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  • New Game Round-up: Arkham Goes to the Dogs, Communists Go to Space, and K&K Go to Paris

    by W. Eric Martin

    • I shun April Fools Day jokes, not talking about them in this space or on BGG's Twitter account, partly because I don't find them amusing, but mostly because I don't want someone to question whether or not something I post is a real thing. With the vast number of games being published, I hardly need to turn to fictional products in order to find something to write about.

    That said, I can now point to one useful or meaningful productive AFD joke, that being Fantasy Flight Games' announcement on April 1, 2019 of Barkham Horror: The Card Game – The Dogwich Legacy. Turns out that so many people responded positively to this gag that FFG has decided to release an actual dog-based scenario for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. Here's an overview of what's coming in the 2020 release Barkham Horror: The Card Game – The Meddling of Meowlathotep:
    Barkham Horror is an alternate universe in which the conflict between humanity and the eldritch forces of the Mythos takes a back seat, and the conflict between dogs and cats takes center stage. In The Meddling of Meowlathotep, a 78-card standalone scenario pack, the investigators must stop Meowlathotep, the Prowling Chaos, Meowsenger of the Outer Feline Gods, who is terrorizing the city of Barkham. Only a few precious pups can defeat the various Meowsks of Meowlathotep and prevent them from destroying Barkham and the world!

    When this adventure kicks off, you are hot on the trail of a cat conspiracy. A catspiracy, if you will. Dogs all across town report seeing strange, unnatural cats prowling the streets of Barkham, and each day more and more pigeons are going missing. You've picked up the scent of something big, and once you sink your teeth into a story, you just can't let go. A little wet fur has never stopped you from finding the truth. Perhaps if you investigate the areas of Arkham most plagued by these sightings, you can root out the cat‐monsters that dwell within.

    • Extraterrestrial communist settlements — that's where you find the action taking place in Red Outpost, a game from Raman Hryhoryk and Lifestyle Boardgames that is being released in English via Imperial Publishing, a new publisher imprint founded by Seth Hiatt of Mayday Games. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game due out in Q2 2020 following fulfillment of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign (KS link):
    A top secret Soviet space mission set out to colonize a planet in a remote galaxy, far away from home. The settlers built there a small communist heaven which exists to this day. As one of the leaders, your goal is to guide the settlers on this new, yet strangely familiar terrain.

    In Red Outpost, players get to control all of the settlers, each time a different one. You must expertly manage the resources and choose the jobs carefully so as not to upset the settlers: Keeping up morale is of utmost importance if you want to become the most prolific leader!

    Yes, it's a worker placement game in which you can place any worker since they are under the collectivist control of all players. Notes Hiatt, "This is our first game, but we have two more planned for early next year [2020] (both original titles, not licenses)."

    • In case you don't yet own Antoine Bauza's Hanabi, French publisher Cocktail Games is releasing a new version of the game in December 2019 titled Hanabi: Grands Feux that contains the game itself, card stands, and three expansions: "Avalanche of Colors" (ten multicolored cards), "Black Powder" (ten black cards), and five flamboyants (which come on six bonus tiles).

    • At SPIEL '19, Belgian publisher Game Brewer showed off a prototype of Paris, a game due out in 2020 from the famed design team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. Here's the short take on the game for now:
    Explore Paris in the 19th century. Discover its renowned architecture, and obtain the most eminent buildings in the right districts to achieve victory.

    Paris is a typical medium-weight Kramer and Kiesling Eurostyle-game with straightforward gameplay, short player turns, and an ingenious point-salad mechanism. You mainly score points by obtaining the right buildings and collecting the right bonus cards.

    Preliminary graphics from SPIEL '19 Read more »
  • Isaac Childres Heads North from the Gloom to Prepare for Frosthaven

    by W. Eric Martin

    In October 2019, designer Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games announced a scaled-down, mainstream-friendly version of his monstrously large game Gloomhaven, a game later given the specific title of Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.

    Just ahead of PAX Unplugged 2019, Childres has now announced a non-scaled-down, equally monstrously large game in the same vein as Gloomhaven, a game due to hit Kickstarter in March 2020 ahead of an as-yet-unannounced release date. Here's an overview of Frosthaven:
    Frosthaven is the story of a small outpost far to the north of the capital city of White Oak, an outpost barely surviving the harsh weather as well as invasions from forces both known and unknown. There, a group of mercenaries at the end of their rope will help bring back this settlement from the edge of destruction.

    Not only will they have to deal with the harsh elements, but there are other, far more dangerous threats out in the unforgiving cold as well. There are Algox, the bigger, more yeti-like cousins of the Inox, attacking from the mountains; Lurkers flooding in from the northern sea; and rumors of machines that wander the frozen wastes of their own free will. The party of mercenaries must face all of these perils, and perhaps in doing so, make peace with these new races so they can work together against even more sinister forces.

    Frosthaven is a standalone adventure that features sixteen new characters, three new races, more than twenty new enemies, more than one hundred new items, and an a new, 100-scenario campaign.

