- ● Get a Relief Column to Peking, Resolve Russian Civil War Crises, and Battle in World War II in Twenty MinutesWorthington Publishing launched a Kickstarter campaign (KS link) for a new deluxe edition of John Welch's solitaire gem Keep Up The Fire!: The Boxer Rebellion, which was originally released by Victory Point Games in 2011.
Keep Up The Fire!, the tenth game in the States of Siege series, plays in 45 minutes and is getting a fresh coat of paint with updated artwork, all mounted boards, thick counters, and more.
Here's a brief overview of the setting and challenges you'll face:Keep Up The Fire! is a solitaire States of Siege series game set in 1900 Peking (modern day Beijing), China where Foreign Legations (areas assigned to Imperial powers including ambassadors, business people, and a handful of troops to provide security) are besieged in their compound by Chinese anti-imperialist forces. The Chinese "Boxers" (Society of the Harmonious Fists), with the Imperial Manchu forces of the Qing Army, are angry and determined to expel these foreigners from China.
Note that this game can also be enjoyed in teams working together (just as the Eight Nations had to), deciding how best to defend the Legation Compound and get the Relief Column to Peking in time!
A set of five standards-based lesson plans are also available for classroom teachers should they wish to use this game as a teaching tool.
The game is a race against time as the Chinese forces besieging the Legation Compound are attacking relentlessly while the Relief Column battles its way to the rescue. With limited time and relentless attacks on the Compound, will you manage to keep up the fire?
Darin A. Leviloff's Soviet Dawn, which was originally released in 2009 from Victory Points Games as another solitaire game in the States of Siege series, will be available in March 2021.
Soviet Dawn (Deluxe Edition) was successfully funded on Kickstarter (KS link) in late 2020 and has also been spruced up and upgraded with new-and-improved components thanks to Worthington Publishing. In more detail:Soviet Dawn (Deluxe Edition) brings Darin Leviloff's novel States of Siege game system back for a much larger storytelling adventure covering the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1921. Upgraded with a bigger, hard mounted game board, beautiful linen finish cards, large counters, full color rules, and more!
With several enemy "Fronts" converging on Moscow, the fate of the revolution and the prestige of international communism rests on your ability to manage and resolve every crisis that the "Whites" can assail you with. As the headlines unfold, you draw upon military and political resources to help you, or try to reorganize the Red Army for special abilities that can greatly enhance your position. Who knows? You might even capture the Imperial Gold Reserve!
Can you deal with the great crises of that time and defend the revolution? Will you withdraw from the Great War (WW1) or exercise the Bukharin Option and fight on? Can you execute the Czar in time, or will the Whites rescue him? Will you fortify Petrograd or press your offensives home? How will you deal with internal and external dissent? Play Soviet Dawn and see!
This Deluxe Edition includes the expansion set.
GMT Games, Gene shared some excitement for a new P500 addition: a reprint of Vietnam 1965-1975, Nick Karp's award-winning, classic Vietnam game of the 1980s.
Vietnam 1965-1975, originally released by Victory Games in 1984, is a two-player game considered to be quintessential grand operational Vietnam game. There are no major rules changes expected, and GMT's primary goal is to modernize the components and clean up any ambiguity in the rules.
Vietnam 1965-1975 has a jaw-dropping (for some) playtime range of 360-6000 minutes because it can be played as scenarios or you can strap in for the entire campaign as briefly described below from original publisher, Victory Games:This simulation game re-creates one of the longest, most complex, and least understood conflicts in U.S. history in all of its military and political aspects.
The rules include detailed treatment of movement, terrain, search and destroy operations, special operations, firepower, air mobility, riverines, brigade-level formations, limited intelligence and auxiliary units in each scenario. The scenarios start out small with Operation Starlite, and slowly build in complexity, introducing more rules, until the entire Campaign Scenario which covers the entire war from 1965 to 1975 and introduces South Vietnamese politics, morale and commitment, strategic bombing, reinforcements, and pacification.
Paolo Mori's 2019 release, Blitzkrieg!, from PSC Games has a new "square edition" coming in Q2 2021. Not only will you save some shelf space, but this version also includes the Nippon expansion as an added bonus.
If you're not familiar with Blitzkrieg!, it's an excellent, WWII-themed filler game for 1-2 players that's packed with fun, exciting, and tense moments and even features a solo mode designed by Dávid Turczi, who probably has a doctorate in solo game design at this point. It's also easy to learn and can be played quickly, true to its tag line: "World War Two in 20 Minutes". Here's a brief description with more details from publisher:The perfect wargame for non-wargamers, Blitzkrieg! allows two players to battle across the War's most iconic theaters, winning key campaigns and building military might.
Players draw army tokens from a bag to determine their starting forces and to replenish their losses. Rather than "fighting" battles with dice or cards, players allocate their military resources to each theater's campaigns, winning victory points, further resources, special weapons, and strategic advantages as they play. Refight World War Two several times in one evening!
Blitzkrieg! is one of my favorite filler games, and I feel it is a hidden gem that deserves to be more widely known, so I'm glad that's it going to be available again for folks to check out! Read more »
- VideoRace, Marry, Crawl, Meditate, Fight, and Dominate the Forest
• On a turn in David Van Drunen's Block and Key from Inside Up Games, you either take blocks from a reserve or add a block you have to a shared gamespace, ideally completing objective cards when you do — but you can complete such a card only when your particular 2D perspective of the 3D playing area matches what is depicted on the card. You play the game on an elevated platform so that your eyes will be at board level without you crouching down to rest your chin on the table like a sad dog. (KS link)
• Zombicide: Undead or Alive will land in 2022, marking ten years since CMON Limited debuted with Zombicide, the game that arguably defined what a table game Kickstarter should be. This zombie-fighting design from the original team of Raphaël Guiton, Jean-Baptiste Lullien, and Nicolas Raoult is set in the mythic wild West and invites you to mow down zombies with dynamite and locomotives as our ancestors did generations ago. (KS link)
• Designer Mitsuo Yamamoto regularly creates abstract strategy games from ceramic tiles, and for his current project he's offering a quartet of Shogi games — on a standard 9x9 board, on a 4x7 board, on a 4x6 board ("Le Shogi"), and on a 3x3 board ("Pop Shogi", which is Yamamoto's own design) — with a more accessible design for the pieces for those who don't speak Japanese. (KS link)
• Within three days of launching, Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition from Jacob Fryxelius, Sydney Engelstein, Nick Little, FryxGames, and Stronghold Games had garnered nearly $600k in support. The (KS page) could probably show nothing more than a logo and still do well, but of course it details the solo and co-operative play modes as well as the regular competitive gameplay in which you're once again trying to make Mars habitable.
• Bloodstone is a 1-8 player combat arena game from James Hudson and Druid City Games that was added to the BGG database back in 2017 and that will become a reality in 2022 — but only for those who back the KS campaign since the title won't have a retail release (outside of the publisher's webstore). Hudson explains why here.
• Scott Almes and Gamelyn Games are continuing their "tiny epic" game series with Tiny Epic Dungeons, this being a co-operative dungeon-crawling game in which 1-4 players must make it through a modular dungeon before their torchlight runs out so that they can face the "dungeon boss" that awaits for them in the second act of the game. (KS link)
• A Universal Truth is a Regency Era courtship game for 1-5 players from Patrick Einheber and Danger Toad Games that's filled with more than two hundred multi-use cards with which you'll earn money, build relationships with friends and family, get two people to fancy one another, then wed before anyone else. (The game ends at that point, so you will have to watch Bridgerton once again to experience the marriage's consummation.) (KS link)
• Root: The Marauder Expansion from Cole Wehrle, Patrick Leder, and Leder Games will be a thing, but you might know that already given the write-up from Candice Harris in mid-February 2021. The KS campaign has nearly $1.2 million in support as of Feb. 25, 2021, so apparently lots of people know.
• Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Board Game from Daryl Andrews, Morgan Dontanville, and Cryptozoic Entertainment is a solitaire game in which you play through the four "books" of Frank Miller's iconic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, with each book taking 90 minutes. Check out these ridiculously on-brand dice! (KS link)
• In January 2020, I wrote about ZEN Tiles Solo from Youichirou Kawaguchi and ChagaChaga Games. Here's a short description:ZEN Tiles Solo is a solitaire board game that challenges you to look at yourself objectively while placing emotion tiles on a 24-hour timeline.
To win, you need to find a spot to place twenty different emotion tiles above these time boards, so think carefully about "your yesterday". You might have become happy about yourself — "I had a positive thoughts!" — or were perhaps surprised: "I didn't realize that I have negative feelings every time when I see this person."
In 2020, Kawaguchi released ZEN Tiles Basic, a lightly competitive version of this game that can be played with up to four people, and now the designer is using Kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/guchifukui/zen-tiles-yo...) to make this game easily available to people outside of Japan.
• At Spielwarenmesse 2020, BGG recorded an overview of Tiny Turbo Cars from designers Hjalmar Hach, Laura Severino, Alessandro Manuini, Jonathan Panada, and Giulia Tamagni — and now Italian publisher Horrible Guild has brought the game to Kickstarter (link) for delivery by the end of 2021.
The hook in this racing game is that each player has a sliding puzzle to serve as their remote controller, and you program your moves for the round by sliding tiles into the middle two rows of the controller, with players moving in the order in which they lock in their moves. The faster you finish, the more likely you are to make the moves you set up — and the more likely you are to make mistakes, too. More details in the video below:
Youtube Video Read more »
- In Space, No One Can Hear You Complete ObjectivesRavensburger has become well-known for its licensed adaptations of movies, comics, cartoons, and theme park attractions, and following the release of two such titles in the U.S. in 2021 — Disney Villainous: Despicable Plots, which lets you take the roles of Gaston, Lady Tremaine, and the Horned King, and Pusheen Purrfect Pick, based on the Pusheen comics — Ravensburger has announced a more high-profile title that will debut on August 1, 2021: ALIEN: Fate of the Nostromo.
This game, designed by Scott Rogers and developed by Steve Warner, is a 1-5 player co-operative game in which you take on the role of Nostromo crew members Ripley, Lambert, Parker, Brett, or Dallas, all of whom are trying to survive on a spaceship that's been infiltrated by an alien. Executive Officer Kane has already been killed, and as for Science Officer Ash, well, we'll get to him. Here's an overview of the gameplay:Over the course of the game, crew members collect scrap, craft items, and fulfill different objectives. The crew will lose and gain morale as they encounter the Alien and other situations. If crew morale reaches zero, players lose the game.
Each turn has two phases. In the Crew Action phase, players creep through the Nostromo's halls, gathering scrap, crafting items, trading scrap and items with other players, and using items and their special abilities. Brett, for example, can craft items with one fewer scrap than other players. If the Alien is within three spaces of the player with the incinerator, that player can use the incinerator to send the Alien back to its nest.
In the Encounter phase, players draw and resolve an Encounter card. The Alien could be lurking behind any corner...
Once the players fulfill their initial objectives, they face one of five final missions, each with a unique set of requirements. Players must fulfill the final mission's requirements simultaneously to win the game.
In more detail, the game includes ten objectives, and during set-up you reveal one more objective than the number of players. You also choose a final mission at random, but you set it aside face down, revealing it only after you've completed all of the objectives.
Each crew member has a number of action points that you use to move, pick up or drop items or scrap, craft items out of scrap, trade with other crew members, use an item (some of which can be used a limited number of times), or take your unique special action.
The encounter cards move the alien around the board, with it always moving towards the closest crew member. If the alien and a crew member are ever in the same room, the team loses morale and the crew member must flee. What's more, the encounter cards replenish scrap in various rooms in the Nostromo, but they can also bring "concealed tokens", which must be revealed whenever someone enters that room. You might find nothing, or the alien might turn up — or Jonesy might surprise you, but don't worry because you can craft a cat carrier to catch him.
Some of the final missions initiate the Nostromo's self-destruct sequence, giving all players four more turns to complete the requirements of that mission before the game ends with a bang. And should you find yourself having an easy time aboard the Nostromo, you can introduce Science Officer Ash to the game, with Ash moving through the ship to remove scrap and force the crew to lose morale. Read more »
- Faiyum: Crafty Card Combos and Crocodiles in Ancient EgyptFriedemann Friese and his publishing company 2F-Spiele invited us all to relax with his uniquely-themed, "after"-worker placement game Finishing Time — but now it's time for us to get back to work in ancient Egypt during the reign of Amenemhet III to impress the pharaoh and develop Faiyum!
Faiyum is a deck-construction and hand-management strategy game fused with route-building elements in which 1-5 players take on the role of pharaoh's advisors in ancient Egypt, competing to earn the most reputation (victory points) by creating the best card combo-engine for harvesting resources and gaining money to build roads and structures, to gain the respect of the pharaoh.
I picked up a copy of Faiyum for myself the minute I read that it featured "a card mechanism reminiscent of deck-builders and the market mechanism successfully used in Power Grid". I'm generally a fan of board games that include any flavor of deck-building, so it seemed right up my alley. [Disclosure: BoardGameGeek sells Faiyum through the BGG Store to provide distribution for the game outside of Germany. —WEM]
When I unfolded the game board for Faiyum before my first game, I instantly loved its look and feel, and I was anticipating a pleasant gaming experience because of it. The colors are great and it's very well designed and illustrated by Harald Lieske. It also has this charming vintage appeal to it that I dig, which I'm assuming is a result of Lieske's history of contributing artwork to several older classics such as The Castles of Burgundy, La Granja, Arkwright, and many others.
The game board is a map of Faiyum with a channel dividing two separate peninsulas which are connected only by a dam, with both peninsulas being surrounded by a lake. There are resource spaces for wheat (yellow), grapes (purple), and stone (gray), clearly identifiable by color and graphics. All three types of resource spaces are considered "undeveloped" at the start of the game. Additionally, the wheat and grape resource spaces are swampy, and therefore covered with adorable, wooden crocodiles. (Googly eyes not included, but highly recommended!) There are also four building sites (brown) and one starting settlement space (red) on the board which are considered "developed" areas in Faiyum.
Off to the left side of the game board is the card market that demands your attention if you want to impress the pharaoh and stand a chance at winning Faiyum. In the vein of Friese's popular classic, Power Grid, Faiyum's card market has four spaces for the current card market where players can buy cards, and four spaces for cards that will be available later in the game so that you can plot and plan accordingly.
During set-up, you shuffle the main deck of cards into a draw pile, then prepare a "final turns" stack which is seeded with four natural disaster cards that will trigger the end of the game. Each card has a unique, even number on it, and the card market is always sorted in ascending order such that the four lowest cards form the current market and the flour highest cards cannot be purchased until they slide into the current market slots.
The cards in Faiyum are action cards, and they are the heartbeat of the game. You don't have a personal deck of cards from which you're randomly drawing, but instead your cards will either be in your hand or in your discard pile reminiscent of Concordia. There's a variety of different cards you can purchase throughout the game, which keep things interesting — but can also look a little crazy and complicated when you initially skim through them. Even though there are a lot of different action cards to familiarize yourself with, they will click and make sense faster than you'd expect thanks to a few key features in the game.
First of all, there's an awesome card glossary that comes with the game, and it explains every card really well with plenty of excellent examples. I would be very surprised if anyone had a question after checking the card glossary, but regardless, there's more. [Second disclosure: I edited the rulebook, so this is nice to hear! —WEM]
The iconography on the cards is excellent. After you learn what the action is from the card glossary, the images on the card make sense and more often than not, you won't need to look up a lot of cards after a game or two. For example, there's always the main action graphically represented and then at the bottom of each card you'll see the cost for playing the action always has a red background and the benefit always has a green background, which makes the cards easy to parse at a glance. I've played Faiyum only with gamer friends, and they picked it up quickly due to the clear iconography, but I get the impression that even non-gamers can pick it up fairly quickly especially with a good teacher.
On top of the wonderful card glossary and iconography, each card falls into one of four types of actions, and when you understand how one type of action works, I found it easy to grasp how different cards of the same type worked. There are harvest actions to help you gain resources; build actions which allow you to develop Faiyum with settlements, roads, bridges etc.; commerce actions to help you earn money; and "other" actions the feature some different gameplay effects.
For example, everyone starts the game with three Farmer cards, which are harvest actions. Farmer cards allow you to place a worker on an undeveloped resource space adjacent to another space that has a worker on it and gain one matching resource based on the space where the worker is placed.
Other harvest actions look and function similarly as you can see above from the following examples: The Senior Farmer works the same, except you gain two matching resources, the Grower allows you to gain two roses (a wild resource) when you place a worker on any undeveloped space adjacent to the channel, and Harvest Hands follows the Farmer rules, but allows you to spend $1-$3 to place 1-3 workers and gain 1-3 resources depending on where you place the worker(s).
Along with gaining resources, if you place any workers on a space that has a crocodile on it when taking a harvest action, you remove the crocodile from the game and gain $1 since you're draining the land and opening it up for development opportunities. There are even cute little crocodile icons on the top corners of harvest action cards as a reminder.
A key thing to note is that everything built on the board does not belong to a specific player; it is all common property for all players to interact with. This, combined with the card market variation, lends itself to a great deal of variety and some interesting player interaction.
Faiyum has a smooth flow to it and moves at a decent pace. It doesn't have any rounds or phases, but instead players simply alternate taking turns, in turn order, until the end of the game is triggered. Continuing with the vibe of simplicity, there are only three actions you can take on your turn, which I found makes it fairly easy to teach and get into for your first game:
1) You can play a card from your hand, either using it for its action or to get money for it.
2) You can buy a card from the current card market, placing it directly in your hand after paying the cost.
3) You can take an administration turn and do admin-y things such as gaining income and refreshing your hand and the card market.
Everyone starts the game with a hand of five cards (three Farmers, Settlement, and Two Roads) and some amount of money depending on turn order. When it's your turn, you can play a card for its action or discard it to gain $2. Regardless of the type of action card, you'll typically be playing cards to gain resources, money, and reputation (victory points) in some form, whether it's from harvesting, building, or taking some other late-game scoring cards. There are also "other" cards mixed in that allow you to do fun different things like take cards from the market at a set price or copy the action on the top of your discard pile.
After you take your newly purchased card, you draw a card from the main deck to refill the market. Remember whenever you add cards to the market, you shift them to ensure all cards are in ascending order from the start of the market. This could shift existing cards in the current market making them cheaper in some cases, and more expensive in other cases. Again, it is important to pay attention to the card market and try to catch good deals before your opponents. Of course, there will be many occasions where you unfortunately won't have the funds you need to seize the opportunity, so money is also important to have on hand.
I found the key to doing well in Faiyum is all about gaining cards that can be comboed with your existing cards so you can build the best money, resource, and reputation engine. For example, one game I had a card that allowed me to gain roses, then I was able to get another card that let me convert roses into reputation. Another time, I had the Plantation card that let me build a workshop on a grape resource space to gain grapes and reputation, that I comboed with the Vintner, which let me place a worker on a space with a grape workshop to gain reputation and money.
Eventually after buying cards and playing cards from your hand into your discard pile, you'll be wanting to get your cards back into your hand. That's when you should plan to take an administration turn. Administration turns have three main steps to them for gaining income, buying back cards from your discard pile, and replacing cards in the current market.
For income, you first (potentially) gain money based on the amount of cards remaining in your hand. It's always $3 minus the amount of cards in your hand, so if you have three or more cards in your hand when you take an administration turn, you won't earn any base income. Then you can remove 0-2 workers from any spaces on the game board earning $0-$2 accordingly. Sometimes this decision doesn't matter too much, but it mostly does. The reason is that if you remove a worker from, let's say, a settlement space, and your opponent has a card in hand that allows them to place a worker on a settlement space to get some goodies, you probably don't want to help them with that — but on the other hand, you may need to clear some workers for your own sake, and it ends up being a tough decision. Finally, you gain the top three cards back from the top of your discard pile (for free).
Next you can optionally buy back additional top cards from your discard pile by spending $1 per card. Your discard pile is never shuffled, and this makes it very important to consider the order in which you play your cards in Faiyum. Buying cards back from your discard pile can get expensive, so if you don't consider the order when you play your cards, you might not be able to afford to pick up some of your best cards, and that would be sad. With this in mind, it's also a good way later in the game to bury weaker cards towards the bottom and just never pick them back up. Although, there's no hand limit, so you could always hold onto the weaker cards and cash them in for $2 by discarding them towards the end of the game, and that might help you buy some juicy, late-game scoring cards.
The last step of your administration turn is to replace 1-2 cards in the current market based on player count. You'll always remove the lowest card(s) with discount tokens on them first, then the lowest cards. The remaining cards in the current market get discount tokens, then you refill the market, always shifting cards into ascending order.
Players continue taking turns, playing cards, buying cards and retrieving cards from their discard pile until eventually, the fourth natural disaster card makes its debut appearance in the card market. When this happens, players can no longer take administration turns, which can be rough if you're not planning for it. In most of my games, I was the one to trigger the end of the game by strategically timing my final administration turn well. This allowed me to swoop up all of my cards one last time and the others were stuck with whatever they had in hand. If you try this at home and make your friends bitter, you didn't hear it from me.
After the end of the game is triggered, players can only play cards, buy cards, or bow out by taking the natural disaster from the card market with the most reputation. In a four-player game, the first player to quit gains 10 reputation, the next player gains 6, then 3, and 0 if you are last. This often adds a bit of tension since it becomes a race to snag the extra bonus points before the end of the game. The player with the most reputation wins the game and is considered the pharaoh's most cunning advisor!
I didn't get to play Faiyum with five players, but I'd imagine it would be a bit wild since the card market would likely change a lot in between each of your turns and therefore it would be harder to plan out your turn. It could be totally fun, though! I'm sure I'll give it a try at some point, but alternatively, I was pleasantly surprised how well Faiyum plays with two. It was quite enjoyable, and there were plenty of moments of tension with the card market. Plus, I really like that you use the full deck of cards for every player count, but with the timing of administration turns, you never really know which cards will end up getting removed from the game and this adds to the variation of Faiyum.
