- ● Links: Leacock on Pandemic in Today's World, Tales of Tricks Taken, and Nominees for the 2020 Origins Awardsmy post of March 14, 2020, Pandemic was in the news again thanks to an opinion column by designer Matt Leacock in the March 25, 2020 New York Times titled "No Single Player Can Win This Board Game. It's Called Pandemic." Here's an excerpt:My hope is that Pandemic can provide a model for us in this time of crisis. We don't all have to be globe-trotting heroes to do our part. We each have special skills and should use them to make the city and statewide lockdowns safer and easier to bear. We need to communicate effectively, reach out to our friends and loved ones — as well as ensure that whatever we share on social media is based on facts.
We need to cooperate, look after our older neighbors and find ways to work from home wherever possible. And we need to coordinate and share ideas for keeping the kids entertained, for helping others obtain hard-to-get supplies and for supporting health care workers on the front lines. It's going to take serious collective action and sacrifice to slow the spread of the virus. It's heartening to see organizations, individuals and some government leaders step up.
• This headline from a February 7, 2020 article in the Wisconsin State Journal tells you almost everything you need to know: "GOP state senator wants legislative pages to stop playing 'Secret Hitler' at work".
Board Game Category
—Cloudspire, Chip Theory Games
—Colors of Paris, Super Meeple
—Guardian's Call, Druid City Games / Skybound Games
—PARKS, Keymaster Games
—Prêt-à-Porter, Portal Games
—Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare, PSC Games
—Tonari, IDW Games
—Tricky Tides, Gold Seal Games / Zafty Games
Card Game Category
—Cogs and Comissars, Atlas Games
—DC Deck-Building Game: Rebirth, Cryptozoic Entertainment
—Embers of Memory: A Throne of Glass Game, Osprey Games
—Kamigami Battles: River of Souls, Japanime Games
—Lockup: A Roll Player Tale, Thunderworks Games
—Shuffle Grand Prix, Bicycle
—UNDO: Cherry Blossom Festival, Pegasus Spiele
Family Games Category
—ClipCut Parks, Renegade Game Studios
—Code Stack! , AMIGO Games
—Dirty Pig, North Star Games
—Draftosaurus, Ankama Boardgames
—Finger Guns at High Noon, Indie Boards and Cards
Historical Game Category
—Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel (3rd edition), Academy Games
—Pandemic: Fall of Rome, Z-Man Games
—U-BOOT: The Board Game, Ares Games
—Watergate, Capstone Games
Miniatures Game Category
—Gaslands: Refuelled, Osprey Games
—Power Rangers: Heroes of the Grid, Renegade Game Studios
—Reality's Edge: Cyberpunk Skirmish Rules, Osprey Games
—Riot Quest, Privateer Press
—Warcry, Games Workshop
These nominees can be viewed and demoed during Origins Game Fair 2020 — assuming that the show takes place, of course — with the winner of each category being determined by The Academy of Adventure Gaming and Arts and announced on June 20, 2020. Origins attendees can vote for their "fan favorite" in each category through the Origins Game Fair app during the show, and GAMA members will vote upon the "Game of the Year" via a digital survey.
recounted the events (from his perspective) of T6, a.k.a. "That Terrific Trick-Taking Thing Two", during which he played dozens of trick-taking games, including many Japanese releases and older titles that few people will have on their "must play" lists. An excerpt:Read more »One of the categories I got to add [to my spreadsheet of trick-taking games] was "may have more than 1 unresolved trick". What a category! I had only known of 1 game that would fit such a category, but am not letting myself add a column until at least 2 games necessitate it. Now this category has 6!
That's how I knew I wanted to try Stichling. The game is played over 3 rounds, and in each round the players get 3 cards each that will grant points based on the modulus of how many tricks they win. That is, you arrange the cards in a certain order, and when you win one trick, you flip over the first card. If you win a second, you flip over the second card, and the first goes face down. The same process happens with the third trick, but for the fourth, you'll flip the third card face down, and the first will be face up again.
The game can have up to 4 simultaneous tricks, and for much of the game, you cannot not follow suit. That is, if you don't have a purple card, you can't play a green card to a purple trick if there is another trick available to play it to, or you have room to start a new one. Players use a wooden disc in their color to mark tricks they're winning, but otherwise don't track who played which card. Tricks resolve when 4 cards have been played, and as there's no bookkeeping of who played which card, it may be that one player contributed more than one or even all of the cards to a single trick.
- Duel Anew in Bohnanza to Celebrate Uwe Rosenberg's BirthdayUwe Rosenberg's fiftieth birthday, German publisher AMIGO has released a deluxe edition of Bohnanza: Das Duell. Here's an excerpt from the press release announcing this item:In autumn 1995, Uwe Rosenberg presented the idea for the Bohnanza card game to AMIGO for the first time. Twenty-five years and numerous extensions later, Bohnanza is still an integral part of the AMIGO program. Thus, Uwe Rosenberg not only made his breakthrough as a game designer with Bohnanza in the 1990s, the bean game has accompanied him for half his life.
With this birthday edition of its two-player version of Bohnanza, the game publisher is fulfilling a very special birthday wish for Uwe Rosenberg.
In case you're not already familiar with the game, here's how it works:Give as good as you get in Bohnanza: The Duel!
What was that thing about the gift horse? In this two-player variant of Bohnanza, both bean farmers give each other gifts of beans they can't use themselves — to make life harder for their opponent, if possible. Trying to fulfill their secret "bo(h)nus" requirements, they both need to keep a vigilant eye on the other player's bean fields.
In more detail, both duelists have bean field mats in front of themselves on which to plant their beans. Between them is a row of eight gift cards. Each player holds five hand cards and three "bo(h)nus cards" with secret objectives. In this game, you have the option of planting more than one type of bean in the same field, but when you plant a different bean than the one you've planted previously, this new bean type must be the next highest number. When harvesting your beans, the beanometer of the card you've most recently planted is what counts.
At the start of each turn, the active player plants two beans from their hand, then reveals bean cards from the deck as usual. Instead of trading, however, they offer their opponent one bean as a gift by pushing this bean type's gift card in their direction. The other player can accept the gift or decline it, but if they don't take it, they have to offer a gift in return. You are allowed to bluff, but it may cost you if your bluff is called! Important: Only the first player to accept a gift actually receives the bean card in question. After this exchange, plant all beans you have received and turned over, then draw new cards. "Bo(h)nus" cards can be fulfilled at any time when the required combination of beans printed on the card can be found in any bean field. Fulfilling an objective earns you bean dollars and the brand new bean cents. When the draw pile is used up, the player with the most bean dollars wins.
This deluxe edition of Bohnanza: The Duel replaces the gift cards with a game board and gift tokens. This edition also contains newly designed bean fields and bonus cards. Read more »
- New Game Round-up: Bounce on a Trampoline, Answer Questions About Food, and Command the Gates of Mara
• WizKids has announced an October 2020 release date for Gates of Mara from J.B. Howell, designer and co-designer respectively of the 2019 releases Reavers of Midgard and Flotilla. Gates of Mara is for 2-4 players with a playing time of 90-180 minutes and a US$70 MSRP. Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:Lead your tribe to the Gates of Mara, portals to realms of pure elemental energy. Encounter powerful elemental lords, manipulate intricate economies, and summon colorful magic. Vie for the most influence in each realm so you can establish your tribal claims.
Gates of Mara blends upgradeable worker placement with layered area-control mechanisms, all brought to life by the art of Nastya Lehn. You can lead reptilian dragonkin, the amphibious goblins, the insectoid antids, or the arboreal elves.
Strategically position your tribe members around the realms and gates. Enchant your tribe members to give them new abilities. Compete for short-term objectives, but keep your eyes on your influence. Only the player with the most influence can lay claim to the Gates of Mara!
Match Up! Food and Match Up! Travel are a pair of party games from designers Joël Gagnon and M.eve and Canadian publisher Randolph, which first released these titles in French in 2018 as Links Cuisine and Links Voyage. ("Randolph" is the publishing brand of the Randolph Gaming Pub, which opened in Montréal in 2012.)
Both games play as follows, with only the topics of the cards differing:Match Up! Food is a co-operative trivia game in which players team up to find the key amongst the 50 cards that feature unique food art.
Together, players link all 49 clue cards to the 50 word cards. They then discover whether the remaining, unlinked word card is the key to their victory, validating its code with the answer card to know whether they've won the game!
Match Up! Food offers five levels of difficulty in the game as well as a competitive mode for those who want it.
Match Up! Food and Match Up! Travel will be distributed in the U.S. by Asmodee North America at some point in 2020.
Trampoline Park from Hassan Hekmat and Iranian publisher Soren Game Studio — a title that's held a tab open since January 2020 — but I would guess that I saw the cover image pass through GeekMod, and said, "Hmm, I should find out what else that company has done", and now it's late March. Hmm.
I see that Soren's 2018 release Color Match is also in the BGG database, but not Conqueror or Business Intelligence. (A note from the publisher to one of the BGG admins mentions that a second edition of Color Match will be released at SPIEL '20, which suggests optimism on the visa front since many Iranian publishers were denied entry to Germany ahead of SPIEL '19 — not to mention optimism on the medical front. Anyway...)
Here's a rough overview of the game, which the back cover helps to make clearer in both visuals and text:Read more »Trampoline Park is played over several rounds. At the beginning of each round, the top playing tokens from the piles go to the jumping points placed around the game board. The youngest player starts the game, then players take turns in clockwise order. From the jumping point, a playing token moves based on how much energy the player puts into the jump; land on a space with another player's token, and you bounce them elsewhere.
After all players have had a turn, the referee token goes to the next jumping point in clockwise order, then the top playing tokens again go to the jumping points and players take their turns in order again. If a playing token remains at a jumping point, the new token is placed behind the previous one to create an entrance line.
As soon as a player manages to be on three tiles of the same colors or the same letter, they reveal their card and win. Since you don't know the other players' colors, you might do something which accidentally helps another player win, so bounce with care!
- VideoCOVID-19 at the Gaming Table IV: Delayed Releases, Free Games, and a Print-and-Play Design ContestRenegade Game Studios has announced that it "will be suspending shipments of website and wholesale orders" as of March 24, 2020. More from the announcement:Renegade's future release calendar is being reevaluated and we will be delaying new releases until our retail partners are back and able to open safely. Our distribution partners have informed us that they will also be ceasing operation for a time. We feel this is absolutely the right call for everyone involved. The sooner we can come together and take these difficult steps the sooner we can move forward together.
During this time Renegade will continue to work on new games. We will continue to engage with you, our fans, through our various social media channels. We're exploring new ways to have fun together online and make the most of the situation. Most of the Renegade staff works remotely so for most of us this is not a major change to our routine.
Many of our staff have families and added responsibilities now that schools are closed. I would ask that you keep that in mind when contacting us thru customer service or any other channels of communication. Rest assured that we are working and will attend to your needs as quickly as possible.
Those last two paragraphs apply to the BGG staff as well since we pretty much all work independently at home, yet many of us now have youngsters sharing that space, which increases the time required for most tasks by 50%.
• Similarly Fireside Games is delaying the release of the party game Stringamajig — a smart choice given that you need 4-10 players as explained in this demo video from GAMA Expo 2020 — and delaying the launch of its Kickstarter campaign for Castle Panic Deluxe.
online document that catalogs (mostly U.S.-based) game publishers that are offering to share a portion of each online sale through their own websites with a brick-and-mortar store named by the buyer at the time of purchase.
(Some vendors on that list mention that they are honoring a "GAMA Expo show special". What this refers to is a special offer from that publisher to both brick-and-mortar retailers who attended GAMA Expo 2020 and those who cancelled their trips and failed to attend. Publishers don't want to publish retailers for worrying about the safety of their staff, so they're offering these special deals regardless. As for whether those stores are open and can take advantage of such offers, well, that's another story...)
KYF Edition has released an English-language print-and-play version (link) of Fou Fou Fou!, a game by Corentin Lebrat and Théo Rivière in which you just have to follow the rules on the cards in order not to lose points, with more and more rules entering play over the course of the game and with you being ejected should you lose your third point.
Pierô, who is co-owner of KYF Edition, says that more than ten thousand copies of the game have been sold in France since September 2019, but no English-language edition is forthcoming and folks have been asking for one, so they decided to release this file for now: "The only purpose here is to bring 10-15 minutes of laughs and good times in family when people can't go out."
• Similarly, UK publisher Big Potato has released a print-and-play version (PDF) of its 2015 party game Mr Lister's Quiz Shootout, which is currently out of print.
Portal Games is also going the "stay at home" route by offering a Detective: Suburbia scenario (PDF) that provides everything you need to play the game, regardless of whether you own the Detective base game, and three solo scenarios for Empires of the North that you can play with any clan (PDF).
This is only the start of free goodies from Portal Games during this time: "Check out this page tomorrow! We're preparing even more awesome content to entertain you. Take care and stay safe! #stayathome"
• Eduardo Baraf of Pencil First Games is sponsoring a "stay at home" game design contest, with the games having at most four pages of rules, embodying a positive theme, and being available as a print-and-play release so that folks practicing social distancing can make the game for themselves. Submissions can sent from April 15-30, 2020. Details in this video and the notes below the video:
Youtube Video Read more »
- Battling Overlords and Exploring Coral Reefs at GAMA Expo 2020
Here are two more games I played (on top of Fort, Festo!, and Downforce: Wild Ride, which I covered here) that are worth sharing:
• Coralia is a deep sea dice-placement game for 2-4 players from designer Michael Rieneck that's published by HUCH! and R&R Games. In Coralia, players compete to score the most victory points by placing custom dice representing diving robots into thriving coral reefs to collect different sets of cards, tiles, and victory points.
At first glance, I couldn't help but notice the sea of the vibrant colored dice and ocean-themed game board featuring beautiful art by Miguel Coimbra. Coimbra's art is no stranger to the board game community as it's recognizable from such hits as 7 Wonders, Small World, and Cyclades.
In Coralia, each player starts their turn by drafting a die from the main dice pool to add to the three existing dice from the previous player's turn; then they'll roll all four dice and choose one to place for their action. (The game comes with a nifty research station dice roller that adds to the theme, but also helps keep the dice contained and not rolling all over the place.) The player chooses a die and places it on an open space matching the symbol in the matching colored coral reef. There's also an island you can place dice on if all spots are blocked or if you choose to, so you're never stuck without options even as spaces on the board fill up. Here's a summary of the actions and how each scores:
(1) If you place a pearl, draw two cards from the pearl card deck and place them face down in front of you. At the end of the game, you score 1-4 of your pearl cards depending on how many cards you've collected compared to your opponents.
(2) If you place a fish, draw two cards from the fish card deck and keep one placed face down in front of you. At the end of the game, you score points for sets of different types of fish.
(3) If you place a starfish, draw three cards from the starfish card deck and keep one placed face down in front of you. At the end of the game, starfish cards give you victory points or other bonuses depending on the outcome of the game.
(4) If you place an octopus, place your octopus meeple on top of the die. Then for each die placed on this reef, you score 1 victory point. During the game, the owner of an already-placed octopus earns additional points each time an additional octopus is placed on a different reef. This is one of the only ways to score points during the game as most scoring happens at game's end.
(5) If you place a turtle, take the corresponding turtle tile, which gives you an immediate bonus. Then flip the turtle tile on its die storage side, which allows you to lock in a die result before rolling all four dice at the start of future turns.
(6) If you place a diver, place your diver on the board or on top of the corresponding die; if your diver has already been placed on a reef, you can relocate it to a different reef and pick up a treasure tile (if available). At the end of the game, each die placed on the diver's reef gives the owner of the diver victory points.
I was pleasantly surprised with the number of decisions Coralia packs compared to it being a lightweight in terms of complexity. Yes, Coralia is a dice game and yes, you will be rolling dice, but the overall luck factor felt considerably low considering how many different paths you have for scoring points. In the game I played, there were no "bad" dice rolls; everyone generally had plenty of different choices each turn.
I also like the fact that the fish, pearl and starfish cards all have the same back so it's not obvious how many pearl cards each player has; you have to pay attention and decide whether that majority is worth fighting for. Overall, Coralia is a fun, light game with a slew of decisions and a 30-35 minute average playtime. You can easily break it out with family, non-gamers, or even heavier gamers looking for something lighter to play with a decent number of decisions.
Rafał Cywicki's Enchanters: Overlords by GIndie, which is a standalone expansion for the fantasy card-drafting game Enchanters.
In Enchanters: Overlords, 2-4 players are heroes crafting a magical artifact to aid in battling monsters, dragons, and powerful overlords to defend the village and gain the most glory points!
I was able to quickly jump into an Enchanters: Overlords game due to the fast set-up and teach time, with us questing within five minutes of sitting down at the table with three new players. Enchanters has a ton of content and a variable set-up in which you choose a village card, an overlord card, and a kingdom deck per player, with those cards then shuffled to form the adventure deck for each game. Enchanters: Overlords includes six kingdom decks, six villages, and six overlords, so plenty of different combinations are available for play. If you have the base game or any other expansions, you can mix those cards in for even more variety.
The "journey track", i.e., the card market where most of the action happens, is filled with six cards from the adventure deck. On your turn, you're going to either journey or rest. When you take the journey action, you can acquire item and enchantment cards to upgrade your artifact or fight monsters or dragons. The first card on the journey track is free, but additional spaces have an increased crystal cost.
Each player starts with a "fist" item card and an "of enchanting" enchantment card that forms your weak starting artifact. When you acquire an item or enchantment card, you stack it on your existing cards, in most cases revealing some attack or defense values which you'll need to build up to combat monsters and dragons to score glory points. The visible attack and defense icons determine the current strength of your artifact. As a fun and clever bonus, each time you upgrade your artifact with new item and enchantment cards, you create new combos that each have a little description you're encouraged to read aloud. As an example, the description of my "Short Sword of Fire" combo in the photo below reads, "Still a sword, but almost a dagger that...burns in a fiery ring of fire." (You may need to zoom in to see the small italicized text.)
Combat with monsters and dragons is pretty straightforward when you choose a monster/dragon card from the journey track. Each monster/dragon has a strength value and health points. First, the enemy attacks you, giving wounds if their strength is greater than your defense level. There's no limit to the number of wounds a player can take, but each is worth a negative point at game's end. Then the player attacks the enemy and must have an attack value that equals or exceeds its health points to successfully defeat it. Assuming you defeat it, you create a stack of monsters/dragons to the right of your artifact cards for final scoring.
If a player can't or doesn't want to journey, they can rest. The rest action varies depending on which village card you're playing with, but generally it offers players a way to heal wounds or collect crystals. When you rest in Enchanters: Overlords, the first card on the journey track is discarded, but if it's a monster, it triggers the overlord to attack. Therefore the timing of taking the rest action can get tricky, especially if you're trying to avoid getting attacked by the overlord.
Players continue taking turns and embarking on quests until all cards from the adventure deck and the journey track have been taken or discarded. Then players score points as described on the village card and for their acquired cards — items, enchantments, monsters, and dragons — minus 1 point per wound. The hero with the most glory points wins.
Having no prior experience or knowledge of the Enchanters series, I felt Enchanters: Overlords was different in a good way. Obviously, the fantasy theme is nothing new, but I thought it was pretty clever how you level up your items and enchantments to continuously build your magical artifact engine. There's also some mixed player interaction sprinkled in as well. The "Sun Tower" village we played with allowed us to take two crystals when resting...or we could take four crystals but had to allow an opponent to heal one wound. A lot of the cards also have effects on them that can impact you or your opponents, positively or negatively. Beyond the short set-up, teach and playtime, Enchanters: Overlords has a ton of content that will present fresh and interesting challenges each game you play. Read more »
- COVID-19 at the Gaming Table III: Asmodee, Alliance and ACD Stop Shipments; Tokyo Game Market Cancels Its Spring Show
Along similar lines, Diamond Comic Distributors, which is also owned and run by Geppi Family Enterprises, will not ship any comics with an "on sale" date of April 1, 2020 or later to stores. What's more, as reported on Bleeding Cool, "Diamond Comic Distributors is requesting that no more product be shipped to any of its warehouses until further notice." Here's an excerpt from a ComicBook.com article on this topic:This is a significant signal towards the future for comics shops around the country. Diamond is the exclusive distributor of new releases from all of the comics direct market's biggest publishers, including DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Dynamite Entertainment, BOOM! Studios, and IDW Publishing, as well as many of the smaller publishers. Diamond controls such a significant portion of the direct market that the system cannot function as is without the distributor.
Asmodee North America, and sometime during the week of March 16, Asmodee sent the following note to its customers:Dear valued retailers,
We hope this finds you all safe and healthy. As the U.S. continues to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, we see changes occurring on a daily, sometimes, hourly basis. Due to shelter-in-place orders or other limitations, we understand that stores are closing or adapting to a shopping experience that respects social distancing.
Asmodee USA Distribution has decided that through April 2020, there will be no new releases beyond today's TIME Stories Revolution and Spot it! Frozen 2 next Friday, March 27. We believe revisiting these delayed titles will be beneficial to stores and the industry when people can begin shopping at their stores again.
However, our warehouse remains open at this time. We are committed to fulfilling orders on our full catalog of currently released games for stores that can continue servicing their community. We have found that as households prepare for quarantine, many of the Best Sellers titles have performed well along with games families can enjoy together, so we want to make sure you have that stock if needed.
We are monitoring the situation as it develops, and we want to protect the health and safety of our employees and their families. We will send a weekly update on the status of the warehouse and any other changes that occur.
Asmodee USA wishes you, your families, and your stores the best during these times. If you have questions, please contact your sales representative.
Given the announcement from Alliance, Asmodee's warehouse may or may not be open given that buyers can purchase from Asmodee directly. In any case, even those March 27 releases seem iffy unless (1) they've already been shipped to retail stores and (2) those stores are still open for business.
A representative from a game café in Canada notes that Asmodee has also stopped distribution in that country "because Quebec is closing non-essentials".
One publisher told me that most distributor warehouses have stopped accepting product, "many quite abruptly, with shipments in transit with now nowhere to go". They added, "We have no nationally coordinated plan from the government, so there's going to be a ton of freight in limbo all across the country — not just games, but other consumer goods." (Out with "E pluribus unum" as the United States motto; in with "no nationally coordinated plan"!)
has been cancelled, and here's an excerpt from that announcement, which combines a Google translation with my editing:Read more »Assuming that the event would have been held, the Game Market Secretariat knows that masks must be worn, that temperature checks must be taken at the entry points, that disinfecting alcohol must be installed at various locations in the venue, that handwashing areas must be available in the venue, that the shutters must be open. We were considering various measures such as thorough ventilation, the introduction of a fast pass to eliminate the queue that occurs in the morning, entrance restrictions every thirty minutes, and cancellation of trial play. Under these conditions, even if the event were held, it was already thought that it could not be called a game market with the philosophy of "I want to be an event that allows everyone to have fun and naturally care for others."
Most worrisome was the potential reputational damage to board games. If an infection explosion occured in Tokyo and various parts of Japan after the Game Market 2020 spring season, criticism from the surroundings would be inevitable, even if there were no direct causal relationship. If a company is criticized, you can accept it, but if the image of the entire board game community deteriorates, it will not be undone. The purpose of the Game Market, which is to contribute to the development and promotion of board games, should not be a factor in reducing the image of board games.
The pain of self-restraint in the Game Market can be immeasurable, but the potential damage is even more immeasurable. The Secretariat said that at this time, we have to endure a lack of Game Market so that everyone could have fun playing at Game Market in five and ten years.
- VideoCOVID-19 at the Gaming Table II: More Delays, Cancellations, and Publisher Support for Brick-and-Mortar StoresWizKids is preemptively cancelling its appearances at both Origins Game Fair 2020 and UK Games Expo 2020, noting that it is "currently discussing options for the status for our WizKids U.S. National Championships". An excerpt from this announcement:We understand that things are changing rapidly all the time, and should it make sense and is safe to do so, we will consider attending events during the Q2-Q3 timeframe but with a smaller footprint than you are normally used to seeing from us. If so, we will post when and where these events may be held.
At this time, we are still planning to attend our regularly attended Q4 events. This includes The WizKids World Championships at Graceland, PAX Unplugged, BGG.CON, and more.
my first post along these lines, Fireside Games is offering a "Play-at-Home" sale in which buyers receive a 25% discount on all orders placed through its online store, with 25% of each payment going to the brick-and-mortar store you list in the "Order Notes" section of the purchase.
• In that previous post, I mentioned that IELLO plans to release King of Tokyo: Dark Edition early since it can't do the simultaneous worldwide launch that it had originally planned. On top of that, if you place an online order for the game in the U.S. through IELLO, the publisher will split the funds with whichever brick-and-mortar retailer you name.
Burnt Island Games and Kids Table BG will donate 20% of net funds from online orders through its websites to the brick-and-mortar retailer of your choice.
• Deep Water Games is offering 25% of sales to named b&m stores, whereas Game Brewer is asking retailers to contact them (email@example.com) for a coupon code that users can use when purchasing online that will then send 30% of the sale to the linked retailer. Forbidden Games is handing over 50% of online sales to the b&m retailer you name.
Expect to see more such profit-sharing plans from publishers in the weeks ahead, assuming that "stay at home" rules don't keep people from shipping out games. Japanime Games, for example, which was part of my previous post on this topic, has announced that its warehouse in Indiana will close from the end of March 24 until at least April 7. Greater Than Games has ended parcel shipments until approximately April 22.
Korea Boardgames said that after production delays in China due to factory shutdowns, Fruit Picking and Four Gardens are both now being manufactured. The games will be for sale in Korea soon, and the plan is to sell them at both Gen Con 2020 — which the publisher will appear at for the first time in Entrepreneurs' Avenue — and SPIEL '20. Showdown Tactics, which BGG previewed at Spielwarenmesse 2020, will receive "aesthetic updates" ahead of its debut at Gen Con 2020 alongside the "murder mystery" game Suspects.
Notes Scheuber, "Monster Dentist and four yet unannounced games will be released at SPIEL '20", which means that Korea Boardgames will have nine new releases at that show compared to what its catalog contained at SPIEL '19.
Scheuber added that the Seoul Boardgame Festa — "the biggest board game event in the country" — scheduled for May 2-3, 2020 has been cancelled. The Festa scheduled for November 14-15 is still on for now.
Mandoo Games, who noted the following:—The Korea government is doing quite well. We have total 8,961 cases, and the daily new cases have been under 100 since last week. However, we're still worrying about the group infection cases such as at church or in a hospital.
—As most of our distribution partners are in the EU and they are working at home, our new release schedules should also be delayed. We just hope SPIEL will be held as planned.
Along those lines, I thought that I had finished publishing all of the Spielwarenmesse 2020 overview videos that we had recorded in late January and early February, but Kim pointed out that we had not published the one for Gabriele Bubola's Merchant of Dunhuang, a late 2020 release from Mandoo. Lincoln quickly find that file, and now it's live, letting us finally close our coverage on that show for good.
Youtube Video Read more »
- VideoGame Previews from GAMA Expo 2020 I: Maglev Metro, Ducks in Tow, Big Easy Busking, Downforce: Wild Ride, and Teotihuacan: Shadow of XitleBGG Express YouTube channel. (We also have a specific GAMA Expo 2020 playlist should you care to see only that.)
Here are the first five videos live on that playlist, with one hundred or so videos likely to be published once we've wrapped our coverage of this show for a second time. Note that any release dates mentioned in these videos have asterisks by them given what's going on in the world these days — except for Downforce: Wild Ride and Teotihuacan: Shadow of Xitle, of course, since those two expansions have already hit the market.
Youtube Video Read more »
- New Game Round-up: Sell Goods and Goats on the Dark Road to HogwartsElf Creek Games shared a few words with me about Merchants of the Dark Road, a design by Brian Suhre for 1-4 players that plays in 60-120 minutes and that's currently scheduled to hit Kickstarter in April 2020. Here's an overview of who you are and what you do in the game:After half a year of daylight, we must now prepare for the dark season. The roads will be treacherous but they will still need to be braved by a select few in order to keep our cities thriving. In Merchants of the Dark Road, you are one of these brave few merchants that travel the dangerous paths between cities. While the job is perilous, fame and fortune await.
Discover the capital city where most of your actions will take place using a rondel action system. Collect and produce items to add to your caravan, or sell these items to local heroes and hire them to travel with you. Manipulate the market price of items, visit the back alley sellers, or delve a nearby dungeon for magical items to gain the potential for even more coin and notoriety.
Gather lanterns to ease your passage along the dark roads as you guide your caravan to distant villages. Deliver goods and heroes to the best destinations and gain fame for your bravery! Balance the money you earn with the height of your fame because your final score after a number of game rounds will reflect the lowest of these two values.
After all, what good is a purse full of the coin if the people don’t sing songs about you, and what good is a song with an empty mug of ale?
One of these brave few merchants that travel the dangerous paths between cities? Sounds like a game about modern times, although I wouldn't have thought that even two weeks ago when I first heard about the game.
BoardGameTables.com has teased a set of three small games in its newsletters, with Mountain Goats being a reimplementation of Stefan Risthaus' Level X from 2010, GPS being a reimplementation of Hartmut Kommerell's Finito! from 2008, and Sequoia being an area-majority game for 2-5 players that plays in ten minutes and that publisher Chad DeShon describes as "Can't Stop meets Las Vegas".
Level X and Finito! were both part of Schmidt Spiele's "Easy Play" line, which ran from 2008 to 2012, as was Big Points, which BoardGameTables.com revamped and released in early 2020 as Bites.
The Op (formerly USAopoly) has announced that it will release a second expansion for Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle titled The Charms and Potions Expansion, with the primary draw of this item possibly being Ginny Weasley as a new playable character that will allow you to have five wizards at the table at the same time. Here's what else you'll find in the box:Enhance your experience with charm abilities to aid you as you battle new villains, such as such as Pansy Parkinson and Marcus Flint, and encounter even more challenges. Trouble is brewing, so only by working together will you be able to protect the Wizarding World from He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named thanks to the new spells, items, and allies you'll find in the four new packs of content.
The Charms and Potions Expansion is due out "soon", whatever that might be, and The Op also plans to release Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle card sleeves that you can use on this title or really whatever game you want given that we lack a Department of Magical Law Enforcement in this world.
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- New Game Round-up: Card-Based Gears of War, Keyper Crabs, and Matt Leacock's To-Do ListGears 5 Esports Mexico City Major event that took place March 6-8, 2020, in Mexico City — an event for online players of the Gears of War series, UK publisher Steamforged Games previewed Gears of War: The Card Game from designer Tyler Bielman.
Here's an overview of the game, which is due out in the second half of 2020:Gears of War: The Card Game offers an immersive way to enjoy Gears of War in a brand new format. In this story-driven campaign style game, the decisions you make in each narrative scenario have serious consequences on the battlefield in those that follow. Strike at the right moment, making your cards work together, fight together, and stand together — and, if necessary, die together.
Choose how to develop your force as you play through unique narrative scenarios, each with their own objective and terrain layout. Each win or loss will affect the contents of your deck in the next scenario, allowing success or failure to impact your experience of the game.
Will you side with the Coalition of Ordered Governments and send Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago into action, or will you command the Locust Horde and unleash the awesome power of the monstrous Brumak? Throw frag grenades at hordes of wretches? Or bait a corpser into attacking you before striking it when it's most vulnerable? The choice will be in your hands.
Richard Breese of R&D Games noted that he was working on Keyper at Sea, an expansion for Keyper that would have "shallow water" and "deep water" scenarios for both beginner and experienced players.
In late February 2020, Breese posted an image of a crab (at left) to celebrate the start of the game's graphics by Vicki Dalton, with the expansion now scheduled for a SPIEL '20 release.
Oh, wait — do you want to see more than just one crab? Here you go:
• In a quarterly report published in March 2020, designer Matt Leacock notes that "the third and final installment in the Pandemic Legacy series is coming later this year". (Too soon, Matt!) Aside from that, he adds, "look for one other soon-to-be-announced game — coming this summer".
What's more, Leacock notes that he's working on:—A new dexterity game, co-designed with Josh Cappel. Josh and I worked together on the first edition of Pandemic over ten years ago and it's been fun to work together again. We've spent over two years on this game and I'm thrilled that we recently found a great home for it.
—The next game in the ERA series — which is coming together quite nicely if I do say so myself.
—A new, non-Pandemic, cooperative game that I'm working on with a first-time designer.
—A big box game that I've been developing for over two years with two established designers.
—And a few other unannounced projects in various stages of development.
Era: Medieval Age Expansion is another 2020 Leacock release, with Gen Con 2020 being its debut show Read more »
- ● Wild West - Trappers 3 Gold RushPublisher: PERMES
Wild West Trappers #3 Gold Rush
PERMES Historical Series
This set contains total 20 front and back artwork 30mm scale papercraft Wild West Gold Rush and migration to frontier lands period of history ready to cut figurines in various poses and colours, with different accessories and weapons plus props and scenery elements.
Set includes "Praire Schooners" - covered Old West wagons, oxen and mule trains, mountaineers, traders and trappers - settlers, pioneers and explorators as well as the pony express courier figurine.
The set is a good supplement and addition to previously released Trapers 1. Hunters and Trapers 2. Canoes PERMES Wild West series sets.
The final page to print out includes a selection of 3 different bases (grass, and and rock) to cut to size and fit to your completed minis. All minis, parts, accessories and elements of scenery are 300dpi 30mm front and back full colour artwork suitable both for RPG and wargaming.
We hope you will enjoy adding PERMES historical minis to your game worlds!
Sincerely,Price: $2.99 Read more »
PERMES Cardboard Models
- ● Sprig (Issue 3 - Shoot)Publisher: Houston Hare
ISSUE 3 of the ongoing series!
A seed of hope in a world of hate...
War rages as land runs out. Elves, Dwarves, Humans, and other races fight for control of the limited space they have. When a land mass suddenly appears out of nowhere, people flock to it, only to be caught up in its mysteries.
Kaia, one of the last living members of the Treek race, heads to the new land to find others like herself and escape the war that surrounds her. With conflict at her back, and untamed wilderness ahead, she and the companions she makes discover the truths of the new land and themselves.
In this issue, Kaia and the group journey to another key location on Daegal, a large forest north of the ruined tower. With Tigala missing, and a potential run-in with the Beastfolk, alliances are tested as new discoveries are made.
109 pages. 20,210 words. Available in EPUB, MOBI, and PDF formats.Price: $0.99 Read more »
- ● Ships, Shores & Seas [BUNDLE]Publisher: BattleMats
This special bundle product contains the following titles. Beachhead 24" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Beachhead - RPG Encounter Map 24" x 24" image of a coast line with encroaching vegetation cave with optional 1" grid. Files included: For Large Format Printing 24" x 24" with no grid image (66 MB - 4800 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1" square pattern image (66 MB - 4800 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1.5" square pattern image (66 MB - 4800 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1" hex pattern image (66 MB - 4800 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1.5" hex pattern image (66 MB - 4800 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) For Virtual tabletop 24" x 24" with no grid image (16 MB - 3360 x 3360 pixel image in .jpg format) ... Coral Bay 36" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
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Coral Bay - RPG Encounter Map 36" x 24" image of underwater sands and patches of coral with optional square and hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing 36" x 24" with no grid image (99 MB - 7200 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 36" x 24" with 1" square pattern image (99 MB - 7200 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 36" x 24" with 1.5" square pattern image (99 MB - 7200 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 36" x 24" with 1" hex pattern image (99 MB - 7200 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 36" x 24" with 1.5" hex pattern image (99 MB - 7200 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) For Virtual Tabletop 36" x 24" with no grid image (17 MB - 5040 x 3360 pixel... Deep Waters 24" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
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Deep Waters - RPG Encounter Map 24" x 24" image of a underwater sands and water patterns with optional square or hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing 24" x 24" with no grid image (88 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1" square pattern image (88MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1.5" square pattern image (88 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1" hex pattern image (88 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1.5" hex pattern image (88 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) For Virtual tabletop 24" x 24" with no grid image (7 MB - 3360 x 3360 pixel image in .jpg format) ... High Seas 48" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
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High Seas - RPG Encounter Map 48" x 24" image of ocean waves with optional square and hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing 48" x 24" with no grid image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1" square pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1.5" square pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1" hex pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1.5" hex pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) For Virtual Tabletop 48" x 24" with no grid image (14 MB - 6720 x 3360 pixel... Ocean Ruins 48" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
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Ocean Ruins - RPG Encounter Map 48" x 24" image of a cyclopean ruins rising from the sea with optional square or hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing 48" x 24" with no grid image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1" square pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1.5" square pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1" hex pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) 48" x 24" with 1.5" hex pattern image (132 MB - 9600 x 4800 pixel image in .tif format) For Virtual Tabletop 48" x 24" with no grid ima... Small Ship 24" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
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Small Ship - RPG Encounter Map 24" x 24" image of a small wooden ship with optional 1" square grid. Files included: For Large Format Printing 300 DPI JPG For Virtual tabletop 72 DPI JPG Warning: for personal use only, commercial usage or printing for re-sale is not allowed. ... Smugglers Camp 48" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Format: ZIP File
Smugglers Camp - RPG Encounter Map 48" x 24" image of a smugglers camp by a beach with optional square or hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEGs for 1" and 1.5" square grid variations Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEGs for 1" and 1.5" hex grid variations Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEG with no grid variation For Virtual tabletop Zip file containing VTT optimised JPEGs with all grid variations Warning: for personal use only, commercial usage or printing for re-sale is not allowed. ... The Beach 24" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
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The Beach - RPG Encounter Map 24" x 24" image of a beach with optional square or hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing 24" x 24" with no grid image (66 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1" square pattern image (66 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1.5" square pattern image (66 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1" hex pattern image (66 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) 24" x 24" with 1.5" hex pattern image (66 MB - 4808 x 4808 pixel image in .tif format) For Virtual tabletop 24" x 24" with no grid image (10 MB - 3360 x 3360 pixel image in .jpg format) 24" x 24" with 1"... The Stalwart 36" x 24" RPG Sailing Ship Map
Regular price: 0
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Format: ZIP File
The Stalwart - RPG Sailing Ship Encounter Map 36" x 24" image of a large sailing ship with plenty of deck space with optional square or hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEGs for 1" and 1.5" square grid variations Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEGs for 1" and 1.5" hex grid variations Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEG with no grid variation For Virtual tabletop Zip file containing VTT optimised JPEGs with all grid variations Warning: for personal use only, commercial usage or printing for re-sale is not allowed. ... Town Docks 24" x 24" RPG Encounter Map
Regular price: 0
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Format: ZIP File
Town Docks - RPG Encounter Map 24" x 24" image of a dockside and warehouse with optional square or hex grids. Files included: For Large Format Printing Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEGs for 1" and 1.5" square grid variations Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEGs for 1" and 1.5" hex grid variations Zip file containing 300 DPI JPEG with no grid variation For Virtual tabletop Zip file containing VTT optimised JPEGs with all grid variations Warning: for personal use only, commercial usage or printing for re-sale is not allowed. ... Total value: 0 Special bundle price: 0 Savings of: 0 (92%)
- ● "Erighaa" Desert Market Fortified VillagePublisher: LeLanglacier
A Map depicting the Village of Erigha located in the desert
Many more maps will follow.
I also publish adventures over atRead more »
- ● "Mariada" World Island Continent MapPublisher: LeLanglacier
A Map depicting the Hidden Cove. A Small Floating town near a bay and cliffs.
Map is included with and without labels.
Many more maps will follow.
I also publish adventures over atRead more »
- ● "Hidden Cove" Pirate Bay Village MapPublisher: LeLanglacier
A Map depicting the Hidden Cove. A Small Floating town near a bay and cliffs.
Map is included with and without labels.
Many more maps will follow.
I also publish adventures over at https://www.dmsguild.com/product/275574/Thunder-at-the-shoreRead more »
- ● 100 Overheard Cyber City Chatter V 5.0Publisher: Fishwife Games
100 OVERHEARD CYBER CITY CHATTER V 5.0
The city overwhelms the senses. Neon against rainy black sky, reflecting in the puddles. Smells of things out of the sewers mix with the deep fried offerings of street vendors. Stale sweat so heavy in the air you can taste it. The most overwhelming of all is the sound… especially the endless sea of chatter. This list provides 100 random things that a group of heroes might hear in a cyberpunk city setting. Some things are worth taking note of, other things are just verbal garbage.
Combine with prior releases for maximum output!Price: $1.00 Read more »
- ● Follow (ITA)Publisher: SpaceOrange42
Italian Edition - Edizione ItalianaPrice: $10.97 Read more »
Uccidere il drago. Curare una malattia. Colonizzare un mondo alieno…
Scegli la missione, assembla la tua compagnia e poi affronta le sfide che ti ostacolano. I nostri personaggi possono rimanere uniti e ci riusciranno o le nostre differenze ci faranno a pezzi? Seguirai il piano… o seguirai il tuo cuore?
Un gioco di ruolo facile e accessibile di Ben Robbins, autore di Microscope e Kingdom. Da tre a cinque giocatori.
- ● RPG fantasy Character, Male, Half Orc WarriorPublisher: Claudio Casini Art
You can request a commission by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, will go on sale in this store (price 4.99 bw character, 5.99 color character or bw illustration, 6.99 illustration)
This stock art image by Claudio Casini depicts a Half Orc Warrior in RGB colour, at A4" dimensions.
This purchase includes one TIFF version, both at 300 dpi.
Claudio Casini ART
Claudio Casini is a well-known industry professional whose talent has appeared in various projects, across numerous genres, for companies such as Paizo Publishing, Asterion Press, Phlegyas Art Miniatures and Mongoose Pub.
Stock Art License Summary
All stock art is licensed for use in professional publications. Claudio Casini retains ownership of the work, meaning you cannot resell the art in your own art packs or the like, and may be required to post an artist credit. There are limits regarding how this art may be edited for use.
You must include the artist's copyright statement in all publications using the art under certain terms and conditions. You obtain a license to use the art, but do not own any rights to it beyond that.
- VideoFour Ways to Fill Your Table (and Your Time)
If you’re like me, you also have a great gray marching horde of unpainted miniatures just waiting to get painted. But when/if you’ve painted all of them (or more likely, just need a distraction), you might find yourself turning toward other ways to add to the landscape of your table. You might also find yourself with some extra time on your hands. And if you’re reading this, you’re someone who thinks of gaming now and then. If you’re big into miniatures and making your table look awesome, this might be a good time to think of ways that you can wow your players with a set-piece encounter or two when you’re finally able to physically get back together. And if you happen to live with your gaming group (you lucky so-and-so) building terrain can be a fun way for the group to pull together with some projects everyone gets to enjoy.
To be clear: theater of the mind is great and no one is requiring that you present hugely elaborate dioramas representing hours of work to your players—no game really requires it, but if you have the time, materials, and inclination, they can be a lot of fun to play with, and (for some of us), even more fun to make. Things like maps, miniatures, and terrain can add a lot to a game (elaborated in this article I’m shamelessly self-promoting here).
Not all of these options are available to everyone, and all of them require some combination of money, patience, or specialized stuff that you might not have on hand. That’s okay—as with all things in RPGs, take what you want and leave the rest.
Make it yourself
There’s a lot of terrain-building advice out there. Much of it requires special materials (like cork board, specialized foam, or wood) that you might not have on-hand. Don’t get me wrong: the results of these kinds of super-intensive builds are incredible, and Black Magic Craft and The DM’s Craft are legendary for the stuff they create. However, if you’re stuck at home and don’t want to go out, you really don’t need a lot to create some really neat stuff.
Using a 50/50 mix of PVA/school glue, some of that toilet paper you’ve been hoarding, hot glue, and the backs of old notebooks, you can create killer scatter terrain. Here is a tutorial on creating stalagmites, but the same technique works great for making rocks and trees if you use a framework of aluminum foil. You’ll still need to paint the results, but you don’t need to use expensive hobby paints to do it: go with three similar colors of varying lightness: a dark layer, a lighter medium layer, and a very dry brush of a light color on top will make them pop great. Warning: though you can build out pretty much anything your heart desires doing this, toilet papier-mâché takes forever to dry before you can paint it (24 hours or more), and feels just…incredibly gross when you handle it. I’m not squeamish; I’m the person who reaches into a clogged garbage disposal and pulls out decayed globs of food without flinching, and for fun, I’ve even been known to [redacted] with [redacted] while [redacted] (Editor’s note: CHUCK! This is a FAMILY website!). But all the same, I found myself stepping away from the table multiple times to wash my hands, and afterward, the residue from all the glue made the table I was working on look like [redacted] (FAMILY! WEBSITE!). I might never be clean again.
Also, a dire warning: remember when you were a kid and you looked at clouds thinking “wow, that kind of looks like a dragon!?” Remember that feeling of wonder: you’ll need it, because if you start down this path, you will start looking at boxes, containers and random household detritus not as “things to be thrown away,” but as “things I can maybe turn into terrain.” Your life will become a grotesque combination of childhood whimsy and an episode of Hoarders. Mere hours after starting you will find yourself with a full box of shame somewhere, containing egg cartons, old plastic packaging, and Pringles cans that you will tell yourself you’re going to turn into something awesome. And maybe you will (you won’t). You will join one of the tabletop crafting Facebook groups, nearly all of which have dozens of “works in progress” posts that might be better labeled “here, look at my garbage,” and dozens more posts from people who clearly have advanced degrees in turning litter into three-dimensional, moving masterpieces.You will join one of the tabletop crafting Facebook groups, nearly all of which have dozens of “works in progress” posts that might be better labeled “here, look at my garbage,” and dozens more posts from people who clearly have advanced degrees in turning litter into three-dimensional, moving masterpieces.You will become one of those two types of people, and it will, absolutely, 100% be the first kind.
friendly local gaming stores. Admittedly, right now is not the best time to go out shopping, but when this all passes, it’s definitely something to keep in mind. It’s hard to beat this option for speed and ease. Of course, a drug habit would be cheaper. Luckily, if you’re not willing or able to sell a kidney to pay for your gaming group’s fun, there are cheaper options.
- Board games. There are a lot of board games out there that have some really great pieces. Some of them (I’m looking at you, Arena of the Planeswalkers) might not be as much fun to play as you might expect. This is actually good news, as they can often be found online or lightly used for a fraction of their original price (still looking at you, Arena of the Planeswalkers). The minis are great, and if you snap off the base with a box cutter and replace it with another base, they look pretty much exactly like the minis you’re used to. D&D-themed board games are more table-ready in scale, and when painted, can serve double duty. Other games, like HeroClix, will often have “filler” pieces available online for pennies, and you can give them the same treatment.
- Model railroad terrain. Okay, model train enthusiasts. I can hear you laughing at me for calling this “cheap,” but there are inexpensive options—like tree kits—that you can use to build a truly stunning amount of scatter trees for not very much money at all. Thrift shops, estate sales, and garage sales will also sometimes have terrain or train stuff that you can get really cheaply. S gauge is reportedly the scale to ideally use, but with things like trees and hills, scale matters a lot less than with buildings.
- Aquarium decorations. Hobbit houses, castles, fairy hills. Goldfish have got to be playing the best D&D games. Plus, with their memories, they can just replay their favorite modules over and over. Am I jealous? Absolutely. Luckily, you don’t have to eat garbage flakes or poop in your own bathwater to take advantage (I mean, you can, but ew). A word to the wise: never buy aquarium decorations at retail prices: they’re just as expensive as regular terrain that way. But every pet store I’ve seen has a discount table/rack just packed with these things.
Before starting this article, I’d actually never done papercrafting, and there’s definitely a learning curve, but I learned that if you have a printer and cardstock, you can throw together some really visually stunning buildings cheaply in very little time. There are lots of free options, but the examples here are from Fat Dragon Games’ Ravenfell Core Set and Numenera Core Building Set. Also, because of the relatively low barrier to entry for creating this kind of content, there is a huge selection of papercrafted terrain patterns out there.
Note that if you look for advice online, much of it involves taking your papercraft “to the next level” with foamcore and markers and tools and a self-healing craft board and hot glue and a knife forged by the light of the full moon while you whisper the name of your most hated enemy. And, I mean, yeah. The results are great, but…do you really need to take this to “the next level?” I did mine with cardstock, an old kitchen cutting board, and a box cutter so janky that I’m pretty sure I gave you tetanus just by making you read about it. And the results were still…I mean, they’re okay. Reading the instructions probably would have helped. So my advice definitely includes “actually read the instructions.” Of all the things in this article, papercraft is probably the perfect intersection of inexpensive, low-effort, and really freaking cool. I will definitely be doing more of this.
If you already have a 3D printer, none of what I say is going to be new to you. If you’re thinking of getting one? Run away now. I’m saying this because if anything I can possibly say to you will
convince you to not get one, you don’t want it badly enough. This is not a “this hobby is only for the hardcore” kind of humblebrag. 3D printers can be ruinously expensive. 3D printers are also miserable. They’re a combination of all the most frustrating parts of a regular printer, plus the complexities of multiple bewildering new pieces of software and a dash of giving yourself a crash course in materials science, all wrapped up in an expensive toy where even the slightest mistake can cost hundreds of dollars in replacement parts for the stuff you broke. And you will break stuff, even after years of experience. As I type this, our 3D printer is out of commission due to a broken part.
Now that that’s out of the way: 3D PRINTED GAMING TERRAIN IS AMAZING. There are tens of thousands of free files out there on Thingiverse, and a search engine that will also take you to files you can buy. If you can afford it and have the time to devote to getting decent at it, your options become limitless. If you pick up a free 3D modeling program (like Meshmixer) and can get through the tool flail, you can also mix, match, and edit files to create pretty much anything you want. 3D printed terrain also has the same advantage as home built terrain in that you don’t have to use expensive model paints—I’ve painted most of my 3D printed stuff using test pots of paint from Home Depot that I bought almost four years ago. And I’m still on the same test pots.
If you only want to print a few things, and can’t (or don’t want to) make the investment in time and money to do your own 3D printing, many public libraries have a 3D printer available for community use. As a matter of courtesy, it’s probably best to not print out entire castles, and it’s rarely free (nor should it be) but if you’re lucky enough to be near a library that offers the service, there’s nothing stopping you from getting a few pieces of neat, complex, and really unique terrain printed out for you.
So that’s it. If you’re anything like me, you’re going to come out of this social isolation with some really amazing things to show your players. You’ll also come out of it with a very real storage problem, a box of full of trash, terrible board games, and sticky hands covered in toilet paper. But you’ll love every minute.
So did I miss anything? What do you use to build out terrain for your games?Read more »
- Why Pokemon Campaigns Don’t Work
subtitle: and how to make em work anyways.
There’s a high overlap between nerds that like to roll dice and nerds that like pokemon. I think it’s fair to assume that most any nerd you come face-to-face with has some stance on pokemon as to whether or not they like it.
I’ve been playing ttrpgs for a decent enough amount of time that I’ve seen numerous pokemon port attempts to systems such as d&d 3.5, 4e, 5e, FATE, and I think one time Shadowrun. Point is, I’ve seen a lot of people that want to play pokemon. There’s even a major, highly unique, pokemon tabletop game called Pokemon Tabletop United(PTU), which is pretty much the spiritual successor to Pokemon Tabletop Adventures(PTA). It even has a lot of the same devs.
But I’m not here to talk about any specific system and why or why not it works, but instead I want to talk about why pokemon campaigns — at least with the standard fare of 6 pokemon trainer teams — just don’t work with tabletops.
In saying that, however, I also plan to recommend how pokemon campaigns could be run.
The Broken Formula
As someone that desperately places play speed and action resolution above almost every other aspect of a tabletop roleplaying game, I’m already at odds with most tabletops on the market. While there are certainly GMs capable of bringing rounds of 7-players under 10-minutes, this, to me, is an exception to a wider epidemic of slow play involving “can I do this? no? what about this?” This is particularly evident to me whenever I play D&D 5e as I typically see rounds lasting anywhere up to 45-minutes to an hour for as little as 5-player games. I’m not saying that’s necessarily the fault of 5e — I grew up playing D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder and those are notorious for the sheer number of abilities that can paralyze unprepared players. For me, this sort of slowdown seems prevalent to mostly d20 systems as I rarely see the same type of slowdown from Powered by the Apocalypse and other narrative-heavy games. But that might be just because the d20 systems I’ve played have way too many abilities to work with.
Either way, the point is that I care a lot about play speed. Multiplayer games tend to be fairly slow with just singular players and their characters. Gameplay lasts forever and eternity as is.
So why did anyone think it was a good idea to give all these players up to 6-units to play with?
It’s one of those cases where the video game, the source material, works perfectly well /because/ it’s a single-player game. Tabletops, unless you play those particularly intimate 1-to-1 games, are ultimately a multiplayer experience. In the format folks are most familiar with, there’s a nearly fixed rate of 6-pokes per trainer. Each poke can also be switched out, healed, and otherwise as the main pokemon ttrpgs out there have separate trainer and pokemon actions.
If we were to take a standard combat encounter, let’s say against a wild pokemon, with a team of four players, we’re looking at a potentially 24-on-1 encounter. Even the most badass of legendaries couldn’t handle that kind of pressure. This doesn’t even include pokemon trainer battles. Assuming a decently prepared enemy with 6, and assuming only one trainer fights them at a time, that’s a 6-on-6 fight where the other players are just waiting on the sidelines for combat to finish so they can get back to playing.
In this most standard of scenarios, the best case either way still leads to extended combat encounters with a lot of wait times for everyone. I feel the resulting conclusions as to why this is bad are self-evident.
—Tangent: A Grinding Nightmare
Not only does each and every battle for each trainer take bloody forever, but each player is also going to want to grind up each and every one of their pokemon. Unless the GM is going to explain to everyone ‘hey don’t worry about it, don’t grind and let’s move on’ each and every campaign, the players are going to be fairly insistent on the grind. Imagine trying to equally level up 6-units per person through random battles. Now imagine doing that 5 times over for each of your players.
Either the GM is going to allow level ups every fight, ergo trivializing the value of levels, or they actually go through each and every grindy battle with realistic exp and feed into the time-sink fully.
A different response to this is to just roll an overall ‘grinding check’ to see how many levels someone gains each day, but even that’s just waving away an obvious problem in the mechanics surrounding level grinding. Rule 0 “if it’s broke I can just fix it” isn’t a good defense for lackluster mechanics.
Pokemon works as a video game with its large amount of types and typing combinations because a lot of the calculations surrounding it are completely done off-hand by computers. Calculating and checking each damage typing versus the defensive typing of a pokemon every time an attack becomes either tedious or complicated. Pop Quiz: My level 34 Steelix uses Iron Tail, a Steel-type move that deals 3d8+10 damage at +2 Attack against a pokemon with Fire/Dragon at -1 Defense. Not even counting the stats and the natures, this is already looking to be a hassle, right? All of these things make it somehow more annoying to hit than it is to fail.
As one of the most prolific and complete systems, I’d like to bring Pokemon Tabletop United (or PTU) as my leading example. Let’s look at their damage formulas to the right.
I want to say that I think PTU is well done and it does well to replicate the damage formulas of the original games. My main concern is that it’s done /too well/ and that its accuracy is part of what ultimately slows it down. Imagine doing this damage formula for every attack, between every pokemon, for each trainer, for each combat session. There’s a lot of helpful charts and documents to expedite this, but those are less ‘just to help’ and more ‘absolutely necessary’ for the game to function at a reasonable crawl compared to an absurd one.
As is, being accurate to this degree, when doing pokemon in this analog pen-and-paper way, is too slow. It works in the video game, again, because the game does all of these calculations on its own. I think that perhaps using an alternative health system such as wounds instead of hit points could be a good start, but there aren’t currently any major systems that have made that work.
I want to emphasize that I’m not just here to bash pokemon tabletops. I think all the projects out there to make pokemon tabletops are cool. People like pokemon, people like tabletops, so why wouldn’t the two of them be cool together? Despite those reasons, however, I believe how people play them, as well as the type of mechanics that govern them, are fairly misguided. I’ll start with the mechanics first as that seems simpler to address.
—Mechanics & A Recommended System
When it comes to the mechanics, I feel the transition from video game to tabletop seems fairly straightforward. Here are a bunch of stats, such as HP, so just translate that to a sheet, right? The problem with pokemon stats and all these base value combinations, however, is that almost every pokemon tabletop I’ve seen attempts to replicate the leveling up aspect of pokemon in some form. Be it d20 systems replicating it within 20-levels, or even PTU’s 100 levels. This leads to fairly inflated pools and stats that you still need to keep track of individual character sheets for almost every pokemon.
If the enemy needs to smack down six of my pokes with 80+ HP to provide an honest threat, then either they’re doing too little too slowly, or practically one-shotting me. This, alongside the various damage calculations I’ve seen in an attempt to replicate the game, could honestly all be replaced with a simple wound system like in Savage Worlds.
All your pokes can take 3 wounds before going down. In Savage Worlds, you need to beat both a Parry(to hit) and Toughness(to hurt) to strike a wound. Every 4 you hit above Toughness, you score an additional wound. So if a move was super effective, it’d deal +4 damage, thereby ensuring an extra wound if it hits, or if it was ineffective deal -2 damage and make it difficult to hit. Each wound you have is a -1 to all your rolls, thereby replicating the battle damage that your pokes accumulate. Furthermore, Savage Worlds is an extremely fast game — there was a time I got through 12-players in a zombie apocalypse game within a half hour. Even with pokemon’s team inflation, I’d be able to get through that in a solid heartbeat.
Other systems it would work with would be, say, FATE Core, Apocalypse Worlds, or even any other rules-lite system. While there is definitely an urge to take the more statistical, game-like approach, a lot of fun in the anime series tends to revolve around things like the Power of Friendship™. Rules-lite systems shine where rules-heavy systems could weigh too much on the overall enjoyment of a game. I’m actually planning on running some pokemon one-shots in Dozens RPG, a recent and totally free rules-lite system, for some new players in light of the quarantine. This is 100% because I’m a sucker for d12 systems.
—How to Play
When it comes to pokemon, the first thing you need to address is the 6-unit team problem. Outside of the game, having 6-pokemon is just too much. If you were to GM almost any other system, it’s regularly felt that having to deal with player groups of 8-10 is extremely difficult. With that number in mind, try to aim to limit the number of pokes you, as the GM, have to deal with to 10 at most.
1 player = 6 pokemon
2 players = 4-5 pokemon
3 players = 3 pokemon
4 players = 2 pokemon
5 players = 2 pokemon
Personally, I honestly prefer to limit pokemon campaigns to using only 3 pokemon per player regardless of the number of players. I think it allows a trainer to have a nice and balanced team, all while not inflating the game.
I’m also quite a fan of what the mobile game, Pokemon Masters, did in that all the trainers you gacha for have a Partner Pokemon or the singular main pokemon of any given trainer. I understand it can be fairly limiting — pokemon is supposed to be about adventuring and catching them all — but it adds a lot to the tension of any singular fight. PTU, in particular, has mechanics for you to be a fully playable trainer with physical skills. Admittedly I’d absolutely love to play some sort of phantom thief pokemon campaign where you and your partner poke are trying to rob a museum.
Another element of the game is to figure out how to make each fight relevant and important and to not see certain pokes as throwaways in order to win the full match. My response to this is that when a pokemon is knocked out, they need to be recovered at a pokemon center. However, it takes a long time for them to recover properly, and likely won’t be usable for several days, or until they hit up another pokemon center. Since pokemon can just be deposited in a box, you won’t have to pick them up from the same center. With this sort of ruleset, it’d also mean I wouldn’t allow items like revive or max-revive. This makes each exchange between your pokemon and the opponent’s both meaningful and tense.
One more recent development, or at least call-back, in the pokemon community is the remake of Pokemon Mystery Dungeons. In these games, you play a pokemon and their team of pals out to rescue other pokemon in danger. Aside from the potential limitations of being only a singular pokemon, you’ll at least have a diverse party capable of handling most issues. Needless to say, being a pokemon is also a fantastic way to play a pokemon campaign outside of the standard catch’n’battle affair..
I think pokemon is great. I have Pokemon Sword and I’m super excited for the later expansions. I also think tabletops are super great too. In the end, however, while nearly anything can be translated to tabletops — I’m currently working on a Megaman Battle Network playdoc if you’re into that sort of thing — I don’t think everything should.
But, if you did want to catch them all using pen & paper — or whatever other digital tool you might use instead — here are some suggestions as to how you could and/or should.
~Di, signing outRead more »
- Bite Marks Review
Even when the popularity of the game line was gaining momentum in the early nineties, I didn’t jump on the World of Darkness trend. When I looked at the lines produced by White Wolf, the game that appealed to me the most was Werewolf The Apocalypse. I didn’t really want to play a vampire preying on others and trying to survive political maneuvering, but I could definitely wrap my brain around someone trying to do what was right, while fighting their own inner nature that might help or hinder depending on how much control you had, and when you tapped into the wild.
Eventually I did play in a Werewolf the Forsaken game years later, playing a werewolf that nobody wanted in their pack, broken by his wife’s death due to an illness not covered by their insurance, able to talk to the dead, but afraid to do so, for fear of confronting his lost loved one. For all of that pathos, I balanced it out by modeling his mannerisms on Mitch Hedberg.
As a fan of urban fantasy, and with an eye towards my own werewolf experience, I backed Bite Marks, a Powered by the Apocalypse game of werewolf pack dynamics, and we’re going to take a look at that game today.
Dog Eared Books
This review is based on the PDF of Bite Marks, which comes in at 224 pages. The book itself has clean formatting, with black and white borders depicting roots, trees, and moons. The text is black on white pages, with bold red headers that stand out. Individual chapter breaks have full page artwork, some in black and white, and some in color. There is a four page index at the back of the book.
The introduction touches on what tropes within werewolf fiction the game seeks to emulate, does a quick “what is roleplaying” section, and then summarizes what distinguishes Bite Marks from other PbtA games.
The introduction starts by emphasizing that the game is designed not to just examine the individual experience of being a werewolf, but also to examine what it means to be part of a pack. The design intent is to facilitate interactions between pack members and how those interactions affect the group as a whole.
I appreciated the quick nod to the “everybody has to do one” section of “what is roleplaying?” While these sections can be perfunctory, I do like reading them to see how the explanation of “what roleplaying is” uses different cultural benchmarks over time. In this case, the prevailing metaphor is that the group acts as directors of an interactive show with no script.
The section on distinctions from other PbtA games mentions the importance of modeling situations where a character may be out of control, and it also cites that the game intentionally sticks to agendas, without presenting principles for the MC running the game (Bite Marks uses the traditional PbtA term of Master of Ceremonies for the game facilitator). This is an intentional choice to lean away from framing and to reinforce a more feral feeling for the development of stories. This discussion of being out of control is both interesting and potentially scary (for players, not just characters in the story), so let’s see how this plays out in the text.
Safety First: Making It Fun For Everyone
Given that the last chapter ended with the idea that this game may play with themes of being out of control or forced into bad situations, I am very glad that the game moves directly into a safety discussion. Having that discussion up front means that no one should mistake safety as something you “can do.” It’s the first thing you do before you actually engage the rules.
This section starts with the Banned List, a list of plot elements that the group collectively agrees will not be included in the game. Items on the banned list will not be included in the game, no matter what. Although it isn’t mentioned here, later on there is a note that using any moves to force sexual interaction or suicide are automatically on the banned list for the game.
The next section summarizes safety tools that can be used in the game, highlighting the X-Card, and my favorite safety tool, Brie Beau Sheldon’s Script Change. Because dominance and loss of control are part of the game, this section emphasizes the importance of not only have having items on the banned list, but the ability to revoke permission for narrative elements in real time.
The section then reviews the MC responsibilities in knowing what is on the banned list, and making sure that the table remains safe. This section also emphasizes the need to allow players to decompress and debrief, to reflect on what has been added to the story and what it might mean going forward.
There is a quick note on terminology, and that the Cub skin in the game denotes that the Cub is new to the pack, but not an underage character by default, and if there are underage characters in the story, the sex moves (more on those later) should be removed from the playbooks. There is also a note that the Dominate move will take some care to adjudicate, and there are guidelines in the moves section on this.
The final note is a reminder not to remove disabled characters as a possibility. Given that werewolves have supernatural healing abilities by default, the game mentions that you shouldn’t use that reasoning to limit characters that may have disabilities, erasing them from the narrative.
This section gets into the mechanics of how Bite Marks works as a game. It retains the usually PbtA resolution of 2d6 + attribute to achieve the 6- (miss with complication), 7-9 (succeed at a cost), and 10+ (succeed) dynamic of other games. Players pick a Skin, which is the equivalent of your “character class” or playbook from other games, in this case, denoting a particular role in the werewolf pack.
The players have principles to follow to reinforce the aspects of werewolf fiction that the game is modeling. This means acting passionately, treating the group as family, being vulnerable to others, and respecting the alpha’s authority. The alpha gains the additional admonishment of doing the job of alpha, as the leader and parental figure of the group. It’s also worth noting that the principles for following specifically state “as long as they deserve it.”
The character stats in the game include the following:
- Teeth (fighting and domination)
- Feral (internal harmony with the wolf inside)
- Heart (emotional ability)
- Guts (pushing past reflexive reactions to the pack or personal interests)
The game also tracks a “pack pool,” an allocation of points that can be spent to trigger special moves or modifications to moves, which can only be spent when characters are together in groups (lone wolf = no pack).
The game assumes that the alpha may issue orders, characters may force other pack members into alignment with what they want, and the alpha may be challenged for control of the pack, so player versus player conflicts will come up in the game. There is more discussion on this in the individual moves, but a section here discusses what this means, and how one player “winning” a move doesn’t mean that there aren’t repercussions to the relationship or the group, and to keep the long term effects in mind when playing.
As an additional safety warning, the game mentions that if this style of play, with potential player versus player conflict, isn’t comfortable for you as a player, that the game may not be a good fit. I appreciate that the rules address that not every game is for every player, without either admonishment to push into uncomfortable spaces, nor any judgement for what a player is or isn’t comfortable playing.
Some moves direct players to give another player a number of ties. A character can only hold a number of ties equal to three on any one player at any one time, but if they gain another tie after they max this number out, they put a mark on one of their advancement tracks. This is mentioned as a potential vulnerability, but initially ties are denoted as what you spend to help another player on their roll. The playbooks clarify that you can spend these on rolls you make against the player character against whom you have the ties, but that didn’t come across in my initial read of this section.
Advancements that can be taken trigger when both the wolf and human tracks fill up. Whenever a move tells you to fill a spot on a track, the track that is filled up is whatever form the character is currently utilizing. If your wolf track is full, and you are in wolf form, if you trigger a move that tells you to fill in another part of the track, nothing happens. I like that this reinforces that player characters should be having scenes in human and wolf form in order to fill both tracks and allow for advancements.
MCing Bite Marks/Setting Up the Game/Running the Game/Werewolf Lore
These four chapters work together to inform the MC in their job of facilitating the game. This section includes the MC principles for running the game, which include principles that involve driving wedges between characters, presenting group enemies, giving the players room to express themselves, making the world smell real, allowing the PCs to be badasses, reinforcing culture and traditions of the pack, avoiding an overall plot, and making resolutions hurt.
Each of the principles has a long section of example hard and soft moves that might spring from the individual principles detailed. I have seen more of this in recent PbtA games, where soft and hard moves have more detailed examples, and the flow between soft and hard moves is better explained.
There is also a section on harm, how much harm different effects should have, and how much harm NPCs should take. Additionally, this section has some guidelines on how long healing takes, depending on how far along the harm track the player characters have progressed.
The section on setting up the game breaks the steps into the following sections:
- Making Characters
- Making a Pack
- Making Relationships
- Making a World
The choices, once a skin has been selected, involve assigning a +1 to one stat (the rest are assigned), and picking the character’s starting move. Relationships are filled in once the whole pack is created.
When creating a pack, the group will determine things like slang terms, culture (things the group tends to do), and traditions (things they always or never do). Part of this section is also answering questions about characters that have broken a tradition, and characters that know about that transgression.
Making relationships involves answering questions about the ties between characters, while making a world involves determining territory, nearby communities, and potential threats to the pack.
Running the Game gives advice on how to start a new ongoing game of Bite Marks, giving the MC a list of various “starter questions” that can drive characters by their desire to answer those questions. These include missing alphas, murder mysteries, blackmail plots, and other issues that require the pack to find out more about what is going on.
The prep section reminds the MC not to create plots, but rather to look at situations that arose in play to bring forward, and to create new threats that become imminent.
Some PbtA games use very specific language that was originally coined by Apocalypse World itself, and sometimes I find that using that same terminology, which was flavored for that game, doesn’t align well with other genres being presented. In the case of Bite Marks, I really enjoy the use of the terminology “Untenable Situations” and “Detonate Untenable Situations.” I like that the explosive connotations imply how those situations devolve, and the terminology “untenable” sets up the conflict between the absolutes of pack hierarchy and traditions against evolving realities.
There is a section on group bonding that I think may be useful, but I can’t help but be a little bit resistant to following. Essentially, it’s a list of things that the players can do in order to feel more connected to one another, to prepare for playing a pack. I’m probably a bad wolf, but while I can understand the importance of ritualized meal preparation, or a special recitation before the game starts, there is a level of vulnerability in the real world that is hard for me to overcome.
The section on conventions and one-shots gives advice on what questions to leave out during character and group creation, and what kind of resolution questions to ask, to allow the players to move towards a complete experience within an allotted period of time without follow up sessions.
Werewolf lore is a short section on different werewolf tropes that you may or may not want to include in your game, like organized werewolf hunters, the effect of special materials and the full moon on werewolves, born versus created werewolves, and the lifespan and development of werewolves over time. These are all great individual items to consider for a game, but I wish each of them had an example custom move. The section mentions that these are good areas for introducing custom moves, but then refers back to the only example custom move in the book, one for a specific campaign where forest monsters might influence the werewolves that are protecting against those monsters.
The basic moves chapter walks through the moves available to all player characters in the game. The basic moves emphasize that most of the gameplay will surround interactions based on hierarchy, violence, and sharing emotional states. These basic moves are:
- Make a Challenge
- Give In To The Wolf
- Harness the Wolf
- Act on Instinct
- Provoke Spill
Unlike many Powered by the Apocalypse games, which incentivize player characters that are being manipulated with XP or some other currency, and give them the option of refusing a social manipulation, the highest result of dominate does not allow this, and the move directs you to carefully keep the banned list in mind when adjudicating this move.
Disobey is a move that is triggered when an NPC attempts to dominate a character, or when a character wants to go against one of the established traditions of the pack. While it definitely isn’t impossible to disobey, it’s an important enough moment to be mechanized with a move.
Giving into the wolf boosts the powers of the PC, at the risk of rolling a 6- and losing control for the rest of the scene. Harness the wolf is a less dramatic move that is triggered when a character uses the natural abilities their wolf form would grant them (like using their sense of smell to track someone). It is also noted that a character can state that they are in wolf form or human form without triggering these moves. The human/wolf decision is about narrative positioning as much as mechanical reinforcement.
The Spill move is triggered when a character shares a secret with a packmate, and can add to the pack pool, and the Provoke Spill move can be used when a PC wants to wheedle information out of another individual.
The game has already telegraphed the alternate take this game has versus other PbtA games when it comes to having (or not having) total agency of a character. Multiple moves can cause a character to take an action, or even go an entire scene, without having the ability to determine what their character can do. The tools in the other sections of the book are going to be really important for adjudicating these situations.
The playbooks, or character types, in this game are called skins. The following skins are considered the default for the game:
- The Alpha (pack leader/parental figure)
- The Cub (newest member of the pack, less likely to suffer consequences)
- The Enforcer (the “muscle” of the pack, doing the dirty work for the Alpha)
- The Fixer (the “diplomat” that deals with the human world)
- The Greypelt (the bookend of The Cub, that gets some of the respect afforded the Alpha)
- The Howl (the pack member prone to the supernatural or prophesy)
- The Prodigal (a member of the pack that tried to leave, and has come back)
The Alpha has a special move that triggers at the start of every session, setting the current state of the pack when the game begins. Each skin has its own sex move, which triggers when that character has intimate relations with another character. These moves modify how actions are taken with the other character going forward. For example, the Enforcer unburdens themselves of something for which they feel guilt, which might give them a +1 or +2 to defend their partner depending on how that partner reacts to their confession.
Each skin also has Heartbeats, story beats that if the character hits, it provides advancement for that character in a scene. For example, if the Enforcer picks these keywords, they get to mark an advancement when they act Obsessed or Loyal in a scene.
There is also a Pack Playbook, where the group will determine aspects of the Pack itself. There are three Pack Culture items that are determined, which also act as triggers for advancement progress when characters engage with those cultural items. The group also picks three traditions, which should be more “absolute” aspects of the pack’s philosophy, stronger than the pack’s cultural traits.
The pack can trigger the following moves when members of the pack are together, and they have enough points in the pack pool to do so:
- Overwhelm Them (narrate a glorious victory where everyone did something awesome)
- Defend Territory (when defending territory, upgrade results by one during the scene, i.e. 6- results are treated as 7-9, 7-9 results become 10+)
- In Your Nature (when an enemy makes a move, you can flash back to something the group did to create a contingency for that action)
The cost of these actions vary from 8-12 points, so these are definitely moments you will build towards, not actions that will be triggered on a regular basis.
The next section of the book has three pre-constructed scenarios for use in one-shots or campaign games. These include pack members that are already defined, a world that already has some details, including NPCs to interact with, and an inciting question that needs to be resolved by the end of the scenarios. The scenarios are:
- The Beasts of Bodmin
- Wolves of the Klondike
- Brownie Bites
Two of these scenarios take place in modern times, with another taking place during the California Gold Rush. The pack members are already detailed, including names. In general, players still get to define relationships between characters, but there are a few pre-established relationships built in to the scenarios. Threats and untenable situations are summarized for each scenario.
The final scenario has two additional playbooks, The Moon and The Tide. The Moon is a playbook that is more of a philosophical werewolf, seeking balance, and delaying full access to their powers until opportune moments. The Tide is a werewolf specifically tied to the sea. While I don’t often go into supplementary materials in these reviews, I was a little disappointed that these skins don’t have their own pages in the PC resources download for the game.
In general, I like the level of detail for the packs, including their culture and traditions, and I like having the established NPCs to utilize in the scenarios, but some of the scenarios felt a little too proscribed when it came to exactly who the PCs would be playing. I guess I was expecting there to be a little bit more room to customize within the more detailed scenario setting.
Essay: A Taste of ControlThe split advancement tracks between human and wolf encourage the PCs to value scenes in both forms. I continue to be a fan of narrative currency in games, and I like that the pack pool reinforces the strength of the pack and when it can act in concert for maximum effect.
There are a lot of essays that are added to RPG products that are useful and supplementary to the overall theme of the book, but sometimes feel superfluous to the overall design. Between the initial section on safety, and the discussions on player agency in the moves section of the book, this doesn’t feel superfluous, but complementary to the structure of the book.
This section doesn’t just discuss the dynamics of dominance and submission within the book, or the dangers of losing agency of a character, but also looks at the dynamics of what it means to have an alpha, pop culture examples, and how starting from a flawed relationship dynamic can be explored as a positive or a negative.
This essay is one of the best essays I’ve seen included with a game for explaining the actual intent of play at the table.
The best way to reinforce that safety is an important aspect of your game is to have the safety section take up a significant amount of space right at the beginning of the book. The terminology used is clear and supports the concept of the game. The examples of hard and soft moves are expansive and descriptive. The split advancement tracks between human and wolf encourage the PCs to value scenes in both forms. I continue to be a fan of narrative currency in games, and I like that the pack pool reinforces the strength of the pack and when it can act in concert for maximum effect.
I wish we had gotten a few more custom moves for optional setting elements like how the moon affects the pack members, or how special materials could react with werewolves. The full effect of the ties wasn’t easy to see on my first read through. I wish the scenarios had been just a little less defined when dealing with pre-generated player characters.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Beyond being a solid purchase if you are a fan of urban fantasy that revolves around werewolves, this is a good example of a PbtA book that tailors its language in a manner that reinforces its own assumptions, as well as providing numerous clear examples of soft moves, hard moves, and the relationships between them.
The safety discussion and it’s placement in the book is also a major positive for this book. Not only should safety in games be ubiquitous, it should be clearly and easily seen as an important component of the overall rules.
What draws you to games that allow you to play character types traditionally seen as monsters? What kind of emotional conflicts do you favor in your games? What are some best practices for mechanizing these emotional conflicts? We want to hear from you in the comments below.Read more »
- Share Your World
You already imagine colorful characters inhabiting stunning settings, you bring them to life with your words. You already plot ambitious adventures and direct the pacing of play to precise peaks. You do this because you love to run games and create content, and you’re so much better at it than you probably give yourself credit for! I mean, you are here reading Gnome Stew. I think that speaks volumes to your dedication to the craft.
Why aren’t you writing adventures for it? Why aren’t you contributing world changing characters, ever evolving histories, and awe-inspiring locales? There may be no better time to get started, than now.Why aren’t you contributing world changing characters, ever evolving histories, and awe-inspiring locales? There may be no better time to get started, than now.
Ok, I’m buttering you up, but why? I think now is the perfect time for many of you to write for your favorite games and game companies. We don’t know how long COVID-19 is going to keep many of us indoors, on limited work schedules, and locked away from in person gaming groups. For some, online gaming will become your new favorite glove, a perfect fit for this unusual winter cold going around. For others, gaming life is going to come to a screeching halt. Nobody wants that. What I want is for you to keep the healer safe, for you to save floating cities, and to inspire oppressed townsfolk that there is still hope. I want you to keep dreaming and to help the RPG community stay afloat. Don’t spend this moment lamenting missed opportunities, make the most of it! Offer your sword and try your hand at writing for the DMs Guild, Storytellers Vault, or your favorite game world.
You love RPGs, can’t get enough of them, and are looking for something to do with your time.
Share your world with us!
How to Get Started
Before the luxury of modern tools, many (now illustrious) RPG writers would mail letters to their favorite game companies asking for work. Man, I feel old just writing that, lol. The convenience of email has made it a lot easier to reach out to your favorite game company; just look up their website and dig up their contact information. When you write to them, speak to your passion for their product(s), your experience with it, and ask if they are looking for contributors. Consider that you are a stranger to their tavern and that game writing requires trust and accountability. If there isn’t work immediately available, ask how you can volunteer (online playtesting, proofreading, social media sharing, convention planning, etc). Why not begin building that trust, that relationship, while you wait for work?
We live in the day and age of self publishing. It has never been easier to acquire the tools of the RPG trade and to learn them with online tutorials. If you have the time and ambition, you can make your own game from scratch! That said, all you really need to get started as a freelance game writer is a word processor, an email address, and a PayPal account.all you really need to get started as a freelance game writer is a word processor, an email address, and a PayPal account.When writing for publishers, you are just writing words in paragraphs on white sheets of word docs. Write what you love to talk about, what you love to think about. That’s it!
I hope that you write a wonderful web of weaved words effortlessly strung together, clearly concise, and well thought through. But if not, don’t fret, you are not alone. Your written words will be revised and proofread. Editors are your friend. Every writer needs someone to read their words unblinded by a brain that blurs typos and misspelled words back together again. Editors will also help you zero in on your best points and help you write clearer and more concise. Publishers will have someone edit and proofread your work. It is going to need revisions, but your contribution will be all the better for it! There is a reason why we are taught to write (draft), then rewrite papers, after all.
What It is Like
Having both self published and freelanced (writing), I can tell you, each is a worthy endeavor for the lifelong lover of RPGs. It just might be the quest you’ve been looking for in these trying times. You just need to be honest with yourself about what you can commit to. Take work that interests you. Look for jobs that are small at first to get your bearings. You want to under commit and over deliver. That requires getting a feel for what your writing process is like and the necessary time or creative load it will require of you. The worst thing that you can do is to promise you’ll have something to deliver, and to show up empty-handed. Unforeseen problems always occur but you just need to maintain good communication and keep employers informed of possible delays or interruptions ahead of time.
This has never been an industry hoarding gold, other than the imaginary kind that you give to your players. But, if you’re passionate, communicate regularly, and are willing to learn, then you can write for RPGs. New writers can expect to start at 1 to 6 cents a word, so give some thought to the value of that when committing your time. Obviously, any writing skills, talents, or feats you possess will only improve your chances of succeeding at your new class. So, go forth, and look onto the horizon with hope. Share the worlds in your head and help us imagine a prosperous place with thriving communities taking advantage of their time together in the outside world.
We’ll be there again soon.
Stay safe. I wish you and your family the best of health during this difficult time. Stay strong out there!
Have you written for a publisher before? If yes, what was your experience like? If no, what is stopping you?
Have any tips for new game writers?Read more »
- Phases of Play
Lately, I have been playing Free League’s Forbidden Lands. It is a game that I adore. We are 17 sessions in and having a great time. One of the things that I have noticed, is that there are some distinctive phases of the game. There are different in-game activities that the characters undertake, and each of them has a different way they are GMed. That got me thinking about phases of play, games which have them, and understanding the differences in how the different phases are GMed.
What are Phases of Play?
Phases of play are distinct mechanisms and mechanics for different ways that the game is played. They are usually based around an activity that the players can undertake. Inside of the phase, some common rules can be used, but each phase often has its own rules as well. For example, a game may have an information-gathering phase or a travel phase.
In contrast, some games do not have any specific phases, rather they just have what we can call Open Play, where there is no specific activity dictated and the characters just take action and the world reacts around them.
For instance, in Forbidden Lands there are a few phases of play:
- Travel – Travel has its own chapter and its own set of mechanics. It is used any time the players move from one Adventure Site (i.e. Town, Ruin, Castle) to another.
- Stronghold – This is a set of mechanics that determine how the players can build, improve, and defend their base of operations.
- Combat – This is a set of rules governing how combat is run.
- Open Play – This is when the characters are in a town, exploring a ruin, or having an encounter while traveling.
These phases have good boundaries. As a GM or player, you know when you have crossed from one phase to another. In the case of Forbidden Lands, not all the phases are mandatory (you don’t have to have a Stronghold, for instance), nor is there an order of the phases. Play moves from one phase to another based on the characters’ decisions.
Contrast that to a Blades in the Dark game, where there is an expected order of phases. BitD games have good boundaries as well. In the game, you go from Open Play to The Score, to Downtime, and then back to Open Play.
What Are Phases Doing?
Not all games need many phases of play. In fact, most just have combat and don’t have other phases at all. They are a design tool that is often employed by designers to emulate a type of play. Forbidden Lands is a game that has a large focus on travel and exploration. In the setting of the game, wide-spread travel has only been possible for the past five years, meaning that most people have not ventured out into the greater world, but rather have stayed close to home. In addition, the game is about growing your power base. These are supported by two phases that have distinct mechanics, in order to focus that kind of play.
In Forbidden Lands, travel is not hand-waved, nor is it open play, nor is it condensed in a single roll or move. Rather, the game has rules for navigation, hunting, making camp, etc. The Stronghold rules have rules for creating resources, building advancements, and what happens when you are away and adventuring.
In Blades in the Dark, your crew is moving through the underworld of Duskvol trying to establish itself and get wealthy. The crew undertakes jobs to gain coin and influence, and use their downtime to play out the consequences of those actions as well as work on improvements.
How to GM Different Phases
Since phases of play have distinct mechanics, it goes to say that they have their own needs for GMing. This is important, because a game that has phases needs to be GMed differently in each phase, while overall GMing the game in the way that fits the tone and rules of the game.Since phases of play have distinct mechanics, it goes to say that they have their own needs for GMing. This is important, because a game that has phases needs to be GMed differently in each phase, while overall GMing the game in the way that fits the tone and rules of the game.
This comes in two forms. The first is to understand the GMing needs for each phase and to develop your style to accommodate them.
For instance, in Travel, time tracking is important, as there is an action economy per quarter day and things like whether or not it is light or dark are determined by the time of day, which in turn influences how easy or hard actions are to take. There is also a procedure for how travel is undertaken, in terms of what rolls are made and when.
So for GMing this phase, I actually made my own time tracker to help myself and the table keep track of what time of day it was. In addition, my main role as a GM in this phase is more mechanical, making sure each player declares their action for the Quarter Day and then resolving those actions mechanically. To that, I make sure that I proceed around the table and get everyone’s actions first, then resolve them, often in the same order.
Contrast that to Open Play, where I am far more flexible about actions and order, asking questions of the players and reacting to their actions.
The second thing you need to do is to respect the phases and to use them fully. (You are free to play the game the way you want, but if you want to play it as designed you would use each phase as intended.) What I mean by that is if a game has a phase of play, you don’t shortcut it with a hand wave or fiat.
For example, in my Forbidden Lands game, my players had just wrapped up an encounter and were planning to travel back to their Stronghold. We were close to the end of the session and were setting up for what we were going to do in the next session. My instinct, from playing other games, was to just say that next session we would start at the Stronghold. I stopped myself, and rather I said that next session we would start the travel to get home. The game has rules about travel, and travel is important.
Another thing to be cognizant of when GMing a game with phases, is to realize when the game phases are switching and how to facilitate that switch with the group. In games that have distinct boundaries between phases, the change will be obvious. Make yourself familiar with what triggers a change in phase.
In Forbidden Lands, going from one place to another on the map triggers the Travel phase of the game. But in Blades in the Dark the Downtime phase cannot start until The Job is complete. In many cases, the GM needs to decide when the Job is complete, often when some objective has been successful (or not) and the characters have left the job site or job activity. In those cases, the GM can simply say to the group when the threshold has been reached to change phases.
Then knowing that your style needs to change, mentally prepare yourself for how you need to change between phases. For me, when I move into the Travel phase in Forbidden Lands, the first thing I do is get my time clock and set what part of the day we are in. That puts me in the headspace for how travel works.
Getting The Most Out Of Your Phases
Designers use phases of play to focus types of play and to emulate different activities or genres. By understanding the purpose of a phase and learning how to adapt your GMing to facilitate that phase, you will make the gameplay smoother and more enjoyable for you and your players.
Often phases require small modifications of your GMing style but those changes will make your running of the game smoother. Be aware of what triggers a change in phase, and how to cognitively switch from one phase to another.
What games are you running that have phases? Are they distinct or fuzzy? What ways have you adapted your GMing for those phases?Read more »
- Social Distancing and Getting to Game
Hey folks, we sure do live in some interesting times right now, don’t we? Covid-19 is some serious business and it’s turned our daily lives upside down. Right now, I’m on mandatory work-from-home and I’m waiting to see if my brother or roommate get temporary layoffs from their jobs. I feel like I’m living in an episode of the Twilight Zone or something.
With all of us mindfully practicing social distancing to protect the most vulnerable in our population, there is the chance for many of us to get a bit of cabin fever as we stay home and try and keep busy. Thankfully, we live in the age of the internet. Even though you may be stuck home and not able to go do your usual things, you can still get plenty of good gaming in. There are a multitude of options to connect to other gamers online, so whether you’re looking for something to fill in your free time or find a way to keep your regular groups going, here’s some thoughts on online gaming.
What You Need
- Solid Internet Connection – This one’s key. Unfortunately, an unstable connection can really adversely impact trying to game with folks online.
- Device Capable of Handling Site/Program You’re Using – We’ll get to the various interfaces shortly, but the specs of what your device needs to be able to handle is going to vary depending on that interface. If you’re just doing Google Hangouts, that’s pretty easy with a tablet. If you want to do something a bit more graphically intensive, you’ll need a full PC.
- Headphones and a Mic – A microphone of some kind is absolutely essential, and for the sake of your fellow gamers, make sure you have headphones. Why? Well, if you’re listening to the other gamers on regular speakers with your mic active, you’re going to give them a whole lot of annoying feedback as they talk. Be kind and make sure you have headphones even if your device has a built-in mic. A gaming headset offers a nice combo of the two.
- Webcam – Okay, this one isn’t exactly necessary, but it is nice. I’ve gamed with folks where we just have only audio before, but I have to say I honestly prefer being able to see people’s faces while we game. It just really helps with the roleplaying and getting into the game.
Some Online Gaming Etiquette
- Everyone or No One – Try not to mix in-person and online folks in the same game. While I know some folks have done this with varying degrees of success, it can be tricky. If you’re new to gaming online, even if some folks are in the same house, make sure everyone has their own connection.
- Don’t Talk Over One Another – Online it can be hard to see physical cues that let you know when you can start talking. It can be very easy to start talking over one another and it is nearly impossible to have multiple audible conversations going at once. Be mindful of who’s talking and make sure everyone gets a chance to add to the conversation.
- Respect Each Other’s Time – While emergencies can come up and force you to cancel, getting together online should be treated with the same respect you give getting together in person. People are putting their time and energy into this and should be given warning if you need to cancel on them.
Where to Connect
- Google Hangouts – Starting basic, Google Hangouts offers a quick and simple way to connect and have both video and voice. There aren’t too many bells and whistles, but it gets the job done. If you’re looking to play more narrative games or rules light games, this may be the perfect way to go. You may want to look into some external tool to keep track of character information, though, like a Google doc or sheet.
- Other Meeting Software – Beyond Hangouts, there are also many other programs designed for meetings that you can use in a pinch. Some of these require subscriptions, some don’t. If you just need a way to connect video and audio, you can use Skype, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and I’m sure there are others. Again, like Google Hangouts, no frills, but you may not need that.
- Discord – While Discord only has a voice option for groups, the platform itself has gotten quite the reputation at organizing gamers. Even if you don’t end up using the voice options in Discord for your game, you might find some value in looking into various game groups using the platform. (EDIT: I have been told that Discord does have video options, so ignore that part of my comment.)
- Roll20 – Probably one of the more well-known of the options, Roll20 offers a virtual tabletop along with video and voice chat options. For the most part, it’s free, but you can get a subscription to get access to more tools. Because the platform encourages user content, many games have different character sheets already available, making dice rolls much easier. The GM has a lot of tools at their fingertips, but the learning curve can be a bit steep. There are plenty of resources out there to learn how to do more with the platform.
- Astral Tabletop – Now, I’m not as familiar with this one, but I’m told it’s similar to Roll20 in that it’s mostly free, but it has far more bells and whistles for those who really like giving their games some visual spectacle. I’ve also heard they’ve got a discount on their subscription portion during the current pandemic situation.
- Fantasy Grounds – This one has a solid foundation for folks to run many of the more well known games, but it is a pay service. Either the GM has to have the ultimate license or everyone has to have a standard. Right now, they’ve got a discount on their one-time pricing. For folks running games with a tactical bent, if your system is supported by this one, it might be worth looking into.
I hope all of you stay safe, stay well, and stay kind. We can get through this, and maybe get a little extra gaming in while we wait it all out.
- Changing Group Dynamics (Part I) – Losing a Player
No matter how solid your group is, losing someone always changes the dynamic in some way. For my group, we’ve each fallen into a niche, and we know how to play games that fulfill all of us. When the composition of the group changes, we have to readjust not only for how play feels, but also all the meta things that go with group organization. During my time with my current group (recently affectionately known — by me at least — as “Senda and the Game Boys”), we’ve lost two players semi-permanently or permanently to cross country moves. Even though we are all pretty committed and proactive about Thursday night games, Wen was frequently a driving force of ideas and motion to get us all lined up. Camden started this gathering and did all of the original organization and GMing.Each time life has changed on us, we’ve redistributed, picking up responsibilities and committing ourselves to making sure that the game night persists.Each time life has changed on us, we’ve redistributed, picking up responsibilities and committing ourselves to making sure that the game night persists — but each person also brings their personality to the table, so losing someone changes the feel of the games themselves. The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that even though I loved the games we played together, the games we will keep playing will still be good…but different good. We can’t re-achieve the exact intensity/story/table feel combo, but we can still make good things together.
There are three major categories of things that change when you lose a consistent player: in game dynamics, out of game dynamics, and logistics. In game dynamics may affect things like the table feel, the kinds of games you play, and what types of characters and stories you gravitate to as a group. Out of game dynamics are the meta social groups dynamics themselves — it may change your social contract, who arranges games or pushes for organization and decision making, who does planning and management, who takes the best notes. Logistically, it can change where you play and who provides physical resources, snacks, etc. As with anything in gaming, since it is a social activity, it’s worth a conversation to be explicit about how your group will adjust to these changes.
In Game Dynamics
This is probably the trickiest category to predict, depending on your group. Did the player who is leaving usually play a particular type of character that you’re going to need to adjust for? This doesn’t just apply to classes; this could be that they always play the love interest or always have a specific type of social relationship that helps push the game along. Sometimes just mentioning it and acknowledging that the game will change a bit without that influence is enough. Sometimes, as in a more traditional game, you might need to make changes that allow for the loss of that niche skill set — plan as a group (with the GM!) for what it will mean to have no cleric in an ongoing campaign, for example. Make the tweaks that you need to, to make sure that the game remains fun for everyone.
Out of Game Dynamics
Sometimes the person you’re losing is the person who started the group, or took on the brunt of organization work for picking games, wrangling the peoples, and making things happen. Sometimes it’s the GM! Depending on how much of a leadership role they had in the group, you may have quite a bit of discussion to cover. Here are some things to think about:
- Who is running the game?
- Are you going to keep playing the same game, campaign, characters, etc?
- Do you still have enough people to play in the range you find to be the most fun? (more thoughts on adding people to your group in part 2!)
- Do you still have access to all the things you need to play the game? This could mean books, props, etc.
- Do you need to adjust for note taking at the table?
Sometimes the person you’re losing happens to be the group cat wrangler, the house you play at, or the person who takes the best notes. You may want to think about if any of the following questions also affect your group going forward:
- Will your play location change?
- Are there any changes to food/snacks (who brings them or makes them, dietary restrictions)?
- Will your play schedule change?
- Do you need to designate someone to make sure communication happens?
When it comes right down to it, it’s not going to be the same — and as sad as it is to lose someone that you love playing with, that doesn’t mean your future games won’t be good. Different doesn’t have to mean bad or worse — it’s just that, different. Accept that it will be different, and move with it.
Have you ever had to adapt to losing a player? What other advice would you give a group who is losing a player long term?
- Spectaculars Review
When I was young, I had enough health problems that going outside wasn’t always an option. Playing inside involved getting my mom to tie a towel around my neck so I could pretend to be Robin, and lean back while climbing the stairs, like I was scaling the side of a building. I also would wear a green sweatshirt and jump off the furniture and pretend that I was the Hulk. I miss my twenties.
Anyway, eventually I realized that roleplaying with dice was a lot safer than falling down a flight of stairs, and the second roleplaying game I ever played was TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes. One of the longest-running campaigns I’ve had in recent memory was my DC Adventures game. I’m always on the lookout for new superhero roleplaying games.
For today’s review, we’re going to take a look at Spectaculars, a superhero roleplaying game from Scratchpad Publishing, the same company that brought us Dusk City Outlaws, an RPG designed to be pulled off the shelf and used with minimal prep.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the review copy of the game that was sent to me by Scratchpad Publishing.
Entering the Secret Hideout
The current trend for roleplaying games is usually for a rulebook to serve as the instruction manual and reference book for the game. The gamebook is a guide to what other components you will need to play the game. Scratchpad Publishing games are designed with more of a classical game structure in mind.
What I mean by that is that there isn’t a large rulebook/reference manual, but instead, there are multiple physical components that facilitate play. There are two softcover booklets, the Setting Book and the Rulebook, which come in at 60 pages each. Six player trays house the components you use to build a character, and another tray to hold the dice, tokens, power cards, identity cards, team role cards, complication deck, and initiative cards.
In addition to the above components, there are five tear-off pads, four of which are “series pads,” with sheets facilitating different types of superhero campaigns, and a pad of hero tracking sheets, to track story progression and rewards.
I also picked up the PDF version of this product, but much like my experience with Dusk City Outlaws, unless you want to do a LOT of printing and cutting, the way the components are designed makes the PDF much more useful as a reference guide rather than a practical alternative to buying the physical game.
Those physical components look and feel very nice. The rulebook is glossy, while the setting book has a finish that allows you to write on it as you fill out details for the campaign you are playing. All of the trays feel durable, and the cards are bright, colorful, and easy to read.
Rulebook (Game Rules)
The first section of the Rulebook details the game rules as a whole, beginning with character creation. Characters are built following a procedure:
- Pick an archetype sheet
- Pick a team role card
- Randomly draw multiple powers, and pick one to three powers to assign to power slots
- Randomly draw multiple identities, and pick one to assign to the character
- Put everything in its proper place in the player tray
Since everything is resolved with percentile dice, your identity will provide you with skills, your archetype and team role will provide you with special perks that you may have to spend hero points to trigger, and the percentile chance for your powers to be successful will depend on if that power is in slot one, two, or three of the player tray.
Ongoing games are called series, with individual sessions denoted as issues. Issues are composed of interludes, which are scenes where characters state an objective and may have to roll dice to see if they achieved this objective, and conflicts, which are structured scenes that utilize turns determined by the initiative deck.
In a conflict, player characters may have to interact with the following elements:
Heroes and villains have resistance, effectively the hit points of this game. Minion groups have a magnitude, which is reduced when the minion group is successfully engaged. Objectives are multi-step tasks that must be engaged to achieve a certain effect in combat. Complications are situations like falling buildings or civilians in danger that have a certain number of checkboxes to resolve. Whenever a hero successfully does something to advance an objective or defuse a complication, they gain an additional hero point.
The initiative deck is used to determine the order that all of these elements act on a given turn, and the deck is shuffled and dealt again each turn. Important singular villains get more than one initiative card, but a team of villains, like the Sinister Six, would likely just have one initiative card per villain. Some powers, archetypes, or team roles allow for the card order to be swapped around. I’ll get into this more in the actual play section, but even though I’m not normally a fan of initiative order shenanigans, the way initiative works in this game, it’s painless and fun.
Villains have boxes to track the progress of their plots. For each interlude scene, one of their boxes tick off, meaning that if the heroes take too much time researching or investigating, the villain may be a lot more prepared than they would have liked. As an example, you need to spend interlude scenes to prove Obadiah Stane tried to kill Tony Stark, but if you use too many interlude scenes to get the evidence, Stane steals the Iron Monger armor and gets it powered up for a one on one fight.
In addition to rolling percentile dice to determine success, or spending hero points to trigger abilities, some powers have power stunts associated with them, which have you put time tokens on the power card. You take off one token each turn, and you can’t use the power until the time tokens are all removed. Circumstances may cause you to add advantage or challenge dice, which have special symbols on them which may make successes more impressive (more damage, special additional effects), or failures more devastating (reversing the work you have done on an objective, for example).
Heroes pick an aspiration and a turmoil, and at the beginning of the issue, they can frame scenes to show how their personal goals progress. Advancing the story of a turmoil or aspiration earns the player progress towards story awards. Characters can also gain lasting repercussions, which can just be narrative beats that have made an impact, but some lasting repercussions trigger abilities from recurring villains.
Rulebook (Origin Story Seeds)
In addition to detailing the structure of play, the rulebook also has inspirational origin story charts, which include the following:
- All Heroes
- Super Science Heroes
- Magic Heroes
- Cosmic Heroes
- Street Level Heroes
- Pariah Heroes
- Strange Heroes
These origin tables are one of my favorite things in Spectaculars, because they aren’t just useful for this game, but provide a lot of inspiration for any superhero game you might run.
Rulebook (Story Rewards)
There are multiple categories of story rewards that characters can gain.
- General Rewards
- Revamp Rewards
- Setting Rewards
- Retirement Rewards
- Origin Rewards
- Fourth-Wall Breaking Rewards
General rewards and revamp rewards are essentially what they say on the label. Setting rewards are story rewards that change one of the truths that define the setting, and might alter the tone of the series. Retirement rewards are declarations for how the character wants to leave the series, and often retirement rewards grant origin rewards to the next character that the player generates.
Fourth-wall breaking rewards will be hilarious for some tables, and grating for others. These are special rules to model playing with the setting as a media property. For example, you might take a story reward that grants you a new temporary power because a new action figure of your character was produced that has an accessory included with it.
Rulebook (For the Narrator)
The narrator’s section of the rulebook advises on how to improvise an issue, instead of using the scenarios included in the series pads, how to build a more structured issue or series, and how some of the rules surrounding villains work. The narrator’s section ends with a list of optional rules, which also includes some notes on how gameplay will likely change if you follow these optional rules.
I’m going to give you a spoiler right here. I love this book. It is such a great guide to creating a superhero world, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The setting book starts with The Basics, a two-page spread of questions about the setting you want to create. Not only are there some great questions that are quintessential to how a superhero setting works (how common are heroes; how does the public feel about them; how do the authorities feel about them), but what’s great is that most of these questions have multiple choice answers, so if you don’t have a good answer of your own, it’s not too hard to find an appealing option.
Depending on how you answer some of the questions in The Basics, you will get directed to other forms in the book to answer. Did your major city have a recent disaster? There is a page for that. Was that disaster caused by powered individuals, which caused the authorities to crack down on them? There is a page for the legal ramifications of regulating heroes. Is there an agency that enforces this? There is a page to detail that regulatory agency as well.
There are entries for detailing mega-corporations, interstellar empires, nether dimensions, super-powered schools, ancient artifacts, alternate dystopian futures, lost cities, terrorist groups, and a ton of other superhero setting tropes. I love how this section guides you to relevant entries, and provides you with some solid answers if you don’t have your own ideas for how to shape that aspect of the setting.
I love this book so much that I almost hate to say there is a downside, but there is a bit of one, that I’ll touch on when we get to our actual play section.
The Series Pads
There are four series pads included with the box. The series pads include team structures, archetypes, minion types, villain types, and adventure scenarios with their own villain progression tracks, complications, and objectives. The series included with the box include the following:
- Clash Among the Stars
- Eldritch Mysteries
- Explorers of the Unknown
- Streetlight Knights
As you might surmise from the titles, Clash Among the Stars involves superhero stories in space opera settings, Eldritch Mysteries involves superhero stories with supernatural elements like folklore monsters and magic, Explorers of the Unknown involves high concept Earth-bound adventures like you might see in the Fantastic Four or the Justice League, and Streetlight Knights involves the kind of stories you might see in Spider-Man, Daredevil, or Batman.
On one hand, I like the individual components in the pads. I like the overall design of the archetype pads and how they form the basis for the player trays and the card arrangement, and I like the team frameworks and the quickly summarized issue format. The villain progression tracks are a great bit of RPG tech for advancing stories without putting too much cognitive load on the GM to determine exactly what the villain is doing right at this moment.
I’m not as much of a fan of how the individual pads are organized. Team frameworks are at the top, then some archetypes, then minions and villains that might appear in an issue, then an issue summary. Then, you might get some more archetypes that seem thematic for inclusion with a later issue (meaning if you want to play, say, a Martian Manhunter type character, you may need to dig through the pad until you find an alien invasion issue), and some more minion and villain types later on. It’s a lot of digging, and it feels weird to flip back and forth and tear things out of the pad non-sequentially.
It’s also worth noting that the game expressly mentions that you can use archetypes from different pads in different series. If you are doing an Explorers of the Unknown series with a Justice League style team, the “Batman” archetype is in Streetlight Knights, the “Superman” archetype is in Clash Among the Stars, and the “Wonder Woman” archetype is in Eldritch Mysteries.
There are free PDF downloads of hero and villain archetypes available online, which organize all of the team and hero sheets from all of the series pads into one PDF, and all of the minion and villain archetypes into another PDF, and I like this organizational arrangement better. This may have been the only viable way to physically produce these, rather than having smaller pads with the villains and heroes separate from the series sheets, but that separation makes the PDF much easier for me to navigate.
The following decks are included in the game:
- Team Roles
- Basic Powers
The cards in the Powers and Identities decks have color-coded sections that reference the series pad for which the card is appropriate. The powers that appear in the decks are thematic for the series pad that section of the powers deck is associated with, although sometimes there is some similarity between different powers in the subsections. For example, Kinetic Energy Manipulation is a Common Power, but Bend Space, a power that alters the direction of projectiles and particles, is in Clash Among the Stars. The stunts on Kinetic energy Manipulation are about bumping damage up or down, while the stunts on Bend Space are about accuracy.
You could use the Guardian archetype to build a Green Lantern style character in an Explorers of the Unknown series, using the Common Powers and the Explores of the Unknown Powers, or in a Clash Among the Stars series, using the Common Powers and the Clash Among the Stars Power. While you can find similar powers that would both seem very much like Green Lantern staples, the scope of the Clash Among the Stars stunts feel a bit bigger to simulate fighting a galactic armada or raiders (for example, with a 500 resistance force fiend), instead of Jessica Cruz or John Stewart slapping members of the Royal Flush Gang around with constructs while hanging out with the Justice League.
At the Table: The Sapphire City Sentinels
I don’t always get the chance to get a game to the table before I can write a review, but since one of the design goals of Spectaculars is to be an “off the shelf” game, I asked some of my regular game group if they could make time for a one-shot, and we took the game for a spin.
We detailed our city, Sapphire City, a west coast city in northern California. The group chose to have the team archetype of Prodigies, that banded together as Professional Colleagues. The series was set in the 1980s, and we decided that the team is sponsored by Sapphire City University by a grant studying superhuman impact on society. Sapphire City itself suffered a major catastrophe when rival Sapphire City State performed an alternative power experiment that blew up a quarter of the city and caused the feds to put checkpoints in and out of the city.
Our team members are:
- The Monster, Aberrant (a tentacled creature that works in the University’s business office during the day)
- The Construct, Fraternity Boy (an animated mound of garbage given sentience by an experiment at the college, and attending as a student)
- The Super Soldier, Cold War (a superhuman researcher whose scientific past working for the government granted her cold powers and flight)
- The Inventor, The Professor (a gadgeteer that works in the engineering department of the school)
- The Power Armor Pilot, Cat Walk (a supermodel going to the school on a grant, he volunteered to pilot a mech suit for school credits)
When we were creating our city, the group enjoyed the initial stages of creating the setting in The Basics, but the more branching sections for setting creation we were directed to fill out, the more they started to take options that didn’t lead to more setting detail. Additionally, the random powers led both the Construct and the Super Soldier to build characters that they weren’t entirely happy with, power-wise.
I used the first scenario in the Explorers of the Unknown pad, but added in a villain and modified the structure a little to get a few more aspects of the game in use for our one shot. While in the University President’s office, robot bee drones carried by a queen bee carrier robot attacked the city, endangering citizens and damaging buildings. The group sprung into action so hard that their initial attacks on the bees went through the University President’s windows instead of exiting the office (“Hero House!”).
The group springs into action saving civilians, stabilizing the building, fighting the swarm of tiny drones, and then taking out the bigger carrier. Due to a poorly understood metaphor, Fraternity Boy investigated a pizza place, while Cold War and Aberrant searched the university labs, and Cat Walk distracted the authorities so The Professor could gather pieces of the wrecked robots. The group found out that the robot bees had appeared in the subway previously, and The Professor created a tracking device to home in on the signal, under the local sports stadium.
The group quickly attempted to dismantle a machine set up to build more robot bees before the sports competition scheduled for that day started. The team divided up their efforts between shutting down the machine, fighting off a swarm of drones, and fighting another queen bee carrier.
When I checked off the boxes for the Mad Scientist villain I was using, I gave them a grudge against a hero. We determined that when he showed up, Doctor Collectivist was an old foe of Cold War. Doctor Collectivist had a red lab coat, a Darth Vader inspired breathing mechanism over his mouth, and twin-charged electro whips that came out of the sleeves of his lab coat.
Aberrant’s team leader ability let him spend hero points to shift the team forward, pushing back Doctor Collectivist’s turn, and allowing the team to finish off the queen bee carrier before Cold War spent her striker team ability to do massive extra damage to Doctor Collectivist. The Doctor got in a few good shots, but was gone before his second turn of actions.
After Action Report
The group felt like the Team Roles were more important than any of the powers they had, although they also felt part of that was due to the randomized nature of the powers they had access to when building their character, especially after looking through the deck of powers.
The group liked the setting book details, but for a one-shot, they didn’t want to get too deep into answering questions. We spent about 90 minutes on character creation and setting questions, versus about two hours of playtime. The closest example of setup to playtime ratio without previous prep that our group usually has is about an hour to set up for a PbtA game with about two and a half to three hours of play afterward.
Despite these observations, the group was enthusiastic to play the game again. They wanted to play at least a short series where we could have a session zero to flesh out the setting in more detail, and they wanted to try the optional rules for intentionally choosing powers from the appropriate decks. As far as the game mechanics went, they enjoyed the time tokens, hero points, and initiative tricks in the game, and liked the stunt aspect of the powers.
EndgameThis is the first supers RPG that expressly addresses your ability to emulate playing Street Luge Batman, Angela jumping continuities from Image to Marvel, and Black Knight’s adventures in the Malibu Universe.
This game is a joy to look at, and the components are fun to utilize. There is something very satisfying about lining up the cards in the player trays, using the tokens, and dealing out the initiative cards. The physical components do a lot to help convey the genre, even as the rules are a quick and effective way to adjudicate superhero stories. Once everything was up and running, I felt like it would be very easy to model all kinds of superhero stories that I’ve had in my head since I was jumping off couches and falling downstairs wearing a cape.
Everything makes sense once you dive in and look at the components, but because the components entail multiple elements, between the sheets and the cards and the rules to explain them, the game can feel a little more daunting than it actually is when you get a handle on what each component is doing. The logic of the series pads is solid (although I’d argue there is a bit of granularity between Fantastic Four style adventures and JLA/Avengers stories), but the organization of the pads and the required flipping, as well as the hidden archetypes make the pads less intuitive than I would have liked.
While it’s not an issue for an ongoing game, even one that is only playing a short arc, the extended setting creation questions front-load some work that may not allow the game to feel as “pick up and play” as it is intended to be, especially compared to its sibling game Dusk City Outlaws.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is the first supers RPG that expressly addresses your ability to emulate playing Street Luge Batman, Angela jumping continuities from Image to Marvel, and Black Knight’s adventures in the Malibu Universe. Even without the game rules, the origin seeds and pretty much the whole setting book are worth your time if you are interested in superhero gaming (in addition to running this game again, I’ll be using the setting book to flesh out my next Masks game as well).
When you add the background material and world-building tools to the game itself, this is a great investment if you are at all a fan of superhero RPGs. There may be a few speed bumps to the setting pad organization, but once you have all the components lined up, they work together beautifully and make play at the table very intuitive. The stories you create are fun, but so are the tools you use to create those stories, both from a narrative, and a tactile perspective.
Beyond the series pads, the only other thing I would throw in my wish list is perhaps a quick start city/setting for each of the series pads to help facilitate getting into a scenario faster for one-shots. On the other hand, if you are playing a series with these rules, and especially if you are going to play multiple series in the same setting, this game has a very robust set of tools to facilitate repeated play.
What are your favorite superhero games that you can get to the table and play quickly? What are your favorite tools for building a setting? What does a set of rules need to do to guide a group in their collaborative world-building? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- A Barbarian’s Guide to Roleplaying Hooks
I always want to see people roleplay more in my roleplaying games. Always! I want people to speak in character, using “I” statements instead of “they” statements”, engaging with the story as their character would. When a story gives a character a bit of bait, a little non-combat story event that would incite them to act or react, that’s a roleplaying hook. It’s also, most often, a conflict.
Not to get all high-school-English-class on you, but conflict is the central engine that stories run on. You can’t have a story without a conflict somewhere, even a small one. I’ve found that a lot of games that I’ve played don’t make full use of potential conflicts, so I wanted to start this – a series of articles giving you roleplay hooks for each of the classes in D&D. Harmony is boring, but disharmony doesn’t always have to be combat.
These are ideas to discuss with your GM and your fellow players to bring some of these story and roleplay hooks to the table. We’re getting started today with one of my favorite classes to play – barbarians.
Barbarian vs The World
Outsider vs New World – this is one of the most key pieces of fictional friction that you can find. The feeling of not belonging is a huge potential area for roleplay. Outlander barbarians trying to understand and fit in their new world, their new home, are too often ignored, or relegated to comic relief.
Loss of Connection to Nature – barbarians, as a class, are second only to druids in their connection to nature. When their adventures take them far away from the biomes that they know, or when they find themselves stuck in cities and civilization for too long, how do they maintain their connection to nature? How do they find themselves when they’ve lost themselves?
Nature-as-Master vs Nature-as-Subject – most barbarian lore is based around wild places, untamed landscapes. How your barbarian character interacts with nature can be a defining trait for them. Do they submit to nature at its wildest? Do they see themselves as the tamer of the untamed spaces?
Barbarian vs The Party
Rulebreaker vs The Rules – a barbarian in a frenzy or a rage cannot be beholden to any rules or laws (if they even care about them when they’re not in a rage!). How does your barbarian react when their actions – and even their morals – come into conflict with the rules laid down by the rest of the party? How do they deal with the conflict between them and their friends?
Rule-Follower vs The Rogues – conversely, barbarians may follow very strict codes of honor, which may bring them into conflict with less morally-bound members of their party. This can make a neat spectrum with the above; with members of the party all coming into conflict with each other based on their degrees of lawfulness (and, just my opinion, I think this should be happening a lot in most parties).
Danger vs Caution – barbarians are all about throwing caution to the wind, rushing forth without a care for their own safety. Other party members may be… decidedly less so. And what’s more, other party members might have a big problem with one of their team being so incautious, caring more for their friends’ safety than their own. This is the type of conflict that can drive really great moments of friendship and camaraderie in a party.
Barbarian vs Society
Superstition vs Magic/Technology – I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of the “superstitious” barbarian, given that they almost always coexist in a world with very obvious magic, and varying levels of technology. Giving your barbarian a really firm superstition or two can provide a great hook for when that superstition comes into conflict with the realities of the world they live in.
Modernity vs The Old Ways – on that ‘technology’ note above, modernity as a concept is one that can bring out some really interesting ways for your barbarian to interact with their society. With fear? With resentment? With anger? With eagerness? Or even juicier, a mix of them all, because characters can be multifaceted?
Misunderstanding by the Masses – if your barbarian is an outlander, or simply someone who’s accumulated strange customs and habits over time, it will be very easy for bystanders outside of your party to misunderstand them, or to assign malicious intent to non-malicious actions. This can cause all kinds of friction, with simple villagers and cosmopolitan city-dwellers alike.
Barbarian vs Self
Assimilation vs Preservation – regardless of how well they learn the customs of their new lands or new home, any barbarian might get caught in the conflict of choosing to preserve old rituals and old traditions, or giving them up in order to fit in better. And even if they do preserve their old traditions, do they do so openly? Do they do so privately? Do they bring in others to teach them as well?
Humanity vs Rage – even though their powers are largely fueled by their rages and frenzies, a barbarian can still feel conflicted about the actions they take while in a rage. They can regret things they’ve done, for example, or feel that their actions went against their normal moral code. They can even feel that they lose their humanity when in a rage, which is great for the angst, my favorite angle to lean on.
Bravery vs Fear – one of the things that always interested me, way back to my very first barbarian character, is that barbarians aren’t immune, or even resistant, to being frightened. I love the idea of a rage fueled not by bravery or anger or anything other than fear. And that can play really interestingly with overcoming fears, with learning to act despite fear and not because of it, even with GMs dangling character phobias over the table (although you should not confuse character phobias with player phobias! Talk to each other!).
So that should be plenty to get your barbarian started with some wonderful story arcs and character development driven by their roleplay – how they interact with and come into conflict with the other elements of the game.
Did you have a great moment of character development with a barbarian? A really juicy piece of storytelling? Tell us about it in the comments!Read more »
- ● Sierra Ops - Episode 1 releasedYo can play the first episode of the J-RPG Sierra Ops for free on Steam - the other episodes are not released yet: Sierra Ops : Episode 1 - Collapsing Daybreak loading... Play as Captain Junius Fahrenheit, a soldier of the UTV onboard the state-of-the-art ship, the Sierra, as him and his crew are thrown into humanity’s first interplanetary war.... Read more »
- ● Ara Fell - Enhanced Edition releasedThe Enhanced Edition of the RPGMaker game Ara Fell is now available - highly recommended: Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition now available! Greetings Ara Fell fans! We are pleased to announce that Ara Fell: Enhanced Edition is now live on Steam! The new Enhanced Edition features a slew of upgrades, including a revamped battle system, new character classes and skills, new side quests, an overhauled UI, upgraded crafting system, new enchanting system, enhanced aspect ratios, new difficulty modes, an autosave feature, Twitch integration, and more! Users who previously owned Ara Fell will receive the update automatically! New customers can now purchase the Enhanced Edition for $14.... Read more »
- ● Mount & Blade II - Early Access now March 30thPCGamesN reports that Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord will be in Early Access a day earlier, meaning March 30th. In the announcement, TaleWorlds reveals Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord – a prequel to the standalone Mount & Blade expansion Warband – will be available to play in Early Access from 03:00 PT / 06:00 ET / 11:00 BST on March 30.... Read more »
- Gears Tactics - Gameplay Video & DiscussionPC Gamer went hands on with tactical turn-based strategy game Gears Tactics. The game is due to release April 28th on Steam. loading... Gears Tactics was announced at E3 two minutes after a Gears Funko Pop mobile game, which automatically made me skeptical.... Read more »
- OUTTA GAS - ReleasedThe post-apocalyptic RPG OUTTA GAS has been released: OUTTA GAS In OUTTA GAS, you play as “Full Metal” Jack on an epic quest to find gas in a post-apocalyptic wasteland RPG. Travel across four unique acts and blast your way through a bizarre cast of monsters to achieve your goal and get back on the road.... Read more »
- Grand Guilds - ReleasedThe tactical RPG Grand Guilds has been released: Grand Guilds Grand Guilds is a story-driven, tactical RPG with unique card combat mechanics. You and your comrades will journey the lands of Irin, a continent on the brink of another war, while engaging in challenging tactical combat.... Read more »
- Vagrus: The Riven Realms - Open World PrototypeThe open word prototype of Vagrus: The Riven Realms has been made available to Fig backers. The Open-World Prototype of Vagrus has been released to all our Fig Backers. It is a major step towards getting the game ready to eventually bring it to here on to Steam for all of you to enjoy.... Read more »
- Matt Chat - Kevin Saunders on Torment: Tides of Numenera Part 2The second part of Matt Chats interview with Kevin Saunders talks more about Torment: Tides of Numenera. loading... Kevin is back to talk more about the development of Torment: Tides of Numenera and how he applied lessons he learned from his earlier involvement Shattered Galaxy MMO.... Read more »
- Gamedec - FundedGamedec has been funded on Kickstarter and they have announced their first stretch goal. Thank you all for this fantastic support! The last two days were mesmerizing - you showed us so much love, gave tons of energy to carry on with our work, and stood with us on our Discord around the clock! We have more ideas to share, and hopefully, this is a promising start to a grand voyage.... Read more »
- Stoneshard - Trollslayer Progress UpdateA progress update for Stoneshard dubbed Trollslayer promises to be available April 14th. Devlog: Progress Update Hello everyone!In today’s devlog we’ll share more details about some of the new additions which will be included in the “Trollslayer” update.... Read more »
- VideoShared Experiences Playing D&D Online
Many of us currently find ourselves stuck at home and unable to play our in-person D&D games. If we want to keep playing D&D, we have to move our games online. While it may be harder for us to get our gaming groups together, it has never been more critical. Getting together with our friends and family to relax, enjoy ourselves, and share in some stories of high fantasy may be crucial to our mental health while stuck at home.
Many DMs have been playing games online for years and the rest of us can learn from their experiences. James Introcaso and I, for example, talked about his top tips for running D&D on Roll20 on a previous episode of the DM's Deep Dive. More recently Todd Kendrick talked to Lauren Urban about playing D&D online.
Running online games isn't a specialty of mine so I asked for feedback in this Twitter thread. The feedback I received helps support the ideas in the rest of this article. Let's look at some tools and tips for running D&D online.
All we need to play D&D online is a tool to let us chat with our friends. There are many such tools used by D&D groups online including Discord, Skype, Zoom, and Google Hangouts. We need no other online tools. While playing, we can use all the physical stuff we typically use to play D&D at the table including books, character sheets, and dice. We don't even need a computer. A phone with one of the above audio chat programs works just fine.
Let players roll their own dice on their own table if they want to. Trust them. As a DM, we can use our own books, dice, and physical notes to run our game just as we would in a physical game. Write things down on paper if you want. Use 3x5 cards to keep track of initiative, character names, or just about anything else you need.
Beyond a way to talk online, we don't need anything else to play D&D online.
Most text and voice chat programs have a way to share images. Discord, for example, lets you drop images right into the text channel for your server. This works well for pictures of NPCs, handouts, artwork, and other visuals. For maps, you can cut and paste the relevant parts of a map and share it as an individual image. Load up the map on your computer, screen grab the relevant portion, and paste it into the chat window so everyone can see what the area looks like around their characters. This works for both exploration of a location or for visualizing a combat location.
Some DMs have had success using Google Drawings to share multi-layered images with their players. Drop in the map and draw some shapes over it to act as a fog of war. As the characters explore you can move the fog of war around and reveal what they can see. Because it's a shared image, the players can move their tokens around as well. This works well if the players are using desktop or laptop computers but probably won't work if they're on a tablet or phone. Instead, consider capturing the relevant parts of a map and sharing them as images in your chat program.
Other DMs have had success using layered image software like Photoshop or Gimp to act as a local virtual tabletop. You can use image layers for the map, fog of war, and tokens. You can erase the fog of war layer to reveal the map and move the tokens around to represent the positions of both characters and monsters. This requires that the DM moves the tokens around, which isn't ideal, but the whole view can be shared over the screen sharing function of most chat programs or the "broadcast" feature of Discord and is more compatible with those on phones or tablets.
For tokens, you can use Game-Icons.net for excellent generic monster and hero tokens or generate your own tokens using art from the web and Token Stamp from Roll Advantage. The Avrae Discord bot, a wonderful D&D-focused bot for Discord, lets you pull up monster tokens for SRD monsters with the "!token otyugh" command. And, of course, for maps, we have the nearly 1,000 Dyson Logo maps, all perfect for digital play.
The Single-App Solution: Discord
For a simple single-app solution to play online, I recommend Discord. It's free, well supported in the D&D community, and available on the PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, and Android devices. The voice chat is relatively solid although drops do occur. The best way to fix consistent drops is to disconnect and reconnect to the voice channel.
The Avrae Discord bot is a wonderful way to integrate D&D Beyond into Discord. This full-featured bot includes initiative tracking; spell, monster, and ability lookups; token lookups; character sheet integration; and dice rolling. You need not use all of it, though. Using it as just a dice roller works perfectly fine, as does using it to quickly look up monster statistics. Some players can use it fully with their D&D Beyond character fully integrated while others can skip it entirely and both methods work just fine in the same group. You and your players can choose as much of it or as little of it as you want.
For visuals we can drop in pictures of NPCs, handouts, pieces of maps, battlemap images, and any other images into the text chat so players can follow along visually. Using Discord to play D&D is probably one of the easiest ways to play D&D online.
Other Online Tools
The list of tools to expand your online D&D game is nearly endless. I'll just touch on a few of the more popular ones here.
Roll20. Roll20 is a well-known and well-received web-based tool for running roleplaying games online. It has a built-in 5e D&D character sheet. Purchasable add-ons give you all of the material in the D&D core books. Getting started is free, includes the D&D basic rules, and a free adventure called The Master's Vault written by James Introcaso. Roll20 has a high learning curve and a lot of features to dig into. If you and your players are willing to give it the time to learn, it can bring the full tabletop experience to your online game.
D&D Beyond. The number one online tool for building D&D characters and online access to digital D&D sourcebooks, D&D Beyond goes hand-in-hand with online play. Players can build their characters and share them with the DM. It's integration into Discord through the Avrae Discord bot is very powerful. A popular Chrome extension integrates D&D Beyond with Roll20. None of this is needed to play D&D online but some groups might enjoy the technology integration.
Fantasy Grounds. A very popular shared tabletop application for RPGs, Fantasy Grounds is a paid application for your desktop or laptop. Like Roll20 it has all the D&D books available for purchase and integrated into the application. Like Roll20's integrated book licenses, these don't share across systems so if you start buying books for one application, you'll likely want to stick to that application. The more recent Fantasy Grounds Unity has a free version able to play in games and monthly paid versions to host games. It's client-focused nature means it tends to run smoother than web-based applications who are limited by the nature of the different web browsers we use.
For a more detailed look into these tools, check out Roleplaying Tips on Moving Your RPG Campaign Online and RPG Musing's List of Online RPG Tools
The Common Virtual Battlemap Solution: Discord and Roll20
Many DMs use a mixture of Discord for audio and video chat with Roll20 for the virtual tabletop. Some groups leave the dice rolling and text chat to Discord while others move the dice rolling and text chat to Roll20. Feedback suggests that the audio and video quality of Discord is superior that within Roll20; enough that it's worth having it as a secondary system to carry the load of audio and video chat.
This pairing works well for technically savvy DMs and players who have good desktop and laptop computers to play from. It doesn't work well for those who are using a phone or tablet to play. For them, sharing the DM's screen for maps and visuals through Discord's "broadcast" feature or sticking to pure audio and theater of the mind play likely works best. You and your group will have to decide what setup works best for your group.
Online D&D Tip: Play With Fewer Players
This is a hard lesson but an important one. Running with six players is hard for in-person games and even harder online. The latency of online services means people will often talk over one another. The more players you have, the worse this problem can get. A simple but hard way to deal with it is have fewer players. Playing with four, three, two, or even one player can go a long way to help you streamline an online game. If you have a lot of people who want to play, try splitting them up into separate groups even if they're in the same campaign.
Online D&D Tip: Simplify the Story and Situations
When it comes to understanding what's going on in a D&D game, players are in trouble about half the time. Playing online can make this even worse. Keep your story simple. Keep the plot simple. Keep the situations simple. Keep your combat encounters simple. Dig into the fun part of your story and focus on that. Laurin Urban recommends focusing more on the story and less on the complexity of the combat environment. We can put our focus on a different aspect of the game than tactical complexity, heresy to some I am sure, but useful for keeping things smooth while playing D&D online.
Online D&D Tip: Use Theater of the Mind
More DMs and players are beginning to accept theater of the mind play for D&D combat. For online games, running in the theater of the mind means things stay simple, fast, and fun. You don't need anything but an audio connection with your players to run a full game of D&D if you're willing to run combat in the theater of the mind.
Running combat in the theater of the mind goes hand-in-hand with running with fewer players. The fewer players there are, the easier it is to understand what's going on when we're describing a battle. The fewer characters, the fewer monsters. The whole situation becomes simpler, easier to understand, and easier to visualize.
Online D&D Tip: Communicate Online Table Etiquette
Playing online is different than playing in person and we need new rules of table etiquette to account for it. Discuss these with your players early and often to make your games run well for everyone.
Take extra time for tech support. When you bring four to six people online to play D&D, someone's going to have trouble with their setup. Getting all of the audio working, both in and out, is tricky. Different systems, different software, different setups; all of these complicate getting connected. When you bring in a handful of people to play online someone will have a problem.
Ask your players to come early to get set up or, better yet, set up an individual session with each of them ahead of time to make sure everything is working. Even then it may work at one time but not another so be patient and be prepared to help them out or have another player help them out. When in doubt, call them on the phone and walk them through any problems they might have.
Mute audio between turns. If you have more than a couple of players you may want them to mute their mics between turns. Latency and drop-outs can break up the smooth stream of conversation so muting mics can help prevent interruptions at the wrong time. If it gets really bad you can use the text channel to have people queue up with questions so when you're done with your (hopefully short) narrative you can go through the list of folks who have questions.
Shine the spotlight equally. When you don't have the players there in front of you it can be hard to ensure you're giving each player their due attention. This can get exasperated if some of your players are more active (and loud) than others. You'll want to pay special attention to ensure you're giving each player their due time. You might go so far as to keep them in initiative order throughout the whole game and keep going through the list to see what they will do in any given circumstances. Let players know you'll be cutting them off to bring other players in when their turn is up.
Use webcams to increase engagement. Many online DMs mentioned the value of using webcams. Not only do they help keep people more physically connected to one another but they help players to stay engaged with the game itself. Without a camera it's easy to alt-tab over and check the news. No one wants to do that.
Use headphones. Some camera and mic setups are sophisticated enough to avoid feeding audio back into the mic but many are not and even the good ones screw it up from time to time. Ask your players to wear headphones when they play. Mention it before the game so everyone's prepared.
Lowering the Barrier to Play D&D
When we find ourselves unable to get together in person to play D&D, it's worth the effort to play online. I'd say it's important. Socializing with other people is a critical component of our health. Playing D&D online takes work but we need nothing more than a good audio chat program to continue to share fantastic stories with our friends and loved ones.
If you haven't tried playing D&D online or are not comfortable doing so, give it another try. In these days of social distancing it is ever more important to our health and well being to take the opportunities we can to play games with our friends. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and have some fun playing D&D online.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoCrafting Lazy Monster Tokens for D&D
What to use to represent characters and monsters when running combat in D&D is a constant and continual conversation among D&D enthusiasts. Some swear by the need for a large collection of pre-painted miniatures. Others, myself included, claim you can run large elaborate battles with nothing but a quick diagram on a sheet of paper and some good narrative. From these conversations come a few valuable insights:
- You need little more than common household items to represent characters and monsters.
- Some form of character, monster, and location representation helps a lot of players visualize what is going on in a battle.
- There are many options at many prices for representing characters and monsters.
Miniatures are awesome but come with some big drawbacks. First, miniatures are expensive. Some lucky folks, myself included, bought a lot of miniatures when they were cheap; sometimes as little as fifty cents a miniature. Today even unpainted miniatures are about two to four bucks a piece. Second, you never seem to have all the miniatures you need. There's always some encounter you want to run that has some number of creatures outside of the miniatures you have. Third, organizing, sorting, and pulling the miniatures for any given encounter takes time. Because of this, its hard to improvise encounters when they come up if you have to quickly sort through your large collection of miniatures to represent.
These problems often limit the stories we can tell. We don't run that cool encounter the way we want because we want to use the minis we have. Maybe we end up railroading characters towards particular encounters, or even force combat when some roleplaying would have worked, because we have our minis already prepared for a situation. Adding the time to pick out potential miniatures means we might have to spend less time on other more important aspects of our game.
Yet we still want some form of representation for characters and monsters to help everyone see how things are oriented in battle. Some people use legos, some use Starbursts, some use dice, some use whatever miniatures they have on hand regardless of whether the model fits or not.
Today I offer another alternative. [Lazy monster tokens].
Crafting Your Lazy Monster Tokens
If you'd prefer, you can watch this ten minute Youtube video on crafting lazy monster tokens.
The following concept isn't new and I'm not the one who invented it. DMs have been building tokens like this for decades and there are many variants. This is the method I've found to be the easiest to do with the least amount of equipment needed that offers the most universal set of monster tokens for our D&D game.
Here's the material you'll need (with links to Amazon):
- A printer and decent quality paper
- A 1" hole punch
- 1" epoxy stickers
- A glue stick
- Adhesive magnets for single-sided tokens
The hole punch, epoxy stickers, magnets, and glue stick will run about $30.
Here's how you build the tokens:
- Print the Lazy Monster Token PDF on a single sheet of rigid paper.
- Trim the paper so you can fit your 1" hole puncher over the icons. Make sure they're well centered.
- Punch out the tokens with the 1" hole punch.
- Stick the 1" epoxy stickers on the front of each token.
- Use the glue stick to stick pairs of tokens together:
- Stick cultists to beasts.
- Stick helms to skulls.
- Stick crowned skulls to dragons.
- Stick tokens together in reverse numerical order 1 to 6, 2 to 5, etc. This lets you use opposite-side tokens together and still start at number 1.
- Stick a 1" magnet on the back side of the sword gripping "adventurer" icons. These act as generic character tokens should you need them. Otherwise customize your tokens with some printed color character art.
Once done you'll have a set of twenty tokens: six adventurer tokens and fourteen monster tokens. The monster tokens can represent humanoids, monsters, undead, and spellcasters with the skulls filling in for anything weird. The crowned skulls and dragon heads represent boss monsters. The adventurer tokens represent characters who aren't represented as miniatures (more on this in a moment).
These lightweight tokens are the perfect companion for your DM kit on the go. With the materials above you can build two sets, one for your home kit and one for a kit on the go. Or you can give your extra set to another friendly DM. Mix the tokens together with a Pathfinder Flip Mat and you have a perfect solution for visualizing combat in D&D for under $40.
These tokens save you both time and money. You don't have to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars building a collection of miniatures that is perpetually incomplete. You don't have to spend time organizing, sorting, selecting, and preparing miniatures ahead of time. You'll be prepared to run any battle that happens to come up in your game without any need to prep tokens or miniatures ahead of time.
Representing Characters with Custom Tokens or Miniatures
These monster tokens work well for the wide range of creatures the characters may fight but the characters are far more important. It may be worth it to invest in nice miniatures for player characters. There are lots of ways to do this. The players may buy miniatures representing their characters themselves. You might decide to pick up a collection of character-focused miniatures. You might get them 3d printed.
Another cheaper alternative is to ask players for an image online of their character that you then scale, print, trim, punch, and turn into a token using the same steps above for making monster tokens. Discarded magic cards at your local game shop also have excellent artwork you can cut, punch, and turn into a token for a character or unique boss token.
Doing something special for character miniatures or tokens is worth the investment. The characters are the most important part of the story and its worth giving them a good representation.
If you're running single-session games and don't know what characters will be in the game, the "adventurer" tokens in the PDF can serve as character tokens.
Representing Large Monsters
There are a few ways to represent large monsters using such tokens. Some DMs prefer to keep a few 2" miniature bases handy. You can also get 2" wooden disks at a local hobby store. Put your 1" token on top of the disk and now it's a large monster.
Another lazier way, which I obviously prefer, is to say "this is a large monster" and treat it accordingly. If you're playing on a flip mat, you can place it in the center of four squares and draw a circle around it.
If you want to get fancy, you can use 2" magnets, a 2" hole punch, and 2" epoxy stickers but I haven't tried that and they didn't review as well on Amazon.
Augmenting your Miniatures Collection
You don't have to use these tokens in place of miniatures you may already have. These monster tokens can augment your existing miniatures collection. Like me, you may already have a huge investment in pre-painted miniatures. Keep these tokens on hand when you either don't have the time to pull out the minis you need or don't have the actual minis to represent the creatures in a fight. If you have one of a creature but needed more, you can use one miniature to represent the type of monster and tokens to represent the additional monsters.
Likewise, as mentioned, nice pre-painted character miniatures and maybe boss miniatures work well side-by-side with these monster tokens.
There are many alternative ways to build tokens like this. You can use this token builder to put a ring around the token and choose your own art. I chose not to do that for these tokens because they look good as-is but some like the ring.
My friend Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, has a different approach for tokens that works well for him. With his method you have one representative monster token and then a set of generic number tokens to represent the rest of them. Different colored rings represent different types of monsters.
A Simple Tool to Help You Tell Epic Stories
Having a small set of universal monster tokens fits well with the philosophy of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Being able to use these tokens in just about any situation means you always have the tools on hand to tell any story that comes up in the game. It reduces your prep time, keeps your costs down, and gives you what you need to improvise at the table. Even if you have a substantial miniatures collection, a set of tokens like these can help fill in the blanks when you need it.
Stay nimble and let epic stories unfold at your table.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Harvesters of Worlds: A 1st to 20th Level Githyanki and Mind Flayer Campaign Outline
Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes includes a wonderful and deep section on the githyanki, the strange conquerers of the astral plane. Volo's Guide to Monsters includes a similar chapter for mind flayers. These planar invaders are pure D&D, a creation with no background in old mythology or previous fantasy stories. Thus, they're a unique story element of D&D.
In a previous article I built an outline of a 1st to 20th level gnoll campaign intended to inspire DMs to build their own campaign outlines or to thread a gnoll storyline in their own worlds. It proved to be a popular article so we're going to do it again with a 1st to 20th level campaign based on the war between githyanki and illithids. Like the gnoll campaign, I'll include seeds for each tier of play describing a situation and a location. This outline makes heavy use of the githyanki material found in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes and the mind flayer material found in Volo's Guide to Everything. It's worth giving those chapters a read if you want to build a campaign like this one.
Let this outline inspire you to consider your own campaign arcs and your own one-paragraph D&D adventures. Take of it what you desire and leave the rest for the crows.
Campaign Pitch: The Harvesters of Worlds
Save the world from the war between the githyanki and the mind flayers.
The githyanki have targeted your homeworld with an intent to pillage, purge, and destroy it. Believing the world to be tainted by illithids, the githyanki have marked it for destruction. Throughout this campaign the characters get caught between the illithids and the githyanki in a war that spans both this world and many others.
1st Level: The Egg
In this adventure, tuned specifically for 1st level characters, the characters face off against a ragtag group of bandits hiding out in a strange cave with twisted rock pillars depicting strange alien humanoids. A number of crushed eggs are found among the bandits with one egg still intact. The possessor of the egg has strange hateful dreams of violence. The bandits planned to bring the egg to their captain who has been hunting and collecting them. A local arcanist recognize the egg as something beyond this world and potentially dangerous. The arcanist hires the characters to learn more of the eggs and why the bandits seek them out.
Tier 1: The Clutch
In this tier the characters learn that both githyanki and illithids hunt for a clutch of lost githyanki eggs.
The Touched Captain. A bandit captain corrupted by an intellect devourer seeks the site of a clutch of githyanki eggs. The captain's fellow bandits believe their captain to be touched by a divine entity. The captain resides in an alien ruin of twisted shaped stone deep within a cave.
The Idol. An old map sketched on slate leads the characters into a hidden series of strange alien caves beneath the earth. Within they find a statue of an illithid and signs of their former inhabitation of the area. Tribes of grimlocks worship the remnants of the mind flayers as idols to lost gods.
The Crashed Ship. The characters hunt in the depths of the underdark for a crashed githyanki ship containing a clutch of githyanki eggs. There they face off against profiteering adventurers and orc and ogre servants of the mind flayers who likewise seek the eggs.
The Hunters. In the final adventurer of this tier, two githyanki warriors hunt the characters and seek the egg they found. Even if they recover it, they condemn the egg's possessors to death. The characters learn that these two githyanki are part of a larger force intending to infiltrate this world, raid it, and potentially destroy it.
Tier 2: The Cresche of the Githyanki
In this tier the characters defend the local region from an assault of githyanki seeking a crashed mind flayer vessel containing a creshe of githyanki eggs.
The Coming of the Knight. A githyanki knight riding atop a young red dragon comes to the world to command the githyanki forces who seek to root out and destroy the illithids. Her outpost, a floating citadel of shaped stone, floats above the village of Whitehorn whose residents find themselves enslaved by the knight's githyanki warriors.
The Wrecked Nautiloid. The characters hunt down and locate a wrecked nautiloid, a ship of the illithids. Within it they hear the whispers of the nautiloid host; the former sentience that powered the vast ship. The characters explore the derelict ship hoping to recover a crystal containing something of great significance to the illithids or to scuttle the ship before the illithids can recover it themselves.
The Siege of Winter's Hearth. The characters arrive at the city of Winter's Hearth to find it under siege by two githyanki war cruisers. The characters must do what they can to save the city and to end the siege, perhaps by hunting down the githyanki knight and her young red dragon mount who lead the siege.
The Dead City. The characters race against a githyanki hunting party in a huge abandoned mind flayer city in search of an orb containing a map of a number of mind flayer lairs in the world. During their exploration they face a number of abandoned drow, duergar, and stone giant illithid thralls and eventually face a hideous neothelid grown from the abandoned brine pool of the dead elder brain.
The Creche. The characters learn of a nautiloid ship filled with mind flayers and their thralls headed towards a githyanki cresch containing a host of githyanki eggs. Should the mind flayers succeed, they will begin building a new army of viscous warriors that will storm across the lands. If they succeed in thwarting the illithids, they must then choose whether to return the eggs to the githyanki or destroy them and hope to thin the ranks of their foes.
Tier 3: Hunt for the Veskessa
The characters learn of a huge githyanki warship called the Veskessa that travels through the astral plane to reach the world and begin their planetary scourging. The characters must find their own astral vessel, hunt down the Veskessa, and stop its assault.
The Silent City. The characters enter an illithid city at war with the githyanki. They must face both githyanki and illithid foes as they make their way to the elder brain seeking the buried nautiloid hidden in the city.
The Elder Brain. In the inner sanctum of the illithid city, the characters meet an unlikely but potential ally in a ulitharid who seeks to break away from the elder brain and leave it dead and decaying behind it. The characters must choose between the githyanki assault force, the elder brain, or the rogue ulitharid to gain access to the nautiloid ship within the silent city.
The Astral Rift. Aboard their new astral craft, the characters travel through the astral plane, facing an astral dreadnought and finding ruined planetoids where the illithids and githyanki once warred. They seek artifacts in order to hunt down the Veskessa, the massive githyanki warship that threatens the world.
Stillness in Chaos. The characters must fight their way through an army of slaads in the plane of limbo and treat with the githyanki's adversaries, the githzerai. There they must learn how to destroy the Veskessa and find a weakness in the githyanki leadership to steer them away from their conquest of the world.
The Veskessa. The characters locate the githyanki warship Veskessa. Aboard the ship they face githyanki gish, githyanki warriors, and githyanki knights. Through force, deception, or subterfuge they board the craft and hunt down its navigator so they may reach the githyanki homeworld of Tu'narath.
Tier 4: Tu'narath
The characters travel to the githyanki homeworld of Tu'Narath to end the danger of the githyanki once and for all.
The War of the Gray Sky. The characters must travel via astral skiff to Tu'narath, the fortress of the Vlaakith the Lich Queen. Along the way they are assaulted by dragon-riding githyanki knights and githyanki Kith'rak aboard war skiffs.
The Lost Tunnels of Tu'Nareth. The characters travel through the ancient and lost caverns beneath Tu'Nareth seeking a "safe" passage through the city of the githyanki through its most shadowed corridors. Within the tunnels they are hunted by a group of githyanki gish. There they meet forgotten foes and unlikely allies.
The Cathedral of Syn. The characters discover an ancient and lost temple deep within the caverns below Tu'Nareth surrounding a gaping wound that leads to the Far Realm. There the terrible high priests of Syn, star spawn larva mages and star spawn seers, preach foul words to a flock of twisted star spawn grues, star spawn manglers, and star spawn hulks. The characters must learn the foul truth of Vlaakith from the priests or their moldering tomes.
Vlaakith's Truth. The characters make take their secret to the citadel of the lich queen and infiltrate the impregnable fortress. Through sheer might, deception, or by drawing in an even greater threat; the characters make their way into the citadel and face Vlaakith's most powerful guardians.
The Lich Queen. The characters infiltrate the fortress of Vlaakith. There they reveal her dark truth and create a civil war among the githyanki before facing Vlaakith the Lich Queen and her adult red dragon guards.
An Example Campaign Arc
This is but one example of a campaign arc that one might put together when running a longer campaign. This arc is probably more than a DM would need to develop their own. Often all we need is a north star ("Stop Vlaakith and the githyanki from destroying the world") and our seeds for our next adventure ("The characters hunt down a strange and ancient egg from a mad bandit captain."). Then we follow the steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master! Repeat each week for a years-long campaign of excitement and adventure.
For another example of a larger campaign arc like this, see Appendix C in Ruins of the Grendleroot which contains a full 6th to 20th campaign arc for the return of the Magocracy of the Black Star; a central villain in the book of adventures.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- The Lazy Encounter Benchmark, a Simple Benchmark for D&D Encounter Deadliness
Simplifying the process of building combat encounters has been a focus of Sly Flourish since the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons has come out. Along with running combat in the theater of the mind and running lots of monsters in combat, its an area we've tinkered often.
Previous guidelines for easier encounter building have worked well. I even released a free copy of the encounter building rules from the Lazy DM's Workbook to help DMs build combat encounters. That chart is solid, accurate, and mirrors the math found in the Dungeon Master's Guide and Xanathar's Guide to Everything.
Today we're going to try to simplify it even further. This new lazy encounter benchmark further abstracts some of the math behind encounter building and monster challenge ratings but it works well to help us build story-based combat encounters and gauge whether such encounters may end up deadly.
Best of all, this lazy encounter benchmark has only two steps and all of it can be done in your head without any online tool or referenced table.
Lazy Encounter Building
Here's the Lazy encounter benchmark in two steps:
- Choose the monsters that make sense in the current story and situation.
- Determine potential deadliness by comparing the sum total of monster challenge ratings to half of the sum total of character levels, or a quarter of character levels if below 5th.
The second part requires some work to understand but once you see the examples it should hopefully click for you. Once it does, you can keep this guideline in your head and use it as a gauge to determine if encounters are edging into deadly.
A Simple Example: Orcs
Let's say we have four 3rd level characters and they stumble on a warband of ten orcs. That's our simple situation. That's step one.
Step 2. Is this encounter deadly?
We start by summing up all of the orcs' challenge ratings (1/2 each). This gives us 5. Next we sum up all the character levels which gives us 12. Since the characters are below 5th level, we divide the sum of character levels by four which gives us 3.
Since 3 (one quarter of the summed character levels) is less than 5 (the sum total of monster CRs), this is potentially a deadly encounter.
We have some options here. We can simply reduce the number of orcs from ten to six. The sum total of monster CRs (3) now matches the sum total of character levels (also 3). This is likely a hard fight but maybe not deadly.
We may instead decide to stick with the ten orcs but spread them out into multiple groups. Four of the orcs may wander away from the camp to hunt or might split up in two groups of two to guard the camp.
The story still drives the encounter but our benchmark tells us that in a certain situation, like facing off against ten orcs all at once, it may be deadly.
Another Example: The Aboleth
Let's say we're running the adventure The Styes from Ghosts of Saltmarsh. The villain in the Styes is a particularly nasty aboleth. Aboleths use chuuls as their personal bodyguards so our aboleth will have some chuuls hanging around. The aboleth has also been slowly converting the people of the Styes into sea spawns so some of them are hanging around too.
When the characters get into the aboleth's sanctum, it's likely to have some chuuls guarding it and some sea spawn lurking around. Let's say two chuuls and four sea spawns.
That's step 1. That's the current story. We didn't do any math yet. We just followed the story that the characters are about to face an aboleth and the aboleth has chuuls and sea spawn hanging around.
Now let's determine if this encounter is deadly. We start by adding up all of our monster CRs. The aboleth is CR 10. The two chuuls are CR 4 each. The four sea spawn are CR 1 each. That's a total of 22.
Let's say we have five 7th level characters. We sum all their levels together to 35. We half this number (rounding down) because they're 7th level. If they were 4th level we'd quarter it instead. Half of 35 rounded down is 17. That's lower than the 22 we calculated for the monsters. Thus it's a potentially deadly encounter.
But we like our story so we'll keep the sea spawn. They'll be mostly servants of the aboleth, non-combatants unless the aboleth is threatened. Then they'll protect the aboleth as a second line of defense.
Knowing that this encounter edges over into deadly means we can be ready for it when we run our game. We can adjust hit points, lowering them for the chuuls if things go too badly. We can keep the sea spawn as non-combatants. If we end up with more characters we can add more monsters and recompute.
This simplified calculation to determine deadliness doesn't hold up when you build theoretical encounters against single powerful foes. Six 8th level characters (a CR budget of 24) typically can't face and defeat a single CR 24 ancient red dragon. On the other hand, perhaps they could actually defeat such a foe; I've seen groups pull off greater feats; but I wouldn't expect it to go well.
Instead of theorycrafting encounters, always start with step 1. First, choose the monsters that make sense for the current situation and then use the benchmark to see if that situation is going to be deadly. Ridiculous encounters might actually work if you force them into the math but they're still ridiculous and you'll know it when you see it.
An Simple Tool for an Imperfect System
Any DM who has played this game long enough recognizes that any system for measuring combat challenge is imperfect. Many variables change the difficulty of an encounter including particular character builds, group synergy, environmental effects, player experience, magic items, particular spells or abilities, and so on. This simple benchmark isn't intended to be a perfect gauge. It's a loose benchmark that's easy to implement to give us a rough gauge of potential combat challenge.
Simple Guidelines for Flexible D&D
We keep such simple guidelines in our head for one big reason, to stay fast and flexible while running our games. When we have loose guidelines instead of multiple pages of instructions and a bunch of charts we can improvise as the story changes in front of us. It's powerful magic.
Keep this lazy encounter benchmark in your brain-based DM toolkit and use it to help you run the most fun encounters you can.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- The Grendleroot in Avernus
Note, this article contains spoilers for Descent into Avernus.
Fantastic Adventures, Ruins of the Grendleroot, my book of ten 5th edition underground adventures, is designed to fit into any fantasy RPG world. Here's a quote from the book:
Blackclaw Mountain is designed to fit into just about any fantasy world, whether of your own design or part of a published campaign setting. The mountain can be a single peak in a large range, a lonely highland in a great plain, a pocket dimension, or a splinter between worlds. Drop Blackclaw Mountain into your world wherever it makes sense and won't disturb other parts of that world.
Blackclaw Mountain is also potentially infinite in its depth. All the locations and adventures in this book are set up within the mountain, and as a self-contained fantasy environment, the mountain can be expanded however you wish. You can add in borders marking the entrances to other worlds, tunnels to vast cities, and the lairs of monsters of any type and size. If it can be found underground, you can add it to Blackclaw.
The mountain is thus both a self-contained adventure location, easy to drop into any fantasy world, and an infinite portal opening up to a lifetime of stories. Use it as best fits the stories you and your players want to share.
One of the Kickstarter backers of Ruins of the Grendleroot on Kickstarter asked how they could use Blackclaw Mountain in the D&D hardback adventure Descent into Avernus. This is a perfect exercise to show how flexible this mountain truly is.
Placing Blackclaw Mountain
As described, we can place Blackclaw Mountain just about anywhere in Avernus. It might appear as an obsidian mountain piercing out of the cracked hellish landscape. It might be part of an existing mountain range of charred rock in Avernus or an independent demonic spire piecing through the abyss and into this first layer of hell.
Blackclaw Mountain as an incursion between the Abyss and the Nine Hells puts it in a really interesting spot for our tales to come. Devils can't get rid of it and demons use the mountain as a passageway from the abyss into hell.
This pivot point can create great energy for those who can control it, and many powerful beings wish to do so. It's possible areas of Blackclaw, maybe even the city of Shadowreach itself, regularly switch hands between demons and devils. For those able to profit from the blood war, like the warlords in chapter 3 of Descent into Avernus, Blackclaw Mountain is a dangerous yet profitable location.
The Grendleroot as Demonic Incursion
The Grendleroot itself, the strange alien entity whose spires pierce through the caverns of Blackclaw, might be a demonic root, a sentient growth of the Abyss that pierced into Avernus. It may be the catalyst for the whole mountain itself and it continues to claw its way out into the hellish lands above. The Grendleroot might be the remains of a demon prince whose attempts to break through into hell from the Abyss transformed it into this sentient horror. It reaches still, though slowly, trying to claw its way free into the skies of the Abyss.
The Black Star, the entity the Grendleroot calls out to, may be a more powerful demonic presence; maybe even an elder evil from the Far Realm. It might be Tharizdun, the chained god, trapped in the lowest levels of the Abyss.
The History of Blackclaw Mountain in Avernus
The history contained in Ruins of the Grendleroot is designed to be as reskinnable as the mountain itself. We can do so here when we place the mountain in Avernus.
First, we can replace the Order of the White Sun, as described in chapter 2 of Ruins of the Grendleroot, with the Hellriders, the knights of Eltruel who followed Zariel into Avernus over a century ago. Zariel's fall works well as the moment the Hellriders abandoned Blackclaw Mountain and returned to Eltruel.
As for the Magocracy of the Black Star, these archmages might be left mostly intact but with a more fiendish connection to the lords and dukes of hell. Each of the archmages may be tied to one of the lords of hell formed into a loose alliance in the city of Shadowreach where they practiced their terrible magics supported by an entire city of the damned.
Other aspects of the history of Blackclaw Mountain can be likewise reskinned. The ancient red dragon Aravax Blackflame may instead be a demon prince who built their throne on this border between the Abyss and the Nine Hells defeated by the Magocracy.
The abolethic city described in the history of Blackclaw and found in the adventure Chuul might instead be the lair of sibriexes (see Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes). These ancient keepers of forbidden lore may fit well as the mysterious caretakers who captured the Grendleroot. In our Descent into Avernus mashup the sibriexes may replace both the aboleths and the caretakers in Ruins of the Grendleroot. They could be the creators of the Grendleroot itself, having used the twisted alien entity to tear its way across the planes.
Deepdelver's Enclave: A Protected Beacon of Hope in Hell
Deepdelver's Enclave is designed to be a shining beacon in the darkness and it can continue to be so even if that darkness lies beneath the surface of Avernus. Perhaps it is too small for the demons and devils to care. Perhaps it is a sanctuary between the warlords who rule over Avernus's surface. Perhaps some other power protects it. It seems quite likely that Ayaan of Veyr, a rakshasa merchant in the Enclave, might either know of or be part of the force that protects the enclave.
When the enclave does come under attack; as it often does in the beginning of many adventures and particularly in the adventure Fistful of Copper, we'll want to ensure that there's a logical reason for these protections to fall. Perhaps they are weakening for that time. Perhaps whoever keeps a protective eye on the Enclave has looked elsewhere for a short time. Whatever reason we create, we'll want to consider it up front and ensure it makes logical sense.
The melting pot nature of Deepdelver's Enclave fits well into Avernus. We can think of it like a miniature version of Sigil in which both demons and devils walk the streets but no violence breaks out. The residents of Deepdelver's Enclave simply find the profit of delving into the depths of Blackclaw Mountain too inviting to ignore.
Tuning the Adventures
As for the adventures themselves, you'll want to reskin them to fit the fiendish nature of the new realm in which Blackclaw Mountain sits. This might be as easy as reskinning some of the monsters into more fiendish varieties. Temple of the Forgotten God may show what Avernus was like when it was meant to tempt mortals into hell with grand visions of idealistic lands. A Fistful of Copper may use small attacking bands of smaller demons and devils instead of orcs and hobgoblins. Many of the rest of the adventures likely need only small tweaks to fit them into an Avernus campaign.
Setting Blackclaw Mountain in the Depths of Hell
If we can take Blackclaw Mountain and fit it into the depths of hell, there's likely no fantasy world into which it cannot fit. Drop it in the Mournland of Eberron or in the mountains of Greyhawk. Plop it into the Spine of the World in the Forgotten Realms or under the scorched lands of Dark Sun. Blackclaw Mountain is designed to be your world within a world wherever you decide to plant it.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 8: The Styes
This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh Session Zero
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 2: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 3, Danger at Dunwater
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 4: Salvage Operation
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 5: Isle of the Abbey
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 6: The Final Enemy
Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Building On the Tharizdun Campaign Arc
Like Salvage Operation and Isle of the Abbey, The Styes was originally intended as a stand-alone adventure. If you are planning on running The Styes as a stand-alone adventure, you can likely run it as-is from the book and this article will be of limited use.
If we're running it as part of a Saltmarsh campaign, however, we'll want to modify it to fit within a story arc that crosses all eight adventures. We'll do so in two ways. First, we're going to connect it to the idea of a great rift in an ancient abolethic city called the Endless Nadir that leads to the abyssal layer of Tharizdun. In our running of The Styes we'll focus on the aboleth who has become infatuated with Tharizdun and has created a cult of twisted monstrosities throughout the decrepit city.
We can further connect this adventure with Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate by turning Syrgaul's connection to Orcus into a connection with Tharizdun. We can also bring the idea of the Endless Nadir from this adventure into Tammeraut's Fate. We'll discuss this more in our article focused on Tammeraut's Fate.
Connecting with the Scarlet Brotherhood
We can also connect The Styes with the larger arc of the Scarlet Brotherhood. In this arc, Mr. Dory, the main antagonist in The Styes is a Scarlet Brotherhood agent and leader for their activity on the southern coast. Skerrin Wavechaser, the butler of the Saltmarsh councilor Anders Solmor, might actually work for Mr. Dory. If the characters have figured out that Skerrin is an agent of the Scarlet Brotherhood, he might make his escape to the Styes and the characters might follow him here.
In secret, even to the Scarlet Brotherhood, Mr. Dory might no longer serve the Brotherhood and instead serves the aboleth under the city of the Styes.
The Styes follows a series of dark murders all tied back to a man, recently executed, who claims to have no knowledge of his dark deeds. An investigation leads to one of the four councilmembers of the Styes, Mr. Dory, who, in turn, is connected to the aboleth responsible for much evil in this dark city.
We can run this murder investigation as-is and still tie into a larger storyline. The murder can get some of the key players in front of the characters and take them to the locations that matter. It's a solid focused thread that can bring the characters into the larger plots going on in the Styes.
Read Your Lovecraft
The Styes feels like it was lifted right out of HP Lovecraft's story The Shadow Over Innsmouth. This story is definitely worth the read when running this adventure. It will load up your brain with inspiration, themes, and setting for the adventure, particularly the idea of a city fallen to a dark religious cult and the physical transformation of humans into fish people.
In our running of the adventure, the Styes can be a dark mirror to the city of Saltmarsh. Where Saltmarsh weathered the fall of the sea princes to the kingdom of Keoland, the Styes never recovered. The pirates and the support they had in the Styes fell and those remaining sought out what comfort they could in the dark shadows of the cold depths. In this case, that was the call of Tharizdun and its prophet, the aboleth Sgothgah.
Play up this dark and nasty atmosphere. The people of the Styes are a sickly looking lot with weird pale clammy skin that shows their thick black veins. The people of the Styes will smile at the characters and point to their foreheads as though they have three eyes instead of two (the sign of Sgothgah the aboleth).
All of the temples to other gods have fallen into decay. No religions appear above the water here in the Styes. Below, however, lies the temple of Tharizdun.
Running the Aboleth as a False Hydra
There's one major storyline I wish I had done in the two instances in which I ran The Styes. This Goblin Punch article on the False Hydra is the inspiration for this idea.
Sgothgah the aboleth is slowly transforming the people of the Styes into his willing servants: sea spawns, deep scions, skum, and kraken priests. As he does so, they not only lose their bodies but their minds as well. As they lose sense of self, Sgothgah's psychic energies further steal their very existance out of the minds of those who knew the creature. A brother transformed becomes forgotten by their own family as they turn into a deep spawn and swim into the black depths.
For example, Mr. Dory may have once had a son. This son is known to the people of the Styes and even as far as Saltmarsh. Let's say Sgothgah transforms Mr. Dory's son into a sea spawn. When this takes place, no one remembers Mr. Dory's son anymore. Even the characters no longer remember the son. There might be a portrait of the son but no one knows who it is. Maybe it was some visitor who came by years ago. People are more than happy to fill in these lost memories.
As the characters travel around the Styes, they start to see people disappearing all around them and their own memories begin to change.
This is a great chance to play the meta. When a player asks about an NPC who has become transformed by Sgothgah, we tell them that their character has no memory of such a person. When they ask around town, no one recognizes who they're talking about. Even the characters don't remember but the players remember and know something weird is going on. That priest, Father Refrum? Nope, I don't know any priest like that. The temple's been abandoned for years.
If you're not getting it, read this Reddit thread on running a False Hydra. I've not run it myself yet but the next time I'm running an aboleth, I'm definitely trying this out. I wish I had done so in The Styes.
Adding In Lamp's Light Sanitarium
The Styes includes an investigative location called Hopene'er Asylum. We can, if we desire, replace this with the excellent adventure location Lamp's Light Sanitarium. This campaign adventure can fill out this location in the Styes with one of sinister horror and suspense. If you want to fill out the Styes, consider adding in this campaign adventure.
The Temple of Tharizdun
If you're not satisfied with the old wrecked boat as the lair of the aboleth, you might consider adding in a deep half-submerged temple to Tharizdun that has been here under the Styes for hundreds of thousands of years. This Dyson map can work well for the lair and final encounter with Sgothgah. To make the battle more challenging, you might add a number of chuuls along with the aboleth into a chamber that made reaching the aboleth difficult. The aboleth might also have access to the spells of a priest including a spirit weapon and spiritual guardians to make the life of characters even more difficult.
Your Moment for Seaside Horror
The Styes is a perfect adventure to focus on ancient seaside psychological horror. As an homage to Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, we can fill our running of The Styes with the mysterious transformation of a people into sea creatures who worship a being beyond mortal minds. By running the aboleth as a memory-stealing terror we can shake up not only the characters but the players as well. What will they think when their own characters begin to lose their memories?
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoGetting Started with Dungeons & Dragons
This article is intended for someone who is interested in Dungeons & Dragons but has no idea where to start. My intent is to get you on the right path to enjoy D&D.
If you are a veteran to D&D, consider sending this article to your friends who have not yet started playing.
This article is one of a series of articles to help new DMs get into D&D. You can find links to all of the articles in this series here:
- Getting Started with Dungeons & Dragons
- Finding and Maintaining a D&D Group
- Starting Strong at your First D&D Game
- Tools for the New D&D Dungeon Master
- Improvisation in D&D for New Dungeon Masters
- A New Dungeon Master's Guide to Miniatures
- A New DM's Guide For Building Combat Encounters
The D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start learning about D&D. This free, legal, and official PDF has enough material in it to play D&D for a long time without spending any money at all.
If you know nothing about D&D, the first few pages of the D&D Basic Rules tells you just about everything you need to know about playing D&D.
There are a lot of other great resources for D&D that cost nothing or next to nothing as well but the D&D Basic Rules are the best place to start. Within it you'll find the rules to the game, character creation rules, rules for DMs, and monsters to include in your adventures.
Watch What D&D Looks Like
If you want to get a better idea what D&D looks like in play, take a look at the following D&D liveplay videos. Many of these have high production values but they still give you a good idea what it looks like to play D&D. Each video is about two to three hours long.
- Greg Bilsland running Lost Mine of Phandelver
- Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom Liveplay
- Jeremy Crawford Running Descent into Avernus
- Debora Ann Woll's Lost Odyssey
- Mike Mearls's Founders and Legends D&D game
Your First Purchases
If you're ready to jump into D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set. This inexpensive boxed set includes all of the rules you need to play, a set of dice, and an excellent adventure for beginning characters called Lost Mine of Phandelver. Here are some articles for starting strong at your first D&D game and tips for running Lost Mine of Phandelver.
You might also pick up the D&D Essentials Kit. This boxed set includes another adventure, Dragon of Icespire Peak, designed specifically for new DMs and includes rules for running D&D with just one player and one DM. If you're running this adventure, read my guide for running Dragon of Icespire Peak before you get started. The adventure has some rough spots for 1st level characters in it.
Both of these boxed sets can work well together, filling out the area around Phandalin with a host of quests and adventures the players can choose from.
Getting a Group Together
You can play D&D with as few as a single dungeon master and a single player but one DM and around four players is more common. Finding and maintaining a D&D group is likely the hardest part of running a D&D game. Read my article on finding and maintaining a D&D group for advice on finding the right players and keeping your game going week after week.
The Core Books
At this point, if you and your friends are enjoying D&D, it's time to dig into the D&D core books. There are three D&D core books: the Player's Handbook for players, and the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual for dungeon masters.
With just these three books in hand you have enough material for years of play. You don't need any other books or accessories to play D&D for the rest of your lives. Instead of physical books you also can buy books on D&D Beyond and share them with your group online.
