- ● Next Move Welcomes Killer Beez
No, instead Canadian publisher Next Move Games is welcoming a new game titled Beez to its catalog, with this Dan Halstad design having a killer look thanks to the ever reliable Chris Quilliams. (I shared a logo- and title-free version of the cover with BGG personnel at our recent planning retreat, and all of them identified the publisher correctly. That's strong branding for you!)
As for gameplay, well, Next Move has released only this short description for now:Prepare yourself to take flight as a bee!
In Beez, players compete to optimize their flight plans to secure nectar for their hive. Be careful of the other bees as you will compete with them over a set of public and private scoring goals. The challenge in planning and storing the nectar will make your brain buzz!
Mike Young at Next Move notes that your movement dial also controls how you store nectar and affects how you score points. BGG will get a first-hand look at Beez at the Spielwarenmesse 2020 trade fair at the beginning of February, and I'll post more about the game then. In conclusion, insert bee pun here.
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- ● AEG in 2020: Race Dice, Arrange Chocolates, Treat Cats, and Split Your Time Between Atlantis and Santa Monicashared the news of Elizabeth Hargrave's upcoming release, Mariposas, and I'm sure fans of Wingspan are thrilled. Fortunately, even more enticing games and expansions are coming our way from Alderac Entertainment Group in 2020. AEG's Todd Rowland has graciously uploaded pics of a few of these new releases to give us a sneak peek.
• Truffle Shuffle is a card-drafting, set-collection game designed by Molly Johnson, Robert Melvin and Shawn Stankewich, the team behind 2019's Point Salad from AEG. Glancing at the cover art below, I'm realizing I have a killer craving for chocolate all of a sudden...and this is definitely not a Goonies-themed game as I initially suspected. (We were all thinking it!)
Here's a brief description of the gameplay from the publisher:In the quick-playing, card-drafting game Truffle Shuffle, players take turns selecting truffles from a shared box of overlapping cards in order to make their own arrangements of chocolates to sell. Players can complete a variety of sets, using special modifiers and action cards. With so many different chocolate truffles to unwrap and different ways to combine them, every game of Truffle Shuffle is unique!
Santa Monica is a new card-drafting, set collection game from Josh Wood, the designer of Cat Lady. Here's a summary of the setting with a touch of gameplay:In Santa Monica, you are trying to create the most appealing neighborhood in southern California. Will you choose to create a calm, quiet beach focused on nature, a bustling beach full of tourists, or something in-between to appeal to the locals?
Each turn, you draft a feature card from the display to build up either your beach or your street. These features work together to score you victory points. The player with the most points wins!
AEG Larkstone playtest house
Box of Treats, Wood's first expansion for that game. Box of Treats includes more cats, new items, boxes, and cat treats! In addition, the expansion allows Cat Lady to be played with up to six players.
• John D. Clair's Cubitos is a dice-rolling, press- your-luck game in which players compete to become the Cubitos Champion. In slightly more detail:In Cubitos, players take on the role of participants in the annual Cube Cup, a race of strategy and luck to determine the Cubitos Champion. Each player has a runner on the racetrack and a support team, which is represented by all the dice you roll. Each turn, you roll dice and use their results to move along the racetrack, buy new dice, and use abilities — but you must be careful not to push your luck rolling too much or you could bust!
Mystic Vale: Nemesis adding new advancement and vale cards for even more combo options. Nemesis also includes titan leader cards that grant abilities with the potential to become more powerful when upgraded as well as a new variant for solo gameplay.
• Jani & Tero Moliis' Lost Atlantis was first mentioned in this space in December 2017 with this brief description: a "3X game under the sea". The release date for this title is now sometime in 2020 instead of Q4 2018, but we still don't have a longer description at this point. Even so, between that description and the prototype photo below, my curiosity is piqued!
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- New Game Round-up: Become Part of the Deep State, Grab a Carriage in Paris, and Head to the PacificSpielwarenmesse/NY Toy Fair 2020 Preview went live to let me know that one of their games wasn't on the list. I was not surprised given that I didn't know this publisher existed. Turns out that the publisher, Maxim Istomin, had been involved with the founding of Russian publisher Hobby World in 2010, sold that company in 2013, then founded this new company — CrowD Games — in 2015.
Other than 2017's Space Explorers, which was co-published with Moroz Publishing, CrowD Games has released only Russian-language versions of games from other publishers, but in 2019 it released the original game Deep State: New World Order from designer Konstantin Seleznev, with the English-language version of this title due out in 2020. Istomin said that he'll have this title and four other new releases that he hopes to license at Spielwarenmesse 2020, so here's an overview of these releases:
—In Deep State: New World Order, you use agents to infiltrate political, financial, and research institutions represented by objective cards; advance toward World Domination projects that give you advantages during the game; carry out covert operations that provide a lot of influence while requiring the sacrifice of agents; and make treaties with organizations both secret and overt.
—In Yuri Zhuravljov's Winter Queen, you create magical ornaments from enchanted crystals, with a turn consisting of you either placing a new crystal on the board or using already placed crystals to score victory points depending on the spell books you and your opponents have.
—Ganesha, by Maxim Istomin, feels similar to the game above: Either place cubes on the mandala to score points or to save them in order to score even more points in the future. Video overviews should be useful in finding out what, if anything, makes these designs unique!
—In the deduction game Enigma: Beyond Code by Sergey Pritula, each player is a cryptology expert stuck in a mansion, but only one of you is actually trying to break the Enigma code. Each player has a unique secret mission, and in turn you look at a card that represents a room or an object inside the mansion, telling others what you see, but possibly lying about. Lying is a risk, while telling the truth may allow others to win before you by completing their mission first.
—In Windmill: Cozy Stories, another Istomin design, one player tells a story each round based on odd fantasy cards, with the other players trying to guess which card inspired the story and the storyteller scoring more points as long as people keep guessing incorrectly — at the risk of scoring no points if no one guesses. We've seen games along these lines before, so more details might let us know how it compares to others. All in good time...
Pacific Rails Inc., a Dean Morris design that Vesuvius Media is Kickstarting through late January 2020 (KS link), suffers from the affliction that I described in a links round-up in mid-January: I get a sense of what the game is about, but not how it differs from lots of other games that could be described in the same minimalist way.
Maybe this type of description is meant only to say, "Do you like this type of thing? Then look closer...", but it seems like a lost opportunity to grab the passerby who isn't sure whether this is their type of thing or not. Here's what I'm talking about:In Pacific Rails Inc., players are the presidents of their own railway company with a contract to build a railroad from one side of the board to the other.
To succeed, your workers need to gather resources, lobby Congress for funding, and hire specialists to help manufacture tracks. You then lay them on the map, placing bridges, tunnels, and rails to travel through the harsh terrain. You also need to build train stations and telegraph posts to connect remote cities.
Your railway adventure begins now!
update on its cancelled crowdfunding campaign for a new edition of Throne of Allegoria, Belgian publisher Game Brewer laid out its publishing plans for the next 18 months or so:
—Paris, by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling: Kickstarter launch on March 16.
—A surprise card game, on Kickstarter in June 2020.
—Rulebender, by Tom De Vandeweyer, on Kickstarter in autumn 2020.
—Hippocrates, by Alain Orban on Kickstarter in winter 2020-2021.
—Stroganov, by Andreas Steding, on Kickstarter in spring 2021.
Flip the seasons if you live the southern hemisphere. (Someday publishers will realize that using seasons for important dates doesn't work for everyone, but we're not there yet.)
Aside from these titles, Game Brewer plans to launch a new family line of games under the brand AMUZA: "We will organize pre-order campaigns for those games, but these games will not hit Kickstarter. Our first family game will be called Pizza and will be released in June 2020. Other titles that are coming up later this year are Bugz, Babylon, Starlit, and Circus."
So many games!
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- Prepare to Fight with Ian Malcolm, Sophia Petrillo, Aggretsuko, and Superstars from the WWEFunko Games revealed the next four titles for its Funkoverse Strategy Games, two of which are standalone games featuring characters from Jurassic Park — a two-player-only game featuring Dr. Ian Malcolm and a T. Rex, and a 2-4 player game featuring Dr. Alan Grant, Dr. Ellie Sattler, Ray Arnold, and a Velociraptor — one of which is a two-player-only game that features Dorothy and Sophia to complete the Golden Girls quartet, and one of which is an expansion for any standalone title in the line that features the character Aggretsuko from the animated series of the same name.
I've seen no release dates for these items, but I'll be meeting with the Funko Games team at NY Toy Fair in late February for an update on what's coming when.
WWE Dice Masters: Campaign Box and related Team Packs coming out from WizKids in early 2019 (previously Jan. 2020, now scheduled for release on Feb. 5).
Turns out that WizKids has another WWE item on its schedule: WWE: Headlock, Paper, Scissors, a design by Josh Cappel, Jay Cormier, and Sen-Foong Lim that uses the same game system as in their 2016 release Rock Paper Wizard. Here's an overview of this May 2020 release:WWE: Headlock, Paper, Scissors is a game of striking, showboating, and making hand signals! Players select their favorite superstar from the twelve included in the game — e.g., Roman Reigns, Kofi Kingston, Becky Lynch, and Asuka — then work to gain the most popularity and reach the briefcase at the top of a 3D ladder while making sure their opponents don't get there first.
Each round, players select a shared technique or their superstar's signature technique, then simultaneously chant "Money!" "In The!" "Bank!" before revealing their technique and their target. Comeback cards and the Underdog token mean that you're never more than a few well-chosen techniques away from the lead!
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- Publisher Diary: Dungeon Alliance: A Webcomic Adventure, or Exploring Game Characters in a Whole New Way
by Andrew ParksDungeon Alliance was always going to be a deeply personal project for me. Although the Quixotic Games team has been designing games for over fifteen years for other publishers, this was only our second self-published game after launching Canterbury in 2013. As I wrote in an earlier article, when approaching the design of Dungeon Alliance, my initial player experience goal was to have each character feel distinctly different from the others so that each game would require its own challenge of coordinating the actions of a group of disparate individuals.
To help me design so many different personalities, I drew upon the fantasy role-playing characters that my friends and I had created over thirty years ago. We had spent years developing this quirky mix of individuals for our own personal amusement, and now our old heroes lay dormant as little scraps of paper collecting dust in attics and basements. These characters would become the foundation for the 21 characters featured in Dungeon Alliance and its first expansion, Dungeon Alliance: Champions.
Adventure Packs that became available in January 2020. We thought of new ways to market the game and to introduce players to the unique characters and the kinds of adventures they would embark on.
As a kid, I wanted to create comic books almost as much as I wanted to create board games, so when thinking of new ways to bring players into the world of Dungeon Alliance, it seemed natural to consider webcomics. It was important to me that these be free comics that anyone could view online and that we wouldn't subject the readers to distracting advertisements. If readers enjoyed the comics, they could learn about the board game by reading a brief article on the front page of the website and clicking "Learn More". That was it. The webcomic had to be able to stand on its own for readers.
Assembling the Team
I approached my brother Jim Parks, who's done art for several of my games and who used to create comics with me when we were teenagers trying to break into the comics industry. Jim was also part of our old role-playing gang, so he had created some of the characters that found their way into Dungeon Alliance.
Jim had recently created a drawing of his old character Taio that I admired very much, so when I approached him with the idea for the comic, I asked him to use this picture as the first panel of the webcomic, which he did:
Taio was a great character to start with since he had an intriguing backstory laid out in the card game:
After choosing some companions to join Taio, we were on our way with the first script, entitled "Lair of the Basilisk". I plotted the full storyline first so that I knew how the story would end, then I scripted the first few pages for Jim to get started on.
I was worried, however, that players might get a singular view of the types of characters who exist in Dungeon Alliance, so I got ambitious and decided to work on a second comic with an entirely new set of characters that would launch at the same time as "Lair of the Basilisk".
At this stage, I had also been in the middle of art directing the Adventure Packs for Dungeon Alliance, and I encountered many talented artists in the process. Most of the artists were actually discovered right here on BGG through the Board Game Art and Graphic Design Forum. One artist whom I hadn't had the chance to work with yet was EJ Dela Cruz, and when I visited his ArtStation page, I was blown away by the comic artwork that he had on display. I contacted EJ right away, and since he was available to work, I set about creating a script for him immediately, entitled "Kastrom's Tomb".
Several characters had a strange backstory relationship in the card game, so I thought it would be fun to explore these characters in depth. For example, Holgar the paladin hung around with a mad fire wizard named Mysterios, so we thought readers would enjoy reading about their eccentric friendship.
The game's character cards also reveal that Holgar has a brother named Krom who is a half-orc assassin. As you can imagine, they don't always get along.
Now I had two talented artists to get things started, but the team wasn't finished. Since the comic pages would be developed weekly, I had the luxury of taking my time to write each panel, but I needed someone to look over my shoulder to ensure that each character's voice was unique and that each character stayed true to their purpose. I enlisted my daughter Sarah Parks, a recent college graduate who loves fantasy writing as much as I do, to be the webcomic editor. Sarah has been an invaluable resource to me throughout the process, helping me parse every single word of dialogue and every scripted action so that we could get things just right and be true to our cast of characters.
In order to maintain the demanding art schedule, I also enlisted my niece Emma Parks to help with coloring the "Lair of the Basilisk" storyline. At first, she simply worked on the flat colors, but soon after she showed us her talents and took over as the main colorist for the "Basilisk" storyline.
Each page begins with a scripted page derived from the original story outline. After I write a set of pages, Sarah reviews them and provides feedback. After we settle on the final wording, we send the script pages to the artists.
After reviewing the scripts, the artists send sketches that allow me to suggest adjustments before the artists move on to the full inks and colors. Since the artists are using a digital medium, they are able to make changes quickly.
After receiving the finished art, I add the letters and word balloons in Photoshop. Sometimes we make small adjustments to the script after seeing the finished art.
A popular webcomic tradition allows readers to provide online commentary as the story progresses. I love this idea because it allows us to get a sense of what the readers are enjoying as the story unfolds and also allows us to make adjustments based on what they are saying. We've enjoyed the comments we've received so far, and we hope that providing comments on the individual comic pages keeps the readers immersed in the action.
As of writing this article, 74 comic pages have been posted for both stories. Both storylines should wrap up in the first half of 2020, and we have plenty of new storyline concepts coming down the pipeline.
In the future, we plan to sell PDF and hard copies of the first two storylines as a way of funding future stories down the road. These stories will draw upon characters we've already seen and add new ones from the growing universe of Dungeon Alliance.
If you're interested in enjoying the comics yourself, please visit the Dungeon Alliance: A Webcomic Adventure site to begin your journey!
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- Collect Termites, Stack Blocks, and Change Your Species with Zoch Verlag in 2020Zoch Verlag has another quartet of animal-rich games coming your way in the first half of 2020, with the games all having a relatively low suggested player age, while seemingly featuring gameplay ideal for players of all ages.
Rüssel raus!, for example, is a game by Inka Brand, Markus Brand, and Matthias Prinz for 2-4 players, aged 6 and up, that has everyone involved on every turn:You own four termite mounds, i.e., stacks in front of you in which to collect cards. Each round, you try to send a new termite into the right mound by showing either one finger or no fingers. All players do this simultaneously though, and the sum total of all fingers determines how the cards will be stacked. If you are the first player to collect a set of three of the same termites in one location twice, you win. Until then, be wary of the dreadful pepper spray!
Sure, we need details of how this works with only two or three players, as well as how the termites in the center of the playing area are distributed, but we'll learn such things in the overview videos that BGG will record at Spielwarenmesse 2020 at the end of January and beginning of February.
Da bockt der Bär (The Bear Bucked) from Treo Game Designers features a similar level of player interaction for 2-5 players, aged 5 and up, with you helping to determine whether your neighbor moves like a mouse, goes like a goat, or barrels along like a bear. In more detail:At the start of a round, you draw one card that you can either keep or give to another player. The card that you are left with then dictates whether your pawn is a mouse, a goat, or a bear. Each animal has its own die with its own advantages and disadvantages: The mouse is slow but can take shortcuts; the bear can go very fast, but sometimes is too lazy to do so; and the goat is neither fast nor slow, the reliable choice. If you are the first to cross the finish line, you win.
Einer geht noch! (Cruise or Lose), a Paco Yanez design for 2-5 players, aged 8 and up, with you trying to sink opponents, while also working with them when you end up in the same boat. An overview:Einer geht noch! is a family card game that lets players send their animals aboard boats that will not capsize as long as their very strict weight limits are adhered to.
You draw three animal cards per round. You play these into boats: twice face up and one time face down. Each boat holds only three animals, though. After all of them have boarded, some animals can cause others to switch boats. Any boat with passengers that, in total, are too heavy for it will sink. Animals aboard boats that don't sink are worth VPs. If you have the most VPs after four rounds, you win.
Flotter Otter, a Daan Kreek design for 2-4 players, aged 8 and up:Flotter Otter (a.k.a. Otter Dam) is a pattern recognition game with multiple right answers per card, each of which translates to differently stacked colorful bricks.
Each round you reveal one new card for all players. You can order the objects shown on each card in two different ways, e.g. clocks might have varying sizes and display different times of the day. Since your bricks correspond with the unique colors of the objects on the card you can show one of the two possible solutions by stacking your bricks. The faster you are, the better — so long as you don't make a mistake. This also means that it is smart never to give up early, even in rounds when you seem to be lagging behind.
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- Japanese Game Round-up: Two-Headed Cards, Generous Bidding, and Kaiju on the Earth
• In a report on the May 2019 Tokyo Game Market, Japanese blogger Sugoroku-Kozo mentions a design project from publishers Arclight and Drosselmeyer & Co. called "Kaiju on the Earth" (カイジュウ・オン・ジ・アース) that will feature Kaiju-themed games from designers Masato Uesugi, Yuji Kaneko, Hisashi Hayashi, and possibly others down the line.
The first title in this series — Vulcanus (ボルカルス) from Masato Uesugi — was crowdfunded on JP site Makuake in November 2019 for retail release in December 2019. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game:Vulcanus pits one monster player against 1-3 teams of humans, who must co-operate in order to take down the monster.
In more detail, the monster "Volkars" has suddenly appeared from the crater of Mount Fuji, the monster being a ruthless giant that erupts lava from its whole body and that continues to evolve and grow as it creates a path of scorched earth on its way toward Japan's capital, Tokyo. The more casualties you create, the more areas you burn, and the more landmarks you destroy, the closer the monster player is to victory.
The Japanese government has set up a "Monster Disaster Emergency Headquarters", and the human players facing off against Volkars must learn how to repel monsters by evacuating citizens, extinguishing fires, deploying Self-Defense Forces, and conducting investigations. The more research you've conducted, the more options you will have for your strategy, and ultimately you will be able to manage the situation with a direct attack on the monster.
Sometimes the monster can detect the humans' operation and ruin their plans, so will Tokyo perish in the end? Or will the monster fall instead?
翡翠の商人 (Jade Merchant) from designer 西村裕 (Hiroshi Nishimura) and publisher スパ帝国 (SPA Game) sounds like one of those would-be Knizia games that ended up in someone else's mind. Here's an overview of this 2-5 player game that debuted in May 2019:Players are the heads of trader caravans who try to accumulate the most valuable goods like gold, spices, and jade. Each round, they have to outbid each other backwards so that the least greedy one may choose the first cards of the current pool; more specifically, each player in turn declares how many cards they want to take, and whoever declares the smallest number takes that many cards. (A player can declare 0.5 less than the number they want to take, and if they do so, they return one card from their hand to the center.) The remaining players then bid for the rest of the cards, with this process repeating until each player takes cards.
Each treasure has its own scoring rules depending on how many you have or how they combine with other cards in your collection. After resolving all cards this way, the player with the highest value of goods wins.
SCOUT! from designer Kei Kajino and publisher One More Game!, which resembles 2018's Krass Kariert from Katja Stremmel and AMIGO in that players are playing a climbing trick game of sorts with cards that can't be re-arranged in their hand. In more detail:Read more »Cards in SCOUT! are dual-indexed, with different values on each half of the card, with the 45 cards having all possible combinations of the numbers 1-10. During set-up, whoever is shuffling the cards should randomize both the order of the cards in the deck and their orientation. Once each player has been dealt their entire hand of cards, they pick up that hand without rearranging any of the cards; if they wish, they can rotate their entire hand of cards in order to use the values on the other end of each card, but again they cannot rearrange the order of cards in their hand.
On a turn, a player takes one of two actions:
• Play: A player chooses one or more adjacent cards in their hand that have all the same value or that have values in consecutive order (whether ascending or descending), then they play this set of cards to the table. They can do this only if the table is empty (as on the first turn) or the set they're playing is ranked higher than the set currently on the table; a set is higher if it has more cards or has cards of the same value instead of consecutive cards or has a set of the same quantity and type but with higher values. In this latter case when a player overplays another set, the player captures the cards in this previous set and places them face down in front of themselves.
• Scout: A player takes a card from either end of the set currently on the table and places it anywhere they wish in their hand in either orientation. Whoever played this previous set receives a 1 VP token as a reward for playing a set that wasn't beaten.
Once per round, a player can scout, then immediately play.
When a player has emptied their hand of cards or all but one player have scouted instead of playing, the round ends. Players receive 1 VP for each face-down card, then subtract one point for each card in their hand (except if they were the player scouted repeatedly to end the game). Play as many rounds as the number of players, then whoever has the most points wins.
- Mergers, Splits, and Distribution Deals: Unexpected Studios, Non-United States Playing Cards, and Ducky Distribution
• In June 2019, global consumer goods company Newell Brands — which owns the brands Rubbermaid, Papermate, and Coleman among many others — announced that "to make progress on its Accelerated Transformation Plan, designed to create a simpler, faster, stronger consumer-focused portfolio of leading brands" it had signed an agreement to sell The United States Playing Card Company ("USPC") to Cartamundi Group. To quote the press release: "USPC, based in Erlanger, KY is the leader in the production and distribution of premier brands of playing cards, including BICYCLE®, BEE®, AVIATOR®, HOYLE®, and FOURNIER®. In 2018 net sales for USPC were approximately $112 million."
Newell Brands followed up that announcement with another on Dec. 31, 2019 to note that it had completed the sale of USPC to Cartamundi: "This transaction marks the conclusion of the Accelerated Transformation Plan that the company had initiated in January 2018."
announced the founding of Unexpected Games, "a new board game studio centered around innovative design and spearheaded by renowned game designer Corey Konieczka". Here's more from the press release:The philosophy behind Unexpected Games arose from Konieczka's desire for a studio focused on innovation and idea incubation. "Our goal is to create games that are novel, fun, and accessible," he explains. "We hope to surprise people and create experiences that they've never had before." ...
The first title from Unexpected Games is expected to release in 2020. While no details about the game have been made public, Konieczka explains that it will be a multilayered experience that tells a story in a unique way.
Good timing, Eric. Here we are now in 2020 awaiting more details...
Fantasy Flight Games, which he's held for more than a decade, and FFG has also said goodbye to Andrew Navaro, whio left his position as FFG's Head of Studio at the end of 2019. Here's an excerpt from his farewell designer journal on the FFG website:FFG owes much of its creative success to the spirit of collaboration that inhabits the studio. A lot of thought, effort, and attention goes into everything we make, and while designers and developers tend to get the majority of the credit for a given product's success, they're able to achieve that success in large part due to the strength of their supporting cast. If you haven't done so already, I urge you to read the credits lists of your favorite FFG products. The artists, art directors, graphic designers, producers, writers, editors, play-testers, sculptors, managers, and many more make extremely meaningful contributions to the products on which they work — oftentimes beyond even the definition of their credited role.
Uhrwerk Verlag filed for bankruptcy in late May 2019, which meant that an administrator would be assigned to review the publisher's economic situation and approve or disallow future actions.
On Dec. 15, 2019, founder Patric Götz posted an update noting that (as far as I can tell) all employees have been let go (although they might still do work as freelancers), the business now runs out of a home office, and many projects are still moving toward completion.
Lucky Duck Games announced the founding of "Lucky Duck Partners", which is "aimed at facilitating access to distribution through our operation in North America and Europe". Along those lines Lucky Duck has signed a distribution partnership with ThunderGryph Games, with worldwide retail availability of ThunderGryph's Hats and Rolling Ranch due to start at the end of January.
By the way, Lucky Duck's Vince Vergonjeanne stated at the end of 2019 that "the company just passed the $4M revenue [mark] for 2019 alone" and now has 19 full-time employees.
Pandasaurus Games has joined the orange logo brigade — BGG welcomes you! — and in a press release announcing the new look, the publisher included this fun detail: "If you pay close attention, you'll notice the Panda bits of the logo match the color of the word 'Panda', and the Dino bits match the color of the word 'Saurus'. It's a fun nod, and breaking our name up also makes it a heck of a lot easier to pronounce and spell."
• Brieger Development is a game development studio in Sunnycale, California. Says owner/developer John Brieger, "We do contract development and production for board game publishers, refining prototypes into the final product. Our clients and licensees include Deep Water Games, Indie Boards and Cards, Tasty Minstrel Games, Thunderworks Games, and many more."
In a post announcing new hires, he writes:When you look at how creative work is done in other industries, you'll find studios and design agencies are the default model. The current hobby boardgame industry runs primarily by licensing designs from independent designers, similar to the book industry, with only larger companies having employees who can solely focus on design and development.
As the boardgame industry grows there are a significant number of publishers who are expanding their catalogues, but don't yet need multiple full-time employees handling development. One of the hardest things as a publisher is that your time and attention is limited — which can put a cap on executing creative work. Hiring an external development studio helps free up that time to focus on their core business. All of that is to say: this is a model that works, and demand is currently pretty good.
Developers John Velgus and Michael Dunsmore joined the company in the last quarter of 2019, and to start 2020 Brieger Development has brought on board developer Brenna Noonan (formerly of Starling Games) and producer and project manager Chris Solis (formerly of Level 99 Games).
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- Cruella de Vil, Pete, and Mother Gothel Are Perfectly Wretched in Disney VillainousRavensburger has announced the next standalone game in the Disney Villainous line — Perfectly Wretched, which will feature Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians, Mother Gothel from Tangled, and Pete from Steamboat Willie.
Let me interject here to note that Donna Murphy is fantastically good as Mother Gothel, both in the songs and in overall voice performance. I've watched Tangled at least a half-dozen times and would be fine watching it again now if I didn't have work to do. You probably didn't need to know this, but I don't have much to say about this title beyond its impending existence, which will become a reality on March 1, 2020.
The game will be available at multiple retail outlets, with Target selling "a limited, Target-exclusive edition of the game that features a removable Dalmatian-spotted sleeve as well as a spotted Cruella" figure.
As for how Villainous plays, here's an overview:On a turn, the active player moves their character to a different location on their player board, takes one or more of the actions visible on that space (often by playing cards from their hand), then refills their hand to four cards. Cards are allies, items, effects, and conditions. You need to use your cards to fulfill your unique win condition.
One of the actions allows you to choose another player, draw two cards from that player's fate deck, then play one of them on that player's board, covering two of the four action spaces on one of that player's locations. The fate deck contains heroes, items, and effects from that villain's movie, and these cards allow other players to mess with that particular villain.
Disney Villainous: Perfectly Wretched is playable on its own, and its characters can also face off against those in the Disney Villainous base game from 2018 and the Disney Villainous: Wicked to the Core and Disney Villainous: Evil Comes Prepared standalone games in 2019.
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- New Game Round-up: Deploy Animals, Make Patterns, Collect Trophies, and Carry StuffRather Dashing Games is releasing a standalone 2-4 player card game that also serves as an expansion for one of its earlier releases. That's a neat way to link your back catalog to something that might introduce your company to new people. Here's an overview of Mike Richie's ALDR: The High Sage, which is due out at the end of January 2020:Long before sages battled in the arena, Aldr, the first High Sage, mastered the elements and passed his teachings on to his students. However, even the most powerful cannot train every day. Aldr himself created this game of strategy to reinforce sharpen their minds and reinforce is hard-won lessons.
ALDR: The High Sage is a card game unlike any other. Tactically place drafted cards to build the four elemental patterns before your opponents can. Place your sages strategically to restrict the options of other players, and move Aldr himself to further thwart your opponents. Be the first to place your four sages and claim victory in this unique card game of area control.
Although ALDR: The High Sage is a standalone game, rules are included to use ALDR as an expansion to Element!
Trophies from Travis and Holly Hancock and Facade Games, with this title being the first in its "Games for Thursdays" line of party games:Trophies is a quick, easy-to-learn party game for 2-30 players.
In the game, the judge holds the deck, reads a topic from the back card, and shows the group a random letter on the front card. Be the first to say a word that matches the topic and the letter and you win a trophy card! The player with the most trophies wins the game and gets to hoist the tiny metal trophy high above their head in triumph! The person who "tried their best" gets a participation trophy.
Squire for Hire is a 1-2 player game from Jon Merchant and Letiman Games that was Kickstarted in September 2019 and will reach stores at the end of January 2020:Your day has finally come — a famous adventurer has hired YOU to be their squire! When your hero completes quests, defeats baddies, and takes all the credit, they also earn loot, which you get the great honor of carrying!
Squire for Hire is an 18-card, tile-laying inventory management game for 1-2 players that takes about 15-20 min to play. Players compete to get the highest scoring bag of items for their hero by the end of the story deck.
Each player takes on the role of a random squire card, taking turns completing story cards and adding loot to their bag for points. You can complete story cards one of two ways: 1) having enough item value (the combined number of spaces an item type takes up in your bag) or 2) using an item (covering up an item in your bag with a new loot card). If you can complete a story card, you get to pick one of two loot cards to add to your bag; to do so, at least one full item must be placed within empty or full squares. You can cover any number of other items in your bag as long as the entire item is covered.
Once all story cards have been exhausted, players add up their scores. Add 1 point for each regular item, 1 point for each pair of identical items side-by-side, and extra points for conditions met on your squire card. Visible junk items reduce your score by 1 point each, so cover them up whenever possible! Play solo to beat your own high score with all of the cards.
Animal Kingdoms is a 1-5 player area-control and hand-management game from Steven Aramini and Galactic Raptor Games that was Kickstarted in January 2019 and that will begin its U.S. retail journey in January 2020. Here's what you'll find:In Animal Kingdoms, each player takes on the role of a house leader, battling to gain control of the five kingdoms. Cards in your hand represent noble beasts that have pledged their allegiance to you. Over the course of three ages, you must deploy your beasts to the various territories – making sure that you adhere to each kingdom’s decree – to try and improve your influential position in the kingdoms. The house that gains the most influence by the end of the third age is declared the one true leader of the realm.
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- ● RPG Stock Art: Orc ShamanPublisher: Avatar Games
Orc shamans are the priests of the savage tribes. They use magic to aid in battle and provide guidance to their tribes by communing with ancestor spirits.
This beautiful full-color stock art is painted by Geun Cheol Jang, phenom fantasy illustrator, and designed specifically for ttrpg games. Use it for your own publications, homebrews, or character art.
All stock art has a non-exclusive multi-use license, and presented in RGB color, 3000 pixels wide @ 300 dpi, appropriate for full-page layouts. Included are:
- 1 opague JPG file with background
- 1 transparent PNG file without background
- 1 TIF file with layers, including shadow
All art files are bundled in a ZIP file. If you require any other format, please contact us about special orders.Price: $14.95 Read more »
- ● Battlemap : The SourcePublisher: Christian Hollnbuchner
This full color battlemap is the 487th of a series featuring various terrains. This installment of the battlemap series features a magical cauldron sitting atop a hill, chained to pillars of rock, emitting a continous stream of energy.
The map is 28 x 30 squares in size, with each 1 inch square scaled to represent 5 feet. It is provided in 12 segments, which need to be assembled, in a single PDF using the letter format.
The product has been updated to include a large gridless JPG image of the map, intended for use with VTT software. It is 2016x2160 pixels in size at 72dpi.Price: $1.33 Read more »
- ● RPG Stock Art: Orc BarbarianPublisher: Avatar Games
The primitive orc clans send their raging barbarians to break the front lines of their enemies. Consumed with berserker fury, these savage warriors are fearless in battle and seem to absorb unlimited punishment.
This beautiful full-color stock art is painted by Geun Cheol Jang, phenom fantasy illustrator, and designed specifically for ttrpg games. Use it for your own publications, homebrews, or character art.
All stock art has a non-exclusive multi-use license, and is presented in RGB color, 3000 pixels wide @ 300 dpi, appropriate for full-page layouts. Included are:
- 1 opague JPG file with background
- 1 transparent PNG file without background
- 1 TIF file with layers, including shadow
All art files are bundled in a ZIP file. If you require any other format, please contact us about special orders.Price: $14.95 Read more »
- ● Familiar Faces: Noggle's BeetlePublisher: Underground Oracle Publishing
A Brand New Familiar Option For 5th Edition
"I wouldn’t imagine that there’s been a more clever insect created by natural means. But their confounded language is terrible on the joints.”
- Izra Noggle, First Keeper of the Twenty-third library
Noggle’s Beetles spend their time scuttling among the mosses and funguses that grow along the danker areas in the world and are always a welcome sight to dungeoneers who know what they have to offer. Although after a few moments of observation, even novice adventurers are soon taken in by their unusual charm.
This supplement includes:
- Lore and statistics on the Noggle's Beetle.
- 8 new enchanted mushrooms to be be found (or grown) with your new familiar.
- ● Heroic Dungeons 3&4 [BUNDLE]Publisher: Heroic Roleplaying
This special bundle product contains the following titles. Heroic Dungeons: Arcane
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Format: Multiple File Formats
Unlock the secrets of magical platforms suspended in a starry void with over 1,200 modular maps, tiles, and decorations in Heroic Dungeons: Arcane! A Complete Dungeon Building System Each set in the Heroic Dungeons series offers more than 1,200 modular map pieces for the most complete set of foundational dungeon building tools available: Over 200 ready-to-use maps & map sections in sizes 10x10, 25x25, 30x30, and more! passages, rooms, and encounter areas stairways and doors to link floors and locations treasure chests, tables and chairs to furnish your maps floor, wall, and room sections to create your own custom tiles All maps and pieces snap together seamlessly. All pieces include simple, de... Heroic Dungeons: Desert Ruins
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Format: Multiple File Formats
Explore endless passages and chambers with over 1,200 modular maps, tiles, and decorations in Heroic Dungeons: Desert Ruins! A Complete Dungeon Building System Each set in the Heroic Dungeons series offers more than 1,200 modular map pieces for the most complete set of foundational dungeon building tools available: Over 200 ready-to-use maps & map sections in sizes 10x10, 25x25, 30x30, and more! passages, rooms, and encounter areas stairways and doors to link floors and locations treasure chests, tables and chairs to furnish your maps floor, wall, and room sections to create your own custom tiles All maps and pieces snap together seamlessly. All pieces include simple, descriptive labels for ea...
Price: $26.98 Read more »
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- ● Heroic Dungeons: ArcanePublisher: Heroic Roleplaying
Unlock the secrets of magical platforms suspended in a starry void with over 1,200 modular maps, tiles, and decorations in Heroic Dungeons: Arcane!
A Complete Dungeon Building System
Each set in the Heroic Dungeons series offers more than 1,200 modular map pieces for the most complete set of foundational dungeon building tools available:
- Over 200 ready-to-use maps & map sections in sizes 10x10, 25x25, 30x30, and more!
- passages, rooms, and encounter areas
- stairways and doors to link floors and locations
- treasure chests, tables and chairs to furnish your maps
- floor, wall, and room sections to create your own custom tiles
All maps and pieces snap together seamlessly. All pieces include simple, descriptive labels for easy searching within and between sets.
Note: the set includes two versions. The first set includes a black background. The second set features the same map tiles with transparent backgrounds for better customization.Price: $13.49 Read more »
- ● Seafoot Games - Cliff Trade Road | 20x30 BattlemapPublisher: Seafoot Games
Cliff Trade Road
Birds tweet and bicker among the tall redwood trees, as rabbits dart in and out of the burrows they’ve dug by the roots. A small creek meanders it’s way through the woodlands creating small ponds where deer come to drink before reaching the cliffs and becoming and waterfall which nourishes the lowland forests. The thick moss that grows here, gives off an earthy smell and sprawls across the forest floor towards the dirt trade roads, where caravans pass everyday, creating rutted grooves in the muddy roads.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: $1.50 Read more »
- ● JEStockArt - History - Standing Sniper In Camo Suit - INBPublisher: Jeshields
May be modified for specific needs.
Must credit 'Jeshields' for any use.
May not be used in the following:
Products sold primarily for artistic value (Stock art, tokens, posters, etc)
Works overtly deemed racist, sexist, or similarly offensive works
Sexually explicit works
Key Words: sniper rifle ghillie ghilly gille gilly suit bandana vietnam war battle combat soldier army marinePrice: $2.99 Read more »
- ● Spectaculars Digital Creator PackPublisher: Scratchpad Publishing
Got an idea for a Spectaculars series that you want to put out there for other people to play? Want to create your own hero, villain, and minion archetypes? Add new powers, identities, or team roles? Create a deck of complications tailored for your specific campaign? This package gives you access to digital files used in the creation of the Spectaculars game, making it easier to produce new material that looks just like the contents of the boxed set.
The digital creator pack includes:
- Digital files for all artwork and icons used in the game
- Digital files for all page backgrounds in the game
- Adobe InDesign templates for the game rulebook (in both square and Web Supplement letter format), setting book, power cards, identity cards, complication cards, team role cards, initiative cards, series pads, and hero progress sheets.
- License to create and distribute for free Spectaculars content of your own creation
This package is perfect for anyone looking to create materials that look like they came from the base game, for use at your gaming table, or for sharing with other member of the Spectaculars player community.
PLEASE NOTE: This title does NOT include any rules or story text, nor any finished files from the Spectaculars game. It consists only of raw artwork and Adobe InDesign templates for use in creating supplemental content for the Spectaculars game.
- ● Spectaculars Team & Hero SheetsPublisher: Scratchpad Publishing
FOR USE WITH THE SPECTACULARS CORE GAME
This product collects all of the Team sheets and Hero Archetype sheets included in the four series pads packaged with the Spectaculars Core Game. These sheets are intended to supplement those included in the series pads, allowing multiple heroes and teams to use the same archetypes. Print as many copies of these sheets as you need for creating heroes and teams for your Spectaculars campaign!Price: $0.00 Read more »
- Imp of the Perverse Review
There are times when I am drawn to a game because it seems like a twist to a similar concept that already interests me. Anyone that has read a good number of my reviews knows that I’m an easy mark for urban fantasy and monster hunting games, so a game about hunting monsters inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe caught my attention quickly.
Imp of the Perverse goes beyond trying to be a Poe simulator, however. Instead of leaning heavily on elements intrinsic to any of Poe’s works, the game is much more about looking at the themes established in Poe’s work than recycling the literal elements found in any of them.
With all of that said, let’s take a look at Imp of the Perverse.
Defining the Opus
This review is based on the PDF and physical copies of Imp of the Perverse. The book deserves special commentary, because unlike many modern games, it eschews external artwork, but has a striking red cover with a gold title on the front of the book. The texture and appearance of the book reminds me of some of the older books I would find in my grandmother’s bookshelf, and it is a great aesthetic for the subject matter.
The PDF is 225 pages long, with red and black ink, and color plates that are highlighted in shades of red. The art in the book is reminiscent of political cartoons or illustrations of the time, with exaggerated but expressive figures. In many cases, given that the topic includes supernatural horrors, these figures are often very exaggerated.
There are also several bordered sidebars discussing ancillary topics throughout the text.
This game touches on a lot of potentially difficult subject matter. It is set during the Jacksonian era, and I have to admit, that made some sections difficult for me to read. While the core action deals with hunting monsters, the context of different perversions often deals with the evils of the time.
Topics touched on include racism, slavery, reproductive rights, and violence against domestic partners and children. There are several historical sidebars discussing how various marginalized people were treated in the Jacksonian era. While some of this exists to create a discussion about what to include and exclude in your game, the discussion brings up many of the least pleasant aspects of the era.
Part One of this book contains the Introduction and Central Concepts. As subcategories under these sections, the following topics are addressed:
- What You’re In For
- A Dark Reflection: Jacksonian Gothic America
- A Trembling Framework
- The Arc of Play
- Getting Started
- Continued Play
- Using This Book
In broad strokes, this section explains what the game is about. The game is very focused in America during the cited time period. Characters will have regional differences based on their origin, and each Protagonist (player character) will have their own Imp of the Perverse, a supernatural creature urging them to indulge in their worst traits.
Characters are tracking down monsters, people who have fully given in to the temptation presented by their own imps. The protagonists follow clues and stop the monster. The structure of play doesn’t make it a question of “if” the protagonists confront the monster, but rather how much damage the monster has done before it’s rampage is over.
Part Two contains the subsection Making Monsters, which is split between Born of Perversity and Making Monsters from Protagonists.
Monsters are connected in some way to The Shroud, the name for the supernatural in this setting. Monsters that are still alive are Close to the Shroud, monsters that have died, but never left the mortal realm are Past the Shroud, and monsters that have returned from the afterlife are Returned from Beyond the Shroud.
Monsters that are further removed from life can influence the imps attached to the protagonists more profoundly, resulting in more Weirding Dice for the Editor (Game Moderator). Monsters also have a web that shows different levels of victims. The longer it takes for the protagonists to confront the monster, the further out from the center the monster moves. The furthest points on the monster’s web will touch on characters important to the protagonists, making the monster’s rampage more personal the longer it goes on.
There is a sample monster, focusing on a monster Close to the Shroud that is obsessed with exacerbating the flaws of others, and who destroys lives with blackmail. A sample web is shown for this monster as well.
There is also a section on converting a protagonist to a monster. If the protagonist fully gives in to their perversity, they become a monster themselves. This means that the current editor can create a protagonist and let the player whose character became a monster take over the editor position, or the player can allow the current editor to use their character as the monster for the next session.
One thing I would like to touch on here, and revisit later, is that once someone becomes a monster, the game assumes there is no way out for them except to destroy them. There is not a redemption path for someone that has fully given in to their imps. It’s also worth noting that monsters are not meant to follow an existing monster’s structure. In other words, there aren’t vampires or werewolves, but individual perversions may cause someone to turn into a blood-drinking creature or something with bestial traits.
Part Three of the book includes the following:
- Dramatis Personae
- Composing a Protagonist
- The Workshop
There is also a sample protagonist shown at the end of this section.
There are a series of questions that the player answers. These questions are slightly different depending on what part of the country from whence the character originated. Depending on how questions are answered, points are added to various parts of the character sheet.
Characters will determine what kind of career they had, what kind of family life they had, and their marital and immediate familiar situation. Then the player must determine if the character has hunted a monster before, the perversity they struggle with, and their greatest strength. There are a lot of checklists and bullet points to guide a player through and to explain the differences between choices.
This section has a sidebar emblematic of both the positive aspects of what this game is doing, but also the challenges it presents. The sidebar discusses slavery, and mentions the practical realities of having a protagonist that is a slave (how free will they be to move about for the adventure), and rightly mentions that playing a slave or any marginalized person that will be dealing with the oppressive nature of the setting on their character needs to be discussed with the group and met with enthusiastic consent, and that the game should be played with safety tools.
This is all good advice, but what makes me a little more reticent is that there isn’t a discussion on the potential pitfalls of having non-marginalized players running marginalized protagonists, or any kind of best practices for that situation. It’s good to remind people to be careful, but there aren’t deep safety guidelines to show what that would look like in this case.
Another aspect of the game that is both intriguing, but also potentially frightening, is the character’s perversity. The text instructs players not to base their perversity on what people of the era would consider perverse, but something they find problematic. While this partially addresses characters built around harmful opinions of the time, perversity is left very open. Even the term “perverse,” while very era-appropriate, feels very loaded. In-game terms, it’s much more like a moral shortcoming of the player, but “perversity” adds a level of connotation that might push someone further than, for example, “I have a bad temper.”
I’m also a little uncomfortable with the sample character in the chapter. I am glad to see an example using a Creole sailor in New Orleans, showing the game’s inclusive nature, but I’m less thrilled with what could be seen as a stereotypical element added to the character, a child out of wedlock that is being cared for by a relative.
A welcome inclusion in this section is The Workshop, the phase of character creation where the table comes together to look at the concepts and the themes in the game, where they can discuss what they do and do not want to explore in play.
Part four includes the following subsections:
- The Basics
- Processes of Play
- Games with 1 or 2 Protagonists
Protagonists have several pools that represent their resources and their contacts, which they can spend to answer questions. Questions get increasingly more expensive, requiring more of an expenditure of the pools, as the anxiety die goes up in play. The anxiety die is a six-sided die that the editor has on the table to show how far the monster’s plans have progressed, and while the game itself does not play out similarly, this immediately reminded me of the Escalation Die from 13th Age.
Protagonists can ask their Imp a question directly. If they don’t want to spend points (or can’t) and don’t want to resort to giving in to their Imp, they can make an Exertion roll, representing them imposing their will on the world. Depending on their qualities, strengths, and relationships, they can add black dice to their pool. Depending on their perversity or edge, they can add red dice to the pool.
Other players have Weirding Dice they can offer to the player making the check, representing temptations from the character’s imp, and the Editor can spend their Weirding dice to replace dice in the protagonist’s pool. Protagonists have Lucidity and Composure as stats. Dice equal or above Lucidity are a success, but if more red than black dice scored hits, you record a red checkmark, and if you have more black than red, you record a black checkmark. Rated traits are at risk of going down if you don’t spend successes to maintain that aspect of your character, so this can represent losing part of your personality, or straining a bond with a family member.
At the end of a chapter, players roll a number of dice equal to their checkmarks of each kind, red and black. If a character rolls higher on the black dice, their Lucidity goes up. If they roll higher on their red dice, their Composure goes down. Characters that have spend points from their Empathy pool can choose to remove red checkmarks before making this check. If a character maxes out their Lucidity, they have banished their imp. They aren’t tormented by the supernatural any longer, but they are no longer part of the “hunting” community. If their composure drops to 1, they become a monster, losing all of their humanity.
Why not use the pools for everything? Because it gets increasingly more expensive to do so, and the pools take some time to replenish. Based on the number of black or red checks you have, you can modify relationships or traits, replenish pools, or even potentially increase your capacity in pools.
This section mentions safety in the process of play once again, and goes into detail on The Red Mist. This is a technique in this game where any scene where action is about to happen that the table does not want to describe in detail is shrouded in The Red Mist. In this case, the group knows something terrible has happened, and the general idea of what has happened, but it happens under the mist, out of sight.
Part five is an exhaustive look at Jacksonian America, with the following subsections:
- Why Now?
- Jacksonian America
- The East
- The South
- The West
This section explores why this point in time works for these types of stories, being a time where America was beginning to wrestle with its positive image of itself versus the actions taken in the name of Manifest Destiny.
From a historical standpoint, it’s a really extensive look at the period and the various conflicts that were brewing. Even outside of potentially running the game, I found the section to be a great read. That said, this section was also a potentially stressful read, because it clearly outlines some of the worst aspects of the time period, and I’ll admit that I have a great deal of antipathy for Andrew Jackson and the events that took place under his watch.
This section doesn’t just touch on the differences in the various geographical locations, but also discusses how those areas change over several decades, and what emergent issues come to light as time moves forward.
Part six is divided into A Menagerie of Horror and Ready-to-Play Chapters. The Menagerie introduces some sample monsters submitted by Kickstarter backers, and fully realized for use in play, and the Ready-to-Play chapters introduce monsters, webs, and notes on scenarios that can be used in the game.
This is another difficult part of the book. Some of the monsters touch on potentially troubling aspects of human existence, and while the workshop session should help establish boundaries, and active safety tools at the table should help to manage emergent issues, some of these monsters are so predicated on their perversities that an emergent issue is going to make them very difficult to modify at a moment’s notice.
This section also reminds me that I’m a little uncomfortable with the fate of all monsters being destruction. One of the monsters feels as if they are dominating and controlling situations, but it feels strange to kill someone as a response to even extreme domineering. The monsters Past the Shroud and Beyond the Shroud feel easier to reconcile with a destructive solution.
One interesting aspect of the Ready-to-Play chapters is that there are pre-made characters that leave enough blanks to quickly fill in with specific details, but cut down on the lengthier questioning process for protagonist creation.
I also don’t want to give the wrong impression of this chapter. There are a lot of fascinating horror scenarios posited in this section, I just think that this book’s greatest strength is often its sharpest edge. It pushes a lot of boundaries thoughtfully, but aggressively.
This section includes a bibliography, maps of various regions, the ludography (games that inspired this one), and the index for the book.
Emulating Poe by modeling that you will resolve the situation, and the only variables are what toll the resolution takes on you and others, makes perfect sense. I also love that the stakes aren’t life or death, but the state of your character’s soul.
I enjoy the idea of spending resources to advance the plot for much of the game, and reserving the use of dice for situations that feel a bit more desperate. In this case, the resolution mechanic then plays back into the idea of moving closer to freedom from, or total domination by, your imp.
Lack of ComposureI enjoy the idea of spending resources to advance the plot for much of the game, and reserving the use of dice for situations that feel a bit more desperate.
For some of the topics brought up, I would feel a lot better having a more in-depth treatment of how to handle various issues in discreet, dedicated sections. The era demands addressing issues of race, gender, and marginalization, but even though the book has some excellent discussion of safety tools, the safety tools themselves are more useful for the horror elements than the sociological elements.
I touched on this in the previous sections, but the language in this book is carefully used to convey the setting. Despite this, perversity feels like a very loaded term. I think I may have felt more comfortable with this terminology if we had more examples that emphasized “perversity” as “negative trait.” The strict definition is “a deliberate desire to behave in an unreasonable or unacceptable way,” but a more connotative definition is “human behavior that deviates from that which is understood to be orthodox or normal.” Under the second definition, it’s a lot easier to see behavior that isn’t negative, but just “not part of the mainstream,” being twisted into being a “perversion.”
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.
The same things that make me love this game also make me hesitant to widely recommend it. Honestly speaking, I think the game does great things, and if you want to read a game that engages an interesting topic in a well-realized, gamified manner, you really should get this book. The historical aspects alone are a great read.
On the other hand, if the topics addressed are ones that cause you potential stress, or if you are planning to bring this to the table, you may need to examine what you want to get out of the game a bit more closely.
What games are your favorite alternative takes on history? What genres have you seen blended with other eras that you particularly enjoy? Let us know in the comments below, we’ll be looking forward to hearing from you.Read more »
- Death in a Smoky Room: A (Mostly) System-Neutral Fantasy Murder Mystery
Sometimes, you just need a good atmospheric murder mystery. It seems like the options are endless: mysteries involving British trains. Mysteries with British aristocrats solving murders involving tea. Mysteries involving time-traveling British people who are also somehow aliens. Mysteries involving unspeakable cults in Massachusetts from storied British families. British murders by British people, solved Britishly.
What I’m saying is that in time-honored historical tradition, maybe if you travel in Britain (or are from there), have someone else taste your food before you eat it. They will also probably find it bland and flavorless, but if you can detect the difference between your taster choking because they would shiv their grandmother for chili powder in that moment vs. actually being poisoned, you’re golden (note that none of this applies to Scotland, which has both curries and haggis, which are delicious. Fight me).
But what does this have to do with you, dear reader? Well, if you’re at all like me, you’re pretty much constantly absorbing media and thinking “this is fine, but it would be better with wizards and dice.” Sure, it makes for tiresome and bewildering conversation with strangers at the DMV, but it does tend to lead to a profusion of gaming scenarios rattling around in one’s head.
Assuming that you’re into running a mystery for your players, but don’t want to show up on a watchlist because you Googled “hiding a body” one too many times, I have a treat for you: a mostly system-neutral murder mystery.
I say “mostly system neutral,” because I initially wrote this scenario for my local Blue Rose group, and I didn’t so much “file the serial numbers off” as “clumsily try to change one number like a guilty elementary-schooler with an F on their grade card.”I say “mostly system neutral,” because I initially wrote this scenario for my local Blue Rose group, and I didn’t so much “file the serial numbers off” as “clumsily try to change one number like a guilty elementary-schooler with an F on their grade card.”
System and Assumptions:
This game assumes that your world is high magic and reasonably civilized. Think magic crystals, colleges, and adequate public sanitation. Waterdeep, anywhere in Eberron, or (of course) Aldis are all appropriate settings.
Politically, this game works best with a hostile neighboring nation that was recently defeated, but is clawing its way back into being a threat. For purposes of this scenario, we will call this nation “Badveria.”
A note on clues: borrowing from the central conceit of the brilliant GUMSHOE system, it is assumed that characters find every clue they look for. Exceptional rolls or specific skills provide additional insight, as opposed to finding things in the first place. Nothing grinds a murder mystery to a halt faster than just…failing to find a clue.
Orthallen Dagworth, a brilliant young alchemical student with Setting Appropriate College (GO, MASCOTS!) was murdered by agents of Badveria, who were seeking out his notes. His research is tremendously valuable to Badveria in its desire to build a more effective method of ensuring air superiority, as well as driving forward their understanding of ballistics.
The murderer, Aiden Strelley, is also a student at the college. He is from a prominent local family who has made their fortune mining magical crystals on their ancestral land, where there was a rich vein, but this vein ran out five or so years ago. Aiden’s father, Mardic Strelley, made a deal with Badveria to continue to supply crystals in order to maintain the appearance of wealth. Badveria has been doing this for several years—the crystals supplied by the Strelley line are now used in infrastructure, weapons, and toys across the nation. Aiden, who is studying medicine, poisoned Orthallen and set up his lab to look like he died in an accident.
Orthallen’s received orders from Badveria through Tulli Bettesthorne, a deep cover agent. Tulli is an anatomy instructor, as well as the functional medical examiner for the city. Tulli arranged for the death to be declared an accident from inhaling alchemical fumes while he was studying. Aiden has never met Tulli as her true self, and only knows her as “Mortissa,” which he overheard a Badverian agent calling her after she thought he left.
Trevor Peckham: Orthallen’s partner. Devoted, fiery, furious, smart, and tenacious. He is also an alchemy student, and the only person alive (not working for Badveria) who had any knowledge of Orthallen’s research. It is Trevor who draws the characters’ attention to what he strongly suspects was foul play.
Location 1: The Scene of the Crime
It is assumed that characters will start here, but feel free to modify according to the needs of your group—it’s entirely possible they will come up with creative and/or ludicrous ideas. Roll with it.
- Clue 1: Orthallen’s body has already been removed. However, the room still is covered in stains and stinks strongly of the alchemical reagents that are the official cause of his death. Several books of Orthallen’s notes still remain. Careful examination of the notes reveals that some of them are missing. Though the notebooks he used are rough, there are clear stresses on the binding that indicate pages have been taken out. Had the pages been ripped out while the notebooks were in use, the whole things would have fallen apart. Use of an appropriate investigation skill (with a high difficulty) reveals that the sections missing were on gases that are lighter than air, as well as the properties of ashes of certain trees near the border of Badveria.
- Clue 2: There are several books on the desk that refer to the work Orthallen was doing. However, it’s very clear from suspicious gaps in the mess on Orthallen’s desk that these were not the only books he was using, indicating that it’s an incomplete overview of his research. It is common knowledge that the library only allows one book to be taken out at once without special dispensation. The fact that Orthallen had three (or more) indicates that he had specific permission from the administration to check out more—a sign of groundbreaking and important breakthroughs on the horizon. Characters without any sort of academic background, or who fail an appropriate (and difficult) roll, are unable to tell anything about the books themselves—they’re highly specialized and incomprehensible to anyone outside of Orthallen’s field of study. Characters who pass their roll are given the following titles:
- Luminous Gases and their Properties, Volumes 1 and 3.
- On the Hermetic Sealing of Flexible Materials for Maritime and Agricultural Use.
- Volatile Miasms: Manufacture and Storage: Introduction.
Location 2: The Morgue
This area is kept cold by means of magical crystals; the workers in the morgue are very proud of them and declare as soon as the characters arrive that “These are Strelley crystals—the best you can get!” Orthallen’s body is currently the only one in the morgue.
- Clue 1: any discussion with the staff of the morgue, or review of the paperwork in the morgue reveal that the medical examination was conducted by Aiden Strelley.
- Clue 2: Any examination of Orthallen’s body reveals that it shows no contamination from the alchemical reagents that were theoretically the cause of his death. There is no staining, and not even a hint of the stench in the room. A successful healing or other investigative check reveals that he was killed through a sudden hemorrhagic event, with no sign of trauma to his windpipe or lungs. This is wildly inconsistent with the reports of his death, which indicate that he choked on gases that he was working with as part of his research. A truly exceptional success should reveal that the cause of death was an overdose of a common painkiller derived from the bark of the fevertree—something that only a medical student would have access to in sufficient quantity to cause death.
Location 3: the Library (Probably)
This scene can take place anywhere, but most likely, the characters will attempt to investigate at the library to find out what other books Orthallen had been reading.
- Combat! The characters discover that Badverian agents have been told by someone they only know as “Mortissa” to watch out for anyone snooping around after looking in on the alchemical laboratories. Build this encounter according to the rules and appetite for challenge of your players—since this is only one of three potential combat encounters, it should be challenging enough to keep combat-heavy players happy.
- If the characters manage to avoid burning down the library, they are able to piece together that Orthallen was researching how to make lighter-than-air transport and gunpowder, and that Badveria was interested in the results. The only way they could have known what he was researching though, was if they had a person on the inside.
The Badverian agents should have access to a special ability (a recharge ability, stunt, or other system-appropriate power) that enables them to turn off or control any crystal-based magic on the characters or in the library.
Location 4: Aiden’s Chambers
- Aiden can be found (alone) in the dormitories. These are small, windowless rooms with heavy doors and thick stone walls, clearly older than the rest of the college.
- When the characters confront Aiden, if they have sufficient evidence to convict him, he panics by closing the dormitories and knocking together several flasks on his desk. The combination causes the room to begin to fill with a noxious gas.
- Figuring out how to ventilate or neutralize this gas should be a complex task, though as usual, clever roleplay or the use of magic should be both encouraged and effective.
- Every round that takes place, the characters must lose an aggregate of 1/5 of the total party’s hit points from the characters breathing in noxious gas. The characters may assign this as they wish.
- Additionally, each round, one character gets one level of fatigue or other appropriate condition. This can also be assigned by consensus of the players.
- If the characters fail, they come to in the healer’s college. Aiden has died from inhaling noxious fumes, and they’re regarded as something kind of like heroes for uncovering the treachery.
- If they succeed, they can confront Aiden, who has an appointment with “Mortissa” later that night, and is willing to tell them the details in exchange for his life.
- Confrontation with Mortissa can take place anywhere that speaks to your players, but by default, it should be somewhere out of the way, and unlikely to be visited by the city watch. This is a boss fight, so be sure to make it difficult. Don’t skimp on the henchpeople. If Mortissa/Tulli beats the characters, she knows her cover is blown, and she leaves the characters to flee back to Badveria with all possible speed. If the characters beat her (and leave her alive for interrogation), she reveals the whole scheme.
As of the end of the game, the characters should be able to connect the dots and realize that virtually all of their military and infrastructure is potentially contaminated with Badverian crystals, and thus vulnerable to Badverian meddling. Additionally, the Badverians are now ahead of the characters’ own nation in terms of both air travel and gunpowder. If this knowledge were to get out, it would cause mass panic, but something clearly must be done—it’s up to the characters to stop the Badverians before it’s too late!
So what do you think? Does this sound like the kind of scenario your group would enjoy? Sound off in the comments!
- Josh Fox Interview – Last Fleet
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Josh Fox about his latest game currently on Kickstarter, Last Fleet. I have a few different genres that I’m drawn to like a bear to honey, and space opera and its more serious cousin, science fiction, is one of those genres I find almost irresistible. Before I go on too much about my own love of this genre, let’s let Josh tell us about this particular journey through space.
Can you give us the elevator pitch for Last Fleet? Why play this game over another?
Last Fleet is set on a rag-tag fleet of ships, fleeing across space from the implacable inhuman adversary that destroyed their civilisation. You play the brave pilots, officers, engineers, politicians and journalists who are trying to hold the fleet together, keep themselves in one piece and keep humanity alive. It’s a game about action, intrigue and personal drama in a high-pressure setting.
What the game does really well is to create this atmosphere of high stakes, high pressure, fear and paranoia, and then make it human. We’ll get to see your individual contribution, whether it’s flying tense space missions, hunting for infiltrators and saboteurs, or handling political dissent, resource shortages or breakdowns in the fleet. But we also see how the stress and strain of the situation generates interpersonal drama, driven and supported by the mechanics of the game.
What are some of your influences on Last Fleet? I can guess that Battlestar Galactica is in there, but can you expound upon that some more?
Yes, Battlestar Galactica (BSG) is the number one influence and the fundamental reason for writing the game – I wanted to be able to play through those tense exciting situations, explore the paranoia and distrust, the faction politics and so on. As the game has developed I’ve folded in influences from other SF I love like Star Wars, Star Trek, the Ancillary Justice books and more. Plus I’ve developed a unique set of bad guys that are sort of a cross between the Tyranids from Warhammer 40,000, the Borg from Star Trek and the Goa’uld from Stargate.
BSG remains the closest analogue, though. It’s got the white-knuckle space battles that put individual lives at stake, with officers shouting orders from the command room or civilians watching helplessly. It’s got the paranoia and self-doubt that comes from knowing that anyone on the fleet could be working for the enemy – even to the extent of distrusting your own motives. It’s got the fractious faction politics, the sense of a fleet that is never far from collapsing into in-fighting. It’s got the post-apocalyptic resource crises and technological problems. And threaded through it all, it’s got those dynamite interpersonal relationships – the rivalries, the romance, the feuds and the fights.
What were some of your RPG influences on making Last Fleet?
The big ones are Night Witches and The Watch. Both games are playing in the same wartime drama space. They both use ingenious mechanics to provide just enough depth and detail about a large conflict, and showing those highlights of what your individual characters are doing. They both make interpersonal interactions and drama key to generating the game currency you need to win battles later on. In both cases you get a virtuous cycle where the trauma and terror of the war provide grist for the mill of your relationships and conversations, which in turn help to make the conflicts matter by providing human stakes.
The other influence I’d mention is Bite Marks, which my partner Becky was developing at around the same time I was writing Last Fleet. I like to think that both games have influenced each other, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from how Becky builds relationships and cultivates interesting tensions between characters. That cycle I mentioned above is present in Bite Marks too.
Why PBTA (Powered by the Apocalypse)? What about that specific system spoke to you for creating this game?
It’s no coincidence that all the games I mentioned above are PBTA. It’s my favourite design framework to GM and play in, and so it’s more like I was waiting for a concept I could use PBTA for. What I love about PBTA is the way that each individual component of the system is tuned to do one specific thing. I’ll talk about some of Last Fleet’s moves in a bit, but it’s enough to say that you’ve got moves that are designed to generate interpersonal strife, moves that are focused on bringing characters closer together, moves that are tuned to feed into a sense of paranoia, and moves that are built to create exciting action sequences. And because they’re individually designed in this way they are interlocking, feeding into each other and coming together to be more than the sum of their parts. It’s excellent for creating a highly specific genre experience, and that’s what I’ve done here.
The playbooks are very intriguing, built around the zodiac. Can you go into how that works, and the reasons behind theming them to the zodiac?
The playbooks have been a lot of fun to write. I had clear ideas about what I wanted them to be like, but initially struggled to come up with evocative names for them. So as an experiment, I assigned them zodiac names, mostly as a tip of the hat to the BSG influence (in BSG the planets and their peoples are all named after zodiac signs). But it had an interesting effect on the design process because I ended up creating new playbooks driven by the zodiac conceit – and the ones I made because of that are some of the best in the game.
The playbooks are designed around personality or story niche rather than a functional role. So you can be a hotheaded person who likes to take risks and break orders (Aries). You can be a tough person who cares deeply about their friends and their principles, with a bit of a martyr complex (Taurus). Or a serious person who strives to do their best and puts themselves under enormous pressure as a result (Virgo). Some of the playbooks are slightly more about story niche, like Scorpio is about being a sleeper agent and the self-doubt and fear that comes from that, and Pisces is about having strange psychic abilities that might connect you to the enemy.
I should stress that they are only loosely linked to the actual astrological signs, before any astrologers (or indeed, Scorpios) come and yell at me.
Can you tell us about some of the unique moves that were created specifically for this game?
The core of the game’s mechanics is the pressure system. Each character has a five-box pressure track. You mark it when bad stuff happens to you, so physical wounds for sure, but also emotional and social stuff like if you fail at something that was super-important. But more importantly, you can voluntarily mark it any time you want to get a bonus to a dice roll – one point of pressure yields a +1 bonus. You get to do it after rolling the dice, so you can get at least a partial success on almost any roll you want, if you’re prepared to pay for it.
If you let your pressure track fill up, you hit Breaking Point, and then you have to choose from a list of Breaking Point moves, including some that will be unique to your playbook. Each Breaking Point action is something outrageous or dangerous that your character does to express the fact they’ve reached their limit. One of them is to take your character permanently out of action (usually through death).
If you want to avoid hitting Breaking Point, you have a number of options, including specialised playbook moves, but the two that are available to everyone are Letting Loose and Reaching Out.
Letting Loose is arguably the easiest of the two to do, because all you have to do is go and indulge a vice in an uncontrolled way. It’s simple enough to go and get drunk. It’s also the most reliable, because any time you roll a hit you’ll get a pressure reduction for everyone involved. But it also automatically generates consequences, even on a strong hit, such as making a promise you really shouldn’t, revealing a secret that you oughtn’t to, or falling into the arms of the wrong person. The fallout is fun and dramatic.
Reaching Out is much more controlled. You have to reveal your innermost thoughts to another character, whether it’s your fears and doubts or your hopes and dreams. If they respond positively then you both stand to reduce your pressure. The downside of Reaching Out is that, although it doesn’t generally produce high-octane drama right now, it gives you a (game mechanical) relationship with the other character. If a character that you have a relationship with dies or betrays you or cuts you off socially, all the pressure you lost by Reaching Out to them comes back, all in one go. That normally means you hit Breaking Point, which means more drama in the future.
How well does the game work with one shots or campaigns? Does it do better with one over the other?
The game is definitely optimised for campaigns, as quite a few of the mechanics really get going over multiple sessions, as does the process of building up compelling relationships. I also enjoy the ability to do some leisurely character generation and world-building, which is easier in a campaign. As usual for my games, though, I’ve put a lot of thought into how you can make it work for a one shot. The quick-start scenario that comes with the game provides a pre-generated situation and relationships, and mechanics that have been set to be just at the point of crisis, to ensure that you get juicy charged action and drama straight away.
What was your inspiration to start working on Last Fleet and carry it through to publishing?
Last Fleet is a game I’ve been waiting to write for years. I’ve been passionate about the ideas in the game, and kind of working on them in the back of my mind, the whole time. Other things took priority but when I found myself with an opening I took it, and that stored up energy carried me through the design and promotion process. The experience of producing Lovecraftesque and Flotsam: Adrift Amongst the Stars has left me with an abiding love of the delivery side too – the art creation, commissioning and editing the stretch goals and doing all the work to get a beautiful physical book in my hands, are all (mostly) fun to me. I can’t wait to look at the finished book!Read more »
- Apparently I’m a 40-year-old man…
…and I love it.
Back in November 2019 I attended Kamcon, a budding convention in Canada in its second year of conception.
While there I did one of my workshop panels, where I talked about messing with your players and how to secretly manipulate the pacing of the game to a science but that’s not what this article is about. While I was there I was able to play several games I haven’t had the chance to, well, play as I spend a large amount of time GMing instead. It can be hard when you’re GMing constantly, exclusively for systems that mostly only other people want to play. Despite tabletops supposedly being in a new golden age, with new games coming out left and right with more players than ever before, for the majority it kind of only boils down to people wanting to play Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing, but despite having just under 50 differing systems I own and am capable of running, I’m constantly being asked to run 5e. It took several weeks alone to open up my current players to even giving Fantasy AGE a shot.
Either way, I was able to sit down and play Savage worlds and likely had one of the greatest player sessions in my entire life. Admittedly when I sat down at the Savage Worlds table I had my reservations; as someone that’s been gaming for the last 11 or so years, right before the Critical Rolepocalypse, I was used to often being one of the only women at the table. In those years, it was a world dominated by older men that would talk over you, get their fingers coated in Cheetos dust, and then go on to describe their character’s bathing habits in excruciating detail.
When I sat down at the table, surrounded by those exact people I’ve dealt with all those years ago, the stereotypes and concerns were at the front of my mind. I was fairly ready to want to run back to my group of 20-30 somethings with horror stories. For that, I’m deeply sorry.
At the table
The moment I sat down, my ears were immediately flooded with talk of Pathfinder 2, which turned to Pathfinder 1, then went into AD&D 2e and finally D&D 3.5e. I was quick to join in and suddenly the table was chattering on using jargon and references I haven’t heard in nearly a decade. Nods and references and grins and smiles accompanied “Vow of Poverty monk?” “No, it’s the chimera druid. HYDRAS man” “I miss reserve magic” “guys, guys, CHICKENMANCERS.” In moments I’ve felt more at home, more with my people, than I have in many many years.
I’m in several 5e circles. While it can be fun, I tend to hear the same stories and get a solid idea of what a character is like as soon as I hear a race and class. In 5e there’s honestly only so much variance and even the Warlock—whom of which is regularly praised for its breadth of character options—only has so many possibilities. Running back to the 3.5 days held a world of… esoterica of a certain kind. Through a spot of content split between sourcebooks and hundreds of Dragon Magazines, 3.5 held nearly 27 base classes and I want to say 70-130 prestige classes(don’t quote me on this); back in those days, prestige classes were near required due to the design flaw of ’empty levels’ which you could level up and gain absolutely nothing. In those days you couldn’t stop at class and race to describe your character, but had to go through what they could do completely, often going through the long list of saying you were a “Human Stalwart-Battle Sorcerer 5/Abjurant Champion 5/Swiftblade 10.”
Through all the highly specific jargon going on, I felt air rush into and fill my lungs. It was thick, musty, and I could swear it was the same air as when I first opened that used 3.5 Player’s Handbook.
“These were my people,” I realized.
Playing the game
We were going to be playing Savage Worlds that session. Despite only having 4-hours we had to use 1 for character creation. Admittedly I didn’t think we’d get through all too much that night. I played this one character, Kitty Kat(herine), a mediocre bar singer in the roaring 1920’s who was hiding she was secretly Sandra Dee, a country bumpkin from Alabama, who was also secretly Katyusha, an intelligence agent for Russia. We worked for The Duster, an underground boxing ring and bar during prohibition times. When we started playing I was ready for a fairly standard session.
How wrong I was.
You see I’m very used to players wanting to get in on the action at every turn, often leaping in logic as to why they’re at each and every scene. It tends to clog up scenes. But that wasn’t the case here. When we had to pick up Jenny, a bar singer that hadn’t shown up to work in a week, three members of the crew sat back, having no reason to be at the door. One kept a lookout, but the other two just hung out by the car, completely at ease. It allowed the scene with the bodyguard and I to go incredibly fast. We moved onto the next scene where I sat out of it, then the next where two others sat out. Through the other player’s experience, they wanted to act in line with their characters first and foremost, even if they didn’t get any action.
Others in my own circles don’t understand why I don’t clamor to be everywhere. For me, I’ve played a lot and will for decades to come; I’m in no rush. I knew, deep inside, that the members of my party felt the exact same way.
We ended up rescuing a girl from an abusive relationship, killed the guy that did it, recruited a seedy boxer to stage a fight, dealt with the scene leading up to the major fight, watched as a riot broke out, then handled a wild car-chase scene through the streets of 1920’s Atlanta.
All in 3-hours.
While Savage Worlds is known for being a particularly fast-paced system, this was a speed I hadn’t really expressed before. For me, it had to be in part due to the players, in part in their ability to race forward on strong character-driven actions, but also in their patience to know when to sit out. Through this, it allowed those in those scenes to really shine and have their own epic moments.
Where I’m at
It’s been a while since I’ve really felt the degree of synergy I had with others as I did with this party. While I have many similarities with people in my various ttrpg circles, I’ve always felt… a bit removed and distant. I’ve always attributed it to the types of systems we were into, or the difference of experience. I’ve GM’d every week of my life since I’ve started and there was even a period of time where every single day of Summer had a tabletop waiting for me. While I’ve been able to avoid burnout, I was scared I’d become jaded in that time compared to the newly hatched chicks telling me about their 5e characters.
Yet here I was, with this group of 40-something guys having the time of my life.
Despite being a caricature of diversity as an lgbt filipino/chinese immigrant woman, I started to wonder if, somewhere deep inside, I was secretly just like everyone else at the table.
Would I have had a blast, rocking it with Gary Gygax in the Tomb of Horrors?
Did I secretly have the soul of an older man, born twenty, maybe thirty, years too late?
Maybe. Just maybe.
~Di, signing out.Read more »
- The Indie Game Shelf: Cabal
Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun for you to enjoy!
Cabal: An RPG of Corporate Conflict
Cabal from Corone Design, written by Andrew Peregrine, is a GMed roleplaying game designed for 2 or more players to explore the activities of a single, secretive company, conspiracy, or other organization dedicated to a specific purpose. While designed as a standalone game, it is also explicitly noted in the text that Cabal can be integrated into other games to provide a framework for managing the exploits of a large organization featuring covert aims and activities. Cabal‘s resolution system (based on d10 or d100 rolls) is simple and looks to provide outcomes of major milestones around which a story is built. The focus of the game’s mechanics is on organization management and missions, and the game is geared toward long-term play.
Cabal does not come with prescriptions for a particular setting or story. The presentation assumes a modern-day time period (with room left over for fantastical elements like occultism or advanced technology), but the mechanics are abstract and flexible enough that the “default” setting is easily hacked into whatever is preferred for a particular group’s needs. The core of the game supports a secret society or group pursuing hidden ends through a variety of means (political, economic, military, or whatever), but the specifics of this organization are decided at setup for each game group.
The organization on which the story focuses is considered the protagonist of the story—the only “character” recognized by the game. The players represent the Board of Directors of the organization, and so together all represent the game’s single “character,” but board members have no mechanical distinction or impact; they are simply the in-fiction representation of the players’ decisions made on behalf of the titular cabal.
There are people in the game (“Employees”), and opportunities are presented for those people to be portrayed by players over the course of the game. However, mechanically, people are merely resources brought to bear by the true character, the organization, and player ownership over a particular Employee is not assumed. In addition, Employee creation is very simple and quick, and Employee survival is similarly not assumed, nor is it even particularly desirable if the ends of the Board of Directors could be furthered without it.
The story, therefore, is truly “about” the organization. The game begins with the organization having some core purposes as its motivating force, and the narrative produced through play is about the organization’s pursuit of its aims. The overall story is mechanically broken up into Missions, which are in turn broken up into Operations. The game mechanics drive the organization’s conflict with other organizations or static obstacles, and the structure of these conflicts drive the smaller stories involving individual people. As stated, though, those individual people’s stories may be quite short in service to the organization. The organization is what matters.
The game rules encourage (and are designed for) groups to design their own Cabal, but the game text also includes a collection of sample organizations that can be used as templates for playable organizations as well as ready-made antagonists for the Board. The sample organizations were contributed by a variety of writers and include descriptions and game information for groups ranging from a cult of shadowy psychics pulling the strings of various world powers all the way to a global disaster relief and rescue organization. The text also includes sample team construction, suggested mission ideas and structures, so while the rules allow for a completely built-from-scratch game, the text also contains plenty of starting points and guidelines to help the story along.
The game begins with the the non-GM players (the Board of Directors) designing their Cabal, the organization that forms the center of the story, and the only “character” recognized by the rules of the text. Cabal creation involves narrative elements like the type of organization and its goals, but the real mechanical meat is deciding on the organization’s Attributes. This is accomplished via a point-buy system and decided collaboratively among the Board. Attributes function as both a measure of the amount of strength an organization can bring to bear as well as a kind of “hit points”; when organizations fight each other, they do so with the intent to damage each other’s Attributes. While all Attributes serve the purposes mentioned, a few also have additional mechanical impact. For example, a higher “Finances” score raises the maximum score of other Attributes, and the “Specialists” Attribute directly impacts how mechanically powerful the Cabal’s Employees are.
Once the Cabal is constructed, the organization then assembles Teams. Teams are also constructed using a point-buy system (with the number of points available depending on the Cabal’s “Specialists” score). While deciding on Attribute scores defines the organization’s inherent traits and strengths, constructing Teams decides how the organization performs on the ground. Teams are largely defined by what they’re good at. With a fixed number of points to spend, would the Cabal be better served by a single, generalist team, or a larger number of more specialized teams? Should all teams be of equal strength, or does one elite team get the lion’s share of organization support? These are the kinds of questions the Board must answer for the good of the Cabal when designing Teams.
Each Team contains a number of Employees equal to the number of players on the Board of Directors. The Team construction phase dictates how much each team is backed by the organization, which indicates how much each team member has access to training, equipment, and the like. However, this backing is not so much a resource pool as it is a template from which all team members are built. This template can (and usually does) leave some room for customization, so individual team members can be distinct from each other, but in any kind of specialized team, most will have similar core strengths and all will be of roughly the same power level until improved by experience. The organization can, over the course of the game, recover from team losses or even replace an entire team by hiring new personnel. When they do, however, the new personnel arise from the organization’s team design specifications, and any previously gained experience disappears along with Employees that are lost. Everyone’s replaceable, but there’s also no substitute for experience.The organization on which the story focuses is considered the protagonist of the story—the only “character” recognized by the game.In the way the Cabal is defined mechanically by its Attributes, Employees are defined by their Skills. Also in the way the Cabal’s Attributes serve double-duty as both a measurement of capability and as “hit points,” Employee Skills work similarly. As Employees accumulate wounds, they also amass skill penalties; once their penalties overcome their skill ratings, they are incapacitated.
Resolution rolls take place in one of two scales. On the organization scale, the roll is pretty much a d100 vs. (roll under) an Attribute. This basic roll may be modified based on the difficulty of the goal. An unmodified roll might be an Average task (“getting a good deal on supplies”), while a -50 modifier may apply to something “Almost Impossible” (“getting hold of experimental tech”). For organizations taking on (read: directly attacking) a rival organization, resolution instead goes to contested d100 rolls vs. Attributes with outcome and degree decided based on a combination of whether each opposing roll succeeded or failed and by how much.
The difficulty modifiers of organization-level rolls can be impacted by the organization planning and executing Missions. Further, aside from attacking other organizations, Missions are also the means by which Cabals can gain points with which to raise their Attribute scores. Missions (particularly larger-scale Missions) can be broken into multiple Operations, with each Operation potentially involving a different of the organization’s Teams. Task resolution involving the Employee scale generally involves a d10 roll vs. a target number that is dictated by the Employee’s Skill rating. Teams participating in Missions are the means by which Employees gain experience and can raise their Skill ratings.
The design of Missions, rather than a GM responsibility, is a collaborative effort between all players. The Board decides the scope of the Mission they would like to attempt (which dictates the potential reward as well as the difficulty), but the GM arranges complications and obstacles. This process benefits from being split up across sessions, so the game overall is geared more toward long-term campaigns than toward one-shot play.
There were several design points in this game that stood out to me. Firstly, the idea of the players assuming basically anonymous roles and acting as a single “character” is quite an exercise in collaborative play. I say “anonymous” in the sense that although there could easily be in-fiction representations of the individual members of the Board of Directors, each as simple or detailed as desired, the board members’ avatars are mechanically neither distinct nor significant. Decisions are made, and the organization acts; the resulting mechanistic resolutions and effects apply to the Cabal as a whole.
Secondly, I enjoyed how individual Employee’s power scales are controlled by investment and backing decisions made by the Cabal but not affected by the number of Employees on a Team. In effect, if this game were played with two different groups, and both groups identically allocated their Cabal points, but Group A had more players than Group B, then Group A’s Teams would be more powerful than Group B’s, simply by virtue of having more Employees per Team. But at the same time, the individual Employees of Group A’s Team would be equal in power to the individual Employees on Group B’s Team. This lets the structure of an organization scale seamlessly to any number of players, from a single board member on up, which I find a very cool piece of design.
Finally, while players do sometimes take on the roles of actual people in the fiction of the game (the Employees), the rules and mechanics of the game ensure that these people are largely fungible and ultimately disposable. The rules go so far as to call out Employees as not characters themselves, but as “assets” belonging to the game’s lone character, the Cabal. This breaks from the model of play of most RPGs, and to my mind requires a significant amount of player buy-in before the game is even brought to the table. The value of Employees is literally measured in the game mechanics solely by what they can do for the organization, which is a pretty dehumanizing idea that might strike some people a little close to home.
The use of people as mechanical resources (effectively, equipment) casts an interesting shade to this game’s overall tone. As a design decision, I applaud its effectiveness in supporting the game’s theme that, basically, individuals don’t matter; only the organization matters. As a theme, it may require some sensitive handling, as the game if not encourages, then at least actively makes room for the players to make decisions that may involve agent sacrifice for the good of the organization. Whether this involves a studied callousness or moments of great dramatic tension will differ from group to group and player to player. The potential exists for some very dramatic storytelling moments focusing on the needs of the collective over the rights of the individual, and between that and the overall tone of ultra-capitalist and corporate attitudes of people as resources, this game is one that deserves some group discussion before a campaign begins. What’s significant is not the theme being explored; what’s significant is that the game’s players are cast in the roles of the “bosses” making those decisions.
Cabal is available in print and PDF from Indie Press Revolution, and in print-on-demand and PDF from DriveThruRPG. What strikes me most about this game is its conceit that the players are not portraying mechanically significant individual characters, but are instead collectively representing an entire organization as a single “character.” It puts me in mind of Bluebeard’s Bride (Whitney Beltrán, Marissa Kelly, and Sarah Richardson), the dark fairy tale game of feminist horror, in which players assume different aspects of a single central character. That game, as well as the intensely problematic Everyone is John, both mechanically rely on a kind of rotating control of the main character, however, and not particularly on collaborative decision-making. The theme of mechanically representing a party’s parent organization or other common resource comes up in many games, notably lately in games in the Forged in the Dark family. The recent entry Band of Blades (Stras Acimovic and John LeBoeuf-Little) even introduces PCs that are not under individual player ownership, but they are still central to the game’s story. Finally, I can’t think of games involving characters acting collectively without thinking of Headspace (Mark Richardson), in which cybernetically altered agents inhabit a collective consciousness and share both each others skills and emotional burdens. What Cabal offers in a collaboratively run organization without playable people being central to the story, however, strikes me in my experience as unique.
If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!Read more »
- VideoGnomecast #83 – Demihumans Interview with Robert Bohl
With the start of the new year, some folks are starting to think about processing and paying their taxes for the previous year. I’m certainly one of them since I have more complex taxes than the Average Joe. Deductions. Expenses. 1099 income. W2 income. So on and so forth….
Another reason this topic is on my mind is that one of my players is about to inherit a manor and nearby abandoned village. His claim to the area is partially based on familial ties (he’s the only surviving son of a dead branch of a noble family) and partially based on right of arms since he and his party cleansed the area of a devil infestation. This means he’s going to have to reestablish the village, its industries, restore the manor house, and get people to settle back into the area. All of this means he needs a large set of income to pull this off, and we’ve already started talking about how to handle his expenses and tax income from the new villagers.
Here’s the deal, though. We don’t want to devolve our D&D game into paperwork and minutia of tracking every coin that goes in an out. This has put me to mind to develop a decent system for allowing him to influence some set of die rolls that will determine gains and losses over time.We don’t want to devolve our D&D game into paperwork and minutia of tracking every coin.
Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Each month, the PC will make either a wisdom or charisma saving throw (with all appropriate modifiers and bonuses and such). I’ll allow the player to pick which saving throw he wants to leverage. The wisdom saving throw would reflect the quality of his decisions to determine how well he did. If he goes the charisma route, then this would be an indicator of how inspired his new villagers are to work hard and do the best they can for their new leader.
The base “cost” of running the village, manor, and surrounding area is going to be 1,000 GP for each month. This would represent all of the day-to-day expenses, paying hirelings/servants/workers, and accounting for those crazy things that happen from time-to-time in the Forgotten Realms that can make life a little rough on a given area.
I’m also going to allow him to “buy” advantage on the die roll by means of investing money into the area. If he puts at least an additional 1,000 GP into the new economy in a particular month, then he’ll get advantage on the die roll. This isn’t just a raw pumping of gold into the villagers’ pockets, but a reflection of material support, improvements to the area (better roads), securing the area from threats (militia and/or guards), and so on.I’m still noodling on the math.
If he doesn’t have the bonus GP on hand for a particular month, but still wants advantage on that die roll, then he can earn it through downtime efforts. If he spends at least a tenday each month performing downtime activities to support his village or directly work to make the villagers’ lives better, then the player will have advantage on the die roll as well. How this plays out will be part of the collaborative storytelling that we’ll do at the table.
Depending on how well he rolls, this will determine the amount of income he receives for that month. A poor enough roll would indicate a loss of gold (or perhaps a loss of villagers if he doesn’t have the spare coins) for that time period. Instead of coming up with a chart like the “running a business” section from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I’m just going to boil it down to a target number and some math.
I’m still noodling on the math, but I think a target number of 13 is fair for the die roll. I want it to be easy, but not an automatic success either.
If the die roll matches the target of 13, then there is no loss or gain based on the GP investment for that month. It’s all a wash.
If the die roll is higher than 13, then the character will make a 5% profit (50 GP) for each point above the 13 rolled. If the character invested an additional 1,000 GP to get advantage, then I’ll be kind and roll that into the “base expense” to boost the 50 GP to 100 GP profit for each point over 13 the player rolls.I think this system will be simple to implement, easy to use, and will reduce headaches.
Of course, if the die roll is lower than 13, then the character will lose 5% of the investment per point below 13 rolled. This will mean a 50 GP (or 100 GP if an additional 1,000 GP was invested) loss per point lower than the target number.
Overall, I think this system will be simple to implement, easy to use, and will reduce headaches and “game mechanic overhead” while we go through the process. Since the check only happens once a month, that leaves more real-life time at the table to go forth and adventure and have fun instead of doing our taxes.
I would love to hear what system(s) you folks out in Gnome Stew Land have used. If you have a link to a product in the DM’s Guild or some other PDF outlet that contains systems/methods to use, please provide those as well. I’m always interested in learning how holding lands or managing estates comes into play for the higher level characters that have these responsibilities.Read more »
- Rules in the Way
I have to admit something. I’m not always thrilled to hear an analysis of a game that includes the term “the rules get out of the way.” I understand the concept, but I’m not always sure that “rules can be easily dismissed” is an example of optimal game design. I think that rules in a game should inform the core loop of the game being played, so rules should be present when you are doing what the game expects you to do.
I don’t want to presume to reframe the comments of others, but I do wonder if rules “getting out of the way” might not be exactly what is meant when the term is used, at least not every time it is used.
Defining the Edges
Before examining the concept of rules getting out of the way, I think it might be worth a few moments to examine what rules getting “in” the way would look like. I suspect that “rules getting in the way” means that the game has rules and processes that are assumed to be engaged, which drags the game away from the expected core loop of the game.
This might either mean that the game has too many rules for an aspect of the game that is rarely engaged, but still an expected aspect of the game. It may mean that the game has a set of rules for adjudicating some situations that don’t resolve like other aspects of the game. In general, it feels as if many times rules getting in the way means that the rules ask you to devote too much time and energy to an aspect of the game that isn’t going to provide enjoyment in the manner that the game usually provides enjoyment.
As an example, the game might be about exploration and combat, but the social encounter rules are more complicated than either, even though they only come up once every four sessions or so in a standard campaign. Another example may be that most skill checks in the game are simply roll plus stat versus target number, but for some reason, one specific type of skill check requires multiple rolls and active formulas to determine the target number, but the result of the skill check doesn’t have any more (and possibly less) narrative weight than the other, more simply resolved skill checks.We spend so much time in our own heads, sometimes we can remove ourselves from how things will play at the table. It’s really easy to assume that if something is logical in the abstract, it may still not work in practical application.Where Do Obtrusive Rules Come From
I suspect that some of those rules that don’t quite feel right for the core loop of the game come from previous experience. Maybe the designer feels like an expert on a given subject, and even if that subject isn’t intrinsic to the game’s core experience, they want to express what they feel is important to address the topic.
Maybe the designer had players that always gravitated towards the same experience, regardless of the core experience of the game, so biases created by personal gaming experience caused the designer to feel as if this was something that must be addressed in the rules.
Sometimes it also feels as if these obtrusive rules are born from a feeling that the rules are “too” minimalist compared to other similar rules. This may be exacerbated when the current rules are a new iteration of a previous edition, so there is a sort of “page-count inertia” that sets a precedent for where the game needs to spend those pages.
Before anyone thinks I’m pointing fingers or mustering unearned sagely wisdom on game design when my main claim to fame is reading a lot of the books I spent too much money on, I get it. When I run games, I have all kinds of thoughts about how I wish the rules would work, and where they may need to be expanded or contracted. I’m not so far removed from the days when I would have said “hey, trust me, let’s use this house rule,” instead of saying, “would you enjoy it if we did this,” or “what problems can you see if we tried this?”
We spend so much time in our own heads, sometimes we can remove ourselves from how things will play at the table. It’s really easy to assume that if something is logical in the abstract, it may still not work in practical application.
Even games that get serious playtesting may not fully engage that one corner of the rules that just doesn’t work right, because if you playtest ten times, and on average that corner of the rules comes up one time in ten, maybe that one time your playtest group touches on that corner of the rules, it just doesn’t fall as flat as it does for a wider range of players.
I’m never going to criticize a contractor when they make a beautiful house, but I just happen to find the one proud nail over in the corner, behind the couch. By no means does my ability to notice the nail constitute my ability to build a house.
Rules Running in the Background
While the term “rules getting out of the way” has become very widely used in RPG circles, I think what we may want is “rules that run in the background.” We have all kinds of programs that run on our computers in the background. Not only are these doing important things that we don’t want to actively deal with, they also allow us to call up a process that might take a while to boot up much more quickly, because it is already running.
Rules that aren’t intuitive cause us to stop and think about how they work. Rules that are simple, but don’t contribute to the core loop of the game, feel like busywork. It is not unlike waiting for a really simple app to open, when what that app does isn’t all that important.
Many times if a subsystem runs in a manner that is similar to other aspects of the game, when the table resolves the situation without addressing the rules, the group later realizes they weren’t too far off of the “official” way to resolve the situation.
Informing the Core Loop
Knowing what rules will feel obtrusive, or “in the way” means examining a game to realize what it is doing with intentionality. This means determining the core loop of the game. What do you do in the game? What should you be spending most of your time doing, and what feeds into doing that thing?
In a cyberpunk heist style game, the core loop is pulling the heists. If you have rules for gathering information and buying gear, the rules for gathering information and buying gear play into the core loop of the game.
Wherein, I Take a Detour
Fantasy RPGs sometimes have a fuzzier core loop. Some know exactly what they mean to do, but others aren’t quite sure what is primary to the setting. For example, is the core loop going on adventures to face down powerful evils in the world, or is the core loop adventurers getting rich and famous? Saving the world when you are getting rich and famous is a subset of things you can do if your core loop is becoming the best adventurer, but if your core loop is facing the evils of the fantasy world, buying gear and having rules for things that are primarily used for self-aggrandizement are taking away from the core loop of the game.
In some cases, games are broad enough to encompass different types of core loops, but in that case, the people at the table need to realize that rules that broad tend to be modular. You don’t need to engage with the rules modules that don’t inform the specific sub-type of game you are running, and you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t engage those modules. A broad game needs to be designed so that its modules can be isolated and jettisoned for different game experiences.
Ideally, the game itself makes this modularity expressly evident in the presentation of the rules, but the less the game does this, the more the players at the table will need to interrogate the theme of the game they are playing, and have an open discussion away from the actual game session about what and how to engage the existing rules modules.
What Informs the Core Loop?
Let’s take a look at three different situations. We’ll look at a hypothetical superhero game, and where the game places its rules.
The core game loop is going to be that players fight supervillains and save civilians from dangerous situations, and learn broader applications of their powers and skills, so that they are better equipped to handle a wider range of threats the next time they fight supervillains or save civilians.
This tells us that the core loop is on the action side of the superhero narrative. This is modeling a more traditional superhero comic experience, rather than a comic like Astro City, where the game experience would be more about exploring what it means to live in a comic book world.I’m always a fan of doing things with intentionality, and I think the RPG hobby is getting better at this every year.Example Time!
- Game model number one has extensive rules for interpersonal conversations. These rules don’t work in a manner similar to how the game engages turning a tornado inside out or punching alien robots. It requires the GM to track a model of NPC desires, and creates a multi-round resolution with shifting difficulty classes based on the previous round and the social approaches of the acting player. While some players may love this, others, who enjoy using laser eyes to blow up the engines of invading space ships, don’t like spending this much time and effort on talking to their boss when their character is at work.
- Game model number two hand waves anything that isn’t directly saving civilians or fighting supervillains. It would be possible for players to completely ignore anything that doesn’t involve action. There aren’t any rules that “get in the way,” but some of the players remember some great storylines about Peter Parker missing dates, or Henry Peter Gyrich making the Avengers jump through hoops to continue functioning, and they wish that it was easier to have those “away from the action moments.”
- Game model number three is formulated looking at the core loop of the game and the genre emulated. We don’t want superheroes away from the action for too long, but it also knows that some “downtime” scenes are iconic to superhero stories. There is a quick resolution mechanic that shows how that downtime is resolved. If the hero puts strain on their relationship, they get a resource they can use during the action, and they don’t get it back unless they successfully resolve a quick downtime scene. Whenever the relationship is strained, there is a chance for a complication, but the complication is resolved as part of the core loop. Maybe a complication means that a loved one is on a train during a disaster, meaning that the heroes now have an additional objective when it comes to saving civilians. Maybe a complication with a team government relationship means that the team has to fight off government agents because they are being arrested for something a villain has framed them for, while they are busy fighting another supervillain.
If the rules model in the second example is followed, the rules are “getting out of the way.” It’s not part of the core loop, so there aren’t rules for the situation. If the rules in model number three resolve quickly, and add complications to situations that game is already going to assume will happen, these rules aren’t “getting out of the way,” but they are “running in the background.” It’s a quick check between action scenes to give texture to the heroes’ lives, which give them resources to power their resolve, and create complications in scenes that will already be happening.
Stepping Away from the Microscope
I’m the kind of person that likes to over examine the kinds of things that become common wisdom. I’m hoping this long digression into dissecting gaming etymology is worth reading through. I’m always a fan of doing things with intentionality, and I think the RPG hobby is getting better at this every year.
What games do you think have just the right amount of rules? What games do you feel add too much weight to the rules where it doesn’t benefit the overall experience? In general, what kind of situations do you feel either don’t need rules, or need more rules to give them their proper weight? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- The Anatomy of the GM Curse
“Are you sure?”
“It’s going to be a high DC.”
*Rolls dice behind the screen*
If you’ve played tabletops to any degree you’re aware of these /things/ that gamemasters do. Some refer to them as ‘GM moves’ or just ‘things GMs do’ but, for the purpose of talking about it, I’m going to give them a name: GM Curses. This is partly due to making them easier to talk about, but also in the fact that any gamemaster using them ‘curses’ the players with equal parts dread and wonder.
—What Makes a GM Curse?
A GM Curse, as I would define them, is a speech act or action designed to elicit an apprehensive response from your players. Essentially, when a GM uses a Curse, they want the players to think ‘why did they just say/do that?’ They want to pull you out of the situation just a touch and consider the game in a more meta manner. When successfully executed, a GM Curse brings about an air of uncertainty and tension into the scene. Different curses, while joined with a similar purpose and goal in mind, are pulled out for a handful of differing reasons. With the common “Are you sure?” the reason could be of the following:
- the GM wants you to reconsider your action,
- to inform you that the action is (by their interpretation) stupid,
- to confirm that you are choosing an action that’ll get you killed,
- the GM is looking to stall you out
As mentioned, GM Curses come in two main flavors: speech acts and actions. Speech acts, borrowed from linguistics and as shown in the example earlier, are parts of speech designed to incite action from the receiver. Typically a spoken GM Curse is accompanied by an exaggerated, dismissive, or apprehensive tone. This helps to alert the various players that this is a moment that should be paid attention to. Cursed actions are often accomplished in a similar manner, but are best highlighted as the addition of what would be an otherwise unnecessary action, then often accompanied by a lack of resolution. What I mean by this is that all actions should have a reason as to why they are occurring: if there is nothing happening, then the GM shouldn’t be doing anything at the moment. Therefore, by the GM taking action something is happening and, by the lack of resolution, something is occurring that the players aren’t aware of.
“Oh god, why is she borrowing all the d8s. WHO NEEDS THAT MANY D8s!?” – Hapless player.
Obviously, not everything meant to or that could be perceived as curses are actually curses. Such ambiguous curses include: waving your hand dismissively while saying “Don’t worry about it,” or saying “Well you can certainly try!” While these can be and have been interpreted as curses, it’s not a surefire thing. “Well, you can certainly try” could equally mean “I didn’t expect this but roll the dice” or “Oh boy, you’re screwed unless you roll SUPER high.” I call these statements ‘Bicursious’ because they’re quite possibly one or the other, or both.
—Pros and Cons
Pros Cons + stall tactic – encourages metagaming + adds tension – supports player vs gm + preventative measure – limited uses
+1. Stall tactic
GM Curses are perfect ways to stall out a game when you’re uncertain what you’re going to do. If you have particularly apprehensive and cautious players, a single Curse at the right time can incite a discussion or argument within the party. I’ve had groups in the past that could be stalled upward to ten-to-twenty minutes at a time. It gives you, as the GM, the ability to quickly come up with an event or an encounter (another stall tactic).
+2. Adds tension
If there was ever a time for a player to reconsider their action it should be when the GM leans forward and adopts the pose Gendo Ikari from Evangelion is known for. This effect is especially pronounced if you’re able to incorporate that doubt and pause into the narrative. “Are you sure? The sunlight reflects off the blade of the imposing knight, shining into your eyes the insignia of the Goodfellows, the troupe of bardic paladins known across the land.”
+3. Preventative measure
Whenever the gamemaster calls an action into question it allows the players to reconsider their action. The natural rhythm of the story is broken and, often, the emotions or thought processes that led the players to handle that action are put on pause as they re-evaluate the situation from a more meta-view. This warning can save hapless players and—in a way—indirectly confirm that no, that lava is not an illusion they should jump into.
-1. Encourages metagaming
As stated earlier, a GM Curse allows the GM to break the emotions or thought processes of a player. This pulls players out of whatever state of immersion they’re currently in and asks the player, in the meta field-of-play, if they think what they’re doing is a good idea.
-2. Supports player vs GM mentality
GM Curses don’t work for everyone. The curses are all about playing up a Villainous GM type of role—it can feel like the GM is taking actions to surprise the players in an implicitly unfriendly manner. This can sometimes lead players to resent the GM and see them as a form of opposition to be overcome. Not every gaming group can handle that.
-3. Limited uses
There’s only so many times you can actively use a curse in a single setting before it gets stale. There are only so many times you can pull it on a group in short succession till they realize that you’re just messing with them for no reason, especially if you can’t follow through on them. You can’t use curses constantly or they lose all meaning. They need to be spaced out and, if unheeded, need to be followed through with actual consequences.
—My Favorite GM Curses
Speech Acts Actions “Are you sure?” *sharp inhale through teeth while wincing* “Oh really now?” *rolls dice behind screen* “It’s going to be a high DC…” *double eyebrow raise + smile* “I mean, I wouldn’t but alright!” *loudly scribbling notes* “OH! So you’re doing that?” *starts gathering a lot of d6s from players* “Ahahahahaha that’s perfect.” *barely holding back evil laughter*
The art of the GM Curse is a tricky one to handle. Whether or not you’re familiar with tabletops as a whole, you will eventually come across the concept of messing with your players fairly quickly either on your own, or one of those D&D meme pages. GM Curses can be extremely helpful for a large variety of reasons and, so long as you’re aware of the benefits, the setbacks, and how to use them properly, you’ll be able to improve your skills to a whole new level.
As it relates to the GM Curse, I’d like you to pull out of this article with the following notes: use them sparingly, use them epically, and use them as warnings that, if unheeded, show your players you mean the utmost of business.
If you happen to have a favorite curse, lemme hear about it.
~Di, signing out.Read more »
- Two Factors for Game Mastering Success
As a long-time game master, I have pondered the reasons why some campaigns work over the long-term (and why some campaigns never get off the ground). There are the usual subjects – good game content, adequate prep, interesting players, and so on – but none of these really address how a game master can sustain an ongoing campaign that maintains the interest and involvement of the players.
On this, I speak from experience. For the past five years, I have been conducting a weekly game using the same characters (and players) in a campaign. The setting is a home brew world using D&D 3.5 rules. Even with the occasional night off, I have game mastered over 250 sessions for this campaign, each session lasting a minimum of five hours. And we have no signs of stopping. This has been a tremendous commitment for myself as well as the players (who have grown from the original five to eight regular attendees).
So, how is this done?
I rely on two key factors: agency and immersion.
Agency is the ability of the player characters to make the substantive decisions that affect their lives and actions. In a “high agency” campaign, the player characters decide what adventures to take on or what challenges to avoid. Even if the GM has prepared an elaborate dungeon, a high agency campaign would allow the player characters to decide whether to explore it or not.In a “high agency” campaign, the player characters decide what adventures to take on or what challenges to avoid.
The GM has tremendous tools at their disposal to coerce the player characters to do what ever the GM wants. In a “low agency” game, the GM guides the players through whatever tasks or challenges that may occur. More often than not, this style of gaming relies on set scenes and pre-determined outcomes for every encounter. This style is like running a railroad, ensuring that everyone arrives at the same destination at the same time but with little choice along the way.
The main advantage of a high agency game is that the players (and player characters) become more invested in their roles. Since they are the main decision-makers in the campaign, they feel a strong sense of ownership. This encourages them to explore the possibilities of an open-ended world and build a sense of purpose.
A high agency game also provides consequences (good or bad) for the decisions that the player characters make. Just because the player characters have agency does not mean that they get what they want. They have the opportunity to make real choices that affect their future. The GM still runs the show
The other key factor is immersion.
Deciding what constitutes immersion can be problematic. For some, a high immersion game requires costumes, distinct character voices, custom miniatures and so on. But this is not the case.
In the theatre, actors rely on the suspension of disbelief among audience members to work their magic. The same goes for the GM who seeks to run a high immersion game.
For the players to shed their daily lives and become player characters, the GM must rely on their individual and collective imaginations. The GM needs to spark the creative process and provide an atmosphere where the players believe they are part of a larger world, one where they have a place and a history.
Player character backgrounds become more important. The goal of the player is to develop their character. How can you know where you are going if you do not know where you are coming from?
To do this, I ask my players to decide their family situation and their reason for embarking on the adventuring life. Often, the two are interlinked. A dull family situation, the (un)likelihood of inheritance, parental expectations and sibling rivalries (or alliances) can round out the starting character. Likewise, the reason for their career choice might provide an ongoing character motivation, such as revenge, glory-seeking, or the need to survive.
Once the background is set, I ask the players to decide the appearance of their characters. Differences in character attributes or ability scores need to be taken into consideration, of course, but the goal is to have the players visualize their characters. A written description or picture is helpful in this regard.A high immersion game is one where the player characters become immersed in both the action and the story arc.
A high immersion world puts a significant burden on the GM. Maps, whether it is a local area or the known world, are very helpful. Likewise, creating ephemera to support your campaign, such as handbills, pamphlets or notices, is another way of creating a high immersion setting.
The most important tool I use in creating a high immersion campaign is the campaign gazetteer. This is like the encyclopedia of the campaign, organized by entry. I include a synopsis of the player character’s career to date, key non-player characters, geography, and a short history of the world (as it is known). As the campaign progresses, the gazetteer grows in detail and scope.
As a reference document for the players, the gazetteer should only include the information that is popularly known or is known to the characters. While I do hide some clues that reward the careful reader, you can also include common gossip or speculations to give your entries flavor.
A high immersion game is one where the player characters become immersed in both the action and the story arc. A low immersion game, like chess, can still be enjoyable and intense. However, there is no continuing story or personal identification with the chess pieces.
If you can achieve both high agency and high immersion, you will have built a campaign for the long run. Both factors are key to achieving high player satisfaction, which is the only thing that can sustain player interest.
You will find that giving the players real choices will stimulate their thinking about what possibilities may lie ahead. Likewise, a world where they can fully role-play their characters will encourage them to explore the lesser known parts and places.
What is your campaign like? Is it more of a low-agency game where the player characters are largely standers-by or do your characters make real choices? Do you put effort into setting the scene and building real relationships with non-player characters? Or is it really just a series of dungeon crawls?
Tell me what ideas you might have to engage the players in a high-agency, high immersion campaign.
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- Dark Messiah - HD Texture PackDSOGaming reports on a high definition texture pack for Dark Messiah of Might and Magic. ... As we can see in these screenshots, the game’s lighting is really dated and makes the environments feel flat. Thus, I’m pretty sure that this game would greatly benefit from Reshade Ray Tracing.... Read more »
- Starflight: The Remaking of a Legend - Dev Diary 17Dev Diary 17 for the Starflight: The Remaking of a Legend project shows a new video tour of the docking bay and starmap. Also there is a new forum. Greetings! Time for another dev diary! This time Marvin gives us a cool new tour video of the game and shows off his new starmap and docking sequence in his Starflight: The Remaking of a Legend project.... Read more »
- Hades - The Long Winter Update TrailerHades is described as a god-like, rogue-like, dungeon crawler from the creators of Bastion and Transistor. The game recently received a large update. loading... Hades is in Early Access, which means we're actively working on it based on our plans and your feedback.... Read more »
- The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III - Is Coming to PCThe PC version of The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III will be released on March 23: The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel III loading... Prepare to fight for a brighter future in Trails of Cold Steel III, coming soon to PC! This ... 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 »
- Playing D&D Can Save Your Life
"Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Loneliness kills."
The above quote is from Dr. Robert Waldinger, the caretaker for the Harvard Study of Adult Development, an 80 year study that followed the lives of 724 men, some from Harvard and others from a poor neighborhood of Boston. Across the 80 year study, the participants were surveyed and the results gave an in-depth look at how the lives of these men evolved.
This study found that the quality of their relationships with others mattered more towards their happiness and health than just about any other factor. While we often seek money, fame, and career achievement as lifelong goals; our relationships have the biggest effect on our happiness and health. On the flip side, loneliness kills. Being frequently lonely can be as bad for you as smoking 15 packs of cigarettes a day.
D&D used to have the reputation of being for basement-dwelling social misfits and yet the relationships we built around the table will matter more for our happiness than our careers, our income, and our general popularity and fame. The relationships we build while playing D&D are the exact thing we should be seeking to make us happy throughout our lives. I am never so happy as I am playing D&D with my friends and family.
The Difficulty in Finding Adult Friends
As we get older it's hard to find the sorts of friendships we had while we were younger. Time pressures, career pressures, and the pressures to start a family can get in the way of building and developing the meaningful friendships that create such happiness in our lives. Many of us move away after college, losing our physical connections to friends we had while in school. We also fill our time with jobs, career growth, and building a family. It becomes harder to find the time to get together with friends. It doesn't help that bullshit feelings of masculinity gets in the way of adult men finding friends.
We also lack the context we once had to help us make friends. What do we do when we get together? What do we talk about? Work? Kids? Politics? The weather?
If only we could find a context around which we can get together with our friends on a scheduled time, relax, joke, enjoy ourselves, and share fantastic stories; maybe even stories that go well outside what our own reality looks like.
If only there was a way...
Playing D&D Can Save Your Life
Playing Dungeons & Dragons sounds just about perfect. I can't speak for everyone but I know that I am happiest when playing D&D with my friends and family. Having a regular D&D game gives me a purpose for getting together regularly with my friends. Scheduling and setting aside a regular time to play D&D helps likely leads us to greater happiness and health throughout our lives.
If we find ourselves moving to a new place, we can use our love of Dungeons & Dragons as a way to find new friends in the area. We might visit and hang out at our friendly local game shop or join up in a local Adventurer's League game. We might use a variety of tools to help us find and maintain a D&D group. If you're willing to be the dungeon master (and I hope you are), it's even easier. There have always been more people who want to play D&D than are willing to DM. With the new D&D Essentials Kit you can play with a single player and a single DM, although more players mean more friends and friendships are what it's all about.
Love the Ones Your With
Just like our human need for social relationships to be happy and healthy in our lives, we have other instincts that push us away from that benefit. What if our group isn't as good as another group? This problem likely falls under the fear of missing out, a social anxiety that drives us to be where others are. The internet exasperates the problem by showing us idealistic situations that we wish we were in (often not nearly as good as they seem) and making us believe we're seeing the typical D&D game. What would it be like to be at Matt Mercer's game, we imagine? We imagine it must be the most incredible experience in D&D we can imagine. In reality? It's probably a lot like every other D&D game, just with a lot of cameras and 15,000 people watching. I'm not saying Matt Mercer's game isn't awesome. It is.
So is our own game.
Unless something is seriously wrong with the game, playing D&D is pretty great. We might have to fine tune things. We might have to find the right people to play the sort of game we want to play. Overall, though, D&D games are all pretty awesome.
Instead of worrying whether some other game is better than our own or some other group of people are better than our group of people; let's remember that our group is pretty great and love the ones we're with. Chasing someone else's inner ring is a fool's game. Just ask CS Lewis.
Finding the Time and Making D&D a Priority
"What did you think? We were just gonna sit in my basement all day, play games for the rest of our lives?"
When Mike says this to Will in Stranger Things Season 3, it's hard not to hate the scene, hate Mike, and even hate the show. Until, of course, you realize that the Duffer brothers knew exactly what they were saying and why.
Of course you can sit in your basement and play games the rest of your life. Maybe you'll even upgrade to the dining room.
Finding time to play D&D is important. It's as important as finding time to eat healthy and exercise. It's probably more important for your happiness than trying to boost your career or make more money.
Feeling guilty about playing D&D is like feeling guilty about going to the gym. It can be as hard to find time playing D&D as it is to find time to exercise. Finding the time to play and the people to play with is likely the hardest part of D&D. For your happiness, though, it's worth the effort.
While writing this article I asked Twitter how people managed to keep regular games going. Many ideas and trends came up. We can learn how best to get more D&D into our lives from the experiences of others. Here are some of those trends.
Run Games Twice Monthly. While most D&D players tend to play D&D weekly (according to my flawed surveys and polls), many respondents said it was easier to keep a twice-monthly game going than a weekly one. Regular habits tend to stick and a regular weekly game is more likely to keep going than a twice-monthly game but if twice-monthly fits into our lives where a weekly game does not; we're better off with that than nothing.
Play with the family. Many respondents described playing D&D with their spouses and children. It's much easier to fit our games into our lives if our family is involved. You don't have to negotiate with your spouse for a night off to play D&D if your spouse is at the table with you. I'd also bet that playing D&D together brings couples closer together as well, just ask the folks at D&D Duet.
Play online. Being able to play online has been a critical factor for many people to keep a regular game going. Playing online means no worries about location dependence or travel time. For many people it's the only way they would be able to get together to play D&D. Discord, Roll20, and Fantasy Grounds are all popular ways to play D&D online.
Be flexible with your number of players. In the article Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group I recommend keeping a stable of players including six main players and two on-call players who can fill in if someone's out. This has worked well for me for a decade but it isn't always possible. Staying flexible with the number of players required to run a game helps ensure those games still happen. How few members can you have at the table and still run a game? How many is too many? If you have a wide margin on both ends of this spectrum, you'll be more likely to run a game. Three to six is my personal preferred number.
The D&D Essentials Kit now gives us the ability to run a game with as few as one player. That adds a tremendous amount of flexibility. Using the companion rules in the Essentials Kit and the follow-on adventures means you could run all of Tyranny of Dragons with just one other player.
Prioritize D&D. Many respondents mentioned that prioritizing D&D was critical to maintain a regular game. Given the science of happiness and health and its clear tie towards positive social interaction, one could argue that finding the time to get together with friends to play D&D is as critical as finding time to exercise. Negotiating for a night to get together with friends and play D&D can be critical to our happiness long term. Even better, find a way to bring friends home and play with friends and family together.
What is Best in Life? Playing D&D with Friends and Family
When we look at the science of what matters in our lives; what really has proven to bring us health and happiness; it isn't money, it isn't fame, it isn't our careers. It's our family and friends. It's building and maintaining positive relationships in our lives.
If you're reading this article, you probably already love D&D. You might not realize just how much you love it. You might not also consider just how important it can be. We love it, yes, but that might not be stating its importance enough.
D&D might be the key to our lifelong happiness.Read more »
- Timing and Pacing Adventures
Many times when we're running our Dungeons & Dragons adventures, we aren't too worried about time. Sure, our friends need to go home sometime but we can generally stop where we are and start off where we ended at our next session. If we're particularly good at this we might even find great breaking points that keep the players on the edge of their seat and bring them back the next week. We might even be running episodic games in which each night is itself a full story arc strung together with downtime and an overall story that plays out in full pieces each session.
Sometimes, though, time is a factor. If we're running a single-session game for our friends, a one-shot game at a convention, or an organized play game at a local game shop; we have only the time allotted and must fit the adventure in that time. This can prove challenging; maybe the most challenging aspect of our game.
While writing Ruins of the Grendleroot, I paid a lot of attention to this. I wanted to ensure that these adventures could fit comfortably in a two- to four-hour session. But I also wanted open-designed adventures with lots of options across the adventure and in each encounter. These design ideals often work against one another.
For example, let's say we have an encounter with a group of cultists. If the characters talk to the cultists, it might take ten minutes to finish the encounter. If they get into a fight, it might take thirty. If they try to sneak around and fail, then talk their way out and fail, and finally fight; such a situation might take an hour.
How the characters interact with an encounter has a big impact on the time it takes to run that encounter. Multiply that out by the number of encounters in the adventure and you could have an adventure that takes an hour or six depending on how things go. Given that we're generally aiming for around four hours, give or take, a window that wide isn't useful.
So what do we do? How can we tune and pace our adventures to fit in the allotted time with such unknown variables? That's what we're going to look at today.
Some of these tips work well when you're creating your own adventures, even if you're not writing your own adventures for publication. Other tips work well if you're running a pre-published adventure and need to modify it to fit the time you have. Your own situation may vary but hopefully these tips can help out for any given situation you have.
The Moving MacGuffin
One of my favorite adventure books is the book Weird Discoveries by Monte Cook Games for the Numenera game system. It's a poorly kept secret that I used this book as my model when writing the original Fantastic Adventures. I loved the idea of ten easy-to-prep and easy-to-run adventures that helped GMs get the story going and end it on time with just four pages per adventure.
The folks at Monte Cook Games put out another similar book called Explorer's Keys that's equally good. These books have some very specific design ideas, including layout and graphic designs, that make them easy to prepare and easy to run at a table. I'm really in awe of them.
In particular, Explorer's Keys includes "keys" that are the main required plot elements that help the characters complete the adventure. These might be a powered object required to move a huge alien tank. It might be information on an NPC required to prove or disprove an allegation. It might actually be a key to open a great vault door.
The secret to these keys is that they don't have to be in one particular place. In Explorer's Keys, you decide where the keys show up. This lets you tune the adventure as you're running it, shortening things up when needed by making keys easier to find or lengthening it by pushing the keys further out.
We can do this in our own adventures by moving the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin, an object integral to the story of the adventure, might be nearby and easy to acquire or it might be hidden far away and require quite the journey to acquire.
A MacGuffin may not necessarily be an object. It might be an NPC the characters have to kill or rescue. It might be a piece of information they need to acquire. It might be a switch they have to pull or an obelisk they have to deactivate. A MacGuffin may be an entire room, perhaps a boss encounter area. If the adventure needs to speed up, we move that whole room forward. If it needs to slow down, the room moves further out.
Moving the MacGuffin is a solid technique both in our own adventures and when running published adventures. In published adventures we can move the required key, whatever it is, within closer reach of the characters. We might move that basement lab up two floors so the characters don't have to travel as far.
We might not even need to worry about time to move the MacGuffin. If the pace of our adventure is starting to wane and get boring, we can up the excitement by bringing the MacGuffin closer. If we want to space things out, we can move the MacGuffin further away. Timing a session is one thing but oscillating those upward and downward beats is important too and having some flexibility to change up that pacing during an adventure is critical.
If we're writing our own adventures, we can include this design right in them. In Ruins of the Grendleroot each adventure includes a "Pacing the Adventure" section that often describes how to move key elements closer or further out depending on the pace of the adventure you want.
Moving the MacGuffin is all about bringing the required element of an adventure closer to the characters or pushing it further away.
Optional Combat Encounters
Combat encounters often take time. If we're pulling out our minis and dropping down our gridded battle map, we can expect a battle to take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Combat encounters, beyond being just plain fun, are also great tools to help us fill out a game if we have time to fill. Obviously such combat encounters need to matter. They need to tell a story and they need to be fun. Combat encounters that don't help reveal parts of the story or make sense within the fiction are just a slog.
Combat encounters are a dial we can keep our hand on while running our game. We can omit them or add them in depending on the timing and pacing of our game. If things are getting boring and stale, maybe time for a conflict. If combat is getting repetitious, we can pull them out.
If we're planning out our own adventures, we can keep a few combat encounters on hand. If we think we have the time and we think it will add to the fun, we can drop them in. If we think things are already moving slowly and time is a factor, we can hold them out.
Likewise, if we're running a published adventure, we can take note of which encounters we might omit if time becomes short and which ones we might add if it looks we have the time and it feels right for the story. We can increase or decrease the number of monsters in any given encounter as well. A well-designed random encounter, like those in Waterdeep City Encounters, can add a lot of fun to a game that has the time to include it.
Every year I run a Halloween Ravenloft game. It's a five-hour game that runs like a roller coaster through Castle Ravenloft. Part of the rules of this home-run adventure, stated up front and with a visible countdown clock, is that 45 minutes before the end of our session Strahd is going to show up. The players have the rest of the adventure to try to find the three icons of Ravenloft before they will face him.
Putting in a real-world timer into a single-session game is a great way to ensure you stay on time and that your players know it. Any timed event can work this way. The characters might have three hours to restore the glyphs before the demon enters the world. Fail and he shows up to face them with his full power. An assault is going to occur on the characters' home town. The characters have to thwart the assault and destabilize the attackers before the assault begins. An hour before the end of the session they face whatever forces remain.
Any time we have an urgent event in the game, we can turn it into an urgent event outside of the game. We make it clear to the players that they are timed and they'll speed up. Regardless of their actions, some conclusion occurs. If they did well, they've swayed the odds in their favor. If they didn't move quickly, the odds are against them.
Timed events like this is a powerful tool to keep an adventure running on time.
Pacing Throughout an Adventure
It isn't enough to pay attention to the timing of an adventure as it gets closer to the end. I've seen this problem time and again with organized play games. We need to have a hand on these dials all throughout the adventure. We don't know when the game will speed up or when it will slow down. We need ways to change the pace all throughout an adventure, up until the very end. Adding or removing a combat encounter in the beginning of the game may help set a general pace but it may not help if things unexpectedly speed up or slow down later. We'll want to be prepared to move MacGuffins and cut encounters up to the very end of the adventure.
Don't Cut Off the Crescendo
Above all, though, we don't want to cut off the high point of the adventure. I witnessed this first hand in many convention-run Adventurer's League adventures. The DM ran things as-is throughout the adventure and instead of cutting from the middle, they cut off the final battle. Just when the battle was turning in favor of the characters they stated that they were going to "end it right here" and called the adventure over. That's cutting off an adventure right when it should be at its most climactic.
Instead, early battles can be cut out completely or run in a faster theater of the mind style to move up the pace of the adventure so such a conclusion has a greater impact.
Keeping Your Hands on the Dials
I like to imagine that a DM has hands on all sorts of dials while running a D&D game. Some of these are dials of challenge and pacing, some of them are timing. Our need to tune an adventure doesn't end when we begin to run it; we should be tuning our adventures as we're running them up until the very end of the session. Some dials are relatively minor like changing the hit points of a monster to speed up combat or increase threat. Other dials are much bigger, pulling out combat encounters or even entire levels of a multi-level dungeon.
When we're running our D&D games, the world is ours to manipulate to give us and our players the best four hours of entertainment we can create.
Keep your hands on the dials.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 5, Isle of the Abbey
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
Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
A Reskinnable Fixer-Upper
Like Salvage Operation the third adventure in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Isle of the Abbey is an highly reskinnable adventure. The central hook, the backgrounds of the clerics, and the item they covet in the Winding Way can all be reskinned to suit the campaign we're running.
Unlike Salvage Operation this adventure needs work to bring it up to par with the other adventures in this book. It is, in my opinion, the weakest of the first four adventures in the book.
Here's why. First, the island can get boring once the characters have made it through the skull dunes. Second, the entrance into the abbey is problematic in its design. Third, the winding way can be a boring character-punishing trap-festival filled with a strange menagerie of "CR-appropriate" combat encounters that go on and on and on.
We'll dig into all of these problems and how to fix them throughout the rest of this article. For now, let's look at how we can twist this adventure into one that supports our current story.
Reskinning the Hook
The first big reskinnable feature of Isle of the Abbey is the story hook itself. Who wants to build something on the isle and why? Perhaps it's Mannistrad Copperlocks, the head of the dwarven miners, who wants to clear the island so she can build a new watchtower. Maybe it's the council of Saltmarsh who wants to set up the watchtower and lighthouse to look for the sahuagin threat. Maybe it's a secret Scarlet Brotherhood ploy that the characters fall for. Whatever hook sinks deep into the characters works best and we can tune it however we wish. Someone wants to build something on the island for some reason. We get to decide what, for whom, and why.
Whatever hook we set in, we'll want to ensure that the characters become aware that they must stop or defeat the clerics of the abbey in order to accomplish it. Waves of necrotic energy may be continually reanimating the skeletons on the beach; something that must end if our patrons are going to rebuild a tower or lighthouse on the beach. We'll want to reinforce this throughout our running of Isle of the Abbey so that the players never have to ask "why are we doing this again?"
Reskinning the Clerics
Other than being described as "evil", the clerics in Isle of the Abbey have few details. We can choose what god or gods they follow depending on what fits our story. In my own campaign I turned them into refugee clerics from the Temple of Elemental Evil who came to the abbey to study the Elder Elemental Eye. This ties in nicely with a larger Chained God / Elder Elemental Eye / Tharizdun thread we can string throughout these adventures culminating in the Styes at the end of the book. If you want to connect well with the previous adventure, Salvage Operation, you can tie the clerics to Lolth and fill their abbey with all sorts of regalia of the spider queen.
When we define the theology of the clerics, we'll want to wrap the whole adventure in that lore. We can add giant carvings in stone of the four elemental symbols surrounding a huge symbol of the Elder Elemental Eye. We can give the clerics powers reminiscent of their former elemental bent. We might even pull up those stat blocks for the cultists in Princes of the Apocalypse which fits well in our elemental-themed take on the clerics of the abbey.
The adventure, as written, has very little of this flavor in it already so defining such flavor is up to us. Pay attention to those secrets and clues!
What's In the Treasure Room?
Our final bit of customization for Isle of the Abbey comes with the contents of the abbey's treasure vault. The Winding Way, the main dungeon part of this adventure, guards a treasure vault with oodles of traps and monsters. We'll want to ensure whatever is in that vault is worth the effort.
Perhaps it contains an intelligent mace of disruption or sun blade filled with the lawful good spirit of a planetar who waged war against the very god the clerics worship. Perhaps the clerics have placed the item in an unholy pool that inverts its holy energy into the very waves of necrotic energy roaring across the island. Perhaps only the undead can reach into the pool and take it out; something they're not likely to do. Any living creature reaching into the pool suffers the effects of a finger of death, a final deadly trap to protect this powerful weapon.
We can put any item or items we want in this vault as long as it's important enough to warrant the difficulty of traversing through the Winding Way. The characters should know why they're braving a deathtrap dungeon before they bother to step inside.
Improving the Island
Isle of the Abbey is one of the more flawed adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. First, the island itself is bland. The initial incursion to the Skull Dunes is great fun, although high perception checks can get a group through it too quickly. Consider halving the result of a Wisdom (Perception) check to see how many square the characters traverse before running into a pile of skeletons. We can, if we choose, skip the skeletal swarms which are a bit anemic in my opinion with an actual big pile of skeletons. Try 25 skeletons and see how the party fairs. You can roll for them normally, assume a quarter of them hit or save at any given time, or use the mob calculator to run that big pile of skeletons. The skeletal juggernaut is great fun conclusion to their battle on the beach as well.
Once the characters get past the Skull Dunes, it's basically a straight shot to the monastery.
We can make this journey more interesting by flavoring the island based on the background of the clerics. If they're members of the elemental cults, maybe we see huge symbols of the elemental sects or statues to the Elemental Princes themselves. Huge stone idols or great summoning circles or carrion pits filled with sacrificed victims; any of these can bring more flavor to the island. Make them big and make them old.
If you're hard pressed for an idea, drop in an ancient monument to spice things up.
You'll also definitely want to throw in an NPC. Skeen the pirate mentioned in the table of complications can be a good NPC to drop in. Too much combat can get boring and players generally love talking to folks. Skeen can be a great source for some secrets and clues.
Shaking Up the Design of the Abbey
The map for the abbey isn't ideally suited for careful exploration. The abbey's single staircase leads into a main hall surrounded by eight rooms, many of which have occupants who can hear the characters coming. All of the careful details about the NPCs goes out the window when they all come rushing into the central room daggers high.
You might consider changing the configuration of the room into a hallway leading into the main hall with side-halls leading to smaller rooms so the whole thing is less cramped.
If you want an entirely new configuration, try out one of Dyson Logos's maps instead. Many of his maps have far better configurations than the single hall with eight attached rooms. If you do run it as is, consider removing some of the extra characters so it's not nearly as painful to fight through.
The Downward Beats of the Winding Way
In a previous article I talked about the downward beats of dungeons. That article came from my experiences running the Winding Way. This half of the abbey is a festival of traps, tricks, and rooms full of monsters. The monsters are quite a mix too. Three out of the four main encounters in the Winding Way contain "deadly" encounters.
So let's rebuild it into something better.
Handwave the traps. If the characters have a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 16 or higher, they'll see most of the traps outright and be able to avoid them. To make this more heroic we can skip over the detailed workflow of trap detection and inform the characters that, due to their keen eyes, they are no mere tomb robbers and manage to avoid many of the deadly traps that would have felled lesser adventurers. We might keep a few traps handy and, if they get boring, we can always grab a random trap from the Lazy DM's Workbook or our handy trap generator and spice them up.
When the characters get into fights and decide to fight out in the hall, we might impose a DC 10 Intelligence check to see if they remember to avoid one of the hallway traps. A fall into a pit isn't out of the question on a failure.
Add harassing specters. We can also grab the specters from room 11 and use them to harass the characters while they navigate the hallway. Specters aren't particularly powerful when compared to 5th level characters but they're really nasty when they can float through walls, hit, and run. Their reasonable dexterity gives them a good chance at gaining surprise and their lifedrain is no fun for anyone at any level. These guys will be quite annoying but a lot of fun at the same time. Just don't overdo it.
Changing up the monsters. We can use some of the monsters listed in the encounters but we'll probably want to mix them up. A bodak might be cool but ogre zombies and ghasts just eat up time. We can decide which rooms have what, perhaps giving each room a theme based on the themes of the clerics in the temple. Maybe each room is an elemental node with a single negative energy room (complete with a bodak) for the node of the Elder Elemental Eye. The vampire statue is pretty cool, as is the crystalline minotaur statue. The two statues in the final treasure vault may be better off as mummies; the original tomb guardians. Even a mummy lord isn't out of the question. These ancient dead priests protect whatever item of great power resides in the final chamber of the Winding Way.
A Scaffold of Adventure
Isle of the Abbey requires more work than the other adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Like Salvage Encounter we can reskin much of it to fit the story we want to share. Unlike that adventure, Isle of the Abbey requires a lot of work to fix up as well. Hopefully this article gives you ideas how you can twist this adventure into an awesome experience for your players.Read more »
- The Flow of Trap Detection
Noticing, studying, and disarming traps is a common activity in Dungeons & Dragons and yet it can be difficult to understand exactly how it works. Likewise, depending on the situation, it can be difficult for us DMs to understand how best to describe what is happening in a way that still fits the fantastic tales of high adventure we want to share. Today we're going to look at two things: the tricky workflow for detecting, investigating, and disarming traps, and how we can let these situations flow into the rest of our story.
The Mechanical Flow of Trap Detection
The most useful description for trap detection appears in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 120 and 121 under the heading "Detecting and Disabling a Trap". If you're confused about how the flow of trap detection works, start with that section to understand the rules-as-written.
In short (and you really should read the DMG description if you haven't already) traps are first perceived (or not...), then investigated, and then disarmed.
Perceiving a trap. Perceiving a trap requires, you guessed it, perception. When a trap is perceived, the danger of the trap is noticed. According to the DMG, this means the character succeeds in noticing the trap. There's some wiggle room in there that we'll discuss in a minute. This perception can either be an active roll or a passive check. Jeremy Crawford blew this topic wide open with his discussion on passive perception during a Sage Advice episode (jump to the 22 minute mark to hear about passive perception).
Investigating a trap. Once a character notices a trap, they might need to investigate the trap to understand how it works and how to disarm it. This investigation may either take place by the player describing how they mess with the trap or might take place by rolling an Intelligence (Investigation) check. An Intelligence (Arcana) check can be used to detect and investigate magical traps as well as disarm them. The type of trap and its setup could determine how this investigation takes place and how well it works.
Disarming a trap. Disarming a trap can require a few different potential skills. Like investigation, a character might be able to foil a trap without rolling any check at all. Holding a shield up in front of a chest that fires off poison darts might be enough on its own that no check needs to be made. Other traps might require a Dexterity check using thieves' tools if they are mechanical or an Intelligence (Arcana) check if they are magical. Other abilities can likewise foil a trap such as Dispel Magic.
On Passive Perception
This all seems rather straight forward but there are some edge cases that can complicate things. First of all, how much can be detected with passive Perception? As Crawford mentions, and this RPG Stack Exchange thread clarifies, passive Perception acts as a lower floor for a Perception check. It's always on, even if a character attempts an active Wisdom (Perception) check. It's the minimum of what they see. The DMG clearly says that you can compare the DC to detect the trap with each character's passive Wisdom (Perception) score to determine whether anyone in the party notices the trap in passing. This gives us some wiggle room, though, and we may want to take it. Sometimes characters have insanely high passive Perception scores; like above 20. The observant feat can give them an even higher passive Perception. Obviously we don't want to negate or work around this. Players chose these options in particular for their characters.
But we can change what they see with passive Perception. This can depend on the story and the situation. We can be sure that a character with a passive Perception higher than the DC of a trap notices danger ahead, but they might not know what danger they see. This would require its own Intelligence (Investigation) check to learn more about what is going on with the trap. Like passive Perception, a passive Investigation likely acts as a lower floor for investigating the mechanics of traps. Again, we can decide what information comes up from this. Yes, you see danger ahead (high passive Perception). Yes, you see that there are deep grooves surrounding some of the tiles in the floor ahead and believe they move or can be moved (high passive Investigation). That doesn't tell you exactly what is going on but smart characters (and smart players) will test it out and see. Maybe they back up and toss something heavy on the tile. Maybe they duck out of the way and press a torch down on it only to see a poisoned barbed dart hit the torch. They still learn things by actually investigating.
One note about passive Perception I missed until DM David brought it up in his excellent article on group ability checks; the lighting matters a lot. Dim lighting for those without darkvision drops passive Perception by five. The same is true for total darkness and those with darkvision. Keeping track of the lighting tells you how easily the characters can actually perceive. We're not monsters, though. We should likely mention this difficulty before the characters start wandering into pit traps. "The total darkness in this chamber makes it difficult to see well, even for those of you with darkvision." Give them the reminder and they'll likely need to fire up some light to avoid the penalty to their passive Perception.
A Faster Narrative Description
Maybe you want to take this a different way and use those passive scores to smooth out the description of the story. In the adventure Isle of the Abbey in the adventure hardcover book Ghosts of Saltmarsh, there is a hallway filled with traps known as the "Winding Way". Many of the traps can be detected with a passive Perception of 16; some need as high as 19. There are enough of these traps that, instead of going through the full flow of trap detection stages mentioned above, we can just describe what they see:
"As you travel through the Winding Way you notice and avoid dozens of traps designed to thwart run-of-the-mill tomb robbers; but you are no casual tomb robber. Poisoned darts drip from hidden shafts. Large overhead rocks threaten to smash intruders into thin pink paste. Illusionary floors sit atop fields of poisoned spears upon which are impaled the skulls of those less perceptive than you. You journey through the Winding Way noting these deadly traps as you make your way to the vaults of the dark priests."
Obviously you need not read something like that aloud but you can describe how the characters avoid these traps without going through every step of the process. You might mention that other more cunning traps may not be as easily discovered. The pit traps, for example, require a DC 19 passive Perception to detect which a group of characters simply may not possess.
Working With the Players, Not Against Them
Traps are one of those areas where antagonistic DMs clearly run a different kind of game than character-focused DM. Antagonistic DMs take a "you deserve what you get" approach, sitting back and giving only whatever information they have to based on the questions the players ask and the rolls of their characters. Instead, we can work with the players. Yes, we know where the traps are but there is a huge translation problem continually occurring when we run our D&D games. We're describing places that don't actually exist from images on our heads and hoping that the same images transfer intact into the heads of the players.
In the Elements of Style (a mandatory read for writers in my opinion), EB White says "most readers are in trouble about half the time." The same is true for players at our game. With any description we describe, our players are probably not understanding it about half the time. We need to work with our players, clarifying our descriptions, and giving them material to work with.
The characters in our D&D game, for the most part, are experienced adventurers. They're not going to do stupid things. We can assume that, by the time they've been through a few dungeons, they know how to stay out of the way of explosive runes when someone is trying to disarm them. They know how to duck behind a corner so as not to be in the path of poisoned darts.
We should assume that the characters are seasoned adventurers, not idiots, even if our players aren't fully grasping what is going on or spending a bit too much time on their phones. Find other ways to bring them into the game than sticking poisoned darts into the faces of their characters.
Another Tool for Tales of High Adventure
The whole flow of traps and trap detection, like all elements of our D&D games, is here to help us share a story. Traps are pieces of the world, a moment of stress and resolve, that fits in with the rest of the tales we share. It's a careful balance to ensure tension and resolution don't turn into frustration, tedium, or boredom. When we understand how traps fit into our story and keep the flow of trap detection at the right pace, we can keep the energy high and put traps in their rightful place as sinister agents of the stories we share.Read more »
- VideoRunning Dragon of Icespire Peak from the D&D Essentials Kit
This is an evolving article offering tips for running the D&D Essentials Kit adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. I'll be updating this article as I run the adventures in the book and gain first-hand knowledge on how to run each of the quests within them.
Please also note that this article includes spoilers for the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak.
The D&D Essentials Kit is the first new entry point for Dungeons & Dragons since the original and excellent D&D Starter Set released by Wizards of the Coast in 2014. The D&D Essentials box includes everything a group needs to play D&D including the adventure Dragon of Icespire Peak. In this article we'll talk about how to get the most fun out of this adventure.
In addition to this article you can watch this Dragon of Icespire Peak video discussion including tips for the first quests in the adventure and thoughts about one-on-one play.
If you find these tips useful, please takea look at Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and the Lazy DM's Workbook for tips, tricks, and tools to help you better prepare for and run your D&D games. If you're looking for similar low-level adventures, take a look at Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot, a book of ten short adventures for 1st through 5th level characters set in the caverns beneath Blackclaw Mountain sundered by the mysterious Grendleroot.
Table of Contents
Click the links below to jump to a particular section in this article.
- Main Tips
- The Danger for 1st Level Characters
- Showcase the Dragon
- Dwarven Excavation
- Umbrage Hill
- Mountain's Toe Gold Mine
- Shrine of Savras
- Butterskull Ranch
- Loggers' Camp
- Dragon Barrow
- The Woodland Mance
- The Circle of Thunder
- More Adventures to Come
Here's a quick list of tips, further described in this article, for getting the most fun out of Dragon of Icespire Peak.
- Find a way to cast the aid spell on the party; increasing their hit points by 5 for 8 hours.
- Be careful with 1st level characters. Replace the ochre jellies in Dwarven Excavation with gray oozes. Limit the combat effectiveness of the manticore in Umbridge Hill and the mimic in Gnomengarde.
- Add interesting flavor and treasure to Dwarven Excavation.
- Ensure the characters have access to the spell magic weapon before facing the wererats in the Mountain's Toe Gold Mine quest.
- Reduce the number of orcs and ogres at the Shrine of Savras if you have fewer than four characters.
The Danger for 1st Level Characters
1st level characters in D&D are delicate. A 1st level D&D game is almost a different game. In another article, Building 1st Level Combat Encounters, I recommend the following for 1st level adventures:
- Keep monster challenge ratings to 1/4 or less.
- Include fewer creatures than characters.
- Limit average monster damage to 5 (1d6+2) or lower.
Given the low hit points of 1st level characters, the above guidelines ensure they won't get wiped out in their first combat.
Unfortunately, Dragon of Icespire Peak does not follow these guidelines. In the first three adventures, intended for 1st level, the characters face a ochre jelly (CR 2 with immunity to slashing), a CR 2 grappling mimic, and a CR 3 manticore that can inflict up to 21 damage on a turn. Any of these monsters can easily kill a 1st level character. Some groups can get lucky when facing these foes but many may not.
One way to help the characters survive their initial quests at 1st level is to give the characters a relic that casts aid. This relic may only be usable once or you might give it three charges. Aid increasese the hit points of characters by 5 for 8 hours; a big boost for 1st level characters. This relic can be a family heirloom of one of the characters or something given to them before they begin their adventures.
Showcase the Dragon
Dungeons and dragons; that's what people want to see and Dragon of Icespire Peak has both. While our characters can hear about the dragon from their first visit to Phandalin, it's something else to see it. When rolling on the "dragon location" table in the "Running the Adventure" section of the adventure book, it's unlikely the dragon will show up at the very location the characters visit. It may, however, be somewhere nearby. When you roll on the dragon's location and its close to a location the characters are traveling to, give them a chance to see the dragon from afar. Nothing beats seeing a dragon in Dungeons & Dragons. Help make it happen.
Individual Quest Tips
The rest of this article contains advice for each of the quests in Dragon of Icespire Peak. I'll add more quest tips and summaries as I run through the adventure.
The Dwarven Excavation quest is a fun exploration of a mysterious temple to the evil dwarven god Abbathor and is my favorite of the first set of adventures in Dragon of Icespire peak. Given the flavor of the dwarven ruin, the text is unfortunately light. Add in interesting information about Abbathor, the dwarven god of greed to fill out the lore of the temple. You can learn more about Abbathor from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes or read about him at the Forgotten Realms Wiki. Characters can make Intelligence (History) or Intelligence (Religion) checks to learn details about Abbathor and his devious followers as they explore his lost temple.
You might add some lightweight tricks and traps to the temple to tie in with Abbathor's theme of trickery and greed. Don't include traps that will wipe out 1st level characters but small dagger, dart, and poison traps fit the theme well. The trap generator or the random trap generator from the Lazy DM's Workbook can give you some interesting and devious traps. In general, traps should have +4 to hit, DC 12 saving throws, and inflict about 3 (1d6) damage. Some traps might apply status effects like blindness, deafness, or poison as you choose. Such traps should annoy rather than threaten. The ancient nature of the temple can explain why these traps aren't as deadly as they once were.
The ochre jellies in this temple can be very deadly for 1st level characters. One easy solution is to replace the ochre jellies with CR 1/2 gray oozes. You can also throw in cloaked dwarven skeletons as additional threats. If the characters are 2nd or 3rd level and have more than two characters (not including sidekicks), you can stick to the jellies but their immunity to slashing and splitting on a slash can still be deadly.
For all of the mysteries and secret doors in this dungeon, it is light on treasure. The final chamber, according to the text, takes 40 hours to dig through and includes no useful treasure; only a deadly trap. We can reduce the time it takes to dig to this chamber to 40 minutes instead of 40 hours and include a magic item or a relic to reward their exploration of the dungeon. The final trap in the dungeon can be anticlimactic since it offers no real reward. Instead of a gemstone sitting in the hand of the statue, it might be a necklace of fireballs around its neck, with the statue holding one such orb in its hand. If someone pulls the necklace away, it blows up. If the one pulling the necklace is careful about it, they can remove that one orb without it blowing up or do so safely away from the statue.
For more tips, see this Dwarven Excavation tips video by Bob World Builder or watch this one-on-one Dwarven Excavation liveplay video with NewbieDM and myself.
Umbrage Hill is one of the shorter quests in Dragon of Icespire Peak and makes for a great 1st level challenge. The characters arrive at the hill and find a manticore harassing Adabra Gwynn the apothecary. This adventure needs only a little modification. If played to the fullest the manticore can be a deadly opponent, firing three tail spikes from the air per round for an average of 7 damage each. We might describe how the windmill is riddled with tail spikes and that the manticore only has a few left. Should combat begin, the manticore might fire only one tail spike per round instead of three. The manticore might also start off wounded by the dragon, coming to Gwynn for her potions of healing. This offers another line of negotiation other than paying 25 gold pieces to the manticore. Perhaps it needs that 25 gold pieces for a discounted potion of healing from Adabra.
We can also add some flavor to the dwarven graves here, providing some history of the Besilmer dwarves, a potential lead-in to Princes of the Apocalypse or other dwarven nations. We can also drop in a relic to offer a reward to the characters for their exploration. Such a relic might cast the spell magic weapon thrice, helping characters deal with the wererats in Mountain's Toe Gold Mine.
For other tips for this quest, see Bob World Builder's tips for running Umbrage Hill. You can also see me run this adventure for Enrique Bertran, the NewbieDM in this one-on-one Umbrage Hill playthrough video.
This adventure will push heavy on the roleplaying skills of you and your players. The mystery of the mimic's killings can be stretched out into an Alien / The Thing style hunt throughout the caves with lots of paranoia among the gnomes and a lot of mystery about the foe they face. Be careful not to project the actual nature of the mimic, hinting at some sort of shapeshifter and throwing in red herrings such as ghosts, doppelgangers, or even that there is nothing at all wrong in Gnomengarde and that the missing gnomes simply took a vacation.
In the text, King Korboz has lost his mind when he witnessed an attack. When the characters talk to him, it's better if he didn't see the whole attack and instead just saw a tentacled horror devour one of the gnomes. Maybe it was his nightmare, maybe it was some Far Realm horror, maybe it was a black tentacles spell. Hint at a lot of different possibilities so when the mimic reveals itself its a surprise even to the players who know what a mimic is.
Replace Facktore's motivation in area G7 with paranoia that someone may be killing gnomes and only she can stay safe in her crazy crossbow contraption. That works better than a crazy gnome who wants to test out the crossbow by shooting random people.
When the characters actually face the mimic, the variant option to have the mimic speak common can make for a more interesting interaction instead of a simple slugfest. In combat the mimic can be quite dangerous for smaller numbers of 1st level characters. Tune its hit points and damage output to fit the number of characters you have. If you have a lot of characters facing the mimic, consider giving it a multi-attack that hits multiple creatures.
For other tips for this quest, see Bob World Builder's tips for running Gnomengarde.
Mountain's Toe Gold Mine
Mountain's Toe Gold Mine is one of the three second-tier adventures in Dragon of Icespire Peak. The warning at the front of the adventure is one to heed. If things turn to combat in this adventure and the characters don't have any magic weapons, there's a good chance they'll get killed. In this case, failing forward is an option. The wererats beat up the characters but then offer them a deal instead of killing them. In return for their freedom, they must go to the Shrine of Savras and clear it out so the wererats can return there.
The scaling of monsters for smaller groups can be tricky in this quest as well. If the two door guards from area 1 follow the characters to the main hall in area 4, that could end up being a lot of monsters per character. Instead, reduce the number of wererats to a maximum of about one per character (not including sidekicks) if possible.
If the characters are headed here without magic weapons, it might be worth dropping a magic weapon casting relic into their hands before they come here.
For a liveplay example, take a look at my one-on-one Mountain's Toe Gold Mine playthrough video with the NewbieDM.
Shrine of Savras
The Shrine of Savras isn't an actual quest but can become one if the characters talk to the wererats in Mountain's Toe Gold Mine instead of fighting them (which is probably a good idea if they don't have magic weapons).
The Shrine has scaling options for the levels of the characters but these might still scale too hard. For example, a 3rd level character with a sidekick can end up facing three orcs and two ogres according to the rules. Instead, consider removing one of the ogres and spreading out the orcs so your single character and sidekick don't get pummeled to death under the orcs' powerful battleaxes.
The situation at the shrine also makes it impossible to sneak up during the day and very difficult to sneak up at night. Instead, include some large natural rocks sticking out of the hill that can give characters a chance to sneak up on the tower undetected by the orc sentry. If the orc does see them, it might not alert its friends right away thinking it might take care of these foes itself.
For a liveplay example of this quest, watch my one-on-one Shrine of Savras liveplay with NewbieDM.
In Butterskull Ranch the characters go to the ranch of Alfonse "Big Al" Kalazorn who has been attacked by Orcs. Big Al himself is still alive, captured by the orcs, but his ranch hands have all been killed.
This quest can feel a lot like the Shrine of Savras if we're not careful. It's important to project why the orcs are here; that they've been routed by Cryovain and have taken to raiding homesteads like this one.
The initial encounter with the horses is a good one run before the characters arrive at the ranch, although the encounter with Petunia the cow can be run after the characters learn of it from Big Al.
You'll want to choose the number of orcs at the ranch carefully. Spread them out across the ranch so the characters aren't overwhelmed all at once and the story of each encounter can be interesting. The text recommends three orcs per character not including sidekicks. This might end up being a lot or a little depending on how things go so feel free to change up the number of orcs as you run the adventure to best fit the pacing of the game.
The hills north of Butterskull Ranch might be an interesting place to put a fantastic monument to spice up the area a bit. Perhaps the find a cairn to an orc veteran of Uruth Ukrypt who sacked Phandalin back in 951 DR. Perhaps it is a monument or crypt of the Delzoun dwarves or the Netherese. Monuments like these are great ways to show some of the history of the location and drop a nice relic into the hands of the characters. You can learn more about these historical nations in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. Choose these monuments to fit the backgrounds and interests of the characters.
For more on Butterskull Ranch check out my liveplay Butterskull Ranch one-on-one video with NewbieDM, Bob World Builder's Butterskull Ranch tips video, and Bob World Builder's Butterskull Ranch gameplay video. Bob's recommendation for an orc in the outhouse is one not to miss.
The loggers' camp quest is a short adventure against some hard monsters. The anchorites buried a totem in the camp that has summoned ankhegs who destroyed much of the camp.
This quest is a good chance to learn more about the anchorites of talos; the half orcs who are beginning to wreck the countryside around Neverwinter Wood. Areas of blasted wood, lighting bolts carved into the bark of charred trees, woodsmen shattered by wild boars; these can all point to the growing threat of the anchorites.
When running this adventure, be careful overwhelming the characters with ankhegs. They're dangerous foes for lower level characters. Be ready to lower their damage or their hit points should you need. Likewise, if your players are having an easy time with them, give them a free spit attack along with their bite for some extra danger.
Bob from Bob World Builder recommends adding some of the pigs from Butterskull Ranch into the "Boar-ing" encounter that takes place at the beginning of this quest. This is a fun tie-in and offers a nice distraction for the characters who must deal with three little pigs througout the rest of the quest.
For more on running the Loggers' Camp, check out Bob World Builder's Loggers' Camp walkthrough
The "Dragon Barrow" quest is one of the third-tier quests; quests undertaken when the characters reach 4th level or above. This quest has a hook sure to grab the attention of the characters. Magic dragon-slaying sword? Yes please!
The dragon barrow is a good old-fashioned dungeon delve. Our heroes explore old crypts in search of a blade perfect for slaying the dragon plaguing the Triboar Trail.
It's also quite dangerous, particularly in one-on-one play.
Like many of the monsters in this adventure, the wisps in Dragon Barrow have a big list of immunities and resistances. Characters with non-magical weapons will inflict half damage. If the characters have access to the magic weapon spell, that's a big help. Otherwise, if you want to tune the difficulty, you can reduce the wisps' hit points and damage.
The traps in this dungeon can also be particularly deadly. Falling in a pit can inflict 2d6 to 5d6 damage to a single character. If that's the only character, that's a dangerous spot to be in. Consider reducing this damage when running with fewer than four characters.
This quest is perfect for reskinning to fit the backgrounds of the characters. In my playthrough with Enrique "Newbie DM" Bertran, I changed the sword to a battleaxe and set the whole thing up with dwarven motifs instead that of human adventurers. This helped tie the location and the axe to the characters themselves.
Area D5 of the dungeon can also be particularly deadly. Anyone caught in the narrow tunnel might lead to a total-party-kill if everyone happens to be in the tunnel. You can either skip this tunnel or let characters dig their way out with a series of Strength (Athletics) checks gaining exhaustion on failed checks.
The final defender of the barrow is an invisible stalker. Invisible stalkers are really nasty being, you know, invisible. This makes them very hard to hit and gives them advantage on attacks. They may not be too deadly for a full group of 4th or 5th level characters but in a one-on-one game, their multi-attacks can make quick work of a single character. You may consider replacing the stalker with a wight or specter instead when you have fewer characters.
To watch this quest in action, please see my one-on-one Dragon Barrow playthrough.
The Woodland Mance
This quest can come to the characters a few different ways but the most common is through the Falcon's Hunting Lodge quest. In this quest the characters disrupt the rituals of the anchorites of Talos as they conduct a ritual within Neverwinter Wood.
This quest works best if the characters have been dealing with the anchorites prevously, particularly in the Logger's Camp quest. You might seed information about the ritual taking place at the manse in previous adventures or mention the leader of the anchorites, Grannoc. He's not really a villain in this adventure but he's the closest thing to it so you might foreshadow him earlier.
The adventure itself is a fun situational adventure in which the player or players can choose how they want to approach the manse and deal with the anchorites there. Like in all of these adventures you'll want to choose how many monsters to throw at the characters. The adventure has suggestions but you can always increase or decrease them depending on the pace you want to set or the challenge you want to throw at the characters.
The end of this adventure has two large attacks that take place once the manse is delt with. Both of these might be too much all at once so consider including just the boar attack against Falcon's Lodge instead.
The Circle of Thunder
The Circle of Thunder is a nice straight-forward quest and adventure. A bunch of anchorites of Talos are summoning Gorthuk the Thunder Boar. There's little that needs modification in this quest other than deciding how many anchorites and how many orcs you want to drop in given the party composition. If you want to change up the ritual itself you might have the anchorites calling blasts of lighting to each of the standing pillars and, when the final pillar is struck, only then will the thunder boar arrive. If only one anchorite is left, they might sacrifice themselves on the altar to call the boar into existence.
Watch my liveplay of the Circle of Thunder with Enrique Bertran to see this quest in action.
More Adventures to Come
This article will be updated with further tips for running each of the quests in Dragon of Icespire Peak. Keep an eye on this page for future updates.
The D&D Essentials Kit and Dragon of Icespire Peak will likely bring new players and new DMs to the wonderful hobby of Dungeons & Dragons. These quests are just a taste of the fantastic adventures to come. For further adventures and recommendations, see our Guide to Published Adventures. May you find endless fantastic adventures with your friends and families in your future.Read more »