The solo mode is similar to the multiplayer gameplay, so there aren't a lot of new rules to learn if you plan to play Faiyum solo. You can play one-off games and try to beat your best score, or for something a bit more interesting, they've also included campaign challenges. You have seven different goals to achieve, starting with gaining at least 150 reputation in a game, and each time you fulfill a goal, you can unlock a variety of achievements that change the solo rules slightly in your favor.
It's not a very thematic experience, but the cardplay is where it really shines. I appreciate how each game I played evolved completely differently depending on the timing of when different cards appeared in the market, which ones got purchased, and how different players chose to execute the card actions relative to the state of the game board. Plus, creating those rewarding card combos always felt very satisfying. The more you play, the more you'll know the potential of the cards, which could seem like it'll eventually get boring, but when you have no clue when different cards will be available or when they'll be removed from the market from an administration action, you have to be flexible and prepared to readapt your strategy each game.
Then you have the game board being built up differently each game, too, which helps keep each game feeling fresh. For example, one game I placed the first worker on the smaller peninsula and we were off to a tighter start and had a different experience than when the first worker was placed on the larger peninsula.
I appreciate the simplicity of Faiyum. It's awesome that there are only three main actions you can take on your turn, and you can explain the cards as they appear in the market, so it ends up being a straightforward teach and quick to get into with new players. Don't get me wrong, though, because while the game structure is relatively simple, the decision space gets deeper and more complex, the more cards you acquire.
If you enjoy strategy games with awesome cardplay opportunities, player interaction, and/or adorable wooden crocodiles, then Faiyum is worth checking out. Read more »
- Metal Gear Release Plans Less Than Solid, and UNO Gets RemixedIDW Games announced Metal Gear Solid: The Board Game from designer Emerson Matsuuchi, teasing the game as "Coming 2019" in a tweet from the show.
Yet 2019 has come and gone, not to mention 2020, and on Feb. 15, 2021 Matsuuchi announced on BGG that the game is not coming to market anytime soon — at least not with IDW Games:The decision was made back in December  not to move forward with the MGS Project. Since that time, I have been pursuing a myriad of options to keep the project going. I have offered to put in capital from my company to help fund the last leg of the project, and even to buy out IDW's interest in the project along with purchasing all of the assets. Unfortunately, I couldn't get any traction with those options.
The rights to the design were finally given back to me a few weeks ago. So I have reached out and enlisted the help of a friend that is a bonafide expert in licensing and has connections with Konami. We're working to keep this project alive and exploring possible options. While there are no guarantees that our efforts will bear fruit, I'm still optimistic that we will be able to get the MGS game to market, to the patient fans that have been kept waiting.
Answering questions in that thread, Matsuuchi says that crowdfunding the design with a MGS license is not an option based on the licensing agreement, and he is willing to re-theme the design should it be impossible for another company to acquire the MGS license.
For a taste of what could have been — and what might still be — you can watch this overview of the game from Matsuuchi that BGG recorded at Gen Con 2019.
profile post of Damon Saddler, a Key Lead Designer at Mattel, with news of yet another new version of UNO, one that will likely feel familiar to folks who play hobby games.
UNO celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021, and to mark the occasion Mattel is releasing many editions of the game, which makes sense given that by many accounts UNO is the best-selling game in the world. Thus, we now have a specific "50th Anniversary Edition" that includes a gold-ish coin as well as a small box version that has gold Wild cards, not to mention five themed versions for the various decades in which the game was sold.
In addition to all of those — and what is undoubtedly more to come throughout the rest of 2021 — in February 2021 Mattel released UNO Remix, which works as follows:UNO Remix features familiar UNO gameplay, with players trying to empty their hand by playing cards that match the value or color of the topmost discard play, but now you can personalize the deck to make it your own and change what's possible during the game.
At the start of each round, you add special cards or write-on cards to the deck. You can personalize cards to specific players, e.g., "Skip to Aldie" or "Draw 2 Chad", you can add a mark to a card to increase the number of cards drawn the next time it's played, you can introduce cards that block penalty cards, and much more!
And as always, when you have only one card left in hand, you must yell "UNO!" to warn others that you're about to win.
Yes, legacy elements of game design have come (back) to mainstream titles, and their implementation here makes perfect sense given that (due to their low price) these UNO titles are often viewed as disposable commodities anyway and (due to the condition of the world) you're probably going to be at the table with the same group of people, which will make the in-jokes more entertaining, as with the legacy-originating and now decade-old Risk Legacy. Read more »
- Revisit Great Western Trail, Then Follow Trails Elsewhereeggertspiele brand, has announced a second edition of Alexander Pfister's Great Western Trail.
You can see the changes immediately from the box, with artist Chris Quilliams taking inspiration from Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, using black bands across the box top and bottom to give a panoramic, cinematic feel, with the image also stretching around the sides of the box. Quilliams has also created new art for the game board and cards, with Plan B planning to reveal the new look bit by bit over several weeks.
On top of this, Pfister and eggertspiele are working on two additional Great Western Trail titles, each of which will use elements of the original game — deck-building and a rondel — but in new ways. Says Martin Bouchard of Plan B Games, "Alexander is re-exploring the core mechanisms of the base game because it's an open field for creativity."
The second edition of Great Western Trail is due out in Q3 2021, while Great Western Trail: Argentina will debut in mid-2022 and Great Western Trail: New Zealand in mid-2023. Bouchard notes that unlike Plan B's Century series, these titles will all be standalone games that don't have crossover elements.
A new edition of Rails to the North, first released in 2018, will also arrive in 2021 to be compatible with the second edition of GWT. Read more »
- Designer Diary: InklingInkling, a word card game designed by me and published by Osprey Games in February 2021.
To help make sense of a game you are unlikely to have played here is a brief overview of the final game: Inkling is a game about using letter cards — in any way you can — to help the other players guess words on a secret clue card. Longer words are worth more points, and you are playing in two teams at once, one with each neighbor.
Concept and Prototype
I've always been bad at word games as correct spelling does not come naturally and anagrams remain completely opaque, but in March 2019 I was listening to the latest Ludology podcast — all about word games — and I thought rather than start with the letters and make words, you could start with the words and make letters, and in that way you can play with words even if it's not normally your thing.
The prototype came together quickly, and the core of the game has remained the same: Drafting letters to spell words on your card for people to guess.
The components were the letter cards from Lexicon and the word cards from Concept. Both were ill-suited to the task, but making up words proved fun enough to develop the game further.
Design and Playtesting
The bulk of playtesting happened at the UK Playtesters group in Oxford and Oxford on Board, although I also took the design to the playtest area at the UK Games Expo 2019, which let it receive feedback from a much wider variety of people.
There were three challenges to work on before the game could be finished: the clue cards, the letter cards, and the scoring.
• Clue Cards: Dedicated clue cards were the first component to be made — the same list of the most common English words with 4 to 9 letters that made it into the final game. The problem was word distribution as early versions had very easy cards and very hard cards depending on the letters in the words.
Fixing this took learning what made cards easy or hard, then making a formula to calculate a difficulty score in a spreadsheet. I then played with the word lists until each card was balanced with the others.
• Letter Cards: While the word lists were being balanced, the letters needed designing. First, the cards became stylized, which gave players much more scope for playing with them to make words. After that, a new set was printed without the black border of the originals.
• Scoring: This was originally both more chaotic and more rule-intensive. You were limited to guessing 1, 2, and 3 words in rounds 1, 2, and 3, and these words could be from anyone. You received the points from words you guessed, as well as from each of your own words guessed by at least one other player.
You may be able to imagine the problem already, but with six players it could take a while to look at everyone else's creations, with players often getting up from the table and walking around it. There was also some unwanted randomness in whose words received the most attention, and some unwanted strategy that emerged from a mixture of competitive and co-operative incentives.
Laying the problem out like that makes the eventual solution seem much more obvious that it was, but ultimately, instead of playing as individuals, players would guess only their neighbor's words and total their scores as a team of two (so each player is on two teams).
The game became much more comfortable to play, the time taken was more consistent across player counts, and all you had to worry about was creating good letter combinations for your neighbor to guess.
Come September 2019 I was playtesting the game at the UK Playtesters event in Oxford, and Anthony from Osprey Games was also there. He liked the game, they took it back to the office, and it was soon signed.
While most of the game was finished at that point, we continued playing with the word list until it was as balanced as we could make it.
That all seems like a lifetime ago, with how long 2020 has been, but I'm very excited to be able to see the game in print come February 23, 2021.
John Keyworth Read more »
- Welcome New Factions to the Woodland, Survive on Mars, Prepare for a Siege, and Return to the West KingdomPatrick Leder, Cole Wehrle, and the creative team at Leder Games have cooked up yet another savory Root delight: Root: The Marauder Expansion, which I'm thrilled to announce is coming to Kickstarter (KS link) on February 23, 2021:Root: The Marauder Expansion introduces two new factions and new gameplay options:
• The Warlord is both charismatic and terrifying. He rules over a vast horde of warriors recently arrived to the woodland and is interested only in its domination. To help speed his conquest, he lights massive fires which can spread throughout the woods and destroy the buildings of other factions. The Warlord also interacts with crafted items, which he can plunder from players. These items increase his strength, but also cause him to develop an increasingly fearsome monomania.
• The Stone Seekers are strangers to the Woodland, here only to recover the scattered and lost relics of an ancient civilization. The Seekers work to establish way-stations across the woodland and form alliances with other factions in hopes of recovering their relics more quickly. They will often find themselves deep within enemy territory as they search for their relics. Thankfully their finely crafted armor makes them difficult to dislodge.
Both of these factions are suitable to Root's two-player game, bringing the total number of two-player factions up to five without the use of bots.
Root: The Marauder Expansion also introduces a new level to the conflict for the woodland: minor factions! These small factions can be used at any player count and introduce surprising new power combinations as well as a chess-like tension to lower player count games of Root.
Finally, The Marauder Expansion also includes a new set-up draft system suitable for both casual and competitive play.
In true Leder fashion, Cole, Patrick and Joshua Yearsley have already posted a few designer diaries (Designer Diary 1, Designer Diary 2, Designer Diary 3) sharing Root's backstory and fascinating insight on the development of the The Marauder Expansion. I'll try to contain my drool as we await updates from Leder Games.
Vital Lacerda and Eagle-Gryphon Games are sending us back to Mars with a new co-operative expansion for On Mars called Surviving Mars, which is targeted for a Kickstarter campaign around May 2021.
There aren't too many details available yet as you will notice from the brief description below, but I love the idea of having more heavy co-operative game options to play. It also seems like a great way to ease players who might otherwise be intimidated into Lacerda games. Here's what we know:Surviving Mars is a short story expansion to On Mars made in four chapters with four different modes of play, and it uses elements of the Paradox digital game by the same name.
The short story is called "Alien Invasion" and contemplates the following Chapters and modes of play:
Chapter 1 - The Invasion - 1 vs All - 3 to 5 players
Chapter 2 - Outbreak - Co-Op - 2 to 4 players
Chapter 3 - Power Shortage - Co-Op - 2 to 4 players
Chapter 4 - Monolith - Solo - 1 player
Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson's Undaunted releases (Undaunted: Normandy and Undaunted: North Africa) from Osprey Games. In true Candice-fashion, I ended up ferociously digging around BGG to see what else they designed, which led me to discovering the abstract, bag-building strategy game War Chest from AEG and the same dynamic designer duo, which also became an instant hit with me.
Naturally, I was pumped to hear that War Chest: Siege, the second expansion for War Chest, is available for retail pre-order and will be released in March 2021. Here's the description of the Siege expansion from the publisher:Not all battles are fought on the open field. In many cases defenders hide behind the thick walls of mighty castles. Now is the time to prepare for siege! As castles grew larger and stronger throughout the middle ages, new ways evolved to scale, knock down, and even undermine their walls.
In War Chest: Siege, you will be confronted with fortified locations. Fear not, though, as you have siege towers and trebuchets at your disposal and hardy sappers to both build your own fortifications and undermine your opponents'. Can you successfully return to the battlefield with your war engines in this ingenious and engaging game of tactics and strategy?
In more detail, the Siege expansion comes with four new units (shown below), fortification coins, and fortification map cards. During set-up, you randomly select one of the six map cards to determine where the initial four fortifications will be placed. The fortifications aren't units, but can be attacked like units.
The Sapper, one of the new units, allows players to build additional fortifications throughout the game. The other three new units (Siege Tower, Trebuchet, War Wagon) introduce siege weapons and tactics to War Chest to further spice things up.
From reading the Siege expansion rulebook, I can already tell the addition of siege weapons/tactics and fortifications will add a lot of variety and refreshing, new choices to War Chest — and with the added bonus of minimal, additional rules to learn. I'm very much looking forward to playing this!
West Kingdom Trilogy games — Architects of the West Kingdom and Paladins of the West Kingdom — from designers Shem Phillips and S J Macdonald and publisher Garphill Games.
In the Works of Wonder expansion for Architects of the West Kingdom, players compete to build wonders as described below by the publisher:In Architects of the West Kingdom: Works of Wonder, builders from far and wide have travelled to partake in the King's latest endeavor: five glorious monuments to beautify the city. However, not just any architect can be entrusted with such a task. Only those of influence and charitable reputation shall receive this great honor. Will you accompany the Princess as she surveys the projects, or rally support from the elusive Profiteer?
Works of Wonder introduces an extension to the main board to hold the new Contribution/Consequence Cards and keep track of players' Influence. Players compete to construct the five Wonders, while gaining support from the new Princess and Profiteer tokens moving about the main board. Also included is an entirely new solo system with six unique opponents against which to compete.
In the City of Crowns expansion for Paladins of the West Kingdom, players will seek support from noble allies as described below:In Paladins of the West Kingdom: City of Crowns, noble allies have responded to the recent attacks against our borders. Only through careful negotiation and diplomacy will these dukes, barons, counts, and margraves offer the aid we so desperately need. Will you be able to muster enough support to once again defend this great city, or will you crumble beneath the weight of indecision and apathy?
This expansion adds new extensions for both the main board and player boards. Players have a new attribute to manage and new actions available on each turn.
In either case, I'm looking forward to hearing more about both of these expansions since I've enjoyed my plays of the base games! Read more »
- Collect Coins — and Trophies — in The Witcher: Old WorldGo On Board has announced a deal with video game developer CD Projekt RED to release a new board game set in the world of The Witcher. Here's what you can look forward to in The Witcher: Old World, designed by Go On Board co-founder Łukasz Woźniak:In The Witcher: Old World, you become a witcher — a professional monster slayer — and immerse yourself in the legendary universe of The Witcher franchise.
Set years before the saga of Geralt of Rivia, The Witcher: Old World explores a time when monsters roamed the Continent in greater numbers, creating a constant peril that required the attention of expertly trained monster slayers, known as witchers. Five competing schools trained their adepts through brutal regimes, and once fully prepared, these now-recognized witchers set off to explore the land, seeking trouble and adventures and helping others for coin.
In this competitive adventure board game, 2-5 players travel across a vast map, embarking on masterfully penned quests, encountering and making ambiguous moral choices, fighting monsters — and sometimes brawling with other witchers to defend their school's honor!
The game lets players construct their own unique decks of cards by choosing from a wide range of abilities: attacks, dodges, and witcher combat magic — known as "signs". Through card synergy, players aim to achieve powerful combos as they utilize their witcher school's hallmark abilities to their full potential. Quests, battles, and even dice poker allow each player to earn money, obtain new items, and train their skills.
The first player to acquire 4-6 trophies, with the number being set at the start of play, wins the game instantly. You can obtain trophies by killing monsters, instigating and winning chaotic tavern brawls against another witcher, training attributes to their highest level, and resolving certain quests throughout their adventure.
In more detail, each player chooses to be a witcher from a different school: Wolf, Cat, Viper, Bear, or Griffin. Schools have a unique deck and specialties — including skills that can be used to gain an advantage over other players:
• A Wolf's Swordsmanship makes them masters of the blade.
• A Griffin's Magic helps them in the most dangerous fights.
• A Cat's Speed keep them to one step ahead of the opponent.
• A Bear's Armor makes their skin almost impenetrable.
• A Viper's Venomous Steel enables them to inflict poisonous wounds.
You begin with a deck of ten cards specific to your school, with cards representing different attacks, blocks, dodges and magical signs. Various opportunities in the game allow you to gain or lose cards, with you trying to build combos and advance your skills. Each card has its own color, and most cards have "combo extensions" that allow you to play an additional card if it's the proper color. The more cards you play and
link together, the more powerful your combo.
In a press release announcing the game, Rafał Jaki, Business Development Director at CD Projekt RED, wrote:"Our studio is full of board game enthusiasts and creating one tailor made to fit The Witcher universe is something that we've felt very passionate about for quite some time now. We wanted the game to be easy to learn, hard to master, and offer high replay value. Story-wise, we thought it would be interesting to focus on times when witchers were more frequently seen throughout the world. We also wanted to show how the different witcher schools tackled unique monsters that inhabited the continent in abundance. I'm looking forward to seeing how gamers take to Old World when it releases!"
A Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for The Witcher: Old World will launch in May 2021, with base and deluxe versions being available and with the game currently scheduled for release in April 2022. Read more »
- Designer Diary: Waddle, or How I Learned to Love Penguins
by Isaac ShalevWaddle was designed by Raph Koster and Isaac Shalev. Raph's part of the story comes first.
Hi! As you read this Waddle is just hitting the market from WizKids. It is my first published tabletop game after designing several dozen. My career is as a videogame designer, and for a long time, my tabletop designs were just things that I would prototype, get printed into presentable versions, and play with friends and fellow designers at videogame developer conferences.
Even though I am a game designer by trade, and videogame and tabletop design have a lot of similarities, there are also some huge differences — but frankly, the differences between the businesses of board versus digital are a lot bigger. I had no idea how to go about getting any of these turned into a real thing.
Now that the game is actually going to be hitting store shelves, I thought it might be interesting for people to see the process of getting Waddle from a vague notion to something that will be on FLGS shelves soon!
The earliest design document I can find was nothing more than a sketch. Long ago, I used to carry a pad of paper or a sketchbook with me everywhere I went to take notes and sketch out ideas. I switched over to an iPad a long time ago, and I've used various different note-taking apps ever since.
I think this game was originally prompted by a vague memory of Eric Zimmerman telling me at a Game Developers Conference (GDC) dinner about his new game installation Interference, probably in 2013. (See this page on his website for a description.) I don't actually know the rules for the game, but I do recall how the images of the game struck me: hanging sheets of cut metal, with pegs that are placed in holes in the sheets. The sheets are arranged in ovals, and each oval has a different number of pegs and slots in it.
I would not be surprised if the following notes were taken at GDC fairly soon after the conversation with Eric, to be honest. I don't have an exact date, but these are from early 2013, and before May for sure because I have a date of the contents of the next page in the notebook!
The text is a bit hard to read from the image, but the idea is quite short, which is pretty normal for me. It reads:A board with spaces on it. You get to put in your pieces anywhere...but we rotate through win conditions per turn. So who owns the space changes as the win condition does.
Probably the most notable thing about this quick idea is that this is not what the game ended up being at all. Waddle is not an area-control game, so there is no "owning" of spaces!
After that come some questions and elaborations:Do they rotate with dice? With cards? Can you see in advance what is going to come up? And do you score at the end or when you end a phase and the condition changes? Or maybe you choose from your hand each turn: play a piece (or several) and then play a card.
The answer to these questions ended up being "with cards, no, and yes, it will work like that!" So in the space of just a couple of sentences, the original idea was already dead, and the bare bones of Waddle started taking shape.
At the bottom are then the seeds of the actual strategy behind the game: the varying scoring conditions that you can play in order to score the individual spaces on the board: Majority — minority — even — odd — multiple — empty neighbors — neighbor count — empty...
The struggle in the game development process was going to be about picking the right set of scoring rules, the right number of spaces, and the right number of pieces. This would turn out to be a lengthy process.
I instinctively lean towards abstract strategy games when I do tabletop design. This is a little weird to those who know my videogame work, which is mostly big sprawling online worlds with tons of mechanisms and systems. The commonality is that even in those giant projects, I try to keep each system small and super simple. This also means that I tend to design games for two players, which isn't necessarily in step with the market realities of tabletop gaming.
You haven't gotten to play the game yet, but here's how it ended up working: You have different colored tokens that go into spaces on the board. Each space has room for five tokens. There isn't really a spatial relationship between the spaces. Each turn, you either place several tokens into spaces, or choose one space to empty of all tokens and redistribute them to the other spaces. Then you play a card that has a scoring rule on it. You get as many points as there are now spaces that match your scoring rule. You get to play each scoring rule only once, and you cannot play the same scoring rule as the previous player.
I often do the first few iterations entirely in my head, or playing against myself. The original board consisted of five circles drawn on a blank sheet of paper, shaped like a five-spot on a die. I had plenty of glass beads laying around to use as the tokens. Pretty quickly I was calling the game "Pebbles" in my mind.
It's my habit to rewrite the rules from scratch every time I do a big design iteration, while keeping the old version in the document. It turns into a longer and longer design history of how the game evolved. It means I can often go back to earlier versions and check out discarded ideas to see whether they once again fit into the game.
The very next ruleset I wrote down looked like this:There are five wells on the table.
Player starts with either three cards or all of them.
Each player has white and black pebbles to distribute. Each turn they get to put a pebble on the board or move a pebble on the board. A given well can have only five pebbles in it. Is there a cap on the number of pebbles? Say, 16? (works out at avg of 3 per well)
Each player has a hand of cards. Each turn after their pebble actions, they get to choose to play one of the cards in their hand to claim points according to the rules on the card.
