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  • Dune: Fall of the Imperium Review

    The title of the page reads Dune: Adventures in the Imperium at the top, and Fall of the Imperium Sourcebook at the bottom. In the background is the appearance of a swirling galaxy, and a single planet. In front of that is the face of a bearded man looking to the right, a woman to the left in robes, two figures in armor, and another figure in robes. At the bottom of the page is a legion of people waving green and gold flags with a House symbol on them.

    Licensed games usually take the approach of presenting material that can happen far away from the canon events of the setting. This works especially well in settings like Star Trek or Star Wars, where there is a literal galaxy of locations available for storytelling. Player characters may hear about canon events, and there may be a butterfly effect on some of their options, but the assumption of the game is that the player characters aren’t going to be directly confronting and potentially contradicting the fictitious history of the setting.

    Despite this, there are some fans who want exactly that. If they are playing in a game about a given setting, they want to be present for the events they have read about or seen on screen. They may or may not want to step into the shoes of an existing character, either by playing that character, or by playing a character that replaces the canon character in the game table’s narrative. If you want to play through a campaign where it’s possible for Luke Skywalker to miss the shot that destroys the Death Star because a PC failed to keep a TIE Fighter off his tail, that’s largely on the game facilitator to navigate.

    Modiphius has taken an interesting approach to this with their Dune: Adventures in the Imperium RPG. While it largely assumes that player characters will be engaging in house politics in other corners of the galaxy or touching upon Arrakis in moments between galaxy shaking events, it has also introduced products that directly engage the canon narrative. The primary example of this has been the Agents of Dune boxed set, which places the player characters and their house in the place of House Atreides, inheriting Dune from the Harkonnens by decree of the emperor.

    The adventure we’re looking at today also places player characters directly in the path of galactic history, presenting a campaign that takes place just before, during, and in the aftermath of Paul Atreides’ takeover of the imperial throne.

     Dune: Fall of the Imperium

    Creative Lead Andrew Peregrine
    Line Editor/Canon Editor
    Rachel J. Wilkinson
    Writing
    Richard August, Simon Berman, Jason Brick, Jason Durall, Keith Garrett, Jack Norris, Andrew Peregrine, Dave Semark, Hilary Sklar, Devinder Thiara, Mari Tokuda, Rachel J. Wilkinson
    Graphic Design Chris Webb, Leigh Woosey, Jen Mccleary
    Art Direction
    Rocío Martín Pérez
    Cover Artist
    David Benzal
    Interior Artwork Artists
    Amir Zand, Joel Chaim Holtzman, János Tokity, Simone Rizzo, Jakub Kozlowski, Carmen Cornet, Eren Arik, Hans Park, Mikhail Palamarchuk, Mihail Spil-Haufter, Lixin Yin, Susanah Grace, Alexander Guillen Brox, Imad Awan, Louie Maryon, Justin Usher, Jonny Sun, Olivier Hennart, Pat Fix, Avishek Banerjee, Bastien Lecouffe-Deharme, Simone Rizzo
    Proofreading
    Stuart Gorman
    Project Management
    Daniel Lade
    Brand Management
    Joe Lefavi for Genuine Entertainment

    Disclaimer

    I am not working from a review copy of this product and did not receive a review copy to work from. I have received review copies from Modiphius Entertainment in the past. I have not had the opportunity to play or run this adventure. I do have a familiarity with the 2d20 system, having run and played multiple iterations of the rules.

    Layout and Design

    I am working from a PDF of the adventure. The adventure is available as a PDF or a physical book. Additionally, there is a Roll20 version of the adventure for sale. The PDF is 146 pages long. The content of those pages breaks down to this:

    • Covers–2 pages
    • Inside Front Cover Art–1 page
    • Company Title Page–1 page
    • Product Title Page–1 page
    • Credits Page–1 page
    • Table of Contents–1 page
    • Shuttle Map–1 page
    • Map of Arrakeen–1 page
    • Modiphius Product Ads–3 pages

    There is some glorious artwork in this book, and the design of most of the outfits, vehicles, architecture, etc. match the recent movies. While this book assumes the continuity of the original novels, the licensing is all bound together, meaning they don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to producing artwork. The pages are in a light parchment color, with geometric flourishes under the text. There is artwork throughout, especially depicting notable characters. Each of the chapters starts with a two-page spread of full color art.

    The layout varies depending on the purpose of the text. Most of the adventure is in a two-column layout, but background material and overviews are formatted in centered text boxes or single columns that run down the middle of the page. Sidebars are often in the lower right- or left-hand side of the page.

    The Judge of the Change

    This adventure is the framework for an entire campaign, if you couldn’t glean that from the introduction. The book itself is broken into the following sections:

    • Introduction
    • Act I: The Gathering Storm
    • Act II: Muad’Dib
    • Act III: Fall of the Imperium
    • Act IV: War Across a Million Worlds
    • Adventures in the Era of Muad’Dib

    Adventures in the Era of Muad’Dib is a section that details the kind of setting assumptions that should be considered for playing the RPG during the establishment of Paul’s reign. This includes the differences between the chaos and violence of that era, contrasted against the political maneuvering and quick betrayals of the previous era.

    Each act of the campaign has its own set of acts, which are the primary adventures that characters will engage with as that leg of the campaign progresses. This means that within all four acts, there are three adventures, each with their own three acts.

    While I mentioned the Agents of Dune campaign boxed set above, unlike that product, these adventures assume that the events of the novels happen when and how they are detailed in the source material. There are a few notes on what might happen if the GM and the players want to deviate from the story, but most sections assume that the path of history rolls forward unabated.

    A figure sits in a booth. To their right is a hooded figure in a robe, and to their right is a lightly armored bodyguard with a long knife. Standing and facing them on the opposite side of the room is a figure wearing a jacket, with another hooded figure next to them.Who Are You?

    The PCs are playing agents of their own house, managing their interests in light of emerging events. For several parts of the campaign, this means you’ll be dealing with the cascading effects of galactic history, rather than being right next to it. However, there are several places where the adventure narrows back down to canon events so the PCs can be present as witnesses.

    There is an interesting sidebar at the beginning of the adventure which I both agree with and think oversimplifies the situation, especially when it’s applied to the players and the decisions they are making. The sidebar mentions that both Paul and the Harkonnens are nobles whose people toil for the profit of their rulers, and that while the Harkonnens are vicious and violent in their tactics, Paul starts a war that kills billions of people. All on board with “Paul isn’t the Good Guy.” But it also frames this as “there are no villains,” which, no, that’s harder to take. Paul isn’t the good guy because of the repercussions of his actions, but it is hard to say that the Harkonnens aren’t villains. I think it’s pretty easy to conceive of a story where there are no heroes, only villains, rather than saying there are no heroes or villains.

    Part of why this sidebar exists, however, is to reinforce the concept that making decisions for a House in the Landsraad often means choosing between multiple bad options. If the PCs ally with the Harkonnens for a time, they aren’t suddenly the villains of the story, they may just be doing something very distasteful for them in order to help their house survive. There are several places in the narrative where characters have the option of throwing in with different houses against other houses, which means being allied doesn’t always mean being long term friends or business partners.

    As agents of a Landsraad House, there are a combination of missions you can undertake for the betterment of your house, which also happens to give you insight into the greater events unfolding. For example, trying to secure a hidden smuggler’s cache of spice after the Atreides take over Arrakis lets you stumble upon some Harkonnen records that may lead you to the hidden base of operations of a Sardukar agent, and so on.

    While the adventure has several places where events unfold at a distance from the events of the novels, there are a few key places where the PCs are funneled back into the main narrative. These include:

    • The night House Atreides falls
    • The Death of Rabban
    • The Death of Leto II
    • The sequence of Paul’s ascension to the throne and all the events surrounding it

    If you read “The Death of Leto II,” and thought, wait, I don’t want to be there for that, I completely understand. That particular aspect of the adventure kind of underscores some of the problems the adventure has whenever it funnels the PCs back to major canon events. It’s very clear you are pushed into those events to witness them. If you play the adventure as written, you are sent with the Sardukar on their raid of the sietch, and you arrive at the scene just after Leto II has been killed.

    In many of the “up close to history” scenes, your characters are rolling to avoid getting in anyone’s way and hoping to pick up some things beneficial to your house on the periphery of bigger events. One exception to this is the death of Rabban. The PCs have several paths to this point, but almost all of them involve someone wanting them to kill Rabban in the lead up to the most tumultuous events preceding Paul’s ascension.

    This would be a really neat, “that was your characters!” moment, except there are still some heavy handed sections where his location is a bait and switch, so you must encounter Feyd, and you can’t kill Rabban all by yourselves, Gurney Halleck will show up and either try to do it before you, or help you out.

    A figure sits at the top of a set of stairs, on a large, ornate throne. There are two guards flanking the figure on either side. At the bottom of the stairs, two cloaked figures stand on either side of a figure that is kneeling, with their hands bound behind their back.The Wide-Open Galaxy

    Act II is especially open compared to the rest of the adventure. Your characters are negotiating for spice as Harkonnen production slows. You chase spies on a ski resort planet. You skulk around backwaters looking for blackmail information and encrypted documents. In one of my favorite moments in the adventure, your characters navigate a night of betrayal that is both thematically calling back to the attack on House Atreides, but both more subtle and distinct. It’s one of those places where it really feels like the adventure delivers you a very “Dune” experience without just using canon Dune events.

    Act IV is strange. While it deals with events we know happened, broadly, i.e. Paul’s crusade ravaging worlds that failed to show their loyalty, the places where these adventures take place generally don’t have a lot of canon surrounding them, meaning that the PCs actions can have greater effect. The downside is that in many cases, the reason they are in the path of these events is very thin. In several cases, Paul issues an imperial decree for the PCs to go to a place, where they may work against his agents, and the next time they see Paul, “he sees something in their future that keeps him from acting against them,” and then they can go somewhere else and either discreetly or overtly defy him.

    The culmination of the entire adventure/campaign is that a House that has long been associated with the PCs’ House is accused of treason. The PCs can find out what is going on, disassociate themselves from their allies or exonerate them, and determine who to screw over and who to align themselves with to keep one of Paul’s lieutenants from declaring their House as an enemy of the throne.

    Mechanical Resolution

    An aspect of the adventure that I really enjoy is that it leans into the 2d20 concept of creating traits. If you aren’t familiar with traits in a 2d20 game (which have slightly different names depending on the 2d20 game in question), they function in a manner similar to Fate aspects. They are a broad description of something that is true. Depending on the narrative, traits either grant narrative permission to do something that wouldn’t be possible if the trait weren’t active, or it adds or subtracts from the difficulty of a task if it is relevant to that task.

    Depending on how the PCs resolve different scenes in the adventure, they may acquire different traits, which will be available for use either by the PCs or the GM if they are still active. For example, in many cases, PCs that ally with a house will gain a trait that denotes that they are “Ally of House X,” and any time that’s relevant, it might make a check either more or less difficult. They may also gain traits that reflect their reputation; for example, if they resolve a scene by hiding, they may get a “Cowardice” trait, which might come into play whenever dealing with characters that are proud of their martial accomplishments.

    There are also events that remove traits. For example, early in the adventure, it’s a lot easier for the PCs to pick up the “Ally to House Harkonnen” trait, which they may end up shedding if, later in the adventure, they advocate for the emperor to strip them of their rights to Arrakis.

    Like Star Trek Adventures, Dune: Adventures in the Imperium makes provisions for a player running characters other than their primary character, usually in circumstances where the PCs wouldn’t want to personally be involved in the activities they are directing. This is separate from, but adjacent to, Architect play, where PCs can say they are using resources from a distance to manipulate events, making checks for broad actions they are taking, to influence events.

    A figure stands in front of a window that has an intricate windowpane pattern throughout. They are looking out, with their back facing the room. There is a wall at the far side of the room, and behind the wall is a figure in a hood, with their face covered, holding a knife in one hand, peeking around the corner at the figure looking out the window.For example, if a character has troops as one of their resources, and there have been smugglers raiding their holdings, they could use Architect mode to send troops to take care of the smugglers without ever going to that location, rolling to see how well their orders are carried out versus the difficulty of the outcome they want. The downside to Architect play being that it’s hard to get specific granular results. In the example above, you might be able to get rid of the smugglers, but the GM may tell you that unless you show up yourself, you can’t expect your troops to capture a smuggler alive for interrogation.

    There are a few places in the adventure where broader goals are mentioned as something the PCs might attempt with Architect mode, usually in the periphery of events that surround the political maneuvering in Act II. There are also a few brief mentions of using supporting characters during certain events, especially if the player character in question isn’t a particularly martial specimen, and they tackle a mission like killing Rabban.

    Because these are excellent tools, I wish the adventure had spent more time expanding how they could be used to greater effect in various scenes. While I don’t think any scene where the PCs have most of their agency removed is going to be fun to sit through, I could see several of the “you must go this direction” encounters being easier to swallow if those scenes were expressly meant to be carried out by secondary character operatives. I suspect that this wasn’t done in part because the adventure wants your primary PCs to be present at these major events, not just a character you are playing.

    Having a few lines referencing, “they could get X, likely through Architect play,” isn’t nearly as satisfying as a more detailed list of resources or events that the PCs could undertake that had a direct effect on the narrative and the position of their house in each act.

    Aftermath

    When I first saw there was a section on Adventures in the Era of Muad’Dib, I was thinking something along the lines of the one-page mission briefs from Star Trek Adventures. This is, more precisely, tools and mechanics available to reflect the differences in the galaxy after Paul’s ascension to the throne and the spread of his religion. It introduces the faction template for the Qizarate, as well as six new talents that are either tied to that faction or involve interaction with Paul directly.

    While there aren’t “mission brief” style adventures, there are sections on what resistance to the throne looks like in this era, some of the espionage that might be going on, and a few adventure seeds surrounding interacting with Paul, the adherents of his faith, and the changing allegiances in the Imperium. These are generally short, one paragraph long descriptions.

     I feel like you’re either going to have some frustrating moments as written, or you’re going to be reworking some key scenes so that the PCs have actual agency in those moments 

    The Mystery of Life Isn’t a Problem to Solve, But A Reality to Experience

    I really appreciate the ambition of this adventure. It really shines in Act II, and a bit in Act IV, where the PCs have lots of options available to them, and the main thing that is determined by canon are the stakes they are navigating. I absolutely love the Night of Slow blades section of the adventure, because it hits that sweet spot of “this is tailored for your PCs” and “this feels like exactly what would happen in the novels.” There are also some other scenes across various acts that shine. While not everyone may take the road that leads to this, I really liked the details of negotiating with Baron Harkonnen, as well as the scenes where the PCs can debate with other agents of the Landsraad houses in court with the emperor.

    An Animal Caught in A Trap Will Gnaw Off Its Own Leg to Escape. What Will You Do?

    I wish that when the adventure pushes the PCs into “witness” mode, there was more for them to do than observe and make a few checks to see if they pick up a new trait or asset for themselves or their house. There are some brushes with canon events early on that feel especially frustrating. You may get into a fight with Rabban the night of the Atreides attack, but he’s got plot armor. You might see Jessica and Paul being herded onto an ornithopter in the distance, but you’re too far away to do anything about it. The absolute worse example of this is being present for Leto II’s death. I don’t expect the adventure to give you the opportunity to stop this from happening–it’s a pretty pivotal story beat. But I don’t know that my desire to witness the noteworthy events of Dune included helplessly traveling with the people that murder Paul’s infant son.

    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.

    I don’t want to be too brutal. I think that if you are a fan of Dune (and I’m not sure why you would be buying Dune RPG material if you weren’t) you will find some use for this adventure. On the other hand, I feel like you’re either going to have some frustrating moments as written, or you’re going to be reworking some key scenes so that the PCs have actual agency in those moments. That’s a shame, because there are some wonderful moments in the adventure that tie the PCs and their house to events with a little more room to breathe, that would be great to see attached to an adventure that didn’t funnel you back into your front row seats for a show you can’t really affect.

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  • mp3VideoGnomecast 186 – Mixing Genres

    Ang, Chris and Josh chat about mixing up genres in our RPGs and as a result touch on what genre is, and why we can and should mash it all up together!

    Links:

    D&D Lego!

    The Nebula Awards

    Daggerheart Playtest

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  • The Carousel: Why I Believe Roleplayers Should Swing

    Try all the options

    We are all familiar with the trope of a regular gaming group. You know, the one who meets on regular days in the regular gaming location. And while the particularities of the imagined group differ, the factors of time and space stay constant, but so too does the cast. Although we all know how wonderful a regular gaming group can be, I am here to suggest that there’s several benefits of regularly shifting up the cast around your gaming table as well. I will discuss the pros of this, and of course mention some of the cons while suggesting how they can be remedied or at least reduced. I might even suggest that shifting up your regular gaming group will just mean you’ll have a regular gaming circle, but that’s getting ahead of myself. I’ll discuss the benefits of not having a regular group first.

    Scheduling

    People’s lives change, along with their calendars, interests and priorities, and unfortunately also health and postal codes. Having a steady group is all well and good, but sometimes scheduling games will take a lot of effort. For a lot of us that’s where the real issue of burnout comes from, with a tedious and complicated scheduling matrix, and the accompanying cancellations. I find that it’s much easier to fit people to dates I’m available instead of finding people first and then looking at the calendars. I’d rather play shorter campaigns for six months or so, than risk having campaigns end in scheduling limbo, due to peoples changing lives and priorities. It’s much easier to find a date that works for all if the group is brought together on the same premise and not just out of habit. If everyone assembled for your Weird Western-game is really wanting to play weird western and have all cleared the same date in the week, you are more certain that they will attend game nights than if they’re just your friends, have other hobbies and are really just wanting you all to go back to playing a Fantasy or a Cyberpunk game again. Sure, people will still have emergencies, or just family or work commitments, but if you have a robust group bound together on a mission, you might at least get to finish the campaign together, at the very least experience a somewhat satisfactory ending, even if things keep happening. Oh, and as a bonus, you also have at least one friend who is eagerly awaiting the start of the next Fantasy or Cyberpunk campaign!

    Different Experiences

    While monogamy has its virtues, I find that gaming with a richer and more varied crowd brings a lot of benefits to myself, the other individuals and the group as a whole, while also benefiting a larger circle of people. We avoid the rut that a steady group will sometimes attain, and variations in cast give different players the chance to try out different roles/functions/classes that some players tend to monopolize. Like the players who will “always” play “The Face” character, but the GM knows that one of the shyer players has talked about playing one for a long time. This might also include the one who will always play the lone magical talent or the baddest of the baddest combatant as well. Also, I believe new blood opens up for new perspectives, ideas and challenges, and that the table dynamics won’t get stale. New players also mean new approaches, new words and maybe something different that people can add to their repertoire. This goes double if your gaming table carousel includes different GMs as well as players, and I’ll add that your great tricks will reach more roleplayers as well.

    Polygamery

    Not all players will play all types of games and genres, and my experience is that some groups tend to be quite selective in what they enjoy to play. Not only can you finally play that heart-(and other body parts-)wrenching game of Monsterhearts, but you can do it without the sighs of those who would rather rob the Megacorps of Night City or kill the inhabitants of the Caverns of Chaos and take their stuff. Changing up your groups opens up for bringing your Sun Tzus and butt-kickers to one game and your Elisabeth Bennets to another; for optimization of enjoyment. A wrong player might weaken the right game, but the synergies of players who truly “sing” together is a beautiful experience. Playing lots of different games means that you might even get your non-roleplaying friends to attend, because they’re so into the Russian Women’s Piloting World War II efforts or Dinosaur Princesses, bringing more people into our lovely hobby and maybe having even more intimate friendships?

    Network

    If you treat your table or living room as a carousel, I believe it will in time give you access to more players, multiple GMs for those burnout periods, and, as mentioned, a roster for different play experiences. A larger pool also means that your games will be less vulnerable to people relocating or otherwise becoming unavailable for play, and if you game online you might meet those friends at conventions and maybe even get to do some couch surfing? I recently had a friend lend me a proper bed and feline company for a faraway convention. Since we had experience gaming online together, I was also certain their games would give me some good gaming experiences. While I believe the benefits to yourself are clear, I also believe you’ll be doing other people a favor, introducing them both to other people and other games, and perhaps even other playstyles than they’re used to. Maybe you can help spawn new groups as well as new friendships?

    Note: Friendships will endure even if a game is paused! Playing with someone else doesn’t mean you can’t do other stuff or even play one-shots with friends, and I also believe that you don’t need to game with all your gaming friends, especially if your playstyles and game interests don’t really match up that well.

    Cons

    Changing up the group all the time means regularly (re)establishing group lingo, forming-storming-and-norming-before-performing (optimally) and the flip-side of the new perspectives and shaking up the dynamics-coin. Safety? Not everyone will be comfortable meeting new people at their places or even bringing them home, and just needing to go to another neighbourhood or taking another bus route might be an issue, even if the group is safe itself. There’s also the dreaded FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), which I myself consider an old friend. I can honestly say that not only will it get better, but you’ll learn to be happy when your friends get to play, even when it’s without you. I understand that it can be difficult, especially if you’re not actively gaming yourself at the time. Sometimes it’s really easy to think that you’re being excluded, even though your friends have a full gaming table of people who are much more interested in the particular genre/game than you, but you’ll recognize that the sting of perception isn’t real. If you regularly change up the makeup of your own gaming table, it’s easier to understand that this is the case when you yourself aren’t asked first to that genre you don’t really like. In time you’ll learn to be happy when your friends get to play, even if you yourself are devoid of game time; because you know that soon your big roster of gaming buddies will invite you. Sometimes you and your best friend play parallel games that aren’t for each other, but that doesn’t mean you can’t meet up and talk about the different games and revel in your friend’s happiness of being in a game you wouldn’t have liked anyway.

    Conclusion

    I truly believe that treating your gaming table as a carousel that regulates its cast to the different experiences, both in number of players and temperament suited to different gaming experiences, will benefit both you and the other players. Maybe someone will even take up the GM mantle, since they can’t rely on you always bringing them along for the ride? Yes, it’s easier to enforce this idea if you’re always the GM, but it’s not like you couldn’t invite different GMs to GM different games either. I guess a lot of GMs would be happy to not have to deal with scheduling, and to be assured of enthusiastic and consenting players for that particular game. I also believe that if it is known that you regularly change up the cast around your table people will make more of an effort when they’re there, and others might even want to pursue a chair around your table, by inviting you to their game first.

    Even though I advocate changing the cast around everyone’s gaming tables, I’ll gladly admit that my three current groups are all talking about doing another campaign after our current one ends. So am I hypocritical? Well, probably, but in this case I find it a natural development of having played with a lot of different people. You get the aforementioned roster, and you will naturally gravitate to players who like games you like and want to play more with them, and vice versa. Not only that, but you’ll also get to learn player skills, table habits and GM techniques from a lot of people, enabling yourself to become a really popular and crafty GM or player. Every now and then someone’s other life elements will leave them out of a campaign or two, or their interest just isn’t there for a project, and that’s when you’ll be happy for your big roster.

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  • The Crusty Old Gnome: Tips for New Game Masters

    Pass it along…

    Face to face, out in the heat, hanging tough, staying hungry…

                                                                                                                                                 — Survivor, “Eye of the Tiger”

    In a proud GM Dad moment, my eldest daughter just ran her first RPG session as a Game Master! I let her be, but stayed close enough to answer the occasional question, and by all accounts and an enthusiastic reception from her players she did a great job!

    While preparing for her first session, she asked me a lot of questions. I answered them as best I could and thought that incorporating that advice into a single primer might help. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to finish this before she started running, but I thought I’d finish it anyway and put it here in the hopes that someone reading this might find it useful.

    In terms of background, I’m coming at this from the POV of a Call of Cthulhu Keeper (GM), as that is what my daughter was running. Thus, my headspace was focused on investigative adventures, but I’ve tried to make the advice universally applicable.

    So, without further ado…

    Trust your group.

    This is a big one and I think should be stated first. Unless you are running a convention game, you are probably playing with your friends, friends who understand that this is your first time taking the chair. They know that it’s a big responsibility and they’ll be willing to cut you a lot of slack. They’re happy that you’re willing to run a game for them. So, relax and don’t worry about being judged!

    Note that this holds true for convention games, too. Believe it or not, many attendees who join convention games are home GMs who are happy to be players for a while. In any event, most of your players are getting used to playing with each other as much as you, so don’t think that a quiet table is an unhappy table. Everyone needs a little time to feel things out.

    Expect to make mistakes.

    You’re going to make mistakes, probably lots of them. But that’s okay. As a new GM, you’ve got a lot to keep track of and a responsibility to guide the session. You’re going to get tripped up here and there. Your players know that, and they’ll be fine with it. Again, they’re happy that you’re trying your hand at running!

    And here’s a dirty little secret (or not so secret): we veteran GMs make mistakes too! The best advice I can give is not to hide it when you mess up. Nothing eases the stress on you like admitting that you made a mistake. If it’s something that didn’t derail the adventure, then just note the mistake and keep going. If it adversely affected the players, then compensate them and move on.

    Be fair in your rulings.

    While your players are going to give you their trust, it is up to you to keep it. A good way to do that is to be fair in your rulings. Note that “rulings” aren’t “rules,” they are how you run the game and apply the rules. As long as your decisions feel rational and you apply your rulings fairly, you should maintain the trust of your group.

    It’s okay to take advice from your players regarding rules or rulings, but don’t let things get bogged down if a quick ruling keeps things moving. Ultimately, the rules are simply there to help you make decisions. Just make a decision for now and look up the rule after the session. You can apply the rule in the future.

    Only appeal to chance when it matters.

    Players generally want their characters to be competent. They don’t want to create a martial arts expert that gets easily clubbed unconscious by a purse-wielding senior or a scientist that doesn’t know basic chemistry. An easy way to do this is to simply assume competence when the act ultimately doesn’t matter or when the task seems too easy to fail. On the flip side, you can also say “no” when a character tries to do something that is obviously beyond their capabilities.

    This is especially important if you’re running an investigative adventure. If your characters are investigating a crime scene, then they should be able to find any obvious clues as well as clues that they would know to look for. Nothing kills an adventure dead like the players not being able to follow leads because their character missed a skill roll to find a necessary piece of evidence!

    There may be times when you’ll want the players to roll but you also need them to succeed. Keep in mind that you don’t have to make the roll a pass-fail test. It may be that if they fail, then they still succeed but draw some sort of complication. For example, if a character fails a roll on an internet search, then you may rule that they found the information only after wasting all night surfing and now they’re exhausted the next day.

    Roll in the open.

    This one isn’t truly necessary, as there is a long tradition of GMs rolling dice behind screens, but rolling in the open does two things. First, it fosters trust between you and your players that you are keeping things fair. Second, if you know that you’ll be rolling in the open, then you’ll also make sure that you’re only calling for rolls when you can accept the result. If you can’t, then why are you leaving it to chance?

    Know the basic beats of your adventure.

    Hopefully, you’ve done your prep work on your adventure. If you designed it yourself, then you’ve already internalized it. If you are using an adventure that you didn’t create, then you’ll want to read it at least twice (three is better!).

    After reading the adventure, make a quick flowchart that follows the basic beats of the adventure and note where player choice matters. This flowchart doesn’t have to be very detailed, just enough to remind you of where the adventure is heading and how to guide the players back if they take their characters too far afield.

    If the players need to meet a key NPC, find a crucial clue, or otherwise need a McGuffin to get to the next part of the adventure, then you’ll want to note that on the flowchart as well. That way, the flowchart will remind you of the important things you need to introduce along the way.

    Keep things moving…

    One of the worst things that you can do as a GM, new or veteran, is to allow the players to be stumped for too long. Sometimes what is obvious to you isn’t obvious to them, or they’ve simply discarded a clue that’s important because it doesn’t fit their theories. This can lead to unnecessary frustration.

    Don’t be afraid to offer guidance. Sometimes, you can simply remind them of what they’ve found or offer suggestions to follow leads. A gentle reminder that they never visited the business on the matchbook they found, or they never thought to check the hills for the goblin encampment may be enough to get them moving without feeling like you handed it to them.

    Also, don’t be afraid to end an encounter early if the conclusion is obvious. If the player characters are wiping the floor with kobolds, then you can simply say that they’ve finished them off without having to waste another 15 minutes. If an NPC isn’t going to give the players the information they want, then you don’t need to wait 10 minutes while the players keep asking questions.

    …But don’t railroad.

    If you’ve played RPGs for any length of time, then you’ve probably heard about the dreaded “railroad.” Simply put, railroading is whenever you take agency away from the players in situations where they believe that they should have agency. If the players are going to follow the adventure, it should be because it feels logical, or at least rational, for them to do so.

    A good way to counter this is to always offer an open-ended option whenever you offer suggestions. “So, do you want to go to the business on the matchbook, follow up on Mr. Tanner’s interrogation, or do something else?” reminds the players of leads they haven’t followed but also tells them that you’re willing to go with whatever they decide.

    Simplify the rules and internalize them.

    Note that while I think most GMs get intimidated by the rules, I’ve made rules the lowest on the list of priorities. That’s because rules are the responsibility of everyone around the table, especially given that most out-of-game arguments during play tend to be about rules.

    You don’t need to commit an entire rulebook to memory, but you should internalize the basic mechanic. Don’t worry about side cases. You can always make rulings until you’re more familiar with those rules. Just remember that point above about being fair!

    In Dungeons & Dragons, for example, most tests involve rolling a d20 and adding modifiers to meet or exceed a target number. That, along with granting advantage or disadvantage, is enough for you to run a session with little trouble.

    You’re supposed to be having fun, too!

    This is not so much a guideline but a reminder. As a GM, you aren’t supposed to sacrifice fun; you are simply trading one type of fun for another. You get to see all the behind-the-scenes plotting, enjoy having the players interact with your adventure and make creative (and sometimes bone-headed!) decisions, play a bunch of NPCs, and overall control the flow of the adventure. It can be a blast!

    Your players have a responsibility to ensure that you’re having fun, too. While there will certainly be times that a player doesn’t agree with you, they should respect your ultimate decisions. If things become too aggravating or frustrating, then it’s better to take a break or even shut down a campaign until those issues are resolved.

    Wrapping Up

    While taking the GM Chair can seem intimidating and even overwhelming, it doesn’t have to be. Hopefully, the advice above is helpful in showing you that it’s possible to ease into GMing and, hopefully, lead to your guiding friends through many new adventures!

    And as a final (and most important) reminder, GMing is not something to be tolerated, it is meant to be enjoyed!

    Read more »
  • Reviews Review

    The cover for the Ubiquitous Fantasy Roleplaying Game, featuring a character in armor, holding a map, staring at a tower that is being constructed. Overhead, there is an eagle flying. In the distance we see hills and trees. A starburst on this cover reads:

    Game of the year?

    I’ve reviewed so many other things, and I feel like I’ve been missing a fundamental item in all of this. It’s key to understanding all of my other reviews. Today, I’m going to review the process of reviewing.

    I’ve literally been reviewing things from the time I was born. I remember my siblings showing me Land of the Lost, and when I saw the Sleestak for the first time, I said nope. My very first review, and a lot more succinct than I would become once I had a better vocabulary.

    Disclaimer

    I was not given permission to discuss the process of reviewing the review process. I have had many opinions over the years. I have not had the opportunity to see if all of my opinions are correct, although I strongly suspect they are.

    Credits

    Current Human Beings Varies
    Popularized Reviews as Entertainment in and of Themselves Siskel and Ebert
    The Internet Al Gore
    The QWERTY Keyboard Christopher Latham Sholes
    Modern Internet Culture Satan, probably


    Popular Review Formats

    Human beings review things all the time. One of the newest trends popularized by the internet is Extreme Vibes. In this technique, when you see something you like, especially if someone else doesn’t like it, you can classify it as the Best Thing Ever. Literally, it can’t be the Best Thing Ever if anything else is the Best Thing Ever, but this technique doesn’t really hinge on nuance.

    There is an additional aspect to Extreme Vibes, and that is The Absolute Worst. The process goes like this:

    • You dislike something
    • Someone else likes it
    • You realize they are wrong
    • You rate it the The Absolute Worst

    As with The Best Thing Ever, it is not literally possible to be The Absolute Worst. In addition to the reasons listed for The Best Thing Ever, i.e. if there is another Absolute Worst, there cannot be another Absolute Worst, so previous reviews are immediately invalidated, the Absolute Worst has another reason it remains an imprecise measure. Human beings are extremely talented at coming up with additional things that are worse than the last thing they did.

    While this form of review started in the simple format of message board posts and social media responses, it has matured much like more traditional forms of review. In a move reminiscent of the sudden placement of television reviews on every news program in the 1980s, various forms of new media blossom with Extreme Vibes in video format, either in long form, as the most venerable YouTubers work with, or the more succinct micro Extreme Vibes videos that can be seen on Tik Tok.

    Shooting Stars

    This technique only works within the framework of another review process, specifically sites that allow you to rate a product by using symbols, often stars, but sometimes more esoteric symbols, like cupcakes, circles, or rhombuses. This is an extremely impressionist technique, even when compared to the Extreme Vibes method. The key isn’t that you need to express even your slightest tendencies as extreme antipathy or sympathy.

    The real key to the Shooting Stars technique is that you put people in mind of what a review should look like, then you challenge them to engage with the review and it’s connection to the product in question in a process not unlike art appreciation. The product isn’t what’s making you feel something, the review is!

    You may want an example of this. Some of the most masterful of these reviews include the following:

    • Rating a product with one star, because you love it, but UPS destroyed the box, leaving you to contemplate if an author should have a star rating that incorporates frustration with a shopping company.
    • Using absolute language while not engaging with either side of a scale that can measure extremes. Examples include a two star rating that cites a product as the worst thing the reviewer has encountered, or a four out of five star review that is “the best.” This leaves you contemplating the nature of extremes, and the connection between objective math and creativity.
    • Writing a review that contains a long anecdote from the reviewer’s personal life, which only near the end tangentially touches on the actual merits of the item in question, or its lack of merits. This is a lesson in understanding that things need to be taken as a whole, rather than in discrete parts.

    None of this should be confused with the Transcendent Narrative Review, which utilizes the review space to tell an epic story for which movie rights should be secured. The secret of the Transcendent Narrative Review is that it isn’t actually a review, but a separate artform that uses the review as its form.

    Aggressive Aggregating

    Probably the easiest genre of reviewing for anyone to get into. This involves logging in to a review aggregation site and clicking on a number. This is technically an advanced version of Extreme Vibes, and some reviewologists, instead of categorizing this as its own type of review, actually consider this Advanced Extreme Vibes.

    I would still maintain this is a separate form of review, because in addition to the above, there is an added element of watching the aggregation percentage trending toward the direction you indicated. There is a certain anonymity to this form of reviewing that can really let someone free their inner monster. Because the key is to see the communal percentage go up or down, often reviewers in this genre will multitask by creating multiple logins for the same aggregate site, in order to express their opinions with creative resonance.

    Positives

    Honestly, reviewing is probably a necessary function of human beings. Without being able to express that we really do or don’t like something, reviewologists have posited that our heads would explode. They even point to some medieval tapestries that indicate peasants with exploding heads, watching the king’s favorite puppet show. It’s easy to extrapolate that their ability to provide reviews was impeded. So the big benefit to various review techniques is to keep our heads from exploding.

    Negatives

    Long term review work results in an effect similar to the effects that can be observed when living tissue is exposed to cosmic rays. Not the cool cosmic rays that grant superpowers, but the cosmic rays that start to melt flesh. Participating in Extreme Vibes for too long, for example, sometimes allows the reviewer’s head to explode anyway, because their opinion is forming faster than the reviewer can form words. There is also the problem of extreme isolation and listlessness for reviewers that operate in these environments and don’t use a more extreme medium like Extreme Vibes or Aggressive Aggregating, because all of the oxygen tends to be sucked out of the conversation as both extreme ends of the spectrum garner all attention.

    Not Recommended–There isn’t much in this product gods forsaken process that convinces me to tell others to pick it up.

    This quote doesn’t exist anywhere in the article you are reading. On one hand, that may be kind of confusing, but if you look at it this way, you’re getting new content rather than just seeing part of the article again, but bigger.

    Never, ever start reviewing things. It slowly, or not so slowly, eats away at your mental health. I was normal before I started this job. Okay, that’s a lie. I never used to lie before I got this job. I’m lying about that. But it definitely changed me.

    Every time you read through a product and see the love and care that went into it, and you recognize the craft employed in its creation, and you see someone say, “it’s junk,” you start to wonder if you were reading text that was only visible to you. Then you start to think, maybe it was only visible to me.

    Every time you attempt to make a joke about some form of RPG that no one would ever attempt to create, some actual game arrives on the scene, either spectacularly daring the world to deny it’s genius or astounding you with the audacity to string together a mass of concepts, themes, and procedures in some simulationist echo of Frankenstein’s monster, threatening to hunt down and kill your family if you don’t make the perfect review mate for the game.

    I watched SEO glitter in the dark near the Google Search Bar. All those reviews will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to join a new social media platform.

    End of Line.

    Editor’s Note: Jared, our review gnome, was asked to find a way to write a parody of an RPG without referencing any existing RPG properties or citing any similarities with them. Instead of that article, this was sent to us via a burner e-mail account. Jared has not been seen for the last two weeks, although the authorities believe they have a strong lead to his whereabouts.

    Read more »
  • Planning By Mad Libs

    Planning in RPGs has always been a problem. On one hand, it’s often necessary for a group of players to plan out something their characters are trying to accomplish. On the other, most groups are not adept at planning, and even if they were, the activity is never that exciting at the table – worse if you are the GM who is more of a spectator. All of this is worse if you are under any kind of time constraint, like running a one-shot. 

    That is the problem I was having. In a few weeks, my high school gaming group is having a reunion, and we wanted to play some games. One of our group’s main games was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Rather than run TMNT, I offered Mutants in the Now, which I think is a better overall game. It will be a one-shot, and likely time bound to 4-6 hours. The scenario I wanted was a raid on an island of the evil genius Dr. Feral. But planning…

    Other games have done a good job of designing around planning, but Mutants in the Now does not have any direct planning rules. So I started to think, what if we didn’t plan everything but the group just made some choices? That is when I got the idea for Plan by Mad Libs. So let’s talk about it. 

    What are Mad Libs?

    A Mad Lib is a word game where one player asks for certain words – a noun, a verb, etc – with little or no context. The words are plugged into pre-written text. After all the words have been collected, the person reads the text, which often results in a silly, but entertaining narrative. For more info see:

    What is a Plan?

    A plan is defined as a detailed proposal for doing or achieving something. There is an objective, and there are the steps to achieve that objective. Typically when this is done in RPGs the group knows or decides the objective, and then works to figure out the steps. This often results in iterative discussions as details that are discussed prompt a new discussion about older details. It can be time-consuming, frustrating, and boring. 

    Plan By Mad Libs

    The idea is to use the Mad Lib format to streamline planning so that we can quickly define the plan and move on to its execution, where the characters are taking action. 

    The idea is to use the Mad Lib format to streamline planning so that we can quickly define the plan and move on to its execution, where the characters are taking action.

    To do this, I needed to take some of the agency from the players, for the sake of time. That is, I needed to come up with the pre-written text – the plan for how the characters would raid the island. I did this using a simple story framework for a typical raid kind of story. The plan would need info on infiltration, a diversion, achieving the objective, and exfiltration from the island. 

    The blanks could then be the WHO and in some cases the HOW. Those choices could be left to the players so that they could customize the framework and make the plan theirs. 

    Here is an example of how I used the WHO to define the infiltration to the island:

    We first have to get onto Dr. Feral’s island. NAME will smuggle themselves aboard Kris Pierce’s yacht in Miami, and arrive on the island at the docks. At the same time, NAME and NAME will take a private flight out of Ft. Lauderdale and will parachute onto the southeast grasslands with our backup gear. NAME got a job as a bodyguard for Linda Davenport and will arrive on the island as part of her entourage, and will be at the arena. 

    Here is an example of how I used the HOW for the diversion:

    While that is going on, WHO will go to the CHOOSE (DOCKS, AIRSTRIP, POWER STATION) to cause a diversion by BLANK (ACTION or METHOD). 

    Implementing the Plan By Mad Libs

    The full plan is written as if one of the characters is going over the plan with the rest of the group (this was highly inspired by a scene from the A-Team movie). The players will fill out the Mad Lib plan and then one of them will read it back to the group. As soon as it’s read, we can jump right into playing.

    Advantages of Planning by Mad Libs

    There are a few advantages to this. The first is that it should be quick. Filling in the blanks won’t take long and we should be up and running quickly. Second, the plan is written out and on the table while we play. There is little chance people will forget the plan with it there on the table. Third, I can prep for the plan, which means that I can add some nice mechanical details that I might miss if I was ad-libbing based on a plan made at the table. Fourth, I can roughly manage the duration of the game based on the size of the plan I write.

    Kind of Sounds Like A Railroad

    Not really. Of course, there will be twists in the plan – some from me and others through the actions of the characters – and that I will manage while we play. The players can abandon the plan as soon as we start, or they can follow it all the way through. Both work.

    The goal of the Mad Lib plan wasn’t to control the whole adventure, it was to minimize planning and get into the execution of the plan. The Mad Lib plan accomplishes that goal. 

    One-Shots vs. Campaigns

    For sure, this idea works great for one-shots, but could it work for a campaign? I think so, if the players were to buy into the concept. Hijacking a bit of agency in a one-shot is not that big of a deal, but in a campaign it could be more of a complex topic. 

    I think it would work in a campaign where planning was not the norm, where the core loop of the game is something other than planning and for a specific story there needs to be a plan, and you use the Mad Libs format to streamline things so that the story goes smoothly. For instance, I would not use this for a Night’s Black Agents op, but I might use it for a one-off supers heist in the Marvel Multiverse game. 

    Anything But Planning

    Planning is not a fun activity in most RPGs. There are a lot of ways modern designers are trying to reduce or remove planning from games, all for the better. That said, there are plenty of games out there that need a design for minimizing planning. For those games, something like a Mad Lib plan can help.

    I hope that this Mad Lib plan will help my table come up with an interesting and entertaining plan that unfolds into an exciting session. 

    How do you manage planning at your table? Would you try a Mad Lib plan?

    Read more »
  • mp3Gnomecast 185 – Taking Over
    Ang, Jared, and JT get together on the mics to talk about all the ins and outs of taking over the GMing duties in an existing group. Links: Pathfinder Mini-Dungeon Tome D&D 5e Mini-Dungeon Tome Coriolis: The Great Dark Kickstarter Stewpot: Tales from a Fantasy Tavern Read more »
  • Girl by Moonlight Review

    A shining circle that says It’s become a bit of a meme for people to declare characters from different genres to be “magical girls.” Prince Adam lives his life, during the day, as an unassuming royal heir that hasn’t quite grown up enough to assume his full responsibilities, but when he holds his sword aloft and says “by the power of Grayskull,” he transforms into a big buff dude that can punch holes in tanks. He’s even got a talking cat.

    But a lot of those memes assume that the concept of the magical girl is really about Sailor Moon style stories. You have young women living a normal life at school, with normal student problems, who are also superheroes that need to transform into their superhero persona and save the world. But the magical girl genre is broader than those tropes. In broader terms, the magical girl genre is about someone who has magical powers that aren’t common in the society they live in, dealing with the dual nature of being separate from the world they live in, while also living in it.

    Two of the earliest magical girl creators in Japan, Mitsuteru Yokoyama and Fujio Akatsuka, have cited the American sitcom Bewitched as an inspiration. While I have watched many magical girl anime stories, I grew up watching Bewitched, so this makes a lot of things click for me. Samantha is a woman with magical powers. She comes from a culture that can’t be revealed to the contemporary American culture to which her husband belongs. She had to deal with complications in her mundane life, as well as using her powers to deal with the complications that arise from her connection to a magical other world.

    Understanding that underlying concept of being an outsider who would be less conflicted if you could be what you are, all the time, and juggling the mundane complications that everyone in your position in society needs to deal with, along with additional complications that come with being who you really are, is really important to understanding the game we’re looking at today, Girl by Moonlight.

    Disclaimer

    I did not receive a review copy of Girl by Moonlight, and I was a backer of the crowdfunding campaign for the game. I have not had the opportunity to play the game, although I do have experience both playing and running Forged in the Dark games, the engine on which the game is built. I have played and run other magical girl RPGs, though, so I have that going for me.

     Girl by Moonlight

    Publisher Evil Hat
    Author Andrew Gillis
    Editors Daniel Wood, Jenn Martin
    Proofreader Jenn Martin
    Cover Artists Lorne Colt, Kelsey Phillips
    Design Consultant Luke Jordan
    Indexer Sadie Neat
    Art Director Trivia Fox
    Interior Artists Carly A-F, Lonnie Garcia, Kelsey Phillips, Zak Goggins, Simon Sweetman, Raven Warner, Jabari Weathers
    Sensitivity Readers Jess Meier, Takuma Okada
    Layout & Graphic Design John Harper, Fred Hicks
    Playtesters Allison Arth, Andi Carrison, Ash Mcallan, Emily Mcallan, John Harper, Luke Jordan, Melody Watson, Nadja Otikor, Violet Miller

    A dark purple background, with shining stars in multiple places. At the bottom of the page is a light inside a tunnel of swirling colors. A face emerges from the stars, with glowing eyes, and swirling hair drifting into the colored lines streaked across the image.Girl by Moonlight Format Power, Mark Up!

    This review is based on both the physical copy of Girl by Moonlight, and the PDF version of the product. The physical copy I received is the limited edition cover, because I’m extremely weak against the powers of FOMO.

    If you have any of the other Evil Hat Forged in the Dark games, the physical book matches the digest hardcover format of the other games they have released, like Blades in the Dark, Scum and Villainy, and Band of Blades. This also has the matte finish cover that those books have. The pages are sturdy, glossy, and hold the colors in a vibrant manner. The end papers display a repeating pattern of the symbols that appear in the game, in purple, blue, green, and dark pink.

    The PDF and the book are 226 pages long. This includes a title page, a publication page, a two-page table of contents, a two-page index, a three-page summary of game rules, and a page of author bios. The PDF includes an image of the limited edition cover in addition to the standard cover.

    The book itself has bold headers, many bullet points, it’s “side bars” are actually color bands that introduce their topics in the center of the page, and the layout is in single column format. I love lots of different book formats and flourishes, but I don’t think Evil Hat gets enough credit for maintaining very clear, uncluttered formatting that still looks very inviting and attractive. They make books that bridge the gap between bold, clear formatting, and stylish presentation, better than about anyone else. Girl by Moonlight is no exception.

    The Magical Girl Power Source: Forged in the Dark

    When Blades in the Dark introduced the Forged in the Dark engine to RPG games, it was built to portray heist-based action, where the story follows a predictable pattern that moves from gathering information, performing missions, dealing with consequences, and working on long term projects. While this makes sense for games about mercenaries trying to survive the winter, striving against an enemy force, or space pirates trying to get rich while dodging the authorities and avoiding political entanglements, it may not seem to be the most natural engine for magical girls.

    Remember up in the introduction when I mentioned the expanded concept of magical girls that goes beyond the superhero style magical girl stories? This game uses the more structured, procedural format of the Forged in the Dark engine to make sure that characters think about each aspect of what the stories they are telling are touching upon. Right away in Girl by Moonlight, the book introduces the thesis of this game. Magical Girls, in this instance, are symbolic of people that belong to a marginalized community, drawing the most direct inspiration from the marginalization LBGTQIA+ people experience. If the only version of magical girls you have been exposed to has been the 90s version of Sailor Moon introduced in the United States, you may not realize exactly how apt it is to use the Magical Girl genre in this way.

    If you don’t know what I’m talking about and want a quick course, go google Sailor Neptune, Sailor Uranus, or the Amazon Trio, especially if you’ve only encountered 90s Sailor Moon. Then come back. Is it clearer now? Okay, let’s get back to it.

    It’s also probably important to point out that “magical girls” in this game aren’t limited to people whose gender identity is female. The genre leans towards portraying women protagonists, but includes characters that have a male gender identity, or do not conform to a gender binary. The term “magical girl,” however, does help to remind us that the default protagonist in these stories isn’t a straight cis male.

    The structured nature of the Forged in the Dark engine makes it very clear how each aspect of gameplay contributes to the narrative of marginalized people living in a world that doesn’t accept them, while not being able to ignore the aspects of themselves that aren’t accepted. The phases of play in this game are:

    • Obligation
    • Downtime
    • Mission
    • Fallout

    Each of these phases will look different depending on the series framework that the group agrees to use, but in general, this means that the characters will need to deal with what the mundane world expects them to do, choose what projects they want to focus on, attempt to fight back against the manifested destructed elements of the story in the mission, and deal with how the resolution of the mission affects the character’s long term goals and their daily lives.

    While there has been a trend in a few more well known iterations of games based on the Forged in the Dark engine to move away from some of the more granular aspects of Forged in the Dark resolution, most of those standards as still present in this game. The baseline of the game is taking an action to resolve a situation, rolling a number of dice based on the ratings of the action being used, modified by help provided by others and additional dice provided by taking a dangerous compromise, and taking the highest result of the dice. If your highest die is 1-3, you don’t get what you want, if it’s a 4-5, you get it with a complication, and on a 6, you do exactly what you wanted to do the way you wanted to do it.

    Downtime allows you to do things like recover from stress or start and advance long term projects. Mission objectives that can’t be resolved with a single action are tracked with clocks. Fallout can force the PCs to deal with enemy attacks when they aren’t ready, or see their opposition increase in tier, meaning that the PCs will  have a harder time advancing mission clocks against the threats they face (usually because it takes more successes to fill in a clock to completion).

    Depending on the series playset, there are aspects similar to claiming territory in Blades in the Dark. You might expand your superhero hideout’s resources, the carrier ship facilities of your bastion, or shut down aspects of an ongoing conspiracy.

    A femme presenting character wearing a crown in their hair, which is collected in many long braids. They have dark skin, and are wearing an armored breastplate with flowinging multicolored skirts coming out of the bottom of the breastplate. There is a strange structure in the middle of the page, and towards the top of the page is a humanoid femme presenting character with long hair, whose form is made of the night sky. There is a crescent moon in the sky, purple, blue, and orange clouds, and stars peeking through the clouds.Transforming the Forged in the Dark Engine

    One of the ways that Girl by Moonlight addresses the genre is by introducing Transcendence. When characters meet the conditions by which they transform, they gain access to the Transcendent special abilities on their playbook, gain the use of armor, pick up more dots in some of their action ratings, and gain increased effect. Remember when we said that the opposition tier might go up, making it harder to fill your mission clocks . . . this is one of the ways you can counter that. Of course, there are also some powerful forces that you really can’t act against unless you are transcended.

    There are a limited number of actions you can take while you are transcended. Because actions, especially in missions, represent more than just punching someone once or lifting a heavy object, this doesn’t mean that you only stay transformed for a minute or two, but it does mean that you only have so many mechanically significant, player driven moments with your transcended powers.

    In many Forged in the Dark games, when your stress track is full, you leave the scene and take some kind of long term mark or injury before your character returns to play. Instead of leaving the scene, a stressed-out character falls into Eclipse. Eclipse is like the concept of the Darkest Self from Monsterhearts. You don’t become an enemy fighting against your friends, but the actions you are taking are harmful to your psyche and push yourself beyond your personal boundaries. You leave eclipse when one of your allies performs the action that is listed on your playbook as your escape.

    All of this is meant to show that you have to fight to act as your true self and make it count, and that because you can’t always be the self you want to be, you have these shadows that fall over you, telling you that you aren’t the person that you want to be.

    The specific actions in Girl by Moonlight include:

    • Defy
    • Empathize
    • Express
    • Confess
    • Forgive
    • Perceive
    • Analyze
    • Conceal
    • Flow

    The playbooks that the game uses include the following:

    • Enigma (the mysterious character that helps the others while hiding who they are even from their allies)
    • Stranger (the character that doesn’t connect with others as well as they do with things)
    • Time Traveller (someone that knows what happens in one version of the future, and is trying to change things)
    • Harmony (two characters in such a harmonious relationship that they act together to accomplish things)
    • Guardian (the honor bound hero)
    • Outsider (the character with a shady past and a rivalry with one of their allies)
    • Unlikely Hero (the normal person who helps the other protagonists, and may not see what’s special about themselves)

    Before we move on from the playbooks, I would just like to quote how your character views the world if they fall into Eclipse as the Unlikely Hero: “you are not who they need you to be. You’re weak, useless, unworthy of their friendship. They have given so much to you, and in return you give them nothing.”

    Girl by Moonlight. I don’t know why you need to attack me personally, but I’m telling my therapist about this.

    Another unique aspect of Girl by Moonlight are links. You gain links with different characters, and you can spend them in a number of ways to help one another, like recovering stress, ignoring harm, boosting an ally’s action, or preventing them from falling into eclipse. This is to reinforce the fact that the protagonists aren’t just individuals working towards a common goal, but that working together is one of the protagonists’ goals.

    A dark skinned woman in a business suit has a black crown hovering in front of her. Behind her is a femme presenting figure made of shadow. At the bottom of the page are four people. One is wearing a breastplate with a skirt under it, other is wearing a mask, a cape, and is carrying a sword, another has a huge axe/pick combination, and the last is holding a book.The Series

    A game of Girl by Moonlight is a combination of picking your playbook, and picking the series that you are going to play. Series may have special rules that affect the general rules of the game, like the shrines that grant special abilities in At the Brink of the Abyss, the modified means by which the characters must recover stress and transcendence in Beneath a Rotting Sky, the rules for bonding with your giant robot friends in On the Sea of Stars, or the intimate moment rules for In a Maze of Dreams. They also have specific series abilities that can be taken in addition to playbook abilities, as well as customized transcendent abilities.

    While there is a general theme for each of the series, the group still customizes and details the elements when they discuss what series they want to play. For example, they will often define the form the series opposition takes, where the characters derive their powers, what the mundane obligations of the characters are, and what end they are working towards, or fighting against.

    The series included in the book are the following:

    • At the Brink of the Abyss (magical girls as superheroes fighting for a better future)
    • Beneath a Rotting Sky (magical girls as supernatural hunters fighting against a corruption that will ultimately break them)
    • On a Sea of Stars (magical girls as mech pilots defending the last vestiges of human society against a destructive alien entity and its minions)
    • In a Maze of Dreams (magical girls as manifestations of the characters’ subconscious selves, investigating the dreams of others to uncover an ongoing conspiracy)

    Each of these series not only presents a different collection of tropes to utilize in storytelling, but also uses these different settings to explore different aspects of characters dealing with their marginalization in the face of the challenges they encounter. Not every setting is about our protagonists fighting hard and prevailing in the end.

    At the Brink of the Abyss is what many people will think of when they think of the magical girls genre. Characters have a mundane, day-to-day life, with responsibilities they must perform. There is a unifying villainous force that both infects day to day life, making it harder for our protagonists to be themselves, and manifested villainous monsters, which can be challenged with superheroic action. Monsters in the setting are usually regular people corrupted by the unifying evil force that heroes are working against and can often be “saved” by reaching the human within the monster and appealing to their better nature. While the PCs still need to deal with the evil force corrupting society, they can defeat evil and make the world better. Some of the people that are adversaries are just people that don’t understand how they have been manipulated. It’s an overall more positive and optimistic setting, emphasizing perseverance and communication to overcome bigotry.

    Beneath a Rotting Sky is perhaps the polar opposite of At the Brink of the Abyss. A very horror-inflected series, the evil that is corrupting society is so entrenched in the world that it’s not likely that it can ever be cleansed. If characters want to remove stress and recharge their powers, they need to consume the hearts of the monsters they hunt. They must deal with an opposing group of hunters who act as their rivals. They are portrayed as survivors, doing the best they can for as long as they can, until they can’t anymore. They try to do what they do because they don’t want to give up, not because they can win. In some ways, they are never fully free of the taint that has affected society, even when acting against the monsters of the setting, and may even come into conflict with others who are just trying to do the same things that the protagonists are doing. This series really explores the stress of existing in a world that actively resists change, and rather than moving forward, sometimes actively moves backward.

    On a Sea of Stars splits the difference between the two previously detailed series. The humans’ last bastion isn’t as open and welcoming as it should be, meaning that the PCs may need to fight to make the surviving human society better in addition to fighting against the external forces trying to destroy humanity. It’s not assumed that the PCs will succeed, like At the Brink of the Abyss, but they aren’t doomed to eventually fall, as in Beneath a Rotting Sky. On a Sea of Stars puts an emphasis on building defenses and improving the human bastions, so that they can survive while the PCs are out taking the fight to the alien leviathans, which introduces the idea that big, grand gestures aren’t the only thing necessary to be successful, but also long term planning and change.

    In a Maze of Dreams is the most conceptual of the settings. In superhero settings like the one detailed in At the Brink of the Abyss, the character’s heroic identity is often referred to as their “alter-ego,’ their self in a different reality. In a Maze of Dreams presents the concept that your transformed identity is really your “alter-Id,” your drives and desires given active reign over your supercharged form. The emphasis in this series is that there isn’t a big, obvious villain to fight, rather there are nefarious people that are subtly linked, causing harm as part of an established superstructure. Characters go into the dreams of people to determine how and if they are parts of the conspiracy, while also exploring desires and aspirations that the protagonist doesn’t fully understand. In a way, it’s trying to do what’s right, without knowing what’s right, while also learning why you really do the things you do.

    Viewing the game through the lens of the series playbooks brings into focus what the game is trying to accomplish, using both the magical girl genre and the Forged in the Dark engine as tools to that end. Each of these series explores an aspect of surviving and interacting with society as a queer individual, each one asking, “but how would it change if you had to face this?” In some ways, it feels like the ultimate experience of this game would be to play through all these series and examine what they all say, and where those narratives overlap. That said, I can also see where some of these settings would be harder to engage with. For example, I could see running or playing in At the Brink of the Abyss or On a Sea of Stars, because when I’m gaming, I like at least the possibility of a happy ending. I may be able to engage with In a Maze of Dreams if I was in the right, introspective mindset, but I suspect that Under a Rotting Sky would be emotionally taxing for me in a way I wouldn’t enjoy.

    That’s not a proclamation on what series are “good” or “bad.” I think, as a product, that Under a Rotting Sky and In a Maze of Dreams make the product feel more complete for the perspectives that those series offer. Other people are going to have different dials and perspectives they enjoy when they address these topics in a game.

    Cosmic Heart Compact
     This game is going to be a great tool for using fantasy elements to explore important issues facing queer people in modern society, as well as exploring how marginalized people survive and work to change society in a narrative form. 

    This is one of those games that I feel is just as strong as a commentary as it is as an actual game, but it balances that commentary and gamification well enough to be both. The specific phases of play support the exploration of the game’s themes by pacing the game in step with the topics introduced in the other phases. The four series do a wonderful job at touching on the same topics, while also turning the dials on the details up or down to explore the same philosophical questions with different priorities.

    Losing the Crystal Star

    I think anyone looking at this game closely will understand that it’s “magical girls used to produce a specific experience,” but it’s probably still worth noting that if you want a game that leans harder on blow by blow action against a villain of the week, the pace of this game is probably going to be more deliberate and more introspective than you want to scratch that itch. It’s not really a failing of the game, so much as an easily foreseen misalignment of expectations.

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

    This game is going to be a great tool for using fantasy elements to explore important issues facing queer people in modern society, as well as exploring how marginalized people survive and work to change society in a narrative form. In addition to its use as an active tool at the gaming table, both for having fun and exploring perspectives, I think that anyone that is concerned about queer marginalization, and who enjoys engaging with tabletop gaming rules will benefit from reading through this book, even if they never get the game into active use.

    If you just want to punch evil in the face after your magical girl transformation, you may still get something out of this game, just know that the focus of the game isn’t squarely fixed on that aspect of the story as the primary narrative. Even at that, there are still some series and playbooks that lean more closely to what you may want out of the game.

    Maybe someday, when enough people have played games like this, and internalized what they learn at the gaming table, they’ll realize that Samantha should have been able to be accepted as a witch even though she married a man. Her current partner didn’t make her any less of a witch, even when she wasn’t actively using her powers.

    Read more »
  • Focusing Player Attention with Description

    We know the meme: players latch onto the most insignificant goblin of a side character and ignore the walking plot hook in the fancy cloak. They’ll obsess over the most minor, minute details of a crime scene while completely missing the big obvious clue tacked to the board on the wall. They’ll squander all their time in the big city shopping and negotiating the price of a room instead of following the leads to the cultist sewer hideout you ever so painstakingly laid out for them.

    The meme is funny because it’s true, but it can also be exhausting, especially if you’re not running a sandbox campaign and must steer your party back toward the plot. (And double-especially if you’re a newer GM or the type of GM that doesn’t handle curve balls well.)

    Thankfully, there are techniques we can use to mitigate the “side character cinnamon bun effect,” as I like to call it. And if your players are stubborn, and you can’t seem to redirect their energy, there are ways to harness their attention for the benefit of your campaign.

    It all boils down to how you describe things.

    EYES AND EARS

    As the GM, you are your players’ eyes, ears, and other senses. The choices you make when describing your game literally build the way they perceive their characters’ world, and their perceptions of the world will determine their actions. When they latch onto the wrong thing, be it the goblin barkeep instead of the mysterious figure in the corner, or the stale corner of bread instead of the bloody murder weapon, nine times out of 10, it’s a failure of description. Either you’ve got too much, too little, or the wrong kind altogether.

    Let’s break ’em down, look at where things go wrong, and talk about how we can course-correct when they do.

    When we’re presented with a list of information, we’re going to remember the first thing we heard and the last thing we heard.

    TOO MUCH INFORMATION

    Imagine this: your characters arrive in a big city. A central trading hub on the coast, bustling with merchants and guilds and religious orders, tourists, and travelers of all sorts. It’s a big change from their time blazing trails in the wilderness. It makes sense you’d want to describe everything from the ramparts to the docks to the magical castle in the center of town. But what happens after you spend five minutes recounting all the wonders the city has to offer?

    Instead of dashing off like kids at Disney World, taking in all the wonderful and dangerous streets and districts you’ve prepared, your players immediately ask for the nearest inn and haggle over the cost of a night’s stay.

    They could be playing in the moment and just want to establish a home base for their time in town. Or, it could be, in your attempt to impress upon them the grandeur of the location, you’ve overloaded them with information, and they don’t see the forest for the trees (so to speak).

    If you find yourself constantly relaying a ton of descriptive information to your players only to be met with blank stares and “ummmms” when asked what they want to do next, you likely need to pare back what you’re relaying.

    HOW TO FIX IT

    Fixing too much information is kinda simple and really fun, and it’s all thanks to two little psychological tricks known as the primacy and immediacy effects. Basically, when we’re presented with a list of information, we’re going to remember the first thing we heard and the last thing we heard. The stuff in the middle? Might as well toss it into the sea. There are exceptions to this, obviously, but in general – first thing, last thing. Those are what’ll stick.

    So let’s use these psychological effects to our advantage when we’re describing the city (or any other important aspect of the game world) by first making sure the two most essential elements we want to relay – in our example, the size and the sewers – come first and last. Then, we can devote extra time to describing those particular aspects while glossing over the stuff in the middle.

    For example: “The port city sprawls out from the ocean like a giant squid that’s beached itself on the shore. The buildings fill your field of view, stretching from nearly one end of the horizon to the other.” (We’ve started by emphasizing the size.) “As sailors, merchants, and other citizens go about their busy days…” (And glossed over the unimportant details.)” You notice something odd – one of the metal grates covering the entrance to the sewer system has been pried open, and a trail of muddy footprints lead inside.” (And dropped the details about the sewer cult.)

    TOO LITTLE INFORMATION

    When your players seem to be latching onto random NPCs and making their own trouble when you want them to follow up the plot threads you think you’ve been subtly laying down for them, they’re likely suffering from a lack of information.

    If I’ve learned one thing in over twenty years of running games, it’s this: when it comes to laying hints and clues for my PCs to follow, however subtle I think I’m being, I’m actually being 100x more obscure. Subtlety is an excellent technique for many, many forms of entertainment – a good mystery novel, a tense costume drama, a black-box stage play – but TTRPGs are not enhanced by subtlety.

    HOW TO FIX IT

    There’s an old marketing adage that says a customer must encounter information about your product 7 times before deciding to purchase it. It’s an old adage because the number of times has increased dramatically in the 21st century, but specifics aside, it’s still a good rule of thumb for how often you need to drop hints and describe clues before your players will start picking up what you’re putting down.

    If you’re nudging your characters in the direction of a plot, repeat the hooks often throughout a single session. If you want them to realize the conspiracy to overthrow the king signals their allegiance by wearing the colors green and gold, then do not mention the green and gold robes of a single NPC once and then, four sessions later, note the streaks of green and gold dyed hair of the assassin NPC. That’s not enough repetition of information.

    Instead, talk about a whole gaggle of green and gold-clothed individuals taking up a corner of the local cafe. Mention the proliferation of green and gold decorations in windows. The banners hanging from horses and wagons. The scarfs and hats worn by a large number of people in the city.

    Don’t be subtle. Hit them over the head with the descriptions and then reiterate. Reiterate. Reiterate.

     I can’t tell you how often I’ve forgotten to describe a book, lever, or some other essential item while I was caught up describing the intricately designed marble fountain. 

    THE WRONG KIND COMPLETELY

    This description faux pas is often some combination of the first two, and one I’ve personally fallen into numerous times throughout my tenure as a GM. What usually happens is you get so wrapped up in the description of a scene, focusing in loving detail on the fauna of the forest or the tapestries in the library or whatever your current personal fixation happens to be, that you completely forget to describe the important elements needed for your players to grok what’s going on in the scene.

    I can’t tell you how often I’ve forgotten to describe a book, lever, or some other essential item while I was caught up describing the intricately designed marble fountain. And so, of course, my players focus on the fountain. I spent so much time describing it, it has to be important right?

    Oops.

    HOW TO FIX IT

    Course correcting this error is easy-ish, depending on what you’ve prepped. Of course, the best option is to avoid mistakes altogether by keeping notes on important details so you don’t get away from yourself.

    If you’re the type of GM who likes to prepare their descriptions beforehand, read them back a few times with a critical eye and make sure you’re hitting the important bits. If you’re like me and prefer to come up with most of your descriptions on the fly, give yourself some bullet points so you don’t get too carried away.

    If, however, you find yourself far afield from where you intended, all is not lost. The easiest in-the-moment way to fix the wrong kind of description is to alter your plans and make that fountain the scene’s focus.

    Sometimes, a little ripple like that can throw off your entire prep work, though, so in those instances, call for a perception check (and maybe fudge the results if you need to), and voila! The clever PCs have seen through your red herring and found the real clue that was totally there the whole time…

    YOUR PLAYERS’ GIFT TO YOU: When Things Go Wrong

    No one is going to nail their descriptions perfectly every time. And no group of players will stay on task 100% of the time, either. But when your players do decide to focus on the side character or the detail of minor importance, take it as the gift that it is: this is them telling you what they find exciting and compelling.

    That’s not a failure; it’s valuable information that you can take back to your prep and use to your advantage the next time you run a game.

    PRACTICING WHAT WAS PREACHED

    Since there was a lot of information in this article, I thought taking some of the key points and repeating them would be helpful. Remember, when it comes to description, you should:

    • Keep it short and direct
    • Reiterate
    • Reiterate
    • Reiterate
    • Ensure you focus on the important bits

    What about you? When was the last time your players latched onto a completely unexpected minor detail and derailed your entire prep? Let us know in the comments section below!

    Read more »
  • Adventure Design: Intro and Outline

    Welcome to a series of adventure design articles that I’m going to publish over the course of the next many months. The idea for this series hit me hard while I was at the bus stop waiting to pick up my man-child. I’d gotten there about twenty minutes early, and the ideas just starting flowing. Like any good writer, I have a notepad and pen in the center console of my car. Within a few minutes, I had the small notepad page filled with ideas. Before I was done, I had most of the following ideas brainstormed and titled.

    I also reached out to social media to see if anyone had concepts to add to the list, and an additional idea came in. If more good ideas come in, I might expand upon this series.

    The core conceit of this series is to give you bite-sized chunks to chew on and think about as you design adventures for your home game. This might help you in creating adventures for publication as well, but my main target audience is for the home brew GM that is making adventures for their personal group. If there is interest, I might include a wrap-up article from my perspective on how to organize an adventure for publication.

    I’ve tried to order the articles in such a way as to allow you to build upon the knowledge step-by-step without getting overwhelmed. As I move through the series, if you think of ideas that I can add to the list or concepts you want me to cover, feel free to comment on the articles. I’ll see what I can do to provide details in those areas for future articles.

    For now, I’ll leave you with a teaser list of titles that I’m going to cover with this series of articles. I hope you find them useful and thoughtful.

    1. Mood, Tone, and Theme
    2. Detailing Back to Front
    3. Backgrounds and Factions
    4. Story Hooks
    5. Thematic Environments
    6. Thematic Bosses
    7. Thematic Mooks
    8. Combo Encounters
    9. Maps and PC Handouts
    10. Supporting and Opposing NPCs
    11. Clues, Rumors, and Connective Tissue
    12. Node-Based Design
    Read more »

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