- ● Prepare to Unknot Worms, Flip Houses, and Escape from Black Holes at SPIEL '19previously mentioned Magic Maze: Mars as a SPIEL '19 release, but now Belgian publisher Sit Down! has revealed more of its SPIEL '19 line-up, with Wormlord from Jonathan Bittner and Andrew Cedotal perhaps appealing to the same type of player as Magic Maze given that it accommodates 2-8 players and bears a playing time of 5-10 minutes. An overview:
It has long been thought that earthworms were slow creatures with no ambition. It is not so. They dream of conquering the world but suffer from internal conflicts that prevent their great project from taking shape: the reds are convinced that it is up to them to lead the troops. Same for the blues. And the greens. Not to mention the yellows. It was therefore inevitable that they come to blows. Wormlord tells their story.
Wormlord is a game that is played simultaneously, without a turn, and consists of conquering spaces by placing knots. It is possible to repel his opponents by undoing their ropes and returning them to them. The victory condition varies from one tray setup to another, but usually it's about conquering a number of objective spaces.
House Flippers also being a real-time game experience. In the game, each sand timer represents a property generating periodic income, with players investing in decrepit properties to renovate them, sell them, then reinvest the profit. The game has four possible actions, with everyone playing simultaneously: cash in a rental, buy and renovate a new property, hire an expert in lucrative real estate, and grow your savings.
• The other Bittner/Cedotal/Sit Down! production for SPIEL '19 is Palm Reader, a party game for 4-12 players. A summary:
Palm Reader is divided into several rounds, and in each round the active player draws a card and randomly chooses one of five symbols on it. This player then draws that symbol on the palm of the person sitting to their left, while that person has their eyes closed. Go around the circle of players, receiving and tracing on palms (like Telephone). After the final player has received the tracing, reveal the card, then have all players vote on what they believe the starting symbol was. You receive as many victory points as the number of players in a row who successfully guess the symbol.
Once everybody has been the active player once, the player scoring the most VPs wins.
Tony Boydell of Surprised Stare Games has announced a fascinating-sounding (and -looking) release for SPIEL '19 in partnership with Frosted Games, with this game also providing a real-time playing experience. Three games in one post makes this a trend, right?
Here's a rundown of the solitaire game Lux Aeterna, which bears a playing time of 6-12 minutes:
Your ship has sustained massive damage, is falling apart around you, and is drifting toward the ultimate catastrophe, a black hole. You are alone.
Your challenge in Lux Aeterna is to draw and play all of the cards in the main deck, one turn after another, without the spaceship collapsing completely or falling into the black hole. Cards have multiple functions; you will assign drawn cards to one each of these functions each turn:
—As damage to a system (with six systems available to you);
—As an action to help stay alive/fix the ship; or,
—As movement toward the black hole.
If a ship's system collapses, the game will get harder for you; if you should repair a system, then you just might avoid the ultimate doom.
Events (called "glitches") can be seeded into the main deck to make things even more difficult, as will reducing the real time that you have to play: 12 minutes -> 10 minutes -> 8 minutes, etc.
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- VideoGame Overview: Bloom, or Fling Flowers Flagrantly to Flaunt Your FloricultureBloom from Wouter van Strien and Gamewright, with this same game design being published with different graphics and slightly different rules in Poland in 2018 under the name Bukiet from Nasza Księgarnia.
In theory, you're trying to deliver flowers to as many customers as possible in Bloom, but in practice you don't care about satisfying the customers as much as getting rid of flowers as quickly as possible, whether or not the customer gets the flower they hoped to bring home. Your business comes first!
Players draft dice each round to remove flowers from their individual player sheet, with the game including sheets in five different designs so that everyone starts from a different layout. You're rewarded for being the first (or second or third) to rid yourself of a particular color of flower — good for your marketing efforts, I suppose — and you also want to empty out flowerbeds (which contain multiple colors of flowers) so that you can plant them anew, although that's an outside-the-game activity that serves only to explain why you'd be rewarded for doing something in-game.
Bloom also contains solitaire rules that function somewhat like the multiplayer rules, although you'll likely miss the "ha ha, you really wanted this die, didn't you?" moments of the regular game.
Youtube Video Read more »
- VideoTal der Wikinger Wins the 2019 Kinderspiel des Jahres!Tal der Wikinger from designers Marie and Wilfried Fort and publisher HABA has won the 2019 Kinderspiel des Jahres, Germany's children's game of the year award!
In the game, which will be released in North America under the name Valley of the Vikings by HABA USA before the end of 2019, players try to collect as many coins as possible through a game of "viking bowling". Each player starts the game with a coin in their viking boat and sits near one of the launching sites. All four colored barrels are placed in their starting positions on the game board no matter how many players are in the game.
On a turn, a player places the giant barrel ball on their launching site, then swings the cardboard viking figure to launch it toward the barrels. Whichever barrel colors are knocked over have their matching tokens moved on the placement track at the top of the board, with the active player determining the order in which tokens are moved. This matters since tokens jump over occupied spaces on the track.
The next player sets up the toppled barrels in whichever spaces they wish, then they take their turn.
When a colored token moves off the end of the placement track, falling into the water, a scoring occurs, with players gaining 1-4 coins from the bank if their token sits on the track next to one of the flags that shows coins. If a colored token is next to a flag that depicts a token of a different color, then the first player steals a coin from the second player; if a colored token is next to a flag depicting its own color, then that player steals a coin from each other player.
As with the barrels, all four colored tokens are used no matter the player count so that you have coins to steal from other boats, so that players can leapfrog tokens in ways beneficial to them, and so that coins get removed from the bank as the game ends only once the bank is empty. Whoever collects the most coins wins.
HABA plans to copies of Tal der Wikinger for sale and demo at Gen Con 2019, with the German edition of the game including English rules. To see how the game works in a more visual manner, check out this overview video recorded at Origins Game Fair 2019:
Youtube Video Read more »
- VideoGame Preview: Jaws, or Please Stop Boat-Shaming, Quint!
Alternatively, you can get your fill of sharky fun with JAWS, which debuts on the shelves of the Target retail chain on Sunday, June 23, 2019. As with 2018's Villainous and Jurassic Park: Danger! Adventure Strategy Game, JAWS is being brought to market by Prospero Hall (the pseudonym of Forrest-Pruzan Creative) and Ravensburger.
In this 2-4 player game, one player takes on the role of the shark, while the 1-3 other players represent Brody, Hooper, and Quint, with all of the humans being part of the game no matter how many players you have. The complete game is played out over two acts, with Act 1 taking place on Amity Island, with the shark trying to eat as many people as possible before the humans can impale it with two barrels. The more the shark eats, the more abilities it has in Act 2 and the less gear the human crew has available to itself for the final face-off on the Orca. If the humans can deal 18 damage to the shark before it either kills all the humans or completely destroys the boat, they win.
At least for now. You know the sequels are inevitable, right? I can't wait to make psychic attacks against Michael Caine!
Youtube Video Read more »
- Take Another Ride on the Underground and Through the Hexes of SpaceLudiCreations has announced that it will release a new version of Sebastian Bleasdale's On the Underground in 2019, with the game featuring new art and graphic design (as one might expect of a thirteen-year-old title) as well as deluxe components and a new playable map of Berlin. The box has two faces, as shown above, with the iconography of the London Underground and Berlin's U-Bahn subtly worked into the game logos.
On the Underground is a rail-building and passenger-moving game that first appeared in 2006 from JKLM Games and Rio Grande Games, and the newly titled On the Underground: London/Berlin features the same gameplay, with some modifications to a London map and other small changes.
On a turn, you can take up to four actions, with those actions being building track or taking branch tokens. Each player has 2-4 colors of track depending on the player count, and normally you can extend a colored line only at the endpoints; if you spend two branch tokens, you can branch off an existing line. After you build, a passenger token moves to one or two stations following particular movement rules, scoring points for those who own the tracks upon which it moves. You know which stations are in play at the start of your turn, so to score points you're both building for those immediate passenger points and trying to connect to particular stations or build loops
Klaus Teuber's The Starfarers of Catan, a giant space-based take on (what was then called) The Settlers of Catan that was as famous for its rocket-shaped randomizer as it was for the tendency of parts of that rocket to break off.
In Q4 2019, for the twentieth anniversary of The Starfarers of Catan, German publisher KOSMOS and the U.S.-based Catan Studio will release Catan: Starfarers. This new edition of the game features completely revised graphics and game materials — complete with redesigned mothership pieces! — revised rules, and a variable game board that brings even more variety to your spacefaring expeditions. Catan Studio plans to demo Catan: Starfarers at Gen Con 2019 in August ahead of the game's Q4 2019 release date.
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- Game Preview from Origins 2019: Letter Jam, or Piecing Your Words Together One Clue at a Time
I was presented with this situation recently in Letter Jam, a co-operative word deduction game from newcomer Ondra Skoupý and publisher Czech Games Edition. I played Letter Jam twice in near-final prototype form at Origins Game Fair 2019, was offered a mock-up copy from that fair for further playing, played twice more on Sunday night after packing up the BGG booth and having dinner, then played twice more since I returned home.
Like Codenames, the 2015 deduction game that propelled CGE into the party game market, Letter Jam inspires cleverness in both the clue giver and the clue receiver. You're presented with an unusual situation — a situation similar to what you'll see in other playings of this game, but a situation unique to these particular circumstances — and you must create a clue that takes advantage of that situation as best as possible.
Each player in Letter Jam is trying to guess the letters spread face down before them in order to guess the word they were given at the start of the game. Only one letter a time is visible from each word, and these letters are visible to everyone other than the person who "owns" the letter.
In more detail, at the start of play, each player places their leftmost letter in a stand facing everyone else, with dummy letters added to the table so that six letters are visible no matter the number of players. An asterisk representing the joker is placed in the middle of the table. All players think of clues that use letters owned by other players, letters owned by dummy players, and the joker, then they say how long their clue word is, how many players' letters are used (but not which players and how often those letters are used), how many dummy players' letters are used, and whether the joker is used. Anyone can throw out clue parameters, then players debate whose clue they should use.
So what ten-letter clue did I give in the picture below that used all the available letters and the joker?
Note that you don't say your clue word. Instead, you spell out the word letter by letter by placing numbered tokens next to the letter or joker being used. This means I placed the 1 by "M", the 2 by "I", the 3 and 4 by the joker, and so on. (The mock-up game that I have includes only tokens numbered 1-8, so I just pointed at the letters while saying "Nine" and "Ten".)
Each player whose letter was used — all of them in this four-player game — writes down all that they know from what they see, so the player with an "M" would write _I**I_ETER on their personal note sheet, while the player with the "R" would write MI**IMETE_. Ideally you can give a clue that allows each other player to determine with certainty what their letter is. If they do, they put their letter face down on the table — without looking at it! — then place the next letter in their letter row in their stand; if they aren't confident about what the letter is, they might write a few guesses next to the clue word so that they can better narrow down their choices with the next clue they receive.
By the final round of the game, ideally you know all your letters and can anagram them into a word. (If you guess your letters before game's end, you have a chance of earning bonus letters.) You don't necessarily have to create the same word that you were given; if you receive the letters ABDER, for example, you can spell three different words, and any one of them counts for the victory condition. If you goof up on something, as with my notes below in which I recorded GASN, then realized that I couldn't possibly create a word with the fifth letter, you can claim the joker or a bonus letter from the center of the table and overlay one of your letters so that you can form a word.
Letter Jam is a phenomenally smart design. As with Codenames and to some degree Decrypto, you need to give clues to your fellow players that work on multiple layers. Longer words tend to be better for clues because they'll give players more to work with, but sometimes you just can't make it happen! If you're staring at five consonants like F, M, C, G, and W, you could use the joker to clue two people in with the word MIMIC, but you might be better off hoping that someone else can step with a clue of their own.
The more often you give clues, though, the less you learn about your own letters, so you need everyone to participate. You want to use as many player letters as possible, but of equal importance is giving them a clue distinctive enough that people can make a leap, then move on to their next letter. (In a six-player game, I gave a clue of LACTATE that let all five of my teammates guess their letter, and I felt like cheering.) This keeps everyone moving toward victory, but it also just gives players a different assortment of letters each round. In my six games, the worst experience has been getting a couple of short clues that told no one anything and left us staring at the same letters as before.
You're also incentivized to use the dummy player letters, should have fewer than six players, because if you use all of the letters stacked before a dummy, you receive an additional clue token that gives all players one more round in which to deduce what they have.
To make one more comparison with Codenames, Letter Jam is highly group dependent. I played a game with my ten-year-old son, for example, so the three adults at the table had to pitch their clues toward his age range. During a demo game at Origins, I realized after giving a clue of SUFFERS that I could have given the more detailed clue (sans joker for the R) of SUFFUSES, but a couple of players were having trouble figuring things out — not deducing their letter from the clue of _CON_C, for example — so a clue of SUFFUSES probably would have been as useless as my clue of SUFFERS. So much suffering in that game...
In another demo game at Origins, I hit upon the perfect clue for my four teammates, but I could not possibly give that clue as it was a word I would have used only among people I know extremely well. So be it. Better to lose the game than create a bad reputation for you and your employer — and in the end we all deduced our words anyway.
While Letter Jam shares many traits with Codenames, it's not comparable in ease of play. Each player has to know what they're doing, and if someone can't figure out a letter or two, then all you can do is throw more clues at them or try to race through your own letters so that you can pile bonus letters onto the table that they can use at game's end. If a player can't come up with a clue longer than four letters, at some point you shrug and say go ahead because you need everyone to give a clue in order to unlock a bonus clue round — and maybe that four-letter word will help more than you think. AMOK would be a wonderful clue, for example, as long as it doesn't include a joker because everyone should be able to figure out their letter from seeing _MOK, A_OK, AM_K, or AMO_, right? That's the hope anyway...
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- Steph's Photo Guide to Origins 2019!
by Steph HodgeOrigins Game Fair 2019
A Photo Guide by Steph Hodge
[ImageID=4801690 medium rep]
BGG team plays some Jaws
At the BGG booth!
i]Editor's note: We corrected the name to "Le Havre" before Origins opened. —WEM[/i
Era: Medieval Age
Roll Player: Fiends & Familiars
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Board Game
The Crusoe Crew
Hot Games at Origins!
Heroes of Land, Air & Sea
Bunny Kingdom: In the Sky
Lanterns Dice: Lights in the Sky
Pandemic: Rapid Response
Subtext & Second Chance
Egizia: Shifting Sands
Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle – Defence Against the Dark Arts
The Isle of Cats
The Artemis Project
Endeavor: Age of Expansion
Detective: City of Angels
Roll for Adventure
Abomination: The Heir of Frankenstein
Periodic: A Game of The Elements
Skull Tales: Full Sail!
Court of the Dead: Mourners Call
Masters of Renaissance: Lorenzo Il Magnifico – The Card Game
Mystery House: Adventures in a Box
Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale
Die Hard: The Nakatomi Heist Board Game
Ishtar: Gardens of Babylon
Zombie Kidz Evolution
The Refuge: Terror from the Deep
Run Fight or Die: Reloaded
Inuit: The Snow Folk & Dust in the Wings
The Alwaysgreen Garden
City of the Big Shoulders
Overlords of Infamy
Bite Your Tongue
Game of Thrones: Oathbreaker
Kanagawa & Kanagawa: Yokai
The Grimm Masquerade
Epic Monster Tea Party
Get Off My Land!
Carroll County Cake Swap
Meeple Realty Inserts!
Other sightings at Origins
Merchant of Venus
Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal
King of Tokyo
Thomas didn't want to smile for me. Always a tough one.
Gate Keeper Games
Thanks for joining me!
-Steph Read more »
- VideoGame Preview: Black Angel, or Technicolor Trials in a Not-Too-Distant Futurepreviewed Ishtar and Caravan, both of which will be available for purchase at Gen Con 2019, and I wrote up Copenhagen: Roll and Write, which will be available for demo at Gen Con 2019 ahead of a SPIEL '19 release. (I initially thought C:RAW would be a Gen Con 2019 release, but a game being "available" at a show means different things for different people. Lesson re-learned.)
With BGG's Gen Con 2019 Preview now live, it's time to kick off the previews for that show in a larger way — and you're not likely to find a larger game debuting at Gen Con 2019 than Pearl Games' Black Angel from the design team of Sébastien Dujardin, Xavier Georges, and Alain Orban. This game has been in the works for more than six years and was on many "most anticipated" lists for 2017 and 2018 when the game seemed to be nearing completion, so when Dujardin offered me a preview copy at Spielwarenmesse in February 2019, I couldn't pass up the chance to try it out.
I've now played Black Angel six times and had my head broken more than that many times when I discovered that my plans had gone awry, whether due to an opponent taking the die or space that I needed, or the Black Angel traveling through space on the game board, or my poorly calculated efforts as to what I needed to do to make something happen.
You take lots of microturns in Black Angel, but they're not microturns in the sense of Splendor because those microturns compound on one another in complex ways. You often have immediate goals — getting robots, removing debris, taking a certain colored action so that you acquire a mission card of that color so that you can use that card to activate specific technology on the subsequent turn — but layered on top of those are more long-term goals, with you establishing a mission on one turn that you likely won't use for at least ten more turns, at least not if you want to maximize your points from activating that mission.
You're somewhat at the mercy of the die rolls, yet not really given the vast number of rolls you and other players take in the game. You can purchase — well, conduct a forced sale of — an opponent's die to get the thing you need, but they can do the same to you, of course, possibly leaving you to scramble for a back-up plan, then another, then another. You can adjust the value of your own dice, but only if you have the material on hand to do so. You need to be flexible in your plans, but you do need plans in the first place in order to keep yourself from merely jumping from one rock to another only to find themselves disappearing beneath you.
Black Angel isn't hard to learn. Each individual action is easy to understand, but the ramifications of those actions — why you'd want to do them in this order at these times in those locations — isn't. Each action often has long-term consequences that you don't realize until later, or rather until it's too late. Even after six games, I feel like I'm just getting a handle on how to play well as opposed to just doing stuff on my turns.
This overview video is far longer than anything else I've done, but that's because the game itself is quite involved and because I've played the game enough to feel that I have some grip on it and can talk about it in a meaningful way. I trimmed many bits of my presentation to remove duplication and keep it of somewhat reasonable length, including a brief aside about Troyes, the first publication from Pearl Games from this same trio of designers. The dice-selection and action-choosing mechanism at the heart of Black Angel is reminiscent of Troyes, according to folks with whom I've played, but I've never played Troyes, so I can't compare the games. I had a toddler when Troyes debuted at SPIEL '10, and that's the only SPIEL I've missed since 2006. I missed out on a lot of games over the first few years of my son's life, and given the number of games being released each year, I never caught up on all of them. C'est la vie!
Youtube Video Read more »
- VideoHorrible Deals for Luma and HeidelBÄR GamesHorrible Games has announced two new partnerships, with North American-based Luma Games now having exclusive English-language distribution rights for the Horrible Games catalog.
This partnership will begin with the distribution of The King's Dilemma and Similo: Fables, with these titles being available for demo at Gen Con 2019 in August ahead of a Q4 2019 retail release.
For those not familiar with the games, The King's Dilemma from Lorenzo Silva and Hjalmar Hach is a legacy-style game with long-term narrative elements. In more detail:
The King's Dilemma features several branching storylines leading to many possible finales and an evolving deck of event cards at its core. Players represent the various houses leading the government of the Kingdom of Ankist.
You will draw one card from the "Dilemma deck" each round and experience the game story as it unfolds. Each card poses a problem that the Council has to resolve on the King's behalf. As members of the King's inner circle, your decisions determine how the story proceeds and the fate of the kingdom. Each event happens only once: You discuss and bargain with the other players, then finally you make a choice, determining the outcome, progressing the game story, and possibly unlocking more events.
You have to keep the kingdom going, while also seeking an advantage for your own house; this power struggle may lead the kingdom into war, famine, or riot, or it could generate wealth and well-being. This will depend on your choices! The thing is, each decision has consequences, and what is good for the kingdom as a whole may be bad for your family...
Will you act for the greater good, or will you think only for yourself?
BGG recorded an overview of the game at Spielwarenmesse 2019 that shouldn't spoil anything for you, and Jules Vautour, CEO of Luma Games, says that it's working with Horrible to develop a dilemma scenario for use at conventions that conveys the nature of the game without jumping people through the first chapter.
Martino Chiacchiera, Hjalmar Hach, and Pierluca Zizzi that includes a deck of thirty cards. Your goal is to make the other players guess one secret character (out of the twelve characters on display in the middle of the table) by playing other character cards from your hand as clues, stating whether they are similar to or different from the secret character. After each turn, the other players must remove one or more characters from the table until only the right one remains and you win — or it is removed and you lose!
In a press release announcing the deal, Vautour, who used to work for CMON Limited, Horrible's previous English-language publishing partner for titles like Potion Explosion, Dragon Castle, and Railroad Ink, said, "I've had a strong relationship with Horrible Games for many years. They are making excellent, innovative games, and it is humbling to be entrusted with their brand going forward." Luma plans to make reprints of these older titles available once they sell through those earlier editions.
A similar deal was announced between Horrible Games and German publisher HeidelBÄR Games, with HeidelBÄR taking over "the localization, marketing and press support of new releases of Horrible Games for Germany". These titles will be distributed by Heidelberger Spieleverlag in Germany, with Heidelberger having reorganized as an independent distributor in April 2019 following its purchase by Asmodee at the start of 2017. Read more »
- BGG's Gen Con 2019 Preview Is Now Live!
As for your plans for Gen Con 2019, well, maybe you've already been prepping as well, but to help you out in those plans — or to give you an initiating boot — I've now published BGG's Gen Con 2019 Preview, which is launching with 170+ titles and which will undoubtedly surpass the 625 titles on our Gen Con 2018 Preview given the general trends of the industry these days as well as the number of publishers who are scheduled to appear at Gen Con for the first time.
With that in mind, if you are a publisher or designer who will have a new game for sale at Gen Con 2019 or who will be demoing a game that's scheduled for release within the next twelve months, and you haven't yet received an RFI letter from me asking for details of your offerings, please email me or Geekmail me, and I'll send that letter to you. Don't wait too long because Gen Con 2019 will be here before you know it! Read more »
- ● Reilar offroad car - ReissuePublisher: Tomoko's Paper Miniatures
3D paper models and 2D paper miniatures 28 mm for low Sci-Fi wargames. This set includes:
1. Reilar (Army version) - Three removable modules - placeholder, machine-gun, machinegun with gunner
2. Reilar (Androids version) - Three removable modules - placeholder, machine-gun, machinegun with gunner
2. Reilar (Gaulada Brotherhood Corps version) - Lianra sold a certain amount of obsolete reilars to barbarian allies. Three removable modules - placeholder, machine-gun, machinegun with gunner
3. Reilar 2D miniatures - 8 miniatures. "Lazy" version
Price: $4.00 Read more »
- ● In the Company of ThievesPublisher: Aegis Studios
A Gritty OSR Fantasy Setting by Travis Legge
The mortal lands are divided. A dozen kingdoms lie scattered across the world, separated by dangerous wilds filled with bandits and monsters. The bravest mortals act as adventurers, guiding travelers between the kingdoms, killing monsters to thin their numbers, and plundering ruins in search of the lost treasures of the golden age. This is the world of Odysseys & Overlords!
AN ADVENTURE by Aaron Lopez
FOR Odysseys & Overlords
SUITABLE FOR 4-6 CHARACTERS OF 2ND – 3RD LEVEL
Outside the city of Luminere lies the town of Crescent Falls, a medium-sized village of 500 residents. Crescent Falls has been relatively quiet until recently. Several rural farmsteads have had their entire family go missing leaving local authorities stymied. The small garrison of the town is already overloaded as most of the soldiers and town guard has been called to aid with a harvest festival in Luminere. The town watch only has three members left to keep the peace, so they have called on assistance from adventurers to get to the bottom of the mystery.
For those of you who wish to assume the role of the Game Master, the Odysseys & Overlords Game Master's Guide is available at https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/275040/Odysseys--Overlords-Game-Masters-Guide
For more Odysseys & Overlords visit our store page, and you can get the PATREON EXCLUSIVE adventure Cavern of the Cromags NOW by supporting Travis Legge on Patreon for as little as $1/month!Price: $1.00 Read more »
- ● Seafoot Games - Bandits Hideout | 20x30 BattlemapPublisher: Seafoot Games
Torches flicker among the dry and dusty dungeon ruins that these bandits call home. Crates and barrels and filled with stores of stolen goods and a small arena stands as a central proving ground for new recruits.
A gathering hall with feasting tables and twin braziers roars with laughter and light as the bandit lord sits atop his bone laden throne, planning his next move…What You Will ReceiveA home-printable 20x30 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.
Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A1 poster printing or VTT.
72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.
Want more bang for your buck? Come support us on Patreon, and get five or more maps for as little as $4.00 every month.
Or, follow us on Facebook to recieve updates about new maps, adventures, and giveaways!
If you enjoyed any of our content, please leave a review below—or tell us what you’d like to see in the comments!Price: $0.00 Read more »
- ● Massive Map Tile Set: Starships & Stations Corridors and BaysPublisher: Gamer Printshop
Massive Map Tile Set: Starships & Stations Corridors and Bays
This is our first massive map tile set: 36 double-side printed, full color map tiles sets for 72 individual tiles allowing you to custom build any starship (small to colossal), space station, planetary fortified structure.
- 8 straight corridors in various designs, including 2 level designs
- 8 4-way intersection tiles in various designs
- 8 left-turn/right-turn "L" corridors
- 8 3-way intersection tiles in various designs
- 4 deep shaft corridors
36 assorted bays, including: sick bay, galley, bridges, engine rooms, computer bays, crew quarters, cargo holds, weapons bays, and more.Price: $24.99 Read more »
This tile set should fit any generic starship or space station location from small to colossal using geomorphic tiles.
- ● IRONCLAW: Book of MonstersPublisher: Sanguine Productions
From the darkest of the hillside thickets to the strangest of the blasted heaths come the monsters! Enfraughten your Ironclaw game with peril!
Book of Monsters adds:
- Dozens of new monsters, all rated and organized by name (alphabetical, of course) and tier (of deadliness)
- Environmental hazards, from the merely odd to the decidedly dangerous
- New equipment made out of monsters
- An introductory adventure
- ● Two Pillar Cavern Tile (Diagonal) for FDGPublisher: Fat Dragon Games
A requested piece that was not part of the starter caverns set from FDG
This product was created under license. Dragonbite Community Creator, Dragonlock, and Dragonbite 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 Wesley Chambers Black Flag Forge and published under the Community Content Agreement for Dragonbite Community Creator.Price: $0.00 Read more »
- ● 60+ Plant Monster TokensPublisher: Czepeku
60+ beautifully illustrated plant monster tokens with extra colour variations.
Designed for use with VTTs like Roll20, FantasyGrounds and Astral Tabletop. Each file is a 280x280 PNG.
This pack is ideal for one shots or campaigns set in woods, fields, marshes, swamps and bogs. Sending your party out on their first adventure? This is the pack for you.Price: $4.99 Read more »
- ● Good Society Review
Every so often, when watching made for television movies, certain character names will pop up, and it becomes obvious that the creative team is attempting to make their version of a Jane Austin story. My wife, daughter, and I have turned this into a game, where we guess what is coming next, and end up rating the moving on how well it actually seemed to be a retelling of a Jane Austen story, versus someone that liked recycling names for their film.
If you have ever played this game while watching made for television movies, take heart! There is no reason to play that game, when there already is a Jane Austen RPG available. Today, we’re going to look at Good Society — A Jane Austen RPG.
The Place Setting
This review is based on the PDF version of the product, which is 280 pages. This includes a three-page glossary and a three-page index. There are page references that exist as sidebars to the main text, as well as various illustrations and flourishes that recall Regency era decorations. One thing especially noteworthy in the artwork — while the art portrays many different Regency era scenes, from dances to picnics, the characters depicted are much more diverse than you might see in most film adaptations of Austen’s work.
The book contains several images showing the cards that can be used with the game. It is possible to play the game just using the rulebook, but generating some of the elements that come from the cards takes a bit more setup time, and if I get this game to the table, I’m definitely investing in the physical decks.
The cards are included as print and play PDFs with the PDF purchase of the game. There are printer friendly versions that are mainly text, and more artistically rendered versions. The characters that appear on the connection cards are as diverse as the characters seen in the various scenes in the rulebook.
Chapter One: Overview
Much of the information about the game as a whole is contained in this opening chapter. In addition to discussing the concept of collaborative storytelling, this chapter also explains the roles of people participating, including the differences between the players and the facilitator.
The game can be played without a facilitator, and while that is touched on in this chapter, there are more guidelines for this style of play later in the book. It is probably fair to say that the facilitator is less like a game moderator for some games, and more like someone that is performing part of the role that the players perform in order to be free to play extra characters and help keep the game on track.
The game has the following cycle of play:
- Novel Chapter
- Rumor and Scandal
- Novel Chapter
The characters primarily portray Major Characters, and those characters have a Character Role Sheet. If you have seen a game like Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark, the concept is similar, although there aren’t any statistics used to determine success or failure. Instead, the Character Role Sheet explains what defines the character, sets up a list of actions to track for a character’s Inner Conflict, and has a list of actions to check in the Reputation phase to see if a character has gained a positive or negative aspect to their reputation.
Characters have connections, which are played by other characters. They give out relationship cards, which define the connection between two of the player characters, and they have a secret desire, which may be kept secret from the table, although the only requirement in the game is that it is a secret from the other characters to start.
Each character has a number of resolve tokens, including characters connected to the Major Characters, which can be spent to accomplish something they want to have happen. In addition to the resolve tokens, each player has a Monologue token, which they can play on another player to have them explain their inner monologue about a current scene.
There are tips for what aspects of the game to emphasize for shorter games versus longer games, as well as some information on what might be helpful for an online game versus an in-person game.
Chapter 2: Collaboration
There is an entire section on how the group should work together to establish tone, the degree of historical accuracy, gender roles, hidden information, and topics to avoid. This section also encourages the use of an active safety tool at the table, such as the X-Card.
Collaboration is especially important, as some of the rules involving negotiation and the Playsets require players to be able to agree on moving the narrative forward. This section also mentions that race was not a major factor in Austen’s work, but gender issues are, and that the party needs to be clear on how they are going to handle this.
I’d argue that any people of Roma ancestry might take exception to the concept that Austen’s work was without racial component, given the scene in Emma where they are used as a threat to be run off by Frank Churchill, but I understand the concept that a deep exploration of race and ethnicity in Regency England isn’t what this game is designed to explore.
If you have read enough of my reviews, you know I appreciate when a rulebook will just explain things like tone, and speak frankly about safety, so I appreciate this section.
Chapter 3: Backstory
Backstory goes into more detail on the process of setting up the Major Characters. The first step towards this is selecting a Playset, which is detailed later in the book. This is important because the various Playsets determine what Character Roles are available for play, as well as establishing what kind of story is going to be explored.
The process for setting up the game and the characters is as follows:
- Set up your playset
- Choose desires
- Form relationships
- Choose roles and backgrounds
- Flesh out the major characters
It is interesting to note that you will be picking your desire and establishing relationships before picking the Character Roles and Family Backgrounds. That says a lot of the importance of desires and relationships, versus other details.
Desires sometimes have a public element, and sometimes modify your mandatory relationships, as well as instructing you to share something that is public information. Relationships define one player as the giver and one as the taker, and explain how each of those roles is expressed in the relationship.
Because of all of this, the chapter stresses that this process should be collaborative. Given that some relationships or desires might call for potential romances to be played out, or other emotional connections, like familial bonds, it’s important that everyone agrees that they want those elements in the game.
Characters create connections, which are affiliated characters other than the Major Characters. While they are not Major Characters, they each get their own pool of resolve tokens. The book stresses that these characters exist to be tools of the Major Characters, or to be foils. They aren’t spending these tokens to become the focus of the narrative.
Chapter Three: Rules of Play
This chapter goes into more detail on exactly how the resolve tokens work, how reputation is established and used, how inner conflict works (and when it should be used), inner monologues, and how connections should be used.
Resolve tokens are used to shape the story in the direction that the character using that token wishes it to go. There are some guidelines for what requires a token to be used and what doesn’t. Taking general actions that don’t conflict with anyone else, and don’t change the current narrative are just things that you establish when the scene plays out.
Getting private time with a love interest, or learning information about a rival, however, is a major development. If the narrative element you want to introduce into the story affects another character, you have to negotiate with them. Instead of just spending the token, the player pays the other character the token if they accept it. They may refuse, and the new element isn’t introduced into the story, or they may negotiate, and ask for additional narrative elements to happen as well as what the first player wants.
In the Reputation phase, characters may get positive or negative tags based on what has happened in the story and their Character Roles. These tags can be spent by others like resolve tokens if the reputation has something to do with what the character wants to accomplish. If a character gets enough reputation tags, they get a reputation condition, which is in effect until they fall below their tag threshold.
The conditions are story elements that vary based on Character Role, but might include things like being barred from visiting a certain estate, or having an especially strong bond with one of your connections.
Inner Conflicts are noted as being used in games that will be running for multiple cycles. After the first cycle, the character determines their inner conflict, and checks off boxes beneath it when reflecting on their actions. This allows them to gain more resolve tokens, and if a character fully resolves their inner conflict, they can take an Expanded Backstory Action, which is explained in the Cycles of Play section.
The chapter wraps up with the importance of the Monologue Token, which must be played in the Upkeep phase if it was not played before, and the role of Connections, reiterating that they are to be complications or tools, not the primary focus of the narrative.
I am increasingly a fan of narrative currency in games, and I am very interested to see a game based entirely on narrative currency. I know this isn’t the first RPG that has done it, but I particularly like how the economies work, and how tags can be converted.
Chapter Five: Cycles of Play
Cycles of Play revisits the concept introduced earlier in the Overview section, and gives more details on how each section of the cycle works, and how the rules might be modified depending on how many cycles you plan on playing. It also gives the players some ideas on how to place their game, and what each cycle should be about based on how many cycles the game will go on.
Following the steps, characters will determine what they want to see happen in the chapter, determine what type of chapter it will be, and generally outline the chapter before they start play. Example structures include events, visitations, or split scenes.
Events revolve around big social happenings, while visitations involve characters meeting in smaller groups, and split scenes involve a novel chapter where characters start in different types of scenes that are occurring at the same time. There is a comprehensive list of suitable events in case players have a hard time coming up with a suitable idea.
The Reputation phase is where the character looks at what they have done and what the criteria on their Character Role sheet says, and adds tags as indicated. The Rumor and Scandal phase is where players make up rumors, or chose to spread a rumor. A rumor that is spread has it’s own resolve token that can be spent when it makes sense, instead of using a player token, but a rumor that isn’t spread by the next rumor phase doesn’t have any traction.
In upkeep, characters determine if they are keeping their desires or if the desire has been played out, and the various currencies may refresh at this time as well.
I like clearly defined structure in games like this, but my favorite aspect of this is probably the Rumor and Scandal phase. It is a way to keep the world moving outside of the individual scenes, but the rumors aren’t necessarily started or spread by the characters, it is just the players adding their narrative input into what rumors and scandals they want in the game. It is a strong rule to pull players from the character level view of the story to the meta-level, and give them mechanical input into the world development.
Chapter Six: Facilitator
This section lays out the responsibilities of the facilitator, and makes it clear that while you have some ability to play connections and drive the narrative with your own resolve tokens, you are much less of a storyteller in this game than in others.
Not unlike Apocalypse World-derived games, there are principles for the facilitator, and several lists of questions to refer to whenever the facilitator might want to help flesh out a scene or come up with more ideas for the ideal amount of detail.
Advice is also laid out for first sessions, longer games, and short games with less than three cycles. There are tips on games with fewer players where the facilitator might play a major character as well, as well as some rules changes for games that may be run without a facilitator.
Chapter Seven: Playsets
Playsets define the style of story that will be used, and give more precise indications of what exact desires, relationships, roles, and family should be used in the game. For each playset, there is a different list based on the number of players, ranging from three to five, and they include an extra set as a spare, in case players want a little more choice.
The playsets are divided into two groups.
- Romantic Comedy
- Romance and Love
- Scandal and Reputation
- Rivalry and Revenge
- Family Matters
- Wealth and Fortune
The chapter provides some details on what kinds of stories might develop from the different playsets, and also calls out when it might be suitable to use a given playset. For example, the Farce is noted as being a good playset for games with less than three cycles, new players, or groups that have a hard time maintaining a dramatic tone.
For some of the playsets, there is an event that is assumed to happen after a set number of cycles to change the direction of the story, such as the death of a family member. There are also guides for what playsets have older or younger characters, or a mix of generations, and how that affects the story.
Chapter Eight: Roleplaying in Jane Austen’s World, and Chapter Nine: Characters
Roleplaying in Jane Austen’s World gives several major themes of the stories, as well as some of the items that players should be aware of their characters knowing about the setting.
The Characters chapter breaks down each of the Character Roles, giving examples of characters from Austen’s novels that inspired the role, explains some key concepts associated with the role, and delves into what kind of connections they would have, and how they would view those connections.
Chapter Ten: Knowing Austen
This chapter is a crash course on Austen’s broad themes and setting for players that may be interested in the game, but unfamiliar with Austen’s work. It delves into where the characters live, what they do, what level of formality accompanies different events, and then moves into the more narrative aspects of Austen’s work.
Tropes and plot twists are laid out, so that players will know what kinds of surprises and scandals they should be playing towards.
There could have been no two hearts so open, no tastes so similar, no feelings so in unisonThe tools for playing out dramatic scenes are so strong that I think a lot of roleplayers would benefit from at least understanding the flow of the game and how it does what it does.
This game has so many tools to prompt a player to be proactive and shape the narrative, as well as to tools to guide the player to a logical set of actions to take. Because there aren’t randomizers in the game, the narrative currency is important, and the flow of currency between characters is a powerful tool to keep shifting the spotlight around the table. The formal structure of play gives players the ability to zoom out from their character and add in the overall details to make the world more textured, and the Rumor and Scandal phase just feels like it would be so much fun to work with.
None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives
If you aren’t the type of player that likes to use ancillary objects, playing without the cards seems like it would make the flow of the game a little less smooth. Even with the tools provided, some players may not like the high degree to which they are driving the narrative, or the idea that they are using a randomizer to determine success, but spending a resource that they may want to save for later. The specific setting may not be to everyone’s tastes, even if they would be interested in exploring a more drama based roleplaying game.
Strongly Recommended — This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.
I know not everyone is going to like a more drama focused RPG, and not everyone is going to be a fan of the setting, but the tools for playing out dramatic scenes are so strong that I think a lot of roleplayers would benefit from at least understanding the flow of the game and how it does what it does. I think the game has a contagious enthusiasm and energy about it.
While the materials provided aren’t completely open, any setting where you have a wealthy class of people interacting with one another, where visitations and events are the norm, can probably be simulated rather easily. I’ve already got ideas for playing out a Downton Abbey style game, as well as doing a “behind the scenes” drama using the various noble houses of Waterdeep.
What genres that are more dramatic than action oriented would you like to see represented in roleplaying games? What games exist already that allow you to play out those dramas? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- The Player’s Take
You’re new to Dungeons and Dragons, and like me, watch a lot of Critical Role (and other streaming roleplaying games) on Twitch and YouTube. The story is compelling. The comradery at the table is obvious and comforting. This is something you want to experience.
You asked around and finally have been invited to play at your first table. This will be your first real D&D game. You’re nervous and feeling a lot of anxiety, but also excitement. How do you, the new player, make the most of your seat at the table to experience what you feel when watching Critical Role?
Rich characters, player bonds and friendship, and first-rate table etiquette propel the narrative in the Critical Role campaign. As new players and old, we all want to find the same level of emotional meaning in our own games. We can explore the emotional impact of Critical Role and other streaming games to help us reach such lofty goals all the while managing expectations when we realize we’re not all Liam O’Brien.
So, where do we start?
It’s important to acknowledge what makes us happy. As fans, what we find most enjoyable from our favorite streaming show varies from person to person. We leave our Thursday’s open to watch the stream live because we want to talk to like mind people in real time. Maybe we happen to own both Critical Role art books (collector’s editions of course) because the art inspires us. Shared experiences connect us. How you choose to engage with the Critical Role community or the Dungeons and Dragons role playing game is a personal decision. Only you can decide what engagement works for you.
First, it’s crucial to maintain perspective. It is important to differentiate between consuming content and building a shared narrative. We connect with the world building at an emotional level, but that connection that is largely passive. There’s nothing wrong with this connection, but it’s not the same investment and vulnerability required to build a collaborative experience. Engaging the hobby through streams is a generally singular experience, but the emotional impact we feel is shared with the people on the screen. They are not reacting to you, but we are reacting to them. This is a perfectly normal experience, whether you’re watching Critical Role with friends in Alpha’s chat or you’re cheering your favorite sports team at the local watering hole.
Trusting is hard.
Participating in the shared narrative at the table is a different experience than reacting to what you see on the screen. Making emotional connections we love so much in Critical Role takes work and trust. When one is consuming the game one’s actions or behavior are not impacting anyone but oneself.There’s actually a psychological term for this, “parasocial interaction”There’s actually a psychological term for this, “parasocial interaction“. While mean of this term was first developed in the 1950s to describe the attachment of the audience a TV personality, the concept can be applied to streaming fandoms as well. We can use the new found knowledge to make our games better.
When building the game with other players you should allow different parts of your personality to emerge and express themselves at the table. This exposure can lead to feelings of vulnerability. General feelings of anxiety can emerge. This is perfectly natural and if you have these feelings, it’s okay to step away or communicate with the DM how you’re feeling. If you think other players would be receptive, talk to them about your needs when roleplaying at the table. This will require some faith in your fellow players and trusting your vulnerability will not be used against you, but such a leap will assist in building trust at the table.
This is crucial because trust at the table is an important component for creating a shared narrative, story-driven game. The narrative components that likely hooked you into Critical Role were generated from these feelings of trust. Without a narrative arc or a compelling story, a game of Dungeons and Dragons is nothing more than a poorly implemented tabletop tactical miniatures game. While there’s nothing wrong with such a game, this experience doesn’t have us clearing our calendars on Thursday nights for months at a time. Building these relationships will take time. Be patient.
These relationships are important to not just finding the chemistry between characters in the game, but between the players at the table. These players will help you build your tower of storytelling. Pay attention, take notes. Try to identify the Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws of the other characters. 5th Edition is often criticized for the weak mechanical link between Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws and the game engine under the hood. This criticism is misplaced. Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws are not there to impact the mathematical aspects of D&D, but rather to remind the player of their character’s behavior. Practice using them with your own roleplaying to see if you’re giving a consistent character for others to work with.
Generosity can also arise from what you don’t say, or don’t do. Allowing another player to have the spotlight is critical to having a harmonious table. This is often best accomplished by saying nothing. Think of it as a scene in a movie. Your character doesn’t have any lines, so you wouldn’t step in and intrude as another character has their moment. Support dramatic roleplaying by letting your silence create moments for other players to fill with something interesting and wonderful.
Liam O’Brien is exceptionally good at this. As a professional actor, he knows when a long pause or a furrowed brow is all the commentary a scene needs from his character. Sam Riegel has a very different approach. He is skilled using humor to fill in those gaps without drawing spotlight directly to himself. His sense of comedic timing is incredibly well honed, so this works to the table’s advantage. Just as the rules in D&D are just guidelines often requiring a subjective application, so does roleplaying off another person’s performance. Learning when a moment between two people is over and the table needs to rejoin the scene takes time.
There are differences between watching professional actors play D&D and sitting down to play around the table with ‘everyday’ people. While it is true the Critical Role table is full of professionally trained actors, their skills are learnable by everyone. Body language and posture are good non-verbal clues to the scene’s maturity. Actively working to perceive the mood and tenor or the table are _active_ processes. Start by taking your cues from the Dungeon Master. Are they locked onto a single player? Or is their gaze actively moving from player to player, searching for a spark? The Dungeon Master is probably glancing at all the players at the table to see if they are engaged, so be sure to distinguish a quick glance from an active invitation to move into the scene.
Manage your expectations.
All of those wonderful moments you see on Critical Role didn’t happen overnight. There were culminations of months of work. It’s easy to overlook the fact they had been playing together for a year before streaming. Even after a year of on-stream play, the strong character bonds we associate with CR’s strengths were, at best, in their formative stages. The cast spent months learning to work together, both on and off camera. While the magic happened at the table, so much work happened between games. And it didn’t all work. There were failures. A troublesome cast member was removed from the show, likely because he wasn’t working within the table, but tried instead to work on top of it. Clear adjustments and evolutions in character arcs were made by the players as grew more comfortable together, even dipping into the minefield of character romantic relationships.
As a new player and a fan of Critical Role, which performances impact you the most? Are there any performances you don’t identify with, or understand?
- The 3 Tweaks I Make To Speed Up D&D Combat
I’ve gotten back into the D&D game with 5th edition (as many of us have), and running games at conventions, for home groups, and at events like meetups and social groups has given me a diversity of D&D 5e game types. I’ve always found that there is one thing in common with D&D combats between all these different types of games – combats still often drag. Especially at higher levels, there is something of a grind to taking down multiple enemies or big enemies with lots of HP. Sometimes you want to emphasize the drawn out nature of a tough and grueling combat through a dungeon, but sometimes you want to slide through the combats a bit quicker and move on with the narratives, or you want to pack more combat into the game so that the players feel a sense of progression and can move between the scenes rather than spend 2 hours on one combat. If you’re a purist that only wants to run things by RAW rather than RAI, skip over the rest of this because these tweaks are more about improving the experience rather than the pure mechanical game aspect. With that said, here are the 3 biggest things I do to make sure D&D combats move quickly and have a lot more action in them.
Three / Fourths HP For Enemies, Especially Tanks – Knock Down The Grind
I’ve often found the thing that slows down most D&D combats is that some enemies are just tanks compared to the players’ ability to deal consistent damage. That one roll that failed on a great spell, the lack of good damage rolls consistently… any small stroke of bad luck can turn the tide in a, let’s say tedious way. Dropping the standard HP of most enemies (but especially tank enemies with a lot of HP) can change this paradigm and speed up combats in a very satisfying way. If the players are rolling well or using really well thought out tactics, it makes their successes feel even better. They get to end a combat quicker because they were smart of successful. Three / Fourths HP has been my sweet spot, but for some really tanky enemies I might drop it to 60%. IF I find that the combat is just OVER within a few minutes because I was overzealous, I can always tweak it back up to normal. I’m much more about letting the players get the win though.
Increase Enemy Damage – But Not At Early Levels
The other problem I’ve had with some D&D combats, especially in shorter convention games, is that after a certain level many of the PCs feel untouchable. I can’t get them to feel threatened, even when I’m running the Tarrasque. (I’m looking at you barbarians…) Sometimes this is because I have to play the NPCs logically. E.G. they wouldn’t geek the mage first because she did a great job of disguising herself as a fighter, or the clay golem was ordered to destroy the bard who was shouting insults and he’s running away fast. When I want to speed things up, I edge up enemy damage just enough that it feels legitimate. Usually I rough judge this to about 150%. If the creature does 6 damage per hit, now it does 9, etc.
I moved into this paradigm once I started using Kobold Press’s Tome of Beasts and a nasty (but fun) little creature called a Fext. It has a ranged ray attack that does a chunk of damage at will. That one aspect really put my players on edge and they felt a lot more sense of threat and action. I was actually able to take down a fighter or two and force the healers to engage and get those fighters back up and running. Combined with lower HP on the Fext, the fight suddenly became a quicker but more action oriented experience. I’ll use this rule often, BUT NEVER WHILE THE PCS ARE AT LOWER LEVELS. Low level PCs are squishy and you don’t need to do much to make them feel threatened. As they go up in level, getting that feeling into the game is hard and it sometimes drops into the tedious grind.
Make Sure PCs Have and USE their Healing
Now I’m not actually out to kill the PCs, I want them to feel like their actions matter and that there is a sense of threat, but I want them to get back up after they fall. So, I always make sure the players have access to healing and that they USE it. I’ll often provide some magic item to the cleric to use as a last chance healing item. Some staff of cure wounds or some extra potions so that when people fall they can be brought back. One of my favorite items to provide is the Healing Shillelagh. It is basically heal at will for 1d6, or damage at will for 1d4. Roll a d20. 1-10 and the magic fails to activate and it deals 1d4 damage. 11-20 and it heals 1d6 points of damage. It’s a fun little gimmick that players feel will often resolve in their favor. Another fun option I’ve used is the Caduceus of Cautious Curing. It’s a small stone that can be placed on a person and anything with cure wounds can cast it as a ritual, up to 3 times per day. It forces healing out of combat, regenerates a little bit of HP and often adds some extra boosts during short rests.
Fun and shenanigans aside, any kind of boost to their healing ability, even if it takes a ritual to perform lets them know they’ll get some recovery once they are out of immediate danger. This assurance that they can recover after a vicious fight will make players feel more confident in taking risks and being less cautious during combats. That speeds up the combats immensely and prevents a lot of analysis paralysis.
Wrapping It Up
So, my three changes are:
- Tweak 1 – Drop enemies to 3/4 their HP to start the fight, especially tanks.
- Tweak 2 – Increase NPC damage to provide threat and speed up desire to eliminate the enemies, but never at lower levels.
- Tweak 3 – Make sure the PCs have off-combat healing options that they can cheaply use.
These three tweaks have helped me incredibly while I’m running games. Players seem to like the combats and push through them a lot quicker. They get more of a sense of satisfaction when they down an enemy, especially when it is dealing out the damage. Since they’re bleeding a bit more they feel like the combat had more meaning and was less one-sided, even if it was against normally “weaker” enemies. 10 Goblins with at will high damage attacks suddenly becomes a threat (using tweak 2) even if they are being waded through with ease. The mage is more likely to use the fireball to remove the mass threat rather than hold off. These sorts of tweaks aren’t for everyone, but try them out in a game and see how it runs. What are your tweaks to combat and action scenes for crunchy games like D&D?Read more »
- Handouts, Props, and Mood Setting
Most of the time, the tactile sensations players get during the game are limited to their pencil, character sheet, dice, and mini on the board. As GMs, we can take it to the next level by leveraging handouts, props, and auditory mood setting.
Handouts are a great, and usually straightforward, method of drawing the players deeper into the game. Don’t tell the players that they found a map of the old ruins that sit atop the hill several miles outside the village. Actually hand them a map. Don’t draw the handout on grid paper, either. Slap it down using charcoal sticks (or black Sharpie) on white or yellow-aged paper. A great touch is to splash some water droplets onto the paper to smear/smudge the drawing, but without making it incomprehensible (unless that’s the effect you’re going for).
Other handouts are printouts of NPC appearances. If you leverage technology (like a tablet) in the same way I do, you can save the printer ink and hold up the tablet with the image prominently displayed on the screen. The saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and this is true for visual cues. A “picture” they can touch and interact with (such as a map, contract, letter, or other physical product) is worth many more words than a mere thousand.
This leads into props. Instead of saying, “You find tufts of fur on the pathway,” you can give your dog or cat a good brushing and throw some fur bits into a baggie. Then remove the fur from the bag and toss it in the middle of the table. It’s evocative, surprising, and really lends a deeper immersion into the game than the words. Just be careful of possible allergic reactions from your players if they can’t handle animal remnants, especially the fur.
Another thing I’ve done many moons ago was to bring in a bag of dried leaves from the yard. Instead of telling the party that they hear footsteps on the dried leaves, I’ll jam my hand down into the gallon freezer bag and start crunching the leaves. Then I’ll tell the players that they hear that sound from behind them. It really draws them in a considerable amount.
A quick trip around a hobby supply store can provide many more ideas about props that can be used in the midst of a game.
I’ve already mentioned the dried leaves. I’ve also grabbed some stage swords off my wall near the gaming table and clashed them together to demonstrate what the players hear in the distance. One of my players told me that it was the biggest adrenaline rush he’s ever had at the gaming table. The steel-on-steel sounds immersed into the scene, and he knew that the person they needed to save was being attacked just ahead.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) drag a million props with you to the game table just for making sounds with, there are digital options. I personally use an application called “RPG Sounds: Fantasy” by SuperFly Games on my iPad. It’s also available for iPhone and Android devices. The key features I like within this app are that there are four tracks (Atmosphere, Sound Effects, Music, and Custom) where you can play four different sounds at once and give each of them a different volume level. Maybe the atmosphere (like a cheering crowd) is right up in the PCs’ faces, but the music is very distant while the sound effects are midway. The app comes with gobs of different sound effects as well. It’s quite cool.
Back in the day when I ran the various World of Darkness games, I’d always start off the session with a set of theme music. It was rarely longer than two minutes long, but it always tied to key events that were coming up soon. This helped put the players in the mood.
These days, I’m running and playing more fantasy-based games, so I fall back to various soundtracks that emote that feeling. I try to find ones without lyrics to avoid that mental distraction. Good ones on my list include Conan the Barbarian, and the whole slew of Lord of the Rings and Hobbit soundtracks. Just snagging the LotR/Hobbit soundtracks will keep your background music filled for many game sessions.Read more »
- Take Me to the Upside down – a Review of Kids on Bikes
Before Google mapped out the world and Wikipedia made it possible to know just about anything with a couple taps of your thumb, even a small town could be full of adventure. There were all these places you weren’t supposed to go to, dangerous places like abandoned warehouses and old biker hangouts. There was always that one kid who’d heard a rumor about the place from their cousin’s friend’s sister, and they swore up and down that it was the truth. You didn’t know how much of it was true, but you knew you had until the streetlights came on to get to the bottom of it.
That experience is at the heart of Kids on Bikes, an RPG riding on the hype of the 80’s nostalgia popularized by Stranger Things. With the third season just around the corner, many of us want to know what it’d be like trying to outpace the Demogorgon or shady government agents in their black vans. But how does Kids on Bikes rate, not just as an RPG but as an experience?
I’ll be reviewing the print version of this game. The book has 74 pages of content, plus a couple extra pages in the back for a character sheet and Kickstarter acknowledgments. It’s not a big book, but it’ll only set you back $25, which for an RPG can either be a great deal or a trap.
The book’s formatting and design are simple and straightforward. This leaves plenty of room for the extensive examples the book uses to describe some of its mechanics. The book is divided into the following sections:
- Setting Boundaries
- Character Creation
- Playing the Game
- Powered Characters
- Information for the GM
- Appendices (A-F)
This is a quick, one-page section about making sure your players are safe during play. Disclaimers like this have been common in recent RPG’s (and re-releases of older games), and there’s not much here that a seasoned player hasn’t seen before. The book encourages players to talk about topics they want to avoid or to write lists they can give the GM if they don’t feel comfortable addressing the issue openly. The tone here is supportive, discouraging confrontational attitudes towards these boundaries. While this isn’t anything new, it’s appropriate in a game about dangerous things happening to kids.
The book offers rules and suggestions for collaborative world-building, taking the brunt of the work off of the GM’s shoulders. A list of incomplete statements guide this process, such as “Our town is famous for…” and “A notable local organization is…”. Players take turns completing a statement, each contributing their own ideas and helping bring a small town to life. After each player has provided an equal number of answers (usually 2 or 3), they each come up with a rumor about the town. The section closes with suggestions about what the ideal town for this game looks like, as well as how it should change over multiple sessions.
As a GM and writer, I’m used to stuffing my campaign worlds with all the unnecessary details a player might randomly ask for. I also know the traps and pitfalls of exposition and the challenges that come with trying to give just enough information so the players know what’s going on. The collaborative world-building offered by Kids on Bikes eliminates most of this problem. The players know this place because they helped build it. Together, they create a living, breathing place with at least a couple interesting spots that stand out as obvious places for adventure.
I’ve found that players have a lot of fun answering these questions, and it saves the GM a ton of work (which is always a plus). I recommend doing this world-building in a “session zero,” since the rumors your players come up with can make great adventure hooks. They’re telling you what interests them. Use them and they’ll stay interested. Overall, this is a great strength of the system and having it so early in the book really sets the tone for the kind of game Kids on Bikes wants to be.
The book’s first meaty section deals with character creation. Kids on Bikes cares more about who a character is than what they can do. Rather than character classes, Kids on Bikes uses tropes from the TV shows and movies that inspire the game’s theme, such as Popular Kid, Loner Weirdo, and Blue-Collar Worker. Kids on Bikes uses standard RPG dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) which are attributed to each stat depending on the chosen trope. For example, a Popular Kid’s best ability is Charm, so whenever they make a Charm check, they’ll roll a d20. I’ll be going over the system in more detail in the next section of this review.
After a trope is selected, players will choose strengths and flaws for their characters. Strengths are trope-specific and give a character mechanical advantages. For example, the Tough strength allows a character to reduce the negative consequences of losing a combat roll. Strengths give additional depth to characters, helping differentiate even those with the same tropes from each other. Sure, two people at the table may be playing a Loner Weirdo, but one might be Tough while another is Intuitive. Do you think those characters would solve their problems the same way? Just like strengths, flaws are tied to specific Tropes. However, they don’t have any effect on the mechanical aspect of the game. They’re there mostly to fuel roleplay and help players build well-rounded characters.
Next, players will introduce their characters to the table. Rather than simply going around the table and listing their character’s traits, Kids on Bikes players are encouraged to figure out relationships between each of their characters. Are there siblings at the table? Parents and children? Rivals? Players will then answer questions about the other characters. Kids on Bikes offers three ways of doing this (Quick Start Questions, One-Sided Questions, and Complete Questions) but the basic premise is the same; players are answering questions about characters that aren’t theirs. Questions like “What volunteer work have you heard that this character does?” and “How did this character betray you the last time you confided in them?” These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems.These questions help set the tone of Kids on Bikes as a collaborative storytelling game. They help players build deep relationships, and have some agency in the creation of the other characters at the table, something you don’t see in many other systems.
All in all, character creation goes rather smoothly. Even with a single book for the table, the process takes much less time than other games with deeper mechanics, such as D&D. While Kids on Bikes’ mechanics don’t have the same depth, a character in Kids on Bikes is just as deep, if not deeper than the ones found in other games. Because players are encouraged to think about where their character comes from and how they relate to others, they end up with an intimate understanding of their character and their place in the world. Character introductions can eat up a good chunk of time (the Complete Questions method alone can take 8 minutes per player), but if you’ve got the extra time, going through them is a lot of fun.
Playing the Game
The “game” part of this roleplaying game is simple and straightforward. This is a game about characters and story, not about rolling dice. That said, we do need the dice to figure out the things that we can’t just decide. As mentioned earlier, Kids on Bikes uses a dice chain to determine a character’s stats, from a d4 to a d20. That means each character is fantastic at one thing and terrible at another, with the rest of their stats falling somewhere in the middle.
Using those stats is fairly straightforward. You pick the one you want to use and roll to beat a target number, set by the GM. Because each stat uses a different die, a straightforward challenge for one character can be near-impossible for another. By itself, this isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but Kids on Bikes adds other mechanics to make things interesting:
- Exploding Dice: If you roll the highest value on your die (eg. a 6 on a d6), you roll it again and add the values together. With a bit of luck, a character rolling a d4 could end up doing something truly amazing.
- Adversity Tokens: Whenever a character fails a check, they receive an adversity token, which they can use to get a +1 bonus on their check. A player can spend more than one at a time, and can even use them to improve another player’s check. Some strengths also use adversity tokens as a resource, allowing characters to spend them for other benefits. For instance, a character with the Treasure Hunter strength can use an Adversity Token to find a useful item in their surroundings.
- Planned Actions vs. Snap Decisions: Every check is either a planned action or a snap decision. For the former, characters can take half the value of their die (eg. 10 on a d20) to succeed on their check, as long as this matches or beats the difficulty of the check. You can’t do this on a snap decision check, and other players can’t use their adversity tokens to help you.
Combat uses this system as well, except the GM doesn’t set a numerical difficulty for the check. Instead, the attacker and defender each roll their own die, usually Fight for the attacker and Flight or Brawn for the defender. The difference between the rolls determines the outcome of the fight. If the defender’s roll is equal to or greater than the attacker’s, the attack is ineffective. However, if the attacker’s roll is higher, they’ll deal some damage, the severity depending on the difference between the rolls, from a grazing hit to a death blow. If the defender is still up and wants to fight back, the roles swap and the dice are rolled again. Because there are no hit points, everything is handled narratively, and a single roll could end a fight.
Overall, the Kids on Bikes system is incredibly simple. The book encourages failing forward, not only through the use of adversity tokens but in the language it uses to describe failure. The system is meant to guide the narrative decisions your characters make, not bind them. This makes for smooth play with fewer dice rolls than other systems, although the game is not without its clunky bits. The difference between planned actions and snap decisions can be arbitrary, and combat can be a bit of a slog, especially when an enemy just won’t go down. For the most part, the system knows how to stay out of its own way, leading to a better game as a result.
From E.T. to Eleven, characters with strange abilities have often been part of 80’s adventures. Kids on Bikes refers to these as powered characters. This isn’t an option the players can play, but a character that they control collectively. This is done with aspects, bite-sized parts of the powered character that are written on cards and passed out to the players. When an aspect becomes relevant, the player with that aspect turns the card sideways to indicate that they are taking narrative control of the powered character. Any player can activate any aspect, but narrative control remains in the hands of the player who controls that aspect. These aspects can vary wildly, from “sarcastic” to “able to control the weather.” In theory, this helps to make the powered character feel like a part of the group rather than just another NPC. In practice, however, spreading out the aspects and narrative control of the powered character can be confusing, and because some aspects are more pertinent than others (like the actual psychic powers) some players may end up controlling the powered character more than others. While making the powered character a collective character is an interesting idea, it falls kind of flat and can lead to the powered character fading into the background.
Besides aspects, powered characters have their own specific system for psychic abilities, which use Psychic Energy Tokens (PE Tokens). Using the powered character’s abilities starts the same way as any other check, with the GM setting a numerical value for the difficulty. Then, the player making the check will spend one PE Token and roll 2d4, subtracting the roll from the target number. If the result is zero or negative the attempt succeeds. If the result is one or greater, the player can either spend PE Tokens to increase their roll (thus decreasing the overall result towards zero) or the attempt fails.
Confused? You’re not the only one. The powered character system is the major drawback of Kids on Bikes. The “roll 2d4 and subtract it from the difficulty” system feels somewhat arbitrary, with no precedent in the rules. Combine this with the fact that the book doesn’t have rules for setting the difficulty of a powered character’s check, and this system feels like an afterthought. Supernatural abilities are an inherent component of the strange 80’s adventures this RPG tries to emulate, and it’s a shame that this aspect of the game isn’t as robust as it could be.
Information for the GM
I’ll be honest here. When I was preparing to run this game, I completely skipped this section, and no situation has come up in my games that had me rushing to it for help. The first few pages are about player safety, expanding on the Setting Boundaries section found earlier in the book. It encourages GM’s to create a gaming environment that is supportive and safe for all players, as well as giving players ways to stop the action if they’re feeling uncomfortable, relying on pre-existing systems such as Brie Sheldon’s Script Change Tool. While this is not something that has been needed in my games (we’ve all been playing together for years), it’s a welcome addition, especially for groups who might not know each other as well.
Beyond safety precautions, this section has advice for GM’s on crafting stories and adventures for their games. This advice goes from the general (discuss the desired tone of the game with your players) to the specific (use the rumors from the World-Building phase to craft your story). The book also stresses the importance of shared narrative control here, making sure the players have more of a say in what’s going on than in a typical game of D&D. While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s. For instance, there is zero information on creating NPC’s and no examples of NPC’s to throw in your games. The book forces you to figure out how to handle the NPC’s your players will run into on your own which is disappointing. Overall, this is not the most useful section, unless you’re absolutely new to running an RPG.While I can see this information being helpful for GM’s who have never written an adventure or run a game before, this section is incredibly thin for veteran GM’s.
This section holds much of the game’s important information, such as the aspects used by powered characters and the tropes used for character creation. There’s not a wasted page in the appendices, and you’ll be referring to them often.
While I would definitely recommend this game for certain play groups, I can’t give it a blanket recommendation. If you want a light system and the theme interests you, you’ll have a lot of fun with Kids on Bikes. However, the lack of pertinent GM information and lackluster powered character system makes it difficult to recommend this to new GM’s. A game like this is best for groups who have played together before. But considering this is a $25 RPG, you don’t have much to lose in giving it a try.Read more »
- mp3Gnomecast #68 – Breakout 2019 Panel – Running a Good Con Game
This week’s episode is a convention panel recorded at Breakout 2019 in Toronto, Ontario. Senda moderates for panelists Ang, Camdon, and the self-described gnome-adjacent Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios for a discussion about running good con games. Will this good advice be enough to keep these gnomes (and their gnome-adjacent friend) out of the stew this week?
- The Expanse Roleplaying Game Review
A few years ago, I saw a lot of chatter about a science fiction book series. I had never heard of it before, but I decided that it had been a while since I picked up a good sci-fi book, so I gave it a try. Leviathan Wakes, the first book of The Expanse series, is now one of my favorite novels.
To call The Expanse hard science fiction misses out on a lot of nuance, but it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what The Expanse is. There is action, political maneuvering, mercenary adventures, and noir detective action going on, and that’s before you get to the really weird stuff. If you were to make an RPG of the setting, you would have to cover a lot of ground to capture the feel.
On that note, let’s look at Green Ronin’s The Expanse Roleplaying Game. Based on their AGE System, the same underlying rules that are used for the Dragon Age Roleplaying Game, this one is tackling a completely different genre.
This review is based on the PDF of the RPG, which is 260 pages in length. The book is full color and features a copious amount of artwork. All of the artwork is impressive, but of special note is that the artwork is based on the novel series. My personal preference when it comes to adaptations is to see a wide range of interpretations, so I’m all for this.
There are plenty of half-page images introducing chapters, with many headers and sidebars to break up text into more readable pieces of data. There are also full-page images introducing some of the larger sections, as well as a two-page spread of the solar system. There is a two-page index, two pages for a character sheet, and the Churn Tracker, in addition to the regular material. This is a very attractive book.
Foreword, The Last Flight of the Cassandra, Introduction
The book is introduced by the authors of the novel series, giving a brief summary of the history of the setting, including the fact that it was once the framework of a tabletop RPG campaign. In addition to the foreword, the authors also wrote a short story that is included at the beginning of the book, detailing a day in the life of a freighter crew. Finally, we get a quick primer on the rules used in the system, mainly the 3d6 resolution method used.
Anyone familiar with other AGE System games may pick up on the fact that the third die used to roll checks in the game is called the Drama Die in this iteration, although there is more on that later. While this section has the standard quick pitch explanation of roleplaying that many games have, I was surprised at how much time the introduction spent on explaining group dynamics and making sure that everyone at the table respects one another and gels as a group.
The next section of the book is dubbed the Player’s Section, and this is subdivided into the following chapters:
- Game Basics
- Character Creation
- Character Traits
- Technology and Equipment
- Game Play
- Future History
- The Belt
- The Outers
In this section, we get more information on why the Stunt Die from previous AGE games gets a new name this time around. The Drama Die is used to determine several ancillary story elements whenever a check is made. It can break ties, determine the degree of success, and also determine if other random elements happen when making a check.
Characters in the setting have a resource called Fortune. You can spend Fortune to reduce damage done to your characters (not entirely unlike hit points), but Fortune is also a resource you can spend to change your dice results, although you can only change one die of the three you roll, and changing the Drama Die costs extra.
Ability Tests function in a manner similar to many RPGs. Roll 3d6, add a modifier, see if you match the difficulty number. The Expanse also includes Advanced Tests and Challenge Tests. Advanced Tests have a Success Threshold. Just rolling the target number doesn’t finish the task, but instead, you check the Drama Die against the Threshold. Once the total of the Drama Dice from each successful check match the Threshold, the task is accomplished. This can be used for tasks that might take a while, where the GM only allows a check once in a while, or in a situation where there is a time crunch, to see how long the check takes.
Challenge Tests are similar to Advanced Tests, except each time a character fails an Ability Test, a complication happens in the narrative. This might be a separate situation that has to be mitigated with an unrelated Ability Test, an opponent appearing, or the difficulty of the core task increasing.
There are a number of conditions that can be applied to a character, and a character that takes damage that they can’t mitigate with Fortune can take some of these conditions to further mitigate damage.
In addition to what players may be familiar with regarding terms like narrative time and action time (being out or in initiative order), there are also Interludes. Interludes are essentially downtime, where the GM can let the PCs know how much they can accomplish before they get back to the main action of the campaign.
I really like how the Advanced and Challenge Tests work, because they feel like a more mechanically structured Skill Challenge mechanic that is explained in a logical manner and doesn’t feel too far removed from the narrative. I also like the idea that Fortune does serve a similar function to hit points, but allowing it to be spent for something else reinforces that it’s not equivalent to health or stamina.
Next up is actual character creation. Characters can roll randomly for their stats on a chart, which yields results from -2 to 4, or they can use a standard array or a point buy system, but in this case, the range allowed is only 0 to 3. As you may surmise, these abilities are similar to abilities in other games, but rather than having a score that provides a bonus, the score and the bonus are the same. The abilities in the game are:
Anyone familiar with d20 games may note that the wider array of abilities means that there aren’t as many definitive “must have” combat stats. Accuracy is used to shoot, but perception adds to ranged damage. Fighting makes it easier to hit in melee, but strength adds to damage.
The three origins in the game are Belter, Earther, and Martian. These origins have different charts to use when deriving social class, but the main difference between them depends on whether the characters are operating at higher gravity (which is normal for Earthers) or very low gravity (where Belters excel).
Once a character determines their social class, there are charts that determine their Backgrounds. Backgrounds are what provides ability bonuses, focuses, and talents. After determining your Background, you can generate your Profession, which provides more focuses or talents. While each of these items can be randomly generated, you can also pick from the lists if you have a specific character in mind.
The next step is to determine a Drive. There are twelve predetermined drives given in the book, and they provide a Quality and a Downfall, which are mainly roleplaying guides, and also a choice of talents to add to the others you have gained.
The following steps will also generate an income score. Rather than tracking individual currencies, characters have a wealth score. Succeed on a test, and you buy something, but then your score goes down. Get a temporary bonus on a job, and you get a bonus that you can apply to a single roll. Over time, Income can go up, if that is one of the rewards the GM provides for the adventures the PCs are on.
In this section, we don’t get much of a preview of talents or specializations, but an Ability Focus is essentially a skill, and some of the Focuses indicate that you can’t make an Ability Test to do work related to that Focus without the Focus. There is also a chart that shows what advancements the PCs get when they gain a level. Levels are gained whenever the GM deems that it makes sense to do so.
It feels a little odd that there isn’t a big level by level table summarizing what characters get at each level, just a description of what your choices are when you level up. I’m a big fan of bonuses and focuses coming from Backgrounds and Professions, and I like that the Drive has a little bit of mechanical reinforcement in addition to the roleplaying guides.
The character traits section goes into what Focuses fall under what Ability. It also explains what the various Talents do, and how Specializations work. Talents have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier. They may or may not also have a prerequisite, such as a specific Ability Score. These usually provide special situational bonuses, re-rolls, or exemptions from other existing rules.
Specializations are very similar to Talents, and also have a Novice, Expert, and Master tier, but usually have a broader application.
Technology and Equipment
Technology and Equipment come next. I was a bit surprised to notice that most weapons are very broadly defined (i.e. a pistol style weapon does X damage, etc.). What denotes a big flashy pistol versus a smaller, more concealable one is Item Qualities and Item Flaws. These might provide a bonus to hit, bonuses to intimidation, or it may require the user to spend an action to ready the item, or it may quit working if an Ability Test is failed and a certain number is rolled on the Drama Die.
Given its special and very restricted role in the setting, Power Armor gets a little more detail than regular armors, but it is still basically comprised of various qualities. That said, never, ever make Bobbie Draper mad.
The next section is Game Play, which fleshes out some of the rules touched upon earlier. If you roll doubles on your tests, you can spend the Drama Die on stunts, and there are charts for the following special groups of stunts:
- General Combat
- Membership & Reputation
This seems like a lot, but for the most part, it’s just a matter of reading something that seems applicable to the situation and spending the stunt points on that effect. The worst aspect of this is reading through the entries to see what all of them do. Until you start to remember some of your options, the tables might lead to a bit of option paralysis.
In combat, if you take any damage that you can’t mitigate, your character is taken out of the scene, and given a condition dictated by the character that took them out. If someone is trying to kill you, if you are taken out, you can end up with the dying condition. If you decide you are taken out of the fight early, you can “roll over,” and assign yourself a condition that would be appropriate, and you are no longer part of the encounter. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see a mechanic that reminded me of Fate in this book, and I like the idea that the real damage isn’t represented by numbers, but by conditions.
This chapter also has a good deal of information on running investigations in the system. In essence, the point is to create a number of clues that lead to a final location. Clues should be found, but Ability Tests can be used to gain additional information, or to skip clues in the chain that leads to the final location of the investigation.
The specific Interlude Activities are also defined in this section. These include requirements and resolutions. For example, in some cases, you just need to spend time in an interlude doing something to do it, and that’s what you “spent” your Interlude on. But in some cases, like building something new, you make a check for each instance you can take the time in your Interlude to work on that item.
I appreciate that the book spends the amount of time that it does on investigations. Not only has that been important to several of the novels, but investigations, in general, are adventure elements that come up a lot in RPGs, and having a guide to what checks should accomplish is welcome. I also like that the chase rules give you a reason to know why one character is slightly faster than another, but I’m a little sad that the game uses standard movement instead of range bands (especially since the next chapter expressly does use range bands for starships).
There are actually several pages in this section dedicated to actual science and the scientific speculations that make the space travel in The Expanse possible. It’s written in an interesting and engaging manner, but strictly speaking, the chapter doesn’t really start in with any game rules until about five pages in.
Since this is more of a hard science fiction setting, there are charts showing the average travel time between planets and the time it takes to send transmissions from various points in the solar system. Ships have qualities just like the equipment in other sections. The hull size of a ship allows it to roll dice to reduce incoming damage, and if any damage gets through, there are conditions that the ship can suffer. Ships can also “roll over” like characters, leaving a fight but voluntarily taking on a condition.
One interesting aspect of combat is that the game simulates how weapons work in the setting. That means that the person targeting the weapons is pointing the computer guidance at someone, but doesn’t roll. There is a difficulty to dodge or shoot down the incoming attack that is rolled by the defender. It makes sense, but it feels odd, and I would like to see this system in action.
Future History, Earth, Mars, The Belt, The Outers
The next chapters detail the history of the setting, laying out how Earth unified under the UN, colonized Mars, stagnated, and how the Belt and the outer planets were reached. It explains the tension between all of these locations, recent events, and the corporate shenanigans that led to a dangerous alien contagion spreading across various locations.
In addition to historical and geographical information on the locations and the various power groups like the OPA, these chapters also have stats for a few of the more famous characters from the novels, detailed in the relevant sections (Avisarila in the general history section, Holden in the section on Earth, Bobbie in the section on Mars, etc.).
Game Master’s Section
This section is comprised of the following chapters:
- Game Mastering
- The Expanse Series
- To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
The Game Mastering section has solid advice on how to run the game, as well as some specific tips on how to use this particular system. There are guides to structuring adventures and combat, and how to determine proper opposition.
This section also has what is called The Churn, a mechanic for tracking ongoing unforeseen complications. The Churn Pool has a list of triggers that cause it to grow, and at various points the GM is advised to add new effects to the ongoing narrative. There are suggestions for different types of encounters, such as challenges, hazards, investigation, or social encounters.
There is also a pretty exhaustive list of GMing styles and player styles detailed in the GM section of the book. The most important aspect of the chapter is probably the Unspoken Rules, a section that details important things like being inclusive, checking in with players to make sure they are comfortable at the game, and making sure that players are feeling accepted.
This is a very extensive chapter, and its good material, but I really wish the Churn was less a set of “mile markers” for introducing things, and more of an active pool that a GM could spend at various times for defined effects. It also feels like the very detailed discussion of GM and Player types is more of a “200 level” game mastery discussion, and might make someone newer to running games feel like they aren’t doing it right if they can’t identify and act on all of those defined types. I think the final section does a good job stressing the importance of everyone’s comfort at the table, but I wish there had been some discussion of active safety tools during the game session.
Threats include not just adversaries like thugs or corporate experiments gone wrong, but also hazards like radiation, and how they might play out in an encounter. Rewards include when to increase Income bonuses and when to give temporary boosts, but also honorifics, memberships, and relationship bonds.
Honorifics might provide different bonuses depending on what the character is known for—they might help boost an ally, or give them an edge if their opponent knows who they are and what they are good at. Memberships are ranked, and provide bonuses when dealing with other members of that organization. Relationship bonds are also ranked, and provide bonus stunt points any time the object of the Relationship Bond is affected by a check.
I would have to see how often it comes up in a regular game, but I do like the idea of the relationship bond making it easier to do something extra when your good friend/significant other is part of the situation.
The Expanse Series
The final section before the sample adventure details different styles of campaigns that you might play. The steps presented include finding a theme for the game, determining where and when the series is set, then finding what the actual series will be. Examples include Freelancers, Military, Political, and Rebellion, and also discusses how much you may want to include canon information in the game.
I like the sample campaign series that are presented. Sometimes in a licensed game, it can be easy to be stuck in a rut, trying to determine how to do the same thing the main protagonists are doing, but in a different way. In this case, there is a wide range of ideas inspired by, but not identical to, the paths taken by the main characters of the novels. It probably helps that the novels have a main crew as well as ancillary characters to weave criminal investigations, politics, diplomacy, and military action in around the main plot.
To Sleep, Perchance to Dream
Starting adventures in games are a great way to see how the developers intended the game to work. Obviously these should feel appropriate for the setting, but in this case, I am really impressed with how much this feels like something I would expect from The Expanse, without touching too much on the main storyline from the books.
You have the chance to interact with an important character from the books, but only in a more peripheral manner. Beyond that, the characters get hired to investigate something that leads them to corporate impropriety and a dangerously overindulgent personal goal, and its probably one of the better starting adventures I can remember in a core rulebook.
Yam SengNot only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.
This rulebook adds some amazingly versatile tools to the overall AGE System framework. The versatility of Ability Tests gives the game the mechanical impact to make action scenes other than combat meaningful, and the investigation rules do a great job of giving purpose to Ability Tests without letting the PCs hit a dead end. The way Fortune works, and the interaction with the combat system conditions, feels like a great trade-off between the grittier feel of the setting and the needs of the game’s ongoing shared narrative.
I wish The Churn had been a little bit more of a dynamic tool for the GM. I’m not sure that the time spent on the various GM and Player types was the most practical for newer GMs. I wish the book had spent a little more time on active table safety as well as discussing safety in the broader context of the campaign.
Recommended — If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I think this is my favorite iteration of the AGE System rules. There are so many useful tools, and enough bits to make a game interesting without adding in bells and whistles like powers or magic. If you like the setting, and you don’t mind your narrative elements having some mechanical impact, you should enjoy this game. Not only is it a solid game for presenting The Expanse, but it is a good ruleset for hard sci-fi games in general.
What are your favorite sci-fi RPGs? If you like hard science fiction, what can a game do to express that successfully at the table? We want to hear from you, so please comment below!Read more »
- TRYING OUT THE ALEXANDRIAN’S URBANCRAWL SYSTEM: DESIGNING THE CITY OF JUNTIAL PART 4
Obligatory recap: I’ve read about a system for creating urbancrawls (similar to hexcrawls but set in a city) from The Alexandrian. I had also been enjoying the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson and their strange magic setting. Enter this series of articles, where I use The Alexandrian’s urbancrawl system to design my own urbancrawl with a strange magic theme.
- Part 1 of this series
- Part 2 of this series
- Part 3 of this series
- The Alexandrian’s Urbancrawl series
- Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!
We left off last time with:
- a list of districts
- a definition of what a neighborhood was
- a list of layers we were going to use
- a rough map
- a neighborhood list
- neighborhood breakdowns for the Temple, Palace, Ruins, Crafting, and Bazaar districts
This is the last installment where I outline neighborhoods. This time I’m tackling the final districts: the slums. Next time I’ll start working with layers (multiple encounter keys).
Here’s the (very rough) map. It’s just a set of neighborhoods surrounded by the city walls and bordered by the wall, the five major rivers, the major roadways, and the shores of the central lake. Note that none of those have names at this point. This is just one step up from a sketch, and then only because I figured using software would result in a slightly more readable result than hand drawing it. Districts are color coded, Neighborhoods are labeled with a key. We’re also not going to name them at this point either. That’s something we can handle later and something that takes up an awful lot of brain space and time while being subject to change if the neighborhood map or list changes under it.
- S – Slums: This is actually two districts, the northern and southern slums, noted as NS and SS. Like all other districts, the outer areas of slum neighborhoods also host shops, but the goods to be found here are usually inferior or of a questionable nature. Residential areas are overcrowded and dirty. Public areas are all but nonexistent. Buildings are mostly made of wood and are in poor condition. In many places, structures are crowded close together or touching. Unless otherwise noted, homes in slum neighborhoods are simple and usually one room. Shops are mostly one or two rooms, and contain an attached bedroom for the proprietor. Public areas are small, poorly kept and often inhabited by those with nowhere else to go.
- NS1 – Chokestreet: This slum is downwind and downstream from the crafting district. Though the crafting district is supposed to shunt the worst of its pollution outside the city, a fair amount of it ends up here. The air in this slum is foul and on poor days difficult to see through. Water is contaminated with runoff, mostly undrinkable and is occasionally flammable. Residents will often travel to the edges of the neighborhood to procure potable water.
Landmark: The Pit – At the lowest point of the neighborhood, the accumulated pollution creates a permanent eye burning fog. Lower still is a pool of polluted water and runoff. Occasional gouts of brightly colored flame light up the smog.
- NS2 – The Itch: Much like the animal pens that this neighborhood borders, residents here deal in animals and animal products. However, they deal more with small animals, offal and the like. In addition, because of the close quarters, stores of feed, offal, bedding and waste, the neighborhood crawls with all sorts of vermin. Rats are plentiful, but more common are bugs of all description, some as large as a man’s hand. Vermin traps and few very small windows (sometimes covered with firm cloth or rarely slices of horn to keep vermin out) are common features. Public areas have a notable lack of water features, as they tend to breed flying insects.
Landmark: The Hive – a cluster of small buildings in this neighborhood has been taken over by a hive of giant bees. These bugs are rarely dangerous if left alone, but they emit a loud noise and can be seen flying about the city. A few residents take precautions and harvest as much honey as they dare.
- NS3 – The Bloom: This neighborhood was unremarkable if poor, before the accident that destroyed the ruined district. The accident caused a number of issues here. Most immediately, a number of buildings were destroyed and many have yet to be repaired. In addition, many refugees from the now ruined magic school have taken up residence. The population of the neighborhood is swollen with low level mages and alchemists. Finally, one of the fragments of the college that rained down on the streets contained spores for dozens of strains of fungus. In a wet city like Juntial, these spores spread rapidly. Structures in this neighborhood often sprout many varied types of fungus and residents regularly scrape their homes clean to avoid damage.
Landmark: The lost house – Perhaps the first structure to be hit with the fungal debris, this building stands completely covered in several feet of fungus of unusual size and colors.
- NS4 – Catwalks: This neighborhood is densely packed and has the occasional taller building similar to The Heights. It also features a number of hastily assembled catwalks over the narrow streets. Braver residents will often travel via catwalk as a shortcut. Residences here are simple, and densely clustered. Thought not all of them have ladders, stairs, and ropes to the roof, many do. Only a few have second stories. Public areas are often on the roofs of other buildings.
Landmark: Candletower – Towards the center of the neighborhood is a stone tower and short attending building . This is Candletower, ostensibly the home of a local noble. However, it receives few visitors, so little is known about what goes on inside.
- SS1 – The Warrens: More an extension of The Maze than a neighborhood in its own right, the warrens are made up of densely packed shifting lean-tos and tents clogging the streets of an already tight neighborhood. Paths within change from day to day and there is no room for mounts or vehicles of any sort. Buildings are small, simple and sometimes divided into multiple tight rooms. Public areas are nonexistent.
Landmark: Garbage Fortunes – roaming the outskirts of the warrens with the rest of the trash vendors is a bent old crone who tells fortunes. Her price is simply a handful of garbage, which is thrown into her trash fire. Strange, but she is a regular fixture of the neighborhood and her fortunes are of good quality.
- SS2 – Old City: This neighborhood was one of the earliest in the city. Originally typical if snug buildings with stone foundations, most of the buildings were lost in an attack by the native inhabitants of the swamp. Rebuilt later, most are now only enough wooden construction over the old foundation to permit entrance and exit. A few of the original buildings survive, towering over their now diminutive neighbors. Because the houses and shops are so short, streets are lined with local fast-growing woody plants to form a privacy screen.
Landmark: The Dust Pit – Most places in Juntial are constantly damp, especially the lower class districts and lower elevations. Thus the sunken foundations in Old City are perpetually in danger of flooding and seeping moisture. A few of them, however, hold enchantments from before their ruin that keep them dry. The Dust pit is one of these enchanted foundations. Filled with dry sand and silt, it is in use as a fighting pit. Seating is arranged outside the foundation. Barkers and pennants advertise the fights.
- SS3 – Artisan’s Alley: During the upgrade of the Raised Market, each founder hired various types of workers. Just before completion of the work, one of the founders mysteriously disappeared. It was discovered that he had nowhere near enough money to pay the workers and artists that had been working on the project on his behalf. Many of them were not from Juntial, and now with no pay for their labor couldn’t afford to return home. Of these, a good number moved into the nearby slums, opened up shop and took on apprentices. Several generations later, the neighborhood is festive, bohemian, and adorned with artistry of all types. Homes and shops are simple but well decorated in eclectic styles. Public areas showcase artworks of both permanent and temporary nature.
Landmark: Founders Square – One of the pieces of art that was commissioned and never paid for was a larger than life statue of the founder responsible for stiffing an entire neighborhood. Several of the artists stole it in a drunken midnight horse cart raid and erected it in the middle of their new neighborhood. Since, it and the square in which it rests has been routinely defaced with mocking artwork depicting the subject in an endless panoply of unflattering and rude representations.
- NS1 – Chokestreet: This slum is downwind and downstream from the crafting district. Though the crafting district is supposed to shunt the worst of its pollution outside the city, a fair amount of it ends up here. The air in this slum is foul and on poor days difficult to see through. Water is contaminated with runoff, mostly undrinkable and is occasionally flammable. Residents will often travel to the edges of the neighborhood to procure potable water.
That’s all our neighborhoods, a description and a landmark for each. Though these may be fleshed out more or tweaked as I go, for the purposes of this article series, I’m going to move on. Next time we’re going to look at layers of encounters.Read more »
- Using Someone Else’s Setting
Here in a few weeks, I’ll be firing up a new campaign based on The Expanse (books/TV/RPG), so this has gotten me thinking about “using someone else’s setting” quite a bit. This is an especially potent concept for The Expanse. There are (as of this writing) eight books with a 9th coming in 2020. There are also 4 seasons of TV available to stream on Amazon Prime. In addition to all this, the deep origins of the setting come from an RPG that Ty Franck ran for Daniel Abraham and some other friends. The reason I mention Ty and Daniel specifically is that Ty created the setting we now know as The Expanse and Daniel was one of his players. They’ve teamed up to create the pen name “James S.A. Corey” to write the novels.
Green Ronin Kickstarted their version of The Expanse RPG, and as I type this, the books are in transit to my house. To say that I’m “excited” for the arrival of this material is a weakness of the English language. To say that I’m “nervous” about doing the setting justice is also a weakness of the English language.
How am I going to handle these nerves and excitement? I’m going to work with my group to make it “Our Expanse” while we’re at the table together.
Make It Your Own
Any experienced author will tell you that their words are no longer theirs once the book is published. The words belong to the reader. They get to make of the words what they will. There is no wrong interpretation, but there are many right interpretations, including the author’s.There is no wrong interpretation.
This means the author (or in this case, the team of game designers) has their intents and purposes for the game, but when the game hits each table out there in the world, the gaming group gets to turn those intents and purposes to their own game. This means they are making it their own. This is part of releasing a game into the world. Again, there is no wrong interpretation of the setting, but there are as many right viewpoints on the setting as there are gaming groups playing the game.
How do we interpret an existing setting? That’s a hard question to answer because we all bring numerous perspectives, backgrounds, traumas, loves, dislikes, and angles to the table. This means there are many ways to interpret the setting that’s published in the game (or on TV or in a series of novels).
The first step is to understand (as best you can) what currently exists in the existing canon. This is fairly easy with a “small” body of work like The Expanse. If you take on Star Trek, Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, or another large property, then things get more difficult. Don’t try to absorb it all. That pathway leads to insanity and a huge waste of time. The best thing to do is to focus on what’s in the game book(s). This is what the creators of the game wanted you to focus on, so it’s probably a good idea to follow their lead.
The second step is to find a place to drop your personal story and characters. This is the sweet spot because you’ll make this area your own for you and your players. This is where you’ll make your changes to the setting to fit your needs.
Once you’ve identified your target, dive deep into that area. Absorb even more than you already have, but avoid rabbit holes of research that can lead you astray from your target. (To quote a famous space battle scene, “Stay on target.”)
At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article because of their “low or zero prep” philosophies. I agree with their approach to some extent, but this is more research than prep work. Yes, this can be time consuming, so don’t go overboard. Make sure you have index cards or some other note taking method handy. You’ll want to call out page numbers, references, and brief snippets of brilliance that you find. You’ll also want to note what you intend to change or use in the setting.At this point, I can hear Phil and Senda screaming at this article.
Once you have this knowledge at hand, note the changes or shifts you want to make. You’ll want to create a brief list of bullet notes for the players to let those “in the know” what’s going to be changed. Also, during your session zero, you’ll want to explicitly call out that there will be changes and that if some “misinformation” about the setting is used, then it will become “canon at the table” for this particular game.
Here’s where a problem arises. If you’re using a setting that has deep lore (see my list above) or has been around a long while, then there is a risk that a player at the table will know more about it than you. This happened to me in a Dresden Files game I ran. I’ve read the books, the short stories, and seen the TV show (no comment on that last one). However, my brain doesn’t hold the massive amounts of knowledge and information contained within that lore. There were many things I got wrong or didn’t have answers to.
There are two approaches for this player.Lean on the player.
The first is the least desirable. This approach is to shutdown the player and let them know that their intense depth of knowledge isn’t helpful in the game. This allows you to run the setting as your own, but it will also alienate your player(s) who have this knowledge. It does allow for more freedom, but it’s making use of something valuable within your game.
This leads to the second option. Lean on the player. Make it known that your knowledge is lacking. Admit to the group that you’ll welcome input and advice on how to handle the setting. Also let them know that you get the final call on how things will go in the game at the table. Once these two “ground rules” are in place, don’t be embarrassed about turning to the player for help with getting the little details correct. This will empower the “know-it-alls” and bring them deeper into your game.
Relax. Someone else may have created the setting, but this version belongs entirely to your group. Own it. Make it your own and interpret the setting as you see fit.
Most of all.
Enjoy the setting!Read more »
- The Indie Game Shelf: Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (Second Edition)
Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new or brand new to the hobby and wanting to explore what’s out there, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins (Second Edition)
Legacy: Life Among the Ruins from UFO Press and Modiphius Entertainment is a Powered by the Apocalypse game designed for one Game Master (GM) and 2-5 players to tell the epic, era-spanning tale of rebuilding society after a cataclysmic fall. Apocalypse World, the progenitor of the Powered by the Apocalypse movement, is a game about surviving the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland. In its wake arose an army of games based on similar design principles but exploring different settings and themes from classic fantasy like Dungeon World to imaginative futurism like Headspace. When Legacy first emerged in 2015, a game about surviving the harsh post-apocalyptic wasteland, I mused that we’d come full circle with a Powered by the Apocalypse game that was once again about…well, the apocalypse.
Legacy is a different game from Apocalypse World, though, with a different focus and a very different style. In this edition of The Indie Game Shelf, I’ll be focusing on the second edition of Legacy, published in 2018. The second edition is an update of the first, as opposed to it being a different set of rules. The core of the game remains, but gameplay is improved and material expanded by the second edition, so I recommend the second edition over the first.
Legacy is a game squarely set in the post-apocalypse genre, but where the game differs from most others is in the scope of the narrative. The stories told in this game span generations, truly living up to the game’s premise of world-building. Players in this game do control characters as in other RPGs, but the main interface between players and the game world are the Family playbooks, which represent whole groups of people across the duration of the world’s development. The framing of the game’s fiction zooms in and out between the two perspectives, with some stories being personal to Characters and others taking a wider, more epic view of the activities and relationships of Families. In this context, a Family is not necessarily a group of people related biologically; they can be united by ideology, culture, circumstance, or anything that forges a bond of loyalty between people. Families grow and change, are driven by various purposes, have relationships with each other, face threats, and can pursue grand, world-changing events in the game called Wonders.
Like in many Powered by the Apocalypse games, the rules present a style of play more than a detailed setting. There is assumed to have previously occurred some great disaster that tore civilization down, and the game’s story is meant to take place in the aftermath, but the details of the world and its history are left to each game group to decide. However, Legacy provides rules for determining these details through playbook choice and configuration. The selection of a playbook can describe aspects of the game’s world, but the choices made within that playbook refine the setting’s history.The game mechanics of Legacy drive toward changing the in-fiction world during play, from character death to the mechanics of Wonders, both of which create huge narrative and mechanical changes to the game which are felt for the rest of the campaign.For example, choosing the Family playbook “The Order of the Titan,” which describes a group dedicated to hunting, fighting, or scavenging gigantic alien beasts called Behemoths, means that you now know that Behemoths are a part of your game world. Once a playbook is chosen, however, then a stat line must be selected, and the choice of stat line might dictate “your studies woke the Behemoths and set them loose” or “the Behemoths brought the Fall to the world.” In this way, Family and Character setup also result in setting up the world, not only historically but also geographically with the building of a collaborative world map. (I love games that use collaborative map-building!)
In addition to a Family playbook, players also begin by selecting a Character playbook to represent an exceptional member of the Family who will serve as one of the protagonists of the story. These playbooks start with an archetype (the Elder, the Scavenger, the Firebrand, etc.) and are customized from there. A campaign of Legacy spans generations, so Characters come and go as the game progresses. While players control one Family to usher through the rebuilding of the world, they’ll get the chance to play many different Characters over the course of the campaign.
The focus of the stories of Legacy lie in the building of the world. This is only partially due to the pre-game or start-of-game “worldbuilding” as I use the term in discussing other games. The game mechanics of Legacy drive toward changing the in-fiction world during play, from character death to the mechanics of Wonders, both of which create huge narrative and mechanical changes to the game which are felt for the rest of the campaign.
As a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, Legacy sports core mechanics familiar to anyone who plays Apocalypse World or any other games of that design family. Playbooks have stats which modify 2d6 rolls triggered by the fiction and resulting in different outcomes defined by rule packets called moves. Legacy also adds an advantage/disadvantage mechanic to die rolls (replacing the usual +1 or -1 forward or ongoing), but the biggest structural difference from other PbtA games is the concurrent use of multiple playbooks by each player.
Players in Legacy control two different playbooks at any given time: a Family and a Character. The Family is the focus of the “zoomed out” epic view of the world’s story, and a player will generally control and evolve a single Family over the course of a campaign. Characters, however, both advance and retire at a faster pace, starring in the “zoomed in” views of the fiction, telling their stories and then moving on to be replaced. Families have one set of basic moves for their fictions, and Characters draw from a separate set.
Family playbooks have stats and playbook moves. They also have Traditions, which is basically like the Looks section of other PbtA playbooks, the relationship mechanic is a currency called “Treaty” (as opposed to things like “Hx,” “Bonds,” or “Strings” in other games), Doctrine and Lifestyle provide mechanical tweaks based on a Family’s ideology or attitude and their population’s geographical arrangement, and Resources and Assets decide what a Family needs to survive, what they have to offer, and what special equipment they can offer their Characters. Each Family playbook also comes with an Alliance Move governing how they gain Treaty, and Inheritance, which confers benefits to that Family’s Characters and also contributes to quick character creation, a valuable tool for adding side characters to many stories.
Character playbooks similarly have stats and playbook moves. They have Looks and Backstory as well, but it bears mentioning that there is no Character relationship mechanic as there is for Families. Characters also have a Role which broadly describes their place in their Family’s society. A Character’s Role changes during the game and serves as both a character advancement marker (in place of XP) as well as a source of additional mechanics. The Harm track contains descriptors and mechanical effects unique to each Character playbook, and finally the Death Move describes how the Character leaving play affects the world after they’re gone.
The overall story of the campaign is divided into Ages. At the end of each Age, a time-passing move is triggered which describes affects to each Family, the world map gets updated, and Family playbooks are updated to suit the new fiction. During play, Families also have the option of devoting their surplus Resources toward Wonders, world-changing events on a massive scale. When a Family completes a Wonder, it is a special kind of advancing an Age, and it guarantees at the very least a change in the world map and mechanical effects felt by every Family in the game. A variable amount of fictional time passing between Ages means that the world can have changed very little or quite a lot before the next Age begins. The game allows tremendous opportunity for the complete exploration of the rise (and perhaps fall) of an entire world.
The second edition of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is available for purchase in print and PDF. You can also check out Titanomachy (free PDF download or purchasable print-on-demand softcover), the quickstart for Legacy which contains core rules, pregenerated characters, and a setting starter so you can jump right into playing. If you’re looking for expansions, the Worlds of Legacy collection offers a variety of alternate settings and new playbooks and moves you can bring to the game, like the political sci-fi of a new planet colony in Worldfall or the evolution of sentient species at the dawn of time in Primal Pathways.
If you’re looking for similar games, there’s certainly no shortage of post-apocalyptic RPGs to be found, from classics like Gamma World (all 30+ years and seven editions of it) to more recent offerings like INDE’s dark fantasy-style Shattered or Hebanon Games’ intersection of zombies and economics, Red Markets. The big noise is, of course, Apocalypse World, and Legacy is solidly rooted in the Apocalypse World Engine, so if you’re looking for games with similar rules, you can have your pick of the Powered by the Apocalypse catalog. If you’re more interested in the zooming-in and zooming-out style of play, definitely check out the story game Microscope from Lame Mage Productions. If you’re particularly interested in the society-building aspect, Lame Mage also offers the game Kingdom, and you could also take a look at Ziapelta Games’ Wrath of the Autarch.
If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!Read more »
- Blizzard - Presented Diablo 4 to European EmployeesGamePressure reports that Diablo 4 was presented to its European Employees. The official website of the French newspaper Le Monde has published an article on a series of layoffs at the French branch of Blizzard Entertainment. The text mentions that the company has recently organised a Diablo 4 show in Paris for some European studio workers.... Read more »
- Wolcen: Lords of Mayhem - Content Patch 1 TrailerWolcen: Lords of Mayhem content patch 1 trailer. loading... Wolcen’s Act I will offer you at least 4 hours of story and ends on an epic multi-phase boss fight. With Content Patch 1, in addition to the story mode, we're adding more skills modifiers, we double the choices on the Passive Skill Tree, many creatures have been added and more.... Read more »
- The Waylanders - Combat System ExampleA short update for The Waylanders shows a skill available to long-ranged characters. Greetings adventurers! A short-but-cool update today. As you know, combat is one of the key features on The Waylanders. We are working hard to provide you with deep combat system and innovative skills and moves.... Read more »
- RPGWatch - Summer Key GiveawayIt is that time of year again where we are giving away some keys again. We have a whole bunch of keys, so most of you shoul dbe able to get one. To be able to participate, the following rules are applicable: You were a registered member of RPGWatch before the 6th of June 2019 AND You clearly state in a reply to this news topic that you want to participateNote that in your reply you can indicate what your preference of games to win is.... Read more »
- Final Fantasy VIII - PC Remaster Features RevealedDSOGaming reports on the PC exclusive features of the Final Fantasy VIII remaster. loading... At E3 2019, Square Enix revealed that a remaster of the second 3D Final Fantasy game, Final Fantasy 8, is under development. This remaster will come with some new features and in an interview with Ryokutya2089, Producer Yoshinori Kitase unveiled these brand new features.... Read more »
- Baldur's Gate 3 - Will the Ranger Class be changed?TheGamer thinks that the Ranger Class will be enhanced in Baldur's Gate 3: Baldur's Gate 3 And Dungeons & Dragons Will Be Changing The Ranger Class In The Future The ranger is one of the weaker classes in the current edition of Dungeons & Dragons, but that will be changing soon, as the class will be different in both Baldur's Gate III and in some new updates for Dungeons & Dragons in the future.... Read more »
- SpellForce 3: Soul Harvest - Review @ Powerup-GamingPowerup-Gaming checked out the RTS/RPG hybrid Spellforce 3: Soul Harvest: Spellforce 3 Soul Harvest Review – A Masterclass in RTS-RPG Hybrids Spellforce is an old real-time-strategy RPG franchise that inspires an awful lot of love and nostalgia in its fans.... Read more »
- Cyberpunk 2077 - Rewarding EndingPrimagames reports that Cyberpunk 2077 will have a rewarding ending and the open world can be used for expansions: Cyberpunk 2077 Will Have a "Very Rewarding Ending," Complete Expansions Not unlike The Witcher 3, Cyberpunk 2077 will continue to evolve with the player in mind.... Read more »
- Running Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 3: Fireball
Note: This article contains spoilers for Waterdeep Dragon Heist.
Chapter 3 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist may be the best chapter in the book. This chapter fits well into the model of adventure design proposed in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. It has the ultimate strong start: a fireball exploding in the street outside of Trollskull Manor. It also builds the adventure around the infiltration of a location: Gralhund Villa. These infiltration adventures give players lots of options and push us DMs to heavily improvise the reaction of the villains as the characters make their choices. In my mind, it's the ideal situation for a fantastic adventure.
Bad Guys Have Bad Days Too
Chapter 3 begins with a misunderstanding between two groups trying to accomplish the same thing. An agent of Raenar Neverember is bringing the Stone of Golorr to the characters. Agents of House Gralhund have been trailing the gnome and two different groups attack him at the same time. The first is the former Zhentarim assassin Urstul Floxin. The second is a nimblewright sent by the Gralhunds. If the Gralhunds had trusted Floxin to do his job, the characters might never have known that the gnome or the stone existed at all. Instead, the nimblewright screwed up and fireballed the gnome, causing a catastrophe and getting a lot of attention in Trollskull Alley.
Bringing In the Xanathar's Thugs
To complicate the situation we can drop in a handful of Xanathar thugs and warlocks who also happened to be tracking the gnome. Now when the fireball goes off we have a whole bunch of different groups chasing down the stone all at the same time. Floxin gets it first and flees the scene, sending in his own thugs to ward off the Xanathar thugs. That's when the characters get involved. They might track the nimblewright but Floxin is gone as is the stone. Only afterwards, when the situation has cleared up, do the characters learn that the former Zhent assassin got away with the stone.
Tracking the Stone to Gralhund Villa
The next part of the adventure has the characters learning about the Stone of Golorr from Raenar Neverember and hunting it down to Gralhund Villa. We might have dropped some clues about the Gralhunds already. In my game, the warehouse where Raenar Neverember was first kidnapped was actually leased by the Gralhunds as a front for the Cassalanters, the adventure's true villain in my game. This way when the characters hear about the Gralhunds, it isn't for the first time.
The book offers some false leads that send the characters on wild goose chases but we can make life a little easier on the characters and drop in some secrets and clues that the Gralhunds are behind the theft of the stone and that it's now at their manor.
Infiltrating Gralhund Villa
When the characters arrive at Gralhund Villa we drop into a great infiltration adventure. We can read ahead on who is where in the villa and let the players decide how they're going to approach it. Urstul Floxin is arguing with the Gralhunds about their stupidity. If the characters overhear it, it will give them a clue that these bad guys have made some bad choices and that they're also working for someone else. It won't be their last bad choices either.
Grandfather Gralhund, a wight, is wandering around in the villa's courtyard as he does every night while the Gralhund children are playing with matches up in their rooms.
To complicate the situation, a band of Xanathar spies and thugs might break into the compound the same time the characters get there with the same plan to steal the stone.
Adding a Mini-Dungeon
The Gralhunds are former worshippers of Tiamat so we might add a shrine to Tiamat in the basement. These chambers might include an old teleportation gate that Urstul Floxin can use to escape the villa before he's confronted by the characters. This will begin the chase in chapter 4 but with a different spin: instead of a chase, the characters have to track Urstul's movements through the city to find out where he's taking the Stone of Golorr. We'll talk more about converting the chase in chapter 4 into an investigation in our next article on the Waterdeep Dragon Heist.
Some of the Gralhund's cultist friends might be hiding down in the shrine; cultist friends the characters will have to deal with when they get down there.
Setting the Stage for Chapter 4
With Gralhund Villa thoroughy infiltrated, the more arcane-focused characters in the party might use some Intelligence (Arcana) checks to find out where the portal went to. This location becomes the first step in the trail followed in chapter 4. More on that in the future article. In the mean time, enjoy the investigation and the infiltration in chapter 3. Think of it as an excellent model with an interesting hook and a lot of agency for the characters to choose the path they want to take. Of all of the models of adventures, infiltrations are one of the best.Read more »
- On Writing Adventures
I've recently been doing a lot of adventure writing, the results of which you can find in the Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot Kickstarter. As part of this project, I wanted to dig deep into what makes great adventures. So, as I did when writing Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I hit the books (and the blogs) to collect as much of the best advice on adventure design that I could.
Map from Temple of the Forgotten God, one of the adventures in Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.
This article consolidates many of the sources I discovered and read on adventure design. In the article I describe the source and some of the key tips that stuck out to me.
Chris Perkins on Writing Your Own Adventures. Chris has some excellent advice in this video and summary writeup. Here are a few key ideas:
- Analyze existing adventures.
- What motivates the characters to go on the adventure?
- Adventures need three things: motivation, locations, and a villain.
- Put a unique spin on a common idea.
- Have a kickass map.
- A little silliness is ok.
D&D House Style Guide. This free set of documents from Wizards of the Coast includes the house styles the D&D team gives to freelancers. It includes a short paper on adventure writing. Here are a few key points:
- Focus on the importance of the characters.
- Include a solid credible threat.
- Blend familiar tropes with clever twists.
- Focus on the here and now. Omit verbose backstories.
- Include meaningful decisions.
- Include options for exploration, roleplaying, and combat.
- Offer more than a DM can come up with themselves.
- Include a great map.
DM David on Will Doyle's Dungeon Designs. In this excellent article, David Hartlage discusses Will Doyle's advice for designing great dungeons including the Tomb of the Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation.
- Show the final room first. Show the goal.
- Cut the dungeon with a river, rift, or stairwell. Break through a linear dungeon with a feature that cuts through the whole thing.
- Make the dungeon a puzzle.
- Give the players goals that force exploration.
- Give each level a distinctive theme.
How to Write Modules that Don't Suck. This outline for a seminar at a convention by Goodman Games has a lot of fantastic advice in it. Goodman Games ended up extending it into a much longer ebook of the same title. The original is a golden summary of great ideas. Here are a few key pieces of advice:
- Convey the fantastic.
- Produce what home DMs can't produce.
- Put new twists on classic ideas.
- Include a hidden room with cool treasure.
- Make levels distinct.
- Include an intelligent ecology.
- Exude atmosphere.
Kobold's Guide to Game Design: Adventures. This book has a ton of excellent essays on writing adventures. Some of the key points include:
- The DM is your audience. Write for them.
- Give the DM the tools to make a fun game for players.
- Small beats large. Keep it brief.
- Don't bore yourself.
- Read your work aloud.
- Be specific.
- You're doing the hard work DMs don't want to do.
- If Conan doesn't care, neither should you.
Merric Blackman's NPC Advice. Merric Blackman had some excellent NPC advice he posted to Twitter. Here are a few key ideas:
- What do they want?
- How do they respond to trickery, diplomacy, intimidation, or violence?
- Present NPCs as they're intended to be used.
- Important NPCs need more guidelines for DMs.
- Don't force a DM to search for an NPC's information.
- Limit the number of important NPCs.
Wolfgang Baur's Adventure Writer Series includes a number of great articles, though they tend to focus on the third edition of D&D. The most relevant articles include Writing Your First Adventure, Structures and Plot, and Setting the Hook. Here are a few tips from these articles:
- Avoid useless backstories.
- Start strong.
- Trim excess encounters.
- Pick a motive: curiosity, survival, greed, heroism, loyalty, honor, or revenge.
- Make hooks personal.
Jaquaying the Dungeon. This article on the website the Alexandrian offers excellent advice for building exciting dungeons in our adventures. Here are some key concepts:
- Include multiple entrances.
- Include loops.
- Include multiple level connections.
- Offer secret and unusual paths.
Writing With Style: An Editor's Advice for RPG Writers. This is an excellent resource from an RPG industry editor to RPG writers. There's so much good advice in this book that it is hard to summarize in a few bullet points. It's an excellent read all the way through.
Designing Adventures Podcast Series. Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak have been running a series of podcasts on designing adventures. There's too many tips to list here but the podcasts are definitely worth a listen.Read more »
- Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot Kickstarter
Last week I launched the Kickstarter for Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot. You can learn all about it on the Kickstarter's page, of course, but for those of you who frequent Sly Flourish, I wanted to offer some deeper insight into the project.
Over the past few years I've experimented with a few different products. After writing an article for Critical Hits on "What I Want from Published Adventures", I experimented with Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. This book offered twenty locations GMs could drop into their games abstracted from the story, monsters, NPCs, and other stuff we bring into our game. I love this product but it's not everyone's cup of tea. In particular, it purposefully didn't offer accurate maps because the design idea was that GMs would build their own maps. That might have been asking for too much heavy lifting.
The original Fantastic Adventures came next and it hit the mark for a lot of of GMs. I designed that book to offer short focused adventures that made it easy for GMs to prepare them, run them, and drop them into their own campaign worlds. I think they worked well. The book gets lots of complements from people who give hard looks to published adventures. The book also sells well; about a couple of hundred copies a month.
The result is Ruins of the Grendleroot, a book of ten adventures set in a single big mountain filled with ancient chambers, ruins, tunnels, catacombs, vaults, and lairs. It's a mountain of infinite possibilities for adventure centered around Deepdelver's Enclave, an outpost of explorers and adventures who just plain love digging down into all of those ruins.
Like Fantastic Adventures, each adventure is intended to run on its own. Unlike the original, five of these can actually be run in a series around a single miniature campaign arc. I wanted to add a little more theme to these adventures than the original had, and, if we meet the stretch goals, I'll add an entire history that GMs can pilfer from as they run these adventures.
Originally I had intended to build Ruins of the Grendleroot around randomness. Much like the tables in the Lazy DM's Workbook I thought it would act more like an adventure toolkit, something like Shadows over Driftchapel by Absolute Tabletop. After testing the idea out with some trusted advisors, however, it turned out that, like Fantastic Locations, it asked too much of the GM to build adventures out of the components without a hint. Thus, you'll find more refined adventures in this book but lots of advice for how to twist it and turn it around to fit your own story.
I am really excited for Ruins of the Grendleroot. So far it's the hardest project I've worked on with the most moving parts. The artwork, editing, and design are going to be awesome. I can't want to get it into your hands.
If you have the means, I hope you will give it your support.Read more »
- The Old Man and the Bowl
Leavold Goldenfingers worked his magic. Across the icy rocks of his home, high up in the Spine of the World, the sound of his tiny hammer clinking on the golden bowl echoed across the mountains. His knobby fingers fixed the rubies in place. They ached as he pressed the gems carefully into place feeling them set perfectly in the rim of the golden bowl. In a few tendays, each of the dozen rubies would be in place and then he could start etching the glyphs on the inside of the soft gold bowl, a bowl only he could make. A bowl that would, one day, serve a feast to heroes.
Leavold looked out over the rocky landscape of his home, the home he had lived in for nearly all of his eighty five years. He grew up here. He learned the crafting of the bowls from his father as he had planned to teach his sons.
Tears came to his eyes. For sixteen winters his son had watched him work, studying his art. Leavold told him of the heroes who purchased his bowls and used the divine food they served to push back the evils of the world. His son would smirk at these fantastic stories but soon he came to believe them. He believed them too much.
Leavold's son left to find his own way in the world, a world of adventure, discovery, and heroism. He only found the end of a gnoll's spear in his belly, setting in an infection that killed him a tenday later. His son's friend came to tell Leavold. They held eachother and wept together.
The next day Leavold continued to craft his bowl. He was the only one in the world capable of making such a fine bowl. With his arthritic fingers aching and sad memories in his eyes, he would continue to make them, one at a time, six moons passing before each was complete, until the day he died.
The Troubles of Heroes' Feast
There are a few troublesome spells in the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. One of them, in my opinion, is Heroes' Feast. This sixth-level cleric spell is powerful enough that many players will choose to cast it every day they can, giving its substantial benefits to all of the characters in the party every morning. Many of the spell's abilities are just fine. The hit point maximum and bonus hit points are great. Advantage on Wisdom saves is powerful but not game-breaking. Curing diseases and poisons is solid.
Then we come to its more difficult bonus: immunity to fear and poison. On the surface this doesn't seem like a big deal but many high challenge creatures are built around the damage they inflict with poison and the status effects they impose with both poison and fear. With every character in a party immune to these effects, certain monsters become much easier. This might be fine, but many of these monsters are intended to be truly powerful threats.
Let's consider the ancient green dragon. This challenge 22 monster inflicts most of its damage with its horrendous 77 point breath weapon, a weapon that is completely avoided with Heroes' Feast. Another of the dragon's powerful weapons, it's Frightful Presence is also negated by the same spell on all characters. This could potentially cut the ancient green dragon's challenge in half with a single spell.
The same is true with many other monsters. Yuan-ti rely on poison for the bulk of their damage. All of the high-challenge dragons use Frightful Presence as do many other monsters. Some of the most powerful monsters in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes rely on fear or poison for a good piece of their challenge including Baphomet, Moloch, Geryon (who uses both), and Hutijin.
The Fun of Breaking the Game
One of the core designs of the fifth edition of D&D is that certain spells, feats, and magic items can "break" the game. They go outside of the math that exists between characters and monsters. When the designers build a monster, like a green dragon or Geryon, they don't factor in spells like heroes' feast. They want those spells to shine in situations where it has an effect. Being able to go out of your way to make yourself immune to the breath weapon of a green dragon is a pretty cool part of the story.
Heroes' feast is so good, though, that many clerics and druids, when they have it, will cast it every day. Like mage armor for wizards, the whole party will get together every morning and spend an hour enjoying an amazing meal prepared by their priest.
There are lots of ways we DMs could screw with the power of heroes' feast if we wanted to. We could nerf it directly and make it resist poison instead of full immunity. We could have it give characters advantage on poison and fear saving throws instead of full immunity. That would solve all of the problems I have with it. Sure, it's powerful, but a green dragon's breath weapon still does something.
We could go the other direction as well and convert monsters' abilities to something other than poison or fear. We can't get away with this for green dragons, known for their poisonous breath, but we can for devil lords and others by converting poison damage to acid damage and converting fear checks to madness checks. This is probably worth doing when monsters are intended to provide a powerful challenge to parties (like Geryon or Baphomet).
The Scarcity of 1,000 gp Bowls
Another way to handle this is pure economics. Heroes' feast requires a 1,000 gp gem-encrusted bowl. Granted, by the time characters are high enough level to cast heroes' feast, they are also often high enough level to buy as many 1,000 gp bowls as they want. But who is going to sell those to them? Who has 1,000 gp bowls just sitting around in a stack like plasticware at a Walmart? The cost of a bowl like this speaks to its scarcity. There probably aren't a lot of bowls like this. Even if one has the 1,000 gp, finding those bowls might be a quest unto itself. Maybe the head of a temple gives an adventurer a bowl as a reward. Maybe they find one in an ancient tomb of a dragon priestess. Maybe there's an old man in the mountains who has made these bowls for 75 years but it takes him six months to make one and he only has two available.
We can prevent the over-proliferation of heroes' feast by limiting the component required to cast it. The characters can still decide when it's time to sit down and enjoy that fine meal before stepping into the ancient fortress of Coldsteel in the layer of hell known as Stygia.
This technique is a fun one because it helps balance a spell like heroes' feast within the story of the game. Acquiring bowls suitable for heroes' feast becomes it's own story.
Season 8 of Adventurer's League
Wizards of the Coast saw a problem like this one when looking at the Adventurer's League. After seven seasons of adventures and dungeon delving, high level characters in the Adventurer's League, like characters in home games, had plenty of gold to spend on bowls for Heroes' Feast. WOTC modified the adventurers league by severely limiting gold rewards in Adventurer's League games. This is fraught with all sorts of problems, well documented by Navy DM, DM David, and Merric Blackman, but it does take care of the Heroes' Feast problem. You really have to want those buffs to spend the 1,000 gp to cast it.
I don't Have a Problem. You Have a Problem!
Maybe you're reading this and thinking "Why are you nerfing Heroes' Feast like this? Let the players have their fun!" That's a perfectly acceptable reaction to these ideas. If your group is having a good time and you, the DM, don't care, don't worry about any of this. If you feel like the removal of poison and fear isn't a big deal, go with the gods. If, however, you feel like the challenge of certain high challenge monsters gets too easily avoided with a single casting of heroes' feast, consider following the money and make the bowls scarce.
The old man gazes over the frost-cracked rocks outside his home. A lifetime seems to swim in his eyes. Though often haunted by the ghosts of his memories, he still finds solace in his craft. Wincing as his arthritic knuckles crack, he begins his work again.
- D&D Tips from the 2018 D&D Open: Gangs of Waterdeep
In the summer of 2018 at Origins, Wizards of the Coast and the D&D Adventurer's League ran the D&D Open, a multi-table competition-based D&D adventure called "Gangs of Waterdeep" as a preview to their Waterdeep Dragon Heist adventure. This adventure was writtin by Shawn Merwin, James Introcaso, and Will Doyle.
The adventure is considered "competitive" but the competitive aspect was limited to a point-based system in which only one table out of about fifty could actually win. The competitive nature wasn't the interesting part of this adventure; the interesting part was the style and format. Today we're going to look at some design tips we can learn from the design of the D&D Open Gangs of Waterdeep adventure.
Warning, this article contains minor spoilers for Gangs of Waterdeep.
Build Situations, Not Encounters
Gangs of Waterdeep mastered the art of building situations instead of encounters. The whole adventure was broken up into 60 to 90 minute segments that each focused on a heist. These could be break-ins, infiltrations, hijacks, and other heist-like situations. Before each of these larger events, the DMs gave players information they could discover and time to prepare themselves for the situation. Then the operation began. Maybe characters would fight their way through it. Maybe they would sneak. Maybe they would like or bluff. How the players chose to approach the situation was up to them and it was up to the DM to adjudicate how it worked out.
These larger scenes are different from the typical way we might plan out our Dungeons & Dragons games with specific exploration, roleplay, or combat scenes with pre-determined starts and conclusions. These larger situations are exciting because our options are nearly unlimited and the outcomes can be completely different from anything anyone can expect.
The next time you're planning out a D&D game, build a larger situation and let the characters choose how they interact with that situation.
Add Planning and Execution Timers
When we set up situations and give the players time to discuss how they're going to go about it, we can add timers to keep it to a reasonable amount. If a scenario is likely to take about an hour, we can let the players know that they have fifteen minutes to plan the job before it begins. It helps to have an in-game reason for such a limitation.
One reason to put such a limit on the planning is that the players really don't have all the information about the situation and their plan is very likely to change when more information gets revealed. The longer the planning goes on, the more planning will be thrown away when things go sideways. Limiting the planning session gives players some time to prepare but wastes little time when things don't go as they expect. In some circumstances you want to give players all the time they want to plan an approach towards a situation, like deciding how to get onto a pirate ship and steal a specific treasure they hold. It's always best to watch the body language of the group and see if the planning is going overboard, however.
Let the Players Choose the Gameplay Pillar
When we build out situations, we don't determine how the scene will go. We don't decide ahead of time that a scene will involve combat, exploration, or roleplaying. We can let the players decide how to approach it, both as they plan and as the scene takes place during the game. This can be great fun for both players and DMs since no one knows how a scene is going to go. It can help us to explain this to the players before the game so they aren't looking to us for clues to "solve" the scene. It also helps if we're prepared to run some of our combat in the theater of the mind so that we can seamlessly transition between roleplaying, exploration, combat, and back again without a big break in the flow of the narrative. If we have to set up a battle map and miniatures for just one of those scenes, it can slow down everything else instead of giving us easy transitions in and out of combat. Of course, if combat does occur between a good number of different monster types in a complicated area, a battle map or even a loose sketch, can help everyone understand who is where and what is going on.
Choose Monsters that Make Sense
Gangs of Waterdeep broke away from the typical Adventurer's League style of building level-appropriate challenges for the characters. Typically Adventurer's League encounters are built around a character's level. This can result in fighting a weird hodgepodge of unlikely creatures for the situiation like four swashbucklers and three master thieves breaking into a dress shop to justify a level 8 battle.
Instead, we can choose the right monsters for the story regardless of the level of the characters. If the characters run into a band of thieves on the streets, those thieves are likely bandits. Maybe their street boss is a bandit captain.
It's ok to run combat encounters that are wildly in favor of the characters if it makes sense for the situiation. There's no reason you can't have a group of sixth level characters fight five bandits if that's what makes sense. In Gangs of Waterdeep our gang of level five characters fought three cultists at one point. Could they have been cult fanatics? Maybe, but plain cultists makes a lot more sense.
The only time we might want to be careful is if a battle might be deadly. Then it's worth checking out the math to make sure we won't accidently kill the whole party.
Use Props and Costumes
Props and costumes can add a whole new tacticle and visual feeling to the game. Dressing up as guards, wearing hoods, and otherwise changing our appearance for the game can draw in another level of immersion. So can other props we can use at the table like rustic notes, maps, physical props, and other objects. A puzzle box or cube can become a staple in a long-time campaign, something we hold throughout our adventures. A heart-shaped gem or black coin we can hold in our hand can represent the phylactery of a villain or the trapped soul of a companion. Look for props everywhere, particularly costume shops or hobby shops, and drop them into your game to add a new layer to the story.
Add New Gameplay Elements
From time to time it can be fun to add a new gameplay element to our normal D&D game. Using a big Jenga tower to represent the psionic battle between two opponents can be fun. We can use mastermind puzzles, Caesar cyphers, or strimko puzzles to represent the puzzles our characters find in-game. Keep in mind that these puzzles don't work for those who are visually impared so be ready to toss them aside if players can't take part in them. It's usually easy to change a puzzle into a series of skill checks if players either aren't figuring them out, don't care about them, or are physically unable to take part.
A Solid Adventure Design
The Gangs of Waterdeep adventure models an excellent design for adventures overall. Its focus on developing interesting situations that the characters can explore in many different ways gives a freedom we don't often find in published adventures. It focuses on the story by putting thematically appropriate monsters in the right spots regardless of whether it's an "appropriate" challenge to the party. It times both planning and execution of the scenes in the adventure, keeping the tension high without removing the agency of the players' decisions. It included some excellent props and costumes to help bring another layer of depth to the game. It also included a fun new gameplay type, one that worked in parallel to the rest of the adventure, that proved to be a fun event all to itself. Gangs of Waterdeep was an excellent model for the adventures we can run at our own game table.Read more »
- VideoChoosing the Right Steps from the Lazy DM Checklist
Chapter 12 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master describes ways to reduce the eight steps of RPG preparation down to the ones that matter the most for your game. This list changes depending on the type of game a DM runs and available material a DM has to run it.
Today we're going to look at which steps best fit common scenarios in which DMs often find themselves.
If you are not familiar with the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master you can read this PDF preview of the book or watch these videos including this 8-step summary video to better understand the eight steps. For a quick summary, the steps include:
- Review the characters
- Create a strong start
- Outline potential scenes
- Define secrets and clues
- Develop fantastic locations
- Outline important NPCs
- Choose relevant monsters
- Select magic item rewards
This list of steps is all-inclusive but we can often skip steps depending on what sort of game we're preparing. You can watch me do this all the time in my Lazy DM prep video series in which I use the eight steps to prepare for my own weekend D&D games but often cut steps out depending on the type of game I'm about to run.
Let's look at some common scenarios and see which steps best fit.
The Continuous Homebrew Campaign
Based on the results of the 2016 Dungeon Master Survey, this scenario is likely the most common. Most DMs run their own campaign worlds and their own adventures. It's also likely most DMs run continuing campaigns and not a series of single-session adventures.
Of all of the potential ways to play D&D, this one likely needs most, if not all the steps, each session. Since you don't have a pre-existing published adventure, you can't easily fall back on other tools that help you skip certain steps.
Sometimes, when you're in the middle of a campaign, you might already know what fantastic locations are coming up. You might also have an idea of what scenes might take place or you simply don't care and plan to let the game go wherever it goes.
Generally, though, you'll want to go through all eight steps.
In a recent Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign I ran, I ended up falling back to my own story and my own campaign. Unlike running published adventures, I needed all eight steps to help me fill out each session. I found the checklist helpful (one would hope I would!) but I did need to go through each step on it.
Even if you are playing in someone else's campaign world (and most DMs likely are not), this won't really help you skip steps for any given session. An overall campaign world means less work on the details of the world but all eight steps are still relevant for the next session you plan to run.
When running your own series of adventures in your own campaign world, you'll likely benefit from going through each of the eight steps while preparing for your next game.
The Continuous Published Adventure
Though likely not in the majority, many DMs run larger published campaign adventures such as the D&D hardback adventures for fifth edition. Like the continuous homebrew campaign, these stories continue from session to session. Unlike homebrew campaigns, we have a lot of material we can fall back on that help us skip some the steps.
Big published adventures require a lot of work, but that work is mostly up front when reading the adventure through to understand what's in it. We'll also want to review the adventure before each session to know what comes up next. That said, such early preparation helps us skip steps session to session because the published adventure includes much of what we need. In particular, we can often skip the following steps:
- Scenes. We know what scenes are often coming up because they're listed in the adventure.
- Fantastic locations. We're using the locations in the book so we don't need to think them up ourselves.
- Important NPCs. We might still want to list the ones who matter to the characters but overall we don't need to come up with many NPCs from scratch because they're in the adventure itself.
- Relevant monsters. Again, these are likely in the adventure so we can skip it.
- Magic items. Also often rewarded in the adventure.
Some adventures, like Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, and Tomb of Annihilation have large open-ended chapters that require more prep from the steps above. When the adventure goes off the rails, it's up to us to fill them in with interesting scenes, locations, monsters, NPCs, and magic items. Most of the time, though, we can rely on the adventure to do that work for us.
This leaves us with the following steps we still need to do:
- Review the characters. We still need to focus on the actual characters in the game and how the world is reacting to them.
- Create a strong start. It still helps to start strong in our games, especially when we're in the middle of a published adventure.
- Define secrets and clues. Often we can drag these out of the background of a published adventure but we still have to write them down. These secrets are still tremendously valuable when we're actually running the game, published or not.
Going from eight to three steps is a nice drop, however, which is why I highly recommend running published adventures. There's a lot of value packed into these books.
Homebrew Single-Session Games
Like the homebrew continuous games, we're going to need all eight steps when running a single-session homebrew adventure. In particular, scenes become more important because we know we're going to need to fit in a full story arc in one session. Timing also becomes critical so we need to know where we can cut the story down and still get to the ending on time.
Overall, we still need the full eight steps when running a single-session homebrew game. That said, these eight steps help put together an entire adventure for four hours of entertainment which is a pretty great return for the effort.
Published Single-Session Games
We'll often see published single-session games when running organized play games or running games at conventions. Above all, the best value we get when running such a game is to read it and understand it before we run it. Often, time is the most critical factor. Like the homebrew single-session game, we have to complete a full story arc in the allotted time which can be a real challenge.
Some single-session published adventures may not have the same quality of design, editing, and playtesting as the big hardcover published adventures so it's worth paying special attention while reading it to ensure it can fit into a single session. This is the work we must do up front but, like the published continuing game, we don't have to use all of the eight steps.
Here are the steps we can likely skip:
- Review the characters. We often have no idea who the characters are so there's no real work to be done here.
- Create a strong start. Often these adventures start how they start. We might replace the strong start if the published start sucks but generally we'll use what they have.
- Develop fantastic locations. Already outlined in the adventure.
- Outline important NPCs. Already outlined in the adventure.
- Choose relevant monsters. Already outlined in the adventure.
- Select magic item rewards. Already outlined in the adventure.
This leaves us with two steps to focus on when running a single-session published adventure:
- Outline potential scenes. Because we know we're going to have to fit the adventure into a set amount of time, we want to have a solid understanding of the outline of the scenes and what we can cut if we need to get the time back on track. This step is vital for single-session published adventures when time is a factor.
- Define secrets and clues. It's still helpful to know what the clues the characters can learn to get them from point A to point Z during a single-session published adventure.
Pilfering Published Material for a Mashup Game
Many DMs enjoy taking published material and smashing it into their own campaign arc. This provides a lot of the benefit of a published adventure but with the creative fun of a home campaign.
When we're looting other published material, we don't have to stick to the fixed structure of a published adventure. This gives us more flexibility to share our own story but it means more work too.
When we pilfer published material, we're most likely to steal locations and NPCs. We'll still have to go through the rest of the checklist to fill in the blanks we have in our campaign. Finding interesting fantastic locations, however, can be a big benefit so it's always worth stealing what we can.
Further Room to Customize
These are just a few potential scenarios DMs will likely have while preparing their D&D games. Your own specific circumstances will determine which steps are most useful to you. As you prepare and run your own games, consider which steps help you the most. Focus on those, reduce or remove the rest, and continually improve your system to run the best game possible.Read more »
- Running Waterdeep Dragon Heist Chapter 2: Trollskull Alley
This is the third in a series of articles on running Waterdeep Dragon Heist. The other articles include:
A Different Sort of Chapter in a Different Sort of Adventure
Waterdeep Dragon Heist is already a different sort of adventure than we're used to but, at least in chapter 1, it still feels like a typical adventure. A quest is given, the characters conduct an investigation, they crawl a dungeon, and face a boss. That's the outline of thousands of D&D adventures and it works really well.
Chapter 2 in Waterdeep Dragon Heist is nothing like this. Chapter 2 is mostly a toolkit for two major activities: restoring Trollskull Manor and getting connected with factions. There's no central storyline in this chapter and it's possible the activities in this chapter will take many tendays, months, or even longer depending on how you run it.
Running this chapter is not easy. If you find yourself having trouble running this chapter, hopefully this article will help.
Repairing the Manor
Much of this chapter will also revolve around repairing and funding the manor. It's up to you and your group to determine how much detail you want to expose in this venture. This event might be as simple as acquiring the funds to build up the inn once again. Maybe they hire an intermediary to do act as their agent in such matters, for a fee of course. Maybe your group really enjoys the detail of building out the inn. Some groups will love these details and some what to go off on adventures like they expect to. You'll have to gauge this yourself.
Choosing Factions and Quests
The rest of this chapter brings in seven factions that can potentially recruit the characters and send them off on a variety of missions. There are 28 such missions, none of which have anything to do with Raenar Neverember or the missing dragons.
I have two recommendations for these faction quests:
Choose one to three factions you want to introduce and ignore the rest. You might choose the Zhentarim, Bregan D'aerthe, and the Gray Hands as three interesting ones to drop into the game. You might choose three others. You likely don't want to introduce all seven of these factions. Pick the ones that fit the characters and the game and dump the rest.
Choose the faction missions which sound the most fun. There are tons of these faction missions and introducing them all can send the characters off on wild goose chases for weeks. Instead, pick a few that fit the current story of the characters and improvise any others you want to bring in.
Choose Your Own Adventures
This chapter is the perfect time to bring in your own small adventure seeds if you want. You can build these seeds from the backgrounds of your characters, inserting personal quests or group quests that focus on one particular character or another while they are busy fixing up the inn and dealing with the other issues going on. You can expand upon the rivalry between the new owners of Trollskull Manor and Emmek Frewn. Maybe it's your own little version of Patrick Swayze's Roadhouse. If you ever wanted to run some low level city adventures, this is a great time.
The Haunting of Trollskull Manor
For a more direct introduction to the chapter we can haunt Trollskull Manor, not just with Lief the poltergeist, but maybe with the hag mentioned in the manor's background. Back in Trollskull Manor's history, it was once owned by a hag who pretended to run it as an orphanage before she was routed by paladins of Helm.
What if that hag is still around?
This is our chance to add in some of our own mini-adventure. The two times I've run this chapter I added in a green hag named Auntie Potiti who had been routed from Trollskull Manor long ago but isn't fully gone. She still haunts the manor and adds all sorts of terrible discoveries including:
- A giant closet that eats people.
- Dead children that stomp around on upper floors or talk to the party.
- A crazy big hag hand that comes out of a painting.
- An illusion of a woman bathing in childrens' blood.
- Paintings that depict the characters as young children hand in hand with the hag herself.
- A glimpse of the hag's outdoor lair complete with catoblepas herds.
We can channel our best interpretations from It, Poltergeist, and The Shining to build out this our haunted manor. You might even replace it with your own version of Death House if you haven't run it before.
The hag might have a pet Banderhobb lurking in the cellar and the cellar itself might have a secret entrance into the Waterdeep sewers or even to Undermountain.
The goal of the party in this sequence is to survive the hauntings for one night and to route the hag. She will leave the manor but is still out there and may haunt the characters from time to time. Hags are fun.
The Mystery of Leif's Murder
Another interesting storyline to investigate in this chapter is Leif's murder. Perhaps the murderer was Leif's assistant, a young man at the time but old man now. Perhaps this assistant did so only after being fed lies by the rival innkeeper Emmek Frewn. Now the assistant is down at the dock wards, continually down on his luck. He has never forgiven himself for killing the only man who ever showed him kindness. It's up to the characters to find this killer and bring him to Leif, not so the ghost can kill the poor old man, but forgive him. In my game, one of the characters found out his name and used one of the paper bird messengers to summon him to the manor for a mysterious treasure. Smart!
If your group needs more structure and you want to throw a dungeon in the middle of this chapter, consider running Blue Alley by MT Black. This deathtrap alleyway is a fun way for the characters to engage with some wild traps and earn some valuable treasure to help them fund the reconstruction of Trollskull Manor. The dungeon can be unforgiving in some places so add in some valuable relics so the characters can earn more coin or acquire one or two nice powerful single-use magic items for their adventures to come.
Whenever you feel like the pacing of this chapter is getting to be too slow, it's time to drop in the fireball. Chapter 3 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist focuses on the aftermath of an explosion that rocks the alley. It's a strong start to the rest of the story of this adventure. You can drop in this event at any point while running chapter 2 so it's a great way to help you tune the pacing of the adventure. If you ever feel like things are getting stale or boring, drop in the fireball.
An Open but Challenging Chapter
Chapter 2 of Waterdeep Dragon Heist gives DMs a lot of freedom to bring in new elements to the story. It also gives players a new style of game. Instead of chasing leads, fighting bad guys, and delving into dungeons; they get to build up their own home base, meet interesting factions, and go off on small quests. It's a way for them to feel the living and breathing city of Waterdeep.
This wide open narrative can be equally challenging to run. Take some time, shrink the aperture, and build it into the chapter you want it to be.Read more »
- Handling Missing Players
Of all of the things required to run a great Dungeons & Dragons game none is harder than getting a group together regularly to play. Finding and maintaining a group is the biggest hurtle for Dungeons & Dragons. In a previous article I wrote recommendations for finding and maintaining a D&D group. In today's article, we'll look at options for handling the game when players are missing. What do we do with their characters? Which options offer us the most flexibilty and ensure the most games? Which techniques are most likely to keep people at the table and which might push people away? We'll dig into all of this today.
To prepare for this conversation I asked on Twitter how DMs handle missing players in their own games and got about 250 replies. I spent some time digging through the results to try to gauge how DMs tend to handle missing players. The following typical ways came up often:
- Simply ignore that they're missing and keep going on.
- In the fiction, send the character off to engage in some other activity.
- Let another player run the character.
- Let the DM run the character.
- Cancel the game until all or all-but-one player can make it.
I broke this down into a Twitter poll on the topic and got the following results from about 3,100 responses:
- About half let characters just fade into the background.
- About one in four let someone else run the missing character.
- About one in ten let the character go on a side quest.
- About one in ten cancel the game.
Based on these results, here are my own thoughts, experiences, and recommendations.
Running a Game Comes First
Getting friends together regularly is worth more than the pure cohesion of the story. We love sharing these stories at the table but real life happens. It's hard for many of us to maintain a regular D&D schedule. Many people have other priorities in their lives, like it or not.
Thus, if someone misses a session we should do our best to keep the game going forward. This is why having six primary players and two on-call players can work so well. If you can manage to run a game with three or four players, it would take five to six people cancelling before you have to cancel a game. That puts the odds highly in favor of being able to run a regular game.
If we can somehow work the absence of the players's character into the story, that's a great way to go. Sometimes things line up well and they can serve the story even in their abscence. Maybe they get kidnapped. Maybe they go undercover for a while. Maybe they go hang out at the inn because of a bum knee acting up. Sometimes these side-treks work well in the story. Sometimes they're ham-fisted. Even ham-fisted, though, it's better than cancelling the game.
Maybe there's really no good in-fiction way to account for the character's absence. Even the good old "we stick them in a portable hole" trick might not even work. If that's the case, we can simply let it go.
Letting It Go
Running the game is more important than maintaining a purely cohesive story. In the case where one or two players can't make it but we still have enough to run a game, we go forward anyway, even if it doesn't make perfect sense in the story. Those characters who don't make it? They fade back into the scenery. When they come back, they come back.
About half of polled DMs agreed with this idea and I'm glad to see it.
Most of us are adults. We have commitments we must keep. We recognize that the real world intruded on our fiction. That's ok. We can let the realism of our fantasy world fade a bit for the sake of getting together for a good game.
For DMs who run stories that are really wired to the characters this can be hard to do. All I can recommend is loosening your grip on the story a little bit to help support a more regular gaming schedule. In the end, it's worth it.
Running Characters for Missing Players
Many groups have someone else, either the DM or another player, run the missing players's character. This isn't an unworkable approach but it can cause a few problems. First, what if the player or DM running the character makes choices the main player of that character wouldn't make? What if the character dies? These situations might not be typical but if they come up they can cause problems.
You also have the problem of too many characters on the table compared to the players. Running characters as NPCs or having players running multiple characters can complicate the game and put too much spotlight time on the player running additional characters. A DMs life is usually hard enough that running an additional character adds an extra burden.
Instead, just let the character fade into the background and focus on the characters whose players are actually in attendance.
Making it Easy to Return
One consideration when dealing with a missing player is to make it easy and inviting for them to come back to the table. Over the years I've seen people suggest that missing players need to be somehow punished for not showing up. I'd recommend a "less stick" and "more carrot" approach. If you make it hard for players to come back to the table, you're increasing the chances that they won't come back at all.
Consider experience and leveling. One of the many advantages of using milestone experience instead of calculating experience points is that players who miss a game won't miss out on character progression at the same time. They'll know that even though they missed a game, their character will still keep up with the others in the group. This might, somehow, not seem fair, but consider that experience points and levels are arbitrary rewards anyway. Nothing prevents us from starting at higher levels if it works out for the story. If players miss out on a game and their character starts to fall behind the other characters, it becomes easier for them to simply stay away instead of returning and continually feeling like they're behind everyone else for the rest of a campaign.
Likewise, removing any other punishments for a player's absence makes it easier for the player to return and know they aren't somehow worse off for missing out.
Missing out on a D&D game is punishment enough, we don't have to compound it.
Keep the Game Running
Above all we should consider any structure or rule we have and test it against one goal: keeping the game running. Whatever rules you put in place for a player absence, ask yourself if it best serves the game. The most tight and cohesive story is no story at all if no one makes it to the table. Build a system to keep the game going and make it as easy and inviting as possible for players to keep coming to the table to play a great game of D&D.Read more »
- VideoWolfgang Baur on Worldbuilding
In the March 2019 episode of the DM's Deep Dive I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Dungeons & Dragons and RPG luminary Wolfgang Baur who is currently the Kobold-in-Chief at Kobold Press the most popular third-party publisher for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons supplements including the Midgard Campaign Setting, the Tome of Beasts, and the Creature Codex.
The rest of this article offers some notes from the episode.
Top Three Tips for Worldbuilding
Here are Wolfgang's top three tips for worldbuilding in D&D:
Know what you're trying to build. Pick a theme. Pick a seed. Pick a tone. Do you want gothic horror? Survival horror? Elfy fantasy? Choose your theme, write it down, and stick to that. This is particularly useful for shorter campaigns where you have a focused overall theme for the campaign.
Start small. For newer worldbuilders the urge is to build out everything. This can be deeply satisfying for the DM but our players just need a village. They need a hommlet. Start small. The focus on local concerns will resonate much more with your players than a big grand world. The five thousand years of history may be important to you but you can't expect your players to care until it matters to their characters.
Before you roll out a new campaign in a new world, make sure the players are on board with your setting. Have a pre-session zero discussion in which you pitch the campaign theme and pay particular attention to the body language of the players. Maybe your group of high fantasy heroic players aren't down with the dark gritty horror fantasy of Shadow of the Demon Lord.
Would we have had the Lord of the Rings if Tolkein hadn't farted around with elvish languages, 5,000 years of history, and a bunch of songs? A lot of the Silmarillion doesn't appear in Lord of the Rings but it was important to Tolkien.
If you care about your world, go for it, but don't expect your players to care.
Every poll Wolfgang ran back in the TSR days agreed with my own polls that DMs run their own campaign world. This has been true and will be true probably forever because DMs love building their own worlds.
Wolfgang recommends focusing on a region like the Sword Coast or Zobek for Midgard. Smaller worlds mean the players will actually be able to explore it. Hint at the ancient history.
Wolfgang thinks Keep on the Borderlands's popularity comes from its focus. Players want to know what is going on here and now but DMs love to go deep. Wolfgang had customers say that the 450 page book for Midgard was just a teaser for the world. How much more can he provide? Well, he has a whole Kingdom of the Ghouls Kickstarter in the works so probably quite a bit!
Choosing Between Homebrew and Published Campaign Worlds
How much time one has available will likely dictate whether DMs choose to build a homebrew campaign world or a published setting. Some DMs just don't have the time to build a campaign world so they take it out of the box and run with it. If you go with your own homebrew world, you have to worry about understanding traderoutes or governmental systems.
Players: "We just want to go to the old ruins on the hill."
DM: "But the town councils meeting..."
Players: "We don't really care about that."
Wolfgang's players aren't there to share Wolfgang's homebrewed stuff. They're there to play a game. The homebrew that matters is that which focuses on the characters. Build your homebrew from the hooks of the characters.
The spice on top of a campaign setting seems to resonate more to players than the in-depth stuff. The throw-away lines gather as much momentum as the carefully planned stuff.
Wolfgang's Highest Expectations for Midgard
Wolfgang's highest expectation for Midgard is that DMs will strip it for parts. He's perfectly happy for people to take the shadowfey and leylines and the bearfolk and put them into their own worlds.
Mash it up. Wolfgang is a big believer in mashing up material.
Beyond getting your players together to make sure they are on board with your campaign, maybe get them involved a bit in the world building. What's the name of the assassin's guild?
Bringing Published Campaigns to the Players
Wolfgang's primary points to give to the players:
- Who's in charge?
- What's going horribly wrong?
- Who are the gods or religious powers involved?
Wolfgang likes to have conflicts between individuals versus the state. You might have a great base attack bonus but the court of the shadowfey doesn't give a shit.
Midgard and other campaign settings have the "seven things you need to know" (see chapter 16 from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master).
Any worldbuilder would be smart to come up with that list. What are the five, six, or seven things the players should know when playing in this world?
On Getting Campaign Worlds Published
Wolfgang: "Sometimes you get these people who say 'I have these sixteen notebooks and I want you to edit, develop, illustrate, and publish them and send me a check'."
Me: "It sounds like the villain from Se7en."
I crack myself up.
The pitch for a world setting is almost never going to happen. The sad reality is that RPG companies can barely keep their own settings going.
The way to gauge the popularity of a setting is to do it yourself.
Forgotten Realms started as a bunch of articles in Dragon Magazine before it was a boxed set. Start with small articles about your setting.
Building Campaign Worlds from Adventures
Building campaign worlds from adventures means you build the world in a slow and incremental pace.
Focus your efforts on doing the most awesome and amazing adventure possible and your players will come back every week demanding more. If you focus your most limited prep time on genealogy and coats of arms, you're probably not putting time where it should be spent.
Your most important adventure is the next one.
Build the world from the history of a paladin's recovered sword.
"What are your thoughts on building cities?"
"Oh! I have thoughts about this!"
"I know, you gave me the question."
I crack myself up.
The history of fantasy RPGs is the history of cities. Greyhawk, Waterdeep, Sigil.
When you're building a city you have to know how normal people act. What do they drink? What's the government like? How do the laws work? Who handles the nightsoil?
You have to know something about history and society to build a credible city.
Questions From the Audience
"How do you find the sweet spot of having standard recognizable stuff with new stuff specific to your world?"
There IS a sweet spot. Wolfgang uses the boredom gauge. If he gets bored while writing about them, they probably need something unique. What is the twist or mashup for these guys?
If you're writing for a beginner audience or your players are new, don't spend a lot of time making new core races and what-not. The core stuff will be fine for them. If your audience is jaded and has been gaming for 20 years, it might be worth shaking things up with new races and classes and stuff.
"What kind of material are customers most interested in with campaign settings?"
Wolfgang finds that people are most interested in friction, hooks, and where stuff is blowing up. If you leave parts of the campaign setting unresolved, you're identifying a place where the game master can run with it.
People also love high fantasy and weirdness. Midgard was supposed to be low fantasy but then became high fantasy the more they injected it into the setting.
People love gods wandering the Western Wastes, ancient tombs, and broken leylines.
Give people the most exciting NPCs, flashpoints of danger, and the high weird.
You can't answer all the questions when building worlds. If you do so, you're doing it wrong.
Leave yourself room to breathe.
In Midgard, there's a lot blank. The far north and the Hyporboria hasn't been touched.
"How do you update canon?"
Wolfgang doesn't really update events in Midgard. Things happen really slowly in Midgard.
Things change in Midgard when adventures push it that way.
"How would you introduce world-changing events into an existing campaign world?"
You have to get your players buy-in for big change like this and then you can just drop them in. Spelljammer makes travel too easy. It's hard to change the rules half-way through a campaign.
Major shifts for the characters can make the players resent you. Don't change the rules on the players without their buy-in. Don't take their magic items. Give players a choice.
"What mistake with worldbuilding have you learned the most from?"
Advancing the timeline too quickly.
In one campaign world there is a beautiful and awesome part of the world that the characters can't really get to. Make sure things are exposed to the players.
"How important are connections between lands and nations?"
It's a mistake not to connect them! Connect your nations and societies. It's fuel for adventures. Trade, religious, and political connections are very useful for the story.
"If someone is new to Midgard, what's the elevator pitch?"
It's a dark world with strange magic full of leylines, shadowelves, and bearfolk. It takes European history and puts it in a blender with dark fantasy. There are over a hundred adventures for it for the past ten years. It has a little something for everyone.
Thanks to Wolfgang Baur for taking the time for the talk! Check out the Midgard Campaign Setting today!Read more »
- VideoThoughts on the Finale of Tomb of Annihilation
Warning, this article contains spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation.
This is the final article of a number of articles discussing the Dungeons & Dragons hardback campaign adventure Tomb of Annihilation. Other articles include the following:
- Session Zero of Tomb of Annihilation
- Running Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihilation
- Exploring Chult
- The Urgency of the Death Curse
- Acererak's Prepared Spells
- The Lost Temple of the Eshowdow
- Lost Monuments of Chult
- Running Omu
- Handling Tag-Along NPCs
- Generating Enhanced Tomb Guardians
- The Deadly Shift in Tomb of Annihilation
Today we're going to focus on the campaign's conclusion: the battle against the atropal and the arrival of Acererak.
Story Versus Challenge
Almost everywhere else when running D&D games, I'd argue, we're better off focusing on the story instead of tuning the game to fit a particular mechanical challenge for the characters. When building encounters I recommend building encounters from the story and not to simply select monsters based on the particular level of the characters.
Boss fights are different. Boss fights and campaign closers have a particular feel for them, one that requires some mechanical attention.
Maybe this isn't always true. Maybe, even in boss fights, we're actually better off just letting the story go how it goes just like we do with the rest of the game. Maybe I'm not wise enough to let go completely. I want to see a solid challenge. I want to watch the characters struggle but end victorious. I want a continual feeling of fear and hope rolling through the battle. I want something as powerful as the end of Vox Machina.
As it stands now, though, when it comes to boss fights and campaign closers, I tune things around the characters and their capabilities to keep a continual feeling of hope and fear.
On the Atropal
The atropal encounter in Tomb of Annihilation can be swingy. The atropal a powerful creature with a lot of options—a lot of options to remember. It also has a huge vulnerability: radiant attacks. A paladin who smites the atropal can drop it very quickly. In some circumstances that may be just fine. They still have to deal with the Soul Monger itself and Acererak's arrival.
We can keep a handle on this dial if we want to. The average hit points of the atropal is 225 but its maximum hit points within its hit dice is 324. We can also ignore the radiant vulnerability if we think it's going to get nuked too quickly. Keeping a hand on the hit point dial is a good way to maintain a consistent challenge during a boss fight.
The atropal's necrotic aura is also worth remembering. The atropal floating around the room blocking healing and damaging characters by its mere presence is a big part of the fun. We can remember all of these special abilities if we grab a 3x5 card and write down the atropal's important actions and features so we don't forget it during the fight.
The atropal is also missing legendary resistances but we can always throw them back in if we think it will get knocked out of commission too easily. We can also turn its ability to summon a wraith into a bonus action so its dropping wraiths every round. When the atropal dies, so do the wraiths.
We might replace the atropal's wail with a maddening wail instead. I'm a huge fan of madness and gaining levels of exhaustion felt like it could be too much. This form of madness could be removed if, at the end of their turn, the character succeeds on their saving throw. Or, if they chose to, they can take 28 points of psychic damage at the beginning of their turn to break out of the maddening effect and get their full round of actions. This is a nice hard choice for players to make if they get stuck by this ability.
Most of the time we can focus its legendary actions on its ray of cold attack and increase the damage of this attack from 21 (6d6) to 28 (8d6).
The tentacle attacks from the soul monger are also important to remember and can do a lot of damage. Every turn the soul monger is attacked, it attacks with a tentacle. Thus, its attacks scale up nicely with the attacks of the characters. I gave the tentacle the ability to hit someone for damage and pick them up, threatening to drop them in the lava at the end of their next turn if they don't do something about it. This added a lot of interesting pressure on the characters to save one another before they're tossed into lava.
In this battle we can also tweak the pacing by considering the hit points of the soul monger itself and how many rods need to be broken to send it into the lava. If you have more than four characters, its probably fine to require two of the struts to break or even three if they're having an easy time of it. If they focus on the soul monger, we can increase its hit points as well.
Thus, we have a lot of dials we can turn in this combat to keep the pace nice and threatening without wiping out the characters in the last scene of a year-long campaign. Here are a few we might consider:
- Tweak the hit points of the atropal and the soul monger.
- Give the atropal legendary resistances and remove its radiant vulnerability.
- Let the atropal summon a wraith as a bonus action.
- Add a maddening wail that inflicts short-term madness. This can be removed by taking psychic damage.
- Let the tentacles from the soul monger inflict damage and grab on a hit.
- Don't forget about the atropal's necrotic aura.
It's hard to offer meaningful advice for running Acererak at the end of this campaign. What happens in this battle and how you end up handling it will depend very much on each individual campaign.
I ran this encounter twice for two different groups and it went completely different each time. Neither time did they face off and try to fight the archlich directly. Smart thinking on their part.
In my versions of this encounter, Acererak becomes aware that his creation is under attack. I foreshadowed his coming arrival, describing how he was interrupted while carving a billion-year-old temple out of a dead rock of a planet with some of his lich apprentices and his sphere of annihilation. He arrived in my game when both the soul monger and the atropal were killed.
At that point, both the discussions and the disintegrations began.
In one group, we had an ongoing story thread in which our warlock character, Ogechi, was slowly turning into a lich himself. He pulled the black key in the maze room and gained a powerful necrotic spell attack as a result, along with an arm that looked like a lich.
When Acererak showed up, he wasn't so quick to kill Ogechi since this warlock proved to be a potential apprentice. All Ogechi had to do was sign an infernal contract scribed by one of Acererak's succubus lawyers. One of the other characters, the bard Tharmond, secretly charmed the succubus who forged Acererak's own signature on the contract, thus freeing Ogechi without Acererak knowing it. They then convinced the succubus to tell Acererak to return to his former work and they would take care of things here.
While this is going on, Acererak is hurling his sphere of annihilation (which has a terribly low DC and is easily avoided) at one of the other characters who is tossing phylacteries into the lava. He eventually lost the save and got disintegrated only to have the trickster god within him restore him only to be disintegrated AGAIN and so on. That was weird.
A couple of characters got a couple of hits on Acereak but eventually he left knowing he had a new apprentice with a tattoo key to open up the doors of the world of the night serpent.
So there was no real fight against Acererak.
My other game took a similar turn. In this campaign, Acererak discovered that one of the characters carried a dagger that acted as a key to open up the doors to the lair of the Night Serpent. He was willing to spare their insect lives if they handed over the dagger. They did, but, at the last second, threw it into his sphere of annihilation and ran for the portal. Thus they escaped into the jungle with an archlich's dark gaze upon them.
One way to handle this encounter is to ask yourself what the characters have that Acererak may want as much as he wanted the soul monger and the atropal. If you can throw this in earlier in the campaign, all the better.
Other than this, I have little good advice on running the encounter with Acererak. It's a strange fight to face a monster this powerful in the final scene of the game.
Skipping the Final Puzzles
In both of my games I ended up skipping the final rooms of the lowest floor. I felt that, after the fight against the atropal and Acererak, it was time to be done. Your results may vary, of course.
One Year Later...
One trick I've learned for ending a campaign, one that has served me very well, is asking the players to describe where their characters are one year after the end of the story. Some of the best stories I hear in the entire campaign come from these one-year-out montages. The bard, Tharmond, started a hit play in Waterdeep called the Tomb of Annihilation. The paladin who sold his soul to Grimfinger the Erinyes, built a temple to Torm on the edge of the Anauroch desert doing his best to serve his god before his soul belonged to a devil. The restored druid Warryn transformed himself into the new King of Feathers hunting undead in the jungles of Chult. The cursed warlock, Ogechi, went to the doors of the night serpent with Fenthasa, just as she predicted, and murdered her at the door, which she did not predict.
In my other game, Shelby, our tortle ranger returned home to his tribe on the coast of Chult. Tysabri returned to the graves of her parents. Truth and Sirzek returned to Sirzek's tribal home in the Spine of the World to restore honor to his tribe. Feski wrote a best-selling book on her adventures in Chult, nearly knocking Volo's Guide off the best seller's list. Fromash the lizardfolk death cleric built a new temple to a benevolent god of death in the city of Omu and helped the city return to its former glory.
If you get nothing else from this article, ask your players what happens to their characters one year after the end of the campaign. They almost always have ideas and they're almost always way more awesome than you can think up.
An Incredible and Strange Feeling
Over the past few years I've finished a handful of large campaigns. I finished a four-year campaign battling against Orcus the God of Death. I finished one-year campaigns for Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, two Curse of Strahd campaigns, two Storm King's Thunder campaigns. Now I've completed two Tomb of Annihilation campaigns. I am very lucky to have run them.Read more »