The cards are things like:
● A point for each even well
● A point for each odd well
● A point for each empty well
● A point for each well with more white than black but split
● Each well with more black than white but split
● Each evenly split well
● All white
● All black
● Each full well (five)
When they play that card, the pebbles in the wells that score are removed from the board, and that card is discarded, never to be played again. The player gets one point for each well that meets the criteria of the played card. Play ends when all players have gone through all the cards.
The big new thing was the idea that the scoring rules were a consumable resource. This imposed a length limit on the game; it would always consist of the same number of turns. This is a nice thing for a tabletop game, I think, many of which have unpredictable durations.
I also baked in a couple of things after that early playtesting: five spaces and 16 tokens total. Why those numbers? Because they have awkward relationships to one another. Perfect multiples here would lead to a lot of symmetry and repeated moves, I thought. I eventually tried out letting players pick from pools of white and black beads, letting them get more beads over time, letting them play varying quantities of beads in a turn, but kept coming back to the idea that this would be a game about fixed resources, about managing a decline in choices.
Version 2 suffered from really disjointed pacing. You added only one pebble every turn, which meant that spaces didn't build up fast at all — you rarely got to a full space before the game ended. Most of the scoring cards were useless. Emptying the wells when you scored them added to this. If you play version 2, you will find it truly sucks and doesn't really feel like a game at all.
In the next version I am still stubbornly hanging on to forcing the player to choose from among three cards. In an effort to make the board more dynamic, you now can choose from several actions — what I tend to call "verbs" from my videogame design life.Players shuffle their decks.
They choose three cards to lay in front of them.
They take turns adding or moving a pebble, then playing a card from the three they laid in front of them.
● Add a pebble
● Move a pebble
● Remove a pebble
● Empty a well
Total failure. This didn't help the game at all.
But there was something to keep, something I still had strong faith in: the scoring rules mechanism. It was the beating heart of the original idea, and it had evolved into basically a permutation space: every axis of comparison that I could think of for two sets of five. I explored having scoring cards for exactly 1, exactly 2, exactly 3, and so on, but discarded it as less interesting; it made the game longer, but also meant that players had too many choices on their turn.
It was time to make radical changes. The problem was that choices weren't interesting yet, even though the scoring rules, I felt, were solid.
I cornered one of my kids, we sat down at the game table, and we started playing. I would change the rules every few turns, just to see whether more interesting choices appeared. When they got sick of me changing rules, and as the changes started becoming less frequent, we set my phone up on a tripod, pointed it at the board, and used video calls to loop in other kids so that they could do head-to-head matches while I watched.
One of the first things that changed was the realization that there was no need to limit players to just three scoring card choices. In practice, the board layouts tended to force a small set of choices on you. Even with nine scoring rules on the first move, most of the possible choices were obvious dead-ends, so it never felt overwhelming.
Where a limit of three cards had made the game feel like you were pushed into bad choices or had no real choice but to play a given card, allowing you to choose from all the cards put agency in the player's hands and made them feel like every choice was in their control on every turn.
In fact, this led to an interesting change in the dynamics of the game over time. Some scoring cards have pretty low utility early in the game — the one that calls for full spaces, for example — while others are of limited utility late in the game, such as the one that calls for empty spaces. Even though those are the two most obvious examples, it holds true for all the cards: their "potential" value changes over time in the game. Some move in a straight line, some swing back and forth.
I visualized it in my head as a line graph: What's the "potential value" of this card, on average, as the game progresses? This landscape of intersecting curves headed in different directions was very interesting to me. I now had a lens through which to look at the game for tuning it as a system.
All About the Value Curves
This realization led immediately to the choice to not allow beads to be removed from the game. Otherwise, you didn't get a nice clean set of graph lines. They bounced around too much. I was persuaded that having regularity to these curves helped the game. Players could speed up the demise of the empty card's value through their choices, but it was always doomed to go down over time. This created a sense of risk-taking: How fast is this curve going to decline? It contributes to a sense of pushing your luck, without actually using that formal mechanism.
Pretty soon, I was thinking of the mechanisms all in terms of these curves. "Empty" versus "full" was a natural progression through the game, but we could get more curves to be strategic. In the earlier versions, both players had access to both colors of beads. By giving each of the two players control over only one of the colors of beads, rather than a mix of both, they each controlled the ramp of availability of a color. This then affected the curves of all the scoring cards that called for scoring based on color.
The last scoring card curve that needed to be put under player control was the odd/even pairing. Adding beads one at a time was not only really slow paced, but it tended to move this curve in far too predictable a way, swinging back and forth. The earlier versions of the game let you break the pattern only by skipping a bead, that is, by moving a bead from one space to another. This basically was a parity shift, but in itself wasn't that interesting. Both problems could be solved at the same time by letting players place a varying number of beads in any of the spaces. Now there was a new curve to manage the speed of: running out of beads, which could happen very early or very late depending on player strategy.
Lastly, the old moving mechanisms were now obsolete. We didn't need them as cards. Moving a single bead felt pointless now that you could place a bunch at the same time, yet a board that only accumulated felt too static, so I kept the rule that allowed you to empty a space, but now the beads had to be redistributed to other spaces, as long as they were not full.
I now had what I felt was an interesting mathematical landscape. Players, through their choices, were basically pushing the game along these curves. Every choice they made was going to affect more than one of them, sometimes perhaps in ways they didn't see (though a thoughtful player could work it out). There were enough curves that even though the game has no hidden information, it's more than you can reasonably keep track of. Every scoring choice you make is actually deeply consequential — which they had to be because you got only nine of them.
What I had, at this point, felt very much like a battle of wits. It was determinedly two player and very simple in appearance: five circles, and white and black beads. It conjured up the unholy marriage of go and mancala, despite not playing very much like either, so I decided to skin it that way. I used The Game Crafter, my usual go-to for making pretty prototypes, and put together something that I was trying to make look ageless or timeless.
I even thought about actually making a real wood version of it, but I am not a very good woodworker.
The final ruleset was still quite small and elegant:There are five wells on the board. Each player starts with eight beads, either black or white. Each player has nine cards as well. White goes first.
Each turn, a player can choose one of the following actions:
● If the player has beads left, they can place between 1 and 5 of their beads in the wells. These beads can be distributed into any wells you choose as long as a well does not exceed five beads total.
● Select a well that has beads already, pick up the beads in it, and distribute them into the other wells. They can be distributed into any wells, as long as the destination wells do not exceed five beads total.
After performing one of these moves, the player plays one of the nine cards from their hand. The cards have rules for scoring on them:
● Score one point for each well that has only black beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has more black beads than white beads, with at least one white bead present.
● Score one point for each well that is split evenly between white and black beads.
● Score one point for each well that has more white beads than black beads, with at least one black bead present.
● Score one point for each well that has only white beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has an even number of beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that has an odd number of beads in it.
● Score one point for each well that is full, at five beads.
● Score one point for each well that is empty, with zero beads.
Set the card face up on the discard pile so that the other player can see what it is. Scoring markers are placed in the spot on the board that matches that card. The next player cannot play the same card in their next turn, unless it is their last card.
Players then play until all cards are exhausted. Tally up the points, and the player with the most wins.
I came up with an abstract way of indicating all of the different scoring methods, and used that to guide the card designs and the scoring boards next to the card wells.
On the Road
Once printed, the game made for an attractive package despite the uninspiring name of "Pebbles". I started to take it with me to game conferences in 2017, four full years after I had first jotted down the notes for the original concept. At 2018's Austin Game Conference, it was played by famed videogame designer Dr. Cat, who quite fell in love with it — so much so that I gave him my test copy. As a designer, of course, his big interest was whether the game was going to break because of its small size, that is, whether there was a degenerate strategy that resulted in always winning.
I was pretty sure that the permutation space of the possible states in the game was too large for the game to be easily solved — but as the game went on the road, I did start to see something that had never happened in earlier playtests: playing to a draw. And so I had to add a rule for breaking the tie.
In 2018, I took all my prototypes with me to the Tabletop Network conference, where I had been asked to speak by my friend Tim Fowers, designer of many wonderful boardgames, including Burgle Bros., which I had helped workshop when Tim lived in San Diego. I spoke about applying what I call "game grammar" to tabletop games, using poker as a particular lens.
It was a great chance to reconnect with many friends who work mostly in tabletop, such as James Ernest and Scott Rogers, as well as meet some folks whom I mostly knew only from online interactions. I felt a bit like a fish out of water there as I quickly discovered that tabletop's ecosystem for aspiring designers, pros, and publishers is quite different from that of videogames. They were all encouraging about taking my prototypes to publication, but also cautioned me that my predilection for two-player abstract strategy might prove to be a barrier to getting the games signed.
One of the folks I met there for the first time was Isaac Shalev, who worked with my acquaintance Geoff Engelstein on a boardgame design podcast and later book. Isaac and I played many prototypes together (not just mine — playing each other's games, and other people's, was the primary evening activity for the event, of course). I mentioned to him that I felt like several of the games were good enough to get published, but it was clear that given my day job, there was no way I would ever have the time to go to all the boardgame conventions and pitch. Isaac kindly offered to take my bag of prototypes on the road with him!
And so it was that our partnership on this game began. Little did we know there was one more huge design hurdle ahead of us...
I enjoyed Raph's prototypes because they were both beautifully rendered as products, and they were unapologetically mathematically tight. I like games that balance on the edge of a knife, and I enjoy the way playing an abstract game almost feels like communicating in another language. I knew that these games could be published, but they needed to fit the taste and aesthetic that publishers and gamers were looking for, and it was my job to develop the design further, based on the feedback I received from playing the game with others, from gamers to industry professionals.
At Dice Tower Con 2018, I had the opportunity to show "Pebbles" to Tony Gulloti, who was working for Arcane Wonders, the publisher of Onitama. I thought that "Pebbles" could perhaps be the "Go" of that world, and in any case, Tony understood what it took to sell a two-player abstract that meshed a classic movement and spatial mechanism with a modern card-based system. Tony's advice was to make the game work for a higher player count. He wasn't alone. Designers, publishers and players all agreed that the game was compelling, but nothing about it suggested that the game had to be for only two players.
I had already been toying with some ideas for increasing player count. I knew that the game's math was wound pretty tightly, and the symmetry of both players playing the same nine cards over nine turns was something I could unwind a bit. I knew I could create new scoring cards and loosen the game some by cutting a turn or two off, giving players a smaller hand of scoring cards, and having players play with only a subset of the scoring cards in each game. But how to add more players?
At first I thought I'd try to add more colors — one for each player! Instead of using white versus black on scoring cards, I tried to have your color versus opposing colors. When I ran it by Raph, however, he pointed me to some problems. It would be easy to score some of the opposing colors cards and hard to score some of your own. We could rebalance how the cards score to account for the difficulty, but it might still make for lousy gameplay.
Elm City Games, a New Haven, Connecticut game store and design community, was hosting Fantasticon, and I knew it was my best shot to get a lot of players playing "Pebbles". This is the advantage of having a nice prototype with components that players want to touch — you're never short of playtesters at public events. With the event upcoming in March 2019, nearly a year after Raph and I had met, I finally came back to working with only two colors.
Raph had previously shared some math on how the game worked in terms of the overall number of stones (16), the limits of each well (5), and the total number of wells (5). I realized that something would have to change, but I also knew that solving an equation is hard when there are too many variables. I determined that the capacity of each well would remain at 5, which was a nice number that felt good in the hand. However, the number of stones in the game would increase, as would the number of bowls. For three players, I added three wells and eight stones, and four four players I added five wells and sixteen stones.
This approach succeeded in replicating the overall feel of the game and the density of stones on the board. But because a well could never have more than five stones, it was not possible to impact all the wells on the board in a single move. On the other hand, some scoring cards — particularly Odd, Even, White, and Black — were overpowered because they could score too many points now that there were more wells to count. I considered simply declaring a maximum score for these cards, but the circumstances that would allow a player to score the maximum amount cropped up too often and with little effort.
Another problem child was Empty, a card I had misgivings about from the very start. In my many early games of "Pebbles", I found that players typically chose from one of a couple of standard openings, either dropping one stone in each of the five wells to play Odd or White/Black to score five points, or playing a single stone to score Empty for four points. I had already nerfed the first opening by changing the mix of stones players received. To help unmoor the game from its two-player roots, I chose to give each player four white and four black stones. This meant that the maximum score from White or Black as an opening was now four. You could play this opening, but you would concede the ability to add stones of one color for the rest of the game. Odd was still viable as a five-point play, but now the player had to have the card in their opening hand, which happens less than half the time, and in any case, Odd was a reliable high-scorer later in the game, and stronger players concluded that opening with Odd and giving up five stones was unsound.
But Empty! Even in the original game, playing a single stone to score four points using a card whose scoring potential only continued to decrease seemed like a very strong play.
In the game that was slowly becoming Waddle, all those extra wells, those extra locations, made Empty even stronger. In a four-player game, it was not uncommon for the first player to score nine points on Empty with nobody else able to score better than six for it. Disaster!
Design disasters are not really disasters, though; they're oracles. They provide clear feedback that something fundamental is not right, and that you ought to consider making changes to the game's core structures. Earlier in the process, I had dealt with the issue of how to translate the rule that you couldn't use the same scoring card your opponent had just used from its two-player version into multiplayer. I tried having the rules apply only to the next player in turn order, but this led to some awkward ping-ponging in which alternating players took advantage of a good board state while the other two players were a bit snookered. I decided that the bar on playing the same scoring card would apply for as long as the card was face-up in your discard pile, that is, until the end of your next turn.
Surprisingly, this led me to the big breakthrough. By taking the deck of scoring cards, adding a few, and then having players play from a smaller hand of cards, I had limited the chances of particularly unfair arrangements of cards and stones from cropping up, but I hadn't eliminated them — and the existence of more wells, and thus more scoring potential, had exacerbated their impact. A play that earned 6+ points could create a massive swing, and players couldn't counter by playing the same card, both because of the rule against it and because the odds that they had the card in hand was low.
I realized I needed to address both sides of the problem. First, I introduced the Copy card, which allows players, once per game, to copy the card an opponent has played previously in the round. This is an insurance card. Every player starts with Copy in their hand, and it gives players a tool to counter the overly-good fortune of another player.
The first half of my answer broke a fundamental rule of "Pebbles", but the second half of my answer was even more transformational. I realized that all these new wells could be organized into two separate domains. In essence, in a four-player game, there would be two regions of five wells each, and players could manipulate one of those regions and score it, but could not freely manipulate all ten wells. Either you could add stones to one region and score it, or you could redistribute stones all into one region — whether the region of origin or the other region — but you could not add stones to both regions in one turn, or empty a well and distribute its stones to wells in both regions. Your scoring card would apply only to one region: the region to which you added or redistributed stones. In the three-player game, three wells would count as being in both regions, creating two overlapping regions of five wells. Frankly, this worked a lot better than I initially expected!
With the concept of two regions, the flow of stones and their balance was closer to the two-player game. There were no huge scoring plays that felt undeserved. At the same time, the tactical space of the game increased as players could consider how the two regions were evolving, and how that might suit their cards. It also opened up design space to create some new cards and adjust some old ones.
Empty had now been conquered. The Copy card curbed its advantage as an opening, and the regions diminished its top-score potential. In fact, it was now a bit of a problem when Empty showed up in hands later in the game when it was hard to use effectively. We tweaked this by introducing the concept of a special action. Instead of taking the normal action of moving stones around the board, you would instead empty a well and give the stones back to your opponents before scoring. On the one hand, Empty guaranteed you an additional point thanks to the special action; on the other hand, giving stones back to your opponents gave them a bit more power, a few more options for their turns. The idea of a special action also expanded the template, the possibilities of what a card could do, and opened up even more design space.
Full, the mirror-image twin of Empty, now got my attention. In the two-player game, Full could score only a maximum of three points because there were not enough stones to fill more than three wells. This was always a bit of a letdown for me. Going to the fully open, non-regional board had rescued Full from its weakened state, but with regions, Full was back to being a poor-scoring, uninteresting late-game card.
And then it hit me — just because there are regions does not mean that ALL cards must be limited to scoring a single region! A card like Full could score both regions! It would still top out at no more than six points in a four-player game, and achieving that condition was difficult and satisfying. Another OG card, the card now known as Equal benefitted from similar treatment. It had previously been somewhat challenging to score well with this card for wells with an equal number of white and black stones. Early in the game there aren't enough stones on the board, and later the board is too tight to manage the manipulation, leaving only a brief mid-game period in which a good score was possible. Allowing Equal to score both regions made the card more powerful, while increasing the ways players could cleverly construct the right arrangements.
It took some time to finalize these new cards and make all the little adjustments and decisions that take a game from "fun" to "ready to be signed". Fortunately, Zev Shlasinger, whom I've been lucky enough to know from before I even started designing games, had taken an interest. Zev saw the game over the summer convention season in 2019 and took the prototype for further evaluation. We had an agreement to go forward at BGG.CON, where Daniel Solis, the Wizkids product manager — and the graphic designer for Building Blocks — began to consider the theme, product, and packaging as well.
My design goals for "Pebbles", now Waddle, were to extend the game to four players and to loosen it up a bit, to make it more fluid, fun, and not quite so tense! I knew I succeeded when Daniel came back with the art and the re-theme for the game. We had always thought of "Pebbles" as an Asian-inspired game of stones and wood and leather wingback chairs with smokey scotch and a cigar in amber light. It was Serious and Formal — but that was the game that we started with. At the end of our design work, the game was much lighter on its feet, and the movement of the penguins from place to place brought more smiles than grimaces to the faces of players. It took Daniel and Zev seeing what the game in front of them was and bringing that to life, instead of being tied to the game that had been.
Raph came up with this game back in 2013. We met in early 2018. The game was signed nearly two years after that in late 2019. It will arrive in stores in February 2021. This eight-year journey is not even that unusual in tabletop game design. Sometimes that's simply how long it takes. But the journey from "Pebbles" to Waddle, from stones to penguins, and from two-player mindbender to a delightful family game is, like the march of the penguins itself, remarkable. Read more »
- ● EightPublisher: Chaosium
Seven are the tenets of the Knights Gesa. Twenty are the knights sworn to the Graal. But an eight tenet exists known only to one child. This is his story.
------------Price: $2.50 Read more »
Includes a writeup for a new type of Glamour Knight, The Eighth.
And a new possible Antagonist Secret Society, The Theotokos.
- ● Barbaric!Publisher: Stellagama Publishing
Barbarians! Civilized men huddle behind tall stone walls, trembling at the thought. The soldiers of civilization tighten their shield walls against the oncoming onslaught. And then they come. Savage men and women, screaming at the top of their lungs, oblivious to fear, frothing at the mouth from rage and lust for war. Wave after wave, they storm shields and fortifications. Many die; the pagan gods bless their souls. But eventually, mail and castle fail. Then, the flames of barbarism will sweep the land, leaving no stone unturned!
Sword and sorcery tales speak of cunning thieves, power-hungry sorcerers, and, indeed, barbaric warriors. This game – Barbaric! – lets you play such heroes. Or, more often, anti-heroes. Pit your sword-arm and knowledge of eldritch secrets against ravaging bandits, scheming nobles, diabolic demons, mighty dragons – and, ultimately, the rotten and ugly face of moribund civilization itself.
So, pour your drinks, devour your pizza, turn up the volume of your favorite heavy metal album – and prepare to become… Barbaric!
Barbaric! is a lightweight sword & sorcery ruleset perfect for convention games, one-off adventures, and mini-campaigns where easy-to-learn rules and fast play are preferred. It includes:
- Simple skill-based task resolution!
- Lightning-fast but customizable character generation!
- 30 Traits to spice up your barbarian!
- Brutal combat with varied combat maneuvers and murderous critical hits!
- Dangerous sorcery - risk your soul to gain eldrich might!
- 36 deadly spells!
- 50 fearsome monsters!
- Treasures for your barbarians to loot!
All in a mere 57 small pages!
Barbaric! is compatible with Stellagama Publishing's Cepheus Atom post-apocalyptic rules. Mutate your barbarians! Arm them with laser rapiers! Bring dark sorcery to your post-apocalyptic wasteland!Price: $2.99 Read more »
- ● Codex Occultum - FastplayPublisher: Black Dog
This game is a project I have been working on for the last two years. Because the text is already finished, I thought it would be a good idea to release a fastplay for people to start playing it before a kickstarter page arrives.
In the game, you and your friends are fixers, people who get together to work as a company solving problems of other people who hire you to do so. The setting is a slightly different 18th century, with different perspectives over mysticism, afterall you are playing during the birth of the enlightenment era. The game have a few gems to make it different from any other TTRPG you have played: The system of Rituals, the Secret Society mechanics, and the Classes available to be played.
Choose between a Vampire, a Combatant, a Professional, a Scholar or a Sin Eater to live and adventure in the Rat District, and try finding out what is the Palm of Kali!
In this fasplay you will find:
- 5 characters ready to be played with
- Quick rules to play the game
- A complete adventure
- Maps to aid the roleplay in the Rat District
Codex Occultum might be available on kickstarter or indiegogo soon.
- ● There Once Were Dragons Companion 3Publisher: One Dwarf Army
This free accessory for There Once Were Dragons, the roleplaying game of epic fantasy action, introduces 14 new magical items, including the Blood Pact exotic cloak, the Bound Titan rare shield, the Faith Enforcer legendary mace and the Storm Splitter exotic boots. Plus, magic bags to help you carry all your loot without running out of breath!Price: $0.00 Read more »
- ● Artifices, Deceptions, & DilemmasPublisher: Hack & Slash Publishing
You are already a great Dungeon Master. You run a game really well.
