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  • Links: Diplomatic Computing, Modern Games in Mainstream Media, and Gaming Easter Eggs

    by W. Eric Martin

    • DeepMind, the AI research and development company behind the AlphaGo AI that mastered Go, is now attempting to train an AI how to play Diplomacy. Here's an excerpt from an article on TechRepublic by R. Dallon Adams:
    AI systems have proved to be far superior to even the best human beings at zero-sum games like chess and Go. In this type of gameplay, there can only be one winner and one loser. Dissimilarly, Diplomacy requires agents to build alliances and foster collaboration.

    "On the one hand, it is difficult to make progress in the game without the support of other players, but on the other hand, only one player can eventually win. This means it is more difficult to achieve cooperation in this environment. The tension between cooperation and competition in Diplomacy makes building trustworthy agents in this game an interesting research challenge," said Tom Anthony, a research scientist at DeepMind.

    The ability to expeditiously vanquish a human player in a zero-sum game is certainly impressive, however, a richer layering of skills opens up another world of AI potential. Our day-to-day lives involve an intricate patchwork of balanced synergies; our individual needs often packaged within a larger group effort. That said, this research could enhance agents' ability to collaborate with us and one another, leading to a vast spectrum of real-world applications.

    "In real-life, we often work in teams and have to both compete and cooperate. From simple decisions such as scheduling a meeting or deciding where to eat out with friends, to complex decisions such as negotiating with suppliers or clients or assigning tasks in a joint project, we constantly reason about how to best work with others. It seems likely that as AI systems become more complex, we'd need to provide them with better tools for effectively cooperating with others," said Yoram Bachrach, a research scientist at DeepMind.

    • Starla and Miklos Fitch from the YouTube channel Our Family Play Games were featured on the U.S. morning television show Good Morning America in late June 2020, highlighting a few games — Ticket to Ride, Catan, and The Great Heartland Hauling Co. — and talking about the value of modern board games.

    • In The Strategist, a section of New York magazine, Jenna Milliner-Waddell spoke with Liz Davidson, Eric Yurko, and Scott McNeely to highlight the best one-player games for folks who happen to be socially distancing on their own.

    • Game blog For Chits & Giggles details dozens of easter eggs hidden in game boards, cards, covers, and other components. Read more »
  • The Return of the King: Knizia's The Lord of the Rings Being Released in Q4 2020

    by W. Eric Martin

    U.S. publisher Fantasy Flight Games has announced that in Q4 2020 it will release a twentieth-anniversary edition of Reiner Knizia's classic co-operative game Lord of the Rings under the new title The Lord of the Rings: Anniversary Edition.

    For those not familiar with what is arguably the second most influential co-operative game of all time, Pandemic being the first, here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:
    Lord of the Rings is a co-operative game in which the object is to destroy the Ring while surviving the corrupting influence of Sauron. Each player plays one of the Hobbits in the fellowship, each of which has a unique power.

    Over the course of the game, you make your way across four conflict game boards, representing some of the most memorable conflicts from the entire trilogy: Moria, Helm's Deep, Shelob's Lair, and Mordor. Each conflict board tests your small Fellowship to the utmost as you must play your quest cards to advance along multiple tracks. These tracks represent fighting, hiding, traveling, and friendship, and by playing quest cards from your hand with matching symbols, you can keep moving forward and push closer to victory.

    Cover of the anniversary edition
    The master game board indicates both the physical progress of the fellowship across Middle Earth and the corrupting influence of Sauron on the hobbits. If you're able to slip past your foes, you can hope to escape with minimal corruption, healing your hurts at safe havens along your path, such as the forest kingdom of Lothlórien. By playing your cards right and advancing quickly, you can collect powerful runes, unlock legendary cards to aid your journey, or find life tokens to help stave off corruption — not to mention advancing quickly through the conflicts. As you travel, the One Ring can be a crucial tool in your journey, allowing you to hide from sight, but repeated use will draw the attention of Sauron and corrupt the heart of the Ring-bearer.

    Your journey leads you deeper into the darkness with each passing conflict, and safe havens become few and far between. You must carefully watch the corruption track because if the Sauron miniature ever meets a Hobbit, that player is eliminated — and if the Ring-bearer is eliminated, all players lose as Sauron reclaims the power of the One Ring. To win, throw the One Ring into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom.

    FFG notes that the gameplay of this new edition hasn't been altered from the original release, but some of the punchboard components are being replaced by miniatures:
    The Hobbits setting out on their journey are shaped with careful attention to detail, from their hairy feet to the top of their sturdy walking stick. The Sauron token has now been replaced with a menacing Black Rider figure, racing forward at a dead gallop and representing the constantly growing threat of corruption. The threat die now represents Sauron's power in a menacing black. And finally, the One Ring is now a beautiful miniature, graven with Elvish script and perfectly sized to fit over the Ring-bearer's miniature when they choose to use the One Ring.

    FFG doesn't mention whether any of the expansions — Friends & Foes, Sauron, and Battlefields — will return to print. I'll update this post if I receive a response to my question about their status. Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • Character Stock Art - Wizard Art Pack
    Publisher: artofblake

    Character Stock Art - Wizard Art Pack

    The zip archive contains the following files:

    • PNG Line Art file with transparent background.

    • PNG Grayscale Art file with transparent background.

    • PNG Color Art file with transparent background.

    Stock License Terms and Agreement:

    The following image(s) in the product may be used for commercial and non-commercial work as follows:

    • Unlimited use of the following image(s) in commercial and non-commercial work.

    • Image(s) may be cropped, rotated, resized, and modified to fit your project.

    • Artist's name must be credited in all commercial and non-commercial work the image(s) appear in.

    • Image(s) may NOT be resold or redistributed for free in any way.

    About the Artist
    Blake Davis is a fantasy illustrator/concept artist working in the games and publishing industry. He has worked for many products and properties, and has produced many of his own, including the world of Omenshard. 

    If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions for future stock art images please e-mail me at

    Character Stock Art - Wizard Art PackPrice: $12.49 Read more »
  • Character Stock Art - Wizard - Line Art
    Publisher: artofblake

    Character Stock Art - Wizard Line Art

    The zip archive contains the following files:

    • PNG file with transparent background.

    Stock License Terms and Agreement:

    The following image(s) in the product may be used for commercial and non-commercial work as follows:

    • Unlimited use of the following image(s) in commercial and non-commercial work.

    • Image(s) may be cropped, rotated, resized, and modified to fit your project.

    • Artist's name must be credited in all commercial and non-commercial work the image(s) appear in.

    • Image(s) may NOT be resold or redistributed for free in any way.

    About the Artist
    Blake Davis is a fantasy illustrator/concept artist working in the games and publishing industry. He has worked for many products and properties, and has produced many of his own, including the world of Omenshard. 

    If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions for future stock art images please e-mail me at

    Character Stock Art - Wizard - Line ArtPrice: $5.00 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • #iHunt: The RPG Review
    #iHunt: The RPG Review

    I’m going to start describing a game. It’s a game set in the modern-day about hunting monsters. It’s based on Fate and adds some widgets to the Fate toolbox. I was not going to be able to stay away from this game for too long.

    In this review, I’m going to look at #iHunt: The RPG, from Machine Age Productions, a game about monster hunting that not only adds new mechanical twists to the monster hunting formula, but also adds in social commentary and the struggle to survive by dangerous jobs to make ends meet.

    #iHunt is based on a series of books that share the same setting, a fictional California city named San Jenaro. While some of the stories involve other aspects of urban fantasy, such as the city’s vampire society, many of the novels feature a protagonist who gets her monster-hunting jobs from an app called #iHunt.

    Content Warning

    The text is about characters that must engage with the gig economy to survive, and characters that fight monsters for a living. That means the game discusses the hardships of prejudice, social inequality, financial insecurity, and physical violence. It also does this with a lot of what some might call adult language.

    Additionally, several of the details given about various example monsters touch on themes like sexual abuse, harm to children, human trafficking, police violence, and other very serious issues. There are also several references to drug use.


    This review is based on the #iHunt: The RPG PDF, which is 328 pages. There are five pages of reference sheets, a full-page ad for the books, a character sheet, a title page, a legal page with content warnings, and a table of contents. The layout is two-column, and in a few places, the column structure is set up to address a topic on one side, and expand on it in the other, although the formatting is conditional and is utilized differently in various chapters.

    The book utilizes lots of color, and rather than stick to an established pallet, the colors will change based on the topics being covered. The section of the book that represents an excerpt from a magazine is formatted to look like a magazine, for example. In the chapter on monsters, each monster type gets its own color scheme and font.

    This is not an Evil Hat product, but given that it uses the Fate Core rules, I can’t help but think, compared to the very uniform, clean appearance of the Evil Hat Fate line, #iHunt: The RPG is like the mirror universe version of that formatting. It is still clear and effective, but also riotous, energetic, and chaotic.


    The opening chapter of the product addresses both the setting assumed by the game, as well as stating the thesis of the game. On its face, the game is about monster hunters that get their jobs by looking them up on an app called #iHunt, where people post bounties on supernatural creatures. More specifically, the game is about the lives of Millennials that can’t make ends meet working normal jobs, and the difficulty of day to day survival drives them to the desperate work of hunting monsters.

    This opening chapter does a lot more than most introductory chapters, as it gives an overview of the Fate rules, and introduces the Edge die (a unique mechanic to this implementation of Fate). In addition to the mechanical introductions, there is also an example magazine article that serves as an in-universe artifact of investigative reporting into the lives of hunters, and included in that article is a spread that shows what the fictional #iHunt app looks like.

    This section also discusses safety, and introduces two tools to that end. The first is the Commercial Break, something that can be framed like a commercial break in a television show, that anyone can call. Players can address how scenes have unfolded during the break, and if anything needs to be removed or edited, the “show” rewinds to the point needed to implement the change.

    There is also a Levels Worksheet, that includes several topics that are commonly associated with the game, and the level that the player is comfortable engaging with that topic. These allow the game to be calibrated to either exclude, keep off-screen, or limit certain events to supporting characters, depending on the preferences of the individual players. This expressly takes precedence over anything else in the text, so if players aren’t comfortable with something that is a default power of a monster, that power does not come up in play.

    There is a section about only playing with people you trust, which also seems to downplay the efficacy of active safety tools at the table (in other words, safety tools used in the moment, rather than used to calibrate content beforehand, outside of the Commercial Break). I like the discussion of safety, and I like the tools introduced. I think the Levels Worksheet is even better than similar, broader items that aren’t tailored for a specific genre. I’m just not going to warm up to the idea that active safety tools may be superfluous, beyond what the game introduces (full disclosure, the text questions them, it doesn’t tell you not to use them).

    #ThePeople, #MyScenario, #PeopleSkills, #Selfies

    I’m looking at the next four chapters together, as they look at assigning aspects, skills, and advancement of characters. This section opens up reiterating the economic situation of the default hunters, and it also gives a history of hunting in the setting, narrowing towards San Jenaro as history advances towards the modern-day.

    The game organizes hunters into Kinks, which is shorthand for what skills that particular type of hunter primarily utilizes. The kinks include the following:

    • Evileenas (Hunters that specialize in occult knowledge)
    • Knights (Hunters that specialize in physical combat)
    • Phooeys (Hunters that specialize in technology and tools)
    • The 66 (Hunters that have contacts and community ties)

    The individual entries give examples of what each type of hunter is best at, what their background likely looked like, what their flaws are likely to be, and what their attitudes are towards monsters and other hunters. There are also four kink specific stunts given for each type of hunter, and when a hunter picks one of these as their focus, they get one of these stunts for free.

    I appreciate character creation in this game. While it appears to be similar to other Fate games, players are encouraged not to fill in all of their details before having their “pilot episode.” In the pilot episode, the group describes their first meeting with one another, and whenever something in the narrative might indicate a ranking for a skill or other detail, the character fills in that part of the character sheet. There is no dice rolling in the pilot episode, just collaborative storytelling.

    For anyone familiar with Fate Core, the High Concept aspect will likely be familiar. This is the aspect that summarizes your character in the broadest sense. In addition to the High Concept, characters have two aspects that are left open, to be filled in during play, and the following other aspects:

    • Drama (Essentially similar to trouble aspects from other games)
    • Vision Board (Something that the character wants to achieve, eventually)
    • Day Job (An aspect based on what the character does for money when they aren’t hunting)

    The next chapter goes heavily into aspects, the traits that you assign to describe your character, which is the heart of Fate gameplay. Aspects are succinct descriptions of different facets of your character, which you can spend Fate points to invoke to gain bonuses on rolls, or to reroll dice. They also can be compelled to create trouble for a character, which allows the character to gain more Fate points.

    #iHunt: The RPG also introduces the concept of Imperiling Aspects, a way to invoke an aspect that only allows for a choice between two bad options. There are a limited number of times that the Director and the players can use this rule.

    The core skill list has 18 skills, and there is a nice chart that shows if that skill can be used to Overcome, Create Advantage, Attack, or Defend. Like other Fate games, there are also stunts associated with individual skills, which allow for situational bonuses, skill substitutions, or limited special abilities. The descriptions of the skills are canted towards describing how the skill would be gained by a hunter, and flavored by modern terminology. For example, Influencer is a social interaction skill, and Maker is a crafting skill.

    Selfies are the term used for milestones in #iHunt: The RPG. These are called Big Moods (Episode), Big F’ing Deals (Story Arc), and Life-Changing Events (Season Arc). There is a whole section advising on how to create physical artifacts to track your advancement in a tangible form, and in addition to the normal advancements at different levels (changing skills and aspects, adding refresh, or adding points to skills), there are rules for using specific selfies as “reminders” in the session to provide a bonus when they are invoked.

    #TheHustle, #TheEdge, #TheFlow

    The next three chapters describe the Fate rules, the modifications that #iHunt: The RPG makes to the Fate rules, and how to pace scenes and stories in a Fate game. This section describes Challenges (multi-step applications of skills to achieve a goal), Contests (two sides trying to complete a task before one another), and Exchanges (directly acting against other parties). This also talks about the unique Edge die, a d6 that replaces one of the Fate dice in certain circumstances in the game.

    If you haven’t experience Fate before, the actions a character can take are Overcome, Create an Advantage, Attack, and Defend. Overcome, Attack, and Defend are somewhat self-evident, but Create an Advantage is what a character does to give themselves aspects that reflect their planning and effort, and can be used to give the character a bonus when they use the aspect they created.

    The Edge is a special rule where one of the Fate dice is replaced with a d6. Fate dice normally have a +, -, or blank face, and generate results from -4 to +4, skewed towards “0.” Adding a d6 changes this probability greatly, and by default, monsters start with the Edge on hunters, but actions that characters take to show their efforts to set the monster up for a fall may swing the Edge back to them. The Edge can be used once for free when it is first gained in an exchange, but after that, it costs a Fate point to utilize.

    I’ve read a lot of implementations of Fate at this point, and I like the clarity in presentation here. I’m also really curious to see how the Edge dice plays out at the table. It feels like a wilder way to account for concepts like scale in other games, more dynamically.

    #TheGig, #TheMark

    The next section gives examples of how to structure a job, and provides random job generators for the game. In addition to these generators, there are example monsters, rules for building monsters, and tracking their ability to use special powers, as well as what kind of weakness they might have.

    The random generators include the following parts of the job, along with a paragraph summarizing each of the entries:

    • The Client
    • The Mark
    • The Trouble
    • The Place
    • The Charge
    • The Scope
    • The Hangup
    • The Other Hangup
    • The Aftermath

    The Aftermath involves lasting consequences of the job, including not getting paid or drawing unexpected ire.

    Monsters are ranked by stars, which in-universe indicates how hard the job is, and in-game tell you what resources you have to build the monster with the tools in the book. Four and five-star monsters are expected to be major story elements, and only hunters with a high rating have access to five-star jobs.

    The most common types of monsters are organized into clades, and the clades in the default setting of San Jenaro are vampires, sorcerers, werewolves, reptoids, demons, and hungry dead. After introducing each of these in broad terms, including any separate factions that exist within the groups, several individuals are included as examples.

    There aren’t any “generic” vampires or demons, etc. in this section, because one of the precepts of the game is to make each of the monsters unique. While some monster types tend to have certain bundles of abilities and weaknesses, individuals may have their own quirks, and some monsters are more monstrous than others.

    I wanted to specifically address the reptoids as monsters, because I respect what was done with them, and am still leery to use them. Reptoids play off the idea of reptilian aliens coming to Earth and masquerading as humans. The book specifically addresses the anti-Semitic connotations of calling someone a lizard person while insinuating that they are secret manipulators.

    The game mitigates this by reframing reptoids as middle-management nuisances that have just enough power to harm others, but are never the big power players in the world. I appreciate this take, and I really like a lot of the jabs at the expense of framing them as middle-managers that have delusions of grandeur, but it still feels like it could come across as touching on the anti-Semitic tropes the book expressly tells players to avoid.

    When talking about the hungry dead, the text avoids using common terminology due to the appropriated nature of that terminology, and instead ranks these undead as either Romeros, Science Experiments, or High Functioning Dead. Like all of the other monsters, there is a list of Facts and Myths at the end of their entry, but unlike the other monsters, there aren’t unique hungry dead, but unique occurrences that might be found at different jobs.

    Creature abilities are grouped as Creature Features (passive abilities), Monster Gifts (active abilities), Magical Gifts (abilities that can also be taken by hunters that learn magic), and Monster Banes (weaknesses that can allow the monster to pick up more features while remaining at their current “star” rating). The Features and Gifts have an essence rating for their use, while the Banes have a Ubiquity, Potency, and Special entry, which lays out how hard it is to leverage the weakness, what it does to the monster, and any special circumstances of that weakness.

    Essence measures how much supernatural potential something has, and it has five levels, usually defaulting to the third degree, giving the monster the ability to trigger an ability multiple times before they need to replenish their essence. Some monster abilities give them faster means of replenishing essence in a scene. Several monster abilities are noted for being able to remove agency from a character, and if the player does not grant consent, the ability won’t work on a player character. Some abilities work automatically against supporting characters.

    While I don’t always want to fine-tune the opposition that I create in Fate (I have used a lot of statistical shortcuts in my fate games for opponents), I enjoy how robust this toolkit is for building supernatural creatures.

    #TheStreets, #ThinkPoor

    The next two chapters deal with creating individual locations in the setting, and getting into the mindset of the expected characters in the setting. There are example images of area notes as well as a broader setting map example. The #ThinkPoor chapter is a deep dive into some sobering realities of life and how this frames the expectations of the game and what it is trying to express.

    Location notes include defining the location, creating aspects, and writing notes about the location, including what may have developed in play. The setting zone map is composed of the relative position of all of these individual locations, although new locations that are visited can always slide in between existing locations.

    While the text is always explicit about the protagonists and their fight to survive, not against monsters, but against an economy that doesn’t care about them, #ThinkPoor hits really hard, and even though I’m just on the Generation X border, a lot of these struggling realities remind me of some bad times I’ve lived through.

    The chapter explores the kind of life hacks that people sometimes need to use just to exist from day to day, to pick up a meal, have decent clothes to wear, or get some extra cash. It addresses the issues of trying to break the cycle of poverty when you constantly need to pay upkeep on a poor lifestyle, and the difficulties of health care when scheduling tricks keep you on the “part-time” side of the employment line.

    There is a deep dive into the trouble with accessing social safety nets, the burden of taxes on the lowest incomes, banking fees, debt, and navigating the legal system when you can’t afford a lawyer. There is an example of how devastating a run-in with the police can be, and a discussion on how that same run in could easily be fatal for people of color in a similar situation. In the end, all of this serves to show how easy it is to attempt to live for today, and not plan for tomorrow. This illustrates how a dangerous job like hunting monsters might be tempting to characters living under late-stage capitalism.

    #iHunt, #SanJenaro

    The next two chapters address the “canon” of the setting. This includes how the public sees the supernatural, the origin of the #iHunt app, factions in the setting, and canonical locations in San Jenaro that have appeared in the books, as well as some that are new to the RPG.

    There is a mock website article on the founder of the #iHunt app, as well as a discussion about how it came to be. There isn’t one canonical answer, but this section explores the history as expressed to the public, and the possibility of old-world hunters or even monsters providing support for the business.

    The public knows about the app, but in general, monsters are ignored in day to day life. People generally explain them away rather than deal with the knowledge of the supernatural, at least until they have personal trouble, at which point they may put an ad on the app for help.

    The sample organizations range from monster hunting nuns, to ancient monster-hunting families, to government cleanup agencies, to private security firms that work in the monster-hunting field. There is also an organization that touches on some child abuse themes that makes me think twice about using it due to this history (the child abuser is no longer a threat, but it’s part of the story of the organization).

    I love the other setting specific apps, which include a cash and credit only medical service, a vampire “dating” app, cleaning services, and an app for sharing workshop space (just what you might need for making custom weapons for monster hunting). All of these are framed both as a story element on their own, and in the context of monster hunting.

    San Jenaro is meant to incorporate themes from various California cities, from amalgamated examples of different amusement parks, to faded movie studios, to standard beach neighborhoods, borderlands between the rich and poor section of town, and a high-class area that is slowly fading to irrelevance. The theme is modern-day gothic, where the glory of the past is increasingly eroding. Some of the neighborhoods also feature strongholds for various monster clades, like the vampires.


    This section addresses why the Fate rules were used, how to use them to best effect for the setting, scene framing, and on the fly rules adjudication. There are also deeper dives into the Fate rules elaborated upon elsewhere.

    The bits I appreciated most in this section involved the frank discussion of what Fate does well, and what the game is really about. The book calls out Fate as not good for horror, and while I won’t argue an absolute, it is suited to competent people that get things done. The point that this chapter makes is that monster hunting isn’t the threat, it’s surviving day to day and trying to make enough money to get by. This is followed by a discussion on how to use the Fate fractal to frame things like expenses as characters that require time and effort to address.

    The other part of this discussion that stood out is the mindset of assigning difficulty. Fate isn’t really about saying that “in the real world, something would be a Great challenge,” it’s basing difficulty on if you want players to, on average, have to push on their aspects to do something, or if you want it to be something they have a reasonable chance to accomplish without burning resources. That’s the kind of narrative structuring advice it took me a while to wrap my head around when running Fate games.

    The advice also makes it clear that these aren’t stories about a chosen one learning how to save the world, but about a cycle of dangerous behavior that keeps escalating while the hunters fail to improve their situation. It’s not an epic story so much as an empathetic character study about modern life, punctuated with the ability to kill monsters to blow off steam.

     It’s not an epic story so much as an empathetic character study about modern life, punctuated with the ability to kill monsters to blow off steam. Full Payment 
    Full Payment

    This product is worth the price just for the Fate toolbox for building monsters, but the Edge die concept is another Fate widget I would love to see in action, and possibly used elsewhere. The discussion of the Fate rules are clear and engaging, and the rules do what I think a Fate implementation needs to do to really sing, which is to provide character types to add structure to the tools that Fate provides.

    However, if the Fate tools make this worth the price of admission, the discussions about modern hardships, the failings of capitalism to address the needs of a generation, and the quirky details of the setting like the apps and organizations make this a compelling and important read.

    No Tip

    One of the biggest challenges of this game may not so much be a flaw, but a consequence of a well-realized focus. As a Gen X person, I can see and empathize with the realities of Millennial life presented in the context of the setting, but the centering of the Millennial perspective may make this less open to the youngest gamers entering the hobby.

    The same intensity that makes this a compelling read can also make it an intense and overwhelming experience. Depending on life experiences and how someone wants to apply their energy, this may be a lot to take in without some breaks.

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

    I feel like I’ve been on a ride reviewing this one. It hits a lot of important topics, caused me to challenge some of my thoughts on various subjects, and presents a new spin on a formula I already appreciate. It’s a great toolset for people using any kind of Fate horror or urban fantasy game, like Dresden Files Accelerated or Fate of Cthulhu, but stands on its own as a game with its personality and message.

    The only thing that keeps me from recommending it more widely is the intensity with which it presents itself. It’s a strength, but it can also be overwhelming.

    What are some of your favorite games that challenged you to look at modern realities while remaining engaging? Have the social commentaries held up over time? We want to hear from you in the comments below.

    Read more »
  • Interesting Magic Appearances
    Green Runes

    GM: A red ball of flame hurls through the-

    Player: Fireball *yawn*

    GM: A greenish-yellow cloud of smoke appears from-

    Player: Cloudkill *yawn*

    GM: A purple arc of negative energy rips toward you from the sorcerer’s fingertips.

    Player: Eh? What the? I don’t know what the spell is. Run! He’s a powerful mage!

    GM : It’s just a lightning bolt, but negative energy instead of electrical.

    As you can see, merely changing up the description of a magical effect can throw even the most seasoned player for a loop. This adds intrigue, excitement, and sometimes fear into the game. This is where the GM gets to pull on those strong reaction strings for the benefit of the game, but also without being mean.

     You can’t grow until you’re uncomfortable. 

    There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of, “You can’t grow until you’re uncomfortable.” That’s probably poor paraphrasing, but it works in this instance. Make your players uncomfortable about what’s going on by taking away the tried and true magical descriptors and replacing them with new and interesting ones. This will grow their reactions to the events and amp up their interest in what’s going on at the table as they try to figure out how to fit this “new magic” into the comfortable mental mold that they’ve carried around with them for years.


    Changing up the physical description of spell effects can work wonders as well.

    As I’ve showed in my example above, just changing the color of a spell effect is enough to change up the perception of the spell, even if you don’t change the game mechanics behind it at all. I’ve used various colored fireballs in the past to throw players for a loop. I’ve yet to use a “prismatic fireball” in my efforts because that concept just popped into my head, and I think it would be a cool effect to really scare the experienced players that have high level characters. I’ll have to put that one in my back pocket for later use.

    Changing up the physical description of spell effects can work wonders as well. Describing a magic missile as spiked sling stones is pretty cool and gives it an “earthy” or “druidic” flavoring. Describing a wall of fire as elementals dancing and cavorting within the flames adds a certain flair. Take that same wall of fire spell and describe it as “trapped souls screaming in pain” and there’s a totally different flavor, even with the same game mechanics in place.


    One of my most triumphant times as a GM was when I had a large group (8 or so players) and all of them where extremely intelligent and experienced with D&D. This was in the D&D 3.0 days, and they could collectively recite damn near every stat block and power of every monster in the core monster manual series. There really was no surprising these players, and I was okay with that for a while. It was just the style of gaming that we had at the table, and that style is perfectly fine, so long as folks are having fun.

     I dusted off my first edition AD&D DMG and ran to the back tables where random other-planar creatures could be generated. 

    However, I decided to change things up on them a bit. They were prepping to assault a remote keep that had been taken over by devils. I assumed the players were going to do their due diligence and read up on devils and their powers between sessions. Yeah. It’s meta-gaming, but like I’ve said, that was this style of game. To really throw them, I dusted off my first edition AD&D DMG and ran to the back tables where random other-planar creatures could be generated. Different physical attributes and descriptors flowed out of those tables, and I applied them as skins over the stats of the existing devils. I even applied some of the skins to non-devil stat blocks (like goblins and ogres and such), but the appearance was devilish in nature.

    Lemme tell you. The raw fear of these “unknown” devils was deep and pervasive in the players. I could tell that they’d done their homework, but they’d studied for the wrong test. This led to more careful planning on their part, an abundance of caution, and quite a bit of good, in-character role playing from all of the players. At the end of the day, they cleansed the keep of the devils, but it was nerve-wracking for them the entire go of it.

    Ongoing Effects

    Spells are generally thought of as a one-and-done kind of effect, but there are plenty of examples of ongoing magical effects from fiction and in the RPG setting books themselves. This is where you can explore the depths of your creative mind to come up with great descriptors for ongoing effects.

     Spells are generally thought of as a one-and-done kind of effect. 

    Glowing runes, red pulsing script on the wall, flowing ooze that vanishes into a gap in the floor, strange altars vibrating with a low hum, and all of these are just some examples of tools in your toolbox for descriptors of permanent effects.

    With ongoing effects, I do urge you to put careful thought into what’s going to happen, if anything, when the players interact with the effect. As John Arcadian said on a recent podcast, “Players love to ‘activate the dungeon.'” You need to know what’s going to happen when the red, pulsing script is read aloud. What happens when the glowing runes are smudged out? What happens if a player touches (or drinks, ew) the flowing ooze?

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    Sly Flourish

  • Building Situations in D&D

    Our D&D games can become more fluid, flexible, and easier to improvise when we DMs focus on larger situations and less on specific scenes and encounters.

    At it's core, D&D can be broken down into the following steps:

    • The DM describes the situation.
    • The players describe what they want to do.
    • If needed, dice are rolled.
    • The DM describes the results.

    This cycle is what makes our D&D games run. If we look at the biggest or smallest moments in 1st level adventures or 20th level campaign conclusions, it comes down to the DM describing the situation, players describing what they want to do, everyone rolling some dice, and the DM describing the results.

    Many times DMs prepare static situations encounter by encounter. There's a dungeon. It has rooms. There are monsters in those rooms. The characters go room to room fighting those monsters. Many DMs break down their adventures into a series of encounters, each like a scene block, with its own introduction and conclusion built-in. Some of them are combat encounters, some exploration encounters, and some roleplay encounters. If these are combat encounters, there are a number of combatants in these rooms waiting for the characters to show up before they begin to act.

    The 3rd and 4th editions of D&D focused heavily on these sort of combat encounters. In published adventures they had two-page spreads with carefully balanced battles against a number of foes in various tactical positions. Each battle became its own small board game. Lots of people loved it.

    The 5th edition of D&D has largely let go of these static combat encounters. Instead, it, and many DMs who run it, step back and look at the whole situation. Instead of a series of balanced combat encounters, we might look at a whole hobgoblin fort, decide which hobgoblins are there, what their behaviors are, and how they will react depending on the actions the characters will take. In this style, gameplay is much more dynamic and heavily improvised. We don't know how many hobgoblin guards will be at the front gates because it changes depending on the time and other situations around the fort. We don't know if there are any hobgoblins guarding that old well in the back, the one connected to the ancient cistern said to be the home of an ancient and hungry beast.

    Instead of having a series of carefully balanced combat encounters, we pull back and look at the whole situation. When the characters confront the situation, spying on the hobgoblin fort from a cliff overlook, we describe the situation and they decide on their plans.

    We can call this style of DMing, "building situations" instead of building encounters. Will the characters sneak in through the well, bluff the guards, cause a distraction, or start lobbing fireballs from the cliff? We don't know. That's up to them. How the fort reacts to it is up to us.

    We can think of this as though we're widening our aperture when looking at the world. Instead of considering our games as a series of tactical combat encounters, we're looking at the bigger picture.

    Ignoring the Boundaries of Exploration, Roleplaying, and Combat

    As our aperture widens and we look at the whole situation instead of a series of encounters, we can also let go of the borders between exploration, roleplay, and combat scenes. We likely want to ensure there are opportunities for all three pillars within the overall situation. Some hobgoblins might hate working at the fort and are eager to leave or have the hobgoblin captain displaced. Maybe there are some prisoners. Perhaps the whole fort sits within the ruins of an ancient Netherese castle with a nest of secret laboratories underneath. We can drop in elements of all three pillars into our situation without defining how they will come up during the game itself. We don't define each scene, we just define the situation, and we let the players choose the pillars.

    An Example: The Howling Fiend in Legacy of the Crystal Shard

    In the D&D Next adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, our heroes have an opportunity to deal with a pirate ship from Luskan called the Howling Fiend. In our old way of designing adventures, we might set up a series of well-balanced encounters where the characters fight groups of pirates, pirate veterans, and the pirate captain along with her personal guard. We might have a scene where the characters meet with some drunken pirates who aren't happy with this whole situation in Icewind Dale and might be willing to negotiate. The characters might also explore nearby caves that the villainous wizard Vaelish Gant had used to hold his hostage—the speaker of Bryn Shander.

    Instead of breaking this down by scene and encounter, we can look at the whole situation. The Howling Fiend is docked in a huge glacial overhang along Lac Dinneshere. There's a crack in the glacier overhang that leads up to the surface and a couple of pirate guards posted there who can collapse the ice above and seal off this entryway if need be. There are a bunch of ramshackle huts built on an iceflow down by the water's edge and a winding path to an overlook near the crack that leads up to the surface.

    Our pirates include two dozen bandits, a bandit captain, a gladiator, and a mage. The captain and her barbarian gladiator bodyguard often oversee repairs to the ship and shipments being moved from the iceflow to the ship. At any given time there are a half dozen pirates on the iceflow, another half dozen working on the ship, another half dozen up along the overlook and the guard post, and a half dozen sleeping one off either on the ship or in the huts.

    There are no defined encounters for this situation. There's only the situation. It's up to the players to choose how their characters deal with this situation. They might use stealth to sneak in and assassinate as many pirates as they can. They might negotiate their way in disguised as pirates or barbarian mercenaries. They might decide to go in with swords drawn and hope for the best. They might sneak in through the crack in the glacial wall or come in on a boat painted black.

    We don't know how the players will decide to deal with this. We set up the situation and let them choose their course. When we build situations, it's far easier for us to react when the players go in an unexpected direction.

    Situations as Heists

    We can think of these situations as "heists". Each heist has a location, inhabitants, and an objective. We DMs set up the situation and the objectives, the players choose how their characters engage in the heist, and we DMs adjudicate the results.

    Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has two such situations. Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 3 has the characters infiltrate Gralhund Villa to chase down an assassin who has stole an artifact that had been intercepted before it could be given to the characters. The DM sets up the situation at the villa, the characters choose their course of action, and the DM determines the results. Later on, depending on how it plays out, the characters may infiltrate the lair of one of the main villains in Waterdeep Dragon Heist. In my own game it was Cassalanter Villa. The devil-worshipping Cassalanters have the Stone of Golorr hidden away in their hidden temple to Azmodeus while conducting a large garden party for the city's elite in their manor. The DM sets up the situation, the players choose their approach, the DM adjudicates the results. The same is true for the infiltration of the Vanthampur estate in Descent into Avernus.

    These situations work well. There's a single large location, a faction of enemies at that location, and an objective for the characters to achieve. The rest plays out during the game.

    Avoiding the Single Roll Failure

    When we build situations like this, we have to be careful not to let a single roll completely ruin the situation or, by default, drop it right into combat. We don't want a single bad roll to ruin the whole plan the players spent an hour putting together. Things may go bad, but it shouldn't be a single bad roll that takes it there. It should come from a series of complications.

    We need to keep the idea of "failing forward" always in mind. Just as no single attack roll determines the success or failure of an entire battle, no single skill roll should determine the entire outcome for a heist. Instead, a series of skill checks moves the needle one way or another or steers the path that the scene takes.

    A single bad deception roll shouldn't ruin an entire negotiation with the guards in the front. Instead, it might make them more suspicious or greedy.

    A single bad stealth check won't cause the entire hobgoblin fort to come down on the characters but it might start to alert one of the sentries. A second bad stealth check might make them come over to investigate but it might take three before the hobgoblin even draws a weapon in concern.

    We have to remember that when we're describing a situation, players are only understanding about half of what we're talking about. They don't see it as clearly as we do. Adjudicate the results in their favor, recognizing that they don't have a full grasp of the situation, so things aren't always against them. The bad guys don't have to be fully alert. Their hearing may not be that good. They may choose to ignore or avoid confrontation instead of facing it head on.

    Don't let the outcome hang on a single die roll. Instead let each roll move the story slightly more in favor or against the goals of the characters. It's hard to do but it builds wonderfully rewarding and dynamic scenes we could never have anticipated.

    Likewise, if things do turn to combat, we don't have to play it that every hobgoblin in the fort comes running. Battles are chaotic. People get lost. They get scared. It's fine to run waves of combatants but give the characters a break in the story to choose their next action. Give them a chance to run or sneak around. Let the gameplay types shift as the situation evolves.

    When Situations Don't Make Sense

    Developing larger situations doesn't always make sense for the type of adventure we're running. In many cases, particularly dungeon crawls, it works fine if you have scenes from room to room. The dungeon of the dead three in Descent into Avernus is a good example. There's still a situation going on down there but in general, the characters are crawling room to room hunting down cultists. Traditional D&D dungeon crawls can still work well as a series of connected encounters rather than larger situations but even in these series of chambers, there's still an overall situation and the characters may still find a different way to deal with it. For every group that crawled through the caves of chaos cutting down foes, there was another that figured out how to officiate a wedding ceremony between the kobolds and the goblins.

    Breaking Away From Assumptions

    Building situations helps us hang on tightly to the idea that we're playing D&D to see what happens. We DMs have no idea how the story will go. All we do is set up the pieces and see how the game turns out.

    If you enjoyed this article please support Sly Flourish on Patreon and take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Running Chapter 1 of Descent into Avernus

    Note: this article contains spoilers for the hardback campaign adventure Descent into Avernus*.

    If you take nothing else from this article, heed these words: the biggest improvement you can make to your Descent into Avernus game is to ensure the characters are tied to Reya Mantlemourn, the Hellriders, and Eltruel from the beginning. Do so during your session zero and all of the motivations for the rest of the campaign flow right in. Your players will never state something like "why would we be the ones to go into hell?" or "why do we have to save Elturel?". When tied to Elturel and Reya, these motivations wire them into the whole rest of the campaign.

    I covered this topic in-depth in Running Descent into Avernus: the Fall of Elturel but I believe it's worth stating again because of the huge impact it has when running this campaign. You can use this one-page Avernus session zero sheet to help get the characters connected to the adventure.

    In today's article we'll look at some tips for making the most out of chapter 1 of Descent into Avernus.

    Ignore the Flaming Fist

    As written, Descent into Avernus begins when the Flaming Fist mercenaries recruit the characters to clear out the Cult of the Dead Three. Without their leader, High Duke Ulder Ravengard, the Flaming Fists are nearly out of control. They're brutal, threatening, unforgiving, and inconsequential to the plot.

    Consider skipping the entire Flaming Fist angle to this chapter and instead have Reya Mantlemorn, the young refugee captain of the Hellriders, ask the characters to hunt down the Cult of the Dead Three. Reya is currently in hiding in the Elfsong Tavern since the disappearance of Elturel.

    You can begin the first chapter with the characters meeting Reya Mantlemorn at the Elfsong Tavern along with her seedy contact, Tarina, who knows the hidden location of the Cult of the Dead Three.

    Reya believes the Cult of the Dead Three is responsible for the destruction of Elturel and wants revenge. She's only partially right. The cult did help the Vanthampur family dig up the Shield of the Hidden Lord and hide Thavius Kreeg who gave up Elturel to Zariel. But Eltrurel isn't destroyed and the cult wasn't directly responsible, Kreeg was.

    The characters can learn of these things as they hunt down the cult underneath the bathhouse. They can learn that Duke Thalamra Vanthampur herself has hidden Kreeg and is using him to perform a ritual using the Shield of the Hidden Lord to do the same thing to Baldur's Gate, giving her full power over the city until it too descends into hell.

    Lore of the Shield of the Hidden Lord

    One fun story to weave into this section is the excavation of the Shield of the Hidden Lord from the Hhune crypts beneath Baldur's Gate. As the characters question NPCs and cult members, they can learn that the Vanthampur family hired the cult of the dead three to break into the cavernous tombs of the Hhune family, the family that formed the backbone of the Knights of the Hidden Lord, and recovered the shield. Baldur's Gate's crimes and murders grew exponentially when the shield was lifted from the strange sarcophagus from which it was lifted. The sarcophagus, the characters may learn, was lined with some sort of strange warm metal that burned those who touched it and prevented the entity within the shield from telepathically reaching out. Now that it is free, the shield is like a poisoned seed in Baldur's Gate.

    This whole story can be given out in a series of secrets and clues the characters discover during their investigation of the cults under the bathhouse. If you wanted to extend this section, you might look at Shield of the Hidden Lord by MT Black on the DM's Guild. Personally, I recommend moving quickly through the events of Baldur's Gate so you can get to the fun meat of this adventure in Avernus. Still, the story of this ancient shield is a fun one to weave into their exploration. Here are some secrets and clues you can weave into the adventure as the characters hunt down the cult of the dead three:

    • The Cult of the Dead Three excavated the Shield of the Hidden Lord six months ago by the Cult of the Dead Three under orders of Thalamra Vanthampur. Since then Baldur's Gate has fallen into blood and deception.
    • The Knights of the Shield were supposedly an honorable order of knights but actually committed terrible atrocities under the guidance of the entity within the shield.
    • The shield gave the knights information about future tyrants and threats years before they came into power. The knights would murder children and destroy villages because the shield told them they were preventing much greater evils.
    • The shield had been entombed with the last of the line of Hhune in a sarcophagus lined with a metal that burned when touched. Such metal prevents telepathic invasion.
    • Thalamra Vanthampur gave the shield to Thavius Kreeg and both are sequestered away in Vanthampur's vaults beneath her manor.

    These secrets are enough to keep the story moving towards the Vanthampur villa.

    The Shield, the Puzzlebox, and Kreeg

    Once the cult of the dead three has been dealt with, the characters should have three main leads to follow, all of which point towards Vanthampur villa. They should learn that Thavius Kreeg, the engineer of the fall of Eltruel, is sequestered away underneath Vanthampur villa along with a strange puzzlebox he brought with him and the Shield of the Hidden Lord excavated from the Hhune crypt beneath Baldur's Gate.

    With Reya Mantlemourn as their primary quest giver, the young Hellrider will send the characters to the villa with the intent to kill Kreeg (whom she believes betrayed and destroyed Elturel), acquiring this strange puzzlebox, and recovering the Shield of the Hidden Lord to remove it from Baldur's Gate. She tells the characters that she has a friend in Candlekeep, a sage of the occult, who can tell them more of the shield and the puzzlebox once they acquire it.

    Laying out this primary quest so clearly helps move the whole story forward to chapter 2 but still gives the players some agency by deciding how they want to infiltrate Vanthampur Villa.

    Skipping the Low Lantern and other Side Treks

    If you want to move the story forward, you can skip the section on the Low Lantern and any other side treks in Baldur's Gate. If, however, you enjoyed spending time in Baldur's Gate, there are ways to extend it as well such as the Baldur's Gate: City Encounters supplement by Justice Arman, Anthony Joyce, Anne Gregersen, and Gordon McAlpin.

    Otherwise we can skip a lot of what's going on in the rest of Baldur's Gate and head straight to Vanthampur Villa.

    Vanthampur Villa

    Running infiltrations of villas is a great way to enjoy the bounded sandbox playstyle of D&D. The motivations are clear: find Kreeg, find the Shield of the Hidden Lord, and find Kreeg's puzzlebox. If they saved Mortlock Vanthampur in the dungeon of the Dead Three, the estranged son of the Vanthampurs can give the characters a map of the upper villa to help them plan their caper. How the characters go about infiltrating the villa and accomplishing these goals is up to them.

    Good manor heists are awesome to run. We DMs don't know what's going to happen. We set up the situation and help the characters accomplish their goals. Manor staff walk in at just the wrong time. Brothers betray brothers. All sorts of fun things can happen.

    The characters will end up in the sewers and chambers below the villa and face Kreeg, Thalamra Vanthampur, or both. It's imperative that the characters deal with Kreeg, get the shield, and get the puzzlebox. If the characters aren't headed to the right place, move the maguffins.

    To Candlekeep and Hell

    With the puzzlebox and shield in hand, the characters and Reya Mantlemorn make their way to Candlekeep. If you want to expand Candlekeep, even if in just your description, check out the excellent Elminister's Candlekeep Companion, a supplement by Anthony Joyce, Justice Arman, Ed Greenwood, M.T. Black, Jeremy Forbing, Trevor Armstrong, and Laura Hirsbrunner. This book gives an excellent history of Candlekeep, describes locations, offers adventure ideas, and even includes a director's cut of Descent into Avernus worth checking out.

    If your goal is to get the characters into chapter 2 quickly, you need not worry about filling it out too much but Candlekeep is a truly unique location in the Forgotten Realms and worth the time to describe to your players.

    Sylvira's opening of the puzzlebox can be a bit passive when it comes to the characters. From the time they leave Baldur's Gate to the time they show up in Elturel in Avernus, the players don't really have many choices or many actions to take. One way to give them something to do is to have some demonic ichor drip from the cube and cause spined devils to burst fourth and attack while the cube is opening. They demand Kreeg and, when they do not get him, they attack.

    Before they leave Candlekeep, it's likely time for a quick shopping expedition. Give the characters the opportunity to explore Candlekeep, look up lore, and shop for whatever they think they'll need in Avernus. Scented soaps, clean handkerchiefs, chocolate, fine wine; things people in Avernus are going to love.

    Convincing the wonderfully strange Traxigor to teleport them into Avernus could also be a fun roleplay scene, even if the foregone conclusion is that he does it. Once he teleports the characters to Elturel and Avernus, he teleports right back out again.

    Introducing Gargauth

    One big question to consider is how to introduce the true voice in the Shield of the Hidden Lord, the demon lord / demigod Gargauth. You could have Sylvira herself note the fiendish nature of the shield or you could let this burn out slowly, giving the characters useful information and useful help enough so that they continue to stay with the shield. A fiendish nature to the shield can offer some foreshadowing though. Once they learn the true nature of the shield is the time when it should become indispensable to them. That's one of the first times the characters have to make bad choices for a greater good and it won't be the last.

    If you enjoyed this article please support Sly Flourish on Patreon and take a look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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