12 December 2012

The Deck of Fate: DW Session Report #1

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al...
Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, also known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After having been ravaged by lost players and conflicting schedules my regular group finally got together again last Wednesday. While we had been getting together regularly and playing all manner of board games and one shot RPGs it wasn't until last week that we were final in a position to start a persistent campaign again.

We picked Dungeon World as our engine to run this latest campaign and I must say that the first session went rather swimmingly, with the exception of a few minor hiccups which I will talk about a little bit later. For now let's talk about character creation.

This was our table's first time with Dungeon World and character creation went as smoothly as I have ever seen with an RPG. Each character class has its own character sheet and players go down the sheet checking off and circling the options they want. Had we not all been new to the game I think more of the players would have opted to write in unique bonds and descriptions to make their characters a little less by the playbook, but everyone seemed satisfied by what was available this time. I was initially worried that players would fight over the character classes and I only had so many sheets to go around, but that turned out to be a pointless anxiety as everyone settled into a persona without any fussing. Once the dust settled we ended up with a Fighter, Wizard, Bard and Cleric. There will also be a Ranger or Druid joining us later on in the campaign (played by my wife), but she was unable to stay through character creation due to some things that came up.

I wanted to start our very first game of DW off with a simple dungeon crawl. I find crawls are a great way to get a feel for new games and new players, which were both present for this session. I slapped together a quick adventure using one of Dyson's maps and a nasty little monster called a lantern goblin which I found on the Dungeon World blog. I did make a few minor changes to those lanter goblins, though. The first was to change them from having glowing eyes to flaming eyes and the second was to have that light/fire also light up torches and braziers found throughout the dungeon. I whipped up a new move to use with my fiery new friends called Revenge of the Lantern Goblin that was used once those torches lit up. It looked like this:

Revenge of the Lantern Goblin
1d4 damage, targets one except on 7-9.
10+ the torch launches a gout of flame at a nearby PC.
7-9 the torch launches a gout of that hits a monster and a PC.
            6- the torch launches a gout of flame and then sputters out.

All I needed to complete my dungeon was a reason for the player characters to visit there and thanks to some character bonds and cooperative players that was soon supplied. My players had decided that they their characters were mercenaries hired by the Wizard PC to help him collect a rare material component for use in a ritual. Who would have thought that rare material component was found in this dungeon I had prepared? What luck!

The party delved into the dungeon and soon discovered its unusual inhabitants. This is where one of the players threw me my first curveball: the Cleric managed a 10+ on Spout Lore on the goblins and decided to make them undead. I rolled with the punch and the party continued winding through the dungeon, fighting off goblins and extinguishing torches as fast as they were lit. This is actually where we bumped into our first hiccup. You see, one of my regular players has a somewhat... let's say offbeat sense of humour and he thought it would be funny to have his halfling fighter try and put out a torch with urine. One of the new players at the table was less than impressed by that turn of events, but we glossed past it and no harm was done. Clearly nothing that anyone can fault DW for, but a common problem when integrating new and old players.

When the party eventually reached the final section of the dungeon, an altar room with four braziers and an empty frame, I made my first mistake with the rules. The fighter ran into the room to attack the group of goblins guarding the altar and failed all of his Defy Danger attempts miserably. I hadn't realized that monster groups attack as a single unit and slew him outright. When I looked up the death rules to see what happened next I realized my mistake and had to do some retconning. That minor emergency out of the way, we played out the rest of the battle and the simple puzzle of the altar and the empty frame. The solution was, as you have probably guessed, to light all four braziers with goblin fire. This required some quick thinking from the party since Revenge of the Lantern Goblin made this a little more difficult than lighting torches would normally be.

The party's prize for solving the puzzle and slaying the goblins was a magical tarot card titled Trial by Fire, one of the cards that makes up the god of fate's personal tarot deck. Think of Fate's Deck as a deck of many things that was broken up and scattered because it was too powerful for mortal hands. I'm planning to build the campaign around the idea that these cards are resurfacing and all kinds of people want a piece of them, including the party's wizard and patron. I have had the idea to do a campaign like this bouncing around in my skull since this blog post got me thinking about the infamous deck in ways that I never had before.

Obtaining Trial by Fire marked the end of our first session and things should start moving along at a steady pace in the coming sessions now that we have our footing. I'm looking forward to wreaking chaos over the fantasy lands using the magic tarot cards and I don't think my players have a clue how seriously I'm planning on taking those impending doom sections on the Campaign Front once we get going.
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3 December 2012

The Pale Forest (My 2012 RPG Geek 24 RPG)

The dust has settled and this year's 24 Hour RPG Competition at RPG Geek is now over. I threw my hat into the ring this time around with a game called The Pale Forest, but with 37 other great entries I didn't expect to win (and I didn't). That honour goes to the much more popular (and presumably handsome) RPG blogger Lowell Francis.

If you are unfamiliar with the special kind of "fun" that is the 24 hour RPG, let me explain it to you. A bunch of crazy game designers get together and decide that it would be a good idea to create a game with no prior work and no outside help in just 24 hours. There is no stopping the clock, once you start you have exactly 24 hours to finish the thing. It's a mad dash and a lot of fun provided you have a masochistic streak.

This was my first time entering a 24 hour RPG competition and I really didn't put as much of the 24 hours into it as I would have liked. I think my break down was 1-2 hours brainstorming, 3 hours designing and then throwing away my first idea, 3 hours on my second idea and 1 hour layout. Then probably another 1-2 hours of  hanging out in the official thread and otherwise procrastinating when I should have been working. All things said, I probably spent 10 of my 24 hours actually at my computer "working" on the game.

You can view/download The Pale Forest here.

My cover design skills aren't great, but this
one was terrible even by my standards.

Now that the contest is over I'm allowed to talk about my game a little. It's not actually against the rules to do so, but there's a kind of gentleman's agreement not to for fear of influencing voters. Here are some rapid-fire thoughts on The Pale Forest:

  • I went with a kind of mad-libs style of character creation, mainly because I couldn't think of a way to marry character creation with game play. I'm not particularly happy with it.
  • The big mechanical idea I wanted to play with was a built in time limit and a mechanical resources that run out. I accomplished this with a spindown die that represents health/gear/sanity and so on. It decreases with each scene and action and players gamble it to overcome obstacles. I think there is more that can be done with the idea, but I'd need more than 24 hours to truly make it work. I'm really interested in the feedback on this one.
  • I was also interested in experimenting with gambling as a mechanic and I tried to tie that with the resources. I like the idea that players set their own risk/reward as it frees things for the GM and makes for an unpredictable game.
  • When the aforementioned resource runs out something bad happens. I think the game is going to be rather CoC-esque in that there is rarely a happy ending.
  • The game is very freeform with the only guidance being in random tables and a few paragraphs of exposition. With the mad-lib character creation someone should be able to get it up and playing in less than 10 minutes. I'm worried that there might not be enough guidance, but an experienced GM should be able to accomplish a lot with just the random tables and the way the gambling/resource mechanic works.
I don't think that I will be returning to this game to flesh it out and otherwise improve it. The reason? I don't really like it. I like the setting and I like the ideas that birthed the game, but I don't really like the result. I will continue to experiment with gambling mechanics with Rollplay Engine and I'm not convinced that a limited resource really works in an RPG without giving it more teeth and turning it into a competitive or very short game.

If you do end up reading or trying The Pale Forest please let me know how it goes. I am always curious about people's experiences and I haven't even had a chance to play the game myself.

29 October 2012


In case you haven't noticed, I'm rather enamoured with Technoir. I have rambled on about the game previously, so I won't bore you with another glowing review. Instead I'm going to tell you that I put together a transmission for the game and you can download it right now for free.

For those unfamiliar with Technoir and its transmissions, let's just say that they are a group of NPCs, Factions, Locations, Objects, Threats and Events that a GM links together to create an adventure. Transmissions are intended for use with Technoir, but aside from some NPC stats everything in the transmission could be used in another science fiction/cyberpunk game without issue.

As you may have surmised from the above image, the title of the transmission is Grotesque and it adds a mutant population and biotech industry to any cyberpunk city you want. I wrote the transmission so that you could plug it into any cities you have dreamed up or created using another transmission. It should work okay even if you don't have another city to plug it into, it just might be a little one dimensional.

Alright, that is all I am going to say about this. Take a gander at the transmission and maybe even give it a play. As always, I appreciate and welcome feedback.

You can download and view Grotesque here.

11 October 2012

Zombie Clocks vs. Attitude

Troll in the Corner is hosting this month's RPG Blog Carnival and, for once, I have something to contribute. This month's topic is horrible gaming sessions, and Ben makes it clear he means both game sessions that did horror right and sessions that went awry. Fittingly, I have experienced both extremes with the same game: Shotgun Diaries.


My very first time playing Shotgun Diaries was a screaming success. I took on the role of the GM and two other players took on the roles of survivors in a zombie outbreak. It was also my first time meeting the  other players and I had recruited them from my local board and role playing games club specifically for a one shot game. None of us had played Shotgun Diaries before, but this was at the peak of the zombie fad in popular culture and we had all been keen on giving the game a shot.Once we had settled around my table, potato chips were placed in bowls and coke had been poured we were ready to start.

I decided to start the game off in a cabin at the tail end of a week spent fishing. I hadn't planned anything beyond that because, in my mind, zombie apocalypses are a bit like investigating eldritch horrors: they can only end badly. I knew that I could easily play off genre tropes for improvisation and that's exactly what I did.

The players encountered their first zombie at the hunting cabin and it turned out to be a tense affair. Both of the players played up the "what the fuck is going on" angle as they searched for weapons and tried to figure out how to kill the zombie. They showed considerable restraint by playing their characters straight, neither of them were genre savvy and that made for a stronger session. The adventure continued with gunshots attracting more zombies, the PCs scrambling for car keys and an eventual escape down the highway only to end up in a car accident. They stumbled on across several farms, encountering a mix of suspicious survivors and walking dead until they eventually stole a crop duster and flying it out of the zombie afflicted area. It  surprised me that they ended up with a "happy" ending, and perhaps they shouldn't have (I'll go into this a bit more in a second). Even with a good end to the adventure the session went well. It was played straight, which went a long way in reinforcing the mood of the game. I was also able to keep a good hopeless tension going, partly thanks to a great mechanic in Shotgun Diaries called the Zombie Clock. My night playing Shotgun Diaries with two strangers was the most successful night of horror gaming I have had yet.

I should go into a little more detail about two of SD's mechanics that played a big role in the game. The first was the player journals. The paragraph that briefly outlines the events of the session doesn't really capture that in game about five days had passed. Shotgun Diaries uses a journaling mechanic where each day the players can write something in their journals that becomes a "fact". It's through these facts that players can write things into the game or advance their characters. In the case of the above game one of the players wrote down that they had been an Air force pilot and this was what ultimately allowed them to escape via plane. I could have vetoed it and forced a bad ending, but what purpose would that have served? The other really important mechanic is the Zombie Clock. The Zombie Clock has the GM increasing a number every ten minutes and they can use it as currency to make bad things happen. When i ran the game I used zombie miniatures from the Zombies! board game. It really adds to the game by showing the players how the zombie hoard is piling up.

Now that you know about my most successful game it's time to talk about...


Several month after my successful game of Shotgun Diaries my regular group found itself short two members on game night. I suggested we give Shotgun Diaries a try, remembering how well an improvised game went last time, and pulled it up on my Kindle.  I had no idea I was in for one of the worst sessions in my gaming career.

This time around I had four players total and we went with a scenario involving people living in a trailer park. It started out well enough, with each of the players introducing their characters and some minor trailer park drama. The problems started when the zombies reared their decaying heads. The first problem was that these players, unlike the successful group, were unable to buy into the zombie premise. They knew exactly what to do to deal with zombies and things went more in the direction of Zombieland than Dawn of the Dead. This, by itself, would not have been a game killer. The game killer came in the abuse of the journaling mechanic of Shotgun Diaries. Players would write in that they had found weapons caches or other useful items. They would write in that there was a cure or that they had found a critical weakness of zombies. In other words, they gamed the system.

As you might imagine the combination of players not buying into the premise, metagaming and flat out abusing the rules as written made for a rather poor game. It turned into a slapstick affair with the catch phrase, "and suddenly... zombies." It was Dead Rising with four swaggering war correspondents intent on placing cones on zombie heads. I could have been more heavy-handed as a GM and vetoed things, but instead of salvaging the game it would have made me look like an asshole. There's a limit to what any GM can do if the players aren't cooperating.

When game was wrapped up and the dice were put away the players exclaimed that the game had been bad, but I knew better. I knew that the fault was not with the game; the problem was with all of us, and that brings me to the final heading...

Zombie Clocks vs. Attitude

What my experiences with the Shotgun Diaries illustrate is that successful horror gaming all comes down to attitude. It doesn't matter how many fancy mechanics or gimmicks the game system uses to build tension, reinforce the setting or make the game deadly. All of the players that sit down at the table need to approach the game with the right attitude. Horror gaming, more so than any other genre, requires this initial buy-in from players. So much of what makes horror horrific is the mood and the way characters react to the things that they encounter. It only takes one player goofing off to break that mood and spoil the game.

Attitude will trump mechanics every single time. There's no contest and it's the same across every game and genre. It's just that horror is more delicate than most genres. If you're not into it then you need to speak up and if you are the GM it's your job to make sure that everyone is on the same page before you play. Learn from my mistake.

6 September 2012

Cyberpunk Roleplaying with Technoir

I had meant to write this up a couple of weeks back, after doing the session report of my first time playing the game, but ended up procrastinating instead. Better late than never, right?

What is it?

Technoir is a cyberpunk role playing game by Jeremy Keller and was funded via Kickstarter last summer. I'm really impressed with the overall layout of the book. The book is done in a striking blue, black and white color palette which gives it a nice cyberpunk feel and is very easy on the eyes. I do wish there were more pieces of art spread throughout the book, but I'm sure Mr. Keller wanted to keep the Kickstarter goal as low as possible.  The writing is also very concise and clearly communicates concepts with great examples.

The setting of Technoir is generic cyberpunk, complete with cybernetic augmentations. There are more specific setting details to be found in the Transmissions (adventures), but even these snippets could easily fit into just about any cyberpunk game or setting.

Technoir also won a Judge's Spotlight Award at this year's ENnie Awards.

How does it work?

Technoir really shines in this department. Everything from character creation to resolution is well thought out and illustrated with great examples.

Technoir starts with something called a Transmission. You can think of a Transmission as the skeleton of an adventure. It contains key NPCs, events, objects, factions, locations and threats. The GM uses a table to randomly select a number of these, called Nodes, and connects them together in a kind of mind map. This creates the framework for an adventure. A number of other things happen with the Transmission, but let's jump to character creation for now.

While the GM selects and connects Nodes the players should be hard at work creating their characters. Character creation reminds me a little of Traveller in that characters are built out of a number of careers that act as the character's personal history. For example one player might select Criminal, Pilot, Soldier for their character. Each of these careers increases core attributes for the character, called Verbs. These are things like Shoot, Fight, Hack and Coax. They range from 1 to 5 and each point adds one more die that can be rolled during challenges. In addition to the Verbs players also select one Adjective to add to their character from each profession. A Soldier, for example, might select Tough as an adjective. These are called upon during challenges for bonus dice.

Once players have their Verbs and Adjectives sorted out they start connecting their characters to NPCs. These NPCs are listed in the Transmission that the GM is using and the players go through in turn and select an NPC and the kind of relationship they have with them. Each player makes three of these connections. The relationships are very interesting. A player might have a borrowed money from an NPC and this gives them more money to spend on outfitting their character, but leaves them in debt for when the game actually starts. There are a number of other types of connections that can be made and the players also select an Adjective to describe their relationship with the NPCs.

At this point the GM should have a relationship map that connects player characters to NPCs and those NPCs to a number of events, objects, threats, factions and so on. This is where the actual game begins. Usually by this point the GM will have figured out how everything fits together into an adventure and the loans and favours owed or friendships with NPCs are perfect for hooking player characters into the action.

The actual moment to moment game play of Technoir should be mostly familiar to role players. Dice are only ever rolled if a PC is in conflict with an NPC (or another PC). These challenges are resolved via opposed rolls where each side rolls a number of dice equal to the relevant Verb plus additional dice from relevant Adjectives. There is some extra crunch in deciding whether to use the extra dice to get a better result or keeping them in reserve to improve the quality of a success. There is another wrinkle to deal with in the form of negative adjectives, when one is applied to character (through a wound, for example) a red die is added to the pool of dice and whatever value is rolled cancels out all dice of the same value. With negative adjectives stack up this can become quite punishing.

Speaking of negative adjectives, whenever someone wins a challenge (be it NPC or PC) the winner applies and adjective to the environment or target. Someone that was stabbed might have the adjective "bleeding" applied to them and these adjectives can be called on for bonus or penalty dice. This makes Technoir play, revolve around placing and stacking adjectives on things. There are no health points or difficulty targets, the players just say how they want to affect the world and apply an adjective if they win.

One thing about the resolution system that bothered me is that there are no versus environment conflicts. The idea seems to be that if nobody is opposing a character they will eventually succeed at what they are trying to do, but sometimes you want to roll to see if someone can avoid drowning in a lake or something. Luckily, it is very easy for the GM to assign a base difficulty of 1-5 dice to oppose a player in a situation like this.

Final thoughts

I really, really like Technoir. It plays like the halfway point between Fiasco and Shadowrun/Cyberpunk 2020. It shines as a one-shot game, but I think it should scale into a longer campaign with few growing pains. The Transmissions are brilliant. Not only do they have re-playability due to the random elements, it also takes very little time and effort to create a new one. I can hammer out a new Transmission in less time than it would take me to do more traditional adventure prep. Technoir's resolution is fast and entertaining and any ex-Shadowrun players will still get to use their stacks of six sided dice.I do wish that Technoir had included rules for environmental conflicts as well as a little more direction for long term campaigns and character advancement, but all of these things are easily handled by the GM and unnecessary for enjoying the game.

Number crunchers probably won't like Technoir, it isn't a game that concerns itself with stats or bookkeeping of any kind. Everything is handled through adjectives and that includes cybernetic augmentations as well as vehicles and weapons. If you are the type that likes to know how much faster that upgraded engine will move your motorcycle then this game isn't going to scratch that itch. If, on the other hand, you are someone that likes the idea of Shadowrun or Cyberpunk 2020, but is intimidated by all of the numbers and rules or just can't be bothered with keeping track of that stuff then you will love Technoir.

Technoir is available in print from the official website and in PDF from DriveThruRPG. Player's guide handouts and Transmissions are also available as free downloads, but do not contain all the rules you will need to play the game.

27 August 2012

What does it taste like?

Another redditor and I whipped up this quick table for determining what something tastes like a couple of days back. After having done a Tavern Name Table and a Food & Drink Table all I need to do is come up with a way to generate innkeepers and tavern patrons and I'll never have an empty tavern again.

What's it taste like?

Taste (d6)Intensity (d10)Sensations (d20)
1BitterJust a hintItching
20Gritty & Saccharine


9 August 2012

Technoir Session Report (Hong Kong)

Over the last few months I have supposed to have been playing/running a Dresden Files RPG in which the player characters uncover a conspiracy involving John Murray Spear's "God Machine". We play weekly, but have only played three or four actual sessions due to player illness, thesis demands and a variety of other commitments and events that just plain got in the way. Since we have been regularly short one or more players we have been filling out game nights with board games and Fiasco. Last night we decided to mix things up and take Technoir for a spin.

 Technoir is actually the very first Kickstarter that I backed, way back in June of 2011. I have since received the physical book along with all of the other rewards as well as the stretch goals that Jeremy Keller has been pumping out. More than a year after I read the beta PDF I have finally gotten around to actually playing the game. I had a blast.

I picked up the Hong Kong transmission, one of the backer rewards, and fleshed out what was happening in a cyberpunk version of Hong Kong while my two players built their characters. The actual feeling of building up the adventure felt a lot like the first phase of a game of Fiasco. I rolled up three "plot nodes" to get things started: a motorcycle grand prix, clear weather (unusual in future Hong Kong which is normally a nightmarish haze of pollution) and a location called The Peak. The Peak is an elite part of the city where a bunch of humans specially augmented to survive in the pollution live and is a pristine, gated community. I connected these plot points and decided that the race is going to draw out the elite into the dirtier parts of the city. I couldn't think of much to do with the clear day, so it was mostly ignored.

While I built up the adventure my two players were hard at work building their characters. One of them built a hacker, Jack, that was decked out with cybernetics that allowed him to jack into The Interface (future Internet) and hack like nobody's business. The other player built a courier, Pad, with cybernetic legs and a lot of shady contacts. Both of the player characters were indebted to a variety of major players in the city due to taking out loans for their augmentation.

Once we had the characters finished and new their connections I was able to add them and their associates to the plot and determine how they linked into the existing plot points. This is how we ended up with a black market cyberware dealer that had sold faulty augmentations to the elite living on The Peak (known as The Clean). Since The Clean were going out for a day on the town for the HK Grand Prix he was understandably worried about what might happen when they found out their lung-scrubbers didn't actually work. This is when the cyberware dealer decided to call in a favour that our resident hacker owed him. The Grand Prix wasn't the only event going down that day, though. A heavyweight title match was also happening and it was being broadcast as an Immatrix production (Interface users can "ride along" and feel as if they are the boxers in virtual reality).

How does that title match factor into things? Jack was using some, let's say experimental, cyberware while enjoying the match and when he was interrupted by a call to hack The Peak it glitched out the Immatrix broadcast and inflicted seizures on everyone experiencing the broadcast. Oops. Now it just so happens that the producer of that Immatrix broadcast happened to know Pad quite well and since the courier is well connected (and owed him money) he contacted the courier and asked him to find the responsible party.

That's the setup. One player needs to hack The Peak and prevent The Clean from leaving so they don't discover they faulty augmentations. The other needs to track down the first player and bring him to justice.

Things took off from there. Jack was riding high and managed to worm his way past all of the high level ICE protecting The Peak's systems. While Jack was deep in this project Pad was chasing down leads. Using his connections he is referred to one of the best "Interface Guys" in the city, a hacker that goes by "Jack" that works out of a motorcycle garage.

Pad headed to the garage and tried to meet with Jack, but due to his previous engagements was unable to meet with him. Not to be discouraged Pad tried to convince one of the mechanics to get him a meeting and ended up on the wrong side of a wrench. Meanwhile Jack finishes a flawless series of hacks on The Peak successfully locking in all of The Clean and diverting communications. He even managed to install a backdoor to allow him easy access in the future. Jack's job finished he leaves the back room to grab a drink and comes across Pad. Pad then hires Jack to find the culprit behind the Immatrix incident.

Jack was unaware that they had inadvertently caused the seizures, but soon realizes that they were the source. Thinking fast, he tampers with the evidence and frames a rival hacker (Mei Mei). He then packages everything up with a bow and delivers all the evidence that Pad and his employer need to escape the inevitable media shit-storm. Pad, unfortunately, is unable to get the hacker's fee expensed and ends up with a pair of broken legs.


The game played out really well and very quickly. All three of us had a great time, even the player of Pad who had been unlucky enough to not succeed at a single challenge throughout the entire game. The actual game play was fast and light with minimal fuss, even though none of us really knew the rules. Everything played out in a kind of Fiasco meets Shadowrun kind of way, which is fine by me. I am enamoured with how the transmissions fit things together and I hope to play Technoir again soon.

I'll probably put together a more formal review of the game in the coming week. This, by the way, is my first time writing a session report for my blog. I hope you found it entertaining.

You can get Technoir from DriveThruRPG for $10 and you can take a peak at some the player handout and a transmission for free on the official website.

27 July 2012

Barbarian Versus

Barbarians Versus. That title sure conjures up a very specific image, doesn't it? An image of muscled brute of a man charging down from the hills, loincloth fluttering in the wind and at least one axe raised above a face tangled in beard. At the bottom of the hills is something, it doesn't matter what. Whatever it is will be destroyed or pillaged. Barbarians Versus is exactly what you expect.

I'm not sure when or why I purchased this game. I found it in my DriveThruRPG library, so I must have bought it at some point. Maybe it was on sale? Perhaps it was in one of those charity bundles? I don't know. What I do know is that I had to take a look.

What is it?

Barbarians Versus is a short, 32 page RPG from Mystic Ages Publishing. Players take on the roles of the titular barbarians and proceed to wreck shit up. By default the game is set in a typical fantasy universe with one tiny, little twist. When the barbarians arrived for their annual pillaging of the kingdoms they discovered that reptilian aliens have conquered the kingdom.

How does it work?

The game starts with everyone, except for the person in the role of the GM, creating a barbarian. This is a straightforward process that has each player naming their character; creating a clan; distributing 20 points among 5 attributes (Smash, Throw, Feet, Craftiness, Contemplating.), special abilities and equipment; creating a warcry and coming up with some goals and fears. This sounds like a lot more than it really is, all of these rules are clearly communicated across just five pages.

Once everyone has their barbarians ready it is time to go raiding. At this point the game moves into traditional GM/Player territory. The barbarians will stumble across the aliens and proceed to get into trouble. This is all handled with the old back and forth between GM and Player that anyone that has played a tabletop RPG should be familiar with.

The core mechanic of the game, that which you will be using whenever your barbarians actually want to do something is dead simple. You select the relevant attribute and add one die for each point in it you have, then you add more dice goals (or what your barbarian bleeds for), your clan, equipment and abilities. Then you subtract any penalties from that you might have from fears or use of abilities. Then you roll your mitfull of dice and total them. If your number is higher than the GM's target you win the test and something good happens. Otherwise, you are at the GM's mercy.

There isn't much else to say about the system or the rules. There are some sections on creating new abilities and things, which are going to be useful for anyone that wants to play this for more than one or two sessions, and a fun little GM section that has some ideas and tips. There is also a section on getting your barbarian drunk, a necessity for a game like this.

Final thoughts.

Fun is the word here. The theme of the game is what sells it. If  lighthearted barbarian hijinks sounds like a good time to you then you will like this game. If not, you won't. The system hardly even enters the equation. It does its job, it is simple and it works. It doesn't do anything special and it doesn't do anything bad either. It's the kind of system that gets out of the way so that you can have fun bashing things with your barbarian.

Barbarians Versus is available on DriveThruRPG for $5.

26 July 2012


I have been thinking about adventures as a game of tug-of-war. On one side is the goal, the thing that the adventurers are trying to accomplish. On the other side are the goals of the aggressor or what happens if the adventurers are not successful in their venture. In the middle of all this lies the adventure.

Click to enlarge.

Imagine if everything that a character did (or didn't) moved the tug of war in one direction or another. If the  heroes successfully repelled some raiding orcs that would move things one notch in favour of a positive outcome or overall success for the heroes.

Now imagine there are some zones or markers along the field. Each of these zones represents a change of overall circumstances or attitudes. As the villain gets dragged through these zones they might become more and more desperate, resulting in more dangerous and risky schemes in an attempt to drag things back in their favour. On the other hand, if the adventurers get dragged towards the Negative Outcome their own circumstances worsen. Allies die or abandon them, traitors appear, evil poisons the land, monster attacks become more frequent and so on.

You could also apply positive effects in the zones. As the heroes draw closer and closer to their ultimate goal then perhaps more and more people flock to their cause and the less control over the world the villain has.

What is the point of all this?

I came up with this idea as a way to give an overall structure to a game of Rollplay. In my playtest of the game I found that since players could create any obstacle or circumstance they wanted in each scene that this lead to a disjointed, somewhat manic and unfocused narrative. This can be fun in its own right, but isn't really the overall feel I was going for.

What I hope to accomplish with a mechanic like this adventure tug-of-war I hope to create an overarching narrative in an improvised game. By using this mechanic a win and lose condition enter the game and consequences affect the story on a macro level. Using this method I can have players define the adventure or goal at the beginning of a game, something like "prevent Sauron from conquering Middle Earth".

Other uses

While I had originally conceived this as a mechanic for the Rollplay Engine, I think it could also work very well as a way to move through an adventure module for other role playing games. I envision a non-linear adventure with a primary antagonist of some kind. Any number of zones could be placed on the adventure "line" and each could be associated with a number of different encounters. As the players move back and forth along the line the GM selects (or randomly chooses) an encounter from whatever zone they have moved into.

There is some risk of the players getting caught in a loop where they bounce back and forth and end up running out of new encounters for a specific zone. To deal with this a time mechanic might be added. A villain really only needs to slow down a group of adventurers until they can complete their plan. If the group runs out of time then the villain achieves their goal, but this may not be a complete victory if the players are far enough along the line towards a heroic success.

I suppose a GM might also use this mechanic as a way to track progress on in any RPG. It could be useful just for determining the attitudes of a villain to the player characters or keeping track of progress towards defeating a villain in an improvised game.

20 July 2012

Heroes Against Darkness: Beginner Friendly?

I have mentioned before that I am on the look out for great free RPGs that have a knack of teaching the basics of role playing to new players. None other than Justin Halliday took a moment to humbly (or at least as humbly as one can self promote, anyway) suggest his own game, Heroes Against Darkness as an option. Seeing as how Justin took the time to read my own scribbles I felt that I should take a peek at his game.

Heroes Against Darkness

What is It

Heroes Against Darkness is a free fantasy role playing game wrapped up in an attractive package and stuffed with style. Heroes is built on top of the d20 system, but it draws inspiration from every edition of D&D to date.

The rules of the game state that it comes without a setting, but it definitely implies one through the flavour text that is dolled out liberally throughout. The world of Heroes is one of built on the crumbling ruins of ages long past. It is a world where deities roam the earth and magic runs rampant. There might not be a map or world specific lore, but there is clearly a high magic, high adventure setting assumed.

How it Works

The mechanics that power Heroes Against Darkness will be instantly familiar to anyone that has played D&D before. Most everything is handled by a single roll of a d20 with the results modified by a variety of factors. If the resulting number beats the target set by the GM then the action is successful. This is spelled out on page 3 of the book in a great section that sums up the main concepts in just a few bullet points. Every single game should have a page like this.

Modifiers, by the way, are much easier to deal with in Heroes than they are in vanilla d20. The reason for this is simple: there are no feats or skills in the game to keep track of. The only modifiers to worry about are ability modifiers (bonuses from strength, dexterity, etc.) and situational modifiers. The choice to strip feats and skills from d20 is really the first place that the game starts to move into more old school territory. Halliday's mixing and matching of D&D editions becomes even more evident when Heroes borrows a page from the D&D 4e by giving powers to classes (yes, even the melee ones). In fact, a lot of the feat functionality finds its way into those same powers.

Heroes Against Darkness doesn't just mix and match elements from different versions of D&D, though. It does make its own changes to the well worn formula. The most far reaching of these, the one most likely to turn off D&D fanatics, is that the Vancian magic system was given the boot. In its place is something called Anima, which is really just a mana system. Spells have associated anima costs that must be paid in order for the spell to be cast. Some players will love it and others will hate it. I have never really felt strongly about Vancian magic one way or the other and am indifferent about the whole thing.

I haven't really touched on Character Creation yet, so let's do that now. Players build their characters by selecting a race from classic choices such as Elves, Dwarves and Humans or more unconventional options such as Tartareans (essentially Tieflings) and Drow. From there players select from 11 different classes, including old standbys like Barbarians and Rogues as well as newer options like Necromancers and Mystics. Once those two choices are out of the way all that is left is to roll up the character's ability scores (Strength, Dexterity, Wisdom, Constitution, Intelligence and Charisma) and work out all of the derived stats, such as hit points, anima  and defense. Oh, you will need to purchase equipment as well. The whole process is shorter than building a d20 character and longer than building a 0e/1e character.

Taken altogether the system looks solid and manages to go its own way without straying too far from the D&D DNA that pumps through its ink.

So, Is It Beginner Friendly?

Heroes Against Darkness is more beginner friendly than most. Aside from the nearly boilerplate "What is an RPG?" section there is a short Role Playing 101 section on pages 53 and 54. It isn't anything fancy, but it does give some advice on role playing and an example of play. This should be enough to get players in the right ballpark when taken in with everything else found in the book. I'm not sure that putting it 50 pages in was the greatest idea. I think I would have preferred to see it in the introduction along with the rules summary and "What is an RPG?" stuff.

About halfway through the book there is a good section on Game Mastering which shows how to put together an encounter, among other important GM tasks. It has enough information to get someone started, but could offer a bit more advice on the actual act of GMing. It is mostly concerned with preparation.

The real beginner-friendly jewel of Heroes isn't found in the rulebook at all. The Sundered Tower is a solo adventure done in a choose-your-path style that teaches the basics of the system. This is probably the most valuable tool for a newcomer because it shows how things should fit together and allows a reader to play with it.

Final Thoughts

Heroes Against Darkness is one the of the slickest free RPGs I have seen yet. Don't let the $0 price tag fool you, this is the full package. This is a game that feels like 0e/1e D&D with a more robust tactical framework and a unified system. I get a feeling that Heroes Against Darkness will appeal to fans of the E6, Fourthcore and people that subscribe to the OSR ethos, but not necessarily the games.

18 July 2012

The Rollplay Engine

About a month ago I posted about eschewing character sheets in favour of managing everything through dice. I have been mulling the idea over and over the recent long weekend I whipped together a basic RPG system built around the concept. I am tentatively naming the resulting game the Rollplay Engine. It is a silly name, but also a relatively apt description. It is also a bit of a cheeky nod at the term "rollplaying", which is one of the few hobby-related words that make me want to strangle my monitor.

A lazy mockup of a die used by the Rollplay Engine.

What I have written is a basic system using fantasy archetypes which we can call Fantasy Rollplay for now. I have used fantasy archetypes for the basis of the system because I find them easy to work with. If I find that the system is fun then I will probably expand it into other genres. Actually, when I was writing this I thought that the game would work very well adapted to a mech theme. Right now the game is very much in a draft form, but if you take a look (or play the game) please let me know your thoughts.

I should note that I have included dice values next to things in the rules because I haven't actually made any custom dice yet (I am planning to do this with stickers). To play this game you will either need to refer to these rules or write the numbers out on cards or pieces of paper. 

Some Design Notes

Spotlight and Opposition Players

I decided to make the Rollplay Engine one of those artsy story games that feature shifting narration responsibilities. There are a couple of reasons for this:
  • Narrative controls seemed a natural fit for a system that gives players limited options. By using narrative control the game becomes more about taking the options the dice give you and narrating something fun than it does about rolling to see what your character does. It puts the control back in the hands of the players instead of leaving things at the mercy of the dice.
  • I wanted the game to be something that could be picked up and played with no preparation. In a game that is about improvised narration the GM role was already reduced, so it made sense to remove it entirely as a requirement
Despite the game defaulting to having no player wearing the GM/Storyteller mantle in the traditional sense, there is no reason why a group of players couldn't select someone to take on that role. The game should work fine with a single player acting as the Opposition for every scene.

Difficulty Isn't so Difficult

I think this is somewhere where I really veered off into unfamiliar territory. Most role playing games, if not all of them, have some kind of difficulty mechanic. Players need to roll over or under some target number or they need a certain number of successes or they have a percent chance of being successful at something. The only games that do not do things this way are the ones with bidding and similar narrative control mechanics, but the driving force behind these mechanics is in narrative competition.

With Rollplay I knew that I needed some kind of difficulty mechanic some way for players to succeed or fail at what they are trying to do. I came up with the difficulty dice. The idea with these is that the dice represent a chance for something to go wrong, which is something I found to be much more flexible and easy to manage than a bunch of contextual values. I then mixed things up further by having players set their own difficulty in a kind of gamble mechanic. The more difficulty dice they bet the greater the narrative reward.

If players manage their dice well and are able to tackle any complications that the difficulty dice throw their way then they should be able to overcome any challenge. Cowardly players can always gamble the minimum and be all but assured success, but a minimal success like that would be... well, minimal.


There are a number of different classes and backgrounds listed in the rules I linked above, but the beauty of Rollplay is that more can be made with such little effort. New faces and narrative keys can be created and arranged as desired. During the very first playtest of the game we whipped up a new background (craftsman) in less than a minute for a player that wanted their character to have worked as a smith before they went adventuring.

First Playtest Observations

I playtested this game with my regular group of players last Wednesday. It went surprisingly well. Overall things flowed quite naturally from scene to scene and the constant barrage of obstacles set a kind of manic pace. 
  • A flowchart laying out the game structure would be useful. I wasn't having problems with it, but I wrote the damn thing. I think it would have been very helpful for the other players to have it written down somewhere.
  • We tried different was of selecting the opposition, different XP mechanics and even different ways of deciding which player narrated what. All seemed to work equally well in practice, with the exception of randomly determining Opposition. One of the players kept getting left out when we tried that and I don't think that is a good thing.
  • It is clear that the advancement/XP mechanic needs work. Right now it isn't particularly satisfying and I don't like needing to write down XP on scrap paper. Rewarding a single die at the end is also pretty boring as the players seem eager to have a more fast and furious approach to advancement.
  • The injury/hits mechanic also needs more thought. Right now it seems simultaneously too lethal and not lethal enough. I'll need to think about this one.
  • One player expressed that they would like to be able to lower their chance of success in exchange for trading their Narrative Key for something they didn't roll. I'm not sure how I feel about this one. It is worth considering. What I might do is group Narrative Keys into categories that can be swapped in this manner. For example, Might and Melee are similar enough that a player could trade one for the other at the cost of adding additional difficulty dice.
  • It might be a good idea to define an overarching adventure somehow and have "successful" scenes push towards some eventual conclusion. During the playtest there was no end goal and we/the players jumped around from minor conflict to minor conflict without hitting a nice flow.

16 July 2012

Food & Drink For Your Random Tavern

Last week I posted this set of tables aimed at generating a random tavern name. I made that table for a spot of fun on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I thought I would enjoy supplementing it with a pair of tables for random food and drink.

This interest in tables is a new thing. I don't recall ever making more than a basic table before last week and here I am cranking out another two. I'm finding table creation to be a strangely engrossing pastime.

Food Table

To use the Food Table roll d6 once per ingredient you wish to have in the food, I suggest 2-4 times. Then roll d10 under the corresponding category. Roll d10 again under the Preparation heading to find out how the food is prepared.

For example, I want to come up with a menu item for the The Dancing Kobold Tavern. I decide to use two ingredients and roll 2d6. I get a 1 and a 4, which means I need to roll once for meat and once again for Fruit. I roll d10 on each and end up with pork and plumb. Finally, I roll Preparation and get stewed. The menu item is Stewed Pork and Plum, a combination I can't say I have tried in my life. I never claimed that the tavern would have good food.

5Fryed5DuckSquidCarrotBlackberryOlive OilGarlic

* Choose a monster, humanoid or monstrous plant as the source of this ingredient.

Drink Table

The Drink Table is easier, simply roll 1d8 once under each of the headings to find out what is being served. The thing to remember with this table is that the Accents column could be the full blown flavour (Apple Cider) or just a hint (a touch of orange in an India Pale Ale).

d8Source/PreparationAccentsAlcohol Type
Well, now I'm thirsty. Time to swing by the fridge and see what I've got to drink. I doubt it is anything so exotic as Gnomish spiced kumis.


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