- ● Designer Interview: Julian Courtland-Smith, creator of Survive: Escape from Atlantis!
by Neil Bunkerfirst published on Diagonal Move. —WEM]
Survive: Escape from Atlantis! designer Julian Courtland-Smith joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable forty-year career designing board games:
DM: Hi, Julian, thank you for joining us. Please can you tell us how you got started in game design?
JCS: When I was a child I loved playing board games. After I left school, I went into catering. Didn't care for it so went on to art college. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, probably architecture. In 1965, whilst I was making up my mind as to what direction to go in, I read an article in a magazine about games. It was by Waddingtons, publicizing their new product Mine A Million. That was the moment I thought I can do that and become rich and famous! Ha! Easier said than done!
My first design was a world domination game, akin to Risk. Looking back, it was rubbish. Well, you have to start somewhere. I worked in retail management and spent my nights and weekends inventing numerous games. However, it was 17 years before I had a game accepted.
DM: Survive: Escape from Atlantis! is your most well-known game. Where did you draw inspiration for the game from?
JCS: After I'd invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs I was looking around for another strong theme when I chanced upon a row of books in my local library all about the island of Atlantis. These inspired me to devise a game with a sinking island.
DM: Can you elaborate on the design process?
JCS: My first attempts at devising "Escape from Atlantis" didn't really work as I drew the island on the board. During play, the island was slowly covered by sea tiles to effect sinking. When tokens were moved across these tiles, they all shifted and knocked down other meeples like men in boats. It was two years later before it dawned on me to change the sea tiles to land tiles. That way the island could be removed piece by piece from the board during play to simulate it sinking. I called the game "Escape from Atlantis" as the title summed up the game's objective.
DM: How did you get "Escape from Atlantis" to market?
JCS: I took my 2D prototype to Graeme Levin, owner of Games & Puzzles magazine. He became my agent and showed it to Parker Brothers. They liked it and made it their lead game in 1982 in America. They changed the name to Survive! and altered the game in a number of ways. It was advertised coast to coast in the States and sold very well. At the time Survive! was selling 14,000 copies a week compared to Monopoly's 12,000.
Unfortunately, computer games came out and the winter of '83 saw a massive 80% drop in the board game industry as people were buying the new computer games. Board games bounced back a couple of years later but never recovered their dominance in the market. Parker Brothers dropped the game, and it dragged on until closeout a few years later. In 1986 Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was launched in the UK. It did very well, coming in at #2 to Trivial Pursuit in the bestsellers list. I remember saying it would never catch on. What do I know!
Waddingtons phoned and asked if I had another 3D game. I confidently said yes! I had two weeks to turn Survive! (2D) into a 3D game. I remember sawing up a wooden hoe handle to make the island's land-tiles. Waddingtons launched their 3D version of Survive! and agreed to call it Escape from Atlantis!
DM: Survive! has been an incredible success and is still available 38 years after its original release. What do you attribute this success to?
JCS: When Survive! was launched there was nothing like it on the market. Starting off in the mass market gave it great impetus. The turbulent years of the 1980s/90s when companies were either going under or being taken over meant I was constantly taking my prototypes from one company or another. I knew to be financially successful that I needed a major manufacturer to market the game, hence I only dealt with the top five companies in the world. I had many offers from smaller companies but decided to hold out for the big one. When Hasbro took over Waddingtons in the 1990s, I submitted my game to them and they relaunched Escape from Atlantis into Europe in 1996 under the Waddingtons brand.
The game ran until 2002 and was off the market for a number of years. Meanwhile, Survive! reached #1 in the secondhand board game market. Stephen Buonocore of Stronghold Games in the USA was looking to relaunch popular retro games. He saw copies of Survive! trading on eBay for up to $100. He thought if there was that much demand for this game secondhand, perhaps there's a market for a new product. He became my new agent, and in April 2010 announced that Stronghold Games would be reprinting a new version of the game called Survive: Escape from Atlantis!
The game was launched on October 10, 2010. In June 2012, Stronghold Games relaunched a new edition, Survive: Escape From Atlantis! – 30th Anniversary Edition, which is still on sale today. It included refreshed artwork and a slightly revised theme. Simultaneously, French publisher Asmodee licensed the EU languages and launched The Island, which is the same game as Stronghold's version but with a rebranded name for EU trademark purposes only.
Yes, my game has done the rounds with a lot of publishers. End of the day, it's the public who decide. I'm pleased and grateful that games players today enjoy playing Survive! I get messages from fans who say they enjoyed the game in their childhood and are now playing it with their children and grandchildren. I'm pleased Survive! has lived up to its name.
DM: What influence do you think the success of Survive! has had on the games industry?
JCS: Games evolve just as art, music and literature do. Each new artist, author, or designer is influenced by preceding works. Good games, popular games have always been copied.
There are a number of games out there which appear to be influenced by Survive! Catan (1995) comes to mind as does Forbidden Island (2010). I think the biggest change Survive! brought to the market was hexagonal spaces on the board, thus allowing tokens more efficient movement. Before then, you saw hexagonal spaces only in war games.
Prior to my games, there were countless Monopoly-style variants where you commenced play from one corner and went round the edge of the board or track rolling dice. This trend had continued from Victorian days. I wanted to break out of that niche and use the whole board in play.
I do believe the same level success can be repeated despite market saturation that has occurred following the advent of Kickstarter. Survive! has remained successful because the play mechanism hasn't dated. Being the first such game, this style of board game has endured. Someone will come along one day with fresh ideas and usurp the market, then we'll see a whole new trend emerge.
DM: Did the success of Survive! change your life?
JCS: Guess so. It was literally a rags-to-riches story. Prior to the success of Survive!, I was broke and unemployed, scratching a living doing odd jobs, but I persisted with my dream. Following the success of Survive!, I became a full-time designer and moved with my family from a three-bedroom council house to our five-bedroom country house. Whilst there, Waddingtons launched Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs, followed by Escape from Atlantis. The government wanted to tax me at 60% which was crippling, so we emigrated to Eire. We stayed there awhile, and in 1987 moved to the beautiful Isle of Man.
DM: You designed Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs before Escape from Atlantis. Can you tell us more about that game?
JCS: I invented Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs in 1979. I got the idea whilst standing on a London Underground station waiting for a train. On the wall was a poster advertising a dinosaur exhibition at the Natural History Museum. That was my eureka moment. I thought great idea for a game! I was highly influenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 book The Lost World.
Inspired, it took me just two weeks to invent the game, six weeks to write the rules, and six years to get it to market. Before Waddingtons took the game I approached a number of manufacturers. I remember a Dutch company turning it down as it was "racist". At that time the men in the jungle were represented by small black Halma pieces, so I changed them to small white Halma pieces and called them Incas. Initially, the pteranodon in the game was a picture on a card. One day, I chanced upon a retailer selling small plastic pteranodons. I introduced that to the game as a playing piece. Waddingtons turned this bird into a moving toy, and it became a big hit with the kids.
DM: How was the design process for Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs different from that of Survive!?
JCS: I was six years trying to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs. During that time the game was extensively playtested by my family and friends until it worked perfectly. There was no pressure back then to deliver another game as games contracts were always one-offs, unlike books. When new authors get their first book launched they will normally sign a contract to produce more. With games you're only as good as your last but your reputation does get you interviews.
Games manufacturers of old retained artistic control. You were lucky if you got your name on the box! The first print runs of Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis, which were 25,000 copies, did not give me any accreditation, even though it was written into my contract. Later, after a fuss, they agreed to mention me in the rules. Companies would, if they so chose, alter the rules or change components. The swirler dice in the Waddingtons Escape from Atlantis game was included by them, but to be fair, it proved popular with children.
By and large, Waddingtons' Escape from Atlantis didn't differ too much from my prototype, but Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was radically altered. I was trying to break with tradition and designed the game with no dice. Waddingtons decided to include dice as they reasoned children like to roll dice. They also made a number of other changes, which is why I always say Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs is their version of my game.
DM: Are there plans for a Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs re-release?
JCS: I have been approached many times over the years by companies wanting to market Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs (LVD). In 1987 I divorced. My wife and I agreed to split ownership of all the games I'd devised during marriage. Hence, she retains copyright to LVD whilst I own EFA. My ex-wife has indicated that she would be open to offers, but that she wants the game marketed as it was originally designed.
Publishers always want to input their creativity which can be an improvement or not. As I said, Waddingtons' Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was nothing like the original. I tend to agree with her. Had LVD been marketed as invented, I believe it would still be around today as in its original form, it's better suited to the hobby gaming market.
DM: What other games have you designed, and do you have plans to release any others?
JCS: Too many to list here. I've designed well over fifty games to date.
I did produce a third game in my adventure trilogy called "Mammoth Mountain". The game has a strong theme which includes prehistoric animals of the period like woolly mammoth, sabre-toothed tiger, and so on. The game involves armed conflict between tribes fighting for survival whilst the world is slowly freezing over. When I presented it to Waddingtons, the games industry was in turmoil. Waddingtons were facing extinction therefore weren't prepared to launch "Mammoth Mountain" or any other games.
In the intervening years I devised a number of products, including a debating game called "Controversy". I was turned down because it was considered too controversial.
Late 90's, I devised a range of 3D hand-held magnetic puzzles. Hasbro turned them down due to production costs. The magnets in my design precede today's neodymium magnets! Had I been able to acquire cheaper components, I believe they would have got to market.
When I took Escape from Atlantis to Waddingtons, I also produced a space theme of the game in case they preferred that. Years later Stronghold Games told me they were interested in marketing a space version of Survive! It was "re-imagined" by American designers Brian, Sydney and Geoff Engelstein and called Survive: Space Attack! I had very little input into the product; any co-developing by me was done via Stronghold Games CEO, Stephen Buonocore.
In recent times I have invented games for a younger market, for example, "Diamond Quest", a ludo-style game based in India of old which is enjoyed by my grandchildren.
Regards Survive!, a new Japanese version of the game was launched in 2020 and is doing well. Also, there are plans in the pipeline for another version of Survive!, hopefully in 2021. Watch this space!
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
JCS: Start with a good, strong theme. Once you have that, try to match the theme with a major mechanism as in the island of Atlantis sinking in Survive! From there have some rough ideas about minor mechanisms like meeple movement, die rolls, cards.
Maths must come into the game straight away. How many players? How many spaces on the board? How many tokens, cards, etc. All these need to "balance" so that play runs smoothly. Size of spaces and tokens is important. Make your game appeal to as wide an age group as you can. The greater the age group, the wider the audience, the bigger the market. 8-80 is perfect.
Make rules concise, to the point. Easy to read. Don't make the game difficult to play. It's easy to add a new rule to solve a problem in play. Much better to concentrate on getting the game play working smoothly.
The days of games lasting all day and night, like Risk, are long gone. Time each player's move, ideally making the game last up to an hour and a half. Try to build into the game a natural ending. Last, but not least, playtest, playtest and playtest. To give you an idea, Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs was playtested over two hundred times.
Finally, can you think of a new way of playing a game? Hard ask I know, but try to break out of the mold. Break with tradition, start a new trend and with luck your game will be around for the next fifty years! Read more »
- New GMT Game Round-up: Command U-Boats, Struggle for Glory, Raid Anglo-Scottish Borders, & Write the Versailles TreatyGMT Games announced its latest P500 addition: Border Reivers: Anglo-Scottish Border Raids, 1513-1603 from designer Ed Beach. Beach is known for designing deep, immersive, historically rich, and often beasty, games such as Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, and some might also know him from his design work on the Civilization VI PC game.
Similar to Here I Stand and Virgin Queen, Borders Reivers serves players a strong dose of 16th century history, but is a faster-playing, slightly Euro-feeling game of resource competition, raids, and battle for 2-6 players. In more detail:For two hundred years, war waged back and forth across the border between England and Scotland. By 1482, the unfortunate town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, once the richest port town in Scotland, had changed hands thirteen times. By the time Henry VIII ascended the throne of England in 1509, the fifty-mile-wide stretch of rolling hills and stunning vistas that straddle the border had seen decades of hardship and atrocity.
Yet still the hardy families living on these frontier lands persevered. Unable to count on crops surviving until the harvest, they subsisted primarily on the livestock they could shepherd in the fields near their homesteads. When supplies ran low, raiding to steal what they needed from their neighbors was often the answer. Raids were often carefully planned operations with several border families uniting to steal livestock from a common foe in the dead of night. Cattle and sheep were the likely targets, often with hundreds of these creatures being stolen in a single raid. The reiver's goal was to herd their quarry to safety before the retaliatory "hot trod" pursuit could catch up and force an engagement.
To combat this constant hostility, England and Scotland established the system of March Law. Each nation divided its border lands into an East, Middle, and West March with each of these six territories administered by a Warden responsible for keeping the peace. The Wardens were drawn from the most powerful families on the borders, clans of great renown that could put upwards of a thousand men in the saddle in times of need. The March Law would have succeeded, too, but for the fact that these same great families were usually the ones best equipped and most inclined to raid their neighbors.
In Border Reivers, each player rules over one of the Marches as leader of one of the six major riding families of the border: Grey, Fenwick, Dacre, Maxwell, Kerr, or Hume. Your goal is to increase the wealth and fame of your clan throughout the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth to end the century as the most famous border reiver of all time. Players gain VPs from successful combats, amassing large herds of livestock, and by elevating their notoriety above the other players in the regions of the map.
While we wait (anxiously, in my case) for further updates on Borders Reivers, I figured I'd mention a couple other new GMT releases available for pre-order directly from GMT and retailers:
Imperial Struggle in a post in December 2018, but considering that was a while ago and more importantly, it's from the design team (Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews) that brought us the acclaimed Twilight Struggle, I figured it was worth putting back on everyone's radars. Here's a brief overview of this highly anticipated two-player peace and war game:Imperial Struggle is a two-player game depicting the 18th-century rivalry between France and Britain. It begins in 1697, as the two realms wait warily for the King of Spain to name an heir, and ends in 1789, when a new order brought down the Bastille. The game is not merely about war; both France and Britain must build the foundations of colonial wealth, deal with the other nations of Europe, and compete for glory across the span of human endeavor.
Imperial Struggle covers almost one hundred years of history and four major wars, yet it remains a low-complexity game, playable in a short evening. It aims to honor its spiritual ancestor, Twilight Struggle, by pushing further in the direction of simple rules and playable systems, while maintaining global scope and historical sweep in the span of a single evening.
In peace turns, players build their economic interests and alliances, and take advantage of historical events represented by event cards. They must choose their investments wisely, but also with an eye to denying these opportunities to their opponent. In war turns, each theater can bring great rewards of conquest and prestige, but territorial gains can disappear at the treaty table. At the end of the century, will the British rule an empire on which the sun never sets? Or will France light the way for the world, as the superpower of the Sun King's dreams or the republic of Lafayette's?
In 2018, Ananda Gupta posted an excellent article that sheds light on the similarities and differences between Imperial Struggle and its "older cousin" Twilight Struggle which has me pretty hyped to play it.
• Geoff Engelstein and Mark Herman's Versailles 1919 is a political, negotiation game in which 1-4 players gain influence to contribute to writing the Versailles Treaty. While thematically reminiscent of Herman's World War II classic game Churchill, Versailles 1919 is lighter and very different mechanically, sitting in a sweet spot that eurogamers and wargamers alike will probably dig. Here's the gist of it as described by the publisher:On November 11, 1918 an armistice halted the killing field that was The War to End All Wars. To make peace, Woodrow Wilson (United States), David Lloyd George (United Kingdom), and Vittorio Orlando (Italy) were hosted by President George Clemenceau (France) in Paris, and sat down to write what would become the Versailles Treaty. The treaty was signed on June 28, 1919, after six months of acrimonious debate and bargaining between the great powers.
Versailles 1919 allows you to experience this piece of history as one of the four leaders with a national agenda that must be satisfied. As one of the Big Four, you sit in a conference room gaining influence on the issues present in the room. Hovering in the waiting room sit other issues and personages who are waiting their turn to make their case to meet regional aspirations such as self-determination. Will you support Ho Chi Minh's attempt to free Vietnam from French colonialism? Help Prince Feisal establish a new nation in Mesopotamia or Chaim Weitzman create a Zionist state? Work with TE Lawrence to reduce unrest in the Middle East or with Ataturk in Anatolia?
As France, you are concerned with containing future German aggression while aligning with the British on reparations to pay for the destruction of the war. The British, however, would like to see Germany restored as a trading partner while preserving their empire against the global aspiration for self-determination. Italy wants territorial concessions from the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Lurking in the background is the threat of Bolshevism. Towering above it all is President Woodrow Wilson with his fourteen points that set global expectations soaring, ultimately ending in disappointment when the U.S. does not join the League of Nations.
Versailles 1919 introduces a new card-bidding mechanism in which you use your influence to settle issues aligned with your agenda while keeping domestic constituents in support of your actions. You need to balance the need to demobilize your military forces while simultaneously keeping regional unrest under control. All of these decisions are set against the backdrop of regional crises and uprisings. The player who writes more of the treaty prevails in this contest of wills and national agendas. Can you save the world from the rise of nationalism? Can you make a better world while satisfying your domestic electorate? Play Versailles 1919 and relive making the flawed peace that was the Treaty of Versailles.
The Hunted: Twilight of the U-Boats, 1943-45, which is Gregory M. Smith's sequel to The Hunters: German U-Boats at War, 1939-43. Similar to The Hunters, The Hunted also includes rules for two players. Here's an overview of what you can expect:Read more »The Hunted is a solitaire tactical level game placing you in command of a German U-Boat during WWII. This game picks up the action where The Hunters left off, with you commanding one of many U-Boat models available starting in 1943 and looking to successfully complete U-Boat operations until the end of the war. Not only is this a standalone game, but fans of The Hunters will enjoy having the capability to easily combine both games to span all of WWII and experience the career of a U-Boat commander from 1939 until 1945.
While your mission is to destroy as much Allied shipping and as many capital ships as possible, players will find it extremely challenging to "go the distance" and survive the entire war. The second half of the war has not been sugar coated; the brutal aspects facing U-boat commanders in the final phases of the war make surviving your attack difficult at best. True to history, your challenge is to accomplish what only a few could achieve — to make it to the conclusion, as happened historically.
The Hunted is purposely designed to deliver a brisk, yet intensive gaming experience that forces many decisions upon you as you take command among the major German U-Boat models in service during WWII, and try to survive until the end of the war. All major U-Boat models are accounted for, with every level of detail, including period of service, armaments, crew make-up, damage capacity, and more. Fans of The Hunters will enjoy the same nail-biting game system, but fraught with many more challenges to withstand the advances the Allies have made in anti-submarine warfare. If you ultimately survive until 1945, you will surrender at port, having done your part on the front lines.
As U-Boat commander, you will be confronting many decisions during your patrol. To begin with, eleven German U-Boat models are profiled and available for you to choose from. Patrol zones reflect the period during the war at sea and will shift as the war progresses. All stages of the U-Boat campaign are represented; missions become increasingly more difficult as your adversary makes advances in anti-submarine warfare.
- Links: Distinguishing Between Red and Anthrocite, and Choosing Games for a Pandemicthe 2020 Spiel des Jahres nominees, jury member Udo Bartsch has written an article that explains why certain games are nominated for the Spiel des Jahres award, which is aimed at families, while other titles are nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres, which is aimed at enthusiasts or connaisseurs. Here are two translated excerpts:Which game is a game for everyone and which is not cannot be determined by generally applicable and precisely measurable characteristics, but only by playing with as many different people as possible — and even then, the results are not always crystal clear.In the current year we see The Crew and The Cartographers as connoisseur games. Why? The Crew is a trick-taking game. Many people play trick games; Skat, Schafkopf, Doppelkopf, and also more modern representatives like Wizard are quite popular.
But in contrast to the usual competitive trick games, the co-operative The Crew demands more: If you want to play sensibly, you have to develop a notion for the whole story beyond your own hand and without seeing the cards of the other participants, you need to anticipate processes such as "stinging" or throwing off. The Crew requires an unusual thinking process to make it run smoothly. It's like a logic puzzle with cards. Several times I sat at the table with people who knew Wizard or Doppelkopf, but still had no idea what The Crew was now asking of them.
profiled designer Richard Garfield, with the interview highlighting which game of his has been overlooked (SpyNet, a 2017 release from Z-Man Games) and what he values about KeyForge compared to Magic: The Gathering: "A game like KeyForge makes it tough for a 'one size fits all' strategy guide to emerge; every deck has its strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities. Weirdly, there is noticeably more variety in decks even though in a TCG technically a larger variety of decks could be played — because in practice they aren't played."
I also appreciate these comments from Garfield given how they mirror my own thoughts:"One of my current concerns in board game culture is how fast players draw conclusions about games," he says. "My favorite thing about games has always been that the best ones get better with time and go to unexpected places."
"Skim the comments and reviews on [BoardGameGeek] and they are littered with people talking about imbalances after far too little time. It often seems players pick a strategy the first time they play and if something unforeseen happens the game has a problem that should have been designed around."
Garfield says that games with a large amount of gameplay variety such as 1970s classic Cosmic Encounter, often cited as one of the best board games ever made and a key influence on Magic: The Gathering, have become "dangerous to make" as a result.
"Recently I have begun to suspect that this culture may excessively narrow the sort of games that are made," he says. "Designers are encouraged by this to create games that are tightly constrained so that players get what they expect and are not surprised except perhaps in the minimal amount required to make it feel like a new game."
this April 30, 2020 article by Alexis Soloski in The New York Times that leads with this introduction:If you, like me, grew up with a battered box of Sorry and a Battleship missing at least two of its boats, you should know that board games have improved. With a large number released each year, the variety of games and the mechanics that govern them are almost infinite.
My library books remain unread, a stack of untouched New Yorker issues has become a household obstacle, and I can't make it through a movie, or even a 23-minute sitcom, without reaching for my phone. So why can I spend a focused hour-and-a-half bartering for camels in an Indian marketplace playing Jaipur or simulating quilt-making in Patchwork?
6 board games I’m playing during the pandemic", with this assortment of titles ranging from the "oh, of course" to the "wait, really?" Here's an excerpt that highlights the out-of-print title shown at left, although a new edition is coming in 2020 from Chilean publisher Fractal Juegos:Read more »A terrific tile-layer, this Michael Kiesling design has been criminally overlooked. No dungeon crawls here, D&D lovers—this is a game about building a European formal garden while moving your nobles down the garden path so they can smell the roses (and earn you points). It's fast, it's fun, and it's extremely relaxing. The rules are simple to teach, turns are fast, and everything looks great. The game even includes a small expansion module in the box for slightly more complex play. The biggest downside? It might be hard to find new right now.
- Ride Whales, Collect Artifacts, and Sail Northwest with Reiner KniziaGrail Games has had a steady partnership with designer Reiner Knizia for years, starting with a new version of Circus Flohcati in 2015 followed by a new version of Medici in 2016.
Artist Vincent Dutrait was responsible for the look of that second title, and at this point the Knizia/Dutrait/Grail team has also worked on King's Road, Medici: The Card Game, Yellow & Yangtze, and the still-to-be-released Medici: The Dice Game.
Now they're coming together again for two new titles, the larger of which is the 2-6 player game Whale Riders, which bears a 30-45 minute playing time and this description:You are a whale rider. For generations, your people have known and lived with the ice whales and together you've bought and traded at the busy ports along the fabled Ice Coast. You are honored to be the latest in your family to sail with the whales — but the ice is thickening and the glaciers are moving. A deep winter is coming, the fiercest for centuries. You decide to ride your mount one final time before the snows come to buy and sell as much as you can...and maybe even collect some precious pearls along the way.
Whale Riders is a new design with a classic feel, with players racing to the end of the Ice Coast and back, buying and selling as many resources as possible to make the money needed to acquire the richest prizes. Will you skip opportunities to gain the greatest treasure, or will you make your money slowly along the way?
Each player has two actions per turn, but a lot they want to accomplish. Sail? Buy? Sell? Draw more order cards? All the while, your opponents might be sailing past and beating you to what's on offer down the coast! Once all the precious pearls have been purchased, the game ends and the player with the most pearls wins!
Grail Games plans to Kickstart Whale Riders in July 2020, along with a standalone companion game from the same team. In Whale Riders: The Card Game, which is for 2-5 players, you ride alongside others to buy goods along the Ice Coast, sometimes working together with others only to become competitors again when a better proposition comes along.
25th Century Games plans to release a new edition of Tutankhamen — first released in 1993 by AMIGO, then republished in 2004 by Out of the Box Publishing — under the slightly different name Tutankhamun. The game will accommodate 2-6 players, and here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:The Great King Tutankhamun has passed, and arrangements are being made to fill his tomb with artifacts that will travel with him to the afterlife.
You are one of the priests and priestesses gathering artifacts for King Tut's tomb from all over Egypt. Once all the parts of each artifact have been located, that artifact is placed in the tomb, and the priests who took the most credit for acquiring it donate the funds needed for its procurement. Along the way, enchanted idols from the Gods may assist you in your journey. By acquiring artifacts, you rid yourself of your own wealth in order to pay the highest tribute to the late King Tut. If you can be the first player to completely disperse your wealth, you will so impress the new Pharaoh that he'll appoint you to the highest priestly office.
Prepare your offerings and invoke the aid of the mighty Egyptian Gods while you wind your way down the Nile toward the tomb of the great King Tut. Will you earn the favor of the new Pharaoh and be declared the next High Priest of Egypt?
Tutankhamun features gameplay familiar from earlier versions of this game design, while adding new Egyptian god powers and implementing a modified scoring system.
To set up, shuffle the artifact and god idol tiles, then arrange them in a snake-like pattern that emulates the winding of the river Nile. Players start at one end of the line, taking turns choosing any tile from in front of them along the Nile while never being able to claim a tile they have already passed. Multiple sets of scoring tiles (three sets each of 8, 6, 4, and 2 points), along with ten 1-point scarab ring tiles, can be claimed, and when the last tile of any set has been claimed, the player holding the most tiles from that set scores the number of points listed, while the player holding the secondmost tiles scores half that amount. Whoever has the most scarab tiles when the last one is collected scores 5 bonus points.
Tutankhamun includes two copies each of five different Egyptian god idol tiles. When you collect one of these, you immediately trigger its ability to manipulate tiles on the path, tiles in player's collections, tiles in the Underworld (i.e., the collection of bypassed tiles), or scarab ring tiles in your collection.
When a player reaches zero on the score track at the end of their turn, the game ends and that player will be proclaimed the new High Priest of Egypt!
tweeted about the release of his game Phantom Seas in May 2020, I was surprised to discover not a design of his unfamiliar to me (since few people can keep up with all that he releases), but rather that the publisher of the game — SimplyFun — still existed.
For those not familiar with the company, SimplyFun started publishing educational games in the late 2000s, with its distribution of these titles being handled by sales agents who would host Tupperware-style parties during which they would show guests the games and take orders for them. I wrote about several SimplyFun releases in the late 2000s on Boardgame News, the site I ran prior to joining BoardGameGeek, but then I lost contact with the company and forgot about it — which is perhaps to be expected given that I never saw their games in stores or at conventions, much less at private home parties.
In any case, in April 2020 SimplyFun released the 2-4 player game Phantom Seas, which plays like this:In Phantom Seas, you want to claim as much treasure as possible without having it stripped away from you by the phantom ship that patrols the waters.
To set up, place the 22 treasure tiles face down at random on the designated spaces on the game board. These tiles are worth 1-3 points as indicated by the number of locks on them. Place the included compass on the game board, and orient the board so that the compass points north. Place your ship on one of the starting locations and the phantom ship in the center of the 13x13 game board.
At the start of each round, reveal seven direction cards from the top of the deck. Players then take turns choosing a card and moving their ship in the indicated direction and distance, with most cards giving you choices for one or both of these values. If you finish your movement on a treasure tile, flip it over to see whether the phantom ship moves; if it does, the phantom ship moves directly toward you, and if it reaches you before ending its movement, then you throw that treasure away instead of keeping it.
Some tiles have you rotate the game board (and the compass), which means that the direction cards will now have you moving in different ways.
After all the cards have been played, reveal seven new cards from the deck. After seven rounds or after all treasures have been claimed, players count their scores to see who wins.
Read more »
- Scooby-Doo and Jack Torrance Hit the Game Table — AgainThe Op announced Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion from Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim that was labelled as the company's first "Coded Chronicles" game.
The second such title has now been revealed: The Shining: Escape from the Overlook Hotel is by the same designers, and it's for one or more players, ages 17 and up, with a playing time of at least two hours and a release date of Q4 2020. Here's an overview of what you're doing in the game:The Shining: Escape from the Overlook Hotel puts one or more players in the roles of unhinged writer Jack Torrance's wife and son, Wendy and Danny, who must work together and find a way out of the mysterious resort!
Driven by the "Coded Chronicles" mechanism, which requires you to unlock clues and solve puzzles for unique storytelling codes, the game allows you to use psychic abilities like "the shining" to get through more than two challenging hours of escaping the threat of homicidal Jack and the paranormal hotel itself! Since every Coded Chronicles game is enriched with thematic details and objectives, escaping captivity makes this edition's difficulty level as hard as a dizzying hedge maze (minus the time limit)!
Players can anticipate being engaged with every unpredictable turn, thanks to Wendy and Danny's heightened abilities, which allow their characters to investigate with double the intuition as characters from the previous Coded Chronicles game, Scooby-Doo: Escape from the Haunted Mansion. Use Wendy's skill of looking and using surrounding objects to get a better hold of helpful items or tap Danny's supernatural "Shining" to reveal hidden clues.
The year 2020 is the fortieth anniversary of the film The Shining, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to find a second game being released this year to mark the occasion, with Prospero Hall's and Mixlore's The Shining having been released in March 2020.
wrote about Back to the Future: Dice Through Time and Back to the Future: Back in Time, with each being a co-operative dice-based game due out in mid-2020, the former from Ravensburger and the latter from Funko Games.
And just as The Op is following Mixlore onto the market with its own game about The Shining, CMON Limited is following The Op with its own take on Scooby-Doo, with Scooby-Doo: The Board Game — due out "soon" — being a co-operative design for 1-5 players from Guilherme Goulart and Fred Perret. Here's an overview of the game from CMON:Read more »Ruh-roh, Shaggy! There's a monster on the loose, and it's scaring everyone out of town! It's up to the Mystery Inc. gang to stop them! Scooby-Doo: The Board Game is a co-operative family game for 1-5 players that brings the beloved cartoon series to life with amazing miniatures of the whole gang.
Players take on the role of Scooby-Doo, Fred, Velma, Daphne or Shaggy, and ride the Mystery Machine around town, building traps to catch the villains before they frighten all the citizens away — but just like in our favorite episodes, even the best plans can go awry as the monster, which is controlled by the game itself, may make a move the players never expected!
Each member of Mystery, Inc. has their own unique, special ability to help them during the game, and they'll need all the help they can get because the villains all operate differently as well! The gang can succeed only if they coordinate together as a group.
Scooby-Doo: The Board Game has three levels of difficulty (easy/medium/hard) and special rules for playing as a two-player game or a solo game.
- "New" Game Round-up: Two-Player Sequels & Second Editions
Eric gave us a sneak peek of a couple of two-player sequel and second edition 2020 releases with Reiner Knizia's Schotten Totten 2 and Royal Visit in one of his Spielwarenmesse 2020 trade fair posts. I suppose Schotten Totten 2 was not a huge surprise after the release of 2019's Battle Line: Medieval, a rethemed version of Battle Line that's part of GMT's new "Lunchtime Games" series — with another title in that series being Twilight Struggle: Red Sea, a sequel to the highly acclaimed Twilight Struggle that I covered in this March 2020 post.
Here are a few more 2020 two-player sequels and second editions to check out...
School of Sorcery is a dice-rolling, area-control game from Steve Finn and his publishing company, Dr. Finn's Games. Finn is probably most known for his games Biblios (which I love!) and Herbaceous (which looks beautiful, but I've never played).
School of Sorcery is a reimplementation of Finn's 2015 release The Institute for Magical Arts, a game in which two players compete as student wizards who use dice rolls to place crystals in an attempt to win cards that grant special powers, victory points, or both. Yes, there's dice rolling, but don't run away just yet — there are re-roll tokens and cast cards that allow players to manipulate their dice and mitigate some of the randomness.
School of Sorcery features many of the same mechanisms as The Institute of Magical Arts, but with some new rules, upgraded components, revamped card powers, and new cards with a variety of powers. Considering how much I enjoy Biblios, I'm really curious to try School of Sorcery.
• Christopher Moeller's Napoleon's Eagles: Storm in the East – The Battles of Borodino and Leipzig from Compass Games is a cards-only, Napoleonic wargame that reimplements Moeller's 1995 original release, Napoleon's Eagles.
The new version of Napoleon's Eagles is a more mature design, yet maintains the essence and core ideas of the original version. While it's intended for two players, it also features rules for playing solo. Here's an overview of the historical setting and battle scenarios you can expect:The events of Autumn 1812 to Autumn 1813 marked a pivot point in the history of 19th century Europe. Despite ominous setbacks in Spain, Napoleonic France before 1812 was at the height of its expansion. The continental system was holding, if imperfectly. Monarchs friendly to the Empire — several being members of Napoleon's immediate family — ruled in every capital of the continent. Only Britain remained unbowed. By the end of 1813, the story had changed dramatically...
Napoleon's Eagles is a highly playable, action-packed card game set during the wars of 19th century Europe. Two battles are featured: Borodino, the sanguinary clash before the gates of Moscow featured in Tolstoy's famous novel War and Peace, and Leipzig, the great "Battle of Nations" which marked the beginning of the end of the French Empire.
Two smaller battles are included (Shevardino and Lieberwolkwitz), as well as two campaign games that cover multiple days of battle: September 5-7, 1812 at Borodino and October 14-18, 1813 at Leipzig. The game includes rules for cavalry charges, artillery bombardment, army morale, and army commanders. Emphasis is placed on the role of reserves and the judicious commitment of infantry and cavalry. Key terrain pieces are featured, such as the city of Leipzig and the famous Great Redoubt at Borodino.
Foxtrot Games' The Fox in the Forest Duet, co-published by Renegade Game Studios, was released in the U.S. in January 2020.
Duet features a trick-taking mechanism, theme, and vibe similar to 2017's The Fox in the Forest, which landed a recommendation from the Spiel des Jahres jury in May 2020 following its release in Germany, but flips the competitive element on its head to create a two-player-only, co-operative trick-taking experience:To set up the game, place gem tokens on the designated spaces of the game board and the team tracker token in the center of the movement path. At the start of each round, shuffle the deck of thirty cards — which contains three suits, each numbered 1-10 — and deal each player a hand of eleven cards. Reveal one card as the "decree" card to determine the trump suit. For each trick, one player leads a card, and the other must follow suit, if possible.
The winner of the trick moves the team tracker toward them a number of spaces equal to the number of fox footprints on the cards played. If the tracker lands on a space next to a gem, the players collect one gem. If the tracker would move off the end of the path, return the tracker to the center of the path, then add a forest token to one end of the path, reducing the number of spaces upon which you can move (with you sliding gems next to this covered space next to the new end of the path).
The odd-numbered character cards have special abilities when played, allowing the trick winner to move the tracker in the direction of their choice or to ignore the footprints on one of the played cards so that you can land on just the right spot. One character allows players to exchange one card with each other, while another allows a player to change the decree card.
At the end of a round, you add five gems to designated spaces, add a forest space to shorten the path, then receive a new hand of eleven cards from a freshly shuffled deck. Collect all 22 gem tokens, and you win. Run out of time or head off the end of the path with no forest spaces in reserve, then you can just keep running in defeat or shuffle the cards and start the game anew.
Ultra PRO, Ascension: Eternal is Justin Gary and Jared Saramago's new two-player introduction to the world of Ascension, replacing the 2013 Ascension: Apprentice Edition.
Ascension is a fairly well-known, quick-playing, deck-building game in which 1-4 players acquire more powerful cards for their deck, while spending power to defeat monsters and gain honor/victory points. Ascension: Eternal retains the same core rules and includes everything two players need to play the game, as opposed to the standard format for most Ascension sets that allows for play with up to four people. The Eternal set was designed with the intention of having a good entry point for people getting into the hobby, while also serving as a solid introduction to Ascension for more experienced gamers. Read more »
- BGG.CONline Goes Live Today, May 20, 2020; Check Out the Guest Listcancelled our BGG.Spring show in early April, giving us several weeks to organize BGG.CONline — which debuts today, Wednesday, May 20!
You can visit the landing page for BGG.CONline — with this being our landing page in the future for all live events — to see the list of guests scheduled for airtime on May 20-21, as well as the games they will feature. (The listed time on the schedule matches your own time zone, so you don't need to adjust anything.)
recently announced nominees for the Spiel, Kennerspiel, and Kinderspiel des Jahres awards, then we'll be joined by publishers who will give an overview of recently released games.
You can watch the Twitch broadcast from the BGG.CONline landing page, and if you're already logged into Twitch, you can comment on that page.
Hope you'll join us for the first of what will likely be many such online events! Read more »
- Gen Con 2020 Cancelledcancellation of SPIEL '20, Gen Con has announced that it, too, will not take place in 2020.
Convention co-owner Peter Adkison writes about the decision on the Gen Con blog and announces Gen Con Online on the same dates — July 30 - August 2, 2020 — as the original show. An excerpt:Read more »This will be the first time in the 50+ year history of Gen Con that we will miss the chance to see each other in person, and it hurts, but nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our attendees and the communities they hail from.
I have a conviction about the power of people being together in the same space. Things will have to change as we learn how to adapt to this crisis, but one day we'll join together in rolling real dice onto the same tabletop.
Until then, we adapt and we keep going. For us, that means working on Gen Con Online and planning for our triumphant return to Indianapolis for Gen Con 2021. If you've already bought your badge for Gen Con 2020 and you're willing to roll it forward to next year, it would be a huge help in keeping us operational as we work towards the future.
- VideoGame Overview: Nova Luna, or Taking Tasks to TilesBGG.CONline starting tomorrow, May 20, and much still to prepare, I'm choosing to post only the video for now.
If you're curious about 2020 Spiel des Jahres nominee Nova Luna, this overview covers how to play and what the game feels like, in addition to including a full solitaire game that can watch or skip through as you like.
Conveniently, I've already posted overviews of the other two 2020 Spiel des Jahres nominees: My City (written and video overview here) and Pictures (written and video overview here), so now I just need to write something about Nova Luna...
Youtube Video Read more »
- Spiel des Jahres Nominations for 2020: My City, Nova Luna, and Pictures; Cartographers, The Crew, and The King's Dilemma Are Kennerspiel Nomineesannounced, along with nominees for two accompanying awards: the Kinderspiel des Jahres (KidJ) for children's game of the year, and the Kennerspiel des Jahres (KedJ) for enthusiast's game of the year, that is, for those already comfortable with learning and playing new games.
Jury chairman Harald Schrapers and Kinderspiel des Jahres chairman Christoph Schlewinski announced the nominees and other recommended titles during a live broadcast on Facebook, with these three titles being nominated for Spiel des Jahres 2020:
• My City, by Reiner Knizia from KOSMOS (video overview)
• Nova Luna, by Uwe Rosenberg and Corné van Moorsel from Edition Spielwiese (video overview)
• Pictures, by Daniela and Christian Stöhr from PD-Verlag (video overview)
Aside from these nominations, the SdJ jury recommended the following six titles: Color Brain, Draftosaurus, The Fox in the Forest, Kitchen Rush, Little Town, and Spicy.
Note that the Spiel des Jahres award is primarily aimed at family gamers, i.e., those who play games but aren't heavily into the gaming scene.
Nominations for the Kennerspiel des Jahres went to:
• Cartographers: A Roll Player Tale, by Jordy Adan from Thunderworks Games (and in Germany from Pegasus Spiele) (video overview)
• The Crew, by Thomas Sing and KOSMOS (video overview)
• The King's Dilemma, by Hjalmar Hach and Lorenzo Silva from Horrible Guild (and in Germany from HeidelBÄR Games) (video overview)
The SdJ jury recommended three other titles at the Kennerspiel level: Paladins of the West Kingdom, Res Arcana, and Underwater Cities. The winners of the Spiel and Kennerspiel des Jahres will be announced in Berlin, Germany on July 20, 2020.
The titles nominated for Kinderspiel des Jahres 2020 are:
• Hedgehog Roll, a.k.a. Speedy Roll, by Urtis Šulinskas and Lifestyle Boardgames (and in Germany from Piatnik) (video overview)
• Foto Fish, by Michael Kallauch and LOGIS (video overview)
• Wir sind die Roboter, by Reinhard Staupe and Nürnberger-Spielkarten-Verlag
The Kinderspiel des Jahres jury, which differs from the SdJ/KedJ jury, also recommended seven other titles: Go Slow!, Hans im Glück, Magic School, Puzzle-Memo, Slide Quest, Zombie Kidz Evolution, and Zoo Run.
The winner will be announced on June 15, 2020, roughly one month prior to the winners of the other awards.
Read more »
- ● Funnel World españolPublisher: Hirukoa
Estas reglas combinan los elementos de dos grandes sistemas de juegos de rol de fantasía como son Clásicos del Mazmorreo y Dungeon World.
En este pdf encontrarás reglas para crear campesinos completamente al azar, desde el nombre a su profesión; directrices para crear pueblos y 4 aventuras para iniciarte en este tipo de aventuras.
¿Qué es un “embudo”?
Un embudo es una aventura en la que los personajes comienzan siendo una banda variopinta de campesinos normales y corrientes que se encuentran en circunstancias extraordinarias; el pueblo llano se ve lanzado hacia un crisol de muerte y horror, y debe luchar para pasar de una pieza al otro lado.
Muchas de estas pobres almas, y en muchas ocasiones todas ellas, hayan muertes horribles durante el transcurso de la partida, pero aquellos que tienen la suerte de sobrevivir quedarán transformados por esta experiencia extrema.
Mientras que en la mayoría de JdR de fantasía los PJs comienzan siendo ya héroes, en una aventura de estas características se muestra cómo la gente normal se convierte en héroes.
Esta es la historia de sus inicios.
Necesitarás el reglamento de DW para poder jugar.Price: $2.77 Read more »
- ● The 1st Tale from Tatyana: Shallow WatersPublisher: Travis Montgomery
Merchant extraordinaire Hagesh Corinth is looking for a hardy group of adventures to help protect his wares as he travels the roads up and down the coast, selling his goods to all that need them. Tales abound of bandits, dark forests, and ghostly ghouls prowling the roads as of late. Do you have the courage needed to travel the Valley of Storms and face the trials that await?Price: $1.49 Read more »
- ● Letters in the GloomPublisher: Unicorn Motorcycle Games
We were locked inside.
We didn’t know what was happening, not truly. We knew not to go outside. We knew that it was dangerous out there. And we knew that we were alone in our horror.
Until the letters started to arrive. Whatever strange miasma that lingered outside, invisible yet heavy, it allowed words to slip through. They appeared at doors or windows, in places you could reach without inviting it inside.
If you threw a letter into it? It vanished. Reappearing somewhere else, for some other lonely soul to read. Who knew if it reached who you wanted.
But at least it reached someone.
Letters in the Gloom is a multiplayer roleplaying game about souls locked apart while desperately seeking connection through letters. The writers create and receive letters which are sent into the Gloom, theorizing about what the Gloom is, talking about the past, their hopes, and their fears. The Gloom receives and sends letters, sometimes creating them itself, to add to a creepy atmosphere of being watched by an unknown entity.
It requires one facilitator (the Gloom) at 3 or more writers. It is designed for social distancing, through play via snail mail, email, or chat servers. This game is in playtesting and will remain PWYW until its final release.Price: $3.00 Read more »
- ● SaviorPublisher: Unicorn Motorcycle Games
They asked for your help. You came to save them. You failed.
Savior is a voice recording and journaling experience for one traveller set within the limits of space and communities living within the vast galaxies. Travellers enter communities, experience their wonders, and try to help prevent the fall of them from systemic and community issues.
