- Video● Game Overview: Snake Through the Water to Block Ness
In any case, to kick off my weekly video game overviews once again, I chose Block Ness, a quick-playing design from Laurent Escoffier and Blue Orange Games that I've now played six times on a review copy, twice each with two, three, and four players.
Gameplay is reminiscent of Bernard Tavitian's Blokus in that you're trying to place as many of your pieces on the board as possible. You start the game with your shortest — that is, your not-tallest — piece in the deepest part of the loch, with your head on one end and your tail on the other. On a turn, you place one of your pieces orthogonally adjacent to either your head or tail, then move that head/tail to the end of the piece you just placed. If you have no free spaces next to your head, then your head is stuck and can't dive into the water again to surface in a new location, leaving only your tail free to do so.
Each player has a set of ten "Nessie" pieces; those pieces come in six heights and different lengths, with your set differing from each other player's set in small, but meaningful ways. You can place a piece that crosses or completely covers a shorter piece (or multiple pieces), but you can't place a piece under an existing piece, and you can't cross someone's head or tail because that would violate the social norms of Scottish culture.
You use a larger or smaller part of the game board based on the player count to keep space limited, so you must ensure that you don't cut off your own avenues for escape when moving around — but if you can cut off avenues that other players might use, then go ahead and do that, as I somehow managed to do in the four-player game depicted below.
In the end, whoever has placed more of their pieces wins, and if players tie — as was the case in the 4p game above as Orange and I both managed to place all of our pieces — then the player whose head rises highest wins. This rule is a nice kicker on the simplicity of everything else because it makes you hesitate on "wasting" the single tallest piece available to you.
Aside from the smart, simple gameplay, publisher Blue Orange Games has made smart choices with the packaging, dressing up a perfect-information abstract strategy game in bright colors and a fun setting that will likely get it to far more tables than if the design looked like the archetypal "serious" abstract strategy game. Besides, I doubt you could reasonably recreate these pieces in wood in a functional way.
For more thoughts on the game and see examples of play, check out this overview video:
Youtube Video Read more »
- Industry News: New Hires for Arcane Wonders, Pandasaurus Games, and Renegade Game Studiosfull credits for Lost Ruins of Arnak, for example, you'll see this:
Obviously most of these credit fields will be blank on most game listings until folks start submitting corrections for past work, but in the spirit of highlighting extended credits, I thought this post could highlight some of the folks in new positions behind the scenes.
Arcane Wonders hired Nicole Cutler as its Director of Projects — a title that is admittedly not on our list of credits, but "Editor" might be the equivalent. Hmm, maybe we need one more credit, something we've been saying to ourselves internally while working this out.
Thankfully, Arcane Wonders has its own job description:Nicole will be responsible for developing and implementing new systems for tracking and communication between Arcane Wonders' partners both internally and externally. With her breadth of experience in different roles within the industry, Nicole will work interdepartmentally to expedite projects, resolve problems, and help make our games the best they can be. Additionally she will assist the sales & manufacturing directors in the acquisition, execution, and logistics of our international partnerships.
Cutler previously worked as Operations Manager for Jellybean Games and Production Manager for Pandasaurus Games, and not too long before this pandemic started she and her husband moved to my neck of the woods, so with vaccines now rather plentiful in the U.S. perhaps we can finally play a game together before too many more months pass. We'll see...
hiring of Elisa Teague in October 2020 to serve as Senior Producer for Renegade's role-playing line-up, which will include titles set in the Power Rangers, My Little Pony, GI Joe, and Transformers universes following a September 2020 deal with Hasbro. (Teague designed Renegade's D&D 5E-compatible Wardlings Campaign Guide, which was released in 2020.)
In January 2021, Renegade hired Matt Holland as Sales & Marketing Program Manager to "oversee new community oriented projects". Holland was previously Community Coordinator at Fantasy Flight Games, where he helped manage organized play for games such as X-Wing, Star Wars: Destiny, and Legend of the Five Rings.
Along those lines, in February 2021, Renegade announced an organized play program for its Vampire: The Masquerade – Rivals Expandable Card Game, with small kits for stores and in-home use and community kits "slated to begin in late 2021 or early 2022".
Also in February 2021, Renegade brought on Trivia Fox as Associate Producer: Roleplaying Games and Jimmy Le as Associate Producer: Board & Card Games.
• In February 2021, U.S. publisher Pandasaurus Games brought on Anne Kinner, formerly with Asmodee North America, as Production Coordinator and Mike Young, previously in charge of communications with Plan B Games, as Project Manager.
Read more »
- The Shores of Tripoli: Pirate Raids, History, and Naval ShenanigansFort Circle Games aims to create fun, easy to learn, historical board games and based on my experiences with its first release, The Shores of Tripoli, mission accomplished.
The Shores of Tripoli is a 1-2 player, card-driven, historical wargame designed by Kevin Bertram and released in 2020 that's based on the First Barbary War in which the United States and Sweden fought against the Barbary Pirates from 1801 to 1805.
Star Wars: Rebellion and Twilight Struggle. At that point I had never playtested a game, but I was very interested because 1) it was a new experience I was curious about, 2) I do indeed love Star Wars: Rebellion and Twilight Struggle so I was interested in playing any game that was inspired by them and played in under an hour (heck yeah!), and 3) at that time I had just started designing my own game, so I figured I could learn a thing or two.
Kevin emailed me all the files and I proceeded to print the map, cards, and rules. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to put it all together, learn the rules, and play it at the time — but I'm happy to report that I have finally played the game, thanks to Kevin sending me a copy of the finished product.
In The Shores of Tripoli, one player plays the American side with Sweden as allies while the other player plays the Tripolitan side representing pirates from four North African coastal regions: Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, and Tangier.
The Shores of Tripoli features asymmetric gameplay with each side having a unique deck of event cards, in addition to its own victory conditions, which are all based on historical events from the First Barbary War. Over the course of the game, players take turns playing event cards and taking actions to achieve one of their victory conditions before their opponent to win and end the game.
The American player can win the game either by forcing the Tripolitan player to sign a peace treaty favorable to the Americans or by capturing Tripoli for Hamet Qaramanli to take the throne. Both of these victory conditions are triggered by playing event cards: Treaty of Peace and Amity and Assault on Tripoli, respectively.
The Tripolitan player can win the game by forcing the U.S. into submitting to Tripolitania and paying tribute in one of three ways: 1) by raiding the U.S. to acquire twelve gold, 2) by sinking four American frigates, or 3) by eliminating Hamet's army. If neither player wins by the end of 1806 (the last round), the game ends in a draw.
The game board features a vibrant map with nine harbors (color-coded circles) to show which areas are friendly to the U.S. (blue), controlled by Tripolitania (red), or potential allies to Tripolitania (orange). In addition five, lightly shaded patrol zones are adjacent to five of the harbors where American and Swedish frigates can patrol against corsairs (pirating ships) leaving corresponding harbors.
Tiny wooden boats represent American gunboats (blue), Tripolitan corsairs (red), and allies of Tripolitania (orange). The larger wooden ships are American (blue), Swedish (yellow), and Tripolitan (red) frigates. Then you also have wooden cubes representing ground forces for Hamet's Army (blue and white) and Tripolitan infantry (red). Some of these pieces are placed on the board during set-up, but the majority are kept in the supply areas at the top of the board.
The Shores of Tripoli is played over six years, from 1801 to 1806, and each year is split into four seasons (turns), from spring to winter. At the start of a year, each player draws cards from their draw pile, then seasonal turns are played in which the American player takes a turn, then the Tripolitan player, then you advance the season marker. After playing the winter turn, the year is over and you advance the year marker to start the next year.
Each player has 27 cards: 21 event cards and 6 battle cards. The American player takes a turn first each season and can either play a card as an event, discard a card to move up to two frigates, or discard a card to build a gunboat in Malta. The Tripolitan player can play a card as an event, discard a card to pirate raid with corsairs from Tripoli, or discard a card to build a Tripolitan corsair in Tripoli.
The Shores of Tripoli is a card-driven game, so the event and battle cards are the heart of the game. Regardless of which side you're playing as, playing a card as an event works the same way, even though each side has different event cards. You simply play the card and resolve the event text, noting that some events have prerequisites that must be met before you can play them. After unique events are resolved, they are removed from the game, but common event cards are discarded and you might see them again later in the game.
The event cards vary but generally help players gain advantages for pushing towards their victory conditions. Here are a few examples of event cards:
Core event cards are extra special and do not count towards your eight-card hand limit since they are placed face-up in front of you instead of being shuffled in your deck like the other cards. They can be played the same as the other event cards, but after playing core events, like the unique event cards, they are removed from the game, so you definitely want to time these powerful events well.
As the American player, core event cards are how you get the two Swedish frigates in the mix, create Hamet's Army to get ground forces on the map, and move up to a whopping eight frigates with the Thomas Jefferson event card!
As the Tripolitan player, your core event cards allow you to move the two Tripolitan corsairs from the harbor of Gibraltar to Tripoli, do some epic pirate raiding, and beef up your forces in Tripoli in preparation for Hamet's Army potentially coming for you.
Outside of playing cards to resolve events, the American player can also discard a card to move up to two frigates or discard a card to build a gunboat in Malta. When moving frigates, you can move from any location(s) to any other location(s). If American frigates are moved to a harbor that has enemy ships, a naval battle commences and any gunboats from Malta can also be moved in to join the fight. If American frigates are moved to a harbor that doesn't contain any enemy ships, but the city has Tripolitan infantry, a naval bombardment commences.
As an example, if you are in naval combat with two frigates and you get hit twice, you can either sink a frigate assigning it both hits and leave the other frigate intact and undamaged, or you can let each frigate take a hit, damaging them both and placing them on the following year of the Year Turn Track. Decisions, decisions, decisions. Remember, if the Tripolitan player sinks four American frigates, they win the game.
In my first game, my friend Richard played it when he already had five corsairs in Tripoli, so he rolled seventeen dice. We both cracked up! Luckily the dice are smaller than normal d6s, so most people can fit them all in one hand.
In my most recent game, Matt had six corsairs and rolled a whopping eighteen dice! As you can see from the photo on the right, he was pretty unlucky with his eighteen red dice compared to the fourteen blue dice I rolled thanks to the Preble's Boys Take Aim battle card I played. I really enjoy dice combat, so I had a blast with it in The Shores of Tripoli, but I fully acknowledge it's not for everyone.
Naval bombardment is very similar except the Tripolitan infantry does not get to roll any dice and fight back. Each frigate rolls two dice and each gunboat rolls one die, once again hitting on 6s. Each hit eliminates a Tripolitan infantry. After naval bombardment, all American frigates and gunboats are moved to Malta.
Then there's also ground combat that occurs when the American player moves Hamet's Army to a city that has Tripolitan infantry. Unlike naval combat, ground combat lasts until one force has been eliminated, so it could be multiple rounds of combat.
First, the American player may bombard with any frigates and gunboats that have joined the attack. Similar to naval combat, players announce whether they'll play any battle cards, then roll dice. Each infantry rolls one die and once again, a roll of a 6 is a hit and anything else is a miss. Players allocate hits to their troops, then check to see whether either side has been eliminated.
If the Tripolitan forces in the city are eliminated, the Americans have captured the city. If that city happens to be Tripoli, the American player immediately wins the game. On the other hand, if the American ground forces are eliminated, the Tripolitan player immediately wins the game. In the rare case where both forces are eliminated on the same roll, it is also considered a Tripolitan victory.
When the Tripolitan player isn't playing cards as events, they can discard a card to build a Tripolitan corsair in Tripoli, or take the favored action of pirate raiding with the corsairs from Tripoli by discarding a card. Honestly, if you're the Tripolitan player, it's all about snatching up that gold. Of course, the American player probably won't make it too easy for you since they can park their frigates in the naval patrol zone and try to take down some of the Tripolitan corsairs beforehand via interception rolls.
At the start of years 1801-1804, you draw six cards from your deck and by 1804 you will have gone through your entire deck since you start the game with 24 cards in your deck. Consequently, at the start of 1805 you shuffle your discard pile, then draw six cards from your new draw pile. If no one has won by the end of 1805, you play one final round in which you draw all cards remaining in your deck, then discard to your eight-card hand limit. If no one has won the game by the end of 1806, the game ends as a draw.
The Shores of Tripoli also includes a solo mode in which you play as the American side against an AI opponent, the Tripolitan-bot (T-bot). The T-bot is set up with two rows of cards: the event card line and the battle card line with specific cards placed in a specific order.
As the American player, you draw cards and take turns the same way you do when playing a human opponent. When your turn is over, the T-bot takes its turn checking cards in the event card line in order to see whether an event card's requirements have been met. Starting with the first card, if the requirement has been met, the T-bot plays the event card for its turn. Otherwise, it continues on to the next event card and so on.
If none of the event cards from the event card line can be played, the T-bot does the Five Corsair Check (a solitaire-only card), and if at least five corsairs are in the harbor of Tripoli, the T-bot pirate raids. If not, the T-bot draws a card from its draw pile and acts based on the T-bot card play requirements listed on the back of the rulebook. Since the T-bot uses the normal Tripolitan event and battle cards, the solitaire card play requirements will dictate how the T-bot responds to each event card.
The good news is there aren't many additional rules involved for jumping into a solo game, but you will need to keep the solitaire card play requirements handy to understand how the event and battle cards work with the T-bot. It would've been nice if there was a way to play this solo with the human player playing the pirates versus a U.S.-bot, but considering how many solitaire games I have that are designed specifically for solo play, I suspect I'll mainly play The Shores of Tripoli with a human opponent over the T-bot.
Inspired by two of Bertram's all-time favorite games, Twilight Struggle and 1960: The Making of the President, The Shores of Tripoli is a really solid entry-level wargame that covers a rare historical topic, and it manages to do so in a streamlined and accessible way to easily engage players of any experience level. You can teach this game to just about anyone and be up and running in 10-15 minutes and play a full game in under an hour. Because it plays so quickly, you'll likely want to play back to back games and can even mix it up by switching sides.
In one of my games, I was down to two gold as the American player, and my opponent had corsairs in the orange allied regions and kept raiding me, but thankfully rolled poorly. I had to pull the trigger and play the Assault on Tripoli as otherwise I might've lost the game. Thankfully I was able to swoop in with a ton of frigates and infantry and won the game that way.
I found the more I got to know the cards, the more strategic and interesting the game got. The hand management decisions get deeper the more you know the cards, although I do wonder if it'll get samey after a while having only 27 cards per faction.
I also love when games have multiple victory conditions, and The Shores of Tripoli does it well for a game that is easy to get into because of the low complexity level. It's great to have options and some flexibility to choose and potentially change up your path to victory based on the cards you draw.
The Shores of Tripoli is a great first release from Fort Circle Games, and I'm glad I finally got to play it since I didn't get a chance to playtest it when it originally came my way. I'll keep my eyes peeled for upcoming releases from Kevin Bertram and Fort Circle Games...
Read more »
- Craft Magic Items for Adventurers, and Overwhelm Your Fellow WitchWeberson Santiago's work, I never would have expected to see it on a game from Alderac Entertainment Group as their styles didn't seem to overlap — and yet here we are, looking at the cover of Erik Andersson Sundén's Whirling Witchcraft, a 2-5 player game that AEG plans to release in August 2021.
As for how the game works and exactly what's whirling, here's an explanation:Being a witch is all about wielding powerful magical ingredients — but a witch can wield only so much power before everything blows up in their face. Choose your recipes wisely to clear your workbench and stick others with too much raw material because the first player to overflow their nemesis' cauldron with enough ingredients wins!
In Whirling Witchcraft, you start with a hand of four recipe cards, as well as a number of ingredients on your workbench; ingredients come in five types, and you have a limited number of spaces for each type on your workbench.
Everyone plays simultaneously during each round. You all choose and reveal a recipe from your hand at the same time, then you can use as many recipes in play in front of you as you wish to convert and transform ingredients. Maybe you'll turn a mushroom into the harder-to-find mandrake, then you can turn two mandrakes (using an older one and the one you just created) to make three mushrooms. You can use each recipe at most once a round, and when you're finished, place all of the final ingredients into a cauldron, then pass it to your neighbor on the right. They must then fit all of these ingredients on their workbench — and if they can't, they must return the "extra" ingredients to you for placement in your "Witch's Circle".
If you now have at least five ingredients in your Witch's Circle, the game ends and you win; otherwise you all pass your recipe cards in hand to the player on your left, refill your hand to four cards, then start a new round.
The game includes personality cards you can use to give each player a unique power, in addition to a different set of starting ingredients. Some recipes can be played in either of two directions to help you customize how you transform ingredients, and recipes might also have arcana symbols that give you bonus powers when you collect enough of them.
Can you put together the right cookbook to land your neighbor in hot water?
Merchants of Magick, a 1-8 player design from Clarence Simpson and Rock Manor Games that features a striking cover from Boris Stanisic and that's set in the publisher's fantasy universe of Set a Watch games.
Here's a quick taste of how to play:Read more »In Merchants of Magick, you are the owner of a magic item shoppe, crafting items and researching spells to sell to the Adventurers of the Watch.
Each round, four polyhedral dice are rolled, then you select two of them to craft items or research enchantments for your shoppe. As you craft items and research spells, you start stocking items and earn potions that let you manipulate the dice. Adventurers travel from shoppe to shoppe, so you need to stock the exact items on the order cards in front of you. If you have an item an Adventurer needs, you earn coin — but if you wait too long to fulfill an order, Adventurers will become impatient and visit your competitor next door!
After ten rounds, the player who has earned the most coin wins.
- Visit Every Biome in Subastral, and Empty Your Hand in Aggretsuko: Work/Rage BalanceBen Eisner and Steve Ellis designed Gudetama: The Tricky Egg Card Game for Renegade Game Studios and Oni Games, and in Q2 2021 they'll have another IP-based card game on the market from those same publishers: Aggretsuko: Work/Rage Balance.
Here's an overview of this 3-6 player ladder-climbing card game:Your goal in Aggretsuko: Work/Rage Balance is to get out of work as quickly as possible — that is, to rid yourself of all cards in your hand. The game lasts five workdays (i.e., five rounds), and whoever has the lowest score once the weekend arrives wins.
The deck consists of 86 cards, with two cards each numbered 1-10 in four suits, along with three 11s, two 12s, and one 13. Each player starts with a hand of thirteen cards. The leader of the round plays a combination of 1-5 cards, then each subsequent player can play the same number of cards but of a higher value or pass. Once all but one person has passed, the cards are cleared from the table, then the last player to play leads something else.
Once per round, when you pass, you can rage, placing your rage card on a card that's currently on the table. When these cards are cleared, you can place the claimed card in your hand.
Note that a "Rainbow Bomb" — four consecutive cards with each suit represented — can be played on your turn no matter what's currently being played, and this can be beaten only by a higher Rainbow Bomb.
When one played voids their hand, the round ends. Everyone with cards in hand then scores 1-3 points per card based on how many they have, then you shuffle for a new round unless the weekend is here.
Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle designed Stellar for Renegade Game Studios, and in Q2 2021 they'll have another card game on the market from that same publisher: Subastral.
Here's an overview of this 2-5 player game:In Subastral, you collect cards that represent your notes on eight different biomes: subtropical desert, savanna, tropical rainforest, chaparral, temperate grassland, temperate forest, taiga, and arctic tundra. You start the game with three random cards in hand; each card depicts one of the eight biome types and is numbered 1-6. Eight cards are placed onto six clouds in the center of the table, with the deck to the left of the #1 cloud and a sun card to the right of #6.
On a turn, play a card from your hand onto the matching numbered cloud, then collect any pile of your choice to the left or right of the pile on which you played. If you choose a cloud to the left toward the deck, you add the cards on that cloud to your hand, then draw an additional card from the deck and add it to your hand. If you choose to the right toward the sun, you add those cards to your "journal", which is your collection of cards. Cards from the same biome go in the same pile, and you build piles from left to right in your journal as you collect cards from new biomes, with those piles being numbered 1-8. To end your turn, you draw a card from the deck to fill the empty cloud space.
When you hit the "game end" card in the deck, complete the round, then play one additional round. Each player then scores for their journal in two ways: Score for your two biomes that have the most cards, with each card in those biomes worth as many points as the number of the pile. (In other words, whatever two biomes you start collecting last, you want to collect a lot of them since those cards will be worth the most points.) Next, you remove one card from each biome left to right until you hit an empty space or run out of biomes; the set is worth 1-36 points depending on the number of cards in it. Then you create another set collecting cards from left to right, etc. until your leftmost biome is empty. Whoever has scored the most points wins!
Will your journal of research notes on the planet's biomes be deep and diverse enough to stand out amongst your peers?
Ties for the number of cards in a biome are broken in favor of the leftmost biomes, so ideally you'll have X cards in your first six biomes and (at least) X+1 cards in your final two biomes to maximize both types of scoring. The scoring of these piles is similar to that of Mandala (which I covered in December 2019), with the cards having no value initially and acquiring value as the game progresses, with each player valuing cards differently depending on where they land in their journal. Read more »
- Designer Diary: Umbra Via
by Connor WakeInis had become my new favorite game. What I really liked about it was how it was an area-control game, but you didn't always want to kill all of your opponents. One of the win conditions is to be in control of regions where at least six other player units are present. You can't kill everyone. You can't brute force your way through it. You have to keep an unsteady peace with your opponents.
I wanted to make a game that took that idea from Inis a bit further, something where you weren't allowed to remove all of your opponents' stuff if it wasn't exactly where you wanted it to be, something you'd have to deal with and work around instead. This is where the key point of Umbra Via came from. Players would be in direct conflict with each other, but not able to use direct force.
I also wanted players to be able to do well playing off of instinct and have a good time against people who are thinking through every possible outcome. Oftentimes when playing, I'm either tired or stressed and not up for having a good time only if I can out-compute whoever I'm playing against — so I decided I wanted pure logical thinking to cause the player to get a bit stuck, to force people to go with their instinct instead and level that playing field. This is why I wanted to add a constrained, hidden bidding element to the game.
Figuring out someone's intentions is tricky, and some people will even write it off as random, but to me, that's the most interesting part of playing games with other people. If you try to just logic your way through a blind bid, you can end up with the classic Princess Bride poison cup scenario. If you take a step back and don't get sucked down the logical rabbit hole, you have enough information to figure out the fuzzy probabilities of what someone might do. Also, I simply prefer those types of decisions in which there is no exact answer and things are fuzzy, but you've still got a lot to go off of!
Since Umbra Via isn't a big box game, there was a lot of swapping out of a lot of mechanisms, scoring systems, etc. to make it work with my goals. The iterations of the game were often unrecognizable. (I could fill another few designer diaries with all that.) Through all of those versions, those overarching goals were how I eventually settled on the core gameplay of Umbra Via:Each round, players receive six tokens to secretly bid on four different tiles over two rounds of bidding. The player with the most cubes on the tile gets to choose where it goes, determining the shape of the paths you're building and trying to control. However, everyone's cubes stay on the tile, so you're picking where that tile and everyone's cubes go. When paths close off, players are rewarded based on how long the path is, as well as how they ranked in the path.
The two rounds of bidding came out of trying to help players feel informed enough to be able to go off of instinct. When I first brought the game to my housemates Jevin and Jordan to test, I was stuck about how to handle getting the players' cubes onto the tiles. On the one hand, you could have players bid one cube at a time — which was very slow, but let you see the other players' intentions. On the other hand, you could allocate and bid all of your cubes at once — which was quick and exciting, but didn't give the players much to go off of, so it felt more random.
I brought this up with my housemates and how I wasn't happy with either of them. Then Jordan simply said, "Well, why don't we do two rounds then?" This turned out to be perfect and never changed after that first playtest. Players get six total cubes, then bid on the tiles three cubes at a time. Bidding in the first round is a chance for surprise, and when bidding in the second round players have made their intentions public, so you get to respond to that.
You'll probably notice how I haven't talked about the theme yet. What got me into board game design was the idea of crafting an experience for players. With Umbra Via, I specifically thought about making a game my partner and friends would enjoy. During the design process, it did exactly that, hitting all of the experience notes I wanted it to: conflict without violence, and being able to play off of the other players and your gut feeling. However, these goals never inspired a theme that lined up with the mechanisms.
I tried all sorts of changes to the game to make a theme fit, but it always seemed to take away from that core experience. In the end, wrapping Umbra Via in the dressings of a mysterious ritual felt fitting. The game has you advocate for painted tokens with no pretense. It works because everyone agrees these tokens are important, that they represent you and your interests. This felt very similar to spells to me, in which the objects used are meant to represent so much more.
Keeping the theme more abstract allowed for simpler art that was easier to read. Ultimately, it's the feeling of playing with the mechanisms and the other players around the table, trying to carefully balance all the different parts of the game, that makes Umbra Via what it is. I love what Pandasaurus Games did with the design. It's amazing seeing it brought to life. I can't wait for more people to try it out!
Read more »
- VideoBuild Hadrian's Wall, and Escape Gravity's WellGarphill Games are designed or co-designed by owner Shem Phillips, but in a change of pace the company's newest release — Hadrian's Wall — is by Bobby Hill, with this being his first publication credit.
Here's an overview of the game, which is reaching buyers of the Garphill edition in April 2021, and which will be released be Renegade Game Studios in Q2 2021:When visiting the North of Britannia in 122 AD, the Roman Emperor Hadrian Augustus witnessed the aftermath of war between his armies and the savage Picts. In a show of Roman might, he ordered a wall to be built that would separate the Pict tribes from the rest of England. Grand in its design, the wall stretched 80 Roman miles, from coast to coast. Hadrian's Wall stood in service to the Roman Empire for nearly 300 years before its eventual decline. Today, Hadrian's Wall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the remains of the forts, towers, and turrets can still be explored.
In Hadrian's Wall, players take on the role of a Roman General placed in charge of the construction of a milecastle and bordering wall. Over six years (rounds), players will construct their fort and wall, man the defenses, and attract civilians by building services and providing entertainment — all while defending the honor of the Roman Empire from the warring Picts. The player who can accumulate the most renown, piety, valor and discipline, whilst avoiding disdain, will prove to the Emperor they are the model Roman citizen and be crowned Legatus Legionis!
While the game is listed as being for 1-6 players, Phillips notes that with multiple copies, you could have any number of people participate in the game because your actions directly affect only your immediate neighbors — although in this age of online gaming, your "immediate" neighbors could be anywhere in the world!
For background on the game, check out Hill's four-part designer blog on the Hadrian's Wall BGG page.
Corey Young's Gravwell, which debuted in 2013 from Cryptozoic Entertainment, then moved to Renegade in 2014.
For those not familiar with this quick-playing, semi-racing game that often feels like a weird tug-of-war with yourself, here's an overview of the game's setting and how to play, followed by notes of a few changes in the new edition:In Gravwell, players command spaceships that have been pulled through a black hole, transporting them into a different dimension. With each ship lacking fuel to get home, each player must collect basic elements from surrounding asteroids, using the gravity of the dimension and what little resources they have in order to reach the warp gate that will take them home. But in this dimension, moving ships will travel towards the nearest object, which is usually another ship, and when those objects are moving either forward or backward, reaching the warp gate isn't always easy. Time is running out to save your crew and your ship! As a grim reminder of the cost of failing to escape, the frozen hulks of dead spacecraft litter the escape route — but with careful card play, you can slingshot past these derelict craft and be the first to escape from the gravwell!
Gravwell uses 26 alphabetized cards to determine movement order and thrust; most cards move your ship towards the nearest object, but a few move you away from it. At the start of each round, players draft fuel cards, picking up three pairs of two cards, with only the top card of each pile being visible; you get some information as to which moves you can expect from the other spaceships, but you won't know which moves you'll be forced to make when you draft your cards!
During a round, each player will play all of their fuel cards in the order of their choosing. During each phase of a round, each player chooses one card, then all cards are revealed and resolved in alphabetical order. When your opponents move in ways you didn't expect, you won't always be heading in the direction you thought you would! Each player holds an "Emergency Stop" card that they may tactically play only once per round to avoid such a situation.
Whoever first reaches the warp gate wins, but if no one has escaped after six rounds, then the player who is closest to the gate wins.
Gravwell: 2nd Edition features the same gameplay as earlier editions of the game, but now 40 fuel cards are included, which allows up to six players in the game at the same time. (Earlier editions maxed out at four players.) Additionally, ship ability cards are included that can give a unique power to each ship's captain trying to find their way home.
Oh, hey, I did a video overview of that Cryptozoic edition in March 2014 in case you'd prefer to see examples of the game in action to get a better idea of how it works. Wow, seven years ago — it's like watching someone else present a game at this point...
Youtube Video Read more »
- VideoIndustry News: Ensemble in North America, Fluxx in Wonderland, and Luma to Sit DownAres Games has signed a deal to publish and distribute original games from Italian publisher Ergo Ludo Editions in English, starting with the Q4 2021 release of the co-operative game Ensemble from Luigi Ferrini and Daniele Ursini. Here's an overview of that title:All players must vote — without communicating — on one of the cards on display that they think best matches a card in the middle of the table. Communication is allowed only once all the players' votes have been revealed, and if all players have voted the same way (with a small, variable tolerance depending on the number of players), the group moves on to the next level. Otherwise, they lose a life.
The goal of the game is to win level 9 — and once the game is won for the first time, the first scenario deck (of three) is unlocked, with new rules and cards being available for future games.
Following that, Ares will publish an English language version of Ergo Ludo Editions' Cangaceiros, with this game being "inspired by the outlaw gangs of Brazil's Northeast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries".
Here's more on this late 2021/early 2022 release from the press release:To counter the overwhelming power of the large landowners called "Coronéis", armed gangs were created to oppose these despots and the government, fighting for survival, freedom, and revenge. Players are bandits trying to become the most famous gang of the Cangaço, surviving in the impervious hinterland, hunted by military units sent by government to capture or kill them.
Luma Games, has signed a deal with Belgian publisher Sit Down! for "exclusive English-language distribution" of its game catalog, starting with the upcoming releases Dive (covered here) and Rush Out! (covered here) in the first half of 2021 and continuing with reprints of Magic Maze and Magic Maze Kids. Here's an excerpt from the press release announcing the deal:Didier Delhez, co-owner of Sit Down!, said, "We are very happy with this new partnership with Luma Imports. Our games will now be able to largely reach the American public, thus responding to the many requests that we have received. We know the effectiveness of Luma Imports and are excited to start this new partnership!"
• Eric Hanuise of Flatlined Games has started a YouTube channel titled "Board Game Publisher" in which he promises to "publish videos about all aspects of the board game publishing trade: sourcing, development, manufacturing, logistics, marketing, regulations, DTP and Pre-press, the list goes on." If you've thought of taking the plunge — or have already plunged — perhaps these videos will be of interest to you. Here's one to get you started, focusing on why you might not want to do this:
announced that the next fair will be held February 2-6, 2022.
• To increase availability of its games in Canada, Looney Labs has signed a deal with Universal Distribution that goes into effect as of April 14, 2021. An excerpt from the press release: "Universal Distribution has been a long-time industry friend and brings strong insights into the game and hobby market in Canada. With three shipping locations across Canada, they are more convenient for some retailers. This addition of Universal as a distributor does not replace any existing channels for obtaining Looney Lab games but rather adds opportunity for specialty retailers to get our games at their convenience."
Speaking of which, Wonderland Fluxx is a short-run release from Looney Labs for which retail preorders end on April 16, 2021. The short story behind this title: U.S. retailer Books-A-Million was interested in an "Alice in Wonderland" themed Fluxx, and designer Andy Looney had one on hand, so it's now going into production primarily for BAM!, while also being available to other retailers who want to carry copies. Read more »
- Make Hot Sauce, Mix Colors, and Balance Angels and Demons to Achieve VirtueVirtue is a 2-4 player co-operative game from designer Max Robbins of Dragon Egg Games, who debuted with the "your life as a bee" game Apidaia in 2020 and who fulfilled a Kickstarter in March 2021 for Nova Lux, which bears this intriguing description:In Nova Lux, you take charge of a federation of orphaned alien species that have escaped dying star systems in the wake of a galactic apocalypse. The Universe is winding down. Entropy is increasing to maximum. You must manage precious resources through trade, conflict, and exploration to sustain biological life and power your Ark of Salvation, Hydrogen Converters, and Biosphere Engine — all while building a star colony that can outlast the end of the universe and give it new light, a.k.a., "nova lux".
Robbins is working on a integrated, yet standalone sequel to Nova Lux titled Impendium that will allow you to construct a new universe, ignite stars, and kick off new life, but ahead of that will come Virtue, which pits players against the spiritual forces of good and evil. Here's how:You will strive to live a good life and balance the pursuits that give it meaning. You will quest for internal tranquillity and life-long peace. You will struggle with existential conflict as your angels and demons battle to shape your soul and define your character. You and your fellow man are in this together. Don't let them down.
Each round represents a decade of the players' lives and consists of three phases: Actions, Existential Conflict, and Spiritual Warfare. In the action phase, players move their focus on various vices and virtues, cleanse their soul of the demons that plague them, enhance life pursuits that will unlock new abilities, and increase their tranquility, which will aid them in removing demons. The action phase prepares the team for what is about to come.
After the action phase, each player draws from a deck that will (among other things) swarm their souls with angels and demons. Then, they check for existential conflict, i.e., an abundance of uncontested demons with no angels to stand in opposition. For each existential crisis that occurs, the player has new challenges to overcome.
Finally, the spiritual warfare phase ensues in which the forces of good and evil battle, and the dominating force is left standing for the next decade of their lives.
• Sometimes a single image gives you 90% of what a game is about and how it plays, and that's the feeling I got from seeing the image below of Kroma, a a color-blending strategy game for two or three players by Carol Mertz, Kai Karhu, Francesca Carletto-Leon, and Temitope Olujobi that Breaking Games is Kickstarting in 2021 for release in 2022.
In case the image isn't enough for you, here's how to play:Gameplay takes place on a triangular playing board that has a light behind it so that you can better see the colors created by the game pieces during play. On a turn, you draw a playing piece from the bag — feeling for a desired shape, if you wish, but not knowing the color of the piece — then place that piece in any legal location on the board. Pieces come in yellow, cyan, and magenta, and initially you must play these pieces on the lowest level of the game board. If you can play a piece so that it's entirely supported by other pieces, then you can play on the second level of the board; by doing this, you can create the secondary colors green, orange, and purple — and this is what you'll need to do to win.
Each player in the game is assigned a secondary color, and at the end of a three-player game, whoever has more spaces of their color showing wins. In a two-player game, the player with the largest contiguous block of their color wins, so the game is more about blocking than simply creating your color wherever you can. If you're green, for example, you want lots of yellow and cyan on the bottom level so that you can potentially transform it into green later, while magenta is useless to you and ideally you can stack magenta pieces on top of one another to put them out of play altogether.
The game ends once all the pieces have been played or when no piece remaining in the bag can fit on the board.
Morning of an impending Kickstarter campaign in Q2 2021 for Burrn, a design for 3-5 players from David Simiand and Pierre Voye that I first covered in October 2018.
Gameplay seems to be the same as when I first wrote about the game, so here's that description once again:The district of Las Picantes belongs to El Gobernador, a former industrialist with a mysterious past, who built his fortune in the import-export of...various merchandise. He now lives in isolation, only surrounded by his family — as well as his bodyguard, accountants, drivers, sports coach, and the zookeeper of his private zoo.
But El Gobernador is bored to tears. Always seeking new thrills and challenges, he decides to organize an unforgettable event during the "Fiesta Nacional", a competition open to all wannabe-chefs in the world to cook for him the most intense hot sauce possible! Whoever wins the contest will receive enough money to open their own restaurant!
In order to be able to cook their sauce, though, the participants in Buurn have to get the best ingredients in ruthless auctions called "top-downs". Cooks will collect different ingredients sold at these auctions to create the hottest sauce ever created. Everything is allowed in this savage contest! Trying to obtain the best ingredients by being friends with the organization or even stealing ingredients from your rivals are classic ways to win the prize!
At the end of the contest, El Gobernador's jury will taste all the hot sauces, then assign victory points to each cook, based on the type of ingredients they used and the bonuses they obtained. The one who receives the most points wins the competition and their very own restaurant, paid by El Gobernador!
• By chance another game in that October 2018 post has also still not appeared in print: Time of Empires by this same design team that was going to be demoed by Pearl Games at SPIEL '18. Pearl has released several other titles over the past few years, so I imagine this design is still in the cooker or has been sent back to the designers for more work on their part. Maybe we'll find out in a few more years... Read more »
- Grow a Hermit Crab Shell, Listen to Safes, Avoid Suspicion, and Catch the Bomber
I know that sometimes posts like these are frustrating since the games featured won't necessarily be easily available, but I like featuring games that don't look or play like everything else, so I write about them anyway. Besides, the games do turn up sometimes, whether through an importer, a licensed edition, or a shipping service that delivers to your country.
• We'll start with YADOKARICK, a trick-taking game from giraffismus for 1-7 players, with special rules for games with one or two players. As an example of what I described above, YADOKARICK can be purchased via BOOTH, an online consignment shop of sorts that co-ordinates with Buyee to ship goods anywhere in the world.
Here's an overview of the 3+ player game courtesy of JP game fan James Nathan:In YADOKARICK, players try to find the right size shell for their hermit crab from beach detritus.
The game consists of two suits, and in addition to a suit and rank, each card has a "shell size". During the game, the lowest card played to a trick will be able to adjust the target shell size up or down. The highest card of each color played to a trick will take the cards of that color with the largest size and add to their hermit crab. The bodies have a maximum size and may have a "roof" card added.
At the end of a hand, positive points are earned for total shell sizes less than or equal to the target, and points are lost for shells that exceed the size or for players who added too many cards to their shell. The player with the most points wins.
• I have few details about 金庫バトル (Safe Battle) from ASOBI.dept, but here's what I do know:In the game, you and your fellow players are master locksmiths who have gathered at a national tournament to open four safes by listening to their sounds. You can try to open them in co-operation with other locksmiths or go for a solo victory by relying solely on your own ears.
• Safe Battle was an Osaka Game Market release in late March 2021 that may or may not show up at TGM, which is also true for You Are Probably Criminal, a.k.a. あなたがたぶん犯人です, from designer Ikagaya and publisher いかが屋楽団Z (How About the Orchestra Z).
This 3-5 player game is about crime, but doesn't seem to be a deduction game. The overview explains why:You and the other players are suspects in a murder case. Heartless as it might sound, who is actually guilty of the crime doesn't matter because in the end all that matters is who is the most suspicious among you!
The criminal search relies on four elements — weapon, motive, place, time — and evidence cards left by the actual criminal is placed face down in the center of the table. Each player also receives a confession card for each of these four elements, and sometimes a confession card will match the evidence card.
On your turn, you can make a statement based on the confession cards you hold or you can investigate an evidence card by revealing a confession card you hold. If you make a statement that matches the evidence, you'll be more suspicious, so you might prefer to investigate — but the fewer statements you make, the more suspicion points you gain at turn's end, so you can't only investigate. Perhaps you can forge evidence to throw off suspicion?
In the end, the player with the most suspicion points loses the game and is arrested.
• A similar-sounding not-a-deduction deduction game is Catch the Bomber from designer イイダ タカアキ (Comodiiida Takaaki) and publisher Iida Games, but the details of gameplay aren't clear to me from the short description on the TGM site. Here's what I do know:In Catch the Bomber, a.k.a. キャッチザボマー, you are either the lone bomber in the game or part of the police force trying to catch the bomber. For the bomber to win, they must do one of the following:
• Kill civilians with a bomb.
• Escape the city.
• Restrict the actions of citizens and disrupt the economy.
The police want to stop all of this from happening, but the bomber's identity is secret. On a turn, you either play or move, and the resolution of the game isn't complete until the final card has been played.
After I tweeted the captivating cover below, the publisher responded by saying that they need to create an English translation of the rules as soon as possible, so perhaps we'll know more in the future. Until then, imagine this dude staring at you from above your bedframe as you head to sleep at night...
Read more »
- ● Network 23 [ITA]Publisher: Mangusta Express
Sci-fi cyber-pulp Terrestre in un futuro prossimo a massimo volume.
60 pagine, 22.000 parole, 52 pensieri, 20 fotografie, 8 tipi di campagna, 4 ambientazioni interconnesse con flavour sci-fi differenti, 2 pagine di regole per inseguimenti, 11 modifiche per veicoli, 9 droghe, 13 stigmi, 3 appendici, 1 carte, 1 sistema OSR, 1 mazzo di carte, toolkit per la creazione procedurale di infiniti territori.
Il futuro è stato cancellato.
La società centralizzata dei consumi è collassata dopo il Crollo e le rivolte di massa del Venerdì Nero 1989.
Utopie pirata affrontano il potere totalitario di titaniche Cittadelle ipertecnologiche, costruite incessantemente da automi autoreplicanti. Il potere centrale si è frammentato in una miriade di sottoculture e città-- stato. I maggiori centri urbani sono labirinti al neon fortificati, circondati da sobborghi brutalisti, incolti e senza legge.
Torri ad energia solare e generatori a biomassa illuminano sporadicamente l’Off-grid sconfinato: un calderone di rivoluzionari e vagabondi, culti del cargo e comuni acide, solcato da carovane di schiavisti e tecno tribes. Tecnologie obsolete e avveniristiche si accavallano: caschi a connessione neurale e stampanti organiche convivono con schede perforate e arti cibernetici riciclati. Le battaglie sono combattute con armi ad impulsi come saldatori al plasma, su frequenze radio e server Arpanet.
Strappi nella realtà si affacciano sulle dimensioni dell’Interzona tra le cui pieghe si nascondono tecnologie aliene, civiltà perdute e demoni inorganici.
I pensieri hanno un peso: Tekno-nichilista o maestro di algoritmi? Traveller o raver? Insurrezionalista o scalatore sociale? Mercenario o mercante? Fondatore o distruttore?
Il Rave New World è vasto e contiene moltitudini, conflitti e meraviglia. È un terreno fertile da popolare con culture ed idee differenti.
Utopia e distopia si fronteggiano in una guerra di civiltà, mentre l’entropia dilaga indisturbata.
La tregua è finita, la caccia è aperta.
Unisciti alla rivoluzione, o alla distruzione
Ispirato ai romanzi di William S Burroughs e James Ballard, i manga di Alita e Blame!, il cinema di Cronenberg e Mad Max, le sottoculture rave e punk .
Network 23 permette di muovere i primi passi nel Rave New World, dove trapanatori del cranio, mutoidi, teknonichilisti, hacker e psiconauti combattono una lotta impari contro le distopie verticali dei Moloch / Cittadelle.
Il PDF contiene:
- creazione del personaggio,
- un innovativo sistema di avanzamento basato su 52 differenti Pensieri,
- le regole per iniziare a giocare subito a Network 23
- tabelle di tecnologia, armi ed equipaggiamento
- consigli per trasporre la tua area geografica nel Rave New World
Buon viaggio !
Price: $9.56 Read more »
- ● Driven into Darkness Public PlaytestPublisher: Driven Into Darkness
The most distinguishing features of 'Driven into Darkness' are the 'Open Character Builder', 'Player-Facing One Roll D20 System' and how that system facilitates 'Simultaneous Combat Rounds'.
The Open Character Builder is a response to experiences I have had running class based RPGs. As the game progressed players would feel a disconnect between their growing set of abilities in relation to their personal playstyle. A disconnect caused by having class be the only strong character defining decision. A class initially chosen for the promise of a particular ability or to fulfil an archetype. Yet the class is then delivered to the player in a slow linear rollout; the player being handed a near always incomplete set of abilities that, as the game continues, may no longer feel narratively or mechanically relevant to the games subject matter, player’s characterization or the groups developed playstyle. The Open Character Builder seeks to resolve this disconnect by having many decision points in the character building process, making any character feel more pliable in relation to the evolving goals; play style and threats of an ongoing game.
The player-facing one roll D20 system was developed with an eye toward reducing the mechanical steps involved in resolving any set of effects and actions in order to maintain the flow of the game. For example, a single dice roll can result in a martial character slaying the entire front line of an opposing force. One roll resolving the casting of multiple spells or determining how well a character defends against a spell effect, a surrounding horde of foes and a volley of missiles all at once.
Simultaneous Combat Rounds were developed in order to keep combat engaging for everyone involved by maintaining as little downtime as possible between resolving player actions and eliminating any jarring transitions between narrative and combat scenes.
All aspects of the game are subject to change during development. If you are interested in following the project I will be posting the most recent versions to my Patreon 'Oscar Watson of Driven into Darkness'.Price: $3.86 Read more »
- ● Advanced Character Sheets for DCC RPG (Dungeon Crawl Classics)Publisher: Magic Sky Publishing
Years of intense Old-School Revival RPG research and study have yielded these, one of the finest sets of Cleric, Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard character sheets ever to grace a tabletop, and now they can be yours.
Hype aside, these Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG-oriented character sheets have been designed to include as much information in as intuitively arranged a format as possible. Almost* all class-specific attributes and abilities have been reflected on them, and we think you'll find these sheets to be dependable, long-term companions to your DCC RPG campaigns.
*The trained weapons list is really long, OK?
Get to know Magic Sky Publishing:Read more »
- ● Wicked Ones: Toolkit DeckPublisher: Bandit Camp
Make running your game of Wicked Ones even easier. This deck of 80 tarot-sized cards includes:
- 30 Adventurer Cards: These are the adventurers from the book, but with additional information to add some depth to each. It has a short write-up on them helping GMs conceptualize what they're all about, a list of items that they might be carrying to help when you roll items from loot, and three types of information they're likely to reveal when they break under torture.
- 10 Adventuring Party Cards: We've went through and put the adventurers into groups of three, named their party, and provided an Origin Story, Recent Adventure that they went on, and Tactics to give GMs plenty of ideas to bring them to life. Adventurers entering the dungeon are about to get ground to pieces so it might feel like a bit of a waste for the GM to really flesh them out. These cards bridge that gap, giving reason for the group to be adventuring together and some solid themes that make them feel different than other adventuring parties.
- 2 Hireling Cards: The list of hirelings from the book with each having an example passive, offensive move, and defensive move. This is a great resource for dungeon raids, but to also beef up an NPC that's tough, but not adventurer level.
- 36 Random Stuff Cards: Each card has one entry from every random table in the book, so you can just pull a card to grab some ideas. This way you don't need to hunt down the table in the book. They're also useful to thumb through for ideas and inspiration.
- 2 Other Cards: One has two useful processes on it (Going Feral and Power Struggles). The other has the list of Player Best Practices, so the GM can easily pass that around the table prior to a session or reference it to get players into the right mindset.
The PDF comes with two versions. The print-and-play PDF is formatted to be easy to make yourself at home. The digital version PDF is formatted to fit nicely on a smartphone screen and thoroughly bookmarked.
The physical cards are full color and feel great, on high quality card stock. They physical version comes in a tuckbox, which has full-color art printed on both the front and the back (back not pictured below). They look like this:
(We're not professional photographers - the actual colors are way more vibrant!)Price: $4.99 Read more »
- ● Wicked Ones: Free EditionPublisher: Bandit Camp
WICKED ONES is a Forged in the Dark tabletop RPG about a group of fantasy monsters building a dungeon, launching raids on the surface to gather a hoard, and pursuing your nefarious master plan. Along the way, there's pillaging, rituals, concoctions, contraptions, discoveries deep in the ground, dungeon rooms, traps, creatures, minions, and so much more! You build your dungeon over time throughout the campaign and no two dungeons will ever be alike.
You bask in choosing the greater of two evils as your group strives to accomplish its master plan and terrorize the region around your dungeon. However, your vile deeds lure increasingly greedy and powerful adventurers into your dungeon. Can you stave off the inevitable onslaught of heroism that your notoriety brings?
This game may not be suitable for those under 13 years old.
325 pages | 6×9″ PDF| Color Interior - Check out the Deluxe Edition for the hardcover or more content!
FEATURES (FREE EDITION)
You can get the full game for free. Try out building your own dungeon together with some friends or use the tools the game has to improve your other games! The full game includes:● Forged in the Dark: Built on the framework made by John Harper for Blades in the Dark, with significant changes to better represent monstery gameplay.● Build a Dungeon: Rules for building and drawing out a dungeon together, including traps, tricks, creatures, locks, minions, and things you discover underground.
● Cycle of Play: Four phases of play (lurking, calamity, raiding, and blowback) that set the pace of dungeon life.
● Dark Hearts, Dark Impulses, and Going Feral: Game mechanics that reinforce that you’re a monster.
● Flexible Spell System: Players choose a specific path of magic or god they worship, then flexibly create spells of different power levels on the fly.
● Powerful Ritual Magic: This extends magic further, allowing the creation of very powerful magical effects, though you must fulfill some special requirements and fight off those who might seek to stop your rituals.
● Monster Science: A robust crafting system to create whatever contraptions and alchemical concoctions you can imagine.
● Safety Tools: A write-up on recommended safety tools (X-Card, Movie Ratings, Lines & Veils) to help your group with sensitive subject matters.
● Nine Monster Playbooks: Play as several different types of monsters, each of which have a lot of room for making unique characters. Play as a Brute, Conniver, Crafter, Hunter, Marauder, Shadow, Shaman, Warlock, or Zealot.
● Five Dungeon Themes: Each theme has a unique core function and list of rooms that can only be built within that dungeon, allowing your dungeon to match your group’s preferred playstyle. Build an Enclave, Forge, Hideout, Stronghold, or Temple.
● Quiet Valley Sandbox Map: A regional map to give a place to build your dungeon within and rules to set up factions on that map cooperatively with all players at the table. This group worldbuilding fosters a great sense of co-authorship and buy-in from the players.
● Primal Ability: Choose any monstrous race and represent them by building their own unique abilities.
● Easy Start: A clear session 0 / session 1 starting scenario to get your dungeon up and running while teaching all players the game mechanics.
ADDITIONAL FEATURES (DELUXE EDITION)The Deluxe Edition, available in both PDF and hardcover form here, comes with even more monstery goodness to give you more campaign and player options! For those that wish to delve deeper and expand their campaign and player options or get the book in beautiful hardcover form:Three more sandboxes with factions and goals for each! Each of these is a high-quality map of an entire region for you to explore and terrorize.
- City Sewers. Build your dungeon underneath a corrupt island city
- Colonial Seas. Plunder the high seas and lay low in your island dungeon
- Warzone. Launch strikes amidst the chaos of a regional war.
Four primal monsters, iconic monsters that don't follow the typical callings, instead having unique abilities and mechanics that better capture them. Each primal monster has mechanics vastly differing from the normal callings. We really stretched what the system can do to make them fun, interactive, and feel like each monster!
- Braineaters (tentacled horrors) master powerful psionic disciplines giving a new type of magic to interact with, but have voracious appetites. There are four psionic disciplines and players must choose where to focus their efforts, so while all Braineaters can use psionic powers, the way in which they use them differs greatly!
- Doomseekers (multi-eyed abberations) with eyestalk magic and mechanics for modelling their paranoid, overplanning nature. This is a totally unique playstyle where the PC is encouraged not to leave the dungeon, but can still affect raids on the surface from afar through their meticulous planning, all supported by the mechanics.
- Facestealers (dopplegangers) can assume the appearance of their victims, but fight a constant struggle in keeping ahold of their own identity. For monsters, the civilized world of humans and dwarves is often off-limits - Facestealers can easily slip among them, creating an entirely new experience.
- Goldmongers (dragons) begin as tiny whelps and grow into huge terrors, gaining power and size as the hoard itself grows. The Goldmonger's growth paths allow for a ton of flexibility in creating very different types of dragons. It's seriously almost an entirely new game mode.
Digital assets of the art from this book for use online, such as adventurer, imp, and monster tokens, clocks, and high-resolution sandbox maps. There are hundreds of images here to make running your games online more fun, though also work great as printouts for play at home.
Dungeon generator to help GMs build dungeons for use in other games or as a quick one-shot dungeon defense. The dungeon generator pushes you to develop a fully fleshed out, living, breathing dungeon with many interconnected parts. Then just take that dungeon over to your favorite system and run some heroes through it.
- ● Zelart Scholarship Stock Art Winner '20-21 - Necrotic WispPublisher: Postmortem Studios
A piece of stock art for you to use in your personal and professional products, this piece by the winner of the 2020-2021 Zelart Scholarship, Mike Lavoie. This piece depicts a ghost-like wisp or wraith.Price: $8.99 Read more »
- ● Stock Art: Cyberpunk Influencer, Police Ticket and NursePublisher: Postmortem Studios
Three pieces of black and white, cyberpunk stock art depicting a police stop, an influencer and a cyborg nurse. High resolution for you to use in your personal and professional projects.Price: $5.99 Read more »
- ● Zelart: Silly Superheroes Stock ArtPublisher: Postmortem Studios
A collection of silly superheroes, based on my RL friends and kindly donated to help raise money for the Zelart Scholarship. From a spide-like hero who buys his gear on ebay, via a pair of ninjas, all the way to a robot-bed and a super-secret agent there are ten B&W pieces here for you to use in your personal and professional projects. All proceeds go to the Zelart Scholarship fund.Price: $10.99 Read more »
- Fantasy Campaign Stakes and Escalation
Bear with me as I set some expectations for what we’re going to look at today. The basis for everything I am going to explore is the interaction between sub-genres of fantasy and the scope of a fantasy campaign. To frame this discussion, we’re going to look at some terms as defined in the Big Book of Masters of Dungeons in the purview of Dragons that sometimes associate with Dragons. That said, this shouldn’t only apply to level-based fantasy stories, but it should definitely make sense as an extension of level-based fantasy game assumptions.
When I’m talking about scope, I’m looking at the impact the players have on the setting, and the range of adventures a character is likely to explore. In level-based parlance, this generally maps to the tiers of play model, which goes something like this:
- Local (The Fate of a Village)
- Heroes (The Fate of a Region)
- Legends (The Fate of a Nation or Significant Portion of the World)
- Epics (The Fate of the World)
We’ll circle back on this, but the scope of each of these is going to be a little bit different based on the sub-genre of fantasy. While we’re keeping to the same “tiers” delineated in the World’s Most Well-Known Fantasy Fame and Fortune Acquisition Simulator, in this case I’m looking at the biggest stakes each tier is likely to face, separated a bit from any other assumptions that go with the acquisition of greater abilities. This is also at least somewhat flavored by the thought that player characters are at least semi-heroic. They may not primarily adventure because they want to save the world, but in the course of their personal motivations, it ends up being part of the package.
Stakes involve the actual form that the above scope is dealing with. For example, the fate of a village looks different when the stakes are saving them from an undead infestation, versus saving them from bandits that will slowly drain them of all their resources, but both are local problems that will affect the long-term fate of the village.
Stakes are going to be influenced by the genre. Facing a power-hungry Emperor that is about to consolidate power by besieging the last Queen holding out against their power could effectively be about the fate of the world, because the fate of all the known lands are involved, but that feels different than the fate of the world hanging in the balance because an ancient god that lives at the center of the world is about to awaken.
Once again, we’re going to take our cues on the genre from the game that would be called U & R if you removed the first letter of each word in the title. These are not the definitive, all-encompassing genres that can define fantasy stories, but they are going to be my means of limited exactly how deep into the well I dive. For purposes of this article, were going to look at the following:
- Heroic Fantasy
- Sword and Sorcery
- Epic Fantasy
- Mythic Fantasy
- Dark Fantasy
There are all kinds of definitions you can find for these genres, but what I’m looking at in this case is using these general functional definitions.
- Heroic Fantasy: Even when the scope of the story or campaign is limited, the player characters obviously matter. If a thing is going to get done that has an impact, it will be done by the player characters. In this genre, characters are much more likely to purposefully engage with the circumstance affecting the fate stakes, knowing what is involved.
This can mean the player characters are “chosen ones,” but it just means that, from their perspective, no one else is going to show up in time to make a difference. People that encounter them can tell they are special and that they have agency in the narrative. That doesn’t mean they don’t face challenges or are always right, but it’s clear they are meant for great things, if they seize the moment. And they get fed a lot of moments. While not every character may have pure motivations, at least some will, and it’s at least more obvious when people are trying to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
None of these genres exists entirely within their own neatly defined borders, and Heroic Fantasy may sometimes look like Epic Fantasy, but it’s just as likely that the heroes in a Heroic Fantasy story are facing a series of different villains and hardships that are ultimately unrelated, while Epic fantasy tends to build upon previous threats for a linked, interconnected saga.
- Sword and Sorcery: The player characters are important, but maybe not the only people that can do a thing. The reason they end up affecting the fate of people, places, or things is that their other interests usually overlap with important matters that are going to occur.
Sword and Sorcery characters should always feel important, but they may also be challenged in their notions of how important they are by rivals more often than heroic fantasy characters. They may end up having the opportunity to make the world a better place, but those adventures happen after they have had the chance for general fame and glory. Personal goals, family pride, and vengeance are often going to be part of the story. While there may be eventual consequences, it’s not uncommon for “the ends to justify the means” in Sword and Sorcery stories.
It’s not uncommon for the dangers set loose in a Sword and Sorcery setting to be a consequence of people that are just greedy or short-sighted, rather than having a grand plan to remake the world. Setting loose a powerful being that a lesser villain assumes will be under their control, for example, is a pretty common trope for Sword and Sorcery games.
- Epic Fantasy: The previous genres are defined more from the bottom up, by the heroes and how the world views them, and how they accomplish their goals. Epic fantasy is more top-down . . . there are a series of important things that need to be done, and those events will impose their importance on the campaign continually until they are dealt with.
In many cases, the woes of a campaign world will be related to a greater overall menace. The player characters may only touch on the shadow of these machinations at the local tier, but the reason the local problems are happening is likely somehow related to a major villain or force of destruction that is pushing for a singular event with stakes that haven’t been seen for years/decades/centuries in the campaign world.
This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t important, just that if they don’t devote at least a significant amount of their time to address the growing threat, that threat is going to overshadow any personal desires that the player characters are going to have.
- Mythic Fantasy: Mythic Fantasy is not unlike Epic Fantasy, except everything matters. The player characters are the ones that need to do what needs to be done, not unlike Heroic Fantasy, but in this case, even relatively small decisions will have major ramifications. Mythic fantasy isn’t about saving the status quo from an uncomfortable chaotic development. It’s about the player characters ushering in radical change with their successful actions.
In some ways, Mythic Fantasy is the “character-focused” version of Epic Fantasy. Even if all the events in the character’s lives aren’t directly connected, all of the results of what the characters do will be Very Important. The characters are meant to be world-famous. That doesn’t mean they won’t face challenges, but it means when they defeat those challenges, no one ever forgets what happens, and if they forget anything about those challenges, it’s the failings of the player characters.
This means everything is pushing player characters towards being rulers, saints, and maybe even eventually demigods. The slight nuance between this and Epic Fantasy is that a character in Mythic Fantasy that is chosen to be the agent of a god might reject that god’s patronage, and they are still meant to be just as important. In Epic Fantasy, rejecting the help of the gods might be foolish and disastrous, and in Mythic Fantasy, rejecting the help of a god may just become another side challenge that the character faces on the way to eventually being a legend.
- Dark Fantasy: While some fantasy horror stories are Dark Fantasy, not all Dark Fantasy is a horror story. Dark fantasy isn’t so much about fear or the supernatural. It is about never having a truly happy ending. Dark fantasy is often about having a choice between something bad and something worse. Doing the right thing has consequences and may not feel like a victory.This is going to be tricky to pull off, because player characters should feel like a situation would have been worse if they never intervened, but they should also feel like they were never going to be able to save everyone, or remove all the corruption, or stop the curse before someone suffered under its effects. It’s a balancing act between showing characters how bad the world could get if they didn’t take action, and showing them that the world is always going to be a mixed bag.In some ways, there is a similar “second layer” to all of the character’s actions in Dark Fantasy as there is in Mythic Fantasy, but instead of even minor actions leading to the increasing legend of the characters, even simple resolutions will have some element of sadness associated with that resolution. For example, taking out a vicious group of bandits may be followed up with meeting the bandit’s family that depended on her to bring in revenue from their violent profession.
Matching Stakes and Scope
The reason I wanted to look at the scope and the stakes of different fantasy campaigns is to look at how different genres of fantasy handle those stakes. Now that we’ve looked at and defined some ranges, let’s look at what different stakes will look like when added to a different scope.
On the local scope, we’ll look at a scenario, and see how it’s framed differently between each of the different genres of fantasy we’ve examined. We’re going to go back to our simple example of bandits causing problems for a village.
We’re using a village in this instance, but the lower end of this scale may vary based on the type of fantasy. The village may be some unnamed village in Mythic Fantasy. It may be a pleasant town in Heroic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery, or it may be a poor, starving place in either Sword and Sorcery or Dark Fantasy.
In addition to villages, the broader scope of the campaign can be a large city, with the opening stages of the campaign being limited to a specific neighborhood of the city.
- Heroic Fantasy: The player characters may hear about the bandits when visiting family in the area. No one else is going to wander through the area before the next time the bandits are likely to raid the village, and the local warriors were wounded in the last scuffle.
- Sword and Sorcery: The player characters find out there is a bounty on the local bandits, and if they act quickly, they may be able to collect the bounty before anyone else collects it. They may end up running into rival adventurers on the way to collecting the bounty.
- Epic Fantasy: Bandits are raiding local villages. Patrols of the local nations have been pulled away due to massing armies elsewhere. The bandits turn out to be marked with a glowing rune and compelled to look for a secret passageway leading to a long-lost temple of evil under the village.
- Mythic Fantasy: The player characters just happen to be traveling through town when the bandits send a messenger challenging them to a fight for the fate of the village. If the player characters run the gauntlet of the bandit’s camp and defeat their supernatural leader, the local village is not only safe, but they build a monument to the heroes’ greatness and have a feast whenever they pass through town.
- Dark Fantasy: The bandits poison the water supply of the village, and demand tribute or else they will not provide the antidote to the poison. When the player characters defeat the bandits, they find out that there is no antidote. Many villagers are likely to die, and they need to find a new home with local, hostile villagers that are likely to treat them badly, or they need to try to forge a hard new life in the wilderness where they may not last the winter.
If we start with a village, when we move to the Heroic scope, we’re moving to a coalition of towns and villages that trade with one another and pass news to one another. It might be a province in a wider kingdom, or it might involve the player characters interacting with people that notice them at the local keep or capital city of a region.
In a more urban-based campaign, the scope of the adventure might move across multiple neighborhoods and start to gain the notice of the broader powers of one of the wards of the neighborhood.
In a Heroic Fantasy, Heroic Scale campaign, the player characters will likely have been noticed for their deeds in and around neighborhoods and villages and have a reputation for resolving trouble. In a Sword and Sorcery campaign, they may not be the only adventurers know for getting results, but they will be among the names that float to the top. It may be a matter of them being the first name on the list, with another name waiting in the wings. In a Dark Fantasy campaign, they may be well known, but not well regarded, and may be the best bad option for an appeal. In a Mythic Fantasy campaign, it may be that some authority wants to see if they are as amazing as the people in a village or neighborhood regard them, by providing them with a challenge.
In this case, let’s look at undead plaguing the countryside, and how the player characters from the previous example handle them.
- Heroic Fantasy: After helping out with the bandits and solving problems in several villages, the largest church in the area, to which most of the smaller churches in the region answer to, sends for the player characters, asking them to deal with a local cursed necropolis that was uncovered by an earthquake. They get well rewarded and are given a letter of recommendation if they ever want to meet the regional rulers for anything of importance if they are successful.
- Sword and Sorcery: The local lord excavated the ancient, cursed necropolis, not believing the curse would be as bad as it was in the legends. The player characters’ aren’t the first group that they hire to clean up their mess, and they find evidence of that if they take the job. If they find any treasure, it is likely what the original lord wanted when they disturbed the tomb, and if they end up defending themselves, the player characters may end up with a patron of a rival lord that pays them for exposing the dangerous activities of their previous employer.
- Epic Fantasy: The passage under the village led to underground catacombs, populated with monsters answering to the master of the amassed armies gathering in the region. One of those monsters is searching for a door that leads to a lost necropolis which has a journal of how to defeat the leader of the armies, and once the player characters have the key, the paladin leading the resistance armies asks them to find that book lost in the necropolis, so they can find a weakness.
- Mythic Fantasy: A regional lord invites the heroes to their court, and mentions that an ancient necropolis provides a threat every decade or so. They would deal with it themself, but they have heard the legendary tales of the heroes’ actions and they wish to see how amazing the PCs are for themself. If they are successful, they are given famous, named magic items, and are given largely symbolic titles, but are nevertheless widely known and heralded in the local halls of power.
- Dark Fantasy: A local cleric attempted to find the spirit of their lost spouse in an ancient, buried necropolis. The undead master of the place asked for a favor from the cleric in exchange for the spouse’s return to life. Years later, the necropolis rises. The key to destroying the master of the necropolis is for the spouse to willingly return to the land of the dead, and after the threat is dealt with, the local authorities demand the cleric be executed for their crimes, but if that happens, the town has no priest. The player characters must either leave the town without spiritual guidance or earn the enmity of the local lord that demands the sentence. Either way, their reputation is widely known at this point.
Following our previous examples, the legendary scope is going to see the player characters see the real, regional powers, and those powers will know who they are, at least by reputation. If you start with a village, then move to a keep or capital, this moves on towards the player characters being known at the national, kingdom-wide court. If you start with a neighborhood in a major city, this means the mayor or city council will know of them, and they will be dealing with matters that affect multiple wards, if not the whole city. People will know their names.
In a Dark Fantasy setting, the PCs may be hated by the regular people, and favored at court, or vice versa, but either way, their fame will be complicated. In a Sword and Sorcery setting, they may get to see themselves displace the old favorites or know that in some way their position is precarious, as they are well-known heroes, but might be rivals of the people in power. In a Heroic Fantasy campaign, powerful people from multiple organizations may share their council and trust their opinions. In a Mythic Fantasy campaign, they may repeat the same process they faced previously, where kings and high priests are trying to test them to see if they live up to their legendary status, while they are firmly loved in their homelands.
This time around, let’s look at a dragon ravaging the countryside, and how the heroes from our previous examples will find the situation waiting for them.
- Heroic Fantasy: The local rulers give the player characters authority to negotiate with the dragon on behalf of the kingdom. They are given a great treasure, and the ability to negotiate a truce to last at least 100 years. If they can’t do this, it’s their job to keep the dragon from being a threat to the countryside.
- Sword and Sorcery: The dragon is a potential threat. When it woke up, it caused a lot of damage. No one saw it after its initial rampage, however, and now different factions want its hoard, as well as, you know, making the countryside safe. There are several dragon-slaying weapons known by the kingdom’s sages and would-be dragon slayers are racing to find them and to be the first to get rid of the dragon. Assuming the dragon doesn’t cut a deal with receptive adventurers first.
- Epic Fantasy: Because the heroes have provided the leader of the armies of light with the book that reveals the weakness of the leader of the armies of darkness, that leader has awakened a dragon, a powerful being that it doesn’t fully control, but which doesn’t share its own weakness, to destroy the forces arrayed against it. The paladin general wants to push towards the enemy leader but needs to know the dragon won’t harm his forces on the road and trusts the PCs to guard their flank.
- Mythic Fantasy: The former royal heir attempted to murder her monarch and was cursed by the gods to become a dragon. The monarch offers to grant the mythic heroes their own portion of the kingdom to rule if they subdue the dragon and force it to apologize for its crimes, committed when it was still a mortal being. The dragon itself lives in a labyrinth created by the gods to test anyone seeking to reach the dragon’s lair, and the dragon can only leave when the monarch commits an act that goes against the will of the gods.
- Dark Fantasy: A dragon is ravaging the countryside. Either the council of nobles or representatives of the people come to the heroes, begging them to destroy the dragon. The dragon blights the land by its very existence. When the PCs finally confront the dragon, the dragon tells them that they are punishing the ruling council. The council claimed the treasures of an island city where they killed everyone to the last person. The dragon contains the souls of all the people of the city, joined with the dragon to get vengeance, and if the dragon is killed, their deal with the dragon condemns all their souls to Hell. The dragon will continue to ravage the countryside, but if they sacrifice the noble council to the dragon, it will return to its sleep for the next 100 years, and the souls of the people will depart for whatever judgment their gods have for them.
This is that scope that you don’t see nearly as often in fantasy games. It can be hard to reliably make something feel like it’s on this scale. You must have world-changing events ready to go, or at least events that will potentially change all the world as it is known by the player characters. That means not just the lands where they have lived, or where they grew up, but all those lands they have heard of, but haven’t quite visited for extended periods.
At this scope, it should be easy for player characters to be invested with official, political power, if they want it, but it may not be what you want for the campaign. In other words, it would make sense for them to be the head of the wizard’s conclave, the ultra-pontiff, a monarch, or guildmaster of guildmasters, but you may want to discuss why your characters would or wouldn’t want that meta-adventuring responsibility outside of play, before accepting or denying those honors.
Characters will be well known, unless they have gone to extremely great pains to hide their deeds from the world. Nobody is going to underestimate them. Heroic Fantasy characters will be trusted agents or allies, Sword and Sorcery characters will see their old rivals grudgingly admitting that their old rivals have outclassed them. There will be literal sagas and epic poems about PCs in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, and there will be pressure for them to do one last crowning achievement to prove they can still top themselves. Epic Fantasy characters will be in a position to face down the ultimate architect of badness in the campaign, and Dark Fantasy characters will probably have mixed blessings of being well known and loved and/or hated by thousands of people.
Ironically, if you have been using a city as your framing device for the campaign, and defining scope based on the city, this may be the point at which those characters finally move out to other, similarly-sized cities, gaining perspective on how other urban areas are the same or different than their own city-sized world. This is also when major political plots by other cities start to undermine the influence and importance of their own city.
The tropes can be very similar and can be the primary element on which you hang your adventure, but that context is going to create strongly unique circumstances.
Let’s look at a final showdown in these genres, using a demon lord as the ultimate, campaign-ending boss monster.
- Heroic Fantasy: Because the characters are well known, the head of some important regional organization comes to them with all the legwork they have done, finding out that deep under the sea, in a city lost thousands of years ago, a demon lord is stirring. They have some time to figure out how they will narrow down where the lost city is, beyond “in the ocean,” as well as how to survive down there. Their allies will make sure they know that they trust them to handle this and will remind them that they will keep all the things they love safe on land while they explore this undersea ruin and defeat this demon lord.
- Sword and Sorcery: Among all the sketchy powers that balance one another across the continent, one of them decides to take a risk and summon a demon lord. This throws the balance way off, although it doesn’t go apocalyptic right off the bat. The demon lord sends emissaries to the other people in positions of authority, and instead of being sent to fight it, the PCs might be sent as diplomats or representatives. Eventually, they find out that there is a major downside to the negotiations (everyone on the continent with a certain birthmark sacrificed, and hey, you like some of the people with that birthmark!), so it’s clearly in the PCs best interest to unseat the demon lord. Once the demon lord knows no one is going to fall for the negotiations, the demon lord gets to be as evil as they want to be, and even mercenary PCs with a heart of gold end up looking pretty good if they take out this threat to the continent.
- Epic Fantasy: The paladin general of the armies of light has been corrupted by the demon lord at the head of the army of darkness. Before they turned, however, the book with the demon lord’s weakness was smuggled out of camp by a cleric that was once the paladin’s closest confidant. After fighting off the demons chasing the cleric, the PCs find out the final rituals they need to perform to be the anointed champions, able to destroy the demon lord for all eternity if they survive the ritual and face them on the field of battle.
- Mythic Fantasy: After years of being the best of the best, and having the world hear of their amazing deeds, the characters are challenged by a demon lord, who wants to know if they bear the seeds of true greatness. The demon lord has the slumbering form of a god trapped in their domain. The domain is filled with trials derived from the life and portfolio of the god they have trapped. If they can reach the center of the demon lord’s abyssal layer, and defeat the demon in its own domain, the god will be freed, and in gratitude, they get to be official demigods.
- Dark Fantasy: Wars and riots have caused major upheavals. The people are just now trying to piece together a new council that may be able to make the world a better place, but there are deep divisions and mistrust. Eventually, a well-regarded, wise, well-liked candidate to lead the council emerges. Currently, the player characters find out that the candidate’s advisor is secretly a demon lord. The candidate is a good person who wants to do what is right, but they also have a dark secret that the demon lord is going to slowly use to corrupt them. In their youth, they killed a vile person who always had a shining reputation. If they fight the advisor, the advisor will do their best to make sure it is public that they are a demon, and that they wanted the candidate to lead the council. Thus, the demon poisons the best person for the job with their endorsement.
They Lived (?) Happily (?) Ever After?
That’s a whole lot of high-level adventure hypothesizing. What I hope you get from this is that you can have very similar elements that, when playing with the scope and stakes of a campaign, will look very different. This article takes most of these definitions of scale and genre at face value, but very few stories end up drawing purely from one source.Read more »
My biggest hope is just to help anyone reading this piece to see that context can greatly change the tropes that you utilize in your campaign. The tropes can be very similar and can be the primary element on which you hang your adventure, but that context is going to create strongly unique circumstances.
What other genres of fantasy exist that we haven’t touched on in this piece? Are there any fantasy scopes that you generally avoid? Do you never start on the local scale, or never expand to the epic scale? We would love to hear about your fantasy campaigns below in the comments . . . no, really, tell us about your campaigns!
- Crunchy Mental Theater
In combat, when it comes to envisioning the locations of the various participants, there are two general options available: battle grid and theater of the mind.
With battle grid, you typically have a battle mat with 1-inch squares forming a grid. The surface is either dry-erase or wet-erase, which allows the GM to scribble down a quick map or draw out where walls, obstacles, and other objects are located. Then tokens or miniatures are used to mark where all of the participants are located. This approach is generally used with the more technical and “crunchy” games.
The theater of the mind approach is pretty much what it sounds like, but for those of you who have never experienced this approach, I’m going to drop into a quick explanation. With theater of the mind, there is no battle mat. There are no miniatures. There isn’t a physical representation of the combat area. Everything is done in the mind. This drastically reduces the expense, weight of transported materials, and setup times for games. However, the GM and players need to be extraordinarily descriptive about where objects are located, where characters are standing, and how the bad guys are arranged. This methodology is typically used for the more “rules light” games where precise locations of things isn’t important.
In this article, I’m going to delve into the theater of the mind approach for the more crunchy and rules-intense games and how to make things work well.
The main trick here is to use relative terms in describing locations. Since you can’t draw an altar symbol on the map and place an orc shaman token behind the symbology, you have to say something like, “The orc shaman stands behind the altar at the far end of the room. The room is long-enough that it would be long range for your short bows, but only medium range for your long bows.” You’re giving clear statements about the location of the altar and shaman, but also weaving in some rules structures as well.The main trick here is to use relative terms in describing locations.
You can continue your description to include, “There are eight orc warriors standing between the door you came in and the altar at the far end. They’re spread out in a manner to prevent you from easily running to interrupt the shaman’s ritual. The line of orc warriors stands about twenty feet away from you and they appear ready for a fight.” This description clearly divides the room into “melee battle zone with the warriors” and “shaman ritual zone at the far end.”
With the descriptors in place, the players can now declare their actions for ranged attacks against the shaman, or melee attacks against the warriors, or some other shenanigans the players always seem to come up with.
Encourage the players to be as clear as they can be in describing their actions. Not only do you need to understand the mechanical aspects of what they want to do, you really need to understand the intent of what they want to accomplish. A vague description of “I charge the orc warriors,” can lead to confusion. The player may mean that they want to get through the warriors in an attempt to get to the shaman. They may mean that they want to charge the warriors to attack and get a damage bonus on their hit. Just make sure you know what they’re trying to accomplish before making a mechanics ruling.
Sometimes, combat can get super convoluted, or if a hyper-visual player gets lost, it’s time for a quick sketch. Pull out a sheet of paper (blank, lined, gridded, whatever), and draw out the room or area the combat is taking place in. Don’t draw it to scale. Don’t draw it so that minis can be placed on it. Just use half a sheet of paper to place the pertinent objects/obstacles that are in play. Then use quick markers to note where the bad guys or monsters are standing. Then ask the players where they think they are and align it with where you think they are standing.It’s time for a quick sketch.
This is where clear communication and collaboration skills come into play. If there is a disagreement on where something or someone is at, then err on the side of caution and lean toward what the player is thinking. Unless this completely breaks the game, this is the best approach.
There may be times where a quick ret-con is necessary to roll back the action by a round or two if there is massive confusion as to what’s going on. This might happen more often in your early attempts at theater of the mind, but don’t give up on it. Like with many things in life, the more you practice at it, the better you and your players will get at it.
Encourage Clarifying Questions
As I mentioned above, the GM needs to understand the intent of what the players’ actions are going to be. The players also need to be able to understand and visualize in their minds everything the GM is describing. When using theater of the mind, I always encourage my players to speak up and ask questions of what I just described. When I’m done with my descriptions of where things are at and how they are laid out, I always ask, “Any questions? Anything not clear?”
There will come a time when the inevitable misunderstanding arises. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Certainly don’t berate your players. Accept it and clarify things with better descriptions. If a player thought they were in position to get a backstab (old school) or sneak attack (new school) in on a bad guy, then let them. Moving the story forward with “yes, and” instead of “no, but” will always buy you goodwill from your players, and keep everything on a smoother track.
Using theater of the mind with the more crunchy games is certainly a challenge, but it can be done. I ran D&D for almost two decades before I had the money and stability in life to invest in battle mats and miniatures and all that goes with it. I do admit that I would prefer battle mats and minis for the crunchy games, but there are times when I run simple encounters with theater of the mind and just let the creative juices flow.Read more »
- How to Do Bad Things and Get Away with It: Advice for the Contrary Game Master and Player
Put away the ski mask, you absolute sociopath. This is about doing bad things in gaming, and what you do on your own time is between you and your defense attorney. If you’ve been gaming for any amount of time, you’re familiar with most of the old adages about how to make a good game: “show, don’t tell,” “don’t metagame.” “Don’t roll the dice by putting them in your mouth and spitting them onto the table.”
Those are all really good pieces of advice, for the record. But rules are made to be broken. This article is all about how to turn standard gaming advice on its head, and make a better game by doing so.
Tell, Don’t Show
Some time after World War II, it became an axiom of creative writing (and by extension its younger sibling, gaming), that an author should “show, don’t tell.” There’s some speculation that this was actually part of a broader movement to discourage broad social critiques in art, because communism.
Well, Comrade, buckle up. There’s a place for purple prose in gaming. It’s a very small place, no more than a sentence or two. Beyond that, you’re relying on your players to potentially navigate the kind of word count that would make James Joyce feel self-indulgent, picking out the bits and pieces they need out of a mess of adjectives and atmosphere.
So how do you tell in ways your players can use?
- Be concrete and specific. Beyond a very short setting of the scene, keep your descriptions to only those elements of a scene that characters can interact with.
- Connect the dots. When your players make, for instance, an investigation roll, tell them the meaning of what they’ve found before you give them the details. It’s fine to say that they find broken glass on the inside of a room near a broken window, but only tell them that after you’ve let them know that means that whatever it is that broke the window came from outside the room.
- Don’t be afraid to gamify it. If the characters encounter a room with an area effect, lead with the mechanical impact. Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan once called games a “foggy medium.” What he meant was that characters have a much more complete view of the world than a player ever will. If a room is so hot that it does damage when a character enters it, the character’s whole body will warn them almost before they register “heat.” They will have a reflexive understanding of what information means based on a whole lifetime of experience, and players can only imitate that understanding through mechanics. So give them those mechanics, clearly, unambiguously, and most importantly, first.
Metagaming is definitely a two-edged sword. There’s a world of difference between “I’ve played this scenario before and I know this room is trapped,” and “I don’t trust the way the GM said ‘you don’t see anything.’” The former is just bad gaming, and any player who does that should feel bad about it. The latter is, and I’m giving away a big GM secret here, the whole reason the GM said it that way.
Some of the best games I’ve ever run or played in have unabashedly used metagaming to tell a better story. This can take the form of “I’m an experienced adventurer, so this isn’t my first rodeo,” or a fully-genre-savvy modern character who’s seen a movie or two.
Metagaming can build tension in a way that pretending to be completely ignorant of the setting, genre, and world you’re playing in just can’t. Your players will have expectations and assumptions, whether you let them admit it or not. Your choices are to either pretend this is the first time anyone’s heard the word “wizard,” or to run with it and tell your players that metagaming is, in a way, encouraged. So how do you metagame right?Your choices are to either pretend this is the first time anyone’s heard the word “wizard,” or to run with it and tell your players that metagaming is, in a way, encouraged. So how do you metagame right?
- Create assumptions, not certainties. “This dragon is red, so I probably shouldn’t use fire” is actually a completely reasonable conclusion to reach in most worlds. Whether it actually works out that way is up to the GM.
- Be explicit when you’re metagaming. If you’re drawing a conclusion based on your own experience with a world, it’s okay to say “look, I think my character has been exposed to enough to think this.” When you say it that way, it invites the group to think about what their characters might think, rather than assuming no one knows anything. If you keep it to yourself, you’re asking to be disappointed. Also, you never know—maybe that assumption you’re making is something the GM didn’t think of, and it will make the game better. You can only find out if you say something.
- GMs: just let it roll sometimes. It’s very tempting, especially if you view your role as GM as adversarial, to punish players for thinking out of the box. If a player makes an assumption and acts on that assumption, you have absolute power, and you can change things on the fly to make that assumption incorrect. “Well, sure the dragon is red, but I’ve decided it’s got a skin condition, and it’s actually invulnerable to ice!” Don’t—and I can’t emphasize this enough—do that. You’re a GM. You have absolute power. If your only goal is to just kill the PCs, drop a cow from space on them and be done with it. Then stop GMing, because you’re coming from the wrong place. If an assumption is a good one, consider going in the opposite direction. “Well, this thing is made of dry straw, so it would make sense that it’s vulnerable to fire, even though the stat block doesn’t say so” is a great way to reward players for thinking creatively.
By my conservative estimate, there are eleventy gajillion pages of Dungeons and [redacted] content out there, with thousands of rules that interact with each other in weird, nitpicky ways. The same is true of any number of other systems. On the one hand, that’s part of the fun. Tweaking rules and seeing how they change the game is part of what makes choices meaningful, and gives the kind of uncertainty that keeps a game exciting.
But, uh. That’s a lot of rules, and as a GM, you’re already keeping track of a lot more than the average player is. That means, even if you don’t have that one player who knows the game inside and out, your players can, and often should be, more familiar with the rules that apply to them than you are. You can either pretend that you’re the only available source of rulings, or use that knowledge to make a better game. So let your players rules lawyer it up, with the following guidelines:
- Always reward players for rules mastery. If the player points out a rule that is to their benefit or the benefit of the group, that ruling is reward enough. If the player points out a rule that is to the detriment of the party, reward the player who pointed it out with an in-game resource like inspiration. Optionally, if they pointed out a rule that is to the detriment of the other player, reward that player, too.
- Remember that the GM is the final arbiter, but the rules still exist. This is a bit of a judgment call. Sometimes, a rule a player finds will completely derail an entire session—in those cases, a GM is completely within their rights to override that rule. But—and this is important—the players should not come away from that empty-handed. If the players find a clever rule that lets them bypass a challenging room, let them bypass the room. If they find a rule that lets them bypass an entire dungeon, put something in the dungeon they still need, but give them a powerful advantage when they go in anyway. This is a balancing act, and I’m not going to pretend it’s anything else, but as long as you keep “always reward the players” in mind, it should go fine.
There are two kinds of secrets: character secrets and player secrets.
- Character secrets are things that one or more characters might know, but the others don’t. Key to this though, is that the other players know those secrets. Character secrets should always be discussed with the group, and if everyone’s on board, they can provide some great roleplaying moments.
- Player secrets are things that one or more characters know and others don’t, and that the other players don’t know. Like character secrets, they can provide some amazing scenes, but unlike character secrets, they have the potential to ruin an entire game.
So how do you make player secrets fun for the whole group?
- Avoid double-crosses unless you know for a fact (and have cleared with the group beforehand) the possibility that one of the characters will potentially betray the others. Of course, at that point, you’re halfway to having a character secret anyway. It’s been my experience that characters working against the group makes the whole game less fun for everyone involved. Honestly, I just avoid these entirely.
- Make the player secret something that adds to the whole group’s play. If a player is secretly a demigod or runaway royalty, when you reveal it to the party, do so in a way that makes things easier or more awesome for the whole group. Maybe a momentary flash of divinity gives the whole group the benefit of a night’s rest, or a guard that would have otherwise arrested the players looks the other way when she recognizes her beloved liege-in-exile. The point is that the reveal should always be a positive for the group to avoid resentment.
Roll-Play, Don’t Role-Play
A very smart friend of mine once said “RPGs can be anything from improv theater to chess.” If your group tends more toward the former, using rules only sparingly (if at all), that’s great, but odds are you aren’t reading gaming advice if so. As always, if it’s working, don’t break it.
With that said, there are a few problems with the “tell a story and don’t worry about the system” approach.
- It rewards louder or more socially adept players. As a friend of mine recently said “social engineering is my superpower.” Quieter or less creative players, without the crutch of a system, just don’t have the ability to engage as fully.
- On the other hand, a GM who is particularly aware of someone who has the tendency to suck all the oxygen out of a scene may be too on guard against a player who always has the clever solutions, and might develop a habit of leading with “no” for that player, which can quickly sap anyone’s enthusiasm and enjoyment.
- It lends itself to foregone conclusions. Game mechanics add uncertainty and resource depletion to stories. Without these, games can quickly become simply a recitation of pre-planned plot points that everyone knows are going to end a certain way.
So how do you keep the dice without turning a game into Yahtzee, but with plot?
- Start with the roll, and let the roleplay happen afterward. The same players who usually operate with an advantage will usually be more than happy to take any excuse to be either awesome or awful, as the dice dictate.
- Call for rolls whenever there’s uncertainty. I’m not talking about making players roll to walk across a room, but don’t be afraid to ask yourself “how could this go wrong?” and then make players roll to avoid it. This doesn’t have to lead to failure (in fact, it usually shouldn’t), but keeping a list of complications on hand can make even otherwise non-combat scenes feel more like a game than a “listen to X talk for 30 minutes.” The Cypher system does a great job of this with its “intrusions” mechanic.
Don’t Put the Dice Into Your Mouth
- Actually? Just don’t do that. It’s gross.
Everyone loves to ignore advice (people are like that). What gaming advice do you like to turn on its head? Sound off in the comments or on the social media platform of your choice. Gimme that sweet, sweet engagement and help me avoid the Stew.
Big thanks to Will M. and Elena for their ideas and input on this one.Read more »
- How to Take Better Photographs of Your Tabletop RPG Games
Roleplaying games are about telling and sharing stories with one another. If you’re into tabletop gaming, especially RPGs, then you know the excitement doesn’t end when a session wraps up. The memorable events linger and may even haunt you on your ride home. Some experiences evolve into legend, and others fade beyond your control.
The nostalgia of taking a good photo or a series of them during gameplay is invaluable for re-living the experience. Sure, it’s cliché to say that a photo is worth a thousand words. But, I would go further and say that a memory captured in a single beautiful image is priceless.
In this article, I share with you some tips for how to take better photographs of your tabletop games (you can find more gaming photography tips here). Whether you want a keepsake for yourself or a post on social media, a truly engaging photo is a shared experience that brings a community together (if only for a precious moment).
You Only Need Three Things to Start Taking Better Photos
Most snapshots are games are taken spur-of-the-moment without much thought for composition and story. For example, a crazy event happened, e.g., a boss fight, and you capture a photo to show your miniatures and board state at that instance.
When you look back on that image, however, it’s blurry, dark or simply bad. And, it’s not because your photography equipment is poor. Most smartphone cameras rival the best the semi-professional photography industry had to offer only a few years ago.
To improve your images, you don’t need fancy equipment. In fact, you only need three things to make better photos of your tabletop games:
- Good light
- Better perspective (angle)
- An eye for storytelling
With good light and better perspective, you are capturing information for your viewer through your photography. With an eye for storytelling, you’re composing images that create a narrative your viewer can piece together.
In a storytelling photograph, for example, there are characters in a situation. There is a tension in the image that engages your viewer.
Read on for how good light, a unique perspective, and a photographic eye for storytelling can immediately improve your photography of your tabletop games.
How to Improve Your Lighting When Photographing Tabletop Games
The best lighting for photographing almost anything is natural sunlight. The sun produces a perfectly cast neutral light that renders the rich, vibrant colors that we all love in a scenic landscape. Our brains are tuned for this kind of lighting.
Of course, indoors, where we play our games, most of this natural sunlight doesn’t exist, or only in limited fashion through a window. The indoor lamps and overhead lights in a home living room, kitchen, or a local game store and club aren’t very conducive to creating colorful, good contrast images.
In this case, you can place your smartphone or camera on a tripod. This allows you to stabilize the camera and will permit the camera to leave its shutter open longer. A longer shutter opening time (or slower shutter speed, in camera terms) will allow more ambient light to enter the lens and hit the sensor. This improves contrast, brightness, and clarity in a photo, while the tripod stabilization reduces image blur (e.g., an artifact of a shaky handheld photograph).
Another way you can improve the lighting of your tabletop game is adding extra lights. There are portable ambient lights you can take with you to your games. These could be LED rings lights or light cubes you can find online. Usually, a battery powered light is sufficient.
Don’t use flash. A flash bulb will distort and “wash out” your images, reducing the color richness and contrast of your photo. At the distances you will photograph a tabletop game, a flash hurts your images more than it helps. Sure, there are exceptions if you know how to use “off-camera” flash systems, but these are quite sophisticated to setup and are not friendly to gamers, especially if you’re also playing.
Finally, another way to improve your lighting in your photos is to understand how to fix your white balance. Most cameras, including smart phones, have an Auto White Balance (AWB) setting that is default. You can change your white balance to things like “shade” or “sunlight”, which could improve your colors if things look off. Or, you can edit your white balance in photo editing software, which may help you achieve best results in a photo. You can find more details about white balance editing in this article. Ultimately, you’ll find what works best for your photos if you experiment and play around with your settings.
A New Perspective or Camera Angle Will Improve Your Tabletop Gaming Photographs
The most convenient camera angles (your eye level) often create the most boring images. For example, you’re sitting at the game table and lift your smartphone up to take a snapshot. This creates the overhead angle that everyone already sees. Sure, this is a great “documentary” style photo that captures information.
But, information alone is boring, tedious. It carries no surprises, no sense of immersion or story. It is simply data.
To take a more compelling and interesting photo of your tabletop game, change your perspective. Perhaps you lower your camera to the tabletop height, to the eye level of your miniatures and see the “world” for their eye level: the miniature eye level. Get your viewer to see from a viewpoint they would not explore otherwise.
Maybe you take a series of photos. Pretend you’re a bird, flying high above the tabletop, then swoop low, and capture how the “world” looks as a dragon would as he strafes a village in fire.
You could take a photo of your gamer friend as he throws those polyhedrals, but shoot from super high angle or a low wide angle. Surprise your viewer with visuals they would not normally expect.
Exploit symmetry and shape. Squint your eyes and look for how the blurry “big shapes” come together in your scene. Try and create a sense of structure through your photos. Read more about using photographic structure to create more engaging images. Use leading lines, shapes, and interesting juxtapositions to capture your viewer’s attention.
Think About How Your Photos Tell a Story
All art, including photography, communicates a message. Whether a viewer receives that artist’s message clearly and accurately is another discussion altogether.
When it comes to photographing a tabletop game, you are the messenger. You tell the story from your perspective. A good photograph will tell your story through 1) all the elements that you include or exclude in the image frame.
Your characters have their marching orders as they enter a dungeon. Do you include in your photo the miniatures in their current positions with or without the giant spider lurking around the corner? One image provides data that adds a sense of foreboding tension. The other merely communicates a formal (boring) step in a longer series of events.
My advice is to check the corners of your frame and be mindful of what you include or exclude in your photo. This is the first phase of creating a narrative style photo.
As your game progresses, think about capturing photos that include the players themselves. What are their emotions like during each event? When the DM orders “roll for initiative”, how are your fellow players poised in their chairs; are they flicking their pens/pencils? Nervously massaging D20’s?
What kind of junk snacks and drinks are scattered around the table? Adding these player, non-game elements into a photo series can add value to your in-game images. In fact, this is the kind of thoughtful, systematic approach of a wartime photojournalist.
And, that’s exactly what tabletop games are, a kind of conflict between players and characters in a fantasy world event.
To take better photos of a tabletop RPG game is an act of courage because you have to become an artist. And, as an artist, the danger to your ego is real. A damaged ego hurts like hell. Most of your photos will suck, like badly. On the bright side, this is normal. You will rarely create the gem you think you captured.
At the end of the day, photography, like a narrative campaign is about the quiet thrill of discovery and disappointment.
Capture it with your camera.
What do you think? Do you ever wish you could take better images of your games? If you enjoyed this article, leave a comment below!Read more »
- You Too, Can Self Publish Call of Cthulhu
The Call of Cthulhu… is Calling You to Self Publish
Horror is my happy place. It’s a great contrast to my typical exuberant, happy self. Horror can truly pull the curtains back on human nature and give you some great perspective on what makes people tick. Personally, I love the type of horror that makes people think. Historical horror is my favorite playground.
If you’re into horror gaming, you’ve probably comes across one of the most famous and widely recognized horror TTRPGs in the industry: Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. If not, check it out! You won’t be disappointed.
Based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Chaosium is on its 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu. Statements from leadership suggest that we’ll be enjoying this edition for quite some time (i.e.: don’t worry, it won’t jump to 8th Edition by the time you finish this article). It’s not the new Samsung, Apple or D&D 3.5 product. cough cough
Anywhoo, Chaosium affords creators a unique opportunity to self-publish their 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu games online for sale (or for free)!
Wanna know how?! Feeling excited? Been thinking about writing a Call of Cthulhu game? Looking to support some creators? This article will briefly tackle some of the heavy lifting and serve as a reference resource.
Per their page, The Miskatonic Repository is an official online collection of user-made content, allowing creators to sell their own original Call of Cthulhu material. Creators can make money from their published community content or make it freely available – it is entirely up to the creator.
Publishing on the Repository is fairly easy! There are no fees involved. You don’t have to secure an independent license. You can reference materials such as the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, Keeper Screen Pack and even Pulp Cthulhu! Chaosium even provides templates to help you format your game (in both Word and InDesign). Best part? You can sell, sell, sell!
Seriously, I get paid?
Oh, for sure! You can list your product for free, PWYW (pay what you want), or for a fee.
Once you list your product, the math is pretty simple. You keep 50% of the sale price. The other 50% is split between Chaosium and DriveThruRPG (well, their parent company, OneBookShelf).
The entire process is automated, so you don’t have to be a bookkeeper to track your sales. You can log onto your account and see exactly how much money you’ve made and how many sales have been completed. Cash out via PayPal or keep the money in your account and use as a credit for future purchases!
Are you ready to publish, but not sure how to price your product? General rule of thumb is to charge 10 cents/page. So, a 30-page scenario would be listed at about $3.00. However, if you really broke the bank on some spectacular art, outsourcing editing/layout, or whatever else… increase the price accordingly.
You’re excited now. I can tell.
Okay, what exactly can I publish?
Things can get a little interesting here! I’ll review broad strokes, but listen, as the creator, it is your responsibility to know what is and what is not allowed. At worst, you can open yourself up to lawsuit. At best, your product may be pulled down if you color outside of the lines.
Also remember, the Miskatonic Repository focuses on playable content. Here are some guidelines to follow.
Read them. Seriously. It’ll make your life easier. I promise. I know that it’s a lot, but listen… the best way to eat an elephant (metaphorically speaking, please don’t eat elephants), is one bite at a time. Take your time. Go through these. Still have questions? Ask them!
Ummm… I still have questions and I need support.
Lord, don’t we all? Okay, so look, I’ve self-published on the Miskatonic Repository. I 100% would not have gotten as far as I did if I didn’t have the best support network EVER! Allow me to share these resources with you!
This is a private Facebook group for Miskatonic Repository creators. This is a great place to soundboard, ask questions, solicit feedback, gain advice, and to connect with other creators. There is a direct Chaosium ambassador in the group who does a phenomenal job of keeping us current and informed (Allan Carey—thank you!). You can even solicit help for proofreading, editing, layout and play-testing.
Earlier this year, the Miskatonic Repository Creator’s Group hosted an AMA with the one and only, Mike Mason, Chaosium’s Creative Director. There are FAQs, documents and so much experience there. Seriously, join it today!
- Evan Perlman, a phenomenal content creator and all around amazing and supportive guy, put together an awesome step by step guide to assist creators with navigating (I should say hoop jumping) the upload process of DriveThruRPG. I literally have this document up anytime I upload a document to the page.
- The Miskatonic Repository offers additional support here!
This document is also a lifesaver in so many ways! It’ll help guide you from avoiding clichés, tips on the mythos, tone, and technical tips! It also includes great resources for art.
- Art can get tricky (if you allow it to), so here are some bonus tips!
Images printed prior to 1923 are considered public domain. So, go wild with those. Looking for something recent? Check out Pixabay, Unsplash, or Wikicommons for royalty free images. Just be sure to cite it correctly if it’s creative common. Always give artists credit, if not money if you can. Also, never sleep on the great Google. You can adjust your settings to include royalty free art! BOW!
The FAQ of FAQ’s
Nick Brooke and Allan Carey compiled a list of FAQs for publishing on the Miskatonic Repository, and it is incredibly thorough! I still learn new things as I reread and reopen this document.
As your product grows in sales, you’ll achieve metals, sponsored by DriveThruRPG.
- 50+ Copper
- 100+ Silver
- 250+ Electrum
- 500+ Gold
- 1000+ Platinum
- 2000+ Mithril
- 5000+ Adamantine
**Note, metals are awarded once you cross the tiers above. So, 51 is a Copper.
These are really cool to achieve and should be worn as a badge of honor. Each time your title hits a new tier, remember to upload your cover page displaying your new fancy badge!
Fun note! Chaosium will not immediately allow you the option to send your product to print, however, if it reaches Electrum or by their own invitation (don’t reach out to them, they’ll reach out to you), you could very well have your own creation in print!!!
Author’s Note: When you support the Miskatonic Repository, it’s kinda like supporting local. The MR gives us new creators an opportunity to race for the stars. Please support us. Check out our products. Run our games. Join in on the discussion tab. Leave ratings and reviews. We work really, really hard… for YOUR enjoyment. Looking for some great MR Content? Chaosium ambassador Nick Brooke has a living catalogue of every Miskatonic Repository submission! See it here!
I know that this is a lot of information to digest and navigate, but know in my heart of hearts, this is not here to overwhelm or discourage you. I’ve written this to inspire and encourage you!
If you love Call of Cthulhu and you think others would enjoy running amuck in your mythos imagined world, you have options! You can self-publish on the Repository. The most important thing? You don’t have to do it alone. We all started somewhere. So, whether you have a nagging scenario idea chewing a hole through your brain, or you have a fully completed scenario hiding in the dark recesses on your hard drive…
Maybe it’s time to bring it to the light.
What other questions do you have about publishing on the Miskatonic Repository? Creators, what has been your experience publishing? What did I miss that someone desperately needs to know? Are you finally ready to descend into madness and bring everyone with you? Tell us in the comments what you’re working on!
- Inkwell Ideas Sidequest Decks First Impression
The people at Inkwell Ideas have been producing Sidequest Decks, decks that have an inspirational map on one side, with a sketched-out adventure outline on the back of the card. While these cards lean on particular genres, they don’t have any specific game mechanics included in the outline. Inkwell Ideas has a Kickstarter coming up to fund additional Sidequest Decks, and to give people an idea of what is included, they sent me these decks to peruse.
I didn’t previously own any of the Inkwell Ideas Sidequest Decks, but I have picked up several of their Creature Decks and NPC Portrait Decks, so I have made multiple purchases in the past. I’m interested in digging into this concept.
The Sidequest Decks that I was sent include the following:
- Dungeons, Caverns, & Ruins Fantasy
- After the TPK
While I wasn’t sent a copy of these decks, the following other Sidequest Decks are available from Inkwell Ideas:
- Political & Urban Fantasy
- Wilderness & Frontier Fantasy
- Science Fantasy
- Science Fiction
- High Seas, Pirates, & Ports
- Arcane Academy
- Horror Fantasy
- Modern Crime, Spies, & Supers
What Do the Decks Look Like
In general, these decks are presenting an outline that a game facilitator can use to run a session and presenting a related map that can be used to help plot that adventure. The map does not include any key, which can be significant depending on the outline being presented.
One face is a map, and on the other face is text that has the following sections:
- PC Hooks
- Follow Up Adventure Ideas
The keywords serve different functions in different decks. Because of what may come up in various scenarios, the keywords can be a content warning. If you have cards that say “torture” or “drug use,” that’s going to be a good warning sign if you have already established some lines and veils for your campaign.
For the TPK deck, the keywords help to establish what genres might be at play, and if the characters have the potential to come back immediately or after an extended period of time. This can potentially help you sort through how you want to move forward after a TPK in a science fiction game, versus a modern horror game, versus a fantasy game.
Dungeons, Caverns, & Ruins Fantasy
This deck is one of the earliest Sidequest Decks produced by Inkwell Ideas. This deck is playing with a lot of tropes that are common in action fantasy games. The assumed creatures at play often reference the kind of creatures you are going to find in D&D-style games, but with no stats involved, these cards could still be used with Fantasy AGE, Pathfinder, or any other epic fantasy with a wide range of monsters and ubiquitous supernatural elements.
There are a few of these cards that have simple “non-mechanical” puzzles on them, such as a room that needs to be turned a certain way to access other parts of the dungeon. There are a few recurring themes that make sense for this genre of fantasy, including goblins, or demons and their cults or summoners.
Some of the maps on the cards have some obvious placements based on the outline presented, even without a map key, such as a clear entrance and a major, central room for a climactic encounter to occur. In some cases, however, it’s hard to map the outline of the adventure to the map presented on the card.
I was a little uncomfortable with some of the “child” elements of the adventures. There are several sections where children are put in danger as a hook, and where “monster” children are used as a point of moral contention, and I’m never really a fan of the “is it okay to kill a child” as a plot point.
With all of that said, I really like being creative in a confined space, and when I run published adventures, I tend to customize the monsters in those encounters before I run them, or at least look through my wide range of monster manuals to make sure I want to use the default monsters. I also really like the follow-up adventure ideas to help spark ideas for how to connect these outlines to wider campaigns.
After the TPK
This deck goes a different route than the previous deck. Instead of being focused on one genre of play, this one can be used with a few different genres, although it leans heavily on fantasy for most of the adventure ideas. The idea behind this deck is that if your player characters all die before they finish the campaign, you can insert one of the sidequests into the campaign and eventually reintroduce the characters into the game to finish what they started. Adding in the extra hoops to jump through makes the TPK meaningful as a story point, while not becoming a hard stop for a campaign where the players have developed significant investment.
The keywords at the top of the cards give you some hints as to what kind of “return” the player characters will be making, what genre works best with that “return,” and how soon player characters can return to how the campaign was progressing before the unfortunate cessation of breathing might have happened. For example, a card might have keywords that indicate the characters are cloned, the campaign will advance significantly while they are gone, and that they might need to perform an extended task before returning to their previous goals.
Several of the fantasy-themed cards deal with some mythological afterlives and how characters might return to life based on those mythological elements. For example, there are cards that layout returning from Olympian Hades, Norse Hel, or the Heliopolis afterlife. Most of these involve going on an adventure to interact with elements of those afterlives before finding a means to slip back into the Prime Material plane.
Other, broader fantasy afterlife cards involve gods with a specific theme requesting certain things from the player characters. Additionally, many of the cards involve being summoned by necromancers either as ghosts or zombies, with the ability to return to life at a certain point, or potentially inhabit new bodies.
Several of the afterlife “returns” are multi-genre solutions, such as facing a trial in a courtroom, appearing in a metaphysical video arcade, appearing in a retirement home afterlife, or living a parallel life in a shadow world.
I love this concept for a deck of inspirational adventure concepts. This is probably my favorite of all the decks I looked at for this article. I’ve always been someone that likes to play with roleplaying the afterlife when a character dies in a campaign, so this is cogent to my interests.
This deck has a more constrained focus than the Dungeons, Caverns, & Ruins Fantasy deck, but still crosses over a lot of different horror or supernatural investigation tropes. Many of these scenarios could be used with different games, changing the consequences of interacting with the supernatural to change the narrower band of some horror investigation genres.
The maps that are used for this deck are much more modern appearing than the Dungeon, Caverns, & Ruins deck. There are several city blocks, old moody houses, and neighborhood maps printed on these cards for inspiration.
A lot of these outlines, to me, felt very much like the outline for an X-Files episode. I think this deck would be especially useful for people playing Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green, or Monster of the Week. In fact, several of the player hooks have a hook for “you have a personal stake in this mystery,” with another hook being more along the lines of “you have been assigned to follow up on X.”
I think the keywords for this one really do need to be used for content warnings, with the number of them that include elements like drug use or mental health. While those are probably session zero discussions for Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green games (or they should be), some of these might sideswipe a game of Monster of the Week if you haven’t already discussed heavier topics that might come up in supernatural horror.
One interesting, and thematically appropriate, element of these outlines is that it feels more like these outlines are “resolved,” but don’t always provide an answer for what just happened, unless you delve into the follow-up adventure ideas. I personally like this element of the outlines, because one of the problems I often run into when it comes to more “cosmic horror” based stories, is resolving too much of the mystery too quickly, and separating the immediate mystery from the long-term mystery.
The maps that appear on these cards can range from immediately useful to inspirational artwork, so it’s probably important to keep that in mind. Not every card is going to have a map that immediately lends itself to a one-on-one assignment of encounters, but some of them do.Because of the number of ideas that these cards spurred in me for adventures, and because I like the idea of providing these outlines for other genres, I am interested in seeing how this line of decks develops in the future.If you are a game facilitator that enjoys creating within a confined space, I think these products will appeal to you. The outlines are enough to keep you moving forward for a night of play but have enough room to add your own traps, puzzles, monsters, or mechanical widgets that I feel they can make for a comfortable backboard to bounce ideas against.
While I liked the fantasy-themed decks, I can see some broad utility in the Lovecraftian/Supernatural and After the TPK decks as RPG products that are providing a resource that isn’t overserved with existing game products.
I am tempted to pick up some of the other decks after looking after the ones I was sent. I am especially interested in the broader genre decks, like science fantasy and science fiction (and who am I kidding, I’m really interested in the High Seas, Pirates, and Ports deck because I am who I am). Because of the number of ideas that these cards spurred in me for adventures, and because I like the idea of providing these outlines for other genres, I am interested in seeing how this line of decks develops in the future.
What are some of your favorite supplements for spurring ideas to flesh out your own adventures? Are those supplements game-specific, or multi-genre products? How much luck have you and in transferring spur-of-the-moment, one-night adventures into the larger narrative of a campaign? We want to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- Troy’s Crock Pot: Aches and Pains on the Day After
Did any characters almost die during the big boss fight? Anyone have to roll a death save for their character?
Maybe their hit points didn’t drop to zero. How about below half, even? Sure, the system is abstract, but surely a drop like that would take its toll.
How about that preliminary encounter, the one that was unexpectedly tough? Did anyone expend their healing surges or deplete the party’s available magical cures?
What about toxins and poisons? Did any effects manifest?
As a GM, these are narrative opportunities. But not for that immediate moment.
It’s much better if you deal with it the very next day!
(Or, if you are playing D&D, after the next long rest.)
The player characters have just been through the equivalent of a car crash.
Guess what: They may be big darn heroes, but they should still feel the after-effects of their exertions from battle.
Even those whose recovery was aided by divine magic should still have tender spots. (Pain is a blessing, you know; it reminds you that you’re still alive.)
Plus, the odds are the characters (at least those in a fantasy-medieval setting) don’t have access to prescription-strength painkillers or understand the importance of applying/or have access to ice for strained muscles.
So, when the characters wake, let them know how much they are feeling the aches and pains of battle. Appendages are strained, stiff or bruised. Anyone woozy or lightheaded? How about just sore in unexpected places?
I’m not talking about burdening the characters with anything that penalizes them in game terms. One fully expects characters to “walk it off” or stretch stiffening muscles or pop that disjointed limb back into place.
(Most game systems depend on the healing system to work; tacking on additional penalties can unbalance the experience. Besides, adding a -1 or a -2 just because the characters put their lives on the line the previous day would discourage future risk-taking — and what’s the fun in that?)
Still, it’s good every once in a while to remind your players that there are consequences for having their characters engage in battle and other heroic exploits that test them physically. Just do it as narrative prompts.
Having a few random charts at hand is a good way to handle this (mainly, it beats having the GM come up with this descriptors on their own). Remember, this isn’t for every character after every fight. Put this into play only when you want to emphasize the characters’ extraordinary exploits.
“You hurt today because you did something amazing.”
A couple of rolls on these two charts below should be all you need to dramatize the experience for a given player. (Again, assure them there are no in-game effects). But give them a chance to work out the kinks, perhaps apply ointments or massage the affected area as their quest continues.
Here is their chance to say they redon their armor gingerly. Or maybe it takes calisthenics or yoga to get back into the groove. Maybe it’s a good time to say a prayer to a patron deity to provide a balm or additional healing.
A savvy player may run with this information and incorporate it into further roleplay, reminding others of their injury during play. (“My knee is acting up.” “I’ll help lift, but use my good hand.” “I use my shield to protect my bruised chest.”)
Even if the characters just note the description and move on without building on the suggestion, it’s OK. As GM, you’ve given the characters a prompt, which is the most you can do. It’s up to them.
But if the players have their characters suggest they take a detour to the next town for a soak in the hot springs or seek a medical massage or even visit a hedge-wizard for some folk cures — you’ll know you’ve hit a sore spot!
Remember to bring the bandages.
What part hurts (d20)?
1 Skull (or horns)
4 Lower back (or tail)
5 Left arm or elbow
6 Right arm or elbow
7 Left hand-fingers
8 Right hand-fingers
10 Left side
11 Right side
13 Left leg or knee
14 Right leg or knee
15 Left foot-toes
16 Right foot-toes
How does it hurt (d12)?
2 Stiff or tight
3 Pins ’n needles
7 Bruised or Discolored
8 Splotches or rash
11 Light-headed or woozy
12 Twisted or extendedRead more »
- Heisting a Campaign
All GMs run dry on ideas. It happens to the best of us. What’s the next campaign? Dunno. What’s the next encounter or story arc? Dunno. Should I toss in a random encounter just for the fun of it? Dunno.
In my world as a fiction writer, this is referred to as “writer’s block.” It happens. I’m fortunate that I don’t get blocked too often, but when I do, I step away from my creative efforts and go “fill the well.” This will undoubtedly inspire me in new creative efforts.
Filling the Well
What do I mean by “filling the well” in this context? It’s pretty simple, to be honest. It’s a matter of stepping away from whatever has you brain-locked, and getting inspiration. I do this by consuming media outside the genre I’m currently working on. If I’m writing cyberpunk, I go read some epic fantasy. If I’m writing sword and sorcery, I go watch some good (or maybe horrifically entertaining) science fiction on a streaming platform.This allows me the freedom to step away from what I’m doing.
This allows me the freedom to step away from what I’m doing, relax my brain, and ingest some new content. However, since I’m a creative person at my core, I’m always subconsciously looking at this new content for ideas for what I’m working on.
This is where my heist comes in.
Heisting ContentThe heist can originate from almost anywhere.
When I’m talking about heisting content, I’m not talking about designing a heist-based story arc for my campaign or adventure. Sure, this could be the case, but that’s not the context in this case. In this case, I blatantly steal ideas from the media that’s filling my well. Of course, I don’t just run off and use it exactly as it’s presented in the media I’m consuming. This is typically because the genres are different, so there are different tropes and conventions used in the different genres. Even if I’m thieving ideas from the same genre, I tend to change things up.
The heist can originate from almost anywhere and be executed in almost any format. I think I’m going to throw some examples out as a way to illustrate what I mean.
As an example, I’ve taken the idea of the protomolecule from The Expanse and changed it up into a series of short adventures to be used in a fantasy setting where a mysterious, intelligent disease is taking over the lands. The players can’t cure it, but they need to learn how to mitigate it, perhaps control it, and generally how to deal with something that’s both infectious and intelligent at the same time. Also, I changed the glowing color of my disease from brilliant blue to a pulsing amber color. Just to throw a bit of a head fake into the game for those players who had maybe consumed The Expanse TV show and/or books.
As we know, Lord of the Rings includes quite a bit of travel, mostly hobbits using their hairy feet to walk across the lands. I apologize if I attribute this to the wrong person, but I believe it was Senda on Panda’s Talking Games who commented that it would be interesting if someone took Lord of the Rings and dropped the concept into a modern or near-future setting. This gave me the idea (that I’ve yet to use) of the PCs having to traverse a metropolitan area starting on foot, but acquiring rides along the way as they are able to to speed up travel. Their goal is to carry some piece of technowizardry (the MacGuffin) across the city to the person who invented it, so that it could be safely dismantled or disabled. Of course, there would be nine gangs (Nazgul) standing in the PCs’ way to make life more difficult for them. I’d probably set this in a cyberpunk setting using the latest Cyberpunk Red rules to run the game.
Saving the Private
One of the greatest WWII epic films made was Saving Private Ryan. This storyline of “save the last surviving brother from front-line battle” can be easily adopted to almost any genre and setting. The person to be saved could even be a POW or lost behind enemy lines if extra danger or adventure is needed. If I were to take this storyline, I’d probably shift it into a space opera setting where stealth ships, intrigue, maybe a few gun fights planet side, and a climactic space battle result in the rescue (or not, if things go poorly for the party) of the person in question.
What elements of something would you heist from an existing property? How would you change it for your setting, genre, or game? Have you ever done this? How did it go?Read more »
- ● Assassin's Creed - Next One in Brazil?@Gaminformer Ubisoft devs reportedly want the next Assassin's Creed to be set in Brazil. That being said, he did add that in the immediate future, he'd love to see the culture of South America take center stage in the Assassin's Creed franchise.... Read more »
- ● Dragon Age 2 - David Gaider ReminiscencesGameinformer reported on David Gaider's responses about what he liked and disliked about Dragon Age 2 when asked on Twitter. What was the deal with Orsino? One of the prevalent themes of the Dragon Age franchise is the conflict between Mages and Templars, with the former being held captive against their will due to their magical abilities.... Read more »
- Elder Scrolls Online - Earnable Loot BoxesPC Gamer reports that if you like some grinding you can get ESO-loot-boxes for free: Elder Scrolls Online loot box items will soon be earnable with in-game currency Khajiit has wares if you have time to grind. The forthcoming Update 30 for The Elder Scrolls Online, "Tentatively scheduled to launch in June", will add daily and weekly challenges called Endeavors.... Read more »
- Project Haven - Features | HighlightsSome feature highlights videos for Project Haven. loading... Haven city is a dark place. But that doesn't mean you can't have some sweet highlights to lighten up your way! loading... In our continual pursuit of improved player experience we have reworked our player detection indicators.... Read more »
- Glorious Companions - Upcoming Update 0.8Ancient Forge Studio talk about what to expect from the upcoming update 0.8 for Glorious Companions. Devlog: Upcoming Update 0.8 Let's talk about the upcoming update in detail! Hello there, Companions! It's been quite some time without any news on the development of Glorious Companions, which doesn't mean that there wasn't any progress being made.... Read more »
- Angelic - AnnouncedAngelic is an upcoming narrative turn-based strategy RPG: Angelic Angelic is a single player narrative turn-based strategy RPG, set in a dark science fiction universe. loading... Angelic combines turn-based strategy combat with distinctive and colorful heroes you often see in narrative games.... Read more »
- Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous - Level Design QA Write-upOn April 7, Owlcat Games made a stream on level design. It's quite long (2h44'), but forunately ilkarius made a very good illustrated summary with video pointers in their forums. Thanks Redglyph! Read more »
- Path of Exile - Ultimatum ExpansionHenriquejr spotted that the expansion Path of Exile: Ultimatum has been released: Path of Exile: Ultimatum Official Trailer loading... In Path of Exile: Ultimatum, you must undertake the trials of Chaos and choose whether to risk it all for ultimate power.... Read more »
- ● 13 Tips to Speed Up D&D Combat
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Though not nearly as big a problem as it was in previous editions, some DMs still find combat in the fifth edition of D&D takes too long for their or their players' liking. Today I'll offer a few tips to speed up combat. Not all tips work well for all groups, so choose those that work well for your and your group.
Many times DMs keep track of initiative but don't show it to the players. Instead, make sure you share whatever initiative system you use so the players know what the order is and who is on deck. You can even put a player in charge of taking initiative instead of doing it yourself. Easy initiative cards are a great way to go.
Use Side Initiative and Go Around the Table
For shorter skirmishes, skip having each character roll initiative individually and go around the table instead. Have one player roll for the group with no modifiers versus the monster with no modifiers. Or, instead, let the circumstances decide whether monsters or characters go first and then go around the table. Alternate which direction you go so no one ends up last all the time.
Use Average Monster Damage
The Monster Manual lists average damage for every monster in the book as the default. Though only about one in ten surveyed DMs use static monster damage, it's an easy way to speed up combat, particularly when using a lot of monsters. Give it a try, at least for less important monsters.
Run Theater of the Mind
More than half of surveyed DMs use a 5-foot-per-square gridded battle map and miniatures or tokens for combat. This can be a lot of fun for big crunchy battles with lots of different monsters and interesting terrain. For quick skirmishes, try running combat in the theater of the mind or use a quick abstract battle map. Most battles don't need to be big knock down, drag out slug fests. Keep theater of the mind combat in your toolbox and use it for battles where positioning isn't nearly as important. It will speed up a lot of your battles.
Use Fewer Monsters and Use Monsters of the Same Type
Speed up combat by using fewer monsters and using monsters of the same type. It's much easier to run a fight against four ogres than it is to run a fight with two ogres, six goblins, and a hobgoblin war mage. Instead of trying to differentiate monsters with mechanics, differentiate monsters with your in-world descriptions. Describe the unique weapon each ogre wields or their own particular appearance, style, or mannerisms. Make battles unique by describing in-world differences instead of worrying about mechanics.
Keep Battlegrounds Simple
Simpler combat areas make for faster battles. The temptation to make every battleground interesting is strong, but sometimes a room without a lot of obstacles or a narrow hallway is all you need. Not every fight needs to be a tactical chess match. Sometimes you just surround an ogre and beat it into the ground.
Run Easier Battles
Not every battle needs to be a perfectly balanced hard fight for the characters. Throw lots of low challenge monsters at the characters and let them have fun destroying them with powerful spells and attacks. Use the cleave rules from the Dungeon Master's Guide so melee attackers can cleave through opponents like Conan the Barbarian. Easy fights are a great way to have some fun and not take up a lot of time. Of course, consider running these easier fights off the grid to save some time.
Run with Fewer Players
It's not always possible to select the number of players in your game but, if you can, four players are generally ideal. With four players you get lots of synergy between characters but each character gets a good deal of screen time. This also makes battles much easier to manage than those with five or more players. Fewer players means fewer monsters so everything gets easier.
Use Horde Guidelines for Lots of Monsters
It's fun to run battles with dozens to hundreds of monsters and yet seems completely paralyzing to do so. Instead of running each monster independently use the Sly Flourish horde guidelines to run lots of monsters easily. Here they are for easy reference:
- Tally damage done to the horde instead of tracking damage done to individual monsters. Every time any monster in the horde takes damage equal to an individual monster's hit points, remove that monster. Round monster hit points to the nearest 5 or 10 to make life easy.
- Anytime a bunch of monsters in the horde attacks or makes a saving throw, assume one quarter of them succeed. Round up or down depending on the circumstances. If they have advantage, half succeed. If they have disadvantage, assume one in ten succeed or maybe they all fail.
Determine Targets Randomly
Instead of carefully choosing targets, roll to determine the character a monster attacks. If a lot of monsters are attacking at once spread it around to the whole group unless a character is specifically trying to stop it. It's a quick way to determine how the battle goes and requires zero thought from the DM.
Reveal the Monster's AC
Once the characters have attacked the monster a few times, reveal the AC of the monster so players can figure out if they hit or miss without having to consult you. You can even write it down and show it to them so they can reference it during the fight.
Use Hit Point, Attack, and Damage Dials to Pace Combat
Never feel like you have to run a fight using the averages for damage and hit points. To increase the threat but speed up the fight, you can decrease the hit points of the monsters and increase their damage. Now they're going down fast but are super scary when they hit.
Hit points, damage, the number of attacks, and the number of monsters are all dials you can turn to keep the pace of a battle fast and exciting. Turn those dials during a fight for the fun of the game.
Use "Combat Outs"
Use alternative goals in combat other than the full-scale slaughter of one side or another. Give the characters goals that don't require them to kill every monster they see. These goals may be quick and dangerous, keeping the fun high but the length of the battle shorter. See Dave Chalker's article on the Combat Out for more.
Don't Lose the Fiction
Though we seek to strip things down as much as possible to keep combat fast, never lose the story. Start and end with the story. Describe what's happening in the world, not the mechanics at the table. It can be tempting to throw away all the flowery descriptions but it's those descriptions that make D&D a fantasy instead of simply a tactical wargame. Revel in the fiction and keep the mechanics fast so you and your friends can enjoy awesome battles against terrible foes.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- GM Intrusions and Complications in D&D
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
The excellent science fantasy RPG Numenera and its underlying system, the Cypher System, includes a mechanic known as the GM Intrusion. The Numenera supplement, Taking the Narrative by the Tail: GM Intrusions by Monte Cook, gives deeper insight into this mechanic for under a buck.
Monte Cook describes the GM Intrusion this way:
GM intrusions are the primary at-the-table tool for GMs to participate in helping to craft the story that the group is creating. In the same way that a player contributes by stating what her character will do as her action, a GM intrusion is the GM’s action. It’s the GM’s contribution to the ongoing events to make things more interesting.
Numenera and the Cypher System refine this sort of interaction with a mechanic—the GM Intrusion—but we can take the idea and bring it right into our D&D games. We can even use D&D's inspiration mechanic as the carrot of a GM intrusion stick. Something in the world complicates the lives of the characters, maybe one character in particular, and they gain inspiration for their trouble.
Adding Complications to Your D&D Game
I'm not much of a fan of the term "intrusion". It seems so...intrusive. I prefer the term "complication". As Monte Cook describes in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, this is a technique GMs have been using for decades, we just didn't have a mechanic for it. It may be something you already bring to your games. Sometimes a complication just feels right and so you drop it in.
Complications and Beats
Complications fit well with the idea of "beats" from Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Complications are downward beats, bad things happening to the characters, and we likely want another form of GM intrusion for an upward beat. Something nice that happens to the characters. That's a topic for another day.
The Nuances of Downward Beats
This is a bit of advanced DMing. Knowing how to bring in such complications so they enhance the fun of the game and don't just screw players is important. You don't want such complications to take away agency or just bone characters. You want such complications to move the story in new and fun directions. Think hard and watch reactions to see how such complications are taken in. Do they stay in character and seem genuinely excited about what will happen or do they get frustrated out of game? Knowing which complications to drop in when and how is a valuable skill that takes time to develop.
What do these complications look like? Here's a list of twenty example complications to inspire your own when you're running your game. You can see dozens of examples in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, making it well worth the buck.
- The main villain makes a surprise visit.
- That unoccupied garderobe turned out to be occupied after all.
- The local hobgoblins just began their infiltration defense drill practice.
- Something catches on fire.
- Mercenary reinforcements show up.
- The king's foppish advisor turns out to be an expert swashbuckler.
- The floor collapses.
- Someone has to sneeze.
- The evil prince keeps a pen of pet guard drakes.
- A parade of hooded monks turns the corner to walk through the middle of the street fight.
- Someone else is robbing the noble's manor at the same time.
- The king's daughter chooses right now to escape her overbearing father as the characters break into the castle.
- Of course there's a black pudding in the commode.
- Not the bees!
- That detailed trap was actually cover for another far more devious trap.
- Something is possessed.
- The guide has no idea where they're going and leads the characters into a trap.
- A strange magic item causes a wild magic surge.
- A sundered pillar causes a balcony to collapse.
- The boat starts sinking.
Complications: The World's Action
As Monte Cook describes, think of these complications as the actions of the world in the same way the players describe the actions of their characters. Sometimes the characters do something and the world responds. Other times, things just happen. Above all, these complications serve one goal—to make the story more interesting, more exciting, and more fun.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running Session Zeros
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Both Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything describe running a session zero for your D&D games. This article summarizes one approach for session zero sessions to help you baseline your D&D campaigns for both you and your players. While the books above go into more depth, hopefully this article gives you an idea of the basics.
What Is a Session Zero?
A session zero is a game session run before a larger campaign in which you and your players talk about the upcoming campaign before you actually run it. Session zeros are intended to get you and your players all on the same page about the game you plan to play, and the campaign you plan to experience. Some DMs go in with little prepared, maybe not even knowing what campaign the group will play. Others, like me, have a good idea what campaign we'll be playing and want to baseline the principals and story of the game with the players.
Session zeros help everyone manage their expectations about what the game is and what it is not. It helps tie the characters to one another, to the world in which they exist, and to the main story of the campaign. It helps everyone understand what kind of game you'll be playing and helps define the boundaries of that game.
Session zeros are a huge benefit when running longer campaigns.
The Session Zero Checklist
When you're running a session zero, here's a list of things you likely want to go over during the session.
- The campaign world and it's defining characteristics.
- The "six truths" of the campaign. What are the major defining characteristics of the world that the characters know but the players may not?
- The main driver for the campaign. What are the characters trying to do?
- Any major factions the characters might already know about.
- Options for the characters' patrons. Tasha's Guide to Everything includes good sets of character patrons you can use directly or as an example.
- Safety tools you'll use in the game. What sort of content can players expect and what can they do if the game heads into territory where they're uncomfortable? See my safety tools article or Monte Cook Games's free Consent in Gaming for ore.
- Character creation guidelines. What sorts of characters will have the most fun in the campaign? What books can the players use to build their characters?
- Character integration. What brings the characters together into a cohesive group? This is a great interactive part of the session that binds the characters together. Often tying them all to a single group patron is an easy way to do it.
- Go over any house rules. Do you have any house rules that break away from the game? Now is the time to go over them. It may be things like how you run theater of the Mind combat for example.
- If you need it, this is your time to talk about player etiquette, your rules on cheating, or any other behavioral issues you need to address head on. Nows the time.
You may have other things you want to go over before your campaign begins. This is the time to do it.
Session Zero Campaign One-pager
When I prepare for a new campaign, I like to put together a single page campaign worksheet so my players can quickly internalize what I'm planning for the campaign. You can see my example campaign one-pagers below:
- Descent into Avernus Campaign One-pager
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh Campaign One-pager
- Eberron Second Mourning Campaign One-pager
- Rime of the Frostmaiden Campaign One-pager
I've designed these guides with the following principles.
- They fit on one page so players will actually read them.
- They tell the players what this campaign is about.
- They describe what makes this campaign different from others.
- They offer any group factions.
- They offer guidance for building characters best suited for the campaign.
- Describe content and safety tools.
You can build your own one-page campaign guide from these principles and examples for your own campaigns.
Once we've gotten past the main part of a session zero, I like to run a short session with the characters. I like to start strong and bring the characters right into the campaign with a fun short adventure and a good hook for what's to come. If the characters begin at 1st level (they almost always do in my campaigns), I like to give them a small challenge, some opportunity for roleplaying, and then level them to 2nd level before the real adventure begins.
When everyone's on the same page about a game and a campaign, campaigns run much smoother and everyone has a great time. If players come to the table without any expectations defined, they'll bring their own and a mismatch in expectations isn't fun for anyone.
Take the time to plan and run a session zero before your next big game and get everyone off on a grand adventure leading off on the right foot.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running D&D Combat with an Abstract Battle Map
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
We often break up D&D combat into two categories: combat on a 5 foot per square grid (which we'll refer to as "gridded combat"), and running combat with pure narration (often called "theater of the mind").
In reality, there are many forms of combat that sit around and in-between these systems. There's text-based battle maps, zone-based combat, abstract distances like those found in 13th Age, combat using online tools like Roll 20 or Owlbear Rodeo, and combat run on fancy Dwarven Forge terrain. How we run combat can be completely unique to us and this is a powerful feature of D&D. We get to decide with our players how we want to play it.
Today I'm going to offer one of my favorites: the abstract battle map.
The abstract battle map is a rough visualization of what a combat area looks like. We can draw it on a sheet of paper or a dry-erase battle map. We can even represent it in text. We can use tokens or miniatures to represent characters and mosters as we choose, or we can just draw in circles or letters to represent characters and monsters like we're drawing a football play diagram.
The abstract battle map shows important physical features like terrain, hazards, areas that provide cover, and other landmarks. It also shows the loose position of characters and monsters. Unlike gridded combat, the actual distances of the map aren't set in five foot squares. Instead, distances are a loose approximation and the map is mainly there to show relative positions.
We can mix our abstract map with zone-based combat or more loose theater of the mind guidelines. My concept of text-based battle maps is one example of an abstract battle map you can do in a text channel while playing online.
One of the biggest complaints DMs and players describe when discussing running D&D combat in the theater of the mind is a lack of shared understanding of the details of combat between DMs and players. The abstract map helps close that gap and does it without losing the freedom and imagination we enjoy when running combat in the theater of the mind.
The abstract battle map is very flexible. You can do it for ten cents with a sheet of paper and a pencil or for tens of thousands of dollars with a custom gaming table, 3d terrain, and custom miniatures. It fits whatever budget and materials you have for D&D.
And here's a dirty secret for you. The faster, cheaper, and looser the abstract map, the more room it has for our imagination. The more detailed it gets, the less players listen to in-world descriptions and fill in the blanks with their own ideas. They'll rely on the map more and more, forgetting the smell of the caverns or the echoing sounds of a faraway waterfall. Some Xs and Os on a piece of paper helps players understand general positions and their imaginations fill in the other details.
The abstract map is a bridge between full-featured tactical gridded combat and fully narrated theater of the mind combat. It gives our imagination the freedom to build fantastic scenes of high adventure in our head and still offers enough of a representation of the sitiuation so players feel empowered to make meaningful choices.
Add the abstract map to your DM's toolbox.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoSafety Tools
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Safety tools provide simple rules to make sure everyone's comfortable and having a good time during our D&D games. There are a lot of different safety tools we can choose from to bring the right ones to our game. Today I'm going to focus on two: "lines and veils" and "pause for a second".
For a video on this topic, see my Safety Tools Youtube Video.
Quick Guide for My Preferred Safety Tools
Here's a set of safety tools you can easily incorporate into your game to ensure you and your players have what you need to run a fun and comfortable game. Discuss these with your group during your session zero before your campaign has begun, and whenever a new player joins the group. These are intended to work both in-person and when playing online.
- Give your players a list of potentially disturbing subject matter that may come up in the campaign you're planning. You can use the checklist in Monte Cook Games's free Consent in Gaming for an example list of potential topics. Discuss this list with your players during your session zero and ask if they have any problems with anything on the list.
- Come up with a list of "lines" (topics that should never come up at all) and "veils" (topics to be handled off-screen or in the abstract) for your game. Discuss this list with your players and add any other lines or veils they come up with. Write down the additions and send the revised list out to your players.
- Tell your players that anyone (including you) can say "pause for a second" any time during the game to break character and discuss the current situation out of character, including stating "I'm not comfortable with where this is going". The phrase "pause for a second" interrupts anything else going on in the game. It's used to break character and discuss or ask questions about anything going on in-game. Think of this as a verbal X card.
Why We Need Safety Tools
Humans are complicated creatures. We've all led unique lives and many of us have dealt with trauma from a wide range of potential sources, situations, or phobias. Whatever these experiences are, we don't need to bring them into our D&D games when we're all just hoping to sit around the table (virtual or physical) and have a few laughs with our friends.
Our adventures aren't always G-rated affairs. As an example, when getting ready to run Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden I wrote down potentially traumatic themes in the adventure and had quite the list at the end including:
- Deadly Cold
- Mental assault
- Ritual sacrifice
- Parasitic monsters
- Child endangerment
- Violence towards animals
That's a hell of a list and I doubt everyone's fully comfortable with everything on that list. Incest? Seriously?
If we're playing games with more extreme themes like Rime of the Frostmaiden and Descent into Avernus, safety tools are valuable tool to ensure we're steering the game towards a good time for everyone at our table.
Not as Hard As You Think
Safety tools don't need to be a big deal and any group can benefit from them. Even if you've been gaming with your friends for a long time and know them well, you never know if a topic will take a hard turn and adversely affect them. Even they might not realize how something will affect them until it happens. Why not offer a simple tool to give everyone the opportunity, without a big confrontation, to say that they're not happy with the current situation?
There are many different types of safety tools. For more on tor topic see the TTRPG Safety Toolkit and Consent in Gaming. Today we're going to look at a couple of tools we can use together for both in-person and online games.
Campaign Subjects and Themes
When we're first considering a campaign, we can list the specific subjects or themes that some might find troubling. If you want an idea of the sort of things you may want to mention, check out the checklist in Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games. It's not perfect (it doesn't mention slavery for example) but it's a good start.
Lines and Veils
Lines and veils work alongside our list of themes mentioned above. Some players may have hard lines to avoid certain themes such as no sexual violence, no harm to children, or no character-driven torture or harm to animals. Some players may prefer to have themes "veiled" — keeping the details off-screen. Torture, slavery, sacrifice, and NPC-based harm to animals may be ok but only if they happen off screen. During the game, we don't dwell on veiled themes.
When we're first sitting down to prepare our session zero, we can define our own list of lines and veils to begin with and let the players add to it during the session.
Lines and veils are a two-way street. The GM can mention what's off limits for the table, what's veiled, and what potentially sensitive topics might come up in the campaign. Players can mention other topics that may not have been mentioned but could cause problems if they do.
This need not be a long conversation but it's an important one — particularly if you're playing with players who might not know your style. Even if you do know your players very well, it's still a useful conversation to have.
"Pause for a Second"
Even after you have a solid list of potentially troubling topics and a good idea of your table's lines and veils; you still want another safety fallback. Not everyone knows what will bother them until it starts coming up during the game. We need a tool that lets players communicate their discomfort without causing a big confrontation.
The X card by John Stavropoulos is the most popular safety tool of this sort. The GM puts a 3x5 card in front of each player with an X on it. If the game is going in a direction uncomfortable to a player, the player can tap the X card and let the GM know they're not comfortable.
The X card can feel strange for a group that isn't used to it. Instead, there's an easier verbal version I think fits better into our typical gameplay from a system called Script Change by Beau Sheldon.
Script Change offers up that we can say "pause", "fast forward", "rewind", or "frame by frame" to change the pacing of the current scene. That's all good but I think "pause" is the most important piece and we can work it into a simple bit of natural language thusly:
"Pause for a second"
This is the verbal way of tapping the X card. It's a way for players or GMs to stop what's going on in-game and pop out of character to make sure things are going in the right direction or steer the direction.
While this phrase is in natural language, GMs should clearly define it during a session zero so everyone knows that when someone says it, we all need to break out of character and pay attention to what the person asking for a pause is saying.
This also works very well in online games where not everyone might see someone holding up an X card or typing it into a chat. "Pause for a second" should immediately interrupt whatever else is going on.
The person calling for the pause can bring up what they need, the others agree, and the game moves forward. Here are a few examples:
"Pause for a second. Let's skip the details on the sacrifice."
"Pause for a second. Can the spiders be something else?"
"Pause for a second. I don't need the details of the sex scene, can we skip forward?"
"Pause for a second. I'm not comfortable beating this goblin for information."
"Pause for a second. I'd like to slow down and make sure we're all cool with the decisions we're making."
Like the X card, the person asking for the pause need not explain why they're asking. It's important that the group respect the privacy of the person asking and recognize that they simply don't want something or want to steer the game away from certain subject matter.
"Pause for a second" can be used for numerous purposes. If the characters are having a conflict about what to do with a potentially dangerous magic item, we can say "Pause for a second. Out of character, are you ok destroying the item if the others vote that way? Do we need to do something else?" Not everything needs to be about big traumatic experiences, we can normalize its use by ensuring everyone's on the same page in lots of circumstances. This makes it less confrontational when someone does use it to check in on a potentially traumatic situation.
Safety Tools: A Simple Technique to Keep Things Fun
Safety tools are an easy way to ensure everyone around the table is having a good time. They're not overbearing. They only take a little time to implement, and they put in place some powerful tools to make sure the players behind the characters are having a great time. Find the right tools to bring to your own game to ensure you and your players are having a great time sharing tales of high adventure.
The topic of safety tools has exploded in the last few years. Here are some of the resources I found most valuable while researching this topic.
- Campaign Safety & Consent Checklist
- Consent in Gaming
- Digital RPG Consent Checklist
- Optional Rule Safety Concent RPG Checklist
- Safety tool reference by Tomer Gurantz
- Script Change Printable
- Script Change
- Spelltheory on Safety Tools
- The X card
- TTRPG Safety Toolkit Resources
- TTRPG Safety Toolkit
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Run Easy Battles
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Run easy battles.
Easy battles are a wonderful tool for D&D DMs. They add upward beats to your game when you need them. They open up interesting options for players who can now choose multiple ways to deal with easily defeated foes. They let players show off how their skills and powers have grown without much worry of the threat. They open up the story in ways no one can predict.
Easy battles are also a great way to inject some theater of the mind combat into a game that otherwise focuses on a gridded battle map and tokens or miniatures. Many DMs who rely exclusively on gridded map and tokens often complain that easy battles take up too much time. If you're going to bother setting up a battle map and tokens, why not make it a hard battle? If the battle is hard, it surely needs the minute tactics of a five foot grid, right? This feeds into a downward spiral. Every battle is hard because it's a waste of time to run easy battles on a battle map and people require a battle map because every battle is hard and tactical agency is important. Break the cycle with some easy theater of the mind fights.
Too many hard battles leads towards hopelessness and frustration. It's a continual string of downward beats, even when they win, because they only win by the skin of their teeth. Players don't get to show off their abilities to destroy easy foes because monsters keep going up in power at the same rate.
Here are a few tips to introduce some easy battles into your game:
- Add zone-based, abstract, or theater of the mind combat as options in your game for easier battles.
- Let the story dictate what monsters lurk around in an area.
- Oscillate between easy and hard fights to maintain an exciting pace in your game. Maybe it's two sleepy orcs or twelve armored ogres depending on the circumstances.
- Worry less about draining the characters' resources. Let the story drive what challenges the characters face.
Building Situations, Not Encounters
I've written before about building situations, not encounters and the importance of letting encounters occur organicaly when you're running the game. We can build encounters from two variables: what's happening in the world and what's fun at the game. We start by asking ourselves "what makes sense given the current situation" and then modify this by asking "what will be fun right now?". It might make sense for an entire army of hobgoblins to show up but if the characters have already faced large amounts of foes, maybe it's more fun for only two hobgoblins to show up; the two sent off on latrine duty.
Our goal isn't to burn down resources or run some ideal number of easy and hard encounters in an adventuring day. Our job is to set the stage for the world and let it react to the characters. We do this by starting with the story and then modifying it for the fun of the game.
Upward and Downward Beats
Excitement and energy in a game come from oscillating upward and downward beats; an idea described in Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Easy battles are an easy way to inject an upward beat. Players don't get stressed out when their 11th level characters teleport into the garderobe of a fortress only to find a single troll sitting on the commode. That's an upward beat. Facing ten armored war trolls swinging weapons dripping in acid, that's stressful. That's a downward beat. It may turn into an upward beat if the characters succeed but with the resources drained it's still going to feel like a struggle. Too many battles like that in a row feels hopeless. It feels like a slog. Throw in a good share of easy fights and let the players have fun choosing how to kick them into orbit.
Play to See What Happens
Easy fights are great fun for DMs because we don't know how the players will choose to deal with them. Sometimes a fight against a troll sitting on a commode may be the most exciting one if that troll could yell and summon a whole ziggurat of war trolls on the party. Battles against weaker foes have many more options for the characters than battles against hard foes. Generally speaking, when facing a powerful force, your only option is to unload everything you have and kill them. When facing two sleepy orcs, however? Now the options open up.
Easy Battles: A Useful DM Tool
Add easy battles to your DM toolbox. Easy battles add upward beats to your game when you need them, give the players the chance to show off their power, and let the story of your game go in new and interesting directions.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Ending Campaigns
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
At some point our D&D campaigns come to an end, hopefully by a point in the story and not due to real-life events. Today we'll talk about how to run awesome endings for our D&D campaigns.
Kitchen Sink Final Battles
Often the best conclusion we can have in our D&D games is a nice big final fight. Whether it's Tiamat, Iymrith, Strahd, or Acererak; good final battles close campaigns in a strong way.
Building great final battles is hard. That's why Scott Fitzgerald Gray, James Introcaso, and I partnered up to write Fantastic Lairs which gives you twenty three big bad boss fights for your D&D games.
There are a few other things we can do to make our boss fights awesome:
Run waves of monsters. Monster waves are a great way to hit characters hard and is particularly useful when challenging high level characters. Throw waves of monsters before the boss shows up. This lets the boss show up at their own time and in their own way so the characters can't overprepare and kill them in one shot. The pace of the waves is also under your control.
Make the environment awesome. Split the battle across two sides of a portal to hell. Center it around a massive arcane gate about to explode. Set your battle on a huge crashing airship or in a room with a huge soul-eating machine hanging above a massive pool of lava. Make the environment of your final battle awesome. Give it some interesting mechanical effects that affect both characters and monsters alike.
Keep your hands on the dials. Balancing boss battles so you get perfect edge-of-the-seat excitement out of your players is hard to do. Luckily we DMs have some dials we can turn during combat to change things up. Adding waves of monsters or increasing their pace is one big dial. Adding or removing monsters is another. Increasing or decreasing hit points is a third. Adding or removing attacks or damage is another. We can tweak all of these things behind the screen, making sure that the threat keeps things exciting.
You can find more tips in our Collected Experiences Running Boss Fights.
Give Them What They Want
Fun stories surprise us with twists and turns but those twists and turns rarely serve well during the ending of a story. I wrote about this before in Breaking Endings where we looked at the ending of the TV show Breaking Bad. While the ending of that show broke many of the rules set by the rest of the show, it gave us what we wanted. A nice satisfying ending. Not all shows treat us so well.
While you might be inclined to add some crazy twists and turns to your campaign's conclusion, ask yourself if that's really what the players want. You can even ask them what they want and then give it to them. Make the ending memorable and satisfying.
One Year Later
I love time-jumps in stories. It's always awesome to fill in the blanks when time skips ahead and we don't know what happened in between.
One of my favorite tricks for ending a campaign is to ask the players where they see their characters one year after the final conclusion of the campaign. Often the stories I receive are the most interesting in the campaign. This is a way to fully hand the story over to the players. You have no new direction for the campaign at this point so you don't have to steer them at all. The characters can get married and settle down on a farm. They can become warlords in a far-away land or professors at a prestigious new arcane college. They can unite factions or start a warforged circus to soften the hardships between warforged and other humanoids.
I've asked for "one year later" stories from my players in a half-dozen campaigns now and I've never been disappointed. One-year-later stories are wonderful.
Teos Abadia takes this a step further by asking for stories 10 to 100 years later. Let the players take it as far as they want.
A Bookend to a Fantastic Tale
We want our campaign endings to be fun, memorable, and satisfying. Most often we're in danger of over-thinking it. Ask your players what they want, build in a fun climactic encounter, and ask them to talk about their characters one year after the ending. Sit back and listen to the end of a fantastic tale.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Gems of the D&D Dungeon Master's Guide
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
The Dungeon Master's Guide is an under-appreciated and undervalued tome of useful information and tools for D&D Dungeon Masters. Today we're going to look at some of the the Dungeon Master's Guide' hidden gems.
How to Read the Dungeon Master's Guide
The organization of the Dungeon Master's Guide is puzzling and, I'd argue, not the best way to parse the job of being a dungeon master. Instead of reading it front to back, I suggest starting with part 2, followed by part 3, and then part 1. This puts adventure building ahead of worldbuilding and content about the outer planes; useful information best left to the end of the book.
The DMG contains lots of useful advice for dungeon masters spread widely throughout the book. Here are some of its most useful gems:
Core Assumptions (Chapter 1, "The Big Picture", pg 9). Useful to understand what a default D&D world looks like. Your own world may vary from this but it's useful to understand what a default world looks like in D&D and how it works with the default mechanics, spells, and magic items of the rest of the game.
Start Small (Chapter 1, "Creating a Campaign", pg 25). Good advice buried in a worldbuilding section; this section helps DMs recognize that the most important parts of a campaign are the parts surrounding the characters.
Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse (pg 43-68). While not directly practical in most D&D campaigns, the flavor of the multiverse can fill in the details of many ancient tombs or wizard towers. The imagery and iconography of the planes can teach the players a lot about what lurks outside of their known world.
Mapping a Wilderness (Chapter 5, pg 108). This section actually offers excellent advice for running pointcrawls without ever using the term.
Useful DM Tools and Inspiration
Starting at Higher Levels (Chapter 1, "Tiers of Play", pg 38). How much gold should characters have if they start at a higher level? How many magic items in a high-magic campaign? This table has you covered.
Dungeon Hazards (Chapter 5, "Mapping a Dungeon", pg 105). Brown molds, green slime, and webs all help fill dungeons with interesting terrain we might otherwise forget.
Airborne and Waterborne Vehicles (Chapter 5, "Unusual Environments", "The Sea", pg 118). Are the characters looking to buy a sailing ship or airship? This section has the basics covered.
Traps and damage (Chapter 5, "Traps", pg 121). The core rules for building your own traps. Mix it with the random trap generator on page 297.
Downtime Activities (Chapter 6, pg 127-131). Excellent additions to the downtime activities offered in the Player's Handbook. You can expand these further with the downtime activities in Xanathar's Guide to Everything.
Epic boons (Chapter 7, 231-232). Looking to give your characters a nice powerful boost without a physical item? Epic boons are your answer.
Advantage and Disadvantage (Chapter 8, "Using Ability Scores", pg 239). A great section that goes beyond the basics of advantage and disadvantage. Instead it shows DMs how to use these powerful tools to improvise situations in any given scene.
Inspiration (Chapter 8, "Using Ability Scores", pg 240-241). I often hear complaints about inspiration. This section offers many different ways you can handle giving out inspiration, some of which you can use together.
Tracking Initiative (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 247). Lots of options for tracking and recording initiative for new DMs.
Tracking Monster Hit Points (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 247). Includes my favorite method of assigning an interesting in-world physical characteristic to monsters to help identify them.
Bloodied rule (Chapter 8, "Combat", "Tracking Monster Hit Points", pg 248). Yes, "bloodied" exists in 5e! While it isn't a mechanical condition anymore, you can still describe a creature being bloodied and this section tells you how.
Monsters and Critical Hits (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 248). Describes how to handle a monster's critical hit when using average damage; a common question.
Improvising Damage (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 249). An excellent set of tables to help you improvise damage from a falling bookcase to tumbling into a vortex into the elemental plane of fire.
Adjudicating Areas of Effect (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 249). Guidelines for running areas of effect using the "theater of the mind". One of my favorite sections. See running Theater of the Mind combat for more.
Handling Mobs (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 250). A table to determine how many monsters might successfully hit (or make a saving throw) given the monster's attack bonus (or save bonus) and the target's armor class (or save DC). It's missing a discussion on pooling damage across a large number of monsters but it still gets us close to being able to fight an unlimited number of monsters. See horde rules for more.
Ability Options (Chapter 9, pg 263-264). Looking to simplify D&D's skill system? This section has lots of options including background or class based proficiency bonuses. I doubt anyone uses these optional rules but they could make for a much simpler version of D&D in which you get your proficiency bonus to attribute checks based on your character's class or background.
Hero points (Chapter 9, "Ability Options", pg 264). A mechanic used in the Eberron Oracle of War campaign that stacks on top of inspiration. If you want another way to boost characters, here's an answer.
Initiative Variants (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 270). Lots of alternative methods for running initiative.
Acton Options (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 271). A favorite of many; this section describes optional combat actions characters might take including disarming, tumbling, or climbing up on monsters. Lots of neat options a DM might use given the circumstances of a battle.
Cleaving Through Creatures (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 272). A great way to make a melee character feel like Conan, cleaving options let damage carry over from one slain enemy into another. A great circumstantial rule when fighting lots of monsters.
Monster Features (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 280-281). A huge list of monster features you can apply to custom monsters of your choice. Goes hand-in-hand with the Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating table on page 274.
NPC Features (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 282). An overlooked table that offers options to build variant NPCs of different races. The skeleton and zombie ones in particular give you a huge range of undead versions of existing monsters. Mix these with the race-less NPCs in the Monster Manual. A few more of them would have really helped.
Monsters with Classes (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 283). Want to give a fire giant a few classes of barbarian? This section tells you how to add character class features to your monsters to shake things up.
Maps (Appendix C, pg 310-315). A wonderful selection of about ten maps including one I designed myself for Vault of the Dracolich! If you ever need a town, cave, or dungeon map, this section has what you need.
Awesome Random Tables to Inspire Your Game
The DMG is also packed with great tables to inspire your game. Easily overlooked, these tables can help you build truly fantastic adventures and campaigns. Next time you're starting to prep your game, give some of these tables a roll and see what comes up.
- World-shaking Events (Chapter 1, "Campaign Events", pg 27-32)
- Dungeon and Wilderness Goals (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 73)
- All the adventure building tables in Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", page 74 and 75.
- Event-based Goals (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 76)
- Framing Events (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 79)
- Villain Schemes and Methods (Chapter 4, "Villains", pg 94-95)
- Dungeon & Exotic Locations (Chapter 5, "Dungeons", pg 99)
- Dungeon Origin Details (Chapter 5, "Dungeons", pg 100-101)
- Monuments & Weird Locales (Chapter 5, "Mapping a Wilderness", pg 108-109)
- Current Calamity (Chapter 5, "Settlement", pg 112)
- Tavern Name Generator (Chapter 5, "Settlement", pg 113)
- Carousing (Chapter 6, "Downtime Activities", pg 128)
- Magic item special features (Chapter 7, "Magic Items", pg 142-143)
- Magic Item Table B (rare consumables) and F (uncommon permanent magic items) (Chapter 7, "Magic Items", pg 144 and 146)
- Madness Effects (short term) (Chapter 8, "Madness", pg 259)
- Chamber Purpose (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 292-295)
- Random traps (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 297)
- Random tricks (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 298)
The DMG: Your D&D Toolbox
Easily overlooked, the Dungeon Master's Guide is a fantastic resource to help you fine tune your game and inspire your own games. Every six months or so, pull it out and skim it page by page to remind yourself what you can find within its pages. Inside you'll find limitless inspiration for your own fantastic adventures.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoRime of the Frostmaiden Session Zero
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
This article discusses how to run a session zero for the D&D hardcover adventure, Rime of the Frostmaiden and contains spoilers for the adventure.
For a video on this topic, watch my Frostmaiden Session Zero YouTube Video.
Clarifying the Theme of Rime of the Frostmaiden
Unlike other adventures, Rime of the Frostmaiden is designed as a book of related quests than a single cohesive storyline. While one might assume the drive of Rime of the Frostmaiden is to "end the eternal night", that drive isn't the best way to motivate the characters in the early parts of the adventure. Instead, we can motivate the characters to follow the wide range of quests in this adventure with the following theme:
"Help the people of Ten Towns survive the endless night."
This gives our characters a clear motivation to follow quests in the adventure wherever they may lead. A common complaint of Frostmaiden is that it lacks this single cohesive narrative that drives the characters through all of the material of the book. If, instead, we reinforce the theme that the characters are there to help the people of Ten Towns, just about every quest works well.
Frostmaiden Session Zero Checklist
When we run a session zero, it helps to clarify our goals in a checklist. Here's my own Frostmaiden session zero checklist:
- Give out the Frostmaiden one-page Frostmaiden Campaign Handout and discuss it.
- Discuss Frostmaiden's themes and our group's safety tools.
- Work with the players to choose a group patron.
- Give players their character's secret.
- Work with the players to build characters together.
- Give the players the optional Icewind Dale backgrounds in the book's introduction.
- Give each character a trinket from Appendix A.
- Run a short introductory adventure.
Beginning in Bryn Shander
Rime of the Frostmaiden gives you the option to start in any of the ten towns of Ten Towns. It recommends, if you cannot choose, to select Bryn Shander, which is what I did. I've seen many discussions online about which town to start in but this one worked well for me.
Frostmaiden One-Page Campaign Guide
For every campaign I run I like to give out a one-page campaign handout. Here's the PDF of my one-page Frostmaiden Campaign Handout. I usually give out these handouts a couple of days before the session zero so the players have enough of a chance to give it a read but not so much that their imaginations go wild and they come to the game with characters fully fleshed out. We want the players to build characters together so they fill in the right roles and build some inter-character relationships before we start.
The Importance of Safety Tools
Rime of the Frostmaiden is a rough adventure. Reading through the adventure, I came to the following potentially uncomfortable material:
- Deadly Cold
- Mental assault
- Ritual sacrifice
- Parasitic monsters
- Child endangerment
- Violence towards animals
It's worth discussing the content of this adventure before you choose to run it, even before a session zero, but its certainly worth discussing during your session zero as well.
Consider using the checklist from Monte Cook Games's Consent in Gaming to see if there are any issues players might have with the content in Icewind Dale.
Even after you've worked with your players to discuss the themes they're comfortable and uncomfortable with, you'll want some sort of safety tool in place during the game. Situations can come up quickly that may push a player out of their comfort zone and you want to ensure you can grab onto this quickly and move the story away from the subject at hand. This may seem overly cautious but it can happen to anyone, regardless of how long they've been gaming, and it's best to ensure you're steering the game towards enjoyment for all.
See this excellent safety tool reference by Tomer Gurantz for details on lines, veils, X cards, and so on.
In my own game I chose to use lines, veils, and a verbal X-card for our group in which anyone can say "pause for a second" over chat to break character and discuss whats going on out of character.
You can see more about how I use these in my safety tools video.
Tasha's Cauldron of Everything describes options for adding group patrons to our game and Frostmaiden is a great place to do it. You can spend some time reading through the adventure and choosing your own group patrons. I chose the following four:
Vellynne Harpell. A neutral-aligned Member of the Arcane Brotherhood, Vellynne becomes more important in the later parts of the adventure but she'd make for a fun and somewhat sinister group patron early on. Vellynne can be inclined to aid the people of Ten Towns to restore the damage done by Vaelish Gant years before and to gather more information about the secrets locked under the ice of Icewind Dale. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Academy.
Sheriff Markham Southwell. A lawful good sheriff of Bryn Shander, Sheriff Markham makes for a very solid group patron with ties to Bryn Shander's speaker, Duvessa Shane, and knowledge of the other towns. The sheriff would bring on the characters to take care of the jobs that he and the town guard cannot do themselves, including building stronger relationships with the other towns and aiding in their problems. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Military Force.
Hlin Trollbane. The neutral good Hlin can make for a good group patron serving outside of the law but with the drive to serve as a bastion of good in the darkness surrounding Ten Towns. Her first drive to hunt down the cold hearted murderer is a great start. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Guild.
Dannika Graysteel. The chaotic good half-elf scholar who comes to Ten Towns to understand what strange phenomena brought the endless night to Ten Towns can make a strong group patron. Like the others, she desires to help the people of Ten Towns but in particular wants to understand what has changed the natural order of things in Icewind Dale. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Religious Order.
Alternative Character Secrets
If you're using the character secrets in Frostmaiden, it's better to let players choose them before they start building characters. In many cases the secrets have racial limitations and won't work if the players choose races outside of those tied to the secret.
I wasn't crazy about the secrets in the book. I found them too limiting and felt they took agency away from the player when building their characters. Instead, I offered randomly selected options from the list below which includes more open-ended secrets so the player has more room to fill it in with their own details. Use this list of alternative secrets if you prefer them:
- You are a spy keeping an eye out for the Arcane Brotherhood.
- You are being hunted by a noble family for a crime or slight you committed.
- You are fleeing from gangsters of the city of Luskin.
- As a child you were left in the cold to die but an owl-shaped humanoid saved you.
- You were secretly raised by yetis.
- You were infected by an otherworldly parasite.
- You are the secret heir for royalty in hiding.
- You have hazy dreams of being kidnapped by an alien race and then crashing down in the ice.
- You seek an heirloom was stolen from you long ago.
- You covet a small amulet made of a strange black and silver metal. Sometimes you hear it speaking to you.
- You have dreams of a massive strange black structure, a city, buried under the ice.
- Someone you love was murdered by a ghost.
- You are actually an escaped clone, a construct, built by the Arcane Brotherhood for some unknown purpose.
- You were reincarnated into your current form by a mysterious druid.
- You are outcast for having documented forbidden text. It could be dark magic or a tell-all book.
- You are an escaped and hunted prisoner.
- You have a phobia of talking animals.
- You witnessed a terrible crime and fear the one who committed it.
- You escaped a mark for sacrifice to Auril.
- Your dreams are filled with tentacled nightmares.
One important tip for assigning secrets is to not let the players see the whole list so they can't guess what the secret is for another player. Instead, have them roll 1d20 and tell them privately what the secret is. If they like it, they keep it. If they hate it, they roll again for a new secret. They never, however, see the entire list of secrets so they can't guess what secrets another character has.
A Better Cold Open
Rime of the Frostmaiden offers 13 potential starter quests but gives us no idea which ones work well at any given level. Instead, we have to figure it out or we face the potential of our characters becoming overwhelmed by a deadly encounter. Most of the time, at 2nd level and above, the characters my get over their head but can probably escape. 1st level, however, is the deadliest level in D&D by far. It really should have its own rules for encounter building.
Thus, I recommend running a short adventure specifically designed for 1st level characters to get them to 2nd level quickly.
In my own game, I began with the characters making their way to the Northlook Inn to meet with their group patron when they saw a number of figures (one for every two characters) hunched over and chewing on a body. When the characters investigate, these creatures reveal themselves to be ghouls. When the characters dispatch the ghouls, they investigate the body and discover that the ghouls were eating it but they clearly didn't kill it. Instead it was killed with an frozen dagger, the icy blade still in the lethal wound.
When they take their findings to their patron, they get 2nd level and are now better prepared for the trials of Ten Towns.
This introduction leads the characters to the larger Cold Open quest and their hunt for Sephek Kaltro. Sephek is deadly for 1st level characters but can be defeated at higher levels. If the characters face him at 3rd or 4th level, you can have him summon some icy ghouls tied to his connection to Auril to make the encounter even more dangerous.
A Strong Introduction to an Icy Adventure
Session zeros are vital for running excellent cohesive campaigns in which the characters are tied to one another and to the theme and drive of the campaign's story.
There's more to come as we dig deeper into Rime of the Frostmaiden including grouping the chapter 1 quests into more manageable batches.
Hopefully this article gave you your own tools to run an awesome session zero and begin a fantastic adventure with your friends.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Handling Rests in D&D
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
The frequency of rests, both long rests and short rests, is critical to the pacing of our D&D games. Too many rests and the characters enter every situation armed with the full force of their character at their disposal. Too few and players feel helpless and frustrated as they watch their characters dwindle down to their last remaining hit point.
It behooves DMs to recognize how and when we offer rests to the characters. It helps when we pay conscious attention to it and arm ourselves with the tools to manage rests and maintain the right exciting pacing of our D&D games.
Reviewing the Core Books
On any topic like this, it always helps to go back to the core books and see what they have to say on the topic. Chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook includes the basic descriptions of short and long rests. An interesting note, the default rules state that a character only regains half their maximum hit dice on a single long rest. That often gets omitted in play. The section is worth reviewing but offers no guidance for DMs on how best to offer or control such rests. Also worth noting is that a character can only benefit from one long rest in 24 hours.
Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide describes the expectation that characters receive two short rests per adventuring day. Xanathar's Guide to Everything offers optional exhaustion rules should characters choose to forgo a long rest during a 24 hour period of time.
An oft-described and, in my opinion, misinterpreted description in the Dungeon Master's Guide states the following:
"Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day."
This is often interpreted that characters should face six to eight encounters in an adventuring day. I disagree. Instead, characters should face as many encounters as makes sense given the situation and circumstances. More on this in a moment.
With all of their descriptions, the Dungeon Master's Guide and Xanathar's Guide don't offer much guidance on how best to handle rests in our D&D games to maintain the right pacing. Let's fix that now.
Rests and Combat Challenge
How well rested the characters are is a major factor in how challenging they find combat encounters. Well-rested characters, particularly at high levels, have many more resources at their disposal and can often succeed in very difficult battles, sometimes with ease. Characters that have faced a significant number of foes and expended many of their daily resources will have a much harder time when facing difficult encounters.
Ensuring the characters don't face a final battle fully prepared is one of the top suggested ways to ensure the characters don't destroy boss monsters too easily.
When designing a combat encounter intended to be challenging, it helps to burn down the characters' resources with previous battles and little chance to rest. This is why waves of monsters works particularly well in boss fights. Two waves of monsters before a final boss is a great way to ensure the boss doesn't face fully-rested characters ready to nuke them from orbit.
When to Offer Rests
The easiest way to manage rests is to let the story dictate when and where rests can take place. If the characters are on a long journey on a well-traveled road or exploring a safe city, it's likely they'll be able to take long rests without difficulty. If they're deep in a dungeon filled with terrible monsters and few safe rooms, it's unlikely the characters can stop in the middle of a four-way hallway and rest for eight hours undisturbed. Much of the time we can let the story dictate how often the characters can take short or long rests. Even then, we may need to be explicit in describing these opportunities to the players.
Explicitly Describe Opportunities for Rests or the Lack Thereof
Players don't understand what's going on about half the time. This is a common rule of mine to help me recognize that while the story and situation may be perfectly clear in my mind, it isn't necessarily as clear to my players. This is equally true with rests. It may not be clear to the players that their characters can take the opportunity for a short or long rest or what might happen if they do.
For this reason it's best to be explicit in describing the opportunities and risks for taking rests. If you know they've reached a chamber in a dungeon monsters avoid, you might mention to the players that they can take this opportunity for a short rest without risk. If they've cleared out a chamber likely safe for eight hours or more, you can mention that they have the opportunity for a long rest without risk.
Likewise, when they enter dangerous locations for the first time, mention to them that their opportunities for rests will be rare, or even non-existent, and that they should plan accordingly. Mention this up front so players know they must manage their resources accordingly. You may go a step further and mention that they may have only one or two opportunities for a short rest in such a place.
Managing Rests with Time Sensitive Quests
While dangerous locations ensure characters can't take a lot of rests, spells like Leomund's Tiny Hut can make even the most dangerous locations safe. The best way to threaten the characters here isn't with wandering monsters or random encounters but with time-sensitive quests. If the characters are trying to stop a villain from completing a ritual, you can mention that the villains will certainly be done with the ritual before the characters can complete a long rest. Likewise, if they're chasing a particular villain, that villain may escape or move on if the characters wait too long. As the DM you can keep your hand on this dial, informing the players that they do not have time for a long rest if they want to successfully complete their quest but may have time for a short rest.
Running time-sensitive quests is one of the most effective ways to manage rests in your D&D games.
If rests come too quickly and easily, you may need to inject environmental effects or situations that prevent the characters from resting too often. Here are ten examples of effects or situations that prevent the characters from taking either a short or long rest (your choice).
- Spectral wailing
- A character's disease will overtake them
- Planar instability
- Hostile environments (too cold, too hot)
- Psychic resonance
- Tectonic shifts
- The drive of an intelligent item
- A lifedraining effect
- Horrible nightmares
- Continual loud noises
Characters can only take rests in areas conducive to such rests. Many circumstances may continually interrupt the characters in ways they cannot control. Spells like Leomand's Tiny Hut, however, will likely bypass such difficulties.
If you need to better control the rests the characters can take, tailor one or more of the effects above to prevent the characters from taking short or long rests too easily.
The flip side of this is dropping opportunities for rests, short or long, when it may not seem like such an opportunity would be available. Here are ten ways to drop opportunities to rest in the middle of hostile locations, like dungeons. Many of these can restore the characters as though they had taken a short or long rest without actually requiring the time. This helps offer rests even when time is tight.
- A secret door leads to a lost healing font
- The characters find potions that offer the equivalent of a rest
- The villain's plans have been set back, offering time for a rest
- A trapped celestial entity offers to restore the characters
- A forgotten passage leads to a hidden room safe for rests
- The characters find a magic item with a single use of Leomund's tiny hut
- The characters enter a dream state that offers them a rest in shorter time
- A divine caster's god or patron bestows a restful blessing upon the party
- Infighting between hostile factions draws attention away from the characters
- Invigorated by their recent victories, the characters earn the equivalent of a short rest
Control Rests and Control the Pacing of your Games
By taking an active hand in managing how and when short and long rests become available, you have a better hand in controlling the pacing of your game. Players feel powerful and optimistic when rested, and vulnerable and cautious when they haven't rested in some time. Most of the time you can let the story dictate when the characters can rest. Other times, however, you'll want to carefully plan how and when the characters can take rests, both short and long, and describe this to your players so they know how to manage their resources up front. Use rests as a dial to manage the upward beats, downward beats, and pacing of your D&D games.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »