March 16 2017

Gnome Stew

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    Gnome Stew

  • Exploring Encounter Theory: How to Craft RPG Adventures
    Exploring Encounter Theory: How to Craft RPG Adventures

    Want to write better adventures?

    Want to prep more efficiently?

    Sick of players skipping all of your best content?

    Prep Smarter, Not Harder, with Encounter Theory

    Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Workbook is a fresh way to look at adventure design by Ben Riggs, the voice of the Ennie-Nominated Plot Points podcast. Using his background in teaching and adventure review, he dissects what we think of as an adventure and helps us get to the core of what makes a one great—the encounter.

    Adventure Craft and You

    How did you learn to write tabletop adventures for your players? You’ve had creative writing assignments in English, maybe even taken a course in creative writing. Perhaps, you started by delving into old D&D modules or stared at the cloudlike white space of a sheet of paper until a story began to form. But, what are the steps? Where are the instructions on how to do this? Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure?

    Could it be, that we don’t really know how to write an RPG adventure?

    But Pete, I’ve run many great adventures!

    Sure, but how did you do it? How do you write a good adventure, can you explain it? Better yet, can you show me how? A good GM can make the best of a badly written adventure just as they can homebrew their favorite system to work for any setting. It doesn’t have to be perfect to pass for fun. As GMs, we get SO good at improvising, that we can work with “good enough”. But, do you really want to settle for “good enough” adventures?

    Principles to Adventure By

    Why the encounter, because the encounter is the core experience of play and our most quantifiable unit. As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play.

    As Ben says, the encounter is where design meets play.
    Each encounter or scene feeds the player a description of the setting and the characters, something for the players to mentally chew on. Then, narrative control shifts as players are free to act on that description, often begging the question, what do you do? That’s the moment all of this work goes from prep to play.

    Description is the BIG word there. Adventure writing is hard, mostly because we drown the reader in it or offer too little, too generic, to capture the mood. Arguably, the greatest feature of Encounter Theory is that it can help a GM narrow down just how much description we should apply in adventure design.

    Guiding Principles of Encounter Theory Design:
    • Face the Player and Free the Player
    • Present Problems Not Solutions
    • Use the Dungeon as Adventure Structure
    • Give Playable, Specific, Sensory, and Short Description

    Encounter Theory is a method of efficiently focusing GMs on creating adventure plans that are ONLY player facing and that maximize player agency. Unlike other mediums of fiction, tabletop roleplaying is collaborative. So, providing any description that is not actionable for a player at the table is a waste of your prep time, as it doesn’t fit how the content is used (excess location history or long NPC backstories). Players need specific descriptive information that is short and sensory. They need to be provided description in a way that their characters can interpret (smell, sight, touch, hear, feel). Anything that does not help a player understand a situation through their character is more to read, more to say, and ultimately, more to delay play. Players come to play!

    Unlike writing short stories, the narrative of where play goes should be decided by the players, not the Game Master. A GM should present problems but avoid presenting solutions. That’s not to say that you can’t help players if they get stuck in the fog. It is to say that players should be free to create solutions and find their own way to the next encounter, their own way through the adventure. We have the freedom to explore endless options to solving problems, why limit ourselves to a few dialogue options like some sort of a video game.

    What Does This Look Like

    Imagine the model of a dungeon for your game session, plot plan, or campaign storyline. Players begin their adventure at its start with a call to action. As the GM, you set the scene, describing where they are, what’s going on, and a problem for them to fix. No matter how they go about solving their problem, there is a clue, a lead, to have them visit the next room, the next encounter. A series of encounters act as rooms leading to the climax, boss fight, or final revelation.

    Encounter Theory helps a GM create only as much information as is necessary, minimizing prep, and helping players to get to play faster. It trims down the size of adventures, so that we as GMs can get to running them faster. It helps to focus GMs on player facing information that is immersive (five senses) and to the point. When writing RPG adventures you shouldn’t be writing novels. We’ve learned how to write short stories, maybe even written books, but writing adventures isn’t the same. They are imaginary sandboxes put out for our players to play with, and for the GM to revel in. Save time and focus on your players. Give them what they need to find their fun!

    Want to Know More

    For more on Encounter Theory: The Adventure Design Handbook, pick up a copy at DriveThruRPG. The book offers a variety of playplans (as seen in images throughout) to help you put these principles into practice for a variety of settings and situations. Use the Adventure Starter to develop adventure ideas, the Opponent Starter to create worthy adversaries, the list goes on and on. Ben even includes a 5E adventure laid out as an example or for your use at the table. For more on Ben Riggs, adventure design, and his work chronicling TSR, download an episode of Plot Points.

    What did Ben miss?

    How would you add to Encounter Theory?

    How did you learn adventure design? 

    Read more »
  • Camdon Turned Me Into A Vampire–The Introduction
    Camdon Turned Me Into A Vampire–The Introduction

    One day, a few weeks ago, I received a message from the incomparable Camdon Wright. Camdon asked me if I would be interested in looking at Thousand Year Old Vampire, a single player “journaling” RPG by Tim Hutchings, Kickstarted in November of 2018.

    When I started reading through the PDF, I was seized with a cold and compelling thought. My greatest regret is that I cannot always playtest the games I am reviewing. This thought clouded my brain, burrowing deep into my consciousness, and caused me to focus on a singular aspiration—I could play this game!

    This is when I realized that I was doomed. Camdon had turned me into a vampire.

    Content Warnings

    I’m not planning on spending too much time on the potentially problematic aspects of the questions in this game, but I did want to issue a warning up front. The game intentionally asks you some hard questions, and puts you in bad situations where your vampire is likely to do terrible things.

    Because the prompts ask you pointed questions to determine your skills, resources, and contacts, when they reference these items that you have generated, you must resolve questions through the lens of the skills and resources you have. This often means that when all you have is a hammer, every mortal looks like a nail.

    While I’m not planning on making the choices too detailed, the game does funnel you towards the consequences of immortality and losing touch with humanity, so it may touch on some issues like the cheapening of human life, resolving threats through violence, and other events in the vampire’s history.

    How Does it Work?

    The game asks you a number of questions to establish your character, including the generation of skills, resources, memories, mortals, and immortals in the story.

    You can only have five total memories, with three experiences under each memory. Your experiences are essentially the answers to the questions that you generate from the prompts. Eventually, you start to lose memories. You can start a journal to save memories, but the journal is a physical object that you can lose, and those memories, once saved, aren’t really “part” of you anymore.

    Various prompts will ask you to spend resources or check off skills to resolve a situation. That means that if you only have a specific skill to resolve something, you need to answer the prompt in a manner that incorporates that skill.

    You roll d10 and subtract d6 from this, and this tells you how many prompts to jump ahead. The further forward in the prompts that you move, the closer you get to a question that essentially draws an end to the story of your vampire.

    Inspiration

    How did I come up with my starting point? If you know me, if you give me infinite options, I will spend infinite time trying to narrow down my options. To break this loop, I looked up an event exactly a thousand years from the date I was generating my vampire.

    The event I found in 1019 was Yaroslav I becoming the Grand Prince of Kiev with the help of the Novgorodians and Varangian mercenaries. This particular event jumped out at me for one reason—Godbrand, the Viking vampire from the Castlevania animated series on Netflix (voiced by Peter Stormare) was one of my favorite characters in the series. Viking vampire it is!

    Our Vampire

    We’re going to wrap things up by summarizing the vampire I created from the initial prompts in the game. As I answered questions, here is what developed:

    Skills

    • Killing with heavy weapons
    • Enduring hardships on the road
    • Knowing what business partners to trust

    Resources

    • My loyal troops
    • My hoard of gold
    • The goodwill of other Varangian mercenaries

    Mortals

    • Ranssi—the broker that found our band and made us wealthy as mercenaries
    • Anichka—the woman I have fallen in love with in Kiev, that my friends fear has made me soft
    • Konstantin—the Novgorodian soldier that causes trouble and hates my men as outsiders

    Immortal

    • The Black Wolf—a supernaturally large wolf that savaged me in the woods, and left me for dead. It is part of the local legends that all of us assumed was but a story to scare children.

    Marks

    • My fangs are always present

    Memory #1

    • Experience #1

      I am Jorgrimr, son of Julfir, come to Kiev to help the Great Prince secure his throne, for the promise of gold.

    Memory #2

    • Experience #1

      When my gold is delivered, I buy a lavish home in Kiev for Anichka, and possibly for myself.

    Memory #3

    • Experience #1

      After the city is secured, Konstantin’s troops threaten us, but Ranssi calms everyone with his words.

    Memory #4

    • Experience #1

      The mercenaries we saved last month come to our aid, and there is great friendship after the battle

    Memory #5

    • Experience #1

      I travel into the wilderness to duel with Konstantin, to rid myself of him. Instead, a huge black wolf savages me, and I inherit its fangs.

    Future Installments
    I am already worried that the prompts are going to tear my heart out as I deal with my bonds to my fellow mercenaries and Anichka.

    In this first article, I wanted to focus on just the creation of my vampire. I am already worried that the prompts are going to tear my heart out as I deal with my bonds to my fellow mercenaries and Anichka. I’m already hoping the people closest to me end up just . . . drifting away, rather than facing what I have become, and what that means for them. Tragedy right from the start!

    Journaling Games

    While we’re talking about journaling games, have you ever played one before? Which one? Did you feel like sharing that journal, or was it something that felt deeply personal when you finished? Has playing a journaling game every given you ideas for other games that you might be playing or running?

    As always, we would love to hear about this in the comments below. I’ll be looking for your responses. From the shadows. Hungrily. Are my teeth growing?

    Camdon!

    Read more »
  • mp3Gnomecast #75 – Get to Know an Old Gnome – Phil Vecchione
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang as she continues the “Get to Know an Old Gnome” series with one of the original gnomes, Phil Vecchione. Learn Phil’s gaming and blogging origins, his current projects, and his plans for the future. Will this founding gnome keep from finding himself in the stew this week?

  • The Indie Game Shelf – Unity
    The Indie Game Shelf - Unity

    Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun and new for you to enjoy!

    Unity

    Unity by Anson Tran and Zensara Studios is a GMed fantasy roleplaying game designed for 3 or more players (including a Game Master) to experience adventure in an apocalyptic fantasy setting. The game book contains not only plenty of setting history, but also a generous portion of short fiction to help communicate the feel of the world. The book also features plenty of beautiful full color artwork by Nguyen Dang Hoang Tri and Raph Lomotan and is worth flipping through for that alone.

    The rules structure of the game evokes the traditional school of RPG design, but it also makes use of some modern elements and streamlining techniques for a more cinematic feel. Though not, strictly speaking, a d20-based system, the rules are nonetheless built around the traditional polyhedral dice set, and the mechanisms will be familiar enough to anyone versed in d20-based games.

    The Story

    Rather than the game being narrowly focused on telling a particular story, Unity instead presents a detailed setting with a rich history. The text provides some recommendations for tone and theme, but the game otherwise offers an open invitation for a variety of play styles and narratives.

    The setting of the game is the titular world of Unity, known to its denizens as a single continent bracketed by two oceans, themselves bordered by a (thus far) impenetrable wall of storms and whirlpools. In addition, the world of Unity shares space with the Drift, a spiritual plane fed by the psychic and emotional experiences of the inhabitants of Unity. The history of Unity is one largely punctuated by the primary gods of the world (the Skyfather and the Ivory Queen) screwing up the world by creating intelligent life on it. Get ready for a tale.

    The gods first created the Valla, long-lived collectivists psychically linked together by Spirit Stones embedded in their foreheads. Unsatisfied with the Valla’s eventual lack of ambition to spread across the world, however, the gods then created the Furians, volcano-born craftspeople and warriors. Once the Valla and the Furians settled into peaceful trade relations, the gods tried again to create people who would finish the job of populating the world. The third attempt, the Humans, were made short-lived and vulnerable in an attempt to motivate them to thrive, which seemed to do the trick. Lacking the elder races’ divine physiological blessings, Humans learned to harness resources and develop technology, which put them on more equal footing with the others. Eventually, as happens, everyone went to war with each other.

    The game can be played to focus on the struggle of physical survival, but it also makes room for the quest for an exploration of better lands as well as the examination of moral thought and quandaries.
    The two gods, displeased by this development, reacted in different ways. The Skyfather disappeared and headed off to parts unknown. The Ivory Queen, encouraged by a whispered voice from somewhere beyond the void, decided to populate the world with horrible monsters to give all three races a common enemy to fight against. At first, this enemy, the Crimson Horde, did too good a job, nearly finishing off each of the earlier peoples. But in the end the Valla, Furians, and Humans banded together and drove the Horde out of civilized lands. This unification finally seemed like what the gods wanted, as it led to a Golden Age. However, the Children of Unity eventually turned their might against the gods themselves and killed the Ivory Queen.

    This act of deicide caused the Skyfather to return…and return angry. Raging at what the Children of Unity had done, he smote the world and broke it. The spiritual realm of the Drift, which had been amassing terrible psychic energies not only from the people warring among each other, but now also against the Horde, cracked open and spilled onto the world of Unity in what came to be known as the Great Calamity. Demons poured forth from the Drift, the dead on Unity rose from their graves, the technological automata the Humans had created as labor-saving devices awakened to sentience and revolted, and the world filled with corruption and blight. In addition, all three Children of Unity were divinely cursed: the Valla lost their collective psychic link, the inner strength of the Furians was twisted into uncontrollable rage, and a number of Humans inherited a supernatural disease called the Phage which ultimately resulted in the formation of an additional subrace, the Afflicted.

    It is into this world that the characters are thrust to begin their story. The world has been torn apart, literally and figuratively, by the Great Calamity. I call this apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic because the protagonists, like the societies of the world at large, are still trying to find their way in this new and dangerous situation. The world is wounded, but not dead. Dangers abound, but the people trying to survive still have access to martial might, mystical powers, and magical technology. A lot has gone poorly for the world, but a lot of hope remains. The game can be played to focus on the struggle of physical survival, but it also makes room for the quest for an exploration of better lands as well as the examination of moral thought and quandaries.

    In terms of genre markers and tropes, the game draws from a variety of traditions. The way the game is presented makes it seem based primarily on familiar fantasy ideas: fantastic peoples and creatures, gods and magic, epic tales of good and evil, and the like. There are, however, also strong elements of horror presented, particularly cosmic horror, existential horror, and body horror. I stop just short of calling the game dark fantasy or fantasy horror…though only just. The elements are present, but it doesn’t feel like the action-oriented game is strongly pushing a fear-based tone that I associate with the horror genre. In addition, the Afflicted feature mechanical body part replacements or augmentations reminiscent of a game revolving around cybernetics, and some of the magical technology available includes gigantic war engines known as Titan Rigs for that dash of mecha aesthetic. There’s a lot going on in this game!

    The Game

    The rules and structure of mechanics in Unity are at minimum reminiscent of traditional design. Characters are defined by the combination of several elements: Race (one of the three Children of Unity races or the Afflicted), Class, four Attributes (Might, Agility, Mind, and Presence), and three Core Paths (fairly freeform backgrounds that take the place of a skill list). In addition, a character’s Class confers Features, Perks, and Powers which are the primary pieces that differentiate Classes from one another and which let characters engage with the rules with more than the core resolution rolls.

    The primary resolution mechanic is a 2d10 + modifiers roll vs. a target number. The modifiers involve an Attack Rating and/or Defense Rating for combat rolls or Attribute and Core Path modifiers for skill checks. There is also a Benefit/Hindrance mechanic which includes an additional die to the pool which will either help (keep highest) or hinder (keep lowest) the result of the roll, as appropriate. Rolling doubles in combat introduces extra benefits, and rolling double tens is the equivalent of a critical hit (resulting in extra damage). The target number is generally an opponents Defense or Attack Rating (in combat) or a number based on the difficulty of the challenge (for skill checks).

    Combat is based on rounds, as in many traditional designs, but the turns within the rounds are team-based such that all the player characters act together, and then the GM-controlled characters act together. Initiative is primarily decided narratively, though under certain circumstances it can be altered in the first round by skill checks. There is a familiar action economy per turn, with one each of different categories of actions available (Standard, Movement, Quick, and the like).

    Departing from a more familiar trad structure, Class Powers are mostly fueled by an economy of power points specifically flavored to each Class. For example, Dreadnought Powers are fueled by Might, while Phantom Powers are fueled by Guile. The points are flavored differently for each Class, but the mechanics are mostly the same. Some Classes even use two different power point economies, and this is only one type of economy used in the game.

    Equipment is highly abstracted, divided into Necessities (which are spent during rest and recovery periods) and Gear (which represent the items of adventuring tools and similar available to the characters). There is a player-facing narrative currency called Spark Points (which are earned for descriptive prose and spent on mechanical bonuses to rolls) as well as a GM-controlled narrative currency called Ruin (accumulated by the passage of time and various character actions and spent by the GM on complications or to power opponent powers). Distance and position in combat are abstracted as well for a more fluid and cinematic approach than offered by grid-based maps. There is a traditional hit point track, and loss of all hit points leads to a death save mechanic called Fading.

    There are many other game mechanics, some of a more traditional bent and some more indie. There is a whole rules section for piloting a Titan Rig, which is a cooperative success-collecting exercise for the entire party. A session zero (pre-story collaborative character creation session) is explicitly recommended in the game. The “failing forward” technique is also explicit in the rules, as a failed combat roll results in the player choosing whether the attack misses or deals some damage while opening up the character to a counter-attack.

    Finally, I’d like to note that this game is best enjoyed with plenty of pre-game discussion about tone and content, and (as with all games) I cannot recommend enough the use of safety tools in play. There is much in the setting that can easily lead to problematic content at your table, and it’s worth taking that under advisement before diving in with both feet. The Afflicted in particular can easily strike notes of ableism if not handled with care. In addition, there may be troubling cultural elements present in, not just the history, but the present day of the playable peoples, like slavery and ritual suicide. It is explicit that part of the game is the examination of moral decisions and thought, but the game offers some ideas that players may not be willing to take on in play, and there are no warnings in the text to let you know. Proceed with understanding and care for your fellow players.

    The Shelf

    Unity is available for purchase in print and PDF from the Zensara Studios online store. Mechanically, this game is not only reminiscent of mid-to-late editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but some design elements (like Core Paths) also remind me strongly of 13th Age (one of my personal favorites in the fantasy d20-based space). Thematically, Unity falls somewhere for me in the neighborhood between Shadow of the Demon Lord and Numenera, a kind of mashup of fantasy horror and science fantasy.

    If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!

    Read more »
  • Consent in Gaming Review
    Consent in Gaming Review

    Generally speaking, I don’t usually review short-form products on Gnome Stew. Additionally, I often don’t do formal reviews for products that are free. I also try very hard not to do reviews for the same company in back to back review articles. This week’s review is going to be a special case. This week, I’m going to look at Consent in Gaming by Monte Cook Games, a free product released last week.

    If you have read a wide range of my reviews, you may have noticed that I am especially concerned with the roleplaying game industry providing better safety guidelines and content warnings in products. It is something I strongly believe in, and I hope it is the direction in which more game companies move.

    Online Storms

    One thing I wanted to address in this review is that this product was met with a lot of negative commentaries online the day it was released. Many people ridiculed the concept of a document that provides guidelines for consent at the game table. Other people made the case that concern for the boundaries of others at the game table would ruin a gaming group or the hobby as a whole.

    The Thing Itself

    The product is a 13 page PDF, including a cover, 12 pages of guidelines, and a Consent Checklist on the final page. The product features pieces from MCG’s impressive art library, and is formatted like other MCG products, with double column layout and additional space for sidebars worked into the page design.

    Structure

    In the 12 pages of discussion on consent, eight sidebars are summarizing the information presented in the text, or reprinting relevant portions of Your Best Game Ever. The sidebar format is also used to provide a side note to various topics brought up in the text, without interrupting the flow of the discussion.

    In addition to the initial presentation of the topic, which stresses that no one but you can set your boundaries, and how the default assumption without informed consent is “no,” the PDF dives into several other topics, such as:

    • Important Consent Highlights
    • No Words and Go Words
    • The X-Card
    • Recovering from Consent Mistakes
    • Aftercare & Checking In
    • Using the Consent Checklist
    • How Not to Use the Consent Checklist
    • Additional Resources

    The document covers a lot of ground in 12 pages. While I was expecting a general description of consent, and an explanation of the consent checklist and how to use it, I wasn’t expecting the broader range of topics like recovering from consent mistakes or the importance of aftercare and check-ins.

    What is noteworthy is that while consent is integral to a safe table, it also acknowledges that in some instances, people make mistakes, and discussing the proper way to mitigate those mistakes is as important as having a resolve to not make the mistakes in the first place. It’s very easy to decide to follow a procedure, then give up on that procedure when making a mistake. This stresses the importance of a sincere apology and desire to rectify any harm that has been done.

    I am also thrilled to see an examination of how not to use the safety checklist, that even with consent, topics that are agreed upon for game content don’t need to be the predominant element.

    While I think this document presents a very solid outline for consent in games, I am also glad that the final page lists additional resources on the topic of safety at the game table, rather than trying to be the final word on the subject. Anyone with this document in their campaign toolkit is going to be well prepared for a safe and enjoyable campaign, but it never hurts to expand knowledge of safety and consent issues.

    RPG Consent Checklist

    The checklist itself provides areas to record the planned theme of the campaign, the “rating” of the campaign and then provides some potential sample content that players can rate as red, yellow or green. Red ratings are those that the player does not want in the game, yellow ratings are those items that the player doesn’t want detailed heavily in the campaign, or used very carefully or sparingly, and green items are those that the player is fine having in the game.

    The sample sections include topics grouped under the following headings:

    • Horror
    • Relationships
    • Social and Cultural Issues
    • Mental and Physical Health
    • Additional Topics

    There are also lines to write in any topics that aren’t mentioned on the list, as well as a section that allows the player to provide feedback on their concerns for the GM. I appreciate the utility of this checklist as a handout for tabletop groups.

    Making it Personal

    A lot of discussion that has surrounded this document has revolved around the need for it, especially in established gaming groups and communities. I thought I might share a few of my personal experiences, experiences that I feel would have been much easier to navigate if safety and consent had been a greater priority in the hobby.

    Personal Mistakes

    A few years after I started running RPGs for my friends, I was running a session where the party was deep in a series of caves. I provided a very detailed, very specific description of the giant spider that the party encountered. One of my friends was very uncomfortable with this description.

    Because I was very bad at empathy and had a lot to learn about being a good friend and a good human being, seeing his discomfort, I layered on even more disturbing descriptive elements. He left the table. After several years of being part of the gaming group, he never came back. It took me far too long to realize that he quit showing up for game night after I pushed him past his breaking point. We were all still friends, and we still spent time together, but I lost a player and some valuable time with a friend, sharing something we both enjoyed.

    Personal Experiences

    I won’t go into details, but I had a moment with a character in a campaign, where I described my character putting herself in a vulnerable position. I was playing with people I had played with for years. Another player crossed a major boundary in the narrative between his character and mine. I was too stunned to react. When I reflected on the situation, the first thought was not to bring up the problem, because it was my fault for putting my character in that situation. Then I realized how much that sounded like the guilt and recriminations that far too many people face in real life. I could never play that character again.

    I was in a convention game, with a GM that was well regarded by most convention-goers. The game was marked “for mature players,” but I had assumed this would be because of the flurry of F-bombs I usually heard emanating from the table. In the session, our characters were whimsical superheroes fighting Greek gods run amuck. In one scene, we came dangerously close to being compelled to perform actions that I’m not comfortable having a character commit against their will. The only thing that derailed this was player action, not GM discretion.

    Finally, a regular player that I considered a friend was in several games with me, at a point in time when I was having some serious turmoil over my religious convictions. He had no way of knowing this without me mentioning it, but he was continually making jokes about religion, and it became especially stressful for me to be at a table with him, even though I generally enjoyed his company. I eventually wrote him an email, directly, but instead of discussing the issue, he dropped out of any games with me. I wish we had a better framework in place to have set up the discussion on the topic of religion at the table.

    These are just a few of the mistakes that I have made, and the uncomfortable positions I have been in, as a gamer. I’m a cis white male, and I’ve run into these issues. The potential feeling of power imbalance and concern about upsetting established group dynamics becomes even worse for anyone from a marginalized community.

    Go Words
     Even if you don’t use this exact set of tools, it’s a free and well-written examination of the topic that also gives you a jumping-off point to look at other safety tools and practices that you should be using at your table. 

    This is a great document. I normally don’t factor price into reviews, but the fact of the matter is, it’s hard to argue with free. This covers a wide range of topics and more broadly than I would have expected for a free product. The consent checklist is a wonderful addition for any campaign toolkit, and is something that should see lots of use at session zeroes across the gaming hobby. Additionally, not only does this address its premise well, it gives resources for even more research on an important topic.

    No Words

    There isn’t much I can say to detract from this product. The closest thing I can come up with is that I wish this text was included specifically in various game products, as well as being a separate download. As a slight accessibility note, the red/yellow/green rankings for topics might not be as friendly to some disabilities as it could be, but this is partially addressed by also providing shapes unique to each color as well as color-coding them.

    Strongly Recommended–This product is exceptional, and may contain content that would interest you even if the game or genre covered is outside of your normal interests.

    This is something everyone should be downloading. Even if you don’t use this exact set of tools, it’s a free and well-written examination of the topic that also gives you a jumping-off point to look at other safety tools and practices that you should be using at your table.

    What are some of the things you have done to make your game tables more welcoming? What kind of check-in procedures do you have in place? What are your favorite safety tools? We would love to hear about it in the comments below.

    Read more »
  • Playing Non-Verbal Characters
    Blue Mustang statue at Denver International Airport -- a large blue mustang, rearing, with glowing red eyes

    Image taken by Mike Sinko and used via Creative Commons Attribution license.

    I recently had the pleasure of playing Bad Horse at the gaming table. Yes, that Bad Horse. Leader of the Evil League of Evil. The Thoroughbred of Sin. Occasional Neigh Sayer. Actual horse. With some handy dandy Monty Python coconuts, what I hoped was a long nosed expression, and some whuffs and whinnies, off we went! For an entire scene I shifted on my hooves (coconuts), whuffed disgruntledly, and occasionally neighed definitively, but not a word past my lips as I alternately threatened, terrified, and rewarded the evil overlords who made up my league — and I had a blast. 

     Firstly, the assumption for this type of character is that while we as players may not understand them, the other characters do. 
    Let me start by saying, up front, that this piece does not discuss playing with or playing people who are disabled in such a way that they are nonverbal, and none of the advice here should be taken as such. In fact, I would apply this advice to characters who are nonhuman, like muppets, horses, or magical furniture. This is not meant to be an excuse for you to treat other humans badly at your table, so don’t. 

    Firstly, the assumption for this type of character is that while we as players may not understand them, the other characters do. This works especially well for characters like Bad Horse or droids. If you have a talking animal, you have a decision — are they a talking animal like Rocket or Mr. Ed, or are they a talking animal like Lassie? If you have a droid, is it C3PO or R2D2? In either case, this can be very interesting for NPCs like a wizard’s familiar or ranger’s animal companion, non-human (but not key plot introducing) NPCs, or non-human PCs in one shots or single scene settings. I wouldn’t recommend this as a PC trick for long games or campaigns because it might be difficult to remain involved in the game when you are never directly expressing yourself in scene. 

    Playing this kind of character means leaving the interpretation of your actions and sounds up to the rest of the table. They can decide what that particular whinny meant, and they’ll make it understood in how they react to you or what they say in response. When I made an angry whinny, they cowered before my threats to trample them, apologized profusely and backed away to safety.

    When I whuffed at them they responded as if I’d asked them a particular question — think “Of course I am, Brain, but what would we do with all the marshmallows?”
    When I whuffed at them they responded as if I’d asked them a particular question — think “Of course I am, Brain, but what would we do with all the marshmallows?” It’s also worth discussing if everyone in this game world understands this character, or only specific people. If only specific people, who are they and why can they understand? 

    Leaving the interpretation of your character and their actions up to the rest of your table can be incredibly fun, but is also something you should save for game spaces in which you feel comfortable with the other players, and I would highly recommend (as always) that you are playing with some kind of tool to revoke consent. You are literally allowing other players to put words in your mouth, so it’s important to have trust and a way to remove content that’s not okay with you. It’s also important to have the involved players’ agreement in these shenanigans, since you are relying on them to fill in your part of the conversation and shifting that part of the gaming cognitive load to them. As always, it’s worth having a conversation in advance, whether that’s just checking in at your convention one shot as you build characters or part of your session zero. 

    For your part, it’s important to make sure that you can make noises that express the tone you’re trying to convey to the other players, so that they can riff appropriately. If you think about the noises you get from R2D2, for example, there are very clear upbeat sounds, curious sounds, annoyed sounds, and so on. As the audience, even though we don’t understand the words, we definitely pick up on the emotional tone. It’s key to give that tone to your fellow players because that will drive their responses to you and give them something to play off of. It’s also important that you can make these sounds without breaking the tone and genre of the game — silly cartoon noises in a serious space mystery will break the tone for everyone, and may drag the game off course. Be aware and respectful of the intended feel. 

    So the next time you’re looking at adding an animal companion or an astro mech to your game, give some thought to how you’ll manage their communication and who can understand them. Give your fellow players a little more power over this world. You never know when not saying anything at all means you’ll say the thing that is so good you never would have thought of it! 

    Have you ever played a non-verbal character at a game? Are there some other good times to use them or good stories about when they’ve worked out beautifully?

     

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  • Creative Curses
    Black and White Scary Face

    With this being Friday the 13th, I figured I’d roll with a post about curses. There are a multitude of reasons (some with more legitimacy than others) on why we’re so afraid of Friday the 13th. The historical event that I think makes the most sense is the capture and eventual downfall of the Knights Templar. The dawn raids on various Templar holdings and strongholds throughout France occurred on Friday, October the 13th in 1307 and were carried out under the orders of King Philip IV of France with approval by Pope Clement V. When the Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was finally executed nearly seven years later, it is rumored he threw forth a curse from his execution pyre before he slowly roasted to death.

     That’s a potent curse! 

    The curse was aimed at King Philip IV and his descendants as well as Pope Clement V. Of course, the veracity of claims of a man speaking forth a curse while his lungs filled with smoke is in question, but the following events are clearly documented in history books. Pope Clement V died of a long-running illness within a year. Also within that same year, King Philip IV died suddenly of a stroke. Following Philip’s death, four Capetians (Philip’s long-standing noble family) sat on and died in the throne of France. All of them were direct descendants of Philip. This took roughly fourteen years to transpire, but after the fourth death, the centuries-old House of Capet suffered from an absolute collapse and faded out of power.

    That’s a potent curse there! Jacques de Molay took down a pope and an entire French royal line with his final utterances. (Assuming, of course, curses are real and you buy this story.) It’s all of the above that led me to traverse the mental map from Friday the 13th to how we can be more creative in our use of curses within roleplaying games.

    Now, let’s jump into RPGs now, shall we? That’s where curses exist and are real to our characters.

    I’ve taken a bit of a historical trip into the “Bestow Curse” spell from D&D through the ages. The spell, quite honestly, hasn’t changed much from its early days to the modern incarnation of the game. I won’t bore you with yet another history lesson to demonstrate the subtle shifts of the spell. The effects of the spell include some options where the caster can choose to make ability checks more difficult, or attack/skill checks more difficult, or forcing the target to lose their ability to act 50% of the time.

    Curses exist and are real to our characters.

    I’m going to talk about the last option before the other two. I flat-out don’t allow it in my game. It’s off the table. No PC, no NPC, no monster, no Boss Bad Guy, no one, is allowed to pick it. It just doesn’t exist as a house rule of mine. Here’s why: I will not take an option that requires a single die roll (the saving throw) that will effectively negate the existence and purpose of a character half the time on a permanent basis. That’s right. The Bestow Curse spell is permanent. Yeah. Yeah. I know that a Remove Curse spell will remove the curse, but I’ve been that player with a cursed character and the nearest available temple for a Remove Curse was a two-week (now a four-week because I can only move 50% of the time) walk away. It’s crippling and frustrating and all-around not fun. Of course, if I won’t do this to a player via any means, I need to level out the playing field by not allowing them to do it to my critters or NPCs. That’s why it’s completely off the table.

     I want some spice to my descriptors. 

    Now, let’s talk about the first two options. They need some flavor! As it stands, it’s a (*yawn* boring) mechanical effect. I’m good with the various mechanical effects that exist for the different versions of D&D throughout the ages. They’re well-balanced, fair, and have an appropriate impact on the game without completely removing a character (thus removing the player) from the game’s main action and high points.

    However, I want some spice to my descriptors. I want some evocative descriptions to be thrown across the table when the caster drops a curse on some unlucky person. I need something that will tell me why a particular character or NPC can’t walk more than ten feet without stumbling and almost falling. That’s where creative curses come into play. Let’s drop some examples, shall we?

    • May your boot laces always come undone.
    • You will always be hungry (or thirsty).
    • May your sword’s grip become as slick as a slug’s backside.
    • The buckles on your armor will let loose at the worst possible moment.
    • A pox upon your face.
    • This is taken from Timur’s tomb and may be more appropriate for a plot hook than an individual curse:
      • “Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”
    • That back left molar? It’s now in constant pain.
    • You will carry the stench of a thousand dung beetles.

    And I’ll leave one that (supposedly) comes from China and is entirely appropriate to a roleplaying campaign (for good or ill).

    May you live in interesting times.

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  • What Games With Asian Settings Get Wrong — and Why They’re Important Anyway
    Orientalism is prevalent in western art. Games are no exception.

    I’m not the kind of person who gets sappy over poetry. But there’s this handful of lines from Ezra Pound that always make me feel like there’s a fist beneath my breastplate, pressing into the wet pink walls of my chest. They go like this:

    A day when the historians left blanks in their writings
    I mean, for things they didn’t know,
    But that time seems to be passing.

    These four lines come from Canto XIII, from a poem cycle usually called the China Cantos. They offer the famously Sinophile poet’s fractured, free versey take on imperial Chinese history, from the mythical, deep-BC sage-emperors to a century into the final dynasty. There are blanks in the narrative — presumably for the things they didn’t know: both Pound and his source, the Jesuit scholar Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, whose name was as long as the 12-volume history he wrote from the mission field in Beijing.

    The poem’s speaker, who remembers historians leaving blanks? That was Confucius.

    I don’t know why this bit of poetry always gets me, but the fact that they do feels overdetermined. The lines act on me like the mechanical dip of a switch, that makes the circuitry in my nerves and muscles dance just right. It’s this automatic sparking of feeling, like an electric current — so easy it feels cheap.

    I’m a historian of China, a PhD candidate trying to ink over with citations and cleverness all the blanks of what I still don’t know. And I’m a Sinophile, like Pound. Maybe more reasonably, since I was born in China — though I’ve spent far less of my life there than De Mailla, who read better classical Chinese, I’m sure.

    I’ve got this sense of unease that I’m really just an Orientalist of the old school, given to flights of irresponsible lyricism over the Middle Kingdom. Despite my blood and all my historical training, I can’t help but be moved when white, Anglophone poets write about Confucius. We all have our guilty pleasures, I guess.

    Dungeons & Dragons & Poets

    My favorite cheat sheet for the western canon was this webcomic called Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir running a game for Foucault, Derrida, Kant, and her real-life partner Jean-Paul Sartre. I started reading it because, in undergrad, a lot of my friends were people who all met in a Great Books program, without me. When I was trying to get my Mandarin up to speed, they were mainlining canonical texts — the white people kind, from Plato to Foucault. Acting on FOMO, I assigned myself some extra reading: a little bit of Aristotle — in Chinese translation, so it felt virtuous. For most of the major critical theorists, I stooped to Wikipedia. But there was nothing better than D&D&P.

    In a hypothetical spin-off called Dungeons & Dragons & Poets, I can picture Pound playing Oriental Adventures. It’d be the first edition, released in 1985, and he’d march his, say, chaotic evil wu jen — a lawlessly eccentric spellcaster— across the exoticizing fever dream of Kara-Tur. But I think he’d feel more at home with Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, the blurb for which promises “ancient mysteries, opium smoke, great luxury and opulent cruelty.” Pound wouldn’t play through a campaign in Yoon-Suin— he’d be the one to run it, railroading his players through the smoke-wreathed landscape the way his China Cantos marched us through millennia of Chinese history.

    That’s the thing about these OA-style sourcebooks: they trade in generalities, in dense, spidery webs of silken stereotype. If given the chance to page through one, my grad school professors would wrinkle their mouths in contempt, then lean forward and start pontificating about the distorted shape of East Asia in the western cultural imaginary.

    It’s true that these games are ahistorical, to the point of hilarity: they flatten out Chinese and Japanese elements, 13th-century and 17th-century circumstances, into a single, tea-stained image of an exotic East. And it’s true that the leitmotifs of family and honor play out with all the subtlety of a hundred-strong trombone corps. Tellingly, tabletop gaming is virtually the only space where North Americans toss out words like “Oriental” with a total lack of irony.

    Tellingly, tabletop gaming is virtually the only space where North Americans toss out words like “Oriental” with a total lack of irony.

    Despite these flaws, there’s still something seductive about these games. They feel like translations that read well even when you know they got it wrong, and I’m drawn to them like I’m drawn to Pound’s Confucius. The defense lies in the fantasy. The OA aesthetic — like the Legend of the Five Rings aesthetic or the Bushido aesthetic, they’re all one aesthetic, really — is grounded not in history but film, Hong Kong action flicks and Akira Kurosawa. As they interpret Asian-made movies at one remove, it becomes clear they were never about a real Asia but an imagined Orient. It’s a Kara-Tur-like country that exists only in the minds of Asian auteurs and fantasists, and white poets and missionaries, shimmering in the cultural record like an opium-smoke mirage.

    “A More Cosmopolitan Outlook”

    The danger comes in when someone takes the fantasy for reality. It seems like a ridiculous mistake, like doggedly citing poetry as history. But a reviewer promised that 1979’s Bushido — set in a mythical, Kurosawa-inspired Nippon — would be “worth the price for the person interested in developing a more cosmopolitan outlook”. As if playing a gangster or priest in fake Japan would help someone understand the nuances of life in real Japan. Strikingly, the reviewer who made this claim was himself of Japanese descent, surnamed Okada. As a China Cantos fan surnamed Tang, I can’t help but relate.

    I don’t want to condemn Asian campaign settings as bad historiography — for the simple reason that they’re not historiography. I don’t even want to dismiss them as mere guilty pleasure, as if playing them will gnaw away at your capacity for critical thought, the way endless cheeseburgers gum up overtaxed arteries. Like all departures from the Tolkienesque sword and sorcery, OA-style games diversify the tabletop, opening up other ways of contextualizing heroism and adventure, risk and right.

    Actually, I’m tempted to read the tabletop’s transformation of themes and tropes from Asian media as a good sign. It’s an indication that the texts I study — and in some ways embody — are as durable and capacious as the western canon. After all, Hamlet, Satan, and the Lady of Shalott are constantly being stirred into new narratives, some transcendent and some bizarre.

    We’re fortunate that, in the decades since OA 1e first appeared, game designers have started turning out Asian-inspired settings animated by nuance. Instead of building up a catch-all East Asia — an Orient — new-generation games home in on particular regions and eras with distinct textures, using them as scaffolding to build fully realized settings.

    Tabletop storytellers — whether they’re game designers or GMs — often “care more about good writing than actual writers”.

    The French-made Qin: The Warring States, for instance, focuses on the contentious lead-up to imperial unification, while Wandering Heroes of the Ogre Gates centers on the Southern Song, a shrinking empire teetering on the edge of collapse. Qin unification happened in 221 BCE. while the fall of the Song wasn’t till 1279 CE. It makes sense that these two worlds would be markedly different in texture and affect.

    7th Sea: Khitai, meanwhile, revisits the premise of a mythic pan-Asian setting — but pitches it as an internally heterogeneous region animated by historical flux. Hearts of Wulin, a Kickstarter-backed wuxia game I’m personally excited about, seems — in its elegant approach to both romance and combat — to draw heavily on the late imperial fiction that informed my love of premodern China in the first place. Its creators include Agatha Cheng, of Asians Represent fame, as both co-author and cultural consultant.

    There’s also Filipino-American designer James Mendez Hodes’ Kurosawa-inflected samurai fantasy Thousand Arrows, now live on Kickstarter, which promises to subvert “stereotypes and misconceptions about Asians which appear most commonly in gaming culture whenever a samurai or monk shows up”. Hodes’ Asian-American identity alone doesn’t promise that his work will be more rigorously researched, more attentive to detail, than the L5Rs of yore. What does is his graduate training in Eastern classics and his experience as a sensitivity reader for materials featuring Asian and African cultures.

    Of course, you don’t need a master’s degree to play — or run — a game in an Asian setting “respectfully,” an ask this GM took to the gaming sages of Reddit. What you do need is the empathy and imagination to craft a compelling story, and the research to flesh it out with the details that make it ring true.

    Isn’t that the fun part anyway?

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  • Your Best Game Ever Review
    Your Best Game Ever Review

    At some point,  I realized that I enjoyed reading about how games work and why, as much as I enjoyed reading and learning new games themselves. While I have gone out of my way, in the past,  to find new books about the process of running and managing RPG campaigns, even if I wasn’t looking, it would be hard to miss Your Best Game Ever, a book about various aspects of learning, playing, and running roleplaying games from Monte Cook Games.

    Dimensional Analysis

    This review is based on the PDF version of Your Best Game Ever, which is 242 pages long. The book is full color, and features a greatest hits collection of artwork from other Monte Cook Games products. If you have seen any of the MCG books, you know these are impressive pieces.

    Chapters have clearly outlined headings, with sub-headings and bullet pointed lists to emphasize material that has been presented in the text. There are sidebars that introduce various related topics and summarize them, as well as several full page interludes by various gaming personalities on a number of different topics. There is a single page index, which also includes an index of the contributor pages (21 separate short essays that generally appear at the end of various chapters).

    Contributions 

    While these are scattered throughout the text, I thought I would address them first, as they appear at the end of various chapters, are from a variety of writers, and touch on a wide range of topics. The contributors include:

    • Susan J. Morris
    • Matthew Mercer
    • Bear Weiter
    • Ajit George
    • Tom Lommel
    • Bruce R. Cordell
    • Alina Pete
    • Charles M. Ryan
    • Stacy Dellorfano
    • Shanna Germain
    • Matt Colville
    • Jennell Jaquays
    • Sean K. Reynolds
    • John Rogers
    • Luke Crane
    • Tammie Webb Ryan
    • Monica Valentinelli
    • Eric Campbell
    • Tanya DePass
    • Darcy L. Ross
    • Eloy Lasanta

    I wanted to specifically start this review addressing the contributions because when the Kickstarter for this product was live, I misunderstood the structure of this book. I was expecting an anthology of essays by the guest writers as the primary content of the book. As it stands, I think the book is stronger for having a cohesive voice, and then adding these single page, focused essays.

    In addition to these sidebars, there are comic strips from DnDoggos, John Kovalic, Aviv Or, Brian Patterson, Len Peralta, Alina Pete, and Stan!, often emphasizing the point being made in the previous section of the book.

    Part 1: Roleplaying Games

    This section includes chapters called So You Want to Play an RPG and Understanding RPGs. Right from the start, it is interesting to see that the opening section of this book is written to people that are assumed not to have played or read an RPG first. Most game advice books are, for lack of a better term, 200 level treatments of the topic. They assume you know what an RPG is, have probably run at least a few sessions, and want to get better at doing that. In this case, the book is starting from the ground up, assuming you have heard of, but not fully engaged with, the concept of tabletop RPGs.

    So You Want to Play an RPG is aimed at explaining what the experience of reading an RPG book may be like, getting a wider view of how RPGs function. It also addresses engaging with online content and exploring local game stores. There is a section on what people that have been playing RPGs over the long term may forget or take for granted that new players should know, as well.

    Understanding RPGs introduces more of the structure and procedure of RPGs. It introduces the concept of the Three Entities, the game master, the players, and the rules, and discusses how these interact in play. Then the chapter delves into styles of RPG games (discussing topics like fun first or story first), including complexity and genre. The chapter also explores the differences between longer campaigns and one shots.

    The chapter touches on communities that surround games, such as online communities, local game stores, and conventions. Perhaps most importantly for a section aimed at new gamers, it talks about the importance of being comfortable and safe at the table with the other people, and how to determine if it is time to move on from the game.

    As an important note, this chapter also introduces its own form of safety tool, The Pause Button, which, as described, functions much like an X-Card. I like that this gets the idea of safety tools into the discussion of RPGs early on for a potentially new member of the RPG audience.

    If there is a general downside to this section of the book, it’s that most of this is written from a more traditional RPG point of view. While it ranges from games with different tones, genres, and levels of complexity, it generally assumes traditional aspects of games like the split between GM and player responsibility, and doesn’t touch much on games that may not even have a GM. This is understandable, given that many new players will be entering via games with more traditional structures, but it’s worth noting.

    Part 2: Being a Great Player

    This section is comprised of chapters on Player Basics, Creating Characters, Playing Your Character, Everyone’s Favorite Player, and Character Arcs and Bonds.

    The first section, Player Basics, emphasizes that a player needs to learn varying degrees of creativity, problem solving, roleplaying, and teamwork. It’s a relatively short chapter, but I think it summarizes the broad strokes really well.

    Creating Characters is a general advice chapter, so it doesn’t go into what individual games may have in their character creation rules. It does emphasize several things that a player should be doing. As an example, it points out the importance of understanding genre, setting, and tropes, and creating a character that works in that context. It introduces some broad character types, as well as the decisions a player may need to make involving mechanical choices, such as being focused on key tasks versus having a broad range of abilities. There are tips and strategies for developing a personality, goals, and a backstory, and different reasons for choosing how detailed your backstory should be at the beginning of the game.

    Playing Your Character largely deals with the relationship that the player has with other players and the GM, and how that plays out at the table. The chapter delves into concepts like spotlight time, metagame knowledge, and the degree to which the player is adding story details to the campaign narrative.

    Everyone’s Favorite Player goes beyond best practices for a player, and moves into “above and beyond” practices. Most of this revolves around how to help the GM and other players with creative solutions, being a good guest in general, and looking for ways to be a supportive friend to others in the game group.

    Character Arcs and Player Bonds introduce established character arcs and relationships that a player could have as a goal, or as an established connection with another character. The section on character arcs presents the broad concept of the arc, and has sections for the Opening, Steps, Climax, and Resolution of the arc. The bonds include a broad description of the bond, a suggested benefit, and a suggested drawback for the bond.

    The Character Arcs and Bonds chapter is one of my favorites in this book. I really enjoy how it clearly gives examples of various tropes and how they could play out at the table. Even if a player doesn’t rigidly follow the structure outlined, they are a great tool for players to visualize directions their characters might take. If there is a downside to them, it may be that the section tries to give advice on using arcs and bonds as character advancement or to provide mechanical benefits or penalties, and I think that’s a little beyond the scope of the player section of the book and hard to encapsulate in a book giving general RPG advice, divorced of a particular game system.

    Part 3: Being a Great Game Master

    This section includes chapters on Game Master Basics, Building a World, Creating Adventures, Running the Game, The GM and the Rules, and Being a Dynamic GM.

    Game Master Basics starts by explaining that it may be easier to GM if you have played in a game before, but that situation may not work for everyone. It then moves into what to do first to get a game going, how to start a session, as well as the responsibilities and skills that a GM will need to develop. A particular point that I appreciated in this section is that while you may be Running the Game, it is the entire groups responsibility to deal with table issues.

    Building a World discusses how GMs need to plan out the world that the game they are running will exist within. This talks about creating new worlds, using established game products, or adapting existing properties to your game. There is a lot of advice on starting small, hammering out details, and only building what the players are likely to interact with. There are sections giving advice on verisimilitude and adapting real world historical events, cultures, and religion for use in a game setting. There is a final section on getting player input on collaborative worldbuilding.

    The section on using real world religions or historical cultures with a twist is a little thin, and given the topic, a lot can go wrong in that direction. I do appreciate that the text calls for people to be thoughtful and respectful when doing so, I just wish there were more pages and a few more examples of doing it “the right way.” I also feel like there are a few places, like discussing a campaign map or some of the items on the verisimilitude chart, that lean more towards a more traditional RPG approach. I really wish the collaborative world building section had been expanded.

    Creating Adventures looks at broad categories of adventures, like location, event, or time based adventures, and then explores different goals and means of resolving adventures that might be considered. There are discussions on act structure, side plots, and potential pitfalls of different adventure styles, and the chapter concludes with a page of sample RPG plots. This is a solid section for examining the structure of adventures, and it is a great introduction to anyone trying to learn the moving parts of an adventure and how to manipulate those parts to potentially elicit a different effect.

    Running the Game tackles topics like how to convey information, the importance of asking questions, pacing within a session and within a campaign, player agency, and NPC interactions. There are sections on best practices for maintaining session notes, how to vary adventure styles, NPC traits, and the best ways to end campaigns.

    The GM and the Rules examines how the GM interacts with the rules of a game. It discusses rules mastery, house rules, game balance and what it actually means at the table, fairness, and resolving difficulties. There is a section on how to determine if two disparate rules are balanced, and goes into a detailed way of determining this by assigning values, then after the example is finished, the section recommends you don’t try to balance anything in this manner—I love that it illustrates this by going through the steps. There is also a section that jumped out at me that details not calling for anything to be randomly resolved if you aren’t prepared for any possibilities that the random resolution may indicate.

    Being a Dynamic GM details concepts like using a session zero, checking in with your players, setting and communicating tone, learning about your players, and advancing your descriptive skills. Beyond these topics, the end of the chapter looks at different campaign or GM styles, including running intertwined campaigns with multiple groups in the same setting, or having multiple GMs for the same campaign.

    Part 4: Getting the Most out of RPGs

    This section includes chapters on The Game Group, Hosting the Game, Playing Games Online, and Solving Game Group Problems.

    The Game Group examines topics like the right size group for the game that you are running, finding schedules that everyone can work around, communicating between sessions, rotating GMs, table rules, and bonding with your group. In addition to practical topics like when and how you are going to game, this section looks at topics like learning what members of the group don’t want in their games, and making the game comfortable for everyone. It also suggests some activities that the group can participate in to get to know one another and become more comfortable.

    Hosting the Game looks at where the game will be run, if it is public or private, if the GM and the host will be one and the same, how to organize the play space, and considerations for snacks and meals during the session. It also addresses what the end of the night should look like, depending on how the session unfolds.

    Playing Games Online looks at the benefits of running a game online, and balances these against a traditional face to face group. It also looks at the enhanced potential for communication and technological use in game, and talks about best practices for an online game that may not be as important face to face. The biggest weakness of this chapter, from my point of view, is that it deals very broadly with the topic, but without going into details on specific forms of technology that might be used, it can’t address some of the pitfalls of those technologies. On the other hand, I can understand the reticence of tying this chapter too closely to the “known” means of online gaming available when the book was written.

    Solving Game Group Problems goes through a list of potential issues that might come up at the table, and how some of those behaviors can be addressed in a positive manner. While this touches on all kinds of “known” RPG group issues, it also touches on a few topics that aren’t always addressed in sections on game related issues. It talks about the importance of discussing how death works in the game beforehand, how this relates to player agency, and if the group will deviate from the game rules on the topic. It also brings up an issue I’ve seen at tables before, but have never seen addressed in a “game problems” chapter before, in this case, commenting on the rules of a game during a session, and how rules critique in the moment makes it difficult to play the game.

    Back Matter

    The main thing I wanted to address about this section is that it contains several recipes, including genre thematic recipes, and then concludes with an index. I wasn’t expecting a recipe section, but I’m pretty amused by it. There are even a few adult beverages outlined in this section.

    High Roll
     I would love it if a large number of new roleplayers had this resource as their foundational knowledge of the hobby. It touches on so many important topics, and covers many things I would have like to have known when I was just getting started. 

    I love books that discuss the hobby of tabletop roleplaying, and I really like that this book approaches the topic not from the standpoint of refining skills you already started to develop, but from the very beginning, for anyone joining the hobby. There are many important topics that are introduced to an RPG newcomer, while adding valuable information to people already participating that may never have examined a topic from that direction. In particular, I love the idea of introducing safety tools, the structure of character arcs, the overall elements of adventures, and the potential issues at the game table in a manner that new players can see, and established players can internalize.

    Low Roll

    Some of the advice definitely assumes a more traditional GM/Player structure to roleplaying games, as well as a more traditional narrative dynamic where the GM is the principal world/plot driver, and the player characters provide input by interacting with that structure. Some of the broad topics go a little too far afield, such as the suggestion of alternate advancement rules in the player’s section, and the book doesn’t have time to make that side trek pay off. While I think there is excellent material for new roleplayers in the book (as well as established roleplayers), 242 pages might be a huge investment for learning about the hobby for someone that may not even have read their first rulebook yet.

    Qualified Recommendation—A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

    I think if you know someone that is interested in roleplaying and is the kind of person that throws themselves into a topic, this is definitely a book for them. If you know someone that is an established roleplayer that loves meta-discussion of the hobby, there is going to be a lot of great material in this book for them as well. For someone that is interested, but less likely to invest heavily in a new hobby, the sheer size of this book plus the potential size of any other game books may be more intimidating than inviting.

    With that disclaimer in place, I would love it if a large number of new roleplayers had this resource as their foundational knowledge of the hobby. It touches on so many important topics, and covers many things I would have like to have known when I was just getting started.

    What was the first book you ever read about the RPG hobby, that wasn’t a game book? Have you read any books that are about tabletop gaming, but aren’t part of an RPG line? What makes you want to pick up books about the hobby, and what do you want them to address? We would love to hear from you below!

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  • Gaming with Anxiety
    Gaming with Anxiety

    Gaming can be an excellent social experience, even with anxiety

    I pull up to the house, park out front (not t0o early, I hope), and sit for a moment. I consider briefly taking off again, I’m pretty sure that no one saw me. I’ve known Ken for several years, but that doesn’t take away the gnawing feeling of being out of place. I take a couple of deep breaths, take another Xanax, and step out of the car.  I gather my dice and books, and step inside. It seems I’m not the first and my heart drops as the anxiety cranks up to 11. Dani arrived before me, and she’s in the kitchen with Josie, making something (shit, was I supposed to bring something?). Ross is on his way (I don’t recognize that name, is this someone new?), and Cat is running slightly late (crap, I need to remember to use the correct pronouns, I can’t risk offending someone). Ken asks me to help set up the microphones (ah hell, we’re recording this), and I take the opportunity to place my books at the spot that gives me the quickest and easiest access to the doors. The game goes pretty well (I didn’t sound like an idiot on the microphone did I?) and everyone has fun (I didn’t say anything wrong did I?).  After everything, I pack my things, say goodbye, and leave (I must have said something stupid, I’m certain I’m not getting invited back). The next day I apologize for anything dumb I might have done, and Ken reassures me that everything went well.

    Some of these may appear to be normal fears. Some of these may seem ridiculous.  And largely, sitting here now, I might be inclined to agree. But there is a twist. A twist that complicates things.

    My name is Michael, and I have anxiety.

    To be more specific, I have a generalized anxiety disorder complicated by PTSD. Things that seem mundane to most are ordeals for me. Things that most people just blow off cause me sleepless nights. Anxiety isn’t well understood, despite our best efforts. Those of us who deal with anxiety can identify causes, treat symptoms, and lessen the impact, but anxiety never really goes away. 

    Gaming is an excellent tool to exercise creativity at any age

    Why do I game?

    Gaming is important to me for several reasons. It is essentially an exercise in creativity, allowing me to stretch my creativity. Creativity is a vital skill; a 2010 survey of global executives from 60 countries and 33 industries identified creativity as the most important trait in business.  Gaming can also serve as a form of escape, releasing us from the doldrums of everyday life and letting us imagine different worlds and lifetimes. It is also incredibly important to helping develop and practice social skills, as demonstrated and discussed by Gnome Stew’s own John Arcadian ( style="font-weight: 400;">). I have also developed several good friendships through gaming. Ken has been there for me, and helped me through some of my own problems. He helped convince me to begin going to therapy to better myself and has always encouraged me, no matter what situation I found myself in.  I have also developed friendships in a larger community; those community members have been good friends, good sources of advice, and very supportive when life seemed unmanageable

    So what do we do when the hobby we love is also a major anxiety inducer?

    There are several options.  The best, and one I would highly recommend, is just talk to someone.  Therapy is an amazingly underrated resource that can provide a lot of benefit. With my therapist I was able to identify what caused my PTSD and what triggers anxiety attacks now. I’ve also been able to lessen some of the effects of those anxiety attacks with his help. He’s given me multiple tools that I can use to mitigate the worst of my condition. If you want to find a therapist you can try here: or style="font-weight: 400;"> or search for a therapist through your insurance directory

    Meditation helps. I’ve never been good at sitting quietly and clearing my thoughts, and anxiety has only made my tendency to overthink things worse, but I sometimes am able to actually meditate, and I do have friends who swear by it. If you are interested in meditation, I might recommend starting here:

    But how do I deal with gaming?  The short answer is: not well. The long answer is quite a bit more complicated. Gaming online helps some of the worst parts of anxiety, but I am a big fan of gaming around a tabletop with friends. I have approached this in a variety of ways.

    Arrive early.

    You might have to make arrangements with your host, but it’s always easier to deal with a new situation and the stress it causes when you’re the first one there. As people arrive you can better acclimate to an environment with new and/or more people. This has been one of my best personal tools

    Talk to  your host.

    My closest friends know about my anxiety issues.  Ken (our host) has been supportive and understanding for the entire time we’ve known each other. He invited me to his home game and was supportive leading up to the game day. I believe it was important that he was aware of the fact that I was dealing with anxiety, because he was able to support me before and during the game. Before the game we talked about what I could expect. He reassured me that I was welcome, and he checked on me when we took breaks to make sure I was still doing well.

    Take a breath.

    If it gets to be too much, take a minute to step away. Going to another room or taking a step outside can help. Take a couple deep breaths, close your eyes for a moment, and relax. Removing yourself temporarily from the situation can be good for you. It helps to remove some of the strain and stress. You can deal with the stress a lot better by taking breaths here and there, and your gaming day should be a lot better overall.

    And remember

    None of these are sure-fire ways to manage the anxiety. What works for some may not work for others. Sometimes you can’t just step away. But these are good starts. Understanding your own anxiety, how it affects you, and what you can do to mitigate it is valuable, and can help beyond just gaming. Most of all; if you struggle with anxiety just know that you’re not the only one. It is possible to be involved with gaming and successfully manage anxiety, and I believe you are capable of doing so.

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