    In addition to having the well-known combat mechanisms of Gloomhaven, Frosthaven will feature much more to do outside of combat, such as numerous mysteries to solve, a seasonal event system to live through, and player control over how this ramshackle village expands, with each new building offering new ways to progress.

    Childres will take part in a Q&A announcement panel for the game while at PAXU 2019 on Saturday, Dec. 9, starting at 10:00 a.m., with the panel being streamed on

    Let me snuggle you with my icy mitts! Read more »
    - Newest Items

  • 당신의 목소리로 잠들게 해줘 (Korean)
    당신의 목소리로 잠들게 해줘 (Korean)Publisher: Chaosium

    당신의 목소리로 잠들게 해줘

    네가 잠들었을 때 눈을 떴을 때 언제라도, 내가 네 곁에 있다는 걸 잊지 말아줘.

    오랫동안 잠들었던 기분이 듭니다. 멍한 머리를 붙잡고 눈을 뜹니다. 당신은 허공에 길게 펼쳐진 레일의 시작점, 두 사람이 함께 앉는 열차 앞자리에 앉아 있습니다. 눈앞에 펼쳐진 풍경은 까만 밤이 내려 조명 속에 반짝이는 놀이공원. 어트랙션에서 일어나려고 해도 이미 헐거운 안전바가 내려온 후라 움직일 수 없습니다.

    “-잘 잤어, 탐사자? 얼른 일어나. 오늘도 좋은 아침.”

    그때 들려온 익숙하고도 그리운 목소리. 흐린 눈을 억지로 움직여 옆자리를 살피자 목소리의 주인공인 KPC는 눈을 감은 채로 열차에 앉아 있습니다. 곤히 잠든 것 같습니다.

    그런 KPC의 무릎 위에 카세트 플레이어가 놓여 있습니다. 빙글빙글 돌아가는 테이프에서 귓가를 간질간질하게 만드는 KPC의 웃음소리가 흘러나옵니다...

    • 인원 : 타이만 시나리오 (1:1)
    • 시나리오 난이도 : 키퍼 ★★ / 플레이어 ★★
    • 소요 시간 : ORPG 5-6 시간 예상. RP에 따라 시간은 더 늘어날 수 있습니다.
    • 시대 및 배경 : 현대의 놀이공원.
    • 권장 관계 : 연인 관계에 추천.
    • PDF와 함께 핸드아웃이 압축되어 있습니다.
    • It was written in Korean. Not English.
    Price: $12.00 Read more »
  • Classic Stock Art - Paladin
    Classic Stock Art - PaladinPublisher: artofblake

    Classic Stock Art - Paladin

    The zip archive contains the following files:

    • PNG file with transparent background.

    • JPEG file.

    Stock License Terms and Agreement:

    The following image(s) in the product may be used for commercial and non-commercial work as follows:

    • Unlimited use of the following image(s) in commercial and non-commercial work.

    • Image(s) may be cropped, rotated, resized, and modified to fit your project.

    • Artist's name must be credited in all commercial and non-commercial work the image(s) appear in.

    • Image(s) may NOT be resold or redistributed for free in any way.

    About the Artist
    Blake Davis is a fantasy illustrator/concept artist working in the games and publishing industry. He has worked for many products and properties, and has produced many of his own, including the world of Omenshard. 

    If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions for future stock art images please e-mail me at

    Price: $5.00 Read more »

    Gnome Stew

  • It’s Retcon Time!
    Lightning in front of Clock Face

    A long time ago… No. Even longer ago than that. Yes. That far back. We’re going to change reality for that long ago, and that change is going to ripple forward into the current time.

    I’m not talking about going back in time to kill someone we all consider the epitome of evil. I’m also not talking about the really cool idea of “the butterfly effect.” I’m talking about something that is sometimes cool and sometimes insidious.

    I’m talking about retconning. That’s right. Today, we’re going to see how to handle changing reality using “retroactive continuity.”


     We’re going to see how to handle changing reality using “retroactive continuity.” 

    Let’s put on Phil’s “definition panda” hat for a moment and throw out the meaning of “retcon” really fast. A retcon is a piece of new information that imposes a different interpretation on previously described events, typically used to facilitate a dramatic plot shift or account for an inconsistency. Basically, it means that we’re going to give a new understanding of past events in order to change them up some to free us to move forward in the current storyline that we have going on.

    Literature Examples

    One of the earliest retcons in literature is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle resurrecting Sherlock Holmes from his death at Reichenbach Falls by claiming that the whole series of events was a clever ruse pulled off by Holmes to stage his death.

    As an author, I have an advantage of being the sole controller of the story being told. That’s awesome because I get to make up the rules. If Marcus Barber (my protagonist in my Modern Mythology series) dies, he rises from death 3 days later, is weak as a baby for another 3 days, and then gets to go on about his immortal life as a bounty hunter. Pretty cool, huh? What happens if I kill him and I need him alive and well a mere 2 days later? Too bad. Can’t do it without a serious retcon to my entire character, and I’m not allowed to do that.

     As an author, I have an advantage of being the sole controller of the story being told. 

    I’m certain if I tried, my editor, continuity readers, publisher, and possibly even a few fans would show up at my door with torches and pitchforks in hand. Well… maybe not, but those 1-star reviews would certainly pour in!

    Game Time

    However, at the RPG table, retconning does happen from time-to-time, and it is more acceptable to do so. There are several reasons for this.

    The main one is that RPG storytelling is a shared narrative. One player may forget (or may have been absent for) certain events and make a decision based on a “false history.” If this false history is more cool or compelling than the real history of the tale, then a quick retcon can flip-flop things around and make this false history now the true events of what actually happened.

    RPG storytelling is a shared narrative.

    Another valid reason for slipping in a retcon is the fact that much of the storytelling is improv. If the GM or player has to make up some fact about a location or NPC on the fly, they’ll usually do a pretty good job of it. However, given even a few minutes of time to reflect on the statement, a better idea can come along. That’s when a quick pause of the game can help. Then the person can quickly retcon their statement of fact into something a little different.

    Who Can Retcon?

     A retcon should be exceedingly rare. 

    Honestly, I think the GM has the final call on this, but players are certainly free to throw out ideas for retcons. The reason I say the GM has the final say is that she may have some prepped material based on a past event, location, or NPC. By making changes to the past, this can screw up the GM’s future plans. If the GM denies a retcon, then she probably has a really good reason for it. As a GM, it’s also okay to say something along the lines of, “I have plans for that. Let’s not change it, please.” As a player, respect that.

    How Often?

    Actually implementing a retcon should be exceedingly rare because then things get all squirrelly with timelines, events, past notes, and recollections. Do it too many times, and you get a mind-bender of a history for your characters that will more closely resemble the movie Inception. Only do it if really necessary, not just because a “cool idea” came along. The more distant the past event is in the game, the more difficult it is to retcon that event. If a decision is merely a few minutes old, then retcons are more easily implemented because their impact waves haven’t been felt yet.

    How About You?

    Have you ever retconned in a game? How did it work out for you? I’d like to hear from our readers some examples of how this went well… or not.

    Read more »
  • Headspace: Dystopian Dreams Review
    Headspace: Dystopian Dreams Review

    There has been a lot of discussion in the past year about cyberpunk as a genre, and the core purpose of the genre. Much of this discussion has focused on the comparison of cyberpunk as an aesthetic versus cyberpunk as a parable. Is it about looking cool as the world burns down around you, or is it about trying to put out the fire even if there is no way you can do so before everything you love is gone?

    Headspace, a Powered by the Apocalypse game about Operatives who are linked to each other’s minds and share emotional space with one another, definitely frames the narrative as one of putting out fires. The core game assumes a world where the PCs were part of the machine that they are now trying to pull apart. The game assumes several corporate bad actors, an incident that has made the current world what it is, and various projects that the corporations are attempting to achieve. While the players are working against one corporation, another is advancing their agenda, so it may not be possible to put out all of the fires, just manage which ones rage out of control.

    The core game introduces settings that can be used for the game, but the product we’re looking at today, Dystopian Dreams, introduces more settings that can be used for the game, including multiple new corporations, agendas, opposing agents, and even a new playbook.

    Disclaimer and Content Warning

    A few of my fellow gnomes had their hands in this product, either in writing the intro or one of the settings. I wasn’t in contact with them about this review, and the PDF that I’m reviewing was one of my own purchase, but I wanted that to be known upfront.

    These settings deal with some tough issues, including violence, drug trafficking, the marginalization of groups of people, and harm to animals. I’m not going to go into too many details about any of these things, and for the most part, the settings don’t do a deep dive into the description of these things, but the themes are present in various settings.


    This review is based on the PDF version of the product. It is 133 pages, with black and white pages and art, containing customized borders, sidebars, and text that looks almost like a computer interface. There is a three-page section at the back that credits and highlights the various contributors to the book.

    Like the core book, the artwork is by Brian Patterson, and not only does this serve to unify the look from the core book, but the artwork does a great deal to convey the bridge between a dark future with looming threats, and characters that are trying to create a brighter tomorrow.

    Settings and Overview

    This section of the book explains the structure of each setting, and how it conforms to the assumptions of the core game. Each setting has four corporations, with an agent (which acts as the face for that organization) and an agenda for each corporation. Each setting also has five events, five issues, and five corporate issues.

    I love this kind of standardized presentation of setting information, because one of the issues that I often have with setting books is, “what do you want me to do with this information?” Sometimes it is self-evident, but I wish more setting information for RPGs was written acknowledging the conceit that the information is for use in a game, rather than being presented as a travelogue of a fictional reality, divorced from the tone and genre assumed by the game itself.

    Neo-Tokyo Pleasure Dome Ultra 20XX

    This setting assumes that World War III has come and gone, and Japan has become an insular state, with many of its citizens living almost entirely in cyberspace. Many of the corporations that have come to power in this environment are corporations that help to maintain and protect society while citizens are living their lives inside the digital realm. Humans in the Cyberzone still need their physical bodies cared for, and this becomes big business.

    The corporations include Oroshi Medtech, Nikumono Custodial Services, Delicious Future Nutritional Assistance Corporation, and Brilliant Diamond Technologies. With human beings spending so much time in the Cyberzone, these corporations are moving into areas like flash cloning, industrial espionage, and the ability to get a wider number of people to be compatible with the Cyberzone.

    Overall, I like the concept of corporations fighting over the real world while an increasing number of humans are living their lives completely in the Cyberzone. It’s a manifest analogy for people not seeing what is going on in the world, leaving the “real” world to the corporate agents and the protagonist operators.

    Compared to the core setting corporations and events, the corporations in this setting feel a little more generally bad, rather than horrifically bad. Wanting to reduce humans to products is terrible, but contributing to the war machine that everyone else in the world participated in, or hiding corporate incompetence feels like less of a personal gut-punch versus some of the corporate crimes in the core book. Some of the Japanese tropes in the setting also feel a little on the nose, such as the naming conventions for some of the corporations and organizations. 

    Hieroglyph of the Whale 

    This setting posits a world where humans are desperate to develop space travel, because they have allowed Global Warming to hit apocalyptic thresholds. Surface mining can’t produce what is needed for this industry, so underwater mining operations and archologies are developed to find more resources. Cetaceans are pressed into service in the mining operations, and eventually the whales have an uprising, which leads to the abandonment of the facilities. At the assumed beginning of the campaign, corporations are attempting to re-establish contact with the archology’s survivors and restart mining operations.

    The corporations in this setting are Taneo Exploracion, Invector Biogen, Chidao Corporation Global, and Polyorceanus Deci Corps. The corporate goals include making the re-founded archology into a desirable upscale living space, killing any surviving cetacean workers, sabotaging the efforts of anyone else trying to mine the location, and making humans into better, more pliable workers to subvert the need for the less reliable cetacean workforce.

    I love the spin put on undersea cyberpunk in this setting, and the quandary of co-opting cetacean lifeforms into an unwilling workforce. The corporations have the right balance of understandable public goals and nastier agendas under the surface (so to speak). I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as a challenge, but unlike most of the other settings presented for the game, Operatives won’t be part of an established population, but infiltrating organizations that are attempting to make contact with, and reestablish, an archology, which may play out a bit differently than the more traditional cyberpunk assumptions of the core game.

    Artifice and Ice 

    This setting presents a world where the arctic is being developed as premium vacation and living space, but corporate incompetence and greed leads to a sparsely populated wasteland with a failing economy. Unlike the other settings in the book, the introductory information on the setting is presented as the ruminations of a citizen of the region, thinking about everything that has gone, and is going, wrong.

    The corporations involved in this setting are Oceanix Unlimited, Nexen, Tower Shield & Sword, and Green Surf. The corporations are involved in trying to start a new housing boom in the region, intentionally undermining government for greater corporate control, floating a conspiracy theory to justify defense expenditures, and hidden ecoterrorism to bring to light corporate and government mistakes in the region.

    This is an odd mix for me as I read it. The most compelling secret to me is the conspiracy theory that keeps the security firm going, but two of the corporations feel like general “bad actors,” and the big event of the setting is that the place never caught on the way the corporations wanted. There is also an interesting quandary presented (which appears in a few more settings later), where one corporate entity might not be always working against what the Operators’ interests are, so it may be okay to let their agenda move forward once in a while, curbing the more zealous aspects of its implementation.

    New Motor City 

    New Motor City is set in the Detroit of the future, where abandoned buildings are used for urban farming, and electric street racing is part of the culture. Corporations promote real-time streaming events covering aspects of the city, like the street racing scene.

    The corporations at play are Agricum, Nusafe, XO Velocity, and LiveEye. Their interests are urban farming, security, the electronic automotive industry, and reality entertainment. The less savory elements at play involve poisoning habitats with pesticides, manipulation of human brain waves to pacify them, unsafe vehicular manufacture, and eliminating public entertainers that become problematic.

    I’m not doing this setting justice in trying to explain it. I greatly enjoy this one. I love it when a setting can walk the fine line of framing the traditional aspects of a genre, and then finding just enough aspects to change and personalize to give the setting its personality. The idea of the high rise reclaimed farms, street racing culture, and a setting where “influencers” might get offed because they are influencing “improperly” really resonates with what I love about cyberpunk and it’s possibilities and adding a new spin to them.

    Paraiso Amazonia

    In this setting, a section of the Amazon has been placed under a dome, and there is a return to monarchy, as well as an upswing in criminal activity, as living spaces are defined in the region.

    A lot is going on in this setting. The “corporations” are Seibetsu Technology, The Satans, Petrocorp, and Orleans Braganca Construction. I put corporations in quotes because The Satans are a crime syndicate, and the Orleans Braganca Construction company is strongly tied to the interests of the resurgent monarchy.

    The corporate interests of the setting involve tracking immigrants via technology, establishing a caste system to make the restriction of land and influences a quantified aspect of the government, and to exploit the maintenance of the biodome to produce exclusive biotechnology, which then becomes necessary for everyday life.

    This is a fascinating setting, but there is also a lot going on, and it feels a little constrained by trying to reframe it into the normal Headspace definitions. This is another setting where one of the corporations, the Satans in this case, may have projects going on that the PCs want to come to fruition, adding nuance but also a little bit of confusion to the overall expected structure of the game.

    100% Pure

    This setting takes place in New Zealand, after a series of disastrous turns including earthquakes, uprisings, and a gene plague spread by corporate modified foodstuff. New Zealand has been divided into Green, Orange, and Red zones, based on the safety of the people in the region and the relative comfort of their lives. One assumption of this setting is that there are displaced rebels in the Red zone that may be allies to the Operatives.

    The corporations here are Maturanga Digital, Always Tikanga, Kaitiakitanga Solutions, and Clearwater Developments. Corporate goals include recovering telecommunication data from reclassified Red zone regions, inter-corporation fighting over the ownership of land, stopping smuggled resources from reaching the “wrong” hands, and securing the rights to the Red zone to completely remake that region under corporate control.

    One particularly interesting aspect of this setting is that, unlike some of the others, it expressly mentions Operators as part of the assumed description of the Red zone resistance, while many of the other settings are more open to how the group is going to integrate Operators into the established setting story.

    Carteles Unidos

    The final setting of the book details a U.S./Mexican border struggle that has been exacerbated by ecological disasters, the collapse of the Mexican government and the rise of cartel control of the country, and U.S. political unrest that has led to civilian vigilante groups and a militarized border agency.

    This is another case where “corporation” is a very loose term for the power groups in the setting. Las Calaveras Blancas is the new cartel overlords of Mexico, BORTAC is the US border agency, Hard Light is the organized civilian vigilante force, and Las Sombras De La Serpente is a civilian organization in Mexico opposing the cartels.

    As might be expected, this setting feels a lot different than the assumed structure of Headspace. The “secret” that Las Sombras De La Serpente has is more a matter of them not thinking through the consequences of their actions, and while some of the other settings have “gray” organizations that the PCs may not mind advancing some of their agendas, Las Sombras De La Serpente is way closer to a benevolent faction than just about any of the other “corporations” in the book.

    The Insider

    Aside from the credits, the final chapter in the book details a new playbook for the game, The Insider. The playbook immediately got my attention when it mentioned Transmetropolitan as an influence, because I loved that comic.

    The Insider is about knowing dirt and people and planting dirt on people. The edges involve having corporate contacts, dirt that can be sent to the media if anything happens to you, flexible IDs, strong followings, lots of wealth, or lots of drugs.

    Interestingly, this takes is inspiration from Transmetropolitan, but the character is not just a journalist. You can see how you could model that since Spider knows a ton of people and where the bodies are buried, but the playbook is flexible regarding exactly how you come by your dirt and the nature of your connections.

    The flavor of some of the edges does reinforce how pushing the limits on what is defined as a “corporation” changes the core assumptions of the game. For example, the Insider can have an edge where they know all of the communications officers for the corporations, but what does that look like when two of your factions are essentially civilian militias, or one of them is an expansive crime syndicate?


    This is a great collection of settings. I love the game focused structure of the presentation. While all of the settings offer an interesting and unique twist to a cyberpunk setting, I particularly love The Hieroglyph of the Whale and New Motor City settings, and I’ll admit my biases as an American in the current political climate make Carteles Unidos a compelling setting to examine. I always love new playbooks in PBTA games, especially when they are well defined and draw on recognizable tropes.

     Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well. 

    Pushing the boundaries on how “corporations” are defined makes me a little less sure how the core assumptions will work with those entities, or what the consequences are when the PCs might feel a little safer letting some corporate clocks slide. Given the tightly integrated number of playbooks in the core book, as much as I love The Insider as a concept, I’m not sure if I should add the playbook as someone else present as a “ghost” if the group doesn’t take the playbook, or if it should replace one of the core playbooks for this purpose. Its internal integration is fine, I’m just wondering a little about the nuance of the integration into the game as a whole.

    Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.

    This is a great wellspring of setting information for cyberpunk games. Not only would I recommend this for giving you more options in your Headspace games, but if you have even a fleeting interest in cyberpunk or near-future science fiction, you may want to read through this book as well. The ideas on where the future could be heading, as well as the concisely formatted goals and directions of various power groups, make this useful as a setting book beyond the game for which it was designed.

    What are your favorite cyberpunk settings? What are your favorite subversions in cyberpunk settings? What are some of the best ways you have seen modern issues translated into the cyberpunk genre? We would love to hear your thoughts below!

    Read more »

    RPGWatch Newsfeed

  • Romancing SaGa 3 - Review @ RPG Site
    RPG Site checked out the re-released J-RPG Romancing SaGa 3: Romancing SaGa 3 Review Romancing SaGa 3 is a classic JRPG that originally released on the Super Famicom back in 1995. Like its predecessor in Romancing SaGa 2, against the odds, the game has now been remastered and is making its first official release in the west.... Read more »
  • Roadwarden - Announced
    Roadwarden is an RPG announced for next year and described as illustrated text-based RPG that uses isometric pixel art and combines mechanics borrowed from RPGs, Visual Novels, adventure games and interactive fiction.  loading... Who or what is a Roadwarden? You are a Roadwarden, a brave stranger putting his life in danger to make a difference in this grim world.... Read more »

    Sly Flourish

  • Running Ghosts of Saltmarsh Chapter 5, Isle of the Abbey

    This article is one of a series of articles covering the hardback D&D adventure book, Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Other articles include:

    Like those articles, this article contains spoilers for Ghosts of Saltmarsh.

