of their characters. Are there siblings at the table? Parents and children? Rivals? Players will then answer questions about the other characters. Kids on Bikes offers three ways of doing this (Quick Start Questions, One-Sided Questions, and Complete Questions) but the basic premise is the same; players are answering questions about characters that aren’t theirs. Questions like “What volunteer work have you heard that this character does?” and “How did this character betray you the last time you confided in them?” These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems. These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

All in all, character creation goes rather smoothly. Even with a single book for the table, the process takes much less time than other games with deeper mechanics, such as D&D. While Kids on Bikes’ mechanics don’t have the same depth, a character in Kids on Bikes is just as deep, if not deeper than the ones found in other games. Because players are encouraged to think about where their character comes from and how they relate to others, they end up with an intimate understanding of their character and their place in the world. Character introductions can eat up a good chunk of time (the Complete Questions method alone can take 8 minutes per player), but if you’ve got the extra time, going through them is a lot of fun.

Playing the Game

The “game” part of this roleplaying game is simple and straightforward. This is a game about characters and story, not about rolling dice. That said, we do need the dice to figure out the things that we can’t just decide. As mentioned earlier, Kids on Bikes uses a dice chain to determine a character’s stats, from a d4 to a d20. That means each character is fantastic at one thing and terrible at another, with the rest of their stats falling somewhere in the middle.

Using those stats is fairly straightforward. You pick the one you want to use and roll to beat a target number, set by the GM. Because each stat uses a different die, a straightforward challenge for one character can be near-impossible for another. By itself, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Kids on Bikes adds other mechanics to make things interesting:

  • Exploding Dice: If you roll the highest value on your die (eg. a 6 on a d6), you roll it again and add the values together. With a bit of luck, a character rolling a d4 could end up doing something truly amazing.
  • Adversity Tokens: Whenever a character fails a check, they receive an adversity token, which they can use to get a +1 bonus on their check. A player can spend more than one at a time, and can even use them to improve another player’s check. Some strengths also use adversity tokens as a resource, allowing characters to spend them for other benefits. For instance, a character with the Treasure Hunter strength can use an Adversity Token to find a useful item in their surroundings.
  • Planned Actions vs. Snap Decisions: Every check is either a planned action or a snap decision. For the former, characters can take half the value of their die (eg. 10 on a d20) to succeed on their check, as long as this matches or beats the difficulty of the check. You can’t do this on a snap decision check, and other players can’t use their adversity tokens to help you.

Combat uses this system as well, except the GM doesn’t set a numerical difficulty for the check. Instead, the attacker and defender each roll their own die, usually Fight for the attacker and Flight or Brawn for the defender. The difference between the rolls determines the outcome of the fight. If the defender’s roll is equal to or greater than the attacker’s, the attack is ineffective. However, if the attacker’s roll is higher, they’ll deal some damage, the severity depending on the difference between the rolls, from a grazing hit to a death blow. If the defender is still up and wants to fight back, the roles swap and the dice are rolled again. Because there are no hit points, everything is handled narratively, and a single roll could end a fight.

Overall, the Kids on Bikes system is incredibly simple. The book encourages failing forward, not only through the use of adversity tokens but in the language it uses to describe failure. The system is meant to guide the narrative decisions your characters make, not bind them. This makes for smooth play with fewer dice rolls than other systems, although the game is not without its clunky bits. The difference between planned actions and snap decisions can be arbitrary, and combat can be a bit of a slog, especially when an enemy just won’t go down. For the most part, the system knows how to stay out of its own way, leading to a better game as a result.

Powered Characters

From E.T. to Eleven, characters with strange abilities have often been part of 80’s adventures. Kids on Bikes refers to these as powered characters. This isn’t an option the players can play, but a character that they control collectively. This is done with aspects, bite-sized parts of the powered character that are written on cards and passed out to the players. When an aspect becomes relevant, the player with that aspect turns the card sideways to indicate that they are taking narrative control of the powered character. Any player can activate any aspect, but narrative control remains in the hands of the player who controls that aspect. These aspects can vary wildly, from “sarcastic” to “able to control the weather.” In theory, this helps to make the powered character feel like a part of the group rather than just another NPC. In practice, however, spreading out the aspects and narrative control of the powered character can be confusing, and because some aspects are more pertinent than others (like the actual psychic powers) some players may end up controlling the powered character more than others. While making the powered character a collective character is an interesting idea, it falls kind of flat and can lead to the powered character fading into the background.

Besides aspects, powered characters have their own specific system for psychic abilities, which use Psychic Energy Tokens (PE Tokens). Using the powered character’s abilities starts the same way as any other check, with the GM setting a numerical value for the difficulty. Then, the player making the check will spend one PE Token and roll 2d4, subtracting the roll from the target number. If the result is zero or negative the attempt succeeds. If the result is one or greater, the player can either spend PE Tokens to increase their roll (thus decreasing the overall result towards zero) or the attempt fails.

Confused? You’re not the only one. The powered character system is the major drawback of Kids on Bikes. The “roll 2d4 and subtract it from the difficulty” system feels somewhat arbitrary, with no precedent in the rules. Combine this with the fact that the book doesn’t have rules for setting the difficulty of a powered character’s check, and this system feels like an afterthought. Supernatural abilities are an inherent component of the strange 80’s adventures this RPG tries to emulate, and it’s a shame that this aspect of the game isn’t as robust as it could be.

Information for the GM

I’ll be honest here. When I was preparing to run this game, I completely skipped this section, and no situation has come up in my games that had me rushing to it for help. The first few pages are about player safety, expanding on the Setting Boundaries section found earlier in the book. It encourages GM’s to create a gaming environment that is supportive and safe for all players, as well as giving players ways to stop the action if they’re feeling uncomfortable, relying on pre-existing systems such as Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool. While this is not something that has been needed in my games (we’ve all been playing together for years), it’s a welcome addition, especially for groups who might not know each other as well.

Beyond safety precautions, this section has advice for GM’s on crafting stories and adventures for their games. This advice goes from the general (discuss the desired tone of the game with your players) to the specific (use the rumors from the World-Building phase to craft your story). The book also stresses the importance of shared narrative control here, making sure the players have more of a say in what’s going on than in a typical game of D&D. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. For instance, there is zero information on creating NPC’s and no examples of NPC’s to throw in your games. The book forces you to figure out how to handle the NPC’s your players will run into on your own which is disappointing. Overall, this is not the most useful section, unless you’re absolutely new to running an RPG. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. Share1Tweet1Reddit1Email

The Appendices

This section holds much of the game’s important information, such as the aspects used by powered characters and the tropes used for character creation. There’s not a wasted page in the appendices, and you’ll be referring to them often.


While I would definitely recommend this game for certain play groups, I can’t give it a blanket recommendation. If you want a light system and the theme interests you, you’ll have a lot of fun with Kids on Bikes. However, the lack of pertinent GM information and lackluster powered character system makes it difficult to recommend this to new GM’s. A game like this is best for groups who have played together before. But considering this is a $25 RPG, you don’t have much to lose in giving it a try.

Categories: Game Theory & Design