- 300: Earth & Water — Tense, Fun, Card-Driven Wargame Goodness for Alloverview and my initial impressions of The Shores of Tripoli, a 1-2 player entry-level, card-driven wargame on the First Barbary War from designer Kevin Bertram and publisher Fort Circle Games. I recently had the pleasure of checking out 300: Earth & Water, yet another fun, light-weight, quick-playing card-driven wargame for two players. This time, instead of pirate naval battles in the early 19th century, we jump further back in time to 449 BCE for a taste of the Greco-Persian Wars.
300: Greco-Persian Wars was released from designer Yasushi Nakaguro under his self-published brand Bonsai Games. In 2021, Nuts! Publishing, who kindly provided me a review copy, is releasing French and English editions opf the design with the updated title 300: Earth & Water, which is currently available for retail pre-order, targeted for release in May 2021. In addition, German and Italian editions are coming from publishers Schwerkraft-Verlag and Ergo Ludo Editions, respectively.
In 300: Earth & Water, two players duke it out in a strategic, area-control battle in the Greco-Persian Wars, which lasted fifty years from the Ionian Revolt in 499 BCE to the Peace of Callias around 449 BCE. One player represents the Greeks (red) gathered around the Athenians, and the other controls the Persians, fighting for the hegemony of the eastern Mediterranean. Regardless of which side you play, your goal is to control more cities than your opponents.
Set-up for 300: Earth & Water is quick and simple. You place a few wooden cubes (armies) and discs (fleets) on the game board for both the Persian (blue) and Greek (red) armies, shuffle the deck of 16 event cards, and place black markers on the campaign and score tracks and then you're ready to go.
The game board is a map showing Greece and a portion of Asia Minor at the time of the Greco-Persian Wars. On the map, you'll find cities connected by roads, with some cities having ports represented by a circle with wavy lines. Each city has amphorae icons to represent the number of armies you can feed if you control the city. The Greeks and the Persians each have two major cities: Athenai and Sparta for the Greeks, and Ephesos and Abydos for the Persians.
During the fifty years of the Greco-Persian Wars, Persia launched three campaigns against Greece, but in 300: Earth & Water, the Persians can launch up to five campaigns during a game. The game ends if a player achieves an automatic victory or when five campaigns have been completed.
Each campaign is split into four phases:
---(1) Preparation: Acquire cards, and deploy armies and fleets.
---(2) Operation: Play cards to trigger events, move, and battle each other.
---(3) Supply: Supply armies and discard down to your card carryover limit.
---(4) Scoring: Count the number of cities you control to determine which player scores for the campaign.
Once the scoring phase is complete, the campaign ends and the next one begins unless you've finished the fifth (final) campaign.
Starting with the Persian player, first you choose how many cards you want to purchase, then draw your cards from the deck, and read the effects to see whether the campaign is terminated by the sudden death of the Persian King via the Persian event card "Sudden Death of the Great King". When this happens, the Persian player shuffles all the cards in their hand with the discard pile to form a new draw pile, then launches a new campaign.
Assuming the Persian King doesn't unexpectedly die, the Persian player will continue their Preparation phase by purchasing and placing armies and fleets out on the map in areas they control. Cards and armies cost 1 talent each, but fleets cost 2 talents for the Persians The Persian player can also alternatively spend 6 talents to build the pontoon bridge across the Hellespont to connect the road between Abydos and Pella for improving their land movement options.
After the Persian player finishes preparing, the Greek player follows in a similar fashion, first deciding how many cards they want to purchase, drawing cards, then purchasing and placing armies and fleets. Not only does the Greek player have fewer talents to spend each Preparation phase, but they also start the game with only 6 armies and 3 fleets in their reserve compared to the Persians having 20 armies and 5 fleets in their reserve. This can appear a tad daunting for the Greek player, but the Greeks have a better starting position on the map and are better at combat to balance things out.
There are no limits to the number of armies players can place each Preparation phase, but both players can acquire only a max of six cards and two fleets per campaign. After the Greek player prepares, it's time to jump into the Operation phase.
The Operation phase is where most of the action unfolds in 300: Earth & Water. Players alternate taking turns to move their armies and fleets, attack opponent armies and fleets, and capture enemy cities. Starting with the Persian player, you can either play a card to trigger the event, discard a card for movement, or you can pass. If you're out of cards, you have to pass. The Operation phase ends once both players pass successively.
Each card has an event for the Greek player on the top, and an event for the Persian player on the bottom. When you play a card for an event, you simply follow the instructions on the card for your particular faction. Then you discard the card face up on the discard pile. Here are a few examples of the event cards:
While there are only 16 cards in the deck, it is a shared deck and each game can play out very differently depending on which combination of cards each player has on a given campaign/round. When you're budgeting in the Preparation phase, you have to decide how many cards to buy versus spending talents to build up your forces on the board. As great as it is to have a lot of cards from which to choose, is it worth the sacrifice of having fewer units on the board, leaving yourself vulnerable to attacks and poorly positioned for capturing cities? Alternatively, there are advantages and disadvantages to placing a ton of armies on the board, and buying fewer cards considering you can't take any actions when you run out of cards. This is all to say that there can be a surprisingly, impressive amount of variation of gameplay with this slim 16-card deck since the number of cards you draw and play each round will not always be the same.
If you don't want to or can't play an event on one of your cards, you can discard a card for land or naval movement. For land movement, choose a city occupied by your armies and move one or more of those armies along a road to a different city. You can move as far as you'd like, but your armies must stop when they enter a city that does not contain any armies (from either side) or when they enter a city occupied by an enemy army. If the city is occupied by an enemy army, you immediately engage in a land battle.
Once you determine the winner of the round, the loser removes one army, returning it to their reserve where it can be deployed again during the next campaign. If the players tie, meaning their highest dice are the same, both players remove an army. At this point, if there are remaining armies from both sides, players have the option to retreat, starting with the attacker. If not, you start another round of battle until only one side's armies are present in the city.
You can also discard a card to move fleets from one port to another, which can initiate naval combat in a similar way to land movement initiating land combat. When moving fleets, if your armies are in a port city, each fleet there can carry one army up to a maximum of three armies. If enemy fleets are in the destination port, naval combat ensues. Once naval combat is resolved (the same way as land combat), if the attacker wins and is transporting armies, the armies are placed in the corresponding city. If any enemy armies occupy the city, you immediately resolve land combat.
Players alternate turns, playing cards as events, discarding cards to move and attack with armies and fleets, and passing. Once both players have passed consecutively, the Supply phase begins starting with the Persians. who discard any remaining cards, optionally holding onto one card to start the next campaign. If they do, they'll be limited to 10 talents to spend in the next campaign Preparation phase instead of the usual 12.
Next you check for military attrition for the Persian armies by comparing the amount of amphorae (food) in the cities under Persian control (not including the major cities) to the number of Persian armies on the map. If the amount of armies exceeds the amount of amphorae, excess armies are removed. Each city on the map has 1-3 amphorae (food) icons.
As the final step in the Supply phase, you check your lines of communication. Your armies must have a line of communication with one of your major cities. If a city containing your armies doesn't have a line of communication, those armies are removed unless its port has at least one of your fleets since it's considered to have maritime supply. After the Persians supply, the Greeks do the same, except they can hold up to four cards in hand to start the next campaign. After the Greeks supply, players proceed to the Scoring phase.
In the Scoring phase, both players count the points from cities they control to determine their score the current campaign. Each controlled city gives you 1 point, or 2 points if it's a major city. Take the difference of both players' scores and advance the scoring marker that many spaces in favor of the side that scored the most points. If either side has lost control of both their major cities — meaning your opponent controls them — the game immediately ends. Otherwise, advance the campaign marker to start the next campaign.
In the example below, the Greek player controls three cities, plus two major cities for a total of 7 points. The Persian player controls four cities, plus two major cities for a total of 8 points. Since the difference is 1 point in favor of the Persians, the score marker advances 1 space toward the Persian side.
The game ends at the end of the fifth campaign — and the player with the scoring advantage wins — or if either player achieves an automatic victory by having control of both of their opponent's major cities during a scoring phase.
300: Earth & Water surprised me quite a bit. It sounded cool when I read the high-level description of it, and considering I love CDGs, I suspected it would be right up my alley — but I wasn't expecting to have so many fun and tense "Ohhhhhh!" moments, and outbursts of laughter from enjoying it so much.
It's light enough that you can teach it to just about anyone, gamers and non-gamers alike. Plus, it's fast and easy to set up and quick to play, with games lasting only about 30-45 minutes. It's one that's really great to play back-to-back games switching sides to mix it up. Don't let the lightness fool you though, there's plenty of strategic options packed in this relatively small box.
With roads and ports, armies and fleets, there are tons of different ways you can approach trying to outwit your opponent and control cities when the Operation phase kicks off. Then you have you think about the different ways you can move your units around the board, plus having the Supply phase before Scoring gives you some options for trying to cut off your opponent's lines of communication so they have to remove armies before the Scoring phase.
When I first cracked open the rulebook, I thought, wow, that's a lot of words for a light game that plays in 30-40 minutes, but when I finished reading it, I found it to be thorough and clear overall. I appreciate that they included explanations of each event card in the game so you can learn the historical context behind the mechanisms, which gives it a more thematic feel when you play. Also, the back of the rulebook has additional info on the Greco-Persian wars, a book recommendation for learning more about these wars, plus cooking and music recommendations as well. I'm pretty sure that's the first time I've seen cooking and music recommendations in a board game rulebook, but I thought it was awesome since I love thematic music when playing games, and connecting thematic food is an added bonus.
The variety of events on the cards is great, too, and works well for keeping things interesting with only 16 cards. The leader events are juicy, but you have to sacrifice army cubes to play them, so there are interesting trade-offs to consider. Not to mention the fact that you'll usually want to play all the cards for the events, but if you do, you won't get as far positioning your units on the board, so it's often hard to choose between which cards to discard for movement versus which to use for the events.
I liked the effects of the Twilight Struggle scoring system, pushing the marker in the campaign winner's direction based on the difference in the area control/city scoring. It feels more tense each round having the scoring marker move only one way versus a scoring system in which both players gain points for their controlled cities every round.
Lastly, I enjoyed how 300: Earth & Water can be suspenseful at times. In one of my games, my friend Richard was ahead by 1 point as the Persians. During the Preparation phase of the fourth campaign, he opted to purchase and draw his maximum six cards to increase the odds of having the sudden death of a Persian King event trigger. He ended up drawing that event, so his entire hand was shuffled with the discard and draw piles to form a new draw pile. He kicked off the fifth campaign pulling the same stunt, drawing 6 cards. He got lucky and drew the "Sudden Death of the Great King" card again which immediately ended the campaign, and in that case, immediately ended the game with him winning! I won't go so easy on him next time.
If you're looking for a fun, entry-level, card-driven wargame or are interested in the Greco-Persian Wars, I recommend checking out 300: Earth & Water, especially now that it's more widely available. I'm certainly looking forward to playing it more! Read more »
- VideoAssemble the Right Collection of Gold and Paintings in Art Deckoa preview video with designer Ta-Te Wu of his forthcoming game Promenade.
Wu attempted to Kickstart the game in May 2019 (KS link) through his Sunrise Tornado Game Studio brand, but didn't reach the target, so he then relaunched the game (KS link) as a limited edition item that would essentially be made solely for backers instead of the market at large. Promenade received good ratings for those who were able to play it, but the game was unavailable to most who were interested in it.
Now in a story reminiscent of the early 2000s, a larger publisher has picked up this limited edition item for wider release, with Rio Grande Games planning to publish the retitled game Art Decko in Q4 2021. While the original game featured only impressionistic paintings from Wu himself, the re-release features artwork in five styles, each created by a different artist:
• Lauren Brown — Art Nouveau
• Alex Eckman-Lawn — Surrealism
• Kwanchai Moriya — Impressionism
• Alison Parks — Renaissance
• Heather Vaughan — Pop Art
As for the gameplay, the rules remain the same as in the original release of Promenade. Here's how it works:Art Decko is a light strategy game for 2 to 4 painting collectors in which you try to create a valuable deck of gold and painting cards over the course of play. These cards — gold and paintings — both count as currencies in the game, and you can use them to purchase more paintings, acquire more gold, and pay for exhibition space in a museum. Your long-term goal is to manipulate the market value of certain styles of artwork, while also earning points by placing paintings in the museum.
The game includes paintings from five styles of art, and you start with five random painting cards in your deck. Each art style starts with a value of 1 gold for a painting. You also have five starting gold cards in your deck, with the cards being worth 1 or 2 gold, with some cards having a special ability on them.
To start the game, shuffle your deck, then take five cards in hand. Fill the four galleries with 2-3 random paintings each, then place two random 3-gold cards (each with a special power) in the bank, along with the deck of 5-gold cards. Paintings in galleries cost 1-8 gold, while gold cards cost 5 or 8 gold. On a turn, take two actions from these three choices, repeating an action, if desired:
• Haggle: Discard a card from your hand to draw two cards from your deck.
• Acquire: Pay the acquisition cost of a painting or gold card by discarding cards from your hand, then place that card in your discard pile. Increase the "market rating" of the painting's art style or gold by the value listed in the gallery/bank. As the market rating of an art style increases, each painting in that style is worth more gold, effectively increasing its buying power; that art style is also worth more points at game's end.
• Exhibit: Pay the exhibition cost for a gallery, then place a painting into that gallery that matches one of that gallery's invitation markers. (A gallery might want, for example, 2 Impressionistic paintings, 1 Renaissance painting, and 1 painting of any type.) Mark that painting with one of your ownership tokens, then place the related invitation marker on the highest available victory point (VP) space, scoring those points for yourself immediately. That painting is now removed from your deck.
If you use the special ability on a gold card instead of its listed numerical value, remove that card from the game.
At the end of your turn, discard any number of cards from your hand, then refill your hand to five cards. If a gallery has no paintings in it, refill all of the galleries with 2-3 paintings, then replace each empty gallery's cost token with the next highest one available. When at least twelve paintings are in the museum, the painting deck is empty, or an art style or gold reaches a market rating of 70, finish the round, then proceed to final scoring.
The value of gold depends on its market rating, with its value ratio ranging from 6:1 to 1:1. Each painting in your deck is worth 1-7 VPs depending on the market rating of its art style. Each exhibition space in the museum also has a random bonus that was revealed at the start of play, and you can earn additional points through these bonuses. In the end, the player with most VPs wins.
And in case you're curious, here is Wu's original explanation of the game from SPIEL '18:
Youtube Video Read more »
- Buckle, Turczi, and Mindclash Invite You to Prevent Voidfall in 2022Mindclash Games aims large with its releases, both in the worlds that it creates and the games themselves, and it will continue that tradition with the 2022 release Voidfall from designers Nigel Buckle and Dávid Turczi.
Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay, with Voidfall taking 1-3 hours to play, with Ian O'Toole providing the art and graphic design, and with the game hitting Kickstarter in 2021:Read more »For centuries, the Novarchs, descendants of the royal House of Novarchon, have ruled with an iron fist over the feudalistic galactic empire of humankind, the Domineum. During this time, they brought stunning technological innovation and scientific advancements to their domain. This accelerated progression helped the Domineum reach — and eventually inhabit — even the farthest segments of the known galaxy, where new Houses emerged to govern the outer sectors of the empire. As the House of Novarchon grew in power, so grew the religious cult that surrounded them, proclaiming grim prophecies about an ancient cosmic being from another dimension: the Voidborn.
Many thought it to be only a myth, but in truth, it was the Voidborn's dark influence that granted the Novarchs the sheer knowledge to achieve rapid expansion for the empire. While the cult of the Novarchs envisaged eternal life through the otherworldly entity, the Voidborn's only intention was satiating its eternal hunger. And so, when the Domineum had achieved a vastness fitting the Voidborn's craving, interdimensional rifts opened at the heart of the Domineum to unleash cosmic corruption. As the House of Novarchon and its followers welcomed the Voidborn and sought their false salvation, the entity infected and spread and seized control over the inner worlds. Now, it is time for the remaining Great Houses to purge the galactic corruption, prevent the Voidborn from fully manifesting in our dimension, and to ultimately overcome the chaos as the new rulers of the Domineum.
Voidfall is a space 4X game that brings the genre to Euro enthusiasts' tables. It combines the tension, player interaction, and deep empire customization of the 4X genre with the resource management, tight decisions, and minimum-luck gameplay of an economic Euro. Win by pushing back the Voidborn in the ''solo/coop mode'', or by overcoming your rivals' influence in restoring the Domineum in the ''competitive mode'' — both using the same rule set and game system. Variability is ensured not only by multiple playable houses with their own strengths and weaknesses, but also by many different map set-ups for all game modes.
As the leader of a defiant Great House, you play through three cycles (rounds), each with a game-altering galactic event, a new scoring condition, and a set number of focus cards that can be played. Focus card decisions and sequencing is the centerpiece of the gameplay. By selecting two of their three impactful actions as you play them, you develop and improve techs; advance on your three house-specific civilization tracks; manage your sectors' infrastructure, population, and production; and conquer new sectors with up to five different types of space fleets. Space battles are fought either against the Voidborn's infected forces (which are present as neutral opponents even in the competitive mode) or against other players. Instead of relying on the luck of a die roll, battles in Voidfall are fully deterministic and reward careful preparation and outsmarting your opponents.
- Designer Diary: Mission ISS
by Michael LuuDeutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, or DLR).
The German astronaut Alexander Gerst would be part of the International Space Station (ISS) expedition called "Horizons" that would run from June to December 2018. To coincide with this expedition, the DLR planned to release a game that would not only remind people of this special event, but also provide the public a better understanding of the work between the control station and the astronauts on the ISS. Campagames was assigned for the development and implementation of this project.
Without hesitation, I immediately expressed my interest. The subject of space travel and the project background aroused my enthusiasm. In addition, I wanted to collect new experiences by developing a game under the terms of a contract work. After all, I would have certain requirements to fulfill with this design: The game should reflect the tasks of the control center, as well as the guidance and the support of the astronauts. Timelines and time management should also play a role in the game.
Campagames allowed me a lot of freedom during the creation process. Sabine and Joachim of Campagames and I worked as team, meeting regularly in a bistro in Hamburg. In the beginning, we exchanged our first ideas, put them on paper, then discarded them all afterwards.
It became clear that the game should refer to the history of the ISS, which would be the most suitable theme to capture in a game. Based on that, the construction and completion of the ISS — ideally done in a playful and entertaining way — turned out to be the focal objective of the game. Since the construction of the ISS was possible only through the close co-operation of many nations, it was obvious for us to design a co-operative game. The players should complete the construction of the ISS, maintain it, and deal with the hostile environment of space as one team rather than playing against each other.
Based on these approaches, I tinkered with the first prototypes, playtested them, and evaluated the gaming experience. However, the game ideas did not meet our high expectations. This was mainly because of the still missing "engine" of the game. The game needed a mechanism that would define the sequence and moves, drive the game forward, and (at the same time) generate fun.
After several discarded approaches, I decided to consult my "box of ideas" in my hobby basement, where I designed and collected many different game mechanisms. One of those was that the active player always has to combine their own card with that of other players during their turn. This idea of card combination has become the main mechanism of the game Mission ISS. The "engine" was found!
Afterwards, the project proceeded much faster. Campagames provided graphics and scientific texts for all aspects of space travel and of the ISS, and I integrated them into the game. The prototype slowly shaped up to the final version.
It was always important for us to develop a game that was based on reality, one in which the players could learn a lot about the ISS and experience the interaction between the control center and the astronauts. At a later stage of the project, we recognized the necessity of bringing the game to a more complex level to enable (as much as possible) a realistic gaming experience. Based on the complexity, the game is recommended for players age 12 and up.
After a number of prototype versions, we started to test with outside players. Later, we were confronted with an apparently unsolvable task of how to realize a game component that we were very fond of: the production of the base elements each equipped with three dials on which the astronauts stand today. These dials represent the "ability" of the astronauts, so the higher the setting, the better the ability of the astronauts to complete the tasks on the ISS. Campagames consulted different manufacturers for the production. However, the challenge about the production costs was not yet solved.
At a later time of the project, a fortunate coincidence happened. Campagames got in contact with Georg Wild, a well-known editor in the board game industry, and hired him as the rule writer.
At that time, Georg Wild had just switched to publisher Schmidt Spiele as product manager. He was very convinced by the concept of the ISS game, so he presented it to the Berlin publisher himself. As a result, Campagames licensed the game idea to Schmidt Spiele, which then took care of the final production and at the same time solved the "base element problem" thanks to its many years of experience in the production of game components.
Just as sixteen countries were involved in the construction of the ISS, the development of the game Mission ISS is also a product of good co-operation between many participants and, ultimately, two publishers. The engagement and expertise have resulted in a wonderful game that invites players to explore the world of space travel.
Unfortunately the game didn't make it to the ISS with Alexander Gerst due to the time required for design and production, but a trip by Matthias Maurer, another German astronaut, is planned for the second half of 2021.
I would like to thank Campagames, Schmidt Spiele, and all other participants for the great teamwork during the entire project and, above all, for the publishers' confidence in my abilities as a "rookie" game designer. This has been an exciting experience for me. I appreciate it very much and will always fondly remember it.
Read more »
- VideoGame Preview: Witchstone, or Experience the Magical Transformation of Two Designers into a Thirda round-up of new games from designer Reiner Knizia that included Witchstone, a title from German publisher HUCH! with co-design by Martino Chiacchiera, making this one of only two Knizia co-designs that I know.
I've now played the game three times on a review copy from U.S. licensee R&R Games, and I've updated the basic description of the game, which I'll repeat here:Each player in the game has a personal cauldron that bears seven crystals and six pre-printed magic icons, and they share a larger game board that features a crystal ball that shows the entire landscape. Each player has a set of fifteen domino tiles, with each half of the domino being a hexagon; each domino depicts two different magic icons from the six used in the game.
On a turn, you place one of the five face-up dominos in your reserve onto your cauldron, then you take the action associated with each icon depicted on that domino; if the icon is adjacent to other dominos showing the same icon (or the matching pre-printed icon), then you can take that action as many times as the number of icons in that cluster. You must complete the first type of action completely before taking the second action. With these actions, you can:
• Use energy to connect your starting tower to other locations on the game board, scoring 1, 3 or 6 points depending on the length of the connection.
• Place witches next to your starting tower on the game board or move them across your energy network to other locations. As you do this, you gain points and possibly additional actions to use the same turn.