    A Reskinnable Fixer-Upper

    Like Salvage Operation the third adventure in Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Isle of the Abbey is an highly reskinnable adventure. The central hook, the backgrounds of the clerics, and the item they covet in the Winding Way can all be reskinned to suit the campaign we're running.

    Unlike Salvage Operation this adventure needs work to bring it up to par with the other adventures in this book. It is, in my opinion, the weakest of the first four adventures in the book.

    Here's why. First, the island can get boring once the characters have made it through the skull dunes. Second, the entrance into the abbey is problematic in its design. Third, the winding way can be a boring character-punishing trap-festival filled with a strange menagerie of "CR-appropriate" combat encounters that go on and on and on.

    We'll dig into all of these problems and how to fix them throughout the rest of this article. For now, let's look at how we can twist this adventure into one that supports our current story.

    Reskinning the Hook

    The first big reskinnable feature of Isle of the Abbey is the story hook itself. Who wants to build something on the isle and why? Perhaps it's Mannistrad Copperlocks, the head of the dwarven miners, who wants to clear the island so she can build a new watchtower. Maybe it's the council of Saltmarsh who wants to set up the watchtower and lighthouse to look for the sahuagin threat. Maybe it's a secret Scarlet Brotherhood ploy that the characters fall for. Whatever hook sinks deep into the characters works best and we can tune it however we wish. Someone wants to build something on the island for some reason. We get to decide what, for whom, and why.

    Whatever hook we set in, we'll want to ensure that the characters become aware that they must stop or defeat the clerics of the abbey in order to accomplish it. Waves of necrotic energy may be continually reanimating the skeletons on the beach; something that must end if our patrons are going to rebuild a tower or lighthouse on the beach. We'll want to reinforce this throughout our running of Isle of the Abbey so that the players never have to ask "why are we doing this again?"

    Reskinning the Clerics

    Other than being described as "evil", the clerics in Isle of the Abbey have few details. We can choose what god or gods they follow depending on what fits our story. In my own campaign I turned them into refugee clerics from the Temple of Elemental Evil who came to the abbey to study the Elder Elemental Eye. This ties in nicely with a larger Chained God / Elder Elemental Eye / Tharizdun thread we can string throughout these adventures culminating in the Styes at the end of the book. If you want to connect well with the previous adventure, Salvage Operation, you can tie the clerics to Lolth and fill their abbey with all sorts of regalia of the spider queen.

    When we define the theology of the clerics, we'll want to wrap the whole adventure in that lore. We can add giant carvings in stone of the four elemental symbols surrounding a huge symbol of the Elder Elemental Eye. We can give the clerics powers reminiscent of their former elemental bent. We might even pull up those stat blocks for the cultists in Princes of the Apocalypse which fits well in our elemental-themed take on the clerics of the abbey.

    The adventure, as written, has very little of this flavor in it already so defining such flavor is up to us. Pay attention to those secrets and clues!

    What's In the Treasure Room?

    Our final bit of customization for Isle of the Abbey comes with the contents of the abbey's treasure vault. The Winding Way, the main dungeon part of this adventure, guards a treasure vault with oodles of traps and monsters. We'll want to ensure whatever is in that vault is worth the effort.

    Perhaps it contains an intelligent mace of disruption or sun blade filled with the lawful good spirit of a planetar who waged war against the very god the clerics worship. Perhaps the clerics have placed the item in an unholy pool that inverts its holy energy into the very waves of necrotic energy roaring across the island. Perhaps only the undead can reach into the pool and take it out; something they're not likely to do. Any living creature reaching into the pool suffers the effects of a finger of death, a final deadly trap to protect this powerful weapon.

    We can put any item or items we want in this vault as long as it's important enough to warrant the difficulty of traversing through the Winding Way. The characters should know why they're braving a deathtrap dungeon before they bother to step inside.

    Improving the Island

    Isle of the Abbey is one of the more flawed adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. First, the island itself is bland. The initial incursion to the Skull Dunes is great fun, although high perception checks can get a group through it too quickly. Consider halving the result of a Wisdom (Perception) check to see how many square the characters traverse before running into a pile of skeletons. We can, if we choose, skip the skeletal swarms which are a bit anemic in my opinion with an actual big pile of skeletons. Try 25 skeletons and see how the party fairs. You can roll for them normally, assume a quarter of them hit or save at any given time, or use the mob calculator to run that big pile of skeletons. The skeletal juggernaut is great fun conclusion to their battle on the beach as well.

    Once the characters get past the Skull Dunes, it's basically a straight shot to the monastery.

    We can make this journey more interesting by flavoring the island based on the background of the clerics. If they're members of the elemental cults, maybe we see huge symbols of the elemental sects or statues to the Elemental Princes themselves. Huge stone idols or great summoning circles or carrion pits filled with sacrificed victims; any of these can bring more flavor to the island. Make them big and make them old.

    If you're hard pressed for an idea, drop in an ancient monument to spice things up.

    You'll also definitely want to throw in an NPC. Skeen the pirate mentioned in the table of complications can be a good NPC to drop in. Too much combat can get boring and players generally love talking to folks. Skeen can be a great source for some secrets and clues.

    Shaking Up the Design of the Abbey

    The map for the abbey isn't ideally suited for careful exploration. The abbey's single staircase leads into a main hall surrounded by eight rooms, many of which have occupants who can hear the characters coming. All of the careful details about the NPCs goes out the window when they all come rushing into the central room daggers high.

    You might consider changing the configuration of the room into a hallway leading into the main hall with side-halls leading to smaller rooms so the whole thing is less cramped.

    If you want an entirely new configuration, try out one of Dyson Logos's maps instead. Many of his maps have far better configurations than the single hall with eight attached rooms. If you do run it as is, consider removing some of the extra characters so it's not nearly as painful to fight through.

    The Downward Beats of the Winding Way

    In a previous article I talked about the downward beats of dungeons. That article came from my experiences running the Winding Way. This half of the abbey is a festival of traps, tricks, and rooms full of monsters. The monsters are quite a mix too. Three out of the four main encounters in the Winding Way contain "deadly" encounters.

    So let's rebuild it into something better.

    Handwave the traps. If the characters have a passive Wisdom (Perception) of 16 or higher, they'll see most of the traps outright and be able to avoid them. To make this more heroic we can skip over the detailed workflow of trap detection and inform the characters that, due to their keen eyes, they are no mere tomb robbers and manage to avoid many of the deadly traps that would have felled lesser adventurers. We might keep a few traps handy and, if they get boring, we can always grab a random trap from the Lazy DM's Workbook or our handy trap generator and spice them up.

    When the characters get into fights and decide to fight out in the hall, we might impose a DC 10 Intelligence check to see if they remember to avoid one of the hallway traps. A fall into a pit isn't out of the question on a failure.

    Add harassing specters. We can also grab the specters from room 11 and use them to harass the characters while they navigate the hallway. Specters aren't particularly powerful when compared to 5th level characters but they're really nasty when they can float through walls, hit, and run. Their reasonable dexterity gives them a good chance at gaining surprise and their lifedrain is no fun for anyone at any level. These guys will be quite annoying but a lot of fun at the same time. Just don't overdo it.

    Changing up the monsters. We can use some of the monsters listed in the encounters but we'll probably want to mix them up. A bodak might be cool but ogre zombies and ghasts just eat up time. We can decide which rooms have what, perhaps giving each room a theme based on the themes of the clerics in the temple. Maybe each room is an elemental node with a single negative energy room (complete with a bodak) for the node of the Elder Elemental Eye. The vampire statue is pretty cool, as is the crystalline minotaur statue. The two statues in the final treasure vault may be better off as mummies; the original tomb guardians. Even a mummy lord isn't out of the question. These ancient dead priests protect whatever item of great power resides in the final chamber of the Winding Way.

    A Scaffold of Adventure

    Isle of the Abbey requires more work than the other adventures in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Like Salvage Encounter we can reskin much of it to fit the story we want to share. Unlike that adventure, Isle of the Abbey requires a lot of work to fix up as well. Hopefully this article gives you ideas how you can twist this adventure into an awesome experience for your players.

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  • The Flow of Trap Detection

    Noticing, studying, and disarming traps is a common activity in Dungeons & Dragons and yet it can be difficult to understand exactly how it works. Likewise, depending on the situation, it can be difficult for us DMs to understand how best to describe what is happening in a way that still fits the fantastic tales of high adventure we want to share. Today we're going to look at two things: the tricky workflow for detecting, investigating, and disarming traps, and how we can let these situations flow into the rest of our story.

    The Mechanical Flow of Trap Detection

    The most useful description for trap detection appears in chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide on page 120 and 121 under the heading "Detecting and Disabling a Trap". If you're confused about how the flow of trap detection works, start with that section to understand the rules-as-written.

    In short (and you really should read the DMG description if you haven't already) traps are first perceived (or not...), then investigated, and then disarmed.

    Perceiving a trap. Perceiving a trap requires, you guessed it, perception. When a trap is perceived, the danger of the trap is noticed. According to the DMG, this means the character succeeds in noticing the trap. There's some wiggle room in there that we'll discuss in a minute. This perception can either be an active roll or a passive check. Jeremy Crawford blew this topic wide open with his discussion on passive perception during a Sage Advice episode (jump to the 22 minute mark to hear about passive perception).

    Investigating a trap. Once a character notices a trap, they might need to investigate the trap to understand how it works and how to disarm it. This investigation may either take place by the player describing how they mess with the trap or might take place by rolling an Intelligence (Investigation) check. An Intelligence (Arcana) check can be used to detect and investigate magical traps as well as disarm them. The type of trap and its setup could determine how this investigation takes place and how well it works.

    Disarming a trap. Disarming a trap can require a few different potential skills. Like investigation, a character might be able to foil a trap without rolling any check at all. Holding a shield up in front of a chest that fires off poison darts might be enough on its own that no check needs to be made. Other traps might require a Dexterity check using thieves' tools if they are mechanical or an Intelligence (Arcana) check if they are magical. Other abilities can likewise foil a trap such as Dispel Magic.

    On Passive Perception

    This all seems rather straight forward but there are some edge cases that can complicate things. First of all, how much can be detected with passive Perception? As Crawford mentions, and this RPG Stack Exchange thread clarifies, passive Perception acts as a lower floor for a Perception check. It's always on, even if a character attempts an active Wisdom (Perception) check. It's the minimum of what they see. The DMG clearly says that you can compare the DC to detect the trap with each character's passive Wisdom (Perception) score to determine whether anyone in the party notices the trap in passing. This gives us some wiggle room, though, and we may want to take it. Sometimes characters have insanely high passive Perception scores; like above 20. The observant feat can give them an even higher passive Perception. Obviously we don't want to negate or work around this. Players chose these options in particular for their characters.

    But we can change what they see with passive Perception. This can depend on the story and the situation. We can be sure that a character with a passive Perception higher than the DC of a trap notices danger ahead, but they might not know what danger they see. This would require its own Intelligence (Investigation) check to learn more about what is going on with the trap. Like passive Perception, a passive Investigation likely acts as a lower floor for investigating the mechanics of traps. Again, we can decide what information comes up from this. Yes, you see danger ahead (high passive Perception). Yes, you see that there are deep grooves surrounding some of the tiles in the floor ahead and believe they move or can be moved (high passive Investigation). That doesn't tell you exactly what is going on but smart characters (and smart players) will test it out and see. Maybe they back up and toss something heavy on the tile. Maybe they duck out of the way and press a torch down on it only to see a poisoned barbed dart hit the torch. They still learn things by actually investigating.

    One note about passive Perception I missed until DM David brought it up in his excellent article on group ability checks; the lighting matters a lot. Dim lighting for those without darkvision drops passive Perception by five. The same is true for total darkness and those with darkvision. Keeping track of the lighting tells you how easily the characters can actually perceive. We're not monsters, though. We should likely mention this difficulty before the characters start wandering into pit traps. "The total darkness in this chamber makes it difficult to see well, even for those of you with darkvision." Give them the reminder and they'll likely need to fire up some light to avoid the penalty to their passive Perception.

    A Faster Narrative Description

    Maybe you want to take this a different way and use those passive scores to smooth out the description of the story. In the adventure Isle of the Abbey in the adventure hardcover book Ghosts of Saltmarsh, there is a hallway filled with traps known as the "Winding Way". Many of the traps can be detected with a passive Perception of 16; some need as high as 19. There are enough of these traps that, instead of going through the full flow of trap detection stages mentioned above, we can just describe what they see:

    "As you travel through the Winding Way you notice and avoid dozens of traps designed to thwart run-of-the-mill tomb robbers; but you are no casual tomb robber. Poisoned darts drip from hidden shafts. Large overhead rocks threaten to smash intruders into thin pink paste. Illusionary floors sit atop fields of poisoned spears upon which are impaled the skulls of those less perceptive than you. You journey through the Winding Way noting these deadly traps as you make your way to the vaults of the dark priests."

    Obviously you need not read something like that aloud but you can describe how the characters avoid these traps without going through every step of the process. You might mention that other more cunning traps may not be as easily discovered. The pit traps, for example, require a DC 19 passive Perception to detect which a group of characters simply may not possess.

    Working With the Players, Not Against Them

    Traps are one of those areas where antagonistic DMs clearly run a different kind of game than character-focused DM. Antagonistic DMs take a "you deserve what you get" approach, sitting back and giving only whatever information they have to based on the questions the players ask and the rolls of their characters. Instead, we can work with the players. Yes, we know where the traps are but there is a huge translation problem continually occurring when we run our D&D games. We're describing places that don't actually exist from images on our heads and hoping that the same images transfer intact into the heads of the players.

    In the Elements of Style (a mandatory read for writers in my opinion), EB White says "most readers are in trouble about half the time." The same is true for players at our game. With any description we describe, our players are probably not understanding it about half the time. We need to work with our players, clarifying our descriptions, and giving them material to work with.

    The characters in our D&D game, for the most part, are experienced adventurers. They're not going to do stupid things. We can assume that, by the time they've been through a few dungeons, they know how to stay out of the way of explosive runes when someone is trying to disarm them. They know how to duck behind a corner so as not to be in the path of poisoned darts.

    We should assume that the characters are seasoned adventurers, not idiots, even if our players aren't fully grasping what is going on or spending a bit too much time on their phones. Find other ways to bring them into the game than sticking poisoned darts into the faces of their characters.

    Another Tool for Tales of High Adventure

    The whole flow of traps and trap detection, like all elements of our D&D games, is here to help us share a story. Traps are pieces of the world, a moment of stress and resolve, that fits in with the rest of the tales we share. It's a careful balance to ensure tension and resolution don't turn into frustration, tedium, or boredom. When we understand how traps fit into our story and keep the flow of trap detection at the right pace, we can keep the energy high and put traps in their rightful place as sinister agents of the stories we share.

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