Gnome Stew


    Gnome Stew

  • Storyteller or Facilitator — Two Approaches
    An open book on a table with an image of a pirate standing on one side and a ship on the water on the other.

    Over my nearly 40 years as a GM, I have changed the ways that I have created stories at the table. Similarly, what I look for in games has changed as well. At different times during my tenure as a GM I have been a storyteller, and other times I have been a story facilitator. Both have created amazing times at the table, but both are different experiences and need different things. So today, I thought I would look at these two styles with a little more depth and talk about their needs, the experiences they produce, etc. 

    Laying Down Some Definitions

    In order for us to get started, I need to establish the main terms for what we are talking about since neither of these terms is universally understood or accepted in the hobby. So for the rest of this article, we will work from these terms.


    A storyteller is a type of GM who crafts a story to share with their players. The player characters are the protagonists of the story as the storyteller guides them through it. Through play, the characters experience the story. On the good side of this, the players have agency and are able to influence the conclusion of the story. On the bad side of this, the players are on what is often referred to as a Railroad, where their actions do not affect the outcome. 

    The defining trait of the storyteller is the idea that the scenario they are running is a story that they are telling to the players, and that they have some idea of the outcome/outcomes of the story when it concludes. Their job is to make that story unfold and guide the players through it. The players are to play their characters and move through the story.

    Story Facilitator

    The story facilitator, or just facilitator, is someone who sees their job as helping the group, as a whole, create a story through play. They often have the idea of a plot or challenge, but not much beyond that. Through play, the characters will figure out how to resolve the plot or challenge, and the GM is there to engage the rules and to add things to the developing story to keep it from going stale. On the good end of this, the facilitator brings an exciting challenge to the table and works to keep things moving along, nudging things when needed. On the bad end, they come to the session with very little and push the work onto the players to make things happen at the table.

    The defining trait of the facilitator is the idea that they have an idea of how things will start, but are totally open to how the story will end. Their job is to set things up, and then make way for the players to determine how things will end. They are equally as surprised as the players in how the story turned out. 

    We Are Not Dealing In Absolutes…

    No one is 100%, Storyteller or Facilitator. We are always some blend of these. Perhaps you are a Storyteller who at a point in the game when the player’s actions have changed so much of the story, flip over to the Facilitator and guide the game to its new conclusion. Or perhaps you are a Facilitator who really likes to create a story by crafting very specific plots and situations and uses your moments of facilitation to build upon the story you have in mind. 

    …But we have Preferences

    Without a doubt, you have a preference, which is comprised of some combination of these two approaches. That preference can change over time, it can change with different games, etc. That is perfectly natural.

    Without a doubt, you have a preference, which is comprised of some combination of these two approaches. That preference can change over time, it can change with different games, etc. That is perfectly natural. Sometimes our general preference changes, because how we derive enjoyment from RPGs changes. Other times our general preference can change because who we are changes, again leading to how we derive enjoyment from RPGs. The group you play with can help determine your preference. If your players are the kind who enjoy participating in a story, then their enjoyment and in part your own may come from a more Storyteller approach. In other cases, the game itself may make the choice for you. If a game you enjoy requires the GM to be more of a Facilitator, then you may find your joy in that role.

    The Influence of Group And Game

    As mentioned above, the group you play with and the games you play may lend themselves to different styles. The truth is any group and any game can be played in either approach, but there are more optimal configurations depending on your overall preference.

    When you are more Storyteller…

    You will enjoy games where the majority of narrative control remains with the GM — games where the GM sets scenes, narrates the outcomes of skill checks, etc. These are sometimes referred to as more traditional games. Think of something like D&D where the GM has the narrative control and the players embody their characters. Games of this style work well for the Storyteller because they have the most control of the narrative and can use that to tell the story.

    In terms of players, the Storyteller does best with a group of players who are more focused on the actions of their characters rather than the flow and structure of the story. With this character focus, these players are ready to embody their characters and react to the world. This allows them to play their part in the story and react to the story as the GM unfolds it before them. 

    When you are more the Facilitator 

    You will enjoy games where the narrative control of the game is more de-centralized, with the GM having some of the control and the players having some as well. The GM may still set scenes and such, but the players will be able to help shape those scenes as well as help to create upcoming scenes. Think of something like a Powered by the Apocalypse game, where the 7-9 result of a Move gives the players ways to shape the narrative of the game, but there is still a centralized GM role. 

    In addition, you may also enjoy games with a fully decentralized GM role, where an even larger amount of narrative control is spread out among the players. Think of something like Fiasco, where there is no GM, but there can be a player who is more familiar with the rules to help facilitate the game.

    In terms of players, the Facilitator does well when paired with players who also have an interest in shaping the story; their focus is less on their individual character but more on the story that is being told. These types of players readily enjoy having narrative control and using it not to “win” the game, but to make the game “more interesting” even if that results in endangering their character to do so. These kinds of players are the ones who want to take an active role in shaping the story and will work with the GM to make that happen. 

    My Own Preferences

    In the 40 years I have played, I have been both a strong Storyteller and a strong Facilitator. In the ’90s and early ‘00s, I went through a phase where I loved being the Storyteller and crafting stories that my group would play through. We played a lot of traditional games, then, and my group was very content to play in that style. We created a lot of great stories during that time.

    In the early 10’s I had an experience in my d20 Modern game that showed me how much I enjoyed improvisation. You can read more about that in Engine Publishing’s book Unframed. After that, I had a gradual shift in preference from Storyteller to Facilitator. I started playing more indie games where the GM role was decentralized.

    Today, I have reached a point where I am very unscientifically 70% Facilitator and 30% Storyteller. I appreciate creating an overall story for my campaigns, but within the session, I enjoy facilitating much more. My main source of enjoyment is playing along with the players to see where the story goes, and ending a session as surprised as they are with where the game went. 

    To that point, I still enjoy a lot of indie games, but I run plenty of traditional games as well. I like indie games that have a GM role, but then share out some of the narrative control to the players, so I play a lot of Powered by the Apocalypse games. For the more traditional games I run, I need more random tables to help create the uncertainty of what will happen next. It is one of the reasons I enjoy the traveling mechanics of Forbidden Lands so much. It is very much a traditional game with random elements that come up that I have to facilitate. 

    Your Preference

    You have a preference as well. Are you a strong storyteller, crafting masterful plots of intrigue and adventure, or are you a strong Facilitator looking to guide your group through their session making a story by laying the tracks in front of you as you go? More likely you are somewhere in-between. 

    What is your preference? What kinds of games work best for you? Is your game group in alignment with your preference as well? 

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  • Bizarre Traditions
    Man Riding Horses

    Different societies and cultures have wildly differing traditions. Some of them are fairly mundane when you look at them from inside the culture that follows a tradition, but if you take a step back – maybe several steps back – you’ll see things from a fresh perspective. This new angle will reveal some really odd things.

    I was born and raised in west Texas. This makes me a United States citizen, so I grew up with quite a few odd traditions. To me, they seemed perfectly normal, but I’m going to step back from myself for a bit and describe these bizarre happenings in the weirdest way possible just to illustrate how truly off the wall some of these things are. All of these are from my personal experience, and I’m certain that many of you out there in the world will have things you’ll consider even more strange than what I’m describing here.

    Rodent Predicts the Weather

    Every year, as the the winter season reaches its peak in early February, men and women dress in clothing from almost one hundred years ago, track down a rodent in its lair, and yank it from its warm and cozy hole. This “Inner Circle” then hoists up the rodent and demands that it look for its shadow. If it sees the shadow, winter will be longer than normal. Otherwise, we’re in for a regular spring. I don’t know how this Inner Circle cajoles the rodent to seek the shadow of itself, but they claim their efforts are incredibly accurate.

    Make a Wish; Rip the Bone

    Around the Thanksgiving dinner table (which is a rich tradition to explore), we’d pass along the mostly-eaten turkey carcass and rip the meat off with our bare hands. Eventually, the poor bird’s “wishbone” would be exposed by a fortunate soul. That person and the person on their right (always on the right since the bird went around the table counterclockwise like any good NASCAR fans would do) would then carefully dissect the bone from the dead bird with whatever nearby sharp implements they could find. Then, each person would grip a spur of the wishbone, make a wish, and pull. The person who came away with the turkey’s sternum (the central prong of the wishbone) would have their wish granted, but only if it was a humble wish. Ask for too much, and misfortune will befall your entire family (which were usually there with you at the dinner table) for the remainder of the year. I find it extraordinarily strange that a dead bird’s skeletal system could grant a wish, but there are probably even more ways to try and tell the future, I suppose.

    Teens Turn to Arson for Good Luck

    I don’t have to step too far away from this one to make it weird because I’ve never really understood it. Before the Big High School Football Game against the Main Cross-Town Rival each year, both parking lots at the high schools would be piled high in the center with lumber, wood palettes, a center-piece joist to support it all, and pretty much anything else that would burn without being blown into a neighboring yard. With the fire department on hand, teens would be allowed to douse the entire structure in gasoline, make a trail of accelerant away from the pile, and then light it up! While the giant bonfire burned at the school, everyone would cackle wildly, dance around the fire, play their drums (or other portable band instruments), and cavort deep into the night. Standing far enough back from the fray, I was able to watch it with the appreciation of Rob Zombie filming a wild ritualistic scene from his imagination. Both high schools would time how long their particular bonfire burned, and the school with the longest-burning flame of ritual was guaranteed victory in the next night’s game.

    Game Applications

    I’m not recommending that we get together and make a book of rules and guidelines for bizarre traditions. These are too wide and varied for any type of “crunchy” approach at codifying them. Instead, leave the weirdness for the “fluff” of the game in which the true richness and depth of world building can be found. Find a seminal (probably beneficial) event in a community’s past, and see what kind of incredible lengths the local populace will go through in order to try and recapture the event again. This is how traditions are formed. Take it to the next level if you can. Put that core event two or three generations in the past and see how the current generation is going to interpret the event and traditions. How are they going to change and morph over the course of time? That’s were truly great world building comes into play.

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  • Hit the Streets: Defend the Block Review
    Hit the Streets: Defend the Block Review

    Superhero media contains multitudes. There are tactical, military-themed super-agent teams. There are magical heroes that fight off demons and vampires. Some heroes travel into the depths of space and deal with alien fleets and cosmic criminal syndicates. But for many people, their first introduction to superheroes are those heroes fighting the street level battles.

    The game we’re looking at today, Hit the Streets: Defend the Block, is a game meant to emulate stories where heroes are defending the city they live in against street-level evils, corruption, and exploitation. This is a game for emulating Daredevil, Jessica Jones, The Question, or Wildcat.

    Friendly Neighborhood PDF

    This review is based on the PDF release of the game. Currently, it is available as a PDF or as a print on demand release. The PDF is 108 pages long, with four pages of credits and playtester acknowledgments, five rules summary sheets, a character sheet, a dedication page, and a three-page table of contents.

    The layout is a single column, with a heavily shadowed border, showing the silhouette of a cityscape from different angles. There are various full-color images of different street-level heroes displaying a variety of superpowers, and various boxes with highlighted topics are formatted like comic book narration boxes.


    The introduction establishes what this game is about. It specifically calls out the Marvel Netflix series as foundational for this game. Characters don’t fly, they don’t move mountains, and they are mainly concerned about the city and the neighborhood they live in.

    In addition to establishing the tone, this section introduces the terms that the game will be using. The player moderating the game is the Game Manager, and character heroes are known as Super-Powered Beings.

    The introduction also makes it clear how important safety is to the game. Looking at the inspirational material, and the fact that street-level crime-fighting often deals with lots of topics like class warfare, economic disparity, drugs, violence, and abuse, games can easily stray into topics that might cause some emotional harm if not addressed.

    The safety section looks at Lines and Veils, the means by which players establish their comfort level with different topics. It discusses active safety tools, specifically citing the X Card as an example.

    Power Up

    This section describes how characters are built, and how actions are adjudicated. The core game system uses d6s. Above a certain number, the roll counts as a success. Below a certain level, it counts as a failure.

    Characters get a certain number of dice to assign to their mundane actions and their super actions, essentially establishing if the character is better at their day-to-day life, or their superhero identity. Other dice ratings are assigned to different superpowers, with a few examples given.

    Players then assign a number of dice to their stats, which include:

    • Head
    • Jaw
    • Heart
    • Hands
    • Feet
    • Tools

    That means your dice pool for attempting a task involves adding either your Be Normal or Be Super dice to one of your stats that matches up to the action you are attempting, and the dice for a power you are using, if any.

    Characters have a resource called Spark that determines if a character can remain active in the narrative. Spark may be the ability to push through physical injury, or it might be your will to go on, depending on the situation. You can lose Spark on failed rolls and spend Spark to add extra dice to your dice pool, and certain actions allow you to regain Spark.

    The chapter ends with three example Super-Powered Beings. This gives the reader some examples of what a fully assembled character looks like in the game.

    Team Up

    This section provides a set of questions that the group should be asking when they develop their team. It also points out that depending on how the team develops, players may need to go back and modify some of their character choices to better fit the team’s dynamic and theme.

    There are example tables for things like team names, purpose, and rivals. This section introduces the importance of having a recurring rival team. The rivals don’t need to be villains, although they may be. The rival team is just a recurring group that will cause problems for the player character SPBs.

    Where You At?

    This section outlines a process for creating a unique neighborhood for the game. This involves drawing lines to represent streets, allowing characters to place various locations.

    There are also several questions to help the group determine what people live in the neighborhood, and what the ongoing problems are for the neighborhood. In addition to explaining the process of creating streets, problems, and locals, There is an example to show what an emerging neighborhood looks like, generated by this process.

    Taking Action

    This section goes into more detail to show how to structure and resolve actions in the game. Depending on what the stakes of a task are, a scene either has Tension or it does not. When a scene has Tension, a character can lose Spark when they generate failures.

    The resolution system is player-facing, so the GM doesn’t roll to see if rivals or opponents are successful. The GM just determines the difficulty of a task (how many successes are required), and if there is Tension in the scene.

    Some threats have a Total Threat Difficulty. Threats with this quality can be incrementally achieved, rather than being determined by a single resolution, to represent a major catastrophe or a powerful villain.

    Successes are referred to as “Pows,” while failures are referred to as “Oofs.” Oofs only cause a character to lose Spark when there is Tension in the scene. Because of this structure, threats don’t need to have any stats assigned to them. They just need to be described and given a difficulty.

    Characters may also take part in a Refresh Scene between other scenes. In general, Refresh scenes usually involve either spending time with other team members, doing charity work, or going on patrol. Because these patrols are about stopping “mundane” crime, these scenes don’t involve Tension.

    Successfully performing these actions can add Spark to a character’s Spark pool. However, successful actions in Refresh Scenes are also noted on the neighborhood map. These actions can show that different parts of the neighborhood are safer and have developed new businesses and services, and when these actions succeed, the text encourages the group to note on the map how that area is evolving.

    There are charts showing what kinds of crimes might be happening in the neighborhood, as well as providing an impressive and interesting list of actual charities that often operate in urban neighborhoods.

    This section is rounded out with a series of questions for determining XP awards, the cost of awards, and what happens when a character runs out of Spark in the game. Without going into too many details, the character might die, if the player wants them to, but it may also just be an opportunity to do some soul searching.

    How to GM Hit the Streets

    This section starts with multiple examples of questions that the GM can ask to get more details about characters, the neighborhood, the team’s rivals, and emerging aspects of the story in the game.

    There are also several pages dedicated to the process of “Letters to the Editor,” an end of session process for getting feedback about what the table liked about the current session, what they would like to see in the future, and what might have been less satisfying.

    Additional sections include treatments on troubleshooting potential problems, and advice for addressing game themes. There are tables determining corruption and temptations that are acting on the neighborhood, and day to day “be normal” problems of characters to address.


    This section gives six example neighborhoods. While much of what makes this game unique is derived from the players working together to establish the setting, these are good examples as well as handy settings for convention games, one-shots, or short campaigns.

    These neighborhoods include local nicknames for the location, the history of the neighborhood, common sites, and detailed rival teams. While all these neighborhoods have similar structures, the “voice” of the neighborhoods varies depending on the contributor, and each one highlights different social ills, many of which are extremely relevant to modern life.

    Why Don’t We Start By Getting Some Coffee First?
     All these components seem to create a strong engine for driving content in play. 

    I love the idea that Spark is about the will to go on as much as how tough a character is physically. I also really like the neighborhood building rules, the concept of the rival team, and the idea of the Refresh Scenes and how important charity work is to the people of the neighborhood. All these components seem to create a strong engine for driving content in play.

    I’m Asking Forgiveness For What I’m About To Do

    Not much was unsatisfying to me about this game. Some terminology choices are thematic, and may not be what I would have chosen, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty minor. The only other thing I would note is that while some rules address taking on a major, climactic threat or heavy hitter super villain, there is a lot more time spent discussing the rival team (which is a great concept, don’t get me wrong), than there is developing strong, long term villains. This is a little strange when the source material includes characters like Kingpin or Killgrave.

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

    If you like more story-based games, and you also like street-level comic book stories, this is a very easy recommendation. I would also argue that in addition to being a good game to play, the support for fleshing out neighborhoods, rival teams, and daily problems form a great toolkit that can be applied even to other supers games.

    Where is the line you draw between street-level heroes and other superhero stories? What is the deal-breaker when it comes to themes, powers, or background? How do you feel about mixing and matching street-level characters with more epic heroes? We want to hear from you in the comments below.

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  • Debilitating Conditions at the Table
    Debilitating Conditions at the Table

    Last Survival • Art by Filip Storch • Licensed for the Dreamchaser RPG

    Thirty minutes into the session, the moment we’ve all been waiting for, our unlikely heroes finally catch up to the malicious war band that ransacked their village. In the events of a single hour, our characters lives were forever changed by the savage pillaging for their war effort. They didn’t just steal gold and weapons from the village. They stole the lives of the people our characters cared for most. They may as well have stolen our characters’ lives as well. It was never going to be the same for them ever again.  

    One bad die roll into our party’s fateful clash with their campaign’s most dire enemy and a player character is near death. A fate arguably worse than death at the table, the player character is now incapacitated and unable to act unless they “push” themself. Unfortunately, this isn’t a game with magical healing and we’re just thirty minutes into the game session at the start of a big scene.

    How do you keep that player engaged at the table when they are resigned to their current fate? When they are resigned to the notion of “What CAN I do?” or “I’ll probably fail with a -1 die penalty to all my rolls.”

    Rules as Written

    I run a lot of different RPGs. So, I’m inclined to follow the rules as a GM and to see where the system takes us. I want to know what experiences the mechanics bring out in play. It isn’t like me to play with the same group very often, so I can’t always rely on pegging my players for their play styles. Whether I’m running games at conventions or online, I’m always catering to a large swath of different players that rotate through. As a game designer, I like the looks or insights I can take away from the variety of players I get to see at the table.

    I don’t know about you, but I have a handful of horror stories at the table that stem from debilitating conditions. Depending on the game, this could be called harm, damage, trauma, stress, fatigue—you get the picture! Many games penalize player characters for getting hit, for rolling bad, for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (as if the GM had no say in that). While I never miss hit points in games (they can seem so inconsequential, especially as they rise and rise), I’ve found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place as a GM. How do you help a player get enough spotlight at the table when their character is heavily restricted by penalties like -3 dice (out of 4)? You know, the kind of modifiers that render player characters null, their actions void.

    Character death is almost easier. The player isn’t in such a difficult bind to figure out how they can contribute—how they can play.

    These are the one-size-fits-all moments when a game system kind of betrays you (as written). It’s when the system, like some kind of Master to their pupil,  hands over the reins to the GM and says, you deal with it. These moments need a fine touch, a skillful storyteller’s hand, and some preternatural judgment. In other words, they are easy to fumble.

    Once you know what this looks like at the table, you can see it coming. Not from a mile away, but just before it happens. At that point, you can’t necessarily avoid it unless you fudge the rules, but you do have enough time to make the “sacrifice” shine at the table. You can encourage the player to soak up the moment and roleplay the heck out of it. You can slow things down in the narrative and help to prompt the player to make the most of the moment. But, what then?

    Let’s call the player Katy. I want Katy to be involved. I want them to act. Instead, they don’t know what to do. They stare at their sheet and see that any action they take is likely to fail due to the harsh penalties stacked against them. They resign their character to give up and fight again another day. But, the group still has so much to do—and the show must go on!

    In theory, I love the idea of debilitating conditions. Player characters need to be threatened and put in difficult situations. Debilitating conditions remind players that their characters are mortal. They add risk. They force players to problem solve—to act. Until they don’t.

    Player characters need to be threatened and put in difficult situations. Debilitating conditions remind players that their characters are mortal. They add risk. They force players to problem solve—to act. Until they don’t.
    Unlike simple hit point systems, there are a great variety of debilitating conditions that can add flavor and description in addition to damage. They give a player more detail to work with. You didn’t just suffer a wound, you are now bleeding and disoriented. Lose two hit points per round until you stop the bleeding and suffer a 1 die penalty to any checks that require your character to think critically or notice details. These effects further define the experience, they’re evocative, they cater to the imagination. What’s more interesting, take 3 damage or having your character blinded in one eye (for the scene)?

    The rules are here for you (GM), they are a tool, not law. Rule Zero, you see it in the beginning of many RPGs tucked in the “What is Roleplaying” section. As a GM learning new games, I feel like you have got to try out the rules first, right? Step in the mud and realize what to do better next time. But, I hate apologizing at the end of a game session for how I let the game rules dictate the amount of time a player actually got to play. You did something cool, you took a chance, and now you don’t get to play unless I retcon or fudge the rules in front of the players (removing an element of risk from play).

    So, what do I do?

    • Do I break the rules of healing and recovery?
    • Do I rewind the damage once I realize the player won’t act?
    • Do I cheat the players invested in an epic scene by quickly bringing it to a close?

    What do you do when the game has decided their character has done enough…

    Voices of Reason • Art by Pui Che • Commissioned for the Dreamchaser RPG

    I have a friend that once told me that you have to pace each session so that truly dangerous moments only happen towards the end. I remember thinking, that is ridiculous! Why should every meeting start slow? Does that mean that GMs need to hold their players back from the most dire moments, too? Should I pepper in obstacles to pace play in fear of a bad roll?  Not to mention, I hate being predictable! How long will it take for my players to catch on?

    Now, I’m not so sure. Running a lot of one shots, I generally find myself following some sort of three act structure. Is that so different? I guess it would only be weird when used for subsequent sessions, when players are already in the thick of the action. Are you like me, always reaching for a cliffhanger ending?  If it has teeth, have you already set yourself up to fail? Clearly, I’m still working through this.

    Going Forward

    Setting clear expectations: At critical moments, take the time to explain to players what is on the line for them. We often do this with player characters but we don’t always step back to talk about how this could affect the player themself—how it could affect Katy.

    The best advice? You should probably hold back any penalty that is going to totally debilitate a player unless the moment is right. Blind for a round? That’s ok. -2 modifier to hit? No big deal. -4d to all rolls (out of 5)? You may as well kill the character—or at least knock them out. Save the crushing blows for when the time is right, in the story and at the table.


    How do you avoid players removing their character from the game?

    How do you encourage a player to play when their character cannot fight (flashbacks, moral support)?

    Do you have tricks for how you pace play to keep your players safe?

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  • Playing Favorites
    Playing Favorites

    This image really has nothing to do with the article, but I kind of had to use it. Consider it me playing favorites.

    I originally discussed this topic in an older article on Rogue Princess Squadron but thought it might be worth discussing again.

    Let’s face it. Every GM has played favorites. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, maybe it was on purpose to please someone. Sometimes it’s awful and insidious and can kill a campaign or a whole gaming group. I would say, though, that it’s not completely unavoidable and I would argue it can be beneficial when used in small, judicious ways.

    I have definitely had experiences with the kind of favoritism that has a well-deserved bad rap in gaming circles. A long time ago in a remarkably familiar galaxy, my GM for a college gaming group invited a new girl to join our game. Not long after that, the GM and the new girl started dating. This GM already had a bit of a propensity towards favoritism – he and his best friend would often spend hours outside of the game talking about it and coming up with different ideas that would work their way into the game. Usually, it wasn’t too detrimental to the other players at the table, so no one really worried about it. This girl, though. When they started dating, his tendency towards favoritism took on a whole new, ugly level. If she wanted something for her character, she got it. The game came to revolve around her characters and the stuff she wanted to do.

    She also wasn’t very nice. We were all young and dumb, but I still remember the pain of her Mean Girl comments as she tried to drive me away from the group. I wasn’t her only target, but most everyone else were just targets of nasty comments behind their backs. It eventually got so bad, I walked out of a game after she started mocking me for being visibly frustrated at, yet again, being sidelined so her plot could take the spotlight. Thankfully, she and the GM broke up not long after that incident. It honestly wasn’t a moment too soon, because his favoritism and her behavior came close to killing that group and ruining what eventually became lifelong friendships.

    Now, I can hear you saying, “Ang, you started off saying favoritism isn’t always a bad thing, then tell us a story of how it’s the absolute worst. What’s up with that?” I want to be clear that there is a reason favoritism has a bad reputation. Back in the day, I knew people who would refuse to game in a group where the romantic partner of the GM was also playing. Years later, after playing together with many awesome couples, I can clearly declare that a dumb solution to the problem.

    Thing is, when favoritism goes bad, it doesn’t even have to be the GM’s romantic partner that is the recipient of the favoritism. It can just as easily be a good friend or someone the GM looks up to and wants to impress. Add in a degree of emotional immaturity and you have the recipe for a frustrating game where only certain people get to do the cool stuff. I’ve even see GMs do it trying to coax new players into the game, where they were so focused on giving that new player cool and engaging stuff, they ignored the more experienced players.

    Most GMs probably aren’t even fully aware they’re doing this. I’m sure most people don’t sit down to run a game and decide that they’re going to butter up to one person and ignore everyone else. One GM I’ve played with has earned a reputation of favoring female players. While it’s not done creepily, it has been noted by more than one person that having a pair of boobs at his table is far more likely to get the character you want. Having played with that GM fairly often, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

    So, most of the examples I’ve talked about so far have been unhealthy and dysfunctional manifestations of GM favoritism. Giving obvious or unfair advantages and rewards to some players over others is absolutely going to stir up resentment and create problems in the game or the game group. The interesting thing, though, is that favoritism used in small, judicious ways may help a game survive and thrive.

    Hear me out on this. We GMs all recognize the star players in our games. In fact, there are several articles on the Stew that talk about ‘rainmakers’ and how they can benefit a game. These are the players we know we can count on to create interesting characters that fit in with the game world and who will drive the action once the game starts. These are the folks that bring such investment and excitement to playing their character that they make the game more fun and vibrant for everyone else at the table. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a few star players or maybe even a table full of them. They make running the game EASY. As a reward, we often throw them the plot hooks and spotlight a little more often. You ever so slightly play favorites because you know it’s going to make the game better.

    The crucial thing to understand is that you are definitely playing favorites, even just a little bit. Understanding this can make the difference between doing it in a way that enhances the game and doing it in a way that ends up alienating the other players because they know they won’t ever get the cool stuff. Giving a star player the focus early on in a campaign or session can help kick things off, but you have to keep that spotlight moving around the table and give everyone a chance to shine, even the shy player or even the slightly troublesome player you still enjoy even if they occasionally annoy you. Give a little love to your rainmakers not to make them your only focus, but to let them set an example for the rest of the table.

    Good GMs understand that every game session needs to have a moment for every single player at the table, but they also understand how to make use of the players that will help the game be awesome.

    Read more »
  • VideoGnomecast #111 – Paid GMing (Part 1)
    Gnome Stew's Gnomecast

    Join Chuck, Di, and John for a discussion about paid GMing and its impact on the hobby. Can these gnomes get enough GMing gigs to avoid being thrown in the stew?

  • How to Be(come) a Grateful Gamer
    Dice on table

    Ask yourself the following questions. When you sit down at a table, are your attitude and contributions warm, appreciative and thankful? Do you express gratitude during the event? Would your presence and performance be considered agreeable, welcoming and/or refreshing?

    Don’t let me lose you on the touchy feelies, here! I’m not asking if you participate in a group hug prior to initiative nor asking that everyone sings an epic Gregorian chant while handholding after a beloved PC meets their ultimate fate (though, after typing this, I kinda want to experience that!). I’m asking… are you showing gratitude at the table?

    Player Privilege

    Let’s discuss a few ways to check your Player Privilege and see if you are, indeed, a Grateful Gamer.

    Think of your absolute favorite sourcebook! The one that you’ve poured over, played, run and devoured with a passion. Have you written a review online of this sourcebook? Have you left a rating? Have you supported the creator by publicly demonstrating your appreciation? Ratings, reviews, referrals, and engaging feedback helps boost their visibility, y’know. If not, ask yourself why not?

    When you sit down to play a game, are you intentional about supporting both the GM and the story that you’re all there to create? Are you engaged, asking questions and making an attempt to support the experience? Or… are you on your phone, sleeping, intentionally trying to derail the game, or otherwise showing disinterest and disrespect to both the GM and the table?

    Side note! When you sleep at the table, are more interested in your phone than the game or attempt to derail the experience, it’s primarily the GM that has to navigate that stress, insecurity and nuisance. We begin to think… Am I not doing enough? Is my story that bad? Am I not engaging them?

    Players are human, too. I get that. So, if you’re exhausted, do everyone the courtesy of taking care of yourself and get some rest. Unless you’re on call or expecting an important phone call, minimize the table phone use. Don’t derail the story for giggles. Doing so hurts the GM, inconveniences your fellow players and really paints you in an unfavorable light.

    Stawwwp, I get it! Not every game is a 10/10. Not every GM is top shelf. We’ve played convention games. We all have stories. However, I’m not asking you to check the quality of your GM, the strength of the table, nor the value of the story. Those items are out of your control. What IS in your control, is YOUR attitude towards the situation. Choose to be a Grateful Gamer.

    You know that GM who fumbled table management and storytelling? Are you aware of the time they spent preparing for this game? Can you imagine the anxiety and panic that swelled in their chest prior to sitting down at the table (trust me, more GMs feel this than you may know)? Are you aware of the costs that they accrued purchasing sourcebooks, dice, paper, handouts, miniatures, subscription fees, etc.?  Do you realize that they’ve juggled jobs, families, friends, and their own mental struggles just to be present… for you? Have you considered that they might be a novice?

    Show gratitude.

    GMs provide a service. No, the service may not be perfect. No, the service may not be ideal. However, they are there, for the love of a shared hobby, to provide a service to you… the player. I guarantee you, none of us GMs are sitting on a dragon’s horde worth of gold and GameStop stocks by running games for you. It’s not about the money.

    Be grateful.

    Becoming a Grateful Gamer

    Heeeeey you experienced GMs and players!!! When you find yourself seated to play a game that you’re familiar with, how about asking the GM (prior to start) if they’re in need of additional support? “Hey GM, I run this system all of the time. I love it. Is there any way that I can support you as a player?”

    There is music in my soul when I hear this inquiry. Some GMs may say, “no, thanks.” That’s cool. Me? I’m all over it. I may be insecure about my rule knowledge and recall. It’s a comfort to look across the table and ask, “Hey, what check would you call for here?” I’ve utilized this offer to assist new players navigate their sheets by pairing them up with a Grateful Gamer so that I could keep the story pace. My absolute favorite use of this inquiry? Someone offered me support on the day that I had a family member joining the table who had never tried a TTRPG before. I asked the inquiring player to take care of my cousin, in game, and to help keep him engaged. My cousin had a blast because an experienced player and Grateful Gamer took him under her wing, roleplayed with him, and encouraged him.

    Tell your GM that you love their style. Already did that? Great! Now, tell them again! Show that gratitude and offer that recognition. As Erykah Badu once said, “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” GMs leave themselves vulnerable and exposed when they run games. It’s the cost of providing this service. So, if they did great, share that with them!

    What if there’s room for improvement? Don’t be that Privileged Player who believes that just because you paid for the event that your experience should be beyond reproach. Ask that GM, privately, if they’re open to feedback. Don’t just lay it on them. If the GM is not open to constructive criticism, then go and vent to your home group and friends. If they are open to feedback, lead with a positive, and then be tactful and supportive about the feedback. Giving constructive feedback is a form of exemplifying a Grateful Gamer. Your willingness to lend both your time and experience to help another GM grow shows gratitude.

    Add some positive energy to the gaming experience. People love to be recognized. If the GM stirs you to passion with a riveting speech, inspires you with a colorful combat or haunts you with a terrifying description, tell them. Tell them right that moment. Compliment their delivery. Annnnd don’t stop at the GM. Players have epic moments, brilliant descriptions, clever ideas and fantastic rolls. A quick, “whoa, great kill,” or, “well done,” goes a long way. I promise.

    You know that eternal GM that always, always runs for your group? Step back and ask yourself, and them, if they’re interested in playing while you, or someone else runs. The opportunity might come as a relief to them. Whether they accept or decline, you showed gratitude by offering them an opportunity to step out from behind the screen. If you’re able and comfortable, offer to host. If you have discretionary income, comment your CashApp below so that I may beg for money, and then consider ordering food or a custom GM gift off of Etsy for your favorite GM or the other players.  A player did this once for our home group! He purchased each player at the table a mug with their name and the campaign name on it. I cherish that thing!

    Is your GM on social media or associated with a company or club? Follow them on social media. Engage with their posts. Like, comment, share. We see that. It matters. Have you purchased a product that you love? Leave a review. Drop a rating, even if it’s a Ninja Rating (throwing stars in silence, absent words). Join in on the discussions. Refer your friends! Oftentimes, it’s that very energy that motivates, inspires and fuels us. Sometimes, it’s a desperately needed reminder that we are appreciated.

    Lastly, even when confronting a GM, a fellow player, or deciding to leave a table, you are still capable of showing gratitude. Address your concerns in a sincere, succinct, brief and factual method. Try using, “I feel statements,” versus direct accusations. For example, instead of saying, “I think this game sucks,” try saying, “I feel like this game could be better if we tried this,” or, “I feel like your GM style and my play style don’t mesh.” Don’t attack, blame, or provoke. Oh, and for the loathe of critical failures, please don’t jump down your GM’s throat. We’re human. None of us woke up this morning with the intention of ruining your day. Ultimately, if you’re in a toxic gaming situation, show your gratitude by confronting the situation and/or removing yourself. In order to be a Grateful Gamer, you have to show yourself some grace and gratitude, too.

    In Conclusion…

    Practice showing gratitude in everything that you do on and off the table. Be grateful. You can’t control the GM. You can’t control the players. You can only control  how you react. It may not feel like it, but your attitude can greatly impact the enjoyment of the game, even if it’s not up to your usual epic standards. Remember, “it’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that brings us happiness.”

    What are some other ways that you can be a Grateful Gamer?

    What’s your favorite method of showing gratitude at the table?

    Let us know in the comments!

    Read more »
  • Troy’s Crock Pot: Relax, Plot Resolution Rests with the Players
    Troy’s Crock Pot: Relax, Plot Resolution Rests with the Players

    The most difficult assignment I’ve had in game design remains my contribution to Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to Inspire Game Masters

    It wasn’t the writing. 

    The taxing aspect was formulating the beginning, the middle and then, that most excruciating of parts, the ending

    Whichever one of the 36 dramatic situations served as the framework for that particular plot, it had to have an ending. 

    Finales didn’t have to be grand or spectacular, but some kind of outcome needed to be presented.

    It wasn’t so much that we were prescribing THE ending to a given scenario, but rather, providing a likely or possible outcome. 

    Something even a novice GM could hang their hat on, a point they could reasonably wind things up.

    It’s a laudable goal, completeness — and if you utilize one of those adventures at your table — you’ll be presented with an endpoint. 

    Of course, it’s the one aspect of the assignment that does not fit with my style of gamemastering. 

    Sure, I know how to signal an end to the night. “Let’s wrap this up, folks.” 

    But endings? What are those? When the bad guy is dead or defeated? When the treasure is found? 

    (Or was it No. 17: When the characters discover the dishonor of a loved one?) 

    There’s always another bad guy. Another thread to pull. Another ploy that comes with the next sunrise.

    No, endings are the players’ prerogative. Always have been. Always will. That’s because their choices — usually at two or three choice moments in the course of the narrative — are what truly dictates the outcome.

    Yes, I’m a starting-line GM. Here’s a hook. Here’s a dilemma. Here are some resources. Found a motivation for your character? Great, because it’s time to start. Ready, set … go!

    Now, that hardly absolves me in providing a plot nor anticipating a few possibilities and providing interesting elements along the way.

    I propose that what the GM should be responsible for isn’t the ending, but rather those pivot points during the course of the narrative. 

    Those pivot points are what point the way. 

    OK, so what are pivot points?

    They are decision junctures. Forks in the road. Do we turn left or right? Do we help or hinder?  Do we fight or flee?  Do we look before we leap? Do we contemplate the next move or do we rashly rush in? 

    It’s the scenario that follows that decision point that matters. If it serves the plot and propels the action and the characters forward, that’s what matters. I’m not talking about random encounters, but rather, purposeful, consequential moments. 

    Do that well at three or four places along the way, and I think the ending— whatever desired result emerges —  becomes self-evident to the players as well as the GM. 

    If they have closed in on the villain, let them at ‘em. If they are close to guessing the secret, unveil it. If the unspeakable horror is just behind that door, then by all means, open it.

    If it’s revenge they’re after — here’s their chance.

    It’s their moment, their ending, if they so choose.

    Give it to them. They’ve earned it.


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  • Are You Using Your Game Night Checklist?
    Illustration of a red d20, a GM, and a checklist.


    A move to virtual has had me running many more games than usual. I’ve been refining and honing a few techniques to keep everything moving smoothly and keep track of everything for every game. One simple tool I have come to rely on is my “Game Night Checklist”. It helps me stay focused, on track, and prevents me from getting overwhelmed when I am coming off of a busy workweek or haven’t had time to jump in and prepare as much as makes me feel comfortable.

    What is a game night checklist?

    Let’s codify some definitions before we begin. For me, a game night checklist is a simple, bullet point reminder for myself and all the players of some of the meta elements of the game. It functions like an itinerary for a meeting and makes sure we don’t miss important, repeatable parts of the structure of the game. It helps the players think through some of the elements that help set the tone for the game and it helps the Game Master not miss any pre-game prep steps. It helps give a structure to things so you don’t have to try to force that structure. It offloads the work to a previous you and an external document.

    Basically, a game night checklist functions as an external reminder to keep some of the game elements reliable and standardized between sessions. For me, a Game Night checklist is shared with the players so they have an idea of what you as the GM are doing and covers most of the general easy to forget stuff that isn’t rolling dice, playing out characters, and engaging with the rules system.

    What should be on a game night checklist?

    My current game night checklist is aimed at online play and covers lots of meta options alongside a few specific to the game and architecture of the VTT we are using. That being said, I think every game night checklist should contain the following:

    • Player Pregame Information: Prompts for the players to think about some things as they get ready to play, options they may forget about in your homerules (inspiration, etc.), reminders about interactions / social rules.
    • GM Pregame Information: Make sure you have prepped (preferably in a simple style that is easy to riff off of) what you need to run and improvise, reminders to set up things that may have slipped your mind, a prompt to review your plans and past notes.
    • Game Start: The general things you have set up about getting into the game. Do you chat for a bit? Do meta game stuff? Have pre-game rituals? Putting it here lets the players all be on the same page and remember.
    • Game: Some reminders and prompts for in-game options, such as Always roll 2 dice, one for advantage, move your tokens yourself, always try to click on spell names to throw them in chat, when it isn’t your turn plan next move, pay attention, etc.
    • Game End: Anything about wrapping up the game? Is someone volunteering to write notes? Any notes that need made? How do you award xp? Do you stop 10 minutes before game end time? Do you finish out combats, etc.

    This is my current, generic 5e game night checklist.

    Player Pregame

    • Review how your character works, what you want to bring into play
    • Setup your play space/test out roll20.
    • Think about your character goals, other’s character goals. What are you excited about tonight?
    • Think about the spotlight – How it moves between players, how to share it, how to use it when it’s on you.

    GM Pregame

    • Overview plans for the night (make revisit the 3/3/3) and be ready to throw them out.
    • Set up maps / scenes / options in roll20.
    • Make sure improv elements (tokens, maps, generic stats) are ready.
    • Prep mood lighting – Points of interest (imagine or find a cool image to riff off of).

    Game Start

    • Game soft starts ½ hour early. GM will be online to talk stuff (probably).
    • GM Opens Session notes to type into during game.
    • Meta Business? Housekeeping? What are you excited about?
    • Dole out inspiration points.
    • Review – Review big notes from last session verbally with players
    • The Book Opens, The Tale Begins, The First Die Roll is cast…

    Game (Player Reminders)

    • Don’t forget to move your token.
    • Click on spell names/powers/etc to throw them in chat.
    • Click on the token, then click initiative. If you need to fix it, click in turn order and change.
    • When not your turn, Plan for the next action and try to keep things moving quick

    Game End (about 10 to 15 minutes before close time)

    • Anyone volunteering to write session notes?
    • Make note about Inspiration for next time
    • Award XP (Whole Group same amount)

    GM write up basic session notes.

    Uhh, this is super simple. Why can’t I just get in the habit of doing all this stuff?

    The best-laid plans of players and gms… I’ve always found that getting into and running games brings out the spur of the moment, fly by the seat of my pants parts of my personality. That’s a great help in accommodating player ideas, but it often leaves me a bit disoriented and disjointed as I move along in the game. A game night checklist for many of the meta elements keeps me on track, prevents me from collapsing into exhaustion after the game is done (and ignoring things like writing up session notes), and helps me get my brain on track before the start of the game. It really is offloading a lot of the work that may go into a game to a previous self and helps to set a single vision which you can deviate from and improvise off of, but return to as you need. It’s kind of like a simple meta-safety line you might use when rock climbing.

    Do you use something similar to a Game Night Checklist? What is on yours? What other tools do you use to help structure your game nights?



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  • Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook Review
    Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook Review

    Since I like to wear my biases on my sleeve, before we dive in, I feel I must point out that not only am I a huge fan of superhero media, I’m also an easy mark for superhero properties that build the same kind of deep continuity you find with publishers like Marvel Comics or DC Comics, without having a real publication history. For example, I love the emerging continuity of Green Ronin’s Earth Prime as portrayed in their Mutants and Masterminds products.

    I’m going to try not to retread too much territory from my Sentinel Comics Starter Kit review from 2018, but if you aren’t familiar with the property, Sentinel Comics is the fictitious comic book publisher that produces the comics upon which the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game is based, as well as the Sentinels Tactics miniatures game, The Sentinels of Freedom video game, and the Freedom Five board game. In case all of that doesn’t clue you in, this is a property with a deep sense of history to draw upon.

    I was a Kickstarter backer for this game, and while I received the Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook, as well as the Sentinel Comics Game Moderator Kit, I’m keeping my focus on the core book for this review.

    The Official Who’s Who of the Sentinel Comics Universe

    This review is going to look at both the PDF of Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game, as well as the physical book. The book is 458 pages, and many comics panels serve as examples of play, as well as large, colorful charts, and many symbols and dice images in explanations.

    There are about eight pages of character and villain sheets, some in black and white and some in color. There is a five-page Index/Glossary that summarizes concepts and points the reader towards various sections of the book. There is also a credits page and a separate page for the table of contents.

    Calling this “full color” is not quite as descriptive as it could be. This book has bold, bright colors throughout. Chapters are introduced with huge splash pages of the characters in action. The end pages are amazing, because they contain a collection of comic book covers from (non-existent) comic books across the decades.

    Chapter 1: Introduction 

    The introduction is one of the shorter portions of the book, but it sets up the expectations of the game. It spells out that the following concepts are assumed to be true when playing Sentinel Comics: The Roleplaying Game:

    • Characters are heroic
    • Characters work as a team
    • Personality and principles are important to the game
    • The game assumes a Silver Age comic book tone
    • The game assumes everyone will contribute to the narrative

    In addition to setting expectations, this section explains the structure of the book, as well as introducing the characters that are being used in the comic strip examples included in the following chapters.

    Chapter 2: Playing the Game

    This section introduces the broad strokes of the rules that are used to adjudicate the game. This starts by explaining how stories are broken up into Collections, Issues, and Scenes, which essentially are, using other RPG parlance, story arcs, game sessions, and individual encounters. Scenes break down into the following categories:

    • Action Scenes
    • Social Scenes
    • Montage Scenes

    Action scenes are probably familiar to anyone that has played a roleplaying game with combat resolution. Social scenes may be only roleplaying or may involve some rolls to resolve contentious discussions. Montage scenes are extended scenes that allow a player to pick a single mechanical benefit that happens during that downtime.

    The next part of this chapter uses the character sheet of Legacy to show how different aspects of characters are recorded, including principles, backgrounds, archetypes, powers, qualities, health, and abilities.

    When a character acts, the most important thing is to determine what the goal of the action is. Once this is determined, actions fall into one of the following categories:

    • Attack
    • Overcome
    • Boost/Hinder
    • Defend

    This game system is referred to as the GYRO system, which stands for Green, Yellow, Red, and Out. Character abilities and status dice are based on their status. If either their health, or the scene itself, advances to a new color, those abilities, plus any previous abilities, are available to use. For example, many Red abilities are more effective, but can only be activated when the situation gets dire.

    Characters pick a Power and Quality, rated in dice steps from d6 to d12, plus the character status die. The character usually uses the middle number of the three rolled to resolve the action.

    Something that can be incrementally worn away is usually attacked to remove it from a scene. A situation that requires distinct steps to resolve is approached with an Overcome. Boost or Hinder actions generate a number to hand off to another character to apply to a roll to either help them or penalize their roll. Defending allows a character to roll a die to ablate the damage incoming from others.

    Abilities sometimes modify how this basic structure works, and abilities are marked as either A, R, or I, or Action, Reaction, or Inherent. Abilities that are listed as an Action replace how a standard action is resolved. Reactions can be used once per turn, and Inherent abilities modify or add to the regular way an action is resolved.

    Characters may have to accept a twist to accomplish a goal, or they may accept a twist to gain more than one effect from a single action. Minor twists are short term setbacks or challenges added to a scene, while major twists tend to be long term story complications introduced into the narrative.

    If you have never played Fate, Cortex Plus, or a PbtA game, some of these concepts may not feel familiar, but if you have played some or all the game systems mentioned here, this system very much feels like a unique synthesis of what each of these games does, without feeling too much like any one of them.

    In an action scene, characters will hand off to one another after they take an action, and each opponent in the scene also gets a turn. If the Scene Tracker is being used, on the Scene Tracker’s turn the tracker advances, and any Environment effects happen at that time.

    Characters can be taken out of a scene if their health reaches zero, but a player character never dies unless the character wants their character to die. Each character will have an “Out” ability that they can take, just like the Sentinels of the Multiverse card game. This doesn’t represent your character doing something, per se, but how your character inspires and influences your team. It does give you a choice to make on your turn that influences the current scene.

    Chapter 3: Creating Heroes

    This is an extensive part of the rulebook. This encompasses about 100 pages of the book, and while the actions are simple and easy to adjudicate, there are a lot of different abilities (essentially alternate ways of adjudicating actions) as well as a lot of example twists based on different character choices that the player makes, so that it’s easier to narrow down the kinds of complications that arise in the narrative.

    Effectively, instead of allowing for a free form modification to relatively simple expressions, this section gives lots of very specific tweaks that are thematically tied to the lists under which they are organized.

    The following steps are part of character creation:

    • Background
    • Power Source
    • Archetype
    • Personality
    • Red Abilities
    • Retcon
    • Health
    • Finishing Touches

    While the process itself is linear, there are modifiers in different stages that add different dice ratings to your powers and qualities, give you different options for what dice you can assign to powers and qualities, and give you different abilities with which you can substitute or supplement your standard actions. Because of this, you may end up flipping back and forth a lot in this section when creating a character.

    The section mentions two methods of character creation, guided and constructed. Guided involves rolling randomly on the charts that summarize all the categories for each section of character creation. Constructed involves the player choosing whatever option they would rather have in each section. Regardless of what method you use, the end of each discreet section usually gives you a number of dice that you can use to assign to different powers. For example, at the end of one step, you may get one d10 and two d6 to assign to different powers or qualities.

    The character’s principles will give you a list of possible twists that you can use for your “go-to” consequences. Choices for Background and Archetype will give you different Green and Yellow abilities, with Red abilities, your “clutch” moves, being picked at the end. The Retcon phase of character creation lets you choose a modification to one of your previous choices to customize your character a bit more.

    I appreciate that twists have several examples to draw from, so that players aren’t left entirely on their own to come up with ideas on the fly. I also like that principles and personalities are an important and mechanically reinforced portion of character creation. I like that the abilities you gain from your principles not only trigger the character getting a hero point, but also trigger everyone getting a hero point.

    Character advancement involves grouping and recording story collection, where characters can change their powers or other character details at the end of a character arc, but the overall character power level doesn’t change much. For each collection, however, the character can reflect on that storyline, and use it to retcon a scene that happened between stories, belay minor twists, or modify dice rolls.

    While the individual bits of character creation are simple and easy to understand, because later steps often create more options or modify choices made in previous steps, there can be a lot of flipping back and forth in this section. There is nothing wrong with that, but if your brain works like mine, sometimes you end up looking at a page and wondering why you flipped back to it.

    Chapter 4: Moderating the Game

    This chapter covers all the parts of a game that the Game Moderator will need to juggle. This primarily includes adding elements to scenes, deciding whether to use the scene tracker and environment actions, and how to pace the game.

    One of the best bits of advice in this section is regarding clues and story progression. If characters need a clue, they find it. If there is any randomness, it’s about how prepared the villain is when the PCs arrive, or if the PCs get ambushed, etc.

    In action scenes, especially when the Scene Tracker is being used, there may be objectives that require the Overcome action. For example, an open portal may keep pouring minions into a scene, or civilians may be in danger. If these complications aren’t addressed, characters may end up being hindered, attacked, or find themselves surrounded by more opponents.

    In addition to these pacing and structural bits of advice, this section also addresses topics like teaching the rules, improvising situations that arise, coming up with meaningful choices, and dealing with problem players.

    One of the important concepts that is communicated by this chapter is that the Scene Tracker is meant to introduce the idea that characters must prioritize their actions. It’s rare for characters to fail to do what they want to do, but because time is ticking away, characters must balance introducing twists and ultimate goals before the Scene Tracker advances to the end of its count, at which point the scene resolves in a manner logical for the GM to narrate.

    Chapter 5: The Bullpen

    Different types of challenges and oppositions are introduced in this chapter. One of the challenges discussed is the Doomsday Device. Doomsday devices are noted as something to be used sparingly, and something that will cause a major change to the campaign if they are not subverted. Doomsday Devices have their own turns in the scene, and unlike other challenges, Doomsday Devices usually require multiple stages of resolution. For example, finding a device, disabling a device, and safely dismantling a device might be some steps of a Doomsday Device resolution.

    Opposition comes in three “sizes,” minions, lieutenants, and villains. Instead of having a dice pool, minions and lieutenants are represented with a single die, and may have an ability that modifies the single die under a narrow circumstance — for example, +2 when resisting damage or attacking. Minions degrade a die type each time they are attacked, meaning that once they degrade from a d6, they are out of the scene. Lieutenants roll to resist damage, and if successful, they don’t degrade. If they degrade under a d6, they are also removed from a fight.

    Villains are built more like player characters, although not in the exact same way. Villains are built from Approaches and Archetypes, which present a list of abilities as well as health levels appropriate for the villain type. In addition to the health from both choices, the final amount of health for the villain is determined by the number of players in the game.

    I appreciate that the text discusses that the same villain in different stories might change their approach or their archetype. Billionaire Lex might be a Mastermind/Inventor when confronted in his high-rise office, but supervillain team leader Lex might be a Tactician/Squad villain, despite being the same person. This means that some approaches and archetypes might work better with or without allies. This also means that the status die that the villain is using may not always be based on their health, but on how well they are performing their villainous approach.

    Not all villains have these, but singular villains might also pick an ability from the Villain Upgrades, and the Villainous Mastery charts. Upgrades often add more health as well as giving the villain the option for more abilities, but almost all the Villainous Mastery abilities are Inherent abilities. These are good additions to add to the villain when heroes have run into them multiple times over the course of a campaign.

    Environment options are also presented, for example, creating Green, Yellow, and Red abilities and twists for different types of environments. Unlike minions or lieutenants, environments usually have three different aspects with different die ratings for the environment to roll when the environment takes its action. While environments can’t be defeated like villains, sometimes there are Overcome options for shutting down some environmental conditions or abilities.

    Chapter 6: Adventure Issues

    This chapter includes two sample adventures for the game. The first adventure is a short scenario that, by default, is designed for the pre-generated Daybreak team of young superheroes.

    Battle of the Bands is a fun scenario that involves the team stumbling over a plot by a team of supervillains who are also a heavy metal band, detailing the five supervillains that are part of the team. Much of the action involves keeping the crowd safe while recovering some stolen technology enhancing the villain team’s performance.

    A Conspiracy of Clones is an adventure with a bigger scope, dealing with a supervillain that has a world-spanning plot that will require the PCs to deal with minions, find a lair, and confront the villain and his allies. The adventure also has notes on expanding this into a jumping-off point for a larger campaign arc. This adventure doesn’t assume a specific team of heroes, just a starting location.

    Chapter 7: The Archives

    The archives present several existing heroes from Sentinel Comics, as well as example minions and lieutenants, villains, and environments. The background information for these characters tells the general story of the setting as it stands now. This is a superhero setting that has just survived a major, multiverse shaking event, and the premier superteam has just opened a new school for training the next generation of heroes. This is a good starting point for an RPG setting, because it merges new, not previously established heroes, with a world that still has some damage to repair from a major event.

    Most of the characters presented are associated with the previous Freedom Five/current Sentinels of Freedom, their training campus, and the city of Megalopolis. There are a few entries that move beyond this baseline, although many of those entries are still tangentially associated with the Sentinels of Freedom (for example, Mordengrad, Heritage’s nemesis Baron Blade’s native country).

    There are eight iconic solo villains, three supervillain teams, seven categories of minions and lieutenants, and about six different established environments.

    When I saw the size of this book, I thought there would be more detailed heroes, villains, and environments. I didn’t realize quite how much space hero, villain, and environment creation were going to take up. As someone that has been listening to the Letters Page, the podcast where the creators of Sentinel Comics discuss the history they have devised for the setting, I almost felt as if the selling point would really be the deep lore dive.

    There are a couple of reasons why I’m not disappointed in this development. I walked through character creation and played a short (solo) scene, and it helped me to realize how compelling the character elements can be. It showed me how robust this is as an engine for superhero stories with the same assumptions even without being tied to the property. Additionally, showing brand new players just how much history exists in the setting in the core book might be a bit . . . intimidating. The story of the Sentinels of Freedom and Megalopolis is a nice, constrained story that implies a wider superhero world, without providing too much minutia.

    That said, I’ll probably be jumping on any setting books that come out in the future.

    Cast Off Lesser Things and Embrace the Light

    The core resolution system is easy to grasp, and the combination of Powers, Qualities, Abilities, and Principles works very well to add flavor to individual mechanical building blocks. There is a wide range of comic book tropes covered in this book, facilitating the ability to actualize a wide range of character concepts.

    The Scene Tracker is what really helps to pull all these concepts together and sets this game apart from other supers RPGs. The immediacy of action and the need to prioritize actions is an aspect of superhero comics that rarely comes through in RPG mechanics.

    The Moon Grows Closer with Your Every Breath
    The mechanics build in the importance of making split-second decisions, and the addition of twists can cause a simple narrative to explode into a memorable scene.

    It’s strange to cite something as both a benefit and a hindrance, but because there are so many examples of powers, power sources, motivations, personality types, and abilities, it’s very easy to find yourself bouncing back and forth through the book when making a character, or when the game facilitator is building a major villain. In a perfect world, this is the kind of RPG content that could be facilitated by a nice web application.

    This probably won’t be an issue for most players, but if you assume that this book is going to be your guide to everything Sentinel Comics, this book is only going to lightly touch on a few aspects of the very, very detailed setting.

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

    If you are the type of gamer that prefers your RPGs as simulators of a world where some people have superhuman abilities, and they may be superheroes, this game may not appeal to you. It very much models the pacing and tropes of sequential storytelling. This is a game that is concerned with modeling what would happen in a comic book featuring that same storyline.

    The good news is, if you are the type of person that really wants to seize upon the pacing and the feeling of how a comic book story unfolds, this game does all of that phenomenally well. The mechanics build in the importance of making split-second decisions, and the addition of twists can cause a simple narrative to explode into a memorable scene.

    Would you rather have rules that help you model a world, and then apply your own scenarios to those rules, or would you rather play to the tropes and conventions of a genre right from the start? What games do you feel emulate genres well? What games do you think provide a solid, flexible framework for applying multiple genres? We would love to hear from you, so leave your thoughts below!

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