The savior will not be able to save the community. This is their story on trying, failing, despair, hope, and learning.Price: $10.00 Read more »
- ● you are beautifulPublisher: Unicorn Motorcycle Games
in honor of the holiday season, i offer you are beautiful. this small experience is designed to help remind us we are worthy and beautiful despite our insecurities.
you are beautiful is an affirming experience for two. Each person bears witness to the other as they each tell their own confessions of discomfort, shame, guilt, fear, or worry. This gentle experience is designed to offer vulnerability and care from each experiencer.
please use and share as often as you need to.Price: $5.00 Read more »
- ● American Name Fuel 2000Publisher: Ken Wickham
The popularity of first names changes over time. Even in 10 years, several of the top 1000 American first names change, though many also remain the same or change slightly to a different variation.
This is the most common first names of people born in the year 2000, people that have or are turning 20 years old this year.
American Name Fuel 1990 is a 1,000 first and last name (surname) table alphabetized and numbered for d1000 rolls. The names are American government based, Most common names of those born in 2000 and last names most common in 2010. The informatin available divides names into male first names, female first names, and surnames.
It is usable for RPG games or fiction writing.
It is multi-genre in that random may be used for different time periods. They may be used in retro time periods from the past 20 years, current day modern settings for today, or future time periods extending even past 120 years for either technological, magical, or non-human race age reasons. An age table shows the age for people born in 2000 for different years by 1 year for 120 years, by 5 years for 200 years, by 10 years for 300 years, etc....
Examples of American Name Fuel include the following.
#74 Augustus, Amira, Berg
#294 Don, Delia, Fletcher
#476 Jamarcus, Jazmyne, Keller
#693 Marvin, Madisen, Parks
#777 Payton, Myah, Robinson
#988 Xavier, Yasmeen, Wyatt
Although written as a solo rpg accessory, this product is also a stand alone tool ready—it takes zero conversion to use as a GM tool to help generate scene or dialogue keywords. It is part of the Clawed SRC Accessory ™ and Grammar Fuel ™ brands.
Fuel your game with a American Name Fuel 2000, 12-page word table of 1,000 first and last names!Price: $1.00 Read more »
- ● Downtime Destinations: The Smoke Road ShantyPublisher: Underground Oracle Publishing
Our Downtime Destinations series offers unique and setting agnostic taverns, shops, restaurants, and a myriad of other establishments where PCs can spend their time outside of the normal grind of adventuring.
A Brand New Downtime Destination For 5th Edition
“This little eatery may look like a roadside shack, but your tongue will think the food came right from the king's own table. Pure gold bought for only a few coppers.”
- Alan Bigry, retired royal chef and wayfaring connoisseur
After traveling the well-worn Boulderway Road on their way to one of two adjacent kingdoms, weary adventurers have the opportunity to park their wagons at the junction and try the best barbecue that the realms have to offer at the Smoke Road Shanty. And although the owners themselves aren’t the bragging types, the steady stream of satisfied customers more than speak to their culinary talents.
This supplement includes:
- Information on The Smoke Road Shanty, the realm's best barbeque shack!
- New NPCs to introduce to your Players.
- A spicy new challenge to pit your PCs against.
- Rumors and plot hooks.
- ● The Ghost Hack quick character creationPublisher: Fen Orc
Banshees yearn to feel emotion and emotion is their weapon.
Nightmanes turn away from the living to explore the mysteries of Hades.
Poltergeists remember how to touch - and how to destroy!
Revenants are slaves to the flesh - and know how to return to it.
Create PCs for The Ghost Hack in moments or minutes with these four templates and a fillable PDF character sheet.Price: $0.00 Read more »
- ● RPG characters: Pack4Publisher: Soulafein Art
Pack contains 10 arts. Images are packed to RAR archive. All of them fullbody traditional graphite pencil drawings.
You can also support me on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/Soulafein
Previews on cover or here: http://s0ulafein.deviantart.com/gallery/56422714/Dungeons-and-Dragons
Not only can you use these hand-drawn characters images in your home campaign on game night, you can also use them in your own publications, print or digital! (subject to the simple license agreement below) You can even use these images in your DMsGuild products! Quality art can make a big difference in the success of your products, and commissioning custom artwork can be expensive. With this stock art pack you can fill your products with quality fantasy art without smashing your budget. Plus your purchase helps keep me stocked with pens and cardstock to keep making more art. For that, I thank you kindly, and I hope my art helps you sell more copies of your next publication!
LICENSE INFO: By purchasing this stock art pack, you are granted a royalty-free license to use these images in unlimited personal and commercial products, including print products, digital products, and web-based advertisements for the product in which it is featured. You may NOT place these images in another stock art collection, or sell them individually.Price: $5.99 Read more »
You are allowed to crop, rotate, color, flip, reduce, enlarge, or otherwise modify these images as needed, but if any of the images are resized, the original proportions must be maintained. The initials/signature of the Artist do not have to show up in the final published work, however you MUST include the following statement in the credits of any product where these images are used:
'Some artwork copyright Murzabaev Roman aka s0ulafein, used with permission.'
- VideoQuick & Dirty GMing
Have you ever kind of just been waiting in line to get into the rad nerdy board gaming bar with your friends after playing D&D and the wait-list is like 1-hour long (but you’ve already been waiting for a half-hour so you might as well stick it through) and you think “hey, maybe I should just run something but I have nothing prepped whatsoever so what will I do” and you decide “y’know what, fine, I’ll totally do it” and you want to run some random one-shot about high-schoolers fighting zombies but you don’t know what to do? Are you also a fan of run-on sentences?
No? Too specific?
Welcome to some Quick & Dirty GMing, where the stakes are low but you still wanna run something fun while everyone is waiting.
What are you going to need?
– bored friends
– some dice (d6s in this case)
– a super light system
– index cards
– pens (pencils are for nerds)
– a “[Yes++]” attitude for improv
Why do we need dice?
If you wanted to do a storytelling thing, that’s fine, but I find the most compelling part of tabletop rpgs to be the fact we roll dice and let it decide our fate. As much as folks like to imagine they’ll decide whether or not they’ll fail at something on their own, it’s a storytelling skill that needs to be developed. Plus, it gets rid of the situation where people might argue over where the story should go.
Did you ever have to deal with that kid in the playground that changed the rules as they went along? “No uh, actually you’re on fire now and all damage I took reflected on you.” Now imagine that kid as a full-grown adult and capable of presenting an articulate argument.
Let the dice decide! Avoid an argument!
Why do we need a system?
If we’re rolling dice without a system we might as well flip a coin to decide success/failure. While that’s totally a fair way to handle that, I don’t really believe it’s all that interesting. Players like feeling smart and that they’re doing something right or unique. If everyone is equally good at everything, then no one gets to feel like they specialize—no one gets to feel like they have a role in the whole ordeal.
Let players feel clever! Let players specialize! A system, even a super basic one, does exactly that.
Alright, what system?
When running a Quick & Dirty game you want something you and your players can glean over in a snap. When it comes to that, there’s nowhere better to look than a one-page trpg that you can just save as an image on your phone. Text it to the group chat and bam, they know how to play. There’s a ton of one-page trpgs out there but my favorite line tends to be under one of three:
Lasers & Feelings is the sort of magical game that, while alone is pretty amazing, ended up inspiring dozens of ‘hacks’ using the mechanics with new and interesting settings. Seriously, google “lasers and feelings hacks” and you’ll constantly find something new. Here are two repositories for such. It was also based on this song by The Doubleclicks. Warning: it’s adorable.
Honey Heist kinda came out of nowhere around 2017 and, like the honey being heisted, kinda stuck? It’s about criminal bears Ocean’s 11’ing a honey convention. What more do you need? Perhaps the fact that Critical Role ran it as well?
OKAY SO LIKE Risus isn’t exactly a one-page trpg, as it exists as a six-page pdf. However, it’s super clean and easy to explain to players and even easier to run. It’s been free forever and has actually developed a pretty devoted fanbase for its clean and flexible gameplay. It’s honestly super easy to convert anything ran in Risus into a campaign with the same system.
And the best part is that they’re all free!
With a system, even a simple one, comes complexity. That means you need to track character sheets; what better way to do that than an index card? I typically keep a stack of index cards on me at any time to run games. I’ve honestly done impromptu games at a bus stop if I have a long enough wait time. With index cards, dice, and a handful of pens you can literally turn any awkward amount of time into a roleplaying opportunity.
Quick note: I only advocate for the use of pens. Pencils are dumb and smudge up everything. The only time I touch one is when I absolutely have to.
Improv & [Yes++]
When it comes to the Quick & Dirty game, you won’t really have any time to prep anything. That means you’ll hit the ground running, improv-ing only steps ahead of a collapsing ground behind you. Remember that this is all for fun and literally throw in every silly trope you can think of from every piece of media you’ve absorbed. The characters are running from zombies in the mall? The local nerds have set up a safe-zone in the anime store armed with metal cosplay weapons.
The game is going to be ending the moment your table is called so honestly go wild and throw in your heart. Don’t think about the GMing techniques some podcast told you about. Don’t think about making the moment narratively weighty or meaningful. Be silly, be campy, be cliche. Say yes, but more ‘yes’ than you’ve ever ‘yes’d’ in your life.
Be [Yes++] and maybe your improv-ing can be improving as well.
I like tabletop rpgs; I think a lot of people do. The main concern I always hear is “there’s never enough time” and “it’s hard to schedule” and they’re right. But it doesn’t have to be. Not everyone in your gaming group has to be present to have a good time. Not every game has to be emotional or super narrative-heavy. Sometimes people just want to laugh with their friends, eat snacks, and throw some dice around and I don’t think we should put any less value behind those kinds of nights.
I also don’t believe we need to place our ‘real and serious(TM)’ game nights on a pedestal either.
Throw dice, do something stupid, and have fun. Be a Quick & Dirty GM and be proud of it. Your players, whoever they are, will appreciate it.
~Di, signing offRead more »
- Alignment Alternatives
Alignment has been part of role playing pretty much from the get-go. It’s been around so long that it feels baked right in. Modern approaches in gaming have bucked that trend, though. I consider this a good thing as I’ve never liked the cop-out of, “I’m doing it because I’m
.” It’s a craptastic fallback and poor storytelling.
I would much prefer a set of concerns for a character to influence how they’re going to act and react. This is especially compelling if two (or more) different concerns are at odds with one another. That’s where decision making, role playing, and collaborative storytelling really rise to the top and shine.
So, instead of measuring a character’s moral compass by what quadrant their dot lands on some arbitrary set of X and Y measurements, let’s talk about bringing some powerful draws into what will drive a character to choose a course of action.
At a simple level, if you want to replace alignment with some flavor of measurements, that can be done with what I call “attitudes.” These are a set of qualities that are quantified with some range of measurement. This can be 1-3, 1-10, 3-18, or whatever you and your group like. I prefer 1-10 because it’s granular enough for each “step” to be significant, and most folks can easily visualize measuring an abstract notion on a scale of 1-10.
There are a plethora of attitudes that can be applied to a character, but I’ve boiled my list down to these ten different ones:
Of course, attitudes would be considered internal motivators, but most folks respond more strongly to external forces. This is where organizations and factions come into play. Factions can come from national identity, species, ancestries, organizations, career paths, peer groups, and so many more.
Factions are typically leveraged by the players to obtain material or social support, and to latch on to advancement opportunities for a character. These benefits should come at a price though. This is where missions, plot hooks, NPC interactions, and the organization’s needs come into play. These can really drive a character’s actions and reactions forward in the story when a carrot is dangled in front of them… along with a stick swinging at their rear end. It can even make a player rethink their character’s motivations and desires if enough stress is put on them.
A word of warning here. We, as people of modern society, get enough stress and “threats of the stick” in our reality. For many people, gaming is an escape from those stressors and sticks. Please use the stick lightly, but reward heavily with plenty of carrots.
Immediate Family Ties
Nothing is thicker than blood. There are many things I’d run off and do without hesitation for a family member. If a friend or even a work associate were to ask for the same level of dedication and support from me, I’d have to wonder if they were joking. However, from a family member (at least… most of them), there is rarely hesitation when they ask for a favor. Likewise, there is no keeping track of favors granted or owed within my family circles. We’re simply there for one another as best we can.
If a character in the game has declared some family members as NPCs in their backstory or during their session zero, then it’s okay to use those NPCs in the game. Just don’t always put the NPC in danger or “fridge the NPC” in order to get an emotional reaction from the PC. The NPC will have interests of their own. Perhaps even belong to a faction that is counter to the PC’s faction alignments. When that family NPC shows up and asks for a favor that appears to benefit an enemy faction, what will the player decide to do? Those are the good, strong decisions that lead to interesting times at the table.
A question for all you fine GMs and players out there in the tabletop role playing realm: What alternatives to the “typical alignment system” do you find compelling and interesting? Do you use anything at all?Read more »
- How My Gaming Changed During The Pandemic
By now there is no doubt that all of our lives have been changed by the pandemic. In a matter of days everything that we took for granted — hanging out together, gaming in person, etc — were all changed. In that time, we have had to adapt to how we live in an uncertain world around us. I am at the end of my 9th week in lockdown, and I still have a few more weeks to go, based on the guidelines for my region of New York State.
Today’s article is a bit of a Lessons Learned about how my gaming has changed during the lockdown and how it will proceed going forward. But seeing this is a GMing blog, I promise to keep it gaming-focused and share a few tips along the way.
By the second week of March, I was starting to get twitchy about the appearance of COVID-19 in the US and had been watching reports from Italy and China for the weeks before. That week, I had texted my gaming groups and told them that we were going to the “No Sniffle” rule, that people only come to game nights if they are healthy. We had had our shares of people coming over to the game, coming off of colds or slightly under the weather, in the past, and we had all survived, but it seemed like a better idea to just stop that practice and only game when people were fully healthy. That weekend, we canceled my game because one of my players got a fever (non-COVID related), but we were being safe.
The next Monday, everything was locked down. I was working from home and my kids were home from school. Very quickly we worked to adapt our house into being an office and a school, and as soon as that was done, and we made a hasty run for groceries, we hunkered down to make the best of it.
Transition to Online Games
I have been fortunate for most of my gaming tenure to play in-person. I have always had a face-to-face game group and before lockdown I had three different games, and some significant overlap between the groups. All three groups transitioned to online play. Here are some of the things I learned:
One of my MVP’s in this pandemic will be zoom.us. That weekend of lockdown, I purchased a monthly account in order to get unlimited meeting times. I knew that for the games I ran, I would need 3-4 hours per meeting. The free version gives you 40 min, which was not going to be enough. I really like the features of Zoom and the video and audio quality have been exceptional. Here are a few tips for how I like to use it:
- Virtual Background- I use a virtual background to hide the rest of my house behind me.
- Gallery View vs. Speaker View – When I am GMing I like to use Gallery view so that I can see larger images of all my players. This helps a lot in reading facial expressions, seeing if someone needs something, etc.
I had forgotten that I had a Roll20 account from back when I supported Tabletop Forge, but I was sure glad I found the credentials in my password manager 9 weeks ago. I had not really used Roll20, but I quickly got through the basics, and with help from friends who had been running online games, I got up and running quickly.
My one tip for any VTT is that they are feature-rich, and trying to learn all the features and implement them at once can be daunting, and stressful. So I used a phased approach. I started by just using it to display some maps and roll dice, for those who wanted to roll online. Between sessions, I worked on using one new feature, based on need. Doing it this way took the pressure off of me to try to have everything working smoothly, and let me focus on what was more important — running an entertaining game. Over time, we have been able to leverage more and more of the features that make running games online smoother.
Changes in Prep
I noticed that quickly my prep for my games began to change. I had new needs that I had to account for while I was prepping. I still needed to do my normal prep for the session I was going to play, but I now had to add in time for prepping VTT assets (mostly maps, but also some info and notes). I had to work in VTT enhancements (from above). I also had to schedule the Zoom meeting and make sure that the links for the meeting got sent out.
Also — and this could be inexperience, but others more experienced have told me the same thing — you do not cover as much material in an online game as you do face-to-face, in the same amount of time. I began to adjust my prep for two solid hours of play, with about an hour of slower play, as people wrestled with technology (VTT, Zoom, computer issues, etc) and having 30 min of social time at the start of the game.
Also, I find online gaming more energy-draining than face-to-face. After running a session, I feel good, emotionally, but I feel like I have expended more effort in how deliberate I have to be communicating over Zoom, as well as juggling more things on the table (VTT being one of them).
Escapism Games FTW
My normal preferences for RPGs are dark and gritty games, with modern preferred over fantasy. During this lockdown I have been drawn towards fantasy and superheroes, favoring escapism over realism. That makes perfect sense. Now is not the time, for me, to be playing anything that is going to be sad or depressing. Right now my mental health is a “solid OK” but the distance from ok to depressed is pretty short, and there is no need to push that. Right now, fighting the forces of evil and exploring dungeons is just what I need to forget it all. Games that are funny or lighter are also appealing to me right now.
I think it’s important to realize that we are not in the same place mentally as we were before this started, and we will likely not be “going back to normal” after the lockdown is lifted. So based on where you are mentally, consider if the games you are playing help your mood or strain it. Find games that fit well with what you need and what is going to re-charge you. I have a number of more intense games I am excited about playing, but I am not in a place to play them right now. They can sit on the shelf until a time when my emotional stability is more solid.
Eventually, this all ends and in the short-term, there will be a new normal — and we may even get back to something that seems like pre-lockdown. What will gaming look like as the lockdown ends? I am starting to think about it and talk about it with my groups.
Return to Face-to-Face Gaming…hanging out with someone means hanging out with all the people they hang out with.
At some point, we are going to be allowed to get together and game face-to-face. At first, it won’t be totally comfortable and likely come with some anxiety. Having grown up during the HIV epidemic, I learned that when you sleep with someone, it’s like sleeping with all the people they slept with. With COVID-19, hanging out with someone means hanging out with all the people they hang out with. We are going to evaluate hanging out with someone based on how safe we think they are, the precautions they are taking, and their exposure to the virus. We are going to have to come up with our own rubrics of what is comfortable for us.
Does that person always wear a mask when they go out? Do they work somewhere with a lot of possible exposure? We are going to have to ask these questions. It will be uncomfortable, much like how asking sexual partners about their sexual history was. We will learn to ask the questions and figure out how comfortable we are. The upside will be that we are being safe, and the downside will be that bringing in outsiders to a group is going to be much harder, face-to-face.
We are going to have to decide on what safety we want to take when we game. Are we going to wear masks? Will we want people to if they were recently sick with a cold? What about sharing snacks and beverages? Or will we just bring our own food? Our tables will look different for a time.
What About Conventions?
I love conventions, big and small, and in the past five years I have attended 4-6 a year. But now, I have a whole new set of concerns. All the same issues I have above with my closest friends, I have to now think about with a group of strangers.
We all know that people get each other sick at cons, so much so that we have a name for it — Con Crud. We all accepted that risk. Getting a head cold at the end of the con was a small price for getting to game all weekend, and spend time with friends. Getting the Con Crud was a bit of a badge of honor, and a way to get some rest after the con, before having to go back to work. But now the stakes are higher — it may not be a cold that you get for going somewhere with a large number of people, in close proximity, for an extended period of time.
The larger the con, the greater the risk.
I know for me, going back to conventions will be tough. It is a lot of potential exposure over a prolonged time. Where I think I will be more comfortable is with smaller, personal cons, where a group of close friends attend a weekend of gaming with each other. Where everyone knows everyone else and has a comfort level for how safe and healthy they are.
Keep On Gaming
No matter what happens, I know that I will keep gaming. RPG’s have been the one constant in my life for the past 38 years. I will adapt as needed in order to keep gaming, be that playing online, or wearing masks to our first face-to-face games, etc. I will do what I need to in order to keep engaged in this hobby which has done so much for me, in terms of my mental health, friendships, etc.
Will we ever go back to conventions? Likely yes. Will it be soon? I have no idea. I look forward to a time when we can gather in person and share in our hobby, meet new people, play new games, exchange new ideas.
How has your gaming adapted during the pandemic and lockdown? Did you have to transition to online gaming? Or were you already there? What do you think you will need to be comfortable gaming face-to-face or going to a convention?Read more »
- Video10 Things I learned about Japanese Tabletalk RPGs
In the wake of the quarantine times, I’ve found many of my IRL games heavily impacted by the inability to actually meet up. I know it comes off a bit unrelated, yes, but in that time I’ve found myself binging on anime and manga and looking to Japan for entertainment.
Somehow in the last few weeks both Big Eyes Small Mouth (BESM) 4e, an anime-inspired TTRPG made in North America, and Shinobigami, a popular TRPG from Japan recently translated for English-speaking audiences, came out in quick succession. It got me thinking as to what the tabletop communities in Japan were actually like and what sorts of games do they play.
Good lord did it open up a rabbit hole.
I come into this never having actually played a full-on Japanese TRPG, but instead only having heard of them tangentially through others. Note when I say Japanese TRPG, I’m defining it as a game that originated in Japan, developed by Japanese developers, and were then later on translated over here. If you’re looking for these in particular, here: Maid RPG, Golden Sky Stories, Ryuutama, Double Cross, Tenra Bansho Zero, the upcoming Kamigakari: God Hunters, and the recently released Shinobigami. Of these, I only own the recently released Shinobigami (but if you’ve got a copy of Double Cross—Infinity Code hit me up) and I have to say the design differences alone are staggering.
But this article isn’t necessarily about that. Partly because determining broad strokes of “THIS IS JAPANESE DESIGN” after viewing only a single book won’t lead anywhere, partly because this is less about the individual games, but more so exploring the cultural artifacts associated with JTRPGs.
1. ‘Tabletalk’ not ‘Tabletop’
I’m not certain as to why, but pen-and-paper roleplaying games are referred to as tabletalk RPGs, or TRPGs, in Japan. It apparently refers to how folks talk at the table and likely refers to how a lot of early TRPGs were more theater of the mind (Crusher Joe, Enterprise: Role Play Game in Star Trek) compared to the War-Game tableTOP origins of Chainmail/Dungeons & Dragons.
2. Call of Cthulhu is the most popular TRPG in Japan
This one personally surprised me to find out, but you can find album links to various books and supplements here and here. Fair Warning, but the second album link has some graphic Lovecraftian horror imagery as well as cute anime girls. It is to my assumption that both are equally as terrifying.
This seems to originate from a very popular Replay (or a retelling of tabletop events) of Call of Cthulhu back in 2007. It did for Call of Cthulhu in Japan to what Critical role did to D&D 5e here in North America.
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3. JTRPGs are typically manga-sized(+have manga)
Shown from this Don’t Stop Thinking’s D&D VS Japan’s Top TRPG (with Andy Kitkowski) video, you can see that while we’re used to seeing these 11×8.5in hardcovers, many JTRPGs measure at 7x5in. This is typically the size most book publishers print books in. It makes it particularly easy to stock while larger books often have difficulty being shelved and stored.
That said, it still needs to store just as much information as any other RPG book, so they tend to fall at 400-500+ pages for the Core books. Later supplements typically fall between 100-200 instead.
Not only are most JTRPGs manga sized, but they typically include ‘Replays’ or accurate records of how an actual session or campaign went. I’ve heard of a few gamebooks using just text but a majority of major games, such as Sword World and Shinobigami, majorly depict it in the manga. This doesn’t even include the introductory manga pages teaching folks how to play.
4. Replays are a major form of TRPG content
As described above, replays are records of what happened in a session or campaign. The well known Record of Lodoss War is an actual replay of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and the anime Chaos Dragon was an anime-replay of a campaign ran in Red Dragon (another JTRPG). They can be used not only as a transcript of a game session, but also a learning tool as to how games are actually played. Think of taking those ‘Examples of Play’ sections in your favorite TTRPG and turning that into a whole series of books.
Replays are fairly popular and often mistaken for light novels and other such books. There are replays of both Japanese games but also natively English ones such as D&D and Call of Cthulhu.
Part of what made Call of Cthulhu so popular in Japan was apparently a YouTube video replay of a game.
5. Tabletalk RPGs can be SO MUCH CHEAPER
How much does your printed copy of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Genesys cost? Over $50? What if I told you in Japan, due to the focus on smaller print sized B&W books, many tabletops cost approximately the price of a manga? Pair that with Replay novels at the same price, and you have a market where you can go to a game store and easily pick up the latest edition of that one tabletop you love without making even a dent in your wallet. Many of the majorly popular tabletops in Japan follow this, even though there is a shifting trend towards larger and higher quality books.
Yes, more premium hardcover options still exist and are priced similarly as they are across the world, there’s just a decent number of low-cost tabletops just floating around to pick up on your daily grind.
6. A lack of PDFs
Since Japan has a heavy focus on fairly cheap and accessibly tabletop books, many don’t end up getting processed for being turned into PDFs. With a limited digital marketplace for them (at least in the mid-2010s where I’m deriving my info), this has to lead to many older tabletops of theirs to completely lack PDFs for the games. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that most major publishers in Japan are downright terrified of digital piracy. This actually makes translating Japanese RPGs more difficult for English speakers, both in an official and unofficial capacity, as the first step to translating a game (likely illegally) is to find a Japanese person willing to photocopy all the pages to you. While there are certainly some publishers out there that have moved towards opening themselves up for digital distribution in recent years, there’s still a good amount of trouble with providing such; those that do often end up selling digital copies at the exact price of the physical ones as well.
7. One-shots reign supreme (cause everyone’s busy)
Japan has a very strong work-centric culture. Because of that, free time is fairly limited and possibly hard to pin down to set, regular times. This has created a culture of one-shot focused gameplay, where players often just bring in their own characters from all over the place to work together. Whereas many North-American gamers (I mostly speak on behalf of NA as I know next to little about Japan, Europe, and other tabletop cultures) tend to focus heavily on party composition and campaign cohesion, you can typically find a Japanese Call of Cthulhu game having a mixed cast of hard-boiled detectives, over-the-top swordsman, and magical girls in the same party.
Many games—Double Cross definitely comes to mind—even have mechanics focused on leveling up players over characters. This allows characters to die more freely, only for their player to bring in new characters the week after.
8. The Big 3 Fantasy Games
Aside from Call of Cthulhu, there are three major fantasy games all vying for 2nd place. While Pathfinder 1e and Dungeons & Dragons 5e are no surprise to anyone—especially considering their ubiquity across the world—Japan also has Sword World RPG, which is currently in 2.5e. All three are constantly in equal competition, which has kept D&D 5e from dominating Japan’s market as it seemingly has all across the world.
9. So, so many powers
From the handful of books I’ve been able to look through, it seems that many JTRPGs like Tenra Bansho Zero, Double Cross, Shinobigami—as well as what I’m told Log Horizon, Konosuba, Arianrhod, and Sword World games are like—there is a heavy focus on open power/ability choices. Almost every talent or power your character has is chosen from a massive list so each and every character feels fresh and uniquely yours. While class-based systems definitely have unique powers to choose between them, the lists behind each are large enough you won’t see an end to the choices. Pair this up with many tabletop systems having a large universal power list or very open multiclass or class-change mechanics, and you have a character that is ultimately only limited by what you choose for them.
10. Authorial construction & Scene-based gameplay
When it comes to tabletop RPGs in the west, there’s often a huge focus on the discussion between sandbox games and constructed campaigns. There’s even a large number of constructed campaigns that frame themselves in large sandboxes where the players are free to do whatever they want (see: 5e’s Curse of Strahd or Storm King’s Thunder). While the discussion definitely exists in Japan,—simply due to western games such as Pathfinder, D&D, and Call of Cthulhu being so prevalent—the truth is that a large number of games have very strong constructed narratives.
Double Cross, Tenra Bansho Zero, and Shinobigami all have a powerful focus on games being covered in “Acts,” “Phases,” or “Scenes,” which highly feature only 1 or 2 players in each scene. There’s even a large number of powers in their various games that only work in specific scenes such as the “Introduction” where each player dramatically reveals their character to the party or the handful of “Main Phases” where plot-driven adventure happens between each character. Those phases, in particular, tend to have at best minor conflicts and confrontations where even taking 1 damage takes you completely out of the scene. Many of these games then also have a “Climax Phase” which is typically a huge fight involving all the players against that adventure’s antagonist in a heavy boss-encounter.
This type of focus on scenes reminds me a lot about television, movies, and (of course) anime. Every encounter seems to act in vehicle to the narrative, yet with all the extra bits cut out. Sessions are incredibly fast-paced and large scale adventures can be explored and played through in as few as 1-2 sessions.
This is as good as a time as any to address that I didn’t see many narrative-focused games (such as, say, Apocalypse World or FATE) have much of a home in Japan. These games tend to heavily focus on placing narrative involvement at the forefront of the game. This narrativist gameplay is woven into character creation from their basic Aspects, to the Moves you get to make in-game. Yet, at the same time, Japan’s TRPGs have little to no focus on any narrative mechanics, often opting for many of the games to entirely focus on combat or what your character can actually do. It’s the perfect world for Powergamers (myself included) but achieves strong narrative cohesion despite none of its mechanics actually supporting a narrative-focused style of game.
All due to the focus on scene-based gameplay.
It makes me wonder if we actually need games that heavily focus on narrative involvement when it seems that all we need to do is simply change how we structure our gameplay.
I can’t help but imagine D&D 4e would actually thrive way more in Japan than it ever did in North America.
I don’t know if it’s due to my love of character freedom and the emphasis on power-based character building, but I really like the feel of Japanese TRPGs. I have to imagine that the cultural artifacts surrounding Japan’s TRPG scene have created a very unique type of gameplay style that can greatly uplift games that focus on limitless character building, all without sacrificing strength in the narrative.
Ever since discovering this style, I’ve actually taken in and applied it to how I run this podcast game I GM for and have found that my games have greatly sped up in pace. We can get through an entire ‘season’ of content within 3 sessions that I could easily see last twice as much for any other gaming group. I honestly believe that picking up games that originated in Japan (such as the recent Shinobigami) and learning to GM/play in that style can greatly benefit anyone looking to step up their game to the next level.
Or maybe I’m just a massive weeb and I’m over-glorifying this. Perhaps my love of anime has finally gotten to my brain and now I’m trapped in a cycle of never-ending pedestaling Japanese-sourced content. Perhaps this is me completely going off the deep end and not caring about the consequences.
I don’t know about the rest, but I’m definitely a weeb.
~Di, signing offRead more »
- Review: ShadowMyths Decks
This is a rare review for me. I used to do them all the time on another site, but have fallen away from doing them very often. Anyway, today I bring to you the ShadowMyths decks from artist, writer, and gamer, Doug Hoppes. Each deck runs $20.00 retail, and at the time of this writing, it appears he has four different decks to choose from. Doug provided two of his decks to me for the purpose of this review, so let’s jump into it!
Each deck came in a clear case that holds the cards and instructions nicely. There’s even a slight bit of space in the case to allow for getting the cards out without bending/folding them. I like the fact that there is a case (instead of just film-wrapped or loose cards) because that allows me to toss the cards into my improvisational toolkit backpack without worrying about the cards getting damaged or lost in the bottom of the sizable bag.
(Note: You click each image to see a larger view of the photograph. Please forgive my photography skills. They don’t do the cards justice.)
The instruction paper (more on that in a bit) calls out the following uses for the decks:
- Roleplaying Games
- Oracle Reader
Doug recommends drawing three cards. One will represent the protagonist, another the antagonist or obstacle, and the third is how the story is resolved. Pretty basic, but that’s a great start. I would also throw in that more than three cards could be drawn. Three for characters (protagonist, antagonist, and stakes character), and one for each plot point the writer would want to cover, and this would cover the grand finale as well. Of course, any improvisational writer will twist and leverage a creativity tool to their own needs, so I don’t feel Doug’s instructions here are lacking.
For RPGs, these cards can be used in a similar manner as for writers. A card for each key NPC, a card for the Main Big Bad, and cards for situations that will arise to make getting to the main Big Bad a little more difficult. I could also see these cards being used during session zero as a world-building (world being relative, could be a city, a neighborhood, a space station, whatever) exercise to reveal and brainstorm possible elements of the setting.
Next up is the oracle reader section. This is where I hiccup on the use of the cards. I’ve had readings done with tarot cards and such in the past. Those are well-known symbols and imagery with established meanings for how the cards land in relation to one another. I suppose anything can supplant those well-known cards and layouts. After all, reading innards, bones, blood splatters, runes, the shape of rocks, and pretty much everything else that can be slightly randomized have most likely been used to tell futures or guide decisions. The main reason I paused here is that the cards (as you can see from the photos) are mostly dark, gloomy, and grim in their presentation. I find it difficult to get a “bright and cheery” reading out of them. Of course, that’s me, so different folks may find these cards great for oracle readings.
Doug has a section in the instructions on how a teacher can leverage these cards for creative writing and vocabulary building (mainly adjectives). I can see these cards being useful in a high school or college classroom. The imagery is just too dark and ominous for me to want it to fall into the hands of younger students. There’s nothing pornographic or overtly graphic about the artwork, but some of them are definitely nightmare fodder for the younger mind. (That’s a compliment, BTW.)
Lastly is the therapist approach where the cards are leveraged to assist a patient under the care of a (I presume) trained therapist to talk through their issues and emotional wounds. I can’t really comment here because I am not a trained therapist, so any judgement call I made on using these cards this way would be pure guesswork.
Now that I’ve covered the basics, let’s talk about the artwork. As I’ve already mentioned, Doug’s artwork is dark and foreboding. That’s right up my alley, to be honest, so I love the styles and dark color choices Doug has put into the artwork. It’s amazing for my creative mind. Of course, I don’t see coming up with a “sunlight and flowers” type story out of using these cards, but I’m okay with that. I can’t even come up with stories like that when required to do so while sitting under flooding sunlight in the midst of a field of flowers.
The artwork is also wide and varied as you can see from the photos embedded in this review. The variety of imagery really helped me come up with some cool ideas while I was brainstorming with the decks of cards.
My only recommendation on adding some variety to the artwork would be to add more objects. There are plenty of humanoids and creatures, but not much in the way of swords, daggers, shields, armor, chalices, furniture, and so on. Perhaps Doug could create a deck of his awesomely-styled artwork that was just objects (hint, hint). Then that deck could easily be shuffled in with the other decks and a wider variety of ideas could be gleaned from their use.
The Cards Themselves
The cards are made of thick stock and are laminated like a good card should be. The feel of the cards are great, and they shuffle very well. Even if a “soda disaster” happens around them, I can see them holding up quite well and lasting for a good number of years.
Now for the downside of the product. The instructions are printed on a single sheet of paper (front and a bit on the back). It looks like it was once an 8.5 by 11.5 sheet of paper with one-inch margins, but has been trimmed down to fit into the deck case. The paper is folded three ways horizontally and three ways vertically to get it to fit. The folding of this single sheet of paper makes it difficult for it to lay flat while reading the directions. Of course, the instructions really aren’t needed past the initial review of the printout.
I would recommend to Doug to create a small booklet that’s slightly smaller than the cards and include the same instructions on that booklet. There is enough “air space” in the case with the cards to include something thicker than a sheet of paper folded nine ways. It’ll also produce a higher-quality product. I don’t know about expense and if the booklet would drive down profits on the product too much, but it would yield a much higher customer satisfaction.
The production quality of the instructions are really my only true complaint about the whole product.
If you’re a person that likes to use evocative imagery to spur the imagination for writing, roleplaying, or general creative endeavors, these decks will make you happy. There are no stats, mechanics, or other crunchy bits to these cards. They are not intended to be used that way. The artwork takes front-and-center on these cards, and they will provide plenty of suggestive material for your creations.
I’m happy to have the two decks that I have that Doug provided to me. He sent me the Darkness and Turmoil decks. I’ve already placed an order at ShadowMyths for the Necromar and Malochi decks.Read more »
- Threefold Review
Given how small and confined the world feels these days, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look at an RPG supplement about endless worlds and infinite alternate Earths. Somewhere out there, I’m sure we just skipped 2020!
What is this setting full of potential? Today I’m going to look at the Threefold setting for Green Ronin’s Modern AGE Basic Rules. Modern AGE has rules not only for modern arms and equipment, but also has support for magic and superhuman powers, allowing for a wide range of modern era genres. The Threefold setting is designed to take advantage of the broad scope of the Modern AGE rules.
This review is based on the PDF of the Threefold Campaign Setting, which is 186 pages. This includes a full-page ad for the Lazarus setting, a two-page character sheet, and a three-page index. This is a full-color product with full page and half page art pieces, with the full-page pieces introducing individual chapters. Several “iconic” characters appear in the Modern AGE rulebook that appear in several of the pieces in this book as well.
Most of the book is formatted in a two-column layout with several sidebars called out with separate colors. For several stat blocks, the book retains the orange/yellow/green formatting for the different modes of play introduced in Modern AGE (Gritty/Pulp/Cinematic). The introductory fiction and glossary sections are formatted in three columns. There are various sidebars throughout the book that give quick paragraph explanations of multiple realities throughout the book as recurring plot hooks.
There is a Green Ronin quirk that exists in several products and is in evidence here as well. Green Ronin is often very efficient with page usage, meaning they don’t allow for a lot of blank space. The consequence of this efficiency is that at times a stat block will appear on a different page than the headings that contextualize that stat block. For example, in the adversary chapter, a stat block may appear in a sidebar on one page, but the paragraphs that give more information about the character represented by the stat block won’t appear until the next page.
Because this is a campaign setting, the text assumes a few different degrees of familiarity with other products in the Modern AGE line. The text notes that Modern AGE Enemies and Allies is written specifically with the Threefold setting in mind, and a few of the factions mentioned in this book have stat blocks for characters in that book, which are not repeated in this book. Additionally, a few optional rules from the Modern AGE Companion are mentioned as options as well.
The Modern AGE Companion does not feel as obligatory, despite the references, but the expanded range of opponents may be something that a GM running this setting may wish to access. At the bare minimum, as this is a campaign setting for Modern AGE, this product will require the Modern AGE Basic Rulebook to use.
After the introduction, this product is divided between a Player’s Section and a Game Master’s Section. The Player’s Section includes the following chapters:
- Chapter 1: Across A Thousand Planes
- Chapter 2: Threefold Characters
- Chapter 3: Secrets & Potent Powers
- Chapter 4: The Sodality & Aethon
The Game Master’s Setting includes these chapters:
- Chapter 5: Eternals at War
- Chapter 6: The Planes
- Chapter 7: Treasures
- Chapter 8: Denizens of the Planes
- Chapter 9: Metacosm Campaigns
- Adventure: Identity
Across A Thousand Planes
The first section of this campaign setting details the very large scope on which the campaign plays out. In this case, there are many alternate realities, but they are grouped into three broad categories, Earths, Otherworlds, and Netherworlds. Earths are worlds that appear as alternate versions of our world, either resembling the past or the future, or the present where some events in the past unfolded differently. Otherworlds are usually magical places that are distinct enough that they don’t resemble any era on Earth, but might have certain mythic touchstones (for example, resembling the godly realms from the various religions of Earth). Netherworlds are dominated by occult (psychic) powers, rulers trade in and manipulate souls, and the gates to these worlds are usually sealed or guarded.
Gates between planes are very difficult to create or destroy, but they can often be locked or unlocked, and some characters have a natural ability to sense how to manipulate existing gates. Because some destinations don’t have a direct link, characters may need to travel across multiple realities to reach their desired location.
The politics of the setting involve the Vitane (a multi-world magical government that exists across various Otherworlds), the Peridexicon (the secret government of Earth), the Divine Empire (multiple magical Otheworlds ruled by the children of ancient gods), and the Nighthost (the allied armies of the more hellishly disposed Netherworlds).
There is a lot of history that is presented as some of these governments spring from others, various capitals are established, and various factions create enforcement and exploration organizations. In general, you get the broad strokes of what organizations are the primary movers and shakers in the campaign, but the full concept of where gates come from, how they work, and the truths of the universe don’t show up until later in the book.
The setting as presented in this chapter is interesting, but this section includes just enough to get confusing. There is just enough information to get some wrong ideas about how things work. I know this is the player facing section, but I think the bare minimums of the major transplanar nations and organizations would have been a better, shorter summary.
This section of the book adds extra rules to the options from the core book. There are new backgrounds, ancestries, professions, talents, and specializations. These are generally flavored towards providing context within the Threefold metacosm setting.
The backgrounds provide multiple variable benefits. These benefits may be ability boosts, or skill focus, and there is a chart with multiple benefits, meaning you can have many characters with the same backgrounds that derived very different items from those backgrounds. Each background also grants talents, and because this is where talents first come into character creation, we learn that you cannot gain both psychic and magical talents. Those are mutually exclusive supernatural power sources in the setting.
This section also provides ancestries. Ancestries allow you to replace options that you gained from your background (meaning that you don’t need to replace anything from your backgrounds if you don’t want to do so). The ancestries included in the setting are:
While some of these correspond to various fantasy species, they do so more broadly. For example, Arvu are kind of similar to elves, but depending on the world they may be more traditional fantasy elf, or more sidhe fey creatures. Dreygur may seem more like demonic humanoids or Unseelie fey. Huldra may be like gnomes, dwarves, or goblins. Jana may resemble jinn. According to Vitane law, anything with a soul is human, so regardless of minor details, all of these species are effectively humans from different worlds across the Metacosm.
The next set of character options in this chapter are professions. Depending on the profession chosen, the character might receive another focus and talent, and this also sets their starting health and resources.
The talents section introduces a specific kind of talent called Soul Talents. Soul Talents often involve encoding for which world the character has an affinity. Often the soul talents lock a character out of taking a different set of talents, and may tie a character to Earths, Otherworlds, Netherworlds, or may brand the character as a Wandersoul. Wandersouls are characters with a natural affinity for gates and extraplanar travel, and can pick up the location and traits of planar gates.
Specializations are a simpler version of what 3rd Edition D&D players might recognize as prestige classes. These are bundles of abilities that a character can pick up at higher level that makes them better at a particular set of skills. In this case, many of these specializations tie a character to one of the organizations in the setting as specific operatives, or as members of factions specifically outside of the organizations (like the Red Pact Warlocks, arcane practitioners that don’t learn one of the approved courses of magical study).
I like what’s going on in this chapter, I just wish the previous chapter had focused a little more on explaining just the organizations and setting elements directly highlighted by the character options in this section.
Secrets and Potent Powers
This section adds new powers to those that appear in the Modern AGE Basic Rules. There are new Arcanas, Psychic Powers, and Augmentations. In addition to new options, there are also Occult Rites. These rites allow a group of characters to trigger powers they do not currently have, or to trigger powers at a range and scope that the power usually doesn’t allow. There are also additional rules for how magic can be replenished, and how to determine the limits on how many augmentations a character can have.
As mentioned in the previous section, characters with the ability to use magic cannot learn to use psychic abilities. Characters with Augmentations, special high tech body modifications, can have one or the other, but the more augmentations a character has, the harder it is for them to use either their magical or psychic powers. This essentially aligns the power sources in this manner:
- Otherworlds = Arcana
- Netherwords = Psychic
- Earths = Augmentations
One of my favorite aspects of how magic works in this campaign setting is that on magical worlds, characters regain magic after a certain amount of time resting. Magic is ambient. However, on less magical worlds, characters can perform artistic activities to generate magic points. Magic is the energy of creation, so creative efforts spawn additional magical energy. I have heard magic expressed this way before, but I like the way it is mechanically reinforced here.
Some unscrupulous magic practitioners can also siphon magic from people that are themselves artistic. Minor feeding in this manner just stunts the character a bit, but prolonged feeding eventually kills the artist. Additionally, magic practitioners, in a pinch, can siphon magic from existing magic items to replenish their ability to cast spells.
Rites generate Gnosis, which allows characters to build an effect from that Gnosis. In addition to performing the standard rites, characters can generate more Gnosis by committing forbidden acts. Committing these forbidden acts generates more Gnosis because they transgress what the common consciousness assumes “should” happen, and breaking that generates more power. Thankfully, there is a discussion about how to approach these transgressions carefully at the table, although the discussion would have been better formatted as a wider safety sidebar. Additionally, the terminology used is very common, but I’ve seen some discussion about the etymology that makes me hesitant to use it.
I was a little concerned at the beginning of the Augmentation section, because there was a reference to the limits and what happens when a character exceeds their limits on augmentations, both physically and mentally. Thankfully, we don’t have a situation where anyone’s humanity or sanity is challenged. Characters that have too many augments may end up having a difficult time making constitution tests or they may become, or have a more difficult time removing, exhaustion.
The Sodality & Aethon
This section looks at the organizations that are the assumed baseline for player characters. The organizations have a basic level of cooperation, meaning you could have a mixed group of PCs working together, but it’s going to be more likely that player character groups will belong to one or the other. In general, the Sodality performs more above board, straightforward missions, while the Aethon operate in a little more of a grey area.
The Sodality is primarily going to go on missions that feature diplomacy, protecting worlds from invasions coming through various gates, or gathering information from newly discovered worlds. There are three branches to the Sodality — the Emissary, Protector, and Searcher branches. They receive badges with a reserve of magical energy, and magical papers that can appear as whatever official documentation they might need on a given world. This engages part of the setting lore, that there is a platonic ideal of language. Anyone that knows the true language of the metacosm isn’t fooled by these documents.
The Aethon’s job is to protect the chain of alternate Earths, and they are directed by artificial intelligences that predict the path of various Earths. Sometimes they protect an Earth from a planar incursion, but other times, the AIs direct them to “tweak” the course of history on an alternate Earth, for some long term plan. Sometimes they even need to “delete” an alternate timeline that may be a greater threat in the long run.
While the Sodality is aligned to the Otherworlds and magical pursuits, and the Aethon is aligned to alternate Earths and high tech pursuits, both organizations recruit people from beyond those rigidly defined pursuits. Both organizations have recruited assets from other worlds, or picked up members that were planar refugees.
Eternals at War
This is the first chapter in the Game Master’s Section of the book, and it explains the biggest framing concept of the campaign setting. We’ve already seen the “Threefold” concept in that there are three broad categories of worlds, and three sources for supernatural power. These aren’t just randomly recurring themes. The reality of the Metacosm involves the Aions, the most powerful creatures in the Metacosm — Abraxas, Logos, and Nemesis.
Spoiler territory for the nature of the universe.
Three super-powerful beings were dreamed into existence by humans. One is the power of mythic cycles, one is the power of science, and the other is the power of immediate cause and effect. If a critical mass of humans leans towards one of these three, they effectively become God, and rewrite the universe so that their truth has always been true across the Metacosm.
The gods of various pantheons, artificial intelligences, angels, and demons are effectively the “children” of these three major forces. None of these beings have souls in the sense that humans do, but exist as subdivisions of the interests of the three greater powers in the Metacosm. These Emanates have founded or guided the various multi-planar empires over the millennia, naturally moving the universe in one direction or another into a consensus on who God should be.
I really warmed up to the setting when I read about the quirkiness of magic and creative energy, but as soon as I read about competing aspects of God that might rewrite time if enough people believe in them, I became more invested in this setting. I do think it’s a little ironic that, much like man imagining God and God retroactively creating the universe, it’s interesting that so much of the previous material in this book suddenly looks different once reaching this chapter and realizing what the biggest meta-concession of the setting is.
The next section discusses the planes, planar travel, and planar designations in more detail. It gives a code designation that is used by various organizations to categorize planes, and also introduces a few planar types that fall “in-between” the simpler designations of Otherworlds, Earths, and Netherworlds. For example, there are Abysses, planes that generally can’t support human life at all, and worlds with some mixture of magic, psychic, and technological support.
There are rules for traveling between world without planar gates, sealing gates, and incessance rules. Some worlds are so vehemently aligned with the rules of one of the Aions that waves of energy rewrite what is possible for travelers on that world. This section also gives a more in-depth look at the various planar government capitals for the Sodality, the primary Earth, and the most prominent Netherworld.
This section details the standard equipment, gear, and vehicles used by various factions in the setting. It also includes rules for trading in souls, the benefits gained from honorifics, and extraordinary items that fall outside of standard equipment.
One of my favorite bits of gear has to be the Malcanthus, effectively a rifle grown from an invasive plant common to various Netherworlds, which shoots poisonous thorns as ammunition. It embodies what I like about this setting, in that it feels very much like what a legionnaire from hell might carry, but it’s also not quite something we’ve seen in other settings, and has its own lore based on the lore of planar travel.
Souls can’t be extracted without an owner’s permission, and there are a few different functions they can provide, like providing extra magical power, extending life, or returning vitality. The “soul” talents from the previous section are literally soul talents . . . without a soul, those talent slots are empty, but a character that goes without a soul for too long loses their free will and ceases to be an individual.
Honorifics are touched on in the Modern AGE Basic Rules, but there are additional ones attached to working for various organizations, training with various groups in the setting, or having a reputation that requires traveling the planes.
Denizens of the Planes
This section of the book gives stat blocks for various regularly encountered NPCs. Each of these stat blocks includes variable stats that are keyed to gritty, pulp, or cinematic rules, as defined in the Modern AGE Core Rules.
The NPCs are organized either by power groups or planar type. Some of the stat blocks are more “standard” operatives, while others are specifically named NPCs, with more detail added commensurately. For example, there is a section of Netherworld rulers that provide individual “demon lords” or “angels” that rule specific Netherworlds. There are also some “gods” from various Otherworlds. Some NPCs are free agents and wandering criminals.
It is noted that the Modern AGE Allies and Enemies sourcebook provides characters specifically for this campaign setting, and some factions mentioned, like the warlocks mentioned in previous chapters, don’t have representative stat blocks in this section.
This section has a lot of story hooks. There are general story hooks based on broad themes for the campaign, and there are more specific campaign hooks provided for the Sodality. In addition to these story hooks, there are more specific examples of Sodality missions with various steps spelled out.
There is also a discussion of how to use the Gritty, Pulp, and Cinematic modes from the Modern AGE Core Rules. There are multiple ways that these are suggested to be implemented, either as campaign wide rules, or as specific settings for different worlds (i.e. Earths are Gritty, Netherworlds are Pulp, Otherworlds are Cinematic). None of the suggested implementations is considered the “default,” but there are some calculations that have to be done to change modes between worlds, so that on the fly calculation may be something that the GM and players may not wish to do in play.
This is one of those sections of the campaign setting where I almost wish there was less of an option. I get that this is meant to leave the option to use various modes open, but I’m not a fan of recalculating stats based on the current location, and traveling the planes as operatives of multi-planar factions feels pretty cinematic to me.
The example adventure assumes a starting team of Sodality characters performing a mission for their organization. The adventure involves planar travel, negotiation, extraction, and a hearing with a “god” about the nature of humanity when a soul can’t be detected in an organism.
What I like about this adventure is that there are a few key scenes detailed, and the core conflicts are spelled out. NPCs are given stat blocks. But in various places, characters can resolve scenes in multiple ways. For example, when characters might run from or escape an encounter, there isn’t one assumed way for them to do so, and there are a few suggestions on what might happen and how to adjudicate this. There isn’t one way to obtain a judgment, but there are several directions from which the group may approach the judge.
This may not appeal to everyone, but I have come to appreciate adventures that present a central plot and some key scenes, but don’t force rigid connective tissues. I realize this may not be as ideal for people that don’t want to decide how to adjudicate moving from one scene to the next on their own, but it does mean that if there is an obvious way to travel from point A to point B, there won’t be a defined path from which the GM is concerned about deviating.
Clarity and BalanceThe best way to engage the setting is from the top-down, looking at the primal forces of this meta-reality, and how that shapes the magic, psychic powers, and technology of the setting.
I’m an easy mark for modern fantasy where a myriad of truths can coexist, and this setting has that concept in abundance. Where this product pushes past “you can go anywhere” into “this is the product you want to use to explore the planes of existence” is in the details. The concept of recharging magic by performing artistic endeavors is great, and I love the meta-reality of three competing concepts of God that somehow manage to resonate with the organizations in the setting and the gaming subsystems at play in the game itself.
I also really appreciate having a good starting point for what player characters are meant to do in the setting. The starting adventure not only introduces the type of adventure that players should be going on, but also leaves several pieces of the resolution open-ended to flex around how players might resolve the situations presented.
Too much of the setting information is presented too quickly, without enough relevant context. There are a few places where I wish the line between optional content and assumed baseline were a bit more clear. Additionally, the potential alternate rules that might affect psychic characters, as opposed to magic-using characters, feel like they reinforce the idea that the occult path is the “wrong” path, and that feels a little off to me for how much space is spent on occult characters. I also feel like the book, while providing a strong set of options for starting organizations, doesn’t provide as much in the way of a well-defined home base or set of familiar faces.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
I think this is a strong campaign setting that has a lot of room for creativity. If you want a game of modern sci-fi/fantasy, and you like the AGE system, it’s not hard to recommend. Even if you want an idea of what do to with this kind of “exploring alternate worlds” campaign structure, its not a bad place to start generating ideas.
The best way to engage the setting is from the top-down, looking at the primal forces of this meta-reality, and how that shapes the magic, psychic powers, and technology of the setting. The weakest point of the setting is that it gets fuzzier the closer you get to the “bottom” layer, but that also leaves more creative freedom for those groups that want to customize their own contacts and stomping grounds.
What are your favorite modern action settings? Do you like magic or science fiction in your modern settings? If not, what modern genres are your favorites? We would like to know in the comments below!Read more »
- Emotionally Engaging Players In RPGs
There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the various kinds of players for RPGs and what they get out of playing: the tactician, who enjoys overcoming challenges through clever decision-making on the battlefield. The actor, who thrills in understanding and acting out the motivations of their characters. The explorer, who loves finding the secrets a game world hides. The significant other, who is mostly on their phone, but is willing to play a cleric, and doesn’t mind when the other players tell them how to spend their spell slots. The point is, there are a lot of different kinds of players, and they’re often time playing very different games. Robin Laws has written pretty extensively about it in Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, and even Gnome Stew’s own writers have put out a book that does a better job of going through how to engage players than I’m going to bother to here.
This article is instead about the games you and your players are playing (or might play) that have, at first blush, nothing at all to do with the games themselves, but that can make a game epic by engaging them emotionally outside of the plot.
Taking Bids: The Game of Making Sure Everyone is Having Fun
I started here for a reason. Every other game in this little listicle is completely optional. But this one? This game should be occupying at least some of everyone’s attention while they’re playing. Not just the GM, not some of the players, but everyone. There are a lot of reasons why players may not pay attention to or value the fun other players are having: racism, misogyny, classism and assorted other bigotries it would be irresponsible not to at least call attention to spring to mind immediately. These attitudes are real, they’re ubiquitous, they hurt our hobby and our fellow players all the time, and hooo boy howdy am I not the person to talk about them. But there are also smaller failures: not noticing when one of the players suddenly disengages, or gets talked over yet again, or gets told “no” over and over and over. On the other hand, a group that pays attention to this game within a game is almost certain to have an amazing time, even if the game itself is steaming garbage.
There’s a concept called “bids” in conversation and relationships: verbal or nonverbal attempts to form a connection with another human being. They’re most often talked about with romantic relationships, but the concepts work equally well in gaming. Gaming is unique in that nearly every question, statement, in-character interaction, or request for a roll represents one of these “bids.” When we react to a bid, according to the researchers who coined the term, we have three choices: turn toward—acknowledging and reacting to the bid; turn against—denying the bid in an angry way; or turn away—ignoring the bid entirely. I challenge you as a player or GM to pay close attention to what the other players or the GM are doing. In a game context, when nearly every word is a potential bid, most of our fellow players (and GMs are players), are telling us “this is how I can have fun in this game.” That’s not to say that you should be saying “yes” to every harebrained thing that comes out of their mouths if you’re a GM, but that you should at least engage those things. In these cases, the absolute worst thing you can do is ignore what a player is saying, short of actually punching them I guess. Always, always, always engage when a player speaks up. When one player is hogging the spotlight, paying close attention to the “bids” other players are making can also be a great way to gently shift focus, too.
“That’s a great idea, and that sounds like a great long-term project for your character, but it’s not something they can do right now” works. “Absolutely, and also THIS happens” works even better. “While you’re doing that, it looks like Alex has an idea for what they’re doing” is another good one. Paying this kind of attention is constant work, and no one gets it right all of the time, but some of the best, most fun games I’ve ever run have consisted in large part of riffing off the bids of my players as they make them. Even and especially when it throws my plans, screaming, out the window. The great thing about being around someone who’s having a great time is that fun is infectious, so as long as you’re staying true to the assumptions, agreements, and boundaries you ideally set out at the beginning of your game, everyone has a better time.
Setting the Mood: Murder Mysteries, LARPS, and Bread
So I have a confession to make. I love LARP. Love it. I’m not good at it, and it has its challenges, but I love it so much I sometimes try to sneak it in to normal people’s lives the way parents smuggle broccoli into brownies.I love LARP. Love it. I’m not good at it, and it has its challenges, but I love it so much I sometimes try to sneak it in to normal people’s lives the way parents smuggle broccoli into brownies.Luckily, murder mystery dinner parties are a thing. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re parties where everyone is assigned a character and relationships. Costumes are encouraged, as is in-theme food. At some point in the evening a “murder” occurs, and the attendees have to figure out who did it. There are props, high drama, and a big reveal. They’re just LARPs without a conflict resolution mechanic.
And yet, even when talking to the least nerdy people I know, I have never mentioned one of these parties without immediately having the person I was talking to jump down my throat wanting to know three things: 1) what was it about? 2) when is the next one? 3) can they be invited? There’s a simple reason for that: murder mystery dinner parties are hugely and self-evidently fun. And there’s nothing in them that we can’t shamelessly raid for our games. Let’s break down some ways we can bring some of this hotness to our games:
- Costumes: I’m starting with the hard one. You don’t have to tell your players to come in full robes or armor, no matter how much you want to tell them to. Instead, encourage them to spend the week(s) between games finding a simple prop their character would have and bring it. Offer a small bit of in-game currency (inspiration, a cypher, etc.). Talk about it between sessions and ask people what they’re bringing. Shamelessly leverage peer pressure. “Morgan has found their prop. What do you think you’re going to bring?” In addition to having a bunch of cool little visual cues at the game, everyone will have something to fidget with other than dice towers when the action is elsewhere, and that will do wonders to keep their mind in the game.
- The Twist! It doesn’t have to be a whodunnit (though that’s a great session frame), but maintaining some element of mystery or discovery held out to the end of the game helps focus the stakes. “We need to find out what happened to Mumphrey Frexit” is a much better focus for narrative tension than “we have to grind our way through this dungeon so we can beat up the bad guy at the end.” And even if your group is really into that second framing? Throw in a twist or a tilt at the end.
- Food: One of the most memorable games I ever ran was a superheroes game set in 1400s Italy, with the players dabbling in Papal politics in-between fighting off world-ending threats. It wasn’t memorable because the system was good, or because I was an especially good GM (definitely not that last part). It was memorable because my roommate at the time, who happened to be a professional baker, would make theme-appropriate breads, and lay out a spread of that, various cheeses, grapes, and wine, which we ate reclining on couches before or during the game. Of course the food was good, and carbs almost always make for a better time, but the trick here was that the food was special and relevant. As soon as we popped that first grape, everyone was in game mode, and we were all there in a way I haven’t seen before or since. You don’t have to hire a professional baker, but maybe consider having a “tavern food” night to bring in some new senses to the gaming table.
Carpentry and Dollhouses for Grownups: On the Value of Making Things
When I was a kid, I was really, really into miniature things: trains, action figures, model rockets. Honestly, just between you, me, and the whole wide Internet, I mostly wanted a dollhouse, but on the list of “things for a young boy in 1980s Kansas,” a dollhouse ranked well below “a fifth of Jack Daniels all to myself” in terms of likelihood of actually getting it, and right about on the level of “recreational public colostomy” for social acceptability. So I made stuff where I could, scavenged where I couldn’t, and built elaborate, if clumsy, dioramas to play with. When I build terrain today (which I and a lot of others are doing these days thanks to the quarantine), I find myself having echoes of that same creative impulse. Aggressively gendered stereotypes aside, the desire to make a dollhouse, an “action figure playset” and a miniature train setup are all fundamentally similar, and similarly powerful for some of our imaginations. The act of creating is fundamentally satisfying, and leaves something of you in what you’ve made. Leveraged right, these crafts can engage not just the person who made them, but the players as well, inviting them to engage physically with something otherwise only in their imaginations.
If building terrain and dungeons, or miniature design and painting aren’t your thing or your group’s thing, that’s fine. There are other ways this same impulse can be brought into gaming. Almost every time I play a game with an artist (which isn’t nearly as often as I’d like), they tend to sketch out their characters or others’ characters as we play. Writers will write out the stories. I’ve been in a game where one player wrote a song for her character on the fly and pulled out the guitar. Heck, bakers will bake amazing bread. This urge to create doesn’t have to be good or skilled to bring something amazing to your game. When you or your players feel the urge to do something with that impulse, if you encourage that engagement, pull it out and make it for the group, you will have met a bid halfway, and your whole game will be richer, deeper, and much more fun.
How do you engage your players emotionally? Sound off in the comments!
- VideoA Tale of Two (Session) Zeroes
I wanted to take a look at two different session zeros that I recently facilitated, what I learned from them, and where I made some mistakes. I’ll outline the games, my objectives going in, and what we got out of them, and then do some comparisons at the end.
Our Sunday Eberron game came to a halt, so I decided to run an online game of the Dishonored RPG, because I’m enjoying Star Trek Adventures, and I want to see how the more streamlined implementation of the 2d20 engine works at the table. Sneaking in character creation also gave me the chance to get some last-minute data for the review that I did for the game:
My session zero for the game was rushed. Earlier in the week, we got the news about the Eberron game, and I wanted to see if some of the participants were interested in trying out a new game. Because the session zero was rushed, I didn’t spend a lot of time creating a structure for that session zero.
What I wanted to know going into the game was this:
- What Archetype Do You Want to Play?
- Is Anyone Going to Have the Mark of the Void?
- What City Do You Want to Use?
I also used the game session to give the players, who are all familiar with Star Trek Adventures, a quick idea of the differences between how the 2d20 system is implemented in this game. Because I was already leaning towards using Karnaca as the setting, there wasn’t much discussion about the city, other than some broad differences between Karnaca and Dunwall.
Some of the players had played through the original Dishonored video game, but many of them had no real idea about the setting. I didn’t spend a lot of time writing an outline for the session zero. Because I’m already running a game for the players, I didn’t set aside any time to talk about what safety tools I would be using, because we’ve had that talk multiple times.
Characters can create truths (short statements about a character that may make some situational tasks more or less difficult, and defining characteristics about them), and they gain contacts when making their characters. While I generally sketched out the similarities between truths and Fate aspects, as well as values in Star Trek Adventures, I didn’t ask any pointed or leading questions to help guide them with these truths.
In the end, we’ve already got some pretty interesting characters, but I still only feel like I have a surface knowledge of them, because I was removed from the process. The numbers and the truths all came in to being with me at a distance, answering broad questions about the setting.
The Streets of Avalon Friday Game
On the other hand, I’m also getting ready to run a D&D 5e game set in the Streets of Avalon setting (which I reviewed on my blog here):
While I know the people that I’m playing with, I have not gamed with some of them before, and those that I have gamed with I have only played with in convention one-shots. Because I wanted to make a good first impression and because I wanted to do the setting justice, I spent some time outlining what I wanted out of the session zero.
- Determine what district of the city to set the game
- Get an idea of what ancestry and class each player wanted to play
- Ask custom questions that would replace the standard background questions for D&D 5e, tailored to the setting
- Ask each player to create a location in the neighborhood where their character lives
- Ask each player to form a connection to one other player, based on how their characters met
- Review lines and veils
- Review optional and house rules being used in the game
- Review procedural items (length of session, platform being used, etc.)
I had developed the replacement questions previously, as part of my ongoing quest to make backgrounds more personalized to various D&D settings. I had also already sent out a Google form to collect the lines and veils for any of the players to record, and stated my own in the form.
Our locations yielded a local club for gang leaders, a tailor that operates as a fence, a watch outpost where officers end up when their career is in trouble, and a weird apothecary’s shop.
Between the leading questions that I used to replace the standard Trait, Ideal, Bond, and Flaw that D&D backgrounds utilize, I feel like I have more insight into who these characters are. The questions I substituted were:
- What is one way you are different than other people in the neighborhood?
- What is one mystery that has affected you that has yet to be solved?
- Who have you let down?
- Who is one person or thing that is important to you?
Having the locations allowed us to incorporate those locations into the leading background questions, and that led to more NPCs and more locations in the neighborhood. We now know that there is a boarding house in the neighborhood, how people in the neighborhood view firearms (dangerously unstable alchemical items!), and that one of our character’s sister leaves care packages for him at the apothecary’s shop.
If you are curious, you can see the video of the session zero here:
I have a much easier time picturing who these characters are. Even if I don’t come up with my own inciting incident for the campaign, I have multiple story hooks provided by the players. We have family connections, former criminals, mysterious people making significant eye contact, and stolen property.
I have an idea of how each of the characters approaches problems. I know who is likely to make threats, who is likely to get the group into more trouble, who is desperate to make amends, and who is going to ask questions at the wrong time.
How Will These Campaigns Play Out? Dishonored Sundays
I can make a few educated guesses about how these campaigns will unfurl, and what I will need to do in my opening sessions. I need to have a compelling reason to have the characters involved in whatever I present them with, and I know enough to know why characters might interact with NPCs around them.
In my Dishonored game, I know what each of the players are good at, and generally what they are interested in, so I know how to get them involved in a conspiracy. I know enough to know that they are likely to take the hook that I provide them with, but I don’t know how to provide information “in the margins.” I know the obvious “they do this, they want this,” but I don’t have details on their contacts, I don’t know their quirks, and I don’t know whatever off-kilter personal quirks might be leveraged for their plots.
This isn’t insurmountable. It means I need to give the players time to frame their own scenes in a few places, so they can teach me about their characters. The biggest trick to this approach is to make sure I don’t push so hard into a narrative that I’m creating that I don’t make room for those player framed narratives.
Why is that a problem if you already have a direction for the campaign? Well, initially, players need to have some investment in the campaign, and while they may love whatever job you present them with, if you present them with a job that also helps them advance a personal agenda, you have a nicely complicated situation when you present them with the easy path, or the complicated path that also lets them rope in their B plot.
But just as important, sometimes if your players drive too quickly to resolve the situation you present them with, without any player provided complications, the players can outpace your creativity. Having those side plots may give your brain more time to regenerate your idea reservoir, but they may also end up being so good that they end up being the next A plot.
How Will These Campaigns Play Out? Streets of Avalon Fridays
The Streets of Avalon game has more work done upfront. It is going to be easier for me to add in B plot hooks next to the A-plot hooks, which will make the world feel a little less linear. I won’t be introducing as many NPCs “cold.” The PCs will have an idea of who some of these characters are, and where they are from.
Any time there is a lull in the A plot that is going on, I have several complications that I can insert into the campaign. While I still want to have some moments where the players have a chance to frame their own scenes, and engage and expand elements of the campaign on their own, if we get a lot of forward momentum, we aren’t likely to outpace my own creativity for my primary plots that I am introducing.
That doesn’t mean that having this level of detail doesn’t have any potential downsides. I don’t want to get too comfortable “knowing” how the players will react. I don’t want to assume that because we have a lot of groundwork for the setting that we don’t need to keep developing more corners of the setting.
Summarizing the Approaches
You can summarize how the session zeroes were utilized here this way.
- Character type (class, archetype, mantle, etc.)
- What they do in the setting
- What the setting looks like
Focused and Tailored:
- Player input on setting
- Character type
- Character contribution to setting
- Leading questions about character background
- Connections to other players
- Review of safety procedures
- Expectations of sessions and the campaign (length of sessions, length of the campaign, etc.)
I’m always going to advocate for having a session zero. Having an intentional discussion about what your players want out of the campaign, how you envision it, and what the campaign might look like is important. That said, I’m not going to say that the “focused and tailored” approach is always the best one.I always want to make sure I have a session zero to address common expectations and to give the players a chance to give their input, and for all of us to discuss what we want out of the game.In the case of my Dishonored game, I wanted to give us a Sunday option quickly, and we all wanted to try something new, but not completely alien (i.e. a different setting and implementation of the rules we already know). The bare minimum approach allowed us to have an intentional discussion quickly, but without rushing straight to a game scenario. If there is one thing I would do differently with the bare minimum approach, it would be to not gloss over a safety review. I have these players in other games, and I know what some of their lines and veils might be, and they may know the safety tools I like to use. Despite this, I know we have forgotten about our active safety tools in the past, and a reminder would have been good across all of the games I’m running.
On the other hand, the focused and tailored approach was a good way to make sure that a group of players that haven’t played in a campaign together have similar expectations. The amount of work we did helped us to get a feel for one another as players, and to get a feel for our shared game world and player characters.
A Future of Zeroes
I can’t say going forward that I will definitively lean to one or the other version of this session zero. There are going to be times when I want to have a session zero, but I want to get a “campaign of opportunity” up and running with some foundation and expectation in place. There are going to be campaigns that I plan portions of for months, and I finally have the opportunity to pull together different pieces of work I have sitting around. I do know that I always want to make sure I have a session zero to address common expectations and to give the players a chance to give their input, and for all of us to discuss what we want out of the game.
What has been your best session zero? What were the best practices that you used? Are there any new tricks you plan on inserting into your future session zeroes? We want to hear about them below in the comments!Read more »
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- Crumbling World - Review @ GameffineJay Krishnan of Gameffine is not very impressed by Crumbling World: Crumbling World Review (PC) :: A Collapsed Experience I’m a sucker for indie RPGs. But these days, there are so many of them out there that it’s hard to track, even for a member of the video game press.... Read more »
- Neverwinter Nights: EE - New Renderer ScrappedAccording to a forum post on the Beamdog site Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition will not be getting a new renderer but work will continue to support the game. Hi, all! With heavy heart, I have to share that we've made a decision not to continue the work on the NWN Renderer.... Read more »
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- Desperados 3 - Demo Available on GOGA demo for Desperados 3 is now available on GOG. loading...Play the free Desperados III Demo now and visit Wild West Colorado and Mexico!In good old Mimimi Games tradition, we proudly offer this demonstration of confidence to you.You can play two missions from the beginning of the game: First, you learn the ropes as young Cooper on a bounty hunting mission with his father.... Read more »
- Knights of the Chalice II - Kickstarter Funded & Character Classes VideoThe Knights of the Chalice II Kickstarter has funded with 36 days still remaining. Also the latest update talks about character classes. Update #3: Character Classes video! The first day of the campaign is nearly over, and we've very nearly reached the campaign's goal! I have just uploaded the second video in support of the KotC 2 Kickstarter campaign.... Read more »
- Back to Ashes - Dark Fantasy ARPG in Early AccessBack to Ashes released into Steam Early Access back in late April and is described as a dark fantasy ARPG game where you journey deep into the realms of Errent while exploring alternative realities to try and save your own. loading...Worlds Are Being Consumed By Spreading Disease.... Read more »
- Running Hordes: The Lazy Way to Run Lots of D&D Monsters
The heroes stand atop a mountain of bones with one hundred skeletons swarming in. The cleric holds her holy symbol aloft and waves of radiant energy tear through the skeletons, shattering dozens of the creatures before the rest roar in.
Our heroes stand atop the ruins of an elven watchtower, blades and spells ready as forty orcs charge in. The stout warrior cleaves into them, slicing off four heads in two vicious cuts.
Our heroes stand atop a cliff of ice, a thousand foot drop behind them and twenty five wights in front, their eyes blazing blue and their black blades ready.
These are the tales of high adventure we know and love. We all remember Aragorn standing alone atop the ruined tower facing a horde of urukai in Lord of the Rings. We all remember John Wick facing off against a whole club of eastern European thugs. And we all remember the seven samurai facing off against fifty town-ravaging bandits.
The mechanics of D&D combat generally presumes the characters will face somewhere between three and twelve bad guys in any given battle. This is why characters have a huge advantage against a single opponent.
Our stories need not be limited by these mechanics. We can, with a little work, run any number of monsters against the characters. Ten? Twenty? Two hundred? Ten thousand?
There are many imperfect ways to run huge hordes of monsters in D&D—situations in which the characters face twenty or more monsters in a single battle. They all require some level of abstraction from our standard combat rules. Some are simpler than others. Some use tables, others you can do in your head. You may have your own preference while other DMs have theirs.
In this article we focus on one particular method for running hordes. I selected this one for a few reasons:
- You can do the math mostly in your head.
- It doesn't take much more time than running smaller numbers of monsters.
- It scales to any number of monsters we can imagine.
- It still treats members of a horde as separate monsters when it matters to the players.
- It focuses on the fiction of the situation instead of getting bogged down in mechanics.
Summary Guidelines for Running Hordes
Here's a summary of my preferred techniques for running hordes. It breaks down into three large parts: tracking the damage done to the horde, tracking the horde's attacks and damage, and adjudicating areas of effect.
Tracking Damage Done to the Horde
- Track damage inflicted to the horde instead of individual monsters in a single damage tally.
- Write down the hit points of a single monster in the horde to keep track of it. Round it to the nearest 5 or 10 to make the math easier.
- When the damage tally takes enough to kill one or more monsters in the horde, remove those monsters, reset the tally to zero, and carry over extra damage.
Tracking Horde Attacks and Damage Output
- Determine how many monsters in the horde attack a given character based on the circumstances of the battle. When in doubt, divide attacks equally among those characters the horde can reasonably attack.
- When the horde attacks, assume one in four attacks succeed. If the horde has advantage, assume half succeed. If they have disadvantage, assume they all fail. Adjust this up or down depending on circumstances. If someone casts shield or has a crazy high AC, remove a couple of successful attacks.
Adjudicating Areas of Effect
When the horde is hit with an area of effect like turn undead, hypnotic pattern, or fireball, adjudicate the results with these guidelines:
- Determine how many creatures are in the area of effect. Assume it's a lot of them.
- Assume one in four creatures in the horde succeed on their saving throws. Adjust this up or down depending on the circumstances. For a truly heroic moment or to make your life easier, assume they all fail.
- If the horde takes damage high enough to kill a single creature, remove all affected creatures. Extra damage doesn't carry over.
- If monsters in the horde are incapacitated, separate them from the main horde and remove them from play.
- Add up any remaining damage done to creatures who survive and add it to the current tally for the horde. If this kills more creatures, remove them, reset the damage to zero, and roll over remaining damage.
Other Tips for Running Hordes
- Use evocative narration to describe the characters' heroic battle against huge hordes of enemies. Hordes are there to show off the might and heroism of the characters.
- Use only one type of creature in the horde. Don't mix up multiple horde types in a single battle. Use the same stat block and create variance in your descriptions.
- As desired, mix in normal monsters with your hordes. A horde of forty creatures might be led by four lieutenants and a boss. Run these extra monsters as you normally would.
The rest of this article dives deeper into each of these ideas.
A Variety of Systems
This system for handling hordes is just one method of many. Other methods include:
- The "Handling Mobs" section in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide.
- The "Running Large Numbers of Monsters" section of the Lazy DM's Workbook.
- 4e-Style "minion" rules in which each monster in a horde only has one hit point but a successful save never kills them.
- The Mob Damage Calculator.
- Reskinning bigger monsters as a horde of smaller ones.
It's possible you will prefer one of these other systems to the one proposed in this article. That's fine. What works well for you and your group is the one that matters. The end of this article describes the advantages and disadvantages of these alternate systems.
The Basics of Running Hordes
When we're running large hordes of monsters in our D&D games, we generally skip the use of miniatures and we worry less about any individual creature in our battle.
We run these huge battles mostly in our descriptions augmented by some quick sketches of the situation. The players may want to find choke points where they can't be attacked by the whole horde all at once. We can use miniatures for the characters and then draw large blobs to represent the hordes and the groups they form up into. If the characters are defending a tower from a horde of orcs and there are three ways into the tower, we can represent the tower and place the characters' miniatures so that they can clearly see where the choke points are. We don't need forty orc miniatures, a big handdrawn blob with "orcs" in the center works just as well. People will get the idea.
Our goal in these battles is to adjudicate the situation. What makes sense given the current story and situation?
Tracking Damage: Tallying Damage Against the Whole Horde
When we begin a battle against a horde, we write down the number of creatures in the horde and the hit points of one creature within the horde. Round their average hit points to the nearest 5 or 10 to make life easier.
When the characters attack the horde, they still attack versus the AC of a single monster in that horde. When they damage the monster, add the damage to the single damage tally for the whole horde. If the tally goes above the hit points of a single creature, we remove the last creature damaged from the horde, reset the tally, and roll over any remaining damage. This is similar to the "Cleaving through Creatures" description in chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. A single powerful blow might kill multiple creatures which, of course, is awesome.
For example, a fighter faces off against a horde of skeletons and hits them with three attacks, inflicting 36 damage. We remove three of the skeletons (10 hp each) and add 6 damage to our tally. Next turn a rogue backstabs a skeleton for 19 damage. We add 19 to the 6 (25), remove two more skeletons and roll over 5 to the damage tally.
If a bunch of monsters in a horde are damaged with an area attack spell, we first figure out how many monsters in the horde it hits and then apply the damage to those who would be hit. If the damage is higher than the hit points of a single monster, we remove them all and don't worry about rolling over excess damage. If they don't take enough damage to kill them, we add it all up on the tally and see how many monsters it might kill.
For example, a wizard casts fireball on a horde of zombies and we adjudicate that it can hit sixteen zombies (20 hp each). The wizard rolls 27 damage for the fireball. Three quarters of the zombies fail their saving throw, taking 27 fire damage each, and are instantly killed. The remaining four take 13 damage each or 52 total added to the tally. This is enough to kill two more and leave 12 damage on the tally. Two zombies remain, one badly scorched.
This tally idea seems complicated but it scales well for any number of monsters. You can run a dozen orcs this way, or one hundred skeletons, or five hundred goblins and the same system applies.
Track damage done to the whole group in a damage tally and remove monsters as the group takes enough damage to kill a single monster.
Adjudicating Which Characters Get Attacked
It's possible, given the size of the horde, to just use the damage tally idea above and still roll monster attacks normally. If you're running around twenty creatures with single attacks, rolling individual attacks isn't so bad. If you're running a LOT of monsters, though, you may want to abstract the attacks to speed up gameplay.
First, you need to decide who's getting attacked by the horde and how many monsters within the horde are attacking them. Start by looking at the situation. Does the horde have ranged attacks? Are any of the characters up front and likely to take on more than everyone else? Our base assumption should be that the monsters attack the characters equally. If there are fifty orcs and five characters, ten orcs will attack each character. If one character manages to hide from the orcs, the orcs divide their attacks among the rest. If a circumstance means that the monsters simply can't attack, for example if there's a choke point and they don't have ranged attacks, they miss out.
Determine based on the circumstances how many within a horde attack each character. Begin by assuming they divide their attacks equally.
About One in Four Attacks Succeed
In any given match up between weak monsters and strong characters—the likely situation when a horde attacks the characters—we can assume that about one in four monsters in the horde will hit when they all attack.
This is a loose approximation and we can adjust it based on circumstances. Such circumstances might include:
- The characters have extraordinarily high ACs, like the use of a shield spell or some other big boost to AC.
- A character has a particularly low AC and might get hit more often.
In these circumstances we can either choose to round up or down when determining how many creatures succeed or, if its a big enough bonus, we can change it from one in four succeeding to one in eight or one in ten if things are going against them or one in two if they have advantage.
Start with one in four and then slide the gauge up or down depending on the situation. This is a nearly math-less way of determining how many monsters succeed or fail that we can do in our heads without the use of a table or tool. Thus, it's the lazy way.
If the horde has advantage, such as those having pack tactics, we might increase this to half of them succeeding. Likewise, if they are at disadvantage, we might lower it to one in ten succeeding, or even less.
When the creatures in a horde have multiple attacks, we pool all of those attacks together to decide how many total attacks hit. If eight thugs attack a single character with their multitattack, we begin by assuming two of them hit with both attacks (one out of four of them) but remembering that the thugs have pack tactics, we might increase that to four successful thugs and eight total attacks hitting for 5 damage each (40 damage). Thugs make dangerous hordes.
Assume one in four monsters succeed on their attacks and adjust accordingly.
Adjudicating Areas of Effect
When the characters face off against a large number of monsters, they're almost certainly going to fall back to area of effect spells like fireball, cone of cold, shatter, turn undead, or hypnotic pattern. Adjudicating areas of effect against large numbers of monsters takes a few steps but once these steps are wired in, it isn't too hard.
- First, figure out how many creatures are in the area of effect based on the situation. Are the monsters all packed up together? Are they spread out? Consider the size of the area and how many you would think would be piled in there. Lean towards lots of monsters being within the area of effect. It's cooler that way.
- Assume one in four monsters succeed on their saving throws and adjust to suit the situation. For a more heroic situation, assume they all fail the saving throw and describe the awesome results. Don't nitpick the details, round in favor of the characters and focus the description on their success.
- If the damage of the area of effect inflicts enough to kill a single creature, those creatures die and are removed from the horde. If it's close (like a 14 point fireball against skeletons with 15 points), make your life easy and kill them anyway.
- Add up the remaining damage that didn't kill the creatures and add it to your horde damage tally. This may kill additional creatures so remove them too.
- If the effect includes a status effect of some sort; three out of four of the creatures will have failed and are under that status effect. You might remove them from play and describe their impotent attacks in the narrative instead of tracking things.
These steps might seem complicated but most of the time it will work out well. Areas of effect should be very useful against huge hordes of enemies.
When hit with an area of effect, determine how many creatures are in the area, roll damage, remove those who die, carry over any remaining damage to the horde and remove additional dead creatures.
Many areas of effect abilities, such as turn undead, don't inflict damage but inflict some other status effect. In this case, we can assume that one in four succeeds while the others fail. We can keep track of these incapacitated enemies separate from the rest of the horde or simply remove them from play. When a character wants to target one of the creatures who are under the status; like a skeleton restrained by an Evard's black tentacles spell, they can simply state it and we adjust accordingly.
Calculating Challenge Ratings
I've talked here at length about the flaws of D&D's encounter building rules and offered numerous solutions. Many times when facing huge hordes of monsters, the encounter is very likely deadly. This goes up significantly if the challenge rating of the monsters in the horde are higher than CR 1/4 or 1/2.
You can still use my simple encounter building guidelines to determine this however, and get an idea how many monsters in a horde are on that edge of deadly. Here's a summary of my simplified encounter building rules:
An encounter is potentially deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than half of the sum total of character levels, or one quarter if the characters are below 5th level.
Thus, if we have five 10th level characters, we know that more than 100 skeletons in a horde is potentially deadly. If we have five 7th level characters, more than 34 thugs is potentially deadly.
These battles against hordes can swing one way or another easily, though, given the sheer number of them and the potential to get wiped out with big areas of effect so, of course, your mileage will vary.
Don't hang on too tight to encounter building rules when running hordes.
Other Guidelines for Running Hordes
That covers the basics of running monster hordes. Here are a few tips to make running huge battles easy and memorable.
Go big with descriptions. These battles are all about epic storytelling. Don't focus on the mechanics in your descriptions. Instead, focus on the story. Describe the screaming hordes of orcs charging the characters only to be blown away by a fireball. Describe the hordes of skeletons charging up the hill or the silent wights marching forward. Focus on the fiction first and last. Let the mechanics help shape the story.
Use the same type of monster for the horde. Don't try to run multiple monster types in a single horde. Trying to track two different hordes is really difficult and gods help you if those hordes get mix up together.
Reflavor for variance. If the story dictates that the horde has different kinds of creatures in them, use a single stat block and reflavor the creature in your descriptions. If the characters are getting attacked by both pirates and sea spawns; use a single stat block to represent them. In your description you describe some of them as more humanoid looking pirates and others as more twisted sea creatures. Yet, for you, the stat block is still the same. No one will be the wiser.
Use three groups or fewer. When you split up your hordes into separate horde groups, keep them around three or fewer. One is best and easiest to work with. More than three and life gets complicated.
Mix hordes with normal creatures. While running multiple types hordes can be difficult, a single horde can work well when mixed with normal single creatures. A horde of fifty orcs might be led by an orc war chief and four armored ogres. You can run the war chief and the ogres as individual creatures like normal and the horde using the guidelines above. It will make for a complicated fight but it isn't out of the question.
Now let's take a brief look at some alternate systems for running monster hordes.
Alternate System: The Dungeon Master's Guide Mob Rules
Page 250 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes a brief section called "Handling Mobs" with instructions and a table to help adjudicate hits when lots of monsters are attacking a single character. The general idea is that, instead of rolling dice, you figure out how many monsters are likely to hit given their attack bonus and the AC of their victim. We can use the same table in reverse to determine how many creatures make their save against a characters' spell or ability.
The guidelines in the DMG are solid. If you have the table on hand, it's a fine way to adjudicate how many monsters succeed in an attack. You can also reverse-engineer this table to also determine how many monsters would succeed on a saving throw.
Unfortunately, these guidelines don't tell us how to easily track hit points for a large number of monsters so we need some other system for tracking hit points. The horde damage tally can work well for this.
Alternate System: The Lazy DM Workbook Table
Page 7 of the Lazy DM's Workbook includes a table similar to the one in the Dungeon Master's Guide and offers a way to track hit points by building a huge hit point pool for all of the monsters and then every time that pool takes damage equal to the hit points of a single monster, removing that monster. This latter part is actually difficult when used at the table and I now prefer the solution in this article. The table itself, however, continues to serve in the same way the one in the DMG serves.
Alternate System: 4e-Style Minion Rules
If we want a simpler system for tracking damage done to monsters, we can steal the idea of "minions" from the 4th edition of D&D. In this system, every creature in the horde has only one hit point. If they take damage, they die. They take no damage if they succeed on a saving throw, however, so you can't just wipe them out with a single fireball unless they all fail their saving throw. Damage, in this case, does not carry over.
This system works well by requiring no bookkeeping. Monsters are either alive or dead. They don't actually have hit points. If they are hit, they die. If they are missed, they survive. It's a deviation from the core rules but a clean system none the less.
Alternate System: The Mob Damage Calculator
A while back I wrote a mob damage calculator intended to help DMs determine how many monsters succeed on attacks or saving throws. You plug in the data and it spits out the results. This script works well enough but requiring a script to figure this out isn't ideal. Thus, I recommend easier systems for determining success. If you prefer this to other systems, go with the gods.
Alternate System: Reskinning Bigger Monsters into Swarms
Likewise, I wrote another article on reskinning big monsters into swarms. This system seems elegant but it fails as soon as the characters try to hit the "swarm" with an area of effect spell. A fireball should be very effective against a swarm yet does nothing special to a single big monster treated as a swarm. The same is true with spells like hypnotic pattern or abilities like turn undead. Against a big monster swarm, its either all on or all off. That isn't ideal. Thus, I prefer systems that still treat monsters in a horde individually.
Another Tool for Fantastic Stories
This article outlines a simple system for running large numbers of creatures against your characters. As lazy dungeon masters, we let the story take us where it will and use the tools we have on hand to make them as exciting and fantastic as possible. Now when our epic heroes are standing on a mountain of bones in the undead world of Thanatos surrounded by two hundred ghouls, you have the tools on hand to let the story flow into this epic situation.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- The Grendleroot in Eberron
In a previous article, we looked at how to place Blackclaw Mountain, the primary location in Fantastic Adventures, Ruins of the Grendleroot, into Avernus, to expand the hardback adventure Descent into Avernus. Today we're going to pull up the mountain and drop it in another world entirely, the world of Eberron. How can we put this limitless mountain into the lands of Argonnessen, Khorvaire, Sarlona, or Xen'drik? Let's take a look.
Grendleroot's Points of Reskinning
When we look at the material in Ruins of the Grendleroot we can identify the following areas where reskinning helps situate it in an existing game world. These include:
- The origin of the Grendleroot itself
- Deepdelver's Enclave
- The Magocracy of the Black Star
- The Order of the White Sun
- The rest of the history of the mountain
- The adventures themselves
For a quick reference, here's one way you might reskin Ruins of the Grendleroot for Eberron:
- The Grendleroot is a huge dragonshard that has pierced through Khyber and into Xoriat, the realm of madness.
- House Tharashk runs Deepdelver's Enclave and runs a branch of the Finders Guild there. The Finders Guild is an excellent group patron for Eberron characters in Blackclaw Mountain.
- The Magocracy of the Black Star are leaders of a Xoriat cult who worship the daelkyr. Much of the iconography in Shadowreach shows images of Xoriat and the daelkyr.
- The Order of the White Sun is a branch of the Church of the Silver Flame. They fought back against the aberrations of Xoriat but gave up when the massive dragonshard known as the Grendleroot, burst fourth and killed many of them. They sealed the entrances to Blackclaw Mountain as a dangerous portal through Khyber into Xoriat.
- As part of Khyber, many of the deepest tunnels of Blackclaw Mountain lead all over Eberron. Much of its history comes from these outer reaches.
- The glyph titans of Blackclaw Mountain are arcane giants of old from Xen'drik. The Caretakers are powerful aberrants from Xoriat who studied one of the daelkyr.
- The other dragonmarked houses have representatives in Deepdelver's Enclave and can show up throughout the adventures in Ruins of the Grendleroot.
The rest of this article dives deeper into these ideas and offers alternate paths you may make when reskinning Ruins of the Grendleroot for Eberron.
The Origin of the Grendleroot
The origin of the Grendleroot is one of the main elements that root Blackclaw Mountain in the world of Eberron (pun intended). Perhaps the Grendleroot is a living spell gone awry—a continually growing parasitic casting of wall of thorns or spike growth. Perhaps it is a piece of Khyber, the dark progenitor dragon who killed Siberys and formed the dragonshards. Perhaps it is the will of Xoriat, the plane of madness that has grown like cancer in the depths of Eberron.
It may even be part of the weapon or an aftereffect of the Mourning, the cataclysmic event that destroyed an entire nation. In this case, the Grendleroot wouldn't be particularly old; only a decade or so, which will change your timeline.
Of these ideas, the idea of a shard of Khyber piercing into the plane of Xoriat works well with the theme of the Grendleroot. The Black Sun the Grendleroot calls out to may be a particularly powerful daelkyr (see the bestiary in Eberron, Rising of the Last War for details).
Deepdelver's Enclave can be kept mostly as-is. Explorers from all over the lands might meet here to explore the strange depths of this mountain. House Tharashk might be the custodians of the enclave, as explorers and hunters. The Finders Guild of House Tharashk engages in dragonshard prospecting, a good match for the relic hunting found in Ruins of the Grendleroot.
The alien ways of the underworld of Khyber allow it to connect to all sorts of places across Eberron. Thus Deepdelver's Enclave could have explorers from many distant lands. This fits well with the melting-pot intention of Deepdelver's Enclave. Everyone is welcome and many diverse faces can be found there living in harmony.
The Magocracy of the Black Star
We can reskin the Magocracy of the Black Star in a few different ways. The archmages themselves may be cultists of Xoriat and the daelkyr. The massive statues of the archmages may in fact be statues of the daelkyr themselves.
The magocracy might instead be reskinned as powerful leaders of the cult of the Dragon Below. This works well if you choose the Grendleroot to be an ancient shard of Khyber.
The Order of the White Sun
The Church of the Silver Flame fits the Order of the White Sun perfectly. These seekers of the light could have come to the mountain to rid it of its dark influence or to battle the cult of the Dragon Below or the cultists of Xoriat. A particular branch of the Church of the Silver Flame may have come here and then been routed as the Grendleroot, in whatever manifestation you choose, grew. The Church of the Silver Flame could have abandoned the site, marking it as a poisoned well leading through Khyber to Xoriat and sealed it up. See the sections on Khyber and the Church of the Silver Flame for details on the church's interaction with Khyber and Xoriat.
The Remaining History of the Mountain
Connecting Blackclaw Mountain to the deepest depths of Khyber lets you draw on histories from all over Eberron.
Much of the rest of the history of Blackclaw Mountain can be tied to other elements of Eberron's history. As part of Khyber, Blackclaw Mountain can have strange underworld connections to any part of the world and thus their histories. The arcane giants of Xen'drik fit in well as the strange glyph titans in Grendleroot. The aboleths can be easily replaced with the mind flayers of Xoriat. There are many hooks in Grendleroot upon which to hang the history of Eberron.
Tailoring Grendleroot Adventures for Eberron
As both Eberron and Grendleroot have their roots from the original ideas behind Dungeons & Dragons, There is little to change with the adventures themselves. Sprinkling in the dragonmarked houses, criminal syndicates, cults, fiends, and otherworld entities throughout the adventure can make it feel like a rich part of Eberron. The best thing you can do is dig deep into Eberron, Rising of the Last War and let its lore flow down throughout the caves and crevasses of Grendleroot while you run it.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running Descent into Avernus: the Fall of Elturel
Note, this article contains spoilers for Descent into Avernus.
In the popular D&D hardcover adventure Descent into Avernus the characters travel into the first layer of hell to save the city of Elturel which has fallen through Faerun into the realm of fire and blood. As written, the adventure takes the most monumentally visual moment in the adventure, the fall of an entire city into hell, and handles it off-screen. Given the unlimited special effects budget we have in our D&D games, I can't imagine why we wouldn't let our characters, and our players, witness such a moment.
Luckily, we have the DM's Guild and many authors on the Guild recognized this flaw. Many adventures set around the events of Descent into Avernus let the characters witness the fall of Eltruel. I chose one in particular for my own running of Descent into Avernus, The Fall of Elturel by Anthony Joyce and Justice Arman, and it worked beautifully. In this outstanding small introductory adventure the characters begin in Elturel and hunt cultists of the Dead Three outside of the city before witnessing the city's fall into Avernus.
This adventure sets up a much stronger start for Descent into Avernus than the hardcover campaign adventure includes alone; unfortunate given its size and price. Beyond showing the most iconic moment of the whole campaign, Fall of Elturel also gives the characters a stronger connection to the city and a greater desire to save it. With some tweaks and modifications to both Fall of Elturel and Descent into Avernus we can build a strong first act for this campaign in which the characters witness the fall of their city and seek revenge against the cult of the Dead Three before uncovering the plot of Thavius Kreeg and the Vanthampurs.
The Characters as Hellriders
One way to tie the characters into both [Fall of Eltruel] and Descent into Avernus is to start the characters off with a strong connection to the Hellriders, the knight paladins of Elturel. I wrote this Descent into Avernus Session Zero worksheet to reinforce this connection for my own game. The backstory of the Hellriders plays prominantly in both Descent into Avernus and the Fall of Elturel and builds a strong and powerful character arc that exists through the whole campaign. The characters need not be Hellriders themselves but their drives and motivations may be much stronger the more closly they're connected.
This includes being well connected with Reya Mantlemorn, a captain of the Hellriders. The woman is a powerful member of the Hellriders despite her young age and makes for a perfect group patron for the characters. Working with your players to build connections between Reya and their characters is a great way to bind them to her and her devotion to the Hellriders.
After Elturel's fall, Reya's drive for vengeance can motivate the characters to hunt down the cult of the Dead Three, even though this is a false lead. While hunting the cult they can find out that Elturel hasn't been destroyed at all but instead lies trapped within Avernus. They can also learn of the conspirators who caused it and where to go to save the trapped city. This motivation can drive all of the actions of the characters to find the shield of the hidden lord, travel to Candlekeep, and make their journey into Avernus itself.
A Modified Chapter Path
If we begin our campaign with Fall of Elturel as the lead-in to Descent into Avernus and begin the characters with strong ties to both the Hellriders and to Reya Mantlemorn we can come to a different quest arc for the first chapter of this adventure. Here's an example quest checklist:
- Meet with Reya Mantlemorn and Gideon Lightward, leader of the Hellriders in Elturel. Witness their failed negotiation with the High Duke Ulder Ravengard.
- Hunt for cultists of the Dead Three in the outskirts of Elturel while the negotiation continues.
- Defeat the cultists.
- Witness the fall of Elturel.
- Jump two tendays later when the characters arrive at Baldur's Gate led by a note they received from Reya Mantlemorn who says she knows who destroyed Elturel and seeks their help to get revenge.
- Meet Reya and Tarina at the Elfsong Tavern. Learn of the cult of the Dead Three under the bathhouse.
- Go to the bathhouse and hunt the cult of the Dead Three.
- Learn that the Vanthampurs are sheltering Thavius Kreeg, learn of the excavation of the shield of the hidden lord, learn of Thavius's strange puzzlebox.
- Break into the Vanthampur villa, deal with Thavius, acquire the shield of the hidden lord, and acquire Thavius's puzzle box.
- Head to Candlekeep and learn the fate of Elturel.
- Travel to Avernus.
This approach can take us through chapter 1 of Descent into Avernus with a stronger motivation and character connection than the book, as written, has on its own.
Making Campaign Adventures Our Own
As written, Descent into Avernus doesn't include the strong drive necessary to bind characters to the story of the adventure. With the Fall of Elturel and some modifications of our own, we can build in a much stronger motivation and better connections to the rest of the adventure. Often we are called upon to make such modifications to any published adventure to tailor it to our group. This adventure seems to require it more than most, but all adventures run better when we make them our own. Big hardcover adventures include a wealth of material we can twist and reshape into an excellent story for our group. It isn't the published books that make great campaigns. It's how we use them.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Using D&D Monster Stat Blocks as Templates to Mash Monsters Together
Back in the third edition of D&D, monsters could be augmented with monster templates to give them a new feel. The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, for the most part, lacks these monster templates. A handful of monsters, like the dracolich and the shadow dragon, have templates you can apply to turn one monster into another.
Though the Monster Manual lacks many templates like this, we can learn from the templates it does have to see how we can turn any monster into monster template.
We'll do so with a horrifying creation of my own; one I unleashed in my Waterdeep Dragon Heist game—the ghoulish crocodile!
The "Modifying a Monster" section in Chapter 9 of the Dungeon Master's Guide offers sound advice for modifying monsters to suit the story we have in mind:
Need a fiery phoenix? Take the giant eagle or roc, give it immunity to fire, and allow it to deal fire damage with its attacks. Need a flying monkey? Consider a baboon with wings and a flying speed.
In many cases, this advice alone is enough to serve as a monster template. Such small reskins of monsters often do the trick. We can take this one step further, though, and mash two monster stat blocks together to form a new variant creature.
Ideally such changes can be done without writing anything down. We don't have to make up a new stat block. Instead, we just flip between two existing stat blocks and build a new variant monster on the fly.
It's time to make our ghoulish crocodile!
First, what is this terrible creature? In my game, the ghoul crocodile is an undead crocodile, created by hags, with a fiendish taste for mortal flesh. They feed off of the refuse that the hags discard or, if they get the chance, they'll feast on mortals they come across.
Let's go to the stats. First, we choose a primary stat block. We choose the base stat block by picking the one that has the most attributes of our new monster. In our case it's the crocodile. We use most of the stats of this primary creature including hit points, armor class, attributes, and the like. Then we add on a handful of attributes from the ghoul stat block to build our monster such as the ghoul's undead traits.
When it comes to attacks, our ghoulish crocodile has its normal bite attack but gains the paralysis of the ghoul's claw attack. That's easy to add and fun to see in practice when the crocodile bites someone, grapples them, and tries to paralyze them at the same time. Ouch!
There we have it. Our very own ghoulish crocodile without any real work. When we're running it we flip between the two stat blocks when we need to reference its abilities. No need to write anything down.
Our ghoulish crocodile is certainly more powerful than a normal crocodile, probably one or two challenge levels higher, but that doesn't matter if we have a good understanding of the capabilities of the characters.
This monster mashup works for these low challenge monsters, but what about a high challenge one?
The Stone Giant Lich
In my Storm King's Thunder game, I replaced Kayalithica the stone giant leader with a more villainous stone giant lich dug up from old Forgotten Realms lore called the Dodkong or Death King. This stone giant lich ruled over his land of Dodheim and, in my game, attempted to tear open a rift between the world and the negative material plane. He was even in league with a particularly vile archlich who, like the Dodkong, sought to bring death to Faerun but that is another story.
When we look at both the stone giant and the lich stat blocks, we see that, in just about every way, the lich is the more meaningful of the two. Only its size makes a stone giant lich different than a lich. The stone giant's hit die is bigger (a d12 instead of a d8) so its hit points will be higher (18d12+90 hit points with an average of 207 and a potential max of 306). For just about everything else, we stick to the lich stat block.
Thus, the fast way to make a stone giant lich is to take a lich, increase its size, and give it a bunch of extra hit points (200 to 300 is an easy round number).
And we're done!
We even have time to build a couple of stone giant death knights as well. Take the death knight stat block, add about 30 extra hit points, and increase the dice on its longsword from 1d8 to 3d8 (an extra 9 average damage a hit) to account for its huge longsword. All of the rest of the death knight stat block works just the same.
We might be tempted to spend a lot of time getting the details just right but, honestly, it doesn't matter that much when it comes to the game itself. Our time is likely better spent elsewhere like thinking about the villain's motivations, its goals, and what the characters will witness if those goals begin to get met.
Embedding Fast Modifications Into Our Head
Tricks like this bring a great value to our game. When we're able to quickly modify an element of the game in our head right at the table, we have flexibility to help us continually move the story into a fun direction. We can certainly spend an hour or two building a custom monster for our D&D games, and many DMs likely do this. Instead, however, we can recognize what matters most and wire in quick tools in our head to let the story take whatever turn it takes.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Tier Appropriate Adventure Locations
The characters' levels in D&D mean something within the fiction of the game. Chapter 1 of the Dungeon Master's Guide describes the four tiers of play and the impact the characters have in the world as they increase in levels. These include being local heroes, regional heroes, global heroes, and extraplanar heroes. I argue that there's one additional tier, tier zero for 1st level play, in which the characters meet and circumvent their first real threats together as an adventuring party.
It isn't always easy to understand what sorts of adventures fit into these tiers. Newer dungeon masters might ignore the tiers of play and throw low level characters into world-saving stories. Many argue that there's nothing wrong with that. Of course, if it works for you and your group, go with the gods.
I argue, however, that the true impact of epic threats comes when characters have made their way there from one giant rat in a basement and ending with a face-off against the demon prince of undeath himself in Thanatos, the undead layer of the Abyss.
Epic tier characters by Jared von Hindman.
Breaking down the tiers of play into five ranges (1st level, 2nd through 4th level, 5th through 10th level, 11th through 15th level, and 16th level to 20th level) gives us a model of progression through an epic story.
Going beyond the basic descriptions of the five tiers I offer up the following lists of fifty adventure locations broken out for each tier. Use these tier-appropriate locations as inspiration to build your own adventures at various levels of play, letting the scope of the threat and the location surrounding it grow as the characters grow in power.
Tier 0 Adventure Locations (1st Level)
- Infested ruin
- Bandit campsite
- Kobold hideout
- Decrepit crypt
- Forgotten cellar
- Cultists' shrine
- Small monster's den
- Old watchtower
- Abandoned warehouse
- Goblin caves
Tier 1 Adventure Locations (2nd to 4th level)
- Bandit hideout
- Orc raiding party
- Hobgoblin war party
- Haunted crypt
- Monster infested farmstead
- Overthrown castle
- Corrupt villa
- Unholy temple
- Decrepit sewers
- Forgotten mine
- Ancient ruins
Tier 2 Adventure Locations (5th to 10th level)
- Warlord's Stronghold
- Young dragon's lair
- Unholy tower
- Ancient city
- Sunken vessel
- Crimelord's Den
- Giant's lair
- Drow vault
- Dark temple
- Death trap ruin
Tier 3 Adventure Locations (11th to 15th level)
- Adult dragon's lair
- Planar gateway
- Volcanic lair
- Lich's sanctum
- Archmage's tower
- Demonic rift
- Dark Fey court
- Unholy cathedral
- Beholder's lair
Tier 4 Adventure Locations (16th to 20th)
- Fallen God's Temple
- Cyst of the Lower Planes
- Demon Prince's Lair
- Archdevil's Citadel
- Derelict Astral Vessel
- Ruins of a dead world
- Alien corpse of a dead god
- Ancient dragons lair
- Archlichs multiplanar tower
- Elder evil moon
The Horror of the Giant Rat
Low-tier locations need not be boring. Even a kobold's lair can (and should) contain ancient mysteries, deep histories, and fantastic features. The threat of a squirming nest of oversized insects can be as scary as a host of greater demons sitting atop a mountain of monstrous of bone. Low level adventures aren't boring adventures. Every giant rat is a terrifying encounter. We need but read Stephen King's Graveyard Shift to see how horrifying rats can be. I wrote an adventure for the patrons of Sly Flourish called Regnum Rattus: The Rats in the Cellar to hammer home this point. Low level adventures can be as exciting as high level ones.
The Continual Escalation of D&D
D&D has entertaining stories to tell from 1st to 20th level. The scope of these stories are not the same across this range of levels. The threats grow larger, the locations become more dangerous, the stakes become higher. Enjoy the stories we share across all of these levels. Make every threat real. Make every journey fantastic. Let your story grow every adventure into its own epic tale.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- The Only Dungeon Map You'll Ever Need
Dyson of Dyson Logos, the best site for D&D cartography on the internet, posted about how D&D BECMI creator Frank Mentzer used a single map over 30 times when running D&D in public. Dyson [recreated the map] in his wonderful printer-friendly style.
This idea resonated strongly with my lazy dungeon master philosophies. What if you only had one map in your DM kit? If you could only use one D&D map for the rest of your games, which map would you grab?
Clickbaity title aside, I'm not going to give you that one single map. But I will help you find your own ideal map and we're going look at a few great examples.
Hopefully this article will help you answer a question you may never have asked yourself:
Which map is your map? Which map is your go-to map when you don't have anything prepared and need a map to run your game right now? What map can you print out, stick in your kit, and use for the next 40 years?
Criteria for a Single Awesome Map
Before we start digging through maps, let's decide what makes a great map we can use again and again. I'm going to use some of the criteria found in excellent articles like the Alexandrian's Jaquaying the Dungeon and DM David's 5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps from Will Doyle. I'll also be adding a few of my own criteria specific to the purpose of finding a single versatile map:
- The map shouldn't be linear. The characters might see the final room even if they can't get to it.
- The map should have some sort of cross-slice such as a river, a ravine, or an earthquake that splits it up.
- The map should have multiple entrances.
- The map should have loops.
- The map should have secrets
- The map should have unusual paths.
- The map should be big, but not TOO big. Probably around 15 to 30 rooms or so.
- Many rooms should be unique.
- The map should have a mixture of worked stone and natural formations.
- The map should be easy to print on single sheet of paper.
- The map should be easy to use and easy to improvise while running a game.
This list isn't perfect but hopefully it helps you consider what your own criteria are for finding an ideal map.
Example Ideal Maps
I found this topic inspiring enough to ask on Twitter what maps people would use if they could only use one. Here are a few maps people chose and some of my own that I think work particularly well.
Tears of the Crocodile God designed by Will Doyle, cartography by Mike Schley, in Dungeon 209.
Note, I'm only showing the bottom half of the map here. It's huge.
This is obviously my favorite. This map happens to be included in the appendices of the Dungeon Master's Guide so you likely already have it on hand!
Caves of Chaos from Keep on the Borderlands remastered by Dyson
When looking for your own ideal map, I can't recommend scanning through Dyson's map library enough. It's one of the best D&D sites on the net. You can also check out the wonderful maps of Mike Schley and pick up high resolution versions of them for $2 a piece.
Why Limit to a Single Map?
Why would we limit ourselves to just one map? Why aren't a bunch of maps more useful? After all, my own book, the Lazy DM's Workbook includes ten maps of the ten most common locations we'd come across in D&D.
Most of the time we can pick and choose which map we want for a given situation. Dyson's map library let's us pick from nearly 900 maps, for example. Other times, however, keeps our D&D improv toolkit small. The fewer items we have in our kit, the easier it is to grab the thing we need when we need it. If you're familiar with your single ldeal map, if you can close your eyes and visualize it, it will be easy for you to use it during your game. One map may not be enough for you but I'd recommend starting there and branching out to your second, third, fourth, and so-on when you absolutely need a different map than the one you have.
Obviously as we run our games we'll use lots of different maps. The intent of this article is to give you ideas for a single map you can keep on hand for those occasions when you're caught flat footed and need a solid dungeon with no prep at all. Having a single familiar map you love and adore will give you a great tool to use when your game goes in a direction you never expected.
What's your ideal map? Send links and pictures on Twitter!
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Seven Samurai, the Perfect D&D Adventure
There are fewer movies more influential than Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and this movie's story makes for a nearly perfect D&D adventure. The theme of Seven Samurai may be a perfect D&D situation to keep in our back pocket for many adventures to come.
Seven Samurai is the story of a village under threat from a large group of bandits who plan to raid it as soon as the village's harvest is complete. The villagers travel to a nearby town to hire samurai to defend their village from the coming attack. There they meet Kambei, a samurai who cuts off his sacred topknot and shaves his head to look like a monk before saving a young child from a bandit. With Kambei's guidance the villagers convince six others, including the hulking and child-like Kikuchiyo played by Toshiro Mofune. Mofune would partner with Kurosawa for many other films including Ran, Yojimbo, and Sanjiro; all of which make excellent D&D adventures.
The seven samurai return to the village, teach the villagers how to defend their own village, raid the bandit's own fortress, and then defend the town from the bandits' bloody onslaught.
It's a story of such purity that it's no wonder it's been copied over and over again.
You can see where all of this is going for our D&D games.
The Setup: Heroes Needed
Seven Samurai's hook is perfect for D&D. A village of poor farmers comes to the characters and begs them for help. They have nothing to offer and the job is exceedingly dangerous. Heroic characters will have no trouble grabbing onto the hook. More materialistic characters may have to stretch but you can always go with one of the hooks from Magnificent Seven and give them hints that there's great treasure in or around the village even if there's no outward sign. Who knows, there might actually be great treasure at the village but even most of the villagers don't know it's there.
The villagers need the adventurers to help them fight off an attack by a powerful force. We can change up this force however we want. It could be skeletons who rise up every thirty years and attack. It could be a group of goblins, orcs, or hobgoblins. It could be fire giants. It could even be bandits.
For some arbitrary reason the attack hasn't come yet and the characters have some time to prepare before it does.
The Situation: A Tale of Two Lairs
When our characters arrive at the village, it's a perfect time to drop them into the situation. There's the largely undefended village and there's the bandit camp about a day's ride away. We can wrap either of these in fantastic locations. Maybe the bandits reside in a ruined castle. Maybe the village sits on ancient catacombs. It helps if the village has some interesting features that aren't obviously defensive but could be. Rivers, canyons, and other natural features might give the players ideas on how best to defend it.
Instead of plotting out the adventure, we just set the stage for the players and let them decide how they want to handle it. Maybe they want to take the fight straight to the bandits. Maybe they want to build a sturdy defense against attack. Maybe they choose a mix of both. All options are on the table when we run it this way.
If you want to see a more detailed example of a Seven Samurai-based D&D adventure, check out The Night of the Decimation an adventure I ran for 4th edition years ago.
Not Necessarily Good Villagers
Just as in Seven Samurai, our villagers may have a secret. Maybe there's a good reason these bandits hunt them down. Maybe the villagers murdered the bandit captain's brother with false accusations and a sham trial. Maybe they have hidden a powerful and evil artifact that brings them great bounty. Maybe they delved too deep. Maybe, long ago, they hunted and killed adventurers for the coin and weapons they carry. You don't want to push this secret so far that the characters abandon the village. That's not much of an adventure. But building sympathetic bad guys and questionable good guys is always a fun twist to the story.
A Simple Adventure Framework
Dyson of Dysonlogos recently discussed a map that D&D luminary Frank Menzer used often when running games at conventions. This map, Frank said, served him in over 30 games. It was his go-to map when he didn't have another one handy. Shake up what's inside this map and players don't know they're getting a rehashed map.
We can use the adventure outline of Seven Samurai the same way. It can be our go-to adventure outline when nothing else is handy. All we need to do is fill in the following blanks:
- Who are the villagers asking the characters for help?
- Who are the bandits preparing to attack the village?
- What makes the village fantastic?
- What makes the bandit hideout fantastic?
- What dark secret do the villagers hide?
- Why haven't the bandits attacked already?
Here are six options for each of these questions to get our minds moving:
Who are the villagers?
- Dark elves breaking away from an evil city
- Sha'sal Khou Githyanki and Githzeri (See Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes)
Who are the bandits?
- Frost giants
- A horde of demons
- A legion of devils
- Wights led by a lich
What is the village like?
- Sits atop an ancient elven city
- Sits atop draconic catacombs
- Has a floating monolith in the town's center
- Uses technology from a crashed airship
- Lies within massive monuments to dead gods
- Is surrounded by once living trees now dead
What is the bandit hideout like?
- A hollowed-out volcano
- An ancient cairn
- A ghostly tower that only appears every 30 years
- A ruined fortress
- A lair built out of a giant skull
- A planar ship
What dark secret do the villagers hide?
- They hunted witches long ago
- They defiled a holy ground
- They made an unholy pact
- They sit upon riches
- They hold a dark relic
- They harvest the energy of a dying celestial
Why haven't the villains attacked already?
- They need time to prepare
- An ancient pact dictates when they can attack
- They can only attack on a full moon
- Prophecies describe their attack
- They await their leader's arrival
- They await the opening of a planar gate
Answering the six questions gives us a nearly unlimited framework for a Seven Samurai-based adventure. Like Menzer's map, we can keep this framework handy and use it just about anytime we need an adventure.
A Perfect Situation for Any Level
This adventure seed can work well at just about any level of play. For low level adventurers we can fill out the villains with bandits, bandit captains, maybe even a cult fanatic or some trained death dogs. For higher level versions we fan fill it out with thugs, drow, hobgoblins, orcs, and many other humanoid races. For higher level versions we can use giants, wights, or vampire spawn. We can recreate Soth's Charge and fill out the coming villains with revenants sworn to destroy the village led by a death knight. That's a challenge for just about any level character.
A Simple Seed for High Adventure
What makes Seven Samurai such a great story is its simplicity and the wonderful characters. We can capture this exact same benefit in our D&D game. The characters matter more than the story in our D&D games. The story can be simple: protect the village from marauders. The excitement comes from the choices the characters make, their interaction with the village, and the results of their defense.
Keep the seed of Seven Samurai in your pocket and you're always ready for a fantastic adventure.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate
This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. You can read all of these articles here:
- 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
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 8: The Styes
- Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 7: Tammeraut's Fate
Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.
A Potential Conclusion to Ghosts of Saltmarsh
You may have noticed that this article came after the one for The Styes. Though confusing, it was with intent. When running Ghosts of Saltmarsh as a single long campaign, it may work better to bring the Styes in before Tammeraut's Fate and then run Fate as the final conclusion to the whole Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign.
A Homebrewed Hack
As a stand-alone adventure, Tammeraut's Fate is built around an island about to be overrun with undead pirates. It includes a new town, some encounters with harpies and a peryton, and the defense of a hermitage on the island. There is an optional foray to go down to the wreckage of the Tammeraut on the bottom of the sea bed where a rift to the abyss pours out the poison of Orcus, demon prince of undeath.
In our version of events, as part of the larger Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign, we're going to reskin just about all of this adventure; not because it's bad as written but because we want to tie it together with everything that's come before.
Let's look at an alternative series of events and locations to end our Ghosts of Saltmarsh campaign.
Our New Story
In our hacked version of Tammeraut's Fate there is an island out in the black seas that sits on the borders between the world and the abyssal realm of Tharizdun, the Chained God. This island has a huge monolith on it connected to a vast ethereal chain that connects it to Tharizdun's prison world. The ghost ship Tammeraut under the command of the undead Sea Prince Syrgaul, sails around the island along with an avatar of Tharizdun, the juvenile kraken in the Ghosts of Saltmarsh book.
Deep in the sea, a huge rift in the surface of the ocean floor opens wider and wider as the two worlds draw together with the vast chain. The characters must find the island, destroy the monolith, delve through the rift to the other side, and destroy second monolith on the other side of the realm before fleeing back into the world. It's an epic story for the conclusion of our epic game.
We can break the quests for this story down into the following:
- Battle the Tammeraut.
- Kill the juvenile kraken.
- Shatter the monolith on the island.
- Go through the rift in the Endless Nadir to the abyssal realm of Tharizdun.
- Shatter the monolith on the other side.
- Escape back to the world.
Time for a Ship Battle
Tammaraut's Fate is the perfect opportunity to drop in a big ship battle into our Ghosts of Saltmarsh game. We can drop the ghost ship Tammaraut into the strange alien mists that surround the island above the Endless Nadir. We can use the same stat blocks used for the drowned pirates in Tammeraut's Fate but feel free to throw three dozen or so standard zombies into the mix as well. We can use any of the ship maps included in the appendices of Ghosts of Saltmarsh for the Tammeraut and let the players have fun destroying the ship with spells like wall of water and control water.
This is our big chance for an awesome sea battle so let's make the most of it.
The Isle of the Monolith
Out in the black seas lies a primitive isle that few mortals have ever seen and from which none have ever returned. It's an island of twisted organic rock, black spires piercing out into the sky, and a monolith that is clearly formed by conscious design and yet is millions of years old.
For inspiration of this island, read the story Dagon by HP Lovecraft. It's the perfect description of the antediluvian isle with a monolith depicting creatures no mortal has ever seen before. It's the perfect model for our cursed island.
The island itself has hollow spires of volcanic rock that contain a series of caves and tunnels. I reskinned this Dyson map for the location. If the characters sink the Tammeraut, they might hole up here as the undead crew comes ashore and hunts them down. A half-crazed mage might be likewise holed up here along with his apparatus of Kwalish; a good opportunity for some stressful roleplaying and access to a fun vehicle for exploring the Endless Nadir.
Other older and stranger creatures might live on the island. Native chuuls or even worse aberrations might wander freely on the island.
If the characters decide to destroy the monolith directly, they can do so with a series of Strength (Athletics) and Intelligence (Arcana) checks while they defend the hill upon which the monolith sits. Destroying the monolith breaks the chain on this side of the rift but the other must be broken as well to seal the rift completely.
The Endless Nadir
The Endless Nadir has changed hands many times. Originally, once a vast abolethic city, the Endless Nadir has fallen through the hands of sea elves, tritons, and even sahuagin. Now it is abandoned to all but the worst aberrations of the sea as the rift to the prison realm of Tharizdun grows.
We can steal location details of the Endless Nadir from the adventure Chuul in Ruins of the Grendleroot complete with a large abolethic ziggurat, a huge pillar of ancient recordings, and a twisted temple altar. All we have to add is the great rift in the center of the city and a huge ethereal chain leading up to the island above.
At the altar We might put a star spawn larva mage reskinned as a Tharizdun chained guardian along with a pair of star spawn hulks.
And where does that chain lead if we follow it down into the portal?
The Prison of Tharizdun
We can channel our own version of Hellraiser when the characters travel into the prison realm of Tharizdun. You are, of course, able to build out your own version of this dark world yourself but here are some of the key features I threw in mine:
- It is a world of black acidic oceans that will boil the skin off of mortals if they are not careful.
- The sky is dead gray with swirling storms and a tiny blue sun.
- Strange ancient geometric shapes float and twist in the air.
- An island of white bone sits in the black sea with another huge monolith atop it.
- Tharizdun himself can be seen in the gray mists, a titan bound with spiked chains tearing into his flesh. His head is encased in black metal covering his eyes but not his screaming mouth. A single crack has exposed one eye which is the source of his influence towards mortals.
- His malevolence manifests into armies of star spawn grues, star spawn manglers, and star spawn hulks. They crawl and swim through his cold acidic seas and over the island.
- His angels, *star spawn larva mage reskinned into chained angels, float above the seas, their chain-forged wings floating out behind them like streamers. A half dozen of these monstrosities can be seen across the black sea.
The characters cannot survive long in this world. They must make it to the bone island and destroy the monolith before the chained angels arrive and shred them.
With the monolith destroyed they have only moments to make it back to Oerth or be trapped forever within Tharizdun's dark plane.
Some may not make it back at all.
End of the Threat of the Chained God
With the rift sealed, the remaining characters can return to Saltmarsh knowing that they have ended the threat of the Endless Nadir. Perhaps they might clean up any threats still posed by the Scarlet Brotherhood or even the vampire Xolec. Instead we might leap forward a year and see how our character faired after their long struggle fighting for the safety of Saltmarsh. Such one-year-later montages are my personal favorite way to end a campaign.
Thus closes another fantastic tale of high adventure.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Playing D&D Over Discord
In these times of social distancing, it becomes even more important for us to connect and spend time with family and friends. There is no better way to do that than playing D&D. D&D gives us the excuse to get together, be with one another, and share stories of high fantasy. Playing D&D is important.
With so many solutions out there, why are we picking Discord as our platform for playing D&D online? Here are a few reasons:
- It's free.
- It has clients for PCs, laptops, tablets, phones, and web-browsers.
- It has excellent support for D&D including the Avrae discord bot.
- It's easy to use.
- The audio quality is good.
- It now has video support in audio channels (yay!).
- It has a good text chat feature with image uploading built in.
- It includes a screen sharing application called "Stream It".
- It has everything you need in one application to play D&D.
I'm not trying to argue anyone out of their own favorite stack of software to play D&D. All that matters is that you're still playing D&D, whatever tools you use. Do not take this article as a slight on other wonderful solutions out there. I'm focusing on this one for the reasons above and because I found it to be the easiest way to play D&D online. Your results may vary.
Getting Set Up to Play D&D on Discord
Getting set up to play D&D on Discord isn't effortless but it's doable by just about anyone who can operate their phone or computer.
In order to get set up to play D&D on Discord you'll have to do the following:
- Download Discord and set up an account.
- Create a new server. You can use my Discord D&D game template to get set up fast.
- Set up text and audio channels.
- Help your players get set up.
- Optionally, set up the Avrae Discord bot on your server.
There are a number of tutorial videos and help articles on the web to help you get set up if you have trouble. Otherwise, once set up, you now have to get your players onto Discord as well. Here are some steps for getting your players on Discord.
- Help them download Discord and set up an account.
- Give them an invite link to the server.
- Help them test their audio in the audio channel.
To make things easier, I've created this Discord D&D game template. You can use this template to set up your own discord server based on my ideal settings. It includes channels, permissions, and roles suited for running a D&D game and integrating with Avrae. More on Avrae in a bit.
When your game is actually running, make sure to tell your players to either mute their microphones when it isn't their turn or use "push to talk". This prevents players from talking over one another over the same audio channel. It also prevents heavy breathing or speaker feedback taking over the voice channel when someone isn't talking. It's a huge help.
Troubleshooting Multiple Clients
Discord's wide range of clients makes it easy for players to use it on nearly any device. It also makes troubleshooting difficult if things don't work out well. Discord clients on different platforms have different interface options. When you're helping your players, you'll want to make sure you're using the same type of client they are so you know what they're going through. If they're trying to do it on a phone, you should work with them while looking at your own phone. It also helps to walk them through it over a phone call if they're having trouble getting audio set up.
When everyone's set up on Discord and able to speak and hear in the audio channel you're ready to play.
Troubleshooting Audio Dropouts
While running Discord as a DM, I sometimes had my audio drop out while talking. For players, drops on the DM's side can be jarring, pulling them out of the fiction and the narrative when the DM is trying to draw them in. Here are a few potential ways to fix audio drop-outs from the DM:
- Switch off "automatically determine input sensitivity" in "user settings" / Voice and Video". Move the slider to the left to adjust when the mic begins broadcasting what you're saying.
- Disconnect and reconnect to the audio channel every hour or so. Sometimes Discord gets tired.
- Restart your cable modem and wifi routers before you start your game.
- Switch the region of your server to a different region but one still close to your physical location.
- Switch to "push to talk" for your own channel.
- Turn off "Quality of Service High Packet Priority" in "user settings" / "Voice and Video".
- Ensure other people in the audio channel are either muted when you're talking or using "push to talk".
- Try using a different Discord client (web instead of native client, phone instead of PC, etc.).
- Switch to a physical network connection to your router instead of wifi when possible.
This article on Discord describes other tips for fixing audio issues.
Sharing Visuals in a "Maps and Handouts" Text Channel
While much of our D&D game can happen over voice chat, we can drop images into Discord for pictures of NPCs, locations, handouts, maps, and parts of maps. You can add an image to the chat channel either by dragging and dropping it into the channel or uploading it directly. You can upload an image regardless of the device you're using. I recommend setting up a "maps and handouts" text channel and then locking down permissions so only you can add new images to it. This way you and your players can see the whole archive of images throughout a whole campaign.
Running Augmented Theater of the Mind
We're big fans of theater of the mind combat here at Sly Flourish and this style of combat shows its value when running D&D online. Programs like Roll20 let you run more tactical games online but have a high learning curve and require full PCs or laptops for all participants.
Instead of running tactical combat, you can run a form of augmented theater of the mind by uploading images of combat locations into the chat and then asking the players to describe where they are and what they're doing. Seeing the map is often a big help for players even if you don't display tokens for characters or monsters. Knowing generally what an area looks like is often enough.
This works equally well for exploring dungeons. You can take a full dungeon map (I personally love the maps over at Dysonlogos), screen capture and crop the relevant sections, and upload them to Discord as the characters explore the dungeon.
Sharing Images of Tactical Combat
While systems like Roll20 give you and your players great control over the battlefield, you can still run a degree of tactical combat in Discord. There are a few ways to do it but we'll focus on one: sharing images of a battle map and tokens.
As mentioned, we can take screenshots of maps and paste them into the "maps and handouts" channel so our players can use them. We can also drop maps into a program like PowerPoint, Photoshop, Gimp, or Google Presentations and then drop in tokens as a separate layer. We can then use a lasso screenshot tool to capture just the part of the map the characters can see. On a Windows 10 machine, you can press Windows-Shift-S to open up the Windows screenshot tool. Select the lasso tool and capture the part of your screen that the characters can see. The Mac has third-party applications such as Screenshot Maker that lets you pull up a lasso as well. With the image in your clipboard you can paste it right into the maps and handouts channel on Discord so your players can see it. As the battle changes, you can move your tokens around on the map and take a new screenshot.
For tokens, I am a huge fan of Printable Heroes who now has many tokens available. Search for "VTT" and you'll see them all. Black and white tokens are free while subscribing to the Printable Heroes Patreon gives you access to a wide range of color tokens. I love Printable Heroes and highly recommend supporting them on Patreon.
Text-Based Battle Map
Here's another option to better visualize what's going on in combat—the text-based battle map. This text list represents the current areas of a location, the combatants in each area, damage inflicted, status effects, and general positioning. Here's an example:
**Eastern Doorway** Iron Mohawk Animated Armor 12 _Sabre_ Brass Animated Armor 16 _Banner_ --- **Northern Hallway** One-eye Gnoll 4 Purple Fur Gnoll 4 _Shane_ --- **Southern Doorway** _Arwin_ _Zarantyr_ _Shift_
Because Discord supports markdown text, this will actually render like this:
Iron Mohawk Animated Armor 12
Brass Animated Armor 16
One-eye Gnoll 4
Purple Fur Gnoll 4
Character names are italicized. Area names are bolded and define areas of roughly twenty to thirty feet square. Names within one or two slots of one another are considered within 5 feet. Three dashes "---" shows a distance of about 25 feet so a move action is required to move from one area to another. The number next to the monster's name is the current damage that monster has taken. We can add hordes of monsters with a "25x" in front of them such as "25x Crawling Claws".
Generally speaking areas of effect can hit creatures in an area. Of course, DMs and players should negotiate for edge cases as we do anytime we're running theater of the mind combat.
As a DM, you can keep this text in a text editor outside of discord and use it to track a battle as it goes on. You can keep track of damage on it and, when things change enough or its time to refresh the players, you can paste it right back into Discord so they can see generally what's going on.
This isn't an ideal tactical battlemap for those who prefer a 2D grid but it can serve better than pure descriptions when battles get complicated.
Running with Avrae and D&D Beyond
Once you have audio chat going, you don't need anything else to play D&D online. You and your players can play with all of the physical books, character sheets, and dice you'd normally use at a physical table. For a more advanced and integrated form of D&D in Discord you might turn to D&D Beyond and the Avrae Discord bot. D&D Beyond is the most popular online tool for managing D&D characters. Avrae (a bot now owned by D&D Beyond) helps integrate D&D Beyond with Discord. Using Avrae you can import characters, roll attacks and damage automatically, look up monsters, look up spells, look up abilities, and run initiative. In May 2020, D&D Beyond added the ability to access any paid content in D&D Beyond through Avrae. You can connect Discord through D&D Beyond and get access to any material you've purchased through D&D Beyond. This is a huge improvement and makes the bot much more valuable.
The Avrae dice roller is probably the easiest function for players to use. Typing "!roll 1d20+5" for an attack and "!roll 1d8+3" for damage is easy enough on its own without using any of the character integrations. Once integrated, though, you can type "!attack longsword" and it will roll both attacks and damage for you.
Avrae for Monsters
For the dungeon master, typing "!monster thug" will bring up the statistics for a thug in chat. You can load up monsters this way in your private "dms-channel" so you can look up monster statistics without having to leave Avrae. The same works for spells, items, and more.
You can also run monster attacks directly from Discord. Type "!ma thug mace -rr 2 adv" will have a thug roll two mace attacks (the "-rr 2") with advantage (the "adv"). You can easily reskin monster attacks with the "-h" to hide attack details and "-title" to add your own flavor text. Here's an example:
!ma thug mace -rr 2 adv -h -title "An Emerald Claw mercenary smashes you with a flanged mace!"
That command reskins a thug's mace attack into an Emerald Claw mercenary's mace attack. It's rolled with advantage (the thug's pack tactics) using "adv" in the statement, "-h" hides the details of the actual attack, "-title" lets you add your own flavor text, and "-rr 2" rolls two attacks.
This seems like a lot to remember but once you remember it, you can use and reskin any monster you have access to on D&D Beyond while running D&D on Discord.
You and your players should feel free to use whatever tools you want when playing D&D online. If you or any of your players prefer to roll dice on the table, that works perfectly well. If they want to use D&D Beyond and Avrae, that works well too. Individual players can pick and choose how much they want to use Avrae in Discord and how much they just want to do on their table. Avrae has tremendous functionality if you want it and you can use as much or as little of it as you want, including none at all.
Avrae for Fast and Easy Initiative
Avrae has one feature I found tremendously useful on the DM's side: rolling initiative for the whole group at once. As the DM you can set up an alias in Avrae to roll initiative automatically for all characters and a default monster with a single command. This trick doesn't use or require integrated characters from D&D Beyond. Instead you set up a single alias that rolls initiative for all of the characters and a default monster at once. When you're in Discord on a server that has Avrae set up, modify the following text for each of the characters in your game and paste the whole thing in at once into the Discord chat channel:
!alias rollinit multiline !init end !init begin !init add -1 Banner !init add 3 Shane !init add 2 Xi !init add 3 Sabre !init add 2 Shift !init add 3 Zarantyr !init add 1 Monsters !init list
The numbers in the above are the initiative modifiers for each of the characters. Once this is done you can type "!rollinit" and it rolls initiative for all of the characters. Modify the monster's initiative bonus to fit the monster you're running or add more than once monster for more complicated battles.
After that it's "!init next" or the shortcut "!i n" to go from turn to turn. The Discord channel keeps the initiative in a pinned message for the channel to show people what the initiative list is whenever they want to look it up. Once combat is done, type "!init end" and confirm that combat is over.
If your players are happy to let the system roll initiative, this is much faster than just about any other method of rolling initiative.
Avrae is full of crazy commands but I found rolling initiative for the whole group to be the most useful. It's particularly useful because its only on the DM side. Players don't have to do anything at all.
Discord: A Simple, Free, and Powerful Way to Play D&D Online
This article focuses on playing D&D over Discord because I found it to be a popular, free, simple, and powerful way to play D&D online. There are other popular methods as well and you may have your favorites. Choose whatever system you wish to help you play D&D online. If you're having trouble finding the right system and method to play D&D online or don't know where to start, hopefully this article helps you find an option with Discord. Most important is that we continue to play D&D with our friends and family. It's never been more important than it is right now.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.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 »