• Move your token around a pentagram to collect points and to acquire bonus hex tiles; you can use these tiles immediately for actions or place them in your cauldron to make future tile placement more valuable.
• Move the crystals in your cauldron, whether to make room for future tile placement or to gain bonus actions by ejecting the crystal completely.
• Advance on a magic wand to gain points and take additional actions, with the actions being doubled should you currently be the most advanced player on the wand.
• Claim scroll cards that boost future actions or earn you bonus points at game's end depending on how well you've completed the prophecy depicted.
After each player has completed eleven turns — which could equal 40-60 actions depending on how well you've used your cauldron — the game ends and players tally their points from prophecies and other collected scoring markers to see who has the highest score.
If you saw my earlier post, you might have noticed that I left off the start of the description that gives a thematic setting because in practice the thematic setting is pure window dressing. The game "world" is purely one of placing tiles on a personal game board so that you can then take actions on a larger shared board, with the images of witches, wands, pentagrams, and so forth being no more than decorative.
I'm fine with such absences, though, because Witchstone delivers what I am looking for in games: challenging choices that bring you into conflict with other players. The conflict, in this case, involves competition for energy paths, for bonus actions, for point tiles, for other bonus actions, for prophecy scrolls, and for still more bonus actions.
Witchstone feels very much like a Stefan Feld design, specifically 2020's Bonfire (which I covered in October 2020) because that game also has you placing tiles in a personal space — ideally generating multiple actions with each placement — so that you can then do stuff on a larger shared board and compete for tiles, cards, bonuses, and so on.
Given the publication dates of these titles, clearly Witchstone and Bonfire were designed independently, but the similarities are surprising. What differs about the games is that in Bonfire you collect target tiles and you must go through a lot of steps to score those tiles — assembling a path, opening gates, moving the guardians, and actually doing what's required on the targets — typically in a game-ending push of actions whereas in Witchstone you pick up points here, there, and everywhere, with the scrolls scoring automatically at the end of play and with the game being more about trying to multiply actions like rabbits in a magic act.
My games of Witchstone have been with three and four players, and as is often the case with such designs, players generally did far better in their second and third games compared to their first. You have a sense for how the cauldron tiles might better fit together to generate more actions and which actions you want to take before which other actions and whether an opponent can do the thing that you want to do before you can so that you can build a back-up plan. In the first game, you do stuff to see what happens; from the second game on, you do stuff because you know what will happen.
More thoughts on the game in this overview video:
Youtube Video Read more »
- Donate to India Covid Relief for a Chance to Win Gameson Twitch, and on Sunday, May 2, 2021, she's running a charity event to raise funds for COVID-19 relief for India. Here's a reposting of info from her initial posting on BGG:For the past month or so, my co-host, AnnaMaria [Jackson-Phelps], and I have been going through the BGG Top 100 and discussing them. It's been a lot of fun whilst often fostering serious discussions. This Sunday, we will also be raising money to benefit India's Covid situation. For those unaware, the situation in India is dire and there is a lack of oxygen and hospital beds.
The board game community has come together and I am excited to announce that over 50 companies have pledged a free board game or accessory. Any donation over $3 will be entered into the giveaway. Any donation over $25 will be entered into the big ticket item giveaways (ie. Tidal Blades Deluxe, Too Many Bones, etc). If you donate $35, AnnaMaria will send you an original watercolor piece of art, and those over 100$ have the option of appearing in a future stream with us to play a game. Please join us for a lively discussion and to help raise funds and awareness for this important cause
The stream will be on Sunday, May 2nd at 7pm ET, 4pm PT, and 11pm GMT. Join us here.
And here's a more detailed list of companies and individuals who have donated items for this event:
Read more »
- Interview: Richard Garfield, Designer of Magic: The Gathering and King of Tokyo
by Neil BunkerEditor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move in March 2021. —WEM
Richard Garfield, designer of Magic: The Gathering, King of Tokyo, KeyForge, and many more joins Neil Bunker of Diagonal Move to discuss his remarkable career in game design.
DM: Thank you for joining us today, Richard. What inspired you to become a games designer?
RG: I find games fascinating and full of possibilities — like an exciting and largely unexplored land. It helped me understand the world and other people in a way that nothing else did. When I first got into games, I was amazed how little there was known about them relative to, say, books or movies or music.
The key moment for me was learning Dungeons & Dragons. That game broke all the rules for game design that I knew and thrust both the game master and players into the role of game designer to some extent. I figured if something so incredible existed that I had never heard of before, surely games were filled with many treasures to be discovered or created.
DM: You are probably most well-known for Magic: The Gathering, which has been a phenomenal success. Can you tell us the story of how Magic came to be, and at what point did you realize just how popular Magic was?
RG: Magic came about because I couldn't find a publisher for RoboRally. When I showed it to Peter Adkison, the head of Wizards of the Coast, he said he would publish it but needed something cheaper and fast-playing first to get started.
Soon after that, I had one of my few "flashes of inspiration" moments — most of my design is slow, intuitive, and experimental. I realized not all players had to have the same deck. I was swept up in all the possibilities for game play that had — and wary of the many problems it posed. It is sobering to think back to that time and remember — that amid the excitement — I told Peter that it might not be possible to make such a game. After all, Scrabble where you choose your pool of letters or Poker where you choose your deck are not necessarily good games, let alone better games. They are likely at best interesting puzzles. It was a matter of several weeks before I had a prototype that looked like today's Magic; it was built upon the framework of one of my many designs that I had enjoyed playing with, but didn't think was finished yet.
Looking back, it is easy to see that for years I had been fascinated by games where many elements of the game allowed the player to "break the rules". This interest first got kindled with Cosmic Encounter — and the spirit carried through many of my designs and was fully a part of Magic. My ideal was a game that was simple, but endless complexity was introduced through different cards. Anyone who sees the early magic rules knows I fell short of the "simple" goal, though probably not as far as it looks. 99% of Magic could be learned easily — and players could learn that fast and play a long time based on it. The remaining 1% was a nasty mess though.
There was no particular point that I realized how popular Magic was. I was perpetually surprised during the first few years, and honestly its impact on game design still surprises me from time to time. I knew Magic was a special game — the playtesters' passion was a testament to that — but I also knew many of my favorite games were not "smash hits", so I didn't think that meant Magic was destined for big things.
DM: Magic was followed by other well-known card game systems: Netrunner and KeyForge to name just two. How did you approach those designs? Was there pressure to repackage Magic, or were you free to experiment and take the designs into new directions?
RG: Usually I have been free to experiment with my designs, and that is what really keeps me interested. My first and second post-Magic trading card games (TCGs) were Vampire: The Eternal Struggle and Netrunner. With those, I was trying to figure out what mechanics worked well in this new kind of game. I learned many things about TCG design back then; for example, prior to V:TES I used standards that I had developed in board and card games, so I thought nothing about having a trading card game that ran for two hours with four or five people. After V:TES, I realized that so much of a TCG's value is in replay, possibly with a new deck or different tweaks to the old deck, that making the game short enough to allow for replay was a really good thing. Fans of V:TES either liked it as a TCG despite its length, or often liked it as a boardgame experience more than a TCG experience.
With Netrunner, I tried a lot of new things and I ended up with a game that I was really pleased with — but also learned some hard lessons. While Netrunner was in some objective sense simpler than Magic, the fact that everyone by that time knew Magic meant it was in fact much more difficult to learn than a game that was more like Magic would have been. I realized then that novelty in design comes with a cost, and as a designer it was my responsibility to make sure that novelty carried with it a payoff that was worth it for the player. For this reason BattleTech — my third TCG — was intentionally designed to be close enough to Magic to allow players to learn it easily, while being different in enough ways to make it interesting to them.
Fast forward twenty years and we get to the design of KeyForge — which was a game concept I wanted to explore for a long time, but couldn't because printing technology wasn't up to the challenge (or at least it would have been prohibitively expensive). With KeyForge I was trying to get the variety and uniqueness back into the game form which is diminished, if not destroyed, by players playing constructed decks with access to all the cards they need. For years I have been dissatisfied with that point in trading card games where one finds themselves removing cards they like from their deck because they just don't pull their weight. My preference is to play decks that are not honed to a razor's edge, but to play decks with more variety. In the TCG culture this is simply playing bad decks — and a player who does so is viewed as casual at best, and probably a bad player. But these decks, they can be very challenging to play and there is a great deal of skill to playing them well. I don't want to play casually — I want to play seriously with interesting decks. That is what KeyForge is about.
DM: In addition to creating your own "worlds", you've also designed within existing IPs — Star Wars and BattleTech, for example. Can you describe how the design and publication process differs for these compared with your other games?
RG: Yes, I have done a number of licensed games, and the experience varies widely with how appropriate the license is for the game and how flexible the licensor is so that the best compromises between good play and best reflection of the world can be made. Working with a supportive licensor can be marvelous; it was that way with Star Wars, for example. Working with the other kind is soul killing.
I quite enjoy the exercise of figuring out the best way to frame a game within an existing world. There is a special pleasure to be found with a world elegantly reflected in an appropriate game. However, I will always lean toward making my own world since I know that I can do whatever I think is best for the game in that case.
DM: From a design point of view, how does iterating within a Living/Collectible System differ from designing expansions? Are there specific challenges that need to be overcome?
RG: Designing massively modular game expansions and expansions for a board game each carry their own challenges. In some ways, the massively modular games are easier to expand because that is what they are designed to do. Expanding a board game often involves challenges associated with adding complexity without a good enough value to the player, or the expansions undermine appeals the unexpanded game had. There are many times I have played board games and liked the base game — but then played expansions of it and for all the added variety the aggregate experience was worse, sometimes much worse.
A particular example from my own work is King of Tokyo. The success of the base game lead us to think about an expansion — but the challenge soon became clear. The easy expansion of "just adding cards" is not satisfying because cards are only a part of the game experience; some players play an entire game without getting any cards. Just adding cards impacts only some players, and the more cards added the less they each mean to the overall game.
So then let's explore another common request: monsters get unique powers. On the surface, this is an easy and obvious thing to add — but it turns out to be quite difficult to add without making the game worse. To see this you must understand that the basic game is a dice game with three principle strategies: attack, get VP, or get cards. A more casual player might pick a strategy and run with it, but a player who plays well will be adapting their decisions to the circumstances and the dice rolls they get. Being a dice game, either approach can win — but the "serious" player will win more often, a characteristic I really like in games.
Now if powers are added in a straightforward way and a monster gets, say, an advantage in attacking, suddenly the "pick a strategy and run with it" approach becomes stronger, and the player doesn't even have agency in that strategy since it is defined by their monster. The simple solution will be satisfying for a certain audience of very casual players, but many players will have the feeling that the expansion isn't as fun — even if they can't always put their finger on why.
Expanding a massively modular game is far easier in this regard – there are usually many different mechanics to explore, and even when there are limited mechanics, there are essentially infinite environments of mechanical combinations.
The challenges facing expansion of these games, however, in their own way can be quite difficult. As an example, let's talk about game balance. The stakes are generally much higher in balance, and the massively modular nature of the games usually make that balance much harder to gauge. To see why the stakes are higher, you have to understand the promise these games make to the player is endless variety and personal customization. A card that is too good must be in every player's deck, which makes both those promises less maintained. A card that is too bad shouldn't be in any player's deck, which does the opposite — which isn't quite as bad but still undermines the game's promise. Some degree of that is okay, but the more the expansion strays, the worse the overall experience becomes. And the more cards there are in the environment, the harder it is to manage that without making the game changes very conservative.
There are many reasons this is often not as big a problem in board games. Some of that is cultural; boardgame players typically have an easier time getting their group to not play an expansion they don't like — or even just play part of the expansion, or they modify it to their taste. The massively modular games tend to have massively modular playgroups — which makes that much more difficult.
Another reason is that often the imbalance in a game impacts all players equally, so going back to King of Tokyo, a card can absolutely be too powerful, but the system is much more forgiving since all players have access to it. A card that costs 0 and makes you win the game would ruin the play experience since the players' strategy would almost certainly be simply to collect energy and use it to sweep the board until they draw the game-winning card. However, a card that costs, say, 5 and was twice as good as another card of that cost? It would make collecting energy more appealing certainly, but is unlikely to break the game in the same way. That is a really large range of "error" one can get away with, especially if as a designer you aim for about 25% difference in power being acceptable rather than 100%. But in a game where players choose their own cards? This would be a "must have" card and make the play experience noticeably worse since every player would feel they have to have it.
DM: You have also designed some hugely popular board games. Most well known is probably King of Tokyo. Can you tell us the story behind this game, and why you think it has been an enduring success?
RG: King of Tokyo came out of a thought exercise around Yahtzee. A friend of mine was doing some serious analysis of Yahtzee at the time, so I was reflecting on how strong a design it was in that fashion that I really like: excellent play gives you better chances, but casual play can win. I wondered that if I were to try to design a game with the same principles, but interactive: what might it look like?
Interactivity in games can be tricky; done carelessly, it can involve a lot of "take that" political decisions which I am not fond of. I don't mind directly affecting another player, but I don't want to be in the position of choosing which player to affect, at least not often. The usual way to solve this issue is to make the interaction indirect, which, of course, can make an excellent game — but often one that feels "passive aggressive" rather than directly interactive.
My solution here was to make a "king of the hill" structure to the game. Being on the hill was rewarded, but carried with it risk in that you were the target. This made players in some sense in control of how much damage they were subject to and had a feeling of "low politics, direct interaction" that I often like in games.
Later came the flavor of "the hill" being Tokyo and monsters. I often design my mechanics first with some fairly generic theme, then completely redesign once I settle on what the theme should be. Once the theme has been picked, if you fail this redesign, it will feel much less integrated into the game play. For the record, I do design in the other way as well — where I have the theme first and build a game to that theme.
My own guess as to the enduring popularity of the game is a combination of the direct, yet low politics interaction — which is really pretty rare in games — and the cartoony and playful theme which IELLO managed to create around the concept.
DM: Staying with your board game designs: King of Tokyo sees players fight giant monsters, in RoboRally they control robots while Bunny Kingdom is an area control game about rabbits. These are thematically and mechanically quite different games. What do you feel is the thread that connects them?
RG: Mechanically I am driven to explore different areas of design, so I am likely to move to something new once I have gotten what I want out of a particular space. Sometimes it doesn't appear that way; in particular I had a number of drafting games (Treasure Hunter, Carnival of Monsters) come out shortly after Bunny Kingdom, so it may have looked like that was "my thing" — but actually they were all part of the same exploration at about the same time, and they were made in part because I was having a lot of difficulty getting a publisher to see them as interesting game space. Before 7 Wonders came out, they weren't really enthusiastic about it, and after 7 Wonders there was quite a stretch of time where they seemed to think there was no point in doing another because of 7 Wonders. Then there was a shift, and suddenly it was a class of game that could stand on its own.
A mild thread of mechanical connection, which is really more of a design style, is that all of these games can be played casually with a chance of winning or with great thought for increased chance. I tend to prefer games the casual and serious player can play together.
Thematically there is a strong connection between these games and most of my games which aren't made for existing properties: a sense of humor and playfulness. I like that more than "dark serious" game flavors because I think serious players can get past it if the game mechanics are worth it and the players are more playful with it when learning the game — which allows them to take the swings in the game a little less seriously when learning it. There is kind of a toxic "rush to judgement" with some players these days, and I believe this helps mitigate that just a bit — and if they stick with the games a bit longer because they don't take them seriously, they might actually get good enough to see how to play well and have fun with the mechanics.
DM: How has the huge success that you've enjoyed changed your approach to game design during the course of your career?
RG: I would guess that it is mostly the amount of time I can spend designing, playing, and studying games. The nature of my interest hasn't changed; I don't design more or less publishable games these days except insofar as my practice has probably made me better. Most of my designs are just for my own interest and that of my friends, and that has always been the case. Sometimes that leads to something I think other people will like — and then I look for a publisher. I have been in the fortunate position of never having to design to make ends meet, which might have lead me to working on games that didn't interest me or that I thought wasn't servicing the players enough to warrant.
Certainly, looking for a publisher is much easier than it was before Magic, and I do take pleasure in the fact that if I have a game that I think players will like, I can get a publisher to look at it and consider it seriously. That doesn't always lead to a product — or sometimes it takes a long time as it did with my series of drafting games — but that process of presentation and consideration always leads to improvement in the design, or at least the presentation.
DM: Is there a game you would like to revisit and do differently if given the chance and why?
RG: Hah. Every game I have made I want to redesign at least in minor ways. I am known to be reluctant to play any game of my own design once it is published — and I think the reason is that I get frustrated when I can't fix something.
For a major case of that perhaps I would go to SpyNet — which weirdly I would actually change very little about except for the messaging. I am disappointed that it barely got noticed after publication, yet find it one of my favorite two-player games. I think the decision to promote it primarily as a team game made people not give the two-player game a fair shake. Also, I think the special cards in the game gave a sense of "wackiness" to the play and players didn't take it seriously because of that — despite the fact that once you know what is in the game, there is a lot of interesting play dealing with that. I had some luck with friends incorporating a small card reference, I believe because it showed the players that they were supposed to anticipate the possibilities rather than just be surprised by them — which, of course, is common in first plays of any game.
DM: Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell us about?
RG: Roguebook is a digital game I worked on with the folk who made Faeria. It is a deck-builder in the same family as Slay the Spire. One of the key things we aimed to do was make constructing a big deck — a "tower deck" as we call them — a viable strategy. Most deck-building games are as much, or more, about removing cards than adding them. This is an interesting and skill-testing characteristic, but it is not logically required of the genre for an interesting game.
Personally, I like adding cards more than subtracting them, and I am particularly pained by removing cards that are fun to play but aren't quite worth playing with. The resulting decks are more challenging to play because the decks are less reliable and generally more flexible. One way we went about this was by adding a bonus that is unlocked for getting your deck to particular levels, so adding cards gives a bunch of cool powers to your deck over time. Of course, you can still play a lean mean deck if that is what you want.
Half Truth is a trivia game that I made with Ken Jennings, and I am really pleased with how it turned out. My inspiration was Ken's book Braniac, and I resolved after reading it to try to make a trivia game that could be played by a broad audience that wouldn't feel like the trivia nerds would always win. When I first shared the design with Ken, in fact, he played two games and lost the second one. (Not to me — I wrote the questions!)
The way it works is each question is multiple choice, and half the answers are correct. All players secretly make 1, 2, or 3 guesses. If a player misses any guesses, then they don't profit from the question at all. The players get only a small advantage for getting the second and third answer. Each question is a little minefield, and you can definitely get by with always just trying to get one answer correct. A lot of the fun comes from the really random and silly questions that are sprinkled throughout. One of my favorites was written by Koni, my wife:Is a poisonous mushroom:
• Fool’s Webcap
• Blinding Angel
• Destroying Angel
• Deathspore Thallid
• Deadly Galerina
• Night’s Whisper
Here I guessed Destroying Angel with some confidence, but I wasn't sure about the others. When the answers were revealed, it turned out all the bad answers were Magic cards! I saw the Thallid but missed the other two — but this opens up a really interesting characteristic of the game: You can have questions that you have no idea about but can still get a good guess in — occasionally even getting all three — if you can recognize the fakes.
DM: Finally, do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
RG: Play lots of games, even games you don't care for. Learn what players like about them. Getting those qualities into other games where possible, ones you do like, will make your games better. Also, you will get more pleasure from games in general. Often a game I didn't like, once I really took the time to understand it, I not only understood the appeal but I acquired the taste.
Get a playtest network that has both casual and serious players. Listen to both. One common development standard that I regard as a mistake is just listening to the best players and looking to them for data. This is natural as a single group plays the game through many iterations over months or years. The problem is that game balance that is ideal for beginners and casual players is not the same as that for experts. One that seriously considers the former will often be much more exciting the first few times it is played and that is critical these days since there are so many other games to play. Development that relies too much on the latter can look very same-ish to the beginner — as if it doesn't really matter which strategy is chosen and the expert will always win by their 2% advantage.
If you use Kickstarter or some other method of self-publishing, get some playtesters outside your bubble, playtesters in particular that you don't teach the game to. One very important thing a publisher provides is an experienced sanity check on the game play and rules. I have many games that profited from their insight that I would have published on my own without hesitation. Sometimes that insight leads to improvement in mechanics; at other times it leads to improvement in the way the game is presented — both are important. Read more »
- Survive Stationfall, Fight the Machines, and Escape the Black Death
I've been eyeballing Jeff Gum's The Menace Among Us from Smirk & Dagger Games on my shelf the past year, eager to play it again after playing a fun and memorable eight-player game at the BGG team retreat in January 2020. It was my first time playing the game, and I was impressed that it gave me Battlestar Galactica feels yet played in an hour, so I've been eager to play it with my gaming group ever since. I bought a copy for myself which has been collecting dust as Among Us has been the only social deduction game I've played in the past year; that game is fun, but it's just not the same as being in the room not trusting your friends in person.
Here are some upcoming releases in a similar vein that feature deduction or hidden roles and sound like they'll be fun to play with bigger groups when it's safe to do so:
• Stationfall is a sci-fi, deduction game with hidden roles from designer Matt Eklund, with publisher Ion Game Design crowdfunding (KS link) the game for an anticipated delivery in December 2021. Stationfall includes 27 characters with unique abilities and plays with 1-9 players in 90-120 minutes.
As a fan of Eklund's Pax Transhumanity — the intriguing, futuristic 2019 addition to the Pax series — I am very curious to see what he's cooked up now. When I saw the box cover image for Stationfall and read the description below from the publisher, my curiosity spiked:What is Stationfall? Well, imagine a dozen or so random humans, robots, and none-of-the-aboves — each with their own abilities, goals, and secret relationships — have been turned loose on a space station that is going to be incinerated in approximately 15 minutes. You are one of these weirdos, and you have collaborators on hand ready to assist you in achieving your goals. There's also definitely probably some sort of alien presence or murderous monster locked up on board, maybe.
Stationfall is unbalanced, inasmuch as certain characters have overlapping goals with others, not to mention overlapping conspirators. Opposing identities are unknown at the start of the game. Their actions may be unpredictable, violent, or disrupt your plans. Or most likely all of the above.
Due to the actions of your opponents, seemingly simple victory conditions may be achievable only through complex means. Stationfall is a box full of creative solutions, but that box is going to morph, twist, and grow teeth over the course of play. Your best turns will exploit the unique tactical freedom of being a secret conspiracy, as well as deductions about your opponents' identities and motives. Stationfall is messy, intricate, and full of dangerous variables. Welcome to the Station.
Quest is a social deduction game from Don Eskridge (designer of Avalon and The Resistance) and Indie Boards & Cards that's coming to retail in 2021 after delivery of the Quest: Avalon Big Box Edition to Kickstarter backers.
Here's what you can expect from Quest, which boasts playing well with as few as four players:In Quest, a new game in the Avalon universe for 4-10 players, all will show their true colors as Good and Evil struggle for the future of civilization. Hidden amongst King Arthur's loyal servants are Mordred's unscrupulous minions. These forces of Evil are few in number, but if they go unknown, they can sabotage Arthur's great quests.
Players are secretly dealt roles that determine whether their allegiance is to Good or to Evil. Then, players debate, reason, and lie as they decide who to send on Quests — knowing that if just one minion of Mordred joins, the Quest could fail. Quest includes 25 different characters and many different ways to play the base game.
Human Punishment: The Beginning is a new standalone game in the Human Punishment universe from designer Stefan Godot and Godot Games that was successfully funded on Kickstarter (KS link) in January 2021, but will be opening up for late backers.
Playing in 120-180 minutes, Human Punishment: The Beginning is a prequel to Human Punishment: Social Deduction 2.0 in which 3-6 players fight the Machine Revolution in a dystopian cyberpunk city:Human Punishment: The Beginning is a semi-cooperative, social deduction, and pick-up and deliver hybrid. In the game, 3-6 players try to avoid the secret Machine revolution, but Machine spies are everywhere and they try to corrupt the Human players. There are also Outlaws, Fallen, and Legion just as in Human Punishment, and every faction works for their own goals.
This game features a new mechanism called CWS (Connecting World System) that gives you the option to combine Human Punishment: The Beginning with Human Punishment: Social Deduction 2.0 to experience an epic theme night with YOUR OWN outcome!
Fight Machines, build Apex, avoid Deus X Machina and don't become corrupted by the Machines. Rewrite the history of Humanity!
Bristol 1350 is the latest addition to Travis Hancock's Dark Cities series from his publishing company Facade Games.
Bristol 1350 plays with 1-9 players in 20-40 minutes and sounds like it'll lend itself to some very interesting gameplay based on the description below. Plus, as an added bonus, you can sneak it onto your bookshelf when your game shelf is already packed, and no one will notice you bought another game...Read more »The dreaded Black Death has descended upon the town of Bristol. You are racing down the streets in one of the three available apple carts, desperate to escape into the safety of the countryside. If your cart is the first to leave the town and it is full of only healthy villagers when you leave, you and your fellow cart-mates successfully escape and win the game!
However, some villagers on your cart may already have the plague! They are hiding their early symptoms from you so that they can enjoy their last few days in peace. If you leave town with a plagued villager on your cart, you will catch the plague. You must do whatever is necessary to make sure that doesn't happen!
On the surface Bristol 1350 is part co-operative teamwork, part racing strategy, and part social deduction. In reality, it's a selfish scramble to get yourself out of town as quickly as possible without the plague, by any means necessary.
The game comes in a magnetic book box and includes a rubber playmat, 9 wood pawns, 3 miniature carts, 6 rat/apple dice, a linen bag, and 64 cards. The deluxe version adds 6 coins, 6 cards, and 3 metal carts. This standalone game is Volume 4 in the "Dark Cities Series" by Facade Games following Salem 1692, Tortuga 1667, and Deadwood 1876.
- Five from Flatout Games: TEN, Dollars to Donuts, Abstract Academy, Cascadia, and VerdantFlatout Games — the game design collective comprised of Molly Johnson, Robert Melvin, Shawn Stankewich — has a new title coming in 2021 with publisher AEG, which has worked with Flatout previously for the card games Point Salad in 2019 and Truffle Shuffle in 2020.
This new title — TEN — is for 1-5 players, is due out in Q3 2021, and currently features this minimalist description:TEN is an exciting push-your-luck and auction game for the whole family! Players draw cards one-at-a-time, trying to add as many as they can without exceeding a total value of TEN, or they bust!
Players may push their luck to draw more cards and use currency to buy additional cards in their attempt to build the longest number sequence in each color. When valuable wildcards emerge from the deck, players compete in auctions to obtain them in order to fill gaps in their sequences.
Dollars to Donuts was funded on Kickstarter in August 2020 and is due out Q3 2021, and you have to live up to the title of this 1-4 player game because in the end dollars mean nothing and donuts are everything:Donuts must be made whole! That's the spirit driving your actions in Dollars to Donuts, mostly because the customers in your donut shop will not want to purchase half-donuts that will undoubtedly be stale on their open ends.
To set up the game, place four 1x1 starting tiles on the 6x6 game board that represents your donut shop and take five "dollar" tiles from the bag; on their back side, dollar tiles have either a half donut (plain, chocolate, sprinkle) or a set of donut holes (again in the three flavors). The starting tiles depict half donuts in these three flavors
On a turn, you can purchase a 1x4 donut tile that depicts half donuts along its edges from the six available tiles for a cost of $0-5. You then add this tile to your shop — with some of the tile hanging off the edge of the board if you wish — ideally lining up the half donuts on that tile with those already on your board. If you make a matching donut, i.e., putting two sprinkle halves together, then you take a sprinkle scoring token; if you make a non-matching donut, i.e. a plain half combined with a chocolate half, then you draw a dollar tile from the supply bag. Note, however, that jelly donuts give no dollar tile if paired with a non-jelly donut because who in the world would reward something like that?
To end your turn, you can place a dollar tile on your shop board to complete a donut (and score) or fill a space with donut holes (which might also score). Additionally, you can serve a customer in line by offering them scoring tokens that match their desired donuts, which will earn you more points than the tokens on their own.
When one player has filled every space in their shop or the donut tiles run out, the game ends, with you scoring for satisfied customers, neighborhoods served, donuts still on hand, and donut hole pairs in the shop, while losing points for empty spaces in your shop. The player with the highest score clearly has the most popular shop in town!
Abstract Academy, a game for two or four aspiring art students who must share a canvas for their creations:Abstract Academy is played over three rounds, with the players completing a new canvas each round.
At the start of the game, you lay out 2-3 scoring cards for each round, so you all know what you're trying to achieve to score. Additionally, at the start of each round, each player receives an inspiration card that shows a pattern they're trying to create on the canvas.
In the two-player game, players take turns playing canvas cards into a shared 4x4 play area, and in the four-player game, they play in a shared 5x5 area. Canvas cards are divided into quadrants, and each quadrant is colored yellow, red, or blue. The canvas grows organically as you all play cards, and the edges aren't fixed until you have four (or five) cards in a row or column. The edge of the canvas closest to you is your home row, and once the canvas is locked in size, no one else can play in your home row (unless all other spaces are filled).
Once the canvas is filled, the two rows closest to you form your scoring zone. If the color patterns in your zone complete a scoring card better than the patterns in anyone else's zone, then you claim the scoring card. Additionally, if you've created the right pattern in your scoring zone, you can score your inspiration card. Whoever has the most points after three rounds is the star pupil of Abstract Academy and wins!
• Aside from designing and developing games, the Flatout team also publishes them, with Randy Flynn's Cascadia having been funded on Kickstarter in Q4 2020 with delivery expected in Q3 2021. Here's an overview of how the game works:Cascadia is a puzzly tile-laying and token-drafting game featuring the habitats and wildlife of the Pacific Northwest.
In the game, you take turns building out your own terrain area and populating it with wildlife. You start with three hexagonal habitat tiles (with five types of habitat in the game), and on a turn you choose a new habitat tile that's paired with a wildlife token, then place that tile next to your other ones and place the wildlife token on an appropriate habitat. (Each tile depicts 1-3 types of wildlife from the five types in the game, and you can place at most one tile on a habitat.) Four tiles are on display, with each tile being paired at random with a wildlife token, so you must make the best of what's available — unless you have a nature token to spend so that you can pick your choice of each item.
Ideally you can place habitat tiles to create matching terrain that reduces fragmentation and creates wildlife corridors, mostly because you score for the largest area of each type of habitat at game's end, with a bonus if your group is larger than each other player's. At the same time, you want to place wildlife tokens so that you can maximize the number of points scored by them, with the wildlife goals being determined at random by one of the three scoring cards for each type of wildlife. Maybe hawks want to be separate from other hawks, while foxes want lots of different animals surrounding them and bears want to be in pairs. Can you make it happen?
• Finally, we come to Verdant, a design by Johnson, Melvin, and Stankewich along with Aaron Mesburne and Kevin Russ that Flatout Games will Kickstart in 2021 ahead of a planned release in 2022. For now, we have only a general description of the game, which seems to fit in the same category of games as Dollars to Donuts, Cascadia, and Flatout's 2020 runaway hit game, Calico:Read more »Verdant is a puzzly spatial card game for 1 to 4 players. You take on the role of a houseplant enthusiast trying to create the coziest interior space by collecting and arranging houseplants and other objects within your home. You must position your plants so that they are provided the most suitable light conditions and take care of them to create the most verdant collection.
Each turn, you select an adjacent pair of a card and token, then use those items to build an ever-expanding tableau of cards that represents your home. You need to keep various objectives in mind as you attempt to increase plant verdancy by making spatial matches and using item tokens to take various nurture actions. You can also build your "green thumb" skills, which allows you to take additional actions to care for your plants and create the coziest space!
- Quacks Is Backs, Dream Machines Need Repairs, and Dragons Come to Catan...AgainWolfgang Warsch's The Quacks of Quedlinburg will return to print in North America from publisher CMYK, which has picked up the license previously held by North Star Games.
Asked how CMYK acquired the game's license, co-owner Alex Hague told me, "I'd say we got the license because: 1. We have a close working relationship with Wolfgang as co-designers and developers on Wavelength, The Fuzzies, and some upcoming projects — and he wanted to be more hands-on in the manufacturing and publishing side of his games. And 2. [originating publisher] Schmidt Spiele publishes Wavelength and The Fuzzies in the German language markets, and we've had a great experience working with them on those. So between those two things, it was a really good fit!"
At the same time, the game's first expansion — The Herb Witches — will be joined on the North American market by the game's second expansion: The Alchemists, which to date has been released only by Schmidt Spiele.
CMYK also plans to bring Warsch's The Taverns of Tiefenthal back to the North American market, although a release date has not yet been announced for that title.
• In 2009, Catan GmbH released Die Siedler von Catan: Schätze, Drachen & Entdecker, a set of six scenarios for use with Klaus Teuber's Catan and the Seafarers and Cities & Knights expansions.
This set was released in other languages, such as Dutch, Polish, and Chinese, in 2017 to coincide with a new German release from KOSMOS, but the English-language edition has taken a few more years to bring to market, with Catan Studio planning to release Catan: Treasures, Dragons & Adventurers in July 2021.
Bombyx will release Nicodemus, a two-player game from designers Bruno Cathala and Florian Sirieix set in the world of their 2018 release Imaginarium. Artist Felideus Bubastis will provide entrancingly imaginative character illustrations for this game, as he has for the earlier Imaginarium releases.
Here's an overview of the game:Read more »Nicodemus Gideon is retiring! To take his place, two assistants of the Dream Factory — that is, you and one other — will face off in a duel in which you repair machines and complete projects as quickly as possible in order to score 20 or more points first.
In Nicodemus , you can return to the universe of Imaginarium in a game in which the two players must block one another repeatedly, with advantages swinging one way, then the other, with the slightest mistake possibly being fatal to your chances.
On a turn, you have a choice of two actions:
—Play a machine card from your hand to the Bric-a-brac to earn charcoalium, produce a resource, or apply the effect of the machine.
—Repair a machine from the Bric-a-brac to score points and place this machine in your workshop.
Each resource indicated in the production zone of machines in your workshop reduces the number of resources needed to repair subsequent machines. Additionally, repairing a machine can help you complete specific projects and win points.
- ● Swords against DemonsPublisher: Tibbius
Swords against Demons. You can be a Cleric, a Fighter, a Scoundrel, a Wizard, a Reaver, or even an Artisan. Take on the evils of your world, and triumph!
... this should be fine for running B or X series modules ...
Graham from Discord
Four pages of rules! Four pages of adventure! A character sheet! Pretty front and back covers (totally stolen from old book illustrations).
If you're at all familiar with Fighting Fantasy, or B/X D&D, this may have a similar flavor without the many many rolls of d20 or the baked in racism. It's all two six-sided dice (well, sometimes three), straight up.Price: $3.00 Read more »
- ● Szlamy&Szkielety - Post MortemPublisher: Skavenloft
Narrator: Ok, niech będzie. Wasze postacie nie zginęły, tylko wyjechały na piękną farmę daleko stąd. Są tam bardzo szczęśliwe, więc nie będziemy im przeszkadzać i stworzymy nowe postacie...
Gracze: Organizujemy ucieczkę z farmy!
Post Mortem to krótka przygoda w świecie Szlamów&Szkieletów, świetnie nadająca się do rozegrania, kiedy cała drużyna zginie. Bez przygotowania, bez tworzenia nowych postaci, bez narzekania, że zabawa się skończyła. Uciekasz z nami, czy zostajesz na farmie? Przygoda wzywa!Price: $0.00 Read more »
- ● SanguinairesPublisher: OSR
Cet endroit est très différent du monde que nous connaissons. Vampires, loups-garous, spectres et démons sont tous réels. C’est un monde sombre, tordu, brutal et gothique. Complots et secrets sont omniprésents. Les véritables puissances prospèrent dans l’ombre. Survivre est un art et n’est pas du tout garanti, même pour les vampires...
- Incarnez un vampire appartenant à l'une des 12 lignées différentes, dont les Assassins, les Grotesques, les Fous, les Sauvages, etc.
- Chaque lignée possède des caractéristiques uniques et a accès à des dons puissants, alimentés par le sang.
- Un petit générateur d'aventures pour stimuler votre imagination et une fiche de personnage sont inclus pour que vous puissiez commencer à jouer en quelques minutes !
- ● The Magus Hack: The Sorcerers CompanionPublisher: Fen Orc
The power is yours now.
But there's always more power out there ....
Will the Magic master you - or will you master the Magic?
This is the first expansion for The Magus Hack, a new take on the '90s games that let you roleplay the wizard in a modern setting! In The Sorcerers Companion you will find:
- Errata bringing the first version of The Magus Hack up to date
- Scores of new Virtues to customise your Magus
- Nine Archetypal paths to inspire you
- Analyses of how to perform dozens of magical effects using The Magus Hack's rules
- A Simplified Magic System for more story-driven games
- Rules for Personal Dimensions, Familiars, Daemons, Dragons and Wizard Sport
- A Story Generator system and a half dozen scenario seeds derived from it
- ● KriegsmesserPublisher: Gregor Vuga
Kriegsmesser is a tabletop RPG zine that was created for #zinequest 2021. It was inspired by history (cca. 1453-1630) and roleplaying games named after medieval weapons.
It's focus are 36 backgrounds compatible with Troika by Melsonian Arts Council, but it comes with a set of custom rules and can be played standalone.
Also includes some essays, GM tools, random tables, rules for horrible injuries, recommended media and a bunch of historical woodcut art.
What is it not?
- It's not a historical game as such, it's fairly anachronistic and sparse on detail.
- It is not high fantasy with evil gods and orcs and wizards and pirate elves on lizard mounts.
- ● Age of Night [BUNDLE]Publisher: Skirmisher Publishing
This special 50% off bundle contains three graphic novels by fantasy artist Amanda Kahl, Age of Night Volume 1: Business Between Brigands, Age of Night Volume 2: Love & Loyalty, and Age of Night Volume 3: Conspiracies & Cutthroats! It is ideal for anyone who does not yet have any of these books or for those who already have some of them and for whom the others will be available for half off.
Search for freedom. Find your place.
Age of Night (Volume 1: Business Between Brigands)
Regular price: 0
Bundle price: 0
Join Drake, runaway avatar of the God of Night, Rhonwen, a naïve mage of the White Order, Thelonius, a spy and assassin hiding from the Shadow Houses, and Kamaria, a thief with ties to no one but her companions, as they embark on their journey! In their quest to free Drake from his bonds to the Covenant of Mandra they will journey across the Republic of Amathea and face many challenges and enemies along the way. Search for freedom. Find your place. This edition of the graphic novel includes a bonus short story and appendices of sketches and work process, some theological notes on the goddess Mandra, and a character profile of Drake. ... Age of Night (Volume 2: Love & Loyalty)
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Naïve mage Rhonwen, spy and assassin Thelonius, and thief Kamaria are well into their quest to restore Drake, runaway avatar of the God of Night trapped in the form of a cat, to his human body. They now realize, however, that they have taken on more than they bargained for and that their adventure will lead them to every corner of the Republic of Amathea and beyond. New challenges and foes will lurk along the companions’ path and test their dedication, even as a greater enemy gathers power in the darkness ... Search for freedom. Find your place. Age of Night Volume 2: Love & Loyalty picks up where Age of Night Volume 1: Business Between Brigands leaves off. This edition of the graphic novel includes a section of sketches and work process, a bonus short story, th... Age of Night (Volume 3: Conspiracies & Cutthroats)
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In this third volume of the graphic novel by fantasy artist Amanda Kahl, mage Rhonwen, assassin Thelonius, and thief Kamaria continue on their journey with Drake, runaway avatar of the God of Night trapped in the form of a cat, and their quest to restore him to his human body. Join them as they travel to mysterious new territory and delve into nearly-forgotten legends. Their enemies remain close on their heels, however, and when the combined powers of the Shadow Houses and the Covenant of Mandra catch up with them the party is ripped apart. Now, each of the companions must face their fates alone and do whatever they must to survive. Search for freedom. Find your place. Age of Night Volume 3: Conspiracies & Cutthroats follows on the story that began in Age of Night Volu...
Price: $29.97 Read more »
Total value: 0 Special bundle price: 0 Savings of: 0 (50%)
- ● Gaia Awakening: Maligned EssencePublisher: Frontier Gaming
Gaia Awakening: Maligned Essence is a Solo Story Adventure. The premise for the story, along with the endgame of the antagonists, are included along with a brief description of the setting and circumstances. The descriptions are provided for the purpose of immersion only.
The return of Magic to Gaia has attracted the attention of many other life forms. When visitors leave behind a relic which contains their essence, an old tale is resurrected of those who drink blood, avoid sunlight and appear to be immortal. Vampires are no longer folklore, and Gaia may not be ready.
The Story is your own to tell, and your Character is yours to play.
There have always been stories of those who feed on the lifeforce of others in order to preserve their own existence. A potent metaphor for those who do nothing but take, the mythology of Vampirism has been twisted over millennia in order to provide a narrative lesson in morality. Far easier to dismiss the evolution of a hybrid human predator as folk legend, an unsolicited lesson for the collective consciousness of the general population.
The first Magic-User in the Gaian Consortiu to discover that her Abilities stretched beyond the current understanding of Vampires was Nathalie Truman. She had never shown a particular propensity for any Aspect, and was by all accounts an average Practitioner. Though Nathalie was valued by her community she grew tired of a life of mediocrity. On the night before her twenty-second birthday Nathalie saw a bright light in the sky which seemed to call to her. She crept out of her family’s estate and into the woods, feeling sonic waves of increasing magnitude pulling her towards a clearing. When she arrived she found a glowing orb, frozen solid and embedded in the ground. As she rubbed the orb she felt the ice begin to melt, and as she inhaled the cool night air she felt an essence rise from the orb and into her lungs. Her body became vitalised in a way that she had never experienced before. She smiled to herself as she knew intuitively that this energy was connecting to her Magic, and was bursting to manifest. Whatever was happening to her, she knew her life would never be the same again.Price: $1.99 Read more »
- ● 100 Items in a Wild West Desperado's PocketPublisher: D10 Dimensions
Desperadoes are bold and violent criminals who were outlaws on the Western frontier of the 19th Century. They could be found holding up stagecoaches, robbing banks, overwhelming local law enforcement in a small town, or just performing simple banditry on the vast trails that cross the continent. And while they might be charming, clever and even handsome, they are often desperate as the forces they have set in motion close in on them.
This list is intended for any Wild West setting (like Tall Tales, Deadlands, Boot Hill, etc.) where the vehicle of choice is the horse, the Colt revolver is King, and there is far more land than there are people. This list can be used with a cooling corpse, an arrested boy who thinks he’s a man, or when a pick pocket decides to test their luck. This roleplaying tool gives you dozens of different ways to add a new dimension to your next outlaw.
This Roll Percentile list has one hundred possible results in this format:
Roll result.: A brief description of the object(s) that can found in pockets of this wild west warrior.
Example 101 : Snake Oil - Dr. Bonker’s Celebrated Egyptian Oil (currently this bottle is half empty)Price: $0.99 Read more »
- ● Image Portfolio Platinum Edition 71: Storn CookPublisher: LPJ Design
Image Portfolio Platinum Edition is the premier line of online PDF art resource that gaming companies can use. All the art pieces in this art resource can be used in any of their upcoming RPG ideas or projects. When a person acquires Image Portfolio, any of the art in the PDF can be used in any of their own products as if they owned them. This is due to the limited licensing agreement of Image Portfolio. This specific Image Portfolio contains 7 full-color images of fantasy, sci-fi, modern and superhero images.Price: $9.99 Read more »
- One Impossible Problem at a Time
A few months back, during a short Star Wars campaign, my character made the brilliant decision to put on an enviro suit, go outside the space station built inside an asteroid, and try to sneak up on an Imperial troop ship blocking our landing bay.
One of my friends looked at me with a raised eyebrow, “Okay, let’s say you actually get onto the ship. What are you going to do once you’re on a troop ship that’s full of elite Stormtroopers?”
“One impossible problem at a time!”
Too often, we hear stories about players getting caught up in analysis paralysis as they try to account for every possible contingency before they act, and as a result the action of the game stalls to an interminable level. As if any plan actually survives first contact with the action or the enemy. I’m here to say that sometimes it is more fun to just dive in headfirst and see where the action takes you.
Now, most of us GMs have been at a table where we’ve had a player declare their action and the rest of the table groans and we go, “What?” There’s a reason many GMs swear by the adage that if you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes. But there is a big difference between being what my college group used to call ‘chaotic stupid’ and taking an impulsive action. The type of players who earn the ire of their fellow gamers and the GMs are often immature, inexperienced, used to a different play style, or are just being deliberate trolls. That’s not always the same thing as a player getting an understanding of the situation and having their character take an impulsive action.Think about it from the perspective of your character having a split second to make a decision on the problem in front of them and go for it.Around the time my Star Wars game happened, another gaming friend shared a story of how his character watched the villain throw a child off a boat into shark-infested waters. My friend described how his character immediately dove overboard and yeeted the child to safety. This, in my opinion, is the epitome of one impossible problem at a time. Sure, my friend now had to deal with the fact that his character was in shark-infested waters, but that didn’t matter. He did the heroic thing and saved a child. Figuring out what to do about the sharks was the next problem.
So, let’s take this from the perspective of both players and GMs.
Some advice for players:
- Play to the action and the excitement. Most of the games we play are meant to be action and adventure games, so don’t get too caught up in trying to cover every potential outcome. Think about it from the perspective of your character having a split second to make a decision on the problem in front of them and go for it.
- That said, be mindful of the mood of the table. If your action is going to screw over any other characters, consider carefully before diving into those shark-infested waters. This isn’t to say don’t do the impulsive thing, just be aware of how it’s going to affect the rest of the table. Roleplaying games are a cooperative endeavor and if your choices are ruining the fun for other people at the table, you might want to reconsider.
- Speaking of other players, always try to pull them in on your harebrained schemes. Diving headfirst into the unknown with a heroic action is always more fun when you’ve got someone by your side, on board for the next impossible problem. This helps share the action with the rest of the table and can even help a more passive player experience a bit of impulsive fun.
Some advice for GMs:
- If you punish every impulsive action, you’re training your players to be passive and do nothing unless they’re absolutely certain no harm will come to their characters.If you punish every impulsive action, you’re training your players to be passive and do nothing unless they’re absolutely certain no harm will come to their characters. That sounds like a boring game to me and one I would hate running. Heck, I’ve been encouraging my players to be bolder and more proactive. Let your players surprise you and occasionally reward them when they do something bold and unexpected.
- Before immediately shooting down an impulsive idea, try to consider how to make it work. If you want your games to be exciting, you need to reward the players that help bring action to the table. Sure, sometimes what they propose will seem ludicrous to you, but consider the competency of the character and if their idea has any chance of working. Feel free to keep things challenging, but your games will be more fun if your players feel empowered to try bolder actions.
- If you do have one of those players whose impulsiveness seems like it’s coming from a place of inexperience or immaturity, try to take the time to guide them to something a little more productive. You can put boundaries on your game and keep the players all on the same page for the game. If someone is being a troll with their actions and deliberately trying to mess with things, put a stop to it. If you have to, call a break and have a conversation with that player. This isn’t fun, but when one player is not playing the same game everyone else is, it ruins the fun for almost everyone else at the table.
Much of this is a dance of finding the right balance between the players and the GM. We all want our games to be exciting and unexpected, so players need to trust that their GM is going to allow room for the players to do the impulsive thing, while the GM needs to trust that the players aren’t trying to wreck the game. If you can find that balance, I guarantee you that facing one impossible problem at a time is the way to go.Read more »
- Five changes you should make to your D&D 5e magic system right now
I’ve been running a lot more D&D 5e recently, and there are always a few pieces of the Vancian style magic sub-system that rankle me. Overall it’s great, simple enough, and conforms to the tropes of D&D. Mages can cast fireball and prestidigitation, some of the cheesiness of “Shut down the situation” type spells is mitigated or gone, and the simple “grants advantage when situation matches X, Y, and Z” is a phenomenal easy bump system that prevents the +42 to skill check of Pathfinder 1e and D&D 3.5. All that being said, there are some places where the limitations in 5e’s magic system are just… dumb. A lot of it is carried through from other editions and fits tropes that work in some arenas, but not others. So, without anymore caterwauling about 5e’s magic system, here are the five changes you should make to your D&D 5e magic system RIGHT NOW!
1. The minimum range for any spell is touch
This is one of my biggest gripes about a lot of spells. As a wizard, why can’t I cast Alter Self on the rogue. They’re far better at the infiltration. Why can’t I pump the fighter with Blur or drop Comprehend Languages on our animal companion? I don’t want to Contact Other Plane to reach out to the dread demon you want to contact, but I’ll totally cast it on your character’s idiotic butt. Divine Favor? Why can’t I bless our monk before they go into one on one battle against their corrupted teacher?
The minimum range of Self cuts off a lot of narrative options, and it’s there to try to grant the illusion of balance to the situations. However, caster classes feel very limited when they can’t use their magic for other people. Removing the range of self (in 99% 0f the cases) means you can do more interesting things with the utility spells. If you feel you need to nerf it a bit, you could add the concentration requirement, but allowing these spells to affect others just feels more realistic and useful. In a world where magic is formulae and patterns (imagine it like coding with reality), someone has to have written versions of self spells that affect others, so just wave away the limitation and let your casters become more utilitarian.
2. Spell lists need to be fungible and allow some versatility
This idea won’t be super popular and breaks some of the “my class is special because we’re the only ones who can ____,” but let spell lists be fungible and malleable. A wizard or sorcerer should be able to cast cure wounds if they want to, maybe with a penalty. The Druid spell list (in my humble but not wrong opinion) sucks. There are many things I would love to do as a forest mage that a druid just can’t do. I’ll just play a wizard and pretend to be a druid. Why oh why can only wizards and bards cast magnificent mansion? That feels like a great warlock spell or druid spell – here’s an extradimensional space for you to have as your evil lair / hidey space in the woods. Sure, there are some narrative tropes you kill with this, and if those are in place in your game it’s not for you, but if your game setting can bear a little versatility, letting people get a little slippery with their spell lists is a great way to increase options for characters.
If you want to limit it, just up the levels. You can learn a druid version of Mage’s Mansion as an 8th level spell, or it costs extra spell slots. For combat spells like Fireball or Lightning Bolt, sure, more of your players may be damage dealers, but so do your NPCs, and you can prep higher-level encounters because you know your players can handle it. My favorite way to open up spell lists when I feel a need to limit things is tied into a later suggestion about spell points, but it’s easy to say yes you can learn the 3rd level Lightning Bolt as a druid, it just costs 1.5 extra to cast. You have to “hack” the spell formula a bit, and that means more energy. It’s not going to become a staple because of the off-provider spell list tax, but it becomes an option and a way for a player to not give up their chance at a cool spell while also having their shapechanging.
3. All magical classes need a way to “level up” in their magic throughout play without being fully restricted to their class
Again, breaking SOME of the narrative tropes, but all magical classes need ways to gain or learn new spells. Sure, wizards can have a million spells but only prepare 15 and sorcerers are supposed to only have a few bits of magic that they innately channel, but there should be a new way to learn more spells / gain more prepared spells / increase your knowledge as a magic user. My gripe with the sort of idea that all magic users are bound by very strict rules is that it just isn’t realistic. For my day gig I’m primarily a front end developer who makes stuff look pretty, but that doesn’t mean I don’t write some backend SQL to interface with the database. It doesn’t mean I don’t rework database schema or handle server configurations. It’s not my bread and butter and I always have to refresh on the “grammar” of coding when I get into those arenas, but I can do it and have built more than a few go-to scripts and backend options that I can pull out. Magic feels very similar to coding to me. You are writing new code into reality, channeling what’s there in the mystic realm. Maybe wizards get to just write down everything, but why can’t sorcerers pick up a few extra tricks along the way. Why can’t warlocks figure out a way to gain a few more spell slots or clerics and paladins gain some more options? Sure, some sources of magic come from external sources, but magical knowledge isn’t restricted. Are the divine deities and other power givers micromanaging everything for their followers? Forgotten Realms / D&D deity style, probably not. I see it more as setting up structures and allowing favored people to tap into them. That means there is still some arcane knowledge that could be there.
Here are a few things I like to allow that can be achieved through play / sidejobs / extra bonuses to reward cool narrative play.
- Classes with spell slots and “pull from list” style magic casting can undergo quests to learn magic outside their class, gain extra spell slots at certain levels.
- Classes that need to prepare spells each day can find ways to add spells to their spell lists and can learn how to add extra “slots” to your prepared spell list. The paladin CHA + 1/2 paladin level may be upgradeable to CHA + paladin level.
- Warlocks with their cast often and take short rests all the time can increase their number of spell slots every few levels through service to their patron or finding a way to eek more power out.
- Sorcerers can add more spells to their Spells Known list through study and learning, but it takes a lot longer than a wizard just copying a spell into the spellbook.
The crux of this suggestion is let your players spread their wings to learn new things / expand their options. You control balance in the game and if the players want to play out something, give them a reward. If it makes them too powerful, well they’re still having fun probably and enjoy not feeling like they’re about to die.
4. Use spell points, not spell slots
This one is pretty easy – use the spell point variant from the DMG. Since it’s not SRD I won’t link to an unofficial source, but the crux of it is:
- Spells get cast by using points instead of slots.
- A 1st level spell costs 1 point, a 2nd level costs, 3, a 3rd level costs … etc.
- You gain a set number of points per level (based on caster type) but can’t cast above a certain level of spell. At 10th you get 64 points and can cast 5th level spells.
What this opens up is the ability to not pick and choose between spells as much. It’s 100% D&D official and implementing it will give players the chance to “just do” the magic they find fitting rather than worrying as much about preparing beforehand. Again, breaks some narrative tropes and that may not be for your game, but mechanics-wise it feels better. The only thing that will save you from this monster is its weakness to acid. You can waste a bunch of higher-level slots, or just cast it again. If the tone of your game is more combative and dire, it may not work, but it lets utility casters not have to choose as much. You can always probably dredge up a few spell points from your reserve of mana while still saving back 5 for that fireball you just may need.
5. Casting times need to be shortened for many spells that have 10 minute casting times
Last one and it’s fairly situational, but I HATE seeing a casting time of 10 minutes on some spells. I get the idea, I see where the devs want to keep some of the spell cheesiness out of combat, but sometimes this goes way too far especially with other limitations to prevent “cheese”. I’m looking at you 5th edition fabricate. So, lower the casting times on a lot of the spells. My advice, take them each down a step.
- 10 minutes changes to 1 minute
- 1 hour changes to 10 minutes
- 8 or 12 hours changes to 1 or 2 hours
- 24 hours (only hallow) … sometimes change to 2 hours
One more thing, as I duck out of the way of the rotten tomatoes, do the same for rituals. Almost all rituals are 1 minute. Wait, what, why? Well, for me it’s about limiting the player chafing and flow of the game. Players want to preserve options and if they can cast something as a ritual, they will.
Mage: I cast detect magic as a ritual.
GM: What do the rest of you do for 10 minutes while the guards are looking for you and will likely have searched this area by then?
Other players: Uggh, no we’re not taking that much time. Fine, I sit and wait.
From a narrative perspective, a long ritual or casting time pauses everything. No one would watch a movie where the main hero charges up for a long time while everyone else sits around… except old school Dragon Ball Z fans, but even then we make fun of that malarkey. A 1 minute casting time makes most of these spells non-combat tenable but removes a lot of the friction of using them otherwise. Spells with very long casting times are all about the narrative anyways. Sure, it may be a 1 hour ritual for astral projection, but if it’s 10 minutes it feels less onerous. An 8 hour ritual for awaken makes some sense, but what are you doing the whole 8 hours? Tinkering, puttering, meditating? Sure, maybe. Those are great spell descriptions from a narrative sense, but we’re also playing a game and need to honor the players’ take on the narrative. If they want to awaken a tree to stand watch, maybe make the duration 8 hours then. If they want to do it to honor the tree as part of their druidic ceremonies and it stays awakened, make it 8 hours of meditation and chanting. The crux is to make sure that characters don’t have to just sit around while one person does everything, even if it’s the same number of real world minutes.
The whole point of these sorts of changes is narrative and fun. Again, if the narrative tone of your games is very low magic, this doesn’t work. If it’s fairly standard D&D or anything with more accessible magics, it makes the play so much smoother, the options so much more available, the personal choices so much more meaningful, and the challenge rating of creatures you can throw at your party much higher. Limitations are good sometimes, and sometimes they fit awkwardly. These changes aren’t for everyone, but for a lot of games out there they will let your players feel like their characters are far more capable and interesting. They won’t feel as cookie cutter based on the classes. Give these changes a try and let me know what other changes you make to your magic systems in your games.Read more »
- Press On: Playing Without a Needed Role
You have all been in this situation. I got my campaign set up and through session zero. The characters and their roles have been selected and everyone is set. Then through no fault of their own, one of the players has to drop the game because of their work schedule (which is totally cool, because work pays them bills). The character they were playing is in a key niche, and now the question arises, how will the group function without that key role?
So let’s talk about it.
Character Niches and Roles
To get into this discussion, we need to first talk about character niches and roles. That is, within the party, what role does the character play and what do they do for the party? In games like D&D, where we have classes, those classes define the niche and role for the character. A cleric casts healing, a rogue picks locks, a fighter bashes things, a wizard casts arcane magic. If you are playing the cleric, it is expected that part of your role in the party is to heal the other members. There are other things you do, but the party expects that you will fulfill those responsibilities.
This can be a bit more blurry when you are talking about games that do not use class structures and allow for more freeform construction of characters. In that case, it is often good for the group to define those roles during creation to have a spread of essential abilities.Games that have class structures tend to also presume that some roles will be fulfilled as part of the game’s design.
Games that have class structures tend to also presume that some roles will be fulfilled as part of the game’s design. In 3.x D&D, and somewhat into today, there is a belief that a party will have a base composition of cleric, wizard, rogue, and fighter (or variants of each of those), but at its base, it assumes a party can heal damage and diseases, pick locks, etc.
And sure you can totally subvert that design intent and do what you want; it’s your game, but your play experience may vary. An all rogue party is a different play experience from a standard party.
When a Niche Can’t/Won’t be Filled
Building off of the above, there are times when a role that is expected/needed within the game cannot be filled. In those cases, as mentioned above, the play experience is going to be changed. There are plenty of reasons for that but they boil down to a few common reasons:
- No one wants to play that role.
- The person playing the role can’t be at the game (temporarily or permanently).
- There are not enough players to fill all the needed roles (i.e. 2 player D&D).
In these cases, it’s not that you want a different play experience but rather you are going to have one because you are missing a key role (i.e. no cleric in the group).
To try to maintain a good play experience you may want to find a way to fill that missing role without adding another player to the group. You want to find an alternative to having a player assume that role.
Here are some general ideas for how to fill that missing role, without adding a player to your group:
You can create an NPC or a GMPC to play that missing role. With an NPC, the GM will play out a character that joins the group, like a retainer. For instance, without a fighter in the party, the party hires a Man at Arms to join the group. The Man at Arms takes orders from the players.
A GMPC is a case where the GM makes and plays a full character in the campaign and plays the role of both the GM to facilitate the game and a full-player. For instance, no one wants to play the cleric, so the GM rolls up a cleric and they join the party, take actions in combat, advance in levels, etc.
The GMPC is a highly debated role (and worthy of its own article). When done well, the GMPC can help round out the party and the GM can participate (in some capacity) as a member of the party. When done poorly, the GMPC can steal the spotlight from the players. Again, it’s worthy of its own article.
Use A Device
In some cases, you can put the functionality of the role into a device and give it to the party. The device then provides that role without requiring another character. This works well when the role or ability you need to confer is more singular. For instance, a party is missing a cleric, but their patron gives them a holy object. The object can both heal and turn undead. The party can use the device as needed.
Grant the Ability to Another Character
To account for the missing ability you give it to an existing character. Depending on your system this may require some rule hacking. In some systems, this can be done by allowing for multi-classing as well. The result is that an existing character in the game is granted the ability to use some abilities not normally associated with their character, and now fulfills the missing role for the party.
For instance, you need some thieves skills like pick locks and find and remove traps. You allow those skills to be taken by other classes and to advance as they advance in level. The fighter decides to take the skills and now your fighter can also pick locks when needed.
Play Around It
The last one is to just work the game so that those abilities are not needed for regular adventures and that the party’s lack of them does not hold up play. This may require a bit of work on your end, to modify existing material to account for your changes, and for you to be a bit more creative when writing and running your own material.
For instance, we return to the missing thief. You as the GM just decide that you can run things without traps and locked doors. The focus of your game is going to be on exploration and combat encounters. You decide to make that easier, that your campaign will take place in subterranean caverns so that there are fewer reasons for doors and elaborate traps.
My Sprawl Game
I am playing a game of The Sprawl, a brilliant mission-based Cyberpunk game. Recently my Hacker had to drop out. For Cyberpunk that can be a big gap in abilities, as a hacker is like having a wizard in a fantasy game. So I have been pondering how I want to deal with this, and I think I am going to take a page from Gibson’s Neuromancer and create a ROM Construct, a digitized version of a person — in this case, a former hacker — who can be plugged into a cyberdeck and hack on behalf of the players.
Mechanically, I will create a set of custom PbtA moves (1-2 at most), that will represent the ROM Construct’s ability to hack on behalf of the players. It will be more abstracted than the hacking rules in the game, since there is no player to be entertained by them, and will just let the players deploy the ROM Construct for an effect, like blocking security cameras or overriding an elevator lockout.
Calling in A Temp
A missing role can change the expected play experience of the game, but there are ways to compensate for those missing roles. By making some adaptations to your game you can fill in that role and get close to the expected play experience.
How have you dealt with missing character roles and niches? When has a missing role made a game more difficult or more exciting?Read more »
- Be Prepared to Take the GM Leap
If you’re a player in your RPG group, but also have the ability to run a game, I suggest you be prepared to run a game at the drop of a hat. Your current GM can suffer from burn-out, overload from Real Life, work stresses, or just might run out of ideas as to what to do next with the game.
The current GM can drop out quickly, sometimes with little or no notice. I’ve done it. I’ve seen it happen many times throughout my RPG career. If you know the GM well enough, you might be able to read the signs. This can allow you to get your ideas together in a cohesive manner. However, it’s always a good idea to have a game in your back pocket for those times when you need it.
No GuiltLet your current GM know that you’re ready to run a game if and when the need arises.
I highly recommend that you let your current GM know that you’re ready to run a game if and when the need arises. Don’t pressure them into stepping aside. Just let them know that you’re there as a “safety net” when the time comes to move on to the next game. If the GM can’t (or won’t) give you ample notice, don’t guilt them. I’m assuming that since you’re spending your gaming hours with them that you’re at least on friendly terms, if not outright friends. Laying a guilt trip on a friend is not cool.
They don’t even have to have a reason for wanting to quit. If they don’t want to run the current game anymore, let them gracefully step aside to make room for the next game. However, I do feel it is a healthy conversation to have (perhaps one-on-one, instead of in the group setting) to determine why they want to stop the game. There might be some recurring reasons that will come up again, and if you can work with the GM and the group to mitigate or eliminate those reasons, then future games will have a greater chance for success.
One-ShotsOne-shots allow you to bring to the table the Next Great Game.
You don’t have to have a full-blown, multi-year campaign in your hands to take over gaming. Even running a series of one-shots will suffice. This might buy another person the time they need to cobble together a good campaign starter. It might be that your current GM just needs a few weeks to get their life back into a sane state, so having some one-shots handy can be highly beneficial.
The upside of one-shots is that they can allow you to bring to the table the Next Great Game that you’ve been itching to play. Perhaps it’ll give the group a few tasters if you run different one-shots in different systems. One-shots can be great palette cleansers before leaping into an extensive set of sessions in a system.
Short StoriesShorter story arcs are the balance between one-shots and all-out campaigns.
The balance between one-shots and full-blown campaigns are shorter story arcs. Perhaps running a small set of adventures that link together can be exactly what your group needs. Some one-shot adventures have following stories that can be told, so there is some gold that can be mined there. If you’re running a more popular gaming system, then a quick stop by your favorite RPG PDF store might be called for. You can see what others have created that might work well in this area.
You can also run a short pre-published adventure and use that as a launch pad for further stories with those same characters. I’ve done that many times before, and those create some memorable stories that we’ve all participated in at the table.
Even running a few chained encounters could be an idea to take on. In this case, some random encounter/story tables can come in handy. Instead of just throwing a series of monsters at the party, you can use some randomization to generate a seed or two of an idea. Then allow those seeds to blossom into a storyline. As an example, don’t just throw a griffin or manticore at the group while they travel. Dig deeper and apply a story hook the players can grasp onto as to why the creature was risking attacking adventurers on the roadside.
Of course, the penultimate goal of most GMs is to run that awesome campaign full of layers, story arcs, character arcs, and ultimate PC goals that the players will talk about for decades to come. This is easier said than done, but if you can noodle on your campaign concepts between games just in case the current GM drops out, you’ll be in great shape for running a game.There is no shortage of campaign ideas already written for you.
In this day and age of small publishing, indie publishing, and self publishing, there is no shortage of campaign ideas already written for you to run with. Picking up a book at your FLGS or a PDF at your online venue can save the group’s bacon when it comes time for an emergency Session Zero.
You don’t have to know the entire campaign structure (whether published or self-created) at the outset. You just need to know enough to guide the players through a proper Session Zero for their character creation efforts, and also have about two sessions of material ready to run with. You can read ahead of the group’s progress once things get moving.
Being a supportive member of your group means being a bit like a good Boy Scout: Be Prepared. That preparedness can alleviate stress on the current GM and can put the rest of the group at ease as they’ll know there will be a game next week, even if tonight’s session ends in an infamous total party kill.Read more »
- Starfinder Kyokor + Skeletal rats – Monster Combo
Content warning (CW): body horror
Welcome to Monster Combo, a series of articles in which we will create some backstory, encounters, variations, and a bit of lore for monsters from different games and genres. From Lovecraftian horror and medieval fantasy creatures to sci-fi cyborgs and weird entities. This series is to stay system neutral so you can grab these ideas and port them to any game of your liking. If there are stats for the monster we will reverse engineer what the creature is good at and use its lore or create our own to apply to our ideas. Steal all you wish from these and suggest your own ideas or combos in the comments!
Today, we’ll be visiting a weird variation from a classical “monster” and a colossal titan. The skeletal rats are the undead version of the usual giant rats. These appear pretty much in any game. On the other hand, we’ve got the kyokors, colossal beasts from Starfinder. There’s not much of them to play with, but more than enough to create an interesting story you can steal for your game.
Kyokors are colossal beasts from space that were created with the purpose of destroying populations, standing 150ft tall. They can detect where large conglomerates of people are and go there with the sole purpose of destruction. They have arms that end in jagged claws, excellent to destroy, but not as good to grab things smaller than a boulder. In other words, they were made to destroy. However, notice that I said they are beasts, not constructs. This makes them all the more interesting. Kyokors are living beings engineered for mass destruction (extremely evil). However, little is known of their creators.
Kyokors stand two-legged with long tendrils that can be used to destroy buildings. These at the same time radiate psychic energy that enthralls their victims, leaving them so scared they can’t move. Kyokors have an exoskeleton made out of a weird plate that is almost indestructible. This makes these titans targets of colossi hunters looking to scavenge parts of these beings’ bodies. Last but not least, kyokors can breathe underwater, making them hard to notice if they attack by coming out from it.
As regards skeletal rats, there’s not much to be said about them. They are just undead rats, and not even D&D or Pathfinder have anything interesting to say about them. We could keep the rats as they are, but that would be extremely boring and particularly difficult to use in any way with kyokors. How can we then create an interesting story or combo out of the two of them?
Skeletal rats are just tiny skeletons that come bite the PCs and are destroyed with ease. What if we just used them as templates? They don’t actually need to be skeletal rats but creatures made out of tiny bones. What are they made of then? That’s where it starts to get interesting:
Building a Scenario
Judging by the size and intelligence, we know it would make sense for the kyokors to be the leaders if both creature groups were working together. Rats are difficult to work with, but undead ones can probably be controlled with ease if you are the one summoning them. What if the kyokors didn’t actually summon them, though?
We know kyokors are civilization-destroying beasts… Pretty much kaiju. What could be more deadly for civilization than a beast capable of creating small deadly and plague-inducing skeletal critters from their body? These bones for the rats could come from the civilians the colossus eats, molded into tiny rat-like beings that attack those who manage to escape the buildings being collapsed by the kyokor, possibly inflicting some kind of disease. Nevertheless, kyokors are beings, not machines, making it difficult for them to be able to create other beings. To fix that, we are going to slightly modify them so they were engineered to create life (or unlife) from what they eat. The rat-like skeletal beings have their bones connected by pulsing meat, blood, and skin and come out from the kyokor’s skin with one objective in mind: destroy life. Yep, the kyokor was built to raise an army with its digestive system.
Rumors have circled of alien life possibly having visited the region we live in, be it the classic flying saucers or described in some other way by a conspiracy theorist. The truth is aliens have already come to our planet thousands of years ago. There is a kyokor, a titan from a time long forgotten, at the bottom of the ocean. Some alien life sent it here, as they saw us as a possible menace. The kyokor is waiting in the depths of the sea, detecting the best moment to destroy civilization, feeling conglomerates of people from a safe distance. The moment an event occurs that joins thousands of people together, the kyokor comes from the water and starts to wreak havoc with its tentacles and claws, killing all people it misses with skeletal rodents made out of fish bones and the civilians it devours on the surface.
This monster combo is set to work in pretty much any RPG that has the PCs deal with an incoming menace. The kyokor inspires people to follow it and look for mankind’s destruction, the countries start wars with each other while the kyokor attacks, seeing the titan in enemy land as an advantage over them. World leaders could start trying to communicate with alien life to put a stop to this menace or send a squad of Men in Black-like soldiers after the kyokor. A Lovecraftian campaign can use the kyokor as an eldritch monster that must be stopped by finding out who awakened it and how. A supers game can try to save as many people as they can from the alien creature while other supervillains use it as a distraction to accomplish their Machiavellian plans. A fantasy or sci-fi game can lean a bit over the unknown and alien by having to seek some prophecy or weapon able to destroy the kyokor’s impenetrable plate. You could even have this creature be in a Mad Max-like world in which you play a group of people looking to gather the plate in its body before it gets close to civilization. All in all, most genres can find some way or another to have this monster combo make sense in the setting!
What do you think of this kyokor + skeletal rats combo? Is there anything you would change about it? Are you looking forward to adding them to your game? If so, what system are you using and how do you intend to have this army appear? Let me know in the comments below!
- Make The Most of Passive Modes in D&D and Other Games
A recent multi-session traipse through the Tomb of Horrors where the players developed a standing operating procedure for trapfinding pretty early on got me thinking in new ways about passive checks in D&D. I’ve recently been working on integrating passive skills into my games more as a way of getting rolls out of the roleplaying when they don’t matter as much. I like to focus on things the players have built into the characters in order to help them bring out the elements of their characters that they find cool. Passive checks have been a good way to do that without calling for acrobatics or perception rolls every 10 minutes. If a character has a high perception then the passive is probably high and there isn’t a need to ask for a roll for them to notice everything, especially if they took feats that raise their passive scores to insane levels.
Since the Tomb of Horrors sessions, I’ve been building on the back of passive skills and considering expanding it into Passive Modes to help speed up tedious or repeated skill rolls while not depriving players of their cool moments or the expertise of their characters.
What is a Passive Mode
If you have a military background you may be familiar with the term “Standing Operating Procedure”. Business has a similar term that gets at the same idea called Standard Operating Procedure. They’re very similar with slightly different edges. Essentially, an SOP is a set of instructions you always carry out in certain situations. After a long march you get ready to set up camp – you break out the well trained camp setup SOP.
- Secure the perimeter and ensure there are no environmental or other hazards. (Test the ground for stability, check for signs of creatures in the nearby area, etc.)
- Team A steps out spaces for all tents while Team B begins digging a latrine area as Team C sweeps away any debris.
- Team A then moves… etc. etc. etc.
A passive mode is essentially your groups SOP during certain situations. We’re dungeon diving and know there is the potential for traps, well we’re going to move slowly through every hallway while testing with our 10 foot pole. Side note: In my current game the 10 foot pole they use is named after a particularly unlikable NPC so they actually feel happy when it gets caught in a trap and breaks. We’re heading into negotiations with a noble – Zinnia will prevent Emil from offering his robe-pocket sandwiches to the dignitaries (although that has saved them as often as it has created awkward situations), Nym should bring up his Detect Thoughts and use it covertly, Jarrah should lean on his Eladrin background if it looks like it will help, and Jalair should retreat and keep an eye out for any signs of danger.
What makes a passive mode different from laying out the details of all of the SOP elements (although you certainly can) is that it assumes everyone is acting to their utmost or focusing on achieving one result to their best ability. In my current layout of the concept, it grants bonuses and detriments to certain areas and relies on passive checks. While the warriors may stand at the forefront to intercept any attacks, if you are in Careful / Trap Finding Passive mode you assume everyone is operating in the best possible way to be careful and find any traps. This would mean the tanks stay behind the rogues or the people with the most noticing skills and the party moves a lot slower as they check the doors, hallways, etc.
With a Passive Mode in place a Game Master can focus on narrating the important elements. The group knows they are using Careful / Trapfinding so have a better chance at finding traps, so the GM can say they walk down the hallway and find a trap, then call for just one trap disarming roll rather than 5 trap finding rolls because they want to be VERY CAREFUL. There is more of a chance to hand the narration off to the players or point out the interesting elements because the players know they are assumed to take all valid precautions.
Utilizing Passive Modes Mechanically
Now that you’ve got an idea of what a Passive Mode would entail in the narrative, here’s how to craft and use them mechanically. Figure out what the approach is — in the Tomb of Horrors or a dungeon crawling scenario it might be Careful Movement / Trap-finding. Write out what the goal is and at least one Constant Benefit and one Constant Penalty. Then write out any other parameters for the mode that the group may adhere to. Mechanically this becomes something like:
Passive Mode: Trap-finding
- Situation: When moving through dungeons we believe may be trapped.
- Goal: Move so as to not set off any traps
- Constant Benefit: Use highest passive perception / trap-finding / searching with a +2 to the check
- Constant Penalty: Enemies get a +2 on passive checks to notice group.
- Party order is Rogue, Monk in the front, Paladin in the back, mage in the middle but everyone spaced at least 5 feet apart.
- 10 foot pole or trap springing ball is utilized IF a passive check comes close to a DC but doesn’t find it (say within 2, for example a trap has a DC of 15 but the highest passive check is 13 with the bump. You assume the group thinks something is wrong, but doesn’t know what.) (GM May say you feel suspicious of an area even if DC isn’t close, just to emulate false positives excessive detail hunting may realistically bring up)
Once you have written this out, you get a passive mode the group can use to do trap-finding or move carefully while still having a greater chance of finding traps without rolling perception or investigation checks every 10 ft. The group can feel a little confident they won’t trigger any traps and the penalty emulates the tradeoff they make. In this example it’s that they are a bit noisier as they traverse the hallways tapping with their 10 foot pole and attempting not to get killed by a spiked floor. Of course players will always balk at penalties, so determining the right one that feels realistic but not too hefty is important.
It is also important to denote any party particulars for the mode to make it easier to navigate while using. The party order is important in this instance, but not so much in a social scenario, maybe. The 10 foot pole and trapfinding ball are important so the party feels they won’t miss out on a clever strategy because they are using passive mode. In the above example if the highest check was an 11 they would have in no way found the trap since it was very well hidden, but if they got caught by it and felt they should have tested more robustly with the pole or trap springing ball you can say their highest passive was far enough below where they would have noticed something suspicious but aren’t sure what it was.
Passive Modes are variable and player chosen
One important note – the group ALWAYS gets to decide when they go into a Passive Mode. A Passive Mode always entails a choice by the party to focus on one mode of play but in a way that isn’t onerous to the rolling. Since it will often rely on the group’s passive or maybe average scores, it factors in their abilities but also entails benefits and penalties that go along with their SOP. That means the group gets to decide if they are going to forego the more rigorous but slower meta approach to get similar benefits, or if they take the passive checks to move forward. Essentially, if they aren’t using a passive mode and forget to check for traps down the hallway by making 3 checks and it gets sprung on them, then that is on the players not being diligent enough. If they are in passive mode, you assume the checks, tell them what they found or tell them they suspect something is ahead without having to ask them for rolls or rely on them being as wary as their characters would be. By turning on the Passive Mode the group is also buying into the idea that they will live with the passive checks. That is something that should be emphasized. They’ve got the +2 to the searching and trapfinding and if it doesn’t find it, that means it was a well hidden trap.
The other important note about passive modes is they are always going to be something figured out by the players based on their party’s approach to things. Different games will benefit from different modes based on gameplay loops. Hacking doesn’t exist in D&D but magic trapfinding doesn’t exist in Shadowrun. A group with a mage wouldn’t necessarily detect magic on every hallway, but if they put it into the passive mode notes or other parameters, you can make some assumptions as a GM. To build a passive mode, the players and the Game Master should determine what all it provides and contains so that the GM can make decisions based on what is written down in it.
Passive Mode: Trap-finding
- Situation: When moving through dungeons we believe may be trapped.
- Goal: Move so as to not set off any traps
- Constant Benefit: Use highest passive perception / trap-finding / searching with a +2 to the check
- Constant Penalty: Enemies get a +2 on passive checks to notice group.
- Party order to determine who may be hit by an unfound trap first?
- What to do if they think there might be a trap but aren’t sure (e.g. 10 foot pole and trap finding ball.)
Passive Mode: Stealthy Trap-finding (This is an example of a passive mode where the group wants to accommodate 2 things, thus 2 benefits and penalties)
- Situation: When moving through dungeons we believe may be trapped but also when we are sneaking to avoid detection, i.e. escaping from labyrinth of an actual dungeon with guards around
- Goal: Move so as to not set off any traps and not be detected.
- Constant Benefit: Use highest passive perception / trap-finding / searching with a +2 to the check
- Constant Penalty: Enemies get a +1 on passive checks to notice group.
- Constant Benefit: Use average of all passive stealth, but drop the lowest (paladin in armor)
- Constant Penalty: Move at 1/2 speed
- Party order to determine who may be hit by an unfound trap first? Paladin at back and 10 feet away from everyone because moving so slowly.
- What to do if they think there might be a trap but aren’t sure (e.g. 10 foot pole and trap finding ball.)
- Someone always moves with paladin to have him slow down.
Defend the weak
- Situation: When moving through territory we expect to be ambushed in or while defending an NPC on an escort mission.
- Goal: Prevent first attacks going against the weakest members.
- Constant Benefit: GM agrees to target one of the tankier characters first, rather than “geek the mage” or target the NPC.
- Constant Penalty: The enemies will get advantage on their first round of attacks.
- Passive Perceptions on as group is looking.
- Group is moving slower (20 miles a day rather than 24 as they are defending and trying to avoid ambush).
Stealthy and Watchful
- Situation: When attempting to move quietly and keep an eye out for guards.
- Goal: Move quietly and make sure to notice any guards or dangers.
- Constant Benefit: Use highest passive perception and the 2nd lowest passive stealth (rather than the lowest).
- Constant Penalty: Move at 1/4 speed.
- Group moves excessively slow as stealthy character moves forward then reports back.
- If a passive is failed the scouting character will be trapped in combat for 2 rounds alone because they are out scouting ahead / less stealthy characters are farther away.
Passive Modes could be nailed down as a set mechanic with multiple modes defined, but the act of coming up with them enables some player agency and that all important buy-in to the concept. It allows for some control over the passive skills and a bit of a bargaining with the GM to help allow the players some control over the world they are in, or at least how they interact with it. In the example of Defend The Weak, the penalty is a kind of pay off to the players asking the GM to not attack the NPC or to Geek the Mage. It’s in the meta space of the game but not quite so meta as saying “please don’t attack the mage”. Passive Modes are actually a kind of bargain with the GM that obscures the meta nature. “We want to be careful because we know this is an in-world danger” emphasizes the characters’ ability to overcome that danger through careful thinking while not having to get into every single small roll cautious players may want to make to prevent the danger. I’m still toying with the concept and how best to utilize it, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.
What kind of Passive Modes would your players come up with? Where might you fit them in your game to help ease repetitiveness? What penalties and benefits would you feel appropriate?
- World Wide Wrestling Second Edition Review
I would get up really early on Saturday mornings to get ready to watch cartoons. Sometimes I got up so early that I would see these shows that looked like the sports broadcasts that my family would watch in the afternoon, except that the people that were getting ready to compete would spend several minutes explaining why they were upset with one another, and proclaiming how they were going to take each other apart, piece by piece. Then I watched as people in trunks picked one another up and threw each other around the ring.
This was in the early 80s, as the territory system of professional wrestling was starting to give way to the (then) World Wrestling Federation. Not long after I saw those early Saturday morning shows, I started seeing a Sunday morning highlight show featuring fascinating, larger-than-life personalities, like Randy “Macho Man” Savage. Once I saw the glitzy presentation of the WWF (at the time, before the World Wildlife Foundation won the title), I was hooked.
Many, many years later, I got hooked on another hobby. I was just starting to understand Powered by the Apocalypse-based games when I encountered the first edition of World Wide Wrestling RPG. I have said in the past that WWWRPG, along with Monster of the Week, was the game that helped me to understand what had previously been impenetrable rules.
I ran an ongoing game of WWWRPG 1e, as well as running multiple sessions at conventions over the years. Back in the glory days of Google+ Roleplaying discussion, I spent a lot of time in the community for the game. Even when I found it impossible to continue following the WWE due to the various actions and positions of the people in control of the company, I loved engaging with the concept of professional wrestling. When World Wide Wrestling Second Edition came to Kickstarter, I backed the project. Today we’re going to take a look at the game.
I’m going to do a quick summary of some of the changes from 1st edition to 2nd edition, in case you are familiar with the first edition of the game, and you want to know what’s new:
- The first edition is 162 pages, and the second edition expands to 261 pages.
- The second edition rules include material that was originally presented in The International Incident and The Road, as well as some mixing and matching of some gimmicks from later releases–It doesn’t include the Guest Stars supplement, and most of the gimmicks that get folded in do not include the Season Two gimmicks (but see the roles updates).
- The Wasted and the Timebomb have been rolled into optional rules instead of gimmicks.
- Rules surrounding momentum, and how the face and heel moves work have been updated.
- The gimmicks included are a mix of First Edition, Season One, and International Incident Gimmicks, with some remastered moves.
- The Golden Boy has been shifted to the Anointed, the High Flyer and Luchador were largely merged, The Cultural Champion is shifted into the broader Luminary, the Indie Darling shifted to The Call-Up, and the Shoot Fighter simplified to The Fighter.
- There are new example promotions, giving example promotions with different sizes, themes, and reach.
- The essays included have a mix of some “greatest hits” from the first edition, as well as some new essays on Lucha Libre, Puroresu, Catch Wrestling, and Indie Wrestling.
If you don’t see a gimmick from the first edition, it may still exist as options folded into another gimmick, or in the expanded role moves that are presented.
This review is based on the PDF of World Wide Wrestling Second Edition. As mentioned above, the PDF is 261 pages, in full color. While the original edition of the game featured full-color covers and alternating color headers, there are more prominent color bands used in this edition, and the artwork from the latter supplements has been incorporated in the design of this book. While the previous edition was well-formatted and clear, this version retains the clear bullet points and sections and has full-color art of the various gimmick characters as well. Overall, it keeps what worked in the previous editions, and adds more color and clarity to the package.
The colors serve to differentiate sections and topics:
- Red = Overview
- Blue = Core Rules Discussion
- Green = Optional Rules and Customization
- Pink = Gimmick and Moves Descriptions
The overview section of the book contains these sections:
- About the Game
- How to Play This Game
- The First Episode
The basic concept of the game is that you are playing professional wrestlers, working for a promotion, trying to maintain your popularity and your employment. The thing to keep in mind is that you are playing the wrestler, who then portrays their wrestling persona. In other words, you know that the matches have predetermined outcomes and that Creative is telling you how the story should end. What you and your opponent are doing is trying to tell the story in the most engaging way possible.
This is a Powered by the Apocalypse game, which means its core resolution mechanic is that when you describe an action that your character takes, if that action matches the trigger for one of the moves, the discreet rule resolution packets in the game, then you roll 2d6 + a bonus, which gives you results in a range of 6- (You don’t get what you want how you want it), 7-9 (you get what you want, with a twist), or 10+ (you get what you want).
Creative is the name of the game facilitator in this game, which is also a wrestling term for the “writer’s room” that books matches. In this case, Creative is determining who fights who in what kind of match, and who is intended to win. While wrestling matches are predetermined affairs, there are several ways for the wrestlers to scrap an ending and put their own twist on those endings, which vary depending on the roles that a character has.
In addition to portraying a wrestler or being Creative, one player not currently running a wrestler can also serve as an announcer. The announcer has the option to provide a bonus to a wrestler based on how they describe what just happened in the ring.
There are two pools that you track in the game, Momentum and Audience. Momentum is a currency you can spend to trigger moves or improve your rolls, and Audience is the wrestler’s popularity with fans of the promotion. If you ever end an episode with Audience of 0, you’re fired.
What I really enjoy about this game is the framing. You aren’t playing the wrestler’s personas, learning power moves that wear down someone else’s vitality meter. You can be in the real world position of trying to make it look plausible that a 150 lbs. wrestler can take down a 300 lbs. towering guest star football player. Some moves revolve around arguing with Creative about how your character has been treated, and the stakes are continued employment.
Before we move to the next section of this book, I want to point out that this book does what I wish so many other RPG rulebooks would do. It walks you through the basic concepts, and it explains how to play a session of the game. It gives you a working knowledge of the structure of the game, and lets you have fun with it before it layers on the more granular rules.
The rules section of the book has the following sections:
- Making the Roster
- How to Play Your Wrestler
- How to be Creative
This section discusses the playbooks, or “gimmicks” in more detail. What does it mean to be an anti-hero and what are the tropes of that type of character, versus a monster, versus the anointed. This section also includes a summary of all the moves, which includes moves that may not be as relevant to the single session explained in the previous section.
Some moves replace some of the standard wrestling moves to represent specific types of matches, like hardcore matches, tag team matches, or battle royales.
In one of the most 2020 things ever, there is also a section on what a wrestling match looks like when you are having wrestling matches that are being filmed without an audience. This means you don’t get access to some audience manipulation rules, but you do get access to things like reshoots.
This section expounds on “ring psychology” as well as providing a nice technique for pacing the narration of a wrestling match, making sure it doesn’t feel like it’s going too short or too long before you call for the ending.
How to Be Creative not only covers facilitating games in an ongoing campaign, but it also looks at what kind of recurring NPCs a promotion might have, and even different ways you can facilitate trading the Creative duties for a campaign in a collaborative manner.
Customization includes the following sections:
- Building Your Promotion
- Going Beyond the Ring: The Road
- The Worlds of Wrestling
- The Promotions
This section includes some of the rules that were my favorite from the rules supplements when I was running the 1st edition of this game. The promotion rules provide rules for adding traits to a promotion (what does it have going for it, what does it have working against it), and the road rules have moves for resolving characters traveling between venues, showing up at conventions, interacting with social media, doing interviews, and dealing with family.
Just like an individual wrestler might get sacked because their audience is at 0 at the end of a night, a promotion might end up having so many problems that it can’t continue to function. This really reinforces that the whole table is working together to put on a good show. Additionally, I love the road rules so much. I will forever remember the road trips that some of the wrestlers in my campaign had with members of the roster that were Non-Player Wrestlers, which really fleshed out the promotion’s personalities. There was this one time that involved a flat tire, a steakhouse, and the police . . .
The section on The Worlds of Wrestling presents a series of essays about different aspects of wrestling as a form of entertainment. All of these are engaging and fun to read, and they range from explaining more obscure corners of wrestling entertainment to interviews with people whose first experience with wrestling was this game. “Professional Wrestling is the American Dream,” an essay which appeared in 1st edition discussing class disparity and the popularity of Dusty Rhodes, is highly recommended.
This section ends with several example promotions. These range from traditional but well-detailed promotions, to very high concept promotions, to promotions that exist expressly to cross over with other promotions. These promotions are organized by Reach (mentioned previously in the promotions section):
Gimmicks and Moves
This section is an overall summary of the game mechanics and gimmicks from across the books, all in one area. This brings the basic moves you need for your first night, and presents them alongside the rules for different matches, etc. from later sections. The gimmicks provided in this version of the game include the following:
- The Ace
- The Anointed
- The Anti-Hero
- The Call Up
- The Clown
- The Fighter
- The Hardcore
- The Jobber
- The Luchador
- The Luminary
- The Manager
- The Monster
- The Provocateur
- The Technician
- The Veteran
This is a truncated list of gimmicks compared to all the supplements that came out in 1st edition, but it’s more gimmicks that were included with the core rules the first time around, and in many cases, its less that the other playbooks disappeared, so much as concepts from there were streamlined into similar existing playbooks. Between the gimmicks and the Role and Advanced Role moves (Babyface, Heel, Tecnico, Rudo, Celebrity, Icon, and Legend), there is a lot of customizability for characters.
Clean FinishThe essays discussing the philosophy and story of wrestling are so engaging that they are worth the price of admission on their own.
I love the way the rules “layer” additional aspects of the game, starting with playing a one-shot, adding information on ongoing play, and then finally the customization elements to play different styles of promotions with different audiences, etc. It is well-executed modularity that I think promotes functionality and immersion in the game itself. There are so many aspects of the book that address the wide range of what people might love about wrestling that engage the imagination.
The text makes a strong case for professional wrestling as a genre for storytelling that doesn’t require engagement with actual professional wrestling, but still does a great deal to recommend professional wrestling to those that haven’t previously engaged with it. The essays discussing the philosophy and story of wrestling are so engaging that they are worth the price of admission on their own.
Most of what I could point out are going to be minor problems in the grand scheme of things. With all the other concepts that got rolled in from the supplementary material, I wouldn’t have minded a revised “boss” playbook, and I actually kind of liked the guest stars concepts that appeared in the supplementary material.
While the idea of narrating NPW activities and then handing the match to the player definitely works, and I’ve done it many times, I wouldn’t have minded a player facing move for situations like a move for squash matches, or a slightly different process for the (well described) process for “one two three” narrations for a match.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Normally, even a well-executed game about a niche genre of entertainment isn’t something I would recommend as broadly as I recommend World Wide Wrestling Second Edition, but the game does such a good job of describing wrestling as a storytelling genre unto itself, and breaking down the steps of telling a good story that contains conflict and ongoing narratives, I think even people that may not be attracted to the genre will get something worthwhile from the discussion of pacing and the essays on the history and development of the entertainment form. The book is consistently entertaining and compelling in its presentation not only of the rules, but of the entertainment it is gamifying.
Do you have a favorite roleplaying game about portraying someone that is portraying someone else in the narrative itself? Do you enjoy games where physical contests or the process of preparing for a performance might be part of the game? Are there other forms of sports or sports entertainment that you think would make for a good RPG? We want to hear from you in the comments below!Read more »
- Fantasy Campaign Stakes and Escalation
Bear with me as I set some expectations for what we’re going to look at today. The basis for everything I am going to explore is the interaction between sub-genres of fantasy and the scope of a fantasy campaign. To frame this discussion, we’re going to look at some terms as defined in the Big Book of Masters of Dungeons in the purview of Dragons that sometimes associate with Dragons. That said, this shouldn’t only apply to level-based fantasy stories, but it should definitely make sense as an extension of level-based fantasy game assumptions.
When I’m talking about scope, I’m looking at the impact the players have on the setting, and the range of adventures a character is likely to explore. In level-based parlance, this generally maps to the tiers of play model, which goes something like this:
- Local (The Fate of a Village)
- Heroes (The Fate of a Region)
- Legends (The Fate of a Nation or Significant Portion of the World)
- Epics (The Fate of the World)
We’ll circle back on this, but the scope of each of these is going to be a little bit different based on the sub-genre of fantasy. While we’re keeping to the same “tiers” delineated in the World’s Most Well-Known Fantasy Fame and Fortune Acquisition Simulator, in this case I’m looking at the biggest stakes each tier is likely to face, separated a bit from any other assumptions that go with the acquisition of greater abilities. This is also at least somewhat flavored by the thought that player characters are at least semi-heroic. They may not primarily adventure because they want to save the world, but in the course of their personal motivations, it ends up being part of the package.
Stakes involve the actual form that the above scope is dealing with. For example, the fate of a village looks different when the stakes are saving them from an undead infestation, versus saving them from bandits that will slowly drain them of all their resources, but both are local problems that will affect the long-term fate of the village.
Stakes are going to be influenced by the genre. Facing a power-hungry Emperor that is about to consolidate power by besieging the last Queen holding out against their power could effectively be about the fate of the world, because the fate of all the known lands are involved, but that feels different than the fate of the world hanging in the balance because an ancient god that lives at the center of the world is about to awaken.
Once again, we’re going to take our cues on the genre from the game that would be called U & R if you removed the first letter of each word in the title. These are not the definitive, all-encompassing genres that can define fantasy stories, but they are going to be my means of limited exactly how deep into the well I dive. For purposes of this article, were going to look at the following:
- Heroic Fantasy
- Sword and Sorcery
- Epic Fantasy
- Mythic Fantasy
- Dark Fantasy
There are all kinds of definitions you can find for these genres, but what I’m looking at in this case is using these general functional definitions.
- Heroic Fantasy: Even when the scope of the story or campaign is limited, the player characters obviously matter. If a thing is going to get done that has an impact, it will be done by the player characters. In this genre, characters are much more likely to purposefully engage with the circumstance affecting the fate stakes, knowing what is involved.
This can mean the player characters are “chosen ones,” but it just means that, from their perspective, no one else is going to show up in time to make a difference. People that encounter them can tell they are special and that they have agency in the narrative. That doesn’t mean they don’t face challenges or are always right, but it’s clear they are meant for great things, if they seize the moment. And they get fed a lot of moments. While not every character may have pure motivations, at least some will, and it’s at least more obvious when people are trying to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
None of these genres exists entirely within their own neatly defined borders, and Heroic Fantasy may sometimes look like Epic Fantasy, but it’s just as likely that the heroes in a Heroic Fantasy story are facing a series of different villains and hardships that are ultimately unrelated, while Epic fantasy tends to build upon previous threats for a linked, interconnected saga.
- Sword and Sorcery: The player characters are important, but maybe not the only people that can do a thing. The reason they end up affecting the fate of people, places, or things is that their other interests usually overlap with important matters that are going to occur.
Sword and Sorcery characters should always feel important, but they may also be challenged in their notions of how important they are by rivals more often than heroic fantasy characters. They may end up having the opportunity to make the world a better place, but those adventures happen after they have had the chance for general fame and glory. Personal goals, family pride, and vengeance are often going to be part of the story. While there may be eventual consequences, it’s not uncommon for “the ends to justify the means” in Sword and Sorcery stories.
It’s not uncommon for the dangers set loose in a Sword and Sorcery setting to be a consequence of people that are just greedy or short-sighted, rather than having a grand plan to remake the world. Setting loose a powerful being that a lesser villain assumes will be under their control, for example, is a pretty common trope for Sword and Sorcery games.
- Epic Fantasy: The previous genres are defined more from the bottom up, by the heroes and how the world views them, and how they accomplish their goals. Epic fantasy is more top-down . . . there are a series of important things that need to be done, and those events will impose their importance on the campaign continually until they are dealt with.
In many cases, the woes of a campaign world will be related to a greater overall menace. The player characters may only touch on the shadow of these machinations at the local tier, but the reason the local problems are happening is likely somehow related to a major villain or force of destruction that is pushing for a singular event with stakes that haven’t been seen for years/decades/centuries in the campaign world.
This isn’t to say that the characters aren’t important, just that if they don’t devote at least a significant amount of their time to address the growing threat, that threat is going to overshadow any personal desires that the player characters are going to have.
- Mythic Fantasy: Mythic Fantasy is not unlike Epic Fantasy, except everything matters. The player characters are the ones that need to do what needs to be done, not unlike Heroic Fantasy, but in this case, even relatively small decisions will have major ramifications. Mythic fantasy isn’t about saving the status quo from an uncomfortable chaotic development. It’s about the player characters ushering in radical change with their successful actions.
In some ways, Mythic Fantasy is the “character-focused” version of Epic Fantasy. Even if all the events in the character’s lives aren’t directly connected, all of the results of what the characters do will be Very Important. The characters are meant to be world-famous. That doesn’t mean they won’t face challenges, but it means when they defeat those challenges, no one ever forgets what happens, and if they forget anything about those challenges, it’s the failings of the player characters.
This means everything is pushing player characters towards being rulers, saints, and maybe even eventually demigods. The slight nuance between this and Epic Fantasy is that a character in Mythic Fantasy that is chosen to be the agent of a god might reject that god’s patronage, and they are still meant to be just as important. In Epic Fantasy, rejecting the help of the gods might be foolish and disastrous, and in Mythic Fantasy, rejecting the help of a god may just become another side challenge that the character faces on the way to eventually being a legend.
- Dark Fantasy: While some fantasy horror stories are Dark Fantasy, not all Dark Fantasy is a horror story. Dark fantasy isn’t so much about fear or the supernatural. It is about never having a truly happy ending. Dark fantasy is often about having a choice between something bad and something worse. Doing the right thing has consequences and may not feel like a victory.This is going to be tricky to pull off, because player characters should feel like a situation would have been worse if they never intervened, but they should also feel like they were never going to be able to save everyone, or remove all the corruption, or stop the curse before someone suffered under its effects. It’s a balancing act between showing characters how bad the world could get if they didn’t take action, and showing them that the world is always going to be a mixed bag.In some ways, there is a similar “second layer” to all of the character’s actions in Dark Fantasy as there is in Mythic Fantasy, but instead of even minor actions leading to the increasing legend of the characters, even simple resolutions will have some element of sadness associated with that resolution. For example, taking out a vicious group of bandits may be followed up with meeting the bandit’s family that depended on her to bring in revenue from their violent profession.
Matching Stakes and Scope
The reason I wanted to look at the scope and the stakes of different fantasy campaigns is to look at how different genres of fantasy handle those stakes. Now that we’ve looked at and defined some ranges, let’s look at what different stakes will look like when added to a different scope.
On the local scope, we’ll look at a scenario, and see how it’s framed differently between each of the different genres of fantasy we’ve examined. We’re going to go back to our simple example of bandits causing problems for a village.
We’re using a village in this instance, but the lower end of this scale may vary based on the type of fantasy. The village may be some unnamed village in Mythic Fantasy. It may be a pleasant town in Heroic Fantasy or Sword and Sorcery, or it may be a poor, starving place in either Sword and Sorcery or Dark Fantasy.
In addition to villages, the broader scope of the campaign can be a large city, with the opening stages of the campaign being limited to a specific neighborhood of the city.
- Heroic Fantasy: The player characters may hear about the bandits when visiting family in the area. No one else is going to wander through the area before the next time the bandits are likely to raid the village, and the local warriors were wounded in the last scuffle.
- Sword and Sorcery: The player characters find out there is a bounty on the local bandits, and if they act quickly, they may be able to collect the bounty before anyone else collects it. They may end up running into rival adventurers on the way to collecting the bounty.
- Epic Fantasy: Bandits are raiding local villages. Patrols of the local nations have been pulled away due to massing armies elsewhere. The bandits turn out to be marked with a glowing rune and compelled to look for a secret passageway leading to a long-lost temple of evil under the village.
- Mythic Fantasy: The player characters just happen to be traveling through town when the bandits send a messenger challenging them to a fight for the fate of the village. If the player characters run the gauntlet of the bandit’s camp and defeat their supernatural leader, the local village is not only safe, but they build a monument to the heroes’ greatness and have a feast whenever they pass through town.
- Dark Fantasy: The bandits poison the water supply of the village, and demand tribute or else they will not provide the antidote to the poison. When the player characters defeat the bandits, they find out that there is no antidote. Many villagers are likely to die, and they need to find a new home with local, hostile villagers that are likely to treat them badly, or they need to try to forge a hard new life in the wilderness where they may not last the winter.
If we start with a village, when we move to the Heroic scope, we’re moving to a coalition of towns and villages that trade with one another and pass news to one another. It might be a province in a wider kingdom, or it might involve the player characters interacting with people that notice them at the local keep or capital city of a region.
In a more urban-based campaign, the scope of the adventure might move across multiple neighborhoods and start to gain the notice of the broader powers of one of the wards of the neighborhood.
In a Heroic Fantasy, Heroic Scale campaign, the player characters will likely have been noticed for their deeds in and around neighborhoods and villages and have a reputation for resolving trouble. In a Sword and Sorcery campaign, they may not be the only adventurers know for getting results, but they will be among the names that float to the top. It may be a matter of them being the first name on the list, with another name waiting in the wings. In a Dark Fantasy campaign, they may be well known, but not well regarded, and may be the best bad option for an appeal. In a Mythic Fantasy campaign, it may be that some authority wants to see if they are as amazing as the people in a village or neighborhood regard them, by providing them with a challenge.
In this case, let’s look at undead plaguing the countryside, and how the player characters from the previous example handle them.
- Heroic Fantasy: After helping out with the bandits and solving problems in several villages, the largest church in the area, to which most of the smaller churches in the region answer to, sends for the player characters, asking them to deal with a local cursed necropolis that was uncovered by an earthquake. They get well rewarded and are given a letter of recommendation if they ever want to meet the regional rulers for anything of importance if they are successful.
- Sword and Sorcery: The local lord excavated the ancient, cursed necropolis, not believing the curse would be as bad as it was in the legends. The player characters’ aren’t the first group that they hire to clean up their mess, and they find evidence of that if they take the job. If they find any treasure, it is likely what the original lord wanted when they disturbed the tomb, and if they end up defending themselves, the player characters may end up with a patron of a rival lord that pays them for exposing the dangerous activities of their previous employer.
- Epic Fantasy: The passage under the village led to underground catacombs, populated with monsters answering to the master of the amassed armies gathering in the region. One of those monsters is searching for a door that leads to a lost necropolis which has a journal of how to defeat the leader of the armies, and once the player characters have the key, the paladin leading the resistance armies asks them to find that book lost in the necropolis, so they can find a weakness.
- Mythic Fantasy: A regional lord invites the heroes to their court, and mentions that an ancient necropolis provides a threat every decade or so. They would deal with it themself, but they have heard the legendary tales of the heroes’ actions and they wish to see how amazing the PCs are for themself. If they are successful, they are given famous, named magic items, and are given largely symbolic titles, but are nevertheless widely known and heralded in the local halls of power.
- Dark Fantasy: A local cleric attempted to find the spirit of their lost spouse in an ancient, buried necropolis. The undead master of the place asked for a favor from the cleric in exchange for the spouse’s return to life. Years later, the necropolis rises. The key to destroying the master of the necropolis is for the spouse to willingly return to the land of the dead, and after the threat is dealt with, the local authorities demand the cleric be executed for their crimes, but if that happens, the town has no priest. The player characters must either leave the town without spiritual guidance or earn the enmity of the local lord that demands the sentence. Either way, their reputation is widely known at this point.
Following our previous examples, the legendary scope is going to see the player characters see the real, regional powers, and those powers will know who they are, at least by reputation. If you start with a village, then move to a keep or capital, this moves on towards the player characters being known at the national, kingdom-wide court. If you start with a neighborhood in a major city, this means the mayor or city council will know of them, and they will be dealing with matters that affect multiple wards, if not the whole city. People will know their names.
In a Dark Fantasy setting, the PCs may be hated by the regular people, and favored at court, or vice versa, but either way, their fame will be complicated. In a Sword and Sorcery setting, they may get to see themselves displace the old favorites or know that in some way their position is precarious, as they are well-known heroes, but might be rivals of the people in power. In a Heroic Fantasy campaign, powerful people from multiple organizations may share their council and trust their opinions. In a Mythic Fantasy campaign, they may repeat the same process they faced previously, where kings and high priests are trying to test them to see if they live up to their legendary status, while they are firmly loved in their homelands.
This time around, let’s look at a dragon ravaging the countryside, and how the heroes from our previous examples will find the situation waiting for them.
- Heroic Fantasy: The local rulers give the player characters authority to negotiate with the dragon on behalf of the kingdom. They are given a great treasure, and the ability to negotiate a truce to last at least 100 years. If they can’t do this, it’s their job to keep the dragon from being a threat to the countryside.
- Sword and Sorcery: The dragon is a potential threat. When it woke up, it caused a lot of damage. No one saw it after its initial rampage, however, and now different factions want its hoard, as well as, you know, making the countryside safe. There are several dragon-slaying weapons known by the kingdom’s sages and would-be dragon slayers are racing to find them and to be the first to get rid of the dragon. Assuming the dragon doesn’t cut a deal with receptive adventurers first.
- Epic Fantasy: Because the heroes have provided the leader of the armies of light with the book that reveals the weakness of the leader of the armies of darkness, that leader has awakened a dragon, a powerful being that it doesn’t fully control, but which doesn’t share its own weakness, to destroy the forces arrayed against it. The paladin general wants to push towards the enemy leader but needs to know the dragon won’t harm his forces on the road and trusts the PCs to guard their flank.
- Mythic Fantasy: The former royal heir attempted to murder her monarch and was cursed by the gods to become a dragon. The monarch offers to grant the mythic heroes their own portion of the kingdom to rule if they subdue the dragon and force it to apologize for its crimes, committed when it was still a mortal being. The dragon itself lives in a labyrinth created by the gods to test anyone seeking to reach the dragon’s lair, and the dragon can only leave when the monarch commits an act that goes against the will of the gods.
- Dark Fantasy: A dragon is ravaging the countryside. Either the council of nobles or representatives of the people come to the heroes, begging them to destroy the dragon. The dragon blights the land by its very existence. When the PCs finally confront the dragon, the dragon tells them that they are punishing the ruling council. The council claimed the treasures of an island city where they killed everyone to the last person. The dragon contains the souls of all the people of the city, joined with the dragon to get vengeance, and if the dragon is killed, their deal with the dragon condemns all their souls to Hell. The dragon will continue to ravage the countryside, but if they sacrifice the noble council to the dragon, it will return to its sleep for the next 100 years, and the souls of the people will depart for whatever judgment their gods have for them.
This is that scope that you don’t see nearly as often in fantasy games. It can be hard to reliably make something feel like it’s on this scale. You must have world-changing events ready to go, or at least events that will potentially change all the world as it is known by the player characters. That means not just the lands where they have lived, or where they grew up, but all those lands they have heard of, but haven’t quite visited for extended periods.
At this scope, it should be easy for player characters to be invested with official, political power, if they want it, but it may not be what you want for the campaign. In other words, it would make sense for them to be the head of the wizard’s conclave, the ultra-pontiff, a monarch, or guildmaster of guildmasters, but you may want to discuss why your characters would or wouldn’t want that meta-adventuring responsibility outside of play, before accepting or denying those honors.
Characters will be well known, unless they have gone to extremely great pains to hide their deeds from the world. Nobody is going to underestimate them. Heroic Fantasy characters will be trusted agents or allies, Sword and Sorcery characters will see their old rivals grudgingly admitting that their old rivals have outclassed them. There will be literal sagas and epic poems about PCs in a Mythic Fantasy campaign, and there will be pressure for them to do one last crowning achievement to prove they can still top themselves. Epic Fantasy characters will be in a position to face down the ultimate architect of badness in the campaign, and Dark Fantasy characters will probably have mixed blessings of being well known and loved and/or hated by thousands of people.
Ironically, if you have been using a city as your framing device for the campaign, and defining scope based on the city, this may be the point at which those characters finally move out to other, similarly-sized cities, gaining perspective on how other urban areas are the same or different than their own city-sized world. This is also when major political plots by other cities start to undermine the influence and importance of their own city.
The tropes can be very similar and can be the primary element on which you hang your adventure, but that context is going to create strongly unique circumstances.
Let’s look at a final showdown in these genres, using a demon lord as the ultimate, campaign-ending boss monster.
- Heroic Fantasy: Because the characters are well known, the head of some important regional organization comes to them with all the legwork they have done, finding out that deep under the sea, in a city lost thousands of years ago, a demon lord is stirring. They have some time to figure out how they will narrow down where the lost city is, beyond “in the ocean,” as well as how to survive down there. Their allies will make sure they know that they trust them to handle this and will remind them that they will keep all the things they love safe on land while they explore this undersea ruin and defeat this demon lord.
- Sword and Sorcery: Among all the sketchy powers that balance one another across the continent, one of them decides to take a risk and summon a demon lord. This throws the balance way off, although it doesn’t go apocalyptic right off the bat. The demon lord sends emissaries to the other people in positions of authority, and instead of being sent to fight it, the PCs might be sent as diplomats or representatives. Eventually, they find out that there is a major downside to the negotiations (everyone on the continent with a certain birthmark sacrificed, and hey, you like some of the people with that birthmark!), so it’s clearly in the PCs best interest to unseat the demon lord. Once the demon lord knows no one is going to fall for the negotiations, the demon lord gets to be as evil as they want to be, and even mercenary PCs with a heart of gold end up looking pretty good if they take out this threat to the continent.
- Epic Fantasy: The paladin general of the armies of light has been corrupted by the demon lord at the head of the army of darkness. Before they turned, however, the book with the demon lord’s weakness was smuggled out of camp by a cleric that was once the paladin’s closest confidant. After fighting off the demons chasing the cleric, the PCs find out the final rituals they need to perform to be the anointed champions, able to destroy the demon lord for all eternity if they survive the ritual and face them on the field of battle.
- Mythic Fantasy: After years of being the best of the best, and having the world hear of their amazing deeds, the characters are challenged by a demon lord, who wants to know if they bear the seeds of true greatness. The demon lord has the slumbering form of a god trapped in their domain. The domain is filled with trials derived from the life and portfolio of the god they have trapped. If they can reach the center of the demon lord’s abyssal layer, and defeat the demon in its own domain, the god will be freed, and in gratitude, they get to be official demigods.
- Dark Fantasy: Wars and riots have caused major upheavals. The people are just now trying to piece together a new council that may be able to make the world a better place, but there are deep divisions and mistrust. Eventually, a well-regarded, wise, well-liked candidate to lead the council emerges. Currently, the player characters find out that the candidate’s advisor is secretly a demon lord. The candidate is a good person who wants to do what is right, but they also have a dark secret that the demon lord is going to slowly use to corrupt them. In their youth, they killed a vile person who always had a shining reputation. If they fight the advisor, the advisor will do their best to make sure it is public that they are a demon, and that they wanted the candidate to lead the council. Thus, the demon poisons the best person for the job with their endorsement.
They Lived (?) Happily (?) Ever After?
That’s a whole lot of high-level adventure hypothesizing. What I hope you get from this is that you can have very similar elements that, when playing with the scope and stakes of a campaign, will look very different. This article takes most of these definitions of scale and genre at face value, but very few stories end up drawing purely from one source.Read more »
My biggest hope is just to help anyone reading this piece to see that context can greatly change the tropes that you utilize in your campaign. The tropes can be very similar and can be the primary element on which you hang your adventure, but that context is going to create strongly unique circumstances.
What other genres of fantasy exist that we haven’t touched on in this piece? Are there any fantasy scopes that you generally avoid? Do you never start on the local scale, or never expand to the epic scale? We would love to hear about your fantasy campaigns below in the comments . . . no, really, tell us about your campaigns!
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- Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance - Coming to PCGematsu reports that Baldur's Gate: Dark Alliance is coming to PC later in the year. For other platforms it releases May 7th. Publisher Interplay Entertainment and developer Black Isle Studios will release Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Switch on May 7 for $29.... Read more »
- VideoThree of Five Keys: A Quest Design Pattern
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Consider a quest where the door to the infamous Black Vault requires five gemstone keys and an evil wizard seeks these five keys to open it. In this scenario, the characters need only acquire one key to end the entire quest for the villain. Grab a key, throw it into the ocean, and the villain's whole quest is over.
Flip the situation around and we still have the same problem. If the characters seek to open the door and the Cult of the Black Vault seeks to keep it closed, all the cult must do is destroy one key and the characters can't succeed.
This is the problem with all-or-nothing collection quests. Any one item falling into the wrong hands can break the entire quest. These quest models are fragile.
Instead, a slight change to this quest design makes the quest more flexible and provides a robust framework for stronger confrontations between villains and characters.
What if the vault door required only three of five keys to open instead of all of them? Now, instead of needing to find only one key to stop the evil wizard, the characters have to find three of them. The chase is on as the characters and the Cult of the Black Vault hunt for keys all over the land.
If you prefer a video on this topic, see my Three of Five Keys Youtube Video.
Requiring the Majority of Keys
We can fix collection quests like this by ensuring that the quest requires only the majority of items to complete the quest, not all of them. Maybe it's four of seven keys. Maybe it's five of nine. The more keys required, the longer the quest will take. Instead of an easy victory, characters may be traveling all over the world to acquire the majority of keys before the villains get them.
Often such collection quests include a moment where either the villains or the characters need to steal keys from the other. Instead of this being a requirement (when all keys are needed), now the results of such a heist can go either way and the whole quest isn't over should one side or the other succeed.
Requiring the majority of keys, instead of all of them, makes collection quests more robust and flexible. It gives us room for fun improvisation. Our carefully designed campaign won't fall apart when the characters get crafty and acquire a key we didn't expect. It gives us room to let the game go where it goes. We know that, whether a character or a villain acquires an item, more keys are needed to stop one side or the other.
When running quests where a number of items are required to complete the quest, ensure only the majority of items (three of five keys, four of seven keys, etc) are needed so the quest isn't over if one key falls into the wrong hands. This powerful quest design pattern gives you a durable quest model with great flexibility and lots of opportunities for a fun chase across a fantastic land.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- The Dials of Monster Difficulty
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
When running Dungeons & Dragons we DMs have a number of dials we can turn to change the difficulty and challenge of any monster. Some dials work best when we turn them before the battle begins, others we can turn while combat is already underway. We can use these dials to change up the pacing of our game, making things more or less challenging depending on what works for the moment. These monster dials include:
- The number of monsters
- Each monster's hit points
- The monster's number of attacks
- The amount of damage a monster inflicts
Turning these dials changes monsters significantly, giving us a lot of control over how dangerous any given monster is.
Best of all, we don't have to spend a lot of time turning these dials. We can turn them up or down in our head, making them awesome tools for improvisational play.
Let's look at each of these dials and see what effects it can have on our game.
Tune the Number of Monsters
Before a battle begins, we can decide how many monsters might be in that battle. We can start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation. Is it likely to be twenty hobgoblins in the mess hall or just four? Like many of our decisions in D&D, we start by asking ourselves what makes sense for the situation in-world. That isn't the final answer, though. We have another question to ask:
What will make the game more fun right now? Sometimes the answer to this question is "more monsters". Othertimes it's "less monsters". If the characters have already recently fought in a big knock-down drag-out fight, maybe we want to go with less monsters. Not every battle needs to be a challenge. Run easy battles from time to time. They can offer a lot of interest and a lot more fun than you may realize.
Start by asking what makes sense and then tune the number up or down to fit the pacing and energy of the game. If you need to, use the lazy encounter benchmark to see if the battle might be deadly.
A battle may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one quarter of the sum total of character levels, or one half if the characters are above fourth level.
You can also turn this dial during combat if the in-world circumstances make sense. Another wave of monsters might follow the first, for example, or another group may stray off or get distracted. It's harder to turn this dial without the players seeing it though, and they'll know if you're adding monsters just to make things harder if it's too ham-fisted.
Turn the Hit Point Dial
As written, the hit points of a monster can fluctuate between the minimum and maximum allowed by the monster's hit dice. An ogre's stat block reads 59 (7d10 + 21). 59 is the average. An ogre can have anywhere from 28 to 91 and still be within range of its hit points. We can decide, during the game, how many hit points an ogre has within this range based on how we feel the battle is going. Will it help if the ogres present more of a threat? Turn the dial up and give them up to 91. Is it time for those ogres to go down? Turn the dial down to 21.
If we're willing to break the rules even more, and I give you full permission to do so for the fun of your game, you can safely double a monster's hit point if you feel it works for the story and the pacing of the current situation or drop them down to 1 if it's time for the monsters to go away. While the hit point dial is safely turned within the range of a monster's hit dice, I think it's perfectly fine to turn the dial outside of the margins and increase a monster's hit points up to double their average or down to 1 when it suits the situation.
Being willing to double a monster's hit points or reduce them to 1 is also much easier math than figuring out the minimum and maximum values of a monster's hit dice. When in doubt, be lazy.
Change a monster's hit points up to double its average or down to 1 hit point based on what fits the story, pacing, and current situation.
Turn the Number of Attacks Dial
Sometimes it isn't just the hit points or damage that pushes monsters into the danger zone. Sometimes they need to do more stuff. Many monsters have a multiattack action. If we want to turn up the threat, we can give monsters an additional attack in that multi-attack action. If we overcalculated and things are too deadly, we can remove attacks, maybe knocking it down to just one.
Sometimes monsters with additional abilities never have a chance to use those abilities if it's simply better for them to attack. The ankheg, for example, has a bite and web attack but can only choose one. This might be completely appropriate but if we want to get nasty, turn up the attack dial and let the ankheg do both in one turn. If we have a monster that can both multiattack and cast spells, let the monster drop one of its attacks from multiattack and cast a spell in its place.
Increase or decrease the number of attacks or actions a monster can take to fit the situation, and pacing of the scene.
Turn the Damage Dial
Just like the hit point dial, the damage dial can follow the minimum or maximum amount of damage listed by the damage dice equation. If an ogre can hit for 2d8+4 it could hit for as little as 6 or as much as 20. It's rare that we want to turn this dial down, unless things got out of control, but we may want to turn it up if a monster just isn't posing much of a threat and such a threat is warranted for the situation.
If we're using static monster damage, something I recommend, it's easy to turn the dial up and down on damage. Just change the amount. Maybe the ogre's doing 18 damage on a hit instead of the 13 average it normally does. Often adding 50% more damage works well. If, like most DMs, you use dice for damage, you can add 50% more dice to the attack when it's time to turn the damage dial up. Most of the time this means dropping in an extra weapon die; two at the most.
Turning the damage dial can be tricky. We don't want our players to know we're turning the dials. If we use static damage, our players will know when we're changing it. If we use dice, we can throw in an extra die or two and likely never tip our hand.
If we're using static damage, we can, instead, come up with a story-based reason that the damage goes up. Say the characters are fighting a helmed horror and having a hell of a time getting past it's 20 AC, we can describe how the fires within the horror start to burn hotter and hotter; beams of white light coming out of its eyes; as its blade blazes with white fire. Now it inflicts an extra d8 of fire damage on its attack); maybe even 2d8 if we really want to get nasty. At the same time, its armor begins to melt, dropping its AC down to 18 or even 16.
If we know that a monster is hitting lower than we think is right for the situation, we can jam that damage dial into the red right from the beginning, maximizing its damage from the first hit or doubling the damage dice of the hit. This essentially gives the monster free critical hits all the time — obviously very nasty — but sometime's that's what fits the story.
Turn up the damage dial by increasing the amount of static damage a monster inflicts on its attacks or adding one or more dice to it's damage dice.
Grant Circumstantial Advantage
When we have weak monsters attacking stronger characters, we might come up with a way to grant the monsters circumstantial advantage. Perhaps a monument nearby fills them with violent power. Perhaps cultists drank demonic blood and can now attack with advantage until they explode into demons. Perhaps the monsters have the high ground and are able to attack with advantage from their perfect angle.
Use in-story circumstances to grant weaker monsters advantage on their attacks.
You can also, of course, take the path of tweaking attributes or giving monsters different armor to increase their AC. A particularly strong monster might have +2 to attack and damage. A heavily armored one might have an increase to AC based on its armor. There are lots of ways to change up monsters with just a few tweaks to its flavor.
Giving Yourself Flexibility to Run a Fun Game
We don't turn these dials to stick it to the characters (or the players). These dials give us the ability to change the pacing of the game so it's always the most fun. Perhaps we turn the dials to make things harder. Perhaps, instead, we turn the dials to give the characters a break after a long slog of battles. The tools that help us control pacing are vital for running a fun game and the ones we can use easily, like these monster dials, give us the improvisational aids we need to do so.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- 13 Tips to Speed Up D&D Combat
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Though not nearly as big a problem as it was in previous editions, some DMs still find combat in the fifth edition of D&D takes too long for their or their players' liking. Today I'll offer a few tips to speed up combat. Not all tips work well for all groups, so choose those that work well for your and your group.
Many times DMs keep track of initiative but don't show it to the players. Instead, make sure you share whatever initiative system you use so the players know what the order is and who is on deck. You can even put a player in charge of taking initiative instead of doing it yourself. Easy initiative cards are a great way to go.
Use Side Initiative and Go Around the Table
For shorter skirmishes, skip having each character roll initiative individually and go around the table instead. Have one player roll for the group with no modifiers versus the monster with no modifiers. Or, instead, let the circumstances decide whether monsters or characters go first and then go around the table. Alternate which direction you go so no one ends up last all the time.
Use Average Monster Damage
The Monster Manual lists average damage for every monster in the book as the default. Though only about one in ten surveyed DMs use static monster damage, it's an easy way to speed up combat, particularly when using a lot of monsters. Give it a try, at least for less important monsters.
Run Theater of the Mind
More than half of surveyed DMs use a 5-foot-per-square gridded battle map and miniatures or tokens for combat. This can be a lot of fun for big crunchy battles with lots of different monsters and interesting terrain. For quick skirmishes, try running combat in the theater of the mind or use a quick abstract battle map. Most battles don't need to be big knock down, drag out slug fests. Keep theater of the mind combat in your toolbox and use it for battles where positioning isn't nearly as important. It will speed up a lot of your battles.
Use Fewer Monsters and Use Monsters of the Same Type
Speed up combat by using fewer monsters and using monsters of the same type. It's much easier to run a fight against four ogres than it is to run a fight with two ogres, six goblins, and a hobgoblin war mage. Instead of trying to differentiate monsters with mechanics, differentiate monsters with your in-world descriptions. Describe the unique weapon each ogre wields or their own particular appearance, style, or mannerisms. Make battles unique by describing in-world differences instead of worrying about mechanics.
Keep Battlegrounds Simple
Simpler combat areas make for faster battles. The temptation to make every battleground interesting is strong, but sometimes a room without a lot of obstacles or a narrow hallway is all you need. Not every fight needs to be a tactical chess match. Sometimes you just surround an ogre and beat it into the ground.
Run Easier Battles
Not every battle needs to be a perfectly balanced hard fight for the characters. Throw lots of low challenge monsters at the characters and let them have fun destroying them with powerful spells and attacks. Use the cleave rules from the Dungeon Master's Guide so melee attackers can cleave through opponents like Conan the Barbarian. Easy fights are a great way to have some fun and not take up a lot of time. Of course, consider running these easier fights off the grid to save some time.
Run with Fewer Players
It's not always possible to select the number of players in your game but, if you can, four players are generally ideal. With four players you get lots of synergy between characters but each character gets a good deal of screen time. This also makes battles much easier to manage than those with five or more players. Fewer players means fewer monsters so everything gets easier.
Use Horde Guidelines for Lots of Monsters
It's fun to run battles with dozens to hundreds of monsters and yet seems completely paralyzing to do so. Instead of running each monster independently use the Sly Flourish horde guidelines to run lots of monsters easily. Here they are for easy reference:
- Tally damage done to the horde instead of tracking damage done to individual monsters. Every time any monster in the horde takes damage equal to an individual monster's hit points, remove that monster. Round monster hit points to the nearest 5 or 10 to make life easy.
- Anytime a bunch of monsters in the horde attacks or makes a saving throw, assume one quarter of them succeed. Round up or down depending on the circumstances. If they have advantage, half succeed. If they have disadvantage, assume one in ten succeed or maybe they all fail.
Determine Targets Randomly
Instead of carefully choosing targets, roll to determine the character a monster attacks. If a lot of monsters are attacking at once spread it around to the whole group unless a character is specifically trying to stop it. It's a quick way to determine how the battle goes and requires zero thought from the DM.
Reveal the Monster's AC
Once the characters have attacked the monster a few times, reveal the AC of the monster so players can figure out if they hit or miss without having to consult you. You can even write it down and show it to them so they can reference it during the fight.
Use Hit Point, Attack, and Damage Dials to Pace Combat
Never feel like you have to run a fight using the averages for damage and hit points. To increase the threat but speed up the fight, you can decrease the hit points of the monsters and increase their damage. Now they're going down fast but are super scary when they hit.
Hit points, damage, the number of attacks, and the number of monsters are all dials you can turn to keep the pace of a battle fast and exciting. Turn those dials during a fight for the fun of the game.
Use "Combat Outs"
Use alternative goals in combat other than the full-scale slaughter of one side or another. Give the characters goals that don't require them to kill every monster they see. These goals may be quick and dangerous, keeping the fun high but the length of the battle shorter. See Dave Chalker's article on the Combat Out for more.
Don't Lose the Fiction
Though we seek to strip things down as much as possible to keep combat fast, never lose the story. Start and end with the story. Describe what's happening in the world, not the mechanics at the table. It can be tempting to throw away all the flowery descriptions but it's those descriptions that make D&D a fantasy instead of simply a tactical wargame. Revel in the fiction and keep the mechanics fast so you and your friends can enjoy awesome battles against terrible foes.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- GM Intrusions and Complications in D&D
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The excellent science fantasy RPG Numenera and its underlying system, the Cypher System, includes a mechanic known as the GM Intrusion. The Numenera supplement, Taking the Narrative by the Tail: GM Intrusions by Monte Cook, gives deeper insight into this mechanic for under a buck.
Monte Cook describes the GM Intrusion this way:
GM intrusions are the primary at-the-table tool for GMs to participate in helping to craft the story that the group is creating. In the same way that a player contributes by stating what her character will do as her action, a GM intrusion is the GM’s action. It’s the GM’s contribution to the ongoing events to make things more interesting.
Numenera and the Cypher System refine this sort of interaction with a mechanic—the GM Intrusion—but we can take the idea and bring it right into our D&D games. We can even use D&D's inspiration mechanic as the carrot of a GM intrusion stick. Something in the world complicates the lives of the characters, maybe one character in particular, and they gain inspiration for their trouble.
Adding Complications to Your D&D Game
I'm not much of a fan of the term "intrusion". It seems so...intrusive. I prefer the term "complication". As Monte Cook describes in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, this is a technique GMs have been using for decades, we just didn't have a mechanic for it. It may be something you already bring to your games. Sometimes a complication just feels right and so you drop it in.
Complications and Beats
Complications fit well with the idea of "beats" from Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Complications are downward beats, bad things happening to the characters, and we likely want another form of GM intrusion for an upward beat. Something nice that happens to the characters. That's a topic for another day.
The Nuances of Downward Beats
This is a bit of advanced DMing. Knowing how to bring in such complications so they enhance the fun of the game and don't just screw players is important. You don't want such complications to take away agency or just bone characters. You want such complications to move the story in new and fun directions. Think hard and watch reactions to see how such complications are taken in. Do they stay in character and seem genuinely excited about what will happen or do they get frustrated out of game? Knowing which complications to drop in when and how is a valuable skill that takes time to develop.
What do these complications look like? Here's a list of twenty example complications to inspire your own when you're running your game. You can see dozens of examples in Taking the Narrative by the Tail, making it well worth the buck.
- The main villain makes a surprise visit.
- That unoccupied garderobe turned out to be occupied after all.
- The local hobgoblins just began their infiltration defense drill practice.
- Something catches on fire.
- Mercenary reinforcements show up.
- The king's foppish advisor turns out to be an expert swashbuckler.
- The floor collapses.
- Someone has to sneeze.
- The evil prince keeps a pen of pet guard drakes.
- A parade of hooded monks turns the corner to walk through the middle of the street fight.
- Someone else is robbing the noble's manor at the same time.
- The king's daughter chooses right now to escape her overbearing father as the characters break into the castle.
- Of course there's a black pudding in the commode.
- Not the bees!
- That detailed trap was actually cover for another far more devious trap.
- Something is possessed.
- The guide has no idea where they're going and leads the characters into a trap.
- A strange magic item causes a wild magic surge.
- A sundered pillar causes a balcony to collapse.
- The boat starts sinking.
Complications: The World's Action
As Monte Cook describes, think of these complications as the actions of the world in the same way the players describe the actions of their characters. Sometimes the characters do something and the world responds. Other times, things just happen. Above all, these complications serve one goal—to make the story more interesting, more exciting, and more fun.
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This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running Session Zeros
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Both Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and Tasha's Cauldron of Everything describe running a session zero for your D&D games. This article summarizes one approach for session zero sessions to help you baseline your D&D campaigns for both you and your players. While the books above go into more depth, hopefully this article gives you an idea of the basics.
What Is a Session Zero?
A session zero is a game session run before a larger campaign in which you and your players talk about the upcoming campaign before you actually run it. Session zeros are intended to get you and your players all on the same page about the game you plan to play, and the campaign you plan to experience. Some DMs go in with little prepared, maybe not even knowing what campaign the group will play. Others, like me, have a good idea what campaign we'll be playing and want to baseline the principals and story of the game with the players.
Session zeros help everyone manage their expectations about what the game is and what it is not. It helps tie the characters to one another, to the world in which they exist, and to the main story of the campaign. It helps everyone understand what kind of game you'll be playing and helps define the boundaries of that game.
Session zeros are a huge benefit when running longer campaigns.
The Session Zero Checklist
When you're running a session zero, here's a list of things you likely want to go over during the session.
- The campaign world and it's defining characteristics.
- The "six truths" of the campaign. What are the major defining characteristics of the world that the characters know but the players may not?
- The main driver for the campaign. What are the characters trying to do?
- Any major factions the characters might already know about.
- Options for the characters' patrons. Tasha's Guide to Everything includes good sets of character patrons you can use directly or as an example.
- Safety tools you'll use in the game. What sort of content can players expect and what can they do if the game heads into territory where they're uncomfortable? See my safety tools article or Monte Cook Games's free Consent in Gaming for ore.
- Character creation guidelines. What sorts of characters will have the most fun in the campaign? What books can the players use to build their characters?
- Character integration. What brings the characters together into a cohesive group? This is a great interactive part of the session that binds the characters together. Often tying them all to a single group patron is an easy way to do it.
- Go over any house rules. Do you have any house rules that break away from the game? Now is the time to go over them. It may be things like how you run theater of the Mind combat for example.
- If you need it, this is your time to talk about player etiquette, your rules on cheating, or any other behavioral issues you need to address head on. Nows the time.
You may have other things you want to go over before your campaign begins. This is the time to do it.
Session Zero Campaign One-pager
When I prepare for a new campaign, I like to put together a single page campaign worksheet so my players can quickly internalize what I'm planning for the campaign. You can see my example campaign one-pagers below:
- Descent into Avernus Campaign One-pager
- Ghosts of Saltmarsh Campaign One-pager
- Eberron Second Mourning Campaign One-pager
- Rime of the Frostmaiden Campaign One-pager
I've designed these guides with the following principles.
- They fit on one page so players will actually read them.
- They tell the players what this campaign is about.
- They describe what makes this campaign different from others.
- They offer any group factions.
- They offer guidance for building characters best suited for the campaign.
- Describe content and safety tools.
You can build your own one-page campaign guide from these principles and examples for your own campaigns.
Once we've gotten past the main part of a session zero, I like to run a short session with the characters. I like to start strong and bring the characters right into the campaign with a fun short adventure and a good hook for what's to come. If the characters begin at 1st level (they almost always do in my campaigns), I like to give them a small challenge, some opportunity for roleplaying, and then level them to 2nd level before the real adventure begins.
When everyone's on the same page about a game and a campaign, campaigns run much smoother and everyone has a great time. If players come to the table without any expectations defined, they'll bring their own and a mismatch in expectations isn't fun for anyone.
Take the time to plan and run a session zero before your next big game and get everyone off on a grand adventure leading off on the right foot.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Running D&D Combat with an Abstract Battle Map
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
We often break up D&D combat into two categories: combat on a 5 foot per square grid (which we'll refer to as "gridded combat"), and running combat with pure narration (often called "theater of the mind").
In reality, there are many forms of combat that sit around and in-between these systems. There's text-based battle maps, zone-based combat, abstract distances like those found in 13th Age, combat using online tools like Roll 20 or Owlbear Rodeo, and combat run on fancy Dwarven Forge terrain. How we run combat can be completely unique to us and this is a powerful feature of D&D. We get to decide with our players how we want to play it.
Today I'm going to offer one of my favorites: the abstract battle map.
The abstract battle map is a rough visualization of what a combat area looks like. We can draw it on a sheet of paper or a dry-erase battle map. We can even represent it in text. We can use tokens or miniatures to represent characters and mosters as we choose, or we can just draw in circles or letters to represent characters and monsters like we're drawing a football play diagram.
The abstract battle map shows important physical features like terrain, hazards, areas that provide cover, and other landmarks. It also shows the loose position of characters and monsters. Unlike gridded combat, the actual distances of the map aren't set in five foot squares. Instead, distances are a loose approximation and the map is mainly there to show relative positions.
We can mix our abstract map with zone-based combat or more loose theater of the mind guidelines. My concept of text-based battle maps is one example of an abstract battle map you can do in a text channel while playing online.
One of the biggest complaints DMs and players describe when discussing running D&D combat in the theater of the mind is a lack of shared understanding of the details of combat between DMs and players. The abstract map helps close that gap and does it without losing the freedom and imagination we enjoy when running combat in the theater of the mind.
The abstract battle map is very flexible. You can do it for ten cents with a sheet of paper and a pencil or for tens of thousands of dollars with a custom gaming table, 3d terrain, and custom miniatures. It fits whatever budget and materials you have for D&D.
And here's a dirty secret for you. The faster, cheaper, and looser the abstract map, the more room it has for our imagination. The more detailed it gets, the less players listen to in-world descriptions and fill in the blanks with their own ideas. They'll rely on the map more and more, forgetting the smell of the caverns or the echoing sounds of a faraway waterfall. Some Xs and Os on a piece of paper helps players understand general positions and their imaginations fill in the other details.
The abstract map is a bridge between full-featured tactical gridded combat and fully narrated theater of the mind combat. It gives our imagination the freedom to build fantastic scenes of high adventure in our head and still offers enough of a representation of the sitiuation so players feel empowered to make meaningful choices.
Add the abstract map to your DM's toolbox.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- VideoSafety Tools
New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!
Safety tools provide simple rules to make sure everyone's comfortable and having a good time during our D&D games. There are a lot of different safety tools we can choose from to bring the right ones to our game. Today I'm going to focus on two: "lines and veils" and "pause for a second".
For a video on this topic, see my Safety Tools Youtube Video.
Quick Guide for My Preferred Safety Tools
Here's a set of safety tools you can easily incorporate into your game to ensure you and your players have what you need to run a fun and comfortable game. Discuss these with your group during your session zero before your campaign has begun, and whenever a new player joins the group. These are intended to work both in-person and when playing online.
- Give your players a list of potentially disturbing subject matter that may come up in the campaign you're planning. You can use the checklist in Monte Cook Games's free Consent in Gaming for an example list of potential topics. Discuss this list with your players during your session zero and ask if they have any problems with anything on the list.
- Come up with a list of "lines" (topics that should never come up at all) and "veils" (topics to be handled off-screen or in the abstract) for your game. Discuss this list with your players and add any other lines or veils they come up with. Write down the additions and send the revised list out to your players.
- Tell your players that anyone (including you) can say "pause for a second" any time during the game to break character and discuss the current situation out of character, including stating "I'm not comfortable with where this is going". The phrase "pause for a second" interrupts anything else going on in the game. It's used to break character and discuss or ask questions about anything going on in-game. Think of this as a verbal X card.
Why We Need Safety Tools
Humans are complicated creatures. We've all led unique lives and many of us have dealt with trauma from a wide range of potential sources, situations, or phobias. Whatever these experiences are, we don't need to bring them into our D&D games when we're all just hoping to sit around the table (virtual or physical) and have a few laughs with our friends.
Our adventures aren't always G-rated affairs. As an example, when getting ready to run Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden I wrote down potentially traumatic themes in the adventure and had quite the list at the end including:
- Deadly Cold
- Mental assault
- Ritual sacrifice
- Parasitic monsters
- Child endangerment
- Violence towards animals
That's a hell of a list and I doubt everyone's fully comfortable with everything on that list. Incest? Seriously?
If we're playing games with more extreme themes like Rime of the Frostmaiden and Descent into Avernus, safety tools are valuable tool to ensure we're steering the game towards a good time for everyone at our table.
Not as Hard As You Think
Safety tools don't need to be a big deal and any group can benefit from them. Even if you've been gaming with your friends for a long time and know them well, you never know if a topic will take a hard turn and adversely affect them. Even they might not realize how something will affect them until it happens. Why not offer a simple tool to give everyone the opportunity, without a big confrontation, to say that they're not happy with the current situation?
There are many different types of safety tools. For more on tor topic see the TTRPG Safety Toolkit and Consent in Gaming. Today we're going to look at a couple of tools we can use together for both in-person and online games.
Campaign Subjects and Themes
When we're first considering a campaign, we can list the specific subjects or themes that some might find troubling. If you want an idea of the sort of things you may want to mention, check out the checklist in Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games. It's not perfect (it doesn't mention slavery for example) but it's a good start.
Lines and Veils
Lines and veils work alongside our list of themes mentioned above. Some players may have hard lines to avoid certain themes such as no sexual violence, no harm to children, or no character-driven torture or harm to animals. Some players may prefer to have themes "veiled" — keeping the details off-screen. Torture, slavery, sacrifice, and NPC-based harm to animals may be ok but only if they happen off screen. During the game, we don't dwell on veiled themes.
When we're first sitting down to prepare our session zero, we can define our own list of lines and veils to begin with and let the players add to it during the session.
Lines and veils are a two-way street. The GM can mention what's off limits for the table, what's veiled, and what potentially sensitive topics might come up in the campaign. Players can mention other topics that may not have been mentioned but could cause problems if they do.
This need not be a long conversation but it's an important one — particularly if you're playing with players who might not know your style. Even if you do know your players very well, it's still a useful conversation to have.
"Pause for a Second"
Even after you have a solid list of potentially troubling topics and a good idea of your table's lines and veils; you still want another safety fallback. Not everyone knows what will bother them until it starts coming up during the game. We need a tool that lets players communicate their discomfort without causing a big confrontation.
The X card by John Stavropoulos is the most popular safety tool of this sort. The GM puts a 3x5 card in front of each player with an X on it. If the game is going in a direction uncomfortable to a player, the player can tap the X card and let the GM know they're not comfortable.
The X card can feel strange for a group that isn't used to it. Instead, there's an easier verbal version I think fits better into our typical gameplay from a system called Script Change by Beau Sheldon.
Script Change offers up that we can say "pause", "fast forward", "rewind", or "frame by frame" to change the pacing of the current scene. That's all good but I think "pause" is the most important piece and we can work it into a simple bit of natural language thusly:
"Pause for a second"
This is the verbal way of tapping the X card. It's a way for players or GMs to stop what's going on in-game and pop out of character to make sure things are going in the right direction or steer the direction.
While this phrase is in natural language, GMs should clearly define it during a session zero so everyone knows that when someone says it, we all need to break out of character and pay attention to what the person asking for a pause is saying.
This also works very well in online games where not everyone might see someone holding up an X card or typing it into a chat. "Pause for a second" should immediately interrupt whatever else is going on.
The person calling for the pause can bring up what they need, the others agree, and the game moves forward. Here are a few examples:
"Pause for a second. Let's skip the details on the sacrifice."
"Pause for a second. Can the spiders be something else?"
"Pause for a second. I don't need the details of the sex scene, can we skip forward?"
"Pause for a second. I'm not comfortable beating this goblin for information."
"Pause for a second. I'd like to slow down and make sure we're all cool with the decisions we're making."
Like the X card, the person asking for the pause need not explain why they're asking. It's important that the group respect the privacy of the person asking and recognize that they simply don't want something or want to steer the game away from certain subject matter.
"Pause for a second" can be used for numerous purposes. If the characters are having a conflict about what to do with a potentially dangerous magic item, we can say "Pause for a second. Out of character, are you ok destroying the item if the others vote that way? Do we need to do something else?" Not everything needs to be about big traumatic experiences, we can normalize its use by ensuring everyone's on the same page in lots of circumstances. This makes it less confrontational when someone does use it to check in on a potentially traumatic situation.
Safety Tools: A Simple Technique to Keep Things Fun
Safety tools are an easy way to ensure everyone around the table is having a good time. They're not overbearing. They only take a little time to implement, and they put in place some powerful tools to make sure the players behind the characters are having a great time. Find the right tools to bring to your own game to ensure you and your players are having a great time sharing tales of high adventure.
The topic of safety tools has exploded in the last few years. Here are some of the resources I found most valuable while researching this topic.
- Campaign Safety & Consent Checklist
- Consent in Gaming
- Digital RPG Consent Checklist
- Optional Rule Safety Concent RPG Checklist
- Safety tool reference by Tomer Gurantz
- Script Change Printable
- Script Change
- Spelltheory on Safety Tools
- The X card
- TTRPG Safety Toolkit Resources
- TTRPG Safety Toolkit
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Run Easy Battles
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Run easy battles.
Easy battles are a wonderful tool for D&D DMs. They add upward beats to your game when you need them. They open up interesting options for players who can now choose multiple ways to deal with easily defeated foes. They let players show off how their skills and powers have grown without much worry of the threat. They open up the story in ways no one can predict.
Easy battles are also a great way to inject some theater of the mind combat into a game that otherwise focuses on a gridded battle map and tokens or miniatures. Many DMs who rely exclusively on gridded map and tokens often complain that easy battles take up too much time. If you're going to bother setting up a battle map and tokens, why not make it a hard battle? If the battle is hard, it surely needs the minute tactics of a five foot grid, right? This feeds into a downward spiral. Every battle is hard because it's a waste of time to run easy battles on a battle map and people require a battle map because every battle is hard and tactical agency is important. Break the cycle with some easy theater of the mind fights.
Too many hard battles leads towards hopelessness and frustration. It's a continual string of downward beats, even when they win, because they only win by the skin of their teeth. Players don't get to show off their abilities to destroy easy foes because monsters keep going up in power at the same rate.
Here are a few tips to introduce some easy battles into your game:
- Add zone-based, abstract, or theater of the mind combat as options in your game for easier battles.
- Let the story dictate what monsters lurk around in an area.
- Oscillate between easy and hard fights to maintain an exciting pace in your game. Maybe it's two sleepy orcs or twelve armored ogres depending on the circumstances.
- Worry less about draining the characters' resources. Let the story drive what challenges the characters face.
Building Situations, Not Encounters
I've written before about building situations, not encounters and the importance of letting encounters occur organicaly when you're running the game. We can build encounters from two variables: what's happening in the world and what's fun at the game. We start by asking ourselves "what makes sense given the current situation" and then modify this by asking "what will be fun right now?". It might make sense for an entire army of hobgoblins to show up but if the characters have already faced large amounts of foes, maybe it's more fun for only two hobgoblins to show up; the two sent off on latrine duty.
Our goal isn't to burn down resources or run some ideal number of easy and hard encounters in an adventuring day. Our job is to set the stage for the world and let it react to the characters. We do this by starting with the story and then modifying it for the fun of the game.
Upward and Downward Beats
Excitement and energy in a game come from oscillating upward and downward beats; an idea described in Hamlet's Hit Points by Robin Laws. Easy battles are an easy way to inject an upward beat. Players don't get stressed out when their 11th level characters teleport into the garderobe of a fortress only to find a single troll sitting on the commode. That's an upward beat. Facing ten armored war trolls swinging weapons dripping in acid, that's stressful. That's a downward beat. It may turn into an upward beat if the characters succeed but with the resources drained it's still going to feel like a struggle. Too many battles like that in a row feels hopeless. It feels like a slog. Throw in a good share of easy fights and let the players have fun choosing how to kick them into orbit.
Play to See What Happens
Easy fights are great fun for DMs because we don't know how the players will choose to deal with them. Sometimes a fight against a troll sitting on a commode may be the most exciting one if that troll could yell and summon a whole ziggurat of war trolls on the party. Battles against weaker foes have many more options for the characters than battles against hard foes. Generally speaking, when facing a powerful force, your only option is to unload everything you have and kill them. When facing two sleepy orcs, however? Now the options open up.
Easy Battles: A Useful DM Tool
Add easy battles to your DM toolbox. Easy battles add upward beats to your game when you need them, give the players the chance to show off their power, and let the story of your game go in new and interesting directions.
Send feedback to email@example.com.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Ending Campaigns
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At some point our D&D campaigns come to an end, hopefully by a point in the story and not due to real-life events. Today we'll talk about how to run awesome endings for our D&D campaigns.
Kitchen Sink Final Battles
Often the best conclusion we can have in our D&D games is a nice big final fight. Whether it's Tiamat, Iymrith, Strahd, or Acererak; good final battles close campaigns in a strong way.
Building great final battles is hard. That's why Scott Fitzgerald Gray, James Introcaso, and I partnered up to write Fantastic Lairs which gives you twenty three big bad boss fights for your D&D games.
There are a few other things we can do to make our boss fights awesome:
Run waves of monsters. Monster waves are a great way to hit characters hard and is particularly useful when challenging high level characters. Throw waves of monsters before the boss shows up. This lets the boss show up at their own time and in their own way so the characters can't overprepare and kill them in one shot. The pace of the waves is also under your control.
Make the environment awesome. Split the battle across two sides of a portal to hell. Center it around a massive arcane gate about to explode. Set your battle on a huge crashing airship or in a room with a huge soul-eating machine hanging above a massive pool of lava. Make the environment of your final battle awesome. Give it some interesting mechanical effects that affect both characters and monsters alike.
Keep your hands on the dials. Balancing boss battles so you get perfect edge-of-the-seat excitement out of your players is hard to do. Luckily we DMs have some dials we can turn during combat to change things up. Adding waves of monsters or increasing their pace is one big dial. Adding or removing monsters is another. Increasing or decreasing hit points is a third. Adding or removing attacks or damage is another. We can tweak all of these things behind the screen, making sure that the threat keeps things exciting.
You can find more tips in our Collected Experiences Running Boss Fights.
Give Them What They Want
Fun stories surprise us with twists and turns but those twists and turns rarely serve well during the ending of a story. I wrote about this before in Breaking Endings where we looked at the ending of the TV show Breaking Bad. While the ending of that show broke many of the rules set by the rest of the show, it gave us what we wanted. A nice satisfying ending. Not all shows treat us so well.
While you might be inclined to add some crazy twists and turns to your campaign's conclusion, ask yourself if that's really what the players want. You can even ask them what they want and then give it to them. Make the ending memorable and satisfying.
One Year Later
I love time-jumps in stories. It's always awesome to fill in the blanks when time skips ahead and we don't know what happened in between.
One of my favorite tricks for ending a campaign is to ask the players where they see their characters one year after the final conclusion of the campaign. Often the stories I receive are the most interesting in the campaign. This is a way to fully hand the story over to the players. You have no new direction for the campaign at this point so you don't have to steer them at all. The characters can get married and settle down on a farm. They can become warlords in a far-away land or professors at a prestigious new arcane college. They can unite factions or start a warforged circus to soften the hardships between warforged and other humanoids.
I've asked for "one year later" stories from my players in a half-dozen campaigns now and I've never been disappointed. One-year-later stories are wonderful.
Teos Abadia takes this a step further by asking for stories 10 to 100 years later. Let the players take it as far as they want.
A Bookend to a Fantastic Tale
We want our campaign endings to be fun, memorable, and satisfying. Most often we're in danger of over-thinking it. Ask your players what they want, build in a fun climactic encounter, and ask them to talk about their characters one year after the ending. Sit back and listen to the end of a fantastic tale.
Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »
- Gems of the D&D Dungeon Master's Guide
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The Dungeon Master's Guide is an under-appreciated and undervalued tome of useful information and tools for D&D Dungeon Masters. Today we're going to look at some of the the Dungeon Master's Guide' hidden gems.
How to Read the Dungeon Master's Guide
The organization of the Dungeon Master's Guide is puzzling and, I'd argue, not the best way to parse the job of being a dungeon master. Instead of reading it front to back, I suggest starting with part 2, followed by part 3, and then part 1. This puts adventure building ahead of worldbuilding and content about the outer planes; useful information best left to the end of the book.
The DMG contains lots of useful advice for dungeon masters spread widely throughout the book. Here are some of its most useful gems:
Core Assumptions (Chapter 1, "The Big Picture", pg 9). Useful to understand what a default D&D world looks like. Your own world may vary from this but it's useful to understand what a default world looks like in D&D and how it works with the default mechanics, spells, and magic items of the rest of the game.
Start Small (Chapter 1, "Creating a Campaign", pg 25). Good advice buried in a worldbuilding section; this section helps DMs recognize that the most important parts of a campaign are the parts surrounding the characters.
Chapter 2: Creating a Multiverse (pg 43-68). While not directly practical in most D&D campaigns, the flavor of the multiverse can fill in the details of many ancient tombs or wizard towers. The imagery and iconography of the planes can teach the players a lot about what lurks outside of their known world.
Mapping a Wilderness (Chapter 5, pg 108). This section actually offers excellent advice for running pointcrawls without ever using the term.
Useful DM Tools and Inspiration
Starting at Higher Levels (Chapter 1, "Tiers of Play", pg 38). How much gold should characters have if they start at a higher level? How many magic items in a high-magic campaign? This table has you covered.
Dungeon Hazards (Chapter 5, "Mapping a Dungeon", pg 105). Brown molds, green slime, and webs all help fill dungeons with interesting terrain we might otherwise forget.
Airborne and Waterborne Vehicles (Chapter 5, "Unusual Environments", "The Sea", pg 118). Are the characters looking to buy a sailing ship or airship? This section has the basics covered.
Traps and damage (Chapter 5, "Traps", pg 121). The core rules for building your own traps. Mix it with the random trap generator on page 297.
Downtime Activities (Chapter 6, pg 127-131). Excellent additions to the downtime activities offered in the Player's Handbook. You can expand these further with the downtime activities in Xanathar's Guide to Everything.
Epic boons (Chapter 7, 231-232). Looking to give your characters a nice powerful boost without a physical item? Epic boons are your answer.
Advantage and Disadvantage (Chapter 8, "Using Ability Scores", pg 239). A great section that goes beyond the basics of advantage and disadvantage. Instead it shows DMs how to use these powerful tools to improvise situations in any given scene.
Inspiration (Chapter 8, "Using Ability Scores", pg 240-241). I often hear complaints about inspiration. This section offers many different ways you can handle giving out inspiration, some of which you can use together.
Tracking Initiative (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 247). Lots of options for tracking and recording initiative for new DMs.
Tracking Monster Hit Points (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 247). Includes my favorite method of assigning an interesting in-world physical characteristic to monsters to help identify them.
Bloodied rule (Chapter 8, "Combat", "Tracking Monster Hit Points", pg 248). Yes, "bloodied" exists in 5e! While it isn't a mechanical condition anymore, you can still describe a creature being bloodied and this section tells you how.
Monsters and Critical Hits (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 248). Describes how to handle a monster's critical hit when using average damage; a common question.
Improvising Damage (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 249). An excellent set of tables to help you improvise damage from a falling bookcase to tumbling into a vortex into the elemental plane of fire.
Adjudicating Areas of Effect (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 249). Guidelines for running areas of effect using the "theater of the mind". One of my favorite sections. See running Theater of the Mind combat for more.
Handling Mobs (Chapter 8, "Combat", pg 250). A table to determine how many monsters might successfully hit (or make a saving throw) given the monster's attack bonus (or save bonus) and the target's armor class (or save DC). It's missing a discussion on pooling damage across a large number of monsters but it still gets us close to being able to fight an unlimited number of monsters. See horde rules for more.
Ability Options (Chapter 9, pg 263-264). Looking to simplify D&D's skill system? This section has lots of options including background or class based proficiency bonuses. I doubt anyone uses these optional rules but they could make for a much simpler version of D&D in which you get your proficiency bonus to attribute checks based on your character's class or background.
Hero points (Chapter 9, "Ability Options", pg 264). A mechanic used in the Eberron Oracle of War campaign that stacks on top of inspiration. If you want another way to boost characters, here's an answer.
Initiative Variants (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 270). Lots of alternative methods for running initiative.
Acton Options (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 271). A favorite of many; this section describes optional combat actions characters might take including disarming, tumbling, or climbing up on monsters. Lots of neat options a DM might use given the circumstances of a battle.
Cleaving Through Creatures (Chapter 9, "Combat Options", pg 272). A great way to make a melee character feel like Conan, cleaving options let damage carry over from one slain enemy into another. A great circumstantial rule when fighting lots of monsters.
Monster Features (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 280-281). A huge list of monster features you can apply to custom monsters of your choice. Goes hand-in-hand with the Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating table on page 274.
NPC Features (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 282). An overlooked table that offers options to build variant NPCs of different races. The skeleton and zombie ones in particular give you a huge range of undead versions of existing monsters. Mix these with the race-less NPCs in the Monster Manual. A few more of them would have really helped.
Monsters with Classes (Chapter 9, "Creating a Monster", pg 283). Want to give a fire giant a few classes of barbarian? This section tells you how to add character class features to your monsters to shake things up.
Maps (Appendix C, pg 310-315). A wonderful selection of about ten maps including one I designed myself for Vault of the Dracolich! If you ever need a town, cave, or dungeon map, this section has what you need.
Awesome Random Tables to Inspire Your Game
The DMG is also packed with great tables to inspire your game. Easily overlooked, these tables can help you build truly fantastic adventures and campaigns. Next time you're starting to prep your game, give some of these tables a roll and see what comes up.
- World-shaking Events (Chapter 1, "Campaign Events", pg 27-32)
- Dungeon and Wilderness Goals (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 73)
- All the adventure building tables in Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", page 74 and 75.
- Event-based Goals (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 76)
- Framing Events (Chapter 3, "Adventure Types", pg 79)
- Villain Schemes and Methods (Chapter 4, "Villains", pg 94-95)
- Dungeon & Exotic Locations (Chapter 5, "Dungeons", pg 99)
- Dungeon Origin Details (Chapter 5, "Dungeons", pg 100-101)
- Monuments & Weird Locales (Chapter 5, "Mapping a Wilderness", pg 108-109)
- Current Calamity (Chapter 5, "Settlement", pg 112)
- Tavern Name Generator (Chapter 5, "Settlement", pg 113)
- Carousing (Chapter 6, "Downtime Activities", pg 128)
- Magic item special features (Chapter 7, "Magic Items", pg 142-143)
- Magic Item Table B (rare consumables) and F (uncommon permanent magic items) (Chapter 7, "Magic Items", pg 144 and 146)
- Madness Effects (short term) (Chapter 8, "Madness", pg 259)
- Chamber Purpose (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 292-295)
- Random traps (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 297)
- Random tricks (Appendix A, "Stocking a Dungeon", pg 298)
The DMG: Your D&D Toolbox
Easily overlooked, the Dungeon Master's Guide is a fantastic resource to help you fine tune your game and inspire your own games. Every six months or so, pull it out and skim it page by page to remind yourself what you can find within its pages. Inside you'll find limitless inspiration for your own fantastic adventures.
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This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.Read more »