- Links: Mike Pondsmith on His Past Future, and Wingspan for the HolidaysMike Pondsmith and "The Role-Playing Game That Predicted the Future", namely Cyberpunk and more specifically Cyberpunk 2020. Here's how the article opens:About 30 years ago, in Santa Cruz, California, a man named Mike Pondsmith laid out a prophecy for the then-distant future — the year 2020.
It was a future teeming with tech. He envisioned the dizzying data-winds of cyberspace, gigantic holographic video screens, bioengineered wheat-powered metro cars, and, everywhere you looked, the gleam of polychrome cyberoptic eyes. In his future, some of the populace suffered from an affliction he dubbed "technoshock" — an inability to cope with technology’s incursions into their lives.
He called that vision Cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2020 was the second edition of the world he'd imagined in 1988, when he created the Cyberpunk franchise. Now filling 50 books comprising more than 5,000 pages crammed with minutiae, it's surely one of the most extensively and fastidiously imagined worlds in fiction. And in its themes and particulars, it can feel startlingly like nonfiction today.
It's great to see Pondsmith this type of mainstream coverage, and this quote is especially juicy: "'Writing,' Pondsmith tells me, 'is a lot like basically eating a pound of dough, a whole pepperoni, a couple of pounds of mozzarella, and a bunch of spices, then throwing up a pizza.' It takes a lot of work to make an unreal world feel real."
• Did you know that artist Kwanchai Moriya has a Catan T-Shirt design on sale from Hot Topic? Did you know that Hot Topic had a Catan merchandise section, or that Hot Topic still existed at all? I've learned so many things today...
• As Michelle Ridge explains in this finale post, the contributors at Girls' Game Shelf are going their own ways as of December 1, 2020, although they plan to maintain all published material for at least another year.
Best New Games You're Sure to Love", with Elizabeth Hargrave's Wingspan getting most of the ink and a handful of other titles being mentioned in passing.
• In mid-November 2020, Shaurya Thapa at Screen Rant published an article titled "Top 10 Movies Based On Board Games, Ranked According To IMDb" —and given that the #10 movie on the list, 2000's Dungeons & Dragons, has a rating of 3.6, you might perhaps conclude that only ten movies based on board games even exist.
Tied at the #4 spot with a 6.2 rating are Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story and Going Cardboard, and I happen to appear in both of those films. My presence merits a 6.2 rating, I suppose. I still haven't watched either of these films as I don't like seeing myself. I'd say "Maybe someday", but I know that's a lie...
Read more »
- Tag the Streets, Power the Cities, and Settle the Moonshowcased two titles from Brazilian publisher MeepleBR — Brazil: Imperial and Paper Dungeons — and as is often the case, once I started digging for details on those two games, I discovered several more from the same publisher that I hadn't known about previously.
Luna Maris, for example, is a 1-4 player game from first-time designer Ricardo Amaral that plays in 30 minutes per player. Luna Maris is due out in the first half of 2021, and the setting and gameplay works as follows:Space exploration is developing thanks to the cooperation between private corporations and governments around the world. Before the challenge to occupy another planet, however, we need to create a Moon base to extract resources from our natural satellite. Iron, titanium, water, and a powerful fuel, helium-3, are natural riches available in the Moon. To get these riches won't be easy; it'll require lots of work to install lunar probes, process extracted minerals, and ensure the working conditions of scientists and engineers in the crew.
In Luna Maris, you take on the role of a coordinator in charge of the lunar operations of a big company, organizing the crew, fulfilling demands, supplying worker's necessities, improving rooms in the complex, and respecting the strict environmental parameters.
You start the game with six scientist cards, with which you can perform actions; to do so, place a scientist meeple in a room in the lunar complex, discard the appropriate scientist card, pay the activation cost (energy, water, oxygen, etc.), then receive the benefits of that room. The ten rooms each have their particularities and special rules:
—Exploration Plant: Don space suits and install lunar probes to extract minerals.
—Industrial Complex: Process extracted minerals. Also, control the air filters and decrease the CO2 emissions.
—Greenhouse: Create food to sustain the crew members.
—Expedition Area: Ship cargo to Earth and receive victory points.
—Mining Room: Extract basalt and titanium to sustain a high level of production.
—Communication Room: Hire better scientists and improve the human resources of the lunar base.
—Power Plant: Juice the solar boards for an extra energy supply.
—Recycling Plant: Recycle your waste to obtain resources in a green sustainable economy.
—Laboratory: Use research to improve the Industrial Complex, Recycling Plant, and other facilities.
—Dormitory: Take time off to recuperate.
A game lasts five rounds, and during that time you can focus on installing lunar probes and producing raw resources; investing in the industrial complex to guarantee access to water and helium-3; hiring high-level scientists and optimizing your actions; or doing other things that will deliver victory points in the long run. After five rounds, players tally their scores to see who runs the base and who gets ejected into orbit. (Kidding!)
• Grafito is a 2-4 player game from Rennan Gonçalves, another first-time designer, and the game is currently being aimed for release in the second half of 2021. Here's an overview:The four elements of hip hop are deejaying, rapping, break dancing, and graffiti painting, and these elements inspired Grafito, a rondel-based game about street art in the modern cities. Each player takes on a role of a graffiti artist, and you need to pick paints, and combine and use them to create great panels with your signature. Are you ready to control the walls of the street?
To set up, place eight paint cubes in each of the four rondels of the main game board; each rondel looks like an old-school LP record divided into eight colored sections. Use only primary paint cubes (blue, red, yellow and white) for now, then place the wall board next to the main board. Take an individual player board to organize your components, then shuffle the mural cards and reveal four face up.
On a turn, collect paint cubes or use a mural card to occupy a place on the wall board. By scratching the LPs — that is, turning the rondels — you can collect paint. You can rotate a rondel one space for free or spend workers to move more spaces or a second rondel; by matching colors across LPs, you can collect paint. By discarding a worker, you can use Basquiat's Lessons to duplicate paint cubes in your bag, change their colors, or obtain secondary colors.
Once you have the necessary components, you can complete a mural card by discarding the paint cubes required, possibly creating secondary colors along the way by discarding primary cubes. You receive points for these cards at the end of the game, and these cards depict different elements of hip hop, with you scoring bonuses from bonds of matching elements on the wall board.
When the wall board is finished, the game ends, and whoever has the most points becomes King of the Wall!
• The third title from MeepleBR is Eléctrica, a 2-4 player tile-laying game from Lucas Machado Rodrigues that might see release before the end of 2021.
Here's a summary of gameplay:Read more »In Brazil, a great amount of energy is produced by hydroelectricity. Dams are responsible for providing energy to industries, markets, and houses across the country. This electricity is distributed by great networks of transmission. It's a big business that moves billions every year.
Elétrica invites you and your friends to take on the role of energy entrepreneurs. During the game, you need to increase the size of the map and construct lines to supply energy to cities. With each new line, you can complete contracts and receive victory points.
In more detail, following a set-up phase in which you each place a tile next to the starting spring river tile, on a turn you either (1) reveal and place a new tile or (2) build. The tile-laying works as you might expect, with tiles needing to be adjacent with the elements on each side matching. After placing a tile, you can place a marker on it to reserve it.
The game includes five types of constructions — hydroelectric, electrical substation, transmission tower, utility pole, and city — and to build one of them, you use workers on a tile and choose an available construction, following certain limitations on building. A hydroelectric construction must be placed on a tile with water, for example, while a city can't be built next to a transmission tower and three constructions can't be neighbors to one another on a triangle of tiles.
When you build a functioning network, you can complete a contract and score points. Two constructions of the same type earns you 2 points, for example, while more complex combinations earn you more.
Once the final tile is revealed and placed, the game ends and whoever has the most points becomes an energy magnate!
- Assemble Orbital Modules, Ceremonies, and Lucrative Contracts
• Star Scrappers: Orbital is a re-working of Jacob Fryxelius' Space Station, one of the first releases from publisher FryxGames in 2011.
Over five rounds in Star Scrappers: Orbital, you add new modules to your starting core module, using your crew to take actions within those modules and repair them. At the end of each round, you score points for each of the six colors of modules for which you have the most. Publisher Hexy Studio ran a Kickstarter (link) for this new revised game in mid-November 2020, with delivery expected in mid-2021.
Kokopelli seems like an atypical Stefan Feld design and a very typical Queen Games release, with the 2-4 players in this card game playing ceremony cards into the four spaces of their own village or onto certain spaces in neighboring villages.
In each game, you use twelve of the sixteen types of cards — with nine more types being available in the Ceremonies expansion. Each time you start a ceremony in your village, you gain the special power for that card as long as the ceremony is active. Each player has three copies of each type of card in their deck, along with a few jokers, and you need four copies of a card to "close" a ceremony and claim one of the point tokens for it, so you and your neighbors will sort of collaborate on closing ceremonies, but you want to be the one who finishes the job since only then will you score for it. Queen Games plans to deliver this title and expansion to Kickstarter backers (link) in June 2021, with the game hitting retail some time later.
link) for Jason Dinger's Crescent City Cargo from Spielworxx, this being the second title in Dinger's "Cajun trilogy" following 2018's Captains of the Gulf, a reprint of which could be acquired during this KS.
Here's an overview of the game, which will be available only from Spielworxx, Indie Game Studios, the BGG Store, and Amazon prior to a possible release through distribution in 2023:New Orleans, affectionately known as "the Crescent City", is an important hub of commerce on the Mississippi River. The Port of New Orleans is a key conduit of imports and exports that are critical to the interconnected international economy.
In Crescent City Cargo, players take on the roll of competing logistics companies vying to fulfill lucrative contracts with domestic railways, foreign cargo ships, and future speculated trade opportunities through shipping containers waiting to be loaded at the dock. Players receive goods from warehouses and use them to improve the state of their company or earn valuable capital that will serve to establish their dominance in the local trade market.
Logistics can be a cutthroat tactical environment as others vie to grab the best contracts before you can. Will you be able to manipulate the market, complete your goals, and in the end stand atop the competition as the most profitable company?
• Designer T. Alex Davis, who co-authored 2020's Deep Vents from Red Raven Games is partnering with the publisher again for Rift Knights, an asymmetrical game for 2-6 players in which one side controls holy knights who must hold off demons until dawn while protecting elders, and the other side would be perfectly happy not to see those elders protected. Here's a bit more detail about gameplay:During the game, you choose a unique knight or demon, each with a variety of special powers, such as the Flame Knight's ability to surround his foes in fire, or the Bone Crusher's power to summon skeletal minions. You also play cards from your hand to perform actions each turn, and each card can be used in three different ways. Careful planning with these cards is rewarded with memorable, game-changing moments. A set of unique location tiles allows you to create the monastery with a different layout every game.
Although the Kickstarter campaign (link) had met its goal, Red Raven Games decided to cancel the project for now based on feedback from supporters and rejigger it for another go in the future.
Read more »
- Protect Lakeview from Monsters and Take Control of a Flooded EuropeRenegade Game Studios debuted its RPG line in 2018 with Overlight and Kids on Bikes, the latter of which won a 2019 ENnie for "best family game for Renegade and designers Jonathan Gilmour and Doug Levandowski.
The Kids on Bikes game line has since expanded with Kids on Brooms and Teens in Space, and in Q2 2021 it will be joined by The Snallygaster Situation, a board game from Gilmour and Michael Addison set in the world of Kids on Bikes. Here's an overview of this 2-5 player game that plays in 45-60 minutes:Something is very wrong in Lakeview. You know it, but nobody believes you, especially not the "adults" who dismiss you for being a kid. You've lived here your whole life, but it was only a little while ago that you started to notice the strange sounds at night, and now the new kid at school has vanished. You're sure that a hideous creature has been unleashed on your town — and it's up to you to defeat it!
In the co-operative game The Snallygaster Situation, which is based on the Kids on Bikes RPG, you and your best friends must face off against one of four diabolical monsters set on destroying Lakeview — and possibly the entire world! Get on your bikes to search for clues about the monster's weakness, find the missing kid it has abducted, and end the threat to your hometown. Oh, and watch out for the Federal agents because they can put a real damper on your epic adventure.
In more detail, one player takes the role of the Lost Kid, selecting a card to play each turn that provides clues about their location such as street names, buildings, or landmarks — but the card also dictates how the monsters and the Feds move and attack on the board. You might have the perfect clue to give, but then the monster will attack one of your friends, sending them back to the treehouse and advancing the "doom marker", i.e., the game's timer.
The other players are trying to defeat the monster and save their friend. On their turns, they use their rides — skateboard, dirt bike, inline skates, etc. — to search the town, look for clues, use special item cards, and avoid the monster, which might be the Jersey Devil, a Dover Demon, Bloody Mary, or (of course) the Snallygaster. Each monster has a different level of difficulty with unique gameplay elements.
Once the Lost Kid is found, they join their friends to try to defeat the monster.
APE Games was testing several upcoming games on Tabletopia ahead of Kickstarter campaigns to fund them, with one of those games being Kevin G. Nunn's Dealers in Hope, a 3-5 player game that plays in 90-150 minutes.
You can find preliminary rules for the game here (PDF), but this is overview of the setting and gameplay:Sea levels have risen, causing severe land and resource shortages. Europe has erupted in war, and it's up to you to salvage what is left for your people.
Dealers in Hope, set in approximately 2170, is a deck-building game of conflict. As faction leaders, players vie for control of a future Europe that is a shell of its former glory. Build a deck that matches your faction's play style and take back the continent!
Each player controls a different faction leader with unique abilities and a unique starting deck. The leader you choose determines how you score victory points to win the game. Regardless, all leaders score a bulk of their points through conquest. On your turn, select an action by placing one of your tokens on the action board. Actions fall into one of three categories: Train (add cards to your deck), Reorganize (manipulate your deck), and Assault (attack territories). Action slots are limited, so it is essential to plan ahead and guess your opponents' moves.
Dealers in Hope uses several types of cards, with some types, i.e., professional cards, being selected randomly and others coming from the game's preset deck suggestions. Each set of professional cards has three levels — level 1, level 2, and master — and you must Train these increasingly powerful cards in order. Battles are fought via back-and-forth card play. Cards contain attack, defense, support, and (often) effects. The attacker plays as many cards as desired from their hand, then the defender gets a single chance to play cards in defense. Finally, the attacker gets one more chance to beat the defender. The winner gains/holds the territory, along with bonuses associated with that territory.
Unlike many games of this type, Dealers in Hope focuses not only on the military side of warfare, but also on the people behind the scenes: the civilians, masses, etc. who affect and are affected by the campaign.
The Comic Book Bubble, a 2-6 player design from Scott Almes in which you try to buy and sell comics at the right time to profit from that market, and One Card Wonder, a design from Nat Levan that I first wrote about in 2016.
For those who don't recall that write-up from four years ago, here it is again, on the assumption that the game has not fundamentally changed:Read more »In One Card Wonder, each player receives a card that shows a wonder of the ancient world and a set of support buildings. The multiple stages of the wonder must be built from the ground up, while the buildings may be built in any order. Players have four worker meeples and a personal supply of resources, and a general supply of resources also exists. The resource supply bag moves from player to player to indicate who is the active player.
On a turn, you take one of four actions. You may draw three cubes from the cloth supply bag, then add one to your personal supply, placing the other two in the general supply. You may take all resources of one type from the general supply. (You may hold only eight resources at a time in your supply, so if after drawing or taking you have more than eight resources, you must return some to the general supply.) You may build a level of the wonder or a building by paying its resource cost from your supply; your workers mark individual buildings as you build them, unlocking abilities. Finally, you may sell pairs of matching goods to the supply in exchange for coins. Coins can be used as a wild resource, but they also appear in the cost of some wonders. Resources sold or used to build are returned to the supply bag.
In games of four or more players, players may also trade. Trading occurs off-turn, that is, it can involve anyone except the active player. You may negotiate and trade freely with other players, but you must stop negotiating once you receive the supply bag and become the active player. The longer you spend on your turn, the more opportunity your opponents have to make deals.
The first player to complete their wonder wins!
- Designer Diary: Merv: The Heart of the Silk RoadMerv: The Heart of the Silk Road is my next board game, due out on November 26, 2020 from Osprey Games.
I began work on this game about three years ago, in the middle of 2017. Initially it was a generic city-building game in which players would collect resources every round, spend them in order to build houses and, at the same time, defend those houses from hordes of barbarians threatening to attack the city every few rounds; when I started doing research about where to actually set the game, I stumbled upon the story of Merv.
Merv, the Largest City in the World
I was reading a book about the Silk Road and was surprised to learn that, about one thousand years ago, Merv, now in modern day Turkmenistan, used to be the largest city in the world with well over one million inhabitants.
Thanks to its access to fresh water in what otherwise was a vast desert in central Asia, Merv was an important stop for all caravans traveling between China, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. It soon became a large economic and cultural center, with several mosques, markets, libraries, and schools with famous philosophers and mathematicians teaching there.
Sadly its fortune didn't last long, with Mongols raiding it in the 13th century, killing almost seven hundred thousand people, and destroying the dam that brought water to the city. The city never fully recovered and struggled as a small town for a few more centuries until it slowly disappeared — only to be rediscovered by archaeologists a few decades ago.
Interestingly, Merv had a rectangular shape, with tall walls running all around it, which seemed to fit nicely for a board game.
The First Prototype
The first time I tried a prototype with this setting was at one of the Playtest UK meet-ups in September 2017. At the time (and for quite a while), the game was centered around a dice-drafting mechanism, and the first board looked like this:
The general idea was that on your turn you would draft a die, place it on the leftmost available slot of the matching row, and collect money indicated on that slot. (Money could be used to change the number on a die.) Moreover, dice values from 2 to 5 would let you place a house on a matching slot on the city map, while 6s let you take a special action and 1s were wild.
One concept present from the beginning is that players would not take some actions to gain resources, then other actions to spend those resources and convert them into victory points. Instead resources would be available relatively easily through a caravan walking around and dropping cubes on all the houses that were built along the way so that on each turn players could mostly focus on how to spend them effectively.
When the Mongols Attack
Another idea present for a long time was that of the Mongols slowly gathering outside the walls, then eventually attacking the city, so players had to spend resources to defend their houses but didn't know exactly when the Mongols would strike. (The timing of this was linked to which dice were not drafted.)
I struggled a lot with the dice-drafting mechanism, which ended up being too restrictive on what players could do in their turn while at the same time having too many side effects on when and where the Mongols would attack, so I eventually dropped it and tried some other avenue.
For a while, I switched to cards: Each player had a hand of cards that decided which way the caravan moved and which kind of resources it dropped. On their turn, the players would play one card and the caravan would drop cubes of the given type on all the houses along its path, then the current player would spend those cubes to build or activate houses.
For every card played, a Mongol meeple was then placed along the wall where the caravan passed by, and when the whole row filled up, the Mongols would attack on that side. (Players could place their own soldiers along those walls to defend their houses behind it.)
From this point in the design, most of the building types would survive until the published game: the library provided scrolls for special abilities, the market stall provided various kinds of goods for set collection purposes, and the palace provided endgame victory points.
I was still not happy about how to trigger the Mongol attacks. One major problem was that players would forget to place the Mongol meeple at the end of their turn, then notice after a couple of turns that some Mongols were missing and had to trace back through their moves to see where they should have been placed.
An interesting solution I tried was to drop the meeples and instead picture the Mongols on the back of each card so that after a card was played, the card itself was placed on a slot along one of the walls. When that side of wall was full, the Mongols would attack. For a while, I had the game over two boards: a square board with the city and the mongols along its walls, and a second board with all the various building types and building actions.
This was the prototype I tried in the Playtest UK area of UK Games Expo in 2018:
Back to the Drawing Board
I was still unsatisfied with the game, which looked overly complicated, so I went back to the drawing board and started from scratch.
I designed an almost completely different game, much lighter in weight and without all the complications from the previous iterations. This version of the game still features a 5x5 grid, but this time the city starts with all the building tiles in it, and players claim tiles by placing houses on them. A row of caravan cards brings various goods, and players draft them in order to score points.
The core mechanism is this: Each round, players place their meeple along one side of the city, then from left to right along that wall they place a new house (or activate an existing one) on that row (or column) and move their meeple onto one of the caravan cards, reserving that card for drafting. Each card has a building type on it, and you can reserve a card only with the same building type as the tile you activated that turn.
Finally, going from left to right along the row of cards, each player takes the card they reserved and one of the still unclaimed ones, then moves their meeple to the rearmost open spot of the queue for the next side of the city. Thus, if you reserve an early card, you will have better choices for your second card, but you will move last next turn.
This was basically another game altogether, almost in antithesis to the previous iterations, but it created an interesting tension in the way the turn order was handled. As different as it was, though, some core ideas of the previous iterations were still present:
Since pretty much the beginning of the design, on your turn you would place or activate a building (of various kinds), then have a certain amount of resources available to spend on that building. If the building were a library, for example, you could spend a number of different color cubes in order to get a matching number of scrolls. If the building were a market stall, you could spend cubes in order to gain trading goods, and so on. Moreover, the placement of your buildings would affect your resource income in the upcoming turns.
In this streamlined version, the actual resource collection was abstracted away, but the core idea was still there: If I place or activate a library, I then claim a library card (with a scroll on it), and at the end of the game I will score victory points for sets of different scrolls. If instead I activate a market stall, I claim a card with trading goods and score points for various combinations of them.
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
A piece of feedback I received during a playtest at SPIEL '18 was that the core mechanism was really cool and provided interesting choices and crunchy decisions, but that it needed a meatier game around it — so I took the advice and tried to integrate the new mechanisms into the original game, coming up with this:
At the beginning of the game, all the building tiles are placed randomly in the city. (Each tile has a different combination of type and color, and each color corresponds to a type of resource.) The game proceeds in three rounds, each round has four turns, and each turn is played along one side of the city.
On a turn, each player moves their meeple (starting from the head of the queue) into one of five slots along that side, then picks a building tile on the matching column (or row). If the tile is empty, they place one of their houses on that tile; otherwise they use the house that is already there. Then they collect resources from all tiles in that column that have a house of that player color on them. (Each tile provides one type of resource, based on the tile color.)
Finally, depending on the building that they activated, they perform the action for that building: If they activate a library, they can buy scrolls (with sets of different scrolls providing special abilities); if they activate a trading post, they can expand their trading post network, then acquire goods from the connected cities; if they activate a mosque, they can spend resources in order to advance on the mosque track, gaining various bonuses along the way, etc.
All these actions cost resources. and as the game proceeds and the city fills up with houses, you collect more and more resources so these actions become more powerful.
A twist was that you could choose to activate an existing house of a different player and collect resources from all houses of that player in that row. Since slots are exclusive, I tried various ways to compensate the original owner (who would not be able to reactivate the row on that turn) and finally settled on the owner getting a resource from the activated house (but not from the whole row), yet also getting possibly additional resources for houses that had been upgraded. (Upgraded houses provide more or better resources.)
An interesting effect of this change is that now if you build a strong row with four or five of your houses, then it becomes a juicy target for other players to use, making jousting for turn order even more important, so I added another currency (camels) that you can spend at the end of the turn in order to advance in the queue for next turn. Camels are a closed economy, with camels you spend to advance in turn order going to the players you skipped.
Things were coming together pretty nicely, and in January 2019 I brought the prototype to the national meeting of Italian game designers in Parma (IdeaG) where I got good feedback from a few seasoned designers.
In particular, Flaminia Brasini provided very insightful ideas: The game I tested in Parma was pretty good, but it lacked tension. The "Mongol attack" wasn't really there, having been abstracted away as a majority scoring for soldiers at the end of each round. In a way, players could do what they wanted, without having to worry too much about what the game could throw at them; what was lacking was the tension between what players "wanted" to do and what they "had" to do.
So the Mongols came back, with a vengeance. They would attack at the end of each round, and players who couldn't defend their houses would lose them. This was probably a bit too harsh, and I changed it so that they would attack at the end of the second and third rounds. (The game lasts only three rounds, where each round is played along the four sides of the city.) By the end of the second round, most houses would be defended and those that were raided could still be rebuilt during the final round.
As an extra incentive for defending houses, I introduced an end round scoring so that houses still standing after the raid would be worth victory points.
Defending houses soon became an important part of the game. You could defend houses by building walls around the city, and each piece of wall would defend the two houses immediately behind it (which might belong to different players). Moreover, a house is defended only if it has walls on both sides, e.g., an house in the top left quarter of the city needs a wall on its north side and a wall on its west side. While walls provide a permanent defense, you could still play a soldier on your house to defend it for a single attack, i.e., when the mongols attack, the soldier is killed but the house is saved.
Finally, you could still pay a ransom in order to defend a house, so if an orange house is attacked, you could save it by paying an orange cube.
Playtest, Playtest, Playtest
In the first few months of 2019, I managed to average almost three playtests a week between the Playtest UK meet-ups and meetings with other designers. One idea that slowly developed during this time was that defending other players' houses should provide some kind of benefit, so I eventually introduced a "civic" track on which you advance as you build walls. (You advance one step for each of your houses behind that wall, and two steps for houses owned by other players).
Advancing on that track gives access to scoring opportunities, such as the ability to fulfill high-value contracts or to acquire different types of spices. This means that if you are pursuing a strategy based on fulfilling contracts (which require combinations of scrolls and trading goods) or on collecting spices (which are acquired at the caravansary buildings), you also have to build walls and possibly defend other players' houses in order to advance more quickly on the track.
On the other hand, if you are focusing on some other strategy, such as advancing on the mosques track or sending your people to the palace for end round scoring, you might get someone else to build a wall around your houses instead.
I kept tuning and playtesting, with smaller and smaller changes every time, until the game almost converged into what it is today.
The Road to Publication
A dear friend of mine who was in my regular playtest group joined Osprey Games as a developer and took my prototype with him. The people at Osprey really liked it, and at the end of June 2019 — on my last day in the UK before moving back to Italy — I signed a publishing contract with them. We kept fine-tuning the game for a few more months and also came up with a challenging solo mode.
I had a very good relationship with the developers at Osprey Games. They kept me involved on the small tweaks and adjustments that improved the game in various ways, and I kept bringing the game to various gatherings for further playtesting until I was really happy with the way it played.
Finally, Ian O'Toole did an amazing job in illustrating the game with very vibrant and colorful art that brings the magnificent city of Merv to its original glory.
I now look forward to its release in late November 2020, although, sadly, this time I won't be able to play it with the public in the halls of SPIEL...
Fabio Lopiano Read more »
- Fight Free Radicals Thanks to the Antioxidants in Coffee Traders
That thought came to mind when I ran across Free Radicals, the first game to be published from designer Nathan Moll, which WizKids plans to release in 2021. Here's an overview of this 2-5 player game that plays in 60-90 minutes:In Free Radicals, players take control of one of ten fully asymmetrical factions, each with its own path to earn resources, power, and the knowledge stored in the "Free Radicals", which are giant mysterious objects that appeared around the world, causing a huge evolutionary leap in technology. You might play as the merchants, using action points to travel to different markets, and grow in influence and efficiency; the Couriers, using your drones to pick up and deliver valuable goods; the Entertainers, using card placement and abilities to maximize powerful abilities; or one of seven other entirely unique factions!
Players also interact through the main board, where they can visit each other's buildings and try to unlock the technology in one of the free radicals. You can even help your opponents' research in return for influence and other rewards!
Capstone Games has a reputation for releasing heavy games that feature an economic element, such as Arkwright (the title with which it debuted in 2016), The Ruhr, Pipeline, and Wildcatters.
The designers of that latter title — Rolf Sagel and André Spil — now have a new design coming from Capstone in June 2021: Coffee Traders, a game for 3-5 players that takes 120-150 minutes and that includes "over 650 components" as Capstone boasts in its announcement. Here's a summary of the game's setting, with the rulebook scheduled to be released on December 1, 2020:Read more »Thousands of coffee farmers all over the world support their families by using small stretches of hillside land for their coffee plantations. Farmers work day in and day out for very little, but the future of coffee farming is bright. Fair Trade organizations strive to improve living conditions for these farmers by helping them set up cooperatives. This enables them to establish better pricing agreements and take out loans for new plantations, all to help provide education and improve the quality of their lives, families, societies, and environment.
In Coffee Traders, set in 1970s Central and South America, Africa, and Asia, the delicious Arabica coffee beans farmers harvest are sold in Antwerp — and all over the world — to coffee roasters large and small. Work with your competitors to develop the regions you see fit for the best coffee beans while keeping a watchful eye on the market. Construct buildings to help your Fair Trade coffee plantations thrive while enhancing your network for trading coffee. Will your plantations fall to ruin, or will you rise to the top and become the world's greatest coffee trader?
- VideoTell Weird Stories, Race in Three Dimensions, and Create Peacock PlumesReality Shift by Mat Hanson and Academy Games, which leans heavily into a Tron vibe for a 3D racing game in which you can shift blocks to create new paths for your lightbike, obstruct existing paths, or crush opponents to force them to respawn elsewhere.
The Kickstarter campaign (link) includes options for a regular game and a deluxe one so that you can take the nine cubes in each game and combine them to create more challenging racetracks — although I would think you could do this with two regular games as well. Reality Shift is due out in mid-2021.
• U.S. publisher Calliope Games is Kickstarting (link) a trio of releases due out in Q4 2021, with Brendan Hansen's Enchanted Plumes being a 2-6 player game in which you collect cards in a peacock tail-shaped array, with the longest row of cards counting against you and everything else being positive. You can make the first row of a plume as wide or as narrow as you wish, and each subsequent row must have exactly one fewer card and the color of a card in this row must be among the cards in the row immediately above it; if you complete a plume by placing a row of one card, you receive a bonus equal to the number of cards in the plume.
Zach Weisman's Allegory is another 2-6 player card game, but in this game you bid to collect cards in three themes, with you allocating your winning bid for a card on the remaining cards on display. Instead of placing a bid in a future round, you can pass to claim the card with the most money on it; that card might be worth negative points, but at least you now have money! When a player claims their tenth card, the game ends at the end of that round, then everyone scores only for their lowest-valued theme.
Mass Transit from Chris Leder and Kevin Rodgers is a co-operative game for 1-6 players in which dual-use cards create train, bus, and ferry routes out of a city and allow you to move commuters along those routes. If you get everyone home to the suburbs before all the cards are played, you win.
Tales of the Fabulist is the first release from Stacey Welchley, Jason C. Hughes, and Monkey Gun Games, and it falls into the category of "party game that you likely won't keep score on", similar to Concept and others. Here's an overview of this 2-10 player game that's due out (KS link) in the first half of 2021:Tales of the Fabulist is an interactive fiction device, a party game, an improvisation system, a drinking game, an ice-breaker at retreats, and an excellent gift for the young and old. You don't have to be William Shakespeare to have a great time making sh*t up regaling your loved ones with a fabricated fable. Here's how easy it is:
After the decks are shuffled and cards are dealt, The Fabulist begins by introducing the characters in the context of a grand quest upon which the characters will embark. The Fabulist has sixty seconds to weave the beginning of the tale, then play rotates clockwise. The next player selects a plot twist (PT) out of their hand and places it on the included playmat in the next open PT space. That player continues the story for 30 seconds, working in the words or phrases on the newly played card into the story. When the time runs out, draw a new plot twist card. Play continues clockwise. The lucky person who places the final plot twist card has sixty seconds to wrap up the story as best they can.
Now that the fable has ended, everyone gets to suggest a "Moral of the Story". The player with the funniest moral wins the quest card. If your group is competitive, the person with the most quest cards at the end of the session wins.
• SquareOne is a board game console from Wizama that's intended to merge board games and video games, with you having physical elements that you do stuff with while the console shows the results of actions, resolves die rolls, and does other things depending on whatever game you're playing.
The device is pricey at €500 (KS link), and it's launching with licenses for titles such as the virtual trading card game Urban Rivals and the giant board Cthulhu Wars, in addition to original games such as Crystal Bay by Roberto Fraga, who visited the BGG booth at FIJ 2020 to demo this design.
Youtube Video Read more »
- Interview: Train Games and War Games with Tom Russell
by Neil Bunkerfirst published on Diagonal Move on October 19, 2020. —WEM]
Tom Russell, co-founder of independent publisher Hollandspiele, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss her unique take on game design and publishing.
DM: Hi, Tom, thank you for joining us. You are known for three things: unique takes on historical war games, train games, and co-founding publishing company Hollandspiele. Can you tell us the story of how you got to where you are today?
TR: Well, what it ultimately comes down to is, I'm the luckiest girl in the world.
It's not that I didn't work hard because I did, and not that I'm untalented because I do all right for myself, but there are plenty of folks who work a lot harder and are a heck of a lot more talented who don't get the same traction that I did.
Mary (Holland-Russell, co-founder of Hollandspiele) and I get to publish board games for a living, as our full-time gig. More than that, we get to do it while making very weird, very niche games in a very weird, very niche way — and that really comes down to one lucky break or coincidence after another.
For example, one of the earliest games I had published was Northern Pacific through Winsome Games. That game brought my work to Cole Wehrle's attention, and so years later as we were prepping to get Hollandspiele off the ground, I could write to Cole and ask him whether he could do a game for us, and he would have some idea who I was.
That game was An Infamous Traffic, and it brought our company to the attention of a wider audience, which ultimately made our model sustainable as a full-time endeavor.
Now, we stumbled upon that model because Mary and I worked for a publisher who had a somewhat similar model, which ultimately came about because of a magazine wargame I had done for another publisher.
One thing lead to another, and I can trace similar interweaving chains of coincidence and cause-and-effect all leading up to the present moment. I will say that I tried to position myself to take advantage of those opportunities.
By being interested in a lot of different things, I increased the probability that those opportunities might arise.
Our work with the other publisher gave us the model, and Cole's game gave us a head start, but we needed to put in the work and have the skill-set to grow our business and its audience.
DM: Your historical wargames cover a wide range of eras, game mechanisms, and player count. Can you describe your process for developing these three strands within a single game?
TR: These historical designs start with the history and with research. Most of this research is "passive", in that I'm not reading up on a topic trying to make a game.
If I go into it with my game designer hat on, I'm going to be looking for mechanisms or chrome and what-not, going to be focusing on the details, but what I'm looking for is the big picture, a general understanding of the topic so that I'm reasonably conversant in it.
Maybe this turns into a game, and maybe it doesn't. It helps that I'm interested in a lot of different things, so I read up on a lot of different things.
Once I decide to do a game on a topic, my research gets a bit deeper and more detailed — then I wait for the idea to fully form in my brain.
I don't start making counters or writing rules or any of that, not until I have a complete, coherent, and cohesive picture of exactly what I want the game to be, what I want it to feel like, what I want to look like, what tensions I want to be present, what thesis I want to express.
When all that is clear in my head, then I start working on the game, and I keep working on it until it looks like that picture. Sometimes that picture forms very quickly; sometimes it takes a while.
For example, in 2019 we released both The Toledo War and Westphalia. The Toledo War took maybe two or three days to come together. Westphalia took ten years.
Regarding the question of player count, it's actually pretty simple. I tend to think of player counts as falling into three buckets: solo games, two-player games, and games for three-plus.
Each of these to me suggest a very different space to explore. A three-plus game is a game about alliances and shared incentives. A two-player game is very much about direct and bitter conflict, control of tempo, control of the balance of the game itself.
I wouldn't be comfortable calling a solitaire game a "puzzle" or an efficiency game, but there are elements of that in my solo designs.
You'll likely never see me do a game these days that scales from one to six or from two to five because each of these experiences are so distinct that for me there isn't really much overlap between these kinds of games.
DM: Your games share many mechanisms with other games within the historical wargame genre, yet will often have something that sets them apart (a stack of steps, three draw cup system, a focus on logistics). Are these "twists" born from a desire to innovate, to better reflect a historical period, personal design challenges, something else?
TR: Honestly, it just feels natural to me to do it the way that I do it. I like having clever mechanisms, of course, and am reasonably proud of some of the things I've come up with, but I'm not necessarily trying to be "twisty".
I do feel like a good historical game needs to have a thesis or view its subject through a lens. It's not enough, I think, to have a game be "a game about the American Revolution", but "a game about the function of logistics during the American Revolution" is worth doing.
In the end, it's a matter of what you're trying to say and how you're trying to say it.
DM: Complex historical train games are another niche genre with a devoted fan base. How would you describe their appeal to an interested passerby?
TR: Well, I don't know if I'd call train games "complex". Most train games are actually very simple. Even something like the 18xx, which has a daunting reputation, isn't usually very complicated in terms of rules overhead.
I also wouldn't call them "historical". At least personally I don't approach the train games in the same way as I do the wargames. I'm not expressing a thesis, but creating a sort of a mechanical exercise to explore player dynamics.
That's probably the key I would zero in on: the interaction between players. Sure, I'd talk about building the track and investing in stocks, but I also know there are people who couldn't care less about that.
These are very competitive, very interactive games in which each player's portfolio gets hopelessly entangled with that of other players; everything you do to help yourself has the potential to help someone else, everything you do to hurt someone else might hurt you.
Every action matters, and if you make a mistake, it can sink your position and make it irrecoverable. That kind of experience isn't for everyone, but I think the people who would be into that would recognize that if you described it to them.
DM: When creating a series of historical train games, are there specific issues that you model with each game and how do you reflect these in a design?
TR: I've done several train games, of course, and in a way many of them are iterative, expanding upon what I did the last time. But each game is generally its own thing, conceived for its own reason and with its own emphasis.
Northern Pacific was intended to focus on shared incentives and chains of "if I do this, she'll do that".
Irish Gauge was, I think, an attempt to create a simple, streamlined, introductory take on Winsome's action selection-style cube rail games. I say "think" because unusually the entire game sprung forth fully-formed like Athena over the course of an hour while I was stuck in traffic, so I didn't so much go into Irish Gauge with a goal in mind as I decided that was the goal after the fact!
Trans-Siberian Railroad is a messy sort of game in which I was trying to do something heavier and a bit more capricious. This introduced the "track-leasing" mechanism that ran through my next three games. Those next three games are also interested in exploring more co-operative rather than destructive play patterns in the context of a competitive game.
Iberian Gauge has numbered shares, and players who are invested in a company build one track per share according to the order in which those shares are bought.
London & Northwestern is unique in that you can invest only in other player's companies and that their stock values only go up, never down.
The Soo Line is the last of those track-leasing games, and it's the weirdest of the bunch. It very deliberately breaks some of the "rules" of "good train game design".
For example, in games where majority shareholders make all decisions for a company, you want at least as many companies as you have players. Well, this is a game for up to five players with only three companies, which means that some players take a less active role, having to make their fortunes as pure investors.
Asymmetry is common in train games, and sometimes some companies are kinda rubbish, but here the three companies are rubbish in wildly different ways.
Some people like it. Some people hate it. That's to be expected as it's a deliberately abrasive game.
The newest choo-choo game that I have pulling into the station is Dual Gauge, and this is a multi-map train game system. How this happened is that Mary told me I needed to do a new train game every year, and I thought to myself, "Wow, that sounds like a lot of work — but if I do a system, I can do the base game this year, then just do a couple of maps every year to fulfill Mary's requirement."
Well, Mary was really happy to hear about me doing a system that could have expansions, but she told me that this didn't cut the mustard, and that I will also be on the hook for new standalone train games each year.
Dual Gauge borrows some elements of the 18xx — track shared by all companies, blocking by way of placing stations, buying trains and running routes, some of those trains become obsolete, and a two-dimensional stock market — but it's very much a cube rails game at heart (despite not having any cubes). It is, I think, its own thing, and the system is robust enough that each map should have some unusual tweaks and fresh challenges.
DM: Do the train and military game strands of your design career have more in common than meets the eye at first glance — simulation concepts, for example?
TR: Not really. The historical games are built to explore or express a thesis through a model. Sometimes this is a very serious subject where what I want to express is very important to me; This Guilty Land is about the complicity of compromise in oppression. Sometimes the subject is less serious, or at least less immediate: With It Or On It is a coarse-grain model of the advantages and disadvantages of hoplite formations.
The train games, on the other hand, are purely about mechanisms and player dynamics, and playing with genre conventions and expectations.
DM: Hollandspiele is a small, independent company in a crowded field. How do you manage to stand out from, and compete with, other companies?
TR: Well, the secret is that we don't really "compete" with anyone. We're off to the side of the market proper, catering to more adventurous tastes.
We use a print-on-demand model: You order the game from us, pay us for it, we turn around and pay our printer, who manufactures and ships you the game. So these games are essentially made one at a time. We never "over-produce", never have any inventory to sell off.
We don't deal with distributors, don't sell games at conventions. We're completely insulated from all the hubbub, and our model allows us to tackle more unusual and less commercial topics and approaches.
There's an audience for that which has traditionally been underserved, and I think that's a large part of our success.
DM: In addition to your own games, Hollandspiele also releases games by other designers. From a publisher’s point of view, what makes a game stand out from the masses? Are there any games that you are particularly glad to have been able to release?
TR: We're mostly looking for a game with a point of view or a strong authorial voice.
We're proud of all our releases, but the jewels in the crown, as it were, have been the aforementioned An Infamous Traffic, which went out of print last year, and Erin Escobedo's Meltwater, which we're still printing.
Both games were strong sellers, which is always nice, both were well-received critically, and both expanded our audience, bringing eyes to our other titles.
DM: What do you think the future holds for niche historical games? Do you feel they will remain in a niche genre, or will they become more (or return to the) mainstream as their mechanisms and design ideas become more frequently seen in popular games?
TR: I mean, "niche" games are gonna be niche games. That's not to say that historical games don't have broader crossover appeal, and there have definitely been strides toward making historical games more approachable to that wider audience.
I'm sure that this will continue to be the case. It's just not something I'm particularly interested in, and I have the luxury of just doing whatever the heck I want.
DM: Do you have any advice for aspiring designers and publishers?
TR: I make weird, brittle, abrasive games that alienate and frustrate people, so I'm not sure if anyone looking to be successful in this field should be listening to my advice. Read more »
- The Spice Definitely Flows in Dune: ImperiumDire Wolf's upcoming release of Dune: Imperium, designed by Paul Dennen, the creator of Clank! A Deck-Building Adventure.
While on the lighter side of my gaming spectrum, I've always enjoyed playing all versions of Clank!, especially Clank! Legacy. You throw Dune, deck-building, worker placement, and Paul Dennen into a blender, and before I even experience what comes out, my ears are perked and my eyes are wide. Thus, I had to reach out to Dire Wolf expressing my interest in a review copy of Dune: Imperium, which they graciously hooked me up with so that I could navigate folded space, taste the spice firsthand, and share my initial impressions.
Dune: Imperium is a hybrid deck-building and worker placement game for 1 to 4 players that plays in about 60-120 minutes. Each player represents a leader of one of the Great Houses of the Landsraad, competing to earn the most victory points by defeating rivals in combat, forming alliances with the four powerful factions on Dune (Emperor, Spacing Guild, Bene Gesserit and Fremen), and cleverly establishing your political influence.
Each player starts the game with a leader board corresponding to their particular leader, which has two different abilities, unique from other players. You also have two agents (workers), a starting deck of cards (same for all players), some wooden cubes representing troops, and a few other components to form your supply. There's also a card market as expected in a deck-building game, and a general supply area of the main resources of the game: spice, solari, and water.
Dune: Imperium is played over a series of rounds, with each round consisting of five phases: 1) Round Start, 2) Player Turns, 3) Combat, 4) Makers and 5) Recall. At the end of a round, if any player has reached 10 or more victory points or if the conflict deck is empty (after ten rounds), the game ends and whoever has the most victory points wins.
You start each round by first revealing a new conflict card, then each player draws a hand of five cards. Conflict cards show the rewards you'll be competing for during the current round should you decide to deploy troops to the conflict.
Next you jump into the player turns phase, which is the meat and potatoes of Dune: Imperium, or shall I say, the cinnamon and nutmeg. In this phase, players take either an agent turn or a reveal turn in clockwise order until all players have completed their Rreveal turn. This is where the cards in your deck come into play, and you have to decide which cards (if any) you'll use to place agents on the board, versus which cards you'll save to reveal in order to gain resources and/or combat bonuses.
During an agent turn, you play a card from your hand face-up in front of you and use it to send one of your available agents to an unoccupied space on the board where you gain access to that particular location's effects. The location icons on the left side of the cards indicate which locations you can send an agent to with that particular card. Then the agent box on the card may grant you some additional bonus effects as well when you use that card for an agent turn. When you use the "Worm Riders" card for an agent turn, you gain two spice.
There's a decent variety of locations on the board with various effects that allow you to pursue a plethora of strategies as you play, especially when combo'd with different card effects. Like most worker placement games, there will be many moments where someone beats you to a spot you were hoping to use, but considering several cards have multiple location options, you're likely to find a clever back-up plan and work around it.
Some card and location effects allow you to gain resources, draw extra cards, trash cards, and recruit troops. There's a spot where you can spend solari to gain a Mentat (extra temporary worker) for the round, and if you're able to pony up even more solari, you can grab your third agent.
You can also gain devious intrigue cards from certain location effects in addition to other ways. The intrigue cards add a healthy dose of spice to otherwise familiar mechanisms and are one of my favorite elements of Dune: Imperium. There are plot, combat, and endgame intrigue cards that come into play at various points in the game, but the best part is that your opponents have no clue what type of card(s) you have and when and how it will impact them; it's so fun to keep everyone guessing. You might have a plot card that lets you spend a certain amount of spice to gain a victory point. If you reveal that at the right time, that one card could push you over the edge to win the game. On the other hand, you could have a beasty combat card that you reveal to push you ahead of your opponents during combat when someone else thought they were going to take it. The intrigue cards are mighty juicy...mighty juicy!
When you place your agent on one of the four factions' board spaces, you gain the location and agent box card effects as usual, but you also gain an influence bump on the corresponding influence track. You gain a victory point when you hit the second space on each of the influence tracks, then if you're the first person to get to the fourth space on a given influence track, you gain the corresponding alliance token and get another victory point...but don't celebrate too fast.
You can manipulate faction influence quite a few different ways, and it adds an interesting layer to Dune: Imperium. Some players might focus on a single influence track and try to rush to the fourth space before everyone to snag an alliance token quickly, while others might try to just get to the second spot on all four tracks to lock in those 4 victory points. Some card effects are very powerful if you have an alliance token with a particular faction, and there's even a space on the board that you must have at least two influence with the Fremen in order to use. Gaining influence always seems pretty important, but how you approach it and how competitive it gets will vary from game to game and lend itself to exciting moments.
While you're thinking about gaining influence, try not to slip too much on the combat front. This is another excellent way to gain resources, influence, and most importantly, victory points.
Certain locations allow you to recruit troops from your supply to your garrison area, and also locations that will allow you to deploy troops from your garrison area into the conflict area. If a location has the combat icon in the bottom right corner, you can always deploy up to two troop cubes from your garrison to the conflict area. In addition, some locations with the combat icon allow you to recruit, and in those cases, you can move as many of the newly recruited troops from your supply directly to the conflict area, which is a great way to get more troops ready for combat. This can sometimes scare off your opponents, but if you deploy a ton of troops and your opponents decide not to deploy any, you're basically wasting troops that you could have saved in your garrison for future conflicts where they'd be better served. Figuring out when to deploy troops and how many troops to deploy is a tough decision.
During your reveal turn, you also set your combat strength for the round if you have at least one troop in the conflict area. Each troop cube has a strength of 2, and you'll add any additional strength for each sword on your revealed cards. Then you set your strength on the combat track and place all the cards you played and revealed into your discard pile. After all players have completed their reveal turns, let the battle begin!
After combat is resolved, in the makers phase spice accumulates on certain board spaces if no one moved an agent there that round. This is similar to some other worker placement games like Agricola, where it entices players to move to those spaces in future rounds.
If the game end hasn't been triggered, you take all your agents back and rotate the first player market clockwise — but if a player has 10 or more victory points or the conflict deck is empty, you resolve any endgame intrigue cards, then whoever has the most victory points wins.
I do wish there was a better system for determining turn order other than just rotating the first player marker clockwise, with player turns going in clockwise order. It's certainly simple and perhaps that was the intention since there's already a lot to think about in the game, but for worker placement games I tend to prefer more interesting decisions when it comes to determining turn order. Turn order is really important, as you read above in my Great Flat spice pile-up story, so I do wish the players had more control over it.
I managed to play Dune: Imperium at all players counts and enjoyed them all, but if I had to pick, I preferred the two-player game the least. Solo and two-player games are played with AI opponents driven by a deck of cards with minimal rules that are easy to pick up, and therefore pretty smooth to play. There's also a handy app available that streamlines solo and two-player games, but regardless whether you use the deck or app, you'll be zipping along after a round or two with your subtly, intrusive AI rivals.
My two-player game just lacked a bit of the tension I felt playing with three and four players — and even solo. In the solo game, you play against two AI opponents and they can score points in various ways, which made me feel the pressure I feel playing three- and four-player games. The two-player game, on the other hand, adds a single AI opponent that doesn't score victory points, so you're competing for victory points only against your human opponent, which was fine, but not as exciting to me. I liked it; I just didn't love it as much as the other player counts.
Overall, I'm really digging Dune: Imperium. There aren't necessarily any ground-breaking, new mechanisms, but the way these familiar mechanisms are blended together is awesome and works well. I would say this is only a few clicks above the complexity level of Clank!, but it offers such a different and deeper strategic experience. No disrespect to Clank!, of course; I love me some Clank!, but Dune: Imperium feels more mature and sophisticated gameplaywise.
I enjoyed the decision space of figuring out which cards to use for agent turns versus which cards to save for reveal turns, especially as you start incorporating fancier cards with juicier effects into your deck. Lots of cards synergize well together or with your level of influence with different factions, so it's fun to see what kind of card combos people pull off. I also like that you have a lot of different opportunities for drawing cards mid-round. That can open some exciting opportunities during agent turns or seriously boost your reveal turn.
I've already touched on how much I love what the intrigue cards bring to the table, but I also really love the tight victory point system and having combat rewards to consider each round. Each and every victory point is important and meaningful, and everyone knows it, so it makes the game feel tense. It's great that there are several different ways to score victory points, too, so players can pursue different strategies for scoring and it feels equally competitive in a really fun way.
There were multiple games in which I had a steady lead in the early game, then as newer players got the swing of it, their scoring discs crept closer and closer, gradually closing the gap, making me feel all sorts of anxious and stressed, but in the best way possible, all up until a climatic ending. There were many "Ohhhhhhh!" moments as we each tried to outwit each other with intrigue cards or by stealing alliance tokens. I love when a game sucks me in and makes me feel that way.
Kudos to Paul Dennen and Dire Wolf for taking control of the spice, then packing it into Dune: Imperium! Read more »
- VideoWiz-War, Dragonland, and Coconuts Return to the TableSteve Jackson Games announced a new edition of Tom Jolly's classic beer-and-pretzels game Wiz-War, with this title — Wiz-War (9th Edition) for those keeping score — featuring art by Phil Foglio and additional development by Steve Jackson.
SJG hasn't yet revealed how this edition will differ from others, instead noting that it plans to run a Kickstarter to fund this release and that it's doing all of the tooling with the manufacturer beforehand to ensure smoother fulfillment (barring all the usual complications for such things).
An excerpt from SJG's announcement: "We'll tool everything as if all project stretch goals are unlocked, in the hope that there's enough interest in the game to allow us to produce the game as Steve envisions it. Part of our prep work with the factory has been planning out how the stretch goals impact the finished game; this will allow us to reverse steps if some of the stretch goals remain locked at the end of the campaign."
• In September 2020, U.S. publisher Gamelyn Games joined the vast group of publishers with one Knizia title in their catalog thanks to a new edition of Dragonland, which initially appeared from Ravensburger in 2002. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game for ages 9 and up:Adventure in Dragonland! The dragons store their treasure in the numerous volcanoes, but their treasure is in danger because the volcanoes will soon erupt! To save the treasure, the dragons have asked the dwarves, elves, humans, and magicians for help. Each group competes with the others to be the most successful at gathering treasure for the dragons.
Using strategy and cunning in Dragonland, each player moves their group of companions from volcano to volcano to collect sets of dragon eggs and gemstones. Each player scores points for each gemstone and egg, but extra points for a complete set: egg, ruby, emerald, and sapphire. All their movements are under the control of the tower of destiny, which sometimes arranges for a companion to reach their destination a bit too late. When the last egg is collected, the game ends and the player with the most points wins.
For this edition of Dragonland, some new features have been added, specifically a unicorn mechanism and token and a witch mechanism and token.
Underdog Games has released a new edition of Walter Schneider's Coconuts with — get this — green coconuts. Yes, the brown coconuts of editions past have been replaced with something that won't have players snickering about monkeys flinging poo at one another.
For those not familiar with the game, which originated from Korea Boardgames in 2013, in Coconuts you use a plastic monkey to launch coconuts into cups, which can be in the center of the table or on another player's tableau. When you land a coconut in a cup, you claim it, placing it on your tableau or on top of two cups you already have. If you build a six-cup pyramid, you win instantly; otherwise the game ends when all the coconuts have landed in cups, and whoever has the most coconuts in their cups wins.
One change in this edition is that instead of having special ability cards that can be dealt out to players, once per game each player can choose one of four special actions. This change reduces the number of components, while also giving you control over exactly what you want to do when.
If you want to see how this all works, you can watch this overview video that I recorded in 2014, with my then five-year-old son. I made some nice shots during this explanation! On the down side, I showed my wife this video while preparing this post so that she could go "Awwwwww" over our son, and she said, "Wow, you look so much younger here!" Divorce proceedings are now underway.
Youtube Video Read more »
- ● Tenfold Cyber Monday Collection [BUNDLE]Publisher: Hero Games
This special bundle product contains the following titles. Dram
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Format: MP3 File
A solemn, minimal, 26-second instrumental piece to give ambiance to RPG settings. If you desire a short piece to introduce a tavern setting, a theme for a wistful bard to be played as the characters approach, or something in that vein, this may fill that role.... Tenfold: Basic Set
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Welcome to the illustrious world of Tenfold. Here, you may find an overview of the lore and races of the Tenfold world: a world filled with magical races, idiosyncratic elements, and plentiful factions locked in an ever-changing yet never-ending conflict for the fate of the world. If you wish to design campaigns within the Tenfold world or merely understand the overarching lore for usage combined with other, full-scale supplements, this book may just serve your ends. Contents include: 1 full-color cover 5 black-and-white interior illustrations 12 pages of lore and character/setting creation guides 2 pages of character creation game mechanics 10 pages containing 40 character template sheets 4 pages of explanatory material Adventures await you in the world of Tenfold. Fare well.... Tenfold: Fief de L'ombre
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Format: PDF and MP3 Bundle
Welcome to the illustrious world of Tenfold. Here, you will find a full guide for a highly detailed castle setting, usable as a base or adventure locale. Complete with maps, lore, gameplay, and background music, this can be used to add flavor and interest to your campaign, whether your players are friendly or hostile to those who live in this castle. Contents include: Fief de L'ombre PDF:1 full-color cover 3 pages of full-color grid maps, one for each level of the eponymous castle 2 pages containing 21 sets of random encounters and treasure 5 pages of miscellaneous lore and explanations 3 pages of blank grids for map design Fief de L'ombre MP3:1 ambient music file clocking in at 2 minutes long Adventures await you in the world of Tenfold. Fare well....
Price: $4.76 Read more »
Total value: 0 Special bundle price: 0 Savings of: 0 (38%)
- ● The Cook at the Crossroads - Adventure for Zweihander RPGPublisher: Grim & Perilous Studios
You find yourself at a quaint and idyllic inn. The sights and smells are all perfect to rest your weary bones. But the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end as your sixth-sense tells you something is wrong.
The Cook at the Crossroads is a drop-in adventure that can be used in any ZWEIHANDER campaign or as a one-shot. Depending on playstyle this adventure should last anywhere from 2-3 hours.
The Cook at the Crossroads includes:
- An open ended adventure scenario that allows the players freedom to do as they wish.
- A fantasy-horror scenario suitable for ZWEIHANDER.
- A mystery to be solved.
- A horrible fate worse than death.
More from Earl of Fife!
Explore Heroes and Hardships, Earl of Fife's gritty original setting agnostic RPG system
The Quickstart Guide is Pay What you Want!
The Cook at the Crossroads is presented by Earl of Fife Games. Learn more about Earl of Fife Games at fifegames.com
- ● 40x30 Battlemap - The FurnacePublisher: Seafoot Games
Heat bellows up the shattered tunnels from the heart of the furnace. Beyond the pillared passage the broken bridge crosses a molten circle, wooden frameworks have fallen away and the small shacks that surround this pit are in complete disarray.
Makeshift wooden walkways crisscross the gap and connect the tunnels to the central platform where an old crane sits silent and unused. Wooden crates and barrels still containing implements or mining materials gathered here still remain and may yet be of use.What You Will ReceiveA home-printable 40x30 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.
- Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
- 300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A1 poster printing or VTT.
- 72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.
Join me on Patreon for $1 and get over 20 battlemaps a month. Experience how good level design can make encounters MUCH more engaging!
Want one free map a week instead? Become part of my community on Facebook.Price: $2.38 Read more »
- ● Hexed Places - Plain of MirePublisher: PBE Games
From a distance, the Plain of Mire is a green and pleasant place, but looks are deceiving. The greenery is a mix of stiff, head-high grass and reeds that slice exposed flesh and thick algae mats that hide treacherous murky pools. Fog fills the air morning and evening, so it's easy to get turned around when all you see is grass. The sole landmarks are the continually shifting Circa River and a few small hills. Two of these mounds, Wolf Rock and Finger Hill, are marked by ruins. The third hill, Shadow Ridge, is overgrown with twisted, half-dead trees. Redwater Spring burbles up from the ground and adds its weirdly colored waters to the surrounding pools, and the Suck pulls those who attempt to plumb its depths to their deaths.Price: $2.69 Read more »
- ● Mythic North [BUNDLE]Publisher: Skirmisher Publishing
This special 50% off bundle contains 11 titles that can be used to play or enhance games set in the Mythic North! They include Skirmisher Publishing's bestselling Ragnarok: Age of Wolves miniatures game; its "Viking Warriors," "Dwarf Soldiery," "Troll Warband," and "Göatter Dämmerung" sets of cardstock miniatures; the Gold-bestselling "100 Oddities for a Viking Encounter"; and four short stories. 100 Oddities for a Viking Encounter
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Welcome to the tenth title in Skirmisher Publishing’s popular and ongoing “100 Oddities” series! "100 Oddities for a Viking Encounter" is a thematic sourcebook that contains lists of 100 Items, 20 Places, and 30 People & Monsters that can be used separately or in conjunction with one another to add some evocative details to a Viking-themed encounter or to construct one from scratch. These elements routinely cross the line between actual mythological elements and meta-references to them, and storytellers can decide in any given case whether they are dealing with something legendary or merely reminiscent of it. Oddities are things that stand out from the ordinary, and prompt both game masters and players to wonder about them. Oddities intrigue and&nbs... Dwarf Soldiery (Cardstock CharactersTM)
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
This set of downloadable Cardstock CharactersTM miniatures contains three variations on five different figures, a Champion, Infantryman, Crossbowman, Goat Rider, and War Goat. These figures are an ideal addition to any sort of tabletop fantasy RPG or wargame. They can be used to enhance encounters or even serve as the basis for them and the different variations can also be used to easily reflect different levels and capabilities. One of the factions even has blank shields that can easily be customized. We hope you and your players will enjoy battling with them! ... Göatter Dämmerung (Cardstock CharactersTM)
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
This set of downloadable Cardstock CharactersTM miniatures is devoted to the Göatter Dämmerung, a band of dangerous war goats, and is compatible with any tabletop or roleplaying games! "Göatter Dämmerung" contains seven different figures, including three fearsome war goat leaders, a regular war goat, and three goat riders. This set also includes horizontally-flopped versions of six of the figures, for a total of 13 different figures; 14 copies of the regular war goat so that large units can be created; and assembly instructions. These beautiful miniatures by noted fantasy artist Amanda Kahl based on a concept by Carter Valentine are the ideal addition to any sort of tabletop fantasy RPG or wargame and can be used to enhance encounters or even serve as the basis for them. They... Havelok the Dane
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
“Havelok the Dane” is the epic Medieval tale of how the heirs to the thrones of Denmark and England are despoiled of their titles and fortunes, their struggles to survive, and their battle to reclaim their heritage. It contains elements derived from earlier pagan Norse mythology. This version of the story was adapted from a 13th century Middle English romance by noted Columbia University professor George Philip Krapp and was originally published in 1921. ... Ragnarok: Age of Wolves
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Ragnarok: Age of Wolves is a skirmish-level game for novice and experienced tabletop players alike that emulates the desperate small-scale actions that might result during the unending winter that is the first stage of the Viking Apocalypse. As crops fail and food grows scarce, banditry becomes rife as formerly good folk are driven to extremes and bad men take advantage of chaos and hardship. Monsters haunt the wilds and prowl the outskirts of palisaded settlement and isolated steading alike. Huldrfolk, never easy neighbors, but generally peaceful if left undisturbed, now move to defend their sacred groves and to seize places once devoted to gods who now seem absent. Trolls and their ilk gather, marauders sweep brigands and more into their bands, and whispers abound of gaun... The Prince of the Sea
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
This short story set in the legendary era of the Mythic North describes the origins of the people who came to be known as Vikings, to include their struggles against foreign invaders and the romance between a Norse princess and the Prince of the Sea. “The Prince of the Sea” was written by author John V. Sears and illustrated by artist I.W. Taber and was originally published in 1918. ... Their Blood Is the Sea
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
"North Sea, in the 22nd year of the reign of blessed Honorius, Imperator Romanorum ..." Set on the cusp of civilization during the final years of the Roman Empire and the onset of the Dark Ages, "Their Blood Is the Sea" explores the horrors encountered by the crew and passengers of a vessel that runs aground on a hostile shore. It was written by game developer and historian Clint Staples, who has extensively researched the period in which this story takes place and sailed through the waters where it is set. ... Thor and the Giant Skrymir
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
This short story set in the Viking epic era covers a number of iconic episodes involving the Norse deity Thor, including a series of seemingly simple contests that he just cannot seem to win and an inadvertent attack on one of his chariot goats. “Thor and the Giant Skrymir” was written by author Julia Clinton Jones and was originally published in 1891. ... Troll Warband (Cardstock Characters)
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
This set of downloadable Cardstock CharactersTM miniatures is devoted to two different sorts of Trolls, aquatic Meretrolls and savage Wolftrolls, and is compatible with any tabletop or roleplaying games. "Troll Warband" contains 10 different figures, including three giant-sized Meretrolls, one of them a chieftain with magical powers; two human-sized Lesser Meretrolls; an allied Water Elemental; a large Wolftroll; a half-Troll wizard, both on foot and mounted on a Wolftroll; and a heavily armed-and-armored half-Wolftroll warlord. This set also includes horizontally-flopped versions of six of the figures, for a total of 16 different figures, as well as assembly instructions. These beautiful miniatures by noted fantasy artist Amanda Kahl are the ideal addition to an... Viking Warriors (A Sourcebook for 5th Edition)
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Welcome to the Mythic North! Our version of this fantastic region corresponds largely to what are now known as Norway, Iceland, Sweden, and Denmark and incorporates the myths, legends, folklore, and history associated with it and this book is designed to help facilitate adventures in it. “Viking Warriors” includes: * 10 sets of D&D 5th Edition game stats, including those for a chieftain, or jarl; five of his lieutenants, or thegns, including a rune-mage, a war-priestess, a bard, a woodsman, and a scout; and four different sorts of common warriors, or carls. Six of these sets are comprehensive enough that they can be used either as non-player characters or as ready-to-use pre-generated player characters. * Backstories for the various characters and ... Viking Warriors (Cardstock Characters)
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
This set of downloadable Cardstock CharactersTM miniatures contains 10 different figures in c. 28mm scale, including a chieftain (jarl), four warrior retainers (thegns), a rune mage (galdrmadr), and four common warriors (carls). This set also includes a horizontally-flopped version of the entire group to allow for additional variety, allowing a full 20 figures to be printed out on a single sheet, as well as assembly instructions. These beautiful miniatures by noted fantasy artist Amanda Kahl are the ideal addition to any sort of tabletop fantasy RPG or wargame and can be used to enhance encounters or even serve as the basis for them. They have been developed with an eye for historical accuracy under the direction of game developer and ...
Price: $21.91 Read more »
Total value: 0 Special bundle price: 0 Savings of: 0 (50%)
- ● Mission Report: NidavellirPublisher: Onyx Path Publishing
During the 21st Century’s Nova Age, dozens of settlements were founded light years away from the safety of Earth. While by 2123, many of these lost colonies have been rediscovered, there are more out there. This is the story of one of those worlds - Nidavellir.
Missin Report: Nidavelir includes:
• A brand new Extrasolar setting
• Complete history, including the period after contact was lost
• A simple adventure to introduce players to Nidavellir
• New technologies, paths, edges and enemies
Requires thePrice: $8.00 Read more »
Trinity Continuum Core Rulebook to play
- ● Blue Rose: Envoys to the Mount + Tales from the Mount [BUNDLE]Publisher: Green Ronin Publishing
This special bundle product contains the following titles. Blue Rose: Envoys to the Mount
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
In the Depths of the Shadow Barrens, Evil Awakens The ancient connections between the nomadic Roamer folk of Aldis and the eldritch folk known as the vata has long been suspected, but never confirmed. When an emissary from the far-off vata stronghold known as Mount Oritaun comes to Aldis seeking a familiar face and a favor from its Queen, a small band of envoys from the Sovereign’s Finest are assigned to lend their aid against the sinister power of the Shadow Barrens. Envoys to the Mount provides four adventure chapters spanning five years and all four tiers of Blue Rose play. Together they form an epic campaign that sees the heroes not only facing off against the forces of Shadow, but also unlocking some of the ancient secrets of the world of Aldea. Envoys to the Moun... Envoys to the Mount Pre-Generated Characters
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
While the character Hooks presented in Envoys to the Mount give you a solid launching-off point from which to create heroes uniquely suited to the campaign, perhaps you’d rather just dive right into playing. Or maybe your group is inexperienced with Blue Rose (or roleplaying games, in general) and could benefit from more guidance than is provided by just the Hooks. Whatever the case, presented here are eight pre-generated characters—one for each Hook—from which to choose, made at level 2, encompassing most of what’s needed to start play. Note that players will still need to fill in some details, however, in the form of Calling, Destiny, and Relationships, all of which can be found in Chapter 2 of the Blue Rose Core Rulebook. Further, players can work with the Narrator to determ... Tales from the Mount
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
In the Deep Reaches of the Shadow Barrens, Something Evil Stirs The blasted expanse of the Shadow Barrens has menaced the Kingdom of the Blue Rose for generations. Legends of its sinister residents and the fallen glories of long-lost Mount Oritaun have provoked both fear and wistful hope. Now, an envoy from that lost kingdom has made contact, and a history long forgotten by all but a few scholars has been brought to light. But the armies of Shadow loom over Mount Oritaun, and its lunar light may soon be extinguished forever. Tales from the Mount features nine short stories which visit the deadly Shadow Barrens, wicked fallen Austium, and the lunar glories of Mount Oritaun. These are the tales of a people lost, the shattered pieces of an ancient and proud civilization, and the sinister s...
Price: $30.94 Read more »
Total value: 0 Special bundle price: 0 Savings of: 0 (19%)
- ● Hope Cross VillagePublisher: Rosethrone Publishing
“First there was that storm. Old Gorby says he ain’t never seen such a fuss kicked up, and he’s near a hundred years old. So many lightning strikes, trees burning in the woods for days. If it hadn’t been for all the rain that came, sure there’d be no Hope Cross left today.”
“Then the sheep ran off, and that’s ain’t supposed to even be possible, what with the Witchwoman’s charm at the Shearing Shed.”
“Then that... stranger came to town. Said he was looking for something in the darkness. Came at full noon, he did. Probably mad. No one was unhappy to see him leave.”
“And now Adam Shepherd is missing.”
Hope Cross Village is an adventure suitable for characters levels 1-3. The adventure is set in the Rosewood Highlands and is tthe follow up to The Storm's Impending Rage in the Upon the Face of the Deep campaign.
NOTE: Hope Cross Village has been added to the Everything 2020 Bundle at a special price - as a thank you to all bundle purchasers (if you have previously purchased the Everything Bundle, Hope Cross Village will only cost you a dime)Price: $2.99 Read more »
- ● Simple Classes: Size-ChangerPublisher: Little Red Goblin Games
Keep it Simple: Size-Changer
Simple classes are trimmed-down, streamlined classes designed to be easy to pick up and play for both new players and system veterans! Each has a sleek core set of abilities that isn’t bogged down with options backed up with a strong but balanced chassis (HD, saves, BAB, etc).
Size-Changer (Pathfinder 1st Editon)
Size-changers have supernatural control over their size and density; this allows them to both shrink and grow at their whims. Grow to the size of a cottage or shrink to the size of a pixie; the power is yours!Price: $0.99 Read more »
- ● Filler spot - vehicle: gnome car - RPG Stock ArtPublisher: Dean Spencer Art
This stock art image by Dean Spencer depicts an steampunk style gnome car.
Black and white line art, 3 inches on the longest side @ 300dpi.
This purchase includes one PNG file. If you need this in any other format please feel free to contact me.
All art files are bundled in a ZIP file.Price: $1.95 Read more »
- Intro to Israeli Theory – Your Character Does Not Exist
For the past decade, the Israeli RPG theory scene has been developing its own approach to roleplaying games, an understanding of the game and its players that seem to be unique in-, or at least useful for-, the greater landscape of theorycraft. We previously introduced some of our ideas to the English-speaking world when we presented the genre of Israeli Tabletop and the way one community of Israeli GMs design their games using this framework. In this series of articles, we will present some of these insights and terminology, focusing not on high-falutin theory – but on actionable ideas that can be implemented immediately at your gaming table.
We will focus on these topics:
- Characters don’t exist – We can only affect actions and feelings through the players, and not the characters, and this simple understanding can take us very far.
- There is no GM – At the core of the gaming experience there are only “Guiding actions”, actions that powerfully affect the game’s experience for some or all players, and a GM is basically a designation given to the person we expect to use them, but she’s not the only one doing so.
- The game doesn’t have a story – The concepts of story, narrative and plot as we usually perceive them do not really apply to the core activity of tabletop games, requiring a new paradigm.
Before we begin, one important thing: in this series, we will not give a lot of attention to definitions. We could spend thousands of words arguing about edge cases and exact phrasing – and we have, in Hebrew. Here we present our best ideas, in a way that should allow you to try and implement them immediately.
The weird case of the Shoggoth and the Coke
The PCs are walking into an abandoned house. It’s dark and silent. Then, suddenly, something comes out of the shadows! A giant, alien monster, made of black slime, with innumerable floating eyes.
And around the table, the players are laughing and passing around the pizza. One of them, her mouth full of pizza, says “Oh, it’s a shoggoth.” The GM looks pleadingly at the players, and eventually one of them blurts out “my character shrieks in horror,” and another adds, “yeah, my character is scared speechless, could you pass the coke?” It takes less than a minute for one player to announce “I’m attacking the shoggoth!” referencing an old D&D skit.
Most GMs would not be happy with this scene. The game is supposed to be scary, yet everyone is laughing. The players put in a token effort to make their characters act frightened, but no one looking at the game table would even think this is a horror game.
Let’s look at another example. If you’ve ever had a long-running D&D campaign, you probably encountered the following weird juxtaposition: high-level characters, when encountering a huge, deadly dragon for the first time in their lives, are thrilled to rush into combat, no questions asked; yet those same renowned heroes become scared to their bones when a Rust Monster runs into the room. This small monster, with only 27 hit points and a challenge rating of ½, can cause even a group of 5th or 10th level characters to stop in their tracks and ask themselves if entering combat is really necessary. Although there’s absolutely no chance for the characters to die – they are more scared than when they’re facing a deadly threat.
Why do these things happen?The characters don’t exist. They are figments of our imaginations.
It’s because the characters don’t exist. They are figments of our imaginations. The characters can’t make decisions because the players make decisions as them. They can’t have thoughts and feelings of their own, because those are just thoughts or feelings the players have about the characters. And the characters don’t act, because everything and anything a character does is dictated by the players’ actions.
When the players around the table are laughing, drinking beer and eating pizza, we will never have truly scared characters. The players will act based on how they are feeling, which is happy and relaxed. When these players encounter a scary dragon, they might be able to portray their characters’ fear of dying, but this can feel hollow, because their decisions regarding that dragon will probably be dictated by tactical considerations, not driven by actual fear. However, when the players feel that the pieces of equipment they received as rewards for many hours of game time, and provide them with useful and important bonuses and abilities, and aren’t usually in danger of being taken from them are suddenly at risk from a giant bug that destroys metal, they’ll experience a level of dread that their tough characters are unlikely to actually feel.We can’t scare a character when the player is laughing and asking to pass the coke.
When we’re running a game, we can only affect the players, and therefore we should plan our game accordingly. We can’t scare a character when the player is laughing and asking to pass the coke. We can’t make a character excited when the player is completely spent after a long day at work. We can’t make a player worried if the rules we’re using fill them with confidence. Anything and everything we do around the table – we do with players, and not with characters.
Some of these ideas are already prevalent in the GM advice of many games. For example, it is well known that for a horror game to actually be scary, it’s important to control the game’s physical environment (there’s some excellent advice in Engine Publishing’s Focal Point). Many of us learned that GMs shouldn’t tell players how their characters feel, partly because that violates the player’s autonomy, but also very much because it just doesn’t work.
How to use this
We suggest that this outlook is useful in many other cases, for example:
- Using players’ backgrounds: Knowing the players well can make it easier for us to influence their characters’ choices. For example, I once had a player who had a personal issue with authority figures – he didn’t get along with his bosses, didn’t like receiving orders, and so on. In many cases, when I wanted the characters to get themselves into trouble, I had some authority figure NPC tell that player’s character not to go somewhere. His character wasn’t the rebellious type, so my planning was not at all based on the character’s personality. Knowing the player, and how he’s expected to react, I was able to nudge his character, and the entire group, in some direction. I was acting on the player, and not his character.
The most important question in a roleplaying game is, what do the players do?
- Running an engaging investigation: Focusing on the players has a dramatic impact on investigation games. When we imagine an investigation scene, it’s very clear what the investigators do: they look around, flip things over, search in various compartments, and so on. However, when we try to translate these actions into a roleplaying game, we find that while the characters are active, the players are just rolling dice. Some games have tried to solve this problem by getting rid of investigative dice rolls (GUMSHOE). Others have abstracted investigation to focus on the investigative questions rather than actions (investigative moves in PbtA games). But in general, when designing an investigation game, we have to ask ourselves what the players will be doing around the game table, and how to make that interesting. One possibility is rushing to the part where the players have all the clues in their possession, which transforms the game into puzzle-solving – figuring out how to fit pieces together. Another is the “scientific method” approach, in which players create hypotheses and test them until they find an acceptable solution. There are other options, but the main idea is to make sure that what the players do is interesting.
- Externalizing internal processes: Sometimes, your character experiences a huge revelation. Or, your character is repulsed by something. Or maybe she’s really suspicious of someone. But because characters don’t exist, and the game is after all a social interaction, these internal thoughts and feelings don’t really exist in the game unless you make them explicit in some way. Actions like describing that your character looks excited, or how she’s backing off from something and covering her mouth, or saying “I really don’t trust that NPC we just met”, are critical to make sure that what your character is going through actually becomes a part of the game.
To sum up: while in roleplaying games we usually invest a lot of time and effort in imaginary worlds, with characters who act and feel real, fundamentally the game happens around the table. It’s most useful for us, as designers and participants, to see it as a conversation between real people. When we’re trying to create some sort of effect in the game, we first have to create it around the table, with the real people sitting next to us. The characters don’t exist – so to make them do things and feel things, we have no choice but to go through the players. Many RPG designers start by asking “what do the characters do?”, as in, what is the fictional story going to be about. In our community, superstar GM Michael Gorodin puts the emphasis on what’s actually happening in the real world, with a common saying: “the most important question in a roleplaying game is, what do the players do?”.
(This article is a joint effort by a big group of Israeli RPG theory writers. It was graciously edited by the illustrious content editor Eran Aviram, with helpful comments from Michael Gorodin, Itamar Karbian, Yotam Ben Moshe, and Gil Ran.)
- Information Gaps – When The Information Runs Dry
In a recent game, my players reached an impasse. They had talked to two parties, which were in conflict with one another, and had gotten similar but not exactly the same information from both of them. The issue was that they felt that neither side gave them enough information to make a decision clear about who to trust. They were stuck in an information gap, not sure which way to go, based on the information they had. As I sat watching them discuss the issue, I realized that we were in this place where this could go on for a while, unless I nudged things along, but not before I thought a bit more about this situation, and how we as GMs have to help players through these parts when they get hung up on the rocks, so to speak. So here we are…
Making Informed Decisions
In general, players take in information from the GM and use it to make decisions for what to do next in the game. When we are playing there is a back and forth. The GM gives information in the form of description and exposition from the NPCs, the players ingest that information, they then declare their actions, and the GM narrates what comes next. A beautiful loop.
The GM’s role in this is profound. Depending on how we describe a passageway may influence if the players send their Rogue ahead looking for traps, or they could have the Fighter take point expecting an ambush. We walk a fine line of providing evocative descriptions and telegraphing what is coming next.
As GMs our job is to be a perfect narrator, providing truthful descriptions to the players. If we, as GMs, obfuscate what is going on, it will lead to a place where the players won’t trust anything their characters’ sense. That said, an NPC interacting with the players is not required to be fully truthful, and can tell the characters anything they want.
The Doldrums of Information
There are times in a game when the GM does not have any more information to provide. They have given out the description of the scene, they have answered the player’s follow-up questions, and perhaps the characters have made checks to try to get more information. At some point, there is no more information to be had until the players take an action.
The loop has become stalled. The players have all the information that is currently available, but they do not feel like it is enough to clearly see what to do next.
Normally, what happens next is discussion and debate. The players, sometimes in meta or as their characters, will begin to discuss what they know and try to build a consensus on what to do next. Depending on your group this will be smooth or bumpy.
It is in this spot that as GM, you are walking another fine line. How long do you let the players debate and see if they will make a move until you intervene and get the action restarted? What tools do you have?
How To Keep Things Flowing
The worst thing that can happen is that the player discussion stalls out or the players lose focus and someone does something chaotic stupid, or the flow of the game breaks. So what can you do to keep the group talking and make their decision-making process productive? Here are some ideas:
You can take a moment and recap for the players what they do know. This can help bring up details that some of the players may have forgotten and it might remind them of things that will help them arrive at their next action.
Tell Them Things Their Characters Know
In many cases, the characters know many more things about the world they live in than the players. When the players say something or question something that their character would know, tell them. Clear that up for them. This may help them come up with a fact that they need to act.
Ask Them What The Are Unsure Of
Asking the players to tell you what they are stuck on, which is preventing them from making a decision, can help to clear up any misconceptions. Sometimes, they will be stuck on something that they truly don’t know, but other times when they tell you what they are stuck on, you may be able to clear that up with either of the two techniques above; by recapping some information or telling them something their character would know.
Announce Something Approaching
While having a discussion and debate is good for the players, if it starts to drag on too long, you can announce that something is approaching. It could be the sound of something coming through the woods, it could be a text message on their phone, but give them the hint that the world is moving along, and that they are going to need to get moving.
When To Push
Knowing when to get play started again is a bit of an art. It is understanding if the discussion is productive and/or entertaining, or if it’s starting to drag on or become annoying. One of your jobs as the GM is to observe the discussion and get ready to push the game back into action should the discussion become non-productive or annoying. Depending on the circumstances, the players may not need to resolve the current discussion in order to take action. They may be held up in a room in the dungeon debating on what to do with the Big Bad, which they will encounter much later and they can get moving and resume the discussion at a later time.When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”
When you reach the moment you need to resume the game, the easiest way to do this is to jump in with the most powerful phrase you have as a GM — “What are you doing?”
If needed, you can take that thing that was approaching, and have it arrive. Then ask, “What are you doing?” Then the players keep debating about the Big Bad when a wandering Ogre hears them and comes to the room to find out what is going on.
Some Games Are More Prone To This
There are some genres that are more prone to this problem than others, but it can occur in any game. Games that require a lot of planning and games that deal with mysteries and investigations often run into this issue. In these games, the story is propelled by acting on information, and if the players are not comfortable with the amount of information they have, they can hit one of these doldrums.
In investigation games, the answer to this problem is nearly always to get more information through investigation. The players may be stuck on where to go next for a clue, and you may have to help them find where to go next, through some of those tools.
In games with lots of planning, like games with heists, the group will not want to execute without the information. This is tricky because often they can never get quite enough information. The best of these style games have flashback mechanics that allow the game to operate with less information, and let the characters emulate hyper-competence. If your game is missing those mechanics, then more intel gathering is their only option.
Feel The Flow
The flow of information is necessary for a game to stay productive and to keep moving forward. As the GM you have a vital role to play in making sure that information is available, while at the same time, remaining hands-off as the players make decisions. When the players bog down in discussion and debate, your job is to gently keep the flow going by assisting them in their debate, while remaining hands-off. If all goes well, the players will find their way into their next move, but if it does not, you have to be ready to jump in and get the game flowing again.
How do you manage when your players are short on info and stuck making decisions? Do you have other techniques from the ones I mentioned above? Do you find that certain games or genres have this problem more often than others?Read more »
- Tips for Players: Game Prep
Today, I’m mainly going to be talking to the players at the RPG tables around the world. Here is some advice to you on how to prep for the next RPG session in your campaign. (Note: There are tidbits for the GMs out there as well, so don’t skip the article just because you’re a full-time GM.)
Read the Backstory
One of the most important documents you’ll receive from the GM at the start of a campaign is the brief backstory the GM has put together for you and the other players. The GM has spent their precious time putting this together, so pay some respect to their efforts and read the document.
A note to GMs: Keep your backstory as tight, concise, relevant, and short as possible. While I’m imploring the players to respect your time and efforts, do the same for them. They don’t need a sixteen page treatise on the evolution of the Elvish language you’ve created specifically for the campaign. To be honest, try to keep your relevant details down to two pages. The rest of the world can be explained in-game during exploration and adventuring.
Read the Current Story
If there is a note taker in the group, and they have the ability to share those notes between sessions, then I highly recommend a review of the latest entry of notes the night before (or morning of) the game session that’s coming up. This will allow for the quick recap that happens at most sessions to run more smoothly and be even more quick.
Of course, if the note taker can’t easily share those notes, then it’s incumbent on the note taker to refresh their memories beforehand in order to provide that quick recap before dice get warmed up and rolled.
I’m certain you’ve seen the phrase “system mastery” thrown around quite a bit when it comes to GMs and their responsibility to know the rules, subrules, mechanics, and subgames within the main game in order to run a smooth set of sessions.
For you players, I’m going to advise you to shoot for that same system mastery, but I especially want you to focus in on becoming an absolute expert in everything your character can do. Know your perks, flaws, feats, skills, abilities, spells, powers, stats, equipment, and so on. If you have to, make quick-reference cards for the more detailed or involved items. You’ll find that in making the cards, you’ll be getting closer to that system expertise. Yes, you’ll tend to lean on the GM for advice on how things work, but keep in mind that they have many other concerns at the table beyond how one of your feats or attacks works.
Level Up Your Character
Most games and GMs assume the level up process happens between sessions. This is not always the case, but we’re going to run with it for this section. If you’ve obtained enough experience points, achievements, character points, or whatever it is to measure a significant power up in your character, then take care of that between the games. Don’t show up at the next session and delay the game for everyone else while you figure out what goes up or what new abilities you get. That’s just plain rude and a waste of everyone’s time.
Stay in Touch
With modern technology, it’s super easy to stay in touch between sessions. My personal favorite is Discord, but there are many, many other platforms out there allowing people to connect virtually and asynchronously. If you’re in the midst of gaining system expertise or leveling up your character, this is a great communication method to ask questions of the GM or the other players if you need something clarified or if you need advice.
Along the same lines of staying in touch, when it comes time to arrange the next game, be responsive (within reason) to the “Are we playing Saturday afternoon?” questions and similar things. Don’t leave your group hanging. Let them know you’ll be there. If you can’t be there, let them know as soon as possible. This will allow the group to create plans for an alternate campaign, a one-shot, a board game, or just to cancel completely.
I’ve touched on this already, but if you are unclear about an aspect of the setting, rules, house rules, other characters, or anything printed in official (or GM) materials, get on your Discord channel and ask some questions! Doing this between the sessions is a great chance for the GM to do some additional research, if necessary, and get back to you with a fully-formed and well thought out answer. Yes, sometimes questions come up midgame, so ask those during the session when there is a lull or break in the action. However, if your efforts at system expertise have exposed a flaw or loophole in a house rule, bringing that up while away from the table (or perhaps, at the end of a session) is best.
What other prep do you GMs think players should do? If you’re primarily a player, what prep steps do you take to get ready for a game?Read more »
- VideoGnomecast #104 – RPGaDay Questions, Part 3
Join Di, John, and Phil for part 3 in a series answering questions based on David Chapman’s #RPGaDay social media prompts for 2020! Can these gnomes answer enough questions to avoid being thrown in the stew?
- Troy’s Crock Pot: Great Hall Conundrum
Troy’s Crock Pot: Great Hall Conundrum
Big rooms. Impossibly big rooms. Rooms and caverns designed for giants to stand upright, for dragons to unfurl their leathery wings wide before letting loose a big blast of their fiery breath.
Gladiatorial arena-size big.
Running encounters in such places is a rare and special occurrence. And such an expanse comes with its own set of considerations.
It might be the first time as a GM you have to double-check distances and penalties associated with ranged attacks. Characters who run flat out to reach a spot — then what? Breath weapons and area effect spells take on a whole new dimension, because for many of them, you might be able to discern the outer reach of their zone of effect. So, character speed, movement of mounts, and even limited flying abilities might have to be accounted for.
As a matter of organization, this will likely require a crib sheet with different categories of movement, each character’s capabilities listed accordingly. For the GM’s part, NPC and monster abilities, especially abilities that affect areas or great reach, should be tracked the same way.
Just as importantly, GMs should plan for different ways to use such space.
One of the old masters of the genre is Robert J. Kuntz, who played in Gary Gygax’s original Dungeons and Dragons group and even served as his co-Dungeon Master.
Kuntz designed Mauer Castle and updated it for 3.5 in 2004 for Dungeon Magazine 112. His use of the Great Hall, and later, other levels of the dungeon, are instructive. Here are hallmarks of his design that you can copy and apply to your own great rooms:
> Niches and corners and other small areas essentially serve as rooms of their own. “What’s going on over there?” Viewing in detail might reveal partitions, kennels and cells, depressions, dugouts and mounds that went undetected in a broad overview.
> Elevation is more than opportunities for flyers. Be on the lookout for alcoves, bridges, archways and overhangs. Most often, these are on the surrounding walls. But it could also be structures suspended from the ceiling, like a catwalk.
> Unmarked territories. The player characters may not discern this, initially, but the monsters of the hall might recognize sections of the space as being territory divided between them. These are exploration and discovery opportunities for the characters — though risky discovery opportunities.
> Likewise, there could be dead zones or dampening effects littered across the landscape. Look for ways to incorporate different terrain. Kuntz’ Great Hall has both a pool and an eight-pointed star chiseled into the floor. Why were they constructed? What purposes do they serve?
Great halls can be set pieces that can serve multiple times, even in the course of the adventure. Remember the welcome hall in Jurassic Park? It was used as a place to introduce all the characters, provide a moment of revelation over melting ice cream, and served as a showdown with a pair of velociraptors and the T-Rex.
Let’s hope you, too, find ways to get such mileage out of your great halls in your adventure games.
- Conventional Wisdom: My Weekend of Call of Cthulhu
This article originally appeared on my blog which you can find here. In the past, I’ve heard some comments that in addition to reviews, some readers would appreciate some thoughts on actual play. I’ve got a few of these articles on my blog, and I wanted to share this one here, especially after I played multiple sessions of Call of Cthulhu in the same weekend.
Over the weekend I signed up for multiple Call of Cthulhu games at the local gaming convention, because I don’t get the play the game very often, and most of the time when I play the game at conventions, it is a pretty satisfying experience. What follows are some observations based on my games this weekend, and if you follow me on social media, you may have seen some of these bits here and there already.
The Grim Visage
Before I get into my observations about the game itself, I just wanted to point out a really annoying thing about Cthulhu inspired material. People plaster Lovecraft’s face all over the place in the RPG industry. I don’t get it.
I’ve played Star Wars, Star Trek, and D&D tabletop games before, and yet those games don’t seem to plaster George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, or Gary Gygax’s picture in every single book that comes out. But for some reason, people really need to reprint the image of their patron saint of cosmic horror.
In addition to seeing Lovecraft’s mug in the Call of Cthulhu books over the weekend, we had a nice, atmospheric map of Arkham on the table . . . and in the margins, right there, Lovecraft’s face. I think I’m finally at the point where I cannot in good conscience buy anything about cosmic horror that includes Lovecraft’s face anymore.
What Makes a Cosmic Horror Game?
I’ve learned a few things about my interactions with Call of Cthulhu this weekend, beyond getting increasingly pissed about seeing Lovecraft’s face on everything. I mentioned having generally positive convention experiences with Call of Cthulhu in the past. I think that most of the Keepers I’ve had over the years at conventions were really interested in portraying the feel of the genre.
I think some CoC GMs mistake the futility of PC survival with the futility of action. I’m fine with “succeed at a cost to oblivion” but not thrilled with “keep failing until you die.” Anything about cosmic horror should be a strong example of succeeding at a cost. People who want to emulate the genre are probably ready for bad things to happen to PCs, as long as the story advances.
Overall the convention CoC I’ve played over the years, the most enjoyable have been sessions where GMs see the expansive skill list as a way to flavor what needs to be done, rather than a narrowly defined set of logic gates forcing you to use this 5-20% skills.
It probably goes without saying that random mental illness is very bad, and any stressful break down that’s tied to character traits is way more fun to roleplay, because you are more fully exploring the character, not given a disassociated improv prompt that is also reductive.
I also think there is a point of no return for plot resolution. If you find out, say, less than 50% of the weird steps towards what happened, it’s cool to end the session thinking “what was all that about.” If you uncover 75% or more of what’s going on, but that last 25% makes everything else even more random and nonsensical, you really need some way to get an overview to the players.
The Cycle of FailureI don’t think anyone going to a convention game of Call of Cthulhu is looking to walk away unscathed, but there is a difference between unscathed and unresolved.
Most Call of Cthulhu scenarios I have played in at conventions have underscored the idea that you will resolve the situation, you just won’t likely be doing much else with your life after you got the answers you were looking for. I don’t think anyone going to a convention game of Call of Cthulhu is looking to walk away unscathed, but there is a difference between unscathed and unresolved.
Some examples of frustrations I had over the weekend:
- We needed to make candles that could see another dimension when lit (cool idea!)—we found a chemical formula for them, but because we didn’t have craft (candle making), we couldn’t make them.
- We needed to complete a ritual, but the person that researched the ritual had to perform it. They had the highest academic stats, but the lowest power score, so they continually failed and had to start over.
- Someone in a small town performed a ritual that cursed the whole town, but was also the person that warned everyone that doom was coming, and we never had the opportunity to figure out why he enacted the ritual or where he found the book he used.
Tools and Implementation
I think 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has much better tools for handling forward momentum than past versions of the game. I think being able to burn luck and push rolls are great additions. They weren’t additions that were handled well in my games over the weekend.
I’ve had convention games where I’ve been convinced I was King Arthur and was picked up by the police while dueling a hapless fellow investigator that I mistook for Lancelot. I’ve sacrificed myself to stop a ritual that would have drained the life force from captive children. I’ve bled out on the way to a car after setting a local corrupted church on fire. But all of those situations were satisfying because the session itself rarely stalled out. It had forward momentum.
I will say this much about playing Call of Cthulhu multiple times this weekend. I really want to dig back into my copy of Tremulus now.
Do you have a favorite property that has been expressed in multiple games? What do those games do differently, and how do those aspects emphasize different aspects of the genre? Do you enjoy playing those different games at different times? Let’s hear about it below!Read more »
- VideoThings Terrain Has Taught Me About Gaming (And Maybe Life?)
2020, for all that it’s been a nightmare blur of alternating panic and boredom, has been a golden age for some when it comes to hobbies. My friends and I are currently surrounded by piles of insulation foam, knitting projects, carpentry, drawings, paint, and an objectively-troubling number of adopted pets. Like everyone else, we miss effortless socializing and even aggressively mundane activities like traveling to work, but gosh if it hasn’t given us more time to sit with ourselves and our ability to manufacture our own joy.
I know that I am lucky, as are most of those around me; we have the luxury of being able to work from home at least some of the time, and several of us live close enough together to form a small, safe “quaranteam” we can socialize (and play games) with. Many, many people are not so fortunate, and none of this is intended to minimize the struggles of those who don’t have the privilege we do.
With that said, many of the topics I’m going to talk about today are as applicable to online games (or even to things outside of gaming) as they are to in-person games where you push around figures and roll the math rocks. So, with that out of the way: things that making terrain has taught me about gaming.
Things Should Do Things, or: Chekov’s Fun
Chekov’s Gun says “if you’re going to have a gun on the mantle in Act 1, it should go off in Act 3.” The same should be true of pretty much everything in your games. When every individual piece of scenery takes hours of time to make, it’s supremely frustrating when that piece is a “there and gone” moment of ephemera. As irritating as this is for the person making dungeon scenery, it’s just as bad for players, who have to wait for the DM to pull out, fumble with, and set up something that doesn’t warrant their attention.
The inimitable Wyloch attempted to make the full, no-compromises “Tomb of Horrors” from D&D (the first video in the series is here, and it’s definitely worth watching). In doing so, he ran face-first into an old design ethos he called “hallways for hallways’ sake.” Particularly in older games, a large chunk of the experience of an RPG was basically discount cartography, with players having to map out sprawling dungeon complexes in order to be able to avoid doubling back on themselves or losing the thread of the adventure entirely. Adding in officially-sanctioned DM trickery like subtly sloping floors to take characters between levels and subtle teleportation magic created an experience that might be fun for some people, but probably isn’t the best item on the gaming menu. Even many modern published “dungeons” are littered with empty storerooms, dead-end hallways, and sometimes entire wings of a complex designed only to fill out gaming time.
Some might argue that real castles, caves, and underground complexes often have empty rooms or dead ends. But we selectively exclude boring things from our games and our fiction all the time. When was the last time you can think of reading about a character in a novel having to go to the bathroom? Please do not answer this question in the comments, I’m begging you.But we selectively exclude boring things from our games and our fiction all the time. When was the last time you can think of reading about a character in a novel having to go to the bathroom? Please do not answer this question in the comments, I’m begging you.
Terrain-based games are limited in ways “theater of the mind” isn’t in two clear ways: available pieces to build the terrain from, and table space. Like many artistic limitations, this forces DMs to be more creative with the space and terrain they do have, creating a more fun game in the process. For an excellent example of how to design a creative, tight, fun scenario that uses terrain, check out “Julinda’s Gauntlet” (also from Wyloch). These same limitations exist in online games that use maps in that the larger a map is, the more processing a computer has to do, and even in theater of the mind, as the more a player has to juggle mentally (or on their notes), the less attention they’re able to pay anything; for more on this topic, check out my earlier article on working memory and how it affects games.
To boil all this down: don’t set anything down on the table that doesn’t change the game for players in some way. This doesn’t have to be an endlessly alternating series of monsters to fight and treasure to find. It can also include:
- Information about the history of the dungeon. This space was made for something initially, and may even have been repurposed later, perhaps even multiple times—a building’s history will leave marks and artifacts behind. Taking this approach basically turns the player party into combat archeologists, and anyone who’s watched any of the three (and only three) Indiana Jones movies ever made knows how much fun that can be.
- Clues to future traps, puzzles, or encounters.
- Foreshadowing about future events or scenarios.
- More information about the world the PCs occupy.
- A new NPC to rescue—or a potential new PC.
- Information about the dungeon itself—layout, number of enemies, locations of traps, or unexpected challenges the new denizens ran into.
Many Small Things Make a Big Thing, but Many Parts of a Big Thing Make a Mess
Making terrain, and I suspect all art, is an exercise in gradually-lightening despair. Every piece I’ve ever made starts out looking like garbage—often literally, as garbage is a great starting point for terrain (please do not look at my pile of shame). There’s something magical about watching something take form, graduating from cringey to only moderately awful to amazing.
But when you try to do huge projects—a whole terrain board, creating a game world, or making a new game system, to name just a few—the amount of time that you spend in the despair stage is astronomically longer. You’ll spend days or even weeks looking at a clumsy, amorphous mass that stubbornly refuses to turn into anything even remotely like what you had in your mind.
Contrast that with making a single, really cool piece. Or a new spell. Or a new mechanic. Pure enthusiasm is powerful, and can often propel you through that first clumsy phase and into that exciting time when something that previously only existed in your imagination is in your players’ hands (or is mopping the floor with them). If you do a single small project like that, you have something cool ready to go in pretty short order, and the worst thing that you can say about it if you put it out on the board is that it looks kind of lonely. If anything, that can help drive you to make the next cool small thing, and then the next, and bam. You have a whole freaking pile of awesome things you can put together.
Be Clear, Even If It’s Ugly: Abstraction is Better than Confusion
“Okay, the goblin miniature represents a pit trap, the orc is a door, and that LEGO is a throne.” I’m not saying that everyone needs to have an enormous pile of exactly the right miniature, or that having perfect representations is the goal. But the more you ask your players to remember that a thing that looks a whole lot like an orc is actually a goblin, or that an empty tile is actually a pit, the more confusion you’re going to get. Even in a turn-based game, we make a number of snap decisions, informed by processes running under the surface that can get short-circuited when we have interference from what our actual physical eyeballs are looking at.
And this is assuming that your players are even paying close enough attention to realize what all those pieces were supposed to represent in the first place. It’s tempting to just grab the first thing at hand and say “okay, this is what this represents.” But when you do that, it only adds to the confusion. We live in a literate society, and if you don’t have anything that is a clear representation of a piece of important landscape, terrain, or monsters, it’s far, far better to just write what it’s supposed to be on a scrap of paper (or a dry erase token) and use that.
Oh, right. Life lesson. People aren’t psychic. Clearly communicating what you want, even when it’s uncomfortable, makes sure that everyone is on the same page. Just as important: remember to gracefully take “no” for an answer. This is equally true in gaming and life.
Don’t Be Afraid to Swing Big, But Also Know When You’re Beat
A short list of things I have tried since starting quarantine:
- Making a diorama of the Bridge at Khazad Dum.
- Creating and running an entire “Masters of the Universe” setting book, with terrain, miniatures, and a full campaign.
- Using the systems from Adventures in Middle Earth to make an ambiguously magic-less Post-Roman Britain setting in 5e.
- Creating a 3X3 hex board with raised, textured cobblestones from scratch.
- Making an entire modular mountain.
A list of the above projects that were successful.
- None of the above.
These are failures. Every last one of them. They were huge swings, and they were all misses. What makes them distinct from the endless litany of my other failures is that I realized that these weren’t going to work, and I stopped working on them. There was something tremendously freeing about saying “okay, this isn’t going to work” and then stopping.
What’s more, these weren’t all wasted effort. In aggregate, from the mess of abandoned projects above, I got:
- A working recipe for homemade clay
- A pretty sweet Castle Grayskull (that I used as an image in this article)
- Conceits for ambiguous magic that I can use in any game.
- Resin-casting supplies and a working knowledge of how to resin-cast.
- Enough mountain pieces to add verticality to any encounter I want to.
There’s no such thing as wasted effort—the absolute least you walk out with is a knowledge of what not to do next time. And if that’s not a metaphor for the magic of just trying something, I don’t know what is.
So there they are: the gaming-and-life-lessons I’ve learned from terrain. So what has gaming taught you?Read more »
- Rebel Crown Review
There have been a lot of Forged in the Dark games, taking on a wide range of topics within the same procedural structure introduced in Blades in the Dark. Some of the earliest, beyond Blades in the Dark itself, were Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades. Beyond moving the genre away from the alchemical industrial punk setting of Duskvol, Scum and Villainy and Band of Blades both introduced something new into the mix of Forged in the Dark games–an endgame.
The game I am looking at today shares the concept of an endgame for the campaign. In tone and genre tropes, it occupies a position somewhere between Blades in the Dark and Band of Blades, as you play a dispossessed heir and their retinue, fighting to reclaim territory so that they can retake the crown from their usurper uncle. The mechanics of the game measure how close you are to having the power to claim the throne.
Rebel Crown is a lean PDF compared to some Forged in the Dark games, coming in at 66 pages. This includes a thanks and acknowledgments page, but most of the document is devoted to specifically presenting the game, rather than summarizing it.
The book is single column in its layout, with a few black and white line drawings with appropriate images of weapons, armor, coins, and various figures. There is clear header formatting to denote separate topics, as well as clearly laid out examples of clocks and other game mechanics.
The game has as its core assumption that one of the players is the claimant to a throne that has been stolen by their uncle. The other players represent characters loyal to the claimant, the claimant’s family, or characters attempting to better their position by supporting the regime change.
The setting is a kingdom split into multiple provinces, with individual domains within each of the provinces. The kingdom itself owes fealty to a greater Empire, and characters will be making a starting domain after picking what retinue playbooks are in play.
Mechanically, the game doesn’t drift too far from the core assumptions of other Forged in the Dark games. A character has a number of dots in an action, and the character describes what action they are using to perform a task. The GM then states the position and effect of that action.
For anyone not familiar with Forged in the Dark games, position explains the severity of failure, while effect explains how effective a success is. Progress is often tracked on clocks, so greater effect usually means more pieces of the clock filled in. Different levels of position might mean the character has minimal danger, serious consequences, or potentially disastrous effects if the character fails.
The game’s play loop is organized into a cycle of Recon, Sortie, and Downtime. Recon is the phase where the group gathers information on what they are going to do, the Sortie is the action of executing a plan to gain Income and Renown. Downtime is where the group can take actions to advance “off-screen” efforts and recover, and the faction clocks of other organizations advance.
One difference from other Forged in the Dark games is Crisis. When a character fills in their stress boxes, they don’t immediately leave the scene. Instead, the character decides if they want to take a final action with increased effect before collapsing or pull themselves together and press on. Pressing on means the character can’t resist consequences. Once characters resolve their crisis, they gain a Scar, and when a character marks their fourth scar, they must leave the retinue, and cannot go on any longer.
Another difference is Buying Time, a means of taking an action when a clock is about to fill in, which splits the last section of the clock into two, stalling off the consequences just a little bit longer.
The Retinue includes the following playbooks, with the Claimant being required for play:
- Claimant (Dispossessed heir trying to recover their throne)
- Chancellor (An allied noble willing to advise and assist the Claimant)
- Devoted (A person directly and fiercely loyal to the Claimant)
- Idealist (A person dedicated to the idea of making the kingdom better through the Claimant)
- Outlaw (A character working with the Claimant hoping to gain pardon for past crimes)
- Vengeant (A wronged person hoping to get revenge on their foe by supporting the Claimant)
There is a list of houses and backgrounds on each of the playbooks, defining the circumstances of the characters in the kingdom, and their connections to one another. Characters then assign action dots and pick a special ability. They also pick a Solace (something to do in downtime to help destress, similar to vices in Blades), friends and rivals, beliefs, and drives.
Like other Forged in the Dark games, each playbook has a list of equipment that they can check off in a sortie to have the proper equipment to do the job at hand. In a departure from some Forged in the Dark games, however, characters can mark additional gear by marking off coin, retroactively showing that the character invested more in this sortie.
The Domain gets its own character sheet. Initially, it represents the holding that the Claimant has. The conditions for reclaiming the throne are spelled out on the sheet. There are places to mark the advancement of time, and the various provinces and locations are listed on the sheet, where the characters can mark off other holdings claimed, and what those holdings add to the overall effort.
Phases of Play
Although gathering information is part of many Forged in the Dark games, Rebel Crown frames it as a special phase of play, and doesn’t limit it to randomized rolls. Instead, there are several questions the players can ask, to get more information on what they may be attempting.
The approaches to the sortie are defined as:
The approach is coupled with the objective of the sortie, and those objectives are defined under these categories:
- Gain Status
- Weaken Faction
Obviously, some approaches are going to be more awkward than others, but this is a game where you play to find out. Characters may want to besiege a location to secure a promise of allyship, or to ransom the location for goods. Objectives all have a list of their “payouts,” in coin or renown. After the sortie, the group checks on Unrest, and when Unrest reaches 9, Imperial Ire is triggered, where the Empress demands something of the group or passes a judgment upon them.
Unrest can also trigger Entanglements, which are local troubles, below Imperial attention, but still enough to modify your status with various factions, or cut off some of the player’s options unless they are directly addressed.
Running the Game
Running the game details information on Levies, Battles, Foe, and Fallout clocks. Attempting to perform actions against a higher tier challenge means that a clock will have more sections added to it, making it more difficult to accomplish.
Levies can be sent out to perform sorties on behalf of the Claimant, rolling their quality in dice to see if they can properly address the issue. They may also come into play in the Battles portion of the game.
Battles represent wider, larger-scale combat, triggered when characters determine they are going to war. A battle has a field clock, foe clock, and fallout clock. The field clock represents the troops on the field. The Foe clock represents enemy commanders that the PCs must deal with directly. The Fallout clock is the clock tracking how much damage and disruption are at play after the battle is over.
This section wraps up with about a half-page discussion of safety, discussing Lines and Veils and the X-Card. In addition to this section, safety is referenced in a section discussing when character objectives may clash with one another, reminding the GM to use safety tools to make sure character disagreements don’t spill over into player disagreements.
The Kingdom sections detail the setting where the game takes place. At first blush, the game appears to model a medieval world at war, but this section introduces more fantasy aspects, primarily the constant presence of wraiths, the spirits of the dead, who are failing to move on to the afterlife. Due to the number of restless dead in the kingdom, lethal force has been frowned on, for fear of generating more of the spirits.
There are three kingdoms affiliated under the rule of an Empress. The Empire itself is now dominated by the religion of the God of Paths; the god tasked with transitioning spirits to the afterlife. The Church of Penance posits that failure to properly placate the God of Paths is what has led to the ubiquity of the wraiths. Wraiths themselves can have different tiers of power when encountered. They are not often susceptible to weapons but might be banished by rituals.
The different provinces are broken down and described in this section. They show what benefits the Claimant gets from seizing that province, what tier that province has, who rules it, and what factions are active in the province.
Individual factions in a province might be less powerful than the province level itself but may provide different benefits. What factions the characters interact with can change the story significantly. For example, siding with warring miners and allying with exiled witches is a much different story than negotiating with current rulers to become a vassal by agreeing to crush a rebellion.
This is a single-page summary of what the retinue must do to declare their endeavor successful. If the Claimant is ever taken out of play, the game ends. Characters must complete 2 of the following 3 conditions:
- Tier–advance the holding to Tier 3
- Rule–claim control of two or more provinces
- Decree–Claimant must have +2 status or greater with the Empress
In addition, the retinue must kill, capture, or banish the usurper from their throne. Given the different ways that two out of three of these circumstances can be completed, this gives the group some flexibility. For example, doing favors for various rulers and the Imperial throne might get the Claimant the throne with less “conquering,” or the character could go on a rampage of subjugation and missions to enhance the core holding, forcing the Empress to recognize the character.
If the group is successful, they make a Coronation roll, which is an action signifying their approach to life after claiming the throne. There are four prompts that the character might receive, to shape the end of the story.
If the players fail, they roll a Catastrophe roll, which similarly measures how the end of the story is reached. The higher the roll on Catastrophe, the more the character might hold on to some semblance of what they initially wanted to accomplish.
Raise the BannersI really like the core system of Forged in the Dark games. The system really does seem to work best when you have forward-moving, mission-based setting assumptions, and reclaiming a lost throne works very well for this.
This game sits nicely between the spaces carved out between Blades in the Dark (multiple factions acting for or against your group, potential politically advantageous missions) and Band of Blades (military, acquisition, and survival). It’s also flexible enough that if the tone of those games is a little too grim, you can always play this game at least attempting to keep the high ground in reclaiming the throne. The book itself does a sound job of summarizing a Forged in the Dark game in a short space and presenting a compelling setting with plenty of story and mechanical depth for the game.
Sound the Retreat
While I like how well summarized the core rules are in this book, it’s hard for me to approach this as someone unfamiliar with Forged in the Dark games, and this book spends a lot less time explaining actions and how multiple actions might be used for the same goal. While I’m sure there are going to be a lot of players that can pick these rules up and run with them, with their clear presentation, I can also picture some players having a hard time absorbing some of the more lightly addressed aspects of the rules.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
I really like the core system of Forged in the Dark games. The system really does seem to work best when you have forward-moving, mission-based setting assumptions, and reclaiming a lost throne works very well for this. It’s a bit paradoxical, but while I think Rebel Crown may not deeply examine the mindset behind the rules of Forged in the Dark games, and this may not make it for everyone, I also wonder how many people that bounced off the larger Blades in the Dark or Bands of Blades might absorb this game, with its slightly less involved and atmospheric setting, and its quicker summary of the core rules.
There is a fun, clearly laid out setting, and if you are a fan of Forged in the Dark games, you should have some interesting rules and structure to examine in this game.
Do you have a favorite game that is goal-oriented, or that has a clearly defined end condition, despite being a more story-based RPG? Does it make it more or less attractive to know that the game has an end state provided in the rules? We want to hear from you below in the comments!Read more »
- Not To Kill: Non Lethal Options In Combat
The situation was all-too-familiar — the characters had subdued a prisoner and were interrogating them. In this case, the game was Forbidden Lands and the prisoner was an Orc. They were able to extract the information they wanted with a few Manipulation rolls and no violence. The Orc’s intentions were clearly evil, and if the situation were reversed he would have killed the characters. The players discussed what to do; kill them or not. No one really liked the killing option, but they had concerns about leaving an enemy behind them as they moved on. After some debate, they decided to kill the orc. Not the most heroic of moments.
The problem is that killing a helpless character in Forbidden Lands is not as easy as that. The game requires you to fail an Empathy check (among a few other things). At that moment, all the players rolled — and passed their checks. None of the characters could bring themselves to kill the orc. The characters instead reinforced their prisoner’s bindings and moved on. As the GM, I told them that doing this took this potential combatant out of any future conflict. Satisfied with that, the players moved on.
It was at that moment that I was pleased that the mechanics of the game made the characters more heroic than the player’s decision, and second, it revealed an issue. There was this unspoken concern about using non-lethal options to resolve conflicts and have it come back on them.
Today, I want to talk about the idea of non-lethal options for resolving conflicts. The idea that not all combats need to result in death, and how we can create room for non-lethal conflicts in our games.
Sometimes Killing Is Acceptable
Before people get all bent…there are times in games where lethal options are fine. Sometimes situations require lethal options. I am not talking about abolishing lethality in games.
What I am talking about here is that if the games we play mechanically discourage non-lethal options, and our GMing style reinforces that, then all we get are lethal solutions; and that is limiting.
Killing In The Name Of…
Honestly, killing in RPGs is made pretty easy — too easy, and there are a number of factors that contribute to this.
In most cases, there are no mechanical consequences for killing. Even in Forbidden Lands, you can kill in the heat of combat without consequences. So there is often no mechanical incentive for not killing.
The next mechanical factor to this is that too few games give mechanics for how to end conflicts without it being total annihilation on one side. First, most games place a high penalty on withdrawing, often granting the opponent a free attack. thus disincentivizing withdrawing from an attack and running away.
Second, too few games have mechanics to surrender as a way that ends the conflict in a finalized manner. Fate is the best example of how to do this correctly. The Conceding mechanic is brilliant. Either side can just declare they can’t go on. They lose the conflict but they exit the combat. Go read it; it’s good.
The last part of this is on us, GMs. It is either a failure to set expectations, lack of trust, or at times some bad GMing. The fear that players have is that combatants that escape will circle around and attack the characters when they are resting, weaker, etc. So players adopt the mentality of leaving no loose ends.
Non-Lethal Options In Our Games
We as consumers of RPGs have less control over how the written mechanics deal with non-lethal solutions to conflicts. Though as a game designer, I do encourage other designers to think more about this and create those mechanics in your games.
As GMs, we do have more control over how non-lethal conflicts work in our games. First, we can house rule mechanics that we want to include for non-lethal options, and second, we can choose to GM in a way where we make non-lethal options available.
Here are some things that you can add to your games to address non-lethal options:
Penalty For Killing
In this house rule, you would assign a mechanical penalty for when someone is killed by a character; something like losing a point of Empathy when you kill.
I am not really a fan of this one, in most games. This is the stick approach, creating a penalty for killing. It will make players resent killing but not really encourage non-lethal options. I put it in here for the sake of completeness, but honestly, I would not go with this for most games.
Withdrawing Without Penalty
So many games have a withdrawing rule that disincentivizes tactical withdrawal from combat, making players feel like the better option is to just keep fighting rather than retreating. I have as both a player and a GM kept combats going because running away was just going to get my character killed.
Allow combatants to withdraw without being exposed to a free attack and both sides will have the option of disengaging.
Steal the Conceded rule from Fate. Don’t even try to make something up yourself. This rule does it great. The game is Pay What You Want on DriveThruRPG. Give them $5 and put this rule in your game.
Some games have this rule and it gets overlooked, and some games lack this rule. Have mechanics where your NPC’s can lose heart and run or surrender. Tactical withdrawals are a valid way to end a conflict and most creatures know when they are outclassed or outgunned. Have criteria for when creatures should run.
If you use this rule, you also should put in the rule about withdrawal from combat, otherwise, your NPCs will want to retreat and then just get cut down.
Down not Dead
When a combatant is reduced to zero health (or the mechanical equivalent in your game), allow the person who delivered the blow to determine if they want the combatant to be unconscious and out of the fight, or dead. The idea being that if they are down, they can no longer participate in the combat, and at some time later they will recover in some form, off-camera.
Mechanics won’t fix everything. We have to also GM our games in a way where these options are possible. Here are some suggestions for what you can do.
Have a discussion with your group on how you want conflicts to work. Introduce any house rules you would like to include and talk about some of the ways you are going to handle non-lethal solutions for conflicts. Make sure everyone is in agreement and understands your intent.
Have Non-Lethal Criteria
When you are planning out your adventures, give your NPCs some kind of logic and motivation. Not every room of goblins should want to fight to the death. If the opposition does want to fight to the death, there should be some story-based reason. Give your NPCs the narrative option to escape, surrender, bribe, etc. their way out of the conflict.
Communicate End of Conflict
When you do use one of your non-lethal options in a scene, communicate to the players that the conflict is over. Tell them that the conflict is over, drop out of initiative order, etc. Signal to the players that the immediate threat has passed, so that they can de-escalate.
I cannot stress this one enough. No double-crosses.
When you do let a group of combatants withdraw or let them bribe their way out of a conflict, that is it. They are out of the combat, adventure, etc. The fastest way to ensure that players will kill everyone in their path is to double-cross them after they have taken a non-lethal solution. Do this once, and you will undermine all of the work you have set out to do. Out is out.
To The Death… No, To the Pain
If you want to play heroic games, we need to have our characters be able to be heroic, and that sometimes means not killing is the more heroic option. The problem is that many RPGs are mechanically neutral or disincentivize non-lethal solutions. That, coupled with our own GMing biases, creates situations where heroic characters do not have compelling choices to be more heroic.
