- Tapping an Old Vein
About a year and a half ago, I was in one of my local used book stores searching for ancient tomes. While perusing the shelves, I stumbled across a large collection of books by the same author: David Eddings. He hit it big in the 1980s and had quite a prolific career through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. During these decades, he was a staple for fantasy readers, and his books came highly recommended to me for this entire time.
However, somehow I’d missed the Eddings boat. I knew of his works and how highly people talked about them, but I never did delve into his lengthy catalog… until now. When I came across the solid row of David Eddings books on that shelf, I knew I had to have them. I picked up all of them before anyone else could snatch them from my grasp. A credit card transaction later, I had a paper bag packed with what I hoped would be wonderful fantasy tales.
I don’t regret the purchase. It took me a few months to finish up the current read, and then I dove headfirst into the Belgariad series. Five books later (and a year later), I came up for air from one of the greatest tales I’ve read in a very, very long time.
This spawned some ideas for me on the role playing front.
I’ve been a player in a few games that were “based on the book by
” and we always seemed to have a blast living in those worlds. I’m not talking a direct translation of book-to-game (like The Dresden Files or similar games), but using a system to live out the events and times from a book. The key game I’m thinking about was run by a good friend of mine, Bill. He took a space opera game and setting and translated it into the Alternity RPG. We did our best to fight the Von Neumann machines that were eating our part of the galaxy. Along the way, we encountered key characters from the novel, came into contact with cultures and people that were taken whole-cloth from the book, and saw (and sometimes changed) events that occurred during the course of the original author’s story.
Even though we knew we were “living in a borrowed world,” we had a blast. I think there are some key take aways that I have from that lengthy space opera campaign that I could apply to emulating the events, people, places, and world of the Belgariad in a fantasy game I want to run.
Leverage the Setting as a Character
I think to capture the true feel of a novel or series, the setting needs to feel like a character. It needs to feel lived in and experienced and ready to take action in response to the PCs actions. If the GM can give the flavor of the setting (or the parts the PCs will interact with), then the level of immersion for the players will increase exponentially.
In the Belgariad books, there are numerous maps of the different areas the characters move through. I’m pretty sure I could find those maps all stitched together in one large map. Even if I couldn’t find such a thing, I can easily put the maps in the books to use. My approach would be to pick a nation (I’d probably start in Sendar), and drop the PCs there as a starting point. I’d make Sendar as real as I could by borrowing flavor and text from Eddings to set things up and give the area that realistic texture that it needs.
Bump into Key Characters
While in Sendar, I’d have the PCs travel through Faldor’s Farm (which is where the whole Belgariad series starts), but I wouldn’t make Garion or Aunt Pol or Durnik or any of the other Really Important People From The Book a focal point. Sure, they’d be there, but they’d be side characters to the main story.
To keep the spotlight off of these various main characters, I would amp up the focus on NPCs of my own creation that fit within the location. Of course, while at the inn at Faldor’s Farm, the PCs would see the scullery boy and his aunt with the white-striped, raven-black hair, but at this point the boy (Garion) is just a young lad who scrubs pots and makes messes. Likewise, Aunt Pol (aka; Polgara) is just the kitchen’s cook who has some mysterious past that no one is aware of.
By allowing the PCs to “bump into” the main characters of the story, the players who know the tale will get that Easter egg moment and that will increase their enjoyment. If a player hasn’t read the books yet, then if they do turn to the novels down the road, they’ll have their own sweet memories of how their character interacted, even if it was briefly, with Aunt Pol or Garion or Old Wolf or any number of other important characters from the stories.
Witness Important Events
With the Belgariad being five books long, there are plenty of awe-inspiring events that come to be, and many of them happen in front of other people. What would happen if the PCs are in a place to witness, perhaps alter, a key event in the book? Would this change the story? Probably. Does it matter that your story is different from Edding’s efforts? Not one bit. This is your turn to play in the author’s playground. You and your group are not committed to marching lockstep with the author’s words.
This next bit is a tad spoilery, but the books have been out for decades, so I don’t feel compelled to hold back. In the fourth book (Castle of Wizardry), Ce’Nedra dons armor and raises an army. At this point Ce’Nedra is betrothed to Garion, but is still very much a spoiled young woman of noble descent. She’s demanding and hard to be around, but something changes in her during the course of this book that makes her quite a bit more admirable. If the PCs are nearby Ce’Nedra when she and Polgara work together to raise the army, they could witness (or even be swept up in) the building of a massive army that follows Ce’Nedra’s every move.
Make It Your Own
I’m pretty sure I said this before when I talked about The Expanse and adopting the books and/or TV show to your own gaming table, but I feel it’s work expressing again. Make the world and characters your own. Put them to use at your gaming table and make them work for you. You’re not beholden to the tale Eddings has already put forth in the world.
Go out and tap a vein from an old story and see what gold you can mine from the mountain.Read more »
- Camdon Turned Me Into a Vampire Part 3–Fimbulwinter
Over the last two months, I’ve been looking at the game Thousand Year Old Vampire, by Tim Hutchings. It is a journaling game that you play by recording facts about your character, then rolling dice to answer prompts. These prompts may make you change some of those facts. You have a limited number of memories, and eventually, you have to fight to remember everything that you once were.
Camdon Wright, amazing fellow gnome and game designer extraordinaire, is the one that first asked if I would be interested in looking at this game, and as I’ve never played a journaling game like this before, I was very curious to see what would happen.
Holding Back the Years
As a refresher, my vampire was Jorgrimr, a Viking mercenary who helped secure Kiev around 1000 CE. Jorgrimr was turned into a vampire by a mysterious black wolf, fled Kiev, moved to Germany, and adopted the name Wolfhart.
While he violently clashed with a rival’s troops and fed on them, in his new life, Wolfhart met a girl named Kisaiya, and found a cure for her blood ailment by researching the Blood of Czernobog. He’s feeling pretty human for the first time in about 50 years.
This is going to get messy.
I don’t get too graphic in this chapter, but there is still a lot of violence, reference to severed body parts, and a general disdain for human compassion on the rise, so if that isn’t your thing, please continue accordingly.
This prompt tells me that I fall asleep for 100 years, and must strike out any mortal characters on my character sheet.
Wolfhart begins to chronicle who he is and what he has accomplished. Foremost on his mind is his arrival in Kiev, his family, Kisaiya, and his invention of the elixir that cured her. He is tired from his work with the mortals, but almost feels human again.
When he awakens, Kisaiya and his work, even who he was, is like a dream that he can only remember when he reads his diary. When he finds out how long he has slept, he realizes Kisaiya, Anichka, Ranssi, even Konstantine are all long gone.
He wants to mourn, but he doesn’t know why.
Wolfhart creates a Diary, and moves a memory to that Diary. All his mortal Characters are gone.
The prompt tells me that my Diary has been damaged, and I have to remove three nouns from the Diary.
Wolfhart spends another 100 years in a blur. Everything is like a dream. He feels nothing. He does the bare minimum to maintain what he has. He haunts Germany, and when he finally realizes how much time has passed, and what he must do to maintain his estate, he realizes he has neglected his Diary.
He cannot remember the girl he saved with the elixir. He cannot remember his father’s name. The ink is smudged in the diary. He does not even remember the city where he won his glory.
Why am I going through the motions of this long unlife?
This prompt tells me that generations have passed, and I wake up covered in dust. I lose a resource to determine how I escape.
The remnants of the house guard of Wolfhart’s estate, the children of his mercenary company, loot the estate that they once guarded. They set fire to the home under which Wolfhart was buried after an unfortunate rockslide trapped him in the caverns under the manor. After the fire burns away the passages, the rocks fall away, and he realizes that he has lost even more time to his carelessness. He must get control again. He must not let time keep sliding away like sand through his fingers.
He forgets everything about his old love. He knows she existed. Or maybe she was a dream. Has he ever known love?
Wolfhart strikes out his memory of Anichka and his earliest friends. Wolfhart strikes out “My Loyal Troops” as a resource.
This prompt tells me that I gain a creative skill based on a lost memory due to timeless introspection.
Wolfhart is sure he loved at one point in time. He reads poetry and stories of doomed lovers. He learns to write his own stories, and shares those stories with others. He feels the shadow of something he once knew, and he is even less sure that he ever truly knew love. Can the written word cast such a spell on the mind?
Wolfhart gains the Writer of Love Stories skill.
This prompt tells me to check a skill to avoid arrest, and if necessary, create a mortal character to take the blame for your crimes.
Gregor Langstrom is a “monster hunter,” using Karina Strausshammer’s inventions to fight the supernatural. He is getting closer to Wolfhart. Wolfhart does not want to feed on the people reading his books, but he can’t make himself care about the real people as much as he cares about the people he makes up in his stories.
The authorities close in on Wolfhart, so he manages to frame Langstrom as a crazed, obsessive zealot, killing people that were reading “perverse” books, and undermining society’s moral framework.
The prompt tells me to bond with an ancient enemy Character, checking a skill to become friends, and sharing a resource with them to gain a shared resource from them.
Wolfhart is increasingly annoyed with humans. They feel so ephemeral compared to the people he writes about. His stories speak of epic people that live life on purpose, not weak-willed folk that don’t appreciate beauty or the thrill of living. They might as well be dead.
Wolfhart decides to find his “origin,” to track down the Black Wolf. He uses his skill at ambushing others to trap the wolf, but he doesn’t kill it, as he once fantasized. Instead, he feeds it half the Heart of Czernobog, while eating the other half. He wants the Old Gods back in the world, and he wants to know if the Son can become the Father.
The Black Wolf feasts with him, and shares control of the Great Pack with Wolfhart.
Wolfhart checks the Ambush skill, and shares the Heart of Czernobog. He gains access to the Great Pack resource.
Prompt #19I don’t know that I will ever truly sleep again . . . I may only lie awake in the dark, in my mockery of a life, waiting to journal again.
This prompt tells me that I am physically trapped in a place from which I can never be rescued, and asks me to come up with what I think about for the first thousand years. It informs me that the game is over.
Wolfhart feels no kinship with the mortals any longer. It has been too long since he had a friend. Wolfhart has the pack now, and he rampages, destroying Strosshammer’s new society that is spreading across Europe. He will single-handedly turn back the clock and make mortals live by the sword and their wits again.
Then, the Black Wolf turns on Wolfhart. This is a Europe rife with possible worshippers. Wolfhart has served his purpose, and the Black Wolf drops him into the Void of Czernobog, a place of darkness between worlds. Because Wolfhart shared the feast of Czernobog’s Heart, he will always have a feeling of what the world is like, moving on without him. For a thousand years, Wolfhart hears the prayers of the faithful in the Black Wolf’s ears, but Wolfhart shares the hunger that he obsesses over, unable to feed.
The Black Wolf thinks about Wolfhart’s hunger, and he becomes a mad god, one that demands as much sacrifice of flesh as of will. In this way, at least, Wolfhart knows he continues to shape the world from the void. Or does he?
Is this all a dream? Is this Niffelheim? Did you die all those years ago, when the wolf bit you? You are so hungry. You are so cold. But you must be still affecting the world. Surely you wouldn’t lie in the cold, eternal winter, having lost your greatest battle, unmourned and unremembered.
Thoughts On An Unlife Well Lived
I really enjoyed this process. Now that I have a taste of journaling games, I think that I may have been transformed. I may have to feed on more of them. I don’t know that I will ever truly sleep again . . . I may only lie awake in the dark, in my mockery of a life, waiting to journal again.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This has been an unorthodox journey of a review process, but if you enjoy wondering exactly what you would do in challenging situations, I think you are going to find a lot of worth-while material in Thousand Year Old Vampire.
I’ll be honest, I’m kind of worn out after that roller coaster spiral that my vampire went into at the end. It took a lot out of me to try to do the story justice, but I also really enjoyed the process.
Do you have any other journaling games you would recommend? What was your experience with them, and what kind of emotional charge did you have after completing them? We want to hear about your experiences below!Read more »
- The Indie Game Shelf: Dialect
Welcome to The Indie Game Shelf! Each article in this series will highlight a different small press roleplaying game to showcase the wide variety of games available. Whether you’re new to the hobby and looking to see what’s out there or you’re a veteran gamer looking for something new, I hope The Indie Game Shelf always holds something fun for you to enjoy!
Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies
Dialect by Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu (Thorny Games) is a GMless(-ish) roleplaying story game designed for 3 to 5 players to explore the story of a community’s rise and fall in a one-shot session. The story is told from the points of view of specific, persistent characters and uses the community’s own unique branch of language to tell the tale. The game is, if not wholly card-based, then at least card-driven, and it requires both the core game rules and a special deck of cards used throughout play.
There is a caveat attached previously to the term “GMless” because although the structure and mechanisms of the game do not distinguish between different player roles, the game does ask one player to act as “Facilitator” to clarify rules, maintain order during play, and adjudicate at the table if needed. The role is logistical, however—truly earning the moniker “Facilitator”—and does not confer special narrative authority.
Dialect is, as the text itself makes explicit, a game about language. More specifically, it examines the development of a unique regional language form (the titular “dialect”) and its eventual extinction. The textual content of the game’s story is of a particular community or segment of a larger society that has been separated from its parent culture, but the game also provides for examination of what is lost when a language dies. The specifics of the setting are not dictated by the game and are decided upon as the first steps of play of each session (with each session of Dialect designed to tell a self-contained story). Players do also each create and play their own characters in this setting to tell the community’s story.
The arc of a session of Dialect spans the birth and death of an isolated community. Over the course of this story, a unique language is created piece by piece by players adding words and phrases to the characters’ shared vocabulary that only they understand. Roleplaying scenes make use of these new words to explore characters’ relationships with the community and each other. The story arc is divided into “ages,” and the transitions between ages also explore the way in which the community itself changes over time. Finally, the endgame examines the end of the community, the death of its language, and the implications of both to the outside world.
The frameworks for the settings in Dialect are outlined in structured playsets called Backdrops. While each Backdrop provides some information about the setting a session of Dialect will take place in, much of what the Backdrop offers are questions to be answered during the game, so even two games of Dialect using the same Backdrop are likely to turn out very differently. Even so, four core Backdrops and a dozen more contributed Backdrops are available in the core rules. In addition, Backdrops adhere to an easy-to-follow structure, and there is an entire appendix in the rules to guide you to constructing your own, so there is no shortage of ways different sessions of Dialect can be played.
At the start of a session, the players collaboratively come up with three Aspects, two of which are guided by the Backdrop and one of which is completely open-ended. The Backdrop also provides a series of Community Questions which further guide the players in explaining more detailed characteristics of the completed setting, called an Isolation. It is in this Isolation that the story of a session of Dialect takes place.Sharing a story with others is what roleplaying games are all about, but sharing a unique language with others is what makes this game truly stand out.Once the Isolation is created and named, each player then creates their own character for the story. Character creation involves choosing an Archetype card provided in the game deck. The Archetype provides brief prompts describing the character’s role in the community, how community members regard them, and the character’s relationships to various Aspects of the Isolation.
While the creation of the Isolation and the Characters form the setup of the session, the core loop of the game involves the creation of words and use of them in character conversations. The story told in a session of Dialect is divided into three Ages, and each Age is divided into Turns. In each Turn, a player Makes a Connection by relating a Language Card from their hand to one of the Isolation’s Aspects. The Language Card generally prompts by supplying an object, event, concept, or some other item for which the community will develop new language. Collaboratively, a new word is constructed to fulfill this linguistic need, and then a conversation is held between characters, again prompted by the Language Card. Some Language Cards may be special Action Cards that modify this usual mode of play. For example, special actions may include coming up with a nickname for someone, narrowing or expanding a word’s meaning, or even a player coming up with a new word on their own using special rules. Action Cards are, however, still followed by an in-character conversation using that turn’s new word. Throughout gameplay, words and information about the Isolation are recorded and arranged in a Language Tableau, a common area assembled from index cards that represents the culture of the Isolation and how it has evolved.
As the story progresses from Age to Age, the Backdrop provides information and questions for the players to answer about how the Isolation is changing. Each Backdrop includes two Pathways, each of which guides a different story about the community’s rise and fall. As play proceeds, one of these Pathways is followed through the Backdrop, and the story of the Isolation proceeds as the Backdrop prompts are answered by the players. Language Cards are also keyed to different Ages in the story, so as play continues, the selection of possible Language Cards also changes to reflect the Isolation’s approaching end. After the third and final Age, Legacy Cards have players choose a prompt on which to base an Epilogue they narrate about the Isolation’s impact on the world at large.
I’m including a special additional section to this edition of The Indie Game Shelf to share a little more information about what this game book contains besides, well, a game. In support of the game itself, besides the aforementioned instructions for constructing a custom Backdrop, there is also a quite comprehensive guide to inventing completely new words from scratch without using an existing language as a base. There is also an entire chapter devoted to actions and exercises designed to foster sustaining languages in our own world, including other games you can play!
I personally find the book a delight. It features a crisp, striking layout and attractive and evocative full-page art pieces between sections. Rules explanations are supplemented with easy-to-follow play examples and illustrations, and it is clear that in addition to the game rules, the designers also put a lot of thought into the play culture and safety they think will result in the best experiences with this game.
Finally, playing the game adds a little something more than the usual exciting stories and fond memories that come from most roleplaying games. The act of constructing and sharing a whole new language creates not only a unique play experience with each session but also something special that continues to link players to each other long after the game session is over. Sharing a story with others is what roleplaying games are all about, but sharing a unique language with others is what makes this game truly stand out.
Dialect is available from Thorny Games in digital format as well as in both standard and deluxe physical form. Dialect is a terrific and unique game; so much so that I have difficulty listing similar titles to explore. The designers are trained linguists, and so for games along similar themes to Dialect, I heartily recommend checking out the rest of the Thorny Games catalog, which includes Sign, a parlor LARP in which players do not speak and invent a whole new form of sign language, and the upcoming Xenolanguage, a game of deciphering an alien language and how that experience changes how you see the world.
If you’ve got something on your shelf you want to recommend as well, let us know in the comments section below. Let’s fill our shelves together!
- You Can’t Build Worlds by Yourself
Your world is basic as all hell.
Mine is too, don’t worry about it.
As a GM, I’ve been working on my own homebrew setting for several years. As GM veterans and aspirants, you all likely have one of your own or are at least thinking about the one you might make in the future. As creators and storytellers, it’s somewhat inevitable to imagine ‘what would a world I make look like?’ For some, they might spend their lifetime building upon a single world and constantly adding to its depth. For others, they might have made a new world for each and every campaign. But more often than not, these worlds are made in the confines of our laptops and notebooks, something we build in secrecy by our lonesome. While we may come out and talk about our world to our friends, I’ve seen many a GM recoil when suggestions concerning it come out. After spending so long nurturing it, it can feel like whiplash when others provide feedback. Many builders here continue to work on it, alone.
But a sword does not take shape until it is hammered by steel and whet by stone.
This is not to say your world sucks; it could be deep and expansive, with long histories and family lineages tracing back hundreds and thousands of years. It could have dozens of quirky npcs, races, and cultures. However, I posit that unless you’re developing it with the opinions and voices of many others, it’s a world that’s going to be entirely dyed by your preferences. A world written entirely by yourself is like painting with a single color: you can have a single red square on a white canvas be worth $15 mil at some art gallery, but it doesn’t change that it’s basic as all hell.
Our biases, interests, and preferences are hard to separate entirely from our work. If you happen to prefer swords or have consumed a large amount of media that features swords, you’re far more likely to have cool and magical swords as relics over any other weapon in your world. If you were heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings, you probably have an idea of elves and dwarves that’s hard to shake. If you happen to like Terry Pratchett, you’re far more likely to be interested in weird, or in other words gonzo, fantasy and—by extension—Old School Revival(OSR) systems.
We are already the product of many different sources of influence, that’s just how we are. However, despite all that, we’re still limited in that all that information goes through filter after filter of our preferences. We keep what we like, toss what we don’t, and can’t fully capture the nuances of all the content we absorb. We’re all a collection of those preferences and biases, so how can we imagine a nuanced world when the only point of view we have is our own?
“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.”
― Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters
The magic of others
There’s this system, Microscope, that works in one part tabletop, two parts world-building engine. Between a group of players, you begin by deciding how the world starts and ends, then take turns filling in the various ages and events in-between. When I played it, my friends and I created a world where a giant hole to hell opened up in New York’s Time Square, which then ended when everyone on Earth was a demon. Personally I had a timeline in my head where the demons rose up and fought an excruciatingly long war with the humans, and that we’d detail a large number of the battles that happened in-between.
On my turn, I progressed that story.
But then the humans turned magical girls happened.
And the demons were friendly.
And more holes opened up and the demons monetized an intercontinental wormhole subway which led to a nomadic and free-love otherwise unheard of.
I was constantly face to face with scenarios I never would have expected and had my ideas responded to through angles I never would have imagined. We eventually created a world that had magical girl armies building on the moon, demons slowly integrating with human society (and so each generation had more demon blood), and with one lone immortal Japanese ramen chef forced to cater to weeaboo magical girls for all eternity. He was literally the last full-human to ever exist.
If you’ve GM’d before, you’re likely used to this feeling. No, not the magical girls and such, but the feeling when something is going ‘off the rails’ in a manner that you’re honestly 100% okay with. When you realize you have no idea what’s going to happen and suddenly you need to improvise your butt off and, while it’s nerve-wracking, it’s exhilarating because you want to see where this it’s all going. Ultimately this is where I end up feeling the most alive in tabletops. When once I finally pull away from the moment I can’t help but laugh and wonder ‘wait, just how the heck did we get here?’ I’m okay with that in the end because, at that moment, I’m fully aware that I alone wouldn’t have been able to come up with the idea in a hundred years.[There was] one lone immortal Japanese ramen chef forced to cater to weeaboo magical girls for all eternity.
Alone, your world is unlikely to have that degree of complexity.
In another example, I’m currently playing a Fantasy AGE game where I’ve allowed the players to go all out with character creation. Fantasy AGE, in particular, has this race called the ‘half-blooded’ which allows characters to derive ancestry from literally EVERY monster in the bestiary. The game also has strong support for mixed-raced characters, allowing you to do things like half-human/half-dwarf. Combine that with half-blooded, however, and we’ve got wacky combinations like dwarf/gargoyle, gnome/carnivorous tree, or—through utilizing half-blooded/half-blooded—something like ooze/mothman.
I know. I had apprehensions too, but bear with me.
Obviously there was no bloody way I was going to spend a bunch of time trying to figure out all the reasons why this worked, or what the various cultures behind those mixes would be like. So from the very beginning, I went with one rule for my players:
“You all have the final say about your culture.”
Not even two sessions in and I suddenly get a wide variety of stories I couldn’t have dreamed of. The gnome/carnivorous tree goes on an entire creation myth about the world starting with a gnome and a tree, and therefore through a complicated family tree, all gnomes and trees and distantly related. We spent nearly an hour in a session brainstorming about dwarf/gargoyle culture and how they harden over time into diamond, so elderly gargoyles need to be protected by the younger ones from poachers, and how their burial grounds are effectively El Dorado’s but with statues of diamond made from grandma.
And here I am, the GM, just throwing bonus exp out left and right for their amazing roleplay and world-building. I’m honestly worried they’re going to level up too fast, but I can’t not reward them for all this.
Where I’m going with this
Let me say this again: even if you make your world by yourself, it’ll be fine. Despite everything I’ve said here, you’ll likely create an interesting world that your players will enjoy. To be honest, the opening line was mostly out of shock factor.
But I wasn’t kidding with the rest of it. A world written alone might be a great reflection of your imagination, but I don’t believe it’ll truly be a world one could call complex. Our own world might currently be going through several crises but it’s beautifully complex and built over centuries of conflict and collaboration, where many minds made their mark upon it over and over. We still find pieces to this day that can completely and radically change how we see the past.
Meanwhile, for most worlds, it’s often just a single lost ancient civilization, tops.
I think there’s a lot more we can do for world-building that can drastically improve the quality of worlds we make and the games we run, but I’ll save that for another article.
~Di, signing outRead more »
- Afterlife–Wandering Souls Review
Death often defines the RPGs that we play, even when we don’t realize it. The style of gameplay of many games is determined by the frequency of character death, but even in games where that isn’t a consideration, the absence of character death is often a consideration in reinforcing the tone and themes of a game.
Instead of death being an aspect of the wider game, the game I’m reviewing today is entirely about death, and what comes after. Today, we’re looking at Afterlife—Wandering Souls, a game about finding out who you were in life, now that you are dead.
The Book of the Dead
This review is based on the PDF for the game, which is 153 pages long. This includes a two-page character sheet and a single page index at the back of the book. The book itself has clear headers and table entries, but saying that feels like I’m definitely underselling this book.
When I say this book has full-color art, I mean there are gorgeous borders on each page, as well as full-page chapter illustrations, and various half-page illustrations for various entries in the book. Vibrant flowers contrast with grey skulls and characters that encompass both extremes in appearance throughout the book.
Traveling the Dark
The book begins with an explanation of the setting of the game. The Tenebris is shadowy real that isn’t the afterlife that you should have reached. It’s kind of a strange world between worlds, where the player characters aren’t natives.
Player characters are Wanderers, trying to collect Resonance to unlock memories that lead to Death Marks, which appear on their skin once they have had a Break that allows them to reintegrate a memory. Enough Death Marks, and the character can find their way out of the Tenebris and into their intended afterlife.
If they gain too much Stagnation, they become Unrequited, characters that have lost their will to move out of the Tenebris and find their intended afterlife. Characters remember very little about their past lives, and are attempting to find out who they were, before moving Beyond. There is more on Mirages, Limbos, and the people native to the Tenebris later on in the book.
By this point in the book, I was already greatly intrigued at what this kind of surreal journey through the spaces between life and death would look like, and this is a great, evocative chapter to bait the hook.
Characters have a stat for Body, Mind, and Soul. They have Attributes linked to each of these core stats, that represent a specialization in applying that core stat.
In addition to attributes, characters have pools derived from adding a core stat to an attribute. One pool is Concept, and the other is Vitality. Concept can be spent to gain special results when that pool is relevant to what is being done, such as spending points to generate a success on your roll, or to add a success to an allies check. The Vitality pool represents how well you resist stress to the relevant area—for example, Health represents physical well-being, Hunger represents want (more on this later), and Will represents your ability to carry on.
Health and Will function as you might expect—zero out your pool and you may need to accept a consequence or you die (again, and permanently this time) or you start gaining Stagnation and eventually become an NPC that doesn’t have the motivation to find out who you are or your final afterlife any longer. You can save yourself from permanent death by giving up Will, and if you zero out Health or Will, you suffer a memory.
Hunger is interesting, because it can track you having your basic needs met, but you can also spend from this pool to buy things, representing you giving up your potential to sustain yourself to secure an item. This is what you do instead of tracking any kind of wealth. If you zero out your Hunger, you start taking Health damage until you aren’t quite so destitute anymore.
When characters fill up their Resonance track, they gain Death Marks, and Death Marks allow characters to pick up abilities like Tricks, which can lower the difficulty of certain tasks. Characters also have an Approach, which is a manifestation of the character’s self. This manifestation is either a Bow, a Shield, or a Sword, and each one gives benefits to checks in different situations. Characters can also have Talents, which are very much like Feats or Stunts from other games—a discreet ability that modifies the game rules in specific circumstances.
While Death Marks and Approaches are manifestations of who the Wanderers are, Wanderers can also obtain Curiosa, items that have a level from 1 to 3 that can increase damage or reduce difficulty when used in an appropriate circumstance.
Making checks involves rolling a pool of d6s derived from adding a Core Stat to an Attribute (with potential bonuses from other aspects of the character), and counting certain numbers as successes. The GM sets difficulties, and when the PCs fail, Things Get Worse, which means that the action in the scene escalates, or the PCs take damage to one of their Vitality pools. The GM never rolls dice.
Two things in particular jump out at me in this design. I am interested to see how the flow of Hunger works as both a substitute for tracking currency and for measuring the “needs” of a character. I’m an easy mark for anything that tracks wealth or resources in a new way. I also like that failure isn’t just failure, it is always escalation. I feel like this is a long term legacy of games derived from Apocalypse World, and a key component to game design that doesn’t involve the GM rolling dice or using the rules that work in a parallel manner to the player facing mechanics.
This chapter details the assumed course of play in a game session. Characters are traveling across the Tenebris and interact with the inhabitants. They find Limbos, which are special “pocket dimensions” where they can gain Resonance. When they gain enough Resonance, they can suffer a Break, which allows them to unlock a Death Mark, which moves them closer to their Requiem, their final trip to their intended afterlife.
Characters can mark XP for each Things Get Worse result that comes up, and these can be used to advance attributes. XP can also be marked by answering questions at the end of a session. Death Marks and their associated abilities are only unlocked through interacting with Limbos and gaining Resonance.
In each Limbo, a character can claim something in that Limbo as a Fragment, a powerful link to a memory that immediately triggers a Break and creates a Death Mark for them. This can only happen once per Limbo, and the same character can’t claim a Fragment in a Limbo until everyone else in the group has done so.
I like the idea of characters being able to name their own fragments and have the agency to say when they will experience a Break and what about that memory helps them to remember who they are. It is a nice interaction between the surreal nature of the setting and player agency to allow this kind of declaration, and I like that the built-in mechanics address who can claim a fragment and when, to keep people from dominating a trip into a Limbo.
World, Mirages, and Limbos
The next three chapters detail the settings and give examples of existing people and places in the Tenebris. Mirages are established settlements in the Tenebris, usually populated by people that are native to the Tenebris itself, rather than wandering souls that are either looking to travel Beyond, or have given up that quest.
Limbos are strange pocket dimensions that hold Resonance that the Wanderers need to unlock their memories and gain Death Marks. Limbos tend to be even stranger and more thematic than the Mirage settlements in the Tenebris.
These chapters introduce some of the hazy mythology of the setting, including the giant serpents that live under the sands of the Tenebris and that were present at the dawn of creation.
There are native people of the Tenebris, such as:
- The Kiin (human appearing, but born to this world)
- The Nagiin (serpentine natives of the Tenebris that see themselves as heirs of the giant serpents)
- Venefolk (multi-armed near humans with a talent for Magick)
- Usurii (small, spiritual bearfolk)
- Ungkiin (hooved humanoids subdivided between satyrs and centaurs)
There are also the other Wanderers as well as the Unrequited
The Wanderers have philosophical factions based on their view of the true nature of the afterlife Beyond, and there are factions of Unrequited as well. Individual Mirages have political aspirations that might reach across the Tenebris and hinder or harm the efforts of PC Wanderers on their journeys.
Example Mirages include a city built on the back of a giant dinosaur, the towering city of Babel with its 77 circles, a city built on the edge of a chasm, and what appears to be a crashed starship. There are frozen wastes, cities built inside of an enormous skeleton (with districts in the various body parts), a city composed of reflections, and a mirage based on M.C. Escher architecture.
Example Limbos include a region that exists in the flame of an enormous candle, an ever-expanding version of Atlantis, an ever dark jungle, and a giant garden. Other examples are a living steampunk land, a maze of broken glass, a giant void, and a world based on truths established by ancient science and alchemy. Because the Limbos are both highly conceptual and the area where the heart of adventuring is assumed to be taking place, the entries have a section for what themes the Limbo has, as well as various plot hooks listed at the end of the Limbo’s entry.
I don’t always enjoy surrealist fantasy. I may be no fun, as I can’t always enjoy a world that aggressively doesn’t make sense for the sake of reveling in the chaos. That said, there is something very charming and engaging about the Tenebris and its details. Something about the framing device of the setting existing between and outside of the real world and the afterlives that “should be” makes my brain embrace all of the weirdness and want to engage with it, especially with the meta-conceit of essentially seizing the dreamlike qualities of the Limbos in order to regain memories and remember who your character really is.
This section summarizes and expands on the mechanics presented in previous sections. It also defines the modes of play and switching between them (in this case, what it is like to travel the Tenebris, versus encountering a Limbo, versus having a Break or suffering a Memory).
It gives advice on setting difficulty and defining what happens when Things Get Worse. There are some guidelines for creating your own Limbos, and charts to help generate inhabitants that the PCs may encounter.
There is also a section on the various factions in the Tenebris, their motivations, and their goals. There is also a section on tracking the activity level of the various powers in the setting, to determine how ascendant and important they are in your version of the Tenebris.
Character creation is situated at the end of the book, most likely because creating characters is essentially a very active “session zero” for the game, where you don’t determine anything about your character until everyone is together on The Boatman’s ship, arriving in the Tenebris together.
Each character gets three dice of Clarity, which allows them the potential to reroll the results they get as they begin to remember details about themselves. If characters have Clarity left at the end of character creation, they can spend it to move points from one attribute to another.
Characters roll on the following charts, which give you base level numbers for your Core stats and Attributes depending on the entries:
- My Life Was . . .
- What I Learned . . .
- What I Know Now . . .
Even once you come up with all of this, you don’t have a huge amount of details on your characters, but you have a framework to start building on, and your memories (which you have more control over defining), will let you add context. Even at that, some of the facts of your life (you murdered someone, you were a liar, etc.) may not be what you want to build on, so you can roll a Clarity die to see if you can reroll on the chart.
This isn’t framed as “that last roll never happened,” but “you started to remember something, but that wasn’t exactly how it was.” I like that this contributes to the fuzzy nature of trying to rebuild your identity in the Tenebris, and how fragmentary memories can be misleading.
That said, I’m not sure that I’m thrilled with the idea that spending your Clarity dice only allows you a random chance to roll a new memory from the charts. While the game is very much about playing to the story, and not manipulating the rules, this mechanic rewards saving your Clarity dice to customize your character at the end more than just having a chance to play with different established details in your past life.
The appendix includes the Death Marks, listed in alphabetical order, as well as providing alternate lists for all of the steps of character creation, which could be useful for long-term play, as well as varying results when players end up with similar results within the same group.
ResonanceIt strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within.
There are so many imaginative elements to this setting, and fun details to play with. I love the concept of the Limbos, and the agency that players have in claiming fragments and regaining memories. It is such a strong, fun theme to play with, and the details of the people and the Mirages in the Tenebris act as a really well-defined pacing mechanism so that the players have more to do then just racing to the next Limbo.
I’m not a huge fan of spending a resource for only the chance at rerolling a result, especially when Clarity is the only real input that a player has on their character in character creation driven by random rolls. While players have more agency “on the back end,” first impressions can be strong, and this mechanic feels like its rewarding arranging numbers more than controlling narrative elements. There is discussion in many places in the book about player input and getting the permission of the table for elements of the story, but with some of the themes of the game, I would have liked a more concentrated and direct treatment of table safety. It’s not missing, it’s just not a single reference point that can be accessed.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
This is an imaginative setting, with fun and accessible mechanics, and lots of tools for adding creative content into games. There is space for player agency and contribution to the story, but lots of room for the GM to have fun adding the fantastical to the game. It strikes a wonderful balance between the surreal and the structured, with a set of mythological conceits that provide a container for the chaos within.
Do you love surreal fantasy, and if so, what games have captured the feel that you want the best? How much does a setting need to make sense for you to enjoy it? What other games have you played that dealt with the disposition of souls after death, and what are your favorites? Let us know in the comments below, we’re looking forward to hearing from you.Read more »
- The Art Of Traps: Making The Rogue Cry
Traps. We all know what they are and how they work. Bait something with the proverbial carrot, the machinations whir, boom! Trap sprung, prey caught. Simple enough in theory but have you ever looked at your traps and wondered, “Gee, this isn’t a very good trap! What am I doing wrong?” Well I’m going to dissect your problems and show you the correct way to go about trap-making to the point your rogue will curl into a ball and learn to fear your evil reign whenever you even mention a pressure plate!
To make the best traps, you have to follow a few rules that seem obvious but are often forgotten. As much as you might think that your trap is perfect, you have to remember that three or more people will be actively trying to solve your clever tricks by either bashing it, brute forcing through it, deactivating it, or simply ignoring it. Traps have to be made with the party in mind. Some will excel at trap busting and can speed-run through a mega dungeon in one session if they are good enough. Others will struggle with any kind of trap you throw at them and forget they can actually take the time to search around them or use their resources creatively. Knowing your party’s strengths and weaknesses is half the battle with actually making the traps the true challenge you’ll be facing. Of course, this can vary greatly depending on what characters you are GMing.
So before I mention anything else, I have to bring up the rogue. Why? In most games that have a rogue or rogue-like character, they tend to be the most dexterous and the most adept at finding traps and disabling them. Some even go to great lengths to excel at this type of skill set and become trap maniacs, hoping that the Perception checks they make every five minutes will reveal something for their spidery little hands to mess around with. Varying on what system you are playing, the rogue will most likely be your sworn enemy if you are a trap-loving GM. Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day.Go beyond my suggestions because those rogues will ruin. Your. Day.
The first and biggest rule you have to remember about traps is that they can’t be solved by just a roll of the dice. Imagine. You are going through a dungeon with your group, hoping to set off a pitfall trap on them when the party rogue uses a Spot or Perception check to look around. They roll. They succeed. The trap has been ruined in a short minute and they navigate about it in one way or another. A simple example but one seen too often. If you’re going to be setting up traps, you have to make it more advanced than that.
Layering on traps can be an effective tool for this issue, having the party focus on one trap when pow! Another trap activates right after they think they’ve solved the first one! If you’re in a bind with simpler traps, like when using kobold or goblin enemies, have them roll more dice instead. Layers of camouflage covering different sections of the trap or multiple aspects and mechanical parts can require several rolls being involved to deactivate it. Even if they get one part right, they will still have more chances to fail, giving the trap more presence and an actual risk involved. Do they risk setting it off at that point? Do they try another route? This gives some interesting decisions and can dynamically change a dungeon layout. Using one easily passable trap to trick the party to set off another one is also a great method. A pitfall that has a hidden pressure plate right after you cross it is a great example. A good rule of thumb when doing this however is to consider how much it will take to beat the trap in question and will it be worth it for your particular party to interact with.
The next thing to consider is how many traps you place in your campaign. One trap, two traps, three thousand traps, the same thing will always happen. Once that first trap happens, the rogue goes Perception super sleuth and slogs the party down by demanding a new roll every ten feet they move. Nobody likes this and much less you who might have eight or so traps in the dungeon still waiting. It’s a tiring process and even if in character they don’t do this, there is a lingering overhead thought amongst the group of the possibility of more traps. It’s always a difficult task to balance out meta knowledge in your groups but a few simple tricks can help alleviate this.
Having your party deal with traps only once in awhile and in specific places like dungeons and ruins is the easiest solution and can actually be used to perk up some of the less involved members in a group too. Sometimes the biggest trap can be the illusion that you have a trap readied for them, though this can backfire easily with more paranoid players. You can also give those who do constant trap checking a bit more leeway when looking for traps. If they roll to check for traps in say a normal room, you can give them one check and describe that the whole room is safe even if they might just be doing just one area. Not only does it hasten the pace but requires less work to describe the area and can ease tensions for the group. Keep in mind that you should aim to create a balance for your group so that they will actually move more than fifty feet in a session but still be wary of situations you present to them. This takes at least a few trial traps to see how they react but you’ll eventually learn what’s good for them and use that knowledge to improve your future sessions.
Pitfalls are fun and all but basic traps like them, no matter how many you have or how well they are incorporated in a dungeon, will fall flat once a player knows how to navigate them properly. A wooden board over the pit. Throwing heavy rocks onto pressure plates. Using the ten foot pole to hit far reaching parts and switches. Those are classic workarounds but in more recent table tops, these are the poor man’s choices with the sheer plethora of spells, magic items, and abilities often at their disposal. So when the players fly over your pitfall trap for the third time in a row, it’s time to consider your options.
Subverting the expectations of the players is key to a good series of traps. Take what they conventionally know about a trap and twist it on its end! That pit they are trying to cross? It actually has a transparent ooze that uses its tendrils to swipe at passing prey, party included. The arrow trap that trails down the hall? Malfunctioned and shoots in a cone shape now. The pressure plate that was discovered on the floor? It’s magical and certain races activate it instead of just anyone, confusing the orc and surprising the gnome. In fact, using spells against the party for your traps can be tremendous fun, especially spells that aren’t necessarily damage dealers. Nobody expects the giant rolling boulder to actually just be an illusion after all. Surprising your party and setting solid but fair rules on how your traps work can be rewarding for both players and GM if done correctly.
Less a rule and more a suggestion is that not every trap should be meant for the rogue to solve. This might trigger the red alert for some of you but consider this. The party has no rogue. The rogue is more of an assassin build. Or for whatever reason, they didn’t get the trap necessary skills needed to perform at their very best. It happens and sometimes parties get rather lopsided in their composition.You may be stuck with all front-liners or your group is more based around magic or social themes. Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that even without a rogue can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths.
Of course all of this stems from an understanding of who is in your party and how much you know about your players and their characters. Even the most shy will be able to contribute in some way if you make a trap that only their character can solve. Have a strength-based trap that would require the barbarian to lift up a portcullis for an extended period of time. Use a series of precarious platforms a monk could hop upon to get the switch in the back of the room. The wizard may need to solve a series of arcane writings in just the right order so the party doesn’t get thrown into an extradimensional maze. Incorporating traps that other party members would excel at can set a great variety for the party and give you a better arsenal at your disposal. Not only that but you can easily get the whole group involved with one or two well thought out traps instead of just having them rely on one person to get the job done.Rarely will a group be perfectly well-rounded so it’s good to consider traps that … can be solved utilizing the party’s strengths
I shouldn’t have to mention this one but don’t let your party know about your traps. It is not up to you to remind the party that they have the ability to ask you what they see around them. You’ve worked hard on these traps and, in the nature of their design, they are meant to surprise their victims with often lethal consequences. So after spending time and creative resources, are you going to point out to the party without any reason or provocation about the “slightly raised rock” in the middle of the path? It might be a personal experience but I’ve seen plenty of GM’s reveal such information to my party and, of course, we pounce on it, leading to them having less than desirable results.
Make sure to keep your traps hidden or else you’ll be setting up for immediate failure. What I don’t mean is that you have to have every trap secreted away behind a Perception check. What I mean is that if you put a sign that points down two paths and it says “One is trapped”, don’t have a footnote where it points to the right side that screams that the trap is down that road. They should know that going down into a long forgotten ruin will bound to be trapped and they should take precautions beforehand to deal with them. Keeping them a secret is also incredibly satisfying, especially when the trap fully works and everything falls into line against the party.
You are the GM of a massive, ever expanding world of canonical content and homebrew designs. Use every resource and every clever idea at your disposal. Look at real life examples and older editions of your choice of game for inspiration. Find something interesting and incorporate it into the most insidious thing your party can encounter. If your party finishes the session talking about how they activated a trap or how they overcame one then you have achieved the apex of what it means to make a proper experience for your party. The biggest thing we can achieve in our time of playing any tabletop is the memories we make out of it. So I hope that the advice I’ve given will prove to work for you in some way or another, making plenty of memorable splatter death falls and Indiana Jones style situations. If any of you have these stories, don’t be shy and share them in the comments below!Read more »
- Accessibility Tools ft.FATE
Tabletop gamers are fairly all over the place and I would argue that we’re now possibly the most diverse subculture in the world now. We have folks from all genders and backgrounds, with interests ranging from cosplay to technical programming to working out in the gym. Long gone are the days where it’s only ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’ rolling the dice, as you’re just as likely to find a ‘jock’ or even model at the table.
This diversity isn’t simply limited to stereotypical backgrounds either: for every child under 8 getting into the game, we have a veteran gamer over 60 that’ll regale you with a tale of their first slain dragon, be that over 40 years ago, or just last week. In that vein, while there are plenty of able-bodied players, there are also scores of adventurers with disabilities that often get looked over.
As I was wondering in what ways could I account for disabled folk and such, a copy of the FATE Accessibility Toolkit fell into my hands.
In going through it I’ve found that, while it’s grounded in covering FATE specific mechanics, it has a lot of fantastic tools and advice for GMs and players regardless of system.
How much of it is FATE?
While picking up content for FATE as a FATE player is automatically a no-brainer, I have to stress that the content here is more universal than the system can contain.
In the 126 page pdf, if you don’t count the first 5 pre-pages and the last 4 closing pages, it has 117 pages of raw content. Going through it, I marked roughly around 50-55 pages that explicitly referred to FATE mechanics. This allows the rest of the book to act as a handbook and guide to handling disabilities and such in a positive manner.
While it certainly helps to understand FATE (such as the difference between Aspects and Stunts) it’s general enough in its coverage that you get a solid idea.
At the end of the book, in the Appendices, it also covers several major sans-system tools such as the X-Card, the Script Change tools, as well as an ASL Reference section. As the pdf (at my time of review) is a prototype it doesn’t have the full, comprehensive charts just yet, but I’m excited to see it in its completion.
The Core of it
The most eye-opening part of the book for me turned out to be the “The Nitty Gritty of Specific Disabilities” section. In its 43 pages, it goes through disabilities such as blindness, deafness, chronic illness, autism, and many more. It starts with informing the reader what the disability is like and what sorts of situations one might go through, before leading into how to incorporate it into the game.
A deaf character might have the aspect Perfect Lip Reading, allowing the character to perfectly understand a conversation until the target turns away, or a character with chronic illness might have Lay Medic (lore), giving the character bonuses to know hospital procedures and recognizing conditions. Personally, it was particularly nice to see the book also tackle subjects like schizophrenia and PTSD and show it in a really positive manner.
Not only was the Nitty Gritty chapter written with care, but with accuracy as well as the writer consulted or worked with contributing authors to get a comprehensive look at each disability. You can clearly tell as the writing style changes quite a bit where the writers change hands.
Each part is then punctuated with several small blurbs, giving advice to players and GMs alike, as well as advice on how to handle antagonists with the disability as well. What tropes to avoid? To lean into? Often the answer is simply “Don’t make their disability their critical weakness and undoing.”
For the FATE players, the Accessibility Toolkit comes loaded with tons of suggested content. While it comes with the standard fare of Aspects, Stunts, and Extras—all handily organized via disability—it also involves its own unique elements of Conditions, Adaptive Devices, and a little gem called Anchors hidden on page 14.
To sum them up quickly, Conditions reflect states your character will sometimes be in due to their disability. It’s something done to help model disabilities. Adaptive Devices, which is paired with conditions, can actually grant bonuses and special abilities (Extras) to your characters. “Anchors” are an alternate rule to track mental trauma, which can grant your character bonuses when you’re out of resources, at the risk of affecting the Anchors that keep you stable. As someone that constantly has to balance between my mental health and doing what needs to be done, Anchors honestly spoke to me and made me feel heard.
With what the book already gives you, you can practically plug-in and play from the get-go. It has a surprising amount of content between its pages.
And my point!
I think we need more content like this. Not just for FATE, but for more systems out there. I originally thought that I’d like to see this sort of book for all systems but after some time to think, I think that this just had to be FATE. Almost no other system focuses as heavily on player added content than one that literally requires the players to create their Aspects, then numerically ties that in with the game’s mechanics. It’s a system where its driving principle is based on empowering the players and their capacity to affect the narrative. So of course this system was where this sort of empowerment had to start.
As someone that has had friends with disabilities, personally goes through a few mental health concerns myself, and has consequently become more familiar with such conditions outside of my prior realm of understanding, I am overjoyed to see this sort of content on the metaphorical shelf. From a first glance, disabilities can seem difficult to tackle and something to tip-toe around, but they don’t have to be. Improving the handling of a situation starts with becoming informed.
If you happen to pick it up in its prototype stage, by the way, you’re also directly contributing to getting it full art and an ASL hand sign chart! Something to think about.
~Di, signing outRead more »
- The Joy of Insects: 4 Real-Life Creatures You Can Use to Bug Your Players
Content warning: as you’ve probably gathered from the title and picture, this article deals with insects and spiders, topics you or your gaming group may not be totally comfortable with. Proceed with caution and/or a can of Raid.
From Shelob in the Lord of the Rings to whatever that guy’s name was in The Metamorphosis, since as far back as I can be bothered to “research,” insects and spiders have been used to terrify audiences and/or also make them feel very smart: a tradition this article plans on proudly continuing by providing paper-thin overviews of really cool things without getting into the nitty-gritty of the stuff that actually makes it work. I’m no biologist, and this certainly isn’t Gnational Geographic.
On that note, none of the images in this article are actually of the insects or arachnid behavior in question. I would like to pretend this is because I’m worried about the well-being of Gnome Stew readers and that I want to prevent y’all from, I don’t know, licking a bullet ant or something. But the reality is: 1) it’s almost impossible to find unrestricted, royalty-free pictures of obscure insects and 2) if you want to lick a bullet ant, there is no way I’m going to try to prevent you from doing that. That would be awesome.
(Editor’s note: don’t do that.)
Schmidt’s Sting Pain Index, which ranks insect stings from least to most painful, reads like Torquemada’s tasting menu. Insect bites and stings are given descriptions like “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.” On this scale, the bullet ant’s sting is described as “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”“Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”With that kind of recommendation, how can we not use it in games?
In a fantasy setting it’s always tempting to make insects huge versions of themselves, so why not mix things up a little bit and have your PCs face a swarm of completely normal-sized, non-magical ants, any one of which can potentially knock characters out with a single bite?
In order to simulate this, there should be half a dozen or more ants per PC, each of which should have only a single hit point (or game equivalent). Character parties with extensive area of effect damage options will need to face more ants, and those without any such options should face fewer. The ants, when they hit, should only do a single hit point worth of damage. The secondary effects of this damage should be incapacitating, however. When hit, PCs must make a difficult Constitution/Endurance/Might/Etc. roll or be entirely incapacitated until they succeed on subsequent rounds. Additionally, when bitten, characters are in such evident (and loud) pain that all other players within visual or auditory distance suffer penalties to attack and defense rolls due to distraction and fear. Finally, any character who fails one of these rolls should suffer these same penalties for the rest of the encounter, as the memory of the sting is fresh and painful. When a character is incapacitated, all the ants in the immediate area should begin swarming that character.
The key to this encounter is to ensure that the ants are not individually powerful or threatening, but even a handful could easily swarm and kill a character who succumbs to their sting. These ants could also easily be used in a trap in a jungle encounter, or as the mindless but dangerous servants of a local nature spirit.
In nature, there are defense mechanisms, and there are defense mechanisms. When threatened, the Bombardier beetle responds by shooting a stream of boiling water and caustic foam from its rear end—while anyone who has eaten a handful of those gas station taquitos can perform the same trick, few of us have the courage or shamelessness to use it as an actual method of self-defense.When threatened, the Bombardier beetle responds by shooting a stream of boiling water and caustic foam from its rear end—while anyone who has eaten a handful of those gas station taquitos can perform the same trick, few of us have the courage or shamelessness to use it as an actual method of self-defense.A pity, really.
A giant bombardier beetle should be a fairly straightforward fight—its rear armament should be devastatingly powerful, but deployed sparingly. In OGL-adjacent games, a recharge roll is one potential way of handling it. In AGE games, a high-cost stunt may be warranted, while in Cypher System games, getting hit with a giant beetle’s butt cannon is a pretty great GM intrusion.
The bombardier beetle represents an opportunity for a character to take something out of a battle other than treasure or experience points. After the combat is where things have the potential to get interesting. These beetles have chambers in their bodies filled with caustic and volatile chemicals—curious, ambitious, or reckless adventuring parties might want to capitalize on that potential. A difficult crafting, nature-related or similar skill check should allow characters to harvest the chemicals inside the giant beetle. However, failing by sufficient margin should activate the chamber, spraying the character in question with another round. Additionally, if the character carries these reagents into battle, fumbles, intrusions, or enemy stunts can potentially set off the chemical reaction as well.
In certain parts of Nepal and Turkey, bees gather nectar from rhododendrons, giving their honey a slightly-reddish tinge. More interestingly, these flowers also make the honey hallucinogenic. The bees that make this honey nest in sheer cliffs, making gathering the honey as dangerous as any combat encounter.
In the vein of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, you might use Mad Honey Bees and their honey as the key to certain puzzles, or even to an entire dungeon that can only be navigated by those who have eaten the honey. Such an adventure would have three key parts:
- Following a set of clues that indicate that the key to the dungeon or encounter is mad honey. Such clues might include carvings or statues of bees or jars of a viscous, reddish substance. Characters who wander too far afield in trying to figure out what they mean might be corrected by a local NPC.
- Finding a deposit of mad honey and somehow gathering it despite the bees guarding it. In high fantasy settings, this might not take long at all, as characters often have the ability to fly, teleport, or climb sheer surfaces without effort. Resist the urge to make the climb part harder—your players spent resources to get those powers, and often times being able to use them to overcome what would otherwise be a very difficult obstacle is half the fun. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should make the gathering easy. Feel free to play up the danger of the bees guarding their honey, and even make the battle more difficult for characters that have to maintain concentration or hand holds. If you’re feeling particularly sadistic, you can even use the rules recommended for the bullet ant stings above.
- Finally, the encounter itself. Remember that characters who have consumed mad honey are poisoned with a hallucinogen. As a result, they should question at least some of their perceptions, and even the most mundane tasks should be more difficult. If only one member of the party has taken the mad honey, play up distinctions between what they are perceiving and what everyone else is perceiving. They may see invisible things, or be able to make connections between places or ideas that un-poisoned characters cannot make.
It’s gonna be hard to hear this for some of you, but spiders can fly. Not with wings, and not quickly, but they’ve been found up to two and a half miles in the air, just kind of chilling out. They do this by finding a high area, extending their abdomen, and letting loose a long string of silk. This behavior is called, alternately, “ballooning” or “the most horrifying thing I have had to learn; kill all spiders with fire.” Scientists have recently learned that the earth’s electromagnetic field plays an important role in how they are able to do this.
Ballooning has the potential to drive your player group into thinking about battle encounters in three dimensions, rather than the usual two. If your characters spend a lot of time in the air, whether with airships, on flying mounts, or through other means, ballooning spiders are a great, unusual encounter to give them. Because this is fantasy, you can also feel free to take some liberties with the science involved in ballooning. Real spiders extrude a single strand, repelled by the Earth’s negative charge. Fantasy spiders the size of a Prius might instead have entire elaborate webs, supported by nothing but invisible, non-magical forces the characters do not understand.
You could even go farther and give such spiders a resistance to lightning or electrical damage, since they spend much of their time surrounded by electrical charges. You might even have the web itself do lightning or electrical damage. If, on the other hand, your players prefer a more grounded approach (ha!), you can also have more conventional giant spiders unexpectedly begin ballooning in order to escape, or in order to catch players who would otherwise be able to get away from them.
Even in the real world, people are terrified of insects. What they represent, where they’re found. They sting, and they bite, and they’re present where rot and disease has taken hold. In short, they’re the perfect representation of the darkest sides of nature. Leaning into this and using it is a great way to add a visceral thrill to your games, while still keeping them grounded.
So what do you think? How have you used insects or arachnids in your games recently?Read more »