What's the difference between a room and a chamber? What's the difference between a mausoleum, a sepulcher, and a crypt? Would disarming traps be more exciting if you understood how those complex mechanisms worked? What does a magic trap look like? What does a solar room look like and what's usually inside?
What's in it?
Over 100 Illustrations of Lavish environments Guidelines for escalating threats while respecting player agency Hundreds of ideas for tricks and traps.
No longer will your players complain about traps or unfair encounters. Now when they meet their doom, they will blame themselves for their own foolishness! Be as cruel and devious as you want with these guidelines on how to do so fairly!
Looking for something to spice up an encounter? Pick one of hundreds of options of traps, rooms, walls, tricks or more! Fill rooms with ease, design encounters in ways that give your players the freedom to put their own characters in hot water!
What's it for?
Referees who run games and understand their role in facilitating the groups adventure. This book provides guidance on how to create encounters that respect players and allow you to make encounters as exciting and dangerous as you want, without fear of being unfair. Imagine a group excited to discover a trap. Fill in your gaps of knowledge raising your confidence and making you a master ready to lead players on an adventure.
These objective procedures give referees tools that fire a desire in players to dive into your creative world, discover its detailed history, and make their mark on it. Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas gives you the tools to eliminate doubt and provides a library of ideas that will take you decades to exhaust. It will be a vade mecum, at hand for every environment and dungeon you create. Design a dangerous dungeon, concoct an ingenious trap, develop a diabolical arena, all with confidence and without concern. Give yourself the power, all with simple and clear guidelines!
This is a book used in every game you run. Your next campaign, the one after that, the one after that. . . Not one wasted word. Every page is crammed with content and creativity. No filler. Tools that describe devilish traps and devious decoys. Explore your own Artifices, Deceptions, and Dilemmas today!Price: $19.99 Read more »
- ● Friday Enhanced Map: 02-26-2021Publisher: Paratime Design
The February 26, 2021 Friday Enhanced Map product contains a multi-layered PDF (allowing the options of white or black backgrounds, numbered or non-numbered areas, secret doors on or off, and grid or no grid) and a zip file with all relevant map files as individual jpg images.
The Friday Enhanced map is for personal use only. If you are interested in licensing the map for commercial use, please contact Tim Hartin at Paratime Design for additional info.Price: $2.00 Read more »
- ● Big Apple Sewer SamuraiPublisher: Pinnacle Entertainment
This is a love letter to the action cartoons of the 80s and 90s. More specifically a toolkit for Savage Worlds (Adventure Edition) to emulate the fun and mayhem of the saturday morning animated shows. Whether you plan to use the included microsetting or create your own inspired by your favorite show, you'll find everything you need to play.
- More than 30 new Edges.
- 6 new character races with 25 uniques variations and guidelines to create your own.
- Stat blocks for dozens of adversaries.
- 4 one-page adventures.
- 8 iconic pregens.
This is not a complete product and requires the Savage Worlds core rules to play.Price: $7.00 Read more »
- All In Bug Ball Special [BUNDLE]Publisher: Parallel Publishing
This special bundle product contains the following titles. Parallel Worlds Issue 01
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The inaugural issue of Parallel Worlds Magazine, originally published in September 2019 In this issue: Lovecraft, Blood of an Exile, Star Citizen, Tiny Epic Mechs, No Man's Sky, Call of Cthulhu, Elite Dangerous, Dungeons & Dragons, Hollow Knight, UK Games Expo, original fiction, Dark Souls, and more.... Parallel Worlds Issue 02
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In this issue: Netflix's Dark, Dragonslayer, original fiction, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Worldcon, Star Wars: Outer Rim, Kickstarter Roundup, global government, Star Trek, roleplaying games, World of Warcraft, Half-Life, Magicka, and more.... Parallel Worlds Issue 03
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In this issue we interview the marvellous Carsten Damm of Vagrant Workshop, learn how to get into wargaming on a budget, revisit Homeworld, one of video gaming's most beloved franchises, sink our teeth into Netflix' The Dark Crystal, pan for gold amid the torrents of self-published literature, and find out why Terraria is a modern 2D classic. We review Duchamp Versus Einstein, Space Base, and Beyond Kidding; and as usual, there's a bit of original fiction, too.... Parallel Worlds Issue 04
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In this issue, we chat to video game legend Julian Gollop about Phoenix Point; investigate what happened to Half-Life 3; solve some murder mysteries; review Zombie Kidz, In Fabric, Fogbound, Ad Astra, The Majestic 311, Enemy Immortal, and It Chapter Two, look back at Fantasycon 2019, revisit Star Wars Rebels, and take a look at the ongoing development of Anthem. There's our usual smattering of original fiction, too.... Parallel Worlds Issue 05
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In this issue, we're all about aliens: we look back at Ridley Scott's seminal 1979 film, scare ourselves silly in Alien: Isolation, and wonder just how common alien life is in our galaxy. We also interview horror writer Priya Sharma, continue our guides for gamesmasters, uncover a Chinese fantasy author you'll never have heard of, review books and board games, chat to one of the UK's thriving independent presses, muck around in Space Engineers, and assess Todd Phillips' Joker.... Parallel Worlds Issue 06
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In this issue, we revisit Babylon 5 to find out why it's still relevant, take sides in the culture war in our discussion on The Rise of Skywalker, get to know the organisers of the UK's largest wargaming convention, look back at nearly 100 years of Amazing Stories Magazine, choose our own adventure, buckle up for a BattleTech retrospective, and take a look at the biggest structures in fiction.... Parallel Worlds Issue 07
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In this issue, we get to grips with the biggest franchise in wargaming, run an urban RPG, explore cosmic horror, attack some titans, play a bit of Disco Elysium, find out what Twitch has to do with RPGs, pick apart Star Trek: Picard, and review our usual books, games and films. There’s some original fiction, too.... Parallel Worlds Issue 08
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This month, we catch 'em all, get to know the largest online community of D&D artists, learn about roleplaying's most overlooked step, find out why space magic is so compelling, interview Anna Smith Spark and Isaac Childres, play some job simulators, and reassess the Star Wars prequels and Lost in Space. As ever, there's our usual range of book and board game reviews, as well as original fiction.... Parallel Worlds Issue 09
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This month, we scare ourselves to death with Junji Ito’s Uzumaki, discover a flat fantasy world, play a bit of Corvus Belli’s Infinity, rediscover a dungeon-crawler from 1989, catch up with Aliette de Bodard, dissect Altered Carbon Season 2, continue our Classics of Sci-Fi series, assemble an RPG party, review books and board games, and find out just what makes Mad Max special.... Parallel Worlds Issue 10
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In this issue, we review a brilliant deckbuilder, evaluate Firefly, get to grips with Pathfinder, discover a brilliant French skirmish wargame, continue our excellent serial Acid, discuss worldbuilding, look back at one of Asimov’s greatest works, introduce a wonderful new short story, and much more.... Parallel Worlds Issue 11
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In this issue, we leap into the concept of mobility in video games, make it up as we go along, revisit Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, die several times in Outer Wilds, discover the steampunk world of Warmachine, review Journeys in Middle-earth, continue our gripping fiction serial Acid, and much more.... Parallel Worlds Issue 12
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In this issue, we catch up on our brilliant serial Acid; take a look at the Terminator franchise; play a bit of Dropship Commander; continue our guide for gamesmasters; pilot some mechs; discover Empires of the Void II, check out The Mandalorian, and much more.... Parallel Worlds Issue 13
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In this issue, we delve into a very 20th century mythology; roleplay in Rogue Trader; continue our guide for gamesmasters; check out Rick and Morty; revisit Frank Herbert’s Dune; continue our fiction serial, Acid; ask: what exactly went on in Twin Peaks? And much more. ... Parallel Worlds Issue 14
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In this issue, we revisit one of Asimov's science fiction classics, get to grips with the Judge Dredd tabletop game, discuss setting in roleplaying, review another cracking board game, continue our fiction serial Acid - and much more!... Parallel Worlds Issue 15
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In this issue, we interview Bob Salley, the creator of graphic novel Broken Gargoyles, and sci-fi new wave veteran Michael Butterworth. We find out why DropZone Commander is such a great miniatures game, whether Cowboy Bebop Space Serenade is worth your time, and what's been going on in Destiny this year. We review strange new roleplaying game PARIAH, horror anime The Promised Neverland, and Aliya Whiteley's kaleidoscopic sci-fi novel Greensmith. And we carry on our Gamesmasterclass series, as well as our usual original fiction.... Parallel Worlds Issue 16
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In this issue: Conan, Dark Stars, Dungeons & Dragons, dioramas, Gamesmasterclass, Gloom of Kilforth, The King’s Dilemma, Hello from the Magic Tavern, panglossary, The Saints of Salvation, the Fantasy Film League, original fiction, video game finishers ... Parallel Worlds Issue 17
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In this issue: Auxiliary London 2039, Baldur’s Gate III, Core Space, Dungeons & Dragons, DigiSprite, Gamesmasterclass, Legendary Encounters, mini of the month, online escape rooms, original fiction, The Hammer and the Blade, X-Files ... Parallel Worlds Issue 18
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In this issue: Chivalry & Sorcery, Cyberpunk 2077, Dungeons & Dragons, Fahrenheit 451, visitor’s guide to Faerûn, Gamesmasterclass, mini of the month, original fiction, Ready Player Two, tabletop round-up, Tiny Epic Dinosaurs ...
Price: $82.37 Read more »
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- 40x30 Battlemap - Ruins of the Icy DepthsPublisher: Seafoot Games
Ruins of the Icy Depths
A ruined manor carved into the side of a cold mountain, connecting to ancient tunnels that burrow deeper into the stone. At its centre stand three angel statues, each holding a chain connected to a pillar of ice. Beneath it is darkness; the floor having given way long ago. Only sheets of ice and empty space lie beyond…
There is a hall, shaped as though it might have once sat a throne, as well as an abandoned planetarium. A larder waits with rotting barrels, while crumbling stones lay scattered throughout the many rooms. Mounds of snow dust the pavers, while outside the land is covered by melting slurry.What You Will ReceiveA home-printable 40x30 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.
- Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
- 300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A0 poster printing or VTT.
- 72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.
Join me on Patreon for $1 and get over 20 battlemaps a month. Experience how good level design can make encounters MUCH more engaging!
Want one free map a week instead? Become part of my community on Facebook.Price: $2.98 Read more »
- Missing Castle IPublisher: Fat Dragon Games
This product contains a number of .stl files for the Dragonlock Castle and Tower of terror. these include:
- a crenelated castle corner adaptor for a round tower.
- corner adaptor with arrow loop
- castle corner with windows
- castle corner with arrow loops
- tower floor adaptor with trap door
- castle corner with arrow loop and archway
Files are not perfect but will continue to be tweaked and updated. This product was created under license, Dragonbite Community Creator, Dragonlock, and Drgaonbite are trademarks of Fat Dragon Games in the U.S.A. and other countries.
This work contains material that is copyright Fat Dragon Games and /or other authors. Such material is used with permission under the Community Content Agreement for Dragonbite Community Creator.
All other original material in this work is copyright by Joel Fitzpatrick and published under the Community Content Agreement for Dragonbite Community Creator.Price: $5.00 Read more »
- ● Storyteller or Facilitator — Two Approaches
Over my nearly 40 years as a GM, I have changed the ways that I have created stories at the table. Similarly, what I look for in games has changed as well. At different times during my tenure as a GM I have been a storyteller, and other times I have been a story facilitator. Both have created amazing times at the table, but both are different experiences and need different things. So today, I thought I would look at these two styles with a little more depth and talk about their needs, the experiences they produce, etc.
Laying Down Some Definitions
In order for us to get started, I need to establish the main terms for what we are talking about since neither of these terms is universally understood or accepted in the hobby. So for the rest of this article, we will work from these terms.
A storyteller is a type of GM who crafts a story to share with their players. The player characters are the protagonists of the story as the storyteller guides them through it. Through play, the characters experience the story. On the good side of this, the players have agency and are able to influence the conclusion of the story. On the bad side of this, the players are on what is often referred to as a Railroad, where their actions do not affect the outcome.
The defining trait of the storyteller is the idea that the scenario they are running is a story that they are telling to the players, and that they have some idea of the outcome/outcomes of the story when it concludes. Their job is to make that story unfold and guide the players through it. The players are to play their characters and move through the story.
The story facilitator, or just facilitator, is someone who sees their job as helping the group, as a whole, create a story through play. They often have the idea of a plot or challenge, but not much beyond that. Through play, the characters will figure out how to resolve the plot or challenge, and the GM is there to engage the rules and to add things to the developing story to keep it from going stale. On the good end of this, the facilitator brings an exciting challenge to the table and works to keep things moving along, nudging things when needed. On the bad end, they come to the session with very little and push the work onto the players to make things happen at the table.
The defining trait of the facilitator is the idea that they have an idea of how things will start, but are totally open to how the story will end. Their job is to set things up, and then make way for the players to determine how things will end. They are equally as surprised as the players in how the story turned out.
We Are Not Dealing In Absolutes…
No one is 100%, Storyteller or Facilitator. We are always some blend of these. Perhaps you are a Storyteller who at a point in the game when the player’s actions have changed so much of the story, flip over to the Facilitator and guide the game to its new conclusion. Or perhaps you are a Facilitator who really likes to create a story by crafting very specific plots and situations and uses your moments of facilitation to build upon the story you have in mind.
…But we have PreferencesWithout a doubt, you have a preference, which is comprised of some combination of these two approaches. That preference can change over time, it can change with different games, etc. That is perfectly natural.
Without a doubt, you have a preference, which is comprised of some combination of these two approaches. That preference can change over time, it can change with different games, etc. That is perfectly natural. Sometimes our general preference changes, because how we derive enjoyment from RPGs changes. Other times our general preference can change because who we are changes, again leading to how we derive enjoyment from RPGs. The group you play with can help determine your preference. If your players are the kind who enjoy participating in a story, then their enjoyment and in part your own may come from a more Storyteller approach. In other cases, the game itself may make the choice for you. If a game you enjoy requires the GM to be more of a Facilitator, then you may find your joy in that role.
The Influence of Group And Game
As mentioned above, the group you play with and the games you play may lend themselves to different styles. The truth is any group and any game can be played in either approach, but there are more optimal configurations depending on your overall preference.
When you are more Storyteller…
You will enjoy games where the majority of narrative control remains with the GM — games where the GM sets scenes, narrates the outcomes of skill checks, etc. These are sometimes referred to as more traditional games. Think of something like D&D where the GM has the narrative control and the players embody their characters. Games of this style work well for the Storyteller because they have the most control of the narrative and can use that to tell the story.
In terms of players, the Storyteller does best with a group of players who are more focused on the actions of their characters rather than the flow and structure of the story. With this character focus, these players are ready to embody their characters and react to the world. This allows them to play their part in the story and react to the story as the GM unfolds it before them.
When you are more the Facilitator
You will enjoy games where the narrative control of the game is more de-centralized, with the GM having some of the control and the players having some as well. The GM may still set scenes and such, but the players will be able to help shape those scenes as well as help to create upcoming scenes. Think of something like a Powered by the Apocalypse game, where the 7-9 result of a Move gives the players ways to shape the narrative of the game, but there is still a centralized GM role.
In addition, you may also enjoy games with a fully decentralized GM role, where an even larger amount of narrative control is spread out among the players. Think of something like Fiasco, where there is no GM, but there can be a player who is more familiar with the rules to help facilitate the game.
In terms of players, the Facilitator does well when paired with players who also have an interest in shaping the story; their focus is less on their individual character but more on the story that is being told. These types of players readily enjoy having narrative control and using it not to “win” the game, but to make the game “more interesting” even if that results in endangering their character to do so. These kinds of players are the ones who want to take an active role in shaping the story and will work with the GM to make that happen.
My Own Preferences
In the 40 years I have played, I have been both a strong Storyteller and a strong Facilitator. In the ’90s and early ‘00s, I went through a phase where I loved being the Storyteller and crafting stories that my group would play through. We played a lot of traditional games, then, and my group was very content to play in that style. We created a lot of great stories during that time.
In the early 10’s I had an experience in my d20 Modern game that showed me how much I enjoyed improvisation. You can read more about that in Engine Publishing’s book Unframed. After that, I had a gradual shift in preference from Storyteller to Facilitator. I started playing more indie games where the GM role was decentralized.
Today, I have reached a point where I am very unscientifically 70% Facilitator and 30% Storyteller. I appreciate creating an overall story for my campaigns, but within the session, I enjoy facilitating much more. My main source of enjoyment is playing along with the players to see where the story goes, and ending a session as surprised as they are with where the game went.
To that point, I still enjoy a lot of indie games, but I run plenty of traditional games as well. I like indie games that have a GM role, but then share out some of the narrative control to the players, so I play a lot of Powered by the Apocalypse games. For the more traditional games I run, I need more random tables to help create the uncertainty of what will happen next. It is one of the reasons I enjoy the traveling mechanics of Forbidden Lands so much. It is very much a traditional game with random elements that come up that I have to facilitate.
You have a preference as well. Are you a strong storyteller, crafting masterful plots of intrigue and adventure, or are you a strong Facilitator looking to guide your group through their session making a story by laying the tracks in front of you as you go? More likely you are somewhere in-between.
What is your preference? What kinds of games work best for you? Is your game group in alignment with your preference as well?Read more »
- Bizarre Traditions
Different societies and cultures have wildly differing traditions. Some of them are fairly mundane when you look at them from inside the culture that follows a tradition, but if you take a step back – maybe several steps back – you’ll see things from a fresh perspective. This new angle will reveal some really odd things.
I was born and raised in west Texas. This makes me a United States citizen, so I grew up with quite a few odd traditions. To me, they seemed perfectly normal, but I’m going to step back from myself for a bit and describe these bizarre happenings in the weirdest way possible just to illustrate how truly off the wall some of these things are. All of these are from my personal experience, and I’m certain that many of you out there in the world will have things you’ll consider even more strange than what I’m describing here.
Rodent Predicts the Weather
Every year, as the the winter season reaches its peak in early February, men and women dress in clothing from almost one hundred years ago, track down a rodent in its lair, and yank it from its warm and cozy hole. This “Inner Circle” then hoists up the rodent and demands that it look for its shadow. If it sees the shadow, winter will be longer than normal. Otherwise, we’re in for a regular spring. I don’t know how this Inner Circle cajoles the rodent to seek the shadow of itself, but they claim their efforts are incredibly accurate.
Make a Wish; Rip the Bone
Around the Thanksgiving dinner table (which is a rich tradition to explore), we’d pass along the mostly-eaten turkey carcass and rip the meat off with our bare hands. Eventually, the poor bird’s “wishbone” would be exposed by a fortunate soul. That person and the person on their right (always on the right since the bird went around the table counterclockwise like any good NASCAR fans would do) would then carefully dissect the bone from the dead bird with whatever nearby sharp implements they could find. Then, each person would grip a spur of the wishbone, make a wish, and pull. The person who came away with the turkey’s sternum (the central prong of the wishbone) would have their wish granted, but only if it was a humble wish. Ask for too much, and misfortune will befall your entire family (which were usually there with you at the dinner table) for the remainder of the year. I find it extraordinarily strange that a dead bird’s skeletal system could grant a wish, but there are probably even more ways to try and tell the future, I suppose.
Teens Turn to Arson for Good Luck
I don’t have to step too far away from this one to make it weird because I’ve never really understood it. Before the Big High School Football Game against the Main Cross-Town Rival each year, both parking lots at the high schools would be piled high in the center with lumber, wood palettes, a center-piece joist to support it all, and pretty much anything else that would burn without being blown into a neighboring yard. With the fire department on hand, teens would be allowed to douse the entire structure in gasoline, make a trail of accelerant away from the pile, and then light it up! While the giant bonfire burned at the school, everyone would cackle wildly, dance around the fire, play their drums (or other portable band instruments), and cavort deep into the night. Standing far enough back from the fray, I was able to watch it with the appreciation of Rob Zombie filming a wild ritualistic scene from his imagination. Both high schools would time how long their particular bonfire burned, and the school with the longest-burning flame of ritual was guaranteed victory in the next night’s game.
I’m not recommending that we get together and make a book of rules and guidelines for bizarre traditions. These are too wide and varied for any type of “crunchy” approach at codifying them. Instead, leave the weirdness for the “fluff” of the game in which the true richness and depth of world building can be found. Find a seminal (probably beneficial) event in a community’s past, and see what kind of incredible lengths the local populace will go through in order to try and recapture the event again. This is how traditions are formed. Take it to the next level if you can. Put that core event two or three generations in the past and see how the current generation is going to interpret the event and traditions. How are they going to change and morph over the course of time? That’s were truly great world building comes into play.Read more »
- Hit the Streets: Defend the Block Review
Superhero media contains multitudes. There are tactical, military-themed super-agent teams. There are magical heroes that fight off demons and vampires. Some heroes travel into the depths of space and deal with alien fleets and cosmic criminal syndicates. But for many people, their first introduction to superheroes are those heroes fighting the street level battles.
The game we’re looking at today, Hit the Streets: Defend the Block, is a game meant to emulate stories where heroes are defending the city they live in against street-level evils, corruption, and exploitation. This is a game for emulating Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Question, or Wildcat.
Friendly Neighborhood PDF
This review is based on the PDF release of the game. Currently, it is available as a PDF or as a print on demand release. The PDF is 108 pages long, with four pages of credits and playtester acknowledgments, five rules summary sheets, a character sheet, a dedication page, and a three-page table of contents.
The layout is a single column, with a heavily shadowed border, showing the silhouette of a cityscape from different angles. There are various full-color images of different street-level heroes displaying a variety of superpowers, and various boxes with highlighted topics are formatted like comic book narration boxes.
The introduction establishes what this game is about. It specifically calls out the Marvel Netflix series as foundational for this game. Characters don’t fly, they don’t move mountains, and they are mainly concerned about the city and the neighborhood they live in.
In addition to establishing the tone, this section introduces the terms that the game will be using. The player moderating the game is the Game Manager, and character heroes are known as Super-Powered Beings.
The introduction also makes it clear how important safety is to the game. Looking at the inspirational material, and the fact that street-level crime-fighting often deals with lots of topics like class warfare, economic disparity, drugs, violence, and abuse, games can easily stray into topics that might cause some emotional harm if not addressed.
The safety section looks at Lines and Veils, the means by which players establish their comfort level with different topics. It discusses active safety tools, specifically citing the X Card as an example.
This section describes how characters are built, and how actions are adjudicated. The core game system uses d6s. Above a certain number, the roll counts as a success. Below a certain level, it counts as a failure.
Characters get a certain number of dice to assign to their mundane actions and their super actions, essentially establishing if the character is better at their day-to-day life, or their superhero identity. Other dice ratings are assigned to different superpowers, with a few examples given.
Players then assign a number of dice to their stats, which include:
That means your dice pool for attempting a task involves adding either your Be Normal or Be Super dice to one of your stats that matches up to the action you are attempting, and the dice for a power you are using, if any.
Characters have a resource called Spark that determines if a character can remain active in the narrative. Spark may be the ability to push through physical injury, or it might be your will to go on, depending on the situation. You can lose Spark on failed rolls and spend Spark to add extra dice to your dice pool, and certain actions allow you to regain Spark.
The chapter ends with three example Super-Powered Beings. This gives the reader some examples of what a fully assembled character looks like in the game.
This section provides a set of questions that the group should be asking when they develop their team. It also points out that depending on how the team develops, players may need to go back and modify some of their character choices to better fit the team’s dynamic and theme.
There are example tables for things like team names, purpose, and rivals. This section introduces the importance of having a recurring rival team. The rivals don’t need to be villains, although they may be. The rival team is just a recurring group that will cause problems for the player character SPBs.
Where You At?
This section outlines a process for creating a unique neighborhood for the game. This involves drawing lines to represent streets, allowing characters to place various locations.
There are also several questions to help the group determine what people live in the neighborhood, and what the ongoing problems are for the neighborhood. In addition to explaining the process of creating streets, problems, and locals, There is an example to show what an emerging neighborhood looks like, generated by this process.
This section goes into more detail to show how to structure and resolve actions in the game. Depending on what the stakes of a task are, a scene either has Tension or it does not. When a scene has Tension, a character can lose Spark when they generate failures.
The resolution system is player-facing, so the GM doesn’t roll to see if rivals or opponents are successful. The GM just determines the difficulty of a task (how many successes are required), and if there is Tension in the scene.
Some threats have a Total Threat Difficulty. Threats with this quality can be incrementally achieved, rather than being determined by a single resolution, to represent a major catastrophe or a powerful villain.
Successes are referred to as “Pows,” while failures are referred to as “Oofs.” Oofs only cause a character to lose Spark when there is Tension in the scene. Because of this structure, threats don’t need to have any stats assigned to them. They just need to be described and given a difficulty.
Characters may also take part in a Refresh Scene between other scenes. In general, Refresh scenes usually involve either spending time with other team members, doing charity work, or going on patrol. Because these patrols are about stopping “mundane” crime, these scenes don’t involve Tension.
Successfully performing these actions can add Spark to a character’s Spark pool. However, successful actions in Refresh Scenes are also noted on the neighborhood map. These actions can show that different parts of the neighborhood are safer and have developed new businesses and services, and when these actions succeed, the text encourages the group to note on the map how that area is evolving.
There are charts showing what kinds of crimes might be happening in the neighborhood, as well as providing an impressive and interesting list of actual charities that often operate in urban neighborhoods.
This section is rounded out with a series of questions for determining XP awards, the cost of awards, and what happens when a character runs out of Spark in the game. Without going into too many details, the character might die, if the player wants them to, but it may also just be an opportunity to do some soul searching.
How to GM Hit the Streets
This section starts with multiple examples of questions that the GM can ask to get more details about characters, the neighborhood, the team’s rivals, and emerging aspects of the story in the game.
There are also several pages dedicated to the process of “Letters to the Editor,” an end of session process for getting feedback about what the table liked about the current session, what they would like to see in the future, and what might have been less satisfying.
Additional sections include treatments on troubleshooting potential problems, and advice for addressing game themes. There are tables determining corruption and temptations that are acting on the neighborhood, and day to day “be normal” problems of characters to address.
This section gives six example neighborhoods. While much of what makes this game unique is derived from the players working together to establish the setting, these are good examples as well as handy settings for convention games, one-shots, or short campaigns.
These neighborhoods include local nicknames for the location, the history of the neighborhood, common sites, and detailed rival teams. While all these neighborhoods have similar structures, the “voice” of the neighborhoods varies depending on the contributor, and each one highlights different social ills, many of which are extremely relevant to modern life.
Why Don’t We Start By Getting Some Coffee First?All these components seem to create a strong engine for driving content in play.
I love the idea that Spark is about the will to go on as much as how tough a character is physically. I also really like the neighborhood building rules, the concept of the rival team, and the idea of the Refresh Scenes and how important charity work is to the people of the neighborhood. All these components seem to create a strong engine for driving content in play.
I’m Asking Forgiveness For What I’m About To Do
Not much was unsatisfying to me about this game. Some terminology choices are thematic, and may not be what I would have chosen, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty minor. The only other thing I would note is that while some rules address taking on a major, climactic threat or heavy hitter super villain, there is a lot more time spent discussing the rival team (which is a great concept, don’t get me wrong), than there is developing strong, long term villains. This is a little strange when the source material includes characters like Kingpin or Killgrave.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you like more story-based games, and you also like street-level comic book stories, this is a very easy recommendation. I would also argue that in addition to being a good game to play, the support for fleshing out neighborhoods, rival teams, and daily problems form a great toolkit that can be applied even to other supers games.
Where is the line you draw between street-level heroes and other superhero stories? What is the deal-breaker when it comes to themes, powers, or background? How do you feel about mixing and matching street-level characters with more epic heroes? We want to hear from you in the comments below.Read more »
- Debilitating Conditions at the Table
Thirty minutes into the session, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, our unlikely heroes finally catch up to the malicious war band that ransacked their village. In the events of a single hour, our characters lives were forever changed by the savage pillaging for their war effort. They didn’t just steal gold and weapons from the village. They stole the lives of the people our characters cared for most. They may as well have stolen our characters’ lives as well. It was never going to be the same for them ever again.
One bad die roll into our party’s fateful clash with their campaign’s most dire enemy and a player character is near death. A fate arguably worse than death at the table, the player character is now incapacitated and unable to act unless they “push” themself. Unfortunately, this isn’t a game with magical healing and we’re just thirty minutes into the game session at the start of a big scene.
How do you keep that player engaged at the table when they are resigned to their current fate? When they are resigned to the notion of “What CAN I do?” or “I’ll probably fail with a -1 die penalty to all my rolls.”
Rules as Written
I run a lot of different RPGs. So, I’m inclined to follow the rules as a GM and to see where the system takes us. I want to know what experiences the mechanics bring out in play. It isn’t like me to play with the same group very often, so I can’t always rely on pegging my players for their play styles. Whether I’m running games at conventions or online, I’m always catering to a large swath of different players that rotate through. As a game designer, I like the looks or insights I can take away from the variety of players I get to see at the table.
I don’t know about you, but I have a handful of horror stories at the table that stem from debilitating conditions. Depending on the game, this could be called harm, damage, trauma, stress, fatigue—you get the picture! Many games penalize player characters for getting hit, for rolling bad, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (as if the GM had no say in that). While I never miss hit points in games (they can seem so inconsequential, especially as they rise and rise), I’ve found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place as a GM. How do you help a player get enough spotlight at the table when their character is heavily restricted by penalties like -3 dice (out of 4)? You know, the kind of modifiers that render player characters null, their actions void.
Character death is almost easier. The player isn’t in such a difficult bind to figure out how they can contribute—how they can play.
These are the one-size-fits-all moments when a game system kind of betrays you (as written). It’s when the system, like some kind of Master to their pupil, hands over the reins to the GM and says, you deal with it. These moments need a fine touch, a skillful storyteller’s hand, and some preternatural judgment. In other words, they are easy to fumble.
Once you know what this looks like at the table, you can see it coming. Not from a mile away, but just before it happens. At that point, you can’t necessarily avoid it unless you fudge the rules, but you do have enough time to make the “sacrifice” shine at the table. You can encourage the player to soak up the moment and roleplay the heck out of it. You can slow things down in the narrative and help to prompt the player to make the most of the moment. But, what then?
Let’s call the player Katy. I want Katy to be involved. I want them to act. Instead, they don’t know what to do. They stare at their sheet and see that any action they take is likely to fail due to the harsh penalties stacked against them. They resign their character to give up and fight again another day. But, the group still has so much to do—and the show must go on!
In theory, I love the idea of debilitating conditions. Player characters need to be threatened and put in difficult situations. Debilitating conditions remind players that their characters are mortal. They add risk. They force players to problem solve—to act. Until they don’t.Player characters need to be threatened and put in difficult situations. Debilitating conditions remind players that their characters are mortal. They add risk. They force players to problem solve—to act. Until they don’t.Unlike simple hit point systems, there are a great variety of debilitating conditions that can add flavor and description in addition to damage. They give a player more detail to work with. You didn’t just suffer a wound, you are now bleeding and disoriented. Lose two hit points per round until you stop the bleeding and suffer a 1 die penalty to any checks that require your character to think critically or notice details. These effects further define the experience, they’re evocative, they cater to the imagination. What’s more interesting, take 3 damage or having your character blinded in one eye (for the scene)?
The rules are here for you (GM), they are a tool, not law. Rule Zero, you see it in the beginning of many RPGs tucked in the “What is Roleplaying” section. As a GM learning new games, I feel like you have got to try out the rules first, right? Step in the mud and realize what to do better next time. But, I hate apologizing at the end of a game session for how I let the game rules dictate the amount of time a player actually got to play. You did something cool, you took a chance, and now you don’t get to play unless I retcon or fudge the rules in front of the players (removing an element of risk from play).
So, what do I do?
- Do I break the rules of healing and recovery?
- Do I rewind the damage once I realize the player won’t act?
- Do I cheat the players invested in an epic scene by quickly bringing it to a close?
What do you do when the game has decided their character has done enough…
I have a friend that once told me that you have to pace each session so that truly dangerous moments only happen towards the end. I remember thinking, that is ridiculous! Why should every meeting start slow? Does that mean that GMs need to hold their players back from the most dire moments, too? Should I pepper in obstacles to pace play in fear of a bad roll? Not to mention, I hate being predictable! How long will it take for my players to catch on?
Now, I’m not so sure. Running a lot of one shots, I generally find myself following some sort of three act structure. Is that so different? I guess it would only be weird when used for subsequent sessions, when players are already in the thick of the action. Are you like me, always reaching for a cliffhanger ending? If it has teeth, have you already set yourself up to fail? Clearly, I’m still working through this.
Setting clear expectations: At critical moments, take the time to explain to players what is on the line for them. We often do this with player characters but we don’t always step back to talk about how this could affect the player themself—how it could affect Katy.
The best advice? You should probably hold back any penalty that is going to totally debilitate a player unless the moment is right. Blind for a round? That’s ok. -2 modifier to hit? No big deal. -4d to all rolls (out of 5)? You may as well kill the character—or at least knock them out. Save the crushing blows for when the time is right, in the story and at the table.
How do you avoid players removing their character from the game?
How do you encourage a player to play when their character cannot fight (flashbacks, moral support)?
Do you have tricks for how you pace play to keep your players safe?Read more »
- Playing Favorites
I originally discussed this topic in an older article on Rogue Princess Squadron but thought it might be worth discussing again.
Let’s face it. Every GM has played favorites. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, maybe it was on purpose to please someone. Sometimes it’s awful and insidious and can kill a campaign or a whole gaming group. I would say, though, that it’s not completely unavoidable and I would argue it can be beneficial when used in small, judicious ways.
I have definitely had experiences with the kind of favoritism that has a well-deserved bad rap in gaming circles. A long time ago in a remarkably familiar galaxy, my GM for a college gaming group invited a new girl to join our game. Not long after that, the GM and the new girl started dating. This GM already had a bit of a propensity towards favoritism – he and his best friend would often spend hours outside of the game talking about it and coming up with different ideas that would work their way into the game. Usually, it wasn’t too detrimental to the other players at the table, so no one really worried about it. This girl, though. When they started dating, his tendency towards favoritism took on a whole new, ugly level. If she wanted something for her character, she got it. The game came to revolve around her characters and the stuff she wanted to do.
She also wasn’t very nice. We were all young and dumb, but I still remember the pain of her Mean Girl comments as she tried to drive me away from the group. I wasn’t her only target, but most everyone else were just targets of nasty comments behind their backs. It eventually got so bad, I walked out of a game after she started mocking me for being visibly frustrated at, yet again, being sidelined so her plot could take the spotlight. Thankfully, she and the GM broke up not long after that incident. It honestly wasn’t a moment too soon, because his favoritism and her behavior came close to killing that group and ruining what eventually became lifelong friendships.
Now, I can hear you saying, “Ang, you started off saying favoritism isn’t always a bad thing, then tell us a story of how it’s the absolute worst. What’s up with that?” I want to be clear that there is a reason favoritism has a bad reputation. Back in the day, I knew people who would refuse to game in a group where the romantic partner of the GM was also playing. Years later, after playing together with many awesome couples, I can clearly declare that a dumb solution to the problem.
Thing is, when favoritism goes bad, it doesn’t even have to be the GM’s romantic partner that is the recipient of the favoritism. It can just as easily be a good friend or someone the GM looks up to and wants to impress. Add in a degree of emotional immaturity and you have the recipe for a frustrating game where only certain people get to do the cool stuff. I’ve even see GMs do it trying to coax new players into the game, where they were so focused on giving that new player cool and engaging stuff, they ignored the more experienced players.
Most GMs probably aren’t even fully aware they’re doing this. I’m sure most people don’t sit down to run a game and decide that they’re going to butter up to one person and ignore everyone else. One GM I’ve played with has earned a reputation of favoring female players. While it’s not done creepily, it has been noted by more than one person that having a pair of boobs at his table is far more likely to get the character you want. Having played with that GM fairly often, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
So, most of the examples I’ve talked about so far have been unhealthy and dysfunctional manifestations of GM favoritism. Giving obvious or unfair advantages and rewards to some players over others is absolutely going to stir up resentment and create problems in the game or the game group. The interesting thing, though, is that favoritism used in small, judicious ways may help a game survive and thrive.
Hear me out on this. We GMs all recognize the star players in our games. In fact, there are several articles on the Stew that talk about ‘rainmakers’ and how they can benefit a game. These are the players we know we can count on to create interesting characters that fit in with the game world and who will drive the action once the game starts. These are the folks that bring such investment and excitement to playing their character that they make the game more fun and vibrant for everyone else at the table. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a few star players or maybe even a table full of them. They make running the game EASY. As a reward, we often throw them the plot hooks and spotlight a little more often. You ever so slightly play favorites because you know it’s going to make the game better.
The crucial thing to understand is that you are definitely playing favorites, even just a little bit. Understanding this can make the difference between doing it in a way that enhances the game and doing it in a way that ends up alienating the other players because they know they won’t ever get the cool stuff. Giving a star player the focus early on in a campaign or session can help kick things off, but you have to keep that spotlight moving around the table and give everyone a chance to shine, even the shy player or even the slightly troublesome player you still enjoy even if they occasionally annoy you. Give a little love to your rainmakers not to make them your only focus, but to let them set an example for the rest of the table.
Good GMs understand that every game session needs to have a moment for every single player at the table, but they also understand how to make use of the players that will help the game be awesome.Read more »
- How to Be(come) a Grateful Gamer
Ask yourself the following questions. When you sit down at a table, are your attitude and contributions warm, appreciative and thankful? Do you express gratitude during the event? Would your presence and performance be considered agreeable, welcoming and/or refreshing?
Don’t let me lose you on the touchy feelies, here! I’m not asking if you participate in a group hug prior to initiative nor asking that everyone sings an epic Gregorian chant while handholding after a beloved PC meets their ultimate fate (though, after typing this, I kinda want to experience that!). I’m asking… are you showing gratitude at the table?
Let’s discuss a few ways to check your Player Privilege and see if you are, indeed, a Grateful Gamer.
Think of your absolute favorite sourcebook! The one that you’ve poured over, played, run and devoured with a passion. Have you written a review online of this sourcebook? Have you left a rating? Have you supported the creator by publicly demonstrating your appreciation? Ratings, reviews, referrals, and engaging feedback helps boost their visibility, y’know. If not, ask yourself why not?
When you sit down to play a game, are you intentional about supporting both the GM and the story that you’re all there to create? Are you engaged, asking questions and making an attempt to support the experience? Or… are you on your phone, sleeping, intentionally trying to derail the game, or otherwise showing disinterest and disrespect to both the GM and the table?
Side note! When you sleep at the table, are more interested in your phone than the game or attempt to derail the experience, it’s primarily the GM that has to navigate that stress, insecurity and nuisance. We begin to think… Am I not doing enough? Is my story that bad? Am I not engaging them?
Players are human, too. I get that. So, if you’re exhausted, do everyone the courtesy of taking care of yourself and get some rest. Unless you’re on call or expecting an important phone call, minimize the table phone use. Don’t derail the story for giggles. Doing so hurts the GM, inconveniences your fellow players and really paints you in an unfavorable light.
Stawwwp, I get it! Not every game is a 10/10. Not every GM is top shelf. We’ve played convention games. We all have stories. However, I’m not asking you to check the quality of your GM, the strength of the table, nor the value of the story. Those items are out of your control. What IS in your control, is YOUR attitude towards the situation. Choose to be a Grateful Gamer.
You know that GM who fumbled table management and storytelling? Are you aware of the time they spent preparing for this game? Can you imagine the anxiety and panic that swelled in their chest prior to sitting down at the table (trust me, more GMs feel this than you may know)? Are you aware of the costs that they accrued purchasing sourcebooks, dice, paper, handouts, miniatures, subscription fees, etc.? Do you realize that they’ve juggled jobs, families, friends, and their own mental struggles just to be present… for you? Have you considered that they might be a novice?
GMs provide a service. No, the service may not be perfect. No, the service may not be ideal. However, they are there, for the love of a shared hobby, to provide a service to you… the player. I guarantee you, none of us GMs are sitting on a dragon’s horde worth of gold and GameStop stocks by running games for you. It’s not about the money.
Becoming a Grateful Gamer
Heeeeey you experienced GMs and players!!! When you find yourself seated to play a game that you’re familiar with, how about asking the GM (prior to start) if they’re in need of additional support? “Hey GM, I run this system all of the time. I love it. Is there any way that I can support you as a player?”
There is music in my soul when I hear this inquiry. Some GMs may say, “no, thanks.” That’s cool. Me? I’m all over it. I may be insecure about my rule knowledge and recall. It’s a comfort to look across the table and ask, “Hey, what check would you call for here?” I’ve utilized this offer to assist new players navigate their sheets by pairing them up with a Grateful Gamer so that I could keep the story pace. My absolute favorite use of this inquiry? Someone offered me support on the day that I had a family member joining the table who had never tried a TTRPG before. I asked the inquiring player to take care of my cousin, in game, and to help keep him engaged. My cousin had a blast because an experienced player and Grateful Gamer took him under her wing, roleplayed with him, and encouraged him.
Tell your GM that you love their style. Already did that? Great! Now, tell them again! Show that gratitude and offer that recognition. As Erykah Badu once said, “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” GMs leave themselves vulnerable and exposed when they run games. It’s the cost of providing this service. So, if they did great, share that with them!
What if there’s room for improvement? Don’t be that Privileged Player who believes that just because you paid for the event that your experience should be beyond reproach. Ask that GM, privately, if they’re open to feedback. Don’t just lay it on them. If the GM is not open to constructive criticism, then go and vent to your home group and friends. If they are open to feedback, lead with a positive, and then be tactful and supportive about the feedback. Giving constructive feedback is a form of exemplifying a Grateful Gamer. Your willingness to lend both your time and experience to help another GM grow shows gratitude.
Add some positive energy to the gaming experience. People love to be recognized. If the GM stirs you to passion with a riveting speech, inspires you with a colorful combat or haunts you with a terrifying description, tell them. Tell them right that moment. Compliment their delivery. Annnnd don’t stop at the GM. Players have epic moments, brilliant descriptions, clever ideas and fantastic rolls. A quick, “whoa, great kill,” or, “well done,” goes a long way. I promise.
You know that eternal GM that always, always runs for your group? Step back and ask yourself, and them, if they’re interested in playing while you, or someone else runs. The opportunity might come as a relief to them. Whether they accept or decline, you showed gratitude by offering them an opportunity to step out from behind the screen. If you’re able and comfortable, offer to host. If you have discretionary income, comment your CashApp below so that I may beg for money, and then consider ordering food or a custom GM gift off of Etsy for your favorite GM or the other players. A player did this once for our home group! He purchased each player at the table a mug with their name and the campaign name on it. I cherish that thing!
Is your GM on social media or associated with a company or club? Follow them on social media. Engage with their posts. Like, comment, share. We see that. It matters. Have you purchased a product that you love? Leave a review. Drop a rating, even if it’s a Ninja Rating (throwing stars in silence, absent words). Join in on the discussions. Refer your friends! Oftentimes, it’s that very energy that motivates, inspires and fuels us. Sometimes, it’s a desperately needed reminder that we are appreciated.
Lastly, even when confronting a GM, a fellow player, or deciding to leave a table, you are still capable of showing gratitude. Address your concerns in a sincere, succinct, brief and factual method. Try using, “I feel statements,” versus direct accusations. For example, instead of saying, “I think this game sucks,” try saying, “I feel like this game could be better if we tried this,” or, “I feel like your GM style and my play style don’t mesh.” Don’t attack, blame, or provoke. Oh, and for the loathe of critical failures, please don’t jump down your GM’s throat. We’re human. None of us woke up this morning with the intention of ruining your day. Ultimately, if you’re in a toxic gaming situation, show your gratitude by confronting the situation and/or removing yourself. In order to be a Grateful Gamer, you have to show yourself some grace and gratitude, too.
Practice showing gratitude in everything that you do on and off the table. Be grateful. You can’t control the GM. You can’t control the players. You can only control how you react. It may not feel like it, but your attitude can greatly impact the enjoyment of the game, even if it’s not up to your usual epic standards. Remember, “it’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that brings us happiness.”
What are some other ways that you can be a Grateful Gamer?
What’s your favorite method of showing gratitude at the table?
Let us know in the comments!Read more »
- Troy’s Crock Pot: Relax, Plot Resolution Rests with the Players
The most difficult assignment I’ve had in game design remains my contribution to Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters.
It wasn’t the writing.
The taxing aspect was formulating the beginning, the middle and then, that most excruciating of parts, the ending.
Whichever one of the 36 dramatic situations served as the framework for that particular plot, it had to have an ending.
Finales didn’t have to be grand or spectacular, but some kind of outcome needed to be presented.
It wasn’t so much that we were prescribing THE ending to a given scenario, but rather, providing a likely or possible outcome.
Something even a novice GM could hang their hat on, a point they could reasonably wind things up.
It’s a laudable goal, completeness — and if you utilize one of those adventures at your table — you’ll be presented with an endpoint.
Of course, it’s the one aspect of the assignment that does not fit with my style of gamemastering.
Sure, I know how to signal an end to the night. “Let’s wrap this up, folks.”
But endings? What are those? When the bad guy is dead or defeated? When the treasure is found?
(Or was it No. 17: When the characters discover the dishonor of a loved one?)
There’s always another bad guy. Another thread to pull. Another ploy that comes with the next sunrise.
No, endings are the players’ prerogative. Always have been. Always will. That’s because their choices — usually at two or three choice moments in the course of the narrative — are what truly dictates the outcome.
Yes, I’m a starting-line GM. Here’s a hook. Here’s a dilemma. Here are some resources. Found a motivation for your character? Great, because it’s time to start. Ready, set … go!
Now, that hardly absolves me in providing a plot nor anticipating a few possibilities and providing interesting elements along the way.
I propose that what the GM should be responsible for isn’t the ending, but rather those pivot points during the course of the narrative.
Those pivot points are what point the way.
OK, so what are pivot points?
They are decision junctures. Forks in the road. Do we turn left or right? Do we help or hinder? Do we fight or flee? Do we look before we leap? Do we contemplate the next move or do we rashly rush in?
It’s the scenario that follows that decision point that matters. If it serves the plot and propels the action and the characters forward, that’s what matters. I’m not talking about random encounters, but rather, purposeful, consequential moments.
Do that well at three or four places along the way, and I think the ending— whatever desired result emerges — becomes self-evident to the players as well as the GM.
If they have closed in on the villain, let them at ‘em. If they are close to guessing the secret, unveil it. If the unspeakable horror is just behind that door, then by all means, open it.
If it’s revenge they’re after — here’s their chance.
It’s their moment, their ending, if they so choose.
Give it to them. They’ve earned it.
- Are You Using Your Game Night Checklist?
A move to virtual has had me running many more games than usual. I’ve been refining and honing a few techniques to keep everything moving smoothly and keep track of everything for every game. One simple tool I have come to rely on is my “Game Night Checklist”. It helps me stay focused, on track, and prevents me from getting overwhelmed when I am coming off of a busy workweek or haven’t had time to jump in and prepare as much as makes me feel comfortable.
What is a game night checklist?
Let’s codify some definitions before we begin. For me, a game night checklist is a simple, bullet point reminder for myself and all the players of some of the meta elements of the game. It functions like an itinerary for a meeting and makes sure we don’t miss important, repeatable parts of the structure of the game. It helps the players think through some of the elements that help set the tone for the game and it helps the Game Master not miss any pre-game prep steps. It helps give a structure to things so you don’t have to try to force that structure. It offloads the work to a previous you and an external document.
Basically, a game night checklist functions as an external reminder to keep some of the game elements reliable and standardized between sessions. For me, a Game Night checklist is shared with the players so they have an idea of what you as the GM are doing and covers most of the general easy to forget stuff that isn’t rolling dice, playing out characters, and engaging with the rules system.
What should be on a game night checklist?
My current game night checklist is aimed at online play and covers lots of meta options alongside a few specific to the game and architecture of the VTT we are using. That being said, I think every game night checklist should contain the following:
- Player Pregame Information: Prompts for the players to think about some things as they get ready to play, options they may forget about in your homerules (inspiration, etc.), reminders about interactions / social rules.
- GM Pregame Information: Make sure you have prepped (preferably in a simple style that is easy to riff off of) what you need to run and improvise, reminders to set up things that may have slipped your mind, a prompt to review your plans and past notes.
- Game Start: The general things you have set up about getting into the game. Do you chat for a bit? Do meta game stuff? Have pre-game rituals? Putting it here lets the players all be on the same page and remember.
- Game: Some reminders and prompts for in-game options, such as Always roll 2 dice, one for advantage, move your tokens yourself, always try to click on spell names to throw them in chat, when it isn’t your turn plan next move, pay attention, etc.
- Game End: Anything about wrapping up the game? Is someone volunteering to write notes? Any notes that need made? How do you award xp? Do you stop 10 minutes before game end time? Do you finish out combats, etc.
This is my current, generic 5e game night checklist.
- Review how your character works, what you want to bring into play
- Setup your play space/test out roll20.
- Think about your character goals, other’s character goals. What are you excited about tonight?
- Think about the spotlight – How it moves between players, how to share it, how to use it when it’s on you.
- Overview plans for the night (make revisit the 3/3/3) and be ready to throw them out.
- Set up maps / scenes / options in roll20.
- Make sure improv elements (tokens, maps, generic stats) are ready.
- Prep mood lighting – Points of interest (imagine or find a cool image to riff off of).
- Game soft starts ½ hour early. GM will be online to talk stuff (probably).
- GM Opens Session notes to type into during game.
- Meta Business? Housekeeping? What are you excited about?
- Dole out inspiration points.
- Review – Review big notes from last session verbally with players
- The Book Opens, The Tale Begins, The First Die Roll is cast…
Game (Player Reminders)
- Don’t forget to move your token.
- Click on spell names/powers/etc to throw them in chat.
- Click on the token, then click initiative. If you need to fix it, click in turn order and change.
- When not your turn, Plan for the next action and try to keep things moving quick
Game End (about 10 to 15 minutes before close time)
- Anyone volunteering to write session notes?
- Make note about Inspiration for next time
- Award XP (Whole Group same amount)
GM write up basic session notes.
Uhh, this is super simple. Why can’t I just get in the habit of doing all this stuff?
The best-laid plans of players and gms… I’ve always found that getting into and running games brings out the spur of the moment, fly by the seat of my pants parts of my personality. That’s a great help in accommodating player ideas, but it often leaves me a bit disoriented and disjointed as I move along in the game. A game night checklist for many of the meta elements keeps me on track, prevents me from collapsing into exhaustion after the game is done (and ignoring things like writing up session notes), and helps me get my brain on track before the start of the game. It really is offloading a lot of the work that may go into a game to a previous self and helps to set a single vision which you can deviate from and improvise off of, but return to as you need. It’s kind of like a simple meta-safety line you might use when rock climbing.
Do you use something similar to a Game Night Checklist? What is on yours? What other tools do you use to help structure your game nights?
- Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook Review
Since I like to wear my biases on my sleeve, before we dive in, I feel I must point out that not only am I a huge fan of superhero media, I’m also an easy mark for superhero properties that build the same kind of deep continuity you find with publishers like Marvel Comics or DC Comics, without having a real publication history. For example, I love the emerging continuity of Green Ronin’s Earth Prime as portrayed in their Mutants and Masterminds products.
I’m going to try not to retread too much territory from my Sentinel Comics Starter Kit review from 2018, but if you aren’t familiar with the property, Sentinel Comics is the fictitious comic book publisher that produces the comics upon which the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game is based, as well as the Sentinels Tactics miniatures game, The Sentinels of Freedom video game, and the Freedom Five board game. In case all of that doesn’t clue you in, this is a property with a deep sense of history to draw upon.
I was a Kickstarter backer for this game, and while I received the Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, as well as the Sentinel Comics Game Moderator Kit, I’m keeping my focus on the core book for this review.
The Official Who’s Who of the Sentinel Comics Universe
This review is going to look at both the PDF of Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game, as well as the physical book. The book is 458 pages, and many comics panels serve as examples of play, as well as large, colorful charts, and many symbols and dice images in explanations.
There are about eight pages of character and villain sheets, some in black and white and some in color. There is a five-page Index/Glossary that summarizes concepts and points the reader towards various sections of the book. There is also a credits page and a separate page for the table of contents.
Calling this “full color” is not quite as descriptive as it could be. This book has bold, bright colors throughout. Chapters are introduced with huge splash pages of the characters in action. The end pages are amazing, because they contain a collection of comic book covers from (non-existent) comic books across the decades.
Chapter 1: Introduction
The introduction is one of the shorter portions of the book, but it sets up the expectations of the game. It spells out that the following concepts are assumed to be true when playing Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game:
- Characters are heroic
- Characters work as a team
- Personality and principles are important to the game
- The game assumes a Silver Age comic book tone
- The game assumes everyone will contribute to the narrative
In addition to setting expectations, this section explains the structure of the book, as well as introducing the characters that are being used in the comic strip examples included in the following chapters.
Chapter 2: Playing the Game
This section introduces the broad strokes of the rules that are used to adjudicate the game. This starts by explaining how stories are broken up into Collections, Issues, and Scenes, which essentially are, using other RPG parlance, story arcs, game sessions, and individual encounters. Scenes break down into the following categories:
- Action Scenes
- Social Scenes
- Montage Scenes
Action scenes are probably familiar to anyone that has played a roleplaying game with combat resolution. Social scenes may be only roleplaying or may involve some rolls to resolve contentious discussions. Montage scenes are extended scenes that allow a player to pick a single mechanical benefit that happens during that downtime.
The next part of this chapter uses the character sheet of Legacy to show how different aspects of characters are recorded, including principles, backgrounds, archetypes, powers, qualities, health, and abilities.
When a character acts, the most important thing is to determine what the goal of the action is. Once this is determined, actions fall into one of the following categories:
This game system is referred to as the GYRO system, which stands for Green, Yellow, Red, and Out. Character abilities and status dice are based on their status. If either their health, or the scene itself, advances to a new color, those abilities, plus any previous abilities, are available to use. For example, many Red abilities are more effective, but can only be activated when the situation gets dire.
Characters pick a Power and Quality, rated in dice steps from d6 to d12, plus the character status die. The character usually uses the middle number of the three rolled to resolve the action.
Something that can be incrementally worn away is usually attacked to remove it from a scene. A situation that requires distinct steps to resolve is approached with an Overcome. Boost or Hinder actions generate a number to hand off to another character to apply to a roll to either help them or penalize their roll. Defending allows a character to roll a die to ablate the damage incoming from others.
Abilities sometimes modify how this basic structure works, and abilities are marked as either A, R, or I, or Action, Reaction, or Inherent. Abilities that are listed as an Action replace how a standard action is resolved. Reactions can be used once per turn, and Inherent abilities modify or add to the regular way an action is resolved.
Characters may have to accept a twist to accomplish a goal, or they may accept a twist to gain more than one effect from a single action. Minor twists are short term setbacks or challenges added to a scene, while major twists tend to be long term story complications introduced into the narrative.
If you have never played Fate, Cortex Plus, or a PbtA game, some of these concepts may not feel familiar, but if you have played some or all the game systems mentioned here, this system very much feels like a unique synthesis of what each of these games does, without feeling too much like any one of them.
In an action scene, characters will hand off to one another after they take an action, and each opponent in the scene also gets a turn. If the Scene Tracker is being used, on the Scene Tracker’s turn the tracker advances, and any Environment effects happen at that time.
Characters can be taken out of a scene if their health reaches zero, but a player character never dies unless the character wants their character to die. Each character will have an “Out” ability that they can take, just like the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game. This doesn’t represent your character doing something, per se, but how your character inspires and influences your team. It does give you a choice to make on your turn that influences the current scene.
Chapter 3: Creating Heroes
This is an extensive part of the rulebook. This encompasses about 100 pages of the book, and while the actions are simple and easy to adjudicate, there are a lot of different abilities (essentially alternate ways of adjudicating actions) as well as a lot of example twists based on different character choices that the player makes, so that it’s easier to narrow down the kinds of complications that arise in the narrative.
Effectively, instead of allowing for a free form modification to relatively simple expressions, this section gives lots of very specific tweaks that are thematically tied to the lists under which they are organized.
The following steps are part of character creation:
- Power Source
- Red Abilities
- Finishing Touches
While the process itself is linear, there are modifiers in different stages that add different dice ratings to your powers and qualities, give you different options for what dice you can assign to powers and qualities, and give you different abilities with which you can substitute or supplement your standard actions. Because of this, you may end up flipping back and forth a lot in this section when creating a character.
The section mentions two methods of character creation, guided and constructed. Guided involves rolling randomly on the charts that summarize all the categories for each section of character creation. Constructed involves the player choosing whatever option they would rather have in each section. Regardless of what method you use, the end of each discreet section usually gives you a number of dice that you can use to assign to different powers. For example, at the end of one step, you may get one d10 and two d6 to assign to different powers or qualities.
The character’s principles will give you a list of possible twists that you can use for your “go-to” consequences. Choices for Background and Archetype will give you different Green and Yellow abilities, with Red abilities, your “clutch” moves, being picked at the end. The Retcon phase of character creation lets you choose a modification to one of your previous choices to customize your character a bit more.
I appreciate that twists have several examples to draw from, so that players aren’t left entirely on their own to come up with ideas on the fly. I also like that principles and personalities are an important and mechanically reinforced portion of character creation. I like that the abilities you gain from your principles not only trigger the character getting a hero point, but also trigger everyone getting a hero point.
Character advancement involves grouping and recording story collection, where characters can change their powers or other character details at the end of a character arc, but the overall character power level doesn’t change much. For each collection, however, the character can reflect on that storyline, and use it to retcon a scene that happened between stories, belay minor twists, or modify dice rolls.
While the individual bits of character creation are simple and easy to understand, because later steps often create more options or modify choices made in previous steps, there can be a lot of flipping back and forth in this section. There is nothing wrong with that, but if your brain works like mine, sometimes you end up looking at a page and wondering why you flipped back to it.
Chapter 4: Moderating the Game
This chapter covers all the parts of a game that the Game Moderator will need to juggle. This primarily includes adding elements to scenes, deciding whether to use the scene tracker and environment actions, and how to pace the game.
One of the best bits of advice in this section is regarding clues and story progression. If characters need a clue, they find it. If there is any randomness, it’s about how prepared the villain is when the PCs arrive, or if the PCs get ambushed, etc.
In action scenes, especially when the Scene Tracker is being used, there may be objectives that require the Overcome action. For example, an open portal may keep pouring minions into a scene, or civilians may be in danger. If these complications aren’t addressed, characters may end up being hindered, attacked, or find themselves surrounded by more opponents.
In addition to these pacing and structural bits of advice, this section also addresses topics like teaching the rules, improvising situations that arise, coming up with meaningful choices, and dealing with problem players.
One of the important concepts that is communicated by this chapter is that the Scene Tracker is meant to introduce the idea that characters must prioritize their actions. It’s rare for characters to fail to do what they want to do, but because time is ticking away, characters must balance introducing twists and ultimate goals before the Scene Tracker advances to the end of its count, at which point the scene resolves in a manner logical for the GM to narrate.
Chapter 5: The Bullpen
Different types of challenges and oppositions are introduced in this chapter. One of the challenges discussed is the Doomsday Device. Doomsday devices are noted as something to be used sparingly, and something that will cause a major change to the campaign if they are not subverted. Doomsday Devices have their own turns in the scene, and unlike other challenges, Doomsday Devices usually require multiple stages of resolution. For example, finding a device, disabling a device, and safely dismantling a device might be some steps of a Doomsday Device resolution.
Opposition comes in three “sizes,” minions, lieutenants, and villains. Instead of having a dice pool, minions and lieutenants are represented with a single die, and may have an ability that modifies the single die under a narrow circumstance — for example, +2 when resisting damage or attacking. Minions degrade a die type each time they are attacked, meaning that once they degrade from a d6, they are out of the scene. Lieutenants roll to resist damage, and if successful, they don’t degrade. If they degrade under a d6, they are also removed from a fight.
Villains are built more like player characters, although not in the exact same way. Villains are built from Approaches and Archetypes, which present a list of abilities as well as health levels appropriate for the villain type. In addition to the health from both choices, the final amount of health for the villain is determined by the number of players in the game.
I appreciate that the text discusses that the same villain in different stories might change their approach or their archetype. Billionaire Lex might be a Mastermind/Inventor when confronted in his high-rise office, but supervillain team leader Lex might be a Tactician/Squad villain, despite being the same person. This means that some approaches and archetypes might work better with or without allies. This also means that the status die that the villain is using may not always be based on their health, but on how well they are performing their villainous approach.
Not all villains have these, but singular villains might also pick an ability from the Villain Upgrades, and the Villainous Mastery charts. Upgrades often add more health as well as giving the villain the option for more abilities, but almost all the Villainous Mastery abilities are Inherent abilities. These are good additions to add to the villain when heroes have run into them multiple times over the course of a campaign.
Environment options are also presented, for example, creating Green, Yellow, and Red abilities and twists for different types of environments. Unlike minions or lieutenants, environments usually have three different aspects with different die ratings for the environment to roll when the environment takes its action. While environments can’t be defeated like villains, sometimes there are Overcome options for shutting down some environmental conditions or abilities.
Chapter 6: Adventure Issues
This chapter includes two sample adventures for the game. The first adventure is a short scenario that, by default, is designed for the pre-generated Daybreak team of young superheroes.
Battle of the Bands is a fun scenario that involves the team stumbling over a plot by a team of supervillains who are also a heavy metal band, detailing the five supervillains that are part of the team. Much of the action involves keeping the crowd safe while recovering some stolen technology enhancing the villain team’s performance.
A Conspiracy of Clones is an adventure with a bigger scope, dealing with a supervillain that has a world-spanning plot that will require the PCs to deal with minions, find a lair, and confront the villain and his allies. The adventure also has notes on expanding this into a jumping-off point for a larger campaign arc. This adventure doesn’t assume a specific team of heroes, just a starting location.
Chapter 7: The Archives
The archives present several existing heroes from Sentinel Comics, as well as example minions and lieutenants, villains, and environments. The background information for these characters tells the general story of the setting as it stands now. This is a superhero setting that has just survived a major, multiverse shaking event, and the premier superteam has just opened a new school for training the next generation of heroes. This is a good starting point for an RPG setting, because it merges new, not previously established heroes, with a world that still has some damage to repair from a major event.
Most of the characters presented are associated with the previous Freedom Five/current Sentinels of Freedom, their training campus, and the city of Megalopolis. There are a few entries that move beyond this baseline, although many of those entries are still tangentially associated with the Sentinels of Freedom (for example, Mordengrad, Heritage’s nemesis Baron Blade’s native country).
There are eight iconic solo villains, three supervillain teams, seven categories of minions and lieutenants, and about six different established environments.
When I saw the size of this book, I thought there would be more detailed heroes, villains, and environments. I didn’t realize quite how much space hero, villain, and environment creation were going to take up. As someone that has been listening to the Letters Page, the podcast where the creators of Sentinel Comics discuss the history they have devised for the setting, I almost felt as if the selling point would really be the deep lore dive.
There are a couple of reasons why I’m not disappointed in this development. I walked through character creation and played a short (solo) scene, and it helped me to realize how compelling the character elements can be. It showed me how robust this is as an engine for superhero stories with the same assumptions even without being tied to the property. Additionally, showing brand new players just how much history exists in the setting in the core book might be a bit . . . intimidating. The story of the Sentinels of Freedom and Megalopolis is a nice, constrained story that implies a wider superhero world, without providing too much minutia.
That said, I’ll probably be jumping on any setting books that come out in the future.
Cast Off Lesser Things and Embrace the Light
The core resolution system is easy to grasp, and the combination of Powers, Qualities, Abilities, and Principles works very well to add flavor to individual mechanical building blocks. There is a wide range of comic book tropes covered in this book, facilitating the ability to actualize a wide range of character concepts.
The Scene Tracker is what really helps to pull all these concepts together and sets this game apart from other supers RPGs. The immediacy of action and the need to prioritize actions is an aspect of superhero comics that rarely comes through in RPG mechanics.
The Moon Grows Closer with Your Every BreathThe mechanics build in the importance of making split-second decisions, and the addition of twists can cause a simple narrative to explode into a memorable scene.
It’s strange to cite something as both a benefit and a hindrance, but because there are so many examples of powers, power sources, motivations, personality types, and abilities, it’s very easy to find yourself bouncing back and forth through the book when making a character, or when the game facilitator is building a major villain. In a perfect world, this is the kind of RPG content that could be facilitated by a nice web application.
This probably won’t be an issue for most players, but if you assume that this book is going to be your guide to everything Sentinel Comics, this book is only going to lightly touch on a few aspects of the very, very detailed setting.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you are the type of gamer that prefers your RPGs as simulators of a world where some people have superhuman abilities, and they may be superheroes, this game may not appeal to you. It very much models the pacing and tropes of sequential storytelling. This is a game that is concerned with modeling what would happen in a comic book featuring that same storyline.
The good news is, if you are the type of person that really wants to seize upon the pacing and the feeling of how a comic book story unfolds, this game does all of that phenomenally well. The mechanics build in the importance of making split-second decisions, and the addition of twists can cause a simple narrative to explode into a memorable scene.
Would you rather have rules that help you model a world, and then apply your own scenarios to those rules, or would you rather play to the tropes and conventions of a genre right from the start? What games do you feel emulate genres well? What games do you think provide a solid, flexible framework for applying multiple genres? We would love to hear from you, so leave your thoughts below!Read more »
- ● Underrail - New Content UpdateA new content update for Underrail adds new areas if you have the Expedition DLC. Dev Log #69: Crossing the Styx (220.127.116.11) Hi guys,We're rolling out a new content update. It's going to be a somewhat weird update because the main bulk of the content is centered around something that is not part of a mainstream playthrough.... Read more »
- ● System Shock - February UpdateRedglyph spotted the February update for the System Shock remake: February Update Welcome back Hackers! We’ve got a very special update this month - as you are aware we’re releasing our final demo and opening pre-orders on Steam, GOG, and the Epic Games Store which should be available as you read this.... Read more »
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- Baldur's Gate 3 - Nature's PowerA new update for Baldur's Gate 3 about patch 4. Community Update #12 - Nature's Power It’s been a busy few weeks here at Larian HQ. In between finalizing our transmogrification spells, sourcing cows for experimentation, and training them to sign extensive liability waivers with their hooves, we’ve been hard at work putting the finishing touches on Patch 4.... Read more »
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- Mount & Blade II - Multiplayer Duel Mode and Battle Terrain SystemVanedor spotted development ppdate #7 for Mount & Blade II: Development Update #7: Multiplayer Duel Mode and Battle Terrain System loading... Read more »
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- Arkham Horror: Mother's Embrace - Announced for March 23The Adventure RPG Arkham Horror: Mother's Embrace will be released on March 23: Arkham Horror: Mother's Embrace Inspired by the award-winning board game franchise, Arkham Horror: Mother’s Embrace is an investigation game served with turn-based combat, set in the haunted worlds of H.... 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.
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This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Handling Rests in D&D
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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.
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This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoBuilding Villains Like Pro-Wrestlers
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I read a fantastic Reddit post called How to Create Pay-Per-View Worthy Adventures or How to Stop Worrying and Start DMing Like Vince McMahon I wanted to ponder and share with you. I recommend reading the whole post if you can. The premise of the article is that there's a big overlap between the storytelling of pro wrestling and how we run our D&D games.
Not being into pro wrestling, it took me some work to dissect the ideas in the article and turn them into ones I could understand and embrace.
From my understanding, pro-wrestling is about gross storytelling. There's not much subtlety in the story. Not much nuance. It's about big bold moves, big actions, big events. Everything is over the top. Look how Vince McMahon walks. It's like Japanese theater where the warriors have to throw their knees out when they walk to show how big and powerful they are.
This same lack of subtlety can help us in our D&D games. Players aren't grasping half of what we DMs throw out during a game. Subtlety gets easily lost. Big gross moves get attention. Most of the specific ideas in the original post come from this idea. Big moves matter.
Give Villains Nicknames
Good villains are known many ways. It isn't just "Leto Skalle". It's Leto Skalle; the Scourge of Xen-drik, Slayer of Nartholex the Depraved, Platinum Hand of the Aurum, and the Black Blade of Sora Ketra. Good villains are known across the land for various deeds and the more of those deeds the characters hear about, the more they'll be intrigued by that villain. Give your villain lots of nicknames.
Give the Villains a Sidekick
Good villains have great sidekicks, the sidekicks players hate nearly as much as the villains. The sidekicks do their dirty work. The sidekicks announce their presence. The sidekicks are the annoying voices and worshipers of the villains. With a good sidekick, your players now have two villains to hate.
Give Villains a Gimmick
Maybe your villain always has a cup of tea in their hand, regardless of where they are or what they're doing. Maybe they have a pet flying snake. Give your villains a gimmick. Maybe they hide their identity with a toothpick. Think Blofeld and the white cat in James Bond. Players will dig this. They'll remember it. Give your villains a gimmick.
Leave Mysterious Blanks in Your Villain's Origin
No one knows where Leto Skalle came from. He seemed to be in the upper ranks of the Droaam for as long as anyone knew him. Suddenly he's a platinum ringer in the Aurum or off for a multi-year expedition in Xen'drik. He went into the tomb of Narthotex with forty soldiers and came out alone with one eye turned bright blue. He comes from "parts unknown". Leave mysterious gaps in your villain's history.
Recast Your Villains
If your villain dies early, bring them back. Give them a new origin, an new nickname. Leto Skalle may die early on but once resurrected by the Dreaming Dark, he now speaks with the voice of the Quori within him and has a stable of new powers. We DMs have an unlimited stable of villains but when the players are invested in one of them, we can recast them even when defeated; bringing them back as something worse than they were before. This works well with lichs and vampires in particular. Recast villains when defeated.
Build a Stable of Villains
Build a stable of villains. Leto Skalle is bad but not nearly as bad as Leto Skalle, his sister Cavellah, and the three Daughters of Sora Kell working together to build the new Weapon of Mourning. Build an evil Justice League working against the characters. Build your own Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. A stable of villains is much harder to defeat than one villain alone.
Villains Don't Fight Fair
Villains always fight when they have the upper hand. They cheat. They'll punch you in your injured shoulder. It's important, however, to watch those beats. While it's good fun for a villain to fight when the environment supports them, you don't want the battle to feel hopeless. Fight dirty until the characters get the upper hand. More on this in a moment.
Exploit the Villain's Weakness
Likely, in an evolving game, the characters themselves may find a way to exploit the villain's gimmick. Maybe we poison his tea. Maybe we steal the Xanathar's goldfish. Let the characters find a way to use a villain's own gimmick against them.
Stick it to the Metagamers
In the wrestling world you have "smarts", "marks", and "smarks". Smarts see the theater for what it is — theater. Marks like to believe every moment of it. They're in the story. Smarks known the story is theater but go with it anyway. In our game, metagamers are the smarts. They know how beholders work. They know how many hit points a dragon roughly has. Change things up. Give mages spells from Deep Magic that none of the players have heard of. Give the Lord of Blades a stable of warforged horrors from Arcana of the Ancients and Beasts of Flesh and Steel Change things up, shock them, surprise them.
Inject the "Swerve"
Let the story take unexpected twists and turns. Villains become bad guys. Good guys become villains. Villains try to ally with the characters against more dangerous foes. Often our games take strange turns all on their own but if things feel too straight, give them a shock. This is fine to do in the middle of a game but don't do it at the end of a game or you end up with Game of Thrones. Swerving is fine but at the end, give them what they want.
Let Players Get the Upper Hand
Vince McMahon may walk like a theatrical Japanese warrior but even he knows when it's time to get beat up with his own bedpan in his underwear. Your bosses may be complete dicks but your player almost certainly find ways to get the upper hand and, when they do, let them. Ham it up. Let the villain beg for forgiveness or scream about how unfair it all is. Let them fall into their own traps and burn in their own pyres.
Good Tips for an Evolving Game
One thing I love about these tips is that they don't assume what the characters will do. We can use all of these ideas without requiring that the characters go in one direction or another. When we focus on our villains, fill them out with gimmicks and sidekicks and stables of other villains, that work serves us whatever direction the game goes. This makes it a great tool for us lazy dungeon masters. Our effort is well spent because we know that, no matter what direction things go, our efforts will bear fruit.
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This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running Descent into Avernus Chapter 4 and 5
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This article offers tips and tricks for running Chapters 4 and 5 of Descent into Avernus and includes my thoughts and recommendations for the adventure overall. Note that this article contains spoilers.
This article is one in a series of article covering Descent into Avernus including:
- Running Descent into Avernus: The Fall of Elturel
- Running Descent into Avernus Chapter 1
- Running Descent into Avernus Chapter 2
- Running Descent into Avernus Chapter 3
- Running Descent into Avernus Chapter 4 & 5
If you'd rather watch videos, you can watch my entire Descent into Avernus Youtube Playlist.
Chapter 4 of Descent into Avernus begins the conclusion of the adventure, drawing things in from the wide-open sandbox portion in chapter 3. Unlike Chapter 3, we don't have to do a lot of work to wrangle this chapter into something usable. It's a straight-forward story of the characters infiltrating the Bleeding Citadel, dropping into some dream sequences, and acquiring the Sword of Zariel.
We can, if we want, throw more gnolls around the outside of the Bleeding Citadel to turn it into more of a situation to navigate. An army of a few hundred gnolls, some Fangs of Yeenoghu, and maybe a couple of flind leaders can be fun. The characters have to figure out how to get into one of the rifts in the side of the giant hell-boil that surrounds the citadel.
Once they're inside, you can run Chapter 3 as a typical dungeon crawl. Drop in one or two gnolls the characters can interact with, squeezing them for information or trailing them to see what's going on in the cyst-tunnels.
When the characters make it inside the citadel, they're treated to a series of dream encounters that reveal the moment Zariel realized she'd have to ride into hell to stop the demonic hordes. This is the beginning of her eventual transformation to the arch devil of Avernus.
We can use these dreams to reveal the other Hellrider generals who rode beside her before they transformed into her twisted servants. These include Yael, Olanthius, Harumon, Jandar, and Gideon.
These dream sequences let us pour on the secrets and clues; revealing the full story of Zariel's fall from grace and the one thing that can bring her back — taking hold of the Sword of Zariel.
Advice from the Author
I had a chance to talk to one of the authors of Descent into Avernus, James Introcaso, who offered up his own advice for running this chapter. James's advice is included in the thoughts below.
Dial in the Gore
This chapter, with its huge hill-sized wound in the surface of hell, can be as gory as you want it to be. Know how much gore your players want and dial it in appropriately. You can simply describe it as caverns cut into the stone surface of Avernus or as a squirming organic material covered in slime and stuff if you and your players are into it. Know the level of comfort your players desire and have an X Card or other safety tool ready if it goes beyond someone's level of comfort.
Do More with the Crokek'toeck
James Introcaso wrote up a series of encounters for Descent into Avernus called Abyssal Incursions that includes a whole dungeon crawl through the insides of the enormous Crokek'toeck. You can use it as inspiration or take it as-is and drop it into the Crokek'toeck section of the Scab. Personally, I ran it as a Jonas and the Whale type situation with a gnoll who preferred not to be vomited up into war spending his days comfortably in the creature's gullet. Giving the Crokek'toeck a purple-worm-like swallow attack meant a swallowed character could meet this pacifist gnoll and learn more about what lay ahead.
Scale the Dreams
Not everyone digs dream sequences in D&D. They can feel like a waste of time since they rarely have an effect on the real world. There are seven events in the Idyllglen dream sequence and you don't need to run them all. A skirmish with a bunch of gnolls followed by a confrontation with Yeenoghu and Zariel's arrival can work just fine. Don't overdo it if it doesn't seem enjoyable.
Once the characters come back out of the dream, one of them can take hold of the Sword of Zariel. This may be Gargauth's chance for escape, either by manipulating the character holding the shield or simply asking them to shatter the shield with the sword. Doing so releases Gargauth, the arch-devil, who may offer to help dethrone Zariel for his own chance to take it. Gargauth may clear a path through any remaining gnolls so the characters can make their final ride back to Elturel where Zariel and her floating fortress reside before dragging Elturel through the River Styx and turning all of its remaining citizens into devils.
Chapter 5 largely deals with the wide range of endings this adventure can have but gives little guidance on how to run them. Before you get to this point you'll want to decide how things play out. In my own game, I assumed Zariel flew her flying fortress to Elturel as the characters got the sword and the characters would confront her there; convincing her to grasp the blade and breaking her pact with Asmodeus.
Give Them What They Want
Since we're closing in on the end of the adventure, now is a good time to give the players what they want. We may have an idea for a strange twist at the end but since we're here and the campaign is about to close, it's a good time to let the story end in the way most satisfying for the players. Hold back your temptation for a big twist on the end and give them what they want.
The Final Ride
With the sword in hand, the characters can use their infernal war machine to roar across Avernus once again, arriving at Elturel in time to see it being slowly submerged into the river Styx. Along the way they may run into Mahadi's Wandering Emporium for a final rest or face Zariel's remaining generals if they haven't already in what may be the big final encounter before facing Zariel herself.
In my own game, the characters faced Olanthus, Harumon, and Gideon all riding in on nightmares. One of Harumon's hellfire lances destroyed the characters' war machine but, when the characters defeated the generals, they received three figurines of wondrous power able to summon nightmares. These nightmares let the characters fly to Zariel's fortress disguised as her returning generals.
Confrontation with Zariel
When the characters confront Zariel we have a chance to bring Thavius Kreeg back into the picture. This is an example of a great D&D tip I heard: whenever possible, reintroduce NPCs the characters already know. It's far more meaningful to run into a villain they've already seen than to introduce a new villain right at the end. Kreeg may send in the final wave of devils after the characters before they can parlay with Zariel herself and convince her to take the blade.
Our instinct is to ask the characters to make a persuasion check for such convincing but while that might steer the nature of the conversation, in the end, we want Zariel to take the sword as much as the players do. Poor rolls may result in a tense conversation but don't let the whole balance of the game hang on a single die roll.
Return to Faerun
Assuming Zariel takes the blade, she returns to her angelic self. Her remaining devils flee and her flying fortress collapses. She teleports the characters back to Elturel where they can meet Reya Mantlemourn, Uldar Ravengard, and Grace Lyn; the young girl they rescued in The Fall of Elturel. Since we're at the end of the adventure, now is a great time to reintroduce all the NPCs we can.
With the characters back in Elturel, Zariel severs the chains and sends the city back to Faerun. The city is saved.
This is a great chance to jump forward one year and ask each of the players where they find their characters. What did they do after Elturel returned to Faerun? Did they become members of a new uncorrupted Hellriders? Did they return to Avernus to become one of Mahadi's prized musicians? Did they return to Candlekeep to become a sage? Ask the players and find out! These final stories can often be the best and most memorable stories in the campaign.
Final Overall Thoughts on Descent into Avernus
Here are some of my thoughts on Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus overall.
Running Descent into Avernus took more work than I like from a published adventure. The artwork, design, and editing is wonderful and the general idea of the story is cool and unique. The story as written, though, is a mess. If you're running the adventure, hopefully these articles helped you wrangle it into an epic tale of high adventure in the depths of hell.
I will leave you with my seven big tips for running Descent into Avernus.
- Understand the theme you want for the campaign and steer your game towards that theme. Make sure your players are on board with that theme.
- In your session zero, tie the characters to the Hellriders, Reya Mantlemorn, and Elturel.
- Build your own path through chapter 3 by choosing the locations you want to run and tying them together with a network of quests that takes them from Elturel to the Bleeding Citadel.
- Let the characters fuel infernal war machines with demonic ichor instead of soul coins.
- Choose how gory you want the details of the adventure and make sure your players are comfortable with it.
- Choose which waves to run in the dream sequences in Idyllglen; you don't have to run them all.
- Give the players what they want in the end. Let them save Elturel and perhaps save Zariel if they played their cards right.
Hopefully these tips and guides have helped you run this adventure. When steered right, Descent into Avernus can be wrangled into a grand adventure of good and evil in the wastelands of hell.
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- A DM's Reading List
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This article contains a reading list of some of my favorite books and articles DMs can use to better run D&D games. Obviously it would be crass of me to include my own book, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, so I omitted it from the list...
In a previous article I've talked about Paths of DM Expertise. A big part of getting better as a DM is digging into all of the knowledge other DMs and game creators can share with us. There's a lot of great material out there we can read, cull, and harvest to give us great ideas while running our games. This list represents some of this material.
The Core Books
Spend time reading and re-reading the core books. There's a lot of great stuff in them easily missed like monster environments in the Monster Manual and tons of stuff in the Dungeon Master's Guide easily forgotten. Review them all every few months to remind yourself what's in them.
If I could only pick five books to help DMs get a better grip on D&D, these would be them.
- Complete Kobold Guide to Game Design (2nd Edition)
- Hamlet's Hit Points
- How to Write Adventures that Don't Suck (original version)
- The Monster's Know What They're Doing
- Dungeon World
RPG Design Books
These are a handful of books I found very useful. Many of these ended up in the bibilography of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master as well. I'm particularly fond of the books capturing the ideas of many of the top RPG designers in the past few decades. Kobold Press's guides often include such essays. It's a rare thing to get into the minds of such titans in the industry.
- Kobold Guide to Gamemastering
- How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck (extended version)
- Anatomy of an Adventure
- All of the Kobold Guides
- Old School Primer
- Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering - (Audible)
- Never Unprepared - (Audible)
Books on Writing
Stepping out to books on writing and creativity in general, here are three I've always enjoyed.
A full list of the best articles is impossible but here are a few articles I find myself returning to over and over again.
Other Game Systems
One of the best ways to improve as a dungeon master is to try out other systems. Here are some of my favorites. Even if you don't get a chance to run them, being able to read through them will give you lots of good ideas.
- Dungeon World
- Fate Condensed
- Numenera Discovery
- Weird Discoveries
- 13th Age
- Shadow of the Demon Lord
- Mork Borg
- 5e Hardcore Mode
MT Black's Reading List
My friend MT Black, a prolific and popular DM Guild creator, wrote up an excellent list of books he recommended for adventure writers likely just as useful to dungeon masters. Here they are.
- Tome of Adventure Design
- Castle Oldskull - Classic Dungeon Design Guide
- The Dungeon Alphabet
- Eureka, 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters
- The Mother of All Treasure Tables
- Writing with Style, an Editor's Advice for RPG Writers
- 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds and Hooks
- Masks, 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game
- Tricks, Empty Rooms, and Basic Trap Design
- 100 Oddities for a Wizard's Library
- GM's Miscellany & Dungeon Dressing
- GM Gems
- Ultimate Toolbox
- The Dungeon Dozen
- Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls
- Ruins of Undermountain 2e
Adventure Models I Dig
When I think about the types of adventures I've enjoyed the most, they follow a common model I call the "yam-shaped design". These adventures have a narrow focus in the beginning, expand out into a sandbox adventure in the middle, and then focus back down again at the end. This makes adventures feel more like campaigns but still have a clear overall story thread.
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- VideoPointcrawls for Cities and Overland Travel in D&D
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Pointcrawls provide a valuable model for overland travel focusing on fantastic locations and the in-world paths connecting them.
A pointcrawl is a DM tool for handling overland travel in D&D. Much like building a dungeon from rooms and hallways, pointcrawls are built from meaningful locations connected by in-world pathways. Since they're built like dungeons, we can use good dungeon design characteristics (see the Alexandrian's Jaquaying the Dungeon) to make our pointcrawls interesting and give players meaningful options while traveling. These characteristics include multiple paths, loopbacks, shortcuts, and secret paths. Pointcrawls offer a flexible structure for overland, wilderness, and city-based adventures.
For a video on this topic, you can watch my Pointcrawls for Overland Travel in D&D Youtube video.
Here's an example of a pointcrawl for the Glass Plateau in Eberron.
Pointcrawls from the Dungeon Master's Guide
The Dungeon Master's Guide describes pointcrawls without actually defining them as such. Here's a quote from chapter 5 of the DMG when discussing overland travel:
One solution is to think of an outdoor setting in the same way you think about a dungeon. Even the most wide-open terrain presents clear pathways. Roads seldom run straight because they follow the contours of the land, finding the most level or otherwise easiest routes across uneven ground. Valleys and ridges channel travel in certain directions. Mountain ranges present forbidding barriers traversed only by remote passes. Even the most trackless desert reveals favored routes, where explorers and caravan drivers have discovered areas of wind-blasted rock that are easier to traverse than shifting sand.
Thinking about building overland travel the same way we build dungeons is a helpful model. It gives us a usable but flexible structure when thinking about above-ground areas.
The idea of pointcrawls grew from hexcrawls, the typical way D&D has handled overland travel for the past 40 years. Chris Kutalik described the original concept of pointcrawls in the article Crawling Without Hexes: the Pointcrawl back in 2012.
Quick Pointcrawl Construction
Here's one way to build a pointcrawl intended to support both improvisational play and lazy dungeon mastering.
- Write down ten interesting locations and landmarks the characters might visit while traveling through the area.
- Connect these locations with in-game routes such as rivers, paths, game trails, roads, portals, mountain passes or any other in-world pathway between two locations.
- Build in multiple paths, loopbacks, shortcuts, and secret paths between locations.
Our goal is to make overland travel interesting, fun to explore, and offer meaningful choices to the characters along the way. We can drop encounters in at locations, the paths between locations, or both. Such encounters might involve meeting NPCs, exploring strange signs, learning something of the history of the area, getting into a fight, or all of the above.
Tools for Building Pointcrawl Charts
The easiest tools for documenting a pointcrawl are likely a pencil and a piece of paper. We can easily draw out a pointcrawl in a few minutes, take a picture with our phone, and we can take it wherever we need. Sticky notes might be a good way to document locations and reorganize them depending on the path. Mind mapping software can also do the trick if it's something you already use.
There's a digital solution I stumbled across called GraphViz.it. It takes in a particular text-based format for the pointcrawl (actually a network) and renders that network out.
Example: The City of Making
Here's another example pointcrawl using GraphViz.it for the city of Making in Eberron.
and here's the input generating this pointcrawl:
"Entry - Gates of Making" -- "The Impaled" [label="Road of Triumph"]
"The Impaled" -- "Fallen Colossus" [label="Massive Footsteps"]
"Fallen Colossus" -- "Fortress of Blades" [label="Road of Fallen Blades"]
"Fortress of Blades" -- "Skydancer Wreck" [label="Scorched Trench"]
"Skydancer Wreck" -- "Entry - The Runoff" [label="Blackwater Way"]
"Fortress of Blades" -- "Clawrift" [label="Road of Dead Machines"]
"The Impaled" -- "Clawrift" [label="Road of Triumph"]
"The Impaled" -- "Daughters' Earthmote" [label="The Slaughterfield"]
"Silver Flame Spire" -- "Clawrift" [label="Cracked Road"]
"Silver Flame Spire" -- "Shattered Laboratory" [label="Old Tunnel"]
"Shattered Laboratory" -- "Clawrift" [label="Teleporter"]
"The Impaled" -- "Living Weird" [label="Dreamwalk"]
"Living Weird" -- "Silver Flame Spire" [label="Twisting Black Thread"]
"Daughters' Earthmote" -- "Clawrift" [label="Trollhaunt Road"]
I tried to add some Jaquay-style designs to the map including multiple entrances, loops, and secret paths (like the path between the Shattered Laboratory and Clawrift). I also labeled the paths here to identify what connects these locations. The evocative names help me improvise what the characters might run into while going along that path.
This is an extensive pointcrawl for a big city, not exactly what one might call lazy, but it didn't take terribly long and it may be useful for many sessions so I don't see the effort wasted. Many of these locations may end up as their own dungeons to crawl, such as the Shattered Laboratory, the Daughters' Earthmote, the Fallen Colossus, the Skydancer Wreck, the Fortress of Blades, and, of course, Clawrift itself which ends up as a multi-level dungeon all on its own.
Another Tool for Lazy Dungeon Masters
Pointcrawls aren't the end-all-be-all of our D&D games but they're a good structure when planning out overland travel, one backed by decades of use. Build pointcrawls by outlining interesting locations, the paths between them, ad interesting encounters they might engage with while there. Such pointcrawls give us a nice model and yet help us build a world that feels open and exciting to the players.
In researching this topic, I found numerous helpful articles on the topic pointcrawls and their parent hex crawls. Here's a list of the ones I found most useful:
- Detect Magic: Pathcrawl
- Hill Cantons: Crawling Without Hexes: The Pointcrawl
- Hill Cantons: Pointcrawl Series Index
- Hill Cantons: Hexcrawls vs Pointcrawls
- Spriggan's Den: Wilderness Travel with a Pointcrawl System
- DIY & Dragons: Sub-Hex Crawling Mechanics - Part 1, Pointcrawling
- DIY & Dragons: Sub-Hex Crawling 1.5 - More Pointcrawl Maps
- The Alexandrian: Hexcrawl
- The Alexandrian: Thinking About Wilderness Travel
- The Alexandrian: Thinking About Wilderness Travel Part 2
- The Alexandrian: Remixing Avernus Part 5C: A Pointcrawl in Elturel
- Tribality: A Guide to Hexcrawling Part 1
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- Replace Flanking with Cinematic Advantage
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Instead of using the optional flanking rule, offer deals to players to trade ability checks using in-world features to gain advantage on their next attack.
Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide offers an optional rule for flanking in which creatures gain advantage against an enemy if an ally is on the opposite side of the enemy. It's a popular rule, used by about half of nearly 1,200 DMs polled on Twitter. I'm not a fan of it. First, it only works when playing with a 5 foot per square grid. It's not easy to use in combat using the theater of the mind. It also offers a major bonus for little risk. It's not hard to get around the other side of an enemy. Previous versions of D&D used to offer a +2 bonus for flanking while advantage results in something closer to +4 or +5. It also removes the value of many other features offering advantage in certain circumstances such as hiding, pack tactics, and others.
Instead of offering flanking for positioning, why not offer advantage for big risky cinematic actions the characters take. Characters can get advantage for scaling a steep wall to gain the high ground. They can leap off of balconies, swing from chandeliers, or leap up onto a monster's back. There are so many cool cinematic ways we might offer advantage to a character beyond "I'm on the other side of it".
Injecting cinematic advantage into your game is all about offering deals; trading in-world fiction and a skill check from players for advantage on their next attack. This helps draw players out of the mechanics of their characters and into the story of the situation itself.
Most of the time the transactions of cinematic advantage comes down to the following:
- While describing the situation, the DM describes interesting features in the area.
- The player describes how they want to use a feature to get a cinematic advantage.
- The DM determines what attribute and skill (or skills) might be used to accomplish the feat and how difficult it is on a scale of DC 10 to 20. Tell the player what the DC is and what penalty they face if they fail so they can make an informed choice.
- The player rolls the check as part of their move or action. On a success, they get advantage on their next attack. On a failure something bad happens depending on what they tried, often falling prone.
When you describe the situation during combat, clarify what features can be used. Write them down on a 3x5 card and stick them on the table if you want. This is an old trick from Fate in which we write down aspects of the scenes characters invoke to gain a bonus on their action. When each character is about to take their turn, remind them what options they have to gain a cinematic advantage. Offer them deals. Let them know what the DC is and what happens if they fail. Sometimes players riff off of these ideas and come up with something new — go for it!
The goal of cinematic advantage to draw the players into the fiction and get the characters to take fun risks to get a boost. Offer good deals. Work with your players, not against them, to take the deal.
Benefits of the Cinematic Advantage
Cinematic advantage trades the pure mechanical aspects of flanking with cool action-packed in-world storytelling. It doesn't require miniatures or a grid, you can do it with any type of combat you run whether it's deep tactical play or free-wheeling theater of the mind. It draws the players into the fiction but still offers a clear mechanical boost for their creative effort. It lets players show off the capabilities of their characters, grabbing cinematic advantages with skills their characters are clearly good at.
Don't set the DCs based on the characters, however. That chandelier doesn't get more awkward just because the character who wants to swing from it happens to be proficient in acrobatics and has a dexterity bonus of +5. Set the difficulty independently from the characters attempting the check. You want players to take these deals.
Twenty Examples of Cinematic Advantage
Here are twenty examples of ways characters might get advantage on an enemy. Most of these ways involve a succeeding on a skill check as part of their attack action to gain the advantage.
- Leaping off of a balcony
- Climbing onto the back of a larger foe
- Sliding underneath a big foe and slashing at its vitals
- Banking a shot off of a reflective wall
- Leaping over dangerous terrain
- Swinging from a chandelier or rope
- Smashing something an adversary is standing on
- Pocket sand!
- Climbing and leaping off a big statue
- Drawing arcane energy from a shattered crystal
- Climbing to get the high ground
- Drawing energy from a magical monument
- Letting the anger of a desecrated altar flow over you
- Drawing holy energy from an ancient elven fountain
- Vaulting off of a crumbling wall
- Pulling power from an unstable summoning circle
- Balancing on a precarious perch
- Smashing through a door to surprise your foes
- Leaping off of a moving vehicle
- Calling the troubled spirits of the fallen for aid
Trading Mechanics for Fiction
Take any opportunity you can to draw players into the fiction of the game. Instead of offering a purely mechanical benefit like flanking, consider offering cinematic opportunities for the characters to gain advantage. Work with them to tell action-packed stories of high adventure and take risks to gain the upper hand on their foes. Such techniques work across any combat style whether you play on a gridded battle map or using pure theater of the mind combat and can help your stories come alive at the table.
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- Darkvision Isn't As Good As You Think
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Creatures with darkvision in darkness have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks and -5 to their passive perception. Light up those torches, dungeon explorers!
In many D&D games, any sort of light such as torches, lanterns, use of the light cantrip, or other forms of illumination are shunned in favor of character races possessing darkvision. Darkvision is treated as a perfect way to navigate the darkest corridors, tunnels, and dungeons in our D&D games.
Except it doesn't work that way.
This is actually the combination of three rules so it's easy for players and DMs to miss it. Here's the description of darkvision from chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook:
Darkvision. Many creatures in fantasy gaming worlds, especially those that dwell underground, have darkvision. Within a specified range, a creature with darkvision can see in darkness as if the darkness were dim light, so areas of darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Here's what happens when you're in dim light also in chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook:
A given area might be lightly or heavily obscured. In a lightly obscured area, such as dim light, patchy fog, or moderate foliage, creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.
And finally under "Passive Checks" in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook:
If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5.
Joining these three rules together we come to this:
A character with darkvision has -5 to passive Perception checks while within darkness.
Light Those Torches
Most of the time, characters in dangerous areas won't want -5 to their passive Perception checks or to have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks. They'll want to light the area up if they want to be careful. Darkvision is no longer Superman's see-everything vision. If the group decides they want to be sneaky, they're going to miss those traps. If they light up those torches, they might give themselves away to lurking enemies.
Of course, the same thing is true for our enemies. Monsters with darkvision are just as likely to miss that stealthy rogue if they don't have lights of their own. Will they risk it? Only creatures with blindsense have no need to worry.
Choosing whether to light up or not is one of those fun in-world decisions that makes D&D fun. Instead of having a cure-all to the problem ("I have darkvision, we're fine), the players have to make hard choices with consequences. Sure, you can rely on darkvision, but you may step into a spiked pit trap you might otherwise see.
The next time the characters enter an old crypt, best to remind them of the dangers of relying completely on darkvisioon.
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- VideoD&D 5e Numbers to Keep In Your Head
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Note: This article has been updated since the original written in February 2015.
The following tools are intended to make it easier to improvise situations in your D&D games. These numbers are designed to be simple and straight forward enough to keep in your head. You can, of course, write them out on a 3x5 card or sticky note and paste it in the inside of your DM screen as well. These numbers help you create challenges, traps, encounters, environmental effects, and horde battles without needing to look anything up in a complicated chart.
Most of these numbers are based on a challenge rating for the sitiuation. This challenge rating is roughly equivalant to the average character level of a group of adventures between 1 (1st level characters) and 20 (20th level characters). This challenge rating is based on the situation, however, not the actual level of the characters in the game. The world does not conform to the level of the characters.
For more tools like these, check out the Lazy DM's Workbook.
Here's a summary of D&D numbers you can keep in your head:
- DC, AC, Saving Throw DC: 10 (easy) to 20 (hard)
- Attack Bonuses, Trained Skills, Primary Saves: +3 (easy) to +12 (hard)
- Single Target Damage: 5 (1d10) per challenge level.
- Multi-target Damage: 3 (1d6) per challenge level.
- Hit Points: 20 per challenge level.
- Deadly Encounter Benchmark: 1/2 or 1/4 of total character levels. An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than half the sum total of character levels, or one quarter if the characters are below 5th level.
- Fighting a Horde of Weaker Monsters. 1/4th succeed. About one quarter of the horde succeed on attacks or saving throws; adjust up or down depending on the situation.
Difficulty Check, Armor Class, Saving Throw DC: 10 to 20
When a situation comes up requiring a difficulty check, choose a number between 10 (easy) and 20 (hard) as the target. The harder the challenge, the higher the number. A 10 is considered relatively easy yet still challenging enough to warrant a roll. A 20 is considered nearly impossible for most common folk.
This number also works for an improvised armor class and saving throw DCs if needed. If you happen to improvise a trap or an effect of some sort, or the characters start attacking a stone statue, you can use this range to set the AC of the statue or the DC of the trap's saving throw.
Example: The Icebolt Trap
Say you've decided a particular room has an icebolt trap in it. How tough was the wizard who planted the trap? Was he an apprentice or an archmage? Choose a number between 10 and 20 to determine the difficulty of finding and disarming the trap. For this example, let's say this icebolt trap has a DC of 14 to detect and disarm.
Note, we're not setting the trap based on the level of the characters. The world is a dynamic place and the characters are just living there. The world does not change it's DCs based on the characters who face it.
Attack Bonus: +3 to +12
If we ever need to improvise an attack score, choose a number between +3 (not particularly accurate) and +12 (very accurate). Anything lower is going to be unlikely to hit and not worth rolling. There are some situations where the attack is lower or higher than this but this range is likely for most situations. When you have an improvised attack, choose a bonus based on the accuracy of the attack.
Example: The Icebolt's Attack
Going back to our example from before, let's look again our icebolt trap. If a character fails to detect it or disarm it, it fires an icebolt at the one who triggered the trap with a +6 to attack.
5 (1d10) Damage Per Challenge Level
If you need to inflict some improvised damage, 5 (1d10) damage per challenge level is a good rule of thumb. It's roughly the challenge faced by four characters so a challenge 6 is the equivalent of four level 6 characters. If this damage would affect more than one creature, reduce it to 3 (1d6) per challenge level. As mentioned before, this challenge rating isn't necessarily based on the level of the PCs but instead the level of the challenge they face.
Note, for the examples below I'm using the average of a die to determine the static damage, rounded down. Thus, 5 is the average of 1d10 but 11 is the average for 2d10 (5.5 x 2).
Example: The Icebolt's Damage
Returning to our icebolt trap example, we'll have to decide how dangerous this icebolt is and choose 6 damage per challenge level. Assuming the goblin wizard was a challenge rating of 3, the ice bolt inflicts 16 (3d10) cold damage. If this ice bolt had been placed by the lich Xathron, a challenge 16 monster, the bolt might inflict 90 (16d10) cold damage instead. The challenge rating of the villain setting up the trap gives you the idea how much damage to dish out.
20 Hit Points Per Level
If you need to improvise hit points for an object, use 20 hit points per challenge level. This doesn't match up perfectly to the hit points of monsters in the Monster Manual or the Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating chart on page 274 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, but it's close enough.
Example: Xathron's Icy Automaton
Let's say the PCs have invaded the lich Xathron's treasure vault and inside is Xathron's Icy Automaton. This isn't Xathron's best guardian, but it's pretty solid. We'll consider it a level 5 challenge.
The PCs fail to notice the Automaton's danger (failed on a DC 15 perception) and it begins to fire icebolts at random PCs (two attacks, +7 to attack, 15 damage). The PCs can't seem to get it disarmed (failed on three potential DC 15 Arcana or Athletics checks) and now they want to bash it down (AC 15, 100 hps). After inflicting 100 damage to it, the automaton falls apart.
Not Intended for Monster Building
Looking at these number ranges, you may be tempted to use them to build a monster. Instead, consider reskinning existing monsters from the Monster Manual rather than building a monster from scratch with these numbers. While you might be able to build a reasonable monster with these scores, the asymmetrical nature of the stats in the Monster Manual makes creatures much more fun to fight than a static box of perfectly aligned scores.
Deadly Encounter Benchmark: 1/2 or 1/4 of total character levels
When building combat encounters, you can skip the complicated math outlined in the Dungeon Master's Guide and instead use this simple encounter building benchmark:
First, build encounters based on what makes sense for the story and the situation. Let the story drive the number and types of monsters.
Then, if needed, check to see if the encounter may be deadly. An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one half the sum total of character levels, or one quarter of character levels if the characters are below 5th level.
This isn't perfect and lots of variable can change up how difficult a battle is but it's a good rough benchmark that, I'd argue, is as good as any of the fancier methods for benchmarking encounter difficultly found in the Dungeon Master's Guide, Xanathar's Guide, Kobold Fight Club, or any other encounter calculator.
Running Hordes of Monsters: One Quarter Succeed
Sometimes the stories of our games lead to the characters facing large hordes of monsters. Rolling tons of attacks and saving throws can suck the energy out of what would otherwise be a really exciting fight. The Dungeon Master's Guide includes rules for adjudicating a lot of attacks from a large number of monsters. So does the [Lazy DM's Workbook]Lazy DM's Workbook.
For an easier method requiring no table, we can start with a baseline assumption that when a large force of weaker monsters attacks the characters about one quarter of them hit. Likewise, when a character hits a large number of monsters with a big area-of-effect ability, about one quarter of them make their saving throw.
For example, our party of 8th level characters gets attacked by fifty skeletons. Many of the skeletons slash with swords or fire splintered recurve bows. Split the attacks evenly across the five characters so each character gets attacked ten times. Instead of doing a bunch of comparisons of attacks to AC, we can assume one quarter of them hit. If the character is particularly well armored we round down. If they're wearing lighter armor, we round up. Thus each character takes between 10 and 15 damage when attacked.
Now the cleric casts Turn Undead. We can likewise assume one quarter of the skeletons succeed on their saving throws and three quarters fail and are destroyed as a huge wave of radiant energy blasts them to dust. Now only twelve of the skeletons remain.
We can do a lot of math to figure all of this out but the result is essentially the same after we round it out.
Instead we can just remember a simple rule: when a large number of weaker monsters faces the characters, about one quarter of them succeed on attacks or saving throws..
A Quick Summary
In summary, here are some numbers to keep in your head:
- DC / AC / Save DC: 10 to 20
- Attacks, Trained Skills, Primary Saves: +3 to +12
- Single Target Damage: 6 (1d10) per Challenge Rating
- Multi-target Damage: 3 (1d6) per Challenge Rating
- Hit Points: 20 per Challenge Rating
- Building Encounters: 1/2 or 1/4 of total character levels. An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than half the sum total of character levels, or one quarter if they're below 5th level.
- Fighting a Horde of Weaker Monsters. 1/4 succeed. About one quarter of the horde succeed on attacks and saving throws.
With those numbers in mind, you have a simple toolbox for running all sorts of challenges for your D&D 5e group.
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- Understanding Surprise in D&D 5e
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A few of 5th edition D&D's rules aren't quite as simple and clear as we'd like. How surprise works is one of those. Today we're going to dig deep into surprise, how the rules are intended to work, and some ways we can make it easier to run at the table.
Rules As Written
The rules themselves describe surprise thusly:
The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.
If you're surprised, you can't move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can't take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren't.
Most of this is completely straight forward except for one part. It's that final sentence of the first paragraph. Where it says "doesn't notice a threat", is that "any" threat, or "all" threats?
Given the above description, we can almost consider "surprised" to be a condition. If you are surprised, you can't move or act on your turn and you can't take reactions until your first turn ends. But what happens if you are surprised by one creature and not another? The rules don't say but the official Sage Advice Compendium does. Here's the relevant passage from page 9.
You can be surprised even if your companions aren't, and you aren't surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.
I take this to mean that a creature isn't surprised if it detects any potential threat.
When does surprise actually come into play? We'll look at two scenarios. In one, the characters attempt to surprise a bunch of monsters. In the second, a bunch of monsters try to surprise the characters. There are tricky bits to both.
Characters Surprising Monsters
Let's say the characters find a situation in which they can try to catch a group of gnolls off-guard in the caves of the underdark. The gnolls are coming down the cave and the characters know it. The characters spend a bit of time preparing. They each roll a stealth check. Stompy the paladin rolls a predictable 6 while Darkshadow the rogue rolls a 17. The gnolls have a passive perception of 10. When they come around the corner and the rogue pulls the trigger of their crossbow, time stops and we roll for initiative.
Remember, there is no surprise round. The shot doesn't go off and get resolved before initiative is rolled. The minute any creature begins a hostile action against another creature, time stops and we roll for initiative.
When rolling for initiative the rogue gets a 19, the gnolls get a 12, Stompy the paladin gets a 7. When we compare the original stealth checks to the passive Perceptions of the gnolls, the gnolls clearly hear Stompy and clearly do not see Darkshadow. They're not surprised by Stompy and therefore are not surprised. Darkshadow still gets a shot off with advantage because the gnolls totally missed them but when their turn comes around, they can move and act. They're not surprised.
This means that the group is nearly always going to fail attempting to get surprise on their enemies because Stompy is always dragging them down. Instead, if the situation is right, we DMs might rule that instead of individual stealth checks, the characters can roll a group stealth check. See "Group Checks" in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook. While Stompy is still dragging the group down, they are likely offset by Darkshadow's high stealth check. If the majority of the group gets a stealth chech higher than the passive Perception of the gnolls, the gnolls are surprised by the whole group.
This interpretation highly favors the characters so we likely want to ensure it takes work to set it up. The characters should have a clear understanding of their enemy's position and intent, and the characters should have time to work together to hide. In the right circumstances, though, a group stealth check makes sense.
Monsters Surprising Characters
What if we switch sides, though? How does it work if the monsters are trying to ambush the characters? Let's say the gnolls know the characters are coming and they want to hide. Let's say there's sixteen gnolls. We're not about to roll 16 stealth checks. Some gnoll is going to screw it up for sure, and that makes sense. We're also not going to roll a group stealth check for 16 gnolls. Instead, we can use the passive Stealth of the gnolls. They have a passive Dexterity (Stealth) of 11. Not so great. The characters will see them if any of the characters have a passive Perception of 11 or better. However, each character has their own passive Perception. Let's say Broadchest the fighter has a passive Perception of 9; he's going to miss the gnolls and get surprised. And since Broadchest missed all of the gnolls, they're truly "surprised". They can't move or act on their turn and can't take reactions until that turn is over.
This is pretty harsh. Players hate losing actions. While it makes sense, we should use this sparingly; only when it really reinforces a key aspect of the game.
If you don't like the idea of a passive Dexterity (Stealth) check, you might roll a Dexterity (Stealth) check at disadvantage for the whole group and use that against the passive Perceptions of the characters to see who is surprised.
Your Own Rulings Apply
The above is my own interpretation of the rules as written. Many DMs have their own favorite rules they drop in for handling surprise in D&D. Some DMs use full "surprise rounds", a holdover from previous versions of D&D. Others simply let the story dictate how things go. For about five years I would give either characters or the enemies a free round of attacks if I decided one group surprised another. It was simple and worked just fine but I'd rather run the rules as written as much as I can unless I have a really good reason to avoid it.
Hopefully this article offered a better understanding of the intent of surprise in D&D. Take it and add it to your arsenal for sharing stories of high action and adventure with your friends and family.
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This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »