- mp3GNOMECAST #165 – Scheduling Difficulties
On today’s Gnomecast we talk problems with scheduling. To cover that we have Ang, along with Tomas and Phil to talk about the true BBEG of ttrpgs. Time to break out the +4 calendars.Read more »
- You Want To Become a DM/GM? – Tips & Tricks
Note: I am going to use the terms GMing and DMing a whole lot along the article. GM stands for Game Master, the storyteller, arbiter of rules ; the one running the game. DMing is a subcategory inside GMing, as it stands for Dungeon Mastering (or Dungeon Master for DM), which is just a term trademarked by D&D that means exactly the same as Game Master, except it can only be used when talking about D&D. For this reason, I will continue to use the terms GM and GMing throughout the article, but know that everything still applies to DMs as well.
Lately, I’ve made a new friend that showed an interest in starting GMing. However, she didn’t know which was the best way to start. With over 4+ years of articles I should have one about that, right?
NO, I DIDN’T.
I’ve got a load of tips on specific things, or things closer to starting DMing (dungeon mastering)/GMing, but I didn’t have an exact answer in the form of an article. However, I do have 6+ years of experience game mastering many games, so I felt sure I could create an article about it, not just for her, but for anyone else in this same position. Hope you find it useful!
How can I start GMing?
I do have a short easy answer for this, which is the same one I applied when I began: Just start. Tell as many players as you want (if possible no more than 4 at first) to gather at your house, saying you will be playing a roleplaying game. You don’t even need to buy dice to start, as there are many digital dice rollers online! Get the rules of the game you all want to play the most, read just enough to get the game going, and start!
Myth: It’s expensive to GM
There is a barrier for many people, and that’s because they think that playing or running a game is expensive, especially if you are the one GMing. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are thousands (if not millions) of extremely cheap, or free games you can run! Even if what you are looking for is running one of the big games such as D&D, most of the time these have free starter stuff you can find online. For D&D, for example, I have two whole articles created on how you can run games on a budget (Part 1, and Part 2), with many of these tips applying to other games.Remember these are games you usually play with 4+ people, with campaigns that may last for months… You do the math, it’s definitely not expensive if you split the cost into equal parts.
There are many games that can be a much easier entry point to GMing than the big complex games, many of them for free! Honey Heist is a free one-page-rule game that got popularized by Critical Role. I recently got to try out A Familiar Problem created by the same guy (Grant Howitt) and Marisha Ray, which is the same style of game, getting me and my friends to laugh out loud for 2 hours straight. However, if it is something like a medieval fantasy game that you are looking for, I HAVE to recommend the extremely simplistic free game “A Dungeon Game” from Cris Bisette. It is a very simplistic version of D&D, which may serve as a fantastic stepping stone to that game (or you might like it so much you decide to keep using it). Lastly, there are tons of Starter Sets for free to try out games online. This can help you decide which game to spend the money on. Remember these are games you usually play with 4+ people, with campaigns that may last for months… You do the math, it’s definitely not expensive if you split the cost into equal parts.
Lastly, Itch.io is filled entirely with millions of indie tabletop roleplaying games from all genres for you to try out, most of them being extremely simple to start with as they don’t usually have a lot of rules. Consider checking them out by looking for your favorite genres in media! Alternatively, there’s always some big bundle going on that gives hundreds of games for a small amount of money that is also donated to some charity. That’s usually a fantastic way to get to know new games while spending very little, and supporting a great cause in the process!
What Do I Need To Start?
Will to GM. That’s it. I have GMed several games with no preparation at all. This is something that does require practice, and I have quite a bit of experience, so it’s unfair to say this. However, I took my first steps in TTRPGs GMing (because I don’t believe my first time as a player to have been a true introduction to roleplaying games), meaning I made thousands of mistakes to get where I am, and that’s part of the process!
What do other people have to say about this subject? I asked
Chat GPTto get some answers, and I will indicate if I believe these statements to be true based on my opinion (I used D&D as an example, but these tips apply to all roleplaying games):
Read the rules. This is the most important tip. You don't need to know every rule inside and out, but you should have a basic understanding of how the game works. The Player's Handbook is a good place to start
- Definitely not the most important rule in my opinion, but I do agree that it is important to have a basic understanding of the rules. Even if you make mistakes or forget a rule, you and the players at the table can search the rules and all learn together. On my first D&D session I DMed, I forgot how initiative worked!! GMing a game you have already been a player in can work as well, but don’t let that limit you if you haven’t!
Be prepared. This doesn't mean you have to have everything planned out, but you should have a general idea of what's going to happen in the session. You should also have some notes on the characters, the setting, and the plot.
- Start slow. I recommend not starting with a campaign but with a one-shot. This means you don’t need to care as a GM about the characters’ backstories, and whatever happens during the session won’t matter for future games (unless you truly want to). After that, I recommend checking out my article on improvisational GMing, which is the kind of way I like to GM.
Be flexible. Things don't always go according to plan, so be prepared to improvise. If the players decide to do something you didn't expect, go with it. The best DMs are the ones who can roll with the punches.
- “Yes and”, and “No, but” are your strongest weapons when dealing with improvisation and flexibility. In fact, it is one of theatre improvisation’s best tools! This can make your game quickly go off the rails, but that’s part of the fun of roleplaying games. With time, you will learn to adapt to it but don’t be scared to tell your players you’d rather stay on the rails if you don’t feel too sure moving in that direction when starting GMing. I talk about all these in one of my articles.
Don't be afraid to say no. As the DM, you have the final say on what happens in the game. If the players are trying to do something that's not possible, or that would break the game, don't be afraid to say no.
- Absolutely true. There needs to be an arbiter in these kinds of games to set the rules in stone. If you are playing a detective game set in the real world you can’t be allowing a player to say they grab the magic broom and explode the burglar’s car with a fireball (unless you ARE playing that kind of game, which could be really fun). However, I am a true believer that GMs should give leeway to players to add their own stuff to the game. Maybe a player wants to have a contact in the city you just got in. In that case, they may ask the GM during the game, and the GM can decide if that helps the story or not (remember to use “Yes, and” and “No, but” in these cases).
Be fair. The game should be fun for everyone, including the DM. Make sure you're not playing favorites, and that the players are all having a chance to shine.
- As with any game, if you are playing favorites, you are just being a d*ck. Don’t do that. It takes away the fun from the game.
Encourage creativity. D&D is a game about imagination, so encourage your players to be creative. Let them come up with their own solutions to problems, and reward them for thinking outside the box.
- You may have a solution to an encounter or a puzzle you created. Nevertheless, the players’ way of solving it may end up being more creative or fun. Reward that creativity! Punishing players for not thinking your way makes the game dull, and causes players to just want to chop enemies and do no thinking.
Be a storyteller. D&D is a storytelling game, so make sure you're telling a good story. The players should be invested in the characters and the plot.
- Plan out what you think will be a good story. Your players will be the ones that make it epic. It’s like when you cook something and you add in the perfect seasonings. Don’t feel like all the pressure is on your shoulders! It’s the players’ job to make the game interesting as well. Creating fun NPCs can help as well, but it isn’t that necessary either.
Have fun. This is the most important tip of them all. D&D is a game, so make sure you're having fun. If you're not enjoying yourself, it will show, and your players won't have fun either.
- NOW THIS IS RULE NUMBER ONE. Even if you feel you suck at GMing, if you and the players are having fun, then you are doing an amazing job at GMing. I can’t stress this enough. GMing should never feel like a job.
I would like to add in some of my own even though I think those ones were great:
- Know when to ask for dice rolls. Depending on the game you are playing, characters may already consider some tasks as basic stuff. You don’t need to ask an adventurer in D&D to roll to climb a ladder. Only ask for rolls when the result might bring something interesting to the story. It can be a bit difficult at first, as one tends to ask for unnecessary rolls when nervous, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. More on that in one of my articles
- Managing time. Possibly one of the hardest things as a GM. If you end the session and the players feel like they only did one interesting thing then something probably went wrong. Don’t worry, you can do better next time, and this is something I still struggle with. Learning how to manage time might not be the thing to focus on the most when you start GMing, but try to think about it while you are doing it nonetheless so you keep getting better at it. I offer some tips on that in one of my articles.
What if I don’t have players to GM?
Maybe you just discovered the hobby and your friends group don’t want to try it out, had bad experiences in the past, or didn’t enjoy this sort of game… The good thing is that players abound, but there aren’t nearly enough GMs, mostly because people believe it to be a tedious job, too complex, or they’d rather play than GM. There are several things you can do in this case:
- Find a local gaming store. Lots of cities have gaming stores in which people go to play trading card games, board games, and roleplaying games. Try talking to the one working there. They surely will be able to help you find a way to find people interested in the game you want to run.
- Find an internet group. Nowadays, especially after the pandemic, things have been made simpler than ever to roleplay and find people to play with online. Forums, virtual TTRPGs, discord servers abound, and if you search a little you will quickly find a way to GM to a group of people, maybe even from other corners of the world! I created an article on how to keep roleplaying during the pandemic. It still has a lot of valuable information on how to find people online: HERE
- Play One on One/Duet. There usually is at least one other person you can find that is looking to play with you, be it a family member, significant other, or that one great friend. Why not try playing one on one? This means you GM, and the other person is the player. Most games do require you to tweak a few things, while others are entirely made for this style of play. Here is an article on tips to play one on one (or duet, as some people call it), and here are some ideas about some adventures you can build: Part 1, Part 2
In order to want to GM even more, it’s always nice to have some stories to tell. For that to happen you need to find some inspiration. Inspiration can be found in multiple ways, and different people encounter those creative juices doing certain activities. Relaxing stuff that can open your mind such as going for a walk, jogging, or taking a bath always help a great deal. For me, watching movies, tv series, animes, reading books, and playing videogames are the things that give me the most to think about and ideas for new quests or adventures. I have taken entire story arcs from science fiction tv series and reflavored them into a medieval fantasy theme to add them to my D&D game, creating a fantastic story out of it to tell.
When you are getting started as a GM, doing those things is surely going to give you the needed inspiration. Additionally, there are thousands of recorded live plays of other people playing the game you are intending to run. Watching the stories created by other GMs, or identifying how the GM controls the flow of the game might not only encourage you to try it out but also teach you how to run the game in a successful way. Don’t feel pressured if they are fantastic at what they do, you are going to do just as well!
You already entered this article and read all I said… The fact that you are this dedicated to looking out ways to GM in a good way says a lot about you. You are going to do amazing! And even if you feel you didn’t, as long as you and your players had fun, that’s what really matters. I hope you keep GMing, as you’ll notice that each time you will do increasingly better! Welcome to this side of the hobby.
- Interview With A Pro GM
Last year for my birthday, my wife bought the two of us seats in a professionally run Spelljammer campaign. Spelljammer has long been my favorite DnD setting, but one I never got to play as much as I would have liked. We didn’t know what to expect going in, having never used a professional GMing service. Fortunately for us we are having a great time with some characters we love and other players that make the game exciting and fun. All in all, this is the perfect Spelljammer experience that I never got to have back in the 90s. GM Thor has been an expert guide to the Spelljammer universe and this made me curious about the day to day of being a professional GM. What is it like? What are his secrets? So I asked if he would answer a few questions for the readers of Gnome Stew. Here is what I learned:
- Please introduce yourself to Gnome Stew’s readers.
Hail and well met! Thor Goodman, level 32 Game Master currently residing in Murfreesboro, TN!
- Where can people find you online?
@better_lore_thor for most socials, although I rarely post on twitter. You can also find my Pro GM page here: https://startplaying.games/gm/thorgoodman502
- How long have you been GMing, and professionally? Is this a full time job or a side gig?
I started out in the year 2000 as a chubby kid in the midwest. I received the DnD 3.0 starter set as a gift and was overwhelmed by the possibility. Of course, by introducing my friends to DnD, I received a one-way ticket to being a forever GM.
I’ve been playing weekly games for 23 years now for fun and just finished my first whole year as a paid GM. As of now, it is my full-time job and sole source of income.
- What did you expect being a pro GM to be like and how is that different from the reality? How is it different than just for your friends?
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. I went in with the mentality of “well, I do this all the time and I think I am quite good, what’s the worst that could happen?” I had a few campaigns and a handful of RPG systems that I considered myself proficient in. My first paid games weren’t even DnD, but Dungeon World! But certainly my biggest difficulty was (and still is) mastering the Virtual Tabletop. It adds a whole other layer of complexity to game prep. I am still learning all sorts of new things and every day presents a new challenge to be overcome!
Secondly, I see no huge difference between playing with friends vs. running games for people online. Save for being sober throughout the session, that is. I tend to run more lighthearted games instead of gritty dark settings, and my players seem to enjoy the break from reality and have a few laughs while kicking evil’s butt.
- Is it still fun or does it eventually just become a job?
It IS a job. I certainly put more hours in now than I have ever worked in a week. It’s basically unending and in need of constant repair. The work is mentally taxing and you are basically always “on call” if a player wants to chat. And of course, you get your fair share of problem players. They expect a certain level of quality. It is the Mercer Effect in an echo chamber, and paying customers will simply find better games if you fail to meet their expectations. However, this is the most fun and rewarding job I’ve had. Each day I get to meet interesting people from around the world and tell a great story together. You make friendships and forge stories that last a lifetime. I think every job has its difficulties, and to dwell in the negatives is no way to live. At the end of the day I ask myself, “What else would you rather be doing?” and I remind myself just how lucky I am to have found a job that I am both good at and enjoy dearly.
- What skills do you use more than you thought you would? Less?
Hands-down the biggest stumbling block is mastering the VTT. Even after you become fluent in your virtual tabletop of choice, it more than doubles your prep time. Surprisingly, most players prefer published adventures over homebrew stuff. I assume it’s because there’s a guarantee of quality from a published source, and that a random player might not have trust in your writing skills.
- What things do you feel you do well? Where are some areas where you have challenges and how do you overcome them?
I studied theater in college and spent a decade in a touring band. Those previous experiences taught me a lot about the art of performance and storytelling. I stick pretty close to the ‘ol Joseph Campbell and his thousand-faced story circle. I think my greatest talents lie in that realm. From what my players have said, I do amazing voices, tell a fantastic story, and encourage creativity.
The challenges are all self-imposed. I want my games to be the best. That can be anything from providing interactive maps full of traps and animations to creating encounters that tie directly into a player’s backstory. It’s a constantly changing workflow, and the virtual tabletops out there are doing really interesting stuff on the technical side. Keeping on the cutting edge of a burgeoning technology while providing quality games 7 days a week really is a full-time job!
- What are some hard fast rules for your table? Do you think they would work universally?
The “rule of cool” is my daily bread. What makes TTRPGS so fun and unique is the element of human creativity in each and every action. I’m here to tell a great story, not play a video game. I really don’t think there is a “right” way to run your games, but my players really enjoy knowing that I am their biggest fan, cheering them on from behind the screen.
- What hardware/software/websites do you use and why?
I am a huge fan of Foundry VTT. It is a pretty complicated toolbox, but you can do some really nifty stuff. Virtual tabletops are still an emerging technology, and keeping on top of new developments helps me make my games the best they can be!
- Do you still play and does it change your outlook as a player?
Sadly no. I am a “Forever GM.” The last game I played in was Storm King’s Thunder years and years ago.
- How many games are you running and how often are sessions?
Currently, I am running 13 games. 11 weekly sessions averaging 3 hours each, and two bi-weekly games.
- What systems/campaigns/modules are you currently running? What would you like to run more of in the future?
Currently, I’m running heaps of Spelljammer in 5e. I love the cornball setting and it’s a blast. Mostly I’m running 5e right now, but also have done several paid games using Dungeon World, Pirate Borg, and Masks: A New Generation. I love PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) as a ruleset, but want to get into Pathfinder for obvious reasons.
- How many hours a week do you spend on prep?
Each game I run gets the prep time it deserves. Usually about one or two hours per week on each game, not counting the actual 3-hour sessions.
- How do you get most of your business? Do you promote yourself and how?
Most of my business comes from Startplaying.games. They do an amazing job of marketing, and aside from a few posts on social media here and there, I let them do the marketing. They do take a small cut of my earnings, but it’s well worth it IMHO.
- What would you say to someone to sell them on using a professional GMing service?
I’d say this: It’s purely for entertainment. If you have a group of friends that you love playing with for free, that’s wonderful! Inarguably the best way to enjoy the game. However, if you are a busy person who wants a quality game, guaranteed, every time without a hassle this might just be for you!
- Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start running games as an income source?
I’d say to be prepared to put in the work. It’s an incredibly rewarding job, but paying players have certain expectations. Think about the best game of DnD you’ve ever played and be prepared to replicate that multiple times a week. You have to be self-motivated and adaptable. But I recommend any GM worth their salt to give it a go!
Professional GMing it seems is not a job for the faint of heart. I wouldn’t want to do it, that’s for sure. But it brings unique benefits to both sides of the screen. For one, we’re closing in on actually completing a campaign, something that couldn’t often be said of the decades of weekends I spent around my dining room table. Given the opportunity, I would gladly foray into professional GMs again.Read more »
- Please introduce yourself to Gnome Stew’s readers.
- Supplements – Got To Catch Them All
I am gearing up for my new Cyberpunk Red game and it turns out that a few weeks before Session Zero, a new supplement, Black Chrome dropped. So of course I grabbed it. As I did, I thought about the role of supplements and how they fit into campaigns – at the start of campaigns as well as in the middle. So let’s talk about it.
What are supplements?
Supplements, in TTRPGs, are books that contain additional material for a GM and/or players to use in their game. Common types of supplements are: Setting, Character Class/Options, Optional/Supplemental rules, Opponent/Monster, and Equipment Books.
Setting books contain additional details about the game setting or some specific part of the setting, Character Class Books (sometimes known as Splat Books) are books that contain additional character options and details for players. Equipment books contain equipment that characters and NPCs can use in the game.
Some companies put these out as separate books, but many combine elements of some or all of these into a single publication.
What are not supplements?
For the sake of this article, we are not considering adventures to be supplements. Sometimes, they do have additional setting and equipment information, and in those cases, the things we talk about below are still applicable.
Overall adventures are consumable stories for the characters to participate in, and don’t add new material into the games (with the exceptions we just made above).
Types of Supplements
There are a few different groups that publish supplements for games:
- From the Publisher – these are supplements that are released by the game’s publisher. The original designers may make them or they may have other designers write these materials. You will know when you check the credits of the book.
- 3rd Party – some games have open licenses and allow for other designers or publishers not directly working for the game’s publisher to create material. These range from professional publishing companies to hobby publishers.
- Homebrew – these are community-made or fan-made materials. These are often not sold but instead posted on a web page, discussion board, or other location. These are made for free and given away for free.
What is not often easy to determine, if at all, is how well new material included in supplements has been playtested. How much playtesting is done for a supplement will be based on the design philosophy of the designer and publisher. Don’t assume that if something came from the publisher it’s automatically been playtested and don’t assume something that was homebrew wasn’t.
Supplements at Campaign Start
Before your campaign starts, before or at Session Zero, you need to determine two things:
What Supplements Are Going To Be AllowedFor some games, there is going to be a library of possible supplements, and you need to decide which ones are going to be allowed into the game.
First, you need to decide out of all the supplements that exist for the game, which ones will you be allowing in your campaign. For some games, there is going to be a library of possible supplements, and you need to decide which ones are going to be allowed into the game.
This decision will likely have an effect on the characters the players can make and the types of characters that will be part of the campaign. Supplemental or Optional rules may affect gameplay, and those also need to be considered. Setting books often just add details to part of the setting and wind up being pretty benign. Equipment books don’t often affect the beginning of play but wind up having more of an effect mid-campaign when the character can afford or are powerful enough to get some of the sexier equipment in the book.
How Will Future Supplements Be Handled
In addition to dealing with the current supplements, it is a good idea to discuss, as a group, how you will handle new supplements when they come out. Will you allow new supplements into the game, mid-campaign (see below)? Will there be some kind of review? Will you wait a few weeks/months after it comes out to hear from the community how it’s working for others?
Once your campaign is going, new supplements are a disruption to your game. They may be a good disruption or not. Most of us older gamers, who lived during the d20 boom in the early 2K’s, have some horror story about a supplement being added to a campaign that disrupted the game.
Hopefully, you had the discussion in Session Zero about how to handle supplements that are coming out as you are playing (see above) so that expectations are set.
When looking at new supplements, you need to look at the impact they might have on the game. Are there items, options, or rules that might create a sufficient disruption to the ongoing game? What are reviews saying about the supplement? Do you want to allow everything from the supplement into the game, or do you want to pick certain parts?
One consideration is that something in a future supplement may require some kind of retcon to make it fit into the game. Perhaps a player was trying to build a Cat Pirate character and did it using a base class with some creative choices of skills and gear, but then a new supplement comes out with a Cat Pirate class. Will you let them change over to that class and smooth out any continuity issues, or will you have them continue their current build?
It’s best to have talked about these in Session Zero, but if you did not, you can have these discussions at the table or between games.
My Cyberpunk Red Campaign
Right now, there are only a few supplements out for Cyberpunk Red and I am going just to allow them all into the game at the start. Most of the supplements are for equipment, and most of them will be things that the players can’t afford, so my risk is minimal.
There is a good chance that other supplements will come out for CPR while we are playing, as R. Talsorian is actively developing the game, so I have added a note to discuss this with my players. Personally, I am for including supplements, as long as I have the right to block parts or whole supplements that might disrupt the game in a negative way.
We Love Supplements
Supplements are great. They are great for game publishers who have new things to sell to you, without having to develop a whole game. They are great for players, giving them new options for them to try. They are great for GMs who get new adversaries to throw at the characters. We all love supplements.
At the same time, too many supplements at the start of the campaign can be daunting and confusing to manage. Supplements that show up mid-campaign can disrupt the game. On top of that, not all supplements are playtested the same way, or can’t even be playtested with all the other supplements you are using leading to chaos at your table.
With a bit of forethought in campaign setup and good communication with your players, you can manage the supplements for your game in a way that everyone has a good time.
What are you take on supplements when you set up a new campaign? What are some of your favorite supplements?Read more »
- mp3GNOMECAST #164 – Demiplane with Adam Bradford
Jared takes some time to speak with Adam Bradford, the person behind Demiplane. a place for Digital Tools, Content, and Services to Discover, Prep, and Play All Your Favorite Tabletop Roleplaying Games.
- Hard City Review
The first time I heard about Osprey Publishing, it was regarding their various military history books. Fast forward a few years, and my friend was explaining to me that they had introduced some miniature wargaming rules based around various themes, that were “miniature line agnostic,” meaning they were putting out their own lines of minis, just showing you how you could use existing minis for the game. Then I encountered their line of fantasy military supplements, creating similar books for dwarves, orcs, and elves as they had for real-world armies.
All of this led me to realize that Osprey has been expanding into the RPG market as well. They have published RPGs on British folklore, prehistoric fantasy, science fiction, wuxia, the bronze age, the Knights Templar, cyberpunk noir, and, what we’re looking at today, 1940s-era hard-boiled noir stories. I wanted to get a feel for what Osprey is offering, so today we’re going to look at Hard City.
I have not had the opportunity to play or run Hard City. I did not receive a review copy of the game, and purchased the game for review on my own.
Publisher Osprey Games
Author Nathan Russell
Artist Luis F. Sanz
Layout and Format
The PDF of this product is 161 pages long. This includes a title page, a copyright page, a three-page table of contents, a glossary, a character sheet, and an acknowledgment/credits page. The book is arranged in single page layout, with bold red headers for new topics. Sidebars are simple outlined sections that take up the full width of the page. Each of the chapters has full-page artwork, and there is half-page artwork included on various pages inside the chapters.
The artwork is thematically appropriate for a 1940s-era noir story. In addition to portraying hard-bitten characters in different noir-appropriate situations, there is a diverse range of people in the images, in both gender presentation and race/ethnicity.
The PDF is divided into the following sections:
- Welcome to the City
- The Basics
- Getting Into Trouble
- Hitting the Mean Streets
- The City
- Game Master Advice
- Case: Engagement with Death
- Case: In at The Deep End
At its most basic, in terms of mechanics, Hard City is a game about assembling a dice pool of Action Dice based on the character’s traits, adding Danger Dice based on the difficulty of the situation and complicating factors, and rolling them. Each Danger Die that matches an Action Die cancels that die out, and the highest of the remaining Action Dice is the result of the check.
- 4 or 5–Partial Success
- 3 or less–Failure
- No Action Dice uncancelled or only 1s remaining–Botch
If there are additional 6s beyond the first, this may allow the PC to add boons to their result. These boons may just be additional positive narrative results, or they may have mechanical weight (for example, in extended tests or in combat). All of the rolls are player-facing, which means if the GM’s characters are taking an action, the PCs are rolling to react to that action, rather than the GM rolling.
Extended Tasks require characters to score three successes before three failures, and might be used for situations like chases or interrogations.
Combat or any more structured scene calls for characters to be sorted into a specific resolution order. Most of the time, this will mean that the PCs go first in each of these phases. There is no check to see who goes first, the PCs just determine what they are doing, get sorted into the appropriate phase of the structured scene, and take turns whenever it makes sense. The structured scene order looks like this:
Threats all have the same general format, which means you could have a warehouse on fire as well as several goons, and each will be formatted with a series of tags that might serve to help frame how many Danger Dice to add to the pool when addressing that threat, as well as drives and actions. Each of the goons may have one Grit, and the fire might have three Grit, meaning it takes one successful action to remove a Goon from the scene, and three successful actions to put out the fire. Boons generated from additional 6s rolled can be applied to these numbers, so someone getting a boon while putting out the fire may remove two Grit instead of one from the threat.
It’s interesting to see the hybridization of various games going into these rules. It’s not a Powered by the Apocalypse or Forged in the Dark game, but it borrows from both of those, as well as other games like Fate, and even a little bit of the Doctor Who Roleplaying Game.
Player Characters are built by picking a Trademark for their Past, Present, and a Perk. So in your Past, you may have been a Performer, in your Present you may be a Negotiator, and for your Perk, you may be Famous.
You have five Edges that you can arrange under your Trademarks, as long as you have at least one under each Trademark. Whenever you take an action, you gain an Action Die for the Trademark that you are using for that action, and an additional Action Die for each Edge that applies to the action that you are taking.
Each character also takes two Flaws. Whenever a Flaw causes problems for a PC, they get to refresh their Moxie pool. Characters also assign a Drive and Ties, which are used to determine XP awards for advancement.
Each character starts out with a maximum of three Moxie and three Grit. Grit represents the number of injuries you can sustain until you are out of a scene. Moxie is a resource that you can spend to change a die result, remove a Condition, or use a Voice-over to add details to a scene. Moxie can also allow you to use a second Trademark in a check, which could potentially also grant you more dice for relevant Edges under that Trademark.
Conditions are generally gained as consequences for not receiving a full success, and if they are relevant to a particular action, they also add Danger Dice to your pool. Grit represents the number of injuries you can take, but each of those injuries can have varying severity. Injuries can be Light, Moderate, or Serious. You can decide if you want to mark a new injury or upgrade an existing one when the Injury is suffered. You can’t upgrade a Severe Injury. If you don’t upgrade your Injuries, you may be taken out more easily, but are less likely to be dying when you are taken out.
When creating characters, the group is encouraged to come up with a campaign framework that explains why the PCs are working together to do what they do. The suggested frameworks include:
- Wrong Place, Wrong Time
- Private Eyes
- Special Division
Wrong Place, Wrong Time represents regular people who get caught up in a dangerous situation that they have to work through, and is noted as being appropriate for one-shots. Private Eyes assumes the PCs all own their own PI firm, with different PCs having different specializations. Operatives assumes that the group is working for larger organizations as fixers or investigators of some sort. Special Division assumes that the PCs are working as part of a law enforcement task force on corruption.
I like the campaign framework idea a lot, but I wish there were a few more examples or a few more granular subdivisions under each of those. I wouldn’t even mind if the Campaign Framework had its own tags that could be accessed when appropriate.
Hard City uses a broadly drawn setting known as, appropriately, The City. By default, the starting year of the campaign is 1946, allowing for the fallout of War World II to be factored into the fabric of the story. There are three pages of tables that show some of the common goods for sale and their prices in this era, although the game itself isn’t especially concerned with buying or selling gear or goods.
The highest tier of organized crime is The Syndicate, but several crime families and organizations are mentioned. For example, the Johnsons run Anvil City, and the Sullivan Clan runs Bridgetown, but the biggest family is the Cesares. It’s a little disappointing that the Triad is mentioned as being active in Chinatown, but ends up being less detailed than any other criminal organization in that it has no families or NPCs detailed.
There is a section on personalities of the city, including the categories Movers and Shakers and Troublemakers. Most of these characters get a sentence or two to broadly define their roles in the city.
Various sections of the city get one-page descriptions, usually a few paragraphs each, in addition to a section on places in that district, and tags that can be used to portray that district (we’ll get to tags a little bit later). In addition, each district gets its own set of example hooks, four each, to help explain what kind of stories might relate to what districts.
While not given any specific geographic location, The City is mentioned as having an ocean on one side, hills on the other side, with farmlands and oil fields bordering The City on the other sides. This is a broadly drawn setting to allow for a wide variety of hard-boiled or noir themes, without dwelling on real-world history outside of the broad generalities of the era.
I’m not exactly sure where the best place to put this observation is, so I’ll throw it here in the Setting section, because a lot of what I’m about to say is about how the book presents atmosphere. In the technical sections, when presenting the game as a game, the book does a very good job of reinforcing that the table needs to avoid harmful stereotypes, like those associated with race/ethnicity, gender, or other marginalized identities. However, the thematic use of language reinforces some aspects of the stereotypes of the era, especially when describing women. Gendered terms are used a lot without a lot of text used to contextualize or broaden those terms. For example, “tough guys” and “femme fatales” as different archetypes.
Some of this feels like a consequence of how the book is doing things. When it’s talking about the game as a game, it makes a strong statement, but does so in a very focused and concise manner, but when it is presenting atmosphere, it tends to linger a bit more.
For the Game Master
In addition to the general rules for the game, there are about seven pages of GM advice on how to structure and run a game session. Game sessions are broadly organized into either Investigations or Heists. One of the biggest takeaways in this section is that the GM shouldn’t keep clues locked away from the PCs, and that they should provide more clues than they need to move the plot forward.
The GM section also has a number of threats detailed, each one having the following elements:
As mentioned above, Grit serves the same purpose as it does for PCs, but in this case, you aren’t tracking the severity or assigning specific injuries. It’s just a measure of how many successes you need to remove the threat. The threats in this section are organized into People, Environments, and Organizations. For Organizations, PCs may be in a position to damage that organization and reduce its Grit, and with enough successes, may remove that organization as a threat.
I like framing Organizations as threats in this manner. I can easily picture PCs, after they have dealt with a member of a crime family, doing some research to tie that person back to the organization in question, and moving them “one step closer” to bringing the whole thing down. Not only is it a fun campaign timer, but it also fits very well with themes like a Hard Boiled detective trying to make their name by toppling a major crime figure in The City.
The advice that is here is good. It is advice that someone brand new to RPGs or to this particular set of genre tropes is going to need to make sure they don’t make some major mistakes that spoil the mood. I do feel that it could have used a few more examples to back up those best practices. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to gauge because I’ve read so many GM chapters, and I’ve read a lot of chapters that deal with presenting stories similar to what this RPG is facilitating.
There are two example cases provided in the book. I’m always a fan of example adventures, even if you never end up using them. It shows you what the designers feel is important in an adventure, as well as how to incorporate elements of the game. In this case, there are two example cases, one being an investigation and one being a heist.
The first case involves finding a man who is engaged to be married and has disappeared, and the second case involves artwork smuggled back to the States after World War II and being sold to a private buyer.
I appreciate that the “heist” case has notes on how you can use the heist framework and tropes, but model it on infiltrating the location to gather evidence for a story or a prosecution, as well as just breaking in to steal the artwork. The investigation is definitely steeped in the tropes of the genre, but it’s a good example of what I mentioned above in the setting section.
Let’s look at the tags and actions of the two women that appear in the adventure:
- Gloria Davenport tags: Attractive, Athletic, Charm, Make a Deal, Seduction, Lie, Strong-willed
- Gloria Davenport actions: Fluster you, Distract you, Pay you off, Make a scene, Make you beg for more
- Sylvia Rossi tags: Empathy, Alert, Notice, Always Watched
- Sylvia Rossi actions: Give you a sob story, Spot impending trouble, Spill the beans, Run away
What makes this even more awkward is that Sylvia is an abused wife, and there is a particularly vicious trope that is thrown into the mix as a plot twist.
If nothing else, I would have liked a little more discussion around the intentionality of using these tropes, and if there is a way to engage them with more depth or meaning, instead of just perpetuating stereotypes found in noir or hard-boiled media.
Happy EndingIf you want to do the work, it’s a solid foundation
I enjoy how the tag system presents narrative-focused elements and translates them into mechanics for resolution. I think the book makes some good choices in presenting The City as a more abstract setting that is flexible enough to use for multiple noir and hard-boiled stories. I appreciate that you can frame environments and organizations with the same rules as dangerous villains, which gives you more flexibility in framing action scenes than just shooting or punching the opposition.
The Big Sleep
There are two paragraphs on safety, which largely point you toward other resources you can research on your own. While the technical game aspects of the game make it clear that you shouldn’t spend time on the harmful stereotypes of the genre, the presentation of the setting and adventures is somewhat at odds with that message. There could have been more work done to either contextualize and take a deeper look at including and deconstructing those stereotypes, or even building an alternate reality that plays with some of the themes of noir and hard-boiled fiction without others, but instead, the book relies on the GM to do that work on their own.
Tenuous Recommendation–The product has positive aspects, but buyers may want to make sure the positive aspects align with their tastes before moving this up their list of what to purchase next.
Hard-boiled detective stories are one of the genres that I really want to spend more time with in gaming, and I like the foundation that this game lays down. However, it lacks the more intentional engagement with the topics that many of the best modern games include. If you want to do the work, it’s a solid foundation, but you really should do the work to make your game a safer environment, and you’re going to be doing that work largely on your own.Read more »
- 100,000 Words!In June of 2009, I launched the Ravenous RPG site.
In June of 2009, I launched the (now defunct) Ravenous RPG site. My purpose and intent was to review RPG products, RPG posts/blogs/articles/etc. I fulfilled that purpose for a good number of years before shuttering the site due to lack of time to properly consume all of the great and wonderful things coming out of the RPG community. Of course, Gnome Stew was one of the many sites on my radar, and I consistently linked to articles and left thoughtful comments as best I could. Something in the way I reviewed, commented, chewed upon, and gave my introspection on RPGs caught the eye of the fine folks here at Gnome Stew.
Fast forwarding to leap day of 2016, I received a tweet from John Arcadian saying he wanted to talk to me about some RPG-related writing. As you can tell from my lengthy articles here, I’m more verbose than Twitter’s format allows in order to properly express my ideas. Instead of responding to the tweet, I dropped him an email. This started the conversation in which John invited me to join the Gnome Stew crew and outlined expectations, rules, guidance, and all that good stuff. Since I’m a digital pack rat, I still have all of those emails in my Gnome Stew email folder.I accepted the invite to join Gnome Stew.
Obviously, I accepted the invite to join Gnome Stew, and posted my first article on Gaming, Narrating, and Simulating on March 28th, 2016. Phew. That was a rough start. I was given guidance that articles should be about 800 words with a hard cap of 1,000 words. (PS: The “hard cap” thing was my misreading of the instructions John had sent me. I’ve clearly gone way over that 1,000 word “hard cap” many times.) My first draft of the article sat at about 3,000 words. I cut it down to a hair over 900 to fit within the word range given to me. This made the article choppy, ineffective, short-sighted, and it received numerous negative comments because of this. Many of the comments were so deeply abusive that I thought about quitting Gnome Stew and requesting that John delete my one and only article. Fortunately, John came to my rescue, deleted the abusive comments, banned a few people from commenting, and then immediately jumped on our Slack channel to give me a much-needed boost in the form of a pep talk. I really needed that. Honestly, I should have bitten off a smaller topic for my first article. Such is hindsight, right?
Since that bumpy start, I’ve gone on to write and publish 91 (including this one) articles and reviews on Gnome Stew. Before I started typing this post, I was exactly 1,625 words shy of hitting exactly 100,000 words worth of Gnome Stew articles and reviews and such.I’m going to touch upon some of my past articles.
Now that you’ve seen my history with Gnome Stew, I’m going to touch upon some of my past articles that I think really helped me discover more about quality gaming as I wrote them. I’m hoping this retrospective will help you discover some older advice that I’ve dropped in the past. I’ll be going through them from the oldest articles to the newer ones. Maybe, if you look closely enough, you’ll discover my own evolution as a GM and player.I feel that this is a vital topic for everyone.
The first article I’d like to highlight is my PC Agency article. I wrote this one pretty early in my time with Gnome Stew because I deeply feel that this is a vital topic for everyone (GMs and players alike) to be aware of. If a GM (or another player) strips a player or their character of their agency, then there’s really no reason for the player to be at the table other than to maybe roll some dice, move some minis, and do some math to announce a result. That’s not fun for anyone. If you’re doing this to others at the table, then I recommend you go write a short story or novel where you truly are in full control of the actions of everyone involved.
The next one up is based on my education as an author. It’s about Character Arcs. Granted, there are many, many types of character arcs out there, but I boiled down things into Change, Growth, and Failure arcs. These concepts are probably oversimplification of things. I might revisit this article in a future, full-blown post now that I’ve learned quite a bit more about character arcs in the intervening years. I still stand by these three types of arcs as being foundational to all others, though.I still refer to this one and point people to it all the time.
How to Build a Custom GM Screen is the next article I want to highlight because I still refer to it and point people in its direction all the time. This article is, at its core, really about how to learn a new system. The GM screen is just part of the puzzle, but it’s an important one. Even if you abhor using a screen at your table, I still recommend making one. It’s part of the learning process. Maybe, instead of thinking of it as a barrier between you and the players, you can approach it as creating handouts for your players and yourself to assist everyone in learning the new game. The process is the same, but with a different physical artifact generated at the end of the effort.I’ve been techno-geek my entire life.
I’ve been techno-geek my entire life (I starting doing software engineering when I was 7 years old). Since the 1990s, I’ve largely worked in or around computer security. The article I wrote on changing GMs within the same campaign was A Computer Security Approach To Changing GMs, and it’s one of the favorites that I have out of all of my articles. I think the reason it’s near the top of the list is because it scratched my computer geek itch and my RPG nerd itch all at the same time.This is one of my favorite storytelling structures.
I’ve mentioned being an author (have you noticed?!?), and one of my favorite storytelling structures of all time is Scene and Sequel. In this article, I adopted the concepts of this structure to RPG sessions. At a high level, scenes are where the action takes place (social interactions, combat, chase scenes, high tension moments, etc.). The sequels are not the second story in a series, but the area of the story that immediately follows a scene where the characters have a little bit of downtime (not in the D&D 5th edition concept) to reflect on what just happened, be a bit retrospective, and make plans for what they want to do next. In theory, these plans lead directly into the next scene, and the whole process repeats over and over until the story concludes.
Hey! I write books. One of the more popular concepts in coalescing ideas in a structured manner is the MICE Quotient (created by Orson-Scott Card). Mary Robinette Kowal modified it into the MACE Quotient, which I think works a little better. I use MACE in my own storytelling when I’m in the midst of outlining my stories, and it’s saved me numerous headaches in avoiding restructuring stories during the editing process. On the RPG front, I modified MACE to be LACE Quotient. In LACE, the letters stand for Locations, Asks/Answers, Combats, and Events. Delve into the article to find out more details about each element of the LACE Quotient that I came up with.
The next article I want to talk about was written before I’d discovered Dungeon Crawl Classics. DCC had been out for about six years when I came up with this concept. I’m sure I’d heard of the game, but I had certainly never cracked the books or played the game. Since this time, I’ve had a chance to be a player in a few funnels, a few storylines, and quite a few adventures in DCC. It’s a hoot! Anyway, I conceived of this article based on my past experiences with the players playing “commoners” in their setting. These were characters that were down on their luck, had little in the way of possessions or wealth, and couldn’t really impact the world around them unless they worked together as a team. It’s a fascinating concept in any RPG system, and I still stand by what I wrote about Captivating Commoners.Did you miss session zero?
What do you do when a player misses session zero at the start of a campaign? It happens. In my group, we do our best to adjust scheduling session zero to when everyone can make it, but that’s not always an option. It’s always extra work for the GM to get the missing player up to speed when they return to the table on the following session, but it can be done. It’s especially easier these days with online communication systems like Slack, Discord, Messenger, email, and so on. My article about Missing Session Zero has more details on how to handle this eventuality.
Leveraging Tech At The Table is another article that I refer to quite often. Even though this came out in 2019, not much has changed with my opinion and uses of tech at the table. Granted, the pandemic drove many people to play purely online (and many have stayed there), but this article talks about the meshing of online tech with the physical presence at the table. Go take a look at my horrible handwriting on the screenshots of my digital note taking efforts.
I had an attempt at running The Expanse fail spectacularly back in the middle of 2019. This was not the RPG’s fault. It was my fault. I learned nine important lessons on how to avoid this in the future, and I summarized my failures with advice points on 9 Steps For A Successful New Group Launch.
(… And at this point, I’ve hit my 100,000 word goal!)
(… But I’m still going to keep going through a few more article to highlight some others.)Don’t be clever.
In the “ye olde days” of creating dungeons, adventure creators would get “clever” and make location elements that were merely there to screw with the players (not the characters, but the players). In my article about Destroying Clever Maps, I delve into why this is utter garbage and wholly unrealistic even in a fantasy or far-flung sci-fi setting.
In 2020, I had a whole series of “interesting” articles where I threw out ideas for spicing up your settings and characters with “interesting” details, aspects, and facets. They were very well received by many people, so I wanted to make a list of them here:
Even the mundane can be bizarre.
- Interesting Foods
- Interesting Weather
- Interesting Foliage
- Interesting Urban Locations
- Interesting Fauna
- Interesting Rural Locations
- Interesting Magic Appearances
About two years ago, I put together an article detailing some Bizarre Traditions and wrote them up to make them sound as weird as possible, even though they are pretty mundane events. I did this to inspire folks to come up with their own oddities and traditional actions that are just slightly left of center. This one was a fun one to write because of the twisting of a “normal” activity to make it appear as bizarre as possible.
It’s generally accepted that railroading the PCs through the GM’s storyline is a bad thing. That’s not the point of this article, though. When I wrote Railroading The Rules, I had in mind that a story needed to be told in a certain manner to teach the rules, bit-by-bit, to players that might be new to a system or to RPGs in general. The approach I outline in the article is one that I’ve used with great success many times over the decades.
Another article I had a great deal of fun with was using Tattoos As Spellbooks in a D&D-style game system. This was a meme and conversation running about social media at the time, so I took a serious look at it from the GM’s perspective to see if I would allow it, what limitations there might be, and how those precious tattoos might get damaged. This truly was a joy to write, and I hope it’s inspired some folks to get tattoos on their wizards as an alternative to putting every spell inside a book.I love running improv-style games.
I love running improv-style games. This is where I, as the GM, am completely unprepared for what the PCs are going to do next… and I do this on purpose! This makes for a more dynamic story, a deeper engagement level by the players, and leads to new hijinks that no one (sometimes, not even the players!) could have imagined happening. In my article about Running An Improv Game, I delve into how this can be done.
Is your world living or undead? I ask this question and clarify what I mean in my article about your World’s Heartbeat. This article generated quite a bit of conversation on social media, which is why I wanted to bring it to your attention.
I think that’ll be the last article I highlight in this (very) lengthy retrospective of 100,000 words (and then some) of writing for Gnome Stew.THANK YOU!
I want to take a moment to pass along some much deserved thanks to various people:
- John Arcadian for bringing me on board.
- Angela Murray for starting the Gnomecast and for keeping Gnome Stew so well organized.
- Old Man Logan for editing 100,000 words (and then some) of mine.
- Phil Vecchione for showing me how it’s done on the GM advice side of things.
- Senda Linaugh for opening my eyes to the fact that good gaming is more than rules mastery.
- … and the rest of the Gnome Stew crew for many years of wonderful companionship online.
- … and to all of the wonderful readers and gamers out there that read our collective advice!
Thanks for letting me ramble through this brief trip in my history.
Here’s to another 100,000 words!Read more »
- mp3GNOMECAST #163 – Collaborative World Building
Welcome to the GnomeCast, the Gnome Stew’s tabletop gaming advice podcast. Here we talk with the other gnomes about gaming things to avoid becoming part of the stew. So I guess we’d better be good.
Today we have myself Ang, along with Senda and Jared to talk about Collaborative World Building. What it is, how to do it, games that can help you get better at it, the pitfalls, the bonus for doing this, and potential ways to use this concept in your games.Read more »
- Book of Ebon Tides Review
One of my favorite developments in Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition was formalizing concepts from other editions and settings into the Shadowfell and the Feywild. The concept of these “funhouse mirror” versions of the prime material plane added several adventuring options. The Shadowfell made for a more interesting transitive plane between the living and the undead than the much more difficult-to-navigate Negative Energy plane.
The Shadowfell remains part of the D&D 5e cosmology, but most of the emphasis has been placed on the Domains of Dread, spending most of the word count on the plane to describe what was once the pocket dimension of Ravenloft. While Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft details some imaginative locations to adventure, the paradigm of Darklords and the Mists that act as their prisons moves the narrative away from some of the storytelling elements that dominated the 4e version of the plane, such as the cities of Evernight and Gloomwrought.
That brings us to today’s review. The Book of Ebon Tides is a campaign setting book from Kobold Press, detailing the Plane of Shadows as it exists for the Midgard Campaign setting, but is also portable to other settings.
I participated in the crowdfunding for the Book of Ebon Tides, and I did not receive a review copy. I have not had the opportunity to use the setting although my players have used some of the options from this book in my home campaign.
The Book of Ebon Tides
Design Wolfgang Baur, Celeste Conowitch
Additional Design Richard Green, Sarah Madsen, Kelly Pawlik, Brian Suskind
Development And Editing Scott Gable Proofreading Jeff Quick
Cover Artist Marcel Mercado
Interior Artists George Johnstone, Mike Pape, David Auden Nash, William O’brien, Roberto Pitturru, Addison Rankin, Kiki Moch Rizki, Florian Stitz, Bryan Syme, Egil Thompson, Alexander Yakovlev
Cartography Jon Pintar, Samantha Senn, Dean Spencer
Graphic Design Marc Radle Layout Marc Radle
Additional Layout Amber Seger
Art Director Marc Radle
Editorial Director Thomas M. Reid
Director Of Operations T. Alexander Stangroom
Sales Manager Kym Weiler
Community Manager Victoria Rogers
Publisher Wolfgang Baur
Layout and Format
This review is based both on the PDF and physical copy of the product. The book is 256 pages long, including the following:
- Credits and Product Identity (2 pages)
- Table of Contents (2 pages)
- Two-page map of the lands detailed in the book (2 pages)
- Monsters by Challenge Rating native to the setting (14 pages)
- Shadowfell Battlemaps (6 pages)
Like most Kobold Press books, there is a border that consists of artwork from the book repeated on the pages. Purple, gold, and tan are the predominant colors in this work. All the artwork is full color, and while the theme is the Plane of Shadows, the book remains colorful, balancing warm lighting against the shadows created by that lighting. The book has a two-column layout, containing sidebars with excerpts from the titular Book of Ebon Tides. There are also numerous tables and stat blocks in the traditional 5e SRD style.
The book itself feels nice and solid, with glossy pages. It’s worth noting that the maps of the lands detailed in the book and the battle maps are not pull-out sections of the book but printed on regular pages. The book itself looks wonderful, but I’m an easy mark for lots of purple.
The book is divided into the following sections:
- Overview and History
- Umbral People and Heroes
- Heroes From the Shadows
- Magic in the Shadow Realm
- The Nature of Shadow
- Fey Courts and Servitors
- Realms Beyond the Courts
- Umbral Pantheon
- Monsters and NPCs
- Magic Items and Trickery
- Life in the Shadow Realm
- Shadow Realm Encounters
- Shadow Realm Creatures by Terrain
There are about 15 pages of setting information, which then launches into player options, before transitioning into more detailed setting information. This moves into details on the gods worshipped in the Plane of Shadow, monster and NPC stat blocks, and a miscellany of setting details that can be used in campaigns in the Plane of Shadows, such as magical effects and random encounters.
Like the Shadowfell in D&D’s official cosmology, the Plane of Shadows is, in part, a shadow of the Prime Material Plane. But unlike the Shadowfell, where we have some geography that is more specifically mirrored in some sources (for example, Evernight in the Shadowfell is the direct analog of Neverwinter in the Forgotten Realms), the Plane of Shadows is more nebulous in this regard. If you cross over, there is likely a city near where a city would be located on the material plane, but it’s less likely a direct mirror of the geography of the city back home.
Locations that aren’t anchored in the Plane of Shadows start to drift around the plane, on the Ebon Tides. The locations detailed in the book primarily focus on those areas where the inhabitants have taken pains to make regions more stable. In addition to locking down the locations of cities and fortresses, establishing roads is important to the inhabitants as well.
Because of the importance of these roads, and the danger of the wilder regions of the Plane of Shadows, the paths are protected by various Road Wardens. Because of the sympathetic structure of the Plane of Shadows to the material plane, those on the material plane that can access the Shadow Roads can travel across distances much more quickly by traversing most of the distance in the shifting Plane of Shadow.
As presented, the Plane of Shadow in this book is less dark and grey gloom and more of a colorful balance between subdued light and shadows. The darkest and gloomiest parts of the plane still exist, but it’s the lurking periphery, waiting to catch those that wander away from the cities or stray off the Shadow Roads. Non-native creatures risk Shadow Corruption when they spend time on the plane. This is tracked much like exhaustion, with each level bringing a new hindrance. For example, you start with disadvantage on all social interactions with people not native to the plane, progress through penalties when you are in bright light, and settle on taking radiant damage in sunlight and becoming a shadow thrall who doesn’t want to leave the plane.
I like that the Shadow Corruption rules are more targeted than exhaustion, and leave the player character in better shape than exhaustion does. The penalties reinforce the theme of Shadow Corruption, although the shadow thrall stage feels a little messy, as it causes some rolls to fail automatically and gives the PC the charmed condition against certain creatures above a certain intelligence threshold. This could have been streamlined to assess disadvantage on a wider range of checks.
Unlike the Domains of Dread, the Plane of Shadows has a very “Unseelie Court” feel to it. Many of the courts detailed in the book are the domains of various powerful fey, including many of the Archfey introduced in Kobold Press’ monster books. These include courts of Archfey like Reynard the Fox Lord, the Mistress of Midnight Teeth, the Queen of Night and Magic, the Witch Queen, and the Moonlit King. These domains not only have their own quirky NPCs in various positions of power, but most of them also have their own laws and rules that reflect the personalities of their rulers.
The archfey aren’t the only rulers that have their own domains. The Shadow Goblins have their own trade city, and the Bearfolk have their groves, which they founded long ago, to keep the prime material plane safe from incursions from the Plane of Shadows. Oshragora is a city of vampires that has not been anchored against the Ebon Tides, and parts of the city manifest on the edges of other domains from time to time. The Shadow Fey are elves who have been infused with the essence of the plane by their dealings with The Queen of Night and Magic, and the Sable Elves are remnants of a fallen society of elven glory. The Twilight Empire is the shadow analog of the Empire of the Ghouls, a region ruled by the darakhul, who supplement their diet of humanoids with flesh-bearing trees imported from Evermaw, the afterlife of the undead.
Not unlike the Shadowfell, the Plane of Shadows is a plane of transit for the souls of the dead. In this setting, it is manifested by the presence of the River Styx and the River Lethe running through the plane. Some creatures make a living by either fishing for souls, or extracting lost memories from the rivers’ waters, as memories are a hot commodity for the Shadow Fey, who suffer from muted emotions due to the changes the plane has wrought on them.
Gods of Shadow
While many of the gods detailed in this source have already appeared in other Midgard setting books, almost all of them have more information provided about them, in context to how they relate to the Plane of Shadows. Hecate’s exploits in the Midgard setting are expanded, as many consider her the creator of the Plane of Shadows. Her worship is widespread in a variety of domains.
The Black Goat of the Woods, an entity borrowed from the Lovecraft Mythos, is given some Midgard-specific backstory elements. This blurs the line on whether this is the same entity, or a deity native to Midgard that was corrupted by the influence of something beyond the Void.
One of the things I have consistently appreciated about how gods are presented in Kobold Press’ books is that the entries include a “What X Demands” section. This explains what members of the faithful consider important. As someone that doesn’t need to be talked into playing a cleric, I love anything that is going to help me get into character, and I honestly wish more cleric-facing material was this clear. It might convince a few more people that it’s actually fun to take on the cleric role from time to time.
Player Facing Material and Rules
There are many new player-facing options in this book. These include new races and subraces, subclasses, backgrounds, feats, and spells. The new ancestry options include:
- Shadowborn (Bearfolk born in the Plane of Shadow)
- Bearfolk Heritage (Bearfolk that succumbed to ghoul fever)
- Shadow Goblin Heritage (Shadow Goblins that succumbed to ghoul fever)
- Shadow Fey (Elves bound to the Plane of Shadows)
- Lunar Elf (Shadow Fey born with a connection to the moon)
- Sable Elf (Fallen elves that have retreated to the Plane of Shadows)
- Shadow Goblin (Goblins that are partially camouflaged in shadow and can taunt)
- Umbral Human
- Changeling (Human children kidnapped and raised in the Plane of Shadows)
- The Gifted (Humans “gifted” with abilities from Shadow Fey)
- Quickstep (Basically Quicklings)
- Clever Tusk (Tiny squirrel folk)
- Tree Protector (Small squirrel folk)
- Spiritfarer Erina (Erina brought to the Plane of Shadow to serve the Shadow Fey)
- Stygian Shade (Shades that have lost even more of their past lives)
- Sublime Ravenfolk (Ravenfolk drawn to a psychic song of the cosmos)
- Unbound Satarre (Satarre that travel the planes and can sense portals)
- Wyrd Gnome (Gnomes born with a natural ability for Divination)
While some of these ancestries were already presented with subraces in other sources, some exist as completely new implementations, because the core ancestry from which they diverged wasn’t designed with a subrace. The entries all include assigned ability score bonuses tied to race, but there is a sidebar mentioning that players should work with their GM to rearrange bonuses to better suit their character concept.
Some of these ancestries carry with them some quirks that I’ve never fully warmed up to, when used in previous Midgard products. For example, Darakhul have appeared several times, and the list of species traits that need to be added to them to model ghouls of different species is unwieldy, and some species definitely pair more advantageously with the base traits of the Darakhul.
I really want to like Ratatosks, but there are a few messy elements entwined in the implementation. The core ancestry gets a -2 to strength, and even before 5e SRD design started to move away from assigned ability scores, errata eliminated the only racial traits that required an ability penalty years ago. While I can empathize with wanting a wider range of sizes for PCs than just small and medium, most of 5e design is predicated on supporting this paradigm. The tiny version of Ratatosk can only use light or finesse weapons, but the entry refers to being able to use weapons made for their size normally. But there aren’t any rules for tiny-sized weapons.
There are a lot of fun options that I think work better with the core rules of D&D 5e. I really love the idea of the Quickstep introducing a player character Quickling. They have a massive movement rate and can use their speed to go invisible for a number of rounds equal to their level, which I feel captures the main beats of Quicklings without adding in some other issues, like extra actions. Human Changelings just gain the ability to glamour their appearance, but I like the story elements introduced with playing an Unseelie changeling.
I enjoy Shadow Goblins as a sort of hybrid of typical goblin traits with some Kender elements. They do remind me that official D&D 5e products are moving away from some traits that I like that used to be in the toolbox for species. I know Sunlight Sensitivity can be a huge disadvantage to a character, but I also feel like making some kind of eye protection available for these characters preserves the story aspect without automatically making daylight surface adventuring a problem.
The subclasses introduced include the following:
- Shadow Gnawer
- College of Shadow
- Keeper Domain
- Shadow Domain
- Circle of Shadow
- Way of the Prophet
- Umbral Binder
- Light Weaver Origin
- Mother of Sorrows Patron
- Shadow Arcane Tradition
I am a firm believer that a subclass needs to enforce its theme with the first couple of features, and hopefully also tell a consistent story. Most of these subclasses do a pretty good job of living up to this, and there are some really fun subclass stories being told. For example, a College of Shadows Bard uses darkness to tell scary stories, which just happens to manifest in combat useful abilities. The Light Weaver Sorcerer plays with moving back and forth between being light-shifted or dark-shifted. The Umbral Binder Rogue tackles the subclass issue that Rogues are stuck with (their second ability doesn’t come until 9th level) by giving them three different shadow effects to choose from after they take a rest.
The Keeper Domain Cleric has a little bit of a “story” issue, not because its abilities don’t help and support others, but the Channel Divinity move feels a lot more like a Warlord/Battlemaster move, rather than an ability that supports a community. The Shadow Gnawer probably has the biggest core loop issues. The story of the subclass is that Shadow Gnawers ingest dangerous shadow-stuff to protect others. But the subclass, at lower levels, gets defensive abilities and teleporting abilities that don’t involve absorbing or combatting shadow threats. The actual ingesting shadow mechanics don’t show up until higher levels.
Many of these subclasses lean on granting a player darkvision, or extending darkvision if they already have it. While I appreciate that these features still do something for someone that already has the ability, it’s my experience that darkvision when you don’t have darkvision is a much bigger deal than having darkvision 60 turn into darkvision 120.
Magic, Magic Items, and Magical Effects
It may not be surprising to find out that the Plane of Shadows is heavily steeped in magic so much so that optional rules are modifying a host of spells that draw on light, dark, shadows, and illusions. In theory, I like modified magic in campaigns that reinforce a theme, but in practice, I know it’s really easy to forget some of these effects in the moment, at the table.
There are over fifty new spells introduced in the book. Many of these spells have categories attached to them. These subcategories have been used in other Kobold Press products to interact with some feats or abilities, as well as to denote what kind of instructors a character would need to seek out to learn them. These include more spells of the Illumination school, which have already been introduced in other Midgard products, as well as the fey, elemental, shadow, liminal, and weather subcategories.
Every spellcasting class in the 5e SRD gains new spells in this section, so on behalf of Rangers that have been shafted in many products that add new spells, thanks!
There are more than 80 new magic items included in this book. There are specific charts for generating magic items that include both 5e SRD items as well as Book of Ebon Tides items, for generating thematically appropriate treasure hoards. In addition to the categories of magic items we’re accustomed to in other products, this book introduces Illusion Seeds and Memory Philters.
Illusion Seeds conjure shadow-stuff to produce an effect that is effectively real but fades after a few hours as the shadow-stuff unravels. In the Plane of Shadows, however, Illusion Seeds don’t naturally fade the same way they do on the prime material plane. Memory Philters are technically used to experience certain types of captured memories, but they also provide various additional game effects. I like the concept of these, the idea that the effect that the player wants to trigger is a side effect of why the item was made. That is made a little more uncomfortable by the Philter of Lust. The only requirement for someone under the effects of the Philter is to “seek out a person whose affection you desire,” so it’s not as bad as it could be, but definitely in “tread carefully” territory.
Some of the included items are epic items tied to the history of the setting. These items include the actual Book of Ebon Tides, the Crown of Infinite Midnight, and Hecate’s Lantern. These are items that are less rewards for a player completing an adventure, and more an item that falls in the PC’s lap to tie them into a narrative.
In addition to more formalized rules elements like spells or magic items, there are magical phenomena native to the Plane, random fey items, and a list of tricks and pranks. These range from whimsically enchanted clothing, pets, foods, omens, mounts, and trinkets. Some of these probably could have been represented with common or uncommon magic items, but honestly, I like the whimsy for a lot of these effects, and I think not detailing how PCs can do these wondrous, weird, random things adds to their charm.
Inhabitants and Stat Blocks
There are about 25 or so stat blocks included in the book. While there are definitely some monstrous creatures, like the Birch Siren, Memory Thief, Molefolk, River Spirits, Rose Golems, and Wandering Ponds, there are also a lot of NPC stat blocks to represent people in the setting. I like NPC stat blocks, but I feel like it’s worth noting that these aren’t just “guard” or “wizard,” but often characters that have unique and quirky abilities.
Bearfolk Thunderstompers can imitate giant footsteps. Gnomish Distillers have multiple effects they can mix up in their backpack. There are members of different fey courts, like Oma Rattenfanger, a pixie who has bonded to the Shadow Plane, or the Radiant Lord, a fey so obsessed with the stars that he can burst into a radiant form. There are even Umbral Tailors that can stitch together souls when they detect psychic distress in a client.
Despite years and years of both oozes and mimics being in the game, I still love the Wandering Pond, an ooze that casts an illusion to make it look like a pleasant location, until someone gets too close. As a fan of giants, I like the River Giants that travel the Styx and the Lethe in their boats, using their nets to catch memories to sell, as well as the Styx Giants, River Giants that have encountered the waterways too often. I really enjoy the story elements surrounding Rose Golems. These constructs can put intruders to sleep so that their masters can take prisoners, and the golems themselves are considered artwork to show off at garden parties for the fey.
Radiant EnergyThe material in this book can present what feels like a dark reflection of the Domains of Delight in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and still just be just around the corner from a Domain of Dread from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, or even down the shadowy path from locations we haven’t seen since D&D 4e like Evernight or Gloomwrought.
The setting material presents a creepy setting without making it too oppressive and instills some fey whimsy into the material with a bit of an edge. The lists of tricks and glamours, as well as the encounters, are all great elements to drop into an adventure. The hazards, portals, and details on the shadow roads are all solid mechanical support for the tone present in the book.
I understand the additional cost that comes from adding pull-out maps, but even the PDF download doesn’t include the battle maps that are included in the last few pages of the book. Some of the abilities of the subclasses presented are thematic, but also play with some very similar effects, like darkvision. Some of the species presented are ambitious in a way that the 5e SRD doesn’t support well.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
The great thing about an entire plane of existence is that it can theoretically be infinite. The material in this book can present what feels like a dark reflection of the Domains of Delight in The Wild Beyond the Witchlight, and still just be just around the corner from a Domain of Dread from Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, or even down the shadowy path from locations we haven’t seen since D&D 4e like Evernight or Gloomwrought. While much of this lore ties in well to the Midgard setting, it’s modular enough to lurk in the gloom just beyond everything else in the Shadowfell. I hope we see a campaign setting book for Silendora, the Midgard equivalent of the Feywild, so we can see what the more “Seelie” side of things looks like.
Do you have a favorite RPG product that details other planes of existence? Does it provide for short visits or long-term campaign play? We want to hear about your favorites in the comments below!Read more »
- The Loneliness Epidemic and RPGs
Somewhere around 2010, I read an article talking about how older adults are slower to make friends than young adults, teens, and children. This confounded me because I was definitely an older adult but I had a whole swath of newish friends I’d become close with around that time. And then it hit me. I made all of those friends because of roleplaying games.
There’s a lot of talk lately about what is being called the Loneliness Epidemic. While it seems new, this is something that has been building for many years but was made worse and abundantly clear during the early days of the pandemic when isolation was encouraged to protect everyone. That time exposed how vulnerable we are as a society to feeling disconnected and alone. Between a fast-paced world that seems like its careening from disaster to disaster and the devices we lose ourselves in for distraction, there are many reasons why loneliness is becoming a massive societal problem. It’s such a prominent issue that the United States Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, recently wrote an editorial about it in the New York Times.
I’m no doctor or psychologist. I’m just an artsy nerd who works with photography and computers for a living and then spends most of my off hours obsessing about playing pretend with my friends. What I can speak to on this subject are my own experiences and how I believe staying active and involved with roleplaying games is an excellent way to build friendships and community to help push back the loneliness hovering ominously in the shadows.
Connections with new people take time to grow into meaningful friendships. Psychologists have written studies on the amount of time that needs to be spent creating that bond, but it basically boils down to regular blocks of time together and shared experiences. When you’ve got a busy job, a family to care for, responsibilities around the house and any other number of the obligations you pick up as an adult, it can be hard to make new friends. Busy adults just don’t have the time to invest in creating those needed shared experiences. But hey look, roleplaying games can give you that!
Whether it’s finding a group through your friendly local game store, online through a focused RPG community, or attending a convention to try out new games, roleplaying games let you spend a few hours with like-minded folks playing games together. Do it on a regular or a semi-regular basis and it is pretty much guaranteed you’ll make a friend or two that can last beyond the game itself. Gaming gives us both time together and shared experiences, both important ingredients in brewing up a friendship.
Twenty years ago, I was fed up. While I was still close with my college group of friends, we didn’t game together anymore. I was heavily involved with Everquest and had some friends from that game, but it wasn’t quite the same. I honestly just missed gaming. So, I tentatively started trying to find a regular game to play. I’ve told this story before, so I won’t get into the nitty gritty details, but through some twists and turns, I found three guys that I enjoyed gaming with and we started the core of a regular gaming group that is still going strong today. Over the years, we’ve picked up some other folks along the way and I can confidently say we are a close-knit group of friends.
Around that same time, I also started going to conventions to experience new games. Almost instantly I started making connections with other gamers I would regularly see at conventions. It’s been long enough now that some of those friendships have come and gone, but more have taken their place. Heck, I wouldn’t be here writing this article if I hadn’t met John Arcadian at Origins way back when. I even just spent the last weekend in Ohio at a hotel with 30 beloved convention friends having a fantastic time gaming and hanging out.
Now, what worked for me may not work for everyone. I know plenty of people who do not enjoy gaming with strangers and conventions are not for everyone. What I can say is that if you know you enjoy gaming and you are struggling with a lack of connection in your life, it is worth reaching out to your local or online gaming community. Gamers, for all our awkward nerdy natures, are social creatures. We thrive on creating that shared experience at the table.
Life is kind of a lot right now, and we need the kinship we get from a shared love of games. Whether you’re looking for making some new connections or meet someone looking for the same, roleplaying games can make bonds and friendships like almost nothing else.Read more »