Gnome Stew


    Gnome Stew

  • Start your Campaign with a Wedding

    Since the beginning of the hobby starting at a tavern has been the most cliche and stereotypical beginning for medieval fantasy campaigns in TTRPG. They are that way for a reason! Taverns are meeting places for all different kinds of people to group up and find missions to get started. The tavern keeper always has some gossip or information to give, maybe some rats to kill in the attic. There is always that mysterious person in the shadows as well, ready to approach the group of wacky individuals and make a team out of them. I, however, come here to offer you something that is far better (in my opinion) than the tavern beginning, and it can easily be applied to any TTRPG.

    The Wedding

    Note that even though I say a wedding, many sort of similar parties apply. A “fiesta de quinceañera“, a funeral, a bachelor party, or any sort of meeting that encompasses people from different areas connected to one same person or group of people works fine. All of these usually have events going on during the meeting in which everyone is invited to participate. Apart from that, people are put in groups or these self-gravitate into forming smaller groups of people to chat with. Once they are all together in one same spot, within the same subgroup, it’s time for something to go wrong or have someone recruit the group.

    I tried this approach at the start of two of the last campaigns I ran: one for Pathfinder 2e, the other for City of Mist (which you can see in a soon to come Spanish Actual Play by RolDe10). The Pathfinder campaign involved the wedding of the Emperor’s right-hand man, having all party members meet up and put into one table together with one NPC that was going to be important to the story. During the event, there is an assassination attempt on the Emperor’s right-hand man, and the story starts from there. For City of Mist, all player characters meet during the “fiesta de quinceañera” (an event celebrated in Latin America when a woman turns 15) and the birthday girl never appears, because she was kidnapped. Both events are kind of similar, having the players meet at an event without knowing each other (or having a few connections with each other), and something happens that kickstarts the campaign.

    The best tutorial

    Both times I ran this kickstart event for a campaign, I was teaching the players how to play the game. At the same time, they were getting to better know their characters. These meetings usually have events going on in them. It is pretty usual for weddings to have games, or have the classical “grasp the flower bouquet”. Think of them as the first checks or interactions the players will have with the system. It’s a no-risk situation that players always want to participate in because they are just fun. Even if they decide to have their character not participate in it, that also shows the kind of character the player is playing.

    In Media Res

    In media res, which is Latin for “in the middle of” means dropping the players into the action from the very start. I have tried this several times, and it has never failed me. It immediately hooks the players and gets them into character. Being in the middle of a celebratory event, you can have them start in some low-risk but action-heavy event, such as dancing with an important NPC, or carrying a plate full of food as a waiter. Once you have them there, they describe their character, what they are doing, and how, and they make a first roll. Players get to know a bit about the system immediately, allowing them to better know how their actions have consequences.

    Campaign Kickoff

    Once the big meeting has occurred, and all the key parts of the campaign have been introduced (players and important NPCs), it’s time to show what the campaign will be all about. This can happen by having something or someone break into the meeting, or by having an NPC approach the player characters to fill them in with information. As I said, I used both an assassination attempt, and a kidnapping as past examples and both worked excellently. Having a knight of the king break in, having the mother of the birthday person abducted by an alien, or having an NPC approach the PCs because they did extremely well in an event that transpired there could work just as well.

    The 4 steps to make it work

    In essence, this meeting will be separated into 4 different steps:

    1. In Media Res Start. Start with a bang to instantly drop the players into the game. Have them rolling from early on an you will have them interested in no time.
    2. The First Meeting. Players are put together at the start of the meeting. Maybe there was no one else they knew at the party so they are put with each other, maybe it’s a mere coincidence. Note that not all player characters must be together at the start, but it is recommended most of them do. That way it is not as difficult to put them together to continue the campaign.
    3. The Mini Events: Just like minigames, the mini events are risk-free reasons for the players to interact with the system through their characters, as well as getting to know important NPCs. In funerals this may be doing a whole oratory about the now deceased person, in birthday parties hitting the piñata, etc.
    4. Campaign Kickoff: Have something happen that sets the player characters in motion to work together for the duration of the campaign.


    Simple, right? Next time you start a campaign, no matter the game system, try doing so with a wedding or similar event! You will see in no time how great of a campaign starter it is. It will also catch your players by surprise, who might be expecting another tavern beginning!

    Have you ever started your campaign with a similar event? If so, let me know in the comments below, so we all can inspire each other campaign starters!

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  • mp3Gnomecast 193 – GMing for Turtles

    Join Ang, Josh, and Phil as they talk about GMing for Turtles. No, not those charming reptiles with a house on their back, but the players that end up not wanting to engage with what you’re putting down in front of them!


    Sandra Taylor’s ‘Structuring Life to Support Creativity

    2024 D&D


    Meguey Baker

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  • Sundered Isles Review

    What are Jared’s weaknesses? Epic fantasy, check. Space opera, check. Pirates and swashbuckling? Absolutely.

    Considering all the above, it may not be a surprise that the product we’re looking at today, Sundered Isles, is a high-seas swashbuckling supplement for Ironsworn: Starforged, which itself was an updated version of the fantasy RPG Ironsworn. Ironsworn must be evolving entirely based on my taste in adventure genres. Allow me this brief moment of pretending the world revolves around me.

    Sundered Isles is not a stand-alone game and requires Ironsworn: Starforged for its core rules. It does provide additional character resources, new moves for resolving circumstances unique to the setting and genre, and a host of new oracles.


    I received my copy of Sundered Isles from backing the crowdfunding campaign for Ironsworn: Starforged. I have not had the opportunity to run or play Sundered Isles, but I have played a lot of the solo rules for both Ironsworn and Ironsworn: Starforged.


    Sundered Isles Writing And Design Shawn Tomkin
    Additional Writing, Proofing, And Editing Matt Click
    Lead Artist
    Joshua Meehan
    Cover Art
    Bryant Grizzle, Joshua Meehan
    Interior Art
    Bryant Grizzle, Joshua Meehan, Nello Fontani, Phill Simpson, Reza Bagheri, Shawn Tomkin, Vyacheslav Milinchuk, Yifei Li
    Icon Design
    Nathen Græy
    Cultural Consultant
    Liam Stevens
    Safety Tool Development And Consultation (FOR STARFORGED)
    Kienna Shaw, Lauren Bryant-Monk
    Consultant For Disability Sensitivity (FOR STARFORGED)
    Mark Thompson
    Digital Tools
    Ayethin, Nick Boughton, rsek
    Illustrated Character Sheet Design
    Galen Pejeau

    Our Booty

    The digital version of Sundered Isles includes the following:

    • Character Sheet
    • Playkit
      • Moves Reference
      • Navigation Chart
      • Connections & Specialist Page
      • Combat Challenge Page
      • Treasure ledger
      • Character Sheet
    • Asset Sheets
      • 8 pages of asset cards, 9 to a page
    • Asset Sheets (Singles)
      • 63 pages, one asset card per page
    • Guide Book
      • 132 pages (facing pages printed as single pages)
    • Guide Book (Spreads)
      • 261 pages (each page separate)

    The Guide Book PDF is in color, with multiple images of ships at sea, swashbucklers, and weathered maps. The pages with assets and moves are color-coded to help delineate what phase of the game is related to the section at hand.

    Navigating the Book

    The book is divided into the following distinct sections:

    • Adventures Among the Isles
    • Getting Underway
    • Oracles
    • Moves Reference

    The first section of the book is dedicated to converting concepts imported from Starforged into ships at sea, as well as introducing some rules modifications when performing similar functions. The second section presents the base assumptions of the game, in a modular format that allows for different elements to be added or subtracted. It also covers the creation and managing of factions, setting tone, and establishing content to include or exclude. The last two sections are some of the most extensive parts of the book.

    The Oracles section includes the tables that are the heart of the solo game and games without a GM. There are Oracles to help determine what’s going on, how plots develop, as well as the fine details. The oracles are divided into the following tables:

    • Core Oracles
    • Seafaring Oracles
    • Weather Oracles
    • Ship Oracles
    • Island Oracles
    • Overland Oracles
    • Settlement Oracles
    • Faction Oracles
    • Character Oracles
    • Shipwreck Oracles
    • Cave Oracles
    • Ruin Oracles
    • Treasure Oracles
    • Miscellaneous Oracles

    The Moves Reference section collects the mechanical meat of the game in one place. While each type of move isn’t used in every game, the moves are grouped in a manner to make it obvious where to look. The Moves are grouped in the following sections:

    • Session Moves
    • Adventure Moves
    • Quest Moves
    • Connection Moves
    • Exploration Moves
    • Combat Moves
    • Suffer Moves
    • Recover Moves
    • Threshold Moves
    • Legacy Moves
    • Fate Moves

    As an example, if you are exploring the isles and mapping new trade routes, you may be using rules in the Exploration Moves section. If you get into a duel with another pirate captain, you will be using the moves in the Combat Moves section. In both cases, if you fail and the move indicates that you have a consequence for failure, you will find the different moves showing consequences for exploration and combat under the Suffer Moves.

    A pirate crew, including a duelist wearing a tricorn hat, a rogue, and man in a wig conjuring magical fire, and a tall steam powered construct.Quick Overview

    While this product doesn’t present the core rules, for those that are curious, let’s examine how you determine what happens in Ironforged-derived games.

    Characters have five stats. The stat you use to resolve a roll is detailed in the move description. Characters have multiple tracks to manage, which include Momentum, Health, Spirit, and Supply. As characters are injured, demoralized, or use up their resources, their Health, Spirit, or Supply goes down. There are specific moves you can attempt to recover each of these resources.

    Whenever a character attempts to do something, if it matches one of the moves in the game, you reference the rules for that move. Resolution involves rolling a d6 and two d10s (not percentile). If your d6 + the relevant ability is greater than one of the two d10s, you get a weak hit. If it is better than both d10s, you get a strong hit. The d6 is the Action Die, and the d10s are the Challenge Dice.

    If you are familiar with Apocalypse World-derived games, the move structure should sound familiar. The moves are arranged with results for total success, partial success, or failure.

    Momentum is a resource you can burn, which lets you swap your Momentum score for your Action score. You can have negative Momentum, and in that case, when the integer equals your action die score, it is negated.

    While there are many moves that are resolved immediately with a single roll, anything that is meant to represent a significant challenge involves creating a progress track. Your success on some moves allows you to mark a number of boxes. In some cases, you can attempt to complete the task before reaching the end of the track, but the more boxes you fill in, the more reasonable the difficulty of the move to resolve the action measured by the track.

    Progress tracks are different lengths based on the amount of effort required to resolve them. The challenge ranks are:

    • Troublesome
    • Dangerous
    • Formidable
    • Extreme
    • Epic

    Dueling a skilled opponent may require a dangerous progress track. Sailing from port to port trying to track down the location of a fugitive could be a formidable task. While a task like a duel with a hostile opponent will be something you work on until it’s resolved, a task like hunting down a fugitive would see you roll each time you put into a port, in between resolving other actions and engaging other action tracks.

    Characters have Assets, which are discreet rules that introduce different moves related to that Asset, or that modify the rolls you make for existing moves. There are several categories of Assets:

    • Vehicle–details of vehicles you possess
    • Module–new parts you can add to modify your vehicle
    • Path–your core talents that represent your profession or archetype
    • Companion–NPCs that accompany the player character
    • Deed–new abilities you gain for performing specific momentous events

    Sundered Isles assumes that you are using some of the assets from Ironsworn: Starforged. While some Assets, like Engine Upgrade, may not make sense, others, like Heavy Cannons, function the same whether you’re firing cannonballs or energized plasma.

    A multi-masted sailing ship sailing away from an island, with seagulls and a small dragonet flying above the ship.Setting Assumptions

    If you are familiar with Ironsworn or Ironsworn: Starforged, you may be used to the format in which the setting is presented. The setting assumptions are more about facilitating play by determining the active tropes. Some tropes are more important than others, and the game assumes some specific truths about your character. There are several places where the game asks questions and presents some possible answers.

    Player characters are assumed to be privateers. There is a starting ship, and if you aren’t playing solo, all of the PCs operate off the same ship. You may or may not start to acquire other ships under your command, creating your own fleet. There are assumed to be multiple factions, including an expansionist empire of some kind. While the game assumes diverse cultures living on various islands, the tyrannical empire hasn’t colonized the region and exists as a threat to fight against.

    While those are the thematic elements that are assumed, there are a few specifics, but those specifics can exist in different contexts. There are two moons, Cinder and Wraith. The interplay between the moons causes the tides to be less predictable, allowing for more variability that can come from various moves. The islands are assumed to be spread out into three broad regions, the Myriads, the Margins, and the Reaches. The different regions can facilitate different aspects of play, from piracy, exploring ruins and locations, charting new routes, and finding new islands.

    One of the biggest decisions is what Realm you are adventuring in. The options provided are the Seafaring Realm, the Skyfaring Realm, and the Starfaring Realm. The Seafaring Realm resembles a setting not unlike the Age of Sail adventure stories featuring pirates and privateers in our world. The Skyfaring Realm still assumes that your players are heroic pirates, but they fly skyships between floating cities that rose to the sky when the surface of the world suffered some great calamity. The Starfaring Realm assumes that islands are floating in the void of space, and that you can use a magical version of a sailing ship to travel between islands and asteroids, a wee bit like Spelljammer.

    There are a ton of tables for fleshing out different aspects of the setting. They include the following tables:

    • The Sundering–how the setting came to be how it is now
    • Relics–what remains from before
    • Modern Era–what does technology look like
    • Iron Vows–what does it look like to swear a vow to complete a quest in this setting
    • Navigation–how do people navigate and what are their unique challenges
    • Empires–how powerful and active are the imperial powers you fight against
    • Piracy–how do pirates behave, and are there wider trends
    • Religion–how do people interact with the divine or the supernatural
    • Magic–how magical is the setting
    • Beasts–noteworthy creatures that are special, but not legendary
    • Horror–terrifying legendary elements of dread

    In addition to these setting details, there are also tables for origin stories both for your character and your ship, potential curses you may be dealing with, random islands you may find, the details of different beasts the PCs can encounter while exploring, and what the various active factions are. The factions are organized into the following categories:

    • Societies–shared traditions and/or ways of life
    • Organizations–groups working toward a common goal
    • Empires–what the villains of the setting look like
    • The Cursed–people bound together by supernatural misfortune

    Compared to Starforged, Sundered Isles introduces new resolution frameworks to reinforce the themes and tropes of seafaring and swashbuckling. This includes a multi-step process for naval combat that involves closing on ships, engaging, and boarding. There are procedures for tracking your wealth, repairing your ship, and exploring caves and ruins. As with other elements in the various Ironsworn games, none of these additional procedures are mandated, and there are single roll resolutions for most of the scenarios that have more detailed procedures. You may use individual moves to close in on and loot a standard merchant ship but decide to use the full procedure for naval combat when encountering the imperial dreadnought that serves as the flagship of one of the oppressive nations pushing into the region.

    The game has a few assumptions about who you are and how you operate, and some of these assumptions are reflected in how the moves work. You are assumed to be heroic pirates. You may not be angels, but you aren’t bloodthirsty killers. You are assumed to be in opposition to the expansionist powers in the region, which helps to present you with some guilt-free targets for your piracy. When you explore ruins, you are not looting the ruins. The moves are focused around finding out who lived here, and what happened to them. Instead of looting, you may end up finding the descendants of that culture to share your findings.

    The wealth rules are simple, tracking a wealth level from 1 through 5, and providing situations where you lower your wealth level to perform tasks like doing regular upkeep or repairing damage to your ship, and increasing when you loot a target vessel. This wasn’t the first time I was reflecting on my 7th Sea 2nd edition games while reading these rules, and I appreciate that there is just enough to the wealth rules to make them meaningful, and to remain logical in their abstraction. You can make wealth rules too minimalist, where the questions about the lack of rules cause more problems than a more detailed system causes.

    Two adventurers in a rowboat are floating between two rocky cliffs. In front of them, rising out of the water, is an enormous crab, larger than a sailing ship.The Oracles

    You can engage with the rules for quite a while without consulting the oracles in the game, if you know exactly what you want to do, and what you want to include. Sometimes, even in solo play, you have some ideas of what you want to accomplish to establish your character in the setting. However, the Ironsworn games have a reputation for their oracles. These are the keys to being able to either play solo, or to play without a GM. While the PCs still need to have a broad idea of what they want to do, they can still be surprised by rolling on the oracles to learn the nature of their challenges and the evolving story of the world outside of their immediate quests.

    The Core Oracles can be used to give you momentum. These include what kind of action the PCs need to take, what the theme of the current adventure should be, what kind of descriptors you should add to more mundane elements, and what the focus of the adventure should be.

    Sundered Isles includes a new wrinkle, the Cursed Die. If you want to introduce more sinister elements to your game, but you still want them to come into the narrative at surprising times, you add a d10 Cursed Die to your d100 rolls. If the Cursed Die comes up a 10, instead of rolling on the regular oracle tables, you instead use the more sinister results on the Cursed Oracle tables. For example, while the standard weather results may include things like stifling heat or raging storms, the Cursed Weather oracle may result in blood rain, mist that displays the crew’s darkest secrets, or shifting clouds of pulsing arcane energy.

    Something true of all the Ironsworn games is that these oracles can be used even if you aren’t currently using the Ironsworn rules. If you’re running a fantasy game where the characters are sailing dangerous waters, or even if you’re playing a semi-historical game set in the Age of Sail, if you want a mass of adventure seeds and random thoughts to trigger your own creativity, these oracles serve that function very well.

    Wind in the Sails
     Engaging with the game shows how well it hangs together, but the Oracles are a great gateway to get eyes on the inside of the book. 

    If you’re already a fan of the previous Ironsworn incarnations, this is going to provide more of what you already enjoy about the system. The Curse Die is a solid addition to the rules. It adds another dimension to the utility of the oracles, and it provides pacing for your nasty surprises when you don’t want to trust your gut instincts on how often you should be introducing nasty escalations to the narrative. The oracles are useful beyond their functionality in the game and can be used for all manner of thematically similar games.


    This game knows what it wants to do, how to resolve things, and how to introduce more elements to the game to represent new narrative additions. While that’s not bad, at times it can be a little overwhelming. Even with the clear organization and color coding, the fact that the game has that level of organization in the first place can sometimes be off-putting to someone new to the system. Reframing the exploration of ruins as solving the mystery of the lost culture is an approach I appreciate, but while I can envision complications for adventure stories, it’s harder for me to picture emergent mysteries as satisfying.

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

    Ironsworn is an interesting conglomeration of gaming concepts, from adding elements of Powered by the Apocalypse and Forged in the Dark games to providing solo and GMless experiences. While it does those things well, from the outside, it can sound like a bit of an experimental activity. Engaging with the game shows how well it hangs together, but the Oracles are a great gateway to get eyes on the inside of the book. They are consistently full of interesting options, and those options just beg for you to roll a die and see what comes up.

    If you want adventure fuel for your fantasy privateer game, or even if you may want an alternate way of telling stories in existing swashbuckling settings, you shouldn’t be disappointed with this purchase. Even if you only have your fantasy crew take to the waves intermittently, the oracles alone may make it worth the price to you.

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  • Five Weird Ways to Up the Tension at Your Table With Dice

    The fates are conspiring against me, working in the background to tempt my inner dice goblin to indulge his baser instincts. How else would you explain the plethora of shiny math rock kickstarters, fundraisers, videos, and freakin’ cool STL files that have made their way across my feeds as of late? Surely it can’t be some cold, unfeeling computer algorithm. No, it must be fate, and it must be my destiny to find a way to master all of these funky weird dice.

    Seriously, though, the last few months, I’ve been thinking about dice a lot. Specifically weird dice. It all started back at the end of 2023, when my husband gave me this awesome dice spinner for Christmas.

    It’s beautiful. It’s fun. But most important – it’s weird, and I love weird. So I started thinking about how I could use this weird artifact for more than simply generating a random number. A die (or dice depending on how you’re counting it) so unique deserves a special place at the table, in my opinion. Using it for every random guard’s sword swing or royal vizier’s bluff check would lessen the impact.

    This train of thought took me to a lot of offbeat places I didn’t expect – like spending a week musing over the act of building a Cortex system dice pool and how just choosing the stats you’re going to roll with in that game becomes a kind of role play experience on it’s own – but ultimately it coalesced into philosophizing about the purpose of dice.

    The raison d’etre of the math rocks becomes clear – they’re not just randomizers. They are tension-makers. Suspense-creators. Engines of uncertainty.

    Because if we really dig into the raison d’etre of the math rocks it becomes clear that they’re not just randomizers. They are tension-makers. Suspense-creators. Engines of uncertainty.

    That’s how all the systems tell us to use dice, isn’t it? When you don’t know what will happen, when you’re playing to find out, when success is uncertain – roll the dice.

    Dice are the unknown. They’re luck. They’re – dare I tempt it by saying – fate.


    And fate can be fickle.

    When we’re rolling dice, we’re taking a chance, and chances are dramatic. Chance creates tension, and when I understood this, I knew how to best use not just my dice spinner, but a bunch of different kinds of dice in weird and unique ways.

    Below, you’ll find five weird ways to up the tension at your table using dice. I’ve collected these ideas and arranged from least to most weird. I’ve also tried to include links to the inspiration for the methods when I could provide them.


    Credit for this one goes to my old college roommate (thanks, Jeremy!). I don’t know if he came up with it first, but he’s the first GM I’d ever seen use it.

    The process is simple, take a D20 (or whatever die your system uses) and point at a player (preferably the one attempting to do the risky action that required a die roll) and say, “High, low, even, or odd.”

    Let them call it. Roll the die. If they managed to call the roll, the action goes in their favor.

    Essentially, it’s a coin flip and it works well in situations where pure luck determines the outcome of an action. But this works better than a coin flip because the player feels like they have more agency. Not much, but four options are better than two even if the math works out the same. Plus, it plays into dice superstitions such as “I never roll high” or “I really don’t want to ‘waste’ a twenty on this.”

    If you really want to play with their emotions, grab a D20 from their dice jail and call for a high-low-even-odd roll. (This is the most evil version of this roll, and is only recommended for GMs who are willing to tempt every god of fortune at one time.)


    Inspired by Liar’s Dice, Yahtzee, but mostly this video on the Quinns Quest Patreon. (It’s a fun video and I highly recommend watching it if you can.)

    Imagine this: the rogue has split off from the party to scout the villain’s keep. They’re sneaking through darkened hallways and creeping around corners, when they run into a guard patrol. You call for a stealth roll, BUT you tell them to roll under a cup (an opaque cup. Otherwise this doesn’t work) and tell them not to look at it until you say so.

    Then you cut back to the rest of the party. You run a scene. Maybe even an encounter. All the while, the rogue’s player is staring at the cup. Wondering if they’ve been spotted.

    When I heard Quinn describe this method, I immediately ran out and bought a set of special little bowls for my home game. I can not wait to watch my players squirm under the tension of not knowing if they succeeded or not.

    And yes, you could just roll in secret, but then the answer is an ephemeral result in your brain, not a tangible die sitting just out of reach.   


    Adapted from Edge of the Empire/Genesys.

    Lots of games have their own custom dice – like Edge of the Empire’s Task dice or Fate’s Fudge dice. You can easily steal the special dice and import them into your game to add a little spice along with some nuance.

    When a character goes to hack a computer system, toss them an Edge of the Empire difficulty die to roll along with their D20 and interpret the resulting narrative complications as you would if you were running that system. Or have them roll a Fudge die. On a minus they set off the alarms, on a blank they succeed with a “yes but,” on a plus they get extra information.

    Sure, you can bake these gradients of success into a normal D20 roll based on how far below or above the target number they roll, but adding a special die points a huge ass spotlight on the action. It adds another layer of importance to the action and dials up the tension along the way.


    Inspired by my Christmas present.

    I timed it, and with a really good flick my roulette die will spin for about one and a half minutes, but that’s just an estimate. I’m not certain exactly how long it will spin. And what does uncertainty create? That’s right. Tension.

    So, imagine this: you set up a scenario where your players have a limited amount of time to make decisions. Let’s say the jackbooted troops of the evil empire are hunting them through back alleys, trying to catch them before they reach their hideout. The group has to either act together or separately, but they only have until the spinner stops to tell you their actions. You set the stakes and give them the parameters of the situation, and then you start the spinner spinning.

    “You have until this stops spinning to make your actions. The result on the die will represent the evil empire’s perception check to find you. Go!”

    Will the empire succeed? Who knows! You don’t. Your players definitely don’t! All you know is that there is a limited amount of time to choose.

    Now THAT’S dramatic.


    Inspired by these incredibly awesome 3D prints.

    These 3D prints turn standard dice rolls into actual real-life skill checks. They take the nail-biting challenge of those old tilt and spin puzzles where you try to navigate a ball bearing through a labyrinth without dropping it through a hole and combine them with either a D20 or a D6. The more dexterous you are at guiding the ball bearing through the maze, the higher your roll result.

    Tons of fun on it’s own. Especially if you use it for something like disarming a trap or activating a complicated magical puzzle. But what if you added in a push your luck mechanic?

    “The room’s ceiling is coming down and will crush you in three (real time) minutes. If you can ‘roll’ a 13 on this skill-based die, you can unlock the door and escape. But if you get a 17 you can stall out the mechanism completely and find the secret passage that will let you bypass the rest of the dungeon’s traps. If you get a 20…well something extra special will happen.”

    These weird dice rolls can add spice to your sessions, drawing attention to pivotal rolls and heightening the tension to astronomical levels of excitement, but do remember to use them in moderation. After all, if every roll you call for has its own gimmick, they’ll lose their specialness real fast.     

    I’m also still trying to find ways of adopting these methods for online play. The “roll under a cup” method can be replicated in the Foundry VTT by having your players make blind GM rolls and then you can reveal them in the UI when the timing is appropriate. Including Genesys or Fudge dice into the system could probably be done with a moderate amount of coding, depending on the VTT. Mailing your players care packages with the 3D printed skill dice could be an interesting way to add mystery to the session as well, but it of course has its own limitations.

    Would you use weird dice like these in your games? How? Let us know in the comments.

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  • mp3Gnomecast 192 – The Art of Pregen Characters

    Join Ang, JT, and guest Andy Jaksetic as they talk about the art of pregenerated characters. They cover everything from why you would want pre-made characters to what details you need to give your players.


    Untold Stories Project Twitch

    Untold Stories Project YouTube

    Victoriana Kickstarter

    Worlds Without Number

    Read more »
  • The Social Contract of Planning

    Planning in RPGs is not a fun activity, so don’t do it.
    Planning in RPGs is necessary so that we don’t get our characters killed.
    Both of those statements are true.

    The optimal way planning should work in your game is somewhere in the middle of those two statements. The optimal way is a combination of genre and play style. And if we were to discuss what that looked like up front, we could define how much planning was necessary for the game we were playing, so that our games had the right amount of planning, minimizing the un-fun-ness (take that Bob, our editor), and making it effective enough to keep the characters alive (at least most of them). Let’s talk about how to do that.

    Is Planning Un-Fun?

    I think so, and I say that as a person whose day job is planning things, and outside of work I plan everything else in my life. In RPGs, planning is just not that fun of an activity. It often consists of the table coming up with ideas and then saying “…but what about this?” going around and around in circles. If you are a player participating in the process, it can be a bit draining, but if you are the GM, waiting for the players to come up with a plan, then you are just sitting there on the outside. It is not how I want to spend my gaming time.

    Is Planning Necessary?

    Having a plan is a good idea because it aligns the group in terms of their goal and how they are going to achieve it. It allows the group the time to figure out how to best use their resources (equipment, powers, etc). These things greatly increase the group’s chances of being successful and surviving. 

    The Components of a Plan

    Let’s take a few moments and discuss what makes up a plan. A good plan has all of these, and lesser plans lack detail or are missing some of these parts: 

    • The Goal/Objective – A plan must have an objective. What are we doing? This goal should be shared by the entire group. Are you going in to steal the money? Or are you here to rescue your ex-wife from the Prince? If you are not on the same page about the goal, the group may pursue different goals, split up their resources, or at worse come into conflict.
    • Milestones – The smaller objectives you need to achieve to build up to the goal. It could be disarming the alarm system, or stealing a key from the guard. Some milestones will be in temporal order while others may occur at any time.
    • Information/Intelligence – plans run on information. You can’t plan if you don’t know where you are going, what to expect, how many guards, the terrain around the location, etc. When you lack information you start to make guesses (see below).
    • Risks – Risks are the things you don’t know but think are possible. Risks can be things like a hidden alarm system. Or something like, “What if we can’t take out the guards quietly?” In addition, Risks have a probability (how likely they are to occur) and an impact (how big of a problem it is when they come true). A lot of people who are bad with risks spend too much time worrying about how to handle low probability/high impact risks over high probability/lower impact risks. 
    • Mitigation and Contingencies – Hand in hand with risks are Mitigations (how do we make risk less likely to occur — lower probability) and Contingencies (what do we do if that risk comes true — lower the impact). You can manage neither, one, or both of these. The trick is deciding for each risk what you want to manage. 

    This is why Planning is difficult and may not be fun. It is a lot to manage and done well it takes time – time that you are not playing the game. 

    The Trust Issue 

    The reason that people tend to over-plan is that they fear that there is some piece of information that if the players knew before they put their plan into action, would ensure the success of the goal or prevent excessive harm/death to the characters. To combat this, players do one or both of the following: 

    • Collect as much information/intelligence as possible; at times to excess. 
    • Perform excessive Risk mitigation — naming risks, and coming up with mitigations and contingencies. 

    In fact, as a GM, you will know this is happening in the game when these two actions take over the session. When characters feel like they know enough, is when they are ready to switch from planning to action. 

    Genre and Playstyle

    Before we get to the social contract part of this… we need to discuss two more things. 

    Some Genres have plans as one of the tropes. If you are running a game about thieves and heists, or a military game about Spec Ops missions, then those genres require some degree of planning. These games are also best served by mechanics that help compensate for suboptimal planning or help mitigate the lack of planning that occurs at the table. Look at how Blades in the Dark and other Forged in the Dark games remove the need for extensive planning by using mechanics to simulate good planning done by the characters rather than the players.

    The other thing is play-style. Some groups get off on playing the cat and mouse game, where the GM comes up with a plan and twists and the players face off to come up with a plan to outsmart the GM. Others want nothing to do with planning. Whatever brings your entire group joy, then there is no wrong-bad-fun, as long as you all, as a group are on the same page.

    The Social Contract of Planning

     The truth is that not all RPGs need the same level of planning, but unless you establish that fact, most players will assume they do. 

    The truth is that not all RPGs need the same level of planning, but unless you establish that fact, most players will assume they do. 

    Some genres do not lean into detailed plans. Superhero games often rely on bold action and powers to overcome problems, not intricate plans. Pulp games also favor action over plans as well. So as you establish your game, consider what the genre and your setting should favor and then combine that with your play style. 

    An example: My players had recently finished a Night’s Black Agents campaign. It was a game where planning was key, and the game had some mechanics to support planning. The players knew not to move from planning to action until they had enough intel. They would sometimes spend a session collecting intel and making a plan. Currently, we are playing Mutants in the Now, a game inspired by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game and comic. In our most recent session, the players were working on a plan for how to attack a Yakuza hotel where some mutant animals were being trafficked. They started to work on a plan worthy of Night’s Black Agents when I reminded them that this game was more action-based. They quickly simplified their plan to “We rappel to the top of the hotel and fight our way to the bottom while rescuing the other mutant animals along the way”. A perfect plan for the setting and genre. 

    The key to having players not over-plan is trust between GM and the player. As the GM, I am telling the players that I am not going to punish them for choosing a simple plan. For the players, it is trusting that I am not withholding some key piece of information that would break their simple plan. 

    That is not to say you cannot have a twist. The twist is a time-honored trope in all plans. The twist is the unexpected thing that the players have to deal with in the middle of executing the plan which can cause the plan to alter it on the fly. The difference is that what I am promising, as GM, is that the twist will not up-end or thwart the plan. Rather it will be a fun surprise that the characters can deal with.

    This is the social contract of planning as a group, for the game you are running (genre and mechanics) and the way you like to play (style). Agree with how much planning is necessary for this game, in general. You can come up with things like this:

    • This game is about a sci-fi Spec Ops team, and the mechanics are gritty, you are going to want to have a good plan before executing an operation. 
    • This game is about mutant animals fighting other mutant animals and criminals, you don’t need more than a simple plan, as most things you encounter are going to be resolved by fighting.

    By doing this you are creating expectations for the whole group on how you should handle planning. This is the social contract that you agree to and guides how you play. Establish this in Session Zero and you can set the tone for planning in your campaign, and help keep planning to exactly what it needs to be for your game.

    A quick note. Even after you establish a level of planning as part of your game, you can have a story where you change the amount of planning for that session. All you have to do is indicate to the players the change so that they can reset their expectations.. 

    Plan Out Your Planning

    Planning is not always fun in games, and it can be worse if you are over or under-planning based on the game you are running. But like most things in RPGs, if we do some upfront communication and set some expectations we can dial in planning to just the right amount for the game we are playing. 

    This expectation along with any planning mechanics that the game provides can make planning far less tedious while being effective, and make for an overall play experience. 

    How do you handle planning in your games? How do you set those expectations with your players? What planning tools do you use or what planning mechanics do you employ?

    Read more »
  • Curseborne: Ashcan Edition First Impression

    The cover of Curseborne: Ashcan Edition, which shows a woman in a white dress in a doorway about to enter what looks like an old morgue, with a dim flourecent bulb overhead, and several of the doors ripped off the drawer.
    Onyx Path has been around since 2012, taking over the publication of the New World of Darkness RPGs from White Wolf via a licensing agreement. They rechristened the New World of Darkness the Chronicles of Darkness and began producing updated anniversary versions of the original World of Darkness RPGs. All of this got a little more complicated in 2018, when White Wolf’s new owner Paradox Entertainment launched Vampire: the Masquerade 5e and has handed development of the new “fifth edition” versions of Hunter: The Reckoning and Werewolf: The Apocalypse over to Renegade Game Studios.

    Onyx Path hasn’t been locked into only producing classic WoD and current CoD RPG supplements. Their RPG IP has been growing with games like Pugmire, the “They Came From . . . “ line of RPGs, and Scion 2e, which is powered by the Storypath System. This is a system that looks familiar to people accustomed to the Storyteller System that powered the classic WoD games, but added some currency spends that allowed for more flexible narrative elements as well as providing the basis for complications and conditions.

    Curseborne is a modern-day horror RPG, set in a world of the supernatural known as The Accursed World. Player characters portray afflicted characters who acquire supernatural abilities that recall ghosts, vampires, demons, angels, and sorcerers. What we’re looking at today is the precursor to the full game.


    I picked up the Curseborne: Ashcan Edition when I saw it pop up on DriveThroughRPG and I am not working from a review copy. I have not had the opportunity to play or run Curseborne, but while it utilizes a newer iteration of the Storypath System than the one used for Scion, I do have experience playing Scion in the past.

     Curseborne: Ashcan Edition

    Developed and Written by: The Curseborne Team
    Editor: Reginald Pewty
    Art Direction and Design: Mike Chaney
    Layout: Dixie Cochran
    Creative Director: Richard Thomas

    What’s in an Ashcan?

    This PDF is 60 pages long, with a color cover. The interior punctuates the two-column layout with what looks like the Rorschach version of a moth. This includes a Table of Contents, and four ready-made characters. These characters are presented as stat blocks in a chapter, rather than being formatted in character sheet form.

    The listing on DriveThroughRPG mentions that a more finished version of the ashcan will be added to your library if you purchase it now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t include the Ready-Made Characters in character sheet format. If you read this in the future, some of this summary may not match what’s currently available, but I wanted to cover this sooner rather than later.


    As mentioned above, the setting for this game is the Accursed World. It’s named such because all of the supernatural creatures you portray are the result of curses. The types that the ashcan details are:

    • The Dead–a dead person who is animating their own body, but can jump to others
    • The Hungry–a cursed person that needs to feed on others to empower themselves
    • The Outcast–a person with something lurking inside, which could be angelic or demonic
    • The Primal–a person with shapeshifting abilities and impulse control issues
    • The Sorcerer–a character type that is in the final game, but only gets broadly described here

    Each of these lineages can look a lot like the traditional version of, for example, a vampire or a werewolf, but the final rules will have additional options that introduce other wild forms beyond wolves, and other things that The Hungry feeds on that may be more esoteric than blood. If you’re familiar with The Dresden Files books, this is a similar concept to the White Court vampires.

    There aren’t a lot of example opponent adversaries in the book, but the ones that appear all tie into the example scenario. This also brings up another aspect of the game, that you may not just be fighting invaders from other realities, other cursed individuals that are less than benevolent, or dangerous non-cursed individuals, but also malevolent conceptual locations.

    Threats include Interstitial Zones, liminal spaces that may trap people within them if they cannot determine how to leave, as well as Shattered Spaces, spaces on the borders of reality that actively seek to feed off the people trapped within them and possessed of an antagonistic intelligence.

    It’s not explicitly stated that characters are meant to be teenagers or young adults, but there are various passages that reference “adults” as clearly “not you,” and all of the Ready-Made Characters are high school-age people.

    How Are We Doing This?

    Your successes or failures are based on rolling d10s, with a success on an 8 or higher, or two successes on a 10. You roll a pool based on adding your attribute score to your skill rank. Most checks don’t require you to have multiple successes, however, you may have a number of complications that trigger even if you are successful. You can use extra success to pay off these complications. There are also tricks that you can purchase to enhance what you accomplish. One example of a trick is to do additional damage with an attack.

    Some situations will grant the characters Enhancements. Enhancements are bonuses that you add to the successes on the dice, but you can only use them if you have at least one success. You may also have Advantage, which only comes up in contested situations. If your Advantage is significantly higher than your adversary, you may get what you want automatically, without rolling.

    The game defines about twenty different conditions. The variety of conditions helps determine the kind of complications that might arise when the Story Guide is setting the stakes of a roll. While there are combat-related conditions like Agony (increased difficulty on tasks) or Bleeding (you take additional injuries if you don’t pay off the ongoing complication), there are also conditions like Guilt-Ridden (you feel so bad about something you need to address, everything that isn’t addressing that situation has an increased difficulty). I’ll just point out, I’m pretty sure I suffer from Confusion, Ennui, Exhausted, and Guilt-Ridden regularly.

    One of the game currencies is Momentum, which can be spent to add Enhancements to your rolls, or to move your dice result one step up the ladder (turning a success with complications into a straight success, for example). You can also spend momentum to find evidence when you are in an investigation, or to add a story element to a scene. Every time you fail a check, you add a point of Momentum to your pool.

    Characters also have Bonds, which can be positive or negative. These provide a pool of Enhancements that you can add to rolls whenever your action has something to do with the person with whom you have the bond. You have a limited number of bonds, and you can strengthen bonds by spending scenes with the subject of your Bond.

    Throwing Down

    When you get injured, you move through Injury Levels, which include the following:

    • Bloodied
    • Wounded
    • Maimed
    • Near Death

    You get bonus dice in certain skills as you get beat up more, until you are Near Death, which gives you bonus dice and Enhancement, but you immediately gain the Taken Out condition after this. Armor, if you have any, adds boxes you can fill with damage before you start taking levels of injuries. I haven’t seen injury levels adding to your ability to succeed in many games outside of 7th Sea 2nd edition, and I like to see it here.

    You roll initiative for at the start of an encounter, but that’s only to see who goes first. After that, the player that just acted hands off to the player or character they want to go next. This hybrid of traditional initiative rolls and hand-off initiative is used in Pugmire, and it is welcome to see it appear in these rules, as well. Weapons, like tools, grant Enhancement, and there are several modifying tags that weapons can have, usually no more than two. For example, the Brutal tag makes it cheaper to buy additional damage when you hit an opponent.

    Combat uses range bands. Characters can move from Close to Short or Short to Medium as part of whatever else you’re doing. You can Rush as part of a combined action allowing you to charge further and make an attack at the end of your movement. Some areas can have effects applied to them, like Crowded, Darkness, or Overstimulating, which may add complications that you need to buy off when taking action.

    Exploring the Curses

    Characters have an Entanglement score, which starts at one, and sets the limits for some point spends and resources. Entanglement represents how intertwined you have become with the curse of your lineage. In addition to setting spending and pool limits, Entanglement also sets the number of Curse Dice you start with.

    Curse Dice represent potential supernatural power. For each one you have, you replace a regular die with a Curse Die. In addition to the Curse Dice you get for your Entanglement rank, you can accumulate others by playing into your Torments (we’ll come to those below), whenever the crew comes together to start troubleshooting, when you enter certain locations, or when you hit certain roleplaying triggers.

    If your Curse Die is one of the dice contributing to your successes, you may do what you intended to do, but too well. You may also attract the attention of various supernatural beings, from otherworldly creatures to the members of your Accursed family. If you fail a check, and none of your Curse Dice are hits . . . the same thing happens except it’s worded more ominously? I understand the narrative concept here is that you may get yourself into trouble because you’re too good, or you may look bad because your power draws attention to you, but it feels a little functionally clouded. If the Curse Dice are too hot or too cold, it may mean the Story Guide will be spending time trying to think of what kind of supernatural attention you have drawn to yourself or sourcing the table for ideas a lot, to the detriment of the current narrative.

    When you roll hits on your Curse Dice, you have access to tricks that you can buy with extra successes, that are only available in that circumstance. You can only spend hits from the Curse Die successes for these tricks. Some examples include forming immediate bonds when interacting with others in a social test, hitting everyone in an area with an attack, or picking up on supernatural clues while looking for mundane ones.

    You can also Bleed your Curse Dice. That means that you trigger some kind of special ability, roll your check with the Curse Die still in the pool, then remove it after the roll. Some of your special abilities are triggered by Bleeding a die, while others may depend on you having a set number of dice in your pool.

    I’m going to slip in a discussion of Damnation here, because it interacts with your Curse Dice. When you no longer have any Curse Dice, you are subject to your Damnation. Most of these have a roleplaying component, as well as the more mechanical provision that the character can’t use spells or gain any new Curse Dice until they perform the action that resolves this instance of their Damnation.

    The Dead take risks to make them feel more alive, The Hungry are driven to feed, The Outcast manifest outwardly visible signs of their angelic or demonic glory, and the Primal shifts into their alternate form and tries to establish their dominance in any given situation. The Dead can end this Damnation by performing a meaningful and thoughtful action, The Hungry must feed, The Outcast has to spend time establishing a bond with a normal person to ground them, and The Primal has to inflict one of a number of conditions on a victim for the primal form to be satisfied and recede. All of this reminds me of Monsterheart’s Darkest Self rules. That’s not a bad thing from my point of view.

    I’m a little confused at the relationship between Entanglement and your Curse Die limit, because if your Curse Dice are limited by your Entanglement, and starting Entanglement for a game is usually 1, that means you can only have one at a time. If that’s the case, that means any time you trigger one of your special abilities that requires that you Bleed the Curse Die, you’re going to be thrown into your Damnation, some of which would subvert what you are trying to accomplish by triggering those abilities. I feel that what’s actually going on is that at Entanglement 1 you can have X number of Curse Dice, but I can’t find a reference to that in the PDF.


    Different lineages have unique torments, although the final rules will have multiple Torments from which the character can select. Torments are the nagging weight of the reality of your situation, which can drive you to certain actions. Unlike Damnation, these aren’t triggered when you run out of Curse Dice, these exist as roleplaying hooks that you can use to add momentum to the Momentum pool, although in the section on Curse Dice, it also mentions gaining a Curse Die when you roleplay your torment. That’s not mentioned in the explanation of the torments, only in the Curse Die section.

    The torments that we see associated with the lineages in the ashcan are as follows:

    • Yearning for Life (The Dead)–you become obsessive in making sure the people you care about remember you
    • Take What’s Mine (The Hungry)–you claim something that you want that isn’t currently yours, because you deserve whatever you can seize
    • Show of Force (The Outcast)–you use disproportionate means to achieve your goals, showing off how much power you have, even if it causes collateral damage
    • Elemental Fury (The Primal)–you pick the biggest target to attack, and can’t break off to help your friends or do anything other than take your target down

    All these play into the archetype of the lineage well, and I like the ability to trigger your bad habits to build up your resources for later, as a means of rewarding roleplaying. It’s like a more focused version of invoking your own traits against yourself in Fate. The Outcast and The Primal feel a little less varied between their Damnation and their Torments, so I’m interested to see the additional Torments in the full game.

    All of these Torments are listed in the section detailing the Accursed, and showing us Torments tied to those themes. The Ready-Made characters also have another Torment on the character sheet that has a title, but no definition in the ashcan. These are referred to as Personal Torments. The additional Torments we see on the characters are:

    • Being Denied a Desire
    • Elder Abuse
    • Seeing the Innocent Harmed
    • Being Left Alone or Singled Out

    Two of those seem like perfectly normal roleplaying triggers, and two of those really concern me. I don’t know if these are meant to show that the character is tormented by seeing these things, or by performing these actions, but either way, that’s some very loaded content to add into your game. You may say, “different tables need to determine their own boundaries, as long as they are being safe,” and to that I would say, these are example characters meant to be played in a short scenario to show off the system. Maybe don’t hit the accelerator quite so hard.

    Edges and Practices

    These are straightforward, especially if you’ve seen other Onyx Path games. Edges are like edges, feats, or talents from a variety of games. They’re special abilities that thematically modify the game rules in your favor.

    Practices are spells, supernatural rituals or actions that characters can take, some of which are native to a single lineage, and some of which can be broadly learned by students of the occult. Most of these require you to Bleed your Curse Die, but some can only be accessed if you are holding a set number of Curse Dice.

    Qualities and Dread Powers

    There aren’t a lot of adversaries in the ashcan, which is understandable. On the other hand, there are several Qualities and Dread Powers, rules modules that you can plug into an Adversary to help define what they can do in the game. You may get some extra mileage from the few stat blocks in the ashcan by mixing and matching these. Some examples include Clear Vision, which means the Adversary can see through magical and mundane disguises, or Invulnerability, which means the Adversary can only be harmed by a specific weakness.

    The active side of traits, the Dread Powers, includes things like Bend Minds, which can allow the Adversary to take control of its opponents, Consume, which lets the Adversary chew on something substantial from a victim to remove injuries, or Devour, which allows large Adversaries to completely swallow their foes.

    The Scenario

    This one is short, and I won’t go into too many details, but it touches on some of the things explained about the setting in the rest of the ashcan. Some of the challenges are dealing with everyday frustrations, there is some investigation to find out what has happened to a missing friend who isn’t Accursed, and the characters may have to reckon with a malevolent location to find out what’s going on.


    I did want to touch on an aspect of the rules that may not be relevant for many people and is the most subjective part of what I’m writing in this First Impression. The chapter that introduces you to the lineages has introductory fiction where characters speak directly to you, the reader, as if you are a character in their world. This isn’t particularly strange for this style of RPG, and it’s been the custom in one way or another since the 90s.

    I’m worn out by it. Having the in-world narrator talk to me, as I try to put myself in the place of someone in this world, and immediately begin to berate and belittle, while also talking about how tough they are leaves me cold. When I’m trying to acclimate to a new setting, I don’t need the default view to be someone that is hopelessly naive, probably doomed, and definitely pathetic, and I don’t need the person introducing me to that world to be cool and tough and edgy and to put me in my place. It feels like the pervasive adversarial tone says more about how to roleplay in the setting than anything in the Story Guide section. It also feels like a misplaced remnant in this book.

    In a lot of the World of Darkness games, you have a reason to be associated with others. You’re part of a vampiric tradition or a pack. You can all hate each other and still be forced to work with one another. In this book, you’re people that are striking out away from their families, trying not to fall into the same negative patterns embraced by a lot of the Accursed. You’re forming bonds and working with friends. Even the example scenario is about trying to find out what happened to one of your mortal, non-Accursed friends. The adversarial in-world introductions seem at odds with the narratives introduced in the setting and reinforced in the example scenario, and feel like a misplaced remnant of World of Darkness games.

    Final Thoughts
     I like that this feels a little scaled back and built to mix supernatural creatures from the start. 

    As someone with a lot of affection for Scion 2e, and who appreciates the changes made to the core system compared to Scion 1e, I enjoy seeing the Storypath System being used for a wider number of games. As someone who enjoys the contemporary fantasy/horror genre, a game setting with monsters, magic, and supernatural complications is something I’m on board for.

    I like how some concepts have been taken into this game and remixed to do something different. I like that this feels a little scaled back and built to mix supernatural creatures from the start. Even the means of introducing lineages that can look like the most traditional versions of the things you know but allowing them to swap in abilities that drift them from their expected archetypes is appreciated.

    I like a lot of the components that make up this system. I think the bonds are a great way of mechanically reinforcing the connections your players will want to have with each other and NPCs. I am a fan of the general concept of what the Damnations and the Torments are doing, and I think they are moving in the right direction. I think I’ll like the ebb and flow of trying to decide if I want to Bleed Curse Dice or use them for stunts or other effects, once I understand what the actual economy of those dice looks like.

    I’m hoping for some additional calibration to take place. Individual rules are easy to grasp, but a few connecting points are a little blurry to me. I need to know if this is a game about high schoolers trying to figure out who they are as they realize the world is worse than they thought, or if this is a game that is meant to be about people of different ages navigating supernatural politics while potentially becoming more monstrous, because some of the tone introduced in the book leans one way, and some of it leans the other. I also really hope that some of those Torments get reworked in their wording to make them less aggressive and that we get a clearer idea if this game wants you to be someone regularly doing not just bad things, but very uncomfortable things, to build up game currencies.

    There is so much in this ashcan that is intriguing, I had to move it up to the top of my pile of first impressions and reviews. There is so much potential for this game to be exactly the kind of game I want. I just need to see the edges defined a little bit more before I know for sure.

    Update: It slipped my mind that some of the Ready-Made characters have references which clearly place reference college. For some reason I took the coffee shop antagonists as older than the Ready-Made characters. Sorry for any confusion.

    Read more »
  • mp3Gnomecast 191 – Running Factions

    Join Ang, Josh, and Tomas as they talk about running factions in your campaigns. Everything from how to create them, how to connect them, and how to use them for your players.

    LINKS: Magnolia: City of Marvels

    Persona 3

    Origins Game Fair

    Read more »
  • Adventure Design: Backgrounds and Factions

    Since the opening days of my RPG life, I’ve created backgrounds for my characters. It’s just how my brain works. I love creating characters and their backstories. Don’t worry, I don’t force my GM (or fellow players) to endure reading the pages and pages of hastily-written material I’ve made for my characters. You shouldn’t do that either. Any backstory of more than a single page will end up in the “TL;DR” pile and will never come into play.

    However, I’m not here today to talk about extensive backstories for your characters. I’m here to give some advice to the GMs out there creating adventures for their group. At the start of the adventure, there is a thing called a “story hook” that I’ll be covering in more detail next month.

    Two elements of an adventure (or any ongoing campaign) that can help generate quality story hooks are backgrounds and factions. By providing a short list of options that are closely tied to your adventure setting, you can sprinkle hooks throughout the adventure to keep the PCs on track toward the end goal of confronting the adventure’s Boss.

    Most of this material may feel like Session Zero goods, but its really not. Yes, backgrounds and faction alliances (and oppositions) should be determined during Session Zero, but they must come into play throughout the adventure. Otherwise, there is no point in including them at all. The key here is to ensure everything drives the adventure forward, deepens the experience for the players, or gives them motivation to be included in the adventure’s premise.


     Backgrounds should include hooks. 

    Backgrounds come in a wide variety of flavors and styles, depending on what game you’re playing. It might be a Fate aspect. It might be a D&D 5e background. It could be a series of die rolls on Cyberpunk 2020’s lifepath system. The list goes on and on and on. I can’t possibly cover all of the distinctions here. If I try, I’ll miss your favorite game’s background system, and then the hate mail will flow in. (Or maybe not; you’re a bunch of nice people.) Instead, I’m going to approach this from a higher-level and more generic angle.

    Backgrounds should include hooks into one or more of the following aspects of the adventure. Don’t try to wrap all of these into a single background. Otherwise, it’ll just be too much and will overwhelm the player while they try to keep track of how their background impacts their character.

    • Relationship with an NPC
    • A different style of relationship with a different NPC
    • Alliance with a faction
    • Opposition to a faction
    • Investment in the story hook
    • Creation of a bond with a key location or object

    Life is better and creation is easier with examples. Here are a few:

    Mentorship – Your character is a mentor to Allela. She is interested in learning from you, is always attentive, and brings you a piece of candy during each of your teaching sessions. (Then, in the story hook, Allela goes missing while on a field trip in the nearby Duldin Forest.) (This creates a relationship with an NPC and the story hook.)

    Business Venture – Your character is attempting to get a local merchant guild, The Red Consortium, to invest in an import/export idea that you have. Garlu, the headmaster of the consortium, is reluctant, but will agree to entertain the idea if you do him a favor. (In the hook, the favor requested will be to return a family heirloom that his son lost in the recently discovered ruins in the nearby Duldin Forest.) (This ties the character to a faction, an NPC, a location, and possibly an object.)

    Forest Warden – Your character is a member of the Wardens of Duldin Forest. You tend to the forest for Duke Arglist, the local leader of the area, by reducing dangers within the forest and preventing poaching of the duke’s deer. Lately, however, the duke has become concerned with a recent discovery of ruins in the forest. He’s unsure how his royal records and maps never revealed the ruins until its discovery last month. (This ties the character to the duke, a faction, and a location within the forest.)

    As you can tell, the ruins within the Duldin Forest are probably going to be key. There is some mystery to the ruins as they were recently discovered. There a few minor hooks here, but they have yet to be fully triggered until the opening few scenes of the adventure. If you can “aim” backgrounds toward the same or similar areas, then hooking the characters (and hopefully the players) into the story will be much easier.

    As an addendum, these backgrounds are small elements of a character, not the complete story of the character. Don’t write up a character’s background for the player. Just provide some options for them to pick up and build around while they come up with their own stories about what their characters did before the adventure started.


     Not all factions require background hooks. 

    As you can see from my examples above, the factions are woven into the backgrounds. In my three examples, I made use of two different factions. You can include all of the factions into the backgrounds if you choose, but keep in mind that some of the factions may be opposition, not allies. This is easy enough to incorporate into backgrounds by simply having a faction do some wrong or misdeed to a character within the background.

    Not all factions require background hooks, though. It’s easy enough to keep some aside, or even secret from the PCs, until it’s the right moment to incorporate them. While I’m talking about secret factions, I’m going to advise you to use those sparingly. If every other faction is a “surprise reveal,” then the shock value will wear off very quickly and have the impact of yawns and boredom, not actual surprise.

    Most factions should be known to the players, even if they are not attached to or opposed against one another. There are plenty of factions in the real world that have zero impact on my life, but I’m aware that they exist. (I’m mainly thinking of the artificial construct of home owner’s associations here.) I would recommend only creating the factions that will have a direct and tangible impact on the adventure’s story flow. Give each faction a brief description, and create a “faction handout” for the players to peruse and reference. Obviously, if you have a secret faction or two, you’ll want to avoid putting those on the handout.

    Some details about factions that I like to come up with are the leaders, organizational structure, goals of the faction, why the faction wants to accomplish those goals, and identifying marks (if any) of the faction. I don’t detail the membership rank and file beyond noting how many members exist within each city, village, or key location. For the identifying marks, I break those into two categories. The first is to note how members are marked. This could be a uniform, badge, secret handshake, a tattoo, or something else to allow either the public or fellow members to know who is in the know. Secondly, how do the faction “mark their territory” to let opposing factions know to stay away or stay out?


    I hope this article helps you come up with some quality adventure-related backgrounds and factions to put to use. I touched on story hooks a little in this article, but next month, I’ll be doing a deep dive into story hooks and how to lay them in front of the players with proper bait on the hook.

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  • Deathmatch Island Review

    Ever have a rough morning and not remember where you are? No judgement, just curious. But, what about if you don’t remember where you are, and there seems to be a set of branded clothes sitting on a table across from you? What happens when you wake up with a weird device on your wrist, monitoring how many followers you have?

    Can you imagine how terrible it would be to be trapped in a place where you don’t know anyone, you don’t know if anyone is acting in good faith, and everyone is obsessed with followers? I’m so glad stuff like this only happens in games. It would be a nightmare if something like that became commonplace and even started to affect life outside of that strange, disconnected environment.

    And on that note, let’s take a look at Deathmatch Island, a new game published by Evil Hat, in association with Old Dog Games.


    I received my copy of Deathmatch Island from backing the crowdfunding campaign. I haven’t had the opportunity to play in or run the game, but the game is based on the Paragon System, the same underlying system originally created for Agon. I ran Agon both as an ongoing part of my gaming group’s schedule, and at conventions.

     Deathmatch Island

    Game Design, Writing, Graphic Design, Layout, And Illustration Tim Denee
    Editor Karen Twelves
    Indexer Sadie Neat
    Cultural Consultant James Mendez Hodes
    System Consultants John Harper and Sean Nittner
    Development Consultant Greg Soper
    Business Manager Chris Hanrahan
    VTT Developer Sophie Lagacé
    Marketing Manager Tom Lommel
    Project Manager Sean Nittner
    Product Developer Fred Hicks

    The Staging Grounds

    This review is based on the PDF of Deathmatch Island. The PDF is 218 pages long. This includes a title page, a publication page, a credits page, a table of contents, a four-page index, a two-page competitor sheet, a two-page game tracking sheet, and two pages of rules summaries. The document is dominated by orange, white, and black, matching the colors designated for the organization present in the game.

    The layout is the same bold, simple, but attractive layout that many Evil Hat projects have. Most pages have a single column layout, but there are a few two column pages, tables, and charts in the book. There are a number of simulated documents, as well as images of items from the competition, like branded flashbang grenades and competitor uniforms.

    Production Meetings

    Deathmatch Island is meant to emulate media where people compete in unconscionably dangerous games for the amusement of others. It channels the feel of media like The Running Man, The Condemned, The Hunger Games, The Hunt, Battle Royale, and Squid Games. In addition, it folds in some “stranded on a mysterious island/trapped in a mysterious facility” tropes from shows like The Prisoner and Lost.

    Contestants wake up on the island, with no idea how they got there. A mysterious figure from Production encourages the players to give their all, while they are shipped off to different islands with fewer and fewer surviving the competitions there. Challenges can grant valuable resources to the competitors, and some may even reveal secrets about the competition and those who run it, but at the end of the day, it’s all about the deathmatch.

    The general story of the RPG is simple. Survive, find out something about the mysterious organization, and decide if you are going to work together, or face off against the other players in the game. The texture of the game comes from the details. There are other detailed NPC competitors, a variety of resources to gather, some specific events that can be slotted into different phases of the game, and some mind boggling clues to the nature of the company, which may point people to secret government agencies, massive criminal organizations, secretive labs doing unethical experiments, and maybe even the presence of aliens.

    The Backstage Area

    While there are some differences, if you have played Agon, you’ll get the general structure of the game. If you haven’t played Agon, let’s talk about the basics.

    Characters have die ratings detailing multiple aspects of their character. Characters will have a die for name (how popular you are, hence, how much weight your name has), occupation (what you did before you woke up here), and five additional capabilities, all ranking how well the contestant interacts with different stages of the game. These capabilities are:

    • Social Game–communicating and negotiating with others
    • Snake Mode–performing underhanded actions to succeed
    • Challenge Beast–overcoming physical challenges against the environment
    • Deathmatch–fighting for your life
    • Redacted–finding out things that the organization doesn’t want you to know

    You’re always going to be using your name die, because you’re putting your followers and popularity on the line. When you attempt a challenge, if your occupation seems relevant, you can add that to your roll as well. You use one die from your capabilities from the one that makes the most sense for the challenge. If you have Trust with another character (a currency that can be spent), if they are in the same contest that you are, you can spend Trust to add their name die to your pool, and you can spend Trust to avoid harm, representing your ally coming to your aid exactly when you need them.

    In addition to these dice, you can mark Acquisition to use relevant items to help you. If you find something relevant and useful to what you are doing, outside of your normal gear, you can also add an Advantage die to your pool. So, your pool is going to look like this:

    • Name
    • Occupation (if applicable)
    • Relevant Capability
    • Advantage (if available)
    • Trust (if you want to spend it and you have that competitor in the same contest)
    • Second Capability (if you mark fatigue to use some out of the box thinking)
    • Acquisition (if available)

    To determine if you succeeded, you add two dice from your pool together, except for your Acquisition, which if present, adds to the two dice you picked. NPC competitors or challenges will have their own dice ratings, which will add a set difficulty bonus based on what island you are on, and how dangerous the island and the challenges are.

    In Agon, the “parent” to Deathmatch Island, challenges are addressed as if you are narrating an epic poem. Players announce their character by name, stating who they are and what they intend to do. In Deathmatch Island, you introduce characters the way a commentator might on a sports program, and after you determine what happens by rolling the dice, each player goes into a confessional where they talk to the camera and explain exactly what happened and how, in whatever details they want to add, so long as it matches what the dice determined.

    That means that, like Agon, a lot of the roleplaying is a zoomed out, third person narration of what the character is doing, with most of the “in person” roleplaying happening in the confessional, and during the trust building and theory crafting that the PCs do between islands.

    Characters have Fatigue and Injuries. Failing a task normally costs you Fatigue, and you can spend it as a resource in some instances. If you don’t have Fatigue to mark when you fail, you take an Injury. If you are out of injuries, your character has met their demise. Injuries don’t clear during a season, but you will remove some Fatigue between islands.

    As you meet challenges, you gain followers, and when you hit certain milestones, you can advance your characters, picking from the advancements shown at the bottom of the character sheet. Advancements are also gained by accumulating Injuries, but that’s a risky way to improve your capabilities.

    The Call Sheet

    Another thing you will know if you have played Agon is that there is a specific procedure to play. You tell your story within the structure. Characters arrive on the island, and they will participate in a number of contests. This is Phase One. These challenges happen at different nodes on the island, and some islands and situations may cause the PCs to head to different nodes. Prevailing at some of these challenges may get the PCs an Advantage die due to a situation moving in a favorable direction for the PCs.

    They may also find some Acquisitions, the currency you use to add specialized gear to your rolls. While the actual Acquisition isn’t detailed (i.e. you may not find a specific weapon or a specific piece of gear), Acquisition is divided between weapons, equipment, and Redacted. You may have a hard time justifying using survival gear in a Deathmatch, and you can only use Redacted Acquisitions when you are using Redacted to do things “off book” to gather secrets from the organization.

    There are also additional traits that a contest may have, including the following:

    • Dangerous–you mark Injury instead of Fatigue if you fail
    • Exhausting–you spend 1 Fatigue to enter the challenge due to effort
    • Restricted–you can only use Redacted Acquisitions

    If you use Acquisition to add a weapon to your pool, the contest automatically becomes Dangerous, because you escalated the situation. On the other hand, any challenge that is a Deathmatch is automatically Dangerous.

    Phase Two is the climax of the island, where everyone must participate. This is the big event that all the followers are . . . following? Phase Two has its own smaller sections, Scouting, Scramble, and Battle Royale. Scouting lets you engage potential threats that will happen if you don’t address them. The Scramble is a challenge that gives one competitor an Advantage to use in the Deathmatch. If the PCs don’t mark their last Injury, they survive, but some competitors won’t make it to the next island.

    Between islands, characters debrief, which is where you find out which NPCs survived and what else happened on the island. After the debrief is Theory Crafting. Theory Crafting is where the PCs get together and talk about the clues they have learned from Redacted activities. It’s worth noting that there isn’t one “truth” about what’s going on, and as the PCs start to come up with in Theory Crafting is probably what you should lean into as the “truth.” The theories are all grouped into broad categories, which are Political Project, Entertainment, Big Experiment, or Weird. The PCs can also build trust with other PCs by sharing flashbacks they have about parts of their life that they couldn’t remember, that are now becoming clear again.

    There are three islands to a season, and each island has a larger bonus added to the dice of the individual challenges, representing the increased threat of each location. Island Three has its own quirks, because it’s the end of the season, and everything has to come to a head. By default, players secretly select if they are going to try to break the game or play to win. If anyone is playing to win, and the other PCs are breaking the game, that character gets an Advantage on the others, because they’re betraying the team they’ve been with the whole time.


    If someone playing to win makes it to the end, and kills the last (PC) competitor, there are a few questions to answer about what happens next. This is probably some version of you blacking out and waking up back in your normal life, before or after getting to celebrate your win.

    If the characters breaking the game survive and there are no PCs playing to win, they still have to fight their way through the remaining competitors. If they win the Battle Royale, they get to pick from a list of damage they can do to the organization, like getting evidence, killing operatives, or blowing up something important looking.

    While the islands all have the same procedure, there are different casts that you can apply as a template over the island. This gives you some specific encounters native to that cast, some specific NPCs, and a thematic set of things weaving in and out of the NPCs and their encounters. There are also some questions to answer about the motivations of the cast members you choose, to help determine how they will act.

    The game has a range of ways that you can set it up. Your PCs can all have randomly determined aspects, including your motivation, which by default you don’t share, but which you can share if you are playing New Game+, or if you just want to cut down on the potential player versus player activity. You can start with New Game+ if you just want to play characters that know about the game and the organization, and you want to go straight to tearing it down.

    Champion For Life
     The game does a great job of using the structure of Agon and framing a different narrative that uses the same toolkit. 

    The resolution for this game is simple and intuitive, and while the procedures can look intimidating, there are several places where the process is spelled out in flowchart-like references. There are some delightfully weird Redacted secrets to find out when poking around the island, and some subtle humor tucked into the details. The game does a great job of using the structure of Agon and framing a different narrative that uses the same toolkit.

    It was Purgatory

    While it is completely intentional, the default mode that allows for player versus player resolution may turn off some players not interested in the potential for that kind of play, even with the optional rules for calibrating those aspects. For some players, it may be less intuitive to switch between narrative roleplaying and in-character roleplaying. It may be daunting, knowing that different phases of the game inform which approach is most appropriate. That’s not so much a flaw as it is a consequence of a game with a very specific personality, which this game shares with its forebear, Agon.

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

    Any caution that I express about picking up this game isn’t because the game does anything that it doesn’t intend to do, and it’s certainly not because it misses the mark on the narrative it presents. If you are a player that doesn’t mind structured roleplaying games where you do specific things in different phases, and you like weaving in and out of being in the “writers room” and being “on set” as an actor, this is still going to be a pretty safe bet, so long as the genre itself appeals to you.

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