March 16 2017

Gnome Stew


    Gnome Stew

  • Tachyon Squadron Review
    Tachyon Squadron Review

    I was extremely young when my family took me to see Star Wars at the drive-in, and there were a lot of details I didn’t remember until years later when I viewed the movie again on HBO–but I remembered Luke flying in his X-Wing. A year later, with slightly better cognitive functions, I was fascinated by Battlestar Galactica and the starfighter combat between the Colonial Vipers and the Cylon Raiders.

     Did I outgrow my love of starfighters when I got older? Not if the hours I spent playing TIE Fighter, Freelancer, or Rogue Squadron are any indication. Even today, my favorite part of Star Wars Battlefront 2 is the starfighter missions.

     Tachyon Squadron is a supplement for Fate Core that focuses on playing military science fiction campaigns that center on a starfighter squadron and the pilots of that squadron. 

    Sizing up the Spaceframe

     This review is based both on the PDF version of the product, and the hardcover release. Tachyon Squadron is a 184-page product, with a four-page index, two-page quick reference sheet, a ship sheet, and a character sheet in the back.

    The physical book is a digest-sized hardcover, similar to other Evil Hat releases. It is a full-color book, with numerous line art illustrations of pilots, starfighters, and capital ships. Formatting is similar to other Fate releases, with clear headers, call-out boxes, and very easy to digest pages of information.

    Tachyon Squadron and Creating a Pilot

    There is a brief five-page introduction to explain the style of science fiction that Tachyon Squadron is emulating. It’s a has a strongly military flavored sci-fi feel, and features humans skirmishing with other humans, rather than dealing with alien threats. Adversaries will include pirates and oppressive regimes, and FTL and artificial gravity technology exists without too many details. There is also a quick callout box to explain how the Fate rules are used and modified for the setting.

    Creating a pilot delves into some of those ways in which the setting utilizes and modifies the Fate rules. While creating a character will look familiar to anyone that has spent some time with the Fate Core rulebook, there are a few key differences.

    • You don’t just need a name, you need a callsign
    • You don’t have a Trouble aspect, you have a decompression aspect
    • You get two personal stunts and a gear stunt–the gear stunt representing a special piece of equipment you have available to your character

    There are example names and callsigns, as well as some archetypical skill assignment arrays. There are sidebars discussing player safety when it comes to exploring decompression aspects, as well as some guidance on how disability isn’t a limiting factor to fighter pilots in the setting.

    Unlike a standard game of Fate, in Tachyon Squadron, the Trouble aspect is, instead, replaced with the decompression aspect. This aspect is split between a positive means that the pilot can decompress, and a negative means. The only way a pilot recovers stress is to decompress. If they fail their check to decompress in a positive manner, they can always blow off steam in a less productive manner, which is likely to cause problems for them, now or in the future.

    Skills and Stunts

    The next section of the book delves into skills available in the setting, example stunts, and new rules for gear stunts that are introduced in this book.

    Skills are broken up into the following groups:

    • Spacefaring Skills (Gunnery, Pilot, Tactics, Technology)
    • Action Skills (Athletics, Fight, Notice, Shoot, Sneak)
    • Social Skills (Discipline, Empathy, Investigate, Provoke, Rapport)

    Those categories help to summarize the expected scenes that pilot characters will play through in the game, as they fly their ship, participate in ground-based missions, and interact with civilians and military personnel between starfighter missions.

    Gear Stunts introduce some new rule interactions into Fate. These stunts represent equipment that a character has available on their missions, but they can allow characters to maximize a die in certain circumstances. Maximizing a die is just taking a die from the dice, after they have been rolled, and setting it to “+.” If multiple pieces of gear would both help, you may get to maximize more than one die, but you can never have more than two maximized on one roll.

    While the Gear Stunts introduce ways in which characters can maximize their dice, this is also where the concept of minimizing dice is introduced. In some disadvantageous circumstances, characters may need to set a die from the rolled dice aside and set it to a “-.” Like maximized dice, you never need to minimize more than two dice in a single roll.


    The turn order in starfighter combat is resolved in a different manner than other Fate conflicts. The next chapter in the book explains how to run engagements, and what the phases look like.

    Engagements have the following parts:

    • Detection
    • Maneuver
    • Action
    • End of Round

    Detection involves using the technology skill to determine if both sides know how many fighters the other side has, and where those ships are. Maneuvering involves using the tactics skill to determine what order the ships take their actions. The action phase involves performing standard Fate actions using whatever skill is appropriate to the action. The end of round phase degrading the tactics score that was used to determine ship order, as well as being the phase of the engagement where ships that declared their intent to escape leave the scene.

    At a brief pass, that all can sound a lot more complicated than a standard Fate conflict, but the maneuver chart included in the book helps to illustrate how the rules work, and the individual phases are very clearly explained.

    Undetected ships can’t be attacked and can attack anyone in the fight. Other ships can only attack ships with their own tactics result or lower. A ship that attempts to bug out can be targeted by anyone, but if they make it to the End of Round phase, they escape the fight unscathed. There are undetected and special spots on the maneuver chart, and the special slot goes after everyone else. This is where capital ships take their actions in a fight.

    Unlike a standard Fate conflict, in the action phase, players may take actions in Step 1 or Step 2 of the round, with some special actions taking both Step 1 and Step 2 slots. Some actions allow a pilot to reroll their tactics check to move up (or down) the chart, while others may allow a pilot to harass an opposing pilot to change their score and position on the chart. Characters can also do things like making emergency repairs or recovering ejected pilots.

    Fighters have specific fighter sheets that show what happens when a given component takes damage. Enemy fighters might use full ship sheets, they may use simple damage rules, or they may be organized as flights (several fighters using simple rules, adding shifts to damage as they act as a unit), or as swarms.

    Swarms are one of my favorite rules for adding a ton of fighters to a battle. They act as free invokes for other ships, and the aspect representing the swarm can be removed depending on the actions taken by the PCs on their turn. Nobody in a swarm is wearing a Corellian Bloodstripe.

    The Galaxy and Combat Pilots at War

    The next two sections detail what the galaxy looks like and what the pilots of Tachyon Squadron do on a day to day basis. There are various example planets and space stations, as well as explanations of the daily duty and routine of fighter pilots, and what various mission profiles look like.

    In short, the galaxy was split between two big human empires, who were at war. The war came to an end, but a third group split from one of those empires and is now catching all kinds of heat from the less friendly of the two superpowers. Because the Draconis System is a new player in the galaxy, the fighter pilots of Tachyon Squadron are technically volunteer civilian contractors, waiting for the full-fledged Draconis military to get up and running.

    This sets up the player characters as the underdogs in most fights, trying to cause enough hassle to their better funded and backed enemies to get them to back off, rather than trying to conquer or overthrow any empire on their own.

    GMing Tachyon Squadron

    The next section in the book starts off by presenting consistent, current, impending, and future issues for a typical Tachyon Squadron campaign. Consistent issues are thematically appropriate story beats for the whole campaign, current issues are the “starting” problems that the group will likely be taking on, impending issues are those that are ready to move into the forefront in the near future, and future issues are emerging long-term issues that surface once the PCs have had a chance to play with the setting for a while.

    The chapter then moves into advice on how to structure engagements, with some example opposition for different types of missions of varying difficulty. There is advice on how to handle concessions in starship combat, as well as how to transition missions into “out of cockpit” encounters.

    The chapter wraps up with examples of how to structure a campaign, with advice on how to determine the opposition’s objectives, and how many times the PCs can stymie them before they change tactics, and eventually start to turn the tide.

    I’ve always been a big fan of games clearly presenting how they are intended to be played, and this chapter has a very clear set of examples not just for individual missions, but for how the beginning, middle, and end of a campaign should look. 

    Ships to Fly and People to Meet and Example Player Characters

    The next two chapters have statistics for spaceships, modular equipment, and characters that can be found in the setting. The example player characters can serve as examples, pre-generated characters, or NPCs if the players decide to make their own characters.

    There are statistics for capital ships and fighters, and the opposition fighters have separate stat blocks for “regular” opposition and aces. The ships have aspects, skill ranks, and stunts, and the more detailed ships have lists of damaged components that can be used in a similar manner to minor consequences, with each damaged component having a special narrative effect, or causing certain rolls to be minimized.

    NPCs and sample player characters are very diverse, including characters with various gender identities, sexualities, physical abilities. While I always appreciate an RPG setting that has that degree of diversity, it’s great to see actual examples of that diversity, rather than just seeing it stated in the higher-level descriptions of the setting. The commanding officers, other pilots, and civilian contacts your character runs into will reinforce that element of the setting. 

    The Pirates of Kepler Valley and Defense of Arcosolari Kalamos

    The next two sections of the book contain sample campaign arcs for the game. One campaign focuses on defending outposts and caravans from pirates while also fighting the Dominion, and the other revolves around a space station hub where the PCs may have to root out spies and Dominion sympathizers as well as flying starship missions.

    To reinforce the idea that Tachyon Squadron doesn’t have unlimited resources and is fighting against a bigger, better-supplied force, the campaign setup section lays out what equipment the PCs can expect to have available to them when their own gear conks out, or when they need specialized tech for missions. There are also outlines of specific scenes that may come at pivotal moments in the campaign, and new NPCs and locations.

     If you have ever thrilled at starships shooting lasers at one another while dodging fire from capital ships, the text is going to hold your interest. 
    Inspirations and Influences

    Inspirations and influences is a section of the book where various media that inspired the game can be found. One thing that interests me is that, the longer the RPG industry is around, the more diverse the inspirations become. In this instance, I’m not just referring to a broad range within certain media, but that influences now include tabletop games (including older RPGs) and video games.

    Target Lock

    Tachyon Squadron does a remarkable job of explaining exactly what it is trying to do and showing you how to achieve that goal using the rules and structure provided. Minimizing and maximizing dice are tools that may prove useful for modeling other thematic elements in future Fate games. The structure of starfighter engagement creates a procedure that feels like dogfighting without needing to track exact positioning, distance, and orientation. The diverse range of characters reinforces a setting element with substantive content.

    Pull Up

    One of the book’s strengths could also be a weakness–the procedure for engagements may be just a little bit too structured depending on the flavor of Fate you prefer. While it’s not hard to adapt, Tachyon Squadron defaults to gritty “everybody’s human” military science fiction, so if your love of starfighter combat involves lots of crazy ship types, alien co-pilots, and maybe space wizards, you may need to pull from other Fate sources to fill out your preferences.

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

    This product is a great example of using existing rules to reinforce the tropes of a genre. If you have ever thrilled at starships shooting lasers at one another while dodging fire from capital ships, the text is going to hold your interest. Even outside of Fate, the structure for creating tactical dogfights without using exact positioning is something you may want to check out.

    Have you ever adapted an RPG to model your favorite starfighter video games? Do you have a preference on how to model tactical maneuvering between ships in a sci-fi game? How gritty do you like your military sci-fi? Let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

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  • Getting Started on the DMs Guild – Part 1: Your First Product
    A screenshot of the Dungeon Masters Guild homepage

    In early 2016, Wizards of the Coast and OneBookshelf launched the Dungeon Masters Guild, a site with a new kind of license that allows fans of D&D to publish and sell their own D&D content. I began publishing on the Guild in October of the same year, and in the last two years, I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Do you want to publish on the Guild? Because I’m here to share what I’ve learned and what I’ve gleaned from others so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes as we have.

    The Initial Bubble-Bursting

    Do you have an idea you want to work on? Something to write, to publish, to share with other passionate D&D fans? Awesome. Let me get the less-good stuff out of the way now, then, before you start writing.

    There are some things you cannot publish on the DMs Guild at all. Here’s a quick rundown:

    • Your own homebrew settings – the only settings licensed for publication through the Guild are the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, and Eberron. I’m sure more are in the works behind the scenes, but this is what we have access to for now. You can also publish things that are “setting neutral” or “setting agnostic” meaning that they don’t have a specific world that they’re linked to.
    • Any editions other than 5th – the current edition is the only one eligible for the Guild. WotC is selling PDFs of older edition books through the Guild, but previous editions are off-limits for us regular publishers.
    • Work that contains intellectual property for Critical Role or The Adventure Zone or your other favorite D&D show – the licenses for these shows aren’t owned by Wizards of the Coast. ‘Nuff said.
      • Vecna – yes, this includes anything mentioning or pertaining to the lich god Vecna, who is technically from the world of Greyhawk and thus not eligible for the Guild. I’m specifically calling that out because I’ve seen more than one product pulled from the shelf for including an Eye or Hand of Vecna.
      • Any other intellectual property – this should be fairly self-explanatory by now.

    DMs Guild Licensing and the SRD

    The DMs Guild uses a slightly different licensing system than things published elsewhere using the SRD, or System Reference Document. For example, you can write an adventure in which the player characters fight Xanathar, the renowned Waterdhavian beholder, not that I’d ever recommend going toe-to-eyestalk with him. That could be published through the Guild, because the license gives publishers access to exclusive WotC intellectual property, like beholders, mind flayers, specific places and NPCs, etc.

    On the other hand, if you were to publish elsewhere using just the SRD, you couldn’t include Xanathar or Waterdeep or any beholder at all. The trade-off here is that if you were to publish directly through DriveThruRPG, you keep a higher percentage of the royalties as a content creator than you do through the DMs Guild.

     …they’re more likely to turn to the DMs Guild than DriveThruRPG. 

    It’s also key to mention here that anything published on the DMs Guild is then considered the property of Wizards of the Coast and cannot be published elsewhere. Even if you take it down from the Guild, making it no longer available there, it is still not “eligible” for publication elsewhere.

    What I’ve found to be the main benefit of the Guild is that it has a much larger audience of D&D fans specifically than DriveThruRPG. When people want a new, unique monster or magic items to include in their games, or they want a pre-written one shot so they don’t have to prep much for game that night, I find they’re more likely to turn to the DMs Guild than DriveThruRPG.

    Writing and Playtesting

    So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s get down to business writing that neat idea of yours! My biggest advice here is to look at how information is presented in the three core D&D rulebooks. For example, if you want to publish a bunch of new magic items, take note of how the magic items in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are shown. The name of the item, the type and rarity, if it requires attunement, and then any other description text. Your readers will already be familiar with that format, and anything you can do to make using your product easier for them is a good thing.

    For adventures, look to the published adventure modules – Storm King’s Thunder is my favorite example because I feel it’s the best organized of the current storylines. A description of a location might be the first thing under a new header, followed by events that happen while the players are there under a “Developments” header, and then all that good loot under a “Treasure” header. Sticking to the familiar layouts wherever possible is going to help you, in part because it makes your work look more professional.

     Sticking to the familiar layouts wherever possible is going to help you… 

    When it comes to playtesting, I’ll be the first to tell you that while playtesting is good and important, it’s not the be-all, end-all of your product. My bigger suggestion would be to run your work by other players and DMs (both experienced and new ones if you can) and ask them what they think. Ask a DM if they would run your adventure and if anything glaring is missing. Ask players if they’d be interested in your magic items if they happened to appear in a hoard. Don’t try to make your product perfect. Perfect is the enemy of done.

    Art, Covers, and Formatting

    Speaking of looking professional… you don’t want to just upload a plain word document, do you? Of course not. You want a spiffy PDF, complete with the nice D&D fonts. If you intend to publish anything on the Guild, your next download needs to be the “DMs Guild Creator Resource – Adventure Template”. It’s a free resource provided by WotC and OneBookshelf to help you make your products look clean, professional, and uniform with the rest of the D&D brand. Use their official fonts, headers, stat block templates, etc. and you will save yourself a headache later wondering if your document is legible.

    As for art and fancy covers… opinions vary, to say the least. Some people will say that a beautiful, full-art, full-color cover is the only way to sell a product, to hook a potential buyer. Other people will say that the plain-text cover with the big bold title and the DMs Guild logo is good enough for the Adventurer’s League (see above), so it’s good enough for them. There’s pros and cons to both: art can be an expensive upfront cost for a new creator, and a badly-designed cover is worse than no cover at all. Use your best judgment, and if you find that you’re getting really stressed out about the cover, don’t bother with fancy design. Make sure the title is legible and let everything else go. The same goes for interior art. I personally consider it nice-to-have, but not need-to-have.

     As for art and fancy covers… opinions vary, to say the least. 

    If a budget is all that’s holding you back from including art, there is quite a lot of free or low-cost art available. Many artists sell bundles of images through DriveThruRPG and only ask that you provide proper attribution in your final product. Other times, you can find public domain and historical art that is able to be used for free (but should still be credited to the creator – come on, guys). I like to use illustrations from old books of fairy tales and folklore, which bring a classic look and feel while still having an element of the fantastical. You don’t have to commission full, unique pieces with exclusive commercial rights. I downright would advise against it, just because you will never see a full return on investment for that.

    DMs Guild Logo

    Dotting Your i’s and Crossing Your T’s

    A few finishing touches are all it takes to make your product ready for publication. Make sure you have all of the below. Then double check. Maybe triple check, too.

    • Legal boilerplate text – a chunk of legal boilerplate is available in the FAQ under the “Content Guidelines” section. Read it and then copy-paste it at the end of your product, tweaking the year if need be. This is to cover you, to cover WotC, and to cover OneBookshelf. No one wants a lawsuit over this.
    • DMs Guild logo on the cover – it has to be there, no ifs, ands, or buts. You also cannot include any personal logos on the cover. You can put those inside, but not on the cover. There is a high-resolution image of the DMs Guild logo on that same “Content Guidelines” page (and above!).
    • Proper attribution and credits – if you used art, credit the artist. If you had playtesters, list their names. If an editor revised your project, list their name. This isn’t technically part of the DMs Guild Content Guidelines, but if you don’t do it, you’re a jerk.
    • Save it all as a PDF, but keep a separate Word doc version to incorporate later edits – yes, you may likely find your product will need edits or revisions later on.

    And voila, just like that, you’re ready to publish! If that’s got you a little intimidated, never fear- in Part 2, we’ll talk about publication, marketing, and sales.

    Let us know in the comments what you’re working on for the Guild!

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  • Bringing The Streaming Fan To The Table
    A screenshot from Curious Beginnings | Critical Role | Campaign 2, Episode 1

    Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace fans of streaming RPG games

    It has finally happened to you. You, the veteran Dungeon Master, are adding a new player to your gaming group. You’re taking in a new player into your home game, your inner sanctum. Your baby. Maybe a player at the table is bringing along a significant other, or maybe a friendly coworker wants to make the leap to tabletop RPGs and has asked to play.

    “No problem.”, you think. You’ve taught a lot of people to play. Why would this be any different? This isn’t your first rodeo. You get know the person socially to see if they’ll be a good fit. You ask the questions about schedule and commitment. The stars align, and they look like a good fit. So you ask the tough question, “What inspired you to invest time into a tabletop role-playing game?” (You may even silently think yourself so clever and accommodating to avoid the gatekeeping three letter acronym “AR-PEE-GEE”.)

    “I love Critical Role.”

    And there it is. It can’t be taken back. They watch streaming RPGs ON THE INTERNET and a million questions form in your brain. “How do they find the time?” “Why would they watch a game of Dungeons and Dragon without ever playing?” Maybe your first reaction is defensive. “Ugh. So Hollywood.” Maybe some self-doubt creeps in. “I’m not as good as Mercer. He’s a professional voice actor. And he has all that DwarvenForge”. Or “I’m not Chris Perkins. I don’t have his encyclopedic knowledge of the Realms.”

    “Ugh, why me? This sucks.” How could this happen to you? You’ve been a Dungeon Master for decades. Hell, you still have your Basic Edition Redbox. When people are asked about their favorite artists, your friends say things like “Jackson” or “Picasso”. You mumble something socially acceptable, but inside you scream “LARRY ELMORE”. Have no fear fellow Dungeon Master, we’re here to help you through these difficult times.

    How do you, the person who has been DMing for so long you can convincingly lie about liking Fourth Edition, handle this situation?

    What is all this streaming about, anyway?

    Let’s take a moment to review the most influential streams, in case you’re not familiar with the streaming scene.

    Dice, Camera, Action! (DCA) is a Skype-based stream produced officially by Wizards of the Coast and run by the legendary Chris Perkins. DCA features the current storyline published by WotC and features four players with an occasional guest star. The game has been playing for several years and features the same characters across multiple published campaign books. The characters advance slowly, deliberately keeping suppressing the power curve to allow the characters room to grow and expand without breaking the power curve of the setting. Each session lasts about two hours and is streamed weekly. DCA is a helpful reference for deconstructing published campaign material into a player focused experience, yet keeping the flavor of the original book.

    Acquisitions Incorporated (AcqInc) is a live play game run again by the legendary Chris Perkins played live at the table during most Penny Arcade Expos (PAX). These games are short, lasting about two hours, and feature the founders of the Penny Arcade webcomic Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins as well as noted fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss. A fourth player is frequently rotated in and out of the game. This game started in 4th Edition days and focuses and grand set pieces and largely absurdist comedic in Forgotten Realms. The PAX Acquisitions Inc game can provide guidance for running a classic “beer and pretzels” game with a focus on high action and hilarious moments.

    A relatively late entry into the streaming realm is the Acquisitions Incorporated: C-Team (C-team) game. This is also a live table game, DMed by Jerry Holkins. Thematically, it is very similar to the AcqInc main game but features a very different table feel. The game is more chaotic and self-referential than any of the other games on the list and can be challenging to follow due to a large amount of crosstalk and inside jokes told at the table. The game streams for two hours on a weekly schedule. Of all the major streamed games, this feels most like a traditional table game.

    The most prominent of the RPG streams is, of course, Critical Role. Critical Role has been streaming for several years and is DM’d by voice actor Matthew Mercer, featuring a cast of more professional voice actors. Critical Role’s success, while polarizing in some communities, has been an important influencer on the success of 5th Edition.

    Let’s get started

    So, where to begin? First, don’t be afraid to ask questions! Showing interest in what excites the player will forge an early bond every Dungeon Master needs to make with their players. Unlike most new players, the stream fan will have a solid understanding of what an RPG is, and how to behave in at the table. Ask them what they like about their chosen stream. Find out who their favorite character is on the show. Do they answer with a character name or with a player name? Answering “I like Liam.” versus “I like Vax.” can tell you a lot about the new player’s expectations. For example, answering with a player’s name may indicate they enjoy strong performances at the table. Answering with the character’s name may show they are more interested in a building a deep, tragic story for their character.

    Second, understand watching a stream is a way for a person to be a part of the RPG community. A DM prepping for a game, or players plotting out how to attack the next session are just ways we interact with our hobby away from the table. Taking in a stream is no different. It’s critical to keep in mind playing in a game is just one of many ways we build and participate in our hobby.

     A person who enjoys talking about Critical Role will almost certainly bring that level of engagement to your table.
    Armed with this information, you’ll be able to direct your game in a manner enjoyable for your new player. Hopefully, this opportunity can be used to expand your perspective on DMing, too.

    Lastly, it helps to understand how RPG streams differ. There are many different streams a person could choose to watch and this will give you helpful information useful for integrating a new player in your game. A Critical Fan vs an Acquisitions Inc. fan could indicate predilection in tonality (a more dramatic tone instead of a more comedic tone. A fan of Dice, Camera, Action might be into world building or enjoy game steeped in lore.

    Join us

    Of course, people are complicated, and it’s not all chromatic orbs and CR 2 unicorns. A player coming to D&D from a streaming background will have a head start over the traditional new player. They’ll understand rules, table protocol, and probably spotlight sharing better. This knowledge will also come with certain expectations one should be aware of to ensure a good experience for you and all of your players. There are some basic steps you can take you help ease the player in your game.

    The obvious answer, watch some episodes of the stream, is probably the least practical one. The task before you now is setting expectations. Based on the game you’re running, the player’s expectations may need to be managed in different ways. Running a published adventure comes with engagement challenges to even the most experienced D&D player, much less a player whose only experience with D&D comes from a campaign built only solely around extract the most from a player backstory.

    Running homebrew content also comes with challenges. Every Dungeon Master injects themselves into the world they create. Interests, beliefs, or even our aspirations influence our world and might cause friction with the player’s expectations. As with most situations, open and honest communication is the key to working through these situations.

    In short, “How do you want to do this?” is a great way to integrate a streaming fan into the participating at a table, be it physical or virtual, and expand our hobby to new fans!

    With the influx of new fans to 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, how have streaming shows like Critical Role changed your game?

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  • Troy’s Crock Pot: If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Spectacularly
    Troy’s Crock Pot: If You’re Gonna Fail, Fail Spectacularly

    I was recently invited to a friend’s house to take part in their playtest of the second edition of Pathfinder RPG.

    The first week went fine.  Gameplay quickly revealed that my player character —  Spindle, a gnome bard — had little affinity for the shortbow he was carrying.

    It was hardly surprising. Singing and inspiration were his hallmarks.

    If Spindle’s arrows went ker-plunk, that was to be expected. He was a first-level character, after all.

    The following week I arrived determined to emphasize Spindle’s bardic skills. One problem — the player with the dwarf fighter couldn’t make it. I looked at the player with the rogue, and he looked back at me. Then we both looked at the druid and the wizard.  For this night’s play, our characters would be the melee combatants?

    OK Johnny, rosin up that bow …

    But this isn’t a story about how our misfit band of spellcasters prevailed in a dungeon designed to test the ruleset — although that did happen. It’s really about me rolling spectacularly bad, owning those rolls in the moment, and incorporating that into the role-play.

    Spindle’s first d20 attack roll of the night was a 1.

    It appeared to be a continuation of Spindle’s record of near- and not-so-near misses.

    So be it.

    As a player you can throw a pout, get angry at the die, curse, or demonstrate your displeasure in any number of ways.

    Or, you can scoop up the die and describe how spectacularly bad that arrow shot was.

    I chose the latter. (If I was GMing, it’s what I hope my players do.)

    It was a move that paid off.

    Not by getting better rolls, but by continuing to roll poorly and bringing those fails to life with energy and interaction that other players could feed off of.

    Spindle offers to assist the rogue attempting to disable the trap by holding back a distracting gate.


    Spindle searches for the key to the locked chest.


    Spindle attempts to climb the rope to reach the ledge.


    Spindle makes a skill check.


    And with each 1, Spindle was coming alive at the table. With every miss, his personality emerged. Admittedly, he wasn’t contributing to the general welfare of the party — which could have used a nice solid attack roll. But I was getting to know Spindle, and so were the other players.

    Hands jittery and nervous hovered over the quiver. Reaching in, they shook so badly he knocked two or three arrows out for each one he withdrew.

    He might be a hapless, inept bowman, but he was my hapless, inept bowman. And that’s what the table got to experience. A gnome that was out of his league, out of his element, off-balance … perhaps, even a liability.

    Spindle renewed his attack and almost tossed another 1, but the die stopped on the seam in the table … hovered at 1 … but then teetered onto 19. Clearly, that shot ricocheted past the target, bounced off the back wall and got the goblin on the rebound. Something like that.

    With that, I sensed I was in for a change of fortune, so I switched gears.

    “Enough!” Spindle declared, tossing down the bow. He drew out the rapier, tossed magic missile and true strike at the boss opponent and was suddenly back on offense.

    I have written in a GS post before about the importance of the GM taking roleplay cues from dice results.  

    But having a player do it is important, too.  Probably moreso than relying on the GM to shoulder the burden. When four players around the table are riffing off their dice rolls, the narration sizzles. The rogue takes poison from the needle trap, and despite the illness and the loss of hit points refuses to retreat. The druid steps up into the fight, slicing at her foe with her scimitar. The wizard calls forth lightning, but it fizzles out, doing only 1 point of damage. Oops.

    Unlike a stage play, an rpg session doesn’t have a script.

    But it does have lines, of a sort, and they are revealed with each toss of the dice. Hit those cues and you’ll have a session to remember.


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  • Craft Free Magic Items In 3, 3.5 And Pathfinder? Yes Please!
    Craft Free Magic Items In 3, 3.5 And Pathfinder? Yes Please!

    I was reading the Pathfinder item creation rules recently and I was struck by one piece of the RAW. Aside from some exceptions, creation of magic items requires “materials” equal to half of the end market value of the item produced. These items are specifically left vague. One presumes this is for several reasons:

    • So the rule books don’t have to be a grocery list of items required for magic item creation.
    • So that reasonable substitutions can be made. Do you really need Medusae venom for ink for your scroll of flesh to stone? Can you not use distilled Gorgon Breath?
    • So that you can flavor items depending on materials. A magic sword created from iron ingots, obsidian chunks, or the trophy teeth of a great beast will all look very different and might lend themselves to different secondary enchants.
    • So that I can explain why the RAW explicitly allows for free item creation… Whaaaa? Yeah really. (but seriously, as GM you don’t HAVE to allow this any more than any other rules loophole but I think it’s kind of cool personally and would allow it.)

    So according to the magic item creation rules you need half the market value of the item to be created in unspecified “materials”. And creating the item takes time based on item value (and in 3, 3.5 also xp). But since “materials” is left vague, there’s no reason at all that those materials can’t themselves be magic items as long as they are also appropriate materials for crafting the item in question. So magic ingots of metal, magic wood, magic silks, magic crystals, magic nuggets of pure elements — if you can imagine it, you can make magic items out of it. Again, that’s part of the goal of the system. Making a magic greatclub from any of the above makes wildly different items, each of them interesting and cool in their own way.

    But here’s the catch: You can make a magic sword worth 16000 gp from 8000 gp worth of magic iron ingots and magic crystals. But how much does it cost to make 8000 gp worth of magic iron ingots and magic crystals? 4000 gp of “materials”. But can those materials be magic? Why the heck not? So you can make 8000 gp worth of magic ingots and crystals from 4000 gp worth of magic ore and uncut gems. But can those be magic? Hell yeah! You see where this is going, right? Start with a nearly worthless commodity and enchanting it into “unspecified magic version of itself” doubles its gp value. Rinse and repeat, doubling each time. And there is even historical precedent in fiction. You are literally spinning straw into gold there, Rumpelstiltskin.

    You can just trust me and leave it at that. Kind of hand wavy but it clearly works and is RAW. As a GM you can deny it to your players, that’s up to you but that is the way the rules work. But if you don’t want to leave it there, let’s codify it a bit:

    Ingot of Crafting
    Price: Varies; Slot: None; CL: 1; Weight: Varies; Aura: Transmutation
    These gold ingots come in a variety of sizes and values. Any Crafter can concentrate on any number of them while crafting which causes the ingots to transform into an amount of materials appropriate to the craft the user is creating equal to the value of the ingots used.
    Construction Requirements:
    Cost: Varies; Feats: Craft Wondrous Item; Special: Caster must have access to the transmutation school of magic

    So if you wanted a 500 gp ruby to use in your staff you could gather 500 gp worth of Ingots of Crafting, concentrate on the pile and poof! Ruby!

    Clearly the market value of these Ingots of Crafting is equal to the value of materials they produce. First, it says so right in the item description. Second, if the Ingot was worth more, no one would pay for them over just buying the materials themselves. If the Ingot were worth less people would buy up all the ingots selling for LESS than the value of materials they produce (thus driving up the cost of Ingots to material value), turn them into materials and sell those materials. So: obviously market value equal to what they produce.

    Note that this seems weird but absolutely works and has been borne out by many discussions about how DnD and Pathfinder magic works off market value in the past. The classic example that you can find discussed ad nauseam online is the 3, 3.5 pearl. If you crash or rig the pearl market, you STILL need a 100gp pearl for identify. It doesn’t matter if that pearl is a seed or a monstrosity. It only matters that it’s market value is 100gp.

    Note: In Pathfinder, this may seem to be in opposition to the 3rd party Artificer’s Salvage ability, but it’s really not. The Salvage ability lets you turn a magic item that is not an appropriate material for an item you are crafting into half its value of materials that are appropriate to any crafting attempt. In effect it is making explicit that universal magic materials that are useful in crafting any and all magic items do in fact exist.

    So the catch is: if you have an Ingot of Crafting you could use it as materials to make: an Ingot of Crafting worth twice as much (because it has half the market value of what you’re creating) and you could use that one to double again, etc… etc… until you have the value you need to make whatever item you want.

    Doesn’t have to be exactly this. You could create enchanted iron ingots or ensorceled silk that give you a bump to your crafting roll when you use them as materials or whatever. The Ingots just are a simple obvious example.

    BUT of course it’s not quite that simple. The additional crafting steps still take time, and in 3, 3.5 also xp. In order to make an item of value X, you need 1/2X in value. In order to make the 1/2X of value you need 1/4X etc… etc… and since crafting takes linear time (and xp), making the components for an item worth half it’s value takes half the time (and xp) the item does, and making the components for that item takes half the time (and xp) again, 1/4 the original etc…

    This is a classic geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8+ 1/16… = 1
    So according to RAW you can craft any item you want for essentially free, but the catch is in order to do so you have to spend twice the time (and xp) making it. This means that rushed crafting of items still takes money/materials. It also makes sense that to create magic materials you would need the Craft Wondrous Items feat and perhaps access to certain appropriate spells, meaning that creating free items has additional prerequisites.


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  • Pathfinder Playtest Review, Part 4
    Pathfinder Playtest

    This is part 4 of my review of the Pathfinder Playtest from Paizo. You can see part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here. In this part of the review, I’ll finish up my comments in this series with Game Mastering through Appendices.

    If you’re interested in reading along with me during the review, you can pick up the free PDF of the playtest rulebook at Paizo’s site:

    Game Mastering

    The section starts off with six bullet points to give overall guidance to the GM. I think the guidance misses the mark a bit, but it’s a good start. Unfortunately, the advice given out in that brief segment makes it appear as if the bulk of the work for the world, characters, events, and storytelling land firmly on the GM’s shoulders. This is, to some extent, true. However, I feel that this was a grand opportunity to let the GM know that they are not the driver in the storytelling effort, but a participant with the players in the storytelling. The advice given is solid, but the tone here sets the stage for making new GMs think they are in charge. Any veteran GM will certainly tell you that this is not the case once the players start rolling with their own ideas.

    Starting a Session

    The segment that covers how to start a session is fantastic! I hope to see this expanded a bit in the final book, but this is a wonderful set of advice. I even learned a few new tips and tricks in this area. Well done, Paizo!

    Adjudicating the Rules

    This area gives great advice about not looking up specific rules and gives guidance on how to “wing it” when necessary. This is something every “core” rulebook for every RPG should have.

    Sharing Responsibilities

    This section is given in a brief sidebar. I have a problem with this because quite a few readers of RPGs will skim those areas thinking they are not important. This is a perception thing because if it were important, it would be in the main text, right? I think the six bullet points I mentioned above could be combined with this sidebar to create a new approach to collaborative gaming that excels at great fun and excellent storytelling. Merging these two concepts, I think, would lead to a more powerful statement.

    Modes of Play

    Just as a refresher, modes are split up into encounter, exploration, and downtime.

    The encounter section is too brief. This is the most technical part of the game, and this can lead to it being the hardest to adjudicate properly because of the number of rules, feats, spells, skills, powers, items, monsters, and characters involved. I know. I know. Many books (and articles!) have been dedicated to this very topic, and I don’t expect Paizo to replicate what’s already been covered. However, I think a deeper dive into encounters would be best.

    The exploration and downtime modes are covered very well. These two sections are lengthy and solidly give the GM the right information to execute what is a new concept for Pathfinder. The guidance and tips found within these two sections will make running them go very smoothly for an experienced or fresh GM.

    Now that I’ve read the entire “Modes of Play” section, I think I figured out what is bothering me with the encounter section beyond its brevity. The encounter section was written for experienced GMs. The exploration and downtime sections were written in a manner that targets new GMs. I feel that Paizo needs to take a fresh look at the encounter section and rewrite it (and expand it) as if they were attempting to teach a brand new GM (as in, brand new to RPGs, not just Pathfinder) how to run an encounter. If they revisit and expand the encounter section with this in mind, I feel it would be a much stronger contribution to the GM section of the book.

    Difficulty Classes

    I’m going to be brief here. These three pages are well thought out, clear, and give some great examples on how to come up with target numbers on the fly or apply adjustments where necessary. Paizo’s team did an excellent job on this section.


    I’ve been looking forward to hitting this section ever since I learned that each level requires an even 1,000 XP to obtain instead of an upward-climbing slope of more experience points for the next level than the current one.

    Unfortunately for me, the “kill a monster” XP is listed in the supplemental bestiary, which I haven’t taken the time to flip through the PDF yet. I guess that’ll be next on my list of reading (but not reviewing). On the flip side, the XP awards for minor, moderate, and major accomplishments are laid out as 10, 30, and 80, respectively. Even though they call it “group XP” it’s not divided between all the characters. If the group accomplishes a moderate goal, then all the PCs involved gain 30 XP.

    There’s a sidebar for “Story-Based Leveling” that is in this section that calls for the GM to decide if and when the characters level up. This puts a sour taste in my mouth. It’s a personal opinion here, but I really don’t like these approaches at all. The players should see the steady gain of XP for their characters (even if they don’t level yet), so there is a sense of accomplishment in that area. Having the GM suddenly decree, “You go up a level.” feels too much like the GM is controlling things. Of course, this could just be me and my experiences with GMs wanting to have too much control. Your mileage may vary in this area.


    There are several pages dedicated to terrain, climate, and hazards. While the lists aren’t complete (I’m assuming they will be more comprehensive in the final, larger book), what is listed there and how the various environmental conditions impact the game are well stated. I like what I see as a set of building blocks toward more content.

    The hazards section is very well done. A hazard is the generic term for traps, pits, dangers, and magical effects that can harm or impede the PCs. There are ways to find, trigger, disable, destroy, and/or dispel various hazards depending on their nature. The playtest book came with a sample of three hazards. I had kind of hoped for a few more, but I’m assuming they didn’t want the playtest book to bloat up too much. I’m looking forward to seeing what the final product (and the various expansion books and adventures) have along these lines.


    The loot! We’re finally at the gold and shiny and magic and wonderful stuff portion of the book. Yeah, I’m a little excited here because I’m interested in seeing how things change up in this section, if at all.

    This section opens up with the usual text explaining what they’re going to be talking about, teaching some keywords, and generally laying out the approach to treasure.

    After this comes all sorts of tables outlining (almost proscribing) what treasure different level parties should (must?) receive for a fair and equitable game to be run. The fact that the treasure allotment is so heavily proscribed makes me extraordinarily sad.

    No more random treasure.

    Yeah. You read that right. There are no more dice rolls involved in generating treasure with Pathfinder. This breaks my heart, to be honest. As a GM, I always loved rolling up treasure because it would spark new ideas, thoughts, plot arcs, and cool stuff in my brain. Yeah, if I happened to roll up a majorly disruptive magic item for a low-level group, I’d probably shift things around a bit (or re-roll). However, randomly creating magic items for folks to find is gone. I’ll be over here in the corner shedding a tear for days gone by.

    Okay. I’ve had my cry. I’m mostly better now. Looking at the new approach at handing out treasure is fair and balanced. It will assist new GMs from overloading their group with disruptive items while keeping the party well-equipped for future challenges. This is super helpful for new GMs, and I can appreciate this approach at handing out goods. I just wish they’d kept gems, jewelry, and/or artwork as a form of gaining wealth because those can, once again, inspire stories and side plots, not just a gain of wealth. Now, the party will just gain some gold from the hoard and move on.

    If I ever run this version of Pathfinder, I’ll most likely break out my 2nd edition AD&D treasure generators (or the first Pathfinder versions) and run with those. They’re more fun than hand-picking treasure, to be honest.

    After the list o’ treasure tables ends, the book delves into materials, which is one of the best write-ups of “non-normal” materials I’ve ever seen. Excellent job here. Obviously, the list isn’t complete, but I expect it to expand in the final version.

    While flipping through the treasure section, I hit the sections for snares (crafting, detecting, triggering, etc.) and I was baffled here. I’m not sure why these were listed here under treasure, instead of above with the hazards. Did the wrong pages get dropped into the layout in the wrong place?

    After snares, comes the alchemical items. This is a cool section. I highly encourage everyone to check this part out. There are oodles of examples, tons of ideas, and great information about how they play in the game. Loud applause for you here, Paizo.

    Runes come next, and this is the part of enhancing weapons and armor with special powers. I love how weapons and armor must now be etched with cool-looking runes to become super special. This adds flavor to the world and storytelling options (as well as some neat intimidate/perception uses when someone wearing a well-etched suit of armor walks in the door) to the whole feel of the game.

    Last come the details of the various magic items that don’t fall into “weapons and armor.” This comprises the bulk of the treasure section, and I’m not going to detail each item or neat thing. I do want to say that I really want to play an archer (preferably with the elven ancestry) with an Oathbow.


    This is probably going to be my shortest write-up of any of the sections in the book. The appendices simply are: traits and glossary.

    The traits are all of the capitalized keywords (such as Strike) used within the book. The glossary is a good collection of phrases, terms, and things found within the book that may not be readily known to every player.

    Final Thoughts

    I think the most telling part of “is this a promising product” would be to answer the question, “Would J.T. play this game?”

    The answer is, “Yes.”

    This is a good foundational book for what promises to be a pretty cool system. There are some rough edges (as there are with any playtest document), but I figure Paizo is wise enough to listen to the feedback sent to them (and hopefully this series of articles) to improve the game.

    There is another question looming, however. That question is, “Would J.T. play this version instead of the original Pathfinder?”

    The answer is, “No.”

    There are a few reasons for this.

    The first is that I’m already heavily invested with knowledge, money, habits, and familiarity in the first version of Pathfinder. I have too much “edition inertia” going on to abandon Pathfinder 1.0 for Pathfinder 2.0. If the shift were more subtle between the two, I could see picking it up. However, everything will require major conversions to get from 1.0 to 2.0.

    The second is that I’m extremely concerned with the lack of random treasure. Yeah. It’s that big of a deal. I feel it’s a departure too far from the “source material” that was created way back in the 1970s. I don’t like that one bit.

    The third is that I don’t see anything drastically improving the game that much. There are tons of incremental improvements and quite a few major changes in the playtest document, but none of them really blew my socks off. There are some new concepts and ideas in here that I think I could shift back into a Pathfinder 1.0 game, but that now leaves me with Pathfinder 1.0 and some house rules (which I already have).

    Final question is, “If J.T. were completely new to RPGs and presented with both versions, which one would he pick?”

    I’d probably go with the playtest version, to be honest. It’s a better game, and my prejudices built up from playing RPGs for decades (and my Pathfinder edition inertia) would not be a factor in choosing which game to go with.

    I know. I know. I’m giving a mixed message here, but there are different angles to look at things.

    Paizo put out a solid effort here. I’m impressed with the amount of thought, care, effort, and experience that went into developing this game. They’ve certainly evolved the game. There are some high points in the evolution and some low points as well. I think the high drastically outweighs the low.

    I’m very much looking forward to the final version of the game. I’ll take a look at it then and reevaluate things at that time to determine if my stance on moving forward to the new version will change.

    Thanks to the Gnome Stew readers out there that stuck with me through these very long articles!

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  • mp3Gnomecast #52 – Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Interview
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang and Wen for an interview with Jodi Black and Shane Hensley of Pinnacle Entertainment Group about the Savage Worlds Adventure Edition Kickstarter! Have they earned themselves enough Bennies for them to avoid the stew?

  • The Horror Of The Mind’s Eye
    Dark and eerie

    What types of stories scare you the most? Is it the madness of the unknown from Cthulhu or the social and body horror of Bluebeard’s Bride? Some find terror in the monster’s teeth inches from their character’s neck, while others flee from the faint noises and shapes in the darkest part of night.

    I’m going to tell you a not-so-well-kept secret that I’ve heard from most horror GMs; you will never describe anything as scary to a player as what they create in their mind when left with unanswered questions.

    Things that dwell in the unknown

    I’m sure it’s nothing.

    “In the center of the room is a simple wooden table. A dark liquid is dripping from the tabletop onto the floor. As you get a little closer you can see an ivory letter opener that, while dull with age, is perfectly clean and untouched by what you now recognize is blood. It’s almost like opposite poles of a magnet pushing and battling against each other. The letter opener appears to be winning.”

    This scene sets up players to have a lot of questions and tension without any direct threats. The danger, if there is any, exists in the unknown parts of their situation. It’s a simple setup that works in a dungeon, 30’s noir mansion, or on an alien space station. Little gems like this are things that you can create, use, and remix for future horror games. The threat isn’t the monster that awaits them, rather it’s the fear of not knowing what form danger will take. Is the letter opener their salvation or their ultimate ruin? Time and their decisions will answer that question.

    I will caution you that this doesn’t mean that you should make everything an unknowable mystery. Just like in the classic, “A gun in the first act will go off in the third” trope, the objects and people that inspire fear should pay off in the end. Too many red herrings quickly stink up any story.

    The mundane becomes the terror

    There is a great guest post by Patrick Benson from back in 2006. It’s all about using those creatures that would normally be considered harmless in an RPG, like a bumblebee, and turning them into fear inducing beings.

    I was in a Halloween game of Dread playing the owner of a small country inn. The innkeeper asked the other characters if they were hungry. When a few said yes he walked over to the freezer, protectively peaked inside so that only he could see the contents, and said, “Good! We have meat.”

    That changed the way everyone saw both my character and that simple freezer. What was inside? Without knowing the answer, the other players filled it with fear and the frozen bodies of those that had not been smart enough to avoid evil. Really it was just full of poorly organized deer meat. A cold storage device became an object of terror that I still think about whenever the subject of horror comes up.

    You can bring that same sense of drama as a GM with normal things acting in abnormal ways. Players are looking for things to be scared of, so plant the seeds of fear! An analog phone disconnected from the wall that still rings anyway is a classic trope for a reason. If that ever happened to me in real life I’d burn the house down and move away because I’ve seen a horror movie. Jim, my innkeeper with a creepy freezer full of meat, might feel differently.

    Sounds like a scary situation

    People have been using music and sound effects to set the mood at the table for years. Now horror has been gifted with the popularity of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). They are audio recordings of certain noises like tapping fingers, brushing hair, or whispering that evokes a response from the listener’s brain. They are all over YouTube if you’re curious. It was a Twitter user, I can’t remember who, that I first saw talking about using layered ASMR tracks as background noise during a horror game. If you know who it was please leave their name in the comments so that I can give them credit!

    Trust me when I say that having multiple voices whispering in the background and making your brain tingle is unsettling at best. Even a single non-verbal track adds a weird atmosphere to your game. Two hours of gloves caressing a microphone and stroking a feather can sound downright sinister!

    You can always check your favorite streaming music service for Halloween themed sound effect albums. They do the job in a very thematic way. Try combining the two!

    When in doubt ask

    Be careful of what you wish for…

    “A hellish creature bursts through the door. It is the embodiment of your deepest fears. What does the monster look like?”

    Giving the player ownership of their character’s deepest fears is powerful. I know that some GMs have trust issues when it comes to giving players control. What if they try to be silly and say, “It’s a giant rubber ducky?”

    My response might be something like, “It looks cracked and worn by years in the sun. There is an intensity in its painted eyes that triggers the long-buried memory of your cousin Justin’s death. You can see in your mind’s eye the image of a much smaller version of this same duck floating next to his lifeless body. Much like then, you could swear that it just smiled and winked at you.”

    They asked for it, so give it to them. As a person I know what to do with a maniac with a chainsaw; run away. When it comes to a giant plastic duck that is murdering my bloodline I have no idea. As a GM, take their ideas and build on them.


    Horror automatically comes with a high potential for traumatizing players, so I always make sure that I have a full safety toolkit at my disposal. There have been several wonderful articles written here on the Stew that cover the subject.

    Read them, find what works best for your group, and have fun in the freedom of getting scared! This is the chance for all of you to really terrify each other while everyone stays safe!

    What tricks do you use to scare your players? What is the most terrifying moment that you’ve ever experienced in a game?

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  • All the World’s a Stage
    All the World’s a Stage


    “and all the men and women merely players” — William Shakespeare

    Halloween is nearly upon us, and soon, no one will look twice at a person dressed as the murderous Michael Myers or as a walking talking human sized piece of candy corn. Halloween encourages everyday people to imagine costumes to wear, attend parties, and even to play a little pretend. Take advantage of the spooky season and introduce some new players to role-playing games! The next time you need another player for your game, don’t just think about who plays the games you do. Think about who should play the games you do. Let them know what they’re missing!

    So, what’s your costume? 

    Why do we rack our brains over who to be and explore endless costume racks for what to wear for Halloween? Not to mention, occasionally we spend an obscene amount of money to manicure every detail. Why do we do it? Why do we go through the hassle year after year?

    Can it be that it is just fun to do? I mean, it only comes once a year. When else are you going to dress up, put your feet in another person’s shoes, and get to play a character? See where this is going?

    Role-playing in disguise?

    • Theater: We pay big money to watch, or possibly experience, theater. We audition just for the opportunity to play a part. Skits are used on big time shows like Dancing with the Stars to amplify dancing competitions, they preempt Christmas choir performances, and they are used in comedy all the time. SNL anyone? We prize actors of the silver screen, paying our favorites absurd amounts of money collectively. People pay for the privilege to observe, to experience, and to be entertained.

    Maybe we do it for the prestige, the story, or the love of acting…

    • Comic Conventions: They attract thousands of people at shows all over the country. A few of them attract over a hundred thousand attendees per convention. Thanks to the internet and our social media obsession with images, we are inundated with pictures of cosplay super heroines, anime heroes, cartoon characters and everything in between! There are even shows, contests, and prizes dedicated just to creating costumes.

    Maybe it is a form of hero worship, or we do it to honor the creative crafting spirit of it all.

    • Historical Reenactments: There is something to be said about retelling history. Reenactments help us get in the mindset of other times, other places. Reenactments are a long-held tradition like storytelling through performance. Is time what gives these activities their general acceptance?

    Maybe we do it for the value of passing on history or the act of storytelling itself?

    I can’t quite put my finger on why we dress up, why we embrace the opportunity to be someone else, but there is an enjoyment and general affection that is shared among the participants in these activities.

    Maybe we all crave escapism…

    What is abundantly clear is that there is common ground for why we wear costumes and why we enjoy role-playing games. So, why aren’t game tables overflowing with role-players like candy pails on Halloween?

    Wearing a Costume

    Shakespeare famously said, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”.

    The point is, it isn’t weird that you like to be someone or something else sometimes. It isn’t weird or wrong that you feel different in different clothes. Identity is powerful and we identify with how we look — how others look. Far too many role-playing enthusiasts are shy to speak about their impassioned hobby. For a good reason too, Dungeons & Dragons has been socially polarizing for many of us over the years. The funny thing is, people are playing role-playing games all around us. They always have! 

     The funny thing is, people are playing role-playing games all around us. They always have! 

    When you were young, maybe you had tea parties with your imaginary friends. Have you ever played Cops & Robbers or Cowboys & Indians? I for one used to run around the school yard acting out comic book characters. Maybe you just sat on the sofa imitating British accents or your favorite cartoon voices. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, whatever nerd stigma came of the past is no longer so divisive, so ostracizing. Given how widely we imitate others, how often we mask ourselves, what do we have to hide in the first place? 

    We are all actors and actresses. Maybe you like yourself better after a beer buzz. Is that suit you wear to work for show or do you feel empowered by it? What if you were a baseball player, a police officer, or a doctor; is it the confidence in how you wear the outfit or the skill of how you actually perform in it?

    Take a minute to carefully consider how you hide your hobby… and ask yourself, does it matter anymore? Worse…are you not including someone else in what makes you happy?

    Don’t hide your games from the public. Don’t make excuses. If times haven’t changed, then we are definitely starting to see them differently. The next time you need another player for your game, don’t just think about who plays the games you do. Consider the kid practicing their British accent. Consider the Dad who is reenacting Pickett’s Charge this weekend. Ask anyone who has ever auditioned for theater — or ever wanted to.

    With the spirit of Halloween all around us, you couldn’t be more surrounded by people with a reason to be interested in playing a role-playing game with you. Your next player is right in front of you, quit looking past them.

    What audiences can you think of that are role-playing in disguise!? Who did you role-play as when you were a kid? How do you hide your role-playing hobby from friends and family? 

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  • How writing a TTRPG strengthened my Chinese-Canadian identity
    How writing a TTRPG strengthened my Chinese-Canadian identity

    It’s 2018, and with the release of Crazy Rich Asians we’re starting to see a proliferation in high profile projects by Asian American and Asian Canadian creators in film and television. But the way I see it right now, the Asian design community in tabletop roleplaying games finds itself in a situation similar to that of mainstream North American cinema in the late 90s and early 2000s.

    On episode 14 of the Fun with Dumb podcast, Dante Basco, best known for his groundbreaking roles as Rufio in Hook and Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, said “99% of Asian roles you’ve seen in your lifetime…roles I’ve played and seen…have been the experiences of a white man”. The same goes for tabletop roleplaying games. With the legacy of Orientalist works such as Oriental Adventures (1985) and the continued popularity of Legend of the Five Rings (1995-present), consumers continue to face selective renderings of “Asian cultures” designed for western audiences. Similarly, with others like The Mountain Witch and High Plains Samurai, predominantly white consumers are given the means to explore and integrate cultural tropes from East Asian cultures into their games.

    Now don’t get me wrong, these kinds of games aren’t necessarily racist. They’re just damaging in their misrepresentative natures and reliance on dated tropes.

    They don’t tell our stories or enable people to tell real Asian stories.

    But here’s the catch. We don’t want to be a reactive community. We can’t just shout into the void calling for proper, positive representation in RPGs. If we want to design games, consume games, and represent ourselves in ways we want, we have to do what creators in Hollywood did. Participate or remain underrepresented. Tell your stories or remain invisible. Act with your dollars and create the projects that you want on the market.

    So I did just that and made my voice heard in the Canadian gaming community.

    On Curiosity in Focus, the podcast I independently produce, I interviewed a retired engineer named Jack Gin. At the request of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society, Jack had recently discovered a lost story from the First World War that would forever change the direction of my life. It was about Frederick Lee – a Chinese Canadian man who never returned from France during the First World War. Frederick was one of approximately 300 Canadians of Chinese ancestry who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the only known Canadian born Chinese soldier to die in combat during the Great War. In the face of widespread social and legal discrimination faced by Chinese communities in Canada, Frederick saw combat during the Battle of Vimy Ridge as a machine gunner for the 172nd (Rocky Mountain Rangers) Battalion and was later killed during the Battle of Hill 70. Like me, Frederick was a Canadian-born Chinese man from a family that emigrated from southern China.

    His story is simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. It’s one of self-sacrifice, loss, and a search for belonging.

    Sounds like it’d fit perfectly into a tabletop RPG, right? I think so! So I searched, looking for a game that might allow me to tell stories in a WWI setting. There was Weird War I – Savage Worlds or Wraith: The Great War, two alternate historical spins on a First World War infused by the dark arts and supernatural. These were naturally not the best choice due to their fantastical elements. PATROL: The Trench Raiders, an expansion of PATROL – A Vietnam War Roleplaying Game and OneDice WWI also presented themselves as an option. And of course, many of the setting agnostic systems like Fate would also work.

    I wanted depth. I wanted a game that included a rich historical setting that provided a backdrop through which to tell a characteristically Canadian story. Beyond the readily available games that feature a pseudo-feudal Japanese setting sprinkled with aspects of other Asian cultures, there exist few games in other genres that feature Asian characters or stories.

    So alongside two friends, we began to write one of our own – Ross Rifles.  

    Ross Rifles is a Powered by the Apocalypse game where players create and inhabit fictional members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) stationed on the Western Front. The game will not only teach players about Canada’s contribution to WWI but also highlight the struggles and sacrifices made by Canadians of all backgrounds to the war effort. This process would deepen my connection with Asian-Canadian history and complicate my understanding of who could be a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during one of Canada’s defining conflicts. When conducting research for this book, I was unsurprised to see that most popular sources of the war featured almost exclusively white men fighting in the name of Canada. This wasn’t the war I had come to learn about. This wasn’t the complicated and diverse fighting force I was trying to tell stories about. For me, like Frederick Lee, belonging was really important. From my perspective, Ross Rifles is about telling the story of those underrepresented in history texts and WWI media. It’s about complicating our understanding of Canadian identity during the early 20th century. It’s also a way for me to contribute to my own community here in Canada.

    So let’s write our own games, create our own networks, and represent ourselves.

    Daniel Kwan (@danielhkwan) is one-third of Dundas West Games and Level Up Gaming. You can learn more about Ross Rifles at He’s a creative producer, teacher, GM for Hire, and co-host of the Asians Represent! podcast (@aznsrepresent) on the ONE SHOT Podcast Network. 

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