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  • Indie Game Studios/Stronghold Games Sues Plan B Games over Great Western Trail

    by W. Eric Martin

    The Indiana Intellectual Property Blog serves as a marketing vehicle for intellectual property and business attorney Kenan Farrell of KLF Legal — no, not that KLF — and he notes on the blog's "About" page that it's "intended to educate, entertain and enlighten readers on Intellectual Property law, news and events, particularly focusing on stories that directly affect Indiana".

    Turns out that one of those stories might be of interest to you, fellow BGG user. On April 18, 2019, Farrell wrote about a lawsuit filed by Indie Game Studios, LLC d/b/a Stronghold Games LLC against Plan B Games, Inc. and Plan B Games Europe GMBH on April 15, 2019 in which Stronghold "seeks monetary relief for Defendants' acts of trademark infringement and unfair competition under the federal Lanham Act, trademark infringement and unfair competition under Indiana common law, and common law conspiracy". Here is Farrell's initial summary of the lawsuit:

    The Complaint (below) [Ed. note: Viewable on Scribd here] references a contract by which the plaintiff, Stronghold Games, would exclusively publish a board game called "Great Western Trail" from August 3, 2016 to December 31, 2018. At that time, the game was owned by a German company called eggertspiele. The Complaint alleges that one of the obligations eggertspiele agreed to in the contract was it "will not during the term grant to any other person, firm or company any rights that would derogate from the grant made" in its contract with Stronghold Games.

    Stronghold first released Great Western Trail in the U.S. in November 2016. It was very popular and quick sold out. However, while seeking permission for a second print run of the game in June 2017, Stronghold learned that all assets of eggertspiele had been purchased by Plan B Games, the defendant.

    Plan B Games asserted that it had no contract with Stronghold and it did not grant reprint rights to Stronghold. Subsequently, in January 2018, Plan B Games released its own version of Great Western Trail, seemingly identical but removing Stronghold's logo from the packaging.

    Farrell included this image in his post, with this image coming from Indie Game Studios' complaint:

    Farrell might not realize (or perhaps simply didn't state) that this similarity of imagery and layout is often common in licensed games.

    Original German/English version co-published by eggertspiele/Pegasus Spiele
    Current (as of 2019) German-only version of GWT from eggertspiele/Pegasus Spiele
    Other editions of GWT w/ 2D covers not available for all, alas

    To continue with Farrell's remarks:

    I think this paragraph from the Complaint nicely sums up why Stronghold is unhappy with the current state of affairs: "Plan B was well aware of the pent-up demand for the Stronghold Version of this game in 2017, and the introduction of the nearly identical Plan B Version in early 2018 to satisfy the pent-up demand for the Stronghold Version improperly traded on Stronghold's goodwill and has led to consumer confusion."

    Unfortunately, while the Complaint references the initial contract between Stronghold and eggertspiele granting publication rights, it didn't include a copy of the contract for review. Although the contract apparently included language about minimum duration and exclusivity, it's unclear whether the contract granted any property interest in the Great Western Trail trademark to Stronghold.

    As general information, license agreements can give licensees standing to sue for infringement, provided that they grant an exclusive license and a property interest in the trademark. A trademark licensee's proper use of a mark benefits the trademark owner, not the licensee. This allows trademark owners to rely on use by controlled licensees to prove continuing use of a trademark. Section 5 of the Lanham Act explicitly recognises the acquisition of trademark rights by a licensor through first use of the mark by a controlled licensee.

    However, in this situation, Stronghold appears to assert its own claim to property rights in the GREAT WESTERN TRAIL trademark distinct from the licensor, based on its own exclusive marketing efforts in the United States.

    I look forward to reading the Answer, which hopefully will include the original contract. Stay tuned for updates.

    The complaint states that the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana has jurisdiction for this matter "because the amount in controversy exceeds $75,000 and this civil action is between citizens of a State and citizens or subjects of a foreign state", while adding that the court has jurisdiction over the defendants "because they purposely directed the activities at issue in this case towards this District, as evidenced at least by their presence and activities at the 2018 GenCon [sic] convention that occurred in this District and the offending sales that occurred in this District".

    H/T: René Raps Read more »
  • New Game Round-up: Place Animals, Collect Mana, Deliver Pizzas, Keep the Peace, and Provoke Your Girlfriend

    by W. Eric Martin

    • Let's check out more teasers for games that will debut at the Tokyo Game Market in May 2019, as well as games that have appeared from independent Japanese designer/publishers in the past year.

    Three Magic, for example, is a card game from Kei Tsukahara and Mahoroba that's designed solely for three players. Here's all that I know about the game so far: "Your goal in Three Magic, a.k.a. スリーマジック, is to collect three cards of mana (the power of the nature) in order to create a spell; create three spells to complete your magic. Do this first, and you win."

    If you speak Japanese, you can visit the publisher's blog on the Game Market website and probably get more out of what's posted there than I can. Artist Makoto Takami has also tweeted background info on the card illustrations and design.

    Joraku designer Iori Tsukinami won first prize in the Board Game Grand Prix design competition for "Bird Watching", winning ¥20,000 (approx. US$200) and publication of the design by the competition organizers, online retailer Bodoge and brick-and-mortar retailer DEAR SPIELE. The design will debut at TGM in May 2019 under the name Photome's, with players now looking for cats instead of birds. An overview:

    Photome's, a.k.a. フォトムズ, is a co-operative game in which you place animals to be visible — or place 3D buildings to hide certain animals — to create your ideal city. Use your smartphone to check whether your ideal city is being built properly.

    Games in the competition had to have a theme based on housing, and in the award announcement, the designer notes that this game was inspired by a favorite children's "search" picture book: " was conceived from the thought that I want you to create a three-dimensional cityscape and enjoy it from 360º". To do this, you fold two-dimensional cards to create that 3D city in which the animals live, whether seen or unseen depending on the game conditions.

    • Although One Draw debuted Hayato Kisaragi's Psychic Pizza Deliverers Go to the Ghost Town debuted at the November 2018 TGM, the game is still new and unknown by most people, but to rectify that situation James Nathan has published an excellent introduction and overview of the game on Opinionated Gamers.

    To sum up, one player is mayor of the town, creating its layout or using one of the pre-created layouts, while everyone else is a pizza deliverer who cannot see where they're going and must learn where things are by stumbling around and paying attention to what other players are doing. On a turn, a player can move one space orthogonally, attack orthogonally to attempt to banish a ghost, or use a psychic power. The mayor then resolves the action, tells the player the location of any barriers adjacent to the player, and whether or not the player senses any ghosts/pizzas/houses in any of the eight spaces surrounding the player. The players have only twenty turns to locate a pizza and deliver it to the matching house, and the first deliverer to do so wins.

    にゃんこパイレーツ (Nyanko Pirates) is the second title from the father-and-daughter design team of らなとパパ (Lana&Papa), and the 2-5 pussycat pirates in this dice-based game journey along the shores of multiple islands where danger and treasures await. In the designer's words: "Will you dare fight for treasures by yourself, or will you take someone else with you? Two adventurers' worth of shields and swords might be of great help to succeed in beating the danger, but it also means sharing everything you find!" The game will have English rules on BGG at the time of its debut at TGM.

    • To travel a bit in southeast Asia, I'll point out 花式自殺, a February 2019 release from Hong Kong publisher TIME2PLAY GAMES with a title that translates to something like "Fancy Suicide". The game bears the subtitle "十萬個激嬲女友的理由", which could be translated as "1001 Ways to Provoke Your Girlfriend", and someone pointed out to me that this subtitle belongs to a Facebook group "that posts dialogues of guys angering their SO with bad jokes or innocent things (to a guy)". The cover image makes so much more sense in light of this information.

    As for what the game is about, well, I'll just say this is one way to provoke the BGG News audience...

    • Let's close with the first title from INTELLIGENT MONKEY, a new publisher founded by someone from Taiwan Boardgame Design who would (as best as I can understand it) set up Japanese information on the TBD website ahead of that group's appearance at Game Markets in Japan. That individual has now founded a design circle with both Taiwanese and Japanese members, and its first release will be Zoomate, with the title currently undergoing funding on the Japanese crowdfunding site Campfire. Here's an overview of this game for 4-7 players:

    In Zoomate, the country of fire and the country of water — rivals who recently conducted a worldwide conflict — are in an uneasy peace thanks to a neutral third party that wants to wield power in order to maintain that peace.

    Unfortunately, the central power plant has been hacked, and now all three parties are grabbing for whatever power they can in order to bring victory to their side or (in the case of the third party) lock in a permanent stalemate between fire and water. If fire or water gain control of three or more power switches by the end of the fifth turn, then they win; if neither does by game's end, then the neutral party has preserved peace and won.

    Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • RPGPundit Presents #75: Bungalow of the Beach Giant Chiefs
    RPGPundit Presents #75: Bungalow of the Beach Giant ChiefsPublisher: Precis Intermedia

    This weekly OSR periodical from the mind of RPGPundit features a different theme or topic in each issue.

    Issue 75 (April 23, 2019): The Bungalow of the Beach Giant Chiefs

    From the annals of the RPGPundit's (in)famous Last Sun gonzo fantasy campaign, this issue presents a scenario and locale for adventure. Not only will the PCs encounter Beach Giants, but also Cloudy Giants and Stoner Giants, plus possibly Orcs, Goblins, Yeti, and other threats. Discover why the Giant Chiefs are meeting and then escape their capture.
    Price: $2.99 Read more »
  • Super Powered Legends: Neutronium
    Super Powered Legends: NeutroniumPublisher: Rogue Genius Games

    The Power of Peace

    The life of William Fehr, an actor, a husband, a father of three, came crashing down when his wife lost her arm, and the couple lost their children, during the NYC battle between Hecate and the founding members of the Sentinels. In an effort to avenge their slain children, William allowed himself to be bombarded by N-Ray particles to become Neutronium (PL 9), the Indestructible Man!

    Neutronium came to his senses when he had the Sentinels at his mercy and decided slaying them was not justice. In fact, he ended up joining them for a short time. Now, William continues to operate as both an action hero actor, and a part-time costumed hero.

    Super Powered Legends. Because sometimes what you need is a character everyone will recognize, even if they’ve never met her before.

    Written and illustrated by Jacob Blackmon. Super Powered by M&M.

    Price: $1.95 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • Monster of the Week Tome of Mysteries Review
    Monster of the Week Tome of Mysteries Review

    Powered by the Apocalypse games have been a major force in the RPG hobby for years, but it took me a while to fully understand how they really worked. One of the first Powered by the Apocalypse games that helped me to understand the concept, as a whole, was Monster of the Week. Given that it was also a game about one of my favorite genres, the text of the game really spoke to me.

    An interesting aspect of the product that I’m looking at today is that I saw various bits and pieces of it take shape in the Monster of the Week Roadhouse, a Google+ community for fans of the game. Monster of the Week Tome of Mysteries is a little bit of everything, and serves as a supplement to the core rules of the game. It contains new rules, playbooks, advice, and mysteries.

    Now that we’ve scoped out the location, let’s find out what we’re dealing with.

    The Tome Itself

    This review is based on the PDF of the product, which is 278 pages long. The PDF has a full-color cover, with black and white artwork throughout. The formatting is the same single column setup of the core rules, with bolded headers in a different font than the regular text, making it easy to follow the information on each page. There are several full-page illustrations marking the individual sections of the book.


    Often, the Foreword is just a brief set of comments that flow right into the introduction, but I wanted to specifically call out the foreword in this book, because in addition to reflecting on the history and creation of the game, it is written in a manner similar to the moves in the game, and is one of the most on-point forewords I have read in an RPG product.


    The next section in the book contains new alternate rules that can be implemented in a Monster of the Week game. These include the following:

    • Alternate Weird Basic Moves
    • Phenomena Mysteries
    • Special Moves
    • More Flexible Investigations

    Monster of the Week is based on tropes established by monster hunting television shows over the years, and in most of those shows, the heroes are capable of performing various rituals when the plot calls for it. Alternatively, they can tinker with super science to do what needs to be done in a more science fiction-based monster hunting story. These are represented in the current rules with the “Use Magic” move.

    The alternate weird moves introduce a more granular approach to hunters and how they do that “something special.” A character that doesn’t take use magic as the thing that “makes them weird” can still perform magic, but it’s more difficult and has more consequences. In exchange, they get the ability to choose one of the following options:

    • Empath (reading emotions)
    • Illuminated (connected to a secret conspiracy)
    • No limits (pushing beyond physical limits)
    • Past lives (remembering past lives at convenient times)
    • Sensitive (minor psychic abilities)
    • Telekinesis (moving things with your mind)
    • Trust your gut (getting hunches to act on without formal investigation)
    • Use magic (the default from the core rules)
    • Weird science (kind of like use magic, but explicitly with scientific trappings)

    What is interesting about these moves is that they serve to “customize” playbooks in a way that goes beyond the options for the individual characters. You can have a wronged that will never think of touching magic but has trust your guts, and they will seem very different than one that gets flashes of past lives to guide them on their quest for vengeance. Although I have always loved how flexible the use magic rules are in the game, I’m really interested to see the freshness that some of these options may add to a playbook that has seen a lot of use over time.

    Also in this section is a discussion of “phenomenon” mysteries, mysteries where the hunters aren’t trying to stop a specific kind of monster, but rather, they are trying to reverse some adverse supernatural effect plaguing an area. These call back to shows like Fringe that feel very much like a monster of the week style show, but the weirdness isn’t a monster, but a device or cross-dimensional rift. It also models television programs like Eureka or Warehouse 13. This section includes phenomenon types, threat moves, and modified questions for investigating a phenomenon.

    Many of the playbooks in the game include a move that triggers when Luck is spent, and there is a section of the new rules dedicated to making sure that all of the playbooks (including some of the expanded playbooks available online, and the new ones included in this book) also have moves that trigger when Luck is used.

    The section on more flexible investigations is one that I know some of my players would have appreciated. It is a discussion on making the investigate a mystery move results a little less rigid, for when players have questions they want to have answered that don’t fit into the assumed template.

    Overall, I’m really interested to see everything in the section at play at the table.

    New Hunters

    The next section of the book introduces new playbooks to the game. The new hunters include:

    • The Gumshoe (a regular private eye caught up in supernatural cases)
    • The Hex (a general magical practitioner, more flexible than The Spooky or Spellslinger)
    • The Pararomantic (a hunter with a romantic tie to a monster or supernatural creature)
    • The Searcher (someone that has become a hunter after a brush with the unknown)

    The Gumshoe draws on a lot of different private investigator tropes, even beyond the monster hunting genre, and revolves around following a specific code. The Hex is based around creating custom use magic moves and turning them into predictable rotes. The Pararomantic has a special track for determining the path of the relationship and the fate of the playbook’s significant other. The Searcher gets slightly different abilities based on the encounter that first introduced them to the supernatural (for example, if they saw Bigfoot, or if they were abducted by aliens).

    It is interesting to see how some of these playbooks encompass an aspect of characters that served as the basis for other playbooks. For example, Harry Dresden is almost as much Gumshoe (at least early on) as he is Spellslinger, and Buffy is both The Chosen One and a Pararomantic in early seasons. Beyond playing the playbooks “straight,” it is interesting to see what kind of customization might come from taking advanced moves to access bits and pieces of these.


    On their own, I like all of these, although the Hex feels the fuzziest. I think there is definitely a space for a dedicated spellcaster that isn’t as flashy as The Spellslinger or as touched with potential ruin as The Spooky, but I’m not as excited as I should be over customized use magic moves being the core conceit of the playbook.


    The Advice section is a series of individual essays on various topics that touch on Monster of the Week specifically, and more broadly, on urban fantasy tropes and running games in different environments.

    Some articles are more about topics like convention games, one-on-one gaming, sub-genres like gothic horror, less structured games, and the intersection between monster hunting and kids on bikes. Other articles are more specific to the game itself, introducing moves for things like spellbooks.

    This section has some of the most specific language about safety in the book, which is not so much a separate section, as interspersed into discussions on other topics. The rules on spellbooks can be carved up rather than used whole, but the advice that really jumped out at me involved the advice on running at conventions, which has very detailed discussions on timelines and how to pace a game, and the detailed checklists of items to introduce at various stages of a mystery that appears in the article on less structured games.


    There are almost thirty mysteries that are outlined in the final section of the book. These involve concepts, hooks, the countdown (the developments that will happen if the hunters don’t intervene), monsters, and in some cases, custom moves.

    This section is a good resource, not only for mysteries to run, but to see how mysteries should be structured, how custom moves can play into them, and for monsters that can be cut and pasted into other mysteries. I am especially fond of The Circles, a mystery that puts a spin on crop circles and utilizes a classic monster in a way that really feels like an episode of the source material. The Curse-Speech is an attention grabber, utilizing a migrating evil language as one of the plot hooks. Everybody Get Psycho is another favorite, as it has a great twist on the classic trope of a cursed object and heavy metal music. The Quiet is a creepy, cult focused mystery with a great custom move and lots of atmosphere. By no means are these the only mysterious I would recommend checking out, but these are some of my favorites, that walk the line between calling back to great tropes while doing something fun and different with how the plot might advance.

    Because the concept of “Monster of the Week” is very broad and can cover a wide range of stories, there is a great deal of variety in this section. Some, like the opening mystery, are a little bit too gonzo for me. Time travel and futuristic AIs push a little outside of my comfort zone for expected Monster of the Week stories. I also know that for my own tastes, homages that are a little too on the nose aren’t my favorites.

    There is a wide variety of authors on these mysteries, so I don’t think this was a conscious design decision, but a few too many of the mysteries veered into very traditional roles for women in horror scenarios (vengeful spirits from relationships, witches tampering with powers beyond their control, etc.). No individual mystery is especially insensitive in how it utilizes these tropes, but similar tropes become a recurring factor. I also would have liked a content warning for the issues dealt with in the various mysteries at the beginning.

    Those disclaimers in place, there is a ton of material to use, either for a quick night of play or to pull bits and pieces from to construct other mysteries. There is a lot of material here to use for resources.

    Successful Hunt
     The material in this book is equally suited to add excitement and variety for veterans of the game, and to give someone brand new to the genre plenty of tools to work with. 

    The material in this book is equally suited to add excitement and variety for veterans of the game, and to give someone brand new to the genre plenty of tools to work with. While it’s a great resource for Monster of the Week, the material in this book is also a great resource for urban fantasy games in general, along with some really strong advice for convention games.

    Out of Luck

    The book is very strong, but if you aren’t a fan of gonzo or obvious pop culture references, some of the mysteries may not be as useful to you. A few too many mysteries lean heavily on some specific roles for women, and individually these are fine, but it is a bit of a recurring, if unintentional, theme. Safety, as well as appropriate topics for individual tables, is discussed, but not specifically called out in their own section of the book.

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

    I think this is going to be a solid purchase, not only for anyone that is already interested in Monster of the Week, but for anyone that wants more material to build on for monster hunting and urban fantasy stories. There is a lot going on in this book, and so much of it provides a solid basis for telling stories at the table, as well as best practices for setting up those games.

    Do you have a favorite monster hunting scenario that you have played through? A particularly fun twist that your group experienced? We want to hear from you in the comments below, so please let us know what you think.


    Read more »
  • Video4 Funky Fungi to Liven Up Your Game (And A Few Ways To Use Them)—Part 1 of 2
    4 Funky Fungi to Liven Up Your Game (And A Few Ways To Use Them)—Part 1 of 2

    This is as pretty as mushrooms get. Fair warning: it’s all a horror show from here on out. Image Courtesy of

    Beneath the soil they wait, oozing digestive juices to liquefy and absorb any edible material hapless enough to fall in their path. Silently, patiently, they spread hidden tendrils thinner than a hair under the ground, linking threads to form an invisible net below the feet of the hapless humanoids lumbering above them. Relentlessly, they burrow through the ground. Growing, consuming, they bide their time over months, years, centuries, even millennia until the time arrives that they burst through the ground, hurling copies of themselves into the air and preparing to begin the cycle once more.

    Sure, this is a workable description of any number of ancient evils in fantasy gaming, but it’s also a pretty solid way of talking about the fungi you probably have in the patch of ground nearest to you right now. What we think of as “mushrooms” are really only formed by a small fraction of fungal species;

    …in fact, the “mushrooms” that we see are just the mechanism by which fungi spread. This means that Toad from Super Mario Brothers, myconids from D&D, and any other mushroom creatures you can think of are just ambulatory reproductive organs, and the Smurfs village is basically a scene from a Saw movie.
    in fact, the “mushrooms” that we see are just the mechanism by which fungi spread. This means that Toad from Super Mario Brothers, myconids from D&D, and any other mushroom creatures you can think of are just ambulatory reproductive organs, and the Smurfs village is basically a scene from a Saw movie.

    The majority of the “body” of a fungus is its mycelium (yes, like the network in Star Trek), which grows out in all directions, seeking food and forming a network within the soil. This underground network exists in nearly all areas with vegetative life, and in addition to decomposing materials that would otherwise pile up, it is used by plants as a kind of external digestive system, forming a symbiotic relationship whereby plants can gather food and nutrients that they can’t reach with their own root systems. There is even evidence that this network of fungi is also used in a form analogous to communication between plants, forming what is sometimes called (and I could not possibly be more delighted to tell you this) a “wood-wide web”.

    Until around 1960, fungi were considered to be plants — which makes sense; they grow from something that looks like seeds, and they don’t move on their own. However, later science determined that they were much more closely related to animals, just completely immobile and without any sort of muscle tissue — which really makes me wonder whether I might technically be a fungus. They store energy as glycogen (like animals) rather than starch (like plants), and their cells are given rigidity not by plant-based materials like cellulose but instead by chitin, the same material that makes up the exoskeletons of insects like cockroaches. Yum!

    Fungi can be medicinal or poisonous or delicious (or sometimes a combination of any two of those things), and the difference between a good dinner and an early grave is sometimes a matter of how they’re prepared. Indigestible or poisonous mushrooms can be rendered edible (or at least less harmful) by any number of techniques. I’m not going to go into more detail than that because a) this is the Internet, and no one should try to do this kind of thing based on the advice of an RPG blog, and b) even if that were a good idea, I’m the absolute last person who should be giving that kind of instruction. With that in mind…

    Warning: mushrooms can kill you.
    Warning: mushrooms can kill you, just like they were rumored to have killed the Roman emperor Claudius, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, Pope Clement VII, and the composer Johann Schobert. And that’s just some of the famous people. About seven people per year die of mushroom poisoning in the U.S, and hundreds more are made seriously ill. Even though there are pictures in this article, and for the most part I tried to find reasonable approximations of what the fungi in question looked like, this is not an identification guide. I can’t even match my socks in the morning, and I can barely avoid killing my family when I cook for them even when I don’t use potentially poisonous ingredients — do not take anything I say as adequate reason to put these things in your mouth.

    However, describing such things is not only safe, but extremely cool. And with that in mind, I present to you 8 Funky Fungi To Liven Up Your Game (And A Few Ways To Use Them).

    Mind-Controlling Ant Fungus (ophiocordyceps unilateralis)

    Strangely, the animated “Antz” movie left this scene on the cutting room floor. Is that reference dated? I feel like that reference is dated now. Oh, well. Look it up.

    By itself, there’s nothing especially new or interesting about a fungal infection. If you’re alive, which I assume most of you reading this are, you are already host to a dizzying array of fungi, yeasts, and other creatures that call you home. They’re like roommates (good or bad). They do their thing to varying degrees of intrusiveness and stink. You also do your thing, and if you’re too incompatible, one or the other of you gets evicted. Cordyceps is more like that friend who visits from out of town and suddenly surprise! They’re moving to your city and need a place to stay. First they start eating all the food out of your fridge, then they start making demands, and before you know it, they’re trying to hollow you out and turn your body into a nutrient paste they can use for reproduction. Which is not, in fact, something that everyone does, Harold.

    This particular species of Cordyceps infects carpenter ants, and then even while eating them alive, hijacks the nervous and muscular system of the ant, forcing it to travel to an appropriate piece of plant cover, climb to the ideal elevation for reproduction, clamp on to the grass with their mandibles, and then die. The fungus continues to spread within the ant, before eventually sprouting out of the long-dead husk and throwing its spores to the wind, beginning the cycle all over again. Some scientists think that the ants may be cognitively unaffected during all of this, and that the mechanism is actually a little less like mind control, and a little more like being controlled like an agonized marionette from within. Nature is amazing.

    Potential Game Use:

    A prodigal son from a local farming community finally returned, but the day after his tearful homecoming, he wandered into the woods and disappeared, only to be found again a week later dead, hollowed out, and filled with a mysterious powdery substance that creates a powerful feeling of well-being when inhaled, even accidentally. The heroes have been called in to investigate the case, as local law enforcement has no idea what is going on.

    At first, all signs point to a horrible drug deal gone bad, until the characters find several locals attempting (and maybe succeeding) in stealing the mysterious powder, claiming that they feel compelled to share with their friends and family. “Addicts” at first violently resist any attempts to prevent them from taking or spreading this powder, eventually becoming a kind of hive mind that exhales spores onto the PCs. If not helped, the entire village will die in agony, possibly spreading the infection to other nearby areas.

    In such a story, there are plenty of opportunities for medical or nature rolls (to determine the nature of the illness or the drug), social rolls (to determine that individuals are being non-magically mind-controlled) and constitution-type rolls to avoid infection. Potential solutions include spells curing disease, exotic alchemical reagents, introducing another fungal or bacterial species to counteract the infection, and good old-fashioned fire (for games that tend to be a little darker in tone).

    Candy Cap Mushrooms (lactarius rubidus)

    Sure; when a mushroom hunter finds something on the ground that tastes like maple syrup, they’re “nature-loving” and “exploratory,” but when I do it I’m “too old to still be doing this kind of thing” and “need to put on pants.”

    Edible mushrooms, by themselves, aren’t all that much to write home about (unless “home” has a mycologist, in which case you should definitely write home to make sure you’re eating the right ones). Edible mushrooms that make for a workable ice cream flavor start to get a little more interesting. Where lactarius rubidus gets really fun though, is after the initial consumption. When dried and then reconstituted, this mushroom tastes like maple syrup (because, it turns out, it produces the same chemical that is used to make maple syrup flavoring—now who’s being unnatural, Canada?). The real magic happens later, when the sweat and tears of people who eat the mushroom start to smell like maple syrup as well. It’s like someone with more imagination than impulse control stumbled across a wish-granting leprechaun and demanded a combination of dessert and cologne, and I’ll be darned if the little guy didn’t make it work.

    Potential Game Use:

    The characters are invited to a feast by a local fae noble. Because interactions with faeries in folklore and fiction are one part entertainment to three parts weaponized manners, eventually, a character is going to insult someone. To keep this adventure from feeling too “on the rails,” feel free to use a character loosely associated with the fae whom the PCs have insulted or irritated previously. For a little foreshadowing fun, include some sort of massively dangerous but largely mindless beast in a cage, leashed or otherwise bound near the tables as the characters eat. After the feast, the heroes are offered an especially delicate and exotic dessert mushroom, which is also given to the dangerous creature. The creature immediately tears into the dessert mushrooms with terrifying abandon: think “Cookie Monster” meets “Sharknado.” Because players aren’t dumb, they will almost certainly check the dessert to make sure it’s not poisonous, magically or otherwise trapped (which of course, it’s not), and/or wait to see what happens with the Hungry Hungry Horror. Offer the character some sort of minor benefit for eating the mushrooms — healing, one additional use of a power, or whatever form of play currency is used in your game (e.g. inspiration, conviction, XP). Keep track of what characters eat the mushroom and how many they eat.

    Following the meal, the characters discover the delightful side effect of the mushroom — they smell exactly like the delicious dessert they just consumed thanks to their unrefined humanoid biology. Their fae hosts, of course, have more refined digestion. As the characters look on in horror, the fae lord at the head of the table lets the leash slip on their pet monster, who lunges at the nearest character while the nearby court of fae watches and applauds. This is a fairly straightforward mostly-combat encounter, but with a lot of potential fun in the form of set pieces for combat. Think flipped tables, improvised weapons, flying crockery, and lithe, mocking figures darting in and out to make things more “interesting.” This may also be an opportunity for more socially-oriented characters to use their charm to request assistance from particularly engaged onlookers.

    Octopus Stinkhorn (clathrus archeri)

    Apparently, they smell as good as they look.

    To the right, you will see a picture of what I absolutely swear is not only a fungus, but the single grossest fungus I have ever read about (and that’s including a species coming up in the next article that grows exclusively on herbivore dung). The Octopus Stinkhorn begins its visible life as a slime-covered bolus of egg-like material with its forming tentacles barely visible. Eventually, the tentacles strain against their “egg” and burst outward, covered in a thick, black-brown goo that smells like rotting meat. The stench attracts nearby flies and other decomposers, which wander around on the surface of the tentacles, picking up spores that they drop elsewhere (basically pollination, as imagined by Clive Barker).

    Potential Game Use:

    Look. If you’re going to have something sprout up unexpectedly from the ground that looks like Cthulhu’s dust bunnies, you might as well lean all the way in. Something unclean has been here before. “Here” can be the site of some sort of horrible sacrifice, sacrilege, or slaughter, or it can just be a case of “wrong place at the wrong time.” As another straightforward combat encounter, it’s hard to beat a tentacled creature that can unpredictably reproduce from any spot on the ground, but the real challenge will come in the form of the creatures that are attracted to and defend the Supernatural Stinkhorn. Take this as an opportunity to drag out every gross monster you’ve ever wanted to use. Giant cockroaches? Go for it! Slime molds, gelatinous cubes, worms that walk? They’re all fair game, and they’re all making heart eyes at this festering mound of thrashing goop. Every successful strike results in everyone within 10 feet getting splashed with putrescence, triggering some sort of constitution-type roll to avoid either taking damage or losing the next round heaving breakfast onto the ground.

    What’s more, who’s to say what characters who take damage from such an attack might not themselves be the source of the next infection?

    Bioluminescent Fungi (~80 species)

    Preeeeeeeety sure this is a Photoshop job, but you get the idea. Glowing mushrooms: They’re A Thing (TM).

    I almost didn’t include bioluminescent fungi in this list. They’re such a cliche that it’s almost not worth it. But there are about 80 species of bioluminescent mushrooms, and that’s a pretty big chunk of the fungal kingdom to just leave out because everyone already knows about them. So, with that in mind, yes. Glowing mushrooms are real, and there are a bunch of them, and yes, they all look very, very cool. Do yourself a favor and do an image search of them sometime.

    Potential Game Use:

    Lighting is a sometimes-underutilized part of adventure and encounter design. I can’t count the number of modules and supplements I’ve read that treat lighting as sort of a throwaway — there’s almost always magical ambient lighting, or unexplained torches (which are, if you’re a sucker for verisimilitude, extremely unlikely), or sometimes no lighting  at all. Which makes sense on a certain level — much like encumbrance or precise weapon details, not everyone likes thinking about and tracking questions of visibility in exploration or combat. However, I propose that if you’re looking for a quick and easy way of making things interesting in an otherwise bog-standard dungeon or cave, start caring about lighting. Have unseen things chittering in dark corners, or drips just out of eyesight, or things darting out of view as soon as the characters get too near.

    Another consideration: do your players have darkvision? Of course they do. If it’s a fantasy game, pretty much everyone has darkvision. Things without eyes have darkvision. A soup tureen has darkvision in some rulesets. You know who doesn’t have darkvision though? The large group of frightened prisoners the characters may have just freed. Alternately, some puzzles or clues may only become visible when viewed under the light of a specific species of mushroom, the identification and gathering of which can be an encounter all by itself. For an extra “wow” factor, consider making a homemade blacklight to represent the mushroom’s glow, and using lemon juice to write a hidden clue, message, or even whole puzzle.

    In Conclusion:

    Fungi are really, really neat and can add to just about any fantasy game, above or below-ground. They’re terrifying, dangerous, delicious, poisonous, useful and frustrating in equal measure, and if you let them, they can give your game a touch of alien whimsy that few other things in the real world can. If you’ve enjoyed this article, come back in a couple of weeks for Part 2, where I give four more kinds of fungi you might want to use in your game.

    In the meantime, do you think you’ll be using more mushrooms in your games? Do you have a favorite fungus (or a suggestion for me to cover in the next piece)? Let me know in the comments!

    Further Reading:

    1. Six Bizarre Things about Fungi : A cool, quick little article about the weirdness of fungi, prominently featuring three of the species that made this list (h/t Luke: thanks for the heads up!).
    2. Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone. There aren’t a lot of books on mycology out there that aren’t aimed at mushroom hunters, farmers, or people looking for psychedelics. While this is an engaging and entertaining overview in a field that isn’t exactly crowded, I can’t entirely recommend this book, as it contains some flip statements about several vulnerable populations that have little if anything to do with fungi, and that kind of soured the read a bit for me. Your mileage may vary.
    3. The Magic of Mushrooms. A documentary available in the US on Netflix (as of the time of this article), this fairly short but fun film walks you through the basics of fungal biology, as well as introducing some of the ways fungi may well shape our future. Fun, quick, and relentlessly British, I can’t recommend it highly enough for someone who likes documentaries.
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  • VideoThoughts on the Finale of Tomb of Annihilation

    Warning, this article contains spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation.

    This is the final article of a number of articles discussing the Dungeons & Dragons hardback campaign adventure Tomb of Annihilation. Other articles include the following:

    Today we're going to focus on the campaign's conclusion: the battle against the atropal and the arrival of Acererak.

    Story Versus Challenge

    Almost everywhere else when running D&D games, I'd argue, we're better off focusing on the story instead of tuning the game to fit a particular mechanical challenge for the characters. When building encounters I recommend building encounters from the story and not to simply select monsters based on the particular level of the characters.

    Boss fights are different. Boss fights and campaign closers have a particular feel for them, one that requires some mechanical attention.

    Maybe this isn't always true. Maybe, even in boss fights, we're actually better off just letting the story go how it goes just like we do with the rest of the game. Maybe I'm not wise enough to let go completely. I want to see a solid challenge. I want to watch the characters struggle but end victorious. I want a continual feeling of fear and hope rolling through the battle. I want something as powerful as the end of Vox Machina.

    As it stands now, though, when it comes to boss fights and campaign closers, I tune things around the characters and their capabilities to keep a continual feeling of hope and fear.

    On the Atropal

    The atropal encounter in Tomb of Annihilation can be swingy. The atropal a powerful creature with a lot of options—a lot of options to remember. It also has a huge vulnerability: radiant attacks. A paladin who smites the atropal can drop it very quickly. In some circumstances that may be just fine. They still have to deal with the Soul Monger itself and Acererak's arrival.

    We can keep a handle on this dial if we want to. The average hit points of the atropal is 225 but its maximum hit points within its hit dice is 324. We can also ignore the radiant vulnerability if we think it's going to get nuked too quickly. Keeping a hand on the hit point dial is a good way to maintain a consistent challenge during a boss fight.

    The atropal's necrotic aura is also worth remembering. The atropal floating around the room blocking healing and damaging characters by its mere presence is a big part of the fun. We can remember all of these special abilities if we grab a 3x5 card and write down the atropal's important actions and features so we don't forget it during the fight.

    The atropal is also missing legendary resistances but we can always throw them back in if we think it will get knocked out of commission too easily. We can also turn its ability to summon a wraith into a bonus action so its dropping wraiths every round. When the atropal dies, so do the wraiths.

    We might replace the atropal's wail with a maddening wail instead. I'm a huge fan of madness and gaining levels of exhaustion felt like it could be too much. This form of madness could be removed if, at the end of their turn, the character succeeds on their saving throw. Or, if they chose to, they can take 28 points of psychic damage at the beginning of their turn to break out of the maddening effect and get their full round of actions. This is a nice hard choice for players to make if they get stuck by this ability.

    Most of the time we can focus its legendary actions on its ray of cold attack and increase the damage of this attack from 21 (6d6) to 28 (8d6).

    The tentacle attacks from the soul monger are also important to remember and can do a lot of damage. Every turn the soul monger is attacked, it attacks with a tentacle. Thus, its attacks scale up nicely with the attacks of the characters. I gave the tentacle the ability to hit someone for damage and pick them up, threatening to drop them in the lava at the end of their next turn if they don't do something about it. This added a lot of interesting pressure on the characters to save one another before they're tossed into lava.

    In this battle we can also tweak the pacing by considering the hit points of the soul monger itself and how many rods need to be broken to send it into the lava. If you have more than four characters, its probably fine to require two of the struts to break or even three if they're having an easy time of it. If they focus on the soul monger, we can increase its hit points as well.

    Thus, we have a lot of dials we can turn in this combat to keep the pace nice and threatening without wiping out the characters in the last scene of a year-long campaign. Here are a few we might consider:

    • Tweak the hit points of the atropal and the soul monger.
    • Give the atropal legendary resistances and remove its radiant vulnerability.
    • Let the atropal summon a wraith as a bonus action.
    • Add a maddening wail that inflicts short-term madness. This can be removed by taking psychic damage.
    • Let the tentacles from the soul monger inflict damage and grab on a hit.
    • Don't forget about the atropal's necrotic aura.

    On Acererak

    It's hard to offer meaningful advice for running Acererak at the end of this campaign. What happens in this battle and how you end up handling it will depend very much on each individual campaign.

    I ran this encounter twice for two different groups and it went completely different each time. Neither time did they face off and try to fight the archlich directly. Smart thinking on their part.

    In my versions of this encounter, Acererak becomes aware that his creation is under attack. I foreshadowed his coming arrival, describing how he was interrupted while carving a billion-year-old temple out of a dead rock of a planet with some of his lich apprentices and his sphere of annihilation. He arrived in my game when both the soul monger and the atropal were killed.

    At that point, both the discussions and the disintegrations began.

    In one group, we had an ongoing story thread in which our warlock character, Ogechi, was slowly turning into a lich himself. He pulled the black key in the maze room and gained a powerful necrotic spell attack as a result, along with an arm that looked like a lich.

    When Acererak showed up, he wasn't so quick to kill Ogechi since this warlock proved to be a potential apprentice. All Ogechi had to do was sign an infernal contract scribed by one of Acererak's succubus lawyers. One of the other characters, the bard Tharmond, secretly charmed the succubus who forged Acererak's own signature on the contract, thus freeing Ogechi without Acererak knowing it. They then convinced the succubus to tell Acererak to return to his former work and they would take care of things here.

    While this is going on, Acererak is hurling his sphere of annihilation (which has a terribly low DC and is easily avoided) at one of the other characters who is tossing phylacteries into the lava. He eventually lost the save and got disintegrated only to have the trickster god within him restore him only to be disintegrated AGAIN and so on. That was weird.

    A couple of characters got a couple of hits on Acereak but eventually he left knowing he had a new apprentice with a tattoo key to open up the doors of the world of the night serpent.

    So there was no real fight against Acererak.

    My other game took a similar turn. In this campaign, Acererak discovered that one of the characters carried a dagger that acted as a key to open up the doors to the lair of the Night Serpent. He was willing to spare their insect lives if they handed over the dagger. They did, but, at the last second, threw it into his sphere of annihilation and ran for the portal. Thus they escaped into the jungle with an archlich's dark gaze upon them.

    One way to handle this encounter is to ask yourself what the characters have that Acererak may want as much as he wanted the soul monger and the atropal. If you can throw this in earlier in the campaign, all the better.

    Other than this, I have little good advice on running the encounter with Acererak. It's a strange fight to face a monster this powerful in the final scene of the game.

    Skipping the Final Puzzles

    In both of my games I ended up skipping the final rooms of the lowest floor. I felt that, after the fight against the atropal and Acererak, it was time to be done. Your results may vary, of course.

    One Year Later...

    One trick I've learned for ending a campaign, one that has served me very well, is asking the players to describe where their characters are one year after the end of the story. Some of the best stories I hear in the entire campaign come from these one-year-out montages. The bard, Tharmond, started a hit play in Waterdeep called the Tomb of Annihilation. The paladin who sold his soul to Grimfinger the Erinyes, built a temple to Torm on the edge of the Anauroch desert doing his best to serve his god before his soul belonged to a devil. The restored druid Warryn transformed himself into the new King of Feathers hunting undead in the jungles of Chult. The cursed warlock, Ogechi, went to the doors of the night serpent with Fenthasa, just as she predicted, and murdered her at the door, which she did not predict.

    In my other game, Shelby, our tortle ranger returned home to his tribe on the coast of Chult. Tysabri returned to the graves of her parents. Truth and Sirzek returned to Sirzek's tribal home in the Spine of the World to restore honor to his tribe. Feski wrote a best-selling book on her adventures in Chult, nearly knocking Volo's Guide off the best seller's list. Fromash the lizardfolk death cleric built a new temple to a benevolent god of death in the city of Omu and helped the city return to its former glory.

    Amazing stuff.

    If you get nothing else from this article, ask your players what happens to their characters one year after the end of the campaign. They almost always have ideas and they're almost always way more awesome than you can think up.

    An Incredible and Strange Feeling

    Over the past few years I've finished a handful of large campaigns. I finished a four-year campaign battling against Orcus the God of Death. I finished one-year campaigns for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, two Curse of Strahd campaigns, two Storm King's Thunder campaigns. Now I've completed two Tomb of Annihilation campaigns. I am very lucky to have run them.

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  • How to Read Your D&D Books

    "A mind needs books like a sword needs a whetstone."

    - Tyrion Lannister, Game of Thrones

    Over the past year, this topic has shown up in lots of other articles here at Sly Flourish and many of my DM tips on Twitter as well. For some, this seems completely obvious. For others, it can come as a surprise. This big tip?

    Read the books.

    One might be surprised by the fact that some haven't read their D&D books all the way through. I admit, only recently have I finished reading them all the way through. That is not something I'm proud of.

    This isn't a tip just for new DMs. This is a tip for all of us. New or old. DMs or players. All of us can draw a great deal out of this game if we take the time to dig into our D&D books and enjoy what they have to offer.

    New DMs, Read the Starter Set Books

    If you're new to D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set. The D&D Starter Set is the best way to get into D&D for a low cost and begin to digest what D&D has to offer. Instead of suddenly finding yourself with over a thousand pages of material from the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual, the Starter Set comes with only two books. A main rulebook and the adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. It also includes a set of pregen characters which means you don't have to suddenly know every ability of every race and class found in the Player's Handbook.

    The value of the Starter Set cannot be overstated. The adventure, as written, is awesome, but it also includes a great set of monsters that you can use for your own low-level adventures. The maps in Phandelver also span the range of maps you might drop into your own campaigns including a bandit lair, goblin caves, ruined castle, ruined village, and dwarven mines. These maps are reskinnable for your own adventures as you need them.

    Because the Starter Set books are relatively slim, it won't take you forever to read them and understand how D&D works. Thus, when you begin, start with these books before trying to tackle the full set of core books.

    A Reading List for Dungeon Masters

    As you get more experienced, or if you are experienced already, it's time to get into the core books. While it's definitely worthwhile to read all three books cover to cover, you can triage your reading to the parts of highest direct value while running your games. Here's a reading list:

    Player's Handbook. Read the intro, chapters 7, 8, 9, 10, and the appendicies. You can skip over the chapters on races, classes, backgrounds, equipment, customization options, and spells for now. They're definitely worth reading but your players can also dig into these chapters and tell you what you need to know to run a game. Again, you'll want to read these eventually.

    Dungeon Master's Guide. You'll want to give this whole book a solid skim read. You might not have to read it cover to cover right away but you should at least know what you have in your hands. There's tons of fantastic stuff in this book but it does you no good if you don't know that you have it. When you can, read it through. This is also a book worth re-reading every year or so to remind yourself what is in it. Many times you might think of an option or sub-system for running your game only to find that it's already in the DMG.

    Monster Manual. This book is also worth reading all the way through but you can focus primiarly on monsters you're likely to use in your campaign. Start with low challenge monsters and work your way up to the ones likely to show up in future adventures. The monster book is packed with awesome adventure and campaign hooks so worry less about the stat blocks and more on the lore of monsters. We can come up with hundreds of campaign ideas from this book alone.

    Volo's Guide to Monsters and Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. When you're able, read these all the way through as well. Like the Monster Manual, they're packed with adventure and campaign ideas. Unlike the Monster Manual they spend lots of time focused on specific monsters like hags, mind flayers, beholders, and githyanki. Read them. Enjoy them. Let them seep into your DM's mind castle.

    Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Like the DMG, this book is packed with great ideas for DMs, both from a mechanics standpoint and from the lore of the game. In an episode of Dragon Talk, Jeremy Crawford mentioned that the design of spells in Xanathar's (and those in the Player's Handbook as well) are designed not just to give toys to players but for the DM to weave into the story. Spells like Druid's Grove and Mighty Fortress are as interesting to witness from powerful NPCs as they are when cast by a player character.

    Read Published Adventures

    If you're running one of the published D&D adventures (Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation are my two favorites) it helps significantly to read through these adventures cover to cover before we run them. Reading the full adventure means knowing which secrets and clues to put in front of the players from session to session. It means knowing how to tie the adventures together. It helps inspire you to hack it yourself into the adventure you want it to be for you and your group.

    It takes time to read through a full published adventure but the return is worth the effort.

    A Reading List for Players

    If you're playing D&D but you're not the DM, you're reading list isn't as large but can still give you a great deal of enjoyment out of the game if you take the time.

    Player's Handbook. Read the chapter on your race and your class. Read the spells your class has access to for level 1 and the next couple of levels above your current level. Take note of spell components and describe them when you're playing your character.

    If your race is one of the races from Volo's Guide or Mordenkainen's, it's worth digging deep into your race's background and history. Learning how the elves are connected to Corellon or how the halflings see their gods as extended family members with legendary exploits can enrich your character to the full.

    Players likely spend a lot of their time focused on the mechanics of their class but getting into the story and lore of their race, class, and background can make the whole game much more enjoyable.

    Read to Inspire, Not to Memorize

    When we're digging into these books, our goal isn't to memorize every single rule in them. Our goal is to let the worlds of D&D flow over and through us so we can drop into it when we're running the game. That sounds pretty hippy but it works. The more we digest this game and the worlds it encapsulates, the easier it is to help us improvise when we're running our game and our ability to improvise may very well be the most important skill DMs can have.

    Even if it doesn't help us memorize every aspect of the game, reading through the books will let us know what's there so we know what we have and where to find it when we need it during the game.

    We don't read these books to memorize them. We read them to let them inspire us.

    Read On the Go

    Finding large solid blocks of time in our days is, for many of us, quite hard. Being able to sit on our nice couch with good lighting and read our books for a solid hour may be impossible for a lot of us. Yet, as busy as we are, we find time to surf through Facebook or get enraged by the news or get lost in cat mischief on Reddit. With D&D Beyond it's just as easy to read a bit of our core books as it is to read anything else on the web. Having the core books on our phones means we can read part of it whenever we have free moment. Keep your current book in your browser window and maybe skip the social media for a bit while you read up on Merfolk. Every monster description is about as long as a Facebook post already so it's not a stretch to read one monster block at a time all throughout the day.

    Know the Rules Before You Break the Rules

    We DMs are often a super-creative bunch. D&D becomes our outlet to share the stories we've had bottled up in our heads all our lives. We're also likely to have a different game in our head than the ones in the books so we immediately want to start tweaking and twisting and cutting and pasting all sorts of new house rules. I see this come up often on Facebook: "What if we got rid of charisma scores?" or "I'm going to completely redo the fighter class" and the like.

    This isn't inherently bad but we should be cautious until we actually know what we're talking about. Of course, in our own games, we can experiment however we want but it helps if we actually know the rules before we break the rules. Before you start rebuilding your own fantastic 5e game, maybe read what the designers have put in there already.

    The Hardest Step for the Lazy Dungeon Master

    We're all about cutting corners here on Sly Flourish to get the most value out of our game for the least effort. Value, return over effort, is our ultimate goal. Reading over a thousand pages of rules isn't effortless. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. Hopefully this article gave you an idea where to start. As much time as it takes, the value we gain by reading these books is well worth the effort. For that reason, reading the books is a core staple for the way of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

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