- Charles S. Roberts Awards Pending, Plus Wargames for Two from Worthington, Hollandspiele & GMTan article announcing the exciting comeback of the Charles S. Roberts Awards for Excellence in Conflict Simulation after seven years of inactivity. Well, today I'm happy to report that the results are in and will be announced on October 25, 2020 at 8 p.m. EDT (UTC-4) on the No Enemies Here YouTube channel. Thanks to everyone who submitted votes and the CSR Awards team who compiled the results!
The presenters for the CSR Awards include Trevor Bender, Fritz Bronner, Jack Greene, Jan Heinemann, Mark Herman, Lawrence Hung, Steve Jackson, Tim Kask, Derek Landel, Dean Liggett, Riccardo Masini, Bruce Monnin, Marc Miller, Allan Rothberg, Fred Serval, and Kevin Bertram...with a "Candice cameo" where I'll present the Best Science Fiction or Fantasy Wargame category.
You can check out the list of 2019 nominees on the Charles S. Roberts website and start making your guesses.
In the spirit of the upcoming CSR Awards broadcast, here are a few interesting 2020 wargame releases to check out:
Worthington Publishing is releasing Maurice Suckling's American Civil War-based, card-driven game Chancellorsville 1863. Suckling's 2019 release Freeman's Farm 1777 is, coincidentally, one of the 2019 nominees for the CSR Awards' Best Ancients to Pre-Napoleonic Era Board Wargame category.
Here's a brief overview of how Suckling's 2020 follow-up to Freeman's Farm 1777 works, as described by the publisher:Chancellorsville 1863 is a card-driven game on the American Civil War Battle of Chancellorsville. Playable by 1 to 2 players in one hour, the game comes with a card-driven solitaire engine. Designed by Maurice Suckling (designer of Freeman's Farm 1777), the game uses many of the concepts from that game. However, added hidden movement, much more maneuver, and other design tweaks make this a truly unique game.
Each turn, players play one of their three in-hand formation cards to maneuver or attack enemy forces, gaining momentum cubes based on the formation activated. Each formation is a Confederate division or Union corps. Each formation card allows a major and possibly an additional minor activation: major allowing two moves for a formation while the minor allows one move. After each formation moves, combat can occur if a move ends in a location with an enemy formation. Tactic cards may be played during the formation's activation giving it movement or combat bonuses.
At the end of the formation card activation, players may spend their momentum cubes to buy tactics cards which may give them benefits in combat or movement in future turns. Players then draw a new formation card refilling their hands to three. Hooker, Lee, and Jackson have bonuses that can be played once a game, adding to movement and combat.
Victory is determined by destroying enemy formations through morale/strength loss, or the Union occupying the three victory locations that represent cutting off the Confederate army from Richmond.
Additional rules allow for fixed defensive positions, Jackson's Flank March, and even his death.
Hollandspiele announced the release of White Eagle Defiant from Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw, the design team that brought us Brave Little Beligium in 2019, which is another CSR Awards nominee, but in the Best Post-Napoleonic to Pre-World War 2 Era Board Wargame category.
Here's a preview of what you can expect from White Eagle Defiant, the 1-2 player, chit-pulling, wargame that partially follows the footsteps of its predecessor Brave Little Belgium:White Eagle Defiant recreates the German, Slovak, and Soviet invasion of Poland in September and October 1939 that marked the beginning of the Second World War. Germany and its Slovakian ally began the invasion on September 1, 1939; the Soviet Union followed suit on the 17th. Known in Poland as the September Campaign and in Germany by the codename Fall Weiss (Case White), the campaign ended on October 6, 1939 with Germany and the Soviet Union splitting the country in two.
In White Eagle Defiant, one player controls the Germans, Slovaks and Soviets (simplified as the Germans in the game) while the other player commands the Poles. The German objective is to gain control of Warsaw and other designated Victory cities while preventing Polish forces from destroying their forts in East Prussia and recapturing Victory cities. If the German player does so in less time than the historical campaign, they win the game. Anything less is a draw or a win for the Polish player.
This quick-playing wargame employs very similar mechanims as Brave Little Belgium, but with a modest increase in complexity. The game uses a point-to-point map and a chit-pull mechanism to simulate the campaign, with each turn representing four days. Random event chits are included to add variety and excitement to the game, reflecting the weapons (such as armored trains and aerial bombardment) used at the beginning of World War II. The combat system, while still simple, is enhanced to better simulate mechanized warfare, as well as the use of combined forces. (Players can bring forces from adjacent spaces into an attack, creating primary and secondary combat groups.)
Other new features in White Eagle Defiant include Panzers for the Germans (which can roll two dice instead of one) and cavalry for the Poles (which can roll a "first shot" at the beginning of a combat round). A Victory Point track allows for variable entry of Soviet forces (depending on the success of the German player in capturing Victory cities), as well as the possibility of the Allies launching an attack in the West (if the German player fails to do well in capturing Victory cities). Finally, a "blitzkrieg breakdown" track is used by the German player; if the turn ends before both German army group chits are pulled, the German player may elect to activate a group, but possibly suffer a "breakdown" while doing so — and if five such breakdowns occur, the German player automatically loses the game.
Players who enjoyed Brave Little Belgium will find that White Eagle Defiant offers the same tense play for both sides, while presenting new challenges that reflect the dawn of the blitzkrieg era.
GMT Games front, I'm looking forward to sharing some impressions of their latest COIN series release, VPJ Arponen's All Bridges Burning, once I get a couple more plays in, but Mark Simonitch's Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul recently caught my attention since it's a reimplementation of Simonitch's asymmetrical, card-driven classic Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, which is on my list to try.
From the publisher's description below, it sounds like you'll ease right into Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul if you're familiar with Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage or PHALANX's 20th anniversary edition of that game, Hannibal & Hamilcar, but it should be a solid entry point even if you're new to the system, like me. Here's that description:Read more »Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul is a fast-playing, easy-to-learn, two-player card-driven game on Caesar's conquest of Gaul. One player plays Caesar as he attempts to gain wealth and fame in Gallia at the expense of the Gauls; the other player controls all the independent tribes of Gaul as they slowly awake to the peril of Roman conquest.
Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul uses many of the core rules and systems used in Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. Players are dealt seven cards at the start of each turn and use their cards to move their armies and place control markers. Players familiar with Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage will quickly learn this game.
The game covers the height of the Gallic Wars, the period between 57 BCE and 52 BCE when Caesar campaigned back and forth across Gaul putting down one rebellion after another and invading Germania and Britannia. Units are individual Roman Legions or Gallic Tribes. Each turn represents one year.
- VideoGame Preview: Switch & Signal, or Funneling Trains to Marseillejoin us on the stream to get overviews of new games from SPIEL.digital 2020, while also leaving you with a personal overview of one game in particular.
Signal & Switch is a co-operative game for 2-4 players from David Thompson and KOSMOS in which you collectively manage a rail network that must pick up goods in four cities and deliver them to one or two port cities, depending on which side of the game board you use. Everything about the design is straightforward to understand and play, but you are nicely challenged to handle lots of uncertainty — thanks to the cards and dice — and complexity, thanks to the system of signals and switches that you need to monitor and adjust as trains move between cities.
I'd write more, but I must away and
tend to my ravensprepare for my host duties during BGG.CONline. David Thompson will be on air on Sunday, Oct. 25 at 12:30 p.m. EDT should you care to ask him any questions about the game.
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- Designer Diary: Gods Love Dinosaurs, or Making Mechanisms Mesh
by Kasper LappSilk — but I heard Shut Up & Sit Down's review of the game, and they really liked the moments when the monster ate worms. ("Nom, nom, nom!")
That made me want to make a game in which animals eat other animals, too. This then turned into an idea of making an "ecosystem manager" — a game in which you have to keep the balance between populations of animals in an ecosystem.
I decided to use dominos to build the ecosystem. My aim became to make "Kingdomino, but where your kingdom comes alive." (I have a special relationship with Kingdomino because it won the Spiel des Jahres the same year that my Magic Maze was nominated, but that's another story.)
I chose the first animals that came to mind for the ecosystem. Rats, rabbits and frogs are all at the bottom of the food chain, and they are all eaten by tigers and eagles. I chose them because...well, because they are cool. But what would eat tigers and eagles? Something even cooler, hmm...
Dinosaurs, of course!
The goal I wanted players to have in this game was to keep a fine balance in their ecosystems, but how do you measure this balance in a simple way? I realized that a balanced ecosystem would be one that allows a lot of top predators (dinosaurs) to live. If, for example, there were too few tigers and eagles, the dinosaurs would starve, but if too many tigers and eagles existed, they would eat all the prey and end up starving, ultimately making the dinosaurs starve as well.
Initially, points were given based on how many dinosaurs you had alive in your ecosystem at specific moments of the game. Later, I decided that you would score a point each time a dinosaur ate a tiger or eagle because then points were tied directly to the most exciting moments of the game: When your dinosaurs come ravaging down from the mountains to eat. (I don't think dinosaurs actually lived in mountains, but again, it just seemed cool.)
During the game, players draft tiles with two different (or similar) terrains and often with a new animal on one of those. That didn't change during the design process, except that I changed the spaces to hexagons instead of squares. That made the placement of tiles less frustrating. It can be surprisingly hard to keep similar area types together using square dominos, but it became a lot easier with hexagons. In Kingdomino, keeping area types together is a central part of the challenge, but in Gods Love Dinosaurs the challenge lies elsewhere, so I wanted to make that part easier for the players.
The most important development of the game was the flow. In the first version, the game consisted of a set number of rounds. In each round, players were presented with tiles and picked one each to add to their ecosystem, then a card was drawn that dictated which animals would move, e.g., rabbits and tigers.
There were two problems with this. First, it was often obvious which tile would be best for your ecosystem. Second, you didn't get any chance to plan ahead since you wouldn't know which animals were going to move.
Even though the game didn't really work, the playtesters clearly enjoyed the "eating moments" of the game a lot, so I knew the game had potential and set out to fix those two problems.
First, I tried less random movements. You now knew ahead of time that the rabbits were going to multiply soon, or that the dinosaur would have to eat in a few turns, but you still didn't have any control over it, and it still didn't solve the issue that your best tile choice during drafting was often too obvious.
I needed more reasons for players to want one tile instead of another, and then it came to me: I could perhaps solve both my problems at once by introducing five columns of tiles, one for each non-dinosaur animal. Whenever the last tile in a column was taken, that type of animal would move.
Suddenly, you have a lot more to think about when choosing tiles. It might still be obvious which tile would be best for your ecosystem, but what if it were in the wrong column? Players now have to balance the choice between "which tile is best" and "which animal should move". Problem one was solved! At the same time, players now had control (collectively) over which animals ended up moving instead of it being decided by random card draws. Problem two was solved as well!
I love the moments when a rule change suddenly makes a game "click". This was one of those moments. The rest of the design process was just about getting the details right, and it ended up being my fastest idea-to-contract-proposal process yet (three-and-a-half months).
Pandasaurus Games did an amazing job with the visuals and made ani-meeples for all the animals, so I can't wait to get my own copy once it's released on October 21, 2020.
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- Designer Diary: Praga Caput Regni
For only the second time in my game design history — Last Will was the first — theme was the starting point for the design process for my latest game: Praga Caput Regni in this case, with the title being Latin for "Prague, capital of the Kingdom".
So how did the city of Prague become the focal point of this new game? Well, the seeds of it were probably sown when, as a schoolboy, I'd go on many walks in this beautiful and fascinating city with my best friend at that time. I was fortunate enough to be born in this exceptional city, and from a young age I wanted to find out as much as I could not just about its famous historical sights, but also its lesser known ones.
It was clear to me even then as a youngster that, especially when viewing the panoramas of Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, that Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I absorbed its history on my regular walks through its streets and that had a great impact on me in my formative years, and those walks gave me many unforgettable memories and experiences that I look back on fondly even to this day.
In the intervening years since my childhood, inevitably the ups and downs of family and working life got in the way of my ability to explore the city as often as I did in my youth. However, my love of the city did not diminish, and I continued to learn more about the history of Prague from a wide variety of books that I read on the subject.
League of Six, a game set in 1430 about a group of wealthy Lusatian towns that banded together to defend their commercial interests and the stability of this region, which is situated in the present day on the borders of Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic). While I often considered Czech history as a potential source of theme for my games over the years, the city of Prague (and its special history) has had to wait its turn.
After having finished designing Underwater Cities and its expansion, I was casting around for themes for my next game. I had an urge to design a historically themed game — my favorite type of game — and it suddenly occurred to me that it might finally be the right time to fulfill one of my dreams, that is to say, to design a strategic Eurogame based around my hometown: the royal city of Prague.
From that point on, some thoughts started rattling around my head about designing a game in which the main goal was to build up the medieval city of Prague during the period of the reign of Charles IV (1316-1378 CE), king of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. This was a time when the city flourished and a great many of the iconic sights of today's Prague were constructed. I was intent on including as many of those real historical sights and buildings as I could in the game, places such as Prague Castle, Charles Bridge, and the Charles University to name a few, all of which you can still see today of course.
Hunger Wall and its gaming equivalent
The next step in the design process was trying to find a way to incorporate as many of those historical buildings and events from the Charles IV period into the game as possible through appropriate mechanisms. It was inevitable that I would have to make compromises as it wasn't possible to include everything!
As I write this, we are at the point where the game is very nearly finished and requires only minor tweaks to balance and the odd minor mechanism. However, even now, when I think of some lesser known historical sight in the city I think to myself, "Why didn't I include that square on the main board?" or "Why didn't I include this church?" But as much as I wanted to, I just couldn't include them all. While I did have some initial concerns about connecting this theme with more complex game mechanisms in a smooth and streamlined way, I also wanted to do the city justice by how it was represented in the game. In the end, I think I managed to fit a good selection of the most interesting parts of Prague into the game.
This historical era, one of the most famous periods in the history of both Prague and the Czech kingdom, provided a lot of rich design possibilities right from the outset. In 1346, the young and able Charles IV of the Luxembourg dynasty ascended to the throne and became King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor. One of the first steps he took was to order the building of the New Town (Nové Město) next to the Old Town (Staré Město). During this period, he also initiated the construction of the famous Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral, and many of the buildings connected to the University of Prague, which was founded in 1348 and would eventually become known as the Charles University of Prague, one of the oldest universities in Europe. By the end of his reign, Prague had become one of the largest and most important cities in Europe.
The main goal of the game is, obviously, building. At the start of the design process, I tried to incorporate these historical elements into the fabric of the game. You can see this clearly on the game board where the Old Town and the New Town are separated by the King's Road (Královská Cesta). Players also help construct the City Walls, as well as the Hunger Wall (which was built during a famine in the 1360s and is reputed to have been ordered by Charles IV as a way of providing jobs and food to the affected citizens and their families), in addition to the aforementioned Charles Bridge and St. Vitus Cathedral.
One of the main mechanisms of the game involves players selecting an action to carry out in order to help with the construction of these locations. They do this by gaining resources and upgrading those actions. When I modeled out possible turns in my head, I tried to interconnect the mechanisms as much as possible through this core action-selection mechanism. My main aim when designing this central mechanism was to encourage players to not select the same action repeatedly so that they would have to combine different action choices to make their overall strategy succeed. Although the game's mechanisms seem very logically connected to me now, I found the mental exercise of keeping tabs of the possible permutations of players' actions to be one the most demanding challenges I have ever experienced while designing games.
I like using dice in my games a lot, and they were the main component of the central mechanism in the first versions of the game. Players would roll three dice to choose their actions and the accompanying bonus actions. However, after testing this at home with my family I realized that this was not the best choice of mechanism to be at the center of this game. I tried several ways to adjust the dice mechanism so that it not only worked but was fun, yet I just wasn't happy with it; the dice were too random to base strategic decisions on.
This led to me having a new experience as a game designer. In my previous games, I've started by determining the main mechanism, then building other mechanisms around it. I sometimes had to adjust the central mechanism a bit, but generally it stayed fundamentally similar to how I first envisaged it. Realizing that my central mechanism didn't work as I wanted it to was something new that I had to deal with. I decided to keep the secondary mechanisms, but come up with a completely different core mechanism.
In the end, I decided to use a mechanism I had come up with years ago in which tiles with two actions on them are inserted into a central wheel. There are also bonuses on the wheel itself so that you get to take the bonus when you select an action tile. From the action tile itself, you choose one of the two actions indicated on it.
I refined this mechanism to work in the context of this specific game, and it eventually turned out to be the most suitable central mechanism for Praga. From a design point of view, I thankfully managed to find a way around the initial design challenge of having to completely change the central mechanism without having to majorly change the secondary mechanisms.
I felt good about the change of the central mechanism at this point, but it still needed some refining. I reduced the number of possible main actions to seven and experimented with them on the wheel. I came up with different bonus actions for each slot on the wheel connected to the secondary mechanisms of the game. This led to players having to choose from a veritable smorgasbord of actions, each of which provided different bonuses depending on its location on the wheel.
Also, the bonuses on the wheel, which thematically became the wheel of a builder's crane, get increasingly more advantageous as they travel round. In more detail, when the tiles start out on the wheel, a player has to pay more resources to get the more frequently used action tiles that end up back at the start of the wheel more often, but as the action tiles move round the wheel, the bonuses to take them get better until a player eventually decides they are just too good to pass up. At this point, I was really happy with how this core mechanism worked.
The next thing I had to deal with was reducing the amount of time it took to take a turn. I didn't want it to be too long. I tried reducing it by simplifying the main actions and the complexity of the bonus actions. Initially the variety of bonus actions was too wide, which led to analysis paralysis and slowed the game down.
Following discussion with playtesters, I decided to get rid of the main action that allowed players to move on the cathedral or wall tracks and turn that into a bonus action you get when constructing certain wall tiles, thereby reducing the number of main actions to six. This turned out to be the final number of actions in the game. These discussions also led to the decision to simplify how it was possible to get an additional movement on the cathedral and wall tracks — by spending two white windows — which sped up the flow of the game considerably.
Numerous playtest games helped to balance the design. Through those tests, it became clear that it was necessary to strengthen the "upgrade actions" action. (I settled upon a bonus of advancing on the University track to provide additional motivation to do this action.) The production tracks also needed strengthening as there were other ways to gain resources without actually moving on these tracks, so I made the benefits of going up this track more enticing and together with the large endgame scoring bonuses possible at the end of them, this turned the "production" strategy into a viable one.
One of the things I'm really pleased about with Praga is that the number of players playing the game doesn't affect the flow of the game too much. Apart from the starting set-up, there was little need to adjust the game according to the number of players.
There are a LOT of hex tiles in this game, too, and balancing these to ensure that none of them were too powerful was a demanding part of the design process.
The increasing popularity of solo modes in games (especially in this time of COVID-19) was a motivating factor for me to include this in the game as well. I carried out a lot of testing during lockdown periods at home, so I played solo a lot, which helped me hone the game and this particular mode. This didn't replace playing games with playtesters and getting their feedback, but it was definitely a useful supplement to that process in these difficult times. I have noticed recently that solo players tend to prefer modes in which they have a "dummy" opponent. However, I still tried to make the simulated opponent as realistic as possible and less of a dummy! The rules for this version of the solo game will be published through our website at the same time as the game.
In the end, I'm very happy with how Praga Caput Regni has turned out. In my opinion, it is the most complex game I have ever created, and I believe it is a worthy successor to Underwater Cities.
P.S. Thanks to Mike Pool for the language corrections.
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- Lookout Sows Fields to Produce Hallertau, More Agricola, and Patchworks GaloreUwe Rosenberg's two-player game Patchwork was a hit when it debuted in 2014, and it's continued to find new fans in the intervening years. (Here's a quick overview of the game if it's still unknown to you.)
Publisher Lookout Games has released a few Patchwork spinoff titles, and now it has three more in the works for those who prefer the gameplay of the original but not its graphics. Note that all of these new versions differ from the original only in their graphics, with the exception of one non-game related element.
The most widespread of these new versions will be Patchwork: Winter Edition, which features red, green, and blue-and-white patches, in addition to a patch-shaped cookie cutter for those who'd prefer to eat patches as much as play with them. This version will be released initially in separate English and German editions.
The other two editions are dubbed Patchwork: Folklore Taiwan and Patchwork: Folklore China, and they feature imagery by artists local to the regions being depicted: Gru Tsow for Taiwan and Rex Lee for China. This artwork was created for licensed versions of Patchwork that will be released in Taiwan and China by local companies, but Lookout liked the style of these versions so much that it's releasing a 500-copy limited edition version of each one, with these being available through the Lookout online shop starting on October 22, 2020.
Agricola: Dulcinaria Deck, which contains 120 new occupation and minor improvement cards for use with the revised edition of Agricola (and the original one if you can gloss over differences in terminology), and Nusfjord: Salmon Deck, the second expansion deck for Nusfjord, which contains 44 new building cards for players who have a good understanding of the base game, as well as 25 metal coins to replace the coins from the base game.
• The final title debuting from Lookout on Oct. 22, 2020 is a giant one: Hallertau from Uwe Rosenberg. In this 1-4 player game, players each have a field in which they'll plant and harvest crops, a stable in which they'll tend to sheep, and five craft buildings that they'll progress in order to "expand" their community center, which gives them more workers to use each round.
Twenty actions are available on a shared central game board, and the cost to use an action escalates based on how many times it's already been used in a round; card-drawing actions can be used at most twice in a round, and other actions at most three times. Players manage nine types of goods, planting barley, flax, hops, and rye in the fields. Fields that remain empty will be more productive in future rounds, but the game lasts only six rounds, so sometimes you'll just have to get what you can. Sheep provide hides, meat, milk, and wool, and you'll need a varied mix of goods in order to use the cards you acquire to trade resources, gain additional resources, or spend resources for points.
For all the details of this 24-page rulebook, head to the Hallertau page on the Lookout Games website.
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- Designer Diary: Lost Ruins of Arnak — The World, The Language, The Art
by MínElwen and I work for Czech Games Edition, where we develop and playtest games and organize playtesting events for CGE's upcoming titles. This year is special for us as the game that we have developed is also a game that we designed. It was quite an adventure!
The game design of Lost Ruins of Arnak was an exciting journey, and I think we will write a separate article just about that, but today I want to let you peek behind the curtains of the Arnak world-building process and its art, which I think is quite special.
Elwen and I believe that Eurogames can both be clever and have a strong theme that helps you intuitively grasp the rules. That was one of the goals we tried to achieve with Lost Ruins of Arnak. We wanted to introduce unique gameplay that combines worker-placement and deck-building with some extra twists. We also wanted to let players experience the thrill of leading an adventurous expedition to an uncharted land, and we hoped for the game mechanisms to enhance the thematic feel, not diminish it. A huge part of this feeling is also in the game's visuals — which is why we gave a lot of attention to it.
I cannot stress enough how lucky we were to put together a team of amazingly gifted Czech illustrators who worked on this project. They all brought something unique to the mix, and the results far surpassed our wildest expectations.
In the beginning, we had many long calls with our graphics team in which we brainstormed about how the island would look and who the people that once lived in Arnak were: their lifestyle, their beliefs, the stories pictured in the art they left behind.
History of Arnak
I began to write a lengthy document called "History of Arnak" while Ondřej Hrdina started to sketch scenes from the past. This was one of my favorite parts of the process — letting the drawings inspire me to write, or to see my thoughts materialize in the illustrations.
We knew that we were not creating art that we would use in the actual game, but I hoped that the attention to detail would make the place look more real, and these concepts would become a cornerstone on which we would continue to build the world of Arnak.
Our team members Jakub Politzer, Filip Murmak, and Ondřej Hrdina were essential when discussing the civilizations that lived in Arnak throughout its history. They provided valuable information about the steps to take while building a world as well as great ideas and valuable feedback.
We kept adding details (and drawings!); we described the island and its geography, climate, fauna, and flora; and we described people who once lived in Arnak, their myths, lifestyles, materials, technologies they used, architecture styles, trading customs... The list goes on.
The mythology and religion was an important part of the culture, and you can see it reflected in the artwork they left behind: the artifacts you find, the sites you discover, the stories depicted on the walls of the Lost Temple...
Jakub Politzer led one part of the process that I found fascinating: how oral stories turned into myths, myths into drawings, and drawings into symbols that the people of Arnak used to write their sacred texts — symbols which later, in turn, permeated their architecture and artifacts.
In the end, this evolved into a hieroglyphic script that you can see scattered on the illustrations throughout the game.
I promised you a peek behind the curtain, so here is a link to a small part of my notes if you would like to dig deeper into the meaning of different drawings in the game: Mín's notes.
After months of work, Arnak, with all the little details, felt alive to us. That was the moment when our actual work on the board game art began. We had to move centuries ahead, bury everything we knew and start looking at the island with the eyes of the explorers arriving for the first time to uncover Arnak's great mysteries...
Finally, Ondřej Hrdina started to sketch Arnak and how it looked when the explorers found it. The old temples and cities, all in ruin, overgrown and deserted. The jungle hungrily took over anything that was left, hiding the statues and sacred places.
We decided to capture two main biotopes on the game map: the vast rocky plains where the most efficient means of transport would be an off-road car, and the large river delta surrounded by dense jungle where the ideal way to get around would be a boat — although, of course, you can get anywhere with amphibious aircraft!
Jiří Kůs and František Sedláček joined our team and got the task of sketching, then finalizing the artwork for the ancient Guardians. These mysterious beasts stalk the abandoned cities, and the explorers who disturb their peace must face their wrath or find a way to pacify their anger. Below you can see the birth of one Guardian, from the first sketches to the final illustration.
Ondřej Hrdina also put together some sketches of explorers making their first discoveries...and meeting their first Guardians. One of the sketches eventually evolved into the image you can see on the final box's cover.
Designing the cards was a part of the game design that I, but especially Elwen, really enjoyed. Trying to come up with interesting effects that would also make thematic sense. Admittedly we were tired when we designed the Ostrich and the Sea Turtle. Still, everyone loved those cards, and as a result, we ended up with far more animal companion cards than we originally anticipated.
During that time, Milan Vavroň joined the team, and he started to work on the card illustrations. He originally thought that he would have just enough time to illustrate the items, but he ended up illustrating all the artifacts as well. When we saw his first cards, we were blown away! Milan has worked on several CGE projects, but he seemed to really outdo himself in this game.
Designing the artifact effects was also fun! Jakub Politzer made beautiful concept art, and we tried to pick the right effect that would best fit the illustration, or we even created new effects based on the concepts. Milan Vavroň then took the concept art and set the artifacts in atmospheric environments.
It was a fascinating journey to slowly watch Arnak materialize from nothing.
As I am writing these lines, we have just received the first samples from the printer. To be fair, we loved the game from the early drafts — we designed it to have fun playing it together — but seeing it with the final art is one of the nicest gifts we have ever received. We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the process, and we hope that you will enjoy our game as much as we do!
Mín & Elwen
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- VideoAcademy Games Takes Us One Small Step to Team-Based Worker Placement AwesomenessAcademy Games has a solid reputation for tastefully blending entertainment and education to deliver engaging historical games, such as its area-control hit 1775: Rebellion from its Birth of America game series.
I caught a short, but enticing glimpse of its latest 2020 release One Small Step on BGG's livestream for Gen Con Online 2020. It looked and sounded super interesting, so I was naturally very curious to experience how it played. Uwe Eickert and the Academy Games team graciously sent me a copy so that I could race to space and share some thoughts with the BGG community so that you can determine whether One Small Step is a game to keep on your radar.
One Small Step is a 2-4 player team-based, engine-building, worker placement Eurogame designed by James DuMond and Gunter Eickert that's based on the U.S. & Soviet space race and that was fittingly launched on Kickstarter on July 16, 2019 — exactly fifty years after Apollo 11 launched to start its journey to land the first men on the Moon. In One Small Step, players split up into two teams of one or two players, and play as either the United States or Soviet Union space agencies competing to develop their space programs, launch missions, and be the first to achieve a Moon landing.
One Small Step is played over a series of rounds until the end of the game is triggered. Players collect various resources and optimize their engines to launch satellite and crewed missions, increase their agency's knowledge, and advance along the Moon path. The first team that reaches the end of the Moon path receives bonus victory points and triggers the end of the game. The team with the most VPs wins the game and represents the nation that progressed humanity's knowledge for the future most.
Each team has a player board (Agency board) for storing and organizing resources, workers (two Engineers and two Administrators), personnel cards, advancement cards and most importantly, mission cards. Successfully launching missions gives you all sorts of rewarding bonuses, upgrades, victory points, and advancements on the Moon path.
Each round of One Small Step is split into seven phases that will be repeated until a team lands on the Moon and triggers the end of the game:
(1) In the first phase, Countdown, both teams simultaneously advance their missions one space toward the Launch stage. There are three stages on each team's Agency board that hold mission cards in a launch queue: T-Minus 2, T-Minus 1 and Launch. As a result of the countdown phase, players will be attempting to launch any missions shifted to the Launch stage at the end of the round.
(2) Next, in the Replenish phase, each team refreshes their permanent resources and places four new event cards on the board. Now's a good time for me to talk about the resources in One Small Step.
There are nine different types resources split into three thematic categories: Agency resources (funding, material, personnel), Satellite resources (boosters, navigation, sensors), and Crew resources (capsules, landing, life support). Most often, you gain resources from rolling special resource dice; there's one die for each resource category. We did have some bad luck here and there with the die rolls, but nothing that was ever too detrimental. There are different actions in which you can spend any type of resource, or you can convert resources, or you just stock up because you'll likely need them at some point.
For each resource, you can gain temporary resources (white circular tokens) that are discarded when they're spent or permanent resources (black square tokens) that are reusable each round. A chunk of the engine building in One Small Step involves efficiently upgrading temporary resources to permanent resources since permanent resources give you way more bang for your buck when playing cards and launching missions.
(3) After the Replenish phase, each team will Draw 2 Cards. The Administator department/player can draw either a Satellite Mission card or a Crewed Mission card, whereas the Engineer department/player can draw a Satellite Mission card, Crewed Mission card, or an Event card from the Event deck. On each team, you can draw one card and then decide which card you want to draw next.
Whenever you draw a Mission card (Satellite or Crewed) you will immediately place it on either the T-Minus 2 stage or T-Minus 1 stage on your Agency board. There's no limit to the number of Mission cards that can be placed on each stage, but strategically it's an important decision as you are penalized for failed missions. For each Mission card added to the T-Minus 2 stage, you also get to roll the red (Satellite) resource die and get a free resource.
(4) Next you'll jump into the Workers phase where teams alternate taking turns in placing workers on either Earth action spaces or Event cards on the board. A là traditional worker placement, your opponent(s) will inevitably beat you to an action space you are needing to use and it's not uncommon to experience lots of cringing and groans during this phase.
Each team has two Administrator workers and two Engineer workers, and the majority of the action spaces can be taken only by the specified type of worker. If you place a worker on a card, you immediately take the worker action on the card, and at the end of the round, you also get to keep the card...again, Development cards go into your hand and Personnel cards go face up to the right of your Agency board.
The Earth action spaces also have an area for specific types of workers, but they are also upgradeable so they get juicier and juicier as the game progresses. One of the bonuses for successful mission launches is to upgrade Earth action. This is always a tough decision because you're not just upgrading it for yourself, but your opponents also have access to the stellar spaces as a result of your upgrade benefit.
One Small Step comes with handy action summary sheets that summarize each Earth action and the corresponding upgrades, but the iconography is so well done that it will probably be easy to remember after you play the game once.
The action spaces, whether on card spaces or Earth spaces, vary and give players plenty of options. Many allow you to gain resources, convert or upgrade resources, play Development cards at a discounted cost, gain bonus tiles, place hazard cards on your opponents' missions, advance on the Media track, and even take an action on a space that's already occupied with another worker.
I should note that all but one Earth action space has one action for an Engineer worker and a separate action for an Administrator worker beneath it. This means if you place an Engineer on a space, no one else (including your team) can place an Administrator on the action beneath it. This lends itself to tough decisions, as if it wasn't already challenging managing the limitations of having only two of each type of worker and how to best place them based on your available options. It's great!
I mentioned hazard cards and the Media track above, so let me briefly explain how the Media track works and I'll save the hazard cards for later. The Media track thematically represents how supportive your country's population and government are of your space agency's ventures, but in terms of gameplay it determines who has initiative in the phases of the game that aren't played simultaneously.
The Media track ranges from -3 to 8. If your Media value is 5 or more, you may reduce your Media by 5 to gain a Media bonus tile that usually provides resources and/or a special ability. If your Media value is at 8 and you need to gain Media, you must reduce it by 5 and take a Media bonus tile, then continue gaining Media as usual. This loop creates some interesting decisions because turn order can be very important especially in the worker placement phase and during the last phase of the round when you're launching missions.
(5) & (6) In phases 5 and 6, teams can use their Personnel cards and/or Play Development Cards from their hand respectively by spending the indicated resources, then taking the corresponding action. Since the Personnel cards are face up by your Agency board, your opponents may have some idea of what you might do, but the Development cards are in your hand which can create some suspense and sneak attack power plays in later rounds. Personnel and Development card actions usually involve gaining some resources, or gaining Media, but some cards even allow you to draw a mission card and immediately attempt to launch it which could be powerful for jumping ahead on the Moon path and snagging benefits before your opponent(s). Resources can be tight so sometimes you'll lean toward passing on one or both of these phases to save your resources for launching your missions.
(7) ...which brings me to the final phase, Launch Missions! This, ladies and gentlemen, is what you've been prepping all round for. In the Launch Missions phase, teams alternate launching one mission at a time from their Launch stage in initiative order.
As I mentioned earlier, there are satellite missions and crewed missions. Each mission card has a minor success requirement and reward, as well as a major success requirement and reward. If you don't have the resources necessary for the minor success, the mission fails and you'll have to take the penalty listed at the bottom of the card. Alternatively, if you are successful with the minor success requirement, you can optionally choose to spend the resources needed for the major success in which case you'll receive the mission rewards for both the minor and major success.
Successful crewed missions will allow you to progress on the Moon path, which is the timer for ending the game, but usually you'll want to start with mainly satellite missions to build up resources and your engine a bit. Each space on the Moon path has a bonus tile for the first player to land there, so timing can be important if you want a leg up on those bonuses.
After both teams have attempted to launch all missions in the Launch stage, you jump back to the Countdown phase and do it all over again but gradually improving your engine and working through three eras/tiers of Event cards that are increasingly more interesting. Between that and upgrading worker placement Earth spaces, the game definitely builds up and progresses well.
There are also Advancement cards you can purchase with resources and special Advancement tokens which either grant you a one-time benefit or on-going special ability which can spice things up even more.
All-in-all, I found One Small Step to be extremely enjoyable. It's a great two-player game, but from my experiences it especially shines when played with four since the team interaction is refreshing, unique, and challenging in a different way from most Eurogames. I'm sure some will love the team play and others won't be into it.
Playing with teams does tend to make the game run a bit longer since there's a lot of discussing and strategizing on both sides, but that doesn't bother me if everyone is engaged and having fun the whole time, which was the case each time we played with teams. I also found it surprising how competitive it gets when playing with teams. I felt myself caring more about winning when I had a teammate than I usually do playing games in general. A few rounds in you'll see people on both teams using their player aids to cover up their mouths and be discrete while plotting moves like football coaches covering their mouths with their playbooks as they relay a critical game plan in the final minutes of a tight football game.
I got some Manhattan Project vibes from One Small Step with the different types of workers and also the feeling of racing to progress on the Moon path ahead of my opponents. I really loved the decision space when choosing which worker placement spaces to upgrade — and having upgradeable worker placement spaces combined with the different types of workers really spices things up.
I didn't touch on it much, but I also really appreciated all of the historic facts and flavor throughout the rulebook and on the cards. If I can walk away from the table with learning something new and at the same time grinning from having an excellent gaming experience, I'm generally going to be a fan...and that is the case with One Small Step.
Here's the Gen Con Online 2020 demo hosted by Eric if you're interested in hearing more about One Small Step from the mouths of the creators:
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- Designer Diary: The Long Road to Kitara
by Eric VogelSandstorm LLC, had bought the rights to my games Cambria and Hibernia and seemed interested in seeing more work from me. I started thinking about a game that would be a natural follow-up to Cambria and Hibernia, another Celtic-Nations game that would fit in the same box and have roughly the same number of components, but a higher level of complexity.
A comment by one of my regular playtesters, Jon Spinner, came back to me — something about "a card game and a board game that interface at one end". I don't remember the exact words he used, but it got me thinking about the self-published card game I had released earlier in that year, Armorica. It struck me that Armorica's central card-drafting mechanism could be combined with an area-control board game, similar to Hibernia.
I came up with a prototype set in the Celtic Iberian peninsula in which players drafted a card every turn to build up a card display that gave them varying amounts of per turn victory points and the ability to choose from a wider array of cards each turn (as in Armorica), as well as movement points and new units for the board. I moved the ability to support cards from the cards (as in Armorica) to the board, requiring players to hold onto particular board territories each turn if they wanted to retain their cards. Other territories allowed players to score points. This mechanism created the need for dynamic expansion each turn and prevented players from just playing defensively, serving the same function as the multi-colored score track in Hibernia, but in a very different way.
The resulting game was a little larger in scale than Hibernia and Cambria, but I sent the design off to Sandstorm for playtesting anyway. When I went to the GAMA Trade Show for the first time in 2011 to demo my forthcoming games, Sandstorm told me they liked my new design and wanted to publish it. Unfortunately, Sandstorm ran into financial difficulties later in 2011, and by the time I was demoing the newly released Cambria and Hibernia at Gen Con, they told me it was unlikely they would be publishing anything else.
I took advantage of being at Gen Con already and showed the new game to some folks from a much larger publisher, who tested it and expressed interest in it. I left a prototype with them. Eventually, after some subsequent interaction with them, it was suggested that they might like the game better if it were dice-based instead of card-based, so I went off and created what ended up being a quite different game. That version got me all the way to a meeting with the publisher's actual decision-maker at next year's Gen Con, but he ultimately passed on it.
That dice-based game eventually evolved into my forthcoming game Lost Empires, which will be released by Sand Castle Games sometime in 2021; however, that is a story for another designer diary.
Meanwhile, I went back and took another look at the original card-based game. The two games were different enough at this point that I felt I had two separate designs on my hands, but I wanted to make the card-based game even more distinct from the dice-based game.
Kreta quite a bit at that time, which gave me the notion of adding multiple unit types to the card-based game. I took the functions that the units were already serving in the game and divided them between three different types of meeples: units that let you keep cards when they were in particular territories, units that scored you points when they were in a different kind of territory, and units that you needed to have in combat or you would lose 3 VP. This change added a significant new decision point to card drafting, as well as a lot of tactical considerations when attacking and retreating.
In 2013, my friend Cedric was working for a French company called MyWitty Games that used a novel crowdfunding approach. I spent some time developing the game with an eye towards having them publish it. The game was recast in a fantasy setting in which the unit types became humans, dwarves, and ogres. The movement mechanism was also changed to use movement actions that would move a group of pieces at once instead of having movement points that moved only one unit at a time; this change differentiated the design even further from the dice-based version.
However, MyWitty also went out of business before we got to the point of signing a contract. I pitched the game to Evil Hat Productions in 2014, but they passed on it in favor of Kaiju Incorporated.
A Home at Last
Forgenext Agency, and my agent Gaëtan Beaujannot started representing my games to publishers instead of me (which was a great improvement as I am not a great salesman or negotiator). He and his wife Martine played the game with me during a visit they made to the San Francisco Bay area in 2017; I remember I made some changes in response to feedback he gave me on the game at that meeting, but I don't remember precisely what the changes were.
Gaetan began pitching the game to publishers at that point. We negotiated with another large publisher that had expressed strong interest in the game, and I did some development at their request during the contract negotiations. In particular, I developed an alternative card deck that used a different pattern of icons across each card to increase the variety of gameplay. In the original deck, cards always provided meeples, and no card ever provided multiple types of meeple; in the new deck, cards could provide multiple meeple types, and a few cards did not provide meeples at all. My playtesters seemed to like this new deck better, so it became the default deck, while the original deck became the alternate. However, I was unhappy with some of this publisher's plans for the game, and ultimately we could not come to terms.
IELLO, a publisher I was really excited to work with. IELLO proposed using an Afro-fantasy setting for the game, that is, a fantasy setting developed from African history and mythology.
I thought that was an awesome idea. Most games set in Africa are either about WWII battles in North Africa, European colonialism, or ancient Egypt. The rest of the games set in Africa were about exploration, travel, conservation, and postcolonial warfare. There are very few games about ancient Africa.
How to Design Games about Africa
However, I am a professor, and I know how to do a thorough review of the literature. As I began to research possible settings for my game, I remembered a line from the late Binyavanga Wainaina's 2005 satiric essay "How to Write About Africa", which is actually a set of criticisms of how non-Africans tend to write about Africa: "In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country... Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions."
I knew I wanted the game setting to be in a specific place, culture, and era in African history; IELLO wanted the game to have fantasy elements, so I was also looking for a setting that straddled the line between history and mythology, like the Trojan War.
Scholars differ as to what degree the ancient Kitara Empire was historical or mythological (Doyle, 2006; Uzoigwe, 2012). The empire may have covered most of the interlacustrine region of Central-East Africa for an unknown period, up until the 14th or 15th century AD. According to legend, the empire was consolidated from an older, loose confederation by the Abachwezi dynasty of kings. According to folklore, these kings had magical powers and introduced important new technologies and practices to the region. The Abachwezi kings eventually were supposed to have become angered by their people's disobedience and disappeared into the great lakes. Their empire then fragmented into several kingdoms, including the still extant kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in western Uganda.
The game is set in the period when these successor kingdoms were forming. Historically, kingdoms in the region of the former empire tried to enhance their prestige by associating themselves with Kitara and the Abachwezi dynasty in a variety of ways; this led to the idea that the players in the game gained victory points by occupying Kitaran ruins with their magical creatures. According to folklore, the Abachwezi kings introduced ironworking and the herding of Ankole cattle to the region. Historians believe these innovations were introduced to the region in this period, leading to population increases, more centralized states, and a better armed warrior class who skirmished over cattle and grazing land.
However, some historians also suggest that ancient Central Africans used a traditional form of restricted warfare, wherein practices limiting the destructiveness and lethality of warfare were administered by elders (Reid, 2012). The period after the collapse of the Kitara Empire may have been one in which more frequent conflicts between expansionist kingdoms were still mitigated by traditional practices that limited the destructiveness of military conflict. This fit well with the mechanisms of my game, which involve a high level of conflict and territorial acquisition, but no loss of units from combat.
Overall, the regional history and the mythology of the Kitara Empire let me create a very evocative backstory for the game. If Kitara were a heavy game, with a lot of representational detail in the mechanisms, I might have had trouble finding enough specific myths and history about the Kitara Empire to set the game there; however, what is known about Kitara is a good fit with the streamlined mechanisms of the game, and the gaps in scholarly understanding of the Kitara Empire allow for some needed artistic license.
Miguel Coimbra, meanwhile, had created beautiful art for the game, with some really interesting fantasy elements. The cheetah-centaurs he created in particular have sparked a lot of early interest in the game. Cheetah-centaurs aren't a part of any African mythology to my knowledge; however, there are part-human, part-animal creatures in African folklore, and there are many varieties of sentient animals across several African mythologies. I used "master animal", a term applying to sentient mythological animals I found in The Hero with an African Face (Ford, 1999) to refer to the cheetah-centaurs in the rules. I since have discovered that I may have misunderstood this term; however, everyone just calls these pieces "cheetah-centaurs" — or "chetaurs" — anyway.
I was also very pleased that Miguel made the character art for two of the players depict armies of female warriors. I don't have any sources speaking to the presence of women warriors or leaders in the region of the Kitara Empire, but there are documented traditions of women as warriors, war leaders, and rulers in different parts of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa (Kaur, 2017; Moreira Ribeiro et al. 2019; Nwanna, 2012).
I made a couple of other changes to the game mechanisms at IELLO's request. They wanted a new alternative deck that would reduce the pressure to support cards. I created a third deck, with yet another pattern of icons, that included a set of self-supporting cards; this made the game more similar to my card game Armorica, from which this design had originally sprung. The first card deck I created for the game was not included in the final game, although it may return as a promo item or part of an expansion.
IELLO also wanted some secret victory points added to the game. I modified the combat mechanism so that combat with a hero unit provided secretly drawn, variable-value victory point chips; a player can keep only one chip per turn, so fighting multiple times a turn provides a better chance of drawing a high-value chip. This change made the game outcome more suspenseful, added a new tactical consideration, and made the scoring elements in the game more diverse.
Throughout this time, the team at IELLO in France and the U.S. were great to work with. They let me do a lot of the specific theming of the game and consulted me in regard to all the decision-making about the game's production. Gaëtan was also active during the game's development process, particularly when it came to proofing the French edition of the game. (I don't really speak French, sadly.) I was also very impressed by how IELLO adapted to lockdown and was able to keep to its timetable for Kitara throughout the pandemic. That it's able to release this game in 2020 is a testament to how well its team works.
Any published game is a team effort, reflecting the work and creative input of several people. Miguel, Gaëtan, and everyone at IELLO did wonderful work on this game. It is hard to know just how the ongoing pandemic is likely to impact how Kitara does in the marketplace, but as for the product itself, I could not be happier with it.
Eric B. Vogel
Doyle, S. (2006). From Kitara to the Lost Counties: Genealogy, Land and Legitimacy in the Kingdom of Bunyoro, Western Uganda, Social Identities, 12:4, 457-470, DOI: 10.1080/13504630600823684
Ford, C. (1999) The Hero with an African Face. New York. Bantam.
Kaur, M. (2017). Mother of Nations and Kali's Daughters: An Empirical Study on Amazon Dahomey Warriors and Indian Queen Warriors. Military Science Review / Hadtudományi Szemle, 10(4), 126–141.
Moreira Ribeiro, O., Torres Moreira, F. A. & Pimenta, S. (2019). Nzinga Mbandi: from story to myth. Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts, 11(1). https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.7559/citarj.v11i1.594
Nwanna, C. (2012). Dialectics of African Feminism. Matatu: Journal for African Culture & Society, 40(1), 275–283. https://doi-org.proxy1.ncu.edu/10.1163/18757421-040001019
Reid, R. J. (2012). Warfare in African History. Cambridge University Press.
Uzoigwe, G.N. (2012). Bunyoro-Kitara Revisited: A Reevaluation of the Decline and Diminishment of an African Kingdom. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 48(1) 16–34.
Wainaina, B. (2005). How to write about Africa. Granta, 92, 91.
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- Escape a Flailing Octopus, Unknown Disasters, and Lethal Goddesses
Crash Octopus, for example, is the second game that itten is funding via Kickstarter, with Stonehenge and the Sun (which I covered in Dec. 2018) having been its first. Designer Naotaka Shimamoto often creates highly interactive games that simultaneously function as interactive art exhibits, and Crash Octopus seems to fall into this same category. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game that is being funded on KS (link) through October 27, 2020:In Crash Octopus, players race to collect cargo that's floating in the ocean, while surrounded by a horrifically giant octopus. The first player who collects all five types of cargo on their ship wins.
The game is played by using the table as the landscape, with a string perimeter around the playing area. To set up, place the octopus head at the center of the playing area, surrounded by the tentacles spread out at an equal distance, then the player ships and anchors outside of the tentacles near the perimeter. Finally, you drop all the cargo onto the playing area by bouncing it off the octopus' head.
On a turn, a player uses their flag to either navigate — by flicking the anchor next to their ship, then moving their ship to touch the anchor — or flick cargo. Cargo comes in five types — goblet, chest, gem, gold, and captain (yes, really!) — and you can flick any type of cargo that's not on your ship toward your ship. The only exception is that you can't flick the single cargo item closest to your ship. If the flicked cargo misses your ship, your turn ends; if it hits your ship, you load that cargo, then advance the cargo tracker, which is a string of beads on the perimeter.
If you advance a black bead on the cargo tracker, the octopus attacks! Each player takes a turn dropping a die and bouncing it off the octopus' head, possibly moving the head or a tentacle to get in the way of others picking up cargo and possibly knocking cargo off a ship. What a setback!
Dangerous, a design from たつがわ けんご (Kengo Tatsugawa) that was first released in 2018 by オトコマエゲームズ (OTOKOMAE GAMES) and is now being localized by Raw Potions Publishing, a U.S. publisher specializing in localizing JP games.
(Raw Potions' first release is Save the Last Dance for Me, a game from Geno and Seisyun Koubou Shirayuri in which 4-8 players try to hold either the "Princess" or "Prince Edward" card at the end of the game so that they can dance together and win.)
As for Dangerous, which is being Kickstarted (link) through October 9, 2020, it's a small quasi-deduction game in which you're trying to assemble the right hand of cards in order to score:The world is about to end, but nobody is quite sure exactly how it's going to happen. In Dangerous, your goal is to save as many innocent lives from certain doom as possible. To do so, you must outsmart your rival investigators and correctly deduce which apocalyptic predictions are true and which are false. The player who saves the most lives wins.
In each round, shuffle the twelve prophecy tiles, then lay out three rows of four tiles: the top row (face down) are true prophecies, which players must deduce; the middle row (face up) are false prophecies; and the bottom row (face down) are hoax prophecies. Below each hoax prophecy, lay out a column of four cards face up. The cards come in five prophecy suits, with values 1-3. Among the tiles are two of each prophecy and two 2x.
The lead investigator for that round places one of their two personal tokens by a hoax prophecy tile, looks at that tile, then chooses a card from that column and places it face up in front of themselves. Each other player then chooses a card from this column. If a hoax prophecy tile has two player tokens next to it, don't refill it; otherwise, do refill it. The next player becomes the lead investigator, and this process continues until each player has chosen eight cards, which they now take in hand.
Now you evaluate how well you predicted which disasters will take place. The lead investigator reveals one of the true prophecy tiles, then all players simultaneously reveal two cards from their hand. For each card that matches that revealed prophecy, you score positive points equal to the value of the card; otherwise, you lose points. If the prophecy tile instead shows 2x, you score positive points if you lay out two cards of matching value, but different suits; any other combination loses you points.
Record your scores for the round, and after a total of four rounds (with four players), whoever has scored the most points wins. (With two and three players, you make adjustments to the number of cards and prophecy tiles used and rounds played.
Level 99 Games has announced that it will Kickstart the Sakura Arms game line from designer BakaFire, who releases titles under the brand BakaFire Party, with the KS campaign (link) launching on October 27, 2020.
Sakura Arms, which debuted in Japan in 2016, has been hugely popular in that country, and when a new expansion was available at the Tokyo Game Markets I attended, the line was vast. U.S. publisher AEG released an English-language version of the Sakura Arms base game in 2017, but that was the extent of its licensing.
Level 99 Games, which specializes in two-player dueling games and which seems like an ideal partner for this line, has stated its edition of the Sakura Arms game line will be released as three standalone games, with each containing six goddessess. That statement will make more sense once you know something about the game:Read more »Sakura Arms is a two-player dueling game in which players first choose two of seven megami (Japanese goddesses), each of which has a different keyword that empowers some of their cards. Players then see what the opponent chose before assembling a deck of ten out of 22 cards, with the players choosing cards both to take advantage of their own megami powers and to exploit their opponent's weaknesses. Players then duel to see who will be victorious.
The game uses a single kind of token to represent life, distance, aura (defense), and flare (special energy) based on the zone these tokens occupy. By moving tokens between zones, you attempt to gain the ideal position and set up as many attacks as possible — or be prepared to avoid attacks.
- Core Worlds Finds a New Home at Quixotic GamesStronghold Games tweeted about the "(not-officially-announced) 'Core Worlds: The Board Game'".
In December 2018, I posted about the confirmed-yet-still-not-officially-announced Core Worlds: Empires — "a standalone board game set in the very thematic, rich Core Worlds universe" — that was being developed by CW designer Andrew Parks and his Quixotic Games development team.
Then...nothing. (Well, other than people asking about the status of the game.)
Six empires have risen from the ashes of the Galactic Realm. Still cemented by the alliance that enabled their unprecedented conquest of the galaxy, the six independent kingdoms now seek to consolidate their power, each hoping to carve out the strongest dominion in the cosmos. Conflicts among the young realms are inevitable, but will the galaxy return to a state of civil war?
Core Worlds: Empires is a worker placement game for 1-5 players. Each world in the galaxy occupies a board space that ambassadors (workers) can visit during the game. The worlds that appear during each game are variable. Each player starts with a certain number of worlds under their control, and more worlds enter the game as play proceeds.
At the start of the game, each player controls one unique worker that represents their faction leader (Chancellor Augustus, Baron Viktor, Prince Aaron, Empress Elona, Simon the Fox, or Lord Banner), as well as two generic ambassadors. All players periodically receive new generic ambassadors, but each player always possesses the same number of "workers". Players may upgrade their generic ambassadors into unique heroes in order to increase the quality of their individual workers.
Quixotic Games plans to Kickstart this title, which is co-designed by Parks and Christopher Guild and which plays in 90-300 minutes, in early 2021. A press release from Quixotic notes that "The Kickstarter will also provide backers with the Core Worlds Solo Deck, which includes official solo rules for the original Core Worlds game and all of its expansions [Galactic Orders and Revolution], as a thank you to the thriving Core Worlds solo community." Quixotic also plans to release other games in the Core Worlds universe, in addition to fiction.
Here's the rest of the press release from Quixotic, which details some of the history of the game and how it found a new home:
"Core Worlds was one of the most significant releases in the early Stronghold Games catalog," said Stephen Buonocore, retired President of Stronghold Games, "and remains one of the most innovative deck-building games on the market. I am very excited for the future of this IP under Quixotic Games, and I will be backer #1 for Core Worlds: Empires!"
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- 100 Cyber City Treasures - Vol 2: CashPublisher: D10 Dimensions
Cash. Eurodollars. Eurobucks. Eddies. New Yen or Nuyen. Universal credits. Money makes the world go round, so if you don’t have any then expect your world to stop. Dead.
This list is intended for any dark future setting where stealing wallets and pick pocketing is common. You can apply it to a cooling corpse, a distracted corporate, or a street samurai chilling with her girlfriend. The results in this list include a certain amount of cash (we use the generic term “cash” to refer to your game’s dominant currency), foreign funds (another currency that isn’t dominant in the area), counterfeit credits (fake cash with no monetary value created by criminals), and gambling chips (worth their stated value at any casino or gambling establishment they’re submitted to). This list works perfectly with all “100 items in a pocket” products made by D10 Dimensions.
This Roll Percentile list has one hundred possible results in this format:
Roll result. A brief description of the wealth collected from a particular person or source.
Example: 101 5d4 + 25 cash / Gambling Chips (1d6 x $10) / Foreign Funds (3d6 + 15)
NEED CYBER CITY IN YOUR LIFE?
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- 60x20 Battlemap - Awakened Blood GatePublisher: Seafoot Games
Awakened Blood Gate
After the dam broke, the lower forest and plains become flooded, slowly turning into swampy marshes. Many fled, abandoning homes and ancient places of worship. This site of magic was one such place.
Eight statues stand upon large stone pedestals watching over the location. Now overgrown by small white flowers, this place has been long abandoned, until recently when the gate was activated, warping the bog-land and its inhabitants.What You Will ReceiveA home-printable 60x20 battlemap, compatible with any role-play game, and VTTs such as Roll20.
- Home-printable, A4 .PDF of the gridded map at 300dpi, spread over several pages.
- 300dpi .JPEGs of the map for A1 poster printing or VTT.
- 72dpi .JPEGs of the map for VTTs.
Join me on Patreon for $1 and get over 20 battlemaps a month. Experience how good level design can make encounters MUCH more engaging!
Want one free map a week instead? Become part of my community on Facebook.Price: $2.98 Read more »
- BYTE Roleplaying Game RulebookPublisher: Abascanto Press
The BYTE ROLEPLAYING GAME RULEBOOK has an original d8-based system and comes with 10 technological levels and 20 thematic modules that you can combine in many unique ways, with each combination creating a different ruleset for a unique world.Price: $25.00 Read more »
The BYTE ROLEPLAYING GAME RULEBOOK allows you to play in any historical era or the worlds of your favorite books, movies, series, or video games: from cowboys to spies, Roman gladiators to mecha pilots, elven knights to vampires, private investigators to galactic rulers, this book provides everything you will need for your game.
- Stock Art CataloguePublisher: Tales of Collaborative Storytelling
This download includes an easy to scroll through pdf catalogue of stock art. The individual images can be purchased separately or in bundles as available here on DriveThruRPG, and all come in svg vector format.
I take image content available in the public domain and adapt it into vectorized line art spot fillers. The small price is to cover time spent searching for suitable material, cleaning and modifying images into usable RPG stock art, and end of the day, breathing new life into illustrations from over a hundred years ago.
The images may be used for commercial and non-commercial use across print and digital media. Attribution is not required. You can make modifications to the images. You may not redistribute the digital downloads without changing or adding value to them.Price: $0.00 Read more »
- Sneak AttackPublisher: Tales of Collaborative Storytelling
Price: $0.99 Read more »
This purchase includes one black line art svg format vector image, as well as a png image with transparent background. Files are bundled in a zip file.
I take image content available in the public domain and adapt it into vectorized line art spot fillers. The small price is to cover time spent searching for suitable material, cleaning and modifying images into usable RPG stock art, and end of the day, breathing new life into illustrations from over a hundred years ago.
License note. This image may be used for unlimited commercial and non-commercial purpose across print and digital media. Attribution is not required. You can make modifications to the image. You may not redistribute this digital download without changing or adding value to it.
- Battling KnightsPublisher: Tales of Collaborative Storytelling
Price: $0.99 Read more »
This purchase includes one black line art svg format vector image, as well as a png image with transparent background. Files are bundled in a zip file.
I take image content available in the public domain and adapt it into vectorized line art spot fillers. The small price is to cover time spent searching for suitable material, cleaning and modifying images into usable RPG stock art, and end of the day, breathing new life into illustrations from over a hundred years ago.
License note. This image may be used for unlimited commercial and non-commercial purpose across print and digital media. Attribution is not required. You can make modifications to the image. You may not redistribute this digital download without changing or adding value to it.
- Fenix English Edition 4, 2020Publisher: Askfageln
The Swedish gaming magazine Fenix turns 100 issues in total with this magazine, a fact that we celebrated thorougly in Swedish as well as English. This time you will get a chance to explore Space Station adventures with Kenneth Hite as your guide in 100 km up. That is quickly followed by extensive gaming material to the brand new roleplaying game Vaesen, with a 22 page adventure by Tomas Härenstam. 100 creatures from Nordic Lore by Graeme Davis keep the readers on track with more vaesen to encounter in their game play. You could of course use other game systems when you encounter these creatures, since the information should be enough to create reasonable stats to accompany them.
We hope you will enjoy this issue and Fenix as a magazine as much as we do!
The Silver of the Sea – a 22 page scenario to the brand new roleplaying game Vaesen
Introduction by Tomas Härenstam: “This mystery for the role-playing game Vaesen brings the player characters to the wild and barren Swedish west coast, at the time a haven for privateers, wreckers, herring barons and other riffraff. The mystery will test the characters’ deductive reasoning, social skills, and – if they are not careful – their ability to fight for their lives.”
100 km up! – 6 pages of space station adventures by Kenneth Hite
Introduction by Kenneth Hite: ” After 100 issues, we’ve looked a lot of places for adventure settings: back into the past, far into the future, north and east and into alternate times. But we haven’t looked up – straight up, 100 kilometers up to the Kármán Line, the edge of outer space. Of course, we can’t really help if our seeing gets diffracted by all the clouds and auroras. We may find ourselves looking not just up, but sideways, into the alternate space of an alternate Space Race.
Welcome, then, to 100 kilometers up after a hundred diverging years – years mostly peaceful and progressive, seemingly soft but with hard, rigid places concealed beneath. Kind of like a balloon … like an enormous balloon …”
100 Creatures from Nordic Lore – 4 pages Vaesen Bestiary by Graeme Davis
Introduction by Graeme Davis: “To celebrate the 100th issue of Fenix, and with one eye on the English-language edition of Vaesen covered elsewhere in this issue, here are 100 creatures from folklore. They are not all from Sweden, though some of them would not seem out of place in the wilder parts of the country. Although the descriptions are brief, it will be quite possible – and fun – to develop rules and stats for your own favorite game, whatever it may be. In fact, the first writing I ever did for Dungeons & Dragons, years before my first article was published, was creating stats for creatures I found in books of British folklore at my local library, so that I could throw something unexpected at my players.
Congratulations, Fenix, and here’s to 100 more!”Price: $6.99 Read more »
- Faenir, Dwarf Gunner of the KrakenPublisher: Abyssoul
Concept art: Davide Rapazzini
Sculptwork: Antonio Marzii
Renders: Thorbjorn Barone
This product is for personal use only.
Digital Version of our Aby06.5.
You will get the digital files and you can print it anytime and at the size you want.
Price: $11.70 Read more »
- Open PerioduQual Role-playing System Basic BasicPublisher: Blue Print Publishing
Basic rules for use Open PeriodiQual Role-playing System.
Open PeriodiQual Role-playing System is a Role-playing Game environment which will be provided short supplements periodically.
Users can mix up them for their purpose and/or their needs.
Text in JapanesePrice: $0.00 Read more »
- Open PerioduQual Role-playing System Basic GuidesPublisher: Blue Print Publishing
Guides to use Open PeriodiQual Role-playing System.
Open PeriodiQual Role-playing System is a Role-playing Game environment which will be provided short supplements periodically.
Users can mix up them for their purpose and/or their needs.
Text in JapanesePrice: $0.00 Read more »
- Reach Out to Your Missing Gamers
Man, it’s been a year already, hasn’t it? Everything has been turned on its head thanks to the pandemic and many of us are dealing with more than a little anxiety and dread about the current state of the world. For me, the lack of my gaming conventions and seeing the wider social circle of my gaming friends has been hard. I joke that I’m an extroverted introvert, so that lack of connection has been seriously felt. So, I guess this is as good a time as any to remind folks to reach out to your gamer community and friends you’ve been missing.
Back in March, at the beginning of this mess, I did a quick post about how to take your gaming group online. This has been an absolute lifesaver for me, and to be honest, I’ve actually gotten more gaming in over the past seven months than I would have otherwise, cons included. We also invited U-Con’s Laura Hamel on to do a guest post about taking conventions online. Thing is, online tabletop gaming is often not an option for some folks.
First off, there’s the fact that our rural communities are woefully underserved by internet service providers. Several of my friends live out in the country and have had to make hard choices. One has been using a cell phone hotspot to work. Another just doesn’t have enough bandwidth available to support everything his family needs to do online AND game via zoom or the like. Even folks in urban and suburban areas may struggle with quality internet. While not relevant to the pandemic, one friend had to wage a war with the squirrels on his property as they kept chewing through the cable line every couple of months.
Second, online gaming just isn’t right for everyone. Several friends have been going without gaming because it just doesn’t suit their lifestyle. For folks who spend much of their day in front of a screen for their job, the idea of spending another few hours in front of it to game is extremely unappealing. One pair of friends just can’t focus on the game well enough to make it work. They’re too distracted by the technical difficulties and the oddities of online conference chatting. A particularly extroverted friend simply gets too fidgety as his brain struggles to be present for the game when no one else is physically around.
Whatever reason someone has for not gaming online, it doesn’t matter. Like many things, life is incredibly complicated right now and we’re all dealing with things in our own way. No matter how much I rave about my experiences gaming online (and how sometimes it feels like the only thing keeping me hanging on), that doesn’t change another person’s situation or feelings about the option. I will still totally play tech support for any friend that wants to try it out, but I’m not going to harass anyone into doing something they don’t want.
So, what to do? Reach out. Text, call, e-mail, tag them on Facebook or wherever you have a social media connection, or hell, send them a freaking letter with a postage stamp and everything like it’s 1918 or something. Even if you can’t game with them in the near future, it’s worth reaching out to check in with them. Basically, if there’s someone you probably would have gamed with at some point over the last seven months, but you haven’t because of the pandemic, reach out. Keep your gaming network of friends healthy, even if getting together right now isn’t going to happen.
Things will eventually return to normal. That normal may be nothing like what normal used to be, but that’s actually how life is anyway. There may be some common threads, but change really is the only constant. That said, I’m certainly going to do the work to keep in touch with the gamers I miss.Read more »
- VideoAlice is Missing Review
Every so often, an idea really jumps out at you. Roleplaying games that use cards, dice with special symbols, or function entirely on the spending of narrative currency. Adding to that list, for me, is a roleplaying game that is played entirely by text message.
Alice is Missing is a game where players take one of a limited set of roles in a story where a group of acquaintances attempts to find out what has happened to their friend, who has disappeared. There is a very specific procedure for playing this game, and the game is guided by drawing various prompt cards.
My review is based on the PDF release of the product. To get a better idea of the product, I printed out the cards that are included in the release, and laminated them. Additionally, I had a hard time setting up a playtest for this, so unlike most reviews, I searched out a playthrough to watch to assist in this review, which you can see here:
The items included in the PDF bundle include PDFs for printing out the prompt cards, a summary of play sheet, an instruction booklet, a PDF of different missing posters, and a character sheet. In addition to these components, there is a link to a video used for timing the play experience, triggering various prompt cards, which you can find here:
The cards are split into the following subcategories:
- X Card
These cards are distributed and flipped based on the procedure of the game (except for the X Card, which serves as a safety tool for the game).
The character sheet isn’t the usual character sheet, with ratings for different traits. Instead, it is a combination of areas for recording the answers of other players when they answer questions, and a place where characters can take notes as the mystery evolves.
What You Need
In addition to the above-mentioned items, players will need a means of recording data on their character sheets, and either cell phones, or some means of simulating a text-only set of communications between multiple people, which also allows for side conversations that aren’t intended to be public for the entire group.
You could use a regular timer to trigger the cards in the game, but the linked video subtly changes the soundtrack, which should be the only sound heard during the game, as the story advances over an hour and a half.
In addition, this is a game that is likely going to need a quiet space to play for maximum effect. While the game mentions convention play, this is going to be more or less challenging based on the play spaces provided by the convention. Also, there are a few prompts, like shutting off lights to emulate some events, that may not be possible outside of a private space set aside for the game.
Characters will also need to have the means to record a message that can be played later in the game.
Preparing to Investigate
The rulebook has a three-page section on how to modify play for fully online play, which is probably good, considering when this game is being released. The online suggestions involve setting up a lot of information upfront, so less has to be shared when characters get together to play the game. Beyond that, most of this review is going to look at the “standard” assumptions of playing the game together, face to face.
One player acts as the facilitator, but that player isn’t really “running” the game, as they are also playing a character. They are just the character that assumes the extra duty of keeping the process moving smoothly. That player always plays the same personality in the game.
There is some fairly extensive set up for the game. It’s not complicated, but they are a series of procedures that have to be done in a specific way so that the game unfolds properly once the timer starts.
Players pick one of the Missing posters for Alice. There are various images of Alice, portraying her in diverse depictions, from physical traits to clothing and style. Characters will pick one of the characters’ cards, which are the same five characters for every play through of the scenario. The game needs three to five players, in part because too few players, and some aspects of the final resolution don’t work properly.
One of the things I greatly appreciate about this game is that it is part of the setup process to go through the lines and veils process. Players will mention plot elements that they don’t want to be included, or plot elements that they are okay including, but for which they don’t want lingering details. There is even a default set of lines and veils suggested for the game. An X Card is included as part of the deck, but there is also an instruction on using parentheses to communicate out of character messages, including sending an (X) as a virtual text message version of the card. Given that this is a game about a missing girl that could involve violence and crime, all of this is very appreciated.
Characters introduce one another and answer some questions, which they can record on their character sheet. Each character has a secret, which they are encouraged to reveal at some time during play. Characters are distributed Clue Cards, which have a number on the back. The cards are turned over when the timer reaches that number, so that the character can perform the actions on the card. Characters also pick locations and suspects, for which they create reasons for why those locations or people are suspicious.
Characters also record their last voice message that they left Alice before she went missing, for use later in the game.
Playing the Game
The facilitator gets the first Clue Card, which instructs them to frame the search for Alice. Characters can go to different locations and draw Searching cards. These cards don’t tie directly into the plot, but tell characters what they find in different places when they investigate. No two players can show up at the same location at the same time.
When the time displayed on the back of the Clue Card is indicated, the player with that card turns the card over, and performs the actions on the card. Sometimes this instructs players that they have found something significant to the story (for which they may work in their Searching cards).
Characters cannot find Alice, her cell phone, or her car in any of their narrations. Eventually, some of the later cards will give the players instructions on how to shuffle and narrow down the suspects and locations directly connected to the mystery. Several of the late-game cards indicate that a searcher might be injured or even killed, and those cards give the player directives on how to communicate information, and when to stop. In some cases, the characters will flip a coin to decide how an important event will play out.
This all eventually narrows to finding out where Alice is, what happened to her, her fate, and what happened to the person that managed to find her. After all of this happens, characters will play their recorded voice messages to Alice that they created before the timer started.
The final stage of the game is a debrief. This is summarized on a card, and it involves tying up loose ends, and checking in with players to make sure they are emotionally okay. Players are instructed to spend as much time as they need to work through the thoughts and feelings they have, depending on how the game has unfolded.
The rulebook also addresses that the game is an opt-in experience with an open table. This means that if a character needs to leave, they should feel welcome to leave. This does mean that the facilitator will need to make sure the Clue Cards are handled at the proper time, and the facilitator is directed to invite the player back to the table to participate in the debrief if they feel comfortable doing so.
Light at the End of the TunnelI really think this is going to be a game that people looking for an emotional experience will appreciate.
Just reading the process for this game triggers some emotional responses. I really think this is going to be a game that people looking for an emotional experience will appreciate. I love the means of conveying both the distance and immediacy of the search and the character’s relationships via text messages. The timer mechanism creates an external expectation that can easily facilitate dread or excitement. I like the clearly marked sets of cards as triggers and prompts to move the game forward, and that the randomizers are quick, brief, and used towards the end of the game. I love how well-integrated safety procedures are into the overall process of the game, and the rules.
There is a lot of procedure to this game, and if you miss one too many beats of that procedure, what was building to a very emotional experience could get derailed. I like the idea of the Searching cards, but it also feels as it if would be at least possible for players to get too carried away with their integration of these cards into the mystery, to the detriment of later developments on the Clue Cards. While there is some hardcoded inclusion of marginalized populations and issues that might come up, I kind of wish there was a whole section dealing with more marginalized identities and how to incorporate those topics with an eye towards safety.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
If you like heavily story-based, emotional games, I think you will want to check this out. Even if you are interested in examining unique mechanics as a means of telling a story based on a timer and prompts, this will make for some great analysis.
While I pointed out some other topics I wish the game had touched on, I want to reiterate that it does exactly what I wish more games would do in the modern era; integrate safety into the assumptions of the game, rather than adding safety concerns as a “module” after the fact.
What other role-based storytelling games have you encountered? Do timers in a specific scenario enhance the experience for you when playing a game? How often have you felt that the play space really needed to be right to make a game work? We would love to hear from you in the comments below.Read more »
- Your Campaign Rulebook
Compared to the one-shot life of the Japanese TRPG scene, most western roleplaying games focus around the concept of ‘campaigns.’ As you’re more than aware of, campaigns are multi-session games of indeterminate length where you and your buddies could feasibly keep adventuring for god knows however. I personally have a distinct definition between lengths that I’d like to quickly share:
One-shots: 1 or 2 sessions (part 2s are pretty common)
Adventures: 3-6 sessions
Campaigns: 7+ sessions
That said, as a Gamemaster, what makes your campaign different? Is it the setting? The story? The tone? The characters? The players? Contrary to popular belief, as a GM you only really have consistent control over the setting at best. The characters will always change, you’re likely stuck playing with the same friend group, and both the story and the tone are dictated by the actions of the players. As a GM, you ultimately act as a fairly reactive force. Any degree of active control tends to be taken as railroading and must sparsely be used.
So where do you actually derive control? Personally, I would say the Rules. No, no. Not the game rules. That was written by someone else. I mean your Campaign Rules, your homebrew rules you personally add.
Setting Bits & Bobs
One thing I absolutely loved about Savage Worlds is that it encourages ‘Setting Rules’ in the text. As an aside, even if you never plan to play Savage Worlds (Adventurer Edition of course) I would highly recommend just picking up the book. The rules there are so good they’ll inspire a whole new level of play across all your games. Anyways, Setting Rules are a series of rules that are meant to change your gameplay experience.
For example, ‘Heroes Never Die’ is a base rule where the players never really die permanently, they’re just temporarily taken out of battle. Or things like ‘Heroic Adventure’ where you can spent points to temporarily gain the use of Edges (Feats for your D&D players) whenever you need ’em.
Setting Rules are meant to change not only gameplay, but the right combination of such can also completely change the tone of your game.
One thing I’ve always disliked about D&D 5e’s Curse of Strahd is that it’s supposed to feel like this kinda grim dark adventure resembling Dark Souls… But at the end of the day it’s still D&D 5e, one of the pillars of power fantasy in the RPG community. It’s somewhat hard to feel low-powered when you can cast a fireball that can singlehandedly burn down any village you come across. There’s an evident dissonance between the system and the setting. Regardless of how many times I’ve tried it, and no matter how amazing of a GM I’ve played under, I’ve always been dissatisfied with the end result. Curse of Strahd just worked in D&D early editions because the system worked with the setting. Nowadays it feels impossible to get that same gritty real…
But is it really?
Back in March (or was it yesterday?) I wrote a series of examples using 5e’s Curse of Strahd.
Through the use of Setting/Campaign Rules, you can heavily influence not only how your players interact with the world, but how that world and interaction makes them feel. Through these Campaign Rules I devised (and with the reasoning behind them under every line) you can see how each rule accents the grit and realism.
I’m not saying that my rules should be the definitive way to play Curse of Strahd, but you should definitely devise a series of your own Campaign Rules to influence the game. Even with minimal interaction with these rules, the players are also mentally prepared to believe that “oh no, if we’re not careful, we’re totally screwed.”
Next time you’re starting up a campaign you should go on to consider the sort of rules you’re bringing into it. One thing I have enjoyed about D&D 5e is that the levers are very clearly identifiable. When I tweak something I know exactly how it’s going to snowball or affect everything else as a whole. For more mechanically complex games like Genesys or Cypher, it can be a little difficult to figure out just how far reaching your changes can go.
That said, take your time and really try to think about what kind of game you’re trying to run. Tweaking the rules as you go along is fine, but I would highly suggest making such big sweeping changes from the get go.
Happy haunting, – Di.Read more »
- VideoGnomecast #102 – RPGaDay Questions, Part 1
Join Ang, Chuck, and Senda for part 1 in a series answering questions based on David Chapman’s #RPGaDay social media prompts for 2020! Can these gnomes answer enough questions to avoid being thrown in the stew?
- Flames of Freedom First Impressions
There is a lot going on in the RPG Kickstarter space this month. Today I’m going to take a look at another game currently being funded on Kickstarter. This time we’re going to look at Flames of Freedom, a “Grim and Perilous” rpg, meaning that it uses the same core resolution engine used in Zweihander.
Flames of Freedom is set during the Revolutionary War, but the war may not be your primary concern. Turns out, there are sorcerers, secret societies, and supernatural monsters that manipulate current events or prey on those that are embroiled in the pressing matters of the time. Your characters are investigating and pushing back against the dark.
What Are You Looking At?
The preview is based on the quickstart rules that you can find here:
The quickstart is about 60 pages long. This includes a credits page, a two-page table of contents, a one-page ad for the final product, three pages of standees/cutouts, and fourteen pages of pregenerated character material. At two pages per character, that means you get seven sample characters to use.
The adventure included, which is intended to run about three hours, is about nine pages in length. The rest of the material is setting material or game mechanics, as well as a healthy amount of space dedicated to the expectations of the game.
How Do I Do Things?
The game uses a system of resolution that is pretty standard for many d100 games at this point. If you roll under your rating, you succeed. If you roll over, you fail to accomplish your goal. There are a few unique twists to this resolution system, however.
Flipping to succeed/flipping to fail are mechanics used to make it more likely for you to succeed or fail under favorable or detrimental circumstances. If one of these applies, you reverse the 10s and the 1s on your dice result toward whatever result applies.
There is also a meta-currency that works in a manner not unlike Dark Side/Light Side points in Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games. Some of the currency is available to both players and the GM, and when it is used, it is moved to the other pool. Using this currency allows you to reroll dice, roll an extra d6 for some applications, gain an extra action point for later use, or add a new detail to the scene at hand.
There are various derived stats to do things like determine how many people your actions can affect, determine how quickly you can act in structured time, add damage to your attacks, or establish your peril and wound thresholds.
What Are Peril and Wound Thresholds?
Instead of having a discrete number of hit points our wound points, or having a set sanity or fatigue score, characters have thresholds. If an action breaks the threshold, the character takes the first step of the conditions on that track. If the amount over the threshold is double, triple, etc., the character moves multiple steps on that condition track.
Characters that move up the condition track for peril become less able to leverage their skills as their mental and physical fatigue sets in. Characters that move up the damage condition track risk taking special wounds as determined on injury charts, and regardless of secondary injuries, the final stage of the injury track is death.
What Are These Action Point Things You Speak Of?
In structured time, a character has three action points to spend. They can be spent on attacking, moving, reloading weapons, aiming, etc. There are special attack options that might take extra action points (like charging), and there are healing practices that also have an AP cost.
While there are many activities that cost an action point that might be nice to add to a standard attack, for example, there is a good reason to save an action point. If your character is attacked, and you still have an action point, you can actively try to avoid the attack. Otherwise, it’s all resolved by the attacker’s skill test.
But What About the Setting?
The assumption is that your character knows the supernatural is a threat. In all the chaos of the Revolutionary War, there are dangerous monsters and secret societies taking advantage of the chaos to shape the world in their own image, or to mask their ability to hunt prey.
There is a lot of time taken to describe the different styles of protagonists found in the setting, and a lot of effort made to make sure those protagonists are diverse and non-exploitative. One of the ways this is done is by not only stating that these protagonists exist, but through a series of example paragraphs from the perspective of many different characters. These paragraphs lay out the history of the character, who they are, and why they are fighting against the supernatural.
There are also specific sidebars about Indigenous, Black, and Women characters, with a further promise that the means of portraying these characters with sensitivity and respect will be further explored in the core rulebook. Between the time taken to provide additional perspectives, the sidebars, the artwork, and the sample characters, I feel like the desire to make this a diverse and welcoming setting is more than a surface level attempt.
Is it Safe?
In addition to spending a lot of time on inclusivity, there is also some discussion in the quickstart about how the darkness of the setting, both as a horror setting and as a wartime setting, can be violent and disturbing. There is a reference to upcoming safety tools designed expressly for the game, and a statement that the game is intended to be something that everyone at the table can enjoy, and stresses the importance of consent at the table.
What About the Adventure?
The adventure is tied to an adventure that will be published in the core game and assumes a patron that is aiding the players in their opposition to the supernatural. The characters are to meet a special contact, but unfortunately that contact has become embroiled in the plot of a supernatural creature.
People have gone missing, and a person that has manifested a supernatural urge to feed on others is justifying their curse by assigning themselves a holy purpose. The player characters will be trying to find missing victims, clear the name of a wrongly accused man, and finally, stop the supernatural threat that has been victimizing the area.
Knowing this scenario is intended to play out in about three hours, I will say it does feel like it will resolve quickly. There is some quick initial roleplaying, a few slightly different paths based on investigation, and then a confrontation that may be more or less of a surprise based on previous decisions made.There is a lot of time taken to describe the different styles of protagonists found in the setting, and a lot of effort made to make sure those protagonists are diverse and non-exploitative.
It’s probably no surprise that the core Zweihander book evokes a very strong Old World Warhammer feel, since it was reversed engineered to provide an IP-free version of that kind of gritty fantasy. What surprised me a little in reading through these rules is how much I was getting a more hybridized Warhammer/Call of Cthulhu vibe. The rules don’t feel drastically different, but the framing of the rules makes it feel as if the peril track is going to be playing a big part in how investigations play out.
I love how much time the quickstart has spent exploring the perspectives of different protagonists. While it has become more standard to state that you can play as a diverse range of characters, it still isn’t standard to explore what that actually looks like. I appreciate that even in the quickstart, this product is pushing in that direction.
While some of the text indicates that characters should only be getting into combat as a last resort, the amount of effort spent on combat rules makes that feel like it’s more accurate to say that characters should be prepared to be injured and killed if they get into a fight. The quickstart definitely nods towards being more able to engage the supernatural in a fight than in Call of Cthulhu, but still be very likely to pay for that kind of resolution.
I really like the action point economy tied to the combat system. In both Call of Cthulhu and Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer 40000 RPGs, I know there were many times when people were confused about when a dodge or a parry would be allowed, and if your character had to do anything to set that up. I also like that it provides some clear answers on what it takes to set up a called shot, provide first aid, or reload a weapon, in a currency defined by the game.
I know that core Zweihander has extensive, gruesome critical charts for wounds, and that is entirely in keeping with its source inspirations, and I know that a gritty Revolutionary War setting is going to see some gruesome rules as well, but for a game that may be as much about investigation, I kind of hope there is an optional, non-chart heavy resolution to Moderate, Serious, or Grievous Injuries in the final game. Depending on the game, the detailed chart could really shift the focus from “investigate the supernatural” to “wartime epic with creepy stuff on the side,” and if that’s not the game you are going for, it would be nice to have an alternative.
While there is a safety discussion in the book itself, and a reference to active safety tools designed for the game, I think the sample adventure could have used a few more content warnings. Sometimes I think we forget that the GM is also someone that may need to watch out for their own emotional well-being, and the adventure includes child endangerment and death as well as cannibalism.
I am really intrigued by this game, and looking forward to seeing the final version of the game rules. I like the slightly more action oriented supernatural investigation hook, and I appreciate the underlying creepy conspiracy angle to the setting. I really want to get a look at the expanded information on inclusion and portrayal of different characters.Read more »
- Good Strong Hands First Impression
Have you ever wandered through a portal into a magical land and found out that while that magical land is usually idyllic and dream-like, currently there is a darkness spreading that is making the lives of the people that live there miserable? That sounds like it would make a good plot for a story!
Today I have a first impression article for you, looking at Good Strong Hands, a game currently on Kickstarter. If you are interested in more information from the site, you can find it here:
Good Strong Hands-on Kickstarter
In Good Strong Hands, you play characters in a magical, dream-like world. This world, Reverie, has been invaded by the Void, a corrupting force that is ruining the natural order of Reverie.
How Did You Come By This Knowledge?
You can find playtest rules on the Kickstarter site. Between the base rules, playbooks, and provided scenarios, there are about 94 pages of material to support the game. This first impression is based on this manuscript, without final edits or layout.
Who Are You and What Do You Do?
The playbooks in this game are based on what kind of folk your character is, which can range from the following options:
Each playbook has a unique set of talents, as well as a unique set of corruptions (more on those later). The cultures of these folk are noted, including the concept that some folk are known for things that may or may not be true of them, or of their folk in general. Something I especially like is that the game makes it clear that you are playing heroes. That doesn’t just mean that you are playing people that are generally beneficent, but that they are playing characters that are moved to fight against the Void. If your character is just a bystander that isn’t sure if they want to push back, they aren’t lining up with the game’s assumptions.
How Do You Do Things?
Each character has four traits – Body, Mind, Charm, and Heart – which can range from 1 to 4. Whenever a character is doing something where the outcome is important, they roll the dice to see if they succeed. Success is measured on two axes.
The difficulty can require a different number on the d6 to count as a success. Some tasks may require multiple successes. So you may have a relatively simple, but difficult test that requires you to roll very high on a d6, but only requires you to get one success, or you may have a more complicated task that isn’t overly taxing, which requires a lower number to count successes.
Anything that requires multiple successes can be worked on by multiple characters, so the first person to engage the challenge doesn’t need to do all the work. This game is a player facing system, which means the GM doesn’t roll dice. They may have players roll reactions or assign consequences for failures (usually in the form of conditions), but they don’t have a formalized turn.
Tracks and Conditions
The game measures a skill track, a spirit track, and a shadow track. Whenever a character fails to get any successes, they mark the skill track. Whenever they accomplish something, they may mark spirit, and under certain circumstances, when a hero is tempted, they may mark shadow.
Filling up your skill track lets you increase a trait or mark a new talent. Filling up your spirit track gives you the reserves to power talents or resist shadow. Filling up shadow gets you a brand new corruption.
There are also physical and mental conditions that a character can pick up. There is a penalty for having conditions, but characters only take the worse of their conditions tracks as a penalty, which helps avoid the double compounded death spiral. Take too many conditions, and you may die. Take more than three corruptions, and your character is lost to the shadow.
Talents are abilities that modify the narrative positions of a character, or modify what spirit can be spent to do, or if spirit can be shared. These vary by character, and may have other descriptors. For example, some folk have more magical abilities. I particularly like the human magic trait, which is essentially them borrowing the magic of their friends. It feels very appropriate for the kind of stories being emulated.
What If I Don’t Know Where to Start?
The playtest material includes 15 different stories to use for game sessions. These stories are structured as follows:
- Story Elements
- Points of Interest
- Friends and Enemies
- Major and Ongoing Challenges
These individual adventures take up about two pages each, and given the freeform nature of game resolution, it seems like this style of outline should be more than sufficient to jumpstart a game session.
I’m a big fan of having narrative-based currencies in the game, and I like the idea of the growing temptation being measured with its own track. I’m a fan of playbooks, and I’m glad to see them expanding beyond PBTA or Forged in the Dark games, as I think its a great way to filter players into the game in a focused manner.
I like mechanics that can cleanly model more complicated skill tasks, without making the actual mechanics too complicated, so I appreciate the extended success method. Having Reverie as vaguely defined is a very good choice for a game that is going to allow for a lot of imaginative interpretation. Reading these rules makes me want to give them a spin. It’s always a good sign when I immediately think what playbook I would play, if I wasn’t going to be running the game.I’m already thinking of what playbooks I would play, examining what playbooks might show up later, and structuring what kind of long term goals I would have player characters attempt to turn back the encroachment of the Void.
While I like the shadow track and the concept of ongoing temptation, I’m still processing if I like the idea that getting an extraordinary success generates shadow. I know it may lead to hubris, but I’m still mulling over what that says in the context of the game. Tangential to this, there is a section that mentions group checks, like stealth, and mentions that characters with extraordinary successes can buy off the failures of other characters, but that seems a lot riskier for the heroes taking a group action than if it were just modeled as a challenge with multiple successes required.
The text does a good job of being inclusive, and explaining that even though some folk may have some traits, what they are known for doesn’t translate to that reputation being true – although I would love to see an even longer discussion of this. The section on disability in the game is golden. The only other thing I would point out is that it is mentioned that corruption makes a noticeable mark on characters, and the examples tend to lean into the “evil is unattractive” trope. I’d argue that even a “neutral” seeming change may indicate that a character is dealing with something.
I am very interested to see where this game goes. I would love to see the final text, and hopefully, I’ll get the chance to try it out at some point. I’m already thinking of what playbooks I would play, examining what playbooks might show up later, and structuring what kind of long term goals I would have player characters attempt to turn back the encroachment of the Void.Read more »
- Confession Time – Reddit and Trello are like, 90 percent of my game prep these days
Over the last year or so I’ve ditched being active on most social media. The only one I actually visit with regularity anymore is Reddit. Partially this is because I enjoy “consuming” it more than participating in it, but also because the focus there is on the thing not the person. Compared to Twitter / Facebook / Instagram, the focus of the “reward system” is really on the thing. Sure, getting Karma makes you feel good, but no one really checks your karma when you post to see if you are worthy and that makes the focus be on the thing created rather than the person creating it. Grognard rant about social media aside, there are a PLETHORA of cool D&D related things produced on Reddit and it has totally subsumed my prep brain.
There I am, Just Browsing Reddit and Bam That would be cool in my game!
So there I am, just innocently browsing reddit instead of being 100% focused on my day job and I see something, something that sparks my imagination. It may be an image, it may be a video, it may be a battlemap, but whatever it is it grabs me. This thing would be cool to use in my next game (or the game 3 months down the road, or the game I’m envisioning doing next) and I just want to grab it and go. Luckily, that’s super doable with Reddit’s interface. Sharing things out is super easy, especially if I’m on my phone.
Depending on how you curate your reddit threads you may be seeing a lot of D&D stuff already, but there are a ton of interesting elements that could be used without being D&D specific. Nature, “interesting”, architecture, art, character, game specific, video game, media, etc. all have various posts that might just jump at you. The semi-random nature of reddit also means you’ll see some things that you may never have imagined being relevant to your game but suddenly you realize that this little thing might be a perfect fit for that plot hole you’ve got. That’s the beauty of this method, there’s always one more thing and it leaps out at you rather than you specifically searching it out.
Another great benefit of Reddit as an inspiration point is that there are often images attached. Battlemaps are usually shared (and often give you links to new Patreons like CZE and Peku who get too much of my Patreon budget right now solely because they are too damn good), images can be shown to players in Roll20 or at your home games (when Covid is done ruining our gaming) with ease, and videos that spark some joy can be played or soundtracks incorporated with ease.
Subreddits that are Rife for Inspiration
Not every subreddit is going to be perfect for this process but there are a few that are really great. Be warned, there are some cuss words in the following titles. It’s just a trend in some reddits. Reddit itself has some (a lot of) toxic communities, but properly curated there are some really good sources for inspiration, just be warned that while it has it’s Han Solo moments… also
So, just be warned. There are parts of reddit that aren’t hard to find that are (like any social media) pretty darn bad. Just curate, turn NSFW posts off, and go someplace like /r/mademesmile.
The Whole Process – Click Share, Share To Trello
I wrote a previous article about using Trello for your Campaigns because of how good it is at organizing all the various campaigns in various lists. Well, the combination of Reddit’s Share feature and add card to Trello is super easy to capture things in inspiration lists. The list for my current campaign has about 93 cards in it that link to maps, ideas, videos, or other inspiring elements. On the phone it is super easy as well, almost easier than sharing from the computer where I have to copy and paste the link.
There’s really not a lot to this process, but it’s a way I hadn’t really realized I could use Reddit when I started digging into it. Trello as a backend of inspiration is super easy, and a source of continual infinite scroll inspiration makes coming up with ideas incredibly easy.
You could use Click Share -> Trello with Pinterest, Deviantart, DNDBeyond, etc. any kind of data resource. When you are ready to grab and expand upon the seed of creativity, it’s a simple click to open the original source and jump to it.
What subreddits do you use that could be good inspiration? Do you organize your campaign materials in some other way? What are your best sources for inspiration?Read more »
- Cortex Prime Review
When I returned to gaming after a few years away from the hobby, I lost a little of the flexibility that I had previously possessed. My horizons opened slowly. It took me years to move away from d20 games, and even longer to transition from more traditional games to games that were more focused on narrative.
When Marvel Heroic Roleplaying first came out, I didn’t like it. It didn’t provide “absolutes.” It didn’t care how many tons Hulk could actually lift. How can this provide me with a proper comic book experience?
The irony is that my love for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying started to grow when I listened to actual play podcasts of the game, where the people playing didn’t seem to get it. The more I heard their confusion and objections, the more my mind started to say, “no, the game isn’t trying to model that, it’s trying to model THIS.”
Once that finally clicked, it became one of my favorite roleplaying games of all time. The rules existed to emulate the story structure of a comic book, not create the physics of a fictional world. Playing Marvel Heroic Roleplaying is what led me to open my mind enough to games like Fate and PbtA games. It was definitely a gateway drug.
Because of that, backing the Cortex Prime rules was an easy decision for me. Cortex Prime seeks to recreate the “building blocks” of various Cortex rulesets, from the original Cortex, to Marvel Heroic, Firefly, and Leverage. Let’s open up the toolbox and see what can be built.
This review is based on the Cortex Prime PDF. The PDF is 256 pages. This includes four separate sample character sheets from the settings included in the book, six pages of backer credits, a 10-page index, 8 pages of backer characters made using various rules, a credits page, and a table of contents.
When I mention that the index is 10 pages, I think it’s worth noting that the index is a full index, with partial definitions of terms and various sub-topics included, rather than an expanded table of contents.
The artwork and the colors are stunning. There are various art styles utilized for different examples, but the framing elements of the book do a good job of showing that multiple genres and styles can be accommodated within the context of the Cortex rules.
If a rule is referenced, you can assume there will be clarifying examples shown, and those examples leave few questions about how a process works.
Both the artwork and the layout of this book are a joy to look at. We live in an era of many attractive game products, and Cortex Prime still stands out as noteworthy.
Introduction and Prime Core
The introduction jumps straight in to describe the thesis of Cortex Prime. Unlike some other modern rulebooks that kind of skip explaining what roleplaying is, there is some emphasis placed on explaining the convention to new players. Not only does this one explain what is in the upcoming sections of the book, it also lays out the basics of resolution for the game.
At its heart, the game is about rolling a pool of dice and adding the two highest, and beating an opposing roll or difficulty number. Characters have traits that are rated as dice (d6, d8, d10, or d12), and if a trait applies, it is added to the die pool. What is really interesting about the examples is that everything revolves around a reporter doing her job, doing things like Talking her way into a location and staying up late to write her story in time for the deadline.
Prime Core goes into more detail about the individual aspects of resolution. It introduces the idea of stepping up dice in certain favorable situations, and stepping down dice in unfavorable circumstances. It also introduces hitches and botches, the rules that are triggered when a player rolls a 1, or multiple 1s, when rolling their die pool.
If I spelled out all of the optional rules in this section, we’d be here for a long time. Different implementations of Cortex might have you use a set difficulty number, a set number of dice rolled for opposition, or a growing pool of dice based on how many complications have come up in the story. Characters may gain plot points that allow them to pull in more traits or add more to their totals, or they may pick up Hero Dice, which can be added to their total after the roll has been made.
In many implementations of Cortex, a character’s ability to act in a scene is measured by complications they receive, which are represented by a die assigned to them when they fail to defend against opposition. When this die is stepped up beyond a d12, they can no longer act in the scene. Other rules use a more traditional stress track, or add multiple die ratings for physical, and mental stress dice.
Whenever an aspect of the rules is introduced, multiple optional rules that go with that aspect are also introduced. Taken just from this chapter, the sheer number of options can seem daunting, and it may be hard to decide what best goes with what kind of story, but the sample settings at the back of the book also help to illustrate what kind of story is produced with different options in play.
I really appreciate that the example actions used a reporter researching and writing a story. I have seen several games point out that they aren’t just about combat, and then proceed to use multiple combat examples, and the fact that this example is at the very beginning of the book sets a nice tone.
This section takes a deeper dive into the game rules that specifically contribute to creating player characters. This explains rules elements like Affiliations, Attributes, Distinctions, Powers, Abilities, Relationships, Resources, Skills, and Values. Not every game will use all those options. There is a section talking about Core Sets that forms the basis of every character, usually making sure there are at least three dice ratings to potentially add to a dice pool before other add-ons.
Some player options may occupy similar space, but do fundamentally different things. For example, Affiliations usually show if the character is better working alone, with a partner, or with a group. Relationships are similar, but they represent if the character is acting with or concerning a person for which they have a rated relationship. Powers and abilities add dice to pools in a similar manner, but Powers are more open-ended, and Abilities have more proscribed rules based on the ability.
In addition to what dice get added to pools, this section touches on a few other character facing rules, like SFX and limits. SFX modifies how the rules work in certain circumstances (sometimes being more or less effective depending on the context), and limits usually create a way to exclude the ability to use a dice rated attribute for a while to gain some kind of resource.
This section also addresses Pathways, a formalized way of measuring attachment to characters and other elements of the setting, as well as advancement and growth rules, showing how a character can change over time and what this entails.
Prime Scenes and Prime Sessions
This section details how the game flows in play. When a character takes their action, it is referred to as a beat. There is no set time for how long a beat lasts, it is the amount of time it takes to accomplish the specific thing the character is trying to do with their die pool.
Scenes are defined as opening scenes, action scenes, bridge scenes, exploration scenes, flashback scenes, and tag scenes. Opening scenes are used to establish where the session starts. Tag scenes are a way for characters to “wrap up” what they are doing and check on the advancement rules that are used to see if character growth has happened. Action scenes are scenes where multiple beats are happening to multiple characters, and bridge scenes are essentially “downtime.” Exploration scenes are like bridge scenes, but serve to condense moving from point A to point B.
There are rules presented for different ways to structure a conflict scene. The default is Dramatic Order, meaning that one character has their beat, and then passes the turn to someone else, until everyone participating has acted. There are also some rules for how to adjudicate a more traditional initiative order.
The concept of scale is also introduced. Scale usually means that an element in the scene is operating on a significantly different level, and instead of adding two dice for their total, they add three.
Timed tests are introduced and defined, and throwdowns (interpersonal combat) are examined in more depth. This transitions us to the next session, which includes GM facing rules and advice.
Beyond explaining general advice on pacing, session length, and prep, this section also details how to build GMCs, or Game Moderator Characters. These characters include:
- Major GMCs
- Minor GMCs
- Location GMCs
Different GMCs will have different levels of details. No GMCs need to be built the same way as player characters, but major GMCs, for example, will have a similar level of detail. Some only exist as a die rating in case there is a contested roll, and some are versions of other GMC categories with a twist. For example, Factions/Orgs are Mobs with scale.
This section goes into more detail about how you may want to plug in all those tools from the previous section to emulate a genre. This discusses matters like how grounded the setting feels, what the themes of the genre are, and how those stories usually progress.
There is a section detailing about 16 different genres, as well as a technique for blending three genres to create a setting. Some examples follow, usually based on previous Cortex games, with the serial numbers filed off. For example:
- Science Fiction + Western + Swashbucklers (Firefly)
- Horror + Road Movie + Comedy (Supernatural)
- Superheroes + Romance + High School (Smallville)
- Military + Science Fiction + Religious (Battlestar Galactica)
In addition to these examples and genre advice, this section also presents three distinct settings that can be used. In addition to providing the settings, we also see that the character sheets that add various optional elements can look significantly different between settings. The settings introduced here are:
- Eidolon Alpha (Greek setting with JRPG elements)
- Hammerheads (High tech disaster relief in the near future)
- Trace 2.0 (Special first responders/police unit rebuilding a city)
These provide a nice mix of genre and timeframe, from a setting based on the ancient past with magical elements, to a modern setting dealing with essentially modern problems, to a near-future setting that addresses real problems that we are already seeing.
In Eidolon Alpha, characters are bonded to powerful creatures that they can summon, and they represent the interests of those beings, against various rivalries and hatreds that exist between various powerful planar beings. Summoning the eidolons can be a dangerous proposition, because they operate on a higher scale and operate beyond mortal constraints.
Hammerheads is a game where characters react to disasters and climate emergencies in high tech vehicles. The gameplay is balanced between saving lives and containing threats, and maintaining a personal life between emergencies.
Trace 2.0 is about a special unit of civil servants trying to rebuild a city rocked by massive hits to its infrastructure, boosting neighborhoods up, while challenging corruption.
There are elements of Trace 2.0 that I wish landed better. The original Cortex rules contained the Trace setting, so it makes sense to revisit. However, in the modern context, some elements don’t feel quite right to me. While it acknowledges that there is corruption in institutions like the police, there is also an emphasis placed on “fixing neighborhoods” and on weeding out corruption, as if the institutions are fine in and of themselves, and just need more honest participants.
My favorite of these settings is Hammerheads. I love the idea of action scenes that aren’t necessarily combat. Using high tech vehicles to challenge forest fires or floods, and having the ability to save lives, really appeals to me, and I like the additional thread of managing personal relationships between missions. I like how this showcases that action doesn’t mean combat.
Prime Lists is a deeper dive into rules elements mentioned elsewhere in the book, giving more detailed descriptions and quantified rules. There are lists of powers, abilities, milestones (an optional advancement technique), a section on building vehicles in the rules, and example characters submitted by backers.
The biggest difference between powers and abilities is that abilities tend to have more defined rules on how they can be used. Powers are usually broader descriptors, while abilities have specific lists of effects that can be triggered by spending plot points. Think of it as the difference between how superpowers look in a blockbuster movie, versus a weekly TV show.
Milestones are a set of advancement rules originally introduced in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. They effectively describe a story arc that the character might participate in, with XP triggers in three sizes, 1, 3, and 10. The 1 XP triggers are usually used for genre touchstones, the 3 XP triggers are usually significant nods towards the story arc being pursued, and the 10 XP triggers represent resolving the story arc. This section provides many fantasy-based story arcs, as well as the XP cost of various advancements.
One of the things that I enjoy about the backer submitted characters is that they are built using the internal logic of the genre that the character inhabits, which means they give you more examples of what you may or may not want to use when creating a setting that is similar to the ones inhabited by the character.
Step Up or DoubleThis book is a joy to look at, and that makes it a joy to learn from.
This book is a joy to look at, and that makes it a joy to learn from. There are so many ideas about how to emphasize different aspects of story pacing, you want to use the building blocks and see what comes from it. If you have ever wanted a roleplaying game that could handle a dramatic argument or an action scene that has tension but not combat, these rules show you how you can do that.
All the options are clearly presented and explained, but there are a lot of options, and for some gamers, especially those new to Cortex games, that may still be overwhelming to start. There are aspects of the Trace 2.0 setting that feel like they miss some cogent points, especially in the current news cycle. Heroic cops fixing a neighborhood and assuming the system is only broken because of corruption falls flat for me.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The game is both an amazing toolbox, and a solid example of how to express the rules that are being described. This book is a great resource if only to see how game rules can be presented, and how a book can be formatted for maximum effect.Read more »
The biggest downside I can cite is that most of the Cortex games will likely showcase the specific options that they use natively, meaning that if you aren’t as interested in building your own setting or using the ones in this book, you may be less interested in obtaining a deep dive into the philosophy of the game engine. That said, if you ever think you might want to tweak an existing implementation of Cortex, this book is going to not only provide options, but also discussion on what those options might do when used in your game.
Do you like game rules that serve as a toolbox for multiple games? What have been some of your favorite rules systems that allow for customization? How likely are you to tinker with an existing game system when you are provided with “official unofficial” rules to do so? We would love to hear from you below!
- Troy’s Crock Pot: Information stations
When designing dungeons for a dungeon-crawl session, consider making one of those rooms an “information” station.
When doing a rough calculation, one in ten rooms in a given dungeon should have this purpose.
(It’s customary to put monsters in about half the rooms, traps or hazards in another quarter and leaving the remaining fourth empty for expansion or thematic purposes).
Consider the tasks that your players are required to perform to achieve the session’s goals. What information do they need to accomplish those tasks? Next, find a way to port those answers into the dungeon.
Now, it is true: any room in your dungeon could serve as an information station. Some experienced GMs prefer to play it by ear, feeding information to the player characters as they explore, doing so when the time feels right rather than waiting for them to reach a certain point in the exploration.
The key thing for novice GMs, though, is to establish it before the game begins. Why? Firstly, dedicating an otherwise empty chamber to this purpose carries a certain amount of weight with the players. It’s a signal, a cue, that the information is important. It is the room’s singular distinction. It may seem heavy-handed, but what is obvious to the GM is not always seen as so to the players. This makes sure they stop, listen and process it.
Secondly, it rewards exploration, a key tenet in this style of game. It makes the room worth getting to and looking over even if there is no treasure or combat monsters within.
Once making the room the “information station,” what form should it take so the player characters can interact with it in a meaningful way for the sake of the adventure?
— Information is archived. It comes in the form of an authoritative book, scroll or inscription. If the PCs require access to an area, it can be in the form of a blueprint. If the PCs need to know how to combat a particular monster, a tome offers suggestions on the creature’s Achilles’ Heel. If the PCs’ actions must be done in conjunction with someone or something else — say it must be timed to coincide with another event — the information can be embedded within a crystal ball or other magical object, say a tapestry with arcane effects.
— Information is bound to a secret-keeper. In other words, an NPC has gained the needed information for themselves. Getting them to share it with the characters requires some form of solicitation or coercion. Perhaps the information is trapped within the NPC by a form of magic, and finding a method to release it is required.
— Information is locked away. In this case, the adventurers usually are required to find the “key” that unlocks or transcribes the information. The key could be magical, or it could be mundane, such as a puzzle or code. Experience has shown that players find “cracking the code” to be a fun experience, provided all the materials needed are at hand and the abilities on the character sheets are accounted for as much as a player’s knack for puzzling things out. Plus, gaining the answer is usually just the first step in a quick succession of related encounters: A leads to B leads to C.
- Mountains out of Molehills
Occasionally as GM, you’ll be running a game and expect the players to make a quick decision to get on with the adventure. But, all of a sudden, you’ll be facing a dilemma that many GMs before have faced. The players have fixated on a detail you hadn’t considered or thought was inconsequential. The game either grinds to a halt or takes an unexpected turn as the players become unwilling to focus on anything else in the game.
Basically, your players have started making a mountain out of a molehill.
After a couple of games where this became an issue, I brought the subject up on social media to find out what my fellow gamers thought of this particular problem. We had a pretty lively conversation discussing the variations on the problem and some potential reasons why it happens. Before I dig into that, though, let me give you a couple of my recent examples.
In a game where the players were investigating a decades old murder, the GM was blindsided when the players followed the clues to a conclusion that was several steps beyond what the scenario was written to include. We actually had to step outside and have an out-of-character conversation to all get on the same page again. Based on the information the players had, their conclusion was reasonable, but it was also building off an aspect of the setting that wasn’t relevant to that particular pre-written one-shot. The logic the players were following wasn’t necessarily wrong, it was just taking things further than the scenario needed.Players are going to fixate on things you don’t expect and sometimes blow inconsequential things way out of proportion.For the other game I ran into this, the PCs were faced with a decision: do we give this magical thingy to the potentially adversarial group that came here to find it (and we wouldn’t have even known about it if they hadn’t shown up looking for it in the first place)? If we give it to them, we’ve potentially made some allies, but also possibly given some questionable folks a powerful item to do some harm. Of course, if we don’t give it to them, we absolutely turn them into enemies. As it often happens in these situations, the players started endlessly debating the potential outcomes of the scenario and catastrophizing the worst possible outcomes of either choice. It ground the game to a halt and even this particular GM, who has a tendency to let his players meander a little too much for my tastes, was starting to roll his eyes.
In both of these situations, the ultimate consequence was that the game ground to a halt. This type of thing happens all the time, so every GM is going to need to develop a set of tools to cope for when the players start getting caught up in endless debate or fixating on red herrings of their own creation.
After my conversation on social media, it seems like there are three root causes to players making mountains out of molehills:
TRUST – The players don’t trust the GM so they’re trying to cover all their bases and make sure nothing is going to come back to bite them as they move forward.
This was a lot more common when the adversarial GM was the rule rather than the exception, but I still run into a fair number of players who play this way, indicating there are still GMs out there running games this way. Thankfully styles have evolved and most games seem to encourage a less adversarial role for the game runner. GMs still need to challenge their players, but most have realized it’s more fun to work with the players than against them.
When I run into players who are acting like they don’t trust me to not screw them over and as a result fixate on trying to make sure every teeny little thing is accounted for, I will often ask them point blank what they’re trying to achieve. What is their end goal in these questions? Hopefully I can reassure them that I respect the competency of their characters and won’t screw them over.
INTERPRETATION – The players have interpreted the information presented differently than the GM intended and have put more significance on something than the GM intended.
Investigative games are notorious for this, but it can honestly happen in any game. It’s a mistake to think that logic is universal and that if something makes sense to you, it’ll make sense to everyone. We all think a little differently from one another and what one person can think is perfectly logical would not even be considered as a possibility by another player.
When the players seem to be fixating on something that you didn’t intend to be relevant, it’s worth taking a step back and trying to figure out why they think that thing is relevant. It’s possible the clue you thought was straightforward and obvious isn’t leading the players where you thought it would.
Sometimes you can just gently redirect the players back towards the relevant information, but sometimes you’ll realize that you’ve got a giant plot hole you now need to compensate for.
(Years ago I had a campaign go belly up for this very reason. I didn’t consider the full implication of what I had set up as the campaign premise and panicked when I realized the game had turned into something very different than I had intended.)
INTEREST – Occasionally, your players will completely ignore the actual plot clues and completely focus on other things that you hadn’t intended to be relevant to the game. Sometimes when this happens, it is simply because they find what they’re focusing on far more interesting than the plot hooks you were dangling in front of them. Honestly, in these cases, it’s okay to toss out or modify what you had intended to use for the game to adjust to what the players are actually interested in.
When I was running Dragon Heist, my players became fixated on the Nimblewright that they were pursuing. Because they felt pity for the other one they met in the Temple of Gond, they decided the one they were pursuing wasn’t fully responsible for his actions, so they needed to save him. Well, the adventure is written expecting the players to fight it and kill it out of hand. He became such an important NPC to them, that I adjusted the scene so they had a chance of saving him. While their fixation on him was blowing that aspect of the scenario out of proportion, it was more satisfying to them with the way we ended up playing it.
So, what’s the takeaway here? Players are going to fixate on things you don’t expect and sometimes blow inconsequential things way out of proportion. The best you can do as a GM is to understand why they might be doing that and adjust the game as you go.
What about you? How have you dealt with this in your own games?Read more »
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- Running Ravenloft / Curse of Strahd in a Single Session
Note: This article has been updated since its original version published in November 2012.
Published in 1983, the classic D&D adventure I6 Ravenloft, was ranked in 2004 by Dungeon magazine as the second greatest adventure of all time. Five years before its publication, Tracy and Laura Hickman ran the classic D&D module every Halloween. Ravenloft contains one of the best open-ended randomly determined adventures produced for Dungeons & Dragons and it's perfect for a Halloween one-shot game.
With the release of Curse of Strahd, we have Ravenloft fully updated to the 5th edition D&D. Though intended for a long campaign, we can strip Curse of Strahd down to a single five-hour game for 7th level characters perfect for us to run on or around Halloween every year.
Here's one way to run Curse of Strahd in a single session Halloween-themed adventure.
The Party's Goals
Strip down the goals of Ravenloft to one single goal: Kill Strahd. Expanding this a bit, the characters must hunt down the devil Strahd to save Ireena Kolyana from becoming his dark bride.
To help them kill Strahd, the characters must seek out three powerful artifacts hidden within the castle including the Sun Sword, the Icon of Ravenloft, and the Tome of Strahd.
I've replaced the Holy Symbol of Ravenkind with the Icon of Ravenloft because the Icon's abilities better fit the theme of this game and a paralyzed Strahd isn't much fun. That means the Icon of Ravenloft does not sit on the altar in room K15. Instead, replace it with a large bowl of holy water able to restore the vitality of the party once, giving them the equivalent of a short or long rest depending on how hard a time the characters are having.
We're also going to add a trait to the Tome of Strahd to streamline this single-session run of Ravenloft. When defeated, the characters can burn the Tome of Strahd to destroy Strahd permanently instead of seeking out his coffin. This is likely the only item the characters need to truly defeat Strahd.
Ireena as a Character
In this scenario Ireena accompanies the group into Ravenloft. She isn't putting up with his creepy stalker ways and is taking the fight right to him. You can either let one of the players run Ireena as a veteran along with their main character or you can have one of the characters play Ireena herself as their main character. Ireena is a human but can be of any class the players choose and is the same level as the rest of the party.
Ravenloft Character Bonds
To keep this game simple, every character has the following bond:
By blood or by deed you and your companions are sworn to aid and protect Ireena from the devil Strahd.
With this bond every character has a built-in motivation to group together, go to Ravenloft with Ireena, and destroy the vampire once and for all.
Intro: The Carriage Ride to Ravenloft and the Drawing
When the characters begin the adventure, read or summarize the following:
The ornate black carriage roars along the narrow winding road leading to Castle Ravenloft. Peering out one window, you watch rocks fall one thousand feet to the river below. Ahead the carriage master turns his cowled face towards you, his eyes shrouded under his tattered leather tricorn hat. Reaching back with an arm too long for his body, he gently pushes you back into the carriage and locks the door.
Raspy laughter rattles the glyphed coins of Madame Eva's veil. Sitting across from you, she draws an ancient worn deck of cards from her colored robes and begins placing them face up on the small table inside the carriage.
When using Curse of Strahd for this run of Ravenloft, we'll use the simplified fortune drawing described in James Introcaso's Guide to Running Curse of Strahd as a one-shot adventure with one minor exception: skip the ally and stick to the three artifacts and Strahd's location. Remove all but the following cards from the common cards in the Tarokka deck or a normal deck of cards:
- Paladin (2 of Swords/Spades)
- Mercenary (4 of Swords/Spades)
- Berserker (6 of Swords/Spades)
- Dictator (8 of Swords/Spades)
- Warrior (Master of Swords/10 of Spades)
- Transmuter (1 of Stars/Ace of Clubs)
- Evoker (6 of Stars/Clubs)
- Necromancer (8 of Stars/Clubs)
- Swashbuckler (1 of Coins/Ace of Diamonds)
- Merchant (4 of Coins/Diamonds)
- Guild Member (5 of Coins/Diamonds)
- Miser (9 of Coins/Diamonds)
- Shepherd (4 of Glyphs/Hearts)
- Anarchist (6 of Glyphs/Hearts)
- Priest (Master of Glyphs/10 of Hearts)
Madame Eva places out four cards, three from the common deck (one for each artifact) and one from the high deck which represents Strahd's location. With those cards placed, the adventure is ready to begin.
The characters arrive at Castle Ravenloft under the invitation of Strahd as described in the book. Instead of an illusion of Strahd playing the grand organ, it is Strahd himself. As they dine, Strahd lays out the rules of his "game" which, in short is the following:
"Defeat me and you save Ireena. Perish and she is mine."
In his unfathomable cruelty he asks Ireena a simple question:
"Give yourself to me now, my love, and you can save their lives."
Ireena looks to the party for guidance. If she appears as though she will give herself to Strahd, he turns to them and asks:
"and you would allow this?".
Should they choose to hand her over, Strahd looks very disappointed.
"They are not worth your affection. Let them rot in this castle and let you walk with them and see the results of their cowardice first hand."
Strahd then departs from the dinner as the room grows cold.
Should the characters decide to confront Strahd there and then, Strahd is accompanied by two vampire spawns and has an additional spawn for every character above four. Strahd himself may battle the characters but leaves the characters to his vampire spawn and departs.
Recover the Three Artifacts Before Facing Strahd
The party must find all three artifacts before facing Strahd. 45 minutes before the end of the game, Strahd attacks the characters wherever they are and with whatever artifacts they have received. If the party does not have the Tome of Strahd, they cannot truly defeat the vampire in this scenario.
Maps for Online Play
Because of the timing, it's best to run this scenario mostly in the theater of the mind. It can help, however, for the players to see the rooms they're in and what rooms they've already explored. The maps in Curse of Strahd follow the isometric versions found in the original I6 Ravenloft module but you can find top-down maps on the DM's Guild. I preferred these realistic Ravenloft maps.
When running online, you can use a lasso-style copy and paste utility to grab the part of the map the characters have seen and avoid showing rooms they haven't yet gotten to. With some practice, this is a fast way to show off parts of this massive dungeon.
Throughout the session, Strahd might join in another encounter and harass the party. He may arrive in his hybrid bat form or his hybrid wolf form, poke at the party, and then leave. Each time Strahd arrives, his entrance is foreshadowed by his children of the night ability.
Facing Strahd von Zarovich
45 minute before the end of the game, Strahd arrives and unleashes his full power. Take a few minutes to read Strahd's full entry in the book before the game to remember all of his intricacies. As a spellcasting vampire, Strahd is a complicated monster to run.
If the characters have the three items, Strahd may find himself at at a great disadvantage. Greater invisibility may end up his most dangerous spell, removing any disadvantage he has, preventing him from being targeted by spells that require sight, letting him move freely without opportunity attacks, and preventing his spells from getting countered. This does, however, remove his ability to charm. Whether he casts it before he engages in combat or if things start to look bad for him is up to you. Strahd's spider climb is an effective way of staying out of reach of powerful melee characters. His charm ability is likely best dropped on those with poor wisdom saving throws and Strahd is smart enough to avoid elves (who have advantage against charms) or paladins with crazy-high saving throw bonuses. Non-elven fighters and non-wisdom spellcasters are the best targets. For more tactics on running vampires, see the Monster Knows What They're Doing on Vampires.
Strahd is likely a hard challenge for a group of 7th level characters. If you happen to be running him at a higher level or feel he needs to be beefed up, add one or more of the following enhancements:
- Increase Strahd's hit points up to to 200.
- Give Strahd an AC of 17 (mage armor).
- Increase the necrotic damage of Strahd's bite to 14 (4d6) or 21 (6d6).
- Make these changes to Strahd's prepared spells: shield instead of comprehend languages, mage armor instead of prestidigitation, counterspell instead of nondetection, lightning bolt instead of fireball, and dispel magic instead of scrying.
- Give Strahd Beguiling Gaze: As a bonus action, Strahd fixes his gaze on a creature he can see within 30 feet of him. If the target can see Strahd, the target must succeed on a DC 17 Wisdom saving throw or Strahd has advantage on attack rolls against the target. The effect lasts until the target takes damage or until the start of Strahd's next turn. For that time, the affected creature is also a willing target for Strahd's bite attack. A creature that can't be charmed is immune to this effect. A creature that successfully saves against Strahd's gaze is immune to it for 1 hour.
If you have more than four characters, consider adding one vampire spawn for each character above four. These spawn may serve as Strahd's brides. If you want to give them some mechanical flavor, you can give them the capabilities of a mage, veteran, or assassin (without the poison).
A Halloween Tradition
With Curse of Strahd in hand and your streamlined plans in place, you can make Castle Ravenloft your very own Halloween D&D tradition.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
Mashing up the ideas from published D&D books is one of the best ways to capitalize off of the massive benefit from published books while, at the same time, turning published worlds into one of our own. Today we'll take two campaign sourcebooks from very different origins: the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica and Eberron: Rising from the Last War. While they each have a unique focus, both of these books work surprisingly well together. We can, for example, use the guilds from Ravnica to fill out some of the lesser known factions of Eberron.
Let's take a look.
Rakdos and the Mockery
Eberron's pantheon includes a group of sinister gods known as the Dark Six. Little is given for these six gods other than evocative names and a couple of lines of description. The Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica, however, gives over huge sections to their guilds. What if we took material from Ravnica's Cult of Rakdos and turned it into the cult behind the Mockery, one of the dark six?
The Children of Mockery, as we'll call them, often perform in small towns, villages, and cities. For the most part they stay just above the law but their shows often turn violent and it isn't uncommon for members of the audience to disappear during the performances. The Children also host bloody gladiatorial events that draw in contestants from all over Khorvaire. It is said the Children have their own city of entertainment just on the edge of the Demon Wastes though no one knows exactly how to find it until it wants to be found.
Monsters of the Droaam sometimes split their loyalty between the Children of Mockery and the Daughters of Sora Kell. There's a shaky truce between the two groups, one that could shatter under the wrong circumstances.
Some say a demon leads the Children of Mockery and acts as the master of ceremonies in this hidden city of blood and debauchery.
Using the Cult of Rakdos for the Children of Mockery gives us a ton of value. We fill in a few lines of text in Eberron: Rising from the Last War with a huge section of the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica. We have all kinds of fantastic art we can use and show our players. We have an awesome selection of monsters and stat blocks that fit perfectly with the Mockery. It works perfectly and requires almost no work at all from us to integrate.
Gruul Clans and the Droaam
The wild and bestial nature of the Gruul clans works well within the Droaam, the nation of monsters in Khorvaire. The various clans can be lifted right from Ravnica and dropped in as clans within the loose bonds of the Droaam who follow the daughters of Sora Kell, the three hag leaders of the Droaam.
Orzhov Syndicate and Karrnath
The bond between the living and the dead in the nation of Karrnath fits well with the lawful evil Orzhov syndicate, a guild of bankers and religious leaders ruled by the undead. The banking aspect of the Orzhov isn't a clean fit but the societal connection between the living and the dead fits very well indeed.
Golgari Swarm and Avassh, the Twister of Roots
We can delve deep into the realms of the Daelkyr, the lords of madness in the depths of Khyber and draw upon the Golari swarm to fill out the followers of Avassh, the Twister of Roots. It's given only a single line in Eberron: Rising from the Last War that's mostly filled with evil plant stuff but the necrotic hivemind of the Golgari swarm fits nicely with that description. The locations and monsters work perfectly for this necrotic-touched plant-based lord of madness.
House Dimir and House Thuranni
The dragonmarked house of Thuranni is a good fit for the material from House Dimir in the Guildmaster's Guide to Ravnica. The fact that the house could be led by a vampire is pretty compelling and the overlap of spies and assassins makes it a good fit.
Izzet League and House Cannith
The chaotic and inventive nature of the Izzet League fits well with House Cannith. Both of them seek invention over all and may have caused catastrophic chaos in the past.
Simic Combine and the Cult of the Dragon Below
The strange fascination of magic and biology can fall under the umbrella of the cults of the Dragon Below. Cult members may exist in other dragonmarked houses or hidden away in the chambers beneath Sharn conducting horrible experiments that focus on the nexus of biology and magic we find with the Simic Combine.
Art, Maps, Adventure Seeds, NPCs, Monsters
When we pull the guilds out of Ravnica, we get a ton of material we can drop into our Eberron game largely untouched. The guilds in the Guildmaster's Guide include fantastic art, adventure seeds, location maps, NPC descriptions, and awesome monsters. All of this expands our Eberron game without us having to do much work at all. Steal, mash up, and build new worlds you and your players can experience.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master I recommend focusing attention on what we need to run our next game. This mostly comes down to the eight steps of lazy DM prep:
- Review the characters
- Create a strong start
- Outline potential scenes
- Define secrets and clues
- Develop fantastic locations
- Outline important NPCs
- Choose relevant monsters
- Select magic item rewards
In chapter 16 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master I also recommend spiral campaign development in which we start at the characters' current positon and build up what's around them. Where are they now? What's going on there? Who will they meet? What might they have to fight? What might they discover? Where will they go?
We can think of this as the first horizon. What can the characters see when they look around? What's within their view and within their reach?
If we're planning to run more than just one session, though, we probably need to think not just about what's around the characters now but where they might be in the future. We need to know this so we can drop in the right hooks, hints, secrets, foreshadowing, and clues in front of them now. What's over the next horizon?
This is the second horizon. What is over the hill? What's beyond the wood? What's outside the city? What's buried beneath the old citadel?
If we want to drop seeds of future adventures, we need to think two horizons out.
The area of that second horizon can be far bigger than the first. Let's think about it mathematically for a moment and pretend we're talking about actual horizons — the distance between the characters and what they can see. If we pretend the first horizon is 1 mile out from the characters, that's an area of about 3 miles. But if the second horizon is 10 miles out? That's about 314 square miles we'd have to fill out. That's a lot of prep for lazy dungeon masters.
Planning Three Hexes Out
Instead of trying to fill out a thousand square miles with interesting stuff, we can take an approach from Micheal "Chgowiz" Shorten and think three hexes out. What are three interesting places the characters might explore outside of their current hex? For us, these three hexes out corresponds to the second horizon.
Turning that 300 mile second horizon into three hexes makes it managable. Three is a great number. We can all remember three places. It's a good selection of options without being overwhelming. What three major locations sit outside of the characters' current position? That's not too hard for us to come up with and a group can likely come to a consensus about which location they want to go to next if given three options.
We also don't need to fully fill out these locations before we start dropping in hints and clues. We don't need full maps of the locations or full rosters of monsters, NPCs, and treasure. We mostly just need the hook and can drop that right into our secrets and clues.
Example: Locations Outside Deepdelver's Enclave
Let's pretend we have a small adventuring outpost called Deepdelver's Enclave (the town central to the adventures in Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot). We want to come up with three interesting places outside of the town tied to hooks, rumors, or secrets that we can drop in front of the characters in our next game. What do we need?
We can start by digging into the Dungeon Master's Guide and look at the tables in chapter 3 and chapter 5. Mixing together the "Dungeon Locations", "Dungeon Creator", "Dungeon Purpose", and "Event-based Goals" tables, we can generate locations such as:
- The lair of a destroyed lich in the middle of a nearby subterranian desert still festering with the lich's malovelent magic and monsters.
- A group of dwarves recently uncovered a prophecy that a ruined yuan-ti temple within town will soon become the central site of a great evil coming into the land.
- A cult of the elemental prince Yan-C-Ben has taken interest in a beholder's lair on an island in an underground lake. The characters are asked to assess the situation and see what danger it might hold for the locals.
You can also use this 1d20 Adventure Seed list to generate interesting adventure ideas and mix them with Eberron factions or Forgotten Realms factions if you happen to be playing in those game worlds. Random lists inspire the hooks and locations we can drop two horizons out from the characters' current position.
Looking Two Horizons Out in Published Campaigns
Looking two horizons out while running a big published adventure means reading a chapter ahead. When running such adventures it helps to know what options will soon be in front of the characters when they're done with their current session. Reading up on those future options helps us know what hints to drop in our current game. If we time things right, these options hit the table at the end of the session and the players can decide what to do next to help us plan the next session. This lets us focus our reading around the area the players already decided on. If such decisions land at the beginning of a session instead of the end of one, we end up having to prepare for all possible options or wing it. That's not ideal.
When possible, help players choose their next path at the end of a session to help you focus your prep on the path they chose.
Where to Keep These Horizons
When you've thought two horizons out and have some ideas, where do you put them? If following the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master they fit well in our secrets and clues and fantastic locations. Hints of future events, NPCs, or situations work well as secrets and clues.
If we're identifying interesting locations in our look over the horizon, these fit in as fantastic locations. We don't need to fill these locations out too far. A good evocative name serves fine such as "burning forest", "Skyfall Tower", or "Karshak's Creche". These two-word names often give us enough to get our heads going in the right direction if we do need to fill them out in the future. A name alone is often enough to drop hints to the characters without wasting a lot of time on places the characters will never bother to see.
Two Horizons Out in a Spiral Campaign
Thinking two horizons out is a key component of spiral campaign development. We build a campaign from the characters' current position outward. It's a key component for us lazy dungeon masters to keep our world evolving, make it feel real, and spend less time on material our players may never see.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »