Gnome Stew


    Gnome Stew

  • One Impossible Problem at a Time
    One Impossible Problem at a Time

    I mean, make the leap. What’s the worst that could happen?

    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
    A wizard and a magical dragon


    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.

    And Finally…

    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
    A puzzle with a missing piece

    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. 

    Replacement Ideas

    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 »
  • VideoGnomecast #115 – Being Mean to Your PCs
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang, Chuck, and JT for a discussion about how GMs being mean to their players’ characters can be done responsibly and make the game more fun for all. Can these gnomes be nicely mean enough to avoid getting thrown in the stew?

  • Be Prepared to Take the GM Leap
    Woman Leaping Off Cliff

    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 Guilt

    Let 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-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 Stories

     Shorter 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
    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.

    Monster Description


    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.

    Skeletal rats

    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!



    Read more »
  • Make The Most of Passive Modes in D&D and Other Games
    An adventurer stands before a cave entrance

    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.

    Sample Modes

    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.

    Final Thoughts

    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?



    Read more »
  • World Wide Wrestling Second Edition Review
    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.

    The Venue

    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
    • Moves
    • Wrestling
    • 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):

    • Local
    • Municipal
    • Regional
    • National
    • International

    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 Finish
    The 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.

    Missed Spot

    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
    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.

    Local 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.

    Heroic Scope

    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.

    Legendary Scope

    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.

    Epic Scope

    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.

    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!

    Read more »
  • VideoGnomecast #114 – Planewalking with Adam Bradford
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Jared and special guest Adam Bradford for a discussion about the new online gaming venue Demiplane. Can these intrepid adventurers jump through enough planes of existence to avoid getting thrown in the stew?

Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.