But we are not helpless in this. We can add house rules and we can modify our GMing style to make this possible, to create those options.
How have you addressed non-lethal solutions in your games? Do you have house rules for this? What games have your favorite mechanics for this?Read more »
- Cyberpunk 2077 - Preview @GameinformerCyberpunk 2077 has been previewed by Gameinformer. loading... Cyberpunk 2077 is the gift that keeps on giving with Keanu Reeves, a massive open-world playground, and more weapons than you could possibly keep track of. With the final hands-on preview for the upcoming CD Projekt RED game, we dive deep into what Keanu brings to the table, how does the music stack up to some of the greats, and Silverhand's ability to make people pregnant just by walking past (kidding on that last part).... Read more »
- Starfield - New InfoDSOGaming reports that Todd Howard has shared some more details about Starfield. Todd Howard has shared some new details about Bethesda’s next big project, Starfield. According to Howard, Starfield will be solely a singleplayer, and it won’t have any multiplayer modes.... Read more »
- Praey for the Gods - Gameplay Trailer@DSOGaming reports that Praey for the Gods has a new gameplay trailer. ... However, Praey for the Gods looks a bit more complicated, which is probably a good thing. The game will feature a survival option, which introduces an exhaustion system. This system makes the game more punishing, something that will probably please the hardcore players.... Read more »
- Pecaminosa - Announced@TheGG Film Noir ARPG Pecaminosa has been announced. loading... The Spain-based indie games developer Cereal Games and video games publisher BadLand Publishing are today very proud and happy to announce that a Steam page is now available for their upcoming film noir-themed pixel-art ARPG “Pecaminosa” (the game is coming to PC, PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch in early 2021).... Read more »
- Missing - The Complete Saga - Announced@TheGG Open World RPG/Life Sim Missing - The Complete Saga has been announced and has a Steam page to peruse. loading...MISSING: The Complete Saga is a 3D role-playing game that plays like a life simulator. Your character will have an inventory, and skills based on a skill tree.... Read more »
- Spellforce 3 - Fallen Gods Review @ Game SpaceGame Space checked out the expansion Spellforce 3: Fallen Gods: SpellForce 3: Fallen God Review – It’s Not Easy Being Troll SpellForce 3: Fallen God is the second standalone expansion for RTS/RPG mix SpellForce 3, with the first being Soul Harvest.... Read more »
- Knights of the Chalice II - Version 1.08This is new in version 1.08 of KotC 2: Update #41: KotC 2 Version 1.08 & PDF Guidebook! KotC 1 to be released on GOG on 1 December! Hello everyone! Version 1.08 of KotC 2 Augury of Chaos is now available for download here for both Windows and macOS.... Read more »
- Knights of the Chalice - GOG Release on December 1Knights of the Chalice will be released on GOG on December 1: KotC will be coming to GOG on 1 December 2020 The GOG version features a leaderboard and 117 challenging achievements for you to unlock through the GOG Galaxy client. Read more »
- VideoOwlbear Rodeo: A Simple D&D Virtual Tabletop
If you're seeking a lightweight virtual tabletop, try out Owlbear Rodeo. It's awesome.
Covid-19 forced many DMs to move games from in-person to online. For a lot of us, running games online is an entirely new experience. I moved all of my games, about three a week, online and lept into trying out all sorts of systems for online play. My favorite, and the one I've been using for eight months now, is to run D&D over Discord. By copying and pasting pieces of maps, usually grabbed from Dysonlogos, I can show the players where the characters are without using a full virtual tabletop like Roll 20. For combat, I use text-based combat tracker for rough zone-based combat more similar to theater of the mind than gridded combat.
There are times, however, where dropping down a map with tokens for monsters and characters can be useful. Many players and quite a few DMs prefer this style of play.
The big dogs among virtual tabletop tools are Roll 20 and Fantasty Grounds. There are other popular and well-loved tools as well like Foundry but these two typically come up when someone talks about virtual tabletops.
These other VTTs are fine all-in-one systems that integrate D&D's rules with the rest of the tabletop.
The problem is, I'm fine with running games mostly on Discord. I don't need a fully integrated D&D experience in my VTT. My players like using D&D Beyond and I'm not picky about how they roll dice, whether it's with Avrae in Discord or a plug-in like Beyond20.
Unleash the Owlbear Rodeo
When I want a VTT, I really just want a map and tokens. That's what Owlbear Rodeo provides. Owlbear Rodeo is a slimmed down virtual tabletop that focuses on maps and tokens. It has no integrated ruleset, although it does have a shared dice roller in it if you want one. Owlbear Rodeo makes it easy to drop in a map and includes a bunch of default tokens you can use if you don't feel like adding your own.
If you do want your own tokens, you can upload a bunch of them right into Owlbear Rodeo all at once, whether your tokens are from Printable Heroes (my personal favorite tokens; search for "vtt") or your own hand-made tokens using Token Stamp. Grabbing an image off the net, dropping it into Token Stamp, and uploading it to Owlbear is fast and easy.
Owlbear Rodeo requires no login or account from either you or your players. You can log in if you want to keep track of your previous maps and tokens, but it isn't necessary. Owlbear uses some sort of cookie to keep track so if you come back it will likely remember what you already uploaded but only if you're coming in from the same machine. Not requiring a login makes it easy for players to jump right in. No accounts means any player can move any token around since everyone's permissions are the same. I'm assuming your players aren't a bunch of 4 year olds (that's a big assumption, of course).
Owlbear Rodeo has two features that aren't the easiest to figure out at first: grid alignment when bringing in a map and using the fog of war. This three minute video by GoGoCamel camel shows how to use both the grid-alignment feature and fog of war. It's well worth the watch.
If you're used to a more full-featured VTT like Roll 20, you're likely to find features missing from Owlbear that you really want. If you dig more powerhouse tools, it probably isn't for you. I prefer to keep my D&D games as minimal as possible. I want tools that only do what I need them to do and keep the cruft out of the way. Owlbear Rodeo does just that. I can run the rest of my game in Discord and only drop into Owlbear when I need to use a VTT. When I'm done, we drop right back out again.
At this point I've used Owlbear Rodeo with dozens of players and have heard no complaints. Many have described it being the exact kind of VTT they want. If you're in need of a lightweight virtual tabletop, give Owlbear Rodeo a try.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
John B., a Sly Flourish patron, sent me a note describing an awesome video series by Wired on levels of complexity. Two of them really grabbed my attention, the levels of complexity of origami and Tony Hawk's levels of complexity of skateboarding. Tony Hawk's video begins with the basic ollie and ends with two moves having never been done at the time of the video. It's fascinating to see how the levels of complexity get exponentially harder the further along the rank you go.
D&D complexity, however, doesn't always make our games better. I'd argue Matt Mercer's Vecnca Ascended; the finale of the 114 previous episodes of Vox Machina, is about as complicated and amazing as any D&D campaign we're likely to see. It isn't, however, a realistic model of the vast majority of D&D games. Like pulling off a 1260 on a skateboard, games like this are nearly unattainable. And that's ok because complexity doesn't make great games.
I'm fascinated to look at D&D through the lens of escalating complexity but it isn't exactly practical. We may have run incredibly complex campaigns from 1st to 20th level, with detailed character story arcs, amazing tabletop dioramas, beautiful handouts, and cool props; but they're not necessarily the model of all great D&D games. A great D&D game might be a one-shot drawn from the inspiration of the DM at the spur of the moment. It might be run totally in the theater of the mind. Sometimes the best games are the simplest games: four adventurers crawling through a dangerous dungeon seeking a valued treasure.
Though simplicity may be a virtue in great D&D games, that doesn't mean we DM's can't get better at DMing. What are the paths we DMs can take to get better at running D&D games? What would it look like as a curriculum?
Instead of breaking D&D games down into levels of complexity, I'll describe potential paths for getting better at DMing D&D games. These are often parallel tracks, not a single path. There are likely as many paths for DM proficiency as there are DMs but I'm going to offer my own suggestions here.
Along with the videos on complexity in origami and skateboarding, this article was also heavily influenced by Mark Hulmes's Youtube video on Becoming a Better DM. Check it out.
The Beginner's Path: Running the D&D Starter Set or Essentials Kit
One can do far worse than to start running D&D games with either the D&D Essentials Kit or the D&D Starter Set. A set of pregen character sheets from the Starter Set is a great way to get new players on board with D&D. Other than making your way through the rules and through the adventure, I wouldn't expect a new DM to do much else. We're not necessarily going to have deep character background integration, detailed story threads, or amazing tabletop displays. This is just plain and simple D&D and it can still be an awesome time.
In reading tons of posts on Reddit's D&D Next, and the DM Academy subreddits and clearly many new DMs choose to go the homebrew route. I don't recommend it for new DMs but likely others disagree and I doubt I'll be listened to by those who want to anyway. I do, however, recommend keeping things simple. Avoid house rules until you know the system. Choose straight forward character options. Start at 1st level characters and be nice. That said, I still recommend starting with the Starter Set or Essentials Kit.
Running Your First Short Campaign
With a few games under one's belt, the next level of experience occurs as a DM runs their first campaign up to about 5th level. Here I'd expect the DM to begin to customize the adventure to fit the backgrounds of the characters. Maybe the guy running the inn is the cousin of the dwarven cleric. DMs here should likely begin improvising some scenes as they come up, including building NPCs on the spot when the moment calls for it. DMs here can hopefully start developing situations instead of building scenes already planned out.
Beyond this is when the complexity of DMing goes up and the paths to becoming a better DM split into parallel tracks. Each of these parallel tracks shores up different areas for being a well-rounded DM.
Becoming the Characters' Biggest Fan
Once we get beyond the basics, it's time for a DM to look at the people around the table and the characters they bring to it. We can deeply internalize a concept from Dungeon World to become the characters' biggest fan. Here we put aside any idea that we're competing with the players in a game. We put aside our own drive to force a story down one particular path. We play to see what happens. We put the characters first and foremost in the spotlight. We make reviewing the characters the first step in our game prep. We run session zeros to calibrate everyone's expectations of a campaign.
We serve the fun of the game first and foremost. Our goal is for everyone, including ourselves, to have a great time.
Recommended reading: Dungeon World.
Run Lots of Games, Run Lots of Systems
We get better at DMing by DMing more games. We also get better by playing more games, with as many other DMs as we can, good or bad, so we can see how it's done. Playing and running other roleplaying game systems also helps us become better DMs. There are lots of ways to run RPGs and lots of systems to help you do so. These systems often have great ideas we can bring back into our D&D games. Running games for a wide range of players also teaches us a lot. Convention games and organized play programs offer great opportunities to run games for many players.
Flexibility, Adaptability, Improvisation
As the most valued DM traits; we can follow a lifelong path for improving our flexibility, adaptability, and improvisation skills. We can work harder at thinking on our feet, building scenes as they occur during the game instead of planning them ahead of time. We let go of fixed scenes and predetermined stories and build situations. We can learn how to improvise NPCs. We can seek out the tools that help us best improvise during the game. Learning how to stay flexible, go where the story goes, and steer it delicately towards the fun is an advanced DM trait that leads to more enjoyable games for both DMs and players alike.
According to RPG veteran Monte Cook, there is no more important skill for a DM to learn than pacing. Robin Laws teaches us that understanding how upward and downward beats feel during the game and knowing how to shift them one way or the other to avoid apathy or despair is an advanced and critical skill for running great games. Like a curling player, our job is to smooth out the path in front of the story, not grab control of it. Recognize and take hold of the dials you have available to change up an encounter, a scene, or a whole adventure to fit the feeling and theme of the adventure's pacing as it plays out.
Recommended reading: Hamlet's Hit Points.
Maps, Props, Terrain, and Handouts
Physical stuff increases the immersion of a game. When players have things they can see, touch, and hold that ties them to the world, that world becomes ever more real. While not necessary to run a great game, tabletop accessories, when used well, can make a great game better. Some of these things can be made at home for almost nothing. Others can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. These exponential costs often result in linear gains, however. Before spending a lot of money, consider that there are often ways to make our games better that cost nothing at all.
Rules Proficiency, Not Rules Mastery
One might think that a better understanding of the rules is critical to run a great D&D game. Certainly being proficient enough with the rules to run the game is important but, according to tens of thousands of surveys conducted by Baldman Games for their organized play program, rules mastery, as one of four tracked attributes, has the least correlation to a fun game. Instead, being friendly and being prepared have a far greater correlation with running a fun game. DMs should have enough of an understanding of the rules to keep the game running smoothly. Rules mastery, however, isn't required. Instead, focus attention on the other areas that have a higher impact described above.
Learning from Other DMs
The internet has given us unparalleled access to other DMs. We have unlimited sources to run our ideas by other DMs, see what ideas they have, and get differing points of view. I argue that the D&D-focused subreddits on Reddit offer some of the best access to DMs of all experience levels. Look at the questions those DMs are asking and learn from the answers they receive. Further, if you happen to be running a published campaign book, there's almost always a subreddit focused on it with advice, tips, tricks, and accessories to help your own campaign run well.
A Lifelong Pursuit
Being an expert DM is a lifelong pursuit. Never have we had more access to more knowledge about being a great DM. We have access to videos of more D&D games than we could ever watch. With a few clicks we have access to the knowledge of thousands of other DMs. Spend time figuring out what makes a great D&D game for you, build your own path, and keep running D&D games.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
The eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master mentions little about maps. The expectation is that the "develop fantastic locations" step covers locations big and small and stick-figure diagrams are enough to connect locations together.
Recently, though, I've been using actual location maps — mostly dungeon maps — in my prep and found a nice lazy way to fill these maps out.
Behold Dyson Logos
There are lots of sources for great maps out there but my current favorite is Dysonlogos. Dyson offers nearly a thousand maps on his site for free, many of them usable in commercial works if you're so inclined. Visit the site, grab a map that fits the location you're thinking of, and you're off to the races. For lazy map making, think in general terms about the location you need and grab the first map that fits the idea. Need a crypt? Grab the first crypt you find. The less picky you are, the easier it is to find a map that works.
Next, as part of "developing fantastic locations", annotate the map with evocative names that fuel our minds when the characters reach the room. This way we don't waste time on rooms the characters don't visit and yet still have enough detail to improvise the room if the characters do go there.
Annotate the map with whatever image editor is easies to use. On my Mac, I use Preview to add text labels with white backgrounds to the map so it's easy to read against the map's background. Here's an example map from my Eberron game.
Microsoft Paint works equally well. More advanced image editors can also do the trick but you don't need anything too fancy. It should be fast and easy. We're not making publication-level work here. Friends of mine like dropping the map into Roll 20 and annotating it right in the virtual tabletop. Anything can work as long as it's fast and easy.
Define Ten Locations
Sometimes we'll want to annotate every room in a dungeon if it isn't too much trouble. Other times, though, it isn't so clear how many places we need to label. A city for example, may need a bunch of locations to feel real and alive. In this case, I recommend defining ten locations. Ten seems like a lot, and it may be more than you actually need, but defining ten locations pushes our brains into interesting and creative directions. Here's an example of a city map for the city of Eston in which I defined ten locations the characters could explore:
Dropping evocative names on a map like this gives us ideas should the characters visit a location. For larger locations we might use additional maps to further break down these larger places. Otherwise, if the characters never bother to explore them, we need nothing more than a couple of words.
Use Evocative Labels
When you're considering your labels, make them unique and interesting. Inspire yourself with your descriptions — even of they're only two words long. "Lighting Rail Station" isn't very interesting but "Wild Lighting Rail Station" sounds cooler. We have an idea what might be going on there. "Radiant Sinkhole" is more interesting than a straight sinkhole. Here's a list of ten example evocative labels for the inner cars of Karshak, the rogue warforged lighting rail in my Eberron game modeled after Blane the Mono in Stephen King's Wastelands:
- Manifest Portal Engine
- Karshak's Artificer Brain
- Warforged Guardian Car
- Automated Dining Car
- Transparent 1st Class Cabin
- Gas-induced Sleeping Cabin
- Cryofreeze Cabin
- Dragonshard Storage Car
- Automaton Construction Car
- War Caboose
These aren't perfect examples but hopefully it gives you the idea. The main thing is that the labels mean something to you. You're not writing these for anyone else.
Home Use Versus Publication
When we're preparing stuff like this for our home game, remember that we're only doing this for ourselves. We don't need to meet the high standards required for publishing adventures. We only need a few words to spark our own imagination, not pass this along to others. Fast and dirty is perfectly acceptable for our own prep. Leave it rough, no one will care what it looks like. The game is your painting, your maps and prep notes are your messy palette and brush rag. Don't worry if they're rough.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »