March 16 2017

Gnome Stew


    Gnome Stew

  • A Solution For Drop-Ins, Casuals, And Other Sans Character Players
    The one legged cheetah man? Or the Bindlestiff? Hmmm......

    I, like I suspect many GMs, have a “player” that I have difficulty actually getting into a game. There are many reasons for this, but the one I want to focus on is a specific type. They want to play. They like to play, BUT:

    • Read a rulebook?
    • Fill out a character sheet?
    • Come up with a concept that plays well with others and fits your game?

    To that you get a resounding: “No THANK you.”

    So what’s the solution other than telling the player: “Well, guess you don’t really want to play that much. Bugger off then.” Assuming for some reason that’s not the answer you WANT to give? In this case, the answer is: Pregens.

    These can be new whole cloth characters, OR you could grab likely NPCs that you didn’t really flesh out for game play: Jondo the overeager town guard from last session, that genius whiz-kid inventor the PCs had to save from his own creation, that sort of thing.

    O.K. Article over. Go make a bunch of pregens so that your one player who’s kind of non-committal can play one, or on the off chance you get a drop in. Shoo!

    Oh. Still here? So depending on system, making a bunch of pregens can be a pain in the rump, and maintaining them over time to be a good match for your party can be yet more work. Every time your party advances a bit you have to go and update all those pregens. And while it’s fine if you don’t mind the work, I’ve never been much of a “Do a bunch of work on the off chance you need it” kind of guy.

    So from here, there are a couple options:

    1. Steal them: So you could find a set of already made characters appropriate to your game and just steal them. Depending on your game that could be easier or harder to find. If you’re lucky you can even find a variety of levels so that you don’t have to do advancement either. You can just grab the selection that fits. Some systems even have entire books dedicated to pregens.
    2. Bribe your players to do the heavy lifting for you: Not everyone is into lonely fun anymore, but chances are you have a player or two that would love to crank out a few basic pregen characters and/or update a few from the stable you already have. Just toss them a few xp, hero points, or heck, let them choose the pizza toppings next session and you’re good to go.
    3. Some mix of the above: Steal some and update them yourself, Have a player make them and you update them, You make them and let a player update them, etc… Whatever matches your bandwidth.

    O.K. Article really over. Standard closing questions: Have you used pregens at your table? What’s a new and clever way to apply this that I didn’t think of? And as always, anything you want a gnome to wax philosophical about? We’ll write about pretty much anything if it keeps us out of the stewpot.

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  • Create Your Own Games on Demand
    Create Your Own Games on Demand


    Do you have too many games just collecting dust on your bookshelves?

    Is it a struggle to get your players to try something new?

    Are you just too busy to finish reading that new tome of a game book?


    You are not alone.

    As Convention Coordinator for the Indie Game Developer Network and as a self-published game designer, I travel to monthly conventions to sell and run role-playing games. I’m always asking what games people are playing, running, and are interested in. And, let me tell you, there are plenty of others who feel the same as you. They face the same challenges, the same struggles.

    You don’t have to go it alone. 

    Together, I think we can build/borrow a system to help solve all of our (current) problems. It won’t cure them overnight, but it will treat the problems and help to create a foundation for other like-minded locals. Together, we can unite to build more than a gaming group. We can create a movement! One to tackle the difficulties of having too many unplayed games, of luring players to try something different, or the reoccurring learning curve of each new game.  First things first, we start by building a community. To meetup and game together, we’ll need a pool of potential players and Game Masters. Thanks to social media, this is surprisingly easy to start, however, difficult to master.

    Build a Community?

    We need a place for people to gather in order to build interest in our idea—our movement. With the utility of social media, we can easily recruit, message, and share ideas (posts) at times that are convenient for one another. A community can be fostered in something as simple as a Facebook Group. You could start today. Add the people you game with, the people that you know game locally, and the Game Masters that run events at local stores or gaming hangouts. Most game stores have their event schedules posted on a website or community board in their store. Take advantage of these to help you find where people are gaming and who is facilitating these games. Talk to your local game store owners about what you’re working on and who else they think you should talk to. Don’t assume that every game played will be publicly posted. Also, dig around for other local gaming groups on Facebook. Search the name of local game stores for  groups that share their name. Search for groups that prominently state your city, town, or region’s name with the keywords RPG, Tabletop, Geek, or D&D. You may be surprised to find how much is already going on right under your nose.


    How Will This Solve My Problems?

    A model that I’ve adopted in Northwest Indiana is that of Games on Demand. You may have heard of their work or participated in a game with them at Gencon, Origins, or Pax. Their model consists of several Game Masters, each offering up two or more different games per time slot. Players that attend the event(s), pick from the games offered in a first come, first served basis. They generally select from table tents that give a blurb of each game with a picture. As games are selected, the choices begin to narrow, and focus shifts to filling the games selected.

     To solve your problems, you need to foster an environment that builds demand for new games and that attracts players who want to be involved in those games. 
    To solve your problems, you need to foster an environment that builds demand for new games and that attracts players who want to be involved in those games. The Games on Demand model is attractive to players and Game Masters looking to play and run new games. It has an easy to understand structure that clearly defines what a Game Master needs to prepare for (two different games, two different one shot sessions, expect new players). Not to mention, with other Game Masters sharing games, you can learn more of them without having to read or research them one at a time.

    What Do I Need for This to Work?

    • Game Masters: With the help of another Game Master or two, you could offer up to six different games for a game night. Each Game Master already has games they know how to run and games on their shelf they are just dying to put to good use. Creating a community with game nights and a Games on Demand model provides the opportunity you’ve all been waiting for. Give yourself and other Game Masters the opportunity to share all of the cool games you’ve been collecting.
    • Public Places to Play: Potential players need to feel safe before they will join you for a game. Playing with strangers can be very intimidating, especially if it is at a private home where you don’t know anyone. Reach out to your local game stores or anywhere else people are gaming in your area (coffee shops, tabletop friendly bars, churches, the local library) and schedule a time for 2-3 free tables. You may be asked to institute a rule that everyone buy their drinks and snacks from the establishment. That’s only fair, besides, you want the opportunity for there to be foot traffic. Shopping customers and regulars can be recruited to play and invited to future events. They may even have friends…
    • Game Day Events or Meetups: What good is the community if we have nothing to rally around? Create events to attract people in your local area. Ask your friends to share the events with their friends and families. Spread the word on Facebook in your local groups with similar interests. If you have the skills to make a flyer, put some up in your local school and game store bulletin boards. It takes time for people to understand what you’re doing and also to carve out time to attend. Don’t be discouraged! Some people will need time to find themselves in a situation where they are also looking for new people to game with or new games to play. I have had more than one Game Master tell me, “I’ll be there when I’m no longer running two games a week.” That’s fair!

    Tales of the 219

    My local contingent is called the Tales of the 219. Yep, that’s our area code! Northwest Indiana Story Gamers just didn’t win over the hearts and minds of our founding members.

    On January 31st, we mark our one year anniversary of running events at local game stores on a monthly (and more) schedule. Setting out, I found other Game Masters interested in diversifying the games that they play and struggling to find players for their games not named D&D or Pathfinder. Sharing my vision for a more vibrant, inclusive, and variety rich gaming community, I reached out to local game stores. To their surprise, we didn’t want money or to sell attendees something physical. We just wanted to grow the community of role-players in Northwest Indiana, to bridge RPG enthusiasts beyond their favorite game store, gaming group, or routine game of choice.

    I remember speaking to Matt and Jared, two of my friends and early adopters of our vision.

    “This (Tales of the 219) is probably going to be like four of us running games for each other for a year or two. But, one day, there will be others, and they’ll talk fondly about how they found the Tales of the 219. We’ll be like forefathers that paved the way to make a more vibrant and diverse role-playing game community possible. This will work. We just need to be persistent and deal with the inevitable trying times that will come with the occasional successes.”

    I’m happy to inform you that it never did end up being just the four of us playing each others’ games. We’ve hosted events at six different game stores and one local convention for a total of fifteen events in 2018. Attendance varies from 5-15 individuals with an average of 8-9 folks attending per gathering. At our local convention Arcticon, we held eight games seating over 40 players! It’s a good feeling to not only play more games but to help others experience brilliant games they never knew existed. 

     It’s a good feeling to not only play more games but to help others experience brilliant games they never knew existed. 


    Some things I’ve learned so far:

    • was an excellent tool for engaging and managing a growing role-playing game community. It isn’t anymore. Some Meetup accounts are doing very well and holding strong to the format, but they are mostly groups that have been around for years. All the action is on Facebook these days, even if respondents ARE flaky. If you aren’t familiar with people checking interested instead of going for your events, get used to it. Phone based Facebook users  really gotta dig to find the illusive going option. So, don’t be too hard on those that mark interested. Searching Meetup for other gaming groups in your area can be very useful, though. You can reach out to them and talk about consolidating efforts.
    • D&D can be a powerful tool for recruiting and finding new players to join your burgeoning RPG community. It can also lead to exactly what you may have been trying to avoid—people only interested in D&D(or Pathfinder). I’ve spoken to a few of the larger role-playing game Meetup leaders about using D&D as a gateway for players. It will inflate your community numbers but may not convert many people over to trying out new games. People like to like D&D in this day and age! Experiment at your own risk.
    • Going to where the people are is worth it. Finding your people takes good word of mouth, a little luck, or consistency. Hopefully, you can find two of the three! Sometimes, it takes several events at a location to find the people who will become a core part of your new community. Most of us have busy adult lives and might skip a few of these events until it fits nicely in our schedule.
    • A lot of role-players choose not to be on Facebook or social media in general. Form an email list to keep them in the loop. You may be stunned by how many people that is. I certainly was!
    • It’s a win-win for game stores, you attract RPG enthusiasts to different stores and show them new games to purchase and run for others. Don’t be afraid to approach them. Also, don’t be surprised at how many still want telephone calls to schedule or are bad at email conversations. I like reaching out with Facebook Messenger as that tool trains businesses to reply timely. It has been very effective, for the most part.
    • Giving prizes to first time attendees and Game Masters for running games has been far less of an incentive than I had hoped for attracting players. I’m always giving away full games to new players and it doesn’t seem to really sway whether they return or not. Convenience seems to be king.

    Building a Community…Online?

    Don’t have a game store nearby? Can’t find role-players locally? Have you thought about building an online community or joining something like the Gauntlet? An earlier conception of this idea, this movement, was to build a role-playing game group with a rotating Game Master dynamic. On G+, we called ourselves the Janus GM Project. The members would announce games they wanted to run for the next round of games (like 3 rounds a year) and then we would vote on our favorite titles per Game Master. Each Game Master then knew what game to start reading with months to prepare, read up, or research the game. We’d play each game every other week for a 3-5 session story arc. It was a ton of fun and very effective! We played over twenty-five new games in about two and a half years.

    What Are You Really Doing This For?

    Maybe, you’re a Game Master overloaded with games that just need to be played. Maybe, you’re a game designer and want to build an audience that will playtest and buy your game(s). Maybe, you are a new player looking for the game that is uniquely your fit, your niche.

    Don’t settle for the status quo. Build a Games on Demand community where you live! Grow the community YOU want to be a part of. Build something for the future players of your neighborhood.

    I’ll be there for you. Together, we can build a network that communicates and shares best practices. You just need to be persistent and share your love for RPGs with those near you. I believe you can do it, and this is a fun way to grow the hobby we love so dear.



    Special thanks to the crew at the Tales of the 219 (Sout, Matt, Jared, Adrienne, Pedro, Tom), my local game stores (By the Board Games & Entertainment, The Librarium Cafe, Galactic Greg’s, Tenth Planet), and the RPG enthusiasts of the region! Thank you for the added joy to my life!


    I want to know:

    How have you brought people together in your local area?

    How do you attract new players or sway your gaming group into trying something new?

    Where do you game and who else could you invite?

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  • Commitment and Scheduling
    Commitment and Scheduling

    OMG, I have so much to do and time just keeps on ticking, ticking into the future…

    I’ve written about the agony and frustration of organizing a gaming group before, offering advice on how to coordinate schedules and expressing my frustration when the rest of the group isn’t on the same page. Recently, I was talking with a friend about this subject again and we were commiserating on how hard it is to get a group’s schedule to line up and how frustrating it can be when it isn’t the same level of importance to everyone involved.

    “I love gaming because of the people, but dammit people make it hard to game.” 
    I said, “I love gaming because of the people, but dammit people make it hard to game.”

    Over the years, I’ve seen how groups live and die based on scheduling and how much the group respects that scheduling. My first group that started in high school was a loose collection of people the GM would wrangle. It all revolved around him and because of the nature of what we were playing (usually super lethal 1e and 2e D&D) there were rarely campaign concerns that needed a consistent group of players. The folks I found in college were much more static about who was involved, but there was still only one GM and he often had difficulty maintaining a commitment to any one campaign. Eventually, we all stayed close friends, but the gaming faded away as adult lives got in the way. Today I have a local group that has been going strong for well over a decade, but that has taken a lot of determination from a couple of us that are too stubborn to fail. I also have a couple of online/remote groups, but scheduling is still tough and though our campaigns are wonderful, they’re sporadic.

    Over the years, to maintain my own sanity, I’ve had to accept that not everyone is going to rank their commitment to a game group as high as I do. Gaming means a lot to me and it’s a hobby I have obsessed about for literally decades. I mean, I do write for a blog about this stuff after all. Not everyone who enjoys gaming is going to hold it to the same lofty pinnacle that I do. Many of these folks are still totally worth gaming with, but they’re not going to be the ones to initiate organizing and wrangling a group into playing. There are also of plenty of folks who love gaming just as much and will do it whenever they can, but simply do not have the right temperament or skills to be good at organizing. The struggle is real.

    If you’re organizing your game group:

    • Be patient but persistent. When you’re trying to herd cats, patience is a virtue. Even if you’re working with a small group of gamers, it can be trying to try and balance everyone’s schedule and make the timing work. Finding a time that everyone can make requires patience or it will drive you insane. You also need to be persistent that a decision is made. So many groups will debate things endlessly and never actually decide on anything. Or worse, some folks will think a time was set, but the rest didn’t get that same message. Your persistence also helps in making sure everyone stays on the same page. Even though my group has a nominal ‘every-other-Friday’ agreement, I still send out a reminder at the beginning of the week to make sure everyone remembers what, when, and where.
    • Find the method that works for you. This should go without saying, but if you’re in charge of keeping the group organized, you have to find a method of organization that works for you. Honestly, if you’ve stepped into the role as a group’s organizer, you’re probably pretty organized to begin with, but everyone needs to start somewhere. My group uses a shared Google calendar, but relying on only that doesn’t work. At the end of every game session, I check in with folks about the next session. This helps remind folks to bring up things like vacations, cons, or special events, and it lets us potentially reschedule which night we play on if necessary. There’s also that ‘week-of’ reminder I send out.
    • Don’t burn yourself out trying to accommodate everyone. This is important. As I said above, not everyone will or can rank gaming at the same level of importance as you or I do. This doesn’t mean they’re not fun to game with, but their priorities may be different for a wide variety of reasons. Be honest with yourself when you’re struggling to coordinate and one person is consistently the problem. Maybe it’s worth it because you love gaming with that person, but maybe they shouldn’t be part of a weekly group. If the problem is they often forget about the game or have to frequently cancel, it might be time to say goodbye. Find the people that are at least in the same ballpark with your priorities. I accept that not everyone in my group will be as dedicated as I am, but they’re all willing to try and maintain our schedule.

    Thumbtacks can work as darts, right?

    If you’re agreeing to join a game group:

    • Respect the efforts of the organizer. I don’t say this just because I am an organizer, but you will absolutely frustrate and burn out your group’s organizer if you’re dismissive of how much work they do to keep things going. Or, if you constantly brush off gaming because something else came up, you’re disrespecting the time and effort of not only the organizer, but the rest of the group. If you’ve agreed to be part of a group and agreed to a time to game, you owe it to them to do your best.
    • Give as much warning as possible if you need to cancel. Life happens and things do come up, so it should be common sense to let everyone know as soon as possible when you have to cancel gaming. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the last-minute cancel that shouldn’t have been last-minute way too often to not bring it up. It’s incredibly disrespectful to the group as a whole and to the GM of the group. Do you know how much it sucks to be the GM who planned an adventure with a focus on a particular character only to have that character’s player not show up for game?
    • Be realistic about your availability. Folks really want to game, so they sometimes agree to games that almost immediately fall apart because no one could admit they really didn’t have the time for it. Recognize when you’re the one consistently making scheduling difficult and take a moment to think about whether or not this group is going to work. Sometimes difficult scheduling is okay because everyone is on board with it, but sometimes it’s just getting in the way of everyone else’s fun. I have one online group that has difficulty with scheduling, but we generally still make it work. Another fledgling group I was part of last year died essentially on the vine because we as a whole weren’t realistic about what our time commitment could be. Understand your own limitations and find the group that fits that.

    I think this is a pretty universal struggle for all of us who try and game regularly. There’s a reason there’s a ton of memes out there about the impossibility of game scheduling. I’m curious about your struggles and what you and your groups have done to get past this issue. I’d love to hear your advice on the subject.


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  • Game Creatives to Follow in 2019
    Game Creatives to Follow in 2019

    It’s a new year, which means you’ve got an excuse to look for cool new people to inspire you. I’ve curated some of my favorite creators doing cool stuff right now in ttrpgs, and what projects they’re working on.

    Jabari Weathers

    Jabari Weathers has been killin the rpg illustration game recently. Their vibrant colors and geometric linework brings a somewhat abstract and art nouveau look to traditional fantasy style pieces. Jabari’s artwork is gorgeous and inspiring in it’s interpretations of genre and style. I love the character portraits, and the inherent evocative romanticism in each piece.

    Two recent projects they’ve worked on include a tarot deck for Seven Seas, and Joshua AC Newman’s newest game in production The Bloody Handed Name of Bronze. They’ve also done gorgeous tarot illustrations for Bluebeard’s Bride!

    You can follow them on TwitterInstagram




    DC has just released the design for a Blades in the Dark hack called Mutants In The Night. As a streamer, game designer, and community organizer, DC is creating a massive amount of stuff for the ttrpg world. They’re currently streaming a campaign of Mutants In The Night on Twitch, but you can watch on YouTube if you can’t keep up with the live streams. DC also has a Patreon where they’re sharing behind the scenes design process and drafts of their rpg work. Their Patreon says a lot about their beautiful game philosophy: “Role-playing games are transformative. On a small scale, these games can begin in a place you’ve planned and controlled, but end in a place you’ve built. As the scale grows, people find themselves with more heart, courage, and understanding than they’d ever expect to gain from pieces of paper and small dice. ”

    If you want to support DC here’s some links and also their Twitter at @DungeonCommandr:


    Mutants in The Night:


    Allie Bustion

    Allie Bustion is a GM, streamer, game designer and artist who’s currently working on a game called Misbehavin’, a Blades hack alternate history/urban fantasy set in the Prohibition Era United States. It seems rad as hell and I’m sad I’m not playing it right now. Her streams focus on game dev and story driven games, and her art is this gorgeous colorful digital illustration. Over at her Patreon you can see some of her design thoughts as she creates and even playlists and inspirations that she shares as she works. Her games on include themes of relationships, monsters, and buddy cops.

    Check out her links and follow her @madpierrot






    Tristarae streams and guest stars on numerous ttrpg streams on Twitch! Recently starring in the aforementioned Mutants In the Night, as well as Blades in the Dark, AGON, and several other ttrpg playtests. She’s a delight to watch, her wit sharp and hilarious, and her perspectives fresh and relatable. The best place to find her streaming schedule is on her Twitter: @trist_chi



    Laura Simpson

    Laura Simpson designed the game behind the hugely successful Kickstarter A Companion’s Tale, a mapmaking game where you play the companions of the hero and construct the hero together. She’s one half of Sweet Potato Press, which has also created Love Commander and The Dance and the Dawn. Laura also has a game in the #Feminism anthology about four black women driving together to their reunion. Her games have a focus on diversity and protagonists that we don’t normally see at the forefront of the narrative.

    Find her work at Sweet Potato Press

    Misha Bushyager

    Misha Bushyager is a game designer, writer, and GM who’s currently working on the Afrofuturist space opera Orun. Orun had a great Kickstarter campaign and one of the most compelling elements of the game to me is that everyone plays an alien! Misha’s own project is under the name Black Girl Gameworks and is also 1/3rd of New Agenda Publishing, both of which are making and supporting games by diverse creators. Misha’s written for multiple games including Chill: SAVE, Lovecraftesque, and Dead Scare and was an editor of the award winning #Feminism collection of nanogames. She’s also a curator with me on More Seats At The Table. Check out her Twitter which is always on fire at @BGGameWorks

    And check out her work at: Black Girl Gameworks and New Agenda Publishing


    Tanya DePass

    Tanya DePass’s work in game communities is so, so important. Her project I Need Diverse Games highlights projects, work, and articles by marginalized creators across many platforms and types of games. I’ve seen her at booths and panels at conventions, streaming games as a partner on Twitch, and generally being a badass on Twitter. Her feed enriches and educates my understanding of marginalized communities in gaming. INDG also hosts a variety of support projects for marginalized creators, like scholarships to visit conventions, pay for articles, and boosting the signal on games. Tanya also helps organize Orcacon, an inclusive game convention in Washington. There are few projects in gaming that I think are as important as this one, definitely support, follow, and share Tanya’s work.

    Find her on Twitter at: @cypheroftyr


    main site:



    Whitney Delaglio

    Whitney Delaglio is a game designer who recently Kickstarted a game called Prism, which is basically about the relationships among fantastic aquatic creatures. The game focuses on relationships and feelings as a way to navigate both the story and the mechanics. Whitney did not just the game design for Prism, but also all the artwork, which is whimsical and delightful.

    You can find her work here:


    Read more »
  • Part-Time Gods Second Edition Review
    Part-Time Gods Second Edition Review


    I had a lot of early influences that led to my later interests. I can just barely remember seeing Star Wars at the drive-in when it came out. The first birthday present I can remember is a toy Batmobile. More to the point, one of the first non-Star Wars movies I can remember seeing was Clash of the Titans. While I had already started hearing stories about King Arthur and his knights, this was something else entirely — a whole different scale. My love of mythological stories was born, as was my deep abiding affection for mechanical owls.

    It’s not much of a leap for me to gravitate towards roleplaying games that allow you to build your own mythology. This led me to my current review, Part-Time Gods Second Edition.

    Content Warning

    While I’m not going to spend much time on any of it in this review, the game itself does have some instances of discussing adult professions, cannibalism, potentially compromised people put in dangerous situations, and occasional descriptions of violent acts. It isn’t constant, but each of the above pops up in a few places across the course of the text.


    This review is based on the PDF of the game. The PDF is 318 pages, with a four-page index, 12 sample characters (in addition to the sample characters used in the text), two pages of Kickstarter backers, three pages of random tables, a blank territory grid, and a blank character sheet.

    The cover has gorgeous full-color art, with similar black and white art in the interior. While the interior art is black and white, interior headers and borders are rendered in gold and purple, and the overall effect looks very sharp.


    The introduction gives the quick pitch of the game, which is that the player characters are portraying modern-day gods that must balance their responsibilities as everyday people with the responsibilities inherent in the divine spark that they possess. Complicating this is that mortals that aren’t worshippers that get too close to the gods usually don’t have a happy ending in store.

    In addition to the pitch, there are brief sections on what a roleplaying game is, what is needed to play, and the core resolution mechanic. That mechanic involves assembling a dice pool of d10s, counting 7-9s as successes, counting 10s as two successes, and counting 1s with no successes in the pool as a critical failure. This section wraps up with a glossary of terms that will be introduced in the upcoming chapter.

    Between chapters, there are one-page pieces of fiction illustrating how the lives of modern gods play out.

    The Descending Storm

    The next section delves a bit deeper into the lore of the assumed setting. The first mortal touched by the power known as The Source spent time with other mortals, and those mortals became gods. In order to keep a tighter rein on who gets to become a god, the existing gods locked up The First Mother.

    This leads to some bad consequences that result in the creation of Outsiders, mythological monsters that originally just wanted to wipe out the gods (although some of them lost this drive over time).

    All of this means that modern gods are a generation of people with amazing potential but burdened with the consequences of the actions of an older generation that was unwilling to fully share their power. Why does that theme feel somewhat familiar?

    In addition to the broad history lesson on the gods and their origins, there are explanations of theologies, dominions, territories, pantheons, worshippers, outsiders, and why modern gods are less overt than their predecessors.

    I really enjoyed the way the history weaves in and out of matching and diverting from what might be common knowledge about different mythologies. It is a history section that hits the highlights and lets you know what happened in broad terms but doesn’t assign specific fates for all of the old gods or go into details that a GM may want to provide in their own campaigns.

    Spark of Divinity

    This section of the book walks the reader through creating a character. This involves the following steps:

    • Occupations (what you do for a living)
    • Archetype (the type of character you are)
    • Dominion (what you are the god of)
    • Theology (an organization that has a specific philosophy on what gods should be doing)
    • Attachments (your ties to the mortal world)
    • Final Touches

    Each of these steps adds different ratings to a character. By combining them, you end up with what skills a character has, how much wealth and downtime they have, what their truths are (abilities that are either always true, or can be activated, but don’t involve rolls), and the people, places, and things that are important to them.

    At the end of each of the Theology sections, there is a sample character sheet for a god that belongs to that Theology. After walking players through the steps of creating a character, there is a section on XP, including how it is awarded, and what can be purchased with it.

    At the end of this section is a summary of character creation. I was glad this was included, as the individual items are simple enough, but they are being accumulated across a lot of different options, and it might be easy to miss something that a character should have received from some section of character creation.

    While I liked some of the items that will net a player XP for their character, I have become a much bigger fan of having tailored questions that trigger XP when answered. It’s great to award XP for characters being present, having scenes with their bonds, and highlighting their curses. I feel less excited about trying to determine spotlight awards, teamwork awards, or memorable moments. I would have rather had more specific questions tailored to the different aspects of the character as chosen through character creation, as some of the triggers feel too open-ended to me.

    Divine Expressions

    This section engages how to use the “big picture” aspects of the rules, such as how sparks work, legendary acts, hearing prayers, the limits of immortality, how manifestations work, rituals, and other worlds.

    Legendary acts are big narrative things that gods can do to make a major change, but that drain them whenever they are done. Gods have to recover after they do these, and there are mechanical penalties assessed afterward, but the legendary act itself is a narrative thing that fits within the god’s dominion.

    Whenever a god does something that isn’t a “standard” thing, such as using more mundane skills, they can use their manifestation skills to attempt to do supernatural things. The further away from their dominion the manifestation is, the more a god might take a penalty to their die pool to create the manifestation. There are example costs for things like magnitude and effect which a god must spend to create the manifestation, and if used against another creature with a spark, they must spend successes to overcome that oppositions defense before they can spend for effects.

    The final section of this chapter explains how a god can create their own realm away from the mortal world, as well as detailing a few previously existing supernatural realms. There are also rules for detailing what happens when gods go exploring realms beyond the mortal world.

    Blessing the Dice

    The next section gets more into the rules for doing more day to day actions in the game. The group has a pantheon pool of dice that can be drawn upon when the entire group agrees and invoking a character’s curse (narratively suffering the effects of that curse), adds to the pantheon pool. Blessings often involve giving a character extra dice when they attempt certain skills or in certain circumstances.

    Instead of adding a skill to an attribute, as many dice pool systems do, in Part-Time Gods 2nd Edition, you explain a primary skill related to what you want to do, and then explain how a secondary skill could supplement that skill, and the number in these two skills forms the number of dice that make up the dice pool. Higher difficulties require more successes.

    Tools that are high quality or especially helpful to an action add additional dice as well. Getting three more successes than needed for a given result gives a character a boost and getting a 1 on one of the dice without getting any successes creates a critical failure. There are example boosts and critical failures given in this chapter to guide what should happen when those come up.

    There are derived statistics for strength and movement. This was actually a little baffling to me, because so much of the game is abstract–the territory grid, wealth, downtime. It feels odd to quantify exactly how far characters can move, or exactly how much they can lift and carry, and it feels a little at odds with the overall feel of the game.

    Moving around the territory grid and entering a scene causes a character to spend downtime. Characters can go to their job to get back some wealth or downtime instead of participating in a scene, and when a character is out of downtime, they have to spend time with their bonds, or risk damaging the relationship with that bond (bonds take stress a certain number of times before being broken, and a broken bond creates new penalties for the god). Some obligations can be met by spending wealth, but not all.

    Divine Battles

    This section sets up how to structure a scene when player characters are in direct conflict with NPCs. There are different, but similar, rules for Battles of Fists and Battles of Wits. Characters have both health and psyche to track how much harm has been done in these conflicts.

    When entering conflict, characters roll individual initiative, and they pick a major and minor action, and when they must defend against an action, they take a minor and major defense.

    In addition to taking straight damage to health or psyche, characters can opt to take on conditions, which have specific consequences, but keep a character from using up all of their resources to stay viable in the scene.

    Armor and weapons are a bit more granular than the overall description of the tools in the previous chapter, although most of the interactions deal with specific instances where they are more or less effective, and ways to mitigate costs for an item.

    I’m a little torn, because I really like the depth that the interaction of major and minor choices adds to the narrative but coupled with the individual initiative rolled each round of combat, it feels like this could bog down quickly. It is noted that players could roll initiative once and keep the same turn order if they like, and I’m inclined to think this is what I would do, even though I like to run systems as written first, before introducing any modifications.

    At least one of the defense options had me really confused, until I reread the actions sections and realized that (I think) it chains off of a character picking a certain action on their turn, which in turn allows them to then have the option to benefit from a defensive option when they are being acted against.

    The Opposition

    This section presents statistics for noteworthy mortals, mortals touched by the gods, other gods, and outsiders. While there is plenty of room to customize these stat blocks (and the GM is encouraged to do so when a character becomes a recurring character), there is a wide enough variety to present any number of threats on the fly. In addition to the specific examples, there is a chart giving “generic” dice pools, defenses, and resistances for different threat levels, to help GMs build and improvise anything that doesn’t appear.

    The outsiders are drawn from a number of different mythologies and folklore, many of which have just a slight twist on what might be expected of them. Like the section on deific history, similar monsters from different mythologies are given more of a streamlined and common origin, such as the giants all originating from Atlas.

    Creating New Myths

    This section includes inspirations for the game (which draws on a wide variety of media), tips on developing stories, pacing a campaign, and utilizing story tricks. In several places it addresses specific game elements, such as getting the best use out of curses in the narrative.

    There is a lot of solid advice in this section, and I particularly liked the range of inspirations for the game, citing comics, television, books, and movies, some of which may be obvious, but others that clearly have a similar theme to the game as presented.

    I was a little surprised that there wasn’t a dedicated safety section in a narrative-heavy game such as this one, especially with some of the topics introduced. I do not want to give the wrong impression — the text definitely talks about paying attention to what players want and do not want in a game and building the story together, but this is interspersed, rather than concentrated in a specific discussion on safety.

    I was also a little sad that there wasn’t more time spent on an idea briefly touched on in this section about starting the characters as mortal for one session, then layering on their deific powers and their association with the various theologies. While I understand what was said from a mechanical standpoint, I would love to see this as an alternate path to starting the game, with an expanded exploration of what this would look like and how it should unfold.

    Divine Domain
     Part-Time Gods Second Edition manages to ignite a spark for modern urban fantasy roleplaying, creating a nice balance of game mechanics to drive the themes of the game. 

    I enjoy the exact level of detail given, that manages to give a strong feel for the setting, while leaving plenty of room to expand the campaign. Wealth and free time provide a great ebb and flow for driving the kinds of plots that the game describes. There is a broad cross-section of different cultural influences to create a richer tapestry to draw from. 

    Mortal Concerns

    The more granular rules about strength and movement feel a little at odds with the more free-form aspects of the game. It feels as if there is some potential for slowed pacing with individual initiative and multiple choices for both the attacker and defender in combat. I wish there had been a little more time spent on detailing the concept of playing characters as mortals discovering their sparks, and I wish there was a little bit more of a dedicated safety section in the rules.

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

    Part-Time Gods Second Edition manages to ignite a spark for modern urban fantasy roleplaying, creating a nice balance of game mechanics to drive the themes of the game. If you aren’t interested in urban fantasy, this may not change your mind, but it may still be worth a look just to see how the grid, wealth, and downtime are utilized.

    When you want to play god, what games to you enjoy? What are your favorite urban fantasy settings, and what is compelling about them? What kinds of mechanics do you feel support the themes of a game? We want to hear from you, so please leave a comment below! We’ll be waiting for you.

    Read more »
  • Our game space and some ideas for yours!
    Our game space and some ideas for yours!


    WHERE you play the game is important. I mean, it’s not as important as having good people, and a good game, but a well-thought-out game space can enhance the enjoyment of any event. Here are a few design principles that I’ve uncovered in the process of creating game spaces in my own home, and in surveying game spaces in other people’s conventions, stores, and homes.

    Every devoted gamer has spent time wistfully daydreaming about their PERFECT game room. Here are some ideas to help you design a comfortable, efficient game space in your own home.

    Here’s our game space with some important elements labeled.

    Here are some things to think about in your game space.

    Shelf Space

    Think of how much shelf space you need.

    Now double that.

    Nope, still not enough.

    No, you still need more than that.

    Your collection of gaming, and gaming-adjacent stuff is likely to outgrow your shelves, so when you’re designing, you’re going to have to think through what happens when you get more shelves. Our game area is part of our open-plan dining room/living room area. We have overflow shelving on the opposite side of the room on either side of the TV. It’s still not enough.

    Cheap shelves will bow and buckle under the weight of your books and other supplies, but that might take a few years. The more expensive your shelves, the less frequently you will have to replace them. If you’re in a space and you think you’ll be moving within 5 years, the cheap shelves are probably fine. They almost always disintegrate when you try and move them anyway. If you’re planning on being in place for 10 years, consider the next grade up of assemble-it-yourself shelves. If you’re planning to be in the same game room for a couple of decades or more then find a local carpenter or cabinet maker and ask them about making custom built-in shelves that will house your collection without ever buckling under the weight.

    In addition to hundreds of pounds of books, your game space will accumulate props. In our case, hats from our Deadlands campaign, various hyena-related costuming bits, a jester hat that once belonged to my friend James, a bag full of badges from every con we’ve gone to, and so much more. You’ll also need to store notebooks with game and DMing notes, extra dice, board games for when not everyone can play D&D, and other essentials. You should have a plethora of writing utensils and scratch paper at hand for your guests.

    Natural Daylight

    I started playing D&D when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Therefore, I spent a lot of my formative years in the 80s playing D&D in dark basements where it could be safely hidden from adults who might get excited-in-a-bad-way about a bunch of kids playing D&D as well as any cool kids that would make fun of us.

    Times have changed. D&D is now socially acceptable and maaaybe even kinda cool!

    Get your D&D outta the basement! It’s okay if your friends, parents, in-laws, and visitors know you play D&D. Natural daylight helps keep people alert and awake while they’re playing, and is generally better for people than being in a space that is dim and without natural sunlight. Of course, the price you pay for natural daylight from a wall full of windows is that you’re giving up that wall space where you could put shelving, but you have to weigh your tradeoffs.

    Chairs are Mission Critical

    Give your gamers chairs that they can stand on without breaking. Sometimes the drama calls for standing on a chair. Most importantly, get chairs that are comfortable enough to sit in for 8 hours. That means your chairs might be expensive, but it is SO worth it for the comfort. Before you buy seven or eight of them, buy one (and confirm you can take it back in 48 hours if you don’t like it) and spend 8 hours sitting in it. Have someone else try it as well. Is it comfy? If not, take it back. If the chairs are rickety or uncomfy after an hour, no one is going to care about your shelves, your expensive table, your lovely game space, or your game.

     If the chairs are rickety or uncomfy after an hour, no one is going to care about your shelves, your expensive table, your lovely game space, or your game. 

    Game Table

    This is worth it’s own post. I’m only going to go into the basics here. You need a table that is big enough to seat 8. You need to buy a home that has a space big enough to seat 8 people. Seriously, if gaming is Your Thing, then go all-in with it. When you’re looking at houses, know how big your table is, with chairs and shelves, and make sure the house has a room with natural daylight that will do.

    Our table is a Geek Chic Vizier game table for 8. The center slats come out of the table and we have a lexan grid underneath for wet- or dry-erase markers. Geek Chic has since (sadly!) gone out of business but an upright citizen at Board Game Geek has done the homework to compare and contrast custom game-tables here: and I can’t give you a better or more thorough analysis than that one.

    Ben looking lovingly at the table after we’d just vacuumed the crumbs out of it. The grid is covered with a lexan sheet so we can use dry erase markers. We can also slip big poster maps under the lexan for display.

    WiFi for the Masses

    Some people have a no-electronics rule at their tables. My only advice is to turn off wifi during games. Otherwise, skip this section and carry on.

    We like using D&D Beyond so we use computers. Therefore we need wifi. Our wifi was terrible and we couldn’t figure out why, but we did some math.

    We have 2 desktops, lights, fire alarms, thermostats, 1 TV, 1 Xbox, 2 work laptops, 2 personal laptops, 2 tablets, 2 personal phones, 1 work phone, and 1 data watch on our wifi. Then our players each bring a personal phone, some bring work phones, and they each bring a tablet or computer, and some have data watches. Our wifi was absolutely inadequate! We ended up having to buy a router that would support a lot of devices. Make a mental note of how many devices you have and guesstimate how many more your guests will bring, then add another 10% on top of that for all the new stuff that will need to be internet enabled, and get wifi resources accordingly.

    Having a stash of charging cables and LOTS of plugs is definitely a great way to treat your guests. Consider buying the plug covers that include a USB port. (Look up “electrical plugs with usb ports” on Amazon and you’ll find an abundance of them.)

    Easy Access to Kitchen

    We bought this house because someone could be in the kitchen and still participate in the game. (Which took a lot of looking!) Being able to get a drink or snack and not miss a word is great! It’s only human to want to bond over food and drink, so it’s an integral part of gaming culture. It’s polite to have a variety of drinks for your guests, and it’s also okay to ask them to contribute.

    Health and Safety

    You should have, and your guests should know how to locate, the fire extinguisher and first aid kit. Paths to them should be clear and uncluttered. You should also have a well-stocked restroom with plenty of paper, air freshener, and Kleenex. If you have women players, having a few pads and tampons in a plastic box under the sink is kind. Parking is also Always A Thing at most people’s houses. Have enough parking and clearly communicate where and when your guests should park.

    Cats (also Dogs!)

    Pets are a lovely part of the family and are often welcome in gaming spaces. Make sure your pets are good with having strangers in the house. If not, they need to be safely put up while guests are around. Make sure your guests are good with having pets around (and definitely let people know to bring allergy medicine as needed.) This is Fluffy, aka Giles. Note that he is NOT allowed on the table, but he IS allowed to sleep on my computer bag. He jumps up on the bag without touching the table. I am so amused by his rules lawyering I let him do it.

    The cat is not allowed on the table. However, he is not ON the table. He’s on my computer bag, which is fair game.


    What about YOUR game space?

    While this game setup is great for the games at MY house, everyone’s game table has different wants and needs. What is the most important element of your game space? What’s one thing you LOVE about your game space that really works well for you? What’s something that you can’t wait to CHANGE about your game space?

    Read more »
  • VideoAn Elementary Alternative to Combat (Fire/Water)
    Fists made of fire and water meet in the center of the picture.

    Image Courtesy: Pixabay

    As any number of language classes have taught most of us, stories are what happens when characters who have goals meet people, places, things, or ideas that prevent them from accomplishing those goals. Most of us can probably name off a handful of the more famous ones: “Gnome vs. Nature,” “Gnome vs. Gnome,” “Gnome vs. Self,” “Gnome vs. Intriguing Cave Filled with Goblins.” But when it comes to games, particularly the ones that always seem to be on the shelf in your Friendly Local Gaming Store, it seems that we default to a certain kind of conflict — the kind that results in careful tracking of resources like hit points, status effects, and positioning. In short: combat.

    In case it isn’t already clear, I am a really really big fan of this kind of gaming. There are few things I enjoy more than making and playing characters (okay, villains) with new and exciting ways to beat up heroes, move them around, and thwart their ambitions — but variety is the spice of life, and no matter how much I enjoy those kinds of games, once in a while it’s fun to pull out something a little different.

    Of course, there are a ton of games that do things other than physical combat brilliantly. Some concentrate on using the defining qualities of characters in ways that mechanically advantage them, or focus on exploration, or mystery, or drama, or dozens of other different (awesome) things, using games as metaphors and tools and vehicles for experiences. Those games are also great, and I can’t encourage you strongly enough to go out and play those games. Seriously: go play one now.

    But not everyone has the energy or (frankly) gaming group it takes to learn, make characters for, and play an entirely new system. In those cases, it can seem like your only option is to continue playing the same games you’ve always played, occasionally leavened by the introduction of a new module or character option.

    Often, your best option is often to identify the tools that you have available to you in your group’s preferred game, and like Lego (or Taco Bell), put them together in a new and exciting way, or at least a way your group hasn’t seen before.

     In those cases, your best option is often to identify the tools that you have available to you in your group’s preferred game, and like Lego (or Taco Bell), put them together in a new and exciting way, or at least a way your group hasn’t seen before. 

    For pulse-pounding action, tension, and the potential for gruesome character death, natural (or unnatural) disasters can provide an alternative way for your characters to struggle against forces they can’t swing a sword at. The remainder of this article is devoted to two approaches focusing on natural disasters: the first is a kind of challenge-within-a-challenge that pits your characters against the relentless growth potential of a fire, and the second is a set of hooks and emotional notes to hit when dealing with a flood.

    These tools can also be used to give players a sense of scope for the magic, superpowers, or feats of mad engineering that their antagonists bring to bear. It’s one thing to dodge a fireball, but quite another to turn around and realize that the fireball hit a building. In a land without fire codes, every such mishap can endanger innocent bystanders, rivals, or (for incredibly goal-oriented groups) an important MacGuffin.

    Note that both fires and floods are real disasters, and none of this is intended to trivialize the very real suffering that actual human beings go through when these disasters happen. With that in mind, I’ve linked to a relevant charity next to the two disasters examined in this article. If your group feels particularly moved after a given session, or even if you just have some extra to give, consider donating to these charities. Money doesn’t solve many problems, but for a struggling nonprofit, it rarely hurts.


    Charity: Operation USA

    Charity Navigator Rating: Four Stars

    Fire has a pretty central role in the mythology of our games. From fireballs to ancient fire gods to The Human Torch, the idea of shaping and using flame through means magical or mundane is where any number of games start. At the same time, consider how devastating fire has been in the United States in 2018, despite our relatively robust infrastructure and the truly heroic efforts of firefighters and first responders.

    When a villain (or even a hero) carelessly tosses out a spell or power with the deceptively simple warning that it may catch objects on fire, institute rules that cover just how destructive and uncontrollable fire can be.

     When a villain (or even a hero) carelessly tosses out a spell or power with the deceptively simple warning that it may catch objects on fire, institute rules that cover just how destructive and uncontrollable fire can be. 
    The excellent board game Flash Point has excellent mechanics that illustrate just how easy it is for a fire to rage out of control. The below rules are (very) loosely inspired by the way that this game handles fire.

    • After a triggering event occurs (an out of control spell, a fumble, or even a candle setting fire to bed curtains), and if no player has taken action to put out the blaze, roll a 6-sided die at the end of players’ turns to determine whether the fire spreads, roughly in size or intensity. On a 1-5, the fire stays where it is. On a 6, the fire spreads to every adjacent space (or doubles in intensity/size if you’re not using tactical grids).
    • Track the intensity/size of the fire like a fire’s “hit points” with character actions decreasing that total, and inaction allowing that total to increase through the d6 roll. Note that even stone construction often has wood joists and floors, and most wall materials are at least somewhat flammable — the key is that there’s something that can catch on fire nearly anywhere, and getting finicky about whether this thing or that thing can catch fire takes a lot of the urgency out of gameplay.
    • If a fire is particularly intense or large (as any fire will become if left alone), add to the roll based on its intensity. The longer a fire is left alone, the more distinct actions are required to put it out. The below numbers provide for both “theater of the mind” (requiring distinct “actions” to put out a given level of fire) and tactical miniatures-type combat (showing the number of “squares” a fire occupies). Clever actions or actions that create areas of effect may (at the game master’s discretion) put out more than one square or count as more than one action.
      • +0: a candle flame (1 action/square total)
      • +1: a torch or other open flame (2-4 actions/squares total)
      • +3: a fire of roughly the size and intensity of a campfire or fireplace fire (5-16 actions/squares total)
      • +5: a raging conflagration (16+ total squares)
    • For every round that an open flame begins and ends a turn next to a wall or other structurally important part of a building, do one point of damage to that building. Buildings have a number of points of damage based on the size and relative quality of construction. For games that do not track movement using tactical grids, every point of total intensity over a certain threshold counts toward the building’s limit.
      • 6 points: A one-room shed (every point of flame counts as being next to a wall for as long as the fire is burning)
      • 12 points: A normal-sized house, or a small building that’s relatively well-constructed (every point of intensity past 6 points counts toward the building’s limit)
      • 24 points: A large house, or a particularly well-constructed smaller one (every point of intensity past 9 points counts toward the building’s limit)
      • 48 points: Large public building, or another building particularly well-shielded against fire (every point of intensity past 12 counts toward the building’s limit)
    • If a building runs out of hit points, it collapses. Depending on the level of lethality in your game, NPCs or even characters may die instantly. At minimum, everyone involved should be completely out of commission until the next scene.
    • If the fire occurs outside, there is no limit to the potential spread of flame, and without quick and clever action, characters may well find themselves surrounded by towering walls of flame they have no hope of escaping.
    • Adjudicate fire damage to characters according to the rules of the game you’re using, and encourage players to think creatively about ways to put out the flame in efficient ways. Note that unless characters are fireproof or otherwise able to bypass areas that are currently on fire, aiding each other or escaping will likely be thwarted by burning walls, floors, doors, or trees.
    • The fire continues to burn (and potentially spread) as long as it has even a single point of intensity remaining. The key to this conflict is that every instance of the fire spreading requires distinct action by the players, and the problem compounds the longer characters do not take action.

    Particularly sadistic game masters or those with groups that enjoy especially grueling challenges may institute other potential obstacles — even after they’ve been put out, fires produce a lot of smoke that may require rolls to avoid conditions like being sickened or poisoned, and areas that have been devastated by fire can easily be difficult or treacherous to move through, especially if players are attempting to rescue bystanders, priceless objects, or gigantic handfuls of snakes. Game masters may also require a roll for all or some approaches to putting out a fire, though note that doing this may well risk exposing your players to spectacular failure.


    Charity: SBP (Saint Bernard Project)

    Charity Navigator Rating: Four Stars

    If you’re going to destroy the world, flooding is really the way to do it;

     If you’re going to destroy the world, flooding is really the way to do it. 
    Cultures all over the world are intimately familiar with the damage that can be done by out of control water, Atlantis and Noah’s famous Ark immediately spring to mind. Characters might face flooding through the actions of an angry god, demon, or godlike sorcerer. Weather magic or super science might cause endless rain, or local dams can be threatened or destroyed by careless magic or powers, or by deliberate sabotage. For an unusual flood, consider a substance other than water, and the damage it can do — studying up on the Great Molasses Flood of Boston is a great place to start.

    Unlike with fire, when a flood is under way, there’s little any but the most powerful characters can hope to do. Instead, characters should face challenges in two distinct phases: during the flood, and afterward.

    During the Flood: Survival

    During the flood, characters’ main focus should be escape and rescue — disaster is happening, and the characters can only hope to survive it. If using tactical miniatures or similar combat, consider restricting movement in one direction — characters may be able to move north, south or west, but cannot move east, due to the relentless pressure of water forcing against them. Terrain should be difficult or impossible to navigate through, and characters should constantly be forced to make decisions between things that they value.

    For an especially bleak experience, linger on locations, objects or buildings that have been important to characters in their previous stories as they wash away. As always, be conscious of your players’ feelings, and know when too much is too much. The X card is an excellent tool (though by no means the only one) for helping navigate this kind of scene.

    After the Flood: Recovery

    Rebuilding communities and the buildings that house them is only the most obvious part of recovering from a disaster like a flood. In modern floods, rebuilders are forced to deal with the logistics of moving new materials into ruined and impassable areas — something that can take weeks or months, even with modern technology.

    During that time period, even basics like food become scarce, and people can fall to desperation. Game Masters may want to play up the potential for conflict inherent in this, and allow players who specialize in the social elements of game play to step up and prevent riots or other forms of violence.

    For external threats, opportunistic villains may step in and make impossible promises, or a warlord may see a population that, though poor, is ripe for plunder.

    All of this is to say nothing of how such a weakened population deals with disease or injury — or with the health problems that can easily arise when waterlogged crops lay rotting in the fields and sodden soil sprouts disease, fungi and mold.

    Stories of disaster can give heroes challenges that they know they stand no chance of fighting against — neatly avoiding the unspoken assumption some groups have that “if it has hit points, I can kill it.” Such encounters or stories can break up combat and even social encounters in ways that can make a world feel more real and lived-in. As with any topic that has real-world equivalents, game masters should pay attention to the emotional states of their players, some of whom may have directly or indirectly experienced these disasters, and make sure that everyone is on board with the inclusion of these kinds of elements. With the whole group on board and sharing in an understanding of what they’re in for, this kind of game can be a great way to spice up your sessions.

    Do these kinds of disasters have a place at your table? If so, how have you used them in the past?

    Read more »
  • mp3Gnomecast #57 – Maintaining Tone
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Ang, Kira, Senda, and Wen for tools and tips for maintaining game tone at the table. Can these gnomes keep their tone steady enough to avoid the stew?

  • Missing Session Zero
    Lonely Chair

    Lonely chair in the spot of light on black background at empty room

    As highlighted in a recent GnomeCast, Ang, Matt, and I talked about how to approach session zero and handle launching a campaign. Near the end of the recording, Matt pondered about how to handle a missing player. I decided to create an article (this one!) about that very occurrence.

     What does the GM do when a player misses out on session zero? 

    In case you missed the episode, here’s the basic run-down of what session zero is for. Session zero occurs before the campaign launches. It sets the groundwork for genre, system, play style, social contracts, safety measures while at the table, setting agreements (or even creation), character creation, tying the disparate characters together into a cohesive unit via backstory or hooks, and so on. It’s building the foundation the campaign will stand upon for the weeks, months, or years to come. Another thing that I like to do during session zero is to have an introductory encounter (not always combat) between the party and either the world or some NPCs to set the tone and drop some adventure hooks in front of the players.

    Now to Matt’s question: What does the GM do when a player misses out on session zero? I have two different answers based on why the player was absent.

    Intentional Absence

    If the player, for whatever intentional reason, decided to drop out of the session zero experience, I tend to be a little more stern with them. All of the players need to be involved in session zero for it to be as effective as possible. I’ll take the world, setting, city, NPC, party, and introductory hook notes, compile them into a PDF (or several of them if necessary). Then I’ll email the PDF(s) to the player and tell them that the reading is mandatory in order for them to know what is going on with the future of the game.

     If the player, for whatever intentional reason, decided to drop out of the session zero experience, I tend to be a little more stern with them. 

    The reason I make the reading mandatory is that we had a player miss session zero once. This included a high-level lesson from the GM on “string theory” and quantum physics. None of us came out as experts, but it was the foundation behind why our spacecraft had faster-than-light travel built in, and all other spaceships had to use jump-gates. During the course of play during the first session, the player who was absent from receiving this foundational knowledge, really goofed up on the controls of the ship (this was player ignorance, not a bad roll or an in-character moment). We ended up shooting across the galaxy and away from our objectives the GM had carefully planned out. Oops. Yeah, we could have stepped in and retconned the poor decision on the navigation of the ship, but that’s not our game style. We ran with the change in the story arcs, but I felt bad for the GM who had to toss aside sheafs of paper with his meticulous notes.

    I’m not a huge planning GM. I do more improv, but there is some planning and prep work that goes into getting ready for the gaming session. Having a player completely disregard the group’s efforts to get together during session zero is inconsiderate and rude, to be honest.

    What about the player’s character? When I email the PDF(s) to the player, I give them a narrow scope of character types to pick from to round out the party. Then I tell the player to create the character within those narrow scope of choices, and make sure to show up with a completed character (ready for me to review and approve) when they arrive for the first session.

    If possible, I try to keep an open email dialogue going on with the player to see if they can get ideas, their character, etc. to me via email sooner than later. This will give me time to get through the new character and provide feedback before the first session kicks off.

    Unplanned Absence

    There are times where real life gets in the way of gaming. I completely understand that. Just a few weeks ago, we had two players carpooling to the game after a snow/ice storm. Weather was clear, but the remote roads were not. They ended up in a ditch and against a fence. Even though someone pulled them out and they got to the gaming location, they were no longer in the mood to roll some dice. I get that. I probably wouldn’t want to game either after a harrowing experience like that. (Note: Neither person was injured, so we were very thankful for that.) The litany of ways real life can intercede on our gaming plans is as lengthy as the history of the universe is old.

     There are times where real life gets in the way of gaming. I completely understand that. 

    Be understanding. Be generous. Be kind. Know that the player wanted to be there, but could not because of whatever legitimate reason came up. My approach here is drastically different from the “intentional absence” response.

    The first thing I do is see if I can set up some time to meet, one-on-one, with the missing player. If we can get together before the first session, great. During that one-on-one meeting, I’ll outline what’s been decided, ask them if they would have any input and/or changes to make with what has been put down. Then I’ll give them a quick run-down of the characters that already exist in the party, and work with them on making a character that they’ll enjoy but will still fit into the party and mesh well. I’ll also work with them on background information for their character to try and tie their new character to at least two other party members.

    Once we finish up the meeting, I’ll reach out the rest of the players with any world/setting changes, so they won’t be surprised. Then I’ll email (on the side) the players who have had the new character’s background “attached” to their own, so they can hash out any further details via email before we sit down at the table again.

    If I can’t get a meeting together with the missing player, then I resort to emails. Lots of emails. I’ll compile the same documents into PDF(s) and email those to the player and ask them to read through it before determining their character. I’ll leave the character concepts as wide open as I can, but still with the limitations that the new character fit in with the rest of the party. In other words, if the entire party is made up of rangers, paladins, and cavaliers, I wouldn’t allow the new character to be an assassin… because…. well… That’s just asking for trouble, right?

    If things work out well, we’ll have everything nailed down and the player will have a character they like when they show up at the table for the first session.


    It sounds like I’m harsh with the “intentional absence” player, but I like to set the tone of expectations early on. If I allow the player to slide early on, I’ve found through experience that they will be problematic throughout the campaign’s run. By nipping it in the bud early on, things run smoother.

    I’m also completely understanding of things getting in the way of gaming. It happens. I don’t have to like it, but I get it. I won’t punish a player for missing any session because their work, children, loved ones, car troubles, or just life in general get in the way. As a matter of fact, I’ll go out of my way to work around all of that to see if we can get back on track.

    How do all of you out there in the Internet gamer land handle folks who miss key or vital sessions?

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  • Troy’s Crockpot: Character Background Generators
    Troy’s Crockpot: Character Background Generators

    When a GM is plotting a campaign, one of the things she or he wants to do is identify points of conflict that will directly affect the player characters.

    Published adventures will have all sorts of thrilling moments and engaging encounters. But making the story personal can often be what makes it memorable — what brings it home.

    You want to hit them where it hurts.

    When the authors of Gnome Stew created Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots To Inspire Game Masters in 2010, we used Georges Polti’s list of 36 dramatic situations as a guide. Thirteen of the dramatic situations involve family or loved ones. Who the character loves and is loved by is essential to establishing those dramatic beats.

    It’s Your Life

    Over the holiday I caught up with some game-related reading, including digging into D&D’s Xanathar’s Guide to Everything (so I’m a year behind, shoot me).

    Included in the book is a list of tables designed to generate a background for PCs. Tables such as this can be helpful because they provide additional material that a player might not have considered when coming up with a backstory. (Or, if the player isn’t inclined to do a backstory, at least it can provide the GM with an item or two that can be used as a personal hook).

    Tables such as this should never be used slavishly. I think they work best when they serve as a menu that a player can select from.

    As an exercise, I rolled up two character backgrounds using the Xanathar tables, then for comparison’s sake, did the same with two other tables I have found useful — one from the Hero Builder’s Guidebook (Wizards of the Coast, c. 2000) and the other from Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign (Paizo, c. 2013).


    First: Dragonborn sailor/bard.

    The dice produced a couple of interesting points: 1) The dragonborn came from a wealthy family that resided in a palace or castle, but whose mother is missing because she was imprisoned, enslaved or for some other reason was taken away. 2) The character is a gifted performer whose love of knowledge and stories was awakened by spending time in an old library, and who learned his craft from a master bard who was a human aristocrat, someone alive and famous.

    Both of those things work well, and could even be combined together. The missing mom could be a victim of palace or imperial conflicts. She could be like Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spent close to 16 years in prison for siding with one of her sons over their claim to the crown. And perhaps this aristocrat is her keeper, by some arrangement with the father, but the PC can still visit and learn from them.

    Second: Gnome fighter.

    My favorite part of this random generation was the 11 siblings the chart produced. Big families produce lots of conflict, reasons to do things, reasons to NOT do things, and frankly, every time a character needs a brother or sister to this that or the other, you’ve got one. (“How many brothers and sisters do you have?”)

    The other part of the conflict is built into the origin; the family lived on the frontier, on the edges of civilization, and that pop died and got eaten by monsters. Whatever that monster is — picking one is always fun — gives the gnome a built-in enmity for the rest of its career.

    A life event that provides fertile ground for a revenge storyline is that the gnome was knocked out and left for dead in a feud with a rival adventurer over shares of a treasure. This adventurer is now an enemy.

    Hero Builder

    This generator provided me with a human from a family of refugees who established a homestead along the mountainous frontier. This character was raised in adventure territory, combat was a part of their lives.  Of her or his immediate family, only an older sister survives. However, there is a large extended family of uncles and cousins.

    Why was the family on the run? Well, the generator said the family held dissident political views; they supported a rebellion. In fact, an ancestor achieved folk hero status as a failed rebel. That’s a legacy the character might wish to embrace or discard. Either approach can be interesting.

    Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign

    This generator produced a half-elf cleric who was raised among forest-dwelling elves as an only child.

    Two events are pivotal for the character: 1) The PC was a convert to the faith, a decision that was heavily influenced by a current love interest. 2) The PC twice has had run-ins with the law, once imprisoned for smuggling and later for assaulting a close friend for religious reasons. Does this make the PC a zealot? Are they someone under the sway of another (the lover)? Does the newfound religion jive with the folks back in the forest home?

    This character has the makings of a pariah, which is interesting. Maybe the only way they’ll find themselves is within a party of adventurers.


    Obviously, different background generators do different things, emphasizing different aspects of lives. What I like about each:

    Xanathar: It creates a conflict that is fresh and immediate, often familial, often involving a patron or teacher. The PC has to fill in the blanks a little bit more than in the others.  On its own, there are gaps. But if a PC pairs it up with the Backgrounds, Boons and Traits section of the character development, a more cohesive picture of their past takes shape.

    Hero Builder: Family legacy is very important. Where you are from and who your parents were are key to your development. The apple does not fall far from the tree.  The ethics charts can be useful. I also found that religion and political beliefs factor in more strongly here than in the others.

    Ultimate Campaign: Everything is driven by the PC’s character class, and secondarily, by their race. There is a darker tone to the background material; in all likelihood, something traumatic happened that spurred an adventuring career.


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