D&D has a number of other books that add new monsters, races, class abilities, and campaign worlds. These include:
- Xanathar's Guide to Everything
- Volo's Guide to Monstes
- Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes
- Eberron, Tales from the Last War
- Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica
- The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide
- Acquisitons Incorporated
These books are entirely optional. You can go a long way with just the three core books. That said, each of the above books has additional material both in mechanics and lore to grow your game.
Wizards of the Coast also publishes a number of large campaign adventures. These big adventures can take a group over a year to complete and do a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Many DMs prefer to run their own adventures in their own world, however. You can read all about these published adventures at my guide for published D&D adventures.
A Flip Mat. Being able to draw what a location looks like can be very useful, particularly for combat. This Pathfinder Flip Mat is my personal favorite. It's cheap, lightweight, easy to pack, and limitless in its flexibility.
Tokens and Miniatures. You'll see a lot of D&D games that use miniatures for characters and monsters. Miniature collecting and painting is its own limitless hobby. Miniatures aren't required to play D&D. There are many cheap options for representing characters and monsters on the table to help you show positioning in combat. These cheap tokens represent both monsters and characters and can be put together for under $30. For more information on tokens and miniatures, see my New DM's Guide to Miniatures.
There's a huge array of other accessories for running D&D games. Some are good, many will complicate your game without making it any better. You don't need anything more than the core books and some dice to enjoy D&D for the rest of your life. Don't get overwhelmed. Start small and add in the accessories you need to make your game great.
The Beginning of Limitless Worlds
Endless adventures await you should you continue your journey into Dungeons & Dragons. Once you've gotten started, check out my Start Here page for a selection of the top articles from this site to help you along your path. Grab your walking stick, tighten up your boots, and lets explore new worlds together.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoSpending a Whole Day Preparing a D&D Game
When I think about D&D game prep, often I think about how to streamline it and reduce it to the elements that bring the best value to our game. This is the core idea behind Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. How can you get more out of your game by preparing less?
In Return we boil down game preparation into eight optional steps including the following:
- Review the characters
- Create a strong start
- Outline potential scenes
- Define secrets and clues
- Develop fantastic locations
- Outline important NPCs
- Choose relevant monsters
- Select magic item rewards
You don't have to use the steps if they aren't needed. We talked before about choosing the right steps given various gaming situations. We can reduce this checklist when we let other products, like published adventures, do some of the heavy lifting for us.
All of this is to help streamline game prep. We're all busy. We all have a lot of demands on our time. We don't often have more than 30 minutes to an hour to prepare for our D&D game.
But what if we did?
What if we had a full day to prepare for our D&D game? What if, on one magical day, we had no other commitments. We had no other demands on our time. And, on this ideal day, what if we managed to avoid the temptations to spend our time on video games, TV, movies, or the internet?
If we were able to spend a whole day preparing for our D&D game, where would we spend it?
Why This Matters
This feels like an unrealistic question to ask and some might not understand why it's valuable at all to ask it.
It matters because it helps us take a step back from the continual refinement of game prep that boils it down to 30 minutes and lets us ask ourselves what else might matter. If we had the time, what else might we bring to the game that can make a big difference?
This new angle on game prep—what if we had a full day uninterrupted to prepare for D&D—helps us look at the whole topic in a new way. We don't know what we'll find there. What other useful D&D prep activities might we discover? That's why it matters.
I asked the question on Twitter to see what other people thought. My first take on the question ("What would you do if you had a whole day to prep your D&D game?") came back with almost all joke replies. Play video games, procrastinate, panic, etc. A more refined version of the question ("Ideally, what would you want to do if you had a full day to prep your D&D game?") came back with much better responses. I received about 220 replies which I stuck through some text processing to see what common topics came up. Here were the answers:
map (70), npc (51), player (47), encounter (41), prep (36), character (29), note (27), prop (22), music (21), monster (19), mini (18), handout (18), plot (17), world (17), campaign (16), story (16), adventure (16), pc (14), draw (12), combat (11), terrain (10), location (10), background (8), read (8), puzzle (8), hook (8)
The most common single response was working on maps, which I thought was interesting. NPCs, encounters, characters, all were high on the list too. Props, music, handouts, terrain, puzzles; all great ideas. If we had the time, we know where we might put it.
Mike's Day of D&D Prep
On a particular Sunday, when I might otherwise be busy writing D&D stuff or running my regular D&D game, I found myself with this hypothetical day in reality. My game got canceled. My other commitments were taken care of. I had a full day with nothing on the agenda that I had to do. I could have easily filled it up with things, but this was the perfect chance to actually see what it would be like to spend a whole day on a D&D game.
It also came at a very good time. I had just finished up two campaigns and a bunch of Ruins of the Grendleroot playtests and both of my groups were about to start Ghosts of Saltmarsh. There seemed like no better time to spend a day preparing for D&D like at the beginning of a pair of new D&D campaigns. So I cleared off the rest of the schedule and wrote out a checklist. On Sunday, I began my day of D&D prep for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Other than taking an hour to talk about my full day of D&D prep on my Twitch show and spending some time wiring some power cables under my gaming table, I spent the whole day doing stuff related to Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
Here was the checklist I followed:
- Prepare maps
- Read the adventure
- Read the appendices
- Consider character backgrounds & hooks to each adventure
- Review and make handouts
- Collect miniatures for next few sessions
- Ponder NPCs and their actions
- Build a campaign soundtrack
- Get a prop lantern
So how did it work out? Not so bad and I did learn a few things. Some of the things on the checklist I never got around to. I never got a prop lantern. I stuck to the Assassin's Creed Black Flag soundtrack for my campaign soundtrack but never actually used it. I only picked out miniatures for the first full adventure but they're were all nice and organized.
Printing Maps (two hours)
One of the biggest things I did during the day was get all of the Ghosts of Saltmarsh maps printed at Staples using their blueprint printing service. I was able to get about fourteen maps for $50. Some of them are obnoxiously huge, 36" by 48" and still only cost $7.50. If I had to do it again I wouldn't get any map bigger than 24" x 36" which ran about $3.75. I'd also print the 10 foot per square maps using 18" x 24" because they aren't battlemap scale anyway and the smaller format is easier to handle on a table. 18" x 24" maps ran under two bucks a piece; an amazing deal.
Getting all of the files off of D&D Beyond and into the Staples print center web page took about an hour and driving there and back took another hour. So that was a good piece of time spent on something that my players will definitely notice.
In the end, though, I barely used these maps. I tended to use them for the first couple of adventures but by the time I ran the Final Enemy, I stopped using them. I was customizing the dungeons too much to bother with a large fixed map. While blueprint mapping worked great, particularly for Dysonlogo maps, I don't know that I'd bother with it again. I can just draw them out on a dry-erase map when I want them.
Reading the Adventure with the Characters in Mind (three hours)
I think the most valuable thing we can do when we have a lot of time is to read the adventure we're running (assuming we're running a published adventure) while thinking about how we can tie the characters into those adventures. This means spending time reading over our characters' backgrounds and then reading through the adventure thoroughly to see how those backgrounds can tie back in. While we read it we can jot down some possible character connections. Here are some examples:
- Huron the water genasi served aboard the Emperor of the Waves. He was thrown overboard and awoke amidst the ship's ruins.
- Umber the sea elf fighter was on a ship in which Lowrin Solmor, father of Anders Solmor, was killed. He is still very loyal to the Solmor family.
- Jamras the triton warlock has been hunting for a dark power supposedly rising in the south. He has a coin with a swirling pattern on it that means something important.
- One of the characters will know that the Sea Prince Syrgaul sailed on a warship called the Tammeraut. The Tammeraut was sunk ten years ago.
- The water dwelling members of the party know about a rift in the sea floor that none of the aquatic races will go near known as the Endless Nadir.
These interconnections between the characters and the adventures can have a strong impact in the game. When the players see why their characters would get involved in an adventure they have a much stronger connection with the story than if their characters is essentially running independently from the plotline.
Gathering Miniatures (one hour)
These days I'm much more of a theater of the mind DM. I'll occasionally ask a player to grab one of my miniature boxes and fish out some minis for a fight but I find that the flexibility of theater-of-the-mind combat frees up the story to go in any direction it wants to go.
My players still love miniatures, though, so spending some time to grab up all of the potential miniatures I'd need to run the first chapter of Saltmarsh seemed like a good use of time. That took about an hour. That includes digging out multiple miniatures for each of the characters so the players can choose the one they like.
Ideal Preparation List
If time weren't a factor, where might we spend the time? Given my own experiences, here's the list I'd choose:
The Eight Steps. Going through the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is still the most useful way to spend time that I can offer. With more time available we can expand some of these steps out into longer activities. We can expand out on our character reviews, NPC development, and secrets and clues. We can dig deep into our villains, their goals, and the things they'll do to reach those goals. We can map out potential treasure rewards for each of the characters over the course of a campaign. We can take each of the eight steps that apply to the type of game we're running and expand on them as much as we wish.
Handouts. Great handouts bring the players into the story of the game. It's one thing to describe a letter one of the characters finds. It's something else to hold that letter in your hand. Great handouts take time. We need to write them and edit them down so they're the kind of thing our players will actually read. Secret maps, clues to puzzles, cyphers between villains; great handouts hit new senses and wake up new parts of the brains of our players. Printing out notes on copper resume paper with cool fantasy fonts is an easy way to make a handout look great. Making handouts takes time but if we happen to have the time, they're worth it.
Maps. Who am I to argue with all of the Twitter responses talking about preparing maps? Maybe this means gathering a bunch of Dyson maps and printing them out using the Staples blueprint print center or maybe it means drawing maps. Maps help bring players into the world. They help make the world more real. That's a valuable use of time.
Miniatures. Finding the right miniatures and preparing them ahead of time can also make a nice difference. It's one thing to describe a monster and show a picture of it in the Monster Manual and something else to drop the right miniature on the table. For most people, getting the right miniature can be too costly, regardless of time. Printing out paper miniatures or digging up artwork and building tokens is more cost effective, though still requires some time. Buying and painting miniatures to represent the characters takes time but is a worthwhile activity given how long those minis will sit on the table. Using painted miniatures for player characters and tokens for monsters is a good cost-effective mix.
Terrain. I'm a huge fan of Dwarven Forge. When the situation calls for it, building out cool Dwarven Forge layouts makes the game world even more solid. As cool as it is, building out wonderful 3d dioramas won't make as much of a difference as spending time thinking about the characters and how to better integrate them into the story but if one has the means and the time, they definitely make a great game even better.
Music. I like to have some background music going while I run my games. Instead of spending a lot of time on specific tracks and playlists, I set up three general playlists: D&D Relaxed, D&D Sinister, and D&D Combat. I pick songs from a variety of video game soundtracks including Darkest Dungeon, the Witcher 3, Skyrim, Horizon Zero Dawn, Divinity Original Sin 2, and various Assassin's Creed soundtracks. I'll split the songs up among those three playlists and play them out during the game. It takes about an hour initially but one can use the same playlists for years.
The Diminishing Returns of D&D Prep
Having spent an entire day prepping for D&D I found that such time led to diminishing returns. This isn't a surprise. The whole philosophy of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is that less prep can lead to a better game. It was still interesting to see it in practice. I got some value out of the time I spent preparing for my Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign but much of the value comes from spending thirty minutes on the checklist. It's worth the time to think about where our time is best spent preparing for our D&D games. We may never have a full day to prepare for our D&D game and that's just fine. Really, all we need is thirty minutes.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Combining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit
Many agree that the best way to get started in D&D is with the D&D Starter Set. With a low price, excellent adventure, and all the materials you need to run a game in a single box; it's hard to recommend anything else. I still consider the Starter Set adventure, Lost Mine of Phandelver, one of the best D&D adventures with its clear focus on the small town of Phandalin and a nice sandbox full of places to explore, people to meet, and threats to face.
The recently released D&D Essentials Kit adds another alternative. Like the Starter Set, it's designed for new players although not necessarily new DMs. It comes with a wider range of materials including a larger set of dice, a deck of cards, full-color maps, character creation rules, and sidekick rules. Like the Starter Set, the Essentials Kit is a bargain for the price.
But which boxed set should you get if you're new to D&D?
I'd still start with the Starter Set. It's slightly cheaper and, in my opinion, the adventures are better tuned for the characters.
But as an alternative, why not both?
The D&D Starter Set and the D&D Essentials Kit work really well together. In this article we'll look at how to join up these two products to get the best out of both.
A Central Story with a Host of Sidequests
When combining the storylines of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak we have the main storyline of Lost Mine of Phandelver and the series of individual quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak. The characters can begin with chapter 1 of Lost Mine of Phandelver, Goblin Arrows. When they arrive back at Phandalin, they find the quests from Dragon of Icespire Peak nailed to the town's quest board. The characters (and players) are free to continue following the main quest line in Phandelver or choose one of the job board quests from Icespire as they wish.
While the characters follow one path or the other, we can drop in secrets and clues that point to other quests from both Phandelver and Icespire. They may learn of the secret plot of the Black Spider while spending time on the dwarven excavation or meeting the gnomes of Gnomengarde. They may hear of the displaced orcs and the rise of the anchorites of Talos in Neverwinter Wood while exploring Thundertree or Cragmaw Castle in Phandelver. The green dragon in Thundertree may be a rival of the white dragon in Icespire Keep. The cult of the dragon in Thundertree may be recruiting both of these dragons. There's lots of ways to join up these two adventures and running them together gives the players a huge range of options to choose their path.
Not So Lazy Work
Joining these two adventures together will not make a DM's life easier. You'll need to read both adventures to get ideas how to join the two together. You'll need to bring in hooks from both adventures into the paths of the characters as they explore each of them. There will be a lot of moving parts; parts that make the world feel rich and full and real, but all of those moving parts will make your campaign more complicated. In the end, however, it can be well worth the effort.
One concern is how we handle leveling. You may want to level more slowly than you might otherwise if the characters are spending a lot of time on side quests. Otherwise the characters will out-level the quests in both adventures before either of them are done. You'll still want to level out of 1st level quickly but once you're at second level, leveling every couple of adventures is probably just fine. As an alternative you can level up as fast as you like and simply let some of the quests become obsolete before the characters have had a chance to engage with them.
Joining the Toolkits
Both the D&D Starter Set and the Essentials Kit include more than just the two adventures. The pregenerated characters from the Starter Set, which you can download right here, make it easy for new players to get into the game if they don't have the experience to make a new character. For players interested in building characters, the Essentials Kit includes all of the rules needed to create characters with the four basic races and five classes including a couple of different class builds for each class.
The two books together also include a large menagerie of monsters. Only a few monsters are replicated across both boxes. Together they provide a huge range of monsters from 1st to 5th level that you can use to run your own adventures for years without buying another book. The Starter Set has a wider selection of more basic monsters while the Essentials Kit fills out this list with stranger monsters like ochre jellies, wererats, and evil half-orc shapeshifting druids.
Both books also include a wonderful selection of maps and locations you can reskin to fit your own homebrew adventures.
The maps, DM screen, and cards from the Essentials Kit work just as well when running the Starter Set material.
Running Lost Mine of Phandelver One-on-One
One fabulous feature of the D&D Essentials Kit are the rules that let you play D&D with one DM and one player using sidekicks. Sidekicks are stripped down NPCs that run alongside player characters to shore up any deficiencies and help even out the odds in combat.
Though Lost Mine of Phandelver doesn't include any rules for scaling combat for less than four characters, we can use some handy guidelines to help us tune down battles when running Phandelver one-on-one. Here's a quick reference:
- Reduce the number of monsters the character faces. Be careful when including more monsters than the number of characters.
- Reduce the hit points of monsters as needed.
- Reduce the number of attacks and damage of monsters as needed.
- Give the character relics, scrolls, potions, and magic items to off-set their gaps.
- Be wary of monster spells or effects that can, with a single stroke, remove the character from combat.
Being able to run these adventures with a single DM and single player adds a tremendous amount of flexibility. Joining Essentials sidekicks with the Starter Set is a powerful combination.
Continuing On Beyond the Boxes
When your players have completed the adventures in both boxes, you can move on to the additional digital adventures included with your purchase of the Essentials Kit. These adventures include Storm Lord's Wrath, Sleeping Dragon's Wake, and Divine Contention, all of which you can find here which take characters from 6th to 13th level. That's quite a campaign!
Building an Expanded Campaign around Phandalin
Joining the D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit together helps you build out Phandalin in a way that neither boxed set does on their own. The world becomes richer, the options wider and more varied. The two boxes together create a powerful toolkit for DMs who want to run their own low-level adventures. Without needing another product you can run adventures using these two boxed sets for years to come.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoRunning Episodic Games
I'm a huge fan of serials. Shows like True Detective put a limit on the overall story but give that story enough room to breathe and fill out across many episodes. The game Shadow of the Demon Lord by Robert Schwalb builds itself around this episodic structure as the core of the game. Characters are intended to level each session across eleven sessions that make up an entire Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign. This builds a strict structure around the campaign. Some may find it too restrictive but others, like myself, enjoy having this fixed structure to build around.
We can take this same episodic approach with our Dungeons & Dragons games. Often, when running large hardback adventures, we let the game go however it goes. It begins where it left off previously and it ends wherever it ends as time allows. This can be a fine and relaxing way to play, one that doesn't push a lot of adventure time management onto the DM's already long list of required activities. When running a campaign adventure like Tomb of Annihilation, we can let it go as long as it needs to go.
There can be some fun in building a more focused episodic structure to our campaigns, one in which the each session has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Such a campaign might have a fixed number of "episodes" until the end of the campaign. It works well if you know that your group has a limited number of sessions already. It also works well if your game is somewhat irregular but each session is still long enough to fit in a whole adventure. Four hours is a good benchmark.
Planning Out the Serial Campaign
When following the concepts in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master we focus our attention on the next session and have, at best, a loose outline for the rest of a campaign. This works well if we have no real time limits on each session or on the campaign as a whole. When we're running a focused episodic campaign, like an eleven-session Shadow of the Demon Lord campaign, we'll need more structure than that.
It doesn't have to be much more structure, however. If we look at the level 1 to 20 gnoll campaign outline we only need a one-line description for each session beyond the next one and a general idea how the story is going to go. We still focus our attention on the next game but we have a more fixed and focused outline to work from.
Here's an example for my Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it can work just as easily for a D&D game. The overall goal of this campaign is to stop the coming of the Demon Lord by destroying the four anchors that pull him into the world. Each anchor is an object or being of great power and requires a single item to destroy it (known as a "breaker"). Here's the eleven session campaign outline:
- Rescue Father Gregory from the Black Vault beneath Crossings
- "Rescue" Candace Dreen from the thugs who kidnapped her (turns out she's a demon).
- Break into the Dreen mansion to recover notes from the demonologist Moore.
- Recover the first Breaker: the Sword of Stars
- Recover the second Breaker: the Shard of Night
- Recover the third Breaker: the Blackfire Wand
- Recover the fourth Breaker: the Bone of the Innocent
- Destroy the first Anchor: the Demon Prince
- Destroy the second Anchor: the White Princess
- Destroy the third Anchor: the Black Sun Manuscript
- Destroy the fourth Anchor: The Eye of the Demon Lord
You can see the clear structure of this campaign. Because it breaks out into two groups of four objectives, the characters can accomplish each of these four objectives in whatever order they want. I only flesh out these individual adventures when I'm getting ready to run the session. It's enough to have the outline to work off of and know I have a clear direction for the campaign.
Sometimes it behooves us to expose this structure to the players. In the outline above, the players learned the general structure for the campaign in session three. They know they'll need to recover four breakers to destroy four anchors. They know each session will cover one of these events. They'll be as committed as we are to follow the structure of the campaign.
Maybe our campaign doesn't actually end up this way and the outline changes. That's ok. Sometimes the best stories take a hard left turn and become something very different. We can be cool with that and it might actually end up being a better game. It still has to fit within the structure, however, so when that hard left turn happens, it's time to rebuild the outline and not let the story get out of hand.
Building In Flexibility
Because each adventure is intended to fit within a game session and because adventures have a tendency to go off the rails we have to build in a fair bit of flexibility into them. We may have to dramatically shorten our adventure or pad it out to fit within the session depending on how things go. Most of the time we'll need to shorten it up. It's rare when we don't have enough material to fill out a session and much more likely that we have too much.
Our first goal is to have the end in mind always. We need to know what the final conclusion of the adventure will be and be prepared to push the adventure to that conclusion as fast as possible if needed. If we're running an adventure based on the rescue of Father Gregory from the Black Vault, we have to be ready to get the characters to the Black Vault, find Father Gregory, and face the harvester that's carving him up within the last 30 to 45 minutes of the game. We can use our tricks to time and pace each adventure with moving keys and moving MacGuffins.
Managing time becomes crucial in such short episodic adventures so we need to be thinking about that conclusion every thirty minutes ensuring that its headed towards that conclusion quickly. Clues become much easier to discover later in a game. Dungeons become smaller. Piles of monsters in the way suddenly disappear. The very next room the characters enter just so happens to be the Black Vault.
There are a few ways we can build in this flexibility into our games. Here are two:
First, we can shrink the dungeon. If we're using a map for our dungeon, say the catacombs map from the Lazy DM's Workbook, we can collapse hallways and cut off rooms until a twelve-room dungeon becomes a five-room dungeon.
Second, we can cut encounters. Scenes, particularly combat scenes, all take up a lot of time in our games. When we're building out our single-session adventure we can build-in flexibility by being ready to cut scenes when we need. Maybe those wights never burst out of the sarcophagi as the characters make their way to the dead general's crypt. Maybe instead of having to negotiate with a ghost to get into the lower tomb, the characters learn some interesting lore from a fresco on the wall and find the door already open. We always want enough encounters to fill out the game but we should be ready to cut whatever we need to cut to get to the ending on time.
Character Montages Between Sessions
Because each of our games is a self-contained story, we can throw in some downtime in between each session. At the beginning of each session we can go around the table and ask what each character has been up to for this period of downtime. We can shrink or extend this downtime as it fits the story. Maybe it's only one day. Maybe it's a tenday. Maybe it's a month. A lot of interesting things can happen to the characters in this downtime and some of it may move the story into new and interesting directions. Players can have clear ideas of what their character did and learned during the downtime which is a great way to drop in some secrets and clues. Other players might not have anything particular in mind so maybe they roll on the carousing table from Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Let your players know that you'll be asking about their downtime and they may come up with some interesting ideas between sessions. This is a fun way to play D&D away from the table as well as on it.
Leveling Every Session
In an episode of the DM's Deep Dive, Mike Mearls mentioned that he felt that characters typically leveled too slowly. He went so far as to recommend leveling characters every session to see how it felt. Many DMs didn't like that idea, often describing that they felt players wouldn't have enough time to understand their characters' new abilities.
A short-run episodic campaign, however, might be just the time to try out faster leveling. Experienced players won't have much trouble understanding the new abilities of their characters and as long as as each episode happens close to the others, say weekly, players will watch their characters grow level by level each session.
A six-session, ten-session, or even twenty-session episodic campaign might be just the way to enjoy the feeling of a full D&D campaign without having to play for two years to complete it.
One Alternative Style of Play
Episodic D&D games isn't a new wonderful way to play D&D. It is one possible way we can run our games when the story and situation is right. I very much enjoyed my eleven episode Shadow of the Demon Lord game but it isn't likely to be my preferred style. The relaxed nature of an ongoing campaign means I don't have to worry about tying up every loose end at the end of a session. I don't have to have an eleven-episode outline for the whole campaign. I can run multiple villains, multiple stories, and multiple hooks and see where the characters want to go.
If you see a short focused campaign in your future, however, the episodic campaign may be just the fit. Add it to your DMing toolkit.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »