- Designer Diary: Firefly Dance
A few years ago, I saw an experiment on YouTube about how to light a lamp that wasn't connected to anything by placing it close to a small Tesla coil. While seeing this, I said to myself, "Hey, I'm sure there's a game hidden in here."
Following various tutorials, I bought a roll of copper wire, the right kind of lamp, and a 9-volt battery, and I made a coil by wrapping the wire hundreds of times. Then, very excited, I connected to the battery and gradually brought it close to the lamp, waiting for it to light up.
The effect was immediate, yet rather unexpected. Even today, I'm not sure whether it gave me an electric shock or burnt me directly, but, my goodness, it hurt!
I never did get that lamp to turn on, but I thought that if I could manage to do it, I could have small pieces that would light up on their own no matter where on the game board you placed them. As a magical effect, it would be really nice — the only problem was that I had no idea how to do it.
I kept wondering how to turn on a light without any kind of connection until one day a friend said: "You need to get a magnetic switch connected to an LED and a battery, then place it close to a magnet." Eureka!
I spent the following weeks testing how to assemble the pieces, while at the same time thinking about designing a game with them. It had to be a game with a magical theme, so while I was soldering and testing non-stop, it occurred to me that I could make four fireflies with a different color for each one. To light them, you would have to touch them with a magic wand that would show you which color each one was. I had it!
And if there were a magic wand, there had to be a fairy or a magician so that gave me the final component to create the story for the game: "Every night, a small fairy would go out to dance with her friends, the fireflies, to turn on their lights. Will you help them dance together?"
Depending on which square the fairy finished her movement, the fireflies would perform different actions such as moving or swapping positions, which would force the players to continuously memorize which color each one was.
When it was time to dance, the player had to take one of their dance cards, and to win that card, they had to turn on the fireflies in the order shown. The first player to correctly perform four dances would win the game.
With the prototype ready, it was time to test it on children — and wow, what a success! They loved moving both the fairy and the fireflies, memorizing their positions, and turning them on with the magic wand. And beating their parents, of course. It seemed that everything was ready to be presented.
I took the prototype to Essen, and many German, French, and even some American publishers liked it. Many copies of the prototype were ordered, and a large publisher even paid a thirty-day reservation fee, but in the end, no one decided to publish it. They really liked the game, but it was difficult to develop technically, and the components were expensive — too much investment and too much risk. Little by little, the prototypes came back.
Although I wasn't exactly joyous, a few years ago I would have been much more disappointed to see them back. By this time, though, I had already gone through a similar process with my game Go Cuckoo! (designed with Víktor Bautista i Roma), which was finally published by HABA after being rejected by a long list of publishers due to production problems.
I continued to show people the game until I met the Korea Boardgames team at SPIEL '18. It was love at first sight. They saw the game and requested a prototype, and in less than a month, the contract was signed. At the FIJ 2019 game fair in Cannes, France, Ivan from Korea Boardgames proposed some small changes to the game dynamics and components that, in my opinion, improved the game, so we implemented them.
Just before SPIEL '19, I received the cover and the photo of the final game, and what can I say? I loved the work done by Korea Boardgames and the illustrations from ZAO.
The game fair in Essen featured a giant version of the game and was one of the hits of the booth. At the end of the fair, copies were sold out, so I think it was liked by the players.
Now it's time to look for new publishers around the world who want some magic in their catalogs. Let's see whether the fireflies will fly far beyond!
Josep M. Allué Read more »
- NY Toy Fair 2020 II: Forgotten Waters, Patchwork: Americana, Sugar Blast, and Catan in 3D
We'll also have edited game overview videos from the FIJ 2020 game fair in Cannes, France in the next couple of weeks, so you will have more games to explore than you can possible imagine!
The Asmodee North America booth was showing a mock-up of a new 3D version of Catan. A representative from Catan Studio told me that with copies of the 2005 Catan 3D Collector's Edition selling for many hundreds of dollars over its original US$300 price tag, the publisher thought it made sense to bring this item back to market, although current plans call for the pieces to be manufactured from hard plastic instead of resin, which would likely lower the price tag from what a resin-based version would sell for these days.
The Catan Studio rep said that the water pieces will be made from the same material as the island tiles, and the ports will be represented by ship figures that feature the tradable good.
Fallout Shelter: The Board Game from Andrew Fischer and Fantasy Flight Games has all the players collectively building a shared fallout shelter, while personally tending to their people in order to maintain their happiness — while still sending them out to work in locations where they might be overrun by monsters, which are represented by plastic overlays that make a place impossible to visit while occupied.
Patchwork: Americana Edition from Uwe Rosenberg and Lookout Games features gameplay identical to ye olde Patchwork, but with graphics that match Americana quilting styles. I posted these pics on Twitter and saw many people saying they prefer the original look, but those people are not the customers for which this edition is intended. If I were to purchase this game for most people in my extended family, this is the version I would give as it would look more familiar and inviting to them.
Forgotten Waters — a design from Isaac Vega, J. Arthur Ellis, Mr. Bistro, and Plaid Hat Games — at an earlier non-public event, but now the game is out in the open, so let's put up a page and say a little about the game:Forgotten Waters is a Crossroads Game set in a world of fantastical pirate adventure. In it, players take on the role of pirates sailing together on a ship, attempting to further their own personal stories as well as a common goal.
The world of Forgotten Waters is silly and magical, with stories designed to encourage players to explore and laugh in delight as they interact with the world around them. It's a game in which every choice can leave a lasting impact on the story, and players will want turn over every rock just to see what they find.
Forgotten Waters features five scenarios and a massive location book that provides players with tons of choices wherever they go.
In the game, each player has a character (sheets shown at lower right) that they customize in various ways, and as you progress through scenarios, you can boost stats and gain bonuses, although different characters max out at different levels. You'll use these skills to overcome threats and continue your adventure. As your ship progresses on the water, you'll encounter new situations, such as the two depicted above. In an encounter, at least one player must visit a red activity, at most one player can visit a blue activity, and any number of players can visit a green activity.
Forgotten Waters will include an app to provide crossroad moments, and the design seems like a cross between a Crossroads game and an AdventureBook game like Stuffed Fables.
Rory's Story Cubes: Star Wars is pretty much what you'd expect it to be: nine dice that collectively feature 54 iconic characters, objects, and vehicles from the Star Wars films. Roll the dice, then create a story from what's visible. Can you craft a tale that won't have people rushing to Twitter and Facebook to complain?!
Tea for 2 from Cédrick Chaboussit and Space Cowboys is a two-player-only, deck-building game of sorts. On a turn, you each play a card from your deck, and whoever plays the higher card can use that card's effect or buy a new card for their deck with the difference between the two played cards being the amount you have to spend, although you can increase that amount by paying tarts.
You want to manipulate the clock that determines which bonus is available, with players having the long-term goal of winning points and being able to pick up bonus tiles along the way that reward them for collecting or doing different things.
Sugar Blast is a "match 3" style tabletop game from Leo Almeida, Matthew O'Malley, Ben Rosset, and CMON Limited. On a turn, you swap two adjacent pieces in the grid, then remove any rows or columns of three or more matching pieces. After doing this, you tilt the board in your direction to see whether you have any more matches. If so, remove those pieces, then tilt again! You keep at least one piece from each set you make, and the long-term goal is to be the first to satisfy the random goal card for that game, such as four different-colored pairs of tokens (as shown here) or a pair and a four-of-a-kind of different colors. Read more »
- Grab Your Scooby Snacks and Prepare for Betrayal at Mystery Mansionwrote about how three games based on the Back to the Future movie franchise will be released in 2020.
Turns out that's not the only media property being gamified in multiple ways this year as the recently announced game Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion from The OP will have to share shelf space in game stores with Betrayal at Mystery Mansion, a game from Avalon Hill and Rob Daviau, Banana Chan, Noah Cohen, and Brian Neff that will debut on May 15, 2020 — the same day that the Warner Brothers movie SCOOB! will open in theaters.
As for what's in the game, here's an overview:Read more »Based on the award-winning Betrayal at House on the Hill board game, Betrayal at Mystery Mansion is the mash-up fans have been clamoring for!
Play as Scooby-Doo, Shaggy, Velma, Daphne, or Fred as you explore the mansion and its grounds, finding clues, encountering strange occurrences, and maybe even catching sight of a monster! When you find enough clues to learn what's really going on, that's when the haunt starts, and one player will switch sides to play the role of the monster! Will you be able to stop them before they carry out their sinister plan?
Betrayal at Mystery Mansion contains 25 new haunts based on popular episodes and movies from the Scooby-Doo oeuvre, with different monsters, items, events, and locations each time you play.
- Oriflamme, Res Arcana, and Dream Catcher Win As d'Or 2020; Pictionary Air Wins 2020 TOTYannounced, with first-time designers Adrien and Axel Hesling and first-time publisher Studio H winning the main As d'Or for the card game Oriflamme.
In that game, each player has a deck of the same ten cards, but three cards are removed at random from each player's deck, which means your cards will differ from everyone else's. Each player in turn plays a card face down in the queue, with each card being placed at the front or end of the line. After all players have played, starting at the front of the line a player has the option of placing an influence on a card or flipping it over, claiming all influence on it, then using its ability. Starting with the second round, you can play on top of one of your own cards, in addition to the usual front and back of the line. After six rounds, whoever has collected the most influence wins.
Runners-up in this category were Draftosaurus, Fiesta de Los Muertos, and Little Town.
Res Arcana from Tom Lehmann and first-time publisher Sand Castle Games won the As d'Or in the expert category, beating out fellow nominees Gloomhaven, It's a Wonderful World, and Root.
The winner of the children's As d'Or was Dream Catcher from Laurent Escoffier, David Franck, and Space Cow, a game in which players attempt to cover up nightmares on square tiles with cuddly toys on round tiles. You want to pick the tile that's just the right size since you score more dream tokens when you use a smaller toy, but if you don't cover the nightmare, then you get nothing.
Runners-up for the children's As d'Or were Hedgehog Roll, Yum Yum Island, and 2019 Kinderspiel des Jahres Valley of the Vikings.
Mattel won the 2020 Toy of the Year (TOTY) in the game category for Pictionary Air, besting seven other nominees: Disney Villainous: Evil Comes Prepared, Funkoverse Strategy Game, Heist, Ms. Monopoly, Orangutwang, Throw Throw Burrito, and UNO Braille.
Read more »
- VideoGame Overview: Chili Dice, or Spicy Dice By Another NameChili Dice, a game from Andy Daniel and AMIGO. During that video overview, I mentioned that Daniel had previously designed and published a collection of dice games called Spicy Dice under the brand Enginuity that uses the same type of special six-sided dice found in Chili Dice — dice that feature a red face on one side, with the six dice in the game having one red 1, one red 2, and so on.
As it turns out, the story is more complicated than that.
At NY Toy Fair 2020, which I attended after recording the video posted below, I happened to run into Andy Daniel, who was running an Enginuity booth and selling Spicy Dice — except that he wasn't selling the Spicy Dice game collection from 2004, but a standalone game called Spicy Dice that was not included in that earlier collection, a standalone game that Daniel released through Enginuity in 2018, a standalone game that Daniel had licensed to AMIGO, which had changed the name to Chili Dice.
Daniel mentioned during our conversation at NY Toy Fair that he was much more of a designer than a marketer, which is a fair thing to say given that Spicy Dice — the new one — didn't have a BGG listing until I made one to accompany this posting.
In any case, here's an overview of Chili Dice, which is available in the U.S. under one name and in Germany under another. Either way, the game plays the same. In general, Chili Dice is akin to Yahtzee as each player will roll dice and score separately in multiple categories such as points for 1s, straight, and chance.
Where Chili Dice differs from that earlier game is that players have at most thirty rolls during the entire game, with them being able to allocate as many rolls as they want across the ten categories in which they'll score. Roll five 4s and want to press your luck rolling a sixth 4 to grab 75 points? Go right ahead!
The red faces on the dice are the other element that differs from Yahtzee. When you roll a red face, you can change that die to any number you want, which is great for creating a straight of six numbers or creating pairs and triples. If you keep a red face, however, you can gain bonuses in different ways. If you're collecting dice showing a single number from 1 to 6 and you have the red face showing that number, then the sum of those dice is doubled. Four 6s is 24 points, but if one of those dice is red, then you have 48 points. If you have a straight with a red 1, then you can score those 21 points in a straight like normal, or you can score 21 points in the 1 category, which normally doesn't net you many points.
If you fill all the categories, then you score 5 points for each roll unused — but winning scores in my six non-solo games on a review copy from AMIGO have typically been 300 points or more, which means that players are averaging at least 10 points per roll, which means you'd probably be better off rolling repeatedly to maximize your score in various ways instead of stopping early.
I go into more detail about the gameplay, the scoring categories, and why puzzle-based games aren't the same as puzzles in this video:
Youtube Video Read more »
- NY Toy Fair 2020 I: SpongeBob Meets Fluxx, and FoxMind Invites You to Chop More Wood
Some of those pairings make perfect sense, as with Looney Labs' announcement of Andy Looney's SpongeBob SquarePants Fluxx, which has a U.S. street date of May 21, 2020. The chaotic nature of both Fluxx and SpongeBob inspires a "Yes, of course, why didn't this happen earlier?" Like the 2019 releases of Marvel Fluxx and Jumanji Fluxx, this "Specialty Edition" from Looney Labs is packaged in a larger-than-normal box for Fluxx, with a poker-style coin and seven bonus cards. (Looney Labs didn't have a mock-up of the game on hand for NY Toy Fair, so I've included the cover image that the company sent to me directly.)
What Looney Labs did have on display were mock-ups of the four "Pyramid Quartet" titles being crowdfunded on Kickstarter (KS link) as they're showing these titles to retailers and explaining how they can serve as expansions for Pyramid Arcade (if the retailers are already carrying that item) or sold as standalone games that can serve as an entry point to the larger world of pyramid games (should they not be carrying that item).
Much of the work that goes on at NY Toy Fair and other trade shows is educational. Retailers can't see everything on the market, and new stores open all the time, so even when a title is old (or even "old" in the sense that it came out 1-2 years ago), that game is often new to whoever is approaching the publisher's booth. From the publisher's perspective, they need to show why this retailer would want to carry the game and how the retailer would introduce the game to potential customers. If you can help retailers sell your wares, you've effectively enlisted them as a salesperson in your company, but a salesperson who buys the game from you in order to spread it amongst the community.
At one publisher's booth, two fair attendees asked the company representative whether a Spanish version of the game existed. Yes, company A has a license and plans to release the game in Spain at time B. Okay, but what about in South America? No, we don't have that; let's set up a time to talk.
I heard representatives from France, Germany, Japan, Scandinavia, and many other places asking about the availability of titles, whether via direct sales from the publisher, through a licensee, or through a possible license. Business at shows like Origins, Gen Con, and SPIEL often takes the form of individual sales, ideally to those alpha gamers who will then introduce the game to others, spreading awareness of a design; business at shows like NY Toy Fair and Spielwarenmesse can be a half-hour meeting that results in five hundred copies sold — or fifty thousand copies, or nothing. The event can have a lottery-like feel as you don't always know who's going to show up at your booth and what might result from that first "Hello".
Anyway, more about games...
Canadian publisher FoxMind has a new version of Justin Oh's Click Clack Lumberjack coming to market under the name TacTac Jack, with the game due out "soon". In the game, you use the plastic axe to chop at the plastic discs, trying to knock them just far enough that the bark arcs on the sides fall off (as you score points from those), but not far off that you get the core as that's a huge negative.
FoxMind also has a new version of Andreas Kuhnekath's excellent abstract strategy game Kulami coming to market in April 2020. To play, fit the wooden blocks together in some manner, then take turns adding a marble to the board. After I place a marble, you must then place your marble in the same row or column as the marble I just placed, but you can't place it in the same block or on the block where you placed a marble the previous turn. If a player can't play, then the game ends. Players claim the blocks where they have a majority of marbles, then you score points for all the divots in those blocks, whether filled or empty. Whoever has the high score wins.
FoxMind's David Capon said that the only change to this edition is that it includes two "capping" pieces that you can place over your most recently played marble. In the late game, this makes it easier to see in which row or column you must play and where you last placed.
In Q3 2020, FoxMind plans to release a new edition of Alberto Corazón Arambarri's Secret Operation, a 4-10 player hidden identity game that debuted in 2019 from Brain Picnic and Zacatrus.
In the game, one or more players are working against the others to keep a robot from being constructed. On a turn, you place one of the three cards in your hand face down on any one of the unfinished robot spaces, saying what you're placing there or not as you wish. Once a space has as many cards as is indicated, with that number varying based on the number of players, you shuffle those cards, then reveal them. If all the required cards are included, that piece of the robot is built; if not, you discard the cards and learn that someone who played there is not working with the team. You must build all of the robot before the deck runs out, or the traitors win.
Another reissue from FoxMind is Alex Randolph's Figure It, first released in 1975 as Domemo. The game consists of 28 tiles, with one 1, two 2s, and so on up to seven 7s. After shuffling the tiles, players take 4-7 tiles depending on the player count and face them away from themselves. Some tiles are left face down, and some might be turned face up. On a turn, based on what you see and what others have said, you ask an opponent whether you have a particular number, and if you do, they reveal a tile with this number in your hand. Whoever first reveals their hand wins.
My friend Ken Shoda offers this "shoot for the moon" variant in which you can win the game immediately if you can name all of your tiles correctly.
Jeppe Norsker's Match Madness is a real-time pattern-building game in which each player has five rectangular blocks with domino-style markings on them, and during a round players race to assemble their blocks to match the pattern revealed on a target card. (The game has different variations in which multiple cards are in play.)
Match Madness: Extreme expands the game by giving each player a single cube that has four markings on it. Now you'll have a much tougher time figuring out how to replicate the patterns since not everything is chunked into domino shapes.
Slam Bluff is the second "game in a collapsible dice cup" from FoxMind. You shake the dice, then slam down on the cup with your hand, which collapses it and locks the dice in place. You then secretly look at the dice and Bluff-style give a number created by the dice (or just make up a number). The next player calls your bluff or takes the cup, looks at it, then says a higher number, with the subsequent player needing to call them out or raise.
Slam Words has a similar cup, but you smash it, reveal the letters, then race to name a word that contains those letters before anyone else can.
I had hoped to post more from this show, but the internet is junky in this hotel, and the fair opens again in a half hour, so I need to head back to the Javits Center to take more pics and notes. For now, I'll leave you with a full frontal Pikachu shot:
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- VideoThe BGG Show: Catching Up on the Past Four Months
1. I've now posted more than ninety game overview videos from the Spielwarenemesse 2020 trade fair on our BGG Express YouTube channel. Many of the videos are only two or three minutes long, giving you a quick taste of what awaits in the future. I have another eleven still to post and will do so in the next day or two. Lots going on right now...
2. We have a BGG team at the FIJ game fair in Cannes, France, and they will be livestreaming interviews with designers and publishers on Saturday, Feb. 22 and Sunday, Feb. 23 on our Twitch channel. You can see the schedule of which titles will be featured on camera here, but that schedule was somewhat empty and the team has been dragging unexpected guests on camera to talk about their games. Who knows who will show up next?!
3. I'm heading to NY Toy Fair on Saturday, Feb. 22 and Sunday, Feb. 23 to see what there is to see, and I'll be tweeting pics and notes on BGG's Twitter feed. Follow along, or wait for the round-up posts that will come in the next couple of weeks before BGG will run its next livestream at GAMA Expo 2020 on March 10-12.
4. After months of busyness following SPIEL and BGG.CON 2019, we have finally recorded another episode of The BGG Show. Lots has happened since our last show, and we summarize some of those events, with me giving a quick rundown of Man muss auch gönnen können, a somewhat involved roll-and-write game from Ulrich Blum and Jens Merkl that was recently released in Germany by Schmidt Spiele. I plan to do a thorough overview in the future once I've played a few more times, but this will give you a taste of the game:
00:15 Opening and intros
01:01 BGG News and Announcements: Moving
04:11 BoardGameGeek Express Channel convention coverage
07:52 GameNight! Live: The Wilson Wolfe Affair — George G Fox — Simulacra Games
08:36 Top 10 vs. 10
10:52 BGG Events — BGG Spring 2020: May 22nd-25th
12:19 Upcoming convention coverage
15:08 Dodo — Frank Bebenroth, Marco Teubner — KOSMOS
17:39 BoardGameGeek has exceeded 100,000 subscribers on YouTube!
19:57 News and New Releases: Repos Production purchased by Asmodee
21:27 New edition of Belratti
24:05 What Have You Been Playing?
Eric — Man muss auch gönnen können — Ulrich Blum, Jens Merkl — Schmidt Spiele
29:08 Nidavellir — Serge Laget — GRRRE Games
30:19 Steph — Maracaibo — Alexander Pfister — Game's Up
36:07 Scott — Clank! Legacy: Acquisitions Incorporated — Andy Clautice, Paul Dennen — Renegade Game Studios
38:53 Lincoln — 5 Minute Dungeon — Connor Reid — Wiggles 3D
39:49 Video Vortex — Mitch Ryckman, Trevan Haskell — Mondo Games
43:55 BoardGameGeek turned 20!
45:43 Goodbyes Read more »
- VideoGame Overview: Nidavellir, or Drafting a Dwarven RainbowSerge Laget and French publisher GRRRE Games, a 2-5 player bidding-and-army-building game called Nidavellir.
Nidavellir is the homeworld of the dwarves in Norse mythology, and in this game you're building an army of dwarves, with the value of that army being determined by its collective bravery value, along with the sum of the coins you use to bid.
The game lasts two ages, and in each age you have 3-4 turns, with each turn consisting of the players visiting three taverns to recruit dwarves for their army. Each player starts with five coins — 0,2,3,4,5 — and you secretly place bids on your own player board for those three taverns, with the remaining two coins being placed in your purse. Everyone reveals their first bid, with ties being broken based on numbered gems, then players each draft one dwarf based on the bidding order, swapping gems in the case of ties. Then you reveal the second and third bids and do the same thing again.
If you reveal your 0 bid, you choose late at that tavern, but you sum the two coins in your pouch, then take a coin equal to that value from the bank, then discard the highest coin in your pouch. This boosts your bidding power in future taverns, and you earn more points at game's end for your coin stash.
When you have the first rank of all five types of dwarves in your army, you collect one of the heroes on the side of the board. In the image above, you can see that I took one of the orange heroes that adds three ranks with only one card. This both boosts the orange scoring — which is computed by multiplying the number of your orange ranks by the sum of your orange values — and makes it so that I don't have to worry about getting more orange cards in order to complete more ranks.
You want to get sets of all five ranks in order to collect more heroes, but you also want to specialize in colors since the more you get in a color, the more valuable (in general) those later cards are. A purple rank is worth 3 points, then 4, then 5, and so on, so you want lots of purple, but green is worth the square of the number of green ranks you have, so you want lots of those, too.
After the first age, a bonus is possibly handed out for each color. If one player has more ranks in a color than each other player, then that player receives the bonus in that color, which might allow them to upgrade a coin or gain a bonus card or acquire a permanent tie-breaker bonus. You then run through the second age — bidding, drafting, possibly grabbing heroes — then you tally your points.
I've played Nidavellir twice on a review copy, but only with two players each time which is a shame as the game will clearly play out differently based on the number of players. More players means more competition for the dwarves in each tavern, which means that bidding will be more important since you risk being locked out of the colors you need, whether for hero-worthy sets or for a points bonanza in a color. With only two players (or three), you draft more cards during the game, so you're more likely to complete ranks and get heroes, which means that scoring will be much higher than in games with four or five players.
In any case, I go further into the game in this overview:
Youtube Video Read more »
- Back to Back to the Future with Funko Games
Just ahead of NY Toy Fair 2020, U.S. publisher Funko Games has announced the first non-Funkoverse title in its line-up — Back to the Future: Back in Time, with this being a fully co-operative game for 2-4 players that plays in under an hour and that features a dice tower inside the Hill Valley clock tower.
Here's an overview of this Q3 2020 release from the in-house design team of Prospero Hall:"Wait a minute, Doc, are you telling me you built a time machine...out of a DeLorean?"
The photo of the McFly family is slowly fading... It's 1955, and you're wrapped up in a time paradox with Biff, Lorraine, George, and Doc Brown! Cooperate to move around Hill Valley to get the DeLorean ready, avoid Biff and his gang, help George and Lorraine fall in love, and crank the DeLorean up to 88 MPH — all just in time for the lightning to strike the Clock Tower, sending you back to the future!
The other BTTF titles due out in 2020, as covered in October 2019, are a Back to the Future title from Funko Games due out in July 2020 that will be part of the Funkoverse Strategy Game and a different co-operative dice-based game from Chris Leder, Ken Franklin, Kevin Rodgers, and Ravensburger titled Back to the Future: Dice Through Time that will debut at UK Games Expo in June 2020. Read more »
- Try Your Hand at Being a Meddling Kid in Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansionposted about Ravensburger's Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons. In that post I wrote "it's time to start seeing game announcements for licensed titles that will have their revelations timed specifically to this show", and here's yet another such announcement:
In mid-May 2020, Warner Brothers and Atlas Entertainment will release the animated movie SCOOB!, which will feature the fifty-year-old dog Scooby-Doo and his constant companions Velma, Fred, Daphne, and Shaggy trying to solve yet another mystery.
Not coincidentally, in late May 2020, game publisher The OP will release Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion – A Coded Chronicles Game, a co-operative game from Sen-Foong Lim and Jay Cormier in which players take on the roles of these characters and attempt to solve a mystery of their own. Here's an overview of how this game works:In Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion, players take on the roles of the teen sleuths and their courageous canine pal to solve a mystery! Work together to decode clues and find your way out of the haunted mansion in this co-operative "Coded Chronicles" game. Can you solve the mystery of Lady Fairmont's ghost with the help of Mystery, Inc.?
In more detail, more than fifty clues are hidden in the pieces and interactive game board to help you discover what happened in Lady Fairmont's haunted mansion! Players share five narrative booklets to be read as everyone works together to fill in the story's missing details. Different parts are kept in secret envelopes to be opened as the crew unlocks the answers.
"Coded Chronicles" is The OP's trademarked term for, to quote its press release, "the first at-home escape room-style activity that integrates storylines from iconic franchises into the foundation of a unique code-revealing mechanic, which players use to cooperatively and gradually unlock new parts of the game".
Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion is for one or more players ages 12 and up, and it bears a 120-minute playing time. Read more »
- ● Seafoot Games - Agarnoth’s Hold | 40x30 BattlemapPublisher: Seafoot Games
A small trail leads you meandering through the dreary swamp of Blackmire before you arrive at the foreboding wooden gates of Agarnoth’s Hold. A palisade has been erected, using old stone pillars in the design and with series of wooden stakes lining the outer walls. Two large animal skulls sit atop the gates pillars, leering down at you with malice.
Inside the holds walls lie many barrels, presumably stock taken from recent raids as well as two tents by the fire place. A shrine sits atop a stone pedestal surrounded by bones and crowned by a strange spell book and a fetish.
Two paths lead you into separate parts of a shallow cave, one room contains a large skull flanked by two fire pits and more piles of bones as well as wooden stakes. The other path leads through a small room and into a larger sleeping and eating area where hay, leather bedding and hammocks are.
Within the swamp of Blackmire lies the personal hold of the orc war chief Agarnoth. Built into a shallow cave on the outskirts of the orcish village of the Skulltakers the war chief uses this hold for feasts, sacrifices and meetings most foul.
Regional spies have come back with reports that the war chief is holding a grand feast with leaders from the other orcish tribes soon, he intends to unite them under his banner, destroy the nearby human settlement and then push down further into the human kingdom with the united war band.
You can not let this happen, whether through poisoning food, diplomacy, or brute force you must stop this meeting and if that means killing everyone, so be it!What You Will ReceiveA home-printable 20x30 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.
Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A1 poster printing or VTT.
72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.
Want more bang for your buck? Come support us on Patreon, and get five or more maps for as little as $4.00 every month.
Or, follow us on Facebook to recieve updates about new maps, adventures, and giveaways!
If you enjoyed any of our content, please leave a review below—or tell us what you’d like to see in the comments!Price: $2.99 Read more »
- ● Strange Things Afoot role playing gamePublisher: Point of Insanity Game Studio
Step into the world of Strange Things Afoot, a world where almost everything on the internet is true!
Set in the modern day, Strange Things Afoot draws influence from the world of creepy pasta and urban legends. Players in the campaign take the role of middle to high school age students who must struggle against supernatural beings known as tulpas. These are mysterious creatures that can only manifest in our reality when people believe in them and they use the internet as a way to spread that belief.
However, the power of belief can be a double edged sword! Players can turn belief against the tulpas to create weaknesses for their foes and perform rituals to give themselves an edge.
Strange Things Afoot includes nine character cliques, guidelines for running a campaign, sample rituals, and tools for creating supernatural creatures.
Currently, the product is available in portrait orientation. In the coming months the product will be updated to include a version in landscape orientation for easier viewing on a computer monitor.Price: $9.99 Read more »
- ● Roads & Road EncountersPublisher: Follow Me, And Die! Entertainment LLC
Roads & road Encounters is an overview of information about the road, what is near, and fellow travelers. This can be used on the fly at the table or as part of adventure preparation.Price: $1.00 Read more »
The following pages offer suggestions to help GMs with their game prep.
- ● The Warrior AdeptPublisher: Pinnacle Entertainment
Magical practitioners wielding weapons of pure magic, formed by their will. Their Spirit Weapon is whatever suits them—a sword and shield, a polearm, dual axes, even a pool cue.
The Warrior Adept includes a fully-realized Arcane Background, a supporting Power Edge, and the means to create a Spirit Weapon.Price: $2.00 Read more »
- ● Spheres Apocrypha: Debilitating TalentsPublisher: Drop Dead Studios
Spheres Apocrypha: Debilitating Talents is a series of new talents for the Spheres of Might system for Pathfinder 1st edition that grant you all sorts of new ways to debilitate and weaken your enemies, ensuring you the edge in combat that decides victory or defeat. Overcome your enemies with alchemical diseases, tackle your foes at the end of a charge, and use new types of traps to slowly destroy your enemy's strengths and take them down at your ease.
Go beyond with Spheres Apocrypha!Price: $0.99 Read more »
- ● Stock Art: Kitty from SpacePublisher: Purple Duck Games
This purchase includes a .tif image in colour, grayscale, and line art format. The image has no signature.
We at Purple Duck Games hope that this image is exactly the thing you need for your game table or your publication. If you have any comments, questions or suggestions about the line or illustration (or wish to suggest which bestiary monsters appear next), drop me an email at email@example.com.
Commercial Stock Art License
The commercial terms and conditions for the Stock Art are simple and flexible.
The image can appear in print, electronic or web-based advertisements for the product in which it features. The image may not be used in another stock art collection.
The licensee may crop, rotate, and/or resize the image as they see fit to work within the publication provided the artist’s signature must legibly appear in the final image (if present) or be credited below it. If the image is resized, the original proportions must be maintained.
The artist's name must appear in the product's credits.
Private Use License
This illustration can be used in personal products without restriction.
How to Contact the Artist for Additional Commissions
License updated March 30, 2013.
Price: $6.00 Read more »
- Extrastellar Set Ten: Space HeroesPublisher: Okumarts Games
Extrastellar Set Ten: Space Heroes provides a set of hard-working sci-fi paper miniatures designed for role-playing with such games such as Starfinder, Traveller, Mothership, Alien RPG, or the White Star RPG. The miniatures would also be perfectly at home in a modern, superhero setting or even in a post-apocalyptic game. With lots of colour and detail options available and unlocked pdf files allowing for easy modding, this set is much more than meets the eye. Remember, in space, no one can hear ice cream.
Don't forget the bonus page for even more retro sci-fi movie inspired paper mini goodness.
Paper miniatures are perfect for roleplaying games or wargames. All files are 300dpi and include front and back views. This is a layered PDF giving you many options of colour schemes for the main set and a bonus page of additional paper minis.
Please use responsibly.
Cardstock Miniatures are an affordable and attractive alternative to metal or plastic miniatures. Print as many as you like as often as you like.
You will need a colour printer, cutting tools, glue, card stock, foamcore and time. Assembly instructions are included.Price: $2.50 Read more »
- Extrastellar Set Nine: Alien FoesPublisher: Okumarts Games
Extrastellar Set Nine: Alien Foes provides a set of alien creature sci-fi paper miniatures designed for role-playing with such games such as Starfinder, Traveller, Mothership, Alien RPG, or the White Star RPG. The miniatures would also be perfectly at home in a strange mystery, superhero setting or even in a post-apocalyptic game. With lots of colour and detail options available and unlocked pdf files allowing for easy modding, this set is much more than meets the eye. Remember, in space, no one can hear ice cream.
Don't forget the bonus pages for even more retro sci-fi movie inspired paper mini goodness.
Paper miniatures are perfect for roleplaying games or wargames. All files are 300dpi and include front and back views. This is a layered PDF giving you many options of colour schemes for the main set and a bonus page of additional paper minis.
Please use responsibly.
Cardstock Miniatures are an affordable and attractive alternative to metal or plastic miniatures. Print as many as you like as often as you like.
You will need a colour printer, cutting tools, glue, card stock, foamcore and time. Assembly instructions are included.Price: $2.50 Read more »
- Fate of Cthulhu Review
I think for today’s review, I’ll look at something nice and simple that shouldn’t be at all controversial. Let me just check the internet for a moment.
Oh. Oh my.
Well, let’s see what this controversy is all about then.
Wait, really? People didn’t know all of that? And there is a rising wave of people with very strong and very constrained opinions on exactly what does and doesn’t count as cosmic horror?
Maybe 2020 really is the gateway to the worst timeline, after all.
By the way, today we’re going to look at Evil Hat’s latest Fate based game, Fate of Cthulhu, a game that is equal parts cosmic horror and Terminator storyline.
The Grimoire of Fate
This review is based on both the physical Fate of Cthulhu hardcover and the PDF version of the product. This game comes in at 258 pages. Do you like green, because you are going to get green. There are four pages of sample characters, a four-page index, and a full-page timeline tracking sheet and character sheet.
If you have seen any previous Fate products from Evil Hat, the formatting on this book is very similar, which means it has some of the clearest formatting of any products in the RPG industry. Bold headers and clear color blocks draw your attention to the right places. Professional, clear, and attractive, without a lot of background embellishment.
The interior is full color, and while Fate products from Evil Hat uniformly have strong, attractive art, this one is especially colorful and atmospheric in presentation.
Disclaimers and Discord
Many modern Cthulhu related game products have begun to put disclaimers about Lovecraft’s history in the products. These can vary from “he was a man of his time” to making a neutral statement about Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia.
Fate of Cthulhu isn’t neutral about any of that. It is a refreshingly blunt statement that not only condemns Lovecraft’s racism, but also calls to light how that racism influenced his work. This is the Lovecraft disclaimer I’ll measure other Lovecraft disclaimers against.
Oddly, this caused a stir online, rallying a segment of Lovecraft fandom to defend Lovecraft and condemn this book. Not only do I want to call attention to what an uncompromising disclaimer looks like, I also want to ask anyone that might read reviews of this product elsewhere to keep this hornet’s nest in mind.
Introduction/Pick Your Apocalypse
The first sections of this game introduce you to the concept of the game. This section makes it pretty clear that the goal of the game isn’t to emulate general cosmic horror investigation. Instead, the protagonists of the story are soldiers from the future coming back through time to attempt to make the future a better place by stopping, or at least mitigating, the coming of some Great Old One (which I noticed abbreviates as GOO, and for some reason that amuses me).
There is a balance in the setup between traditional cosmic horror, and the Fate assumption of competent, proactive player characters. Some of the horrible stuff that the GOO introduces to the world will still happen, but the characters can attempt to give humanity a better future by undoing some of the worst aspects of the apocalypse.
Multiple Great Old Ones and the timelines associated with their arrival are presented. The goal of the player characters is to take what they know about the various events leading up to the arrival of the Great Old One and do what they can to act against that element of their coming.
Character Creation/Fate Condensed/Fate of Cthulhu Fractals
The next section of the book is a streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules, as well as the unique elements added to the rules to model the Fate of Cthulhu setting. For anyone unfamiliar with Fate, there are four main actions whenever a character rolls–attack, defend, overcome, and create an advantage. The dice are skewed towards providing a 0 result, so in addition to skill ranks added to the roll, invoking aspects, true statements about a character (or place, or thing), is very important to success. Spending a Fate point allows you to invoke your aspects.
The aspects that a character will have are their high concept (the sentence that describes who and what they are), their trouble, a relationship aspect tying them to other player characters, and some free-floating aspects that can add more detail. Fate of Cthulhu also introduces corrupted aspects.
Instead of leaning heavily on a sanity mechanic, Fate of Cthulhu instead focuses on corruption, and the gradual loss of humanity a character suffers from being exposed to cosmic forces. Characters with corrupted aspects gain corruption stunts, which let them do superhuman things, at the cost of more corruption. Characters have a corruption track, and when it fills, another aspect is corrupted. Once you run out of aspects that can be corrupted, your character has lost touch with humanity.
Part of this shift from sanity is an attempt to remove the stigma attached to mental illness, as well as provide a more sensitive vector to explore encroaching doom. There is advice for players that wish to incorporate psychological decay as part of their corruption, the biggest thrust of which is to come up with a detrimental character trait, without attempting to fit that character trait into an incomplete understanding that would imply a specific diagnosis.
This explanation of Fate is also being used as the basis of Fate Condensed; a more streamlined explanation of the Fate Core rules. Most things work the same, but if you are a long term Fate player, the main differences come from what you do with your aspects, greater flexibility with skills, and stress boxes that utilize a 1:1 tracking scheme.
As someone that has gravitated to the Fate Accelerated implementations in Dresden Files Accelerated and Iron Edda Accelerated, I like the streamlining that has been put in place in these rules. I also appreciate how succinctly this section expresses the core concepts of Fate.
Reading a Timeline/The Arrival of . . .
The next section is divided into the broad “Reading a Timeline” section, which explains the timeline sheets and how the timeline is used in play, and then features multiple “The Arrival of . . . “ sections that detail the individual timelines for different Great Old Ones. The detailed timelines include:
- The Arrival of Cthulhu
- The Arrival of Dagon
- The Arrival of Shub-Niggurath
- The Arrival of Nyarlathotep
- The Arrival of The King in Yellow
The timelines are comprised of four events, culminating in a final, fifth event, which is the actual arrival of the Great Old One in question. The four events aren’t locked in place. They are events that will happen, but maybe not at a set, exact date, which means that the players can tackle these events in whatever order they wish.
Each event has a Person, Place, Thing, and Foe, and each one of these has a particular rating based on the face of the Fate die (a plus, minus, or blank). Depending on the face, that determines how troublesome that element of the event is. For example, a “+” person is likely willing to be an ally, that may need to be recruited, and a “-” place is likely a dangerous, hostile environment. Depending on how events resolve, they cascade forward, eventually setting the four boxes for the Great Old One and the Resistance.
This ends up determining how well humanity is prepared to weather the storm, and how weak the Great Old One is when they finally arrive. A strong resistance and a weak Great Old One means maybe that Great Old One can be banished from Earth and the future is far less tumultuous. A strong resistance and a strong Great Old One means humanity may be equipped to survive, but it’s going to be a rough, torturous time of it.
Each of the Great Old Ones has a strong theme, not just in how they manifest (sea creatures, disease, etc.) but in the thematic story elements that weave through the events and the tenor of the apocalypse. For example, Cthulhu’s coming revolves around gathering what has been scattered, and the loss of control. Dagon’s coming revolves around confronting the past and choosing between bad options. Shub-Niggurath’s coming involves cycles, repetition, and persistence. Nyarlathotep’s coming involves the subversion of trust in institutions of authority. The King in Yellow’s coming involves the unpredictable and doubt.
Each of the timelines detail what the resistance knows about events from the future, giving players a good amount of information from which to proceed. There are multiple twists in events that make resolving the events more complicated than the history books might indicate. The various stat blocks that serve as examples in the different timelines also introduce some fun widgets to use in other implementations of Fate, like giving singular, tough opponents additional consequences, or changing the Fate Condensed assumption of 1:1 stress to more stress per box to represent hordes.
In addition to mining the stat blocks for some versatile Fate rules that can be used in other games, the individual timelines were very compelling to read. The twists are all clearly expressed, and don’t feel like “gotcha” moments. They seem like fun plot elements to introduce at the table. I enjoyed how easy it was to see an emergent theme for the different Great Old Ones, and how those themes resonated across all of the events for that timeline.
Being the Game Master/Running a Fate of Cthulhu Campaign/Building Your Own Apocalypse
This section revisits some of the concepts introduced at the beginning of the book, with an eye towards the GM side of the game. It reinforces the Fate point economy, as well as providing some best practices for compels and scene framing. It also discusses the importance of setting stakes for various scenes, and pacing story elements.
From general Fate advice, the next chapters specifically addresses the setting of Fate of Cthulhu. This discusses specifically leveraging elements like corruption and managing corruption and the timeline trackers for the various Great Old Ones.
There is also a chapter that looks at creating unique timelines for Great Old Ones not covered in the book. It discusses emulating other figures from existing cosmic horror stories, as well as creating new Great Old Ones for unique stories. I’m not surprised, since so much of this came through in the individual timeline chapters, but a big focus of this section is about finding a theme for the Great Old One, as well as defining the way the Great Old One accomplishes its goals (for example, its signature supernatural moves and the creatures most likely to serve it).
Riding the Temporal WaveIt has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented.
The tone of Fate of Cthulhu is inviting and clear. It has a voice, and that voice is slightly irreverent and definitely action-oriented. The subtle streamlining of the Fate Core rules works well with the natural energetic flow of the book. There are great examples of how to implement the Fate rules built into various stat blocks, and toys like the corruption clock and the corrupted aspects and stunts introduce a new vector of Fate widgets for storytelling.
Collapsing the Waveform
Some of the fun rules widgets that appear in the stat blocks would have been great to call out expressly in the GM section as ways to model narrative items. While I like the way the timeline tracker works and how it models the cascading timeline, it does take a careful read to make sure you understand what’s going on.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are a fan of Fate in general, this is a great product for summarizing and streamlining the Core implementation of the game. It delivers on the promise of the weird hybrid of Terminator and Lovecraft Mythos, and it wouldn’t take much work to drift the structure of a timeline to other “fix the timeline” style campaigns.
Cosmic horror has been around in roleplaying games for a long time. What are some of the best ways that cosmic horror has been cross-pollinated with other genres over the years? What made that hybrid appealing to you? We would like to hear from you in the comments below.Read more »
- Interesting Foods
Today I’m going to delve a bit into world building. I can see some readers checking out already because they run a pre-published setting like Forgotten Realms or Eberron. Don’t give up on me just yet. This article applies to all GMs, even those running someone else’s material. I’ll be talking about how to make food a little more interesting during those social encounters at feasts, taverns, mead halls, space stations, and cantinas.
The reason this article popped into my head was because of the numerous memes floating around social media that are based on the Lord of the Rings movies. I didn’t do a scientific count, but my gut feel is that about half of those memes are somehow related to food. You know. Second breakfast. Po-Tay-Toes. Things along those lines. The other half are pretty evenly split between something heroic and Gollum’s “my precious.” Out of the 11+ hours of epic battles between small and large, good and evil, magical and mundane, we came away with jokes and memories about food.
That tells me that food is more important to the human condition than simply an intake of calories and nutrients to keep us alive. So let’s dive into how to make it more interesting in our world building moments when presenting food to the players.
For fantasy, the typical fare in a tavern is going to be day-old bread (is bread ever freshly baked in a fantasy setting?), a hunk of large cheese, dried meats, a tankard of nutty ale, and a bowl of greasy stew. Raise your hand if you skimmed that list or tuned out until this sentence started because you already have that list of food memorized. Yeah. Your players do the same thing. What I listed off above is flat boring because it’s been done to death.
Change things up with your fantasy setting. It can be done in a subtle manner, too. You don’t have to go way exotic (though that is an option) for a meal to be memorable. Let’s try this on for size as some “boxed text:”
You’re served a half-loaf of bread with a tangy scent steaming off of it. The soup you’re served is an even mix of yellowish broth, short noodles, and turnip chunks. Alongside the bread is a large bowl of turnip-based salad, and thinly-sliced turnips decorate a plate of dried meats and cheese.
What did I do to change things up? I added turnips and made the bread fresh. The salad is also a change from the traditional fare. Three simple and relatively small changes will make the meal memorable. Of course, by overusing turnips, I’ve driven home that there’s probably a large turnip farm nearby. This can even be shifted into an adventure hook down the road when the PCs return to the tavern and aren’t served turnips at all. This might indicate that something is wrong at the turnip farm, and any adventurer worth their “bowl of greasy stew” will march straight to the farm to investigate.
Science Fiction Food
In science fiction, characters traditionally survive off of rehydrated meat, protein packs or pills, and oddly colored milkshakes of dubious origin. None of it has flavor because apparently flavor is bad for you in the future.
Even if you limit your scope of spacefaring folks to earthlings, you have thousands of cultures and cuisines to borrow from or to mesh together to make things interesting for your food in space. Yes, there might be some limitations on what’s available due to technical reasons and depending on your “tech level” of the game. Assuming some technology more advanced than what is presented in The Expanse series, almost any combination of foodstuff is possible. Using a random country generator, it’s easy to come up with a few countries to merge together. It might take another couple of Google searches to find food from those countries, but get creative and mash them up. Here are some ideas that I came up with in the span of just a couple of minutes:
- General Tso’s Calzone
- Borscht Wonton
- Haggis Ravioli
- Beef Bolognese Pad Thai
- Deep Fried Twinkies
- (This one is more post-apocalyptic because if anything will survive it’ll be deep fat fryers and Twinkies.)
I’m not sure how pleasurable some of those would be to eat, but they’re certainly memorable! The more thoughts your combinations provoke, the more hooks into the world the players will have. This will make the world feel more lived in, more three-dimensional, and more realistic.
Something I’ve learned along the way in my fiction writing career is that readers (in your case, the players) will be more willing to suspend disbelief for the fantastical and wondrous elements of your story (or setting or NPCs or adventure hooks or events) if you give them some solid ground to stand on. Food is one of those footholds. Making the food authentic to a true eating experience, but with a memorable twist, will buy you a considerable amount of goodwill toward the story you’re trying to collaboratively tell at the table.Read more »
- Letting Go Of Your Old Ways
I’m not sure what I expected when I bought a copy of Warhammer: Fantasy Roleplay 4th Edition. Ever since I began my transition, both as a woman and as a better person, I’ve had a complicated relationship with the marquee product of Game’s Workshop.
I always had a love of the dark and gritty. The muddy and painful style of games. It reflected in my early writing. How so much of my creative writing was based on the idea of deconstructing the good and just things, such as superheroes and mankind’s voyages of the stars. Showing the dark underbelly of such. It’d make me a perfect fit for the property of Warhammer.
However, as I began growing as a person, I realized that I wasn’t some dealer of the macabre. I was just a jerk. I would use harmful stereotypes without a care for my privilege. Things that shouldn’t be made light of were carelessly added to characters for the sake of “edge.” Yes, if that placement of word wasn’t an indicator, I realized I was an edgelord.
And Warhammer, like so many properties I used to love, became a reminder of how I used to be. A person I’d rather forget.
So imagine my pleasant discovery when I opened the copy of Warhammer 4th Edition and begun reading through the book.
- Gendered Career Names: Although some Careers have masculine or feminine names because of the limitations of language, all careers are intended for any gender; so, no matter how your character identifies, all careers are available.
This little sidebar caught me by surprise. Inclusive language being utilized in the book. A reference, however small, to genders outside the binary being acknowledged. I remembered Warhammer Fantasy as the series that would rarely have a strong female character, let alone acknowledgment that the “heroes” (It’s still Warhammer, so I use the term loosely) could be any gender identity.
Then, these pleasant surprises only continued.
- Everyone’s invited to the fun: Be welcoming to new or inexperienced players
- Off-limits: Respect people who don’t want sex/violence/horror or other uncomfortable topics in the game, and accept they don’t have to justify why. There are many very good (potentially traumatic) reasons.
- Consideration: Nobody’s fun should come at another’s expense.
And there were many more rules, all as considerate following these, but this trio stood out to me the most because it symbolizes to me something important.
Just as I had grown and matured as a person, so had this game that I previously written off as an “Edgelord Product”.
I realize the amazing creative Team at Cubicle 7 is partially to thank for such an advancement. But, to see a part of the hobby that used to harbour some of the far less savoury and unkinder segments of the community make strides to become a better and safer place, it helped solidify something in my mind.The days of Grimdark and edge are ending. And that’s a good thing.
Now, I still enjoy dark things. I enjoy grim murder mysteries. I find fun in the occasional gory combat. And I adore gray morality in my settings.
What I have left in the past, however, is taking pride in enjoying making others uncomfortable through my own enjoyment. Cos that’s where it stops being about your “tastes” and makes you just an out-and-our jerk of the highest order.
There’s a difference in liking dark stuff and being and edgelord. And the hobby even outside of Warhammer is beginning to realize that.
Shadow Of The Demon Lord, a spiritual successor to Warhammer, takes delight in being deliciously dark. Pair that with a very easy to understand but mechanically satisfying rule system and you have a hit. However, even this game which loves lounging in gruesome and ghastly areas of fantasy is aware that taking joy in triggering your fellow table members is not an OK thing to do.
(…)Before you begin running, talk with your players to establish hard limits on how far you can go in the game. Certain topics might be taboo for some. If so, respect their wishes. Similarly, the players should respect your limits and not push the game in directions that make you uncomfortable(…)
The sidebar appropriately titled “Mature Topics” on page 180 of the core rulebook comes in the middle of discussing how to inject horror into your Shadow Of The Demon Lord game. By placing it where the dark becomes most apparent in the book, the author achieved how important it is to obey the golden rule when it comes to delving into grimdark games.
“Always make sure your table feels safe.”
Like how I mentioned that Shadow Of The Demon Lord is a spiritual successor of Warhammer Fantasy, the PbtA rule system of Urban Shadows wears its inspiration from the Classic World of Darkness on it’s sleeve.
Now, I could go on and on for pages about the history of World of Darkness and how it’s affected gaming culture. But people with far more knowledge than me have spoken on it. And the fact is that we’re not here to talk about Vampire: The Masquerade or Werewolf: The Forsaken. We’re here to talk about Urban Shadows.
Urban Shadows was the first game I ever ran. It was a fun, chaotic and improved adventure that all my players enjoyed playing as much as I did in guiding them through. It was also the game that introduced me to the concept of Safety Tools in RPGs.
The X-Card is a fantastic tool for helping guide your table through potentially upsetting topics. And while I likely would have discovered it without playing, I’m eternally grateful to Urban Shadows for being what led me to discovering it.
Urban Shadows never shies away from the dark, both of gothic, urban fantasy and the sad realities of prejudice, drug use and stereotyping found in our world all too often. Despite this, it in hand with the dark encourages you to always make sure you don’t fall into pitfalls that so many who’ve tried to tackle the same themes fell into.
Avoid Defaultism: (…) Swapping around a few cultural signifiers gets you the same (or better!) creepy punch without falling into boring clichés or dredging up uncomfortable history for people at your table(…)
Lean On The X-Card: (…). Use the X-Card yourself early in the session to demonstrate that it’s safe for players to use, and make sure to honor the system when a player does invoke it, even if you think what they’re flagging is a perfectly reasonable addition to the fiction(…)
Much how in the same vein of how Shadow of the Demon Lord placed the importance of safety in the horror segment of its book, Urban Shadows places these importance rules within their advice for GM’ing section. It symbolizes how making sure your table is safe is equally as important as weaving an interesting story.
There are many games that symbolize this belief and style, of “Respectful Edge” (Cheesy, I know). I like to think it’s the new generation of dark and gritty gaming. Of a world where we leave the dark in the game, not in real life.
Learning From Your Past
I can never change the flaws of my past. But I can learn from them. I can be a better woman from them. I can move forward and be a kinder person everyday because of it. And if this article hasn’t shown already, I’m not the only one.
The TTRPG hobby is not perfect in the present time. Not by a longshot. But with every little step we take like the above, of making sure that even our most grim of games will have the players comfort into account, we’re learning from the mistakes of the past. We’re making better games. Better communities
Be it Warhammer Fantasy realizing inclusion is a far more kinder future. Games like Shadow Of The Demon Lord knowing there’s a limit to everything. Or Urban Shadows advising it’s players to balance confronting the dark with taking into account your own safety, the genre of grimdark is learning from it’s mistakes. And it’s pretty nice to see.
Now if you excuse me, I have a game of Warhammer to get ready for.
Do you have any grimdark systems you feel are making actions to become safer and welcoming?Read more »
- Returning to Olympia in Style w/Agon
As at least 2,661 of you from the Kickstarter might have heard, but Agon is coming out sometime in April! In case some of you are wondering just what Agon is: “Agon is a game of fast-paced heroic adventure inspired by ancient legends,” or at least by how the super successful Kickstarter describes it as. It’s a uniquely paced RPG written by Sean Nitter and the well-proven John Harper. You know, the guy that wrote and designed Blades in the Dark and constantly the target of my System Splicing knife? Honestly, I’ve gutted more mechanics out of Blades in the Dark to shove into other systems than other systems HAVE in mechanics.
Before we start with the legit review, can I start with one major gripe? Agon lets you be either the Scion(distant kid) or the target of an Olympian God’s favor. So how the Hekate is Hekate one of the 12 gods listed in this game and not my sweet Dionysus? They list out literally 11 of the 12 Olympians, but give Dionysus’ seat over to the Goddess of witchcraft and magic? Is it to make the game more family-friendly? Was wine, madness, resurrection, and theatre just too out of it? I understand that the game likely needed to take in some degree of magic, perhaps to appease the wizard pals who want to play this, but I just think it’s a darned shame to use most of the 12 Olympians and make such a massive swap.
Alright, enough of that.
Let’s get started.
Admittedly when I was going through Agon the first couple of times it was actually fairly difficult to get through all of it. There’s a lot to take in and it can be a bit overwhelming—in a way, that’s a good thing. The game, the tone, and how the game plays is such a departure from what I’m used to that it was somewhat difficult to entirely process. I’ve played a lot of different systems between D&D 5e, to FATE, to Rifts(1990), to Genesys, to Savage Worlds, and plenty of others. Even with all of them, I’ve been able to refer to some other similar system on the regular to compare them. Finding something that stood apart from all of that was difficult. However, the very pleasing art and layout are particularly helpful in making it easy to get sucked back into the book.
When running it I noticed how it very much felt like I was telling some sort of epic. The flowchart-like phases for each section made it all feel like an epic. It was less about the individual tales we were telling and it all felt like I was one step above that. It was interesting playing with players not necessarily focused on what they were doing, but always thinking about how it would affect the next immediate narrative phase.
If that makes any sense.
At a Glance
The first thing that anyone can immediately tell is how… /stunning/ it all is. It really calls out to anyone that appreciates solid Greco-roman influences and, honestly, it reminds me a little of Monster Hunter or the movie 300. Admittedly, I’m not exactly culturally acute enough to fully appreciate the attention to detail, but anyone that is would absolutely adore its look. I have a feeling that nowadays not exactly everyone is the most up-to-date on Greco-roman things to be nitpicky about it, so as part of the various unwashed masses I’m loving the whole thing.
Honestly, I’m not even certain if I’m using ‘Greco-roman’ correctly.
The layout is clean and simple and the margins have this beautiful wavy-labyrinthine (have I mentioned I’m unwashed?) outline to it that makes me feel like I’m looking at some epic tapestry or bardic scroll. Evil Hat is always stellar on making their books clean and non-cluttered and this is no exception in the slightest. Reading through it makes me think ‘yeah this is definitely Evil Hat’ at the reins.
I also want to just slide in that Character Creation in this game is just so… clean and crisp. It takes up, at most, 3-pages and is incredibly clear on the role of each decision you make during it. It’s possibly the best example of modern character creation I’ve seen in a long while. The example character sheet fitting right in the end as well is a great reference. “Did I do this right?” isn’t something that many creators seem to care about since it’s obvious to them, but many players do.
Agon uses 4 major ‘Domains of Conflict’ for their skill/conflict & resolution mechanics. This is split between Arts & Oration, Blood & Valor, Craft & Reason, and Resolve & Spirit. All conflicts tend to fall under one of these, and these are represented not in modifiers, but dice. So your Blood & Valor could be a d6 while your Craft & Reason is a d8. Not only are those associated with dice, but also your ‘Name’ or how famous you are, and your ‘Epithet’ or what you’re about.
When you roll various contests, or engagement, or any other conflict resolution mechanics, you typically roll your Name (let’s say d6) and the domain (let’s say Craft & Reason at d8). If your Epithet applies (High-Scholar at d6) you add that dice too. Let’s say you rolled 5, 3, 4. What you do is add the two highest values, or 5+4, for 9. There’s additional dice you can add either using your resources such as Bond (to add your ally’s Name die), taking damage (Pathos) to add additional Domain dice or invoke your Divine Favor from your God to add a d4. Unlike all the other dice, Divine Favor is added to the final result. The rest is simply adding to the pools of fate to draw from.
The rule system reminds me a lot of some form between FATE and OVA: The Anime RPG. FATE because you’re looking to draw on the right situations to pull out your Epithet and Divine Favor to give you an edge; OVA because you simply roll larger and larger pools of dice only to sum up a small number of values. The fact Agon stands out even between those two RPG-oddballs is incredibly striking to hipster swill like me.
Honestly, there’s very little that I can personally say that’ll result in a non-recommendation. This book is glorious from front-to-back with solid and clean mechanics and I would personally recommend folks to pick it up the moment it’s available. However, there’s always something to nitpick.
The main issue I have, at least in the version of the book I’ve got, they currently call the GM, or Gamemaster, the ‘Strife Player.’ I’m of the belief that ‘Strife Player’ isn’t particularly… striking in a way that’s meaningful. Essentially it’s the player that ends up leading the game. From a phonetic stance, Strife Player doesn’t roll off the tongue as cleanly and it doesn’t feel distinctive enough to identify the different roles between the GM and the players. The whole way through the book I kept thinking to myself ‘wait, am I able to assign who the strife player is?’ I imagine this was done to help level the playing field and identify that yes, the GM is ultimately just another player in the grand scheme of things. However, its lack of distinctiveness just added a layer, albeit a thin one, of befuddlement through the reading experience.
I’d personally just suggest going with the classic Gamemaster or Storyteller, or Record Keeper, or Seer, or something. If not, I’d like them to at least refer to the Strife Player in its description to something of those lines in a clearer manner. It’d be easy enough to insert an ‘as the Strife Player, you act as the Game Master of the game and take a role to facilitate the play of the other players-‘ etc etc. There’s a whole section of cultural touchstones in the book for the players, so why can’t the Strife Player have some sort of recognizable reference to their role? It feels like an arbitrary omission.
Another concern I have is how processed it almost feels? The way the game works makes it extremely easy for the GM and players to switch roles and even switch characters. Honestly, this type of game really supports ‘West Marches’ or ‘Troupe’ style of games where you can change up who you are and what you do completely on the fly. While that’s good for some, it doesn’t work for all. It also walks you through its ‘Trials’ and ‘Respite’ phases in a very organized fashion. It has the players consistently hit the same beats of gameplay that, at least for the gaming group I played with, it almost felt samey at each run. For groups that desire revolving players so that no one feels ‘trapped’ as the Gamemaster, Agon is absolutely perfect for them. It really just depends on what you’re looking for.
Agon is an extremely modern game that plays with very old themes. It reminds me a bit, honestly, of Supergiant’s recent hit Hades. It goes back to bring a modern take to old stories, or at least the atmosphere of that time and succeeds greatly in the delivery. As someone that loves trawling and hunting around for old games and mechanics, I can say that Agon is the most extreme departure I’ve seen thus far from tabletops in the 70s and 80s, with no point of reference to folks of that time.
It applies dice mechanics to your name/fame, your title, and it consolidates rolling mechanics to pools of varying dice shapes that sometimes but don’t always get added together. It’s even so different from so many current games that you need to wrap yourself around a new headspace, a new way to think, about how games are played and stories are told. For me, someone that likes to drink upon my aforementioned hipster swill, this game is fresh and exciting. I can see it setting a stage for modern games as would say, Phoenix Dawn Command might have if it was far more accessible.
I’m fairly excited to see what direction Agon takes us, as a community.Read more »
- Descent into Midnight First Look
Games that use the framework originally established by Apocalypse World have often been praised for their ability to model existing genres, due to the ability of the rules to heavily customize results to the narrative. Because the building blocks of most games that have descended from Apocalypse World are moves, and moves can have dramatically different names, calibrated outcomes, and links to other moves, you can have many games that superficially resemble one another, with dramatically different tones and themes.
Apocalypse World itself, while emulating post-apocalyptic stories, doesn’t lean too heavily on any one recognizable property or sub-genre of post-apocalyptic story, but rather takes some tropes from the genre, while creating its own personality and quirks. In some ways, Descent into Midnight is much more like Apocalypse World in execution than some other descendants of the game.
Into the Deep End
Descent into Midnight is a Powered by the Apocalypse game about an undersea civilization. Instead of repeating the structure of stories that deal with lost oceanic cultures or seabed aliens, Descent into Midnight is a game about alien aquatic worlds that do not involve humans, but do involve species with psionic powers and bioengineering technology, fighting for the stability of their community against an encroaching Corruption.
While certain setting elements are assumed to be true across game tables (aquatic environments, no human beings in the world), other aspects of the setting, such as the actual nature and form of the Corruption, are up to the table to decide. Part of the process of playing the game is creating a Community, and asking some questions about how it functions.
There are no set guidelines as to what species populate this community, although there are some suggestions based on various aquatic species given in the beta rules. The playbooks currently included in the playtest packet include the following:
- The Awakened
- The Cultivator
- The Empath
- The Muse
- The Orator
- The Redeemed
- The Seeker
- The Specialist
- The Touchstone
- The Traveler
In addition to the individual playbooks used by each player, there is also a community playbook, and players can spend their advancements to add elements to the community as well as their own abilities.
Communicating a Theme
The playtest material stresses that at the heart of this game is a sense of community, contemplation, and awareness of the consequences of actions that are taken. The players take the role of defenders of the community, but it is important to assess what actions must be taken in order to rectify a situation.
The stats used in the game are Hope, Altruism, Community, Calm, and Drive, and the names really set the tone for the expected play style. The one move in the game dedicated to doing violence intentionally isn’t based on stats, but on the number of affirmative responses to questions that interrogate the mindset of the character attempting to solve a situation with violence.
Much like Masks, Descent into Midnight doesn’t track harm, but instead tracks conditions that speak to the state that an individual character is in once they have taken actions. One of my favorite things from the playtest document is the move “What Have We Done,” which is triggered when characters stop and think about the actions that they have taken.
On one hand, it struck me as a bit amusing, because I’ve thought about all of the times when I’ve actually said that in an RPG session after things have spiraled out of control, but I am also reminded how often our group moved on rather quickly from that flash of insight back into the core loop of the game, because contemplating the consequences of actions wasn’t a mechanized component of play. I love that it is in these rules.
The Community of GnomesThere are wonderful leading questions that make every community unique and interesting.
Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to schedule a playtest of the rules myself, so I decided to call in the experts. When I started gathering information to write this first look, I reached out to some of my fellow Gnomes to see what they had to say about their experiences. Here are the answers I received:
Review Gnome (Me):
What was your favorite part of Descent into Midnight?
Creating our undersea community was awesome! There are wonderful leading questions that make every community unique and interesting. In the game we played on She’s A Super Geek, we ended up with big fish that functioned as public transportation, eel based cell phones, and doctor crabs. These elements all came up in our actual adventure in the best ways.
My playtest was quite some time ago, so I’m sure many of the mechanics of the game have been refined and evolved from where they were, but I know the heart of the game then was the character creation. We were encouraged to think beyond being humanoid characters and delve into the beautiful and vast biodiversity of the oceans and seas of our world, or even beyond.
Every character created during the game I played was unique and amazing. Mine was an empathic healer named Dellannia, partially looking like a seal, but with octopus-like tentacles for her lower half, allowing for graceful movement and fine manipulation.
Review Gnome (Still Me):
What makes Descent into Midnight different from other Powered by the Apocalypse games?
This is not completely unique anymore, but it’s not a game about violence. It’s almost more investigatory, and definitely about being local trusted pillars of the community.
I can’t speak to specific mechanics, but I particularly appreciated the emphasis on community problem solving and cooperation among the characters.
Review Gnome (Continues to be Me):
Who do you think will most enjoy Descent into Midnight?
Anyone interested in the ocean or playing in different and interesting locations–it’s an extremely unique setting and it makes you think about world-building differently. People who like playing with problem-solving and being community protectors will definitely love this. Fans of PbtA games won’t find anything shocking here, but it clicks along just fine.
This game would be good for anyone who enjoys exploring truly alien cultures but are still founded in an emotional reality. Placing it an aquatic setting already moves it beyond what we are accustomed to in our daily lives, but the game works hard to ground the emotional center of the game in the way the characters interact with their community. Also, there’s the whole PbtA aspect which can encourage people to try genres they may not have otherwise looked at. It’s definitely worth diving into. (HA!)
Coming Up For Air
What I have read of this setting has me very interested to see how the final product develops. There is already a very strong set of tools in place for first sessions, advice on running one shots, lists of potential inciting incidents and events, and even some nice scripts for introducing the setting and the assumed gameplay to a group that may not know what the game is about going into a session.I particularly appreciated the emphasis on community problem solving and cooperation among the characters.
There is a lot of discussion of safety in the playtest rules, although not a dedicated safety section (not something I’m going to fault the playtest version of rules for, especially when there are so many call-outs to being aware of practicing safety techniques at the table). The only concern I really had is just my own personal hang-ups.
I may not be the target demographic for this game, but it greatly appeals to me. However, both the expansive nature of the ocean, and the potential for aquatic environments to become claustrophobic are called out as key elements of the setting, and as someone that has a fear of being submerged and is claustrophobic, I worry if too much of the key experience is going to be lost on me due to my own personal issues.
What I read doesn’t lead me to believe so, and I really want to see more in the finished product about how to evoke the wonder of the deep, as well as any additional inspiration the designers care to cite.
Would You Like to Know More?
If you have any other questions, please feel free to reach out to the designers at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DiMRPG. If you are interested in streaming actual play shows, the first stretch goal for the Kickstarter is a streaming show being made by Eric Campbell, producer and Game Master of Callisto 6, Shield of Tomorrow, and Clear Skies, along with QueueTimes Studios in Los Angeles. The Kickstarter launched on February 15th, and is running for 30 days.
Do you have a favorite aquatic setting for RPGs? What is it about an undersea campaign that excites you? How often have you attempted to play a game where you are adopting a truly non-human mindset? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- Infinite Galaxies Review
Space Opera is one of the earliest genres to enter the roleplaying game space, along with fantasy and cosmic horror. While it’s never quite broken through to the same popularity, space opera is always out there, on the fringes of imagination, waiting to go where no campaign has gone before.
If you have never seen the term before, Space Opera is a sub-genre of science fiction where scientific accuracy often takes a back seat to adventures that involve starships, multiple planets, and melodramatic storylines. If you’ve seen Star Wars or Star Trek, you know the genre, even if you didn’t think you knew it.
Today we’re going to look at Infinite Galaxies—Roleplaying in a Bright Future.
This review is based on the PDF and physical copy of Infinite Galaxies. The book is 298 pages, with a full-color cover and black and white interior art in both the printed book and PDF. There is a two-page index and three pages of Kickstarter backers.
The layout of the pages has a starfield border, with a faux-computer display at the top right-hand page. The pages are single column, with clear, bold headers, and chapter introductions have full-page black and white artwork. The gear, vessels, and mounts sections all have separate tables and various illustrations of the topics in those sections.
All of the artwork is attractive and professional, but it does feel like some of the art is thematically dissonant from some of the other pieces in the book.
Physically, the book is a paperback, and digest-sized. The black and white pages are clear and well reproduced, although the thickness combined with the size of the book makes it warp a bit. The front and back artwork looks great in physical form.
Part One: The Basics
The opening sections of the book describe the type of action that the game is seeking to present. Very early on it explicitly mentions playing in a bright future, with positively motivated heroes, and that the biggest inspirations for the game are Star Wars and Star Trek. It mentions being flexible in providing a framework for a wide range of space opera stories, as well as providing a default setting for players that want to engage with it.
Early in the “How to Play” section, we get a detailed explanation of game terms that will be used in the book. Many of them may be familiar to people that have experienced Powered by the Apocalypse games before, but I don’t remember many that are this thorough with terminology explanations this early in the book.
If you aren’t familiar with Powered by the Apocalypse games, it examines the 2d6 + stat resolution mechanic, and the three-tiered outcomes of moves (miss with complication, success with complication, success), and the basic moves (those not associated with a specific playbook) are presented in the section as well. While most of the moves are very straightforward, there are a few more fiddly mechanics presented in this section as well (such as using gear and restocks, which allow for expendable gear to be replenished under certain circumstances).
The How to GM section gives some example NPCs suitable for a space opera setting. These include hostile cyborgs, explorers, pilots, merchants, raiders, military, diplomats, smugglers, robots, and beasts in various descriptions.
There are also several pages on running your first session, and how to deal with characters with multiple playbooks (unlike some PbtA games, Infinite Galaxies only recommends distinct starting packages, with some overlap between playbooks working on a conceptual level).
It’s a very solid, informational, well-detailed start to the book. That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the sample playgroup, used throughout the book from this point on, appears to be an all-male group, with all-male characters except for one, who is playing a character that uses she/her pronouns. That feels like a huge missed opportunity for inclusion just in the examples.
While it’s present in a lot of science fiction, some of the raider stat blocks also fall back on some uncomfortable “tribal warrior/warrior culture” stereotypes in portraying one of the setting villains.
Part Two: Characters and Gear
The next section of the book gives a breakdown of character creation, playbooks, and gear. Gear, in this case, includes starships, vehicles, mounts, and tools. This is probably the biggest section of the book, but much of that is from the various descriptions of gear, vehicles, and mounts, many of which are summarized in charts.
The beginning of the character creation section has a nicely organized checklist for how to walk through the process of creating characters. In addition to picking playbooks and assigning statistics, players will also be picking a starting package for their character (if the playbook is your class, the starting package is your sub-class or customization), as well as establishing relationships with other characters.
The playbooks include the following:
- The Ace
- The Explorer
- The Jack
- The Leader
- The Psi
- The Robot
- The Scientist
- The Soldier
There are additional playbooks for The Ship and The Companion. The Ship is a function of The Ace playbook, and The Companion is an advance that players can take to have their own personal best friend/sidekick. Each playbook has a set of drives, relationships, starting equipment, and origins. Except for The Robot, one of the origins on each playbook is expressly for “alien” characters.
Relationships work very similarly to the bonds in Dungeon World, where you have a series of fill in the blank questions, although one relationship will be special, that rolls with an extra bonus in instances where other relationships come into play.
The drives are specific things that a character wants to accomplish. For each milestone (established subsections of the story that the GM can declare), players pick two drives for their character, which act as XP triggers. Players can swap these drives whenever the GM determines that a milestone has been met and a new one is active.
Infinite Galaxies wears a lot of its Dungeon World DNA on its sleeve in the playbooks. Instead of having a more space opera-themed set of stats, the game goes with STR, DEX, CON, INT, WIS, and CHA, and many of the wilderness exploration moves from Dungeon World are still expressed in this game, interacting with rations and disposable survival gear. Depending on the type of space opera you are familiar with, the wilderness moves and gear feel like they could easily not come up if no one takes a scout, and no milestones call for heavy exploration of planetary wilderness for extended periods.
Characters can be harmed in multiple ways. They can take debilities to ability scores, they can take vitality damage, or they can take wounds. Wounds are generally lasting injuries that are marked when a character has run out of vitality, which is much easier to regenerate. Not unlike Dungeon World, each playbook has an assigned damage die that the player rolls to determine damage, if a move indicates they do so.
Gear takes up a bit of space, because it does have a bit more granularity than PbtA games often give gear. In addition to having tags that generally function as narrative guides or permission, some rules govern the difference between personal and vehicle scale damage, boosts to the damage dice being rolled, gear that can ignore armor, and medical treatments that can remove injuries from characters.
Part Three: Setting
This section spends time detailing what you should have ready to draw from if you are creating your own setting, the importance of having a theme and tone in mind, as well as a few pages painting the broad strokes of the assumed baseline setting of the book, the Star Patrol setting.
In addition to providing some checklists for things to include, and guidelines for establishing theme and tone, this section also spends time on the importance of how technology is expressed, and how naming conventions play into choices on theme and tone. There is even some discussion on how to change or create new playbooks to fit a customized setting.
This is really great high level, high concept information on setting, and even though the next section moves into story, specifically, there were a few places where I wished they had drilled down a little more on one of the many big topics they touch on in this section. What they do is good, but it remains at the higher conceptual levels for much of the discussion.
Part Four: Story
A lot of the story section is focused on an area that is often overlooked, which is reading player input. There are discussions about asking good questions, taking worthwhile feedback, and reading choices in playbooks and gear as communication about the types of stories and the direction the players want the game to move.
What I wish we had a little more of in this section are example story arcs. Space opera is a huge genre, and while the book spends a lot of time looking at big arcs and ways to make settings memorable, it doesn’t give many examples of exactly what a group of adventurers might be in the setting. While part of this is going to be reading player desire, having some framing conventions going in would be welcome as well.
For example, we’re told a little about Star Patrol, and what side Earth is on, and who the main enemies are. But we aren’t told what a fighter pilot squadron as an adventuring team would look like, versus smugglers and bounty hunters in the border regions, versus a team of relief workers going to galactic disaster sites. I wanted just a little bit more campaign framework level concepting.
The final section has a grab bag of different materials in it. First is the section for thanks and the Kickstarter backers. Next is the section that gives more detail on the Star Patrol setting. That detail comes in the form of more detail on various power groups, geographical sectors of the galaxy, and specific alien options that can be swapped for the more generic alien origins given on the playbooks, to customize the species active in the setting.
Punch ItFor anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.
I enjoy how clearly the playbooks convey space opera archetypes, and I like how flexible the starting packages for each of the playbooks make them. Just the choice of playbooks and packages can easily inform the kind of game a group will be playing. This is one of the best Powered by the Apocalypse games for explaining exactly what the terminology used in the game means, spending more time on deliberately explaining soft versus hard moves and the transition between then.
From an “at the table” perspective, I’ve run this game at multiple conventions during the “beta” phase of production, and I ran it for several players that had no experience with PbtA games previously. It was very easy for them to pick up on the archetypes and understand them, and the drives worked well to push them towards resolving the jobs and dilemmas I was establishing with milestones.
They Told Me They Fixed It
The game does a great job of explaining all the terminology that it uses, but it feels like it borrows more from Dungeon World than it needs to convey a space opera setting. The ability scores don’t inform the feel of the setting in the same way other PbtA game stats do, because Dungeon World is calling back to Dungeons and Dragons, which isn’t what Infinite Galaxies does.
Using multiple polyhedral damage dice, and having exploration moves that hearken to ration use and encumbrance are a few other artifacts that I don’t think resonate with a game that is trying to capture the feel of stories like Star Wars or Star Trek. They aren’t poorly written or expressed rules, just rules that don’t feel like they are as relevant to the extant tropes.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
Infinite Galaxies is a solidly written and expressed game that will give you all the tools you need to run an exciting space opera game. For anyone with a passing interest in space opera, it should be very easy for a new player to see something they recognize from their favorite media, and customize the character they want to play quickly.
It loses some of its edge by not fine-tuning a few of the borrowed pieces of Dungeon World tech to fully align the game with the genre and tropes that it is playing with. It does what it does well, it just might have done it with a stronger adherence to tone by cutting loose a few more rough edges.
What are some of your all-time favorite science fiction RPGs? How often have you played in space opera campaigns? Do you favor existing pop-culture settings, or settings that have been unique to your group? We would love to hear your answers in the comments below. I’ll keep hailing frequencies open for them.Read more »
- Moodlists; Making Better Playlists
I believe anyone would agree that the right kind of music can improve any given situation. However I find that it’s done too similarly to video games; scenes and situations are given one song to codify them. That sort is often insufficient and distracting in tabletops as is, but scenes are typically measured in hours, not minutes. With this article, I’d like to introduce to you how I make playlists based on moods, and how a bit of effort can go the distance, and last you an eternity.
The Current Situation
Most gamemasters I’m aware of in the modern age produce playlists of two sorts: they either have lists of ambient noises(such as taverns and fields), or they have a single song tied to each situation.
Ambient noises are interesting in that they are included in order to improve immersion. This can work for gentle and immersive scenes, but, however, I find that all it does is fill up background noise in a manner that does not capitalize on the ability to ascribe emotional meaning to a situation.
On the other hand, having a single song can add emotional quality to a situation. This is common to the experiences of gamers used to Original Sound Tracks (OSTs). However, it doesn’t translate incredibly well to the timespan of tabletops. A scene in-game that lasts only a few minutes is easily half an hour to an hour or more in a tabletop. Those emotional 3-minute songs end up being replayed 10, 20, 30 times before the scene shifts.
Which gets dull really, really quickly.
Di’s Moodlist Proposal
I prepare playlists based on one simple idea: Moods.
In essence, it’s about trying to capture the right overarching feeling and emotion of the scene. The exact song doesn’t matter as much as the general tone of the unfolding events. It sacrifices a bit of that ‘perfect song for the perfect moment’ for a bit of overall ease and less fiddling with your music bars. The GM does so much already so you should be trying to reduce the amount of work you’re doing whenever you can!
You don’t have to do the moods I have here; rather, you choose the sort of moods you want in your own game. Personally, I tend to populate these moodlists with video game or anime OSTs. Specifically, the instrumental songs lacking vocals. Often at the table, there are already 6+ people clamoring to talk over one another—why add another?
When I fill my moodlists I can often find a single song fitting several moods. For example, the amount of times I have “Forest” and “Peaceful” songs overlap is rather high. In these cases, I tend to lean on only having it in one of the moodlists, but will place it in multiple if the situation calls for it.
When I play these, I put them completely on random, allowing the songs to cycle through the plethora of songs available. In order to get a good variety of songs, I tend to have a minimum of 10 songs per moodlist, but my “Cutscene” and “Peaceful” ones have nearly 30 apiece.
The Last Note
The main major downside behind this is that it takes quite a bit of time to generate these lists. You need to listen to a large amount of music and effectively sort it into your games. Plus, if you want your different campaigns to have certain tones, you’re going to have to generate several full-on campaign-specific playlists. This can eat up a lot of time sorting music, a lot of money buying OSTs, and a lot of space on your mp3 players. Honestly, I have a 16gb tablet I mostly only use to store music and browse the internet.
On the upside, however, with a bit of time and effort, these moodlists can last you far more in the long run. The main one I use for fantasy has lasted me 2-years so far and I haven’t found a pressing need to improve on it aside from the incidental updates. With less fiddling with music, you can even delegate one of your players to change the music! Just tell them to change to “City, Lively” and be on your way! Plus, every once in a while you get a situation where the mood epically changes to a critical hit.
And trust me: for your players that’ll feel really really good.
-Di, signing outRead more »
- GM Currencies and Building Trust
I’ve seen some recent discussion online regarding rules that constrain and inform how game moderators modify ongoing narratives in games, and this made me think about why I like GM currencies. In many cases, these narrative changing rules default back to some kind of GM currency, either by providing players with a resource to spend or by limiting the amount of GM modification that can be expected by mapping those modifications to a pool of resources. Most of what we are going to explore in this post involve a more traditional game structure, where the GM frames the setting and the scenes, and the PCs interact with those scenes. This is by no means the only RPG structure in existence, but it is the setup most likely to spawn a debate on the efficacy of GM currencies or constrained scene modifications.
What I would like to explore is how GM currencies can act to reinforce trust in a roleplaying game session. Even a GM that has been playing with a group for a long period of time is still reinforcing or straining the level of trust they have every time they present a scenario that involves conflict. A GM that sits down with a group of new players may have the complete trust of their players, because those players have no reason not to trust their GM to fairly introduce elements into a game, and a GM that has been running for years, may still introduce difficulties and evolving complications in a manner that alienates a group of long term players.
What am I talking about when I refer to GM currencies? For this post, I’m going to be looking at game rules that do one of the following:
- Provide the GM with a resource they can give to players to entice the players to perform in a specific manner, even if the currency is unlimited on the GM’s side of things
- Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to introduce new elements into a scene after the scene has already been established
- Provide the GM a pool that they can spend to increase the established difficulty of a given task
- Provide the GM a pool they can spend to increase the odds that GM controlled characters can complete a given task
- Provide the GM a pool of points that allow them to undertake a specific action that should be rare and meaningful in the genre emulated
An example of an unlimited resource that a GM can use to entice behavior might be fate points in Fate, where characters might be compelled to play to their character aspects, bennies in Savage Worlds, when a player suffers the disadvantages of their flaws, or hero points in Mutants and Masterminds when a character’s weaknesses or relationships have a bearing on the narrative. Players do not do what is optimal in the situation, but is logical for their traits, in the short term, to get a benefit they can use later on in the game.
An example of a resource that can be used to introduce elements into a game after a scene has already been established might be threat from Star Trek Adventures, a despair result from Genesys, or the dice in the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. In these cases, a scene has been described and players have interacted with that scene, but now a new challenge or element of the scene can evolve that may not have been set in the narrative from the beginning of the framing sequence.
In many cases, GM currencies might serve dual purposes. Some of the currencies mentioned above that can be used to add a new complication to a scene might also be spent to increase the likelihood of an NPC action succeeding. For example, that same die from the Doom Pool in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying that may have introduced a countdown of some kind may just add an extra die to the pool of a villain taking an action. The same threat spent in Star Trek Adventures to create a blanket complication situationally affecting actions in a scene may be spent to add an extra die to an NPCs dice pool when they resolve a task.
In some games, some actions are restricted by GM currencies, to emphasize that the action being taken is rare and meaningful. For example, a villain in 7th Sea 2nd Edition has to spend a point from the danger pool to strike a mortal blow on a hero, and in Star Trek Adventures, an NPC that attempts to finish off a wounded player character has to spend threat to do so. This reinforces the idea that death is a consequence in these stories, but not until there is a certain amount of tension established first.
With and Without Spending Limits
To illustrate how GM currencies might reinforce a greater level of trust at a game table, let’s look at a situation that might come up in a game, and how that situation is framed. Our base situation is going to see our heroes fighting hostile forces on a narrow bridge. Implicit in this framing is that opponents might harm the PCs, and that the PCs might be forced off the bridge.
Next, let’s look at a development that we might introduce into the scene. The bridge starts to deteriorate. Even PCs that aren’t near the edge might fall off into the darkness below, so falling becomes a greater threat than it was when it would only be the consequence of not resisting the efforts of an opponent forcing the PC off the bridge.
In a game without GM currency, the GM may have this idea in their head going into the fight, and they may even want to make sure it feels fair for this situation to evolve, so they add into their description of the bridge the cracks and weathered appearance of the bridge, to telegraph the potential for the bridge to fall apart.
After a few rounds of combat, the GM decides to pull the trigger on the crumbling bridge, and a PC falls into the abyss below. That PC is now upset, because while the state of the bridge may not have been pristine, the narrative thrust of the description was more focused on the lack of handrails and the opposing force, not the deteriorating state of the bridge.
Currency and Negotiation
Often, GM currency introduces an element of negotiation into the game. For example, in a Cypher System game, a GM can introduce an Intrusion, and the player has the option of paying off the offered intrusion with their own resource. This is also true in Fate, when a GM offers a fate point to compel an aspect. As long as the PC has a pool of resources themselves, they can negate the spending of GM currency to modify the narrative.
As part of this negotiation, clarification of intent can be practiced.
“If my character falls off the bridge, will they die?”
“No, I don’t want to give too much away, but death isn’t one of the stakes of this situation.”
“Am I going to end up getting injured?”
“No, just taken to another location that we can cut to after this fight.”
“Okay, I’m in, let’s do it.”
Even in games where there isn’t an implicit negotiation process, the GM spending the resource is often taking the time to explain how the narrative is evolving in ways that make the changing dynamic clear.
“I’m spending threat to introduce a Cosmic Storm (3) complication into this scene.”
“What does that mean?”
“Any task involving long-range communication with electronics, the ship’s sensors, or the transporter have their difficulties increased by three.”
Navigating Difficult Areas
There have traditionally been areas where it is difficult for a GM to assert narrative control without also creating the feeling of removing agency from players. For example, when characters are mind controlled or when they might be affected by fear. GM currencies can help in these situations.
In many Powered by the Apocalypse games, some moves generate hold for a GM to spend to introduce negative elements. Having a set amount of hold to spend reinforces that the negative consequences introduced will have a finite number of recurring instances. In Fate, creating an aspect of fear is mainly going to give an NPC another aspect to compel, but it’s now available as a source of fate points for a PC that wants to compel this aspect on themselves, giving them greater agency in how they want to express that fear. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, characters that have a Mind-Controlled complication provide NPCs with extra dice for their action pool, but the player can also roleplay the mind control to generate plot points for their character before they are complicated out of the scene.
In this way, traditionally difficult situations where a player may lose agency can instead be handled by allowing for some minor setback, which the PC can make into a more significant setback when they choose, to access the game’s economy.
Trust Your Feelings
While a lot of the discussion about GM currencies can be framed as building trust between players and the GM, one of my favorite aspects of GM currencies is that it may allow you to build trust in yourself. One of the greatest dilemmas of the GM can be paraphrased in the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcom:
“…your [Game Masters] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Sometimes it’s hard to know when to introduce twists or increased difficulty into a game, and having an ever-growing pool of some GM resources can help create a natural trigger for pushing the narrative of the game. Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate.
If you are in pitched combat, but your dice have just not been making your villains seem like the threat they should be, boosting their competency might be a good spend. If a scene is getting predictable or has played out like an earlier scene, introducing a complication may be a good way to spend that pool. If your players have relied on a specific set of gear or circumstances in multiple scenes, spending points from the pool to deny or complicate the PC’s assets may be a logical direction.
It can be very difficult even from the GM side of the game to determine if taking away a piece of equipment, or keeping the PCs from being able to leave a planet is being arbitrary or falls into the dreaded category of “railroading,” but when there is a finite resource being used, the GM can feel more confident that they aren’t being arbitrary. Spending the GM resource is part of the game, and it will only happen when the GM has the resource to spend.
Not every game with the traditional GM/Player dynamic has GM currencies, and because so many traditional games have not used this dynamic, this may make the introduction of enumerated constraints seem . . . unnatural.
That said, a lot of discussions about creativity touch on the idea that constrained creativity can produce better results than leaving all possibilities open. Using most of the tropes of a genre makes it more impactful when you deviate from another trope. Making sure everyone knows what the “rules” of the universe are going into a story makes people more comfortable when following the narrative of the present story, rather than devoting effort to understanding complex world-building that is intentionally overflowing traditional bounds.Having examples of what the GM resource can do when spent can help to make the process of deciding what will happen to make the scene more complicated easier to adjudicate.None of that is saying that working without a net, so to speak, is bad, just that it is a greater cognitive load, and for purposes of what we are discussing here, it is also a situation that requires more trust to be extended. There are times when the energy that it takes to manage expectations and read the natural level of engagement and frustration might be better invested down narrower storytelling pathways.
Additionally, if you like the idea of the trust engendered with GM currencies, there may be ways to work it into games where it doesn’t already exist. For example, instead of rolling for random encounters, have the group make skill checks to scout a location, and add points to a pool for failures. When exploration gets stale, spend those failed scouting checks as “encounter points” to liven up a natural lull in the game. Instead of waiting for players to actively roleplay their traits, look for situations where that trait would naturally trigger a fun interaction, and bargain some inspiration for the player, contingent on a mutually agreed upon display of a given trait.
One thing that I want to make clear is that I very rarely advocate for a single solution to every situation. There may be games that work fine without GM currencies or specific GM narrative constraints, and there may be groups for which it doesn’t work. All I ask, as I continually ask, is for people to consider why these game designs exist, and to actively, intentionally include or exclude elements from your games.
What was the first game you encountered with GM currencies? What is your favorite GM currency? What GM actions would you prefer to be governed by a limited currency? We want to hear from you below! We’ll keep an eye out for your comments.Read more »
- Solasta - Dev Update #8 - Choose your MonsterHere's dev update #8 for Solasta: Crown of the Magister: Dev Update #8 - Choose your Monster & More! Hey there folks! How have you all being doing? We want to start off this Dev Update with a big congratulations to Kiaradth Bright-Spark (submitted by Jackobake), winner of the Mayor of Caer Cyflen Contest.... Read more »
- Master of Magic - New Update and DLC @ GOGHenriquejr spotted an Master of Magic update and a DLC on GOG: Master of Magic gets an update and new DLC from Slitherine The classic strategy game receives a new version with fresh features and visuals. Master of Magic is now available on GOG.COM in a completely updated version.... Read more »
- Battle Brothers - The RetinueA new gameplay mechanic has been introduced to Battle Brothers with the DLC Blazing Deserts called The Retinue. Dev Blog #127: The Retinue, Part I A big reason why suffering heavy losses late in a campaign is devastating, and also why coming back from those losses is difficult, is because most progress that you attain throughout a campaign is in the growing strength of your men - which is the very thing that you stand to lose in every battle.... Read more »
- Wasteland Remastered - Launch DayWasteland Remastered will release today on GOG, Steam, Microsoft Store, Xbox One. loading... Originally released in 1988, Wasteland brought the post-apocalypse to video games and inspired a genre. Play one of history’s defining RPGs with completely overhauled graphics, sound, and expanded musical score.... Read more »
- Broken Lines - ReleasedThe tactical RPG Broken Lines has been released today: Broken Lines loading... Your squad has crash-landed behind enemy lines, in the heart of an alternate history Eastern Europe. With no intel or leadership to support them, these soldiers must fight their way back home before the horrors of war break them.... Read more »
- Urtuk: The Desolation - Gameplay @ DasTacticDasTactic checked out the tactic RPG Urtuk: The Desolation: Urtuk ~ 01 How to Play loading... Urtuk The Desolation is an awesome indie title with great yet simple tactical battles and a beautiful art-style. Thoroughly enjoying my time with this game.... Read more »
- Obsidian Entertainment - Working on Next-Gen RPGSegment Next reports that Obsidian Entertainment is working on a next gen AAA RPG. With The Outer Worlds done and dusted, Obsidian Entertainment is switching gears to move onto a triple-a role-playing game for next-generation platforms. The unannounced project was already known to be in the works but now, an indirect confirmation has arrived alongside some minor details.... Read more »
- Broken Lines - New TrailerPC Gamer reports on a new trailer for tactical RPG Broken Lines. We were pretty intrigued about Broken Lines when it was announced last year, and we’re definitely more intrigued now that we’ve seen more of it. Broken Lines is a tactical RPG with an emphasis on story that’s set in an alternate history World War 2, due to release on February 25th.... Read more »
- Geneforge 1 - Mutagen - FundedGeneforge 1 - Mutagen has been funded on Kickstarter and achieved its first stretch goal. Geneforge is Funded! First Stretch Goal Met! Spiderweb SoftwareCreator February 18, 2020 The first five days of the Geneforge 1 - Mutagen Kickstarter have been very eventful! We funded in less than 24 hours.... Read more »
- The Grendleroot in Avernus
Note, this article contains spoilers for Descent into Avernus.
Fantastic Adventures, Ruins of the Grendleroot, my book of ten 5th edition underground adventures, is designed to fit into any fantasy RPG world. Here's a quote from the book:
Blackclaw Mountain is designed to fit into just about any fantasy world, whether of your own design or part of a published campaign setting. The mountain can be a single peak in a large range, a lonely highland in a great plain, a pocket dimension, or a splinter between worlds. Drop Blackclaw Mountain into your world wherever it makes sense and won't disturb other parts of that world.
Blackclaw Mountain is also potentially infinite in its depth. All the locations and adventures in this book are set up within the mountain, and as a self-contained fantasy environment, the mountain can be expanded however you wish. You can add in borders marking the entrances to other worlds, tunnels to vast cities, and the lairs of monsters of any type and size. If it can be found underground, you can add it to Blackclaw.
The mountain is thus both a self-contained adventure location, easy to drop into any fantasy world, and an infinite portal opening up to a lifetime of stories. Use it as best fits the stories you and your players want to share.
One of the Kickstarter backers of Ruins of the Grendleroot on Kickstarter asked how they could use Blackclaw Mountain in the D&D hardback adventure Descent into Avernus. This is a perfect exercise to show how flexible this mountain truly is.
Placing Blackclaw Mountain
As described, we can place Blackclaw Mountain just about anywhere in Avernus. It might appear as an obsidian mountain piercing out of the cracked hellish landscape. It might be part of an existing mountain range of charred rock in Avernus or an independent demonic spire piecing through the abyss and into this first layer of hell.
Blackclaw Mountain as an incursion between the Abyss and the Nine Hells puts it in a really interesting spot for our tales to come. Devils can't get rid of it and demons use the mountain as a passageway from the abyss into hell.
This pivot point can create great energy for those who can control it, and many powerful beings wish to do so. It's possible areas of Blackclaw, maybe even the city of Shadowreach itself, regularly switch hands between demons and devils. For those able to profit from the blood war, like the warlords in chapter 3 of Descent into Avernus, Blackclaw Mountain is a dangerous yet profitable location.
The Grendleroot as Demonic Incursion
The Grendleroot itself, the strange alien entity whose spires pierce through the caverns of Blackclaw, might be a demonic root, a sentient growth of the Abyss that pierced into Avernus. It may be the catalyst for the whole mountain itself and it continues to claw its way out into the hellish lands above. The Grendleroot might be the remains of a demon prince whose attempts to break through into hell from the Abyss transformed it into this sentient horror. It reaches still, though slowly, trying to claw its way free into the skies of the Abyss.
The Black Star, the entity the Grendleroot calls out to, may be a more powerful demonic presence; maybe even an elder evil from the Far Realm. It might be Tharizdun, the chained god, trapped in the lowest levels of the Abyss.
The History of Blackclaw Mountain in Avernus
The history contained in Ruins of the Grendleroot is designed to be as reskinnable as the mountain itself. We can do so here when we place the mountain in Avernus.
First, we can replace the Order of the White Sun, as described in chapter 2 of Ruins of the Grendleroot, with the Hellriders, the knights of Eltruel who followed Zariel into Avernus over a century ago. Zariel's fall works well as the moment the Hellriders abandoned Blackclaw Mountain and returned to Eltruel.
As for the Magocracy of the Black Star, these archmages might be left mostly intact but with a more fiendish connection to the lords and dukes of hell. Each of the archmages may be tied to one of the lords of hell formed into a loose alliance in the city of Shadowreach where they practiced their terrible magics supported by an entire city of the damned.
Other aspects of the history of Blackclaw Mountain can be likewise reskinned. The ancient red dragon Aravax Blackflame may instead be a demon prince who built their throne on this border between the Abyss and the Nine Hells defeated by the Magocracy.
The abolethic city described in the history of Blackclaw and found in the adventure Chuul might instead be the lair of sibriexes (see Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes). These ancient keepers of forbidden lore may fit well as the mysterious caretakers who captured the Grendleroot. In our Descent into Avernus mashup the sibriexes may replace both the aboleths and the caretakers in Ruins of the Grendleroot. They could be the creators of the Grendleroot itself, having used the twisted alien entity to tear its way across the planes.
Deepdelver's Enclave: A Protected Beacon of Hope in Hell
Deepdelver's Enclave is designed to be a shining beacon in the darkness and it can continue to be so even if that darkness lies beneath the surface of Avernus. Perhaps it is too small for the demons and devils to care. Perhaps it is a sanctuary between the warlords who rule over Avernus's surface. Perhaps some other power protects it. It seems quite likely that Ayaan of Veyr, a rakshasa merchant in the Enclave, might either know of or be part of the force that protects the enclave.
When the enclave does come under attack; as it often does in the beginning of many adventures and particularly in the adventure Fistful of Copper, we'll want to ensure that there's a logical reason for these protections to fall. Perhaps they are weakening for that time. Perhaps whoever keeps a protective eye on the Enclave has looked elsewhere for a short time. Whatever reason we create, we'll want to consider it up front and ensure it makes logical sense.
The melting pot nature of Deepdelver's Enclave fits well into Avernus. We can think of it like a miniature version of Sigil in which both demons and devils walk the streets but no violence breaks out. The residents of Deepdelver's Enclave simply find the profit of delving into the depths of Blackclaw Mountain too inviting to ignore.
Tuning the Adventures
As for the adventures themselves, you'll want to reskin them to fit the fiendish nature of the new realm in which Blackclaw Mountain sits. This might be as easy as reskinning some of the monsters into more fiendish varieties. Temple of the Forgotten God may show what Avernus was like when it was meant to tempt mortals into hell with grand visions of idealistic lands. A Fistful of Copper may use small attacking bands of smaller demons and devils instead of orcs and hobgoblins. Many of the rest of the adventures likely need only small tweaks to fit them into an Avernus campaign.
Setting Blackclaw Mountain in the Depths of Hell
If we can take Blackclaw Mountain and fit it into the depths of hell, there's likely no fantasy world into which it cannot fit. Drop it in the Mournland of Eberron or in the mountains of Greyhawk. Plop it into the Spine of the World in the Forgotten Realms or under the scorched lands of Dark Sun. Blackclaw Mountain is designed to be your world within a world wherever you decide to plant it.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 8: The Styes
This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh Session Zero
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 2: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 3, Danger at Dunwater
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 4: Salvage Operation
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 5: Isle of the Abbey
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 6: The Final Enemy
Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Building On the Tharizdun Campaign Arc
Like Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey, The Styes was originally intended as a stand-alone adventure. If you are planning on running The Styes as a stand-alone adventure, you can likely run it as-is from the book and this article will be of limited use.
If we're running it as part of a Saltmarsh campaign, however, we'll want to modify it to fit within a story arc that crosses all eight adventures. We'll do so in two ways. First, we're going to connect it to the idea of a great rift in an ancient abolethic city called the Endless Nadir that leads to the abyssal layer of Tharizdun. In our running of The Styes we'll focus on the aboleth who has become infatuated with Tharizdun and has created a cult of twisted monstrosities throughout the decrepit city.
We can further connect this adventure with Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate by turning Syrgaul's connection to Orcus into a connection with Tharizdun. We can also bring the idea of the Endless Nadir from this adventure into Tammeraut's Fate. We'll discuss this more in our article focused on Tammeraut's Fate.
Connecting with the Scarlet Brotherhood
We can also connect The Styes with the larger arc of the Scarlet Brotherhood. In this arc, Mr. Dory, the main antagonist in The Styes is a Scarlet Brotherhood agent and leader for their activity on the southern coast. Skerrin Wavechaser, the butler of the Saltmarsh councilor Anders Solmor, might actually work for Mr. Dory. If the characters have figured out that Skerrin is an agent of the Scarlet Brotherhood, he might make his escape to the Styes and the characters might follow him here.
In secret, even to the Scarlet Brotherhood, Mr. Dory might no longer serve the Brotherhood and instead serves the aboleth under the city of the Styes.
The Styes follows a series of dark murders all tied back to a man, recently executed, who claims to have no knowledge of his dark deeds. An investigation leads to one of the four councilmembers of the Styes, Mr. Dory, who, in turn, is connected to the aboleth responsible for much evil in this dark city.
We can run this murder investigation as-is and still tie into a larger storyline. The murder can get some of the key players in front of the characters and take them to the locations that matter. It's a solid focused thread that can bring the characters into the larger plots going on in the Styes.
Read Your Lovecraft
The Styes feels like it was lifted right out of HP Lovecraft's story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This story is definitely worth the read when running this adventure. It will load up your brain with inspiration, themes, and setting for the adventure, particularly the idea of a city fallen to a dark religious cult and the physical transformation of humans into fish people.
In our running of the adventure, the Styes can be a dark mirror to the city of Saltmarsh. Where Saltmarsh weathered the fall of the sea princes to the kingdom of Keoland, the Styes never recovered. The pirates and the support they had in the Styes fell and those remaining sought out what comfort they could in the dark shadows of the cold depths. In this case, that was the call of Tharizdun and its prophet, the aboleth Sgothgah.
Play up this dark and nasty atmosphere. The people of the Styes are a sickly looking lot with weird pale clammy skin that shows their thick black veins. The people of the Styes will smile at the characters and point to their foreheads as though they have three eyes instead of two (the sign of Sgothgah the aboleth).
All of the temples to other gods have fallen into decay. No religions appear above the water here in the Styes. Below, however, lies the temple of Tharizdun.
Running the Aboleth as a False Hydra
There's one major storyline I wish I had done in the two instances in which I ran The Styes. This Goblin Punch article on the False Hydra is the inspiration for this idea.
Sgothgah the aboleth is slowly transforming the people of the Styes into his willing servants: sea spawns, deep scions, skum, and kraken priests. As he does so, they not only lose their bodies but their minds as well. As they lose sense of self, Sgothgah's psychic energies further steal their very existance out of the minds of those who knew the creature. A brother transformed becomes forgotten by their own family as they turn into a deep spawn and swim into the black depths.
For example, Mr. Dory may have once had a son. This son is known to the people of the Styes and even as far as Saltmarsh. Let's say Sgothgah transforms Mr. Dory's son into a sea spawn. When this takes place, no one remembers Mr. Dory's son anymore. Even the characters no longer remember the son. There might be a portrait of the son but no one knows who it is. Maybe it was some visitor who came by years ago. People are more than happy to fill in these lost memories.
As the characters travel around the Styes, they start to see people disappearing all around them and their own memories begin to change.
This is a great chance to play the meta. When a player asks about an NPC who has become transformed by Sgothgah, we tell them that their character has no memory of such a person. When they ask around town, no one recognizes who they're talking about. Even the characters don't remember but the players remember and know something weird is going on. That priest, Father Refrum? Nope, I don't know any priest like that. The temple's been abandoned for years.
If you're not getting it, read this Reddit thread on running a False Hydra. I've not run it myself yet but the next time I'm running an aboleth, I'm definitely trying this out. I wish I had done so in The Styes.
Adding In Lamp's Light Sanitarium
The Styes includes an investigative location called Hopene'er Asylum. We can, if we desire, replace this with the excellent adventure location Lamp's Light Sanitarium. This campaign adventure can fill out this location in the Styes with one of sinister horror and suspense. If you want to fill out the Styes, consider adding in this campaign adventure.
The Temple of Tharizdun
If you're not satisfied with the old wrecked boat as the lair of the aboleth, you might consider adding in a deep half-submerged temple to Tharizdun that has been here under the Styes for hundreds of thousands of years. This Dyson map can work well for the lair and final encounter with Sgothgah. To make the battle more challenging, you might add a number of chuuls along with the aboleth into a chamber that made reaching the aboleth difficult. The aboleth might also have access to the spells of a priest including a spirit weapon and spiritual guardians to make the life of characters even more difficult.
Your Moment for Seaside Horror
The Styes is a perfect adventure to focus on ancient seaside psychological horror. As an homage to Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, we can fill our running of The Styes with the mysterious transformation of a people into sea creatures who worship a being beyond mortal minds. By running the aboleth as a memory-stealing terror we can shake up not only the characters but the players as well. What will they think when their own characters begin to lose their memories?Read more »
- VideoGetting Started with Dungeons & Dragons
This article is intended for someone who is interested in Dungeons & Dragons but has no idea where to start. My intent is to get you on the right path to enjoy D&D.
If you are a veteran to D&D, consider sending this article to your friends who have not yet started playing.
The D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start learning about D&D. This free, legal, and official PDF has enough material in it to play D&D for a long time without spending any money at all.
If you know nothing about D&D, the first few pages of the D&D Basic Rules tells you just about everything you need to know about playing D&D.
There are a lot of other great resources for D&D that cost nothing or next to nothing as well but the D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start. Within it you'll find the rules to the game, character creation rules, rules for DMs, and monsters to include in your adventures.
Watch What D&D Looks Like
If you want to get a better idea what D&D looks like in play, take a look at the following D&D liveplay videos. Many of these have high production values but they still give you a good idea what it looks like to play D&D. Each video is about two to three hours long.
- Greg Bilsland running Lost Mine of Phandelver
- Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom Liveplay
- Jeremy Crawford Running Descent into Avernus
- Debora Ann Woll's Lost Odyssey
- Mike Mearls's Founders and Legends D&D game
Your First Purchases
If you're ready to jump into D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set. This inexpensive boxed set includes all of the rules you need to play, a set of dice, and an excellent adventure for beginning characters called Lost Mine of Phandelver. Here are some articles for starting strong at your first D&D game and tips for running Lost Mine of Phandelver.
You might also pick up the D&D Essentials Kit. This boxed set includes another adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, designed specifically for new DMs and includes rules for running D&D with just one player and one DM. If you're running this adventure, read my guide for running Dragon of Icespire Peak before you get started. The adventure has some rough spots for 1st level characters in it.
Both of these boxed sets can work well together, filling out the area around Phandalin with a host of quests and adventures the players can choose from.
Getting a Group Together
You can play D&D with as few as a single dungeon master and a single player but one DM and around four players is more common. Finding and maintaining a D&D group is likely the hardest part of running a D&D game. Read my article on finding and maintaining a D&D group for advice on finding the right players and keeping your game going week after week.
The Core Books
At this point, if you and your friends are enjoying D&D, it's time to dig into the D&D core books. There are three D&D core books: the Player's Handbook for players, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual for dungeon masters.
With just these three books in hand you have enough material for years of play. You don't need any other books or accessories to play D&D for the rest of your lives. Instead of physical books you also can buy books on D&D Beyond and share them with your group online.
D&D has a number of other books that add new monsters, races, class abilities, and campaign worlds. These include:
- Xanathar's Guide to Everything
- Volo's Guide to Monstes
- Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes
- Eberron, Tales from the Last War
- Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica
- The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide
- Acquisitons Incorporated
These books are entirely optional. You can go a long way with just the three core books. That said, each of the above books has additional material both in mechanics and lore to grow your game.
Wizards of the Coast also publishes a number of large campaign adventures. These big adventures can take a group over a year to complete and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Many DMs prefer to run their own adventures in their own world, however. You can read all about these published adventures at my guide for published D&D adventures.
A Flip Mat. Being able to draw what a location looks like can be very useful, particularly for combat. This Pathfinder Flip Mat is my personal favorite. It's cheap, lightweight, easy to pack, and limitless in its flexibility.
Tokens and Miniatures. You'll see a lot of D&D games that use miniatures for characters and monsters. Miniature collecting and painting is its own limitless hobby. Miniatures aren't required to play D&D. There are many cheap options for representing characters and monsters on the table to help you show positioning in combat. These cheap tokens represent both monsters and characters and can be put together for under $30. For more information on tokens and miniatures, see my New DM's Guide to Miniatures.
There's a huge array of other accessories for running D&D games. Some are good, many will complicate your game without making it any better. You don't need anything more than the core books and some dice to enjoy D&D for the rest of your life. Don't get overwhelmed. Start small and add in the accessories you need to make your game great.
The Beginning of Limitless Worlds
Endless adventures await you should you continue your journey into Dungeons & Dragons. Once you've gotten started, check out my Start Here page for a selection of the top articles from this site to help you along your path. Grab your walking stick, tighten up your boots, and lets explore new worlds together.Read more »
- VideoSpending a Whole Day Preparing a D&D Game
When I think about D&D game prep, often I think about how to streamline it and reduce it to the elements that bring the best value to our game. This is the core idea behind Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. How can you get more out of your game by preparing less?
In Return we boil down game preparation into eight optional steps including the following:
- Review the characters
- Create a strong start
- Outline potential scenes
- Define secrets and clues
- Develop fantastic locations
- Outline important NPCs
- Choose relevant monsters
- Select magic item rewards
You don't have to use the steps if they aren't needed. We talked before about choosing the right steps given various gaming situations. We can reduce this checklist when we let other products, like published adventures, do some of the heavy lifting for us.
All of this is to help streamline game prep. We're all busy. We all have a lot of demands on our time. We don't often have more than 30 minutes to an hour to prepare for our D&D game.
But what if we did?
What if we had a full day to prepare for our D&D game? What if, on one magical day, we had no other commitments. We had no other demands on our time. And, on this ideal day, what if we managed to avoid the temptations to spend our time on video games, TV, movies, or the internet?
If we were able to spend a whole day preparing for our D&D game, where would we spend it?
Why This Matters
This feels like an unrealistic question to ask and some might not understand why it's valuable at all to ask it.
It matters because it helps us take a step back from the continual refinement of game prep that boils it down to 30 minutes and lets us ask ourselves what else might matter. If we had the time, what else might we bring to the game that can make a big difference?
This new angle on game prep—what if we had a full day uninterrupted to prepare for D&D—helps us look at the whole topic in a new way. We don't know what we'll find there. What other useful D&D prep activities might we discover? That's why it matters.
I asked the question on Twitter to see what other people thought. My first take on the question ("What would you do if you had a whole day to prep your D&D game?") came back with almost all joke replies. Play video games, procrastinate, panic, etc. A more refined version of the question ("Ideally, what would you want to do if you had a full day to prep your D&D game?") came back with much better responses. I received about 220 replies which I stuck through some text processing to see what common topics came up. Here were the answers:
map (70), npc (51), player (47), encounter (41), prep (36), character (29), note (27), prop (22), music (21), monster (19), mini (18), handout (18), plot (17), world (17), campaign (16), story (16), adventure (16), pc (14), draw (12), combat (11), terrain (10), location (10), background (8), read (8), puzzle (8), hook (8)
The most common single response was working on maps, which I thought was interesting. NPCs, encounters, characters, all were high on the list too. Props, music, handouts, terrain, puzzles; all great ideas. If we had the time, we know where we might put it.
Mike's Day of D&D Prep
On a particular Sunday, when I might otherwise be busy writing D&D stuff or running my regular D&D game, I found myself with this hypothetical day in reality. My game got canceled. My other commitments were taken care of. I had a full day with nothing on the agenda that I had to do. I could have easily filled it up with things, but this was the perfect chance to actually see what it would be like to spend a whole day on a D&D game.
It also came at a very good time. I had just finished up two campaigns and a bunch of Ruins of the Grendleroot playtests and both of my groups were about to start Ghosts of Saltmarsh. There seemed like no better time to spend a day preparing for D&D like at the beginning of a pair of new D&D campaigns. So I cleared off the rest of the schedule and wrote out a checklist. On Sunday, I began my day of D&D prep for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Other than taking an hour to talk about my full day of D&D prep on my Twitch show and spending some time wiring some power cables under my gaming table, I spent the whole day doing stuff related to Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Here was the checklist I followed:
- Prepare maps
- Read the adventure
- Read the appendices
- Consider character backgrounds & hooks to each adventure
- Review and make handouts
- Collect miniatures for next few sessions
- Ponder NPCs and their actions
- Build a campaign soundtrack
- Get a prop lantern
So how did it work out? Not so bad and I did learn a few things. Some of the things on the checklist I never got around to. I never got a prop lantern. I stuck to the Assassin's Creed Black Flag soundtrack for my campaign soundtrack but never actually used it. I only picked out miniatures for the first full adventure but they're were all nice and organized.
Printing Maps (two hours)
One of the biggest things I did during the day was get all of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh maps printed at Staples using their blueprint printing service. I was able to get about fourteen maps for $50. Some of them are obnoxiously huge, 36" by 48" and still only cost $7.50. If I had to do it again I wouldn't get any map bigger than 24" x 36" which ran about $3.75. I'd also print the 10 foot per square maps using 18" x 24" because they aren't battlemap scale anyway and the smaller format is easier to handle on a table. 18" x 24" maps ran under two bucks a piece; an amazing deal.
Getting all of the files off of D&D Beyond and into the Staples print center web page took about an hour and driving there and back took another hour. So that was a good piece of time spent on something that my players will definitely notice.
In the end, though, I barely used these maps. I tended to use them for the first couple of adventures but by the time I ran the Final Enemy, I stopped using them. I was customizing the dungeons too much to bother with a large fixed map. While blueprint mapping worked great, particularly for Dysonlogo maps, I don't know that I'd bother with it again. I can just draw them out on a dry-erase map when I want them.
Reading the Adventure with the Characters in Mind (three hours)
I think the most valuable thing we can do when we have a lot of time is to read the adventure we're running (assuming we're running a published adventure) while thinking about how we can tie the characters into those adventures. This means spending time reading over our characters' backgrounds and then reading through the adventure thoroughly to see how those backgrounds can tie back in. While we read it we can jot down some possible character connections. Here are some examples:
- Huron the water genasi served aboard the Emperor of the Waves. He was thrown overboard and awoke amidst the ship's ruins.
- Umber the sea elf fighter was on a ship in which Lowrin Solmor, father of Anders Solmor, was killed. He is still very loyal to the Solmor family.
- Jamras the triton warlock has been hunting for a dark power supposedly rising in the south. He has a coin with a swirling pattern on it that means something important.
- One of the characters will know that the Sea Prince Syrgaul sailed on a warship called the Tammeraut. The Tammeraut was sunk ten years ago.
- The water dwelling members of the party know about a rift in the sea floor that none of the aquatic races will go near known as the Endless Nadir.
These interconnections between the characters and the adventures can have a strong impact in the game. When the players see why their characters would get involved in an adventure they have a much stronger connection with the story than if their characters is essentially running independently from the plotline.
Gathering Miniatures (one hour)
These days I'm much more of a theater of the mind DM. I'll occasionally ask a player to grab one of my miniature boxes and fish out some minis for a fight but I find that the flexibility of theater-of-the-mind combat frees up the story to go in any direction it wants to go.
My players still love miniatures, though, so spending some time to grab up all of the potential miniatures I'd need to run the first chapter of Saltmarsh seemed like a good use of time. That took about an hour. That includes digging out multiple miniatures for each of the characters so the players can choose the one they like.
Ideal Preparation List
If time weren't a factor, where might we spend the time? Given my own experiences, here's the list I'd choose:
The Eight Steps. Going through the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is still the most useful way to spend time that I can offer. With more time available we can expand some of these steps out into longer activities. We can expand out on our character reviews, NPC development, and secrets and clues. We can dig deep into our villains, their goals, and the things they'll do to reach those goals. We can map out potential treasure rewards for each of the characters over the course of a campaign. We can take each of the eight steps that apply to the type of game we're running and expand on them as much as we wish.
Handouts. Great handouts bring the players into the story of the game. It's one thing to describe a letter one of the characters finds. It's something else to hold that letter in your hand. Great handouts take time. We need to write them and edit them down so they're the kind of thing our players will actually read. Secret maps, clues to puzzles, cyphers between villains; great handouts hit new senses and wake up new parts of the brains of our players. Printing out notes on copper resume paper with cool fantasy fonts is an easy way to make a handout look great. Making handouts takes time but if we happen to have the time, they're worth it.
Maps. Who am I to argue with all of the Twitter responses talking about preparing maps? Maybe this means gathering a bunch of Dyson maps and printing them out using the Staples blueprint print center or maybe it means drawing maps. Maps help bring players into the world. They help make the world more real. That's a valuable use of time.
Miniatures. Finding the right miniatures and preparing them ahead of time can also make a nice difference. It's one thing to describe a monster and show a picture of it in the Monster Manual and something else to drop the right miniature on the table. For most people, getting the right miniature can be too costly, regardless of time. Printing out paper miniatures or digging up artwork and building tokens is more cost effective, though still requires some time. Buying and painting miniatures to represent the characters takes time but is a worthwhile activity given how long those minis will sit on the table. Using painted miniatures for player characters and tokens for monsters is a good cost-effective mix.
Terrain. I'm a huge fan of Dwarven Forge. When the situation calls for it, building out cool Dwarven Forge layouts makes the game world even more solid. As cool as it is, building out wonderful 3d dioramas won't make as much of a difference as spending time thinking about the characters and how to better integrate them into the story but if one has the means and the time, they definitely make a great game even better.
Music. I like to have some background music going while I run my games. Instead of spending a lot of time on specific tracks and playlists, I set up three general playlists: D&D Relaxed, D&D Sinister, and D&D Combat. I pick songs from a variety of video game soundtracks including Darkest Dungeon, the Witcher 3, Skyrim, Horizon Zero Dawn, Divinity Original Sin 2, and various Assassin's Creed soundtracks. I'll split the songs up among those three playlists and play them out during the game. It takes about an hour initially but one can use the same playlists for years.
The Diminishing Returns of D&D Prep
Having spent an entire day prepping for D&D I found that such time led to diminishing returns. This isn't a surprise. The whole philosophy of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is that less prep can lead to a better game. It was still interesting to see it in practice. I got some value out of the time I spent preparing for my Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign but much of the value comes from spending thirty minutes on the checklist. It's worth the time to think about where our time is best spent preparing for our D&D games. We may never have a full day to prepare for our D&D game and that's just fine. Really, all we need is thirty minutes.Read more »
- Combining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit
Many agree that the best way to get started in D&D is with the D&D Starter Set. With a low price, excellent adventure, and all the materials you need to run a game in a single box; it's hard to recommend anything else. I still consider the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, one of the best D&D adventures with its clear focus on the small town of Phandalin and a nice sandbox full of places to explore, people to meet, and threats to face.
The recently released D&D Essentials Kit adds another alternative. Like the Starter Set, it's designed for new players although not necessarily new DMs. It comes with a wider range of materials including a larger set of dice, a deck of cards, full-color maps, character creation rules, and sidekick rules. Like the Starter Set, the Essentials Kit is a bargain for the price.
But which boxed set should you get if you're new to D&D?
I'd still start with the Starter Set. It's slightly cheaper and, in my opinion, the adventures are better tuned for the characters.
But as an alternative, why not both?
The D&D Starter Set and the D&D Essentials Kit work really well together. In this article we'll look at how to join up these two products to get the best out of both.
A Central Story with a Host of Sidequests
When combining the storylines of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak we have the main storyline of Lost Mine of Phandelver and the series of individual quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak. The characters can begin with chapter 1 of Lost Mine of Phandelver, Goblin Arrows. When they arrive back at Phandalin, they find the quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak nailed to the town's quest board. The characters (and players) are free to continue following the main quest line in Phandelver or choose one of the job board quests from Icespire as they wish.
While the characters follow one path or the other, we can drop in secrets and clues that point to other quests from both Phandelver and Icespire. They may learn of the secret plot of the Black Spider while spending time on the dwarven excavation or meeting the gnomes of Gnomengarde. They may hear of the displaced orcs and the rise of the anchorites of Talos in Neverwinter Wood while exploring Thundertree or Cragmaw Castle in Phandelver. The green dragon in Thundertree may be a rival of the white dragon in Icespire Keep. The cult of the dragon in Thundertree may be recruiting both of these dragons. There's lots of ways to join up these two adventures and running them together gives the players a huge range of options to choose their path.
Not So Lazy Work
Joining these two adventures together will not make a DM's life easier. You'll need to read both adventures to get ideas how to join the two together. You'll need to bring in hooks from both adventures into the paths of the characters as they explore each of them. There will be a lot of moving parts; parts that make the world feel rich and full and real, but all of those moving parts will make your campaign more complicated. In the end, however, it can be well worth the effort.
One concern is how we handle leveling. You may want to level more slowly than you might otherwise if the characters are spending a lot of time on side quests. Otherwise the characters will out-level the quests in both adventures before either of them are done. You'll still want to level out of 1st level quickly but once you're at second level, leveling every couple of adventures is probably just fine. As an alternative you can level up as fast as you like and simply let some of the quests become obsolete before the characters have had a chance to engage with them.
Joining the Toolkits
Both the D&D Starter Set and the Essentials Kit include more than just the two adventures. The pregenerated characters from the Starter Set, which you can download right here, make it easy for new players to get into the game if they don't have the experience to make a new character. For players interested in building characters, the Essentials Kit includes all of the rules needed to create characters with the four basic races and five classes including a couple of different class builds for each class.
The two books together also include a large menagerie of monsters. Only a few monsters are replicated across both boxes. Together they provide a huge range of monsters from 1st to 5th level that you can use to run your own adventures for years without buying another book. The Starter Set has a wider selection of more basic monsters while the Essentials Kit fills out this list with stranger monsters like ochre jellies, wererats, and evil half-orc shapeshifting druids.
Both books also include a wonderful selection of maps and locations you can reskin to fit your own homebrew adventures.
The maps, DM screen, and cards from the Essentials Kit work just as well when running the Starter Set material.
Running Lost Mine of Phandelver One-on-One
One fabulous feature of the D&D Essentials Kit are the rules that let you play D&D with one DM and one player using sidekicks. Sidekicks are stripped down NPCs that run alongside player characters to shore up any deficiencies and help even out the odds in combat.
Though Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn't include any rules for scaling combat for less than four characters, we can use some handy guidelines to help us tune down battles when running Phandelver one-on-one. Here's a quick reference:
- Reduce the number of monsters the character faces. Be careful when including more monsters than the number of characters.
- Reduce the hit points of monsters as needed.
- Reduce the number of attacks and damage of monsters as needed.
- Give the character relics, scrolls, potions, and magic items to off-set their gaps.
- Be wary of monster spells or effects that can, with a single stroke, remove the character from combat.
Being able to run these adventures with a single DM and single player adds a tremendous amount of flexibility. Joining Essentials sidekicks with the Starter Set is a powerful combination.
Continuing On Beyond the Boxes
When your players have completed the adventures in both boxes, you can move on to the additional digital adventures included with your purchase of the Essentials Kit. These adventures include Storm Lord's Wrath, Sleeping Dragon's Wake, and Divine Contention, all of which you can find here which take characters from 6th to 13th level. That's quite a campaign!
Building an Expanded Campaign around Phandalin
Joining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit together helps you build out Phandalin in a way that neither boxed set does on their own. The world becomes richer, the options wider and more varied. The two boxes together create a powerful toolkit for DMs who want to run their own low-level adventures. Without needing another product you can run adventures using these two boxed sets for years to come.Read more »
- VideoRunning Episodic Games
I'm a huge fan of serials. Shows like True Detective put a limit on the overall story but give that story enough room to breathe and fill out across many episodes. The game Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert Schwalb builds itself around this episodic structure as the core of the game. Characters are intended to level each session across eleven sessions that make up an entire Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. This builds a strict structure around the campaign. Some may find it too restrictive but others, like myself, enjoy having this fixed structure to build around.
We can take this same episodic approach with our Dungeons & Dragons games. Often, when running large hardback adventures, we let the game go however it goes. It begins where it left off previously and it ends wherever it ends as time allows. This can be a fine and relaxing way to play, one that doesn't push a lot of adventure time management onto the DM's already long list of required activities. When running a campaign adventure like Tomb of Annihilation, we can let it go as long as it needs to go.
There can be some fun in building a more focused episodic structure to our campaigns, one in which the each session has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Such a campaign might have a fixed number of "episodes" until the end of the campaign. It works well if you know that your group has a limited number of sessions already. It also works well if your game is somewhat irregular but each session is still long enough to fit in a whole adventure. Four hours is a good benchmark.
Planning Out the Serial Campaign
When following the concepts in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we focus our attention on the next session and have, at best, a loose outline for the rest of a campaign. This works well if we have no real time limits on each session or on the campaign as a whole. When we're running a focused episodic campaign, like an eleven-session Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, we'll need more structure than that.
It doesn't have to be much more structure, however. If we look at the level 1 to 20 gnoll campaign outline we only need a one-line description for each session beyond the next one and a general idea how the story is going to go. We still focus our attention on the next game but we have a more fixed and focused outline to work from.
Here's an example for my Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it can work just as easily for a D&D game. The overall goal of this campaign is to stop the coming of the Demon Lord by destroying the four anchors that pull him into the world. Each anchor is an object or being of great power and requires a single item to destroy it (known as a "breaker"). Here's the eleven session campaign outline:
- Rescue Father Gregory from the Black Vault beneath Crossings
- "Rescue" Candace Dreen from the thugs who kidnapped her (turns out she's a demon).
- Break into the Dreen mansion to recover notes from the demonologist Moore.
- Recover the first Breaker: the Sword of Stars
- Recover the second Breaker: the Shard of Night
- Recover the third Breaker: the Blackfire Wand
- Recover the fourth Breaker: the Bone of the Innocent
- Destroy the first Anchor: the Demon Prince
- Destroy the second Anchor: the White Princess
- Destroy the third Anchor: the Black Sun Manuscript
- Destroy the fourth Anchor: The Eye of the Demon Lord
You can see the clear structure of this campaign. Because it breaks out into two groups of four objectives, the characters can accomplish each of these four objectives in whatever order they want. I only flesh out these individual adventures when I'm getting ready to run the session. It's enough to have the outline to work off of and know I have a clear direction for the campaign.
Sometimes it behooves us to expose this structure to the players. In the outline above, the players learned the general structure for the campaign in session three. They know they'll need to recover four breakers to destroy four anchors. They know each session will cover one of these events. They'll be as committed as we are to follow the structure of the campaign.
Maybe our campaign doesn't actually end up this way and the outline changes. That's ok. Sometimes the best stories take a hard left turn and become something very different. We can be cool with that and it might actually end up being a better game. It still has to fit within the structure, however, so when that hard left turn happens, it's time to rebuild the outline and not let the story get out of hand.
Building In Flexibility
Because each adventure is intended to fit within a game session and because adventures have a tendency to go off the rails we have to build in a fair bit of flexibility into them. We may have to dramatically shorten our adventure or pad it out to fit within the session depending on how things go. Most of the time we'll need to shorten it up. It's rare when we don't have enough material to fill out a session and much more likely that we have too much.
Our first goal is to have the end in mind always. We need to know what the final conclusion of the adventure will be and be prepared to push the adventure to that conclusion as fast as possible if needed. If we're running an adventure based on the rescue of Father Gregory from the Black Vault, we have to be ready to get the characters to the Black Vault, find Father Gregory, and face the harvester that's carving him up within the last 30 to 45 minutes of the game. We can use our tricks to time and pace each adventure with moving keys and moving MacGuffins.
Managing time becomes crucial in such short episodic adventures so we need to be thinking about that conclusion every thirty minutes ensuring that its headed towards that conclusion quickly. Clues become much easier to discover later in a game. Dungeons become smaller. Piles of monsters in the way suddenly disappear. The very next room the characters enter just so happens to be the Black Vault.
There are a few ways we can build in this flexibility into our games. Here are two:
First, we can shrink the dungeon. If we're using a map for our dungeon, say the catacombs map from the Lazy DM's Workbook, we can collapse hallways and cut off rooms until a twelve-room dungeon becomes a five-room dungeon.
Second, we can cut encounters. Scenes, particularly combat scenes, all take up a lot of time in our games. When we're building out our single-session adventure we can build-in flexibility by being ready to cut scenes when we need. Maybe those wights never burst out of the sarcophagi as the characters make their way to the dead general's crypt. Maybe instead of having to negotiate with a ghost to get into the lower tomb, the characters learn some interesting lore from a fresco on the wall and find the door already open. We always want enough encounters to fill out the game but we should be ready to cut whatever we need to cut to get to the ending on time.
Character Montages Between Sessions
Because each of our games is a self-contained story, we can throw in some downtime in between each session. At the beginning of each session we can go around the table and ask what each character has been up to for this period of downtime. We can shrink or extend this downtime as it fits the story. Maybe it's only one day. Maybe it's a tenday. Maybe it's a month. A lot of interesting things can happen to the characters in this downtime and some of it may move the story into new and interesting directions. Players can have clear ideas of what their character did and learned during the downtime which is a great way to drop in some secrets and clues. Other players might not have anything particular in mind so maybe they roll on the carousing table from Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Let your players know that you'll be asking about their downtime and they may come up with some interesting ideas between sessions. This is a fun way to play D&D away from the table as well as on it.
Leveling Every Session
In an episode of the DM's Deep Dive, Mike Mearls mentioned that he felt that characters typically leveled too slowly. He went so far as to recommend leveling characters every session to see how it felt. Many DMs didn't like that idea, often describing that they felt players wouldn't have enough time to understand their characters' new abilities.
A short-run episodic campaign, however, might be just the time to try out faster leveling. Experienced players won't have much trouble understanding the new abilities of their characters and as long as as each episode happens close to the others, say weekly, players will watch their characters grow level by level each session.
A six-session, ten-session, or even twenty-session episodic campaign might be just the way to enjoy the feeling of a full D&D campaign without having to play for two years to complete it.
One Alternative Style of Play
Episodic D&D games isn't a new wonderful way to play D&D. It is one possible way we can run our games when the story and situation is right. I very much enjoyed my eleven episode Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it isn't likely to be my preferred style. The relaxed nature of an ongoing campaign means I don't have to worry about tying up every loose end at the end of a session. I don't have to have an eleven-episode outline for the whole campaign. I can run multiple villains, multiple stories, and multiple hooks and see where the characters want to go.
If you see a short focused campaign in your future, however, the episodic campaign may be just the fit. Add it to your DMing toolkit.Read more »
- VideoYour Most Important Game
Your most important Dungeons & Dragons game is the next one you're going to run.
This might be blindingly obvious or it might be completely alien to you. We DMs have big dreams. We have big plans. We plan out entire 1 to 20 campaigns before we've had our session zero. We love to build out campaign worlds for years before our characters step outside of their single town. We think about future boss monsters. We think about future combat encounters. We think about big twists that may take place in the story.
None of that really matters. It's all ethereal until it hits the table. Your future four-year campaign doesn't exist until its over.
All that matters is your next game.
Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master spends a lot of time on individual game preparation for this reason. It's useful to think about the big truths in a campaign world. It's fun to think about the villains, where they're going, and what they're doing. We like to be able to describe a campaign with a clear elevator pitch. But, in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we don't spend a lot of time on building large campaign arcs because, deep down, they don't matter. Only the next game matters. The results for each eight steps matter.
How are we going to make our next game the best game we can? What can we stick into it that will really blow the players away? Who are the characters? What is our strong start? What scenes might occur? What secrets will they uncover? What locations will they explore? Who will they meet? What monsters will they face? What treasure might they uncover? That's what we should focus on.
What can we do to make our next game awesome? Is it handouts? Is it a cool location map? Is it some evocative 3D terrain? Is it a character's hook we can finally reel in?
Our DM's mind wanders. When we're given permission to build entire universes in our head, it's hard not to let our minds rush outward. We can build planet-sized dungeons. We can establish histories that go back millions of years. We can build entire pantheons of gods. How can we not give our minds the freedom to do so?
We can, but not at the expense of our game. None of those things become real until they play out at our game and things only really play out in the next session we run. Until then, nothing else matters. Nothing else exists.
The more we detail future adventures our minds, the more we might lose sight of what comes next. If we're ever struggling to know what to do, how to prepare, and how to fit it such preparation into our busy lives, it is freeing to recognize that the only game we need to worry about is the next one we're going to run.
Focus on your next game.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 6: The Final Enemy
This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh Session Zero
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 2: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 3, Danger at Dunwater
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 4: Salvage Operation
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 5: Isle of the Abbey
Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
The End of a Trilogy
The Final Enemy is the last adventure of the trilogy focused on the sahuagin threat which began in The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh and continued on in Danger at Dunwater. In The Final Enemy the characters travel to the former lizardfolk island, assess the threat of the sahuagin, and perhaps end the threat the sahuagin hold over Saltmarsh before their attack begins.
Like the other two adventures in this series, The Final Enemy is an excellent sandbox adventure in which we lay out the situation and the goals and the characters are left to their own devices to succeed in that goal. How they choose to approach the sahuagin-invaded island will dictate how the sahuagin react. This is perfect situational D&D. We put the situation out in front of the players and we figure out how that situation changes as they interact with it. We may be as surprised as the players how things turn out. It's a wonderful way to play D&D.
Clarify the Goals
Because this adventure is so open-ended, it's important to clarify the adventure's goals to the players. You don't want a situation in which they're deep in the lair and then turn to one another and say "why are we here again?".
We can simplify the goals down to the following, which are clarified well in the adventure under "mission goals". I'm adding one of my own which I think is important for the rest of the adventure.
- Determine the size and strength of the sahuagin force.
- Find important locations within the fortress.
- Identify defenses.
- Identify the sahuagin leadership (this one I added).
It's possible the characters may find a way to stop the sahuagin attack before it even starts by killing the leadership of the sahuagin and removing any desire from the remaining sahuagin to attack the coast. They might accomplish this by killing the baron and high priestess in area 42, killing the baroness in area 45, and killing the avatar of Sekolah in area 37.
With these heads of the sahuagin removed, the rest will gather up in small packs and flee into the ocean.
Change Up the Number and Type of Sahuagin
Depending on how the adventure is going when you're running it, feel free to change up the numbers and types of sahuagin the characters encounter. Instead of patrols of eight sahuagin, feel free to include just two normal sahuagin wandering through the caves (see two thugs in the woods. Mixing up the number of sahuagin can change up the pace and feeling of the game. Too many battles against six to twelve powerful sahuagin can get boring and stale. Changing up the situations so that the characters can use stealth, subterfuge, intimidation, or deception to get past them as well as combat can make the adventure a lot more interesting.
Returning to Saltmarsh
Given that the characters may not end the threat their first time through the sahuagin fortress, you'll have to figure out what happens when the characters leave and the threat remains. One possibility is that, discovering the infiltration, the sahuagin launch an attack against Saltmarsh. They may send in three killer whales each mounted by a sahuagin waveshaper and protected by a small force of sahuagin on shell sharks. These waveshapers slam the coast of Saltmarsh with huge waves that destroy ships and hammer the coast. The characters can deal with a number of situations during this attack such as a coastal sahuagin flanking attack, drowning sailors in the sea, collapsing buildings, or attacking the waveshapers themselves. This can be a fun large battle the characters can get involved in. We need not make this complicated. Describe the larger battle going on while the characters deal with their specific battles or situations.
During this attack the characters may have a chance to eliminate heads of the sahuagin threat and leave a much reduced force back at the sahuagin fortress. When they return to the fortress they can hunt down the remaining heads of the sahuagin and end the threat completely.
Tying Into a Larger Story
One unanswered question in this adventure is how to tie it together with the other adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. We may connect the sahuagin to the Endless Nadir described in The Styes. The sahuagin may have fled from the ancient aboleth city as a rift tore open into the lower layers of the abyss. The characters may learn this from the sahuagin themselves, from murals on the wall, or perhaps an intelligent trident of fish command possessed by a marid (one with family connections to any water genasi in the group perhaps). This thread ties the sahuagin to the larger threat of an ocean poisoned by the realm of the Elder Elemental Eye.
A Great Sandbox Adventure
The Final Enemy is an excellent sandbox adventure in which the characters choose their approach to assess and perhaps destroy the threat of the sahuagin against Saltmarsh. Stay flexible with the encounters they face and let the story play out as the characters delve deep into this dangerous lair.Read more »
- Building Legendary D&D Monsters in your Head
Here at Sly Flourish I believe firmly in helping DMs develop the tools change up our game without having to spend a lot of time or carry around a lot of extra books. This means learning how to do a lot of the prep and improvisation work of D&D in our heads. For example, my encounter building guidelines are intended to give DMs some rules of thumb to quickly gauge whether an encounter might be inadvertently deadly.
We have other tricks we can use to improvise the challenge of a combat encounter without resorting to any charts, tables, tools, or anything else. We can increase or reduce a monster's hit points, damage, or the number of monsters in a battle to easily change the threat of the battle. We can do all of these while a battle is taking place. If this feels like cheating to you, consider hanging onto the game with a looser grip. As long as your drive is to make the game as exciting as you can, you have full authority to make these sorts of changes.
We have other simple tools we can keep in our heads that help us run a fun D&D game. We can grant advantage or impose disadvantage as we improvise the situations, actions, motivations, backgrounds, and specialties of the characters. "Bless, roll an Intelligence (Religion) check to see if you recognize some of the symbols on this altar. Roll with advantage because the voice of the planetar in your sun blade whispers ancient secrets to you,".
Improvising difficulty classes (DCs) is probably the most-used and easily-implemented improvisation techniques in D&D. If there is a reasonable chance for failure in any situation, choose a difficulty based on the situation on a number between 10 (moderately easy) and 20 (really hard). That's the challenge the characters must beat.
Improvising Legendary Monsters
Now we come to the subject of this article; building legendary monsters the lazy way. Much of the time we can use an existing legendary monster from the Monster Manual. Probably 19 times out of 20, this suits us just fine. Sometimes, however, we want to take a normal monster and make it a legendary one. Let's take the Avatar of Sekolah for example. The Avatar is a giant two-headed shark summoned by the priestesses of the sahuagin. There's actually a stat block for this shark in Ghosts of Saltmarsh but I wanted something more straight forward and dangerous.
We start with the giant shark stat block in the Monster Manual. The first thing we can do to make this thing legendary is to increase its hit points—200 sounds good. Again, no need to write anything down. We just keep this in mind. Now we get on to the legendary parts. First, we give it three legendary actions. These might be used for an additional attack, a move, or some other activity that makes sense. In the case of the Avatar of Sekolah, we'll give it an extra bite attack as part of its attack action to account for its second head (oh yeah, it has two heads). We can also give it an extra bite attack for the cost of two legendary actions and a free movement without provoking attacks of opportunity as a single legendary action. This gives it some mobility and a way to threaten back-line combatants. Finally we give it three uses of legendary resistance to break out of save-or-suck abilities.
All of these things can be done in our head. We don't need to write them down. This lets us turn any monster into a legendary monster without having to do any real work at all.
Announcing Legendary Monsters
Because it might not be clear that the characters are about to face a legendary monster, it can help to announce to them that they are about to face a legendary foe. I like to say "you believe you are about to face a legendary foe" while wiggling my eyebrows. This gives the players some opportunity to shift their tactics and they won't be too unpleasantly surprised to find their save-or-suck spells getting ignored and the monster they're facing hitting them between turns. Some DMs believe this information should be held behind the screen. I don't mind revealing it and I've never seen it detract from the fun of the game.
When in doubt, lean towards revealing too much.
Don't Overdo It
Just because we have easy tools to build legendary monsters doesn't mean we should use it often. Legendary monsters are truly special beings. A legendary monster is more than just a stronger variant of an existing monster, it's a unique variant. If we want a stronger monster, more hit points, more attacks, and more damage will often do the trick without giving them legendary actions or legendary resistances. Legendary monsters are special. Our players should never question why this creature is legendary. One mere look at it and the story surrounding it should be enough to mark its legendary stature.
Worry Less About Challenge Ratings
One argument about building such legendary foes is that these changes increase the challenge rating of the creature and we don't know how far. My simple response is "It doesn't matter". Challenge ratings are a loose guideline at best. What we know of the capabilities of the characters matters much more. Given that we're taking a single creature and making it legendary means we're likely only running that one creature. This puts it at a distinct disadvantage against four to six characters already. It's challenge rating may be two or three higher than the original but really, who's counting? If you double the hit points of a creature and give it legendary actions and resistances, you can probably count it as two or three copies of the base creature.
Better yet, don't get hung up on the math; it doesn't work that well anyway.
Building a D&D Toolbox We Keep in Our Heads
The best tools in D&D are the ones we have in front of us. Even better are those we need not have on hand at all but can keep in our heads. The ability to build legendary monsters without having to write a single thing down is a powerful tool in our toolbox. We can turn any creature into a creature of legend—a creature whose name will be recorded in ancient texts and fantastic stories. Keep these guidelines in mind when you wish to build your own legendary foe.Read more »
- Balancing D&D Combat for One-on-One Play
The D&D Essentials Kit includes the first-ever official rules for running D&D with just one player and one DM. This is a whole new style of playing D&D, although some, such as the fine folks behind D&D Duet, have been playing this way for a while and I imagine other groups have played this way for years. Like running combat without a map or minis, some folks think it is completely impossible while others have done it for years without issue.
Being able to play D&D one-on-one has tremendous advantages. It's much easier to find a group when you only need one other player. Games can go quicker and the story can go further in each session with a single player than with a larger group. The story of the game can focus on that one particular character. The story, maybe the whole world itself, can be built around this single main character. The list of advantages goes on and on. With the right tools and principals in mind for running one-on-one D&D, we might even run a single character through a published campaign adventure such as Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, or Tyranny of Dragons.
Most of the steps we use to prepare and run our D&D games changes little when we run for a single player. We can still use all the steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master if we choose. The first step, reviewing the characters, becomes much easier and can also have a greater impact on the remaining seven steps. Running the adventure and the story can work just as well with one character (and a sidekick—more on this soon) as it can for four.
One area of D&D, however, requires careful tuning when we run for fewer than four characters—combat.
Combat encounters and monster design in the 5th edition of D&D generally expects four characters. Beyond their raw capabilities, there's a synergy between four characters that one character alone doesn't possess. Simply removing monsters from a combat encounter isn't enough to ensure a battle will run smoothly in a one-on-one D&D game. We DMs have to keep some concepts continually in mind to ensure our one-on-one D&D game plays smoothly.
The goal of this article is to give you the tools to run any D&D adventure, including the official D&D hardback adventures, with just one DM and one player.
The D&D Essentials Kit includes a major aid for running one-on-one D&D—sidekicks. These lower-powered and mechanically simple NPCs are intended to work side-by-side with the main character in a one-on-one game. Sidekicks help bring some of the synergy back when running with only one player but it's still a far cry from four full characters.
A Quick Checklist for Running One-on-One Combat in D&D
Use the following guidelines to help you tune combat encounters when running a game for a single character and a sidekick. This articles goes into each of these guidelines further on.
- Reduce the number of monsters the character faces. Be careful when including more monsters than the number of characters including sidekicks.
- Reduce the hit points of monsters as needed.
- Reduce the number of attacks and damage of monsters as needed.
- Remove legendary actions, lair actions, and legendary resistance from legendary monsters. Tune them to suit the battle.
- Give the character relics, scrolls, potions, and magic items to off-set their gaps.
- Be wary of monster spells or effects that can, with a single stroke, remove the character from combat.
- Run larger battles off-screen. Describe groups of allied NPCs facing off against large groups of monsters.
Sidekicks, first released in this Unearthed Arcana Sidekick document and then later published in the D&D Essentials Kit, are a big boon for running one-on-one D&D games. Sidekicks help fill in the gaps a single character will have when facing the world in a D&D game. A fighter character, for example, can have a healer sidekick who keeps them healthy. A wizard character can have a defender sidekick who protects the wizard from powerful foes. Sidekicks have skills, abilities, and spells that aid the character as they face challenges ahead. During the game, sidekicks can regularly use the "help" action to give the character advantage on most checks when needed.
The D&D Essentials adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, includes rules to level sidekicks up to 6th level while the three supplementary adventures available on D&D Beyond offer rules to take sidekicks up to 12th level. If this isn't enough, or you don't have access to these adventures, you can use the Unearthed Arcana Sidekick guidelines to create sidekicks up to 20th level starting with a baseline NPC stat block. One advantage of the UA sidekick rules is that you can apply them to any stat block in the Monster Manual. Thus, a character can have a town guard, a pet spider, or a flying snake that gains levels as they do.
Tuning Combat Encounters
With a character and sidekick prepared, it's up to us DMs to tune combat encounters to support one-on-one play. It isn't enough to simply reduce the number of monsters, although that's a big part of the equation. We have to remember the lost synergy a single character has when compared to a party of four.
In previous articles we've talked about how to increase the challenge of monsters in D&D combat. This mostly fell into three simple steps: increase monsters, increase their hit points, and increase their damage. These are three big dials we DMs control that can dramatically change the difficulty of a combat encounter. Likewise, when we're running one-on-one D&D games, we can turn these dials the other way, reducing the number of monsters, reducing their hit points, and reducing their damage. That's most of what we need to do when running combat one-on-one in D&D.
Selecting the Number of Monsters
The number one variable in combat difficulty is the number of monsters the characters face. In a one-on-one game, we should pay careful attention to how many monsters our character will face, particularly when there are potentially more monsters than characters. We can use our encounter building guidelines to get a rough gauge for the appropriate challenge rating for a character to face at a given level. We can use the following rough guide to gauge whether a fight might be deadly. In general, a character should rarely face more than the following:
For a 1st level character
- One creature of challenge 1/4 or less
For a 2nd to 4th level character
- One creature of a CR 1/4 of the characters level.
- Two creatures of a CR 1/10th of the characters level.
For a 5th to 20th level character.
- One creature of a CR 1/2 of the characters level.
- Two creatures of a CR 1/4 of the characters level.
- Four creatures of a CR 1/10th of the characters level.
Generally speaking, except in rare circumstances based on the story, should the character face more than four opponents. Four opponents puts a single character at a great disadvantage, particularly when they don't have the synergy of the rest of the party.
Note that, in general, we'll ignore the sidekick when selecting the number of monsters. Sidekicks, while helpful, aren't as powerful as characters.
For more info on these ideas, Jonathan and Beth at D&D Duets have an excellent article on scaling D&D encounters for one-on-one play.
Reducing Hit Points and Damage
Two other dials help us control the difficulty of combat in D&D: hit points and damage output. We can increase or decrease hit points as needed to increase or decrease how long a monster takes to defeat within the range of a monster's listed hit dice range. Typically, when facing more characters, we might increase a monster's hit points to keep it around longer. When running D&D for only one character, however, we likely want to reduce a monster's hit points as needed. You'll need to play this by ear as you run combat. If things are taking too long, consider reducing the monster's hit points on the fly. If things are going smoothly, the monster's average hit points might be fine.
Likewise, a creature's damage, including extra attacks, are often intended for use when facing four or more characters. When we're running only one character, we may want to either reduce the damage of an attack or reduce the number of attacks a monster can make.
Let's look at ogres as an example. In the D&D adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak, the characters may face off against two ogres and a number of orcs in the Shrine of Savras. When running for a single character (as I did with Newbie DM) we can start by reducing the number of ogres down to one. One ogre is a significant challenge for a 3rd level character, even with a sidekick, and it's very dangerous when you throw one or two orcs in as well.
A standard ogre has 59 hit points. A really tough ogre could have as many as 91 hit points. A weaker one could have as few as 28. We'll stick to 30 hit points for our one-on-one ogre. An average ogre hits for 13 with a greatclub. A powerful ogre may hit for as much as 20. A weaker ogre may hit for as little as 6. We'll call it 8. If we want to roll dice for damage, we'll convert this to 1d6 + 5. This ogre is still dangerous for a single 3rd level character but it won't knock them out with two hits.
If we're looking at orcs, we might switch their greataxes out for regular battle axes, reducing their damage from 9 to 7 or even handaxes for 6.
We don't have to plan this out ahead of time. We can make these changes as they're needed during the game itself. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.
Keeping our hand on the dials for the number of monsters, their hit points, and the damage they put out can help us ensure we're providing the right challenge for the character in our one-on-one D&D game.
Tuning Legendary Monsters
Legendary monsters are built specifically to handle battles against four or more characters. They accomplish this (at varying degrees of success) by including legendary actions, legendary resistances, and lair actions.
Tuning a legendary monster for a battle against a single character and a companion character is mostly a matter of rolling back these advantages. When we're running a legendary monster against a single character and their companion, we can remove the monster's legendary actions, legendary resistances, and lair actions. This brings the monster's damage output and number of actions back in relative balance with a single character and a companion.
Depending on how challenging the fight is, we might have to further modify the legendary monster to bring it in line by the character. We might, for example, need to reduce its hit points to put it more in line with the damage output of the character and their companion. We might need to reduce its damage as well, even after removing legendary actions.
Handling Save-Or-Suck Effects
Save or suck effects are effects that severely debilitate or remove combatants from combat. Spells such as dominate monster, sleep, or hypnotic pattern all count as save-or-suck abilities (some, like sleep, don't even give you a save). Monster effects like a banshee's wail, a vampire's charm, or about half of a beholder's eye rays all count as "save-or-suck" abilities.
These abilities may remove the threat of a single character in a group when a group of characters face a monster but in a one-on-one game, they may completely remove the threat of the entire party all at once.
We have to be particularly careful running monsters who have save-or-suck abilities against the characters in a one-on-one game. We can simply remove these abilities, focusing on actions that inflict damage or create less debilitating effects. We might slightly modify these abilities to account for their potential danger. We can, for example, remove debilitating effects after a single round instead of requiring a saving throw. Above all we need to be aware of the problem before it becomes one.
Such effects may steer the story in an interesting direction, however. A character charmed by a vampire might take the story in a totally different direction. This shift in the story may make for great entertainment but it could ruin a game if a player's solo character gets killed by a bad save against a single beholder eye ray.
Keep an eye out for save-or-suck effects and adjudicate them understanding that they were likely intended for a party of four, not a party of one.
Adding Relics, Scrolls, and Potions
A single character in a D&D game is likely to have major mechanical deficiencies when compared to a full group. Fighters, for example, may not have any good way to handle a larger number of smaller monsters. The companion character is intended to off-set these deficiencies but that only goes so far. We may need other ways to shore up these deficiencies.
Healing is an obvious potential gap. If, for some reason, neither the character nor their companion have a magical way to heal; we'll want to add in a good number of healing potions and other potential magic items to offset this.
Area-of-effect spells may be a problem as well. A single fighter and a cleric might be good facing a smaller number of foes but fireball might be a big help that they're not going to ever get. A necklace of fireballs is a great magic item for a fighter to help offset their lack of area-of-effect spells.
We can drop in lots of relics into our games to give more utility to the character and their companion. We can choose some of these randomly or we can select a few that we think help off-set the mechanical gaps the character may have when facing a world that expects a mix of four such characters.
Handling Big Battles Off-Screen
Earlier we talked about running a single character through a big campaign adventure like Tyranny of Dragons. What would it be like for a single character and a sidekick to face Tiamat? First off, we'll remove Tiamat's legendary actions and legendary resistances. We'll move her breath weapon from a legendary action to a normal action. It wouldn't make sense that she can't breathe.
We might give our characters some handy ways to deal with those breath weapons through various potions of resistance or other relics that might help offset her devastating power.
We can probably tweak her stat block in other ways, selectively forgetting about her regeneration and divine word ability. She still has a boatload of hit points and a high AC.
When we have a foe like this, we might consider running some of the battle off-screen. Perhaps the alliance of metallic dragons fighting against Tiamat has already faced her, cutting down her hit points and maybe even disabling a couple of her heads before the character gets involved. Perhaps a group of allied archmages has blasted the queen of dragons, disrupting her regenerating before being incinerated by her dragon's breath, which has yet to recharge.
When we see the story heading towards an area where a single character and sidekick simply can't stand up to a larger foe or force, we can move some of the situation off-screen. If the characters, for example, find themselves about to face forty orcs, we might have a force of allies take on the bulk of these orcs while our hero and their sidekick face the orc leader and her two henchmen. This gives us the feeling of the larger battle without worrying about our character being overwhelmed.
Expanding the World of D&D
Being able to run D&D with just a single player and a single DM dramatically expands our ability to play D&D. It brings D&D to entire groups of people who would otherwise not be able to get four to six of their friends together at any given time. Being able to run D&D one-on-one while still running the hardcover D&D adventures means we can share epic tales of high adventure in which heroes face tremendous world-ending foes. With a handful of simple tricks to tune such adventures we can share tales of high adventure with just a single DM and a single player.Read more »